Sitting on a milk crate in a dark alley that smells not-so-vaguely of piss and garbage and which emits occasionally scurrying, squeaking sounds from within and around the dumpsters gives a guy a lot of time for reflection.
Mostly reflection on the subject, "What the hell am I doing here?"
Why the hell did it matter so much whether this guy was Spike or not? Of course he wasn't Spike. Spike was dead. Spike was, to be more precise, dust. So why was Xander so obsessed?
Sitting on the milk crate in the dark as an hour passed ... and then two hours ... he gradually started to think maybe he was figuring it out. It was because he bought it. Xander, that is. He'd finally bought the redemption thing.
For a long time, he'd thought he had Spike pegged. He was a narcissistic, selfish, arrogant, amoral, sadistic, manipulative, lying, cheating, mercenary, psychotic, demonic bastard who would stab you in the back -- or drain you dry -- for five bucks and a beer. And laugh while he did it.
Spike wasn't just a jerk. He was evil.
Except that ... once Xander got a bit of physical and metaphorical distance from the whole thing, he was able to see Spike in a bit of context. Like comparing him to Angelus.
Angelus was evil. In fact, as far as Xander was concerned, even Angel was evil, disguised with a broody face and a pity-me guilt trip. There was something cold and ruthless and scary as hell behind that supposedly "angelic" face. Xander had never thought he looked particularly "angelic," anyway. More like "cave man." But when they were handing out vampire nicknames, apparently "cave man" had already been chosen, and so he got stuck with "angelic." Maybe it was just meant to be ironic, since the guy was such an incredibly evil prick.
In comparison with Angelus, even unchipped Spike was a tiny yapping dog that snapped at your ankles. Annoying as hell -- you might even want to kick it across the room -- but not exactly evil. Chipped, he was even less evil. And as he kept helping out, even after Buffy died, it just got harder and harder to think of him as evil, and easier and easier to think of him as just a jerk.
And then ... in the battle with The First ... Xander wasn't completely out of the loop. Buffy had told them about Spike. About how it had been Spike who was the true hero of the fight. About how he had stayed, let himself be burned to death in order to defeat The First's army and destroy the Hellmouth. The rest of them had helped ... of course they'd helped ... Anya had died helping ... but in the end, it was Spike who had closed the deal. He could have run. He could have left. He could have said, "Fuck this shit," and skipped town. But he didn't. He stayed -- even after Buffy asked him to leave, even after Buffy and everyone else had left -- and he fought, and he died.
Xander didn't believe it for a while. Well, he believed the words, intellectually. But none of it fit with his mental image of Spike. His definition of Spikishness.
But there was no denying that the Hellmouth was gone.
And so was Spike.
And then a few months later Xander had heard through the Scooby grapevine that Spike had been somehow brought back as a ghost ... and that he was stuck with Angel.
And that was when Xander really let go some of that Spike hatred. Because Spike? Probably the only person on the planet who hated Angel as much as Xander did. So the thought of Spike being somehow stuck with Angel made Xander wince and think, "Aw man. Poor guy!"
But then -- and this was almost impossible to believe -- Spike had stuck with the good-guy fight in Angel's camp, as well. And when they went up against some major inter-dimensional baddies and it was pretty certain they were all going to buy the farm ... well ... Spike stuck it out again. And once again got killed for his troubles.
Xander had a rule. Die saving the world twice and you deserve props.
Spike and Buffy were the only two people he knew who had done it. Angel didn't count, since getting stabbed with a giant sword and then shoved into a world-destroying hell-dimension portal which you yourself had purposely created really didn't count as voluntary world-saving, as far as Xander was concerned.
So ... Xander didn't think about Sunnydale all that much anymore -- until this week -- and he'd only talked to Willow or Giles on the phone once or twice in the past year ... but when he did think back, there was an uncomfortable sensation of having been wrong. Of having been wrong about Spike, and having treated him wrong. Of maybe having been a jerk. Not only a jerk, but a less-heroic jerk constantly putting down a more-heroic jerk. And that was just ... pathetic. He didn't like feeling pathetic.
Xander had never thought of himself as a hero. But to have Spike outdo him on that score was just ... a little humiliating.
