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Sock Puppet


by
Shadowscast



Part Seven


"I think we should file a complaint. This isn't right. That doctor's professional judgment was, like, fucked."

Xander pretty much agreed with Troy. Spike "wasn't a suicide risk"? After they'd brought him to the same ER twice in two days, half dead each time from self-inflicted injuries?

Spike was slouched against the car door, across from Xander in the back seat. Both his arms were wrapped in white bandages from the wrist to the elbow. He'd had a transfusion and twenty-three stitches, but the doctor's verdict had been that Spike had just been looking for attention. "The cuts wander all over the place, clearly not intended to cause significant blood loss," the doctor had said. "It looks like he cut deeper in a few places by accident."

The doctor had implied that Spike was taking up hospital resources that could be better used by more deserving people, and had pretty much told them not to let the door hit their asses on the way out.

Of course, this had all been after a five-hour wait between the transfusion and the stitches, which meant it was four-thirty in the morning now. Traffic on the 5 was about as light as it ever got.

"Could've been worse," Xander said finally, out loud. "I mean, think about the alternative. If he'd decided to admit him, to put him in the psych ward, they would've just doped him up again."

"Maybe that would've been better than this." Troy spoke softly, like he was trying not to let Spike hear, but of course that was an empty gesture—Spike could hear him if Xander could. "He'd be safe, at least. How are we going to keep him safe, Xan? We can't watch him every minute of every day." He sounded like it hurt him to say these things. "I'm starting to feel like ... like every moment is a potential disaster. Like everything's falling apart and I don't have enough hands to hold it together."

"We'll figure something out," Xander said. He knew perfectly well it was nothing but an empty platitude, but at least it was more comforting, hopefully, than saying The world's about to end! None of this matters!

"Right, we'll think of something," Troy agreed, forcing a little brightness into his voice. "Tomorrow morning, I think we should—" A sound and thump like a small explosion cut him off. Suddenly the car was fishtailing and Troy was fighting for control. "Shit! We must've blown a tyre!"

Troy managed to keep them in their lane and going in the right direction, and started to slow them down. Unfortunately the breakdown lane was closed for repairs, barricaded off with concrete dividers and orange warning signs.

"Take the exit," Xander said, seeing a sign coming up. "Get off the freeway."

"No kidding," Troy replied tightly, flicking on the four-way flashers. He took them down the exit ramp, managing the turn carefully. Spike was sitting up straight now, looking out the window with wide eyes. Xander followed his gaze and thought he saw ... something weird. A flicker. Was that a motorcycle following them off the freeway? Or maybe two? It was hard to tell, they were hard to look at; there was something wrong ... fuck.

"Troy, don't stop," Xander said. "Don't stop the car."

"Huh?" Troy was already pulling over to the side of the road. They were at the edge of an empty parking lot in an abandoned-looking industrial district. "We can't drive with a flat—"

"It's not safe. Troy, get us out of here!" But it was already too late. One of the motorcycles gunned its engine and overtook them, executing an impressive little spin to end up right in front of them. Troy braked hard to avoid hitting it, and the second bike pulled up right behind them, boxing them in.

The flickering had been the first clue, but the golden crests on the riders' heads clinched it. They could almost pass for bleached-blond mohawks on a couple of South-Asian looking thugs, but Xander had seen their like before. These guys weren't human; they were Mirodan, the dimension-hopping foot-soldiers of the Raven, the Bear and the Snake.

"Oh God." Troy was a few steps behind Xander, but he'd finally figured out that they were in trouble. "What do they want?"

"The usual," Xander said under his breath. "Death, destruction, apocalypse."

"What?" Troy squeaked, but Xander wasn't about to explain himself. He was thinking fast, considering options. They couldn't get away in the car, not with the bikes blocking it. They couldn't stay in the car; the Mirodan would break in eventually. Even now, the one in front was getting down off its bike and coming around the side, slapping its nunchuck-like weapon against its leather-clad thigh.

"We're going to have to fight them," Xander said. At least it looked like there were only the two of them. "Troy, get away if you can. If you see a way out, run for it."

"What?!" Troy looked like he was going to be sick. "Xan? We can't fight them, we—what's going on here?"

Outside the car, the demon raised its fist, flashed a grin full of sharp, pointy teeth, and then punched Xander's window. At the same moment, Xander threw the door open. The demon's arm went through the window, spraying Xander with little chunks of auto glass, but surprise and momentum let Xander knock it off its feet. Xander was out of the car and around the door and kicking the Mirodan in the head before it could get up. He grabbed the nunchuck and ducked to the side just in time to avoid the bull rush of the second demon.

So. Now Xander had a weapon, which he didn't really know how to use, and two angry demons for opponents. Inside the car, Troy was frozen with his hands on the steering wheel, staring out the window in transfixed horror. Spike had backed himself as far as possible away from the open door and curled into a fetal ball; he looked like he was shaking. Great. "I could use a little help out here!" Xander shouted. The second Mirodan had a weapon like a thin steel pipe, and Xander leapt out of the way just in time to avoid getting thumped. The pipe left a dent in the hood of Xander's car. "Hey!" Xander yelled at the demon. "Do you know what that's gonna do to my insurance premiums?" He whipped the nunchuck around and hoped he looked at least a little intimidating as he backed, limpingly, away.

The two demons exchanged a look and snickered. They didn't seem very worried. They barely seemed like they were taking this fight seriously. Which, to be fair, made a lot of sense from their perspective. Considering they were up against a one-eyed guy with a gimpy leg who could barely swing a nunchuck.

But hey, they didn't know that Xander had been doing this kind of thing since he was fucking sixteen years old.

Under the guise of stumbling backwards, Xander made contact with the bike in front of the car. He'd seen something—a blade. These Mirodan were traveling well armed, and the guy from the front had left his sword on his bike. With his hand resting on its hilt, looking like he was just trying to keep his balance, Xander waited—and when the demon with the pipe rushed at him, he pulled out the sword in one smooth motion and plunged it into the demon's chest. Its momentum carried it down the blade until it fell against Xander, wide-eyed and dead, and they both fell backwards together against the bike—which promptly fell over.

Someone screamed. Possibly Troy.

Tangled up in dead demon and tipped-over motorcycle, Xander was in an awkward position. The surviving Mirodan grabbed the fallen pipe from the ground and swung it at Xander. Wrenching his head to the side, he managed to avoid the worst of the blow, but it glanced off his shoulder and it was still enough to make him shriek.

