Spoilers: Through Season 7 Warnings: Sex, smut, naughtiness, man-love, a little bloodplay, violence, bad language, sarcasm and gratuitous singing in the car.

Long Time Gone

Yin Again

Part One

Xander Harris looked down at the two platinum bands on his left ring finger. He wound them around and around his finger unconsciously. The sun was setting, and he really needed to get out of the car. He gave the rings a final twist and then settled them into the slight groove they had formed in his skin. He clutched both hands on the steering wheel and looked straight ahead.

His car was sitting in the driveway of a large, beautifully restored Victorian house located in a residential section of Sunnydale, California. The house was white with dark gray trim, and a black wrought-iron fence surrounded it. The ornate gate was directly in front of his bumper. Inside the gate was an immaculately landscaped yard. A short path led up to the house’s front porch, which held several wicker rocking chairs.

Xander stepped out of his car and into the gathering twilight. He walked to the gate and gave it an experimental push. It opened silently, and he stepped through it, his fingers lingering for a moment on the letter “S” that was worked into the gate’s design. He walked up the path and climbed the steps. He trailed his fingers over the back of one of the rocking chairs and hesitated, looking at the door before him. He drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long, controlled exhalation. He touched the two rings on his left hand lightly with his right index finger, and then raised his right hand to knock on the door. Before he could touch it, the door opened silently, and Xander found himself pinned by the direct gaze of two icy blue eyes.

“What do you want?” the voice was a low growl, and Xander caught himself before he could step back reflexively. His brown eyes met the steely blue ones.

“Spike. It’s me. Xander.” He waited.

Xander was completely unprepared to see the spark of – was it joy? Happiness? – that flared in the other man’s eyes. Then a long, pale hand snaked out of the house and snatched him inside.

Xander was startled by his quick entry into the house. He was even more startled when Spike immediately started looking him over, even touching his shoulder to turn him around.  After finishing the inspection, Spike’s eyes met Xander’s again, and Xander noted that the shuttered look he remembered so well was back, and he missed that little spark he had seen before. Xander couldn’t help but grin at the vampire before him. Spike looked almost exactly the same. His hair was still white-blond and gelled into submission, his scarred eyebrow raised in a “typical Spike” sardonic expression. The two men looked at each other for a moment, then both burst out laughing as they realized they were dressed almost exactly the same. They were both wearing black jeans and black tee shirts, though Xander had on black tennis shoes and Spike’s feet were bare. They laughed easily together for a moment. The moment passed, and Xander knew he needed to try to talk past the lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat. He was just getting ready to try and force words out when Spike spoke.

“You want a beer?”

Xander nodded gratefully and followed the blond man as he turned to go further into the house. As he followed Spike, Xander looked around the house curiously. Despite its fussy exterior, the inside of the house was comfortably decorated. The layout was open, with large, airy rooms. The large living room was painted in several shades of taupe and brown, and the furniture arrayed in front of the fireplace looked very comfortable. He noticed a small door under the sweeping staircase and assumed it concealed a bathroom. On the way to the kitchen they passed a large dining room; Xander got the impression of big, dark furniture and the glint of a crystal chandelier.

The kitchen itself proved to be a revelation. It looked like it had been transported from the set of a show on the Food Network. The appliances were all stainless steel, and a huge pot rack, overflowing with polished copper pans, hung above a butcher-block island.  The kitchen also had a fireplace, which was fronted by two leather club chairs and a low table. Spike waved Xander to one of the chairs and walked to the fridge.

Xander sank into the soft chair and relaxed for the first time in days. Spike wasn’t going to question him or make him talk until he was ready. The feeling that washed over him at this easy acceptance very nearly brought tears to his eyes. He looked down at his hands and twisted the two rings for a moment until he regained his composure. Xander heard the sound of a bottle cap being popped and looked up. Spike stepped in front of him and handed him an icy bottle.


Spike nodded and slipped into the other leather chair and took a sip of his own beer. His blue eyes watched Xander expectantly with an unreadable expression.

“It’s … it’s good to see you, Spike.” Xander stammered a little as he spoke. “How have you been?”

Spike hesitated, and then spoke quietly, “It’s to be small talk, then?” His mouth quirked at Xander in a small grin. “Well, why not?” He took a long pull of his beer and then turned again to his guest. “Who do you want to know about? Willow, Dawn, Angel, Buffy, Clem, the Watcher, Demon girl?”


Blue eyes searched brown in the ensuing silence. Spike drained his beer and set the bottle on the table in front of him. “Me. Ooooooookay. Well, I have a house.” He gestured to the room around them. “I live here. I’m still the new and improved ‘all soul – no chip’ Spike that I was when you left.” He hesitated and looked at the human for a long moment. “Funny thing, that. ‘Til I had a soul I didn’t have a good grasp on the concept of guilt. But, I figured it out well enough to make Angel pony up part of that big pile of cash he’s been sitting on for a century or so. That takes care of the blood money, and lets me annoy Angel pretty frequently.” The two men shared a smile; Spike well remembered Xander’s animosity toward his grand-sire.

Xander nodded. “Still fighting the good fight?”

Spike nodded ruefully. “Y’know, Buffy moved to LA with Angel a few years ago? Dawn’s still here – she runs all the little Slayer-wannabes, well, the ones who survived. Buffy rotates them in and out to various places to keep the peace. Dawn’s sort of the Hellmouth logistics department. They call me out when they get into something particularly nasty. It keeps the killer in me happy. You keep up with anyone?”

Xander looked down at his hands, not surprised to find himself twirling the rings unconsciously. “No, not really. Until recently, it was a clean break. I talked to Willow for the first time in eight years about three days ago.” He lapsed into silence. “Spike, are Buffy and Dawn happy?”

Spike fingered the bottle in front of him, tearing at the label. “They are”, he said in a measured tone. “Well, Buffy’s with the Poof, so it’s changeable from minute to minute. But, yeah, she’s happy. Little Bit – she’s great.” Spike smiled broadly, the smile even reaching his eyes. “She married a nice guy five years ago – he’s a local, so he knew the score. They have a little girl who’s 2. I call her the Littlest Bit. Her real name’s Sara.” Spike smiled to himself, and then looked back up at Xander. The smile dropped off of his face as he saw tears fill stricken brown eyes, just before Xander jumped out of his chair and fled the room.

Part Two

Spike sank back into his chair with a sigh. Brilliant, he chastised himself, so much for the small talk, wanker. He couldn’t quite wrap his head around Xander-fucking-Harris showing up on his doorstep after eight years. He laughed at himself for still being able to feel surprise after a hundred and thirty-odd years. Though he really was surprised. The man who had stood before him was only Xander in name. Almost every trace of the boy he had been was gone. Spike had truly not recognized him as he stood in his doorway. Xander’s face was thinner and much more angular, and his eyes were almost dead. The boy he remembered had eyes that snapped and sparked with humor and life – this man had eyes full of pain. This man also had much better fashion sense. Spike smiled as he remembered their shared laugh over the matching wardrobes. The body had been very different, too. The Xander who had left town had been beefy, this man was whipcord strong, and didn’t appear to have an ounce of extra fat on him anywhere.

