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How The Light Gets In


by
Shadowscast



Part Nine


After Xander dropped Spike off at his place with the sheaf of papers and his Greek-English dictionary, he headed for the rental place to deal with the car. Since he couldn't exactly tell them that he'd loaned the car to a guy who didn't have a legal identity, let alone a driver's license, he ended up telling them he'd run into a telephone pole. And yeah, that was going to look fantastic on his driving record, thanks very much Spike.

He was still pissed at Spike when he went to bed, and then he couldn't sleep. Instead, he obsessed over all the ways he'd screwed up in the past twenty-four hours. He should've made Spike take a cab. He should've made up a better story for the rental company. He should've told Giles this was a stupid idea in the first place—there must be someone else they could call on to translate Ancient Greek—anyway, Spike obviously didn't know it very well if he needed a dictionary. Hell, Xander could probably translate it with a dictionary.

He shouldn't have danced with Spike last night.

The phone rang.

"Hello?"

"Hello Xander. Terribly sorry to disturb you at this hour." It was Giles, and he sounded tired. It would be morning in Rome, and he probably hadn't slept all night.

"No problem," Xander insisted quickly; not like he'd been asleep anyway. "How's it going?"

"Not very well," Giles confessed. "The text is written in a particularly dense style, and my progress is slow. Paramita and the others have lost all sensation in their extremities, and I fear time is running out. I wanted to check on Spike's progress, but when I tried the number you gave me all I got was a recorded message stating that the number I'd dialed was not in service."

"Have you got the right number?" Xander flicked on the bedside lamp, nearly knocked over the whiskey bottle sitting beside his wallet, then managed to find the right slip of paper. He read the number to Giles.

"That's what I have here," Giles confirmed. "Why don't you try from your end? Let me know as soon as you raise him."

So Xander tried calling Spike—but just like Giles had said, he got an out-of-service message.

"Fuck," he muttered, and started getting dressed.

Fifteen minutes later he was banging on Spike's door and feeling 80% righteously pissed off, 20% worried. The 20% evaporated as soon as Spike called out "Who's there?"

"It's me."

There was a short pause, then Spike opened the door. He was still wearing his church clothes, but now the shirt was untucked and its top two buttons undone. The faded remains of eyeliner made his eyes look hollow—or maybe he was just tired. "Haven't got it yet," he said, and he sounded tired—his voice was low and flat. "Still workin' on it."

"Yeah, Giles too." Xander felt his ire about the smashed headlight slipping away; they were facing a life-and-death situation here, and Spike was doing all he could to help. Xander stepped inside. "He wanted to compare notes, but your phone's not working."

"Hm?" Spike gave him a puzzled look for a second, then walked into the kitchen and picked up the phone. Xander followed. Spike listened for a second, then hung up. "Suppose that's what happens when you don't pay the phone bill for three months."

"Here." Xander pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. "Use this. Giles is 003 on the speed dial."

Spike started to reach for the phone, then got a funny expression on his face. He turned away from Xander and sneezed.

"Geisundheit," Xander responded automatically.

"Cheers," Spike muttered, taking the phone while he rubbed his nose with the back of his wrist.

The scanned copies of the ancient text were spread out over the kitchen table, Xander noticed, and there were notes scrawled over some of the pages in blue ink. The book from UCLA sat open, face down. There was a roll of toilet paper sitting on the table, too, and crumpled wads of tissue were scattered over the papers. With the phone tucked between his shoulder and ear, Spike grabbed the roll, pulled a few squares off and quickly blew his nose.

"Hi," he said a second later into the phone. "Vi? ... Yeah, it's me ... Well, yeah, I was dead, but I got over it. Look, I've got to speak with Giles, it's really bloody urgent." He turned the phone away from his mouth and turned to Xander. "There goes the cat, then."

"What cat?"

"The one that just got out of the bag. Everyone'll know I'm back now."

By everyone, Xander was pretty sure Spike meant Buffy—and probably Dawn, too. "They'll be happy," he said, trying vaguely to be reassuring. He really had no idea why Spike hadn't run to Buffy as soon as he corporeally could. "They like you."

Spike shrugged in a clear I-don't-want-to-talk-about-it gesture, then sneezed again.

Xander handed him the toilet paper roll. "You're getting a cold, huh."

Spike shrugged again the exact same way, shot Xander a quick scowl, and said into the phone "Hello, Rupert."

Xander pulled out a chair and took a seat. Spike followed his example a second later and started shifting through his papers while he and Giles talked. From the half of the conversation he could hear, Xander could tell they were skipping the pleasantries. "About thirty pages," Spike said, and "Not a fucking clue. How long do you reckon we have? ... Bugger."

Lacking anything else to do while he waited, Xander watched Spike.

Even with bleary eyes, a reddened nose and messed up hair, Spike somehow looked hot. He had really nice, round lips and those sharp cheekbones...

You sound gayer than Andrew, Xander's inner critic pointed out politely. And at the same moment, Spike raised an eyebrow at Xander, like he was asking 'What are you looking at?'

Xander dropped his gaze to the table and pretended to be interested in a page of Ancient Greek until Spike looked away.

"No, I'm using Liddell and Scott," Spike was saying, pinching the bridge of his nose with his free hand. "It's a bit weak on the mystical vocabulary, of course ... How do you spell that?" He picked up his pen and started scrawling something in a margin.

It was weird, he kind of sounded like Giles. Even the way he was talking, his accent, seemed strangely Giles-ey. Xander had been pretty skeptical this morning when Giles had told him what he needed Spike to do. Xander would believe that Spike knew how to hot-wire a car, maybe, or cheat at poker—but read Ancient Greek?