Through the white pain-fog, he was dimly aware of being grabbed by the collar and hauled to his feet, clear of the Mirodan's dead companion. "You," said the demon in a thick, rough accent like his mouth was full of jagged rocks, "Are you the oracle?"

Xander knew exactly what the demon was talking about and the correct answer to the question was 'yes,' but of course he wasn't going to be shouting that from the rooftops. He spit in the demon's face.

"Doesn't matter," the demon said with a very broad grin. "I'll kill you now, check later." And then it punched Xander in the gut, hard enough to drop him to the ground.

Xander knew he had to fight back. He knew no one else was going to do it for him. But the blows were coming too fast and he couldn't get up, couldn't get leverage. He tried to grab the demon's boot when it kicked him but it stomped on his fingers with its other foot and he screamed again.

And then something was flying over his head and the kicking stopped, and Xander pushed himself up and shook his head to try to make his vision go straight, and what he saw was Spike facing off with the demon.

It had its pipe weapon in both hands, and it was twirling it around like Darth Maul with his double-bladed light saber. Spike was staying out of range, circling—until suddenly he lunged, taking the demon off-guard, elbowing it in the face and making a grab for the pipe.

Xander stumbled over the corpse and yanked the sword out of it. He turned back to the fight and saw that the demon and Spike were struggling for possession of the pipe. The demon punched Spike in the face, Spike kicked the demon in the knee. Xander ran forward with the sword. "Spike!" he yelled. "Get clear!"

Spike threw a roundhouse punch at the Mirodan and then launched himself backwards, pushing the demon in the other direction. It looked around in confusion for a moment, which was long enough for Xander to rush in with a feral yell and drive the sword into its neck.

Its eyes frozen open in shock, the Mirodan fell to its knees and then slowly tipped over at Xander's feet. Spike stood a few feet away, panting. His mouth was bleeding; he wiped it with the back of his wrist, smearing blood on the clean white bandage. "What the hell was that?" he said.

"Mirodan," Xander answered automatically. "They work for the new Big Bad." Then his brain clicked to what had just happened and he did a double take. "Spike! You can talk!?"

"Well, yeah." Spike looked at Xander and at the demon, then back at the car. He looked a little punchy, not quite steady on his feet, but he was talking, and not through a sock. "It's a bloody miracle. You can call the pope and notify him later. I think there's one or two more pressing issues first ... like your boyfriend back there is on the edge of losing it."

Troy had gotten out of the car, though he was hanging on to its roof as though for support. He turned towards Xander. His eyes were showing a whole lot of white. "You said you'd never killed anybody." His voice was tiny, broken.

This was the moment Xander had been working so hard to avoid for a year and a half, and it really, really sucked. Ironically, the pain and adrenaline from the fight helped him hold it together, put it in perspective. Goodbye normal life, but at least I'm not dead yet! "They weren't people," he said. "Troy, I'm going to have to tell you some things—"

"Not people?!" Troy looked like he was going to throw up. Like Xander had not only kicked a puppy, but crushed its skull under his boot and then stuck it on a long fork and roasted it for dinner. "Is this—is this some kind of neo-Nazi thing? Because they're not white?"

"No! God no!" Xander had a flash of how all this must look from Troy's perspective, and, well, it looked pretty bad. He silently cursed the Mirodan for not having, like, scales or horns or something. "Literally, Troy, they're not human. They're demons from another dimension. You know all the weird stuff that Spike was ranting about with the sock puppet? The gods and demons, the vampires? It was all true. All of it."

There were tears on Troy's face now. "Xan, please. Stop lying to me. Please. Just tell me what's going on."

"I'm not lying anymore, Troy." Xander realized, even as he said it, that he did have a bit of a credibility problem.

But this time he really was telling the truth, which meant he had something he hadn't had when he was claiming to be a figure skater, an international spy, or a participant in the Federal Witness Protection Program. He had evidence.

The Mirodan with the neck wound had a knife on its belt that it had never even unsheathed. Xander crouched down and drew the knife.

Troy's voice rose high and panicky. "What are you doing? Xan!? I'm gonna call 911. Please, don't touch him! We'll tell them how they attacked us, they'll, they'll see the bikes, they'll know it wasn't your fault."

"Sorry mate," Xander heard Spike say. He looked up and saw that Troy had the cell phone in his hand, but Spike had grabbed his wrist. "Can't let you make that call."

"Spike?" Troy said in a small, frightened voice.

"Don't hurt him, Spike!" Xander said quickly. It occurred to him that he had no idea what kind of state Spike was in now. "Just take the phone away. Troy, you have to watch this." Without further delay, he plunged the knife into the belly of the fallen Mirodan. He heard Troy cry out. "Watch," Xander said again, reaching his hand into wound. The guts were squishy and cool—Mirodan had a natural body temperature of about 65 degrees. His fingers found the hard lump he was searching for, and he pulled it out.

Troy was on his knees, retching. Spike stood over him, watching with a neutral expression.

"Troy, look. You have to look," Xander said. Finally Troy raised his head, and Xander held up the crystal he'd dug out of the Mirodan's belly. It was walnut-sized, with twelve smooth pentagonal faces. It pulsed softly with a white-blue light. "See this? This is not human."

"What is that?" Troy choked out.

"It's sort of their equivalent of a heart." He tossed it to Troy, who instinctively reached out to catch it and then looked down at his hands, horrified. The crystal was still smeared in a little bit of the yellow goop that passed for blood in the Mirodan. "It won't hurt you," Xander promised. "See how the glow is starting to fade? That's because the demon's dead."

"Oh my God," Troy said softly. "This ... this can't be real. It's gotta be a trick."

"Come look at the bodies," Xander invited him. He knew it was harsh, this introduction, but they didn't have much time. "They look mostly human on the outside, sure, but look—yellow blood. And look at these teeth."

Hesitant and horrified, Troy nevertheless stepped gingerly closer to the demon corpse and looked down at it. Even with just the illumination of a couple of nearby street lights, it was perfectly clear that the blood leaking out of the creature's wounds was not in any way normal. "Oh my God," Troy whispered again. Then he looked back to Xander. His eyes were still wild and brimming with tears. "Okay. Okay, they're not human, I guess. I feel like I'm in a nightmare, Xan. I don't know what's real. They're not human, but ... you still killed them."

Naturally, Troy would feel bad for the demons. Xander tried not to sound too exasperated as he pointed out, "Did you notice the part where they were trying to kill me first?"

