Oxnard To Glory by Reremouse and Tabaqui


Chapter 3 Real Me through Family

"You could help a little." Xander wobbled on the stairs and leaned quickly against the hand rail before he or the ancient cabinet television could take a quick trip back to the ground floor.

"I am helping," Spike said, and shoved the TV. Hard. Xander flailed and nearly fell flat on his back up the stairs. He managed to recover and shot Spike a filthy look. Spike ignored him. "C'mon, get it upstairs already! Clem'll be here any minute."

"Clem? Who's Clem? And why is he coming here?" Xander heaved, Spike pushed and they finally reached the top of the stairs. They carried the TV down the little hall to the door that was propped open with a trash can made from an elephant's foot. Something Spike had found at the dump and brought home.

*Like a dog. Or a magpie..* Spike did seem attracted to sparkly things. *I've got a vampire magpie lining my nest.*

"Clem's a mate of mine. He can get us cable," Spike said - gave the TV one last heave and straightened up, looking pleased with himself. Xander leaned his elbows on the cracked veneer of the cabinet.

"Spike, this TV is too old to actually get cable. It doesn't have the right connectors. If we use foil and wire and maybe stand in the right spot we'll probably be able to get the local access channel. Besides, I can't afford cable." He really couldn't. Even with his fun new job as gopher, carpenter and all-purpose muscle man at the Magic Box - and god, it was a huge, huge step up from delivering newspapers - he was completely tapped out. First, last and security had come to almost two thousand bucks and it would be a while before he had anything remotely like extra cash.

"Don't you worry about that. Clem's got this kit. He'll fix it. Footie, mate! And porn. And the cooking channel."

Xander stared at him.

"Cooking channel?"

"You'd be surprised how many recipes you can sub in blood. Let's go get the couch."

"I don't want to be surprised - in fact, I want to never be surprised by the presence of blood in a dish that's not supposed to have blood in it. Or a dish that is." Xander trailed after Spike, hand on the rail and rag in hand, wiping his face. "I am livin' la vida - uh - without blood."

"Sin sangre."

"You speak Spanish?"

"Get with the times, mate. Gotta know enough to order a beer wherever you are." Spike twisted and hopped the last two steps backward, that tongue-twisty look back on his face and Xander knew he didn't want to hear the next words out of Spike's mouth. He also knew he was going to hear them. "Or a Bloody Maria."

"You don't mean the kind with tequila, do you?"

"Not the kind with tequila you mean." Spike paused thoughtfully - or maybe just to light his smoke. "Tequila keeps 'er quiet."

"Keeps who quiet - oh, god, why do I even ask these things?" Xander stomped over to his truck where the last thing - the scrounged love-seat - rested in solitary splendor.

"Maria, of course," Spike said, in his 'you daft bugger' voice and Xander hopped up into the bed of the truck and got into position, lifting his end of the couch.

"Don't. Just pretend I didn't ask and lift, okay? And - I really mean it - there will be no mugs with blood-rings left moldering in the living room. I've done small and musty and believe me, you don't want to do anything that adds to the misery."

"Try livin' in a crypt," Spike grumbled, cigarette bobbing as he looked over his shoulder and negotiated the first of the stairs. The trip up was fairly uneventful - Xander only tripped once and only two fingers got squashed in the process - and then they were tilting the couch, angling it through the door and setting it down triumphantly in the center of the - really small room.

"Damn. Won't be able to turn around without bumping into each - other." *Crap. Way to go, Harris!*

"That's true," Spike said, sliding over the arm of the couch and sprawling down onto its worn, dusty-red velour. "Be bumping and brushing and...touching...all the time." Sexier-than-Billy-Idol lip-curling smile and Xander blinked.

"I need a drink." He bolted for the kitchen. "And if you're trying to kill me, just remember that if I die, you're not on the lease."

"Can I eat you?"

Xander fumbled his beer right into the sink and stared at Spike.

Spike wearing his 'what did I do?' face.

Xander prompted him. "What?"

"Well, if you're already dead, no reason to let it all go to waste," Spike said - which, okay was really not a lot better. "And it's been a bloody long time, all right?" And there was that waver again - the one Spike's voice got when things like that slipped out.

Xander brought him a beer. "Sure. Why not?" It wasn't like he'd be needing the blood by then and was kinda worth it to see the tension clear away from Spike's jaw. It left Xander feeling magnanimous. "You can even have the television too."

"The television's a piece of shite."

"Fine. See if I extend my generosity to you again."

"Wouldn't mind taking the bed," Spike said a moment later.

"You'd leave my corpse up here on this?" Xander kicked at the dully-beige carpet that had given up any sort of pretense to springy, soft, or clean years ago. *Remind me to check on the rental for one of those steam-cleaners.*

Spike looked down at the matted surface under his boot. He actually made a face. "Ur. Um, no, I'd - I'd position you nicely on the couch." He patted a cushion, sending up a small drift of dust. "Probably have to break your legs to get you to fit, though."

Xander choked on his beer - clutched wildly at his face and bolted for the kitchen again, ending up head-down over the sink, laughing wetly, his nose dripping beer suds. "Damnit, that hurt. Jesus, Spike!" Why the notion was so funny, Xander wasn't sure, but it just was. He could see Spike, fussily arranging him for best effect and cursing when Xander's too-long legs messed up his picture.

"Wasn't supposed to make you laugh, you pillock," Spike grumped, hopping up on the counter and watching Xander blow beer out of his nose into a paper towel. But he was grinning when Xander finally stood up. "It's nasty and evil. Not sodding funny."

"Hellmouth gallows humor. I just can't do 'oh, no, that's so dreadful!' anymore," Xander said, making a show of clutching his chest and rolling his eyes.

"Drama queen," Spike said - gulped some beer. "You realize, this means war."

"Bring it on, buddy," Xander said.

"Don't think I won't!"

"Sure, sure." Xander waved Spike off with a beery hand and then stuck it under the faucet.

"I do have over a hundred years of atrocities on my CV, y'know. Don't think I couldn't."

"Spike - I have been a stripper, a sex line operator, a burger jockey, and the night cleanup guy at the Doublemeat Palace. You can not gross me out."

"Know what the Doublemeat puts in their sandwiches?"

"Soylent Green. I only worked there, Spike. I didn't eat there."

"I told you he'd have pizza!"

Hope bloomed and Xander looked over Dawn's shoulder at Willow and Tara coming up the stairs. "You brought more pizza?"

"No. I said you'd want pizza. They bought healthy stuff." Dawn shrugged and sailed into Xander's apartment carrying a twelve pack of cola.

Xander turned a betrayed look on Willow.

She flashed him a box of Twinkies. "I sneaked it into the cart when nobody was looking."

"I love you."

"Yes, and I love you - in a totally non-sexual, Twinkie-bringing, big-brother way."

"Absolutely," Xander said, grinning over at Tara and snagging the Twinkies. Tara smiled back and began unpacking frozen vegetables and what looked like cans of tuna. Xander clutched the Twinkies a little tighter.

"And look! We brought mac and cheese! You can add tuna and peas and have casserole!" Willow said. Spike made a sort of sound that a cat might make if offered a nice, tasty slice of cucumber.

"Bloody hell, Harris - thought the birds were your friends!"

"We are! And we're worried about him getting scurvy," Dawn said, dumping her bag of Ti-D-Bowl and paper towels.

