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Sock Puppet


by
Shadowscast





Part Five


They were in the ER for two hours and forty-five minutes. That was two and a half hours of waiting, and fifteen minutes for a doctor to give Spike a narcotic antagonist, say he was fine and send him away.

Willow spent most of the waiting time talking on her cell phone—a hushed, huddled conversation that she gave no explanation for. She stayed far enough from Xander that he couldn't hear any of it, but given that it was almost certainly an international call, he hoped she had a good long distance plan.

"Do you think he OD'd on purpose?" Troy whispered to Xander at one point. From the out-of-nowhere of it, Xander guessed Troy had been running the question around in his head ever since they found Spike.

"Maybe." Xander shrugged. "I don't think there's any way to tell."

"This means we can't leave him alone again, doesn't it?"

"Fuck. You're right. Whether he meant to OD or not, we can't leave him alone after this." Xander sighed. His heart hurt for Spike, to the point where he couldn't even work up any indignation over the mess he was making of Xander's last remnants of a normal life. "We'll figure it out in the morning."

It was almost midnight when they started back to Xander's apartment. Spike was subdued and compliant on the way home. Xander rode in the back seat with him, holding his hand.

"Spike jumped out of the car one time before," Troy explained quietly for Willow's benefit.

"Can you stay a little longer, Will?" Xander asked. "I was hoping you'd talk with Spike before you go."

"I'll try if you want," she said. "But he really doesn't seem to be in a talky mood."

Troy glanced over at her. "So I guess Xander didn't tell you about the sock."

While Troy explained Spike's fingerless alter ego, Xander pushed a thought in Willow's direction, hoping she'd kept the link open. Can you hear me?

Yes, she sent back, nodding simultaneously at something Troy had said. So what's the real deal with the sock puppet thing? Is Spike possessed?

Will, I've spent literally hours having conversations with my own sock on Spike's hand, and I still can't tell if the thing really has a mind of its own or if Spike's just invented an exciting new kind of multiple-personality disorder. I was actually hoping you'd be able to tell me—we'll get him going with the sock, and then you can cast 'detect magic' or whatever.

Xander? Willow sent in a questioning tone. Why did 'detect magic' have quotation marks around it in your head?

Oh. Um. D&D joke. Xander sighed. Andrew would've got it.

"A lot of the time when he's talking through the sock, he seems perfectly lucid," Troy was saying, unaware of the second conversation passing silently over his head. "I can talk with him about music for hours. But then there's all this weird stuff, like he'll say he's a hundred and fifty years old, or he'll start talking about gods and demons like he's seen them firsthand."

So he's pretty much sane, Willow concluded.

Well, sure, Xander agreed, letting a sense of the irony flavor his thoughts. Except for the nightmares, the two possible suicide attempts, and the fact that he's talking exclusively through a sock, he's perfectly fine.


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



Xander needed Troy out of the way so that Willow could do her thing. "I'd like some time with just the three of us," he told Troy, squeezing his hand apologetically. "Maybe Willow can get through to him somehow, but I think it'll work better with just me and her, since he knew us before..."

"I understand," Troy said, though he did sound a little bit hurt. "I have some stuff I should get done at my place, anyway. I'll see you in the morning."

After Troy left, Xander took Willow aside. Spike was on the couch, coloring in one of his notebooks.

"Why's he doing that?" Willow asked.

"I think it's, like, calming or something." Xander shrugged. "Are you ready to check him out? See if there's magic involved?"

"I need a few minutes to prepare," Willow said. "I need to burn some herbs, do a little directed meditation, and then I'll go into a waking trance—I'll be able to talk and interact with you and Spike, but I'll also be able to see beyond the veil a little. Oh—is it okay if I get salt on your floor?"


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



Xander sat and watched Spike while he waited for Willow to finish her preparations. Spike's attention was determinedly fixed on the tip of his pencil, scratching up/down, up/down in tiny motions, shading in one line at a time. Xander had a feeling Spike was shutting him out, like he was not thrilled to have been the subject of yet another rescue. Xander wanted to talk to him about it, to explain maybe about how Troy would never let him give up. Or maybe ask Spike why he'd done it. Probably Spike would just ignore him, or seem to, but Xander figured there was at least a small possibility that he would react, and maybe freak out somehow. Xander didn't want to upset things before Willow had the chance to examine Spike, so he just sat silently and watched him color.

Finally Willow emerged from the kitchen. "Did it work?" Xander asked quietly, rising to meet her. "You don't look any different."

"You do," she said. "Your tattoos are glowing."

With a jolt of adrenaline, Xander looked down at his arms. The tattoos peeking past his shirt sleeves were the same dull black as always.

"To me they're glowing," Willow clarified. "I can see the power in them."

That didn't make Xander feel much better. "They aren't supposed to have any power left," he said, tugging his sleeves down past his knuckles and crossing his arms. "Giles promised me that after the ritual they'd be nothing but trendy-looking body art."

"No, sweetie," Willow said, a little apologetically. "The symbols never lose their meaning. But you don't have to worry about them, they won't do anything outside of the ritual circle. It's not like the Powers that Be are going to start using you as their personal PA system."

Xander still wasn't exactly comforted, but he let it go in favor of getting on with the actual plan. "I've got the sock here," he said, pulling it out of his pocket. "Wanna check it out before I give it to him?"

Willow took the sock and turned it over in her hands. "Looks pretty normal," she said. She stuck her right hand into it and did the open/closed mouth thing a couple of times. It gave Xander a weird feeling in his stomach to watch her playing with the sock like that—almost like the sock itself, by now an old friend, had been possessed by some alien force. Xander glanced back over his shoulder to check that Spike wasn't seeing this.

"There's definitely nothing weird about this sock," Willow concluded, handing it back to Xander. "It's a very boring sock."

