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The Magic Number

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Wednesday night, Scooby meeting, everyone was assembled including the bad Scooby who didn't give a damn and sort of hoped Glory chopped them all into little bits--except for one absentee.

"Where's Xander?" Buffy asked.

"Working," Dawn said.

"No, he's not on tonight." Willow looked puzzled, then perturbed. "At least, he said he wasn't."

"Under the circumstances," Giles said from the kitchen, sounding more irritated than concerned, "I think we should all keep closer track of each other than this."

"He might have been called in for a shift at the last minute," Tara suggested.

"Try the Dough Boy," Buffy told Dawn, already pacing back to the blackboard.

"No pepperoni," Spike said, and went back to making a list of people who owed him money. So far he was up to five, although that total included a dead Finn and an Italian, making repo possibilities effectively three.

Dawn came back from the phone looking worried. "He's not there. They said he hasn't worked since Monday night."

"He was on last night," Willow said. "He told us he'd be at work." Her voice had the edge in it that meant her brain was overrunning itself, rushing off into bad places and panicking at what it found there.

"He might be sick?" Tara looked doubtful.

"Call his apartment," Giles told Dawn.

Spike put down his list. This was actually starting to get interesting.



Three hours later, it was boring again. Harris wasn't at home, wasn't at any of his crappy jobs--and if Spike ever had to walk into the back kitchen of a donut shop again, he'd kill everyone in sight, chip or no chip.

"Look, he's clearly dead," Spike said, when they reconvened on the Slayer's front porch, everyone but him wearing identical looks of dismay. "What you want is a quick service, something tasteful. I know a man can get you a body to put in the coffin. Gives it heft."

The Watcher kept Buffy from staking him, but the witches gave him twin fiery stares that got him moving off the porch and away. "I'll let you know if I hear anything," he called back, privately thinking, One down. Nice that it was Harris--it meant Spike might be able to get into the apartment and sell a few things before the other children realized.

There wasn't much in the place, but he helped himself to a few CDs and the coffeemaker. He needed one for the crypt.



So it was a disappointment when, the next night, he drifted back to Revello--always good to stay abreast of current events--and found that the situation had changed.

"Willow found him," Dawn whispered. They were sitting on the porch steps, Dawn pale and teary-eyed, Spike trying to hide his amazement. "He was in his apartment."

"But I was just--" Spike stopped. "I mean, didn't they already look there?"

"Yeah. He wasn't there, then he was. And he was all...he's different." Dawn swallowed and glanced over her shoulder. Inside, all the lights were on, and there were sounds of movement, low voices. "Something's wrong."

Spike lowered his voice, too. "What?"

"I don't know, exactly. They wouldn't let me see him."

Spike gave the front door a considering glance. Beaten up, probably. Got caught out alone, no Slayer to keep the dogs off, and took a beating. Wonder he wasn't dead, then. All the vamps around knew a Scooby on sight, and there was no love lost.

"Well the important thing is he's back," he said, because that was the kind of thing people said, and he was trying to cover his aggravation. He could have had two guys in for the furniture tonight, maybe even the dishwasher. There was a market for that stuff.

"I'm scared, Spike." Dawn inched closer, staring at him with big, watery eyes. Shit.

"I'm sure he's fine," he said, thinking, Lucky bastard.



He didn't get anything else that night--he had a feeling he'd be pressing his luck inside, so he took himself off and drank the last of the whiskey he'd laid in for just these kinds of setbacks. Stumbling outside at two or three in the morning, he was stoned by unseen hands. When he went to game face, he heard laughter retreating. A couple yells of Eunuch and Traitor. He stumbled back in, draped the chains over the door, and fell into sleep.

He was woken by a tippy-tapping at dusk, hurried frightened knocks that said Please open up, fast, help--

It was Dawn, breathless and in tears.

"He's old," she said, squeezing her arms tightly around herself in a goosefleshed hug. "He's old, Spike, and he's all messed up, and he can't talk--"

"What do you mean, he's old?" he asked.

On the way there, he thought, Can't talk? With a sense of incredulous gratitude for the ways in which the universe bestowed sudden gifts.



Buffy didn't want to let him in the house, but Dawn started crying and kept dragging at him, so he acted contrite until finally he was allowed over the threshold. They were all there. Witches upstairs, downstairs, in the kitchen. Watcher in the dining room, barely glancing up from the tomes he had open on the table. A general sense of fear and confusion. More than a beating, then--a broken nose wouldn't have them looking for spells. But if he was really hurt, why not take him to hospital?

Despite himself, Spike began to get an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. There was some bad human smell in the air. Sickness, maybe.

"Could be just the syphilis acting up," he said in an undertone to Dawn, who gave him the same blank look of fear she'd had all night. The unease settled further into his belly.