"You are? I don't think... Hey, guys - I do actually already own cleaning products."

"You can never have too many," Joyce said, standing in the doorway and catching her breath. Spike hustled over to her, taking the bag she was clutching.

"Joyce! You shouldn't be carrying bags. Come and sit down."

"Oh, I'm fine. Just another headache - the sun's just at that right height," Joyce said, waving Spike off. But she crossed the room and sat down, looking around her with an air of 'thank god my daughters don't live here'.

"It's not much, but it's good enough for two bachelors," Xander said, coming over to give her a small hug.

"Two? Who else is living here?" Buffy asked.

"Realize that I use the word 'living' in a very loose and untechnical way," Xander said and pointed to Spike - who lifted two fingers to them behind Joyce's back and went for another beer.

"Get you anything, Joyce?"

"Water. Water would be fine. Thank you," Joyce said while Xander was being steered back out of his own apartment by his elbow which really wished Buffy would let go of it.

"Hey - what's the big deal?"

"You're letting Spike live with you?"

"What? After six months, this surprises you?"

"Well - yeah?" Buffy stood there staring at him and Xander finally eased her hand off his elbow - motioned her over to the rail that overlooked the stairs.

"Look, Buffy - we get along. You or Giles are always asking him questions and stuff, so it's handy to know where he lives. And he needs a place to keep his blood, and it's just - easier. I - really don't mind. He's good company when he's not killing anybody." Buffy just stared at him. Xander tried a weak smile. "We like the same kind of TV shows. And hey - Cordy's doing pretty well on TV. Did you know she's gonna have her own series this fall and - ?"

"Xander!" Changing the subject never worked when he needed it to. "He's a vampire, soulless, and he's tried to tried to kill all of us. More than once."

"And yet, not quaking in my sneakers, here. He can't hurt me, Buffy. It's okay. We're okay. Maybe you can teach an old vamp new tricks. Like Super Mario Brothers." Which wasn't exactly new but it had to be new to Spike and Xander was still wigging over walking in on that scene.

Buffy stood with her arms tightly crossed - looking out over the parking lot and the line of scruffy pines planted along the curb. "Just - be careful Xander, okay? He's not our friend, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Xander said - watched her walk back inside. And if it was starting to feel like Spike kinda might be his friend - and like Xander was really okay with that - he didn't say.

The doughnut shop a few doors down from The Magic Box had the best jelly doughnuts. There might be red oozy stuff in the middle but he could say with a reasonable amount of certainty that it was fruit jelly. Or at least sugar jelly with the right chemicals to make it fruity.

He wasn't going to be Mr. Picky as long as the food gave him his sugar fix.

And it was a good thing, too, because the idea of walking into this scene without sugary defense made his blood run cold - and when he said 'this scene' he meant a scene from Deliverance with Tara in the middle and a family that made Xander flashback on Christmases past.

When Xander worked as a stripper, he kinda expected angry family members to show up to claim their wayward children. Especially Mormon Mike's family. They came to claim him at least twice a work week - plus at least once a day on weekends.

Mormon Mike's family had nothing on Tara's.

"Baby, do you - do you want to go home with him?" Willow whispered and Tara looked up at Willow with a desperate, defeated look. And Xander stood there in the doorway with a doughnut because he could handle demons and vampires but this was so out of his league.

"We are the only ones who know how to control her! We're the only ones who can keep her from the terrible things she's capable of, and we are taking her home!" Tara's dad was red-faced and shouting. Willow was red-faced, too, but it was desperation and fear instead of anger. Tara was sitting on the floor like a doll whose strings had just been cut, tears rolling silently down her face and Xander was really starting to think someone'd cast a spell because nobody was moving. Nobody but Willow. Who crouched down - tugged at Tara's hands and made her stand up.

Which was wrong because Tara was trying not to stand up and pulling away from Willow and that was so not in the script.

A drop of jelly slid over Xander's wrist and plopped to the floor unnoticed.

"N-n-no. But I - I du-don't want to hurt you, Willow."

"You won't. I mean - I won't let you. And - and there are lots of good demons! Right, Spike?"


And there was Spike. Standing into the doorway to the training room and of course vampires wouldn't be frozen by a spell any more than witches would.

"Eh?" Spike looked up from the delicate process of extracting a bent cigarette from his pack, frowning. And like that broke the spell, if there was a spell, Xander eased around the father, brother and cousin and sidled over to the lighted table. Trying to make Spike hear him with his mind.

*Yes, Willow, there are lots and lots of good demons! Why, I've known half a dozen and they loved kitties and puppies and rainbows! I'm sure that's what Tara is, a Rainbow Demon!*

"Well, no, not as such," Spike said. He glanced around at the strangled noise Xander made and stuck the cigarette in his mouth. It bent upward at a jaunty angle.

"But this is all a load of bollocks, anyway. Sounds to me like this whole demon line is a just a way to keep the women-folk down on the farm, yeah?"

*And huh?*

Spike lit his cigarette - stood up and walked over to Tara. He touched her shoulder. "Glinda, ducks, look here -" Tara looked.

Spike punched.

"Ow! Bloody hell!"

"Ow! Oh!" Tara held her red nose, wide eyes staring at Willow, who stared back and then started grinning.

And suddenly life was a lot less like spells and a lot more like assholes coming into his shop and making his girls unhappy and Xander wasn't frozen anymore. He set down the doughnut.

Not frozen.


"Yeah! Ow!"

And surrounded by a happy chorus of ow! and the kind of really creative backwoods threats that'd make Xander's balls try to crawl back inside if he wasn't so pissed off. "Okay - you guys are gonna be leaving here now. Because Tara might not be a demon, but I guarantee you - "

"Gonna tell us you're all witches now? That don't prove a thing."

"Maybe not." Xander straightened up about as tall and straight as a guy raised on whole milk and Cocoa Puffs could. And he could feel Buffy and Dawn coming up behind him and nobody had to know which of the three of them could actually kick every ass in the building without breaking a sweat. "You wanna stick around and find out?"

They didn't.

And Xander was really really glad he wasn't gonna have to explain the whole morning after a bar fight redecoration scheme to Giles. "Thanks, Buff."

"Like I'd let them take one of us? No way."

"I'm wh-one of you?"


So Xander left Buffy to make peace with doughnuts while he sidled around the edge of the counter to the one of them he was pretty sure Buffy didn't think was one of them and crouched down next to him.

Spike looked up and squinted. His cigarette had broken off in the middle.

Xander handed him the bottle of whiskey Giles kept under the cash register. "That was really selfless."

Spike gave Xander a filthy look and raised an eyebrow.

"Okay. That was totally selfish and you've been wanting to punch Tara since you met her."

"Bloody right, I have. Look - we done here? This shop needs a good airing out and it's offending my delicate senses."

"Your delicate senses hang out at the dump."

Spike raised his eyebrows - both of them.

"Oh. Geez."

Then there was calling Giles back from his day off and explaining and girly hugs which nobody avoided.

And then they were out on the street.

"I can't believe Tara thought she was a demon."

"Why's that?" Somehow, Spike had lit a fresh cigarette without letting go of Giles' half-full bottle of whiskey and had one in one hand and one in the other, alternating vices and breaking at least two laws - three if you counted laws of nature and being undead.

"Well - Tara. She's sweet. And nonviolent. And - and nice."

"I'm a demon and I'm nice."

