Under the Mountain

 

 

Xander yawned - stretched and rolled over, looking blearily at his clock and wincing a little.  He never took naps, or almost never, and this unaccustomed sleep in the middle of the afternoon had left him with slight headache.  He sat up slowly, pushing the comforter off and climbing to his feet.  His flannel pants and t-shirt were twisted around his body and he straightened them and stretched again.

Face washed, toilet used and coffee in hand, he stood in front of his living room window, looking out over the Sound.  A grey day and a rapidly-vanishing twilight, with the merest hint of gold and umber in the western sky.  Clouds were massing along the horizon, soft and puffy as down and he knew there would be snow by morning - maybe sooner.   Snow didn't happen often here - the ocean kept Seattle too warm for that - but occasionally there would be short-lived flurries.  He liked it - liked it all; the rain and the wind and the brief, bright summer.  Liked the mountain in the east that floated above the horizon-haze like a far and secret kingdom.  His second year here, starting last month, and it was...comfortable.

Xander wandered around his apartment, checking for email, watching ten minutes or so of the local news.  Wasting time, but then he could if he wanted to.  Which was the point.  When he'd first taken this job - called England and told the girls on speaker-phone what he was doing - there had been a profound and...incredulous silence.  And then babble.

 

"Oh, but, Xander that's such a mindless kind of job!"

"Don't you want to do something...else?  I mean, you hated fixing my house in Sunnydale."

"Why won't you come live with us?"    The last - heartfelt wail from Willow - and Xander just sighed, shaking his head even thought he knew they couldn't see him.

"I need to be out on my own, guys.  I need...something quiet for a while.  No world-saving.  Just...this.  I like this.  I built three schools in Africa, this is -"

"It's just copping out!" Dawn had snapped and left the room, and a minute later Buffy had excused herself, too.  Which left Willow on the handset, with a quaver in her voice.

"But you could build things here, Xander, you could - could help fix up the dorms and - and make stakes and -"   Willow's voice trailed away to silence as even she heard the desperation - and the pitiful offering she was making.

"Willow...I miss you.  I miss everybody.  But I just need...some time.  Okay?  I just..."

"Okay, Xander.  It's...okay.  I just miss you.  You're still my best friend."

"Yeah.  You, too.  I've got email, okay?  I bought a computer.  I'll talk to you guys all the time and - and I'll figure out the digital camera thing and...  It'll be okay, Wills, really.  I just...I've spent years saving the world, you know?  I want...  I just want to live in it for a while."

 

A year later and he was still doing his job - doing other things as well and they didn't ask him to come to England anymore.  And he was glad.

He got dressed and left his apartment around five.  His next job was across town and he knew it would take a while to get there - the streets would be crowded and the bus would take forever.   But he didn't mind.  He hadn't owned a car since Africa and walked most places.  But today he had his notebooks and his camera, and that would be awkward on a long, possibly wet, walk.  So the bus, and the people-watching, and the occasional picture that no one ever seemed to deny the shaggy-haired, one-eyed guy in jeans and t-shirt and flannel under a battered bomber jacket.

Africa had changed a lot of things for Xander.  Changed how he thought about himself; changed how he viewed the world and his own place in it.  Changed how he viewed the Slayers and what they and the Council were doing.  He still carried a stake but he was more apt to warn than kill, these days.  He just...didn't want to do that anymore.  Not the killing and not the judging and not the hate.  Africa was the crucible of all Darwin's theories and even though human malice and primate-cleverness had also managed to make some of it hell on earth, it had made some things very clear to him.   Hate - was the worm at the heart of all things, and he refused to be controlled by it anymore.  

The bus was very crowded and Xander found himself standing near the back, arm around a pole as he tried to take a picture of a listing and denuded Christmas tree propped over a little lean-to of cardboard and plastic sheets.  Somebody had got smart and realized it would make a good wind-break or rain-stopper.  The left-over tinsel and bit of bright red garland made it sad and somehow brave.   The kid in the seat that he was looming over wiped the steamy window with the tail of his scarf and smiled up at him; gold tooth in the front and skin darkly brown, smooth as cream.  Xander grinned back, feeling a momentary tingle of interest.  But the kid looked all of sixteen, and that was way, way too young.  Even if Xander himself was only 24. 

*25 in a month.  Don't feel that.  Don't feel any age, really.*    He didn't have a problem with a one-night hook up.  Or a long weekend, even.  But they had to be at least 21 because otherwise he ended up dwelling on the Potentials and the kids he'd known in Africa - the kids he'd sent to die fighting the Mayor - and that could be days and days worth of brooding.  *God.  Still want to smack Angel, but at least I understand the urge to brood a little more now.* 

The bus lurched and he almost dropped his camera.  *Time to put it away.*   He stowed it in his bag and pushed toward the door - pulled the cord.  A half a block on and the bus ground to a halt and he got off, zipping his jacket against the chilly air.  And he'd been right - snow was wisping down, blowing sideways and swirling up and around and Xander took out his watch-cap and tugged it down over his ears.  Gloved hands deep in his pockets, he started the six-block, mostly uphill walk to the next job.

 

 

 

Raif Tubic - the man Xander worked for - was part of the mafia.  Or something.  Had to be.  He was from Bosnia, he said, and he'd made noises about the war there - said things in such a way that Xander knew better than to ask about his past.  He was a tall, heavy man with crisp white hair and a bushy mustache that he constantly combed with finger and thumb in a nervous tic.  He owned something like thirty old buildings and houses in Seattle and had hired Xander to do restoration for him.  Xander's first job had been carving delicate rosettes so he could make a mold and then plaster casts to replace smashed and missing ones in the ceiling of a turn-of-the-century house.  It was slow, exacting work and Xander wasn't ever part of a crew or a team and he liked that.  He liked making the plaster details and carving new molding to match the old.  He came home smelling pleasantly of wood and lemon oil and glue, and that beat most jobs right there.  Plus, Raif wasn't one to ask questions or delve too deeply into someone's past, and that made him a relaxing man to work for.  Xander could be as mum as he wanted on life in Sunnydale and Raif never pushed for explanations or stories.

As Xander got to the right block - the 700 block - his cell-phone chirruped in his pocket and he stopped and pulled it out.  It was the phone Raif had given him that he called Xander on at odd hours and always, always right before he started a job.   "Harris," he answered, like always.

"Alexahnder.  How are you?"  The deep, gravelly and heavily-accented voice rumbled out of the phone and Xander grinned.

"I'm fine, Mr. Tubic.  How are you?" 

Raif liked to be formal, even though he pretended differently.  "Please - Raif.  I am Raif.   We are not so stodgy as all that.  So - you see the house?"

"I see it," Xander said, looking up the block.  It was a tall brick house, three stories high.  The bottom two floors were dark, the top floor brightly lit.  He was going to the top floor.

"Now, he works during the night, nobody to come until after six, yah?  So, don't knock until after six."

"I won't.  His lights are all on, Mr. Tubic."

"But he says after six, we stay away until after six.  Now - the second bedroom, second bath, kitchen and study for now, yah?  Take pictures, I want to see."

"No problem."  The place had been vacant until three months ago but Raif's schedule ground on despite the inconvenience it might cause his tenants. 

"And then, tomorrow at the 13 Coins, yah?  You'll show me."

"Yup.  8:30, just like always."  Xander smiled into the phone because really, sometimes Raif was like an old grandmother.  Fuss, fuss, fuss.   Xander would bring his laptop and they'd go over the job and what he'd need, and how long it might take.  And Raif would sit there, in his suit and his wool coat and his mustache, with eyes as cold and shuttered as an empty house.  He might come across as a fussy old woman but Xander wouldn't push the man on a bet.  His vibe was seriously scary.

"Yes.  Well, three minutes after six, time for you to go.  Good night, Alexahnder."

"Good night, Mr. Tubic."  Xander clicked the phone shut and tucked it away, then went on up the block.  He pulled out the massive key-ring Raif had given him and sorted through it for the right key.   Dearborn Street House in Raif's scratchy handwriting and Xander walked up the steps to the front door and unlocked it.  Inside it was dark and still, with one small light on over the foot of the staircase. The first and second floor residents obviously weren't home from work yet. 

Xander crossed the green and black tiles of the lobby and went up.  As he got closer to the third floor he could hear music pounding down through the house.  Something new, raucous, and bass-heavy.  Rap, but he couldn't tell who.  Nelly, maybe.  He unzipped his jacket and adjusted the strap of his bag and sighed.  First-time meetings were always hard.  Inevitably his eye - or rather, its absence - was mentioned.  Xander got tired of the stares, but he refused to get a prosthetic.  He hadn't had one in Africa and getting one now would be a chore.  Plus, he just...didn't care.  His eye was gone.  He wasn't going to mourn the loss anymore, and he wasn't going to hide it, either.  But it did make a bit of an awkward first impression sometimes.  And the pirate jokes got old.  He swept off his cap and tucked it away, pulled off his gloves.   Made sure the patch was straight and brushed his hair back.

The third-floor landing was practically vibrating with the thumps and crashes of the music and Xander grinned.  Even though it meant adjusting his schedule to accommodate a night-time worker, he thought this job was going to be fun.  This neighborhood - Leschi - with its parks and old, old buildings and view of Lake Washington was pretty and interesting and exactly what Xander liked.  And having clients who weren't octogenarians or quasi-Yuppies was refreshing.

He reached out to knock but just as his knuckles touched the wood the door jerked open and a tall, auburn-haired man was coming through, shouting something over his shoulder, a trash-bag swinging from his hand.  He stepped into Xander hard and Xander was grateful for steel-toed work boots.

"Oh shit - did I hurt you?  Damnit!"  The man caught at Xander's jacket, laughing, the trash hitting the floor with a thud.   

Xander put a hand on the man's forearm, smiling back.  "Nah, I'm okay.  I'm Xander Harris, I'm -"

"Oh!  You're the guy who's gonna fix the stuff.  Yeah.  Mr. Tubic called about you.  Oh fuck!"  Xander had to grin again as the man's green-yellow eyes *like a cat's eyes* went wide in shock.   He spoke with a faint accent that reminded Xander of - Mr. Tubic, actually.

"Man, we completely forgot you were gonna be here!  The place is a wreck, we had a wrap party here last night and - oh, Jesus, I'm making you stand out here in the hall.   I'm Sacha, Sacha Dubkova."  Sacha stepped back inside, holding the door open and just...waiting and Xander felt a little frission of recognition.  Sacha knew.  Xander nodded once and stepped over the threshold and Sacha grinned, trash obviously forgotten.

"Hey!  The fixing-guy is here!  Are you dressed?"  Sacha went across a wide, wood-floored room to a rack of expensive stereo equipment.  He started stabbing at buttons, frowning, and the music took on a funny quality as he obviously changed something - treble or bass or hell, who knew? A boom-box had always been good enough for Xander.

"Of course I'm not bloody dressed, and you've fucked up the damn stereo again, Sacha, I keep telling you -"

Xander just stood there, his blood going to ice water and his heart pounding, pounding, pounding.   Because he knew that voice, and Jesus fucking Christ -   Someone - *Don't pretend, you know who!* walked out a dimly lit hallway.

Whipcord body, ratty, faded-white jeans half off his hips, black nails, hair six different shades.  White and honey and gold and brown and brass and pale wheat, tousled and spikey and soft-looking.  Rings on his left hand, all silver, one gold one on his right, heavy silver chain around his neck, silver bracelets of intricate wirework and complicated chain patterns around his left wrist.   Love-bite on his collarbone that was blue-purple-red. 

Concentrating on the details so he wouldn't have to look at the face, the face...  *No fucking way, no fucking way!  Thought he was dead, thought...oh man, what are those scars -?*

"Harris."   Spoken in a voice flat and deadly and hostile, and Xander swallowed and lifted his chin.

"Spike."

 

 

 

The music shut off abruptly and Sacha stood there, looking a little embarrassed.   "So - you guys know each other?"  Spike didn't say anything and Xander took a deep breath.

"Yeah.  Uh - yeah, we do.  Did. We - lived in the same town for a while."  He was amazed at the steadiness of his own voice even though he could feel sweat gathering under his arms and between his shoulder blades.    Spike's gaze *Jesus, eyeliner...* raked him from head to foot and back - lingered for one long moment on the patch.  And then he jerked his head a little, as if dismissing Xander and Sunnydale from his mind.

"We're gonna be late, Sacha.  Why don't you show Harris the rooms?"  Spike turned and stalked out and Xander let his breath out in an explosive whoosh, not realizing he'd been holding it until Spike's back - *when did he get a tattoo?* disappeared from view.

"Um, okay.  Sorry about that.  Did you kill his dog, or something?  I mean, should I snub you, too?"  Sacha looked like he might be holding back laughter and Xander deliberately smiled - took a deep breath.

"No, no dog-killing.  Spike and I...  We just - rub each other the wrong way, you know?  I haven't seen him in...  Damn, like...three years."

"Wow."  Sacha looked him over much as Spike had done, but his gaze was interested and friendly rather than coldly speculative and Xander relaxed a bit.  "Let me take your jacket and I can show you the rooms.  Oh god."  Sacha raised his voice.  "Is Auntie Vera passed out in the guest room again?"

"Since Sunday, dear," Spike yelled, and Sacha giggled. 

Halfway out of his jacket, Xander just stared.  *What the hell?  This is...  Well, it's only Monday evening, but still -*   

"Oh - just a joke," Sacha said, catching sight of Xander's expression.  "Um - I hope.  The party was pretty wild."  Xander noticed for the first time that every flat surface had glasses, mugs, plates, napkins and other assorted trash on it.  Cigarette butts were everywhere and he supposed the only reason that the place didn't reek like a bar was that every window was open and the place was a weird mixture of freezing cold and heat; the furnace roaring out savannah-hot air and fighting the snow-spangled gusts that were puffing in sporadically.  There were also what looked like...flyers?  scattered among the tumbled cushions and throws of the big, squashy-looking couch.   Flyers, and several newspapers gutted and scattered around.  

Xander hung his jacket over the back of a chair and really looked at the apartment.  Raw brick on the outside walls and soft cream plaster on the inner ones.  The window-frames were wide, with carved molding across the top and decorative braces under the sills.  The plaster of the walls had been combed into swirls and the ceiling appeared to be pressed tin, with more plaster molding around light fixtures.   He dug his camera out of his bag and followed Sacha out of the living room and down another hall, in the opposite direction that Spike had gone.

"Here's the guest room - let me get the light - oh, good, nobody in here." 

Xander couldn't tell if Sacha was serious or not - the man had a playful air about him that was so different from...  *From what?  It's obvious they're...together.  And while the whole gay-vampire thing is a complete shock, this guy just seems like...  Not Spike's type at all.  But then...what do I know?  Buffy sure wasn't his type but they managed to get it on for months...*    The bitterness of that reality still made Xander seethe, from time to time.  And not even so much the fact of Buffy sleeping with Spike - she'd slept with Angel, after all so it wasn't as if it was without some sort of precedent - but that she'd lied to them all.  That she hadn't trusted them and that...  *That she didn't give you a chance to show her you could fix things.  Give it up, already!* 

Xander sighed and powered up his camera, looking around.  The room had a tall iron bedstead, made up, and a wardrobe and that was all.  It looked as if someone had attacked the woodwork with chains and there were scars where bolts or something had been screwed into the corners.

"They kept dogs in here.  Some kind of fighting dogs.  Reeked when I moved in - had to get these guys in Hazmat suits to clean it.  They did the damage to the plaster."  Sacha leaned in the doorway and watched Xander take pictures.  Even the floor - tough old oak - was scarred and torn.

"They really screwed this up.  Does the window open?"  Xander pushed at the frame a little, looking through the wavy, old glass at a fenced back yard.  There was a big sycamore back there and what looked like a crabapple tree.

"Yeah, but the ropes on the counter-weights broke so you have to prop it."  Xander nodded and took one more picture and then raised an eyebrow at Sacha, who led him across the hall.  This was the room Raif called the study, but for the moment it looked like it was being used for storage.

"Jesus - we're gonna have to move Spike's books.  Where the hell are we going to put them?"  Sacha started poking at the stacks of boxes as if the work was going to start now, and Xander looked for a beat at the pile. 

*Must be eight, ten boxes.  Spike's books?  Never saw him read in Sunnydale...  Well, never paid that much attention, truthfully.*  Xander took more pictures, getting up close so he could show Raif the damage done to the marble and cherry-wood of the fireplace and the places in the ceiling where water-damage had rusted some of the tin.  Sacha had opened a box and taken a book out and seemed absorbed by it - something Xander had seen Willow do all her life - and he had to smile.  Sacha was probably Xander's age, maybe a little older.  He was pale but not vampire-pale, and his auburn hair curled loosely to his shoulders.  In his high-collared, plum-colored shirt and narrow black pants he had a theatrical look to him, and Xander had to admit that his narrow, sharp features were attractive.  *Looks a little like a fox.* 

"So - a wrap party?  What wrapped?" Xander asked, and Sacha looked up from the book, his eyes a little distant.

"Huh?  Oh!  A play.  The play I was in.  A 'modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet'."  Sacha tucked the book away, rolling his eyes a little and Xander chuckled. 

"You don't like modern retellings?   Or you don't like 'Romeo and Juliet'?" he asked as Sacha flicked off the light and they went to the end of the hall to the bathroom.

