Snakes and Ladders


by
Reremouse & Tabaqui



Square Fifteen

"Told you a dozen times you dozy pillock! I didn't sodding know. Fuck off." Spike threw the phone in the direction of the cradle. "God. Wanker calls himself a PI?"

Like a pissed off cat, Spike was all grumble and growl, mutter and snark but allowed Xander to manhandle him around in the Nest and spoon up behind him - even tolerated petting from the center of his chest, down to his thigh, to his knee and back. "'M not a sodding kitten, Xander."

"Yeah, yeah. Tell that to someone who can't feel you starting to purr." Xander dropped his head, nipped at the almost-healed wound on Spike's throat and tasted the copper-musk flavor that was after-sex Spike blood. "I thought I blocked his number."

"Bastard borrowed Wes' cell."

Xander slowed the sweep of his hand beneath Spike's chin and tipped his jaw up, slid his thumb along the groove beneath full lower lip until he felt the first stir of unnecessary breath. "Wanna keep talking about Angel?" It'd been the same story for fucking weeks.

"When do I ever want to talk about BatVamp?" Spike grumbled. He wanted to be mad, but Xander's body was so very, very warm - his hand was petting and stroking from chin to chest, he does think I'm some kind of bloody cat... and Xander's mouth was nibbling and licking and generally revving Spike up in the best possible way. He squirmed backward a little, not even noticing the grumbling, stuttering nearly-purr that vibrated in his chest as Xander bent his considerable talents to calming him. "'Sides, if there's somethin' wrong up here, it's for him to deal with. He's the bloody Champion, even if I did kick his stupid potato-shaped ass all over the place."

Spike's wiggling was beginning to create a response as enjoyable as it was predictable. Xander nibbled at the healing mark on Spike's throat until it broke open, lapping at the trickle of blood - felt the rusty almost-purr in it and swept his hand down to Spike's belly. He sealed his lips over the wound and sucked at the tingling bright-pennies taste of Spike. "So what's keeping him?"

"Wes's talkin' to contacts. It's all -" Spike waved a hand through the air, words escaping him for a moment as Xander pressed his hips in closer and his hand a little lower, possessive caress that made the demon rise, mouth opening in soundless bliss. In that form the thick wet-earth and wet-stone smells coming in through the open sliding doors were much more vivid. Yeasty, vegetative scents, overlaid with the brine-fish sea. Xander shifted again, mouth back on Spike's neck, and Spike whined, lifting his thigh - opening himself. Hoping Xander got the hint.

"It's all - talking, researching, stuff like that, innit? An' Angelus' is too impatient. Thinks I found out something up here I'm not telling him. Love..."

Xander felt the word vibrate in Spike's throat, resonate with a pleasure-thick groan of his own as the vampire's body easily accepted him, still slick - still warm from the last time. He shivered, perfectly still - put his fingers over Spike's lips, silencing him and closed his eyes. Storm wind, patter of rain on the patio roof, in the pool; Spike's breathing - fucking sexy sound from a creature who didn't need to breathe - and Xander's heartbeat. Beating hard enough to feel through his ribs.

For Spike to feel against his spine.

Xander dropped his lips back to Spike's throat, drawing blood in time with the beat of his heart.

Needwantyearn oozing from every pore of Spike's body but Xander held still.

"You're still talking about Angel."

"Not - anymore, Xan - fuck -" Spike couldn't keep his body from writhing - slow roll of every muscle as Xander pulled the blood from him - as Xander's cock held him open and held him on edge. The wood in the fireplace popped softly, the flames singing and flattening in the intermittent breeze that came in the door. Making warm-cool-warm along their close-pressed skin. Xander's hand slowly stroked up, from hip to chest - paused to rub over Spike's nipples - then moved higher. A moment later his forearm was pressing lightly to Spike's mouth and Spike licked the salt-clean skin and then delicately sank his fangs in. Drank blood like tonic water and whiskey, full of needlovewantmine.

Xander sucked in a breath, sharp and burning against Spike's throat. His fingers flexed, brushed over the smooth hollow of Spike's cheek in a caress. "This is what I want you thinking about sweetheart." He shifted against Spike - in Spike, and pressed a moan to his throat. "Three months - three months during the twenty two hours a day I am not patrolling Muddydale - when all we have to do...is fuck. Suck. Nap..."

Spike groaned around Xander's flesh - settled his fangs a little more firmly into the sweet, yielding flesh and drew out slow tendrils of blood. Flexing around Xander's cock, rubbing his free hand over Xander's hip and thigh - ribs and back. Pulling him closer and doing his best to feed love you love you love you into the...bond...that blood had forged. Wishing, not for the first time, and with a small twist of sadness, that it worked both ways.

Xander's lips moved against Spike's throat - might have been a kiss, might have been love you - and Xander pushed closer to Spike along every inch of their bodies.


~*~*~*~*~


The truck skidded - slithered - skidded again and Xander fought the wheel, cursing. Spike watched the shifting terrain outlined in the headlights, making sure no hidden wash-outs or sink holes surprised them. The 'patrols' that the company insisted on had been reduced to a thrice-nightly drive around the perimeter of the site. The continuing rain - Mojo'd rain, damn-it, Spike thought, scowling - had made much of the site too treacherous for any vehicle. And tonight it was pouring - chilly downpour slashed sideways by a steady ocean breeze - and Xander had opted for the limited perusal but far greater comfort of a vehicle patrol.

"Watch your left, pet - the edge is gone, there," Spike said, and Xander twisted the wheel, silent. Bloody stupid, this. Nothing here for thieves, don't need to be here if you're a magic-user... The truck ground upwards and at the top of the small rise Xander stopped. From here they had a good view of a fairly large section of the pit - the trailer, First Aid tent, and a few other buildings. It was a good place to stop and have a smoke - a drink - a snog. And to let Xander rest his arms.

"Bloody awful night for this, yeah?" Spike said, pulling the thermos of hot chocolate out from under the seat, and Xander leaned back tiredly and nodded, flexing his hands.

"Yeah." Xander let Spike take his right hand and press skilled fingers into aching flesh. He closed his eye in blissful relief as the rain slashed down on the cab roof and the wind rocked the truck on its tires. "It's like something out of one of those movies I used to laugh at before finding out it was all real."

"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my," Spike said absently, working his fingers up Xander's forearm to his bicep, kneading and rubbing. Easing the tension in the muscles there while feeling his own ratchet up, notch by notch. Something was...odd tonight. Something was off. The Hellmouth vibe...stuttered, and it was making him twitchy. And he could have sworn -

Xander lifted his hand when Spike reached his shoulder, smoothed his fingers over Spike's cheek and into his hair, tugging at the tufts. "Tremor in the Force?"

"You're mixing your movies, pet. See, 'Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!' is from The Wizard of Oz while the Force is from Star Wars. I'd expect a closet geek boy like you to know th - "

Xander cut Spike off firmly by jerking the parking brake, then jerking Spike into a kiss. "Who's a closet geek, videogame-boy?"

"S'good for hand-eye coordination," Spike said, purely rote answer that Xander actually chanted under his breath along with him. Spike scowled - pulled Xander closer by a handful of jacket and kissed him back, nipping gently at his lower lip. "No, no tremor, just - this place. Makes me..."

"Edgy," Xander said, and Spike nodded - patted around until he'd found his smokes and lit one, cracking his window and cursing softly as rain instantly blew in.

"Yeah, edgy. Bloody mess, this," he added, gesturing out at the morass of mud and debris that had, over the past few weeks, become deeply cut with gullies and washes by the rain. More debris had been uncovered as the rain had washed away acres of hard-won, leveled topsoil.

"Hey buddy - this 'bloody mess' guarantees my employment for the long haul." The retort was habitual but didn't bring that glow of hard working pride it used to. Xander shivered in a blast of rain coming in from Spike's cracked window and turned on the heater - squirmed around until his back was to his door and Spike was leaning against him between his legs looking out into the night. "How crazy is it the company's keeping me, Russ and Matt on site to do round the clock patrols?"

"It's bloody idiotic, pet... Makes me wonder... Whoever's mojoin' this place, you think they'd want it all secret - think they'd be happy to have the lot of you clear out for the whole winter." Spike finished his smoke and fed it out through the window - closed it and leaned back into Xander, letting the man tuck him up under his chin and wrap his arms around him. Feels so good... "I wonder if -" Spike stopped, staring. Something moved in the halogen-spangled depths of the pit. Something pale and human-sized. "Now what in bloody hell is that?"

"I can't see what you're - fuck." Xander swore softly - turned off the headlights and squinted down into the pit. It flickered in and out, pale glowing form. Back and forth - back and - "Strobe light?"

"No, there's no reflection and - look the rain's not lightin' up around it and there's no - shadow..." Spike leaned forward on the seat, peering out the window and cursing softly when the wipers obscured everything for a few seconds. "There -"

Whatever it was flickered, a stuttering strobe that had no rhythm to it. Not mechanical...not regular enough... Spike thought, but the rain made a haze over everything and he just couldn't tell.

"Jesus. I can't see a fucking thing. Keep your eyes on it sweetheart - I'm gonna get us closer." Sunnydale survival mode - run toward the weird. Xander flipped the truck lights on - pushed Spike off him, buckled back into his seatbelt and shifted down into the lowest, slowest, meanest crawl his truck could give him. "Doesn't look like it can hear us."

Spike put his forearms on the dash and stared, watching the jerky column of pale light as it ticked back and forth, fading and then growing stronger from minute to minute. Repetitive movement, but random, none the less. The truck growled along through the mud, slewing slightly sideways in a particularly bad wash and then straightening as Xander fought the wheels back to true. "Bloody hell -" Spike breathed. As they got closer, it looked more and more like a person. Or something very similar.

The truck wheels spun, skidded and caught - and Spike's growing tension was getting under Xander's skin like ants. Burrowing ants. Burrowing Hellmouthy ants. "Fuck." Xander hit soft clay and the truck lurched - wheels spun, kicking up splatters and clots of mud over the engine grind - slip slide and going nowhere. "God damn it!" Not now. Not fucking now. My town: soup.

"Shit." The light - whatever it was - was getting fainter. Spike moved - slid across the seat, opened the door and was gone, leaping down the slope of the pit, slithering in a slow-moving spill of clay and silt and suspended concrete dust. Running toward the flicker-flash of white and blue and pewter-grey that turned, moved, stopped - flickered out and then in and did it all over. But it was fading - washing out - losing bits and pieces as if the rain were chipping away at an ambulatory watercolor and when Spike made a final leap, from a chunk of foundation to the foot of the apparition all he caught was a fading glimpse. Heavily-bearded face, turned-up collar, what looked like a plastic sack swinging from a thin hand. Legs in ratty and translucent slacks and step, step, bend, straighten, step step, turn - gone.

"Fuck!"

Xander panted to a halt at Spike's side long minutes later, hair dripping with water and streaming into his eye and into his socket, breath coming hard, hands on thighs. "What the fuck was that?"

Spike was thrumming with shockangerconfusion and Xander reached out to him, caught his hand - slippery and cold from the rain and wind - and pressed it to his forehead until he could straighten up and catch his breath.

Spike took a step forward, straining for any sign. Nothing. Just rain, sleeting sideways and pocking the rich silt of mud that crawled slowly downhill underfoot. "It was... I know him - knew him... It was Popeye. Remember him? Crazy guy that was always collecting cans and stuff...?" Spike turned slowly, surveying the surrounding terrain but there was simply nothing there at all. He tugged Xander closer, squeezing his hand a little. "Shouldn't be out here in the wet, love. You'll catch your death."

Xander let Spike tug him up, pull him against his body and huddled close for the illusion of warmth. They were both shivering. "Caught you. You wanna give me a heart attack, crazy guy?" Xander's hand crept up, caught a fistful of the back of Spike's tee shirt and held on. "Was it a ghost or what?"

"I - dunno, Xan, it..." It had been strange - frightening in it's strangeness. Spike was no virgin when it came to ghosties and ghoulies and things that go 'bump' but... This ghost had been - off. Good lord deliver us, he thought, absently finishing the prayer and then feeling Xander's bone-deep shiver. "Damn-it, Xander - out of this, now. You're gonna get sick." Spike slung his arm around Xander - got the duster over him for what protection it could provide and began the torturous process of getting them both back up the ice-slick incline to the truck.

"Yeah, right - I was gonna sit in the truck like a girl while you faced down the Hellmouthy goodness?" Xander felt the little roll of unhappiness off Spike and squeezed his waist - gave him a smile. "Product of the Hellmouth here, remember? Try keeping me away from the stupid stuff when my honey's out there."

"Don't have any doubts about you fightin' off the oogedy-boogedies, love. It's pneumonia I'm concerned about." Spike still had some Victorian ideas when it came to illness, and anything that might settle in the lungs brought a sort of helpless terror over him - a terror he efficiently buried. But it was there, nonetheless, and he eyed Xander warily on the way up the hill, already planning hot baths with eucalyptus, hot soup, warm Nest and cuddling for the next day or so.

"I know that look." Xander glanced warily at Spike, tried to shiver a little less. "That's the 'made of glass' look."

"It is not," Spike muttered, swiping irritably at his face, blinking rain out of his eyes. Then he grabbed Xander's arm and hauled as a chunk of saturated earth broke out from under their boots and began to ooze it's way down-slope.

Xander staggered into Spike - and thank god for vamp strength because mud wrestling was only fun naked, warm and with beer after - or so Xander had heard. "It is, too."

"Not."

"Too - whoops!" Xander's feet shot out from under him and he clutched at Spike as the vampire righted him. "See?"

"You want to go arse over tit into the mud, pet?"

Xander sighed, wiped the water from his eye and shoved his hair out of his face - wished he'd worn the patch because the cold water seeping into his socket tickled and made his skin crawl and he could feel a headache coming on. "Okay, so I might be looking forward to a little made of glass treatment."

"Knew it," Spike growled - gave in and turned around and simply lifted Xander up, fireman's carry, and stomped on towards the truck, muttering under his breath. "Oi!" He slapped Xander's butt, rain-water spattering off under his hand. "Stop flailin' around, you're gettin' mud on my coat."

"Fuck! Ow! Asshole!" Xander pounded on Spike's back, laughed until he choked on rainwater and coughed. "Is this your evil plan? To drown me?" The metal of the truck was cool to Xander's back when Spike set him down. He caught Spike around the waist, tugged him close and nuzzled into his throat, tasting rain water and ozone on cold skin - and genuine worry. He cupped the sharp line of Spike's jaw and fanned his fingers over his cheek in a way that would have been more comforting if he wasn't shivering, but a guy works with what he's got. "I'm fine."

"You're as cold as I am, pet, and your head's startin' to hurt, isn't it? You've got that - look." Spike wrapped himself around Xander, kneading the back of his neck and snuffling unhappily into rain-soaked hair, scenting the beginning of tension and pain. "Can't lie to me, pet." He pulled back and fixed Xander with a narrow, golden stare. "Now get in the bloody truck."

Xander dangled the truck keys and kissed Spike's cheek. "You're such a sweet talking romantic."

Spike growled. "Inside. Now."


~*~*~*~*~


"It's gonna take hours to get all that mud out of the truck," Xander moaned, and Spike chuckled and smoothed Xander's hair back from his forehead - nudged the hot-water tap off with his foot and folded his arms securely around Xander's ribs.

"Take that long to clean my coat up, love," Spike said, and Xander sighed. The truck had been well and truly stuck and Spike had had to get out and push. He'd ridden back onto solid pavement in the back, since he'd had to push two more times to get them up out of the pit altogether. But then Xander had insisted he get in, even though he was practically a golem, coated in clay. Spike rubbed his chin slowly back and forth over the crown of Xander's skull, breathing in deeply of the grapefruit and eucalyptus, orange and cinnamon and clove scents coming up off the water. He'd put in every oil they had that seemed astringent - good for the lungs - and the water temperature had made Xander yelp. But now they were boneless - floating - and Spike felt the beginnings of a grumbly purr shivering in his chest. Git. Who cares about the mud? Just wanted you home... Wanted out of there... They'd have to call Wes.

Xander ran his palm down the sleek smoothness of Spike's leg, felt the purr vibrate through him. "You're better than those massage chairs at the mall. And I don't have to put twenty five cents in you to make you work." His voice came out dozy, content.

"No, but you could put something else in me," Spike purred - rubbed a slow hand across Xander's belly, just grazing his cock. Slow and lazy, though, since they were both so warm, and so relaxed. Bath-tub foreplay could last for an hour, if the water was kept hot.

"Not that flexible, sweetheart." But Xander arched into the petting, stretched down to his toes that curled and uncurled luxuriously. Spike's contentment was a soporific drug and Xander curled his fingers into Spike's hair, tugged him down to his neck with a full-body shudder.

"You just need to practice more, love," Spike said, doing a slow lick from shoulder to just behind Xander's ear. Then back down, nibble and suck and the merest graze of a tooth. Xander's blood - practically syrupy with contentment and love - made Spike groan softly, eyes fluttering closed.

"I can feel that." Xander whispered, held absolutely still. "I can feel your eyelashes against my skin. Do it." He felt more than heard the next groan, rubbed his palm against the elegant curve of Spike's skull. "Practice." He felt a jump in Spike's lust - wondered if Spike heard the word as Xander meant it. Wondered if Spike hoped the bond would start to work both ways...if Spike took enough.

Does he know...? Course he knows...always knows... Spike sucked a little harder then let the demon loose - slipped needle-sharp fangs into Xander's flesh as easily as a knife through butter. Drank slowly in long, smooth sips while Xander's heartbeat kicked up a notch or two and he sighed softly, his fingers curling into Spike's thighs.

The oils in the water made every touch slip-slide slick and Xander hummed his pleasure, simple touch along Spike's legs, up to the fine indentations of his hips. "Feel so close to you like this." The suckling was gentle and burning - warm as the water and his head fit perfectly into the curve of Spike's shoulder. Love you. Love you. Want that to be the first fucking thing you feel.

"Mmmm..." Spike stopped, finally - reluctantly slipped out and away, licking once over the blood beading out from the two punctures. "Me in Thee and Thee in Me," Spike said softly, quoting an obscure prayer he had heard once. "One day..."

Xander was absolutely boneless, limp but for the aching hardness that wasn't going anywhere this close to Spike. Lazily, he turned his head, tasting lemons and salt and his own blood, and the tequila musk taste that was always stronger when Spike's demon was to the fore. "Want you to feel this." Want and longing and love pouring off of Spike and the same thrumming in Xander's chest.

"I... Yeah. I do, too, love." Spike kissed, carefully - mindful of fangs and the awkward angle, shivering when Xander let his lip snag on a razor point and paint both of their mouths with scarlet. "Love you..." Spike breathed, and let the demon go, so he could kiss more recklessly.

Lips stinging, tingling - body thrumming - Xander twisted and tugged until he had Spike straddling his lap, facing him, kissing him - vampire of a thousand hands. He dragged his fingers through Spike's hair and tugged, laid biting kisses down the smooth line of his throat, knew they left a trail of red behind - pulled back and looked at the pattern of red on white and pink where water dripped from Spike's hair and admitted in the silence of his head how much the sight turned him on. "God. I was a pretty normal guy...once."

"Normal's subjective, love - you should know that better than most." Spike rocked slowly in Xander's lap, his hands roaming over back and ribs, chest and belly. Doing his own kissing and nibbling, nuzzling into the long, humidity-curled hair that lay over Xander's shoulder. "Far as I'm concerned, you're perfect."

Xander mmmm'ed around the droplets of blood and water and demon he was licking from Spike's throat, ran his hands over the slick topography of Spike's ribs and shoulder blades. Abruptly, he lifted his head - looked down at riotous black-white curls and had a moment of absolute certainty. "I want to tell the gang about us."

"Do you, now?" Spike tipped his head, looking at Xander, and Xander looked back, a thread of fear-scent skeining out into the air. "That's a lot to lay on their door-step, love - me, for one - us - this..." Spike ran a hand slowly up Xander's back. "You sure, love?"

"You're my honey, the vampire I love. And okay - I could possibly have made that sound less girly - " Spike's relief was like a wave rocking through Xander with enough force to leave him dizzy. "Spike - yes. That's yes. Fuck yes I'm sure."

"Then I want you to, love. Wish we could do it face to face." Spike smirked, trying for cocky, but he knew Xander could feel the trembling relief that had loosened the coiled-tight spring in his chest. "Anytime you like then, love - any time."

"What time is it in England?" Xander could feel the trembling. Could feel the loveneedfearrelief radiating from Spike and tipped him closer - closer - closer until breath couldn't slip between them and he was glad only one of them actually needed to breathe. "Willow emailed me an invitation to England for Christmas. Left a phone number." Spike wasn't the only one shaking.

"Did she now? Christmas with the Scoobies - that'd be a new thing..." Spike said, hugging Xander back just as tight. Remembering his first holiday with the 'gang' with a grimace. Remembering a passing comment from Xander that had been the prelude to mumbled explanation about Christmas and sleeping bags and drunken Uncles and parents. Other than the sheer joy of shocking the hell out of them, Christmas in London sounded...horrible.

"We'd have a chance to talk about this - ghost thing with Rupert," he added uncertainly, not sure if Xander wanted to go or not. Hoping not.

"Uh...you don't have any attachment to Christmas in London, do you? Because I was kinda thinking we could talk to Giles about this ghost thing over the telephone."

Spike leaned back against Xander's knees, dropping his hands to Xander's belly and sweeping smooth circles there with his thumbs on either side of Xander's navel. "Attachment? Bloody hell, pet - none at all. I'd go if you asked me but - can't actually think of anything I'd rather do less. Thought we'd have our own Christmas - maybe have some of it with Wes..." He leaned down and kissed the side of Xander's neck - nuzzled for moment into warm flesh. "Whatever you want, love. So long as I'm with you."

"Can we not make a big deal of Christmas?"

"Christmas is for getting drunk and shagging and - well - maybe not that," Spike said, contemplating Christmases past and dismissing the more...demony bits that Dru had gleefully introduced to the celebrations. He very much doubted Xander wanted a tree decorated with strings of teeth. "Think we can manage that, yeah?"

"Yeah."

"So long as I'm with you, pet." Spike repeated - words buzzed against Xander's throat, against the bite that gently throbbed in time with Xander's pulse.

"I want to call Willow - give her the contact but not the commitment. Want her to know I'm happy." Xander whispered the words against the shell of Spike's ear.

"You'll get an earful from the Slayer, pet - best be prepared. Me bein' alive - me bein' with you - she'll bust a gut, yellin'." Spike paused, pressing his head into Xander's cheek for a moment. "Maybe we should be drunk," he mused. "Be a hell of a lot more fun... Can't wait to tell them, love, that I've got you now - that you're all mine."

Soft reassurance, because Spike could sense the lingering tension in Xander, and guessed where it came from. Love you, pet, love you so much... Don't doubt me.

Xander closed his eye - took in a long slow breath and leaned back against the rim of the tub with a double armful of cuddly vampire. "You have so got me," he assured him, nuzzling into bicolored curls and warm skin.


When they'd dried off and Xander had fed the living room fire to a blaze warm enough to keep even the most finicky vampire happy, they'd curled into the Nest with the speaker phone, Willow's phone number at Council Headquarters and the rest of the Old Speckled.

Hissing of static, clicks and a tinny beep, then the double chirp-chirp of the phone ringing, somewhere in London. Nearly noon, and the sun would probably be sunk in clouds or fog - another dark, London day relieved only by Christmas lights. Spike could remember it from his last trip there, right after Prague - searching for a cure for Dru. Oxford and Bond Street, King's Cross and Piccadilly Circus, lit with white light and swagged in greenery - SoHo tarted up in tinsel and blink-lights like the old whore that she was. He could imagine Buffy and Dawn there, shopping for presents - Harrods and Bonds and all the shops up and down Oxford. He missed it and he didn't - felt that odd nostalgia twist in him and then fade as the phone clicked and he heard Willow's voice for the first time in...a year and a half.

"Xander! You called!"

"I called," Xander agreed and let out a slow breath of relief - it was easier to talk to Willow than he feared. She didn't sound - unhappy to hear from him. "We called," he corrected because that was the point of it all.

"We? We who? You found someone? What's she like and is she coming for Christmas too?"

Jolt of unhappy acceptance from Spike, one Xander could feel in his gut and didn't like. "Uh - can you get everybody else?"

Silence on the line then little girl voice. "Is something wrong?"

" God no. Everything's right. But I want to say all of this once, you know?"

"All of what? Oh! Oh. Right. Gang then once then - right. Don't go anywhere."

"Not going anywhere." Xander wriggled into the pillows until he could wrap himself around Spike, tangle their limbs, kiss without straining his neck...yeah kisses were part of his plan and a strained neck could put a crimp in the follow through.

Xan-man, the guy with the plan.

"Okay?" Spike's tension hadn't changed - hadn't spiked or lessened - just was.

"I'm all right, love. First me, then us, yeah? Might make 'em so confused, finding out I'm alive, they don't hear the rest." Spike got an arm over Xander's - got his cheek in close to Xander's hair and breathed the comforting scents of home - of Xander. Hating the unhappy moil of emotion that was making his stomach clench tight. Hating that...rejection...was still the worst thing - the only thing. Still the one thing he didn't want to hear. "Be all right," he murmured, brushing his lips over Xander's hair, and listening to distant footsteps and excited voices, coming closer.

"Okay, Xander. We're all here."

"Who?"

"Me, Buffy, Giles and Dawn. And I've got the speaker phone on."

Xander took a breath, a deep one and slipped his fingers through Spike's. "Okay. Hi, guys. I'm still in Sunnydale and everything's - okay we'll get to the part about everything later. Spike's back in Sunnydale too."

There was a long silence - a thick silence. A tiny little hiss of indrawn breath that Spike somehow knew came from Dawn. He could see her, hands over her mouth, trying not to give herself away. Or maybe ready to give herself away, who knew?

"Spike is in Sunnydale? What do you mean Spike is in Sunnydale? He - died, Xander. Again. I - saw him." Buffy's voice, sharp and a little wavery - demanding.

"Can't always trust your eyes, Slayer - the Hellmouth, after all," he said, and listened to the hush again - the calm before the storm.

"Spike?" Buffy said, and then Dawn was laughing, saying something like 'he's alive!' and Willow was muttering something and then - "Giles, you look awfully unsurprised by this - big surprise," Buffy said, her voice cutting across the chatter like a sword blade.

"Well - yes. I - we thought it was better for all concerned if you weren't drawn back into the...situation with Spike, Buffy. You had earned your rest from the...situation."

Xander tightened his fingers on Spike's and kissed the knuckle of each one, looked up into tense blue eyes. Let Giles sweat it out.

"Situation? There was no - situation, Giles, there was -"

"Buffy! C'mon. Not fourteen anymore. I know you two were sleeping together and I know what happened -" Spike flinched at that, just barely. Not from guilt, but from Dawn knowing. He hated that thought - hated that knowledge being in her brain.

"Dawn! This is - just - Stop, okay? Xander? What's going on, exactly? Since nobody here wants to tell me anything."

"Or me! I didn't know - anything, either," Willow chimed in, the hurt tone coming through quite clearly. And the guilt-train starts rolling. Slayer and Red's best weapon.

"Mind if I answer that one, sweetheart?" Xander murmured, got a shake of Spike's head for an answer.

"Did he just call him sweetheart?" Willow, in a shocked whisper.

Xander decided to ignore that for the moment. There was still a teeny tiny infinitesimal glow of pride that Buffy wanted him to tell her what was going on, wanted him to come through when nobody else was. It took one look at Spike's unhappy face for him to get over it. "Short version: the amulet trapped Spike's spirit. The amulet spat him back out at Wolfram and Hart and he fought the good fight for a while. He got pretty badly hurt during Angel's apocalypse last Spring and took off...and then I found him."

"When?"

Xander licked his lips. "Four months ago."

"How long was he fighting with Angel? Why didn't Angel say anything? Xander, does Angel know he's with you?"

"He's right there, Buffy, you could try asking Spike! Hey - Spike! I - I've really missed you."

Spike had to grin at her fake wobbly tone. Win an Oscar, that one. "Missed you too, Niblet. Sorry I didn't... Well, just sorry. Seemed like it was for the best, yeah?"

"Sure, dying and coming back to life and letting me think you're still dead, that's just great, that -"

"Dawn! That's not - important right now -"

"I think it is!"

"Children, please. Can we just - calm down?" Giles cleared his throat and everyone was silent for a moment. "Xander, does Angel know Spike is with you?"

"Does he ever," Xander muttered, grinned up at Spike, basked in the glow of Spike's pride pleased want you and the smug memory of decking Angel.

"Oh." Disappointment bled through Willow's voice. "So when you said 'we' you didn't mean you found a new girlfriend? You only meant Spike's living with you again?"

"Actually, when I said 'we' I meant I found a new boyfriend and Spike's it...but I was hoping to lead into that slowly and that's kinda not an option anymore is it?"

"Okay - wait - boyfriend? First with the huh? and then - what? Xander, you're not gay. Are you? You weren't before - did Willow really gay you up and it just took this long to - to take effect? Willow -!" Spike snorted softly into Xander's neck, planting a quick kiss there while Giles staved off another descent into chaos.

"Buffy! I would never do that! That's - completely immoral and - and -"

"Really, Buffy, let's not - jump to conclusions -"

"Well, what, he was with Anya and so not gay before and then - "

"Buffy, you're so dumb sometimes!"

"Niblet, enough of that, now. Maybe let Xander talk?" Spike listened to huffed breaths and a squeak, like a drawer being opened, and then the glug of liquid. Too bloody right, Rupert. I need my own Dutch courage for this. Spike groped around and grabbed the last bottle of Old Speckled and popped the cap off.

"Fine. But he'd better use small words because Buffy is so blonde about this kind of thing."

"What kind of thing?"

Since Spike was drinking the last of the Dutch courage, Xander helped himself to a little English courage from Spike's lips - a kiss sweeter than shaky. "Gay now. So so gay now. Unbelievably, happily, gayly gay. Question answered?"

"But Xander - how could you not tell any of us?"

"Um. He might - kind of have told me," Willow said hesitantly. "When he was in Africa."

"Spike was in Africa?"

"Guys! A little focus here. I met a guy in Africa. He wasn't the guy but he was a good guy. A safe guy - I guess the right guy at the time." Xander smiled at the silence on the other end. "I told you I found myself in Africa, Buffy."

"So you were with some guy in Africa and...now you're with Spike. Spike's gay. Xander - are you sure -"

"Geez, Buffy!" There was the muffled sound of someone whapping someone else and then a yelp and Giles makes a sharp little sound.

"Enough of that. Now - Andrew - told me that you had come back, Spike, but - why did you abandon Angel? I thought that you were - committed to the fight there. Working with him and his - team."

"I did. Until the big showdown. Then - things changed. I got hurt, like Xander said. Took me a while to get better. Wes fixed me up and I stayed up here, is all. Got tired of listening to the broody bastard go on about his mission - got old. 'Sides, he's got his Slayers an' all, really don't fancy being part of some - Council operation." Xander's lips were warm against his chest and Spike sighed and curled a little closer. "Better this way - Xander doesn't wanna live in L.A., anyway, and I don't blame him."

"How is Wesley, Spike? Is he - all right?" That was surprising, coming from Buffy, and Spike grinned at the phone.

"He's all right, Slayer. A little different now. But he's - just fine."

Better than fine. In the silence that followed, Xander shifted against Spike - Wesley was very fine these days.

Willow took a deep breath - Xander knew it was Willow - a guy wasn't best friends with someone the first twenty years of his life without recognizing every last sound they made. "If Spike's with you, Xander, we'd be happy to have him in London for Christmas too."

"We would? Ow!"

"Buffy!"

"Of course we would!"

"Thanks guys - but we're not...coming for Christmas."

"But Xander, you promised!"

Xander winced as Willow went straight for the guilt. "Ah - actually, Wills - I didn't. I said I'd think about it and...I did. We'll call again and I'll send presents...."

"But Willow said you were coming!" Dawn, this time, finally moving past fake-tears and into something a little more real. Hurt and confused and Spike had to sigh again - had to stroke his hand through Xander's hair and think about what he was going to say for a moment because he didn't want to hurt her feelings.

"She didn't know, Bit, she - well, it's best if we don't, yeah? Xander's got things to do there, can't just pack and go whenever he likes. And I'm not so bloody fond of the Council that I want to walk straight into their den."

Dawn made a frustrated noise and Spike could see her stamp her foot. "That's so lame. Work? Expect me to believe that? What's the real reason? Spike? Are - you really - all better?"

"Course I am, Dawn - don't worry about me. Good as new. Just ask Xan, love, he'll tell you."

"Xander?"

Xander had to smile at the impatience in her voice. "It's true, Dawnie. He's as good as new and fully functional."

"Too much information!" Xander heard Willow clap her hands over her ears.

"Xander," Giles interrupted with his thoughtful voice, his Watcher-polite voice. "I realize you're no longer in the Council's employ but you - both you and Spike - are truly welcome here."

And how hard was it to say those words, G-man? "Thanks. It's not that I don't believe you - because I do - but I've got responsibilities here, like Spike said. The site's closed down for the rainy season and I am the night shift until Southern California dries out."

"Xander - How can you want to work in the crater that used to be Sunnydale? When you know what's under there?" 'Instead of spending time with us' Xander heard Buffy's unspoken words.

Xander wished he had a real answer - wished there was an answer. "Wanted to go home, I guess."

"That's not home, Xander, it's just...a hole in the ground."

"It's the place where Anya's buried, Buffy. And...my parents. And Joyce and Tara... It's not - just a hole. It's..." Spike felt the shiver come over Xander and he hugged him close.

"It's more than a hole, Slayer. It's his choice, what he's doing. His own. You made yours - let him make his." He could hear the heavier breathing - maybe even a sniffle or two from Dawn and Willow, and then Buffy's voice, a little softer.

