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Metastasis

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Xander was four when he met his first Master Vampire.

It was dark out, the California January biting at his nose and ears, and Jessica was in a bad mood because Tony had been through her wallet again, and there hadn’t been enough money to pay for all the groceries. She was walking just a little too quickly, her son stumbling after her but unwilling to call out to her because then she’d be even madder, and did not notice when Leonardo stepped out of the shadows.
 
Xander did, though. Leonardo was the prettiest man that Xander had ever seen, with thick brown hair, a tan, oval face, and eyes that seemed to glitter in the dark parking lot—he was so taken aback by the startling beauty that he tripped and fell, letting out a quiet ‘unf’ as his palms skidded across the pavement.
 
Jessica stopped and turned around, sighing in aggravation. “Honestly, Xander, can’t you take two steps without falling over? Get up. We have to get home and get dinner rea…”
 
Her words died when she caught sight of Leonardo.
 
“I didn’t mean to,” Xander sniffled, not noticing his mother’s sudden fixation.
 
“I—I…” Jessica’s mouth moved, but no sound came out. Her heart pounded hard. “I didn’t… What are you doing here?”
 
“What a lovely child,” Leonardo murmured, ignoring Jessica and crouching down in front of Xander.
 
Xander scrambled to his feet and tried to back away, but Leonardo caught his wrist and held him in place effortlessly.
 
“No—no, please,” Jessica said, breath catching in her throat. “Not him. Leave him alone. Please.”
 
“This hair, Jessica,” Leonardo said softly, carding a hand through Xander’s dark curls. “And these eyes, look at these dark, dark eyes. These are my favorite kind of eyes.”
 
Jessica dropped her shopping bags and lunged forward, but Leonardo was faster and had Xander up in his arms and several feet away before she could get to him.
 
“You’ll let me see him,” Leonardo ordered calmly.
 
Helpless, Jessica stood and watched.
 
Xander stared back at her in confusion. “Mommy?”
 
“Let me look at you, child,” Leonardo said soothingly. A strong, cold finger turned Xander’s chin so that he was staring into the tan, oval face and the glittering eyes that now held a rather hungry gleam.
 
“Please,” Jessica begged, wrapping her arms around her stomach. “Please, give him back. What do you want from me?”
 
“Look at you,” Leonardo sneered, his entire demeanor going cold in seconds. “I can smell the alcohol on your breath from here. I can smell that useless lump you fucked to make this child. I can smell your despair and your death. You’re of no use to me anymore.”
 
Jessica tried to speak, but only a croaking noise escaped.
 
“But… this boy,” Leonardo went on, now calm again. He ran a finger down the side of Xander’s face. “This beauty right here—I could take him with me and keep him beautiful forever. I could make him mine, Jessica, and you wouldn’t do a thing to stop me.”
 
Please. Please, not him, not my baby.” Jessica staggered forward, tears spilling down her face. “I’ll do anything, please, just don’t take him.”
 
In a flash, Leonardo was furious again.
 
“You understand that, don’t you?” he demanded, his grip on Xander tightening. “You understand that I could take him and you could do absolutely nothing to stop me? You’re mine, you worthless bitch, and just because you’ve ruined yourself doesn’t mean that I have to deny myself the pleasure of your beauty. I could make you breed me a hundred beautiful boys like this one.”
 
“No, no, please…”
 
“Mom?” Xander tried again, but Jessica could only cry harder. He wiggled a little, but the arms holding him tightened to the point of hurting, and he let out a whimper and went as still as possible. “Sorry, sorry, sorry…” he chanted, screwing his eyes shut against the pain.
 
“So delicious,” Leonardo whispered, lips brushing against Xander’s ear. “I’ve never smelled anything like it—you’ve made this mixed child for me, this beautiful mixed child, and now his blood is calling to me. I’d love to have a taste.”
 
“What do you want?” Jessica asked in despair. “Just tell me what you want.”
 
“I told you,” Leonardo said patiently. “I told you already. I’m just here to check up on my belongings.”
 
“He’s not yours,” Jessica sobbed, rocking back and forth on her heels and wrapping her arms more tightly around herself. “He’s mine. He’s mine and Tony’s.”
 
Leonardo smiled at Xander. “Ah, but whose blood runs through your veins, Jessica? Whose blood ran through your veins and altered you, made you lovelier, stronger, better than you were before?”
 
“H—he’s not yours.” 
 
“Just a taste, I think,” Leonardo said quietly, and changed.
 
Xander started at the suddenly bumpy, monster-like face inches from his own and he opened his mouth to scream, but in an instant Jessica was rushing forward and clamping a hand over his mouth.
 
“No, no, no,” Jessica whispered. “Xander, honey, don’t scream. Just let him have a little taste, okay? It’ll be okay.”
 
The face came closer and Xander screwed his eyes shut, terrified and wanting his mother to make it stop, but Jessica kept her hand over his mouth and did nothing to interfere. When Leonardo bit into his forearm, there was no muffled scream from Xander, only a violent tremble and then the seizing of lungs that weren’t getting air because Jessica’s hand was covering both his mouth and his nose. He writhed and twisted, desperately trying to keep silent, until at last Leonardo let his forearm go and Jessica took her hand away.
 
Xander went limp, gasping for air.
 
“Oh, Jessica,” Leonardo sighed, looking faintly dizzy with rapture. “Oh. You’re right, he isn’t mine, but if I were to make him… I can taste the discord in his blood. This boy was born to be a consort—all that power waiting to be unleashed, just waiting to manifest in the moment of claim… I can taste it. Until this boy is claimed, his blood is going to be singing to every demon that passes him.” He paused. “It would be a disservice to leave him in your care.”
 
Jessica let out a keening noise and grabbed Xander’s hand, burying her face in Leonardo’s sleeve. “Oh, please, no—”
 
Leonardo let out a long sigh. “It’s unfortunate that I’m not set up to deal with a child right now. I’ve been forced to move the court.”
 
Jessica went silent, still, not even daring to hope.
 
“Perhaps when he’s older,” Leonardo said regretfully, and then set Xander down on the ground. “It wouldn’t do to lose something so precious before we’ve truly seen his beauty.”
 
Xander immediately stumbled over to his mother, but Jessica didn’t open her arms for him or even look in his direction. She was looking up at the man, like she was waiting for his permission.
 
“You may keep him.”
 
Jessica let out a sob and wrapped Xander in an enormous hug, burying her face in his hair. Xander’s arm was stinging and he was really, really cold and there were tears running down his face, but with his mother hugging him he knew it was going to be okay. Mom was going to make it okay.
 
“Until next time, child.”
 
Neither one of them heard.
 

 
Xander was nine when he first thought that maybe humans were just as bad as vampires.
 
“I just want it to stop,” Jessica sighed, wrapping an arm around Xander and curling into the corner of the couch. She pushed the beer can against the side of her head, screwing her face up. “I just—I can’t take it anymore. I’m so tired.”
 
Xander was quiet, thinking of Willow’s house and how she’d just gotten a VCR and the Beauty and the Beast movie.
 
Outside, Tony was trying to install a new fan belt in the family car. It wasn’t going well.
 
“Vampires are… so evil, Xander,” Jessica said, staring at the wall blankly. “So evil. They’ll ruin your life, if you let them.”
 
Xander glanced nervously at the window, but there had been no pause in the cadence of his father’s banging. “Mom, you can’t talk about vampires around Dad, remember?”
 
Jessica sighed and drained the last of her beer. “It’s just always there, you know? Always there. Tugging. It won’t stop.”
 
“Fuck!” Tony screamed from the garage, pounding a fist against the side of the car. “Son of a bitch!”
 
Xander cringed despite himself and went absolutely still, listening.
 
“He’s a good man, Xander,” Jessica said, rubbing his side gently. “Tony’s a good man. He’s a good father. It’s just that… some children… some children are harder to love than others. You should try harder, honey.”
 
“I’m sorry,” Xander whispered, still frozen in place and listening desperately for the sounds of Tony storming into the house.
 
The banging outside resumed.
 
“I just want it to stop,” Jessica sighed again. She let the empty can fall to the ground and pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead. “God—god, I just want it to stop.”
 
Xander stared at his knees and saw flashes of a cold, handsome man who’d called him beautiful. Who’d wanted to keep him.
 

 

Xander was thirteen when he met his first vampire minions.
 
“That one, Xander, I’ll bet he’s in that one,” Jessica said, pointing vaguely across the street. She was leaning heavily against a lamppost.
 
“I know, Mom,” Xander snapped. “He’s always in that one, just like you’re always at home. It’s a whole repeat-y cycle thing, with you two and the drinking and the drunk-ing. Just stay there. I’ll get him.”
 
“No, no, no,” Jessica insisted, pushing herself upright. “No, I’m going in there too. I want to give that asshole a piece of my mind, leaving us all alone all those nights…”
 
Xander suppressed a sigh. “Mom, just stay here. You can yell at him all you want when we get home, all right? No need for yelling in public places. Again.”
 
“You shouldn’t have to go and drag your father out of bars every night!”
 
“And again with the yelling in public places,” Xander sighed.
 
“You deserve better,” Jessica declared, jabbing a finger in Xander’s direction. “I ought to march right in there and kick his ass from here to Nevada, tell him that’s it! I’m done! If he can’t be the man we deserve, then he can just fuck the hell off!”
 
“Mom—”
 
“Shouldn’t fight with your family,” came a new voice.
 
Xander and Jessica both turned to see three vampires standing on the sidewalk. The game faces were a dead giveaway. Xander swore under his breath.
 
“Should play nicely with your mommy, you should,” the one in the middle went on, lisping a little on his fangs.
 
Xander’s heart skipped a beat as he glanced around and saw no one else nearby. This couldn’t be the end. It couldn’t be. He couldn’t die because he’d been out dragging his father home from the bar again, that was just not—
 
“Look, we’re a little busy here,” Xander said, his mouth suddenly moving of its own accord. “And she’s drunk as a skunk over there—you don’t want any of that, it’s all alcohol-y and gross. And I’m a terrible eater, awful, way too much junk food, I’ve probably got more sugar in my blood than, um, blood, you know? Heh. You don’t want to eat us. Nope. Definitely not good for eating.”
 
“Adds flavor,” the vampire replied, teeth bared in what was clearly supposed to be a smile.
 
“And cholesterol!” Xander threw in frantically, not even sure what he was saying anymore. “Don’t vampires have to worry about their cholesterol? No trans-fats, no, um, other fats?”
 
The middle vampire snickered as he started forward, and the two vampires behind him followed in suit. “Why don’t you let me have a taste for myself?”
 
“Xander,” Jessica whispered, clutching at the lamppost. “Xander, they’re going to go for your neck. That’s where they’ll bite.”
 
“Thanks, Mom. It’s so comforting to know where they’re going to suck me dry from,” Xander hissed back.
 
“We can bite other places, if you’d like,” the middle vampire offered. “I can have my friends hold you down, and suck your arm, your thigh, your—”
 
He froze.
 
Xander, who had been surreptitiously backing up, froze also, as did the two vampires behind the middle one. Jessica swayed a little against the pole.
 
“Consort,” the middle vampire growled, yellow eyes fixed on Jessica.
 
Jessica stared back unsteadily.
 
A growl of sheer frustration erupted from the middle vampire as he whirled around and stormed off, his followers scurrying to his heels moments later.
 
Silence.
 
Xander waited for his hands to stop shaking before speaking. “Well, that fulfills my quota of near-death experiences for the next decade. How about you?”
 
Jessica was stroking her neck with one hand, eyes unfocused. She was murmuring something under her breath, but Xander couldn’t make it out.
 
“Right,” Xander said at last. “I’ll just go and get Dad.”
 

 

Xander was fifteen when he met the Vampire Slayer.
 
She killed vampires. Like, whirl-kick-slam-DUST. Xander thought about cold, glittering eyes, empty beer cans and his own hot, rich blood pumping through his veins, and decided to join the good fight and kill some vampires, too. He was still sure that humans could be just as bad as vampires, but apparently no one really cared about killing vampires.
 
Though he wasn’t quite sure who would care if he killed Tony and Jessica Harris.
 

 

Xander was nineteen when he first had sex with a vampire.
 
“Oh shit,” he said, breathing hard in the aftermath. “Oh shit. I just had sex with a vampire. And it was good.”
 
Spike was disinterestedly smoking a cigarette.
 
Xander turned to look at him in consternation. “Is it always that good? It can’t always be that good.”
 
Spike glanced at him. “S’always that good when it’s me. Kept Dru happy for more’n a hundred years, didn’t I?”
 
“But… but vampire.”  
 
“Humans,” Spike muttered, rolling his eyes.
 
And then there was the part where Spike stayed.
 
And then there was the part with the sex. Good sex.
 
And then there was the part where Spike was so quietly heartbroken after having been left by Drusilla again, and the part where he loitered around the strip club waiting for Xander’s shift to end, and the part where he would lecture Xander on his eating habits and then steal what appeared to be the entire produce aisle from the local grocery store.
 
Xander could even forget the part where Spike was out killing people for food every other night.
 
But then… Oxnard was over. 
 
And so was Spike.
 
He was headed back to Sunnydale, away from the Summer of Gayness and fully ready to get back to the way things used to be. Mostly. Probably. At least, he was telling himself that. 

Chapter Text

 
Coming back from the Bronze, where he’d reunited with Buffy and then done his obligatory conversation bit (Self-deprecating, not-really-funny joke? Yep. Shooing the most important details under the rug? Check. Giving Buffy a pep talk and sending her on her merry way? Absolutely), Xander is pretty much expecting to come home and fall asleep while mentally listing places he can apply to for jobs. He expects to fall asleep to the familiar melody of arguing and shattering glass. Most of all, he expects to do all of this alone.
 
He is not expecting Spike to be loitering just behind the garage, a pile of cigarette butts at his feet.
 
“Spike,” Xander says. In a shining example of his evolved conversation skills he adds, rather blankly, “You’re… here.”
 
Spike ashes a cigarette against the siding of the garage. Xander really can’t find it in himself to protest that.
 
“S’your house, innit?” Spike asks, jerking his head in the direction of the dilapidated bungalow and raising an eyebrow.
 
“Well, yeah, I got that. It’s the part where you’re standing next to it that’s kind of throwing me off here. I thought you were heading down to LA?”
 
“Turns out Captain Forehead beat me there,” Spike says with a disgusted look at his still-smoking cigarette. “Got some poncy detective agency, helpin’ the hopeless or some rot like that. Figured I’d stay up here a bit, get myself a nice crypt or something.”
 
“Here?” Xander repeats. “Here, as in Sunnydale? What’s in Sunnydale?”
 
Spike stares.
 
Xander has a moment, and a startled “Oh,” escapes his mouth.
 
Spike continues to stare.
 
Xander thinks that perhaps vampires and cats share some ancestry.
 
He also thinks that Spike probably wouldn’t appreciate hearing that comparison.
 
“Keeping that one in my head,” Xander tells him himself out loud.
 
Now Spike  really  stares.
 
“Right,” Xander says abruptly, straightening. “This summer. Um. You know, I really wasn’t expecting you to show up here—not that I’m not glad to see you or anything, I am, it’s just… you know… There’s these boxes in my head, and you’re in the Oxnard box, not the Sunnydale box even though you used to be in Sunnydale, you got moved to the Oxnard box and… yeah, it was really only a summer thing. A ‘when in Oxnard’ kind of deal. You know? You, Oxnard. And then me, with the leaving Oxnard.”
 
Spike flicks the cigarette to the ground. “Well, see pet, that’s the thing—I don’t really do flings. Me ‘n’ Dru, had ourselves a hundred and thirty years together, didn’t we?”
 
“Uh, I’m not—”
 
“And what else am I supposed to do?” Spike continues, bulldozing past Xander as he usually does when he stops caring about Xander’s babbling and protests—not that he often cares in the first place. “Go chase after bloody Dru again? Bitch’d leave me in a week for the first demon she saw who wasn’t me. Darla’s gone, and Angelus is off being his usual broody self. Got no one else. Not lookin’ for love or anything, just some good old fashioned buggering and company afterwards.”
 
“Spike, if Buffy knew you were back in town—”
 
“Not here for the Slayer, now am I?” Spike cuts in irritably.
 
In a fantastic display of genetics, Xander glances around and abruptly decides that if they’re going to fight, they should do it inside away from the neighbors or anyone who might see them. “Let’s… go inside, all right?”
 
Spike makes for the front door, but Xander shakes his head and gestured toward the steps that led down to the basement.
 
“Sneakin’ me in through the back, are you?” Spike asked, sounding irrationally pleased.
 
Of course he’s pleased about getting snuck in through a back door. Spike had once startled a woman into spraying soda out of her nose, and Xander had never before seen a vampire quite so…  gleeful .
 
“I’ve been moved to the basement as of two weeks ago,” Xander explains as he thumps down the thirteen or so steps, Spike following silently behind him. “And I’m paying rent. No freeloaders in the Harris household, no sir. So… home sweet home.”
 
“S’a hovel, is what it is,” Spike mutters from behind him.
 
He’s just crabby because Xander isn’t letting him climb through a window.
 
“You’re welcome to leave,” Xander offers, jamming his key into the lock and turning it rather viciously. “And I gotta tell you, Bleach Boy, it doesn’t get any prettier on the inside.”
 
“I’ve slept in worse.”
 
Oh, god.
 
Xander pauses, door half-opened. “You’re planning to sleep here?”
 
Spike looks at him oddly. “Where else would I sleep?”
 
“In a crypt?” Xander suggests.
 
“Right—like I can just stroll through the cemetery and kip in the first crypt I spot. Crypt’s a hot bit of real estate, pet. Got to scope out who’s living where, what kind of tunnel access it has, how much space it’s got, the sunlight cover... S’not a one-night deal.”
 
Xander rolls his eyes and steps through the doorway. “God save us from high-maintenance vampires. And don’t call me pet.”
 
“Going to invite me in?” Spike asks, leaning against the doorframe and peering inside. “…Pet?”
 
“Come on in, Spike,” Xander says with a sigh, before turning away to flip on the lights, which are handily  not  located right next to the outside entrance. “And don’t make me regret it.”
 
“Don’t regret this summer, do you?” Spike asked pointedly.
 
“I think the word that comes to mind is more along the lines of ‘never talking about it again.’”
 
“That’s more than one word, there.”
 
Lights come on, revealing the entirety of the dank basement, and Xander faces Spike with his arms folded over his chest.
 
“The point is, it was fun in Oxnard, but—but now it’s Sunnydale.”
 
Spike shrugs. “Well, that’s fixed easy enough.”
 
Xander opens his mouth to protest that he is  not  leaving Sunnydale when Spike suddenly crosses the room and grabs a piece of paper, draws a Sharpie from his pocket (all the better to paint his nails with, no doubt), and scrawls the word OXNARD in large, thick letters. He looks around, snatches up a roll of masking tape, and proceeds to tape the sign to the wall right next to Xander’s bed.
 
“There,” Spike says, satisfied. “Now it’s Oxnard.”
 
Xander blinks, and can’t deny the burbling warmth in his chest at Spike’s proud grin.
 
Spike shrugs off his duster and lays himself out on the bed. “And now, it’s Oxnard, and me on a bed. S’all we need, innit?”
 
And really, he can’t find fault in the logic. Especially when Spike is taking off his shirt like that.

 

Xander whacks Spike over the head with a pillow in one vicious whallop.
 
“Oi!” Spike yells, jerking his head up to glare at Xander. “What the—”
 
“You deliberately stayed here past sunrise, didn’t you?” Xander demands.
 
“What,  that? ” Spike rolls his eyes and turns over so that his back is to Xander. “Never had a problem with me staying before. Be a good little happy meal and let a vampire sleep, yeah?”
 
“You staying was okay because I was working night-shifts, and we happened to sleep at the same time,” Xander says. He gives the back of Spike’s head a push with his pillow. “Also, my parents weren’t living  upstairs .”
 
“I love parents. All soft and aged, like nice cheese—never get stuck in my teeth.”
 
Xander makes a face. “Okay, as much as I hate my parents, please don’t talk about eating them.”
 
“They’d be delicious, especially if they smell anything like you,” Spike offers, as if that’s some consolation.
 
“I don’t smell delicious,” Xander says indignantly.
 
Spike’s head turns back so that his left eye is just visible. “Do too. Smell like a right treat, you do—s’like catnip. But for vampires. Vamp-nip.”
 
“I do  not ,” Xander insists, increasingly tense. “I don’t smell good.”
 
“Do too.”
 
“Do not.”
 
“Do bloody too. Now bugger off and let me sleep.”
 
Xander bites his lip, holding back another, even more distraught  I don’t . He’ll just pretend that Spike didn’t say it, and that’ll be good enough.
 
He flops down on the bed next to Spike, and because he is apparently in bed with an enthusiastic tentacle monster, immediately finds himself repurposed as a human body pillow.
 
“You’re glad I’m here,” Spike says to Xander’s shoulder.
 
Xander’s shoulder gets all warm and tingly with embarrassed pleasure.
 
“Shut up,” Xander’s mouth says.
 
Spike kisses the shoulder and ignores the mouth.

 

“Spike, why are there videos?”
 
“You weren’t honestly expecting me to watch Battlestar Galactica all day, were you? And I watched all the bloody Star Wars movies yesterday.”
 
“Oh, God. Okay. Just tell me you didn’t eat anyone to get them, and I’ll live with it.”
 
“Why do you care about some shopkeeper? You know someone who works there?”
 
“No, but I don’t have to know them to want them to be alive.”  
 
“Why?”
 
 “What do you mean, why? Why do I want them to be alive? Because—they have a right to live. They shouldn’t die just because you wanted a movie.”
 
“But I’m stronger. I’m a predator, and they’re prey—s’how it works. Why shouldn’t I kill them? And why should  you  care?”
 
“Did you kill anyone for those movies? Oh, God. You did, didn’t you?”
 
“No. But it would have bothered you, if I had?”
 
“Uh,  yeah .”
 
“Hm.”
 
“Maybe you don’t remember, but it’s this weird thing we humans do. We tend to care about people we’ve never met.”
 
“No, they really don’t.”
 
“Well, I do. And would you stop calling me pet?”

 

 
Spike doesn’t think much of Xander’s parents. Xander doesn’t think much of his parents either, but that doesn’t mean that he’ll go upstairs whenever he feels like it. Doesn’t mean the sounds of screaming and glass breaking don’t make his stomach churn and his palms slippery. Doesn’t mean he doesn’t love them, sort of.
 
This irritates Spike to no end. He needles and prods and snarks, until Xander finally snaps.
 
“You know, it’s really rich to hear all this coming from you. You followed Drusilla around for a  hundred and thirty years  while she treated you like shit. She cheated on you, ignored you, manipulated you—”
 
“She’s my  Sire ,” Spike snarls, whirling and game-faced. “It’s different.”
 
“No it’s not,” Xander interrupts, clenching his hands into fists. “It’s  not .”
 
Spike growls, slams a hand against the wall, and storms out of the basement. Xander collapses onto the couch and closes his eyes.
 
Hours later, Spike returns. He doesn’t look Xander in the eye, but shoves a bag of bite-sized Butterfingers into Xander’s hands and mutters something indiscernible that’s probably supposed to be an apology.

 

Several weeks later, Xander has a critical revelation.
 
“Oh my God,” he says, sitting up straight during the middle of  South Park .
 
“Watch it!” Spike complains, saving his beer from a Thelma-and-Louise like fate at the last minute. He licks at his hand where the beer splashed, glaring.
 
“Do you realize that all I’ve done since getting back is sleep, have sex with you, and shove hotdogs onto sticks?” Xander demands, wide-eyed. “I haven’t seen Buffy since that night at the Bronze. I haven’t seen Willow since graduation!”
 
“Saw the Slayer the other night,” Spike says casually. “Was out on one of her little patrols and whinging on about her roommate, who’s apparently a bigger bitch than she is. If it’s possible. Made me grin, that did.”
 
“I’m a bad friend,” Xander says. “I haven’t even checked in, I should be helping with patrols, going to Scooby meetings and—”
 
“Fetching donuts?” Spike suggests.
 
Xander glares. “I do more than fetch donuts.”
 
“You charm the enemy into your bed?” Spike tries.
 
“I don’t—I didn’t…” Xander’s heart feels like it might skip a beat at any second, and suddenly the room is too small. “I don’t do that.”
 
Spike’s eyes narrow. “You smell scared.”
 
Xander takes in a deep breath and shakes his head. “No.”
 
“You do,” Spike insists, sitting up. “What? You know that I won’t eat you, pet. I wouldn’t. Don’t think I could.”
 
“Oh, yeah right,” Xander snorts. “Spike, you’re out there killing people every night. What makes me different?”
 
“What makes you different is that  you’re  the reason I’m not out there killing people every night, all right?” Spike says with sudden irritably. “Think I’d be traipsing around California for any old shag?”
 
Xander blinks. “You’re not out there killing people?”
 
Spike shrugs one shoulder, looking a bit shifty. “Not as much. Not just for fun, anyway, only when I need it, and ‘m old enough that I only need blood about once a week or so. Thought it’d make you feel a little better about things, maybe.”
 
Xander is caught somewhere between wanting to be appreciative of the fact that Spike is attempting to deny his very nature to appease him, and the fact that Spike is murdering a person a week so that he can live. His mouth moves a little, but unfortunately, it’s looking like his mouth hasn’t quite reconnected with his brain.
 
Spike leans forward and catches Xander’s wrist between two fingers, and Xander wants to make a comment about how he’s not a lady and Victorian courting was out of fashion a hundred years ago, but he keeps quiet.
 
“I promise,” Spike says solemnly. “I promise, I will never hurt you.”
 
And of course, Xander’s mouth chooses that moment to come back online. “Spike, you can’t expect me to believe—”
 
“The thought of hurting you, the thought of losing you…” Spike’s eyes glitter and his fingers tighten. “I won’t. I won’t ever.”
 
Xander swallows. “Geeze. Did we get married when I was sleeping or something?” he jokes weakly.
 
“You’re doing that thing again, pet,” Spike murmurs, using his grip on Xander’s wrist to pull Xander closer.
 
“What?” Xander asks.
 
“Talking.”
 
South Park  is completely forgotten as Spike captures Xander’s mouth with his own, shoving Xander back onto the couch and grabbing his other wrist in the process.
 
“You amaze me,” Spike says between kisses, voice low and rumbling. “So beautiful, so  bendable . You don’t snap and splinter, pet, you just bend and bend and bend. All those wants and needs and thoughts of yours up there in your head, but you just bend the way the wind blows, don’t you? Could never hurt you. Never. Look at me with those eyes of yours... oh, pet. Yes. And that smell, you smell like nothing I’ve ever smelled before—yes…”
 
Xander hides the flinch remarkably well.

 

Willow shows up. All the good karma Xander has accumulated in the nineteen years of his life comes into fruition, and Spike is out ‘scoping for a crypt’ (which actually means he takes a shortcut through the cemetery to go shoot pool and trip little old ladies or something, and won’t be back until the wee hours of the morning).
 
There is hugging (“Oh, Xander!”). There is scolding (“Why didn’t you tell me you were back? I was worried that maybe you’d gotten lynched or raped by wild dogs, or maybe you’d found another Hellmouth to live on…”). There is exclaiming over his new basement situation (“It’s just so—um. Well. I’m sure once we get some posters up, it’ll look better.”). And there is…  Willow .
 
“So, what have you been up to?” Willow asks, bouncing a little on the couch. “What’s been keeping you so busy, you don’t have time for your best friend?”
 
“Um,” says Xander.
 
