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Rating: Mature
Summary: A couple of years post-NFA, Xander is living a very ordinary life in L.A.. He has a job, an apartment, a boyfriend. However, the arrival of a figure from his past (okay, who am I kidding—you all know it's Spike, right?) throws everything into question.

Notes: I want to thank [info]spikedluv and [info]truly_tazi for making it all happen. You rock!

Huge, huge thanks to [info]yourlibrarian who was with me every step of the way. She held my hand, inspired me, talked me through the rough bits, called me out on the bits that didn't make sense, and even made me a nifty icon! Thanks also to my Writercon roommates, [info]savoytruffle, [info]cordelianne and [info]margarks, who inspired me to try my hand at a ficathon for the first time ever. (They said it would be fun!)

Disclaimer: The characters belong to Mutant Enemy. I am not Mutant Enemy. This story was written for fun, not profit.

Feedback: Please, please, please! Feedback and concrit welcome in comments or by email.

Words: 42,000 total; this chapter 4,500.



Sock Puppet


by
Shadowscast





Part One


The reason Xander was volunteering in the soup kitchen that night was because his boyfriend wanted to learn how to julienne carrots. Troy was on this "let's learn how to actually cook instead of living on Michelina's Frozen Dinners for the rest of our lives" kick, and apparently some master chef ran the soup kitchen Monday nights, and although soup kitchen food was pretty basic stuff, this chef taught you how to do it right. The idea of combining self-improvement, couple togetherness time and charity work was irresistible to Troy. Especially that last one. He wanted to save the world.

Xander had never told him that he'd saved the world himself a time or three. He made a practice of not talking about that kind of thing anymore. So he went along with the soup kitchen thing to humor Troy. Plus, there'd been kisses involved. And puppy dog eyes.

So six o'clock found Xander and Troy standing side by side, armed with ladles, doling out hot soup to L.A.'s homeless on what promised to be the coldest night in years. The forecast was calling for temperatures near freezing. Some of the more experienced volunteers had been talking about it in low, worried voices while they were chopping the vegetables earlier. The local shelters were filled past capacity.

Troy's smile was getting a little strained, but he was still doing his job, greeting each client warmly and ladling out thick, hot beef stew. Being in charge of the less popular veggie minestrone option, Xander had plenty of chances to look over and check out his boyfriend. Troy had his surfer boy look going tonight, which was pretty funny considering that he was afraid of the water. The bleached tips of his hair hung past his eyebrows, and he kept brushing them away with the back of his hand between clients. He'd probably want to cut it soon, which was too bad, since it was cute when it was shaggy.

A woman with a little boy came to the front of Troy's line. The boy was barely tall enough to see over the table, but he held up a bowl for Troy to fill and smiled at him, showing a gap in his front teeth. "Graçias," the boy said.

"De nada," Troy said, and Xander could see his heart breaking.

This was going to be a rough night, Xander could already tell. Whenever Troy's starry-eyed idealism came hard up against a problem he couldn't solve, there was bound to be ranting and pacing and vows to change the world going on long past midnight, with maybe a breakdown around two or three a.m.. Xander's job was to be the calm one. The one who'd seen so much shit, he couldn't get worked up about it anymore.

A client stopped in front of Xander, waiting for soup. His head hung low; no eye contact for this guy. "Vegetarian minestrone?" Xander asked, just to make sure. He'd already had a few guys land in his line by mistake, and found them disappointed or belligerent when they discovered there was no meat in the bowl he'd handed them.

This guy didn't even give a sign he'd heard Xander. With his head ducked down, his shaggy dark blond curls hid his eyes. His shoulders were hunched in a too-big olive army jacket, his arms wrapped tight around his chest.

Little bit crazy, Xander guessed. Not like he was the first one tonight. Jenny, the volunteer coordinator, had warned them up front. The hospitals are underfunded and overcrowded. A lot of people who should be in care end up on the street. They're some of our most vulnerable clients, and we help them as much as we can and treat them with dignity. They're mostly harmless, but if someone's making you uncomfortable, call me or one of the social workers over right away.

This guy was twitching a little, but he didn't look like trouble. Xander filled up a bowl and held it out. "Here you go," he said. "Minestrone goodness."

Reaching out to take the bowl, the guy finally looked up and met Xander's eye.

I know that guy from somewhere. For a moment, he couldn't place him. He had the feeling it was someone he should know well, but not from L.A.. From Sunnydale, maybe? Oh. Oh fuck. The ladle dropped from Xander's suddenly-numb fingers. "Spike?"

Spike's eyes widened, registering shock. In the long second they stared at each other, Xander had time to notice his matted hair, the shadows under his eyes, and a new pink scar that touched his upper lip, distorting the left side of his mouth just slightly. His face was gaunt, and kind of dirty.

None of this explained why he wasn't dust, or what the fuck he was doing in a soup kitchen.

Before Xander could figure out what to say or do, Spike broke eye contact and jerked his bowl of soup away so fast he spilled half of it over his hands and the table. Xander watched him hurry away, cradling the bowl in front of him. Spike didn't look back; he headed for the far side of the big room.

"Xander?" Troy said, touching his shoulder. "You know that guy?"

"Yeah." Xander was still watching Spike, noticing the furtive, uncertain way he moved between the tables, looking for a place.

"Do you know him well?" Troy asked, obviously impatient with Xander's terse answer.

Xander wasn't even sure what a true answer to that question would be. "We knew each other in Sunnydale," he said, hoping that would kill the subject. Troy knew he didn't ever talk about Sunnydale.

Troy didn't look satisfied, but he had to give his attention back to the line of people waiting for stew. So Xander had a few minutes to think about the situation.