"Okay," Xander said. "Let's see if anything happens when Spike wears it."

Xander approached Spike a little hesitantly. Over the past few days, Spike had usually put on the sock whenever they handed it to him, but occasionally he'd refused in a really passive ignoring-its-existence kind of way. His body language right now pretty much screamed 'not in the mood.'

"Hey ... Spike? Can we do this?" Xander said, holding out the sock.

Spike didn't look up, not even when Xander sat on the couch beside him. He just kept coloring, the pencil skritching quickly up and down between the blue lines. Then Xander put his hand over Spike's, stopping its progress. Spike stilled, but didn't otherwise react. Xander took the pencil away from him. "I want Willow to meet Mr. Sock," Xander said, speaking gently now. He had a sense of Willow hovering nearby, expectant, but he kept his gaze fixed on Spike. "Can you do that? Can you put on Mr. Sock so Willow can meet him?"

A muscle moved in Spike's jaw, changing his expression into something subtly more stubborn. He still didn't raise his eyes from the notebook.

"She's only here for tonight," Xander said. "I understand why you might not be in the mood for talking, but right now is the only time this can happen."

"Why don't you just put it on him?" Willow said.

Xander felt a flash of irritation with her for suggesting it, even though he realized right away that he was going to have to try it. Spike didn't make a move to either help him or stop him. Xander had an uncomfortable sense as he pushed the sock down over Spike's fingers that there was some kind of violation involved in the act.

But it worked. As soon as Xander smoothed the sock down over Spike's hand, the thing came to life; Spike cocked his wrist and swiveled the sock around to take in the room with its eyeless gaze. "Hullo, Red," it said.

"Hi." If Willow found the sight strange or amusing, she managed to hide it. She crouched in front of the sofa, at the sock's eye level, and addressed it conversationally. "Xander told me about you. It's good to meet you."

"Spike told me about you," the sock said. "But he told me you were pretty."

Visibly taken aback, Willow blinked a couple times. "Well. We've all seen better days," she said. "Especially Spike. Can you tell me what happened to him?"

"He just wants the pain to stop," the sock said quietly. Xander had never heard it sounding quite so subdued. "Just wants the screaming in his head to shut off for a while. It's all back now, and it feels like he was run over by a lorry besides. Fucking doctors."

Willow looked a little uncomfortable. "I meant ... how did he turn human?"

"Well, I don't know, do I?" the sock said. It gave an impression of slouching wearily, as Spike himself was doing. "All I know is, Angel used to have his dried-up little heart set on some old prophecy. He was going to save the world and then play at being Pinnochio."

Willow blinked. "His nose was going to grow?"

The sock snorted. "I'd pay ten quid to see that. No, he was going to turn into a real boy."

Willow leaned forward a little. "You're saying there was a prophecy that Angel was going to turn human? Can you remember anything else about it?"

The sock shook its head. "It was all a load of bollocks anyhow."

"What was it called? Can you give me that much?"

The sock shook its head again. It was drooping—Spike looked tired, and Xander didn't think he would be up for much more of this. "It had a stupid name. Sounded like a sneeze. He doesn't remember."

"What about the apocalypse?" Willow said. "Does he know anything about that?"

"Harris already asked me that. Don't you people compare notes?" The sock scowled. "Spike knows bugger-all. He went to hell, he came back, he doesn't know why, and nobody's sent him a fucking memo."

"I'm sorry," Willow said quietly. "I had to ask." She turned to Xander. "I don't think I'm going to learn anything more."

"Okay." Xander tapped the sock. "Thanks for talking to Willow. Do you want to rest now?"

"Hell yeah. Be seein' you, Red." Spike peeled the sock off, dropped it on the floor, and immediately curled up on the sofa with his arms over his head.

Xander followed Willow back to the kitchen. His linoleum floor was now sporting a circle of spilled salt. Willow stepped carefully into the middle of it, closed her eyes, and snapped her fingers. The salt disappeared in a flash.

"Huh," Xander said. "Neat. So, what did you see?"

"Nothing." She shrugged. "There's nothing magical about the sock or his relationship to it. There's no magic acting on Spike at all. I'm sorry. I think it's just his way of ... of coping with everything."

"Oh." Xander felt a weird swirl of relief and disappointment. On the up side: no evil sock puppet. On the down side: no way to fix Spike. "So I guess that's that. Well, um, thanks for looking."

"I've got to get going," Willow said.

"Right, you have that apocalypse to fight." He didn't quite manage to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Willow's eyes narrowed. "We haven't lost yet, okay? As long as any of us are left to fight, there's a chance—you have to admit, we've got a pretty strong record on 11th-hour out-of-nowhere victories."

Xander tried to smile, but it felt wrong on his face. "If the world doesn't end, wanna come by next month for my birthday party? Troy's gonna try to make a cheesecake."

"Sure," she answered, just a little too bright and sharp. "Tell him I like chocolate." She gave Xander a tight one-armed hug. "I love you," she whispered.

He closed his eye and let himself soak in the moment. The flowery smell of her hair, her fragile strength, the thick, solid sense of twenty years of shared history. "I love you too."

He felt her teleport out—suddenly there was nobody touching him, and he stumbled against the empty air. "Fuck," he said out loud. "Goodbye, Will." And he sort of touched the empty space where she'd been. And he started to cry.

He'd had a long time to get used to the idea of the world ending, but it was really too much to think about—too huge and abstract. This was different. He'd just realized that he would never see Willow again. There was nothing abstract or hard to grasp about "goodbye."

He let himself sink onto a kitchen chair, buried his face in his hands, and let the rough, choking sobs overtake him. Not very manly, but who was gonna call him on it? The world was ending, and he was alone.

And then, suddenly, not alone. He felt a hand on his back. He raised his head and saw, through a blur of tears, Spike standing over him, looking concerned.