Spike thought back to the feeling that had washed over him when Xander had said he wanted to know about him before all the others. He knew that feeling. The demon had roared in triumph, just before Spike had brought it back to heel. In the years since the gift of his soul Spike had worked hard to reconcile the soul and the demon, to keep them in balance as best he could. Most of the time, he felt like a single entity, but on occasion, the demon part pushed itself to the forefront. In a fight or whenever someone threatened those he loved, the demon would wrest control and tell the soul to sod off for a bit. Eventually, the balance would return, along with Spike’s iron control. Spike had forgotten, or repressed, the way his demon part felt about the boy. With Xander gone for so long, it just hadn’t come up – and the demon wasn’t the broody type. But one sniff of that scent unique to the boy, the smell of cinnamon and sunshine, and Spike had felt the demon stir. That little bit of extra attention had made it roar.

Spike grabbed the empty beer bottle and carried it to the trashcan. He knew the sun was fully down now, so he opened the heavy blinds on the kitchen window. The streetlights had come on, and the world looked peaceful. He could see the dark sedan in his driveway, so he knew Xander hadn’t left. He decided to fall back on old habits. The Xander of old had been an eating machine, so maybe some dinner would restore equilibrium. Spike opened another beer for himself and started pulling ingredients out of the huge refrigerator.

Xander stared at himself in the mirror. He had found the small bathroom under the staircase and had managed to wrestle his emotions into submission before he could give in to the urge to collapse on the floor and cry like a brokenhearted child. He ran some cold water in the sink and splashed his face. As his hands rubbed over the stubble, he realized that he must look like shit. He looked into the mirror again, this time actually seeing himself. Yes, he looked like shit. His hair was rumpled, his face was drawn and unshaven, and he had enormous dark circles under his eyes. No wonder Spike hadn’t recognized him. He dried his face on the plain white towel and left the bathroom. As he entered the living room, he realized that Spike had stayed in the kitchen to give him some space. Feeling edgy and out of sorts, he stripped off his shoes and socks and sank down to the floor in a cross-legged position, resting his hands on his knees.

Xander closed his eyes and fell into the familiar meditative breathing pattern. His five years of martial arts training allowed him to achieve a meditative state within three deep breaths. His mind quieted as he began a familiar exercise. Xander inhaled, drawing air into his lungs at a slow pace. He measured the breath by his heartbeat, pulling air in for six beats, releasing it for six beats. He felt the air flow in through his nose, fill his lungs, expand his diaphragm and settle in his abdomen. Without holding the breath, he began releasing it, the air flowing up, reversing its path and exiting his mouth. He could feel his whole body relax as he established the pattern. The only sound he could hear was his own breathing.

After a few minutes, he began the second part of the exercise. He concentrated on the inside of the center of his forehead and began gathering his chi, or life force. It was like gathering a small ball of light and heat to the specific point he had chosen. It felt like small sparks of electricity running up his limbs, converging on the spot. His breathing never faltered and his posture never changed. He envisioned the energy as a small, strong yellow glow and held it at his forehead for a cycle of breaths.

Once he had it stable, he started to move the ball of chi down to the center of his chest. He imagined that it left a warm path as it passed down the center of his body. He centered the ball at his chest and held it steady.  After another breathing cycle, he moved it again. This time he forced the ball lower, to his lower abdomen and the point called the dan tien. This was more difficult, and his perception of the ball wavered slightly as he moved it. Eventually, he got it centered. He felt his control slipping, so he released the ball, allowing it to move back to his chest and then to his forehead. Once it reached its origin point, he allowed it to dissipate, letting the energy flow back into his limbs and the rest of his body. He took one last measured breath and let it out. He let his head hang low against his chest for a moment and took a regular breath. He smelled the smell that was uniquely Spike. It permeated the house. The smell was like rain and smoke, and Xander had always associated both of those scents with Spike. He sniffed experimentally. He also smelled food: something spicy and rich.

Xander lifted his head and opened his eyes to find Spike crouched in front of him several feet away. Spike was staring at him with a completely gob smacked look on his face. Xander smiled at him, and the blond man relaxed slightly. His wary crouch settled into a more casual sitting posture on the floor, and he rested his elbow on his knee and dropped his sharp chin into his upturned palm. The scarred eyebrow rose. “What was that?” he asked. “Magic?”

Xander shook his head. “No, not magic. Chi Kung. It’s a martial arts thing – manipulating your life force. It helps me get a grip when I’ve freaked out and made an ass of myself.”

“I could feel it from the kitchen.” Spike spoke quietly.

“You could feel that I made an ass of myself from the kitchen?” Xander grinned.

“No, you git. I could feel the energy, the force or whatever. Supernatural, here – y’know.” He gestured toward his own chest. ”It felt like being in the house when the girls were casting, back in the old days. Like magic.” His voice held something like wonder.

“I’m surprised you don’t know about Chi Kung – you were always busting out the Kung Fu on the Sunnydale demon squads.” Xander rose lightly to his feet and held a hand out to the vampire. The hand was accepted and he easily tugged the smaller man to his feet. They stood face to face for a moment. Xander dropped the hand he was still holding and broke the eye contact.

Spike took a short step back, out of the human’s personal space. “Nope – never much cared about the non-ass kicking martial arts. Besides, no life – no chi.”

Xander nodded. “Makes sense. Do I smell food?”

The two men sat across the small wooden table from each other, enjoying their dinner. Xander was twirling a huge ball of pasta around a fork, and Spike watched in awe as he shoved the entire thing into his mouth and chewed. He pushed the open beer closer to Xander in preparation. Xander grabbed it and started trying to drink around the huge mouthful, also trying to say things like “Ow!” and “Hot!” Spike placed a smaller bite in his own mouth and chewed to disguise his smirk. He looked up as a crumpled napkin bounced off his forehead. Xander was glaring at him.

Spike widened his eyes at his tablemate. “What?”

“You could have told me it had lava in it.” Xander mock-huffed.

Spike snorted. “I told ya it was fra diavlo. What do you expect from the devil’s pasta? Hugs and puppies?”

“I guess I wasn’t paying attention. I was so taken aback by the Big Bad cooking.” There was no heat in the comment, and Spike rather liked the teasing tone. He decided to play along.

“I have lots of hidden talents – cooking is merely the tip of the iceberg. I also knit and scrapbook.” He said loftily.

Xander stared across the table, open-mouthed.

“I’m kidding, twit. What, d’ya think I turned into the undead Martha Stewart?”

“I thought Martha Stewart was the undead Martha Stewart.” Xander deadpanned. They shared a smile and went back to eating. A few moments later Xander gestured to the mug of blood Spike was enjoying with his food.

“Still bagging it? He asked.

Spike grimaced slightly. “It’s a soul thing. I did switch to human, though. I’ve got a good connection in town. I get way better stuff than Angel, anyway.” He laughed ruefully. “It’s not very ‘Big Bad’, but it keeps me from having unnecessary conversations with myself.”

