For [info]fotada,who contributed generously to Jolie's anti-leukemia fund, and wanted something a little bit like this. I'm not sure this is going to fit the bill exactly, but I hope it'll get close. I admit I'm also shamelessly using this as an excuse to write some of that Spike/Xander running-a-Slayer-house-post-S7 fic I've been dreaming about lo these many long years.

Also thanks to the esteemed and generous [info]romanyg, who very kindly donated paid LJ time to my account. Thank you so much, [info]romanyg! I'll do my best to use it wisely.

Out of Africa


Part One

It was inevitable that sooner or later, if he didn't fall prey to any of the three million threats to life and limb in Angola—if he survived land mines and tribal warfare and Ebola and malaria and dengue fever and tsetse flies and pissed-off Slayers and pissed-off Slayers' fathers and the local homebrew liquor made from redirected Red Cross grain alcohol and nicknamed, roughly, "Widowmaker"—that Xander Harris would end up in charge of a houseful of Slayers. He'd known that for a long time, mostly from hints Andrew had dropped about favors and strings and backs being scratched. Without wanting to know too much about whose back Andrew was scratching these days, Xander had been looking forward to it. Wrangling a houseful of sixteen year-old girls in sunny California sure beat playing "Is it loaded, and can you reach the trigger?" with disgruntled child soldiers. He looked forward to running a Slayer house the way declining film actors looked forward to franchise television deals. Talking chimp, hand puppets, steady paycheck. Fantastic, where do I sign?

What wasn't inevitable was the revelation that he wasn't going to run the house by himself. That was the first little snag, which Andrew only let slip after Xander was back on U.S. soil, in the cab from LAX to the house itself.

"Hang on a minute," Xander said, squinting at the scrap of paper on which he'd written the address in muddy blue ink. "What do you mean, we?"

"Oh," Andrew said, in his fake-desultory tone, the one that meant he was trying to slip something under the radar. "Didn't I tell you? You're co-managing."

Xander stared out the window at the wide, wide streets of Los Angeles. The cars were huge, and everything looked shiny and new. He hadn't slept in thirty hours. "No," he said, hearing his own voice as if someone else were talking. "You didn't tell me that."

"With Spike," Andrew said. "So that'll be great, just like old times. Listen Xander, I gotta run—"

"With…" Xander trailed off and just watched the median race by. He could hear Andrew exuding discomfort on the other end of the line, all the way from England. "Spike who?"

"Spike Spike." Andrew cleared his throat. "You remember him, right? Um, bleached hair, kind of a hottie—"

"Spike Spike." Xander let his eyes fall closed. All of a sudden he was exhausted, so tired he didn't think he could make it to the house without falling asleep. "You've got to be kidding me."

"We're low on managers right now, and since you're just coming back from Africa, they thought you needed someone to help get you going. Those girls can be pretty fierce."

"I bet." Xander rubbed his forehead, feeling thirty hours' worth of grit and sweat and airport fug. "I don't need any help, okay?"

"It's not up to you," said Andrew. "Sorry, but it's out of my control."

"What happened to all that stuff about back-scratching and hand-washing?"

"I got you out of Angola, didn't I?" Andrew sounded miffed.

"Yeah." That was true, Xander realized. He was out of the hellhole, he was back in California. So he had to spend a few days living in the same house as Spike. Big deal. At least there'd be running water. "Okay, point. I'll…" He rubbed his eyes, hard enough to see colored bursts behind his eyelids. "Whatever, I'll figure it out. Thanks."

"No problemo."

Andrew always lingered a few seconds, as if he wanted to say or hear something more from Xander. Xander always hung up.

Part Two

As it turned out, the house was empty when he got there. Or so he thought at first. He'd been expecting a chaotic Brady Bunch-style welcome, with girls all over the place—and for once in his life, he wasn't really looking forward to the prospect of a house full of excited teenaged girls. It was a relief to realize that he must have beat the first convoy—the "For Sale/Sold" sign was still on the lawn of the house, and the realtor's key box was still on the front knob. Glancing in the front window while he fiddled with the keys Andrew had sent, he saw there was furniture in there—IKEA stuff, bland and new, some of it still in boxes. The house itself was a big old Victorian, mushroom-colored and peeling. He'd agreed to do some fix-up work; studying the dry rot in the porch railings, he was already regretting it.

The door opened suddenly, startling him. He stumbled back, almost falling over his backpack. In the doorway stood a skinny little blade-faced guy in jeans and a white T-shirt. Dark hair and blue eyes. Spike, he realized. After a moment.

"Holy—" He recovered enough to swallow and get straight on his feet again. "Jeez. Hi. Spike."

Spike didn't look startled at all. Well, he had the advantage. He looked smaller, as if in the last few years his leprechaun heritage had finally come through. His hair was dark brown. That was weird. He was also barefoot, Xander realized. That was weirder.

"Hi," he said. Still English, apparently. There was a cigarette between his fingers; he put his hand to the doorsill and it dropped ash on the brand-new rag rug. Some things hadn't changed. "Can't come out, sorry."

"Oh." There was sun on the porch, Xander realized. Feeling like a graceless slob, he herded his bags together and shoved them toward the door. Spike's hair wasn't blonde. For some reason that made everything seem even more surreal.

"Long flight?" Spike was hooking Xander's bags in, neatly and easily, dropping them just inside the door.

"Yeah." It was weird to step across the threshold, weird to feel like he was a guest in Spike's house. When in fact this was his house, his green ribbon for making it through the last five years alive. Spike was the guest, or maybe his assistant. Xander had a brief, giddy vision of Spike bringing him a beer on a silver tray. Insanity.

Or maybe not that insane after all, because Spike was hefting his bags one after the other, grimacing a little at the awkwardness but apparently not minding the weight. "Bedrooms're upstairs," he said, kicking the door closed and starting for the stairs.

"Oh," Xander said, not moving.

"So's the shower," Spike said over his shoulder. He was just a pair of legs topped with a profusion of dusty, travel-worn bags.

"Okay," Xander said faintly. He took a last look around the front hall—clean wood floors, hooks for half a dozen coats, a few stray Styrofoam peanuts in the corners. Somebody had a whole lot of Stonk and Blarg to Allen-wrench together in the next day or two. Dimly, he hoped it wasn't going to be him. Then he realized he was dithering, and that dithering was all that stood between him and a hot shower. And more importantly, a bed. There were beds upstairs. He wobbled up on gelatin legs.

It was the cleanest, hottest shower he'd ever taken in his life. Well, probably not. But it was clean and hot, and the taps worked, and nobody was waiting outside with a goat and a plastic bucket, and no giant bugs tried to crawl up his leg. It was incredible. He stayed in forty minutes, and only came out when he realized he was in danger of drowning.

"You hungry?" Spike was there in the hallway when Xander emerged. The angles of light seemed longer than they should have been, he thought. Maybe he'd fallen asleep for a bit.

"No. Thanks." He hitched his towel and floated back toward the bedroom he'd chosen arbitrarily, a little one at the end of the hall. He meant to do useful things—get dressed and go back downstairs, look through whatever mail or instructions or Slayer House manuals there were, maybe even have a conversation with the newly-unbleached Spike—but instead he fell into a hole in the bed and spent the next twelve hours dreaming of squid.

He woke up wondering where the hell he was. He was in a room. There was a bed, a bedside table, a lamp with a muted bulb in a blue shade. There was a window with a curtain—he could see it was dark outside. The walls and ceiling were clean and white. No mosquito netting. No smell in the air, or at least not much to speak of. Maybe paint. He was naked but he wasn't hot, and he couldn't hear any guns.

For a few seconds he panicked, sweat springing out of the palms of his hands. Where the hell was he? He'd been kidnapped, misplaced, lost, run over and killed. Death was an IKEA showcase. Then his brain slid back into its old, long-unused, regular American groove in his skull and he remembered. California. Slayers. House. Holy shit, yes, right, Spike. That seemed too bizarre to be possible, but it was in there, part of the mix. He remembered the phone conversation with Andrew, in the cab. Andrew thought Spike was hot. Now that he wasn't disabled by jetlag, he couldn't believe he'd let that go by.

He was sore, he discovered when he rolled over and searched for the floor. Sore and still tired, still kind of out of it. It was instinct to check where he was putting his feet before he let them touch the floor. He sat on the edge of the bed, fighting the leaden sag of his eyelids, and considered marrying the bed. It was clean and soft, and it smelled better than any bed he'd slept in in the last five years. Say what you would about the United States—and after five years of enjoying American foreign policy from the foreign end, he had a few things to say—they made a good bed.

It took a few minutes to work up enough steam to get up, stagger to his bags, dig out some clothes, and get into them. Nothing was really clean—it was all what he'd learned to think of as "clean enough," which was a term with meaning relative to which country he was in and how long it had been since he'd thought about trying to convince someone to have sex with him. Right now, "clean enough" was pretty disgusting. He dug through until he found something that didn't seem likely to try to escape under its own power. The first thing he needed to do was laundry. No, the first thing he needed to do was pee. Stat. Statter. Stattest.

The bathroom was so clean he wanted to fall to his knees and embrace it in gratitude. Instead, he pissed carefully against the side of the bowl, and washed his hands when he was done.

Sporting slightly insane bedhead, he ventured back out into the hallway. The house was silent. There was a light on downstairs—he could see the glow coming from the staircase. Carefully, trailing one hand along the wall to keep his balance, he went that way.

