Normal Again

Changes in perspective are marked with a line of asterisks *******.

                Xander walked down the street with Buffy, not talking.  He was mulling that over in his mind.  For once, he didn't feel the need to fill the silence.  Didn't feel like he had to chatter, and babble, and make semi-witty observations.  It was a new thing for him, and he liked it.

                Ever since Buffy had died, there had been a lot of new things.  Like, being the responsible guy that long, miserable summer, when even Spike had been a welcome presence.  Taking care of Dawn - of the Summers' house.  Making sure the 'bot didn't blow their cover, making sure Giles didn't drink himself to death.  Keeping Tara and Willow positive and keeping Anya...  Well, keeping Anya from hating him, mostly.  When all had been said and done, and Buffy was in the ground - he just couldn't do it.  Said, finally, what was in his heart.  It just hadn't felt right, his thing with Anya.  He had forced himself to admit that Anya was because of - well, lots of things, but mostly Anya was an escape.  So he'd said no, and he'd endured her hurt and rage, and the baffled curiosity of the rest of the gang.  Endured in silence, and for the first time silence had actually - worked for him.  It didn't seem to have worked for everyone else, but Xander had decided that that was too bad.    Babble, for once - had not been his friend. 

                Spike had, surprisingly, been rather...cool about the whole thing.  He'd only mentioned it once.  One night on patrol, when it was only a week in the past and Xander was still raw.  Spike had shredded a fledge and contemplatively licked the blood off his fingers, looking at Xander.

                "So - word is you and demon-girl are through."

                "Yeah," Xander said, sighing.  Bracing himself for mockery.

                "Takes balls, to jilt a vengeance demon.  Even an ex one.  Guess you know your own mind, eh?"

                "Yeah," Xander had said, astonished.  "I do.  Wow!  First person to get it." 

                Spike had grinned - leaped past him to take down the second fledge that was sneaking through some bushes, and that had been that.  Now there was something of a truce between him and Spike.  Well, something a bit more than a truce, but what, exactly, Xander wasn't sure.  He contemplated the non-hostility between himself and Spike often.  And that was new, too, and Xander liked that, as well.  All that hate had just been so...tiring. 

                Now it was 'Attack of the Nerds' and everyone was sick to death of the little weasel's interference.  So he and Buffy, out looking at the most-recently rented houses in Sunnydale, trying to find their lair, or hideout, or whatever it was.  They were down to three addresses, after having spent half of the day being disappointed, and Xander felt like they were getting close.  Or, he hoped they were, because his feet hurt, and he really just wanted to go home, and eat, and collapse in bed.  He might be a foreman at the site, but he still worked, and he was tired.   Buffy squinted in the amber glow of the streetlight at the sheaf of papers in her hand - looked at the house number that was flaking off the curb.

                 "This is the one.  Come on."  The house was dark, so they decided to walk around the back, see if there were any lights anywhere.  As they came around the back corner, there was a low, breathy throbbing sort of sound, some sort of flute or pipe.  Xander looked at Buffy, who shrugged, and they went cautiously forward.  There were still no lights, and Buffy shook her head.

                "I don't think there's anybody home," she said, and went around the next corner, back towards the street.  Suddenly there was a thud, and Xander ran to catch up, rounding the corner in time to see some sort of waxy-looking demon backhand Buffy into a car.  Buffy spun and caught herself - launched an attack, and Xander cast around frantically for a weapon.  He saw a length of pipe on the ground - like something you'd use to shoot off bottle-rockets - and he grabbed it up.  The demon was strong, and every kick or punch Buffy landed rocked it but didn't stop it, or seem to slow it down much.  Xander edged around the battling pair - got a good angle and brought the pipe down hard.  The demon grunted and spun around -rushed at him, and he dodged, trying to bring the pipe down again but missing.  Buffy jumped on its back, twisting its neck, but it pulled her off and threw her.  She landed hard and for a moment was still - dazed - and the demon growled and pounced.

                "Buffy!"  Xander brought the pipe down again and again, and the demon seemed to hunch inward.  Buffy kicked up hard with both feet, and the demon staggered backwards, flailing, knocking into Xander who stumbled to one knee.  He raised the pipe again and suddenly the demon lunged at him and he felt a sickening jolt of pain in his shoulder.  He looked down to see a long, wicked spine stabbing into his arm, and he yelled and jerked away - saw Buffy grab the demon and send it hurtling into a parked car, smashing the window.  And then....

 

                                                                                ***************

               

                Xander is struggling - panting - desperate.  Two men in white are grappling with him - trying to pin him down, and he kicks out.

                "Damnit, get the damn needle in!  He's gonna hurt somebody in a minute!"

                "Hold him - hold him!  I've got it -"  

                Xander sees a third man holding a syringe - sees the syringe plunge towards his shoulder and the needle slides in and he yells...

 

                                                                                ***************

               

                "Xander!  Hey, you okay?  Xander?"  Buffy was shaking him - crouching down beside him, eyes wide, and Xander realized he was on his back on the sidewalk.  He sat up slowly and clutched his arm.  Where the demon had stabbed him hurt - a fiery throb like a bad bee-sting, and he winced as he slowly got to his feet.

                "I - I guess I'm okay, Buffy.  That demon had a - a spine-thing.  Stabbed me.  It just -"

                "You were yelling."  Buffy looked at him, a worried frown on her face, and Xander flexed his arm a little, grimacing. 

                "I dunno - I kinda...lost it there for a second.  I guess it got away?"

                "Yeah.  But - I'd say we found the secret lair.  Let's get back to the house and see what kind of demon that was - I want to make sure you're not poisoned or something."  Buffy put her arm through his and Xander rubbed his hand over his face - stumbled a little.

                "Yeah.  Good idea," he said.

 

                When they got back to Buffy's house, though, Willow was out, and there was a note from Dawn, saying she was at Janice's house, she'd be home by nine.  Xander sat down on a stool in the kitchen, leaning on the island and rubbing his shoulder.  It was really sore.

                "You okay?  You look a little -"   Buffy made a face, and Xander grinned tiredly at her.

                "Yeah.  Just had a long day, and now this - it kinda hurts.  I don't feel...I dunno...like I'm gonna die or anything, though."

                "Since you've never died before, how would you know?"

                "Spike!"  Buffy snapped, jumping around, obviously startled by the vampire who had slipped silently in through the kitchen door.  Xander was startled too, but he was too tired to care and just rolled his eyes.  Spike grinned - flicked his cigarette butt out into the yard.

                "Why would you feel like you were dying, Harris?"

                "He got stabbed by some big, ugly, waxy demon.  We don't know if it's poisonous or not - we were kinda hoping Willow would be around."  Ever since Buffy had died and come back, there had been a sort of truce between her and Spike, as well.  Another new thing - another good thing.

                "Hmmmm..."  Xander watched as Spike came around the island and reached for him, and he surrendered weakly to the vampire undoing a button on his shirt and pulling the collar wide so he could see the wound.   "Stabbed with what?  A horn or somesuch or a - a weapon?"

                "A spine, in its hand," Xander said, trying not to flinch as Spike prodded the wound a bit.  Trying harder not to lean into the hand that was resting lightly on his arm.   The wound was swollen and purpling, oozing clear lymph fluid.   Xander thought it was odd that it was bloodless. 

                *Maybe that's part of the poison, though...* he thought.  Suddenly the room wavered out of focus.

 

                                                                                ************

               

                "That could have gone better," the man with the syringe says, and he pulls the needle out.

                "Well hell, at least you got it in him with just some bruising.  Last time he broke the needle off in his arm and broke Jerry's nose.  He's stronger than he looks."

                "They always are.  Okay, let's get the restraints on and get a blanket.  He'll be out for a while."

 

                                                                                **************

               

                "Oh - don't -"   Xander jerked hard away from Spike, who was holding his bicep.

                "Xander, you okay?"

                "Easy, mate," Spike said, and Xander looked around at the bright kitchen - at Buffy's worried face and Spike's curious one.

                "Oh man, that wasn't - wasn't of the good.  We really need to find out what that demon was."

                "What happened?  You just - blanked out and then you were -"

                "Panicking a bit," Spike said, and Xander leaned on the countertop, pulling his shirt back up and fumbling at the button.

                "I wasn't - well, I don't know what I was doing.  I thought I was somewhere else...  Buffy, I could really use a drink of water." 

                "Sure, Xander."  Buffy turned to the cabinet to get a glass and then filled it, and Xander drank gratefully. 

                "Listen - I'm gonna go back out, look around for this thing - maybe go to Willy's and see if he knows anything.  Spike, can you - can you get Xander home?"  Spike lifted an eyebrow and looked at Buffy, as if contemplating an intricate schedule in his mind and deciding if he could shuffle bloody mayhem and kitten poker around to another day.

                "I s'pose I could, Slayer," he drawled, and Buffy gave him a tight little smile.

                "I'll leave a note for Willow, so she can get started on the research right away.  You just go home and relax, Xander."

                "Buffy, I -"   Xander wanted to protest, but another wave of dizziness came over him and he gave up.  He didn't feel bad, but he sure didn't feel right, either, and now was not the time to play stoic hero.  "Okay - I'll go home with Rex here - at least he can keep the lady next door off me.  She wants my body."  Xander waggled his eyebrows suggestively and Spike snorted.  The lady next door was in her fifties; a sort of overblown, overbleached parody of a woman, and she had tried to coax every male in the building into her apartment.  She had tried particularly hard with Spike when the vampire had come over for beer and movies until Spike had told her he was gay and Xander was his lover.  Then she'd started asking fashion advice.  There didn't seem to be any way of avoiding her, and it had become a running joke between them.  Oddly, having his neighbor - well, probably neighbors, at this point - think he was gay and with Spike, really didn't bother Xander at all.  *And the newness just keeps happening.* 

                "What?  Xander, I think you're delirious."  Buffy put her hand on Xander's forehead, frowning, and Spike laughed aloud, feeling over his pockets and coming up with a pack of smokes.

                "Better get you home, Harris, before your brain explodes.  Watch yourself, Slayer."   Spike yanked Xander up unceremoniously by his good arm and dragged him out of the kitchen.  Xander pushed irritably at him.

                "Watch it, Blondie, you'll bruise the goods."

                "In your dreams, Harris.  I've got things to do.  The faster I get you home, the better."  Xander pulled free and tugged his shirt straight.

                "Fine, just don't haul me around like luggage, okay?"  Spike rolled his eyes and pulled open the front door - lit up as his foot hit the porch.

                "Don't smoke in the house!"  Buffy yelled from the kitchen.

                "I'm outside for Christ's sake!"  Spike yelled back, and Xander shut the door.

                "Let's go, Spike.  I'm not feeling so hot." 

                "Right."   Spike strode off down the walk and Xander hurried to keep up.  He wasn't sure how he was, but a weird, disconnected sort of feeling kept creeping up on him, as if his head were floating several feet above his body, tethered by a thin string.  *I am Xander's disassociated head,*  Xander mused to himself, stumbling a little over an uneven section of sidewalk and hissing as Spike grabbed his sore arm to steady him.

                "Don't be such a wimp, Harris," Spike muttered, but he let go.

                "Don't be such a jerk, Spike," Xander muttered back, but there wasn't any heat to the exchange.  *We're like Ralph and Ed - or like Ralph and Alice, maybe.*    "To the moon, Alice!"  Xander said, and Spike blew a lungful of smoke towards him.

                "I am not Alice, you git."  Xander couldn't suppress a laugh and Spike scowled and stalked ahead, affront in every line of his body - even his duster seemed irritated, snapping around booted heels, and Xander laughed again. 

                Another ten minutes saw them to Xander's front door, and he fumbled with the key until Spike made a sort of growling sound down in his chest and snatched it from him - shoved it home and pushed the door open.

                "Home sweet home," Xander said, and stumbled forward to collapse on his couch.  Spike followed him in and shut the door - went into the kitchen.  After a minute he came back out with two bottles of beer in his hand.  He clicked on the lamp by the couch and sat down on the coffee table.

                "Here, mate, have a beer.  Do you good."  Xander got his elbows under him and pushed up, then sagged back.

                "Too tired.  Besides, alcohol will probably kill me in my poisoned state.  Are you trying to kill me, Spike?"

                "Nah.  Wouldn't waste the beer.  Alcohol could only help.  We could pour some on your shoulder."   Xander heard Spike twist the cap off and flick it with deadly accuracy into the kitchen, where it hit the wall and bounced down into the trash.  The wall was already scored countless times by other caps, and Xander had given up telling him to quit.

                "No, I don't think so.  Don't think a beer-bath would help."  Xander was feeling warm - almost hot - and he heaved himself over onto his back and unbuttoned his shirt - started to worm out of it.  He'd forgotten to unbutton the cuffs, though, and they caught around his wrists.  He struggled with them, trying to yank his arms free.

 

                                                                                ***************

 

                "Calm down, Alex.  You're going to hurt your arm.  Just let me get the buckle..."  A young man, hovering over him - blonde haired, wearing all white.  He is tugging at the restraint around Xander's wrist. Xander fights to keep still, hating the claustrophobic feel of the thing, hating the vulnerability of being laid out, unable to fight.

                *Get it off get it off get it off* he chants silently, and the young man finally gets the buckle undone - pats his wrist.

                "There you go, Alex.  It's off. Now you wanna sit up, go have a shower?"

 

                                                                                **************

 

 

                "Xander!  You in there, mate?"  Spike was leaning over him - Spike was holding his wrist and one strong twist of his thin fingers popped the button on his shirt and freed him from it.

                "Huh?  Oh man - fuck - that was..."  Xander sat up, shakily yanking the other cuff loose and then huddling over his balled-up shirt.

                 "What the bloody hell is wrong with you?"  Spike took a swig of his beer and Xander reached out and took it out of his hand - took a quick drink himself.

                "I dunno, Spike.  I was - I saw...  I was in a hospital or something.  It was - really creepy.  It was real."  He shivered, and Spike sat back, eyeing him with a sort of cat-like curiosity.   The kind of curiosity that waits for a twitch so it can pounce.

                "Yeah?  You didn't go anywhere...  Just got all -glassy-eyed and started flailing around.  'Bout ripped your shirt in two."

                "Huh."  Xander wiped his face with his shirt, feeling a sheen of cold sweat there.  "I think - I'm gonna take a shower real quick, okay?  Spike -"   Xander looked at the vampire, who looked back, one eyebrow cocked up.  "Will you stay here?  I mean - I should only be in there for about five minutes.  If you hear a big - a big thud, or I'm not out in six..."

                "Yeah, yeah, I'll come stop you drowning.  Whatever."  Spike slid easily from the coffee table to the couch and picked up the remote - clicked the TV on.  "I've got better things to do than listen to you wank in the bath, so get a move on, mate."

                "Ha ha.  No wanking tonight - Delia didn't come out of her apartment."

                "Oh - right - you couldn't hear."  A smirk twisted the corner of Spike's mouth up.  "I think Delia got lucky tonight.  Must've hit the pizza boy over the head."  Xander gaped at him, open-mouthed, and then dissolved into a fit of helpless guffaws. 

                "Oh my god!  You could hear her?  Jesus!  Did it sound like she was having fun?"

                "Somebody sure was," Spike chuckled, and Xander shook his head in disbelief - got slowly up off the couch and shuffled towards the bedroom.

                "Damn.  Okay - five minutes."