Xander nodded. He wanted to ask more about the soul/ demon relationship, but didn’t want to do anything to change the light conversational tone. He looked up at Spike’s quiet question.

“Do you have a place to stay while you’re in town?”

Xander shook his head. “I guess I need to see to that pretty soon.”

“No, you don’t,” Spike replied matter-of-factly. “I’ve got three extra bedrooms here, and you’re welcome to stay as long as you choose.” He held up a hand as Xander’s mouth opened. “No arguments, whelp.” Xander grinned at the old insult. He smiled at Spike and briefly laid his left hand on top of Spike’s right as it rested on the table.

Spike smiled at the warmth and looked down at their hands … and saw the rings.

Part Three

The demon roared. It roared a single word: MINE! Spike gripped the sides of the kitchen sink and fought the raging beast within. As soon as he’d seen the platinum bands, one thick, and one thin, encircling Xander’s tanned finger, the demon had shrieked. It had taken every bit of Spike’s strength to smash the demon down and smile nicely at Xander. Still holding the demon tightly, he had cleared the dinner dishes and sent Xander out to the car for his belongings. Without releasing that desperate hold, he had shown the other man to the guest room at the head of the stairs and left him to get settled. He’d walked slowly out of the room and down the stairs and into the kitchen. Grabbing the sink, he had released his hold, and the demon sprang free. Spike had felt his face change into the demon visage, his fangs dropping and the ridges appearing on his forehead. The rational part of his brain decided to just let it go for a few minutes, so he tried only to keep the noise down as the beast raged. The rings – a claim! Someone had claimed his boy!

As soon as the rage started winding down, Spike slowly reasserted his control over the demon. He panted harshly as he mentally pushed the demon down, into the background, away. The beast went reluctantly, still wanting to howl out its rage. When Spike heard Xander’s footsteps on the stairs he straightened up and shook his head to change his face back to normal. By the time Xander entered the kitchen, Spike was pulling two more beers out of the fridge. Turning, he held one out to Xander.

Xander took it gratefully and stood, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, nervously. Spike noticed that he’d changed out of his jeans and into a pair of soft cotton sleep pants that were a deep burgundy in color. He still wore his black tee shirt, and his long, tanned feet were still bare. Spike closed the distance between them and laid a hand on the darker man’s shoulder.

“Xan, you don’t have to explain yourself to me, you know. You’re welcome here.” Blue and brown eyes met, and Spike saw relief flood Xander’s expression.

“Thank you,” Xander sighed. He held Spike’s gaze. “I want to tell you the whole story, but I just don’t think I can start it without finishing it. And I don’t have the strength to even start it tonight.”

Xander looked so miserable that Spike knew he had to give his friend – and yes, he thought to himself, this man is my friend – a break. He pushed the tense shoulder under his hand in a friendly gesture and asked, “Movie, bed, or go out and kill something?”

Xander’s eyes lit up and then his expression hardened. “Kill something” he gritted out. “Definitely kill something.”

“Well, OK then!” Spike’s exultant shout caused Xander to start. Spike turned and pushed the other man toward the stairs. “Go get changed and I’ll call Dawn and see where she needs a patrol tonight.”

Xander hesitated. “Um, Spike …. It’s all right if you tell Dawnie I’m here, but can we save the big reunion scene until tomorrow night? I’d really just like to kill something, take a shower and crash tonight, OK?”

Spike pushed him toward the stairs again and said, “You got it, mate,” as he headed for the phone.

At 2:00 in the morning, the two men stumbled into the house, exhausted, happy and completely covered in thin, brown, sticky demon slime that smelled like a sewer. Every time they looked at one another they broke out into hysterics. Spike’s hair was completely flat on one side and standing up in individual slime-coated, hardened strands on the other.  Xander had taken a huge wad of slime to the back of the head, so his dark locks stood out around his face like a lion’s mane.

Spike had led Xander around to the back of the house so they could enter through a conveniently placed laundry room. They stripped off their shoes, socks, jeans and tee shirts, throwing them directly into the washer. Spike started the machine and poured soap in, hoping that the demon slime wouldn’t invade the appliance and make it reek forever. He handed Xander a towel and began mopping his own face with another. They leaned weakly against the washer side by side to catch their breath. Spike looked at Xander as the other man tried to rub demon slime out of his hair. His observations earlier had been correct. Xander had changed a lot. Every muscle in his arms stood out in sharp relief as he rubbed at his hair. His chest was sculptured, with flat pecs that led down to defined abs. The center of his chest was covered with an arrow of dark hair that trailed downward in a silky line. A pair of black boxer briefs rode low on his hips, exposing the hollows where the oblique muscles curved below their waistband. Spike tore his eyes away and mentally shook himself.

Wouldn’t do to get caught staring at the boy like a starving wolf, now would it? He wondered if the demon was breaking through. As a vampire, Spike wasn’t burdened with any human compunction about the gender, or even species, really, of those he found attractive. He just went with the feelings – he’d had both male and female lovers in the past. However, the Xander he’d previously known was fairly aggressively hetero, despite a one-time plea for Willow to “gay him up” so he’d stop attracting demon women. And the ring. If Spike wasn’t mistaken, it was a wedding ring, and the soul was in no way willing to let the demon poach. Spike raised a towel to his own head and tried to remove some of the slime coating his hair.

Xander lowered his towel to work on cleaning off his arms, and took the opportunity to look at Spike. His body looked exactly the same. He still stood in pale perfection – his body was like a marble statue. Each muscle was as sculptured as Xander remembered, and his skin still had that beautiful, translucent sheen that invited a touch to see if it felt as smooth as it looked. Hesitantly, Xander ran his eyes down Spike’s body. He remembered the vampire’s proclivity for eschewing underwear, and wasn’t sure if he was ready for the Naked Spike Experience. Thankfully, he noted that Spike was wearing a pair of white boxer briefs similar to his own, though they were skin-tight and didn’t leave much to the imagination. Xander averted his eyes, feeling his face flush. He hoped the stink of the slime would cover the smell of the sharp stab of arousal he felt.

Xander admitted to himself that he had always admired Spike’s body. After he had left the Hellmouth and moved away, Xander had tried pretty much everything. He had found that there were several things he disliked: hard liquor, cocaine, homelessness, getting his ass kicked, and jobs that required either a hairnet or a nametag. Along the way, he had also found several things he did like: good beer, sushi, the occasional joint, a comfortable bed, a good job, computers, martial arts training, and both girls and boys. When he’d lived in Phoenix for a year he’d even had a stormy relationship with another man for a while. After that, he’d been able to recognize the feelings he’d always had about Spike. The feelings of attraction he’d felt for the blond vampire had been quickly sublimated into anger and sarcasm at the time, because he had been way too tight-assed to see what they really were.

Spike missed the faint smell of arousal coming from Xander, but he couldn’t miss the huge surge of self-loathing, shock and despair that followed it. He dropped his towel and turned to face Xander, who was shaking like a leaf. Spike reached out to him, but stopped when he saw the other man flinch instinctively. He turned the reach into a gesture toward the door to the kitchen.