So, really, if the absolute complete honest truth were told, the reason he was here, the reason he was stalking mysterious blonde men, the reason his ass was falling asleep on a plastic milk crate in a dark alley next to a dumpster, the reason this was all so important to him ... was because some secret shameful part of him was hoping that this guy was Spike, so Xander would be able to jump up and say, "Ah HA! I knew it! It was all a scam. He did run away from a fight! That whole hero thing, that whole redemption thing, that's all a crock of shit. I was right! I was right all along!"
He was interrupted in his thoughts by a movement in the dark, over near the other dumpster. And then, clearly visible even in the shadows, a short crop of pale blonde hair. The target was on the move. Xander stood slowly and stretched his legs, wiggled his butt, cracked his back, and tried to do it all without alerting the blonde prey to his presence.
Not-Spike walked quickly down the alley in the opposite direction, and Xander tried to saunter casually after him without being noticed. When he got to the end of the alley, Not-Spike was nowhere to be seen. And then ... blonde. Xander hurried to keep that hair in sight. His butt still felt half-asleep, so he was probably walking like an idiot, but he was not going to have sat in that alley so long for nothing. He was going to see where Not-Spike was going, and he was going to get a good look at the guy's face to set his mind at rest. He was going to verify that this guy was truly NOT Spike, and then he could go home and just not have to think about it anymore.
The guy opened a door and slipped inside, leaving Xander free to jog to catch up, since there was no longer any chance of being noticed. But when he got there, he froze, looking up at the brightly-lit sign over the door.
Xander nervously glanced around the store, but the other shifty-eyed customers seemed engrossed in their own stealthy shopping, and Not-Spike seemed to have disappeared. A fairly normal-looking goateed black guy behind the cash register could probably tell Xander where the blonde guy had gone, but walking up to ask him seemed so ... well ... stalkery.
He had been in a sex shop before, of course. More than once. Anya had boundless sexual enthusiasm and absolutely no shame, so she'd dragged him along to Sunnydale's one and only "adult merchandise" establishment, resulting in several very enjoyable experimentations, some of which he'd really have preferred she never mentioned in front of his friends. But the store in Sunnydale had been relatively tidy and non-threatening. It wouldn't be wise to frighten the suburban natives, after all. And, anyway, that store had also quite obviously been aimed at a purely heterosexual clientele.
This was different. A lot.
One wall was entirely magazines facing out to show their strikingly lurid covers: but these weren't the mainstream magazines like Playboy and Penthouse. Along with what looked like relatively tasteful and mainstream gay magazines, there were what looked like amateur "zines" and a wide variety of specialty mags with titles like Cascade Wet Sex Magazine (with a cover photo of a man standing over another man in a pose that seemed to imply the imminent exchange of rather unconventional bodily fluids), Bear Magazine (which featured extremely hairy overweight men on the cover), and South Fur Lands (which, based on the cover photo, seemed aimed at men attracted to other men who wore animal costumes). Some of the magazine covers weren't even in English.
The opposite wall was lined with VHS tapes and DVDs, all spine-out, presumably in order to fit as many movies as possible into the relatively small space. Xander caught titles like Twinkalicious and Slurpin' Jizz and Dr. Penis Erectus. He tried not to snicker too loudly, lest the other shoppers -- and/or employee -- take offense.
He wandered aimlessly. He wasn't really paying much attention to the merchandise ... he was just trying to work up his nerve to go talk to the cashier. There were several doors along the back wall of the store, and Not-Spike obviously must have disappeared into one of them. It was all very mysterious, but Xander wasn't quite ready to reveal his simultaneous ignorance and stalkeryness, so he perused the several freestanding shelves in the center of the room, which displayed various dildos, books with explicit covers, blow-up dolls, cock rings, glow-in-the-dark condoms, and ... this one was weird ... on one shelf, there were even little anatomically correct plastic G.I. Joe-type action figures, with tiny appendages and orifices in all the expected places. Actually, those were kind of cool, in a sly "Heh heh" kind of way.
Xander glanced over at the cashier. Apparently Goatee Man had noticed these repeated glances, because he came out from behind the counter and walked across the floor.
