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Sock Puppet


by
Shadowscast





Part Three


"Well, we can't let them send him back out on the street." Troy hunched his hands into his pockets as they walked across the hospital parking lot. It was still damn freaky cold out—there had been hints of frost on the car's windshield when they got started this morning.

"I don't think they would," Xander said. "They want to make sure he does the whole treatment for the TB, right?"

"Okay, so they might lock him in a mental ward. And probably keep him doped up the whole time. You saw him Wednesday. And yesterday wasn't much better."

"I just don't see how we're supposed to take care of him," Xander said. "We both have to work. And how the hell are we going to pay for the drugs? No ID, no social assistance, remember?"

This was a thing they did—argue about something that was already settled.

The three days' TB quarantine were up, and Xander was going to do everything in his power to get Spike to come home with him. Troy wouldn't forgive him if he didn't, and besides, he had seen Spike on Wednesday. Apparently the nightmare thing had happened again, and the hospital's solution had been heavy sedation. Xander and Troy had found Spike propped up in bed, blinking slowly, staring at a blank TV and drooling a little. However crazy he'd been before, it was better than that.

Inside, they made their way to the east wing. "Hospitals are kind of creepy, aren't they?" Troy said as they waited for the elevator.

"Creepy?"

"All those people on the beds in the hall back there—it's like, these moments in their lives should be so private, so intensely personal, but instead there they are all laid out in public for anyone to see."

"Yeah, that's not really normal. They're kinda overcrowded here." Xander wondered silently whether the overfull hospital was a harbinger of the apocalypse, or just a sign of government cutbacks.

It didn't matter either way. A few weeks, Giles had said.

"Oh," Troy said. "You know, I'd never seen the inside of a hospital before we brought Spike in on Tuesday. Except on TV. I guess I've had a pretty lucky run so far."

"Yeah. Keep it that way as long as you can." Xander squeezed Troy's hand. "I've seen too many."

When Troy gave him a curious look, Xander realized he'd put a bit too much emphasis on that last bit—enough that Troy would guess he was talking about more than just the times he'd been hospitalized himself. He'd never told Troy that he'd had friends who had died, though sometimes he thought Troy suspected it.

The arrival of a half-full elevator saved Xander from any concerned-boyfriend questions, at least for now. They made it up to Spike's ward, where a nurse, recognizing them, impatiently thrust a clipboard into Troy's hands. "William has to sign these forms so we can release him. Just an X would be enough, but I can't even get him to pick up a pen. Think you can talk some sense into him?"

"He, uh, doesn't really talk," Troy said, hesitantly like he didn't want to imply the nurse was stupid, but didn't know how else to respond.

She rolled her eyes. "No, but he listens when he wants to. He got dressed when I told him to."

She followed them into Spike's room, where Spike was sitting fully clothed on the bed with his knees tucked up against his chest—staring at the blank TV again. Xander wondered whether the damn thing was broken.

"William, your friends are here to take you home," the nurse said. "You just have to sign the form."

Spike didn't turn to look at them. Xander wondered if maybe in his head, he was watching a fascinating TV show. It wouldn't be the first time Spike had seen things nobody else could see.

"Spike? ... Come on, this is easy." Letting his voice drop into a soft, coaxing singsong, Troy sat on the bed beside Spike and held out the pen and clipboard. "You can do this."

"What happens if he doesn't sign the papers?" Xander asked quietly.

"Well, then we have a problem," the nurse said. "We can't keep him. There's no room. You saw the hallways. We'd have to move him out onto a gurney."

Troy gave Xander a get over here and help me out look. Meanwhile, another nurse in green scrubs poked her head in the door. "Sharon, I need your help for a moment with Mr. Lopez."

Sharon shot a worried look in Spike's direction. "Can it wait?"

"Not really, no," the new nurse said with an air of tightly-controlled desperation.

"I'll be right back," Sharon said.

Xander and Troy watched her go. Then Troy looked at the clipboard he was holding, up at the doorway, back to the clipboard—and he shrugged and made an X himself.

Xander gave a tight smile. "Good one. Let's go."

Spike stood up immediately.

"And yet you couldn't make an X?" Xander muttered under his breath. Spike probably heard him, but didn't react.

Troy came back to Xander and touched his arm. "I think I'm starting to get it," he said quietly. "He can't communicate. He understands what's going on around him, he understands when we talk—most of the time, at least—but he can't say anything himself. Not with words, or writing, or even gestures."

"Huh. Maybe." Xander looked at Spike—wanted to ask him if Troy was right, but obviously that wouldn't work. How the hell are we going to take care of him? Xander wondered again. And then he noticed Spike's chart clipped to the end of the bed. "Hey. A little information would be good to have," he said to Troy, and snatched it up. "Cover me."

Apparently the stereotype about doctors and their messy handwriting was firmly grounded in reality. Xander couldn't make out half of what was written. He found the TB diagnosis, and a note that the strain was non-resistant, which even Xander knew was a good thing. The night nurse, who had good handwriting, had noted the nightmares—God, he'd had them every night—and the sedatives the night shift had given him. The attending doctor had suggested a psychiatric evaluation, which it didn't look like anybody had followed up on. The next page was HIV test results. A little box at the bottom said consent had been obtained from the patient, which Xander strongly suspected was bullshit, but whatever. The important thing was the result—positive. Fuck.

"She's coming back," Troy whispered.

By the time Sharon walked in, the chart was back in place and Xander was holding Spike's hand. "We got him to sign," he said.

"Good." Sharon took the clipboard from Troy with barely a glance. "I'll go get William's prescriptions for you."


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



After they got Spike home from the hospital, Troy had to go to work. Xander had taken the whole day off so he could look after Spike, but he wasn't sure what to do with him, to start with. He tried sitting him down in front of the TV and leaving him there, which seemed to work pretty well at first. A TV that worked had to be more interesting than one that didn't, right? Xander started a load of wash and got most of the dishes done—but then the sound of televised gunshots was accompanied by a real-life crash, and Xander ran out into the living room to discover the cops on 'Law & Order' arriving at a murder scene, the floor lamp knocked over with its bulb broken, and Spike tucked into a corner, shaking.

