Oxnard To Glory by Reremouse and Tabaqui

Chapter 1 The Freshman through The Initiative

Driving north on 101, the wind whipping in through the open windows. Deafening - numbing - and Xander didn't want to close them.

Didn't want to turn on the air conditioning. He wanted the sharp scent of the ocean in his nose for as long as he could have it - sun-warmed granite and pine and wet sand. Didn't have the radio on because he was thinking - hard. Contemplating what he was going to do - and say - when he got back to Sunnydale.

He shifted a little on the seat, his hand on the gearshift of the truck. The one he'd bought to replace the car that had died so spectacularly on him in Oxnard. Shoddy Detroit workmanship and zero maintenance that'd just about sent him into the side of the Oxnard Post Office.

That was Xander's life - a thrill a minute.

And headed toward at least two point five thrills a minute when he got home.

He took a deep breath of sunshine and sea air - good old Southern California standbys - and grinned at himself in the mirror. Good start. Bright grin. Not at all wooden.

"Hey, Buff! You're lookin' good. Me? Yeah, I got a lot of exercise this summer working as a stripper."

A VW bus cut him off and he slammed his feet down onto brake and clutch, fighting the unfamiliar gear-pattern and nearly stalling until he got the truck into third and began to ease back up to cruising speed. The VW weaved across another lane and darted for an exit, leaving a trail of honking horns in its wake and Xander shook his head.

The gods were smiling on Xander Harris. At least as far as keeping him from being creamed by a vehicle older than he was. He gave himself a quick check in the rearview mirror - the smile was really lookin' wooden.


Maybe that wasn't the right approach to take and diversionary tactics were in order.

"Hey, Buff! I'm gay! Havin' the big gay sex with big gay guys and - "

Well, it'd be diversionary.

Maybe too diversionary.

Xander analyzed the distance to the next rest area, took a big gulp of his Big Gulp, cleared his throat and answered himself in a falsetto. "But Xander, you had all of those big plans with Anya on Prom Night."

Apparently, Buffy Summers was being played by a chipmunk on helium in this production of Sunnydale Hills.

Xander coughed and answered himself. "The Xand-man's plan was a roaring success - or a moaning success anyway. For at least fifteen minutes which isn't bad for a first try...and okay, totally inappropriate level of detail."

He waited for imaginary Buffy to answer but she seemed to be shocked into silence.

He tried imaginary Giles because he didn't require a falsetto. "Young men often strike out on their own and...experiment. That first flush of freedom from school and home can - can be quite intoxicating." Huh. All those days and nights spent in the library with really big books seemed to have rubbed off. Xander passed a semi pulling two trailers and weaving a bit and took another sip of his ice-melty Big Gulp.

Unfortunately, after those words of not-quite-advice mental Giles went quiet too, so he addressed the entire group. "Guys, my summer vacation was a profound and life-changing experience. There I was on my last dime when I was taken in by a band of male strippers and taught their ways. While living on a diet of generic imitation Twinkies and canned spaghetti in the luxurious Roadway Inn Mo-Tel ($19.99 a night, weekly rates available, no pets), I learned their traditions, their language, their ways and their mating rituals. But their world is not my world and so I returned home to you, my beloved friends, bearing the name they gave me - Dances With Cockroaches."

Xander would not be missing life in the Roadway Inn Mo-Tel.

As he coasted to a stop in front of his house, Xander realized he hadn't really been missing life at the Harris House, either. Everything was - exactly the same. With a sigh, he turned off the truck, climbed slowly out and stretched. He hauled his duffle out of the bed and went reluctantly up the walk. Maybe he could practice his 'gay now' speech on his dad. This time of day, he'd have a few beers in him - probably wouldn't take in half of what Xander said.

An hour later, Xander stomped down the sidewalk and shoved a last box into the truck-bed. Five in all, and with his duffle it was... *A pretty pathetic showing for eighteen years. Fuck it.* The last thing he was gonna do was live in the basement, pay rent, and listen to his dad yell at his mom and his mom yell at his dad and the both of them yell at him.

No way, no sir. He had skills. Prospects. A future. And even if the future included the Sunnydale Motor Inn, it was better than the Basement of Doom.

He slammed the truck gate and got in, cranked the motor and had the feeling he was forgetting something.

Oh. Right.

He leaned over and rolled the window down. "Mom? Dad?" They came to the front door - his and hers beers in hand. "I'm gay!"

Sure, it wasn't the way the conversation had gone in the truck on the way back to Sunnydale...but sometimes, a guy had to improvise.

Xander waved at his ex-next door neighbor as he pulled away from the curb. "Take it easy, Mrs. Dewey!"

Dances With Cockroaches was on the open road again.

The Bronze seemed pretty small after a summer in cosmopolitan downtown Oxnard. But it was familiar, down to the stains on the old couches and the gaggle of kids swarming the dance-floor. And the blonde head that turned his way and the mouth that smiled, the first welcoming smile he'd seen since he got to town.


"Buffster!" Buffy pulled him into a rib-cracking hug and Xander ooof'ed quietly, grinning.

"When did you get back?" Buffy asked, flopping down onto a couch.

Xander sprawled down next to her. "Today, actually. So - how's the college life? Any pajama parties in the dorm yet?"

"Xander!" Buffy whapped him on the arm and then settled a little closer, her knee pressing into his. "College is a lot like high school only - nobody knows me and it's really, really big and full of traps."


"Yeah, like - books stacked on high shelves that fall on cute guys and totally humiliate you. I'd rather talk about your trip! See America! What did you see?"

"I saw the diversity of this great wide land of ours," Xander said. It was an all right start so he went with it. "First, there was Doug - he's Sioux from North Dakota and has this great thing he does with his hair and a Cure CD. Then there was Ray - from New York - and let me tell you that is one guy who can find the best pizza in any town. Then there's Crazy Lenny from New Orleans - and okay maybe less said about him is better but he does things to jazz that Louie Armstrong never intended. Then there was - "

Then there was Buffy looking at him really funny with her head tilted to one side and her elbow on the back of the couch. "Okay. I'm beginning to see a trend - a really weird trend. Xander, did you actually go anywhere?"

"Funny you should ask that, Buff."

"Is it? Will the answer be funny, too?"

"Uh...depends on how funny guys dancing to Chumbawamba is to you."

Buffy's eyes went wide and then she fumbled in her purse, pulling out a twenty. "Okay. This conversation obviously calls for the Macho Nacho and extra-large Cokes."

"I think you're absolutely right," Xander said, and Buffy grinned.

"So...really gay? Like - card-carrying, leather-daddy, likes Liza Minnelli gay?"

"Well - nobody gave me a card, and the words 'leather' and 'daddy' should never be put together anywhere near me. And Liza's just weird these days."

"Oh, yeah," Buffy scooped up the last of the sour cream on a chip and stuffed it into her mouth - took a sip of soda. "And what's up with that guy she married? Talk about Night of the Living Dead." Buffy swallowed, then stared at Xander. "What - do I have nacho on my face?"

"No, no nacho, just -" Xander didn't want to sound too Lifetime for Women but... "I'm just kind of...amazed. Shocked and amazed and - totally relieved." At Buffy's frown, Xander reached over and patted her hand - pressed it gently under his. "I thought there'd be shouting."

"Well...it's not exactly surprising."

The remnants of Xander's heterosexuality staged a protest at the implications. "What? Hey! Card carrying ex of Cordelia Chase, here."

"I hate to break it to you, Xand - but that was kinda more surprising."

"I had sex with Anya on prom night! Two and a half times!" They stared at each other until Xander dropped his face into his hands. "Oh my god. Too much information. Way too much information."

Buffy looked like she was trying to decide between asking how you had sex two and a half times - which Xander really hoped she wouldn't - and not wanting to know. Apparently, there was a god and Buffy decided she didn't want to know. "Um - okay - well you know it's not uncommon to experiment before you find your place and - um - it's not like nobody noticed you whenever Angel was around."

"I hated Angel!"

"And yet, there was staring."

"I didn't stare at Angel."

Buffy raised her eyebrows.

"I stared at Angel?"

"Kind of a lot."

"No I didn't. I was - was glaring. And - scowling and - totally staring, wasn't I."

"You totally were. But it's okay, he just thought you wanted to have sex with him, he didn't think you were - what?"

"Angel thought I wanted to have sex with him?" Buffy coughed and took a long drink, her cheeks turning bright pink.

"Yeah, well, we had this talk one time about -"

"Just kill me now," Xander said - laid on the table with his arms stretched out and his head almost in the denuded nacho platter. "Please don't finish that story. Ever."

"Will do," Buffy said. Then she giggled, and Xander's head snapped up.

"Now what?"

"You stared at Oz, too. Willow didn't know how to tell you."

"Now would be a really great time for the roof to collapse on me." Xander looked up hopefully but it was not to be. "And anyway, maybe I was just...trying to make up my mind. You know? Maybe I wondered what it'd be like to...have red hair or...be really..." Xander struggled for a non-incriminating word to describe any of Angel's traits, "broody."

