Reader's DVD commentary for
Bogle Scat (link to story currently unavailable)
by witling

I can't believe I managed to screw up the courage to do this commentary. Hell, I can't believe I managed the courage to ask permission. I also sort of can't believe that I managed to get the damn thing half-written without ever emailing it to myself, because I email myself files all the damn time. Just in case I might want to work on something when I don't have my own machine handy. So. I'm going to try to believe that the original file, irretrievable on my poor dead laptop was not full of thoughtfully articulate genius observations. Um, I'm pretty sure it couldn't have been, since I've never produced such things before. Anyway.

So this is my very favorite fic ever. And it's unfinished. And I'm pretty confident it isn't ever going to be finished. Which I am fine with. For a couple of reasons that I'll address later. This is the fic I have used (when it was still publicly posted) to suck a few people into reading fanfic in general. This is also the only piece of writing that has ever physically injured me.

Yeah. Okay, so a few years back? I was feeling a little stressed, and not sleeping. Or rather, I was falling asleep just fine around 1 am, but then waking up at 4. Or 4ish. Wide awake. And it was easier to creep into the kitchen with my laptop to divert myself with the internet than to lie in bed with my brain going in circles. So that's what I did. And I did my best to be quiet, which means at some point in the middle of this I snorted at something (ladylike, that's me!) and tried to hold it in and twitched hard, wrenching something in my neck. Couldn't turn my head for a week. I have no regrets.

And that would be what a dead Du Pont's Variegated Cacodemon looked like. Smaller, somehow. Less imposing. And with a rake sticking out of its back. I love this opening. I love that it starts focused in so tightly. And that it's a demon name made up of two freestanding modifiers and a prefix. I'm not doing the math right now (because I think I would have to do a little chart, like I used to for 4th grade word problems), but this implies many varieties of cacodemon are out there. Maybe this is an heirloom variety! Like with tomatoes.

Xander sighed, put a heel against the thing's cranium, and pulled the rake out with a memorable popping sound. Thank God for metal tines. And Dumpsters. And damn, he was almost out of Hefty bags. Living on the Hellmouth, you could never have enough Hefty bags. The kind with the drawstring were the best. It's like a tree of thoughts. I really like Witling's characterizations, and the particular strength of this story is the way it's lodged tightly inside Xander's head. Which is a place where connections are made very quickly between a lot of subjects, and half of the whimsy turns out to be the result of exhaustion.

He was back from the shed, shaking the bag open, when something moved behind him and he spun, Nijinsky for a panic-blind second, the rake raised. Spike was already stepping back, grinning, his hands raised in the universal sign for harmless, you idiot. Xander translates every gesture, and reads into everything everyone else says. Generally at his own expense, in a knee-jerk way. Not that I don't think he isn't interpreting Spike correctly, here.

The other thing that I want to point out here is the slight push-back on the cultural referents. Which I think is very true to the show - the references that are made aren't rooted in right now, or ten years ago, but just a little farther back. Or a lot further back. Not contemporary. It's re-run culture, pre-cable. It hits just the right tone - mid-century suburban. Stretching through to the seventies, or so. Nijinsky, not Nureyev or Baryshnikov. Xander's a strangely mid-century guy, now that I think about it.

"Holy fuck." Xander's arms were hard, loaded, and for a minute he considered bringing the rake down anyway. Wouldn't kill him. Might teach him not to go tiptoeing through other people's tulips. Ah, annoyance. And temper.

"For the love of God," Spike said, taking another step back. "Don't tidy me." Mocking: check.

Xander took a breath and lowered the rake. "Spike. And now, leave."

Spike craned his neck to look past Xander's shoulder. "Juvenile. You try sticking a fork in one of the adults, you'll understand why Du Pont's last words were 'Get it off me'." Belittling achievements: check.

"Uh huh. Right now, I just want it off my lawn. Before I have to explain it to city council." Xander shook the Hefty bag out with a crack and crouched down at the head. Spike's feet didn't move. "Help or move on, Spike."

After a second, Spike's hands came down and took hold of the proboscis. "Count of three, yeah?" I think Spike is helpful a lot of the time out of a combination of boredom and a desire to be included. He's kind of, well, not needy exactly. But very social. And conflicted about it.

The Dumpster was closer to full than he'd thought; they had to lug the thing two blocks down to the big blue bin behind the Cinerama and sink it in buttery topping. I love the idea that they have to go Dumpster to Dumpster, peeking in to figure out if there's still enough space to hide bodies. What sort of a ratio do you use for that, anyway? Also, there must not be a whole lot of Dumpster-diving in Sunnydale, I can't imagine it would be worth the risk. There was already an occupant; Xander couldn't remember the name but he remembered the little lamprey mouth and the chunk it had taken out of his wrist. Like some sort of undercover supernatural Orkin man. I also like the way that the demons in this story are vermin, and all small enough to treat that way. Doxol, or droxor, or something. Whatever. It sank. The Du Pont's took some prodding, and they both ended up with rancid petroleum product on their sleeves. I'm thinking now that the benefit of the drawstring Hefty is the way it doesn't seal anything close to airtight. Otherwise there'd be a whole floating bag issue. Am I over-thinking this?

"Filthy," Spike said, flicking his arms irritably as they walked back up the street.

Xander shrugged. He was exhausted. Apparently the adrenaline he'd used to tidy the Du Pont's had been his last. Shrugging alone made his shoulders ache. The thought of putting the rake away made him want to groan.

"That wasn't quite disgusting enough," Spike was saying. "Next time, could we bury the body in warm mayonnaise?" So I really wasn't bothered by the congealed buttery topping image, but warm mayo with dead and broken giant bug things in it? That freaks me out a little. I'll admit it: I have a mayonnaise phobia. I'm also freaked out by veins. Okay, my skin is crawling. Veins and mayonnaise. And it's my own fault. Yick.

"Spike." Xander rubbed the back of his neck, then heeled his hands into his eyes. He yawned, popping his jaw. "What time is it?" Verbing! There's a lot of verbing in Witling's writing, and it's effective. It actually makes things more immediate and visceral. When I do this, it's gimmicky. That doesn't stop me, mind. Okay, I was just pausing to appreciate that image. I mean, it's grimy with tired.

Pause. "Two thirty."

"Jesus Christ." He stumbled over the edge of the boulevard, opened his eyes, corrected course. "I have to be at work in five and a half hours."

The thought of going to work, spending another day like this, fried and stoner-eyed and tracking very slowly on the real world, was unendurable. He took a deep breath and rubbed his neck again. Unendurable was overstating things. It was endurable. Caffeine pills made it so. Also, fritters. Well. It is endurable. But there are limits. But I like the way that this train of thought falls down defeated, then picks itself right back up again. Like Xander goes through this every day. Like every day since he met Buffy he's done this, hit the wall of tired and tunneled right through to the other side. And he's at least twenty here, and working full-time, and it has to get harder every single day.

Someday, when they were finished saving the world and they all got to walk up the aisle and Leia put the medals around their necks, he was going to take the podium, nod graciously, and then just...sleep.

"Right. About that."

He looked sideways at Spike, who was looking sideways at him. Who looked away quickly when he saw Xander looking, and started fishing in his pockets. "You're going to work in a bit, right?" Heh. Okay, he's so sketchy.

Xander said nothing. He had a bad, belated feeling he'd just rubbed rancid buttery topping all over his face. Reaction, tangent. There's a rhythm to it. Spike pulled his cigarettes out of his pocket, tapped one against the pack, and lit it carefully. Probably afraid he was going to go up in a tarry bonfire of butter substitute.

"You work all day, yeah?" Spike was looking at him, the used car salesman look, and Xander sighed.

"What's wrong with your crypt?" he asked.

Spike muttered something, stuffing his cigarettes back in his pocket.


Spike dragged hard on his cigarette, briefly contemplated something in the middle distance, then said, "Exterminator." Okay, if this isn't a lie? Do you think you can really get exterminators to fumigate crypts? I'd just use a bug bomb. Unless it was termites or something. Which isn't likely, since: stone.

"You're fumigating your crypt?"

Spike frowned. "Gets buggy. Helps to clean it out once in a while."

Xander opened his mouth, then closed it. Then raised his hand, index finger raised. "Okay. First. That's stupid."

Spike shrugged.

"Second. You're a vampire. You don't want to breathe fumes? Don't breathe."

Spike wrinkled his nose. "Gets in my clothes." His one set of clothes. That he's wearing.

"Third. You have nowhere else to stay?"

"Not just at the moment, no."

"Fourth. Spike. This is the third time." It's a trend, then. Also - wonder what the excuse was the other two times.

Spike flicked a glance at him, then went back to examining the treetops. "You've got cable." He's he not making eye contact in order to be blasé about it?

Xander looked up at the treetops too. Nothing up there, as far as he could tell, but then he hadn't seen the Du Pont's behind the shed, either. Not until it was practically siphoning him.

They were up to his apartment now, and he started across the lawn, fishing in his pocket for his keys. Five and a half hours. Jesus Christ.

Spike grabbed his arm suddenly, and he jumped, almost lost his balance, and found just enough adrenaline to remember what slight panic tasted like. "What?"

Spike pointed at the lawn in front of him. The rake was still there, tines up, waiting for his foot. It looked funny when the Three Stooges did it, but right now it looked more like a broken nose. He bent down carefully and snagged the handle. Xander's such a zombie here. He's an easy mark because of that, and also because as much as he hates vampires in general and Spike (ostensibly) in particular, he's kind of a doormat. Or, you know, a nice word for doormat. Accommodating. Also weirdly lonely and socially needy.

"Yeah, okay. But this is seriously the last time, Spike."

He left the rake behind the hydrangeas, and they went up.

He stumbled twice on his way up the stairs--the second time with a muttered whoah, a moment of weightless teetering, and a brief vision of sledding straight back down to the landing on the back of his head. When you couldn't climb stairs without courting chiropractics, it was time to sleep.

His apartment smelled like home. The Sunday sports section was still papering the floor by the coffee table, and his whites were still languishing unsorted in the armchair. Six-thirty pm sun was slanting through the kitchen venetians. I can see this so clearly, smell it. Sun-warmed carpet, dust floating lazily through the previously still air. He shed his coat and shoes en route to the sink, drank half a glass of water with his eyes closed, and made for bed. Six thirty meant he had two and a half hours to examine the inside of his eyelids before he had to take a rake to any more cacodemons. It's good time management. Two modes: adrenaline and asleep.

The bedroom was dark and stuffy and hot. He yanked his shirt off, thumbed open his fly, and started shuffling forward with his trousers heading slowly south. Just before dropping onto the mattress, he actually looked at it. And stopped.




Somewhere under the blankets--and he didn't sleep with all those, he hadn't even known he owned all those--something shifted. He waited. Nothing. He leaned down, yanked his trousers back up, and buttoned them firmly. Oh, Xander. You and your body-shyness. It's sort of saddening, really. Then he lifted the bottom of the blanket and grabbed a skinny white ankle.

"Spike. You have negative three seconds to be out of my bed." He jerked the ankle, and got bare calf. "Also, you are to be wearing clothes."

Spike muttered something he didn't catch, and he tightened his grip. "One of us worked all day, Spike. Better still, one of us pays rent." He dropped the ankle and stepped to the side of the bed, where Spike's jeans and shirt were lying in a pile. "God. Do you have to be naked?" Yeah, I sort of agree, here. I mean, yes, of course Spike sleeps naked. It's canon. Also, vampire - he's naked or fully clothed. They are not creatures of the middle-ground.

Another mutter, and he bent over, hooked Spike's T-shirt with one awkward, swinging hand like a shopping mall prize grab, then stood holding it, staring hopelessly at the sprawled lump under his blankets. "I'm too tired for this."

No argument from the lump, so he thought briefly about the couch, a hundred miles away and requiring the shifting of cushions, the closing of venetians, the plugging-in of the Scooby alarm. There was no justice in his life. No justice, and no dignity. Yeah. Well, that's nothing new.

He dropped the T-shirt and poked the lump somewhere that seemed safe and dorsal. "Move over."

After a pause, the lump shifted. He dropped into the indentation it left behind, fumbled with the alarm clock, and let his eyes roll back in his head. Sleep peeled him smoothly up the middle. I love that image because I can imagine just how it feels. Falling asleep is so often couched in the same terms (falling terms. Yeah) - but this is using the reverse, and it's just as effective. Maybe more effective. And definitely right for the inside of Xander's head.

Daphne wanted to say thank you to all her sorority sisters for all their support and understanding, and it was a sweet seventy-three degrees at eighty fifty-eight in the pm, end of another sunny day in Sunnydale, and here came the Stones with "Satisfaction," and play safe, kids. Cat-in-heat guitar chords. Please God. Five minutes. Five more minutes with the collective unconscious. Paradigmatic alarm-clock feelings.

The world gaffed him, hauled him to the surface, and stood over him with its club raised. Water images for waking - but not the splash awake that's usual, but rather another reversal. I love this. I also love the way this is turned right around for Wesley in The Assistant, so that sleep is the violence, not waking. He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. Stucco. Navajo White. The light was shuttered, lemony, horizontal. shuttered, lemony, horizontal. Touch, taste, balance. He was hot, lying on top of the sheets. Still wearing his jeans. The waistband was cutting into his side. It's like every groggily unrestful nap ever. Gummy.

He groaned and rolled over to kill the Stones, then lay for a minute with his eyes closed, his forehead pressed to the cool wood of the bedside table. He'd spend Saturday fixing the air conditioning. Or sleeping. Or working overtime, because Innovative had sent the wrong insulation again, and someday, God willing, he'd have a job where he wasn't the guy who worked Saturdays to make up for other people's screwups.

He was pleasantly afloat in that world when there was a small movement on the other side of the bed, and he remembered: Spike.

He lifted his head and looked over his shoulder. Spike was there somewhere, half off the far side of the mattress under a moraine of blankets. He looked kind of...flat. Like he was mostly blanket. He hadn't moved. Glacial geography in stifling heat. There's all of this tension via imagery, it creates this sort of over-sharpened picture, focused down on single details so that the edges blur away. It's only like that on people (and sort-of-people). Like Xander's attention is pulled over magnetically.

Xander heaved his legs off the bed and pushed himself to his feet. "Rise and shine, dead guy."

He ran the shower cool-to-cold, then warmed it up slowly as he stood under it. His wrist stung: the lamprey bite. Droxol. Droxol? Now it was going to bug him. It's the little things. He toweled off, called his beard good, and wrapped himself in yards of good thick terry cloth before heading back to the bedroom.

It had got darker while he'd been showering, and the bedroom was murky and airless. He went straight to the dresser and rifled it for shorts, shirt, and staking trousers. An outfit that said I'm nobody's lunch. Over his shoulder, he noticed that the lump of Spike hadn't moved. A million details, fast fast fast. And none of them really standing out, just Xander, humming along, thoughts like static. Getting by.

"Spike." He was almost out of socks; on Saturday, he'd do laundry. "Hey. Rip. Time to get the hell out of my bed." He gathered an armload of clothes, checked his towel tuckage, and started back out the door. "Feel free to get less naked while I build to a repressed panic in the next room." Heh. Bathroom too steamy for dressing? It was a cool shower.

He hadn't dried off very well, which made it hard to struggle quickly into his shirt and trousers. Part of him was sure Spike was going to round the doorway while he was pantsless, and mock him for his construction tan. Modesty, again. Except it's not just that, it's hugely insecure. Didn't happen. Dressed, he went back to the bedroom door and stuck his head around. The Spike lump hadn't moved.

"Spike." He cleared his throat and took a step forward. "Hey. Spike."

Nothing, and he started to feel a funny little tickle in the base of his spine. Maybe he's dead, his brain muttered, and he scowled and flicked it in the cerebellum. "Lestat. Come on. Places to go, demons to rake." He took another step forward, and squinted in the darkness. "Okay, you're starting to seem kind of...deaf."

He stood there a second, then took the last few steps all at once, and poked the lump without letting himself think about it. Part of him was waiting for it to--what, crumble to dust? And that would officially be the creepiest thing ever, and he could just go straight to Sunnydale General and get fitted for the Valium shunt. Um. I think I would flip. And never sleep in a bed again. Even if I didn't like the guy. It's kind of a horror movie staple, waking up next to someone and not realizing they're missing part of a torso or something until later. Some other time he'd examine the fact that he didn't find it especially creepy just to have napped next to a dead guy. Well. He's always dead. And Xander doesn't find it creepy to watch TV with him, or inspect Dumpsters with him, so.

The lump was firm but yielding. It twitched slightly, and his heart started beating again.

"Spike, you moron." He pulled the sheets down and clicked the bedside lamp on. "Catlike reflexes, my a--"

Spike's eyes flickered open and then immediately squeezed shut again, his hand up to block the light. His mouth looked pained. The veins on his hand stood out blue. Xander regarded him for a minute, then carefully tipped the lamp to the wall. 60 to zero in no time flat. Xander's whole attitude changes here. Which is believable. Like I sort of said before: doormat. I mean: caring. Not much tolerance for anyone else in pain, unless he's in high rant mode.

"What'd you do, drink all day?" And he's being careful even though his first guess is that Spike did this to himself, irresponsibly.

Spike shook his head minutely, and mouthed something inaudible.

"You don't look so good."

The hand came down, and Spike squinted at him. His eyes were bloodshot and sunken.

"You sick?"

Spike shook his head, looked around the room as if surprised to find himself in it, and started to sit up. It seemed like it was going to take a while, so Xander walked around to the other side of the bed and picked up Spike's shirt and jeans. He turned the shirt right-side out and tossed it onto the blankets over Spike's lap.

"Time for me to go make the world safe for semi-viscous bipeds. And time for you to go home." He dumped Spike's jeans on the foot of the bed. "And by the way, next time you fumigate, book a motel."

Spike was staring at him blankly. He'd picked up the shirt, and was carefully, laboriously, reversing it again. Xander watched him do it, then watched him start to pull it slowly over his head, as if his arms weighed almost too much to lift.

"Spike." He was getting the cold creepy in his spine again. Spike pulled the shirt over his head, the tag turned up against his throat. He looked down at it in confusion. The crawl in Xander's back started up his neck. "Okay. Um. Spike? Are you feeling all right?" Spike's so slow in this, so muddled and quiet. It's completely wrong. Obviously wrong.

Spike reached up and touched the tag, grimaced, and started to pull his arms slowly back through the sleeves. "'m fine," he muttered under his breath.

"You're wrestling your shirt. And you look...peaky." He looked, in the sideways table light, like a deathshead. He'd looked fine the night before. Did vampires get the flu?

Spike yanked his left arm free, and there was a snap of ripping stitches. Then he just sat there, his head dropped, as if the effort had exhausted him. Xander swallowed.

"Okay. Um." He was supposed to be at Giles's place in...ten minutes ago. Spike was probably hung over, or maybe he had a cold or something. Whatever. Giles would know. Thank God for Giles. "Okay. Change of plan, Spike. You hang here, hold down the fort. I'm going to go pass the buck." All this faith in Giles. And in Willow, and in Buffy. And relief at the very idea of ceding responsibility. Because even though he isn't responsible for this, he moves into position to be. Automatically, without even realizing.

Spike didn't move until he went over and plucked nervously at a corner of the T-shirt. Then he raised his head and gave Xander a bleary, confused look. His eyes looked pale and poached. Yeah.

"You want a hand getting this off?"

He watched that go through the penny drop, watched the sneer start to work its way up, and just pulled the damn thing off over his head before it had a chance to surface. And this is a great illustration of how slowly Spike's moving. Glacially. Pushed him back into the mattress with a finger on his shoulder. Like glacial putty. "Just stay here for now."

He clicked the light back off, and was halfway out the door before he realized he was still holding Spike's shirt, and that he should probably leave that behind. Awkward distraction. Embarrassment even though I'm pretty sure no one is catching him at it.

"Okay. So." Buffy dropped the corner of the sheet and stepped back. "He's sick." Blunt. Clear. I like this Buffy a lot, she's smart, and caring, but not a genius, and not subtle.

"Yeah," Xander said from his station by the door. "Sorry, did I not mention that?" Willow gave him a look, and he gave her one right back. And. Right there. Best friends, in a way that I can believe. "He's sick in my bed, if I can petition the court to add a clause."

"Yes, Xander," Giles said quietly. "You mentioned that as well."

"'m not sick," Spike muttered. They all ignored him.

"Did anything new?" Willow tried. "Or, um, travel?" Hahahaha. Yes. And she is a genius, but also inept. In a really endearing, sweet way.

Everyone looked at her, and she blinked. Xander gave her a little smile. And everyone loves Willow. Which makes me crazy nostalgic for the first few seasons, when Willow was lovable. Before the show started spending more time telling the audience to love her than showing why.

"Okay," Buffy said again, sitting down on the foot of the bed. "So, Spike is sick. In Xander's bed. For reasons best--"

"I told you," Xander said. "He was supposed to be on the couch. And his crypt was being fumigated--" It was a flimsy reason when Spike sold it originally. And it just gets flimsier.

"--best known to himself," Buffy finished, raising an eyebrow at Xander. "And he's been like this how long?"

"I don't know. Since I got home, at least."

"And so far it's just...this?" Giles tipped his head to look over the top of his glasses at Spike. Spike stared back at him with slitted eyes. "Just this...fatigue?" That's kind of under-stating things a bit, no?

"Maybe it's mono," Willow said. "Oh! Hey! Maybe he got it from someone's blood, because it can be transm--" She broke off. Yeah. Just right. She can see the implications, she's just giddy producing possible solutions.

"Except he doesn't drink people blood now," Buffy said. She dropped a hand onto what was probably Spike's foot, buried under the blankets. "Does he." Her fingers tightened, and Spike made a strangled sound and tried to jerk his leg free. Buffy held on.

"Buffy," Giles said after a moment.


He nodded at her hand, and she looked down at it with something like surprise. "Oops. Sorry." She let go, and Spike immediately yanked both legs up and curled into a ball near the headboard. Buffy looked back over her shoulder at him and sighed. "Okay. what?"

Giles hesitated. "It's difficult to say. Spike himself is best qualified to explain this, and since he refuses to admit there's--"

"'m not sick," Spike muttered again, and Giles waved a hand at him.

"Precisely. Without Spike's co-operation, our options are limited." He crossed his arms and regarded Spike closely. "If you're not sick, Spike, then surely you can dress yourself and clear out of Xander's apartment." Okay, that's just snippy to be snippy. Which, again, in character. Giles has very little patience for Spike. I bet Spike reminds Giles of somebody, like his dad or some kid he hated at school or something. I mean, Giles reacts to Spike the way I react to guys who remind me of my dad. Possibly I'm projecting.

There was a pause, and then Spike started to sit up, bracing himself against the headboard. His arms trembled. When he started to slide his legs sideways, out from under the blankets, Buffy got up off the bed.

"I don't need to see this. Giles, he's sick. Let's let him sleep it off, and if he doesn't get better, we'll--" That went off a cliff, and Xander caught Willow giving him a quick, worried, we're all still on the good side here, right? kind of glance. Yes. Buffy, for all of her recognition that things can be grey, has a very black and white worldview. Willow is too thinky to not worry about that.

"We'll find out what's wrong," Giles said gently. Buffy gave him a tight smile.

"Right." And she's the general, here. They can only spend so much in the way of their resources on someone who is at best an occasional reluctant ally, and at worst an active enemy. At least while they're tied up in a situation. Which they are. Cacodemons, remember?

Spike was still inching out from under the blankets, and Xander waited for someone to tell him to stop. Nobody did. "Uh, we're going to get NC-17 here in a second, if he continues that thought." Xander has offloaded all responsibility. He's peanut gallery to the action in this scene, by his own choice.

Willow got interested in the windowframe, and Buffy turned her back and rolled her eyes. "Spike," she said, "get back in bed."

He paused, braced himself on one hand, raised the other, and gave her two shaky fingers.

"He's flipping me off, isn't he?" Buffy asked Giles. Giles looked noncommital and cleared his throat.

"Spike, Buffy's right. You're not well enough--"

"'m not sick," Spike gritted.

"Quite right. You're perfectly well, but you may be contagious, so if you'd do us all the favor of staying--"

"Contagious?" Xander repeated. "We never discussed contagious."

"Xander, it's fine, just wash your sheets." Buffy looked at Giles. "It's fine, right?" Yeah, since she's the medical expert here.

"Well, given that we don't know what he--"

"Man, I slept with him," Xander said. Was he tired? Yeah, he was. Well, he was always tired. More tired than usual? Maybe. And the Dro-whatever, fuck it, the lamprey bite, it itched. That could be a bad sign. What the hell kind of flu did vampires get, anyway? Xander-static. Xatic. He's just bitching, and he expects to be ignored. But that's just not how his life works.

The room was very quiet all of a sudden. He looked at Willow, then Buffy, then Giles, and they were all looking at him with more or less the same expression. He held up one finger. I'm guessing that expression is something in the family of wtf.

"Okay. Hang on. Napped. Not 'slept with.' And not 'with.' Next to."

"You napped with Spike?" Buffy was looking at him like he'd just admitted to selling The Watchtower in his off hours. "Who, by the way, is he naked and walking around right now?" Yes. Because "I napped next to Spike" is actually a considerably stranger statement. Particularly without context, and, let's face it: Buffy is inherently incapable of really getting Xander's context. She's not pushing herself to exhaustion every day, and she is bouncing back. It's her nature. She's like a weeble.

Xander glanced over her shoulder at Spike, who'd lost steam with one foot dangling off the bed and the blankets still safely in place. "Uh, no. And, yeah. But not intentionally. He wouldn't move." Giles was still giving him the fish eye. "He was supposed to be on the couch-- Look, forget it. Do I need to go get shots or anything?" Giles in incapable of getting the context, too. I think Giles has sympathy for Xander, and knows what his life does to him, in theory, but Giles is also, what, twenty years older? More? He wasn't called on to push himself like that at that age, and he can't really get it, I don't think. That is to say, I think Giles is likely to give Xander's youth credit for more resilience than it actually pays out.

Giles took a deep breath, the kind that meant he was questioning his career choices. Heh. You mean like every deep breath he takes? "Do you feel ill?"


"Tired? Disoriented?"

"Well, yeah."



"Stiffness in the joints?"

"God, yes."

Giles pushed off the dresser and gave him a quick, sympathetic look. "You'll live."

"Why don't you take the night off tonight, Xander?" Willow said. "You've been working a lot lately, and you look kind of...tired."

"You do," Buffy said, in the tone of just having noticed. Yeah. She loves her friends, but she needs these things pointed out. "You look sort of...Algebra 11."

"I'm fine," he said quickly. "And there's that whole cacodemon thing we've got going on--"

"We'll be all right," Giles said. "Willow's right, Xander. You're tired, and it hardly makes sense for you to keep on in this state. Get a good night's sleep, and let us know if anything develops with Spike." Responsibility, tossed right back at Xander.

"What, like he pays me back that twenty bucks he owes me?" Xander stood sideways in the doorway so Buffy could get past. "And why do I have to keep the sick vampire? Can't he convalesce at someone else's place?"

"He can't walk, Xander," Willow said, as she went past. "It's not like he's hurting anything by being here." But it's also not like they couldn't move him. But he's only making noise about it to make noise.

"Easy for you to say. You're not the one with hemoglobin-fresh pillow cases."

"I'll do some research when we're finished with the patrol," Giles said. "Tate and ffolkes has a fairly thorough section on vampire physiology, and the DDSM IV may be of some use--" :D

"Fascinating," Buffy muttered, pausing at the door. "You going to be okay with him here, Xander?"

"Only in the most grudging, inhospitable sense."

"Okay." She gave him a light, quick hug. "Get some sleep. And call if he acts up."

" know. Acts any more down." Willow hugged him too, and he had to admit, it made him feel better. Sometimes girls rocked. Giles didn't hug him, and that was best for all concerned. He does like girls. Likes and admires and enjoys being around them.

"We'll see you tomorrow," he said, and then led the way down the stairs. Xander watched them get to the landing, then closed the door and stood for a minute with his forehead pressed against it. Resting. In neutral territory. Something about doorways could be said here. in a high lit crit manner. But I fear I lack the tools. Which i can say with confidence is for the best. He could still hear their footsteps, and Buffy asking something he couldn't make out.

He sighed and started for the bedroom, pausing on the way to pick up Spike's T-shirt, which he'd left on the couch. Spike's boots were still out there, too, from the night before when he'd bedded down where he was supposed to.

"Well, thank you for contributing just a little more suck to my life," Xander said, walking into the bedroom and tossing the shirt onto the floor. "Now my friends think I'm sleeping with a--"

Spike was sitting bolt upright on the edge of the bed, staring at him with a look of pure, brainless panic. It's the first action from Spike not superslowed down since the beginning of the story, and it's a shock. Xander opened his mouth. Spike's eyes rolled white, his jaw snapped shut with a crack like a stick breaking. His head dropped back and he lost his balance, toppled, and slid off the bed to the floor. His skull made a heavy smacking sound. His fingers jerked and clenched.

Xander stood frozen, staring, and then Spike started to shudder and shake, board-stiff, his face waxy and hard, his back arching up off the floor. He was making a choked gasping sound. His heels rucked the rug.

"Holy--" Xander took one step forward, his hands out, then spun on his heel and ran to the door. Please don't be gone yet. He got it open, thundered to the landing, and yelled, "Giles!" panicpanicpanic

There was a sound of rapid feet in the lobby, and then the three of them were starting up the stairs, Buffy in front, one hand already in her pocket.


He put both hands up--harmless--and gasped, "Spike--it's Spike. He's...seizing."

They came up the stairs fast, faces grim and worried, and filed back in. The drumming sounds were still coming from the bedroom.

"In there," Xander said, unnecessarily. Yeah, say that. To the person you think is going to fix it. Giles was already heading in, and they followed behind and stood in the doorway in a gaggle. Willow gasped. Buffy took her hand out of her pocket. Together because what they're looking at is shocking. Shocking enough that Buffy actually stands down.

Giles was taking his coat off and kneeling down. "Get those blankets off the bed," he said, and when nobody else moved, Xander pushed through the girls and hauled the blankets off. A tiny pause here - Xander doesn't want to step up, gives it half a beat to let Willow step forward, as Giles' most natural assistant, or to let Buffy take action, since she's usually the one who does. But Xander has an everyday practicality that both Buffy and Willow lack. Or lack at this point in their lives. It isn't something he would value, or something they would miss - it just is. He stood behind Giles with them in his arms, trying not to look and completely failing. Spike's eyes were open, and his face was terrified. He was jerking like something snagged on a hook, like something someone was trying to get rid of. His chest bucked up, the ribs hard as an engine casing, and his throat convulsed, gurgling.

"Give them here," Giles snapped, and Xander held the blankets out. Giles took them and dropped them over Spike. He kept thrashing under them, but the sounds of bone bruising were muted.

"What do we do?" Xander asked. "Do we--aren't we supposed to put something between his teeth?"