Spike is actually smart, Xander realized with a kind of shock. Book smart, like Willow and Giles. That was...cool. Mind-bendingly weird, but cool.

Meanwhile, Spike was saying good-bye to Giles.

"What now?" Xander asked.

"Giles hasn't found anything yet, no more'n me. Nothing for it but to keep going." Spike set the cell phone down on the table and massaged his temples wearily. "Best leave the phone with me, all right?"

"Yeah, sure." Xander hesitated; not like there was anything he could really help with here, when the only Greek he knew was the names of a few fraternities, but it didn't feel right to just walk out and leave Spike with all the work. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Wouldn't say no to a cup of coffee." Spike gestured vaguely towards the cupboards. "There's a jar of instant somewhere."

"Great," Xander said, standing up. "I can get back to my roots as the bringer of coffee and donuts."

Spike didn't reply; he was hunched over his papers, scribbling something else in a margin.

It wasn't so bad being Donut Boy, Xander reflected as he started opening cupboards, looking for the coffee. At least Donut Boy never hurt anybody. And all of a sudden he could swear he smelled gunpowder. He could see the girl slumping forward, the blood pooling in the dirt at her feet.

"You all right, Harris?" Spike's voice cut through the flashback and Xander saw the cupboard in front of him again. Empty. His hand ached from gripping the knob so hard, and he wasn't sure if he'd said anything or not.

"I'm fine," he said curtly, and tried the next cupboard.

He found the coffee, and by the time he'd spooned some into two mugs and plugged in the kettle, his hands had mostly stopped shaking. Spike seemed to ignore him, bent over his work and sniffling every few seconds.

Last night, Angel had been worried that Spike would get sick again. So there was probably an "I told you so" coming up in the near future. Xander wondered briefly where Angel was living these days, what he was up to besides hassling Spike. He hadn't seemed especially evil when they'd met in the porn store or behind the Eclectic Ballroom. Whatever the deal had been with Wolfram & Hart, it must be off since they'd left the dimension. Spike had seemed pretty hostile towards him, but that probably came from a thousand things in their history together. Plus, Angel's disturbing new manifestation as an overprotective old woman was obviously annoying the hell out of Spike. Christ, if Angel heard Spike had a cold he'd probably be at the door ten minutes later with a thermos of chicken soup. If he even knew about chicken soup, that is—being a vampire and all.

Wait a second. Thinking of food, it dawned on Xander that there'd been something wrong with the cupboards when he was looking for the coffee. As in, they'd all been empty. He checked again, including the ones he hadn't tried before. Spike had literally nothing but the coffee, a box of tea, and three packages of ramen noodles.

"What're you looking for?" Spike asked, looking up just as the kettle started whistling.

"Old Mother Hubbard."

"Hm?" Spike looked puzzled.

"But when she got there, the cupboard was bare, and so the poor dog had none. Come on, you're English—you must know that one," Xander said, pouring the boiling water into the two coffee mugs. He brought them over to the table.

"Oh. Yeah. Haven't really been shopping." Spike paused, cupping his hands over is mouth and nose. "ah...htchoo!" he sneezed, his shoulders hunching in.

Xander nudged the much-diminished roll of toilet paper towards Spike, who sneezed again before he managed to rip a piece off and blow his nose. He looked pretty fucking sick and tired, Xander realized—and he was about to pull an all-nighter. "Spike, don't take this the wrong way, but when's the last time you ate?"

Spike took a careful sip of the steaming coffee. "Church runs a soup kitchen out of the basement. I was gonna go after mass."

Well, at least that explained what he was doing at church. "Okay, but when's the last time you actually ate?"

After a couple second's hesitation, Spike sighed. "At the curry place with you," he admitted, looking like it pained him to say it.

"That was two days ago," Xander pointed out.

Spike's jaw tightened stubbornly. "Grocery money's tight, yeah, but I was getting by all right. You going to go all Angel on me now and tell me I'm going to starve to death?"

"Hey, I've seen people literally starving to death, and believe me, you're not even close," Xander said quickly, before Spike could get all offended and defensive again the way he had the time Xander offered to buy him dinner. Which was true, as far as it went—but going two days without food wasn't healthy, even Xander knew that, and it hadn't been his imagination before; Spike was thinner than he had been in Sunnydale. "But if you're buying hair dye and video games when you can't afford food, you're kind of a moron."

Spike straightened up in his seat, looking indignant. "The bleach was left over from before everything went pear-shaped, and as for the bloody video games—if you lived with a wild Siberian tiger, who would you feed first, it or you?"

Xander frowned. "Illyria? Is she that dangerous?" He lowered his voice. "Is she here?"

Spike shook his head. "She's out hunting. Probably be back soon. As for dangerous—she's a lot stronger than a vampire, and completely amoral. I haven't got a sodding clue what makes her tick. She likes fighting, the video games seem to keep her from going barking mad with boredom in between times—she doesn't sleep, you know—and I think...ah...etchoo!" Spike shuddered slightly after the sneeze, and reached for the toilet paper. "I think maybe she's lonely. I don't know that someday she won't decide my insides would look better on the outside, or such like—she threatens it often enough."

"What is it with you and violent women?" Xander asked, meaning it as a sort of joke, but he regretted it as soon as he heard the words coming out of his mouth. The question could really open up a whole wormy can of don't-go-there, not that Spike was likely to answer it anyway. And of course Spike didn't know that after Sunnydale, while Buffy was getting therapy and they all thought Spike was dust, Buffy had told Xander all about the fucked-up relationship she'd had with him after they brought her back from the dead.

Spike did tilt his head, giving Xander a quick, puzzled look, but then he just shrugged and said "Illyria hasn't hurt me since I turned human. Anyway, I have to get back to work. Ta for the coffee."