Suddenly, a motorcycle engine revved. Xander looked up in a momentary panic, expecting another wave of attack, but then he saw that Spike was astride the motorcycle that remained upright, the one behind their car. "Spike! What are you doing?"

"I'm moving the sodding motorcycle out of the way of your car." Spike gunned the engine, and the bike lurched across the road. He stopped it and stepped off. "This here is a Hellion bike, Harris. Looks like Hellion gear, too," he added with a nod to the corpses.

Spike had had a Hellion bike of his own for a while in Sunnydale, Xander remembered. "The Mirodan probably killed some Hellions and took their stuff."

Spike tilted his head, thinking that over. "So I take it they're not part of the Rainbow Demon Friendship Guild, then?"

In the middle of all this, Xander found Spike's sarcasm strangely comforting. "They're really not," he agreed. "Actually, 'kill all the demons' is pretty much Step One of their easy two-step plan for taking over the world. Step Two is 'kill all the humans,' by the way. And that's in no particular chronological order."

Spike nodded. "This would be the apocalypse you and Red kept asking me about, then?"

"Apocawhat?" Troy blurted out. He'd been following their conversation in desperate-eyed silence up until now.

"Apocalypse," Spike repeated helpfully. "Means 'the end of the world.'"

"I know what it means," Troy said. "I have a fucking English degree." His voice had taken on a hysterical edge. "Are you saying that the apocalypse is happening? Now?"

"Well, don't ask me. I just got over being crazy about five minutes ago," Spike pointed out. "Ask your boyfriend."

"Xan?" Troy literally reached out his hands to Xander, like he was begging. "What's going on?"

"Well, pretty much the end of the world," Xander said, figuring it was too late now for sugar-coating. "But, uh, probably not for another week or so."

Troy looked like he was going to be sick again. "What makes you think that? This is—this is just two guys. And they're dead."

"Giles told me. On the phone, last week. Remember when you googled Mongolia, and you couldn't find anything? That's because Mongolia's gone."

"That's not possible," Troy said. He was raising his voice now, well on the way to completely freaking out. "It would be all over the news."

Xander shook his head. "They're covering it up. Using magic to stop anyone from noticing."

"So now you believe in magic?"

Spike spoke up before Xander could answer that one. "I hate to interrupt the very interesting meltdown you two are having, but now that I've cleared the way for the car, maybe we should get out of here before anybody sees us?"

"Right." Xander looked at the bodies, at the two motorcycles with no license plates, and at the very conspicuous weapons littering the ground. "You're right. Troy, you'd better let me drive."

"We still have a flat tyre!" Troy shouted, pointing. "Are you going to fix it by magic?"

"Fuck, I forgot...." Xander raked a hand through his hair, thinking. It wasn't that things couldn't get any worse, but he really, really didn't want them to. "Okay, we have to change it. It'll take ten minutes."

Troy wrapped his arms tight around himself and took a step away from Xander. "I'm not staying."

"What?" Xander almost reached out to grab him, but realized in time that that would only freak him out more. "Troy, don't—God, I know this is a lot to take in at once, I'm sorry. But we can talk about it some more once we get out of here. I'll tell you everything, for real this time, I promise. I'll tell you what really happened in Sunnydale."

But Troy was shaking his head and backing away the whole time. "No. No. I can't ... I can't handle this, Xan. I don't know. I have to get away. I have to leave. I hope ... I hope you get home okay." He turned around and started walking faster.

"Troy!"

Spike stopped Xander from following, putting a hand on his arm. "He might be safer on his own," he pointed out quietly. "Seemed like the ugly twins were specifically after you."

"Fuck," Xander said, his shoulders sinking. "You're right about that. But ... I'm kinda thinking I'm not going to see him again."

"It's been a rough night for him," Spike admitted. "You might want to wait a day or two before ringing him up."

Xander choked out a laugh. "Right. And that would give us, oh, hey, maybe three days of happy reconciliation before the world ends. If we're lucky." He went to the driver's side door of his car, and reached in to pull the trunk release. "Okay. Tyre first. Mourning later."

"We could take the bike," Spike suggested. "Get away right now."

"And leave my car for the police to find along with the dead bodies?" Xander pointed out. "No thanks." He went to the trunk and fished around under the accumulated junk, looking for the emergency tool kit.

"We could lift the plates," Spike said. "Be faster than changing the tyre."

"No," Xander insisted, pulling out the jack and lug wrench. "I. Am. Not. Leaving. My. Car."

The road where the car was stopped was smooth and flat, so Xander put the jack in place and started cranking it up. Meanwhile, Spike went around to the bodies and collected their various weapons.

"Good plan," Xander noted. He hated the fact that he was back in the zone where gathering up weapons was a good plan ... but he was actually pretty glad he wasn't facing it solo.

He got the car jacked up high enough without too much difficulty. The fingers on his right hand where the Mirodan had stomped him were kind of swollen and tingly, but he was pretty sure there were no broken bones. Same went for his ribs—hurting, yeah, but not broken. He'd gotten off easy.

Spike dropped his collection, clattering, on the pavement near Xander. Then he stooped down, coughing, and took a seat on the ground. "I feel like shite," he complained.

"Well, you are sick," Xander said. "You, uh, you did know that, right? That you have tuberculosis?" He picked up the lug wrench and started working on the nuts. "Spike ... what do you remember?"

Spike shrugged. "Everything, more or less. Only, if there's something I'm forgetting, I wouldn't know it, would I? Some parts are fuzzy, like trying to remember a dream." He paused, and Xander looked over to see Spike looking down at his bandaged arms. "I don't remember what happened to my arms," he said. "They hurt like a bitch."

Somehow, this made Xander a little uneasy. "You happened," he said, pausing in his work to watch Spike carefully. "You cut yourself. We had to rush you to the hospital."

"Oh." Spike looked moderately surprised, but not upset. "Last I remember before the hospital is coming home from that curry place."

Xander wondered if maybe Spike was blocking out the suicide attempts—and if so, whether it was wise to remind him right now. It seemed like a pretty strong possibility that it wasn't, so Xander just went back to getting his wheel off. The nuts were stuck on pretty tight, and it was a struggle to loosen them. He thought about asking Spike for help, but Spike looked like he was going to fall over if he even tried to stand up again. He was resting his head on his knees now, coughing a little.

Xander worked the nuts until finally they were all loose. He was getting all sweaty, and the places where he hurt were mostly hurting more. He slid the old wheel off and went to get the spare out of the trunk. At least he knew it was in good condition. Ever since that time he'd gotten stranded in Oxnard, he'd been pretty careful about auto maintenance.