                  "Make it four."   Spike flapped the remote at him, seemingly already engrossed in something about biohazardous weapons, but Xander wasn't fooled.  The TV coming on usually meant Spike was in for the night and Xander went back to his bedroom to get some clean flannel pajama pants and an old t-shirt, grinning to himself.    The shower felt wonderful - even when the water and soap stung in the wound - and Xander stood under the hot spray for more than five minutes, just letting his muscles relax and the tension flow away with the shampoo. 

                *I'm not poisoned - just in shock for a little bit.  I mean - I got stabbed!  If I were poisoned I'd be - frothing at the mouth or something.  Paralyzed.  I'm fine.*    He finally got out and toweled off - pulled on shirt and pants and went slowly back out to the living room.  Spike was sprawled on the couch, boots and duster off, a third beer on the coffee table and a box of saltines beside him.

                "Hey!  I thought you had better things to do."   Xander went into the kitchen and poured some cran-grape juice - grabbed a bag of tortilla chips and some salsa.

                "Well, yeah - anything's better'n babysitting a Scooby, but it's a Tarentino marathon!  Reservoir Dogs, From Dusk 'Til Dawn and Pulp Fiction."  Spike chugged his beer, sneering at the commercial about the Army that was running.

                "I thought you hated From Dusk 'Til Dawn," Xander said, plopping down on the couch and putting his snacks on the coffee table.  Spike shoved a saltine into his mouth and chewed noisily.   When he answered, he spit little crumbs of saltines out, and Xander snatched up a pillow to ward them off.

                "It has its high points.  That Salma, dancin' with the snake, she's a high point."

                "Too true."  Xander shook the pillow off and propped it behind his head, and they settled down to watch the marathon.  At some point, Xander found his eyes fluttering and fluttering - finally closing altogether, and he slipped away, listening to Mr. White tell Mr. Blonde he was a madman. 

 

                                                                                ***************

               

                "Hey, Alex.  Time for your meds.  C'mon - just take 'em, okay?  Don’t fight me."  The same blonde-haired man, and a room that was painted a pale green.  People dressed in casual, sloppy clothes mill around, and white-uniformed people move among them, handing out little paper cups of water and...

                "Pills?"  Xander asks, looking down at the little cup the man holds out to him.

                "Yeah, Alex, pills.  The same ones you take every day.  C'mon -"

                "I don't take pills everyday - I don't take anything everyday.  What the hell are they?"  Xander glares at the man, who stares back, utterly stunned.  Then he turns his head, looking over his shoulder.

                "Dr. Northern!  You need to come here!"  A tall black man hurries over, a woman trailing behind him clutching a clipboard.

                "What is it, Mark?"

                "He - he -"

                "I asked - what are these pills?  And where am I?  I don't - is this a hospital?"  Xander is getting a very strange feeling - a sort of sinking feeling - and he doesn't like it.  He licks his lips nervously, watching as Dr. Northern opens and closes his mouth a few times in apparent shock, and then grins.

                "Alex!  Now, I want you to concentrate.  Do you know where you are?"  Xander rolls his eyes.

                "I just said I didn't know.  This looks like a hospital - is this Sunnydale General?  I didn't think I was hurt that bad."  Dr. Northern purses his lips - shares a look with Mark and the woman with the clipboard.

                "What do you think happened to you?"

                "What do I think happened?  I know what happened.  I got stabbed."  Xander reaches up to his shoulder - feels the ache there like a bruise.  "Right here.  It still hurts."

                 "Hmmm.  Alex -"

                "Stop calling me that, would you?  My name's Xander."

                "No, it's Alex.  'Xander' is the name that your - your friends in Sunnydale gave you.  The friends that aren't real."  Xander frowns at Dr. Northern and slowly shakes his head.

                "Nooo, 'Xander' is the name that my mom called me because my cousin couldn't say 'Alexander' and she thought it was cute.   And my friends are real.  They'll probably be coming to get me soon, so no thanks to the pills, okay?"

                "Alex - you're not in Sunnydale - you're in the Five Pines House, in Oxnard, California.  This is a facility for the mentally ill.  You've been here for five years.  And - this is only the second time you've been lucid."  Xander stares at the man - looks around him again, increasingly nervous.  The place doesn't look like Sunnydale General - doesn't look like a regular hospital at all.  There is a heavy mesh over the windows, and the white-uniformed people - nurses, he supposes, or aides - all have those little magnetic swipe cards around their necks.  The people are - strange.  They're dressed casually, in jeans or sweats, but several  people are rocking or doing some sort of repetitive movement, and one heavy bald guy is moaning and thumping his head on a table.  A hovering nurse is trying to stop him, talking softly and stroking his back.

                "No - no, that's wrong, that's...   Listen, I was just - on my couch.  I got stabbed, and I didn't feel good, and Spike walked me home -"

                "Spike would be the vampire?"

                "Huh?  You - you know about vampires?"

                "You made them up, Alex - you made Spike up.  You know vampires aren't real. It's all a part of the fantasy world that you built around yourself."  Dr. Northern moves a little closer and puts his hand gently on Xander's shoulder.

                "It's been a long time since you've been able to talk like this, Alex - three years, I'd say.  You've been - lost in this fantasy world of Sunnydale and demons and vampires."  Xander twitches away from the doctor's hand - looks frantically around.

                "Look, I don't know what's going on, or who the hell you are, but I am not crazy and I didn't make Spike up or Sunnydale or any of it!  I got stabbed and I might be poisoned but I'm not a nut-case!"  Xander realizes he is almost shouting and tries to calm down, but a horrible feeling of panic is twisting through him, cold and slippery as a snake, and he is starting to feel very, very afraid.  Something is tugging at him - at his memories.  Something he doesn't like.   "I can prove I was stabbed - I've got a wound in my shoulder!"

                "You do?  Well - why not show it to me?  Maybe it needs some attention."  Dr. Northern looks at him, waiting, and Xander struggles with the baggy thermal shirt he has on - finally gets his arm out and pulls the shirt up, baring his shoulder.

                "See?  I told you -"   Dr. Northern is shaking his head and Xander feels the panic-snake hit his belly, cold as ice.  He looks down at himself - at his shoulder - and sees a small bruise there, with a little crust of blood at the center.  Exactly like when he had gotten that last tetanus shot.  A shot...the one he'd gotten earlier, when the men had been holding him down...  Xander starts to shake, and he looks up at Dr. Northern, feeling his breath catching in his throat.

                "No.  No!  I did not - I did not make up my entire lifeNo!"

 

                                                                                **************

 

 

                "Xan-derrr, shut up," Spike whined, and Xander jolted to full consciousness, panting.  He was on his couch, curled into the corner, and Spike was laying over the rest, his feet tucked behind Xander's back, his head pillowed on his duster.  The TV was off and the room was bathed in a pale golden light - sunlight coming in through the kitchen window.  It only came in there for an hour or so, just at dawn, and Xander realized he'd been asleep - that he'd been... 

                *Dreaming?  Was that a dream?  That seemed so...   God, it's the poison, HAS to be.  I'm poisoned and it's making me crazy.*   Xander sat up and ran shaking hands back through his hair, wincing when his shoulder throbbed.  *Okay, that's REAL, that pain - I felt that...  The light is real, and my neck is sore...  Spike's feet are cold, that's real...*

                "M'sleepin', mate!"  Spike rasped, squinting at him and scowling, and Xander realized he'd been talking out loud.

                "Fuck you, Spike.  I just - I had this dream and...  I need to call Wills.  She's got to tell me what the hell is going on.  That was - was -"   Xander stopped, shuddering, and Spike made a sort of interrogatory noise.

                "Heart's goin' too fast," he mumbled, and Xander put his hand to his chest and felt the rabbity thudthudthud.

                "I - had this dream but - it was so real.  This - this doctor was telling me I was - in a hospital - telling me I was crazy and that - that all of this was made up.  Was in my head." 

                "Made up?"  Spike's eyes were closed - he was nearly asleep again.

                "Yeah - everything.  You even.  All just - a fantasy." 

                "Broke an' alone.  Way to dream, Harris."  Spike's voice trailed off to silence and Xander just sat there for a long moment, hugging himself.  The dream - whatever it was - had really creeped him out.  He needed to talk to Willow.

 

                "Willow?"

                "Uh?  Xan...?"  Willow sounded completely out of it and Xander felt a wave of guilt wash over him.

                "Oh, hey, I'm sorry Wills, I - I didn't mean to wake you up but - I really need to talk to you."  He could hear Willow clearing her throat - heard her shifting around, probably sitting up in bed. 

                "Ummmm...right.  Okay.  What - my god, it's not even six - what did you need, Xander?"

                "About that demon - I need to know about that demon from last night.  Did you find out anything?"

                "There was a demon?  Uh - no, I -"   Xander could almost hear Willow's mind slipping gears, going from 'too early too sleepy' to 'danger, Will Robinson!'.

                "Yeah.  Me and Buffy ran into this demon last night while we were looking for the Nerds.  It stabbed me with this spine and -"

                "Oh!  Oh, are you all right?"

                "I don't know, Wills!  I keep - I keep having these weird...hallucinations."  A soft gasp from Willow, and more rustling noises.  Xander imagined she was getting up, and he waited while Willow dropped the phone and picked it back up.

                "Sorry!  Just - my robe - okay, hallucinations?  What kind of hallucinations?  I mean - like you're dreaming, or -"

                "They're really - real, Willow.  I mean - really real.  I'm in this - hospital.  This mental hospital, and the doctor told me I'd been in there for - years.  It was creepy."  More breathing, rustling noises, and Xander wondered what Willow was doing now.

                "Right, okay, so really real hallucinations about - about a mental hospital?  Okay.  Oh!  Here's a note from Buffy, it was kinda behind the sugar bowl, I didn't see it...  Oh - okay, she's got the description here..."  Willow yawned, and Xander felt that spasm of guilt again.  But not too strongly.  He was a little too freaked out to be guilty at this point.  "Let me just - let me get a shower, Xander and kinda wake up and then I'll hit the books.  I don't have class today so I can have my own little research party all by myself..."  She trailed off and Xander knew what she wanted, and he grinned to himself.

                "I'll come over and help, Wills.  I gotta get some breakfast.  How 'bout...gimmie an hour?"

                "Sure!  That sounds great."  Willow did sound happier, and Xander told her goodbye and hung up - looked over his shoulder at Spike, who was asleep again, curled around his duster like he was guarding it.              

                *Can't send him home now...  Well, won't be the first time he's crashed here.  I know there's some blood in the fridge, too...*   Xander yawned hugely and made his way into the kitchen.  He closed the blind on the window and went about making some French toast, trying not to make too much noise.  As he dunked the first piece of bread into the eggs-milk-cinnamon, Spike appeared.  His t-shirt was wrinkly and his hair was mussed, and his eyes were red-rimmed and half-shut.  He looked strung out, but Xander knew from experience that it was just the normal 'vampire, sun is up, should be asleep' look.  He stood in the kitchen doorway for a minute, just blinking and watching Xander work.

                "What're you doing?" he asked finally, his voice hoarse.

                "Making French toast."  Xander flipped the slice in the skillet, waiting.

                "Yeah?  Make some for me?"  Xander grinned down at the toast.

                "Sure, Spike."  Spike nodded, looking a little dazed, and then got Xander's kettle and filled it.  His hands shook in the morning - some sort of adrenaline residue, Xander thought, but wasn't really sure.  After his first cup of poisonously sweet tea it would go away, and the rest of the pot would be drunk black.

                *And isn't it a little odd that I know that?  I mean - why would I know that?*  Xander thought about that as he made a second and third piece of toast - as the kettle boiled and Spike assembled his first cup.  He decided it was because of their truce.  Since it had started, Spike had come over more and more; to watch his movies and eat his food, to chivvy him out to play pool or to patrol.  Xander thought that maybe Spike was lonely - or that he knew Xander was.  And even though it was contrary to everything Giles had taught them, he thought that Spike just...liked him.  Liked his company, liked his taste in movies and junk food, liked his morbid jokes.  And Xander was okay with that - with yet another new thing.

                *And I'm okay with the liking because...  I like, too.  I like more than I should.  Or, no - not should, just...more than I ever thought I might.*

                As he slid the first plate of French toast onto the table, Spike rummaged a packet of blood out of the fridge and heated it - poured it over the toast in lieu of syrup and ate.  Xander just ignored him.  He'd long ago gotten over any squeamishness he had about blood and food together.  Like the hatred, it had just gotten to be to tiring to react all the time.  And the fact that he let Spike keep blood here - human blood - well, that was just because a well-fed Spike was a happy Spike.  He finished making his own breakfast and settled down to eat while Spike got out a couple more packs of blood to drink, and finished off his third cup of tea.

                "Goin' to see Red, then?"

                "Yeah, thought I'd give her a hand with the research thing."  Xander took a bite and moved to pick up his glass.  His arm brushed the handle of his fork and the fork slid off the edge of the plate and straight down to the floor.

                "Damnit -"   Xander pushed his chair back and leaned down, groping for the fork - clutched at the table's edge as dizziness suddenly overwhelmed him.

 

                                                                                *****************

 

 

                "You gotta have a new fork.  Can't use a fork that's hit the floor.  Ms. Lawrence!  Ms. Lawrence, Harris needs a new fork!  Can't use a dirty fork!"  Xander sits up fast, gasping in a startled breath, and finds himself at a round table with three other people.  The speaker is an older, heavy-set man, black hair in a scraggly comb-over and wearing a raveling cardigan. He's bouncing excitedly in his seat, holding his own fork aloft.

                "Ms. Lawrence!" 

                "Okay, Leonard, I heard you the first time!"  A grey-haired woman in a smock comes over to the table and puts a gentle hand on Leonard's shoulder and he stops bouncing, blinking up at her through coke-bottle glasses. 

                "Here's a new fork, Alex.  Just leave the dirty one."  Ms. Lawrence holds out a plastic fork and Xander takes it slowly - looks around at his other tablemates.  One is a skeletally thin man, bundled in a flannel shirt, a pale green watch-cap pulled down over greasy brown hair.  The other is a young boy, maybe sixteen, with a black eye and a sullen air who eats like he's starving, totally ignoring the rest of the table.  Xander looks down at the tray - at French toast that's cut into strips, and limp bacon, a cup of fruit cocktail and a carton of milk.  He is suddenly not hungry at all, and lurches to his feet, pushing the chair back with a hideous screech across worn linoleum.   Ms. Lawrence looks at him, concern on her broad, lined face.

                "Alex?  You need to sit down and eat your breakfast.  Visiting day today, you know - you don't want to be hungry during your visit."

                "What?  What visitor?  I - I'm not hungry."

                "The rules are that you eat, Alex.  Your friend Will is coming, like he always does on Fridays."  Ms. Lawrence moves around behind him and urges him towards the table - pushes his chair up so it gently bumps the backs of his legs.  "Just sit down and eat, Alex." 

                "I - I really don't..."  Xander twitches away from Ms. Lawrence's hand on the small of his back - takes three fast steps away from her.  "Listen, I'm not hungry.  I just - I need to call somebody, I need to call - call Willow."

                "I'm sorry Alex, you don't have phone privileges.  Please sit down."

                "I don’t have what?  What the hell - you get one phone call in jail, for fuck's sake!  Just let me call Willow.  I'm not supposed to be here."  Xander can feel himself shaking - can feel his chest tightening, making his breath hitch. 