What he thought was: Fuck. He didn't deal with this kind of thing anymore. He was fucking retired. The underworld left him alone, and he left it alone, and so it would go until the end of the world. That was the deal. Okay, not the deal in any sense of it having been agreed upon by any responsible parties or signed in blood or even said out loud, but still. It'd been working. He'd been living a perfectly ordinary, mundane life for a year and a half now, and damned if he was going to get sucked back into the metaphorical (or possibly literal) Hellmouth by Spike.

Spike, who by the way was supposed to be dust—but hey, not like he hadn't pulled that one before. He'd dusted in Sunnydale, too, and that had lasted, what, less than a month? Anyway, there hadn't been any surviving witnesses to the big battle in L.A.. They'd all just assumed Spike was gone when he never showed up.

"So, Xan," Troy said, dropping his ladle into his now empty pot with a dull thunk, "The look you and that guy gave each other was pretty intense. Are you exes or something?"

"What?" Xander squeaked. He cleared his throat, raking his hair back with one hand. "No. God no. He was, uh, involved with a friend of mine for a while. A female friend."

"In Sunnydale."

Xander nodded. And noticed the curiosity in Troy's eyes, and realized he'd already made a big mistake.

Up until now, he'd never said a word to Troy about his life in Sunnydale other than the bare fact that he came from there. It was a decision he'd consciously made when he cut ties with the Council and started trying to live this new life—it was too hard to talk about the Sunnydale days. Too much pain and too many things he could never explain to a normal guy like Troy. So Xander became the guy with the dark, mysterious past—at least it went well with the glass eye, the limp and the African tattoos.

Troy was gazing in Spike's direction now, looking thoughtful. "I bet he could use a place to stay tonight."

"No," Xander snapped quickly. "No fucking way."

Troy blinked, clearly a bit distressed by Xander's reaction. "It's supposed to get into the mid '30s tonight. You're going to let a guy you know sleep on the street?"

"He's probably not actually on the street," Xander protested, feeling his face flush under the You kick puppies, don't you? look that Troy was giving him. "He's—he's good at finding places to stay."

"What, like, abandoned buildings?" Troy frowned at Xander. "Not good enough. But hey—if you're going to be a big asshole tonight, I'll invite him back to my place."

Oh Christ. This just got worse and worse. For about the first time ever, Xander wished the word vampire meant more to Troy than B-movies and bedtime stories. Only, the fact that it didn't was exactly the state of affairs Xander was trying to preserve here. "That's a bad, bad idea," Xander said. "He's a ... he's ..." Right, Xander, how are you going to finish that sentence? A monster? A mass murderer? A sexual predator? "Last time he lived with me he stole my stuff."

Troy mock-punched Xander's shoulder. "You lived together? You said you barely knew him!"

"I don't think I said that." Xander set down his ladle, since there didn't seem to be anyone else wanting soup right now. "Anyway, we didn't exactly live together—he just stayed with me a couple of times. And it always ended badly, so just let it go, okay?"

"You lived together," Troy repeated, like he hadn't been listening to a word Xander just said. "In Sunnydale." He backed away from Xander suddenly with a definite glint in his eyes. "I'm going to talk to him!"

"What? No! Troy, please!" Xander begged, but Troy was already around the serving table and walking away.

Someone touched his shoulder on his blind side. "Xander?" It was Jenny, the volunteer coordinator. "Is something wrong?"

Xander's taut nerves cried yes! even as his tongue managed an unconvincing "No." He shrugged, trying to deflect her concern, to keep this from turning into a bigger deal than it already was. "Just a guy I know from somewhere else."

Leaving Jenny behind, Xander followed Troy. His palms were sweaty now, and he could feel his heart thudding. Don't panic, he instructed himself. At least he still has a soul. Probably.

Troy was waiting for Xander at the end of the table where Spike was. He looked a little smug, a little excited—to him, Xander realized, Spike must seem like the key to a giant exciting mystery. Fuck.

Xander put an arm around Troy's waist, kissed his earlobe and said very quietly, "Please, Troy. Let it go. You talk to him, you're opening Pandora's box. Nothing but trouble."

Troy squeezed Xander's hand. "He's in trouble, Xan. We have to help him. It doesn't look like he has a lot of friends."

"That much is true," Xander murmured, distracted. Spike, at the far end of the table, didn't seem to have noticed them yet. His fist was pressed against his mouth and his shoulders were shaking like he was coughing. No, not like—he was coughing. Xander could hear him even over the babble of voices and clattering of forks and spoons. Vampires don't cough. A wiggly, tickly feeling seemed to expand out from the base of his skull—a long-dormant Sunnydale instinct telling him there's something weird going on here. Spike was pressing a paper napkin against his mouth now, coughing into it. The gesture struck Xander as oddly dainty. Victorian.

He approached Spike, with Troy trailing after him. Spike had stuffed the napkin in his pocket and was spooning up the last of his soup.

"Hey, Spike," Xander said, trying for casual.

Spike looked up with a jerky, startled motion. His eyes met Xander's and a look of panic crossed his face. He pushed his chair back with a screech of metal on linoleum and stood up like he was going to run, but Troy was there blocking his way.

"Um, hi ... Spike?" Troy said with what he clearly meant for a reassuring smile. He backed off a step, and held up empty hands. "I'm Xander's, uh, friend. We thought you might like a place to stay tonight. Since it's, um, gonna be cold."

Spike was frozen between them now. He was wide-eyed and breathing fast like a terrified animal. He still hadn't said anything. They were starting to draw attention.

"It's okay," Xander said to him. "You don't have to come with us if you don't want to." A part of him hoped Spike would refuse to go anywhere with them—that he'd swear and flip them off and stomp away, and then Xander could say to Troy "hey, we tried" and they could get on with their lives. Sink back into the normal.

