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Spike was huddled up in a corner again.

He wasn’t always like this. Most days when I got home from work, he’d be in his room reading God knew what, or sitting on the couch, surfing at high speed through the cable channels until something caught his attention. The first commercial that came on, off he’d go again until I go fed up and took the remote away. He went out most nights. I didn’t know or care where.

But every once in a while, I’d find him like this, curled up in a dark corner with his arms wrapped around his knees, rocking and muttering crazy talk over and over. Normally I left him to it. I didn’t like the guy. He’d been threatening to kill all of us most of my adult life, and he had banged both my fiancée and my fantasy. I tried not to think about who else he might have seduced. It was disrespectful to the dead. But despite all that, I hated seeing him like this. Or maybe because of it. I couldn’t hate the son of a bitch when he was just so damn broken.

“Spike,” I said, crouching down in front of him. “Yo, Spike, are you in there?”

“Not here, not here, not her, not here,” he murmured over and over.

“Yeah, I wish,” I grumbled. “Spike!” I snapped my fingers in front of his face until finally he looked up at me. “Back from the land of the differently sane, come on now.”

“Xander?” He looked confused, like I was the one who didn’t belong there. “You aren’t dead.”

“Not for lack of trying.” I grabbed him under the arm and hauled him to his feet. “Come on, get your coat, we’re going out.”

“Out?”

“Yeah, out. As in out of this apartment before we go out of our minds.” Of course, he already was, and I probably was, too, to be suggesting this.

“Where?” I hated how small his voice sounded.

But it was a good question. “Um, how about the movies? Spiderman’s showing down at the discount theater.”

Talking seemed to give him something to focus on, giving him back some vitality. “Haven’t you already seen that three times?” he asked even as he slid his arms into the jean jacket he’d adopted in place of the leather.

“So? It’s a good movie. And if you think I’m paying for you to see a first run flick, you’re crazy. Er.”

Spike was quiet on the drive to the theater, occasionally mumbling to himself or twisting his hands together as we settled into our seats in the darkened auditorium. It continued until Osbourne was transformed into the Green Goblin. After that, he was transfixed. I ignored him to go back to my inappropriate thoughts about Kirsten Dunst.

“He should have had a chance to redeem himself,” Spike said a little more clearly now when we headed back out to the car.

I was surprised by the observation. “He did, in the comics. Went to a mental institution to try to control it. It didn’t work.” I opened the car door and slid behind the wheel. When he got in, I added, “That’s the problem with these movies. They reveal the hero’s secret identity right away and then have to kill off a perfectly good villain. I mean, look at what they did to the Joker.”

He looked at me with confusion that had nothing to do with insanity. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, you do know that.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, I’m used to it.”

When I started the car, he asked, “Where we going?”

“I’ve got a couple more stops to make. Might as well make a night of it.”

The first stop was the EB at the mall, just to see what they had in new. They had Halo up on the demo machine, and Spike stood there watching it until I paused near him and he could ask, “How do you play?”

Okay, this could be interesting. “Here.” I handed him one of the controllers. “The arrows move you around, and these buttons are your attacks. Use them in combination and you can get special attacks.” I reset the game and took the other controller. “Try it.”

It was satisfying to be able to beat Spike at something. At least for a little while. As he got used to the controller and the game mechanics, he got better. I could still take him two out of three, though.

The next thing I knew, it was an hour later and Tony the store clerk was leaning over the counter. “Hey, guys, just buy a copy and go home. I got other people who want to try it.”

I did. It would be worth it to be able to kick Spike’s ass at home whenever I wanted.

When we got to The Comics Vault, it was packed the way it was every Tuesday night with all the comic geeks after their fix from the new releases that had just hit the shelves. I ignored most of them as I went down the racks slowly, checking out all the new titles, picking and choosing the ones I wanted. I kept half an eye on Spike the whole time. At first he looked bored, picking up a back issue here and there, leafing through it and dropping it back where he got it. Then I noticed him standing there actually reading one. I couldn’t see the cover to know which one. The next think I know, he’s holding Jackie by the arm and talking animatedly. Jackie had worked at the Vault since my junior year in high school, but in all that time, I’d never worked up the courage to ask her out. So here was one more reason to hate Spike. He could talk to the girls I was too chicken to. Dammit.

Jackie just smiled and led him over to the rack of graphic novels, handing him down a couple before moving on to help the next guy. By the time I got to the register, he was right behind me with a stack of books of his own. I looked at the pile and then up at him. “How were you planning to pay for those?”

He looked pained for an instant. “Come on, Harris, be a mate. I’m good for it.”

“No you aren’t! You’ve never been good for anything!”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted it. They made me sound like my dad, always belittling and deriding me when I couldn’t defend myself. I hated sounding like my dad.

I sighed to cover my guilt. “Fine, add it to the pile. But don’t think I won’t get this out of you.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Then he added, “Thanks,” surprising the hell out of me.

