Chapter 18: Showing

                Spike woke to voices - low and tense - from the kitchen.  He curled himself a little tighter, surrounded by the scents of Xander and, more faintly, Oz; content to just lie and listen.  He could hear the wolfling - could feel him, as well, a thready pulse of *worry affection*  directed not at him but elsewhere.    He picked out the blonde witch's voice after a moment, and then *Dawn?  What's she doing here?*   Spike listened harder, but what they were saying didn't make much sense - something about the Magic Box, and the Slayer, and -

                "Spike!"  Spike jumped, wincing.  Dawn was somehow able to raise the pitch of her voice up high enough to shatter glass, and it was not kind to vampiric ears - or wolf ears either, probably.  Spike poked his head above the covers and saw Dawn, standing in the doorway with arms akimbo, her face a mixture of shock and possibly embarrassment as Spike sat up and the sheet slipped down to his hips, exposing more skin then she'd probably seen before.

                "Bloody hell, Niblet, what are you doin' in here!"

                "I was going to use the bathroom.  What are you doing in Xander's bed?"

                "I was sleepin', before you came in here and shrieked like a banshee."  Spike made a move to throw the covers back and get up and Tara was suddenly in the doorway, her eyes huge and her hand going out.

                "Spike!  Why don't you - w-why don't you let D-dawn get in the bathroom be-before you get up?"

                "Does Xander know you're sleeping in his bed?"  Dawn asked, arms crossed, eyebrow going up in that smug 'you're in trouble now' look that she must have practiced from the cradle.

                "Course he knows, Bit, now get outta here so I can get dressed."  Dawn scowled at him and stomped past to the bathroom, pointedly shutting the door and not slamming it.  Spike flung the covers back and stalked to the dresser and Tara made a small choking noise and whirled around, darting back into the kitchen.  There was *laughter* from Oz and Spike hastily yanked on a pair of jeans and went into the kitchen as well, not bothering to do up more then the first two buttons.    The house was pleasantly dim, the curtains drawn and the light a greeny-gold through the leaves of the trees surrounding it.  Tara was sitting at the table with Oz, both of them with a soda.  Spike made a growly sort of noise in his throat as he stomped past, snatching up lighter and cigarettes from the counter and doing the microwaved-water-and-tea-bag tea that was fast, if not as tasty as real tea.  After a moment's hesitation he grabbed his bottle of whiskey out of the cabinet and slumped into a chair.  Tara stared at him for one long second - shirtless, jeans slipping half off his hips, hair a wild, un-gelled tangle - and her face went painfully red.  She bowed over her soda and the *laughter* from Oz faded a bit, *guilt* seeping in.   Oz was…different, in the link. There was no mistaking him and the image-heavy flow he used, and what he sent easily translated into something Spike and Xander could both understand.  The wolf seemed to have more control over the link then Oz himself did, but Oz was learning fast.

                "Somebody want to tell me what in bloody hell you three are doin' here at - at - "  Spike squinted at the microwave and saw that it was one-thirty.  "...bloody early in the afternoon?"   He lit his cigarette and poured a healthy dollop of whiskey into his tea - looked up at Dawn's disgusted noise and snarled at her.

                "Lay off, Bit.  It's too early for one'a your soddin' lectures."  Dawn flung herself into the last kitchen chair and Oz took a sip of his soda - glanced over at Dawn and then looked at Spike.

                "When I got to work today Mr. Bogarty was dead.  *Vampires*   The gang came in to get some stuff and...Buffy didn't want Dawn to -"

"Didn't want me around, as usual -"

                "Didn't want Dawn to see...him, so she asked Tara and me to - hang out with her for a while.  The gang's going to see what's what."

                "Huh.  Dead, huh?  Somebody gettin' outta line, then.  Have to look into that."  Spike drained the rest of his tea - eyed his cup and then Dawn, and poured straight whiskey in, this time.  *Too damn early for this shite, why does this always happen to these people?  They're ALL demon magnets.*   Dawn sniffed a little, trying out weepy since righteous anger hadn't done a thing.

                "Some weird homeless guy practically attacked me in the street -"

                "What?!"  Spike all but roared, and Dawn flinched back and then sat up straighter, looking a little shocked and a little pleased.

                "He was all up in my face and he said - said he was a cat, and that I didn't belong."

                "Well, he was crazy, obviously."  Spike drained his cup and hunched up over the table, feeling a headache coming on. 

                "It scared me," Dawn said, little-girl voice and sniffles, and Spike rolled his eyes, stubbing out his cigarette.

                "Oh, Dawnie, it's ok..."  Tara patted her arm and Dawn scrunched down in her chair, looking pitiful.

                "Come on, Little Bit, nothin' to be scared of.  You know we wouldn't let anything hurt you."  Dawn smiled shakily at him, leaning into the circle of Tara's protective arms.  The phone rang and Oz got up to answer it, letting his hand brush over Spike's shoulder as he passed,  *pack*   warmly through the link, and Spike reached for another cigarette, ignoring Dawn's automatic scowl.  Most of what he felt for her was from Xander - memories of a skinny ten-year-old who had hung on Xander and followed him like a puppy-dog, trying to worm secrets out of him about what her sister was up to.  Movie nights at Red's house when the Slayer had been coerced into bringing her little sister and Dawn and Xander had pigged out on soda and ice cream and driven everyone else batty with the resultant sugar high.   Memories of a budding twelve-year-old who had cried on Xander's shoulder when she fell in front of the whole class and split her skirt, and who had very formally asked Xander to the Sadie Hawkins dance at her school.  Slayer's little sister, and who ever heard of that before.  Spike had his own memories - the very first being Dawn sitting stiff and bewildered next to Joyce on the couch the night he'd made the deal with the Slayer.  She'd asked what sort of music they played in their 'band' and Spike had given her five lines of a Sex Pistols song before he'd realized that Dawn had probably just heard more four-letter words in that one minute than in her whole life.  He had shut up, glancing apologetically at Joyce who was looking a bit shell-shocked herself.  

                Just lately Dawn had taken 'obnoxious teen-ager' to an all-time high, but Spike didn't blame her.  The Slayer was being particularly bitchy, G.I. Joe was always hanging about and who wouldn't be annoyed by that, and now Joyce was sick, and that had to make Dawn all kinds of miserable.  Spike plumed smoke up towards the ceiling and glanced at Oz who was coming back into the kitchen, face blank but the link tense with *Slayer*

                "That was Buffy - she and Giles are going to come and get Dawn in a little bit."  Spike tensed, wondering if the Watcher would dare start anything.  He glanced at Dawn and relaxed a bit.  He wouldn't, not in front of the Bit.  And Tara, who was as uninformed as the rest, as far as the Watcher knew.  It wouldn't do to have to twist the Slayer's head off in front of her little sis.  Oz settled back into his chair, feet up on the seat and chin on knees.  There was still tension in what he was sending, but it tapered off when Spike sent *calm* to him, letting his own tension bleed away. 

                "I'm hungry," Dawn said, sitting up suddenly and looking at Spike expectantly.  Spike stared back at her, nonplussed.

                "Don't look at me, Niblet.  You know I don't cook."

                "Can't we order something?  Please?  I was supposed to get school clothes today and of course Buffy had to go off and do Slayer stuff so I won't have anything decent to wear when school starts next week and I thought we'd be at the Mall so I didn't eat any breakfast and I'm starving, Spike."  They all stared at her.

                "Christ, Bit, you been takin' lessons from Red?  We could get - we could get pizza, I guess."  Dawn grinned and bounced in her chair and Oz got up again, getting the phone.  He knew Spike wouldn't touch it if he didn't have to, and Spike was glad that Oz didn't mind.   Spike hated phones.  *Scared*  from Oz, and Spike grinned around his cigarette and sent a little flicker of an image - something from that day, a week past, that they'd claimed him.  Oz on the bed with Xander, back arched, throat taut and working and his hips moving just so...   He grinned when Oz made a small groaning noise and stepped hastily around the doorframe into the living room.  *Teach him to be snotty*   Spike thought, and poured a third whiskey.  He was gonna need it, if the Watcher and the Slayer were going to be in the house.

                The pizza arrived ten minutes before the Slayer did, and by that time Spike had been persuaded to finish dressing.  Oz had sent him *sexy*  and then that little-doll image that was Dawn to Oz, and Spike had suddenly realized he was sitting half-undressed with bruise-marks on him from sex in front of the Slayer's little sister.   *Promised Xander I wouldn't push it.  This would be...pushing it.*  Spike had stood up and walked around to the bedroom door, aware of the wolfling and Tara watching him, making sure to be completely behind Dawn.  *'Course there's pushing and there's…pushing*   He'd smirked to himself and then stretched hard, reaching up to the ceiling, arching his back.  The jeans had slid a good three inches lower, and Tara had made a squeaking noise in her throat, dropping her pizza.  Oz had just stared, eyes half closed, very still.  The link roiling with arousal and want and Spike had grinned and went to find a t-shirt.  Hard on that performance came something from Xander, *want* and *stop that* in the same thought, and he'd sent *want now*  right back, smirking to himself.  Spike pulled on a t-shirt and then after a moment's consideration added socks and his boots.  You never knew when you might regret being barefoot.  He fixed his hair and sauntered back into the kitchen where Dawn, oblivious, was nose-deep in her second slice of pizza, happily babbling about some new movie she wanted to see.  Tara wouldn't even look at him, and Oz was now grinning into his own pizza, and the weird little flash of  'I am not getting a hard-on in front of Dawn' thoughts - image of nuns and *dead kittens*  made Spike break out in startled snorts of laughter.