Willow bounces.
 
“I got a job?” Xander finally manages, though it comes out more like a question. He hurries to make this sound more legitimate. “And hey, I don’t know about you, but who would have thought that work is actually  tiring?  You think school’s bad, just wait until you have to stand and talk to people for twelve hours at a time. Oh, man. I come home every day and go to sleep. It’s really pathetic.”
 
“Aw, poor Xander,” Willow says with mock sympathy. She reaches out and pets his head, and Xander leans into it a little. “Tired from a hard day’s work.”
 
“Exhausted,” Xander agrees, nodding.
 
Willow makes a sad-puppy face at him, and Xander returns it.
 
“It’s too bad,” Willow says, shaking her head. “I was going to invite you to this Halloween party I’m going to later tonight, but if you’re too tired…”
 
Xander frowns. “A Halloween party, as in a college Halloween party? With college people?”
 
“And college girls,” Willow offers, with a little smirk that she definitely learned over the summer while Xander was gone.
 
College girls have no real appeal to Xander, but he feels all at once a burning need to be with Willow tonight, to spend time with Willow and Buffy again—and simultaneously, an insistent tugging to be that pre-Oxnard Xander who would have jumped at the chance to party with college girls, not this new Xander who thinks of Spike and quiet nights in front of the TV—and in an overwhelming rush he knows that  yes , yes he is going to this party.
 
Xander pulls a smile to his face and says, “You know, I think I could summon up some energy for a college party with scantily-clad college girls.”
 
Willow beams. “I thought you might. Just, um, one thing.”
 
“What?”
 
“Well… you’ll need a costume.”

 

“Xander, that doesn’t look like a costume!” Willow protests.
 
Xander grins and produces a sign. “I’m a nudist on strike. Get it?”
 
“Xander!” Willow says, smacking him lightly on the side.
 
Buffy rolls her eyes.
 
The corners of Oz’s mouth twitch, just barely.
 
“Doesn’t look like much of a haunted house,” Xander comments, staring at the rather plain fraternity house.
 
“I think it’s all on the inside,” Buffy says, squinting slightly. “All the fake cobwebs, fake skeletons, fake body parts…”
 
“Emphasis on the fake,” Xander puts in.
 
They all nod in agreement.
 
“Best part about Halloween,” Buffy says, moving toward the steps. “It’s all fake, for once.”

 

So of course, the house is legitimately haunted. Of  course .

 

It’s not minutes after Buffy, Willow and Oz disappear and Xander is somehow all alone, that a vague nagging creeps into his brain, like there’s something he needs to do that he’s forgetting. What did he forget? There’s work, the rent, groceries…
 
He hasn’t forgotten anything.
 
But he  has . What is it? What is he forgetting, because he knows it’s important and he needs to remember it. There’s something he needs to do, somewhere he needs to be, someone who needs him, someone like... Spike.
 
Oh, God. Oh God, he needs to go. He needs to get himself to Spike. He needs Spike, needs his master—
 
Master.
 
Master .
 
Xander presses a hand to his skull and screws his eyes shut as a moment of clarity flashes in his brain and he knows that this is the Tug. This is what his mother fights against every day. This is what it feels like to be a slave.
 
The moment of clarity is gone just as suddenly as it was there, and all he knows is that he needs to go to his master. His master needs him. He needs to… needs…
 
“Master,” Xander mumbles, eyes fluttering open.
 
He staggers forward, the pulsing  need  pounding in his brain like a drum, and dimly looks for an exit. He doesn’t see one. There are no windows, no stairs, no doors, just walls. Walls that keep him from his master.
 
“Get out, get out, get to master,” he says because it’s all he can hear in his mind.
 
Get out, get out, get to master .
 
He stumbles forward again, laboriously dragging one foot in front of the other with no clear goal in his mind other than  master, master, master, master —and he hits the wall. Slumps. Presses a hand to the wallpaper and moans.
 
His entire being has condensed down to a single rod that is his center, his soul, and it vibrates with a need unlike anything Xander has ever felt before. He needs. He  needs .
 
“Master…” he chokes out, vision going fuzzy.
 
Clarity.
 
This isn’t him.
 
“Not,” he says, forcing himself away from the wall with an effort like bending steel. “Not—not me—”
 
He doesn’t belong to Spike. It’s not real.
 
It  tugs .
 
“Not real, not real, not real…” he chants, pressing both hands against his skull and rocking back and forth. There is a floor beneath him. That’s real. The floor is there because he’s choosing to kneel here and choosing to be here, and that’s because he doesn’t belong to someone. Anyone. He’s free.
 
“Not—not real. Not real. Not… not… master.”
 
Xander presses himself against the wall and keens.
 
Master .”

 

Buffy stomps on the little demon, grins, and suggests that they go try to find another party to crash for the night.
 
Giles declines. So does Xander.
 
If Xander wasn’t so shaken, he probably would feel really, really lame to be in the same group as Giles, but all he wants right now is to go home and sleep and forget this night ever happened.
 
“We need to see so much more of our Xan-Man than we have been, okay?” Buffy instructs, squeezing him tightly.
 
“It’s not like we live on another planet or something,” Willow adds with a grin.
 
Xander manages to find half a smile somewhere and pastes it on. “Will do.”
 
Willow pokes him in the chest for good measure. “I mean it, buster!”
 
“Right,” Xander says, just before the last of the smile dies out. He tries to get it to come back, but there’s no juice left, so he just waves and walks away on jelly legs. “See you later.”

 

Jessica is asleep in front of the television. Her skin looks yellow and washed out, which is probably just a result of the lighting, but it still makes her look sickly and it still makes Xander’s heart clench a little.
 
Master .
 
He wonders if the house just created what he fears for himself, or if that’s actually what his mother battles every single day. He can’t imagine how she would have ever worked up the will to leave—to live with that awful Tug for more than twenty years. You wouldn’t have any retention of sanity if it were actually like that. To overcome that would take a will so great, so powerful…
 
Jessica is weak. She’s always been weak, just like Tony, and Xander has always hated her for it. He  needs  to hate her for it.
 
Xander flicks off the TV and throws the beer can in Jessica’s hand in the trash on his way down to the basement.

 

Spike is downstairs, and Xander has a minor panic attack on the steps before he’s able to remind himself that Spike does not own him. He is not Spike’s. He has no master.  
 
Luckily, Spike is too agitated to notice Xander’s short-lived panic attack.
 
“About time you got back!” Spike snaps, whirling on him.
 
This sets every worn, frayed nerve Xander has just calmed  right  back on edge.
 
“I wasn’t aware you’d given me a curfew,” Xander bites out, heart rate ratcheting up. “You’re not the boss of me!”
 
Not Master. Not.
 
“Were you with the Slayer?” Spike demands, stopping his pacing long and crossing his arms.
 
“It’s not your business!”
 
Spike sniffs, then nods. “Smell like her. Good. You go out, you stick with her.”
 
“You don’t get to—” Spike’s words sink in. “Wait, you’re  telling  me to hang out with Buffy?”
 
“I was at Willy’s, and they keep talkin’ about this new group in town callin’ themselves the Initiative. Don’t know if it’s vampires or what, but there’s demons disappearing left and right, never heard of again, and it’s got the whole underground up in arms.” Spike uncrossed his arms and shook his head, resuming his pacing. “Weren’t even this twitchy when Angelus was gonna end the world.”
 
Oh, this is just great. The olive in his piss martini of a night.
 
“I’ll tell Buffy about it tomorrow, she’ll take care of it,” Xander says, moving to cross the room. “Thanks for the heads up.”
 
Spike splutters. “Wha—no! No, look pet, I’m telling you, this isn’t something someone’s gonna take care of, s’like a bloody Mafia or something. If I could kill it, I would!”
 
And herein lies the root of the problem.
 
“Unless you think the Slayer’s better than I am,” Spike says, eyes narrowing.
 
Xander avoids looking at him. “Look, if it’s a demon Mafia, then it’s going to take more than one person to stop it, Slayer or vampire or  whatever . If we team up with Buffy—”
 
“M’not teaming up with a bloody Slayer!”
 
“Spike, I really want to go to bed,” Xander sighs, giving him a pleading look. “This Initiative can wait until morning, can’t it?”
 
“Don’t need that bitch’s help,” Spike mutters, crossing his arms again.
 
“I’m going to bed.”
 
Spike mutters something dark as Xander shuts off the lights and moves to his bed, electing to not take off his shirt tonight. He just needs that extra bit of… protection. Spike’s presence is making him vaguely nervous and bringing back flashes of a few hours ago in that house, where he was nothing but a slave, and part of him wants to ask Spike to leave for the night. But in light of what he’s just learned…
 
He wrestles, and hates that his personal needs never win out over his compassion.
 
“Spike, you said this group—the Initiative—they’re taking demons?”
 
“S’right,” Spike confirms.
 
“So that puts you at risk, doesn’t it?” Xander continues.
 
Spike huffs. “Been keepin’ myself alive for more than a century, pet. Don’t worry about me.”
 
“Yeah, well, I still want you to stay here for tonight,” Xander says, with what is, he hopes, enough authority to do the job. “Until we know more about this.”
 
He hears Spike shifting, can practically hear the gears of his brain clinking, until finally he hears another impatient huff and knows that he’s won.
 
“All right,” Spike says grudgingly. “Tonight.”
 
In the darkness, Xander grins.
 
“I saw that, you tit. There’d better be something good on the telly at this hour.”

 

Xander knows he isn’t the neatest person in the world, but upon stepping into UC Sunnydale’s dorms, his estimation of his own cleanliness goes up several hundred points at the disaster around him. There is a light half-detached from the ceiling, trails of vomit streaking across the carpet, cups and paper and bits of… things… everywhere. It smells like piss and weed, a trash can has been upended, and something that looks like it might have, at some point, been a bike, is now embedded in a door. Splinters of wood litter the floor.
 
He picks his way across the lobby and up the stairs (more vomit, and a girl in only a bra passed out on a landing) until he gets to the second floor. Luckily, things seem to be clearing a little as he moves up, and there’s a somewhat clear path to Buffy’s door.
 
A haggard Buffy greets him.
 
Xander grins brightly. “Good morning, Buffster!”
 
She glares.
 
“Sorry to wake you up,” Xander continues. “I wanted to stop in before I went to work. Have you seen what it looks like downstairs? We’re talking atomic-bomb levels of messy, here. Cah-razy.”
 
Glares .
 
“Right, so I’ll get to the point. I was walking back to my car last night and happened to overhear two demons talking about something called the Initiative.”
 
Buffy squints. “You overheard two demons talking?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“You knew they were demons?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“And you overheard them?”
 
“Yes.”
 
“But they didn’t eat you?”
 
“No.”
 
“How did that  happen?
 
“The important part here is that I overheard them talking about something called the Initiative, and they sounded scared,” Xander says, and in Buffy’s state, it’s enough to get her mind to refocus. “Apparently, there have been demons disappearing left and right. Whatever the Initiative is, it’s bigger and badder than most of the things that hang around the Hellmouth.”
 
“Right. Initiative,” Buffy mutters, shaking her head a little. “I’ll tell Giles.”
 
“Cool!” Xander gives her a bright grin and a thumbs up. “Thanks, Buff.”
 
Buffy moves to shut the door, then pauses and reconsiders. “Hey. Wanna patrol with me tonight?”
 
Xander opens his mouth to say yes when reality makes him rethink.
 
“I can’t. I’ve got to work late tonight, and then I’ve got opening tomorrow. If I patrol on top of that, I’ll never sleep.”
 
Despite still being mostly asleep, Buffy manages to make a slight face. “God. Way to sound like a real person.”
 
“Sorry,” Xander says, making a face of his own.
 
“I need to…” Buffy trails off. “I need to have this conversation on more sleep. Bye, Xander.”
 
“Bye, Buffy.”
 
She practically falls on the door as she closes it, leaving Xander to pick his way back out of the dorm. On his way down the stairs, the unconscious girl is somehow no longer wearing a bra, and makes vague moaning noises as Xander walks by.
 
He vows to never go inside a dorm again.

 

The lit tip of a cigarette is waiting for him when he gets off of work that night.
 
“And suddenly, I’m have flashbacks to Oxnard,” Xander says, stopping to blink for a moment, before striding right past the smoking drama queen.
 
Spike comes out of the shadows, looking slightly disgruntled, but quickly falls into step with Xander. “Don’t want you gettin’ caught up with these Initiative folk. If the bloody uhurks are skivvin’ off, there’s no way it’s safe for you.”
 
“Didn’t you say there were vampires disappearing, too?” Xander asks, not  quite  pointedly.
 
“Just minions and fledges, most like,” Spike answers, shaking his head. “Got master status, me—I’ll be all right.”
 
Xander doesn’t think there’s much point in arguing right now.
 
“I dropped by and told Buffy what you overheard last night. She said she’ll get Giles on it,” he says instead.
 
“I’ll see what I can find out tonight,” is Spike’s terse reply.
 
“Are you… I don’t want you to get caught by them,” Xander says haltingly. They’ve reached his car (or rather, Uncle Rory’s heap of metal that’s currently passing as a car) and he takes out his keys. “I mean, we don’t even know who they are— what  they are, or what they want.”
 
Spike, on the other side of the car, leans over the roof and fixes Xander with a look. “Pet, let me tell you something about William the Bloody: he doesn’t sodding  hide  from some group of ponces calling themselves the  Initiative . M’not gonna huddle up in your basement until they decide to shove off. Especially since this is my town, it’s where  my —it’s where you live. Got it?”
 
Xander hates arguing.
 
He  really  hates arguing.
 
But he hates the thought of Spike as a dust bunny more, so he leans over his own side of the car and puts on his best Resolve Face. “No. I get that you want to make them go away, but—and God help me, I sound like Giles—you can’t just go rush in and hope that you’re the biggest and the baddest thing there. Let Giles do research first.”
 
“I do happen to know the meaning of the word ‘reconnaissance,’ pet,” Spike says irritably. “I don’t know how you think I survived the last hundred and thirty years—”
 
“Just until Giles checks his books,” Xander pleads. He’s pathetic, he knows it, but dammit, he is  not  going to lose Spike to this Initiative thing. “It’ll only be a few more nights. We can have all the sex you want. Please?”
 
It’s probably the sex that wins out in the end, not Xander’s heartfelt pleading, but a win’s a win. He’ll take it.

 

“Your little witch called,” Spike says by way of greeting.
 
Xander, exhausted after working a double that wasn’t even supposed to be his, just grunts.
 
“Wants to get together or something. Dunno. Left a message.”
 
“Patrol?” Xander asks, entire body protesting at the thought. He just wants to get home and sleep. He doesn’t even think he has the energy for sex—and also, he feels like he has hotdog grease in every pore of his body, which does not exactly make for sexy times. Gelch.
 
“Don’t think so,” Spike answers. “Think she just wants to get together, paint her nails and talk about boys, rot like that.”
 
Bed , Xander thinks.
 
“I’ll call her tomorrow. Maybe.”
 
“Have to admit, I thought you saw your friends a lot more than you do,” Spike says, lifting an eyebrow.
 
Xander shakes his head, dragging keys out of his pocket. “It was easier when we were in high school—we had classes together, and we’d patrol every other night, too. If I started going out on patrols right now, I don’t know how I’d ever keep a job. I’d have to call off sick all the time because I’d be injured.”
 
“Should see more of them,” Spike comments, like it’s just that easy.
 
Xander suppress a groan and unlocks the car, his mind not going any further than  home bed . Willow and Buffy can wait for another night.

 

“Isn’t this getting old for you?” Xander asks, when he’s greeted outside of work by Spike, yet again.
 
“Did it all summer, didn’t I?”
 
Xander rolls his eyes. “You did it twice a week, whenever you needed a pick-me-up.”
 
“Oi! Was out there six nights a week, I was,” Spike protests.
 
Xander snorts and keeps walking.
 
Why  do you do that?” Spike demands.
 
Swallowing, Xander doesn’t look at him. “Do what?”
 
Oh, he should have known better. Really.
 
“Ow,” he grunts out of reflex, when Spike slams him up against the wall with a growl—and then there are  teeth  and this situation just got a whole lot less funny. Oh, shit. Oh shit.
 
“I spent the whole summer with you,” Spike snarls, lisping a little around his fangs.
 
Fangs. Oh, God.
 
Xander is going to die.
 
“And I spent a damn good chunk of it listening to you jabber on in that shoddy motel room and playing pool with your incompetent arse, and going on strolls through the bloody  park ,” Spike growls. “I followed you back here to Sunnyhell, where the Slayer’s got in for me. I’ve stayed inside for the last three nights because  you  asked me to—don’t pretend you don’t know that I love you!”
 
Xander is pressing himself against the wall so hard that his entire body feels the pulse of his blood. He can barely breathe.
 
“What?” he chokes out.
 
Spike isn’t even touching him anymore.
 
“You didn’t know?” Spike says disbelievingly.
 
“N—no.”
 
Spike frowns and the game face recedes. “Bloody hell, quit shaking. M’not gonna hurt you.”
 
“Just slam me up against walls,” Xander mutters, because yes, he really is that kind of idiot.
 
“Look. I love you, you berk,” Spike says, glaring. “So stop acting like this is some kind of  fling .”
 
Xander thinks he would give absolutely anything to not be having this conversation.
 
“Spike, I’m human,” he says shakily. “You can’t—you just  can’t . Please, no.”
 
“I can’t what?” Spike asks, looking affronted. “Can’t love you? Can’t love? Don’t tell me you buy into that rot about needing a soul to love, because it’s sodding well not true.”
 
Xander searches desperately for something other than the truth. “Just—Spike, it can’t work. You vampire, me human. You immortal, me… not. Just—just take it back. Please.”
 
“I love you,” Spike repeats stubbornly. “You think it’s not happened before, a vampire and a human? I’ll make you my consort—”
 
“No!”
 
“No?” Spike says incredulously. “ No?
 
“I’m not going to be your consort,” Xander says fiercely, feeling like he’s found footing for the first time. “I’ll  never  be your consort, Spike. If that’s your end game then you can leave right now because I’m not interested.”
 
Spike is staring at Xander like he doesn’t even recognize him, doesn’t see how he should even  start  to know him—but it only lasts for a moment before he gets his bearings, eyes flashing. “I don’t know what the Watcher’s told you about—”
 
“Giles has nothing to do with it,” Xander snaps. “I can form my own opinions, you know. I don’t just walk around repeating everything Giles ever told me.”
 
“Look, whatever you think—”
 
“Never,” Xander says flatly. “I don’t care what you say.  Never .”
 
“Why not?”
 
Xander is really, really done with this conversation.
 
His attempt to just walk away is foiled, though, when Spike snarls and grabs his arm, yanking him back.
 
Why not? ” he asks through clenched, human teeth.
 
Xander tugs the arm, but Spike’s grip is like iron.
 
“I thought you weren’t going to hurt me?”
 
There is a long, long moment where Spike is clearly caught between getting answers and standing by his initial declaration.
 
“Let go,” Xander says, pulling at his arm.
 
Spike is stone-still, torn and furious.
 
“Let go.”
 
Spike lets go.
 
He doesn’t follow, when Xander walks away.

 

Driving home, Xander is caught between just going to bed, going to find Willow for comfort, or going to find Buffy for the disinvite spell she’d used on Angel. He decides to go home for a midnight snack first and decide after that.
 
It’s all shot to hell, though, when he finds the bloody vomit in the living room and no trace of either of his parents.

Chapter Text

 
Xander stares at the bloody vomit for an indeterminate amount of time. In his head, he is thinking:
 
Spike killed my parents. 
 
Why would Spike make my parents vomit? 
 
How would Spike have even gotten here before me, since I drove and he’s on foot? 
 
Who else would have killed my parents? 
 
Cycling over and over again, until he doesn’t even notice that he’s swaying and he knocks into the wall.
 
There is the sound of a car pulling up outside, and for one heart-stopping moment Xander is sure that it’s Spike, somehow having reacquired his DeSoto and driven to his house just to kill him—to finish off the job, he thinks irrationally, Spike was out getting rid of the first two bodies—but the sound of the radio blaring country music eventually registers in his ears. Not Spike. Spike would never, not in a million years, blast country music. The only person Xander knows who listens to country music besides himself is his father.
 
There’s still blood on the floor. He can’t take his eyes off of the glistening spatter of blood and half-digested Spaghetti-O’s, can’t stop the flutter and twist of his heart as the room tunnels and darkens and the vomit and blood is all he can see.
 
The door bangs open.  
 
He’s greeted by the sight of his father coming into the house with a familiar brown paper bag clutched in one fist. Usually it’s Jessica who comes home with it, but even held by the wrong person, Xander recognizes it. He thinks he’d recognize the crumpling of those paper bags with his eyes closed. Too bad there’s not a game show based on that, he’d win some money.
 
“Had to take your mother to the hospital,” Tony grunts, slamming the door shut. “Go up there and sit with her. I’ve got work in the morning.”
 
Xander’s mouth works, but it takes too long to get the sound out. “Wha? Hospital?”
 
Glass clinks, and the paper bag is crumpled.

 
Visiting hours are over for the day—of course they are, it’s nearly midnight—but Xander pleads with the nurse on call and gets ten minutes with his mother since, as the nurse tells him, she just got moved to a new wing and should still be awake. She doesn’t lead him to the wing of the hospital where Buffy stayed, when she was sick that time in junior year. She takes him to the wing of the hospital where there are comfortable chairs and something called a ‘community kitchen,’ and many of the doors are decorated with pictures and flowers and such.
 
Xander tries not to think about what this means.
 
The nurse stays out in the hallway, gesturing for Xander to go inside the darkened room. He hesitates, and then steps through the wide doorway (large enough for wheelchairs and gurneys, of course).
 
Jessica has no roommate. She is lying in the bed farthest from the door, monitors beeping away, and the only light in the room comes from the small light just about her bed that casts long shadows over everything, pink contrasted with the yellowish light coming in through the window from a streetlight. From what Xander can see, she looks no different than she usually does. He hopes that no one has counted her gaunt, dried-up appearance as a symptom, because it’s not. It’s how Jessica has looked since he was nine. Maybe he’ll mention that on the way out.
 
“Hey, Mom,” he says quietly, from the doorway.
 
Jessica raises her head and Xander loses his breath as her yellow, yellow eyes lock onto his. It occurs to him that he has not seen his mother conscious in weeks, maybe a month.
 
It’s not just the light.
 
“Xander?” Jessica asks, squinting a little.
 
Xander steps in the room now, pushing away the dread that’s wrapping cold, wet swaths of cloth around his mind. “Dad said… he told me you were here. He said that he had to leave to go to bed, he’s got work in the morning, but that—”
 
Jessica lets out a harsh breath that shatters into a sob, eyes shut and fingers curled.
 
Xander stops next to the empty bed, unsure.
 
“Let’s just—not tonight. Please. I can’t think about him tonight,” Jessica breathes brokenly. She lets out a slow breath and unscrews her face with an obvious effort of will. “I knew this would happen, but it’s still so hard.”
 
“Knew what would happen?” Xander demands. “Mom, what’s going on?”
 
Her face crumples a little, and the yellow eyes are suddenly red—no, they’re orange, a brown-orange that Xander can’t help staring at because it reminds him of demons that he’s killed (watched Buffy kill), but it’s just Jessica. It’s his  Mom .
 
“No, Xander,” Jessica says, shaking her head. “No, I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to do this right now.”
 
“Your eyes are orange,” Xander says blankly.
 
Jessica looks away, closing her eyes. “No, no, no—”
 
“Please, Mom,” Xander begs, moving closer to her bedside now. Why is she acting like this? She’s always a little drunk and a little wrapped up in her own world, but now she’s in the hospital. She’s sober. She should be making sense—he needs her to think of  him  for once and pull herself out of her head and actually make sense.
 
“Mom, you have to tell me what’s going on. Please tell me.” He pulls a chair up and sits right next to her, wrenching one of her hands away from the sheets and clasping it in his own. “You know Dad isn’t so much with the sharing, and okay, so maybe I’m the unmanliest man ever, but I’m kind of scared right now. You’re scaring me. Just tell me what’s going on, okay?”
 
Jessica jerks her head. “You shouldn’t talk so much,” she says, sounding almost angry, almost like she can’t even stand to be near her only son right now. “You shouldn’t  talk  so much.”
 
 “Mom—”
 
“They took blood!” Jessica snaps, yanking her hand free and hunching her shoulders, staring down at her knees and rocking a little. “They took blood and they checked it for liver and now they say I have to have a scan for cancer. I knew what I was doing to myself when I started, but I didn’t think he’d let me go. I thought I’d just—I thought I’d smoke and drink until I was just too ugly to live, but then I was… Xander, I didn’t mean to. I promise I didn’t mean to.”
 
She’s rocking a little, tears starting to roll down her face, but all Xander can do is sit there and try to breathe.
 
Cancer.
 
Liver cancer.
 
When did this breathing thing get so hard?
 
Jessica moans, rocking and pressing a hand to the side of her head like she’s got a headache, but Xander knows better than that. It’s not an ache. It’s a tug. And look what it’s done.

 
When the nurse escorts him out, Xander’s head feels fuzzy. Distant. He wonders if this is what it’s like to wear a turban.
 
Not trusting himself to drive, he walks to UC Sunnydale in search of the only person he wants right now.

 
The dorm number that Willow had given him is wrong. A random girl answers the door smelling of alcohol, and informs Xander that she has never heard of a Willow, but wouldn’t he like to come in and see if he can’t jog her memory? Xander declines. He tells himself that it was just forgetfulness on Willow’s part, that it doesn’t mean anything, and he wanders over to Buffy’s room. He doesn’t really want to see Buffy right now, but she’ll probably know where Willow is.
 
Buffy opens the door and her expression goes from exhausted to relieved. “Oh, good. Did Giles talk to you?”
 
“Giles?” Xander says blankly.
 
He wonders if the world is ending again.
 
“About Willow.” Buffy frowns. “You’re here for Willow, right?”
 
“Um. I was looking for her, so yeah. I guess. Is she here?”
 
Buffy looks startled. “She lives here, as of like a month ago. Wow. You’re really not up with the up this year, are you?”
 
This is why he didn’t want to see Buffy right now. She has a tendency to make things about her—and normally that’s okay, because it usually  is  about her—but right now Xander needs it to be about him for a change.
 
“Right,” Buffy says, after a moment of awkward silence. “Go on and do your best. She’s just been sitting there, staring at the wall ever since he left.”
 
Xander blinks. “Since who left?”
 
Buffy stares. “Oz. That’s why you’re here, right?”
 
“Oz left?”
 
Buffy nods, giving him a look similar to the ones Cordelia used to give him right before making a scathing comment about his IQ.
 
Xander struggles to understand. Oz is gone.
 
Jessica has liver cancer.
 
Oz is  gone .
 
Buffy lets him in and he approaches Willow’s catatonic figure on the bed. She’s just sitting there. What he wants is for her to envelope him in a crushing hug, snuggle up to him on the bed and then stroke his hair until he falls asleep.
 
It’s not going to happen. That much is obvious.
 
Xander swallows around the knot in his throat and sits down on the bed, trying to find a window of sympathy for Willow. He pulls her into a gentle hug, and then strokes her hair until her eyes drift shut and her head lolls, and then he lays her gently down on the bed and lets her sleep.  When he leaves, he somehow feels even worse than he did when he came.

 
Spike is there, when Xander finally gets back to the basement. Of course he is. Because Xander really hasn’t had enough fun tonight.
 
“And where the bloody hell have you been?” Spike demands as soon as Xander’s in the door.
 