"No," Giles said shortly. "Just keep back and let it run its course." He sat back on his heels and glanced around, then reached out and moved the water glass off the bedside table. Willow made a little sound, and Xander glanced back. She and Buffy were standing close together in the doorway, watching silently. Willow's face was pale and shocked. Buffy looked...the same, but harder. Yeah.

The thuds were waning, and he looked back and saw that Spike was slowing down. His throat clenched, corded, and went slack. His jaw worked. He blinked, and his eyes rolled, focused, and found each of them in turn. He swallowed.

Giles sat holding his glasses in one hand, rubbing his eyes with the other. "This hasn't happened before, has it?"

"No." Xander wanted to step back to the doorway with the girls, but it didn't seem right to leave Giles there alone. Or Spike. Divided between them already. because Giles and Spike aren't in anything together, other than the room, physically. "Is he--done?"

Giles put his glasses back on and gave Spike a thoughtful look. Spike lay still, his eyes half-closed, his jaw working steadily. "He may be. We won't move him just yet, though." He eased back onto the balls of his feet and stood up. "Do you have any blood here, Xander?"

"Uh--" He couldn't think clearly. He kept seeing Spike's belly, the ridges of muscle like the plates of a turtle's shell, locked solid and yanked by invisible strings. Kept seeing his fingers scrabbling at the floor, the look of terror in his eyes. "I'll check."

That gave him an excuse to get out of the room, and he stood staring into the freezer without any memory of the rooms in between, thinking, Blood, blood, blood, and totally ignoring the frosty red bricks under the peas until Willow came up and touched his shoulder. Then they both jumped. I love the idea that he keeps a good supply in the freezer. Likely they all do.

"Gah! Will--Jesus!"

She gave him an apologetic look, and glanced back over her shoulder. "Giles says to heat it up and see if you have any straws."

"Straws." He pulled a blood bag out and shut the door. "Check. I have none." He tossed the blood into the microwave and hit defrost. "Is he...okay?"

"Kind of woozy. He's back in your bed." She glanced back over her shoulder, toward the bedroom. "What do you think it is?"

"No idea. But I'm really hoping it's not contagious." Deflection.

"Yeah." She gave him a crooked smile, and he smiled back, and they both watched the blood go around and around under the dim microwave light. When it dinged, he took it out and poured it into a cup.

"You think he can drink?"

"If he can't, he's replacing the sheets."

They made a procession of two, Xander in front with the mug. The bedroom was dark except for the light from the hall, and Buffy and Giles were having a whispered conversation by the window.

"I got an order of blood," Xander said. "Who gets it?"

"He's sleeping," Giles said quietly. "Give it to him when he wakes up. And see if he can think of anything--anything at all--that may have caused this."

Xander stood still, holding the mug at arm's length. "Wait--he's staying here?" It's one thing to host a quiet vampire with mono...

"He's not in any shape to move," Buffy said. "I know it's not exactly a good time, Xander, but he has to stay somewhere--"

"What if he does that...thing, again? And did we ever finish that conversation we were having about the contagious?"

Giles crooked a finger and led the way back out to the hall. They all trooped out; Xander got halfway out, paused, turned, went back and set the mug down on the dresser, then went out again.

"If he has another seizure," Giles said, "do exactly what we did just now. Try to cushion it with something soft, but don't interfere. Don't touch his mouth, whatever you do." Good way to lose a finger.

"And if he bites his tongue off, how long does that take to regrow?"

"He won't bite his tongue off, Xander. Get him to drink that blood when he wakes up, and see if he can tell you anything useful. I'll go back to the shop and start researching this; Buffy and Willow will patrol as usual."

Xander looked at Willow, who was looking at Giles. Buffy nodded at no one in particular.

"We'll figure it out, Xander. Don't worry. Just don't let him Aerosmith your place too much." The 'don't worry' isn't a 'don't worry about Spike' - it's a 'don't worry, we'll get him out pretty soon.' But Xander's worried about Spike already. Even if he isn't ready or willing to deal with that. He's a soft touch.

"Yeah, thanks." He had the usual sinking feeling that that was it; there wasn't really any further conversation to be had. "When I start carpet-boogying like that, I want a wooden spoon between my teeth, all right? None of this laissez-faire sit-back-and-watch-it-happen crap."

"Yes, very good," Giles said, starting for the door. "I'll make a note of it."

"You have enough blood?" Buffy asked. Xander thought of the couple of bricks still in the freezer, left over from a baiting project they'd tinkered with back in the fall. Okay. Explanation. Wait! That blood's been there almost a year?

"I've got a few bags, yeah. But I'm not going to need them, right? Because you're going to figure this out, right? And he's going to be out of my place--"

"Right," Willow said firmly, turning in the doorway to hug him again. He hugged her back.

"Call if you need us," she said.

"Spoon," he reminded her.

And then they were all just footsteps, heading back down the stairs.

The phone rang halfway through Letterman, and he picked it up without lifting his head from the arm of the couch.

"Giles says no joy," Willow said. "And he wants to know if you can stay home from work tomorrow." And that right there is why I think Giles doesn't understand Xander's life. Or at least doesn't take it seriously.

Xander closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Uh huh."

"Was that, uh huh, can do, or uh huh I saw this coming?" She sounded tired too, and he shelved the answer he was going to give her.

"He didn't find anything at all?"

"Well, some German monk wrote a treatise on vampires with Tourette's, which actually sounded kind of like Spike. Just normal Spike, I mean. And there were some conference proceedings on lactose intolerance."

"Tomorrow's Friday," Xander said, opening his eyes and staring at the ceiling. He'd turned the lights out, and the television volume was low. With the back cushions off, the couch was almost comfortable.

"Yeah. And oh gosh, I should have asked. He's okay, right? No more--" She trailed off, and he imagined the worried pinch between her eyes.

"Not so far. All is quiet on the vampire front."

"Good. And you're still okay with this?"

"I'm fine." He has a choice? He's going to tell her he isn't okay with it? That's just not him. I mean, he's going to gripe, as long as it's clear that's all he's doing. But otherwise, no. He's going to just keep going. He glanced at the hall to the bedroom. He could just see the edge of the bedroom door, pulled almost to, just a thin line of black running up the frame. "How was patrol?"

"Cacodemons are...crunchy." He smiled at the audible ick face. "And we need to figure out where they're coming from. It's Cacopalooza out there."

"It's the Zagat's listing. Brings them in every time." The television switched to ads and he muted it. "Just make sure Giles doesn't slack off the vampilepsy research too much, okay? I really don't want to see that show again."

"I'm pretty sure Spike doesn't want to give it, either."

He paused, examining the remote. "Yeah."

"So you'll stay home tomorrow?"

Again he paused, and glanced back at the bedroom door. Quiet in there. Hadn't been a peep since they'd left.


"Thanks, Xander. You want coffee cake tomorrow?"

"Yeah. No. You have classes." This too - they know each other's lives and schedules. Xander + Willow = pals forever.

"I can skip."

"Nah. Thanks, I'm fine. I'll sleep late, read the paper, snap at the help. It'll be very."

"Okay," she said. "And hey, maybe he'll be fine when he wakes up."

"I'll keep an ear open for a lively string of expletives, yeah." He had a quick flash of Spike's throat, white and knotted, spasming. He looked at the television. Ford Explorer. He had to get one of those. It's like a switchback for his train of thought. Artificial distraction.

"Night, Xander. Call us if you need anything."

"Satellite. And a hoagie."

She paused.

"Kidding, Will." Because there is at least an outside chance that she'd take him seriously and rig him a dish.

"I knew that."

They hung up and he lay there for a few minutes, watching Letterman without sound. Without really noticing Letterman. The apartment was very quiet.

Finally he got up, chucked the phone back onto the couch, and started for the bedroom. His mouth was dry and the back of his neck prickled. The line of blackness between the door and the frame seemed very, very black.

He pushed the door open with one finger and stood on the threshold, peering into the darkness. Television light didn't go far. But that was probably good; if he was sleeping, there was no point in waking him up. Especially since a sleeping Spike seemed less likely to vividly demonstrate the tonic-clonic relationship. I had to look up tonic-clonic. Wikipedia <3

Still, Giles had said to give him the blood when he woke up. Xander squinted and made out a faint bundle near the top of the mattress, close to the wall. Too dark to see whether he was awake.

He cleared his throat and said quietly, "Spike?"

Silence to the count of three, and he started to ease back on his heels and turn around. His shoulders were loosening, and his mouth tasted like relief. Maybe Willow was right, and Spike would sleep it off. Tomorrow morning he might be fine, and they could talk about that twenty bucks.

There was a faint shifting sound, and he paused. Even in the darkness, he could see Spike uncurl slightly. It stapled the tension back between his shoulderblades, and suddenly Letterman seemed a galaxy away. Like that camera effect that makes normal-length hallways suddenly seem miles long.

"Are you--" He hesitated. "Are you awake?"

No answer, but a slow sound of a body on sheets, and he watched a kind of faint dim unfolding that took a minute to fall into place. Then he realized that Spike was bracing a hand on the mattress, pushing himself up to a sitting position. It was an even slower process than it had been the last time.

"Okay," Xander said. "Giles says you should drink something." He took a step forward and stopped. "There's a cup on the night table."

Still no answer, and he realized he wasn't really expecting one. He wasn't really expecting this to be easy. He just didn't know what to do. Or he knew, and didn't want to do it.

"That was a pretty lively show you gave," he said, taking another step forward. "I was expecting pea soup and crucifixes." Another step, and he could see Spike's arms shaking under his weight. "You sore?"

Spike lifted one hand and slowly touched the back of his head. The spot where it had hit the floor, and Xander heard the heavy crack again and winced. "Yeah, I guess that's a stupid question."

Spike lowered his hand to his face and looked at his fingers, then rubbed them together lightly. Is there blood? It's dark, but maybe. His other arm was shaking badly; as Xander watched, it suddenly buckled and Spike landed sideways on the mattress.

"Whoah--" Xander moved forward without thinking, hands out. He pulled up just short of touching Spike, and then just stood there, one hand out, hovering over his shoulder. "You okay?"

"'m fine." Spike's voice was thin and weedy, a trickle of piss. It made things more normal to hear him talk. Xander took a breath and reached for the lamp.

"I'm turning a light on. Watch your eyes." He waited, then clicked, and Spike already had his hand up as a shade, his mouth a thin bloodless line. His fingers were shaking. Xander tipped the lamp even farther away, so it was just a glow against the sheets.

"Okay. So, can you sit up?"

Spike's lips tightened even more, and he didn't move.

"If I help?"

A long pause, and then something that might have been the most fractional of nods. Xander swallowed and slammed the blast doors on everything that wasn't brisk and impersonal and Giles. Oh. It's a good model for keeping it together, yes. "Okay, hang on. I'll grab a pillow."

He harvested one from the kicked-off pile at the foot of the bed, and stood it against the headboard. "Upsa-daisy."

Spike's skin was cool and firm, the muscles taut beneath. He was lighter than you'd expect. Lighter than a guy ought to be. He kept his head down, his eyes in his lap, while Xander propped him up against the pillow. His lips moved minutely, and Xander paused.


Spike raised just his eyes, and looked at him. His head wavered on his neck. "Poof," he murmured.

Xander jerked his hands back and straightened up. "Yeah, okay. Blood's on the table, and if you need anything else, please fu--" Righteous anger, the very best sort.

Spike was shaking his head, so faintly he didn't notice at first, then harder. It seemed like tiring work.

"Me," he said, and twitched the fingers of his left hand back toward his chest. Xander blinked.

"Oh," he said. Then he herded his wits and said gracelessly, "No. No, you're not a poof. You're just sick." Here's the thing about Witling's Spike: he's alien. He's not human. He's similar to a person, but he isn't one. So there's something just enough off that it breaks down communication when he's like this. I mean, I think it's straightforward, but the shape of his thoughts, his perceptions, is different. Of course, it's all complicated by the way it's filtered by Xander's pov. He's strange to begin with, but when he can't put energy into making communication work (or, in some of Witling's stories, doesn't care to), Xander's lost.

Spike stared at him, his eyes grim and bloodshot. After a minute, he repeated, "'m sick."

"Yeah. And I probably don't need to add the clause about my bed, do I?" Xander turned to the night table. "So, here's a cup of what I'm going to tell myself is tomato soup." He picked it up and held it out, ignoring the little voice in the back aisle of his brain. "It's kind of room-temperature now. Sorry."

Spike turned his head loosely, bobbling for a second like a dashboard dog, and stared at the cup without comprehension. Then he smelled it, or figured it out, and his gaze sharpened. He started to lift a hand, and his whole arm shook. Xander stood still, trying to ignore the voice. Spike narrowed his eyes and tried again, and this time the tips of his fingers touched the base of the cup, pushed at it, and fell away.

"Okay," Xander said. Brisk and impersonal was rapidly translating into false cheer. Spike looked shocked and humiliated, and...scared. Yes. Spike isn't always the strongest, the biggest, the scariest - but he's one of the most self-posessed, ad that's lost here. But now was not the time to think about that. "Okay, I'm thinking you're not quite up to this. How about just the drinking part?" He gestured vaguely with the cup, and Spike looked at him. Confused, not tracking yet.

"Just--sit back," Xander said, and when Spike started to lift his arm for a third try, he pushed it gently down. Again, cool skin under his fingertips. He didn't think about it, just pressed Spike's shoulder back into the pillow, and it was ridiculously easy to move him around. Ridiculously. Disturbingly. Again, putty.

"Giles is working on figuring this out," he said, just for something to say, as he sat down on the edge of the bed. "Here." He put the cup against Spike's lip, and Spike closed his eyes. All the resistance he's got. They sat there like that a moment. Then Spike seemed to settle his shoulders and make a decision. He opened his mouth, and Xander tipped the cup carefully, just the smallest bit.

"Nothing yet. But he's. You know. Working." Just the smallest sip, not even a sip. Spike's mouth was open and the blood ran in, a little rill. He had to swallow, so tip the cup back. His throat worked, pale as paper. There was a dot of blood on his bottom lip. Xander put the cup to it, and Spike leaned forward, lips open.

"I wouldn't worry. He's...Giles." Spike's mouth was eager now, and one hand was rising, trembling, the fingers curled weakly. He made a small sound in the back of his throat. Sounded like protest, like need. His throat clicked and Xander lowered the cup again and looked away. That's...debilitated, and helpless, and very sexual. I think Xander constantly is reframing. Desperately. And we aren't quite in on it yet, because again: he controls what we see, and he is very carefully shutting down a whole host of ideas, trains of thought. Cutting observations off from conclusions ruthlessly, before they form.

The room was stifling. He felt flushed, overheated. Spike shifted and breathed, more, and he lifted the cup automatically, turning back to make sure he got the angle right.

It was half empty now, and Spike's head was tipped back, his eyes closed and his hand reaching feebly. He was making clumsy wet sounds, mouth sounds. His throat was stretched long, the back of his head sunk in the pillows. Xander tipped the cup higher, and Spike angled with it, lips to cup, until they were vertical, nothing left. Then he bit the rim of the cup, and Xander jumped. This scene gets so tense and quiet, until that.

He took his hand back, and Spike sat with his eyes closed, his head still pillowed, licking his lips. There was a red thread running down his chin. Xander put the cup down on the night table, paused, then looked back, reached out, and carefully wiped the thread away with his thumb.

He could feel his pulse through his entire body. Very intimate. Non-sexually, even. It's an affectionate gesture, unmoored.

Spike opened his eyes and looked at him. It was a serious, considering look. And Spike is a pretty sharp guy. With people, at least, if not always with himself. And not always with schemes, but whatever.

Xander wiped his thumb on his trousers and picked up the cup. "Get some sleep," he said. He clicked the light off and went out, pulling the door almost shut after him.

He ran cold water in the cup and left it in the sink. Then went to the couch and lay in silence, not watching the television, not thinking. Because even diversions could lead back to whatever just happened, the way Xander's brain works.

There was definitely a law of diminishing returns governing couch comfort. He lay in darkness, the sheets raddled at his feet, staring blindly up with dry, hot eyes. The apartment was silent. There was sweat at the back of his neck. He was down to boxers and a T-shirt, the bare minimum. Ugh. Couches are not made for comfort in the heat, that's for sure.

"If it was vampire psoriasis, you'd have figured it out by now," he muttered to Giles. Or to the ceiling, which was up there somewhere. Why couldn't Spike have come down with a bad case of rickets, or night blindness? And if he did have to grab the brass ring of mystery ailments, why not in the comfort of his own crypt?

Except of course if he had, he'd be face-down amid the urns right now. Possibly donating skin to rats.

Xander swallowed, wiped a spider of sweat off his neck, and sat up with a sigh. The glowing dots of the spare alarm clock read three thirty. He was leaden tired, but there was no sleep in him. He'd got maybe three hours, and he couldn't remember exactly what he'd dreamed, but it had made sad snapping sounds and thrashed like a fish. Deny and repress. He swung his legs off the couch and stood up.

"If it was sciatica, you'd have figured it out by now," he said quietly, and headed for the bathroom.

He stood for a long time under the cool water. Washed his hair twice, palmed his beard, dropped his hands to his feet and just hung with the water on the small of his back. Ended up sitting down at the end of the tub, his elbows propped, letting it run over him like rain. He'd go to hell for wasting the water, sure. Later. He dozed. There are a lot of middle-of-the-night showers in this. They make sense, I'm just saying. Also, in my own life, I am kind of a fan of middle-of-the-night showers.

When he finally nudged the tap off with one foot, he was barely tethered to his skin. He got slowly out of the tub, dried off, and walked back down the hall with his sweat-damp clothes in his hand, the towel around his waist.

At the bedroom door, he paused and looked in. Without even television light, it was hard to see anything. But he heard a shifting sound, and pushed the door open a little farther.

"You awake?"

There was a long pause, and he waited patiently, feeling the varnished wood warm beneath his feet. Another sliding sound.

"Hell?" Spike's voice was quiet, ragged. Is this a truncated "what the hell?" Because on some level, I don't actually believe that Spike believes in Hell. Which, does that make sense? Okay, maybe not.

"No. My place." He ran his arm over his forehead; he was already starting to sweat again. "Do you want...more to drink?"

Silence. He let it go almost a minute.



Xander stood still, feeling his hair drip cool water down the back of his neck, down his spine. "Can I turn on the light?"

"No." That was alarmed, and there was more shifting. Xander paused.

"Okay. How about the blinds?"

There was silence, and he could hear Spike thinking, Blinds? It was perfectly clear, four am clear.

"I'm opening the blinds," he said, and walked forward into the blackness. He didn't trip, didn't fumble with the rod. It was his apartment, he knew where everything was. The blinds parted like fingers, like the steeple opening up to show the congregation. He could see, at least a little.

He turned back to the bed, and saw that Spike was lying with his back pressing the pillow to the wall, as if he'd just fallen over like that. He was blinking up at Xander, looking pissed off and confused.

"Hell?" he said again, and tried to lift his arm. The pissed-off look slipped, and his face went blank and tight. Anger's easy. Fear is a horror.

"Spike--" Xander sighed, balled up his sweated clothes, and tossed them through the closet door toward the hamper. "We don't know what it is. But we're working on it."

He looked back, and Spike was staring at him with wide, frozen eyes. The hand he'd tried to lift was tight in the sheets.

"You should eat more," Xander said, the calmness faltering. He looked away, down at Spike's jeans and T-shirt, a little rumpled hummock at his feet. "I can get you some--"

Spike closed his eyes. Xander's heart jumped and he took a quick step forward.


Spike opened his eyes, baffled again. Xander eased back onto his heels.

"Okay, sorry. you remember the floor show?" He didn't mean it to sound like that. Spike still looked lost. "I mean, before. You had some kind of seizure."

Spike stared at him for a few seconds, then shook his head very slightly. "Fit." His fingers twitched back toward himself, verifying.

"Yeah. Before. On the floor." Xander sat down carefully on the edge of the bed. "It was...bad." He met Spike's eyes for a second, watched the fear start to grow again, and looked away before it really flowered. "Giles was here, he knew what to do. And he'll figure it out." We never really see Spike afraid, in the show. Defiant. Intimidated, maybe. But not frightened. And this is a whole extended period of fear.

Spike swallowed.

"It'll be fine," Xander said, and looked back with a false smile. Spike was staring fixedly at the mattress in front of his face. His knuckles whitened in the sheet. Xander took a deep breath.

"You have any idea what could be causing this?"

Spike's jaw ticked. He didn't look up.

"Spike?" Xander put a hand out, remembered who and where, and pulled it back. "Has this happened before?"

Very small shake of Spike's head. The hand knotted in the sheet slowly unclenched and rose, shaking. He touched the back of his head. His face was rigid. Except this.

"Spike?" Xander said quietly.

Spike looked up. His eyes were wide. His hand pressed the back of his head.

"Chip," he whispered. He doesn't act frightened about the chip, but it is a horrible thing, a control, something that can go wrong any time. And it does, of course, eventually. It isn't the problem here, of course. But it is the obvious answer.

Xander sat still. After a minute, Spike swallowed and looked back down at the mattress.

"Okay," Xander said at last. "Okay. You think it might be the chip?"

Spike didn't seem to hear. His arm was shaking, his hand searching the back of his head. Xander watched for a minute, then reached out and gently took hold of his forearm. Spike jerked.

"Hey. It's okay." He guided Spike's arm back down the mattress. "You cracked it on the way down, that's all." He paused, then took a breath and risked stupid. "You want some aspirin or something?"

Spike just stared at him, his face blanched. Xander patted his wrist and started to let go, and Spike's hand turned and scrabbled to keep hold. For a second his fingers were loosely caging Xander's hand, and his face was wide open. Face of a drowning man. Comfort here - human comfort. Except that it's all too much for Xander, and Spike isn't human.

Xander flinched, and Spike's fingers froze, then jerked away. His eyes flattened. Then they closed. And he's shut out, or seems to be shut out. Which 'he', right? Both. I meant Spike, though. Their relationship, such as it has been up to now, doesn't allow for such things. Xander massively overstepped the boundaries just a few hours ago, and he knows it. And he doesn't trust Spike, even as far down as Spike is right now. He doesn't trust that if he treats Spike like a person, it will be accepted.

Xander sat silently, listening to his heart race in the hollow spaces between his ears. Sweat was beading at the base of his spine, and behind his knees. Air conditioning. The alarm; he had to remember to set the alarm. Back to static.

He leaned over and hit the button on the clock. When he leaned back, Spike's eyes were open, watching him. And Spike has his composure back, and it all resets.

"Shove over," Xander said, and when Spike narrowed his eyes and didn't move, he put the heels of his hands on Spike's shoulder and shoved him. Gently. Then he lay down on his back and wiped the sweat off his face with his forearm.

"Spoon me and die," he said, and closed his eyes for sleep.

He was standing at the top of a hill, watching a cloud of little blue butterflies dance in midair in front of his face. None of them bigger than a dime, the sunlight winking on their wings. Their teeth made tiny clacking sounds. All of the blue in this story. Where blue is beguilement, hiding from itself.

Something poked him in the shoulder and he turned in annoyance.

He was lying on top of the sheets, on his back; apparently he hadn't moved all night. He still had the towel. Spike was on the far side of the mattress, flat on his belly, one arm outstretched. One finger in Xander's shoulder. His hair was messed up, and his face was puffy. His eyes were very blue.

"Blinds," he whispered, and Xander blinked. Then he realized he was lying in slats of sunshine, and that Spike only had about two feet of clearance before he got grill marks.

"Shit. Sorry." He rolled off the bed and twirled the blinds shut. "I thought I set the--"

The alarm clicked and went off, and they both jumped. Xander punched the clock and it shut up.

"Sorry. I forgot about the--"

The alarm in the living room went off and they both jumped again. Xander went out with a hand over his chest, his heart hammering in his ears, and killed that clock too. He stood for a minute in the middle of the room, his arms held out warily. Nothing else went off. It's a marvel he manages to keep the towel on through all of that.

"Okay, then." He blinked, knuckled his head, and absently adjusted the towel. On his way to the bathroom, he put his head in the bedroom door. Spike was still belly-down on the edge of the bed.

"You okay?"

Spike's head didn't turn, but two fingers came up out of the sheets. Xander nodded.

"Duly noted."

His hair was standing up in baroque waves. Waves that said, Rollerboogie! and Brut--for men! He frowned and wetted them down as well as he could, then headed back out with water trickling down his back and chest.

"I'm calling in sick today," he said, ducking back into the living room for the phone. He dialed work and stood propped in the doorway, listening to the ring. "So I'll be around." Silence from the bedroom. "Try to control your--"

Daniel picked up, harassed already, and he took the conversation into the kitchen. No need for Spike to get in on all the valuable insulation-retrieval tips. He made coffee and then, with a feeling of total surreality, heated up blood in the microwave while listening to Daniel praise the perfect duct. Daniel said feel better, dude. Monday's wiring.

Xander said he'd be back by Monday, and hung up.

He left the phone on the counter and started for the bedroom with a mug in each hand. Halfway there, he stopped short and reassessed. Coffee, right. Blood, left. Okay. Well. It's important.

He needed clothes.

"I didn't know if you take cream or sugar," he said as he got into the bedroom. "So I put both." Xander and I both believe that the funniest jokes are the ones you make over and over and over and over. He never stops with the coffee/blood blood/coffee shtick. And it only gets funnier. Yeah. Makes you want to hang out with me, doesn't it?

Spike rolled his head sideways on the bed and stared at him. With the blinds sealed, the bedroom was dim again, almost dark. His eyes were shadowed and burnt-looking. Xander hesitated, then put the blood on the night table, carried his coffee over to the dresser, and started digging for something less terry. "How you feeling?"

A pause, long enough for him to try the coffee, set it down, and shake out a Sunnydale U T-shirt that had seen better days.

"Crap," Spike said finally.

"Uh-huh." Xander kept sorting, found some shorts and trousers and that was plenty. It was already hot in the apartment, even for the towel-clad. Air conditioning. He'd fix it today. Except that meant messing with the window, and he'd be damned if he wanted Spike-shaped scorch marks on his sheets. Okay, again, modesty. Jeez. Called in sick and going to spend the whole day in your apartment? I think you can safely lose the trousers. Poor Xander.

"If Giles doesn't call by ten, I'll call him." He tried the coffee again, and realized it was too hot for coffee. His upper lip was sweating. "Blood's on the table." Wait, it gets too hot for coffee? Can't you just go drink it while enjoying a cool shower?

He started out, then stopped in the doorway, and made himself look back. "I mean, I'll be back in a minute. For that. Unless you can--?" He glanced at the cup.

Spike lay looking at him, his cheek pressed into the mattress, for a few seconds. Then his eyes flicked downward, to the cup.

"Sure," he said. His fingers started to push into the sheets, and his arms started to shake.

"Yeah," Xander said. "Because you're only mostly dead, right. Just...chill. I'll be back in a minute." He keeps dressing in the living room. I think we've seen that bathroom on screen, and I can't recall any reason it isn't usable for changing in. I also have no idea why I'm saying anything, as I hate getting dressed in the bathroom, and I would get dressed in the living room, too.

He dressed, draped the towel over a chair, and just stood for a minute with his toes in a square of sunlight. The windows were open, and the streets were quiet. He had the whole day ahead of him. No insulation. No wiring. Just...well. Spike.

He had a strange brief clip of the color blue fragmenting in front of him, glittering like the coins on a belly-dancer's shawl. It gave him a weird feeling of dread and happiness. Yeah. Dread and happiness is about the sum of it. Repress, deny.

Giles was going to figure this out. Giles was going to fix it, and it was all going to get shuffled back into the deck, and in a few years he wouldn't even be able to remember it. Not Spike's skull whacking the ground, not his throat pulsing as he drank. All stuff he'd seen before, anyway. No big deal. Like this whole interlude would just be snipped away like it never happened. Pinched out of reality.

He went back into the bedroom, and found that Spike had maneuvered himself around into something close to a sitting position.

"So I'm thinking." He sat down on the edge of the bed by Spike and picked up the cup with one hand. With the other hand, he got hold of Spike's far shoulder and pulled him upright. "You good there?" [echo]

Pause. His hand was still on Spike's shoulder, holding on firmly. Spike glanced down at it with a slight frown, then rolled his head back into the pillow. He nodded. Once.

"Okay." Xander let go, and made himself lean on that hand. Casual. He put the cup to Spike's mouth, and again there was no immediate reaction. Spike just watched him over the rim, his eyes narrow and blue. "So, I've been thinking about what it's not. Just to, you know, shift the avenue of approach."

He tipped the cup slightly, and Spike's head was pushed back into the pillow, his eyes still trained on Xander's face. I am torn between thinking that Spike is thinking, "what? what what what?" and thinking he's just refusing to play along for the scraps of control it gives him. Maybe both. Maybe neither.

"It's not seasonal affective disorder," Xander said. "Or...a compound fracture. Yet." He tipped the cup some more. "It might be anorexia, though." Nonsense, nonsense, zinger.

Spike's eyes narrowed to slits, then closed, and his lips opened. He swallowed, and Xander tipped the cup back.

"You don't catch things from blood, do you?" he asked, looking away at the blinds, the tiny lines of blocked light. "I mean, what Willow said, about mono--"

Spike made a weak snorting noise. "Mono?" Yeah, I don't think Spike was paying attention when she originally said it. It is pretty funny.

"Well, no, not mono, but maybe you picked something else up. Demon mono."

Spike snorted again. "Demon mono?"

"Look, shut up." Xander raised the cup again, and Spike opened his mouth, drank, and swallowed. "Demon hep. I don't know. All I'm saying is, if you've been falling off the pig wagon lately, it's in your best interests to tell us. So Giles can--"

"Chip," Spike breathed, fixing him with a hard look. The smile was gone. Like he can't believe Xander can forget the chip, because Spike can *never* forget the chip. The chip isn't ignorable for Spike. Xander gets to take it for granted - all he has to think about is the effect, not the cause.

"Yeah, I'm aware, Spike. And it doesn't stop you from buying human from nefarious sources, and I don't even want to think about what else--"

Spike was shaking his head, turning away with his lips pressed together, as if he couldn't stand the effort anymore.

"What?" Xander lowered the cup. "Don't get all Steel Magnolias on me, okay? I'm just saying, the chip doesn't--"

Spike turned back suddenly, his eyes bright, his jaw ticking. "No," he snapped. "It's the--" He stopped short, looking in wonder down at his hands, then back up at Xander. What was he going to say? Clear sharp anger, there, and whatever it was, we don't get back to it.

"What?" A cold feather ran up Xander's spine, premonitory, and he leaned back fast and put the cup down on the floor. "Are you--"

The bed was shaking before he had the chance to sit back up. He sprang up, stumbled back, and stood watching while Spike arched and bucked. Head and heels braced, his spine a popping bridge. The muscles in his legs cut like something skinned. His elbows drove into the mattress, his hands clawed air. There was a dull cracking sound coming from somewhere. After a second, Xander realized it was Spike's teeth, grinding. Yeah. A spoon would be splinters, I'm thinking.