                "Bloody hell, wolfling," Spike muttered, and sprawled back down in his chair, pouring more whiskey and getting a slice of pizza.  Dawn hopped up and went to the 'fridge and grabbed a soda, then stood there for a minute.

                "Spike, you don't have any blood."

                "Hmm?  Oh - no.  Drank the last of it yesterday.  Have to get some tonight."  Something from Oz then - a mental shiver and *hunt*.   The wolf, intruding with its own red-tinged thoughts.

                "Oh," Dawn said, her tone a little disappointed, and she came back to the table, popping open her soda.  Spike smirked at her and took a huge bite of pizza.  He'd gotten into the habit of having a bag or two of blood around whenever he knew the Niblet would be coming over.  She acted grossed out, but he knew that secretly she thought it was fascinating - in a sick sort of way - the many things he would combine with blood.  Mostly he did it to give her something to dish about to Joyce and the Slayer, but also to subtly reinforce the idea that he was still unable to hunt for himself.  *Keep 'em stuck in the 'helpless vamp' way of thinking.  Can only be to my benefit* 

                Spike felt the insistent tickle in the back of his neck that meant 'Slayer', and he mentally steeled himself.  He had no idea what Buffy's reaction to him would be - still angry over the patrol incident, or dismissive in the face of her problems with her mum?  He doubted Giles had told her anything, but he was ready just the same.   Oz answered their knock, and Buffy strode into the kitchen, an odd expression on her face as she saw them grouped at the table.  Giles hovered in the living room doorway, looking from Tara to Dawn to Oz and then settling on Spike, his gaze becoming hard and cold.  Spike lifted an eyebrow at him and stuffed a little more pizza in his mouth.

                "Come on, Dawn, time to go," Buffy said, and Dawn stiffened in her chair, pouting.

                "I haven't finished my pizza yet, Buffy.  It just got here."  Dawn took a huge bite, glaring at Buffy over pepperoni, and Buffy crossed her arms, glaring back.

                "You can get a doggie bag or whatever.  You need to get home and Tara and Willow have things to do -"

                "I can stay here with Spike and Oz; they don't mind having me around."   Dawn's voice was getting shriller and Spike steeled himself for the ear-drum-shattering shriek that was sure to follow.  Buffy's eyes went wide and then narrowed dangerously, and Spike leaned back in his chair, grinning.  *This could be fun.* 

                "Dawn -"

                "You don't want me around anyway, so why don't you just go and do your precious Slayer stuff and leave.  Me.   Alone!"  *There it is!  Christ.  Need ear-plugs when she's around*   Dawn shoved her chair back and fled to the bathroom, this time slamming the door hard enough to rattle the frosted glass panes.  Everyone was silent for a moment and then Buffy threw her head back and made a strangled screaming sound of pure frustration.

                "Aaaah!  Why does she do this!  She knows I have to do this stuff - it's not like I asked for those vamps to come in and eat Mr. Whathisface!  And you - "   Suddenly, Buffy was in Spike's face, a lacquered fingernail poking his chest, her eyes snapping.  "You are supposed to be the 'Master of Sunnydale', how did these new vamps slip past your radar?  Can't you even do this right?"   Spike glanced down at the pink nail poking into his chest - reached and snagged a cigarette and lit it - blew smoke gently over the Slayer's head.

                "Piss off, Slayer," he said, and Buffy drew back her fist and punched, slamming his head sideways, splitting his lip.  Spike didn't bother to control the demon - he felt himself change, and licked thoughtfully at the blood that was welling from his mouth, his eyes never leaving Buffy's.   He knew the link was nothing but *rage* and Oz's eyes were dark, his hands curling into claws.  Reacting to Spike - to the link - so completely it was almost scary.  Spike growled, low in his chest, pushing himself slowly to his feet and standing over the Slayer.  "How's your mum, Slayer?" he asked, low, and dodged the next punch she aimed at him.  Oz was on his feet as well now, and Tara, both looking shocked and a bit angry, and Spike took a step back and shook the demon away - took a long drag of his cigarette.

                "You are a pig.  Don't you dare talk about my mother."  Buffy's voice was choked, shaky and furious, and Spike grinned at her.

                "Buffy - it's ok if you leave Dawn here.  I can bring her home."  Oz, trying to stop - whatever was happening, and Spike finally acknowledged the *calm calm*  the wolfling was sending; staccato bursts of emotion that were anything but calm. Buffy blinked and looked over at Oz - at Tara, who nodded, trying on a tiny smile.

                "Perhaps, with the excitement of the day, it would be best if you talked to your mother without Dawn's...commentary,"  Giles said, softly.  He was as tense as the rest, standing in the doorway to the living room and glaring at Spike.

                "I don't want to leave her here with this - this thing."

                "He's not a thing!"  Dawn, back from her sulk, standing in the doorway to the bedroom and looking as if she wanted to hit something.

                "He's an evil, soulless mass-murderer, Dawn!  He's not a - pet!  You think he likes you?  If it wasn't for that chip in his head, he'd -"

                "Slayer," Spike said, and his voice carried all the hatred he was feeling.  Everyone in the room froze, even Buffy, and Dawn's eyes were huge, now.

                "Don't dare presume to tell anyone what I feel."  Spike let the demon come back and snarled, knowing that this wasn't exactly helping but hard put to rein in the rage he was feeling. 

                *Wouldn't hurt the Niblet - she's practically Xander's little sis.  This has to stop - they have to know.  Won't take much more of this shite from her and FUCK Xander'll be pissed if I kill her*    Buffy was shifting into a fighting stance, and Dawn was near tears.  Tara and Oz were both frozen, and the link was pure wolf now -  *pack* was the only thing coherent coming through and Spike knew Oz would be as upset as Xander if - something - happened. 

                The phone rang and they all jumped, and Oz moved jerkily to pick it up.


                "Let me talk to Giles, Oz."  Spike could clearly hear Xander's voice, tight with anger, and he relaxed, settling back into his chair and finishing his cigarette, human again.  He'd been aware of Xander, through the link, but hadn't realized he was that...upset.  Dawn edged out of the doorway, ending up against Tara, who put a comforting arm around the teenager's shoulders.  Oz silently handed the phone to Giles, who took it with a look of puzzlement.


                "Giles.  Please will you take Buffy and go?"  Giles goggled at the phone, then turned away, lowering his voice.

                "What are you talking about?   Where are you?"

                "I'm at work, Giles, and I can feel how pissed off Spike is from here, which means he is really pissed off.   So would you please just - go home?  Please?  I don't want them to fight, Giles."

                "He can't do anything to -"

                "Maybe not.  But anything she does to him, she does to me.  Like that punch in the mouth.  Did you forget about that?"  A long silence, and Spike heard Giles sigh - saw the hand go up; taking off the glasses, rubbing the forehead.

                "I don't want this, Giles."

                "Well, perhaps you should have thought of that before -"

                "Don't.  Just don't.  We need to have a Scooby meeting about this.  ASAP."  Giles turned and looked over at Spike, who was doing his best 'I could kill you but I think I'll wait until tomorrow' stare.  The Watcher hesitated, and then slid his glasses back on, clearly unhappy.

                "You're right.  I'll - I'll arrange it.   I'll tell you when it's set up."

                "Ok.  I'm sorry, Giles.  But...I love him.  It's not going to change.  Try to understand -"

                "I'll call you."  Giles hung up abruptly and Buffy looked over at him, puzzled.

                "Who was that?  And why were they calling you here?"

                "It was a - contact of mine, just a confirmation on - something - and I wanted to hear it first hand, so to speak."  Giles pushed his fingers up under his glasses, rubbing at his eyes. 

                *Tired and pissed and it's his own damn fault, this mess.  Wonder what he has to 'set up'...  Better not be some half-assed plan to get me dusted.  I WON'T hold back if they try anything*  Spike felt the demon fighting to emerge again, and he pushed it back, smoothing it down as if it were a restless dog.  *Not now, not yet.  Xander wouldn't like it* he thought, and demon subsided, growling.    Buffy had moved to stand by Dawn and Tara and was looking at her sister as if she'd grown another head.

                "Buffy - I think perhaps we should go.  Dawn is perfectly safe here and - really, has had enough excitement for one day.  Oz can bring her home when - when he's ready, can't you, Oz?  Not too late."

                "Giles -"

                "Buffy, please?  There really is no harm."  Buffy stared at Giles for a moment, then looked back at Dawn.

                "Dawnie -" she said, making her voice soft.  Dawn scowled at her.

                "Stop it, Buffy.  I want to stay.  You should be happy you're getting rid of me for a couple more hours.  Just because you hate Spike -"

                "There's a very good reason why I hate Spike!  He's tried to kill me more than once!"

                "Yeah, well, you tried to kill him, too!  I think you're even!  He's - he's Xander's friend, and Oz's friend, too.  They don't hate him, and -"

                "They are old enough to think for themselves, although right now I'm kinda questioning what they're thinking." Buffy glared over at Oz, who shrugged, not wanting to add to the tension.