"I know, S-spike. It's - I just... I don't like to think of that...being dug up. Being...disturbed. I just - I thought once we got out of Sunnydale we were out, you know? New lives. New...everything."

"You are out, Buff." It was harder to speak than Xander expected. Harder to find the words with the names fresh in his mind. "You don't have to come back but I think I need this. I need to do this. Make it real. For me. For them."

"Xander - " Buffy sounded so hurt.

"Buffy - " Xander sucked in a hard breath and closed his eye. "It's not about you this time."

"Xander, I -" Buffy stopped, and Spike could see her. Could her big, wounded eyes and her trembly lip. Could see the arms wrapping around in self-defense and self-comfort. "I know it's - it's not -"

"I tell her that a lot. So she won't forget," Dawn interrupted, and Spike smiled softly. "It's okay if you don't come ho- come here for Christmas, Xander. I can - I can come see you after, maybe! Like - Easter or something. And - you can get some vacation time, right? I want you to meet my friends..." Dawn's voice trailed off wistfully and Xander sighed. Spike rubbed his hand slowly over Xander's hip, just connecting.

"That'd be lovely, Bit, and we'll - we'll talk about it, yeah? But we need to discuss something with Rupert. Serious stuff, now."

"What - do you need to discuss? Is something happening there?" Giles' voice was instantly alert, and Spike shook his head. Anything to get away from the soppy emotional scenes and Rupert would be fine.

"Well...it's like this, Watcher..."


~*~*~*~*~


The rain was letting up by the time Xander and Spike reached the site, giving way to a fine mist that would turn into fog by midnight - that Xander didn't look forward to driving in even if it was better than rain and mud. He'd come into the garage and wondered if there was still a truck under all the mud and how many quarters he'd need to take to the do-it-yourself Quickie wash to get it all off.

"Hey, Russ." The office trailer was half sunk in the soupy mud of the site and Russ had his shoes off, feet up on the desk and muddy footprints in size fourteen triple-e all over the floor. "Busy day?"

"It could not have been any less busy. Christ, I'm ready to go out there and steal some equipment myself to give us something to do." Russ saluted them with his mug of what smelled like hot chocolate. "Hey, Spike."

"Russ. Could steal something for ya, if you like. Had my eye on one of those DitchWitches," Spike said, stomping his boots hard on the steps, glaring at the clumps of mud that had adhered in the short walk from truck to trailer. Soddin' ridiculous. Bloody magiced weather and bloody Hellmouth mud and if there's mud on my bloody coat again I'm gonna do something nasty to whoever's making this into a bloody swimming hole.

Xander gave Spike's hand a squeeze and edged past Russ into the little file area of the trailer. Russ tipped forward in his chair to give Xander room and drained his mug. "Steal the black one. The red one likes to jam up and chew on Dave - I think it's got a crush on him."

"Yeah?" Spike contemplated that, fishing for his cigarettes and lighter. "Think it's possessed? Could do some mojo - set it on him like a bloodhound." His cigarettes were damp and he scowled, looking for a dryer one. Damn humidity. The whole trailer was musty with it.

Russ tossed Spike a dry packet of Marlboros from the desk, still wrapped. "Matt's emergency stash. He's trying to quit, anyway." Russ grabbed a folder off the desk and passed it to Xander without looking. "It's more fun because it's not possessed though, man - I'm not so sure anything else isn't possessed out here. It's been wild once the sun goes down."

Behind Russ, Xander froze.

Spike glanced over at Xander, stripping the cellophane off the pack and opening them. "Yeah? What's that mean? Stuff been - happening? What kind of stuff?" Spike settled one hip on the desk and lit up - inhaled deeply and watched Xander dither at the other desk, watching Russ. Bloody hell.

"Guys, I've gotta run out to the truck." Xander spoke quickly before Russ could answer. Didn't want to hear it right now - gave Spike an apologetic smile and a kiss on the cheek. The Xan-man was going to spend a few minutes more on his little vacation in denial land.

"Xan - love -" Spike put out his hand - weightless, fingers just curling over Xander's shoulder. "You all right, love?" Xander just looked - pale. Strained. Not right. Bloody phone call and the bloody Scoobies, got him all...stirred up before and now...

Xander reached up, wrapped warm fingers briefly around Spike's and pulled them to his lips for a quick light kiss - and a nod. Felt Spike's concern and held his fingers to his cheek before letting go. "Yeah. I'll be right back."

Russ and Spike watched together as Xander left, watched the door bang shut behind him. Then Russ watched Spike smoke furiously for a few moments before asking. "Things all right?"

"Hmmm?" Spike was still staring at the door and he turned at looked at Russ, not really seeing him for a moment. "Oh, it's - had a call to the old gang, you know. Things were a little - tense. He's all right, really. Things just have to...settle." Spike tamped out the cigarette and sighed - felt for his flask and took a long drink - tipped it towards Russ, who hesitated and then shook his head.

"Okay - if you say so - only have to ask, you know -" Russ spread his hands, and Spike nodded, putting the flask away.

"I know, Russ. Thanks, mate."

Russ leaned back in his chair, filling the entire corner of the trailer and folded his hands over his stomach. "Feel like I should be asking you if you've seen any weird stuff out there. The official word on the flickering lights is ball lightning or swamp gas, by the way. We're s'posed to keep our distance for insurance purposes and to document each sighting." Russ nudged a stack of forms with one sock-covered foot. "They don't pay me enough for this shit."

Spike snorted softly, settling back onto the desk - taking out another cigarette but just holding it. "Bollocks. If it really were swamp gas or some such nonsense, it wouldn't do any harm to go near it. You see any of - it - up close?" Had to ask, because... Because he and Xander both wanted to be wrong, basically. Hated to think what it could be, so wanted it to be...something else.

"Yeah. And let me tell you that is some freaky swamp gas that looks through the goddamned window with a pair of eyes." Russ glared at the wall. "It's Sunnydale, man. This town put freaky on the map but those things make my skin crawl. Sol won't come anywhere near the pit - says it makes him twitchy."

"Makes us all twitchy," Spike muttered, and went for his flask again. He didn't blame Sol a bit - he wouldn't be here himself, if not for Xander. The nerve-scraping effect of whatever was being done was getting worse, and it put him on edge. He tipped the flask up and drank, and decided to just keep it out on the desk - listened to Xander's footsteps squelching closer outside. "So - anything else? Any - tall, dark, and not-human comin' round, disturbin' the peace? Anything...out of line?" At Russ' eye roll Spike held up a hand, nodding tiredly. "I know - it's the Hellmouth. But - anything?"

"Freaky weather. Freaky clockwork ghosties. No tall, dark and not humans unless you wanna count the vamp from L.A. who came around a few days ago." Russ wasn't looking at Spike as he spoke, innocently preoccupied with a speck of mud trapped under his fingernail. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?" The trailer door opened, but Spike barely heard it.

Russ flinched, and Spike didn't realized he'd changed - growled - until he felt Xander's hand on his arm, pulling at him - distracting him.

"Spike? We don't eat the nice man who buys us doughnuts, right?"

"Angel was here. Fucking bastard. Here. Nosin' around -"

"Angel? Russ, what the hell?" Xander asked, turning toward the other man and Spike shot to his feet and paced irritably down to the other end of the trailer and back while they talked. Sodding wanker, told him - none of his business! BatVamp just will not leave well enough alone!

Xander kept a nervous eye on Spike, on the seething pissed off vamp here emotions roiling through the close confines of the trailer. Russ kept an eye on Spike too. Chalk one up to the Sunnydale survival instinct.

"He said he was a private detective hired by the firm to check out the recent looter reports." Russ looked from furiously pacing vampire to Xander, who had his face in his hands and was slowly shaking his head back and forth. "He wasn't, huh?"

"No, the fucking cunt was not. Bloody hell! Wes told him -" Spike resisted the urge to put his fist through something and instead shoved the squashed-out cigarette into his pocket - grabbed another and lit it, puffing furiously. He was going to have to kill several things tonight.

"Not a private investigator," Russ concluded.

"He's a private investigator," Xander corrected. "But he's also kinda family - "

Russ held up a hand the size of a small dinner plate. "Man, that's all you've gotta say. Listen, Spike - hang out in here for a while. I've gotta show Alex some damage in the artifacts tent - give you time to cool down." Russ nudged Xander in the shoulder, stood up and shrugged into his coat, zipping it and pulling the hood over his head before waiting for Spike to turn and face him again. "I didn't tell this Angel guy anything."

Spike glared for one moment longer - realized, finally, that he'd vamped and hadn't even noticed. He shook it away - sighed and gave Russ a lopsided smile. "Yeah, I know you didn't, mate. Sorry for all - that. You go on, I'll just have a drink, calm myself down. Be careful out there in that bloody cess-pit."

"Hey. We're professionals." Russ caught Xander around the neck in a stranglehold of manly affection and wrestled him out the door with a croak and a wave to Spike. Russ waited for Xander to get his footing in the watery site mud before letting go. "He really doesn't like Angel."

"He really hasn't liked Angel for about a hundred years." Xander was conscious of Russ giving him a startled look but kept walking. Russ would think about it for a few minutes, absorb it and then they'd get on with what needed doing in the artifacts tent.

The long steel tables were empty and the only smells were rain, mud and metal. The big equipment cabinets at the back were triple locked and sunk far enough into the mud that Xander pitied any poor thief who thought it was a good idea to lift one out of there. "Where'd they take all of the junk?"

"IDed bodies to the coroner, personal effects to a warehouse on the hill - but check this out." Russ pulled Xander around the table to what Xander thought was a cut in the fabric - until Russ shined his light on it.

"Jesus. Looks like somebody blew a hole in it. Did anyone hear gunshots?"

"Man, I'd like to see the gun that could make a hole that big." Russ fingered the circumference of a hole almost as big as he was with ragged edges, singed.

"Lightning?"

"Too far from the poles and there's no other damage. Matt noticed it this afternoon, thought you might know something about it."

Xander shook his head, wiped the water off his hands on his marginally less wet jeans. "You've got the wrong guy. Did he get pictures of it in daylight and send out the work order?"

"Yeah but you really think they're gonna send someone out to fix it in this weather?"

"Let's tape it up before the heavy rain starts again so we don't have to deal with it when it rips up to the cross-beams and starts flapping around hard enough to tear the whole tent apart."


~*~*~*~*~


Spike paced, and cursed, and drained his flask and smoked at least five cigarettes before he felt - calm. Calmer. He wasn't sure, exactly, why Angel's visit had pissed him off so much, but it had. The implied lack of trust, in them and in Wes. The 'father knows best' attitude. The sneaking. All of it. That, and the bloody Hellmouth. The energies seemed - stirred up, tonight. More than usual. They seemed agitated; swirling and shifting - building up to something, and Spike was pretty sure he didn't want to know to what. He finally slowed and came to rest next to the desk - stood for a minute and just breathed, eyes closed. Knowing that whatever he was feeling was going out to Xander, maybe. They weren't sure of the distance yet.

And he didn't want Xander upset because of a centuries-old grudge. Sighing, he turned around, ready to go help Russ and Xander in whatever project they felt had to be done right then. And looked straight into the face of Riley Finn.


Xander took a moment outside the tent to drag the damp air deep into his lungs, draw it over his tongue the way Spike did when he was scenting things - and smiled because that thought of Spike was all he needed to feel him. Pissed - but calming down, coming around and Xander swayed gently on his feet just feeling, letting Spike's calming calm him too.

"Alex?"

"Yeah?" Calm. Love you, sweetheart. Xander started to smile before the angerfearrageragerage hit him like a wall - made him gasp and stagger - then he was running for the trailer, for Spike, panic shooting adrenaline through his veins.

"Alex!"

Squelching, slip-sliding footsteps following after him and Xander pounded up the trailer steps, threw open the door and tumbled into wrong wrong wrong.


Spike snarled, the rage and fear that had bubbled earlier boiling over in a split second. He backed away, trying to gain ground - room to fight - and Riley advanced, mouth moving silently, gun swinging - pointing - firing. Spike ducked - and Riley went through him - ice-water bath and the feeling of a thousand needles being dragged over his skin. Flinching, he whirled away only to come face to face with a white-coated doctor holding a syringe.

What the fuck is going on! Fucking doctors - soldiers - Riley fucking Finn - The light in the trailer was flickering - stuttering - taking on a strobing quality that made the suddenly advancing figures move in a jerky, unhinged way. Another doctor, two more soldiers, moving, turning, doing - one with blood down her arm, one with a bound, gagged prisoner. And Riley, again, the first doctor, again, and the second - another and another and the trailer strobed and flickered and went out - candle flame. Reformed in a moment in the white, white, white of Initiative examination rooms; flicker-flash like an old silent film, drafts of needle-scratch and ice as the ghosts pushed through him again and again.

Spike backpedaled and hit the wall - slid along it groping for the door in the scratched-white Kinescope that had transformed the trailer into - nightmare. Fuck - get off me - get out of here - door's just there, know it is, just ghosts, just cold, can't hurt - can't touch - fuck, fuck - Xander! There was something - in the back of his brain. Like his name being called from far away and a soldier walked through him, leaving him shuddering, down on one knee. And the door crashed open, and Xander stumbled in.


For the first second the door was open the trailer was gone - nothing but flickerflash corridors, doctors, soldiers, demons, walls and biting cold that shot through Xander's coat and into his bones, with Spike's terror thrumming through him like a live current but he couldn't see Spike.

Took three running steps down the corridor and banged into the big desk he couldn't see, hard enough to wind himself.

And then it all flickered out like the end of a film reel - left nothing but Spike, huddled down on one knee - crammed between a filing cabinet and the couch. The bitter cold of the close air - scent of ozone and metal - was stifling. And the mindless panic from the terrified vampire was making Xander's heart race in his chest.

"Spike. Sweetheart - " Spike's fingers were cold - cold even for him - colder than they possibly could be and he tucked Spike's hands quickly into his jacket. "Baby - look at me..."

"B-bloody c-cold, m'c-cold -" Spike felt - something. Pressure of fingers on his, distant and painful. Tingling like they hadn't since he'd been human and gone skating on Twelfth Night eve and gotten chilblains staying out too long with Cousin Edgar. The whitewhitewhite fading from his vision, slowly darkening to the familiar dented paneling, scuffed linoleum and battered, second-hand desks. And Xander, pulling him close, faint and thready fearlovehurt like the merest wisp of smoke on a still day. There was a bang and the trailer lurched and Russ was there, too - cursing.

"Fucking freezing in here! Get him out, Alex -" Russ' hands, Xander's, pulling him up and out into thinning fog, the beginning of a drizzle and warmer, humid air.

"Fucking - h-hell, Xan - you okay? You h-hurt, love?"

"I'm okay sweetheart - I'm okay." Okay if his heartbeat would fucking go back to normal and the adrenaline didn't drop him in the mud. "Come on, baby. Let's get in here." Xander pinned Spike up against the side of his truck, held him with one arm and dug into his pocket for the truck keys - wrestled the truck's back door open and Spike in. Into the familiar interior, familiar smells, deep leather back seat where he could wrap Spike up in his arms and the ratty blanket he kept for daytime sunshine Spike emergencies.

The truck rocked on its axles as Russ climbed in front and Xander tossed him the keys. "Turn on the heater, will you?"

Spike huddled into Xander - into his jacket and into the crook of his neck, despite the damp. He felt the truck rock as Russ climbed in and then the rumble of the engine. He was shaking - bone-deep chills like he hadn't had since he sick. Xander's hands on his back, under the duster were warm and soothing, his scent was everywhere, and Spike just breathed, gulping oxygen and carbon and trying to get his nerves and his body back under his control.

"D-did you see it? Did you ssee them? And th-the labs and..." He twisted so he could look at Xander - at wildly tangled hair and a streak of mud across one cheekbone. "Was it th-there?"

"I saw it," Xander said - quietly, cupping the back of Spike's head with one hand and rubbing at the steel-tight muscles of his neck with his thumb. "But it wasn't real."

"What the fuck was it?" Russ twisted in the front seat, a blast of hot air pouring from every vent and beginning to steam the windows.

"The Initiative." A shudder ran Spike through and his hands twisted in Xander's shirt, grasped him so tight Xander could feel the fibers giving way, feel the need and fear still radiating from Spike like something living, twisted and wrong. "They were this - secret government thing, experimenting on demons."

Russ was silent - watched Spike huddle into Xander, watched him shake hard enough to rattle them both apart and nodded. "They gone?"

"Fuck yes."

"Good."

"How - how could it be here? Just fuckin' g-ghosts, not supposed to be - " Spike couldn't finish that and he wished they could just go home - curl up in the Nest and sleep - cuddle - fuck. Anything.

"There was -" Russ shifted again, sounding nervous, and Xander made an encouraging noise. Spike cracked open one eye, looking at the blond, bulky man in the front seat who looked ashen under his Viking-pale skin. "I was behind Alex and I tripped and - the whole city was there. Just - like a...painting on a mirror or something. Those - that place was around me but - everywhere else..." Russ swallowed. "I could see streets and everything. Just for a few seconds."

Xander shuddered. "They don't pay us enough - "

" - for this shit," Russ finished for him and put the truck in gear.

"Where're we going - ?"

"Home. I'll get Sol to drive me back for my truck tomorrow. They do not pay any of us enough for this shit."

As the truck made the slow and bumpy climb out of the pit and Spike shivered in his arms, Xander wasn't going to disagree.


~*~*~*~*~


Warm, finally, and thank god. Russ and Xander had stoically driven with the heat on full blast, and now Spike was curled around Xander in the bedroom Nest, electric blanket on 'high', a belly-full of the last of the ginger wine, heated and spiced, and a the last drops of a near-scalding shower drying out of his hair. Spike thought Xander must be becoming some strange, hybrid creature, able to withstand the heat that Spike craved so much. He was kissing Xander slowly, his muscles limp, his brain a warm fuzz. The shiver of emotion from Xander he'd felt earlier was gone, but he was sure it would come back. Only a matter of time, now. Time and blood.

Spike let his mouth move slowly to Xander's neck - let his fangs rest there for a moment against the steady, reassuring da-dump. "Love you, Xander... Love you so much..." He bit gently - drank slowly, in small, separate mouthfuls while Xander sighed and moved against him - lazily stroked his hip and shoulder and cheek.

"Love you too, sweetheart... You okay, now?"

"Mmm..." Spike finally drew away - licked the small wounds clean. "It was...it was like ice, just going through me. Blades of ice. Made me cold all the way to my bones." He shivered, remembering, and curled closer. "I couldn't - see the door, couldn't..." Xander hugged him, and he fell silent. Bloody soldiers. Never leave me be...

Little tremors worked their way through Spike's body, eased out slowly under the gentle up-down stroke from shoulder to hip until Spike was quiet and still against him, boneless and warm. The way he should be, dammit. It was wrong seeing the Big Bad reduced to a quivering, shivering vampsicle. He felt Spike nuzzle into the small punctures, the burning hot-cold of Spike's tongue cleaning them and sighed in pleasure, stretched and relaxed completely under the gentle lapping and the soft waves of comfort...safe coming off of Spike. "I felt it - you."

"'M sorry about that, love," Spike murmured. Because he was. Because he wished Xander only ever felt the love and the lust and the laughter, not the demon's rage or the mind-numbing fear that hand all but crippled him. Won't let that happen again. Will not.

Xander snorted, curled his fingers into Spike's hair and held him close against his neck, all smooth skin and soft-rough tongue. "Yeah because you so did that to me on purpose." His eyelid fluttered, soothing warmth tingling outward from his throat. "You don't have to go back there with me, sweetheart."

Soft huff of laughter and Spike nipped at Xander's jaw, making him twitch away and then grin. "'M not gonna stay away, Xan. Whatever those bastards are doing is - fucking things up. It's gonna make things bad, there, and you're bloody well not goin' in alone. Sol won't go, and his kind don't fear much." Another nip - much softer - that turned into a kiss that trailed down Xander's throat to the bite again. "Stuck with me, love."

Shiver of laughter and a soft gasp when Spike lipped at the bite. "So not complaining here. My Big Bad - gonna keep me safe?"

Spike grinned up at Xander - pushed in close to him and closed his eyes, and took a long, satisfied, utterly content breath. "Always keep you safe, love. From ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night."


~*~*~*~*~


The night was cool - clear for once - and Xander had no urge to go back into the pit. Not yet. Give him a couple more nights - which was why it'd seemed perfectly reasonable to patrol with binoculars.

From the roof of his house.

Wrapped up in a blanket with Spike and maybe a thermos of hot mulled cider or chocolate (un-mulled because that was a mistake never to be repeated or spoken of again) with a view of the ocean and a view of the pit and yeah - Xander could handle being paid to spend the night like that.

But.

The pit was filled with fireflies.

That weren't.

And he hadn't been able to bring himself to put the binoculars to his face yet.

Spike didn't need to look through the binoculars to know what was in the pit. The haze of ground-fog did nothing to hide what looked like a swarm of stars - of fireflies. Phantoms. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Scattered across the pit like a double-handful of glitter, dancing a peculiar and nearly static dance. From a distance, Spike supposed it might be pretty.

"Bloody hell, pet...look at them..." On the phone, Wes had suggested - and Giles had confirmed - that they were most likely nothing but phantoms. Conjured energy that had no tangible form or brain, even. 'They're basically memories,' Giles had said. 'The particular energy of individual people has imprinted on their surroundings. Whatever is interfering with the energy of the Hellmouth is - calling them up.' Wes had said it better.

'Places remember, Spike. Things...collect.'

"Things collect..." Spike murmured. He wondered if his own phantom was there, somewhere. Pacing his crypt, or fighting the Slayer - going under the knife. He shuddered and leaned in closer to Xander, bracing on the slope of the roof.

Xander shivered - felt the shiver pass through Spike and held him close, one hand over his heart. No heartbeat but if Xander concentrated, he could feel the unease centered there like an aura and he rubbed at it soothingly. "It's one thing when Wes says they can't hurt you..."

"It's another to see a bloody - army of 'em. Do you think..." Spike took a drink of hot cider, curling the cup close for the warmth. "Do you think - we're down there? Do you think...there's a phantom Rupert somewhere, polishin' his glasses?"

Or a phantom Anya dropping her dress and asking phantom me to interlock parts because it's stupid not to? Xander closed his eye, rolled his forehead back and forth across Spike's shoulder, trying to think. "Does the energy pick the strongest memory of the place?"

"I dunno. Maybe the - most familiar. I mean - old Popeye, he was always picking cans. It's what he did. He'd pop up outta no-where at the damn dump, dragging that sack of cans like a fuckin' whale behind him..." Spike sighed and thought about it.

"Maybe if we saw somebody else...up close, like."

They stared unhappily into the pit. "That so is not how I want to spend my evening." Xander unconsciously fisted his fingers in Spike's shirt, twisted the material and watched what looked like the Sunnydale High Football Team on the field. Wonder if Larry's down there.

Spike shifted against him and Xander smelled fresh cider being poured, then the sharpness of whiskey. He licked his lips. "Can't touch us. Can't hurt us."

"I know..." Spike watched Xander watch - took a long pull of whiskey-and-cider and grimaced. "Jesus - that's not good. Put that with the mulled chocolate experiment. Maybe if we had better cider..." He trailed off, looking at Xander's unhappy expression.

"We don't have to, love...but maybe we should."

Xander turned his head, nuzzled his blind side against Spike's cheek then pulled back far enough to look at him. "Get better cider? Yeah, sure or you can drink it without the booze. It was good without the booze..." Xander sighed - gave up on deliberate misunderstanding - it never worked outside of sitcoms, and sitcoms were bad. There was a lesson in that. "We should," he admitted. "Not that we don't know our way around Sunnydale blind - or half blind - but I have the overlay map in my office."

"Sodding hell, Xan. I don't wanna be a bloody white hat tonight," Spike moaned, but he let Xander tug him up - held his hand as they walked the mild incline of the roof to the ridgeline and walked it back to the ladder planted against the garage door. Once back on solid ground they went to get the map, and make a plan.

Xander watched Spike examine the map - kept his left hand moving on Spike's back in soothing little circles he wasn't aware of until he looked - as if it was someone else's hand - but he didn't stop. "Patrol," he said finally.

"Patrol?"

"Patrol. If we're going to see us it'll be where we spent the most time - right?" Xander put his finger down on the map - on Revello Drive. "We'll start at Buffy's and work our way over to your crypt, then the Bronze."

"Yeah, that makes sense." Spike didn't particularly like the idea, but it was the best course. The past was best left in the past - he'd learned his lesson well enough, hadn't he? and he had no wish to see it played out before him again. Can't be helped. Go there, see what there is to see, get out. Then we can...turn the telly up good and loud and shut the curtains. Spike concluded to himself that the increasingly intrusive 'buzz' off the Hellmouth was what was getting to him - not ambulatory memories of some of the worst moments of his life.

"Let's get going, then, and get it bloody well over with."

"And get out," Xander finished for him, his skin vibrating with Spike's nervous energy, the tick and twitch that still hadn't gone completely away after the office trailer going all Initiative on them. He drew a deep breath and pulled Spike to him, chest to chest, hip to hip, thighs tangled with thighs and his breath mingled with the breath Spike didn't need. "This is real. Us. Now. We're real." Love love. God - wish you could feel this sweetheart.

"Shh, pet, it's all right..." Spike crushed Xander close, pushing his face into the crook of Xander's neck and kissing softly. "We'll be fine; quick recce and then home again, nothing to it." He deliberately kissed over a mostly-healed bite-mark, feeling the reluctant shiver it woke out of the man. "No worries, love."

"No worries," Xander repeated and wished it sounded more confident. He was a normal guy - the normal guy. Hellmouthy goodness was supposed to be someone else's problem. One for the heroes. But where was Angel? Cozied up somewhere in Los Angeles. "Let's get it over with." He handed over the keys to the truck, fingertips lingering against cool fingertips then clutching. "Spike?"

"Yeah, love?"

Xander felt his smile twist and skew. "I didn't want to be a white hat tonight either."

"Soon as we figure this mess out, love, we quit the white hat business. And for good an' all, this time, yeah? Kickin' puppies and knockin' over milk-bottles, we'll be evil full time." He grinned, trying to make Xander laugh - trying for something else, because twitching with anticipatory nerves was making all of this just that much worse. "We're devils and black sheep, we're really bad eggs -" he sang softly.

"Drink up, me hearties, yo ho," Xander finished, and grinned back.

"We've got a deal then?"