Xander swatted away the whine with an airy wave. "You're occasionally generous when it suits your purposes."

"Well, yeah - okay. She's still a demon."

"I - what?"

"Glinda's a demon - got enough demon in her or something, anyway." Spike stopped for a moment to admire a display of knives in a pawn-shop window. Xander could see his reflection, alone and confused.

Very confused.

He turned to look at Spike.

Who was looking a lot healthier all of a sudden.

"But - you said ow. Your head hurt. You took Giles' whiskey."

"Yeah, so? I always nick his whiskey. Our Rupert drinks too much as it is. Well, all right -" Spike amended, seeing Xander's look. "He doesn't, but you gave it to me this time - not gonna turn down free whiskey, am I? And I was faking the headache." Spike sauntered on, smoking and drinking in time with his footsteps and Xander stared after him. Did a little run-skip maneuver to catch up.

"I don't get it," he said. Because - head - chip - vampire on the floor.

"Glinda is a demon," Spike said in the 'you are an idiot' voice. "Not much to get. Did you hit your head or something, Harris?"

"Hit me."

"You've got to be out of your fucking mind. Think I want a headache?"

"You hit Tara."

"Course I did. Could smell her, couldn't I? And I like Glinda. Don't hit just anybody, you know." Spike took a swig of whiskey and passed the bottle to Xander. "She's harmless, anyway. Not much worse than a garden gnome - demonically speaking. Though I'd watch her around any truffles you didn't want to go missing, and I don't mean the chocolate kind."

"So she's - she's just...she's good?"

"You already knew that, Xander," Spike said, with another of those 'you are an idiot' looks. He was getting way too many of those.

"Well, yeah, okay. But - she's not, I mean...really a demon?"

"Yeah, yeah, really a demon, don't strain yourself, all right?" The door to the Espresso Pump opened and two men pushed hastily out, slamming into Spike and Xander - shoving free.

"Watch where the fuck you're going," Spike snarled and one turned around, fists already clenching.

"Fuck you, asshole," he snapped and Spike lunged - was brought up short, hand flying to his head as he let out a yelp of pain. Xander untangled himself from the other guy, pushing him away, and the first one laughed.

"Jesus, what a freak!" And he punched, inexpert but hard, solidly into Spike's temple. Spike recoiled - swung - and reeled back, shouting. The guy got in another punch and then Xander was shoving in between, throwing his own punch and pushing the guy into his friend.

"Just get the fuck away from us! Jesus, get out of here!" Xander wished for a weapon - pulled the only one he did have, which was a stake, and brandished it. "Go on!"

And at least one of the guys had the same idea as Xander because he was dragging hard on his buddy's arm. "C'mon, Mike, let's go."


Spike shook off Xander's arm. Hard. And struggled to his feet himself, stalking away.

But not before Xander could see Spike's nose was bleeding and he wouldn't look Xander in the eye the whole way home. When they got there, Spike flung himself down on the couch, one arm over his face, and didn't say a word. Xander got him a wet washcloth and a beer and sat on the couch too because there was no place else to sit.

And he didn't really know what to say.

"So, the Initiative's back in town," Xander told the commercial for cat food on the television screen while every jumpy cell in his body tensed along with Spike. It wasn't something he'd planned to say - any more than thinking the words over and over all afternoon could be called a 'plan' to say anything.

Xander was pretty sure the temperature in the room dropped a few degrees and if Spike didn't put down his beer bottle, they'd be cleaning glass out of the carpet - again.

Not that it'd damage the carpet but Xander was picky about getting glass stuck in his bare feet on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

"That so?" Spike asked and took a drink.

"Yeah - they came to fix Riley. Uh - not fix fix - like dog fix - "

Spike snorted - it was a pretty eloquent snort. It said things about what a benefit fixing Riley would be to humanity.

"That was too easy, Spike. Below standards." Spike's fingers were tightening the bottle again. "They did things to him when he was a soldier - and they brought back the Initiative doctors to fix the - whatever."

"Lucky break for him, then."

Xander licked his lips, took a long pull of beer, and waited for the penny to drop.

He hoped Giles would understand if he and Spike had to take a really sudden road trip if Buffy found out about this because Spike went on a killing spree or -

Okay, if Spike got the chip out and went on a killing spree, Xander was probably on the menu under 'Appetizers'. He checked 'running away from Buffy' off his mental contingency plan. Then he crossed off his mental contingency plan.

Which he hoped he wouldn't need.

Because he was pretty sure he and Spike were past the hors d'oeuvre part of their relationship and closer to something like friendship and not just because of the chip.

Xander shot a nervous glance at Spike and really hoped he was right about Spike drawing a line between 'friends' and 'food'. Sometimes, he just couldn't tell when Spike was being serious.

"So..." Ultra-casual, absolutely cool, 'I really don't care I'm just bored silly and have nothing better to talk about' voice that didn't fool Xander for a second. Didn't fool Spike's fingers, either, which were now making the bottle creak ever so slightly. "How long are these doctors going to be in town, then? They still here?"

Xander swallowed - looked briefly upwards to check for forming thunderheads. "Well, Riley kind of - panicked and ran off. So Buffy's out hunting him down and the doctors are stuck over at Sunnydale Memorial twiddling their thumbs until she finds him."

"That so," Spike said - took another drink of his beer - a drink that drained the bottle. In the next second he seemed to teleport - one minute he was sitting next to Xander on the couch, the next he was standing in the door to the kitchen and his empty bottle was a spray of nearly pulverized fragments, sparkling like sugar over the tired, dark green linoleum.

"Why'd you tell me, Xander?" Spike said. Didn't scream - didn't shout, didn't curse. Didn't turn around and look at Xander, just stood there with his hands hanging down at his sides. His voice was - small and cracked, like the pieces of glass. But not remotely sharp.

Xander licked his lips.

Flexed his hands and put them on his knees.

"Not that - that I'd ever be the kind of guy to put a vicious killer back on the streets - " Xander watched a bead of red crest Spike's jaw, outlined by the light - scrubbed his palms over his jeans - *Did the bottle cut him?*

"Wouldn't you?"

"And not that I'm suggesting anything - but...if we left now, I'm pretty sure we could get there before Buffy and Riley do."

"What are you getting at, Harris?" Spike turned. Slash of red down his right cheek.

*It did cut him.*

Xander swallowed, shoved away the voice that still demanded to know what the hell he was doing. "Nice night for a little brain surgery, don't you think?"

Spike's grin was slow to come, but when it did it made Xander's stomach do some very interesting things.

Actually, they ended up lurking around the hospital until they saw Buffy leaving, smudged and slump-shouldered. Whatever they'd done to Riley had taken a few hours, and they found the doctor - singular - in the doctors lounge, having a cup of coffee and a danish, writing notes in a little journal and explained patiently to him why he should fix Spike until he agreed. And okay - the loaded crossbow probably didn't hurt.

Xander watched the operation with queasy feeling in his gut, made worse by the fact that Spike was awake and talking.

"What's it look like? You see it, Harris? What do you see?"

"Umm - blood. I see blood and - and this sort of...grey stuff -"

"That would be his brain," the doctor muttered, and Xander winced.

"Oh god. Your - brain. Doesn't it hurt?"

"Just stings a bit where he cut away the bone. Where the hell are my smokes?"

"You can't smoke while I'm doing this!" the doctor cried, horrified, and Spike growled.