                *Not real, NOT real!  Just...be calm.*   Ms. Lawrence looks over his shoulder and nods, and Xander feels a strong hand come down on his shoulder.  Despite himself, he jerks away hard, making a small sound of surprise, and there's a guy there - an orderly or something - all in white and big as a damn house.

                "Ms. Lawrence asked you to sit, Alex.  Please do as she asks," the man rumbles, and Xander panics.  He turns and runs, and immediately a cry goes up from the surrounding tables, like the baying of hounds.  Xander's slippered feet skate on the polished floor and he flails wildly - bangs his hand sharply on a cart full of milk cartons.  He skids into a set of double swinging doors and charges down the hall beyond, only to be brought up short by a mesh gate.  The orderly behind the gate stands up slowly, watching him, and he hears the heavy tread of someone behind him - the orderly from the cafeteria.  Xander turns and watches the man approach - lashes out as he gets close and is effortlessly grabbed and held.  He kicks out - tries to squirm free - and another orderly is coming, and someone that has a chart, maybe a doctor, and Xander's heart is pounding so hard it hurts.

                "Let me go, let me go!  God, get the fuck off me, I just want to call Willow!  Just let me call Willow and I'll be fine.  Let me-"

 

                                                                                ***************

 

                "Go!"  Xander shouted - gasped in a hard breath - and realized he was on the floor, crowded tight into the corner.  Spike was crouched down about three feet from him, his eyes wide and startled, a little drop of blood at the corner of his mouth.

                "Xander - Harris!  What the hell?"  Xander gasped again, dragging oxygen into his lungs hard, feeling light-headed and clammy with sweat.  He wiped his hand over his face and felt an ominous heat in his eyes.

                *Fuck.  That was - that was bad*  He squeezed his eyes shut, willing the tears to go away - go back down into the ducts - and after a moment they seemed to, and he opened his eyes and looked at Spike.

                "I - I guess I had another - episode.  Something.  I didn't - hurt you, did I?"  Xander made a gesture towards his own mouth and Spike snorted, his mouth twitching up a little at the corner.  He tongue licked out, cleaning away the blood.

                "Nah - you just yelled some.  Gonna get up?"  Spike's head was tilted a little to one side - his voice was low and soothing, and Xander had a sudden memory of Drusilla and he shivered.

                *I am NOT crazy.  Just 'cause Spike is treating me like...her.  Doesn't mean anything...* 

                "C'mon, Xander - finish your breakfast, yeah?"  Spike hadn't moved - hadn't changed the low tone of his voice, and despite his fears Xander felt - grateful for that.

                "I - I don't think I want to eat.  In - in the hospital we - there was French toast there, too."  Xander pushed weakly at the floor, levering himself upright and Spike rose from his crouch and watched him, brows drawn down in a speculative way.

                "Same breakfast, huh?  Well - that proves it.  You really are just a crazy guy in an asylum."  Xander looked sharply at him at that, but he could see the wicked humor dancing in the vampire's eyes and he took in a deep, shaky breath and let it out in a strained laugh.

                "Yeah, okay.  I'm being a - drama queen here.  Got it.  But...it's just...  I've never been in a mental institute, Spike.  I've never visited one or - or anything!  How do I know what they look like?  How am I making up all this - this stuff?  I mean - If I picture the loony bin in my head I'm thinking like...that Dracula movie or - or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  This place is - I mean, it's a hospital but it's not all dark and scary..."  Xander slumped into his seat, staring down at his plate, and Spike settled opposite him, lighting a cigarette and tapping it absentmindedly on the rim of his cup.

                "Don't know much 'bout them myself.  Dru liked to go in, sometimes - said she had to free all the little birds...   What's this place called?  Do you know?  Maybe you can - find out if it's real.  I mean - real here."  Xander looked up at Spike.

                "What are you - what's the deal, Spike?  Why do you want me to...explore this?  I'm not crazy!"  Spike just looked at him - took a long, slow drag of his cigarette.  When he spoke next, the smoke came out in little puffs with his words, like some sort of fairy-book dragon.

                "Didn't say you were crazy.  But - don't you wanna know?  Aren't you curious...why?"   Xander just stared at him - lifted his hand to push sweat-lank hair off his face and winced.

                "Oh damn.  Spike..."  Xander stared at his hand in horror.

                "What?  Something wrong with your hand?"  Xander looked up at him, blinking, the tears back but he would not let them go, oh no.

                "In - there - where I was...  I was trying to get away and I banged my hand on this cart - this metal cart.  It hurt.  My hand hurts, Spike!  If - if that's the dream and this is the real place, my hand shouldn't hurt!"   Spike just looked at him, for a long, long moment, the cigarette tapping and tapping on the cup rim.

                "Maybe...  You might have hit it in your mad dash for the corner there," Spike said finally, but Xander could see the doubt in his eyes.

                "Maybe."   Xander rubbed his hand for a moment, then took a deep breath.  "Okay.  I gotta - go take another shower, and get over to Buffy's house.  I told Willow I'd help her figure out which demon we're looking for." 

                "Right.  Guess I'll - stay here then," Spike muttered, and Xander thought he heard something that might have been disappointment.

                "Yeah - you can.  Get some more sleep.  When we figure this out, you're gonna need to go with Buffy - help her kill it.  It kicked our asses."  Spike's eyebrows went up, and the smirk appeared again, just a little.

                "Kicked the Slayer's ass?  Yeah - I'm gonna want to be in on that." 

                "Just watch her back, okay?" Xander tried to glare at Spike, but it wasn't working.

                "Watch it get kicked," Spike said, the smirk full-blown now, and Xander finally let loose a weak laugh.  

                "Just don't let it stab you.  I'm thinking a hallucinating vampire is not of the good."

                "Well, it's not bad...  I mean, New York in the '70's, every third meal was on something.  I got right up there with Dru in the 'seeing things that aren't there' category."  Spike lifted his cigarette slowly to his lips and took the last drag.  "Good times, those..." he murmured, and Xander felt - well, he actually felt a moment's sorrow.  The love of Spike's life was gone, and he couldn't be a vampire, not really, because of the Initiative.  That had to just...suck.  Xander shook his head at that.  The truce...just kept changing. 

                *But it's good.  Because...I'd much rather have French toast with Spike then have him hunting me down.  Or slapping me down with that oh-so-nastily-perceptive mind of his.  I can deal with...friends.  Or whatever.*  

                "Right.  Shower.  I'll ignore the 'feasting on innocents' nostalgia."  Spike blinked and looked at him - dropped the cigarette butt into his cup.

                "Nobody was innocent in New York in those days, mate.  Not where we lived."  Spike leaned back in the chair and yawned, stretching hard, and Xander stood up and went away to the bathroom, wondering why the thought of non-innocent feasting didn't bother him.

               

                It happened again in the shower - a wave of sick dizziness and then that place and Xander thought that if it didn't stop soon he really might go crazy.  Back in Sunnydale, cringing and shivering in ice-cold water and Spike, Spike turning off the water and getting a towel around him, urging him out of the tub and helping him get dry.  Hunting out sweats and another old t-shirt for him, making him sit down and drink a cup of his own Spike-made tea that was as bitter and acid as the fear in Xander's stomach.

                "Right.  You're stayin' here, Xander."  Xander grimaced at the tea and put the cup down carefully, his hand shaking too hard to let him drink without spilling.

                "No, I promised Willow -"

                "I don't care who you promised.  What are you gonna do - drive over there?  Put your car through somebody's house 'cause you're havin' a - vision?  Even if you walk, you could walk out into the street.  Red can find the demon by herself - she's got the Slayer."  Spike had this look on his face - the same look he'd turned on Dawn during the summer when she'd tried to get him to leave her alone - let her go someplace at night or stay by herself.  Stubborn and faintly angry, and Xander just didn't have the stamina to go up against it.  Dawn had never won against that look, either.  It almost beat Willow's 'resolve' face for utter implacability. 

                "Spike -"   Xander tried once, just to say he did, and Spike shot him a glare.

                "I said no, Harris."

                "Well, that's new too," Xander murmured, and Spike raised an eyebrow.

                "What?"

                "Oh, nothing.  I guess - if I'm gonna stay home I'd better call Willow -"   He yawned, reaching for the phone.  It took a few minutes to convince Willow that he was better off at home, and Xander hated the beginnings of fear he heard in her voice.  Finally he hung up - yawned again.  "I'm gonna go back to sleep, Spike.  You need a blanket or anything out here?"  Spike stretched again in his chair, eyes closed.

                "Yeah, blanket would be good."  Xander got him one and went into his bedroom - flopped across the bed and pulled his pillow under head and was asleep in moments.

 

                                                                                **************

 

                                "What?"  Xander lifts his head with a jerk.  He's on his...on a bed.  Nubbley blue blanket, coarse sheet that smells of bleach.  The aide - Mark - is in the doorway.

                "Alex?  Your visitor's here."  Mark has this look on his face - the kind Mrs. Kirkpatrick used to get when he and Jesse would cut across her yard going to Wills house.  She didn't approve, but she wasn't going to say anything.  Xander pushes himself up, wiping his hand back through his hair.  And stops for a moment, because his hair is too long - almost to his shoulders.  He looks down at himself.  Old jeans,              t-shirt, and a baggy red flannel shirt.  White socks with dirty feet.  All the clothes are too big, and he lifts his shirt and looks at himself in the mirror that's bolted to the wall.  He's thin - he can see his ribs, his hip-bones.

                "Alex?  Come on.  You look fine."  Mark has a small smile on his face and Xander wants to smack him, but he pulls his shirt back down and follows the guy out and down the hall to a lounge area - old, cracked vinyl couches and chairs, tables with half-done puzzles and tattered magazines on them.  Brilliant sunlight is coming in through floor-to-ceiling windows, and Xander stops in the doorway, squinting, momentarily blinded.

                "Alex!  Hey!" someone calls, and Mark guides him over to a table and then -

                "Spike?"  The lean face that's grinning at him falls, and looks at Mark."

                "Man, you said he was better!"

                "Alex, this is Will.  Your friend Will."  Xander looks again, seeing hurt and bewilderment, and slowly nods. 

                "Yeah - hey...Will."

                "Oh man!  I knew!  I knew it!"  Will is hugging him, squeezing him tight and pushing his face into Xander's neck, and Xander can feel - tears

                *No way is Spike crying!  Wait...Will - William.  Not Spike.*   Xander hugs back - hugs hard, because this person seems to really be happy to see him - to want to see him.

                *Because when would Spike ever hug me?  Take what you can get...*   Then Will is pulling back, swiping a quick hand over his eyes, sniffing, and Xander really looks.  And it's Spike.  Or - maybe Spike if he'd been turned when he was seventeen instead of the twenty-odd that Xander suspects.  Same sharp lines of face and body, same bleached-white hair, only spiked up all over his head instead of combed flat. Smudged black liner around the bluest eyes.  Black brows, the scar - lean, thin body in faded, ratty, and paint-spattered jeans.  A t-shirt with the arms ripped off and a chain choker, several little silver talismans on leather cords.  Silver rings on both hands, black nails.  Docs.   But the world-weariness is missing.  The air of utter confidence.  This Will - is even more on edge than Spike at his worst, and his emotions are writ large across his face - no mask of studied indifference.

                Xander rubs his eyes, and Sp - Will grins at him and pulls a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of his pocket - lights up and settles into a chair, legs a-sprawl, elbows on the table.

                "Man, when I walked in here today I thought you were dead or something - they stopped me at the desk and got all serious and shit, said they had to talk to me!"  Will smokes rapidly, punctuating his words with jabs of the cigarette, and his thin fingers tap restlessly on the table - pluck at the jewelry around his neck.  And Xander suddenly gets it - really gets - that this isn't Spike.  There's no accent - none at all.  Will sounds just like Xander does.  Xander takes in a sharp breath, and Will frowns - stretches his arm out to touch Xander's wrist.

                "Alex, man, you okay?  What is it?"  And Xander sees the second thing - marks, on the pale skin.  Inner elbow.  Scars.  Track marks, and Spike could never have those.

                "Yeah, Will...I'm...  Fuck."  Xander scrubs at his face - leans forward on the table.  "Will, we're friends, right?"  The blue eyes go wide, and Will's mouth is open for a moment, and then snaps shut on the cigarette and Will takes a hard, angry puff.

                "Fuck that, Alex, you know we are!  We been friends since - forever, man!  You know that!"

                "Okay - yeah.  I'm - sorry, Will, I'm sorry but - I gotta know.  I can't remember.  You gotta tell me."  Will stubs the cigarette out on his boot-heel, and Xander flinches inside. 

                *Oh god, oh FUCK it's him and it's not and...god, god...*

                "You can't remember me, Alex?  At all?"  Will's voice is deadly flat, but Xander can see the tremor in his thin hands - can see his leg jouncing, jouncing, jouncing under the table.

                "Will - you on something?"  Will blinks at him and then laughs - reaches and touches Xander's wrist again.

                "Man, you know.  I just took a little bump before I left L.A.  I mean, fuckin' band last night trashed the place, man, me an Rob and them, we were cleanin' up and stuff  'til almost four this morning!  And I had to get up here, you know - visiting hours start at eight!  I'm always here at eight, man, so I just took a little bit so I wouldn't fall asleep and wreck my bike."  Xander nods - watches Will light another cigarette and puff on it.

                "Okay...  Will - I remember you, but I remember you...different."  Will shoots a hard look at him, then smiles again - shakes his head.

                "Yeah, I know.  You called me Spike, so - I know.  Master Vampire, all that shit.  But you know that's not me, Alex." 

                *God, okay...gotta just - go with the flow.*   "Yeah, no way are you a vampire - you'd be dust in this room!"  Xander waves his hand towards the windows and Will gives them a momentarily puzzled look before getting it and laughing again.

                "Yeah, that's right!  Sunlight and vampires don't mix.  What do you remember?"

                "I - don't think I remember anything.  Will - please?  Would you just tell me - tell me everything, okay?  Tell me how long we've been friends...everything.  Okay?  I wanna remember."  *You said explore, Spike, I'm exploring.  I hope this HELPS.  Or does something...*

                "Everything?  Damn, man..."  Will jumps to his feet, startling Xander.  "C'mon man, you got grounds privileges, let's go outside, okay?  I don't want these fuckers listening in on our private stuff, okay?"

                "Yeah, okay," Xander says, and follows the thin figure to a door and outside.  It's a little cool out, and there's a strong breeze, and Xander realizes that somewhere over the eight-foot fence that encircles a large area of lawn and garden is the sea.  Will walks fast, and talks fast, and Xander just listens.

                 "Ok, wow.  Everything.   So - the first big thing.   When you were ten, your folks just fuckin' abandoned you, man.  Said they were goin' out to the store, and they just left.  And you were so fuckin' scared, you didn't tell anybody.   I mean, you lived in that house for almost a month!   And Jesse -"

                "You know Jesse?"  *Jesse's alive here?  Alive here...*

                Will grins at him, and pushes his shoulder a little.