It takes all of Xander’s will not to just turn around and leave.
 
“Didn’t you grow up on the Hellmouth? Are you thick or something? I don’t know how you’ve survived this long. There are  cabbages  with more self-preservation instincts than you—at least they’ve contrived to smell funny!”
 
Spike is rocking, like he’s struggling to keep himself from pacing or marching across the room and ripping Xander’s throat out, and he has clearly used up whatever amount of patience he’d been able to summon earlier.
 
Xander needs to answer.
 
He needs to tell someone.  Anyone . It’s going to eat a hole right through his stomach if he doesn’t let it come spilling out of his mouth in the next few seconds.  
 
“My mom’s in the hospital,” he blurts out. “She’s got cancer. Liver cancer. They think.”
 
Spike stops, startled.
 
“Your mum?”
 
Xander nods, blood rushing in his ears as it’s suddenly  real .
 
“Good. Fuck that bitch, right? Getting what she deserves, I reckon,” Spike says, with a decisive nod.
 
“What?” Xander chokes out.
 
“Don’t tell me you’re all broken up about this. You don’t even like your mum. Said so yourself.”
 
“But—but she’s—”
 
“Off her head?”
 
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Xander says desperately. “Look, I know she’s not… I don’t know. I mean, maybe. Yes. No. I don’t want her to die!”
 
Spike seems to reconsider, frowning.
 
“Don’t they have…” Spike wiggles his fingers. “…treatment thingies they can do?”  
 
“I don’t know.”
 
“Is there  anything  you’re going to say to me tonight?” Spike demands. “First you’re losing it outside your stupid shop and won’t say what’s what, now you’ve got this thing with your mum—is today some sort of Let’s Not Trust Spike Day and nobody bothered to tell me?”
 
Spike is back up to yelling tones again, and Xander just—just can’t right now. He can’t.
 
All he wanted was to come home and go to bed, but now Spike’s yelling and Xander’s heart rate is starting to pick up and his hands are starting to shake just a little bit.
 
“Tell you I love you, and I get some mad screaming fit,” Spike rants, now actually pacing and taking the time to glare at Xander as well. “Why is that, hm? Why is it you can muster up some love for your mum, who’s completely barmy  and  treats you like rubbish, but I just get flat-out rejected?”
 
Normally he could handle this. But it seems like the rest of the night is catching up with him right now, and he just can’t.
 
He can’t.
 
“Please stop,” he pleads, feeling his heart rate double and his breathing hitch.
 
“Stop what? Stop telling it like it is, pet?”
 
“Not  tonight ,” Xander pleads, his voice cracking on the word as he pushes the air out. He’s pathetic and he doesn’t care. “Look, it’s been a really long night, and I hate it when people yell, so could you just… not? Please?” 
 
His throat closes up around the please, and he squeezes his eyes shut as the burning sensation rushes forward and threatens to break through at any moment. He pushes a fist against his forehead, trying to breathe. Trying. Failing.
 
“Right. No more yelling.” Pause. “Bugger. You really are a bit hung up over this thing with your mum, aren’t you? Are you… er. You want to talk about it, then, pet?”
 
Some part of him, the part that’s still clawing away at his belly—it spills out like vomit.
 
His throat burns and he absolutely  refuses  to open his eyes. “It turns out she’s crazy even when she’s sober. And Dad doesn’t give a fuck. And I don’t want her to die. I think. I don’t know. Maybe I do. Oh, God. Oh, God, I want my mother to die. She’s going to die and I don’t—”
 
He cuts himself off, but more words escape in the next breath of air he manages to gulp.
 
“Pet?”
 
“—I can’t—”
 
A great shudder rips through him, and he feels dizzy.
 
“—I can’t—”
 
His lungs aren’t contracting.
 
“—I  cuh —”
 
Something is seizing and jerking, failing in bursts of agony and he can’t think beyond his own heartbeat right now. All around him is nothing.
 
Nothing.
 
Nothing.
 
Nothing.
 
Whuck!
 
Something whacks his back so hard that for a minute his body is like a corpse. It’s enough to yank him out of the pattern of seizing and jerking and failing to come through, and this time when his lungs expand they don’t spasm and snap shut.
 
He can breathe.
 
His head spins and his limbs tingle.
 
“What the bloody hell was that?” Spike demands, his voice floating down from somewhere up above.
 
Xander doesn’t answer. He doesn’t think that he could, even if he wanted to. He just lies there, breathing in sweet, sweet air and plays at unconsciousness until Spike hauls him onto the bed, grumbling the whole way.

 
When Xander was six, he’d run through a game of four-square and taken the kickball. All he remembers is the sound of the recess monitor’s voice bearing down on him like God himself, rattling his bones and sticking him to the ground, and then he couldn’t breathe and everything went dark, and he was waking up in the nurse’s office.
 
Low blood sugar, the nurse had decided, and he’d gotten apple juice out of the ordeal.
 
But Xander knows that it wasn’t his blood sugar—keeping sugar in his blood has never been a problem, not for him. It was the yelling. That hadn’t even been the first time it had happened, just the first at school.
 
Today, raised voices make his gut clench. Just a little. He doesn’t faint, or curl into a fetal position, or stop breathing and listen desperately for the sounds of feet stomping in his direction. Today, it’s just that little clench of fear in his stomach, and he can overcome it when he chooses. Mostly.
 
He’s never told anyone about the fainting. He can’t even begin to imagine what Buffy would say.

 
“I’m going to the hospital,” Xander tells Tony the next morning. He’s standing nervously in the doorway to the basement, memories of last night and his stupid panic attack… thing… fresh in his mind. “Um. Do you want to come?”
 
Tony grunts. “Gotta work.”
 
“Well, see, I hear there’s this little thing you can do called taking the day off—”
 
Tony’s head jerks in Xander’s direction and Xander’s heart ratchets up into his throat.
 
“Sorry,” he all but whispers, eyes down.
 
“Someone’s gotta make money,” Tony growls, slamming a knife down on the counter with a bang.
 
Xander flinches.
 
“Someone’s gonna have to pay for the fucking hospital bills, you know.  Someone’s  gonna have to pay for all this shit, and I don’t see anyone else offering to spend every single day of their fucking life doing the same fucking job, day in and day out, just so you and your drunken bitch of a mother can eat. Spent my whole life paying for you two. My whole  fucking  life. And this is the thanks I get?”
 
Slowly, making sure not to make noise, Xander breathes in and out. His heart is pounding and he wants to run away, he wants Tony to just stop, but he’s paralyzed.
 
“Might up your rent,” Tony mutters, looking at Xander again, this time with a more discerning eye. “Had a job for a few months now, haven’t you? If you’re any good you should be getting a raise soon. Someone’s gotta pay for these motherfucking hospital bills.”
 
Xander still can’t move. Doesn’t trust himself to speak.
 
Tony glances at him again. “Go see your mother. Let me know what they say.”
 
Jerkily, Xander nods.
 
He leaves.
 
He kind of wishes that it were Tony in the hospital.

 
Giles is very surprised to see Xander standing on his doorstep.
 
Xander is very surprised, and also very disturbed, to see Giles answering his door in naught but a bathrobe and socks.
 
“Xander?”
 
Giles?
 
Xander is welcomed in. Giles puts clothes on.
 
“So, ah, what can I do for you?” Giles asks as he seats himself opposite Xander on the couch, now dressed in a much more reassuring outfit of a sweater and trousers. “I never thought I’d say it, but it’s nice to see you here again. Buffy and Willow have been missing you terribly. I understand you have a… job?”
 
“Hot Dog on a Stick,” Xander says, grimacing. He suspects that it’s more than Giles has right now, but doesn’t say that. “I’ve got to pay rent, and it’s pretty hard to keep a job when you’re out getting thrown around every night on patrol. So no, not so much with the Scooby stuff for the Xan-Man. Sorry.”
 
“Well, if you ever find yourself with a spot of free time, we could always use your help. Buffy tells me you were the one to give us the Initiative tip?”
 
Xander blinks. “Oh. Yeah. God, that feels like it was… Did you guys find anything out?”
 
“Not yet. Buffy’s going out to do some more investigating tonight.”
 
“Oh. Um. Good,” Xander says.
 
Giles focuses on him suddenly, eyes keen. “So. I assume you’re not here just for my conversation, scintillating as it may be.”
 
Xander doesn’t know what ‘scintillating’ means, but he guesses that he’s probably not.
 
“I had a… a question,” he says hesitantly. “About Hellmouthy things.”
 
Giles raises his eyebrows. “Well, it seems that I am still of some use.”
 
“My—” Xander doesn’t know how to say it. He hasn’t even said it aloud to himself yet. “My mom was diagnosed with liver cancer this morning. They said she’s got two months left, because it’s spread from her liver to her blood, and now it’s everywhere.”
 
Giles’ eyes widen, sympathy flooding his face. “Xander—”
 
“But the thing is,” Xander pushes on, tearing his eyes away from Giles’ face, “is that it just came out of nowhere. I mean, she’s always drinking, but something like this should have had signs. You can’t just—just one day have liver cancer and two months to live, right? Isn’t that… isn’t that suspicious? Like, Hellmouth suspicious?”  
 
With a huge effort, he looks Giles in the eye again.
 
When Xander had been fifteen and sixteen, he’d had this dream that Giles would see him as he saw Buffy—as one of his own, someone he was supposed guide and protect and love unconditionally—but every time that he screwed up and Giles called him an idiot, or snapped at him to leave, or sent him for donuts while entrusting Buffy, Willow, Oz, Cordelia, fucking Angel  with the real work, that dream had taken a beating until eventually it was too broken and made of too many sharp splinters to even go near anymore.
 
Now Xander knows better. Giles is a Watcher, not a foster parent for all the kids in Sunnydale with absent father figures. He’s only here for Buffy.
 
But right here in this moment, Giles is looking at him with such sympathy and understanding that it tugs on those sixteen-year-old dreams and it  hurts . It isn’t fair. Giles doesn’t get to look at him like that, not after three years of pushing him down and pushing him away.
 
“Look, just answer the question,” he snaps, look away from Giles again. “Is it… Could it be something from the Hellmouth?”
 
“Something from the Hellmouth giving your mother cancer?” Giles asks carefully.
 
Xander shrugs helplessly, gritting his teeth. Giles’ tone
 
It’s not meant for him, and he wants it to stop.
 
“I don’t know, you’re the expert here,” he snaps. “Could it be something infecting her, a—a parasite or something? A curse? Anything?”
 
“I… No, I don’t think so,” Giles says, at length.
 
“You don’t think so?” Xander repeats. He meets Giles’ gaze again, anger making it easier to keep their eyes locked. “I don’t want you to think, I want you to know. This is my mother’s life we’re talking about!”
 
“No,” Giles says.
 
Xander tries not to feel like he’s been hit in the stomach with a two-by-four.
 
“No?” he asks weakly.
 
“No,” Giles says again, shaking his head. “There is nothing supernatural about this, Xander. I’m afraid that your mother’s diagnosis is final.”
 
“Oh,” Xander mouths, for no sound comes out of his mouth when his lips move.
 
He’d thought…  He’d hoped…
 
Giles puts a hand on his forearm. “I’m sorry, Xander. I wish there was something I could do to help.”
 
Swallowing, Xander nods.
 
“I understand…” Giles clears his throat. “I mean, of course, that you probably want to spend as much time with your family as possible right now, and I imagine that this is the real reason we haven’t been seeing very much of you this year.”
 
Xander can’t bring himself to correct that notion, and just nods. Whatever.
 
“And I—well, certainly feel free to come to me if you need anything,” Giles says, somewhat awkwardly. “I’ll understand if we don’t see you for a while longer, though. Your family should absolutely take priority.”
 
Again, Xander just nods.
 
“Do Buffy and Willow know?” Giles asks, after a pause.
 
“No,” Xander whispers.
 
“Would you like me to tell them?” Giles asks in a voice that is far too kindly. It makes Xander want to burst into tears.
 
Swallowing hard, he shakes his head.
 
“Xander?” Giles asks, after another pause. His hand is still on Xander’s forearm, and he squeezes it lightly. “Are you sure you’re all—”
 
“I’ve got to go,” Xander announces roughly, standing up. “I’ll see you later, G-Man. Thanks for the help.”
 
He’s out the door before Giles can say another word, but somehow, he manages not to slam it behind him.

 
He knows that he should. It’s just such an  awkward  conversation to have.
 
Like this: “Hey, Buff, how are you? Willow, you doing better? No? Still heartbroken after the love of your life skipped town? Well, if it makes you feel better, my waste-of-space mother’s going to be dead in two months. Yeah. So, how about those 49-ers?”
 
They’re going to want to hug and talk about it and make a big deal, and he doesn’t want that right now. He doesn’t even want to open his mouth at the moment, let alone have to think. It’s taken all of his energy just to tell Giles and Tony what’s going on with Jessica.
 
Back in the basement, Spike is asleep on the bed, curled up far away from the din rays of sunshine that manage to filter in through the two grimy basement windows.
 
Spike, who already knows about Jessica.
 
Spike, who had been there for him last night when Willow wasn’t.
 
Xander falls into bed next to him and pushes his face into the pillow, wanting to just stop .

 
He tells Buffy and Willow.
 
“Oh,  Xander ,” Willow murmurs, tears springing to her eyes and she wraps him in a huge hug.
 
Buffy hugs him next, squeezing him with Slayer strength so that he actually feels it, and it’s a bit like when Spike hugs him, actually.
 
“I’m okay,” he promises, a small grin on his face.
 
He is. He’s okay, now. The window for breaking down and crying has come and passed.

 
“Drinking and smoking,” Jessica says the following week, when Xander is in the hospital with her. “That was my plan. I was gonna drink, and I was gonna smoke, and I was going to make myself so ugly that he would throw me away.”
 
“Who?” Xander asks.
 
“My Master,” Jessica answers.
 
Xander feels his stomach clench. “Did it—did it work?”
 
She reaches out with shaking fingers and grasps his forearm, turning it over and pushing the sleeve up so that the two tiny white spots are visible. Xander stares at it and swallows, remembering only flashes of that night but enough to know that his mother had stood by and hushed him as he’d had the blood sucked out of him by a veritable monster.
 
“I don’t think so,” Jessica whispers. “No, my love, I don’t think it did.”
 
“Good plan,” Xander says snidely, jerking his sleeve back and yanking his arm out of Jessica’s grasp. “You couldn’t have come up with something that actually worked? Or, I don’t know, something that wouldn’t have resulted in you dying one day?”
 
Jessica lies back against her pillow, a faint smile on her lips. “But that was the plan. That was why it was wonderful. Even if he never let me go, I’d eventually escape.”
 
“Congratulations,” Xander mutters, sitting back in the chair and scowling a little.
 
“Mm,” Jessica says, already sliding into sleep. “Come with me, Xander. Come with me. We’ll make it.”
 
When Xander gets up to leave an indeterminate amount of time later, Spike is standing in the doorway. He looks a little… sad.
 
“Don’t tell me you’re suddenly all broken up about my mother,” Xander says, pushing himself up out of the chair and grabbing his jacket.
 
“Just remembering things,” Spike says vaguely.
 
Xander wonders how long he’s been standing in the doorway. They never had resolved that argument they’d had that night about Spike loving him—and if Xander has it his way, they never will.
 
“Come on, pet. Let’s get home, yeah?”
 
Xander glances back at his mother, and then nods. “Yeah. Sounds good.”

 
He doesn’t go every day. Every day he does go, though, Spike walks him all the way to the waiting room just outside Jessica’s door.
 
“You could come,” Xander offers. “She’s got a television, you know, and she’s too zonked on pain meds to really notice what’s happening.”
 
But Spike always shakes his head. “S’all right. Got things to do. I’ll be waitin’ out here when you’re ready, though.”
 
If Xander asked—really asked—he thinks that Spike would go in with him. But there’s something almost haunted in Spike’s eyes whenever they wander in the direction of the hallway that leads to Jessica’s room that stops him from asking.
 
He doesn’t know if it’s shadows of Dru, or shadows of someone else, but either way he leaves it alone.

 
He gets to know the other families on the hall in only a few weeks. Mrs. Santiago, in particular, seems to like him, and takes to leaving him whole casseroles in the community fridge.
 
“How are you doing?” Willow asks him, on a rare day off that he decided to not spend lying on the couch in a tangle of Spike and self-pity.
 
Xander shrugs. “All right.”
 
Truthfully, everything kind of blurs together. He doesn’t have good days and bad days, he just has blurry days.

 
It takes Xander several hours to work up the guts to go upstairs. He’s been listening for a while, and from the sounds of it, Tony’s been parked in front of the television all day, probably with a steady intake of alcohol as he watches, and it’s about as relaxed as he’ll ever get.
 
“Hey, Dad,” he says, lingering in the entrance to the living room instead of going all the way in.
 
Tony glances his way and grunts.
 
“I, uh, I’ve got the rent. Nice and on time, right?”
 
Tony nods.
 
Xander licks his lips. “Yeah. I left it on the counter. Um. In an envelope.” 
 
Tony gives him a look that makes it clear that Xander should really fuck off unless he’s got something to say.
 
“I just—” Xander hesitates. “You know, Mom doesn’t have a lot of time left, and think she’d like… I think she’d like to see you once or twice. Before she… Yeah.”
 
Tony snorts. “Fuckin’ bitch doesn’t want to see my face. Way I see it, I’m doing her enough favors as it is—I’ve been working my ass off for twenty years so that she can keep drinking, now I’m working overtime so we can pay for those pain medications that are gonna make her die all nice and easy, and I’m lettin’ you live in the basement instead of kickin’ you out like I should have done. S’what my father did to me. Turned eighteen and came home to find all my shit out on the lawn—didn’t even box it up. I was gonna box it up for you, but Jess was all cryin’ and pleadin’ for you to stay.”
 
“Right,” Xander says quietly. “I’ll just, um, tell her you said hi.”
 
“Do that,” Tony mutters, turning back to the television.
 
He locks the basement door behind himself very, very quietly.

 
“Hey, Xander! I don’t know if you had plans with your family—you guys don’t normally do anything, I know, but I didn’t know, what with your mom and… things… So, yeah, Buffy’s having Thanksgiving over at Giles’ house. It’s just me, Buffy, and Giles, but you should totally come. I think Buffy’s cooking enough food for an army or something. Just turn up any time, all day. I love you. Give me a call!”

 
Xander works on Thanksgiving Day, has a hotdog for dinner because it’s free, and then goes home to curl up under the covers.
 
Buffy comes over with leftovers later in the night, when Spike fortunately is out and about. She tells him about the Native American spirit they just defeated, about her classes and this guy Riley that she’s sort of been seeing. She asks about Xander, but all Xander can think to tell her are depressing hospital stories, so he just waves a hand and indicates for her to go on. Her life has always been more interesting than his, anyway.
 
She kisses him on the cheek before she leaves, and makes him promise to tell her if he needs anything.

 
There is one day when he walks into Jessica’s room and sees someone else in there. A man Xander has never seen before is leaning over her.
 
He hangs back, watching.
 
The man appears to be sniffing her, and Jessica, who hasn’t been lucid in weeks, mumbles quietly as he works. Then he straightens, turns, and pauses when he sees Xander.
 
“Um,” says Xander, who has very strong suspicions that this isn’t actually a man, and that he has been sent by someone who he hopes to never meet again in his life. “Candy striper. Wanted to see if Mrs. Harris needed anything. Are you family?”
 
The man eyes him narrowly, lets out a low growling noise, then rushes out of the room, brushing past Xander.
 
“Well,” Xander says after a few moments of silence. “Looks like you weren’t so great with that escaping bit after all, were you, Mom?”

 
A hush falls over Sunnydale.
 
Not metaphorically. Literally.
 
This is when Jessica’s liver chooses to fail, and the doctors tell Xander (scrawl on a piece of paper, with sympathetic looks on their faces) that Jessica will be lucky to make it through the next twenty-four hours, and that they have maybe thirty at most before she’s going to die.
 
One look, and this time Spike follows him into the room.

 
Jessica is unconscious. The doctors say (write) that she would be excruciating pain if they woke her up, and especially now that no one can speak, it’s really just better to let her slumber on in peace. Xander’s mostly okay with this, since Jessica wouldn’t have understood any goodbye he’d manage to come up with anyway.
 
He walks into the room, gripping Spike’s hand tightly as he does so.
 
It’s so quiet.
 
And she’s so still.
 
Xander squeezes Spike’s hand. It’s pure chance that there’s anyone here at all. Without the ability to speak, he can’t even call Tony to tell him to come see his wife in her final hours, let alone Willow or Buffy. So he’s going to spend these hours with Spike. It could be worse.
 
Feet away from Jessica’s bed, Spike suddenly stops and inhales.
 
It takes Xander a moment to figure out what Spike smells, but when it hits him he immediately banishes it from his mind because that is the last thing he wants to think about today. Spike turns sharp blue eyes on him moments later, but Xander shakes his head, puts on his best pleading expression, and mouths, “Not now, please.”
 
Spike stares at him for a long moment. Clearly, a lot of things have just slid in place for him and he’s bursting to talk about it, but with a visible effort he seems to rein himself in and calm down.
 
Xander lets out a slow breath.
 
On the bed, Jessica inhales and exhales in rhythm with the heart monitor.
 
Xander sits in the chair next to her bed, and Spike stands next to him. He thinks about taking one of Jessica’s hands into his own, but instead he reaches up and grabs one of Spike’s, resting his elbow on the arm of the chair. Spike squeezes his fingers briefly.
 
There are no words.
 
Jessica dies in absolute silence. 

Chapter Text

 
Xander writes on an index card and hands it to Tony.
 
Tony reads it, crumples the card and tosses it away, then focuses back on the television.
 
MOM IS DEAD. 

 
The next morning, there’s a knock at the door to the basement and Xander finds a new index card taped to the side of the basement doorway.
 
FUNERAL TODAY AT NOON. RESTFIELD. 
 
Apparently Tony’s still good for some things.

 
Xander goes to Buffy and Willow’s dorm but they aren’t there. He imagines that they’re off fixing this laryngitis outbreak—or whatever the hell it actually is—and are probably cracking books at Giles’. Neither one of them really knew Jessica. Xander isn’t even sure that he liked her. He decides that saving the world from laryngitis is probably more important than attending a funeral with your emotionally conflicted friend, who isn’t even sure if he’s sad that the deceased is… well, deceased.
 
It’s a silent funeral.
 
Just Xander, Tony, and the priest, who can’t even speak the funeral rites—he gives it a good go, though, mouthing along even though he can’t actually make the sounds, until Tony gets fed up with it and makes a violent slashing motion with his hand.
 
The casket is cheap-looking and the headstone is small. It’s not even one of those headstones where there’s room for the living partner—just Jessica’s name and dates.
 
They all stand around awkwardly for a few minutes.
 
Xander kind of wishes for Spike.
 
There’s nothing to do but bury her, and it’s dead boring standing around here staring at the ground, but for some reason Xander doesn’t want them to go ahead with it. He wishes that he could speak. He wishes that the priest would speak so that he could listen and not think about the fact that his mother is dead.
 
His mother is dead. He doesn’t even know how to feel about it.
 
When Tony shakes his head and waves his hand, indicating that they should start digging, Xander feels something inside of him lurch and he wants to yell, “No, no, you can’t! You can’t do that yet! Stop!” but he’s got no voice.
 
Tony leaves.
 
Xander stays, but he’s not sure why.

 
Spike’s holding an index card when he gets home. It takes Xander three times to get him to hand it over, and when he does, it’s still with great reluctance.
 
SELLING THE HOUSE. BE OUT BY SUNDAY. 

 
Spike holds him for a long, long time.

 
“You want answers, don’t you?”
 
It feels weird to make noise, even after having his voice back for a few hours, now.
 
Spike stares at him, dressed in his usual black jeans and t-shirt, lying on his side with his head propped up on his hand. It’s the middle of the afternoon; yesterday at this time, they were dumping the last of the dirt over Jessica’s grave. Yesterday is suddenly feeling real.
 
“Be nice,” Spike says. “Understand if you’re not ready, though.”
 
Xander inhales. “No. I’m okay. She was… it’s better that she’s gone. I’d rather talk about this than figure out where the hell I’m living this weekend, anyway.”
 
Spike apparently has no comment on that.
 
Xander can understand that.
 
“So,” he says, inhaling. “Um. You probably guessed, but my mother was a vampire’s consort.”
 
Spike nods.
 
“Yeah. I guess she smells funny or something—vamps usually get a good whiff of her and run,” Xander says with a shrug.
 
“She’s claimed,” Spike explains readily. “Anything happens to her and her Master’s going to know it. Not just anyone who can take on a consort, pet. Takes power. Makes minions think twice before they hurt a consort.”
 
“Right. So she’s a tree that some dog peed on.”
 
“No, s’not like that at all—”
 
“It was for her,” Xander interrupts, pushing himself up so that he’s sitting upright. “Her Master—he treated her like a slave. Like a possession. She was so desperate to get away that she turned to alcohol, cigarettes, LSD… I think she even did crack for a while. ‘Just make yourself ugly and worthless, Xander, and you’ll be free.’ That’s what she used to tell me.”
 
“So, what, she got herself disowned?” Spike asks, frowning. “Didn’t think it was possible. Thought once you were bonded…”
 
“I don’t know what actually happened,” Xander admits. “This is just what I’ve pieced together over the years, things that she would say and things that I… remember.”
 
“Remember?” Spike repeats, frowning.
 
“Hold your horses, Fang Face. I’m getting there.” Xander draws his legs in so that he’s sitting Indian-style now, and looks down at his hands before he goes on. “Her Master never broke the bond between them. He left her, but the bond was still there. And when a consort’s separated from their Master they feel a… tug thing.”
 
Spike looks impatient now, and Xander hurries along.
 
“She married my dad and had me right after he left her, I think,” he continues. “And she was all right until I was about eight or nine, and that’s when I think it got to be too much. The Tug, I mean. So… enter the drinking and the crazy. She wasn’t even surprised when they diagnosed her with liver cancer. Said death had been her backup plan if she hadn’t managed to get her Master to let her go, anyway.”
 
Xander pauses. He sucks in a breath.
 
“He came back, once, when I was four. I remember thinking that he was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.”
 
Spike’s eyes narrow. “You met him?”
 
“He bit me and drank my blood,” Xander says quietly, “while Mom stood by and told me to be quiet.”
 
A low growl escapes from Spike’s throat, and his eyes flash yellow.
 
“No, don’t get all Ben-Hur on me right now.” Xander hesitates, and then bites his lip. “He said I had the most delicious blood he’d ever tasted, said that it sang to him, that he’d never smelled anything like me. He almost took me away. I remember my mother pleading for him to let me stay with her.”
 
Another growl.
 
Xander shifts uncomfortably, edging away from Spike ever so slightly. “Look. Do you get why I’m not so big on the consort thing, now?”
 
“What’s his name?” Spike demands.
 
“I don’t know.”
 
“What’s his  name?
 
“Stop it!” Xander snaps, this time actually scooting backwards about a foot on the bed. “I don’t know his name. I’m not telling you this because I want you to go out and—and be some knight in shining armor for me. I’m telling you because I want you to understand that I will never be your consort. I’m not a thing .”
 
Spike visibly forces himself to calm. “Look. Pet. I don’t see you as a thing. I couldn’t love a thing. Whatever happened with your mum, it doesn’t sound like her Master loved her at all.”
 
“You don’t know that. You don’t know what their relationship used to be,” Xander insists. “All we know is what it turned into.”  
 
“You ever read up on consort bonds?” Spike asks.
 