"I like anything that pays me but this was...  Romeo was a crack addict.  Pimping Juliet - it was a mess.  Thank god it's over - I was sick of those fake home-boy lines.  Director thought he was Baz Luhrmann or something.  Really not." 

The bathroom was long - it was the width of the whole apartment - but narrow and an utter disaster.  It looked like -   "Was there a fire?" Xander asked, staring in bewilderment at a half-melted fiberglass shower stall and darkly grey walls that were ragged and pocked with holes.  A claw-foot tub, blackened and cracked, listed to one side and the sink was broken.  The window had boards nailed up over it and the tin ceiling tiles were missing - no - were piled behind the door.

"Yeah.  Freakin' meth, man.  They were cooking it up in here - lucky they didn't blow the whole block up.  It's why the rent's so cheap, although I'll bet Mr. Tubic thinks he'll raise it after all the fixing up."

"I'll bet he thinks that, too," Xander murmured, taking picture after picture.  The tiles on the floor were cracked and loose - half of them missing.  "Damn, this is a mess.  So how'd the rest of the apartment stay in such good shape?"

Sacha shrugged, brushing his hair back out of his eyes and Xander noticed a ring of colored stones on his right index finger.  "I don't really know.  The front room - living room, I guess - it was just filthy, but they'd left it alone.  The big bedroom's mostly okay, too - the floor needs fixing.  The people who lived here before us tore out half the kitchen and replaced it with this crap from salvage yards or something - it's a wonder we've got running water in there."  Sacha toed disgustedly at a pile of plaster on the floor, sighing.  "They only stayed two months - just long enough to screw things up.  And the other bathroom - I think somebody turned the water off, or a pipe broke.  It was like they never used it.  I don't think they really lived here.  Which is lucky for us, 'cause no way would I use this bathroom." 

Sacha ushered Xander out and turned off the light and they made their way back to the front room.  The kitchen was just off of it, open design and Xander could see the ugly seventies-style appliances and the bulky Formica counter tops set crookedly into place.  There were a half-dozen trays with the dried remains of cold-cuts, bread, dip - snack food from the party - and ranks and ranks of empty wine and whiskey bottles, plus a nearly full bottle of vodka that someone had put a cigarette out in.

"Jesus," he said, and then checked, hesitating, as Spike walked out of the 'master' bedroom.   Tight black trousers, white shirt that fit like a second skin and a gauzy, silky looking black shirt open over it.  *He looks like...like some black-and-white movie still that just...got up and walked.*  Xander didn't remember Spike ever looking that...unearthly, and he frowned to himself.  He didn't want to notice Spike.  He didn't want to know Spike.

"Aren't you done?  We're bloody late," Spike snapped, and Xander felt himself stiffening - felt himself slipping and he was not going to do that. 

He quelled the urge to snap back and lifted his camera.   "I've still got to take some pictures.  I've got a key, you could -"

"No fucking way," Spike said and stalked over to where Sacha was half-heartedly picking up plates and stacking them.   "Leave that for now, love.  You're all dressed up," Spike purred, pushing the plates aside and slipping his arms around Sacha's waist.  Sacha complied with a pleased little sound and Xander turned away as they kissed, fighting the little flush that washed over him.  Differences aside, Spike was very, very attractive and Sacha was, too, and... 

*And I need to get laid.  Like - now.  Damn.*    Xander stoically snapped picture after picture, wondering what Raif would say about the mess.   Done, he turned the camera off and crossed over to his bag and put it away, then slowly picked up a discarded flyer.  It was a play-bill, he saw and he opened it and looked inside at the cast.  There - Sacha Dubkova, fifth down.  Mercutio.  Xander vaguely recalled the play - enough to remember that Mercutio died a drawn-out death, cursing everyone. 

*A plague on both your houses.  AIDS, if the play was like he said.  Ha.*     AIDS had been such a huge part of life in Africa it didn't hold quite the terror it once had for Xander.  He was careful and sensible and just didn't let it consume his every waking moment.   *Nothing to fear along those lines with Spike.  And Buffy never had to worry about getting pregnant...  Jesus, I need a drink and a good brain bleaching.  Except I don't drink, so....bleach it is!*   That was something else he'd worn out in Africa - any desire to drink.  He'd done it by being drunk for seven months but hey - he was dry now.   

He folded the play-bill and put it in his bag then picked up his coat and put it on - slung his bag over his shoulder and fished out his gloves.  As he pulled them on he cleared his throat and was rewarded with a coldly hostile stare from Spike.  Sacha wiggled out of his grip and came over to him, flushed and obviously aroused.

"Okay, so - you're done?  That's great.  Uh - Mr. Tubic said the work would start soon?"

"Yeah - probably on Wednesday.  He's gonna have to have a demolition crew come up and get that shower and stuff out of the bathroom and that kitchen stuff, too.  Plan on eating off of a hot-plate for a while." 

Sacha just laughed.  "Oh, we hardly ever cook.  I hate it and Spike can't so we'll be fine.  So long as I can have my coffee and Spike can have his JD, it doesn't matter."

"Yeah.  Okay.  I'll call you and tell you when everything's gonna start for sure.  It was uh, nice to meet you, Sacha."

Sacha's eyes held something like laughter in them as he glanced over at Spike.  "Nice to meet you, too, Mr. Blast-from-the-Past."

"Oh - yeah."  Xander pulled on his gloves and followed Sacha to the door.  Once he'd stepped outside he turned and looked back.  Spike was watching him, his eyes as hooded and dark as a hawk's.  "Spike, it was...surreal."

"Be careful out there, Harris," Spike said silkily, and Sacha closed the door between them. 

 

*Be careful out there?  Jesus.*    Xander stomped down the street, thinking furiously.   Spike.  Spike, of all fucking people.    Spike who'd crushed on Buffy and stalked her and - god - done everything to win her.  Who'd bled for her - for Dawn.  And who had, finally - according to Buffy - snapped one night and attacked her, and tried to...  And then run off.  Disappeared.  They'd all figured he'd gone back to Dru - or gotten himself staked - and in the insanity of the First, no one had really cared.  Only Dawn had missed him and mourned him but even now, after all this time, *three years!* she didn't talk about him much any more.

*And I had to be the one who ran into him.  God.  And what the fuck is he doing here?  And who's that guy he's with who...knows?  Is he human, or demon?  And...those scars -*   An ugly criss-cross of them over Spike's chest - scars when Xander was pretty sure vampire's didn't scar.  And the tattoo - something vaguely familiar, that was nagging at Xander's subconscious.  *Seen that somewhere...*    

Xander stood at the bus-stop, jittering a little in the chill air.  The snow had stopped after only a light dusting but the breeze was ice-edged and he wanted to be home.  *Where it's safe...*   Which was a stupid thought, because he was safe.  He was more fit and more...aware...then he'd been in years.   The First - Africa - life in general had scoured every trace of the happy-go-lucky out of him.   *But not in a bad way.*   Africa in particular had brought home with astonishing clarity the absolute fragility of life.  And it had confirmed for Xander that he wanted to live more than anything else.  So he was just - more realistic now and if that meant he didn't go down alleys or run in to save the day like Don Quixote...well, that was the price you paid, sometimes.  *Wised up, is all,* he thought.  Wised up and gained a much-welcome calm. 

From the top of the hill he heard the thud of car doors and then an engine, revving hard.  A minute later a sleek black car roared down the street and took the corner with squealing tires and Xander was sure he saw a flash of spikey hair and golden eyes in the driver seat.   

He fumed all the way home and spent several hours organizing the pictures he'd taken and listing what he would need, how long it would take - what it would cost.  Raif hadn't turned him down yet on a bid, and Xander scowled at the figures and added a bit more.  Because he just knew that Spike was going to be a pain in his ass, one way or another.

 

 

 

"So, Mr. Tubic - do you know the people at the Dearborn house?  I mean, I know you've met them."   Xander was tidying away his laptop and papers and Raif was drinking his second cup of Irish coffee, his mustache catching droplets of cream.  He patted at his mouth with a napkin and looked at Xander for a long moment.

"Yes, of course, Alexahnder, I do not rent to strangers.  Sacha - you met Sacha? - he is the nephew of my mother's aunt's sister-in-law.   She married a dancer from the Kirov Ballet."    Raif reached into the breast-pocket of his coat and took out a silver cigarette case - took out a slim, black cigarette and lit it with an expensive wand of black steel.  Some sort of Japanese lighter that produced an almost invisible, extremely hot flame.  He puffed, his dead eyes fixed on Xander.

"So, okay...family.  And...you know his roommate?"

"Spike?  Oh, yes," Raif said.  Was all he said, and Xander shivered. 

*Ookay...  That either means he knows William the Bloody or...  Well, he knows.  And his nephew must be...demon or part demon or...something because...  He wouldn't approve otherwise, would he?  Which might make him part demon.  Which, really, would explain a lot.*   Xander realized he'd been staring at Raif and he blinked and looked away - picked up his cup and drank down the last of his tea.  *The habits you pick up places,* he thought.

"There is a problem with....Spike?" Raif asked, and Xander shook his head slowly. 

"No, not...  Well, I used to know Spike.  A few years ago.  When I...lived in Sunnydale."  Raif's rather bushy white eyebrows rose in surprise and he stroked his mustache slowly.

"Ah.  Well.  You are here, he is here...Sunnydale is not.  I would not let it bother you, Alexahnder.  He will not hurt you."  Those dead eyes held a promise but Xander wasn't sure he liked it, despite what Raif was saying.

"Yeah, well...  It'll be fine.  As long as he behaves." 

Raif's mouth twisted in a smile that was more a grimace and he nodded - slipped out of the booth and tossed some bills down on the table.  "Behave.  Yah.  Goodnight, Alexahnder."

"'Night, Mr. Tubic," Xander said, and watched the man pull a deep-blue muffler out of his pocket and wind it around his neck - shove his hands into his pockets and march stiffly out of the restaurant.    *And why do I get the feeling that Mr. Tubic knows more than he's saying?*   Xander smiled absently up at the waitress who re-filled his tea - watched something cook in a welter of flames at the bar.  And his thoughts circled back to Spike, grudgingly.   Thinking of the last time he'd actually seen Spike.  Giles had sent him on some errand and he'd been walking down the street.  He'd looked over and there was Spike.  Leaning against an alley wall, methodically destroying his fists and the bricks.  Blood and brick-dust, stench of cats and garbage and stale beer.

And Xander had said - something.  Something scathing - something cutting.  Like he always did.  And Spike had looked up and snarled - twisted features bloodied and bruised, one eye nearly shut but the look on his face had been animalistic in its fury and contempt.  All the more horrifying because it was Spike's human face, not the demon.  Xander had frozen, staring at him and Spike had spat - blood and saliva spattering to the ground.  Stalked out of the alley past Xander, one raking glance and then he was gone.  It wasn't until days later that Xander realized that Spike had been crying.  A month later Spike was gone and the First had arrived and everything, basically, had gone to hell.  And Spike was forgotten.  Mostly.

Xander sighed and drank his tea - gathered his things and pulled on his jacket and gloves and walked out.  A taxi tonight, because he was cold and tired and feeling a bit...insecure.  He just wanted to be home and not mess with buses and standing around in the dark at some deserted bus-stop.  For the first time in over a year he felt a little twist of fear down in his belly.  How long had that Initiative chip been built to last?  Did it still work?  Was it still in him? 

*Been three years.  He hasn't contacted anybody - talked to anybody.  Hasn't bothered us so...why would he start now?  Can't hurt me...*    Xander dialed the number of the taxi company he had stored on Raif's cell and waited impatiently, watching people come and go out of the restaurant - watching cars rush past with the hiss of tires against wet pavement.  Watched his breath steam and clenched his fists in his pockets and was absurdly grateful when the cab pulled up and he could climb inside - give his address and just go.  *Maybe I should call Giles - tell him about Spike...* 

Of course, he didn't call Giles.  That impulse, born of nerves and a late night - the beginning aches of a mild cold - was easily forgotten in the day.  In the mundanities of coffee and laundry and the utility bill.  A mixed-up order from his supplier and a weekend hook-up that left him boneless and breathless and laughing.  Spike was - a shadow.  Spike wasn't there, and the habit of turning to Giles - or anyone, really, wasn't there anymore either. 

 

 

 

 

 

Near the end of May Xander found himself the proud father of two kittens.  Well, not exactly proud and not exactly a father, but still - kittens.  Someone had abandoned them and the mother in an alley next to his current job.  The plasterers had found them and by the end of the day all but two kittens were spoken for.  The head plasterer ambushed Xander with their fuzzy little faces and tiny little paws and in a moment of weakness, Xander gave in.  Ernie would keep all the kittens until they were weaned.

Now it was the end of June and the kittens were 'coming home' - just weaned that week - and Xander felt...  Nervous.  It was weird.  He'd written to Willow about them and she'd demanded pictures, of course.  So the digital camera was added to the arsenal of 'welcome home' things Xander had bought. 

Stainless steel bowl for food and a sort of fountain-thing for water.  A twisted piece of old tree-trunk for a scratching post and catnip mice.  Little cans of kitten food from the vet and little pouches of treats.  A cat litter box on the balcony and a cat-door carefully set into one pane of the balcony doors and a prayer to any cat-gods that the kittens wouldn't jump over the rail.   A print-out from a website that told him what to expect and what to do and...  His palms were sweating. 

*How in hell do people stand to have kids?  Jesus, this is horrible.*  Then there was a knock at the door, and then there was a cardboard carrier with two mewling creatures inside, and then there was about three hours of exploration and hissing and pouncing and eating and litter-box dabbling.

All three of them fell asleep on the couch.  Two weeks later it was like he'd never not had kittens.  Xander was in love.  The kittens seemed to be at least in like.   All was right with the world.

Until the first week of August, when Xander met up with Spike again.   He'd just finished what he would always privately refer to as 'the kitten job' and was in a sort of limbo until the next one started.  Mr. Tubic was deciding between which of three properties to tackle next and Xander took the opportunity to have a small vacation.   Staying up late, sleeping in late, watching movies he'd been wanting to see but hadn't taken the time to.

Going out, because he could.  With no work the next day he could go to a club and exhaust himself on the dance floor and not have to worry about it.  Have a quiet smoke in a back room with a couple guys, maybe even bring somebody home.  He was training the kittens to walk on a harness and leash and he took them out to the Arboretum and Discovery Park.  He got a lot of weird looks.   Kittens on leashes and an eye-patch did make him stand out.  But he was having fun and the kittens loved the beach and the trees.  Even though the kittens ate amazing amounts of grass only Spot threw it all back up at the apartment.  Jerome managed to heave on the sidewalk.   They both fell asleep in the middle of the floor on Xander's favorite movie-watching cushion and he got ready for a night out with a light heart.

 

The club was downtown; it was loud and it was packed.  There was a roof-top deck and two dance floors and Xander moved from one to the other, cooling off upstairs when his shirt started sticking to him then plunging back into the fray when he got his breath and his equilibrium back.  A tall, lean man from Haiti or Jamaica or - somewhere - bought him a Coke and offered him some coke.  Xander took the one and not the other - listened to the lilting accent saying words he could just barely hear and got groped for three songs straight.   When he bounced up the stairs to the deck that time, tall and grabby on his tail, the first thing he saw was a blond man up on the rail, looking like he was about to fall.  Xander yelled and leaped - grabbed a handful of t-shirt and a thin wrist and yanked and ended up sprawling on his ass on the floor, the blond's elbow in his ribcage and an earful of curse-words that would make a sailor blush.  In a too-familiar accent.

"Oh fuck.  What the hell is your problem?" Xander yelled, shoving Spike roughly off him.  Spike coiled and slid upwards like a snake, teeth bared. 

"My bloody problem is idiot boys!  What, did'ja think I was gonna jump?  Still tryin' to be a white-hat, Harris?"

"Not like you'd die - should'a just let you fall.  See how good you do with two broken legs."  Xander hauled himself upright, glaring at Spike -ignoring the half-circle of wide-eyed gawkers.  Mr. Grabby-hands had disappeared.

"I wasn't falling - I was walking on the railing.  This place is fucking boring.  Anyway, a fall like that wouldn't break my bones, Harris."  Spike looked around - snatched up a drink from a table and bolted it, ignoring the squawk of outrage from its owner.  He made a face like he wanted to spit.  "Christ.  Who in bloody hell drinks Drambuie anymore?"  Spike tossed the glass in the general direction of a table and some guy in a mesh shirt fumbled for it, barely catching it.

"Hey, asshole, you could have hurt somebody with that!"

"Yeah?  I could hurt somebody doing this, too," Spike snapped.  He took three fast steps and slammed his fist into mesh-guy's nose and the man fell back, yelping, blood pouring down his lip and chin.

"Fucker!" somebody yelled and a minute later there was a melee of bodies and fists and glasses and Xander caught a fist to the side of his head and a boot to his shin as he fought his way to the stairs. 

*Chip's gone - out - something - oh god, no weapons, nothing - what the fuck am I gonna do -*  Xander got to the street and looked up and down the block, almost panting.  No taxis in sight - no cops in sight - and what the fuck would he tell them, anyway?   *Go home.  Get a weapon - come back and see if he's still here...  Then...*   Then probably die.  Xander took a hard breath and started to walk, fast.  Chilly in his sweat-damp t-shirt, boot heels thudding rapidly on the pavement.  Twenty blocks home - more.  Christ.