                "Course I knew Jesse, man.  He lived down the street from you and he brought you food and stuff - helped you get to school and everything.  But then they came to turn off the electric and the electric guy found you and called the cops and - you know that song and dance.  Ended up in that fuckin' home same as me.  Those Summers people with that daughter Buffy?  Remember her?  She was hot, man, but she was one stuck-up bitch.  Her and her friend Cordy, remember?  Runnin' in a pack. But sometimes she'd sneak out with us - we'd go to that club, meet Jesse and hang out...   She had that boyfriend - big dark-haired guy.  Man, her parents hated him.   And there was that guy - the librarian at the school?  Remember him?  Giles, his name was Giles.  He used to let us hang out there, come in early and stay late, you know, shelve some books and stuff and we could hang out instead of goin' to the house and listenin' to the fights...  Anyway, we lived there for like, a year, almost two, and then they got divorced and the State wanted me to go up to some fuckin' place near San Bernardino, man, and they were sending you off to fuckin' Bakersfield or some shit, so we said no way and we ran away from there.  Went and got Jesse and went down to L.A.  Livin' down there..." 

                Will pauses in his rapid narrative - stands still.  Looks up at the sky and then back down to Xander, and his eyes are distant and full of old pain.

                 "That was hard, man.  I mean, what did we know?  Stupid kids from the 'burbs, thought getting' the shit kicked outta us at home meant we were tough..."   Will lights another cigarette and sniffs, and Xander knows there are tears in his eyes.  He doesn't say anything, though, and Will abruptly lurches back to life, striding along the fence, heading for the corner.  They're halfway around the yard.

                "You don't remember L.A?"  Will asks, and Xander shakes his head.  There are vague things - tiny little glimpses of...something...but it's not really enough.  It's more like his imagination then real memories.

                "I'm sorry..."

                "No, it's okay.  I can tell you.  We - we just lived on the streets, you know?  Scrounging and stealing and stuff.  And then that night?  That guy - that guy came up to me, told me - he'd gimmie twenty bucks if I'd give him a hand job.  And - I did, and then...  Well, we started makin' the money, then."  Will grins again, and Xander hopes he doesn't see the horror - the utter revulsion - that Xander feels roll through him like a wave.

                 *Oh fuck.  He's telling me that...that this me - this twelve-year-old me...had...sex with....  That Jesse did, and he did...  Oh god, god...*

 

                                                                              ***********

 

                "Xander?"  Xander lifted his head, the wall pressed hard into his back, the sheet tight around his leg.  Someone's face -

                "Will?"

                "Bloody hell!"  Xander blinked again, and it was Spike, but he kept...changing.   Fading to the sun-bright face of a twenty-something junkie, snapping back to the dim bedroom and Spike's angry - worried - gaze.      

                *Fuck my head hurts.*   "Wouldn't do that.  I mean -"   Xander pushed himself up onto his elbow, one hand held out, a pleading gesture.  "I wouldn't...except...I got so lonely, you know?"

                "Christ -"   Someone shaking him and Xander turned and looked.

 

                                                                                   ***********

 

 

                "Alex?  Hey, Alex?  You okay?"  Will has his hand on Xander's shoulder - is shaking him very gently and Xander reaches up and lays his own hand on Will's - squeezes hard.  Will's hand is like ice.

                "Fuck, Will, you're freezing -"  Xander strips the flannel shirt off and holds it up, and Will smiles the biggest, sweetest smile Xander has ever seen on that lean, expressive face.

                "Alex - I knew it..."  Will lets Xander help him on with the shirt - turns around and hugs Xander, shaking.  "I knew you'd come back.  You were always - always the knight in shining fuckin' armor, you know?  Always helpin' me..."  Xander feels a shock through his guts like a spear of ice, and he helplessly hugs back - smiles shakily when Will steps away.

                "Yeah, okay.  So - we were makin' good money - we got us a really nice squat, fixed it up even - you always knew how to make stuff, build stuff.  You made that place really nice for us.  But...you know...  Things got fucked.  They always do.  Jesse got hooked on the shit first and then me..."  Will's fingers brush in an unconscious movement over his arm - over the scars that are now under the flannel - and Xander braces himself.

                "Did - Will, did I do...that...too?"  Will looks at him with utter shock.

                "Fuck no!  Man, you were like - the fuckin' cops!  You got so pissed at us.  You even moved out a couple times!  But you always came back.  You always came back and took care of us.  It was all pretty cool, though, really.  I mean - we were doin' good.  That one year, we all turned sixteen and it was like the best, it was like - "   Will waves his cigarette hand in the air, unable to find the words and they turn another corner along the fence, the hospital on their left now. 

                "We met that couple - that redheaded chick, and her boyfriend?  Remember?  She said she was a witch - did Tarot readings and shit."

                "Willow?"  Xander whispers and Will grabs him around the shoulders and hugs again, laughing delightedly.

                "Yeah!  Willow and Oz.  They were so cool.  He had this band - played all over.  And they had a little girl, little baby, remember?  Dawn.  She was cute.  She loved you man...  Smiled like a Buddha every time you walked into the room."  Will pauses again, lighting another cigarette, and Xander notices the scars on his knuckles - sees another one on his jaw, and on his neck. 

                *Man, he's - beat up.  God, this is...*   Xander clamps down hard on the surge of fear and sorrow that roll through him.  What if this IS real?  Was it any wonder he'd - made a fantasy life?  Made another world for himself? 

                *No, NOT real - not real.  Just - get through this.*

                "You still with me, man?" Will asks, and Xander nods.  "Okay, so...  Willow and them.   We were stayin with them sometimes - there was some trouble, you know, with this guy, and we were stayin' at their place and Oz had a gig and Willow went out to get some dinner...  And you were workin'..."  Will stops - catches a hard breath and looks at Xander - reaches out and takes Xander's hand in his.  Xander feels the calluses there, and the sharp edge of a ragged nail.

                "You really don't - remember this?" 

                "No - I really don't, Will.  I don't."  Xander squeezes the other man's hand tight.  "I'm sorry you have to - have to go through all this."  Will shrugs - tries to smile - but his eyes are huge and wounded, his whole body shivering.  He's dropped his cigarette and it smolders in the grass near their feet.

                "It's okay.  Not like I don't go through it every night in my head...  I mean, why do you think I did the shit for so long, man?  Took the dreams away."  Will wipes furiously at his eyes and Xander spots a bench - tugs Will by the hand and they settle there.

                 "Fuck.  Okay.  Anyway - they were out and you were out and I was - I was on the nod, man, and Jesse was doin' that fuckin' crack shit.  Man, you hated that worse than the horse, but anyway...  He was doin' it and he was so fucked up and he - he turned on some music and was dancin' with Dawn, you know?  Holdin' her and swingin' her around, makin' her laugh.  And I woke up and I saw him and she was laughing - just lovin' it, goin' - 'Swing me 'gan, Unc Jess!'...  And he did, and he - he tripped, you know?  He couldn't hardly stand, and he - didn't hold on and she - she went through the window, man, she - she was all c-cut up and - and we was on the ground floor and Jesse jumped out there, and I did, and we tried to - tried to s-stop the bleeding, we wrapped her up in my t-shirt and his t-shirt and we - we ran, Alex, we ran so fast, but it was like - it was twenty blocks, man!  It was so far..."  Will wipes his eyes again, uselessly, because his whole face is wet with tears, and Xander's is, and their hands are clenched together so tight Xander knows he'll have bruises.  And his heart is just aching - aching, in his chest.

                "Well, you know - it was too late, wasn't it, it was too late for anything.  She was - dead.  Poor little Dawnie was dead when we got there, and there was blood all over Jesse's chest, all over his arms...  We didn't know what to do.  They took her away, they took her back into this room and we - we just ran, we just ran out of there.  Jesse went back - he had to get his stuff, you know - had to take another hit but I - I came to find you, and you were so freaked out, 'cause I had blood on me too, and you thought I was hurt...  But I told you and we went back to Willow and Oz's place and Willow was there and she was - she was screaming, just screaming, and Jesse was crying and...  It was so fucked up, it was -"  Will leans over and buries his face in Xander's neck and cries, and after a couple of seconds Xander just pulls him close and holds him - strokes his back and shushes him and doesn't say a word.  Because images are coming to him, slow but sure; faint, but there, and he doesn't want to see, doesn't want to see, please.

 

                                                                         ****************

 

                "I don't want to see this, I don't want to see this - "  Xander was aware that he was moaning, was aware - because it hurt - that he was on his knees on the uncarpeted floor of his bedroom, that his face was against the cool plaster of the wall and that there was a hand on his shoulder.

                "Don't want to see what, pet?"  Soft voice, Spike's voice, and Xander looked over gratefully but there's blood, good god there's blood and Xander could only stare in horror.

                "Oh god, that's her blood, that's - Dawn's blood.  Don't make me see this!"  Xander reached blindly and felt a shoulder, an arm, under his hand and he pulled himself closer - close as he can - because the shirt under his hand is dry, no blood, and he wanted to trust that and not his eyes.

 

                                                                        ****************

 

                After a few minutes Will pulls away - wipes his face on the tail of Xander's shirt and then huddles down into the flannel, looking like a little boy despite the make-up and ladder of silver rings up his left ear.  Xander shivers at the shift, at the twitch of there to here that makes his head pound.

                "God.  Sorry, man.  It was a fuckin' nightmare.  Willow wanted to go down to the hospital to get Dawn and finally you went with her, and I went to find Oz...  Fuck..."  Will groped for his cigarettes again, lit one and inhaled deeply, claming just a little.  "Willow had to talk to the police and stuff, and she was so freaked out - she was hysterical, and they finally had to send her home, give her something and send her home.  And I got Oz and he met us there with a taxi and we went back...and...and the fuckin' place was on fire, man, it was - burning and that old lady that lived next door she said Jesse was still in there and you ran in - I was so fuckin' scared I couldn't move!  And you just ran in there, you were gonna get Jesse but - he was already dead, he'd got the gun Oz had and he'd - and knocked over a candle and - you tried to drag him out but you couldn't and the firemen had to hit you - had to jump on you.  You got burned - "   Will gestures towards Xander, and Xander hesitates - looks down at himself, and sees the scars, finally.  Scars that had been hidden under the long-sleeved flannel shirt.  Burn scars, like twisty, flat, shiny snakes up both his forearms and on the backs of his hands.  Xander feels like he just might be sick when he sees them.

                *No, fuck no, I don’t - I don't have scars, I've never been burned, never, oh fuck -*   Xander doubles over, his fists clenched over his ears, his vision going black for a moment.

 

                                                                       ***************

               

                "Xander?  Will you wake the fuck up?" 

                "Trying, I'm trying - don't let go -"

 

                                                                       ***************

 

                And then he's in the garden again, and Will is rubbing his back - stroking his hair.  And Xander's pretty sure he can remember the nauseating reek of burnt flesh - feel the burn of smoke in his throat and in his eyes.

                "Alex, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry - fuck, Alex, please..."  Xander sits up slowly, and Will looks anxiously at him.  "You gonna be okay?  Should I stop?"

                "No - no, it's okay, it's...  I wanna hear the rest, Will.  It's okay."

                "Yeah?  Okay..."  Will takes a deep breath, as if nerving himself for the next bit.

                *What the fuck - can't be any worse then what he's told me already.*

                "Well, after that Oz didn't want us around anymore. They left like a week later and it was just you and me and you started - you started having these blackouts.  You would get all - spacey and stuff and...sometimes you acted like you were getting hurt or something, or sometimes you'd fight me...  Then you started talkin' about this place - this Sunnydale.  And, at first it was cool, 'cause you used to talk about it all the time and I thought that meant you were getting better -"

                 "Wait - what?  What do you mean, I used to talk about it all the time?"  Will ground out the cigarette and drew his feet up, cross-legged on the bench.

                "Ever since I met you, you were always talking about Sunnydale, and vampires and the Slayer - you were always drawing pictures and stuff...makin' a comic.  You loved comics, man, and you were makin' you own, you were gonna be famous like Stan Lee and have your own line - Hellmouth Comics."  Xander jerks a little at that, but Will doesn't seem to notice.  He's drumming on his thighs, thin fingers moving, moving, the rings flashing.  His nails are chewed down to the quick and the black polish is chipped, sloppily applied over the cuticles.   

                "But you started - really gettin' weird.  Then - this one day, we saw this movie about hyenas and stuff and you thought - you thought you were possessed by a hyena.  You tried to kill this guy and the cops got you...  I tried so fuckin' hard to get you out, Alex, I did!  But - man, I was only seventeen, and you were, and they found your old records and stuff and shipped you off to the state hospital for a while.  I visited you all the time, man, I did.  Every chance I got.  It - it wasn't easy, workin' alone...I -"   Will's fingers brush unconsciously over the scar on his neck - on his jaw - and Xander feels a surge of guilt and shame.

                "You - you got hurt, didn't you, 'cause I wasn't there...  God, Will, I'm so sorry..."  Xander feels like he's choking - like he's gonna cry or throw up, but Will just rubs his shoulder gently, shakes his head.

                "Wasn't your fault.  You couldn't help it, man.  I mean - you tried to help me all the time, you were always like the White Knight, you know?   Nothing could touch you, not whoring or drugs or...or anything."  Will wipes his nose on his sleeve - looks down at his hands.

                "After about a year, they moved you up here.  And I met this guy - Wesley?  He's like - like some kinda missionary, you know?  Or something.  One'a those do-good types.  And I thought he was kind of a jerk but he got me a place in a shelter and he got me some clothes...  He had this girlfriend, Faith - they were really cool.  They helped me - they got me off the shit, you know?  I had to.  I had to get better - I had to have a place, and - and a job, 'cause when we turned eighteen I was gonna try and be your guardian or something.  Try and make it so I could be the one to say what happened to you.  Every time I came up here I'd tell you about it - tell you everything..." 

                "You did that?  Really?  For -"   

                *Me?  He did that for me.  What am I here?  I can't be - a terrible person.  Terrible people don't run into burning buildings...terrible people don't make other people wanna quit drugs...*   Xander sees the look on Will's face - sees love, and something like awe, and he shifts uncomfortably on the bench.

                "Course I did that for you, Alex.  If it wasn't for you - I'd be dead, man, a dozen times over.  You - you were always the strong one, Alex.  The heart of us all...  I guess - when Jesse died, it really tore you up that you couldn't help him..."  A pause, while Will tears at a small rip in the thigh of his jeans, making it bigger, and Xander stares across the garden, listening to bird-song and the sea, and the excited chatter and laughter of two other patients playing badminton.

                "Anyway - you've been here ever since, and I visit you every Friday, and I tell you all about what I'm doing and you mostly just...just draw and stuff, and...  That's pretty much it."  Will sighs, and it seems that despite what he said he's glad not to be telling the tale anymore.  Xander closes his eyes for a moment, and then turns back to him.

                "What do I draw?  I didn't - know I could draw."  Will's eyes brighten and he's up and off the bench, pulling Xander with him, happy again, or really good at faking it.

                "Man, no WAY you forgot that!   You draw your comic, man!  You draw all this stuff - c'mon, I brought all your stuff.  You always give me all your drawings when I come to visit, everything you drew all week.  The doctor don't like it but I told him to fuck off, you gave it to me and it's mine.  I've been putting it all into notebooks so it's in order and when you get outta here we're gonna publish it, Alex, we're gonna start Hellmouth Comics, just like you planned."  Will is almost running, and they cross the lawn and go back inside, and he gets a worn leather knapsack from the reception desk and carries it over to a table.

                "Here, look, c'mon.  This one is all stuff you did when you were a kid, it's not a story or anything, but this one is the first one that's the real story.  Here."  Will shoves a binder at him, thick with paper, and Xander slowly, so slowly opens it, cringing inside.  Pictures done in pencil and sometimes ink.  Done on cheap paper and what are obviously scraps - sometimes even a napkin or the back of something else.  And it's...