"So, Harris...." Spike said as Xander lifted the new wheel into position, "When did you turn into a poof?"

Xander snorted. "That was very tactful, Spike. Very PC."

"Well? Did you finally get Red to gay you up, or what?"

Xander rolled his eyes and started tightening the nuts. "Not that it's any of your business, but I was always into guys. I just kind of ... pushed it down, for a while." Most of his attention was on the nuts, making sure to tighten them in the right order. "See, I was in love with this guy for a while. He didn't really know. He was a really good friend though—we were tight. And then he was killed by vampires. So after that I kind of decided not to notice guys anymore."

"Oh," Spike said quietly. "Sorry to bring it up."

"S'okay," Xander grunted, pulling the wrench with all his strength. "Never told anyone before. Don't know why I'm telling you now. It's been a crazy night."

"These vampires who killed your friend ... did you ever find out who they were?" Spike seemed a little hesitant to ask the question.

Xander guessed what he might be afraid of. "It wasn't you," he said. "It was over a year before you first came to Sunnydale." He paused, thinking back. "It might've been Darla, though." He looked over and realized that Spike wasn't coping with this topic of conversation very well. He was rocking a little and his knuckles were pressed against his mouth.

It occurred to Xander that it had been barely ten minutes since Spike had snapped out of a fugue state that he'd apparently been in for months, and maybe it wasn't a good idea to upset him. "Spike?" He dropped the wrench and went over to Spike's side. "Don't worry about that, it was a long time ago. You're not a vampire anymore, anyway. Spike?" He touched the side of his face. "Look at me, okay?"

Spike shuddered, but lifted his eyes to meet Xander's gaze. They were brimming with tears, which he brushed away quickly with the back of his hand. "What?" he snapped. "Don't look at me like that."

Xander didn't back off. "Spike, are you okay?"

"Yeah, brilliant," Spike answered, almost snarling.

"Stupid question, sorry. Obviously you're not okay. Neither am I, so I get that. I just need to know how not okay you are, so I can decide whether you'll be safe while I go put the old tyre in the trunk and jack the car down." The idea that Spike might retreat back into silence was scaring Xander a lot right now. He'd already lost Troy, and he didn't want to be left alone.

"Just finish fixing the bloody car, Harris." Spike dropped his head down onto his knees, hiding his face. "Feels like my skin's crawling," he added. "Everything's too loud and bright one moment, and the next it's like I'm underwater, it's all muffled and blurry and I can't breathe. Feel like screaming or ripping my eyes out. It's in the back of my head all the time, the screaming. Wasn't like a switch, on, off. Before, when I couldn't talk—wasn't much different from now."

Jesus. Xander raised his uninjured hand to Spike's back and tried, gently, rubbing it in little circles. Spike was still huddled over, rocking himself, and Xander could feel him trembling. This was not of the good. "Don't worry, it's all gonna be okay." Meaningless words. He remembered trying to comfort Spike like this that first night after they brought him home, after his nightmare. He wondered whether Spike remembered that. "Shhhh. It's all okay. We're gonna go home and you can rest. You'll feel better then, I promise." Xander thought he heard a car coming off the highway, but when he looked up anxiously there was nothing there. Just his imagination. It was only a matter of time before someone did come by, though. They had to get out of here. "Spike? Will you look at me?"

Spike raised his head and blinked a couple times, like he was surprised, or maybe just trying to clear his vision. "Right," he said, sounding confused. "What were we talking about?"

"Nothing," Xander said. He felt like hugging Spike. "I was just going to get the car off the jack. How about you throw the weapons in the back seat?" He offered Spike a hand and helped him to his feet. Spike moved slowly gathering up the weapons, and by the time he was done, the car had four wheels on the ground. He slid into the front passenger seat with a weary shudder, coughing again. Xander looked at him with concern. "How are you doing?"

"Really fucking tired," Spike said. "Sitting down is good. I'll be all right."

Xander backed away from the fallen bike and, finally, got them the hell away from the two dead Mirodan. He felt a tension in his shoulders ease as they receded in his rear view mirror, and he started looking for a way back onto the freeway.

On the way home, Spike seemed to want nothing more than to stare out the window, but Xander was afraid of the silence. He filled it with chatter about his life in L.A., pausing and verbally prodding Spike every so often until he got at least an "uh huh," or a "what the hell do I care?" Spike was cranky and tired, Xander realized, and probably in even more pain than Xander was, but at least he was talking.

The clock on the dashboard read 5:23 when Xander finally pulled into his parking spot. It was still pitch dark out, and most of his neighbors were presumably asleep. This was helpful, given that Xander needed to transfer an armful of gooey weapons from the car to his apartment. Not to mention bringing in Spike himself—he was still wearing the clothes he'd arrived at the hospital in, the bloodsoaked t-shirt and jeans.

They made it inside without being seen. "Ill get you some new clothes," Xander said, leading Spike straight into the bedroom. "Then, sleep." It was catching up to him, how exhausted he was. His hands were clumsy on the dresser drawer.

He gave Spike jogging pants and an old t-shirt—Xander's clothes, not Troy's. He couldn't face opening Troy's drawer.

"The bed's been stripped," Spike pointed out. Xander looked at it, and for a moment he couldn't even remember why the pillows and blanket were gone from the bed.

"Oh. Right. That stuff's still in the kitchen." That meant they were stuck with no pillows, but at least there was a spare blanket in the closet. Xander went to get it, and then realized that Spike had disappeared. That he'd probably just gone out to the kitchen. Where everything was still a bloody mess, with the knife in the middle of it. Fuck.

Spike was standing in the middle of the kitchen, looking down at the tangle of blanket and pillows with a puzzled expression. Xander put and arm over his shoulders and tried to guide him away, but he resisted. "What happened here?" he asked. "That's my blood, innit?"

"We thought you were asleep. You came in here and cut yourself with that knife. Don't try to remember, okay? Just come away from there."

Spike still wouldn't move. He was looking around the kitchen like he was trying to see backwards in time, and that was making Xander very uncomfortable. "And you found me, what, right away?"

"No, I think it was a while before I went to check on you. Spike, come on, let's go."

Spike shrugged off Xander's hand and turned on him, eyes flashing. "So why the fuck am I still alive?"

"What?"

"After more than a century of being a vampire, I couldn't find my own fucking veins?"