"Okay. I'm going to go out and get some food." Xander stood up.

"I don't need—"

"You're working for the Council," Xander interrupted him. "Therefore, we feed you."

Spike blinked, maybe surprised at the forcefulness of Xander's tone. "I suppose I am, at that," he agreed hesitantly. "Just on a temporary basis, like."

Xander tried to smile. "So, anyway, good luck. I'll be back soon."

***

Outside the apartment building, he immediately lit up a cigarette. He leaned against the new rental car and took a long drag, waiting for the nicotine hit.

A guy coming along the sidewalk eyed Xander in a edgy sort of way, then crossed to the other side of the street and kept going. The guy was black, looked maybe seventeen or eighteen, close to six feet tall and dressed in gangsta style. Xander watched him go, darkly amused, and rubbed his chin. Maybe I should shave....

As soon as he was finished his smoke, he got in the car and went looking for someplace to get food at midnight.

Things with Spike were getting confusing. Okay, first of all—he was human. It was taking a while for that to really sink in. He'd known it intellectually ever since he'd found Spike's pulse in the back of the porn store, but he seemed to keep forgetting it on a gut level whenever he was with him. Spike just didn't seem different from before. Xander had known people who got vamped, and there had always been pretty fucking significant differences in their before and after personalities. It stood to reason that getting unvamped should mean a big change, too.

Of course, he couldn't wonder about that without thinking about souls, too. Nothing they'd learned from Angelus about the effect of a soul on a vampire had seemed to apply to Spike. Other than his insano basement period, Spike hadn't seemed much different after the soul insertion. So maybe Spike's personality was like the speed of light, a universal constant.

Only, Xander was starting to get the feeling that Spike had to work at it these days. At the club last night he'd seemed almost exactly like his pre-chip self, enough so to send shivers down Xander's backbone....but he'd put on the look like a costume in the bathroom while Xander was waiting for him.

And maybe he was different, in some way Xander couldn't quite put a finger on...because fuck, Xander was starting to like him. Part of it was sympathy pains for the crappy job and the money problems; he kind of felt like taking Spike out for a beer and telling him about the Fabulous Ladies Nite Club in the I've been where you are spirit. And, let's face it—part of it was the fact that Spike was fucking hot. Now that Andrew had succeeded where Larry had failed and got Xander to admit that yeah, sometimes guys did turn him on, he could admit to himself that he found Spike attractive. More so when he wasn't directly plotting Xander's own death, of course...but that second time they'd lived together, sometimes Spike had walked around the apartment after a shower with just a towel around his waist, and Xander knew perfectly well that his sarcastic comments about Spike's lack of body hair had been cover-up for his own accelerated heartbeat.

I wonder if Spike's chest is still all smooth like that, or if it was just a vampire thing.

Naked Spike was a happy thought, actually, but Xander pushed it aside for now and kept his eye peeled for an open takeout place. It was hard enough driving one-eyed at night in an unfamiliar city without sending all his blood down south away from his brain.

It was nice, though, having those thoughts. After everything that happened in the Congo he'd pretty much lost interest in sex. Xander half-smiled, imagining telling Giles 'I'm doing so much better now, I want to have sex with Spike!'

Yeah, that would be a good way to get himself sent for involuntary psychiatric treatment. He laughed quietly, picturing Giles's expression.

Anyway, there were complications. Illyria, for one; Xander hadn't realized before that Spike was scared of her. Or, maybe not scared exactly...but not as much in control as he'd seemed to be. Angel, for another, wherever he was lurking right now. If Xander finally managed to convince Spike to come to Rome, they'd probably both want to tag along. That would sure be interesting.

Xander spotted a KFC with its lights on, and pulled into the parking lot. Get food. Keep Spike from passing out before he finds the cure for the demon snake bites. Figure out the rest later.





Part Ten


Illyria was on the couch playing video games when Xander walked back into the apartment. She was in blue mode, sitting ramrod straight and eerily still other than the clicking of her thumbs on the control pad. Xander gave her a cautious hello, but she ignored him, so he went on to the kitchen.

Spike was poring over a page of text, his chin resting on his fists. He looked up and blinked wearily when Xander walked in.

"I brought presents," Xander said, putting his bags on the kitchen counter and starting to unload them. "KFC family pack. Kleenex. Drugs. Here," he tossed the little packet of cold tablets at Spike.

Spike fumbled the catch and the box fell to the floor. He bent down to scoop it up with a sighed "fucking hell"

Xander winced slightly. "Um, sorry about that. Guess you're missing those vampire reflexes, huh?"

The glare Spike shot him left no need for subtitles.

"Anyway, food!" Xander said. "Eleven secret herbs and spices, lots of yummy grease." He peeled the top off the bucket and pushed away enough papers and used tissues—ew—to make room for it on the table.

Spike had the shrink wrap off the box of cold tablets and he was peering suspiciously at the blister pack of pills. "These things really work?"

"Kinda," Xander said with a half shrug. "They don't really cure you but they can make you feel better. Anyway I got the non-drowsy kind, so they'll give you a caffeine buzz if nothing else. Hey—just two, okay?"

Spike had already popped three out of their little foil prisons. He rolled his eyes at Xander, but put one down on the table and the other two into his mouth. Wordlessly, Xander opened one of the bottles of Coke that had come with the meal deal and handed it to Spike, who chased down the pills.

"How's it going?" Xander asked, nodding towards the papers.

"I'm through about a third of the pages I've got." He sniffled. "Hope I haven't missed anything."

"Eat." Xander nudged the chicken bucket a little closer to Spike. "To eat makes the brain work good."

Spike gave him an amused look, and reached for a drumstick. He took one careful bite, like he didn't know quite what to expect, then tore into it.