But Spike and normal were like oil and water, and the wild-eyed Spike standing in front of him now seemed further from normal than ever. He was hugging himself with a white-knuckled grip and shaking.

Something was wrong with him, that much was obvious. It was sort of like back in the high school basement, only without the cryptic babbling.

Spike coughed again suddenly, muffling it against his grimy sleeve. The cough had a nasty, rattling sound to it. Xander was starting to suspect something fairly impossible. He couldn't ask Spike outright, not with Troy and all these other people around. So he said "That's a bad cough you've got there, Spike. How long's that been going on for?"

Whatever response he'd been hoping for, he didn't get it. Spike kept a wary gaze on Xander and wrapped his arms around himself again. It wasn't clear if he'd even understood the question.

Troy tugged at his wooden bead necklace—that was a nervous tic he had—and gave Xander a beseeching, do something look.

"Spike, give me your hand," Xander said. He had to see if his suspicion was right. He wasn't sure how well this would work, though—Spike was giving off the vibe of a guy who didn't want to be touched. Rather than offering his hand, he just looked at Xander, his eyes blank and scared.

Xander reached out to take Spike's hand. No sudden movements, just slow and gentle. He had a feeling Spike might bolt if he was startled. Even though a minute ago Xander had been wishing Spike would just leave, he figured now that since this situation had fallen into his lap, he had some kind of responsibility to deal with it.

You can't just turn your back on it all, said a little voice in Xander's head that sounded very much like Willow.

I can and I did, he replied. This is just ... a blip.

Spike didn't resist Xander taking his hand. In fact, strangely, he seemed to relax at Xander's touch. The shaking stopped and his breathing got quieter. His eyes fixed on Xander, almost ... curious.

Xander was aware of his audience. A dozen or so people at the nearest tables were watching them now, staring openly or furtively. So he just held Spike's hand, but he let two fingers slide up to press against the inside of Spike's wrist.

He felt warm skin, and a hummingbird pulse.

So. Spike was human, or something like it. And he was kind of a mess.

"Troy," Xander said quietly, still holding Spike's hand, "Find Jenny and let her know we have to go now, okay?" They were supposed to stay and help with the cleanup, but there were five other volunteers, and Xander figured these circumstances were exceptional enough to justify skipping off. "Bring my jacket and meet us at the car." He turned back to Spike. "I'm taking you back to my place. Just like old times, hey?" No reaction. Spike gazed at him, apparently calm—but Xander was starting to wonder whether whatever had happened to Spike had included massive brain damage. Did he even recognize Xander? Maybe he'd run away back at the serving table just because Xander spoke to him, not because he wanted to avoid a Sunnydale reunion.

First order of business—get him out of here. Maybe he'd be more communicative once they were on their own. For now he figured he might as well at least assume Spike understood what he was saying, until proven otherwise. "I'm parked a couple of blocks away," he said, carefully letting go of Spike's hand.

Spike visibly drew in on himself at the loss of contact. His arms wrapped around his body again, and a shadow of muted fear flickered across his eyes. Okay, that was fairly high on the disturbing scale, considering their shared history—since when did Xander's presence have a calming effect on Spike? Xander briefly contemplated the possibility that this Spike was from an alternate reality where he and Xander didn't hate each other, but quickly discarded the idea as highly improbable. What kind of crazy reality would that be?

Spike followed Xander out of the community hall and onto the street. Xander kept slowing down to let Spike catch up, but Spike slowed down every time he did, apparently determined to remain several steps behind. After a few repetitions of this pattern Xander gave up and just took the lead; he could tell Spike was still following because he heard him coughing.

He tried communication one last time once they were about a block away from the community hall. "Spike, what happened to you?"

Spike gave no sign he'd even heard the question. He was coughing into his napkin again, which looked worse for the wear. Xander guessed there might be phlegm involved. God only knew what kind of cooties Spike had. Hopefully not the supernatural kind.

Xander felt around in his own pocket and discovered a couple of folded kleenex. "Here," he said, offering them to Spike. "You look like you could use these."

Finally, a reaction. Spike reached out and took the tissues. Nothing showed in his face, though, and he didn't meet Xander's eyes. Xander shrugged to himself, and continued towards the car.

He wondered whether Spike had noticed his limp—or, well, given that he couldn't have missed seeing it, walking behind Xander the way he was, Xander wondered whether it had registered. Whether Spike was at least privately wondering whether Xander had run into one too many gravestones, or what.

Then again, maybe Spike knew. Maybe he'd been in contact with the Scoobies-turned-Council more recently than Xander had. Not like Xander would know if he had. That might be one explanation for Spike's fun new dissociative state—maybe he'd heard how Buffy had died.

That still wouldn't explain the pulse and the body temperature, though. Or why Spike was alone in L.A..

They only had to wait a minute for Troy, who could walk a lot faster than Xander.

"Hey, how's it going?" Troy greeted them, his cheerfulness only slightly awkward as he slid into the passenger side. Xander caught the look on his face, quickly suppressed, as he noticed the reek of Spike in the back seat. Xander shot Troy a quick little grimace—what did you expect?

Spike was huddled against the driver's side back door. Xander hadn't tried to get a seatbelt on him.

"So, Spike, I guess you haven't seen Xander in a while," Troy said. His tone still had that trying-too-hard edge to it; bringing Spike home had been his idea, and he probably thought he'd talked Xander into it, so now he felt responsible. He must've guessed by now that he wasn't going to get a response from Spike, so he just kept talking. "He's never mentioned you to me, but don't feel bad—he never talks about anyone from Sunnydale. I guess that was a hard thing to live through, huh?"

"Troy," Xander said, gripping the steering wheel just a little bit tighter, "We're not going to talk about Sunnydale."