"I ... I don't know." Xander didn't know how to cope with this, he didn't know what to say. He was too tired, hurting too much in too many ways. "The doctor said it didn't look like you were really trying."

Spike made a sound like an exasperated snort and jerked his shoulder like he wanted to walk away, but Xander was still hanging on.

"What was that supposed to mean? Spike? Were you trying to kill yourself?"

"I don't fucking remember." He hunched his shoulders in, angry and petulant now. "Doesn't matter, wouldn't have worked. Never fucking works."

"Oh ... okay," Xander said slowly, while his heartbeat headed back towards panic mode. Spike was supposed to be fixed now, godammit, he was talking. "Spike ... you don't still want to kill yourself, do you?"

Spike let out a short, barking laugh. "Right this moment? Maybe not. Ask again in five minutes." He tried again to get away, but still didn't pull hard enough to break Xander's grip.

"I don't get it," Xander said. "You were in hell, right? Aren't you afraid of going back there?"

Going all eerily calm now, Spike gazed at Xander like he was a stupid child. "Not afraid, no. I want to go back."

Xander's mouth felt dry. This was all horribly wrong. He wanted someone else to be here having this conversation, someone who was fucking qualified. "Why would you want to go back to hell? Doesn't hell kinda ... suck?"

"Remember after Buffy came back from heaven?" Spike asked. He seemed calm and rational now, meeting Xander's eye, trying to explain something that was important. "Remember how she described it? Said there was 'no pain, no fear, no doubt.' Funny thing—heaven and hell are like two sides of a bloody coin. Hell's nothing but pain, that's what it's made of. But there's no fear. What are you gonna be afraid of? Fear's all about what might happen, all the terrible things that haven't happened yet but might. Once you're in hell ... well, things aren't going to get any worse, are they? And there's no doubt, either. You know that you're exactly where you're supposed to be." Xander felt an awful sense of emptiness, listening to him. Spike smiled bitterly, and finished, "Only now I'm not."

"Okay, Spike. Okay." Forget thinking before you speak; Xander just needed to say something, to try to reach Spike across this chasm. "You want to die. I get that."

"Really don't think you do, mate." He wrenched out of Xander's grip, like he hadn't really been trying before now. "Sensation of ten thousand murder victims screaming in your head all the time is a little hard to describe." And he walked away. Hands clenched in fists.

Only he wasn't going anywhere. A couple of steps into the living room he dropped to his knees, put his hands over his head and broke down sobbing.

Xander crouched down beside him, reached out a hand and pulled it back again. He didn't know what to do. "Okay, um, I'm just going to sit here," he said, trying not to sound completely freaked out. Spike's whole body was shaking with these awful, gasping sobs and Xander didn't have a fucking clue how to help him. He didn't figure very good odds on Spike even hearing what he was saying, but he had to try, had to try to make it better. "I'm here, Spike. It's, um, it's okay. It's okay to cry." And after that words just seemed really stupid, so he sat on the floor next to Spike, quietly, and waited.

It took a long time for the sobs to subside. Xander's back was aching, along with his leg and his ribs and his hand, by the time they changed into soft, shuddering whimpers. Spike had fallen onto his side, in a fetal position with his head and knees drawn tight together. Xander reached into his pocket and found a kleenex, and tapped Spike on the shoulder. "Here," he said. "Want this?"

Spike uncurled enough to take the tissue, wipe his eyes and blow his nose. "Wanna sleep," he whispered.

"Okay, but I want you to make a deal with me. Spike?" He touched a couple fingers to Spike's chin, trying to make sure he had his attention. Spike's eyes were red from crying and his breathing was still a little shaky, but Xander thought he was in there. "Listen to me, okay? You want to die. I can't imagine what you're going through, and I guess that's your choice if you want to make it. But remember how the world's ending? You're going to die in, oh, six or seven days, max. Probably less, if the Mirodan are outright hunting me, which it kinda looks like they might be. So, could you just hold on that long? Because I really don't want to wait out the apocalypse alone."

Spike sniffled. "What about the rest of your Scoobies?" His voice was soft, and rough from weeping. "Red was around here a few days ago, I remember that."

This was a hard bit to cover in twenty words or less. Xander squeezed his fingers together, checking the pain. "I'm not part of them anymore. I left a while ago. Willow just came by to help look for you."

Spike blinked up at him. Thinking, maybe. It was hard to meet his eyes directly, they were so full of confusion and pain. Xander's gaze was drawn to Spike's lips, instead. That short pink scar at one corner, souvenir of some human experience that Xander was sure he didn't want to know about.

Spike had said that being alive was worse than being in hell. He'd said it outright, and he'd been in hell. So maybe Xander wasn't doing him a favor, asking him to stay alive. Maybe it was actually cruel.

No. He'll feel better tomorrow, Xander told himself. He just ... he just kind of woke up tonight, like from a bad dream. He needs to rest, and it'll be better.

"All right," Spike said. He reached out and touched the side of Xander's face; his fingers were as light as butterflies. "All right, Harris. I won't off myself tonight while you sleep. I promise."

Xander caught Spike's fingers, so he was holding his hand against his cheek. "What about tomorrow?"

"Fuck off," Spike said—not angrily. His tone was weary, but with a touch of warmth. "That's too far away. Ask me again tomorrow."





Part Eight


Xander woke up all tangled in Spike. Lacking actual pillows, Spike had nestled his head against Xander's shoulder at some point while they slept. His arm was slung across Xander's chest, his fingers somehow entwined with Xander's.

It was a soft, cozy way to wake up, and Xander was comfortable and sleepy-content for the space of a couple of heartbeats. Until he woke up a little more and remembered everything.

"Wondered when you would get up," Spike said as Xander began trying to untangle himself.

"Spike?" Xander rubbed the grit out of his eye and got up on his elbows. "Have you been awake for long?"

"Hour, maybe?" Spike didn't seem worried about any conclusions Xander might draw upon learning that Spike had been consciously snuggling him for an hour. It seemed like he hadn't quite lost the childlike attraction to touch and cuddling that he'd shown when he was all non-verbal and crazy.

Wait .... Hour. Time. Work. Uh oh. Xander rolled his head to the side so he could see the clock on his dresser. The digital readout glowed 3:17. "Shit!" He sat up fast. "I haven't even called in to work."

"Who the fuck cares about work when the world is ending?" Spike asked, perfectly reasonably.

"Right." Xander let himself flop back down on the bed, and just ... let go. All that stuff he'd been trying to hang on to? It was gone. Hello, despair and futility. "Fuck it."

