Shame the Devil

Yin Again

Part Nine

As soon as they stepped out of the car they were mobbed. Spike found himself with one arm full of Dawn and one of Buffy. The witches similarly flanked Xander. He hugged back as hard as he could. Tara skillfully slipped out of the embrace and allowed Willow to attempt to squeeze the life out of her best friend. Xander could hear Willow's hitching sobs in his ear and tried his best to control his emotions. Finally, he was able to break her death grip on his neck and hold her out at arm's length.

"Hi, beautiful," he said in a low voice. He smiled and laughed when she immediately blushed. Xander was amazed. He'd always thought Willow to be a lovely girl, but the years had worked their magic on her, turning her cuteness into a warm, open beauty that took his breath away. Her hair was long, falling down her back in a russet spill, and her green eyes sparkled. Her skin was luminous in the moonlight. In simple jeans and halter top, she didn't look a day over twenty.

"You're looking pretty gorgeous yourself," she growled back, playfully, taking in his longish hair and casually expensive look. Both of their smiles softened, and he pulled her close again.

"I'm a shitty friend, Wills. Can you forgive me?" he whispered into her ear.

"Done and done," she whispered back. She squeezed him once more, and then released him to Dawn, who had been standing by, waiting with impatient grace.

Xander looked Dawn over, noting her battered leather pants and faded tee shirt that read "Uppity Women Unite" before enfolding the tall girl into his arms and lifting her off her feet in a quick spin that made her squeal. He put her back on her feet. "Dr. Summers, I presume?" he asked.

"Still Dawnie to you, Xander," she said. She disengaged from his hold and stepped back, turning him to face Buffy. Xander felt his eyes start to fill with tears as he looked at her. She was still as petite and blonde as ever, a few extra pounds rounded her figure and smoothed out her angles. She saw the tears and swept him into an embrace, pulling his head down to her shoulder.

"None of that," she soothed. "This is a happy homecoming, sweetie. It's OK."

Xander clutched at her shoulders and fought for control. He looked up from her shoulder and locked eyes with Spike for a moment. The vampire was standing to the side with Tara, looking straight at Xander. As their gazes locked, Spike tilted his head slightly, and Xander could see the compassion in the startlingly blue eyes. He took a deep breath and pulled away from Buffy.

"I'm so sorry, Buffy," he said in a low, taut voice.

She reached up and wiped a stray tear off of his cheek, then rose up on her tiptoes to kiss the spot where it had been. "We're good, Xan. Forgiven. Forgiven a long time ago, OK?" He nodded and stepped back. The group started moving toward the house.

"Who was the hottie driving?" Dawn asked.

Inside, Xander was surprised to see that Buffy and Dawn's house had been completely redone. The suburban, middle class décor had been replaced with things more to Buffy's taste; the house was an oasis of rich, natural tones and soft curves. It was stylish, soothing and welcoming.

Dawn and Buffy hurried off to the kitchen to get drinks, while Tara and Willow ushered the men into the living room. Willow joined Spike on the sofa, while Xander and Tara stood near the fireplace. Xander ran his finger along the frames of a row of photographs there, pausing at one of himself, Buffy and Willow taken during their first year of high school. Pulling his gaze away from the pictures, he turned to Tara.

"You look good, witchy woman," he joked, taking in her nicely rounded figure. She was dressed in cargo pants and a wrap top, her feet bare, her flaxen hair in a long braid. Her face was lightly made up, and she glowed with health and happiness.

"I'm happy," she confided softly. "You and Spike are here, and that makes Willow happy..."

"And a happy Willow makes a happy Tara," Xander concluded for her. They laughed together, and he squeezed her shoulder. They walked over to the couch and joined Willow and Spike. Xander sat between them and Tara seated herself at her lover's feet and leaned back against her. Dawn and Buffy reentered the room, each laden with a tray of drinks and snacks, which they deposited on the table in front of their friends. Dawn plopped down on the floor at Spike's feet, and Buffy seated herself in the wing chair at his elbow, tucking the full skirt of her sundress under her legs.

Xander reached over and grabbed a handful of chips from one of the bowls. "Mmmmmm, salty goodness," he exclaimed. "Good stuff. The way to a man's heart is through his stomach, after all."

Spike appropriated a beer and replied, "No it's not. The way to a man's heart is through the fourth and fifth ribs."

Dawn nodded sagely. "He's right, you know. You can trust me, I'm a doctor." She shoved a handful of cheese curls into her mouth and washed them down with her own beer. Xander and Buffy looked at each other over Dawn's head and both rolled their eyes before erupting into giggles.

"OK, is it just me, or does the concept of Dawnie performing surgery on people wig you out too?" he asked.

"Uber-wig," she replied.

Dawn peered up at them. "Don't sweat it guys - I won't actually get to do surgery on live people for several more years."

"So relieved," Xander said, wryly. He turned to Willow suddenly. "Wills - where's Giles?"

She reached over and clasped his hand. "He's at our house. Sia is with him. She's, well, she's one of the apprentice witches in our coven and Tara and I are her kind of, sort of, unofficial foster parents." Willow and Tara exchanged a soft look.