"I'm just trying to make him comfortable," Troy whispered.

"Talking about Sunnydale isn't going to help with that." At least, it sure didn't make Xander feel comfortable.

Troy's fingers worried at his bead necklace. "Xan, I think we might have to talk about it now."

"Not gonna happen, Troy." Xander reached down and turned on the radio, ending the conversation.

Things were relatively peaceful for a few minutes. But a little while after they pulled onto the freeway, Spike started trying to get out of the car.

Troy noticed before Xander did. "Hey, don't do that," he said nervously, twisting around in his seat.

Xander glanced over his shoulder and discovered that Spike was rattling the door handle. "Shit, Spike, stop that." Spike didn't react to Xander's voice any more than he had to Troy's. "It's okay," Xander said quietly to Troy. "That side's broken anyway."

Instantly, Spike lunged for the door handle on the other side.

"Fuck!" Troy tried to reach back and grab him, but the angle was too awkward. Xander, still driving, couldn't see properly what was going on. He could tell by the sound of roaring wind that the door had opened a crack. Troy was swearing and climbing onto his knees facing backwards, still more-or-less tangled up in his own seatbelt. Xander swerved into the breakdown lane and braked hard.

Spike was out the door before the car had fully stopped. He fell to his hands and knees and skidded and rolled, but by the time Troy got out of the car he was on his feet and running. Troy sprinted after him. Xander followed at a staggered lope, hating his messed-up leg for slowing him down. Spike was fucking crazy, there was no telling what he'd do—

And then he did it. With Troy almost close enough to tackle him, Spike ran out into the traffic.

Car horns started keening. Headlights blurred in Xander's vision like in a long-exposure photograph. Troy hesitated at the edge of the breakdown lane.

"No!" Xander shouted, heading for him as fast as he could. His right leg was on fire. Spike stood still now in the middle of the third lane. He was holding his head high for the first time all evening, facing the oncoming traffic, and his arms were half-raised, palms forward. A high-intensity streetlight caught his hair like a halo, and that was the thought that popped into Xander's head in the midst of the mind-numbing fear—Spike looked like a suicidal angel.

The traffic was stopping. An SUV braked gently, coming to a stop a few feet in front of Spike and turning on its 4-way flashers. In the lanes between Troy and Spike, cars and trucks were slowing to a crawl.

And then Troy sprinted across three lanes and grabbed Spike from behind.

Spike fought him—not like a vampire or even an experienced street-fighter, but more like a frightened child. He twisted and squirmed and pounded Troy's chest with his fists. Xander was limping across three lanes of stopped traffic towards them now. Troy was desperately, ineffectively trying to calm Spike down, shouting, "It's okay, it's okay, I won't hurt you!" over the honking of dozens of irritated motorists. As Xander got closer he saw the panicky, desperate look on Spike's face. And Spike still wasn't saying a word.

"Little help here?" Troy gasped as Spike's elbow randomly caught him in the stomach.

"Spike, it's me." Xander hoped he could calm him down like he had before—it didn't have to make sense, it just had to work.

He didn't expect it to work so fast. Spike jerked his head around as soon as Xander grabbed his arm. Xander got a glimpse of the wild panic in his eyes—but only a glimpse, because as soon as his gaze fixed on Xander, calm descended. He stopped fighting so suddenly that Troy stumbled, and Xander had to catch them both.

The driver of the SUV had stepped out onto the road. It was a silver-haired man in a business suit, with a build suggesting 'former linebacker.' "What's up with him?" he asked in a tone wavering between belligerent and concerned. "You better get him the fuck off the road."

"I'm really, really sorry," Xander said, already steering the suddenly-compliant Spike back towards the edge of the road and their abandoned car. "He's off his meds. Things got out of hand. I'm so very, very sorry."

Back at the car, still holding on to Spike, Xander said to Troy, "I think you'd better drive."

Spike climbed into the back seat willingly enough with Xander holding his hand. Xander managed not to make any verbal sign of dismay when Spike curled up and rested his head on Xander's lap.

The homeless-guy smell was pretty rank, but Xander could deal. He'd smelled worse. He hoped Spike didn't have, like, lice or something—but again, he could deal. The fact that it was Spike curled up on his lap, though—that was freaking Xander out on many levels simultaneously.

"Off his meds?" Troy said once he'd got them back on the road. His voice was shaking a little. "Got anything you wanna share, Xan?"

"I made that up," Xander admitted. He was trying to figure out where to put his hands. He finally settled for letting one rest on Spike's waist, and the other lie along the bottom of the window. He could feel Spike trembling. He wondered if that was a delayed fear reaction, or what. He wondered what the hell Spike had run out in traffic for, and why he'd come back so easily as soon as Xander got there. "People like an explanation. It stops them asking questions."

Troy caught Xander's eye in the rear-view mirror. "Why did you tell me he wasn't your ex?"

"Huh? What? He's not. I told you, I never dated a guy before you."

"So why's he all over you like that? Why's your touch the only thing that calms him down?"

"I have no idea." They were starting to talk about Spike like he wasn't there, Xander realized—which was probably a natural result of him not ever saying anything. "This is so fucked up. When we knew each other before, we hated each other." Which was an oversimplification bordering on a lie, but no way was Xander going into details. How could he explain his history with Spike without using the word vampire?

Off the freeway now and stopped at a red light, Troy turned around. "He likes your tatt," he observed.

Xander's right sleeve had ridden up far enough to expose the tattoo on the inside of his wrist—a silhouette of a fern in black ink. Spike had lifted his head to see it, and was tracing it with his fingers.

Xander shivered involuntarily. He fervently hoped that Spike's interest in the design was purely of the I'm-crazy-and-it's-pretty variety, as opposed to the I'm-mystically-possessed-and-drawn-to-its-power variety.