"Where ya goin', Xanderrr?" a voice purred and Xander spun around with a yell.  Nothing.  He turned again and yelled again, jumping back, because there was Spike.  Lounging against a light pole, thumbs in the pockets of his jeans, pulling them down a little.  Blood on his lip and on one narrow cheekbone.

"How many, Spike," Xander asked, ignoring the wobble in his voice - ignoring how hard his heart was pounding.  Hard enough to hurt - hard enough to make him breathless.

"How many?"  Spike pushed away from the pole, his hands going loose to his sides.  Shoulders back and chin down, smirk in place.   The familiar strut of William the Bloody.  "How many what, Xaan-der."

"How many did you kill?  Up there in the club, h-how many are they gonna find?"

"Oh, that."  Spike shrugged - pulled cigarettes and lighter from the back pocket of his jeans and lit up.  He stopped his slow-motion stalk about three feet from Xander - planted his feet wide and lifted his chin.   "I don't think I actually killed any of them.  Pulled my punches a bit.  I might want to go back there, you know?"

"No, I don't.  I don't believe you." 

Spike shrugged again - plumed smoke over Xander's head.  "Don't sodding care.  Notice you didn't stay and fight, Harris.  What happened - get a little tarnish on your Sheriff's badge?"

"You bastard."  Xander's fist seemed to fly up and out of its own accord and Spike dodged back half a step, laughing.  *Laughing.  Fucker.*

"Ooh, still got that temper, Harris.  Still got that urge to knock my teeth down my throat?  Go on and give it a try, then."

"I know you got the chip out," Xander said - swung again, lower, and Spike skipped nimbly to the side, lifting his cigarette to his mouth and inhaling.

"Yeah, I got the soddin' chip out.  One for you.  Now - what're you gonna do about it, Harris?"

"I - I'm -"   Xander stopped.  Stopped dead.   Stood there and stared at Spike, feeling his shoulders slumping down - feeling his breathing even out.  "Nothing."

"Nothing?"  Spike laughed again, incredulous, and Xander turned abruptly and started to walk away - walk home.  Shaking inside.

*Can't do anything.  Can't stop him - can't get anybody here fast enough...*   And quietly, so quietly underneath it all: *Don't want to die, not now, not...because of him.  Won't.*

Spike was at his elbow suddenly, cigarette too close and a scowl on his face.  "C'mon, Harris - you're just gonna walk away?  Not even gonna try and get a rise out of me?  Not gonna give me some excitement?"

"I'm not a fucking peep-show, Spike.  No.  I'm not.  I can't beat you in a fight - we both know it.  I'm not looking to die tonight, thank you very much."

"Harris!"  There was real exasperation in Spike's voice and Xander looked over at him - studied him for a minute.   The same multi-colored hair, standing up wildly all over his head - the same ladder of bracelets up his left forearm except there were leather ones mixed in now, strung with polished stones.  Black t-shirt that looked like it was held together by safety pins and a prayer.   Expression of irritation as he stomped along in his same old boots, straps and buckles wound around his ankles and his worn jeans torn along one thigh.

"What?" Xander said, and Spike took a last draw on his cigarette - flicked the butt away into the street.

"I'm not going to kill you!  Wasn't even thinking about it."  Xander felt his eyebrows going up and Spike made his best 'trust me' face, hand to his heart.  "Didn't kill anybody in the club, either.  It's too bloody easy, killing boys like that.  They're all too soft."  He kicked moodily at a soda can and Xander had to laugh.

"Yeah, well, sorry I'm such a pathetic excuse for a man.  Pardon me if I don't actually believe you."  *Jesus Christ.  This is weird.  So, so weird.  I don't want weird, I want to go home and...god help me, snuggle my kittens.*  Xander shook his head and Spike looked at him.

"You don't look too soft, Harris."  Spike's gaze traveled from Xander's sweat-sticky hair to his boots - lingered here and there and Xander had the uncomfortable feeling that Spike knew Mr. Grabby-hands had got him worked up on the dance floor.  Hard and ready for - something - that finding Spike had totally derailed.  "Bet you could go a round or two with me."  Said with a tilt of the head and a leer and Xander felt the blood rush to his face.

"Jesus, Spike!  Tell me you did not just - come on to me!"

"Sure, why not?  You don't look half-bad anymore, Harris.  And I'm bored."

"So go home and - and - entertain yourself with Sacha."  Xander tried to walk a little faster, but Spike easily kept up.

"Oh, Sacha.  He's not around.  I'm not living there anymore, anyway.  Wanted my own flat."

"Not around?  What does -?"

"He's on tour, Harris!"  Spike shook his head in disgust - lit another cigarette.  "He got a part in some show, they're traveling.  I never liked that flat, anyway - it was just temporary.  Got my own place now," he added, shooting Xander a look from under his lashes and Xander shook his head, a weird little flutter in his stomach.

"Good.  Great - I'm happy for you.  Look, I'm gonna get a cab, how about you just - just go away, okay?  I mean, if you're not gonna kill me you really don't need to hang around."  *And I'll believe the not-killing thing when I - uh - wake up alive.*  Xander looked around a little frantically and saw a bodega on the next corner, half the signs in Spanish and a group of teenage kids just coming out, carrying drinks and bags of chips.  They turned in the opposite direction and Xander dithered for a minute, wondering if Spike would go after them.

"I'm not gonna slaughter the innocent tonight, Harris.  Stop being such a prat."

"Oh, fuck off," Xander muttered - strode rapidly up the street, digging for change.  He never took Mr. Tubic's cell or his own out when he went clubbing - he'd lost one phone that way, and didn't feel like replacing another.

"Not nice, Harris," Spike said - lounged like a big, pale cat against the phone while Xander dialed the number from memory and gave them his location.

"I don't have to be nice to you, Spike.  You were never nice to me or anybody else so just - fuck off, okay?"

"Saved your life a time or two," Spike said, but he said it as if he kind of regretted it and Xander made a small sound of disgust.

"Yeah, in between the death threats and the stealing and the double-crossing you managed to keep me from getting my head ripped off a time or two.  Thanks."  Spike glared at him and Xander glared back, willing himself to forget the time Spike had been tortured for Dawn's sake - willing himself to forget Spike sitting huddled and shaking, crying so hard he couldn't get up while Xander and Giles had wrapped Buffy's body in a piece of spare tarp.    Xander blinked - looked away from that laser-sharp blue stare that - reminded.  Turned away all together and pushed into the bodega, heading toward the coolers and a bottle of water.

He grabbed a water - paid for it and nodded to the thin little man behind the counter.  Spike hadn't followed him in and he hoped the vampire had gotten bored enough to just leave.  *If he's annoying me he's not - slaughtering the innocent, though.  Gotta count for something.*   As he went outside he glanced around and there was Spike, perched on a Seattle Post-Intelligencer machine, smoking and kicking his boot heels rhythmically into the metal sides.  He hopped off when Xander came out and sauntered over, grinning.

"Don't you want to go home?" Xander asked, cracking open the bottle.

"Why would I do that when I've got you to annoy?   So how long've you been a poufter, Harris?"

"How long have you?" Xander shot back, then gulped down about half the water.  The cold made his teeth ache but he was dry-mouthed and his throat was scratchy.

"Doesn't really work that way for us demons, Harris."  Spike looked up the street, headlights sweeping across his face and shadowing his eyes for a moment.  "Here's your ride."

"Yeah - great - okay."  Xander capped his water and lifted a hand - watched the taxi glide up to the curb and then turned.   "Spike, just don't -"   But Spike was gone.

 

When he got back to his apartment, Spot and Jerome came running to meet him, talking excitedly.  Apparently, Siamese cats talked a lot.  Xander liked it.  He bent down and picked them both up - snuggled them up under his chin as he went back to his bedroom.  Flopping on the bed, he let them crawl over his shoulders and lap as he got his boots off, then shooed them away so he could undress.    He stood for a minute just staring at himself in the mirror.  He didn't look like a - coward.    But he kind of felt like one.  Deep down, where he pushed the quiet hurt that still persisted at every birthday and Christmas that passed without any acknowledgment from his parents.  The place where, sometimes, he examined his life and wondered if he'd just copped out.  Of everything.   *Just trying to live.  Like Buffy and Wills and Dawnie are.  I'm just not...killing anything to do it.*   Spot and Jerome were pouncing on his boots, tangling themselves in the laces.  Cream bellies and dark brown points at paws, tail, and face. 

"He owes some fish-headed guy forty Siamese kittens."  Buffy's voice, from years ago - 'de-toxing' at her house with nachos and Twizzlers and root beer after the Tabula Rasa thing.  "Spike plays poker for kittens!"  They'd all laughed.  Xander reached down and scruffed his hand over Spot and Jerome's backs.

*What if he wants these guys for a pot?  Oh, my god.  I'm losin' it.  He doesn't even know I have kittens.  Or where I live.*   Xander tossed his clothes into the laundry basket in the closet - went into the bathroom and got the shower going, nice and hot.  Tried not to think about milk-pale arms and long, ringed fingers and lively eyes lined in black.  Tried and failed, and stood for long minutes in front of the window in his darkened bedroom, looking down onto the street.  Nothing stirred, but he still felt uneasy.   He dreamed in a random, restless way all night.   

 

 

 

 

 

Xander went to the Arboretum often enough now that he got to know some of the staff, and they always seemed to have some little treat saved from lunch for Spot and Jerome.

"You're spoiling 'em rotten," Xander said, laughing as Spot stood up tall on his hind legs, little pointy face stretched upward as one paw hooked the air.  Nancy - she was usually in the Japanese Garden - laughed as well.

"My grandkids are whiney little brats - at least these guys appreciate me." 

Jerome growled softly over his own sliver of tuna and Xander tugged slightly on the leash.  "No growling, Jerome." 

"I saw an eagle this morning down on the Shoreline Trail.  And there's a bunch of new hydrangeas open - some white and pink."  Nancy unhooked Spot's claws from her jeans and let him drop down to eat his own tuna.

"An eagle, really?"  Xander watched as Nancy scrubbed her fingertips on a wet-wipe and then shoved it and the little treat-baggie into her pocket.  "I haven't got a really good picture of one yet."

"Might still be there.  It seemed like it was settling in.  You boys be good, now," Nancy crooned, scratching the kittens under the chin and making little kissy noises at them.  They brrr'd back - like little birds - and Nancy walked off grinning, waving once over her shoulder.  "You be good too, Xander!"

"I always am!  C'mon boys - eagle-stalking time."  They wandered up to the trail, the late-afternoon sun slanting warm and thick through the trees.  Syrup-gold and full of pollen and Xander took some pictures.  The kittens were restless though, and spoiled the last shot by yanking on the leashes.  Xander put his camera away in his bag and ambled on until the light started to go.  Too dark for pictures of eagles unless he had better film and a tripod so he turned around and headed back, the sunlight mellowing from honey to blue-amber and the day fading to a clear, plum-purple dusk.  There was a little grocery that sold import stuff about three blocks from the park gate and Xander wanted some fresh fruit and his pick of the hot case where the owner's mother and nephew made up a variety of dim sum every day.  Spot and Jerome particularly liked the shrimp dumplings that came with a dollop of caviar on top.  A block down from there he could catch a bus home.  The kittens were looking tired and it was getting chilly - mid-September and autumn was coming fast.

"Mao Ren, ni hao!" Mrs. Feng called.  She was the owner's mother, somewhere between ninety and nine-hundred years old.  "Zenmeyang?"

Xander gave a small wave.  "Wo hen hao, Mrs. Feng."    That was: 'Hello, how are you, cat man?'  Or something pretty close.   And 'I'm fine.'  Mrs. Feng's nephew had translated for Xander one time when he was in the store.  Mrs. Feng's nephew looked like a china-doll in bondage gear and Xander had agreed to meet him at a club just the once.  It had been - memorable.

Xander went to the back coolers to get a bottle of Frujo - a kind of mango soda - and a box of blackberries, then went to peruse the hot case.  Mrs. Feng stood at the ready with tongs and a big, wax-paper-lined box, smiling with her lips firmly closed.  She didn't have any front teeth and she wouldn't wear her bridge except to church - so Shi the nephew said.  Xander didn't doubt it.  Mrs. Feng had that sunken look to her mouth that he'd gotten used to in Africa.  She also had the merry eyes of a wicked snake and her long braid of iron-grey and black hair slithered and hissed over her tunic top as she picked out dumplings and cakes, spring rolls and wontons.

"You alwayth get enough for twoMao Ren, you seeing thpecial friend?"

"You never know, Mrs. Feng.  Somebody might come by - I have to be prepared.  Oh, and - two of the shrimp dumplings for Spot and Jerome, please."

"Mao Ren, cath not people."  Mrs. Feng disapproved of feeding cats 'human food'. 

"I know, but I have to live with them, Mrs. Feng.  They can be very demanding."

Mrs. Feng added four custard tarts in their own separate twist of wax paper, chopsticks, and three small cups of sauces and closed the box.  "I athk my aunt, thee make you amulet so cath not bother you." 

"I like them to bother me, though," Xander said.  Jerome stood up and put his paws on Xander's knee, stretching, and Xander bent down and scratched him behind the ears.  "They're my pals."

Mrs. Feng shuffled up to the register, shaking her head.  "Mao Ren, you not right in the head," she said, but she was smiling her little tight-lipped smile and Xander paid her with a grin - took his bag and walked out, cracking the soda and taking a long drink.

"Zai jian, Mrs. Feng!  Xie Xie!"
"Wan an!"

 

Xander took a deep breath of the cool, fresh breeze that was blowing down the street.  "So, boys, home in about twenty minutes and then dinner.  Sound good?"  Spot and Jerome brrr'd contentedly, trotting with their tails straight up, almost glowing in the sodium-white spots of the street lights, dark paws and ears fading into the gloom.   Tall apartment buildings - done in a sort of neo-Victorian style - rose up into the navy sky, spilling out squares of amber light from the windows.  Too new and too expensive for Xander's taste, but they were pretty all the same.

Xander was nearly to the bus-stop when the door of the building on his right banged open and an armful of clothing - black, leather, and lace - flew through the air and landed on the sidewalk.  An expensive-looking leather suitcase followed and then a toiletries bag that miraculously didn't burst open when it hit.

"Take your bloody designer wardrobe and your designer nose and your sodding designer neuroses and fuck off!  Even I don't have enough bloody time in this life to deal with your sodding drama!"  Xander froze, one foot off the ground and his stomach dropping to his knees.

*Jesus.  Of all the people -*   A slender, dark-haired woman - and for a heart-stopping moment Xander was sure it was Drusilla - came flying out of the door after her clothes, shrieking.  And then Spike came out, black jeans and a black shirt open over his chest, hair sticking up in wild disarray and a split lip swelling nastily.

"You fuck!  You can't push me around and -"

"I can bloody well take you out if you don't shift your arse out of here!"   Spike punctuated his words with a smoldering cigarette.

"Ookay, just gonna - go the other way -" Xander whispered to himself.  But Spike - heard.  The woman heard and two pair of feral, golden eyes were suddenly fixed on Xander.

"Harriss," Spike said, hissing snake, and Xander shut his eye and groaned.

*Yes, please, tell your pissed-off vampire girlfriend my name.  Jesus Christ.*

"So - what - you had somebody coming over?  You had this all planned?"  The female vamp's voice was shrill to the point of unbearable and Xander winced and stepped back - did a quick jump-skip as Jerome yowled his displeasure at being bumped.

Spike - smiled

*Oh god, oh no, can't be good - Jesus, get me out of here.*

"Yeah, I did!  My boy here's brought us some treats and we're gonna eat and shag until the sun comes up."  Spike reached out and grabbed Xander around the shoulders - hissed alarmingly at the kittens and jerked Xander toward the door.  Xander couldn't have resisted if he'd tried.  His heart was pounding so hard he felt sick and the look the woman turned on him was furious and predatory.  "Get your shite together and get out of here, Star."  Spike reached into a jeans-pocket and took out a roll of money - flung it at Star.  "Don't come back."  He turned a smile of pure malice on Xander.   "Come on, love, up we go," he said and dragged Xander and the kittens up three steps and through the apartment building door.  Spot and Jerome wailed unhappily and Xander shot one last, desperate glance behind him - at Star snatching up money and clothes with equal ferocity - and surrendered to Spike's implacable hold.   

 

They rode up four floors in silence, Xander untangling the leashes and soothing the kittens, Spike smoking his cigarette to the filter and grinding it out in a little brass ashtray in a corner of the elevator.   When the elevator stopped and the doors slid open Xander reached out for the 'Lobby' button - and found his wrist pinned to the wall by a cool, ring-heavy hand.

"Where d'you think you're going?" Spike said, and Xander realized Spike was a bit drunk.

"Oh!  Umm - joke's on her, ha ha, but now I'll just go back down and catch my bus, okay?  No need for me to actually - uh - go to your apartment."

"Course there is," Spike said, leaning on the wall between the buttons and Xander, letting Xander's wrist go with a slow, twisting stroke of his thumb.

"There is?"

"That daft cow might be lurking around down there, trying to cause me trouble."  Spike lifted Xander's bag of food from his hand and did a 'right this way' gesture.  "No, much better if you stay up here for a while."

"Spike, I really want to go home, and Spot and Jerome are tired."

Spike's eyebrows went up and he looked down at the cats who were energetically sniffing his bare feet.  "Spot and Jerome?  Didn't know you liked Alice Cooper."

"I like all kinds of things, Spike, but I -"

"You're coming in," Spike snapped - walked away down the hall with Xander's dinner and Spot and Jerome tugged at the leashes, meowing pitifully as the food got further and further away.  The elevator doors started to close and Xander pushed them open again with a grimace. 