"She was one of my cases," Buffy said, referring to her job as a social worker. "She started showing magical abilities at puberty and her parents freaked. She wound up at CPS, and I worked it so she could be with Willow and Tara. She's really good with Giles."

"How is the Watcher?" Spike asked.

Willow sighed. "He's still kind of out of it most of the time. We've got people researching, but we haven't figured out how to reverse the backlash yet. It's frustrating. He understands that you guys are here...we think. You can come see him tomorrow."

Spike felt a tug at the leg of his jeans and looked down into Dawn's wide smile. "I have a friend in Indianapolis - she saw your last show. She said you were awesome!"

He smiled down at her. "It was a good show."

"She said you were just wild for the first couple of hours," Dawn continued.

Xander broke into their conversation. "He was coked off his ass."

All of the women turned shocked eyes on Spike, and he glared daggers at Xander.

"Spike!" Dawn exclaimed. "You don't have some sort of rock star drug problem, do you?"

"Vampire, Bit," he said in an exasperated tone. "Can't get addicted." He gave Xander a look that spoke volumes.

Xander smothered a laugh. "It's true - he can party like Robert Downey, Jr. and not even get a mild hangover. It's kind of annoying, actually." He sat back and listened as Buffy and Dawn harangued Spike about the dangers of drugs, hiding a grin behind his hand.

Finally, Spike had had enough. "Shut up!" he roared, shocking the girls into silence. They stared at him, and he looked down, immediately contrite. In a much calmer tone, he said, "Listen - I have been alive for well over a hundred years; I come from a time when people used heroin to treat the common cold. I am well aware of my limitations, which, as a vampire, are quite limited. If I occasionally want to get high, it is my God-given right as a rock star to fucking get high. Besides, Xander keeps an eye on me so I don't get out of hand. At least, he did until now - because I'm going to kill him for feeding me to you bloody pack of wolves tonight!"

Xander couldn't help it - Spike looked so outraged that he just had to burst into laughter. Willow and Tara immediately followed him, whooping loudly. Dawn started giggling, which set Buffy off; soon they were leaning on one another weakly. Xander glanced over at Spike to see a small grin playing about the vampire's lips. Spike tried to suppress it, but lost the battle, finally joining in the hysteria. They all laughed until they cried. As soon as the majority of the group would regain their composure, someone else would either lose it again or say, "just say no" and set them off one more time.

When they finally wore themselves out, Willow had slid off the sofa into a boneless heap with Tara, Dawn had come to rest with her head in her sister's lap, and Xander was leaning heavily on Spike, who had his arm wrapped around the human's neck in a mock-headlock. Spike released Xander and collapsed into the space Willow had vacated. He squirmed around until he was reclining against the sofa's arm. He bent his legs, and Xander turned so he was propped against the vampire with one arm wrapped around the upraised knees, his head pillowed on his forearm. Willow, Tara and Dawn all sat up against the front of the sofa, and Dawn reached up and pulled Buffy down to them. She settled herself between Xander's spread feet and held her sister's hand. Spike let his arm trail down to rest lightly on Willow's shoulder.

The old friends stayed in this gentle tangle, chatting and laughing quietly for the next hour. They decided that they would all meet the next day at sundown at the Magic Box. The girls were all starting to drift off, so Xander called Ace to come pick them up. He and Spike half-walked, half-carried Willow and Tara to the limo and dumped them in. They each kissed and hugged Buffy and Dawn then took their leave.

"Willow, you have to tell Ace where your house is," Xander cajoled, as the redhead snuggled deeper into her lover's arms.

"Nice car, comfy car," she groaned, trying desperately to fall back asleep.

Xander shook her a little. "Willow. House. Focus. Where is it?"

She cracked one eye open long enough to give Ace the simple direction. As soon as they arrived at the small cottage that was surrounded by lavish plantings, Spike and Xander eased the witches out of the car and walked them to the door. Sleepy hugs and kisses were exchanged, and the women stumbled off to bed. Spike and Xander slipped back into the car.

Turning to peer through the lowered partition, Ace grinned at them. "Those two are the reason you didn't need a bodyguard tonight?" he asked.

Spike looked back at him with a very serious expression. "I know you can't feel it, mate, but power pours off those two. Makes my teeth itch, if you wanna know the truth." He shuddered a little as he sat back.

Ace looked at Xander who nodded in agreement, then turned back to drive them to the hotel.

Part Ten

The Magic Box had changed, too. The tacky little sign had been replaced by gorgeous gilded script that was repeated across the front windows. The windows and doors were draped in luxurious fabrics and adorned with a variety of dried herbs displayed in tall pots. Prisms, crystals and assorted trinkets twinkled in the rays of the rapidly setting sun that slanted into the shop.

The secondhand furniture had been replaced with an eclectic mix of new and antique pieces that were strewn around in casually diffident little clusters that invited browsing or quiet conversation. The only relic of the past was the round research table, and Xander had immediately crawled under it to find the tiny carving, an intertwined "A" and "X", that he'd put there so long ago. He was running his fingers over it when Dawn stuck her head under the table.

"Whatcha doin'?" she asked.

He held out a hand and pulled her under the table. "Come see," he invited.