Giles had promised him that the tattoos would become magically inert at the end of the ceremony. He'd promised.





Part Two


When they finally got home, they took Spike straight to the bathroom. As long as Xander was close or touching him, Spike seemed calm and obedient. Xander got him to sit down on the toilet lid, and he checked his hands. They were scraped up from when he'd jumped out of the moving car, but they weren't really bleeding. The knees of Spike's pants were torn, too.

"What's the plan?" Troy asked.

"He's got to take a shower, and he needs clean clothes. I think yours would fit him better than mine—could you find something?" Troy didn't live with Xander, but he stayed over often enough that he had a drawer in the dresser.

"Do you think he can shower on his own?" Troy asked in a low, worried voice.

Xander looked closely at Spike. The expression in his eyes right now was just blank. Empty blue sky. "He understands what we're saying," Xander said, not completely sure it was true. "He tried for the other door as soon as I said the driver's side one was broken, remember?"

"Yeah," Troy said with a grimace. "That I remember." He left the bathroom.

Xander got out the tweezers. "I'm going to get these bits of rock and shit out of your hands." As he expected, there was no reaction from Spike—but he didn't resist Xander propping his hand palm-up on his knee and starting in with the tweezers.

Troy came back with an empty shoebox, and wordlessly started pulling things out of the medicine cabinet. Xander was about to ask him what he was doing, but then he realized. Troy was taking away the razors, scissors, painkillers—everything Spike could use to hurt himself.

Xander finished with Spike's hands just as Troy returned with the change of clothes. "Okay, uh, Spike—you need to wash," Xander said. "The shampoo and stuff is in the shower stall. There's towels under the sink. Just leave your clothes on the floor and I'll take care of them."

Outside the bathroom, Troy turned to Xander. "Wow. Was he like that before?"

"No." Xander looked at the closed bathroom door, wondering what was happening on the other side. He could hear Spike coughing. It might not be the best idea, leaving him on his own—but Xander's level of commitment here definitely stopped somewhere short of washing Spike. "He was crazy for a while, but not like this. He never stopped talking before."

Troy gave him a funny look. "What do you mean, he was crazy 'for a while'?" he asked, with finger quotes. "Is he, like, bipolar or something?"

"Or something." Xander shrugged. "No, he was fine most of the time. The, uh, crazy happened after a sort of traumatic event." Xander needed to change the subject, and fast. This conversation couldn't go anywhere good. "Hey, where did you put all the bathroom stuff? My leg's killing me."

Troy frowned. "I thought you didn't take the painkillers anymore?"

"Normally, no," Xander said, limping couchward. "But normally I don't go sprinting down the 5, do I?"

Troy disappeared into the bedroom, and came back a moment later with the prescription bottle. "I didn't think we should leave him alone with these things...."

"Yeah, I figured. Probably a good idea."

In the bathroom, the shower started up. "Do you think he was trying to kill himself on the freeway?" Troy asked, looking towards the sound.

Xander shrugged uncomfortably. "Maybe. I'm not sure he even understood what he was doing."

"I feel like we're in over our heads here," Troy confessed. "Maybe we should take him to a doctor, or something?"

"Yeah," Xander sighed, thinking about the logistical nightmare that would involve. "Probably."

Troy went off to get a glass of water for Xander to take the pills. When he came back, he joined him on the couch. "God, I'm tired," he sighed, resting his head against Xander's shoulder.

"Yeah." Xander hugged him. "You should probably go home."

Troy twisted around to look at him properly. "Huh?"

"While Spike's here." Xander hesitated, struggling to put something resembling the truth into terms Troy would understand and accept. "Shit comes up when he's around. Stuff I don't want you to get dragged into."

And that was so not a line of reasoning that would work on Troy. "I know you've been trying to avoid your past, Xan," he said, stroking the back of Xander's hand with his thumb, "But I'm not afraid to face your demons, if that's what's gonna come up here."

Xander didn't quite manage to stifle a sharp laugh at the ironic metaphor.

Troy arched an eyebrow. "That was funny?"

"No, really not." Xander sighed. "I want you out of this, Troy. I don't want you to get hurt."

"How would I get hurt?"

Xander didn't even want to think about all the possible ways. "Oh, I don't know—chasing Spike out onto a freeway, for instance?"

"Sorry if I scared you. I wasn't going to do anything stupid, though. I waited until the traffic stopped, remember? Anyway, what the hell would you've done if I wasn't there?"

"Let Spike play in the traffic," Xander muttered.

"Xan, I'm not going to let you deal with this alone. I was the one who said you should take him home. I didn't realize he'd be so—I mean, he really needs help."

"Yeah, I guess he does." Xander rubbed the nape of Troy's neck, twining his fingers though the soft little hairs. "Trying to save the world again?" he said softly.

Troy kissed Xander on the lips. "Just trying to help one guy. Maybe two. I know I can't save the world."

That last bit was so true it hurt. But Xander didn't think about that stuff anymore, so he kissed Troy back, hard, and stopped thinking at all.


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*



Spike emerged a couple of minutes later wearing the clothes Troy had left for him—a black t-shirt, and navy hospital pants that Xander knew said "HOT" across the ass in bright yellow letters. His hair clung to his head in wet, loose curls, and he was barefoot. He hesitated at the edge of the living room.

Xander met Troy's eyes in a brief 'now what?' moment.

"It's too early to go to bed," Troy pointed out. "Let's watch a movie. Would you like that, Spike?" No response. But Spike had showered and changed his clothes when they told him to—so he might not be all there, but he was at least partly there.