“There’s a bathroom across from your room, if you want to get a shower. Towels are in there.” Spike watched silently as Xander bolted for the door.

Xander stood under the pounding hot water and scrubbed his hair yet again. The demon slime had started to dissolve after the third application of shampoo, and the fifth round seemed to be the charm. Once he was completely clean, he allowed his thoughts to finally come to the surface. He thought about the feelings that had overtaken him in the laundry room. He had been standing there thinking about Spike’s body and how attractive it was. He’d felt aroused. And then he’d felt awful. How could he feel that way for someone, anyone? How could his mind and body betray Shari’s memory like that? The threatening tears welled up in his eyes, and he ducked his head under the spray. He braced his arms on the walls of the shower and sobbed into the water pouring down his face.

Eventually, the storm passed, and his breathing returned to normal. This was not the first time he’d broken down since his wife’s death, but it was the first time for this particular reason. He’d done the therapy, and he’d been warned that the first time he was attracted to anyone would be traumatic. He had totally convinced himself that it wouldn’t be a problem – because he’d never be attracted to anyone new again, anyway. Well, he hadn’t counted on the someone new being someone old. Sighing, he grabbed the soap and washed his face, grimacing at the feel of the prickly stubble.

The water had started to cool, so Xander stepped out of the shower and wrapped his body in another one of Spike’s fluffy, white towels. He rummaged in the small leather kit he’d brought in earlier, and smiled when he came up with a razor.

Spike stood under the pounding hot water in his own shower and also completed the fifth shampooing of his hair. He scrubbed his body and then cocked his head to listen. There it was; he’d been wondering how long Xander would last before the dam of emotions broke. He could hear the broken sobbing. He turned off the water and stepped out of the shower, figuring the least he could do was to try and allow the other man enough hot water to last until the end of his crying jag.

Padding naked into his bedroom, he slipped on a pair of black sweatpants and a cream-colored long-sleeved tee shirt. He ran a hand through his towel-dried hair and considered going back to the bathroom for hair gel. He decided against it and slipped out the door. He walked to the head of the stairs and paused in front of the bathroom door, placing his hand against the wooden surface. He could hear Xander’s sobs tapering off. With a sharp nod, he continued downstairs to the kitchen.

By the time Xander entered the kitchen, Spike had the fire lit and a mug of hot chocolate waiting on the low table. The fire was the only light, and Spike was sitting far back in one of the club chairs, sipping from his own mug. Xander crouched in front of Spike’s chair and looked directly into his friend’s eyes. The blue eyes widened slightly as the vampire noticed that Xander had shaved. He stifled his immediate impulse to lay his hand flat on the sharp planes of the tanned, gaunt cheek. Xander spoke quietly.

“I know you’ve guessed that things are not right with me, Spike. I just want to say thank you for giving me the time and space that I need. Back …. home ….everyone wants me to talk about it endlessly, and I couldn’t take it anymore.” He paused, and Spike set his mug down on the table.

Xander stayed in his crouch and rested his forearm on the armrest of Spike’s chair, enjoying the heat from the flames at his back. He closed his eyes briefly, and then opened them again, staring into Spike’s eyes. He seemed to find something he needed there, and he nodded his head slightly and took a quick, shuddering breath.

“After the First went down, I was done with the good fight. I was exhausted and miserable, and I didn’t really care if I lived or died. I was beyond worthless, because I was so messed up. The night I left, I didn’t even tell anyone – not even Willow.” He looked down at his hands, and Spike could see the remorse he felt. “I just left. I did call her later, and tell her I was going away for a while. She was so good about it; said she understood. I went, well, I went everywhere. I bounced around from place to place for a while. I worked a series of shitty jobs, got in a fair amount of trouble.” He grinned at Spike, who returned the grin with a sardonic look. “About five years ago, I wound up in Atlanta. I put myself through tech school. I’m a professional computer geek now – isn’t that funny? I followed in Willow’s footsteps. I found a decent job and I made a few friends. I was in terrible shape physically, so I decided to take up martial arts.” He paused, and closed his eyes again. “That was kind of because of you.” His eyes opened and met Spike’s again. Spike gave him a small smile.

“You always looked so cool when you were kicking the shit out of something – I wondered if I could do that. And you know what? I could.” Xander’s smile was brilliant. On his now thinner face, the smile looked different from the shy half-smiles Spike had seen on him in years past. This smile was full of pride and confidence, and it made Spike take in an unneeded breath. “I never felt so good about myself, less like the Zeppo or the Doughnut-Boy. It was so incredible. I had found a new home, with people who only knew me as Xander, the guy with a good job and a nice place and a cool car who was a dedicated student – not the Slayer’s pet or the demon magnet.” He took another measured breath and let it out slowly.

“And that’s when I met Shari.” Spike could feel the pain as the name slipped past his lips. “She was an instructor, and she whipped my ass. I thought I knew how to fight, and she mopped up the floor with me every time. She was incredibly polite while she did it – she was always teaching. She was always learning, too. She wanted to know everything, whether it was about fighting, or philosophy or meditation or literature or food or wine or … anything.”

“I still can’t believe she married me.” Xander’s voice dropped, and he lowered his head to his forearm, his other hand coming up to twist the two platinum bands. In a voice so low that Spike picked it up only by virtue of his vampire hearing he said, “I still can’t believe she died.”

Spike placed his hand on the back of Xander’s neck and lowered his own forehead to rest against the top of the bowed head before him. As he heard Spike say softly, “Let it out, Xan,” the younger man fell forward on his knees, buried his head in his friend’s lap and cried like the world was ending.

Eventually, his emotions spent, Xander shifted to sit on the floor at Spike’s feet. Spike passed him a napkin from the stack on the table. Xander wiped his eyes and blew his nose, still marveling at the kindness the vampire was showing him. Throughout the long bout of tears, Spike’s hand had never left his hair, stroking him lightly. Spike’s other hand had alternately patted his shoulder or rubbed soothing circles on his back, the vampire murmured comforting nonsense phrases all the while. Xander really didn’t feel like getting up off the floor. He felt secure leaning against Spike’s hard legs, with his cool hand gently carding through his hair while they both stared into the fire. There seemed to be no pressing need for either of them to move.

Xander was awakened by a shake to the shoulder and Spike’s knees shifting slightly under him. He had fallen asleep and instinctively turned and nestled his head into the vampire’s lap again, wrapping his arms around Spike’s legs. Spike was afraid the hard floor and the demon fight were going to combine to cripple Xander by morning, or he would have gladly let the man remain asleep curled around his legs.

Xander groaned and shifted on the floor. Spike gently disengaged the strong arms holding his legs and pulled them both upright. Xander was no more than half awake as the smaller man walked him out of the kitchen and up the stairs. The dark, tousled head rested against the equally tousled blond one as they slowly moved through the house. Spike knew dawn was not far away. He walked his charge into the guest bedroom and pulled back the blankets. He sat Xander down on the bed and started manhandling him into a lying-down position. The larger man wouldn’t cooperate. He stopped Spike’s ministrations with a warm hand on his arm. His bleary eyes opened slightly, and he crooked a finger to bring Spike closer. Xander’s fingers closed on the curve his friend’s jaw, and he brought their foreheads to rest against one another. They held the pose silently for a moment, and then Xander’s finger traced Spike’s jaw and then brushed his cheekbone. His lips opened and he whispered, “Thank you, Spike.”