"Can I help you find something?" the guy asked in a perfectly normal tone of voice. He had the blandly uninterested tone of any salesperson at the grocery store or Wal-Mart.
Xander looked down at the anatomically correct action figures in his hands and practically tossed them back on the shelf, barely restraining himself from shouting, "Gah!"
Goatee Man just smiled slightly, but didn't leave.
"Actually," Xander began, hesitating. "Actually, I was looking for this guy ... uh ... he's got short blonde hair ... um..."
But he didn't have to finish the disjointed thought, because Goatee Man interrupted him. "You're looking for Byron. Thin guy? British accent?"
Xander nodded numbly, paralyzed by the realization that if Not-Spike had a British accent, then it was actually becoming possible that Not-Spike might, in fact, be Spike. But ... "Byron"?
"Door number 3," Goatee Man said helpfully. Xander stared at him as if he had spoken Urdu. "Door number 3," the guy repeated, gesturing to the doors along the back wall. "When the sign lights up, he's ready and you can go in."
Xander frowned, looking at the back wall more closely. Four of the doors had electronic white signs above them. The door behind the cash register didn't have a sign, except the one in the center of the door that said, "Employees Only."
Suddenly, the white sign above one of the doors blinked on, shining brightly with a black number "3" in the center.
Goatee Man shrugged, "He's ready now," and went back behind the cash register counter.
Xander hesitated, then he walked toward door number 3 and gingerly opened the door. Inside, he found a dimly-lit room, only about 4 feet square, with a metal chair in the center.
He'd seen the sign outside the store, and he wasn't a complete idiot. He'd never been to a peepshow, but he did have some idea of what was involved. Hell, he and Anya had even played a bit of a game along those lines once, though they'd participated in performer/customer contact that probably wasn't usually involved in most professional shows of this nature.
But, sure, he'd thought about it. Even without Anya. It was a little exciting, this idea of forbidden, dirty, sleezy paying-to-watch. This knowledge that you wouldn't want anybody to know. So, yeah, he'd noticed the neon-lit storefronts. And he'd even had some fantasies. To be honest, the performers in the fantasies had always been female, but Xander'd been living in San Francisco long enough to consider himself pretty open-minded about that sort of thing -- had even had a few fantasies along those lines as well, usually after he'd caught some particularly hot guy blatantly checking him out in the supermarket -- but ... Spike? That was where things seemed to start spiralling further and further into the bizarre.
Suddenly, Xander realized that he was still standing in the open doorway. He glanced behind him, nervous that other people in the store were staring at the pervert lingering at the peepshow booth. He went inside and closed the door, if only to avoid prying eyes and give himself a private chance to decide what to do.
Once inside, he stood with his back pressed against the door, not committed to actually staying and actually feeling a strong urge to flee. Following Not-Spike around was one thing -- and disturbingly creepy in its own way -- but following him into a gay peepshow was a whole 'nother level of creepitude.
But. He still hadn't gotten a good look at the guy, and Goatee Man's comment about the accent seemed to imply that maybe this actually was Spike. Dead Spike. Spike who everyone thought was dead, but who might in fact just be jerking them all around, the evil bastard.
So Xander straightened his shoulders a bit, like a nervous soldier headed into war, and walked over to sit in the chair. Not sure what to do, he looked around and saw that the wall to his right sported a sign with large, hand-written block letters that warned:
Beside the sign was a rectangular metal box with something white in the center. Upon closer inspection, Xander found that it was an industrial-style tissue dispenser. He shuddered.
In the corner of the tiny room was a small, phallic-shaped metal wastebasket with a swinging lid. Presumably for disposal of the tissues after they'd been ... used. Xander shuddered again. Ew. It all seemed so sordid and ... seedy. He was surprised to see that the room seemed relatively clean, though. Goatee Man must keep busy.
In the front of the room was a large square of glass, but it looked as if something was blocking it from the other side. Below the window, strange metal shapes glinted feebly in the dim lighting. Apparently, this was how customers paid for the show. A small sign -- this one printed rather than hand-lettered -- said:
Two weeks later, Xander was still deeply enmired in the land of stubborn denial.