                "It's so flattering to have all this drama because of me, Slayer, but why don't you listen to your Watcher over there?  I can't hurt the Bit, you know that.  Let her be."

                "Spike, just shut up!"  Buffy looked ready to tear her hair out, and Spike couldn't restrain a smirk.  He poured another cupful of whiskey and drank it while Buffy looked from Dawn to Giles and back.

                "B-buffy, it's really o-okay.  I'll s-stay here and we'll just - j-just have pizza and watch some T-TV and then we'll bring her home before d-dark, ok?  You had some th-things you w-wanted to do and I d-don't mind hang-hanging out with Dawn and th-the guys."  Tara could barely meet Buffy's eyes as she spoke, but her soft voice was even and sincere and Buffy took a deep breath and deflated a little, smiling at Tara.

                "You did spot Faith when nobody else could figure it out.  I guess if you feel - comfortable - I'll have to trust you."  Tara blushed bright red at that rather unequivocal statement of trust from Buffy and Spike had to admit to feeling a bit of shock, himself.  *At least she's showin' some sense, trustin' Glinda.  Wonder how long that will last* 

                "Ok, ok.  We'll go.  And Dawn - you just - just behave.  And Spike - "  Buffy made a move as if to grab him and he put up a hand, warning her off.

                "Don't go there again, Slayer.  Already said I wouldn't hurt her, and the wolf and Glinda are here, anyway.  You just toddle along."   Buffy glared at him, but after a moment she turned and strode out.  Giles shot a look at Spike that was pure Ripper, and Spike grinned at him.

                "Ta, mate.  You call us, right?"

                "Watch yourself, Spike.  I'm sure there is some way around what - you've done.   And I intend to find it."  He turned and followed Buffy, and Spike caught puzzlement and distress from Oz.    He reached for another cigarette.

                "Don't fret, wolfling," he said, softly, and Oz slumped back into his chair, looking tired.   Dawn hadn't seemed to notice what Giles had said - or it hadn't made sense enough to her - and she sat down as well, still scowling.

                "Why does Buffy have to be such a - a bitch!"

                "Dawn!" Tara exclaimed, shocked, and Spike sat up and frowned over at Dawn, letting his eyes, at least, show the demon.

                "Watch your mouth, Bit.  None of that.  Big sis is just being - big sis.  You know what she's like."

                "How can you defend her!  I mean, she hit you!  And she's always -"

                "That's the way it is, Niblet.  She's the Slayer, I'm a vampire.  We're never gonna be friends.  She didn't hurt me, anyway, and it keeps things - interestin' don't you think?  This isn't the soddin' Brady Bunch, we're not gonna have a row and then be all cozy.   Don't fret over it."

                "Well, I don't have to like it," Dawn muttered, and picked at her cooling pizza.

                "No, you don't, but you bloody well don't have to make it worse, either."  Spike hesitated, taking a couple of drags on the cigarette.  "How is your mum doing, Bit?  I - really do want to know."  Dawn looked uncomfortable, and glanced at Tara for support.

                "She's - she keeps having these headaches.  They didn't find anything that first time she was at the hospital, so now she - she has to go back and get more tests...  Buffy says - "  Dawn bit her lip, and Tara stroked a hand down her arm, silently encouraging.  "Buffy says she's gonna be ok.  But now - Riley is sick, too -"

                "What's up with Captain Cardboard?"  Spike sat up straighter, crushing out the cigarette.

                "He - well, when Mom was at the hospital that last time, one of the interns there - his name's Ben, he's really nice - he let me have his stethoscope for a while and I was listening to everybody's heart and Riley's was all - it was way too fast.  The doctor said Riley could have a heart attack but he just says it's - it's a left-over from the Initiative and that he'll be ok."  Dawn took a long drink of her soda and Oz looked over at Spike, *sick* coming through, that kind of weed-out-the-weak-ones thing that was purely pack.  Spike nodded at him, thinking.

                "Wonder what the soldier-boys'll do about it..."  he mused, and Tara looked at him as well, concern on her face.

                "You d-don't think - would he g-go back to th-them?"  Beside her, Dawn made a face, shaking her head.

                "No way.  He's being real stubborn about it.  Says he'll be fine.  Buffy's really worried."  Dawn went back to her food and the phone rang again.  Oz rolled his eyes and answered, then handed it off to Spike, a little grin on his face.  Spike took it with a twinge of unease.  He wondered if he was going to get yelled at.


                "Love..."  A sigh came down the line, and Spike got up and went into the bedroom, shutting the door.  He heard Tara saying something - distracting Dawn from the oddity of Spike getting a phone call.

                "Wasn't me, pet.  She came in here all pissed, ready for a fight -"

                "I know.  But you didn't have to fight back."  Spike sprawled back on the bed, letting his boots dangle over the edge.

                "Can't help it, love.  She just rankles me.  You know that."

                "I know that."  There was the suggestion of a smile in that, and Spike relaxed.  *He understands.  Course he does*

                "So, pet...what are you wearing?"  This time he got an actual laugh.

                "About ten pounds of sawdust."

                "Mmmm...all furry and sweet-smelling, I'll bet," Spike said, in his best bedroom voice.

                "Well, there's definitely a smell...  Gimmie one minute, Steve, ok?  You ok, Spike?"

                "Huh?"  Spike stared at the ceiling.  *What's that mean?* 

                "Well, she..."  Xander fell silent, and Spike realized what he meant.

                "Oh.  Well, she took a jab at me, wasn't much.  Don't fret over it, pet, it's already healed up."

                "Damnit, why does she -"

                "Xander.  Don't worry about it.  I'd rather talk about what you an' me are gonna do when you get home than the Slayer and her anger-management problems."

                "It's just -"

                "I know, love."  A moment’s silence, and then Xander sighed down the line. 

                "I gotta go, Spike.  I'll be home - around six.  Is Dawn still there?"

                "Yeah - an' Glinda an' the wolf.  Havin' some pizza, gonna watch the telly.  Nothin' to be worried about here.  You stop thinkin' about this, you hear me?  I don't want you coming home with extra holes or missing bits, right?  I like your bits just like they are."

                "I promise I won't chop off or ventilate anything.   Love you."

                "Love you, pet.  Hurry home."  He clicked the phone off and lay staring at the ceiling for a moment.  *Gonna tell the gang.  Well, really just Red and the Slayer.  And Dawn.  Maybe I should tell her now?  She'd love to have one up on big sis.  Or...maybe not*   He got up and strolled out to the kitchen.  Tara was folding and then stomping on the pizza box so it would fit in the trash, and Oz and Dawn were in the living room, watching MTV.  

                "So - you got plans with Red today?"  Spike asked, and Tara glanced at him, a small smile on her face. 

                "W-we're moving into our new room, t-today.  Mostly j-just unpacking boxes and things.  We got R-Riley to help move the heavy sstuff yesterday."

                "Hrmmm..."  Spike reached for a cigarette, lighting it and ignoring the tiny moue of disgust that twisted Tara's mouth for a moment.

                "Spike."  Tara was looking straight at him now, her hands wringing together in front of her, and Spike frowned.  *What now?*

                "I j-just - I n-know that you and B-Buffy don't - well, you're not ffriends or anything -"

                "Not hardly, pet.  What is it you want to say, eh Glinda?"

                "J-just, for D-Dawn's sake could you - t-try to - get along?"

                "Maybe if she'd stop hittin' me every chance she got I wouldn't get quite so - demony."  Spike saw the flinch, but saw, also, that the witch took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders.

                "Y-you're over wa-one hundred y-years old, Spike - mmaybe you should be the big-bigger person."  Tara looked straight at him when she said that, and he just stared at her, utterly shocked. 

                *It's a good point.  We're stronger than that.  Stronger than some bubble-headed blonde mortal.  We should be*

                *Piss off.  She -*

                *You know it would be easier on our boy if we didn't...push*

                *She's the SLAYER.  She just - makes me - wanna rip her heart out.  Through her stomach.*

                *Yes.  But.  Xander.*

                *Oh fuck off*  Spike realized he'd been staring into space, snarling silently, and that Tara was giving him a 'you're so strange' look.

                "I - can't help it, Glinda.  It just - happens."  Tara looked disappointed, but she nodded her head.

                "Ok.  I j-just wanted to ask."

                "Bloody hell, witch!  She's the Slayer.  She gets within a hundred feet of me and I just - it's like ants, or something.  Like - "  Spike shuddered, aware of Dawn looking at him over the back of the couch, her mouth open.

                "Ok, Spike.  I just - I just wanted to n-know."  Tara slipped past him into the living room and Spike smoked furiously, wishing he could go and stomp something.  He could feel *sympathy* from Oz, and tried to calm himself down a little.   He finished his smoke and went into the living room, flopping down on the couch between Dawn and Oz, putting his feet up on the coffee table.  Tara was standing by the bookshelves, looking over Xander's collection of worn sci-fi books and brand-new poetry, and Oz's more eclectic selection of religious texts, classics, and cheap mysteries.  Spike had only added a few things to their library - Kipling and Huxley and Dinesen - and he watched Tara run her finger gently down the spine of ‘Captains Courageous'. 


                "Huh?"  Dawn was poking him in the ribs and he batted at her hand irritably.  "What, Bit?"

                "I asked you, do you think he's good-looking?"