Xander snorts. “No. I think I’ve had more than enough personal experience with them, thanks.”
 
“Pet—Xander, the bond that forms between a Master and a consort, s’different for each relationship. If you’ve got a consort that you only see as a possession, then you’re going to get a bond that won’t give them any freedom, see?”
 
“It doesn’t matter,” Xander says stubbornly. “I won’t do it. People spend their whole lives in non-mystical relationships.”
 
“You’d be protected, you could live longer—”
 
“Spike, I’m nineteen years old!” Xander explodes, uncurling a little on the bed. “Nineteen. Not even two decades into this whole living thing—I’m not ready to spend my whole life with someone.”
 
“And every year you’re dying,” Spike counters, eyes flashing yellow again. “Every single night you walk around the bloody Hellmouth like a bleeding happy meal on legs, defenseless and weak and—”
 
“Yeah, well, nineteen years is a pretty fucking good track record, if you ask me.”
 
“I love you.”
 
Xander jerks his gaze up to the ceiling, choking on his next breath. “Don’t say that.”
 
“Why not?” Spike demands. “Why can’t I say it? You don’t think I mean it? I love you.”
 
“Spike, stop. Stop saying it.”
 
“I love you.”
 
“Stop it.”
 
“Doesn’t matter whether I say it, because I’m going to feel it anyway. I love you.”
 
“I mean it, stop.”
 
“I lo—”
 
STOP!
 
Spike stops, and even Xander is startled into silence at how loud his voice is.
 
Upstairs, a floorboard creaks.
 
Xander’s heart jumps into his throat as he freezes.
 
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Spike says loudly, bouncing up off the bed. Tilting his head back to the ceiling, he starts to yell. “Hey, wanker! C’mon down here and—”
 
“Spike, stop!” Xander practically falls off the bed as he lunges at Spike.
 
“—I’ll show you how to fight like a man, you pathetic girl’s blouse, waste of—”
 
“Stop, stop, stop, stop!” Xander says frantically, wrestling to get a grip on Spike, to get a hand over his mouth, to get him to  stop shouting  but Spike’s too strong— “God, please stop, please…”
 
“—c’mon and fight me! Get down here! Fuckin’ dare you, fuckin’  dare  you to show your face, fuckin’—”
 
“—please stop, please, stop, stop—” Xander seizes two fistfuls of the front of Spike’s t-shirt, desperate, and jerks him as hard as he can. “Stop!”
 
“Why?” Spike demands, shoving Xander away. “Why should I shut up? Let him come down here, and I’ll bash his soddin’ face in, give him what he deserves. Got half a mind to just go up there and do it right now.”
 
“You can’t,” Xander says desperately. “You can’t, just leave him alone. We’re moving out in a few days. It doesn’t even matter anymore.”
 
“Yes it does ,” Spike says furiously.
 
“Why?”
 
“Because I’m tired of seeing you flinch every time you hear that tosser move,” Spike grits out, eyes flashing yellow again. “Kills me to watch it, every single bleeding day.”
 
Xander flushes.
 
Upstairs, the floorboards have gone silent and there is no scrape of the basement door opening.
 
“It doesn’t matter,” he mutters, not looking Spike in the eye now. “He’s kicking me out in a few days anyway.”
 
“Should go out with a bang,” Spike presses, now sounding a bit more moody than angry, which is progress. “Don’t just go creeping out the back door like some kind of kicked puppy.”
 
“Yeah, well, that’s me. Pathetic as usual,” Xander says under his breath.
 
Spike opens his mouth, stares at Xander for a long moment, then snaps it shut and shakes his head. He holds up his hands in a gesture of defeat and turns around, strolling across the room and plopping down on the couch.
 
Xander blinks after him.
 
Upstairs, the floorboard creaks.
 
He flinches, and catches himself.
 
“God dammit.”
 
He really needs to figure out where he’s going to be living on Sunday.

 
Xander isn’t sure why he expects to see Buffy when the door to their room opens—probably, it’s just because the last few times he’s knocked, it’s always been Buffy who answered—but this time, it’s Willow who answers, and he can’t help but feel a little startled.
 
He has a split second view of her face lighting up, before he finds himself wrapped up in a massive Willow-hug. “Xander!”
 
“Hey, Wills,” he says, unable to stop the smile that spreads across his face. “Long time no see.”
 
“You’re telling me, mister!” Willow exclaims, releasing him to poke him in the chest, and then drag him into her room. “You’ve missed so much stuff that’s been happening—Hellmouth  and  otherwise,” she adds, doing her slightly awkward eyebrow wiggle. They’d spent a whole week in front of the bathroom mirror, when they were eight, trying to get it down (without much success).
 
“Yeah, well, same here,” Xander replies. “Though not so much with the Hellmouth stuff. Just the otherwise stuff.”
 
Willow frowns. “Is everything okay with your mom?”
 
Xander pauses and glances around. “Is Buffy here?”
 
“No, she’s… well, I’ll tell you in a bit. Xander, what happened?”
 
“Well, I wanted to get this out of the way in one go, but I guess I’ll just tell Buffy later,” Xander says, shaking his head.
 
He doesn’t relish the thought of doing this twice. No sir, not one bit.
 
“What?” Willow asks with a frown. “What happened?”
 
“My mom…” Xander winces. “Died. Tuesday. There was—something—and the doctors only gave her a few hours to live. It was during that laryngitis thing, whatever it actually was, and I couldn’t call anyone from the hospital, since, you know, with the not having a voice and everything.”
 
Willow’s eyes are round and her face is astonished.
 
“S—she’s dead? Like, dead dead?”
 
“Not undead, if that’s what you mean,” Xander says with a quick grin.
 
Willow shakes her head slowly, eyes never leaving his face. “Oh, Xander. That must have been awful. I’m—I’m so sorry. If I had known… I mean you, all alone, and your mom dying… ”
 
Xander waves a hand. “No, don’t worry about it. I mean, you guys were super busy saving the world and stuff. And it’s not like Mom and I were ever close.”
 
“But—but you’re so… all right,” Willow says, staring at him in confusion. “Your mom died. You can’t be all right.”
 
“Sure I can—I’m fine,” Xander assures her. He flashes her his best smile. “Really. You know what my mom was like. You know Dad and I were the only people at the funeral?”
 
“You already had the funeral!” Willow cries, disbelieving.
 
Xander raises his eyebrows, and nods.
 
“Well… Wha…” Willow attempts to speak a few times, and then her shoulders slump and she stares up at Xander with something like exasperation. “How are you all okay with this?”
 
Xander shrugs, and doesn’t think of nights alone with Spike. “I’ve had time to deal with it. It’s not like I haven’t known this was coming for weeks, now.”
 
Willow stares at him with blatant frustration. “That’s not—I—do you need anything? Food? A sleepover?”
 
Xander shakes his head.
 
“Can I at least give you a hug?”
 
He rolls his eyes. “I think I can manage to accept that.”
 
Willow hugs him. Hard. Really hard.
 
“Ow,” Xander mutters, even though it’s unmanly.
 
“You should have come and gotten me for the funeral, at least,” Willow says sternly, releasing him.
 
“I, um, did,” Xander says. “Or I tried to. You and Buffy weren’t here, and there was still not so much speaking going on. I figured you guys were out saving the world, doing things more important than a lousy funeral.”
 
“Never!” Willow protests. She goes in for yet another hug. “There is nothing more important to me than my Xander. Even the end of the world. Got it?”
 
Xander closes his eyes and wraps his arms around her, smiling faintly. “Got it.”
 
“Good,” Willow says firmly. “Now.”
 
“Buffy?” Xander asks.
 
“Oh. Right.” Willow does her attempt at eyebrow-wiggling again, a grin on her face. “She’s with Angel .”
 
Xander blinks. “Angel, I-hate-blue-balls-so-I’m-heading-to-L.A.-and-you-all-have-a-nice-life-now Angel? Angel unsoul-me-for-a-lark Angel? That Angel?”
 
“That Angel,” Willow confirms.
 
“Oh,” says Xander.

 
Willow sits him down on her bed, and they end up cross-legged opposite each other. Then she explains.
 
“Remember that Initiative thing we were looking into?” Willow asks.
 
Xander nods slowly.
 
“Well, it turns out they’re this uber-secret government project that’s doing experiments on demons and stuff,” Willow says, lowering her voice. She glances at the door. “And the guy Buffy’s been dating, Riley? He’s part of it. Like a super-special-secret agent man. Cool, huh?”
 
“Experiments?” Xander repeats blankly.
 
Somewhere in his mind, a voice is crowing victoriously. Hah! I was right! It is dangerous, it’s the fucking government, there’s no way Spike would have been safe. Take that!
 
He is a mature individual and steadfastly ignores it.
 
Willow nods. “Yeah, this is the not-so-great part. See, Angel’s friend had some vision around Thanksgiving that Buffy would need his help, so he came up here without telling any of us, but then he got captured by the Initiative and they put this chip in his head—he can’t hurt another living being. Like, not even the rats in the alleyway. So he turned up at Giles’ looking for bagged blood, and Buffy was there, and then she found out that Riley’s a part of this project…”
 
“So… no more Riley?” Xander ventures.
 
“Well, Buffy didn’t really tell him that she’s still kind of in love with one of his Hostiles—that’s what they call the demons. Hostiles. Isn’t that weird? Anyway, I don’t know what Buffy’s going to do. We don’t know what Angel’s going to do, either. He turned up just when The Gentlemen came to town—”
 
“The who?”
 
“The Gentlemen. Hellmouthy laryngitis stuff.”
 
“Right.”
 
“Anyway, Angel showed up all injured and stuff from escaping, and he’s almost recovered now, but… I mean, his business is helping people, but he can’t even grab someone’s arm too roughly. Kind of a problem, right?”
 
“So Angel can’t physically hurt anyone. Ever,” Xander surmises. “Like, not even if he loses his soul again?”
 
Willow nods. “Yep. So much as a harmful thought and he’s bent over in excruciating pain. I think it’s maybe a good idea for other vampires, but it’s a horrible thing to happen to Angel. He doesn’t deserve it at all—he’s a good guy, and they’ve just gone and made him completely helpless. It’s awful.”
 
“Maybe Riley would know how to, I don’t know, shut it off?” Xander suggests distractedly. All he can think about is Spike with this chip, unable to kill, unable to feed, unable to beat anyone up—not Tony. Not Xander.
 
“We’re working on it,” Willow says, nodding. “I’ve been looking into spells and stuff, but the problem is you can’t just make things vanish, you know…”
 
Now the thought of Spike in a cage, beaten and broken, flashes through his mind. Xander swallows uneasily. “So that’s what’s got all the demons scared, then? Are they all getting chips?”
 
Willow shakes her head. “I don’t know what they’re doing to the other demons—it’s not just vampires. Angel said they’ve got all sorts down there, and he saw demons with missing limbs, hooked up to machinery… I know they’re not human, but it’s still kind of awful, isn’t it?”
 
“Yeah, it’s a lot awful,” Xander snaps before he even knows what he’s saying. “It’s one thing to kill them, but to torture them?”
 
“It’s not torture,” Willow says uncertainly. “It’s—they’re just researching. You have to know about things to defeat them, isn’t that what Giles is always teaching us?”
 
Xander opens his mouth to protest, but then decides against it. “All I know is that I don’t like it. Angel should get the hell out of Dodge while he’s got the chance, if you ask me.”
 
He suddenly feels the urge to get back to the basement.
 
“What about you?” Willow asks. “Are you gonna be around? I miss you, and so do Buffy and Giles.”
 
“I miss you guys too,” Xander says honestly, “but I don’t know. I’m moving out of the house, so I really can’t afford to lose my job because I got kidnapped by a giant centipede or something, you know?”
 
“You’re moving out?”
 
It sounds so good to say it like it’s his choice, and Willow sounds so excited to hear it, Xander can’t help but grin a little bit. “Yep. This Sunday.”
 
“That’s so exciting!” Willow squeals, bouncing a little on the bed. “Xander, I’m so happy for you. Do you need any help packing? Moving? Organizing?”
 
“Nah. I’m just moving into a motel for a while until I can find a real place, it’s not that big of a deal,” Xander says lightly.
 
Willow frowns. “A motel?”
 
“Just until I can find a real place,” Xander reassures her. “Don’t worry. I lived in one for three months when I was in Oxnard, I’m a professional motel-liver now.”
 
“Oh, really?” Willow asks, quirking an eyebrow.
 
“Yep. I got all the tricks of the trade, right up here,” Xander says, with a tap to his head.
 
Willow still looks slightly doubtful.
 
“It’ll be better than the basement,” Xander offers—because as troubled as he is over leaving, that fact remains undisputable. “Namely in that it won’t be underground, and isn’t right under my parents’ house.”
 
“All right,” Willow says reluctantly. “But don’t ever hesitate to spend the night with Buffy and I. And hey! Just because you’re not up for slaying doesn’t mean we can’t still hang out.”
 
Xander raises his eyebrows. They haven’t done non-slaying things together in… well… yeah.
 
“We could… do dinner!” Willow suggests brightly. “Once a week. At Giles’ house!”
 
“Oh, he’ll love that,” Xander says, rolling his eyes.
 
“Yes, he will. He misses you too, you know.”
 
“Right,” says Xander.
 
Willow smacks him lightly on the side. “When did you get so sarcastic, mister? Yes, he does.”
 
“All right, all right!” Xander cries, holding up his hands. “He misses me. Yeesh. No need for violence.”
 
Willow looks rather pleased with herself.
 
“I’ll call you when I’m moved in, and we’ll talk about dinner, okay?” Xander says.
 
“Oh. Are you leaving?” Willow asks disappointedly.
 
Xander nods. “I’ve got to get packing—I’m going back to work tomorrow, and that cuts down on my packing time a lot, so…”
 
Willow raises an eyebrow. “When did you become Mr. Responsibility?”
 
Xander shrugs.
 
“Do you have time for one more hug, before you leave?”
 
Of course Xander does.
 
They end up embracing a little longer than necessary, playing an old game where they squeeze each other tighter and tighter until someone calls for mercy. Xander lets Willow win. The shadows of Oz’s departure aren’t quite gone from her eyes.



When Spike hears what happened to Angel, he bursts out laughing.
 
“Serves that wanker right, don’t it,” Spike says gleefully, when he calms down a bit. “Wanted to play at bein’ human, didn’t he? See how well he can help the sodding hopeless now.”
 
Xander blinks.
 
“What’s that look for? You want me to feel bad that Captain Forehead got himself neutered?”
 
“I thought—I don’t know.” Xander shrugs. “Isn’t he like your vampire granddaddy or something?”
 
Spike lets out a bark of laughter. “That souled-up ponce? Don’t bloody think so. Now Angelus…” He sobers a little.
 
Xander watches curiously.
 
“Well, he’ll definitely be a bit cranky about being a eunuch vampire if he ever comes back,” Spike says, his smile now a little grimmer than it was before. “Could have a bit of fun when he first comes crawling back, be worth the punishment, no doubt about it. But he’s a clever bastard. He’d figure out a way around it soon enough, I expect.”
 
“Right,” Xander says, after a moment. “Well. Um. I think the take-home message here is that the Initiative is kind of dangerous and you should be really careful when you go out.”
 
Spike snorted. “Like I’d be stupid enough to get caught.”
 
“Angel got caught,” Xander points out.
 
“He was probably swanning around, blowing those enormous, self-righteous farts out of his arse, like usual. Of course he got caught,” Spike says dismissively.
 
Xander gives him an unimpressed look, which he’d actually learned from Spike himself (Spike doesn’t know this). “Look, if they can take Angel—Angel, who’s how many years your senior—they can probably take you.”
 
Pause.
 
“Yeah, all right,” Spike admits, a little grouchily. “I’ll watch my back. But don’t get any ideas about me being some kind of house-vamp or something. M’still the Big Bad.”
 
“We’re moving to a motel, anyway. You can be a motel-vamp.”
 
“Right. About that.”
 
“What?” Xander asks slowly, dreading whatever Spike has to say because it’s Spike and this isn’t going to be good.
 
“Well, here’s the thing, pet,” Spike says, shifting a bit. “Hypothetically speaking, if I were to nick some dosh from shops downtown, would that sit all right with your little moral code thing?”
 
“Uh.” Xander is taken aback by the question itself, as well as the idea of Spike needing money for something. “Well, as a general rule, I’m against all stealing, so probably not so much with the sitting… with, uh, me.”
 
Spike frowns. “How about foo—er, people I’m eating? Since they’re dead and all.”
 
“Okay, just—don’t talk about eating people, please?” Xander asks weakly, holding up a hand. “Because that sits so wrong with my moral code, it’s actually sitting on its head.”
 
“S’a no, then?”
 
Yes, that’s a no.”
 
Spike frowns. “What if I…”
 
“What do you need money for, anyway?” Xander interrupts, before Spike can suggest selling organs on the black market or trafficking drugs to high-schoolers.
 
“M’gonna pay for the motel.”
 
Xander stares. “What?
 
“The motel. I’m paying for it,” Spike says, with a stubborn set to his face. “It’s either that, or you let me have a go at your tosser of a father.”
 
“Are you blackmailing me into accepting blood money?” Xander demands. “Seriously?”
 
“I’d rather have a go at your father, if you’re wondering.”
 
Xander sighs.
 
Spike shifts a little more. “And, er, about yesterday. I wa—”
 
“Can we just forget it?” Xander interrupts.
 
Spike blinks. “Forget it?”
 
“Forget it.”
 
There is a long, drawn-out silence in which Spike studies Xander. Finally, almost a full minute later, he nods.
 
“Forgotten, then.”

 
The motel is about the same as the one Xander spent the summer in, with the exception of it having red carpeting rather than blue, and that the vending machine is a little bit farther away (but this one has Pringles).
 
Xander stands in the doorway, staring at his drab new home as something hard plunges into the bottom of his stomach.
 
This isn’t just for a summer. This is where he lives now.
 
“What’s the hold up?” Spike asks, coming up behind Xander. “Cockroaches?”
 
“Nothing,” Xander says quickly, stepping into the room and setting his trash bag full of clothes on the floor. “Just… taking in the sights.”
 
Spike surveys the room with a critical eye.
 
“Home sweet home,” Xander says under his breath. He never thought he’d miss the basement.
 
“S’not so bad,” Spike offers. “Got cable. And a south-facing window.”
 
The clerk hadn’t even blinked at Xander’s request for a south-facing window. He’s trying not to think about what that said about the typical customers of the motel.
 
“Here,” Spike says, taking something that looks like a piece of paper out of his pocket. He walks over to the bed, pulling a pushpin out of nowhere and unfolding the paper, and then pinning the paper to the wall with certainty.
 
OXNARD.
 
Spike looks to Xander in askance. “Better?”
 
Xander nods his head fractionally. It’s just a piece of paper, with a footprint on it from before Spike had picked it up to write on, and it somehow makes the room look even more run-down and pathetic because it’s a freaking piece of paper—but still.
 
But still.
 
Looking at it, he can even manage a weak smile.

 
Xander goes to visit Giles. This time, Giles answers the door with more than a bathrobe.
 
He updates Giles over a cup of tea at the kitchen table, feeling slightly awkward about the whole thing and unsure of why he’s here in the first place. Giles is his usual self—clumsily comforting, before briskly moving on to the practical—and for once, Xander appreciates it. They’re in the middle of talking about Willow’s idea of a weekly meal when Angel appears out of nowhere.
 
“Deadboy,” Xander says, feeling something inside him slam closed as he sits up straighter.
 
Angel’s eye twitches. “Xander.”
 
“Tea?” Giles offers, turning toward Angel.
 
“I’m good,” Angel says. He looks at Xander for another long moment, forehead creasing ever so slightly. It’s just long enough to make Xander wonder what Angel’s looking at, but not long enough for him to get his mouth open for a snarky comment, because the moment he has one ready Angel looks away.
 
“Do you need anything?” Giles asks politely.
 
It occurs to Xander that Angel must be staying here. 
 
Poor Giles.
 
“I just heard voices, thought I’d come down to check it out,” Angel answers, eyes flickering back to Xander. “Buffy told me about your mother. I’m sorry to hear about it.”
 
Xander shifts uncomfortably. “Thanks.”
 
There’s an awkward moment of silence before Angel finally decides to leave the room, and Xander is so relieved that he doesn’t even realize that he’s sharing a look of exasperation with Giles until it’s over.

 
It becomes apparent why Angel was staring at Xander the following day, when he returns to the motel room and finds a game-faced Angel struggling to pin Spike to the wall by his neck.
 
Upon Xander’s entrance, Spike lets out an almighty bellow and surges forward. Angel just barely manages to slam him back against the wall.
 
“Xander, get out of here,” he grunts, fighting to keep Spike at bay.
 
“You get out of here, you great bloody brute,” Spike snarls, clearly fighting with all he has. “Got no right, no fucking right.”
 
“Ooookay. So I’m gonna go with the obvious question here and ask: what the hell is going on?” Xander says, eyes not leaving the struggle that is still going on right before his eyes.
 
“Captain Fatarse here thinks I’m stalking you,” Spike spits, taking a break to scowl at Angel. “Thinks I’ve got designs on you or something, suck your blood and rot like that.”
 
“Oh,” Xander says, momentarily taken aback. He turns to Angel. “Yeah, not so much with the stalking. I mean, yeah, maybe a little at the beginning when he’d stand outside behind my work and wait for my shift to be over, but other than that, it’s been… um… What’s the buzzword I’m looking for? Consensus?”
 
“Consensual,” Spike grits out. “It’s bloody consensual. Now leave off, would you?”
 
“Consensual,” Angel repeats disbelievingly.
 
“Would you let him go already?” Xander bursts out, gesturing at Spike. “You don’t have to—he’s not going to attack me or something.”
 
“What, exactly, is consensual?” Angel asks Spike, not releasing his grip one bit. “Have you been feeding off of him?”
 
“Eugh! No way!” Xander says, at the same time Spike spits out a rather venomous, “None of your bloody business, now is it?” 
 
“He’s never bitten you?” Angel asks, turning to Xander.
 
Xander opens his mouth to reiterate his earlier statement of “Ew gross” when out of nowhere, Spike yowls and vamps out, surging forward. It’s a movement so sudden that even Angel is taken off-guard, enough so that Spike gets free.
 
“Hah!” Spike cries triumphantly, moments later, when he’s gotten Angel pinned to the floor. “Take that, you bloody pillock.”
 
Seeing Angel’s face pressed into the faded, flat blue carpeting, Xander is reminded that Angel has a chip in his head, a chip that prevents him from hurting humans, and that he was recently captured and experimented on and only just escaped. It’s not that he feels bad. He feels… He feels like enough is enough. He feels like he’s tired of yelling and fighting.
 
“Spike, let him go,” Xander requests, suddenly feeling tired.
 
“Let him go?” Spike says incredulously. “Let him go? What, so he can go prancing off to his Slayer and she can come pay us a visit tomorrow? I don’t think so.”
 
“He doesn’t need to tell Buffy about this,” Xander says. He fixes a pinned Angel with a look. “Right?”
 
“She should know,” Angel counters. “If you see her as any kind of friend, she should know.”
 
Xander winces slightly. “I know. I am going to tell her. Just, with things and my mom—” He pauses and steels himself. “Look, I’ll tell her. I will. In the meantime, you don’t have the right to tell her for me.”
 
Angel eyes him for a moment, assessing him, before finally—grudgingly—acquiescing. “You have my word.”
 
Spike laughs harshly, and slams Angel’s face into the carpet with vigor. “Supposed to just take you at your word, are we? I don’t think so. Your word isn’t worth shite to me—you’re too slippery a bastard for that, Angelus.”  
 
“I’m not Angelus,” Angel says, voice muffled by the carpet.
 
“Still a slippery, lying bastard,” Spike replies, giving Angel’s head another good shove. “Still can’t trust you, can I?”
 
“What are you going to do, chain me up?” Angel asks, tone suddenly flippant and almost amused in a way that’s reminiscent of Angelus. “Keep me pinned to the floor of the motel until your boy here works up the courage to tell Buffy that he’s been fucking a vampire? Think we’ll be here a while.”
 
“My boy has more courage than you’ve got in your pinkie, and more courage than your little strumpet Slayer’s got in her fingernail,” Spike practically spits, his voice taut with obvious fury. “Keep you here as long as I like—or I could stake you. What d’you think of that? Put a nice long stake through your heart, I will.”
 
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Xander cries, stepping forward and raising his hands. “No staking, please.”
 
“Why not?” Spike challenges, eyes moving around the room, no doubt in search of something pointy and wooden. “Got some moral hang-up about staking vampires I don’t know about?”
 
“Well, no, but—”
 
Angel flies into motion and seconds later, Spike is flat on his back.
 
Xander blinks, astonished.
 
Angel looks at Xander, standing over Spike with no trace of triumph on his face. “If this isn’t what you want, you can come with me,” he tells Xander in a low voice, and there’s something in his tone that’s almost resigned, like he already knows what Xander’s answer is going to be.
 
Xander shakes his head. “I’m staying here.”
 
Angel gives him a searching look.
 
“Really,” Xander says. “I’m not going anywhere. You can go ahead and vamoose, any time now.”  
 
“I won’t tell anyone,” Angel promises, after a long moment, “but you should. Other people should know. Other people should be… watching.”
 
Xander swallows and doesn’t answer.

 
Three vampires, one Xander.
 
For once, Xander doesn’t have his mother, or Buffy, or even Willow with him to get him out of it.
 
Feet away from the door to his motel room where Spike is undoubtedly waiting for him with a long list of complaints stemming from the fact that the owner hasn’t gotten around to fixing their television yet and Xander won’t let him eat the man to alleviate some of his agitation, and Xander can’t make a sound. There’s a hand over his mouth and nose, keeping him from speaking in a way that’s all too familiar.
 
“Master’s been watching you, little pretty one,” one of them says with a wicked, fanged grin.
 
Xander struggles, using every last ounce of his strength to fight for his freedom, only half-registering what’s being said to him. If he could just—
 
“Can see why he wants him,” the other one pinning him down says. “Smells good.”
 
The third—the one not holding Xander against the wall—grunts in agreement. He’s fishing for something in his pockets, and Xander is trying his absolute hardest to get free, anything, even a limb, but the two have him pinned tightly against the wall. He can’t move his arms, his legs, can’t twist his head away. He can’t even breathe because the hand is over his mouth and his nose.
 
Then he spots the knife.
 
Blind terror explodes inside of him, giving him a burst of almost supernatural strength, and the moment his mouth is free he screams the first thing that comes to mind, so loudly he feels his throat might tear in two.
 
SPIIIIIKE!
 
He sucks in a quick, shallow breath and starts to scream again, but this time it’s muffled because they’ve got a hand over his mouth again, over his mouth and his nose and now he really can’t breathe. Oh, God. He can’t breathe at all.
 
He tries to bite the hand covering his mouth, but the knife is suddenly at his throat and he freezes.
 
“Nice and quiet, now,” the one with the knife says, oblivious to Xander’s choking. “We’re just going to take a little trip to see the Master—”
 
Spike barrels into the hallway, slamming into the vampire holding the knife and tackling him to the ground.
 
Xander has never in his life felt such a strong sweep of relief at the sight of one person. But when he sees Spike swinging around the door and not even pausing before throwing himself in to save Xander, his mind almost shuts down with the knowledge that it’s all going to be okay now. In the split second that Spike’s eyes lock onto his, just before Spike springs into action, Xander is chilled to the bone at the blazing fury he sees there. No one has ever looked so angry on his behalf, not even Willow.
 