Spike collapsed in his own bed and let out the unneeded breath he’d been holding ever since Xander’s warm fingers had touched his face. It had taken every ounce of control he possessed to break the boy’s touch and put him to bed. He’d wanted desperately to climb in beside him and hold him while he slept.

Spike was tactile by nature – he craved physical affection. Dawn understood it, and tried to accommodate his need – as long as her husband didn’t get too jealous. Spike and Dawn and Sara would curl up on the couch and watch movies, and Dawn was wont to hold his hand anytime she wound up sitting next to him, but for Spike it wasn’t really enough. He appreciated it, but longed for more. He had forgotten that Xander was much the same – drawing comfort from touching and being touched by others. Spike could remember several screaming fights Xander and Anya, the demon bitch, had had about Xander wanting to cuddle instead of supplying her with more orgasms.

Early on, Willow and Xander’s friendship had included physical closeness, but after the incident where Spike had kidnapped them and they’d shared an illicit kiss, and been caught by their respective steadies, that part of their relationship had ended. Spike found himself hoping that Xander’s Shari had fulfilled that need for him. He puzzled a bit and realized that the demon wasn’t howling about this woman. He thought about it some more and realized that, for the demon, the problem was resolved. Shari was dead, therefore another did not claim his boy, and therefore no problem existed. Spike envied the demon its simple outlook sometimes.

Rolling over in his big, empty bed, Spike brought to his nose the hand that had spent hours in Xander’s hair that night. He fell asleep breathing in Xander’s cinnamon and sunshine scent.

Part Four

Someone was tugging on his toes. Xander shook his foot to make the annoying contact stop, but it came right back. He drew his foot up and under the covers. As he slowly came awake, he realized that he was lying in a strange bed. It was a really nice strange bed, though. The linens were soft and warm, and he was wrapped in a fluffy down comforter. The room was very dim. He pulled the covers away from his head and finally opened his eyes to look up at the strange ceiling. He probed with his foot, looking for whatever had touched his toes earlier. His toes encountered a leg, and in one swift motion, he swept his foot up Spike’s body and dug his toes into the surprised vampire’s ribs, tickling him mercilessly. Spike gave a very unmanly shriek and tried to escape off the end of the bed.  Xander settled for one last dig in the ribs and let him go, throwing his long body back into a vertebrae-popping stretch.

He jackknifed into a sitting position and looked at the indignant blond vampire seething at the end of the bed, fists planted on his narrow hips. Both men burst out laughing, each raising a hand to their own hair.

“So, I’m guessing we both look like haystacks, huh?” Xander asked, trying to smooth his rumpled hair. He couldn’t help but think how cute Spike looked, with his bleached locks falling in soft waves over his forehead. He shook his head at the odd juxtaposition of “cute” and “vampire” in the same thought as he gave up and just ran both hands through his own messy mop.

“Nope,” Spike replied, “You look like a lion. You want breakfast?”

Xander consulted his stomach, which voted in favor of food. “What time is it?” he asked. “It’s 5:30.” Spike responded. “PM.” He added the second response before the question could be asked.

“Huh.” Xander snorted. “One day back in Sunnydale and I’m on vampire time again. Go figure.”

Xander climbed out of the bed and stretched some more. Spike preceded him out of the bedroom. Xander turned into the bathroom, waving the other man to the stairs.

Spike walked down the stairs and to the kitchen in the gloom of the well-shuttered and curtained house. He started cooking breakfast and thought about what had just occurred. After awakening, Spike had knocked at the guest room door, not terribly surprised when Xander hadn’t answered. The boy had always been a heavy sleeper, plus Spike was sure that the emotions of the previous day had taken their toll. Realizing that knocking wasn’t going to work, Spike had entered the room. He was happy to see Xander sleeping peacefully, the bed showing no evidence of tossing and turning. Only tufts of hair and one foot were outside the covers, so Spike had tugged the tanned toes. He had first spent a good five minutes just looking at the still form on the bed, wondering at the myriad feelings running through him. Then, realizing that he was brooding, he had shaken it off and woken the boy. The attack had been a surprise, but the laughter and goofing had been a much better way to begin the day than the embarrassment Spike had feared Xander would feel, so he counted himself lucky.

By the time Xander appeared in the kitchen, still in his sleepwear but with his face washed and teeth brushed, Spike was finishing placing omelets and crisp bacon on the table. Xander bounded over to the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of juice, checking to see if Spike already had a mug of blood in the microwave, which he did. As he passed Spike on his way to the table, he playfully kicked the vampire in the back of the knee. Spike’s knee buckled slightly before he regained his footing, and he twisted his body to lightly butt his shoulder against the larger man’s side. Xander absorbed the blow and dropped into his chair. As Spike moved to slide into his own chair, Xander pushed it away from under the table with his foot. Spike caught the chair easily and slid into it, flinging a piece of toast at Xander in a smooth move. Xander fielded the toast and took a bite out of it. The two men looked at each other across the table and each raised one eyebrow.

Spike took a deep drink of his blood. “Looks like someone is feeling cocky after wasting six Horta demons last night.” He observed. “That, or you finally got some sleep.”

Xander grinned, and Spike was relieved to see some life in his brown eyes. “That’s the best I’ve slept in a while,” he admitted. “And, though workouts and sparring are good, I’d forgotten how therapeutic a good fight to the death could be.” He smirked. “And it was seven – you killed six.”

“Oh, no whelp – that last one was a joint effort – you aren’t taking all the credit for him … her … it just because you wound up holding the larger piece.”

“Oh, OK,” Xander conceded with a sigh. “Six and a half each then.”

Spike grunted in reply and began eating. After a few bites, he looked across the table, waiting until Xander met his eyes. He cleared his throat, and then began speaking hesitantly.

“OK, Dawn knows you’re here. She wants to see you. We can go there, or she and Jase and Sara can come here.” Spike hesitated, watching for Xander’s reaction when he said Sara’s name. He noted that the other man flinched but did not drop the eye contact. “All she knows is that you are here. You can tell her whatever you want and I’ll back you up.”

Xander looked down at his plate, and both men finished their breakfast in silence. Xander drained his juice glass and pushed himself away from the table. He sighed and looked at Spike. “Let’s have Dawn and her family here tonight – we can get pizza and hang out and swap stories. Before that, I need to work out – is there any clear floor space around that I can use?”

Spike nodded. “Yeah – go get your workout gear on and I’ll show you the basement.”

Xander picked up their plates and placed them in the sink, adding his juice glass and Spike’s mug. He glanced at the back of Spike’s head as the other man remained at the table and bit back the urge to thank him yet again as he turned and left the kitchen.