At the foot of the stairs he found himself staring into the living room, at an incomprehensible tableau. The room was scattered with cardboard boxes, peanuts, little plastic bags full of widgets and screws and flanges. Around the room were several piles of what looked like disassembled end tables, wardrobes, dressers, and desks. A squat silver stereo system sat against the wall, under the bay window. From it trailed a long thin cord, like a ribbon snake, all the way across the bare wooden floor and up into a pair of chunky stereo headphones, which in turn were settled on the noggin of a skinny, dark-haired form hunched over something Xander couldn't see. Spike. His back was turned, and he was curled over whatever he was doing with the kind of rapt attention most people reserved for newborn infants. The levels on the stereo display bounced up and down enthusiastically. The room was totally silent.

Xander cleared his throat. Nothing happened. He considered the bony ladder of Spike's spine, which showed through the fabric of his T-shirt like a fossil imprint.

"Hey," Xander said. Spike rocked back and forth minutely on his butt, then reached without looking for a screwdriver lying on the floor behind him. Xander glanced around the room, at the piles of unmade furniture. "I need a drink," he said, and walked away to find the kitchen.

Part Three

Spike walked in a few minutes later, while Xander was rummaging through the cupboards over the refrigerator. He'd been through all the others, and hadn't found any alcohol at all. Not a cheap bottle of Chardonnay, not a Miller High Life, not a can of shoe polish.

"Is this one of those dry Slayer houses?" he asked, the minute Spike walked into the room. "Are we Mormons now?"

Spike looked a little taken aback, as if he'd expected some other kind of greeting. Probably he had, Xander realized. It had been five years, after all—give or take a disoriented "Oh" at the front door the day before. Considering all their history, all the years they'd spent together in Sunnydale, all the times they'd fought side by side to save the world and their own sorry lives, he probably should at least work up the energy to insult the guy's hair.

"Uh," Spike said, fingering his Allen wrench.

"Hi," Xander said. "Great seeing you, good job on the not still being dead thing."


"Is there really no booze in this place, or did you just drink it all already?"

Spike squinted up at the cupboard, and Xander opened the door helpfully. "Don't think there's much of anything right now. Sorry."

That was true—the refrigerator held a few blood Tetrapaks (discreetly sleeved in a brown paper bag), a quart of milk, and half a loaf of sad, sagging supermarket bread. The cupboards held white IKEA plates and bowls, but no food except for a shaker of Chinese five-spice powder. There was a lone apple on top of the stove. Morosely, Xander picked it up and polished it on his shirt.

"Are you conscious?" Spike asked, watching Xander demolish half the apple in a single bite. "Because I've spent all night fiddling with this shit, I'm about to throw the bloody Ektorp through the window."

Xander glanced at the stove again. The clock read 5:45 am. Outside, it was still dark; they had another hour or so of clearance.

"I'll tell you what," he said, crunching the apple messily and deliciously in his ravenous maw. "You drive me to the supermarket, I'll put together all the Ektorp I can before I collapse again."

"Done," Spike said, tossing the Allen key onto the counter and turning on his heel.

"You're paying," Xander said, and ate the rest of his apple.

American supermarkets were a giddy wonderland, an incomprehensible funscape of endless, beckoning delight. It was like being inside a cornucopia, Xander reflected, grabbing a package of white-fudge-covered Oreos off a stack taller than he was. Like walking around inside one of those Thanksgiving horns of plenty, the ones they used to draw in grade school, until Willow read up a little more on the Pilgrims and started drawing stacks of smallpox blankets instead. American supermarkets were totally insane, packed to the gills with gleeful nutty feats of food science. Food science, for God's sake. Most of the world didn't even have food, let alone food that had been professionally badgered into a whole new conceptual category.

"Look at this," he said, studying the package in his hands. "White fudge. What the fuck is white fudge?"

"Revolting," Spike said. He was draped over the handlebar of the shopping cart, as if his bones had stopped supporting him. "Sun's coming up soon."

"Yeah," Xander muttered absently, trying to get his eye to focus on the list of ingredients. It was longer than most books he'd read. "Unbelievable." He dropped the package into the cart and headed for the pickles.

"I was thinking of not catching on fire this morning," Spike said quietly, somewhere behind him.

"Uh-huh," Xander said, running his finger over the shelves of dill, sweet, bread-and-butter, relish, chili, garlic, amen. "You don't want to ruin the interior of that awesome Honda Civic you're driving these days. And did I mention I love this country?"

Spike muttered something mostly inaudible, and Xander started grabbing bottles.

They made it back to the house with time to spare—time that Spike spent smoking a cigarette at the kitchen table while Xander brought in bag after bag of groceries. There were eight total, and when they were all on the kitchen table he had to stand back and just look at them for a minute.

"You're like bloody Oliver Twist," Spike said, practically horizontal with disdain. "How long since you were anywhere that doesn’t use kine as currency?"

"One million years," Xander said, and started unpacking.

Spike watched him do it, interrupting himself only to turn around and close the blinds when the sun started to come up, and to knock each successive empty bag onto the floor with a negligent flick of his wrist. Xander stacked nonperishables on the floor around the table, until even he had to admit he'd probably overdone it. Balancing the twelfth bag of pasta on the pile, he looked up and caught Spike giving him a strange, narrow look.

"What?" He looked down at the pile of carbs. "We've got Slayers coming, right?"

"So I'm told." Spike toed an empty bag. "Not an actual army, though."

Xander sighed, eased back onto his heels, and rested his chin in his hands. "What happened to the DeSoto?"

"Blew up."

"Is that British for 'broke down, sold it for parts'? Or did it actually—"

"Blew up," Spike said again, tonelessly.

"Uh-huh. And when did you go back to being a sultry brunette?"

Again, Spike looked momentarily taken aback. He straightened up slightly and ran a hand over his head. He was self-conscious, Xander thought with surprise. "Dunno. A couple years ago."

From the last grocery bag, Xander fished a six-pack of Corona. He pulled a bottle out, set it on the floor, and glanced at Spike. "You want one?"

Spike seemed actually to consider this, which was in some ways an even more outlandish character shift than the dark hair or the Civic. Well, not more than the Civic. Seeing Spike walk up to the driver's side of a family sedan had almost tipped Xander into a fugue state. This was indeed a kinder, gentler Spike. A Spike who used turn signals. A Spike who flossed, if his sole contribution to the shopping cart was any indication.

"Yeah," Spike said, restoring solidity to the world. With a sigh of relief, Xander went to get the bottle opener.

They drank their Coronas while Xander crammed groceries into the cupboards. He sampled while he did it—a pickle here, a handful of Chex Mix there. The sheer variety of food was giddifying. He hadn't had a Fig Newton in six years.

"You hear much from the rest of the gang?" Spike was leaning back in his chair, tipping it back methodically onto its back legs, balancing with one hand touching the tabletop. Xander shrugged.

"Willow's in England, witching up a storm. She calls sometimes. Buffy—" He paused. It was weird to mention Buffy's name after all this time and distance, especially to Spike. To Spike of all people. Enough water had gone under the bridge to keep him from getting automatically wrathful, which he knew was a bad thing. It just meant he'd seen enough really bad stuff, enough child rape and immolation, to put things in some kind of fucked-up perspective. See enough thirteen year-old girls on auction blocks, and frustrated love in a Sunnydale bathroom started to pale a bit. Not that he didn't still have a seed of hatred in his heart for Spike, for that. He did. He just didn't care enough to tend it anymore.

"Buffy's trotting the globe," he finished, aware of the awkwardness of the pause. "She's busy. We did Christmas in Dakar last year, that was cool."

Spike nodded, studying his own hand on the top of the table, as if Christmas in Dakar was about what he'd expected. "Rupert?"

"Watching away."

Spike snorted, almost overbalanced, and grabbed the edge of the table to steady himself. "That Watcher boy's rising in the ranks."

"Who, Andrew?" Xander shelved a can of spaghetti sauce. "Apparently he's a natural at whatever those guys get up to in English public schools. Consider me unshocked."

Spike grinned. "I went to English public school. Think I could get a job?"

"You've got a job," Xander said quickly, before he could think too much about the implications there. "Your job is to make sure I don't die a bloody death the first time Gilmore Girls is showing opposite Project Runway."

"Oh, please." Spike studied his bottle with a frown. "You grew up with girls. You're practically a bloody girl, yourself."

"I can't tell you how I've missed our little talks."

"You'll be fine." Apparently Spike was bored now, because he righted his chair with a bang, stood up, and stretched. "I'm off to bed. You run into any trouble with any of that Swedish crap, you be sure and not tell me."

"Just tell me you didn't throw any pieces away."

Spike looked shifty and left.

Part Four

Having a soul had changed a few things about Spike. It had made him less of a taunter, and it had definitely toned down his personal style. There was the Civic, the irony of whose name was not lost on Xander. And there was the mystery of the floss. You didn't need a box of Girl Scout cookies in the refrigerator to see that there had been some changes in the complex, shadowy hinterlands of the Spike psyche. Changes for the better, Xander reminded himself—this Spike didn't roam the streets at night hunting virgins, nor did he rifle your duffel bag for pocket change while you were conked out for twelve hours straight.