This is what it feels like to be precious to someone.
 
Xander knows it, as something deep in his soul slides into place and he knows. Knows. This is what he’s been missing in his life.
 
The fight is short-lived. Spike snaps the vampire’s neck in a matter of minutes, then springs back up with a snarl directed at the two vampires still holding Xander against the wall.
 
“This one’s taken,” Spike says fiercely, turning on the other two vampires.
 
Xander can’t help the strange tingle that shoots straight down to his toes at Spike’s words. Also, the hand over his mouth and nose falls away, and oh yeah, that’s what it feels like to breathe.
 
Immediately, Spike launches into a fight with one of two remaining vampires. The vampire he isn’t fighting, though, the one still with Xander, he scrambles away, and for a moment it looks like he’s going to run. Xander’s still up against the wall, sucking in much-needed air, and is just about to turn his eyes to Spike’s fight when he realizes that no, no that vampire isn’t running away. Oh, no. No, no, no. That would be too easy.
 
That vampire’s getting the knife.
 
Xander registers this, but it takes his oxygen-deprived brain several seconds to make the rest of his body catch up. Then he’s tripping, falling over himself to get into the motel room, to get away from the vampire with a goddamn knife, but he’s too slow and the vampire seizes him, shoving him against the wall.
 
“Spike!” Xander cries, kicking and shoving as much as he can, but the vampire is easily over-powering him. “Spike, a little help!”
 
“Working on it,” Spike replies tersely, from somewhere else.
 
Xander can hear the sound of thuds and smacks as Spike wrestles with the other vampire, and the tingling feeling of relief and belonging is long gone. Spike isn’t going to save him in time. He’s going to die.
 
Thrashing as much as he’s able to, Xander tucks his head down to hide his neck and tries to buck the vampire off of him, but the hands pinning him down are like concrete. He’s grunting, struggling, flailing for anything to save himself right now—
 
Searing pain rips through his arm and he bellows in pain, vision going black.
 
He fights to recover, lurching upwards and shoving blindly at the vampire over nauseating pain in his left arm, and amazingly the vampire stumbles back with the bloody knife clutched in one hand and something else clutched in the other. Panting, Xander watches in a haze of pain and shock as the vampire pulls himself up on a concrete column and takes off running in the opposite direction.
 
Xander stares.
 
It's several moments before he stops staring and remembers that Spike is still fighting the other vampire—has him in a headlock by now, actually. The vampire is twitching, clearly in pain as Spike has his arm at a strange angle, but he's not whimpering like Xander would have been if Spike had put him in that position. 
 
It’s another moment before he realizes that Spike is taking the opportunity to have a little chat.
 
"—claim do you have to him?" the vampire is rasping, from inside the headlock. 
 
"He's mine," Spike says through gritted teeth, which have gone pointy at some point in his fight. "He's not for anyone else to have." 
 
"Haven't marked him," the vampire counters, almost insolently. "Haven't marked him so he isn't yours. My Master will have him and mark him, though. He'll have the boy by dawn." 
 
"Who's your Master?" Spike demands, wrenching the arm to the point where Xander can actually hear it crack a little. 
 
A strangled noise of pain escapes the vampire, but the only words that leave his mouth are a tense, "Whole court's here. Kill me and he'll send ten more—he wants the boy at all costs." 
 
"Then I'll kill the next ten as well, won’t I?" Spike snaps, and then with a sickening crack, he gives a violent twist of the vampire's head and snaps his neck. 
 
The explosion of dust that follows makes Xander try to scramble back before it showers down on him, but the use of his left arm sends stabbing pain driving straight down to the bone of his arm and he gasps at the sudden agony. His arm collapses out from under him, sending him to the ground. Seconds later, he finds himself face-to-face with a wide-eyed Spike. 
 
"Where did they get you?" Spike demands, even as his eyes zero in on Xander's arm. "Didn't bite you, did they?" 
 
Xander glances down at his arm for the first time, and immediately wishes that he hadn't. 
 
The sleeve of his shirt is gone, exposing his arm, and none of the skin underneath the four-inch gash is visible for the blood that is fairly streaming from the wound. It looks deep, and there's enough blood to make Xander realize that he's actually a bit dizzy. 
 
"Just the knife," he says shakily, tearing his eyes away from his arm. He focuses on breathing. "Spike, I think I need stitches." 

"Need to get inside," Spike replies, glancing around. "C'mon, up with you." 
 
Xander glances around too, but there's no sign of the vampire that ran off. There's no sign of anyone. 

It hits him again that if it hadn't been for Spike, he'd be on his way to see this Master right now. He'd screamed for Spike, and Spike had come. Spike had saved his life. 

Huh. 

 
Spike hauls Xander onto the toilet, hands him a rag with instructions to “put some bloody pressure on it” (and does not take kindly to Xander’s ensuing pun), and then he returns a minute later with a jackknife.
 
“I think I’ve had my fill of knives for tonight, thanks,” Xander says, eyeing it with trepidation.
 
“M’not gonna hurt you,” Spike responds, flicking it open. “Gotta get your shirt off.”
 
Xander swallows. “Look, I really think that a hospital would be a good idea. Giles has dragged Buffy to the ER for less, and she’s got Slayer healing super powers. And I’m not so much with the super powers, here. Did I mention I’m dizzy?”
 
“We’d be sitting ducks at the hospital. Tossers’ll be expecting us to go there,” Spike says, shaking his head.
 
“They’re really going to come back?” Xander asks. He tries not to sound too panicked at the idea.
 
Spike nods, kneeling in front of Xander and taking a fistful of t-shirt. “Some Master Vampire’s got his eye on you, pet, and he’s apparently got the whole sodding court here to make sure that you don’t get away.”
 
“Court?” Xander repeats, as he watches the knife cut a line down his shirt, slicing it in half. “Vampires have courts?
 
“’Course they do. You met old Batface a few years back, didn’t you? Had himself a court.” Spike nods to himself. Reaching the bottom of Xander’s shirt, he puts the knife away and starts tugging the shirt off. “Mostly just rabbles of minions. Waste of time, if you ask me.”
 
“How large a rabble are we talking here?” Xander asks apprehensively. “Like, mini rabble? Mega rabble? Entire-population-of-China rabble?”
 
Spike shakes his head. “Dunno. Anywhere from twenty to a couple of hundred.”
 
“Couple hundred?
 
“Not likely that many. If he can pick up and move his court from who bloody knows where just to grab a consort, it’s probably not larger than a hundred.”
 
“How did he know about me?” Xander asks, readjusting the washcloth as Spike pulls the last of his shirt off. The washcloth is almost entirely red. “Why me?”
 
“Don’t know,” Spike answers. He meets Xander’s eyes. “Wasn’t kidding when I said you’re like catnip for vampires, though. Could just be that he got a whiff of you and decided that you were what he wanted.”
 
Xander feels dizzy again. “Spike this is… This is crazy. There’s a hundred vampires out there looking to kidnap me. I… We should call Buffy.”
 
Spike’s face twists a little bit, and he grabs the washcloth from Xander with a little more force than necessary. “And what’s she going to do? Bint can fight off a hundred vampires on her own now, can she? Last I checked, she was struggling to handle one.”
 
“Spike, c’mon, that’s not fa—” Seeing the expression on Spike’s face, Xander quickly thinks of someone else. “What about… Angel? I know you don’t get along—”
 
“We are not calling that poofter in to help,” Spike interrupts. He reapplies a new, white washcloth to Xander’s wound with a tense expression. “He’s living off that animal blood, can’t fight worth shit right now.”
 
“Giles?” Xander suggests hesitantly.
 
“The librarian? The sodding librarian?” Spike explodes suddenly, shoving himself back and standing up. “Is there anyone else that you’d rather have with you right now instead of me? Please, tell me! I’ll go get them, and they can protect you, because I’m clearly not up to your bleeding moral standards.”
 
 Xander stares, flabbergasted. “Wait—what? When did I say that I’d rather have someone else here?”
 
“Did it never occur to you that I can protect you?” Spike demands. “Look, I might not be as good a fighter as your Slayer, and I might not be a hulking wall of muscle like Captain Forehead, and I might not know about demonology as much as that piddly Watcher, and maybe I don’t understand emotions and morals like Red does—but I’m bloody well good!
 
“Spike,” Xander says slowly, “we’re talking about possibly a hundred vampires to fight off, in one night. I can’t think of anyone who could do that alone. It’s got nothing to do with you not being bloody well good, because… you are. You’re amazing. I didn’t… until just out there…”
 
“You’ve got it wrong, though,” Spike says earnestly, bouncing right back. “I could protect you. Just me. From all of them.”
 
Xander tries to think of a delicate way to say this.
 
“Spike, I really don’t—”
 
“Not with fighting,” Spike says dismissively. “No, there’s a better way. Cleaner, simpler, less fighting.”
 
“Calling Giles, me spending the night in his house, where no vampires can get inside?” Xander suggests.
 
“Better,” Spike replies, eyes glinting. “That’s temporary. This is permanent. Keep you safe forever, it will.”

It starts to dawn on Xander like creeping vines, cold and slimy.
 
“I’m not…”
 
“If I made you my consort—”
 
“No. That is not happening.”

“Don’t you see?” Spike presses. “You’ve got two options. You’re either going to spend your whole life being chased by the demons who want to claim you, or you could be claimed and be safe.”
 
“You are not claiming me,” Xander says flatly. “That’s the end of the discussion. I’m not a thing.”
 
“You’d be safe,” Spike says, irritated now. “I wouldn’t turn you into a slave. Wouldn’t make you do anything you didn’t want to. Want you to be happy, and safe, and I’m telling you that as long as I can smell that blood of yours… I can’t even describe it. There’s this note of discord, and if you ever—”
 
“Stop it!” Xander interrupts, as memories of a night long, long ago flash in his mind, the cold words overlaying with Spike’s. “Just—just stop. You’re not claiming me.”
 
“Someone’s going to, whether you like it or not. The way you smell—”
 
“Would you stop talking about how I fucking smell!” Xander explodes, jerking his body in the most furious motion he can make with one limb out of commission. “I’m not a plant! I’m not a thing! I am a goddamn human being, and no one is ever going to own me!”
 
“Don’t be thick,” Spike snaps. “Tonight is a preview of what the rest of your life is going to be like—”
 
“What? That’s insane! One night, and suddenly I’m condemned to a life of running from crazy vampires? I’ve gone nineteen years—”
 
“—and if you keep with this stubborn act, you’re going to end up a slave to a Master who doesn’t love you when you could—”
 
“—it’s still a Master, whether or not they ‘love’ me, and I’ll never—”
 
“—you’re going to end up like your mother.”
 
Xander stops, mouth hanging open as the words lance him through the chest, and he struggles to breathe.
 
“I can keep you safe,” Spike says unrepentantly.
 
“No,” Xander says, slowly shaking his head.
 
Spike takes a step forward. “Yes. Yes, I can. This is something that I can do, something none of your little friends can do for you.”
 
“Spike, no,” Xander says again, scrambling to stand, but he’s dizzy from blood loss and by the time he gets up Spike is right there. “I said no.”
 
“No. No, we’re listening to Spike for once,” Spike says in a low voice, backing Xander up against the wall. “You’re just going to have to trust me.”
 
“You can’t make me,” Xander says stubbornly, even as his heart ratchets up into his throat. “You can’t make me do this, and I swear to God, if you—”
 
“I’m protecting you!” Spike snarls—actually snarls—and with a shake of his head he’s suddenly in game face. “I couldn’t bear it if someone else had you, Xander, if you turned into the same wreck that your mum did. I won’t let that happen.”
 
“This is not okay!” Xander struggles, but Spike pins him against the wall easily. “What happened to not wanting to hurt me? Huh? What happened to that?”
 
“S’like a shot, at the doctor’s,” Spike reasons, yellow eyes glittering. “For your own good.”
 
Xander’s breathing picks up and he can start to feel tears prickling at his eyes. “Spike, please.”
 
“You know how this works?” Spike asks.
 
Please.”
 
“I’m not going to stop drinking until you bite me back,” Spike tells him, relentless. “So if you want to live, you’d bloody well better bite back.”
 
A sob-like noise tears from Xander’s throat and he squeezes his eyes shut, gritting his teeth as Spike’s hands pin his shoulders against the wall of the motel room. There’s no point in calling for help. There’s no point in screaming at all.
 
He’s done this to himself.
 
He’s become his mother.
 
Teeth slide into his neck and he loses all the wind in his lungs at the pain that sears like lightning all the way down into his chest, his shoulders, up into his jaw—it hurts. Oh God, it hurts. And then Spike starts sucking.
 
It’s a peculiar feeling. Like when they take blood at the doctor’s office, only a lot faster, and a lot more dizzying. The pain of it fades quickly.
 
One of Spike’s hands squeezes his shoulder, indicating that this is his time to bite back. To become a consort—Spike’s consort.
 
Xander grits his teeth and keeps his eyes closed as more blood is sucked out of him.
 
He won’t bite back. He won’t. He’s going to die free, not a slave like Mom was.
 
Not like Mom.
 
Not.
 
Rational thought spirals away from him, and there is a period in which he floats between consciousness and unconsciousness, Spike’s sucking rhythmically, one hand giving his shoulder squeezes that were more and more insistent, which he should probably be responding to, but… no… he’s beyond that now. He’s beyond everything. He kind of feels like flying.
 
And it’s dark.
 
He flies into the dark.
 
He doesn’t come back up.

Chapter Text

Spike hadn’t meant to do it.
 
Honestly, he’d only meant to go until Xander was a bit woozy, then snarl a bit until Xander finally realized that this was the only sodding way there was to go about it, and then the stubborn whelp would bite back and everything would be fixed. Spike’s been drinking blood for a hundred and thirty years, and he knows how long to drink before a person begins to slide into unconsciousness, and he knows how long to drink before he crosses the line between ‘feeding’ and ‘killing’. Not that he’s ever really respected it (until Xander), but he’s always known .
 
So when Xander’s body suddenly slumps against his, Spike’s first reaction is surprise. His second is confusion. His third is dawning horror, as he remembers that Xander had already had grievous blood loss, was still losing too much blood out of that gaping slash in his arm, and that stupid, stubborn boy of his hadn’t bitten him back. Stupid boy.
 
The fourth reaction he has is panic, as he realizes that if he doesn’t get Xander to a hospital soon, he’s going to die.
 
Revving out of the motel parking lot with a haphazardly-strapped, dying human in the seat next to him, Spike hates Xander for being so bloody stubborn, hates whoever this Master is that set all this into motion, and as seems to be the status quo for his life, he really, really hates himself.

 
Xander floats to consciousness at the sound of a raised voice. He's not awake enough to register the words, and the vaguely nauseous feeling of being disconnected from his head leaves him eager to return to sleeping. Unfortunately, there's something about the tone of the words—something about that voice that he feels like he should be listening to—and it keeps him dimly awake.

"...couldn't really give a toss, actually. He's probably canoodling with your Slayer, if he's got any sense left in that massive head of his..." 

There's a steady beeping noise, and muted sounds of other voices, other people. 

"...danger!" 

He thinks that he should probably put some effort into processing these words. 

"Look, Watcher, I'm telling you everything that I know. Tell your Slayer to get her skinny little arse out there and dust this git before he..." 

The world swims for a few seconds as Xander almost dips back under, but at the last moment the angry voice pulls him back up. 

"That's none of your bloody business, you great tit! All I want is for Xander to be safe. I promise." 

That's his name. 

Someone's talking about him. 

"Fine. Send someone up here, I don't care. Send anyone stupid, though, and I'll rip their bloody head off." 

Phone. 

The person is on a phone. 

The connection seems important somehow, like he should try to wake up enough to process the words, but he can't bring himself to resist the next pull of unconsciousness as it tugs him down, down into darkness. 

 
Thuds. Kicks. 

A snap.

 


He's being moved. Strong arms lift him up from his resting place and carry him—the person carrying him is moving, running at a light jog, like the extra bulk of a person in their arms isn't even a slight hindrance to their gait. 
 
The vague disconnected feeling has receded, and he can feel little stabs of pain in one arm, and larger shocks of pain from his neck. Every bounce hurts. He feels slightly nauseous.
 
“…sss-uh…” is all he can manage to get out, stirring weakly. The pain is waking him up against his will.
 
It smells like leather.
 
“Waking up, pet?” Spike’s voice asks quietly.
 
He moves the arm that isn’t hurting, just a little bit, and coughs.
 
“Just taking a little trip, go back to sleep. Nothing to worry about.”
 
Xander swallows, trying to muddle through the memories in his head. He remembers an angry voice, and vampires, and… Spike…
 
“Hurts,” he breathes, because it does. He wishes he could sink back into unconsciousness because with every degree of awareness he’s gaining, he’s also gaining another ten of agony.
 
“I know it does,” Spike says in the same quiet tone, but this time it’s also soothing. “I know. Just got to get away from these bloody minions. Got the Slayer out looking for their Master, and if she’s half the Slayer you seem to think she is…”
 
Xander coughs again, this time wincing at the pain that flares in his neck, and forces his eyes open.
 
It’s all so fuzzy.
 
“Where are we?” he manages, unable to see much besides the night sky. He doesn’t trust himself to move his neck too much right now, not without knowing what kind of pain it’ll bring.
 
“On our way to the Watcher’s house,” Spike answers. “Got Peaches waiting there for us.”
 
Xander frowns, sifting through hazy memories. “You… You didn’t want to…”
 
It hits him.
 
For a moment, he can’t even speak. A million emotions are struggling to explode inside of him, but his head is still fuzzy so it’s like a slow-motion explosion inside of a pool of Jell-o. He can’t believe it.
 
He doesn’t even know what to do with the memory that’s replaying in his mind right now, over and over in all its gory detail.
 
“You bit me.”
 
Spike glances down. “Look, save it for the Watcher’s house, all right? We’ve got at least five vampires on our tail right now, and more on the way.”
 
Xander is quiet, letting the memory wash over him again. Spike forcing him against the wall. Spike holding him in place as his teeth sank into Xander’s neck. Spike drinking and drinking and not stopping—
 
“M’sorry,” Spike adds, voice dipping even lower. He’s not looking at Xander when he says it. “For… I’m sorry.”
 
Xander opens his mouth to answer that an apology didn’t change the fact that it had happened in the first place, and could very easily happen again, when a vampire flies out of nowhere and barrels right into them, knocking them both to the ground.
 
Pain ricochets up Xander’s arm and into his neck, and he hisses, stomach lurching.  
 
Spike wriggles out from underneath him as the vampire grabs onto Xander, but he’s no sooner dragging the vampire off of Xander when another one appears, and then another and another, until Xander loses count at eight. He struggles to get his limbs to work, but he feels heavy and disconnected—must be drugs from the hospital, I was in the hospital his brain wildly realizes—and he’s next to useless.
 
More vampires are appearing, and Spike is losing. He was at a serious disadvantage when it was eight, but now there are at least fifteen and there’s no way they’re getting out of this.
 
Xander is hauled up under the arms unceremoniously, and he tries his absolute hardest not to cry out in pain. It almost works. The two vampires holding him upright just tighten their hold and start to drag him away from where Spike is fighting a losing battle against more than a dozen minions.
 
“Spike, get out of here,” Xander calls, almost dizzily. He can’t get the words to yell. “Spike. Go.”
 
“I’m not leaving you here,” Spike replies doggedly. “Not leaving you.”
 
Xander’s being dragged backwards, half-stumbling, and he doesn’t have the strength to fight it. His mind is running in circles, not quite coherent enough to panic, and the nausea in his stomach is rising. He feels dizzy. The world looks funny.
 
Spike is losing.
 
Three of the vampires have almost got him in a hold.
 
Forcing himself to focus on Spike, Xander calls out again, “They’re going to dust you. Spike, they’re—”
 
The backward motion stops and he suddenly feels fingertips on his skull.
 
“I don’t think we’ll be doing that,” a deep, rich voice says. “Perhaps consciousness would not be most beneficial right now, though.”
 
Xander freezes.
 
“Wha—”
 
Spike doesn’t even get to finish his sentence before one of the vampires slams his head into Spike’s with a horrible smacking sound. Spike’s head lolls.
 
“Better,” the deep voice says.
 
Xander swallows and prays to anything and anyone that this is a nightmare, a trick, a hallucination—anything but reality.
 
Cold, glittering eyes lock onto his as the Master Vampire walks around, coming into Xander’s line of sight.
 
The beautiful, tan face hasn’t changed at all in the last fifteen years.
 
“Such classic beauty,” the man—vampire—says, staring at Xander with what can only be described as hunger. “Do you remember me, little one?”
 
“No,” Xander says, lying. He hopes this is the wrong answer. He hopes that it pisses him off and that he decides to kill Xander instead of enslaving him.
 
“I met you when you were very young,” the man says, not at all fazed. “I was struck by your beauty even then—I didn’t even catch your name.”
 
Xander says nothing.
 
“Why don’t you tell me, then?” the man suggests.
 
Just make yourself ugly and worthless, Xander, and you’ll be free.
 
Xander says nothing, again.
 
“Perhaps we will bargain? Here, I will give you my name: I am called Leonardo.” He pauses. “Now, it is your turn.”
 
Nothing.
 
Leonardo sighs and turns to the minion standing next to him—the one Xander recognizes with a flash of fear as the one who ran away with the knife and his shirtsleeve.
 
“He is called Xander, Master,” the minion says obediently. “And the one he is with is called Spike.”
 
“Mm.” Leonardo gestures to the vampires holding up an unconscious Spike. “Closer, please.”
 
Spike is brought forward.
 
Xander watches as, unexpectedly, Leonardo cracks a sudden smile. “Oh, I thought I’d smelled Aurelius in the air. William the Bloody, Xander?” he asks, turning to Xander with a small laugh. “What on earth are you doing with him?”
 
Xander doesn’t know what to say. Whatever Spike had done to him, he doesn’t want Leonardo to dust Spike—but he doesn’t know what answer to give in order to get Leonardo to let him go. Should he tell the truth? Should he—
 
Then Leonardo’s eyes fasten onto Xander’s neck.
 
Xander swallows, the swoop of dread like a punch in the stomach.
 
“Is he my competition, then?” Leonardo asks, now amused. “An insolent brat from a broken and scattered line? Xander, you are worth a vampire so much more than that.”
 
Like you?  Xander almost asks, but he restrains himself at the last minute.
 
“No matter, though. He’s obviously failed in claiming you,” Leonardo says dismissively. “I’d smell it if he had.”
 
“What is it with you guys and smelling?” Xander demands, before he can stop himself.
 
Leonardo’s head snaps around to stare at Xander, expression suddenly dangerous, and Xander could kick himself. Him and his big, stupid mouth.
 
“You have none of your mother’s passivity, it seems,” Leonardo says after a long moment. His tone is carefully controlled. “We’ll have to work on that. Perhaps a muzzle.”
 
Just make yourself ugly and worthless, Xander, and you’ll be free.
 
“You can muzzle my mouth, but I can still hate you,” Xander spits, with as much venom as he can muster right now. “You couldn’t even keep someone as weak as my mother—what makes you think you’ll be able to control me?”
 
Leonardo frowns. “Most definitely a muzzle, then. The speaking, Xander—it ruins the effect. You clearly missed out on your mother’s intelligence in addition to her passivity.”
 
“My mother was an idiot if she ever let herself belong to you,” Xander says, blurting out the first thing that comes to mind. His panic is rising as he sees Leonardo reaching into his pocket for something, and he prays to God that it isn’t some kind of torture device, or something that he’s going to use to kill Spike. “Or maybe she was just drunk when she agreed to enslave herself to you. She always did like to drink. Both my parents do. In fact, I’m pretty much fated to be an alcoholic myself—”
 
He stops as he sees what Leonardo draws out of his pocket.
 
“What is—is that a muzzle?” he asks, squinting to make sure that he’s seeing right. “Seriously? You keep one in your pocket?
 
“I normally use it for Ilse, but I’m sure she won’t mind sharing until I can get you one of your own. Ilse, you don’t mind, do you?”
 
Leonardo is looking at a woman that Xander hadn’t even noticed before. She is, in short, beautiful . Even in the dark, Xander can see the high cheekbones, full lips and silky hair, the smooth curves of her body, the power that flows through her with every motion she makes—it’s a vampiric beauty and a vampiric strength he sees in the lines of her body, but he can also see her chest rising and falling.
 
She’s human.
 
No, correction—she’s a consort. Lovelier, stronger, better.
 
Slave.
 
Ilse does not look particularly happy, but shakes her head nonetheless.
 
“Whoa,” Xander says, attempting to take a step back before he remembers that there are two vampires holding him in place. “Whoa. Okay. That isn’t actually going on my mouth, right?”
 
That’s exactly where it’s going.
 
“No—I— plffftt —”
 
The gag lodges soundly in his mouth as Leonardo fastens the straps around the back of his head, and Xander spends several seconds trying to push it back out, but it’s useless and spreads the foul taste of the rubber even further throughout his mouth, so he just glares.
 
Leonardo smiles at him, fingers going to Xander’s neck, and for the first time, Xander is aware that it’s bandaged and taped, which must have happened while he’d been out in the hospital.
 
“You think I don’t care about my consorts, but I do,” Leonardo tells him softly, eyes cold as ever. “I’d all but forgotten about you and your lovely eyes when I felt your mother pass away—did you know that, Xander? I felt her death, probably as keenly as you did. But even then, I didn’t remember you. It wasn’t until I arrived here and watched you at her grave that I remembered the little boy with beautiful curls and the most delicious blood I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting.”
 
Xander does his very best to make a face around the gag.
 
Apparently, he has some success with that, because Leonardo lets out a little laugh before turning away. “We’ll be going back, now. Bring the Aurelius brat as well. I have been meaning to find Drusilla again, I have not seen her in at least a century.”
 
Just when Leonardo is about to turn away, leaving Xander free to exhale in relief at the fact that Spike isn’t going to die yet, he stops and appears to think on something. When he finally comes to a decision, his gaze does not lock onto Xander, but onto Ilse.
 
“Ilse, you will not harm Xander. He is mine.”
 
Looking even more unhappy, Ilse gives Leonardo a stiff nod of acknowledgement.
 
And then they move.

 
Xander passes out during the walk to wherever they’re going. Whatever burst of adrenaline had gotten him through that initial encounter had left him minutes into their journey, and the resulting spiral into dizziness and pain had made unconsciousness a welcome relief. However, it does mean that when he awakens again, he has no idea where he is.
 
He awakens to find himself in a heap against a wall, the gag still firmly in place, and his hands now in shackles.
 
Also, his arm is aching fiercely, and someone has removed the bandages on his neck.
 
“Xander?” a voice whispers softly. “You awake, pet?”
 
Spike.
 
Slowly, Xander raises his head, blinking as his eyes adjust to the dim lighting of the little room. It smells like cement powder, and something about the muffled sound and the cold drafts makes him suspect that they’re underground.
 
Spike is standing on the opposite side of the room—a whole five feet away—with his arms chained above his head in shackles that hang from the ceiling. There’s dried blood on the side of his face, but otherwise he looks fine.
 
That is, until he gets a look at Xander.
 
“What the bloody hell is that?” he demands, rocking as far forward as he can in his chains. “Is that a muzzle? A sodding muzzle?
 
Xander nods.
 
“Oh, I’ll kill him,” Spike seethes, hands clenching and unclenching above his head. “Bloody rip his head off, I will. Shove a railroad spike in each eye, skin his belly, and rip his fingers right off his hand…”
 
Xander stares pointedly, unable to do much else.
 