"Spike, come over here," Xander tried. Spike blinked as though he'd just noticed that Xander was in the room, but then he approached him, looking wary. He stopped a few feet away to cough, and when he raised his fist to cover his mouth Xander saw that there were a bunch of weird little bruises and scabs on the inside of his arm. A shivery feeling crept up Xander's neck as he guessed: vampire bites?

"Shit," Xander heard Troy say quietly. "He's been using."

"Using what?" Xander said before his brain caught up. Oh. Xander felt a little dumb. Failings of a Sunnydale education. "Those are track marks?" he asked, just to be sure.

Troy nodded. "Yeah."

There was an awkward moment of silence—they couldn't just keep talking about this in front of Spike like he wasn't there. Troy met Xander's gaze and shrugged. Nothing they could do right now.

"Spike, come here," Xander said, reaching a hand out to him. "Sit down."

Spike didn't just sit, he climbed onto the sofa. He curled up quickly, and laid his head on Xander's lap.

"Um," Xander said, holding his hands up and looking helplessly at Troy.

"Don't worry, I'm not threatened." Troy gave Spike a thoughtful look. "At least he seems kind of comfortable. I'll get the movie. What do you want to see?"

Xander's DVD collection was gleaned from a year's worth of grocery store bargain bins, so the selection wasn't exactly stellar. What to watch with my boyfriend and a deeply crazy former vampire? "How about A Bug's Life?"

Spike's wet hair was soaking through Xander's jeans. At least he didn't stink anymore. Actually he smelled like almonds and strawberries, which meant he must've dug under the sink and found the fancy gift soap that Xander had got from his Secret Santa at work.

Xander really didn't know what to make of this new version of Spike. There was something childlike in his silence and inappropriate cuddling. Was there anything left in there of the old Spike? Just how fucked up was he? And was the fact that he'd used the strawberry almond soap a sign of sanity, or the opposite?

Troy got the movie playing and settled next to Xander on the opposite side from Spike, draping an arm over Xander's shoulders. It was all very cozy, and Xander felt very weird.

Spike fell asleep before the opening credits had even finished.

"I'll get some sheets and stuff for the couch," Troy whispered. They stopped the movie, and Xander tried to ease Spike off the couch so they could set it up. Spike blinked slowly and didn't resist Xander's manipulations. He must've been exhausted, Xander realized. God only knew how long it had been since Spike had had any real rest.

Once they had him all set up, tucked under a blanket and looking entirely peaceful, Xander went to deal with Spike's dirty clothes while Troy retreated into the bedroom with a book.

Xander kind of wished he'd brought tongs to pick up the clothes with. Somehow they seemed even more disgusting now that they were limp on the floor.

He had a small washer and dryer in his kitchen. He started to just toss everything in, then remembered at the last minute to empty the pockets. The army coat's left pocket yielded a small notebook and a stub of a pencil. Xander flipped the notebook open, harboring a brief hope of some kind of answers. What he found was just more craziness. The pages were colored in completely with pencil. Front and back, from the start of the notebook to about two-thirds of the way through. Then there was a page where only the top half was colored, and the rest of the book was blank.

The other pocket was stuffed with the wadded-up kleenex and napkins from earlier. Xander pulled them out gingerly, trying to minimize touching. Some of them stuck to the inside of the pocket, and uncrumpled a bit as he tugged them loose. There was dried blood hidden in the folds of tissue.

That was definitely not of the good.

As soon as Xander had started the laundry going and scrubbed his hands with lots of soap and hot water, he went back out to the living room for another look at Spike.

He didn't look so peaceful now. The blanket was already half falling off him, and it was twisted around his legs. His fingers plucked listlessly at the front of his shirt, and his head rocked back and forth. His face was screwed up as though he were in pain, and he was making sounds—no words, just barely-audible muttering. Enough to let Xander know that whatever was keeping Spike from talking, it wasn't physical.

Xander laid a palm on Spike's forehead. Spike quieted instantly at his touch. That was still weird, oh boy yeah. Spike felt warm, like maybe he had a fever. "Man, Spike, what happened to you?" Xander asked under his breath, watching the tension return to Spike's face as soon as he took his hand away.

Time to make a phone call.

He used the phone in the kitchen—he didn't want Spike or Troy to hear this conversation. He dialed the fifteen-digit number from memory. It wasn't written down anywhere in the apartment and frankly he'd been hoping that eventually he'd forget it and lose even the possibility of getting back in touch.

"Hello?" A woman answered; Xander didn't recognize her voice.

"Hi. Is Rupert Giles there?"

"Who shall I say is calling?"

"Xander Harris."

"Hold on a moment, and I'll see if he's available." The lack of a reaction to his name suggested that she was new, whoever she was. She sounded English, and too old to be a Slayer. Maybe Giles had a girlfriend?

Xander stopped to wonder what time it was in England. He vaguely thought it should be morning. Possibly very early morning. Oh well.

And then, finally, "Xander?"

Xander's throat felt suddenly tight. He hadn't anticipated what it would be like to hear that voice for the first time in a year and a half. "Hi, Giles." And then, the awkward pause. The last time they'd seen each other, it had been stiff, chilly silences and cursory good-byes. Xander wasn't sure where to start, and leaping straight into the Spike situation didn't seem right. "So, uh, hey, who was that? The woman who answered the phone?"

"That was Sarah. My wife."

"Oh. Wow." Xander decided that sitting was better than standing. He lowered himself to the kitchen floor, with his right leg stretched out straight and his back against the cupboards. "Congratulations."

"Thank you." There was no warmth in Giles's voice. It was the sort of tone he'd used with guys like Quentin Travers, back in the day. It hurt, having it directed at him. And yet Xander couldn't tell himself he didn't deserve it.

"What about—how's Willow? And Dawn?" He was kind of afraid to ask, but he had to know.

"They're as well as can be expected. I'm sure they both would appreciate hearing from you."

