Rating: PG-13 (a very little bit of sex and language)
Disclaimer: Don't own them. Just use them for my own loving and nefarious purposes.
Feedback: As much as I can get, please.
Summary: Set in an altered season 4. They get to know each other.
Note: This somehow doesn't feel done, or as if something's missing, or just not quite right. But I've been fiddling around with it for weeks and weeks and weeks, not wanting to let it go, and now I just have to take the leap. Also, the title is again from Emily Dickinson.
Note 2: This won the Reader's Choice award, and was runner-up for Slash award at RWS, Round Ten!
Of Persons Outside Windows
He'd resented it, at first.
It was an imposition, having Spike there. Spike was annoying, never mind the whole harmless-for-the-moment-but-still-evil vampire thing. Plus, now that Xander actually had a sex life, he wasn't particularly keen on anyone interrupting it. And although Anya had made clear that she didn't consider Spike's presence to be an impediment -- no. Just no. Even Spike had been appalled at the idea, which made Anya's attitude all the more disturbing.
And why him, anyway? Because the girls were all busy with their oh, so important lives at college, Buffy all giggles and whispers with soldier boy, and Willow "practicing spells" with witch girl? Because Giles needed to "appree-see-ate some prih-vuh-see," which, he guessed, was British for getting laid? It was typical. Give him to Xander. Xander'll take care of it. Xander has nothing better to do. Sure -- nothing but hold down a crappy job, and pay rent on a crappy basement, and try to hang on to a girlfriend whose interest in him seemed to diminish in direct proportion to his lack of opportunity to provide her with orgasms. Opportunity he lacked because he had a (formerly) blood-sucking fiend for a roommate.
The smoking alone was bad enough. The basement was already stuffy, and now, everything he owned stank like a bar at closing time. After a few days of self-inflicted pep talks, he got up the nerve to tell Spike he wouldn't be bringing him cigarettes any more, prompting game-faced howls of rage. When Spike saw that Xander was unmoved, he tried another tack, explaining with surprising cogency the physiology of tobacco addiction. This wasn't particularly effective, since Xander was unconvinced that the science was applicable to vampires; and if it was, he fervently hoped that the withdrawal symptoms were as painful as Spike described. Anyway, it was his own health and welfare that concerned him, not Spike's.
"Just because you can't die of cancer doesn't mean I can't," he groused.
"As if I wasn't dying for a fag before," Spike snapped. "Hadn't even considered the collateral benefits."
But Xander soon learned that, while Spike never tired of hearing his own nagging voice, Xander did. He gave in, but rationed them out stingily. Cigarettes weren't cheap, and Giles refused to pay for them; but Giles wasn't the one being subjected to the whining.
Unfortunately, Spike's incessant chatter wasn't limited to the topic of smoking. Xander had, himself, been accused of babbling, but Spike had clearly never met a silence that he couldn't fill; mainly, with endless threats about what he was going to do when he got the chip out. Xander had never imagined just how many frighteningly creative uses there were for entrails, or that it would occur to anyone to play Yahtzee with his teeth. But even creepier was when Spike would turn nostalgic, reminiscing, his voice thick with longing, about the time he and Angelus had feasted on a boys choir in Budapest; or Darla's peculiar predilection for the blood of ringleted toddlers. Worst of all, though, was when he talked about Dru. Xander could stand a menacing Spike; even a gruesome Spike; but a maudlin Spike was unbearable. His heartbreak was too familiar, too pathetically human. The idea that Spike might be capable of anything approximating human emotion was confusing to contemplate, and raised questions Xander didn't care to ask, or have answered. So he simply did his best to tune out whenever the litany of loss and self-pity began.
It was weird, though, the stuff you found out about someone when you lived with him. The basement acquired a wiped-down, straightened-up look that suggested housekeeping was taking place in Xander's absence. He noticed that Spike always rinsed out his mug right after drinking from it, and then rinsed out the sink. And Spike didn't hide his revulsion at finding a large and unidentifiable mass, oozing slime and covered in greenish mold, in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator.
"Bloody disgusting! What's wrong with you, Harris? I've known fungus demons who wouldn't live in this filth!"
"That's rich, coming from a murderer who likes to bite people and drink their blood."
"I eat what I eat because I'm a vampire. You live like you live because you're a pig!"
It was hard to deny the charge; Xander knew he was...sloppy. He just hadn't known Spike would turn out to be a neat freak, or that there could be even the tiniest benefit to living with an unsouled monster.
In less time than he might have expected -- since, really, he hadn't expected it at all -- Xander found himself getting used to Spike's presence; found, that without even realizing it, they had established a sort of rhythm. Xander would get up with the alarm, untie Spike, grab the paper. He learned that, before blood, Spike liked a cup of tea in the morning.
"Really? Tea? Kinda girly."
Spike gave him a withering look over his mug. "Empires built on the stuff, Harris. Bloody Americans. Don't know what you're missing."
"I'll remain happily ignorant."
"Your motto, that? Words to live by? Modus operandi?"
But every morning after that, Spike handed him a cup. It wasn't half-bad, how he made it, milky and sweet. They read the papers, not speaking, Xander chuckling over the comics, and Spike over the obituaries. It wasn't friendly, exactly, but it was tolerable.
Xander came home early evening, before the sun went down, stopping at the butcher or at Giles's to stock up on blood. He'd tie Spike up, and, usually, head out to his night job, if he had one; or, infrequently now, to a Scooby meeting; or, even more infrequently, to spend some time with Anya, whose current interest ran more to listing his shortcomings than to lust. His exit was typically preceded by a lengthy diatribe from Spike, often of a threatening nature, though sometimes cajoling, wheedling, or merely whiney. It all boiled down to the same thing: don't tie me up; let me out; don't leave me here alone. And now and again, he gave in to the last. It was all right, watching TV with Spike, if you didn't much care what you were watching. He kept up a running commentary, scoffing at unrealistic depictions of blood and viscera, offering crude assessments of actresses' anatomies, and analyzing fight scenes like a boxing announcer. And although Xander felt it his duty to put on the occasional show of irritation, he mostly wound up entertained, and snickering.
