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Sock Puppet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"In Sunnydale."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He felt warm skin, and a hummingbird pulse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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