Xander took Spike's hand, opened his fingers and laid a kiss on his palm - salt, smoke and a hint of spilled cider. This time, his smile reached his eye. "We've got a deal."


~~~~~


The drive to the site was mostly silent, the flickering blue-white lights and the swirling fog cranking up the tension in the backs of their skulls and under their skins the closer they came. With an unconscious fidget, Xander wrapped his hand in the tail of Spike's duster and held fast to the leather. "Turn here. Take Crawford into town." Neither of them wanted to risk passing back through Sunnydale University - through the Initiative.

"Right," Spike said shortly, fully vamped to take advantage of better eyesight. He drove slowly, avoiding the worst of the washouts and the protruding humps of newly-exposed debris. A roof-corner here, a bit of tilted pavement there - it was looking more like Jonestown after the flood than any sort of reclamation project.

The phantoms jerked and fizzled and winked in and out, all around them. He drove through one, and didn't do that again when part of it passed through the cab and Xander jerked away. Finally, they came to the edge of the 'safe zone', beyond which the truck was unable to pass. From here, they would walk.

Xander rubbed briskly at his arm - at the feeling of static electricity under his skin where the phantom had brushed. Like bugs. An unpleasant crawl of memory accompanied that too and he...shut down. No Sunnydale. No Master Dracula. No history with this place. "Get it over with," he muttered, puffs of ice-white breath melting into the fog, into the cold that seeped right through his jacket. He started to walk, knowing Spike would catch up - keep up - but sometimes a guy had to keep moving, keep walking because between walking and thinking? He chose walking even if every step squelched and he stumbled without depth perception in the thick ground fog.

Spike took a long look around, making sure of certain points of the topography, so he'd be certain to come straight back where he wanted to when they were done. Then he strode after Xander, slipping a bit on the saturated ground but catching up quickly enough. He flinched when a newly-manifesting phantom solidified around his arm, the cold of the thing only intensifying the cold that lay thick over the pit-floor. Then he was next to Xander and they walked on, heading deep into the residential part of Sunnydale, alert for anything - anyone - familiar.

Xander walked as close to Spike as he dared on the uneven ground, breathed in the vampire's fierce protectiveness that made him feel...better if not safe. Impossible to feel safe with faces fucking materializing in front of him and passing through him like the time Jesse's dad brought home dry ice and Xander and Jesse had dared each other to get closer and closer to the surface until Willow put a stop to it by talking them into making root beer instead. "Jesus!" Whitewhitewhite and big and Xander threw himself sideways and who the fuck ever heard of a ghost minivan?

"God." He shuddered, hands on his knees, sucking burning cold air into lungs that didn't want to let him have it.

"Bloody hell -" Spike was a bit shaken, himself - instinct had had him twitching as surely as Xander, and they were both lucky he hadn't had them flat in the mud to avoid - Thought it was the fuckin' labs again, for a second. Damn-it.

"C'mon, love, we're all right -" Spike slid his hand over Xander's shoulders - into his hair and down his neck, gentle caress. "Almost there, Xander."

"Fuckin' hate this place," Xander muttered, leaning into Spike's touch to ground himself in real - in the faint scent of Spike he could still make out under the rain-mud-ozone freak show of the Sunnydale fog. And the thrum of calm calm and protectiveness rolling off Spike like silent thunder.

He was grateful Spike didn't move his hand, didn't take the cool weight away from the back of Xander's neck as they walked in silence. Side step here to avoid a phantom, turn there to stay on high ground, out of the soup of the ruts and gullies - then stop.

"Fucking hell."

Bloody...fucking hell...that's - oh, damn-it, that's... "Joyce," Spike breathed, staring, and Xander's skin had gone cold under his hand. Of course she could be here! Should have thought - fucking Christ - The phantom of Joyce was - cooking something, Spike supposed. There seemed to be a corner of a stove there by her hip - a burner. She was stirring - moving - then turn to where the kitchen island had been and gather something - turn back. Then stutter, flicker and the phantom - reset. Stir, turn, gather - turn - gone.

The phantom was incomplete, as if the focus had been more on the hands and face - on the action. The legs flickered and disappeared several times, leaving the torso floating. Please don't let it turn or - or look at us. God, please...

"Xander, love - you all right?"

"I don't - want to see this." The words came up from Xander's belly, croaked through a throat closed too tight for words. But he couldn't look away either. Stir, turn, gather - turn - gone. And god Spike was lucky he didn't have to breathe because it hurt. It was every time Mrs. Summers had invited him to stay for dinner. It was every time she had made hot cocoa and he helped.

And it was so wrong. And any second now she'd turn - she'd turn and smile and he'd lose it and - "I can't - do this. I can't fuckin' do this. I've gotta..." Xander shook his head - jerked away from Spike and backed up. "We're here. We've seen. Now we're going home." He turned - knew Spike would follow - had to get away.

Stumble trip - skid slide. Away.

That's - all.

Away.


Spike felt Xander leaving - heard him, but didn't quite register the words for a minute until he finally turned his gaze away from friend, my friend... Joyce and saw Xander wasn't there. He could just see him, heading the wrong direction for the truck, moving unsteadily through the fog that was lit like some bad horror movie; all flashing light and looming shadows - eye-tricking eddies that made things seem farther away.

"Xander! Wait for me, love -" he called, his voice oddly flattened by the fog - made small. Xander didn't stop.

With a curse, Spike trotted after him.


The cold deepened around Xander without Spike's anger nerves protect you love you keeping him warm and he wrapped his arms around himself. Stumbled on - stumbled quickly. Get back to the truck, turn on the heater, get out, litany to the rhythm of the blood pounding in his ears.

These things had no right to wear Mrs. Summers' face. Make her wrong and he hated it - resented them for taking away his last memory of Mrs. Summers - replacing it with this - leaving a sick feeling in his gut. He didn't notice the flicker flashes, didn't feel the piercing cold when he staggered through them, only heard his fog-muffled yelp when the ground disappeared under him in a way ground shouldn't and tumbled him down slope in a shower of wet and mud.

Xander lay there, shivering in the cold and wet, clutching at the ground until the world stopped spinning - squinted up into the fog to get his bearings and froze.

Flicker-flash.

Above him.

Coming down and Xander wished with all his soul he and Spike hadn't gone looking for the familiar.

Flicker-flash.

Black-white-blue.

Silent film reel jerky movements.

Familiar - so familiar Xander didn't need to hear.

'You won't come upstairs? What are you...ashamed of us? Your mother's crying her guts out!'

"You don't understand!" Air thick, syrupy thick - can't breathe - can't move.

'No. You don't understand. The line ends here, with us, and you're not gonna change that.'

Flicker-flash.

Silent - but Xander felt every footfall on every step. Felt it vibrate through the cold, into his bones.

Flicker-flash.

Blue-white-black.

Almost there. Almost there and Xander knows what's coming.

No no no no no no!

No noise. No noise but the blood roaring in his ears. No Spike lost in the fog and Xander wasn't stupid. He knew which one of them had a better chance of finding the other. But there was no light but the flicker-flash coming down down through the fog and it was happening all over again - couldn't move, couldn't run, couldn't do anything but watch - then scream.

'You haven't got the heart.'


Xander was moving faster than Spike thought and he broke into a run, chasing a moving shadow that turned out to just be a shadow and he snarled, impatience and a little trickle of fear working through him. "Xander, damn-it!" Bloody hell, he could fall, he could get into a pit where the mud's too deep and too damn slippery - he could - Spike stopped - closed his eyes. Opened his mouth and scented, slowly. Searching. Just as a thread of spicesaltsweet was coming to him, something...happened.

Fearhorrorhopelessfearfear slammed into him - Xander-feeling, overwhelming - sickening. Spike roared, eyes jerking open as he started to run, following the faint tug that said Xander was that way, that way.

"Xander!" He ran, phantoms passing through him in draughts of ice-water and then skidded, almost falling. Xander - there - half-crouched and frozen, mud stringing his hair and smearing his clothes. And something - flickering column of a man coming down on stairs that were there and not, seeming to crumble away under each heavy tread.

Familiar face - familiar body - and Spike watched Xander's father descend in nightmare jerks - reach out and touch - and Xander flinched, a keening noise of pure terror coming to Spike. He leapt as the phantom phased out and reappeared at the top of the invisible flight again. Leapt and skidded and thumped down next to Xander - grabbed him and yanked him up - yanked him around, yelling into his pale, shocked face.

"Xander! We're leaving!"


Feeling of Spike. Spike.

"Spike." Xander croaked, sagged - Love you love you sweetheart - shaking all over then Spike picked him up and carried him out, carried him away and Xander hid his face against soft wet black leather and wept.





Square Sixteen

The bedroom Nest was warm - was soft - and Spike was curled into silk and chenille and heated blankets - squashy pillows and big body pillows and a faux-fur throw that felt like mink, and one that was velvet. And he was so tense his back hurt. He was listening - listening to Xander. Listening to him breathe, and listening to that tiny little catch, the barely-there wheeze on each inhalation. The mouse-squeak of doom. Not anything of doom - fuck's sake! He said he was fine - said he got a touch of bronchitis every year in the damp, that's all it is. Nothing to do with last night and the bloody pit and the bloody cold and wet. Nothing to do with pneumonia or...or anything else. Now get a sodding grip!

But it didn't help. He couldn't relax, and he couldn't stop listening to Xander's lungs working, and he couldn't stop...remembering. Maybe I should get another blanket? Or...more of that menthol stuff. Nice and warming - bloody fantastic. That's the ticket... Spike stretched carefully over Xander - reached the nightstand and picked up the jar of Vicks Vap-O-Rub. Stealthily unscrewed the cap and scooped out a generous fingerful. Then he inched his finger toward Xander's already-greasy chest.

"Smear any more of that on me and I swear to god I'm gonna make you eat it. I've got so much on me now it's all I can taste." Xander rolled over and glared up at Spike, and Spike deflated uncertainly, feeling the annoyance rolling off of Xander. Feeling affection, too, but...

"Sorry, love. Just...can't help it."

Xander wheezed out a grumbling breath, wriggled in the nest to get a grip on Spike and maneuvered him on top. Spike's anxiety crawled up and down Xander's spine like ants at a summer picnic but the genuine, deep lovecareworryfear that created it settled in Xander's chest like a puppy. A puppy with great big don't hurt me eyes and a waggy tail and the metaphor was getting away from him quickly. "I'm all sticky. Uh - and now you're all sticky too." He sighed, threw an arm over his eye. "Sorry."

"Nothin' to be sorry for, pet." Spike scraped the blob of menthol goo back into the jar and settled his elbows on either side of Xander's head - kissed nose and chin and lips and forehead - kissed the arm that was hiding the eye until Xander finally let him tug it aside. Love and want and sorry, like little moths flickering in his belly and Spike smiled down at the man. "Can't help fussing over you, love. Just - the way it is."

"Can fussing involve less goo, I ask you?" Spike's eyes were half obscured by a tangle of white-black-white waves. Xander pushed Spike's hair out of his face and slid his hand over Spike's skull until he cupped the back of his head, rubbed at the tension there. Wished he could slip his fingers in and stroke away the tension inside too. "Less goo," he said again. "That's all I ask. Grant a sick man's request." Xander sniffed, felt the wetness in it and groaned, stretched for the box of tissues. "And yuck."

"Thought you liked the goo, love. All - warm and tingly." Xander's stretching for the tissue-box rubbed body to body in a more than pleasant way, and the residual mentholatum that had transferred from Xander's chest to Spike's made him shiver. "You know, I'll bet that stuff would be perfect for -"

"Don' say 'sex'. Bleese, bleeese do not say 'sex'!" Xander glared at him, tissues balled to his nose, and Spike grinned.

"Make great lube, don't you think?"

"Or 'lube'." Xander blew his nose and glared, throwing the balled tissues onto the floor. "Because while that is a concept that may appeal very strongly to parts of me, I feel about as sexy as a slab of week old beef."

"Always sexy to me, love," Spike murmured, stroking his hand over Xander's chest. But he could feel the achy discomfort of Xander's heavy lungs and stuffed head and he shifted sideways instead and just curled around Xander - stroked lank hair back out of his face and kissed the stubbled cheek. "Want something to drink, love? Or some soup? I can heat up a bowl for you. Whatever you need."

"You. I need you." Xander rubbed his hand over the bumps and planes of Spike's back. "And maybe something to get this taste out of my mouth - but mostly you." Xander coughed his way through a sigh and cleared his throat. "Starve a fever, cuddle a sexy vampire for a cold. Isn't that how it goes?"

Starve a fever? Bloody hell - "You fevered, Xan? 'Cause you're not making much sense. Except for the 'cuddle' part." Spike wormed close and nuzzled into the crook of Xander's neck - just breathed there for a moment, soaking up the scents and the love that was coming from Xander - the heat. Then he reluctantly pulled back. "How 'bout some of that Souchong tea Wes sent? Nice strong flavor, sure to cut through all the junk in your throat. Want some, love?"

Xander smacked his lips - tasted something that smelled like old shoes and felt like shag carpet - and grimaced. "Yeah." He pushed himself up onto his elbows with a groan, waited for his body to herd enough energy his way to swing out of the Nest. "And one of those oranges Mariel brought over. And then more cuddling the sick and gooey human."

"Done - hey? What're you doin'? No need to get out of bed, love," Spike pulled blankets and throws back up over Xander as Xander sat up and made 'I am getting out of bed' motions. A pile of used tissues cascaded to the floor and Spike swiped at them with a pillow - stared a the pillow for a moment and tossed it on the floor, too. "I'll be right back, Xan."

Xander stared blankly at the still life in pillow, tissues and carpet until his mind wandered - and decided that lying in bed was the better part of valor. Bed was where the tissues lived. Xander helped himself to another one and blew, waving Spike away graciously. "Check the messages," he called after Spike. Okay, mumbled after Spike but hello - vampire hearing. Xander wheezed his way into a more comfortable position and closed his eye.

Spike stretched hard, watching Xander settle himself like a dog in a nest - poking and turning and finally curling up again with a rattling sigh. He walked out to the kitchen, picking up the hand-set and turning it on - dialing the number for the voice mail. Just one message. He listened as he filled the kettle and plugged it in. Electric kettles for sick days, real kettles when we're not in a hurry. Somehow, tea just didn't taste the same when he made it with the electric kettle, but the near-instant hot water was handy.

"Hey guys, it's Russ. Uh - haven't heard back from you, you said you were gonna...check things out and it's been a couple days... Anyway, I'm just - wondering if everything's okay, man. I...ummm, well, I talked to Carl and Matt, and we really want to get together and...discuss this. How about this afternoon? Around four, maybe? Anyway - gimme a call back, man, okay? Bye."

Xander listened to the clank and clatter of Spike preparing tea and shuffled around in the Nest, burrowed his toes into the warmth of one of the squashy chenille pillows. In the many-hued and sultry warmth of the Nest, the pit and whatever was going on it in seemed - unreal. And that made Xander nervous. He could still feel a thin thread of Spike's anxiety, like a filament stretched between them, vibrating with the nerves that still jangled from their last encounter with the pit.

Spike could feel Xander's contentment, but he could also feel the thread of unease, and knew where it came from. The pit - the ghosts. That encounter two nights ago that had... Fuck. That had been bloody awful. Xander had woken up the next morning to a heavy chest and aching head then succumbed to Spike's prescribed bed rest with barely a whimper of protest.

Shouldn't have done that. Should have thought first... Spike dunked the tea-ball a last time and then flung it into the sink - put a spoon and the box of sugar-cubes on a dinner plate along with two cups of tea. He'd talked Xander into sugar-cubes because they were fun, but Xander actually used them in the tea, which made Spike shudder. But it'll make his throat feel better. He added an orange and carried it all into the bedroom, wishing not for the first time for an old-fashioned breakfast tray.

Xander was buried in throws and pillows again, and Spike edged carefully into the Nest, sliding the plate onto the nightstand. "Tea's up, love - come and have a sip."

"Were there any messages?" Xander mumbled thickly, struggling upright and leaning on Spike gratefully after the vampire slipped his hands under Xander's shoulders and pulled him into a comfortable sitting position. Xander took a mug and immediately dropped two sugar cubes into his tea, stirred - and dropped in three more. His hand hovered over the box, undecided for a sixth.

Spike watched Xander's hand hover - hover - hover and he finally reached out and snatched the sugar-cubes - firmly shut the box and set it on the nightstand next to the plate and his own tea. "You'll be drinkin' sugar-sludge in a minute, love," he said, shuddering slightly at the thought. Xander's tea-drinking habits were dreadful. Xander glared - sniffed - and stirred his tea, chasing the sugar-cubes into oblivion. Spike picked up the orange and dug his thumbnail into the top - began to peel slowly, turning the orange as he sliced with his thumb. Xander watched, mesmerized - blowing occasionally across the top of his mug in an effort to cool the near-boiling liquid inside. After about two minutes, Spike held up a spiral of orange-peel and a naked orange and Xander laughed.

"I love that. Where'd you learn to do that?"

"My mum taught me. She liked to hang the curls in her closet - made her clothes smell fresh." Spike eyed the curl - sniffed appreciatively and then piled it on the plate and turned to breaking the orange into wedges, absently licking tart juice off his fingers.

Xander took an orange slice, nibbled at the end then bit off a piece, tried to catch the juice that ran down to his palm and mumbled around it - against his skin. "Messages?"

"Oh, right. Russ called. We forgot to call him back. He's in a tizzy over the pit and..." Spike gestured uneasily, the orange dribbling a little juice over the Nest. "...everything. Wants to come see us - bring Carl and that Matt along. Wants to be here in a couple of hours."

Xander coughed against his wrist - groaned and scarfed down the other half of his orange segment. "Great. Bring the whole family to the Harris House O' Germs."

"They won't be soaking wet and running around in the mud, Xander. You can talk through a handkerchief, like Nijinsky did." He put the rest of the orange on the plate and picked up his own tea - blew across the top for a moment and then took a delicate sip. Perfect.

"Who's Nijinsky?" Xander sipped cautiously at his own tea, sighed in relief at the hot n' sugary goodness - and smiled at the rush of irritated amusement coming from Spike.

"Russian ballet dancer - the best ever. He was mad, of course. The good ones always are. Dru an me saw him dance in Paris. 'L'apres-midi d'un Faune'." He glanced over at Xander's expectant expression and smiled. "Means 'Afternoon of a Faun, love. Like Pan, you know? Goat legs an' horns. Dru wanted him..." And she had - so much so that Spike had been jealous. Seven years later Nijinsky had danced his last dance and sunk under for good. Spike had always wondered if he'd let Dru have him - would he still be dancing?

Throat warmed with the tea, body warmed with the lovelovealways of Spike's affection for Drusilla, Xander twisted his head enough to see Spike. "She wanted me once."

"Did she, now? Not surprised. I was a bit of an anomaly for her - she liked them dark and dead sexy." Spike grinned at Xander - at the comfortable feeling of affection and humor coming from him. Glad that Xander wasn't...jealous of Dru - of how he had felt about her. How he still felt about her. "What happened, then? She usually got whatever drew her fancy."

"What happened? Angelus tackled her to the ground and Cordy pulled me into the house and slammed the door." Xander poked at that memory with the stick of caution and shuddered - yeah, still scary as fuck. "Of course, that didn't save me from the other hundred Sunnydale women who were out for a piece of the Xan-man that night. The Xan-man learned his lesson about invoking the magics he didn't understand. And now for his next trick, he's gonna stop talking about himself in the third person."

"Angelus? Must have been in the chair, then - I do remember them goin' at it hammer and tongs one night... And all over you." Spike leaned over and kissed Xander - smoky sugar and eucalyptus. "And I'm the one's got you. Guess the best vamp won," he added smugly.

"The best vamp so won." Xander leaned into Spike, soft and cool lips that felt so nice against chapped and hot. And impossible now not to feel wanted with tendrils of possessiveness coming off of Spike to wind around Xander like tentacles. Xander shook himself away from tentacle sex thoughts he was so not well enough for. "I had it out with Harmony once too. And Angelus. It's like a who's who of your romantic history. Except Harmony never wanted me."

"Wouldn't exactly call what me an' Angelus got up to romantic. More like...protective male bonding when the girls crooked their little fingers at us one time too many." And Angelus had been a bloody good lay, although Spike didn't think Xander really needed to know that. Xander was better, and that was all that mattered. "Harm wanted that Antonio bloke and shopping trips to Paris - she couldn't keep much more than that in her brain without poppin' a vein. You'd have been wasted on her, love," Spike added, taking another sip of the smoky-smooth tea, rolling the flavor over his tongue.

"She was like that as a human - except she planned to nab Antonio or Brad or - not Tom because he was too old - but all the other vampires in Interview With The Vampire and wow that explains everything about Harmony as a vampire." Xander watched Spike's throat flex when he swallowed, thought about vampires and about Harmony. "Actually - she was a lot less scary as a vampire. Less evil, too."

"She was a bit of a joke, really." Spike thought about that - about that bubble-headed girl's ambitions and hopes - about her unicorn collection and her desperate desire to be loved. "But...she wasn't all bad, our Harm. Always good for a bit of gossip or a tumble." Spike grinned at the memories - glanced a little guiltily at Xander. "All in the past, love, yeah? All of them...in the past."

Xander propped his chin on one hand so he could get a good look at Spike's face instead of a close up of his neck. "Why the guilt? I mean, fondly remembering naughty touching past - I get that. But not the guilt."

"Oh, it's just...habit, I suppose. Talkin' about past loves and paramours isn't really done, is it? Call it a left-over." Spike drained the last of his tea and put the mug back on the nightstand - snuggled down next to Xander, soaking in the warmth. "Just don't want to make you feel...bad, love. Ever."

"Bad is so not the way you make me feel." Xander mumbled - wormed an arm under Spike and went boneless. "Horny. Often. Loved - always, which I can blame on the fever if you want."

Spike snorted. "Not bleeding likely."

"Uh huh. Loved," Xander continued with a grin, "wanted - ho boy do you make me feel wanted - and..." he took a deep breath "...kinda awed. Sometimes."

"Well...that's natural, isn't it?" Spike tilted his chin up - preened a little and Xander flailed at him, snorting.

"Don't get a big head, you." Spike grinned down at him - reached out to stroke his fingers gently over Xander's cheek and chin - his throat and the tattoo of leaves.

"Why 'awe', pet? Nothing that special, here. Didn't have a hand in the coming-back-to-life bit, and the rest -"

"It's like a really big tree." Xander propped himself up on Spike's chest and leaned into the fingers tracing soft skin around his empty socket. Just skin now and he liked Spike's touch even if it faltered when Xander got to the 'tree' part. If fingers could speak, Spike's would have said 'huh?'. "The tree's always there and when it leaves wet towels on the floor every day and drinks the last of the cider, it's easy to forget how old it is and how much it's seen."

"Tree's maybe not the best analogy for a vampire, Xan." Spike laughed softly, combing the dark hairs of Xander's eyebrow - just ruffling the long lashes that lay over his cheek. "But I...I understand. Sheer bloody talent got me this far. Pretty damn amazing if I do say so, myself." Holding in the laughter but knowing that Xander could feel it - just as he could feel it building in Xander. Rising bubbles that tingled through his whole body and made him fight the grin that threatened.

"At least I didn't say the tentacled alien sex plant analogy out loud." Xander considered that, gave in to laughter and Spike's hand on his back which was starting to wander and kissed him, grinning lips to grinning lips. "Okay, so maybe that one's actually more accurate."

"Sounds more interesting too."

"You're not wrong."

"My boyfriend's a ge-ek," Spike sing-songed, and then burst out laughing as Xander glared at him, whapping half-heartedly.

"M'not a geek -"

"Alien tentacled sex plant thing. You are so." Xander pouted and Spike leaned up to kiss him - groaned softly. "It's nearly three, love. I'm gonna call Russ, tell him come on over. 'Bout an hour." Spike slithered reluctantly from Xander's grasp - piled mugs and spoon and sugar and the left-over orange back on the plate. "I'll come help you get dressed in a minute, yeah?" Xander was still wheezing, and Spike resolved that the meeting would be a short one.

"Yeah." Xander groaned and dropped back into the pillows, listened to Spike make his way to the kitchen with the dishes. Then with the single-minded stubbornness of a man who'd been lying in his own sweat for a day and had visitors coming, he rolled to the side of the Nest and swung his legs over the edge.

'Quick shower' had no meaning when a guy's head was spinning like the Disneyland teacups but hot steam and minty-clove soap were about as close to heaven as Xander hoped to get.

Spike dropped the dishes in the sink with a small crash of pottery and then absently checked that the primary colored, geometric-patterned plate and striped mugs hadn't broken. All safe. Need to watch that, he thought. But he'd thought that before. He grabbed the phone off the charger and hunted up Russ' number - felt a sudden wash of dizzyfallingno and sprinted for the bedroom. The sight that greeted him made him snarl. Xander standing unsteadily next to the dresser, a pair of sweats dangling from the drawer, a t-shirt on the floor. His flushed skin gone a sickly ashen-grey, his knees buckling and his hands clutching frantically at the dresser-edge.

"Xander! Bloody hell - what the fuck are you doing?" Spike tossed the phone at the bed and darted to Xander - got an armful of sweating, too-cold human.

Whoops. Pissed off vamp. Pissed off worried vamp if the angry fear roiling around Spike told the truth of it and Xander was not up for arguing. He tried innocence instead. With a dose of puppy eyes. Eye. "Taking a shower?" He sagged gratefully into Spike's arms because the dresser might have been solid but it wasn't so good at catching him when the teacups turned into Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

"Git," Spike snarled - hoisted Xander up over his arm and all but carried him to the bathroom. Sat him down on the closed seat of the toilet. "Stay there." He closed the drain on the tub and started it filling. "Not gonna have you get in the heat and steam and fall over. Bath for you and I'll be sharing and no arguments." He darted back into the bedroom and snatched a throw and the phone off the Nest. Went back to Xander and wrapped him up snugly, feeling sorry and weak and cold and love you ghosting through him. "Let me take care of you, love, yeah?"

That moment, shivering with cold and damp on his own personal Splash Mountain in February, it sounded better than sex. Or at least as good as sex. Because that was some good sex he wasn't having while he was sick. Xander nodded and blew his nose, dropped the damp tissue into the waste basket and smiled. Love and protectiveness and the resignation to Xander's idiocy. "Big bad?"

"Bad enough to keep you safe, you git," Spike said - hugged him close, rubbing his arm and shoulder through the throw, feeling the relief Xander would never admit to. He scrolled to Russ' number again and pressed 'dial'.

"Russell's House Of Pancakes, home of the famous oak syrup. We're closed on Wednesdays." The voice on the other end was unmistakably Russ and in the background he could hear Sol's hissing laughter to something Carl said.

"Russ." Spike couldn't help laughing and Russ laughed with him. "Told Xander 'bout what you said - he's up for it so - four, yeah?"

"Yeah, man. That's cool. Carl just got in from San Bernardino and he called Matt from his cell on the road. You don't want us to come by closer to sundown?"

Spike thought about that - thought about driving past the pit in the darkness and the ghosts all there, flickering like little soul-lights. "No - in the day is good. The sooner the better, yeah?"

"We'll be there at four. We'll bring Matt and the beer."

"Any hope of something good?" Spike asked forlornly, and Russ just laughed, disconnecting. "Soddin' cold, lite...horse piss. The things people will put in their mouths..." Spike ignored the incredulous look from Xander and turned the water off - poured a stream of cinnamon oil into the bath, then the orange-ginger stuff and was reaching for the eucalyptus when Xander cleared his throat, amusement and affection.

"Is this a bath or a fruit salad?" He watched and suppressed a groan when Spike poured in the eucalyptus oil anyway.

"'S good for your lungs, love. Don't want to worry your mates, do you?" Spike swished a hand through the water and Xander felt the underlying or me in the miasma of Spike's emotions.

"My mates will call me Typhoid Xander and Rudolph The Red Nosed Village Person and crack jokes at my expense." Xander let Spike help him up, leaned on him willingly long enough for Spike to steady him and unwrap the throw from his shoulders. "But I didn't want to worry you."

"Then hop into the bath and quit griping about the bloody oil," Spike muttered. He sighed, then, and hugged Xander closer for a moment - pulled back and looked seriously at him. "I'm sorry, love. Just - can't help it, yeah? Saw the 'flu take down thousands, start of the century. Big cities like charnel houses, they were dyin' so fast - couldn't get 'em into the ground. Blokes your age an' all, perfect health, dead inside a week." He shivered at that - at the remembered carrion stench of rapidly corrupting flesh and the deserted streets - the fear like a fog over everything. He held Xander's wrists - watched him lower himself carefully into the steaming water and then took up position behind him, spooning close. "Don't ever want to lose you, love...ever..."

Spike's words ghosted over Xander's throat, cooling damp skin and making it tingle the way it did when Spike's fangs barely pricked the surface. 'Ever' really took on a whole new world of connotations with a guy like Spike - and letting his head drop back on Spike's shoulder, baring his throat - that did too. "Do you spend much time thinking about it?"

"About forever, love? Or you? Or both?" Xander smiled, eye shut and his hair sticking to Spike's shoulder, and Spike cupped water up in his hands and sluiced it over Xander's chest, running his palms slowly after. "Think about you all the time. Forever...not so much. I've lived with the notion for a while, now. But I think about you and forever...every day. I want it, Xander...want it with you."

"I'd be lying if I said that thought didn't freak me out." Xander tightened his grip on Spike's legs at the first ebb of loss from Spike, turned his face to nuzzle against his jaw. "But I'd also be lying if I said I never thought about it - wanted it." Xander licked his lips. "If it came down to it...I want you that much, trust you that much. Trust you that it'll be me waking up - not a monster with my face."

Spike closed his eyes - hugged Xander close and then closer, feeling a shivery little knot of buried tension unwind somewhere in his belly. Mine for always, mine for...ever... Pushing the love and relief and desire he was feeling out, as best he could - hoping Xander was feeling it as strongly as he was. "You'd be fine, love - just fine. I'd see to it...promise..."


~*~*~*~*~


Wrapped up in a pair of Spike's old sweat pants that Xander couldn't bear to throw out since Spike's recovery, and a fluffy green robe, Xander did his best sack-of-potatoes impression against the end of the couch, feet tucked under Spike and tissues at hand. And if his eye kept drifting shut when Spike dropped a casual hand to stroke his calf and ankle, none of the three men sitting in patio chairs opposite them complained.

Russ was the first to drain his beer and the first to speak. "I think I speak for all of us when I say: what the fuck is going on down there?"

"You remember Wes?" Spike asked, and Russ and Carl nodded - Matt looked a little blank. "Friend of ours," Spike explained. "Knows about...stuff. He said - someone, or some...ones - are trying to...tap the energy here. Get to the old Hellmouth vibe and...siphon it off. He says - that's what the phantoms are all about." Matt shifted in his chair, looking - uncertain. Dark red hair and pale skin, he reminded Spike for a moment of the wolf - that Oz, Red's old beau. "You - got a question, mate?"

"Yeah." Matt propped his elbows on his knees, beer can dangling between his hands. An eagle tattoo on one arm and a faded 'in memory of' dedication on the other shifted with his fidgeting. "So who's playing the trick on all of us and what the hell is it?"

There was a moment of silence while everyone exchanged looks. "It's not a trick, mate. It's - some kind of bad mojo -"

"Look," Matt interrupted. "I'm an open-minded guy, right?" He made an infinitesimal gesture with his fingers toward Spike's hand on Xander's calf, and Spike felt his lip curling in a snarl. "But ghosts on the site? And - what did you say - a 'Hellmouth'? I mean -" He looked over to Carl and Russ for support - met their serious expressions with a hesitant smile. "That's just - crazy, guys. No such thing."

Xander stifled a cough, ignored Spike's snarl and slid his hand over cool fingers, linking them together. Didn't like the homicidal urges pulsing from the vampire like a heartbeat. Predatory nature, oh yeah. Xander cleared his throat, grimaced at the taste and pointed a finger at Matt, Spike, Carl and Russ in order. "You gotta go up on the roof tonight."

"What's on the roof?" Russ had edged his chair a little closer to Matt at Spike's lip curl and Xander was grateful.

"Ask not what is on the roof but what is visible from the roof. Ladies and gentlemen - " Xander paused and rewound that. "Gentlemen and gentlemen, we have ringside seats for the Sunnydale Freak Show."

Spike watched Matt as Xander - and Russ and Carl - started explaining Sunnydale, the Hellmouth - demons. Matt's expression went from hesitantly amused to baffled to a little pissed and Spike sighed. Wait for it...

"Okay, this is - you guys are trying to pull something over on me or - this is a joke, ha ha. But come on - seriously now. This is all bullshit, guys." Matt took a long drink from his beer and Spike watched Russ, Carl and Xander exchange looks - and then look at him. He sighed again.

"Yeah, yeah, I bloody well know it. Right." Spike got reluctantly up off the couch and crouched down in front of Matt, who recoiled slightly. "Listen, mate, I'm gonna do somethin' and you're gonna watch, and you're gonna...touch, because I don't want you thinkin' this is a trick. Right?" Matt opened his mouth to say something and Spike lifted a finger. "No talking. Just -" He grabbed Matt's free hand and put it on his face - on his cheek - holding it there while Matt wiggled uneasily and looked pleadingly at Xander.

"Man, this is so - I mean, I'm not -"

"Relax, Matt," Xander said, and Spike tapped his knee.

"Pay attention, mate." Then he changed, and he saw surprise and horror and disbelief flash across Matt's face. Felt his fingers tighten along his temple. "Go on now - explore a little. Know what you're seein'? You're seein' a vampire, mate."

Matt's eyes snapped to Xander, round and wary and his heartbeat kicked up a notch. "Both of you?"

"Just me. Go on."

Matt's eyes fixed on Spike, flitted from gold to ridges to the jagged sharpness of Spike's teeth. But his touch slipped below the demon's face to settle on Spike's throat - instinct of a man who knows the difference between live and dead lies right there and that's where his hands began to shake.

"Goddamn." Matt pulled his hands back with a quick nod and Xander could see the connections forming in his mind when Matt's gaze fell on Xander's marked throat. "Goddamn."

"Demons exist, mate - we're everywhere you lot are - humans," Spike added, as Matt seemed a little spaced, for a moment. "And this place used to be demon central until - until some people shut it down. Now it looks like somebody's trying to start it all up again and what's been going on in the pit is just the start." Spike stayed still as Matt's fingers pressed one more time into his throat, seeking for the pulse that wasn't there - reaching hesitantly to brush the ridged flesh over Spike's brows.

"Jesus, I... I don't - Jesus."

"Process, Matt. We got over it years ago." Carl reached around behind Russ to pat Matt on the shoulder and took a swig of his beer.

Xander felt Spike's amusement - and then Spike when he returned to the couch and manhandled Xander into leaning against him like an infrared-guided heat-seeking vampire. "Trust us, Matt. And if you can't trust us - shut up and listen. Then as soon as the sun goes down, Spike'll take you guys up to the roof and you can do the seeing is believing thing again."

Matt sucked in a sharp breath and snapped visibly back into focus - back to business. "Right. What're we going to do about it?"

"We are not doin' anything, mate. Wes is doing research, and the rest of us are stayin' the fuck out until we know more. It's nothin' you want to poke at, believe me." Spike snagged his own beer from beside the couch and drank - pulled Xander a little closer. "Whoever or whatever's doing this is...powerful." And Xander'd never get over his mate's bein' hurt if they decide to charge in.