Having a soul did not, however, make Spike a handyman. It also didn't prevent him from ripping unhelpful instruction booklets into tiny, savage pieces, or from stomping on unco-operative but essential parts of the self-assembly process.

"You have got to be fucking kidding me," Xander said, surveying his latest find: a cache of tiny smashed plastic pills, nigh-unrecognizable as the shelf supports they'd once been. They'd been swept furtively beneath a pile of hopelessly intermingled instruction leaflets. "I'm going to be putting this stuff together with tape."

"Tried that," Spike said. Xander jumped and craned his neck around; Spike was standing in the doorway, with bedhead. Spike opened his mouth to emit further pearls of wisdom, then paused, his gaze arrested on Xander's face.

"Shut up," Xander said, twisting back around and bending over the pile of mismatched directions. "I can't read without them." The glasses were African, and they'd been broken half a dozen times. There was duct tape on both arms, and a long scratch down the left lens. Not a problem; he didn't use that side anyway.

There was a brief pause, and then Spike said, in what seemed to Xander like a careful tone of voice, "They're all right."

"I liked you better when you were a jerk," Xander said, studying the paper in front of him. He could feel heat in his face, which was annoying. "At least you were honest."

Another pause. Then Spike said affably, "They look like shit." He wandered in and toed one of the night tables. "How'd you get that to hold together?"

"With screws." Xander reached for the pile of scraps he suspected held the key to assembling the dining room table. "You left them in the box."

Spike made the kind of uninterested mm-hmm sound that Giles used to make whenever anyone mentioned sports. There was a soft yellow armchair in the middle of the ruins—no assembly required—and he dropped into it and sank down as if his spine had compressed to one third of its usual length.

"Who ordered this stuff?" Xander asked, keeping his gaze on the instructions, which were in Tagalog. "Tell me it wasn't you. Or tell me it was, and that you killed whoever left two dresser legs out of that box."

"I don't do that anymore," Spike said, in a tone that made Xander look up. Spike was examining his fingernails intently. "Kill people," he clarified, glancing up. For a moment, they looked at each other.

"Right," Xander said. " I know. Sorry."

Spike shrugged and looked away, and Xander went back to his instructions. Spike-with-a-soul was hard to predict. One minute he was being nice about your crappy glasses, the next he was touchy about murder. Xander had a brief, vivid image of himself standing up and yelling What have you done with the real Spike? It passed.

"I thought you were going to bed," he said, to fill the silence. Spike made another hmm sound. This time it was the kind of sound Giles made when you asked him what he did the summer Buffy was dead. It was a deflective hmm. Xander glanced up, pondered, and decided not to go there.

"When do we get Slayers, exactly?"

Spike frowned, successfully distracted. "Today, I thought. Must be some glitch."

"A glitch with the Council? Inconceivable." Xander started to put a screw in, but the threads were wrong and it dropped out. "Crap." He patted the floor for it without looking; changing depth of field too often made him dizzy.

"There's a packet," Spike said. "Start-up stuff. On the mail table."

"We have a mail table?" In frustration, Xander shoved the glasses down and scanned the floor. No screw.

"Well, not as such. Pile of stuff by the front door—I figured you'd put it up when you had time."

"Pencil it in for 2012. I'm not exactly blowing through the living room yet." He'd heard the screw fall, but he couldn't see it anywhere, and suddenly the general state of chaos was pissing him off. "This is fucking ridiculous." He stood up, yanked the glasses off, and tossed them onto the nearest night table. His eye watered and his head hurt. "I'm thinking this isn't such a great plan."

"What isn't?" Spike sounded careful again, even reserved.

"This whole Slayer house thing." Xander scrubbed his hands over his face, then turned and walked out. By the front door, he found a pile of pressed wood—the mail table—and on top of it, a FedEx packet. Sighing, he ripped it open. It was chock full of papers, forms, and folders. They felt thick and heavy, replete with silent admonition. He battled an urge to just drop the whole thing back where he'd found it, grab his stuff, and exit stage left before any Slayers darkened the doorstep.

"It's not as bad as it looks." Spike was standing in the door to the living room, rolling something in his fingers.

"How do you know?" Helplessly, Xander sifted through the pile. Admissions forms, medical reports, assessment forms, quarterly report forms, forms verifying the existence of other forms, everything in triplicate. At the top of everything was the heavy, owlish stamp of the Council, and below that the print was miniscule. His head throbbed just looking at it.

"Because I've done it." Spike sounded patient. He was holding something out, whatever he had between his finger and thumb. Xander frowned at him, stuffing the papers back into the envelope. "Half of it's rubbish, you can forget all about it."

"Yeah? Which half?"

"You're just tired," Spike said. "Have a kip and we'll go through it when you wake up."

It was on the tip of Xander's tongue to snap, Fuck you, I'm not tired, but he didn't. Barely. He turned and let the packet fall heavily back onto the disassembled mail table. When he turned back, Spike's hand was still out. "What is that?" he asked, hearing the petulance in his own voice, but reaching out automatically.

Spike dropped the missing screw into his palm. "Go to bed," he repeated gently. "You look like you could sleep for about a week."

Part Five

Hours later, Xander woke up in a dark room and a panic. He couldn't tell which way was up, where his head was, where his bag was. Couldn't remember what town he was in, or what he was supposed to be doing. Nothing made sense. He grappled with the sheets until he half-fell out of the bed, and it was only the feel of cool wood beneath his feet that jarred his memory back into focus. California. Right. God.

He was awake because he had to piss, he realized. There was a lamp somewhere—he remembered a blue shade. Clumsily, he fumbled for it. With the light on, he saw his bags still lying in the corner of the room, where Spike had put them the day before—or the day before that, he forgot now. Time seemed to be stretching and narrowing, playing tricks when he wasn't looking. He dragged on a pair of dirty jeans and ventured out.

His face, in the bathroom mirror, was middle-of-the-night strange. He'd taken the false eye out before sleeping, and its absence made him look old. His good eye was bloodshot and bleary. He needed a haircut and a shave, and some more Oreos. Africa had made him sunburned and skinny, like a bum. That was normal in Africa; he'd got used to it. In California he was a crazy person.

The little clock on the bathroom counter read 11:45. He washed his hands, ran cold water over his face, and went back to bed.

On the way, he heard a voice in the hallway. A quiet, distant, male voice, speaking at intervals. It took him a minute to realize it was Spike's voice. Drifting up through the old hot air register, from some other part of the house.

"—that's bloody stupid. You're worth four of him."

A long pause. Curious, Xander scratched the top of his right foot with the toes of his left.

"Mm. But you're back to uni in a few months anyway, right?"


"And you're going to do what he tells you."


"I never said you couldn't. Just never thought you were that kind."


"The kind to do what she's told. Never bloody did what I told you to—"


"I know you do, pet. I'm just saying, when people love each other they don't hold each other back, you know?"

Xander hung in the darkness, eyes closed, listening.

"Well, maybe he's—"

"Right, I know."

"Look, don't cry, all right? If you cry I'll have to rip his lungs out, and I've been doing really well lately—"

"I'm just saying, take some time and think it over."

"I know."


"No, I'm setting up a place. Supposed to get another bunch of young hopefuls in."

"No, some other poor bugger this time. Harris. Used to be—"

Xander's eyes opened.

"Right. That's the one."

"It's…fine. Just haven't seen any of that lot in a while, that's all. It's a little…"


"No. Christ. What are you studying, bloody Classics?"

A longer pause, while Xander crouched slowly down and propped his elbows on his knees, his chin on his hands. Spike's voice was like a radio play in the darkness: disembodied, ghostly.

"Right, well, if you want my advice—"

"Then don't bloody call asking for it. Tell this bloke he can either wait till you come back, or pick up and move with you. He's not going to—"

"Well, that'd be an answer, wouldn't it?"

A long pause, long enough that Xander's eyelids started to close again.

"Right," Spike said at last, very softly. "Right, I know." Another pause. "I'm sorry."

Xander rose quietly to his feet and started back to his bedroom. He had the uncomfortable, belated feeling of having eavesdropped on something more personal than he'd realized. At the same time, he felt a sense of pending surreality—a wallop of surprise that hadn’t really hit yet, because he wasn't awake enough to feel it. Spike-with-a-soul had layers. He had tenderness and complexity and advice. He might even have something like friends.

Sleep was the best place to contemplate this new gaping chasm in the fabric of reality. Xander dove in headfirst, without raising a ripple.

He woke up just before dawn, uncomfortably hard. Stripping the jeans off took just a few seconds. Thoughtless, no need for self-consultation. His dick was hot and hard and familiar in his hand. It was the only hand that had touched him in a little more than a year. Fortunately, it was a very intelligent hand.

He jerked off on his back, driving up into his own closed fist, feeling an unlooked-for pleasure and release he hadn't felt in years. He was home. He was safe. He wasn’t with a stranger, he didn't have to worry about anyone breaking in with guns or clubs. He didn't have to use this to erase anything awful from his mind. He could just enjoy it. So he did. For about a minute, before the complex tumble of images behind his eyelids—breasts, mouths, dicks, a finger and thumb, rolling something small—yanked him over the edge. He didn't have to be totally silent here, so he wasn't. He heard himself make an animal, guttural sound in the base of his throat.

It lasted longer than usual, and when it had finally worked its way through him he lay breathing quietly, listening to his heartbeat slow in his ears. Feeling stupidly pleased with himself. Outside, a bird sang a few notes. He smiled.