"Why the bloody hell not? It's boring, lying here. Can't even look in a mirror and tummy-trouble boy won't give me a blow-by-blow -"

"He sawed out a piece of your skull and he's prodding around at your brain and it looks like grey, textured Jell-O with strawberry syrup poured all over it! Good enough?" Because Xander was so far beyond queasy, he was gonna need a road map to get back and there was something really wrong about watching a guy cut into his - sexy vampire - friend's brain.

"Just put your head down below the level of your heart and take a few deep breaths, you'll be fine," the doctor said - from a very long way away. Down a tunnel filled with feathers and -

Xander whooped in a breath and the world snapped back into focus.


The doctor'd been talking to him.

"The chip, Harris. What's it look like?"

And was it legal for a guy with his skull open and his brain hanging out to sound that casual? That irritable?

Xander had almost fainted getting his wisdom teeth extracted. He gritted his teeth, tasted his last beer for the second time and swallowed hard. "Kinda like somebody rammed a chip up in your brain. And can you make your brain stop quivering like that?"

Spike started to say something back and then stopped and Xander saw his hand, which was lying open and relaxed on his thigh suddenly go tight - claw at the worn denim for a moment. Then there was a clink and the doctor was holding out a little petri dish. There was a smear of blood in the bottom and a little finger-nail sized bit of plastic and wire.

*It's tiny. God. That's...* "Hey, Spike, it's - out, it's - it's right...here." Xander took the chip and carried it around to Spike and managed not to jitter it out of his hands and drop it on Spike, who looked up through the clear bottom of the dish for a moment.

"Now can I have my bloody smoke?"

"No!" The doctor looked harassed and nervous as he carefully fitted the bit of skull back and stitched the flap of scalp down over it, clipping stray hairs and sutures. There was blood in Spike's hair.

"We all done, then? Did he do me up right, Harris? Don't fancy a comb-over for the next thousand years."

"Yeah, it's - it's great, you can barely see it," Xander said distantly, and Spike hopped up off the table - felt the back of his head and grinned.

"Now - for a little test. I need my strength back after that ordeal." Xander stared at Spike as his face flowed - shifted - and then the demon was there, fangs and brassy-gold eyes and had just long enough to feel the first flutter of shit, he's going to kill me before the doctor knocked over a jar with a clang and clatter, his eyes huge, his bloodied latex gloves dangling from his fingers, and Spike's head snapped around.

"Don't move, doc - I'm fair done in, don't feel like a chase," Spike growled, and for one moment the doctor froze. Spike - leapt.

"Spike! Oh - shit." There was thud as Spike's tackle shoved the doctor hard into the cabinets and then a short, breathless scream. Then the doctor was sliding down out of Spike's arms to the floor, pale and groaning, and alive enough that Xander had to give Spike credit because Spike was laughing - licking blood-red lips.

"I g-guess it worked," Xander said, still somewhere down that tunnel to the land beyond nausea. He put the chip in its dish on the operating table, gave three silent cheers for Spike's restraint and then threw up in the sink.

On the way home, Spike cracked open a vending machine and passed Xander a Coke.

Xander stared at it.

Spike waved a hand in the gesture of Xander's stomach and looked - god help him - sympathetic. "For the tummy trouble," Spike said.

Then he started to whistle.

Chapter 4 Shadow through The Gift.

Month two in the new apartment and the bed was still a mattress on the floor. But they had a new couch. Actually new. From Bubba's Bargain Bonanza on Crawford off the freeway but it was new. And it was theirs. And it was a fold-out because Dawn kept talking them into letting her spend the night in totally appropriate ways - like a sleep over with movies and junk food and the kind of girl-talk Xander had perfected during similar sleep-overs with Willow and Buffy.

There was even hair braiding.

Until the time Xander fell asleep in the middle of Rebel Without A Cause and ended up going to work that memorable next morning working the Coolio look.

It was never to be mentioned in company.

Bribes were involved.

And since there were pictures, so was blackmail.

And he loved having Dawn there but -

But Xander was putting her off too. A lot. And even a teenager was gonna start noticing the whole putting off thing soon because his excuses were going from flimsy to the Emperor's New Excuse. He sighed - shifted - stared across the room at the new couch-bed they hadn't broken in yet and the lamp that stood up next to it and the real coffee table which had replaced a board and milk crates thanks to Bubba. *Starting to look like real people live here. Sort of.* Xander shifted again and grinned at the soft sound of displeasure from Spike.

Because this was why he was putting Dawn off. Because contrary to popular Scooby belief, he did not make Spike sleep on the couch or the floor or in the bathtub. No, when Spike finally kicked off his boots and shimmied out of his jeans - closer to dawn than not - he slipped into the bed right along with Xander and pretty much every morning was the same: Xander ended up curled around Spike, who seemed to take being mummified by arms and legs and sheet in his sleep in stride.

Or as much stride as a sleeping guy had.

Which wasn't much.

And good thing because when Xander mummified, he left no limb unwrapped.

Xander liked waking up wrapped around Spike. Liked it enough it was sometimes kind of embarrassing and he wanted to keep that... Not secret, like Spike was some shameful thing best kept hidden but... Private. Just for himself, for now like the buddy movie subtext that wasn't ready to become text.

And Xander liked waking up with someone. Liked having a hip under his palm and a thigh under his own thigh.

So he wasn't ready for Dawn or anybody else to know. He wondered sometimes if Spike knew. He seemed to sleep like - ha ha - the dead, and rarely moved once he was out. Sprawled on his back, face open and smoothed of all care. Legs any which way and one arm behind his head, confident and taking up too much space even unconscious.

Xander sighed and settled and watched the number on the clock morph, six-twenty-seven to six-twenty-eight. A little over an hour yet. He grinned to himself and curled his hand around Spike's shoulder - pushed his cheek into Spike's chest and closed his eyes. Just a little longer...

A little longer with a hard chest under him and a slim hand carding through his hair and - wait.

Xander marshaled his brain cells - all fifteen of the ones awake - and concentrated.

That was definitely the feeling of fingers running through his hair.

Which was not a thing Spike did.

Except on movie nights when Dawn nagged him into it.

Xander had his suspicions about whose idea the whole Coolio incident had been.

But there was no braiding going on.

Just - kinda petting.


And he should open his eyes and say something about it but it was really nice and a few more minutes would be...

Xander woke to a ringing phone and fumbled his way over Spike to get at it - and - "I am so fucked."

It was almost eleven.

"Do you always answer your telephone that way?"


"Uh. Only on Wednesdays. Damn, Giles, I'm sorry - I had the alarm set -"

"It's all right, Xander. It's been slow this morning. I've been dusting, actually. Why don't you - come around and get us some lunch? I'm rather in the mood for gyros."

"No problem, Giles. Be there by noon."

"No hurry, Xander. Goodbye."

"Bye." Xander clicked the phone off and then lay there for a minute, his heart still pounding a bit from the 'the phone's ringing dear god what's wrong where am I?' adrenaline. Then he realized he was still lying half-over Spike, thigh to thigh and groin definitely near groin and - Jesus Christ but his heart was going to pound right out of his chest. He started to slither off and froze when a cool hand pressed itself into the small of his back.



"Um -ah - I think you're... I mean, I think I - I think I need a shower."

"Feelin' a little - dirty?" Spike murmured, and Xander felt the blush like a bucket of hot water dashed over him from head to toe.