She settled next to him and reached up to touch the letters. "I had no idea this was here," she said. "Sweet."

"Blast from the past," he said in a quiet voice. She laced her fingers through his and rested her head on his shoulder.

Out of habit, Xander had awakened in the early afternoon. He went down to the hotel's lavish pool area and soaked in the rays of the California sun for most of the afternoon, acquiring a nice tan and phone numbers from two girls and an older gentleman who admired his Speedo. Upon his return to the suite, Spike's door had still been closed, so Xander had showered and dressed, then walked to the shop.

He'd found Dawn manning the counter, helping out on her break between the end of classes and the beginning of her internship in the fall. While she helped a customer, he prowled the aisles, finally winding up at the old table. A sudden spark of memory had caused him to look for the old carving.

"Do you still miss her?" Dawn asked.

"Not really," he replied. "It's been so long, and it all seems like a dream sometimes. I remember her, though. How sweet she could be, even when she was driving me batty, how she'd get so excited about the oddest little things."

"How come you never told us you guys were engaged?" Dawn asked softly.

Xander jerked in surprise. "How'd you know that?"

"Oh, Spike told me. He said that you dropped a diamond ring into the ocean with her ashes," she explained.

"I didn't realize he'd noticed. I asked her that night - right before we took on Glory," Xander said.

"So, she was happy ...when," her voice broke, recalling all that they had lost that night.

"I think so. Of course, when I asked her, she slapped me. She said I was only asking because the world was going to end and I wouldn't have to go through with it," Xander said.

Dawn laughed, and it was only a little tearful. "That's so her."

"I was supposed to ask her again, after." This time it was Xander's voice that broke, and Dawn wrapped her arms around him.

The bells over the door clanged, and a pair of scuffed Doc Martins walked over to the table. A chair was pulled out, and Spike folded himself onto the floor, peering under the table at the entwined friends. "Are we scraping the gum, or what?" he asked.

"Memory Lane-ing," Xander said, discreetly wiping his eyes. Spike caught the gesture and his mouth tightened into a thin line. The vampire reached under the table, and Dawn allowed herself to be pulled out. She scrambled upright and crossed the room. Spike reached back under the table and pulled out a now dry-eyed Xander, who hopped to his feet gracefully.

"Did you send the car back to the hotel?" he asked the vampire, who came to his feet in a smooth, effortless motion.

"Nah, it's parked 'round back. Figured we'd go over to the birds' house to see the Watcher soon."

Dawn looked up from the register, where she was carefully placing cash in a zippered pouch. "If you'll lock the door, we can go. Buffy's meeting us there." She slipped the pouch into her shoulder bag and breezed toward the back room. "Is the hottie from last night driving?"

Spike and Xander exchanged a look, and Spike walked to the front of the store to engage the door lock. He walked back to Xander, and they crossed the training room to the back door. Dawn was propped against the fender of the limo, chatting with Isha and the driver, Bill. The driver saw the two men exit the building and moved to open the car door. Dawn skipped back and locked the back door of the store, then slid into the limo beside Spike. Xander got in beside her and let Bill close the door.

Spike leaned forward to relay directions, while Xander opened the car's refrigerator and offered Dawn a drink. She accepted a bottle of juice, and Xander got water for himself and Spike. The vampire took his with a smile and leaned back, closing the partition. Dawn sipped her juice and tried to look nonchalant. A smile played at the corners of her mouth, and she tried to stifle it. Finally, she gave up and let the huge grin split her face. Laughing, she gestured with her juice bottle.

"I can't believe you guys are so blasé about this stuff! Hello? Limo, driver, bodyguard, rock star..." she gestured to each as she named them, then faltered when she got to Xander. Both men turned to look at her expectantly, not letting her off the hook for a second. "And ...really, really hot big brother." She squealed in exactly the same way she had when she was fourteen, and Xander leaned forward to hug her while Spike winced at the assault on his sensitive ears.

"Sorry, Bit," he said, "we're jaded." He leaned back with a look of bored indifference that lasted all of ten seconds.

"He's lying," Xander added, laughing. "Sometimes we sit back here and laugh our asses off because we're so lucky. One of these days, when you get a break, you'll have to come out on tour with us. Though I don't know if I want to take on the responsibility of keeping both of you out of trouble."

They laughed and joked for the duration of the short trip to Willow and Tara's house. Buffy's car was already in the drive, so they sent Isha and Bill back to the hotel. The door to the cottage opened, and Tara welcomed them inside, inviting Spike by name. The cottage was larger than it looked from the outside, with well-proportioned rooms and high ceilings. It was decorated in a sumptuous, warm style that Xander thought perfectly suited the witches. Tara got them all seated in the living room and went to the kitchen to get drinks.

She returned with tea and sodas and everyone chatted comfortably. At a small noise from the hall, Xander turned. His eyes went wide when he saw Giles standing there, with Buffy and Willow on either side and a tiny, dark haired girl hovering behind him. Giles looked trim and healthy, but that wasn't what stopped Xander. The older man had a look on his face of open, childlike joy, and Xander couldn't help but think that it was the happiest he'd ever seen the Watcher.