Then he heard Spike walk quietly out of the bathroom, a few feet down the hall. He went down the stairs and into the kitchen, and there was silence.

"Oh God," Xander said, opening his eyes to stare at the ceiling.

The bird sang a cheerful little elegy for his dignity.

Part Six

"I understand that," Xander said, taking the glasses off and rubbing the bridge of his nose. "What I'm saying is, we need Slayers."

"And you'll get them," Andrew said. "It's just a little…well, there've been some mix-ups at the central branch. This is why it's so important that you fill out those forms properly. If people don't fill out their forms—" He trailed off into an implication of bureaucratic doom.

"I'll fill out the forms," Xander said, looking at the small pile of forms, and the large pile of ripped-up paper beside it. When he'd come down this morning, after a long and shamefaced shower, Spike had already separated the wheat from the chaff. "Every last one. I promise. But first we need Slayers."

"And you'll get them. Just relax, Xander. Think of it as a vacation."

"I don't need a vacation, I need—" He paused as Spike walked back into the room, mug of blood in hand. "Look, I'm just saying, a house without Slayers is like a…"

"Day without sunshine," Spike intoned, sloshing blood down the drain. "Cat without kittens. Council without poofs. Try him on that one."

"Day without sunshine," Xander said grimly, studying a form. "Or whatever. Isn't it kind of pointless, having a house with no Slayers in it?"

"I'm working on it." Andrew sounded pissed. "Honestly, if you had any idea what it takes to get those bloody colonials to pay attention—"

"Andrew, you're from California."

"Xander, if you don't like the way we do things around here, you're more than welcome to go back to Swaziland or wherever."

Xander blinked at the table, taken aback. "Uh, that's okay. I mean, no thanks."

"Fine." Andrew took a deep breath at his end. "Sorry."


"I'll see what I can do. Don't expect miracles, though."

"I try not to."

They hung up, and Xander stared at his piles of forms and confetti.

"Watcher boy's on the rag," Spike observed, around a mouthful of Weetabix.

Xander glanced up furtively. He still wasn't sure what to do with the knowledge that Spike had heard him jerking off. Was there any possibility that Spike had lost ninety percent of his hearing in the last few years, and neglected to say so? Not really. But at least Spike didn't seem too interested in poking him with sticks these days. Thank God for the soul. Thank God for the kinder, gentler Spike.

"Pissy little bitch," Spike went on, mowing down another mouthful. "What he needs is a good hard fuck over some administrator's desk. That'd set him right."

In the brief pause that followed, Xander sat staring at Spike. It took Spike a minute to look up.

"What?" he asked, still chewing. "I'm just bloody saying."

Xander let his head fall forward into his hands, and wished briefly for a one-way ticket to elsewhere.

"Looks like the screw goes through the little…flange-y thing."

Xander drew back and waited in silence. There was a rustle of paper.


"I'm waiting."

A pause.

"Okay. Right, no, back up, I fucked it up. That's the cupboards. This is the dresser, right?"

Xander glanced up at the wooden skeleton he was building around himself. "That is correct. We are building a dresser." Or an ark. It was hard to tell.

"Fuck." More rustling. "What's it called? BARF? YÄK? Fuck."

Xander waited a couple of seconds more, then shimmied back out from beneath the dresser. Spike was sitting propped against the yellow armchair, cereal bowl at his side, squinting at a handful of papers. Xander set his screwdriver down carefully, where he could find it again.

"You can't read those either, can you?" he asked.

"Can too."

"You think it's a problem, both of us being pretty much blind? I mean, with the Slayers coming and all."

"Speak for yourself," Spike muttered, staring ferociously at the pages. "I see fine."

"How many fingers am I holding up?" He didn't bother to hold up any; as anticipated, Spike raised two of his own. "What is it, noon? I'm thinking it's Miller time." He shucked the glasses, heaved to his feet, and trekked down to the kitchen.

When he came back, bearing two cold Coronas and a bag of glorious American tortilla chips, he found Spike holding his glasses, studying them with a frown.

"Don't even think about it," Xander said, passing down a beer and continuing on to slump on the floor beside the half-built dresser. "Get your own."

"These are crap," Spike said, putting the beer down absently. "How long you been wearing them?"

"I don't know. A couple of years, I guess." About as long as Spike had been wearing his own hair color, he realized. And wasn't that a funny little coincidence. "It took a while to get them, over there."

"I bet." Spike folded the arms carefully, as if he were handling something expensive or worthwhile. "Not a lot of shopping malls."

"Not where I was." He raised his beer, paused, then asked, against his better judgment, "Where were you? I mean…when you went. There."

Spike didn't seem to notice the hesitation. "Kenya. Bloody mess."

"Yeah." Without thinking, Xander held out his beer. Spike had his halfway to his mouth, but he paused with a look of faint surprise, and held his bottle out. They clinked necks.

"To Africa," Spike said, his tone adding a whole paragraph of editorial.

"To Africa," Xander repeated, a little quieter. He couldn't quite bring himself to think everything he knew Spike was thinking right now--backward hellhole. It was, in a lot of ways. But it was also home, in a weird way. He had a thing for hellholes, after all.

They drank, and then there was a slightly awkward quiet spell. Spike pursed his lips and examined the ceiling.

"So," Xander said, and found he had nothing to follow that up with.

Spike raised an eyebrow, waiting for more. They looked at each other for a minute.

"This is weird," Xander blurted. "I'm sorry, I'm just…this is just weirding me out a bit. That's all."

"What?" Spike looked guarded, ready for the worst.

"You. Me. We're building a dresser. I keep expecting a giant snake, or a troll, or some, I don't know, some vampires or something. You know?"

Spike frowned. Xander sighed and put the flat of his palm over the mouth of his beer. "Forget it. I'm just…it's just jet lag."

"Kind of the point," Spike said, from under his frowning brow. "Isn't it? Running a Slayer house—it's retiring from the field. Let some other bloke get knocked down for a while."

"Retiring," Xander said, swigging from his beer. "Great. Terrific."

"Taking a break, that's all."

"There aren't even any Slayers." Xander lay back with a sigh and reached for the screwdriver, finding it without looking. The bottom of the dresser was fuzzy and dark. "Can I have my glasses, please?"

There was a pause, then he heard a scuffling sound, and Spike put his glasses in his hand. "Okay, so…what the hell am I doing, again?"

"Building," Spike said quietly. Xander closed his eyes and waited for instructions.

Part Seven

Later, there was spaghetti and red sauce, and a crystal-clear showing of Deep Rising on the SciFi network, courtesy of Xander's brief investigation behind the television set that Spike had given up for dead.

"What'd you do?" Spike asked, slurping up a red noodle, eyes fixed on the screen.

"Plugged it in," Xander replied, too engrossed to mock. He hadn't seen good television in years. And this wasn't good, not in the sense of "well-scripted, superlatively acted, and wow, those special effects!" It was, however, crystal-clear. And in English. And there was a monster.

"Shite," Spike opined at one point, getting up for another beer.

"Uh-huh." Xander stayed put, entranced. They'd unpacked the sofa and he was sprawled along it, luxuriating in the cushions. Cushions made by tiny Swedish elves, whose sole purpose in life was to extract the breast feathers of Swedish geese and the fluff from Swedish dandelions, and to weave them into sofa cushions of the finest, most supreme Swedish softness. He was going to write a letter of appreciation to the Swedish government, as soon as he got up. No, not appreciation. Love.

"Getting late." Spike was back, settling down on the floor at the foot of the sofa, beer and cell phone in hand. Huh. Spike with a cell phone—go figure. Xander cradled his head on his arm, and watched Spike go through the call registry.

"How many times have you done this?" he asked, thinking blearily of that overheard conversation, the unknown girl at the other end of the line. Spike looked at him blankly. "Had a house, I mean. Slayers. You know."

"Oh." Spike did a quick mental calculation. "Four, five. I set 'em up, pass 'em off, come back and do a little check-in once in a while. Spar with the girls." He frowned at the phone and flipped it closed. "Keeps them sharp."

Xander watched the screen for a while. "Do you like it?"

"Yeah." There was no hesitation there, no pause to dissemble. "Feels like… payback, I guess."

Because you used to kill them, Xander thought, but didn't say. He could have layers, too. He glanced down and saw that Spike was watching the television earnestly, as if escape from the depths were the most important thing in the world. At that particular angle, in the half-light of the late night living room, there was still some boy left in his face.

Without looking, Xander fished for his beer on the floor by his head. "How long do you usually stay?" he asked. "When you set up a place."

Spike shrugged. "Depends. A week or two usually. More if I'm passing off to a total berk." He reached over, picked up the beer, and put it in Xander's hand.

"Thanks." Now that he had it, he didn't really want it. He just held it, enjoying the cool wet glass against his hand, enjoying the softness of the couch, enjoying the bright light and sound of the television. He couldn't really see what was going on, but that didn't matter. He was okay with ambiguity.

"Do you think they're ever going to send us actual Slayers?" he murmured, letting his eyes fall closed.

"Yeah," Spike said, somewhere in the darkness. "Sooner or later. And then we'll really be screwed."

Xander smiled and let the bottle slip from his hand, back to the floor.