"Okay, TV, bad idea. Turning it off now."

So that meant ten minutes of rubbing Spike's back and murmuring soothing things before Xander could even get Spike out of the corner, which he had to do, because it was time for a dose of antibiotics.

It made him kind of queasy, wondering how Spike had gotten into this state.

In the kitchen, Spike noticed his notebook and pencil, which had been lying on the table ever since Xander pulled them out of the army jacket. Spike picked them up and started patting his hips and chest, looking increasingly troubled. Xander had a moment of confusion, until he realized Spike was probably looking for pockets.

"Hey, you can wear your jacket, it's clean now," Xander said. It had been sitting in the dryer for the past three days, in fact.

Spike snatched it from Xander's hands and pulled it on in a quick, rough motion. It made Xander think of the duster, and the way Spike had worn it like a personality. He'd always seemed bigger when he was wearing it, stronger, more dangerous. Now, he seemed lost in the crumpled green army jacket. The sleeves brushed his knuckles and the fabric hung loose over his shoulders. Still, he seemed happier now that he had it back.

Or maybe happy wasn't the right word. Xander wasn't sure if this broken new Spike even could feel happy. But he seemed calmer with the jacket on, at least.

"How about you sit right here," Xander said, guiding Spike to a chair at the kitchen table. "Just sit there and watch me, uh, do stuff." He was pretty sure it was the shooting on the TV that had freaked Spike out, and how fucked-up was that? Spike used to love violence. Even after the soul.

Or maybe it hadn't even been the violence. Maybe it was just the loud noise. Honestly, Xander had no idea what might set Spike off next. Sports? Teletubbies?

How was he supposed to keep Spike safe when he didn't know what he was protecting him from?

While he thought about these things, Xander finished emptying the dryer and put in a new load of wet laundry. Spike, meanwhile, had taken out his notebook and pencil, and started coloring. He had a page that was half filled in with pencil, and he was methodically shading the rest of it, one line at a time. Coloring it all black.

"Is that supposed to be some kind of comment on the state of your soul?" As soon as he heard himself, Xander wished he'd kept his mouth shut. It had been a mean thing to say. As usual, though, Spike didn't seem to have noticed.

He looked like he was safely occupied for the moment, so Xander took a broom and dustpan out to the living room to deal with the broken light. He was halfway done when he heard drawers slamming open and shut in the kitchen.

"Shit." Xander ran back to the kitchen, nearly falling when his weight hit his bad leg. "Shit! Spike! Put that down!"

Spike was standing in the middle of the kitchen holding the biggest knife Xander owned. His expression was as blank as ever.

"Okay, Spike, stay right there." Xander edged closer, trying to stay calm. "I'm not gonna hurt you. I just need the knife. It's my good knife." He got his hand around Spike's wrist and gripped it hard, quickly grabbing the knife with his other hand. Spike released it without resistance, finally focusing his eyes on Xander. He looked confused. "No playing with sharp things," Xander said, the adrenaline rush already ebbing away. He wasn't sure if he'd been afraid Spike would hurt himself or Xander—either way, bad scene.

Right about then, the dryer stopped. "Okay, you're going to sit there and watch me fold laundry," Xander decided. "It's fun and exciting. And very, very soft." He set the knife on top of the fridge, and wondered if he should get padlocks for the cupboards.

Keeping one eye on Spike while he took the laundry out wasn't exactly easy, since he only had the one. So he pulled it all out in one armful and dumped it on the table to sort it.

Spike blinked at the pile of laundry, like it was something really odd he'd never seen before. Which, hey, considering the state his clothes had been in when he'd showed up at the shelter—maybe it was. "Wanna help me fold?" Xander offered, since Spike at least seemed to be paying attention.

To his surprise, Spike reached into the pile and pulled out a sock. It was one of Xander's white gym socks. "Okay, can you find a matching one?" Xander asked. He felt like he was talking to a toddler—let's see if we can stimulate little Spike's intellectual development!

Anyway, Spike ignored him. He slipped the sock over his left hand like a fingerless glove. He cupped his hand inside the sock and poked the hollow part, so the sock puckered in between his fingers and thumb. He pivoted his wrist so that the sock's new 'mouth' faced Xander. And then he started opening and closing the mouth—and talking. "What in sodding hell are you gawking at, Harris?"

Xander was so startled he lurched backwards against the kitchen counter. "Gah! Fuck!" He glared at Spike, seriously considering homicide. "So you were fucking with us all along!? What the hell, Spike? Have you got Ashton Kutcher and a camera crew hidden behind the sofa? Okay, fun, I've been punked. Get the hell out of my house."

"Don't get your knickers in a twist," Spike said, still opening and closing the sock's mouth as though it were the one speaking. In fact, Spike was looking at the sock as he spoke, not at Xander. The sock, on the other hand, was looking straight at Xander. Only without eyes. "Spike doesn't even know I'm talking to you, you stupid sod. He'd cut his fucking tongue out first."

By extreme force of will, Xander kept his gaze from flicking towards the knife on the fridge. His fury was already slipping away, as his quick conclusion that Spike was playing some twisted, elaborate prank got less certain by the moment. Maybe the sock wasn't the punchline. Maybe it was just one more level of crazy.

Or maybe it was something else entirely.

"Who are you?" Xander asked cautiously, looking at the sock.

"Full of stupid questions, aren't you," the sock said derisively. Okay, well, Spike said it—but he was still moving the sock's mouth. His voice was hoarse, like it had been a long time since he'd used it. "What's a bloke got to do to get a fag around here?"

Xander didn't miss the fact that the sock had evaded his question.

He wished he could be sure that Spike was completely off his rocker, and that this wasn't some kind of mystical possession. Dammit, he was supposed to have a life now where 'mystical possession' got ruled out implicitly.

"I don't have any cigarettes," Xander said. "Anyway, Spike shouldn't be smoking. He's sick." Xander kind of couldn't believe he was talking to a sock. But he was. Talking to a sock. "Do you, um, do you know what happened to him?"

"He's human now." If a sock could sneer, this one was. "Weak like the rest of you."