Xander rose to his feet and approached Giles slowly. "Giles? It's me, Xander," he said, holding out a hand. The older man's eyes lit up and he reached forward to clasp the proffered hand.

"Xander. You're Xander," he said, and the accent was right, but the voice had a faraway quality, like he was repeating something he'd been told.

Xander stepped forward and carefully hugged Giles. "Hey, G-Man. How're you feeling?"

Giles patted him absently on the back, and looked over his shoulder into the living room. "Dawn is in there, and Tara. And a vampire, too."

Xander pulled back to look into Giles' face. "It's Spike, you remember Spike, right?"

"Spike," Giles repeated. "Yes, of course, Spike." The Watcher walked slowly forward, and Buffy went with him, throwing Xander a quick, pained smile.

Xander looked at Willow, who had placed her arm around the small girl's shoulders and was holding her close.

"Xander, this is Sia," Willow said, inclining her head toward the girl. Xander held out a hand, and she took it. Instead of shaking it, she simply held it for a moment.

"He is a part of you," Sia said, looking up at Willow.

Willow smiled. "Yes, honey, he is." To Xander she said, "Part of Sia's gift is seeing connections between beings. As soon as she met Tara and me, she could see her own connection to us. Buffy and Dawn and Giles, too. It's kind of neat."

Xander gently pulled his hand away. "Cool, I'm part of the club. It's nice to meet you, Sia." Willow turned the girl toward the living room and gave her a small push. Sia obligingly joined the others.

"He's not getting any better," Willow confided. "The coven has researched everything we can find on magical backlash, even performed a couple of specific rituals that should have ended it. Nothing worked. I'm at a loss, Xander. I - I don't know what else to do."

He pulled her close and patted her back. "We'll figure it out, Willow. I promise. We'll figure it out."

After dinner, Tara and Sia elected to stay with Giles while the others went back to the Magic Box to research cures. Buffy drove and Spike spent the short ride giving her hell about her ultra-cautious driving. Xander, Dawn and Willow sat in the back and giggled.

They gathered around the research table, and Willow passed out books while Xander set her laptop up and began searching. Several hours passed. Pages turned, comments and questions were exchanged, Willow traded her book to Xander for his seat at the laptop, Dawn moved to one of the overstuffed chairs and promptly fell asleep.

Willow closed the lid of the laptop and leaned down to rest her head on it. "I just can't find anything. It's so frustrating." She banged her head very lightly on the computer.

Xander closed his book and reached over to rub the back of her neck. "Let's take a break, OK?" He pulled his phone out of his pocket and flipped it open, pressing a button. He waited for the call to be answered. "Isha, hey, man! Will you go up to the Starbucks on Eighth and get my usual, Spike's usual, two mochachinos and a caramel mocha - all grande? And whatever you and Bill want, too. Cool, thanks." He closed the phone and looked around the group, taking in Spike's sly grin and the girls' open-mouthed stares. "It's good to be the king," he mused.

Dawn woke up when Isha entered the store with the drinks, passing them around and making sure that Spike got the Kenyan roast and Xander got the café-au-lait, knowing how pissy the vampire got when he was given coffee with cream content higher than zero percent. Dawn gestured for the bodyguard to sit in the chair across from her, which he did after glancing at Xander and receiving a quick nod. The others stayed at the table and chatted.

"Hey, Wills," Xander said, "What are your parents up to these days?"

"Archaeological dig in China. They've been there for four years already," she replied, shaking her head a little. "They haven't changed. Yours?"

Xander was proud of himself for not flinching at the question. "Dunno," he said, "I haven't spoken to them since I left."

"Oops," Willow said.

He reached out and covered her hand with his own. "It's OK, no big."

Willow turned to Spike, with a bright smile on her face. "How's Dru?"

"Dead. Dusted, whatever," he replied.

"Well, fuck," Willow said.

Xander turned to Spike. "When? You never told me."

The vampire toyed with his empty cup. "'bout three years ago."

"Oh, shit, Spike. Hawaii?"

Spike nodded. As Xander stared at him in horror, he remembered the night that he had felt Drusilla's existence wink out.

He had been onstage when it happened, in the gorgeous outdoor amphitheater located on Maui. The audience thought that Spike falling to his knees and howling was part of the show, and by the time the wild cheering had stopped, he'd managed to get himself back under control. The physical pain had been bad, but the emotional toll was immense.

Spike had roared through the final songs of the set, stormed off the stage and locked himself in the dressing room. He swiftly downed the two bottles of Jack Daniels on the bar, and then swept out. He shouldered past Xander, Annie and the bodyguards and disappeared out the door.

Two hours before dawn, Spike stumbled through the door of their suite and walked unsteadily to the door of Xander's room. Xander met him there. Seating the vampire on the bed, he walked back to the suite's kitchen and returned with a mug of warmed blood. Spike drank it, and then looked up.

"This is Carl's," he said.

"I had Julie draw some - figured you'd need it. There's more."

Xander refilled the mug twice, and on his last trip back to the bedroom, he brought a pair of Spike's sweatpants. As soon as Spike had finished feeding, Xander took the mug back to the kitchen. Upon his return, he found the vampire huddled in his bed. Xander climbed in and turned off the lights.