"Feeling something," Xander mumbled. Spike's hand - stroked. Gently. Lightly. Enticingly, and Xander's months of *won't can't shouldn't* were crumbling.

Like a cookie. Or maybe a biscuit. Some kind of crumbly thing.



*Deja vu much?* "Umm - why didn't my alarm go off?"

"It did. Bloody noisy. I turned it off."

"I'm late for work, Spike!" Because it was so much easier to address the whole late for work thing instead of the - stroking thing. Xander groaned. *No! Don't think 'stroking' for god's sake!* He got to his feet in an undignified scramble and then stood there, staring because...

Because of the way Spike was watching him and running a hand up and down from hip to shoulder to unselfconscious tent in the sheets. "Best go, mate. Wouldn't want Rupert to go hungry, would we?"

"You? Are a very bad and disturbing vampire."

Spike curled his tongue behind his teeth and pointedly watched Xander scuttle toward the bathroom in really inadequate boxer shorts.

"And that's not helping!"

Spike's eyebrow said 'So? What's your point?'

"Xander? The tzatziki?"

Xander flashed back to two plastic cups with tzatziki...left on the counter in the gyro shop. "Sorry, Giles."

"Here - you gonna share that or what?" Spike made an unsuccessful grab for the popcorn bowl in Dawn's arms.

Vamp speed was nothing compared to the reflexes of a hungry teenager guarding the food.

Xander could have told him that - if he wasn't busy translating frantic Buffy to English. "Buff - Buffy, slow down! What? She's right here. How's Joyce?"

"Mom's - fine, she's - look, I have some news but I don't - I mean, not over the phone, okay? I have to - go out, there's - something I have to do and then I'm going to come by there, okay?"

"Yeah, sure Buff. Whatever you wanna do. We're just watching movies."

"No scary ones! And no NC-17 ones. And -"

"Buffy. I got it. I'm an old hand at the Dawn-sitting, okay?"

"I don't actually need a babysitter, you know!" Dawn yelled. Muffled yell through a mouthful of popcorn.

"Hey! Watch where you're spitting that stuff!" Spike flicked something off his shirt to the floor and Xander rolled his eyes.

"Listen, Buffy, they're making a mess over there. It's like feeding time at the zoo. I gotta go."

"Yeah, okay." Buffy sounded distracted - anxious - and Xander had a sinking feeling that her news...wasn't going to be good. "Xander, just - don't let anything in. At all. Okay? Unless it's me."

"Buffy, what -?"

"Just don't, okay? I'll be by later. Okay, Xander?"

"Yeah, okay. Buffy? Be careful and - " Xander debated for the space of one in-out breath before adding, "take Riley with you. I know he's human guy now but - wherever you're going, he's got those commando reflexes." Whatever he thought - whatever he felt about Riley hanging around them like some kind of walking fashion faux pas that didn't go with the rest of the Scooby outfit -

"I will," Buffy said while Xander was still crafting his analogy, but her voice sounded...tired and he let it die unsaid. She disconnected and Xander put the phone down on the counter - looked over at the couch, where Dawn and Spike were pelting each other with popcorn.

"I am not cleaning that up, guys."

"It's gonna be gross in a few days."

"Bit's got a point, mate."

"Fine, we all know I am cleaning that up - eventually - but let me pretend I have a choice."

Spike snagged a handful of popcorn and took a swig of beer. He was watching again - with one of the looks Xander hadn't decoded yet. "You can yell at us a bit if it makes you feel better."

"That's almost sweet. But no. Gimme popcorn." Xander wedged himself in between them on the couch and then there was popcorn.

And Johnny Depp.

And later, a veto on going out for ice cream.


"Because Buffy said you've gotta stay in here while she does the derring-do." Not that the explanation would be enough. When was that kind of explanation ever enough for a teenager?

He waited for it. But he waited for it with beer in hand.

He was fortified against it.

And didn't have to wait long.

"But why?"

"I don't know - but whatever it was, it had Buffy scared. So my vote's on listening to Buffy."

Dawn snorted. "Buffy's never scared. Everything in this town's scared of her."

"I'm not!"

"Except Spike."

"Bloody right, 'except Spike'."

Dawn made a snorting noise of pure disbelief and Spike grumpily reached for a cigarette - pressed his thigh and knee into Xander's and leaned in, pulling the ashtray closer, getting his beer - generally making a pest of himself in a way that made Xander wish desperately for a pillow to hold.

*Not in front of Dawn, not in front of Dawn. Nuns. Giles in a nun's habit... Oh, that's - no, for god's sake! I am such a perverted freak. Buffy in a nun's habit? Kittens in nun's habits - wow, when did I get a nun kink? I need - I need -*

"Nachos!" Xander yelped, and stood hastily up. "I'm gonna make nachos. Got all the stuff. Dawn, nachos?"

"With extra peppers and sour cream!"

"You got it." Xander strode hastily away into the kitchen, loftily ignoring the wicked little chuckle from Spike that seemed to mock him all the way there.

"Need any help, Xander?" Spike called, and Dawn made a choking sort of noise. An oh my god, Xander's into Spike! kind of noise. "Take a drink of your soda, Niblet."

A kind of noise Xander would pretend he did not hear.

"Uh - no! No, no help, I'm fine, I can do this with my eyes closed, you guys just watch the movie, okay?"

"Sure. If you need anything though just - whistle," Spike continued, the wicked and the chuckle so clearly in his voice that Xander had to open the 'fridge and stick his head in.

"You know how to whistle, don't you?"

"Just put your lips together and blow," Xander answered - automatic - and then groaned. *Damn Turner Classic Movies!*

*Hello? World? When I ask the musical question 'how many things can go wrong all at once?' you really don't have to demonstrate next time.*

"Hold still."


Because Xander always held still when a stranger was stitching his face closed.

Spike was all right.

Glory didn't have Spike anymore.

Spike wasn't dust.

Spike would be waiting for him when he got home.

Spike had - saved Dawn.

Spike had almost been dusted.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Wax on. Wax off.

Maybe he'd scar.

Maybe it'd be as cool and sexy and dangerous as Spike's scar.

Maybe Spike would - okay. Not thinking about Spike.

"Hold still."

"I am - " Xander looked down at his bouncing leg and stopped it. "Oh."

Okay so - items of the bad:

Council? Check. Gone.

Scoobies one, world zero.

Go Scoobies.

One god-battered vampire.

Three dozen freaky knights out to kill Dawn for being a mystical key to destroy the barriers between worlds and bring about a big death, destruction and chaos Apocalyptic party.

One hell god trying to use Dawn to make all that happen.

One tumor.

One dead mom - mother figure - piece of their lives.

And one Captain Commando deciding real gods didn't fit into his personal philosophy and hell town was too freaky for him and disappearing into the night leaving them:

One man short with:

One grieving and abandoned Slayer?

Not so check.

Scoobies one, world one.


Xander considered suggesting to Spike he should go after Riley and make it nine hundred and ninety-nine instead.

He arrested the thought and slapped it in leg irons before it could get far because he was an adult. Adults had priorities that didn't involve ripping Riley's throat out.

He wondered if Buffy would find Riley. He wondered how Spike was doing. He wondered if Dawn was holding up okay because she'd seen Spike and she knew exactly what Glory was after. The doctor or nurse or whatever-he-was made an annoyed sort of noise and Xander clasped his hands tightly between his knees and did his best not to jitter right off the table.