"Sorry, Xand. Vamp sense of smell."

"I really don't want to know what you mean by that, do I?"

"Believe me when I say nuh-uh."

Xander did - because when a Slayer blushed like that about something super special vampy, it was really not something Xander's peace of mind needed any details of.

They both reached for their cokes.

"So," Buffy said, "gay."

It was a brave new world with fifty percent less wigging - and seventy five percent more repetition. "Yup."

"Now tell me about the whole stripper thing."

"Nuh." Xander held up one hand and drew the invisible line.

"Oh come on!"

"No power on Earth," Xander reiterated. He had to draw the line somewhere.

An hour later they'd decimated three more sodas and a Blooming Onion and Buffy was making 'oh my god what did I just eat' noises. Xander was feeling pretty mellow from the carb-salt-fat rush and just lounged back in his chair, smiling. Oddly, despite the bed he was sleeping in later and the total lack of a job - he felt good. *Home. Huh. Weird.*. He looked up and around - habitual scan for trouble/Willow and saw a hedgehog-y shock of bright copper-red hair instead.

"Oz! Hey, Oz!" Xander called, and Oz turned his way - ambled over, that lazy half-smile on his face. "Come and sit and talk, Oz. Or, you know, don't talk and by your very Zen-like silence wig me out and make me talk."

"I can do that," Oz said, flopping bonelessly into a chair and tipping a nod at Buffy, who lifted her eyebrows back at him.

"So, where's Willow?" Xander asked, firmly squashing the momentary unease the question brought. *Best friend, weird crush all gone, I can ask, it's okay. No outstanding crush on the Oz-man to make best friend wig. Also okay.*

Oz picked at the seam of his jeans - tapped his fingers on his knee, onetwothree onetwothree. It he hadn't been Oz, the Great and Unflappable, Xander would have said he was flapped.

Also avoidy.

"Class. I think. Didn't check her schedule today." And Oz looked like he wanted to say more and Xander tried to think of something to say that wasn't going to make the awkward more awkward. He was still good with the making of awkward - then they were both saved by the Buff.

"Guys, I gotta go. Patrol, reading, secret beauty regimen -" Buffy was gathering up her purse and standing, brushing her skirt off and Xander stood up too - pulled her into a hug. "I'm glad you're back, Xander," she said softly.

"Me too. See you later, Buff." Buffy waved at Oz and was gone, and Xander sighed and slumped back into his chair. "So. Oz. Tell me everything. Except the really awkward and possibly too-personal parts involving my best friend."

"College, band, Bronze, vampires, Willow, camping, poison ivy," Oz said, and signaled a waitress. He considered for a bit over a beer Xander didn't know how he'd gotten. There was another Oz-is-thinking look into his beer, and then he added, "calamine lotion. You?"

"Gay," Xander said.

"That's new."

"Not so much." And hey - the whole non-wordy mojo cool was working for him. Maybe it came with the gay. Xander took a non-wordy and cool sip of his soda.

Oz did the same. "Boyfriend?"

The non-wordy mojo cool was still working for him but apparently his face still babbled.

"Sorry to hear it," Oz answered Xander's face.

"I'm okay," Xander said and then, "It's good to be home." Which was, surprisingly, not untrue.

"Want to dance?"

Which doubled the weird. And tripled it when Xander said, "Yeah, sure." Because there was no booty-shaking fear once that booty had been shaken for bucks. As they made their way to the dance-floor, Xander consulted his inner censor and decided it wouldn't mind Oz knowing all. "So, know any good male strip clubs in town?"

That's how Xander found himself standing in front of The End Of The World one day later asking the door guy for an application and wondering how much irony the universe allowed in one spot before reality folded in on itself or something.


"Yeah? I mean - that's me."

"Come on back."

Xander hiked his jeans back up, thanking every god he'd ever heard Giles mention favorably that he'd, somehow, worn his nicest underwear. That he'd worn any underwear, since he'd kind of gotten out of the habit. And stripping down and showing a few moves was always part of the interview at a place like this.

"Okay - everything looks - heh - good. I'll put you on shift for - Wednesday through Friday, see how you do." Mike, the owner, scribbled something on a paper - opened a drawer and dug out a W-2 form. "Give this to Dani up at the office so she can file it. If you do all right then we'll see about moving you to weekends. Sound good?"

"Sounds great," Xander said - offered his hand and took the paper - went out with a little bounce in his step. He would do more than all right. He'd gotten weekends his first week of working, up in Oxnard. Something about the big, brown eyes and the filthy hip-roll-shimmy just sucked 'em in. Tips - almost literally - out the yin-yang.

*One bedroom apartment with cable, here I come!*

But first, sugary caffeinated goodness.

Xander hung a left for the Espresso Pump and quickly amended himself.

But first, a lecture from the best friend who had, by the look of her, run into her boyfriend already. "Hey, Wills."

Okay, first an armful of Willowy goodness squeezing him hard enough around the waist to make him glad he hadn't had the sugary caffeinated goodness first as planned.

"You have a lot of explaining to do, mister."

"When a guy finds another guy attract - ow!" Xander rubbed his arm - and not just to make a point. Clearly, Willow had been pressing some iron that summer.

"That was for going to see Buffy and Oz last night but not me."

"Uh - buy you a mocha, little lady? We'll exchange stories of our summer."

"Mine involves poison ivy."

"Mine involves taking off my clothes for money."

"I'm gonna need a double mocha for this, Xand. With whipped cream."

"Whatever the little lady wants."




Xander had gotten hot chocolate instead of a mocha anything, although he'd had them put in enough whipped cream to jump-start five small children. Willow went back to school with a sort of frenzied look in her eye, brandishing four different colored pens. For note taking. Xander just patted her arm and nodded, standard crazy-person 'yes yes, of course' as she detailed her methods.

*Oh thank god I'm not going to sit in a classroom that requires four different colors of pens.*

Taking off his clothes for cash was looking better all the time.

He strolled across town, enjoying the day - nothing to do but hang out, and that felt - good. When he knocked on Giles' door a half hour later, he was surprised to see the older man looking disheveled and a little sweaty, with his shirt untucked and a smudge of dust across his forehead.

"Hey, Giles. Busy?"

"Not as such - I'm just - organizing." Giles held the door open, stepped away, and Xander took the unvoiced invitation and stepped inside. It was warm - Giles had the windows open and the air conditioning off, and there were full boxes and empty boxes and wobbly stacks of books everywhere.

It smelled like the library from Sunnydale High.

Xander took a closer look.

It was the library from Sunnydale High.

He dropped his bag on a stack of books and wedged himself into the only horizontal space left in the condo. "So while Buffy was saving our graduating class, you were saving the books? That is so...Giles." He picked up the nearest book and flipped through the woodblock prints out of habit until Giles snatched it away.

"You're hardly one to - to cast aspersions. You were wiring the school with explosives at the time."

Xander felt the warm glow of accomplishment. "Good times. Good times." He picked up another book, flipped it open - and turned it sideways. Who knew books of demonology had centerfolds and where had Giles been keeping them all before? "You kept all the good books in your office," he accused.

"I kept the books that were inappropriate for children in my office." Giles made a grab for the book and Xander snatched it away with a grin.

"Good thing I'm not a child anymore, huh?"

"Did you have a reason to come here?"

"Reason? I have to have a reason now to come visit? What, we're not family? If you tickle us, do we not both shoot Grape Crush out of our noses?"

Giles was looking at him, holding another book in a protective huddle. "I have never shot grape anything out of my nose."

"Oh. Well. Actually, I just got back into town yesterday and I wanted to come say hi."

"Oh. Oh! Yes, the 'See America' tour. Willow told me about it. Did you enjoy yourself? You do know that Hawaii is an island, don't you?"

Xander stopped paging through the book and plastered on a big, bright smile. "Oh yeah. Sure. Uh - not that it was so much of an issue."


"I didn't exactly make it to all fifty." Xander unfolded another leaf - and that was a funny looking arm. He tilted the book and shut it quickly, shifting in sympathy pain. That was not an arm.

"No?" Giles was already turned back to the shelves. Stroking the spine of the book in a way that'd be hot if it wasn't kinda freaky - book-masturbation. "How many did you visit?"

"Um." Xander found himself rubbing the cover of his own book and snatched his hand away. "One."

"What? One?" Giles finally turned around again, his hand on the shelf holding two books apart, his other hand guiding the third book into place. "Was it - very far away?"

"No, it was - okay, okay - fine. You dragged it out of me, Giles. My car exploded in Oxnard and I never got any farther than that."

Giles shelved the book. Bit his lip. Looked up at the beam of sunlight coming over the stair-rail and took off his glasses. His stomach was heaving a little under his shirt and Xander felt his own mouth curling slowly. Giles glanced over at him again and burst into laughter and Xander grinned back - slumped onto the edge of a book-covered table, watching Giles laugh himself into almost-tears and then subside, wiping his glasses on a smudged handkerchief.