They munched in companionable silence for a while. The kleenex was brought into service for wiping greasy fingers, and the pile of stripped bones grew high on top of the discarded lid.

"Good, huh?" Xander said finally. And okay, he was fishing—would it kill Spike to say something along the lines of 'Thank-you for the delicious and life-sustaining fast food, Xander'?

"Doesn't taste like much," Spike shrugged. "Feels good in the belly, though."

Well, that was sort of like a thank-you. "You're probably not tasting anything because you're all stuffed up," Xander pointed out in defense of the Colonel.

Spike seemed to accept that. "Bit ironic, taste's the one thing that usually works better since I turned human," he said, and reached for a kleenex to blow his nose.

"Yeah?" Xander peeked into the bucket and saw it was empty, so he sat back. "You're saying vampires have no taste? 'Cause that would explain the hair..."

Spike started to glare at Xander, but it turned into a grin. "Explains Angel's, maybe."

"But seriously?"

"Yeah, most food's a bit dull for vamps. Blood's the only thing we—shite, they—really taste at full intensity."

"You always ate food," Xander pointed out, letting Spike's little verbal slip go without comment.

"I liked it." Spike dumped the chicken bones in the empty bucket. "Liked the texture more than the taste," he added. "Touch was more intense back then. Sound, smell, 'n sight too—these days I feel like I'm swaddled head to toe in fucking cotton batting."

"That sounds like it sucks," Xander said quietly. "It'll probably get better, though. I mean—after Caleb took my eye the whole world got flat, y'know? But it's been over a year, and I don't really notice anymore. The world just looks the way it looks."

After a few seconds' pause, Spike nodded slowly. "S'pose you're probably right."

They were both silent for a few moments longer, and Xander decided they were sharing a bonding moment. Which was a bit weird, but not bad.

"I've got to get back to translating," Spike pointed out. "You might as well go get some sleep."

Because you're useless here was the unspoken conclusion, but Xander didn't take it to heart; it wasn't like he envied Spike's job here. Still, he didn't feel quite right leaving. So he said so.

"You're distracting me," Spike said, his tone edging into cranky.

"Well, I could just, um, sleep on the couch," Xander suggested. "Then if you need anything—"

"Illyria," Spike reminded him. "Sits on the couch. Plays video games. Doesn't sleep." And then, before Xander could even come up with a plan B, Spike sighed and said "Bugger it, just sleep in my bed."

***

Xander woke from a heavy sleep with someone shaking him by the shoulder, and he only barely registered Spike's voice saying "Harris, get the hell up!" in time to stop himself from going into violent self-defense mode.

"Fuck, Spike," he gasped, sitting straight up.

"The Watcher. I need his number." Spike had pulled his hand away when Xander sat up, but he still hovered close. He looked totally wasted—his eyes were dark hollows and his hair was poking clumpily in every direction at once.

"Which?" Xander asked, still sleep-fuzzed. Where am I? Oh, fuck, Spike's bed.

"Rupert Giles," Spike said, pronouncing it carefully almost as though he were drunk. "I think I found the right passage." He handed Xander the cell phone.

Passage. Greek. People turning into stone. Okay, he was awake now, and—Spike had found the cure? That was very fucking good. "Zero-zero-three," Xander said, punching it in. "Speed dial, remember?" He handed the ringing phone to Spike.

"Right, speed dial," Spike said blankly, and pressed the phone to his ear. A moment later, "Hello, Rupert? Yeah, I found your antidote."

Xander swung his legs around and stood up. Spike flicked a look in Xander's direction and then headed out of the room, listening intently to the phone. Xander padded after him to the kitchen and heard Spike listing off page numbers, and then saying something else, Xander couldn't understand half the words.

The conversation didn't last long, and then Spike was saying "Hope it works, mate. Good luck," and snapping the cell phone closed.

"That's it?" Xander asked. "It's over?"

Spike nodded, coughing, and sank into a chair in a not-quite-falling kind of way. He caught his breath and explained "I found the right bit. Giles will finish translating it and do what has to be done. He thinks we got it in time."

"That's good. That's really good." Xander leaned against the wall, letting the relief wash through him. They wouldn't lose another Slayer, not today.

Spike coughed again and dropped his head down onto his arms. "Christ, I'm tired," he mumbled.

"You should sleep now," Xander pointed out. "Not on the table. In bed."

"Right." Spike pulled himself upright again with what looked like a lot of effort. "How'd you sleep, by the way?"

"Hm?" Xander was kind of thrown by the question. "Fine, I guess."

Spike pushed to his feet. "Just you seemed to be having nightmares, is all," he said, giving Xander a searching look. "Started yelling a couple times. Stopped when I came in and shook you a bit. You don't remember?"

He didn't remember dreaming at all last night, but if he'd been having the nightmares, that would explain why he didn't really feel rested. He wished Spike hadn't heard him, though. "Slept fine as far as I can remember," he said. "What time is it?"

"Quarter of eight," Spike said. "What will you—" he broke off, coughing again. His voice was hoarse and he still sounded all stuffed up; obviously staying up all night was not a good cure for a cold.

"I'll head back to the hotel and get a shower and change," Xander said as soon as Spike had caught his breath. "Are you...okay here?"

Spike glared at him briefly, then his expression softened and he nodded. "Gonna sleep. Thanks for last night—for the food and such."

"Yeah, no problem," Xander said. He kept his tone casual, sensing what a big deal it was for Spike to have said that. "Any time."



Part Eleven


Spike was leaning over the counter reading a magazine when Xander walked into the porn store. He looked up absently at first, then raised his eyebrow when he saw who it was. "What are you doing here? Don't tell me there's another damsel in distress."