He stood there for what felt like an hour, blinking and swallowing and not looking at Spike's face. When Spike seemed too close to the edge of the bed he moved forward with his hands out, but he didn't touch. Just let it run its course. Keep back, keep clear, and let it run itself out.

It took a fucking lifetime to do it.

Finallly Spike was limp, twitching, his eyes wide and blank, fixed on the ceiling. His throat was pulsing hard, his fingers jerking. The fitted sheet was wrapped around his ankle. Everything else was on the floor.

Xander took a step forward, and realized he was slippery with sweat. He forced himself to take a long, full breath. Then another. He'd seen worse. Plenty worse. No big deal.

He said, "Spike?" in a quiet voice, and got no response. No tracking when he waved a hand through Spike's field of vision. Just that locked gaze, the sign flipped to back in ten minutes.

Carefully, he separated the fitted sheet from Spike's ankles. Then he picked the top sheet out of the mess on the floor, and laid it over him. He was all angles, splayed and thin.

"I'm calling Giles," Xander said to no one in particular. He stepped backward, thinking with some numb, latent part of his mind that at least they hadn't spilled the blood--and caught the cup with his heel, sending it everywhere. Of course. Poor Xander.

"I have absolutely no idea."

Xander shifted and ran a finger through the wet arc of coffee his cup had left on the table. "So what you're saying is, you have no idea."

Giles raised his eyebrows and nodded over the edge of his cup.

Xander traced a star, studied it, then wiped it out with the side of his hand. Creating a physical distraction. Like counting to ten, but with a pictogram. "None," he repeated. Xander's worried, and scared, and annoyed about it, and can't really admit it. Which means he's pretty much omnidirectionally angry, I think. Except that he would never dream of admitting to anger at Giles. Just like he is never really going to lose his temper with anyone female. He's got very few targets he allows himself to let loose toward. Which I think, in canon, is why when he loses his shit in Spike's direction it seems so disproportionate.

"Xander, I've had approximately--" Giles shot his sleeve and studied his watch with a short-sighted, slightly pissy frown. "Three hours' research time so far. I'm flattered by your faith in my abilities, but--"

"Right. Sorry." Xander drummed his fingers under the table, then took a deep breath and sat back in his chair. A drop of sweat crawled down his spine. "Maybe I could help out. Paginate, or something." He offers his help and points out how incompetent he thinks in the same breath. Oh, Xander.

Giles's smile probably wasn't meant to be patronizing. "You're helping enormously by letting him stay here." And Giles doesn't disagree. Which isn't to say he agrees that Xander can't help with the actual research - but I do think he gets it, a little, that Xander's spread too thin. Maybe. It's anactive-seeming help, though.


"Xander." Giles set his cup down carefully, and Xander felt himself tense. "I realize this may not be the best time, but if you'd like to have that talk now, I'm certainly willing." I love that this is a talk that's obviously on both of their minds, but we have no clue what it is, despite the story being in Xander's pov. Because he's the king of putting uncomfortable topics clean out of his head.

Xander stared down into his cup, and forced a half-smile. "That talk. Right."

"Or not. But you probably realize we're concerned about you--" So it's on everyone's mind. Not just Giles' and Xander's.

"I'm fine." As soon as he said it, he thought of Spike, the crappy liar, face-down in the sheets. 'm fine. He looked up and met Giles's eyes. "Really. But thanks."

Giles just looked at him, the slanting sun giving him wisdom wrinkles. He didn't seem to mind the heat. Maybe English people were heat-proof. Xander looked down again.

"It was sucky for a while, yeah. But it's been..." He paused, as if he had to calculate. "Seven months. I'm fine." Aha.

And it was sort of true, if you looked at it the right way. He didn't think about her every day anymore. He worked a lot. He was tired a lot. Sometimes he just wanted to watch television for hours on end, and sometimes he opened the refrigerator and realized there'd been nothing in it for a week. But that was normal stuff, bachelor stuff. Depression stuff. I like that he knows it, he just doesn't want to think about it. Just keeping his head down, waiting for it to abate. He'd had sex since. Once. asdfghjkl. Yeah okay go read Notes For a Gay Pamphlet right now. Or, you know, once you get to the end of this section. I am really fond of second-degree fanworks. And a fic based on a fic? Wonderful. Also, while you don't *need* to read that to get what's going on later, it doesn't hurt.

Giles looked down and rubbed the edge of his cup with one finger. "Willow is particularly worried," he said. "She thinks--"

"Willow used to worry when I ate Pop-Rocks." He's quick to cut off Giles before he's put into a position where he needs to refute Willow's fears.

"She thinks you're drifting away from us," Giles said quietly. In the silence that followed, he picked up his cup and sipped from it. But Giles doesn't fall for it. Seeing how he wasn't born yesterday. And also, has met Xander before. And is smart.

Xander sat staring at the wood grain, hating the faint hot prickle behind his eyes. It wasn't fair; he was tired. And sweaty. He couldn't cope with this right now.

"Well, that explains all the hugging lately," he said finally, and slugged some cold coffee.

Giles left a small pause, then got up and took his mug to the sink. Gives Xander a moment to not actually start losing his shit. Much.

"Buffy's concerned too," he said, turning on the tap. "We all are. If there's anything we can do to help--"

"Giles, it's not like I have lupus." That came out sounding mean, and he smiled futilely at Giles's back.

"Quite." Giles shut the tap off and pulled the dish towel out of the refrigator handle. He turned around, mildly drying his cup. "I think Willow's point is that you seem to have forgotten that fact, yourself."

Xander stared at him, then leaned forward and fiddled with the salt. "Tell me nobody's bought tickets to the Ice Capades." Hah. Well, this is a group of people who like to stick with proven solutions.

Giles set his cup down, folded the towel neatly in thirds, and threaded it back through the handle. "All I'm saying," he said, walking back over and laying a hand on Xander's shoulder, "is that we're your friends. And we're here." Standing behind him.

Xander nodded. Giles's hand was warm on his shoulder. His eyes were prickling again.

Giles's fingers tightened briefly, then let go, and he walked past and stood in the door to the living room. "The Cacodemon situation is getting worse," he said, glancing away into the living room. "There are more of them every night, it seems. Frankly, we're having trouble disposing of the...husks." And...subject change. Because that was a lot of talking about our feelings, frankly.


"And the small dog population is dwindling at an alarming rate."

"That's...what kind of small dogs?"

Giles's mouth twitched. "They appear to favor Yorkies and Pomeranians."

Xander nodded thoughtfully. "So, silver lining." Giles totally, transparently, sets that one up for him. It gets them back on an even keel, emotionally. Or, if not even, then status quo. A status quo keel.

"I'll refrain from relaying your comments to Willow." Giles pushed off the door frame and checked his watch. "I hope to have something on Spike's condition by this afternoon. Do you think he's still asleep?"

"He had a pretty vigorous workout this morning, so, yeah. My guess is he's dead to the world."

Giles studied a ding in the far side of the door frame. "Well, if the chip is indeed causing this, there's very little we can do to help. For now I think it's best to continue treating this as an organic--" Yeah, Giles knows this bit isn't going to be well received.

"Wait." Xander spread his hands flat on the table and held himself straight in his chair. "Hang on, rewind. What do you mean, very little we can do to help?"

"We're not neurosurgeons, Xander. If the chip is the problem...we have a problem."

"What kind of a problem? A How do we get him on a plane to the Mayo problem? Or a What kind of urn would he have liked? problem?" Panic.

Giles just looked at him. After a moment he said, "I understand it's difficult to watch anyone in pain, Xander. But perhaps you're taking this a little too personally." Yeah, well, I actually think Xander's reaction isn't out of line. Everything else aside, he's done a pretty good job of pointing out the two possibilities if it actually is the chip. And that those are both pretty awful possibilites. And from what we know about Giles, he's already working out how to sell what's behind door #2. Because door #1 presents difficulties in both the short and long term, and doesn't offer many benefits. To anyone other than Spike. And I'm not sure Giles would be completely convinced that there would be benefits to Spike, or enough to outweigh the dangers. It's like euthanizing a sick pet, the argument for the decision I can see Giles framing. Which - I like Giles. I don't think that's a bad thing. I think it's a different view of the sitution. I think it's the decision he made with Ben. Potential dangers, potential benefits. Ending pain.

"Maybe that's because he's in my bed." He paused. "Damn it, that did not come out the way--"

"Xander." Giles regarded him a moment, then sighed. "I do understand what you're saying. And I'm doing my best."

Xander sat there a second, then realized he was supposed to nod. He nodded. "Yeah. I know. Thanks." What was he thanking Giles for? He stood up. "I mean, for everything. The..." He gestured vaguely at the sink, the stunted conversation still hovering over it.

"I suggest you make some plans with Willow," Giles said, turning away and starting for the door. "Before she resorts to potlucks and board games." They do so much maneuvering around each other in this.

"Check." He followed Giles out to the door. "And...Spike?"

Giles paused, halfway out already. "What about him?"

"What do I tell him when he wakes up?"

"Oh." He gave Xander another careful look. "Tell him what we just discussed. And tell him that if there's a fix, we'll find it." Giles is surprised by the question despite all of the lead up to it. Which reinforces my feeling that he's thinking of Spike as some sort of pet-equivalent. Um. Not that way.

"Right." Xander nodded, and Giles raised one eyebrow, and left. Xander closed the door and turned back to the bright hot living room, the flood of sunshine on his floor. His whites were still crumpled in the chair. Spike's boots were still knocked under the coffee table. He stood for a minute, staring blankly at it all.

"I'm not going to the Ice Capades," he said at last, and started down the hall for a shower.

No insulation and no wiring left him with...not a lot to do, he realized quickly. He could only shower so long, and he only had enough face to make even a meticulous shave last half an hour. While he shaved, he considered cleaning the bathroom. Considered it, but didn't do it. At my house, you still get points for considering it. Well, I get points for considering it. From me.

He flicked the television on and watched depressing mid-morning television while he folded his whites. The apartment kept heating up. No sound from the bedroom. He started another cup of coffee, picked up the newspaper, stood enthralled for several minutes by a woman who wanted to divorce her husband and marry her Weimeraner. That was what the world was like. It made life on a Hellmouth seem almost...normal.

He was lying on the couch, feeling itchy and hot and wondering how many showers he was legally allowed to take in a twenty-four hour period I think as long as you don't also use the water to keep your lawn healthy, showers are still unfettered by legal restrictions. Which, okay, if you salvaged the waste water from your shower, and weren't using soap that kills plants, then would that be a way to get around water-saving restrictions? Or would you still get nasty looks? Whoops, tangent. I just really like showers. And feel vaguely guilty about it., when the phone rang. It startled him, and he grabbed it before it could ring again, sending a quick glance at the bedroom door. Giles, or Willow. Even if it meant going without coffee cake, he wanted it to be Giles.


Silence. He waited, expecting to hear fumbling and tweed, imagining Giles pinning the receiver between ear and shoulder, the cord pulled taut across the room as he verified one last reference. They kept meaning to chip in and get the man a cordless. Giles would misplace a cordless.

"Hello? Giles?"

Nothing-and then, he realized, not quite nothing. Breathing. Quiet and low, contemplative. He took the phone from his ear, looked at it skeptically, then listened some more. More breathing.

"Listen buddy, I think you've got the wrong-"


He stared at the receiver again, until the idiot tone started, then hit the cutoff with his thumb. On the television, the Weimeraner woman's husband was talking about his feelings of abandonment.

Sometimes, the whole world was on drugs.

He got up and dialed the volume down on the phone, so it wouldn't be such a lively experience when it rang again. Thought about the air conditioning. Thought about Spike's fingers trying to dig grooves into the hardwood floor. Thought about Giles saying if.

Went back to the couch, lay down, slung his arm over his eyes, and tried not to think.

The phone didn't ring again until almost two o'clock. He was suffocating on the couch, heat-bludgeoned into a restless half-doze that kept backsliding into scrabbling hands and knotted legs. Twice he'd heard hard choking, a cracking sound, and leapt up with a pounding heart. When he got to the bedroom door, he found one sorry motionless lump of Spike. He'd dreamed it, that was all. When the phone rang, he almost fell off the couch.

"Hello?" He was thirsty, and his forehead was damp, and if it was the mouthbreather again, he was going to *69 the fucker and ream him a new one.

"I think I've got something," Giles said. "We're coming over now."


He went to the bathroom and washed his face in cold water, noticed that he looked slightly insane, and headed back to the bedroom, pulling his shirt off over his head. He'd sweated through Sunnydale U. Behind him, Spike shifted.

"Giles is a genius," Xander said, chucking his shirt onto the laundry pile and pulling a fresh one out of the drawer. "They'll be here in a few minutes."

Spike said nothing, and Xander turned to look at him. Spike was staring at him with a strange, weary expression. So Xander had his back turned to the room, but I'm still sort of impressed that he's managing to change shirts with Spike in the room.

"That's good news," Xander clarified, and then paused. "You...feeling okay?" God, not again. Please.

Spike nodded and let out something like a very small sigh. He braced one hand on the mattress and got exactly nowhere. Xander swallowed and yanked the shirt on over his head.

"You're going to be menacing Girl Scouts again in no time," he said, and without thinking about it, went over and took hold of Spike's shoulder. "And, hey. Bright side? You're going to owe me big-time."

Spike muttered something incomprehensible, and Xander pulled him gently upright [echo], propped the pillow behind him, and tugged the corner of the sheet up to the high water mark of modesty. "Well, bright side for me, anyway."

Spike nodded, his gaze lowered. Slowly, he lifted one hand and touched the back of his head. Xander watched, his relief crumpling.

"Hey." He took hold of Spike's wrist and pushed it back down to his side. "Enough with the negativity. You're going to be fine." Spike's hair was standing straight out where he'd just fingered it, like feathers disarranged, and Xander smoothed it down without thinking. There was a lump there, under his fingers.

Spike was looking at him, he realized. Not with his whole head, just with his eyes. Xander jerked his hand away, and stepped back from the side of the bed. Yeah. Xander keeps accidentally making these very gentle gestures. I think Spike has a clue on a couple of different levels, but I still think that it's still confusing and weird. Particularly since Xander so obviously *doesn't* want to have a clue.

"I'll go put some blood on."

He walked out quickly, not waiting for the teeny tiny inevitable Poof. It was Giles said. It sucked to watch someone, anyone, in pain like that. It made him feel sick and helpless and he'd really had his fill, thanks. More than his fill. Someone else's fill on top of his own.

He watched the blood go around and around, waiting for the ding or the knock, whichever came first. Ding by a nose. He was pouring the stuff into a cup, trying not to smell it, when the knock came. He carried the cup with him to the door, and held it out as he opened up. Blood is a pretty gross smell. At least it isn't big mugs of raw chicken, I suppose.


"Yes, very clever," Giles said, walking past with a quick glance at the cup. :D "He's in the bedroom, I take it?"

"Yeah, but he's just finishing up. He'll do the bathroom next, and then-" Willow walked in with a smile and a little wave. "Hey, Wills." He glanced at the cup in his hand, and offered it. "Coffee?" See? It keeps getting funnier!

She peered into the cup and wrinkled her nose. "Ew."

"Transylvanian Blend. Great stuff, but you'll be up all night."

She smiled and he made a fangy face at her. They started for the bedroom.

"How is he?"

"The same. He had another-" He shook his free hand in midair. "This morning."

"Oh boy."

"Yeah. Giles knows what it is, though, right?"

She gave him an uncertain look. "He thinks he has something, yeah. But he's not-"

They were at the bedroom door, and she trailed off and leaned against the frame. Xander reached around and put the cup on the dresser. Then he used his index finger to push it as far away as he could.

Giles was sitting on the edge of the bed, turning Spike's eyelids inside out. Spike's mouth looked aggrieved, and he had one hand on Giles's wrist, fumbling to get a grip. Giles was ignoring him.

"-then we haven't got a chance," he was saying. "On the other hand, if there's something you're not telling us, it's unlikely we'll figure it out on our own. There's very little written on vampire illnesses." He let Spike's eyelid go and shook his wrist free. "Vampire existence seems overall to be fairly Hobbesian."

Whatian? Xander mouthed to Willow.

"Meaning," Giles said over his shoulder, "that when vampires fall ill, they seem either to go away and get better on their own, or else be killed in very short order." Like alley cats.

"Hobbes," Willow whispered, in an explanatory tone.

"Ah," Xander said. He reached back around the doorframe and poked the cup another inch away.

"So I'm working largely from tertiary sources and conjecture," Giles said. "And if there's anything you ought to tell us, Spike, you really ought to tell us now."

There was a pause. Spike raised his hand slowly and touched his eyelid. Then he lifted his head. His face was drawn and haggard.

"Ow," he whispered. Ugh to eyelid pulling, that's what I say.

Giles stared at him a second, then turned and opened a case he'd brought in and set on the bed behind him. "Right. Well, given that we have no idea what's causing this, we'll have to proceed by trial and error." He took out a Ziploc bag of white powder and a set of measuring spoons. "Xander, will you bring me a glass?"

"I will if you tell me that's not cocaine," Xander said. Yeah, I can totally see Giles knowing where to get cocaine on short notice. Heroin, maybe.

"It's not cocaine."

"Or protein powder."


"Because that stuff's scarier than drugs."

Giles turned and looked at him, and over his shoulder, Spike was staring at him too. His eyes squinty and hard, but the corner of his mouth turning up slightly.

"Bringing," Xander said, and headed out.

He had to rummage to find a clean glass, and the sink was full of bloody mugs. When Spike got better, he could start working on his tab by doing some dish.

"One glass," he said, handing it to Giles with a flourish. "And if what you're about to do with it is even remotely toxic, it now belongs to Spike."

"No, no," Giles said, setting it down and opening the bag. He paused and glanced back at Xander. "You may wish to mark it, though."

"Uh huh," Xander said.

"And you should wash it thoroughly."

"Spike, you own a glass."

"Hardly necessary," Giles muttered, in a peeved tone, and Xander raised his eyebrows at Willow. She raised hers back, subversive for a second, and then Giles said, "That blood-may I have it, please?" It is kind of an odd thing for Giles to choose to argue about. Proably he's tired from doing all his own pagination. Possibly he should have said yes to help.

"Something else that Spike can keep." Xander handed it to Giles, who set it down on the bedside table by the glass. He opened the Ziploc bag, measured a careful tablespoon of powder into the glass, and then poured a few inches of blood over it. The blood turned pink. mmmmmmm like strawberry quik. I think the interesting thing is how un-gross this is. Comparatively.

Xander stared at the glass, then glanced at Spike, who was staring at it too. He looked tense and suspicious. The words trial and error seemed to hang heavy over the bedside table. And it isn't like Spike hasn't been an experimental subject before.

"So..." Xander looked sideways at Willow. "A little closed captioning, here?"

"It's mostly plants," Willow said. "With a tiny little bit of...well, just a doesn't matter."

Spike's head turned sharply toward her. He's barely got the energy to move, so this hard, defined movement has extra emphasis.

"Uh, Wills?" Xander cleared his throat and made a yes....? gesture. She tucked her chin into her neck and shook her head fractionally. Later, her hand said.

"Now, this may burn a bit going down," Giles said, lifting the glass to Spike's mouth. What, like holy water would? Or like whisky would? And I get the impression here that Giles has mostly tuned out the exchange between Xander and Willow, and the resulting tension in Spike. Not that he isn't listening, just that he's been involved in precise measuring and stirring.

Spike sat rigid with his mouth clamped shut, staring at Willow with hard sharp eyes. Willow studied the ceiling.

"Smooth," Xander muttered out of the side of his mouth. She colored slightly. Yeah. Willow is bad at not sharing information. Which I kind of respect. It isn't just that she doesn't think through how people might react to a given piece of information (though she doesn't), it's also that she really does believe that things shouldn't be secret. Generally. Specific secrets, she may believe in, but not as a practice. I don't just believe this about Witling's Willow, but about Willow in general. Which is why I had trouble with her in season six canon.

"This is for your own good," Giles was saying to Spike. "For God's sake, don't be a child. All it is is...well, it'll help with the fatigue, and it should stop the seizures completely."

"Plus, think of the starving vampires in Calcutta," Xander said. It's Giles' hesitation that turns Xander's attitude around. Once both Willow and Giles are refusing to say what's in the powder, it becomes an us versus them situation - and even though Xander has been assured he'll be told, I don't think he's willing to create a united front against the sick guy. Spike's his responsibility here, weirdly, and needs an ally. If this was less clear-cut, or Spike had the energy to argue, it would be different. If Spike had the energy to argue, he probably would almost immediately alienate Xander into siding against him. Out of pure cussedness.

"I worked all day to decoct this, and you pull faces at it." Giles tried to tip the glass, and Spike turned his face away.

"Maybe if you try the choo-choo-" Oooh, burned. Because yes, Giles is treating Spike like a child. And that's hardly something Xander's a stranger to.

"Xander." Giles lowered the glass and turned back to stare at him. Spike immediately tried to tip the glass out of his fingers, and Giles transferred it to his free hand without looking at him. Hee! I really do love the way that Giles doesn't even bother to acknowledge the physical resistance from Spike. Like Spike is a drunk kitten, not a vampire of historical note. "I was under the impression you wanted Spike out of your apartment."

"Well, yeah."

"Then perhaps you could refrain from making schoolboy remarks while I try to attain that goal."

Xander shifted slightly against the doorframe, feeling his heart kick up. Yeah, well, schoolboy remarks avoid direct confrontation. Which Xander is now forced into. "I just think you should tell him what's in it," he said. There was a pause. "I mean, he's the one who has to drink it."

Giles glanced at Willow, then looked down and swirled the glass, coating the sides with pink. Xander cleared his throat and stared at the floor. His cheeks felt hot.

Giles sighed, and Xander looked up. Giles was giving him a weary, strained smile. "Of course. You're quite right." He turned back to Spike. "I'm sorry, Spike. The main active agent is vermiculated bogle scat." He is right. Which is actually pretty annoying for Giles, who usually gets to declare what right means. Oh, also: vermiculated? Like, eaten and re-cast by worms? I would look it up, but I'm in the car right now, and sadly, no car-based DSL. Anyway.

There was a second's pause while Spike took that in.

"Bogey shite?" he croaked in outrage, and Giles whipped the glass around and tipped it into his mouth. Giles is sort of wasted as a watcher. He should be something requiring verve. Cattle-rustler. Spy. Something like that. Though I guess he sort of needs his ability to act fast as a watcher. Still.

"Don't mind the tingle." He kept a hand clamped beneath Spike's chin until they all saw his throat work. That's exactly how I give my cat antibiotics. With the mocking and everything.

"Fucker," Spike spat, as soon as his mouth was free. Giles peered into the glass, then held it out for Xander to take.

"Once every four hours, for the first twenty-four hours. Then twice a day after that."

Xander took the glass gingerly. "Um, days? Didn't you just cure him?"

"Not at all." Giles was looking at him as though there'd been a serious misunderstanding. "No, this is just the best I could do under the circumstances. We still have no idea what's causing this."

"No, right, I just thought-"

"It should stop the seizures," Willow said, looking from Xander to Spike. "Which is very yay, right?"

Spike wiped his mouth with a shaking hand and frowned at the sheets. Xander watched Giles order the measuring spoons and set them on the bedside table, out of Spike's reach.

"What if it's the chip, though?" Putting into words exactly what he knows Spike is thinking.

Giles paused, then sealed the Ziploc bag and set it beside the spoons. "As I said, if it's the chip, there's nothing we can do." He closed the case and stood up. "I think it best we assume it's not the chip."

"So we're just going to-"

"Xander." Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. "We're doing the best we can."

Xander subsided against the doorframe and stared into the pink glass. "Yeah. Sorry."

Giles walked out, and Xander and Willow glanced at each other. Then Willow looked at Spike.

"He really did work all day, making it."

Spike wiped his mouth again, and looked sideways at her.

"And stayed up until two o'clock, researching."

Spike looked grim.

"When you feel better? He likes Glenlivet." Willow smiled and went out. Xander watched her, then turned back to Spike.

"And she's supposed to be in Psych 211 right now," he said. Spike rolled his eyes. "I'm just saying."

He pulled the door quietly closed on his way out.

Once every four hours was a great idea, but this was a world of harsh realities. Xander sat on the edge of the bed holding the glass of pink blood, trying not to look too closely at it. Spike was wedged against the wall, staring at him over the defense of his knees.

"So you're moving in, then," Xander said, swirling the stuff and wincing at the way it coated the sides of the glass. "Excellent. We'll have to get a whiteboard for the chore chart." I'm trying to imagine Xander giving a cat antibiotics, now, and there's just no way. Not in his skill-set.

Spike lifted his lip in a silent sneer.

"Come on, Spike. I'm not exactly doing this for my health."

Hunkering, and glaring.

"Look, I wouldn't drink it either, except it's the only way you're getting out of my apartment and if I were you I'd probably really want to get out of my apartment by now. I mean, it's been-" He checked his watchless wrist. "Forever."

The closet door was standing open, and the pile of sweated T-shirts in there was getting pretty tall. He'd have to do laundry soon. Even with the blinds closed, the bedroom was a kiln.

"Spike." Xander raised the glass again, and Spike dropped his head like a bull. His eyes were hard and watchful under his brows. Xander sighed and rested the glass on his knee. "Is it hot in here, or is it just me?"

Spike didn't move. Well, hard to blame him. Xander had already tried the disarming-conversation method, but after Giles's surprise blitzkrieg, there was no disarming Spike. Xander took a last look at Spike's beetled brow, then put the glass on the bedside table and raised his hands in surrender. "Okay. Fine. Go Hobbesian, see if I care." He just nounified an adjective, didn't he.

For a minute Spike's gaze was trained with loathing on the glass, and then it flicked quickly back to Xander. Slowly, he lifted his head.

"Big baby," Xander said.

Spike blinked, and his mouth worked. "Ever," he said, and paused. "Seen a bogle?"

Xander thought. "They the ones with the mucous stalks?"

Spike shook his head slightly, and made a feeble fluttering gesture by his forehead. "Legs."

"In their heads?"

Spike shuddered. "Everywhere."

Xander thought some more. "No. And if we ever get them here? Blindfold me." Spike smiled faintly. :)

Xander sighed and looked around. The room was a wreck. The kicked-off sheets and pillows were piled at the foot of the bed, and the rug was still wadded half-under the night table. He'd got blood on the corner of it when he'd kicked the cup over. More laundry.

Spike shifted, and he glanced back automatically. "You okay?"

Spike paused, looked at him, and nodded. He was just shifting down a little in the pillow. Xander glanced at the glass again, thought about making another pitch, and felt the tensing under the sheets beside him.

"You're uncanny, you know that?" He leaned back on his hands and stared at the ceiling. "All I can say is, if you still lived and breathed, you'd have a clothespin on your nose and you'd have drunk that stuff by now." Uncanny = sort of one of the defining characterisics of a vampire, isn't it? Also, I love this image, Xander leaning back on his hands, staring upward, his gaze perpendicular to Spike's. And Spike staring at him from where he's crumpled at the top of the bed.

Spike was silent. But not a bad kind of silent. When Xander glanced sideways, he caught a wisp of smile at the corner of Spike's mouth again.

"I could get used to you like this. Without the talking." That got him a pretty good sneer. He looked back at the ceiling with a smile. "Peaceful."

Feeble snort. Actually, I sort of love this whole scene. Wait. I love this whole story. But the way this scene is blocked and paced in my head, the easy, tired peace of it at this point, I especially love that.

"So." A bead of sweat trickled down his spine, and he spent a moment examining how strange his life was. "Seen any good movies lately?" No response, and he glanced back over. Spike was watching him with a strange expression. Not the half-smile, and not the bulldog look of scat refusal. This expression was more...interested. The thing that's changed here is that the conversation no longer has a point. Xander's given up on the reason he came into the room, but he's chosen to stay anyway. And Spike notices that.

"What?" He resisted the urge to wipe his face, check for green. "If you're thinking of hitting me up for matinee money, you can-"

"Poof." Weak, but decided. Xander frowned.

"No, we covered this. You're just sick. You drink the scary pink stuff, you get-"

Spike shook his head fractionally. His gaze was level and intent. "No," he said quietly. "You." For good measure, he half-extended a finger in Xander's direction.

For a second it didn't make sense at all, and he sat there wondering what Spike was trying to get across. Like Spike's speaking Greek. This actually happens to me a lot. Then the transmission completed, and he sat frozen, staring at Spike, at the finger pointing at him. His brain felt jammed. His face, he realized, was flushed. And that was just like answering, wasn't it? Except it wasn't the answer he'd intended to give.I love this, because that's exactly how it feels to have the rug pulled out from under you like that. Something you've convinced yourself isn't going to happen, so when it does you're completely defenseless, and that makes it so much worse.

He realized his mouth was open, shut it, and shook his head. There didn't seem to be any point in saying anything, but shaking his head was the default. It wasn't like he'd agreed to have a conversation about this. It wasn't like he owed Spike any kind of explanation.

"'s okay," Spike said quietly. And somehow that was just the lamest, worst thing he could have said. Xander felt a rush of giddy anger, and smiled tightly.

"Gee, thanks." He sat up and reached for the glass. "I'm going to go pour this down the drain."

In the bathroom, watching the Coriolus effect, he wondered what the hell was wrong with his life. And whether Willow was right. Whether there was some reason he was home alone, tending a dead guy with a possibly contagious disease, while his friends went to class and did research and generally had lives. A dead guy who could fuck with your head even when he hardly had vocal function. This is a massive failure of communication. But it has to be. I mean, Spike understands people, gets them and is really good at figuring out motivations and what the hell people are thinking, but he's also coming from a completely different cultural framework to everyone else on the planet. His background and experiences shape him, as does his agenda. Agendas. Xander is made of defensive. And barely out of high school. And barely ready to have any sort of ease with his sexuality, with anyone other than Willow. Spike isn't attacking. He's...making conversation? That isn't right either. But everything Spike's saying here, while he's at his sickest, is truncated, boiled down, de-contextualized. And it takes an effort of will to get it out. I don't know what he thought he was doing, here. I don't know if he knew what he was doing. And I also think that Spike is a mess of conflicting impulses by nature. It's what makes him so compelling. He's constantly at war with himself.

He shut the tap off and stared at himself in the mirror. Messy hair, sweaty lip, construction tan. "Poof."

Right on time, there was a sliding thump from down the hall, a choked gargle, and then a series of hard banging sounds. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the cool surface of the mirror. Just for a second. Blue chips danced in the darkness. Blue blue blue. Even when he's angry.

Then he turned and ran back down the hall to the bedroom.

"Thank you for your patronage." Xander took the glass away from Spike's mouth and stood up. "Next one's at two. Be there or be square." Like a carapace of flipness.