"Oh, hey Spike," Xander said, trying to pull himself quickly together. His voice felt all thick and wrong. "Don't worry, I'm okay."

Spike touched Xander's wet cheek. Xander held his breath and stayed very still. This was the closest Spike had come to communicating without the sock, and the moment had a soap-bubble feel to it.

Spike used the bottom of his own t-shirt to dab the tears away from Xander's cheek. His expression was grave and focused. It was all so unexpected and strange that Xander was effectively distracted from his grief.

Then Spike backed off a step, looking uncertain, and Xander risked speaking. "Really, I'm okay," he said. "But, uh, thanks."

Spike bit his lip, still looking hesitant. Xander wondered whether Spike was worried about him. The concept was a little dizzying.

"I'm sad to see Willow go," Xander explained. "That's all." He didn't want to tell Spike the whole truth. If Spike didn't know the world was about to end, Xander didn't want to be the one to tell him.

Spike held out his hand, and Xander let him help him to his feet. Xander found himself standing almost nose-to-nose with Spike. Spike blinked slowly—clear blue eyes fixed on Xander, yielding no clues about the thoughts behind them. He was still holding Xander's hand. Xander felt his own heartbeat speeding up.

When Spike leaned in and kissed him, it wasn't exactly a surprise. It was more like an inevitability.

There was an adrenaline rush. Xander closed his eyes, raised a hand to the small of Spike's back, pulled him closer. Spike's lips were rough, chapped, and his skin was warm, and he didn't taste like anything in particular. Xander guessed that this was Spike's way of trying to make him feel better, and he knew it was wrong, wrong, wrong, but he didn't want it to stop.

Kissing Spike was unbelievably hot, like there was this cold, aching void deep in Xander's chest that was suddenly engulfed in flames. His hands were grabbing at Spike's shirt almost against his will, and he was grinding against him.

It was Spike's hands on Xander's belt that broke the spell. "Wait," Xander gasped, pulling back and yanking his belt back into place. "No. Spike, we can't—it's not fair —" to Troy? to you? to me? "Sorry. I'm sorry."

Spike was wearing that unreadable expression again, riding out Xander's babble with calm abiding. In the week since they'd met him in the soup kitchen, he'd never looked less crazy than he did right now.

And yet he was crazy, as confirmed very recently by Willow. Having sex with the mentally ill was right up there with cheating on your boyfriend, and doing both at once was not really a low Xander was willing to sink to, not even when he was desperately lonely and staring down the maw of Armageddon. "We should go to bed," he said. "To sleep. You must be tired." Exhausted, more like it. There was that whole just came off of a heroin overdose thing to consider. Not to mention the spending the day passed out on a dirty mattress in a crack house thing. "How about a hot shower first?"


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



Ten minutes later, Xander stood outside the bathroom door, listening to the water still not running. "Spike? You okay in there?" There was no response—naturally. Xander bit his lip and wondered whether leaving Spike alone had been a bad idea. "Hey, uh, Spike? I'm coming in."

The time it took to turn the doorknob was long enough to imagine a disaster scenario or three. Spike strangling himself with the shower curtain, drowning himself in a sink full of water, slitting his wrists with shards of broken bathroom mirror.

Reality was a welcome anticlimax: Spike standing safe and fully clothed in the middle of the bathroom, in the process of unraveling a towel.

"Spike?" Xander said. "What are you doing?"

Spike gave him a look which might have said 'What does it look like I'm doing, you daft sod?' if it were just a little more expressive. A corner of Xander's favorite green towel was frayed and gone, transformed into a pile of threads and fluff at Spike's feet.

It seemed like the sort of thing that should piss him off, but mostly Xander was just relieved that he hadn't walked in on a suicide attempt. Or a fait accompli, for that matter. He shouldn't have left Spike alone in the bathroom in the first place. "Hey, you know what? Why don't I help you get ready for your shower."

Spike handed over the towel without resistance, and when Xander started to tug Spike's t-shirt off, Spike helped, raising his arms.

Xander hadn't seen Spike with his shirt off yet since they'd brought him home from the soup kitchen. With his arms up over his head, his ribs stood out starkly, emphasizing the weight he'd lost since the Sunnydale days. That wasn't a surprise, though—the sharp angles of his face had been enough of a clue. The bruises, though, they were unexpected. They were old, mostly healed, but they looked like they'd started out deep. Like a couple of weeks ago, someone had got Spike on the ground and kicked him. A lot.

"Wonder who you pissed off that time," Xander said, covering the darkest bruise with his palm. "Don't worry," he added, meeting Spike's eye. "I'm not asking you. I know you can't tell me." But he wished there was a way to find out; he was feeling some violent impulses right about now.

He finished undressing Spike, turned on the water, and faced another problem. "Spike? You can get into the shower, right?"

But Spike's attention had splintered again. During the undressing, he'd actively watched Xander and responded to him, helping him get the clothes off—but now he was picking at the scabs on the inside of his arm while his gaze drifted blankly across the bathroom wall.

"Stop that," Xander said, taking Spike's hand. Immediately Spike's focus was back—he looked right at Xander, tilting his head just a little. What are you gonna do? Xander imagined him saying.

What he did was strip his own clothes off and lead Spike, by the hand, into the shower.

So, kissing was wrong but now it's okay to be naked together? snarked a little voice in Xander's head as he soaped up a washcloth and started gently washing Spike. Shut up, little voice, Xander replied. This isn't a sex thing.

It wasn't sex, but it was intimate. It was slippery warm skin on skin. It was Spike's attention rapt on Xander as long as they were touching, and drifting away, untethered, when Xander backed off long enough to get the shampoo.