He hadn't gone back to the Boy Toy Peepshow. He hadn't gone back to lurk outside the library or spy on Spike in any way. In fact, he'd pretty much avoided the Civic Center area entirely and hoped to do so for a very long long time.
He also hadn't told anyone. He hadn't phoned Giles or Buffy or even Willow with the news that Spike was here. He hadn't even told Frank and Luba, who he saw every couple days.
The bureaucratic red tape had finally cleared, and work had begun on the new site. The beginning of a new project always took a huge amount of energy, because Xander had to not only pull his crew together effectively, but also think about the entire process ahead of them, so that they didn't do anything in the early stages that might cause problems later on. Once you've poured the concrete, it's hard to go back.
Luckily, his crew on this project consisted mostly of guys he'd worked with before. They knew he was a good boss -- hell, he'd had enough shitty bosses and shitty jobs to know what not to do -- so they would probably form an effective working unit pretty easily, and the new guys seemed promising. The project looked good.
The problem was the nightmares.
He was having nightmares about Spike, about ... doing horrible things to Spike, degrading him and hurting him and telling him he was a piece of shit and watching those pink lips groan with pain instead of pleasure.
He was having nightmares about raping Spike. Pretty much every night.
And he woke up every time with an erection and the urge to vomit, both at the same time.
So he wasn't getting much sleep. If he woke up from a nightmare in the middle of the night, he got up and turned on some lights, turned on the tv, grabbed a bag of Cheet-Ohs and ate a few with heavy-lidded eyes, desperately refusing to go back to bed.
Because the nightmare might pick up right where it left off.
It got pretty bad. The day he realized that he was turning into such a sleep-deprived zombie that it might start actually endangering people on the site -- it was only by luck that Nat hadn't been hit by that girder -- Xander went upstairs when he got home from work and asked Frank if he wanted to go out and get a beer.
* * *
Xander was staring into his half-empty glass when he realized that the conversational chit-chat had petered out somewhere along the way. He looked up to see Frank watching him.
"So, what's up?" Frank's voice was casual. He took a drink from his glass.
Xander felt himself tense. "What? We go out for beer all the time! Well, not all the time, but, you know, often enough that it isn't weird or anything. Why should anything be up?"
Frank just took another long swig of his beer and watched Xander expectantly.
Some guys were playing darts nearby, and Xander let himself be distracted by that for a little while. Then he contemplated ordering some buffalo wings, just for the irony of it. Then the words were out of his mouth before he'd even decided to say them. "It's that guy."
Frank looked a little confused now. "What guy?"
"The guy from back home."
Frank's face cleared. "The guy you thought you saw on the street."
"The guy who's supposed to be dead."
"Yeah." Xander took a long drink that finished off his glass. He raised a hand to signal to the waitress.
"You saw him again."
"Yeppp." Xander's lips made an exaggerated popping noise on the "p" sound.
"So he's not dead," Frank verified patiently.
"Nopppe." Same exaggerated popping noise.
"Did you talk to him?"
Xander watched the guys playing darts. One of them wasn't half bad.
Xander was halfway through his second beer when the silence broke. "Well," Frank said slowly. "I know what Luba would say."
Xander smirked weakly at him. "You going to be a shrink now, too?"
But Frank just shrugged. "You live with somebody long enough, you know how they think."
"So what would Luba say?"
Frank looked him in the eye. "She'd say go talk to him."
Xander looked down at the table. His fingernails were suddenly very interesting. One of them had a bit of dirt beneath it, despite the fact that he'd washed his hands thoroughly after work. The plunk plunk of the darts was comforting. He heard Frank shift in his chair. When he looked up, Frank was calmly lifting his beer to take a drink, his freckled face placid.
Xander sighed and let his head fall back in frustration. He looked up at the ceiling. White tiles with little holes in them. Pretty standard cheap acoustical ceiling tiles, a lot like the ones he'd so often impaled with pencils, back in high school. Back in Sunnydale.
When he looked at Frank again, Xander's face was set in grim lines.
* * *
It was quarter past midnight when Spike emerged from the Boy Toy with two other men, talking and laughing. Xander had been working up his courage for more than an hour.