                *It's us.  It's the Scoobies, it's...  There's Buffy's first day at school and Jesse and Willow and me...  There's Giles, oh god...  It's us, it's me...*   Xander pages through the book, tears burning in his eyes.  The drawings were good, they were really good...  He'd loved to draw as a kid, but his dad - thought drawing was sissy - was for girls.  So he'd had to hide it, and eventually he'd pretty much just given up...  Xander wipes his eyes angrily, and turns to the next book.

                "And see?  There's me.  You made me Spike - made me this bad-ass vampire.   That was so cool, I loved that.  And Drusilla - man, she's nuts!  Why'd you have to make my girlfriend nuts?"  Will is laughing - pointing excitedly to favorite drawings and parts of the story he likes best, and Xander stares at the pictures.  Pictures of Will, so obviously Will, but with duster and fangs he is Spike and Xander wants to scream.

                "And here's where...where Oz leaves.  You made him a werewolf, see?  And he leaves...  And here - Dawn gets hurt but this time..."  Will traces the picture lightly with his finger - looks up at Xander.  "We saved her, this time. Both of us together, we saved her." 

                "Yeah...we saved the girl..." Xander murmurs, staring. 

                "Yeah.  The big evil vampire saves the world...  I know - I know you did that for a reason, Alex.  You were telling me - that you knew I could do it.  That I could get straight and - and make things good for us.  I know that.  I - I love that you made me...good."  Will's hand lays gently over his, and Xander feels a scream or a sob or something welling up in him and he puts his head down on the table, Will's fingers in his.  He's crying now, he's pretty sure he's crying like a baby but his chest hurts and he can hardly breath so maybe he's dying instead, it's hard to tell.  Will squeezes his hand - hard - and Xander twitches when he feels a hand in his hair.

 

 

                                                                  ****************

 

                "Xander, if you don't wake up I'm gonna fuckin' hurt you I swear!  Wake!  Up!"  Xander flinched away from the voice that was yelling in his ear - from the hand that was pinching tight on his arm.  He lifted his head too fast and banged it into the wall behind him.  He slowly realized he was sitting on the floor - huddled on the floor, in the corner of his bedroom, and Spike was crouching down, yelling at him. 

                "Damnit, Harris, wake up!"  Xander lifted his hand and put it over Spike's hand that was holding his arm so painfully tight.

                "Spike, I'm - it's okay, I'm - I'm awake."  Spike glared at him, looking intently into his eyes, then he abruptly sat, as if his legs don't have the strength to hold him up anymore.

                "Christ, Harris.  You were really...  C'mon, get up off the floor."  Spike pushed himself up and dragged Xander up by his arm and Xander went willingly - looked down at himself and then searched frantically over his arms.  But the skin was smooth - unmarred - and he leaned against the wall and took one shaky breath after another.

                "Oh god, that...  Spike, has Willow called?  We gotta fix this, we - this is really -"

                "Yeah, she called askin' about you and I told her you were sleepin' and she said they were still working on it."  Spike tentatively let go of his arm, as if afraid Xander would fall right back down and Xander walked carefully over to the bed - sat down on the edge and hugged his arms around himself.

                "What was happening this time?  You were really - upset."  Spike settled on the bed next to him and Xander turned a little, pulling one leg up.

                "Well, you said - maybe I should explore this - other place.  So I did.  I had a visitor and I asked about - how I'd gotten there, stuff like that."   Xander's face felt stiff - his head was so muzzy. 

                *Hate fevers.  Always make me...feel...*

                "Your mum and dad then, comin' to see you?"  Xander shot an incredulous look at Spike, who looked blank for a moment and then laughed, shaking his head.  "Oh, right.  What'm I thinking?  Course not.  So, who came to see you?"  Xander looked at Spike.

                *How is this gonna go over, I wonder?*   "Well, actually...  You did.   You were the one visiting me."  Spike's eyes went wide, and he just sat there for a minute, his fingers tapping on his thigh, rapid nervous patter that Xander noticed and then tried not to notice, his stomach lurching.

                "Me?  You're - windin' me up, mate."  Xander shook his head slowly and Spike just looked - totally shocked.  And a tiny bit pleased, and Xander smiled to himself at that.  "Well, what did I do?  Was I a vampire?"

                "No - no vampire.  You were human - your name was Will..."  Xander began to recount what had happened, telling the story as Will had told it, and Spike listened silently, his fingers finally going still on his thighs.

                "...And then - you woke me up.   It was so - I mean - I had scars on my arms!  And you - he - had all these notebooks full of pictures and stuff...  Spike - I used to draw all the time.  I used to dream about being a comic-book artist or - or even making my own comic.  I mean, you can ask Willow..."  Xander stopped and scrubbed his hands over his face.  "My dad didn't like me drawing.  He made me stop but I still draw there, Spike.  I draw there."  He looked at Spike and the vampire's gaze was steady - waiting. 

                "I can...remember.  It's what I do...it's all I do, Spike, just - drawing you, and Buffy and Willow.  Making you real.  Making you...  *Mine*   But he couldn't say that out loud.   Spike's face showed something just then - pained recollection and recognition - something so familiar.

                "Spike?  Do you know how it feels...I still draw..."    Xander stopped, his voice cracking, and almost jerked away when Spike's fingers touched his arm - quick skim, gone almost before he can feel it.

                "Yeah.  I know.  I lived for poetry, before Dru...  Read it, and wrote it..."  Spike's voice wasn't any better, and he rubbed the back of his neck, looking anywhere but at Xander.  "Still read it, you know?  I can still get lost in it when I...need to."  Spike finally looked at him, and Xander just nodded slowly, not speaking.  Because he knows what it is to need to be lost, sometimes.   His throat was dry and sore from talking and - crying, he guessed - and he wanted some juice or a soda. 

                "I'm thirsty, Spike.  Let's -"   He made a gesture, out towards the kitchen, and Spike nodded, sighing.

                "Yeah, something to drink."  Spike stood up and strode into the kitchen and Xander followed him.  He felt weak and a little shaky - he felt drained, and he slumped down into a kitchen chair and let Spike get a soda for him.  Spike sprawled opposite, draining half his beer in one go, and they sat there in silence for a long time, just thinking.  The phone ringing startled them both and Spike cursed and got up - grabbed the handset.

                "What.  What?  Oh - hey, Red...  Yeah, he's up.  Hang on."  Spike handed the phone off to Xander and got another beer - sat back down.  Listening in, obviously, but Xander didn't care.

                "Hey, Wills, how's it going?"

                "Good news!  We figured out what kind of demon it is!"

                "You did?  Willow, that's great!  I knew you'd come through for me!  So what's the 411?"

                "Okay it's a - it's a Glar - a Glar...ghk Guhl Kashmahnik."  Willow stumbled over the demon's name and Xander just grinned. 

                *Who cares what it's called, what did it do to me and how do we fix it!*   "Of course!   Exactly what I was gonna say.  So...the poison?  I'm poisoned, and not crazy, right?"

                "Yeah, you are.  Poisoned, I mean.  But we're in luck; the demon carries the antidote to the poison right in its own stabby-spiny thing!  So all we have to do is hunt it down, and - and restrain it, and get it to try and stab or something..."

                "Yeah, I get the picture.  So - want me to come over?   Have me and Buffy go find it and kick its ass?"

                "Uh, well, no - I mean, it's nocturnal, so it's not gonna be easy to find.  The book says it has to eat pretty often and drink a lot of water so we've got some good ideas about where it'll go once it's awake.  We just have to - wait, Xander.  Until tonight."  Xander felt a leaden sense of dread settle over him, and he frowned into the phone.

                "But - why wait?  I mean, getting it in its lair, during the day, that would be easier, don't you think?  I mean -"

                "Leave off, Harris.  I heard what sort of demon it is.  Best to take that one on when it's out and about.  Down in the lair it's pretty damn dangerous."   Xander just stared at Spike - realized Willow was still talking.

                "What?  I'm sorry, Wills, I didn't -."

                "I said, Spike's right, it's too dangerous.  The book says -."

                "Yeah, okay.  I get it."  Xander sighed and leaned his head down on his forearm, lying over the table.  "I'll just - sit tight then, Willow.  Thanks, okay?  Thanks."

                "Sure Xander.  Anytime.  I'm gonna go and get the herbs I need, so everything's ready to go when we haul the demon in.  You should try to rest.  It said that a lot of times the victim will get a fever and feel tired, nauseated, and....ummmm...depressed."

                "Oh, yeah.  Got it.  'K, Wills.  Talk to you later."  Xander clicked the phone off and just lay there some more, and after a minute Spike moved, and the snick of his lighter told Xander what he was doing.

                "You think maybe you wanna go back to sleep?  Let me have a proper kip?"  Xander lifted his head and grimaced, feeling dizzy.

                "No, I really...don't want to do that.  I don't feel that great, really."

                "You didn't finish your breakfast - you wanna eat?"  Xander considered that - considered his stomach, which thankfully wasn't showing signs of being nauseated.

                "Yeah - I think food would be all right."  Xander looked at Spike, who looked blankly back at him, and then his eyes widened.

                "Oh, you don't think I'm gonna cook for you, do you?  Evil undead, me.  I don't cook."

                "Well, but...  Okay, no cooking.  I'm feeling a little dizzy, though - I hope getting up and moving around doesn't make me...sick.  Willow said...nausea."  Spike glared at him, smoking furiously, but Xander knew he'd won.  For a Master Vampire who'd tortured people with railroad spikes, Spike was surprisingly touchy about some things, and human illness was one of them.  He refused to even stay in the same room as someone who was sick, and throwing up could drive him right out of the house, as Xander has discovered rather nastily during the summer.  He'd tried to drown his sorrows one night and gotten sick on really cheap wine.  He'd started to throw up and Spike, who had been helping him up the apartment steps, had let go so fast Xander had fallen and scraped his knee, plus puked all over his leg and shoe.  Spike had turned on his heel and left, and he hadn't come over for three days after that.

                "Harris - you...  Oh, sod it!  Fine, I'll make you something."  Spike viciously ground out his cigarette.  "What the hell do you want?  Popcorn maybe?  I could probably do popcorn." 

                "No, I don't think I could handle popcorn.  I think I've got some instant oatmeal in the cabinet.  That would work."  Spike got up and yanked open the cabinet and rummaged around for a moment, then pulled out the box.

                "This it?"

                "Yeah, that's it.  You just make it in the microwave."  Spike opened the box and took out a package - dumped the oatmeal into a bowl.

                "Now what?"  Xander lifted his head from where he'd let it drop back onto his arm, and stared at Spike. 

                "You're kidding, right?  The directions are right on the package."  Spike snarled silently and snatched the package out of the trash - perused the directions.

                "A half cup of water.  What kind of cup?   A tea-cup or one of those cups you put your milk in? Or maybe -"

                "Spike!  Jeez."  Xander hauled himself to his feet and crossed to the sink, grabbing the bowl of dry oatmeal out of Spike's hand.  "A measuring cup, but you don't have to be that precise.  I just put in this much..."    Xander demonstrated, putting enough water into the bowl to soak all the oatmeal but not so much that it would be soupy.  "And then you just cook it for a minute."  Xander handed the bowl to Spike, who turned around and put it in the microwave that was right behind him.  He pressed the button and then stood there, watching.

                "I can't believe you don't know how to make oatmeal."

                "I don't like oatmeal, Harris.  Nasty stuff.  Tastes like - like paper."

                "Well, obviously you haven't been fixing it right."  The microwave dinged and Spike pulled the bowl out, handing it off to Xander with a look of disdain.  Xander got a spoon and stirred - added butter and brown sugar. 

                "Hand me the milk, would you Spike?" he asked, and Spike wordlessly got the milk for him.  Xander poured a little in - stirred some more - and then turned to the vampire with a grin.

                "This is how oatmeal should be.  Here - try some."

                "Harris -"

                "Oh, come on, Spike!  It's great, I promise."  Spike rolled his eyes but he picked up the spoon and took a small bite.  Ate it with a serious, contemplative look on his face that made Xander want to giggle.               *He looks like Tigger, trying haycorns.*

                "Huh.  That's pretty good, Harris."  Spike looked at Xander's bowl and Xander started laughing out loud.

                *Oatmeal is what Tiggers like best!*   "Here, just take it.  Hand me another package."   Spike took the bowl with a grin of triumph and dug out another package and after a couple more minutes they both sat down at the table and ate.  Spike considered adding blood but in the end decided he liked it well enough without, and they finished in a companionable silence.   Finally Xander sighed and pushed his bowl away.

                "I think maybe I'll just watch some TV.  If you want, you can go crash in my bed.  The TV won't bug you in there."  Xander said it as casually as he could, but he still saw Spike stiffening out of the corner of his eye.  Giving him a look that said 'What the bloody hell are you up to, Harris?'

                *Nothing.  Up to absolutely nothing, except that...that I don't want him to leave, and I know that when Will talked about me 'working' I wasn't horrified by the idea of having sex with some guy, I was horrified by the idea of having random sex with strangers for MONEY...and being TWELVE...   I just wish I'd worked all this out BEFORE I asked Anya to marry me.*  Escaping from possible homosexuality by marrying an ex-Vengeance demon hadn't been one of Xander's better ideas, but it had seemed like the thing at the time.  That and finding himself physically wanting the evil undead...  had just been too freaky.   A 'normal life' still had its attractions, but he was starting to define 'normal' as 'what makes me the most happy', and he found that that - worked really, really well.

                "I'll just - watch a little with you.  It's almost two - Passions is on in twenty."

                "Spike.  I didn't plan on watching the weirdoes of Harmony on my day off!"

                "If I'm gonna be stuck in here with you all damn day snapping you out of your fugue state or whatever the hell every half hour than I decide what's on the TV." Spike stood up and sauntered over to the couch - picked up the remote.  "'Sides, I have the remote, Harris."  He was grinning, and Xander just stared - shut his mouth with a snap.

                "Fine.  Don't be nice to the poor guy who got poisoned, to the guy who's providing the comfy couch and the cable.   And don't forget, the oatmeal."  Xander stomped over to the couch and flopped down, scowling, and Spike laughed.

                "Shove over, human.  You've taking up half the couch."  Spike turned the TV on and pushed at Xander's shoulder, trying to get him to move over.  Xander pushed back and then poked Spike in the ribs.  Spike yelped and curled up like a snake and Xander cackled and poked him again.

                "Harris!  Stop it!"  Spike wriggled around on the couch and pinched, right above Xander's knee, and Xander collapsed, giggling, his leg jerking uncontrollably in Spike's grip.

                "Oh, ow, stop!  Ah!  Spike, stop, I'll move over - ah!" 

                "You gonna be good?"  Spike purred, squeezing just a little more, and Xander gasped for breath and held his hands up in surrender.

                "Promise, promise, promise!"  Spike let go, a smirk of triumph on his face and Xander fell over sideways on the couch, trying to catch his breath.

                "It is so not fair that you know...  Hey!  How do you know that that's my Achilles...knee?"

                "You remember when Red an' Glinda weren't gettin' along at all?"  Spike changed the channel three or four times in rapid succession and Xander twisted over onto his back, his feet on the coffee table and his calves bumping Spike's knee.

                "Yeah...  Wait, do I wanna hear this?"

                "Sure you do.  Went down to the Bronze one night to play some pool -"

                "Hustle some college students out of their cash -"

                "They're rich, they can afford it.  Anyway, Red was there all boo-hooing and tryin' to drown her sorrows with Cosmos, I ask you.  So I ordered her some shots and told her to, you know, really let it all out."  Spike had a little smile on his lips and Xander knew that wasn't all that had happened.