Spike raised a hand slowly and wiped the pink from his upper lip. He was making a bogle-scat face, and his eyes were still punched-looking and sunken, and the cut on his forehead from the last seizure was scabbing over black. But he seemed stronger. Less trembly. Less liable to pitch headfirst to the hardwood and start mamboing. That had to be good.

"Get some sleep." Xander dropped the measuring spoons into the glass and clicked the bedside light off. The blinds were closed; the room was dark except for the rectangle of light from the hallway. He started for the door.

"How much?"

He turned back. Spike was propped against the pillows, squinting at him, his hand still at his lips. Definitely a less trembly hand.

"How much what? How much this?" Xander raised the glass. Spike nodded. "I don't know. Giles said every four hours for the first day, then twice-"

Spike nodded and made a yeah, yeah gesture. "How much?" he repeated. His hand went up to his head and his fingers pressed the temple, as if it hurt.

"I don't know." Xander looked down into the glass. "Until he figures out what's really wrong, I guess."

Spike stared at him, his lips pressed tight, and for a few seconds Xander stared back. Spike looked thin and tired and wrung-out. Like he wanted to be told, just three more times. Just twice. And then this'll be over, and you'll be fine, and you can go back to calling people poofs.

"I'm just the messenger, Spike. Next one's at two." No attempt to comfort, not now. No more us against them, no more "I'll talk to Giles."

He pulled the door almost closed, and went to wash out the glass.

He'd set the alarm but the phone rang first, jerking him out of a weak, heat-filtered doze and almost flipping him off the couch. His first thought was Giles. Giles and Willow and Buffy and something about cacodemons, small dogs, possibly apocalypse. A phone call after midnight was never good.

He grabbed the phone, fumbled, stabbed, and barked, "Hello?"


He swallowed and wiped sweat from his forehead. Jesus, the place was an oven. What time was it? He'd knocked the clock off the table. He searched for it with hot, clumsy fingers.

"Hello? Giles?"

Nothing, and he stopped searching for the clock. Then he realized he could hear breathing, and after a moment of shock, righteous anger flooded the gates.

"Listen, you fucker-"

"Is Spike there?"

That stunned him to silence. He sat with his mouth open, listening to the breathing. After a second he took the phone away from his ear and looked at it. Then he put it back. I can picture this so clearly. And it makes me snerk a little. Poor half-asleep sweaty perplexed anger-derailed Xander.

"May I ask who's calling?"

Click. Then tone.

He took the phone away again, looked at it, then hung up and dialed *69. That phone number was blocked, and not accessible to this service. And somehow, he hadn't really expected it to be.

The alarm went off next to his fingers, and he jumped and swore and almost dropped the phone. Jesus fucking Christ. He punched the clock off, dropped it, picked it up again, and put it carefully on the table. Then he put the phone down next to it. He sat for a minute on the edge of the couch, feeling sweat trickle down his chest, waiting. Nothing went off. tgggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg okay, that was commentary from my cat. She's not fond of alarms either.

"Okay then."

He got up slowly and started for the kitchen, rubbing the back of his head and plucking at his shirt. Blood. Right. Who the hell was calling Spike at his apartment? What the hell was Spike doing, giving his number out?

"What the hell are you doing, giving my number out?" I know it isn't rare, use of this internal monologue/exterior dialogue echo construction in fics from the pov of logorrheaic characters, but I love it. It makes me weak in the knees. Actually, I'm pretty sure I've aped it at least once. Either with Dawn in Sailor's Delight, or with Chuck in [residential]. I don't rememer which, and neither of those characters are actually chatty. Seeing how they both manage to go several days in their respective stories without speaking to anyone. Which makes me think possibly my use wasn't that successful. :/ That's beside the point, though. He measured, dumped, and swirled to help the process along. Spike was sunk deep in the wall of pillows, his eyes still only half open, his hair highly messed up. He'd been awake when Xander came in, but just barely. It had taken some levering to get him upright. I bet there's a finite limit to how messy Spike's hair can get. Seeing how he isn't sweating into it. Just tossing and turning and glaring and seizuring.

"I mean, I realize you have a highly active social life with the dregs of society," Xander said, letting the blood settle. "And they can't hardly host a rumble without you, but Jesus, Spike." He put the glass to Spike's lips. "Could you maybe not give out my home address, next time?" Rumble! Like the Jets and the Sharks! Except you know that Spike is exactly the sort to bring a gun to a knife fight. When he shows up at all. So probably he doesn't actually get invited that often.

Spike swallowed, blinked, and rubbed a hand over his head. Then he pulled his head back into the pillows, so the glass wasn't at his mouth, and turned his head to Xander.

"What," he said blearily, "the hell. Are you talking."

Xander waited.

"About?" Spike said. Oh, the timing! The way that spaces out on the page!

"I just got a phone call for you," Xander said. "It's two am, Spike. And random thugs are calling my house. For you." He pushed the glass forward, against Spike's lips. "Drink this fucking stuff, would you?"

Spike tried to turn his head and couldn't. Xander tipped the glass until the stuff was against his lips, and after a second's pause he closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and drank. He made the scat face. Xander lowered the glass and grabbed the measuring spoons off the table.

"Spike." He stared at the white, tired face. The pink foam on the lip, the glassy eyes, the hands traveling nervously over the sheet. The black beadwork of scabbing on his forehead. His throat was still working, still processing the scat. Giles had said it might burn on the way down.

Xander sighed and stared down into the dregs of pink in the glass. "Spike," he said again. "Just-" Then he couldn't think what to say. Just don't be such an asshole all the time, Spike. Just don't be so...predictable. He's talking himself out of being angry. Oh, Xander. Such an easy mark.

He looked up, and Spike was still staring at him, blinking, his head wobbling slightly on his neck. He looked like he was about to fall over. He still had pink on his lip.

"You've got a little-" Xander pointed at his own mouth, and Spike took a second to work that through, then lifted his hand and wiped the stuff away. Xander stood up. This is a step back - just a little earlier in the story, before Spike pissed him off, Xander would have wiped it away himself. A slow, gentle stroke with the side of his thumb, a sudden self-consciousness, scrubbing the pink off onto his jeans, getting distracted with something, other stains on his clothes, going off on a mental tangent of anything other than the sensation of sliding his thumb across Spike's lips. But not here - here it's done from a distance, no touching, and he actually moves away when it happens, physically.

"Six o'clock," he said wearily. "Same bat-channel."

He clicked the light off, pulled the door almost closed, and debated for almost thirty seconds before turning the phone off and falling face-first onto the couch.

Once every four hours was a great idea, and when you actually put it into practice, it worked wonders. Six o'clock rolled around without a single seizure, and when Xander knocked lightly and walked in with the early morning buffet, Spike was laid out on his back at the top of the bed, deeply asleep and looking better than he'd looked in days.

"Bogle scat," Xander said, glancing at the glass in his hand. "Who'd've thunk."

Spike gave a little twitch at his voice, and he paused. The sheet was wrapped sideways up around Spike's body, crimped at the top as if he'd been grabbing it during the night. His arms were outflung, the fingers loose and lax, the palms strangely vulnerable. The veins in his wrists were blue. His muscles were smooth and pale, like white stones under his skin. Xander knew what they felt like; plenty of times he'd grabbed an arm, or been grabbed and hauled out of harm's way. Got a hipbone against his tailbone once, and they'd both yelled. There's so much in this paragraph - tactile details, implied action, cool colors. Memories tied to adrenaline, to being kept safe.

His face looked calm and plain and pale. Turned away into the pillow, the privacy of sleep, other things. He'd been a friend, in some ways, for years now. He looked...familiar.

Xander knew what the arms felt like, but he had an urge to touch one now. Just put a finger down and test the egg of the bicep, see what it felt like when it moved under the skin. Soft and sleeping. Not agonized, not hard.

He was thinking about touching Spike's arm. Yeah. Because generally he *does* things, and thinks about other things. There's this extra physical distance between them at this point in the story, and it means he's limiting the outlets for his impulses - so they're thought rather than action.

He took a step back, and fell over the rucked-up rug. He landed hard on his ass, coughed out a yelp, and tried to save the glass. Failed. It went everywhere, and then he was on his back, covered in pink, the glass spinning next to him and a shifting sound on the bed above him.

Spike peered over the edge of the bed. For a few seconds he looked confused; then a smile seeped over his face.

"Maybe you should drink some of that shit yourself, Harris." Heh.

If there was no God, at least there was early-morning weekend television. Aerobics and Looney Tunes and Chuck Norris flogging home workout contraptions. Proust had his madeleine and bully for him; if there was coffee and cereal and food dehydrators, the comforts of Saturday morning childhood could always be retrieved.

The coffee was good, even though it was too hot to drink coffee. Air conditioner. He was going to fix that thing today if it killed him. As it might well do, in this heat. And then Spike could go recuperate in Willow and Buffy's storage locker, or in Giles's pantry. You can't take it with you, after all. I think it's interesting that this is the most practical way in his head to off-load the task of Spike-minding. He can't come up with an argument against that holds up in his own head without making himself inherently unavailable. And the other options are people-free options - he's not thinking Buffy or Willow or Giles would tend Spike - just that they'd store him. It minimizes his value in the whole setup. Unsurprisingly.

In a few hours Willow or Giles would call and ask how things were going, and he'd be able to report that Spike was no deader than he'd been on arrival, and that would be some small victory, even if it wasn't the kind they wrote epics about. But that was in a few hours, when normal people were awake. Right now, it was six thirty on a Saturday morning and the living room was an EZ-Bake even with the blinds sealed, and he was quite possibly the only waking soul in Sunnydale. Xander has all this small gratitude. Actually, that isn't right - he has large gratitude for very small things. Low expectations regarding his own abilities, his life. But high expectations of the people around him. It's what keeps him so unsurprised by all the little let-downs in his life.

There was a shuffling sound, and he sat straight up and stared. Spike was standing in the bedroom doorway, one hand clamped to the frame. He had his jeans on, but not his shirt. He looked weirdly wrong and shocking, like an apparition. It occurs to me now that every time Spike has tried to get dressed so he can leave, he's started with his shirt. This time he has no intention of actually leaving, so he just grabs the pants. I wonder that perhaps the friction between the two of them is part of what makes Spike willing to push into the rest of the apartment. Like enforcing his presence wasn't possible before, he was too ill, but it would have been pointless if it didn't cause some sort of tension. Like a tree-falls-in-a-forest thing. A koan: if there's no one to annoy, is Spike ever annoying?

"Are you-?" Xander put his cup down and stood up, then didn't know what to do. Spike wavered slightly. He looked past Xander at the television set.

"What's this shite?" Deflection.

Xander looked. Christie Brinkley was doing the side glide. Again, there's a sort of anachronistic feel here. Like even the infomercials in Xander's life are five year old reruns.

"Infomercial," he said. "You want me to turn it down?"

"Want you to turn it off," Spike said. He took a deep breath and let go of the door frame. It was maybe ten steps to the couch. Xander watched him totter the whole way, heel-to-toe, his hands out for balance. When he was still a few feet away he reached out for the arm and missed it, reached again, and started to tip. Xander stepped forward and caught him up with one hand in his armpit. This whole watching thing - Xander not crossing the line and offering help, but waiting for Spike to inarguably need it.

"You walked," he said, helping Spike rotate and sit on the couch arm. "You're walking."

Spike sat for a minute, staring at his lap, not moving. Then he lifted his head, glanced at Xander, and looked back at the television.

"Match on forty-two," he said. Football, the meaning of life.

Xander stared at him. "You Bataaned out here to pre-empt my viewing?"

Spike stared back. "Started half an hour ago." So it took him thirty minutes to get out of bed and struggle into his jeans. Jesus. Okay, he has to be really bored with laying in bed. And I think we've all been there. I had la grippe a couple of years ago, and I couldn't stay conscious for more than thirty minutes at a time, but I still would have cheerfully crawled for the opportunity to see something more entertaining than my bedrooom walls - even if I couldn't have focused on it once I got it.

Xander took a deep breath. "What kind of match?"

Spike gave him a withering look.

"Spike, I'm not a soccer fan. I don't watch soccer. You want to watch soccer? Get your own channel forty-two." Why did he even ask? Just so he could argue? I think that's why. And then, as a courtesy to the sick guy, he actually carries both sides of the debate. And he argues to lose. Awesome.

Spike looked at him for a minute, then started to lean back across the couch and reach for the remote. Xander watched the muscles in his belly shake and lock, watched his arms start to tremble. He had a quick flash of fingers scrabbling at the floor, a jaw bolted, the teeth grating.

He leaned down and snatched up the remote. "If I give you this," he said, pulling Spike upright with one hand and holding the remote in front of him, "you agree to observe certain rules. No random flicking. No warp drive. If I say I want to see something, you-"

Spike had the remote out of his hand before he could finish, and they were on channel forty-two before he could turn around. The crowd cheered.

Xander closed his eyes briefly, then walked around the coffee table and dropped into the far end of the couch. "Glad to see you're feeling better," he said sourly, and reached for his cereal. He bitches, but Xander is inherently social. All that stuff about being the only soul awake in the town was just depressed isolation.

"I'd say it's working," Xander said, craning his neck to look around the kitchen doorway into the living room without losing the phone. Spike was bonded to the couch cushions, his eyelids at half mast, the remote dangling from one hand. The volume was still low, which was another little victory. He'd kept turning it up by degrees when Xander's back was turned, until Xander had come back in and just stood wordlessly by the venetians. Heh. I love that he's threatening violence via window-treatment.

"No further convulsions? And he seems less debilitated?" There were pages flipping in the background; Giles was multitasking.

"No. And yes. He's commandeered the television."

"Ah, very good. Giles always ignores anything from Xander that isn't the direct answer to his question - I mean, I think he hears it, takes it in, but pretends not to. So he doesn't have to engage, ever. Which is good, since we've all seen him engage before in canon, and he drops to their level very quickly - and it's hard for Giles to maintain his dignity after too many slap-fights. Well, continue the dosage and I'll do my best to sort out the underlying problem. And if you're free this evening, we could use you on patrol. The cacodemon population is growing at an alarming rate."

"Ah, man. Saturday's ground chuck night over to the bingo." Xander = blue-collar retiree language. If that blue-collar retiree was living in 1976. More anachronism.

Pause. "Yes, we'll see you at nine." The pause is almost appreciative. It's meaningful, in any case.

He hung up smiling, finished rinsing out the last mug, and dropped it into the drainer. The clock over the fridge read nine fifty. Practically time for another feeding. He'd kept the bogle scat glass quarantined.

He walked into the living room with half a glass of the world's foulest substance, and Spike's eyes slid sideways in his head to watch his approach.

"Bon appétit," Xander said, holding out the glass. "I assume you can do this part on your own."

Spike just stared at him for a minute, no expression at all, and then he let out a long slow breath and sat up. The muscles in the sides of his stomach hollowed. Xander blinked and looked away at the television. So much reaction, unremarked. None of it's sliding past Spike - he's very aware of the physical, and of reactions, though with the tight Xander pov, we can only see that reflected in Spike's actions, and Xander doesn't recognize (willingly or unwillingly) all of them - who knows what percentage is getting through?

"Who's winning?"

He felt Spike take the glass from his hand, and looked back. Definitely less debilitated. His wrist shook very slightly, and he paused to stare at it until it went still. Then he set his jaw, bolted the pink, and banged the glass down on the coffee table with a shudder.

"That was Giles," Xander said, staring at the pink foam sliding back down the inside of the glass. "He says he's working on it. Still. And, you know, cheerio old chap."

Spike was moving his mouth around like he wanted to spit. Xander eyed him.

"Do it and you'll be Swiffing with little bits of duster."

Sour look.

"May I take this?" He made a formal show of clearing the glass, took it back to the kitchen, and dropped it into the sink. On his way back through the living room, he noticed the volume was up again. "I'm going to work on the air conditioner. If I can hear anything above a dull roar in there, I'm coming back in here and installing a V-chip in both of you." So much conversation here, and not a word from Spike.

The volume went down one notch. Spike's eyes bored into his back all the way to the hall closet, and by the time he'd got his tools out and headed for the bedroom, he had smoking laser holes in his shoulder blades. Whatever. He was Air Conditioner Guy. It was something to do, at least. And *such* an unreliable narrator. As a result, the reader fumbles through - it's lovely, because it sets up a resonance - you're limited in your understanding the same way Xander is, but you know more things, different things. And you have the freedom he doesn't have - to examine his motivations unflichingly.

It took a little longer than he'd expected. He got it out of the window and got the casing off, cleaned the filters, checked the fans, the coils, the motor. Nothing wrong with the wiring. No leaks, no cracks. A lot of southern California dust and particulate carcinogens, which he transferred to an old T-shirt and his own hands. It was stifling in the bedroom, even with the window open. No breeze. He sat cross-legged on the floor in boxers and an undershirt, tinkering with the carcass.

He was starting to think he wasn't going to be able to figure it out when he checked the filter hose and saw that it had come loose and filled up with gunk. There was an old newspaper in the wastepaper basket, and he snagged it and spread it out under the hose. It occurred to him, as he was shaking air cancer out of the hose, that he spent way too much of his life dealing with the gross. Yeah. Disproportionate with the rest of the gang, even, though not by much.

The phone rang and he paused and glanced down at his blackened hands. Crap. He eased a sheet of newspaper free and stood up, wiping his palms. It gave him a whirling head rush. How long had he been working on this thing? The bedroom clock read eleven twenty-two.

The phone rang again and he muttered, "Couch comfortable enough for you, Spike?" and dropped the crumpled paper. If you were okay enough to take over the viewing schedule, didn't that make you okay enough to pick up a phone?

Apparently it did, because the phone stopped ringing. Amazement froze him for a second. Then he thought about last night's phone call. Why would Spike do something courteous? Oh wait, he isn't.

"Oh, no way," he said, and started for the door. "You do not accept the charges."

The couch was empty; the television was showing cartoons, practically muted. When had the game stopped? He didn't remember hearing the shift. And where the hell was Spike?

He heard a low voice say "Look-" in the kitchen, and headed that way.

Just outside of the doorway, he paused and looked in. Spike was leaning against the fridge, bent half over as if his stomach hurt. The muscles in his side and back were jumping, and he was blinking hard at the floor. The phone was pressed to his ear. His free hand was pressed to his forehead.

"Look, you stupid twat-" he said, and was cut off. He seemed to be listening and thinking fast, trying to get ahead. His hand left his forehead and came down to the ground, the fingertips pressing white. "I'm trying to tell you-" This is - I wish this mystery had been resolved. I mean, I don't, really, I'm fine with mysteries staying mysteries - except I do wonder what sort of messy conflict makes Spike work this hard mentally. Sure, he's sick, he's been mentally logy for a while, but whatever it is, it's truly gone off the rails. And does it have to do with the need to get out of his crypt? Does it have anything to do with his illness? And maybe neither, as then it makes no sense that whoever it is calling him can call him. Mystery: it can be kind of nice. Frustrating, but in a nice way.

Xander stepped into the doorway and said, "What the hell are you doing?"

Spike jumped, jerked his head up, and dropped the phone. It hit the floor by his feet and he scrabbled for it, caught it up, and thumbed the cutoff.

"Nothing," he said.

Xander just looked at him.

"Wrong number," Spike said, and wiped his mouth with a shaking hand. Why lie here? Why not brazen it out with a smirk insted? Some kind of real fear, here.

"Wrong number," Xander repeated. He kept standing there, and after a minute Spike hauled himself upright and stretched his arm out to put the phone down on the kitchen table. He was shaking again.

"Stupid punter," Spike said, and turned around against the fridge to open the door. He peered inside, picked out the milk, and stared at it. Then he glanced back at Xander, and seemed to see him properly for the first time. "What happened to you?" Milk what why? He's totally doing that just to be doing something.

Xander looked down at himself. His hands were still black, and he'd wiped them on his shirt without noticing as he'd walked out; he had black fingerswipes across his stomach. A few carbon smudges on his legs, from wiping away sweat tickles. Probably all over his face, too. Suddenly he itched all over, and all he wanted out of life was a cool shower and a nap in clean cool sheets. And exactly none of that was going to happen.

"Don't answer my phone," he said, and grabbed an LL Bean catalog off the junk mail pile on the counter. "And get the hell out of my fridge." He ripped a few pages out, started working on his fingers, and turned to leave. Spike was up to something, because Spike was always up to something. On dust's door, Spike would be up to something. And it would be stupid and predictable and in the final analysis lame, because that's the way Spike was. Because Spike was an ingrate and an idiot, forever and amen. Yes. He is all of those things. But he's also complicated, and that complexity is mesmerizing.


He turned halfway back, still working on his index finger. "Don't hey me, Spike. Just drink your scat and get lost."

He was almost all the way out the door when Spike said, "Why are you so pissed?"

He turned back and said clearly, "Because you're an asshole, Spike."

"'m always that."

He was standing with the milk in one hand, leaning on the refrigerator door, looking genuinely perplexed. And he had a point.

"Yeah, well. You're not always an asshole in my apartment, I guess. Maybe you could try to keep the assholicism down to a bare minimum while you're actually under my roof, okay?"

"What'd I do?" It's a fair question. It all leads back to the poof comment, I think. But Xander can't actually point that out as the problem, so.

Xander stared at him for a second, then looked down at his blackened fingers, the crumpled twist of glossy paper smeared with grease and dirt. He took a deep breath. "Just...just don't plan apocalypse on my home phone, okay?"

"Told you, pet," Spike said, his expression closing over slightly. "Wrong number." This is polite, for Spike. Careful.

Xander felt a wave of frustration, and swallowed hard against it. He raised his hands, white flag. "Sure. Okay. Whatever."

"I'm not doing anything," Spike said, a little more forcefully. His eyes were fixed on Xander, the old Jedi mind trick. These are not the droids... Xander stared back stonily, and after a second Spike dropped his gaze to the milk carton. He studied it for a second, then said, "Don't know what you think I did, but I didn't do anything to get this." His hand drifted up and touched the back of his head. "Don't bloody know what's-" So much disconnect in their communication. Because their priorities are totally different. They might as well be speaking different languages. They actually communicate better when Xander's the only one to speak aloud, and it's left to him to interpret Spike's non-verbal cues. I mean, he still doesn't get it right, but Spike winds up less confused.

He stopped, and they both just stood there. After a minute the refrigerator motor kicked in.

"That's not a museum," Xander said quietly. Spike looked at him in confusion, and he made a close the door gesture. He pretended not to notice how Spike transferred his weight from the refrigerator door to the counter beside it.

The clock read eleven thirty. Xander sighed.

"If we both get out of this alive, it'll be a miracle," he said, and then wished he hadn't. Spike just snorted, his eyes on the floor in front of him. A drop of sweat ran down the center of Xander's back. He breaks the tension, because that's what he does. But he wants the tension, he's spoiling for the fight he just deflected.

"I'm going to go put that thing back together," he said. "You want a hand back to the couch?"

Spike shook his head, and he couldn't decide if that was a relief or a disappointment, so he left.

There was no possible way that God could have rested for the whole seventh day, because he must have spent at least most of the morning making air conditioning. The last and most perfect of his creations. And it was good.

Xander sat on the bedroom floor directly in front of the blast, his skin in goosebumps, sweat chilling in his hair, grinning so wide his front teeth were dry. Holy Christ, it felt good. He wanted to just lie down and fall asleep right here, in the square of Arctic sunshine on his floor, and when they needed him tonight they could just drop by with an ice pick and hammer him free. He'd heard Reykjavik was a nice place. Maybe he could get a timeshare. Commute. Icelandair actually has some really nice flights. fyi.

From what he could hear, Spike was back on the couch watching soccer, or possibly making out a check to Apocalypse-of-the-Month. Whatever. It was quiet in the living room, and he was ambulatory now, he could take care of his own two o'clock sitting. After that... Well, if he kept getting better at the current rate, he'd be out of the apartment tomorrow. He and his baggie of pulverized fewmets could become the dim, fading memory they were meant to be. And Xander could get on with his life. It's easier to be lonely without a guest in your apartment.

There was a weird ring to that thought, and he realized after a second that he'd just put mental irony quotes around "life." Well, he was Irony Guy. Irony Chef. Old Ironysides. It was his forté. His signature devilish charm. Yes. I love all of these personifications Xander comes up with for himself. Like superhero names. There's a lot in there that you could unpack, if you were, say, smarter than me. Anyway: comic books, superheroes, Clark Kent as the nebbish loser. Except all of Xander's superhero personas are nebbish losers. Which downgrades his own persona even further.

He shifted and ran a hand through the chilly soaked hair at the back of his neck. The cold air was starting to seem a little too cold.

"I have a fantastic life," he muttered.

The air conditioner droned.

"Just because I don't want to go to the Ice Capades." God, Xander. So depressed, and so busily making like he doesn't need to deal with it.

There was a sound in the hall and he jerked his head around, his neck cracking, his eyes springing open. Nobody there; he was hearing things. Every little creak, he thought he was going to have front-row tickets to the all-rattling, all-rolling Spike show. It made a guy jumpy.

The air was definitely too cold now, and he climbed wearily to his feet, looked at the mess of tools and paper at his feet, and thought, tomorrow. He'd deal with it tomorrow. Right now, he had a date with a cool shower and a few hours of oblivion. If he could kick Spike off the couch long enough to get it.

He started for the bathroom, then paused. In a hundred-odd years, Spike had probably covered a fair amount of ground. Probably had sleazy underworld pals on every continent by now. He turned on his heel, went back to the living room, and almost ran straight into Spike in the doorway. His stated motivation for taking away the phone is...fear of long-distance charges.

"Gah!" He jumped back, a hand over his heart, while Spike clung to the doorframe. "Jesus Christ, Spike!"

Spike glared and swayed slightly. "Christ yourself," he said, and they both paused.

"That made no sense," Xander said.

Spike muttered something under his breath.

"Christ me?" Xander considered a second. "No. The language officially doesn't accommodate that." Manipulating language answers to rules as well.

Spike pushed off the doorframe and started back toward the couch. He walked slowly and with a slight stoop, his heels brushing the floor. Xander watched him for a second, then looked around the living room. The phone was on the coffee table. Why was he up in the first place?

"I'm taking a shower," he said, heading for it. "Let me help you not call Nairobi while I'm gone." He picked up the phone and started out. "And I'm going to sleep when I get out, so you can either shuffle off now or get flipped off when I get back."

Spike had just dropped back into the couch, his legs kicking up loose as the cushions hit the backs of his knees. He sat still a second, one hand braced on the arm, the other planted in the seat beside him. His forearms were shaking slightly, Xander noticed. And his face looked long and white and tired.

"You want-" Xander paused at the doorway and started to take a step back. "You want a hand back to bed?"

That got him an old-school Spike sneer, an eyebrow that probably definitely was ASL for Poof, and a slight disbelieving hiss of air, like a deflating balloon of Fuck you. He shrugged and tapped the phone against his chest.

"As I said, go Hobbes. See if I care."

He went down the hall to the bathroom with a molten BB of anger lodged in the back of his neck. When I try to envision this feeling, it feels more like frustrated tears than anything else.

"My life is fantastic," he told the mirror, and turned the cold water on to a roar.

Cold air was great; cold water was better. He got out of the shower half an hour later with, well, not a song in his heart. But without murder there either, and that was a step in the right direction. Cool water and soap and maybe possibly just one or two quick little inner films of hands locked hard into his, a silver ring glinting. He felt a little lighter, a little better. A lot sleepier. Well, he was a guy. And whatever else that meant in this brave new world he lived in now, it still meant he napped after he came. Oh man. Fixing the body to fix the mind. Also, more tighttight physical description. A tiny spotlight of physical description.

He towelled off, looked at the damp grimy pile of his boxers and shirt, and sighed. No way. He was becoming sarong guy, and if that didn't give Spike ammo for the next few millennia, nothing would. Fuck Spike. It was his apartment; he'd wear a tutu if he wanted to. Not that he wanted to. Oh, Xander.

He cinched the towel tight around his hips and saronged back down the hall to the bedroom.

"Don't get excited," he said, pitching his shorts and shirt onto the pile as he turned the corner. "I'm just getting-"

No Spike in the bedroom. No blankets on the bed. Just full-bore AC, droning away, raising the hairs on his arms. He paused for a second to savor, then turned and went back to the living room.

Mute golf on the television; a beautiful swooping blue sky, then a smooth green and a white rolling pellet. Spike watched golf?

No. Xander stood in the doorway, one hand at the tuck point of his towel, just staring. Spike was cocooned in a lump on the couch, eyes closed and mouth open, the remote clutched loosely in one hand. He'd bogarted every blanket. His bare feet were propped on the opposite arm of the couch. It's a clear physical message that Spike's ceding the space. Without them doing any of that problematic talking. It's a peace offering, the kind they'd never have been able to work out between themselves verbally.

Xander looked at the television, then back at Spike.


That didn't seem adequate, and he considered walking over and poking Spike to wake him up and administer a brief quiz: was this an altruistic act? Or possibly: what have you done with the real Spike?

Then the siren song of the AC filtered through. He was wasting valuable unconsciousness, standing here contemplating the koan of Spike. Damn, I knew I got the koan thing from someplace.

He turned and went back to the bedroom, pulled the door almost closed, and fell full-length onto the cool soft mattress. Then through it into sleep. Down down down.

He'd forgotten to set the alarm, but the sweet blue sparks winked out right on time, and he woke up staring at the clock. More blue. It's like a marker of his attitude toward Spike, as it warms again. Eight fifty-nine. As he watched, it clicked over to nine. The cacodemon hour. He sighed and levered himself out of the trench he'd flattened in the mattress. Clothes. He'd heard they were all the rage in the outside world.

He got into one of his few remaining T-shirts and a pair of trousers that could take a little more splatter, grabbed a stake from the sock drawer, and headed out. No dedicated stake drawer? The apartment was dim, almost dark. In the living room, tortilla chips zinged silently across the screen. Spike was still curled into the back of the couch, his face half-buried in the cushion. He'd hardly moved. I have a hard time not seeing the tortilla chips as blue.

Nine o'clock, Giles had said, and it was a few minutes past already, but still, something bothered him about the way Spike was lying. Xander paused, one hand on the doorknob, then turned back and went to the couch. He put one careful finger out and tapped Spike's head. It's like the polar opposite of the impulse to touch his bicep. Very fleeting, carefully not gathering tactile information.

Spike jerked awake, eyes peeled wide, his whole body shivering back and away. He was still wrapped in the blankets, and almost rolled right off the couch. He's so defenseless, and he knows it.

"Whoah-" Xander stepped back, hands up. "Sorry, sorry. You just-" But Xander doesn't know it. Even when Spike's seizing, Xander has a hard time seeing him as vulnerable, Which is why he's surprised, too.

Spike was sitting up and staring at him, then down at himself, the blankets, the remote still clutched in one hand. He swallowed, dropped the remote, and started to fight his arms free.

"I'm sorry," Xander said again. "I didn't mean to spook you. I just though you were sick again, or something."