Spike stepped aside and let Xander precede him into the large open basement as he flicked the lights on. Xander let out a low whistle as he took in the layout of the space. The walls were painted black, the floor carpeted in steel grey. One corner held a heavy bag, a speed bag and a complete set of free weights. Part of one long wall was covered with shelves and racks that held boxing gloves, jump ropes, sparring pads and assorted martial arts weapons. With a clatter, Xander dropped the long black bag he had carried in from the car and walked quickly to the weapons. He had changed into loose black drawstring pants and a black tank, his feet still bare. He looked around the well-appointed room and tried to put his finger on what was missing. He laughed when he realized that it was the expected wall of mirrors.

As he looked around, Spike told Xander about outfitting this space, as well as the complete gym located in Angel’s hotel. Spike proudly explained to Xander how he’d assisted Angel in picking out all of the equipment along with Buffy’s help.

As he reached the far corner of the room, Xander reached out to lift a long weapon from where it leaned in the corner rack. Before his hand closed on it, he looked back at Spike and asked, “May I?” Spike nodded, and watched as Xander lifted the long staff that had a wicked looking curved vertical axe-head attached to one end. Spike’s smile broadened as the other man stepped to the center of the floor and began twirling the weapon in an intricate pattern. He enjoyed the show, watching Xander’s back and shoulders ripple as he swung the weapon in arcs in front of and behind his body. He was amazed that this lithe, graceful man before him could be the doughnut-boy of old. He moved like a jungle cat, prowling forward and back, thrusting and parrying with an imaginary opponent. Xander ended his form with a quick downward thrust of the weapon that brought him to one knee. He bounced back onto his feet and carried the weapon back to Spike, who was still waiting at the door.

Spike couldn’t help but return the grin Xander turned on him. “That was nice.” He said.  “You know Kwan Dao” he named the long weapon.

Xander nodded toward the bag on the floor, “Get mine out of there and we’ll play.”

Spike dropped to his knees and unzipped the long bag. It was full of weapons. He sifted through them carefully, noting a straight sword, a broadsword, a pair of sai, a pair of hand axes, several daggers, a bo, a triple jointed fighting stick and several things he didn’t recognize before his hand closed on the smooth handle of Xander’s Kwan Dao. A zippered, padded sheath covered the axe head, and the staff itself was highly polished. It was completely smooth except for three Chinese ideograms carved near the center balance point. Spike rubbed his fingertips over the carving and looked up, questioningly.

Xander touched each character as he named them. “Strength. Balance. Violence. It’s our unofficial school motto.” He removed the cover from the weapon and exchanged the one he held for his own, dropping the cover on the floor. As he turned back toward the practice floor he said over his shoulder, “I’d let you use mine, Spike, but it was made for my height and you’re so much shorter …” He spun around and caught the expected thrust against the handle of his Kwan Dao and the battle was on.

Metal rang on metal as the two whirled and struggled across the floor. Xander was pleased to see that he was holding his own with the vampire; though he knew Spike was not exploiting his superior strength. The two men snarled, grimaced and laughed out loud at each other as they crossed and recrossed the floor, each taking and losing the advantage numerous times.

Xander lost himself in the fight, in the primal joy of taking on a new opponent. He’d sparred with everyone in his own school so many times that the bouts had become predictable, but Spike was something completely different. Spike felt no need to conform to the dictates of the martial arts form, so he mixed in street fighting moves, low blows and outright cheats. Finally, with a burst of preternatural speed, the vampire pinned the larger man to the wall, the Kwan Dao’s blade pressed against his throat. Their eyes locked as Spike grinned triumphantly. “Ha!” he crowed, “I win.”

Xander grinned back at him and gave a little whistle as he tapped the blade of his own Kwan Dao where it rested just below the blond’s crotch. They both looked down and then back up at each other. Spike’s grin faltered and he said in a small voice, “Draw?” Laughing, they both sank to the floor and set the weapons aside.

An hour later, they had fought with the Kwan Daos again, bo staffs, broadswords and had each logged a little time with the heavy bag.  Xander had taken a hard shot to the arm from Spike’s bo, and was bruising nicely. Spike’s cut lip and black eye were already healing as they put the weapons away and peeled the tape off of their knuckles. Spike noted with satisfaction that Xander did not return his weapons to the bag, but placed them next to Spike’s own on the shelves and in the racks, tossing his folded weapons bag onto a low shelf.

Trudging upstairs, Xander walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Standing in the blast of cool air, he peeled off his sweat-soaked tank and wiped his face with it. Draping the garment over one shoulder, he pulled an unopened beer out and applied it to his bruised arm. He looked up to see Spike standing in the doorway with his back to him, pulling his tee shirt off over his head, leaving him clad in only his drenched, low hanging sweat pants. Taking a long look at the pale muscled back in front of him; Xander immediately stuck his head back into the refrigerator to cover up his surprise at having rediscovered his inner babble, which he thought he had silenced years ago.

<OK, not having the hots for Spike here, really not. Good guy, good friend, but no hots. Doesn’t matter that he’s gorgeous. Doesn’t matter that he’s kind and understanding and didn’t rag me about crying on him or falling asleep with my head in his lap. Head in his lap! No, not going there. Changing direction here. Really, I am. I just admire his fighting ability – he’s tough, manly, likes chicks and everything. Have to stop this. OK, I’ll do the one thing I know will work. One word. Shari ….. Shit. Shari would have LIKED him like this, would have loved to see me with a real friend, someone I was a hundred percent comfortable with. She probably wouldn’t have appreciated the hots thing though. This isn’t working. Need to bang head on refrigerator.>

Xander was distracted from his inner monologue by Spike’s voice. It took him a moment to realize Spike was on the phone.

“Yeah, Bit – in about an hour. We just got through working out and we need to clean up.” He paused, and then grinned at Xander. “Yes, half-naked and sweaty. No, you can’t come over now.” He paused again and Xander could practically hear Dawn whining. “Bit ….. Bit….. Dawn! Knock it off; you’re being a bad example for Sara.” Spike held the phone away from his ear and Xander really could hear Dawn’s raised voice. He choked on a laugh as Spike frowned at the phone and waited for it to fall silent before returning it to his ear. “Dawn, could you cut the vampire hearing some slack, here? OK. Thank you. An hour. What do you want on your pizza? That’s disgusting. Bye.” He hung the phone up and shared a glance with Xander. “She’s pretty excited about seeing you.”

Xander grabbed another beer and tossed it to Spike as he closed the refrigerator door. He popped the top off of his own beer and drank a little. “You know what, Spike, I’m excited about seeing her, too. “ He drank a third of his beer in one long swallow. “I’m gonna go clean up.”

Part Five

The door flew open and Xander found himself the recipient of a lap full of smiling, shrieking, babbling, crying Dawn. He wrapped his arms tightly around her slight frame and buried his face in her shiny brown hair. After several long minutes she began to struggle, so he let her go. She sat up on his knees and braced her feet on either side of his legs on the couch. Her hands came up to caress his face, her thumbs wiping the few tears from his cheeks. She leaned forward and planted a hard kiss on his lips, then sat back and blushed furiously as he smiled at her.