                "Who?"  Dawn rolled her eyes and pointed to a group of young men on the TV screen.  The song finally resolved itself in Spike's head and he recognized the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

                "Him.  Anthony Kiedis.  I think he's cute."  Spike stared at the dark-haired man on the screen. 

                "Why are you asking me?"  Dawn sighed, obviously frustrated.

                "Because Tara is a lesbian and Oz says the music annoys him too much for him to make a judgment about cuteness."  Spike looked over at the werewolf, who was smirking into his soda.  *Coward* Spike thought, and Oz slid down on the couch a little more, stretching his feet out to the coffee table and balancing the soda on his stomach.  *Tasty*  Oz thought back, and Spike snorted.

                "Spike!"  This time Dawn whacked him on the leg and Spike snarled at her, flashing fangs, and she grinned.

                "Stop it, Bit!"

                "Tell me!  Cute, or not?"

                "Yeah, cute, I'd shag 'im through the mattress any day.  Right?  Happy?"  Dawn scowled at him.

                "What's 'shag' mean?"  Oz doubled up, laughing, and Tara seemed to be having a small fit over the Ezra Pound collection.  Spike glared at the VCR.  *Fuck.  Three hours until I can fuck Xander, five hours until I can kill something*   The video ended, another one started.  This time the boys were much glossier and well-groomed, and Dawn made a tiny squeak of pleasure.  The titles at the bottom of the TV screen said ‘N’Sync’.

                "Now these guys are super-cute.  What about these guys, Spike?  Would you - uh - shag them?"  

This time, Tara had to actually leave the room, and Spike's only consolation was that soda out the nose probably hurt even a werewolf.



                The phone was ringing, and for a long moment Xander thought about ignoring it completely.  But he knew he couldn't do that, so he pushed himself up from the kitchen table and went to answer it.   Spike and Oz watched him from their places at the table, spoons held still over bowls of Oz's experimental vegetarian chili.  *Probably the only werewolf on the planet who eats vegetarian*


                "Xander.  It's Giles -"

                "Yeah, kinda obvious there, G-man.  You are the only British librarian I know."  A snort of amusement from Spike and Xander grinned at him.  "What's up?  Something new and nasty in town?"

                "Actually - yes.  And...I've gotten things organized here, so I'd appreciate it if the three of you could come to the Magic Box tonight.  We're going to discuss...things."

                "Things?  You mean - me and Spike?"

                "Among other things.  Be here at six?" 

                "Sure Giles.  Six."   Xander hung up and sat back down, looking at Spike and Oz who still hadn't touched their food.  They looked back at him, spoons at the ready.  After a moment Xander crushed a couple of saltines into his chili.  The link was *love you* from Spike, and *pack* from Oz, and Xander smiled at them.

                "Yeah.  We'll be ok.  Wonder what Giles had to organize?"

                "Better not be anything...stupid,"  Spike muttered, and *protect mine* came through loud and clear, with an accompanying flurry of rather bloody images.  Xander winced and gulped some milk.

                "Stop that, evil undead.  There will be no evisceration or gouging out of eyeballs.  Right?"  Spike just rolled his eyes, finally taking a bite of chili and looking contemplatively at the ceiling.

                "Hrmmph.  S'good, wolf.  Just needs a little - blood - or something."

                "Well, it being vegetarian chili, that would kinda defeat the purpose."  Oz ate a mouthful as well and stared down at his bowl thoughtfully.  "Although, you're right, a little blood would definitely add something."

                "Yeah, like major oogy-ness.  It's perfectly...vegetarian, Oz.  Very tasty in a...vegetable sort of way."  Xander chewed furiously, glad of the saltines.     

                *bastard* from Oz, and Xander laughed. 



                The rest of the dinner hour was spent in a semi-heated argument over which vehicle they should take.  Two days earlier Spike had gotten his DeSoto back from the impound lot - Clem, not surprisingly, had a cousin who worked there - and they'd spent the last couple of nights working on it.  Or, rather, Spike and Oz had worked on it, and Xander had watched and handed over wrenches (Spike insisted on calling them 'spanners') and held work lights.  Cars had never done much for Xander - the deadness of the metal didn't appeal to him, and he didn't understand the workings all that well.  He just drove them.  Wood, on the other hand, was something entirely different, and he had a twisted piece of driftwood in the back of his truck that he was seriously thinking about carving into...something.  Manny was being quietly encouraging, and Xander was slowly getting excited about it.   And Oz was being encouraging as well - making a couple little comments about how hard it had been to do the 'first time on stage' gig, but then it had all flowed and become natural.   Since the claim, Oz was so much more - relaxed, if that were at all possible.   The savage intensity had gone out of the hunt - he still did it, and did it well, but it wasn't the whirlwind release of intolerable pressure, now.  Now it was - something they did, together, that strengthened the pack and kept the people he loved safe.  Xander had asked him if he felt - odd - getting the overflow of his and Spike's link - if he felt odd not getting it all.  Oz had shrugged, picking a halting tune out on his guitar. 

                "I don't mind.  I need the quiet, sometimes"   he said, and Spike had nodded and rubbed his hand briefly across Oz's back, telling him without a sound that that was fine.  And he and Spike had privately agreed to try to keep their own thoughts a little quieter.

                Spike finally won the vehicle argument by basically threatening to do something nasty to both the van and the truck.  And since Xander and Oz could both sense his excitement - he'd hated not having his own transportation - they gave in.    Xander felt a little strange sliding into the passenger seat, and he watched Spike operate the push-button dash with interest.  Then he just held on for dear life, because Spike had apparently learned to drive when cars had lanterns in the back for taillights and no signals - or brakes, it seemed - and nineteen-fifty-something DeSoto's didn't come with seat belts.   The blacked-out windows did not help.  Something like *fuuuuuck*   from Oz and Spike started laughing and drove a little faster, flipping on the stereo and blasting Alice Cooper into the twilight.

                "I can't go to school cuz I ain't got a gun…
                I ain't got a gun cuz I ain't got a job…

                I ain't got a job cuz I can't go to school...

                So I'm looking for a girl with a gun and a job…
                (and a house - with cable)

                Don't you know where you are...
                (you're) Lost in


                The drive to the Magic Box was over too soon, and Xander felt reluctant to exit the car.  They sat there, staring at the darkened windows until Spike flicked his cigarette butt out onto the sidewalk with a curse.

                "Fuck this," Spike snarled.  *love you pack MINE*  hit Xander and Oz both with a ferocity that made them flinch a little.  "If any'a these wankers tries anything, they're gonna know exactly how I earned my name, 'cause I'm not puttin' up with any shite from anybody.  I mean it, Xander."   The demon's glowing stare bored into Xander's own dark gaze.  Xander reached over and cupped his hand around the back of Spike's neck - pulled him close and kissed him, hard and deep.  Rested forehead to forehead *love you* between them, steady as a heart-beat.

                "I know.  Just - try to stay calm, okay?  The less bloodshed the better.   I'm not real happy about this either, but I can't - I don't want to lie about this anymore.  I want them to know, Spike - they're my friends...I want them to know."

                "I know, love."  Spike sighed and pulled back so he could look Xander in the eye.    "Just don't want them makin' you feel - "  Spike stopped talking abruptly, but *mistake* was loud and clear, and Xander kissed him again. 

                "It's not a mistake.  I didn't make any mistake, Spike.  I *love you* knew what I was doing."

                "Giles said -"  Oz spoke quietly, but there was *fear* from him, and Xander turned around in the seat, fingers tangling in Spike's hair.  Spike pushed his forehead into Xander's temple and rested there, eyes shut.

                "What, Oz?"

                "Said there had to be a way around it - around the claim.  Said he'd find it." 

                *MINE*  and Xander rubbed his hand over Spike's neck. 

                *Yours always love you*    "Never happen.  Fuck, let's get this over with.  I just wanna go home."  Xander dropped one last kiss on Spike's forehead then got out of the car, mentally and physically stiffening his spine.  The hyena was tense and hyper  *protect pack* the only thing it could think, and that same thought was coming from Spike and Oz as well, a trinity of resolution and protectiveness that made Xander grin.  The soldier was mentally reviewing what he knew of the shop and checking off exits and possible defensive positions and Xander tried to back him off a little.  *Not going to fight.  Everything's going to be fine.  We'll be calm, they'll be calm - no problems.  STOP that*   The soldier - dredging up a rather nasty episode from Spike's past for possible tactics - stopped and retreated, muttering.

                The three of them walked up to the door, and Xander tapped on the glass.  Inside, dimly, he could see a chaos of boxes and packing and building materials, plus assorted cups of take-out coffee and crumpled fast-food bags.  There was a light on in what looked like an office, and after a moment Giles emerged, dressed for work in jeans and a pullover sweater.   His hair was mussed and he looked tired.  He crossed the shop floor and came up the steps, peering out at them, then unlocked the door.

                "Good evening Xander - Oz."  Spike made a snorting noise of amusement at his deliberate exclusion and they stepped inside, going across a small landing and down a few steps to the back of the store and a table that was lit from beneath.  There was a lamp lit on the display case, and more light coming from a back room, making the table area a spot of brightness in the dark shop.  A wrought-iron staircase led up to a balcony and Spike settled there, half-way up.  Xander sat a couple of steps lower, feeling the merest pressure from Spike's shin at his back.  Oz settled on the last step, pulling his knees up and leaning back against the rails.  Giles stood for a moment, staring at them, then he turned as the door opened, the little brass bell over the top jangling.