Xander shook his head. "I went by your place and Illyria told me you were working." He held up the Subway bag he'd carried in from the car. "I got hungry on the way over. Want half?"

"What kind is it?"

"Cheese steak." He didn't give Spike time to say no; he just spread a bunch of napkins on the counter by the register and plunked six inches of hot, meaty goodness down on top. Then he took a big chomp from the other half.

"I earned this," Spike said, kind of defensively, and Xander just nodded and chewed.

After a tentative first nibble, Spike downed the sandwich in quick, big bites. He was hungry, Xander observed. He'd suspected as much—if Spike hadn't had money for food yesterday, he wouldn't today, either.

He wondered how long it would take Spike to break down and accept the job the Council was offering him. Willow figured he was as good as one of them already, especially after helping them out with the petrifaction crisis. She'd told Xander as much when they talked this afternoon, when she'd called to let him know that the cure had worked. She'd talked to Spike herself, first; she'd been trying to reach Xander, but she'd called his cell and that was still at Spike's place. She'd still been giddy with the shock of that when she talked to Xander afterwards.

On the other hand, Willow was always too quick to assume people would do what she wanted them to. And Spike was full of prickly pride; he'd already shown he was ready to starve before asking for help. But he takes the food I offer. That thought brought more satisfaction than Xander would have expected. We kind of have a ... thing.

When there was nothing left but crumbs, Spike licked his fingers and gave Xander a searching look. "Seriously, Harris, why are you here? Don't tell me you just missed my pretty face."

If Spike had still been a vampire he would have heard Xander's heart speed up at the question. Because, really? He didn't have any good reason to be here, he'd just wanted to see Spike again. He couldn't tell him that, though, so he came up with something reasonable-sounding. "I'm going back to Rome soon. I need to know if you're coming with me."

Spike grimaced and started gathering up their napkins and brushing the counter clean. "I don't know what the old Watcher thinks I'm good for. If it's a translator he wants, there must be a thousand blokes in Rome who're better qualified than I am."

"You came through last night," Xander pointed out.

"I don't want to spend the rest of my life going through fucking dusty old books." Spike tossed the napkins into the garbage can behind the counter with an angry flick of his wrist, and stifled a cough. "I learned Greek because that's what schoolboys did in my day, understand? I was never good at it."

"There's other things you could do. I mean, there's enough work for me, and I don't know any languages or have any superpowers."

Spike rubbed his nose with the back of his hand, sniffling. "Just bloody leave it, all right? I said I'd think about it."

A customer walked in then, cutting off their conversation. Spike helped the guy find the video he was looking for, while Xander hung out in the background, not sure what to do with himself. On his way to the cash to ring up the sale, Spike brushed by him and said under his breath, "If you're going to stick around, at least pick up a magazine and try to look pervey, all right?"

A couple walked in as the guy walked out with his video. The woman was giggling and the man was blushing, and they wanted help picking out a vibrator. They made Spike explain the function of nearly every one in the store before they finally settled on one of the smallest, cheapest models.

As soon as the door shut behind them, Spike came over to Xander. "Thought they'd never make up their bloody minds," he muttered, and stifled a cough against his fist. "What've you got there?"

Xander shrugged; he'd been paying more attention to Spike than to the skin mag in his hands. "Naked women with big breasts," he said.

"Boring as hell, and fucking plastic." Spike snatched the magazine away and plucked one from a part of the shelf Xander had been avoiding. "Here, take a look at this one. See if there's anything you like." His smile had a definite predatory tinge.

Xander's mouth felt dry all of a sudden. Spike was invading his personal space, watching for his reaction, and this was flirting, wasn't it?

He'd taken away the women, and handed Xander a magazine that was all men. Men, and kink—the slender blond guy on the front cover had his hands chained up over his head and a black ball gag in his mouth. "Not really my thing," Xander said, but his throat felt kind of thick. He could feel Spike's warm breath on his neck as he reached around Xander to flip the pages open.

"No? Are you sure? Come on, Scooby, I bet you've never even thought about it." He was teasing now, letting his fingers brush Xander's, waiting for a reaction. Waiting for Xander to push him away, maybe, or...?

On the open page in front of him, the model from the cover was bound in another position. He was on a sort of bench, his hands handcuffed behind him. The gag was still in his mouth, but he stared out at the camera insolently. His dick lay half-hard against his thigh, dusky against the pale flesh of his leg. It made Xander wonder what Spike would look like naked. "Told you, I'm not a Scooby anymore." He pulled the magazine away from Spike, and when he started to protest Xander kissed him.

He kind of surprised himself, doing it, but sweet Jesus he'd been thinking about it all day. And Spike wouldn't have been teasing him like that if he hadn't been thinking it too. Or so Xander hoped, anyway.

Spike hadn't expected the kiss; he flinched at the first contact. Xander instantly backed off, stammering the beginnings of some kind of apology, but Spike grabbed his arms and shut him up by kissing him back.

For an endless second there was nothing but the kiss, and the steel of Spike's fingers on his arms and his own heart pounding in his ears. And then the fucking door chime went off again and Spike broke away. In the moment before he turned towards the door, the look he gave Xander was strange—worried, almost. Not the predator at all.

Then he was away, chatting with the customers—a pair of frat boy types this time—and Xander was flipping blindly through the gay bondage magazine. His hands were trembling and his cheeks were hot, and he had a hard-on from the split-second kiss.

I have a crush on Spike. It was self-knowledge from Bizarro Land, but he couldn't deny it. At the other side of the store, Spike laughed at something the taller frat boy said. He was showing the two guys the packaged blow-up dolls. The shorter, quieter frat boy looked kind of uncomfortable, but the other guy was making contextually obscene hand gestures. Spike was nodding and smirking conspiratorially, and almost-not-quite licking his lips. Xander felt a quick surge of hatred for Tall Frat Boy. I'm jealous, he realized, just barely detached enough to be amused by his own reaction.