It wasn't a sex thing, but it was a lot of naked touching, and the deep-down parts of Xander's brain were noticing—sending out signals of arousal without Xander's permission. He could feel his cock stirring. Not quite back at the rock-hard Spike's-kissing-me-and-oh-my-God-it's-hot place, but getting there. So it was a little disturbing to notice that Spike wasn't hard at all.

It was a bit of an ego hit for Xander—a flashback to that What am I, chopped liver? feeling that he used to get at the Bronze when he was seventeen. But Spike was the one who'd come on to Xander in the kitchen—what was that about, if Xander wasn't turning him on?

There was an easy answer to that question, but it made Xander's stomach hurt a little, thinking about it. Spike had been living on the street for a while—since he got back from hell, whenever that was. He'd been getting drugs somehow. Today, obviously, he'd used the money he'd stolen from Xander, but what about before?

If all Spike had was his body, that's what he must have used to buy the drugs. Which, considering that Spike was effectively mute, and so very obviously broken—whoever had been making that deal with him must have had some pretty fucked-up tastes.

And then when Spike thought he needed to give Xander something, he'd fallen back on what he'd known.

Which meant Xander was headed for a special hell of his own, because he sort of wanted to throw up but at the same time he still wanted to kiss Spike again.

Luckily, like most human males raised to function successfully in society, Xander had the self-control to tell his own baser impulses to go fuck themselves. He finished shampooing Spike's hair—he had to remind Spike three times to close his eyes to keep the soap out—and rinsed him off, and found a non-destroyed towel to dry him with. Spike was passive and trusting, and, Xander couldn't help noticing, kind of beautiful. With his wet hair clinging to his skull in little ringlets, and his shining blue eyes fixed on Xander, he looked like a picture from a porn magazine—the fantasy guy, the waif with the innocent face who's ready to do unspeakably dirty things in the photo spread on the overleaf.

I am a bad, bad man, Xander told himself, and schooled his face carefully to hide the thoughts he was having. "Okay, Spike. Let's get you to bed."

Warm and dry and smelling clean, Spike fell asleep before his head hit the pillow. Xander lay beside him, not touching, worrying that he was turning into some kind of pervert.

That night, he dreamed about sex with Spike.

They were at the Bronze. There was music playing, but no band on the stage. They were alone in the place—or, maybe not. Shifting flashes of a crowd in the background played across his consciousness, sometimes there, sometimes not. It was a dream thing.

Spike was leaning against the pool table, smirking at Xander. This was Spike as Xander had first known him—white hair slicked back, black leather duster nearly brushing the floor. Red shirt, black jeans, scuffed-up ass-kicker boots. Arrogant hands hooked into his belt, suggestively framing his crotch. This was Spike untouched by the sadness of the soul or the helplessness of the chip.

"Hello there, Harris." Spike grinned. He wasn't in vamp face, but he still gave the impression of fangs. "Want a piece of this, do you?"

Xander was transfixed by Spike's hands as they undid his belt and unzipped his fly. A silver ring on his thumb flashed in a fragment of light from the disco ball. His nails were painted black.

"Come on then," Spike said. As Xander fell willingly to his knees in front of Spike, Spike grabbed Xander's hair and forced his head into position. Xander found his mouth full of Spike's dick, and he started to suck. Spike rocked against him, moaning softly. "Hell yeah, Harris. That's right. Bloody brilliant. Got a magic tongue, you do. Don't stop, oh fuck, don't stop."

When Spike came in the dream, his hands clenched in Xander's hair so hard it made Xander see stars. Xander gasped, and his head rocked back against the pillow, and he was awake. And sticky.

Spike was still asleep beside him, undisturbed. Xander counted his blessings and wondered about the possibility of cleaning his mind out with bleach. His panicked inner voice screamed Destroy the evidence!

3 a.m. laundry. Fun and exciting. Xander sat on the floor with his back against the washing machine and his head on his knees. When he closed his eye, Spike from the dream was there, leering at him. It made Xander's mouth go dry, and his cock go hard. He was disgusted with himself. He hugged his knees tight, and moaned, and waited for morning.





Part Six


Troy came over in the morning early enough to make breakfast before work. Spike was still asleep in bed, which was convenient since they had to talk about what to do with him.

"We can't leave him alone again," Troy said, flipping over a piece of French toast.

"Obviously." Xander was sitting at the kitchen table, nursing an extra-large cup of coffee. "I've thought about this. I'm going to take him into work with me."

"Um, Xan? I'm not so sure that's a good idea." Leaving the French toast to do its thing, Troy took the seat across from Xander. "I mean—heavy machinery? He'd be safer where I work."

Xander shook his head and sipped at his coffee. "I thought about that. No way you could keep tabs on him all day—he'd get away. Or possibly do something weird and get you fired. Either way, bad idea."

"Well, how are you going to keep tabs on him?"

"My station's right across from the break room, and there's a window in the wall. If I put him in there, I'll be able to see him the whole time."

"And you don't think your boss will mind?" Troy asked, clearly skeptical.

Xander shrugged. "One of the guys brought in his eight-year-old kid one week in the summer when he couldn't get a sitter. This is, um, kinda the same."

It wasn't a perfect answer, but perfect answers were in short supply, so Troy let it go. "So, hey," he said, getting up to check on the French toast, "I wish Willow could've stayed a bit longer."

"Me too," Xander agreed quietly.

"I mean, it was really interesting, meeting her," Troy went on. "Pretty amazing to find out that you used to be a figure skater."

"Oh, um, yeah." Xander had forgotten about that bit. "I really don't like to talk about it."

Troy transferred the French toast to a plate, and dipped another slice of bread into the batter. "What about Spike? Was he a figure skater?"

"Oh, uh, no." Xander felt like he should keep the story internally consistent, at least. "He was a ..." What's the opposite of a figure skater? "Hockey player."