                "Spike!  You and Willow - you didn't -"

                "What?  Bed the witchling?  Hell no, like my goolies right where they are, thank you very much.  No, I just...encouraged her to talk a bit.  Acted like I was one'a her friends, all sympathetic ear and whatnot."  Spike flipped through some more channels and settled for a moment on two fat women who were screeching and hair-pulling all over a stage while the audience cat-called and cheered.  Xander tried to imagine what a drunk, depressed Willow had told Spike.

                "So...she came clean about the knee and...oh god.  I really don't want to know what else, do I?"  Spike shot him a sly, sideways glance and slumped down further in his seat - put his own feet on the coffee table, letting his legs rest heavily on Xander's.

                "Probably not.  Let's just say I'll be watching Passions whenever I like or some...little, tiny secrets might just slip out."  Xander groaned and covered his eyes - uncovered them when Spike flipped the channel and the sound of gunfire filled the room.

                "Hey!  Leave it here!  That's El Mariachi!

                "Told you, Harris -"

                "No, it's almost over.  It'll be over when Passions is ready to start.  C'mon, Spike."  Spike just rolled his eyes, but he tossed the remote down on the couch, on the side away from Xander and they watched the final fifteen minutes of slaughter in silence.

                Passions was the usual mish-mash of overwrought emotions and over-the-top 'magic', and Xander watched with amusement while Spike 'watched' by muttering at the TV and occasionally shouting.  Xander just lounged, taking in both shows and laughing under his breath until he felt himself dozing off.  Then he sat up with a jerk, startling Spike who leaned sharply away from him, eyes flaring gold for a moment.

                "Harris, what the fuck?"

                "I just - I was...  I didn't want to fall asleep."  Spike started to say something, but didn't - turned back to the TV with a preoccupied air.   Xander jerked himself awake two more times before Spike finally sighed and shifted over on the couch.

                "Listen, Harris, just lie down and go to sleep.  If you start twitchin' around I'll wake you up, okay?"    Xander considered that, uneasy, but he was just so tired...and the damn fever; fevers always made him tired, and he was getting that loopy feeling, too.

                "Yeah - okay.  Just - be sure and wake me up."

                "Not like I want you flailin' around, anyway," Spike mumbled.  He pulled a pillow out from behind his back and fluffed it a little - set it on the couch beside his thigh and gave it a little pat.

                "All fluffy and nice, see?" he said, and Xander considered the pillow, a strange and not unpleasant sensation of butterflies in his stomach.   Finally, he lay down, curling around the pillow, the top of his head just touching Spike's jeans.  He tried to watch the TV - stay awake despite Spike's promise.  But Spike's hand had settled, light as a feather, on Xander's head, and after a moment it began to stroke through his hair, and Xander just sighed and gave up and gave in - squirmed a little closer and closed his eyes.

               

                *Mmmmm...nice.  Don't wanna get up.*   Xander burrowed a little deeper into the pillow, trying to ignore the person who was saying his name - trying to ignore the hand on his shoulder, shaking him.  But he couldn't ignore -

                "Jesus Christ!"  Xander flailed wildly and rolled right off the couch, landing on his sore shoulder.  "Ow.  What the fuck-!"  He glared up at the vampire who was laughing helplessly, tipping slowly over off the arm of the couch and into the spot he'd just been in.  Spike tossed the piece of ice he'd stuck in Xander's back at him, and Xander batted it away irritably.

                "Damnit Spike, what the hell was that for?"

                "Had to get you up, didn't I?  Spike curled into the left-over heat from Xander's body, making a pleased sound down in his chest, and Xander pushed his hands back through his hair and sighed.

                "Didn't have to do that.  I almost had a heart attack!  What time is it?"

                "Hour past sundown.  Red an' the Slayer are on their way over.  Red's gonna wait here with you while me and the Slayer go get the beastie."

                "Oh."  Xander rubbed his hands over his face.  He felt - odd.  Still feverish, and out of it.  Sleeping during the day always makes him feel a little lost.  He yawned and decided he really needed to brush his teeth.  He climbed slowly to his feet and went into the bathroom, teeth and toilet and face-wash on autopilot.  He went into the bedroom and changed into an old pair of jeans, and then pulled a flannel shirt on over his t-shirt, feeling suddenly chilled.  Back to the kitchen, and he chugged cran-grape straight from the jug - eyed the boiled eggs, and the Tupperware of tuna-fish but both make him feel queasy.  Sighing, he shuffled back into the living room and looked at Spike, who was stretched over the whole couch now, all the pillows under him or behind him, the remote dangling from his hand and some old guy on the TV, talking about...

                "Who's Frank Zappa?"  Xander said, easing himself down, legs out flat under the coffee table and his back up against the couch, just level with Spike's waist.  Spike lifted his head and stared at him.

                "If you don't know, I can't possibly explain."  Xander rolled his eyes.

                "Is this about him, then?"

                "No, it's about Alice Cooper."  Spike was looking right at him and Xander decided he needed revenge for the ice.

                "Alice Cooper?  Who's she?"   Long, long stare of wide eyes and then:

                "Bloody hell!  Are you from this planet?  Do you ever listen to anything but soddin' country?   Unbelievable!  You, pet, need to be taken in hand -"   Xander couldn't control himself anymore and let loose with a strangled snort that devolved into full-on laughter.   Spike just stared at him and Xander wheezed uncontrollably - wiped at the tears that were forming in the corners of his eyes and pointed a shaking hand.

                "Gotcha, Spike!" 

                "Git," Spike muttered, glowering, but the hand that whapped at his head was gentle, and it lingered a moment, tugging gently on his hair.  Xander coughed once and then settled down, the laughter trailing off.  Alice himself was on the TV now, talking about one of the first live shows he'd done, and the man looked good, considering.

                "He's, what, like 70 or something?"  Xander asked, and Spike whapped him again.

                "Not hardly.  Fifties, something like that.  Smart bloke."

                "Oh please," Xander groaned, rolling his head back on the couch so he could stare at Spike.  "Do not tell me you met him!"

                "Well, yeah.  He was goin' into rehab in seventy-eight, up in New York.  Me an' Dru were still up there - you wouldn't believe how long we got free stuff, drinks and..."  a quick glance away, "things, off'a me killin' that Slayer.  He was around one night at some club, and they got him up to do a song and after we talked about Zappa, 'bout the punk scene...stuff like that.  Dru liked him."  Xander thought about that - looked at the man on the screen, whose black eyes twinkled, and whose thin mouth smiled at some memory that he was re-telling.

                "Think he'd remember you?"  Xander asked, and Spike shrugged.  Or, it felt like a shrug - Spike's hand was still in Xander's hair, and Xander wouldn't say a word, not one word.

                "Dunno.  He hadn't gone into rehab yet."  They watched in silence until a commercial came on, and then Xander rolled his head back again, so he could see Spike's face.

                "I didn't dream, earlier.  Thanks."  Spike's expression, which was one of vague disgust at the SUV commercial, went from surprised to pleased to cocky in about three seconds.

                "Told you, pet," he said.  Then his hand slid out of Xander's hair and went behind his head, and he leaned back, utterly casual.  Xander just stared, bewildered, until a moment later there was a knock on the door and he was levering himself up and going over - looking out the peep-hole, because this was Sunnydale and he was not an idiot.  Buffy and Willow were waiting outside.

                "Hey!  My favorite witch and my favorite super-girl!"  Xander opened the door wide, grinning, and he could see the answering smile on Willow's face go from 'anxious but supportive' to real.  Buffy smiled too, and they both stepped inside.  Spike looked up from the couch, sitting up now and lacing his Docs.

                "So - ready to go demon-hunting, Slayer?"

                "Really ready."  Buffy whipped a small axe out from under her coat and Spike grinned - grabbed his other boot.

                "My kinda girl."  Buffy just rolled her eyes.  Willow had a carry-all over her shoulder and she set it down by the door.

                "So, Xander - how's it been today?  Any more hallucinations?  Are you feeling all right? You look flushed - do you have a fever?  I think you have a fever."  Willow darted at him and put her hand on his forehead and Xander flinched away a little.

                "Wills, it's okay.  I think I have a fever but it's not too bad.  I had - a few more...episodes, whatever you want to call it.  But I'm okay."  Willow blinked at him, nervously washing her hands together, and Xander felt the first twisting of nerves in his belly. 

                *Oh great.  She looks nervous as hell.  What sort of horrible thing is she going to tell me?  That in order for the antidote to work I have to paint myself yellow and dance on the roof?  I have to eat something gross?   Fuck...* 

                "Willow?  Out with it.  You look like you're about to twist your hands right off." Willow stared at him - looked down at her hands and abruptly stopped, whipping them around behind her.

                "Oh!  Xander I - that is -"   She looked over at Buffy, who was looking just as nervous.  Spike stood up from the couch and stalked over, frowning.

                "What's goin' on, Red?  You're as nervous as a cat."

                "I'm not!  I mean - it's unfair to say cats are always nervous and - and sexist to equate a woman with -"

                "Willow!"  Xander put both hands on Willow's shoulders and gave her the slightest of shakes.  "Can you please just tell me what's going on?"  Willow looked at him unhappily, then at Buffy, who made a sort of encouraging 'go on' gesture.

                "Well...Xander...you remember when - when Jesse died..."

                "Course I do, Willow."

                "Do you remember...right after?"

                "Well - yeah!  Do you mean, later that night or - like the next day?  Of course I do."  Willow bit her lip, and Xander wanted to shake her again.

                "What do you remember, exactly?"  Xander was really getting nervous now. 

                "I remember...the whole cheerleading fiasco, and Amy...and then - Mantis Woman, who could forget that, and...that weird guy Buffy dated for a while who was like a - an adrenaline junkie...  And then the hyenas...  How much remembering do I need to do, Wills?"  Willow was pale, now - paler than her normal red-headed complexion made her, and Buffy was frowning.

                "Spit it out, witchling, no need to drag it out."  Spike stood with his arms crossed over his chest, scowling at Willow, who looked at him wide-eyed, and then back to Xander.

                "Okay.  Well - right after Jesse died...  You were really depressed, Xander.  I mean - really depressed.   It got bad.  You stopped coming around, and you wouldn't talk...and...you tried to - hurt yourself."  Xander just stared at her.

                *No - no, I didn't.  I was - upset, yeah.  I mean - Jesse and me were best friends!  But I didn't...*   Xander shook his head, looking from Willow to Buffy and back again.

                "No, Wills, that's not right.  I'd remember something like that.  I mean - come on!  Buffy-!"

                "It's true, Xander.  Giles - went to your house.  Talked your mom into - into a hospital stay.  She really freaked when he told her that you were hurt.  She told your dad...  Well, Giles was shocked by the language."  Faint smile from Buffy, and Xander felt his head doing that floating thing again.  Couldn't exactly feel his feet, or his legs.  He staggered back a step and felt Spike's hands catch him - ease him down onto the arm of the sofa.

                "But I'd remember that, Willow!  I mean - if I hurt myself, where's the scar?  I don't have any scars!"  Xander held his arms out, turning them, and Willow reached out and took his hands.

                "You didn't - you didn't cut your wrists, Xander, you -"   She stopped, head bowed, and Buffy shifted uneasily - stepped up next to her.

                "We did this whole section on human anatomy, and you said it was the first useful class we'd had - it would teach us how to kill stuff better.  And you - cut your leg -"   Buffy fell silent as well and Xander just looked at her.

                "My leg?" 

                "Right - here."  Willow let her finger hover just inches above Xander's thigh - front and slightly inside, and Xander just looked down, baffled.

                "Femoral artery, pet.  Cut that - you can bleed out in minutes."  Xander looked up at Spike, who looked gravely back.

                "But..." Xander stopped.  He did have a scar on his leg.  But that was -. 

                *That was from the hyena thing.  Wasn't it?  When we were running through the woods, chasing Buffy, I raked it open on a broken branch...  It hurt, but...*   Xander closed his eyes tight, thinking - forcing himself to focus on the past, on the weeks after Jesse's death.  They were - curiously flat.  Lacking in detail.  And then, like a fish swimming up from the bottom of a lake, a flicker of memory rose to the surface of his mind - shone there for a moment, all crimson and silver - and then was gone. 

                *Oh god, I did.  I DID - I...*  Memory of a knife, and a sharp lance of pain, and blood, Jesus Christ, so much blood, and Giles horrified face - books tumbling to the floor and his hands fumbling with the buckle of his belt, whipping it off and tightening it around Xander's thigh...

 

                                                                                **************

               

                "You tried to kill yourself, man.  That fuckin' crazy down the street, that vet?  He told you to cut your leg, not your wrist.  Told you you'd go quicker if you cut your leg - blood would pump out faster."  Will's blue eyes are hard with remembered anger, and Xander can see the crazy guy - scraggly guy in a wheelchair, old Army fatigue jacket and dirty nails.  Hooked on morphine in the hospital after a Vietnamese satchel-bomb took his legs, and never recovered.   He nods slowly, the images of that night so clear - of Will tying the ragged sleeves of a flannel shirt around his leg, tight as he can - screaming at him, crying, holding him so tight Xander could barely breathe.  Xander reaches out and touches Will's cheek.

                "You saved my life."

                "Fuck, man.  Course I did."  Will smiles - soft smile, so sweet and so unexpected.  "Took a base-ball bat to that fucker for tellin' you what to do.  Broke his arms.  Fucker couldn't roll for two months."

 

                                                                                ***************

 

               

                "Oh god!"  Xander was on his feet - backed into the wall - and Willow and Buffy were staring at him, their faces agonized and terrified.  Only Spike looked calm, and he held his hand out to Xander.

                "Come on, mate.  You'll be all right."  Xander's heart was pounding so hard and fast it hurt, and he pushed a shaking hand back through his hair and staggered towards the couch.  Spike watched him - walked over and scooped up his duster.

                "C'mon, Slayer.  We've got some hunting to do.  Just talk to him, Red.  Keep him here."  Willow nodded frantically, her eyes welling with tears, and Buffy's face had an expression of grim determination on it.

                "We'll be back as soon as we can, Xander."  Then they were gone, and Willow sank down on the couch next to him, sniffling a little.

                "Tell me - tell me what else, Willow.  What else am I - forgetting?  Or, repressing or whatever the hell you call it."

                "Not - not too much.  They got you to the h-hospital on time.  I mean, of course they did!  And you had to stay in the - the psych ward for forty-eight hours.  But Giles went straight to your house, and he still had - had blood all over him, and he told your mom you needed to be someplace - someplace better, that could actually help..."  Willow gulped and wiped her eyes, and Xander felt sick inside - felt very, very cold, as if all his blood were congealing around his heart, making it pump extra hard.  

                "She signed the papers that night and you went - two days later.  The field trip to the zoo was - was the first thing you came back for.   Typical Hellmouth welcome home."  Willow tried to laugh, but failed, and Xander couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe.

                "Willow - where did they send me?  Where - I mean, there's no m-mental hospital in Sunnydale."