Spike got one arm loose and sat still for a second, staring at the coffee table. Then he lifted his hand and ran it over his face. The tremor was back. Xander shifted uncomfortably and tried not to notice it.

"You feeling okay? Maybe I should stay-" How the hell would he even start to explain that to Giles? I mean, seriously.

Spike shook his head once, sharply. "Logy, 's all."

Xander paused. "Um. Okay. I'm going to assume that's-"

"Piss off." It's weird, how spotty Xander's vocabulary is. Which I think is very true to canon. And I like that Spike doesn't quiet get that. He almost does.

Xander hesitated a moment longer, his brain a blocked intersection. He was late. He'd just terrified Spike. Who was shaking. Again. And the small dogs of Sunnydale were in danger. He so wants to stay. Warring protective impulses.

"Piss. Off." And *this*, Spike gets. He doesn't want to be the object of protective impulses, even though he sort of is, a lot.

There was an edge of desperation in Spike's voice now, and that twanged something deep in Xander's belly, where he didn't want to feel anything twang. He closed his mouth tightly and stepped back.

"Yeah, okay." He had a stake, his keys, some money, ID. Everything. "Do you need-"

Spike gave him a single, furious, shaking finger without even looking around. I love that he doesn't turn. I love that he knows that Xander is watching, that he understands that Xander is willing to do the work to translate his non-verbal communication. Xander stood still a second, his weight shifting back and forth, heels to toes. Then he turned and walked quickly to the door without looking back again.

Except once, and of course he saw just what he expected. Spike sitting slumped in the tortilla flicker, one shaking hand running over the back of his head. Oh, the preoccupation with the chip. Again.

"Giles says they mainly seem to show up in Russia and the Baltic states," Willow said, ducking neatly and spritzing. "Apparently Minsk has a real problem." I love how Witling does this deep backgrounding. And it works not just for the depth of the setting, but also for character development and for making Willow seem...Willowy.

"Minsk." The proboscis swivelled, nares flaring, and honed in on him. He cracked the bat down on it and it snapped off with a glurg of yellowish syrup. "Ah, Christ." Yick.

"Thorax," Willow reminded him over her shoulder, and he sighed and plunged the bat in. More syrup, all over his hands to the wrists. He was going to have to burn everything he was wearing. She spritzes, he smashes. Hmmm. Well, she's also dispensing trivia. Willow, by the way, is the reason that Xander has a vocabulary that makes him seem like he should get more than he does, 50-cent-word-wise.

The second one was chittering furiously, flailing its palps at Willow, who was backing up, spritzing like mad. Aw. It was a little tragic cacodemon couple. With their doomed cacodemon love. Her cannister was failing, and as Xander watched, her heels met the husk of the cacodemon he'd just dropped. She eeped and toppled, and he swung the bat from the base of his heels and cracked the thing's head right out of the park. Well, into a tree. He heard the rustle-rustle-thump. Belatedly, he pointed.

"Wow." Willow squinted up at him from the grass. "Um, Washington crossing the Delaware?" Awesome.

He sighed and dropped his finger. "Don't take this the wrong way, Will, but sometimes I think I need guy friends." He held out his hand and she took it to pull herself up. "And no, I didn't mean that the way it-" It isn't anything he hasn't said before.

"Giles is a guy," she said quickly, brushing herself down. "And a friend. A guy friend. And I too did not mean that the way-" They are so careful with each other here.

"Understood," he said. They both stood staring down at the husks. "Man, what are we going to do with these?"

"Um." She looked around perfunctorily. "I could do a little no-see-um spell." could. Theoretically.

"Or we could drag them into those bushes."



They each grabbed a husk and started dragging. Halfway to the bushes, Willow gasped out, "Spike is a guy."

Xander's husk cracked slightly under his fingers. Physical distraction, pause. "Yes," he said after a second. "That he is." He knows where she's going, here, but he doesn't acknowledge it. Not that non-acknowledgement is going to help.

"And I know he's not really a friend, but he's not really an enemy-"

"He's a jerk." Xander checked over his shoulder. "What do you think - through or around?"

"Through," Willow grunted, stamping on a marigold. "He's jerky, okay. But-" She backed into a rhododendron, paused, and changed angles. "He's not a total jerk, is he?"

"He's getting calls. On my phone. At two in the morning." Xander dropped his husk, kicked some token dirt over it, and took hold of the tail end of Willow's. "I don't know what he's doing, but I don't like it." Diversion. Not that it isn't also pertinent info, but I really do think he's totally conscious of where she's going.

"He gets calls? From...friends?"

"I'm thinking more, associates."

"He's talking on the phone?" They dumped the second husk next to the first and Willow stood up and braced her hands in the small of her back. "He must be getting better."

"He's - I don't know." It was on the tip of his tongue to say, Yeah, he's fine, let's move him back to the finery and privacy of his own damn crypt, but he thought of Spike propped against the refrigerator, hunched over with his fingers pressed against the linoleum, the phone barely balanced against his ear. "He's getting better, yeah." He's so guarded here. Like he's not sure who he needs to protect the most, himself or Spike.

"Are you guys getting along?"

"So far only one of us is dead," he said, and a second after the glib slipped out he registered the slight oddness in Willow's tone. He turned and looked at her. In the leafy darkness, her face was hard to make out. "Wait - what do you mean?"

"What do you mean what do I mean?" She dusted her hands showily and started forging a route back out to the park. "Just, getting along. Which is a pretty weird expression when you think about it, because, you know, where? And it's like that in, like-" She paused. "Um, I can think of four languages right now-" I like this Willow. Like her every good impulse comes right out of her mouth, but every one of them comes out wrong. Wrong in a nice, well-meaning way, but still wrong.

"Willow," he said, forging after her. "There are no secrets between us, remember?"


"I know your very thoughts, right?"


"And when you smokescreen? Infants can tell."

They were in the open again, and she turned to give him a sour look.

"What are you talking about?" he asked, reaching out and plucking a leaf out of her hair.

"Nothing," she said, and he just looked at her. "Okay. Maybe, just...Spike is a guy, you know?"

He nodded. "To the best of our shared knowledge." Well, I don't know. Willow was staring at the doorframe, right?

"And, I don't know, I guess I just-I mean, we just-" She searched his face, and stopped. "But I don't want to be all, um, assumy and stuff, and it's none of my business except it would be if anything happened, because shovel-" Having Willow refer to the shovel talk is good, here, but the reason it works is because *Xander* has never heard the talk. He has no clue what she's referring to.

He blinked. "Okay. Remember when we talked about having the entire conversation out loud?"

"You're just going to get all freaked out, and it's dumb and stupid anyway, and we should probably catch up with Buffy and Giles, because cacodemons, and maybe they could use the no-see-um-" Nice effort to distract via frivolous use of magic. But Xander is pretty much the only person who that isn't going to work on.


"Do you think maybe you and Spike-?"

He just stood there, waiting for her to finish. "Me and Spike-?" he repeated helpfully after a minute, prompting her with a hand. She twisted her mouth and looked at him, and then it hit him all at once, and he wondered what the hell had been wrong with him for the last two and a half minutes. Maybe the Raid had gone to his brain. Or maybe he didn't know where she was going. I think he did. Maybe not consciously.

"Me and Spike," someone said in a weird flat tone, and he realized after a second that it had been him. He had both hands up in front of him, palms out, in a warding-off gesture. His heart was slamming in his ears. And he was pretty sure he looked flushed. Him and Spike was totally ridiculous. And insulting. And no. The reaction, the way it's overwhelming and physical. <3

Willow was watching him with wide eyes. He had no idea what was in his face, but after a second she dropped her gaze and stooped to pick up the cannister from the grass where she'd dropped it. She straightened up and fingered it nervously, her eyes on it instead of him. And he realized that he still hadn't said the no that he was supposed to say. The whole conversation, out loud. Right. Oh, Xander. Poor you. Every time he fails to be snappy with his answers, he regrets it. It's all stuff he's unwilling to think about even alone in his head.

"No," he said, in as authoritative a tone as he could muster. "No, and no. And-" He felt a little surge of anger in his chest and tried to keep his voice level. "Just because he's a guy doesn't mean- I mean, just because I'm- I don't have to leap on everything that crosses my path." And he reduces it, removes the emotional part, which is where she started from when she approached the subject. (I would venture that he wouldn't have been able to give the same answer, and would have had to have an actual conversation.)

"No, I didn't mean-"

"And he's a vampire. Jesus, Willow. Vampire."

"I know, it's just-"

"And he's sick. I'm mauling sick dead evil guys, now? Thanks a lot."

"No! Xander, I didn't mean-"

"Forget it. Let's just find Buffy and Giles."

"Xander!" He was already turning away, and she reached out and grabbed his arm. Her face was pale and shocked, and she looked close to tears. He felt stupidly close to tears, himself. He made her into the attacker in the conversation, made her the transgressor. They both stank of demon goo and Raid. His shoulders ached and his throat was tight. She'd said we. That meant they'd talked about him behind his back. Xander and Spike. Jesus Christ. And now it's everyone versus Xander.

"Xander. I didn't mean to upset you, I just-" Her fingers tightened on his arm, and she gave it a little shake. "You're all sad and tired all the time, and we hardly see you anymore, and I don't want to be Ms. Nosey Parker but I don't know, we were just hoping maybe you'd-" Okay, here we go. Finally a view on how the rest of the gang is seeing him. I mean, we sort of got this from Giles, a little bit, during the coffee conversation, but that's just so...Giles. It's like it's in a different language when it comes from him, whereas when it comes from Willow we can trust that we understand it better.

"I'd start macking on Spike?" He stared at her. "This was your hope for me?"

"No, just... Just that you'd be a little happier." Her face was so miserable, it was like a jab in the gut. He felt sick. Exhausted and angry and sick.

"That's-" He took a deep breath and tried to smile. "That's nice, Wills. Really. Thank you." He's really only pretending to understand, or be okay with it - but he does get *why*. Intellectually.

A hopeful little smile touched the corner of her lips. "We care about you, Xander. We want know. Meddle."

"Uh huh."

"Not necessarily with Spike, it's just he's the first person you've seemed to-"

"He's not a person," Xander said automatically. "Wait, the first person I've seemed to what?"

Willow seemed to brace herself. "The first person you've, well, cared about. In a while."

"I don't care about Spike." His voice sounded distant and flat. Well, it's so obviously a lie. He stared down at Willow's fingers on the cannister.

"Well, you stood up for him about the...scat. And you're letting him stay in your place."

"He'll be out tomorrow," he said remotely, still staring at her hands. "And this conversation is so totally over."

She didn't say anything.

"Over. Finished. And retroactively deleted."


He reached out and took the cannister out of her hands, shook it, and listened to the bearing rattle. "We should get you a fresh one. And find Buffy and Giles."

She nodded, and they started walking. Halfway across the park, she asked, "Who do you think he talks to on the phone?" Back to his attempted distraction. Exactly what he asked for. Like the conversation was looped right out of existence. Not that it was, but Willow & Xander both love to pretend they can shape reality with their brains.

By the time they found Buffy and Giles in the far reaches of the mall parking lot, there was a pile of husks to knee-level, and more on the way. Buffy was wielding an honest-to-God quarter staff, and Giles had what looked like a crowbar. Both of them were gooey. A crowbar sounds like it has nowhere near enough reach. He's got to have cacodemon guts up to his elbows.

"Where have you been?" Giles called, sparing them a glance as he fenced a cacodemon back against the pile of husks. "For God's sake lend a hand."

They waded in. The cacodemons kept pouring out of an outlet tunnel in a ditch below the lot, plenty to go around. Xander kept a tight grip on the Slugger and smashed hell out of anything with more than two legs. It was cathartic. Then it was tiring. Then he started getting blisters.

Finally the flow let up, and Buffy dispatched the final stragglers with the end of her staff, like giant bug kebabs. She flicked them onto the pile and sighed. "God. I am so ready to see the last of these guys."

"Seconded," Willow said weakly, sinking down to the pavement. "Thirded, even. Giles, do we have any ideas yet?" I like the way that the scale of the weaponry is meaningful as an indicator of physical ability - Buffy with her quarterstaff, Xander with his baseball bat, Giles with his crowbar, and Willow with her...can of Raid.

Giles looked up from his glasses, which he was trying to clean with a gooey handkerchief. "Given that my entire evening has been spent spearing the creatures with a pry bar that I will now have to sink in a river, no."

They sat in silence, glumly surveying the pile of husks.

"Anyone bring a dolly?" Xander asked.

No one had, and forty-five minutes later they were still transporting husks to the mall Dumpsters and shrubberies. It was almost one o'clock by Xander's gooey watch before the pile was down to a single layer of bug corpses.

"There's a little more room in the TJ Maxx azaleas," Buffy said, grabbing a pair of husks and starting to haul. Xander leaned down for a grip, and something stabbed him in the shoulder. He leapt back, and something heavy came with him. He feels the drag and the weight more than he feels the pain, which is right. It's the shock.

"Fuck!" There was a proboscis rammed into his deltoid, a cacodemon suckling at the far end. He kept stumbling back, trying to get away, and only dragged it with him. It left a trail of mustard-colored slime on the pavement. "Jesus - Buffy!"

She was already back, just a pair of little hands out of nowhere, wrestling the thing's head. Giles was shouting something about the thorax. Fuck the thorax, he thought. Cut the fucking thing off. His own hands were scrabbling at it too. The pain in his shoulder was sickening and deep, like an injection. His fingers were starting to go numb. Eeeeyih.

Then something splurged through the thing's chest and it fell heavily against him, twitching and leaking mucus. He yelled and tried to push it off, then yelled again when the proboscis stayed in his shoulder. Buffy got a hand on it and pulled, and there was an agonizing sliding sensation, and an extra three inches of cacodemon proboscis slipped out of his arm. And double eeeeyih.

"Oh my God," Willow said faintly, from somewhere above them.

"Are you all right, Xander?" That was Giles, squatting down next to Buffy, who was staring at the proboscis with a kind of personal hatred. She'd staked the cacodemon with her staff, old-school style. Xander looked at both of them, then up at Willow. Proboscis = Buffy's failure, here. She's not deep, you know.


Giles was inspecting his arm, then the segment of proboscis in Buffy's hands. "We got it out before it anchored, thank God. Can you move your arm?"

Xander raised it halfway, winced, and lowered it. "Uh-"

"Wait here," Giles said. "We'll finish these last ones up and be right back. And be careful, you two-there may be others that aren't quite dead."

"Xander," Buffy said, still holding the proboscis. "God, I'm so sorry. That could have-" So until now, the cacodemons are a punchline. They're gross, and strange, and annoying, but there was no danger there. Except to pomeranians. But this is where they become something dangerous.

"It didn't," Giles said shortly. "Come on, one last trip and we'll be done."

Xander stayed put. His head felt strangely woolly, and a trickle of blood was running down his arm to his hand. He watched it for a minute, then wiped it carefully back up and flicked it onto the pavement. His whole arm throbbed. Spike and him. That was ridiculous. They had absolutely nothing in common. I love this topic shift. I love how the only distraction, the only functional distraction, that he can find, is that conversation with Willow. The one that it was so important to *not* think about earlier.

He could hear faint arguing from the far side of the lot, by the TJ Maxx azaleas.

He closed his eyes and tried not to think about the ache in his armpit, the tingle in his fingertips. Flesh wound. Minor. God, he was tired.

"Right, let's get you to the car," Giles said, and he opened his eyes with a start. He must have drifted off.

"Why do I always have to get the giant tick bite?" he asked, pushing himself to his feet and almost falling over. Buffy caught him, and Willow took hold of his free arm to steady him.

"He should have a bandage, right?" she asked, as they trekked across the lot to Giles's car. "And do we have NeoSporin?" NeoSporin and bandages go together like peanut butter and jelly. Also, I love that their first-aid kit is made up of the sort of stuff you can get at chain drugstores. No pressure bandages, no sterile pads - not that bandages aren't packaged for sterility - just a box of stuff in the trunk.

There were bandages and NeoSporin in the trunk, as always. Xander sat on the bumper and flexed his hand while Giles duct-taped him back together and Buffy hovered, getting in the light.

"Buffy," Xander said finally. "It's okay. It's not your fault."

"I thought I killed it," she said. "It was supposed to be killed. I killed all the others."

"I know, Buff. It's not your fault."

"It was supposed to be killed," she said again, staring at the neat white bandage Giles was taping in place. Xander waved his free hand in front of her face. I love how lost Buffy is here, how bewildered she is at her failure.

"Buffy. Again. Not blaming, here."

"Happily, it's minor," Giles said, snipping the last strip of tape and dropping the scissors back in the box. "You'll be slightly sore, but there won't be any lasting damage."

"See?" He stood up, flexed manfully, and flinched. "Ow. I mean, see?"

"We'll drop you off first," Giles said.

In the back seat, just before they got to his apartment, Willow squeezed his knee slightly. He looked at her.

"Sorry," she whispered.

He shook his head, not getting it. Too tired to get it. His arm ached, his neck ached. It was just starting to sink in: he'd been sucked by a giant cockroach. Cross that off the list.

"For everything," she said quietly, and from her sheepish look, he realized she meant the Spike thing.

"No big," he said. " Okay?"

She nodded. "Okay."

"I recommend Tylenol," Giles said, pulling into the curb. "And a good night's sleep. And how is Spike, by the way?"

"Annoying," Xander said, and opened his door. "Night, you guys. Buffy, not your fault." Xander's in this really weird place, mentally, with Spike's care. He wants them (Giles in particular) to take the problem seriously, to solve it, to help him - but he breezes along, working hard to act like he doesn't take any of it seriously. So that 10% of the time that he allows himself to act worried has to be kind of an odd thing for the rest to deal with. Except I'm sure Willow sees through all of it. Always.

"I know," she said softly, and tried to smile. He waved, closed the door, and started across the street.

On the way up, he had a brief moment of weightless teetering, a vision of the straight back down. His arm pulsed. What if it had anchored? He didn't want to know. He wanted Tylenol and a couch to call his own, ten solid hours of sleep, and if Spike got any calls tonight he was going to be dialing with broken fingers in future.

He sorted his keys, let himself in, and closed the door behind him. Then he paused. Something seemed - off.

He took a step into the apartment and looked around the corner of the entryway. The television was playing mute M*A*S*H. A Henry Blake episode. There was stuff all over the floor-blankets, newspaper, stuff from the coffee table. The coffee table was tipped over. It all glowed in the light of the television. One bare foot glowed on the floor behind the coffee table. His attention here widens out, takes in the whole room covered by that blue light - and yes, I know the light of the television isn't explicitly blue, but that's what color it is. You wind up with this wide view of deathly silent chaos. And then he moves in further, and the chaos resolves, gets explained, and at the same time, the scene tightens down to a single object: Spike's body.

Xander took another step forward. Spike's arms were outflung, his eyes were blank. The television light made him a classical statue, pale and perfect and still.

For a guy who'd been ridiculously, disturbingly easy to move around a day or two before, he was pretty dense. Xander got hold of his arm and the waist of his jeans and tried to heave him up, and the proboscis stick cranked to a white-hot needle in his shoulder. He let go in a hurry and just crouched down by Spike's side, waiting for the throb to stop. He should turn the television off and put a light on. Instead he looked around for the Ziploc bag, pulled it out from under a cushion, and carried it into the dark kitchen. The should here is what Giles would do - it isn't necessarily the most effective use of Xander's very limited resources, energy-wise. I think that he doesn't have the perspective to cut himself that slack - he has enough to know that he isn't capable of doing it "right", but not to defend the decision. I think that's actually applicable to Xander throughout the story, and in a lot of the characterizations of Xander that I really enjoy.

He found a glass and spoon by touch, his eyes half-closed, floating like a plastic fishing spinner at the surface of the darkness. I sometimes think this should be gimmicky, all of these physical descriptors for mental states, but they are all so perfect. The blood turning slowly in the microwave was fascinating. His arm tickled. Vaguely, he wondered when he'd eaten last. No time to grab anything on the way to the Box, and now it was past two o'clock. Did he have to work tomorrow? No, tomorrow was Sunday. Thank God.

The blood dinged and he pulled it out, poked the bag, and squeezed a little into a glass. A tablespoon of scat makes the medicine go down. He walked back into the living room still swirling the glass.

Spike was blinking, which was a start. Xander sat down cross-legged by his head, put the glass carefully on the floor a few feet away, and leaned back on his hands to watch some M*A*S*H. None of it made any sense, and then there was an operation, and he spent three seconds thinking about the Korean War, and communism, and all the ways that normal people died. Mostly they didn't involve being perforated by giant bugs. I love that M*A*S*H is the show referenced here. I know I have lots of reasons for that, but I am not sure what all of them are. Some have to do with my childhood, my ideas of television (particularly ensemble tv), and the like, but also, because Xander, as a character, could have walked right out of that show. His attitudes, his dialogue, the ways he deals with situations. It's a good fit.

Spike shifted, and he glanced down.

"How you feeling?" he asked. Spike curled his fingers, then tried to pull his arms to his chest. He got halfway and stopped. His eyes slid sideways to find Xander. The tip of his tongue wetted his lips.

"Did you take the stuff at two?" Xander asked. Spike just stared at him. "This afternoon. You were supposed to take some at two o'clock."

Long silence. The light made Spike's eyes look wet. Xander turned back to the television.

"Uh huh."

A few ads went by, while Spike slowly tried out his limbs in the bottom quarter of Xander's field of vision. When he started trying to sit up, Xander looked down again and picked up the glass.

"You need to take this."

Spike paused and looked at it. Then he looked at Xander. He swallowed, licked his lips again, and nodded.

"Okay then," Xander said, and hooked his free hand under Spike's arm to help him up. When he was roughly vertical, Xander put the glass to his mouth. He drank it. His throat clutched and he made a gagging sound, but he drank it. Xander kept him upright, staring at the television and waiting for the swallowing to stop. After a few seconds he realized his eyelids had fallen, and hauled them up to find Spike staring at him.

"'pened to you?" Spike's head was wobbling slightly on his neck again, and Xander gazed at him a second, then looked down at himself. He was goo-frosted, head to toe, slumped sideways, all his weight braced on one numbing palm, and he couldn't keep his eyes open. The hand in Spike's armpit was starting to shake.

He looked back at Spike, who was palsying more now. The floor behind him was littered with splayed magazines and old phone bills. The coffee table was still tipped over, legs stiff in the air like a game animal. And the view of the room expands out again. Have I mentioned I love this story? I love it so much. I wish I had cleverer things to say about it, I am sure smart people have thought all sorts of articulate stuff about it, but here I am, I'm the one here, so you get me saying "love love love blah blah love". Sorry about that.

"Ah, fuck." Xander started to laugh, took his hand back to cover his face, and had to grab fast to keep Spike from falling over. "Fuck, sorry-" He couldn't stop giggling. They were like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Or Aerosmith. Cranky, debilitated, crashed out in the mess they'd made of his apartment. Totally incompetent. Not to be trusted. This is something else about Xander, I think - that he always expects his behavior/posessions/home/accomplishments to be judged and found wanting. Like he has a lens that slides into place, warping reality into how he thinks Giles (as the authority and the source of approbation) would see it.

"Sorry," he said again, gasping and leaning forward to wipe his eyes with his numb left hand. "Sorry, I just can't-"

"'s funny?" Spike asked sharply, and Xander snuck a sideways look at him and started giggling again. "Funny, am I?"

Xander wheezed. His stomach hurt; tears were blurring his eyes. He couldn't stop. He took a deep breath and tried to fight it down.

"Bloody hilarious," Spike muttered, and Xander lost it again. He choked and started coughing, and after a minute something tapped his back. He looked around and realized Spike was trying to whack him. It felt like Giles trying to get his attention. He collapsed again.

He battled it down by degrees, and finally sat shivering, wiping his eyes. The goo on his trousers was deeply amusing. There was goo in his hair; he could feel it. He'd been a human juice box. He really needed to get some sleep.

"Sorry - sorry about that," he said, when he could talk again. Spike was just sitting quietly, and Xander felt a frayed thread of worry and checked him out. If he did that thing again- But he was just sitting there, a faint weird smile on his lips, staring back at Xander. "Wait - what?" Oh. And there it is, an unguarded moment.

The smile disappeared, and he just looked like Spike. Deep double annoying with a ribbon of smug. Except it was hard to look smug with thumbprint circles under your eyes and a lump growing on your left temple.

"Okay," Xander sighed, and located his feet. "Bedtime for Bonzo."

He stood and hauled Spike with him, and together they started staggering for the bedroom. Halfway there, Xander slipped on a magazine and almost took them both down. The giggles exploded again.

"Well done," Spike said, somehow keeping his balance. "Lovely."

He sounded almost exactly like Giles, and Xander lost his shit all over again. When he finally regained motor control, he glanced sideways and caught Spike with the weird little smile again. He paused and blinked. "You're doing that on purpose." Caught.

"What?" The smile was gone; Spike looked tired and pissed off.

"You're making me laugh."

"Fuck off." Spike tried to jerk his arm out of Xander's grip, and Xander ignored him. "Wanker." His defensive posture is so angry. And this format, where Spike knows he's been unguarded and then gets angry, it keeps happening. Xander gets used to the pattern, but he doesn't understand it.

Xander just looked at him, and Spike said quickly, "'pened to your arm?"

Xander looked down and noticed that the stick had started bleeding again at some point; there were two long dark trails running down to the crook of his elbow. He frowned. "Oh, gross." He should clean it up, change the dressing. The very thought was crippling. He sighed and started them for the bedroom again. "Du Pont's fine plasma tasting. Don't get any ideas."

Spike said nothing, and Xander kicked the bedroom door open with his toe, got them in, and spun around to drop Spike on the bed. "Last stop. All dipshits off."

He let go and Spike hit the mattress and bounced. Xander stepped back. The blinds were closed, the air conditioner was on low. The bedroom was the coolest room in the house. And God, the bed looked good. He was momentarily body-checked by the feeling of cool sheets, cool air, a full mattress that you could starfish on if you wanted to. He was so fucking tired.

"Sleep here."

He blinked, shook his head slightly, and focused on Spike. Spike, right. Reality. He had to go hose off, get the goo off before it bonded, take care of his arm. He had to set the alarm. Seriously too tired for any of that. Honestly, Xander shouldn't have to be responsible for himself *and* Spike after the night he's had. So he's taken care of Spike and there is no energy left to take care of himself.

It took a second for the words to settle gently against his cerebral folds and then sink in. Spike was already turning, shaking, curling on his side on the right-hand side of the bed. Xander's side. He was keeping right to the edge.

"You're here," Xander said, and then realized that was kind of a failure to sequite, and what he really should have said was No. Or possibly Fuck off. Wanker. But it isn't, really. And that's Xander, realizing too late that he should be taking a defensive posture. But not realizing. Just getting stray impulses, not quite figuring out what's behind them, why they would keep him safe.

"Yeah." Spike drew his knees up and pulled the pillow down beneath his head. "Over here. Other side's yours."

Xander stood wavering, his feet throbbing, every molecule of his dumb traitorous body leaning forward to the lap of coolness. His body was air conditioning's bitch. "Gee thanks," he managed, knowing he'd been too slow.

For a minute they both just stayed where they were, in silence. Xander's brain had done that thing where it left without even counting the change in the till. He kind of knew to expect it by now, when he was this tired and the world handed him an unmade decision. His body was a traitor, and his brain was union labor.

Finally he just did the usual, and handed the keys to inertia. His body tipped easily forward and dumped him onto the cool soft mattress. He was disgusting; he needed a shower. He was going to have to burn the sheets. He didn't fucking care. He turned his back on Spike, squinched over to the very edge of the mattress like the straight man he sometimes still forgot he wasn't, and slept. Lovely inevitable string of movements, collapsing.

The blue shimmered open and Buffy said, "Isn't he kind of...preppy?"

It was all suddenly perfectly clear. A school of little fish all turning in the light, shining like polished knives.

"No," he said, taking her by the arm and starting to walk toward the bedroom. "No, you should see how scared he sometimes gets."

Then he woke up and lay staring at stucco, Navajo White. His dreams seem to make him so sad, in a way. Am I reading too much into this? Doesn't he seem to always wake up sad? And how is it that a paint color, in this story, winds up imbued with this twist of sexual regret and melancholy? It's like magic.

The apartment was quiet except for the air conditioner. It must be early. Sunday morning. He turned his head and his neck ached. The clock read seven thirty. Why was he awake?

Ah, yes.

He sat up slowly, two fists in the mattress, his shoulder tight and hot. He'd crashed in all his clothes, all his goo. He was flaky, crispy, itchy. There was a slender herringbone of sun on the floor below the window. Automatically, he glanced behind himself.

Spike was a skinny bundle of sheets and fingertips on the far side, pretty much where he'd sacked out. His face was half-buried in the covers, reduced to a single concentrating eyebrow and an eyelid smooth as a spoon. Xander stood up slowly and scratched his neck. Spike's eyelid twitched and his brow crimped slightly. Dreaming. Spike sleeps not like a corpse, but like a person.

Xander turned away, paused, and turned back. He closed his eyes, then opened one slightly. Just enough to see a shape in the bed. No detail. He studied it a minute. Arms, legs, presumably somewhere a torso. Even with his eyes almost closed, it looked nothing like Anya. He waited for the familiar seep of loss in his gut. Nothing. This is the first time her name has been used - though the fact that Xander is alone and the talks he's had with Giles and Willow have implied a lot about what happened, this is the first time the story directly deals with her absence.

His neck started to itch again and he turned and went down the hall, scratching and flaking a fine powder of dried goo. Peeing took an impressively long time. So did peeling off his clothes. The cool shower water felt like heaven. He washed everything twice, scrubbed rubbery yellow scum from under his fingernails and behind his ears and inside his navel. He was going to have to Drano the pipes again. The amount of not-thinking-about-it that has to come into play in order to deal with being constantly covered with demon bug guts has to be pretty impressive.

But still. The window over the shower was bright with sunshine, and considering the hole in his shoulder and how he'd got it, he felt strangely light and chipper. He banged the tap off with his heel and towelled off briskly. There was air conditioning, and there were waffles in the freezer. The day was his. And sure, Spike was plunked inevitably in the middle of that day like a sawhorse on a sidewalk, but that didn't really bother him either. He was unbotherable. Maybe he'd finally discovered his superpower.

He padded out in the damp towel that was becoming his uniform--or maybe it was the uniform of Unbotherable Lad--and detoured to the kitchen to jam his ruined clothes into the garbage. He still had milk in the fridge, just one day past the best-by date. And there was half a box of Wheaties left. He was ravenous. He trucked a bowl back to the couch, skirted the disaster area, clicked the remote on with his big toe, and started in.

Sunday morning television was predictably hortatory, and he watched happily while an orange man with welded white hair bandied Gog and Magog and the occasional implicit plea for funds. He was pouring a second bowl of Wheaties--he'd be a champion if it killed him, dammit--when the door to the bedroom opened. Spike stood there, still shirtless and shoeless, unservable at any 7-11 in the nation. His hair was standing up in dorky licks, and his eyes were puffy and swollen. The bump on his temple made him look slightly off-center, like he needed a gentle tap to bring him back to true.