He wasn't sure exactly when he realized Spike was, somehow, leaving the basement and getting around, outside, during the day. Too many cigarette butts was the first clue. Then, suspiciously, Spike's nails appeared to have been freshly polished. But the dead giveaway was finding the book, hidden away behind the dryer. It was called "Three Men in a Boat," by some guy named Jerome K. Jerome, and bore a stamp from the Sunnydale Public Library. The back cover described it as a "witty account" of a "boating holiday" on the Thames, published in 1889. And, as unlikely as it seemed that Spike had sought out this particular reading material, there was simply no other explanation for its presence in his basement.
"Spike," he said, after skimming a page or two, and narrowly escaping death by boredom, "this isn't my book." He threw it to Spike, who, of course, made no move to catch it, and instead watched with amusement as it knocked a glass from table to floor, where it shattered.
"Sure it's not yours, Harris? Oh, right, no pictures."
"How did it get here, bleach boy?"
"Not the bloody librarian round here, am I? How should I know?"
"You've been going out! Admit it!"
Spike settled back into the couch, lacing his hands behind his head, and eyeing Xander appraisingly. "That couldn't have happened, now could it? On your watch, and all? If it had, seems like you'd have to tell your little friends. Wonder what they'd say." Spike smirked, enjoying himself. "Dunno. Seems unlikely to me. Don't it to you?"
Xander knew Spike was gambling, but he was right. The last thing he wanted was to add some new indignity to his growing catalogue of screw-ups, failures, humiliations, and bad choices: still living in his parents' basement; dating an ex-demon who's cringe-worthy bluntness set everyone's teeth on edge; repeated firings from even the lousy jobs he managed to find. No, he couldn't bear to confess that even babysitting a neutered vampire was beyond his capabilities; couldn't bear the thought of being looked at with disappointment. Again. Besides, Giles had stopped shackling Spike long before unloading him on Xander, reasoning that Spike's fear of recapture was enough to make him stay put. Xander had been tying Spike up because he'd decided on his own to do it, not because of any instructions he'd been given. And there'd been nothing out of the ordinary in the local news; nothing, anyway, to suggest that Spike had been up to any evil of note. This is what they mean by rationalizing, he thought to himself.
He lifted his arms and let them flop back to his sides. Xander saw that Spike understood the gesture for precisely what it was: surrender. He felt a little sick.
Spike's smile widened. But then, with what Xander would have taken for compassion if it had come from anyone else, he said, "Get about with a blanket. Can't go too far, if I don't want to be noticed. No worries."
And soon enough, the issue was moot, anyway. Once they discovered that Spike could do violence to other demons, he became useful to them, like a mercenary. After that, no one seemed to care so much about his wanderings or his whereabouts. But despite Spike's unceasing complaints about life in the Harris basement, when he was free to leave, he didn't -- not completely. He was gone most evenings, creeping back before sunrise to spend the day indoors. Occasionally, he'd hole up for the night as well -- laying low, he said. The Initiative was a constant concern, but someone was always hunting him down for some reason -- gambling debts, and revenge, mostly. He told Xander he was looking for a place, but Xander saw no real signs of movement. Buffy called, trying to track Spike down -- some information about Gak demons Giles thought he might have -- and wondered if Xander knew where he'd been staying. "What hole he crawled into," was how she put it. He wasn't sure which was more embarrassing -- that Spike was still living with him, or that his friends didn't know. He told her to try the empty warehouse on 4th Street, and hung up.
One night, Xander noticed that the stack of magazines in his bathroom seemed to have grown. He picked one up and began idly paging through it. Spike’s, clearly. He hadn’t even known there was such a thing as demon porn. Lots of places to stick things, he thought, after puzzling out what was happening in one of the pictures. And lots of things to stick into places. He tossed it to the side and grabbed another. Flipping it open, he was startled to see, not demons, but men. Men together. Naked. With the touching. He was about to toss that one, too, when something caught his eye. He hadn't actually realized guys did that particular thing with each other. Or that one, either. He started slowly turning pages.
“Oi!” came Spike’s voice through the door.
Xander jumped, guiltily, and the magazine slipped from his hands, pages fluttering as it fell.
“You’re not having a wank, are you?”
“No!” Xander called back. “And, none of your business!”
“Are you using my mags?”
“I said, no!” He stepped out of the bathroom.
“Don’t care if you do. Just keep’em tidy, you know,” Spike said.
“I said I wasn’t!”
“Nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I know, but I...” He expelled a frustrated breath. “What are you doing with gay male porn, anyway?”
Spike stared at him blankly.
“I mean, unless...oh. Oh!”
“You’re so narrow, you lot.” Spike rolled his eyes. “A place for everything, and everything in it’s place. Shame, really, to limit yourself like that.”
“It’s not limiting yourself if you’re not interested,” Xander pointed out.
“How do you know you’re not interested?”
“Because...because...” Xander heard himself sputtering stupidly. “It’s just one of those things you know!”
“Did you know you liked being tied up before demon girl got the rope out?”
“Hey! How did you --”
“Didn’t. Do now.” Spike leered at him, and Xander felt heat prickling the back of his neck. “Anyhow, that’s my point. Don’t know until you try, do you?”
“Listen, I’m not some pleasure-seeking, hedonistic, I'll-stick-anything-anywhere vampire. It’s not anything goes, with me.”
“Not about being a vampire. I was at school, wasn’t I?"
Xander looked at him helplessly. “I don’t know what that means.”
Spike shook his head, as if it was all too, too sad. “Ask the Watcher,” he said.
Later, back in the bathroom, Xander decided to have another look. It didn’t exactly turn him on, but it didn’t exactly turn him off, either. It made him think. He thought for a long, long while. And the more he thought, the more he thought maybe Spike had a point.