Spike scowls impatiently at him. “Obviously not right now. Once we get out of this scrape, we’ll come back and kill ‘im.”
 
For a long moment, Xander stares. Eventually he just shakes his head.
 
“We’re gonna get out of this,” Spike tells him determinedly. “Look, I know I bollocksed things up earlier, but I got my head on right about things after that. Called the Watcher, got him to send to the Slayer out looking for this Master that’s come into town. Was supposed to be at his place hours ago. He’ll know something’s up.”
 
Xander can’t imagine what the phone conversation must have been like, when Spike had called up Giles for help. He kind of wishes that he’d been conscious for it. But if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that Giles isn’t going to assume that they’d gotten kidnapped on their way to his place—he’s going to assume that Spike went and ate Xander.
 
Which, come to think of it, isn’t too far from the truth.
 
Slowly, he shakes his head again. 
 
Spike rolls his eyes. “Don’t be such a Negative Nancy. Bet you’ve gotten out of worse situations than this loads of times, haven’t you? Just got to have the right attitude about things, is all. C’mon. Trust me, don’t you?”
 
Xander hesitates, swallows the well of guilt, and slowly shakes his head one more time.
 
“I—” Spike stops short, looking thrown.
 
Xander stares back. He wishes he could talk so that he could tell Spike that he isn’t angry . He doesn’t want Spike to get dusted or anything. It’s just that he doesn’t know how much he can trust someone who would rather kill him than argue with him, and he’s spent his whole life flinching away from people who should love him, and he doesn’t want to become his mother. But the muzzle is firmly in place, so all he can do is stare.
 
“Right,” Spike says at length. “Well. Er. I guess that’s to be expected, then.”
 
The silence is exceedingly awkward.
 
“Maybe you don’t remember, since you seemed to be half-conscious and all,” Spike puts in uncertainly, “but I did apologize about that. D’you remember?”
 
Xander nods.
 
“Oh,” says Spike.
 
Xander shifts his gaze to the wall behind Spike, swallowing.
 
“Listen,” Spike says, after an extended period of silence. “I was only trying to keep you safe. You know that, right?”
 
Cautiously, Xander nods.
 
“I’m not used to—” Spike breaks off. “Look. S’my fault that we’re in this mess, and I’m gonna get us out, all right? Should have listened to you in the first place, should have…”
 
Xander doesn’t really believe him, but gives him a nod anyway.
 
Spike shifts in his shackles. “And I still l—”
 
It takes Xander a moment to realize why Spike has stopped speaking.
 
Footsteps.
 
Xander freezes, his stomach clenching so hard it almost hurts, until the door pushes open and he sees that it’s Ilse, not Leonardo.
 
She enters silently, as pale and ethereal as Spike is in the dim lighting, and moves directly to Xander.
 
“What d’you want?” Spike asks, fear edging his tone and making it sharp.
 
Ilse ignores him and bends over, hands going to the straps of Xander’s muzzle. She’s blocking his view of Spike, and despite the conversation he’d just had with Spike, Xander still feels a little spark of terror in him as Spike leaves his field of vision.
 
“Leave him alone,” Spike orders, volume rising. “Leave him alone, hear?”
 
The straps are unbuckled, and Xander sucks in a rush of cool, wonderful air as soon as the rubber stopper is out of his mouth, then chokes and starts coughing.
 
“Mine,” Ilse says in a fierce whisper, wiping the slobbery rubber on the leg of her pants. “Not you.”
 
Xander coughs. “Trust me, it’s all yours.”

There’s a rattling sound as Spike shifts in his chains. “Xander? What’s she done? ”
 
Ilse stands, tucking the muzzle in her pocket, and Xander can see Spike again.
 
Spike takes in the muzzle-less Xander and his eyes immediately snap to Ilse. “You’re his consort. Can smell it. Jealous of the new boy, are you?”
 
“Sorry,” Ilse says, pulling something else out of her pocket. “Not new boy.”
 
There’s the sound of metal flicking through the air, and then Xander catches the glint of a blade in the dim lighting.
 
“What’re you doing with that?” Spike demands. “You’d better not touch him with that, or I’ll—”
 
“Master mine,” Ilse explains, mouth pressed into a tight line. “Like beauty, art, song. Ilse. Say, muse Ilse. Not you.”
 
“Then let me go,” Xander tells her, somehow managing to sound somewhat close to calm. “I don’t want to belong to him anymore than you want me to, so just let me go. I have friends that can keep me safe.”
 
“Only way,” Ilse says, shaking her head.
 
Sixteen years ago, Xander’s mother had stood by and watched her Master drink blood from her only son. She had stood by and begged, pleaded, sobbed, but she’d let her Master examine him until he’d been satisfied, and Xander knows that if her Master had decided to take him, she’d have had no choice but to surrender him.
 
It wasn’t his mother’s weakness that allowed that to happen. It had been something beyond her control.
 
Xander has to believe that right now.
 
“I’ll kill you,” Spike threatens, game-faced and straining frantically against his chains in the background. “I’ll kill you long and slow if you touch one hair on his head—”
 
Xander eyes the knife as it comes to rest against his throat. “Your Master told you that you couldn’t hurt me.”
 
Ilse’s face twitches, but she keeps the knife steadily against his neck.
 
“—swear to God, I’ll fucking kill you—”
 
Closing his eyes, praying that he’s right, Xander tilts his head back so that his throat is bared.
 
“Go ahead,” he tells her.
 
Spike is yelling threats in the background, chains rattling, limbs kicking and swinging as he attempts to get closer, but all Xander knows right now is the trembling knife blade against his throat. He can’t see Ilse’s face, but he can feel the knife shaking more and more erratically with every passing second. He can hear Ilse’s breathing grow ragged with the continued effort of holding the knife there.
 
He flashes back to those minutes in the basement of Sunnydale High School with the bomb and Jack.
 
I like the quiet. 
 
“Not you,” Ilse says again, voice strangled. “Not you .”
 
Spike is demanding to know what he’s doing, yelling for him to fight, and Ilse is almost whimpering now.
 
“Do it,” Xander says, opening his eyes. Ilse’s own wide, clear green eyes shine with tears as she stares back at him. “Go on. Slit my throat.”
 
The knife jerks erratically, bumping against his collar bone and his chin but never cutting. The tears are beginning to spill down her face.
 
Xander stares up at her, unblinking. With every moment that passes, he’s increasingly sure that he’s right about this.
 
“Die, die, die, die, die,” Ilse sobs, rocking back and forth, clearly using every last inch of her will to keep the knife against Xander’s throat. “Die, die, die…”
 
She pushes the knife forward.
 
Xander feels the briefest twinge of pain in his neck before Ilse screams and collapses onto the ground, clutching at her head. The knife clatters to the floor. Even Spike goes silent at her scream, staring at her in confusion.
 
Ilse sobs, rocking her body and pounding one hand against her skull.
 
“Consorts can’t disobey direct orders,” Xander tells Spike quietly, over the crying mess of Ilse. “Leonardo specifically told her not to hurt me.”
 
Spike stares at him for a long moment, then turns his gaze back to Ilse without replying.
 
“Oi. Strumpet. Pull yourself together, got a question for you.”
 
Ilse visibly attempts to collect herself, with great heaving gasps and her fingers going white against her skull as they rhythmically tighten. Panting, red-faced, hands tangled in messy hair, she slowly looks up at them.
 
“If you can get us out of here,” Spike says, “I can make sure your Master doesn’t get Xander. Got connections with the Slayer and the Watcher’s Council, we do.”
 
Ilse looks at him blankly.
 
Spike huffs impatiently and points a finger at Xander. “Him. I’ll keep him safe, if you get us out of here. I can hide him.”
 
“No hide,” Ilse says hoarsely, shaking her head. “Master knew all thing.”
 
“He’s not God,” Spike says, rolling his eyes. “Just let us go, and I promise, your Master will never see Xander again.”
 
Ilse shakes her head again, looking more and more resolute.
 
“I can hide him!”
 
“No hide.”
 
“Listen here, you silly bint—”
 
Xander flashes back to Halloween in that house, his mind spinning and irrational and dead set on one thing, and one thing only.
 
“Ilse,” he says, making both Spike and Ilse stop to stare at him. Xander swallows. “Ilse, if you let me go, you’ll have more time to convince Master that you’re all he needs. It’ll be just the two of you. You can remind him why he loved you first, why he only needs you.”
 
The light sparks in Ilse’s eyes.
 
“All you need is a few more days, right?” Xander asks. “Just a few more days to remind him, and he’ll forget all about me.”
 
“Only Ilse,” she agrees, nodding slowly.
 
“I can give you that, if you let us go,” Xander promises. “Let us go, and it’ll just be you and Master again, and he’ll remember that he only needs you. I know he will. You just have to remind him, and you can’t do that with me here.”
 
Spike is staring at Xander like he's never seen him before in his life. Xander pushes away the uncomfortable feeling in his gut and focuses on Ilse, who is nodding and pushing herself up off the ground a little more. 
 
"Yes," she says, sounding stronger than before. "Yes, yes, yes." 
 
Unbidden, hope rises up inside of Xander. 
 
"Right," Spike says, tearing his eyes away from Xander to look at Ilse. "Got keys for these shackles, then?" 
 
"Master," Ilse says, shaking her head. She frowns, thinking. 
 
"S'all right. In my pocket, got a jackknife. Get it in my hand an’ I'll pick it myself." 
 
Nodding hurriedly, Ilse scrambles to her feet. 
 
"That one," Spike says, jerking his chin down to the left. "Down there." 
 
Ilse nods and slides a hand into his pocket, coming up with a knife moments later. She opens the blade and stands on tiptoe to get it up into Spike's shackled hands. "This," she says, tapping one side of the manacle lightly. "This lock." 
 
"Right. Thanks, then," Spike says distractedly, tilting his head back to watch his progress as he jams the knife into the keyhole and begins twisting it around furiously. 
 
Xander hadn't known that Spike could pick locks, but he supposes that it makes sense. He can just see Spike constantly getting himself into scrapes like this, with his loud mouth and general inability to stick to a plan—and sure enough, within a minute, Spike has one manacle sprung open and is working on the other.
 
“Go now,” Ilse says, stepping toward the door. “Master want.”
 
“Hold up,” Spike says, pausing in his work on the second shackle. “What’s his plan, then? How the hell are we getting out of here?”
 
Ilse glances at the door nervously. “Soon. Master want Ilse love first.”  
 
“And how do we get out?” Spike asks.
 
Ilse shakes her head. “Go now. Master want. You run.”
 
“Yeah, we got that—which way?”
 
“Run,” Ilse repeats unhelpfully, moving toward the door.
 
“No—no, don’t go, you stupid bint, get back here—”
 
She’s gone.
 
Spike sags in his single manacle, staring at the empty doorway resignedly.
 
“It’s better than what we had before,” Xander offers tentatively. “At least now we’ve got a chance of escaping.”
 
“You,” Spike says, gaze snapping back to Xander with sudden intensity. He works at the shackle with his knife for a moment, springs it open, and marches right across the room. “You are not to do that again. Never, ever, ever encourage a mad woman with a knife. Exactly how thick are you? She’s got a bloody knife to your throat, and you go tellin’ her to get on with it!”
 
Xander opens his mouth to protest, but Spike rides right over him.
 
“Get this through your head,” Spike orders, crouching in front of him. “You are not expendable.”
 
“Spike—”
 
“Do you understand that?” Spike demands. He lays a hand on the side of Xander’s face, forcing their eyes to meet. “You are not expendable. There are people in this world who would miss you if you died.”
 
Xander swallows uncomfortably. “Look, I wasn’t in real danger. I knew that she wouldn’t hurt me—she can’t disobey her master.”
 
“Your mum did,” Spike reminds him tensely. “And that isn’t the point I’m making, pet. To hear you encouraging her—asking for death…”
 
“I’d rather be dead than belong to anyone, let alone him.”
 
Spike opens his mouth and then stops, averting his eyes. “Yeah. Made that one clear, you did.”  
 
There is an awkward moment of silence.
 
Finally, Xander asks without looking at Spike, “Can you get me out of these? We should… go, if we’re going to get out of here.”
 
“Right,” Spike says, turning to the manacles on Xander’s wrists. “How you feeling, then?”
 
Xander shrugs. “Guess we’ll find out when I stand up.”
 
“Bit of fresh blood on your arm,” Spike notes as he works the locks. “Must’ve torn the stitches.”
 
Stitches. Right.
 
Xander can’t bring himself to ask Spike how his neck looks.
 
There’s a click as the first manacle unlocks, but when Xander reaches out to pull it off his wrist, Spike bats his hand away and does it himself, sliding his wrist out and giving it a brief check-over. There are faint bruises on it, and Xander’s sure that it’ll hurt tomorrow—if he lives to see tomorrow—but for now, he’s not too worried about it.
 
Spike rubs over the skin once with his thumb, then quickly moves on to the second manacle.
 
Xander eyes the empty door, unable to think of anything else to say. He stays silent as Spike fiddles with the cuff on his left hand, taking obvious care to not move his injured arm around as he does so.
 
Finally, there is a click and the cuff springs free.
 
Spike rubs at the freed wrist for a moment, then stands and holds out a hand for Xander to take.
 
“Whoa,” Xander says as the world tilts violently off his axis and he feels the rise of nausea come on so quickly he almost up and vomits right there with that word. He doesn’t dare open his mouth again. His heart pounds in his ears and his eyes are closed as he lets the world slowly fall back into place.
 
“Not looking so good there, pet,” Spike says helpfully.
 
“I’m all right,” Xander says, forcing his eyes open.
 
The initial rush of standing is gone, and he’s only mildly dizzy now. He feels like he could walk. Probably.
 
“We should get going,” he adds, shrugging Spike’s hand off of his shoulders. “And don’t call me pet.”
 
Spike, for once, just nods and leads the way toward the door.



It turns out that Xander can walk. Rather well. Not as fast as Spike would like him to be going, but then again, if Spike had things totally his way, he’d have Xander in a fireman’s carry and would have been booking it out of this strange factory-looking place at top speed. Xander flat-out refuses. He’s moving along just fast enough, thanks.
 
Except in the end, not really.
 
They’d forgotten one small thing in their brilliant plan of convincing Ilse to help them escape: Ilse could not ignore a command from her Master. And if her Master discovered a recently-recovered muzzle in her pocket while undressing her, and then asked her what she’d been doing visiting his intended future consort, well, then she really had no choice but to tell him.
 
Spike and Xander? Not so much with the planning and thinking ahead bit.
 
Also, Xander’s muzzle is reinstated.
 
“Just for a little while, Xander,” Leonardo promises, patting his cheek with a fond smile. “After all, you’ll need to be biting me soon.”
 
Then he leaves.
 
Xander actually howls behind the gag at the injustice.
 
“What d’you need to bloody gag him for if you’re not even going to be here?” Spike yells at Leonardo’s retreating back. “Get back here, you poncy-arsed git!”
 
“Feel free to knock him out again, if he continues,” Leonardo calls out, without breaking his stride as he exits the room.
 
The vampires holding Spike glance at each other, and Xander’s head snaps around to stare at Spike with wide, pleading eyes. If there’s one thing he doesn’t want, it’s for Spike to be unconscious, leaving him all alone with this lot.
 
Spike sulkily goes quiet, giving Xander a grudging nod.
 
Xander nods back, unable to do much else.
 
They stand there in the room, apparently the room where Leonardo intended this whole ceremony thing to take place, surrounded by no less than sixty vampires, and listen to the faint sounds of Leonardo having extremely enthusiastic sex with Ilse. The room is radically different from the dusty concrete hallways that Spike and Xander had been walking through—it’s furnished with leather and velvet furniture, there’s fancy-looking rugs and plants, and the whole thing is lit with golden firelight from torches around the room.  There’s even a painting on the wall.  Clearly, Leonardo has a double-standard for rooms he plans to enter, and rooms he doesn’t.
 
Once he’s run out of fancy things to stare at, Xander tries desperately not to think of what lies ahead for him. The gag in his mouth has taken away his only means of distracting himself. He keeps his eyes on Spike and focuses on breathing rhythmically. It helps.  
 
He gets increasingly tired from standing, already wiped from their brief run through the hallways, and finds himself leaning more and more into the hands holding him in place, until a wave of darkness sweeps over him and makes his ears buzz and all his muscles go limp.
 
“Xander!”
 
He jerks his head up, vision swimming.
 
“Let him sit down, you bleeding idiots,” Spike snaps. “He’s about to pass out. Think your Master’d be happy with you, then? Need him conscious for this ceremony, don’t you?”
 
The vampires holding Xander confer with each other in a language he doesn’t know—which is to say, a language that is not English—and then forcibly sit him down on the ground—not on the fancy furniture.  
 
Relieved to just be sitting, Xander lets his eyes fall shut. The room doesn’t spin quite so much down here.

 
Leonardo returns without Ilse, which makes Xander’s stomach flip unpleasantly. He wonders if she’s being punished. He hopes she’ll be all right.
 
The vampires drag him to his feet, and Xander rides out the ensuing waves of dizziness and nausea in silence.
 
“You may have noticed,” Leonardo begins with a small smile, “that I have a love for beautiful things. Not the flimsy, glitzy beauty of this modern age, but a classic, strong beauty borne from God himself. And you, my Xander, are a beauty that I have not encountered for many, many decades.”
 
Xander doesn’t have the ability to reply.
 
“This is why you will be my consort. I want you to be my beauty for hundreds of years to come,” Leonardo explains. “You cannot begin to imagine the beautiful places I will take you, the art that I will make from the lines of your body.”
 
“He’s not going to be your sodding consort,” Spike says, with an impressive amount of restraint for how tense his body looks right now.
 
Leonardo’s head snaps around to glare. “You cannot imagine the pleasure I am going to take in staking you, later. Understand this, brat: simply because he rejected you—”
 
“He’d rather die than be anyone’s consort, even yours,” Spike interrupts, eyes fixing onto Xander. “He won’t bite back. Tried it earlier, and I nearly drained him dry waiting for him to return the bite.”
 
At this news, Leonardo also turns to look at Xander, an impressed expression on his face. “Really?”
 
Xander hesitates.
 
Thinks fast.
 
He knows that he isn’t the best at planning, but he’s at his end’s rope and right now he doesn’t have time to think about all the ways in which things can go wrong. He just needs to pick an option and go with it. Pick one and go with it. Pick one, pick one, pick one—
 
He shakes his head.
 
Leonardo lets out a bark of laughter, and the look of shock on Spike’s face is enough to make Xander second-guess himself for a split second.
 
“Oh! So it seems it was just you he wasn’t interested in,” Leonardo says delightedly.
 
Xander shakes his head rapidly, making as much noise behind the gag as he can. He moves his lips a little, trying to emphasize the fact that he has more to say, dammit.
 
“Would you like to speak, Xander?” Leonardo asks, amused.
 
Xander feels a white-hot flare of hatred for him, but clenches his fists and nods.
 
“Do you promise to speak intelligently?” Leonardo presses.
 
Nodding stiffly, Xander clenches and unclenches his fists twice.
 
Leonardo nods at the one of the vampires holding him in place.
 
The muzzle is unbuckled around the back of his head, and he can’t help the small gagging sound he makes as the rubber is pulled from his mouth. Swallowing down the horrible aftertaste, jaw buzzing at the sudden relief, Xander takes a few seconds to collect himself.
 
“What is it you wanted to say, Xander?”
 
“Condition,” he croaks out.
 
“Speak clearly and loudly, please,” Leonardo says impatiently.
 
“Condition,” Xander repeats, less hoarse this time around. “I’ll do it, but I have a condition.”
 
Spike twigs almost immediately.
 
“Xander, don’t you bloody dare—”
 
"You will be silent," Leonardo snaps at Spike, "or I will make sure that you burn slowly and painfully before you die." 
 
Spike locks eyes with Xander, shaking his head and mouthing a furious Don't you even dare—
 
Xander looks away. 
 
"So. What is your condition, then, Xander?" Leonardo asks indulgently, good humor momentarily restored. 
 
Xander does not look at Spike. "I'll be your consort, if you let Spike go after he tells you where Drusilla is. No staking, no burning, just—just let him go free."  
 
"M'not telling—" 
 
There's a sharp crack and Spike's head snaps back, and then slumps forward. 
 
Leonardo smiles. "Thank you. Now. Xander. You want me to spare the Arelius brat, in exchange for your agreement?" 
 
"If you don't, I won't bite you back," Xander says fiercely. "I swear to God, I won't. I'll let you drain me instead." 
 
Leonardo tilts his head thoughtfully. 
 
"Could turn him, Master," one of the vampires holding Xander says, giving Xander a shake. "Make a nice one, he would." 
 
"No," Leonardo says slowly, shaking his head. "No, childer can be so messy, and they only belong to you for the first hundred years or so. I want him for far longer than that." 
 
Xander holds his breath. 
 
Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Spike coming to, slowly bringing his head up. He's game-faced now, fangs bared, but Xander doesn't even feel remotely afraid of him. Death is better than what's awaiting him. Death is going to be a welcome relief from the hell that awaits him. 
 
Leonardo sighs. "This one? Really, Xander? I was so very looking forward to staking him." 
 
Not trusting himself to speak, Xander nods. 
 
"Very well," Leonardo says resignedly. He waves a hand in Spike's direction. "He'll go free. Honestly, Xander, you're already as trying as your mother." 
 
Xander flinches and looks over to Spike, who is staring at him through slitted yellow eyes. 
 
"I'm sorry," he says, almost choking on the words. He's trying to keep the misery out of his voice, but he's failing. A lot. "When you go… tell Giles and Willow to do—to do for me what I did for Jesse after he died, okay?" 
 
Spike's eyes narrow even further. He doesn't know who Jesse is—Xander's never told him—but he's obviously picked up on the fact that Xander's trying to get something important across. Xander wants to say more because he's absolutely terrified that Spike won't get the message in time, won't get it at all, and he'll actually be stuck as a slave for the few hundred years, but he doesn't dare say more with Leonardo right there. He can't even think about that possibility right now. It's too awful to comprehend. 
 
Spike jerks his chin at him in a semblance of a nod. 
 
"Don't think of it as death," Leonardo says suddenly, forcing Xander to look away from Spike. "Think of it as being reborn. When you wake up, you're going to be even more than you are right now—stronger, more beautiful, more... compliant." 
 
Xander's stomach twists nastily. "A—are you going to let him go?" 
 
"Well, not before you become my consort, precious," Leonardo says with that same, indulgent smile. "It wouldn't be very clever of me to let him go now, would it?" 
 
Mutely, Xander shakes his head. 
 
Leonardo's smile widens. "Now then. Normally I'd like a bit more pomp and circumstance about this whole affair, but I'm afraid that I've had too many complications already to chance taking you all the way back to Italy. We'll have to make do with this. Are you ready?" 
 
"Now?" Xander all but yelps, stomach clenching hard and fast. "Right now? Don't we want to... wait?" 
 
"Like I want to stay in this hideous building for any longer than I have to," Leonardo says with a disdainful sniff. 
 
Xander swallows. Hard. 
 
"Right," he says hoarsely. 
 
"You look half-dead already," Leonardo puts in helpfully, "so you'd best bite quickly, lest you pass out and break our bargain. Though I can't say that I'd be disappointed." 
 
The look of gleeful malice that he sends Spike makes Xander shiver involuntarily. 
 
"Let's—" He nearly chokes on his tongue, as it feels too heavy, too thick to use for speech. His ears buzz and his heart beat picks up. He can feel his lungs taking shallower and shallower breaths, and he fights against it. "Let's get on with this, then." 
 
Deep breaths. He's calm, he's brave. 
 
He's calm, he's brave. 
 
He is.
 
My boy has more courage than you’ve got in your pinkie, and more courage than your little strumpet Slayer’s got in her fingernail.
 
I love you.
 
Xander glances at Spike, who's still in game-face but is now letting out low growling noises, and he feels something inside of him solidify. His back straightens, his heart calms, and the world around him goes absolutely silent. 
 
Spike loves him. It's a twisted, soulless devotion, but it's all that matters right now. Spike loves him and believes in him and would do anything in the world for him. Xander knows that in this moment, he is exactly right. His existence is as it is meant to be. He feels like he could die right here and now, and he would do it without a single regret. He feels born for this. 
 
He feels finished. 
 
The fangs hurt as they sink into his neck, just as they did last time. This time he’s giving himself over willingly. It doesn’t hurt any less.
 
Xander closes his eyes, unable to look at Spike any longer, because if he did he thinks he might start crying.
 
Leonardo’s tongue laps at the blood coming from his neck, the second time his teeth have ever sank into Xander’s flesh, and Xander distantly hears him sigh with pleasure at the taste. There’s a pause as he licks the skin clean, and then he begins to suck.
 
Xander doesn’t have time to hesitate—already feeling weak and dizzy, he’s probably got minutes to do this—and so he counts to three.
 
One.
 
Two.
 
Three.
 
And he twists his head, agony searing through his neck as his skin pulls against the teeth embedded in his neck, and angles his mouth over Leonardo’s neck. Counts to three again, and then bites down hard enough that his teeth tear at the skin.
 
It’s not deep enough.
 
He bites again, steadfastly ignoring the second pull of agony as he plunges his teeth downward.
 
This time, he tastes blood.
 
Biting again, he finally gets a pinch of skin between his teeth, and as he closes down a hot spurt of blood flies into his mouth. Distantly, he hears a moan from Leonardo, but he ignores it, just like he’s ignoring his increasing nausea and dizziness as tangy, metallic blood gushes into his mouth.
 
He swallows.
 
Heat flames in his belly as soon as the vampire blood hits it. More is spurting into his mouth, like a faucet, and it tastes the same as human blood except with every single swallow the warmth in his belly is spreading, moving up into his ribs and down into his groin, burning its way through his body in a way that is not painful, but almost soothing. He sucks more blood, disconnectedly loving the warmth and wanting more.  
 
Teeth slide out of his neck with a sharp sting. He barely registers it, his entire focus on the blood flowing into his mouth so readily, so warm and delicious, and when it moves he moves with it—
 
“That’s enough, precious,” a distant voice tells him.
 
The vibrations of the voice box make the blood come a little funny.
 
And then he’s being pushed back, mouth detached from that wonderful taste. His mind reels.
 
The world around him does not exist. He has no body, no physical form to weigh him down, and he’s in a place that is neither light nor dark but just is. He’s warm. Pleasant. The world feels heavy and thick.
 
He zones out.

 
Xander doesn’t know how much time he spent knelt on the floor, staring out into space as the vampire blood ran its course through his body, changing and altering and fixing. All he knows is that when he hears a voice calling him down, it’s like an anchor slamming into the ocean floor, and he is yanked back to reality in a matter of seconds.
 
This voice is his world. Anything and everything he’ll ever need is in this voice.
 
Master’s voice. 
 
The thought crosses his mind without warning, and Xander almost physically cringes away from it the moment he thinks it.
 
“Xander,” Mast—Leonardo’s voice says again. “Xander, you look like you’ve rejoined us.”
 
Compelled by something deeper than he can comprehend, Xander automatically turns his head toward the voice, compelled to watch and obey and serve—
 
No.
 
“Yeah,” Xander answers—and that’s when he registers the change.
 
His voice is the same, but when he speaks, he can feel the vibrations of his vocal cords and hear the full range of tones he creates, and it’s beautiful. His body feels different. It feels… connected. Fitting. For the first time in his life, his existence feels absolutely effortless.
 