"Well, I suppose 'I'm sorry' is in order? Or some expression of condolence? Or would you rather pretend it never happened?"

And it was wrong, wrong, wrong to get hard off the memories of a string of 'who I did last summer' flashbacks in Giles' house, so Xander pasted on another grin and hoped it wasn't the 'I had sex!' one. Because that one was an open book and Giles was already looking at him so Xander shrugged. "You know what they say, Giles. You can't go back."

Giles raised an eyebrow.

"Okay. I worked all summer as a stripper and discovered I'm really gay."

Giles dropped his book.

"It was a summer of self-discovery," Xander said. Unit five had been especially great: Xander Harris, this is your prostate.

Giles was staring at him with an expression Xander had never seen on his face, one hand frozen on its way to glasses removal.

"Did I say that out loud?"

Giles' mouth worked for a moment. "Which part?"

Waking up tangled with Oz on the floor of Giles apartment was...surreal, and for a moment Xander wondered if they'd had some drinks and - gotten experimental. But then he sat up and a hot, sharp throb of pain went through his head and neck and the memory of Super-Paranoid-Buffy jumped up in front of him and did a little dance. One with way too many hippy-hippy shakes.

His last memory before oblivion was of avoiding the legs.

They should've avoided her hands too.

"Oh, man. That was -"

"Bad," Oz groaned. He sat up more slowly - eyed the pile of rope that had been tied around Buffy. "Damn."

"Double damn. Why couldn't Giles have shackles like any self respecting bachelor?"

Oz was staring at him - and Willow was standing in the open doorway to Giles' apartment - also staring at both of them. But not coming any closer. She had her arms wrapped around her and did he mention there was staring?

Xander untangled himself from Oz and thought about standing up. There had been a lot of staring lately.

"I said that out loud too, didn't I?"

Two nods.

"I'm okay. I can cope!" Xander struggled to his feet, steadied by Willow on one side and Oz on the other when he wobbled. There was a definite tenderness around his eye that was not gonna leave him ready for any beauty pageants at work that night.

And then Giles rushed in with the toenails.

"Toenails! Yeesh." Xander still cringed at the thought, but at least they'd been in time to - to - watch Daddy Dearest whisk his daughter away to the home dimension. Talk about issues. Xander snapped the elastic of the eye patch into place and surveyed himself in the mirror. Headscarf, check. Ruffly shirt, check. Tear-away pleather breeches, check. Pleather belt with 'sword', check. And thigh-high boots that were gonna soon be stuffed full of doubloons - check.

Because if thigh high boots and a skull and crossbones G-string didn't say 'arr! I'm here to pillage ye pirate gold!' and other piratey things involving money, Xander didn't know what did.

There was a low whistle behind him and he had to twist all the way around to see Dale standing in the doorway with his costume in one hand, the other fanning his face.

"You can plunder my booty any time!"

And that was the sweet sound of success. Xander flashed Dale a grin and grabbed his hat, seating it on his head. "I'm more of a pillaging kinda guy."

Pirates seemed to be popular. So did Mummy Kings and 'greasy' car mechanics, but around week three, when Xander was down to choosing between two one-bedroom apartments in walking distance of the club, he got called into Mark's office. And asked questions.

About the bruises.

And the cut across his knuckles, and the big skinned patch on his thigh. Mark looked - suspicious - and a little bit wigged and told Xander that if he couldn't come to work contusion-free, he'd better find some other work.

Late that night, being slammed into a headstone by a vamp in a Sunnydale High t-shirt, Xander knew his stripper days were over.

On the way home to the Sunnydale Motor Inn, he picked up his first of many applications for fine establishments like Happy Burger, most of who didn't require him to take his clothes off for the interview.

"The Xand-man is here!"

Giles looked at Xander over his glasses, then at his watch. "The Xand-man is forty minutes late."

"Couple of field trip buses right before my shift ended." Xander tossed the grease-stained bag onto the kitchen ledge and shrugged out of his coat. "Dinner's on me." That was one advantage to working in a fast food shop over working as a stripper. He was pretty sure Giles' eyes wouldn't light up like that if Xander had brought his other job over for the research party even if it was going nowhere fast because every book Giles had said the Gem Of Amara was a great big myth. "Fries?"

"I don't suppose you have any - "

Xander handed over a carton of Happy Burger's Famous Beer Battered onion rings and flipped open another book on mystical trinkets and the vampires who loved them. Then he closed his eyes, slouched and waited for his spine to fuse comfortably with the back of the couch.

"Oh, thank you."

And who knew food was the surest route to a happy Giles?

Giles liked the mixed livers'n'gizzards from the Go-Go Chicken, which made Xander shudder. Giles preferred the egg-drop soup at the Fortune Inn to the sweet and sour, and he really liked the Fiesta Bowl from Tacos on the Go! But he drew the line at Bucky's Fondue Hut.

"Really, Xander, there is nothing that establishment serves that I consider even remotely edible." Giles was looking at him over the tops of his glasses and Xander slumped down onto the couch, letting his head fall onto the back with a long sigh. He could see the book between his knees but it was so far away. He rolled his head in Giles' direction.

"Right there with you, Giles. I don't think I'll ever eat fondue again myself. You should see what dropped into the swiss cheese pot the other night -"

"I'm actually rather glad I didn't. Xander..."

Giles came over and perched on the edge of the couch, a book in his hands, his fingers marking his place. "Have you ever considered some other sort of job? Something that didn't require a - a jaunty paper hat, for instance?"

Xander made an embarrassed grab at his head. "Damn. I forgot again."

That was one thing he missed about stripping - it was really hard to accidentally leave work dressed in your uniform.

At least when you were still awake.

"Surely there must be - be some sort of work available for a strapping young lad such as yourself."

"A whating young what, now?"

The glasses came off.

"You are young, Xander - you are strong, and you have your high school diploma which is not quite the miracle you've made it out to be."

"So you're saying...?"

Giles handed him the employment classifieds and a pen and got back to the big trouble of the week thing.

And his onion rings.

That's how Xander found himself standing in the street outside of Connections Sunnydale, wondering if he should run, hide or beg The End Of The World to take him back as The Amazing Bruise Boy.


"Anya! You're back!" And then, because he seemed to need more to say to the first - and likely only - woman to see him naked who wasn't his mom, and needed to say it fast to get that image out of his mind, "Uh...coffee?"

The Espresso Pump seemed to be the place for uncomfortable conversations with redheads. Anya was a red-head now - Xander thought it was okay, but she didn't like it. She said, between sips of her double-half-caf-something-or-other that she'd tried blonde, too, and black and every shade in between and was thinking about going back to her natural color. Except she couldn't exactly remember it and did Xander remember? Did he, for instance, have a picture in his mind of that time after Prom in the hotel room?

When her toe found its way up his pant-leg, Xander almost spit hot chocolate all over her cleavage. Of which there was a lot.

And he blamed all of it when he blurted, "I'm gay!"

The toe abruptly disappeared. "Don't be silly, Xander. You gave me a perfectly adequate orgasm."

"I - but that - " He stopped. "You came?"

Which he should probably have asked on Prom night. Or possibly not have asked at all.

And the street was not swallowing him up yet why?

"Yes. Twice, although I did need to finish for myself the second time when you were - "

"Gay!" Xander sprang up from his seat and grabbed Anya by the shoulders. "I mean, it was nice. It was great." She was starting to look hopeful again and he cut her off, "It was kind of a blur. But it wasn't...what I was looking for, okay?"

"But you came."

Xander licked his lips and realized a lot more people were watching them than had been before and decided that maybe the Espresso Pump was not the best place to have this conversation. "Look, uh, you want to take a walk with me?"

"Are you sure I didn't turn you gay?" Anya asked for the fourth time, ducking under a low-hanging tree limb as they walked toward her apartment. "I mean - I thought the sex was pretty good, but then you never called -"

"Anya, I'm sure you didn't -"

"But that guy in Chicago never called, either. Or that guy in Philadelphia. Or those two guys in New York - I couldn't have turned them all gay, Xander!"

Xander stopped walking and grabbed Anya by the shoulders - put on his best 'of course I finished my homework and cleaned my room' face. "Anya! Listen. You did not turn me gay. I promise. I was gay before Prom I just - didn't want to admit it. Okay? We good?"

Anya stared at him - then she smiled. That sweet smile that had lured Xander in in the first place.

"Okay. I trust you. You're my only real friend, and I did not turn you gay. Now. Explain to me the gay rules, okay? I want to know everything."

She did, too - everything - including the parts of everything that made Xander blush to the roots of his hair and she was really not afraid of asking questions.

Any questions.

All questions.

His prostate felt like it was giving a statement to the media.

But Xander drew the line when Anya asked if she could watch and take notes.

"You know, you're really good at this," Anya said, standing on the steps of her building. "I mean, all this sex talk. You should come work with me."

Xander had a moment of panic, wondering just what Anya meant. Had she taken a job as a sex therapist or something?