"Morning," Xander said. "You look... Well, like shit, actually."

Spike rubbed the back of his head and eyed him. Then he started for the couch. He was slow and kind of shaky, but he didn't seem likely to hit the floor. Xander took his feet off the cushions, moved over, and went back to Sodom, Gomorrah, and tax deductible donations.

"They were just talking about you," he said between mouthfuls. "Serpents and devils. You just missed it."

Spike whumped down into the cushions with a little sigh. He surveyed the beached coffee table, the surf of magazines around it.

"Fucking tip," he murmured, and leaned slowly forward to pluck at the Wheaties box. "'s this?"

"Deadly to your kind."

Spike shook the box half-heartedly, grimaced, and let it drop. He settled deeper into the couch, let his head fall back against the cushion, and stared at the television.

"Bloody right," he murmured to the plagues and lakes of fire. Hee. Xander drank the last of the milk out of his bowl and got up. In the kitchen, he put a waffle in the toaster, squeezed some more blood into a mug, and zapped it. He didn't have any syrup, but there was peanut butter in the fridge. He spread some on the waffle when it came out and carried it out in his teeth, because his hands were full of mug and bowl.

The television was still on brimstone, which was baffling. The remote was right there, after all. He stood there with waffle in his teeth, and Spike slowly turned his head and squinted up at him.


Xander held the mug out, and Spike studied it for a second, then raised a relatively stable hand and took it. Xander used his free hand to take the waffle out of his mouth.

"You feeling okay?"

Spike gave him the patented patronizing, almost regretful you fucking idiot look. "No," he said after a moment. "Feel like crap."

Xander nodded. "You can change it if you want," he said, and continued on to the bedroom. Before he even got through the door, he heard corner kick commentary start up behind him.

He wolfed the waffle, realized the cereal bowl was still empty and ditched it on the dresser, and found a long-lost pair of board shorts rammed into the back of the drawer. He needed new clothes. Or new hobbies. Or both.

He stuffed as many rancid goo-Pollocked items into the old Elvis laundry bag as he could fit, then turned and looked at the bed. His side was peppered with weird yellow stains that probably wouldn't come out. He reached out to pull the sheets off, then paused, stood up again, and looked at them. There was still the shape of two bodies there, two head dents in the pillows. Not something he saw every day, in this brave new world of his.

And now he did feel a little sad about something, but it wasn't Anya. He wasn't sure what it was. Just...

"Just because he didn't call doesn't make him a bad person," he recited quietly, and tugged the bottom sheet off the bed. "It just makes him...Amish." He bundled the sheet and started on the pillowcases. "Or Orthodox." He chucked the naked pillows back to the head of the bed and yanked the fitted sheet off. "Or discriminating."

That was a sobering thought--maybe he'd never called because it had sucked--but that way lay depression and self-doubt and the ruination of a perfectly good air-conditioned Sunday. And besides, he'd always been okay at it before. At least Anya thought so, and she ought to know. But maybe it was different with guys. Maybe with guys he wasn't so much a Viking as an Orkney Islander. Possibly a Pygmy. Xander's brain never stops. It's like a terrier, the little toy sort, worrying away at things but never really having any effect. Something that's hard to take seriously.

"Fuck this," he muttered, and jerked the laundry bag drawstring shut. "I am Unbotherable. Lo, it bothers me not."

The stack of laundry quarters in the bedside table drawer seemed radically diminished, but he swept up what was there and headed out. Spike didn't even look up as he went past.

The laundry room was deserted--it was hardly a quarter past eight--and he started a couple of loads without any audience for his nasty, possibly toxic clothes. That was a relief. He'd already worked the "tarring roofs" excuse pretty much to death, and sooner or later Mrs. Dilwhipple was going to figure out that construction work didn't involve rubber cement.I wonder about Xander's laundry habits, too. I mean, Tide can't possibly be working on those loads. Does he throw a cup of Lestoil and a little paint thinner into the pre-wash?

On his way back up the stairs, he could hear his phone ringing. His first thought was to ignore it--it was Sunday morning, the world could go read the sports section like a normal person--and then he remembered Spike. He started hustling, wincing when he forgot and hauled on the bannister with his perforated arm.

He came through the door just as the ringing stopped. Spike wasn't on the couch. Neither was the phone. He paused to hone in. Little sound from the kitchen, and he barrelled in to find Spike sitting at the table, his back turned and the phone at his ear. Xander chucked the laundry bag onto the counter and raised his eyebrows when Spike swivelled slowly to look at him.

"Oh, sorry, I thought that was my phone. But I guess it's yours. Since you're not taking any more calls from the Jersey Shore on--"

Spike held the phone out to him without a word. His face was bored and tired. Spike's only interested when there's really a fight to be had.

Xander just stared. After a second, he heard a tiny Willow voice say, "Spike?"

He reached out and took the phone out of Spike's fingers.

"Hey, Wills. It's me."

"Xander! Hi! I was just calling to see if you were okay--" Because she's the sort of person who would call before 9 am on a Sunday, when she knows the person she's calling was up late the night before. Slightly oblivious.

"I'm fine." He stepped back to let Spike stand up and walk out. He moved slowly, like an old and aching person. Which is exactly what he is. "I'm fine, sorry. I was doing laundry. Spike picked up?"

"Yeah. He said you'd be right back. And he said--" She hesitated. "Well, he didn't exactly say thank you, but you know, he said the powder's working and he feels better. Which is good."

"Yeah." He leaned against the doorframe and examined the back of the chair Spike had been sitting in. "Yeah, he's up and around and answering other people's phones."

"Which is good," Willow said again. "How's your arm?"

"Arm is good," he said, flapping it automatically. "Arm is--ow. Arm is...still attached." He pried up a corner of the bandage and peered underneath. "Arm is gross."

"Poor Buffy," Willow said. "She was beating herself up all night about it. She'd still be beating except now she's asleep in all her clothes with her mouth open." She paused. "She'll probably start up again around eleven."

"Sounds good. And you are awake because why?"

"Oh, cacodemon research. It's easier to get onto the databases in the off hours. And can I just repeat? I'm glad it didn't anchor." I love that demon research databases have the same traffic patterns as firstsearch or jstor or whatever. And apparently the same access issues. Though possibly she's actually using firstsearch or jstor?

"Me too," he said heartily. "And please don't tell me why--"

"Because if it anchors," she went on, "and you break the proboscis, the broken part fragments and migrates through your circulatory system, and the shed fragments adhere to the vessels and start corroding them. So you basically just start melting from the inside, and when you've melted enough the cacodemon finishes siphoning you with its secondary proboscis, which is in its anus." Knowledge is neither good nor bad; knowledge simply is. Willow is never going to believe anything different.

Xander stared at the chair.

"Xander? Are you still there?"

"Yeah." He patted the edge of the bandage down and licked his lips. "Here I am. Right here." The terrier in Xander's brain doesn't ever need more to worry at. Ever.

"Um, sorry."

"You want a waffle?"

She paused. "I can't. I told Giles I'd follow up on his citations, and there are, like--" He heard riffling pages. "Eighty of them."

"Okay. More waffle for me, then." He started for the freezer. "If you change your mind, you know where I'll be. Corroding. On the couch."

"Xander, don't even say that."

"Liquefying," he said, dropping a waffle into the toaster. "Melting from the inside out." You know how some fics influence your grocery shopping? This is the Eggo story.


"If Spike drinks my remains, hex him, will you?"

"I'm hanging up now. Buffy's making squinchy face."

"Yeah, catch you later."

He hung up and stood watching the toaster coils turn red, watching the little chunks of frost hiss off the waffle. In the other room, excitable English voices were discussing the offside rule. Faintly, he heard Spike add, "Bloody right."

He could be shrimp cocktail sauce right now. Briefly, he tried to imagine what Spike would have done if he'd woken up next to a puddle of corroded vessels. Probably dug around for a straw.

Which reminded him.

He sighed, squeezed more blood into a glass, added a tablespoon of scat, and headed back into the living room.

Sunterlude So this is a little non-plot-progressing snapshot. Is it really a part of the story? Possibly not.

"There cannot possibly be any more soccer on the television at this time."

He heard channels blur past, a quick all-points tour of the compass. Within thirty seconds, there was a familiar roar of crowd approval. He closed his eyes and groaned.

"'s always footie," Spike murmured, as if it were a religious tenet.

Xander ran a hand over his face and lowered his head to stare at the floor. He'd picked the coffee table up so they'd have somewhere to put their feet, but the magazines and old papers were still all over the floor. He something. His brain immediately flatlined at the thought.

"Okay," he said firmly. "Half an hour more of soccer. Then we switch to something else."

Spike didn't answer. His gaze was locked on the television; he winced slightly and the crowd booed.

"Okay then," Xander said, and closed his eyes again.

"Is there a sock between you and the door?"

Pause. Then Spike tore his eyes from the screen and lolled his head over the arm of the couch. "Yeah."



"Thanks." He got up and went over to pair it with the one he was holding. "And for a guy who, as far as modern science knows, owns no socks? You're awfully critical."

Spike went back to the television. Xander balled the socks and overhanded them through the bedroom door, then sat down and started sorting again. The smell of clean laundry was making him sleepy. Mmmm. Yes. It's hard not to curl up in a warm pile of clean laundry, that's true. Then again, I usually fold clothes on the bed, which makes it even harder to resist.

"Did you really have your crypt fumigated?" he asked, pitching boxers into a pile.

Spike turned his head and raised an eyebrow. "'s what I said, isn't it?"

"Uh huh." There were disturbing yellow stains on his old green Oxford, dammit. Maybe he could Shout them out. Seriously, I would dab the stains with Lestoil. It works for really stubborn grass stains.

Spike was still watching him, he realized after a minute. He looked up. "Time's up, sports fan. Remote."

Spike's fingers tightened around it. "You're busy."

"I can watch and fold. Give it."

"It's semifinals."

"You have no idea what's going on. You're been falling asleep for the last forty minutes."

"Have not."

"And you snore. Give it."

Spike gave him a narrow look, then tossed the remote onto the pile of boxers. "'m not watching the bloody fashion network," he muttered.

Xander clicked it to SFX and went back to sorting without a word. Is there still an SFX? Was it like TNT?

"Back to work tomorrow, then?"

Xander jumped slightly. Neither of them had said anything in almost an hour. He glanced over his shoulder; Spike was looking at him, but as soon as their eyes met, he looked back at the television.

"Yeah." He went back to the X-Files. It was a good one, the one with Luke Wilson in Billy Bob teeth, but he wasn't getting into it. I liked that one. I like stories that play with pov. I like stories that acknowledge the limits of pov and use that to an end. You probably picked up on that already, since that's what this story does. Mostly he just felt sort of flat and crappy, and thanks, Spike, for pissing all over what was supposed to be a perfectly good day off. Fashion network. Fuck.

"Got wiring to do?"

"Yeah," he said without looking around. Then he wondered how Spike knew that. His conversation with Daniel, Friday morning. Jesus, Spike could hear paint dry.

"Could use a couple new breakers myself," Spike said.

"I don't do heads," Xander said shortly. There was a little pause.

"Meant my crypt," Spike said.

Damn it. Xander hesitated, then glanced back. This thing where Spike doesn't rise to the bait, and Xander effortlessly slides into the role of transgressor - it doesn't happen very often. It highlights the places where Spike is making an effort to be not just civil, but friendly. It highlights that for Xander.

"Right," he said. "Sorry."

"No problem." Spike's face was still and tight, and his fingers rubbed the knee of his jeans. Xander opened his mouth, then closed it.

"Not so much crypts either," he said, watching Scully give Mulder the once-over. "Too much of a fire hazard."

Spike grunted, and they lapsed back to silence.

When the episode ended he handed the remote wordlessly back to Spike and headed into the kitchen to hunt and gather. He wasn't that hungry-it was too hot to be hungry-but it was something to do. Also, he's eaten at least three bowls of Wheaties and two waffles with peanut butter on today. Just saying. He stood with the refrigerator door open, staring at the half-empty bottle of Vlasics and the pizza box that had been there since... He couldn't remember. Maybe it had come with the apartment.

He could have waffles. Or he could order in. Somewhere in the mess on the living room floor, there were restaurant flyers. He went back and stood in the doorway; from there, he could make out Schlomo's House of Knish, The Colcannery, and Doublemeat. The Colcannery! Oh my god, if it were really possible to get colcannon delivered, I'd be in heaven. Well, if they were open to subbing yucca or boniato or something in for the potatoes. Which I think they might be, in Sunnydale. None of them appealed. Somewhere in there was a Taco Mahal leaflet. He could eat a taco. He sighed, went back, and started sorting through.

Spike kept flicking channels, ignoring him. After a few seconds he settled on something that sounded familiar. Xander paused and looked up with a Tempeh Tempeh flyer in one hand.

"-so we used the industrial-grade insulation from Innovative. It costs a little more, but come November, it's well worth it."

Xander turned his head and looked at Spike. "This Old House?"

Spike stared fixedly ahead, one thumb tapping the remote. "Nothing bloody else on."

Xander glanced back at the screen, then at Spike again. "PBS?"

"Seen the match already."

Xander stared at him a second longer, then settled onto his haunches and leaned against the couch. Bob and Norm were making their way through the workmen, pointing out the antique stair rods. Okay, it isn't just This Old House - it's classic This Old House. Of course! Bob Vila. Awesome. And more slight entertainment anachronicity.

"Fuck, they painted them," Xander said, without thinking. He dropped his head and went back to sorting flyers. Spike shifted.

"'s wrong with painting?"

And if he answered that, he'd get nailed for being a big gay interior decorator. No thanks. He kept sorting. "You seen a taco flyer in here? Yellow, green, big taco on the front?"

"Paint keeps the bugs off."

"Uh-huh." He caught a glimpse of taco under an old National Geographic and lunged for it. "And who died and made you the Orkin man?"

Spike just watched in silence while he got up and brought the phone back from the kitchen. He should really keep the Mahal on speed dial.

"Taco Mahal, finest halal Mexican fare this side of Mecca. HowcanIhelpyou?" The guy sounded bored out of his mind, and Xander felt a stab of sympathy. God, he'd been there. Suddenly wiring didn't seem so bad.

"Uh, yeah. I'll have the Agra Combo, no onions. And a Sprite." He paused, then said, "Hang on a second," and put his hand over the mouthpiece. "You want something?"

For a second it was as if Spike hadn't heard him, or the words hadn't sunk in; then he looked frankly startled. He covered it up fast and looked bored. "Yeah. Sure." Oh man. Xander's knee-jerk decentness, popping through when least expected.

Xander skimmed the leaflet at him and he caught it, glanced at it too fast to have actually read it, and said, "Number four." He let it drop and went back to staring at the television.

"And a number four," Xander said into the phone.

"Zoroastrian Medley," the guy intoned. "Liver or tongue?"

Xander paused. "Surprise me."

He hung up and went back to sorting the stuff on the floor, watching This Old House out of the corner of one eye. After a while, Spike started to snore again. So Spike turned the show on as a concession, or an olive branch, and Xander is all caught up in not admitting he's watching, not accepting the gesture. It's perfect.

"Oh, this prick."

Xander lowered his taco. "Spike. Captain Picard is not a prick." Well, no. He isn't. What the fuck, Spike? Seriously.

"Barking orders at everyone-"

"That's his job, Spike. He's the captain."

"Holier-than-thou-" He can be kind of arrogant and definitely acts from a position of privilege, uncritically. Hmm. But still not a prick.

"Spike, everyone is holier than you. Steve Tyler is holier than you."

"Tugging on that poncy little costume every chance he gets-"

Xander raised a hand in surrender and went back to his taco. After a minute he conceded, "If anyone's a prick, it's Riker." Yes.

"Which one's Riker?"

"The one with the beard. That one."

Spike took a moment to examine the television, while his taco disintegrated further in his fingers. "Oh yeah," he said in a deeply satisfied tone. "That bastard. Hate that bastard." He took a bite of taco, paused, and fished something out of his mouth with a look of distaste. "Bloody toady, he is."

"Plus, he played on a Phish album," Xander said morosely. "Trombone."

"Ought to be shot," Spike said. Plus, he's married to Genie Francis. Genie Francis! They live in Maine, being saccharine together full time, one imagines. Creepy. (Honestly I don't have anything against Ms Francis. Just about them as a couple, really. As a couple, they make my skin crawl.

They both started on their second tacos.

"Thing with telly nowadays is, too bloody smart for its own good." Spike was almost prone, his feet propped on the coffee table, the cushions around him littered with taco shreds. He still had the remote in one hand, but the sound was turned way down now. Wild at Heart was playing, but without much of an audience. The apartment was getting hot again, even with the air conditioner running on high in the bedroom.

"Used to be," Spike went on, adjusting his feet and letting his eyes fall almost shut, "everything on telly was bloody earnest. Ties and separate beds. Setting an example. Now it's all teenagers in bikinis sassing off 'cos they've got theirs."

Xander paused and looked up from the pile of catalogs. "Exactly which program are you talking about?" Yeah, I'm with Xander. M*A*S*H?

Spike waved a hand. "All of 'em. No one takes anything seriously anymore." He rubbed his head. "Like monster movies. Not scary anymore. No one's scared of the ogre anymore."

Xander studied him. He was still rubbing his head, running his fingers over and over his temple as if he'd forgotten he was doing it. The circles under his eyes were almost blue.

"You're just tired," Xander said. "And ogres are fucking terrifying."

Spike opened one eye. "You've never seen an ogre."

"An ogre broke my arm, Spike."


Xander paused and thought about it. "Huh," he said. "Okay, troll."

He went back to sorting catalogs. Spike tipped his feet so he could see past them to the piles.

"Got enough of those things, do you?"

Xander sighed, leaned back, and listened to his spine pop. "Anya," he said. The one-word explanation. "They just keep sending them, I just keep shoving them under the table. I'm considering the witness relocation program."

Spike leaned down and hooked a Pottery Barn catalog with one finger, paged through it, and let it drop. "Wondered why she upped and went," he said, turning back to the television. "Seemed...sudden." I love how he looks away, probing for information, but not wanting to let on that he really wants the answers.

Xander sat stiffly, waiting for the punch line. Wonder who's doing her hair now, then?

Silence, except for Sailor Boy. He glanced up; Spike was watching the screen with half-closed eyes. The latest empty scat glass was congealing by his left foot. Xander forced his shoulders to settle, forced himself to lean back against the couch, forced himself to put everything with her name on it in the throw-away pile.

The phone rang and he jerked upright, grabbed it up, and clicked it on. What time was it? The apartment was dim and sweltering. He had a crick in his neck.


"Buffy. Hey." He blinked, swiped a hand across his face, and got his bearings. Taco wrappers on the floor. Stacks of magazines and catalogs. Lawrence Welk on the television. Muted, thank God. Heh.

"Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. I just-I was asleep." He turned his head sideways, wincing at the crick, and saw Spike on the far side of the couch, just coming to as well. Looking confused and sort of annoyed, and then horrified when he saw what was on the television screen. Fumbling for the remote. Hee. Like he's going to be judged for letting that broadcast into the apartment.

"Sorry, I just wanted to check in and make sure you were, you know. Okay."

"I'm fine." He yawned and rubbed his neck. "Arm is fine. Spike is..." He glanced at Spike, who caught the look and raised his lip to show his canine. "He's fine."

"Okay." She sounded sort of at a loss, and he knew he should pitch in and make the conversation roll, but he just couldn't find the energy to do it. He waited, covering another silent yawn with his hand. "Okay, then. Well, patrol tomorrow night?" They get Sunday nights off from patrol?

"Wouldn't miss it."

"And you're sure you feel okay?"

"I'm sure. Box, nine."

"Okay. Have a good night."

He hung up and sat blinking at the flicker of channels. "No soccer. I'm serious."

"'s my turn."

"It's my television."



"Like I'd bloody take anything from-"

"You can put the quarters back in my bedside table anytime, Spike."

The channel tour stopped on SFX. Xander smiled. "Now that guy," he said, "is a prick." Ah, the value of mystery! Who could possibly be more a prick than Riker? Who?

"If you had to give a percentage."

"A percentage of wellness?"


Xander paused and considered. "Sixty-five." He took another sip of malted, and raised a finger. "No. Wait. He watched Dukes of Hazzard last night. Without complaint. Sixty."

Buffy and Willow looked at each other. "Sixty percent," Willow said, and played with her straw. "That's, like, a C." Uh, where I come from, 60 is a D. Seriously, does Willow get good grades because the grading scale is really easy in Sunnydale?

"He passes," Buffy said. "That means he can go, right?"

Willow said nothing, applied mouth to straw, and looked sideways at Xander. He pretended not to notice.

"Sure." He let that hang for as long as it took for the waitress to deposit their burgers and leave. "Believe me, I'd love him gone. I'd fall down and worship his absence. But if he turns out to be the mystery player in this whole cacodemon fiasco-"

Buffy paused in smacking the ketchup bottle on the 57. "You still think he's got something to do with it?"

"When does Spike not have something to do with it?" Okay, that's fair. But it isn't like getting Spike out of Xander's apartment would mean he would leave Sunnydale. Or like he'd be any harder to find than usual, even.


She passed the ketchup to Willow and started in on her burger. "He said no, right?"

"Which would be helpful if he were the animated corpse of a Boy Scout, yeah."

"Ew," Willow said, leaning back from her plate. "That was a little too casually grotesque."

"I'm just saying, if you're in the mood to start believing people like Spike, uncle Rory's got some great deals on Florida coastals."

"He isn't making you insane?" Buffy asked. "I mean, he's...Spike."

"And we all know how you feel about that," Willow said. He glanced at her, but couldn't tell anything off her expression. Willow is transparent like glass, but still Xander expects her to have hidden meanings. It says a lot about his emotional paranoia.

"And it's been almost two weeks," Buffy said. "That's a lot of...Spike."

"I figure I've got at least four more days left in me before I stake him," Xander said, wiping his mouth on his napkin. "I could be wrong, though."

"Okay." Buffy sighed and contemplated her pickle. "Anyone else getting really grossed out by the cacodemon parade?"

"That was a lot of goo last night," Willow said thoughtfully. "And when you speared that one on the pitchfork, and it sort of shattered-"

Buffy pushed her plate away and Xander took her pickle. "So no word yet from the giant British brain of Giles," he said, crunching.

"Not even from the mouth. Which is more the talky part." Willow took one of Buffy's fries. "And nothing else on vampire epilepsy. He actually said something about Spike maybe being a unique case, which would mean at least an article. Which is exciting." She paused and flicked a glance at Xander. "Except, not for Spike." I bet Giles is always casually on the lookout for papers to publish. Rogue academic.

"Not so much, no."

They lapsed into a fry-eating silence. When the conversation revived, it was about the new stadium, which was falling apart already. Safe, easy. And if Willow didn't stop giving him those looks when she thought he wasn't looking, he was going to take her out behind the shed and give her a serious talking-to. Or at least drop a fry in her shake.

He came up the stairs whistling and sorting his mail, in a good mood for once. Payday, which was nice. Out of work on time, and burgers, and the night off from patrol because Giles was trying some kind of detonating powder on the bugs, and he didn't want anyone taking friendly fire. Fine. Great. Eight hours of sleep and tomorrow the insulation was absolutely going to arrive, they'd called from Akron, it was on its way. And tomorrow was Friday. Good deal.

Eddie Bauer, Delia's, Hard-to-Find-Tools, Restoration Hardware. Jesus. But he was in a good mood, so it was kind of funny. He tucked them under his arm, unlocked the door, and stepped inside. MTV on the television, and when he put his head around the wall, he saw Spike sprawled full-length on the couch, watching dazedly while Christina Aguilera gyrated.

"Oh, great. I was worried you might not find the couch and television."

"This bint." Spike gestured vaguely at the screen, without looking away from it. "This bint is just-" He trailed off.

"Uh huh." Xander dumped the catalogs in the basket and dropped his keys on the table. "Kids these days."

"Unbelievable," Spike said faintly. "Does she have any idea-"

"Yes," Xander said, walking through to the kitchen. "I think she probably does."

There were three blood-clotted glasses in the sink, neatly lined up. Dead soldiers, his dad used to call the empties. Very à propos. He ran a glass of water for himself and headed back to the living room.

"You been watching this all day?" he asked, pausing for a second to watch the circus. She was going to throw something out, doing that. He was pretty sure that even when he'd been straight, he hadn't been attracted to Christina Aguilera. Someone must be, right? Is it just that I've never met them?

Spike nodded silently. His eyes were red-rimmed, and he looked drawn. Well, MTV would do that to a guy. Also, two weeks of not getting much better. That first encouraging leap back to health had been kind of a red herring, it turned out. There hadn't been much leaping since then. Except for the day he slept through one of his doses, and started seizing in the bed, in his sleep. Xander leapt clear across the room, then leapt back to keep him from opening up his head on the corner of the night table. Since then, very little leaping. So Xander was there, next to him. While Spike was asleep. Watching him sleep? Oh, Xander, you are such a stalker. And without even leaving your apartment.

"I ate already," he said, watching the screen flicker. "You?"

Spike waved a hand at the kitchen, which was probably supposed to indicate the glasses in the sink. Xander nodded and started for the bedroom. He didn't need MTV as much as he needed sleep.


He turned back, expecting a taco order, maybe something about the sheets. If there was blood on them again he was going to start charging a laundry tariff. Maybe a squick tax.

Spike was fishing for something on the coffee table, his hand trembling, his expression annoyed. He picked up a Mahal flyer, glanced at it, frowned, and let it drop.

"Your boyfriend stopped by," he said, and kept sorting.

Xander just stood there. His boyfriend- Ah, fuck. His boyfriend the mailman, or his boyfriend the Jehovah's Witness, or his boyfriend the landlord. Whatever. They were back to this shit, and he'd seriously had enough of it. Maybe he didn't have four days left in him. Maybe he didn't have one. Oh, Xander. Oh, poor Xander.

"Fuck you," he said, and turned his back. He was shaking, he just wanted to get into his room-his room, and he couldn't believe, right now, that he shared the fucking bed with Spike, let him sleep there like a guest when he was never going to be anything but an asshole. He got three steps and turned on his heel. He was too angry to say anything. He shouldn't say anything.

"For a guy who's been walking around over a hundred years, you're really fucking provincial," he said. "You know that? Jesus Christ. Kids on my playground used to say that shit, Spike."

Spike's hand paused, and he rolled back slightly to look at Xander. His expression was fixed, hard to read. Flat, walled-in.

"Left his number," he said after a minute. His fingers closed on a folded piece of paper and held it out.

Xander just stood looking at the white flutter, his hands at his sides, his face heated and prickling. He didn't get it. He was going to walk over there and take it, and it was going to turn out to be Sid next door asking him not to play MTV so loud during the day. He shook his head. Xander is so desperate not to be Charlie Brown with the football.

"You're a serious prick, Spike." He turned and headed for the bedroom. Behind him, Spike muttered something he didn't catch. "Yeah, you too."

He closed the door hard, put his water glass carefully down on the dresser, and stood with his hands in fists. Breathing. And staring at the unmade bed, the two body imprints in the mattress. He was such a fucking idiot sometimes. :(

Akron? Full of liars.

No insulation, but a call at five o'clock from Buffy asking if he could come right away, they'd just found a nest in the sewers below the Box, and needed all hands on deck to stem the flow. Christ. He found Daniel, consulted quickly, and called a halt till Monday. And if Monday arrived uninsulated, he was going to drive to Ohio himself and offer a little customer feedback, possibly with Giles's crowbar.

He got to the Box just before six, and Buffy hadn't been kidding. The cacodemon population had surged again. Willow was crouched on the counter, leafing frantically through a gigantic book; Giles was over by Mystic Influences of the Near Orient, smashing something into the ground with a staff. No sign of Buffy until a couple of husks came flying out of the storeroom, followed by a glass jar of powdery green stuff. It hit the floor and rattled up against the foot of the bookshelf by Giles, who glanced at it with irritation.

"Buffy, do try not to damage the-"

"Lungwort-check!" Buffy yelled from the store room. "What else?"

"Um-" Willow ran her finger quickly down the page. "Fenugreek! Spikenard, and...did you find the woad?" I have fenugreek in my cupboard! I feel mystically prepared, now.

"The woad to where?" Xander asked, and then had to grab an umbrella from the stand and run down to skewer the DuPont's that was scaling the counter beside Willow. She shielded the book from goo with her body and gave him a quick smile. That's it! Xander is Bob Hope.

"Hi, Xander. We're working on a powder-"

A couple of bottles sailed out of the storeroom door, and Giles tried vainly to intercept them with the hand that wasn't skewering the cacodemon. Xander held up a one-second finger to Willow and went over to help. Giles gave the staff a twisting wrench, yanked it free, and stood waiting for further movement.

"Xander," he said, without taking his eyes off the cacodemon. "Take those things over to Willow and help her get started. And find something other than my umbrella to use as a weapon, please." The cacodemon twitched and he stabbed it again. Xander nodded and carted the bottles back to Willow.

"It's supposed to be a deterrent," she said. "Like pennyroyal for ants." Mint is supposed to work with ants, too. I just started keeping the honey in the refrigerator, instead.

"Uh-huh," he said. "The Martha Stewart-ness of this venture makes me wonder if we're just getting desperate."

"We're past desperate," Willow muttered, measuring powders into a mortar. "Where's the woad?"

"The woad to where?" he said again. Weak, but he couldn't help it. Another cacodemon skittered out of the storeroom, and he stabbed it before he remembered he was still using Giles's umbrella. Oops. "Man, these things just don't quit."

"Woad!" Willow called, and he backed up to the counter, sorted quickly through the bottles, and wished like hell that Giles could write in a normal, legible hand. And in English.

"What's the-" More cacodemons were emerging from the storeroom, and there was a crash from inside. "Buffy, you okay?"

"Fine!" A couple of wet thumps. "Nauseous!"

"I'm thinking, pennyroyal," he said, stabbing one-handedly and trying to sort at the same time. "I'm thinking, Deep-Woods Off! I'm thinking Agent Orange. And what the hell is the Latin name for woad?"

"Isatis indigotica," Giles said automatically, jerking his ankles away from a flailing cacodemon. "It's the green one."

"They're all green."

"Pale green."

"They're all-" He fended off a pair of feelers and risked a longer glance over his shoulder. Isatis indiwhatica-okay. Check. He grabbed it, turned, poked an advancing cacodemon in the proboscis, and turned back. "Woad at three o'clock, Wills!"

She looked up just in time to field the bottle, popped the cork out with her teeth, and dumped the contents into the mortar. No magic cloud, unfortunately. And something was getting cozy with his right calf. He went back to the thrust and parry, and when he looked back, she was grinding furiously with a pestle.

"Hey Wills, any idea when this whole 'deterrent' thing kicks in?"