                "Giles - are you in here?"  Willow came through the door, followed a moment later by Tara.

                "Here, Willow."  The girls came over, picking there way in the dimness. 

                "Oh - hey, Xander!  And Oz!  And - and Spike.  Uh - hi, guys."  Willow seemed confused to see the three of them and Xander wondered what Giles had told them to bring them here.  Tara smiled at them from behind Willow, and Xander felt better for that, knowing there were at least four of them that were...     *Pack.  Light witch is pack*  Xander didn't really understand the other's utter insistence that Tara was pack - perhaps it had to do with her easy acceptance of himself and Spike, or perhaps her solidly grounded strength and gentleness - her inherent goodness that was like a warm blanket.  Xander was glad the others liked her, but still felt amazement at the soldier's admiration and the hyena's protectiveness.

                *She'll side with us, Harris.  Probably bring the other one in, too.  Now did you notice that back entrance over there -*

                *Shut up.  Yeah, Tara is alright with this...  Please, Willow, don't freak on me...*

                *Pack* from Oz, loud and clear, and *Mine* from Spike, a possessive that clearly included the werewolf.  Xander felt himself grinning at that - at the love - the want - that was coming at him.  It was -                *It's like a drug.  I could get used to this*

                The bell jangled again and it was Buffy and Dawn, Buffy telling her sister in an exasperated tone not to touch anything.  Dawn was scowling, lugging a backpack, but her expression immediately lightened when she saw the rest of the group. 

                "Tara, hey!  Hi Willow!  Guys!"  She bounced to each person, doing a hug and big smile, and Xander could tell she was dong her best to piss Buffy off.  He hugged her anyway, and tried not to smirk when Spike scooted over to make room for her on his step.

                "Dawn!  Come down here!"

                "I want to sit up here, Buffy."

                "Everyone - please!"  Giles said, and they all settled a little, looking at him.  "Buffy, why is Dawn here?"  Xander could feel the glare practically radiating off of Dawn, and he didn't dare turn around to look. 

                "It wasn't my idea!  Mom was feeling better and she wanted to go out, so I had to babysit her.  She could -"

                "I'm not a baby, Buffy!  I don't need -"

                "Hey - Dawn - Buffy - "  Xander raised his voice a little, and Buffy looked at him frowning.  "How's your mom doing, Buff?  I haven't heard much lately.  Is she ok?"   Buffy looked lost for a moment, her frown turning into a mask of worry, then she raised a small smile - something that was obviously for Dawn's benefit.

                "Yeah - you've kinda been out of the loop, huh?"  She looked around and moved a box of what appeared to be dried rats off of a chair and sat down.  Willow and Tara were finding chairs as well around the lighted table, and Giles leaned against the display case behind him, arms crossed over his chest.

                "She - she's been doing a little better but the doctor said - she has to have surgery.  They found a - a shadow.  In her brain.  But he said - "  Buffy looked away, towards Giles, who smiled faintly at her.  "He said it wouldn't be a big deal, she should be home a few days after the operation.  She's going in the day after tomorrow."

                "Oh."  Xander felt like he'd been punched. 

                *Joyce is a trooper.  No worries.*  That thought, from Spike, and Xander's eyes widened in amazement.  He looked at Buffy - saw that she looked tired, and that her eyes were shadowed - a little lost.

                "I'm sorry, Buff.  But at least - they found something.  Now they can fix it and it'll be ok.  When, exactly?  I'll come by the hospital if...that's ok."

                "Sure, that's ok Xander.  She has to go in around nine in the morning.   They said...the operation will take a few hours."  Buffy smiled at him, then turned her attention to Willow who had reached out a hand.

                "We'll be there too, Buffy.  I only have two classes then and I'm ahead in the reading for both of them and one of them, the professor kind of repeats himself a lot, and I mean a lot, I think he's kind of senile or something, but I'm sure he has tenure so, what are you gonna do?  Anyway - "  Willow glanced guiltily around at Tara, who had put a gentle hand on her shoulder.  "Anyway, I can miss those classes and Tara only has one really early class so we can both be there, ok?  Is that ok?"

                "Sure Wills, that's fine.  I kinda - kinda need to have my family around me."  Xander felt a little stab of guilt at that.  *Haven't been much in the way of family.  I should have - should have been around more.  I should have worked this out sooner.  It's not fair that I assumed they would all...  I should have trusted them, they're my friends.* 

                *Calm love you* from Spike, and Xander leaned back just a little, to feel the sharp bone of shin and knee press into his back.  Oz had shifted ever so slightly and now his shoulder was against Xander's calf, and Xander felt better.

                "So - Giles - you found out something about that glowy thing?"   Buffy asked.

                "What glowy thing?"  Xander said, and Giles pulled a glowing, amber-colored sphere from a small box on the display case.

                "That glowy thing.  I was down by this old warehouse and the night watchman thought I was there for a rave - he thought I'd dropped it or something.  And then - the next day - I see the same guy at the hospital only he's gone totally bonkers, like, overnight.   I'm thinkin' that thing has something to do with - something."

                "Do you think it made the guy crazy?"  Dawn, her voice small and a little scared, and Buffy shook her head.

                "Nah - I had it with me all night -"

                "Not exactly a fair test, if you ask me," Spike said, and Buffy shot him a nasty look.

                "Nobody did ask you, as a matter of fact, so just shut up, Spike."

                "Actually, I found out that this is the Dagon Sphere," Giles cut in hastily, obviously trying to avoid a fight.  "It was made to protect against an unknown evil.  Against 'That Which Cannot Be Named'."

                "So we're fighting nameless evil now?  Is that better or worse than named evil?"  Willow asked.

                "Worse, actually."  Giles set the sphere down gently into the box and then turned back to them, taking off his glasses to polish them on his handkerchief.  "Usually, if a thing was not named, that meant it was an object - or being - of great fear or deep worship.  So we must be very careful in investigating the origins of this object."

                "Well, just find out what it is and I'll go kill it.  I'm going back to that warehouse tonight to see if I can find anything else."  Buffy crossed her arms, looking satisfied, and Giles sighed, obviously not happy with that approach.

                "We really have a lot of research to do.   The accounts of what, precisely, the sphere was used against are vague in the extreme.  Please do be extra careful tonight, Buffy."

                "Sure Giles.  Careful is my middle name."  Xander couldn't repress a snort, and Buffy looked over at him, grinning a little.

                "Ok, so maybe my middle name is more like - Slightly Cautious.  I'll be fine."

                "Sure you will, Buffy.  If you want any back-up - "  Xander gestured to himself - to Oz and Spike, and Buffy's smile faltered.

                "Uh - I don't think so, guys.  I'm still not real happy with the whole 'patrol' gig you've got going.  Besides, the less time I have to spend with Fangless there, the better."  The growl that rumbled out of Spike's chest was sub-sonic, but Xander knew Buffy could hear it - he watched her stiffen in her chair.

                "Feeling's mutual, Slayer."  Spike said. 

                *Don't don't*  from Oz, and Xander sent *calm* as hard as he could.  Spike shifted on the stairs and then was still, the growl slowly subsiding.  The bell jangled again, making them all jump.

                "Ok, sorry I'm late but I was getting ready.   I have a date tonight that I'm hoping will lead to orgasms so I wanted to be prepared.  Who knew a bikini wax could take so long?  Did I miss anything?"  Anya bounced down the stairs, smiling, looking sexy in a slinky black dress, and Spike made an appreciative noise down in his throat.

                "I'll take that as a compliment."  Anya said, perching on an unopened packing crate beside Buffy.  Buffy rolled her eyes, looking away.

                "Tell her about the 'Thing That Cannot Be Named."  Dawn said, then mumbled under her breath: "Maybe I am going to Hogwarts." 

                "Well, we're up for the research, right Tara?  We can do that, Giles."  Willow looked around at the chaos of the shop, obviously wondering how research was going to happen there.   "When's the grand opening?" 

                "Three more days."

                "What are we researching?" Anya asked, and Willow began to fill her in, Buffy adding her own commentary.  Giles pushed his hands back through his hair and reached for a cup of tea near the cash register, and Dawn opened her backpack, muttering to Spike about homework on the third day of school and how unfair it was.    Willow had just gotten to the 'unnamed evil' bit when Spike suddenly was on his feet and growling loud enough this time for everyone to hear it.  *rival protect mine*  from Spike, and Xander felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.  Something - something was out there.  Oz's was head up, listening, his shoulders tense.

                "Spike, what the hell are you doing?"  Buffy was up, too, looking as if she was going to jump on Spike.  The bell jangled as the door opened.

                "Ah, Angel."  Giles said.



                Xander felt Spike readying himself for a headlong leap at the older vampire and he turned helplessly on the stair, wondering if his new-found strength would help at all.  Spike was game-faced, snarling - unmoving.  Dawn had his arm in a death-grip and she was staring with wide eyes at Angel.

                "That's the guy who was trying to kill Buffy that time," she whispered, and Spike was awkwardly patting her hair, trying to be comforting and keep an eye on Angel's advancement across the room at the same time.   *Weird.  You'd think she'd remember him being her boyfriend, too.  Guess the 'get you and your little dog too' stuff just makes the more lasting impression.*

                "Dawn!"  Buffy looked furious - although if it was because of Dawn grabbing onto Spike or Angel's presence, Xander wasn't sure.  Angel stopped at the top of the steps that led down to the table area.