*Think about...something else. Think about how in hell we're going to beat Glory. Think about what we're gonna do if she grabs Willow or Tara or Giles. Or me. How can we stop her? Why the fuck can't we put the whammy on her? This sucks.*

"There. Done. You need to come back in about five days so I can take those out. I'll have the nurse bring the paperwork around."

"Yeah, sure, cool." As soon as the latex-sticky hands were off him Xander let his leg go and the man glanced down once at the amazing bouncing knee and shook his head - strode out, stripping off the gloves and moving on to the next person.

Xander started looking for a nurse. He was pretty sure if you just ran out without your stitches follow-up care sheet it wasn't too big a deal. Not like he hadn't had any before and he'd already given somebody his insurance info. He knew how to take care of wounds. Right now he just wanted to get home. Wanted to see - *Spike. And Dawn. But mostly...*

Yeah. So not going there. He hopped down - spent ten minutes waving his own chart around and then was out of there, headed home - and nearly crashed full-tilt into Buffy coming in the doors.

"Hey, Buff, did you find Captain - uh - Riley - and that is so not the question I should have asked," he finished lamely with an armful of brave little toaster.

Okay, less brave little toaster and more ticking and emotional time bomb toaster ready to kick some butt.

"He left."

"That's...succinct." Also not surprising. A guy doesn't stand his girlfriend up for some Hellgod slaying lightly.

"I don't want to talk, Xander." And that part was surprising because Buffy pulled away and did her 'this is my back - follow it home if you don't want to become vampire chow' number.

Xander followed it. There was only one vampire he wanted to -

*Hello? Brain? What part of 'not going there' isn't getting through?*

"And it's so much easier to run away than talk, huh?" Xander heard himself saying and blamed it on the painkiller.

"Because you know so much about relationships, you're totally healthy relationship guy?" Buffy pivoted, right in his face from five foot nothing. "You haven't even dated since - when - Cordelia? What - is this a gay thing? Like guys put out so you don't need relationships and that makes you better than the rest of us?"

A bucket of cold water couldn't have been more of a shock and Xander just gaped at Buffy for a minute - took a hard breath and then another and then -

"What did you just say to me?"

"You got your gay on and did your - groove thing up in Oxnard and now - what - you're all holed up in your apartment with Spike every night? Is he putting out or something? Like rent?" Buffy's eyes were sparkling with tears and suddenly Xander was so far from caring he heard himself saying -

"Yeah. Sure. Why not. What happened? Did Riley stop when he realized it was all about you?"

Buffy's eyes went wide and she spun on her heel and strode away, fast, boot-heels cracking on the sidewalk like gunshots and Xander jogged to keep up.

"So now it's my fault Riley left? Sure, why not? Blame me - everything's always my fault. My mom, Riley, Dawn - all my fault!"

"This poor, pitiful me bullshit is really getting old."

Buffy stopped fast. So fast Xander nearly gave himself whiplash trying not to run into her.

And for just one second, Xander knew he was about to find out first hand what it felt like when a pissed off Slayer clocked you.

But Buffy turned around again and started walking again and Xander had never been so glad to be totally wrong before.

So he did the really stupid thing and went on talking. "Let's leave the whole Xander gay - Xander not need gushy emotions thing out of this. You could do something about Riley - but did you?"

"There was nothing I could have done!"

"Did you ever ask him not to go? Did he have the first fucking clue how much he meant to you?" This time, Buffy stared and Xander kept walking on rubbery knees and vowed if he survived there was something he really needed to say to Spike. "Or is that why he left?"

Buffy - his stomach twisted a little on him because those were tears in her eyes and - fuck. Buffy could take care of herself and Xander was probably the last guy on the planet qualified to help. Buffy didn't follow but Xander - really, really had some place to be.

The rubbery knees made him stumble twice on his way up the stairs and he felt rubber go to water at the smear of blood on his front door. Down low, like someone being - carried. Xander fumbled his keys out of his pocket - tried one, two - three times to get it in the lock. Then it was in and the lock was grudgingly turning over - *Need some WD-40, always forgetting about that, gotta remember - god, it's dark, why didn't they leave a light on? Spike?*

"Spike?" Xander fumbled for the light-switch and found it - flipped it up. The light in the ceiling fan came on and - there. On the couch. Boots still on, t-shirt showing dark-dappled skin through too many tears - one arm hanging lax and blood-streaked off the edge of the cushions and Xander had to hang on the doorknob for a second as he shut the door.

Then he finally gave his knees a rest by letting them collapse - three wobbly steps and he was folding, the arm of the couch hitting him on the chin and he edged crookedly around the end of the couch - crawled a step closer and just - stared.

Because his memory - didn't do it justice.

Quentin Tarantino couldn't do Spike's battered body justice.

Blood, bruises - swollen flesh. Torn flesh, torn shirt, three crooked fingers that hadn't been set and Xander spared one moment to be really pissed at whoever just dumped him. *Didn't even give him anything to drink, didn't even give him a blanket - *

"Spike? Hey - you okay? Spike?" Hesitating and hesitating and finally putting his palm flat on Spike's knee and Spike stirred - shifted - lifted his head a fraction, dazed and slitted eyes tracking and settling on Xander's face.

"Hey," Spike said, and they both winced at the rawness of his voice.

"Hey, yourself."

Spike sniffed - wetly - and dropped his head back onto the couch. He didn't move anything else and Xander figured now would be a good time to get some blood into him. Blood. More blood.

Twisting stomach.

Blood. Oddly comforting thought. Blood.

Feed Spike the blood.

And then maybe he'd work his courage back up where it belonged.

Spike spoke again when he opened the refrigerator door. "You smell like the Slayer. If she wants to know - what I told Glory, answer's nothing."

"I know. I mean - I already knew. You wouldn't." Xander stared at the blood bag, shuffled it back and forth from one hand to the other. "That's not what she wanted to talk about."

A series of sickening pops and crackles went with Spike lifting and turning his head.

Xander wasn't sure if he could read Spike's facial expression under the mess of his face but he was pretty sure it was skeptical.

*Jesus, his face.*

Nobody'd even washed the blood out of his hair.

And were those finger holes in his stomach?

Xander warmed the blood, stuck in a straw and then gave the mug to Spike, who took it clumsily.

Then he sat down on the floor and watched the clock blink and felt Spike moving behind him. Brushing his hair when he lifted the mug. Bumping clumsily against his shoulder when he lowered it down.

When had the power gone out?

"I've gotta say something."

The drinking sounds stopped - or maybe Xander's heart was beating too hard for him to hear them.

"I'm in love with you," he said to the clock. Xander licked his lips which were - really dry. And his stitches were pulling at his cheek and his hands were clenched between his knees again because Spike could laugh at him here but - that was pretty much a right Spike'd earned. "I just thought you might wanna know."

Spike didn't laugh.

But there wasn't time for much after that.

Tender fingers washing crusted blood out of bleached curls.

Pouring water over a body held together more by stubbornness than the laws of nature.

Holding mug after mug of blood that didn't pour out of all the holes in Spike's body like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

Three days of gentle touches Spike leaned into.

Three days of painfully jerking off in the bathroom while Spike slept most of the day and night.

And on the third night, Spike was better - enough anyway, he said.

Then Buffy came before they could do anything about it.