"No." And that came out sharper than he meant it to, considering that the point of this call was to ask Giles for a favor. "I'm out of it, Giles. I'm not coming back."

"As you wish," Giles said, extra polite now, and Xander knew the subtext was well then, fuck you. "Might I know what occasioned this call?"

"Yeah." That's right. Down to business. "It's about Spike. Did you ever hear from him after Angel's grudge match with Wolfram & Hart?"

"No. I assume he perished in the battle."

"Well, you know what they say about asses."

"Beg pardon?"

"The thing with the spelling? When you assume, you make a—Christ, never mind. I don't know what happened to him that night. But he's back. He's here now, as in, in my fucking apartment. And he's alive."

"Dear Lord." Finally, the distance dropped out of Giles's voice. "You mean—truly alive? Human?"

"As far as I can tell."

"Has he said anything about what happened?"

"Funny you should ask. He actually hasn't said anything at all. I'm not even sure if he knows who I am—I'm not even sure if he knows who he is."

"How long ago did he turn up?"

"Just this evening. He's been homeless, I guess. He's totally fucked up, Giles, and I don't know what to do with him. On the way home he jumped out of the car while it was still moving and ran out into the middle of the freeway."

"I see," Giles said, sounding fairly stunned. "Is he all right?'

"In the sense that all the cars miraculously avoided hitting him, yes. In any broader sense of the phrase, I'm gonna have to go with 'no.' I think he's crazy again. Like, worse than before. And he's sick, too, he's coughing up blood."

"That sounds serious. He should see a doctor."

"Yeah, no kidding. So ... when can you get someone here?"

There was a long, strained pause. "I'm afraid that won't be possible. We are stretched rather thinly at the moment. Spike's latest reincarnation, fascinating as it is, doesn't merit pulling resources away from the ongoing conflict."

Xander really didn't like the sound of that. He didn't want to ask, because the state of denial was a nice place to live and Xander had been happy there—okay, reasonably content—for the past year and a half. But he asked anyway, because now Giles was on the phone and it all hung in the air between them whether he asked about it or not. "So, um, yeah. How's that going?"

"Rather badly, actually. We lost Mongolia last week."

Xander was suddenly very glad he was sitting down. "Mongolia, huh?" he sort of croaked out. Fuck. So much for denial.

"It's fallen entirely under the control of the Raven, the Bear and the Snake. The human population will soon be eliminated; it may have been accomplished already. It's not the first territory the Mirodan have claimed, but it's by far the largest."

Xander tried to swallow. His mouth was very dry. "I haven't been watching CNN..."

"There won't have been anything. They're working a large-scale glamour—I expect you'll find Mongolia completely excised from the international news. But I imagine they'll be moving beyond stealth soon enough. Two or three weeks, perhaps."

Xander closed his eyes. He hadn't known it would come quite this soon, but he'd known it was coming. He'd known for as long as he'd lived in L.A.—you can't walk out on an apocalypse.

He wasn't going to apologize. He'd done everything he could, and more. And after Buffy died, after it became horribly apparent that they couldn't possibly win this one, he'd decided to take a shot, however brief, at living a normal life. And if that meant cutting himself off from all his friends who were determined to go down fighting—well, it sucked, but that was the way it was.

"Oh well," Xander said. "Sorry you can't help."

"As am I," Giles said. And hung up.

Xander listened to the dial tone for a good thirty seconds before he turned the handset off.

"So," Troy said from the doorway, "Who's Giles?"

"Fuck!" Xander yelped, nearly dropping the phone. He wrenched his head around to glare at Troy. "Were you eavesdropping on me?"

"Sorry," Troy said, though he didn't sound or look it. He crouched down next to Xander and took the phone from Xander's numb fingers. "Who's Giles?"

Xander was desperately trying to remember exactly what he'd said. "Troy, you do not listen in on my private conversations. It is not cool. It is not okay."

Troy finally started to look ashamed. He tugged at his bead necklace and ducked his head. "Sorry, Xan. I just came out to see how you were doing, and you were on the phone."

Xander tried to get some control over his own voice—the more he panicked, the more Troy would wonder what was up. "What did you hear?"

"Giles is from Sunnydale too, right? And he knows Spike. It sounded like you thought he would help, but he won't."

Okay. Troy obviously hadn't heard anything really weird, or he'd be asking about it now. "Yeah," Xander said, starting to stand up and letting Troy give him a hand. "That's pretty much it."

"So who is he?" Troy asked for the third time.

Xander sighed. "My old high school librarian."

Troy gave him a funny look. "Seriously?"

"Seriously."

"And why won't he help?"

"He's got his own shit to deal with. He doesn't have time for this."

"Something to do with Mongolia?"

Xander froze. "What about Mongolia?"

Troy frowned. "Well, I don't know, you're the one who was talking about it."

"Nothing's happening in Mongolia." Nothing but the beginning of the end of the world.

"Okay," Troy said, and walked away towards the bedroom.

Xander followed, and discovered Troy opening up his laptop. The computer itself was a leftover from Xander's days with the Council, but he sure didn't have the Demons, Demons, Demons database bookmarked anymore. "What are you doing?"

"Google news," Troy said, tapping at the keyboard. "Huh. Well, that's weird."

"What?" Xander caught up and looked over Troy's shoulder.

"Your search - Mongolia - did not match any documents," Troy read off the screen. "No pages were found containing 'Mongolia'." He looked back at Xander. "Isn't that weird?"

"Told you," Xander said. "Nothing's happening in Mongolia."

"But—"

Xander cut off Troy's protests with a kiss. "Don't worry about it," he said. "Maybe their server's down. Let's go to bed."