"In England?"

"Yeah." Oh, boy, was it ever time to change the subject. "Hey, looks like you're almost done there—I'll go wake him up."

"No, wait. Tell me more about the figure skating." Troy turned around to face Xander. "I want to get you, Xan. I always knew there was so much I was missing. How good were you? Did you ever make it to the world championships?"

"No," Xander said. "We, uh, were trying for it in 2002, and then I got hurt. It was very upsetting. I really don't want to talk about it."

"It must have been awful," Troy said. "Having to sit out and watch it all happen without you. Where were the championships held that year?"

"I forget." Xander pushed himself to his feet. "I'm getting Spike."

"Xan! Wait." The sudden change in Troy's tone sent an ice-water sensation through Xander's veins. "In case you haven't noticed," Troy said, "I've been trying to give you a chance to admit voluntarily that you're lying. Oops—I guess you missed it."

Fuck. Xander turned around to face his boyfriend, and tried for a rueful grin. "You can't imagine me in sequins?"

"One," Troy counted off on his fingers, "You are gorgeous and sexy, but you are not graceful. Two: I couldn't find any record online of your friend Buffy who was supposed to have been killed in a figure-skating accident. Seems like something that would've made the news, you know? Three: whenever you or Willow said 'figure skating,' it sounded like you were putting air quotes around it."

Xander's shoulders drooped. Ever since they saw Spike in the soup kitchen, he'd known this moment was coming. "Okay, you're right, we lied. I'm sorry."

Troy nodded, crossing his arms. "So how about some truth now, Xan? Think maybe I've waited long enough?"

Xander shook his head and sighed. He wondered whether Troy was going to break up with him now. This really, really sucked. "I can't, Troy. You know how I always said I didn't want to talk about the past? Well, the truth is, I just can't. It's not that I don't love you enough, it's not that I don't trust you—it's just that there are things in this world that can't be talked about."

Troy nodded slowly. "I was thinking about this. All last night. About why you would lie, and Willow too—and even Spike, he makes up all these crazy stories but he's never said a word about how he really met you. You're all hiding something. So if you can't tell me—maybe I can guess?"

Xander finally sat back down. His legs felt wobbly, but at least it didn't seem like Troy was going to dump him in the next five minutes. "Seriously, Troy? I really don't think you can."

"I know you were in Europe," Troy persisted. "And Africa. Something happened—you were hurt, you lost an eye. Your friend Buffy was killed—that part was real, wasn't it?"

Xander looked down at his knees, rubbed at a worn spot on his jeans. "Yeah, that part was real," he agreed quietly.

"Xan ... were you in the CIA?"

Xander jerked his head up in surprise. "What?"

"I promise I'll never say anything to anybody," Troy assured him. "I mean, you can trust me. I want you to trust me. Willow's still in it, isn't she? But you quit after something bad happened—after you were hurt? After Buffy died?—And Willow's kind of mad at you for quitting."

It was the truth as seen through a dirty, warped mirror. "Those are some interesting guesses," Xander said carefully. Telling Troy he was right would just mean getting in over his head with another ultimately insupportable cover story—but maybe it wouldn't hurt to let Troy think he'd figured a few things out. Let Troy write the cover story for him. At least it was a hell of a lot better than the figure-skating version.

"What about Spike?" Troy went on. His eyes had taken on a sort of frenetic glow. He was edging on overexcited, and maybe he was starting to realize that if he was right about any of this, it meant he was personally in way over his head. "You said he was a hockey player, not a figure skater. That was code too, right? He wasn't on the same team as you. He's English, so ... MI6?"

Xander reached to take Troy's hand. "Your theories are based entirely on the James Bond movies, aren't they?"

"I work with what I've got," Troy admitted with a hint of a smile. "Okay. So. That guy you called when we first brought Spike home. Giles? I knew there was something weird about that 'high school librarian' story. That was code, too, right? Was he, like, your M?"

"LMNOP," Spike said behind Xander, startling him. "What's with the alphabet talk? And can I get some of that coffee?"

He was wearing the sock puppet, of course; Mr. Sock looked perky and wide awake, while Spike himself was blinking sleepily, with rumpled hair and pillow creases on his face. He was shirtless, wearing just the gray sweat pants Xander had found for him to sleep in last night after the shower.

Xander thought he caught a wince from Troy on noticing the old bruises around Spike's torso, but he figured Troy wouldn't have the experience to guess how bad they'd been before they faded.

"Hey, Spike. Good morning," Troy said, just a little too brightly. It was his No, we weren't just talking about you! voice. So Troy wasn't planning to confront Spike directly with his secret agents theory—at least not right now. He poured Spike a cup of coffee.

Taking the mug with his free hand, Spike sat down opposite Xander. "You look like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards, Harris," the sock said. "Trouble sleeping?"

"Yeah, I guess." Xander wondered idly whether Spike would try to drink his coffee and make the sock talk at the same time, like one of those stage ventriloquists. Now that he knew for sure that there was no magic involved, that Spike really was in charge of the sock, it changed his perception of it a little—made him more aware of the physicality of Spike manipulating the puppet. And yet Xander's mind still automatically anthropomorphized the sock.

"Should've shagged Spike when you had the chance," the sock said. "Would've helped you sleep."

Xander choked on his coffee.

"Xan, what's he talking about?" Troy asked in a wary voice.

"Nothing," Xander said, feeling his cheeks heat up.

"Yeah, nothing," the sock agreed, but there was something nasty in its tone. "We could show him nothing, couldn't we, pet? Climb right up here on the table and show him nothing with your legs spread and you begging for mercy. That'd be a right brilliant bit of nothing."

"Shut the fuck up, Spike." Xander grabbed for the sock, but Spike leapt back from the table, knocking his chair over and sloshing coffee on the floor. The sock's mouth hung open, laughing at Xander or maybe leering.