It was an odd assortment of titles he’d chosen. There were the standards, Superman, X-men, Batman and Spiderman, Wonder Woman, but there were also a number of independents as well. Before Jackie could ring it up, I pulled the seventy-five dollar first edition of Watchmen out and set it aside. “You don’t need that.”

Spike’s expression tightened. “You don’t get to pick what I read.”

“Fine. I’m not trying to.” He was getting me defensive now. “You want to read it, you can borrow my copy at home.”

“Oh. Okay then.” He sounded eerily apologetic.

Jackie chuckled as she continued scanning books. “Sharing your comics. Now that’s love.”

Her words were a bucket of cold water. “What? No! No love, no, no, no! We’re just roommates. He’s completely not my type!”

Spike leaned forward over my shoulder. “Yeah, he prefers the tall, dark, brooding type, don’t ya, Harris?”

I turned on him. “Do you want me to stake you? Because Buffy said I could, and so help me . . .”

“Mmm, gonna stake me good, are you?” He waggled his eyebrows at me.

Jackie chuckled again.

I signed the credit card receipt and grabbed the heavy bag of books from her. “You must be feeling better, if you’re back to being a pain in my ass.”

“I thought it was the other way around,” he smirked. “Thought you were going to stake me.”

I glared at him. “Just for that, you can walk home.”

Spike must have taken me seriously, because he didn’t follow me out to the car. He wasn’t at the apartment when I got home, either, so I had a beer, read my comics and went to bed.

He must have come back sometime in the night, because when I got up, his door was closed and the stack of books I’d left for him on the island was gone. I had a flash of envy that he got to read comics and sleep all day while I had to go to work. But then I remembered the bug shagging craziness and figured I didn’t have it so bad.

When I got home from work, Spike was sitting on the couch, intently focused on the TV screen and the round of Halo he was playing. When he registered my presence, he held up the other controller. “I’m player one,” was all he said, resetting the game.

It was a challenge if ever I heard one. “The hell you are!” I plucked the primary controller out of his hands and climbed over the back of the couch, forcing him to slide over so I could have the best seat.

After that, things with Spike were kind of weird in that they were almost normal. It was kind of like having a roommate. He still went out most nights, although he was usually ready to take me on for a couple of rounds of Halo or GTA beforehand. And he usually brought beer when he came home. I never asked where he got it. Sometimes discretion really was the better part of valor. Once in a while he even did the dishes or took out the trash.

I thought the day the girls came over and caught us at it was going to be the end of it.

“Xander,” Buffy said as she and Willow stood by the couch staring at us, “are you sitting around playing video games with . . . Spike?”

“That’s what it looks like,” Spike answered before I could open my mouth. “Now be a love and get me another beer.”

In the three seconds it took me to look up and see their stunned faces, Spike left right upped me and put my character through a wall.

“Ha! I own you, Harris!” he crowed. “I own your sorry ass. Now give me the bloody first player.”

“Xander!” Willow was indignant. “Tell me you aren’t teaching a two hundred year old vampire leet speak!”

“Two hundred fifty-three,” Spike corrected, not looking away from the TV.

“I’m not,” I defended myself. “It’s not my fault he picks this stuff up. He’s like a sponge. A big, evil sponge.”

Buffy didn’t say anything, her face a mix of confusion and compassion as she got a bottle of beer out of the fridge. Spike looked up as she tapped him on the shoulder with it, and as he took it, their eyes met in that silent communication they had that shut the rest of us out. Like she was telling him she knew what he was doing and he was asking if that was okay. She just shrugged and let go of the bottle.

I took the opportunity to wipe the floor with him.

But I knew it couldn’t last. It took about three weeks this time before I came home from work to find Spike in the middle of the living room floor, five long boxes of comics dumped out around him as he scavenged through them, his eyes huge and desperate. “Where am I?” he asked, picking one up to glance at the cover before casting it aside and moving on to the nest. “I have to be here. I have to be here somewhere.” He growled, tossing a handful of them aside in growing frustration.

And suddenly I got it. I knew exactly what he had been doing. Because how many years had I spent doing exactly the same thing?

In the interests of protecting my collection, I stepped over the scattered books to crouch next to him, wrapping my hand around his wrist where he crumpled several more books in his fist. “Spike.”

He was strong enough to break even my strongest hold, but this light touch seemed to still him. Or maybe it was hearing his name spoken aloud by someone else. He stopped, slowly turning those pale blue eyes of his up to me.

“Spike,” I said calmly, quietly, prying the books out of his fingers. “We aren’t her. Guys like us, we aren’t the heroes. We don’t get the covers.”

He looked at me in that sad, lost confusion of his, then reached down to slide some of the books aside before lifting one up. “You are.”

It was an issue of Superman's Best Pal Willow had given me for Christmas when I was ten.

For an instant, I wondered if this was what it had been like for him with Drusilla all those years, endless incomprehensibility with sudden flashes of absolute truth. I took the comic from him, studying the grinning face of Jimmy Olsen before looking back at Spike with a sheepish smile. “Yeah, but things never work out so well for old Jimmy, do they? No girl, a crap job, always having to get rescued.”