                "Yeah, Bit, that's the poofter what tried to off your big sis.  Wonder what he's doin' here, hey?"  Dawn backed up a step, clutching her backpack, and Spike flowed down them, head down and predatory, stalking forward until he ran into Buffy's outstretched hand.  Xander was right behind him, hovering.

                "Where do you think you're going, Spike?"

                "Piss off, Slayer.  This is between Peaches an' me."

                "Oh no, it isn't - "  Buffy started, moving into a fighting stance, and Giles was suddenly there, putting his hand on her shoulder.

                "Buffy, please.  I asked Angel to be here tonight.  We have - there's something we all need to...discuss."

                "Giles, if this is about that - Dragon thing - Angel doesn't need to be here.  I can handle this."  Giles shook his head, and Angel came down the last step.  The growl from Spike, that had subsided a bit, picked up again, and Buffy and Angel both looked at Spike.  Xander was sending *calm calm calm* as hard as he could, wondering if he should grab Spike or not.  Oz's own *calm* was there as well, as strong as the werewolf could send it.  From Spike there was only an inarticulate rage.  Angel took one more step and then stopped, frowning.  Suddenly he changed, and Xander heard the indrawn breaths of the girls as his demon emerged.

                "Spike, what in hell have you done?"

                "You know, Angel.  You know.  Why bother with bloody 'Twenty Questions'?"

                "Giles said - I didn't really believe him.  My god..."  Xander honestly couldn't tell if Angel was upset or dumbstruck - after a moment the demon subsided and Angel just stood there, staring at Spike.  *And I guess that's dumbstruck.  Looks kinda like pissed off.  Or happy.  Sheesh.  He needs little signs or something around his neck*

                "Giles - why is Angel here?  And what has Spike done?"  Buffy was still standing between the vampires, and Giles still had his hand on her shoulder.

                "Please - all of you.  Sit down."  Buffy sent a searching look over the Watcher's face and then retreated a step or two to her chair.  Angel backed up, not taking his eyes off Spike, and settled slowly onto the steps.  Oz relaxed back against the rails again, and Dawn stayed where she was, nearly at the top of the wrought-iron stairs, her eyes huge.  Willow and Tara hadn't moved, and Anya appeared to be checking her lipstick.   Xander reached and carefully put his hand on Spike's arm - tugged at him.

                "Spike - come on.  Sit down with me, ok?  Spike?"  The vampire was like iron - immovable - and Xander tugged harder.  "Spike -"

                "Feels a little like a set-up, doesn't it?  Like the Watcher here is plannin' on doin' something... stupid.  Are you plannin' something bloody stupid, Ripper?"  Spike's voice was low and deadly and Giles retreated hastily, backing into the counter and freezing there.

                "It's not a set-up, boy."  A snarl from Spike and Xander got in front of him, blocking his view of Angel - putting his hands on either side of Spike's face and forcing the lambent gold gaze to meet his.

                "Spike.  It's ok.  Come and sit down, love, please?"  There was a moment of stunned silence, and Xander knew, knew what he'd done.   Didn't care.  He had to get this out - and had to stop any escalation.  He didn't want a fight.  *please please *   The demon subsided, and the look Spike had on his face was delight and amusement.  He knew, too.

                "Alright, pet.  For you."  He smirked, and Xander smiled back, and then Spike turned and leapt lightly up three steps and settled there.  Xander turned around - met the stunned gazes of Buffy and Willow.

                "Xander - Xander I can't believe - did you just -"  Buffy was on her feet again, her eyes huge and wounded and her voice quivering.  "Somebody better explain this to me, because I think - I think I've lost it."

                "Buffy - you haven't lost it.  Just - calm down -"

                "Calm down?  Did you tell me to calm down?  Did you just - you were just touching Spike.  Like you touch - like you like him.  You called him love.  Am I right, or am I really going crazy - Giles, is that Dragon Sphere making me crazy?"  Buffy's voice was getting higher, a little hysterical, and Xander moved towards her, putting out his hand.  Buffy jerked away.

                "Buffy - come on.  You've just got to - just take a breath, ok?  Buffy?"  Behind her, Xander could see Tara whispering in Willow's ear - could see Willow's hands clasped in Tara's, holding tight.

                "Xander - Xander are you really - Tara says you and Spike are - are you really?  Are you in love?  Xander, what is going on?"  Tara put her forehead gently to Willow's hair, and Willow blinked and took a breath.

                "I'll tell you - I've wanted to tell you for a long time, Wills.  I never meant to - to keep this from you.  Never.  It just...  I was so afraid, Wills."   Xander felt his voice cracking, and *love you love you* from Spike, warm and soft, *calm* from Oz, and Xander blinked and sniffed.

                "Scared?  Well, what are you scared of, Xander?  I mean - what did Spike do to you?  Did he do something to you?  I mean, is that why we're here, Giles, Spike did something to Xander and we have to - have to fix it?"  Willow looked near tears herself, and Xander heard Giles heave a sigh somewhere behind him.

                "No, Willow, we're not here to do anything to Xander, or for him.  We need to - we all need to sit down and talk."  Buffy had been looking back and forth between Willow and Xander, and now she stalked around Xander towards Spike - stopped, confused, when Oz slowly stood up, his eyes shifting to black and then back.

                "Oz - that is really - why are you doing that?"

                "Just back off, ok?  Listen."  Oz said, softly, and Buffy slowly pushed her hands back through her hair, gripping it and pulling just a little.

                "God, I - fine, fine. I'll listen.  We'll listen, Willow, and then we'll...  I don't know what we'll do."  She went back to her chair, sinking down, and Xander finally did the same, settling one step below Spike and sighing softly when Spike began to gently comb his fingers through Xander's hair.  *love you* 

                "Something happened in Oxnard that I didn't tell you about.  That has a lot to do with what's going on right now."  Xander launched into his story, telling them what happened to Thomas - telling them about Jack.  Watching the mingled looks of bewilderment and anger and sympathy and pain wash over the faces of two of his best friends in the world.  When Xander talked about Jack's gift, Angel made an inarticulate sound, and when Xander glanced over at him he was staring, open-mouthed.   Xander went on - talked about Spike - about Parent-Teacher night and how the vampire had somehow lodged himself in Xander's brain.  How he'd seen the love, and the despair, and the heart of the demon.  The man.  By the time he was done, Willow had a look of wonder on her face, her eyes bright with something that might have been tears.  Tara was studying him, looking intrigued, and Anya looked thoughtful.  Dawn had slipped down the stairs and was sitting next to Spike again.  

                "That's - it, I guess.  About - well, almost two weeks ago we - we made it permanent.  With a spell.  A claim.  Now we're just...we're each others.   I love him, guys.  He loves me.  I'm happy."  Spike had never once stopped his gentle caress of Xander's hair and head, and now he leaned forward and gently pressed a kiss to Xander's temple.  *love you mine always*

                *always love you love you* Xander thought back.  Something like pride radiated from Oz and Xander brushed his knuckles over the werewolf's shoulder, happy to be done - happy that some of the room was happy for him - maybe for them, although he wasn't expecting it.

                "Demons don't have souls, Xander."  Buffy's voice was stern - sure of herself - but her eyes held doubt.

                "Except that they do.  And I can see them.  And Spike has a soul.  Two, actually.  The demon and the human."

                "I'm g-glad you t-told us, Xander.  I'm - I'm h-happy for the both of you."  Tara smiled shyly at him, and Willow started, smiling a wobbly smile at the blonde.

                "Can you see - is it alright, Tara?  Are they alright?"

                "They''s beautiful, Willow.  Really -"

                "Oh GOD!  Are you - are you really ok with this, Willow?  Really?"  Buffy was on her feet, pacing, and Spike stiffened, the growl vibrating through the tips of his fingers as he rested them on Xander's shoulders.

                "Well, I mean, if Tara says it looks alright, Buffy, and - and I guess Oz knows - has known for a while - I mean, Xander's happy Buffy, I can see he is -"

                "Willow!  That's Spike!  The guy who kidnapped you and threatened to put a broken bottle through your face!    This isn't - this isn't right, Willow!"

                "What's wrong with it, Buffy?"  Xander flinched back a little from the furious gaze Buffy turned on him, and *protect mine* coming in hard from Spike, making him twitch away from that, too.

                "Everything is wrong with it, Xander!  You went from being all hot for Cordelia to gay, which is - which is fine, that's your thing now, fine, but now you love a vampire?"

                "You did too, once, Buffy."  Xander ignored Angel's flinch at that, though Buffy glanced at him.  "Is it so hard to understand?"

                "Angel is different, Xander, and you know it.  He has -"

                "A soul?"  Buffy's mouth snapped shut and she frowned.  "Like I said, Spike does too.  And it's as shiny and pretty and real as your soul is.  As real as any human I've looked at."

                Buffy threw her hands up in a gesture of frustration and started pacing again.

                "What kind of soul lets someone murder innocent people, Xander?  What kind of soul lets someone kidnap a girl or - or torture someone or -"

                "The same kind of soul that burned little kiddies with napalm and convinced a thousand people to drink cyanide Kool-Aid in the soddin' jungle somewhere and made the whole of Romania into a Bosch canvas.  A human soul, Slayer.  Just like yours."  Spike's voice was low and even and calm, and Buffy stared at him as if he were a statue come to life.