"Now, I hope," she said, and shook a little of the powder on the cacodemon that was six inches from perforating her right foot. It paused, then zipped its proboscis back in and shot backward off the counter. Willow squealed with delight.

There was a lot of bashing and hewing still to be done, and in the process he managed to trip over a stool and rack his ankle, but between the powder and Buffy's shish kabob technique, the whole thing was over pretty fast. Rack is a great verb. It's the -ck, I think. It sounds so abrupt. Then it was just cleanup and debriefing, which in his case mostly consisted of sitting on the bottom step of the library stairs, holding a cold pack over his ankle and watching the others drag husks back and forth. The floor was going to need a serious scouring.

"Can you walk all right?" Buffy sat down beside him and raised the cold pack for a peek. He gave her the idiot boy smile.

"I don't know. I may need help getting to my bed." Eyebrow waggle, and she poked him in the shoulder, and yeah, good times. Hollow, hollow, sadly ironic good times. He had to get better patter. And some coordination.

"Well, our position is distinctly improved now that we have the powder," Giles said, leaning on the railing and wiping his hands with a gooey handkerchief. "Excellent work, Willow."

She glowed, and Xander propped his head on his hands and took a second to love her. Smart, smart Willow. Without whom they would all be bug food. Well, without whom and also Buffy. Which didn't work grammatically, but he was tired and the point was that he was giving credit, no matter how scrambled it was.

"Xander supplied the woad," Willow said, turning her happy, sparkly smile on him. Including him in it. Which made him feel sort of stupid and embarrassed, because supplying the woad wasn't exactly the same as inventing anti-demon powder, or staking a hundred at one go, like Buffy. It was basically just Donut Boy under another guise. But still. From each according to his ability, right? He smiled back. Oh, Xander. Never going to think his contributions have any validity.

"The woad to where?"

"You have goo on your face," Buffy said, and poked him again, gently.

He had goo everywhere, like a victim of some massive rupture at the hair gel and rubber cement factory. They all did, but his brief encounter with the stool and the goo-slicked floor made his look particularly squickalicious. There was a smell to cacodemon fluids, he realized, driving home via back roads to avoid having to explain to any police why he was sitting on a towel and slathered in gack. Does "back roads" in Sunnydale just basically mean driving around the town, rather than through? It wasn't a strong smell, thank God. It was actually sort of a nice, light, grassy smell. Or it would be nice if he didn't associate it with fast skittery feet and the light, exploratory caress of a proboscis up his pant leg.

He limped from his car inside his building without seeing anyone, the towel slung around his neck as a kind of mute explanation-I've been running, I've been at the gym, I had a bad fall in the Jell-o wrestling ring. No need, thank God. He took the stairs up to his apartment carefully, head down, sorting his keys. A shower. He wanted a shower and a beer, and he wanted to not see Spike, the ever-assholic freeloading dickhead Spike, about whom he had managed not to think once all day, and God that was a relief. Because really, who needed it? If he wanted an endless, predictable stream of bigoted taunting, he could just come out at work.

And maybe if Spike wasn't going to get any better, if he was just going to coast on this plateau of sixty percent, C average, it didn't matter where he did it. Maybe he could do it in the comfort of his own crypt. Mix his own scat and blood cordial, tell the rats entertaining little anecdotes about their boyfriends dropping by. Ask them what they thought he should do with the place-paint or paper? Tell them they were looking fabulous. Again, the Spike in Xander's head is far worse than the Spike in reality. Worse on a human level. Because the Spike in Xander's head is also far less monstrous than the Spike in reality. Not that his monstrousness is really relevant in this story, so much, but these are parts of a whole: Xander perceives Spike as a man, however much he reminds himself that Spike isn't one. It means that his perceptions of all of Spike's behaviors are more than a little off, all of the time.

Yeah, Spike could move the fuck out.

And fuck it, that did not give him a little pang. It did not. Spike was just a sociopath, he was good at manipulating people, he gave a little in order to get a lot, and he was-

There was someone on the stairs to his place. He pulled up short and almost dropped his keys, thinking Fuck- Thinking it was the landlord, and here he was covered in cream cheese and afterbirth, and was that enough to get him kicked out? Fucking fuck.

Then his brain kicked in and he realized it wasn't the landlord. It was-

"Hi," Seth said. "Uh-" There was a brief pause, while his eyes flicked quickly over Xander, head to toe. A second for him to look nonplussed, a little worried. Then he smiled, his same open easy smile, and if it was a put-on, it was a good one. He leaned back against the banister, weight in his heels. "We were just talking about you." Seth, you suave, facile bastard.

Xander just stared. Then the we sank in, and he looked up another few stairs' worth, and there was Spike. Standing in the doorway to his apartment, holding it open about six inches, like a woman with a masher on her step. He looked strangely suspicious and pissed off. No shirt, Jesus. Bare pale chest, jeans with the top button undone. Christ. His hair a slept-on mess. Like he'd just woken up. I love this. Spike is completely unguarded, letting it all show, and Xander is too bound up in what will the neighbors think? to see any of it.


He thought that very clearly, but his mouth didn't work at all. None of him did. He just stood there staring at them, and they both stared down at him, until finally Seth raised one hand and Xander saw there was a bottle of wine in it.

"I finished my thesis," Seth said. "I was just fascinating Spike with the details." He turned and gave Spike a friendly smile. Spike stared back, unmoved. "And, uh-" He turned back to Xander. "I thought I'd see what you were up to. If you felt like celebrating with me." I'm thinking maybe I'm shallow, but I'd probably help Seth celebrate, if he asked me like that.

Xander just stared. The back of his neck itched in a remote, Siberian kind of way. The goo was drying. He should hose off before he was shellacked like this. He couldn't stop staring at Seth's face, at his eyes, his mouth. Then he had a quick, vivid glimpse of Seth's mouth on his dick, and he jerked his eyes away and stared at his own feet instead. He was blushing, he was pretty sure.

"Um." He couldn't think at all. Spike and Seth had been discussing Seth's thesis topic? Or was that a joke? He hadn't even known Seth had a thesis topic. But that was what graduate students did, right? It was all kind of hazy at the moment. Right. Whatever it was on, he'd finished it. And he wanted to celebrate. Whatever that meant. Xander. And his suspicious, walking-wounded ways.

"Congratulations," he said after another couple of seconds, and it came out sounding so stilted and formal, he wanted to just turn around and skip straight back down the stairs, down to the lobby and out the door, into traffic. Death could not come fast enough.

"Thanks," Seth said. He sounded bemused, but not horrified. Not like he was trying to remember what drug he'd been on when he'd fucked this kid in the first place. Xander looked up quickly. Act, together. And he's so desperate, too. So little self-worth, all of the time. Kicked puppy, snarling and wagging his tail in turn.

"So you're a Master now?"

Seth smiled and shrugged. "Well, it has to be read by a few people, and there's a defence, but it's really just a formality. So, yeah. Master."

Xander nodded. "Cool." He had a brief, inexplicable urge to say, Hey, Spike's a Master too. You guys should rap. Instead he said, "That's very cool. And definitely celebration-worthy."

Seth nodded and looked at the bottle in his hand. "I was thinking, I don't know, maybe some takeout lo mein, I could read you the introduction and some of the footnotes-" In the pause that followed, he looked up and raised an eyebrow. "You know I'm kidding, right?"

"Yes," Xander said. "Listen, you want to walk downstairs with me?"

"Red called," Spike said. He hadn't moved, hadn't opened the door an inch more, hadn't smiled once. Dislike was radiating from him in small squiggly waves. Xander glanced at him. It's like he's putting up a neon sign. I'M HERE. NOTICE ME.

"Um, yeah?"

"'bout five o'clock. Needed you at the Box."

"Yeah." Xander gave his clothes a long look, then turned it on Spike. "Yeah, I got that message all right, Spike. Thanks."

Spike said nothing. He just stood there, his face impassive, watching them. Xander raised his eyebrows, took a deep breath, and looked at Seth. "You wanna walk?"

"Sure." Seth gave Spike the same friendly, untouchable smile. "Nice meeting you, Spike."

"Don't trip."

"Never mind him," Xander said, gripping the banister and starting to limp downward. "He's a little bit of an asshole."

Seth said nothing until they got to the lobby, but he walked close enough to grab Xander if he fell. Close enough that Xander could smell him, or his aftershave at least. Good aftershave, not the liquid stink most guys seemed to wear. And not much of it. Maybe he should start wearing something like that. Aftershave wasn't the same thing as perfume, was it? And if it was, maybe it was okay to wear it after all, if it made you smell like that.

He had to keep some kind of focus here.

"You okay?" Seth asked, when they reached the bottom of the stairs. "You look a little-" He paused, and then didn't resume, probably because there was no good adjective for what Xander looked like right now. This is why the whedonverse is crammed with invented language. Not unless you were familiar with the cacodemon scene, at least. And presumably Seth wasn't.

"I'm fine," Xander said. "My friend's a...performance artist. Crazy stuff. She's working on this whole birth cycle, lots of cottage cheese and styling products, it's very New York." He scrubbed belatedly at his face with the towel and tried to laugh. "We make our own fun in Sunnydale."

"Wow," Seth said. "That's great. Does she show?"

"Uh, she's visible, yeah. If that's what you mean." And only Xander would seriously answer that way.

Seth gave him a sideways smile, bemused again. Then he reached out and wiped something off Xander's forehead with his finger. He flicked it to the floor and rubbed his finger on his trouser with a little laugh. "Three parts John Frieda, two parts curd, I think."

Xander smiled and couldn't think of anything to say. He could still feel Seth's finger on his forehead, a slow light stroke. God, he smelled good. Xander swallowed and bounced the towel against his leg.


"So." How the hell did he seem so relaxed all the time? So totally calm and in control, and where the hell did he get eyes like that? It was ridiculous to get hard from someone's eyes. "Your friend's an interesting guy."

"No, he's not." That was automatic, defensive. Stupid. Spike was interesting like roadkill was interesting. Like slasher flicks were interesting. Like all bad things. "I mean, he's... He's just staying with me for a while."

Seth nodded, didn't seem fazed. Unbotherable Lad was being trumped by Unfazeable Guy. "He's hot."

"No, he's not." Sharp, snappish. Unbotherable Lad was officially out of the League. "I mean, he's..." Stupid. Spike was hot. Of course he was. You couldn't really argue it, not unless you could point out the evil-vampire part, and sometimes even that didn't seem like much of an argument. Hahahahahaha. Oh yes. Insidious, evil is. "He's sick. He's just staying with me until he's back on his feet."

Seth's brow did furrow then, and he raised the bottle and placed the bottom of it against the wall, turned it a quarter turn. Unconscious, considering gesture. He had beautiful, tanned hands. "I'm sorry," he said. Seth takes up space, gracefully.

It took a second for Xander to catch up, and then he had to rush all over himself trying to clarify. "No, no, he's not sick like that, he's straight. Which is, um, totally stupid because I do know that straight people get AIDS, and I'm not even sure that's what you inferred me to be implying, but I wasn't implying that, he's just- We think he has flu. Or something." He paused. "He's not my boyfriend, obviously."

Seth looked sideways at him, and smiled. "Does he know that?" *Everyone* is more perceptive than Xander, some days.

"Um. What?"

"Nothing. Listen, I'm sorry. I think I came at a bad time, and I didn't mean to make your life complicated. I just wanted to celebrate, and I thought of you."

Xander swallowed against the little warm bloom that made in his throat. "Wow. Well, thanks."

"No problem." Another quick, friendly smile. "So, you want to go get Chinese and make for Inspiration Point?"

Xander looked down at the towel in his hands, at the goo all over him. "I'm a little gummy just now."

Seth put a hand on his shoulder, straightened him up like a cadet, and gave him a once-over look. [echo] A look that made Xander's heart beat faster, and made his knees sort of feeble. He could feel heat in his face again. Seth's hand was warm through his shirt, against his skin. Yeah. Seth's a cad, but that there? That's very sexy.

"I've seen worse," Seth said, and leaned forward. Kissed him. Gently, warm and a little wet, the hand still on his shoulder and a good thing because otherwise he might fall down. Little red pings behind his eyelids, and Seth's mouth tasted minty and the same as he remembered. The same as he'd remembered a lot of times since then, usually in the shower with his hand around his dick. He pressed forward and made it deeper, wetter. God. His head was pounding.

He heard a small sound upstairs, like a door closing, and that was enough to remind him that he was kissing a guy in the lobby of his apartment building. Might as well just hang a rainbow flag over his door and start canvassing for the Fans of Streisand. He pulled back and took a little step away.

"Huh." They looked at each other for a few seconds, Seth smiling, and a slow smile starting on Xander's face, despite himself.

"Huh," Seth said back, and wiped something else off Xander's temple.

"I should shower," Xander said.

"If you want," Seth said. "I've kissed worse."

The slow smile sort of faltered, and before he could stop himself, Xander said, "Huh" again. In a different tone this time. Seth raised an eyebrow. That was a totally innocuous comment! I think Xander can manage to interpret almost anything as an attack of some sort.

"You're a good kisser, Xander," he said. "I didn't mean you were bad."

"No," Xander said. "Thanks. I know." He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. How many people had Seth kissed, anyway? How many had he spent the night with? That was what gay guys did, right? Slept around. It was like a cultural hobby. A hallmark of gayness. Maybe he should start fucking more people. Aftershave, promiscuity. Check. This exchange has made a weird perceptual flip, from Seth implying that Xander is special to Xander hearing Seth implying that Xander is unremarkable.

"You okay?" Seth asked, stepping forward to make up the little distance between them, and reaching out a finger for Xander's waistband. Xander sent a quick paranoid look up the stairs, and remembered the sound of the door closing. Supersonic vampire hearing. His cheeks felt hot.

"I'm fine," he said. "Just-listen, let me get cleaned up, okay? Then I want to hear all about this 'thesis' thing I've been hearing so much about."

"No, you don't," Seth said, tugging his belt loop lightly. "It's boring. It's the kind of boring they sentence you to Connecticut for."

"Connecticut, ancestral seat of dullness," Xander said, unhooking from Seth's finger and starting to turn for the stairs. Then he paused and turned back. "Wait, really?"

Seth looked blank. "Really what?"

"Really, Connecticut?"

Seth nodded. "Yeah. That's where they keep Yale."

Xander stood with one hand on the banister, one foot above the other on the stairs. His brain felt blank. His stomach, on the other hand, felt sort of sick. And everything gets reframed again.

"Yale," he said. "Where they make the padlocks."

"Yeah. And the doctoral degrees."

"Wow. That's great. That's- Congratulations."

Seth nodded, his eyes on Xander's. "Thank you."

"Okay, well I'll just-" He started to turn back upstairs, then stopped and turned back. "Actually, you know what? I think-"

Seth waited.

"I think maybe, not. Not so much." His mouth was dry, and his hand was shaking on the banister. He felt weirdly, immediately sad, no reason or delay, just sad. Like he was losing something very important, or letting it go. Dropping it into the stream and walking away.

Seth stayed where he was, his eyes on Xander's face.

"Okay," he said quietly, after a moment. "I understand."

"I'm sorry," Xander said. He was. Sorry and sad and tired. "I just don't- I don't think this is what I want." It definitely isn't. But I think if he wasn't quite so tired and beaten down, he'd probably try to pretend and go through with it anyway.

Seth stood still a few seconds, studying him. Then he stepped forward, put out a hand, and pulled lightly on Xander's belt loop again. "You're a pretty amazing guy, Alexander."

"I can't believe I told you my name was Alex." He smiled, remembering beer down his back and the moment of whiplash. "I had brainlock, I think."

"You're also incredibly hot," Seth said, as if he hadn't spoken. "I hope you actually realize that sometime soon."

Xander laughed, stared at Seth's finger, and then said quietly, "Thanks."

"No problem." He pulled on the loop, and Xander bent down, and they kissed lightly, like friends. Xander didn't think about the lobby, or his neighbors, or his landlord, or anyone. Seth's lips were warm and he tasted like mint. Clean, friendly taste. It could have been a lot worse. Yeah, I guess.

"Have a good time playing doctor," he said, watching Seth shoulder the door open.

"Take good care of your friend," Seth said, smiling back. "Don't torment him too much."

What? Xander tried to ask, but the door was already closing, and Seth was gone.

"'Accept the next propositions you shall recieve.'" He stared at the slip a second longer, then let it fall onto the coffee table. "Man, their copyediting's gone downhill in the last few years."

"What're the lucky numbers?" Spike was sucking up the last of the broccoli chow mein, putting it God knew where because he'd already finished the egg rolls, the lo mein, the hot hot ginger beef, and two orders of dry garlic spare ribs. The coffee table was a takeout graveyard. Spike is a strange sort of sensualist.

"Not a clue," Xander said, letting his head fall back onto the couch and raising his beer. "Wait, no-what's the date?"

Pause. "Nineteenth?"

"So, not nineteen. Nineteen is definitely not my lucky number."

"Might be the twentieth, though." That's flirtation. Pause. "Or the twenty-eighth." And that's the rethink and take-back.

Xander took a long drink of his beer.

"Twenty-three's a good lucky number," Spike went on. There was the sound of chop sticks scraping the bottom of a takeout container. "Shows up all over, ever notice that?"

Xander lifted his head and looked at Spike. He was ditching the empty container and reaching for his own beer. Wiping a hand on his shirt. He looked...better. Less thin and tired, and his eyes seemed livelier. And he'd been talking. Making conversation. It was sort of unsettling, actually-or it would probably be unsettling to someone who wasn't too tired and depressed to think about it.

"No," Xander said, blinking. "No, I never did notice that, Spike."

"Shakespeare's birthday," Spike said significantly, tipping the neck of his beer toward Xander. "And his death day."

"Really." Xander let his head fall back again.

"Chromosomes." Sound of beer being slugged. "Ever think about that?" It's true. Spike's making small talk, which he only does when drunk or flirting.

"Spike." Xander brought a hand up and rubbed his eyes. He'd showered, he'd spent half an hour in the shower, scrubbing and soaping and finally just sitting quietly under the cool water, but he still felt dirty. "What does your fortune say?"

There was a pause, then the crinkle of the wrapper. "In bed," Spike muttered to himself. "Supposed to add-"

"I know what you're supposed to add," Xander said to the inside of his eyelids. "I'm not in the mood." As soon as it was out, he cringed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Please, no. He didn't mean to say anything that could be taken like that. He really didn't want to have to deal with it, please thank you okay now.

There was a crisp, dry cookie snap, and then silence. When he opened his eyes, Spike was smiling slightly at the slip in his hand.

"What does it say?"

"Says-" Spike read it again, shrugged, and handed it over. Xander squinted.


"In bed," he added after a second, and handed it back. Spike crumpled it and let it fall, then turned his attention back to the television screen. Horse racing, no sound. Jockeys were teeny, gritty little men.

"Work tomorrow?" Spike asked offhandedly.



Xander stared at the takeout wreckage, the greasy buckets and the bled-out sauce packets. That was the other weird thing. He'd come out of the shower and got dressed in the bedroom, and when he'd limped back out to the living room Spike had been paying the delivery girl. Paying her from Xander's wallet, sure, but paying her for dry garlic ribs and lo mein, which were high on the Xander Harris list of All-Time Good Chinese Things. He'd stood there looking stupid while the girl frowned at her tip, while Spike took the bags and carried them wordlessly to the couch and started to eat more than his fair share. Bizarroland. He'd crossed over at last.

"Get that insulation?" Spike asked. More small talk. It is weird.

Xander opened his eyes and sat up. He did it carefully; he was on his third beer, and it had been a long day. The room was sort of...light.

"Spike," he said. "What did you do?"

Spike turned his head and gave him a long, heavy look. "What?"

"Just tell me. You've been calling 976 numbers? You sell some of my stuff on the Internet? What? I won't be mad, I promise."

Spike's expression cleared slightly, and he looked back at the television. "Why're you so twitchy?"

"You're asking me about insulation, Spike. You're asking me about my day. Since when do you give a fuck about my day?"

Spike lifted a hand to his mouth and gnawed silently at his thumbnail. After a second he flicked the television volume on, just to a murmur.


"Care about your day," Spike muttered, and spat a shred of thumbnail onto the floor. Xander stared at him a second longer, then closed his eyes and put away another third of his beer. I love how surly Spike is here.

"No," he said, when he'd finished swallowing. "No, the insulation did not arrive today. Which would be baffling if, say, Willow were doing my job. But which is not so hard to understand when you remember who actually is. Doing it."

Pause. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It's supposed to mean that you are not net-hocking the bath towels of the Slayer's best and brightest sidekick." He held up his beer, peered through it at the light, and tried to remember how many more were in the fridge. Tomorrow was Saturday. He could get drunk tonight, if he wanted to. Yeah, because getting drunk was the best way to forget that you'd just walked away from the hottest-well, okay, only-guy you'd ever kissed. Xander isn't really engaged in this conversation, he's so tied up in his head. So all he has to contribute is hostility and self-loathing.

"Let me get this straight," Spike said. "Some punter in Akron doesn't do his job, and therefore you're a loss? That's rich."

"How did you know it was Akron?" And Xander's sharp. Even when Witling's Xander is muddled or damaged, or self-deluding, he's still sharp.

Spike looked a little defensive. "Well, you're always bloody yelling down the telephone, aren't you?"


"What I don't get is how you think it's all your fault."

"Spike, I really don't want to-"

"I mean, all right, you can't bloody fight a cold, let alone a vamp-"

"I'm serious-"

"Seen you take a beating from things I'd keep for pets-"

"Spike, come on-"

"And you never seemed to really get the techie stuff, like Red-"

"Fuck, Spike-"

"And Rupert's right to keep you away from the hocus-pocus, that stuff's serious-"

"Wait, Giles keeps me-?" Hahahahahaha. Oh yes.

"But you're worth ten of that tosser, and if you haven't figured that out yet, maybe you are the dim one."

Xander swallowed and raised a now, look finger into the silence that followed. Then he realized he didn't know what he wanted to say. Spike was staring at the television set, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. What tosser? Spike's so angry on Xander's behalf, and so messed up about it.

"You mean Seth?" Xander asked guardedly.

"Twit with the corduroy blazer? That him?" Spike snorted. "Arcadian indoor plumbing in the 1860s, Christ almighty. Makes him a Master, apparently." That is a pretty awesomely inane dissertation topic.

Xander paused again. "How much did you talk to him, exactly?"

Spike picked up the remote and started to flick through the channels. "All I'm saying is-" He broke off, and Xander waited, but he didn't pick it up.

"He's a nice guy," Xander said automatically, to fill in the space. Was he discussing his sex life with Spike? He couldn't be. They must be talking about something else. Akron. Insulation. Wasn't that where this had started out? "He's smart."

"Smelled like bloody Salvador Dali. And how smart could he be, really?"

"I don't know. How smart do you have to be to get into Yale?"

Spike's head turned sharply, and he let the remote fall against his side. He looked...angry. Affronted. Yes, because Xander doesn't get it. They're arguing apples and oranges. Yale has shit to do with anything, it's a meaningless accomplishment in the world they are living in. Despite himself, Xander pulled back a little into the couch.

"Was he any good in bed?" Spike asked. All the little hairs on Xander's arm and neck sprang up, and his fingers tightened around his beer. Surely he wasn't having the conversation. Surely not. Not even he would be having this conversation with Spike, thus crowning his long and crappy day with a thorny, inexplicable ring of total suck.

"Whoah, sorry," he said. "That was so weird. I thought you just asked me whether he was any good in-" I like this method of total denial, prefaced with an apology for mishearing. I would like to find a way to introduce it into my everyday life.

"Thought so," Spike said, and went back to the television. He looked satisfied.

"Hey, whoah, hang on. I'm not having this conversation, under pain of siphoning I am not having it, but just for the record, he was extremely good. He was fucking amazing. He was-"

Spike waved a hand, enough already. He looked bored now. How could he look bored? How was that allowed?

"You asked," Xander said. Now he felt sort of gross and pervy, as if he'd just offered all the slick, nasty details up to someone who'd just wondered if he knew the guy. "I mean, it was fine." Oh, Xander.

"Fine." There was a sneer in there, a little private sneer while he flipped through channels.

"Jesus, Spike. Could you please stop being such an unprecedented asshole on the night I just got dumped?"

"You're better off," Spike said grimly, to the screen.

"Yeah, thanks. I'll send him a postcard letting him know you said so."

"If he was so great," Spike said, letting the channel lottery spin out on Discovery, "why wasn't he around all this time?"

Xander stared at Spike's profile; when Spike turned to look at him, he looked away. "Because," he said at last. "I don't know. Because it wasn't like that."

"Why hasn't he been around, asking who the hell I am?"

"Because it's none of his business."

"Right. Why isn't it his business?"

"Because..." He couldn't think of anything to say, and finally just said, "Because he never called."

Spike was staring at him with a strange expression. His eyes were wide and bright and sort of flooded, and his cheeks were hard. Tight, taut. Like he was bracing for something. Like Spike really totally didn't know that, didn't expect it. And like he can't quite believe it. And it reframes everything for him, for a moment. Makes him sympathetic, empathetic, warms his treatment of Xander, makes him careful and friendly for a time.

"He's an idiot," he said.

Then he put the remote carefully down on the coffee table, leaned sideways, and kissed Xander on the mouth.

He smelled of spare ribs and beer, and for a few seconds that was it-just dry lips brushing dry lips, and Xander was too surprised, shocked even, to register anything more than the oddness of it. Spike's lips were soft. He smelled good. He was kissing Xander. It had to be a joke. I could just keep saying Oh, Xander. :(

Then Spike's tongue touched his lips, gentle and wet and soft, and it wasn't a joke at all. He tipped his chin up and opened his mouth, and Spike's tongue tasted good. A bit weird, a bit cool, but he was pushing harder at Xander's lips, and his fingertips were touching Xander's jaw, and he was making a low, long sound in the back of his throat. Not a joke, no. Just a surprise.

He was kissing Spike, he thought again, and he expected to feel weird and revolted, but instead he had the strangest, quickest glimpse of blue fragments cohering, and he felt happy and suddenly rock-hard. Embarrassingly hard. Jesus. He put a hand on Spike's shoulder and pulled back. Cohering!

"Uh-" His whole face felt hot, pavement-in-summer hot, hot-tin-roof hot. His hands were shaking. Jesus. "Whoah."

Spike said nothing, and after a second or two, Xander glanced over at him. He was grinning. He looked totally happy, totally delighted. Like he'd just tried something daring and brilliant, and it had worked.

"Whoah," Xander said again, and looked away quickly. "You drink scat with that mouth?"

Spike grabbed his chin and pulled his face back around, and he hardly got half a gasp in before there was more kissing, more grinning, a forehead against his jaw and light fingertips on his lips. On television, wolf pups tussled. Pure delight. Yes. It's a wonderful pan away from the action.

The thing about kissing Spike was, once you got by the batshit insanity of it, you didn't want to stop. Ever. You wanted to kiss him until your lips were puffy and sore, until you had his taste deep in your sinuses, until you could close your eyes and not be sure whether you'd stopped for a breather or not. It was the strangest thing. And it kind of cut into whatever other plans you had for your evening. Like what, laundry?

"You're straight," Xander pointed out when his mouth was momentarily free for speaking. Spike raised an eyebrow and bit his jaw lightly. Okay, so that "bit his jaw lightly"? Spike? I don't have words? It's such a strange, careful affection - predatory but sort of tolerant. They were lying down by then, Xander on the bottom with the remote jabbing his lower back and Spike's dick jabbing his inner thigh. "For the last two weeks you've mocked my gayness." Spike rolled his eyes and bit Xander's earlobe. Yes. Because Xander is obtuse. And there's no reason to argue about it, because Xander is never ever going to believe that he wasn't being mocked, or that Spike didn't have the upper hand in every one of their interactions - because neither of those things fit his view of himself. "You do realize I'm a guy, right?" Spike grinned and turned his hips so their cocks rubbed. "Jesus fuck."

More kissing.

Spike tasted like Chinese food, like beer, like something a little funky that probably didn't bear a whole lot of contemplation. He also tasted like himself. It was weird to realize that, weird to realize that after two weeks of sleeping beside him, sharing sheets and towels and spoons with him, propping him up and holding him down, the taste was familiar. He knew how Spike tasted, without ever having kissed him. He knew Spike.

His hands were under Spike's shirt, on his back, coasting the smooth skin in slow mindless circles. His feet were propped under Spike's; when he pushed up with his toes, Spike pushed back with his heels. Morse. -This is great. -Yeah, it is. -I can't believe I'm doing this. -Shut up, git. Feet could say a lot.

Spike's hands were on his neck, his throat. Spike liked his throat. A lot. It ought to be disturbing, and he was pretty sure that if he thought about it at all he'd be disturbed up the wazoo, so he wasn't thinking about it. He was just feeling the tips of Spike's fingers in the muscles of his neck, feeling the light touches over his skin, tracing his larynx, turning his chin to let Spike lean down and kiss the skin over his artery. Kiss it, and gnaw very slightly, wetly, with a little sound that might have been a purr or a growl. Yeah. More of that restraint from Spike, which is part of what makes it sexy. Sexier. Because throats are pretty sexy to begin with, without the muddled desires of Spike's demon nature thrown into the mix.

"I don't do turtlenecks," Xander said finally, and shoved Spike's head away. Spike let him do it, but he came right back, grinning. Hovered a second with amusement lighting him up, then kissed Xander hard and deep, his hips thrusting with his tongue. Xander's head blew a fuse and he bit without thinking, and for a quick, totally breathless moment he was pinned by both shoulders, Spike's mouth at his neck and their hips snapping in unison. He could hear himself making a senseless, pre-verbal aahhhh sound. His fingers were drilled into Spike's back.

Then Spike pulled away, lifted up on his elbows so their bodies didn't touch, and turned his head to the side. Taking a personal moment. Xander lay still, trying not to think about a mouth on his dick, the lube in the bedside drawer, that feeling. He was not going to have sex with Spike. He wasn't. This wasn't sex. This was-well, he just wasn't. IT'S TOTALLY SEX. Xander, queen of the Nile, seriously.

"So, okay," he said, and dragged his hands over his face. "Okay." He paused, tried not to think about how naked and wet his throat felt. "Positives. Um. The way is now clear for me to make jokes about your sexuality."

Spike turned his head and gave him a heavy-lidded look.

"I think I just managed to suck a little of my rightful share of lo mein from between your teeth." Sexy and kind of gross at the same time. Nice.

Spike breathed a single, token snuh of laughter.

"And according to my fortune cookie, I'm only doing what I should."

Spike lowered his head and pushed Xander's chin up with his nose, then kissed the side of his neck. "In bed," he muttered.

"On the couch. But whatever."

Spike mouthed his neck again, a little harder. "Bed's comfortable," he said quietly. "Could take this in there."

Xander said nothing. After a moment Spike stopped working his neck and looked up. They lay staring at each other.

