Disclaimer: This is fanfic, based on the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Characters are property of Mutant Enemy. This story was written for fun, not profit.
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Banner by sueworld2003

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"In Sunnydale."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He felt warm skin, and a hummingbird pulse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Two

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

"What's the plan?" Troy asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Troy arched an eyebrow. "That was funny?"

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

"How would I get hurt?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Troy nodded. "Yeah."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spike fell asleep before the opening credits had even finished.

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

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

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

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

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

That was definitely not of the good.

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

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

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

Time to make a phone call.

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

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

"Hi. Is Rupert Giles there?"

"Who shall I say is calling?"

"Xander Harris."

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

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

And then, finally, "Xander?"

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

"That was Sarah. My wife."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Beg pardon?"

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

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

"As far as I can tell."

"Has he said anything about what happened?"

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

"How long ago did he turn up?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xander sighed. "My old high school librarian."

Troy gave him a funny look. "Seriously?"


"And why won't he help?"

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

"Something to do with Mongolia?"

Xander froze. "What about Mongolia?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Okay. Maybe apocalypses did make him horny.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You mean 'we'."

"We can't both take off work."

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spike stood up immediately.

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

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

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

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

"She's coming back," Troy whispered.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe it was something else entirely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"He remembers everything."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not long enough."

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

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

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

The sock didn't answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

"Something on TV upset him?"

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

"What did you try giving him?"

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

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

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

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

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

"I'll make something," Troy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Hey, Xan, is he actually British?"

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

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

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

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

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

"And who's Drusilla?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But Spike dated her?"

"For years, yeah."

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

"What do you want?" said the sock.

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

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

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

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

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

"Which apocalypse?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sock looked up. "What about Buffy?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Four

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

Today they'd left him home alone.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that he could make a phone call.

"Hello ... Willow?"


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

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

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

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

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

"A locator spell."

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

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

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

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

"So you'll help me look?"

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

"So what do you think we should do?"

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

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


"Why didn't you call her before?"

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

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

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

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

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

"When he wasn't crazy?"

"And when he was."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Willow. Oh my God, Willow."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Especially if."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 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.

Chapter 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.

Chapter 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 tire!"

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 tire!" 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.


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. Tire 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 tire."

"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 tire 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?"


"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."

Chapter 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.


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?"

Chapter Nine

They knew Willow had arrived when they heard the crash.

Xander got out into the living room in time to see her setting the floor lamp upright, looking flustered. "I don't think the bulb broke!" she greeted him.

"Hi Will." He caught her in a hug when she flung herself at him. Her arm was still in the cast, but her eye looked much better. "God. I didn't think I was gonna ever see you again."

She squeezed him hard. "Me too. But now—everything's different. Where's Spike?"

"Right here, pet," he said, coming out of the kitchen with half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his hand. "So apparently I might be good for something after all?"

"Spike!" Willow's eyes went wide. "You can talk!" She turned to Xander. "You didn't say he'd gotten better."

Xander tried pushing a thought at her, hoping the lines were still open. He's better, Will, but he's still not all there. I'm worried about what Giles wants to do with him.

"Oi!" Spike said, glaring. "I can hear you, Harris."

Willow gave an apologetic shrug in Xander's direction. "I set up the link like a conference call, remember? So that we could coordinate our fights?"

"Let's get moving, Red," Spike said. "Aren't there puppies need saving, or something?"

"Will!" Xander grabbed her arm. "How strong are you now? Can you bring me back, too?"

She looked doubtful. "Giles just said to bring Spike."

"You wanted me back in the fight, didn't you? Well, if Spike's in, I'm in."

"What about Troy?" Willow asked with a glance around the apartment as though she'd just noticed he wasn't there.

Spike spoke through a mouthful of peanut butter and jelly. "He buggered off after Harris cut out a demon's heart and gave it to him. Ungrateful little sod, wasn't he?"