                "Don't - don't try to make out like you're - like you're some kind of saint, Spike, like you're somehow better or - or different.  You're not.  You're evil, and you'd kill every person in this room if that chip weren't in your head and we all know it - you've told us enough times!"  Buffy looked around, as if for a weapon, and suddenly Angel stood up.

                "Buffy.  Stop."  She looked at him - ignored him, her eyes bright with tears, her hands groping among the piles of books and boxes on the table.

                "Buffy - he is different.  He always has been.  This is - this is crazy, I agree.  And I don't like it.  But do you really think Xander's making this up?  About the soul?"

                "I don't know what I think, Angel!"  Abruptly she sat down, and Angel stepped closer to her.   She flinched away and he stopped, looking at her sadly.  "I don't know what to think!  Xander hates vampires - he hates Spike - or at least, he used to!  And now suddenly they're - they're what, married or something?  Giles, what is this - claim, what does it mean?"

                Giles, who had been rubbing his forehead, silent all this time, raised his head and pushed his glasses back.

                "I don't know the specifics, Buffy - I was hoping that Spike would tell us about it.  But from what I do know, and from what Angel tells me...  It's a link.  A link through magic and through...blood.   It is permanent, Buffy."

                "Are you sure, Giles?"  Buffy's voice was soft - thick with unshed tears.

                "Yes, I am.  Of that I am sure.  The only real way to break the claim would be for one of them to die, and that would mean that the other would, as well.  That's - part of the spell."

                "It's true, Buffy."  Angel added, his voice low and strained.

                "Oh god - Xander!  You let him - you let him do some spell on you that...that ties you to him?  That will kill you if he dies?  Xander, how could you?"

                "Jesus, Buffy -"  Xander closed his eyes for a long moment, then stood up, going over to where Buffy sat helplessly twisting her hands together.  Angel still hovered there, mute now and just as helpless.  Xander crouched down, putting his hand gently on Buffy's.  She looked down at him, her eyes impossibly huge, impossibly hurt.  Behind him, he could hear Dawn whispering something and Spike answering, low rumble.

                "This spell - I can hear what he's thinking, Buffy - I can feel it.  I know everything about him.  I got - all his memories, when we did the spell.  I know what he was like before he was turned.  I know about the time he spent with Darla and Angelus,"  brief glance upward at Angel, who looked grim,  "and with Drusilla.  I know...what the Initiative did to him.  I know everything.  I know exactly what he's feeling, Buffy - about me, about you...  And it's the same for him.   He - loves me.  Me.  All my life - I've been second, Buffy.  My parents barely acknowledged me, when they weren't...  And I had exactly two friends at school, Buffy - and I had to kill one of them.  And then - with you, and the Slaying...  I was never - I was never really needed, you know?"  Buffy was shaking her head, and Xander squeezed her hands, stopping the words he knew she was going to say.

                "It's true, Buffy.  You know it is.  I never felt like I was really part of anything.   I was always one step behind - always the - the last resort.   I'm first with him, Buffy.  And the best part is that I know I am.  He tells me - every minute of every day.  I can feel it.  I'm happy."  Xander stopped, ducking his head for a moment, then looking over at Willow.

                "Guys, I never - I never wanted to keep this from you.  But I was so scared that you wouldn't understand.  That you'd just - that you'd think it was just some mess I'd gotten into, that you'd have to fix somehow.  And I was scared you'd tried to kill Spike."

                "Xander - I don't...understand...  He's tried to kill you - all of us - "  Buffy sniffed, sniffed again, then snatched irritably at the handkerchief that Anya thrust over her shoulder.  Anya grinned at Xander and glanced at her watch, eyebrow raised.

                "I know he did.  Fuck, Buffy, he's a vampire, what d'you expect him to do?  We tried to kill him right back.  That's just - the way it is.  I mean - Angel - he tried to send the world to hell, Buffy, but here he is, still around."

                "That's different -" 

                "Is it?    It's not to me. different, Buffy.  When I look at him - I can see the love.   I can see his soul, I can see his heart, and there's so much there...   He's nothing like the vamps you dust every night, Buffy - I've looked at them, too.  And I've - looked at your soul, Buffy.  I know you - know all of you."  Xander stood up, his knees popping, and paced back to the steps.  Spike was watching him, immobile, iconic.  The link was silent except for the faint *pack* from Oz, and Xander stood there looking at Spike, his gaze going over and over the line of cheekbone and jaw, eye socket and lips.  Archaic somehow, that face.  Holding secrets the others would never know.  Holding Xander's heart and happiness in the steady, calm regard of eyes too blue to be real. 

                "You're my best friends, guys.  I want you to understand more than anyone else what this means.  I'll do anything to convince you - anything at all."  The link surged open, *Beautiful boy mine my own always always always* and Xander gasped - smiled - sent his own love and want back, warmed by the flood of emotion.  The others were talking now - Buffy questioning Angel, Willow and Tara talking again, Anya rather loudly announcing that her date started in thirty minutes and Giles trying to question Angel as well, crossing over to him and pointing to something in a book.  Spike just smiled, his gaze never leaving Xander's face, and Xander smiled back - stepped forward and took the vampire's face gently in his hands and kissed him.  He meant for it to only be a soft, quick kiss, but once he'd started he found he couldn't stop - couldn't pull away, and he knelt on the step and lost himself in Spike.  In the taste of smoke and blood and cloves, in the cool fingers that twined through his hair and gently held him - in the rush of emotion that throbbed through the link.  Dimly he could hear the others falling silent - could feel Oz, who was carefully not intruding.  Finally, finally, they pulled away from each other, and Spike was smiling that real smile at him.  He heard a small sound behind him and knew the others had seen it.  *Oh god, I love much.  And they have to know - they have to see...he is...all.  Everything.*   

                * My love, my Spike.  Always love always.* 

                "Man."  Dawn broke the silence, breathy little exclamation, and Xander grinned at her - turned on the step and sat back down.  He leaned back into the vampire's embrace, and smiled at the room.

                "What will convince you guys?  That this is - nothing bad?"

                "That was pretty good - you could do that again," Anya said.  The ex-demon looked a bit - flushed.

                "No, they couldn't"  Buffy frowned at them.  "I want to know - I want to know if this is why you're out patrolling on your own, Xander.  If this is why you've been - avoiding us all.  I want to know about this spell, and I want to know...about souls."  Buffy's look was hard - determined - and Xander nodded.

                "Ok, Buffy.  We've been avoiding you because - because when you're around Spike you tend to hit him.  Or threaten to kill him.  And I - I can't stand that.  So that's one reason.  That, and lying to you guys just felt...wrong.  I didn't want to lie, so it just seemed easier to...avoid having to say anything.  We patrol because - because we need to.  Spike really is being the Master here - he's cleared out three different demons who had plans for the Hellmouth, and we've gotten rid of a lot of the minions and fledges left over from - well, from the Master and from all that mess right before graduation.  Oz and I - we both have something in us that needs that - the hunt.  And you know Spike does.  We're doing good, out patrolling.  I've still got a lot of the hyena in here - it needs to kick some ass, sometimes."  Willow looked alarmed at that, and Xander smiled at her.

                "Don't worry, Willow - I'm in control of all this.  You can ask Giles.   I won't be eating any pigs or anything."  Spike snorted at that, and Dawn made an 'eewww' noise.

                "What about the spell, Xander?"

                "Spike knows more than me."  Spike shifted behind him - digging in his coat, and Xander heard the snick of his Zippo.

                "Where did you get this spell, Spike?  Where'd you learn about it?"  Angel took a step towards them and Xander glared at him *rival* coming from Spike and Oz both  *mine* from himself.

                "You remember Greyson, Peaches?  He taught it to me."   Angel frowned.

                "Greyson?  I remember hearing about him.  He - he had a claim on a woman.  He taught you the spell?"

                "Me and Dru, we met up with him in Casablanca.  Him and his own.  We liked each other.  He told me about it - taught me the spell."

                "What happened to them?"  Xander could feel Spike shrug - watched smoke eddy around beside him and marveled that Giles hadn't said a word.

                "Dunno.  They left Morocco when we did.  Margaret had family in Poland she wanted to find - some great-niece or something.  Last I heard."  Angel frowned. 

                "So what else did the spell do?  Besides the link - the memories?" 

                *Tell?*  from Spike, and Xander thought about it for a minute.

                "Sure, tell 'em,"  he said, and Buffy frowned. 

                "Makes it so Xander's…stronger.  He won't get sick.  He won't drop dead from a heart attack or get cancer or…anything like that.  He'll live…as long as I do.  He won't age."  The room was utterly silent at that, and Xander felt that familiar surge of excitement and anxiety when he thought about decades - centuries - with Spike.  *Let me be enough for that - for forever*

                *Always enough*  softly, and Spike's fingers at the nape of his neck.

                "Wow.  You're - you're never gonna die, Xander?"  Dawn scooted down the steps to sit beside him, and Xander put his arm around her shoulders.

                "Dunno about that, Dawn, but if I'm real careful I'll live a long, long time."   Dawn was staring at him - her eyes flickered, dropped for a minute - and then she was tugging at the neck of his t-shirt.

                "Xander!  What's this?  Did - what's this scar?"  Her fingers brushed the claim mark and Xander fought the shiver it sent through him.