He studied the picture closely and tried a few experimental strokes. He shut his eyes, and let his mind wander somewhere new, while his hand and his cock travelled the usual, practiced route. Afterward, he thought how strange it was that something could feel so familiar, and yet completely different, at precisely the same time.
Spike didn’t say anything when Xander came back into the room. He didn’t say anything when Xander called Anya to say goodnight. He didn’t say anything when Xander shut the lights and got into bed. But Xander knew, he just knew, that the bastard was watching him the whole time, and smiling.
A few days later, Spike announced that he was leaving.
"Found a place, Harris," he said. "I'll be out of your hair after today."
Xander was surprised. He'd figured that Spike would be content to mooch off him until Xander actually threw him out, or tried to, anyway.
"Oh, yeah?" he asked, pretending to be engrossed in a circular from the hardware store. "Harmony back in town?"
Spike snorted. "Found a crypt. Roomy. Needs some work, but it has potential."
"Nice. If you like, I can come over and put in a skylight for you. Like a housewarming gift."
"Right thoughtful of you," Spike said. And then: "Gonna miss me?"
It was Xander's turn to snort. "Sure. Like the plague."
It felt a little funny, waking up in the basement, alone, for the first time in weeks. The smell of cigarette smoke lingered, but the saucer Spike used for an ashtray had been emptied and wiped clean. Xander tried to make tea -- it hadn't seemed that complicated when he'd watched Spike do it -- but somehow, it didn't taste the same. Reading the paper, a memory came to him, of when he was nine, and had broken his arm (telling the doctor, as instructed, that he'd fallen off his bike). He'd hated the cast -- the itching, the clumsy wrong-handedness, the inability to run and play -- and had longed for the day it would come off. But when that day came, he'd found that he'd grown used to its weight; to the cheerful well-wishes inked on it in magic marker; to people noticing it, and then paying attention to him. There was a tightness in his chest, thinking about his loneliness then, and how it had a made a blessing of a burden; and about the blurry distinction between missing something, and simply feeling its absence.
He didn't see much of Spike for a while; just a time or two on patrol, or at Giles's, and never alone. He thought, briefly, about stopping by the crypt, mostly to assure himself that it was, in fact, a step down from living in the basement. Giles had gone there, once, describing, afterward, the sorry state of the place; and Spike's ironic irritation at Giles's lack of etiquette -- entering unannounced, and without wiping his feet. He learned, second-hand, that Buffy had been there, as well, to enlist Spike's assistance in taking out a nest she'd discovered down by the docks. Crashing through the door, she'd found, to her amusement, a startled and mortified Spike, on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. Xander knew he'd never have the nerve to burst in on Spike, uninvited like that. He pictured the alternative: standing outside the crypt door, knocking primly, like a neighbor lady bearing banana bread. The sheer stupidity of it made him dismiss the idea entirely.
Anyway, it seemed that the tacit truce between them had been only temporary. Before Spike moved out, their sniping had taken on a slightly different tone: still biting and nasty, but the arrows aimed to land just short of their true mark. It had become not so much a real fight, and more a perverse kind of entertainment. Something they were both good at, and that each grudgingly, though privately, appreciated in the other. But now, when they did cross paths, the old venom was back. Xander was uncertain what had caused Spike to revert to form, but for him, it was disgust, and anger; not at Spike, he was forced to admit, but at himself. How low had he sunk, how loathsome in his loneliness, that he had taken even some small solace in the company of a killer?
He found that he was moody, snappish, and surly with other people, which the girls, when he saw them, attributed to the recent break up with Anya. They didn't ask for details -- they seemed, if anything, relieved by her departure from their lives -- and so, he didn't offer any. And although a part of him was glad not to describe Anya telling him, with brisk efficiency, that he had failed to satisfy her "physically and financially," the needy part resented their too brief and casual shows of concern. It was the same needy part that inspired an attempt at reconciliation, though it was half-hearted, at best, and therefore doomed to fail. He only made the effort out of a weak and cringing desire, not for Anya, but to stave off his emptiness; and more, to stave off acknowledging that sometimes now, the mere glimpse of a random man's tanned forearm, a broad shoulder, the play of muscles in a wide back, stirred him more than the thought of her mouth, her breasts, of being inside her.
Of the many cruddy jobs, pizza delivery was hardly the worst, except when he had to deliver to the fraternity houses. That, he truly hated. They didn't tip, for starters. Plus, they were usually drunk, which meant he had to wait far too long while they located Chip, or Trip, or Skip, or whoever was supposed to pay him. And while he waited, there were the inevitable comments: about his uniform, or his hair, or about being a townie. If there was anything that confirmed his second-class citizen status, it was delivering pizza to a bunch of drunken frat guys.
Tonight, though, was a new low. Chip, or Trip, or Skip, was short, to the tune of thirteen dollars. Xander stood outside, refusing to give up the food, while inside, one hulking form after another massed at the door. There was a struggle over the boxes, and a push, and Xander found himself flat on his back in the grass, listening to the sounds of laughter, and a door slamming shut. It was a toss-up, which was worse: the humiliation, or the fact that the thirteen dollars was coming out of his pocket. He lay there, for a moment, eyes closed, thinking that, at least, things couldn't get worse; but he should have known better than to tempt fate, because when he opened his eyes again, Spike was standing over him, looking down with a twist of a smile.
"Well, well, well," Spike said, all honeyed rudeness. "How's it feel, Harris, to have reached this lofty pinnacle at such a tender age? Mind, though -- early success can be a trap. Nowhere to go but down."
Xander scrambled to his feet. He set his jaw, trying for stoic, but his eyes must have given him away, because Spike was positively beaming.
"Ooh, truth hurts, does it? Hit a soft spot, have I?"
"Guess that's about all you can hit, now, isn't it Fangless?" Xander pushed up into Spike's space, pulling at his own collar to expose his neck. He tipped his head to the side, leaning in, until his bare skin was inches from Spike's face. "Go on, you impotent fuck. Do your thing. Oh, that's right, you can't."