"Yeah, I noticed." There was an implication there, Xander realized, that Spike knew he hadn't always been human. And he'd called Xander by name. So he remembered stuff. That was good to know, at least. "How did he get that way?"

"Haven't got a sodding clue," Spike said. The sock said.

"Okay ... what was he doing with the knife?" Xander tried.

Spike cocked his wrist a little bit sideways—head tilt. The sock was doing a head tilt. "He wanted to sharpen the bloody pencil," it said.

"Oh." Xander glanced towards the end of the table where Spike had abandoned his coloring project, and he saw that in fact the pencil tip was worn down to nothing. "Well, I can get you a pencil sharpener."

"Him, you mean," the sock corrected him sharply. "Not like I care what the pathetic wanker does with his fucking pencil."

So Spike was making a firm distinction between himself and the sock. Sort of a multiple-personality thing? Assuming, for the moment, crazy-not-mystical. In any case, Xander didn't have any better ideas than play along and see where it goes. "So, you're not Spike. Can you, um, talk to him?"

"Yeah," the sock said in a well, duh tone of voice.

"Can you ask him—" Xander's brain stuttered. There was too much he needed to ask. "Ask him what he remembers. Does he remember Sunnydale?"

"He remembers everything."

"What about fighting Wolfram & Hart? Does he remember that?"

The sock nodded, its upper lip curling derisively. "Not one of Angel's better plans, was it?"

You have no idea, Xander thought. "So, how did you—sorry, how did Spike survive?"

"He didn't. Some demon with a sword caught him from behind, cut off his head."

"Oh." Xander winced a little at the sock's—at Spike's brusque description of his own death. When he said he remembered everything, did that include the feeling of his head coming off? There was no clue in his expression. He'd been holding himself largely immobile this whole time, animating only the sock. Even though the words were coming out of his mouth, he seemed strangely disconnected from them. "So how did he end up alive?"

The sock sort of wiggled, what might be a shrug if it had shoulders. "Hell spat him back out."

Xander knew too much to assume Spike was speaking metaphorically. "So he was in hell?"

"Well, yeah," the sock said. "Things he did? What did you expect?"

"How long?" Xander remembered Buffy explaining what had happened to Angel after Acathla. A few months of Sunnydale time had equaled a century or so in hell.

"Not long enough."

Interesting answer. "What, you hadn't had a chance to meet all the cool people yet?"

"It's not a fucking garden party." The sock had no real face and Spike's own expression was blank, but Xander still got the feeling there was an eye roll in there somewhere. "It's endless torture, pain beyond imagining."

"So why did he go playing in traffic? He's so eager to go back?"

The sock didn't answer.

Xander took the moment of quiet to reflect on the fact that he was talking to a sock. "Look, can we just—can I just talk directly to Spike?"

The sock curled its lip. "Talk to him all you want, just don't expect an answer."

"Why not?" Xander said, ignoring the sock now. He waved a hand in front of Spike's eyes. "I'm here, you're here, I know you can talk now. What's the difference if you use a sock puppet or not?"

"He's not allowed," the puppet snapped. "Leave him the fuck alone."

"No." Xander grabbed Spike's hand, immobilizing the sock. "Why aren't you allowed to talk, Spike? Who says so?"

The reply came out hoarse and strained, but it came from Spike's lips and the puppet didn't move. "They...."

But he didn't say anything else. He stood there, suddenly so taut he was shaking—and then he threw himself backwards away from Xander, hitting the floor and scrabbling into the corner formed by the kitchen cupboards. The gym sock was left in Xander's hand and he had a quick, absurd flash that it was like a skin that had been shed. Spike was gasping, shaking. And then puking. Right on the kitchen floor.

"Oh God." Xander tossed the sock aside and looked around for a bowl or something. The big mixing bowl was sitting in the dish-drying rack, and he grabbed it and went to Spike, but Spike was already on to dry heaves. The little puddle by his knees looked like mostly water. He hasn't been eating, Xander realized, which was a worry for later. "I won't ask you to talk again," he promised, setting the bowl aside. He wanted to say 'They what? Who are they?' but he was half-afraid some mystical force would reach down and silence Spike permanently if he tried. A reaction this strong—it had to come from something outside of him, didn't it?

Spike's skin looked pale and clammy, and his teeth had started chattering. He seemed to be done puking, at least. "Come on, let's get you out of there," Xander said, offering a hand at first and then, when that didn't get a response, grabbing Spike under the shoulders and hauling him up. "Let's get you to bed."


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



"Where's Spike?" Troy asked as soon as he came in the door.

"Hello to you too." Xander stood up, stretching out the kinks in his back. "He's in my bed."

"Oh." Troy nodded. "Okay, that's good."

"Yeah, he, uh, kinda had a breakdown earlier." Xander had been turning over the question in his mind all afternoon, and he still hadn't decided whether to tell Troy about the sock puppet. He sort of needed to know, in that he was helping to take care of Spike. But if Spike was going to stage a repeat performance—well, the sock seemed pretty willing to talk about Sunnydale, and around Troy that could be dangerous. "TV, by the way, is a bad idea."

"Something on TV upset him?"

"Yeah. I think maybe it was some gunshots on 'Law & Order.' I'm not sure, though." Xander kissed Troy, who'd come and wrapped his arms around Xander's waist. "Also, he's not eating. This could be a problem."

"What did you try giving him?"

"I made chili." Made meant opened a can and heated, but Troy would understand that. "There's lots left over, by the way. You'll probably want to nuke it."

Troy looked thoughtfully at Xander. "He was in your line at the soup kitchen, remember? Maybe he's vegetarian."

The idea was so absurd, Xander laughed. "Uh, no. He's not vegetarian."

"He wasn't when you knew him before, you mean." Troy rubbed the back of Xander's neck as he spoke. "I think we've established that he's changed since then."

"Okay," Xander conceded. "It's possible."

"I'll make something," Troy said.

While Troy got to work cooking, Xander settled on the couch and turned on the TV. He flipped to CNN, which was a thing he was very much not in the habit of doing. He told himself he was waiting for the sports report, but he knew that he was really looking for signs that the world was going to end in less than three weeks.

He should've told Troy about the sock puppet. God, what did it even matter if Spike told Troy the truth about Sunnydale? Troy was going to find out about demons soon enough. Everyone was going to find out.