"So this meeting was about...?"

"What we know so far and keeping you guys out of the pit." Spike's pleasure in Xander's warmth rolled off him in waves, melted into Xander's bones and he tipped his head onto Spike's shoulder.

Matt drained his beer, looked like he wanted another. "But the ghosts can't touch you. Can whatever's down there hurt you?"

Xander shuddered, felt Spike shudder and held Matt's gaze. "Believe me when I say uhhuh."


~*~*~*~*~


Spike watched Xander open his mail program - download messages and settle in to read one that came with a faux-parchment background and little pen-and-ink looking flowering vines around the edges. Email from Willow and it looked like she was gonna go through every single style of background her program offered. Much better than the dancing clowns. Poor boy wouldn't even go near his mail 'til I deleted it. Spike knew Xander could feel his affection - and the amusement over the incident - and Xander reached over and whapped half-heartedly at him.

"We will not discuss my phobias. Huh..."

"Good news, bad news, indifferent?" Spike asked, letting his finger mark his place in 'Good Omens'.

"None of the above." Xander sighed and scrubbed his hand over his face, left it covering the empty socket against the headache he still sometimes got if he spent too long reading from a computer screen. "Giles has Dawn chained to the books - Willow swears she's their best researcher." Which summed up paragraphs one through three and those left him with a glow of pride. It was paragraph four and Willow's cheerful inquiry about Andrej giving him the headache.

Spike felt the headache that was budding somewhere behind Xander's eye and he tossed his book aside - scooted over closer to Xander and tugged him over until Xander's head was in his lap. He could feel a sort of sadness as well - a frustrated incomprehension. "Niblet's always been smarter than they give her credit for. What else, love?"

"Willow keeps asking about Andrej." Xander relaxed to the feeling of Spike's fingers combing through his hair, gently untangling knots and Xander's hair had never been so tangle-free in his life before Spike. Girly vamp. And Xander was so not voicing that thought any time soon. He smiled and wriggled around to get comfortable.

"Thought you parted ways with him."

"I did. Willow's still waiting for me to run back into his loving arms." Xander squinted up at Spike. "He was a great guy but there was no loving with Andrej. Arms or otherwise."

"Nothing like a good, strings-free shag, love. What's Red thinking, then? Doesn't she believe you?" Stop makin' my boy feel bad, Red - 'm not as souled up as you might think...

Xander let his breath out slowly, searching for that 'I love Willow. She is my best friend.' place that had calmed him before. He wasn't finding it but Spike's fingers against his scalp went a long way to stave off the bad. "She thinks this is the strings-free shag. Willow? Not so much with the approval of my romantic choices."

Spike dragged his fingers through Xander's hair - let his fingertips rest lightly on Xander's temples and began a slow massage. Sending as much love and comfort and want you as he could. "She'll come around, Xander... And if she doesn't... Lucky she's half the world away, yeah? Least she won't be natterin' at you on our bloody front step." Willow had never been as actively 'Spike-hating' as Buffy and Xander and Giles, way back when, but there was a core of cold ruthlessness to the woman that made Spike snarl to himself. She could and would do things 'for your own good' with the full knowledge that really it was mostly just for herself. That sort of thing - he wouldn't put up with. "Any good news, love? Anything from Wes?"

"Huh?" Xander came back slowly from happy vampire-fingers land. "Oh. Yeah. And not exactly." Xander stretched and rolled over, pressed his forehead to Spike's hip and got an arm around his waist. "There was email from Connor. Something about Wes is too busy being shouted at by 'Dad' and he's coming to Sunnydale without him tonight. Without Angel," Xander clarified, "not Wes. Illyria's coming too."

"They're coming up tonight? Why's he draggin' Blue along? Haven't seen Wes in too long..." Memories of their time in L.A - of the heated pool and showing Wes exactly what demon constitution was good for made Spike grin, and Xander squirm around just a little, grinning back up at him. "Think Wes'll do anything with Connor listenin' in?"

Xander thought about Wesley's progress - then he thought about Wesley and laughed. "Yeah - in about a million years after Connor's gone deaf and has a dozen grandchildren." Xander wormed his fingers into Spike's robe and began a slow sweep over the Nest-warm skin of Spike's back. "Oh - and don't forget - when Angel's on the other side of the planet. Maybe then."

"Hmmm..." Spike slid a little lower in the jumble of throws and pillows, curling around Xander, pulling him so he lay half over Spike. "We'll just have to make him so desperate he's beggin' for it. Tease him unmercifully. And..." Spike brightened, "We could always gag him. He might like to explore a kink or two."

Xander lifted his eye to Spike, shifted around until he could feel the hopeful half-hardness against his hip. "Not that I'm objecting in any way to the possibility of sexual hijinks but you do remember they're coming up here to figure out what's going on in the pit, right?"

"Nothin' says we can't get up to a bit of slap and tickle when the whole ghost thing's been talked to death. Send Illyria out, have her patrol the pit with Connor..." Spike sighed, seeing Xander's expression. "No harm in trying."

"They're only gonna be here two nights, sweetheart." Xander bent his head to lip at the sensitive skin beneath Spike's jaw and worked the belts of their robes open, felt want and sulk and curiosity that did feel weirdly cat-like from Spike. "And I'm sending kinda mixed signals here, huh?"

"Nothing mixed about this," Spike said, sliding his hand down to Xander's cock - squeezing the mostly-hard flesh gently. Xander's illness had eased - the wheeze had gone away - but Spike still had a moment of doubt. Don't want to over-tire him...

"That hesitation better be wondering if you left the stove on - you didn't - and not wondering whether I'm up to this, pal. Because I am." Xander lifted his head, trapped Spike's hand between them with his weight and rubbed slowly against Spike's curling palm.

"Mmm. Yeah..." For a moment all thought fled and then Spike was arching up into Xander, pulling him close and kissing him. "Sorry, love, sorry..." he breathed, but kissing was more important.

"Less with the sorry, more with the kissing." Xander had their robes untied, had got them open. The cocoon of brocade and thick, soft terry was warm with Xander's body heat, smelling of shower spices and the kind of musk Xander knew would raise a knowing eyebrow when Wesley got there. "If I can't have you for two nights, I want you now." Not that they'd be refraining for two nights. But that part of Xander who believed in not screwing when his guests couldn't was a stubborn idealistic bastard.

Of course, Connor could always join in and then -

Okay, so not going there.

Xander shook with silent laughter, felt the niggle of confusion wiggle its way through the enveloping lust radiating from Spike and shook his head. "Please don't ask."

"Have to, Xan - you've got this look..." Spike let his legs fall open, snuggling Xander closer and kissing up his neck to his mouth - light, teasing kisses.

"A 'look'? I have a look?"

"Oh, yeah," Spike said. "Like you're thinkin' something...naughty..."

"Oh no. No way. No thinking happening here." Xander mumbled into good lips, clever lips, lips and tongue of Spike that were doing their part to make sure his brain was a thought-free zone.

"Oh yes. Lots of thinking - lots of naughty, twisted, sexy thinking. I can feel it, love," Spike said, hand and hip pressing Xander's cock - fingers stroking and circling and tugging. Other hand wandering down Xander's back and digging into the sleek, solid muscle of Xander's ass. "Be a good boy and tell me..."

"God." A shudder took the long route; rippled its way down his spine and made Xander's eye roll back into his head. "There is a world of wrong in what the words 'good boy' in that voice do to me. Okay - there...might have been thoughts of naughty touching involving Connor and an orgy of four but that is a thought that lives in the part of my brain of which we will never speak."

"Yeah?" Spike rolled his hips - slid his fingers along the crease of Xander's ass, just brushing the sensitive flesh inside. Licked at a bite-mark, feeling the sensation shudder through Xander, feeling the hotwantneed crowding in on him. "He is tasty...lovely hair...kissable mouth...got a tight little body... Bet he'd be good. Like you can be good....yeah? My good boy," Spike purred. Not for a second would he join us, love, but god...the way you feel...

"Evil," Xander panted, "undead." Lust and playfulness shimmered the air around them, made it impossible not to laugh. "Manipulating me like that...gonna fuck you now." Back, against Spike's fingers and thrust against his belly, against hard and harder flesh.

"Mmmm...I've been a bad, bad boy -" Spike took the skin of Xander's throat between his teeth - pressed lightly, shaking his head just a little. Grinned when Xander's hips jumped against his, helpless reaction. "A very bad boy...daddy..."


~*~*~*~*~


Wesley, Connor and Spike were seated around the dining room table while Xander leaned a casual hip against the counter. He and Spike had finished one quick shower's length ahead of their guests' arrival and Xander hadn't bothered to keep the stupid grin off his face. Connor - his father's son in at least one respect - had scented the air, dropped his face into his hands and groaned.

Ah, kids.

With the heavy cloud cover rolling in off the ocean they were able to leave the dining room blinds open to a view of scrub grass, beach and a slate-gray sea. Illyria walked on the beach, unnatural storm winds lifting and tangling her hair. Xander wondered if gods needed to stretch their legs after long drives.

Wesley clicked once - twice - on his laptop and then angled it just a little so that Spike and Xander could see. "I've been tracking the weather - I'm afraid there will be no let-up any time soon. And as you can see, the anomaly is fairly large - all the way south to L.A., and north as far as Santa Maria. I'm hoping that Illyria will be able to pinpoint it's origins a little more closely."

"So you - what? Let her wander around out there like a big blue Roomba until she sucks up all the information we need?" Xander realized Wesley was looking at him blankly and sighed. "You don't watch much late night television, do you?"

"I'm afraid not."

"She's gonna take it all in like a blood-hound, yeah? Track down the source... Think she can tell if the Hellmouth is opening or just being - siphoned?"

Wesley leaned back in his chair, folded his hands over his stomach and glanced out the window at the god on the beach. "I'm not entirely certain she can track down the source. But she can see the phenomenon for what it is - even this dulled, her senses aren't as easily fooled as ours." There was fondness in his voice - pride - and Xander and Spike exchanged a look.

"What're you here for again?" Xander looked over at Connor and his not-legal-yet beer.

"Field trip," Connor explained. "I'm Wes' favorite intern."

"And I'll bet BatVamp just loved the idea of you comin' up here," Spike drawled, leaning his chair back and grinning at Connor, who grinned back. He still got that odd little frisson off the boy from time to time - Darla and Angelus in the back of his throat. But he'd proved he wasn't them; proved he was more then the sum of his parts - more than his miserable upbringing and the mental fuck that had been Angel's memory spell.

"In fact, I turned my cell-phone off after call...eleven." Connor checked the call log and flipped his cell phone closed. "That was in Oxnard. Wasn't that in Oxnard?"

"It was. I turned my cell off in Santa Monica," Wesley admitted.

Xander's phone rang.

"I'm not gonna want to answer that, am I?"

"Well..." Wesley started, and Spike jumped up and snatched up the phone - stabbed the 'on' button.

"We're giving Connor whiskey and Wes let Illyria drive and no, they do not want to talk to you, Xander and Wes are snoggin' in the living room and I'm about to join them so fuck off and don't call back." Spike hung the phone up and then leaned next to Xander, holding it out in front of him. "Five...four...three..."

Chirrup

Xander snatched the phone and pressed the on button. "Don't yell! It's - " Xander winced and held the receiver away from his ear. "Tender human eardrums here, Deadboy! Jesus."

"Xander, put Wesley on the line."

And that was the sound of one pissed off Mr. Broody Vamp. Before Xander could answer, Wesley gently pulled the phone from his hand and stood. "Excuse me. I'll take this in the living room."

"Wes, what the fuck?" Angel's voice hissed out at Wesley and he copied Xander, pulling the phone away from his ear for a moment as he walked into the living room - sidestepping the Nest and coming to rest in front of the sliding glass door. "Why haven't you been answering your phone? Why hasn't Connor? I've been calling for hours -"

"Yes, and unnecessarily running up charges. We did warn you, Angel," Wesley said, knowing that a small, fond smile was turning up the corners of his mouth - was warming his voice. Knowing mostly from the snort of exaggerated disgust from Spike. He put his hand on the cool glass of the door, watching Illyria who seemed to be digging something out of the sand. "We're fine, Angel."

"But you're not here." Angel stopped but not before Wesley heard the plaintive lilt to his voice - or the way Angel tried to suppress it when he went on. "What if you have a vision while you're there?"

"Then I'll call you. I'll be fine, Angel. You know it's not bad when I - when I change. And Spike and Xander are very capable of dealing with pain after..." Wesley stopped and bit his lip and he heard Angel sigh.

"Spike and Xander. Do you have any idea how weird that is?" In his mind, Wesley could see Angel rubbing his face, see the powerful body slump into a chair as if all his energy had been drained away. "You. In Sunnydale. That's weird, too."

"It feels weird to be here. It's... This giant, muddy hole and I can't help remembering...before." His hand was chilled, and Wesley slowly pulled away from the glass - watched a kestrel dive along the shore, sliding down the air. "I promise I'll be careful, Angel."

Wesley listened to Angel take in a shaky breath, then another. Rare for him and important enough to Angel that Wesley knew what he was going to say before he said it. "Take care of Connor, all right?"

"I will, Angel." Wesley smiled, couldn't keep the fondness from his voice. "We will both be fine and we'll come back to you in a few days, ideally with some better information. We're not here to take foolish risks." Wesley watched Illyria track the kestrel, clockwork tilts to her head that still reminded him of a machine.

Spike listened and shook his head - spun his chair around and straddled it, picking up his beer for a long drink. Xander moved up behind him, hands on his shoulders, kneading lightly. Heat all down Spike's back and he relaxed into it. Looked at Connor, who was watching him and Xander with a small smile on his face.

"He's worried 'bout you, you know. Your - dad." Connor shrugged - looked down - looked back up, picking at the label on his bottle.

"Yeah, I know. He does that a lot."

Affection in his tone and long-suffering and Spike grinned. And he's worried about Wes, too. As he should be. We'll take care of him...

Wesley came back into the room, set the phone on the table and went to the cabinet, noting with some amusement that the supply of Old Speckled had been depleted. "I had been wondering why we were drinking this carbonated water." A quick trip to the refrigerator saw fresh beers for them all and Wesley settled comfortably in a chair, frowned at Spike. "Has it been that bad?"

"It hasn't been fun," Xander said softly, and Spike leaned back harder, wanting to feel the solidity of the man at his back. Remembering the look of uncomprehending fear on Matt's face as he'd stood on their roof and surveyed the flickering lights down in the pit - the look that had changed to horror when he'd insisted on actually walking down into it, and he and Spike had stood there for about five minutes before he'd turned abruptly and marched out, his mouth thinned to a grim line.

"Think it's gettin' worse every night too, Wes. More of 'em or...something. Thicker." Spike's spine had tensed back up against Xander's stomach so Xander slid his arms around to Spike's chest - rubbed where there was once a heartbeat, where he could feel the radiant love you as a constant low-level thrum.

"And all contained within the confines of the pit?"

"Yeah. No manifestations past the old Welcome to Sunnydale sign." And that had been maybe the only ghost image to make Spike smile, seeing that sign flicker into visibility down on the ground - with tire tracks on it. Good times.

"Hmmm..." Wesley's eyes went shuttered as he thought, on hand absently tapping on the table and Connor looked at him, one eyebrow rising.

"You've kicked him over into 'deep thought' mode. Now he'll be collating all the information and coming up with something...brilliant. Or, you know -" Connor grinned. "He'll ask for sushi."

"Call me crazy, but I'm starting to see a pattern in this sushi thing." Xander scratched Spike absently - as he would a cat and smiled when Spike took a light hold on his wrists, shaking with silent laughter. "Either that or a conspiracy. And yes, yes I know it's good for you."

"You'd kill for pizza, wouldn't you?" Connor tilted back his beer sympathetically.

"My own grandma," Xander confirmed.

Connor picked up his own phone and switched it on - held it up in his hand, his eyebrow going up again and a look coming over his face. A look that was so very familiar and suddenly Spike knew it. It was Angelus' look, when he thought he'd gotten something over on Darla.

"You know you know the number, dude. Meat-lover's, Supreme - whatever. I'm buying."

"And I am liking this family so much more." Xander gave the number and thought back to the basement, thought back to Spike's gripes and grumbles. Back then, he'd always made an effort to order the Anti-Spike Special. He knew it by heart which made ordering the opposite pretty easy. "Meat lovers, no garlic and no Canadian bacon. Side of spicy buffalo wings with extra sauce."

"Oh - sounds good. Two orders of wings and..." Connor and Xander went into the kitchen, plotting, and Spike grinned after them. Some things about Xander had never changed.

"The sushi place delivers, mate - you want some?" he asked Wes, who was looking a little...uncertain about the pizza.

"Yes." Wesley hoped he didn't look too relieved. "Thank you, that would be better."

"Been eatin' a lot of sushi lately, have you? Don't remember you liking it this much before."

"That's 'cause he didn't." Connor returned with Xander in tow and another round of fresh beers for them all. He was ignoring Wesley's look of disapproval and took a hasty swig of beer before Wesley could disapprove out loud.

"There a story here, mate?"

"I...suspect the demon's natural habitat is semi-aquatic with fish as a primary source of food. I have found myself with...odd cravings."

Connor snorted into his beer. "He ate the fish out of the office tank. Andrew's in therapy over it."

Spike laughed out loud, reaching across and squeezing Wes' knee, and Wes blushed. Xander stopped behind him and ran his fingers through Wes' hair.

"Was that the special salt-water tank that he bought to 'soothe the clients'? I remember Dawnie telling me about it. I guess Andrew told her." Wes - who had leaned into the caress, his eyes going half-shut, sat up straight and nodded, looking down at his hands.

"Yes - the five-thousand dollar tank. With the fifty-dollar fish. I heard about it for days." Wes' voice sounded contrite, but his eyes were sparkling with mirth and Spike wanted to pull him over and kiss him - saw that impulse leap straight across to Xander.

"How'd it taste?" Xander rubbed circles in the back of Wesley's neck with his thumbs, Spike's arousal a warm tingle in his veins as he placed the sushi order.

"I don't recall. I was more focused on keeping it in my mouth than on how it tasted."

"Yeah. It's kinda hard to eat something when it's wiggling around."

"You've eaten live fish?" Wesley twisted, looked at Xander with surprise.

"Pig."

Wesley grimaced. "It sounds...crunchy."

"You know it."

"Oooh...sensing a story here," Connor said, waving his beer and then frowning when Wes leaned forward and snatched it out of his hands, ripple of black through his eyes for one moment.

"That's quite enough, don't you think?" Wes asked, and then twitched when Xander's hands hit the sensitive spot just below his hairline. Xander bent down, his mouth close enough to Wes' ear to touch, and Spike could almost feel that - could feel the want, clear enough.

"Let him have his fun, Wes. You'll have yours later."

Wesley shuddered and set the bottle down with a heavy thunk - tightened his fingers on the edge of the table. "Xander - "

Weak protest and a quick glance at Connor confirmed the worst they had coming was an eye roll. Spike was a steady pulse of wantwantwant and Xander licked his lips. "What? I guarantee Connor isn't gonna hold hormones against you. Right?"

Connor groaned and snatched back his beer. "Yeah. I've got enough of my own."

"Have to find you a bit of something on the side," Spike murmured, watching Xander's fingers in Wes' hair - stroking slowly up and down his neck. "Yeah - right, what was the total? Right, mate." Spike turned off the phone, sushi ordered, all his attention on Wes and Xander.

"Yeah, that'll happen with my dad following me - following me! - on my dates. And he's not even sneaky about it! Last time? He tripped over me." Connor stared morosely at his beer and Spike felt laughter trembling through him - his own and Xander's - and they all started just a bit as Illyria stalked through the door, scattering sand.

"I grow tired of speaking to algae. I wish to find an entity more worthy of my time. Perhaps a ficus."

Wesley felt Xander's hands still in his hair as they all watched Illyria pivot and march away, toward the front door. "Did she just make a joke?"

"No. She can talk to plants," Spike said, watching the tick-tock motion of Illyria's hips as she stalked out of the house.

"Actually tripped over me. Almost crushed my foot. I mean - what did he think we were doing? We were having iced chai..." Connor seemed to be suddenly feeling his beers and Xander grinned at him, felt Spike's amusement as a tingle in the back of his head.

"Angel's not a happy vampire unless he's got a loved one to stalk, Connor. Congratulations - you're the lucky guy."

"Xander! That's hardly true. Angel simply looks out for Connor. You can hardly blame his feelings of attachment after - " Wesley stopped, bit his tongue and every muscle under Xander's hands went tense again.

"I keep telling you, Wes. It's cool. It's past." Connor drained the rest of his beer and pointed the empty at Wesley. "I kinda like my fake memories 'cause they come with Maggie Richardson in sixth grade."

"Cute girl?"

"So cute. She'd put out for me every day at lunch."

"Sixth grade?" Wesley's hands thumped down on the table.

"It was only kissing."

"What were they thinking, putting sixth grade kissing into the mind of - "

"Hello, Wes! Evil law firm?"

"That's beside the point."

Xander caught Spike's eye, nodded toward the living room.

Spike raised an eyebrow at Xander - felt the pulse of want and amusement and affection from him and stood up slowly, stretching hard. Jeans riding low, t-shirt riding up, and Wes and Xander were both staring at him. Connor was staring at him, and grinned rather crookedly when Spike turned a look on him.

"Wish they'd have let me remember some make-out action with Jeff Merchison, too. He was hot." Spike rolled his eyes.

"Pizza'll be here in ten or fifteen - let's go pick out a movie, yeah?"

"Yeah - sounds good." Connor stood up - reeled ever so slightly and went into the living room. Spike swooped down on Wes and kissed him, hard and fast.

"Don't go anywhere, love," he whispered, and followed Connor.

Wesley was gasping still when Spike left and Xander kept combing his fingers through Wesley's hair. "I see he didn't take after his dad with the alcohol."

Xander waited until he saw the frown crease Wesley's brow to grin, enjoyed the confusion in Wesley's eyes. "Angel seldom if ever drinks."

Xander leaned down, put his lips against Wesley's ear and kissed. "I meant you. You are so a father figure to him and he likes it."

Wesley pushed into the caress - lifted his hands from his lap and reached for Xander's - held them gently on his own shoulders, feeling the calluses and the ragged thumbnail under his own relatively book-soft hands.

"I enjoy...his company. He's a remarkable young man and...I feel it makes up, just a little, for..."

"Don't, Wes," Xander said - came around and took Spike's chair, scooting up close to the older man. "Don't do that. You did what you thought you had to do. And Connor's here, and he's all right." Xander couldn't resist a slow kiss - didn't even try - and for the first time since they'd arrived, Wes seemed to truly relax.

"I have missed you both, so much...what you offer, what you are..."

"Yeah?" Xander watched Wesley's eyes close and his mouth gently curve, leaned in to taste the peppery demon flavor underneath the taste of beer. "Cordy was right," he finally said.

Wesley blinked his eyes open, foggy with confusion. "Cordelia often was."

Xander shook his head. "Cordelia was right about you. Smart English guys? Are so sexy." Xander enjoyed the blush, tugged Wesley to his feet and led him into the living room. He raised his voice to 'okay to eavesdrop, supernatural hearing guys' levels. "Who picked the movie?"

"Spike did. I wanted to watch...Poltergeist but Spike said it was..." Connor took a stance - as best he could sprawled across the living room Nest - and lifted eyebrow and lip in an exaggerated copy. "Said it was too bloody close to home and said no." Connor slumped, and Spike looked up from where he was poking at the DVD player, grinning.

"Are you pouting, Connor? You know that only works on BatVamp."

Connor shot Spike an incredulous look. "Are you kidding me? I've been offered two hundred bucks on Sunset for this pout."

"You what?"

Xander found himself restraining Wesley while Connor tried to burrow himself a safe haven in the pillows of the Nest. "I didn't say I took it!"

Spike couldn't help himself. He bounced over to Connor and hauled him out of his den - held him up by his shirt front. "Now listen, boy. Prostitution is very, very wrong. It's evil and bad. And that pout's worth four hundred, at least."

"Spike!" It was hard to tell if Wesley were more angry with him or with Connor and Spike bounded back up and snuggled up to the older man, batting his eyelashes.

"'M a bad, bad boy, Wes...gonna make me sorry?" Wes stared - sputtered - blushed. Effectively derailed from haranguing Connor and Spike pulled Wes and Xander down into the Nest, wrapping himself around Wes, kissing his neck. "Missed you too, Wes."

"God." Xander huffed, burrowed into the Nest - didn't have any other options as he was already half under Spike and Wesley. "What is it with you Englishmen and kinky sexual punishments?"

Connor's hand shot up. "Young and impressionable here!" He waited until he had their full attention before making a magnanimous gesture. "Carry on, gentlemen."

Spike kicked Connor's foot. "You need another beer. I need another beer." He happily squashed Wes and Xander, crawling over them with maximum frottage action to the edge of the Nest.

"Spike, do you really think -"

"S'okay, Wes - I'm not so very drunk," Connor said, looking serious and then spoiling it by giggling. "Been drunk before, you know."

"Do I want to know?" Wes asked, tone of long-suffering, and then squeaked as Xander shifted under him, pinching something deliberately.

Connor rolled his eyes. "Hello, Wesley - it's called college."

"Connor, if your father knew - " It was so difficult - and strange - to reprimand Connor for his behavior with Xander wrapped around him from behind like an amorous demon chair - an object which had entered into both fantasies and nightmares in the past. He cleared his throat. "He would not approve."

"I did read the Diaries, Wes. My father spent his entire human life drunk, thinking about being drunk, waiting to be old enough to get drunk, or hung over."

"That's completely different. Your father was -"

"He was a worthless bog-trotting womanizing sot. Didn't get better when he got the demon, and the soul didn't help a bit, either." Spike held a bottle out to Connor who took it slowly, looking... Oh, fuck.

"Was he really -"

"Now, pet, don't do that," Spike said, dropping down cross legged and tugging Connor over to him by a gentle handful of his shaggy, light-brown hair. "Was just takin' the piss, wasn't I? English and Irish, we never did see eye to eye. Nothin' wrong with your dad a bit of ass-stick removal wouldn't cure."

Connor's grin, that had faded somewhat, came back again and he lightly punched Spike's arm. "He said you were a poetry-writing virgin who was still tied to his mama's apron."

Wesley leaned imperiously back against Xander and folded his arms. "He was right."

Spike's eyes went wide and then he pounced, demon's eyes and fangs, snarling - snatching Wesley close by his shirt-front. "Gonna pay for that, Mr. Wyndam-Pryce," he purred, snuffling into Wes' neck and nipping not very gently at the skin there. "Gonna suffer," he whispered, tongue tracing the edge of Wes' ear and they all jumped as Connor finally figured out the remote and the movie - Boondock Saints - blared to life.

Xander took the opportunity to haul on Spike hard, tumble him into the pillows and onto Wesley and got both arms around them. "Get down here, Big Bad. The movie's starting and I haven't seen it." His hands told another story though; one rubbing at Wesley's belly, the other skimming the skin below Spike's waistband. He pressed his lips to Spike's ear, whispered breathlessly. "I can't do this if Connor's watching us." 'This' was explained by a slow wriggle of Xander's hips against Wesley, the demony fig leaf.

"I bloody well can," Spike whispered back. Wes was cradled between Xander's legs, leaning back on his chest and Spike had his own right leg thrown over them, his knee just bumping up into Wes' crotch. He wormed his hand between them and got his fingers into the waist of Xander's pants - grinned as Wes obligingly shifted up just a bit, and Spike could pop the button on Xander's jeans. Xander sucked in a startled breath, want and panic coming from him, and Spike sniggered into Wes' neck - got his left hand under Xander's neck and pulled him closer.

"He'll be out in five minutes, love..."

Xander went limp - well most of him did - the parts that weren't pressed intimately to Wesley's spine. He gave himself over to the kiss, the flavor of cigarettes, the smooth sharpness of Spike's fangs and dragged his tongue over the tip with a hiss - humped up against Wesley with a muffled moan when Spike began to suckle.

Wesley dropped his head back onto Xander's shoulder with a sigh, a heavy-lidded look at Connor who was...watching them sleepily but didn't seem to mind - only grinned and turned back to the movie and drained what Wesley belatedly realized had been his beer.


"I'm afraid I share some reservations with Xander," Wesley said quietly, and then Spike was kissing him - fangs gone and human mouth working at his throat - his lips. Human tongue licking into his mouth and probing - pushing - tasting. Spike was predictable sometimes. For that, Wesley was grateful.

Xander felt Wesley go boneless against him and caught the back of Spike's neck. He rubbed with fingers and thumb, felt the working of Spike's jaw, flex of bone and tendon in the kiss then pulled him close enough to catch an ear in his teeth, muttering around the lobe. "Pizza. Xander gets fed. Then Xander gets fucked."

"Yeah," Spike said, breathless, feeling Wes' hand creeping under his shirt and stroking his belly. "Gonna need the energy, love - gonna fuck you both senseless."

"Hear, hear!" Connor mumbled, but Spike wasn't sure if he was talking to him or to the TV. Didn't matter - just then, the doorbell rang.

Xander let go of Spike and grabbed onto Wesley with both arms. "You go, sweetheart. Don't wanna be arrested for public indecency today."

Spike watched Xander's hand creep toward Wesley's belt and slip under the moment Wesley sucked in his breath. "Best hope he can't see over the couch then, pet." With a wriggle that made Wesley flinch then groan, Spike slid over them both and sauntered to the front door.

Xander listened to the door open, the low murmur of voices and slid his fingers around Wesley - slow stroke up and down.

Wesley suppressed a groan - rolled his head to the side, searching and finding Xander's mouth. Kissing him and repressing the urge to simply turn over and...

"Yes! Food!" Connor's enthusiastic shout made him twitch, and then Spike was sliding back into the nest, opening boxes of pizza and wings and grinning at him.

"You'll both be the death of me," Wesley griped as Xander wiggled out from underneath him and trotted off for napkins and soda and more beer. "I don't suppose my sushi was coming up the walk?"

"'Fraid not, pet." Spike made short work of a wing with a small groan of pleasure. "Don't know what you're missing out on, love."

Wesley tried not to be obvious in averting his face. "Half a gallon of Tabasco sauce by the smell."

"Don't forget the grease and oil." Xander folded himself into the Nest, handing out drinks and napkins.

"Hey!" Connor protested the bottle of Root Beer.

"Bar's closed." Xander grinned - scrambled up at a second ring of the doorbell.

Xander bounced back to the Nest with sushi and for a while it was just four men doing what men do best - eating and watching mindless blood-shed. Spike surveyed his...family with satisfaction and drained the last of the beers - pleasantly full, pleasantly buzzed, pleasantly horny. Connor was sprawled out with a dazed expression, his eyes so heavy they were almost shut. Xander and Wes were curled around each other, paying more attention to what their hands and lips were doing than the movie, which had taken a turn for the surreal. Yeah. Family, damn it.

"Think we can trust Blue out on her own?" Spike asked, tidying away the last loose thread before he could start chivvying his lovers into the bedroom, and Wes stirred and looked over at him.

"Hrmmm? Oh. Yes. She'd only be irritable if one of us went with her. Our clumsy mortal bodies are as gnats to her - a continual source of irritation. She revels in even temporary relief from our incessant noise." Wesley creaked open his box of sashimi and ate a piece of glossy yellowtail with satisfaction.

"Okay, Wes? We so need to get you new playmates."

Wesley looked up at Xander - over at Spike, who was sucking the last of the hot-wing sauce of his fingers in a very deliberate manner. "I rather thought I had new...playmates," he said, and watched Xander's gaze go a little more heated - watched Spike do that slow and sultry smile, eyes going half-lidded and dark. "And...I do believe Connor is asleep."

"It'd be polite to go into the other room so we don't wake him up," Xander said, stretched against Wesley until his spine popped and the want want want radiating from Spike cranked up the volume. He shot Spike a playful smirk. "Too bad Spike's too evil to be polite."

"Got that right. But..." Spike pushed himself to his feet - held out greasy hands to Wes and Xander. "I don't think doin' it in front of the BatMite here is the way to set the mood. Although he probably wouldn't mind." Spike grinned as Wes and Xander let him pull them up - and as Wesley grimaced at the feel of chicken-grease on his hand. "Clean up first, then?"

Xander nudged up close behind Wesley and hooked his chin over his shoulder. "You wanna get into our great big bathtub? With the scented oils and the bubbles? Slippery the way we couldn't be in the pool."

"I've been exploring my...other form. The pool could hold some surprises for you now," Wesley murmured. He gasped a little as Xander bit gently at his neck, then Spike was taking their hands - tugging them down the hall, his smile full of wicked delight and promises Wesley fully intended to make him keep.


"Oh Jesus," Xander breathed, looked wide-eyed down into Spike's face, his overlong hair cocooning them from the world outside as Wesley eased slowly into him - hot, hotter than Xander's skin, enough to make him wonder if this was what it was like for Spike with his cock filling him. But he couldn't ask, because every time he tried to string together words, happy encouraging sounds came out instead and okay - there were worse places to be than the filling in a demon bread and almond oil sandwich.

Spike tried not to move - tried to wait, so that Wesley could find his rhythm - could be ready. But god - it was hard, so hard. Xander leaning above him, flushed and panting, pushed so deep inside... And Wesley's slow movements trembled through Xander as the want need pleasurepleasurepleasure from Xander made Spike writhe - made him arch up and scratch his fingernails down Xander's back - made him tip his head back, silently pleading for more.

In the dim candle-light - Xander's idea, the romantic fool - Wesley's eyes gleamed a cold blue-green, and his peppery scent and intoxicating heat were just fuel to the fire.

"Xander, god..."

The beat of Wesley's pulse inside Xander and the rumble of Spike's purr beneath him were too much - too much and not enough when Spike tipped his head back, offering. Distantly, he heard Wesley's gasp as he sank his teeth into taut pale skin that tasted of tequila and smoke.

As a Watcher - as a Rogue Demon hunter - Wesley had seen it all. Seen it all save for the languorous descent of a human to a vampire's throat. Had never seen golden eyes roll back in a pale face as the demon emerged - grimace of pleasurepain stamped on his features and a rush of illogical heat through Xander's body wrapped so tightly around him. "God." His hands shook, running them down Xander's trembling back, soothing the red scratches Spike had left behind and feeling Spike's purr rumbling up to him through Xander's bones.

Spike felt the surge that his blood caused - felt it through their strange and wondrous link, felt it in Xander's body - in the hitch of his breath and the harder thrust of his hips. As Xander drank, he watched Wesley - watched his eyes widen in shock and then narrow again, and Spike caught a hand - tugged Wesley closer.

"Wes...it's all right..." Spike murmured, and Wesley leaned impossibly far - pushed Xander tight into Spike, making him hiss in pleasure.

"I know, Spike -" Wesley murmured. His hand cupped Spike's face - one clawed and dark-skinned thumb slipped into Spike's mouth, and Spike felt Xander shudder as Wes bit at his neck - never breaking the skin, but leaving marks.

Xander drank in the rumbling voices, Spike's against his lips and Wesley's against his back. His neck burned with bites, tongue and throat and belly burned with the blood, burned with the feeling of filling and being filled in the cold-warm-hot arrangement of bodies. Skin and blood - skin and blood and teeth and the feeling of falling with a parachute that might not open. It was enough to make his heart pound in his chest, deep and fast and Jesus how the fuck was he supposed to last when he couldn't even talk?