"You wanna tell me about it?" he asked gently.

"No," Spike's voice was barely a whisper.

"Are you OK?" Xander said.

"No," Spike whispered again.

Xander slid across the bed, closing the distance between them. He pulled the unresisting vampire back against him and wrapped an arm around his waist, holding him firmly. Neither said a word when Spike began to shake. When the racking sobs finally came, Xander simply tightened his arm and held on.

The false dawn woke Xander. He looked at the lightening sky for a long moment before realizing what it meant. Slipping quietly out of bed, he closed the curtains. He knew that they had been drawn as usual when he had finally drifted off to sleep holding Spike. Horrified, he stared at the sleeping vampire. Not knowing what else to do, he had gotten back under the covers and gone back to sleep. He had awakened again at midday, lying on his back. Spike was stretched out on his stomach on the other side of the bed, but the vampire's cool hand was resting in his larger one. Xander squeezed Spike's hand gently and got up.

"Oh, shit," Xander repeated softly, remembering. "Jesus, Spike." He shook his head. Spike's eyes pleaded for him to drop it.

"So, I guess that's it for the family talk, huh?" Xander said, looking around the group. Willow looked mortified, Buffy confused, and Dawn was focused on Isha and hadn't even noticed the exchange at the table. He looked back at Spike, who looked uncharacteristically tired. "You ready to call it a night?" he asked.

"Yeah, I think so," the vampire replied. Plans for the next day were briefly discussed, and they locked up the store and left.

Spike was surprised by a soft knock on his bedroom door. "Come in," he invited.

The door swung open, and Xander stood there, wearing boxers and a tank top, shifting from foot to foot in the shaft of light from the room behind him.

"What's up, Xan?" the vampire asked, placing his book on the bedside table. He shifted up a little higher on his pillows.

Xander took a step into the room and hesitated. Spike patted the bed. "Come on, then," he said.

Xander laughed shortly. "Sorry. This is usually the other way 'round." He climbed into the bed and propped himself up next to Spike. He turned, and looked into crystal blue eyes for a long moment. "I'm sorry about Dru, Spike. I know she meant a lot to you."

Spike held Xander's gaze, then looked away. "I loved her. I wasn't in love with her anymore, but I still loved her. It hurt."

"That night...the curtains," Xander started.

"Yeah, I got up and opened them," Spike admitted. "Thanks for catching that." He gave Xander a rueful half smile. "Not my smartest move."

Xander nodded. "I'm worried about Giles," he said in a small voice.

Spike sighed, and then slid down so that his head rested on the pillows. After a moment, Xander did the same. Spike reached over and turned out the light. When he turned back, Xander had rolled over with his back to the vampire, his body curled into a miserable little ball. Spike gently threaded an arm around the human's waist and held him loosely. "Don't be scared, Xan," he soothed. "We'll figure it out." Xander slowly relaxed against him. Eventually, they slept.

Part Eleven

"Why did you get me a gift? It's not my party," Xander protested, looking at the large rectangular box sitting on his bed.

Spike ran his hand over the box and grinned at his friend. "Actually, it's sort of a bribe."

Xander reached out and untied the white ribbon that held the box shut. He lifted the lid. A large, black case was nestled inside. He lifted it out, and then opened the latches. When he saw what was inside, he whistled in admiration. It was a guitar. But it was no ordinary guitar. It was made of ebony, with mother-of-pearl inlays on the neck, and it glowed blackly against the red velvet lining of the case. Xander reached out and ran a finger over its neck.

"You got me an Ibanez?" he turned to face the vampire. "You got me the exact Ibanez that I've been drooling over? How did you know? Did Dave tell you?" he demanded.

"I saw you, um, drooling over it in a catalog. Like I said, it's a bribe. You know your idea about me singing for Bit instead of making a speech? I need someone to accompany me," Spike explained.

A frown and a smile warred for dominance on Xander's face, but the smile won. "I only know six songs, Spike," he said.

"Yeah," the vampire replied. "You know the one Dave's had you practicing recently?" Xander nodded. "That's the one," Spike said.

Xander thought for a moment, then his smile widened. "It's perfect."

"The song or the guitar?"

"Both." Xander lifted the instrument reverently from its case and cradled it against his hip. He gently picked out a few notes. It sounded perfect.

"I had Dave tune it before we left," Spike said.

Xander looked up at the vampire, still grinning like a fool. "Thank you, Spike," he said, "I love it."

There was a knock at the door, and Spike waved Xander away when the human started to put the guitar reluctantly to the side. He returned carrying two garment bags. He draped one across Xander's bed and hefted the other over his shoulder.

"I guess it's time to get dressed," he said. Xander nodded absently and continued playing his new guitar softly as Spike walked out of the room.

Twenty minutes later, Spike went looking for Xander and found him sitting on the corner of his bed, wearing his tuxedo pants and shirt, but no jacket or shoes, softly strumming the guitar. He paused in the doorway and indulged the urge to stare.