"Spike, I need you to steal a van." Her fingernails were bitten down, face hollow with fatigue, arms folded, fingers tapping nervously on her sleeve. "Something - really big."

They were as settled as they were going to get, waiting in the fire-striped darkness of the old Texaco station, surrounded by Renaissance Faire rejects with really bad attitudes. Xander watched Ben for a moment - watched his fingers move delicately over Giles' wound, bandaging and tidying and cleaning up. Ben seemed pretty damn calm for a guy who'd been called into the middle of Crazypalooza, 2001 and Xander was glad he wasn't freaking out. Xander, on the other hand...

He was tired. Four days ago they'd fought Glory's minions to get Spike back and it seemed like they hadn't stopped fighting since - hadn't stopped moving. Xander was starting to feel a little frayed around the edges - a little punchy from ten-minute cat naps and frozen burritos and the never-ending tension that rode between his shoulder blades and made his neck stiff - made his head ache.

Xander scrubbed his hands back through his hair and went looking for Spike. The one thing that made the nerve-jangle go away for minutes at a time. Xander felt a little lift in his heart when he caught sight of the pale hair in the gloom - a lift that sank again as he watched Spike's bandaged hands fumbled with his Zippo, trying to light it and then giving up in frustration.

"Here, let me," Xander said softly - reached out and took the Zippo and lit it - held it up. Spike's hands - cool where they weren't wrapped in a torn towel - cupped around his and guided the flame to the tip of his cigarette. He drew in deeply and Xander studied his face in the small, dancing flame. A couple of new bruises over the old ones from Glory - a smear of dirt on his jaw. A smear of blood on his wrist.

"Thanks," Spike muttered around the cigarette, and Xander clicked the lighter shut - reached out and tucked it into Spike's breast pocket, the back of his fingers brushing Spike's chest for a moment, then coming up to touch his face. He could still feel a bump in Spike's jaw where he wasn't quite healed.

"Still sore, huh?"

"Not too bad," Spike said - blew out a lungful of smoke and leaned a little. Just enough. Pressed shoulder to hip to thigh against Xander, head bowed and a small, private smile on his lips. "Could be a lot worse, really," Spike added, looking up and Xander grinned at him - gave him a little nudge with his elbow that turned into more lean. Xander wondered how completely he would humiliate himself if he faked a yawn and put his arm around Spike's shoulders.

But then Spike was leaning a little more - his head touching Xander's temple, his cheek just brushing. Still for a moment

"Should've just nicked that little Corvette I saw - bundled you and the Bit inside - took off East. Someplace - big. Get us lost." Spike's voice was soft - a little wistful and Xander closed his eyes - rolled his head the tiniest bit, so they were a little more face to face and Xander put his arms around Spike's waist where they belonged.

"Spike, I -"

"I know. You'd never have left your friends. Just - daydreaming, is all." Xander wanted to say something else - wanted to maybe do something, but Tara was yelling and then Ben was and then - there just wasn't time.

There was never time lately. Time for quiet moments. Time for connection.

Time for more than stolen kisses that made Xander feel guilty because Buffy had been catatonic after they lost Dawn and then so focused since.

And things were bad and getting worse.

And he still wanted -

Spike sat on the crate Xander had been trying to pry open and lit a cigarette. "Not helping us find the Dagon sphere, Spike."

Upstairs, he could hear Buffy practicing with Olaf's hammer - at least he really hoped that's what was going on because it was making him jumpy.

Something that sounded like the unicorns case shattered and - okay, good riddance - and Spike was holding his wrist.

And Spike was tugging.

And apparently, his body really didn't have a problem with inappropriately timed affection and - and -

"Relax, mate. Bloody thing's not going anywhere without us. Witching hour's not getting any further away."

"No, it's getting closer," Xander said, but he wasn't protesting, and he sure wasn't pulling away from the determined, thorough kiss that Spike was giving him. Kissing Spike was new enough to make Xander's heart rabbit-hop in his chest - to make his palms a little sweaty and he concentrated on kissing back and not listening to the thumps and voices upstairs.

New - days new. Days that felt like minutes during which whole years worth of bad things happened.

"Lost my touch, have I?" Spike asked, and Xander blinked at him - looked down in embarrassment, feeling a sort of panic welling up.

"No, I - it's just... Me and Buffy kind of left things in a - bad place and I just don't want... I mean, if we - if she -"

"You don't want her maybe dying on you before you can say you're sorry?" Spike took a long pull off his cigarette and Xander slumped into him, hands on Spike's hips and his forehead on Spike's shoulder, cool against the leather.

"Jesus. I don't - wanna think about it like that but... Yeah, I - I want to tell her..."

"Plenty of time, Xander," Spike said - stubbed his cigarette out on the sole of his boot and ran his hands up Xander's arms and cupped his jaw - made Xander look up. Solemn face of a graveside angel, bad-boy leather and a look of utter contentment in his eyes. "Plenty of time for all that. But - you're not the only one who's got something needs saying before the world ends, yeah? Got something you need to hear." Spike's hands were cool on Xander's cheeks and his skin was tingling under them because this was either the grandfather of inappropriate timing or the biggest cliche ever because Spike was saying, "I love you, too. Love you, Xander."

Xander wasn't sure why that hurt, but it did - hurt enough to make his eyes prickle and he couldn't say a word back - just tugged Spike close and kissed him until Giles shouted down the stairs at them.

"Any luck? Have you found the Dagon sphere?"

"Yeah. Got it right here," Spike said while his eyes said 'this isn't over, mate' - or maybe 'pet' - Xander wouldn't mind being called pet.

In private.


He looked down at Spike's palm pressed against his chest and covered it. "Right. We're gonna survive this thing."

Buffy didn't.


'Xander, I - '

'I'm sorry I said all that stuff - about you and Riley.'

'You weren't wrong.'

'I think I kinda was.'


'You and Spike, huh? That's different.'

'Me and Spike.'

'More than a fuck?' Beat. 'Good.'

Buffy didn't - survive.

"Bit's asleep."

"Xander...if anything happens to me - "

"Which it won't."

Tense smiles.

"Look after Dawn."


"Please, Xander."

"Okay. Yeah. I promise."

"This isn't how the script's supposed to go. Big evil comes. Buffy kicks its ass."

"We're not in a hell dimension, mate. Arse kicked, I say." Spike flopped on Giles' couch and stuck his feet up on Giles' coffee table, lit up a cigarette and wrapped an arm around Xander's shoulders. An arm which had a hand which petted Xander's chest and gripped Xander's fingers when Xander raised them to touch. And didn't let go. "Has Rupert called?"


"Well, it's early yet," Spike said, although it wasn't actually all that early, and wasn't it four hours later in Boston? Or maybe it was four hours earlier? Xander could never remember.

"He said he might not be able to until Friday. He had a lot of meetings and stuff. Lots of stuff to do," Xander added, examining Spike's nails and the little chips and cracks in the polish - the way his skin wrinkled over his knuckles and the line of blue that was a vein that did or maybe didn't flow with blood. *All that blood.*

"We've got a lot to do, too," Spike said, his voice soft and tired-sounding and Xander gripped his hand a little harder - leaned his head back on Spike's arm and blinked up at the ceiling. His eyes felt gritty.

Not sleeping for three days would do that to a guy.


Three days.

Three days ago.

When Buffy called Spike and asked him to steal a van.