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*



It wasn't that apocalypses made him horny. It was just that when he knew that everything was about to go to hell, he wanted to cling to as much joy as he could. He wanted to love, and be loved. He wanted to caress, and be caressed. He wanted to fuck. He wanted that moment of climax when he could forget that the world was ending, and he wanted it as often as possible.

Okay. Maybe apocalypses did make him horny.


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*



Xander woke up straight into an adrenaline rush. Someone was screaming. His hand closed around the baseball bat he kept by his bed before he was even awake enough to remember who was supposed to be in the living room.

By the time his feet touched the floor he'd realized it was Spike, the screaming, but he still had no idea what to expect in the living room and he held onto the bat.

Spike was huddled on the floor not far from the couch, clutching his head and rocking. He was sobbing in desperate gasps punctuated by violent coughing.

Troy came up beside Xander, touching his shoulder. "Shit," he said softly. "Now what?" Then he looked down at the bat. "What's that for?"

"Didn't know what happened. Could've been a—" demon "—burglar." Xander laid the bat on the floor and approached Spike carefully, finally crouching down to his level just out of arm's reach. "Spike? What's wrong?" He was definitely using the talking-to-crazy-people voice now. Soft and gentle, exaggeratedly non-threatening. "Was it a bad dream?" He thought maybe Spike would answer—that maybe the sobs spilling out of him now had broken through the barrier of silence.

But Spike didn't react, and this time Xander really wasn't sure if Spike had even noticed him.

"Try touching him," Troy said softly. "That helped before."

Xander shuffled a step closer and reached out to lay a hand on Spike's arm. "Spike? Don't be scared. It's okay."

Spike quieted—not all at once, but in a series of shaky breaths. Xander could still feel him trembling. His fingers unclenched from his hair and he looked up. For the first time that night, Xander had the sense that Spike was looking at him, rather than just in his general direction. Like, Spike was in there and seeing Xander. Not crazy.

He looked wrecked, though. His face was soaked with sweat and tears, and crisscrossed with faint fresh scratches from his bitten-down nails. His lips were flecked with blood—not exactly a new look for him, but it had a different significance now.

"You're safe here," Xander said steadily, squeezing Spike's arm gently and looking right into his eyes. He was convinced that he was finally reaching him, that Spike was really hearing him. "I promise." He wasn't sure where this fierce protective feeling was coming from. Maybe it was a 3 a.m. thing.

Spike blinked. Reached a tentative hand out as though he wanted to touch Xander's face—then pulled back quickly, looking scared.

"I take the glass eye out at night," Xander explained, guessing Spike's attention had been on the socket. "Looks kind of gross, huh? ... You saved me that day, do you remember?" Funny, Xander hadn't thought about that in a long time. Maybe he did owe Spike a thing or two.

A noise behind him made Xander aware of Troy listening in. So Troy had just gotten another little clue about Xander's past. Maybe it would satisfy him for a while.

Yeah, right.

Spike, meanwhile, had drifted away. The focus was gone from his eyes, and he was trembling harder.

"Fuck," Xander muttered. "Come back, Spike." He eased in closer, and put his arms around him, thinking maybe it would help. It seemed to, at least a little. Spike sank into his embrace with a barely-audible whimper. Xander tightened his hold and, without really thinking about it, started rocking him. "It's okay, it's okay, you're safe," he murmured. He thought maybe it had helped when he said that before.

Troy came a little closer and dropped down into a crouch himself. "What happened to him?" he asked. "You think it was a nightmare?"

"I guess. I don't know." Xander spoke very softly, because Spike's head was cradled against his collarbone now. He wondered, silently, what Spike had been through since Andrew saw him two years ago. What could do this to Spike?

"There's blood," Troy said suddenly. "Where did that—shit. On the phone you said he was coughing up blood?"

Xander followed Troy's gaze and saw the dark, damp patch near the knee of Spike's pants, and a smear of red on the fake-wood floor by Spike's bare feet.

"I'll get some stuff to clean him up," Troy said, standing up.

"Troy," Xander stopped him, "there's latex gloves under the kitchen sink. Use them."

Troy gave him a look. "I'm just going to get a cloth, wipe up the blood and stuff."

"He's obviously sick. I just want you to be careful." Not like Xander had any more medical training than Troy did, but at least he'd had the experience of helping out at an MSF clinic in rural Cameroon for a couple of weeks while waiting for a Slayer to appear. The doctors had drilled the habit of caution around bodily fluids into him pretty hard.

On the other hand, now that he thought about it, the fact that the world was going to end in two or three weeks pretty much mootified the whole getting-sick-or-not thing.

It was a line of thinking that led nowhere good, and Xander pushed it away.

Troy came back wearing the gloves. He had some paper towels, a washcloth and a bowl of water.

"Spike, I'm gonna wash your face," Troy said, dipping the cloth in the bowl and wringing it out.

"That's warm water, right?" Xander asked. God, what would Buffy say if she heard me—

That was another thought that wasn't allowed to finish.

They all shared a few quiet moments then. Xander held Spike, who felt strangely fragile in his arms. Troy dabbed at Spike's face with the washcloth, then did the best he could to clean the spot on his pants, and finally the floor.

"You think maybe we should take him to the ER now?" Troy asked when he was done.

"I think he's fallen asleep again," Xander said, keeping his voice low. Spike's head was resting heavily against Xander's chest now, and his breathing had been steady for a while. "I'll take him in the morning."

"You mean 'we'."

"We can't both take off work."

"Sure we can. I'll call in sick. You can't take him alone in the car, not after what he did tonight."

"Fuck. You're right. Okay. But, wait for morning."

Troy looked at Spike, then at the couch. "What if he has another nightmare or whatever that was?"

Xander sighed, realizing what he had to do. "I'll stay out here. On the couch. It's just a few more hours till morning."





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