                "Oh!  No, there isn't.  They sent you down to Oxnard.  This place called - Five Pines House."   Xander stared at her, and the blood that seemed to have been collecting in his chest - leaving his limbs cold and tingling - suddenly shot through him as his heart gave a terrific, thumping whump of terror.    A wave of giddy, nauseating heat and sudden dizziness.  He clutched his head in his hands, the living room going dim, blackness crowding around the edges of his sight.  Willow seemed very far away, and her voice faded to nothingness even as he watched her reach for him.  He didn't feel her hands on his - didn't feel anything at all except his knees hitting the floor and then he was -

 

                                                                                **************

 

 

                "No, no, no....god, no - fuck...Wills...Will..."

                "I'm here, man, I'm here, I've got you..."  Will's cold hands are on his wrist - on his back - holding him, rubbing, and Xander can smell smoke and whiskey and hair-gel, faint salt-smell that could be sweat or that could be blood.  *He smells like Spike, oh god, he -*

                "Will, they told me - they told me I tried to kill myself after Jesse - after he got vamped, and I didn't remember, I didn't -"

                "No, Alex!"  Will shakes him - forces Xander to look up at him, and Xander realizes they are on the floor by the table, that he is huddled half under the table and rocking, rocking.  Will holds tight, a furious look on his face, and Xander sees Dr. Northern behind him, looking serious but also, somehow, excited.

                "Listen to me, Alex - listen to Will!  'They' tell you all kinds of things.  But what makes more sense, really?  That your best friend was turned into a vampire and you - dusted him?  Or that he..."  Dr. Northern seems uncertain of what to say next, and Will rubs Xander's back fiercely, almost hurting him.

                "Or that Jesse was a junkie and whore, just like me, only he fucked up - fucked up so bad, and killed Dawnie...and fuckin' killed himself...  Damnit, Alex!  After Jesse died it was like - you were some kind of robot!  You wouldn't hardly talk to me - you wouldn't let me touch you or - or talk about Jesse...  You wouldn't cry man, you never cried!  I walked around like a fuckin' salt-water fountain and you just...  You found that crazy fucker and talked to him, all that soldier shit...  And then..."  Will hugs him hard - pushes him back and clamps his hand on either side of Xander's face.  Xander stares into wide, wild eyes that hold so much pain, and so much love - so much hope and terror.

                "If you'd have died then - I'd have been right down in the fuckin' grave with you, man.  I couldn't - I can't do this shit without you, Alex!  I can't!  I need you, man - I need you in my life.  Please - please come back.  Please just tell those fuckers to leave you alone - to let you go!  I need you here, Alex, I need you here..."  Will's mouth snarls, begs - white teeth and one canine chipped and a little jagged, and Xander pulls him close and holds him as hard as he can - feels thin back and ribs under his hands, feels the hitching chest and pounding, fluttering heart. 

                *Vampires and werewolves, witches and sorcerers and Hellmouths...  Can't be fuckin' real...  This life - this life I've had...sucks.  I've been a - a whore, I've done...terrible things.  But I've done wonderful things - I'm loved...  * 

                "But...how can I - Will, I want to help you.  I want to - live in the world.  But they're real - they love me, Will, they -"

                "No."  Will's hands are on his shoulders now, hurting him with a grip like iron.  "No, Alex!  They don't love you.  They got you stuck in here for five fuckin' years.  They got you - so messed up.  They took you away from me - from - all of us...  They want you to stay there, be their - their bait and their fuckin' clown and...  You're in the books too, Alex!  You're in there -"  Will scrambles to his feet - drags binders down to the floor with a thud and pages rapidly through them - shoves them at Xander, one after another, pointing out things with a shaking hand.

                "You see?  You're there but they don't love you like - like I do, like we do.  Look - look here.  This fuckin' girlfriend you made - she won't even be in public with you!  And their Giles?  He yells at you, he - puts you down.  And this - this best friend, this Willow...she just ignores you, man - look here, she - she goes off to college and you're all by yourself.  Your Slayer doesn't need you and - and you made me good but fuckin' hell, Alex -"   Will is crying again, his voice gone harsh and rasping with strain, and Xander wants to hush him, to stop him, to make him see -.

                "You made me hate you, Alex!  You and this - this Spike - you hate each other!  You won't even...will even hardly talk to him and you - you tried to kill him..."  Will slams the books shut, and Xander sees Dr. Northern's face - compassionate and serious, a little anxious.

                "That's not true, Will!  We're - things are different now, they're all - changing -"

                "Alex - no matter how well you get along, the truth of the matter is that they are the ones keeping you from living your life.  From going out into the world and using your talent, your wonderful ability.  They're keeping you from your friends and from -"   Dr. Northern stops, biting his lip, and Will barks out a harsh, ugly laugh.

                "Fuck's sake, Doc!  Just tell him!  Fuck it, I'll tell him.  Alex - he didn't want me to talk about it.  He thought it'd be too much.  But I've told you anyway...  Right before Jesse died, you met this girl - she'd done some Tarot stuff with Willow.  And you really liked her, and she really liked you, and - and she used to visit, Alex, you remember?"

                "Who, Will?  Tell me who -"   Xander is shaking his head, bewildered, and Will wipes at his face impatiently, gaining a measure of calm.

                "Anya.  Her name's Anya, Alex.  You remember?"

                "Anya?"  Xander sees a dark shroud of hair, leaning close to a red one...and then the scene shifts and it's Willow and Anya leaning over a crib in a filthy squat, and they're laughing, and Anya is turning to look at him, smiling at him, her hand on her belly...

                "You and her - she had a baby, Alex!  Don't you remember - don't you remember your baby, Alex?"   Another scene, another shift.  The gardens outside, an autumn day.  Anya bundled in a coat - Will standing next to her, a large bag slung over his shoulder.  And a child - a little child...blonde hair and dark, laughing eyes, Anya's sweet smile. 

                "A daughter...I have a daughter?  What - what's her...name, Will, what's her -?"

                "Tara.  You called her Tara.  'Cause that was Anya's favorite movie, that 'Gone with the Wind', only you wouldn't name her Scarlet, you said that was too cheesy.  She was two when you - the first time you really...saw her.  She's almost five now."  Xander's hands are shaking - his breathing is harsh in his ears, too rapid and too shallow, and he feels faint.

                "You said that you had been cursed, by some Indian spirit," Dr. Northern says, startling him.  He's forgotten the man is there.  "That was the last time you were able to talk to us, Alex.  You said that you were very sick, in Sunnydale, and that it was a good time to visit."  Xander slowly shakes his head, remembering...remembering the Chumash curse, and how sick he'd been, lying on Giles' sofa as Buffy had made Thanksgiving dinner and argued with Willow, fading in and out as his fever had climbed higher and higher. 

                *A daughter...  I have a child, I have...a family, a normal family and...*   Xander shakes his head in bewilderment, in an agony of indecision and desperate wanting. 

                "I don't know what to do," he whispers, and Will takes his hands in his, holding gently now, not crying but smiling.

                "You just have to let them go, Alex.  Just tell them to go.  Put them back in their boxes and come home."  Xander searches the red-rimmed, smiling eyes that look steadily into his - thinks about everything that has happened in Sunnydale - about the death and the terror, the feeling of hopelessness and the rage that tears through him every time they're fighting for the lives of people who - who won't even acknowledge the monsters all around.

                *There are monsters here too, but I faced them - WILL faced them.  He's fought them and he's been here - he's been here for so long, waiting for me...*

                "Will...I don't...  I don't want to leave you again..."  Xander whispers, and Will laughs, and hugs him close.

 

                                                                                **************

 

                "Xander, please -"  Xander slowly lifted his head - slowly, slowly let his eyes focus, and it was Willow, rubbing his back, shaking his arm; Willow whose voice was thick with tears and with fear.  "Xander, come on, you're really scaring me!  Xander -"

                "Willsss..." he rasped, and she gave a little convulsive sobbing laugh and hugged him.

                "Xander!  You're back!  I mean - oh, that was terrible, that was..."  Willow sat back and wiped at her eyes with a wad of damp toilet paper - blew her nose.  "Do you - do you want to get back up on the couch, Xander?"  Xander looked around and realized he was on the floor.  

                *Seem to spend a lot of time down here.*   He pushed himself slowly upright, and then crawled onto the couch.  His throat was sore - his eyes felt hot and swollen, and the fever was still on him, making things sound a little tinny - a little distant and strange.   He slumped onto the couch, and Willow got up and darted into the bathroom - came out with the rest of the roll of toilet paper.  She unreeled some and held it out to him, and he took it and used it - tossed it down onto the coffee table.  Willow did the same, then she reached over and put her warm, damp hand on his forehead.

                "Oh, you're really hot!  You need to take some - some aspirin or something.  You have aspirin, don't you Xander?  I'll go look, and something to drink too, I'll find something..."  Willow bustled away, checking the bathroom cabinet and then the kitchen - finding his super-size bottle of generic aspirin and shaking some out into her hand.  She poured cran-grape into a glass and carried it all over to him, and Xander dutifully swallowed the aspirin and the juice.

                *Is this real?  It feels real.  It feels like...Willow and me.  It feels like...*   An image of Will came to him briefly - showing him the drawings in the binders, showing him what he could be, there, in that place.  Showing a friendship - showing love - that had survived things even more horrific than Sunnydale.

*Which do I chose?  If I abandon Will - I'm abandoning...a wife maybe.  A daughter who doesn't even know her own father...  Giving up on the world - letting it eat me alive.  If I chose him...then everything I've done and said for the last five years - the last twenty!  Is a lie...  What I feel for Willow and Buffy and Dawn...for Spike... God.  I don't know how to do this, I don't know how to figure it out...*  Xander sank his head into his hands and tried to block out everything - the fever, and his confusion, Willow's soft voice telling him he'd be all right - the echo's of Will's voice, telling him he needed him.  Tried to follow the paths of new memory - tried to find that boy that had wanted to die.

                *I don't want to die anymore.  But where do I want to live?  Where do I want to live...*  

 

                An hour, maybe - maybe more.  He faded in and out, sitting on the couch, watching Willow talk, or cry, or fetch juice.  Watching his hands clutch themselves, knuckles going white.  Watching the clock tick over, minute after minute.  And still not knowing what to do.   Two families - two lives - and both seemed real, now.  Both seemed the right one and he just wanted to curl into the corner and not wake up, not come back.  Find a third place where he'd never seen a demon or run away from home - where his friends weren't witches or junkies...  He let Willow shove more toilet paper into his hand, wiping methodically at his eyes, shivering as the aspirin broke the fever and he sweated through his t-shirt and flannel both.  It was uncomfortable, sitting there in the damp clothing - cold and gross - but he was so tired, he didn't want to move, and his head still felt all wrong.

                *Please hurry and get back, Spike.  Find the demon and...  And what?  Make the antidote and kill my daughter.  Or I...  I leave right now, and I have her, and Anya...and Will.  And Dawnie is dead, there, and Willow and Oz are gone...  No Giles, either, and no Buffy...  Oh god...*   There was a thumping, and then the door swung open, banging into the wall, and Buffy and Spike strode through, arguing.

                "But just because Dru thought that was - was sweet doesn't mean -"

                "You don't get it!  Dru liked it 'cause she's a vampire!  With Harris it's a - a guy thing!"  They were both scowling - a bit ruffled - and Spike had a streak of greenish - stuff - down the arm of his duster.

                "Guys!" Willow squeaked, and they both shut up and looked at her - looked at Xander.

                "It's not been too awful, has it, Red?" Spike asked, and Willow got up, clutching at the last bit of the toilet roll.

                "Oh, no, it's - well, did you find it?  Can I make the antidote now?" 

                "Right -"   Spike fished in the pockets of his duster and came up with two screw-top jars.  A long portion of yellowish spine - gently oozing - rested in each.   "Got both, just in case."  Spike handed the jars to Willow with a flourish, and she took them and went quickly into the kitchen, holding them away from her body.

                "You're okay, Xander?"  Buffy asked softly, and Xander nodded, his hands tight on his knees.

                "I'm all right.  Thanks, Buff, for -"

                "No problem, Xander.  You know I'd do anything for you."  Buffy smiled down at him and he looked at her - slowly smiled back.

                "Yeah, I know you would.  You're a good friend, Buffy."

                "Learned from the best," Buffy replied, and Xander had to look away - duck his head down and rub at his eyes.  Buffy patted him gently on the shoulder and then went into the kitchen.  Willow had a pot on the stove and something on the chopping board, and Xander heaved a sigh - leaned back and looked up at Spike.

                "It didn't stab anybody else, did it?"

                "Nah.  We all know when to dodge, unlike you."   Spike sprawled down onto the couch and dug into his pocket again - pulled out a long, whitish...rock?  He held it out to Xander.  "Here you go."  Xander just stared.

                "What the hell is it?" 

                "It's a tooth!  From the demon?  A souvenir, like.  Show you made it an' all."

                "Oh."  Xander took the tooth and looked at it.  Long as his index finger, a little curved, sharp along one edge and bloody at the gnarled root.   He tested the point gently on his finger and winced when it broke the skin.

                "Careful, pet."  Spike was looking at him expectantly, and Xander thought for a moment about what he'd been saying to Buffy when they had come in.

                "This is cool, Spike.  Think we could drill a hole through the top, put it on a chain?"  He grinned, and Spike stared for a second and then grinned back - looked over at Buffy.

                "Oi!  See?  He likes it!"

                "You guys are weird," Buffy muttered, and turned back to Willow.  Spike snickered and wiggled out of the duster - pulled out his smokes and leaned back on the couch, feet up.

                "Everything go all right while we were out?"

                "Oh, everything was..."  Xander stopped, and rested his head in his hands.  He was so tired.

                "Harris?"  Spike's voice was low and soft and Xander shivered just a little - looked up, finally, at the concerned face opposite him.

                "I saw more - of my life there.  Will told me - I tried to...kill myself there, too.  Told me that...  I have a child there, Spike."  Spike drew slowly on his cigarette, watching him through the smoke.  "I have a little girl.  Her name's Tara and she's five.  Me and Anya..."  Xander stopped again, putting the tooth down on the coffee table and rubbing his temples.  His sweat-damp shirts clung unpleasantly and right at that moment he was sure he could just sink away into sleep, and dreams, and do nothing at all, and be perfectly happy.

                "Harris - Xander...hey..."  Xander lifted his eyes and looked at Spike, and suddenly he wanted to tell him everything - tell him what he was feeling, and how confused he was - how much it all hurt.

                "You'll be all right, pet," Spike said, and Xander shook his head.

                "No, I don't - don't think I will.  Not really.  Spike...  I can go there.  If I really want to.  Go and just stay and...have a normal life.  Have a kid and...and everything.  I know how.  I know what to do."   Spike's eyes went wide as he realized that Xander was looking at the stake that lay on the coffee table.  The one Buffy had put down.  Suddenly the vampire's face went from shock to utter fury, and the demon rose, snarling.

                "Oh, that's bloody lovely that is," Spike rasped.   "That's just bloody fine.  You think it's that simple, mate?  You think you can just pick that up and put it through me and you'll be all better?  What'll come next, Harris - puttin' it through Red's back?  The Slayer's heart?"  His voice was low and shaking with emotion - so rigidly restrained that he was barely opening his mouth.  "Nobody dreamed me up, Harris, nobody made me out of fuckin' paper and pen - for sure not you.  You try what you're thinkin' and you'll be more sorry than you've ever been in your miserable fuckin' life."  Spike's fingers had popped through the worn faux-suede of the couch and sunk deep into the foam beneath.  Xander was frozen in place - utterly shocked.  He'd never seen Spike this angry, this bestial, and he knew he was seeing the demon undiluted by snark or flirtation, caution or even rationality.  But some small part of him fought even that.