*Great.  Fine.  Stay for five minutes, call a cab - we'll be fine.  Damnit.  I do not want to know Spike.  I do not want to be in his house.  I do not want to share my damn dinner with him and he'll probably eat half because he's a thieving bastard.*

Xander hitched his bag a little higher on his shoulder and stepped out of the elevator.  "Hey!  Don't eat the shrimp dumplings, those are for the kittens!"

 

The door to Spike's apartment was wide open - the room beyond was a whirlwind of broken furniture and shredded clothes.  Xander couldn't suppress a snort of laughter.  "You always did pick the loony ones, Spike," he said, closing the battered door with a shove.

"That include your Slayer, then?" Spike said, lighting a fresh cigarette and kicking an eviscerated cushion aside. 

Xander felt a little chill come over him at that.  "Maybe.  I know what happened, you know."

"Do you?  Good for you, Harris."  Spike's mood seemed to have plummeted and he sprawled down on his couch - which had slashes across the back from a knife or maybe fingernails.  He scowled at the mess around him - reached down and pulled a slab of stone out of a tangle of broken wood.  It was the top of a pulverized table as far as Xander could tell, and Spike slithered to the floor, settling cross-logged and unloading Xander's bag, cigarette dangling from between his lips.  "Beers in the 'fridge, there," he said, flipping his hand in the general direction.

 "That's my dinner," Xander said.   "And I don't drink."  He stood there for a moment while Spike poked through the box with the chopsticks and then picked out a wonton, dipping it in what looked like sweet and sour sauce.    He took a deep drag on his cigarette and then crushed it out on the edge of a plate that was sticking out from under the couch.

"Why don't you drink?" Spike asked, and Xander sighed and went over to him - sat down cross-legged and picked up the other pair of chopsticks.  Spot and Jerome mewed anxiously, pushing their heads against Xander's arm.

"Hang on, guys."  Xander picked a magazine out of the mess - Car and Driver - and lay it face-down on the floor.  He lifted the shrimp dumplings out of the box and put them at opposite ends of the magazine.  Spot and Jerome pounced.  "I don't drink 'cause I was a drunk for a while in Africa and I kinda...grew out of it."  Xander got another dumpling and found the plum sauce and started eating.   Spike finished the wonton and picked out a mooli cake.  "And yeah, Buffy told us everything that happened.  Everything from the time she - came back."

"Bully for her, then," Spike said.  He shoved the rest of the cake in his mouth and dropped the chop-sticks - got up and crossed to a tall, maple cabinet that had a huge gouge down the side.  "Filthy bitch," he muttered.

"Hey!  Buffy had every right -"

"Talkin' about Star, Harris.  Have to get the cleaners in here or maybe...fuck."  Spike wrenched open the cabinet doors and took out a bottle of whiskey - pulled out the cork and took a long drink, wincing as the alcohol stung his hurt lip.  "Fuck, maybe I'll just move.  Don't wanna deal with this mess.  Never let a girl think she's got a toe-hold - she'll take a bloody fistful."  Spike took another drink and Xander just kept eating, watching him.  Spike seemed - tired.    "Oh, yeah - forgot.  You don't do birds anymore.  How'd that happen, then?"

"The usual way, I guess."  Xander ate another mouthful - pushed Spot away from Jerome's last bite.  "Would you really just - move?"

"Eh?  Oh, I dunno."  Spike came back over - sprawled down on the couch, one arm and one leg dangling over the edge.  His streaky hair looked soft - almost downy - and his shirt was half off his shoulder and Xander couldn't help but stare at the scars that criss-crossed his chest.    "Bloody Star.  Just wanted a bit of fun, is all.  Then she has to get all - possessive."

"Oh, 'cause you're not a bit possessive," Xander mumbled, and Spike snorted - took another drink.

"I am if I've got something worth keeping.   Star just wanted a sugar-daddy and I'm not feelin' too sweet right now.  And what in bloody hell are you starin' at?"

Xander blinked - swallowed his mouthful and shook his head.  "Sorry.   It's just...your chest..."  He gestured with the chopsticks and Spike scowled - pulled his shirt up and closed.   "What - happened?"

"None of your bloody business."  Spike drained the bottle - pushed himself abruptly upright and flung the bottle off to one side.  "Lock the door on your way out, Harris.  Phone's around here somewhere - call a cab.  Star can be - inventive."

"Where are you going?" Xander asked, and Spike gave him a strangely blank look.

"I'm going to bed."  Then he turned on his heel and walked away into the depths of the apartment.  A moment later Xander heard a door thump closed.

"Wow.  He really just - went to bed."  Spot and Jerome had crawled up onto the couch and were investigating under the remaining cushions.    "I think it's time to go home, guys."  Xander tidied the food away and back into its bag - dug his cell phone out and then looked around for something with an address on it.  *Does Spike get mail?  Do vampires get mail?  Fuck...*    He saw what was probably the remains of a desk and poked through the papers that were mixed in with the debris.  He found the card for Angel Investigations before he found a piece of junk mail.

 

 

 

He didn't call Angel for three days.  He spent a lot of that time working - he was carving a new mantel to match existing fragments - and lost himself in the hypnotic repetition of chisel and plane, gouge and sandpaper.   And a cool front moved in, with rain and wind, so he didn't take the boys out for walks in the evening.  They were content to play on the 'tree' he'd built them though, and he spoiled them with pepperoni from his pizza and a bite of chocolate pudding cake each.

But the whole time he was thinking about Angel and the last days of Sunnydale - what had happened.  Things he hadn't thought about in a long time - in years.   It all seemed so...remote.  Unbelievable.  Magical amulets and a handful of little girls made into superheroes in the blink of an eye.  A strange life gone off the rails into a country that had seemed too dark and too deadly to ever escape from.

But they had escaped, and Xander finally sat down on the third night and dialed the number - waited with a twisty little nervous feeling down in his stomach for someone to pick up.

"Angel Investigations, we help the helpless."  A young-sounding voice with a soft Southern drawl and Xander didn't know what to say for a moment.  He'd been so ready for Angel to answer, or Cordelia - even Faith, since she'd gone to L.A. with Angel after Sunnydale had died.  He didn't know this person.

"Uh - hello?  Hello. I - uh - need to talk to Angel."

"Well, he's kinda busy right now, can I help you?"

"Umm...I don't think so.  I mean - maybe you could?  But I kind of...  Damn.  Um, could you just - could you say it's Xander Harris on the phone and - see what he says?"

"Sure, I can do that.  Hang on."  There was a soft clunk as the girl put the phone down and Xander leaned back on his couch and stared at the ceiling.  Waiting, his leg bouncing.  There was the sound of scrabbling claws and Xander glanced over as Spot shot out of the kitchen toward the bedroom, Jerome hot on his heels.  There were voices on the phone - indistinct babble that got closer and closer and then -

"Harris?  Xander Harris from Sunnydale?"

"Yeah.  Only, you know - not Sunnydale anymore.  Seattle now.   Uh - hi."

"Hi."  A beat, and a question from someone on the other end.  "I don't know yet.  Xander?  Is there - is something wrong?  I mean - why are you calling?  Me?"

"Nothing's wrong!  Nothing's wrong, everything's fine.  Umm - this is about - this is about Spike."  There was a long moment of silence and Xander very clearly heard someone - was it Faith? - call out to Angel.

"I have to - I'll be there in a minute, okay?"  The background noises eased off - there was a thumping noise and Xander was pretty sure Angel was in an office now - someplace more private.  "What about Spike?  Is he - what's he doing?"

"Uh.  I don't know.  He's not - doing anything, I guess.  Listen, Angel, I ran into him a couple of times up here - I guess he's living up here now.   And he's just - different, than before."

"Yeah.  Look, Xander I don't know if -"

"Angel, I just wanna know - if he's dangerous.   I was - at his place and I found your card and -"

"Wait.  You were at his place?  What the hell would you go to his place for?"  Angel sounded pissed off - sounded worried and Xander felt his heartbeat bump up a little faster.  "He still has my card?"

"What?  Uh - yeah.  Look, just tell me if I should be worried, okay?  Is William the Bloody gonna come creeping around my job or anything?"  There was more silence and then finally a long sigh.  Xander's hand was sweating around the phone.

"I don't think so.  Spike really is different now, Xander.  Spike - has a soul."

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn't a month and a half before Xander saw Spike again.  This time it was about five days.  Xander was feeling good - pleasantly achy from a couple of rounds in the ring at his gym - freshly showered and hungry and he stepped outside and started walking down the street to the bus stop.  Ride over to Boren, have some breakfast - 13 Coins served it all day - and then go home and sleep.   No time to think about vampires with souls and very pretty mouths and fingers that touched just so.

Xander shook his head - dug his stocking cap out of his pocket and pulled it on, rubbing his hands together.  It was getting chilly at night and there were clouds in the west, bringing a dampness to the air that made Xander shiver and zip his coat up tight.  He resettled the patch and turned the corner and nearly ran full-tilt into -

"Spike!  What in hell are you doing here?"

"Just - passing through, Harris.  Can't a fellow just walk the streets?"  Spike looked everywhere but at Xander, fiddling with the cigarette in his fingers and Xander stared at him, his brain finally registering something.

"You're wearing - that's that coat.  That coat you had in Sunnydale."  Xander frowned and Spike flicked his cigarette butt away and frowned back.

"Yeah.  S'my coat - had it for years.  So?"

"So, you left it at Buffy's house.  The night you left."

"I didn't leave that night and I went back for it.   Wasn't gonna leave my coat behind.  It has a bit of sentimental value, this coat."  Spike's fingers smoothed the worn lapels and Xander stepped around him and strode on down the sidewalk, noticing when Spike fell into step beside him but not looking around.

"I know where that coat came from - Buffy told me once.  It's just -"

"It's mine, is all you need to know, Harris."  Xander shook his head and they walked on a few more feet and then Spike sighed heavily - did a half-turn and put his arm out, making Xander come to a stop.  "Look.  Not trying to fight with you, all right?  Just wanted to - to say thanks."

Xander blinked at him, baffled.  "Thanks?  For what?  I didn't do anything for you."

"Course you did.  Came upstairs, didn't you?  Knocked that Star for a loop - pissed her off so bad she stole my car and left town." 

"Stole your car?"  Xander felt a lurch down in his stomach but Spike was grinning so it couldn't be too bad.

"Just a leased one.  Doesn't matter - stole the name I leased it with, didn't I?"  Spike turned around and started walking again and after a minute Xander stumbled back into motion and followed him.  "So I thought I'd take you for a steak or something.  Whatever you like, since you shared your dinner with me and all."

"You want to...well, I didn't actually share...you stole -?   Angel said you have a soul now!"

"Oh, bloody hell!"  Spike stopped dead, spinning around and getting right up in Xander's face and Xander took a hasty step back.   "Why've you been talkin' to that wanker?" 

"Listen Spike, you were acting weird.  And you didn't try to kill me.  And nobody ever knew what happened with you and - and I saw one of Angel's cards on your floor, so -"

"So you called him.  Christ."  Spike lit a cigarette - smoked furiously for a moment, glaring at Xander who started to scowl back.  "Right.  Fine.  Let's go."

"Go where?"

"Someplace we can sit and I can tell you the real bloody story, not whatever nonsense Angelus fed you."  Spike seemed determined - pissed off and totally serious and Xander stood there and contemplated his inner cop.  Inner cop said he was probably safe but sit with his back to the wall and know where all the exits were. 

"Okay.  We'll go."

"Brilliant," Spike muttered - turned around and started walking back the way they had come.

"Where are we going?  The bus stop -"

"I don't ride sodding buses, Harris.  Got my bike right around the corner, here. "   Spike grinned when he glanced over and saw Xander's expression.  "You trust me, don't you Harris?"

Xander sighed heavily and pushed his hands down deep into his pockets.  "Oh, yeah.  I trust you, all right."

 

By the time they got to whatever place Spike had chosen - he had his eye closed for most of the trip - Xander was feeling faintly sea-sick.  He wobbled gratefully off the big, black bike and leaned against the nearest wall, taking deep breaths and trying to rub some feeling back into his hands.

"Gonna live?" Spike asked, and Xander opened his eye - noticed with a guilty sort of flush that the front of Spike's shirt - some sort of button-up - was wrinkled and possibly sweaty from Xander's desperately grasping hands.

"Uh.  Yes.  I think.  Sorry about your shirt.  I don't do well on things that move so - fast."

"Only way to ride," Spike said - grinned and grabbed Xander's arm and hauled him down the sidewalk.  Wherever they were was unfamiliar - somewhere near the Sound and the docks - and Xander stared around, trying to orient himself.

"I've never been down here - there's a restaurant down here?"

"And bar.  Damn good drinks and the food's all right, too."  Spike ducked aside into a narrow alley between two massive warehouses.  Ahead, Xander could see a dull red glow coming from - down?

"Downstairs?  It's underground?  Oh god - you're taking me to some demon bar or something, aren't you!"

"Got a problem with that?"   Spike stood with one foot on the top stair, cigarette between his lips and Zippo halfway there, eyebrow cocked up and a look of amusement on his face. 

Xander sighed.  "No.  After all this time I really don't, but - I'd better not get sniffed or licked or spindled or anything else!"

"Don't worry, Harris, I'll protect you.  Make sure your virgin purity remains intact."  Spike was smirking as he lit his smoke - turned and clomped down the stairs and Xander pulled his cap off and shoved it into a pocket - glared at the pale, spikey hair that was disappearing behind a heavy steel door streaked with rust.

"Great.  My virtue is in the fucking hands of the most conniving, sexiest vampire I know." Xander muttered.

"I heard that," Spike yelled, and Xander - grinned.

*Fuck it.  Live and learn and have fun while you do it.*

 

 

 

The interior was dark - not suprisingly - and lit with electric candles on the walls with fake wax dripping down.  Red and white checkered table-clothes and little lamps with red shades on the tables - prints of old movies on the walls.  It was actually pretty quiet and sorta -

"It's kinda cheesy," Xander said, struggling out of his coat and hanging on the back of his chair.  He unzipped his hoodie but left it on - it was a little cool underground like that.  Spike did the same with his coat, folding the leather over carefully and then sitting down, pale-blue chambray shirt and those damn black jeans.  There was a hole in the shirt, up near the collar and Xander caught himself staring at the pale oval of collarbone showing underneath.

"It's quiet and I like the stuffed mushrooms.  Don't look a gift dinner in the mouth, Harris," Spike said, dragging the ashtray closer and tapping his cigarette on the edge.  He seemed to have morphed back into nervous and Xander leaned back in his chair and studied him.  Spike was - unchanged.   Same intense gaze, same sarcastic mouth - same tapping fingers that never seemed to be still.

"So what's the story, Spike?  How do you know what Angel told me, anyway?  Maybe he told me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."

"So help him god?  He's Irish, Xander.  He wouldn't know how to tell the whole truth if St. Patrick himself demanded it."  Off Xander's look Spike made a 'kill me now' face.  "I'm a vampire.  I'm allowed to hate the Irish.  Especially bloody annoying ones with stupid hair.  Trixie, you look smashing, as always."

"Huh?"   Xander glanced up - and then did a double-take at what he supposed was their waitress.  She dimpled at him, handing him a menu.   She had -   "Wings?"

"Ooh, he's new," Trixie said.  Her voice was a cross between Betty Boop and Betty Grable and Xander shut his mouth with a snap and tried to ignore the way her tail - with a little fluffy pom-pom on the end - was flicking back and forth.  She had a little black and white uniform on that did nothing to disguise the Bettie Page figure.

*Wow.  No clue I knew so many Bettys.*

"Yeah, very new.  Gimmie a Red Eye, whatever's on tap and -" Spike gestured his cigarette toward Xander who cleared his throat.

"Uh - how about - just some cranberry juice, okay?"

"Sure thing, stud."  Trixie dimpled again and then flitted away.  Xander realized that wearing panties with a tail was probably pretty difficult.

"Variation on the theme of wood-nymph," Spike said, and Xander dragged his gaze away from Trixie and focused on Spike again. 

"Interesting. Are there guy-nymphs?  Oh, hell.  Never mind."  Spike grinned.  "I'm ready to hear the whole sordid story, Spike.  Tell away."

"Why's it have to be sordid?"

"You're a vampire.  There's always sordid."

Spike took a last drag and crushed out his cigarette.  "Yeah, maybe.  Anyway..."

 

The story took a long time.  Through drinks, appetizers, food, more drinks, a dessert that Trixie said would send Xander to heaven, more drinks and an enlightening trip to the washroom.  Xander was fairly certain he'd never look at demons the same again.  Or look at demons, since that - scene - in the washroom kept intruding into his brain at the oddest moments.

"Okay - so.  You and Buffy.  Big, ugly relationship that she wanted to hide and you didn't.  Screaming, hitting, crying, fucking.  Then - one night you snap, jump her - get completely denied - and off you go to Africa."

"Been through this, Xander," Spike said, tipping his chair back and sipping the dregs of his sixth or seventh Red Eye.  

"Yeah, but - I'm still a little boggled.  Buffy says she figured out why you did it, you know.  She told me that she'd been...subconsciously pushing you.  She wanted you to give her an ultimatum.  She'd never have been able to - uh - break up with you if you hadn't." 