The Wolf, the Ram and the Hart had been pretty human-friendly, when you got right down to it. They preferred to operate in secret and make use of the human population, rather than eliminate it. Their rivals, the Raven, the Bear and the Snake, had a different policy: cleanse and settle.

"Anything good on?" Troy asked, perching on the arm of the couch. "Oh hey, news. Are they talking about that thing in Mongolia?"

"I told you, there is no thing in Mongolia." Xander clicked the TV off. "Did you get Spike to eat?"

"Half a bowl of Kraft Mac & Cheese," Troy said. "Isn't it time for his pills now?"

"Yeah." Xander pushed himself up and headed for the kitchen. Troy followed him.

"Xan? Why's one of your socks on the kitchen counter?"


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



Of course Troy was pissed off at Xander for not telling him right away, but his curiosity quickly took over. "Do you think he'll do it again if we give him the sock back?"

"Hey!" Xander grabbed the sock away from Troy. "He's not a freak show, okay?!"

"I didn't mean it like that." Troy looked appalled at Xander's reaction; Xander was a little surprised at it himself. "I just thought—this is a major breakthrough, isn't it? Maybe he can tell us what's wrong. Or at least tell us what he needs."

Xander gave Troy a quick hug. "Sorry, I didn't mean to yell at you. Maybe you're right." The only problem was, the sock had already explained what was wrong. How was Xander supposed to explain to Troy that Spike was suffering from Post-Traumatic-trip-to-Hell disorder? "I just don't think it's a good idea to try again tonight. I think maybe I fucked up before, trying to get him to talk to me directly. That's when he freaked out, and he was a mess after that. I think we should just let him rest."

"Okay," Troy agreed. "But we give him his sock back in the morning."


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



Morning. Xander woke up alone in the middle of the bed. Rumpled blankets to his left and right showed where Troy and Spike had slept.

Christ. How did I let Troy talk me into that?

"If we put him back on the couch, he's going to have nightmares again, and you're going to have to go out there and stay with him anyway—and what if he hurts himself?" Troy had said. "The bed's wide enough for three."

"He's sick," Xander had reminded him. "Sharing the bed might not be a good idea."

Troy had shrugged. "I read the brochure from the hospital. Transmission risk for TB's really low, especially now that he's on antibiotics."

"And you don't find the idea of the three of us sleeping together frighteningly weird?"

"It's just sleeping, Xan." Troy had poked him in the ribs, smirking. "Get your mind out of the gutter!"

Now Xander quickly pulled on his bathrobe and an eyepatch, and followed the sound of voices into the kitchen.

Voices.

"They bloody well stopped being punk when they signed on with Atlantic," Spike was saying, via the sock. "How can you claim to be anti-authority when you work for the fucking mainstream record industry?"

Troy was at the stove, flipping pancakes. "Yeah, but they had no choice if they were going to get any kind of distribution." He turned around. "Oh, hi Xan. We were going to wake you up in a minute. How many pancakes do you want?"

"Um." Xander blinked. "Three." He sat down at the table opposite Spike.

"You look like a sodding pirate," said the sock. "Where's your eye?"

"Right, like I'm going to tell you where I keep it at night." He wanted to ask what the hell was going on, but he didn't want to risk disrupting the almost-normal vibe that Spike and Troy had going. Other than the fact that Spike was talking through a sock, the scene was all warm fuzzy domestic bliss. And the pancakes smelled great.

Xander accepted the plate Troy handed him, and listened to Troy and Spike talk about music. If he closed his eye, the illusion of Spike's sanity would be pretty much flawless.

At the end of breakfast, as if responding to some invisible cue, Spike peeled off the sock, laid it on the table, and curled himself into a tight ball on the kitchen floor.

"Spike?" Troy said, sounding worried. "What happened?" He turned to Xander. "Is this how it went before?"

"No, it was a lot worse yesterday." Frowning, Xander crouched down beside Spike. "Hey, are you tired? Do you want to go back to bed?"

Spike let Xander take his hand and lead him to the bedroom, where he curled up under the blankets and closed his eyes.

Xander met Troy back in the kitchen. "He probably needs a lot of sleep," Xander speculated. "I mean, he's still sick."

"Hey, Xan, is he actually British?"

It hadn't occurred to Xander that Spike's silence was hiding his accent; Spike's whole Brit-punk thing was such a fundamental part of how Xander knew him, it was weird to realize that Troy hadn't even known about it. "Yeah, he is."

"Okay. That explains why you were so sure he couldn't get on social assistance." Troy turned off the stove and brought the last pancake to the table. "Split this?" At Xander's nod, he cut the pancake in half. "How long has he lived in America?"

"I don't know exactly." Xander shrugged. "A while." He reached for the Aunt Jemima as an excuse to break eye contact. Also because mmm, syrupy goodness. If the world was going to end in a couple of weeks, there was no point in skimping on syrup.

"Earlier, he was talking about the Industrial Revolution like he'd seen it firsthand. I mean, literally."

Xander felt a quick stab of dismay—a that's it, the game is up kind of feeling—until he noticed Troy's sad expression. Troy thinks this is proof that Spike's totally looney-tunes Xander realized. Right. That would be what a normal person would think. At this point Troy probably thought Spike was about one delusion away from declaring himself Emperor of San Francisco. "Yeah," Xander said, trying to sound sad rather than relieved, "he always was a history buff."

"And who's Drusilla?"

This time, the stabbing sensation was fear like a knife in his gut. "What did he say about Drusilla?"

Troy must have caught the change in Xander's tone—he gave him a measuring look. "She really exists, then?"

"She's his ex-girlfirend, and she means trouble like you can't even imagine." Forget the apocalypse coming down the pipe—if Dru was around, they might not even live to see it. "What did he say? Did it sound like he'd seen her recently?"

"He sounded like he'd seen Queen Victoria recently." Troy frowned. "What's so bad about this chick?"

Okay, how to explain this one? "She's crazy," Xander said. "And really fucking dangerous."

"Crazy like tattoos-piercings-petty vandalism?" Troy asked. "Or crazy like—well, like Spike is?"