"Please don't tell me," Xander said, and then stopped. There was a weird, heavy feeling in his belly. Unbalanced, like a cement bag loaded wrong. "Spike, this isn't some kind of... This isn't a thing, is it?"

Spike's face was solemn, and his eyes were steady. "A thing," he repeated.

"Yeah. And don't pretend you don't know what I mean, because you know you do. If you're fucking with me, please...just don't." His heart was beating too hard all of a sudden, and his palms were damp. If Spike lied right now, would he be able to tell? Probably not. So why bother asking? Because...two weeks. Of propping up and holding down. That had to mean something, didn't it? Even to Spike, that had to mean something.

"I'm not fucking with you," Spike said slowly. He didn't blink, didn't look away. His body was against Xander's again, lighter now, most of his weight somewhere else. His dick couldn't lie, could it? "This isn't a thing." He paused, and studied Xander's face. "It's not a thing. Promise." Spike is so opaque, from Xander's perspective. And part of that is Xander's fault, that he is predisposed to think the worst, that he isn't going to recognize a whole host of motivations, no matter how clearly they are written in Spike's expression. But of course they aren't - the guy has a poker face to beat the band, 90% of the time.

Xander lay still a second. His mouth was dry, and suddenly he didn't know what to do with his hands. He lifted one and touched Spike's hair, at his temple. If he looked at Spike's hair, he didn't have to look at his face, and that gave him a little space to...get his act together. Be less of a freak. Spike had curls. What the hell had he looked like in the sixties? I love the way he's fidgeting here - like he did with the coffee cup, or with the menus, or with any number of other things - but Spike is so close, he's the only thing within reach. It's sort of accidentally sexy. Which is a kind of sexy that Xander is really good at.

"Okay," he said to a curl. "Not a thing, okay. Because-" He paused, swallowed, appraised the curl. "Because if it's a thing, have mercy for once in your life, okay? I mean, Faith really already- I mean, I just don't really need that right now." He must have had a hella afro back in the day. Maybe Giles could dig up photographic evidence.

"Xander." Spike tipped his head so Xander couldn't help looking him straight on. His eyes were so blue, and he looked almost pained. "Xander. Not a thing. I promise. Not fucking with you. Just-" He dipped down, kissed Xander's chin, and smiled. "Just want to fuck you."

Xander's breath and brain left together, the way they did when he got kicked in the solar plexus. Dimly, he thought, Not fair-this isn't fair, and at the same time his dick stood up and begged. Spike was smiling again, pressing a thigh down against him, then abruptly sitting back on his heels. Straddling Xander's waist, the pair of them with ridiculous trouser tents, and there was never ever going to be any dignity in his life. Not ever.

Spike looked him up and down, smiled wider, and ran a palm down his shirt from his chest to his belly. "That a yes?"

Xander reached down and caught Spike's hand just before it hit his belt. "It's a-" he gasped, and then paused. Was it a yes? Fuck, it shouldn't be. But maybe should didn't matter right now. Maybe there was enough should in his life already.

He was still holding Spike's wrist, and now Spike's smile was turning quizzical. Faltering a little. Maybe that meant it was safe, he wasn't lying. Maybe it really wasn't a thing. There's the other 10%.

"You're straight," Xander said, his fingers locked around Spike's wrist. "You're straight and you've spent two weeks making fag jokes at my expense, you've co-opted my television, you don't wash your own dishes, you're untrustworthy, you've tried to kill me, you're a vampire, you ate the last waffle, you stole my laundry change, you may be contagious, you turn the volume up too loud, you're lazy, you get blood on the sheets, and you're straight."

Spike turned his hand in Xander's and took light hold of his wrist. "Come to bed," he said. Arguing by completely ignoring the argument. And more restrained physical action.

"Just let me put this stuff away."

Spike's smile turned satisfied, and he leaned back, peeled himself off Xander's legs, and stood up. He was a little shaky, and Xander put a hand out automatically. "You want some help?"

Spike laughed and shook his head, then turned and started for the bedroom. And if there was no dignity in Xander's life, there was maybe a little comfort in watching Spike crip his way across the room with an iron hard-on, like the world's oldest Viagra customer. Or if not comfort, at least humor. The heartbreakingly Xanderish thing here is how he never, through all of this, takes all of these things he and Spike have in common in the situation and sees them as shared. Through it all, he can't move away from the two of them as opposites: good and bad, sick and well, predator and prey. Xander sees his own lack of dignity, and Spike's lack of dignity, but never gets from there to *shared lack of dignity*. He never gets to take comfort in it, and he never gets to believe that he's making the right choice - he's too busy waiting for the punchline, for the other shoe.

He lay for a few seconds on his back on the couch, staring at the ceiling, trying to weigh pros and cons. This was stupid. It could only end badly. His dick didn't care. His dick wanted to know what he was still doing on the couch.

He stood up, clicked the light off, and waited a second for his eyes to adjust. In the darkness, he had a brief flash of Seth's face. His hands, turning the bottle against the wall. His fingers on Xander's cock, firm and warm and practiced. His mouth. God. Yale.

He heard the bedside drawer scrape open. "That's interesting." Low, speculative tone.

He closed his eyes briefly, pinched the bridge of his nose. What all was in there, left over from the Anya era? What else was in the box under the bed? Jesus. Why hadn't he ever pitched any of that stuff out? asdfghjkl.

Well. His dick had an answer for that.

He walked slowly to the bedroom door and leaned against the frame, his arms crossed over his chest. Spike hadn't turned the light on, but there was street light through the venetians, just enough to see the pale body propped against the headboard, examining something. Xander cleared his throat, and Spike looked up. Just enough light to see the smile, the bottles he'd balanced on top of his knees. Ah, Christ. Sure you're not a professional, then?

"Clever boy," Spike said, and his tone was so plainly admiring that Xander's shoulders unknotted slightly and he smiled back. And this is the only way it works - when Spike actively rebuts Xander's worst-case assumptions by talking, and letting his own guard down. Which of course he rarely does, because how is he supposed to know what Xander's upset about now?

"I should cull." He pushed off the doorframe, took a few steps forward into the darkness, and sat down on the edge of the bed. Not touching Spike. Now was the time to say, Look, sorry, I've had a second to think and I don't know what I was thinking. Bad idea. Don't be pissed, but- He wasn't saying it. His mouth was dry and stiff, and his hands were freezing, and his dick was adamant. His dick had embargoed speech. Okay, but where do you go from there? I mean, if Xander had made that choice. I mean, once you've made out on the sofa at length with Spike, what's the point in drawing a line? Any advantage you stand to lose you've pretty much already lost.

"Nah. Should use them." Xander looked over at the smile in Spike's voice. And Spike let his knees fall apart, so the bottles dropped and he was splayed, grinning, hard-on displayed like a magic trick in his pants. Xander's jaw fell and swung gently from his skull. Spike laughed. "C'mere."

Xander swallowed, hesitated a second longer, then turned and put his fists in the mattress, leaned in between Spike's knees, and kissed him. Bad idea. Sweet, wet, hard, bad idea. Spike's fingers were around the back of his neck, down the back of his shirt, pulling it up and over and off. There was a second of being stupidly trapped, a second to think construction tan-, and then Spike was kissing him again, laughing at him and smoothing his hair, and what the fuck. What the fuck. Willow was always, always right.

He was yanking at Spike's shirt, making little headway, and fuck, how had Spike done that so smoothly? Spike's hands were on his chest, on his belly, his belt. Jesus. He gave up on the shirt and started on Spike's jeans. His hands brushed Spike's hard-on and they both jumped.

"Jesus Christ," Xander gasped, pausing to breathe. His head was pounding, and he glanced down and saw Spike's legs still open, knees apart, stupid faded jeans he'd washed with his own clothes twice already, Spike's cock straining through, and somewhere off to the left a bottle in the sheets. He had to close his eyes and groan.

Then Spike got through his belt and popped his fly open, and there was a cool light hand easing his dick out, and he grabbed Spike's shoulder and squeezed hard. Spike paused. They sat there a second, Xander making little gasping sounds.

"Just-" He stopped, wet his mouth, hung out there for a second. "Just give me a second."

Spike eased his hand away. Xander thought about filing cabinets. Okay, so please pardon the necessity of linking to a page last updated in 1997, but I think about this list every time I hit this point of the story. Filing cabinets are the perfect unsexy thought.

After a minute or so, he could look up again. His vision had adjusted and he could see that Spike was watching him with a strange, sharp expression. Like he was memorizing Xander's face. He didn't look away from Xander's eyes.

"All right?" he asked. Xander nodded. Spike reached down, took hold of Xander's free hand, and opened the fingers. "Cold hands," he said rhetorically.

"I'm a little-" Xander laughed shakily. Scared. "Scared."

He hadn't meant to say it, and as soon as he did, he tried to pull his hand out of Spike's. Spike didn't let him. He clamped onto Xander's wrist and held it, and now his eyes were dark and steady.

"Scared," he said. "What are you scared of?" Oh god, Spike. I think maybe he really does want to know. I mean, here he is, letting his guard down, and Xander, well, Xander's guard is never down, ever, but he's an open book, and that isn't the same thing at all, but I think sometimes that isn't obvious.

Xander laughed again, and cut it off right in the middle. I'm scared because you're an evil bastard and I'm an idiot and you're going to find some way to use this, I know you are. He managed not to say it, but he had to say something, so instead he said, "I-haven't done a lot of this." Which was true, he realized. He was scared of that, too.

"Lot of what?" Spike still had his wrist, and he'd started rubbing a slow circle on the inside of it with his thumb. It felt good.

"Lot of...this." Xander nodded at the bed. "You know."


"Um. Gay sex."

"Don't see what's gay about it."

Xander paused. Spike was still looking at him, the same dark steady look, hungrier than he'd seemed before. He didn't look like he was kidding around, or being a jerk for the sake of it. He looked serious. Yeah. I'm not sure if Spike's trying to make a point here, or if it's a culture thing, or what.

"I'm a guy, Spike. You're a guy. That kind of makes this-"

Spike's free hand had travelled down to the waist of his jeans. He popped the button, let the zipper slide, and he had dark hair, a foreskin, and sweet holy fuck, Xander's mouth was wet. He tore his eyes away and found Spike's face. Bastard was smiling. Running a hand up and down his own cock, his eyelids heavy.

"Get your trousers off," he said, and then a look of annoyance crossed his face. "And, fuck, get this kit off me." He let go of Xander's wrist and started tugging at his shirt with a shaking hand. Xander skinned it off him without thinking, a magician hoiking a tablecloth free, and only then did his brain kick in.

"Fuck, you're sick." He held Spike's shirt in one hand and stared at the skinny white chest, the ribs and collarbone standing out. The pearled muscle he'd wanted to touch, weeks ago now. Spike was sick. An invalid. Why the hell hadn't he thought of that before? "Spike, you're sick. We shouldn't-"

Spike leaned forward and bit him on the lip. Not hard enough to really hurt, but hard enough to make him shut up. They sat there with Spike's teeth sunk in him, noses touching. After a second, Xander put his hands carefully on Spike's shoulders and eased him back. The teeth came out grudgingly. Again with the careful biting. Just holding Xander still with his teeth.

"Okay." He ran a finger through his mouth, testing. "Okay, point taken."

"Get these fucking things off me," Spike growled, prying at his jeans. Xander got hold of the waist and yanked, and Spike toppled backward into the pillows. The jeans hit the floor. A couple of seconds later, Xander's joined them. He was still on the edge of the bed, looking back over his shoulder at Spike sprawled out behind him. Spike, who was splay-legged and unapologetic, examining one of the bottles of lube and smirking at whatever was printed on the side.

"Spike," Xander said quietly. "You're sure this is-"

"I'm sure," Spike said, without looking up. After a second, when Xander hadn't moved, he raised his head. Pure undiluted carbon-black-hearted depraved sexual smile. "What does a bloke have to do to get some cock around here?"

Sometimes there was no point arguing any more. Xander turned and pulled Spike's leg out to the side, kissed the inside of his knee, and kept kissing all the way up. Oh my god. Image. Brain. Happy.

So now he was a necrophiliac. Tender to irreverent in .06 seconds. It wasn't such a bad feeling, or at least not yet. Once his brain re-established contact with the pit of his stomach, he thought it might badden up a little, but right now, just about the only things on his mind were Navajo White and Jesus fuck. Which was pretty much what he'd thought after having sex with a live guy, too, so hey. Consistency.

Spike was inanimate beside him, sprawled out four-corners with his head tipped back and his mouth wide open. Snoring. The air conditioner hummed contentedly. The clock read 1:45.

I am an idiot, Xander thought. A tacky, dehydrated, slightly sweaty idiot. Who had to pee. He gave Spike another quick glance, then swung his legs sideways out of bed and stood up. There were clothes all over the floor-his and Spike's, tangled up together. Very metaphorical, yeah. He stepped over them and gimped quietly out and down the hall to the bathroom.

He looked puffy and chewed-over, pink and sleepy and too fuckdumb to be conflicted. So be it. He wavered a little on his heels as he peed, blinking sleepily, his whole brain scrubbed down and stuccoed over that nice, bland shade of Navajo White. Which, the hell? Navajo? But that would require thought, and he was too tired for that kind of thing. He just wanted a quick shower and a long sleep, and possibly maybe at a much later date, more sex with the dead guy in his bed. Or else a cheese knish.

He started the water and stood dopily waiting for it to warm up, running a hand over his belly. Spike had strong hands. Soft lips. No nipple rings. He wasn't even circumcised, which made sense when you thought about it, but Spike's dick was something Xander had made it an unofficial policy not to think about for, well, ever. Spike was evil; therefore, Spike's dick was evil. And evil dicks were the last thing he needed taking up mental airtime.

The thing was, there was evil and then there was evil.

He got into the shower, closed his eyes, and let lukewarm water pummel his head, hoping vaguely to fall asleep like that, propped up against the shower wall like an umbrella in a stand. Instead, he saw Spike-Jesus Christ, Spike, he was insane-splayed wide open on the wrinkled sheets, back shaking, forehead digging into the mattress. Fists against the wall. Saying...things. Sweet, dirty things that made sex with Seth seem like a wholesome enterprise, like a round of horseshoes or a couple of games of penny poker. Things that made Xander's cock sit up and take notice even now, at two a.m., with self-accusation and sleeplessness hanging out just on the other side of the shower curtain. Jesus Christ. He'd fucked Spike. He was insane.

The bathroom door opened and he jumped, guilty and panicked and water-blind for a second. What the hell-? Oh, right. Sex meant never having to knock before you walked into the bathroom.

He expected Spike to twitch back the shower curtain, or at least say something, but nothing happened. After a second or two he marshalled his resources, wiped his face, and pulled the curtain open enough to look out. Spike was standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. Naked, and for some reason that felt like an affront. Like evidence being thrust in his face: you fucked me, you moron, from now on it's starkers 24/7.

Then he looked at Spike's face, and saw the tired flat eyes, the lips pressed tight. Spike looked...pissed off. His hair was standing up insanely, and his arms were crossed over his chest. He didn't look like a guy who'd just been treated to an evening of great sex. More like a guy who'd just been billed for it. Xander's belly clenched. Orkney Islander, his brain whispered. Oh, man. Spike is having the same exact thoughts. (Except without the evil/evil bit, likely.) And all through this, Spike's been cagey and a little suspicious, but I think (and there's no real way to know, but I think) he expects Xander to pull one of his preemptive dickishnesses. As he has been known to do, on occasion. And really, if Xander had got up to freak out in the shower and run to Buffy (or Willow) with even a vague accusation about Spike, then Spike would be totally fucked.

"Hi," he said, and then just stood there, clutching the shower curtain like a final vestige of sanity. Another thought occurred to him-Spike was sick. Jesus, he was a bastard. He'd fucked a sick guy. A guy who'd been epileptic last week, who could barely sit up some mornings. He swallowed hard.

"Hi," Spike said tonelessly. His eyes were steely on Xander, on the shower head behind him. They stood there a few seconds, staring at each other.

"I couldn't sleep," Xander said finally, to fill the silence, and Spike seemed almost to flinch.

"Right. Getting cleaned up, I see." He pushed off the frame and reached for the doorknob. "Well, I'll leave you to it."

"Wait-" Spike paused without looking at him, thumb tapping the knob. "Are you okay?"

"Fine." A bitter little smile, down at the linoleum. "You're a stevedore. Hardly know what hit me." He started to pull the door closed again, then stopped. "Speaking of, that was a one-time only show, all right? Momentary lapse of reason and all that." Guard back up, attempting impenetrability.

Xander stood in silence, fingers pinching the shower curtain. He was such an idiot. Everything good-sleepiness, warmth, the back of Spike's neck-was collapsing quietly down into a chilly paste in the pit of his stomach. He should save face, right now, say something fast before it was too obvious he'd been caught off guard. And this is the first time he's explicitly classed anything belonging to Spike as good. And his group of good things is comforts, which is even more telling, I think. Erm, and what it's telling is the thing you likely noticed early on: that Xander is seriously emotionally attached, and has been since early in the story at the very least, and possibly even prior to the story. This isn't exactly the first time he's let Spike crash at his place, after all. Just the first time for bed-sharing and seizures.

"I thought-" he said, and then stopped, because that was not how you saved face. It hung there in the air while he tried desperately to think of something to add that would make it sound less pathetic. Spike was standing still, staring at the floor, just waiting. Some part of Xander's brain was actually annoyed with that-it was the perfect opening for a jab, so why the hell wasn't Spike taking it? At least to fill the silence.

"If you want," he said lamely at last, and that wasn't exactly gaining the upper hand, but at least it was a complete sentence. His face was burning. Spike's jaw tightened.

"Way of the world," he said, swinging the door back and forth very slightly. "Both grown-ups."


"Okay then." He looked up, hard eyes giving Xander a once-over. "Missed a spot." He nodded vaguely at Xander's midriff, then turned to leave.

"Spike." The water was pissing him off suddenly, distracting him, so he turned and knocked it off with the heel of his hand. Spike was standing in the doorway, watching him skeptically. "Are you...are you sure you're okay?" Xander's action is violent, decisive - Spike's are hesitant, fidgety. It's a reversal, but only sort of.


"Because you're acting kind of..." He couldn't think what to say. Well, he could. Schizoid, freaky, bizarro, batshit insane. He was pretty sure those wouldn't produce a good response. "I mean, you've been sick, and...maybe that wasn't such a good idea."

Spike smiled again, and Xander's belly dropped another couple of floors. "Right, like I said. Over and forgotten. 'night."


"You keep saying that." Spike studied the doorknob, turned it left and right, then looked at Xander. "'s getting boring."

"I just don't get-"

"Look, if I didn't have a fucking chip in my head I'd have eaten you ages ago. And if I didn't have this fucking flu, I'd be home in my crypt watching footie." The doorknob cracked in its socket, and he let go of it irritably. "And you'd be shagging Master Elbowpatches and the world would go round as ordained. End of story."

"Yeah, but you're not." He wasn't keeping up grammatically, but whatever. "And wait, that's your logic? Because that's crazy troll logic."

"No, it's how the world works, Harris. Take your shower."

"I wouldn't be shagg-having sex with Seth, either. I respectfully declined, remember?"

"Fine, you'd be wanking in your shower, having nasty thoughts about nasty sex with Spike-"

"Whoah, hang on-"

"So get back on that and I'll go find some footie on the telly."

Xander held his hands up, T-formation. "Okay," he said. "Hang on. I don't know a hell of a lot about this whole big gay thing, but I did date Anya. You're officially acting crazy." Hah! Yes, he has training. Xander can handle things when they make zero sense.

"Fuck you, Harris."

"No, thanks. What's your problem, exactly?"

Spike sneered and walked out. Xander stood for a second, then thought, Fuck it, stepped out of the shower, and limped dripping down the hall after Spike. "It's two in the morning, Spike, and I'm gimpy. Spill."

Spike turned and went into the bedroom without a word. By the time Xander got there, he was sorting his jeans from Xander's, shaking them out, and starting to step into them. His standing leg buckled and he almost fell over, had to put his raised foot down in a hurry, and stood there shaking, holding the waist of his jeans in white fists. Spike is seeing himself here (I suspect) at such a huge disadvantage - he's endangered his hideout by following an impulse, and it was probably an impulse that had been building for weeks, but the combination of too-weak-to-dress-himself and mysterious-phone-call-enemies/dangerous-allies/whatever - well. He's got a really good motive for trying to put himself and Xander firmly back into slightly-charged familiar enmity.

"I saw this once on The Odd Couple," Xander said, leaning against the doorframe. "That one where they have sex and Oscar turns into a total bitch, but he can't get his pants on to leave because he's enfeebled by a mystery ailment?" I can totally see how that could work as an episode, too. And I love that Xander just cast himself as Felix.

"Fuck you."

"Unlikely." He stood watching for a few seconds while Spike tried to work up the balance to get a foot off the floor, then stepped forward and crouched down. "Spike." Nothing. "Come on, I'm too tired for this."

"Fucking hell." Spike sounded tired too, and after a few more seconds' struggle, he gave up and sat down hard on the floor. "Christ." He frowned and rubbed his tailbone reflectively. "Ow."

"Yeah." Xander put his hand lightly on Spike's arm, expecting Spike to jerk away. But Spike didn't even seem to notice; he was staring at the wall behind Xander's shoulder, lost in thought. Crazy vampire. Sick, tired, bitchy, crazy vampire. "Are you...mad? At me?"

Spike gave him a surprised, distracted glance. "What, are we dating now?" His tone was a little less acid. Xander took his hand back.

"We're having sex and fighting. What else is there?" Spike grimaced, and Xander stood up. "Come on." He hauled Spike upright and pushed him back onto the bed, then toppled over beside him. "You can be an inexplicable pain in the ass tomorrow. Around ten."

Spike said nothing, and Xander reached over without looking or thinking, and patted him on the shoulder. He was lying on a wet spot. He didn't really care. If he lay here for thirty seconds without thinking, he was pretty sure he'd be asleep. And yeah, that turned out to be about right.

The phone rang and he woke up with it already in his hand, en route to his ear. What time was it? What day was it? Why couldn't he feel his right hand? Because it was under Spike. Okay.

"Hello?" He was expecting Giles or Willow-instead, there was silence. He lay there prying his eyes open, feeling Spike wake up beside him, slow little flexions. They'd been spooning, kind of. Xander in back, his right arm under Spike's waist. The clock said 8:30. Unconscious spooning is always good. I mean awkward.

"Hello?" Nothing on the other end, and he started to roll over to hang up, and then heard the breathing. Oh, right. "Hang on a minute." He held the phone over Spike's shoulder. "It's for you."

Spike lay still, his face rammed into the pillow. Xander waggled the phone. Without looking up, Spike raised a shaky hand and took it. He put it to his ear. "Yeah?"

Something on the other end that didn't quite sound like English, or possibly even like a throat. Xander pulled his dead arm out from under Spike and stared at the ceiling for a second or two, then got up and walked out. Let Spike plan his party in peace. Somehow, now that he'd actually had sex with a dead guy, possible apocalypse felt like a minor concern. Yay perspective! Okay, maybe this is not the right thing to let go. But then again, hassling Spike about it isn't going to resolve it, either.

He wandered into the living room, limping and shaking out his arm, wondering if there were any waffles left. In the bedroom, Spike hung up with a bang. Apparently the end of the world was a bitch to organize. And hey, waffles. He must buy the really big boxes.

He stood yawning, watching the toaster coils turn red and the cup go around in the microwave. It probably said something about him that he could watch blood heat up in his Allied Drywall mug without giving a damn. His arm was coming back to life, thank God. He'd lost the bandage over the cacodemon puncture at some point, and he spent a minute or two studying the neat red hole, trying to decide whether it was better or worse than the time Vincent Loudermilk stabbed him with a No. 2 pencil in third grade. Probably better.

Still no syrup, so he went with peanut butter and walked back to the bedroom with the mug in one hand, the waffle in the other. Spike was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling.

"Room service," Xander said, holding out the mug. "Or peace offering. Your call."

Spike lowered his chin and stared at Xander as if he were holding out a signed copy of Dyanetics. "Breakfast in bed," he said after a moment. His tone was wary, a little confused. Xander looked down at the cup in his hand.

"Well, more like a serving of nuked animal blood. Which is either breakfast or a reason to heave, depending on your point of view."

Spike stared at him a second or two longer, then sat up and reached for the cup. The sheet was pulled modestly up to his waist, but Xander could still see his belly muscles tremble with the effort of verticality. He sat down on the end of the bed and took another bite of waffle. Spike didn't drink; he just stared down into the mug, as if he'd never seen blood before.

"Don't bother," Xander said after a minute, still chewing. "I used iocane powder. It's undetectable." Spike gave him a look from under his brows, and Xander raised his waffle in salute. Another long look into the depths of the mug, and then he took a swig.

"Not bad."

"Special reserve," Xander said absently, tonguing waffle out of a molar.

"Sorry." A pause. "About last night."

Xander looked back over his shoulder. Spike was staring into his mug, lips pursed as if he were reconsidering what he'd just said. Xander shrugged. "Hey, I had a great time. Until you turned into a crazy person." Spike didn't look up. "You want to walk me through that transformation?"

Another long pause, while Spike swirled and drank a little more blood. "Not really."

"Uh-huh. You want to tell me who's calling my place for you?"

Spike stopped swirling and sat still. Xander took another bite of waffle and watched him. His shoulders were rigid, and his belly was trembling harder. His fingers were white on the cup. After a second, Xander leaned back on an elbow and took it gently out of his hand. "You break that, I'm going to need all new sheets." His elbow was on a dried patch of something, and he shifted it without looking too closely. "Well, okay, I probably already do."

"I should go," Spike said, swinging his legs off the far side of the mattress and bracing his weight on his palms to stand. Xander didn't move. "Going now."

"Okay." He still didn't move, and Spike pushed with both hands, got a few inches off the mattress, and then just sort of hung there. The muscles in his back were tight and trembling. "Just out of interest, did you take your dose yesterday?"

Spike didn't say anything, but his shoulders went up another notch. Xander finished the last bite of his waffle and regarded the mug in his hand while he chewed. "I propose a compromise." All of this unflappability from Xander is totally messing with Spike. And after all the effort Xander has been trying to project earlier on, now it's almost accidental. Possibly he's still in Anya-wrangling mode. Possibly this is just who Xander is, in a relationship with a strange and unpredictable person who he loves. Unbotherable Lad, within a strange set of limits. As much as this isn't really a formal relationship, it's enough to frame the situation, to make Xander step up and be the calm, emotionally stable one in the room.

Spike kept hovering, fingers flexing by his hips, legs shaking harder now. Xander sat up and put the mug on the night table, next to the measuring spoons and the diminishing Ziploc of scat. "Spike, I'm proposing, here. Sit down a second."

Spike sat down with a thump, and sat still with his face turned away to the windows. Xander waited. Finally Spike said, "What, then?"

"Okay, uh, I propose that we're not dating. Since you're straight and I'm strictly speaking a food group for you. We shouldn't date. Agreed?"

Spike's shoulders lowered slightly, and after a second he nodded. "Fine. And?"

"Okay, cool. I sub-propose that you dial down the freak, since we're not dating and your street cred is therefore safe." Xander ran his hands over his face and tried to smile. "I have no plans to mention this to Buffy, just so you know."

Spike scratched the back of his neck. "'Sub-propose'?"

"Shut up. I further propose that you stop trying to crawl out of here every time you flashback. It's kind of...insulting." He had to keep careful control of his voice on that one, and he still wasn't sure he made it sound light enough. "Give it a day or two, then dump me. That's what a gentleman does."

He expected Spike to rise to that one, and even left him a little space to do it, but...nothing. Spike just sat there, his back inexpressive. Xander took a breath. "And last but not least, I propose you tell me something."

Spike turned his head so Xander could see his face in profile. Brows furrowed. Thinking face. "What?"

"Look me in the face and tell me you're not planning apocalypse on my home phone."

Spike looked surprised at that, for a second or two. Then he turned, braced a shaking hand in the sheets, and looked Xander in the face. "'m not planning apocalypse on your home phone." Yeah. He expected a completely different question.

"And by 'apocalypse,' I mean anything really bad. Like, say, hurting Buffy or Willow or Giles." And yeah, this was exactly the kind of post-coital conversation you had to expect to have on the Hellmouth, but still. It was kind of a downer. He kept his eyes fixed on Spike's, wondering whether he'd know if Spike just flat out lied to him. Unlikely. The only time you knew Spike wasn't lying was when he was knocked unconscious or had his mouth too full to talk.

They stared at each other for a few seconds. Spike's expression wasn't as taut as it had been; he actually looked interested, in a serious kind of way. And a little baffled, or maybe just wary. "'m not planning anything. Not trying to hurt anyone." He slid his hand back along the bed, still taking his weight, until his elbow buckled and he fell onto the mattress. It didn't seem to faze him; he just lay on his back with his arm over his head, stretching until his fingers touched Xander's elbow. "Promise." Tender, again.

Xander looked down at him, at the white, shaking, nail-bitten fingers on his arm, and at Spike's solemn upside-down face. Crazy vampire. "Okay."

"Okay what?"

"Okay, that's it." He patted Spike's hand, sat up, and reached for the measuring spoons. "I got nothing else. Drink your scat."

Spike lay in silence while he mixed the stuff, then took the cup with a frown. "What about-?" He motioned vaguely at the bed, and Xander looked down at the creased, stained sheets.

"I'll do laundry," he said, rubbing a hand through his hair. "Those cacodemons do a serious number on the linens."

Spike stared at him, bolted his blood, and made a prolonged scat face. Xander took the mug out of his hand while he was contorting, and turned to go.

"No, you wanker, what about sex?" Spike was still gasping, wiping his eyes. Xander shrugged.

"Got me. Nothing about it in my proposals." Because if there had been, he couldn't have maintained unflappability. Refusing to engage or to argue one way or the other keeps him safe from showing weakness.

"'m I on the couch again, then?" He sounded a little sharp, a little pissy. Or maybe it was just the scat. Xander turned back and spread his hands wide.

"Spike. You are wherever you choose to be."

Suspicious glare. "You're not as funny as you think you are, mate."

"No, but I'm more okay with all of this than you are. So if you don't mind, I have gloating to do." He turned and went out, still naked, carrying Spike's cup. Spent the next ten minutes washing dishes, but doing it with a light heart. Awesome. So good.

All right, so that's all there is. And that's okay, really. Because Xander is pretty much okay, and Spike is ill and has this mystery he's participating in, but I think at this point in the story (or rather, I hope) that we can pretty much assume that it's all going to work out. And possibly that's why it stops here. The end may be hazy, off there in the distance, but it's in sight. And on balance, in a choice between having this story as it stands and incomplete, or not having it at all, I claw my fingers into the gaps between the paragraphs and hold on tight. It's so full of sensation, lemon and barbecue, warm, still air, gentle warning bites, slippery cacodemon guts. Easy to keep gripping.

(if you actually got through this, and wish to comment on my commentary, please feel free to do so here.)