"I should - what? Work with you and talk about sex? Anya -"

"Yes! Exactly! People call me and tell me what they like, and I tell them it's sexy. Or stupid, if they want that instead. And I get money!"

Xander took a guess - and really hoped it was right. "Do you work for a sex chat line?"

"Yes. Beautiful girls just waiting to talk to you, now. Although I suppose you wouldn't be a beautiful girl, but we do have another commercial about our stable of hot young studs standing by. You would make an excellent hot young stud, Xander."

So Xander found himself with the administrative phone number for XXX-cursions in his pocket, and a letter of recommendation from Anya enthusiastically assuring 'whom it may concern' of Xander's sexual prowess.

Xander was playing kick-the-stone as he walked down the sidewalk, but he was on his fourth stone so he supposed he was failing at it. *Too. Don't forget the too.* Hard to believe he'd failed at being a sex-chat stud. Well, no, actually, that wasn't all that hard to believe, except...

It had been going really well, and the callers seemed to like his voice and his fairly vanilla imagination and then...

The more than vanilla stuff had started coming and...well...let's just say it's hard to talk the sexy talk when you sound like Daffy Duck from total embarrassment.

Which - okay - was pretty much in the cards for him. Because it was one thing when the bright lights were hiding the audience, and he only had to shake his groove thang. It was easy to get lost in the music but the sexy talk kind of needed the mental participation.

Xander sighed - glanced around.

And decided while on campus, he would do as the collegiate crowd did - and goof off in someone else's dorm.

Which kinda limited his options to two and it was his lucky day they were roommates. The rock skittered away between a bench and trash can (three points, Harris scores!) and Xander swerved toward a map. Sudden visits to best friends called for offerings of the chocolate variety and Fischer Hall Cafeteria kinda had the best brownies on campus.

And with the whole Oz thing - well - brownies weren't a substitute for guitar-playing werewolves with really busy social schedules, but they'd grease his way in. It wasn't good for Willow to sit around the dorm room waiting for Oz to call. Not healthy.

Not -

Not right in any world to see Buffy going at it with Spike in broad daylight. And Xander had to call Giles to tell him the Gem Of Amara was not a myth. Right after he kept the big, bad invulnerable vampire from killing Buffy. "Hey!" Xander yelled - which wasn't the best plan but it was the only one he had - and started running toward Buffy and Spike.

A flicker of a glance from Spike - not even that from Buffy and then Spike struck, lightning-fast and Buffy flew, skidding over concrete to crash into a heavy planter. And didn't get up. Xander felt a peculiar and horrible sensation in his chest - as if his heart had simply stopped, then started again with a huge, thudding whump that took his breath away.

And then he was standing way too far from Buffy and way too close to Spike.

*Buffy, get up, get up, please get up!*

What would Buffy do? Xander froze as Spike stalked toward him. What would Buffy do? Buffy? "Jesus, you look even paler in the daytime then you do at night. Hope you packed some SPF 5000." As witty quips went, it wasn't much but Spike stopped stalking - tilted his head a little to one side, golden eyes regarding him with something like interest. *Almost there - just tackle him!*

"Well well, if it isn't the boy. The snack-pak from dear old Angelus. Only - he's not around right now, is he?" Spike grinned, licking his fangs, and leaped, landing not two feet from Xander, who skidded wildly on the grass in an attempt not to impale himself on those fangs.

*Okay, maybe tackling is not a good idea.* "No, Deadboy hightailed it off to L.A. with his tail between his legs. Don't you want to go find him and - uh - yell at him some more?" Spike made a snorting sound of amusement - ducked Xander's punch with ease.

"Oh, no fear, the great pouf is next on my list. Right after the Slayer."

"Over my dead body," Xander said, and Spike laughed.

"If you insist, mate." And then Spike did a thing with his tongue. That was actually kinda hot.

And *no, no, no!* this was not the time for Little Xander to get into the game.

Unfortunately, Little Xander was really stupid, and distracted Big Xander long enough for Spike to land a hard punch.

Xander hit the ground with a grunt, Spike landing heavily on top of him, straddling him and pinning his shoulders to the ground easily with one forearm.

Really stupid.

Because Spike was looking at him with a smirk that couldn't be anything but knowing and Xander - laid there breathing hard and staring death in the cheekbones and Xander's coming out list was now complete. Coming out to everyone including Spike before he died? Check. He wasn't ready to die. "Well, now."

"Excuse me." A slim hand came down into Xander's peripheral vision, tapping Spike on the shoulder. And when Spike turned to snarl, it punched him in the nose, knocking him off Xander and the fight - and Xander's future - was back on.

Xander propped himself on one elbow and watched Buffy and Spike fight in a daze of still not dead!. They were - pretty evenly matched. In fact, Xander hadn't seen any other vampire besides Angelus last this long against Buffy.

And Spike seemed to be really enjoying himself. Laughing - talking - dancing around, his coat billowing out and showing off sexy tight black jeans -

*Whoa with the sexy, nellie! None of that. Evil undead dead guy. Trying to kill my friend! Evil guy that smells like...lemon drops. Okay, weird - aahh!* Xander flinched back hard as Spike stumbled to his knees not one foot away.

"Thinkin' about me, pet?" he said - no, leered - and then he turned and leapt on Buffy with a roar and Xander hauled himself upright and looked around for a stick. Or a really big rock.

Only - not so necessary because Spike's laughter suddenly stopped and by the time Xander spotted him, he was disappearing down a manhole in a cloud of smoke, coat over his head.

And Xander's knees only wobbled a little when he staggered over to Buffy and offered her a hand up onto her feet. "What were you thinking, Xander?"

Sexy vampire.

Buffy let go of him to brush herself off. "He could have killed you."

"And yet he didn't. I say yay for team us." Xander steadied himself against the low wall. "That the Gem?"

"That's the Gem."

"It doesn't look so tough." Xander's back twinged its disagreement.

Sexy vampire.

*Shut up with the sexy vampire stuff already.*

The Gem was gone.

And so was Oz.

Both of them to LA and Angel and there was something thematic in the way things gravitated away from Sunnydale and to Angel.

It also kinda looked like both of them were staying there.

Brownies weren't going to solve the mess left behind.

"Whu-why would he leave like that?"

Xander's shirt front was warm and wet and Willow was still crying - hard - and Xander didn't really have an answer this time. Just like the last thirty times since Oz's 'it's not you - it's me' phone call.

And crying Willow time was not the time for big gay 'I'm jerking off to memories of Spike trying to kill me' confessions.

No, brownies weren't going to solve it. But Jesus, Xander really wished he could reach the plate.

Chapter 2 Pangs through A New Man.

Xander woke with a small start when there was a crash right outside his door. He blinked - squinted blearily at the little clock radio on the nightstand. Nine a.m. It was the ice-machine guy, then. Not - (sexy) evil vampires. It was never sexy vampires if by 'never' he could convincingly mean 'a month.' He pushed himself upright slowly, groaning because that's what you did when your body started rallying for the opportunity to die instead of getting out of bed.

*Worse than I thought. Damn - long fall...* Construction was - so not his thing. Village People pedigree or not. The swinging of the pickaxe and the toting of the...shovel. Or whatever. And the falling through the thin crust of the earth into hidden caverns before an audience of dozens part was really not his thing. And he'd planned to spend his Thanksgiving a lot more bruise-free than this. *Maybe in a normal city it'd be kind of cool,* Xander thought, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and feeling a sudden rush of giddy nausea. *But in Sunnydale it just means secret, hidden burial mounds and weird mist and...more bruises.*

He really needed a new job.


But at least this job didn't fire him for bruises.

"Hot shower, fix me right up. Right. Up." Xander pushed weakly at the mattress and then flopped backwards, pulling his pillow over his head. *Ten minutes.*

Ten minutes turned to fifteen and fifteen turned to going back to sleep until pounding on the hotel room door woke him up again.

Xander considered telling whoever it was to fuck off.

But that would require raising his voice.

That would require using his voice and he really didn't have it in him.

Xander compromised with a weak and sweaty groan and pulled the blankets up higher under his chin.

"Answer your fucking phone!" Voice. New York accent.


Xander tried to sit up - decided sitting up was of the bad and flopped down.

The phone obligingly rang, and the neighbor went off.

*Oh yeah. Better than having dogs.*

Xander flailed an arm in the direction of the phone, caught the headset and dragged it to his ear. He made what he hoped was a Hello. Please talk now sound.

"Harris, where the hell are you? The bus is loaded."


There was a bus?

Xander flashed on today's day job - landscaping a new church in the suburbs - and groaned again.

There was a bus.

"You can be here in ten minutes or you can find another job."

Xander's schedule was suddenly very clear again.

A free schedule meant sleep, so Xander closed gritty eyes and curled sideways, the headset poking him in the chin. He didn't care.

After a while, there was more pounding.