"Come on, Will," Xander said, almost begging. "Don't leave me here alone."

"I can bring you both," she admitted. "Are you sure, Xander? If you come with us ... I can't promise I'll be able to bring you back."

"There's nothing here to come back to," Xander said as brusquely as he could manage. Trying not to think about it too much. "So come on. Let's go."


Xander had assumed they were going to England. He'd assumed wrong.

The momentary nothing of teleportation was replaced by a more textured darkness. It was warm and there was a steady breeze that smelled of wide open spaces, grass and earth. Long grass brushed his knees. There was light coming from some source behind him, enough that he cast a wavering shadow. He turned, and saw fire. A wide circle had been cleared of grass, stripped down to dirt, and in the middle there was a fire. A man stood in front of it, and all Xander could see of him was his silhouette, but he knew it was Giles.

"Where are we?" Spike asked, sounding a little awed. He'd never teleported before, Xander realized.

"Ghana," said Willow. "Just north of the Black Volta river." But Xander already knew that.

He limped forward, crossing into the circle of bare earth. "Hi, Giles. So. Here we are again."

"Xander." Giles sounded mildly surprised. He was wearing a battered brown leather jacket, though the night was warm enough that Xander was comfortable in his t-shirt. The firelight glinted on the edges of his glasses, and Xander couldn't quite see his eyes. "I didn't expect you to come."

"It's the end of the world," Xander said, stepping closer. He rubbed his arms. It was probably just his imagination, but the tattoos felt like they were getting warm. "Where else would I be?"

Lightning ripped across the sky in the distance.

Spike stepped up beside Xander. "What is this place?" he asked under his breath.

"It's where we did that spell I told you about," Xander said.

"It's on a power node," Willow added. "I can almost feel it crackling. Like all the hairs on my arms are standing up."

"Yeah." Spike shivered. "I feel it." The thunder rolled.

"Hey, Giles?" Xander said. "Is it time yet to tell us what the hell is going on?"

Giles bowed his head slightly. "When Willow visited you two nights ago, Spike mentioned a prophecy. His reference was irritatingly vague, but I managed to determine that he was referring to the Shanshu cycle."

"Right, the Shanshu prophecies." Spike nodded like it was obvious. "Angel was always going on about them. Well, once he gave up trying to stop me finding out about them, anyhow."

"Now he remembers," Willow muttered.

"The Watchers' Council was aware of the Shanshu cycle, but the texts were considered unreliable," Giles said. "There were multiple, contradictory versions extant, they all showed signs of tampering, and the translations were difficult at best."

"And this helps us how?" Xander asked.

"The texts consistently mention a vampire champion who gains a soul, dies, becomes human, and plays a pivotal role in the apocalypse," Giles said. "The order of these elements varies, but they are always present. Reading the texts with Spike's journey and our current situation in mind ... the correspondence was quite striking."

"If I remember correctly," Spike said, "the prophecy never mentioned which side the vampire was going to fight on."

"True," Giles acknowledged. "To be honest, that didn't worry me." He sounded kind of surprised at himself.

"Well, of course I'm going to try to save the bloody world," Spike agreed. "Just thought I'd point it out. Since there was some question about it, back when everyone thought a certain other vampire-with-a-soul was Prophecy Guy."

Lightning flashed again.

"I think we should start," Willow said. She sounded a little nervous. "I'm not sure how long I can keep us hidden."

Xander looked at her, and noticed for the first time that she'd knelt in the grass and made a little pile of rocks in front of her. "What do you mean?"

"I'm shielding us so the Mirodan can't see us. But I'm not sure how long it'll hold. They're so close to breaking through all over...."

"Then tie off the shield and let's start the ritual," Giles said.

"What's it going to do to him?" Xander asked quickly. "Giles? Remember when I was the telephone line to the extraplanar regions? Remember how Willow had to magically jump-start my fucking heart when they pulled out of me? And then I slept for three days? 'Cause—sorry, Spike, to just say it like this, but—Spike's not in such great shape to start with."