He can feel the strength in his body without even moving it, and the world around him is fuller and more complete than it had ever been before. The room appears in ten times the detail that it had before, highlighting the dust and the washed-out colors, and the uneven dye in the sofa. He can pick out which vampires are shuffling their feet without opening his eyes. And everything smells of dusty concrete, blood, silks and velvets and earth and—and—
 
Master.
 
It smells of Master.
 
“Feeling better?” Ma—Leonardo asks him. He’s seated casually on a leather sofa, a pleased smile on his face. A single minion stands next to the door, but the rest of them have gone and done… whatever it is that minions do on downtime.
 
Xander nods.
 
He wonders what Master wants him to—
 
No. No, he doesn’t.
 
He should be wondering where…
 
“Where’s Spike?” Xander asks, glancing around the room as it becomes apparent that he’s not there. Xander can’t even smell his scent. “What did you do to him?”
 
“I let him go, as per our agreement,” Leonardo says calmly. “Do you think I’d go back on my word?”
 
“Never,” Xander says instantly, reflexively—then he blanches. “Wait, no, I didn’t mean that!”
 
Leonardo smiles, pleased. “Yes, you do. You can’t help it.”
 
Xander swallows.
 
He really can’t.
 
Turning his head to look around the room again, this time something else registers—it doesn’t hurt. The wounds on his neck and his arm are completely gone, as are the dizziness and the nausea that he’s been battling against for what feels like the last ten years, but is actually… God, only since last night.
 
“What time is it?” Xander asks, fighting back the feeling that he shouldn’t dare ask Master questions.
 
“Nearly noon,” Leonardo says. “You were out for quite some time.”
 
There’s something niggling at the back of his brain, something that he should remember, but Xander can’t figure out what it is. It feels like something important. What could it be? If he was supposed to be doing something then surely Master would—
 
God.
 
Shaking his head, Xander looks away from Leonardo—
 
And the world rumbles.
 
His new senses pick up on the trembling of the ground far before his human ones would have, but there’s still nothing he can do as the ground under him, the building around him suddenly rattles violently, followed a second later by a delayed boom that sounds a bit like a gunshot, only louder and deeper.
 
The guard at the door tenses, looking over to Leonardo, who is suddenly sitting up straight, all semblance of casualness gone.
 
“Go,” he barks at the guard.
 
The guard leaves.
 
Mas—Leonardo stands, and Xander feels a surge of fear that he just barely clamps down on. His heart rate picks up, and it’s all he can do not to ask Master where he’s going, if he’s going to leave Xander behind.
 
Xander tries to make sense of the explosion through the panicked thoughts that are banging around his head, out of his control, but it’s so hard. There was an explosion. Someone must have made it. What could make an explosion? Maybe Master was—no, no, not Master.
 
There’s something he’s forgetting.
 
Master looks angry—but he needs to stop that and think.
 
The explosion wasn’t caused by friends. It must be enemies, but it can’t be vampires because it’s noon and the sun is out, and not even Master is strong enough to walk in the sun without burning. Could it be humans? Don’t they know the strength of Master’s court? Master will surely make their deaths—
 
“Stop it,” Xander grits out, pressing a hand to his skull in an effort to make it stop.
 
Moments later, he realizes what he’s doing and pulls his hand away in horror.
 
He isn’t his mother.
 
He isn’t.
 
The door bangs open and the vampire guard rushes in.
 
“It’s humans,” he says without preamble, looking panicked. “Humans—they have weapons—and I think the Slayer’s here—”
 
“Buffy,” Xander breathes.
 
The light bulb comes on.
 
Luckily, Leonardo is too preoccupied to notice.
 
“How many humans?” he asks, frowning. “Surely not more than a dozen.”
 
Leonardo shakes his head. “There are at least twenty humans, master, and they have… they have weapons that are not human weapons.”
 
“And a Slayer?” Leonardo adds, disbelievingly.
 
The minion looks back helplessly.
 
“Go and get Ilse, bring her to me,” Leonardo instructs.
 
There is a brief moment of hesitation before the minion nods, and then goes for the door, pulling it open—
 
It blasts open, smacking off the wall, and Buffy stands in the doorway dressed in… some kind of army clothes, Xander doesn’t really know—what’s important is that the moment she locks eyes with Xander, her face goes from angry to pissed.
 
“Hi,” she says, turning her attention to Leonardo. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Buffy, and this is my best friend, Mr. Pointy.” She hefts her favorite stake in one hand. “And that guy on the floor there, that’s my other best friend, Xander.”
 
“A Slayer and William the Bloody?” Leonardo asks, turning to Xander. There’s an amused note in his voice, despite the fact that there’s no sound of the humans calling a retreat in the hallway. “Really, Xander, I don’t know where you find them.”
 
And then there’s Spike.
 
“Time to go, pet,” Spike says, stepping into the room.
 
Xander looks at Leonardo, who’s glancing between Buffy and Spike with a look of confusion on his face. He knows that he should go with Spike, feels the rush of relief and happiness at the sight of him and Buffy in the same room, both of them here to rescue him, but there’s something… something… He just can’t. Not while his Master—
 
Buffy launches at Leonardo out of nowhere.
 
Xander howls, throwing himself into the fight.
 
There’s only one thought burning in his brain, and it’s save Master, save Master, save Master. He twists and pulls, hearing and feeling nothing else but his Master, knowing that he has to save his Master, has to save him from the enemy—
 
He’s hauled back.
 
He yells, snapping his newly powerful body back with as much force as he can, dying, blind with the need to save his Master. Master, Master, Master…
 
“Got strong, didn’t you, then?” a voice mutters in his ear, but he doesn’t even register it. “Not too strong, though. Let’s go.”
 
Dragged away, he feels a stabbing pain building in his head with every step.
 
“Let me go!” he screams, thrashing furiously. “Let me go, my Master needs me, he needs me, you don’t understand!”
 
The only response is a more insistent pulling, and a building agony in his head as they get further and further away from Master.
 
“Stake ‘im already!” a voice yells past his ear. “Quit wasting time with your little snot remarks and get on with it!”
 
He thrashes harder, desperate, dying—
 
White hot agony sears through his body like fire, and he screams. 

Chapter Text

“Xander—Xander!

Hands shake his shoulders roughly—and there’s burning, burning pain everywhere.
 
“Hurts,” he whimpers, squeezing his eyes shut more tightly, as if that would ward off the pain.
 
“I know it does, luv, his blood’s burnin’ out of you. Talk to me.”
 
Voice.
 
“S—Spike?” he gasps, cracking an eye open.
 
Spike’s game face flashes before his eyes, and Xander suddenly realizes that it’s Spike’s hands that are pinning him up against the wall, and he forgets everything else in an explosion of blind panic.
 
“Please don’t,” he begs, twisting his head down to where he knows, knows that Spike is going to bite him. “Please, please don’t, Spike, God, please, please, please…”
 
The hands release him. “Hell. Bloody hell, Xander.”
 
Pulling in a huge breath of air, finally free, Xander focuses through the pain.
 
"Spike," he gasps out again, and distantly, he realizes that there are tears rolling down his cheeks. It hurts. It hurts so much. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, you just can't... you can't touch me like that. Please, not again."
 
The world appears to him in flashes as he blinks heavily, smeared with tears and dizziness like a runny Polaroid. Spike's still in game face, but he looks... horrified? Scared? He can't tell which.
 
"It's just," he tries, "it's just that I can't trust you. I don't know how to trust you anymore."
 
"Right," Spike's voice says.
 
Spike's face moves away.
 
"No," Xander says, trying and failing to lift one of his arms. God, it burns. "No, please, don't leave..."
 
Spike answers, something that Xander can't make out, but he feels himself crying harder.
 
"Please come back... please..."
 
He can't see Spike anymore, just a blur of darkness and other bodies running around, bodies he doesn't know, bodies that aren't Spike. Not Spike. Spike's gone, Mom's gone...
 
They're all gone.
 
He's alone.
 
A vaguely familiar blonde girl is suddenly in his face, warm hands patting his face. "Xander? Xander, can you hear me? Dammit, where the hell is Spike..."
 
Xander wants to tell her that Spike's gone, but he doesn't have the energy right now. The world is fading out again—the world without Spike, the world without Mom.
 
He lets it fade.

 
"God—God—GOD, STOP!"
 
He shoots up in bed, frantic and sweaty, and immediately there's an arm on his shoulder.
 
"Hey, it was just a dream."
 
"Dream," Xander repeats, heart pounding furiously. It had been so real, so fucking real, with Ilse and the muzzle and Master and—
 
Real.
 
Oh God. Real.
 
"Lie back down," Buffy suggests.
 
Xander's head whips around to find that it's her who's got a hand on his shoulder. Behind her stands Giles, looking more concerned than Xander really wants him to be.
 
"Wha—" The words stick in his throat, too large to get out, and he tries to find smaller, easier ones. "Wh—where am I?"
 
"You're in my spare bedroom," Giles answers. He's moving for a box next to him, something roughly the size of Buffy's weapons chest.
 
"I'm alive," Xander says blankly, as that tidbit registers.
 
"Yes," Buffy says slowly. "Yes, you are. And believe me when I say that we're all very happy to see it. Gotta say, Xander, when I busted in there and you were all 'Captain, my Captain Vampiro', I thought maybe we'd lost you for good."
 
"But—" Xander's brain struggles to catch up. "But I thought that you couldn't break... I thought the bond..."
 
"It can be broken within the first week or so," Giles says, as he turns around with a thermometer in hand. "Open."
 
Xander closes his mouth around the thermometer obediently.
 
"A consort bond is established as the blood of the master slowly spreads and changes that of the consort. When a master is killed, all of his blood ceases to exist, including any blood inside his consorts. Luckily, Buffy got to you before you would have lost enough blood to require another transfusion."
 
"Shho—"
 
"Wait until it's done reading, if you would," Giles interrupts.
 
Xander glares a little sulkily, then tries to read the thermometer but finds that going cross-eyed makes his head hurt, and then he settles back against the pillows with the glare back in place.
 
Finally, it beeps.
 
Giles retrieves it and examines the numbers.
 
"Giles, I think your thermometer's a little broken. That thing says thirty-eight degrees," Buffy says seriously.
 
Giles sighs. "It's in Celsius, Buffy. Really."
 
"Cel-what?"
 
Xander joins her in the sentiment, but then he remembers that there are more pressing matters at hand.
 
"So what you're saying," he says, cutting off whatever crazy explanation Giles was about to launch into, "is that when you killed Mas—ah, Leonardo—some of my blood just went ka-poof?"
 
"It was probably more of a burning sensation, actually," Giles replies.
 
Burning.
 
Xander remembers that.
 
He remembers agonizing pain burning through every muscle of his body, and he remembers sweet darkness, and he has flashes of… of…
 
No.
 
Not.
 
"So Ilse—the other consort?" he asks hesitantly.
 
Buffy shakes her head. "She wasn't… alive. After I staked him. Sorry."
 
Xander swallows and tries not to think of what she must have looked like—what his mother would have looked like, if Leonardo had been staked when she’d still been alive. Would she have just been normally going about her business, and then all of a sudden fallen to the floor with a scream, as he had? Would she have shriveled up and dried out, like the mummified mice he’d found in the heating vent of his old bedroom? Would she have—
 
“How are you feeling, Xander?” Giles asks briskly, interrupting the horrifying image that had been coming together in Xander’s mind.
 
“Um. Tired, mostly,” he says. “I ache a little bit, like I’ve got a fever, but nothing like… before.”
 
“Well, as you do have a fever, that’s rather to be—”
 
“Where’s Spike?” Xander blurts out.
 
Buffy and Giles freeze.
 
Xander feels a rush of sick, sick dread. He swallows hard and tells himself no, Spike is fine, Spike is a survivor, whatever he’s done and wherever he is, he’s fine. He has to be. He  has  to be.
 
“Guys?” he asks hesitantly. “I mean, c’mon, simple question, right? Where is he?”
 
“I’m afraid that’s the question of the hour,” Giles finally says. “No one’s seen him since he pulled you out of the factory.”
 
Xander blinks, hazy memories of tears and Spike's game face fading in and out of his mind like wisps of smoke, and he wonders if the memories are real. He can't remember much beyond burning pain and Spike being there, but he's certain... if he just... if he just tried harder...
 
"Xander?"
 
His head hurts.
 
"Um. But everyone else is... accounted for? Right?" he asks, though he doesn't remember seeing anyone else in on the rescue mission. Then again, he'd been pretty out of it by the time Spike had dragged him out of that room.
 
Buffy shakes her head, a sudden tension lining her face. "Angel's gone missing, too."
 
"Angel was there?" Xander racks his brain. "Really?"
 
Buffy shakes her head. "No, he was back here with Giles. I'd brought in the Initiative to help, so he had to stay behind, but..."
 
"I'd merely gone upstairs to take a phone call, and when I came back down, he'd disappeared," Giles finishes.
 
"Maybe he went back to LA?" Xander suggests.
 
Buffy shakes her head. "We called his office and left a message with his partner to call if he showed up, and that was almost five hours ago.”
 
"Don't worry yourself, Xander," Giles interrupts, as Buffy is clearly about to open her mouth to say more. "You just go back to sleep and concentrate on feeling better. I'm sure that everything will work out in the next few days."
 
"Oh, yeah. Because that happens."
 
“I forgot how much I preferred you asleep,” Giles says dryly.
 
Xander mostly hides the flinch, and doesn't reply.
 
Giles deposits the thermometer back in what Xander's now guessing is the world's largest first aid kit—possibly a condensed ambulance—and turns to leave.
 
"Don't mind Giles," Buffy says, when he's not quite out of the room. "He's a little cranky, still. He got stood up on his date."
 
"For the last time, Buffy, it was not a date."
 
"Man date," Buffy whispers.
 
Xander's face splits into a small grin. "A man date, Giles?"
 
"It was merely dinner with an old friend, thank you  very  much."
 
Giles shuts the door behind him with a little more force than necessary, leaving Buffy and Xander alone, faces lit only by the light of the lamp on the bedside table.
 
"Hey, how late is it?" Xander asks, when the two realizations of hey, it’s dark outside and Giles missed dinner finally come together in his brain.
 
"It's about eight o'clock," Buffy answers. "You slept all day long. Literally."
 
"Oh, God. I missed work," Xander groans.
 
"I'm sure they'll understand, what with you almost dying and all," Buffy says reasonably.
 
Xander snorts. No they won't.
 
"Seriously, Xander, go back to sleep," Buffy says after a pause. "The next time you wake up, we're going to have really fun words about you and Spike."
 
Xander winces. "Right," he says, and belatedly realizes that it's a filler word he picked up from Spike. "Um. Does Willow know?"
 
Buffy nods. "Yeah. She does. She's back at the dorm right now."
 
She's angry, then. Looks like all kinds of wonderful things await him when he wakes up again.
 
"I'll be downstairs, okay?" Buffy says with reassuring smile.
 
Xander nods.
 
She squeezes his shoulder briefly, and then turns away to leave. Even as Xander's eyes track her progress across the room, they're helplessly drooping. Not even the niggle of panic in the back of his mind for Spike is going to keep him awake right now.

 
"Xander—Xander."
 
Heart pounding, terrifying images still playing in the blackness before his eyes, Xander gasps in a huge breath of cold air and scrambles away from the hands that are gripping his shoulders, away from the hands that are going to hurt—are going to…
 
"It's all right," Giles' voice says. "Xander, it's only me."
 
Xander blinks furiously against the images that are still fading away from him, because they're dreams and this is real, this bedroom is real, Giles sitting here is real.
 
"Giles," he says, when the face comes into focus.
 
"There's a glass of water on the nightstand," Giles says, indicating with the tilt of his head.
 
Xander glances at it, but he's shaking too hard to trust himself with glass right now. He's also a little afraid that he might choke on the water or throw it up, because right now his stomach... Hoo boy. Best left alone.
 
"Wh... What time is it?" Xander asks shakily.
 
"A little past three in the morning," Giles answers.
 
Xander blinks. "Oh. Oh, man. I didn't mean to—"
 
"You were yelling for Spike," Giles interrupts, eyes fixed keenly on Xander. "In your sleep. You were yelling for him."
 
Xander flushes. “Sorry.”
 
"It's all right," Giles says gallantly. "Really. I understand how... trying... last night must have been."
 
All at once, Xander feels a surge of need to tell Giles everything—his mother, Spike, the consort bite, what it felt like to give his soul over to a monster, the other consort—and it's like bile rising up his throat, hot and burning. He clenches his teeth hard. It's not like Giles cares. He already thinks of Xander as an annoying waste of space, blubbering all over him isn't going to change that.
 
"Xander?" Giles asks, fixing him with that stare again. "Do you want to… talk about it?"
 
Xander pushes it down with all his might.
 
"Has Angel shown up yet?" he asks.
 
Giles shakes his head. "No, I'm afraid not."
 
Xander hesitates.
 
"I'm afraid that we haven't heard or seen anything from Spike, either," Giles says, startling Xander. He raises an eyebrow at Xander's expression. "I find it highly unlikely that you’re actually concerned for Angel."
 
For a moment Xander considers arguing about that, but decides to let it slide. Whatever. He probably doesn't actually care about Deadboy anyway.
 
"Thanks for… uh…"
 
“Certainly,” Giles says with a nod. He takes this as his cue to leave and pushes himself up. “If you need anything, I’m only one door down.”
 
“Wait—whoa,” Xander says suddenly, raising a hand. “Giles, you don’t think that Angel or Spike… you don’t think they got captured by the Initiative, do you?”
 
Giles’ mouth presses together. “I don’t know. I certainly hope not.”
 
Xander’s pretty sure that Giles is only hoping that Angel hasn’t been caught by the Initiative, and is for some reason being nice to Xander because he’s had a rough few days (though when has that ever earned him a break?). Giles mostly tolerates Angel. On the other hand, of the two, Spike’s the one who hasn’t tortured Giles.
 
Giles leaves and Xander sinks back down on the bed, trying not to let the images of his dream swamp his mind as he’s suddenly alone.
 
It’s a while before he falls asleep again.

 
Giles wears his bathrobe to breakfast.
 
“Morning,” Xander says, while determinedly  not  wondering what Giles is wearing underneath that, because he’s pretty much been scarred for life enough in the last forty-eight hours, and he doesn’t need to add commando!Giles to that list.
 
“Morning,” replies Giles. He’s got a mug of tea and the morning paper. “Help yourself. I haven’t much for breakfast, I’m afraid, though I think there’s oatmeal in the cupboard above the sink.”
 
“So no Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs, then?” Xander asks.
 
Giles  almost  hides his shudder. “No.”
 
Xander goes to find the oatmeal. Giles probably doesn’t have brown sugar or raisins, either.

 
Giles doesn’t have brown sugar or raisins.

 
Following breakfast, Xander calls up Hot Dog on a Stick.
 
He’s been fired.
 
“I only missed one shift—I was in the hospital!” he yells, outraged. “Unconscious. You know, like, not awake? Not able to call people?”
 
“Sorry, Harris,” his manager says, not sounding sorry at all. “You know we’ve got a one-strike policy here.”
 
“Look, I really need this job, I—”
 
“You and the twenty applicants I get a week, buddy,” his manager says. “Sorry. You can pick up your last check in my office next week.”
 
Xander hangs up furiously.
 
He doesn’t think that he’s ever been more surprised in his life when, an hour later, Giles turns to him and says, “You know, you’re welcome to stay here until you find another job. No, really. Don’t look at me like that. I’ve been living with Angel for three weeks, you can’t possibly be more annoying than him.” 

 
It’s not that he’s not worried about Spike. He is. But if he let himself truly think about the situation, the aches and the fears and the awkward sticky-outty bits, he’d probably just curl up on his bed and cry helplessly—and that’s not an option right now. So he’s doing his best to not think about it.

 
“Here? With Giles? As in the two of you, together, for many, many hours of the day?”
 
Buffy struggles to understand.
 
“Just until I get a new job,” Xander says quickly. “And, um, my first paycheck. So probably not more than a month or so. We’ll be all right, though.”
 
Everything he owns has been dragged from the motel to the spare bedroom upstairs—in Giles’ car, since his has gone mysteriously missing—except for the OXNARD sign Spike had made him ages ago, which is folded up in his back pocket.
 
Willow had come with Buffy today, but she hasn’t said a word since she arrived. Xander had taken one look at the expression on her face and the set of her mouth, and he knew that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with her until they were alone. That was how they’d always worked. Probably, he’s going to have to have a private conference with Buffy as well.
 
So when they sit him down on Giles’ sofa, he’s less than inspired to go into detail.
 
“I was stuck in Oxnard this summer and Spike kinda just… showed up. And you know me and judgment—we’re not usually speaking the same language—so somehow we ended up…”
 
Having wild, gay butt-monkey sex all over the place.
 
“…Dating.”
 
Willow looks mildly troubled. Giles and Buffy look incredulous.
 
It’s clear who saw through  that  euphemism.
 
Xander shrugs. “And he followed me back to Sunnydale. The Initiative happened, he ended up staying with me in the basement, and… yeah. Then last night happened.”
 
“And what, exactly, happened last night?” Giles asks.
 
“Didn’t Spike tell you?” Xander asks, confused. “He said that he’d called you while I was in the hospital, told you what was going on. I think. I’m pretty sure I didn’t hallucinate that conversation.”
 
“No, he did,” Giles confirms. “I just want to hear your version of events as well.”
 
“Shouldn’t we be working on finding Angel?” Xander asks.
 
“When it’s dark out,” Giles replies.
 
“Oh.”
 
“Seriously, Xander, what happened?” Buffy asks, leaning forward. “All Spike said was that some vampire was after you, and that you’d been injured… But you didn’t look injured when I got to you, you looked all weird and vampirey.”
 
The thing is that it looks like Spike didn’t tell Giles and Buffy about biting Xander.
 
Which makes sense. It does. If Spike was short on time and trying to get Giles to help them out, he obviously wouldn’t want to bring up the fact that he’d just tried to kill Xander—wouldn’t help much on the trust front, now would it? If Buffy knew that Spike had almost drained Xander, she’d stake him on sight.
 
If Spike comes back and Xander ever wanted to be with him again, he couldn’t tell them about the biting. They wouldn’t understand. Xander hardly understands it himself, and he’s had more than six months of experience in handling Spike.
 
If  Spike comes back.
 
“Xander?” Giles presses.
 
“I—” Xander falters. “I was attacked by three vamps outside the motel. Spike dusted two of them, but the third got a good stab in before running away. Spike…”
 
Falters again.
 
“Spike…”
 
Oh, God.
 
“Spike took me to the hospital. I was passed out by that point.”
 
His heart rate nearly doubles and his palms sweat, but when he dares to look at the faces around him, none of them even look suspicious. Not even a flicker of doubt.
 
He’s gotten away with it.
 
Xander hurries to tell the rest of the tale.
 
“I woke up and he said he was taking us here—to Giles’,” he continues. “But then we were attacked—it must’ve been at least fifteen of them, maybe more. We got captured. I convinced Leonardo to let Spike go before he…” Xander trails off and swallows, forcing the memories down. “So that must’ve been when he met up with you.”
 
“You bargained for him to let Spike go?” Buffy demands.
 
Xander shrugs. “I didn’t really bargain—and it wasn’t like there was anything I could do for myself anyway.”
 
He hadn’t actually known that Spike would come back and save him. He hadn’t known that it was possible. He’d just been hoping that Spike would come back and kill him.
 
He doesn’t say that.
 
“But why Spike?” Willow asks, speaking up at last. “I mean, okay, so you had to be gay, but  Spike?  Aren’t there other boys out there—nice, non-homicidal boys with, you know, moms that bake cookies and little sisters that they drive home from school every day?”
 
Xander winces.
 
“Will, c’mon. What would I do with mama’s boy like that?” he asks, joking weakly but joking nonetheless.
 
“He tried to kill us!” she bursts out, sitting up straight on the couch in a flurry of un-Willow-like anger.
 
“He hasn’t killed anyone in months,” Xander replies, despite the fact that he’s pretty sure it’s a lie. “He feeds, but he doesn’t kill. He knows I don’t like it.”
 
Everyone’s eyebrows go up at that.
 
“You don’t like it. So he doesn’t do it,” Buffy repeats slowly.
 
Xander shifts uncomfortably. “Yeah.”
 
Silence.
 
“I mean, he likes it when I’m happy,” Xander explains. “It’s—we’re like a normal couple, guys. Just with…”
 
“Fangs?” Giles suggests dryly.
 
“An age difference,” Xander says.
 
Buffy huffs out a breath. “Xander, do you remember how much you hated Angel? Every time he walked into the room, you had some snarky remark to make about him being a vampire—for three years straight. And now you’re suddenly okay with all that?”
 
“Um. Yeah?” Xander offers Buffy an apologetic glance. “I still don’t like Angel, though.”
 
“But—but Spike? ” Willow protests. “Xander… You can’t!”
 
Giles sighs. “I’m afraid, Willow, that it comes down to the fact that Xander can . He’s old enough to make his own decisions about who he wants to be in a relationship with, ill-advised as that decision might be. Xander has supported all of your relationships—however grudgingly—and now we must do the same for him.”
 
“I’m not supporting anything that’s going to wind up with Xander dead!” Willow protests.
 
“It’s been six months and I’m still here,” Xander reminds her.
 
Until last night, he could have said, it’s been six months and he hasn’t ever laid a finger on me. He could have said, that’s more than we can say about my family, isn’t it? even though he wouldn’t have.
 
“Hey guys,” he says, rallying. “Why don’t we talk about where Angel and Spike might be? Do we have a plan or what?”
 
Buffy eagerly jumps on that, volunteering to go out and beat up Willy for information. Giles, no doubt relieved to be dealing mainly with his Slayer again, pushes his glasses up his nose with a faint smile on his face. And Willow sends Xander a long, mournful look before finally turning away to take part in the planning session.
 
Xander sits on the opposite side of the room, suddenly left out, and tries to think of anything but that moment when Spike had burst out of the motel room in a blaze of fury, hell-bent on protecting the person he loved most.

 
“So…” Xander says, sitting down on the couch next to Willow, who’s curled up with a textbook of some sort. “How goes?”
 
Willow glances up at him and bites her lip, staring.
 
Xander smiles hopefully.
 
Slowly, wordlessly, Willow shakes her head.
 
“Right,” Xander says, as she goes back to her reading. He swallows the hurt and glances around, searching for something, anything. “I’ll just… Yeah.”
 
He leaves.
 
Willow doesn’t call after him.

 
Just after Buffy returns from her information-gathering expedition at Willy’s (which produced nothing, though Buffy’s in a better mood after having knocked the snot out of some demons), Angel comes bursting into the house with an unconscious Spike in his arms.
 
“Angel!”
 
Angel glances at Buffy before his gaze flickers over to Xander, and then he finally settles on Giles.
 
“Blood,” he says. “Warm up the blood in the fridge.”
 
“What happened?” Xander asks, pushing himself up as he scans Spike for injuries, but he can’t find any—no blood, no oddly-bent limbs, nothing to indicate injury except that Spike looks a little gaunt, like his skin shrunk around his face in the last twenty-four hours.
 
He follows Angel over to the couch, where Spike is dumped.
 
“He was an impulsive idiot, like always,” Angel mutters, and then he does something Xander would have never, ever thought would happen. Not in a million years.
 
He goes into game face, bites into his wrist, and shoves it into Spike’s mouth.
 
“What are you doing?” Buffy demands, spotting Angel. “Are you—are you feeding him?”
 
“Sire’s blood,” Angel says, rubbing at Spike’s throat. Spike isn’t swallowing the blood. “I’ll explain in a minute. Stupid, rash childe…”
 
“But he’s—he’s evil,” Willow says, wide-eyed. “Am I the only one who remembers that? He tried to kill us!”
 