Xander was shivering under Wesley - gasping in sharp breaths and making small, delighted sounds every time Spike moved under him - or Wesley moved in him. Wesley licked at the flushed and salted skin of Xander's back - gripped Spike's shoulder in his hand and moved, slow then fast. Dragging out every drop of pleasure he could - feeling as if he'd been starving for it, those long weeks in L.A. "Xander...oh...Spike, I..." He couldn't finish that - not even in his head, and Spike's hand was on his cheek - rubbing back over his skull.

"'S all right, love. 'S all right..." Spike sighed, arching and twisting - rumbling growl of pleasure that Wesley found himself answering and Xander cried out, moving faster between them - deeper, with an arm locked beneath Spike's left leg, lifting it and pressing it hard to Spike's chest. Eye shut, now, head going back, neck stretched pale and tight in the gloom. And Spike leaned up and bit, shuddering.

Xander arched, every muscle tight under the electrifying pulling heat of Spike's fangs in his throat. Hard, harder, faster, deeper and the deeper he went, the deeper Spike bit until Xander shuddered hard, the coiling tension at the base of his spine shattering through throat and cock with a desperate groan, clutching hands, wet against his belly. He could feel the burn of Wesley moving faster and harder inside, pushing softening, too-sensitive flesh into Spike and Xander bit again, sucked hard - drinking Spike's climax from him through his throat and fuck everything was hot and frictional and dizzy-good and wet in a good, good way.

Wesley watched the two of them moving in stop-motion jerkiness beneath him. The tight spasm of Xander's flesh around him, the thick, brine-musky scent of Spike's come all stoked the fire in his belly - made him gasp after air and lower his head. Forehead to Xander's back, mouth pressed open and his tongue tasting, tasting, tasting; salt and mint and cloves, sweet and a faint trace of iron and smoke that was Spike, somehow, transmuted through Xander - gliding over Wesley's tongue.

He rode the quaking of flesh and spirit beneath him and then he thrust - five, seven, nine times. Claws digging into the mattress and Spike's hands on his biceps - Xander's feet on his calves. The champagne tingle of orgasm rushed through him - out of him - and finally he was still, just breathing.

After a moment he slipped back and sideways, and Xander did, and Spike ended up in the middle, pulling them both close, rumbling satisfaction and a gleam of possession and affection in his eyes.

"That was lovely," Spike murmured, and his mouth found Wesley's - kissed him for long, long moments. And then moved away to Xander, and Wesley lay with his head on Spike's shoulder and let the demon go - watched the world shift to different focus and sighed out a long breath of utter repletion.

"Warmth hog," Xander muttered into Spike's lips, biting lazily at them and tracing patterns in the moisture across his stomach - across both of them. But he wriggled closer when Spike tugged and draped over him.

"No point wasting all the heat you two generate," Spike pointed out, stretching luxuriously under Wes and Xander's combined warmth and weight, sighing happily into Wes' hair and running his hands up and down sweat-damp flesh.

"We'll be stuck to each other and the bed if we don't get clean," Wes murmured, and Spike shook his head, too sated to want to talk. "And I really must check on Connor." Wes was stirring, slowly, and Spike tightened his grip.

"Just relax, Wes - we can go in a minute," he said softly, and Xander reached across him and tugged on Wes' hand until it was tangled with his over Spike's heart.

"Yeah, Wes - just a minute," Xander said, and Wes smiled and gave in. "Learn to cuddle," Xander mumbled into Spike's neck, mouthing at the trickle of blood there until he felt Spike jerk in his arms. "Bloody uptight Englishmen."

"Not so uptight as all that, love, considering you just had my knees up around my ears," Spike grumbled, and twitched again when Xander nipped at his throat.

"Felt plenty tight from where I was," Xander murmured and slid a hand over Spike's thigh, two fingers taking a slow in and out slide that made the blood burn in his belly, added a little twist that made Spike hiss.

Wesley watched in disbelief. "You cannot possibly be ready to go again."

"Ready, willing and able, English," Xander said, licking a droplet of Spike's blood from the corner of his mouth, and Spike drifted a hand across Wesley's belly.

"It's the blood, you know. Demon blood. Same as you've got inside, Wes," Spike said, and his hand did that, and his tongue in Wesley's mouth did this, and Wesley realized Spike was right. Demon blood inside him, fizzing and wanting and far from sated.

"It's my turn," Wesley said around Spike's tongue, "in the middle." And Xander laughed.


Spike woke abruptly - something he didn't do often in the Nest. But something...was there. Had woken him, as if there'd been a loud sound, or a bright flash. And he'd only registered the fading edge of it because the room was nearly lightless. A single candle guttered on the dresser, the flame low and dark-gold, illuminating the room in a reddish haze when he called up the demon.

Nothing. Nothing's there. He waited, scenting. Thick musk of Wes and Xander - the fainter smells of Connor - beer, pizza, the sea. The dust-dry spice and astringent scent that was Illyria. Maybe she just got in - that's what woke me, door coming open... Spike lifted his head, looking around the room. The air seemed to shiver and he waited, tense. Finally relaxed, letting his head thump back onto the pillow - squirming a little, getting his body just right under Wes and Xander's enveloping limbs. Sighing, and letting go - relaxing back toward sleep.

And then - on the edge of his hearing - a sizzling sort of pop and thrum, like a fluorescent light edging toward burn-out and something flickered to life at the far side of the room. Pale blue-white, figure of a man, running. Screaming, mouth open in a silent 'O' of shock and fear. Running straight at them and Spike jerked upright, pushing away, Wes and Xander jerking away from him and the thing running through the bed - and something coming after. Demon, like a crouching, malformed ape; loping through the bed with gleaming, insubstantial tusks and a wavering crackle of displaced energy. The air burned over Spike's skin, cold as ice, and his back thumped into the headboard just as Xander sat up, wild-eyed, and Wesley cursed.

'Fearfearfear' rolling off Spike in waves and Xander wasn't going to wait to find out why or what the fuck. The subsonic sizzle raked along his nerves and he was off the bed, hands locked tight around Spike and Wesley's wrists. "Out - out of here!" Because whatever was in here was in here and if there was one thing Xander had gotten good at in his Scooby years, it was running away from the big and scary until he knew what it was and how to kill it.

Icy skin and prickling nerves were good for giving a guy the energy to run away.

"But - what is the - " Wesley choked on his words, the emergence of the figure making his skin crawl despite the stark knowledge that it couldn't hurt him. Couldn't possibly hurt him. Couldn't...take his eyes off it.

"Wes - come on."

"Wait, Xander -" Wesley pulled against the insistent, panicked tug on his wrist - stood knee-locked and breathless as a figure of a man ran screaming through the room - through the bed. And was followed by a slope-shouldered creature, predatory and somehow gleeful. Cold, in their wake - cold and the static-shock of a too-close lightning strike, and Wesley shook his head, trying to clear out the fuzzy sort of low-range hum that lingered there. Magical signature. Have to remember that -

"Wes, we're getting out of here," Spike growled, jerking his arm hard when the man emerged again, tick like a light coming on and then the silent rush and more heat drained out of the room - out of them.

"Yes, I think - think you're right."

Xander was the first into the living room and pulled up short with an absolutely not girly shriek when faced with Illyria's cold blue stare. "Jesus - fuck! Wear a bell!"

Illyria's head ticked to the side and unblinking eyes roamed the three of them head to toe. "You reek of each other."

"That's cause we've been shaggin' all night, yeah?" Spike was still human faced, voice returned to calm but his hands shook violently with cigarette and lighter until Xander steadied them with hands almost but not quite as shaky as Spike's.

"What's goin' on?" Connor sat up in the cushions, flopped - struggled to find his bearings in the strange room and squinted. "Are you guys naked?"

Wesley eased himself onto the other side of the couch from Connor and pretended he hadn't heard - faced Illyria instead and tried to make his grope for a dignity-saving pillow low-key. "What did you learn?"

Illyria's eyes tracked to the bedroom, snapped back to Wesley. "It is no longer confined to the pit."





Square Seventeen

The air smelled different. The sea was there, and sand...Xander, in citrus and sweet and coffee. But there was an overpowering scent of old, dry leather - dust, and aged wood and a warm, peppery scent...something different... Spike's eyes popped open and he found himself staring at a plaster ceiling - sagging with age, crossed with hair-thin cracks. Water stain in one corner like tea spilt on a linen napkin. The coarse silk of good cotton sheets and light coming in milky-blue through paper blinds. Wes' house... We're in Wes' house... He grinned - stretched - rolled over and looked fondly at Xander, who was curled around a pillow and snoring slightly, one hand stretched out into the empty space where Wes had been. Now...we shagged, we snuggled...Wes had to use the bathroom...

The tricky bastard never came back.
Spike leaned in and kissed Xander's sleep-warm cheek, and Xander moved and made a soft sound - kittenish sound. Spike grinned harder - slipped out of the bed and padded down the short hall into the main room of Wes' cottage. And there was Wes, at his desk. Dark hair in messy tufts all over his head, half-empty cup of tea tilting at a dangerous angle in his hand and old, ragged jeans on his body - nothing else. There were books in crooked towers over every inch of the desk, and paper - some scribbled over, some screwed into balls and tossed in drifts on the floor. A broken pencil, a goose-necked lamp twisted at a strange angle, and the southern-facing window open, letting in a cool, wet breeze and the hypnotic heartbeat of the sea. A gull called, thin creel, and Spike went over to the desk - crouched down next to Wes and smiled up at him - at the lean, stubbled face that was drawn in concentration and blue eyes that were red-rimmed.

"Good morning, love."

"Is it? Morning?" Wesley clattered his teacup into its saucer, left a new stain on a ruffled note pad and rubbed blearily at his eyes beneath his glasses, knocking them askew.

"Been at this all night?" Spike asked gently - snorted and took Wesley's fumbled glasses away from him - put them firmly on the desk.

"No. Only since - " Wesley stretched in an impressive yawn. " - only since perhaps two. There's a fresh pot of tea in the kitchen if you like."

"I don't like." Spike stood up and drew Wes up with him - pulled him away from the desk and then held him, rubbing his hands firmly up and down Wes' back and neck - kissing him with slow, soft kisses. "You're gonna be sore all day, love, and it won't be from bein' shagged senseless, it'll be from sitting hunched over these damn books. Come in the kitchen and get warm," Spike grumbled, ignoring the small protesting noises Wes managed around Spike's insistent mouth. "That hole in the ground's not that important."

"You," Wesley responded breathlessly the moment Spike's lips left his, arms going easily around Spike's waist as he capitulated. "You and Xander are that important." One hand slid the length of Spike's spine, still warm from the bed and Xander's body heat - smooth. "And although I may wish it wasn't, that 'hole in the ground' is your home."

"It's not home. It's just where we live. Difference, Wes." Spike ran a slow hand along Wes' jaw - sank his fingers into the mess of his hair and tugged gently - tipping Wes' head ever so slightly so he could kiss him lingeringly. "This is as much home as that is. Xander's here. You are. All that matters, love." The glint in Wes' eyes - the slow, incredulous smile - made Spike want to wrap Wes up tight in his arms and take him away - take them both away, somewhere safe, somewhere that wasn't... Here. Or there. Chewed us up, spat us out...still have the fuckin' tooth-marks. Let me keep you safe, love... "Maybe I'll have some tea after all, then," he added, tapping Wes gently on the tip of his nose.

"I knew you'd come around. You are English, after all." Wesley gave Spike a wry smile but the expression of doubt didn't entirely go away. He reluctantly released Spike's waist and led the way into the kitchen, pulled down a clean teacup for Spike and poured. "Does Xander feel the same way? About Sunnydale?"

Spike leaned against the counter, palms flat on crooked, buckling tiles. "Dunno. Think so. He's... He wants to do his job. Wants to do his best. But it's...a grave to him. A memorial." He took the cup from Wes' outstretched hand and took a sip - smiled and reached out and snagged Wes close. "Lovely, pet. You always did make a good cuppa. You find anything?" Wes was warm and pliable under his arm and Spike snuggled him closer, leaning his head on Wes' shoulder.

Wesley sighed, rested against Spike without a fight, all but asleep on his feet. "Leads, hints, half-recorded prophecies. I suspect the manifestations are only the visible result of the disturbance, a symptom rather than an end unto themselves - like sparks caused by repetitive motion over carpet."

"What's that tell us?"

Wesley lifted his head. "It tells us we know absolutely nothing useful. But it does suggest that the source of the problem lies outside of Sunnydale - and the direction of the energy may well point us in the direction of the culprit."

"Figure out why they moved up out of the pit?" In the barely-contained scramble to pack and get the fuck out, they had all seen more of the phantoms, flickering into existence down the new streets - in and out of the empty houses. Like something out of an old living dead film and Xander had tried to joke about it, but it had fallen flat. Too many, too fast - too much, and no real clue as to why. Illyria had deliberately walked through one only to tilt her head slightly and announce - 'They taste of nothing. They want nothing. Last synapse firing in a dying brain.' None of them had been comforted.

"The energy is being pulled out of the pit." Wesley leaned back, stretched and beckoned Spike follow him to the computer, folding into the computer chair and dashing a finger across the track pad. The power save screen brightened to reveal a weather map. "These are the current weather conditions for Southern California. And this -" Wesley scrolled down to an array of animated maps. "This is the weather in Southern California during the past twenty four hours." He clicked and they watched in silence, Wesley's head leaning against Spike's hip, Spike's hand in Wesley's hair as the maelstrom of weather over Sunnydale unfurled tendrils southward along the coast throughout the night.

"But you don't know where it's gonna end up, yeah?" Wes' hair was like silk, and Spike just wanted to pull him up and take him back to bed - could smell the fatigue and worry on him. "Is it... Are they gonna just follow along? Or are other places going to have...phantoms, too?"

"I can't say for certain." Wesley's blink was slow, soothed by Spike's petting and he could feel the itchy ripple under the skin of his scalp, his spines aching to slide through the skin to be petted too. With a shiver, he gave in to the impulse. "I haven't found all the answers yet. I haven't found many of the answers at all."

"Mmmm..." Spike suddenly didn't care about the weather in Sunnydale - didn't care that the phantoms were probably swarming their house, or that some secret...being - or group - was siphoning power from the Hellmouth. He just wanted to curl up around Wes and pet him to sleep - make him sigh in pleasure. "C'mon back to bed, love. You're tired, and so am I. Let this be awhile." The demon-skin was smooth and warm, so very warm, and Spike pressed closer, nearly purring.

"There's - research yet to do, Spike. We don't know how fast it's moving or what it is or what it will do once it reaches Los Angeles and - " Wesley tried - and failed - to continue speaking through a tremendous yawn.

"And it can be done after you've had some sleep, mate. You're no good if you can't focus on the page, yeah?"

This time Wesley mounted no resistance to Spike pulling him up, pulling him out of his chair and back to the bedroom with stumbling steps, asleep so quickly he didn't even feel Xander snuggle up to his back or Spike cuddle close to his chest.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike jerked awake to that damn song plinking tinnily out of Xander's cell-phone. That damn cowboy song about horses and riding and... Where the fuck is it? He scrabbled at the nightstand - realized it wasn't their nightstand - and lunged for Xander's jeans, where the phone was clipped. He yanked it off, hanging half off the bed, and flipped it open.

"Do you have any bloody idea what time it is?" he snarled, and listened to the indrawn breath from the other end.

"Is this - may I speak to A-alexander Harris, please?" Young voice - girl's voice. Sodding hell. Work or some such. Bugger. He was about to tell them no - about to tell them Xander was dead, don't call back, when warm fingers trailed down his arm and snagged the phone.

Xander flopped, face first and draped over Spike's back, petting vaguely to soothe the savage demon guy - and making a mental note to change his ring tone. "This is Alex Harris."

"Oh, thank you, Mr. Harris. Please hold while I put you through to Mr. Yezzi."

Xander pulled the phone away from his ear - stared at it in sleepy confusion as he felt Spike's irritation melt into vague curiosity.

"Tell 'em sod off. Tell 'em we're shaggin' - who the hell is it?" Spike squirmed mostly back up onto the bed - pulled Xander half onto him and snuggled up against Wes, who was stirring muzzily but not really awake. Not yet.

"It's corporate." Xander's brain was waking slowly - but even at half speed it recognized the potential bad of taking a call with one of the corporate inspectors while in bed with a grouchy Spike. He laid a quick kiss on Spike and wriggled to the side of the bed, groping through his pants pockets for a pen and small note pad.

"Thought you were done with them 'til next year," Spike grumbled, putting his arm around Xander's waist and pulling him backwards. No getting out of bed, damnit...wanna be lazy... Spike hoped the lazy-sleepy vibe was stronger than the sulky one, but he doubted it. "Tell 'em Wes needs you...I know I do..."

Xander slumped back against Spike, vampire petulance skulking along the edges of his nerves. He wriggled until he got an arm free, pressed a finger awkwardly to Spike's lips.

"Harris?"

"I'm here, Mr. Yezzi. What can I do for you?"

"You can explain to me why you're not here."

A wave of unease and...shock rolled through Spike - confusion and instant tension and he struggled upright - reached for the phone, intending to shut it off and throw it across the room. Only Xander's pleading look and his hand catching and tangling with Spike's made Spike slow down for a moment. Right. Let him talk and then throw the phone. Fuckin' hell. Now listen.

Xander clutched Spike's hand to his chest - kept it still, and if he was clinging to it that was his business. "After last night's patrol, my partner and I drove to Los Angeles. Is there a problem on the site?" Xander squinted at the time display on his cell phone. "Where's Russ?"

"Mr. Fenwick did not have a review scheduled with me at nine this morning, and he did not miss his review."

Xander felt the bang of his own heart through Spike's hand where it lay over his chest. "Review? What? That's not until next year!"

"Today."

No extra words. No explanation. Nothing but that one cold word that made Xander eighteen and living in the basement again. "Sir, I'm - "

"Our branch office is on Wilshire - meet me there. You have one hour."

Spike felt the rush of angerconfusionshameanger from Xander and he sat bolt upright, reaching for the phone again and this time pulling it away from Xander's hand. Which was cold, and shaking. "He'll be there," he growled and then snapped it shut - pulled Xander into a hard embrace, tugging Xander's head down so it was in the crook of his neck - roughly petting his hair. "Tell me, love," he murmured. Beside them, Wes was sitting up - moving instinctively closer even though his expression was sleep-fogged and bewildered.

Xander drew a shuddery breath - tasted salt and smoke and Spike over his tongue. There was a buzzing in the back of his head - like there used to be when the big public humiliation was on the way. "Gotta call Russ. Gotta check the papers Yezzi gave me after my last review."

"What? Why?"

"My compliance review was this morning." Xander listened to his words through a filter of this is not happening and fought the urge to hit something - or bite. Not violence - comfort. Closeness. And god he could use a dose of big bad. Xander settled for thumping his head down onto Spike's shoulder. Because that'd go over great, showing up to my review high on vampire blood. "He was in Sunnydale this morning. And I wasn't."

Spike felt the sudden craving go through him, too - snarled silently, crushing Xander close to him. "They said four bloody months, love - I remember. What the fuck do they want? Tell 'em piss off, you don't have to jump to their tune." Wes was rubbing his hand up and down Xander's back, his expression puzzled and a little alarmed.

"What is it, Xander - can we help?"

Xander shook his head - cleared his head. "No. I can't tell them off, Spike." He closed his eye and took a deep breath of the smoke-pepper smell that was Spike and Wesley together. "In November, I was put on probation for non-compliance with the company grooming policies - for safety reasons. The paperwork said I had until spring." Xander lifted his head, feeling the anger from Spike churn with his own confusion. "I know the paperwork said my review would be in the spring - before the site re-opened. Fuck this. Fuck. This." Xander wriggled out of Spike's grip and over the side of the bed - started tugging on his jeans. "It's not like I'm gonna be any more in compliance in March, is it?"

Spike eyed the rings in Xander's nipples - the five in his ears and the tattoos that would show if he wore a wife beater on site. The long hair that was too long for corp-rat drones - was just long enough if not a little too short, for Xander's tastes - and his own.

"Want a non-compliant boyfriend along to piss them off, love?" he offered, thrilled at the thought of getting in some corp-rat's face and telling them where to shove their rules...helping them shove their rules, and he hoped it was a really big manual. The angerhurt from Xander - the shame that had been there before was making the demon seethe and wasn't soothed by Xander's pained smile or the shake of his head.

"Xander - I don't understand - what's this review for? Surely you're not - not going to lose your job?" Wes sounded disturbed - looked angry, and Spike reached out squeezed Wes' shoulder.

Xander snorted - jerked on last night's socks and his boots, tied the laces. "The review is to determine whether they're going to renew my contract for another year based on whether I've complied with policy. For the benefit of those following along at home - I haven't." Xander stood and shook the legs of his jeans over his work boots, crawled over the bed on hands and knees to grab his tee shirt off the bed post. "My contract with them is only good until the end of March."

Wes lunged and brought Xander down in a tackle and Spike happily joined the pile, squashing Xander into Wes and grinning over his shoulder when the demon flared up in the ex-Watcher.

"Xander, are you sure that...you want to go like this?" Wes asked quietly, fingertips tapping lightly on the wrinkled t-shirt.

"Maybe Wes could come, too," Spike suggested, and Xander huffed, squirming. He got an elbow into Spike's stomach and managed to wriggle out from under Wesley, giving Spike's belly an apologetic pat. "He gave me an hour. Unless one of Wesley's new demon powers is super fast sewing or business suit materialization, it's pretty much this or naked."

"Well, naked might actually -"

"Wes!"

"I vote for naked, too," Spike said, dragging Xander back down and locking his legs around Xander's - giving Wes a look, and Wes flopped on top of them both, kissing Xander soundly.

"You'll be fine, Xander, really. You're very good at what you do," Wes said seriously, and Spike grinned at him.

Xander rolled his eye. "I'm surrounded by comedians. Where's my patch?" He patted down the empty pocked of his jeans then crawled over Spike and hung over the side of the bed to look beneath.

"Didn't bring it, love," Spike said, watching Xander slide off the bed with a thump.

"Fuck. I am so not ready to face Yezzi like this." Xander gestured tiredly to his face and slumped.

"Perhaps you can postpone? If you call him -" Wes was changing gears - slipping smoothly into 'calm and in control' mode, all teasing aside. Spike sighed and slithered off the bed - got his coat from the stiffish chair Wes had near the window and dug into an inner pocket.

"Here, love - brought a spare. It'll be all right." He held the patch out by the elastic, loathing the thing but hating what was coming from Xander - the sort of helpless anger that made him want to kill. Or at least maim.

For a moment, Xander felt faint with relief - hated the need for the scrap of leather and elastic - hated the gratitude he felt for having it and the loathing Spike felt for it. He closed his fingers over it and caught Spike's hand, pressing it to his blind side and looking up at him from the floor. "It's...armor. This is armor."

"Oh, love..." Spike crouched down and pulled Xander close - held him and rubbed slow circles over Xander's back. "You don't need that, Xander. Don't need any armor..." Xander did - but Spike...didn't want him to have to. Wanted Xander to see the brave and beautiful man that he was. Getting there, love. I'll make you see yet. Wes was looking troubled and Spike got Xander up and on his feet. "C'mon, love, time for coffee, at least."

"Teeth," Xander mumbled and broke away to disappear into the bathroom, foggy-eyed and rumpled.

Wesley slid more slowly out of bed, followed Spike to the kitchen. Lines of worry etched themselves between his eyebrows and he couldn't take his eyes from the bathroom door for more than a moment at a time. "Do you think he'll be all right? I thought his employers were satisfied with his performance."

"They think he's doin' a grand job. Just want him to do it lookin' like a good little corp-rat drone. As if it matters." Spike started poking through Wes' cupboards, looking for coffee and Wes gently pushed him aside - pulled out a tiny two-cup coffee maker and a bag of coffee from the depths of his freezer.

"I keep this for Angel - he comes over sometimes and likes to drink a cup," Wes said, and Spike successfully kept a sneer off his face.

"Didn't think he did food and beverages much," he mumbled instead. Wes turned, starting to say something, and Xander slammed out of the bathroom, his face damp and the ends of his hair dripping - a rather vicious-looking love-bite visible above the edge of his t-shirt.

"Wes! Band-Aids?"

"Mirrored cabinet, Xander. Really it doesn't look that - "

Xander slammed back into the bathroom.

Wesley sighed. "I'm not entirely convinced coffee is the best drink to give him right now."

"He'll be worse without it," Spike said, and started making tea. Wes considered and then nodded - got the coffee brewing. They both listened to increasingly louder cursing coming from the bathroom - a thump and a small crash and string of curses that made Spike grin. Then Xander was stomping out again, the band-aids apparently a no-go.

"Coffee." Xander held out his hand.

Wesley poured the coffee into a travel mug and pressed it into Xander's hand.

"Kiss." Xander caught Wesley by the shoulder and Wesley thought he saw the barest flicker of a smile before Xander's lips pressed to his. Then it was gone and Xander turned to Spike, kissed Spike - then out the door after a brief tussle to get away from the vampire.

They watched him go.

In the truck, Xander slammed his coffee into the cup holder and cursed at the slosh of hot liquid over his hand.

Okay, Harris. Breath in. Breath out.

He pushed his key into the ignition and flipped open his phone, dialing by memory and holding the phone to his ear.

"Russell of Sunnydale's Wild Kingdom."

"Hi, Russ. I'm in LA. Can you to go to my place and check out some paperwork I left in my office? I need some dates." Xander leaned back against the soft leather - breathed deeply, taking comfort from the scent and the distant thread of loveprideangermine that was Spike. Xander wasn't quite ready yet to drive out of its range.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike felt him when the truck was still half a block away. Anger and irritation, confusion and still that tiny thread of shameshame. Spike vamped, snarling - started to struggle up from his place on the couch. Head in Wes' lap and throw over his legs and Wes - who had been reading, hand slowly petting through Spike's hair - jumped, startled. Dropping his book with a thud and going half-way to the demon before he calmed himself down and tugged Spike back.

"Let's not gang up on him the minute he walks through the door, Spike. Let's...give him a moment." Spike struggled a moment longer and then relented, sighing - slumping back against Wes and rubbing a hand back through his hair.

"Yeah, all right. Fuck..."

"Is it bad?"

"I - dunno. He just feels... I don't like how they made him feel," Spike muttered, and they both tensed as the truck-door banged - as Xander walked slowly up to the door and let himself in and then just stood there for a moment, leaning on the door-jamb and staring at them. They watched as he pulled off his patch with a shaky hand and dropped it on the floor. Watched him cross the room in silence, slide onto the couch in front of Spike and press his face into the vampire's shoulder, exuding sluggish waves of emotional exhaustion. "Love?" Spike's fingers crept up, tangled in the soft hair at the nape of Xander's neck.

"I am so fuckin' tired of this shit," Xander said, muffled by Spike's shoulder, Spike's neck. He felt Wesley's hand slide over his shoulder and down his arm and lifted his hand until he could catch Wesley's fingers in his. Wes' jean-clad thigh was warm against his shoulder as he pushed closer into the crook of Spike's neck - Spike's legs tangled with his and kept him from rolling backwards off the edge of the couch.

Spike was silent for a moment but he knew Xander felt the surge of rage - and triumph - that flared through him. "That's it, then. No more Hellmouth, no more...graves. We'll pack up and be gone in two days, love -"

"Hey! Whoah!" Xander's head came up, rush of panic and want that made his heart pound. "No."

"What d'you mean 'no'? Contract's over. We're leavin' that cesspit for good, you and me."

"I suspect what Xander means is that this contract isn't over. You said you're under contract until - ?"

"March," Xander confirmed miserably, lifting his gaze to Spike's. "Sorry sweetheart. It's...I can't just leave..." No matter how much part of him wanted to. Okay - most of him wanted to. He wasn't sure yet how he felt about that.

"Bloody hell, Xander, you don't -" Spike cut his shout - himself - off. Clamped his jaw shut and closed his eyes for just a moment. "No, no, all right...all right. Yeah. Gotta...stay." Trying to only let the love and the pride he felt for Xander come through - trying to stop the demon's fury and instinct to protect - to fix. Wes' hand, warm and firm, squeezed his shoulder, and he turned his head on Wes' thigh and smiled at the older man - shaky smile. Leaned his forehead into Xander's. "Just tell me what I can do, love. Just...want to help."

"You're sexy when you want to rip somebody's head off. And scary. Sexy and scary and there is something so wrong with me." Xander relaxed against Spike, relaxed into Wesley's warm touches, soothing presence. "You help," he said finally. "Right now - you're helping. This is what I need."

"Good, love." Spike kissed his mouth, just feathery kisses - got his hand over Wes' on Xander's shoulder and just held on. "Always scary for you, Xan," he murmured, grinning.

Xander snorted and took the opportunity to burrow back into Spike's neck, smugloved sitting like a squat and grinning gargoyle in the center of Xander's moil of frustration exhaustion.

"But why would they dismiss you over poor grooming? It does seem excessive, Xander."

Xander rolled his head until he could see Wesley. "You've never worked for an American corporation, have you?"

"Well, no but - "

"If they make an exception for me, they have to make an exception for everyone." Xander quoted from memory of what felt like a hundred fast food managers. "Long hair and piercings are a safety hazard on the site."

"What about that bloke - Indian bloke? You said he had a braid down to there, love?" Spike ran the tip of his finger across Xander's lower back and Xander sighed. His stomach was tight with tension and...anger.

"He gets a special 'being Native American' exception. Religious thing or...something, I dunno. I was too pissed to pay attention 'cause they made some fuckin'...remarks about you. About...'propriety'."

"What the fuck do they know about it?" Spike snarled, fury rising white-hot and dangerous. Got to get him away from this shite!

Xander closed his eye, shivering under the prickling wash of Spike's fury - felt the hairs on his arms stand up. "They know I've been taking you on site with me - big no-no." He licked his lips. "They also mentioned letting a 'punk girlfriend' run loose in dangerous terrain and do I know how much she could sue them for if anything happened to her out there?"

"Illyria?"

"Probably. Someone needs an eye exam if they meant Spike."

"Do you think that could be...trouble? They won't try to - find her, will they?"

"You mean trouble like getting me fired?" Xander waved a hand, dropped it back onto Spike's flank and closed his eye. "No. No trouble. I can say without a doubt in my mind that there is no further risk to the Xan-man from Illyria being spotted on site." He burrowed into Wes' warm thigh, trying the ostrich approach.

Wesley rubbed his hand slowly up and down Xander's arm, trying to soothe him. He could smell Spike's growing rage and frustration and his own demon was shivering - snarling. Wanting to hurt what had hurt it's own - what had hurt... Family. Lovers...mine. I don't care...what they think. They are! "We're here, Xander..."

Xander lifted his head and stretched - used his hand to tug at Wes' shirt until he could press his lips to Wesley's. "You gonna be my scary sexy demon guy too?"

Wesley slid his hand upward, cupped the back of Xander's head carefully. "I am."

Xander smiled at that - went on smiling even as his cell rang and Spike huffed out a curse at the song. Change that, change that...

"Hello?"

"Hey, Alex - it's Russ. I've got the papers."

"Okay - hit me. What's the date? March, right?" There was a long pause and Xander heard Russ take in a breath - and he knew. Fuck.

"Xan?" Xander had gone still and Spike was so tense now he was about to scream. Gotta go and kill something. Soon. Or fuck my boys through the mattress. Damnit...

Xander kept his eye closed. "December 23, 2004." Russ took another deep breath, let it out slowly and finished reading. "Nine in the morning at the Sunnydale site headquarters."

"Fuck."

"And your dated signature's on the bottom, man."

"Fuck," Xander repeated, with feeling.


~*~*~*~*~


Wes had gotten back up an hour earlier - and even though Spike hadn't fucked him quite through the mattress, he'd done his best. And done his best with Xander, and now he had a warm and sleepy human sprawled over him, rough finger tracing patterns on Spike's chest as his own hand stroked up and down over Xander's back.

"It's some kind of crazy...Hellmouth thing. Has to be," Xander said, fifth time or maybe the sixth and Spike kissed his hair.

"Course it is, love. You'd never forget something like that and I know you told me March, too. And Russ and Carl. We'll figure it out. Don't worry about it." Spike slowly rubbed his cheek over Xander's hair, listening to Wes turning pages - scribbling notes. Wishing the other man had stayed, but knowing he wanted to do something - to be useful. He just didn't realize that lying in bed with your lovers was useful, too. Gotta teach him...that should be fun...

"You're humoring me," Xander accused without lifting his head but Spike could feel the smile - and feel the overwhelming well-fucked contentment that was a welcome replacement for Xander's earlier shame and frustration. "God. Even when I worked for Dog On A Stick I never missed a performance review."

"What in bloody hell is 'Dog on a Stick'?" The first mental image - grayish meat on a skewer, much like what was sold in the streets of Saigon - made Spike look down, wide-eyed, at Xander. "Some Vietnamese bloke have a cart? You sold Lassie to the kiddies?"

Xander snorted, jabbed his elbow into Spike's ribs to haul himself up far enough to look into Spike's eyes. "Hot dogs, Spike. Technically, of the species Corn Doggus Americanus. You know the place with the striped hats?" He gestured above his head. "I must've worked there before your sojourn in Casa Harris because you would never forget me in that stupid hat."

"Nothin' wrong with eating a little canis lupus, pet. Tastes...well..." Spike thought a moment. "Tasted mostly like that damn hot sauce they drowned it in. And you're right. You should never wear a hat."

"I thought you liked me in my manly yellow hard hat." Xander resettled himself over Spike's chest, wriggled around until they lay thigh to thigh, cock to cock - raised an eyebrow and wriggled more. "Okay. You like something."

"Like everything," Spike said, arching up into Xander and kissing him. Xander kissed back for a minute and then he was wiggling free and sauntering to the bathroom, a look of wicked glee on his face. Spike reveled in the wantlovewant from him and then stretched - bounced up off the bed and wandered out into the main room. Wes was buried in a book, nose far too close to the crackly pages, his hand moving rapidly over a pad of paper as he took notes. He didn't even glance up when Spike walked past, rampant and trailing a finger down his back. Snorting in disgust, Spike grabbed a beer out of the 'fridge - opened it and took a long drink. And then someone knocked on the front door.

"Spike, would you mind...?" Wesley didn't lift his head from his research and Spike wondered if Wes even realized Spike was naked. With a snort, he decided Wesley probably wouldn't notice if Spike was wearing nothing but stockings and a garter belt. He crossed the room and threw the door open to reveal Gunn - Gunn with a sheaf of papers, a cane and eyebrows raised high over his sunglasses.

"It's blondie bear." Gunn removed his sunglasses, looking Spike's nudity up and down with amusement. "It's a whole lot of blondie bear. Who ain't no natural blond. What're you doing here?"

"Charlie-boy!" Spike reached out and gave Gunn a buffeting sort of punch to his shoulder. Wes' front step was deeply shadowed by a wisteria plant that had grown out of all proportion to it's trellis and was currently climbing the roof. Gunn wobbled a bit on his cane and Spike stepped back, making a grand sort of 'come in' gesture. "What're you doing here? Don't remember Wes callin' you."

"You and Xander were indisposed." Wesley had set his book aside and circled the desk, taking the sheaf of papers from Gunn. "Please. Come in, Charles."

Gunn stepped over the threshold with a little smirk on his lips. "You're losing your touch in your old age, Wes."