"I don't know." Giles somehow sounded more British than ever, clipped and brusque and impatient. "There's no way to know. There are powers acting here entirely outside of our control. And Spike has already implicated himself in the ritual by cutting the symbols into his skin."

Willow stood up abruptly. "We have to do it now."

"Spike," Giles said, "Look into the fire."

Xander heard Willow starting to chant. The words were in some ancient language; he'd never asked her which one. The crackling of the fire seemed to get louder, and the flames filled his vision. Orange, yellow, black. His hand slipped into Spike's and squeezed tight. The flames were so bright he had to close his eye. He felt like he was falling and the wind was coming from all directions at once and the sound of the fire filled his head.

And then ... quiet.

He opened his eye. He saw ... white.

The air was still and quiet, sterile. His first impression was that he was in a big white room, but he couldn't actually see walls or ceiling or floor, just radiant undifferentiated white.

He turned around and saw Spike standing a few feet away from him. Spike was looking up at nothing, with his lips parted as if in awe and his arms held out at an angle, palms up. The symbols on his arms were glowing with white light.

Xander took a quick look down at his own arms. His tattoos looked normal. Matte black ink on skin.

"Spike?" he said. "Can you hear me?"

Spike shook himself and turned to Xander. His pose shifted into something comfortable and casual—hips canted just a bit, thumbs hooked into the pockets of his borrowed jeans. He smiled. "'Course I can hear you, you daft sod, you're standing right next to me." There was something strange about his eyes, but Xander couldn't quite figure out what it was.

Xander looked around again. Besides him and Spike, there was nothing his eye could even focus on. No shadows or texture, no corners or edges. "Where the hell are we?"

"Right where we were," Spike said. "Standing in front of the fire. What you're seeing isn't real."

There was something about the way he said it that made Xander ask, "What are you seeing?"

"Everything," Spike said, grinning. His eyes sparkled. Literally. That's what was strange about them—pinpricks of light, dancing like reflections only not. "I see everything, Xander. I understand what's happening."

"Okay, great, well that makes one of us." This was completely different from the first time Xander had done the ritual. He didn't feel any strange Powers hijacking his brain or his vocal chords. He felt pretty normal, actually.

Possibly because all of the fucked-up weird stuff was happening to Spike.

"Your Watcher got the ritual wrong," Spike said. While he spoke, he gazed ecstatically into the distance. "When he did it before, using you. The Powers needed blood, not ink. They needed a conduit, not a mouthpiece."

"Is that what you are now?" Xander stepped a little closer, wanting to touch Spike, but hesitating. The designs cut into his arms were too bright to look at directly. "A conduit? For what?"

"You never ask the right questions. You asked them if you could stop the Raven, the Bear and the Snake. You can't."

"But you can?"

"No, they can. The fucking Powers that Be!" Spike laughed. "The Raven, the Bear and the Snake are Powers. Rival powers. The Powers that Currently Are don't want the Powers that Are Somewhere Else to impinge on their territory."

"Okay, so why don't they stop them? What the hell are they waiting for?"

"They can't act directly in our plane. They can only nudge, like. So they nudged me into your path, and here we are." He laughed again. "I can act. So now the power's flowing through me. It's like sex and heroin and being President, all rolled up together and multiplied by a million. Christ, Red would love this."

Okay, this was getting more than a little scary. Xander had a pretty strong suspicion that Giles had had no fucking clue what was going to happen when he'd decided to start up the ritual. "What are you going to do?"

"Already doing it." Spike was still staring at nothing with the crazy light-show eyes. "I'm nailing the door shut."

"You're doing what, now?"

"Cutting us off. Isolating our dimension. Making it so nobody can get in or out."

Xander stared at him. "You can do that?"

"It's easy." He tilted his head back and shuddered, still smiling. "The PtB aren't gonna like it, though. This wasn't their plan."