Spike let out an unexpected sound -- a kind of rough, choking bark -- and Xander stepped away, staring at him. Spike had gone rigid, his eyes wide and wild. Xander recognized the look. He'd seen it in vampires, countless times, in that blinking instant after the stake went in, but before the dissolve into dust; in the frozen seconds when confusion turned to hopeless resignation, bridging the divide between unlife and death. It was the look of someone suddenly cursed with the fleeting knowledge of a terrifying and immutable truth. But if not death, Xander wondered, what had Spike seen, or understood, that so frightened him?
Spike stumbled backward, gaping. His mouth worked, but at first, he was speechless. For an unguarded instant, he had the tremulous look of a lost child, vainly fighting back tears. Finally, he spat, "Stay away from me, boy! I mean it!" He turned his back and stormed off, coat billowing.
A sheepish, sour feeling tugged at him as he watched Spike go. It certainly couldn't be guilt; he should have been happy, really. He knew he'd won, at least this round. But it felt a bit like the thing he'd won was ugly and cheap, like a carnival prize: something he didn't really care to keep, and was embarrassed to have wanted in the first place.
He'd hoped to avoid him, after that, but just two nights later, back on campus, he turned a corner and spotted Spike, striding in his direction, head down, glowering, hands fisted in his coat pockets. Xander was about to reverse course, when Spike raised his head, and saw him. He debated silently: to leave, and appear weak, or to stay, and endure the inevitable unpleasantness. Hesitation made the choice for him, because all at once, Spike was there.
"Harris," he said, nodding curtly. And then, unexpectedly, "How are you?"
"Um...okay," he answered, confused to find himself making conversation. "What are you up to?"
Spike shrugged. "Party. Girls." He grinned. "Figure even if I can't feed, I can still fuck."
"Hmm," Xander said. "A chipped, semi-evil, dead fiend, whose look is at least fifteen years out of date. They must be lining up for you." But his tone was joking, and Spike must have heard it, because he never stopped smiling. Xander hadn't seen him smile quite that way before.
"Always have, always will," Spike said, sighing theatrically. "It's a burden. One you'll never have to bear." And, suddenly indignant: "Oi! What do you mean, 'semi'?"
Xander laughed. He felt they'd gotten past something. "See ya, Spike" he called, as he left.
After that, Xander found himself running into Spike more often, the vampire popping up in the most peculiar places: at the remains of the high school's parking lot, where Xander had gone to steal a twenty minute nap; in the vestibule of a retirement home, where a ninetieth birthday was being celebrated with no-cheese pizza; on an empty suburban block, where Xander was cursing and sweating as he changed a flat. They'd stop, and exchange amiable insults, or discuss incipient demon-fighting, Spike chuckling slyly over the fee he'd exacted from Giles, and Xander masking his chagrin when, more and more, those plans didn't include him.
Shortcutting through an alley one night, heading back to his car, Xander heard a shout, and then snarling. He spun around, and saw a thick cloud of just-dusted vampire, not a foot away from him. It disintegrated, revealing Spike, game-faced, tense, stake still raised menacingly. Xander was about to say thanks, when he found himself being yanked to his toes and hauled forward by a fistful of shirt. A pair of glaring yellow eyes bored into his.
"You...bloody...careless...idiot," Spike hissed, fangs bared. "Wandering about like fucking prey!"
Xander tried to wriggle loose, but Spike just pulled him closer, a growl rumbling steadily in his chest.
"Hey! Hands off!" Xander yelped. "Shouldn't that hardware in your head be working, like, now?"
Spike shoved him roughly away. "If I wanted to hurt you, you'd know it."
"Yeah," Xander said, tightly. "Been there."
Spike's head jerked back. He raised his chin, nodding slightly. "Right," he said, his tone oddly even. "I'm off, then." He turned and stalked away, disappearing into the dark.
"Spike," Xander said. And raising his voice: "Come on, Spike!" There was no answer, and Xander rolled his eyes to himself. The prick had the most incredible knack for making it impossible to treat him nicely, even on the rare occasion that niceness was warranted. Who else but Spike could save your life, and piss you off, simultaneously? And then just take off, leaving you feeling like the asshole who'd done something wrong?
But when he emerged from the alley, Spike was still there, pacing and muttering irritably, the trademark don't-tread-on-me scowl on display. His mood wasn't one that invited interruption, but Xander felt obliged to risk it. He chose his words with care.
"I'm going by the cemetery, if you want a ride."
Spike looked at him. His eyes were blue again, in that pale human face. "Don't put yourself out," he said, brusquely. Then, his voice subdued: "But all right. If it's not out of your way."
Spike began showing up, now and then, at the beginning of Xander's shift, driving around with him, and talking, talking, talking. He enjoyed scoping out the customers, and -- forgetting his audience, Xander thought -- offering ghoulish assessments as to which of them he might've chosen to feed on, back in the day, and what he might've done to them first. Xander put a stop to it, mostly -- the gory reminiscing, not the showing up, which he kind of looked forward to. If nothing else, Spike's presence broke up the tedium. He had to admit, the guy could tell a story, and he had an endless supply of them.
But as much as Spike was his own favorite subject, he seemed curious about Xander, too. He asked questions, lots of questions: how had Xander spent his day; or, how much had he paid for this pathetic excuse for a car; or, what music did he listen to; or, was he tired of pizza; or, blondes or brunettes; or, had he ever seen snow; or, would he someday like to travel; or, cats or dogs; or, why had he never tried anchovies; or, had he ever been in love; or, had he heard back about the construction job; or, why did he see so much less of the old gang, these days. Xander decided that Spike was trying to reacquaint himself with humans, like an anthropologist eagerly cataloguing the habits and customs of a remote tribe. Answering, he realized he hadn't talked much about himself, lately, because no one else had been asking.
One of the first times he showed up, Spike asked about Anya.