"Crazy like 'I see burning fishies in the sky,'" Xander said, mimicking her accent. "And she's ... she can be violent. She, um, hurt some friends of mine." Hurt was a brutal understatement for what had happened to Kendra, but there was a limit to what he could tell Troy without having to explain why the police weren't involved.

"But Spike dated her?"

"For years, yeah."

"And he ... wasn't crazy then?"

"No. He, uh, took care of her, I guess." Xander had never really stopped to think about Spike and Dru's relationship. It must've been pretty strange, even by vampire standards. "Anyway, hopefully she's not around, but be careful, okay? Come right home after work, and whatever you do don't talk to any strange women."

"Um, that's pretty much what I do all day," Troy pointed out. "Talk to strangers. They call it customer service."

"Oh. Right." Xander imagined Drusilla walking into the downtown Borders and luring Troy ... behind a bookshelf? Okay, probably not too likely. "Well be careful when you're coming home, okay? If she's around at all, she'll probably be near here. Near Spike. So if there are any strangers lurking around, don't let them get near you."

"Okay." Troy looked doubtful, but worried. "I've never seen you act like this before, Xan. God, I didn't think you could get scared."

"Believe me, I can. When there's a reason to." He kissed Troy, and gave him a gentle nudge towards the door. "Just stay safe, okay? And have a good day at work."


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



Spike wandered out into the living room around lunch time. "Hey," Xander greeted him, quickly clicking off the Andromeda rerun that had been showing on Space. "Hungry? Want your sock?"

Whether Spike wanted it or not, Xander wanted to talk to him. He fed him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich first, then handed him the sock. Spike accepted it with a neutral expression and slipped it on his hand.

"What do you want?" said the sock.

"You were talking to Troy about Drusilla," Xander said. "Is she here?"

The sock made a show of looking, eyelessly, left and right. "Well, I don't see her, so if you do, mate, you've probably gone mad."

"I know she's not in this room" Xander said, wondering whether it was possible to strangle a sock. "I meant, is she in L.A.? Have you—I mean, has Spike seen her recently?"

The sock was quiet for a moment and then answered in a more straightforward tone, "Spike hasn't seen her since she dropped by Sunnydale a few years back."

"Okay." Xander breathed a little easier. He didn't think the sock was lying. "Look, we need to talk about a few things. First of all, do you know anything about the apocalypse?"

"Which apocalypse?"

"What do you mean which apocalypse?" Xander threw back. "Is there more than one?"

"You've faced down at least four yourself, haven't you?" the sock said. "Seems like it's always one apocalypse or another with you lot."

"I'm not kidding, Spike," Xander snapped. "What do you know about the Raven, the Bear and the Snake?"

"Don't know what you're bloody well talking about," the sock said. "And I'm not Spike."

"Right, right, you keep saying." Xander flicked the sock with his fingertip. "So who are you?"

"Who do you want me to be?" the sock said, making a twisted little smile. Xander got the distinct impression he was being leered at. By his own gym sock.

"Quit that!" Xander glared at it for a moment. "Look, if you won't at least give me a name, I'm going to call you Mr. Sock."

"I don't give a rat's arse what you call me," the sock said.

None of this was helping to settle the question of whether Spike was magically possessed or just plain crazy. Xander found himself hoping on some level for possession—at least then there'd be an outside chance of useful information.

"Okay, Mr. Sock," Xander said. "I want to know how long it's been since Spike got out of hell."

"Dunno," the sock said. It seemed a bit sulky. "He was right out of his head, wasn't really keeping track of time."

"No kidding." Xander sighed. "So he doesn't know anything about what's going on, huh. So he hasn't heard about Buffy."

The sock looked up. "What about Buffy?"

Xander had a fleeting thought that it would maybe be better to keep this news to himself. But it had been so long since he'd talked to anyone about his pre-L.A. life—suddenly he just couldn't hold it in any longer. "Buffy's dead."

"Well, fuck," said the sock quietly. "How'd it happen, then?"

"In a battle with a whole lot of Mirodan." Funny how it seemed so abstract when he talked about it like this. Like something from a Watcher's diary. "They're the foot soldiers for the new Big Bad. They come in through portals they open up from their home dimension. You can never tell where they'll show up next or how many there'll be, except the Powers gave us a heads-up about where the first invasion force was going to pour out." Xander realized he was rubbing the tattoo closest to his wrist; he forced himself to stop. "Buffy and two other Slayers died in the fight. And it didn't even stop the Mirodan, just slowed them down for a while."

Xander had been in that battle too. He hadn't been supposed to be, but things hadn't exactly gone as planned. They rarely did. He'd woken up in a hospital a day later with his leg in traction. He still wondered if Buffy would've survived if she hadn't been burdened with protecting him.

"Listen, mate," the sock said. "I don't think we should tell Spike about this."

"Um..." Xander, drumming his fingers on the kitchen table, looked from the sock to Spike and back. Spike's eyes were on the sock and he looked alert. "I thought I just did."

The sock shook its head. "He's not listening. Look, the pathetic little ponce is already broken enough. Telling him about Buffy won't do anybody any good."

"All right," Xander said slowly. "I won't tell him." Crazy or mystical? It was impossible to tell. But if it really was Spike operating the sock puppet, and not some outside force, that was some hardcore dissociation he had going on there.

"Right, well, do you have any more messages of doom you need to share, or can we go see what's playing on the telly?" the sock said.

Xander held up a hand. "God no. No TV. Do you remember what happened last time? With the freaking out and the crying and the breaking my lamp?"

The sock snorted. "Spike's gone soft. Can't cope with the old ultra-violence anymore, not even on the telly. Don't worry, I won't let him watch."

"You won't..." Xander trailed off. "Yeah, okay. Whatever. Let's watch TV." Worst-case scenario: Xander would have to calm Spike down again after another freakout. He was almost getting used to that, and it really wasn't too hard.

They sat at opposite ends of the couch. Spike slouched down and held the sock up as though it really was going to watch TV. "What time is it?" asked the sock. "Have we missed Passions?"