Spike gave him a long, thoughtful look, and then said, "Listen, Harris, you stay there. I'll make breakfast."

Xander half-lifted his head off the pillow. "Promise not to kill yourself in the kitchen?"

"Promise." Spike held up his fingers in a Boy Scout salute. Xander wondered where he'd learned that, but decided not to ask in case the answer was 'I ate a Scoutmaster once.'

"Okay." He let his head flop back down, and contemplated a crack in the ceiling. Shoddy workmanship. Not that it mattered. "Go wild."

Spike came back a couple of minutes later balancing two bowls of cereal.

Xander raised an eyebrow. "So by 'make breakfast' you meant 'pour cornflakes and milk into a bowl?'"

Spike shoved a bowl at him. "Not like I know how to cook. Shut yer gob and eat."

"I don't think I can do both of those things at once."

Spike shot him a look that was more frustrated than amused. Xander wasn't sure if they were joking around or actually sniping at each other. Either way, he was hungry.

They sat on the bed, eating. Xander was poised to tell Spike to keep his crumbs to himself, but Spike was holding his bowl and spoon so carefully that Xander never got an opening. With one leg curled under him, he rested his bowl on his other knee, keeping a hand under it for stability. He leaned forward so his mouth was almost touching the rim and spooned up his cereal in quick, birdlike motions. It was the way he'd been eating ever since Xander brought him home—like he was afraid someone might take the food away—and it made Xander a little sad to watch.

Spike didn't seem to notice Xander watching him until he'd cleaned the bowl. "What?" he frowned. "Got something on my nose?"

"Nah." Xander shrugged. "There's more food in the kitchen if you're still hungry."

Spike leaned over to place his bowl on the floor. "No, I'm full. So, Harris ... got any plans for the day?"

Xander let out a hollow laugh. "I hope you're fucking kidding."

"I'm not." Spike fidgeted while he talked—rolling his shoulders, rubbing his arms, changing position. "Don't wanna just sit here and wait for the bloody apocalypse. Like watching paint dry."

Xander leaned back against the wall. "I always thought we should check you for vampire ADD."

Spike blinked, then said carefully, "I'm not a vampire anymore." Like he was worried it was a social faux pas.

"Shit." Xander clapped his hand over his eye. "Sorry. I'm sorry Spike, it just slipped out. It's just ... this is all kind of taking me back. Being here with you."

Spike looked at Xander, faint worry lines showing on his forehead. "Sorry?" Like he wasn't sure where Xander was going with this.

"No, no, it's cool." Xander patted his foot, which was the only part of Spike he could reach. "Actually ... it's kind of a huge relief. It's been, um, a long time since I could really talk to anyone. I mean, Troy didn't know about any of this stuff...."

"Shame, really. Maybe if you'd told him, he wouldn't have rabbited the first time he saw a demon."

"Thanks, Spike," Xander said with a grimace. "That's exactly what I needed to hear." Then he sighed. "I couldn't have told him anyway. He wouldn't have believed me, and how was I going to prove it? I haven't seen any demon activity in L.A. since I moved here. He would've thought I was crazy ... and we've established that he has ethical problems with having sex with crazy people."

Spike actually smirked. "Came up in conversation, did I?"

"Not like you're thinking now."

"Oh yeah?" The smirk turned up a notch. "What am I thinking, then, pet?"

Xander sank back against the wall. That shouldn't be sexy. It really shouldn't. "Spike, are you hitting on me?"

Spike blinked. "Sort of takes the fun out of it when you point it out like that."

"I don't want to play games, Spike. Not today." Xander rubbed his hand over his eyes, willing himself to stay in control. There was absolutely nothing he wanted to do to Spike right now that Troy would ethically approve of.

"Right then, no games. Wanna fuck?"

Yes. "No!" Xander pulled his knees up closer to his chest—ow—and glared at Spike. "Since when are you into guys?"

Spike shrugged. "Since Angelus."

And that told Xander way, way more than he'd wanted to know. "You might want to note that I'm not him." Xander sighed. "You don't owe me anything, Spike. There's no price for staying here."

"Never thought there was," Spike said, frowning.

"So why do you keep hitting on me when I want it and you don't?"

Spike's eyes narrowed in confusion. "Now you've lost me, mate."

"When I helped you shower the other night? After you kissed me? It was pretty obvious, Spike. You weren't into it."

"Oh." Spike pulled a little closer to Xander, who tried to back away through the wall.

Spike was too close, it was making Xander's pulse go all thumpy, and he was kind of afraid he was going to lose it. That he was going to say to himself any moment now, the world is ending, screw ethics, and jump Spike's bones.

"Xander," Spike said, all calm and serious and way inside Xander's personal space bubble, "I want you. I know I've been—" he made a vague swirly motion with his hand "—in and out. The other night, when you had me in the shower, I was mostly out. Don't remember much, except for being so bloody tired I could barely stand up. Doesn't mean I don't want you."

And then Spike crawled closer and kissed him, and Xander kissed him back.

The nagging little doubts in the back of Xander's mind about whether this incarnation of Spike counted as a consenting adult were no match for his loneliness. And hey, Spike sounded sane. And he kissed like he knew exactly what he was doing.

Maybe guilt was sexy. That was the only possible explanation for how fast Xander got hard, how giddy he felt when Spike nibbled the place where Xander's neck met his shoulder. Spike's fingers were under the elastic of Xander's boxers now, and Xander's fingers were tangled in Spike's hair. Pulling him back up for more kisses. Letting his kisses wander downward.

There was a thing. There was a thing he had to remember, something important. "Spike, wait."

Curious, cautious, Spike backed off and regarded Xander with a slight tilt of his head. His lips were redder now than they had been before the kissing, and the scar stood out more starkly. "What?"

"You have HIV." Xander felt obscurely awkward, bearing this news. It was something that would normally be a pretty fucking big deal, but under the circumstances, maybe not so much. "They tested you when you were at the hospital the first time. I, um, read your chart."

"Oh." Spike took a moment to absorb the fairly irrelevant news. "Well. You'd better use a rubber, then."

Xander felt a hollow laugh bubbling up from his belly. "Spike, the world is ending."

Spike shrugged. "I've heard that one before."

"This time is different, it's—gah!" Xander jerked his head back, hitting the wall so hard he saw stars. Apparently bored with the whole conversation, Spike had just fished Xander's cock out through the fly of his boxers and gone down on him in one smooth motion.