"Haven't seen the demon bint hanging about. You two finished?" And when Xander nodded: "Hope you let'er down easy, mate. What with her former line of work, and all."
Xander was about to tell him, no, Anya had been the one to leave, but Spike's expression said that he'd already guessed the truth. It seemed almost...kind, Spike letting him save face that way.
It got to be routine, Spike coming with him most nights, and staying for most of Xander's shift. Usually, afterward, Xander drove home, leaving his car, and they'd walk into town for a beer. Spike knew an out of the way spot -- divey, but comfortable, with a pool table, a broken juke box, and a single, drooping potted palm. It suited them both.
Occasionally, Spike shot a game or two of pool, Xander, at first, simply looking on while Spike hustled some poor sucker out of his paycheck. Until the night Xander caught sight of the other new guy from the road crew, standing by the table, challenging him with a twenty held between the two fingers of a raised hand.
"What are you thinking, Harris?" Spike asked, as Xander grabbed a cue. "Throwing away your hard-earned money, when you could be buying me drinks!"
All his clumsiness fell away, doing something he was good at, and he moved around the table, relaxed, loose-limbed, focused, sinking shot after shot. Spike was laughing, surprised, and he felt a childish pang of pride, impressing him like that. He dispatched his opponent, quickly, and endured some fake-hearty backslapping as he pocketed his winnings. Resuming his seat, he fought, but failed, to suppress a goofy grin. "Still waters," was all Spike said, but Xander knew it was as much of a compliment as he would permit himself. After that, they'd play together, eyeing the table and each other in companionable combat, until Spike, invariably, won, satisfied and smirking. Xander didn't care, too much, about Spike beating him. They were pretty evenly matched, considering Spike had a hundred years of practice on him, a fact Xander pointed out, ostentatiously and repeatedly.
Mostly, though, they just sat at the bar, Xander watching, awestruck, at the number of women, and men, Spike effortlessly drew to his side; and Spike, mocking Xander's sorry lack of skill in that department, and his obliviousness to anyone who actually showed an interest. And if Xander found himself without company during the long, dull work night, he'd make his way to the bar, anyway, where Spike would be waiting; or where Xander waited, until Spike, inevitably, arrived. Sometimes, afterward, Spike walked home with him, insisting that he could sense some demon about, and complaining that he wasn't going risk the Slayer's wrath by letting harm come to her boy. They'd linger by the door, talking, until Spike finished his cigarette, and they said goodnight.
It wasn't something Xander ever would have predicted, but it seemed, in the unlikeliest of places, he'd found a sort of friend.
He hadn't seen Spike all evening, but after Xander counted his tips and said his goodbyes, there he was, leaning against Xander's car, smoking. His skin glowed white under the light of the street lamp. Xander thought he looked like an old Hollywood movie still, come to life. Glamorous. He paused in the doorway, watching him. Xander felt something -- envy, he thought -- for the casual grace of his slouch, the relaxed tilt of his head, the looseness of his fingers, holding the cigarette, smoke drifting up, curling vaguely about his face. The night was clear, and cool, and bright. Xander stood, enjoying the air, and the smoke, basking, for a moment, in the reflection of Spike's beauty.
Spike noticed him, then, and smiled. His true smile, blinding, a rarity. Xander had the sudden sensation of being in an elevator that had plunged too quickly, his insides and his outsides moving in opposite directions.
"You all right, Harris?" Spike asked, coming toward him. "You look a bit peakish."
Xander reddened; he'd been staring. "I'm fine," he said, but when he took a step, he stumbled, pitching forward. Spike reached out and grabbed his shoulder, steadying him.
"Seem a bit wobbly."
"I'm okay," Xander said, hesitating a moment, before shaking Spike's arm from his. And then, seeing Spike's skeptical frown: "Really, mom, I'm okay!"
Spike shrugged. "Beer, then?"
Xander nodded. "Beer."
They'd been there long enough for a drink, and for a set of twins to hit on Spike, when a woman came into the bar, a small girl in pajamas trailing behind her. She looked around tiredly, and headed toward a middle-aged drunk a few stools away. She spoke to him in anxious whispers, pulling at his sleeve. The man wrenched away from her, accidentally bumping the girl, hard enough to send her sprawling to the floor. She looked stunned for a moment, but didn’t cry; she simply got to her feet and stood there, hanging her head, waiting.
Xander slid off his stool. Grasping the man by the elbow, he propelled him toward the door. “Go home with your family,” he said, his voice low, but firm. The woman didn’t say a word, but the little girl looked up at him for an instant, before following her mother out.
Xander watched them through the window, then returned to his seat, readying himself for the impending jabs about do-gooding, or damsels in distress. But instead, Spike was quiet, head cocked, expression attentive, waiting. He didn't ask the question, but Xander answered, anyway.
“Lots of times. Sometimes I didn’t wake up until after she’d carried me out to the car. He was noisier than that guy. Well, you've heard him. He’d make a scene. And then, in the morning, we were supposed to act like nothing had happened.” Xander motioned for another beer. “This one time, we got him home, and she told me to wait in the car. She went inside with him. I don’t know how long she was gone. I was a kid; it felt like forever to me. When she came out, she had a suitcase, and some stuff in garbage bags. And when she got back in the car she said, ‘Alexander LaVelle Harris, we’re done.’ I remember thinking, ‘Finally.’ I remember, I didn't feel scared. I remember how much I loved her, right then. She drove for a while. Then she pulled over, oh, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of miles after we passed the Sunnydale sign. She got out, and stood on the side of the road, and smoked a cigarette. And then she smoked another, and another. And then she got back in, and turned the car around, and we went home. He never even knew we were gone.”
Xander looked at Spike. “I was eight years old, and I knew no one was going to help me.”
Spike just nodded. They were quiet together, for a bit. Then: “Got sent off to school about that age. Didn’t see my mum much, after that, 'til I was older. Christmas holidays, mostly.”
“What was she like? Your mother?"