"That wasn't a break-up, Harris.  That was -"  Spike seemed at a loss for words and Xander leaned forward in his chair - met the hooded gaze with his own, wanting to be sure Spike understood.

"It was - the only way you knew how to make her listen to you.  It was the only way you felt like you could get through her...coldness.  Buffy's really good at freezing you out if she decides...she doesn't need you anymore."

"It was bloody madness, was what it was," Spike murmured.  He looked up at Xander, squinting through the smoke of a fresh cigarette.  "I did love her, you know.  Thought I could help her.  She was so unhappy...  She didn't have to hide anything with me and...  I wanted to be everything to her.  Like she was to me.  Hated it when I wasn't."

"Yeah.  I get that."  Xander took a drink of his ice-water - crunched up a cube of ice while Spike smoked.  "Okay.  So.  Off to Africa to get the chip out."

"Yup.  Knew a demon down there - could do about anything if you passed the trials.  So, I did.  Pass the trials, I mean.  Said I wanted to be my old self."  Spike visibly shook off the mood of the last few moments and Xander happily let him.

"That's dumb, Spike!  He could have made you human!"

Spike looked thoughtful.   "Suppose he could have.  Wanker.  Gave me back my soul instead.  How is that my old self, I ask you!  I've never been a souled vamp.  That's Angel's lot in life."

"Yours now."  Xander swirled his finger through the smears of hazelnut syrup on his dessert plate and contemplatively sucked his finger.  "But he took the chip out, too."

"Yeah.  Thought it'd make me feel better about going barking mad.  Stupid soul.  Wailing and moaning and whinging all over the Dark Continent - tried to cut it out, a time or two.  It's a wonder I made it to L.A. at all."  Spike tamped out his cigarette, shaking his head.

"Is that - what those scars are from?" Xander asked, and Spike nodded shortly.  "So - why'd you go to L.A.?"  Xander got more syrup and licked his finger clean and Spike narrowed his eyes at him.  "What?"

"Are you doing that on purpose?"

"Doing -?  Oh!  Oh, sorry, I -"

"Don't apologize, you git."  Spike grinned - sprawled a little lower in his chair and went from mildly uptight to sultry in about three seconds.  Xander felt the return of that little flutter in his stomach with resignation. 

*Of course.  My libido strikes at the most inappropriate moments.  With the most inappropriate people.  Oh. My. God.  Did he just - touch himself?*   Xander dragged his gaze away and heard Spike's soft chuckle.  "So - L.A.?"

"Yeah, L.A.  Thought Angelus could help - thought he might know how to get rid of the damn thing.  But he just went on and on about redemption and second chances and - good god, it was boring."

"So you don't feel all - guilt-ridden?  You're not - brooding?"

"Fuck, no!"  Spike waved at Trixie, who zoomed away to get him another drink.  "Angelus - well, Angel - he always said it wasn't him - he was a different person before he had his soul.  He was right.  There's me, Spike, who loves a good fight and a good fuck -"   And there was that tongue-curling smile and Xander blushed to the roots of his hair.  "And then there's William, who died in 1880.   Poor bastard.  Horrified by all the memories rushing in - all the things I did.  Well - Spike did."

"Yeah, but - you're Spike."

"I'm Spike, I'm William - I'm bloody Sybil."  Spike sat up, the teasing gone and his expression going serious - a little sad.  "It's hard to make him shut up sometimes.  And when I first had the soul - it burned so bloody hot - thought I'd burn up.  But he didn't do - anything.  It was all...me.  Spike.  Does this make - any sense?"

Xander did his best to really think about it.  Think while trying not to find the exact name for the shade of blue Spike's eyes were.  Or the right word to describe his skin, which was...poreless and so fucking perfect.  He fiddled with an extra spoon, trying to concentrate.  "I think - it's like those people who hear voices and - and think the F.B.I. is reading their brain waves.  When they're not on the right medication it all makes sense. And then - when they are - it's all like..."

"Like a strange dream.  One I'm still dreaming."  Spike's left hand - rings winking dully in the low light - spread itself on the table-top - slowly traced a pattern on the checkered cloth.  "He's learning to deal.  I've made some...concessions.  But there's no guilt, Xander.  I'm a vampire.  I'm - a predator.  He was - is - a poetry-loving man who never wanted anything more out of life than a wife and family.  We're still...getting used to each other."

Spike's hand drifted nearer, following the red squares and Xander watched it - watched the tip of Spike's index finger come closer to where his own hand was nervously turning the spoon over and over.  When Spike's finger touched his, Xander froze.  He looked up at Spike, who was looking back at him with a strange, closed expression on his face.  As if he were bracing himself for something.  Something bad.

"I think - we should go," Xander whispered, and Spike smiled, just a curve of his lips that opened the shutters over his eyes and made them alive again.

"I think we should, too."

 

 

 

The motorcycle ride wasn't quite so awful this time - maybe because Xander was a little giddy, so the swooping turns and hard accelerations didn't bother him quite as much.  They ended up somewhere in Wallingford in sight of Union Lake, Spike guiding the bike into a covered garage that flanked a tall, old house.  Similar to the house he'd been in when Xander had first seen him, but this time there didn't seem to be any other tenants.

"You live here by yourself?"

"Mostly.  Sometimes I have a sleep-over."  Spike grinned at him and patted the bike - ushered Xander out of the garage and padlocked the doors, then led him up the walk to the front door.  There were marigolds, thick and bright, in the beds around the front steps.  "Don't give me that look," Spike said, noticing Xander's surprised inspection.  "Raif has a gardener or something." 

"This is one of his houses?  I've never seen it."

"It was all renovated before you came here, I suppose."  Spike unlocked the door and they went inside, crossing a floor tiled in a compass rose pattern and heading up.  There were dim little lights in sconces along the stairwell at intervals, but Xander still stumbled, his damaged vision betraying him. 

"Sorry.  Didn't think about the light.  Nearly there."  Spike's hand reached back and patted his shoulder and Xander felt carefully for the next step.

"You live - upstairs?"

"Yeah.  Attic space, really.  Like how it feels.  It's all empty downstairs." 

It was fairly empty upstairs.  When Spike pushed open the door at the top of the stair and flipped on a light Xander saw that the large, oddly-angled space was taken up mostly by a huge couch scattered with cushions, a wall of books and music and electronic equipment and a huge bed with carved posts and a canopy.  A sheer drape hung down, half-concealing a claw-foot tub that was centered away from the walls.  That was all.

"Raif's niece designed it.  Had visions of her artist friend staying here and painting or some such.  Didn't work out."  Spike was shedding his boots - tossing his coat over an upright chair by the door and Xander

unzipped his jacket and hoodie and lay them with Spike's coat and then stood there, fidgeting.

"I, uh - need to wash my hands," he said finally, and Spike gestured off into the shadows to the left of the tub. 

"Proper loo over there, behind that door.  The niece thought it was unaesthetic."  Spike grinned and Xander smiled back - walked into the shadows, skirting the tub that had been glazed a deep, oceanic blue.  Once inside the small blue and green and white cubicle he turned on the water and washed his hands - splashed a little water on his face.  The mirror over the sink was pristine - the sink itself gleamed.  It was obvious Spike didn't come in here much.

Xander stared at himself in the mirror.  Patch off, hair wind-knotted and damp - face dripping and a little flushed from the chill of the ride.  *Do you know what you're doing?  What are you doing?  You're...contemplating getting Spike naked and...  Jesus Christ.*   "I must be out of my mind," Xander muttered, and there was a soft laugh from the doorway.  "God!"  Xander spun around, glaring at Spike.  "Don't do that!"

"Really think you're losing your mind, Xander?" Spike asked, and Xander realized that the wash-faded shirt Spike was wearing was unbuttoned - that the air behind him was shimmering with the wavering light of several candles and that Spike was very, very close.

"I - I think maybe I'm a little - unbalanced right now," Xander said - reached out very slowly and ran his fingertip over one of the thin, jagged scars that criss-crossed Spike's chest.  Where his heart was.  Spike made a small, breathy sort of sound - took a step closer so that Xander's fingers flattened on his skin - palm lying over the knot where all the scars met.  "Does it still hurt?" Xander whispered and Spike stepped closer still, letting his hand come to rest on top of Xander's - lifting the other to delicately trace the edge of the empty socket in Xander's face.

"Does this?"

Xander closed his eye - long blink, trying to gather his scattered wits.  "Just...sometimes.  When - when I've had a rough day."

"Yeah.  Me too," Spike said.  Then they were kissing and Xander let his hand curve around bone and muscle - slide up Spike's back until it rested on the slight ridge of spine between Spike's shoulder blades.  Spike's hand slipped back through Xander's hair - cupped his skull and coaxed him closer, his other hand finding the edge of Xander's Henley shirt and pushing up under it.   

Spike's mouth was cool and smoky with an underlying tang that might be tomato juice - might be blood.  Soft, where Xander thought it would be rough and yielding where Xander expected dominance.  Xander tasted slowly - explored the slick teeth and high arch of the roof Spike's mouth - pushed his own tongue against Spike's when it snaked past his lips and curled, as arousing from the inside as it was from the outside.  Xander gasped in a sharp little breath and Spike pulled away.

"All right, then?  Xander?"

"Yeah.  All right."  Xander moved his fingers, pressing them into Spike's back; onetwothreefour, onetwothreefour.  Rubbing a small circle with his thumb.  His left hand rested lightly on the buckle of Spike's belt and he let his fingertips just brush the curved indent of Spike's navel.   "I think - I'm wearing too many clothes."

Spike laughed softly - let his hand slide down to the back of Xander's neck and lightly rub there.  "Me too."

 

 

 

 

 

Spot and Jerome were ecstatic to see Xander when he got home, although he was pretty sure they were happier about the box of fruit-filled croissants he was carrying.  They knew they'd get bites of the buttery pastry.  But they danced around his feet, talked a mile a minute and crawled up into his lap the moment he sat down, sniffing him over suspiciously.  Mouths open as they drew in what Xander was sure was a heady brew of Spike-scents.  He had his own Spike-scent - the mint-and-clove soap that had lain like a crookedly-cut chunk of darkly swirled marble in the tray on the edge of the tub.

Thick, rich scent of the soap filling his nostrils as he'd washed, a shaft of bronze-green light turning tub and drape and pale-honey walls into an undersea grotto.  Spike lying over the acre of disordered sheets on the bed, one leg drawn up and his hair half over his eyes - enticing shadow between thigh and sand-colored cotton and Xander hadn't resisted.  Had kissed his way slowly from tailbone to the nape of Spike's neck and watched with amusement as Spike's hands curled, cat-like, into the pillows.  His own hair lying damp over his neck, water still beaded on his shoulders.  Nine in the morning and Xander was pretty sure Spike wasn't gonna wake up anytime soon.  So he'd left a note.

"Did you guys miss me?  Spot, don't be greedy."  Xander fed a bite to Jerome and then took his own bite, cherries and cream cheese, and reached for his juice.  Winced ever so slightly as his knee banged the table leg.

Spike's mouth just there - tongue curling into the crease behind, fingers and thumb wrapped around his shin and kneading the muscle - half-lidded eyes glancing up and Spike's lips and teeth drawing the blood up, making a mark.  Like the ones blooming bruise-blue and plum on Spike's collarbones.  Love-bites, they were called, but Xander thought love was a bit presumptuous at this point.  Lust-bites worked.  Drowning-in-musk-and-smoke, skin-like-cream-and-honey bites, and Xander couldn't...get enough.  Felt like he was starving.

Breakfast finished, apartment tidied and the kittens - nearly cats, really - dozing in cream and seal-brown circles on the couch.  Xander moved restlessly from window to window, watching high, thin clouds thicken and curdle, the morning slowly graying toward a stormy afternoon.  He had paperwork to do - an email from Willow and one from Dawn to reply to.  Or he could go over to the job site and do some work.  Raif didn't care what hours he kept, although Xander usually stuck to a schedule.  But - he couldn't settle.  Didn't want to settle.  He wanted...  Xander flopped into his recliner and tipped it back - stared up at the ceiling.

"It was so weird meeting Angel's  son."

"Yeah.  Bloody right it was weird.  He was a right little bastard, too, but he could fight.  When I got there they'd just sprung that dark Slayer -"

"Faith."

"Yeah, her.  They'd just sprung her from jail.  Some kind of big to-do going down and they'd loosed Angelus, of all things.  Needed her to help bring him back to heel."  Spike blew a plume of smoke up toward the canopy of the bed.   "I was pretty much bats in the belfry right then, don't remember much of what they were doing.  I do remember thinking that Angelus would know how to get rid of the soul, though."  Spike stubbed out his cigarette and rolled onto his side, his head propped on his fist, hips draped haphazardly by a corner of the sheet.  Xander reached out and pressed his thumb lightly into the hollow under Spike's hip-bone where a bruise smudged the milky skin.  Spike's eyes went hot and dark.

Xander shuddered slightly.  He wasn't into rough stuff, but his mouth on Spike's skin...  The marks had come up so easily.  So perfectly.  And faded by the time Xander had left.  *Just have to make more.  Whoa.  That's...assuming a lot.*   Xander closed his eye - put his hands behind his head and thought about that.  Yeah - he wanted a next time.   But he had no clue if Spike did.  *Maybe I should ask.  Jesus.  I hate asking.*   It was too much like junior high and those papers, 'Do you like me?  Chose one: yes, no, maybe...'  Humiliation lurking in the shadows and Xander didn't do humiliation anymore.  Not by choice.

"Heard Faith was the one wore the amulet.  Saved the day an' all," Spike murmured, his head thrown back and his fingers tangled in Xander's hair as Xander made a slow and thorough exploration of Spike's chest and stomach - of the other, unmarked hip.

"Yup.  Channeled the sun, burned up all the uber-vamps, brought down the house.  Then we got outta Dodge and headed down your way.  Angel never said you'd been there."

"He wouldn't, would he?  Christ, Xander, do that again -"  Xander lifted his head and smiled lazily - put his teeth back onto the thin skin between groin and thigh and bit down.  Spike arched up, breathing in a sharp little gasp and Xander moved his mouth slowly, cheek pressed to flushed and hardening flesh, tongue plucking over the tendon that stood up taut and quivering when Spike let his thighs fall wide.

They hadn't talked about Angel again after that - who needed that kind of mood-killer?  And Spike didn't seem to care much one way or the other about what had happened afterward in L.A.   More heartbreak, really.  Cordelia being revealed as - something else.  Dying by Angel's hand much like Angel had died by Buffy's and the son, Connor, having a medium-sized break-down.  Hard times that seemed to draw the L.A. team tighter together and what remained of the Sunnydale crew had left soon after, feeling like intruders into the grief and healing.  Faith - had stayed.  Said somebody had to keep Angel from getting too broody - somebody had to make sure Connor didn't get in on the act.  Last Xander had heard they'd been in a mini-war with an evil law firm that hadn't liked Angel rejecting their recruiting spiel.   Stubbornly fighting the good fight in the face of nearly impossible odds and winning, if he understood Willow correctly. 

Xander felt himself dozing off and decided to go with it.  He hadn't gotten that much sleep, anyway - and that thought made him grin.  He wrestled the fleece throw out from under his shoulders and snuggled under it, sighing softly into sleep as the first threads of rain came whispering down out of the sky.

 

 

 

He woke disoriented, his arm asleep and his apartment dark.  Rain was falling faster, rattling off the kitchen window and he lay still for a moment, his heart going a little too fast.  Something -

Thump thump at the door and Xander groaned - fumbled the throw off and pushed with his legs, sitting the recliner up.  *Who in hell is that?  What time is it?  Jesus.*   He turned on a lamp as he stumbled toward the door - tripped over his boots and cursed as he whacked his wrist on the door knob.

"You all right in there, mate?"

*Spike?  I can't believe...*   Xander was frozen for a moment and then he turned the deadbolt and unlocked the door - pulled it open and stood there, staring at Spike.  A Spike whose black leather coat was covered in raindrops and whose hair was plastered in curling tendrils all over his forehead and cheeks.   Spike's face was wet with droplets - his lips were - and Xander wanted to know what that whiskey-lemon mouth tasted like, drowned in rain.

"You think I can come in then?" Spike asked, little smirk on his face and Xander blinked and took a step back - scrubbed his hand through his hair and realized that with Spike came the intoxicating odor of -

"You brought food?"

"I brought Salty's."  Spike held up two bulging paper bags and grinned at Xander's squeak of delight.  "Are we gonna eat in the hall?"

"What?  Oh - oh!  Hey - wait."  Xander held up a hand - closed his eye and concentrated.

"What in bloody hell are you doing?"

Xander didn't open his eye.  "I'm seeing if I can do the invite thing with my mind," Xander said, and there was a snort of laughter from Spike.

"Don't think so, mate." 

Xander opened his eye.  "Try anyway?"  Spike shook his head but put one hand obligingly up, pushing the bag of food through the doorway.  The barrier stopped his hand.

"Sorry, pet - you're no Professor X."

*Pet?  He called me pet.  What the hell does that mean?*   "Guess not.   C'mon in, Spike."  Spike sauntered through the door and Xander shut it - turned around to find vampire and cats both stock-still.  Spot and Jerome's noses were quivering frantically as they scoped out Spike, rain, outside - food.  Spike was eyeing them with the look some people gave other people's children.