Part Four


Stuck in traffic, Xander keenly felt his lack of telekinesis, laser eyebeams, and/or traffic-light-controlling mojo. It had been three days since they'd brought Spike home from the hospital. Other than the fact that he was talking exclusively through a sock, he'd seemed to be doing okay. His cough was almost gone, he was eating regularly—only vegetarian, Troy had been right about that—and he'd been sleeping through the night.

Today they'd left him home alone.

Not like they'd really had a choice. They both had to work. They'd left him with an iPod full of punk music and a blank notebook to color in. Yesterday, when Troy was staying with him, Spike had shaded in every page of a blank Hilroy scribbler. Later in the day when he'd had the sock puppet thing going, Troy had asked him about it, and the sock had explained "It makes the buzzing in his head go quiet."

So, okay, he clearly wasn't sane, but he'd seemed like he could safely spend a day alone in the apartment with all the sharp things locked away.

Only apparently not, because Xander had just had a phone call from Troy: Spike was gone.


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



Troy met Xander at the door when he finally made it home, thirty-seven minutes later. "I've already gone around on foot," Troy said. "No sign of him. We can make better time with the car."

"And what, search all of L.A.? He could be anywhere." Xander pushed past Troy and headed straight for the bedroom.

Troy followed him. "We have to find him," he insisted, his tone tinged with desperation. "He has to finish his antibiotics. We promised the doctor."

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Xander said, rummaging through his sock drawer. "Fuck! He took my money."

Troy squeezed Xander's shoulder. "How much?"

"Sixty bucks. Asshole." Xander banged the drawer shut.

"Don't be mad at him, Xan," Troy begged. "He's sick. We have to find him, we have to help him."

"He just helped himself to my money," Xander pointed out irately. "I think we've helped him enough."

Troy glared at him. "Give me the car keys. I'm going to look for him."

Xander handed over the keys and flopped down on the couch with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. Troy left, almost-but-not-quite slamming the door behind him. Xander hoped Troy was going to be able to forgive him for this one.

Spike might be an asshole, but Xander wasn't going to abandon him. Not after all they'd been through together, and certainly not after he'd promised to help him. But there was no way they were going to find him by just driving around and looking. With sixty bucks to spend, he might even have left L.A.. Which was why Xander had needed Troy out of the way.

So that he could make a phone call.

"Hello ... Willow?"


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



The first thirty seconds were the hardest. His hands were shaking and he could hear her crying.

When he'd left the Council a year and a half ago, he hadn't said good-bye to her. They'd talked while he was in the hospital—and argued, and yelled at each other, and hugged a lot—but in the end he'd known that if he had to say good-bye to her, he wouldn't be able to do it. So he'd just left.

She called him a lot of names in the first thirty seconds. He knew he deserved them all.

"You're calling about Spike, right?" she said finally. He could still hear her sniffling. "Giles told me about that. Is he still not talking?"

"Hard to say," Xander said. "He's gone. He ran away. I was hoping ... well, that you could find him."

"A locator spell."

"Yeah." Xander squeezed his eyes shut. "I'm sorry. Fuck. You're too busy. And too far away. I shouldn't have—"

"No! No, sweetie, it's okay." Willow sounded like she was going to start crying again. "I can do this for you. I've worked out a way to combine my locator spell and Google Earth. Just tell me where you are, and I'll take it from there."

A couple of hours later, Troy came back—alone, looking defeated. "It's a big city," he said. "This would be easier if I had someone else helping me."

Xander went and hugged him. "I was being a jerk earlier, I'm sorry. I just—I kind of had a flashback to how it always used to be with Spike. But you're right, it's different now—he's different now."

"So you'll help me look?"

"No. We're never going to find him by driving around. He's probably not even out in plain sight."

"So what do you think we should do?"

Xander had already thought out how to explain this. "I called a friend, someone else who knows him. She might have a better idea of where he'd go. She's going to call back soon."

"A friend," Troy repeated, pulling back to eye Xander. "She. Not Giles, then. Another friend."

"Yeah."

"Why didn't you call her before?"

"She's in England." So was Giles, but Troy didn't actually know that.

"So she knew Spike when he lived in England?"

"No, in Sunnydale." These details weren't important, so Xander didn't mind too much giving them up.

"How's she going to help us find him in L.A.?"

"She can figure out the kind of place he'd go to," Xander said. He figured it sounded plausible. "She used to know him really well."

"When he wasn't crazy?"

"And when he was."

Troy didn't look very convinced. "How about we go out searching some more while you wait to hear from her?"

"Okay," Xander agreed. He'd given Willow his cell phone number, so she'd still be able to reach him.

"Great. I love you, Xan. You're a good man." Troy kissed him quickly. "I just gotta pee first."

A moment after Troy disappeared into the bathroom, Willow popped out of thin air a few feet away from Xander.

Xander manfully suppressed his impulse to shriek. This involved biting his tongue hard enough to draw blood.

Her appearance was a little shocking, and not just in the holy-fuck-where'd-she-come-from!? kind of way. Her hair was cut so short it might be a buzz cut, and at first glance the red seemed to be speckled with gray. She had one arm in a blue fiberglass cast, and there were faded greenish bruises around her right eye.

She gave an apologetic little smile. "Sorry to just—I can teleport now, so—" Her further stammered excuses were cut off by Xander's fierce hug.

"Willow. Oh my God, Willow."

One-armed, she hugged him back hard enough to make him grunt. "Why did you wait so long to call me, stupid-head?"

"I don't know." He kissed the top of her head. "I just suck, I guess."

"It's so good to ... to see you. To touch you. I can't believe how much I missed you." She sniffled, and pulled away with a wry smile. "But we should go get Spike fast, before he, like, moves." She pulled a folded piece of paper from the cloth bag she carried slung over her good shoulder. It was a printed Google street map with a red dot in the middle labeled 'Spike.'

And then Xander heard the toilet flush. "Listen, Will," he said quickly, taking the map. "There's something I have to tell you—"

Too late. Troy walked out of the bathroom and stopped short, registering Willow's presence with evident surprise and confusion. "Um, hi?"

"Troy, this is my, um, this is my old friend, Willow. Willow, this is my boyfriend. Troy."

Willow's eyes went wide. "Boyfriend?" she repeated.