Xander swallows hard.
 
Angel shakes his head, glances at Buffy, and then reaches out and pinches Xander’s thigh.
 
“Ow!” Xander yelps, slapping a hand over the spot. “I didn’t do anything!”
 
Buffy, though, goes chalk white. “Oh my god.”
 
On the couch, Spike’s throat suddenly convulses, and his mouth twitches around Angel’s wrist seconds later. He starts to weakly suck.
 
“What?” Xander asks, tearing his eyes away from Spike. “What is it?”
 
“The chip.” Buffy says, staring at Angel in disbelief. “Angel shouldn’t have been able to do that. Is it…”
 
Giles appears with a mug of blood and passes it to Angel, who extracts his wrist and starts pouring the mug of blood into Spike’s mouth instead.
 
“He kidnapped Ethan Rayne,” Angel says, looking up at Giles. “He forced Ethan to do a spell that transferred the chip from me to him.”
 
Xander feels like he’s been punched in the stomach.
 
The chip. The chip that prevents vampires from hurting anybody, neuters them and leaves them utterly helpless, denies them their very nature—and all he can see in his mind’s eye are those last blurry frames of Spike that he has in his mind, the look on his face when Xander pushed him away, and all Xander can think is he did this for me.
 
“He what? ” is Buffy’s response.
 
Xander stares at Spike’s unconscious form, feeling sick.
 
Relieved.
 
Oh, God.
 
“Is Ethan all right?” Giles asks.
 
Angel nods. “He was fine. Left as soon as the spell was finished.”
 
Giles sighs. “Well, that at least explains why he wasn’t at dinner last night. I expect he’ll have left town by now.”
 
“So Spike has your chip now?” Buffy asks, looking tentatively hopeful. “You’re back to normal and he’s… he’s…”
 
“Either that, or he’s brain dead,” Angel says grimly.
 
“Brain dead?” Xander repeats hoarsely.
 
Angel looks over to him. “Vampires and magic don’t mix, and he just magically stuck something in his brain. He’ll probably be fine, but there’s a chance…”
 
Bile rises in Xander’s throat.
 
“But—but why?” Willow asks, having appeared out of nowhere. She’s staring at Spike with undisguised curiosity. “Why would he do that?”
 
Angel tips the rest of the mug of blood into Spike’s mouth and shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
 
“Give him more of your blood,” Xander says, looking to Angel. His voice still sounds hoarse. “Give him more. Please.”
 
“Good heavens, Xander, you look like you’re about to faint.”
 
Xander doesn’t look away from Angel until Angel reluctantly bites his already-healing wrist and puts it into Spike’s mouth again. Spike is drinking, not conscious but clearly improving and getting stronger with each swallow. His face looks less gaunt.
 
“Xander?”
 
He did it for me.
 
“Xander, maybe you should sit down.”
 
“I’m okay,” he forces himself to say, watching Spike drink and drink and—
 
Cough.
 
Angel yanks his wrist out, and Xander’s breath freezes in his chest.
 
Spike coughs again. This time, his eyes crack open ever so slightly.
 
He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t have to. The moment his eyes lock onto Xander’s, Xander feels a tug on his soul that’s so hard and fast that he knows—he knows, without even needing to hear Spike’s voice—that Spike is still in there. His eyes might only be slits, but Xander can see the devotion and possessiveness and burning need to be loved back, and it cuts him to the core.
 
Spike’s eyes slide closed, and he drifts back into unconsciousness.
 
A hand falls on his shoulder. “Xander. Xander, you should really lie down. Why don’t you go upstairs?”
 
The words register, and Xander looks around with the sudden knowledge that Buffy, Willow, Giles and Angel are all staring at him with various degrees of concern.
 
For a moment, he doesn’t even think they’re real.
 
“Xander?” Willow asks.
 
“I—”
 
Xander stops. Swallows. Looks at Angel.
 
“Would you take him upstairs?” he asks. “Please?”
 
There are silent exchanges that happen around Xander after this request, but he doesn’t register any of it. The facial expressions and body movements and eye contact are all transient, happening out of shift with his own reality. He only knows that in the end, Angel nods his head.

 
Spike wakes up when he’s placed on the guest bed. His eyes flicker open and shut, staring at Xander hazily.
 
“Squeeze my finger,” Xander says, closing Spike’s hand around his pinky.
 
Spike blinks at him twice, then squeezes.
 
“Harder,” Xander breathes.
 
Spike squeezes harder.
 
Harder.”
 
The moment Xander feels a throb of pain Spike is releasing the finger with a shriek, curling up into a ball and pressing his hands to his forehead. He whimpers in the aftershocks.
 
Xander feels sick. Relieved.
 
Safe.
 
As Spike quiets, drifting back into unconsciousness, Xander crawls onto the bed and curls up to Spike’s back. His mind is too muddled and scattered to even try to think right now. He sleeps, one arm wrapped around the only person in this world who would literally,  literally give up everything for him.

 

 

When Xander wakes up they’ve reversed positions somehow, and Spike is doing his very best enthusiastic-tentacle-monster impression. Spike’s grip on him is tight, and his mouth centimeters away from Xander’s neck, but Xander remembers Spike in a fetal position and whimpering, and he finds that he can be okay with it.

 
He hates himself.

 
The next time he wakes up, Spike is awake too.
 
Spike is staring at him, looking wide-eyed and defenseless, utterly stripped, and Xander finds that there still aren’t words in his head. It’s blank. This moment feels too huge. Too many things have happened since the last time he and Spike spoke, too many things that he still hasn’t begun to deal with. He can’t even fathom what to say right now.
 
“Is this all right?” Spike asks quietly, after an age.
 
Xander nods.
 
“I thought—” Spike breaks off, shakes his head, and then reaches with trembling fingers to touch Xander’s cheek. “The thing is, pet…  The thing is that we’re all liars. Go through the motions every day, but that’s just trappings. Extras. It’s not until you strip all that away, all the bloody awful jokes and the self-deprecation and the blustering, that you get to see what’s underneath.” He pauses, studying Xander with crystal blue eyes. “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my life than you were that night.”
 
“As a consort?” Xander chokes out.
 
Spike shakes his head. “No. No, not that, that was… wrong. Everything that you were before that—so fucking brave, so fucking… You just knew. Can’t explain it. You understood those undercurrents of death and control and bending, and you played them like a master.”
 
Xander swallows.
 
“It was breathtaking,” Spike says. “You were breathtaking.”
 
“Why’d you leave?” Xander blurts out, because he can’t focus on words like breathtaking right now. “You… you left. And got a chip. I—God, Spike, I can’t believe you—you… I’d have never…”
 
“No, you wouldn’t have,” Spike says. “I know. But would you let me touch you right now, if I didn’t have this chip?”
 
Xander feels a horrible, sickening rise of guilt, but he can’t lie.
 
“No,” he whispers.
 
“Probably don’t even trust me now, do you?” Spike presses.
 
Mutely, fractionally, Xander shakes his head.
 
“I bullocksed things up,” Spike says, regret lacing his tone now. “Know that. I hurt you, almost killed you when I should have just listened to you—and you don’t trust me to not do it again.”
 
“But you didn’t have to go and get a freaking implant!” Xander bursts out. “You didn’t have to—to neuter yourself!”
 
Spike shakes his head. “Rather neuter myself for the rest of my unlife than hurt you like that again.”
 
Xander pushes himself up on his elbow, guilt still burning hot in the pit of his stomach. “But it’s not right. You’re a vampire, and I never wanted you to—I never asked you to deny that. I don’t want you to live some kind of half-existence. I mean, you could get mugged on the street and you’d be completely helpless!”
 
Spike rolls his eyes. “I’m not gonna get mugged.”
 
“How are you going to—to eat?” Xander asks, scrambling for something, anything right now.
 
“Peaches has been surviving on that bagged shit for years, hasn’t he?” Spike answers off-handedly. “I’ll be fine.”
 
“But you always said that it tasted like crap,” Xander protests.
 
“Look,” Spike says, looking Xander in the eye with a suddenly solemn look on his face. “Look. I don’t care about any of that. If having this chip means that you might trust me again someday, then I’ll deal with everything else that comes with it.”
 
Xander shakes his head. “Spike, you’re gonna regret it one day. This isn’t something that you can just go and reverse—this is, like, permanent.”
 
“Well, you’ll just have to wrap your head around the idea that I’m not gonna stop lovin’ you, then,” Spike says obviously.
 
“But—”
 
Spike places a finger over his lips, and Xander stops.
 
“It’s not completely permanent,” Spike says, now more seriously. “Got that chaos mage to get it out of Angel, didn’t I? Not easy, but it’s doable. One day, when you trust me again, when I can say that I’ll never hurt you again and you believe me—then we’ll look into getting it out, all right?”
 
Xander swallows again, and slowly nods.
 
“One day,” Spike says quietly. “One day, you’ll believe that someone could love you forever.”
 
“I—”
 
Xander stops.
 
Spike got this chip for him. And he’s right—without it, Xander doesn’t think that he could let Spike touch him. It would be too much. The chip is the only reason that he feels safe lying here next to Spike, limbs entangled, fangs able to slide into his neck at any moment—
 
Except not. Not anymore. Xander is safe. Spike can lose his temper all he wants and he’ll never, ever hurt Xander.
 
He doesn’t want to be comforted by the thought, but he is.
 
“Just—just don’t forget that I didn’t ask you to do this, okay?” Xander asks, eventually. “I don’t want you to end up resenting me. I watched it happen to my parents, and I don’t want that for me. For us.”
 
“I won’t forget,” Spike promises.
 
Xander can’t ask for anything more than that. The rest will have to come with time.
 
He shifts, allowing himself to relax and lay his head back down on the pillow, and Spike curls against him quietly. The blinds have been shut but it’s still clearly daytime, and Xander wonders how long they can get away with just lying in bed. He doesn’t want to have to go downstairs and face Giles and Angel, deal with the repercussions of… well… everything. He just wants to lie here with Spike and take the time to wrap his head around the last few days.
 
Xander takes in a deep breath, releases it, and then speaks.
 
“So no more consort dreams?” he asks.
 
“Not unless you want to,” Spike answers. “Seeing you like that—giving yourself over to him—”
 
He stops, clearly struggling for control.
 
“I don’t ever want to see you like that again,” Spike finally manages to say. “Your eyes were… empty.”
 
Xander closes his eyes and turns his face to the side, so that his and Spike’s foreheads are almost touching, and he reaches for Spike’s hand. “I keep dreaming about it. It’s this nightmare that keeps coming back, the worst thing in my life that’s ever happened to me, and the thing is when I wake up—when I wake up, I can’t tell myself that it was just a dream. Because it happened. I was… That was me.”
 
Spike squeezes his hand tightly, and Xander swallows hard.
 
“It was horrible,” he whispers. This has been festering in him ever since he woke up but it’s only now, now in the privacy of Giles’ spare bedroom with Spike’s silent presence beside him that he feels like he can let it out. “And I keep thinking—I keep thinking what kind of strength it must have taken for my mom to walk away from that. All my life I’ve hated her for being so weak, but I was wrong. So fucking wrong.”
 
“You couldn’t have known,” Spike murmurs, pulling him close.
 
Despite his very best attempts, Xander finds himself fighting tears. He keeps his eyes shut, doing his best to keep them from spilling out. “She died thinking that I hated her. God, I did hate her.”
 
The sobs bubble up, but Spike makes shushing noises and rubs his arm, pressing a kiss to his cheek. “You loved her, and she knew that. Mums know these things. Trust me, luv—they know these things.”
 
Xander swallows hard. “I just want—”
 
“I know,” Spike says softly, when Xander can’t even finish the sentence. “I know.”
 
He chokes back another sob and forces himself to take in a great, shuddering breath of air. The pain that had been numb since he’d woken up is suddenly raw and throbbing, and it’s all he can do to keep it inside. Another huge breath of air, and he feels Spike hold him tighter, murmuring gentle things into his ear. Xander focuses on breathing, in and out, in and out, in and out. This is not the time for another one of his stupid panic attacks.
 
“I love you,” Spike says softly.
 
“I know,” Xander says raggedly. He gulps in another breath of air, but he feels calmer. “I know.”
 
For once, it’s okay.
 
Breathing deeply, his lung not seizing up for once in his life, Xander lies there and allows his mind to drift. He’s not sleepy, but he’s tired—a bone-deep tiredness that’s older than he is—and he feels incredibly heavy under the weight of it all.

 
When they go downstairs, Giles and Angel are waiting for them. Xander is reminded of why keeping Spike and Angel in the same room is never a good idea.
 
First, it’s: “Spike…”
 
“Oh, blow it out your arse, your great tit.”
 
Then it’s: “Actually, Spike—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—I think I owe you thanks.”
 
“Didn’t do it for you, you broody git. Did it for Xander.”
 
“I don’t know why I bother.”
 
Then it’s: “M’perfectly capable of getting blood. Just ‘cause I got this chip in my head don’t mean I’ve gone stupid, you know.”
 
“Believe me, I wasn’t blaming the chip.”
 
“Oi! As the one who just saved your bloody life—”
 
“Spike, you didn’t save my life, you pulled a chip out of my head. And more than that, you got lucky.”
 
“I was clever, far more than you’d have ever been. Always had more creativity than you did. You were always about the routines, the reputation, the bloody motifs… Probably would have just sat around reading books about chips until—”
 
“You almost died.”
 
“M’already dead.”
 
“You know what I mean!”
 
“You’re just pissy ‘cause you didn’t think of it first, now aren’t you?”
 
“Of all the idiotic, foolhardy—”
 
Xander thinks that they’re all relieved when Angel announces that he’s leaving for LA that night.

 
He finds Willow at the cemetery, standing in front of Jessica’s grave.
 
“Hey,” he says, offering her a small smile.
 
“Hi,” she says.
 
Xander stands next to her and looks at the headstone. He hasn’t been here since the funeral.
 
“I was just…” Willow waves a hand. “I missed the funeral. I feel like I missed everything this semester—I got so busy with college and Oz and Buffy that I was a bad friend to you.”
 
“You weren’t a bad friend,” Xander says, and he means it.
 
“I was,” Willow insists. “I was a really bad friend. I should have—have been there for you. I should have visited more often. I should have been here for you, when they buried your mom.”
 
“You were off saving the world—”
 
“But I should have been here for you,” Willow bursts out, looking several seconds away from stamping her foot in frustration. “That’s what friends do, Xander, they’re there for each other when things aren’t good. You were there for me when Oz left.”
 
“I was okay, though,” Xander says. “I wasn’t alone—I had Spike.”
 
“See—see, that’s just it! You had Spike.”
 
Xander averts his eyes back to the headstone.
 
“I’m not trying to make this about me, but I just don’t understand it. How can a vampire take my place?” Willow asks, sounding genuinely hurt. “How can some evil, blood-sucking vampire—who’s tried to kill us all, more than once—I mean, he doesn’t even have a soul, he’s not even human—how can he take my place?”
 
“He’s not taking your place,” Xander says, wrapping an arm around her. “No one could take your place. Spike is… he’s his own, special place. He doesn’t really fit into one nice, neat little box.”
 
Willow shrugs off his arm. “But he’s a vampire.”
 
Xander glances at her. He wants to bring up the chip, the fact that Spike can’t hurt him, can’t hurt anyone anymore, but the irrational shame is still too great. Willow wouldn’t understand. So instead, he just says, “I know.”
 
She stares at him, looking so lost and confused that all Xander wants is to just sweep her into a giant hug and tell her that he’ll make it better, but he can’t do that. It’s not that simple.
 
He hesitates, takes in a deep breath to muster his courage, and speaks.
 
“Willow, I don’t need you to be okay with this,” he says.
 
Willow stares at him, startled.
 
“I’d like you to be okay with this, but Spike isn’t going anywhere,” Xander says, using every last bit of his bravery to get the words out. “I’ve never had anyone care about me the way he does, never had anyone love me like this before, and I think… I think I might be starting to love him back.”
 
“Xander…”
 
Xander stares back, resolute.
 
Willow exhales and turns back to the headstone. “I just keep thinking, if only I’d been a better friend…”
 
“He makes me happy,” Xander says plainly.
 
She studies the headstone.
 
Xander switches tactics.
 
“I never told you,” he says, “but my mother was a vampire’s consort. The same vampire that tried to take me away—she used to belong to him. That’s why she drank all the time. That’s why she was so crazy. She was fighting against the urge to return to her master.”
 
Willow’s eyes are wide.
 
“I think she was the bravest person I’ve ever met,” Xander says quietly. “And I hated her.”
 
“No, Xander. No. You didn’t.” Willow takes his hands and squeezes them hard, staring up at him with an aching love on her face. “You loved her and she knew that. I promise.”
 
Xander gives her a small smile. “That’s what Spike said, too.”
 
Willow blinks, the concern in her face momentarily blanking into surprise, then she sighs and shakes her head, knowing that she’s been outsmarted.
 
“Then it sounds like we both know what we’re talking about,” she says, at last returning Xander’s small smile. “And you should probably listen.”
 
That’s as close as Xander is going to get for right now. He can live with that.
 
“Probably,” he agrees. He glances at his mother’s headstone one last time. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. My car just got out of the shop.”
 
“It was in the shop?” Willow asks, frowning as she allows Xander to lead her away. 
 
“Yep. Leonardo’s minions were apparently not well-trained in the art of efficient car disabling. Messed with the brake lines, fuel pump, throttle body,and the tires.”
 
“Oh my God. Xander, that’s awful!”
 
“Don’t worry about it,” Xander says with a quick grin. “Turns out I pay for that insurance stuff for a reason.”
 
Willow smiles slowly back at him, grabs his hand, and starts to lead the way out of the cemetery.

 
“Xander—Xander, bloody hell—Xander.”
 
The rush of images come crashing down around him, but not fast enough, and when he sees Spike’s face inches from his own the explosion of panic is pure instinct.
 
“Get away, get away, get away!” he yells, pushing and shoving, kicking through tangled sheets. It’s not until he nearly flings himself off the bed that he realizes that he’s not dreaming, that he’s in Giles’ spare bedroom with Spike—chipped Spike.
 
Spike who can’t hurt him anymore.
 
Wavering on the very edge of the bed, he pauses to catch his breath. He wants to crawl back to Spike, but—
 
But—
 
And Spike’s face is utterly impassive.
 
“I’m sorry,” Xander says, still breathing hard, still not moving. “I’m sorry. It’s just—it’s only a reaction.”
 
“You were screamin’ my name,” Spike says slowly. “Thought you were callin’ for me to help you, but you weren’t, were you?”
 
“No, I—I…”
 
“Think I’ll go sleep on the couch, then,” Spike says, moving to get off the bed.
 
“No!” Xander scrambles across the bed, grabbing for him. His heart is still pounding furiously. “No, look, it isn’t you. I swear. I’ve been having nightmares ever since that night, it isn’t just you.”
 
Spike shakes his head with a resigned look on his face. “No, don’t feel guilty, luv. If you’d feel safer with me on the couch—”
 
“I wouldn’t, you bonehead,” Xander hisses. “I want you here!”
 
“See, that’s just you bein’ you,” Spike rationalizes. “Puttin’ your compassion and guilt and whatnot over your own—”
 
Xander grips his arm—hard. “Stop making decisions for me, Spike.”
 
“Wasn’t—”
 
“You are,” Xander says, sharper than he means to. He takes a deep breath and relaxes his grip on Spike’s arm, forcing himself to calm down. “Look. You have to give me a chance to catch up, okay? You feel guilty. I feel guilty. My head knows that I’m safe with you, but I think it’s taking a little longer for the rest of me to catch up—I never was the sharpest tool in the shed, you know that—so just… give me a chance. Avoiding each other isn’t going to help anything, and neither is you making high-handed decisions about what’s best for me.”
 
Spike slumps back on the bed, looking at him sourly. “Too bloody insightful for your own good.”
 
“I’m exactly enough insightful for my own good,” Xander counters. His heart rate is finally starting to slow.
 
Spike makes a noncommittal noise.
 
Sighing, Xander lies back down. “It’s gonna be okay, one day. Just try to be patient.”
 
There’s no answer from Spike.
 
Xander nudges him. “C’mon. Snuggle up.”
 
“Don’t snuggle,” Spike mutters.
 
“Bull and shit.”
 
“For Crissake, m’a vampire. I don’t snuggle.”
 
“Do too.”
 
“Don’t.”
 
“Do.”
 
“Don’t.”
 
“Do.”
 
“Don—”
 
Will you two bloody well go to sleep already?
 
Xander winces. “Oops,” he says under his breath.
 
“Could really give you something to listen to, if you’d like,” Spike calls back.
 
Xander’s not sure, but he thinks he hears a groan from the other side of the wall.

 
It’s weird not to be living on his own any longer. Xander’s so used to worrying about paying rent and buying food and making sure that he’s got enough to scrape by every month that to have that stress gone… It’s a massive weight off his shoulders. Better still is the fact that he sees Buffy and Willow on a semi-regular basis, now.
 
Angel sends bi-weekly blood deliveries. Spike’s temper tantrums (“Blood? Blood? That sodding arsehole thinks I can’t take care of myself? I’m a hundred and thirty years old, I don’t need bloody care packages—show him, I will, send him a bloody letter bomb and blast his sodding face off…”) gradually fade into sullen acceptance, much to Xander’s secret amusement.
 
He gets a job with a construction company through a friend of Buffy’s mom, and Spike is quick to start extorting Giles for his considerable knowledge of the demon underworld, so pooled together they’re going to accumulate money rather fast.
 
Things are looking up.

 
“I’m going to start helping out with the Slaying again,” Xander tells Spike one afternoon, without preamble. Passions is currently on commercial break, and Spike is languidly painting a fingernail black.
 
“Gonna charge the Watcher, too?” Spike asks, raising an eyebrow without looking up.
 
Xander rolls his eyes. “Even if I wouldn’t feel six kinds of wrong about asking for money—and I would—I don’t think Giles would pay me anyway. Not so much with the centuries of experience, or the fighting skills, or the research-y stuff over here.”
 
“Well, what are you helpin’ out for, then?”
 
“I don’t know.” Xander shrugs. “Now that Cordy’s gone, someone’s got to be bait, right?”
 
“Not on my watch, you won’t,” Spike says, narrowing his eyes at Xander. The brush gets set back in the little jar of paint. “Worth more than bait, you are.”
 
“Well, again, with the lack of demon-y knowledge and kung fu and—”
 
“I’ll teach you,” Spike says decidedly.
 
Xander’s eyebrows shoot up. “You’ll teach me—what, kung fu?”
 
“How to fight,” Spike corrects, seeming to catch onto his own idea. “How to survive. Don’t know how you’ve done it for the last nineteen years—don’t know why that sodding Watcher never taught you lot self-defense in the first place, come to think of it—but you’ll not get killed by some mindless fledge if I’ve got anything to do with it. Better than that, you are.”
 
“Oh,” says Xander. “Cool.”
 
Spike rolls his eyes.
 
Passions comes back on, but Spike doesn’t go back to it. He doesn’t pick up the nail polish again, either. He’s eyeing Xander.
 
“You’re happy,” he says, at length.
 
“I am,” Xander confirms. He raises his eyebrows. “It’s not a new thing for me, you know.”
 
“S’a nice little set-up the Watcher’s got for you here,” Spike continues, glancing around.
 
Xander nods, still waiting for the punch line.
 
“Even slept through the night, last night,” Spike says.
 
Increasingly wary, Xander nods again.
 
“Think the Watcher’s got it in his head that your lot haven’t been there for you this year, an’ that’s why you’re with me,” Spike muses aloud, almost to himself now. “Probably hopes that if he lets you stay here, gets you a nice job with that construction company, sets up little weekly dinners with your friends, you’ll decide you don’t want to be with Ol’ Spike anymore.”
 
“Good thing you’re here to point out those devious plots,” Xander says seriously.
 
Spike eyes him suspiciously, clearly trying to decide whether or not he’s being made fun of.
 
Xander sighs. “Look—I sort of… I was gonna wait, but I sort of got you a present.”
 
Spike perks up instantly, though it’s mostly hidden under his cool demeanor. “Really?”
 
“And when I say got, I really mean made,” he continues, feeling a swell of nervousness that he immediate shoves back down as he digs into his pocket, where it’s been hiding for the last two days. “Since, you know, first paycheck not coming for another two weeks and all. But… I wanted to.”
 
Spike’s sitting up straighter, Passions completely forgotten.
 
Xander pulls the thin strap out of his pocket, keeping it solidly closed in his fist, and then hesitates for the briefest instant before uncurling his hand and holding it out to Spike.
 
“I want to get an apartment,” he says, as Spike silently picks up the black, braided leather cord, looking riveted. “I’ve done the motel thing to death, and the basement isn’t really an option, so I want an apartment. And as classy as that piece of paper looks taped to the wall—”
 
Spike turns the cord over, stopping when he catches the painstakingly carved letters.
 
OXNARD.
 
“—I wanted something a little more… waterproof. And portable. And, you know, stylish or something. Um. It’s a bracelet. I’ve seen you wear things like it before, so I didn’t think it would be too… you know. Girly. Stupid. Something.”
 
“S’not stupid,” Spike says finally, looking up at Xander with an odd expression on his face. “Or girly.”
 
“I just—” Xander breaks off, fighting with the urge to babble. “This summer, you showed me what it means to be myself, how to be my own person, and no one died and no one fought and… Oxnard was like this magical happy place where everything was okay. And we’ve been using that sign for months, but—but it’s not the sign. It’s not the place. It’s you. You make everything okay.”
 
Spike stares at him, an inscrutable expression on his face that’s doing absolutely nothing for Xander’s nerves. 
 
“And I’d really like it if you lived in that apartment with me,” he finishes, deciding that this is the limit for the amount of stupid words he’s going to say today. Right here. That’s it.
 
Spike looks down at the bracelet in his hand.
 
Xander waits until he absolutely can’t stand it anymore to speak.
 
“…Spike?”
 
“You’re sure?” Spike asks, voice oddly hoarse.
 
“Well, I’d be kind of a jerk to offer and then take it back,” Xander replies, shrugging one shoulder with a hesitant smile.
 
“Don’t deserve you,” Spike says, shaking his head. “What I did—”
 
“Okay, now you just sound like Angel,” Xander interrupts. “C’mon. Give me something else.”
 
There’s a brief pause before Spike’s face splits into a slow, pleased smile. “Can’t think of anything I’d like more, luv.”
 
The nervousness gives way to a rush of relief, and Xander can’t help the huge grin that spreads across his face.
 
“Oh, man, this is gonna be so great,” he bursts out, completely forgetting his vow to not babble anymore for the rest of the day. “I saw this really nice complex on my way to the site, yesterday, and it’s not too far from Willy’s and it’s definitely far away from the campus, so, you know, no Initiative, and we could probably even find one without windows facing east and west—oh, or those blackout curtains, we could those…”
 
Spike ties the leather strap around his wrist, using his teeth to pull the knot tight, and then relaxes back into the couch, reaching for the nail polish with the smile never fading from his face.
 
Things really are looking up. 

 

- FIN -

 

 

Also, because I have nothing to do now that finals are over, a playlist! Songs that relate to this story/songs that I listened to a lot while writing this. 

Without You I'm Nothing - Placebo
Dumming Song - Florence and the Machine
Memories - Waldeck
Illabye - Tipper
Delilah - The Dresden Dolls
Oedipus - Regina Spektor
Bloodsport - Sneaker Pimps
Animal - Miike Snow
You Are My Joy - Reindeer Section