"What makes you say that?"

"Time was, you'd never invite anybody into your home like that. You forget there's still vamps out there who ain't your friends?"

Wesley forced a smile. "Of course not. A vampire may not enter a human's home without invitation of one who lives there. I haven't forgotten anything." He licked his lips - took the sheaf of proffered papers. "Thank you for coming, Charles. Did you find what I asked for?"

"Yeah. You coulda found any of this - it's all public record." Gunn shuffled his stance, stood more heavily on his left leg than his right and didn't follow when Wesley retreated to his desk.

"Aren't you going to ask what it's for?"

"No way, man. I told you - I'm done with Angel's freaky shit. I know my place in this world and that ain't it."

Spike watched Gunn's halting progress over the threshold - listened to him chide Wes for his invitation and had to stop a minute and think. Wes hasn't talked 'bout Charlie-boy much... Fuck, he hasn't told him! Not my place... Spike felt a sort of angry frustration at that, but shrugged it off. Things had been...bad, for a while between the two. Best to go slow.

"Sun's still up, Charlie-boy - you were hardly a threat," Spike said, going to flop on couch and taking another long drink from his beer. Gunn grinned at him, totally unmoved by his naked, mostly-hard state -limped over to the couch.

"I gotta admit, you look like one unthreatened guy." Gunn eased himself carefully down next to Spike and rested his cane against the side table. "What brought you back to town? Last time I saw you, you were headed for anywhere but here."

"Me." Xander wandered from the bedroom to the kitchen in a pair of jogging pants and harvested four beers from the refrigerator, passing them out before slouching onto the floor at Spike's feet and offering Gunn a hand. "Xander Harris."

"Charles Gunn."

"It's a long damn story," Spike said, finishing his first beer in one long gulp and opening the fresh one Xander had brought him. His fingertips absently skimmed the pale scars still visible across his torso. "I'll tell you...some other time. Hear you left Angel's little happy family. How's that workin' out for you?" He watched for a moment as Wes shuffled through the papers Gunn had brought, then turned his attention back to the other man, stroking his fingers over Xander's hair.

"It's workin'." Gunn uncapped his beer and took a drink, glanced at Wesley before going on. "A friend of mine runs a charity on Crenshaw. I've been workin' with her. I figure a few hundred more years doin' pro bono charity work and I might put a dent in the bad karma I earned on the Wolfram and Hart payroll. How's life workin' out for you? You look like you're doin' all right." Gunn's eyes settled pointedly on Xander and on Spike's hand that had settled onto Xander's chest, fingers possessively splayed.

"Oh yeah. I am Spike's one eyed sex machine," Xander mumbled under his breath, and grinned.

Spike tugged on Xander's hair, smirking at him. "Yeah - I've got my harem-boy, here - you wouldn't believe how flexible -" Spike snorted laughter as Xander whapped him on the thigh, flushed and open-mouthed. "Shouldn't tempt me, love," he snickered.

"Yeah - he's evil, I hear." Gunn gestured to Spike with the neck of his beer bottle.

Xander gave in and relaxed against Spike's thigh. "Yeah. I've heard the rumors about that, too."

"Charles, are you certain this is everything?" Wes called, frowning.

"Everything your man on the street can get his hands on."

"What can my lawyer on the street get his hands on?"

"What? No way!" Gunn set his beer carefully on the table. "I told you - unless you're a poor teenager needing legal advice, the law offices of Charles Gunn are closed."

"Charles, really - I wouldn't ask if this weren't a matter of some importance." Wesley took off his glasses and leaned forward, his expression earnest and intense. "There's someone - or something - trying to use the power of the Hellmouth -"

"Man, you're not listening." Gunn shook his head, struggled to his feet from the depths of the couch. "I am retired. Look - I'm sorry there's shit goin' down in Sunnydale but if there's two things working for Wolfram and Hart taught me its shit goes down everyplace, and all I can deal with is the shit in my own neighborhood. Got that?"

"Now, Charlie - no need to get tetchity on our boy," Spike said, the beginnings of discontent clear in his voice. Wesley smiled faintly at Spike, leaning back in his chair with a sigh.

"I'm sorry, Charles - I don't mean to...to push you. But...the potential for real harm is very clear, here. Many lives could be at stake if - if what I believe is happening is correct."

"Hey - wait a minute. You believe something?" Xander twisted around to get a good look at Wesley.

"I believe many things."

"Do they give classes in cryptic at Watcher School?"

"I don't have enough information. Charles - please."

Gunn sighed - rubbed his hand over his scalp and looked from Wesley to Xander to Spike. "I've gotta think about it, man. Listen, Anne's expecting me at the shelter - we could use some extra help Christmas Eve, servin' up food, makin' sure everybody's got a bed or a piece of floor to sleep on. You come down there and help out and I'll let you talk some more. Then I'll make up my mind. We got a deal?"

Spike made an inarticulate sound and Xander did something to distract him. Wesley smiled, getting up from his chair to cross to Gunn. After a moment's hesitation he warmly squeezed Gunn's shoulder, feeling a wave of relief go through him. "Of course we will, Charles - anything to help. Please tell Anne we'll be there and...thank you."

"I haven't agreed to anything yet."

"Of course not."

"And I might not agree."

"I understand."

Wesley and Gunn stood there a moment, still and silent before Gunn smiled. "Be good to have you visiting for Christmas Eve, English."

"Yes - yes it will, Charles. I'm looking forward to it - we all are."

"I'm not," Spike grumbled, and suffered a pointed stare from Wes.

"Blondie-bear, you do know you have to get dressed to come down there, right?" Gunn asked, turning carefully to face Spike, who stretched languidly and lay one hand suggestively on his belly.

"Might be more fun if I didn't."

"Might be less painful if you did," Wes muttered, and Xander sniggered into Spike's knee.

"We'll be there."

"They'll be there," Spike corrected, earning another whap from Xander.

"Thanks for - listening," Xander said.

"Agreeing to listen."

"Yes. Agreeing to listen. Never fear - we'll have you on our side by the end," Wes said, and his smile was full of challenge.

"Bring it, man." Gunn straightened, grinned back full of teeth and confidence. "Bring it."


~*~*~*~*~


It was pouring again when they finally made it out of the house and into the truck. Wes, of course, had a proper brolly, all black, knobbly, and looking like it was hiding a sword or at least a tranquilizer dart in the tip. Xander just ducked and dodged, grinning like a loon and hopping one puddle to splash through another. Once in the truck he shook his head like a dog and splashed all three of them.

"Xander, really," Wes grumped, but he was grinning - grinned harder when Xander leaned over and kissed him.

"Sorry Wes," Xander laughed. Spike started the truck - poked Xander's thigh.

"Gonna say sorry to me, too?"

"Sorry, Spike," Xander muttered, head down, peeking up through wet hair, laughter in his eyes. Spike growled - grabbed - and kissed, then put the truck into gear with a jerk. Xander clutched at Spike, feeling the roll of suppressed laughter and jumpy energy that didn't show on Spike's face and fell back into his seat with a snort. "Why am I apologizing to you? You're as wet as I am."

"You're apologizing for bein' a git. Inside of the window's all wet, now - drivin' me nuts to see the little drops." Spike swiped at the windshield - shifted gears and lanes and slapped the horn, growling. "Fuckin' gobshites don't know what side of the road to drive on. Oi!"

"Spike - Xander is still a fragile mortal. Perhaps if you..."

Xander glanced at Wesley to find him clutching the door frame with white knuckles and gently disengaged Wes' fingers, folding his own around them. "This is nothing. You should take a motorcycle ride with him."

"'M a vampire, Wes - got the reflexes an' all. Been drivin' since the bloody turn of the - bloody hell! Fuckin' SUV's make me wanna - did you see that? Fuckin' bastard didn't even - Oi!" Xander reached out and snapped on the stereo - loud. Leaned in close to Wes.

"Sometimes it's better to try and lose yourself in the music," he whispered.

"Heard that!"

black leather
babe's gonna get to you


Xander grinned and cranked up the volume - sang along, feeling like he wanted to bounce right out of the truck.

stormy weather
you know heaven's rain is due


"I can't hear you, Spike! You'll have to speak louder!"

Spike snarled and jerked the wheel hard to the left, threw a laughing Xander into Wesley and jabbed at the button on the CD changer. "Wanker."

"Hey, buddy - that's a classic."

Suddenly a chaotic, synthetic - noise - was blasting out of the speakers and Wesley felt himself actually wince away from it as the speakers crackled. Spike's finger was pressing 'up' on the volume and Wesley found himself huddling away in stunned disbelief that anything could be that...horrifically...awful. Spike was singing along to the rasping, droning, unintelligible voice of the singer, pounding his fists on the steering-wheel.

"...we've taken it somewhere from far away the voices echo from yesterday behind the crack behind the image on the wall I see you curled up tightly hiding from it all -"

Xander jabbed the soft mute button and caught Spike's hand before he could turn it back up. "We're about to lose Wes out the window, sweetheart." He could still feel Wesley trembling faintly - vibration under the skin where their thighs pressed together and the fluttering of Wesley's fingers in Xander's grip.

"I - it's quite all right." Wesley sagged against the door frame, unable to take his wary gaze from the glowing display of the CD changer.

Spike took a hard right - hit a puddle and fishtailed, correcting absently while reaching over to stroke Wes' thigh. "Sorry, love, I forgot. We'll - we'll just talk, yeah? Or - let you recover, old man." Letting his lips curl up into a wicked grin and feeling Xander stifle laughter - feeling it coil through him like bubbles and sparks.

"That was absolutely horrible, Spike!"

"Not the topic of conversation I had in mind, mate."

Xander couldn't hold it in anymore and collapsed into the seat, laughing - felt the roll and echo of Spike's suppressed laughter and the shift of Spike's thigh beneath his hand. "Sorry. Sorry. God - " And Wesley was giving him such a Watcher look of disapproval, it set him off all over again.

"Watcher - shut him up, would you? Kiss him or he'll start hiccupping. Can't abide that," Spike said, lighting up and cracking his window and steering with his knees and Wesley watched for a split second in horrified fascination and then he yanked Xander to him by his shirt-front and did as Spike had asked. Why not? I'd rather die wrapped around Xander than a lamp post.

Xander only subsided half into Wesley's lap, all the way into Wes' sweater which was bunched up around his ribs, hands fitting into the small of Wes' back where the skin was soft and hot enough to leave an achy burn against his palms. "I don't hiccup." Words mumbled into Wesley's mouth and a peek to the side to find Spike looking at them. "Aren't you supposed to be watching the road?"

"I am," Spike insisted - looked up and fiddled the steering wheel left and then right, just to prove it. Then he went back to watching Wes and Xander kiss, heat and sweet and want. "Isn't there an underground garage right across the street from BatVamp headquarters?" he asked, letting his hand go out and stroke up Xander's back - slide along Wes' arm where it was rucking Xander's shirt right up his spine.

"Under the bank building - " Wesley tried to say before Xander swallowed the words, swarmed into his lap to straddle his thighs and jam a knee between the seat and the door frame, panting. Wesley's eyes flickered to the fresh fresh bite on the left side of Xander's neck - then over to the newly healed bite on Spike's and groaned. "Dear god. You're both high, aren't you?"

"Only way to face a bloody houseful of Slayers, BatVamp and Andrew. Thank Christ," Spike added, seeing the bank building sign and cutting across three lanes to just barely make the turn into the building. He drove straight back - slammed the truck into 'park' - yanked the parking brake on and was on Wes and Xander before either of them had recovered from the sudden stop. Wes' mouth was coffee and whiskey and lemon-pepper-sweet, Xander's was sugar and ginger and spice - Wes had fancy Christmas biscuits - and he groaned as he felt hands on him - mouths on him. "Ah, god..."

"Let's stay in here - fuck for a couple of hours instead." Xander wormed his fingers into Spike's jeans, lust and the strain of the upcoming parties rolling off him in a swirl of needneed, drinking in the taste of whiskey and Christmas cookies on Spike's lips.

"You know we can't. Angel is - god!" Wesley jerked at the feeling of Xander's hand through his opened zipper, trapped between Spike's cool and Xander's warmth.

"Angel's got low expectations for us anyway."

"Tosser hasn't had a good shag since that Nina chit fled the country - a good coring'd do him some good." Spike slid back - pulled Wes, pushed Xander, and had Wes' trousers open and down. Impulse and image in his head - some of it getting through to Xander and in a moment he was licking up one side of Wes' cock while Xander licked down the other and the ex-Watcher writhed above them, suddenly-clawed hands clutching at hair and shoulders, deeply plum skin of his cock glistening in the hazed sodium glare of a nearby street-light. Arching and then sinking carefully back, the spines flexible enough to bend and not punch right through the leather of the seat-back.

Vibrations of a deep moan - maybe Xander, maybe Spike - slid through his flesh, scattered thought and god he was supposed to be the responsible one, not the one with - with his trousers down around his knees and oh dear god. Slide of warm tongue - cool tongue around his glans, twining and meeting - sharing him like a bloody ice lolly and fighting for the taste - the - "God!" Wesley's fingers spasmed on the door handle, in Spike's hair when one wriggled a tongue into him for more.

Taste of salt, taste of iron, peppery demon taste on Spike's tongue and Xander chased it back into Spike's mouth, velvety slickness of Wesley's cock against the corner of his mouth and want want want beating like tribal drums between them.

Yeah, fuck yeah, beats any party any day, god... Spike pulled at Wes' thigh, wanting them open, wanting to push up into fever-heat - wanting to make Wes say their names in the soft, breaking voice he had, when it was all too much and the demon had shimmered to the surface. Xander's hand was with his, stroking the velvet skin of Wes' sac - pushing farther back and Wes was twisting under them - making small sounds of approval and encouragement and Spike looked up, for one moment, catching Xander's eye - seeing everything he was feeling and grinning before taking Wes deep into the back of his throat.

"Christ! Spike!" Wesley bucked beneath them, scalp spines digging hard into the leather of the head rest, heart beat a steady thrum thrum thrum through all three of them - moaned his release into Xander's lips, Xander's tongue, riding hard on Xander's clever fingers, slick with Fucking hell lubricant? and closed warm and slick around his balls, pushing pushing the tight skin behind until Wesley shook with the aftershocks. He looked down, dazed into three hazy eyes - hungry eyes and shivered, watching the play of tongues, slide of - of... A dry shudder ran the length of Wesley's spine and tingled in spent balls.

Xander closed his lips around Spike's tongue, suckled pepper-sea taste, lust thickening the air of the cab, unconsciously kneading, kneading the flesh of Wesley's thigh.

"Fuck - Wes - taste so damn -" Spike was interrupted by Xander's mouth and Wesley watched hungrily as they kissed - watched Spike yank and squirm, fighting tight jeans until they were past his knees - jerking up on the seat-latch so that the whole bench shot backwards and juddered to a stop at the end of its track. "Xanderrr..." Spike growled, and Xander was shimmying - scrambling - and yes, dear god, that was lube. Wes watched, panting lightly, as Xander settled on Spike's lap, back to chest - as he positioned himself over Spike - brief glimpse of the thick ring in Spike's cock - and then slid down, hard and fast. Both bodies arched - both necks curved back in sheer delight and then Spike was pulling Xander back onto his chest, shirt up high under Xander's armpits, Spike's hand pale on Xander's tight-trembling belly, just brushing the base of Xander's cock.

"Wanna taste, Wes? Make him sit here so still and you just..." Wes moved - and Xander was warm and spicy-sweet on his tongue.

Xander jerked at Spike's words - held still by the hand on his belly, only able to squirm, panting; lust and need and Spike's blood fizzing through his veins. "Oh fuck - fuck, no way you bastard!" Muscles strained as he fought to rock, thrust - anything as he felt Wesley's throat close around him and whined. "Spi-ike!"

"Shhh, shhh, shhh..." Spike let his fingers play over Xander's nipples, tugging at the jewelry - rocked up and back slowly, slowly - shivering at the fierce clasp of muscle around his cock - at Xander's hand digging into his hair and yanking - skittering over Wes' back. Xander's belly rippled and heaved under his other hand and Spike bent his head to Xander's throat - licked and worried the fresh bite-mark while Xander writhed - begged - panted.

"Doesn't Wes feel good?" he murmured, licking. "So fuckin' hot around you - so fuckin'...wet... Wes, love...you're so damn...gorgeous..." Spike let his hand trail down Xander's body to Wes' spined scalp - petted there while Wes moved over Xander and Xander gasped for air.

Wesley heard Spike's bones shift - heard his fangs pierce Xander's flesh and Xander groan and then all was heat, salt-musk and hammering human heartbeat and the cool swirl of Spike's fingertips over his scalp. And Wesley - on his knees in a pick-up truck, trousers down, spines up and a hard column of human flesh spearing open his throat - moaned when Xander came.

"Jesus - fucking..." Xander's voice trailed off and Wesley looked up to see Spike kissing him, fangs and one hand tight in Xander's hair - the other still stroking over Wesley's scalp and he shivered and pushed the demon away - hoisted himself back up into the seat. And was immediately grabbed and pulled and then Spike was kissing him and moaning into the kiss.

"Taste so fuckin' good, Wes, the two of you..." Spike leaned his forehead on Wes' - tugged Xander in close and for a moment there was just heat and flesh, spice and blood-scent and a closeness that made Wesley shiver. Then Xander was making 'I'm getting up' motions and Spike was looking as if he might not let him.

Wesley straightened his clothes, checked his watch and glanced back at Spike and Xander only to find Xander giving in, sagging into Spike's grasp with his head tipped blissfully back onto Spike's shoulder and the vampire's lips mouthing over the fresh bite. "If we don't go in soon, Andrew may come looking for us, you realize."

"Mealy-mouthed little git," Spike muttered indistinctly, and Xander only tensed for a moment and then arched his hips up, one hand curving up behind Spike's neck, the other reaching out and snagging the sleeve of Wesley's sweater.

"You could get on top, Wes, there's room - aah...Ssspike..."

Wesley gently disengaged Xander's fingers, kissed his open mouth lingeringly, then Spike's. "Or I could leave the two of you to enjoy yourselves and let our host know you've been delayed before he comes looking."

"Not as fun - Wes -" Spike moved and Xander lost his breath - his eyes fluttered shut and Spike's - golden and fierce and wanting - were fixed on Wesley then. "Wesss..." he breathed, and Wesley shuddered.

God, worse than Lilah in all the right ways. The thought made Wesley smile, inch backward on the seat and pop open the door. "Going. Now." And the resolve almost crumbled with Xander's shuddering moan, a glimpse of Spike's cock hard and slick sliding oh so slowly out of him then in with a wet slap of skin on skin. Then Spike's wrist lifted to Xander's mouth, ecstatic expression on Xander's face as he bit and Wesley cleared his throat. "Now," he said and fled, darting across the rain-lashed street with his jacket over his head rather than retreating to retrieve his umbrella from the truck's back seat.

He'd be lucky to arrive at the party in time for New Year's Eve if he did.

"Damnit -" Spike tugged Xander's head over until he could kiss him - stop him talking because right now - right now the blood was fizzing through them both, and the link was a humming, living thing, and Spike just wanted to sink into Xander's heat and sweet, tight hold and never surface. Certainly didn't want to stare down a double-handful of snot-nosed almost-Slayers who didn't hold a candle to the ones that had come before. Or deal with Andrew's effusive babble, or Angel's black looks.

Although he'll have a hell of a time ignoring us... Spike grinned - rescued his arm from Xander's bite and started fucking in earnest as Xander scrambled to brace himself with both hands on the steering wheel. Don't actually want to leave Wes to face BatVamp all alone...


~*~*~*~*~


Wesley shivered, dripping under the sodden awning of the Hotel Ali Baba - raked his fingers through his hair and hoped to whichever gods looked out for his breed of demon that he was presentable enough for Angel.

Not oh bugger it that Angel wouldn't be able to smell every guilty transgression the moment he walked through the door. Well...happy Christmas then, Angel. With a last deep breath, Wesley pushed the doors open and entered a world of garish seasonal confusion. Or possibly happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Ramadan and Chok-taar mating season.

"Wesley!" Wesley winced slightly from the volume of Andrew's hail, then stiffened his spine and turned from the coat-rack, smiling. Andrew barreled into him, grinning. Dressed in dark slacks, shiny shoes, a white shirt and tie and a thickly quilted jacket that was a cross between a bed-jacket for the Dowager Empress of China and Carey Grant's smoking jacket, Andrew hugged him hard, pounding his back. Then he stepped back, grinning, and flourished an un-lit pipe.

"What do you think? Isn't it great? Angel told me I could do whatever I wanted to, so I thought a thoughtful display of the many cultures and beliefs represented by the Council and the Slayers -" Andrew glanced around and then leaned closer, his voice dropping. "Except for the Chok-taar thing. That was a mistake on the store's part and they wouldn't take it back, but Connor likes the little balls, so..." Andrew straightened up again, shoving the pipe away into a pocket. "There's water, juice, organic eggnog with range-free eggs, all-natural punch with sparkling soda water, non-alcoholic cham-pag-nee -" Andrew chuckled at his little joke and Wesley winced again and smiled faintly. "And - there's the eggnog Connor made." Andrew frowned, and Wesley patted his shoulder.

"No good, then?"

"No, it's fine, it's just...I think he put alcohol in it," Andrew said, and Wesley heaved a sigh of relief.

"Well, then, let's sample it and find out."

"I'm afraid that is a no-can-do, Wesley." Andrew held up his hands, palms out and took a token step back. "A watcher must be in full control of his faculties in the presence of his Slayer."

Wesley glanced over - at the pairs and threesomes of giggling girls and a handful of awkward boyfriends - the scattering of parents. "And of course that applies ten-fold to you?" He suppressed the smile that wanted to surface, mentally counting down the seconds until Andrew took him fully, completely, charmingly seriously.

"Indeed, for my duty is to all of them, my friend. In this modern age, the Watcher must be especially vigilant over the welfare of his charges."

Wesley waited for Andrew to give some indication that it was a joke - an innuendo - anything but pompous sincerity and felt an irrational wave of fondness for his ridiculous adherence to rules Wesley still knew by heart. He clasped Andrew's shoulder briefly. "Good man. I'll just sample the eggnog now."

Wesley made his way across the hotel lobby, exchanging greetings with the girls and shaking hands with one or two clammy-handed boys - nodding to the parents. He came to rest at the refreshments table and scooped up some eggnog - took a long pull of it and promptly had a coughing fit. Dear gods. Have to keep the girls away from this.

"He made it a little strong," Angel said, materializing beside him, and Wesley wiped his mouth on a red and gold spangled paper napkin.

"And you let him?" Wesley wasn't certain whether to laugh or stare at his friend in amazement.

"We'll probably need it. Where are -" Angel took a deep breath and his eyes sparked something, deep and dark. "Spike and Xander?"

Wesley cleared his throat and took a smaller sip this time, the eggnog going down much more smoothly when the fiery burn was expected. "They'll be along."

"They wanted another go in the truck, huh?" Angel wasn't looking at Wesley - was instead refilling a cup for himself.

Wesley watched Angel's profile carefully. "You're taking this extraordinarily well."

"Not like I have a choice, is it?" Angel snapped, and then immediately looked sorry. He took his own sip of eggnog and watched a Slayer and boyfriend revolve unsteadily past, trying for an elegant quasi-waltz and not quite hitting the mark. Andrew had brought his own stereo down and currently it was playing Frank Sinatra. "Wes, I just don't...get it," Angel said finally, and Wesley sighed softly.

I know you don't... I'm not sure you ever will. You see Spike - and Xander, as well - through the lens of the past... Wesley laid a hand on Angel's arm, left it there until Angel looked at him. "Perhaps you should try to accept it instead." He tried to gentle his voice, didn't allow Angel to look away until he nodded, then dropped his hand and took another cup of eggnog for himself.

"I am so sick of having to accept things." Angel muttered under his breath but Wesley relaxed. Knew. It was a start.

"You'll be surprised how fast they...grow on you," Wesley murmured, taking a crab-puff and nibbling. Angel snorted and then stiffened, and Wesley saw motion near the door - then Spike and Xander came in. Rush of darkness and wind and rain, cigarette smoke and leather. Profanity and laughter and Wesley felt himself grinning. Mine, both of them...somehow, in some small way...mine.

"Supposed to bloody snow at Christmas, typical California shite, all this rain, nothing like Christmases back home -" Spike shook off his duster and hung it up - took a deep drag of his cigarette and then snagged Xander close with his arm as soon as Xander had his own jacket hung. "Wes! There you are." Spike hauled Xander across the room, dodging Slayers and growling at boyfriends - eyeing the alarmed-looking parents as if they were aliens. Andrew drew them aside - up to the Mezzanine - talking softly, and Spike grinned as the two of them ended up on the other side of Wes.

"Here I am," Wesley agreed, easily taking Spike's arm and Spike's kiss because really, Angel needed to begin accepting right now. And if he noticed how strongly Xander's kiss tasted of all three of them and felt a brief rush of disappointment that he'd missed the last of the fun in Xander's truck...he didn't feel a need to mention it out loud.

"It's - uh - quite the party." Xander hadn't moved more than an inch from Spike since coming in but looked relaxed enough even if he was eyeing the potent eggnog with longing.

"Xander! Spike! So glad you could make it!" Andrew swept down from on high and warmly hugged the two of them. Spike patted his sateen shoulder awkwardly, caught between shoving him away and humoring the little git. "Oh, you're all wet, Xander - would you like a towel? Spike - Illyria has been asking after you. Oh, look, the crudites platter is running low, let me fix that -" Andrew whipped a platter off the table and disappeared kitchen-wards, leaving them all blinking in his wake. Connor ambled over, grinning - a gallon of eggnog in one hand, bottles of rum and brandy in the other.

"I think he's secretly hittin' the crack-pipe, man," he said - uncapped all three and poured them into the punch bowl.

Angel snatched the alcohol away from Connor, glaring. "You're underage," he hissed. "How did you get this?"

Connor blinked at him - grinned again. "Do you really wanna know, dad?" Angel opened his mouth to reply and was roughly shouldered aside by Spike, who dunked two glasses into the bowl and handed one - dripping and brimful - to Xander.

"Who cares where he got it? And Christ, Angelus - what's with this - National Lampoon Christmas decor, anyway?" He waved his hand around the room, gulping the eggnog as Xander took a drink and choked, coughing. Wesley patted Xander's back, smiling.

"Andrew organized all of this, actually," Wes said, waving his hand around at the multi-colored twinkle-lights, the tinsel garlands and the gigantic tree that was all but breaking under the weight of the ornaments. "Fortunately, Connor was in charge of the eggnog - refills, anyone?" Four cups were thrust forward and Wes blinked in surprise.

Connor grinned - brandished the ladle in a spray of fifty proof droplets. "And I didn't even use a recipe."

"Just fill the damn thing," Angel growled and Xander found himself in the very very rare position of agreeing one hundred percent with Angel.


~*~*~*~*~


Xander staggered through the blue doorway and collapsed onto an ancient couch that smelled of Gunn's cologne - something like a low-key spice bazaar with something sweetly musky beneath. Nice. But not helpful to Xander's aching head. He closed his eye for just five minutes and wished - again - that he'd had a few more helpings of Connor's eggnog while he could get away with it.

The teen center was nice - clean - and loud, full of every kid in East LA and god, he was so fucking tired of answering questions about surviving his 'vampire attack' and passing out made up stories about how he lost his eye. He heard the door open again and found Gunn himself standing there, damp towel in hand. "Hey, man. Wes said you're not much of a party guy."

Xander accepted the towel gratefully and sank his face into its blissfully cool folds. "Wes would be right."

"Have a little Christmas spirit."

Xander lifted his head and forced a smile. "Unless the Christmas spirit comes in a bottle, I'll pass."

"So how was the get-together over at A.I.?" Gunn asked, and Xander wiped the towel slowly over the back of his neck, shivering just a little when it brushed the bite-mark.

"It was...a little tense. Angel and Spike 'had words'." Xander made little finger-quotes - flopped back onto the couch with a sigh. "And the Slayers were all kinda...tense." The Slayer 'buzz' had grated on Spike bad enough that he'd actually growled at the ones that insisted on getting too close - demon to the fore and his whole bearing screaming predator. More 'words' were had after that, although privately Xander thought Angel was affected by it, too.

"And Andrew was doing his best Martha Stewart meets Hugh Hefner, complete with pipe." Gunn snorted laughter and Xander smiled - a real smile, tired and a little shaky. "Thank god for Connor's eggnog." Xander folded the cool towel and draped it around his neck, chilling the radiant heat surrounding Spike's bite with a soft moan.

"You and Spike looked buzzed on more than eggnog, man."

Xander opened his eye slowly to find Gunn watching him steadily - none of the embarrassed flickering glances Willow used to give him. "Why be coy about it?"

"Why be dumb about it?"

"I am so not having this conversation. Do the words 'consenting adults' mean anything to you?"

"Do the words 'undead corpse' mean anything to you?"

"Souled."

"Dead."

"In love."

"They say love's blind - I guess it's kinda thick-headed, too." Gunn limped over to his desk and leaned there, cane in both hands across his knees. "I can get the love, man. I mean - Cordy and Angel... But - this -" Gunn gestured at his own neck and Xander closed his eye for a moment, wishing he were home with Spike - in the truck with Spike - out fighting demons with Spike, because anything was better than a heart-to-heart with a veteran vampire-killer who'd dusted his own sister and survived Angelus.

"It's not... It's just part of it, Gunn. It's - part of being in love with a vampire. I can feel him, because of that. When he's close. He can feel me. Inside, I mean," Xander added, as Gunn's eyebrows climbed up his forehead. "It's like...Spike-radio, all day and all night and I'm the only one who can get the frequency."

"Better be some good radio for that kinda price."

Xander kept his eye closed, remembered the last tingle of Spike before he drove off - love, want sure but all shimmering and jittering with mine mine mine and the pent up aggression that always followed time with Angel. Xander fought the urge to drape the towel modestly over his lap and felt the blood flowing into his cheeks. "What would you pay...to know how much you're wanted? To never doubt it for a second?"

Gunn just looked at him, his dark eyes brimming with some emotion - some knowledge or some memory, and after a moment he slowly nodded his head.

"Yeah, okay. I get that. It's just... Man, I've been fighting and killing vamps for years - I just can't see that -" hand to throat again, and Xander's own hand mirrored the gesture, touching sensitive flesh and skittering away. "I can't see that and feel...comfortable. Yet. Okay?"

"Yeah, okay. I - get it." Xander scrubbed the warming towel back over his head - stood up and stretched hard, wincing a little as muscles pulled and twanged. He'd done a days worth of heavy lifting in the last couple of hours, and on top of Connor's eggnog and the wavering edge of blood-crash, he was really, really wanting to go home. Something across the room caught his eye and he grinned tiredly. "Hey - no way that's a model of the VF-17D Nightmare!"

"Sure is. I've got the rest of the Macross 7 set at home. Bought it with my first paycheck." Gunn's expression softened into something wistful and he eased his way off the desk, limped to the book case and took down the model, turned it in his hands. "Evil money, sure - but I went right from the office to the comic shop, you know? Been watching that set behind the counter for years like a kid lookin' into the ice cream parlor and then it was mine."

"Babylon-5 collector plates," Xander admitted.

"You're shitting me."

"Nuh." Xander shook his head, folded and re-folded the towel - remembering. "First paycheck at the Happy Egg Roll and next thing I knew, I was calling the one-eight-hundred number at three in the morning."

Gunn laughed softly, fingertip just brushing over the poised, painted turret of the gatling gun. "Yeah. When it gets you, it gets you good." He set the model back on the shelf - glanced at the two others that shared the space and then sighed, turning back to Xander with a tired look on his face. "Man, I might not understand - everything, but... I get love, and I get...feeling wanted. Spike - chose a side, way back when, as far as I can tell, and... That's good enough for me." Xander smiled - nodded, rubbing his hand back through his damp, rumpled hair.

"Good. I'm...glad. I didn't want... Wes really thinks a lot of you, and Connor, so - I'm glad we can..." Small shrug, and Gunn nodded, and Xander felt a little coil of tension unwind in him. Then someone knocked and the door opened, fast. A kid stood there, baggy Salvation Army clothes and a Santa hat, plate of cookies in his hand.

"Anne says she needs you, Gunn - both of you," the kid said, and irritation frustration amusement want mine. Xander turned to Gunn.

"I think my ride's here."

"Radio Spike?" Gunn asked, set down the model and traded it for his cane.

"All Spike, all the time."

Xander's own relief all but overwhelmed Spike's "Bloody hell, woman, ask the Watcher! I promise not to touch a single one of your little soon-to-be-incarcerated pets."

"That's our Blondie Bear." Gunn raised his voice. "He's okay, Anne! He's with Xander."

Xander felt the prickle of eyes on him at that. "Come on, guys - the free show's over," he mumbled. And then Spike was inside and Xander's mental self was doing the Snoopy dance his physical self was way too tired to join in on.

Spike stalked across the room, dodging gormless orphans and second-hand furniture - wrapped himself around Xander and just held on. Tired hurt want love in pulsing waves, and Spike snarled unconsciously as Gunn limped a couple of steps closer, hand held up palm out.

"Hey, hey - just wanted to..."

"It's okay, sweetheart," Xander mumbled, face in Spike's neck and hands under the duster - under the t-shirt, fingers digging in.

"Sorry, Charlie-boy. Didn't mean... We're goin' home. Tell Wes, yeah?"

"Yeah," Gunn said softly and dropped his hand - looked across the room where Wesley was speaking earnestly to a group of three young men, a cookie in one hand and a pencil in the other, pieces of paper scattered across the low-lying table between them. "I'll get him home."

Xander listened to the ritualized exchange of thanks and mumbled something that was either a 'see you later and thanks for the turkey' or possibly 'who let the guys with jackhammers into my skull?' but he didn't miss the closed-off unhappy look on Anne's face or the way she kept her eyes on Spike until they were out and the door was firmly shut behind them.

"What was wrong with Anne?" Xander hauled himself into the truck - yelped when Spike's helping hands turned out to be groping hands and swatted at him until he was jerked into a hard and fast kiss. "Spike - what was - ?" Xander tried to mumble before losing the thread of the conversation.

Spike kissed until Xander was a pliant rope of muscle and bone, lying against him. The rain had slacked to a drizzle and Spike leaned against the door-frame and palmed Xander's hair back off his forehead - cupped a scratchy cheek. Mist pearled on Xander's eyelashes and thickened the air, and Spike took in a long, deep breath, scenting the night air - mostly just scenting Xander.

"Apparently I tried to eat her once in Sunnydale. Only got away 'cause the Slayer had Dru by the throat. So - we're not well met by moonlight, yeah?"

Xander looked back at Spike for silent moments of Spike petting his hair - pulling off his patch and feathering chill fingertips over the reddened skin where the band dug in. He leaned his face into the touch, eye closed. "Speaking as one of your escaped snack packs myself, I'm pretty sure she'll get over it."

"Think so, love?" Spike rubbed Xander's forehead - temples - in slow circles with the tips of his fingers, feeling the tension in Xander break and flow away, feeling the hurt that was there easing back. Tired hungry love, and Spike pulled him back for a short, soft kiss. "Let's get back to the Watcher's house - let me scrub the stink of all those people off you and wrap you up warm and soft in bed, yeah? Let me take care of you, love."

"You know," Xander said and followed Spike with his eye as he circled the truck because turning his head was way too much energy, "once, I was a manly man who would have put up a fight. Who would have insisted on a quick shower and a brisk rub down with a bar of Irish Spring."

"And now?" The truck bounced on its axles as Spike hopped in, slammed his door and cranked the ignition.

"Now, take me home. Feed me. Massage me. Pamper me." Xander leaned over, shut his truck door solidly and buckled his seat belt. "For I am super girly-man Xander and I sold my shame years ago for a chocolate bar and a foot rub from Anya. So count your lucky stars, buddy."

"I count 'em every day, love."