“OK, so I swore to myself that if I ever saw you again I’d kiss you, so what?” She ducked her head and returned to exploring Xander’s face with her fingers. “Look at you! You’re so …. hot! When did this all happen? How have you been? Where have you been? Where’s Spike?”

Xander took her hands in his and ignored the stream of questions. “It’s good to see you Dawn. I missed you. Stand up – let me get a look at you as an adult.” She obediently hopped off of his knees and he stood in front of her. She was still thin and coltish, but she’d matured and gotten a little curvier. Her face was still dominated by her big eyes and even bigger smile. Her hair was shaped into a shoulder-length bob, the front held back with a little clip. She was wearing a tee shirt and jeans and had sandals on her feet. She didn’t look a day over eighteen to Xander.

They both turned as they heard a commotion at the door. Xander smiled and stepped forward as a young man entered the house, leading a little girl by the hand. The child was asking questions in a steady stream, and the man was trying to answer them as fast as possible. He flashed Dawn a look of relief as she stepped forward and swept the little girl up in a hug, carrying her over to Xander. Shifting her daughter to one hip, Dawn introduced them. “Sara, this is Xander – he’s an old friend of Mommy’s. Xander, this is Sara.” Xander could hear the happiness and pride in Dawn’s voice as she presented her child.

The little girl had her mother’s dark hair, broad smile and big eyes, except hers were as crystal blue as Spike’s, instead of being dark blue like her mother’s. Xander reached out to Sara as if to shake hands and was gratified when she gingerly grasped one of his fingers in her tiny hand and said, “Bander” at him. Dawn giggled. The little girl looked across the room and dropped Xander’s finger as she raised both arms in the air and shrieked, “Uncle Will!” at Spike, who was just coming out of the kitchen. Dawn placed the struggling girl on the ground and Xander watched open-mouthed as she ran into Spike’s outstretched arms as he knelt on the floor. The vampire pulled the tiny girl up to sit on his knee, and she showered his face with kisses. “Hey there, Littlest, how are you today?” He stood up, holding the child easily as he closed the distance between himself and Dawn, giving her a one armed hug. He turned to the door. “Come on in, Jase – don’t mind the family reunion.” He gestured at the young man, bringing him into the small group. Dawn linked her arm through his and introduced him to Xander as her husband.

Xander shook hands with Jase and really looked at him for the first time. The younger man was slight in build. He had a shy smile, sandy hair that fell in loose waves around his face, and startling blue eyes behind gold wire-rimmed glasses. Xander’s smile brightened even further as he made a quick observation and filed it away for later reflection. The two men exchanged small talk as Dawn and Spike got Sara settled on the floor with some toys and then rejoined the group.

“I ordered pizza, we’ve got beer and wine and soda and juice, and there’s a chocolate cake for later. I’ve got a Disney DVD for the Bitty to watch and then some old favorites for us for later,” Spike announced. He punched Xander on the arm as the other man mouthed “Martha,” at him. Xander hissed as Spike’s fist connected with his bruise from earlier. Dawn turned quickly toward him and rolled up the sleeve of his black silk tee shirt, exposing the bruise.

“Um, wow,” she breathed.

“Is it bad?” Xander twisted his neck to try and see the damage.

Dawn blushed. “Um, no … I was wowing at the arm; the bruise is nothing special.” Xander flexed his arm and Dawn squeaked. She quickly rolled his sleeve back down and let go, glancing guiltily at her husband, who surprised them all by laughing out loud.

“OK,” Jase said ruefully, “I guess it’s time to get Will to whip me into shape so Dawn can squeak at me like that.” They all laughed companionably.

After they polished off three large pizzas, including the pineapple and ham monstrosity that Dawn had insisted on, the four adults lay sprawled out comfortably in the living room. Jase was on the floor, his head resting on a couch pillow, drifting in and out of a post-dinner nap. Spike was draped bonelessly over an easy chair with Sara draped equally bonelessly across his chest, fast asleep. Xander and Dawn shared the couch, each propped at an end with their legs mingling in the middle. The Disney DVD was finishing up. Xander pushed Dawn with a foot to make sure she was awake and gestured to the pizza boxes and crumpled napkins when she raised an eyebrow at him. She nodded, and they untangled themselves and began clearing the debris.

In the kitchen they bagged everything up and stepped outside to place the bags in the trash can. Xander put the lid back on the receptacle and sat down next to Dawn on the back step. Hoping he was out of the range of vampire hearing, he turned to Dawn.

“Why do Jase and Sara call Spike Will?” he asked.

She looked at him for a moment and then replied. “Yeah, it was after you left. He started going by Will again after he started getting used to the soul. You knew that his name was William when he was alive, right?” When Xander nodded, she continued. “That’s how he kept the two personalities separate. Will was the soul and Spike was the demon. He had a lot of trouble getting the two sides balanced. Once he did, he realized that Spike wasn’t the demon; Spike was the “real” him – the combination of the two. The demon doesn’t really need its own name – not like it cares. So, those of us who knew him before call him Spike, and people who met him in the “Will” phase call him Will. We thought that Sara screaming “Uncle Spike” would be too strange, so she calls him Will. He answers to either.” She hesitated. “My turn. Why did you leave?”

Xander leaned his head down on her shoulder, and she raised a hand to brush through his hair. He felt her smile against his head when he made a happy noise and leaned into the contact. “I forgot how much you like to be petted.” She giggled. “You and Spike are alike that way – all touchy-feely. Like big cats. It’s nice.” She hesitated again. “Xander …..”

“I was exhausted. I didn’t have any more fight left in me. I thought there was nothing for me here, and I was miserable.” He drew in a deep breath. “Can you forgive me for leaving like that, Dawnie?”

She continued to pet him, twining her fingers through his hair. “I already did, Xander – a long time ago. We all understood. You couldn’t be anything here. You were always going to be the one to fix the broken window or go get stuff for Buffy if you stayed, and you needed to find your own life. Even I understood that and I was practically a child.”

They sat silently for a while, and Xander put his arm around Dawn’s slender waist, snuggling in closer. “I missed you. I missed all of you,” he said quietly. “You’ve changed so much. Spike, too.”

Dawn laughed. “Did you notice his accent?” Xander thought for a moment and then shook his head. She continued, “Over the last few years he’s lost that tough-guy accent, and he sounds way more like Giles than he used to. He also stopped calling everyone ‘luv’ and ‘mate.’” He mostly calls people by their actual names now, except for Sara and me. He’s also so much steadier than he used to be. It’s nice.”

Xander lifted his head and looked at Dawn. “He’s been great to me since I got here. I could hardly believe it. Well, except for the bruise.”

“Spike hit you?” she asked incredulously.

Xander laughed. “We sparred this afternoon, it’s no big deal.”

“What were you doing sparring with him – he’s super strong. You’re lucky all you got was a bruise!” her eyes flashed at him.

Xander ducked his head. “Give me some credit, Dawn, I actually managed to give him a black eye and bust his lip. Already healed though.”

Dawn’s eyes widened. “Oh, so those muscles aren’t just for show, then? I guess you’ll have to help Spike train Jase, too!”