"Hey!" Troy shouted. He grabbed Spike's mug and pushed Xander back down into his seat. "Jesus Christ, what's going on here?"

Spike flipped two fingers at Xander—or was that the sock still in charge? "Ask him about last night," the sock jeered. "Ask him where his bloody tongue was."

"Xan?" Troy was wide-eyed, pretty much begging for an innocent explanation. "What's he talking about? He's never talked like this before."

"We kissed," Xander admitted, wincing. "That's all, I swear."

"You ... oh my God." Troy backed off. The look on his face made Xander's stomach hurt. "Spike—Mr. Sock—will you excuse us for a moment?"

"Oi, Boyfriend!" the sock called after them as they left. "Try letting him tie you up! He likes that!"

Out in the living room, with a hand on Xander's arm as though to restrain him, Troy asked in a fierce whisper, "What happened between you and Spike last night?"

"He kissed me," Xander whispered back. Emphasis on the subject-object relationship. "After Willow left I ... I was crying. He wanted to make me feel better, I think. That's all it was."

Troy shook his head. "It must've been more than that. He's never ... talked like this before. Look, Xan, I'm not jealous, okay? I told you before, I don't do jealousy. If you wanted to sleep with another guy—but not Spike. God. He's so vulnerable, Xan. You're in this position of power over him. You're giving him a place to live, food to eat. He might think he owes you—"

"I thought of all that," Xander interrupted roughly. "I thought of all that and I stopped the kiss. I did not have sex with Spike."

Troy nodded, seeming to accept this as truth. "You wanted him, though."

Xander couldn't get his voice to work for the necessary denial.

"It's okay, Xan." Troy said, patting his arm. "There's nothing wrong with just feeling attracted. I can see how Spike would be—I mean, I've been kind of attracted to him too, sometimes. When we're talking, you know, with the sock. He can be charming and funny, and he's got that sexy accent," he added with a faint smile. "I just wish you would tell me the truth about your relationship with him, from before. You keep saying there was nothing between you, but it's so obvious that's not true. And I think whatever it was, it's getting in the way of your behaving responsibly with him now."

Xander was starting to feel unjustly accused. He hadn't taken advantage of Spike—and Troy's innocent-victim vision of Spike was laughably far from the truth. "The first time we ever met, he almost killed me. That's the relationship we had." Maybe it wasn't a wise thing to get into, but now that Troy thought they were all secret agents or something, it gave Xander a little more leeway to talk about how things really were. "We weren't lovers, Troy, we were enemies."

Troy backed off, processing. "But ... we're allies with England. ... Oh. Spike wasn't in MI6, was he?"

Xander shook his head.

"So he was ... what, a criminal?"

Close enough. "Yeah. He was."

Troy looked a little pasty. "You, uh, couldn't have mentioned that when I asked you to bring him home?"

Ooops. Seeing Troy's expression, Xander realized he'd gone too far. In Troy's world, people didn't go back and forth between being trusted allies and mortal enemies on a regular basis. Time to leap to Spike's defense. "He was a criminal," Xander clarified, "But he changed. For real. He helped, um, he helped bring down a major gun-smuggling ring." Which was about the lamest metaphor for the First Evil ever, and Xander realized he was on the way to tangling himself up in another overly-specific cover story.

"So he got a plea bargain? For helping you?"

"No, he did his time," Xander said, thinking of hell.

"None of this changes the truth about now," Troy said, but he sounded shaken. His hand had crept up to worry absently at his bead necklace. "You have to be careful. You could hurt him so easily. And ... are you sure he won't hurt you? I mean, he sounded so angry in the kitchen."

"I don't think he'd do anything to me," Xander said. "Violence makes him go all catatonic, remember? And seriously—even if he did try something, I think I could handle him."

Troy didn't seem very comforted—in fact, at the suggestion that there might be actual fighting involved, he looked a little sick. "Maybe you should try calling Giles again," he said. "Maybe now that Willow's seen how he is—Giles and Willow do work together, right?"

"Not gonna happen," Xander said. "Giles was pretty clear on that subject."

"Maybe we can ...." Troy trailed off and shrugged unhappily. "I'm out of ideas."

"It'll be okay," Xander said, putting a hand around the back of Troy's neck and leaning in to give him a reassuring kiss. "I'll be careful of him, I'll be careful for him—he'll be okay."


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



After the whole thing at breakfast, Xander was a little nervous about bringing Spike to the assembly plant. Yet he couldn't quite bring himself to switch to plan B (call in sick). For one thing, that would mean being alone with Spike all day in the apartment. But his main discomfort with the idea was a little more complicated, and couldn't really bear close scrutiny: with only a week or so left before the apocalypse, it made total sense to skip work, which was exactly why he couldn't.

He made sure Spike left Mr. Sock at home, hoping that would keep him in Dr. Jekyll mode. He introduced him to the foreman as "my autistic cousin," and swore up and down that Spike wouldn't make any trouble and that it was only for a day or two.

Xander spent the day looking up from his table saw every thirty seconds to make sure Spike hadn't moved. Plugged into Troy's iPod and with a good supply of sharpened pencils, Spike passed the day peacefully. By quitting time, Spike had two and a half filled-in notebooks and Xander had a tension headache.

Troy came to pick them up with the car. "I was thinking," he said, "How about going out for supper?"

"Out?" Xander cast a doubtful look at Spike, who'd settled quietly into the back seat.

"Yeah. Say, Star of India?—we could get Spike a vegetarian curry. The English are supposed to like curry, right?"

"I'm not sure Spike can handle a restaurant," Xander said quietly, trying not to let Spike hear him.

"Remember where we met him?" Troy pointed out. "I think he'll be okay."