It felt like three years.

Or thirty.

Or that could be the hysteria talking.

"Yeah, I guess Joyce dying was kinda the - the warm up for all the - the stuff we -" His voice cracked - choked off and Spike was pulling him close - arms wrapping around him and his mouth somewhere on Xander's jaw - on his cheek. Voice murmuring in his ear, softly hushing him. "Spike, I - I can't -"

"You can. You will. I'll help you, love," Spike said - soft kisses between each sentence and Xander felt that shivery little tingle that wanted to grow - wanted to become something. Finally become something after almost a week of waiting. A week of busy and panic and saving the world. And...

*Not in Giles' house. Not with Dawn just upstairs and Buffy twelve hours - gone, oh Jesus.*

But it felt good. Felt good to have Spike holding him - kissing him - smudging the tears off his face and telling him it was going to be all right, all right.

And he wanted to feel all right.

Feel good and just let it all go - to not be the one in charge, the one in control. Tara and Willow were grieving at the dorms and Dawn was a zombie and Giles - had gone off to find contacts and rumors and the next Slayer before the Council did, hollow-eyed and still bruised from the fight. Making the calls to LA, which seemed so weird because they weren't calls from LA with Oz calling to say hi and tell him the world hadn't ended yet.

They were all still bruised, and right at that moment Xander just wanted...comfort. Or more. And comfort - and more - was Spike.

"Let me make you forget, love. Just for a little while," Spike whispered, and Xander pulled him closer - lay down on Giles' couch and lost himself for a while. And that first time with Spike was always gonna be old lilies in stale water that'd sprayed everywhere when Dawn threw the vase and brick dust and Giles' couch which was too scratchy and hard but he didn't care because it felt like there was a hole where his heart was supposed to be and he wanted.

Harsh gasp for breath - fingers digging into Spike's shoulders and his thighs locked around Spike's ribs. "Love you, Spike - god - love you -"

"Yeah?" Cool breath on his cheek and cool skin against his skin and cool burn and 31 Flavor aches and Xander lost himself in all of it for a while.

On Giles' couch.

Their clothes mostly on.

With Dawn asleep upstairs.

And Buffy only twelve hours gone.

Xander rang up another purchase, a little less on autopilot than he'd been the day before - or the day before that.

Or the seven days before that when Spike held him together on Giles' couch and they poured their frustrations and need into each other and -

Woke up a little less numb.

The shop bell dinged, one more ding toward normal.

Xander still glanced up - habitually - hoping it'd be Spike but he was okay when it wasn't. Spike would be there when he got home. Or come wandering in off the street the one time Xander forgot to look.

Spike was a part of Xander's new normal and that was something he could get used to.

A thing like Buffy's death didn't go away quickly.

It scabbed over.



And ached when the weather was funny.

'Reckon she's someplace good, pet. A girl like that? Couldn't be anywhere else.'

Spike was good advice man. Which was pretty much up there with green cheese moons when it came to the unexpected. He was also - "Hey! No smoking over the rare books."

"It's not a rare book, Harris. It's a bloody nineteenth century reprint," Spike said and Xander wondered how long Spike had been there and he really had to put a bell over the shop's back entrance, too.

Still - Spike looked...okay, Spike looked kinda hot holding a book in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

Xander stared at Spike and Spike scowled back.


"Book guys are so sexy."

"Are they?" Spike dropped the book - sauntered over to the counter, cocksure and so damn - sexy. Wicked grin on his lips, spark of mischief in his eyes. "What do you think of this, then? 'If he be so resolved, I can o'ersway him; for he loves to hear That unicorns may be betrayed with trees And bears with glasses, elephants with holes, Lions with toils, and men with flatterers, He says he does, being then most flattered.'"

Xander blinked. "That was -"


"Really weird. And really hot. Kiss me."

Spike did. More than once, and Xander lost himself in the new normal, forgot that there was another customer somewhere in the shop and that the counter was digging into his stomach and that he'd forgotten to pay the sanitation guys and had to run over there before ten o'clock the next day or their dumpster would take on a life of its own.

Which was not an idle threat in Sunnydale.

Forgetting was...nice. One more bill, one more day, one more kiss toward - getting used to this strange new normal.

The door dinged. "Geez, guys, get a room!"

"I have a room. In fact, I have this room." Xander stood up and rubbed his stomach. That was gonna leave a bruise but Spike already looked like he wanted to kiss it better so there was no bad.

Then he straightened his crisp new co proprietor business cards next to the cash register.

Dawn rolled her eyes.

But that was okay too. Normal teenager snark? Okay.

Catatonic and listening to The Cure?

Really bad.

Sneaking into The Magic Box at night and getting into the restricted books cabinet?

"Dawnie?" Xander waited for her to finish rolling her eyes. "You're still grounded."

"It was only one book," Dawn muttered, dropping her backpack on the floor and slumping next to Willow at the table. Willow patted her hand and shoved a book at her - took one for herself.

"Uh huh. Still grounded." Because he wasn't sure which part wigged him out more - Dawn stealing his keys and sneaking out to The Magic Box at night or Dawn sneaking out to read a book on demonic messengers.

He shuddered and slammed the cash register drawer shut and leaned on it. In his peripheral vision, Spike was edging toward Willow and Dawn at the research table, reading over their shoulders before drifting away for a smoke. Tara came out from between two shelves, a few packets of herbs and a book in her hands.

Xander's turned to Tara, ringing up her purchases.

"You said G-Giles called. Is he okay?"

"Oh, Giles is fine. He had some news, though." Willow looked up from the book she was leafing through, and Xander came out from behind the counter to walk over to the table.

"What kind of news? Really good news or really bad news or just sort of in-between news?" Willow sniffed a little and wiped her sore-looking nose on another in an endless parade of tissues. Summer colds were the worst.

"Well...I guess it kind of depends. He found the new Slayer and he found a Watcher for her and they're going to be here sometime today. He's really not being advance notice guy."

Dawn didn't say anything - just slammed her book shut and stood up and stormed off to the training room, silent. Tara took a step after her.

"Oh, I sh-should -"

"No, better let me," Spike said - drawl of long-suffering but he was already moving toward the back. "I'll get her to swing a sword at me or something. Make her feel better."

"Just be sure and dodge - and no wood this time!" Xander called, and then he slumped down in Dawn's chair, watching Tara sit too, watching her reach out and touch Willow's hand. Willow was staring fixedly at the book in front of her.

"Well then, I guess that's - I guess that's just how it goes. One Slayer...one Slayer goes away and another Slayer arrives and - and is Giles even thinking about coming back? I mean - did it even cross his mind?" She looked pleadingly at Xander and Xander sighed and slumped down in his chair.

"I really - don't know. He's not being sharing guy either." Xander shrugged and picked up Dawn's pencil, clicking the lead out and pushing it back in. "Mostly he's being stiff upper lip, getting the job done guy."

But he hadn't killed anybody else since Ben - ten days, no world-saving murders.

No more dead Slayers.

Things were looking up and he should put a counter over the cash register: We've been apocalypse free for 10 days!

"H-how did he get the Council to approve his new W-watcher?"

"He didn't."

The shop bell jingled - and it'd be really ironic - or cliche - one of those - how often Xander was saved by the bell if it kept saving him like this.

Or maybe saving wasn't the word he was looking for and the new normal was really throwing curves at him because - "Wesley?"