Xander smiled. “Jase is great – so’s Sara. You have a beautiful family.”

She nodded, “I never thought I’d be so lucky.”

They were still smiling at each other when the door opened behind them and Jase stepped out onto the porch. He dropped a hand to the top of his wife’s head. “Will went to put Sara down – he says we should come in and have cake.”

Before the last word was out of his mouth the dark haired man and woman were on their feet, heading for the door. Jase laughed and followed.

Sara was sleeping peacefully upstairs and cake and cocoa had been consumed. Spike, Dawn and Jase all sat around the kitchen table, looking at Xander. He stood nervously in front of them, clutching a medium-sized black book. Spike pushed the fourth chair toward him with his foot, and he sank into it gratefully. He laid the book on the table in front of Dawn, who sat in the middle. He cleared his throat.

“OK. This book sort of answers the million-dollar question: What has Xander been doing for the past eight years? You guys ready for this?” He looked around the table and into two sets of ice blue eyes and one set of navy ones. Seeing nothing but support and curiosity, he opened the book. All three laughed out loud. The first page was an enlarged picture of a mug shot.

“Ah, yes,” Xander began “My short-lived life of crime. A bar brawl in Albuquerque. I’d been out of Sunnydale for a month. I guess I’d gotten used to fighting. I got the living crap beaten out of me in jail.”

The next page showed the “Welcome To …” signs of various small towns across the West. Xander continued with his narration. “I traveled the world, or at least the parts that weren’t too terribly far. I slung many exotic kinds of hash and built many substandard structures.”

The next pages showed Xander with other people. In most of the pictures he looked drawn and haunted, but in one he was actually smiling. In the photo he was sitting at what looked like a restaurant table between two other young men. The one on his left had curly red hair and a huge grin, but was looking at something outside the frame. The man on Xander’s right had close-cropped dark hair and a goatee. His green eyes stood out in the photo. He had his arm around Xander’s shoulders and they were both smiling widely at the camera. Dawn reached out to touch the photo and said, “You look happy here.”

Xander looked down at the photo, and his finger joined Dawn’s on the photo, his touching the green-eyed young man. He swallowed.

“That’s Danny. We … dated, for a while. We had a lot of fun, but the relationship was stormy at best. He left me for Julian.” Xander’s finger moved across the photo to point at the redhead. Dawn met Xander’s eyes and smiled at him sympathetically. “That stinks,” she said. “It’s OK,” Xander replied. “I broke them up in the first place.”

Dawn snorted. Xander couldn’t bring himself to meet Spike’s eyes. He knew that he could have skipped over the story of Danny, or just said they were buddies. He also knew himself well enough to know that he’d told the story for a reason, and that the reason had something to do with Spike.

The next few pages of the book showed scenery shots. Xander explained that he’d taken them on the cross-country drive that had landed him in Atlanta. A page of photos showed a bright, clean-looking city under a sunny blue sky. There was one photo of Xander, sitting on the hood of his crappy car looking exhausted. Dawn frowned when she saw this one.

“You can say it.” Xander spoke quietly. “I looked like Hell. I call that the ‘rock bottom picture’. I had a drug problem, I was broke, and I couldn’t sleep without having nightmares about demons. I hated my life and myself. I was even more miserable than when I left Sunnydale. You can turn the page – it gets better from there.” He smiled at Dawn encouragingly, and she flipped the page. Again, all three of his audience members burst out laughing. The next page was a photo of Xander in a white martial arts uniform, sprawled on the floor looking pissed. A tiny Japanese woman stood over him with an inscrutable expression on her face, one hand reaching down to help him up. Xander swallowed audibly. “That’s Shari.”

Xander sat with his head bowed for a moment, and he felt a light touch as Spike’s hand brushed over his own, which rested on his knee under the table. On impulse, he captured Spike’s hand and clasped it hard, fighting to remain in control. Spike’s cool hand squeezed his back strongly, his attention never leaving the photo album page.

In a measured tone, using the photos, he told the story of how he and Shari had met at the martial arts school. He explained how they had become friends, teacher and student, and then lovers. How Shari had encouraged him to go to school and get a good job. There were pictures of his graduation, their first apartment, their first “good” car, Shari receiving her black belt, and Xander doing the same. There was an engagement photo, with Xander looking absolutely dumbstruck at the tiny woman at his side. His fingers brushed the photo.

“I couldn’t believe she wanted to marry me. Hell, I couldn’t believe she wanted to date me. She was so incredible.” He clutched Spike’s hand even harder; glad that there was no way he could hurt the vampire.

Dawn turned the page and said “Wow”. The left page showed Xander, barefoot and shirtless, wearing a pair of black drawstring pants. Shari stood in front of him in a black sports bra and similar pants. They were both holding a stylized pose with their arms stretched above their heads and intertwined. Shari’s eyes were closed, her head tilted back. Xander was looking down at her with a breathtaking expression of love and longing on his face. Dawn drew her finger down the black and white portrait. “This is awesome,” she said.

The right-hand page was another posed portrait, this one of Xander alone. He faced the camera at an angle. He was holding the handle of a jointed metal strand that flowed across his bare shoulders. The handle had yellow and red silk scarves tied to it that trailed down his side. His muscles stood out in sharp relief, and he stared out of the frame.

Spike spoke for the first time since they had settled at the table. He traced his fingers across the weapon in the picture and asked, “What’s that?”

Xander chuckled and replied, “It’s a chain whip – I’ll show you sometime. It’s incredibly destructive; you’ll love it.” They shared a smile and Xander felt Spike’s hand tighten on his. Reluctantly, Xander released Spike’s cool hand from his sweaty one and turned the next page of the book himself. As the others took in the image, Xander started twisting the two platinum bands on his left ring finger. It was his and Shari’s wedding portrait. In the photo, she stood directly in front of him. She was wearing a long, white silk sheath with delicate straps. Her black hair spilled out from under a pure white veil that was attached to her hair with tiny white roses. She carried a bouquet of white calla lilies. Xander’s arms were around her tiny waist, and he towered over her as she was tucked neatly under his chin. His black tuxedo and gleaming white shirt emphasized his dark coloring and deep tan. They looked ecstatically happy.

The next few pages showed typical wedding shots, the last one was of their hands crossed over Shari’s bouquet, emphasizing their rings. Shari wore a diamond solitaire and platinum band that matched the thick one on Xander’s hand. Spike wondered for a moment about the thinner band that Xander also wore. He looked up and realized that Xander had removed both bands from his hand and was holding them out to him. Meeting Xander’s eyes with a questioning look, he took the two rings and turned them over in his hands. They were both engraved on the inside. The thicker one said “Shari”, the thinner one “Lex”. As Dawn turned the page, all three voices asked as one “Who’s Lex?”

Xander touched the photo on the last page of the book. It was a 3-D sonogram photo. Under the picture was scrawled the name Lex. Three pairs of blue eyes searched for brown ones, but Xander chose to look deeply into Spike’s.

“Lex was my son,” he said quietly. “He was never born. When Shari was murdered he died with her.”

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