All three men turned to look at him, bland curiosity on their faces. Spike looked as if he were wearing an expressionless mask.
Xander stared right at Spike and walked closer, pointing an accusing finger. "Don't try to pretend you don't know me. You're caught, Spike. Don't make a fool of yourself trying to deny it."
The other two guys looked at Spike, who shrugged dismissively, though shadows had seeped into his eyes. "I seem to have gotten myself another stalker," he drawled casually. "It happens. One of the occupational hazards. When you're as bloody gorgeous as I am, one glimpse of paradise is never enough. I've got myself a string of lovesick poofs following me everywhere I go."
The three men laughed, then turned to leave again, but the dismissal pissed Xander off enough that he darted forward and took hold of Spike's arm.
That got the other men's attention. Spike turned around with a cold forbidding expression that almost made Xander shiver. The other two men stepped forward as if to protect their friend. "Go on," Spike said grimly, not looking away from Xander's face. "I can handle this tosser." Goatee Man and his buddy hesitated, but at Spike's continued silence, they nodded and walked on, glancing back several times as they got further and further down the street.
"Take your fucking hand off me." Spike's voice was an obvious threat, a hissed warning. Xander instinctively removed his hand. "Now piss off."
Xander's jaw dropped. "You're really trying to pull off this new identity deal? Even when you've been found out?"
Spike's face was suddenly very near, his eyes boring into Xander's. "Look, mate. I don't know you. You don't know me. I'm not this 'Spike' you're looking for, so just fuck off and don't come back." He turned and began to walk away with a quick, tense stride.
"Spike ... hell, Spike, we all thought you were dead! And now I find out you just ... just skipped town and changed your name? Because that is so you, Spike. That is so you."
Spike had turned back and was glaring at him from a slight distance. But Xander was on a roll, all that pent up resentment and disbelief finally getting its outlet.
"God! To think Buffy cried when she heard. And Dawn ... Dawn didn't leave her room for a week. She still hurts for you, still misses you. Everybody was so sure you were really gone this time ... really dead. And it turns out that actually you just couldn't be bothered to leave a forwarding address? What ... just because you're off in L.A. for a year, you think you can just blow us off? Well fuck you, Spike. I guess none of us ever were your friends, if you could just do that and not look back. Just let everybody who cared about you grieve and hurt and cry, while you run off to start fresh without even a fucking phone call."
Spike's face was still a blank mask, but the blue eyes were troubled. Xander could see it even in the dim streetlight. Xander hoped it meant the vampire was suffering, feeling guilty for the crap he'd pulled, because this was one of the most shining examples of Spike's asshole behavior.
Shaking his head in depressingly unsurprised disbelief, Xander repeated loudly, "Fuck you, Spike." He hoped that wasn't defeat in his voice. Disappointment. Abruptly, he turned around and walked away, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his coat.
He couldn't get away fast enough.
* * *
It was a pretty normal night. He was going out for a drink with Frank and Luba when it happened. They were just walking along the crowded sidewalk when suddenly, out of nowhere, there was Spike, standing rigid, staring at Xander with wide blue eyes, his lips parted in obvious surprise.
"Spike!" It popped out before Xander could stop it. "What are you doing here?"
Spike didn't answer for a moment, then seemed to take a moment to collect himself. "There was ... um ... at the bookstore ... a reading." He gesture back toward City Lights.
Xander didn't know what to say next. He put his hands in his pockets and looked over at the windows of the bookstore and nodded vaguely. An image from his nightmares entered his mind and he quickly dismissed it, cursing himself for being a pervert.
But then he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and Spike was moving closer, leaning in to say quietly, "I didn't know how to find you again." Then he pulled away, looking anxious.
Xander frowned, flummoxed by this turn of events. He felt a vague sense of shame over all his sleuthing, now that he knew Spike had wanted to find him, but at the same time he felt suspicious and resentful, wondering what new scam Spike was trying to pull.
"Spike?" Luba's voice came from behind him, and Xander turned. He'd forgotten his friends completely. "You must be Xander's friend from home." She smiled, charming as always.