*Is that my head? Or maybe it's the sheets-and-towels-lady? No, wait...that's Monday...is it Monday?*


"Urrr?" Xander stared up at a face with a fuzzy brunette corona and an almost tangible cloud of Obsession. The cloud kinda sparkled.

"Xander, what's wrong with you? You're all - clammy and - pale. Kind of green. Are you sick?"

Xander croaked, and the cloud bounced down on the edge of the mattress in the shape of Anya. The bed heaved sickeningly, right along with Xander's insides.

"Well, you have to get up. Today is the day of the ritual sacrifice and I told Buffy I'd go to the store for her. You have to help me carry things! You're made for carrying things. Big and broad in a very useful way and it would be a shame not to put those shoulders to use."

*Kill me now,* Xander thought, and pulled the blanket over his head.

"Xander!" Note of frustration. "Xander?" In a key of confusion. The blankets were tugged out of his weak fingers and a cool hand pressed to his forehead. "Well that's no good."

Oh. Good. That meant she'd go away and he could get back to the business of dying a slow death, marinating in his own sickbed sweat.

Except strong hands were lifting him and the covers were being stripped away and -

Okay, Xander didn't have the energy to protest about nakedness or even joke about sending her a bill for the peep show. "Where're we going?" He asked when it became clear they were going somewhere - that's what being stuffed into pants meant. Going somewhere.

Going somewhere was bad.

"Well I can't leave you here like this." Anya shimmied Xander's pants up his legs - and that was a really weird experience - and shoved him onto his back to zip and buckle them, keeping up a narrative of phrases like 'when I was a vengeance demon' and 'putrefying diseases' and 'you look like you're getting all of them'.

Xander decided to listen to the expert.

The drive to wherever passed in a blur. And thank god, because Anya was a very forceful driver. Like - force the other drivers off the road kind of driver and Xander just closed his eyes and clung to the ceiling strap, swallowing repeatedly to keep his frog-hopping gorge behind his teeth.

"There's never any parking here," Anya muttered - took a hard left and slammed on the brakes. Xander whimpered. "Okay! Now lets get you inside and then I have to go find fresh peas. And heavy cream. Not light cream or cream in a can. I don't see what's wrong with whipped cream in a can. You turn the can over and the cream is whipped. Women slaved over whipping cream and shelling peas before being rescued by innovations like frozen peas and cream in a can..."

Xander whimpered again as Anya dragged him out of the car and up the sidewalk - down the steps and across Giles' little courtyard. Xander gazed longingly at the deep shade under the bougainvillea but then Anya was shoving Giles' door open and he was swamped by the revolting smells of boiling potatoes and cooking turkey.

*Oh god. Now I know I'm dying when Turkey-day food smells bad.*

This year, he would not have his traditional fifth and record-breaking sixth helping.

He might not even have a first.

Which would be another record.

"Did you bring the peas?"

"I brought Xander," Anya said, propping Xander up against herself.

Buffy circled the end of Giles' counter with a frown on her face. "No peas?"

Xander considered snark. Then he decided snark took too much effort and staggered over to Giles' couch, flopping gratefully into its thankfully non-moving field of gravity.

His leg fell off the edge.

He didn't care.

"I'll get the peas now."

'No!' Xander wanted to yell. 'Don't leave me, Ahn!' He might have mumbled something into the couch cushions by the time he heard the door close behind her and Buffy saying something about ricers.

Willow arrived after a while - Anya came back - Giles and Buffy argued about the right way to baste a turkey and Buffy and Willow argued about...

"What? I'm - what? I didn't do anything to those guys!" Xander protested, flailing in the drift of cushions Anya and Willow had packed him in. Because they were getting into whole new levels of unfair if some dead guys he didn't even know were going to curse him with syphilis. Willow patted his knee, making a sort of 'there there' sound that meant she wasn't paying much attention. "Syphilis. I didn't do anything to deserve syphilis!"

He even carried his own condoms.

"Of course you didn't! They were tortured and disenfranchised and - "

"I didn't torture anybody!"

" - and massacred, Buffy! They just want justice!"

"And giving Xander syphilis is justice?"

"It might not be justice, per se, but it's probably justifiable," Anya murmured - patted Xander's other knee when he shot her a disbelieving glare. "Although I doubt you gave anyone syphilis. I mean - you always have a condom in your -"

"Anya! Please! Whip the cream!" Giles - a spatter of yam down his shirtfront - shoved a bowl and whisk into Anya's arms and she stomped over to the breakfast bar, grumbling. Buffy sniffed the air.

"Is something burning?"

"I certainly hope so," Giles muttered. "We'd have to evacuate."

"Giles!" Buffy's tone was deadly, but whatever she was going to say next was cut off by a pounding on the door. "Who's that? Everyone I know is here."

"This is my house, you know. Could be someone for me."

"Oh, sure," Willow pointed out. "Everyone you know is here too."

Buffy rolled her eyes and went to the door.

"Help me!"

And Xander really needed to get his subconscious under control or the syphilis was already eating his brain because mystery guy was starting to sound like -

Sexy vampire.

*Okay - possibly dying of cursed syphilis is not the time to be making with the sexy vampire hallucinations.*

"What part of 'help me' do you not understand?"

Xander hooked his hand on the back of the couch and strained every syphilitic cell to sit up and - so not a hallucination.

Because mystery guy looked like Spike too. Under the blanket, the smoke and the...uh.

Okay, he'd remember if he'd given Spike syphilis, wouldn't he?

Could vampires even get - ?

"I'm parboiling out here! Invite me in!"

"Highly unlikely," Giles was saying while Xander's stomach was still doing flip-flops at the idea of experimenting in giving a vampire syphilis and what was wrong with him?

Well - okay there was the syphilis but wasn't it too early for syphilitic madness to be - huh?

" - had a little trip to the vet and now he doesn't chase the other puppies anymore. I can't bite anything. I can't even hit people."

"So you haven't murdered anybody lately? Let's be best pals," Buffy said in that 'I'm so happy I could kill you' tone that, Xander supposed, was purely a SoCal cheerleader thing. Not a SoCal cheerleader blonde thing 'cause Cordy had had that voice down, too.

"Ask Red!" Spike demanded, and Xander let himself collapse back onto the cushions. Although 'let' could be the optimistic way of saying 'had to succumb to gravity due to syphilitic weakness'.

*Red? What, are Spike and Willow pals now, too? Everybody's friends with the sexy vampire but me.* "Oh god, please, let that be the syphilis talking," Xander mumbled, and closed his eyes, drifting into that safe 'fifteen more minutes' place.

It was good there.

It was safe there.

He stood a chance of surviving Thanksgiving with his sanity intact there if the syphilis didn't get him first.

And every time things in his head got too surreal - Chumash Indian Spirits! Magical syphilis! Buffy peeling potatoes! - Xander would crack his eyes open and stare at the rope-wrapped vampire over by the credenza. On several occasions, the vampire was staring back.

"I know you, you know," Spike said, and Xander blinked. "You're the one that was...thinkin' about me." Spike somehow managed a leer despite sunken cheeks and dark-circled eyes and Xander shivered.

*It's the fever. Or the syphilis. Or the - whatever else I've got. Syphilis makes you crazy and I'm obviously crazy because - because -*

"You're thinking about me again," Spike said, teasing singsong that was pitched just for Xander's ears.

Or at least, he hoped so.

"No I'm not," he muttered, and fumbled for his glass of apple juice.

There was no thinking going on at all.

It was all primitive Cave Xander hindbrain action.

No thinking.

But boy would Spike be in trouble if Xander recovered from his syphilis and found a big stick to club Spike over the head with so he could drag Spike back to his lair and make him his mate.

Xander stared blearily at Spike, reviewing what he'd just thought and really hoping Spike couldn't read minds.

Spike smirked - and did a tongue-curling thing that made Xander's syphilis-addled libido sit up and beg for scraps.

"Leave that one here," Spike was saying. "He looks like he's ready to drop any minute, and I think I can eat someone if he's already dead."

Xander closed his eyes and banged his head weakly on a pillow, trying to expel 'Spike' and 'eat me' from his addled psyche. "I'll take my chances."

He could always blame the syphilis.

Xander couldn't blame the syphilis anymore.

"Hey! Hey!"

Rattling of chains.

Jangling of Xander's nerves.

Sexy vampire in Giles' bath tub.

"There's parts of the Geneva convention against this!"

"You are not covered by the Geneva convention, Spike." Giles turned a page in his book and passed it to Xander.

"Covers the dead, doesn't it?"

"Would you like to be returned to your homeland for burial?" Giles tapped the page. "Only scan this chapter. The others are duplicated in the Rhine-Stratsfield codex."

"These chains are chafing me! And it's almost time for Passions! And I'm hungry! If you're not going to let me out you have to bring. the. blood. to. me!"

"That's it. I'm going to kill him," Giles said abruptly, dropping the book into Xander's lap and snatching up a stake from the desk.