Spike squinted, as if he were trying to make out something in the distance. “She was a lady," he said, the side of his mouth quirking up in a half-smile. “She sewed. Played piano. Sang a little. Paid calls.” He thought for a moment. “She always smelled like lavender water.”
“Like perfume.” Spike fiddled with his lighter, head down. “Then she got sick.”
“I’m sorry,” Xander said. “How old were you when she died?”
Xander saw the shudder pass through Spike’s body, but his face was flat, impassive.
“That all depends how you look at it,” he said.
"Huh?" Xander asked.
Spike seemed to be staring right through him. “I had just turned twenty-six,” he said. “And I was a newborn.”
It gave Xander a queasy feeling, thinking of Spike's life ending, and beginning, like that, and then his mother dying. And suddenly, unbidden, the ugly thought came to him: perhaps, it hadn't been chance that those events had coincided. He felt Spike's eyes on him, watching and waiting. He had to force himself to meet his gaze.
"Whatever you're thinking," Spike said, "it's probably worse." His tone was grim, resigned, but in his eyes, a shameful trace of hope, a stuttering plea. Xander saw it, but didn't respond. What was there to say, really? That it was all in the past? That it didn't matter? That there hadn't been a thousand other atrocities just like it? That it didn't sicken him to his core?
It was like a door slamming shut, the way Spike closed back in on himself. He leaned an elbow on the bar, slouching, resting his head on his hand, so his face was obscured from view. "Don't you have something to do, Harris? Quit hanging about, won't you? Ruining my mood here."
Xander stood, shakily, scattering bills as he made to leave. He took one step, and a second, and then he was seized with the compulsion to turn and look at Spike once more. He saw the sag of his narrow shoulders, the crooked bow of his neck. He wondered why he'd never noticed, before, how very small Spike really was. Xander found himself staring at Spike's wrists, and his hands, which he knew had the strength to snap him in two; yet still looked fine-boned, delicate. And then he heard Spike make a sound -- not a sob, but something worse: a sound like something in him breaking. And Xander felt the sound lodge inside him, in an unfamiliar place.
He thought of something Giles once said, something that hadn't made sense to him at the time. Something about compassion, and forgiveness, and giving it not because it was deserved, but because it was needed. Now, he saw that a person who had earned forgiveness didn't need it, at all; that forgiveness only found meaning in being given when it was undeserved. And he saw that forgiveness could come of its own volition, unguided by logic, or choice, or desire. Because he hadn't sought it, didn't want it: to feel compassion, to have forgiveness in his heart, for Spike, and for his sins. But there it was, all the same. He cleared his throat. "I think I'll stay for one more," he said.
It was as if Spike had been holding a deep, unneeded breath, and finally let it go. Something changed in his posture, a slight uncoiling of the rigid muscles in his back, but he didn't turn around. "Suit yourself," he said, a hitch in his voice.
It seemed like a long time since he'd been at the Bronze, since they'd all been there, together. He hadn't much wanted to come, but Willow had insisted. "Like old times," she'd said. It didn't feel that way, though. She and Tara spent most of the night on the dance floor; while at the table, Buffy and Riley could barely take their eyes off each other long enough to make polite conversation. Xander was looking around the room, trying to get the waitress's attention -- anything, really, to distract him from the cooing and kisses -- when he saw Spike, standing by a pillar, watching him. Xander hesitated, then gestured him over with the slightest nod of his head.
"Spike," Buffy said, as he approached the table. "How not thoughtful of you to come." She went back to whispering with Riley.
Spike, uncharacteristically, didn't snark back. He was studying Xander, a slight frown line creasing his forehead.
"Weren't at work," he said. "Yesterday, either. Asked after you tonight. They told me you'd quit."
Xander flicked an uneasy glance in Buffy's direction, but she hadn't been paying attention. His relief must have shown, because when he turned back, Spike's eyes had gone dark, reflecting reluctant comprehension. Then they narrowed.
"The construction job -- they offered me something permanent," Xander said. He tried a smile. "Pays enough for me to leave my illustrious career in the food services industry." Spike said nothing. A bitter, brittle feeling crept between them, and Xander silently cursed himself for having summoned it. He found himself falling back into the old, reliable, void-filling babble. "And I have to get up so early now, you know, construction, gotta be up early, and anyway, Buffy says she needs me, now, you know. Adam. The Initiative. Big fight coming. So nights are gonna be busy, with the meetings, and the research, and the planning. And the ass-kicking."
The elusive waitress appeared at Spike's side. He ordered a shot, looking at her from under his lashes with a slow, scorching smile that made her blush. "And one of whatever they're having," he added, tipping his head toward the table.
"Thanks, but I can buy my own drinks," Riley said, as the waitress stepped away.
"Wasn't planning on paying for'em. Prat."
The waitress was back in no time, blinking at Spike as she set down the glasses. "This round's on the house," she said.
"Ta, love," Spike said. "Give you a proper thanks later, if you like."
She giggled, and left, beaming.
Spike raised his glass to Xander. "Cheers, mate. Making some decent dosh. Back in the bosom of the family. God's in his heaven and all's right with the world." He downed his drink. Xander shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
"You could help us, Spike," Buffy said.
Riley grunted in protest.
"We can use the extra muscle, honey," she said, patting his hand. "And you'd like it, wouldn't you, Spike? Getting back at the guys who, uh, what's the word? Spayed you?"
Spike answered, smiling thinly, his eyes never leaving Xander's face. "Sure, Slayer. Why not? Spot of revenge might be just the thing. Something to fill the lonely nights, until the muzzle's off."
Xander flinched, startled. Spike never talked about getting the chip out, anymore. Xander had nearly forgotten it was still there. Spike leaned in close.
"That's right, Harris. Vampire on a leash," he said, quiet and cutting. "All they'll ever see. All you need to know, isn't it? Do you good to bear it in mind." And then, louder, and over his shoulder as he left: "You know where to find me, Slayer. My door's always open -- when you kick it open."