Xander's dark head was bent over the black guitar that gleamed against the stark whiteness of his shirt. One tanned hand held the neck of the instrument gently, the curled fingers moving along the neck as the other hand lightly stroked the strings. The lower curve of the guitar's body rested between his thighs, and one long foot tapped a rhythm on the carpet. He came to the end of the song, and his fingers stopped moving. With his head still bent, Xander rubbed the glass-smooth ebony with the pad of his thumb, and then suddenly looked up.

"You're the coolest, you know that?" he asked Spike softly.

The vampire ducked his head and then smiled. "I'm glad you like the guitar," he said.

"It's really great, Spike, but I was actually referring to your outfit," Xander replied. The vampire grinned and executed a slow turn in the doorway, allowing Xander to admire the custom tuxedo he wore. Never one to follow tradition, Spike's black trousers were fitted rather closely, making his legs look even longer. His feet were covered in supple black boots polished to a high shine. The white shirt hugged his torso and ended in a black-banded collar in lieu of a tie. The cut of his jacket was Edwardian, with a stand-up collar and slightly belled sleeves; it fell to mid-thigh as it settled from Spike's model-perfect spin.

The vampire reached out and took the guitar, placing it reverently into the case. Xander put on his socks and shoes, and then stood to tuck his shirt in. His own tuxedo was non-traditional in that it was a dark, midnight blue. His white shirt had tiny pleats all down the front and was closed with studs set with polished lapis stones. A slightly larger stone set in silver closed his collar. Spike handed him the matching jacket and Xander shrugged into it, holding his hands out and rocking slightly from side to side.

"You aren't too bad yourself, mate," Spike said, picking up the guitar case and exiting the room. Xander followed. They opened the suite door to find all four bodyguards in the hall, each wearing a traditional black tuxedo.

"Groomsmen or pallbearers?" Xander quipped, as Carl and Isha walked in front of them and Jack and Ace fell in behind, Ace deftly taking the case from the vampire's hand.

"Secret Service; way cooler," Spike rejoined.

Every eye in the lobby was trained on them as they swept out the doors and into the waiting cars.

Part Twelve

Xander leaned against the bar and swirled the chardonnay in his glass, watching the light glint off the pale liquid. He looked out over the room appraisingly. Spike, Buffy and Dawn were in the receiving line with the other three graduates who were the party's honorees and their parents. Buffy was by far the youngest, and Spike was by far the coolest, so Dawn was glowing happily. Willow and Tara were off seeing to last minute details.

The hotel ballroom was a large rectangle, its lines softened by sumptuous drapes along the walls and subtle lighting. The room had been dotted with large potted trees, each one awash with white fairy lights. The table linens were in jewel tones accented with rich gold, the centerpieces were masses of cream-colored roses and deep green leaves nestled into cut crystal bowls that reflected the pillar candles burning on each table.

At one end of the room stood a small stage with a black grand piano, fronted by an ample dance floor. A DJ was set up off to the side. Classical music played as the first guests arrived and walked through the receiving line. Xander gave up his perch at the bar as the new arrivals streamed in that direction. He found Ace, Carl and Isha standing at the back of the room, each holding a glass of wine and scanning the room warily. Jack was parked discreetly behind Spike in the receiving line.

"At ease, fellas, I think we're safe here," he joked as he approached the bodyguards. They all smiled sheepishly. Xander led them to a table, intercepting Willow and Tara along the way. After kissing the blonde witch on the forehead, Xander whispered praise for her slinky crimson gown into her ear to make her blush and giggle. Once they were all settled and introduced they started chatting animatedly about current music and movies. After a few minutes, Xander drifted away.

He circled the room, watching and listening. He found himself back at the bar, where he traded in his untouched wine for a beer. He laughed at himself a little when he realized that he'd automatically requested Spike's brand. As he turned from the bar, he almost ran into Willow.

"Hey, Wills. Have I mentioned how gorgeous you look tonight?" He looked her up and down suggestively. Her shining red hair was piled on top of her head, with long tendrils hanging down from her temples. Her gown was a deep amethyst color. It draped from her shoulders to hang in gentle folds to the floor. A slit ran up the side, showing a glimpse of one long leg as she walked. Her shoes were black with tall heels that added a couple of inches to her petite height. At his comment, her green eyes glittered and a delicate blush stained her cheeks.

"You're pretty dashing yourself, Mr. Harris," she replied. He turned back to the bar and ordered her another glass of the red wine she'd been drinking earlier. She smiled and accepted the drink, linking her arm through his to lead him across the room. Along the way, she introduced him to several people; a couple of Dawn's classmates, one of her professors, and various other guests. She noticed that he gave them each the same smile and direct look, making them feel as if they had his complete attention for the brief time they spent together.

"How do you do that?" she asked, once they were again walking slowly toward the front of the room.

"Do what?" he replied, depositing his empty bottle onto a tray set up to the side. He took her empty glass and disposed of it also.

"Make every person you talk to feel like they're the most important person in the room," she explained.

He laughed, and his eyes twinkled. "I picked it up from Spike. He's the master of it; I am but his lowly apprentice."

As they reached the front of the room, the receiving line began to break up. Buffy and Spike walked toward them, with Jack following in their wake.