"Whoa, wait, hang on!" Xander scrambled to his feet and put his hand on Giles' shoulder, making him stop his determined stalk toward the bathroom. "I thought we needed him? Secret inside information about the scary commando guys?"

"Oh, bollocks," Giles growled. "I very much doubt he has one speck of useful information for us."

"Yeah, but - we don't know that. Better safe than sorry, right?" Giles stared at Xander - sighed heavily and reached up to rub his forehead, bonking himself in the glasses with the stake in the process.

"Yes, yes, I suppose you're right. I'm just not used to all this - racket." He gave Xander a halfhearted smile and Xander eased the stake out of his hand for safekeeping.

"I get that. Single guy, used to the quiet. Look, why don't you go and get that extra spindle of CD's you wanted for back-ups while your trusty - and freshly hired - new assistant will feed and water Rex thus proving you made the right choice in hiring him."

Which was a really difficult speech to make while sexy vampire was rattling his chains and shouting "Rex? I'm not a bloody dog!" and Xander was having leash and collar fantasies he would never ever mention in front of Giles.

"Sorry," Xander said, not so much sorry as long as the fantasies stayed on the inside.

Sexy vampire in nothing but a collar and leash.

He swallowed - hard.

Okay. Bad. Bad thoughts to be having in the employer's living room.

Bunny ears?

Spike in bunny ears.

Vampire bunny.

By the time Xander carried the mug of pig into the bathroom, he was grinning and not at all imagining Spike in a bunny suit. "Who ordered the Porky?"

Spike sniffed the air and narrowed his eyes.

Okay, so maybe Xander was imagining Spike in nothing but bunny ears. He'd made his peace with it.

The chains rattled as Spike tried to sit up in the tub, reaching for the mug and growling. "Gonna unchain me so I can drink it?"

"Nope." Xander dropped a straw into the mug and held it within Spike's reach. "Okay, Bunnicula. Suck."

And wow was that a bad choice of words.

The 'homicidal pit bull' glare and sneer suddenly slid away and somehow, without actually doing much of anything, Spike wasn't so much straining against the chains as languidly stretching in them. 1000-watt blue gaze gone half-lidded and sultry instead of drilling a hole through Xander's head and Xander almost dropped the mug right into Spike's -

*Lap. Which is right there. Under that chain. Oh. My. God.*

Sexy vampire.

"You sure it's the straw you want me to suck?" Spike husked, and Xander gaped at him for one horrible, frozen moment.

And the instincts of a lifetime kicked in.

"Yeah - because I'm sure I want razor sharp fangs fastened around my dick." And that would have gone a lot better if he had that eye roll thing Buffy could do, but he didn't - so he worked with what he had. "And grow up. You're how old anyway?"

"Old enough to know a trick or two," Spike said in a voice that knew a trick or two itself and Xander suddenly really wished Giles hadn't left.

"I don't suppose one of them is shutting up and drinking your blood?" came out of Xander's mouth - and sounded a lot more pathetic than Xander wanted it to. There could have been a whimper in there somewhere.

"Come on, then," Spike said in a reasonable voice. A soothing voice. A voice that stroked fingers down Xander's spine and said it's all right, now. There. Who's a good boy, now?' and Xander was -

"Hey! Less with the licking!"

Spike's tongue retreated into his mouth and there was a chilled spot on Xander's hand where it'd been. A chill spot with memory of a very cold, very soft tongue lapping over it.

"Spilled a drop. Wouldn't want to waste it," Spike said, and closed his lips around the straw, cheeks hollowing in and oh mother of Zeus.

Xander managed to keep his mouth shut for the rest of the...sucking. And tongue-tip-showing. And - wiggling. He also managed to stagger out of the bathroom without running into the door jamb or dropping the mug, but just barely.

"Xaaander! One cupful really isn't enough, you know!" Spike called, and Xander shoved the mug under the faucet and turned it on. The straw was toast, he was sure. "I need more than that to...fill me up. Don't you wanna fill me up, Xander?"

"Later!" Xander croaked. Cleared his throat and turned the water off. "I mean - no. I don't! And - uh - we're out of blood so I'll get you some more later so just - uh - take a nap now! Or something."

"Or something," Spike said. "Ah, to sleep, perchance to...dream..."

*How does he make Old English sound sexy? Shut up shut up shut up.* "Lots of work to do. Musty old books to scan, things to organize, busy busy busy." Xander dashed back to the bathroom and flipped on Spike's television without looking at Spike except for that ten or so seconds where he accidentally stared right at him while fiddling with the sound and asking 'is this good for you?'.

The slow grin from Spike had practically grown legs and followed Xander as he'd gulped, blushed and scurried back to the - Sexy vampire in the bathroom - desk and grabbed a book and opened the scanner. It took ten minutes for him to figure out he'd just scanned the wrong part of the book at least four times.

By the time Giles got back, Spike had been quiet for exactly forty one minutes including commercial breaks and the Xand-man had it all under control. *Yup, that's me, control guy. Cool as a cucumber.*

Thank god for Passions.

Xander was a lot less cool when he showed up at Giles' place expecting to work the work that'd been pretty sweet to him for the last few weeks and was greeted instead with Little Orphan Spike and his metaphorical suitcase. "Excuse me. There's something wrong with my hearing because I could have sworn I heard you just say Spike's going to stay with me."

"That would be because I did." Giles leaned against a desk - cool and - and cucumber-like and that just wasn't fair. He'd stolen Xander's act. He'd blown Xander's big number.

He'd - he'd -

Spike was smirking.

*Okay. Don't think 'blow' or 'blown' when Spike is in the room.*

"Is this an employer-employee thing? Because - "

"I could make it an employer-employee thing," Giles said in a voice that was not at all threatening.

Xander didn't think Giles would fire him but - visions of the jobs he hadn't taken yet shimmied through his head. Janitor. Garbage man. Weekend clown mascot. Xander shuddered. "No. That's uh - okay. I just - uh - don't have anywhere to put him," Xander said and wished he hadn't when Spike's smirk turned into a (sexy) leer.

"You have a bathtub, surely? I'll loan you my chains," Giles said - far, far too cheerily and Spike growled which was less sexy and gave Xander time to sag against the couch and relax as much as a man preparing to take Spike into his house could relax.

"Here now! I will not be chained up in another sodding bathtub! Especially his bathtub!"

"What's wrong with my bathtub?" Xander snapped.

That was him - relaxed man.

"Do you even know what Brillos are? And I've seen the state of your fingernails, mate."

"What's and - my what? I had to help Buffy loot - er, search that crypt! I'm perfectly clean most of the time!" Xander was ready to rant on a little longer about actual working people and nail brushes when he saw the glint in Spike's eyes.

*Game. It's a game. He's playing me like he did Giles and the singing. Oh, I'm so on to you, buddy. In a totally non-sexual way.*

"Right. Okay. Giles - chains? And I'll get the blood." Xander walked manfully into the kitchen, manfully ignoring Spike's glare and muttered curses. *Score!*

Spike was bundled into the back seat of Xander's car, wrists chained to his ankles before he spoke again. "Feel like a manly man now do you?"

"Feel like a man pretty much all the time, Spike. It comes with - oh - being a man. And having man-type equipment." Xander's hands shook with something like first date nerves when he got the key into the ignition.

First date.


He so needed to get laid.

Which was of course unlikely.

Guys tended to get nervous when you explained you were a clerk for a demonologist and second dates generally didn't happen.

And dates usually showed up in the rearview mirror and didn't keep up a running commentary of -

"Where would I go? I'm helpless as a bloody kitten. If I so much as took a nibble, this sodding piece of hardware would cook me from the inside out."

While Xander tried not to feel kind of sorry for the guy - no. Not guy. Homicidal killer.

"Afraid I'm going to hock your television?"

"My television is bolted to the dresser, Spike. You're welcome to hock it if you can get it out the door."


Xander swung a right and pulled into the Sunnydale Motor Inn and killed the engine. "Welcome to home sweet hovel."

And as it turned out, vampires didn't need invites into hotel rooms which was not reassuring.

And when the bathroom was all of ten steps away the clanking and kicking and swearing was really loud. Xander put up with it for twenty long minutes, one irate neighbor and two phone calls from the manager before he reluctantly led Spike out of the bathroom.

Spike immediately flopped onto the bed, chains clanking, wiggling around like a landed fish and making these sort of - moaning noises.

"What the hell are you doing? On my bed?" Xander snapped, and Spike grinned up at him.

"Just stretching. The bloody tub's cold and hard - this is nice and soft. Feels good." As Spike writhed around Xander found himself staring. A lot.

*I'm going straight to hell.*

"Gonna keep me nice and warm?" Spike wriggled his way to one side of the bed and stretched until a sliver of pale flesh showed between his jeans and his tee shirt and Xander snatched back the bad, bad and naughty hand that was reaching for it and pulled himself together.

"Okay - first? We both know you're trying to use my libido against me - "

"Is it working?" And oh dear god that tongue and the cheekbones and the -


"No." Xander ignored the way Spike's fingers splayed and shifted over his zipper and - all right, he couldn't even lie to himself convincingly about that. "Okay. Possibly, yes. But you're only doing it so I won't make you sleep on the couch."