A hard, anxious knot of regret took shape, right in the center of his chest. Xander had the urge to go after Spike, to apologize, but what to say, exactly? I'm sorry I didn't tell you about quitting? Sorry I haven't seen you the last few nights? Sorry it felt weird for Buffy to know we spend time together? The words sounded ridiculous, just hearing them in his own head. He could almost feel Spike's disdain, were he to speak them aloud: the presumption, that Spike's feelings could be so easily hurt. That Xander could hurt him, at all. It was better to say nothing, Xander thought. Definitely better to say nothing.
Seconds later, though, he was on his feet, bumping his way through the crowd, and out the door. Spike had crossed the street, and was already halfway up the block.
"Spike," he called, running to catch him, arriving, slightly winded, at his side. Spike didn't slow down, didn't so much as spare him a glance. He was thrumming, nerved-up, edgy.
"Feel like getting a drink before you head home?" he asked.
Xander heard it -- the low, warning growl -- but plowed on: "Cause I feel like getting one."
"I think I told you to. Piss. Off."
"So, what do you think? A drink?"
Spike stopped to look at Xander. There was a wary watchfulness about him, but his tone was neutral. "Your friends are inside," he said.
"Yeah," Xander replied. "They are. But, see, I was hoping maybe you and I could get a drink."
Spike's eyes moved over Xander's face, and he seemed to find something there that appeased him. He turned his head, sighing, and began patting his pockets for cigarettes. "Wouldn't say no."
They started walking again. Better to say nothing, Xander thought. And then, in a voice so small that no human would have heard him: "Spike. Spike, I'm sorry."
It was almost 3:00 in the morning, and he was watching the clock. He couldn't sleep; hadn't been sleeping, much, for days, despite his exhaustion in the aftermath of the spell, and the battle, and their victory. So rather than spend another night twisting in the sheets, or hazily flipping channels, or eating something that would make his stomach hate him later, he decided to take a drive. He rode around aimlessly, finding himself first on campus, then by the ruins of the high school, and finally circling around downtown. Passing the movie theater, he spotted a figure sprawled in the mouth of an alley, listing at an awkward angle against a wall. There was no mistaking that coat, or that hair. Xander parked, and walked over to Spike. He looked awful -- definitely drunk -- very, very drunk -- but also battered. His left eye was slitted shut, and blood was running from his mouth, and from a gash below his ear.
"Spike," Xander asked. "What happened?"
Spike raised his head, wincing, then breaking into a drunken laugh. "Harris," he said, blearily. "Come to see me in my moment of glory?"
"What happened?" Xander repeated.
Spike was gazing at his swollen hands, as if they fascinated him. "Jumped me. Gang of 'em. Half of 'em idiots used to work for me. Ponces waited 'til they knew I was good and pissed before they'd even try it." He paused to wipe blood from his mouth with a fumbling hand. "Only fair," he slurred. "Chose my side. Can't blame 'em, really. Would've done the same myself. To a traitor." His head snapped back, hitting the wall with a painful-sounding thunk. Spike didn't react, but Xander's hand went to his own head in reflexive sympathy. "Oh, quit being such a nance," Spike mumbled. "Not the first time I've taken a beating. Won't be the last."
It hadn't occurred to Xander, until then, that it might mean something to Spike, betraying his own kind; and that his betrayal would have consequences. That the chip had been thrust on him, but his alliance with the Slayer had not. That Spike had made a choice, and because of it, he had no place in either world, or with anyone. The enormity of it: to wake up one day and find that his life had been wrested away from him, lost to the past. And all at once, Xander recognized, with miserable familiarity, that it wasn't a stranger he was seeing in the glass, but instead, his own reflection.
All these months, he'd been left behind. Watching his friends rush forward, never once pausing so he might catch up. The divide so great, their lives looming so large across it, that his own seemed small and petty in comparison. Forgotten. Superfluous. Displaced. Wounded by neglect and indifference, carelessly inflicted. Even the intimacy they'd shared, in the magic of being joined together, couldn't fully heal those wounds. Still, it had taught him that, in some crucial and unalterable way, they were a part of each other, and always would be. Spike, though, had no one, anymore. He's all alone, Xander thought. He must be so lonely.
Spike was trying, and failing, to raise himself off the ground, laughing and cursing each time he thudded back to earth. He was talking to himself, and Xander couldn't follow the meaning of the broken, garbled phrases: "Didn't mean to," and "don't want to," and "with them, again," and "you'd never," and "sorry." Then his eyes closed, and his mouth hung loose, and he sagged against the bricks, quiet and unmoving.
Xander sighed. He bent over and grabbed him below the armpits, maneuvering Spike's arms around Xander's neck, and hoisting him up with a grunt. He braced himself against the wall, trying to get a firmer grip. Spike leaned heavily against him, his head lolling, like a sleepy child's, on Xander's shoulder. And then, somehow, Xander was burying his face in Spike's hair; and brushing his lips against Spike's brow; and tightening his arms around Spike's back; and then, he was hard, and pressing himself into Spike's hip. Spike made a muffled sound, his mouth at Xander's neck, and Xander felt it pass through him, like a tremor. He hooked his leg around Spike's, pulling him close, closer, his breath coming harsh and uneven. Spike hung slack in his arms, but he was hard, too, and Xander cried out, feeling it against him, straining for more, panting, and it was good, good, so good, he could feel it everywhere, the heat spreading inside him, and flaming over his skin, burning him.
A car passed, just then, its lights glancing over them, and, abruptly, Xander saw what he was doing, and to whom. He started, and jerked away, and Spike dropped, heavily, knees hitting pavement with an ugly crack. He fell to his side, groaning something -- it sounded like "please" -- and then he was still. Xander looked down, horrified, and hurried to lift him again; but, at first, his hands were useless, spasming at the wrists, flopping, stiff-fingered. Spike's lids fluttered open, eyes wandering, unfocused, then blinking shut. He seemed barely conscious, and although Xander knew it was contemptible, he felt a selfish stab of hope: perhaps, Spike had been unaware of what Xander had done; hadn't seen his weakness, his want; or, if he had, perhaps he wouldn't remember.