"Hi, guys," she said, blowing her bangs off of her forehead. "My face hurts from all the smiling. Poor Spike, all the ladies want to know what he was thinking when he wrote this song or that song. They were all just crushed when he told them he doesn't write any of them." She was wearing a floor-length black silk sheath that left her arms and shoulders bare. Her long neck was accented with a cameo pinned to a black silk ribbon, and her hair was swept up into a sleek chignon. "When does the dancing start?" she continued. "I have a groove thing just begging to be shaken here."

As if in answer to her query, the classical music turned to louder dance music, and Dawn twirled onto the dance floor with Isha in tow. She was wearing an ice-blue strapless gown with a full ball skirt, and she looked like a fairytale princess. Her long hair was worn in soft curls that tumbled down her back. She had one hand resting lightly on Isha's shoulder, and his loosely clasped her hip as they gyrated. Xander heard Spike let out a very quiet rumbling growl.

"Down, boy," he said, laying a hand on Spike's shoulder. "It's called dancing - all the young people are doing it these days. It's much less like sex than it looks." The girls giggled, and Spike had the good grace to look sheepish.

"Let's go show them how it's done, Slayer," Spike said, twirling Buffy expertly. "Plus I can go scare the piss out of Isha."

Xander grabbed Willow's hand and led her after the departing couple. "Let's go try and save Dawn from the embarrassment, shall we?" He smiled down into her face and swung her into his arms in a smooth move.

"...and we just couldn't be any prouder of our little girl," the florid woman finished her speech with tears running down her face. Xander clapped politely, while trying to stifle a smile. Spike had been repeating the woman's words in a pitch-perfect imitation of Patsy from "Absolutely Fabulous" in his ear throughout her speech. Xander elbowed the vampire sharply in the ribs as Buffy walked onto the stage and stopped in front of the microphone.

"I know you guys are probably tired of the speeches, our guests of honor most of all. So to them I just wanted to say that we apologize for embarrassing them, and it's almost over - but not quite." She grinned at Dawn, who shot her an exasperated look.

Buffy looked out over the crowd for a moment, and then continued speaking. "Most of you know Dawn, and by extension, me. So you know that our family is a little bit on the unconventional side. Dawn and I lost our Mom a lot of years ago, and we had to build a new family. The members of that family have stuck with us through some rough times, and Dawn and I are lucky to have had them by our sides for so long.

When Dawn was about fifteen, under extremely trying circumstances, I made a promise to my sister - I promised to show her this world. What I didn't realize at the time was that she was going to be the one to show it to me. She showed me the meaning of love, the meaning of family, and how to do the most important thing in this world - live in it." She wiped a tear from her cheek and smiled brilliantly, catching her sister's eye.

"I love you, Dawnie, and I am so thrilled to stand up here today and see the woman you've become. On behalf of the whole family - myself, Giles, Willow, Tara, Xander, Spike and Sia - we love you and we are in awe of your accomplishments." The crowd applauded, and Dawn blew her sister a kiss.

"I'm going to shut up now, because I'm sure that most of you are much more interested in what Dawn's honorary Dad has to say." She smiled at Spike and Xander, and gestured for the vampire to join her at the microphone. He did, and Xander heard a ripple of whispers run through the crowd. Buffy leaned up and kissed Spike lightly on the cheek then walked to stand next to Xander.

"I spend a fair amount of time behind one of these," the vampire said, gesturing to the microphone, "but usually I just have to sing and say things like 'Hello, Cleveland!" There were laughs throughout the crowd, and he ducked his head shyly. "Back in the old days, I made a promise to a lady - that one over there," he gestured toward Buffy. "I promised that I'd take care of Dawn until the end of the world. I'm still at it, and I intend to be for quite some time. And, yeah, that is a warning to anyone intending to date my little girl." He shot Dawn a discreet two-fingered salute when she stuck her tongue out at him.

"That's enough of me talking," he said. "I'm gonna stick to what I do best, if you don't mind." He gestured to Xander, who walked onto the stage with the black guitar in hand. He pulled out the piano bench and sat on the end of it, settling the guitar in his lap. Spike removed the microphone from its stand and walked over to stand beside Xander.

"Ladies and gentlemen, in his public debut, Mr. Xander Harris." The crowd applauded, and Xander could hear his girls cheering. Spike said, "Little Bit, this is for you - better than we could ever say it." He looked down at Xander, who nodded and began to play. After the opening chords, Spike began to sing.

Lying in my bed I hear the clock tick,
And think of you
Turning in circles
Confusion is nothing new
Flashback to warm nights--
Almost left behind
Suitcase of memories,
Time after--

Sometimes you picture me--
I'm walking too far ahead
You're calling to me, I can't hear
What you've said--
And you say--go slow--
I fall behind--
The second hand unwinds

Spike leaned in closer to Xander, careful not to interfere with his playing. He looked out over the crowd and locked eyes with Dawn as he sang the chorus of the song.

If you're lost you can look--and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you--I will be waiting
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you--I will be waiting
Time after time

Time after time

Xander played the bridge, and Spike sank down onto the piano bench behind Xander, leaning lightly against the other man as he played.