Xander wondered if maybe Troy just wanted to put off getting home and facing him and Spike in private. It wouldn't be surprising if he did—after the morning's conversations, Xander wasn't sure what Troy believed was true at this point.

The Star of India was a one-step-up-from-fast-food restaurant with plastic tablecloths and a fun, cheesy Bollywood ambiance. They took a table against the wall, under an autographed photo of some woman in a pink sari. Spike, still plugged into the iPod as he had been all day, settled back to coloring as soon as Xander gave him his notebook and pencil.

"I wonder if he'll ever get tired of that?" Xander mused.

Troy reached across the table and took Xander's hand. "Xan...." he said, "You weren't in the CIA, were you?"

Xander wondered what had tipped Troy off this time. Maybe he'd remembered that time Xander had thought Jean Poutine was the Prime Minister of Canada? Anyway, there was no point in trying to salvage the story, given that it wasn't true and he didn't have a shred of evidence to support it. "No, I was never in the CIA," he admitted with a faint, rueful smile, "But, hey, I did dress up as James Bond for Halloween one time."

Troy shot him back a sheepish grin. "Yeah, okay, the whole idea was pretty ridiculous. And I'm not mad at you for lying to me—I realize that I was the one who came up with the whole CIA thing and you just went along with it."

At that point the waitress came by to take their orders. Troy chose for Spike—a vegetarian curry, like he'd said earlier. When they were alone again, Troy turned back to Xander with a serious expression. "I think I've figured it out for real this time," he said quietly. He took a quick look over his shoulder, like he was making sure nobody was listening in, and then leaned in closer over the table. "You're in the Witness Protection Program, aren't you?"

With a concerted effort, Xander stopped himself from laughing. Not that anything about this was funny—just, Troy's determination to come up with a logical explanation for everything was kind of awe-inspiring.

But ... actually, this one was a great cover story. Xander wished he'd thought of it a year ago.

Meanwhile Troy was waiting, literally on the edge of his seat. "Well, yeah," Xander said, letting the word draw out as if in reluctant confession. "Shit. You, uh, really aren't supposed to know this."

"I promise I won't say a word to anyone," Troy said, squeezing Xander's hand. "And I won't ask you about the ... the case, or whatever. But—is there anything we can do to help Willow?"

Xander blinked. "Willow?"

"Somebody's hurting her. Maybe we could help her get away. I mean, I figured out that she lives in L.A., Xan. She didn't just pop over from England and magically guess exactly which crack house Spike had gone to shoot up in," Troy said, rolling his eyes. "Somebody she knows must've told her he was there."

Xander forced a smile that felt like broken glass. "She'll be okay." This was what he loved about Troy. That he wanted to save the world. That he tried his best. That he cared about everybody.

And in a few more days, none of it would matter.


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



"You think he's okay for now?" Troy whispered with a last, worried look at Spike.

Spike was curled up on the sofa, apparently asleep. He was still wearing his army jacket, and they'd put a blanket over him. He'd been dozing off even in the car on the way home from the restaurant; Troy had nearly had to carry him to the sofa.

"He must be pretty tired," Xander guessed. "This is the first time since he came to stay with us that he's had to go all day without sleeping, right? He's probably out for the night, now."

"What if he has nightmares?"

"We'll bring him in to sleep with us," Xander promised, catching Troy's fingers and kissing them. "We just need—" the kisses moved up Troy's bare arm "—a little privacy first."


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



In the ebbing moments of the afterglow, Troy rolled onto his side and walked his fingers along Xander's collarbone. "Good?" he asked, with just a hint of insecurity.

"Fantastic," Xander assured him with a sleepy smile.

"You weren't thinking about Spike when you came, were you?" Troy's tone was mostly teasing, with a faint undercurrent of not.

"Thought you didn't 'do' jealousy," Xander teased him back. And saw Troy's smile falter. Wrong answer. "No," Xander said quickly. "I was thinking about you, Troy. I was looking at you, touching you, smelling you—umm, what are the other senses?"

"Tasting," Troy suggested, giving the hollow place at the bottom of Xander's neck a quick, playful lick.

Xander smiled. "Mmm, tasting."

Then Troy backed off onto his elbow, and got a serious look on his face. "Xan? Do you have a gun?"

Xander blinked, disoriented by the sudden topic switch. "Huh?"

"I just thought of it. That you might have one for, like, protection. Or something."

"Well, I don't." Xander saw that Troy still looked worried. "Troy? Is everything okay?"

Troy shrugged. He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling. "I kinda feel like I don't know you anymore. Or ... maybe more like I never did."

"Troy, you know me." Xander touched Troy's cheek and waited for eye contact. "This is me," he said when Troy finally looked at him. "I've never pretended to be anything I'm not."

Troy raised an eyebrow. "Like a figure skater?"

"Uh ... other than that."

"I've just got all this crazy stuff going through my head now," Troy said. "I'm trying to tell myself that it's none of my business, that you don't have to tell me anything if you don't feel comfortable with it, but—I mean, God, I told you that thing about my Dad. I never told anyone else about that. I'm trying to imagine what would be so awful that you can't ever tell me, and all the stuff I'm coming up with is ... well, really awful."

"So stop thinking about it."

Troy glared at him. "Right. Great solution. Let's pretend you don't have a past. That you crawled fully-formed out of a crack in an L.A. sidewalk at the age of twenty-two."

It occurred to Xander that this wasn't going well. Maybe it was time for a little more creative mingling of truth and lies. "Troy ... you figured out that I'm in the Witness Protection Program. That means there's a lot of stuff I can't tell you. It wouldn't be safe for me or for you. But maybe ... maybe if you tell me some of the 'really awful' stuff you're thinking of, I can tell you if it's not true."

"Okay." Troy flashed him a trying-to-be-brave-and-cool-about-this smile. "Ever kill anybody?"