He just studied me silently, puzzled.

“But the covers don’t matter,” I hurried on, starting to stack up the books so I didn’t have to see him watching me. “What matters is we’re on the inside. Every single issue, we’re there. The sidekicks, the best friend, the . . . the love interest.”

If he noticed my hesitation, he didn’t react, just drifted his long fingers over some of the glossy covers. “None of the birds have sidekicks.”

I paused neatening a stack. “I guess they don’t really need them. Better grounded than the guys or something.”

He didn’t say anything, just watched me work. Finally he picked up a few, straightened them out with care and handed them to me before gathering some more, his hands growing more sure as he worked. When he spoke again, he sounded more like himself again. “I never much liked you, Harris.”

“Gee, and you kept that such a good secret.”

“Did you ever wonder why?”

I turned to put a handful of the books back in their boxes. “I never really gave it much thought,” I said, not looking at him. I didn’t know what I’d see if I did. “I guess because I’m one of the good guys.”

“It’s because you were so much like me,” he answered in all seriousness.

I snorted. I couldn’t help it.

“Not now, you git,” he retorted without much anger. “Back when I was human.”

“When you were human.” I was still doubtful. “So, back when you were human, in eighteen hundred and god knows when, you sat around reading comics, playing video games and drinking beer?”

“No,” he said patiently, handing me another stack of comics. “I sat around writing poetry.”

“Poetry?”

“Bad poetry.” When I didn’t take the books he was offering, he reached out and snagged the box, pulling it closer to start filing them away himself. “I wrote bad poetry and mooned over girls who didn’t give a quid for me and lived with my mum and was a sodding virgin when I was sodding twenty-eight years old.”

I don’t know which surprised me more, what he was telling me or the fact that he was telling me at all. “Then what happened?”

He glared at me like I was deficient. “What do you think happened? Dru bloody well happened is what. Dru happened, and she changed . . . well, she changed everything.”

He fell silent, lost in whatever memories the mention of his sire conjured up, and I didn’t want to intrude until I was more sure he was stable again.

We kept cleaning up the mess he had made until he started speaking again. “Anyhow, after that, I started to hate everything I’d been before, everything I’d done.” He hesitated, as though his words reminded him of something he couldn’t quite nail down. But he went on. “Angelus loved to taunt me about the git I had been when I’d been alive. So I gave it all up, shoved it all down until I almost forgot about it. And then I come to the horrible disappointment of Sunnydale, and there you are, fluttering after your harem, living in your folks’ basement and just making such a mess of things.”

“Thanks, Spike.” I chucked a fistful of magazines into one of the boxes. “I love being reminded of how pathetic I was.”

“’S what I’m saying, isn’t it?” He leaned back against the sofa, his arms resting over his knees. “Every time I saw you, I was reminded of what I was back then. Back when I had a soul.”

I put the top back on the box and leaned back against the coffee table, mirroring his position. “Is that what this has all been about? Trying to get back to what you’d been like with a soul by copying me?”

“Like I’d want to be like you,” he scoffed, but I heard a little uncertainty in his voice.

“It wouldn’t work anyway. We’re not the same person. Not now, not then. Even you aren’t the same person you were the first time you had a soul. Everything’s different now.”

He rubbed his eyes tiredly. “It just seemed so much simpler then.”

“Well, yeah, because it was.” I was feeling sympathetic now that I was starting to understand him a little better. “You lived a quiet Victorian life there at home with your mom, and you never had any ethical dilemmas or moral ambiguities come along to challenge you. That’s not the world we live in. Nothing for us is easy.”

Spike tipped his head to the side. “How do you manage?”

It was disconcerting to think that that Spike was actually listening to me. I shrugged. “You do the best you can. If you screw up, you try to make it right. If you can’t, well, you have to live with it, and try not to screw up again.”

He seemed to think about that. “I guess that’s what makes a hero.”

“What’s that?” The conversation was starting to make me uncomfortable, so I stood up and started picking up the rest of the comics.

“They make the right decisions.”

“Nah.” I put the lid on the last box and stood up. “It’s that they make any decision at all. Every time, right or wrong. That’s the hard part. Once it’s done, you don’t have any choice but to cope. But to actually make the choice, not knowing if it’s the right one? Yeah, that’s what makes a hero.”

Spike was silent for so long, finally I stacked up a couple of the comic boxes and hauled them back down to my bedroom. When I came back, he was putting his jacket on. “I have to go out.”

“Yeah, okay.” I piled up two more boxes.

He hesitated, an odd look on his face. Then tentatively, he said, “They should have made a decent Wonder Woman movie.”

“Yeah.” I straightened the boxes. “Guess no one really wants to see a movie about a strong woman.”

The look he gave me seemed to be trying to communicate something. “I’d see it.”

I met his eyes. I thought I knew what he was saying. “Yeah, me, too.