It seemed to be physically impossible for Spike to talk to anyone without flirting. It was frankly amazing that he never get beat up for it, but the paragon of testosterone-fuelled heterosexuality he was talking with now didn't seem to notice the undertones in Spike's body language. Maybe it was the punk thing, the I-could-kill-you edge to him that made guys like that overlook the nail polish and eyeliner and smirks and leave him the hell alone. Spike was wearing a Ramones T-shirt tonight, and the thick leather bracelets he'd worn to the club. The bandage around his forearm was gone; even from here Xander could see the curving red-black line cut by the junky's knife.

The frat boys finally left, having bought a blowup doll and an X-rated birthday card. Spike rested his elbows on the counter and let his head droop.

"Hey, are you okay?" Xander asked, coming up to him.

"Yeah." Spike lifted his head, sniffling. "Bit tired. Think the medicine's wearing off, I kept feeling like I was going to sneeze."

Xander checked his watch. "It's just after midnight. Are you on till two again?"

Spike nodded, but his eyes were unfocused. Then he turned away quickly. "eh...etchoo!"

"Gesundheit," Xander responded automatically.

Spike shook himself, and then with his jaw set in a scowl he headed for the back room. Xander followed in time to see him ripping a couple kleenex out of the box on the desk.

"Seriously, are you all right?" Xander asked after Spike blew his nose. He didn't want to piss him off, but ... "The other night, Angel was saying that you've been sick a lot."

"I'm fine," Spike snapped, tossing the used tissues into the waste basket. He ducked down under the desk and brought out a battered red courier bag, out of which he pulled the box of cold tablets Xander had bought yesterday. He poked the last two pills out of the blister pack and popped them in his mouth.

"They go down better with water," Xander suggested helpfully, perching on the arm of the sofa.

"Fuck water," Spike muttered, fishing around on the surface of the paper-strewn desk until he came up with a paperclip. He unbent its end, and in four seconds flat picked the lock on the bottom desk drawer. He came up with a bottle of Wild Turkey and a shot glass.

Xander nodded. "I'm impressed. Not especially surprised, but impressed."

Spike tossed back a shot while Xander was talking. He coughed, then slammed the glass down on the desk with a fierce grin. "That's how we cured a cold when Vicky was on the throne."

Xander rolled his eye. "Yeah, and that era's famous for its effective medicine." Still, when Spike poured a second shot and offered it to him, he downed it in one gulp.

"So if you're not a Scooby anymore," Spike said, taking the shot glass and placing it upside down on the desk, "what are you?"

"An Associate." He shrugged. "Not quite as catchy, is it? It was Giles's idea—if you're not a Slayer and you're not a Watcher, what are you?"

"And that's what you want to make me?"

"I guess so. It's Giles who's in charge for now."

Spike fiddled with the glass, spinning it a half turn and back on the film of spilt bourbon. "What's it pay?"

"I'm getting forty thousand American, plus expenses. And the Council pays the rent on my apartment in Rome."

Spike's eyebrow lifted slightly. "Not bad."

"I could've done better if I'd stayed in construction," Xander observed with a shrug.

"So why didn't you?"

"I decided I didn't want to get old and fat." The joke went flat; Spike looked startled and maybe a bit appalled. Xander tried to reassure him with a quick, hard grin. "Hey, once you start saving the world you just don't look back. At least it's not my unpaid hobby anymore."

"Right. There is that." He coughed.

"You don't have to sign up for life, you know," Xander pointed out. "You could just go to Rome and try it out for a bit, see how it goes."

Out front, the door chime sounded. "I'll think on it," Spike said, and went back out into the store.

Xander stayed behind for a moment, wondering how that whole conversation had happened without even coming close to dealing with the fact that he'd just kissed Spike. Was Spike being incredibly nonchalant about it, or avoiding the subject because he didn't want it to happen again, or what?

Then the sound of shouting filtered through the door and Xander's awareness. Shit. He rushed out into the store.

Angel was standing in the aisle between the video rack and the dildo display, with Spike blocking him from coming any further. Spike's hands were balled into fists. "Get it through your bloody thick forehead, you're not invited here!" he was saying as Xander walked in.

"You can't keep—" Angel cut himself off when he noticed Xander. "Hi Xander," he said in a much more neutral voice.

Spike glanced back over his shoulder. "Harris, go back in the office," he said in a tight voice.

"What's he doing here again?" Angel asked Spike.

"None of your sodding business. Harris, the office."

"Actually..." Xander eyed the two of them cautiously. Spike looked like he was about to resort to fists and fangs, minus the fangs, but Angel didn't seem so close to violence; he just looked downtrodden. "I'm going out for a smoke."

"Xander, you have to make Spike—"

"Going out," Xander repeated sharply over Angel's words. "For a smoke." If Spike didn't want him getting involved in this Angel thing, he sure as hell wasn't going to let Angel drag him in.

Outside, he couldn't hear their voices. He stood with his back to the plate glass window so he couldn't see, either. If he wants me, I'm here, he told himself—not that he knew what Spike might possibly want him for.

He was halfway through his second cigarette when Angel finally came out of the store. He looked gloomy, with his hands stuck in the pockets of his dusty jacket and his shoulders hunched up.

"Did you get what you came for?" Xander asked, not bothering to take the cigarette out of his mouth.

Angel ignored the question. "Are you living in LA now?" he asked.

Xander shook his head once. "Just visiting."

"Where are you staying?"

"None of your business."