After your picture fades and darkness has
Turned to gray
Watching through windows--I'm wondering
If you're OK
Secrets stolen from deep inside
The drum beats out of time--

If you're lost you can look--and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you--I will be waiting
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you--I will be waiting
Time after time

Xander picked out the melody one more time, and Spike rested a hand on his shoulder as he finished the song, repeating the last line.

Time after time
Time after time
Time after time
Time after... time

The final note faded, and the small crowd applauded wildly. Dawn ran onto the stage and wrapped her arms around both men. Xander barely got the guitar out of the way in time.

"I love you guys," she said, squeezing them tightly. The dance music started up again, and Spike used his enhanced strength to pull the three of them upright and lead them off the stage. As soon as their feet touched the floor, they found themselves engulfed by Buffy, Willow and Tara.

"OK, OK, let me breathe," Spike groused, fighting his way out of the tangle of arms. "Stop bloody Scoobying me to death." Trying desperately to get away from the emotional scene, he took Dawn by the hand and led her out onto the dance floor.

As the evening wore on, the character of the party morphed and changed. Innocuous dance music gave way to what Dawn called "Tunes for Geezers". Spike shocked her to near speechlessness by twirling her around the dance floor in a flawless classical waltz. Xander took her for the next dance, his waltz only slightly less expert, while Spike was systematically besieged by every woman over the age of fifty in the room. The vampire exhausted his ballroom dance repertoire with humor and charm, while the rest of the gang proceeded to get tipsy, watch and periodically join in.

Xander and Buffy danced the most, using their forays around the floor as cover for delivering a series of glasses of Jack Daniels to the vampire, who slugged them down gratefully without missing a step. Finally, Dawn walked over and had a word with the DJ. When the song changed, she strode onto the dance floor and claimed Spike for the final waltz. Xander and Buffy, Tara and Jack and Willow and Isha followed, laughing.

"You're pretty good at this old-school stuff," Buffy said, smiling up into Xander's face.

"I'm a man of many talents," he grinned.

She pulled him closer. "I remember," she murmured against his chest.

Xander allowed his hands to slide from the traditional waltz positions to curl around her slight body, gliding over her exposed back. Holding Buffy in his arms felt comforting and familiar; he automatically dropped his head to rest one cheek against her temple, breathing in the spicy-sweet scent of her perfume as they swayed together.

Across the dance floor, Dawn whispered into Spike's ear, "This is the last oldie. Are you ready to really dance after this?"

"More than ready," the vampire said tightly, looking over her shoulder. He deftly steered them closer to Xander and Buffy as the song came to a close. The last notes faded as the two couples came side by side, and a throbbing dance beat started. The lights dimmed, and colored spotlights hidden in the rafters began to revolve, bathing the room in streaks of red, blue and green.

Dawn leaned over. "Can I cut in?" she asked. Xander released Buffy with a squeeze and a smile and stepped back. He held an arm out to Dawn, and then barked a short laugh when the two sisters began dancing together, leaving Xander and Spike facing one another. They exchanged a grin and a shrug, and then threw themselves into the dance.

The change in music sent the older couples scurrying to the sidelines, but brought everyone else onto the floor, and Spike and Xander found themselves crushed close in a press of bodies. Both were excellent dancers, feeling the music in their bones and letting their bodies move sinuously with the beat. The people around them shot them admiring glances, and Xander couldn't help the grin that split his face as he watched Spike lose himself in the music.

The vampire really was a joy to watch, all tight pants and loose hips, sex on wheels for sure. He tossed his head, blond hair sparkling, eyes flashing. His face wore his patented evil grin; all lips, no teeth. He moved like a snake - Spike looked every inch the predator when he danced.

Xander moved to the beat, no longer the awkward teen he had been, dancing at The Bronze in high school. Strife, success and age had seasoned him and made him comfortable in his own skin; he exhibited a loose-limbed grace and sense of abandon that drew admiring stares from all quarters. The sight of the two men dancing together seemed to bring about a shift in the attitude of the room. Over the course of the next few songs, jackets were shed, sleeves were rolled up, collars were loosened, and Spike and Xander each found themselves partnered with a variety of men and women.

Xander worked his way across the floor, arrowing toward one of the bars. He ordered and moved to the side, leaning on a wall to cool down and sip his beer while watching the dancers. He easily picked out Spike's halo of blond waves, and then lost him again in the frenzy. Willow and Tara were dancing together, as were Buffy and Jack. The other bodyguards had no shortage of partners - both Carl and Isha had pretty girls on their arms, and Xander noted with a smile that Ace had a pretty boy on his. Dawn was happily gyrating in a cluster of her classmates, a broad smile on her face.

"She still looks about fourteen to me," Spike said, leaning on the wall next to Xander and taking a sip from his glass of JD. "Then again, sometimes I forget that you're not sixteen or seventeen anymore."

"That's OK," Xander replied, smiling fondly. "Sometimes I forget, too." The music was loud, and it was difficult to talk, so the two men simply stood quietly, shoulder to shoulder and watched the dancers. They finished their drinks and worked their way back across the floor to join their friends.

* Time After Time Cyndi Lauper, et al. The version that inspired me was Matchbox Twenty’s.

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