Spike glanced at Xander, and Xander sighed. "Spike, these are my friends Frank and Luba. Frank and Luba, this is ... Spike."
Spike smiled shyly and said, "Luba. That's Russian for 'love'."
Luba raised her eyebrows in surprise. Then she said something Xander couldn't understand. Russian, presumably. Spike replied.
"Your Russian is very good," Luba remarked. "Have you spent time in Russia?"
Spike looked at Xander again. Growing impatient with being the translator from vampire history to believable history, Xander hedged, "Spike's very well-traveled. He's been to ... um ... well, England, obviously. And China. I know he was in China." He glanced caustically at Spike, but those blue eyes only watched him, giving nothing away. Scourge of Europe, he thought to himself. "And I think he sort of did the whole European tour." He shot Spike another sardonic look.
They all stood there for an awkward moment as people streamed around them on the sidewalk. Frank and Luba looked at Xander expectantly. They obviously expected him to be friendly with his supposed friend. Long-lost thought-he-was-dead friend, even. And Spike looked so nervous ... and he'd wanted to find Xander again for some reason. Suddenly, Xander found himself curious about that reason.
"We were on our way to the bar around the corner. You want a beer?"
Spike watched him warily, hesitating.
Xander rolled his eyes and then smiled at Spike for the first time since this whole thing had started. "They've even got buffalo wings."
Spike's lips dropped open, his eyes lit with something that looked almost like fear, and then it was all wiped away as if it had never been there. A bland mask of a face said, "Yeah. All right."
* * *
Not long afterward, the four of them were sitting at a table at the window, watching the tourists outside while they sipped bottles of beer and shared a plate of buffalo wings. Xander took a swig of his beer -- some extra liquid courage never hurt -- and addressed the issue head-on.
"You were kind of a prick the last time I saw you," he accused bluntly. "What changed your mind?" He watched Spike, waiting. He took another drink of his beer.
Spike glanced uncertainly at Frank and Luba, then looked at Xander and said, "You knew I was in L.A."
Xander rolled his eyes. "Well, duh. Everybody knew, Spike. It's not like it was a big secret. I mean, Angel does use the phone occasionally, even if it's usually only when he wants something, and -- hell! -- Andrew saw you, in L.A. and in Rome. And Buffy heard you'd been there, too, you and Angel both. So if you were trying for stealth mode, you were really sucking at it."
Spike poked absently at the food on his plate. Xander noticed the lack of black nail polish, and it was vaguely disappointing.
Spike mumbled something, and Xander rolled his eyes again. "If you're talking to the buffalo wings, Spike, I think even for them you might need to speak up."
Spike looked out the window. "I don't know any of those people."
Xander followed his gaze out the window, confused. "What people?"
Spike looked down at the plate again, picked up a buffalo wing as if considering it, and then put it back down. "The people you just talked about." His shoulders hunched a bit, as if he were curling in on himself defensively. "I don't know those people."
Then, without moving his head, Spike looked up through his lashes at Xander and said quietly, "I don't know you, either."
They all just sat there for a confused moment.
Frank glanced at Xander's face, then at Spike's, then back again. Luba took a breath to say something, but Frank put a hand on her arm. She closed her mouth. "I'd guess you two have a lot to talk about," Frank said slowly. He stood up, and Luba reluctantly joined him, her eyes shining with frustrated curiosity. "We'll leave you to it." Xander stared up at them, panicked.
"No!" Xander exclaimed quickly. "I mean, yes. Yeah. Lots to talk about. Of course. Duh. But ... not alone talking. You guys should stay. Because ... uh..." He cast wildly through his mind, searching for a reason other than, "I'm totally freaked," but nothing came to him. "You guys should stay," he repeated lamely.
Frank nodded slowly and Luba smiled. They took their seats. Frank looked uncertain whether they were doing the right thing, but Xander felt like hugging them for not abandoning him in his hour of really awkward need.
Another silence descended upon the table.
Xander's mind reeled. What was he supposed to say to an amnesiac vampire ... with his vamp-clueless friends listening? It was sort of a new experience.
"Uh ..." he stammered awkwardly, gesturing to his empty bottle, "... anybody else need another cold one?"