Xander was trying to process what Spike had just told him. He's locking the Mirodan out.

The attacks would stop.

The world wasn't going to end.

Holy fuck.

Xander felt like laughing hysterically, but he swallowed hard against the urge. The rest of Spike's words had just sunk in. "Are you fighting the Powers that Be?"

"Not exactly." Spike shuddered again and Xander grabbed his shoulder without thinking, afraid he was going to fall over. Spike's skin felt hot, even through his t-shirt. "Nothing they can do." And he collapsed.

Xander managed to save him from falling, at least. He lowered him to the floor, keeping hold of his shoulders, and settled with Spike's head on his lap. The way Spike was shaking, that was the only way to keep his skull from hitting the floor—which, despite being imaginary, felt as hard as rock. Spike's eyes were open, but Xander didn't know what he was seeing. "What's going on, Spike? What's happening to you?" His whole body was almost too hot to touch.

It was hard to hear Spike's reply. "They want to make me a god." His voice was hoarse and uneven, shaken by the tremors wracking his body.

"They what?"

Spike broke into wheezing laughter. "They don't like me blocking the exits. Cramps their style. They want me to kill all the Mirodan instead. And then they'll make me a god."

Xander's brain was going numb from the hugeness of all of this. "So are you going to do it?"

"Fuck no. Not playing by their rules. They don't even get it—I am God." And then his head jerked back hard and he started convulsing, shaking so hard Xander couldn't hold on. He scrambled away crab-like from the sudden intense heat and watched in horror.

Light was streaming out of Spike now—out of the cuts on his arms, his eyes, his mouth. His head thunked against the floor again and again, and his fingers were splayed wide. Xander could see the cords in his neck straining. Whatever was happening, it looked like it was killing Spike. And Xander couldn't do a thing.

And then it stopped. The lights in Spike's body blinked out and he went limp, panting. Xander crawled forward to his side. "Spike? Are you ..." He trailed off, not even sure what to ask. Are you okay? Are you God now?

Spike rolled his head to the side and looked at Xander. His eyes looked normal now, blue and flat and brimming with tears. "It's almost over. Puppies and Christmas are safe again."

"Spike, shit, you're bleeding." Some of the cuts on his arms had reopened. There were smears of blood on his skin.

Spike pushed himself up into a sitting position, and looked at his arms. "No worries," he said. "This isn't my body."

"Which brings me to my next question—how do we get out of here?"

"You'll wake up back in Ghana," Spike said. "Won't be long now."

"Wait, wait, what about you?" Xander didn't like the way Spike was talking. Didn't like the way his head was drooping now, like he was sleepy.

"I did it," Spike said. His words were getting sleepy, too. He looked like he was going to lie down, but Xander scooted in closer and took him in his arms instead. Spike still felt warm, but more 'slightly feverish' than 'burning with supernatural fire.' "Closed off the dimension. Closed off the Powers, too. Just one thread left to snip, and then it's all neat and tidy."

"No." Xander suddenly felt all shaky and hollow. "What are you doing, Spike? Are you telling me you'd rather die than ... than be a fucking god?"

"Think I wanna spend eternity with the rest of those boring fucking busybodies?" Spike chuckled, barely making a sound. "Bugger that. I'm ending this."

Xander started feeling panicky. "We had a deal though, remember? You weren't going to kill yourself?"

"Deal was just for last night." Spike closed his eyes for a second or two, but he kept on breathing. "Besides, Harris, you're not alone anymore. You're back in the fold. Red and the Watcher will give you a place to stay. Boyfriend might even return your calls once he hears about the mysterious natural disaster that wiped out Mongolia. He'll want explanations, and you can give them to him." He closed his eyes again.