"Okay, oh, God, you can do that," Xander choked out, gripping the blankets so hard it hurt. "Yeah. Keep doing that. Fuck yeah."


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



The thing about sex was, even when it was really good, after a while you had to take a break.

Post-coital snuggling with Spike sounded strange in Xander's head, but the reality was nice. Spike fit into all of Xander's hollow places, like a sun-warmed cat.

Only Xander wasn't ready to doze off again, not after sleeping till quarter past three in the first place. As the glow wore off, he started to get fidgety.

"Wanna watch TV?" he suggested.

"No," Spike said with a sleepy shrug. "You go ahead. I don't mind."

So Spike stayed in the bedroom, and when Xander came back in to check on him five minutes later, he found Spike coloring in one of his notebooks. Xander felt a momentary panic—he's gone again, I broke him—until Spike looked up and said, "What?"

"I kinda thought you wouldn't do that anymore," Xander said with a nod to the notebook.

"Well, it's none of your fucking business, is it?" Spike said, with a dirty look that Xander was sure he didn't deserve.

"Okay, whatever." Xander shut the bedroom door and went back to the Cartoon Network.

A while later, the phone rang. Xander limped towards the kitchen phone with the possibilities ricocheting around in his head—his boss wondering where the hell he was, or maybe Troy wanting to make things right. Oh God, please be Troy. But it only rang twice before it stopped. Figuring Spike must've got it in the bedroom, Xander went to see what was up. Spike was sprawled on the bed with his notebook.

"Did you get the phone just now?" Xander asked.

"Yeah." Spike shrugged. "Was a wrong number, I guess. Nobody there."

"That must have been Troy. He hung up when you answered. Fuck." Xander resisted the urge to punch the door frame, on the grounds of knowing from experience that no good could possibly come of it. "Why'd you answer the phone? You've never done that before."

"Was just trying to be helpful," Spike muttered into his notebook.

"Well ... don't. You've helped enough. Way too much."

Spike looked up with narrowed eyes. "Hey. Not my fault your sodding boyfriend left you, let's keep that in mind."

"Actually, Spike, it was your fault," Xander spat out. He could hear his blood rushing in his ears, and he knew he was about to say things that were better left unsaid. Secrets he'd been keeping all locked away for way too fucking long, and now they were coming up like bad leftover meatloaf. "The whole thing. Troy leaving, Buffy dying, the world ending? It's all your fault."

That got Spike's full attention. "What the fuck are you on about?"

"Wolfram & Hart. Remember them?"

"Big fight, army of darkness, decapitation? Rings a bell."

"Yeah." Xander gripped the door frame, hard. "Yeah, okay. So, it turns out the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart weren't the only game in town. They've dominated our dimension since, oh, forever. But there were other Powers out there, and when Angel's little coup shook up the status quo and weakened Wolfram & Hart, another player tried stepping in. The Raven, the Bear and the Snake, we call it. Them. Whatever. They don't work like Wolfram & Hart. They don't want to use the humans, they just want to kill us. And it looks like they're going to."

"Oh," Spike said quietly. "Well. That's about right, then. Consistent, like. Everything I touch turns to shite." And he ducked his head and went back to coloring.

"Hey! That's it?" Xander went and snatched the notebook away from Spike to force him to look up. He kind of wanted to hit him, but even in the middle of having pretty much completely lost it, he knew that would be crossing a line. So he hit him with words, instead. "Aren't you going to tell me it wasn't your fault? You didn't know? You meant well?!"

Spike responded by rolling over away from Xander and covering his head with his bandaged arms. The clear silent message was 'leave me alone' but he didn't say a thing.

Shit.

From the lofty heights of his cathartic rage, Xander thudded to ground like a brick onto concrete. "I'm sorry," he blurted out. "I shouldn't have said that. I mean, you didn't know. How could you have? I'm just being an asshole. You can have your notebook back, here, Spike? Please don't go away."

Spike's silence rang in Xander's ears. Xander didn't know if Spike was mad at him or going catatonic again or what. He cursed himself silently for being a fucking idiot. Yes, he had a right to be pissed off at his train wreck of a life and his impending horrible death, and yes, all of it was, technically, Spike's fault—but that didn't make saying so a good idea.

He tried hugging Spike, one arm across his hunched shoulders. "Anyway, it's not like I've never accidentally caused apocalypsey events. Hey, remember the time I summoned up that demon that turned our lives into a wacky Broadway musical where the minor characters kept spontaneously combusting?"

"Don't panic, Harris." Spike finally rolled onto his side so Xander could see his face, though he stared at some place on the wall, not meeting Xander's eye. "I'm not going to make with the Punch and Judy show again."

"Okay. Okay, that's good," Xander said with real, heartfelt relief.

Spike finally looked at Xander for real, a hint of amusement quirking at the corner of his mouth. "But I thought you and Mr. Sock were getting to be mates? Watching the telly together and all that."

Xander kept a straight face. "Well, I was running out of clean gym socks."

Spike laughed out loud, and it made Xander feel a little bit lighter on the inside. He decided that maybe it was even finally safe to ask the question that had been bugging him all week. "Seriously, Spike ... what was up with the sock puppet?"

Spike hunched one shoulder in an uncertain shrug. "Dunno. Couldn't seem to bring myself to talk, was all, and then when I put that thing on my hand it was like I wasn't me somehow. It wasn't me. Can't really explain it."

Spike was looking uncomfortable again, and Xander regretted asking. "Never mind. Don't worry about it. Hey, I'm hungry. Are you hungry? And you should take your pills. And I should change your bandages."


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



Changing bandages was another one of those essential Scooby life skills. Xander had Spike sit on the closed toilet lid, and started snipping away the clips on the bandage covering his left arm. That one was crusted with blood on the outside, too, from the fight with the Mirodan. Was that really less than a day ago? Jesus.

The close contact with Spike was different in quality this time from the earlier times Xander had tended to him. This time he knew Spike was present in the moment with him ... and they had the we-recently-had-sex-with-each-other comfort level working for them.

Spike hissed when Xander started to peel away the bandage. "Hurts," he muttered.

"Is it stuck? I can soak it off if it is," Xander said, taking a cautious peek under the edge that he'd pulled up. There was just a little bit of blood spotting the inside of the bandage, nothing that looked like it should cause a problem. He could see the edge of the lowest cut, dark red and angry on Spike's pale flesh.