"Here, they're not going to crawl all over me and claw me and stuff, are they?"
"Only if you don't feed them.  Spot, Jerome - you remember Spike, right?"  Spot brrr'd happily, coming to wind around Spike's leg and put a paw up toward the bags, claws coming out in a hooking motion.  Spike drew the bags in close to his chest.  Jerome sat down, back straight and ears up, tail wrapped neatly over his paws.  His best 'I'm such a good cat, reward me!' look on his face.

"They're staring at me." 

"You'll get used to it.  Umm - wanna give me the food and you can get your coat off?  Are you wet through?"

"Tryin' to get me out of my clothes already?"   Spike's attention went from the cats to Xander and Xander suddenly felt...warm.  All over.  He stared at Spike, who lifted an eyebrow and did this - thing.  Chin down, mouth curling in a sexy little smirk - eyes going half-lidded and doing a slow, practically tangible journey from Xander's face to his feet and back.  Xander felt his bare toes curling into the carpet and his heart skipping up a notch and pounding extra-fast.

"No!  Or - maybe.  God, Spike!  It's like I'm fifteen all over again.  Just - gimme the food."

"Never thought I'd come in second to a box full of calamari."

"Ooh, you got calamari?"
"And crab cakes, and the crab with artichoke dip."

"Oh my god.  I love you."  Xander froze, the rolled tops of the bags in his hands, his knuckles brushing Spike's. 

Spike grinned at him.  "You just love me for my pomegranate molasses." 

Xander blinked - grinned back.  "Jesus Christ.  Did you get one of everything?"

"Nah.  Don't like salad." 

Xander turned - nearly tripped over Spot - and headed for the kitchen.  "Yeah - who needs all that green stuff when you can have ginger-lime butter and enough lobster to choke a horse?"  He could hear Spike shedding his coat and boots and he put the bags on the kitchen table - went to the cabinet for plates and utensils.  "Oh!  I don't have any beer or anything - sorry."

"No worries, Xander.  Brought my own."  Xander looked over his shoulder to see Spike pulling bottles - one, two, three - out his coat pockets and he laughed.

"A vamp with a plan.  I like that."  Xander set two places at the table - pushed Jerome off of a chair and went to get a bottle of water for himself.    "You got chowder too, right?"

"Don't be daft.  Of course I did."  Spike walked over to the table and Xander couldn't help noticing his worn jeans were dark with rain from mid-thigh down.   And the shirt - some sort of silken button-up, dark red - clung damply to Spike's chest and shoulders.

*I'm not gonna make it through this dinner without embarrassing myself.  Oh my god.  Dinner.  Is this a date?  Am I dating William the Bloody?*   "Did you ride your bike over here?" 

"Nothing like a ride in the rain.  You'll have to do it with me sometime," Spike said, putting the bottles down with little clinks.  He pulled out a chair and sat down - reached for a bag and unrolled the top, taking out container after container of food.  Xander did the same until the tabletop was covered.  Fragrant chowder and pan-seared scallops - steak and crab and mussels, calamari and tuna and pasta.  Spot and Jerome were in hysterical ecstasies, standing on their hind legs, claws sunk into Xander or Spike's thigh.  Yowling and snatching at offered tidbits until Spot got overexcited and nipped Xander's finger.

"Okay - if you guys don't calm down, I'm locking you in the bathroom!"  Xander glared at the cats who glared back.  Jerome groped hopefully at the table-top, trying to hook a piece of lobster off Spike's plate and Spike growled down low in his chest.  Both cats froze, tails fluffing out and ears going flat.  Then they fled.

Xander stared after them, bemused.  "If I'd known it was that easy -"

"You'd have invited a vampire over ages ago?" Spike finished, and Xander kicked him under the table. 

"They weren't scared of you before."

"'Cause I was giving 'em my halibut.  Spoilt little monsters, aren't they?"

"Well - I...oh, shut up," Xander grumped, grabbing for his water bottle and ignoring the look of amusement on Spike's face.  "Just wait 'til you have your own."

"M'not a pet kinda person.  At least, not that kind of pet," Spike added, giving Xander a look that was so laden with innuendo, suggestion and lust that Xander dropped his water bottle and leaned over - grabbed Spike by the front of his shirt and yanked him into a hard, butter-flavored kiss.

"Are you saying you want me to scratch your tummy?" he joked breathlessly.

"Sayin' I want to see if I can make you scream this time," Spike muttered and pulled Xander out of his chair.  Xander didn't realize until two minutes later - when he nearly gave Spike a piercing - that he was still clutching his fork.  

 

"Okay, I know I've seen these before," Xander said, straddling Spike's thighs determinedly and groping beside the couch for the books he'd gotten from the library.  Spike - sprawled decadently in Xander's too-large robe, the shoulders pulled down and *love* bites on his neck - lifted his head and looked around, eyebrow going up.

"You thinking about knocking me over the head with those or what?"

Xander raised the biggest book, grinning.  "And dragging you back to my lair."

"Already in your lair.  What's that you've got, then?"

"The Primitive Art of Africa and Rock Art of the Bushman," Xander read.  He lay them both down on Spike's back and Spike hissed - scissored his legs and twisted and Xander ended up on his back, his flannel pants slipping off his hips and a naked, rampant Spike pinning his wrists to the carpet.  The books lay on the floor next to them, one open to a vista of the Matobo Hills.  

"Those are cold."

"I just wanted to see - I've seen that stuff before, how your tattoos look.  When I was in Africa -"

"Why in bloody hell were you in Africa?  You never told me."

Xander blinked up at Spike, frowning up at the deep scowl on Spike's face.  "I was looking for Slayers." 

Spike just stared at him for a moment and then he sighed and shifted - lay down so that his hips were socketed with Xanders, the robe spread over both of them and his hands curled under Xander's shoulders, pulling him close.   His expression smoothed out - went a little distant.  "There's been rumors goin' round, the last couple of years.  Some big mojo - things changing.   Why doesn't it surprise me you lot had something to do with it?"

"We did.  Willow did.  She - there was this weapon and she used it to give the Slayer power to all the potential Slayers all over the world."  Xander let his hands slip under the edges of the robe and trace the line of tiny, contorted figures that marched in a twisted frieze down Spike's spine.  Man-shapes in poses of agony, insect-like shapes, something that could be flames.  Stick-like and uncomplicated but Xander could sense the power in them.

"Leave it to Red.  You know a lot of those Slayers - they're just little girls.  Fair game," Spike said softly, his nose and lips brushing slowly over Xander's collarbones.

"Yeah, I...  You know, let's leave the 'What I did on my African Vacation' talk for another time, okay?  It's kind of a mood killer."

"Bein' held down and tattooed by a Bushman shaman to 'quiet the demons' isn't much of a pick-me-up, either," Spike murmured.

Xander laced his fingers into Spike's hair and pulled him up for a long, hard kiss.   "I think they're beautiful," he whispered.

Spike smiled down at him - traced the emptiness that had been an eye with the tip of his finger.  "So're you, pet."  Eventually, the books were rolled over and squashed, but neither one of them noticed.

 

The phone was ringing and Xander groped for it - then sat up and peered around him in frustration when he couldn't find it.  *Oh.  At Spike's house and my phone must be...somewhere in my bag or...on the floor?  Or -*

"Lettin' in the cold," Spike grumbled, hooking an arm and a leg around Xander and pulling him back to the center of the bed.  Huge bed and Xander flailed for a moment for the edge and then gave up, laughing.

"It's not cold."

"S'raining and it's cold and now you owe me," Spike huffed, curling over and around Xander - warm here and cool there, all dense muscle and slither like a giant, nacreous snake.

"I do?  What, exactly, do I owe you?"

"Wake-up shag.  Or - pre-nap shag, it's bloody early."

"It's - it's almost noon!"

"And you're late for work, I'll bet.  Gonna be later."  Spike's mouth was snakelike, too: flickering tongue and prickling fangs and Xander felt like Eve in the garden. 

*No, Adam.  Except the snake didn't tempt him.  Did he?  Was Satan gay?*

"What are you talking about?"  

Xander looked up at Spike who was looking down at him with a bemused - amused - expression on his face and the smudged traces of eye-liner around his eyes.  His left hand absently petted Xander's hip and his rings were chilly.  Xander shivered - reached up and curled a lock of bronze-wheat-white hair around his finger.

"Just giving into temptation."

"Bloody well better," Spike murmured and slithered down.

*Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  I'll take Evil for one thousand, Alex.*

 

Later - around three when he'd finally untangled himself from a sated, deeply sleeping Spike - he found his phone and checked his messages.  Just one, a number he didn't recognize.  He pressed buttons and listened, struggling into his jeans.  *Need to get some cat food - maybe some of those little treats.  The boys are gonna be pissed at me for not coming home last night.*   The message started to play and Xander stopped dead, his jeans halfway up his thighs and his heart starting to pound.

"Hello - Xander Harris?  This is Wesley Wyndham-Pryce...  I'm sure you remember me...  I'm calling to tell you - well, to warn you...  Angel's been rather - preoccupied - about you and - and Spike since you called and...  Well, it's been rather - annoying really, and I just found out through Fred that Faith and Connor decided that they needed to come and visit so they could - uh - reassure Angel that all was well...  I hope - all is well?  They left sometime Tuesday I believe, so look for them early this evening, perhaps?  If I'd known about this I'd have tried to stop them, or called you sooner but -"

Xander dropped his phone.  "Jesus Christ.  I'm getting a visit from Batmite and Xena, Warrior Princess."

 

 

 

 

 

Xander got home on autopilot - fed the cats, did some dishes - took a shower.  He kept glancing at his front door, half expecting a Buffy-style kick to send it flying across his living room.  Only it would be a Faith-style kick, with Connor one step behind and somehow - that was worse.  At least there had only been one super-powered twenty-something to contend with in Sunnydale.  Two would be...too much. 

Around seven - too nervous to watch TV but insanely bored at the same time from the circular speculation that was going around and around in his head - he finally sat down at his computer and checked his email. 

*Four actual emails versus sixty-seven spams.  Not bad.*   Xander deleted the stuff in the spam folder and opened the first email.  It was from Willow, dated sometime the day before.  With a sort of sinking feeling he started to read it.  Certain things - jumped right out.

"...called from L.A. and I thought that was kind of weird...why didn't you say you'd seen Spike?  Xander, I can't believe...I hope you're okay...talked to Wes...he said everything was all right...I'm so mad at you, mister!...hope you don't mind...gave them your address and number..."  Xander stopped reading - closed the email.  The ones from Buffy and Dawn stared at him accusingly, as did the one from Giles.  Giles.

*Oh crap.  I was gonna call and tell you, guys.  In a while.  If we were...  I mean...it's not like we're soul mates or - or...anything.  Just - sex.  Really excellent sex.  And dinner.  And that walk in the Japanese garden the other night that was totally illegal but, fuck, I can't think when he does that thing...*   Xander jumped a foot when there was a sudden pounding on his door.  *Jesus. They're here!  Okay.  Don't panic - don't panic.  Just - act cool.  Oh god, I have a hickey the size of a fuckin' grapefruit on my fucking neck.*   Xander stared into the framed, original Heavy Metal cell art in the hall, squinting at his blurry reflection in the glass. 

*Maybe if I just button up my shirt?  Then I look like the fuckin' Unabomber or something.  Jesus - I should have combed my hair -*

"Xander!  Open this bloody door!"

"Spike?"  Xander jogged down the hall to the living room - side-stepped Jerome, who was carrying a catnip impregnated sisal mouse in his teeth - and flung open the door.  Spike stalked in, looking more than a little pissed off as well as wind-blown.  He immediately lit a cigarette and when he talked, he puffed out smoke with every word.

"Why in hell did I have an associate of Tubic's pounding on my door not one hour ago, telling me that a Slayer and some kind of strange human boy were making noises about me all over town and I'd better get them to back off before something unfortunate happened?  Any ideas, Harris?"

"Huh?"  Xander blinked - looked away from the dissipating smoke.  "Harris?"

"What?" 

"You called me Harris.  It was - it was something else about six hours ago."

"It was sweetheart and that's not - I mean -" 

Xander stepped up close and personal to Spike - got right into his face and his personal space and slipped his hands under the coat - under the black button-up that was, he noticed, done up crookedly. "Yeah.  I remember.  It was -"   Xander pressed his lips to Spikes - tickled gently at the sensitive underside of Spike's upper lip with his tongue until Spike opened his mouth a little.  "Like this and...like this..."  Xander let both hands slither down to Spike's butt and pulled him close - rolled his hips a little.  "And...this -"   Nip of teeth to lower lip and Spike made a pleased little sound.

"Sweetheart...  Hey!"  Spike jerked back and Xander blinked at him.  "You're trying to distract me, pet."

"Is it working?"

"Yes.  No.  What the hell's going on, Xander?" 

Xander sighed - half-turned and led an unresisting Spike to the couch where they both flopped down.  Spot immediately leaped up onto the back, purring loudly.  "Not now, Spot.  It's...  Well, you know I called Angel, right?"

"Right," Spike said, making a face, and Xander sighed again.

"Well, I guess he's been all - broody.  And Faith and Connor were getting kind of sick of it and they decided to call Willow and - Willow gave them my address."

"Bloody bastard can't leave well enough alone, can he?   And what do his little minions think they're going to do here - spank me and send me home?  I'm bloody well not having it -"   Spike ranted on for another minute or two, finishing one cigarette and lighting another.   Xander found himself hunching into the couch a little.  Abruptly, Spike stopped talking.  "Xander?  What's wrong then?"

"Huh?  Oh, I - it's just -"

"It's not your fault - you do know that, don't you?"  Xander shrugged miserably.  He really didn't want to explain the complex churn of emotion that he was feeling right then.  Protectiveness toward Spike - apprehension about Faith and Connor - guilt over the girls and Giles and a secret smugness that they were all...worried.  Smugness that was instantly smothered in guilt for making everyone upset when he'd been doing so good, out here on his own.  Living, and not on borrowed time, either.

"Xander -"   Spike shifted closer along the couch - pushed Spot's questing nose away and pulled Xander close, cool hand around the back of Xander's neck, fingers kneading gently.   "Sweetheart -"

And then someone knocked on the door.  

 

"Oh, god."

"Fucking hell.  Breathe, Xander."  Spike stood up, hauling Xander with him.  Xander stood there, staring at the door - nerving himself to open it.  Noticing, in a dazed sort of way, Spike shedding his coat to the back of the couch.  Then Spike was standing behind him, arms comfortingly around Xander's ribs.  Xander sighed and leaned back.

"This is your house, Xander," Spike whispered, lips just brushing the edge of Xander's ear.  "Can tell 'em to piss off any time you want, right?"

"Right."  Xander straightened - took a step toward the door and then turned around and snatched the cigarette out of Spike's hand - took a deep drag and coughed, hard.  "F-fuck - me -"

Thump thump thump.

"Better save starting new vices for later," Spike said, grinning.

"Yeah - tastes better on you," Xander croaked, letting Spike take the cigarette out of his fingers.  He pushed his hair off his face - thought for one moment about going and getting a patch but then decided he didn't care.  *This is my house.  Right.  And Spike'll back me up.  On it being my house.  Jesus.*   Xander strode toward his front door - took the knob in his hand and turned it - opened the door.  Faith leaned there, her shoulder against the jamb and her arms crossed.  Connor was right behind her, fist raised to knock again.

"Thought you might have fallen on something sharp.  Got hurt," Faith said.

"And nice to see you too, Faith.  Sort of.  And you're here again - why?  Wes wasn't really clear."  Xander crossed his own arms - stood squarely in the doorway and Faith grinned up at him, dark-red lipstick glinting slickly.

"Wes called?  He's such a worry-wart.  Me and Connor, we were just getting a little - stir-crazy.  We thought a road-trip would be fun."

"I hear Boston's nice this time of year." 

"Oh, come on Xander!  I thought we were past all this - hostility."

"Oh, I dunno - sometimes hostility's kinda fun."   Xander glanced from Faith to Connor and Connor grinned.

"I can do hostile but I'm kinda tired, you know?  Seattle's really hilly."

"You wouldn't be tired if you hadn't spent half the day stomping all over the city disturbing people," Spike said from his 'lounging snake' position on the arm of Xander's couch. 

"Well, we didn't think we'd find you hanging out at Xander's house," Connor said, and Faith finally put her hand out and lay it flat on Xander's chest.  Her nails were short - free of polish and very clean.

"Gonna let us in or what?"

"Or what, if I had any sense," Xander sighed.  But he stepped back - ushered them both in with a sweep of his arm and shut the door behind them.  Faith strolled up to Spike and stopped a few feet away, head to one side and her hands relaxed - her shoulders back.  Connor drifted toward the shelves that were on the left of the door, glancing over the book and comic titles with a restless eye.

"Lookin' better than the last time I saw you, that's for sure," Faith said, and Spike took a long pull of his cigarette - tamped it out in the ashtray Xander had bought.

"Feeling much better, too.  What is it you want, exactly?"

"Oh, not much.   A house in the country, a 401k, a boss who doesn't brood...all my friends safe."

"We're friends? I didn't know we were friends.  When did we become friends?"  Xander walked around the end of the couch - settled himself irritably in the middle.  Spot immediately slithered from the back to Xander's shoulder to his lap and Xander absently stroked the thick fur along his back.

"Well, we're not best buds or anything," Faith said, shrugging.  "But you're one of the good guys, you know?  Good guys look out for each other."

"Ex-good guy," Xander muttered, and Spot brrr'd softly, pushing his face into Xander's chest.   Something cool touched his jaw and Xander glanced up - looked at Spike, who was looking back, serious and still.