They turned their heads to look at the cramped love seat.

Spike snorted. "Rather sleep in the bath tub."

"That can be arranged, buddy." Xander ran his hands back through his hair in a rough scrubbing motion - went over to the cooler Giles had given him and started unloading blood into the mini fridge. "Look, just - I know you're not happy with this setup and neither am I so let's just...try not to kill each other and you'll be back at Giles' place in no time."

"Oh, sod that! Not goin' back there unless it's in an urn, mate. No, I figure this'll do me just fine until you lot figure out what the G.I. Joes are up to and make 'em fix me." Xander turned around and stared at Spike.

"You really think we're gonna let you go back to killing and torturing and raping?"

Spike stared back. "Can't keep me chained up forever, now. You have to -" At Xander's incredulous look Spike's mouth snapped shut and he turned over abruptly, back to Xander, fists curling into the bedspread. "Just fuck off and let me sleep, yeah?" he muttered, and Xander slowly shut the fridge.

Then, he quietly left the hotel room and - decided to take in a movie.

Or something.

Somewhere else.

A decision which had nothing to do with giving Spike some privacy while he slept.

"How are things working out between you and Spike?"

"That would presume there is a me and Spike - or a working," Xander said, carrying another load of books to the table. For once in his life, he'd studied for a pop quiz in advance. When Olivia's stay ended and no words were spoken about Spike moving back in with Giles, Xander figured The Talk would come around. The talk that made it logical for Spike to continue staying with Xander in the smallest and seediest hotel room in Sunnydale because Giles was always logical.

The talk that would absolve Xander from admitting that the company wasn't too bad and it was kinda nice when Spike shared his stolen beers.

"Has he been giving you any trouble?" Giles went on before Xander could answer - and yep. This was that talk. "It seems that Olivia may be coming back and a representative from the Council could drop in at any time. It would hardly be acceptable for him to arrive while I have William the Bloody chained in my bath."

"Yeah, makes you seem kinda kinky and weird, doesn't it?" Xander said, and Giles shot him a look as dry as the book he was currently leafing through.

"Something like that. If he's behaving, it really would be a great help to me, Xander -"

"Yeah, I get it. It's cool. I mean, he can stay." Xander sat down and pulled a notebook over, flipping it open to make a note about the books before he shelved them. He kind of thought, down where he tried not to think, that even if Giles had said to bring him back, Xander would have let Spike stay anyway.

There was something about dragging a depressed, smoldering vampire out of the sun and into the shower - and bandaging the blistered hands with Noxema and gauze - that made you feel kind of... Buddy-like.

Or something.

Anyway, he was getting used to Spike's swearing and smoking - cigarette smoking - and weird cats-mating music.

At least he had someone to come home to even if that someone left blood rings in the mugs and wet towels on the floor even though the maid only came with fresh towels on Mondays.

"I will, of course, supplement your pay for the inconvenience," Giles was saying.

And that was why when Xander came home that evening he tossed a carton of Marlboros at Spike and said, "Get your coat on. Drinks are on me."

"You're not old enough to drink, Harris."

"And that would be why you're coming with me." Xander had never - once - seen Spike get carded.

"Gonna pay for the wings too?"

"I could be persuaded to pay for wings." Xander became aware of a narrow, Spikely look. It bristled and prickled and oozed distrust. It was kinda like owning a cat only without the pet deposit. "What?"

"What're you softening me up for?"

"Softening -? Oh! Oh, no, I'm not - I mean, there's nothing I want." *That I'll admit to.* "We're celebrating my vampire-allowance."

"Your what?" Spike tore the carton open and plucked out a pack - stood idly tapping it on his hand, scowling at Xander.

Xander sniffed at his shirt and started to unbutton it. "Giles actually has a life, and vampires in the bathtub aren't part of it so he's giving me more money to keep you."

"He's giving you money? I should get half."

"In your dreams, depresso boy." Xander tossed his shirt in the general direction of the laundry bag and wrestled with the dresser drawer. It always stuck.

"Only fair - you wouldn't be getting anything extra if it wasn't for me," Spike pointed out, voice oh-so-reasonable as black-painted nails shredded cellophane and dropped it to the floor.

"And I wouldn't be spending most of it on cigarettes and bribes for Sharonna to give us extra towels. No deal." Xander yanked a clean T-shirt on and pushed his hair back - went into the bathroom to brush hair and teeth.

"Not my fault you lot think I have to be watched all the time. If I'm gonna be a prisoner I get to have some comforts and I think a little pocket money should be one of them."

"And I think you're nuts. I'm buying drinks and wings. You know you're gonna hustle at least a hundred bucks out of some poor UC Sunnydale idiot, so forget about getting my extra cash! Besides, I'm trying to save for a deposit on a place. I am not going to live here forever."

"Great. Won't mind getting out of here myself." Spike was already fidgeting by the door while Xander was changing shoes, impatiently shifting from foot to foot while maintaining that air of I'm so cool above the waist.

Which was fine. Because Xander wasn't thinking about anything of Spike's below the waist. It'd worked for a month. And it'd keep working.

"So where're we moving to?" Spike fell into step beside Xander when they left the room.

Xander considered raising the energy to split hairs over Spike's assumption that wherever Xander went, Spike went too but it just wasn't there. He could safely say denial had left the building. "Someplace with fewer cockroaches."

Spike only nodded and lit up. "Gonna miss Sharonna."

"Sharonna or the clean towel fairy?"

"Well, bit of both. That woman's got a wicked tongue on her," Spike said, doing his own wicked tongue thing, which made Xander stumble into a Sunnydale Herald box.

"And she slings a mean bottle of bleach. Huh. I'll have to buy towels." Xander contemplated the full-on domestic life wherein he would be responsible for towels, sheets, and vacuuming. "Damn. Maybe we should just move up to a better class of motel," he said. He did not miss Spike's little grin of triumph at the 'we'.

The Bronze was crowded - Oz's old band was playing Ozless - and the beer was two for one until ten, which suited Xander just fine. He ordered the wings while Spike ordered the beers and they both scoped out the floor; Spike looking for suitable marks, Xander pretending to look for a cute guy.

*But lets face it. Nobody here looks better than Spike. And I can't bring anybody home with me.* That thought made Xander swallow hard since Spike quite happily shared the bed. Xander was pretty sure Spike would happily share anything else, too.


Xander tore his eyes away from a sexy bronze swimmer type before eye contact could be made and plans for sharing could be initiated.

He was not thinking about that almost coffee-dark skin tumbled between him and Spike. And he was not thinking about Spike and tumble and -

He was totally thinking it.

Xander lowered his head to his folded arms with a sigh of defeat.

"I know what you're think-ing," Spike singsonged and Xander could feel his not-breath on his ear.

Xander lifted his head and glared. "It's a number between one and ten."

Spike waved a dismissive hand. "All right. I don't know exactly what you're thinking but I'll bet that number's got dark smooth skin and a taste for imported beer. I give him a six."

The glare dropped off Xander's face with the pure force of *Did Spike just initiate guy watching with me?* "N-n-nine," Xander stuttered, and Spike took another look - took a long drink from his beer.

"Okay, maybe seven." Spike glanced over the room - pointed with the bottle. "What about him, then?"

Xander looked - studied the rangy body and shaggy hair. Surfer-type. *Not bad. Not at all. Wait. What the hell am I doing?*

"Spike, I am not going to sit here and - and scope out guys with you!"

"Why not?" Spike leaned back as the waitress came up with their wings - put down his beer and pushed the sleeves of his coat up, grinning.

"Because it's weird. And unsettling. And wrong - it's so, so wrong. You're -"

"Horny, for fuck's sake. Been weeks." Spike tore a chunk of meat off a bone and chewed, his eyes gleaming and sauce on his chin.

Xander yanked a napkin out of the dispenser and shoved it at him. "God, you are such a slob! And I don't care if it's been years, you're not hooking up with some - guy - and bringing him back to the motel!" Xander gulped at his own beer - resisted the urge to reach out and wipe Spike's chin with his thumb. Spike grabbed the napkin and did it himself, licking his lips.

"Don't necessarily have to bring him home - there's a perfectly good alley right out that door over there."

"Okay - really trashy, Spike. Sex in an alley?" Xander made a face, hoping like hell his bluster would cover the fact that a little movie - starring himself, Spike, and a wall - had just run through his head.

"And you'd be so into it, mate."

"Whoa, whoa! Wait. When did I come into this?" Xander held up his hands and scooted a few inches backward on his stool. Any further and he'd be on his ass. On the floor. "There is no me. And alleys. And into. Alleys are for staking vampires in, not - "

Spike was looking at him with a cocked eyebrow and lascivious smirk.

"And I said that out loud, didn't I?"