"No." Xander squeezed Troy's hand. An editorial disclaimer played silently in his head: By which I mean I've never killed a human. At least not directly. Or on purpose. Unlike most of my friends! "A world of no," he said firmly. "Don't worry about that, okay?"

Troy laughed with palpable relief. "Okay, yeah, that was overdramatic. Sorry. I've been reading too many John Grisham novels or something." He gave Xander a light kiss on the lips. "Okay. Umm, next question. Have you ever been in jail?"

"No. ... Wait, yeah. Overnight lockup one time when I was trying to get from Nigeria into Cameroon. There was some kind of visa problem."

"Oh," Troy said, a little wide-eyed. "What was that like?"

"Mostly uncomfortable and boring," Xander said with a shrug. "Spent most of the night chatting with the drug smuggler in the other cell, but his English wasn't very good, so it was pretty much all stuff like 'No, I haven't met Michael Jordan. No, I haven't met Pamela Anderson. No, I don't have a sister you can marry.'"

Troy stifled a semi-appalled snicker, and pressed on with another question. "Okay, what about drugs? Were you ever involved in the, um, drug trade?"

Xander blinked. "Are you kidding? Remember how you had to tell me what the marks on Spike's arms were?"

"Okay, but in your mysterious former life you were friends with Spike—"

"Enemies," Xander reminded him.

"Roommates," Troy amended. "And he's a junky. And your friend Willow was pretty close with the guys at that crack house."

"Spike didn't use drugs when I knew him before," Xander said. "That's new. I think he's, what do you call it ... self-medicating?"

Troy sighed. "We've got to get him some real help, you know. Somehow. We can't keep going like this."

Sure we can, Xander thought. The world's going to end in a week. "I know," he said out loud. "I'll figure something out. Speaking of which, it's been a while. I should go and check on him."

"Bring him back with you," Troy said. "We're ready to go to sleep anyway, right?"

Xander pulled on a pair of boxers and headed out into the living room. Spike wasn't on the couch. With an uncomfortable sense of foreboding, Xander checked the bathroom—empty—and then the kitchen.

He could smell the blood as soon as he got near the kitchen. When he clicked on the light, he saw it. Blood all over the floor. Spike in the middle of it, slumped against the cupboards.

"Troy!" Xander shouted. "Call 911!"

It looked like Spike had cut up his arms. They were both covered in blood up to the elbows. There was a knife on the floor near his limp left hand. Xander couldn't tell if he was still bleeding.

"Oh my God," Troy exclaimed, coming up behind Xander. He was still naked. "Holy fuck. What did he do?"

"Did you call 911?"

"On it." He showed Xander the cell phone in his hand and punched in the digits.

"Give me the phone," Xander said, thinking fast. "You run to the bathroom, get towels."

"This is 911. What's your emergency?" asked a dispatcher, calmly.

"My friend is unconscious from blood loss." God, if Xander had a nickel for every time he'd had to say that to an emergency worker.... "He cut his arms. I think it's a suicide attempt."

"I'm sending an ambulance," the dispatcher said. "Give me your address." And as soon as that was done, she asked, "Can you tell me if your friend is breathing?"

"Yeah," Xander said, "he is." He was crouching down next to Spike now, trying to stay out of the blood. He ignored the pain that shot through his bad leg. Spike's lips had a bluish-gray hue, but his chest was still rising and falling in shallow breaths.

"Can you see where he's bleeding from?" the dispatcher asked.

"Yeah." Xander saw Troy coming back with the towels. "I know some First Aid. I'm going to put the phone down. When's the ambulance coming?"

"It should be there in less than ten minutes," the dispatcher said. "I want you to stay on the line with me, so I can tell you what to do."

"I need two hands," Xander said. He hung up and turned to Troy. "Give me a towel."

"Are you sure that was a good idea?" Troy asked, handing over a towel and casting an anxious look at the phone.

"I know what I'm doing," Xander said. "I took a course once." Which was true, actually, but not as important as his wealth of experience with sharp force trauma.

He wrapped a towel snugly around each of Spike's arms to stop the bleeding. Meanwhile he told Troy to use a third towel to clean up the puddle on the floor. "And try not to get any of it on you," he reminded him.

Next he got Troy to help him move Spike—shift him so he was lying flat on the floor. "Now we need something to put his feet up," Xander said. "Pillows. Get both the pillows from the bed, and the blanket, too. We have to cover him up, keep him warm."

Troy dashed off and returned with his arms full. "Here."

Xander tucked the pillows under Spike's feet and then Troy draped the blanket over him. Troy's hands were shaking. He caught Xander noticing, and he tucked his hands under his armpits. "I'm freaking out here," he said; his voice was shaky too. "I don't know how you can be so calm."

Xander shrugged. He was worried about Spike, but like a jaded old veteran his main reaction was I've seen worse. "He's going to be okay," he said, reaching over to squeeze Troy's arm reassuringly. "He's still breathing, and the ambulance will get here soon, and we've done what we can for him. He didn't cut a major vein or artery, there wasn't that much blood."

"Uh?" Troy's voice went a little squeaky. "Not that much blood?"

"I'm pretty sure he's lost less than a pint. It just looked like a lot puddled out on the floor."

"Uh huh." Troy was looking increasingly pale. "How did he even get the knife? Didn't we lock them up? I'm sure I checked that...."

Xander glanced over at the drawer that he'd fitted with a padlock a couple of days ago. The lock was still there, hanging open. "He must've picked it."

"He can do that? Did you know he could do that?"

"He can. I did. I just kind of forgot about it. Shit." He looked at Troy. "Uh, hey, we should put on some clothes before the ambulance gets here. You first."

Troy looked confused for a moment, then blinked. "Clothes. Fuck," he said, and left.





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