In the basement, Xander deposited Spike on his old sleeping chair. He turned out the lights, and got into bed. Disgraceful, what he'd done. Impossible, what he'd felt. Hopeless, to feel it even now; to want what he wanted, at this very moment. To want what he shouldn't, what was wrong, what he didn't deserve. To have ignored it, all this time. He had blinded himself to his own longing, had turned away from it, but now, the longing was there, wherever he turned. The shame of that desire, so powerful, he shook with it.
He lay there, for a while, allowing the shame and the need to wash over him. He thrust into his hand, furiously, drowning in those precious, terrible seconds on the street; coming quickly, and hard, with a hoarse cry choked into the sheets. He got out of bed, weak-legged, and stood at Spike's feet, watching him, and willing himself to feel nothing. Then he covered Spike with a blanket, stooping, without thinking, to kiss the scar on his eyebrow, the gesture as distant and familiar as a recurring dream.
When he woke in the morning, Spike was gone. The blanket had been folded into a small, neat triangle, like a flag, and placed on the nightstand, where Xander would see it when he opened his eyes.
Xander called in sick that day, and the day after, and the day after that. He understood that he would probably lose this job, too, but it was barely a passing concern. It seemed, like so much of his life over the past months, beyond his control. And it wasn't a lie: he was sick, as sick as he could ever remember being. He was, by turns, feverish and icy cold, his guts clenched, his head throbbing. He was weak, and dizziness made even a trip to the bathroom an ordeal. Willow came by, once, with a worried look, and soup. He valiantly downed a few spoonfuls, only to have them come right up again. He asked her to leave, then -- "I don't want you catching anything" -- though he knew it wasn't something that could be caught. It wasn't that sort of sickness.
He'd been staggered by lust; was stunned and senseless with it. Lust for Spike's mouth, his hands, his cock; hard and aching since the moment he'd first pressed against him. But what had put him on his back, what had flattened him, was knowing that there was more than lust. Knowing that he wanted Spike, and all of Spike: the angry edges and the broken pieces; the sharp mocking and the anxious need; the rhythm of his speech; the cigarette between his lips; the bravado and uncertainty; the humor and the courage; the coat, the hair, the polished nails; the beauty of both faces; their friendship, and his smile; the whole dire history of him; and the unspooling of his unfathomable future. He wanted all of it, and it was all he wanted. But how slim, the hope, that Spike might want him, too; and even that fading, as the days passed, and Spike didn't come.
On the evening of the fifth day, he felt better. He cleaned the basement, changed the rank sheets, showered. He decided to take a walk, and although he had no destination in mind, he was unsurprised to find himself at the cemetery, heading toward the crypt that was Spike's home. He'd known that he would come, eventually, although the thought of it had terrified him. Even now, he was afraid. Because whatever answer waited behind Spike's door, whether he was welcomed, or turned away with scorn, Xander would be changed for having asked the question. His world distilled into this single, hovering moment. And still, he had come. He stood outside the marble entrance, hesitating, his nerves standing at attention, like soldiers.
The door opened suddenly, and there was Spike, poised on the threshold, stiff, and glaring. Xander didn't know what he'd expected, but it hadn't been anger.
"Gonna stand there all night, Harris?" Spike asked, his voice cold. "Gonna scare off all my friends." When no reply came, he added, bitterly, "Don't need an invite. Everyone else just barges right in." Spike lit a cigarette, and Xander saw that his hands trembled. "Didn't figure on seeing you, here, of all places. Been making yourself scarce."
"I...I've been sick," Xander said.
"Oh, I'll wager you have been. Disgusted, were you? Sick to your stomach. Sick to your soul." Then, as if despite himself: "You all right now?"
Xander nodded. He wanted to explain, to tell Spike that he'd been sick, not with disgust, but with needing him. That he needed him now. He wanted to beg, like a child: don't be mad at me. But for once, and at the worst of times, words failed him. He gazed at Spike beseechingly, and Spike seemed to yield, a little.
"When you didn't..." Spike faltered, and started over. "Thought you might be avoiding me." He shrugged. "After a while, I reckon I hoped you were."
"Why?" Xander managed to ask.
Spike shook his head, tiredly. "Have to be thinking about someone in order to avoid him, don't you? Better'n not being thought of at all." He broke off. There was a thick, straining sound in his throat, as if he were forcing the words up, or forcing them back; and when he spoke again, it was with the relief and sorrow of surrender. "Can't bear it, really. That you're not thinking about me at all, when you're all I think about, always. All I can think about. All I want to think about. Do you see?"
A dizzy, lurching feeling swept through him, and, for an instant, he thought he was sick again. But it was something else; something foreign to him; something transforming. The only word for it was joy. He stared at Spike stupidly, feeling a foolish, blissful, giddy grin spread across his face. One corner of Spike's mouth turned up, just a fraction, edging tentatively toward a smile; yet he was clearly still uncertain. It showed, in the cautious, questioning tilt of his head. He was waiting for something to be said.
Xander wanted to talk to him about friendship, and love; about hope, and desire. He wanted to tell him how the scent of tobacco, the brush of a leather-clad arm, the glimpse of a blonde head turning a corner, had sustained him through these lost and lonely months, and seen him safely home. He wanted to go before Spike on his knees and offer himself, to press his lips to the back of Spike's hand, and to his palm. But he hadn't learned, yet, to speak his heart in that way. So instead, he asked a question, and hoped Spike understood that it was a plea, and a promise.
"Spike," he asked, "would you invite me in?"
The gift, then, of Spike's smile, his true smile, the one that Xander saw was meant for him alone.
"Xander," Spike said, "please come in." And took his hand, drawing him gently across the threshold, and shutting the door behind them.