"Never be that, pet."   Spike held Xander's gaze for a long moment, and Xander felt a little curl of warmth go through him.  Warm and tingle all at the same time - giddy rush of firecracker sparks and hot chocolate.  *Oh, man.  Love bites for sure.*

 

"I can't believe you're eating artichoke hearts on your pizza." 

"Dude -"   Xander chewed - swallowed - wiped his mouth.  "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it.  It's - amazing."  He held up his half-eaten slice, wiggling it enticingly.   "It's good.  C'mon, Connor - give it a try."  Connor recoiled, looking slightly panicked.

"It's weird.  Pizza is supposed to be fat and dead animal products," Faith said, waving a slice of her pepperoni-Italian sausage-Canadian bacon-and-extra-cheese (with mushrooms and onions) pizza in the air.  Spot and Jerome watched her, heads moving in synchronized, hypnotized circles.

"It's differentNothing wrong with different."  Xander shot Spike a look and Spike grinned back.  "Live a little!"

"I've probably lived more than most and even I won't try it," Spike said, snagging the last slice of feta-cheese and anchovy pizza.

"I wouldn't be so judgmental if I were you, goat-cheese-and-fish-boy," Xander said.  "And you know you're gonna have to brush the anchovy-breath away before - uh -"  Xander felt the blood rushing to his face as Faith and Connor exchanged looks and Spike smirked, his bare foot nudging at Xander's ankle under the table.  *Crap.  Damnit.  No, we will not now discuss my sex life.  In any way, shape or form.  Nuh-uh.*

"So, you two doin' the nasty?" Faith asked, licking her fingers and Xander felt the blush come back twice as hot.

"Pretty nasty," Spike murmured, his toes squirreling upward.  "Sometimes.  Sometimes it's just -"   His voice died away to silence, his eyes on Xander - smiling that smile, that made Xander feel...

"Just..."   Xander felt Connor and Faith watching him.  Watching them.  Felt it and just - didn't care.    *My house.  My...thing.  With Spike.*   "Just right," Xander finished, and Faith made a small snorting noise.

"And here Angel was sure you'd be all crushed under the weight of guilt and shame," Faith said, and her voice took on the mournful tones of Angel's best brood-voice.

"Crushed by what?" Spike asked, toes wiggling, and Xander let his hand slip down and find them - curl over them and press them into the inside of his thigh.

"By guilt and shame, you evil, horrible thing you."

"I thought Jerome was the evil, horrible thing?"

"Who's Jerome?" Faith asked. 

"Spot's evil twin," Xander said, and Spot mewled hopefully, one paw coming up and hooking delicately into Faith's knee.  *Like Oliver Twist.  He wants some mooore.*

Faith made a 'shoo' gesture and winced as Spot dug in.  "I don't actually like cats."

 

 

 

"Hey, why didn't we have to pay a cover charge?" Conner yelled, and Xander grinned at him - handed him the little test-tube looking glass that had a glo-stick-green colored drink in it.

"'Cause I know the person that decides who comes in!"  Connor grinned at that - took the drink and sniffed it and then tossed it back.  Xander wondered if he'd have vampire-like constitution when it came to alcohol.  Spike was over at the bar, yelling at the bartender.  Trying to get something that didn't 'look like Vy'sha blood and taste like treacle'.  *Good luck with that,* Xander thought, watching him.  Spike looked ready to take the bartender's head off.

"Lemme go get Spike before he does some damage and then there's somebody here I want you to meet," Xander yelled.  Connor bobbed his head, his eyes wide and shiny in the bobbing, flashing lights.  From the 'bar' level it wasn't possible to see details in the heaving mass of dancers down on the floor.  Xander was looking forward to the details.

He pushed his way through the crowd and fetched up against Spike, who was yelling something at the bartender.  The bartender was looking on the verge of either tears or homicide.  "Hey - Spike!  Don't make the man's job any harder than it already is, okay?" Xander said, his mouth close to Spike's ear and his hands slipping around Spike's waist, one finger sliding between the buttons of Spike's shirt.

"You know I hate this bloody club, Xander, they've got nothing to drink!  Why in hell are we here?"

"I wanted to introduce Connor and Faith to Shi.  I think they'd...have fun."  Spike turned in Xander's arms - gave him look of wicked glee that made Xander shiver and grin at the same time.

"You, pet, are truly evil.  Where is the little degenerate, anyway?"

"He's around - Van said he was on the floor doing his Chinese Opera thing tonight."  Xander had told Spike all about their one 'date'.  Spike had managed to talk Xander into demonstrating parts of the bondage costume Shi had had on with lengths of shredded t-shirt and a belt and wow, Xander had had no idea he could be that kinky.   He blamed Spike.

After five more minutes of futile haranguing, Spike finally settled - very grumpily - for a Long Island Iced Tea and Xander got four more neon-rainbow shots and a cranberry juice for himself.  *And there goes the better part of two good meals at the Coins.  Jesus.  Shi better show fast or I'm gonna be broke.*

They fought their way back through the crowd to Connor, who was leaning on the rail and watching the seething, leaping, squirming mass of dancers with a bemused expression.  Faith was gone.

"Hey!  Here!"  Xander handed over two of the shots and got the other two into one hand - took a drink of his juice.  "Where's Faith?"

"Dancing!" Connor shouted, pointing, and Xander could just see her, sandwiched between a guy in what look like a Navy uniform circa the Village People and a girl in a red leather Devil costume.

"Is that what she's doing?" Xander asked and then squeaked and spun around as strong fingers goosed him.  "Hey!"

"Xaander!  You came back!"

"Shi!  Uh.  Hey, yeah!  Umm -"   Xander took a huge gulp of his cranberry juice, leaning hard into Spike who was looking fairly pissed about the goosing.  Out of the corner of his eye he could see Connor gulping down his third drink.  He looked at the glasses - shrugged - and lifted the other two out of Xander's hand.

Shi just smiled, resplendent in a scarlet robe that was encrusted with gilt embroidery, beads, sequins and clicking, sparkling, rhinestone fringe.   A robe that was open down the front and slipping off one glitter-daubed shoulder.  Under it was - ribbon.  Black silk ribbon.  Lots of it, wound around and around and around a body that seemed to have been carved from the palest ivory.   And there was no mistaking the fact that under the makeup - the exquisite arched brows and tiny, scarlet lips that made Shi's already pretty face absolutely doll-perfect - he was all man.  Two ribbon ends fluttered from the neat bow that finished off the ribbon-wrapping just - there.  Xander imagined if you tugged and undid the bow - the ribbon would just slide right off.

Connor seemed to be imagining that, too, if the direction of his deer-in-the-headlights look was any indication and Xander belatedly realized that the tickling sensation going from his spine right through his breast bone was Spike growling.  *Growling.  Why would he be...?  Is he jealous?  Spike's jealous of Shi!  No, of me.  No way.*    Xander glanced over his shoulder and caught the cat's eye gleam of a pair of golden eyes in the strobe from the ceiling and he felt a stupid, giddy grin spread over his face.

*Way.*   "Shi, I brought a friend of mine for you to meet!  This is Connor!"   Shi fluttered absurdly long fake eyelashes - lashes tipped with tiny little crystal drops - and dimpled at Connor, bending a knee and dropping his gaze.  Xander saw the raking glance that took in Connor's worn, hip-hugging jeans and thin sweater and then Shi was reaching out a narrow hand to curl it around Connor's arm.  Xander knew that the six-inch-long, scarlet and gold nails on the ends of Shi's fingers were fake but for a moment it looked like Connor was pretty sure they were knives.  Or claws.  Behind him, Spike was snorting quiet laughter.

"Helloooo, Connor.  Here, let me finish that."  Shi took the last shot from Connor and tipped it up - lovingly fellated the narrow tube, his tongue curling out and around and his long neck undulating as he swallowed.  Connor - blinked.  "Now - you come with me and tell me all about yourself.  I want to know everything."  Shi tugged and Connor lurched into a shaky-legged walk.  Even in the six-inch heels he wore Shi was a couple inches shorter than Connor and Shi looked demurely up as he drew Connor away.    He glanced over his shoulder once and stifled a giggle as Xander mouthed 'virgin'.  Then they were gone.

"You're more evil than Darla, pet," Spike said - spun Xander around and pulled him close.  "And that little

biǎo zi had better keep his hands off you in the future."

"I didn't know you spoke Chinese, Spike," Xander murmured - let his tongue-tip taste smoke and tequila and Triple-sec on Spike's lips.

"Learn something new every day, don't you?" 

"Yes, you do."  Xander looked at Spike and Spike looked back, tipping his head a little to one side.  So much like Spot and Jerome that Xander almost laughed.  "You know - I just wanna go home.  My chaperone duties are so over."

"Home it is, then."  Spike deposited his half-full glass on a nearby table - took Xander's hand in a tight grip and plunged into the crowd.  It took five minutes to reach the sidewalk - Xander was happy for it to take five hours. 

*Haven't held hands with anybody since...  Well, since Anya.  It's nice.  It's a little...girly.  I don't actually care.  If the one-hundred and something years old vampire can do it, I can do it.*   Once outside Xander stopped to button up his coat.  He fished his stripy black and green knit hat out of a pocket and pulled it down tight, grinning when Spike didn't let go and his fingers got tangled in Xander's hair.  The SUV Connor and Faith had driven up in was still parked outside Xander's building - they'd taken a taxi to the club, just in case.

"Want to get a cab, pet?" 

Xander laced his fingers more securely with Spike's - took a deep breath, pulling chill, salt-tanged air deep into his lungs.  Overhead was a sickle moon, diamond bright, and a faint spatter of stars like spilled sugar.  "You know...I think I'd like it a lot if you walked me home, Spike."

"Walk you home?  Like I was your boyfriend?" Spike asked, edge of laughter in his voice.

"Yup.   Exactly like that."

"I reckon I can manage that," Spike said.   It was the longest, shortest walk home ever.

 

 

 

 

 

The rain had changed to ice sometime after midnight and Xander had happily snuggled down into Spike's bed, knowing the boys were safe and warm at home.   He was pretty sure there was an electric blanket somewhere in the tangle of fleece and flannel and soft-washed cotton.  Decadent hodgepodge all topped by a thick, heavy comforter called a Korean mink.  It felt like mink, but really it was just about ten pounds of silky-soft synthetic - something.  Grey and green and ghostly herons on an insubstantial pond's edge.

When he woke, he was alone.  Xander lay under the covers for a while, just breathing.  It was probably around ten and the sleet seemed to have moved on - there was light coming in that high, hidden window over by the tub.   Insubstantial light, as November blew out in leaf-shaking storms and long strings of grey, drizzly days.   From somewhere downstairs there was...music.  As ghostly as the herons, full of gaps and hisses.  It was oddly soothing.  Xander finally slipped out of the covers - found his jeans and the thermal shirt he'd been wearing and padded downstairs, looking for Spike.

Xander found him in the second-floor sitting room.  Floor to ceiling windows hung haphazardly with yards of dark red gauze and a fireplace made of cast iron, all Victorian curlicues and ribboned bunches of roses.   Spike was actually sitting in a window - one hip up on the sill and his back against the frame.  The gauze was bunched aside in a knot, the window itself swung wide on the day.  A frail lemon light sparkled off the remnants of the melting ice that sheened the yard below, and the smoke from Spike's cigarette was thick and bluish-white.

Xander stopped in the doorway and Spike slowly turned his head.  He was a match for the fireplace this morning, wearing some sort of dark trousers and an elegant ivory-colored shirt.  Crisp pleats down the front and a loose looping of black silk around his throat - a cravat, maybe.  Softly curling hair disheveled over his forehead.  Victorian gentleman, a sketch in faded chalk.  "Hey," Xander said.

"Morning, pet."   Spike lifted his cigarette to his mouth and the illusion crumbled a bit.  The un-linked cuff of the shirt fell back, showing a narrow wrist banded by leather and steel - twisted silver rings and worn polish, black and glitter.

"You all right?"  Xander picked his way across the room, avoiding the spill of things from the four big steamer trunks Spike had brought home recently.  Something he'd had in storage, he'd said.  He'd opened one the night before - looked briefly inside before distracting Xander away from it and upstairs to a movie and cheesecake and slow, quiet sex that was so close to making love Xander had had to bite his lip to keep from saying...anything.  Too soon, for things like that.

"Course I am," Spike said, but he looked back out the window, the light showing smudges of blue under his eyes.   The music that had been playing - horns and strings and a piano - faded out, replaced by a soft hissing.

"It's cold in here," Xander said.  There was a big iron hoop full of wood sitting by the fireplace - a wooden box of matches and some twists of newspaper and Xander crouched and made a fire, carefully constructing a sort of ti-pi shape and watching in satisfaction as it caught and started to burn.  He closed the draw a little bit to keep the heat in, then went over to Spike - sat down cross-legged under the window, his knee just touching Spike's bare foot, his back against the curling plaster of the wall.  "Been up all night?"

"Yeah."  Spike smoked - moved his foot a little, so his toes were tucked under Xander's thigh.  "Got to thinking about these trunks - what's inside...   Wasn't sleeping so good so I just -"   Spike gestured out toward the room and Xander nodded.  All four trunks were open, their contents fanning out across the dark, polished floor.  Clothes and trinkets, papers and books.  Weapons and various sized wooden boxes and a great, disordered sheaf of the large paper sheets Spike called foolscap, all yellowed and brittle, chipped around the edges.  Some of it was covered in looping lines of words, faded by the years.  Spike's own jeans lay crumpled by one trunk and Xander reached out and stroked the fine wool of his trousers - saw there was a small hole near the knee.

"You've got moths," he said softly - looked up at Spike who was looking down at him, that shuttered look on his face.  The one that meant he was afraid of something.  "Did you - were you dreaming?" Xander asked.

"Oh...I..."  Abruptly Spike got up - stalked to the fireplace and flicked the butt of his cigarette into the fire.  He stood there, hands running slowly up his arms - plucking at the cravat.  Pulling on the loose ends so that the loops around his neck slowly tightened.  Xander knew he didn't need to breathe, but it made him...uneasy.

"Spike -"

"I was having nightmares, all right?  Well, not really nightmares.  Was remembering, is all.  Got Wi- got the soul all...stirred up.  So I just - wanted -"   Spike shook his head - pulled the silk a little tighter, as if to make talking impossible.

*Oh, no.  None of the not talking.  We don’t do the not talking.  I don't, so that means you don't, either...*  Even in his head, he couldn't think of an endearment that sounded right.  Xander got up - crossed over to Spike and stood behind him - carefully pried Spike's fingers loose from the brittle black silk.  Put his palms over the backs of Spike's hands and laced their fingers together, arms crossing so they were both hugging him.  The shirt smelled like camphor and citrus - very faintly of cloves and Xander put his chin on Spike's shoulder.  "Wanted what, Spike?"

"He makes it all so...he makes it bad.  Makes it ugly.  It wasn't ugly."  Spike's voice cracked and he stopped - swallowed.  Xander pressed his chin down just a little, encouraging him.   "It was - was like the skin of the world got pulled back.  Like I could really see, for the first time ever.  Everything - glowed.   I just...wanted to remember that."

"Yeah."  Xander lay his head down so the worn linen of the shirt was under his cheek - so he could see Spike's profile and his left eye.  Blue with the tiny reflection of the fire dancing in it.  Golden as the demon's eyes.   *The world looks different through those eyes.  I wonder...*   "Did you find anything good?  Something you'd forgot about?"

"Mmm?"  Spike blinked - turned his head a little, looking at Xander.  "Yeah, couple things.  Some of Dru's things - forgot I had them."  He uncrossed their arms, stepping out of Xander's hold and walking to a far trunk.  He bent down, pushing aside a mass of pale lace and satin - a wedding dress? - and pulled out a carved box.  He opened it, stirring the contents with his finger and Xander came over and looked in, too.  The box was full of lengths of ribbon, long pins with fancy, jeweled heads, decorated combs and a long-handled brush that was probably made of ivory.  It had a horse and carriage scene scrimshawed on the back.  "I've got Dru's hair-things.  All her hat pins and things...  Well, nobody wears hats anymore.  Doubt she misses any of it."  Spike shut the box but his hand was shaking and Xander bent down and picked up a small, beaded purse - ran a finger over the flower pattern on the side.

"You miss her?  Drusilla?"

"Bloody hell, Xander, I -"

"I'm not - I'd be kinda disappointed if you didn't, Spike," Xander said, looking at him and Spike's look of animosity faded.

"Yeah, I miss her.  Loved her for a fuckin' hundred years or more, pet.  Can't just...shrug that off.  Even when I was chasin' after the Slayer, I..."  Spike stopped talking - let the box slide from his fingers to thump softly onto the white dress.   "Doesn't mean I don't - that I can't -"   Spike ran his fingers back through his hair, wincing at tangles - looking at Xander with a mixture of frustration and worry in his expression. 

"I know," Xander said - reached out and curled his finger in the cravat.  *I know.  You always felt...so much.  It always took us by surprise.*   He looked over at the trunk nearest the fireplace - deliberate change of subject.   A tarnished brass horn - flared trumpet in fluted metal - stuck up over the edge.  "Is that - what is that?"

"It's a Victrola," Spike said, little lilt to his voice that clearly said 'you ignorant Philistine'.  Xander tweaked the silk, grinning, making an 'ah ha!' sort of face.    "And...do you know what a Victrola is?"