He woke up in darkness, under some kind of light scratchy blanket. No idea where he was. Blindly, he swung his legs out of bed and stood up. He could see dark, confusing shapes, random open spaces, strange shadows. Nothing made sense. He took a step and felt something crunch beneath his foot. His heart kicked up and he stumbled forward, hands out to meet whatever was there. Nothing.

He kept walking, nervous and blind, wondering where his bag was. He had a flashlight and a knife, he just had to find them. He remembered a woman he'd slept with, Fernanda—she'd stolen some stuff. Maybe she'd drugged him. He had all his clothes on, that was good. He couldn't think. He had to stop and think.

When the light came on, he found himself at the foot of the staircase, breathing hard, hands outstretched but touching nothing. Spike stood at the top of the stairs, in jeans and nothing else, his hair standing up on end. They stared at each other.

"Holy fuck," Xander breathed, lowering his right hand to rest on the newel post. "That was weird—"

"What's wrong with your foot?" Spike asked. Xander looked down. A small puddle of blood was forming around the base of his right heel. A moment later, he remembered the crunch.

"Oh, crap." He sat down heavily on the bottom stair, and studied the remains of his glasses, sticking out of the bottom of his heel. "Oh, crap."

"Hang on," Spike said, heading back down the hall to the bathroom. "I'll get the stuff."

"The good thing about a Slayer house," Spike said, slapping a final layer of tape on for good measure, "is all the medical stuff you get. Courtesy of the Council."

"Fantastic. I can't wait to start Band-Aiding superfluously."

"Don't knock the pharmaceuticals."

"I wouldn't—what pharmaceuticals?"

With a significant look, Spike dug a couple of bottles out of the kit and handed them over. "You can't read that, but it's morphine-based. Bloody good stuff."

"I'm sure." Xander handed them back. "I'm pretty sure I'm okay without the morphine for now."

"Wait till you have to hear that milkshake song forty times on repeat."

"Good point." Xander lowered his gauzed and taped foot to the kitchen floor and pressed experimentally, wincing. "Ow."

"Did a good job of it. Trashed the specs completely." Spike brandished the mangled, glassless frames, then tossed them onto the table. Xander sighed.

"I hereby declare this house open for business," he said hollowly, hobbling toward the sink. "Baptized in blood and everything. But not in an Omen-y way." He added that part hastily, and a little belatedly.

Spike closed up the first aid kit and watched Xander draw a glass of water from the sink. The clock over the stove read 2:35.

"I don't know," Xander said after a while, studying the glass in his hand. "Maybe you should take this one on your own." He didn't look up to see what Spike thought of that.

"Take what on my own?" Spike was using the careful tone again.

"The house. Maybe you should just set this up on your own, and if you don't want to stick around, they can get someone else to manage it."

"Why would they do that?"

"Because I'm blind. And crazy."

"So's half the Council."

"Spike." Xander looked up—Spike was staring at him intently, as if something faint were written on Xander's forehead, and he was trying to make it out. "Every time I wake up, I have no idea where I am. I'm thinking the first time I wander into a Slayer's room at three am, I'm going to get staked."

Spike considered the possibility, then shrugged. "It's just culture shock. It'll pass."

"Yeah, that's what the Lonely Planet guide says. But it also said to try the goat kebabs at Lua Cheia. What I'm saying is, I'm not really sure I'm up for this."

Spike let out a short, humorless wheeze that must have been a laugh. "You'd rather be sidestepping land mines in the arsehole of the planet."

"No, I'd—" Xander cut himself short and stared at the glass some more. Clean water, safe to drink. Free from the tap. Amazing.

"You're just tired," Spike said. "You're bloody exhausted and you're sad and angry, and you're scared you'll foul it all up. And you're lonely, and you think you'll never get love again, because you lost the eye and you don't have friends anymore to tell you it doesn't fucking matter."

Xander rocked back, as if he'd been punched in the chest. For a minute he couldn't think of a thing to say. His throat had closed up, like an iris spinning automatically closed. His brain lurched futilely. He was furious, and the back of his eye was hot. He was not going to cry in front of Spike. He was not.

"Africa," Spike said meditatively, with a kind of rich, complex hatred. "Fucking Africa."

Xander stared at his glass some more, then decided that if he wasn't going to cry in front of Spike, he had to leave the room now. He put the glass down and walked out without saying another word.

Part Eight

He was still awake at dawn, lying on his bed on top of the blankets, eyes closed, floating. He'd done his crying in the bathroom, in the shower. It had been shorter than he'd thought it was going to be, like the pain of ripping off a bandage. Now that it was over he was calm and even sort of grateful. Spike, of all people. Well, Spike had come back from Africa too. Once upon a time.

He knew he was going to fall asleep soon, but it was as if his body was waiting for the sound of footsteps on the stairs, then coming down the hall toward his room. Slow and hesitant. His door was open; he turned his head and opened his eyes, so Spike would know he was awake. He didn't have the false eye in. For once, it didn’t matter.

"Sorry," Spike said right away, leaning against the doorframe. He crossed his arms over his chest, then cleared his throat and wrapped his hands around his upper arms, hugging himself, as if he didn't know what to do with his limbs. He looked even smaller than usual. The corners of his mouth had turned unconsciously down, twin commas.

Xander shook his head. "It's okay. It's fine."

"I do that, sometimes. Forget what to say, what not to say." He wiped his palm over his mouth, and glanced at the frame above him. He didn't seem to have noticed the lack of eye. "Say stupid bollocks."

"It's okay."

"Look." Spike stared at the frame, frowning fiercely, as if all his thoughts had collapsed into a tangled pile and he was trying to tease one out intact. Xander waited. The little bird outside the window gave an early-morning peep. At last, Spike shook his head and scrubbed a palm over his hair. "Fuck, I don't know. Whatever."

Xander closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Spike was studying him with a pained expression.

"You were right," Xander said mildly. "I'm pissed off and scared and…I don't really know if my friends are my friends anymore, you know? And I kind of need them. I think." He levered up on the bed, until he was sitting against the headboard. "I know."

Spike's mouth compressed. He didn't say anything.

"It's weird," Xander said, propping his knees up and resting his arms on top. "I thought it was a good thing to get out of the country for a while. Things were pretty bad here, and I'd never been anywhere, and it was just for a while…" He rubbed absently at a spot on his jeans. "But then it was a year and then it was five years, and I kind of hated it but it was kind of like sleepwalking, you know? I couldn't get out of it on my own. I just kept staying."

Spike made a faint sound that might have been recognition. Xander glanced at him, then looked back at his knees.

"It's weird being back. Buffy and Willow aren't here, it's not the same. I thought coming back would be…I don't know, coming home. Stupid." He breathed out a humorless laugh. "They're not here, I don't know what I was thinking. Just…I thought things would go back to normal. I would. Go back to normal."

"You can't go home again," Spike said, without embarrassment. Xander laughed, a little more easily.

"Thank you, Robert Fulghum."

"'s true."

"So I find."

Spike pushed off the doorframe and wandered into the room, glancing at the dusty pile of Xander's bags, then going to the window. The blind was drawn, but he fingered it open and peered out at the lightening sky.

"Johnny Flame. Step away from the light."

Spike made a derisive psh sound, but he dropped the blind and walked away, hands in his back pockets, studying the white walls and the night table and the rag rug on the floor. He must have put all that in there, Xander realized.

"Thanks," he said aloud. "For…I don’t know. Being around."

Spike grunted, fingering the lampshade.

"You're kind of Home Truth Guy these days," Xander went on, thinking of the overheard conversation, the unknown girl on the other end of the line. "Well, you've always been Home Truth-y, but you used to be more of an asshole about it. Now you're wearing an invisible cardigan of good faith. A cardigan of homilies and advice. Like Giles. But without the crumbs." He paused. "Sorry."

Spike was regarding him with faint amusement, he realized. "You're a wanker, Harris."

"Wanking is my specialty." Too late, he realized that was a bad comeback. He'd wanked; Spike had heard. Ouch. "I mean—"

Spike turned away, but not before Xander saw his smile turn sly. Ouch ouch ouch. "Let you get back to it, then."

"Whoah—it's hands above blankets at the Slayer House. From now on, I mean." Aware that he was blushing, he held up both hands, palms out. "I've learned my lesson. Little pitchers."

"They're teenaged girls," Spike said, starting for the door. "They're having more sex than either of us."

"And that is exactly the kind of home truth that gets us barred from running these kinds of establishments."

"Haven't been barred yet," Spike said dismissively, on his way out. "Of course, nobody else wants the job."

"Please," Xander said, resisting the urge to lay his aching head down on the table in front of him. "Tell me we have Slayers."

"You have Slayers," Andrew said solemnly.

"Finally. When do they—"

"Oh, you don't really. I just said that. You asked me to say that. I thought it would be funny."

Xander stared at the table and tried not to say the first thing that came into his head. After a brief internal wrestling bout, he said, "Ha ha."

"Actually you might have a couple," Andrew went on. "I doubt it, but there's supposed to be two heading in from Tempe, so if they were released on time—"


"I mean, if they made their bus, they should be getting in around, um…two o'clock."

Xander checked his watch. "It's one forty."

"Wow, you're late."

"Andrew, what do you mean, 'released'?"

"Don't worry, they probably won't wander off on their own if you're not there."


"The motorway's going to be jam-packed, isn't it?"

In his mind's eye, Xander had a brief, vivid vision of driving to LAX, getting on a plane, flying to London, and strangling Andrew with his bare hands. He could do it. He had a passport.