"You have to look at him," she said, pulling at his arm. "Please. You might know--you're old, you've seen a lot of stuff, maybe you know what it is."

"I'm not a doctor," he found himself saying, stumbling up the stairs after her. To his surprise, no one interfered. Over his shoulder, he caught a glimpse of Red watching with raw fear and hope, and realized that it might have been her idea in the first place.

"He's in Mom's room," Dawn whispered, her fingers still digging into Spike's arm. The air upstairs was still, warm, and foul with emotional discharge. Adrenaline, sweat, blood. Iodine and gauze.

"Maybe he needs a proper hospital," he muttered.

"We can't take him to the hospital, we couldn't explain how he got like this, we don't know--"

She pushed the door to Joyce's bedroom open with the tips of her fingers. A few inches, then she seemed to lose courage, and for a second Spike felt a kind of superstitious freeze fall over him. He hadn't seen Joyce's room since she'd died. Stupid to be bothered by it, the long-gone ghost of a woman who'd never been cruel to him anyway.

"Go on," he said, giving Dawn a little shove. She wiped her face, wiped her palms on her jeans, and went in. He followed.

It was dim, and it took him a minute to get his bearings. They'd moved things around. The bed was in the corner now, jammed strangely against two walls. It was piled with blankets, every spare one in the house, it looked like, even though the heat was up. At first, he couldn't see a body in it at all.

"Where is he?" he muttered, and Dawn, wearing a false smile that disturbed him more than anything else so far, pointed to the far corner of the bed, the one against the walls. There was a small lump there, Spike realized. He stepped forward. Looked like Harris was balled up under the blankets.

"I can't see him," he said peevishly, but Dawn just fidgeted and gave him a look that told him he was on his own. With a sigh, he stepped closer. "Come on, Harris, you're scaring the ladies."

There was a slight responsive twitch, which he took as encouragement to reach out and pull the blankets down.

The man under the covers was curled in a tight fetal lump in the L of the walls, his arms wrapped around his knees, his knobby spine exposed. Sweat pants, no shirt. He was about forty pounds shy of being Harris. His back was marked up, a latticework of scars, some of them still fresh and patched over with bandages. His ribs an inch out of his sides, his hair ragged and shaggy and salted with grey.

"That's not Harris," Spike said, astounded that they could make a mistake like that. No way this poor bugger was the dickhead builder he was once again hoping to be dead in a ditch somewhere. That dishwasher--

Then the man lifted his head and looked up sideways, a kind of furtive eyeroll, as if he thought he might not be seen looking that way--and it was Harris. Harris's beady black eyes, his mouth, his jug ears. But old. Three days ago he'd been nineteen. Now he looked thirty-five, easy. Maybe more. And rough. Old and beaten up--the nose was broken, yeah, and healed again, ancient history, and the lip was stiched with black thread. There were bruises around his eyes. He looked blasted and confused and then, when his gaze settled on Spike, suddenly very focused.

"Xander," Dawn was saying, "this is Spike. Remember Spike?"

I think he does, Spike thought, but he didn't get a chance to say anything before Harris flipped over and made for the edge of the bed. Quick as an eel, his breath coming in weird rough gasps. He was off the bed, onto the floor, and across the room before either of them could move.

"It's okay," Dawn squeaked. Harris didn't even seem to hear. He started for the window, and Spike thought, Oh shit. He moved to intercept, and at the first indication of that, Harris reeled back and went for the door. Dawn jerked back and he yanked the door open and ran straight into Buffy, who grabbed hold and held on.

"It's okay," she said frantically, grappling with him. The others were there too, stationed behind her in the hallway. "Xander, it's okay, you're home."

He kept fighting, making that weird wheeze and no other sound, until finally Glinda stepped in and put her fingers to his temples. Some Latin, a little poof, and he went limp. Buffy held him up, a look of shock and anger on her face.

"What did you do to him?" she asked, staring at Spike. He was still fixed on Harris's pathetic, unbelievably changed body. He was white as cheese, except for the pink stripes on his back, his neck, the backs of his arms. Big hands, suddenly. Broken and blistered.

"Nothing," Dawn was saying. "He didn't do anything, Xander just got scared--"

"This was a bad idea," Buffy said grimly, getting hold of Harris's waist. "Spike, leave."

"He might be able to help us," Red said. "Spike, you're a vampire, maybe you know something we don't--"

"Get out," Buffy said.

"Willow's right," the Watcher said gently, stepping in between. "He might be useful. Now, why don't the rest of you go downstairs while I get this cleaned up?"

And that was the first moment that Spike realized that the acrid smell in the air wasn't just magic. That Harris, poor sad wanker, had pissed himself in fear.