"Every word," Spike agreed and downed his beer, licking the bottle's rim in a way that so did not help Xander's blood pressure. "Don't know what you're so uptight about, mate. You weren't getting any for weeks before I moved in."

"Excuse me?"

Spike tapped his nose and took another wing.

"Just keep your big super sniffer to yourself, pal."

"It's just sex, Harris. Nothing to be ashamed of. Unless there is something to be ashamed of? Got some toys in that old Army locker you don't want me to see?"

"No! And anyway, you picked the lock on that on the second day you stayed with me. I wouldn't hide anything in there."

Xander picked up his own hot-wing and took a bite - licked off a smear of sauce and took a drink of his beer. Across from him, Spike settled in to methodically demolishing the plateful and Xander relaxed a little. No more sex talk, if he was lucky.

A Blooming Onion, four beers, and a trip to the bathroom to degrease later, Xander was lounging against a pole while Spike racked the pool balls. He was fussy and concentrated and Xander ogled to his heart's content. Of course, Spike caught him.

"Another number between one and ten, Harris?"


Spike straightened up and hefted his pool cue, hips forward, feet apart. Hands doing vaguely suggestive things to the cue. "A number between one and ten, Harris. What do I rate?"


*A very bad idea.*

Xander sighed and took up his cue, keeping his hands firmly in place on the wood and looked Spike over.


"Okay. Nine."

"Nine? Are you daft, Harris? I'm a perfect ten! Always have been. Well, maybe not so much in the thirties - black hair isn't good with my skin tone. Hey!" Spike stomped around the end of the pool table and got up in Xander's face, hands on either side of Xander's head, one jeanclad thigh way, way to close between Xander's own.

"Put your hand under my shirt, Harris."

"What?" It came out more of a squeak and Xander cleared his throat - tried to look anywhere *no, not there!* but at Spike's eyes and Spike's mouth and Spike's lips that were inches from his own.

"C'mon, Xaander... Just slide your hand up under my shirt - right here in front," Spike said. No, he didn't just say it - he purred it - growled it - something low and breathy and rumbling that seemed to vibrate right through Xander's body. In a sort of daze, Xander felt his hand swing loose from the pool cue and stretch out to Spike's body - touch the tight fabric of the black T-shirt.

"Yeah, just like that..." Spike undulated a little closer and Xander's fingers fluttered over the flat belly - caught and tugged and pulled the hem out of the waist of Spike's jeans. Xander looked down finally - stared in amazement at his own callused fingers resting on the milk-smooth skin of Spike's belly.

*Oh - god. This is a bad, bad, bad...fucking idea. So...smooth...*

"Now - that? That is a ten. Don't you think?"

Xander swallowed - licked dry lips. "Uh - I - it's... Yeah. Ten."

"Told you," Spike said - dipped inches closer, smirking, and then he whirled around and was gone, striding over to the pool table and setting the cue ball up for the break.

Xander lost the game spectacularly and had to buy Spike another carton of Marlboros and a box of Weetabix on the way home.

His fingers tingled.

The experience was pretty much up there with the time Buffy's halter top dropped off on patrol Junior year.

Weeks in and the blue balls hadn't killed him - yet - but Spike's good mood might.

"Come on, Harris. Get off your fat arse and bring out the stakes, mate. There's nasty vampires running around this town's streets. If we're not out there to protect the helpless people of Sunnydale, who will?"

"The Slayer." Xander peeled his face off his pillow to stare blearily at Spike. "What time is it?" There'd been an all nighter to figure out what happened to Giles - only to find Ethan Rayne three doors down from Xander's room at the Sunnydale Motor Inn and beat the answer out of him. Which was good in Xander's estimation. He'd only had to go three doors down the hall to collapse into his nice bed...


Three hours before.

Xander moaned and shoved his face into his bunched up pillow. Maybe he'd get lucky. Maybe he'd suffocate.

"Harris! Shift it! Time's a wasting! Although not for me, of course, unless you count all the minutes I'm trapped in this sodding flea-trap being bored into a coma." Xander tried to bunch the pillow tighter around his ears and groaned in pitiful frustration as Spike pried the case out of his hands and flipped him over, like a turtle.

"C'mon! Puppies, cheerleaders, and bloody awful hags with purple hair who run over your toes in the shops! We have to make Sunnyhell safe for 'em all!"

"Mrs. Albright said she was sorry, Spike. And those boots have steel toes! Not like it hurt."

"Yeah, so? Steel soles, too. So when the mine goes off under your tank you don't lose your piggies. It's the principle of the thing. Get. Up!"

"Spiiike!" Xander whined, but Spike hauled him upright by his shirt and slung an arm around his waist - grabbed the key from the nightstand and started dragging Xander toward the door.

"You'll wake up once we get into a tussle. I'll get you one of those ghastly purple drinks you like from the Quik-Mart, yeah?"

"You'll buy me a Galloping Grape Slushee?" Xander mumbled, trying to keep his feet under him as Spike hustled them down the street.

"Course I will. Well, when I say buy I mean nick, but - you get the picture. Restfield or Willy's what'dya say?"

Visions of oogly things with lots of arms at Willy's warred with fangy vampires that poofed into clouds of nice neat dust.

Ooze versus dust.

Dust won.


Spike tsk-ed.

"Did you just tsk at me?"

"Yeah. You're sublimating. It's getting downright pathetic, mate."

"And what is it - exactly - I'm supposedly sublimating beneath a desire to see the fangy undead go to their dusty rests?"

"Obvious, innit?"

Xander scrubbed his hands through his hair, still about two cups of coffee or an extra large grape Slushee away from obvious. "Humor me. Pretend I'm really stupid." Xander held up a forestalling hand. "And remember who shares his vampire-sitting money with you and lets you sleep in his nice, comfy bed instead of chained up in the bathtub before you answer that."

"Staking vampires, Harris," Spike said slowly. Xander admired his restraint and his technique - which allowed a perfectly normal tone of voice to tack you stupid git onto the end of the sentence. "Think very carefully."

"I only want to stake you in the traditional way, Spike. And only sometimes."


"Only sometimes?" Spike asked, and there was a world of amusement and disbelief and - coaxing in his voice that made Xander want to smack him. Or kiss him.

*Jesus, it's third grade all over again.*

"Yeah. Sometimes. Then there's the other times when I want to knock you on your ass."

"Sublimating again, Harris," Spike said - fished out cigarettes and lighter and lit up with a flourish.

Xander felt his mouth working but no sound was coming out. "What? You are so, so wrong. When I say 'knock you on your ass' I mean -"

"Shhh." Spike was suddenly tense - alert in a way that meant something mean was out there, lurking in the darkness. Xander hastily shut up and looked around nervously.

"Jesus, we didn't even make it to Restfield! What is it?"

"Can't tell exactly. But I can smell it..." Spike's eyes suddenly glowed gold - his face shifted with a soft sort of crackle and he lifted his chin, sniffing the breeze. "Come out, come out wherever you are," he called, and something went grrrrrr in the scraggly trees that flanked a small house off to their left. "Stay back, Harris," Spike warned. He held his smoldering cigarette out. "Hold that for me?"

"Uh - sure -" Xander took the cigarette and Spike practically bounced into the trees.

Xander looked at the cigarette, shrugged, and decided vampire cooties couldn't be that bad and took a drag.

Then he took another because a guy could either be a guy standing awkwardly on the street at night holding someone's cigarette while someone beat the crap out of something big and nasty in the bushes, or a guy could be a cool guy casually standing on the sidewalk having a smoke.

Xander had a smoke.

And waited.

He was down to the filter by the time Spike came back. He held it out wordlessly.

Spike took it and got a mouthful of filter smoke. "Bugger." The cigarette was flicked away into the dark and Spike pulled out his pack and lit up again, exhaling with satisfaction.

"Did you have a good time killing the big nasty, dear?"

"Sod off," Spike said and Xander took it for a yes the way Spike was strutting with extra snap to the duster. And why had Xander never noticed before what a drama queen Spike was? "What's so funny, Harris?"

"Just admiring your technique."

"Oh, you haven't seen one tenth of what I can do, Harris," Spike said, and he did this thing with his mouth and his teeth and his tongue that made little squiggles of icy heat go all down Xander's back.

"Oh, look, Restfield!" *Thank god.*

Restfield was host to two fledge risings and one crypt looting and Spike waded into that fight with a fangy grin on his face, whirling and kicking and getting in some sneaky little moves that Xander could only dream of imitating.

And some mean moves, that left one vampire gasping and moaning in the grass, innards having become outards and her legs useless. Spike finished her off neatly with the stake Xander tossed to him and then strolled back over, idly licking blood off his thumb and looking pleased with himself.

"That calls for a drink, mate."

"Are you offering?"

"I'm offering to let you buy me a drink."

"Oh yeah. And why would I want to do that again?"

"'Cause I'm the bloody hero, that's why! Making Sunnydale safe at night for the little munchies on legs."

"Okay, Spike - if you're still thinking of them as munchies on legs, you're kinda excluded from the whole hero thing."