"Nah, it's just sore. No worries," Spike said. He looked a little queasy, though, so Xander proceeded with caution. He folded back the bandage a little bit at a time, making sure he wasn't catching it on dried blood or bumping Spike's arm with his gloved hand.

He had the first bandage almost completely off before he noticed the pattern of the cuts.

"What?" Spike said. "Something wrong?"

Xander was staring at the marks on Spike's arm, feeling the earth falling away beneath him. "You weren't trying to kill yourself," he managed to say.

At Spike's confused expression, Xander pulled off his gloves and pushed up his sleeves. "Look." He held his arm next to Spike's.

"What are you ... oh," Spike trailed off, seeing what Xander had already seen.

The patterns Spike had carved into his arm matched up exactly with Xander's tattoos.

A casual observer might not realize it at first. The tattoos were etched in black ink with rounded edges, the lines thicker in some places than others, like brush strokes. The designs cut into Spike's skin had an angular quality by nature, and every line was knife's-edge thin. But they matched. Symbol for symbol.

"Bugger me," Spike said, eyeing his arm now with obvious trepidation. "What do they mean?"

"They were for a spell," Xander said. "They let me talk to the Powers that Be."

Spike looked at him in surprise. "Didn't think they took personal phone calls."

"Not usually, no. Thus the complicated ritual and the permanent marking of my flesh with ancient mystical symbols."

Spike raised an eyebrow. "That's dangerous territory, Harris. I assume the witch and the Watcher were in on it?"

By which he meant Willow and Giles, obviously—Spike didn't know how many witches and Watchers were in Xander's life now. Or, rather, had been. Then. "Yeah, they pretty much did all the work. I just stood there and played meat puppet."

"Puppet?" Spike's eyebrow arched higher, and he made a sock-puppet motion with his spare hand.

Xander gave a quick tight grin, acknowledging the irony. "Yeah. Well. That's how it worked—the Powers stuck their hands up my ass and moved my mouth. Um, figuratively speaking."

Spike frowned, taking a moment with the mental image. "Right, then ... what did they say?"

"This was back when we didn't know about the Raven, the Bear and the Snake. We knew something was wrong—the Mirodan had started breaking through into our dimension in scattered little patches, and we were fighting them wherever we found them but we didn't know where they were coming from. Or where they were going to show up next. And I think there were some scary portents or prophecies or something—I don't pay much attention to that stuff. Anyway, we needed to know what was going on. And so the Powers told us." Xander clenched his fist and bent it back, watching the tattoos stretch as his skin moved. The one closest to his wrist, the most powerful, looked like a pointy-tipped gourd on a pile of smooth flat rocks. Or maybe a banana on a slinky. He never could decide. Akoben, the war horn. Symbol of vigilance and wariness. "They also told us we were gonna lose."

"Bloody hell, they're a right bunch of downers."

"Well, here's the thing. Everybody else—Willow, Giles, Buffy—they heard the prophecy. Coming out of my mouth. But I saw it. I saw the world ending, and I knew we couldn't stop it."

"So you left the Scoobies and went to live out the End of Days in nihilistic abandon," Spike finished the story. "Which is to say, working forty hours a week in a factory making kitchen cabinets. There are no words for how boring you are."

Xander shrugged, not taking offense. There was no point. "All I wanted was a normal life. Even if it was only for a year or two."

"Sorry." Spike ducked his head. "Shouldn't be taking the piss. Nothing wrong with looking for a bit of quiet."

"Spike." Xander cupped a hand under Spike's chin and made him look up. "Don't apologize. I like it when you're sarcastic. It makes me feel like the world isn't ending."

Spike gave him a look that verged on affectionate. "You're a funny man, Harris." He touched Xander's arm, tracing the lines of a tattoo with his finger. "So ... what about these? Think they're gonna hurt me?"

"I think they already did," Xander said, remembering Spike passed out on the kitchen floor. "You don't remember cutting yourself? Even now?"

Spike shook his head. "Funny thing, though. I like your tatts. Really like them, I mean—when I look at them I feel all peaceful, like."

"Maybe that's why you did it? You just liked them?"

"Dunno." He frowned. "Don't seem to like mine that much. Don't like looking at them, makes me feel like I'm gonna puke."

"Well, hey, they are kinda gross," Xander pointed out. But he was pretty sure there was more to it than that.

So much for Giles's promise that the tattoos wouldn't matter after the ceremony. Fuck.

And then the phone rang.

"I'll get it," Xander said, standing up so fast his leg almost gave out. "Gah!"

Spike rolled his eyes and jumped to his feet. He beat Xander to the kitchen easily—and then came back holding the portable phone, which was still ringing. "Answer it," he said, tossing it to Xander.

"Troy?" Xander blurted out instead of hello.

"Er, excuse me," said a familiar British voice on the other end, which very much did not belong Troy. "Is that you, Xander?"

"Giles." Xander looked at Spike, whose eyes widened at the name. "Hi. What's up?"

Giles cleared his throat. "I believe I was mistaken last week in dismissing Spike's reincarnation as unimportant."

"No kidding," Xander said drily. "Because—funny thing—remember those mystical tattoos you gave me back in Africa? That weren't supposed to mean anything once we finished with the ritual? Spike carved them into his own flesh last night."

"Good Lord," Giles said. "Events are moving even faster than I realized. Can you have him ready to teleport in half an hour?"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Xander said. "First of all—what events? Why did you call, anyway? And also—how the hell do you get somebody ready to teleport?"

Spike gave Xander a very inquisitive look.

"Make sure he's awake, wearing clothes, and preferably not drunk or high," Giles said impatiently. "I'll explain the rest later." And he hung up.

Xander glared at the phone and tossed it in the general direction of the couch. "Fuck."

"What did he say?" Spike asked.

"Willow's coming to get you in half an hour, and he wouldn't tell me why."

Spike looked down at himself. "I should put on some proper clothes, then."

"Aren't you worried about why they suddenly want to bring you over there?"

Spike looked puzzled. "Hadn't really considered it."

Which was proof, if Xander had needed it, that Spike was not in his right mind. That he needed protection. "Giles wants you for something. Something to do with fighting the apocalypse—if it wasn't about that, he wouldn't be giving you the time of day."

"Don't see why he should. Not like we were best mates," Spike pointed out. "And if he thinks I can help fight the apocalypse ... well, I was the one who caused the bloody thing."

Xander winced. "I should never have said that. I'm so sorry."

"Don't be." Spike shrugged. "Hey, I'm hungry. Maybe we should eat before we go off to save the world?"





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