"Yeah." Xander's hand sought out Troy's. Xander was nervous as hell and his palm was sweaty, but he figured that Troy would think it was about coming out to Willow, and not about the sudden collision of worlds that were not meant to collide.

"So you're gay now?" Willow said, blinking rapidly.

Troy edged forward a little. "I don't know you, but if you're a friend of Xander's you should just be happy that he's happy and—"

"It's all right, Troy," Xander squeezed his shoulder. "She didn't mean it like that."

"Oh, Goddess, no!" Willow's eyes were like saucers now. "I'm just—it's an adjustment, you know, after Cordy and Anya and—but I'm happy for you, it's wonderful! I'm down with the gay pride," she added for Troy's benefit. "Or up, or wherever we are ... I lose track. I have a rainbow bumper sticker on my car! Which I didn't drive here, obviously, so—"

"Willow's gay too," Xander interrupted before she could take that explanation any further. "She came out in college."

While he was talking, he felt an intangible pressure near the base of his skull. And then—Xander?—Willow's voice echoed silently in his head. Can you hear me?

Loud and clear he sent back. And can I just say, this is still damn freaky.

So what's the deal with Troy? she asked. What does he know?

"Okay ... that's cool," Troy said, giving them both a funny look. Xander realized that he and Willow had been silently staring at each other for several seconds. "Why are you here?" Troy said to Willow.

Nothing! Xander sent her quickly. He doesn't know about any of it. No vampires, no demons, no magic.

Willow gave Xander a quick, barely-perceptible nod. Got it. "I'm a friend of Spike's," she said out loud. "Xander asked me to come help you find him."

"Oh. You're the..." Troy looked puzzled. "The one in England?"

"Right, I was in England, only I just flew back for, um, a conference..." She caught Xander's eye. Help me out here. I don't know what you told him about me!

"Right, there was a conference, which I didn't know about." Xander smiled at Troy, hoping he didn't look like he was lying through his teeth. "Wasn't that lucky?"

"So, we were just on our way out the door," Willow said, taking a couple of steps in that direction. If we don't get to him before he moves, I'll have to do the locator spell all over again, she reminded Xander.

"Right, Troy, how about you wait here in case he comes back on his own?" Xander said. Having Troy and Willow in the same place was making him jittery.

"What's this?" Troy snatched the paper out of Xander's hand. "Wait a—you already know where Spike is? Why didn't you just say so?"

"Uh..." Xander shared a quick guilty look with Willow. "It's Willow's best guess, is all."

Let him come, Willow thought at him impatiently. We've got to get going.

Xander let Troy drive. Keeping track of two simultaneous conversations, one of which was telepathic, was very distracting.

"So, Willow, you know Xander from Sunnydale?" Troy said soon after they set off. "He never mentioned you to me. He's very mysterious about his past."

Go ahead, tell him whatever you want, Xander told her silently. Satisfy his curiosity. Just leave out all the unnatural and/or supernatural parts.

Classic Sunnydale denial mode, she thought back at him with a thread of amusement tinged with sadness. I can do that. "We've been friends since kindergarten," she said to Troy. "We've just fallen out of touch in the past couple of years, since he moved back to California."

That was very diplomatic, Xander sent back at her, not without a little bitterness.

You want me to tell him you ran out on an apocalypse? she snapped back. Dawn still doesn't understand why you left, by the way. When I told her I was coming to see you, she wouldn't even look at me.

"Fuck Willow, that's not fair! Don't try to make me feel guilty for leaving. Any of the rest of you could've come with me—you know it wouldn't have made any difference. You've lost anyway, haven't you?" Xander suddenly realized that he was talking. With his mouth. And Troy was darting wide-eyed, worried glances at him while keeping them moving through traffic. Fuck.

"Lost what?" Troy said slowly. "Willow? Xander? What is it that you've lost?"

"Figure skating," Willow said quickly with a squeak in her voice.

"Um, yeah," Xander agreed, because that's what you do when you're coming up with a cover story on the fly—you agree with whatever Willow says. "There was a big competition."

"We trained together for years," Willow added, her voice picking up conviction as she went. "Then he decided he couldn't take the lifestyle anymore, and he left me."

"I was injured," Xander reminded her. He sent her an incredulous, silent message: Figure skating??

I panicked! Willow replied. And we just drove by a skating rink. "I'm sorry you were hurt," she said out loud. "But we've all been hurt. You're the only one who decided to quit."

"I didn't decide to quit. I couldn't ... I couldn't skate anymore. And I was never much of a skater in the first place, not compared to the rest of you."

"But we weren't asking you to keep skating," Willow said. Her voice was near breaking. "Couldn't you have just ... stayed? So that when we weren't skating, we'd still be able to ... to come home to you?"

"No." Blinking against a sudden prickling in his good eye, he stared down at the tattoos peeking out from under his shirt sleeves. "Not after what happened to Buffy. Every day, waiting to see who wouldn't come home ... I couldn't stand it anymore."

"Oh my God," Troy said softly. "Your friend ... Buffy? Was killed in a figure-skating accident?"

I think our code is stretching a little thin here, Willow sent. "A lot of people don't realize how dangerous figure-skating is."

"Jesus," Troy said. "I'm so sorry. That must have been so hard for both of you."

"I really don't like to talk about it," Xander said. At least that much was true.

"That's how my arm got broken," Willow added. "Figure-skating accident. I tried for a triple-cowtow lutz and ended up with a double-toe-axle slam right into the boards."

Quit while you're ahead, Will, Xander advised her silently.

"Why don't you quit?" Troy asked, unknowingly echoing Xander. "I mean, I just don't see how it can possibly be worth it."

"I had to try," she said. Xander knew she was really speaking to him. "Even if there was never any chance of winning, I had to try."

Troy gave her a puzzled glance—it hadn't been much of an answer—but he pulled the car up to the curb and said, "We're here. Wherever here is."

The location marked 'Spike' on the Google map was in the middle of a block of row houses. The ground-floor windows were boarded up, but a couple of grungy-looking guys were hanging out on the front steps, smoking.

Willow took charge, playing the role of the person who was supposed to know where the hell they were. "Xander, you come with me to get Spike. Troy, wait in the car and keep the motor running."