"I'll call you later," he said, with as much dignity as he could muster, and hung up.

Spike, seated on the living room floor in the middle of a large drift of instructional pamphlets, screws, bolts, flanges, slotted slabs of pressed wood, and tortilla chips, looked up with mild interest. "Where you going?"

"The bus station," Xander gritted, struggling to jam his taped foot into a shoe. "Where the hell are the car keys? We've got Slayers."

Three and a half hours later, he limped back through the front door. He was sweaty, exhausted, and filmed with toxic exhaust smog. His left elbow was sunburned. His head throbbed.

"No Slayers," Spike observed, from the same spot where he'd been sitting when Xander had left. There was no discernible difference in the pile of parts and manuals. Xander sank down into the couch without a word.

"First rule of running a Slayer house," Spike said, squinting at a screw head. "Don't listen to anything the bloody Council tells you."

Xander nodded vacantly. "The convict Slayers didn't make it through processing yet."

Spike gave his screwdriver an unsurprised look. "Convicts, huh? What'd they do?"

"Their guidance counselor."

"Thought they put the bloke in jail for that these days."

"He was a vampire. They staked him." Xander rubbed his forehead. "The Council's working it out."

"We'll see them around Christmas, then."

"If we're lucky." Xander sank down sideways and disengaged his brain. He heard Spike grind a screw slowly and tortuously into pressboard. Without opening his eyes, he could tell it wasn't the right screw or the right place for it. "You're just making it up now, aren't you?"

"They don't give you any of the right bits." Spike gave the screw a final ugly-sounding tweak, then got up and walked out. In a few minutes he was back, standing beside the couch. Xander opened his eyes. There was a beer hovering in front of him.

"Thanks," he said, faintly amazed.

"Second rule of running a Slayer house," Spike said, going back to the mutated dresser with his own beer in hand. "Don't go chasing Slayers. Let them come to you."

"Wax on," Xander said, gulping his beer. "Wax off."

"Last thing you need is to run all over the place trying to get them to fall in line. They won't bloody do it, and you'll look stupid. Also, you're half-blind and you'll probably crash the car anyway." Spike licked his thumb and rubbed the head of the screw he'd just put in, frowning. "Did you crash the car?"

"No." There might be a couple of door panel dings, but there was no way to prove those hadn't been there when he'd taken it out. And if he never had to drive glassless and gimpy in LA freeway traffic again, it would be too soon.

"Good." Spike glanced at the window, then went back to scowling at the dresser. "I'm out for a bit when it gets dark."

"Oh." For some reason, that gave Xander a small, momentary pang. "Okay."

He was going to ask where, but he left it too long and then it felt weird to ask. And Spike didn't volunteer. He just went back to driving another misplaced screw into the side of the dresser, his face taut with concentration, his beer forgotten by his side. For a couple of minutes Xander watched, and then he started feeling dumb and out of place, so he got up and limped out.

Part Nine

He was upstairs in his room, lying on his bed, when he heard the front door close and the car pull out of the driveway. The clock on the night table read 8:15. The bedroom window was a soft late summer evening blue. The little birds had gone to bed a while ago. The house was silent.

He had a beat-up Tom Clancy paperback he'd picked up in Johannesburg; for a while he tried to read it, deciphering the fuzzy caterpillars of text as well as he could. Clancy was better without glasses—there were more unexpected plot twists involving fondue—but it was still pretty much crap. He put the book aside with a sigh, spent a few minutes pinching the pain out of the bridge of his nose, then got up and went in search of food.

Packet of Oreos clasped to his heart and glass of milk in hand, he wobbled through the house. There were four bedrooms total—his own little one, two more just like it, and a bigger one that was probably supposed to be the master. He leaned in the doorframe, crunching and envisioning the epic battle that was going to ensue when the Slayers figured out there was prime real estate up for grabs. He'd have to remember to let Spike handle that one.

Spike himself didn't seem to have taken any of the bedrooms. Or he didn't seem to have set up residence, at least. There were sheets on the bed set up in one of the other small rooms, at the opposite end of the hall from Xander's. That must be where Spike was sleeping, although it didn't look very slept-in. There were no other signs of occupancy, either—no clothes, no books, no crumb-covered plates or blood-filmed glasses.

"Are you a cyborg?" Xander asked, shuffling downstairs and glancing through the living room and kitchen. "Am I going to stumble unknowingly into a big closet full of WD-40 and extra heads?"

No, he realized, standing at the foot of the basement stairs with the single light bulb's chain still swinging above him. He was staring at what looked like a junk-yard reject bed frame, sagging and lopsided, red with rust. The mattress on it looked thin and tired and used. The sheets were bunched at the bottom of the bed, as if they'd been kicked there and forgotten about a long time ago.

"Okay," Xander said, looking at the faint imprint of a body still pressed into the mattress. "I guess some habits die hard."

Gingerly, he sat down on the edge of the bed and looked around. Not much down there. The water heater in one corner, the furnace in the other—and looking at its oily black bulk, he wanted to weep with the certain foreknowledge of repairs—the washer and dryer, a couple of dusty lawn-level windows. He leaned over and looked under the bed. A couple of pairs of black boots, neatly lined up with their back seams facing him. Beside them was a cardboard box, which he hooked with one finger and pulled out a few inches until he could see inside it. Folded jeans and T-shirts. For some reason, the sight of them made his throat tight. He started to push the box back under the bed, then paused. There was another, smaller box tucked in along the side. An old cigar box, maybe. He hesitated.

"You don't kill people anymore, right?" he said out loud, setting down his glass of milk and reaching in for the little box. It was light; it almost felt empty. Holding it, he asked himself whether Spike would do this to him. Go into his space, look through his stuff. No. Once upon a time, yes. Without hesitation or a moment's scruple. But now, no. No way. Probably not. No.

He weighed the box in his hand, looking at the bed. Spike lived down here in the basement, kept his stuff in boxes and slept on a junk pile, either because he liked it or because he was still paying on old accounts. And maybe he still owed on those. He'd been evil for a really long time. Although just now it was sort of hard to remember what that had been like—evil Spike. Blonde Spike, bitey Spike. He'd been a real jerk. And a murderer, too. Once upon a time, Xander had hated him.

So maybe it was Spike's own business where he slept or didn’t sleep, and maybe Xander had enough problems of his own without worrying about somebody else's bed of nails. Maybe definitely. Definitely for sure.

He opened the little box anyway, and squinted at what was inside.

Photographs. The top ones were recent, of people he didn't know. A smiling black girl, a moody-looking white girl. He lifted them up and found Buffy underneath, a photo he couldn't remember seeing before. She looked thin and young, her lips already starting to purse in that way she had now, almost all the time. Her eyes already getting that shadowy look. He stared at it for a minute, then lifted it and found one of the three of them—Willow, Buffy, himself. He remembered that one from Willow's mirror in the dorms. Spike must have stolen it at some point. On the back was the year 1999, in Willow's handwriting.

Beneath those were more he didn't recognize. A couple of those old square photos from the seventies, with the rounded corners—a white-faced woman with black hair, pouting. Something so blurry he couldn’t make it out at all. A Polaroid of sunrise or sunset. Just a red ball on a black horizon. Under everything, one so old it felt like it was going to crumble in his fingers. It took him a minute to recognize Angel with long hair.

He looked at them again, then put them carefully back in the order they'd been in. He put the lid on the box and slid it back into the carton, then slid the carton back under the bed. When he stood up he brushed the edge of the mattress off automatically. He felt strangely subdued. Not rebuked, not guilty. Just sad, and sort of helpless. As if he'd just been told about some minor tragedy that had happened to someone he didn’t know.

Spike got back a little after midnight, just as Xander was starting to think about packing it in. His clock was slowly resetting to L.A. time; he was tired. His head throbbed and his foot hurt. Still, the sound of the car in the drive gave him a little kick, and he sat up on the couch, rubbing his eye. On the television, Denzel Washington was losing his cool.

The front door opened and closed, and Xander looked at the door to the hall. After a minute, Spike appeared. He was in the same dark blue T-shirt and jeans he'd been wearing all day. Xander thought of the carton of neatly folded clothes shoved under the basement bed.

"Hi," he said. Then he felt weird, as if he'd said too much.

Spike didn't seem to notice. He was holding out a small paper bag, the top folded neatly down. "Here," he said. "Picked 'em up on my way home."

Xander leaned forward and took the bag, which weighed almost nothing. Inside was a pair of non-prescription reading glasses, the kind they sold at drugstores.

"Cheaters," he said, opening them and peering through the glass. "Cool."

Spike shrugged, his gaze on the television. "Might help till you can get real ones."

"Plus, I'll be the snazziest-looking geriatric on the block."

"I can take them back."

Xander paused, studying the frames. "No, they're fine. They're great. Thanks."

Spike stared at the television in silence for a few moments. Then he shrugged, shook his head, and turned to go. "I'm off to bed."

"Hey." Xander found himself leaning forward, the glasses in one hand, the bag in the other. He had no idea what he was going to say, but he didn't want Spike to go. Something felt unfinished. But now Spike was looking at him, and he had no plan.

"Just," he said, and smiled nervously. Spike waited. "Nothing."

Spike stood in the doorway, staring at him, until the silence turned painful.

"Nothing," Xander said, folding the glasses closed and slipping them back into the bag. "Good night."