                "What could you do, Spike?  You can't hurt me."  Spike hissed, low and horrid as a snake, and Xander shivered violently.

                "I can rip your bloody throat out, you fool."  Spike unclenched one fist from the couch with difficulty and reached out - took Xander's hand in his and ground the bones together.  Hard.  It hurt - a dull, crushing pressure that quickly ratcheted up to something agonizing and Xander opened his mouth in a silent shout.  Spike let go, and Xander cradled his hand, staring at him.

                "You - you hurt me.  That hurt!   How fucking long, Spike?"  Spike was staring at Xander's reddening hand - looked up from under his brows and Xander flinched back from that look of gleeful fury. 

                "You remember, right after that bastard Riley tried to stake me?  I went down into the Pit - went down into that Initiative fuckin' hole and dug out every paper and disc and scrap I could find and it was all there.  Every bloody piece of code.  And I pulled in every favor I'd ever been owed and it's off.   Been off.  Over a year, Xander.  Through Glory and all.  Off."  Xander just stared at him, rubbing his hand.  Let the information slowly settle into his brain.  Behind him, he could hear Buffy and Willow talking quietly; Buffy reading out directions, Willow carefully repeating them.  Quiet sound of water boiling, a knife mincing something, a mortar and pestle reducing soemthing else to dust.  Too absorbed to notice him - to notice Spike.

                *Off, the chip's off...and he's here, and he...*  Xander let go of his throbbing hand and reached out slowly - touched Spike's cheek, feeling the demon's bones and flesh for the first time.  Caressing lightly.  Spike's eyelids dipped closed ever so slightly, and then he shivered and the demon was gone, and his human face was there under Xander's fingertips, cool and smooth as burnished ivory.   

                "Wh-"

                "Why?  You asking why?" Spike whispered, and Xander could only nod, his voice like a burr in his throat, scratching and sticking and not working at all.   Spike hesitated for one long moment, just staring at him, and then he leaned forward. 

                *Kissing...me.  This is...*   Xander felt his eyes close - felt Spike's mouth, satiny and ever so gentle.  Lips lying along his, barely moving.  Tentative brush of a tongue-tip along the seam of Xander's mouth and Xander drew in a hard and shaking breath.  Opened his mouth to it - opened his mind to it.  Taste of smoke and pomegranate, taste of honey and the pepper-sweet of sassafras.    Xander let his fingers slide back through the raw silk of Spike's hair and grip there - felt his other hand curl into Spike's lapel, the leather slick and soft in his fingers.  Spike made a small sound - a sort of sobbing sigh, and pulled away.  Xander opened his eyes, trembling, and Spike was there, right there, and his eyes were like thinly blown blue glass, and Xander could see through them - see behind them.  See love and longing, fear and need.  See want, and hope.  He let his hands come slowly down to his lap, sense-memory of leather and Spike's skull making the tips of his fingers feel raw.

                "But you...    You d-don't...   Me?  Is it me?" Xander whispered, and Spike nodded once, his hands creeping out to lie on Xander's thigh.

                "You.  Been you for...a while.  Since that summer..."  Spike's gaze was so steady - so unflinching.  Xander couldn't move under it. 

                "What do I do?  Spike - they need me.  And Tara..."

                "No.  No, Xander.  They don't need anything.  They're...just ghosts, love.  Just - wishes, maybe.  But not people.  Don't you remember, Xander, the spell?  You're the heart, Xander.  You always have been.  Steady and strong.  You keep all of us here, love.  Keep us - living. "   Xander felt his mouth curling up in a habitual and sarcastic smirk, and Spike's did the same, brief flash of the Big Bad.  "Right, unlife, whatever.  Don't side-track me, pet.  You go back if you have to - go back and tell them goodbye.  They don't need you like we do."    Xander shook his head - tried to speak - but Spike put three fingers to his mouth, shushing him. 

                "Xander, think.  They haven't had you - you've been lost, there.  Lost and gone and here and they're...fine.  They're alive.  Your girl - she's got your child and she's got this...this Will, right?  And he's got her and friends - a life.  They needed you, but it's just habit, love.  Just...old reflex.  They've had to make do without and they've muddled through.  But we haven't.  We can't."

                "We..."  Xander murmured finally, and Spike's hand slipped away from his mouth.

                "We...meI can't, all right?  I can't.  Please, love..."   Xander swayed forward, and kissed Spike back.  Kissed eagerly and hungrily because he wanted to taste those words - need, heart, please...love.  Wanted to know what they felt like vibrating up from the well of Spike's heart, and he whispered as he kissed him, finding long fingers lacing with his, gripping tight.

                "Say it again, tell me again..."   And Spike was the one taking in a breath now, Spike was the one trembling as he murmured into Xander's mouth.

                 "Need you.  Love, love you.  Please, please..."  It was a moment that spun out, as fine and sweet as candy floss, until Xander didn't know what it was not like, kissing Spike.

               

                "It's done, guys."  Buffy's voice, an edge of laughter, and Xander pulled away, Spike following for a moment and then drawing away as well.  But he didn't let go of Xander's hands, and the smile Buffy gave the both of them was indulgent and a bit sad.

                "Better - better bring it, then," Xander said, his heart pounding, and Spike ducked his head and squeezed Xander's fingers tight.  Willow came over from the stove, a mug in her hands.  Whatever was in it steamed slightly, and she handed it carefully down to Xander.  He looked into the mug and wrinkled his nose.

                "It's green, Willow.  And not a safe sort of guacamole green.  This is -"

                "It's demon-green, pet."  Spike held up the smeared sleeve of his duster and Xander made a sort of 'gag me' face.

                "Oh, right.  Okay.  So I just drink it and poof...all better?"

                "Well, not poof so much as - sometime tomorrow morning, all better."  Willow looked tired and a little queasy, and if the smell coming off the cooling sludge in the cup was anything to go by, boiling the stuff up had been even worse.  He noticed belatedly that the fan was on over his stove, and the kitchen window wide open. 

                *Wow.  Undead kissage obviously a major distraction...  Speaking of...*   "Uh - Buffy?  You're awful - amiable."   Buffy's smile got a little bigger, and she glanced over at Spike before she spoke.

                "Yeah, well, you've been Captain Oblivious, Xander.  And Spike has a hard time keeping his mouth shut.  I...get it, you know?"  Beside her, Willow had the same sort of smile - indulgent but troubled, and Xander looked to her next.

                "Wills?"

                "You are kinda...clueless sometimes, Xander.  I mean - how many dates -"

                "Dates?"  Xander was shocked.

                "Well, what do you call pool and 'movie nights' and - and Bronzing and -"

                "An' goin' out and killin' various beasties?  That's good for a quick shag up against a headstone most times."

                "What?"  Xander was lost, and Buffy was stifling giggles, and even Willow's shocked look faded quickly.  "What do you mean, 'most times'?  How many people have you taken patrolling?"  Spike just rolled his eyes.

                "Meant - well, me and Dru -.  Never you mind, pet.  Just -"   Spike motioned towards the mug and Xander looked back down into the muddy depths.

                "Oh, right.  'K, Wills.  Hope you did this right."  Xander put the mug to his mouth and tested the heat of the mixture for a moment, then tipped the mug up and drained it.

                "Gah!  Oh, Wills, that's - that's so completely foul.  God."  Xander shuddered and pushed himself to his feet, shoving the mug in Buffy's direction.  "Gotta brush my teeth.  Gah!"  He went into the bathroom, hearing Willow and Buffy and Spike start talking behind him, voices low but tense.  Spike seemed to be - explaining something.

                *You tell 'em, Spike.  Tell 'em whatever they need to know and then...tell 'em to go home because...*  Xander flipped on the bathroom light and squinted for a moment - brushed his teeth twice and then went into his bedroom to change out of his damp clothes into a fresh t-shirt and an old zip-up hoodie.

                *Right.  Ready to face...everything.  Face THEM.  I have to.*   He went slowly out to the living room and Buffy was pulling on her coat - Willow was shoving the last few items into the carry-all.

                "We'll be back tomorrow, make sure everything's okay.  All right, Xander?"  Willow looked anxious and Xander smiled at her - went over to her and hugged her close.

                "Sure, Wills.  Thank you."

                "Oh."  Willow's voice was soft in his ear - a little choked.  "Like I wouldn't help you, Xander!"  She pulled away and smiled at him, shouldering the carry-all, and Xander turned to Buffy - hugged her, too.

                "Thanks, Buff."

                "Anytime, Xander.  Except, next time, don't get stabbed, okay?  You really - really had us worried."

                "I'll learn to duck, okay?"

                "Not bloody likely," Spike grumbled, and Buffy shot him a half-hearted glare.

                "You two...  Well, 'be good' is probably impossible.  Just - don't scare the neighbors."  Buffy laughed outright at Xander's shocked looked and then she and Willow were gone, sharing conspirator's grins.

                "C'mon, love.  Come here."  Spike held his hand out, inviting, and Xander stepped over to him and took his hand - was eased down onto the couch, stretched out on his side with Spike behind him.  The vampire fitted himself to every bend of Xander's body, one arm snugly over Xander's ribs and folded up against his chest.  Xander covered Spike's hand with his and then sighed, dreading the next bit.

                "I'm going to - tell them goodbye, Spike.  Tell them...they'll be okay.  You make sure and wake me up, okay?  Wake me up."

                "I will, love.  Promise."  Spike hooked the blanket he'd used the day before off the back of the couch and drew it over them, and Xander closed his eyes.  Willing the shift to come.  Wanting it over.  Spike was solid and so real - cool tip of his nose in the back of Xander's neck, his hand slowly stroking over Xander's chest.  Anchoring him.  Xander turned, in his mind; faced the deep, and dived down.

 

                                                                                ****************

 

                Will is looking through a binder of drawings, cigarette smoldering forgotten in his hand. The sun has come around a little and Will sits in a patch of light, practically glowing.   Xander lifts his head and looks around him.  At the table again, and Dr. Northern is watching him with anxious, clinical eyes.  Xander takes a deep breath, and Will looks up at him and smiles.

                *Spike's smile, that's Spike's smile...need to just DO this...* 

                "Hey, Alex!  You're back, huh?"

                "Yeah.  Yeah, I'm back, Will.  I - need to ask you something."

                "Sure, man.  Anything."  Will glances at the cigarette and than maneuvers it over to the ashtray, careful not to tumble the long ash off.

                "Okay.   You've been taking care of Anya, right?  Anya and Tara..."  Will looks at him, head a little to one side, and Xander waits.

                "Yeah.  I have.  Wasn't gonna let her just - disappear, man!  She wanted to go live with her sister in Pittsburg, I told her no way, it's too fuckin' cold out there and Tara has to see her daddy sometimes, you know?"  Will is smiling, but Xander heard it - the merest hesitation over 'daddy' and he knows.  The knowledge makes him sigh, but also makes his heart soar at the same time.

                 *Spike's right.  They've muddled through...and more.  Just one more thing to do...*   Xander looks around and finds a mostly-blank bit of paper spilling out of one of the binders.  Tiny sketch of a hand on it, holding something - a cross?  He looks over at Dr. Northern.

                "Can I - can I borrow a pen, Doc?"  The doctor smiles at him, reaching into his breast pocket.

                "Of course you can, Alex."  Xander takes the pen and writes, slow and careful, making it very clear.  He signs his name, and folds the paper over - hands the pen back to the doctor.

                "Will...  I know how things are.  You and Anya - you take care of each other, right?  You - love - each other."  Will's smile is fading - is becoming something a little frightened - but also stubborn, and Xander smiles to see it.

                "Alex man, we just -"

                "Will - don't.  It's - it's really okay.  I've been in here a long time.  And you guys needed each other.  And Tara...needed a daddy.  I know.  It's okay.  I don't mind - I'm glad you've had somebody - that you've all - become a family."  Will's eyes widen and then soften, and he laughs deprecatingly. 

                "Man, you always knew - everything.  Just like that - one question and you know...  I'm sorry man.  I'm so sorry.  I didn't - we didn't mean for it to happen."

                "Will, I know.  It's just fine.  Really."  Xander reaches out and rubs Will's shoulder and Will puts his hand over Xander's.

                "I want you to promise me something.  And it's a fuckin' life or death promise, Will.  You hear me?"  That little bit of memory coming back to him - he and Will and Jesse, huddled in an alley, rain-wet and cold, hungry enough to make you cry.  Promising, life or death, they'll stay together.  Life or death, they'll take care of each other.  Will's eyes fill with tears that he blinks away.

                "Yeah, Alex - anything, man, you know...anything."

                "No more drugs, Will.  No more 'little bumps' or anything else.  Hear me?  I'm telling you - never again.  Okay?"  Will blinks and wipes his face with the back of his hand.

                "Alex - yeah.  Yeah, I promise.  Life or death, I promise."  His shoulder is solid and warm under Xander's hand - his eyes are so very solemn and beautiful.  Xander pulls him close and hugs him fiercely - kisses his cheek and pushes a stray tendril of hair off Will's temple.

                "Will - I love you.  You're - you're the best thing I ever had in my life, and I love you no matter what.  You hear?  And...I want you to be happy.  Be happy with Anya and Tara - spoil her rotten for me, okay?"

                "Alex, yeah - what do you - Alex?"  Will has a panicked edge to his voice, and Xander just smiles at him - holds the folded paper out.

                "Take this, okay?  You did so good, Will.  You did just right. Not a junkie, not a whore.  Daddy. Don't forget that I. Love. You.  But I have to go, Will."  Xander looks one last time at the man across from him, whose hair is frost-white, whose lean face glows a pale creamy gold in the mid-day sun. 

                *That's what Spike looks like, in the sun.  Never see that again.  So beautiful...*

                "Alex?  What -"

                "Have to go.  Life or death, Will."  A final, fleeting touch to the sun-warmed shoulder and Xander turns again, agile fish in a strange sea.  "Goodbye, Will."  Swimming up and away, darting for the surface, faster than thought.   Fish on a line, and Spike's slow caress reeling him in.  Out, up, and gone.

 

                                                                                **************

 

                "Wake up, love...  Don't go."  Spike murmured, tightening his arm around Xander's chest, and Xander blinked, breathing in a deep, quiet breath.

                "Just need a drink," Xander whispered, and he slipped free of Spike and the blanket - went over to the kitchen and got a glass of water.  He sipped it slowly, watching Spike.  The sun was just coming up, coming through the window, sparking off the glass and the water - reflecting a faint golden glow onto the vampire.  Making him over in pastel gilding and watered carmine, making him -not alive, but otherworldly.  Iconic.  Xander finished his water and put the glass in the sink - turned, and saw a notebook on the counter.  One of Willow's that she had evidentially forgotten.  Xander regarded it; something trapped and twisted in his chest easing tiny wings - stretching.  He smiled and picked the notebook up and opened it to a clean page.  Pulled the pencil out of the spiral binding.  He walked back into the living room and sat on the corner of the coffee table and studied Spike.  Looked at the line of shoulder and bicep that rested above the edge of the blanket.  Traced his eyes over the elegant shape of skull and jaw and eye socket.  Began, with hesitant strokes, to draw.

 

                                                                                ***********

               

                To my dearest and best loved friend, Will Sinclair.  These drawings are yours, held in trust for Tara...  Use them.  Make our comic - make our childhood.  Give her everything we never had.  Don't ever forget...

                                                                Alexander Lavelle Harris