"Yes.  No.  Sort of.  Why am I flashing back to Wishbone?"

"What?"  Spike gave him a thoroughly confused look and Xander pulled him close by the cravat and kissed him. 

"I have no clue what it is or what it does.   How about you enlighten me?"

"Don't we need to be in bed for that?" Spike murmured, and kissed him back.   It took a few minutes for Xander to remember what they'd been talking about.

"Hey!  Show me the Victrola!  I wanna be a lo-tech geek."

"You're already a geek," Spike said, but he let his hand slide down Xander's arm to his hand - tugged him into motion and over to the trunk.

"It's not lo-tech, either.  Finest of its kind, in its day.  This one was made especially for traveling - me and Dru got it the first time we came over to America, so we could have music on the ship." 

"It's a record player!" Xander said, peering down into the trunk, and Spike shook his head. 

"Not geek - git.  Yeah, record player, gramophone, whatever you wanna call it."  Spike crouched down - lifted the arm of the player and set it carefully on the record.  There was a moment of crackling hiss and then music started to play - something stringed, then horns - a medium-tempo melody without words.  The underlying static of the battered record seemed a fitting background to the old-fashioned tune and Xander had to grin at Spike, moving a little to the beat.

"I like it.  What is it?"

"It's Hoagy Carmichael and his Pals," Spike said.

"Ah."  Xander couldn't repress the giggle that bubbled up and Spike stood up - grabbed him by a fistful of shirt and towed him to the fireplace.

"Come keep me warm.  This was very popular 'round about - nineteen twenty....something.  Stardust.  Dru didn't like the piano part in the middle but I always did."  They came to a stop at the fireplace and Xander wrapped himself around Spike, chest to chest and hip to hip.  Spike's hands slipped up under his shirt and Xander shuddered.

"Jesus, you're freezing, Spike - c'mon, let's sit.  Lean back on me."  The settled on the hearth as close to the fire as Xander could stand, Spike between his thighs and his arms tight around Spike's ribs.  Just basking in the heat, and swaying slowly to the music.

"Cab Calloway, he had words for this tune...I think Dru liked it more when there were words.  When I'm all alone...And thought I was with you...I get so lonesome, honey, just for you, I love to hear you sing that song..."   Spike chanted the words in a low voice, not quite in time with the music.

"'honey, just for you...'" Xander echoed.  "It's sad, then," he added, and Spike slowly shook his head.

"Not sad.  Just...memory, is all.  Remembering.  I remember so much..."  Spike stopped talking for a moment - stopped moving and his hands, resting on Xander's forearms, tightened.  "Remember being alone...too much.  Don't feel like doing that anymore, pet."

Xander leaned his cheek into Spike's hair - took a long breath, smelling smoke and mint and cloves - something like earth and something like ozone.  "I really don't either, Spike.  I really don't."

 

 

 

"Xander!  You're not actually keeping all these, are you?"  Spike looked up from a drift of Art and Architecture and The Restorer's Guide.

"Of course I am!  Those are the - the tools of my trade.  My Holy Grail!  My -"

"They've got silverfish," Spike said, pointing to a tiny, squiggling silver-grey - thing - as it scuttled across a magazine cover.

"What?  Oh, shit!  Throw 'em out - throw 'em all out!  And keep 'em away from my comics!"  Xander looked around his half-packed apartment, duct-tape roll dropping from his fingers.  Danger lurked in every corner.  "I'm gonna have to buy some of those little packets of silverfish poison - I didn't even check my comics over - I'm gonna have to check my comics - you just put those in a trash bag, okay?"  *Ah ha!  There - wallet - coat - where the hell are my boots?  And what time is it?*    Xander hopped over a pile of half-sorted art books.  "I'm gonna have to get some plastic storage boxes instead of all this cardboard, they thrive in cardboard -"   Xander snatched his coat up from the floor - yanked it on as he looked for his boots.   He found one - shoved his foot into it and then pulled a glove out of his pocket and started to work it on, staggering awkwardly in a circle in his boot, trying to force his heel inside.  From out of nowhere, a pair of arms circled his waist and pulled him tight to a lean, cool body.  "Spike, you're not helping!"

"Course I am, pet.  Just makin' you take a breath before you drop down dead."   Xander looked up, straight into his entry mirror.  His hair was still sticking up wildly from falling asleep on it wet, his oldest t-shirt and flannel were both torn and splotched with varnish and his coat-collar was twisted inside his coat.  He looked -

"I look like that crazy guy on the corner by the bookstore."

"Oh, yeah, hadn't thought of that - think anybody'd give you money?"  Spike's mouth nibbled kisses up his neck and into his hair and Xander watched his reflection tilt its head - watched his coat move aside and his shirt ruck as Spike's hands pushed up underneath.

"Okay, that's really disturbing.  Spiiike!  I gotta go get silverfish poison!"

Spike sighed heavily - a truly Herculean sigh for someone who didn't need to breathe.  "Oh, sodding hell - get some Red Bull and some of those jalapeño chips, yeah?"

"Anything for the muscle," Xander said, twisting around and kissing Spike's pouting mouth.  His eyes, though, were sparkling and amused and Xander got his boots on and grabbed his wallet - got in a last kiss before he darted out the door and down the stairs, humming Stardust.   *Never enjoyed moving this much before.  Must be 'cause...*   Something was in his inner-coat pocket - he could feel an unfamiliar lump - and he reached in and pulled it out.   It was a little bundle of paper fastened with a rubber band and Xander undid it as he strode down the rain-washed street.  Inside were two heart-shaped tags for Spot and Jerome's collars, engraved with Spike's Wallingford house address.  There was something written on the paper in Spike's upright, elegant hand.

'You are such a bloody push-over, Mao Ren.'    The man at the store remarked that he'd never seen silverfish poison make anyone quite that happy.

 

Xander was sanding to the pitter-patter of tiny feet.  Actually, the thunder of two crazed quadrupeds as Spot and Jerome hit their mid-afternoon peak.  They ran past him, slipping and sliding on the kitchen floor and then pounded up the stairs.   They sounded like Shetland ponies.  Xander winced as something bonged on the second floor - hopefully not the antique Victrola - then there was more running.  Xander finished sanding the cut edge on the back door and found the first piece of molding.  There would be no rough edges.  It looked ugly and besides, Spot or Jerome might get a splinter, going in and out the cat door he was installing.

Distantly, something went thud thump crash, and Xander winced.  *Oooh, damn.  I left all those CDs stacked up on the speaker and it was...tippy.*   There was an inarticulate noise - sort of like someone had squished a cat, and then another series of thumps and thuds.

"Xander!"  Spot and Jerome pelted through the kitchen and darted behind Xander's toolbox.  Both of them had tails like bottle-brushes.

"Ahh, poor guys, you okay?  Bet those cd's really freaked you out."  Xander reached over and petted heads and scratched behind ears and listened as a series of peculiar shuffling thumps got closer and closer.  Some truly spectacular swearing got closer, too.   "Bet the grumpy vampire freaked you out too, huh?"

"Bloody fucking hell - do you know what they did?  Those little bastards are banned from the upstairs!  Tryin' to have a lie-in, tryin' to relax to the soothing sounds of Wendy O -"   Spike stomped into the kitchen, struggling to button a pair of jeans.   Xander's eyes got wide and he bit his lip, trying to suppress a hysterical bray of laughter.  "And then, like a couple of Tasmanian Devils, those evil little sods come up and play havoc with the bloody stereo!"  Spike looked down at the jeans, which were done up but still sliding off his hips.  "What in bloody hell is wrong with these jeans?"

"Those are my jeans," Xander said - snorted helpless laughter as Spike looked down at himself, completely bewildered.  His feet were swaddled in an extra four inches of leg, the waist was sliding down again and Spike's hair looked astonishingly similar to a hedgehog on crack.  Xander flopped back on the floor, laughing, and Spike's look went from befuddled to calculating in an instant.  Spot and Jerome - fright forgotten - went to investigate the food dish.

"Think its funny, do you?   Waking a person up by sending the furnishings crashing to the floor.  You go on then, laugh."  Spike let the jeans go - let them slide down his legs.  He stepped out of them - hooked them on his foot and tossed them at Xander.  Xander batted at them weakly, still chuckling.

*Oh, naked vampire in the kitchen...*   "They're very, very sorry, Spike.  Aren't you, boys?"  Spot and Jerome crunched kibble, tails switching.

"No they're not."  Spike stretched - scrubbed at his hair, making it even more disorderly, and Xander started laughing again.  "And neither are you.  But you're gonna be, pet.  'Cause when they knocked everything loose up there, I discovered something very interesting."

"You did?"  Xander sat up finally, pushing the jeans aside and looking around halfheartedly for his finishing nails.  Spike was leaning on the doorjamb and Xander stopped looking as he realized that Spike's expression was one of pure, gleeful evil.  "What - uh - did you discover?"

"That CDs fly," Spike said.  A moment later he was gone, and Xander heard him pounding up the stairs.

"CDs fly...  What does he -?  Oh, crap!"  Xander scrambled to his feet - looked around and grabbed the board he'd used to keep the cats away from the door until he was finished.  He pushed it flat to the hole - shoved his tool kit against it to keep it there and ran.  "Spike!  C'mon, Spike, they were just playing!  Some of those CDs are all that got me through some really - bad times!  Spike?" 

When he arrived, panting and cursing, in the attic - hopping on one foot because he'd whacked his toe into a riser - Spike was smirking, lying stretched over the bed, hands tucked behind his head.  Waiting.

"I s'pose you owe me an apology, pet," he said.  Xander pounced.

 

 

 

"Look, Christmas trees for sale!"  Xander made a beeline for the light-strung lot, towing Spike reluctantly along behind him.

"We are not getting a sodding Christmas tree!"

"Ah, c'mon, where's your Christmas spirit?"

"In a bottle of the finest kind - Xander -"  Xander grinned at Spike and ducked behind an enormous Douglas fir - wound his way deeper into the lot, the spicy scent of the evergreens thick in his nostrils.  The air was damp - wet enough to see and everything was coated in a fine veil of droplets.  There were multicolored twinkle-lights strung up everywhere and every limb and needle seemed to glimmer.

"Mmm - smells good.  Spot and Jerome have never had a tree, Spike - it's their first Christmas!"

"Might be their last," Spike muttered, but he reached out and pulled Xander close - rested his chin on Xander's shoulder and surveyed the massed greenery.  "I can see 'em now: batting at the fragile, glass ornaments, eating the tinsel and then puking it back up on our bed, climbing the tree every night and pulling it down, poisoning themselves on that fake snow stuff -"
"Eww - never use the fake snow stuff.  It's gross and smells funny.  Yeah, they'd probably make a mess of a tree, wouldn't they."

"Made a mess of most everything else," Spike said.  He kissed the side of Xander's neck - tugged him around and straightened his cap a little.  "How about let's just have a nice wreath, yeah?  It'll smell good and if we hang it over the fireplace they won't dare jump up for it.  Can put tinsel on it, if you like." 

Xander had to grin at that - at the image of Spike decorating - anything - for Christmas.  "Yeah, maybe.  I like the smell of them but - I haven't had a tree since...  Well, not for a long time.  Christmas has never been a favorite holiday of mine."

"No?"  Spike looked around - shuffled them over into the gap between to trees, so that the springy needles scratched their hands and caught in Xander's cap and camera bag.  "Did Christmas in the Black Forest one year.   Dru got it into her head that she had to see where the cuckoos come from.  It was like this, outside the towns.  Quiet and green...all damp earth and damp air.  And -"   Spike looked up, and Xander did, and Xander laughed.  It was snowing.

"Did you do that with your mind?" he asked softly, and Spike pressed him gently into the wall of greenery - kissed him with a chilly mouth that tasted of black licorice. 

"Did it just for you," Spike murmured.   

"You're special that way," Xander murmured back, forehead to forehead and Spike's fingers slipping up under his coat-sleeves - circling his wrists and rubbing his thumbs slowly over the pulse there.  His own hands were on Spike's waist, fingers curling around the sleek muscle.

"Am I?"  Soft, soft voice - soft brush of lips.

"Mm-hmmm.  Special.   Short bus and everything."

"You git."  Spike swooped in and kissed Xander hard - grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the trees and back to the street.  The snow fell in swirling arabesques, wet and perfect, and Xander got dizzy watching it - hung on Spike's arm and smiled up at the maelstrom of drifting white until he tripped over something and Spike swung him down onto a brick wall, arm around his shoulders.  Laughing.

*So damn pretty when he laughs.  Never heard him laugh in Sunnydale.  Things...amused him but...   He never laughed.   I make him laugh.*   Causing laugher - something to be avoided at all costs in high school - made Xander feel a warm sort of glow, sweet and sparkling.   He stretched his legs out long and watched the flakes fall onto his jeans; stiff little crystals pointing every which way, melting slowly.  Spike took a piece of dense, black licorice out of his coat-pocket and chewed it slowly.

"Was snowing that first night, remember?  First night I saw you again," Spike said and Xander nodded.  "Sacha lettin' in all the cold so the place would air out and you standing there giving me the evil eye -"

"Hey!  I did not!  I was - I mean, you were -"   Xander ducked his head, grinning down at his boots while Spike lit a cigarette.

"I was bloody gorgeous - sight for sore eyes and you -"

"I was trying not to embarrass myself.  You looked -"   Xander looked over at Spike - bumped him with his shoulder because Spike had a smirk on his face.  "You know how you looked."

"And you - looked like something straight out of a wet dream.  All that pretty hair curling around your neck - tight shirt, tight jeans, tight arse -"

"You did not check out my ass!"

"Course I did!  Couldn't help myself.  Saw you waiting on the street and I almost pulled over.  Was just gonna grab you and drag you into the car but Sacha said I'd scare you."  Spike snorted out twin puffs of smoke and Xander snickered.  "Never could scare you - even when Angelus was handing you over to me, you were still a live wire, sparkin' all over the big nancy."

"He pissed me off," Xander said - poked Spike in the ribs.  "So why didn't you give me a ride home?  It was cold that night."

"Was a bit brassed off, wasn't I?  Here you are, marching into my house and making me -"  Spike cut himself off and looked up at the sky - leaned into Xander's shoulder and sighed, the cigarette rolling in his fingers, ash and smoke slipping in with the snow. 

"Making you?"

"Making me miss things.  Making me remember."   

"Oh."  Xander sat there, leaning back - watching the snow and Spike's restless fingers - watching the stuttery shine of random headlights slide over the puddled sidewalk and the tips of Spike's boots.  *Is that bad?  Or...good?  Sunnydale probably wasn't the highlight of his life or anything...  I wonder if -*

"There you go, thinking."  Spike leaned even harder, making Xander put his hand flat on the wall so he wouldn't tip over.  "Can always tell - you get too quiet.  It's kinda scary, pet."

"I’m scary when I think?" 

"Bloody terrifying."  Spike leaned a little harder and Xander leaned back and they just sat there for a while, Spike getting out another cigarette and Xander watching the snow pile along his boot-laces.  After a minute or two he dug into his bag and found his camera.  Not his favorite one - he still liked the 'old fashioned' 35 mm best - but that one wouldn't work on Spike.  He had to use his digital for this.   *Freaky vampire...stuff.  His clothes should show up at least.*   He focused - adjusted - took the picture.  Spike's boots and his - snow-dusted and streaked with reflected neon - resting together.

"What're you taking snaps of now, pet?" Spike asked, and Xander moved his foot until his boot and Spike's were touching a little more closely.

"Our feet."  There was a moment of silence.

"Right, then.  Time to go home - you must be fevered."  Spike stood up - held his hand out and Xander took a picture of their boots toe to toe, Spike's left one a little bit between Xander's and the creases of his jeans drifted with white.   "Xander.  Are you daft?  Who wants pictures of feet?"

"Me.  I do.  You know how people always get those cheesy pictures of their hands on some satin pillow, showing off their wedding rings?"  Spike blinked down at him.  "Oh, yeah - you probably never looked at wedding pictures.  Umm.  Anyway - they do, and they're cheesy.  To me, at least - Willow always said she thought it was so romantic and -"

"Pet."  Spike yanked Xander to his feet and put one cold, smoke-and-licorice scented finger to Xander's lips.  "Get to the part where this makes you take snaps of our boots, yeah?"

"Oh, yeah.  Well, they just - they're our boots.  They're us.  Work boots and - and boots to kick ass in and they're all together in the snow.  They're - happy.   They're gonna go home together and sit on some newspaper and dry off and...lean on each other."  Xander watched Spike take that in - watched him look down for a few seconds - away - and Xander felt his heart drop.

Then Spike looked up, smiling at him.  A small and slightly surprised smile and Xander grinned back, wrapping his arm around Spike and pulling him close - hard enough to knock a small oof out of both of them.

"Not gonna sit on any newspaper," Spike said, and Xander kissed him. 

*Licorice, smoke, iron - cold.  That's what happiness tastes like.  Or like cheesecake.  Or maybe it's pan-broiled scallops in butter sauce?* 

"Thinkin' again," Spike murmured.

"You'll lean, though, right?" Xander asked, and for some reason his heart was in his throat.  He watched Spike watching him and curled his fingers into the snow-damp hair behind Spike's ear.  Waiting for his answer. 

Spike's smile got a little bigger.  "Yeah.  I'll lean.  Count on it, sweetheart."

"I'm gonna be," Xander said.   Later, they got delivery Italian and Xander made sure their boots were touching on the mat of newspaper in the kitchen.