Angel's jaw muscle twitched. "I just meant—are you staying with Spike?"

Xander snorted a laugh, and smoke came out his nose. "No."

"Oh. All right." Angel seemed to be at a loss for words for a minute; Xander didn't help him out. "He's sick again," he said finally. "He was trying to hide it from me."

"So? He doesn't want your help. Fucking get over it." Tossing the stub of his cigarette to the pavement, Xander propped one foot against the wall behind him and crossed his arms. "Anyway, what are you doing these days?" It was more an accusation than a question.

Angel's jaw twitched again. "I'm between jobs."

"So you do...what, all night?"

A shift in shadow and the sudden stark outline of the tendons in Angel's neck told Xander the vampire was clenching his fists inside his pockets, but all he said was "I meditate."

"Well, that's useful." Then Xander had a sudden crazy impulse. Giles had told him to recruit Spike, to recruit Illyria...why not extend the idea? "Hey Angel, how would you like to go back to fighting evil professionally?"

***

By the time he'd finished with Angel, another customer had gone into the store. It was the bald sweaty guy who'd wanted to sell his porn collection the night Xander had taken over Spike's shift; apparently he was back to try again. Spike looked up from the box of tapes just long enough to tell Xander to wait in the back room.

The bondage magazine and the Wild Turkey were still on the desk. The bourbon probably belonged to Spike's boss, but what the hell, Spike was the one who'd picked the lock—he couldn't complain if Xander had one more shot.

It was good stuff—smooth, with hints of oak and honey. He welcomed the fiery warmth spreading from his throat to his belly.

He wasn't sure why he was waiting, really, or what he wanted from Spike. He was tense; his back was in knots and his head had started up a dull throbbing. He wanted to find out whether or not kissing Spike had been the stupidest thing he'd done all week. Nothing good could come from getting involved with Spike, he knew that much, but some types of bad were more appealing than others. Maybe Spike would do him just so he could mock him in the morning. That would be the bad kind of bad. On the other hand, maybe they'd have a transgressive, lust and desperation-driven, degrading and destructive sexual relationship—something Xander could sink himself into like a tall bottle of sweet bourbon.

It was better not to think about this stuff. He poured himself another shot and flipped open the magazine.

Part Twelve


"Spike?"

"Yeah?"

"I may be drunk, but you just missed another stop sign."

Spike snorted. "Wasn't anyone coming, was there?"

"You crashed the other rental. Dunno why I'm letting you drive." Xander let his forehead rest against the cool window glass; the city lights streaked sideways, making him dizzy.

"Because you polished off my boss's entire rainy day insurance, that's why. And you're going to bloody well buy him another bottle before he fires me."

"Yeah, yeah. Said I would."

He wasn't that drunk. He probably could've made it back to the hotel all right. He just hadn't felt like fighting Spike for his car keys.

"This is the one, right?"

Xander let his head loll around so he could see the Ramada sign. "Yeah, this's it. Home sweet home."

Spike managed to get the car parked in the underground garage without causing any property damage, and they took the elevator up to Xander's room. Xander got the key card in the slot the right way up on the third try.

"Posh," Spike said as they walked in. It was a small single, the cheapest style the hotel offered, but by his standards 'posh' probably meant anything with unstained wallpaper.

And then Xander realized: Spike had come up to his room. They'd kissed earlier tonight, and now Spike was in his room. Say something, Xander, before he leaves.

"I can get room service to send up some beer," he offered.

Spike shook his head. "You've had enough, mate." He closed the door behind them and cocked his head. "Let's have a sit, shall we?"

There was nowhere to sit but the bed. They perched side by side on its edge, and Xander touched Spike's thigh. "I read the magazine," he said.

"What maga—oh."

"If you want to try—I mean, I don't have any of the stuff, but—"

Spike put his hand over Xander's, immobilizing it. "Sorry, pet, I didn't come up here for that," he said gently. "I just wanted to talk, like."

Damn it. Who knew Spike knew how to play hard-to-get? "Talk, then." Xander tried to nuzzle Spike's neck. "Buffy said you can talk so dirty she'd almost come just from listening to you."

Spike jerked away from him. "She said what?"

Buffy references, maybe not the best idea here. "Never mind. It was a thing, we were drunk..."

"Were you throwing yourself at her, too?"

"I'm not throwing myself at you. You're the one who keeps—with the dancing, and the kissing, and the pictures, and your hair and your eyes and the smirks..."

A pale shadow of a smirk played on Spike's lips right now. "You think you fancy me, do you?"

"I did not say that. Fancy boy," Xander muttered, not sure what it meant but pretty confident it was some kind of insult.

Spike rolled his eyes and squirmed a little further away from Xander. "You've changed since Sunnydale."

"Who hasn't?" Xander suddenly felt on guard. Spike really did want to talk. Shit.

"You have nightmares now."

He should've known that night at Spike's place would come back to bite him in the ass. "You would too, if you'd seen some of the freaky, messed-up shit I have."

"I do have nightmares," Spike said quietly, "ever since the soul. But you never used to have them, and you'd seen plenty of 'freaky, messed-up' shite already."

"Guess some straw broke the camel's back."

"Which straw?"

"I don't want to talk about it. If you're so fucking curious, ask Giles." His buzz was well and truly killed. His hand felt shaky, reaching for his cigarettes, and then he remembered he couldn't smoke around Spike and fuck.

"I already asked Red, this afternoon," Spike said. "She told me about the Slayer you lost. I want to hear it from you."

"What are your nightmares about?" He didn't expect Spike to answer, but he bet it would stop his questions.