"Spike, no. Don't—don't snip the thread." Xander squeezed him, desperate. He hadn't quite realized until this moment how strongly he felt. Now that the world wasn't ending, it wasn't fair to still be losing people. Losing his lover. Spike was his lover. He didn't know how that happened, but it had, and they hadn't even fucking talked about it after, and now Spike was dying in his arms. "Don't go back to hell. Please? It ... it makes me sick to think about. You don't deserve that. If you stay with me, things will get better. I promise."

Spike opened his eyes and smiled at Xander, but it was a sad, weary smile. "I'm not going to hell. I'm not going anywhere."

"You're ... staying?" Xander wasn't quite sure he understood, but he felt a flicker of hope.

"I'm going nowhere." Spike's smile brightened a little. "I'm gonna stop existing, Xander. Gonna have peace."

Xander felt a tear running down his cheek as his heart just kinda ... broke. Fuck. Not like there was anything he could say to that. Oblivion seemed like a pretty sucky reward for saving the world, but if Spike's existence was nothing but suffering, why shouldn't he end it?

"Don't cry, you poof," Spike said, his voice so quiet Xander could barely hear him. "Give me a fucking kiss good-bye."

So Xander leaned in and closed his eye and gave him a kiss. Spike's lips were warm and rough, as though dried out by the immense power that had recently filled him. His hand closed on Xander's and squeezed, once, as they kissed.

And then Spike's lips stopped moving. Xander opened his eye and saw the night, the fire ... and Willow watching him, wide-eyed.

He was kneeling on the dirt in Ghana, and Spike was cradled limp in his arms.

Giles coughed politely. He was standing just off to the side. "It's over, then."

It wasn't quite a question, but Xander answered anyway. "I think so. Spike ... " His throat closed up, and he had to swallow and squeeze his eyes shut for a moment before he could go on. "Spike said he closed off our dimension. Shut out the Mirodan. They can't attack us anymore."

"We know," Willow said. "We heard everything you were saying. I guess you couldn't see us, though."

"Oh." That was a little startling, but ... it wasn't like it mattered now.

Willow crouched down beside Xander and picked up Spike's limp wrist as though she might check for a pulse. "I can try to save him," she said quickly, softly, for Xander's ears alone. "I didn't understand a lot of what the two of you were saying, but ... I can have him in a hospital in London in ten seconds if you ask me to."

"No." Xander hugged Spike tighter and fought back the temptation to ask Willow to do it. "That's not what he wanted. And anyway, I don't think it would work. It's not like he just slit his wrists this time, Will. He used the powers of the gods to ... to make himself not exist."

Giles stepped in close. The firelight caught his face in a complex mix of sadness and relief. "I underestimated him," he said, crouching down next to Xander and Willow, looking at Spike. "Many times. Buffy never made that mistake. I think that if she were here tonight, she would not be surprised to learn that Spike has managed to save us all. Again."

"So ... what now?" Xander's voice was rough, barely in control. He didn't mind crying in front of Willow, but he felt more restrained with Giles there. And he didn't want to let go of Spike.

"Come back to England with us," Willow said. "There's always a place for you."

"What about Spike?"

"The Council will bury him with highest honors," Giles said. "His body will rest near Buffy's, with the other warriors who died in this fight."

Xander swallowed hard. Still working hard on the not breaking down in front of Giles. He lowered the body gently down onto the ground, and crossed Spike's arms over his chest. "Okay," he managed to say. "Let's do it." He kinda wanted to yell at Giles that he didn't care about that stuff, but he knew, too, what a big deal it was for Giles to offer Spike a hero's burial. He'd never even liked him.

Of course, neither had Xander. Funny, how things could change.


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Author's Notes

Title: Sock Puppet
Author: Shadowscast
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Pairing: Spike/Xander
Genre: angst, h/c, post-series
Rating: R
Spoilers: BtVS & AtS, whole series
Disclaimer: None of them are mine. This was written for fun, not profit.

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

This story was written for the Fall for S/X ficathon. My posting day was November 19, 2006. You can find the original post here.

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

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