~~~~~


The sand was damp, dense - lumpy, under the old blanket. It exuded a wet-earth and brine smell that was sharp in the heavy air. The breeze coming off the sea - chill and thick with salt and mist - was fresh in Spike's nose and mouth, and he closed his eyes and leaned back into Xander's embrace. Felt the contentment and happiness like a purr - like a small and lightless sun, right in the middle of his back. Warmth and love and he could sit there all night. The repeating shhsss and torn-paper roar of the sea made a bubble around them, blocking out traffic sounds and making it seem they were the only two alive for miles. Spike liked that. A lot.


~~~~~


Spike's skin was cool - but not yet cold, still warmed from the meal Spike had helped himself to on the way to the center and warm under the spot where Xander's palm had been resting since they settled onto the sand. Under Spike's shirt, and over his heart - over the pulse and glow Xander could feel when he closed his eye and concentrated. He bit lightly at the skin beneath Spike's ear, smiled into the shiver. "Wes called you from the Center, didn't he?"

"Course he did, love. Said you looked like the ragged end of a chain-gang, come and get you." Spike sighed and snuggled, And I don't bloody well care who knows... and settled his head more comfortably on Xander's shoulder - closed his eyes to the fast-moving swirl of gray-glowing clouds above them. Somewhere, the moon was struggling to be seen, faint glimmers through the storm-wrack. "Aren't you glad he did?"

"Fuck, yes." Xander felt Spike's chuckle under his palm and traced a tin man heart over the warmed skin. "Where did you go after the party at the hotel?"

"Oh, went for a drink - found a couple fights. Played some pool. Won 'bout...five hundred bucks. Oh. Got you something." Spike squirmed around, digging into various pockets until he found what he was looking for. Cowrie shells and beads made of opalescent mussel shells, strung between two leather thongs and long enough to wrap twice around Xander's left wrist. Spike tied it off and patted it gently, then smiled up at Xander. "Happy Christmas. Looks a bit like the one that bloke wears in that show you like - 'member? The one we rented. Queer as -?"

Spike didn't get to finish - was spun and kissed with ardent fervor and the faint flavor of Christmas cookies. "I remember." In the faintly reflected glow of the city lights on the low clouds, Spike's face was a study in black and white - deep shadow and pale arches Xander had to touch with light brushes of fingertips over cheekbones, nose, lips. The shells were cool against his wrist and scratched pleasantly - would scratch every time he moved his hand and - remind him.

And that gave him the last push of courage he needed to dive off the deep end into girly presents land. "The last time I gave one of these, it didn't go so well." Xander dipped his hand into his pocket and when he pulled it out, a silver ring lay in his palm - subtle baroque design not unlike the garland around his neck. "But you chose the design - so I kinda thought you'd like it."

Spike plucked the ring slowly out of Xander's palm - turned it in the weak light, studying it. Slid it, finally, over the first finger of his left hand. It's clasp was chilly and strange and he flexed his hand - turned and took Xander's face gently between his palms. "It's lovely, pet. Perfect." And thanked his boy with a long and loving kiss, the pulse of Xander's love want love almost overwhelming.

"Is it selfish? That I want to look at you and see something I gave you on your hand?" Xander closed his eye - lay his forehead against Spike's, gentle roll side to side. "Nice hands. Great hands. Naughty hands - especially naughty hands."

"Why do you think I bite you here -" Spike ghosted his fingertips over the marks on Xander's neck, pushing into Xander's push. "When I could bite you a half-dozen places that don't show? I want to see my mark on you - want everyone else to see it. My mark, my gifts..." Tug at the bracelet, and Spike slipped his hands under Xander's shirt, caressing his ribs. "Mine..."

"You're a demon," Xander murmured, relaxing into the touch - the scent - the heady nearness and the intangible caress of the link. "What's my excuse?"

"You love me."


~*~*~*~*~


Xander woke to...something.

He ran down the mental list:

Spike?

Dead weight with his ear pressed to the center of Xander's chest. Xander flexed his fingers through the riot of black and white curls at the back of Spike's head and earned a sleepy grunt but no further response.

Phone?

Silent and charged, sitting on the nearest night table.

Doorbell?

Xander considered getting up for a moment before deciding anyone who came ringing the doorbell on Christmas morning could go away and come back Christmas afternoon like a decent person.

Wesley?

Still absent and Xander frowned, scooting back in bed until he could sit up, dislodging Spike to his lap where a warm arm was thrown over his legs and Spike made himself comfortable again, radiating fuck off and sleepy comfort.

Then Xander heard voices in the kitchen - Wesley and Gunn - and was still rubbing the sleep out of his eye when Wesley appeared in the doorway, still wearing the clothes he'd had on the day before, Gunn standing behind him.

"The party got better after I left?"

"Well, if by better you mean one pre-adolescent throwing up in a potted fern and two others found...err...compromised in the broom-closet then yes, better." Wesley couldn't help but smile at the picture Spike and Xander presented - tousled and sleep-dazed and utterly appealing. He sighed and mentally took hold - physically straightened his shoulders. "Actually, Gunn and I talked and then - he had an idea so we -"

"You researched," Xander accused - and when Wesley looked the tiniest bit guilty, went on. "On Christmas Eve. Doesn't that mean you killed an angel or something?"

"Lawyers and evil, man - we never sleep." Gunn smirked.

"Lawyers and evil?"

"Okay, okay. The point is that Wes here mentioned something that got me thinkin'."

Wesley came all the way into the bedroom - dislodged Spike's feet from the end of the bed and sat. "He called up a contact from his tenure at Wolfram and Hart who got us into a cross-species business database."

"Cross-species?"

"Demons, man."

Awake and unhappy about it slammed through Xander as every muscle in Spike's back tensed. "Did you find a clue?"

"We found better than a clue." Gunn limped further into the room, passed a yellow legal pad to Xander. "We found a name."

Xander squinted at Gunn's handwriting - scanned down to the bottom where one name was circled. "Cardinal Ottaviano of the Otonius Clan?"

"That's our man. Uh - demon," Gunn said, nodding - grinning - and Xander grinned back. Gunn looked tired, and Wesley did, but they both seemed to think they'd found something good.

"Oo-kay. Now that's not a normal name. So - how is he - it - whatever, connected? I mean - we'd have noticed a Cardinal."

"Oh, Cardinal Ottaviano is a major player. The guy has another name he uses when he's doin' the do with human businesses." Gunn limped closer and flipped a page or two, pointing, and Xander read aloud again.

"Mr. O. Antonello? Oh...fuck."

"What is it, pet?" Spike finally gave up pretending to sleep and rolled over - sat up and looked at the pad - followed Xander's shaking finger and got an arm around Xander when he let go of the pad and dropped his face to Spike's shoulder.

"Chairman of the board and majority shareholder of Antonello and Sons, the parent company of - " Spike stopped reading and Xander finished for him, words muffled into Spike's neck.

"Parent company of Sunnydale Southwest."





Square Eighteen

"Really?" Xander asked, and Spike straightened from his perusal of the 'fridge.

"Really, love. There's mustard and soy sauce and duck sauce and some...something green. And an egg but it's cracked and..." Spike shuddered delicately and opened the little door to the freezer that was inside the 'fridge. "And this. It's...it's..." Spike frowned - scraped impatiently at fuzzy ice crystals with his nails and then dug under the little cardboard box. It took actual vampiric strength to wrest the box from the floor of the freezer compartment.

"It think it's a pot pie," Spike said, and tossed it into the sink where it clanged off the porcelain. "One of those kind, yeah?"

"You mean - entrails and eyeballs and...'natural flavor' kind?" Xander asked, looking pitifully at the sink and the crumpled box.

"Yeah. One of those. And sushi, but it's...gone off." Spike shut the fridge and slumped. Wes' kitchen was bare - unless you counted a tin of leeks and a box of stale Saltines. Which Spike didn't.

"Fuck," Xander said.

"Proper fucked," Spike agreed.

"All in favor of a tasty and delicious fast food meal from the mass-produced burger establishment on the corner?" Xander raised his hand.

Xander's stomach added its noisy two cents.

"Onion rings," Spike said, peering out the kitchen window. The sky was palely blue behind thin, racing clouds and sunlight chased shadow over the handkerchief-sized yard and the stretch of beach that he could see. Too much sun. "I'll just...lounge in the bed until you get back," he added, grinning over at Xander - sidling up close and draping himself over Xander's body. Nibbling at bite-marks and love-bites and smooth, sweet skin until Xander shifted and slid warm hands over his back.

"Fu-uck, sweetheart." Xander closed his eye and slid a hand around Spike's hip to grasp hardening flesh - stroke slow and sweet in the close, warm space between their bodies. "Gonna save this for me until I get back?" Xander felt Spike's quiet chuckle as much as he heard it - nearly lost his resolve for a meal entirely when he heard the quiet noise of shifting bone, and tipped Spike's face into the crook of his neck with a grin.

"Course I will, love. Lay myself out on the bed, hard and ready for you...won't even touch myself 'til you get back. Just...think about you..." Spike bit down lightly on Xander's neck - didn't break the skin. Just held him for a moment, tongue fluttering against heat and pulse, gathering salt-sweet taste.

Xander licked his lips, raking fingernails over the nape of Spike's neck. He turned his head to brush his lips against Spike's ear, feeling the double pulse - cock and shivery Radio Spike-lust in reaction. "Gonna hold you to that," he grinned. He stepped back reluctantly and raked his eyes down Spike to linger over the thick ring of blue-gray metal through hard, hard flesh. "So gonna hold you to that." He dragged Spike close again by the back of his neck, brushed his lips over rough ridges - down to the point of Spike's nose and over his lips, short and soft. "Onion rings," he said and determinedly turned his back and marched into the bedroom in search of jeans and a shirt.


~*~*~*~*~


Xander looked away from the snow-pale figure framed in Wes' window and strode away down the walk - turned right and started the three-block walk to the burger place. In-N-Out burger, if he remembered right. Or Rally's? He shrugged. Didn't matter - hot, salty and greasy, that was all he cared about. The sea rushed in and out across the street - beyond the sand - and Xander walked quickly, head up - grinning. Couldn't help it. Spike was waiting for him and that...would make anybody grin.

Winter sunshine and Spike waiting for him at home - naked and hard. Enough to make a person crash trucks off the road which was why Xander was walking.

Walking and grinning, Xander took in the day - let it in, the way there never seemed to be time to, lately. The breeze was coming straight from the sea; kelp, salt and the metallic tang of the storm but with a the parting of the clouds, it wasn't cold. He stepped over a wide grassy crack in the uneven concrete and tipped his face up to the winter sunshine, drinking in the warmth on both eyelids - on the exposed bite high on his neck that made him shiver every time his hair whipped over it.

The salt sea breeze took on the unmistakable scent of french fries and Xander's happy fantasies of a naked Spike sprawled out on Wesley's bed - hard, wet, thinking - were almost overwhelmed by that burger commercial. The one that ran all the time on late night television featuring the kind of hamburger a guy could kill himself with. Oh yeah. Good old American food porn. Naked Spike. Burger. Naked Spike with a burger. Xander snickered.

He could still feel, very faintly, the fluttery vibration that was Spike - lust and love - fading as he walked, but there. He bounced a little with each step - nodded along with something - Eminem? - that was blasting from the stereo of a car passing on the street. Sniffed appreciatively at a puff of cooked-beef-and-cheese-laden air. Oh yeah. Bring it on. Extra everything and the biggest soda they got.

Xander cut off the sidewalk into scraggly grass, hopped the low wall into the parking lot and skirted the late afternoon mill of parents with their little soccer players and high school kids hanging out and filling up on greasy, sugary goodness. Pushing through the doors, he weighed up the length of the lines then chose the one with three girls who reminded him of the Cordettes.

Cordettes never had big orders. It was a reliable fact of life, one Xander had counted on many times in his years at Sunnydale High.

Unless the food was expensive. Because then they ordered all five courses and a bottle of exclusive mineral water.

He watched one flirting with a guy in a letter jacket. Run, kid! Run while you've still got your dignity and your allowance. He snickered, earning a glare and a flip of sunny blonde hair.

Ladies and gentlemen, still the grand champion of turning off the ladies.

Of course, with a sexy, naked Spike waiting for him at home, who cared?

The line moved moderately quickly and Xander spent most of the next fifteen minutes zoning happily on Spike - trying to catch the elusive hum of the link and wondering if they'd eat first or... Yeah, that first...'cept onion rings taste nasty when they're cold and Spike knows that... Onion rings and sex? Ring toss... Xander snorted softly to himself, trying to shove that image back where it belonged. Ordered, paid, waited, collected, and made his way to the condiments bar to load up on ketchup and napkins and a straw. Someone bumped him - bumped his thigh - and he turned and looked down at a kid with a tray who was probably about eight.

"S-sorry," the kid muttered.

"That's okay. What'll it be for you? Ketchup? Mayonnaise? A spicy yet refreshing Dijon mustard?" Xander waved his hand over the condiments bar - earned a grin and a cocked head.

"Ketchup."

He grabbed a handful and dropped them onto her tray. With fish fillets. And good thing Spike isn't here to see the fried fish with ketchup show. "Here." He dropped a packet of vinegar onto her tray too and waited for the 'ewww vinegar on fish!' he knew was coming.

It didn't.

"What happened to your eye?"

Script changed, Xander stared back. "Huh?"

"Does it hurt to not have one?"

"Um - n-n-no most of the time it doesn't - "

"Laura!" A flustered-looking woman appeared, tray in one hand and toddler in the other, smiling nervously at Xander. "Come on and sit down right now - I'll get our ketchup and stuff. I'm sorry," she added, smiling again at Xander - bright, bright smile and her eyes flickering here, there, everywhere.

"Oh, that's -"

"Now, Laura." The woman herded her daughter away, leaning over her and saying - fierce whisper that Xander heard, anyway: "Don't ask people about their - their handicaps, that's rude!"

The Cordettes stopped giggling over their salads and diet sodas - turned and stared - and suddenly, high school wasn't so funny anymore.

Flash of coming to school the day after a breakup. Pointing and giggling. Ice in the gut, spreading numbness. Pointing and whispering.

They were - staring.

And Xander really wished he was invisible.

He stopped his hand half way to his face and snatched up his soda, ducking behind his hair to get out of there.

Xander strode out of the restaurant, shouldering through a group of high-school boys, 'Whoa, dude, did you see -?' following in his wake. He pushed outside and nearly ran to the sidewalk - stopped and just breathed and tried to make his hands stop shaking and his stomach unclench and... And make the feeling of having exposed himself - of having done something dirty - go away.

Shouldn't - shouldn't feel like he'd flashed the kid - and everyone else in the restaurant.

A car honked as it passed him, ruffling dry leaves and crumpled fast food wrappers at his feet and he turned his face away - turned his face down until his hair screened everything. He hopped the low wall again and cut across the street and someone's yard, out onto the beach. Clutching the cooling bag of fast food against his chest with one arm and the soda with the other. God. It's not like nobody would notice an eye missing. Come on, Harris. Pull it the fuck together.

His stomach rolled at the scent of grease, and he dropped the bag to the sand - dropped down next to it and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids and felt the sun go back behind the clouds. Breathed.

Felt dirty.

Jesus. Fuck. This is so wrong.

Needed - to get home.

In a minute - just a few more minutes to pull himself together first.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike ran his hands down this thighs - up over his hips to his nipples and touched there, lightly. Down again, ribs and belly and thighs, avoiding his erection. Waiting. Come on love, where are you? Hungry, me... Starving for you... He shivered voluptuously as a breeze puffed in past the curtains, cool air stroking his skin. And then...

Angerguiltshameshame and he was up and off the bed - pelting out into the front room and yanking the door open - wincing back from scattered sunlight - searching.

Xander! Jesus fucking Christ! Come home - come home now! Hoping something of that got through. He couldn't see Xander anywhere, just feel the guilt and sorrow like hammer-blows. Xander!


~*~*~*~*~


Tidal pull. Fierce. Fearful. Panic love nownownow ripped into Xander's chest and he curled around it, clasped it and breathed deep - wanted.

Then up, out of the sand and - not running - as if that spot in the sand called him back as Spike called him forward.

Or the dirty weighed him down into the sand.

Walking, head down, Xander knew the moment Wesley's porch was in view. Knew Spike was there - trapped by the sunshine - waiting, calling. And he lifted his face, tangled hair hiding Spike completely for just a second. Wantguiltdirty aching in his belly, comecomecome a raging draw on his chest.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike could hear the growl rattling up out of his chest as he watched Xander move up the walk - awkward, shuffling gait and the feelings - the sick, fucked up feelings that he couldn't even begin to imagine the source of. Waited, and snatched Xander in over the threshold and slammed the door - wrapped himself around heat and sweat and sorry love shameshame.

"Love, what is it? Are you hurt? What is it?"

"I should be used to this by now." Soft and strained. The bag of fast food dropped to the floor, drink abandoned somewhere on the beach and Xander clutched Spike fiercely, shaking his head against his shoulder. He opened his mouth, words like 'patch' and 'normal' jamming up in his throat and emerging as a wordless creak. His socket ached and he took a hard breath of the angerfear rolling off Spike. "It's - just an eye."

Just an - what in bloody hell -! Spike wanted to crush Xander to him - wanted to go out and kill whoever had made him feel this - this shame. Glared at the warm light glowing behind Wes' flimsy curtains and stroked Xander's back - pushed his chin and mouth into the wind-knotted hair and closed his eyes. Tried to rein in the raging hateangerkill that surged up. "Love, love...Xander...fuckin' kill 'em, I'll..." He couldn't talk - he was shaking as hard as Xander was now so he just held on. I love you, I love you, you've nothing to be ashamed of, nothing, nothing...fucking bastards, fucking...

Wash of love and anger so strong Xander swayed on his feet, held onto Spike's solidity and listened to him breathe. He licked his lips and breathed in the lingering sex musk on Spike's skin and let it out in words. "It's not - fuck - they're not wrong." Because that's what he'd realized on the beach. That was - god, that was the worst of it. They weren't wrong. "Can't change the world, right?"

"They are wrong, damnit - they're so fucking wrong. Xander, don't -" Spike pushed Xander back, just a little - looked at him. At his beautiful face and his eye - dark and troubled, sheened with moisture. At the empty socket that was, to Spike's way of thinking - a badge of honor.

A war-wound that announced Xander had fought and lived. Like Spike's scar from the Chinese Slayer. Proudly won - proudly worn. Not a disfigurement. Humans don't see it that way. Humans see the sunken lid and the hole underneath and...

"Fuck humans," he growled, and pulled Xander back into a hard, hard kiss. Passionate kiss. Love and want and the burning urge to protect. "Change the world one fucking corpse at a time, love."

So...hard to argue his way around a kiss that made it hard to breathe - hard to think. Xander licked his lips again and tasted Spike, smoke and blood, and breathed against his lips. "I am human. Don't want to fuck them when I've got you. Which I guess - y'know - means I'm fucking a corpse and one at a time is a pretty good idea unless we're talking you and Wesley..." Xander gave up and slid his hand up Spike's back - curled his fingers over one bony shoulder and leaned there. Cue laugh track for forced humor.

Xander tried again. "This kid - god, maybe eight years old - came up to me at the In-N-Out. I was - playing around, gave her the ketchup packets she couldn't reach." He felt Spike's anger and frustration ebb and flow with his breath and shuffled closer until he could press his aching socket to a cool shoulder. "She asked what happened to my eye and... I don't mind that, Spike. I - don't. I'm not ashamed of it."

"Don't be. Damnit, Xan, it's - it's a fucking - scar is all - says you lived! It's not -" He could feel the ache beginning in the socket - could feel the hunched tension of Xander's shoulders and began moving his fingers in small, soothing circles. Stepped backwards until the couch was there and they could both collapse onto it. "It's not bad. It's...you."

Xander rose on his hands, arms framing Spike's face looking down at him. Had to smile because under the anger, nothing but love, love you mine. He dipped, kissed one eyelid then the other, eyelashes fluttering against his chin, then kissed Spike's mouth and settled. Shifted until he and Spike were a tangle of arms and legs and lovemine and tried to let it go. "Yeah. The kid's mom acted like it - like I was something...dirty. And then it felt like something dirty."

"Fuck her, then. I'll fuckin' gut her," Spike muttered, winding closer around the heat and solidity of Xander's body. The thing - the person - that kept him from slipping away. From going back, to solitude and defeat. "She's wrong, love. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Nothing dirty about what you did - how you fought... If you were wearin' damn pips on your shoulder she'd have thanked you."

"I don't expect thanks." Xander lifted his head, close range eye to eyes with Spike and traced the scar in Spike's eyebrow, then tracked down to the barely-there lines scoring Spike's chest - traced one down to the point where Spike's body pressed against his and flattened his hand over Spike's ribs. "There's not a lot of thanks going on for heroes these days. Pretty thankless, heroing. I accept that."

"Don't accept, Xander." Spike looked up at his boy - no, man. Lover. Love. Pushed pride and love and joy at him, hard and strong. "Fight! Always fight, love. Never give in - never give up. Never be anything but your own man." Spike lifted his hand and let his fingers trail so, so gently over Xander's face - around the empty socket and across the sunken lid - brushed the long lashes that lay still on the tanned cheek.

"So fuckin' gorgeous. So brave. So damn smart. Fuck the world, love, if they can't see it - it fuckin' blinds me."

Xander opened his mouth to say the things he was used to - make the joke that Spike must have him mixed up with somebody else, or 'who spiked Spike's blood?' - but mouths were better for kissing than they were for talking. Better for wrapping around that wonderful tongue that said wonderful things that went straight to Xander's numb heart and made it ache. Ache good.

Until the ache became more than kissing and Xander was wearing way too many clothes for the way Spike was touching him, holding him, kissing him back, as eloquent without words as with and -

'Save a horse, ride a cowboy,' jangled the phone in Xander's pocket.

"Don't - don't - bloody hell !" Spike scowled as Xander squirmed and got his phone and - most importantly - stopped kissing, stopped groping, and stopped trying to get his jeans off one-handed. He growled as Xander lay there, staring at the screen - grabbed him and held him and rolled them both over into the back of Wes' couch and then he was straddling Xander's knees and getting his pants down - shirt up - exposing the bits of flesh he most wanted to the air and to his mouth and hands. See if he can talk through this...

Xander couldn't - the phone fell to the floor with a clatter Xander hoped didn't press any bad buttons - for all of two seconds before Spike was reminding him why call: bad, lips and tongue of Spike: good and vampires who didn't need to breathe: mindblowing. Which was his only excuse for palming the riotous curls and waves of Spike's bed head hair and gasping "W-willow!"

"What? Where?" Spike jerked upright - tried to - and growled again when Xander's fingers pulled his hair, hard. "Damnit, love -" He put both hands on Xander's hips and held him down - went down, power dive onto Xander's cock, taking him in and humming in satisfaction and glee.

Xander answered with a heartfelt groan - caught Spike with a knee wriggling out of his jeans and kicked them off all the way, panting. He scrounged for brain cells and threw an arm over his head, gripped the end table for leverage. "W-willow was on the phone."

Spike lifted his head but not his hands, pinning Xander's squirming hips to the upholstery. "You're askin' me to stop because Red called you?"

"Fuck no," Xander replied - with feeling.

"'S what I thought," Spike smirked, and went back to work, fingers digging into Xander's hips and his mouth sucking and licking and biting - enjoying, and savoring. "Taste so fuckin' good," he muttered, and Xander arched and squirmed. Spike grinned.

"F-fuck...Wes -" Xander stuttered out, and Spike took one of Xander's balls into his mouth and rolled it over his tongue - let it slide out.

"Phone didn't make a noise, love - you sure you know what you're sayin'?" he chuckled - lapped his way along Xander's length to seal his lips around the head with a self-satisfied hum.

"N-nuh - " Xander tried before his brain dribbled out his ears. Wes was a guy. Wes would understand. Wes had been on the receiving end of that fucking mouth... Oh Jesus - oh fuck that feels good!


Wesley walked into his home and found Xander sprawled on his couch in nothing but a tee shirt rucked high around his ribs, a horny vampire attached to Xander's prick and the air thick with musk that made him groan before he came back to himself.

Gunn whistled. "Man, I thought you said you didn't subscribe to Showtime."

Spike concentrated on making sure Xander couldn't say anything. Wes and Gunn can...go in the kitchen. I can smell hot wings and...Thai? Chinese? And sushi - they need plates.... Xander writhed under him and he grinned and hummed and pressed his own erection into Xander's thigh, rubbing.

"Do I have to get a bucket of cold water to get those dogs off the couch?"

"It wouldn't do any good, Charles. Come help me with the plates."

"God! Spike!"

"Sounds like Xander finally found religion." Gunn leaned hard on his cane, limping into the kitchen accompanied by the soft sound of a growling vampire, the patter-stagger of feet and the slam of Wesley's bedroom door.

"Spike has a knack for inspiring worship." Wesley felt the blood trickling into his cheeks, into his cock and the stronger beat of his heart, listening to Xander's frantically gasped 'lube - lube - fuck where - ohhhh fuck yes' and Spike's equally passionate 'bloody hell - yes.'

"Is that what that is?" Gunn asked, rolling his eyes as a rhythmic thumping started up and the moans and growls got louder. Wesley just shook his head, piling books and papers onto the end table in the living room. Gunn got busy opening boxes of take-out and selecting some chop-sticks from a bag - looked eagerly over the feast they'd brought. "Damn booty-call without the phone is what that is. Jesus!" A particularly loud...noise...made them both jump, and then there was silence. And '...save a horse...ride a cowboy...' as Xander's cell phone rang.

"Xander! Damnit!" Spike yelled.

A laugh escaped Wesley and he reached for the phone, checking the display before muting the ringtone. A low moan broke the renewed silence and Wesley looked thoughtfully from the closed bedroom door to the phone he held. "I'm not sure which is worse."

"I know which is worse, English." Gunn settled himself awkwardly into a chair, balancing plate, fork and cane and trying not to spill anything down his front. He leaned the cane against the table and then shoveled up some rice and shoved it into his mouth. Wesley put the phone on the end table and joined him, serving himself a huge plateful of mostly-raw fish.

There was a murmur from the bedroom and a laugh - Spike - and then Xander stumbled out, hair in the backwards-through-a-hedge state and his jeans not done up all the way. His t-shirt was inside-out.

"Ah - Wes...Gunn..." he muttered - glared back into the bedroom. "Spike!"

"Comin'," Spike said - no, Wesley thought, that was smirked - and Spike strolled out after Xander, sporting a rather impressive bite on his collarbone, jeans only buttoned up to the third button. He sprawled on the couch, one leg on the floor and one on the seat. His fingers brushed the line of just barely visible dark hair under his navel and his eyes followed Xander possessively.

Xander's eye was dark and wide, hazy-dazed, and he looked like he'd walk out into traffic with a smile on his face without guidance. He blindly grabbed up one of the still-closed containers of Chinese and his own chopsticks and flopped down between Spike's legs on the couch.

Kicking his feet up onto the cushions, Xander leaned bonelessly against Spike's chest and dug into the mystery contents of his container with enthusiasm and the high buzz of minewantmine singing through his veins.

"I see you've worked up an appetite," Wesley said dryly.

"You have no idea."

"We got all kinds of ideas. I think the neighbors got ideas. Thank god I never had to listen to Angel do that." Gunn ate an enormous bite of beef rendang, grinning, and Spike grinned back, lazily stroking his hand over Xander's belly and opening his mouth for a proffered bite of...

"That thoseā€¦glass noodles with the red bean paste? Can't abide the slimy...lumps," Spike said, eyeing the overloaded chopsticks.

Xander snorted. "It's good. It's spicy. Pretend they're spicy eyeballs in gooey entrails. You said Dru liked the eyeballs and entrails best, right?" And darted the chopsticks into Spike's mouth when he opened it to frame some retort. "What are the slimy black lumps anyway?"

"Eyeballs," Gunn said immediately.

"Mushrooms," Wesley corrected in the kind of voice that made Xander homesick for Giles.

"Eyeball mushrooms," Gunn said, and searched for the other box of Szechuan glass noodles with mushroom, plucking out a lump and eating it.

"Really, must we have such discussions while eating?" Wesley delicately picked up a slice of yellowtail and dipped it - ate it - while Gunn smirked at him and Spike chewed furiously, obviously wanting to say...something, but not willing to spit bits of mushroom-eyeballs all over Xander. Thank heavens for small mercies.

"We must. Unless you got something better, English?" Gunn reached across the table and grabbed a slice of tuna with his chopsticks.

"Anything is better than eyeball mushrooms. Have you seen eyeball mushrooms?"

Xander looked a little pale. "There really are eyeball mushrooms?"

"Course there are, pet. Except they're really Vree demons, aren't they? Live in the mushroom, look like little spores - if you eat 'em they attach to the lining of the stomach and -"

"Yeah, right, ooo-kay! Enough. I need a drink." Xander attempted to get up and Spike pulled him back and Gunn snuffled over his rendang, trying not to spray Wesley with bits of rice as he smothered his laughter. Wesley looked around primly and wiped his mouth - took a long drink of the beer they'd brought.

"Actually, I have some more information for Angel that we should go over."

"Can I have one of those beers first?" Xander reached out plaintively, pinned around the waist by Spike.

"Come and get one." Wesley held one out in Xander's direction, far, far out of reach.

"English bastard. Spike - sweetheart - if you let me go, we'll have beer. You like beer." Xander coaxed, wriggling around until he could get a hand between them, down into Spike's unbuttoned fly. "I'll be grateful for beer."

"Aw, come on. Yo - Blondie." Gunn tossed a bottle to Spike - neat pass and catch.

"Ta, mate."

"Actually..." Wesley paused to nibble a California roll - wiped his mouth again and waited until Xander and Spike's attention was on him rather than on the beer. "Actually I had a - a vision, about Sunnydale. So - Angel Investigations is officially taking the case." He paused, watching Xander and Spike - waiting. Wondering just what they would say.

"What happened? Did the Powers run out of little old ladies to rescue from speeding demon cars and cats to help down out of vampire trees?" Xander snarked. "That warning would have been a little more useful a month ago."

"Yes, it probably would," Wesley said, and Xander made a small gesture, frowning.

"It's... I'm sorry, Wes. Not your fault. I'm just -"

"Just fuckin' tired of bein' jerked around," Spike muttered. He ran a hand through Xander's hair and looked over at Wesley, a small smile on his face. "Hope Angel got riled up good and proper. So what's the new news, pet?"

"That was the new news." Wesley swirled his beer around the bottle thoughtfully. "As for Angel, you'll be able to find out for yourselves how...riled...he is. He needs the information Charles and I have - "

"Hey - hey man. Not 'you and Charles'. You. I'm not workin' for AI."

Wesley set his bottle down with an impatient sigh. "Charles, if it wasn't for you we'd still be looking in all the wrong places -" Wesley cut himself off when Gunn raised a hand.

"I'm not sayin' I had nothing to do with this. I'm sayin' I didn't do it for AI. I did it for you."

"And he's very, very grateful, and he's not going to push it, is he Wes?" Spike said, and Wesley opened his mouth and then closed it - looked for a long moment at Spike and Xander entwined on the couch, then looked at Gunn, whose face was a study in resolve and irritation - and affection.

"Yes - yes he is. Very grateful. And grateful that his other two friends are going to courier this file to Angel and also pick up a rare book for him?" Wesley asked, a small smile on his face.

Xander and Spike exchanged a long look, half skeptical and the other half resolved. As the resolved half, Xander shrugged and nodded. He felt a growl - both physical along his spine and mental in his belly and dropped his head against Spike's shoulder. "I'm trained. He could ask me to pick up tampons at the Mega Mart and I'd do it. Not that Wesley would be asking for tampons, because he's a guy and all. But I'd do it."

"Thank god we don't need any bloody - any sodding...female...things," Spike grumbled. "What we need around here is food. Wes - you have a tin of leeks in your cabinet. What in fuck do you propose to do with a tin of leeks?"

"Leave them in the cabinet. I don't like leeks. And you're hardly in a position to criticize my pantry, Spike. All the two of you have in your cabinets is Pop Tarts and Old Speckled Hen."

"Hey, not true pal!" Xander half sat up and jabbed the beer at Wesley to make a point. "All that shit and Connor visiting before we left Sunnydale? We finished the Old Speckled."


~*~*~*~*~


Spike drove roughly north, heading for the bookshop in Pasadena first - The Golden Hinde - because the owner was meticulous and twitchy and closed at nine o'clock precisely every night. Traffic was already clogging like a bad artery and Spike just knew he'd be kicking some ass before their drive was through. He settled his shoulders under his duster and checked to make sure Xander was buckled in, then took the ramp to the freeway with a snarl on his lips.

Chrome and metallic paint as far as the eye could see, and everything gleaming with the rain that had returned in force while they'd eaten and showered. Xander flipped through the file Wes had given them again and then took out his cell phone - stared at it for a long moment.

"Problems, pet?"

"Someone turned my ringtone off. I missed a bunch of calls." Xander gave Spike a hard look, a suspicious wave of smug satisfaction rolling through the cab. He glanced down to page through his contact list for Russ' number and found it under 'Russ' instead of 'Fenwick'.

"Not my fault the Watcher hates that plinkity racket as much as I do," Spike said, then swerved violently to avoid a woman who was apparently driving, chatting, eating, and changing radio stations at the same time. Spike slapped his palm down on the horn and flipped the woman off as they passed, then he braked, fuming, as the traffic slowed to a crawl.

"Must be out of my mind, drivin' to Pasadena this time of day. Wesley'd better have something nice for us when we're done with this," he muttered. Xander just rolled his eyes, waiting for Russ to pick up.

"Yessss?" Cautious, cat-like sibilance and the quiet click of claws on plastic. Xander closed his eyes and grinned - he'd seen Sol answer the phone before, creeping up on it sideways like it might jump and run.

"It's Alex. Is Russ home?"

"He iss bathing, yes? I am not let him on the couch so muddy." Sol sniffed and Xander hoped he couldn't hear Spike's muttering and swearing.

"Oh, right. He just got off," Xander said, trying to wrest his mind back into work-schedule mode.

"Not yet, he hasn't," Sol said, deadpan, and then gave in to hissing, bubbling laughter that Xander had to join. "I not let him on me so muddy too."

"TMI, man. Okay - tell him call me when he's done? I need to talk to him. It's about - the Hellmouth. We found out some stuff." Sol took in a sharp breath and muttered something in his own language, and Xander sighed, wishing... Wish I didn't have to do this. Damnit. They don't need this...

"I tell. Is...bad, out there. Sso bad." Sol's voice was low and a little shaky and Xander nodded, unthinking, then cleared his throat.

"Yeah. Thanks, Sol. Bye." Only the click and deadness of disconnection answered him and he scrolled the menu again. Carl was next. Spike - was still cursing, steady monotone that made Xander smile briefly, until the phone began to ring.