He'd had sex with one man, one time, just once in his life. It had been in Angola, in Luanda, his first year in the country. He'd been lonely, homesick, fighting a flu. The Council was still paying attention to him in those days—when he got sick, they checked him into a good hotel. He was their man in Africa, they didn't want him dying of malaria six months after making landfall. Later on he got sick, got beat up, got robbed, got shot at, and the Council gave slightly less than a metric damn. They had men all over Africa by then, and bigger fish to fry.

He checked into the good hotel, one with white guests, and spent two days sweating into his sheets and listening to the Portuguese couple next door have sex. By the third day he was pretty sure he wasn't going to die, and he was in a strange new headspace he'd never been in before. Everything felt heightened and dreamlike. The angle of the sun on the bed was like a revelation. He felt like he was approaching some kind of understanding about humanity, about tragedy and comedy and how it all fit together, and how everyone was part of everyone else. Also, he was thirsty.

The waiter who brought bottled water to his room was a young man, an Angolan, with blue-black skin and deep brown eyes. He was as concerned and solicitous as a woman. Pouring a glass of water led to hands, and to mouths, and from there to the rumpled, stuffy-smelling sheets. It was quick and it wasn't. More than anything else, in retrospect, it reminded Xander of dropping honey from a spoon. Slow and fast at the same time, and irreversible. And sweet.

Afterward, he panicked. It hadn't been even a little bit safe. The waiter was long gone. It was Africa, of all places. He was going to recover from the flu and die of AIDS. He freaked out and called Willow. She freaked out. He got tested. It came back clean. Six months later, clean again. He kept testing, neurotically, self-punishingly, for two years. He didn't have sex with anyone for almost all that time. By the time Fernanda rolled around, he'd finally managed to believe that he wasn't infected, that he was clean, that he was never going to do anything that stupid ever again. She stole his wallet, his water filter, the rest of his condoms. He was fine with that.

He woke up in darkness and silence, his heart beating in his ears. He was standing up, barefoot. He was supposed to get to the airport. He had a ticket on a flight to Johannesburg, then to Paris, then to Los Angeles. If he missed the flight he was screwed. Stuck in Africa for another five years. He was not going to miss the flight.

He took a step and his bare toes connected with something hard and cold. He yelped and stumbled back, and there was a sudden violent creaking sound, and then something grabbed him around the throat. Hard. He flailed blindly. Nothing—he'd lost his bag of tricks, he didn't have any stakes. He struck out and connected with something, hurting his knuckles. He could hear his own breath rasping desperately in his windpipe.

Then the hold on his throat loosened and he took the opportunity to yank himself free. He was just finding his feet when a light clicked on. It was too bright; he couldn't see anything. He squinted and shielded his eyes with his forearm, trying to get his bearings.

"Fucking hell," Spike said. "Sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—I'm sorry." He sounded almost frightened.

Slowly, Xander straightened up. He was in the basement, under the single swinging light bulb, wearing the T-shirt and boxers he'd gone to bed in. It took a couple of seconds for that to sink in. He was in L.A. In the house. He'd made the plane.

"I'm sorry," Spike said again, on an endless agitated loop. "I didn't know—sorry."

"It's okay," Xander said inanely, looking around. The metal bedframe was still there, sagging under the sad mattress. Spike was in washed-out grey pajama bottoms. His jeans and T-shirt were folded on the floor beside the bed.

"I didn't mean to do that." Spike was staring at Xander's throat, where he'd grabbed it. His hands were twitching at his sides, as if they were remembering a long-forgotten pastime. As Xander watched, the skin of his forehead rippled and smoothed. Somewhere in there still dwelt an ornery demon.

"It's okay," he said again, taking a step back and feeling his throat. "I mean—sorry. I didn't mean to freak you out."

Spike gave a nervous half-laugh. "Then we're even."

"Yeah." Xander swallowed experimentally, and coughed. Spike looked instantly contrite.

"You want…a glass of water?"

Xander started to nod, then realized he wasn't wearing the eye again. Jesus. He raised his hand to his face and cupped his palm uselessly, automatically over the socket.

"It's not bad," Spike said quietly.

"Is there absolutely no booze in this house?" Xander asked, letting his hand fall.

"Got half a bottle of whiskey in the car."

"That is what I want," Xander said, starting for the stairs. "That is exactly what I want a glass of right now."

Xander took the couch and Spike took the living room floor, the little bare spot he'd staked a claim to in the middle of all the junk. They were close enough to pass the bottle back and forth.

"So," Xander said, swigging. "You're more or less bunking in the basement."


"We do have bedrooms."


"Which you scorn."

Spike reached for the bottle. "Not scorning anything. Just…not going to be here long."

"Right. Why be comfortable in the short term?"

Spike gave Xander a dark look, and drank.

"Don't mind me," Xander said. "I'm just the crazy blind drunk guy who lives upstairs. But I have to say, I thought you'd moved past the crypt-dwelling."

"It's not a crypt."

"It's a reasonable facsimile."

"It's easier," Spike said. "I'll get kicked out when the girls get here anyway." But he looked shifty, toying with a mutilated plastic shelf support. Xander chewed the inside of his cheek.

"Okay," he said at last. "I know this is five kinds of stupid, but…was there anything you wanted to talk about?"

Spike's stare was flat and unrevealing.

"I'm just thinking," Xander said, "it's great you've got this Slayer house gig, but maybe it just, uh, raises some stuff for you." He held out his hand for the bottle. "Emotions. You've heard of them."

Spike's eyes narrowed. "I've done this, thanks."

"You have?"

"Sure." Spike thumbed the mouth of the bottle, then handed it back. "Went crazy, came back. Wrote some shitty poems. Talked to the Council lackeys about my mum."

"To the…" Xander paused with the bottle halfway raised. "What, like therapy? With the Council?"

"They offered." Spike shrugged, bending the shelf support absently between forefinger and thumb. "Some of it was all right."

Xander swigged from the bottle and pondered the idea of Spike lying on a couch with a Watcher taking notes by his head. It was one of the weirder images he'd entertained in his life.

"Wow," he said. "Okay. Well, that's…good. But the point is, you're still sleeping with the laundry detergent. And I'm just wondering whether that means there are some unresolved—"

Spike snorted. "That's rich."

"I'm just—" Xander paused. "Wait, what?"


Xander hugged the bottle to his chest. "Fine. Be the C.H.U.D. See if I care."

To his surprise, Spike smiled. It was a lazy, almost fond smile, a foreign smile, a smile that clearly belonged to a self-satisfied male model in Beverly Hills, and that had somehow been misdelivered to Spike's face. It was a handsome smile. Without thinking, Xander smiled back.

"I guess it's good," he said, buoyed by the sudden warmth in his chest and belly. "That way we've got the house covered. In case the convict Slayers try to sneak out and go hair-hopping or anything."

Spike's smile turned small and mysterious, and he leaned forward with his hand out. Xander held out the bottle, but Spike's hand went to his knee instead. The contact was electrifying. His heart jumped.

"Did you want--?" he started to say, proffering the bottle again. In case the hand on his knee was just a mistake, in case Spike had suddenly lost all depth perception and motor control.

Spike shook his head, rose gracefully up onto his knees, and leaned forward. Xander had just enough presence of mind to meet him halfway. They kissed softly, and some part of Xander's brain noticed that Spike's lips were cool.

It only lasted a couple of seconds. When they drew apart, Xander sat still, the bottle still in his hand. Spike sank back down to the floor and regarded him.

"Did that just happen?" Xander asked after a moment.

"I thought it might help to get it out of the way."

"Oh." Xander rubbed his forehead. "Get what out of the way?"

Spike frowned. "Thought we were heading that way."

"What way?"

Spike's frown grew. "Fuck. Sorry." He gathered his legs under himself to stand. "Forget it."

"Whoah—" Xander reached out and grabbed Spike's shoulder, holding him down. His skin felt cool and taut, the bones and muscles just barely contained by the skin. "Whoah, hang on. There was a way?"

"I thought so." Spike was looking abashed now. "Doesn't matter, I'm off my game is all." He tried to stand again, and Xander held him down.

"This way of which you speak…it's a kissing way?"

Spike looked uncomfortable.

"You and me," Xander clarified. "With mouths."

"Look, I said I'm sorry—"

"Did I say no?" Xander set the bottle carefully down on the floor. "Did I say it was crazy? Because it is, it's hella crazy—"

"Right, I get it—"

"But I'm not saying no."

Spike paused.

"I'm not saying yes either," Xander said hurriedly. "I'm not saying anything. I'm just…" He searched for something to follow that up, but his mind was hung up on the totally unaccustomed feeling of lips on his. Spike's lips. Which were cool.

"Sorry," Spike said, shaking Xander's hand off and getting to his feet. "It's late." He started for the door.

"Spike," Xander said, getting up too. "Hang on, okay? I'm just a little…I'm surprised, that's all." He was and he wasn't. He'd had his thoughts, here and there. The surprise was in the suddenness, the realization that he now knew what Spike's mouth felt like. A few minutes ago he hadn't. "I'm not trying to be a jerk."

"You're not a jerk." Spike gave him a brief, tight smile. "It's my fault."

"I didn't even know you swung that way," Xander said without thinking, and instantly regretted it. Spike's shoulders went up an inch and he left without another word. His footsteps went through the kitchen and down the stairs to the basement. A profound silence settled over the house.