                "It's my - claim mark, Dawn.  Spike has one too."  Buffy shot to her feet and stalked over - bent down to stare at Xander's neck.

                "Spike bit you?  How could he do that, Xander?"  She looked at him and her eyes got wide.  "Is the chip - not working?"  She took a step back, and looked as if she might just snatch up a chair and break it apart for a weapon.  Spike's laughter stopped her, and she scowled at him.

                "That piece of military fuckin' hardware reads intent, Slayer.  I don't want to hurt him - and he isn't being hurt.  So - I can bite him."


                "Relax, Buffy.  It's not a big deal.  He's not going to kill me or anything."

                "But if he can bite you he could.   He could turn you!"

                "Not against his will, Slayer.  So shut it."  *MINE*  and Oz flinched.  Xander put on hand on Spike's calf - squeezed a little.  *calm calm calm*

                "Spike, I'm gonna -"

                "No, you're not, Buff.  Come on!"  Xander stood up and went to stand in front of Buffy.  "Listen - we came here tonight so we could tell you about us - about my gift, about his soul - about the claim.  And Spike's been helping us - been a part of the team for months.  I would really like it, Buffy, if you could just stop with the death threats now, ok?  You're not going to kill him, because that would kill me."  Buffy's eyebrows went up, her mouth a grim, thin line, and Xander took a deep breath, trying for calm.  He didn't want a fight.  He didn't know - he truly didn't know - if Buffy could take Spike if they fought, now.  Spike had everything to lose and some payback to dish out, and Xander, going through and through all of Spike's memories of the other times the vampire had fought Buffy, had come to the conclusion that only luck had kept Buffy alive the few times they'd really battled.  Spike was good.  And he knew things about fighting Buffy never would.  And he hated, passionately.  And loved passionately.  And he wouldn't hesitate, where Buffy actually might.  And he wouldn't stop.  And more than anything, Xander was afraid that if Spike and Buffy fought, and Spike won...Xander would be able to take it in stride.  The notion that he might actually not hate Spike, even a little, if he managed to kill one of his best friends...was terrifying. 

                *She's the Slayer.  As she's so fond of saying.  It's her job - her destiny.  She kills, and is killed.  Nature of war - nature of life.  Can't change it.*

                *I know that.  But I don't want to be the reason she dies.  I WON'T.  I don't want him to fight her.  I don't want to...*

                *Don't want to face yourself.  Us.  We don't care.  Not ours.  Not pack.  If she hurts what's ours, she dies.*

                *She's my friend.  One of my very best friends.  I don't want her to die.  I don't want...don't want to lie down every night with her killer.  If I do - if I do and it means nothing...then...I'm not me, anymore, am I?  Not me, and not...right.  I just want - just want them to understand, so I can have some happiness.  I just want to be selfish and for nobody to die over this.  Is that too much to ask?*

                *Might be.  She's...stubborn.  She thinks she knows right from wrong know she doesn't.  No more then anyone else does.  You've SEEN her.*

                *Yeah.  Maybe I should...*

                *Not pack NOT PACK*   The hyena was scared, and so turned belligerent.  Xander tried to soothe it.  And then Spike's fingers, gently cupping his face, turning his head, and Xander came back to himself abruptly, blinking into the azure gaze that looked at him with concern and love.

                "You in there, pet?"

                "Huh?  Yeah.  I - I was just..."

                "I know.  I think you might need to be here though, for a bit."  Spike smiled at him, and Xander nodded - turned back to Buffy who was staring with something like amazement at Spike. 

"Please, Buff?  I know you guys aren't friends - never will be.  But…I love him.  So please just - don't make it hard to be around you, ok?  I don't want to lose your friendship over this.  I don't want to have to…choose."  There was a shocked gasp from Willow, and Xander looked over at her, feeling guilt but knowing...had had tell them the truth about this.

                "Xander?  You'd do that?  You'd -"

                "I love him, Willow.  He's - part of me.  Forever.  It's never going to go away, or change.  I just - I just want to be selfish and have all of you, ok?  I want all of you."  Xander scrubbed his hands over his face - looked up and Willow was right there.  She flung her arms around him and hugged, hard.   Then she let go, and smiled up at him.

                "You've still got me, Xander - we'll always be friends.  I think - it's kinda weird, you know?  I mean - you hate vampires!  Well, obviously not all vampires, but…  Tara says it's ok - she says she can see your auras and its…great.  I can too, a little - I'm not as good at that as she is -"  Willow shot a fast, smiling glance over at Tara, who ducked her head.  "But I can see enough.  And Spike - "  Willow straightened her shoulders - took a deep breath. Obviously steeling herself for something.  "Spike - I have s-something to tell you.  If you ever hurt Xander - at all - I will hunt you down and beat you to death with a - a wooden shovel.  Got it?"  Xander gaped into her 'resolve' face, and almost laughed aloud at the *whooo!* of admiration from Oz.  Spike's own thoughts were *amusement* and *rival* and Xander shivered a little.

                "Fair enough, Red.  Just remember - it cuts both ways.  Anything touches what's mine, and it won't live to see another day.  Or - who knows?   Maybe it'll live just long enough to wish it'd never been born."  That voice, low and measured and utterly serious, and Xander shivered all over.

                *William the Bloody, oh fuckin' yeah*

                "Well, all this testosterone and estrogen is really great and all, but I'd rather be having hormone surges in the back seat of a Jaguar XJ6.  Xander - Spike - I'm glad you finally came out to everybody, and that soul thing...   Mr. Giles, I'll be here Monday morning to get your accounts set up.  Goodnight!"  Anya hopped off the packing crate, smoothed her dress down, and marched out.  Everyone stared after her for a moment, and then Dawn sighed.

                "Does this mean I have to do homework still?"

                "Of course it does," Buffy said, automatic, and Dawn stuck her tongue out.  "I still want to ask a few questions, Xander.  About souls."  Buffy looked - troubled - and Xander wondered what she would ask.  Was pretty sure he knew.

                "Tara?  Do you think you could take Dawn home?  She really does have homework.  And - Oz?  Could you go with them?  I think some - some wolfman muscle might be a good idea."  Buffy smiled at Oz, and he stood up, grinning back.

                "Sure, Buff.  I hope you're ok with this.  They're really - just fine."

                "I think I'll just…wait and see."  Buffy glanced over at Angel and then looked away.  Spike came down the steps, shepherding Dawn.

                "See you later, Bit.  Wolfling - you be careful.  *Protect pack*   I found out who killed the owner."

                "Who?"  Giles asked, and Xander turned to look at Spike, wondering the same.  Spike took a last drag off his cigarette and grinned.

                "Harmony.  She's got her some minions.  Told me she was the Slayer's number one nemesis and that she was gonna take her out." 

                "Harmony?"  Buffy stared at Spike, her mouth twitching, then she took a deep breath and laughed, startling everyone.  "That's the new gang in town?  Oh my god.  Harmony.  That is just…"   Buffy kept laughing and Giles frowned at her.  But Xander couldn't fight back a grin, and neither could Willow or Oz.  Tara just looked puzzled, and so did Angel.

                "She's just - not the sharpest crayon in the box," Xander said, by way of explanation, and Buffy snorted, putting her hand over her mouth.

                "Understatement of the year!  Who would be stupid enough to turn her?  Can you imagine listening to her babble on about fashion and makeup for eternity?  Vacuous tramp."   Willow said, laughing now too, and Spike snorted in amusement at that.  Dawn reluctantly smiled, looking at Buffy.

                "So she's not really very bad?"

                "Oh, she's bad.  Bad clothes, bad makeup, bad attitude."  Buffy sniggered and Xander wondered if he should tell her about Harmony's soul.  Decided not to.  He really doubted Buffy would stake their old schoolmate.

                "You guys go on - I'm gonna talk to Xander for a little bit and then go check out that warehouse again.  In bed by ten, Dawn!  Don't make mom come home and find you awake."

                "Sheesh, Buffy, I'm not six!  I know when bedtime is."  Dawn rolled her eyes and slung her backpack over her shoulder, and she and Tara and Oz headed out.  Angel had wandered off into a corner and was examining a book, and Willow abruptly sobered, looking at Xander.

                "Are you gonna - ask about souls, Buffy?"  She said softly, and Buffy looked at Xander too.

                "Yeah.  I am.  I just…  I just need to know…some things.  Ok, Xander?"

                "Sure, Buffy.  Let's - go in the back here, ok?  Private." 

                "Yeah.  You too, Willow."  Buffy looked over at Giles.  "Is that ok, Giles?"  The Watcher straightened from examining the Dagon Sphere and took off his glasses, looking at Buffy with concern.

                "Of course it is, Buffy.  Xander has…used his gift, with me.  I think - it would be a good idea."

                "Ok.  Deep dark secrets revealed.  Yay."  Buffy smiled at Giles, but the smile was a little wobbly, and Xander put his arm around her shoulders, feeling how fragile she was - how small.  *So much weight on these shoulders.  I hope…she can bear it all* 

                *Love you* from Spike, and Xander nodded, closing his eyes for a moment.  *Love you too*

                "Come on, Buff.  I promise I won't tell anybody who you really had a crush on in tenth grade."  Buffy smiled at him, and Willow took his other hand, and they walked into the back room of the Magic Box.





Alice Cooper - Lost in America