"Are you sure it's safe?" Troy asked, looking worried. "What is this place? Willow, no offense, but since you're hurt and everything, maybe you should wait in the car?"

"No, I have to go—I know some people inside," Willow improvised quickly and opened her car door. "Come on, Xander."

The guys on the front step gave them vaguely hostile looks. "What do you want?" said one of them, shifting as though he might stand up.

"Don't mind us," Willow said cheerfully, walking towards the door without hesitation. Her voice was light, but the hairs prickled on the back of Xander's neck. The two guys both looked away from Willow, suddenly intensely interested in their own shoes.

"Nice little Jedi mind trick you got there," Xander muttered as he followed Willow into the dark front hallway.

"That's not all I've got up my sleeve," she said. He heard a faint rustle of fabric, like she was digging in her shoulder bag, and then a tinkling smash of broken glass. "Fiat lux!" she intoned, and suddenly the hallway filled with a soft yellow light.

The floor was littered with old junk mail and random trash—one sneaker, a busted cd player, a Cabbage Patch Kid with one arm torn off. Scrawls of graffiti flaked off the walls along with the pea soup green paint.

"What is this place?" Willow asked, toeing a pizza box gingerly out of her way and flinching as a couple of roaches fled the area.

"I'm thinking crack house?" Xander shrugged. "Not my area of expertise. Let's find Spike and get the hell out of here."

The glow from the light spell followed them through the derelict house. They found two empty rooms, and then one with a wild-eyed man with long gray dreads. He crouched on a paint-splattered futon and screamed obscenities at them until Willow did her little "Don't mind us" spell again.

"These are not the droids you are looking for," Xander added under his breath, watching the man calmly settle back to picking at the scabs on his knuckles.

They found the stairs and climbed to the second floor. The stains on the carpet almost seemed to move in the witch-light. Xander blinked hard, told himself he was imagining things, and headed for the first door on the right.

"Xander," Willow said, "You understand that I'm not really here for Spike, right?"

"Huh?" Xander stopped with his hand on the doorknob. "Then why are we here?"

"Okay, here here, yes, this is for Spike. But I could've just emailed you the map."

Xander swallowed. "You came to say good-bye," he said, not looking at her.

"I came to ask you to come back with me."

Still staring at the scarred white door, he shook his head. This was hard, but easier than it had been a year and a half ago. "Sorry, Will. I've got a life here now, a good one. I'm going to hang on to it as long as I can."

"Even if it's only a couple of weeks?"

"Especially if."

There was a moment of silence, and then she said in a carefully-controlled tone, "We'd better keep looking for Spike."

They found him in the next room, lying curled up on a dirty-looking mattress with his back to the door.

"Spike, are you awake?" Xander asked, approaching the mattress. Spike didn't move.

"That's him?" Willow whispered in surprise. "God. He looks so ... different."

Spike didn't react when Xander shook him by the shoulder, or even when he rolled him onto his back. His eyes were closed, and his skin felt clammy.

"Uh oh, what's that?" Willow said, pointing.

"Oh, crap." There was a loose loop of rubber tubing around Spike's right arm near the elbow. Xander had only ever seen that kind of thing in movies, but he knew what to look for next—and there it was, a hypodermic needle lying amongst the junk on the floor near the mattress, along with a burnt-down candle and a blackened spoon. "Fuck." He tried one more time to wake Spike up by shaking him, and when that failed he pressed a couple fingers against his neck to try to find a pulse.

"He's breathing," Willow said. "I can see his chest moving—this is wigging me out a little. I mean, I knew he was alive, but that's different from—"

"I think his pulse is slow," Xander said. "And I can't wake him up."

"Do you think he's overdosing?" Willow asked nervously.

"I don't know. Fuck. I guess so. I think we'd better get him to a hospital."

"Better take this," she said, picking up the needle. "There'd still be traces inside. They might need to know what he took."

"Careful with that," Xander warned her. "He's HIV positive."

"Oh." Willow's eyes went wide. She put the needle down again so she could dig one-handed through her shoulder bag. "God, poor Spike." She fished out a glasses case, dumped a pair of sunglasses out, and put the needle inside. Snapping it shut, she added under her breath, "Oh well, not like he's going to die of it."

Xander, meanwhile, was thinking through the getting-Spike-outside process. "We're going to need Troy," he said, looking at Willow with her broken arm. "I can't carry Spike downstairs. I can't take that much weight on my leg."

"I'll get him." Willow started to leave.

"Wait," Xander said, snatching up a half-used book of matches from the floor. He lit the candle that Spike must have used to cook his drugs; it was burnt down pretty short, but it would do for a few minutes. "Get rid of the magic light before you bring Troy in, okay?"

Willow nodded and left; the glow followed her, leaving Xander and Spike in flickering candlelight.

"Jesus, Spike, couldn't you have held it together for another couple of weeks?" Xander sighed, perfectly aware that Spike couldn't hear him. "World's gonna end anyway." He sat on the edge of the mattress, trying not to think too much about the thing's history. He felt for Spike's pulse again; it seemed about the same as before. "I hope you don't die," he said, brushing a stray bit of hair away from Spike's closed eyes. "That's funny, huh? I used to wish you would. Lotta water under the bridge since then, huh? Considering that we live in a desert." Xander shifted with a sigh, letting his bad leg straighten out a bit. It was aching again. "And what does it matter? I mean really. It's a two-week countdown to vicious, bloody deaths all around. At least you're not feeling any pain." He ran his fingertips lightly down the edge of Spike's face, and along the line of his jaw. His skin was smooth, softer than Xander had expected. In his drug-induced sleep his expression was peaceful, and sort of painfully innocent. "Know what, Spike? This may seem kind of ironic, but I think I miss you. The real you, I mean. The you from before."

Footsteps on the stairs cut short the one-way sappy bonding talk. Xander hauled himself to his feet, wondering with a sardonic grin what the old Spike would have said if he'd heard Xander's little speech. Probably some variation on 'bugger off, you poof.'

"Oh my God," Troy said, coming in the door with Willow right behind him. "This place is freaking the hell out of me. Let's get Spike out of here."





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