Xander stood in the middle of all the instruction pamphlets in the world, with no idea what to do.

Part Ten

"I don't know what to do," he whispered, glancing at the bedroom door, which was closed. He was in his room, Spike was in the basement. There was no way Spike could hear him, right? No way. Hot air vents be damned.

"I don't think you can do anything," Willow said. "I mean, you didn't lead him on or anything, did you?"

"Um." Xander closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. "No. Not exactly. We've been getting along pretty well, but I figured it was just because he'd stopped being such an asshole."

"Well, that's good. Good for him." She sounded proud, all the way from London. "Maybe you've both grown up."

"Enough to start necking?" he asked morosely, staring at his taped foot. Was foot-taping a turn-on for vampires? Or for him? A moment's panicked self-scrutiny confirmed that no, for him it was just a pain in the ass.

"I don't know what to say," Willow said. "If you're not interested, just tell him and I'm sure he'll understand. He has a soul now."

"Right," he said. "Okay."

"It's really good to hear your voice."

"You too," he said honestly. "I miss you, Will."

"Me too." She gave a little sigh, a sigh that spoke volumes about life in London, life in the adult world, life in general. "So when do you get Sla—"

"One thing," he said quickly, "just before we move on to saner topics."


"What if I am?"

"What if you are what?"

He paused, staring at the space beneath the bedroom door. "Interested."

"In what?"

He didn't answer; after a second or two, he heard her long inhale, beamed from satellite to satellite, her mouth to his ear.

"Well," she said at last, as gamely as she'd ever said anything. "Then I guess you should probably tell him that too."

He lay awake the last few hours until morning, twiddling his thumbs, watching the window lighten by degrees. He kept replaying the moment of Spike's hand settling on his knee, the moment of their lips touching. Even now it put a spark in his belly to think of it. He'd leaned forward to meet the kiss. He was no innocent bystander.

And what Spike had said, about there being a way, about thinking they were on it—in retrospect, it was kind of true. It was a weird, jerky, awkward way. It was low on cards and flowers, and high on non-prescription reading glasses, morphine derivatives, and irritation. But it was a way. Kind of. Maybe.

Frustratingly, hypocritically, his body wouldn't let him think it through without input, and by the time his window was pale blue he had a sturdy early-morning hard-on. He'd learned from his last mistake though, so he took it to the shower and dealt with it there, as quietly as he could. Maybe it was morally wrong to think about how Spike's shoulder had felt beneath his hand, or about how Spike's hand had felt on his knee. It was definitely wrong to think about Spike in rumpled, stuffy-smelling sheets, in African light, his ass raised and his mouth wet. Very, very wrong. So wrong he thought his legs might give out.

He staggered downstairs with a wet head, a sore foot, and a dry mouth. He needed sleep and two Tylenol. And a Coke. But first, he needed to talk to Spike.

Who was, conveniently, in the kitchen when he walked in. Sitting at the table with all the blinds drawn, studying the packet of forms from the Council.

"Hi," Xander said, trying to sound like a normal human being. "Listen, about last night—"

"This needs doing," Spike said, holding up the form he was looking at. "Right away."

"Um, okay. But I wanted to say—"

"No," Spike said, with greater urgency, shaking the paper. "This should have been done days ago."

"I thought you said those were stupid."

"They are, most of 'em. But this one's important." He held it out and Xander squinted at it. The bag with the cheaters in it was on the counter behind him, so he grabbed the paper out of Spike's hand and turned back for them.

"Listen, Spike, I wanted to say I'm sorry." He found the bag and slipped the cheaters out, glad of something to do with his hands. "About last night. I was just kind of surprised. But not really. I mean, I've been thinking about it—"

"Read that," Spike said, suddenly at his elbow. Xander jumped and grabbed his chest. Spike didn’t notice. He was stabbing his pointy finger at a dense block of text at the top of the form.

"Jesus," Xander muttered, peering through the cheaters. "Is there some kind of soul warrant I overlooked when I signed on?"

"Worse," Spike said grimly.

"What the…" Xander trailed off, reading as quickly as he could. "Okay, fine, house of Slayers, in locus parenti, yadda yadda…" He paused, frowning, and re-read. Then he re-read again. "What does that say?"

Spike leaned in and squinted too. "'Recidivism.'"

"And that?"

A pause. "'Aggravated assault.'"

Xander nodded. He read the rest of the paragraph, then put the paper carefully down on the counter.

"So what that says," he said, taking the glasses off and turning to face Spike, "is that this is not a Slayer house, this is a..." He raised the paper and squinted at it again. "A juvenile intensive supervision program."


"Juvie hall."


"For Slayers."

"Guess those two from Tempe should have been a tip-off."

Xander nodded. "And unless I want to handle six juvenile delinquent superheroes by myself, I need to complete this form and submit it to the London office by—" He glanced at the clock, which read slightly before ten. "Nine o'clock this morning."


"Okay." He folded the cheaters and put them on top of the form. "Okay. Got it."

There was coffee in the freezer; on automatic pilot, he headed that way. Behind him, he heard Spike pick up the form again.

"They'll send you someone," he said, sounding as if he were trying to convince himself. "It's just a bloody form. You could say the fax was down."

Xander shrugged. He needed coffee. Without coffee he could go no farther.

When the machine was belching contentedly to itself, filling the room with the smell of life, he pulled a mug out of the cupboard and leaned against the sink. Spike was still reading the form, as if he could make it say something different through sheer force of will. It was dim in the kitchen, and his bare feet were white as chickens. He really was a small guy, Xander reflected. The duster, the big boots, the dye job—all that made more sense now. Spike had probably had the crap kicked out of him a lot in school.

"Anyway," Xander said quietly, as if he were picking up a conversation they'd actually been having. "About last night."

Spike looked up, his expression pinched. "Forget it," he said. "Doesn’t matter."

"What I was going to say, was." Xander took a deep breath. "Um. That thing about the way, and being on the way, I think maybe you weren't totally wrong, there."

Spike gave him a funny look, as if he were trying to foresee the punch line. Xander felt sweat gather on his upper lip.

"I think maybe you were kind of right," he said. "About the way. I mean, I don't think I was really thinking of it like that, but I'm just the crazy blind guy, what do I know?"

"I don't know," Spike said slowly, putting the paper down on the counter and pinning it with one finger. "What do you know?"

"I know I liked that," Xander said, feeling urgent and stupid. "Last night, I mean. I'd do that again and you wouldn't even have to pay me." He had no idea what he was saying.

Spike smiled thinly. "You'd do what again?"

"Kiss you." There was a pause, while Spike seemed to consider that. "Jesus, could you hang me out to dry a little more, please?"

"You don't have to be nice, Harris."

"When have I been nice?" He laughed, a short dry bark. "I'm not nice. I'm nasty. I haven't had sex since the Pleistocene. I'm moments away from humping your leg."

Spike's expression cleared; now he looked interested. "I thought so."

"Well, you don't have to be a dick about it."

"I'm not in love with you, if that's what you're looking for." That was firm, and enough of a non sequitur that Xander realized it was important. Important to Spike, at least. They weren't supposed to be in love, fine. He could live with that.

"I'm not in love with you either," he said, taking the carafe out of the machine and pouring himself a cup of goodness. "I can tolerate you, though. And isn't that what all good relationships are based on?'

"Something like that," Spike said. He crossed the kitchen floor and took the coffee cup out of Xander's hand.

"I'm going to need that back," Xander said. Spike nodded seriously, and kissed him.

It was slow and fast at the same time. Like honey dropping off a spoon, like late afternoon sunlight on the foot of a bed. There, and then gone. But while it was there, Xander's heart leapt up, and his palms found good homes against Spike's ass, and his dick awoke and struggled to break down his zipper. He felt nervous and giddy and horny and unafraid. The eye didn't matter. He didn’t think of it at all.

They were still kissing, pressed to the counter in front of the burping coffee machine, when the knock came at the front door. Spike drew back and glanced that way, then looked at Xander. Up close, his eyes were bluer than blue, clear enough to see through to his soul. His soul looked…worried.

"They're here," Xander surmised, pressing a hand against his hard-on and wincing.

"Third rule of running a Slayer house," Spike said, stepping back and plucking at his own jeans with a grimace. "Don't let them catch you having sex."

"Terrific." He brushed himself down automatically, as if had sex lint on his clothes. The tape on his foot was looking worn and a little grimy. He hadn't shaved. He needed the cheaters. All of a sudden, everything was going too fast. "Listen, is there any way I could convince you to stick around for a while? Just until they decide how they're going to murder me?"

Spike smiled. It was an insinuating smile.

"We're not there yet," Xander said, grabbing his coffee cup and starting for the door.

"No more bloody furniture-building," Spike said immediately, following along behind.


"Thank Christ."

Through the frosted glass beside the door, he could see figures jostling on the porch. More than one. Several. He heard a squeal. He stopped walking and swallowed. "Spike."


Xander just stood there, staring at the shadowy shapes on the porch. Another Faith, another Buffy. And now he was the old one. He'd thought getting old meant you knew more of the answers.

"Go on," Spike said gently, laying a finger on the back of his arm. "Let's see what these ones are like."

For a moment longer Xander stayed where he was, feeling Spike's finger on his skin. Then he stepped forward and opened the door to chaos.

The End

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