Spike raised an eyebrow. "What do you think? I spent a hundred-odd years killing people, got a soul to load me up with guilt for it, then lost the bloody demon that told me why all the murder and mayhem seemed like such a good idea in the first place." He backed up further so he could lean against the pillows. "Satisfied? Your turn." He coughed, and hugged himself, and waited.

Maybe it was the Wild Turkey in him, but Xander started to wonder if he could tell Spike. Compared to Spike's own blood-soaked history, maybe his story wouldn't seem like such a big deal. He'd kept this secret for too damn long, and he knew it was killing him.

He needed a cigarette so fucking badly. He fumbled one out, just to roll between his fingers. "You met Andrew when he went to LA, right? Do you know why he was there?"

"Dana."

"Huh?" Xander looked up from the cigarette to see Spike had gone tense. "Did you meet her?"

"Yeah." He didn't elaborate.

"Okay. So you know...crazy traumatized girl, Slayer powers, not a great combo."

"Yeah." Spike's left thumb traced his right wrist in an odd unconscious gesture. "But she's all right now, isn't she?"

Xander gave a jerky half-shrug. "I heard she was making progress. Dunno what that means. I haven't met her."

"Count yourself lucky, mate." Spike rubbed his wrist again, as though it hurt. "A good few of the blokes who met her didn't survive the experience."

Xander looked down at the cigarette he held; it was crumpled now, with bits of tobacco falling out the end. "Lucky. Yeah. Not so much. Imagine Dana with an AK-47 and her own small army." He looked up and saw Spike watching him steadily, waiting for him to continue. "Her name was Mathilde. She—do you know anything about the Democratic Republic of Congo?"

Spike coughed, shook his head. "Never been."

"What about child soldiers?"

"Heard the term before. So this Mathilde...that what she was?"

Xander gave a tight nod. "Her parents were killed and she was kidnapped and forced to fight for—God, I don't even know whether it was the rebels or the government to start with. Apparently at the exact moment the Slayer spell hit, her commander was raping her. She killed him."

"Good for her," Spike murmured.

"Sure, nobody's going to cry over that one. But after she killed him, she took his command. She started gathering her own little army of kids with guns. They called themselves les Enfants de Dieu."

Spike tilted his head. "Children of God?"

"They figured that's where she got her power from—she was God's instrument for vengeance, or something. The war ended just about a month after our fight with the First Evil, but Mathilde was in the eastern part of the country, where the government had no fucking control. They'd—the Enfants would go into a village and...well, pretty much they'd kill everyone. And then they'd live in the village for a while, and then they'd move on."

Xander didn't realize he'd stopped talking until Spike touched his shoulder and prompted him, "And how did you come into it?"

"I was already in Africa—I mean, I was in Zimbabwe, which isn't exactly close, but..." His voice was shaking a little. "But the main thing was, Giles figured I was good at...talking people down from that kind of place." He'd done it with Anya, and with Willow. Even with Ampata back in high school.

But not Mathilde.

Beside him, Spike coughed. "It was a hell of a job he gave you," he said.

"I took it. I wanted to do it. There was a squad of government troops tracking the Enfants, and I knew they were planning to kill Mathilde when they caught her. I wanted to find her first."

"So you went after her alone? Good to know you're still brave and bloody stupid."

"I had a translator with me, a local guy. Joseph." Xander closed his eye, remembering. His ears were starting to ring. "We found a dead village first. There were flies everywhere. The bodies were mostly piled in this one building, looked like it used to be a school. It was half burned." He opened his eye again, and turned to Spike. "I'd seen gruesome slaughters before, you know that. But this—it was humans who did it. Kids." God, he needed Spike to understand.

Spike's hand was warm and firm on his shoulder. "I've seen a few wars, pet. I know what humans are capable of, even children."

"We caught up to them before we expected to. They captured us." When he first saw Mathilde, she'd been wearing camo pants cut off at the knee and cinched at the waist, and a crisp white too-big men's dress shirt. She was skinny and small, with big bright eyes and tight black hair cut raggedly close to her scalp. He'd been told she was fifteen but she looked more like twelve: a sweet little girl with a Kalashnikov slung over her shoulder. "Joseph tried to talk, and they killed him right away. They would have killed me too, only Willow had done this protection spell on me—a kind of magical bulletproof vest. It was only good for a couple shots, but when the first bullets didn't kill me they must have decided I was special somehow. They kept me alive, tied up. The government troops found us three days later." He hadn't seen the battle, being tied up in an oven-hot outbuilding, half delirious from thirst, but he remembered the screams, and the short bursts of machine-gun fire. "They captured Mathilde alive. They rescued me. And then they executed her."

Spike squeezed his shoulder. "It sounds like it was a fucking awful situation from beginning to end, Harris, but you did all you could."

"No." He could smell the gunpowder and the bitter blood. "I didn't stop them from killing her."

"And what were you going to do against a bloody army?"

He shook his head. His whole body was shaking, actually. "I had papers that said I was a U.N. guy. The squad's commander spoke some English. He was ready to defer to me. They already had her up against the wall, but then he asked me if...if I ordered them to take her to Kinshasa instead. I said...no." The ringing in his ears got louder.

"You haven't told anyone that last part, have you?" he heard, gentle and far away.

He tried to answer, but only a ragged sob escaped. He felt like throwing up.

"Let it out," Spike said. He sounded weary and sad, but there wasn't any recrimination in his tone. "Put it on me." He hugged his arm around Xander, and somehow Xander found himself leaning against Spike and weeping. He wanted to say something, anything, but his throat was too tight and he couldn't properly breathe. The pent-up guilt and grief seemed to be physical things, choking him. His face under his good eye was soaked with tears, and he couldn't stop the wracking sobs. He buried his face against Spike's shoulder. "That's it," Spike murmured, rubbing his back. "Put it all on me."





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