"Hello - Mariel - hey! Not while I'm on the phone! I said - " Whatever Carl 'said' was in Spanish - Spanish Xander would have to look up later from Mariel's wicked giggle. He was tempted to call back at a better time. Which would be a worse time.

He groaned.

Carl stopped laughing. "Alex?"

"It's either Alex or a zombie who wants to eat your brains. Since I'm talking, I guess it's me and since it's Sunnydale, I guess I shouldn't joke about zombies eating brains." Xander twisted in his seat until he could see Spike; jaw clenched, cigarette bitten through and hands tight on the wheel. Xander laid a hand on Spike's thigh, hoping Spike could feel the rush of calmlovebeautifulmine.

Spike twitched - muttered something - then looked over at Xander and smiled slightly, the angerfrustrationkill of his emotions easing off a bit.

"So to what do I owe this pleasure?" Carl said, all mock-serious and a little breathless and Mariel squealed something in the background. Xander had to smile - kneading Spike's thigh and leaning his head back on the headrest - but it faded quickly.

"I've got Hellmouth news."

"Aw, shit."

Xander could hear Mariel stop giggling and ask something quiet in the background that made Spike glance at him quickly. "What?"

"She asked him if it was time to pack the car, pet." Spike turned his eyes back to the road in spite of the crawling traffic, flutter of resignation, roll of hate for Sunnydale. "They know."

"What's your news, Alex?"

"It's time to get out of Dodge for a while. Do you have some place you can take the family?"

A pause, then: "My place outside of San Bernardino is big enough for the family. What's going on?"

Xander slid down in the seat and gave Spike a grateful smile when he felt a cool hand settle over his on the truck seat. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

"Try."

Spike listened to Xander fill Carl in on the Hellmouth going's on - gently squeezed Xander's hand in his, hating the almost apologetic tone Xander had. As if he were responsible for what was going on back in Sunnydale. Spike snarled silently - contemplated honking the horn again as a sleek little Italian sport car cut him off. But he didn't want to make Xander any nervier, so he restrained himself. The demon sulked and muttered, and Spike did his best to ignore it. Xander finally said goodbye and clicked the phone shut, looking out the window for a long moment.

"Not your fault, love," Spike murmured. Love love love you...

Xander closed his eye and basked in the warmth of Spike's emotions with a grin. "I thought it might be my fault once - demon magnet, you know? But I hate being the messenger when it's bad news." He tugged his hand free only to turn it over beneath Spike's, clutching back palm to palm. Outside the window, the Italian sports car had wedged itself in between two SUVs. "And there is no way that guy is gonna make it to the right lane before the exit."

Spike snorted softly, agreeing with Xander - listening to the tick tick of the windshield-wipers going over and over the glass - to the patter of rain on metal. Twilight was coming down, blue-grey and soft as down, and the long line of brake lights blurred into a scarlet snake, stretching for miles. Spike felt a sudden wave of tiredness. Not physical, but...other. Soul tired.

Another fight...another enemy...another fucking crisis. Never bloody ends and it's not fair, Xander having to go through this again. I don't want to...go through this again. "No more calls to make now, though," Spike said, in what he hoped was an encouraging voice.

"Except maybe I should call Willow..." Xander sounded less than enthusiastic about that, and Spike squeezed his hand again - inched forward with the traffic. Xander shook his head and turned off the phone. "Later." He watched Spike's eyebrows go up and shrugged. "It's one in the morning there now. She's probably asleep. And if it was important Council news, Giles would have called Wes." Spike's exhaustion was palpable - the kind of tiredness he'd felt on the way to Africa and it tied his stomach in knots. "Feels like we've been here before."

"Been here, done it - got the bloody scars to prove it, love. Rather have had a soddin' t-shirt." Spike felt his own exhaustion mirrored in Xander and he hated it. Hated that hopeless, helpless feeling of never, ever being quite enough. Burned alive on the Hellmouth and it wasn't enough... Xander lost an eye - lost his family - it wasn't enough... Nothing's ever enough...

"We need to get away from this, love. Go someplace warm - turn the bloody phone off and shag each other unconscious. Shag Wes until he's too fucked out to even talk, never mind read..." Spike grinned over at Xander and felt after his pack of smokes, feeling a little lift from that idea. Good idea.

"That's gonna take a lot of fucking." Xander paused thoughtfully - grinned at the lift of want and promise of normality. "I am so on board with that plan." Xander let go of Spike's hand long enough to let him light up and looked out the window, into the back seat of a minivan full of laughing teenagers. A moment later, one pointed - then all were turning to stare back at him and Xander turned his head away, back to Spike. "We need to get away from this," he echoed.

Spike felt the twitch of something go through him - stomped on the brake and glared at the gridlocked lanes, then turned and tugged Xander over, leaning close himself - kissed him, tangling his free hand in Xander's hair and getting lost, for one blissful moment, in the heat and scent of his love.

"Take you anywhere you want to go, pet. Name it. Got the money - can do anything." He leaned forehead to forehead for a moment and then sat back, taking in a long pull of smoke and eyeing the minivan beside them whose occupants seemed to be having trouble with man-on-man kissing. Or something. Wankers. He contemplated vamping and scaring the piss out of them, but what he really felt like doing was stomping something into a bloody pulp and letting the demon up and out would only make that impulse stronger.

Xander watched the scowl form and melt on Spike's face through kiss-hazy vision - felt the wave of suppressed violence that stirred a sleeping echo of the hyena. Something wild and caged. And he got that. Got it enough that knowing he could go anywhere because he'd been fired only caused a small pain - an ache; twinge of indignant fuck you anger at the corporation. "Anywhere but here," he answered with feeling that surprised him.

"Yeah?" Spike grinned, then, feeling the indignant anger that, to him, meant Xander was starting to realize something. Realize that he was too good for the corp-rats, and that he could have any life he chose. "Let's think about that, then. Someplace warm, someplace wet so you and Wes can swim..."

"Someplace with twenty-four-seven room-service? 'Cause I dunno about that whole 'servant' thing - that cook was scary." Xander slumped comfortably down in the seat, pulling a little at the seat-belt and putting his hand on Spike's thigh.

"She was a bloody good cook. And she'd make us anything we wanted - didn't have to stick to a menu."

"Yeah, but not at three in the morning."

"We'll get two cooks - day shift and night shift." Spike reached out and turned on the CD player, the lifting mood making him want music. Anything for you, love - hotel, house - fucking island, if you want.

"I want privacy," Xander said, unbuckling his seatbelt and sliding across the seat to where he wanted to be. "And I want lots and lots of gratuitous nudity." Xander slid his hand all the way up Spike's inseam, rough fabric warming his fingertips by the time they closed over Spike's groin. "'K?" He squeezed - felt the lust like a shock - felt it shudder and coil inside and he reluctantly let Spike go.

"Bloody hell. Put that back."

"And I want the world not to end," Xander finished, putting his hand back on Spike's leg, high on the thigh - contact.

Spike turned his head enough to catch Xander's mouth - kiss him. Nibbled at Xander's lower lip and pressed thigh to thigh. He fed his cigarette out the window and then made good use of two free hands by twisting and getting his left hand over Xander's own groin - pressed the hardening flesh, kneading it - and got his other hand in Xander's hair so he could tilt his head a little - kiss him right.

"World's not gonna end, love. We'll see to that, and Wes will...the bloody Angelus might even do some good..." he murmured between kisses, and Xander felt so damn good. The want - the need coming from him was enough to make Spike vamp - make him grumble low in his chest, pleasure-sound and growl together.

"Not goin' anywhere...let me just get your jeans down..." he muttered, fumbling at button and fly.

The grumble, the growl went straight to Xander's cock, hardening twitch under Spike's fingers that made Xander spread his legs encouragingly. "Fuck yes." Xander arched, groaned and rolled his head against the seat. Movement in the next car over caught his eye and he jerked upright, catching Spike's wrist. "No!"

"Yes, yes - fuckin' hell, love, not actually moving, here -" Spike ducked under Xander's chin and sucked at his neck - at the bite from earlier in the day and grinned to himself at the whole-body shudder that caused.

Thinking - thinking so optional. Think Xander! Think! Xander had a hand in Spike's hair but he wasn't sure if it was to pull him away or push him closer until a honking horn made up his mind. He tugged at Spike's hair, hard and slammed their lips together, tasting copper and salt, smoke and Spike - fed all that want into the kiss until he was dizzy. "Too light out," he gasped, once he had enough air.

Fuck, fuck - bloody traffic, what the fuck is that horn? Spike gave in to Xander's manhandling - let himself be kissed and bloodied and drew back licking his lips, eyes half-shut and his whole body thrumming with wantwantwant

"Be dark in twenty minutes -" Spike said, and then that damn horn again, and a voice -

"Get a room, fucking queers!"

And that shame feeling from Xander, for just a second, and Spike didn't hesitate. In one liquid movement he pulled away from Xander - pushed his door open and was out of the truck - around it - reaching in through a still-open window to grab a shirt collar and yank. Barely remembering to be human for this, but not letting that stop the snarl. Oblivious to the rain that slanted into his eyes and soaked the front of his shirt - beaded on his duster.

What the fuck? turned into Fuck, fuck fuck! and Xander dove for the parking brake before scrambling out of the truck and into the downpour, jacket pulled over his head against the rain.

"Fuckin' call the cops! This guy's - " The driver placed his hands against Spike's chest and shoved - choking on Spike's grip on his collar, choking on the water running down his face.

"Miserable little shit, I'm gonna use your fuckin' rib bones for soup if you so much as look at me and mine again -" Spike could smell the terror and it was like sweet-spicy smoke over his tongue. He ached to simply snap necks and be done and the nonono from Xander made him growl. The kid went white.

Already on edge from the steady throb of kill kill kill rolling through Spike like a heartbeat, Xander took one of those deep, cleansing breaths of wet and ozone and searched for quick quips guy.

He found him some place warm and dry with a beer and thank god a quip. Xander ran a hand up Spike's spine - rigid beneath his duster. He raised his voice to be heard over engines, horns and steady rain. "I kinda liked it better when he was kissing me and you were minding your own business. How about you guys?"

"Yeah - y-yeah! Th-that's better -" the kid gibbered, blinking rain out of his eyes and another one - in the back: "Let him go!" and "That's guys crazy!" Spike grinned - a slow and evil thing that made the kid he was holding go from white to slightly greenish.

"You little fucks are lucky. I'd rather my boy any day than a pack of useless wankers like yourself. In future, keep your filthy mouths shut." Spike shoved the kid backward - noticed, finally, a chorus of honks and reached for Xander's arm - pulled him close and kissed him, hard and fast. "Sorry, love - lost my head," he smirked.

"Nice head." Xander's kiss was soft and slow and wet and cold. He backed Spike all the way into the passenger side of the truck and pulled back to ran a hand over Spike's hair, curled now by the rain - mouthed a drop of rainwater from his jaw. "I like it where it belongs." A police siren cut through the horns and Xander gave Spike a shove. "And that's behind the wheel of the truck driving us out of here before we're arrested for assault and whatever they arrest you for when you make out in the middle of a freeway."

Spike blinked - scowled at the world in general and scrambled in and across - checked to be sure Xander had clicked the seatbelt shut and then took advantage of the slowly shuffling traffic to cut across three lanes to the shoulder while Xander fished under the seat for towels. He trundled along at a fair clip and took the next exit.

"Fuck that mess, love - let's find some other way. Might have to kill somebody, next, traffic makes me that edgy."


~*~*~*~*~


Xander double checked the wrappings on Wesley's book, which had turned out to be thick and bound in a smooth-grained leather that made Xander's skin crawl to touch it.

The trip to The Golden Hinde hadn't gone well. Spike had been barred from entering, and Xander had caught a glimpse of a cot and sink in the back room behind the register.

The owner hadn't invited either one of them in.

Now, they sat and stared across the street at the Hotel Ali Baba. "I don't know about you but I'm not expecting a warm welcome." It was that kind of day.

"Sod it," Spike said, lighting up and grabbing the book, leaving the file for Xander. He shoved the truck keys into a deep pocket and got out of the vehicle - waited for Xander to join him in crossing the street, dodging puddles and getting even wetter. The rain was pouring down now - slashing, spangled curtain in the sodium-glow of the street lights.

Waiting outside under an inadequate awning at the bookstore had not improved Spike's over all snappish mood, and the owner had been short and condescending with Xander. Just want to get back to Wes' place, damnit. On the way to the shop Xander had made an appointment with a rental agency, and tomorrow they were shopping for someplace to stay for a while.

Someplace to kidnap Wes to, and to decompress from the monster headache that the Sunnydale mess was becoming.

"Don't come any closer!"

Xander stumbled over the thick rugs and towels piled in front of the doors at Andrew's yell and watched in disbelief as the young man approached them under a burden of more towels.

"Sorry guys. I just mopped and I am not mopping again." Andrew tried to reach up to dry Spike's hair for him but Spike growled and he let go of the towel immediately, taking a step back. "Every Slayer has been through here at least twice in the last two hours and none of them know how to wipe their feet!"

Andrew looked ruffled and put-upon and flushed, and Spike scrubbed violently at his hair for a moment and then flung the towel sideways into the sodden pile that was against the wall. Feeling too on edge for his own good, really - he knew he was winding Xander up tight as a drum, and any moment Angel would stomp in and then... Bloody fucking Blitzkrieg, Spike thought, looking at his too-wet-to-burn cigarette and throwing it after the towel.

"Not a bloody idiot, Andrew - know how to wipe my fucking boots off. Not that I will," he added, striding across the lobby toward the offices, sure he was leaving foot prints and not caring. "C'mon, Xander, let's get this nonsense done with, yeah? Need a drink."

Xander gave his hair a quick scrub with the towel, squeezing the ends into it until he wasn't dripping anymore and handed the towel back to Andrew with a grimace. He wanted to lift his patch - dry the irritating trickle of cold water under it but Andrew wouldn't stop...hovering. "Thanks." He abandoned the towels instead, trying to rub under the patch without taking it off and made his unsteady way across the lobby after Spike.

He could have found Spike blindfolded and in the dark with the disgust pouring off him. Oh. Good. Angel was in.

"What took you so long? Wes said you left hours ago," Angel said, coming out of his office with a stack of folders and a scowl. Spike slapped the book down on the counter and reached for his cigarettes, wishing like fuck he'd remembered to bring his flask from Wes'. But he'd meant to refill it and left it lying on the kitchen counter instead.

"Fuck off, Angelus," Spike snapped, and then Xander was there, hand on his back and Spike took a hard, hard hit of his smoke, biting back the rest of what he wanted to say.

"Why don't you hand over what you came here to bring me and fuck off yourself? That's what the messenger boy does."

Xander felt each bump of Spike's spine beneath his hand stiffen and creak under muscle tension. "We're all professionals here, yes sir."

"I knocked you on your ass and had you dead to rights, you miserable bog-trotter, so keep your smart mouth shut." Spike hadn't felt anything quite this...murderous toward Angel in long a while, and the demon leapt up and out, snarling. He felt Xander shiver and felt Xander's fingers sink into his shoulder - death-grip that he barely acknowledged.

"Uh - as much as I would love to watch you kick Angel's ass again, it's gonna be hard to fuck Wes deaf and blind if you're recovering from the fight of the year." Xander didn't even try to hide the satisfaction he felt when Angel flinched. It must just eat you up that we got there first, Angel.

Spike smirked at the gotcha! feeling of glee coming off Xander and plucked the file from Xander's hand - tossed it down by the book, sending the contents fanning over the counter. "That's Wes' latest info. Now it's yours. And we've gotta go." He started to turn - twisted away with a snarl as Angel's hand came down on his shoulder.

"Spike - I've got something to tell the both of you." Angel let go as Spike angrily shrugged him away - reached for Wes' folder and the spill of papers that had slid out of it. "This is bigger than just a few demons in some back room, you know," Angel said, and Spike couldn't stop the snort of amusement that puffed out of his nose. Angel shook his head - tapped the papers back into true and slipped them back into the folder. "It's Wolfram and Hart big and... And I want the two of you out of it."

"Good." Xander felt the pulse of anger turn to a roar of fuckyes! and laughed - every ounce of the weight of Sunnydale, Hellmouth, duty evaporating into someone else's problem. He held up a hand to Angel, said "I'll be right with you," and then picked Spike up and drove him into the wall with a kiss that made his lips ache and body hum with the champagne bubbles of pure freedom.

Between the wall and Xander, Spike couldn't get a breath for a proper howl of utter joy, but it didn't matter. Xander felt - felt like a bird in flight. Lifting, swooping - heart-stopping loops high in the ether and Spike was happy to join him - got a leg and both arms wrapped around Xander and kissed back with abandon, ignoring the increasingly frustrated noises coming from Angel.

"Hey, dad, what's up?" Connor ambled in from somewhere, glancing at Spike and Xander with a grin. Spike winked back and then shifted to kiss Xander's neck so he could watch the 'Connor and Angel' show.

Angel cut him off. "I do not want to hear 'besides Spike and Xander' from your mouth."

Connor shrugged a shoulder, showing more interest in Spike and Xander's public celebration than Angel looked comfortable with. "They're happy guys. Why are they happy guys?"

"I have no idea," Angel muttered. "Cut it out!" He reached over and slapped the back of Xander's head and a moment later was up against the wall, Spike's fingers digging into his throat and Xander right behind him, fury in his eye, patch askew and a look that was too much like Spike's own to be comfortable.

"You wanker. Don't." Spike rapped Angel's head into the wall. "Touch. Got it?" Spike let go and stepped back - shot a look at Connor. Connor lifted both hands in a 'don't look at me' gesture.

"Hey, he shouldn't have done that - right there with ya."

Xander fumbled with the band of his patch, gave up and yanked it off, jammed it into his pocket.

Angel didn't move from the wall, head down, teeth bared. "Get out, Spike. You're not welcome here."

"Fuck you, Angelus. You ever wonder why Gunn is off doing his own gig - why Wes'd rather work at home than here? Why Blue is out all hours of the day and night, and not here? You get one bloody guess." Spike settled his duster - looked over at Connor, hoping that Connor got it. Connor gave a slow nod, and Spike felt a tiny loosening of some tension. "You want to be the grand champion of this fuckin' rat race? Be our guest. We both gave everything we were to this fuckin' fight. And now? We're done. Have at it." He reached blindly for Xander's hand - found it and folded his own around it - turned and walked out.


~*~*~*~*~


Wesley wanted to be angry - he wanted to be angry and irritated and deliver his carefully crafted speech about calling home so he won't worry when Spike and Xander go for hours without contact in dangerous times. Or after visiting Angel Investigations which was a dangerous time every time when Spike was there. But when they came stumbling in well after one - stumbling and swearing and giggling, drunk and happy-stupid and determined, it seemed, to touch every inch of Wesley's body - his speech, anger, irritation and worry crumbled away. Crumbled beneath the attentions of two warm bodies who tangled themselves around him the moment he opened the door and kisses that tasted of beer and whiskey, cigarettes and salt. And he moaned when Spike manhandled him into Xander's grasp and arched when warm human hands unfastened his belt and fly.

"Love how you tas', Wesss...you go gooood with JD..." Spike slurred, sliding down Wesley's body and pushing his trousers down - rubbing his cheek along Wesley's rapidly hardening cock and then licking in long, flat strokes.

"You both - you both made me very...I was -" Wesley tried to talk, but Xander was kissing his neck - his jaw - was rubbing callused hands over his belly and then up under his shirt to his nipples. Was grinding his erection into Wesley and muttering something about 'Wes...so warm...love how you feel...' and really - what could he do? And then Spike - cool mouth, clever tongue - quick and wicked glance up with gleaming golden eyes and Wesley let his head loll back on Xander's shoulder - got one hand in Spike's hair and one in Xander's and just held on.

Xander's mouth was moving against his ear, warm and wet, lips and tongue, and his fingers were sliding down, down - holding Wesley's aching cock for Spike to swallow whole, leaving him trembling between them. Wesley realized Xander was speaking.
"We're done, Wes. Retired. God - you feel good like that - " Xander slurred, shuddered, breathed against the damp skin of Wesley's neck and nibbled. "We're gonna celebrate - take a couple days - drive t'Ojai tomorrow - " Xander's liquor-fogged voice deepened, rasped when he moaned and Spike echoed the sound. "Come back..."

Wesley tugged at Xander's neck - at his hair - turned his head so he could kiss him, tasting hops and the sour bite of whiskey - salt and lemon. Spike was teasing - nibbling - sucking and kissing and his fingers were moving here and there - back and forth. Wesley's legs were shaking and he was glad Xander was holding him up.

He pulled away from Xander's mouth, panting for breath - looked down at Spike, who looked up at him - bit at his belly and grinned, eyes glinting gold.

"Gonna come back, Wes, an' then you're gonna come with us. Jus' for a little while!" Spike added when Wesley opened his mouth to - to what? "Jus' a few days, love... Need to relax, you do." Spike ran his tongue up the underside of Wesley's cock and blew across the damp tip. Wesley shuddered.

"Keep you tied to the bed, maybe - nothin' to do but...entertain me an' Xan..." Then Spike took him in again, cool mouth sliding down and down and Wesley arched into him - gripped Xander's neck and leaned against him and just...let go.

"Want that, Wes? Me an' Spike using you an' making you feel good all weekend? Take away your...choice." Xander's teeth dragged a fiery-cool trail down to Wesley's shoulder and bit and Wesley thrust his hips at Spike with a helpless moan because yes - yes god he wanted it. "Gonna think about it while we're gone?"

"G-god...thinking about it...now -" Wes gasped, and Xander slid a finger into Wes' mouth - let him mouth it - suck it - then trailed his hand down, between them - slid in as Spike did something that was probably very nice, and Wes cried out, his hips bucking forward, his hand painfully tight in Xander's hair. Spike's hands were tight on Wes' hips and Xander crooked his finger and bit at Wes' neck - felt Wes' body shudder and arch and finally fall bonelessly still, only his chest heaving as he panted for air.

"I think he likes that idea, love," Spike said. Then he giggled and climbed Wes' body and kissed Xander over Wes' shoulder - musk-salt-pepper taste canceling out the whiskey and smoke. "Let's get him to bed." Whirling, floating feeling swimming back and forth through the link, drunkenness doubled as they shared it.

"Yeah," Xander breathed, alcohol and lemon, sweet and bitter and he rode Wes' groan with a slow grind of hard cock against Wes' arse, sending an ache of want skittering up and down his spine. "Gonna feel us till we come back, Wes." Xander didn't wait for an answer before sliding an arm around Wesley's waist above Spike's and leading the three of them unsteadily into the bedroom. "Gonna make you miss us."

There'd be time for soberness and thinking tomorrow.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike drove to the insistent scream of Randy Rhoades' guitar and Ozzy's demon voice. Hands clenched so tightly on the steering wheel that they ached, golden eyes practically burning holes through the rain-washed night. His fangs had cut through two cigarette filters and he'd given up on them completely. Occasionally, he'd glance over at Xander.

Between them was a miasma of emotion - fury and shame, fuck him and kill him and lovelovelove under it all and Spike shook and Xander rested his forehead against the window, face pale and tight and reflected against the rain.

The rental appointment had gone as badly as their trip to Angel Investigations - or worse.

An hour on, they'd driven past houses too big and houses too small. Houses owned by famous people Xander had never heard of. Then: "See that office up there?"

"Yeah." Xander looked in the direction their rental agent was pointing and saw a lot of offices. Brand new offices. Classy old offices. Some of them covered in so much ivy they looked like gigantic chia pets.

"There's a doctor up there who has a team of specialists from Hollywood. They've done things to people - he told me they had Nicole Kidman up there, fixing some sun-damage. Can you believe it? And - he's got prosthetic specialists, too. Remember when Mark Hamill was hurt? They put him back, good as new. He could fix that damage - nobody would suspect a thing, I guarantee it."

Xander stared at the agent and felt the names wash over him in a tide of huh? and 'what? and then it clicked and he almost choked on the word "Damage?"


Xander thumped his head back against the truck's seat and raked his hands through his hair - frustrated gesture, tangled, tired of strangers looking at him and seeing damage and disfigurement. Tired of being a - a handicap.

Fucking bastard. Had no right. Find him, hurt him, kill him... Spike pushed down a little harder on the gas - edged the speedometer over 120 and listened to the hiss of water as it fanned out from the wheels. Couldn't get away fast enough and he glared for a moment at the fading glow of L.A. in the rear-view. Fucking gobshite. Love you so much, Xander... God...fucker...

Xander dropped his hand and Spike stole a glance at him, found him raising a forefinger to touch his reflection in the glass; tracing around the missing eye, tracing up the side of his nose, over the dark arch of his eyebrow and around, fingers feathering down his cheek, resting at his jaw. Spike reached out and turned the music down to a murmur. "You're not damaged, love. You know that, don't you?"

Xander traced the pattern again, trying to see it. "War wound. Scar. I'm on board. I don't want to hide it." He twisted away from the window so he could see Spike, see his decision written in Spike's expression. "I want to decorate it. I want it to say: 'This is mine - I fought hard and I won'."

"Yeah?" Spike stared at Xander for a long moment - hastily looked away and back toward the road as the truck shimmied through an extended puddle. Grinning, the demon suddenly gone as he contemplated what Xander said. "You've been... Have you been planning this, love?" Excitement fear and something like a bouncing rubber ball that was yes yes yes and Spike laughed aloud - reached over and blindly found Xander's cheek - cupped it, his thumb delicately rubbing over the thin skin just under the empty socket. "Tell me, Xander."

That yes yes yes fluttered around Xander's heart and belly and he shivered - leaned into Spike's touch and licked his lips - and god - felt shy. "Leaves." He touched the skin over his collarbone, where the leaves peeked out between his shirt collars. "I like that. But here too - all the way around so that when people look at me, they don't see a guy trying to hide a deformity. They see a guy with a great tattoo and maybe a little wound he's proud of surviving."

"Yet once more, O ye laurels... Always gave a wreath to the champion, Xander. To the victor. That's...exactly right." Xander was smiling - absent sort of smile as he looked at Spike and Spike tugged at him - waited impatiently while Xander undid his seat belt and scooted over - under Spike's arm and against his side, warmth and love and solidity. "It'll be beautiful," he murmured - kissed Xander's temple and peered out at the pitch-black of the storm. Ahead, very faintly, was a streak of lighter sky and Spike thought that maybe, it wasn't raining in Ojai. That would be...kind of nice.

Xander leaned against Spike and worked an arm behind the small of his back to circle his waist, possessive and possessed. "If I don't like it, Phantom of the Opera is always a good look." Xander dodged out of the way of a half-hearted smack before his cell phone rang - tinny and small performance of Rebel Yell.

Spike groaned softly, shaking his head. "I do not look like Billy Idol, you wanker," he muttered. But fuck - it was better than cowboys.

"Yeah, yeah. Tell it to the wardrobe department." Xander flipped open his cell phone to find Dawn's number instead of Willow's on the display. Grinning, he started to answer but as soon as he switched on, she cut him off.

"God, Xander! Will you please call Willow back? She's driving me crazy!"

"Hello, Dawn, how are you? I'm fine, thanks for asking," Xander snarked, and Dawn sighed gustily down the line. Xander could practically hear her eyes rolling.

"Fine, fine. Hi Xander, howareyou?I'mfine!That'sgreat!Anythingnew?Nope,you?Nope! There - satisfied?"

"Yeah, yeah - satisfied. You young'uns - no manners," Xander said, and leaned his cheek on Spike's shoulder. "So what's up with Willow?"

"What's up with Willow? She hasn't heard from you in days. And Angel called Giles and told him all about the Hellmouth going Hellmouthy and you still couldn't call?"

"Was that you or Willow?"

"Duh. Willow. I know you and Spike were too busy fucking to pick up the phone."

"Dawn!"

"Well she's driving me crazy so unless you want to pick her up at the airport, call her back."

"Christ," Spike muttered, and Xander squeezed him a little - frowned out at the dark, rain-spangled landscape.

"Okay, okay. Fine. I'll call her back. I just..."

"I know, Xander. I have to listen to her practice her little speeches. Just...talk to her, okay? You guys can work it out."

"Yeah, okay," Xander sighed, and smiled as Dawn's mood immediately lightened and she chattered for fifteen more minutes about boys and school, shopping and houses and a tour of haunted buildings she'd gone on. By the time they disconnected, Xander was back into feeling something like happy. And Spike was, too, if his slowly stroking hand on Xander's collarbone and chest were any indication.

Spike watched Xander carefully turn his phone off and toss it into the glove box. "Not gonna call Red then?"

"I'm gonna call." Xander leaned back and settled into the cradle of Spike's arm and shoulder, shifting around to get comfortable against Spike. "I promised Dawnie I'd call."

Spike snorted, and ghosted his hand up into Xander's hair to lazy waves of satisfaction. He raked his fingers and nails through the mussed strands and enjoyed the animal sound of contentment from Xander. "But not when."

"Nah. She'll talk to Dawn and Dawn will crack like a dropped egg and tell her all about the phone call. That'll buy me a few more days."

"You're evil, pet," Spike said, combing and combing through Xander's hair - pleased when Xander yawned and closed his eyes. Rest, love. Just rest. I'll get us there... The windshield wipers ticktickticked like a metronome and Spike reached across himself and hit the scan button on the CD player until it clicked to number four. As the low, soaring sounds of Ritchie Blackmoor's Snowman spiraled out into the cab he sighed and settled himself, and hugged Xander close.


~*~*~*~*~


Xander woke to the scent of leather and cigarettes, soft hands and softer lips, feather touches over his nose, his cheeks, his empty socket and sighed into the kiss, trading breath for the cooler brush of Spike's words whispering him awake. And awake, he traded the flutter in his heart for one in his belly because the sky was a brilliantly clear scatter of moon and stars. "Not in L.A. anymore, Toto."

"No we're not, love. We're at the Iguana." Xander just blinked sleepily and Spike resumed kissing him, basking in the relaxed, happy feelings that radiated out from Xander like heat from a fireplace. Love and want and possessiveness and something sweet and tender and muddled. Half-asleep and emoting all over the place and Spike soaked it up like a sponge. Broke away, finally, as Xander's belly rumbled and Xander himself giggled. "Figured we could drop off our bag, walk downtown and find you something to eat an' then go see Seb. Sound good?"

"Eat. The word 'eat' sounds like heaven." Xander pushed himself reluctantly upright and stretched with a groan. "The word 'walk' sounds pretty good too." Xander scrubbed his hands over his face until he felt less foggy and crawled back across the seat and over Spike. "Eat. Walk. Blood. Needles. Sex." He counted them off on his fingers and popped open Spike's door, filling the cab with fresh, green-scented valley air. "I think we have a plan. Or a government warning against risky behavior."

"Mmmm..." Spike grabbed the parts of Xander that he could as Xander slithered out of the truck - snatched their bag from the back seat and locked the truck up, and followed Xander down the walk to the now-familiar and welcoming Peacock suite. And a sip or two of blood for you, love, to make the visit to Seb go a little smoother.

Dinner was a steaming platter of chile rellenos and blistering carne asada that put pink in Xander's cheeks. Even after glasses of frosty cool orange soda, his kisses were spicy and tingling when they stepped out into the cooler Ojai night. And Spike tasted like lime, salt, tequila, and the big bowl of corn chips he hadn't been able to keep his hands out of.

They walked lazily toward Seb's, breathing in the cool, green-scented air, hands loosely entwined. Not speaking, just...feeling. Calm, finally - settled and content. Two blocks from Seb's Spike glanced over at Xander and grinned - stepped back into the shadows of an alley and yanked Xander after him, catching him and pinning him neatly to the still-warm brick wall.

"Want a little dessert, love?" Spike purred, and tipped his chin a little, baring the long, pale sweep of his throat. Xander grinned - leaned forward and licked - nibbled - bit. God...love you...so much... Spike thought, and did the same.

Xander groaned with the achepull of sharp fangs and strong mouth and the effervescent burn that radiated through his veins, made his heart beat harder, hotter. Every draw, every swallow, every grind of Spike's hips against his and every scrape of brick and stucco against his back fed and felt that overwhelming all-consuming lovelovemine - so much stronger with Spike in him.

Should have been too much.

Wasn't.

Xander's heart fluttered, skipped and he threw his head back, into Spike's hand that was suddenly there to catch him before he hit the wall. He stood, staring up at the stars and breathing hard, clutching Spike to his throat for sips, licks, tender tingling kisses. "I used t - to think too much love and too much need scared me away - that I didn't know what to do with that kind of passion. And you've got s-so much." Xander felt Spike shift and held him where he was, determined to finish. "And now that I have it...now it's mine... God, I... I just want more. Every day, Spike." Spike made a small, pleased sound against his neck - pulled slowly away and met Xander's gaze. "I feel like - like I'm the vampire. Just - taking everything you give me and wanting more. Never thought I could - be enough -"

"More than enough, love. Everything. All. Mine."

Xander felt the words vibrate through Spike's skull - felt them prickle against his palm and in his eye and leave him breathless with the enormity. "Don't change your mind."

"Never happen, love," Spike said, his hands cradling Xander's face - his mouth so close Xander could feel his lips moving. "Built for eternity, me," Spike added, drawing back, and Xander looked into the demon's face and smiled.

They made their way slowly through the night, the Indian Summer's blooming trellises dormant for the winter and casting spidery shadows in the promenades.

Seb's was a little crowded, but Seb himself had an empty chair and an expectant look, and Xander felt the first flutters of nervous excitement in his belly as Seb methodically squeezed ink out into little caps and arranged his work-space just so. It had taken nearly an hour to finalize the design and make sure it looked right, and now Xander lay back in the chair, a padded, adjustable rest under his head and Spike's hand tight in his. Spike's blood fuming and bubbling in his veins and making him shiver. Seb settled onto his saddle-shaped stool, tail curling around the central leg. The green gloves he wore were a bizarre contrast to his ink-black skin, and he picked up his machine and depressed the foot-switch, making minute adjustments.

Love safe love from Spike and Xander squeezed his hand tighter - closed his eye as Seb leaned close and the needle touched the hollow of his left cheek. Bee-sting burn and the warmth of Seb's hand - vibration all through his skull.

Love you too, Spike...

Xander's Tattoo



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