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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.

Chapter Text

"What would do that?" Buffy asked, leaning against the stove with her arms crossed tightly against her chest.

Spike shrugged. "Lots of things."

"What lots of things?"

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "I can make you a list if you like, but it'll take a while."

"Something whipped him," Red said faintly. "The marks on his back are whip marks, right?"

"Humans'll do that," he pointed out, turning to face her. "What's wrong with his voice?"

She turned even paler. "We think something burned him."

"Burned him?"

"Like a…like a poker or something. His mouth's been burned, his tongue's all scarred, and it looks like his larynx is just—" She broke off, patting her own throat with shaking fingers. Tara ran a hand down her back.

Spike let that sit a minute. He was feeling a little shaken, a little out of his depth. Which was ridiculous—he was a vampire, this was exactly his depth. He'd had the chip for too long, hadn't tortured anyone in ages. All he ever did now was petty theft and bad language. The Watcher walking by with a pair of sweat pants discreetly rolled up—that was enough to give him a strange moment.

"Poker down the throat," he said briskly, mindful of Buffy's eyes on him. "Well, that narrows it down a bit. To things with thumbs."

"That's it," Buffy said, pushing off the stove sharply.

"Just a minute," Rupert said, walking back in with a dish towel in his hands. "Spike, can you tell us about any unusual characters in town?"

"They're all unusual," Spike said. Buffy started to close in again. "Look, I'm a fluffy puppy now, remember? I don't know any more than you do. Far as I know, Glorificus has everyone else on the run."

"He was afraid of you," Buffy said flatly. "He hardly knows who we are, so why is he afraid of you?"

"Maybe he doesn't like fine leather." She was going to boot him out anyway, so he stood up on his own. "Look, you want my advice, find out who's done any magic the last couple of days."

"Nobody," Willow said. "We already tried—if anybody did anything big, like a portal, in the last few days, they hid it so well we can't trace it."

"Then I'm out of ideas," Spike said, starting for the door. "He'll snap out of it. Probably." That sounded weak even to him, and just as he said it he noticed that Dawn was sitting on the stairs, listening in. Crying. "He'll—look, he's a tough nut, he'll be fine." He said it to all of them, knowing how stupid it was, but not knowing what else he could say that would get him out from under the weight of their expectation.

 

 

It was an intellectual curiosity. What could do that to a man—age him ten years overnight, strip him down like that, give him old wounds and a new personality—all without setting off Red's magic sensors? Whatever it was, Spike had considerable respect for it. For days after, he had flashes of that skinny white back curled over on itself like a cracked shell. That, and the way Harris had looked at him. Not recognition, exactly—or if it was recognition, it was a strange, impersonal variety.

Mysteries like this added spice to an eternity of underachievement, and there was money in them too. Drifting by the Watcher's flat, Spike found the man elbows-deep in research. Close to the breaking point, with both Glory and the Harris thing to figure out. Spike offered a fair exchange—money for information. He didn't actually have any information, but that wasn't unusual. It wasn't like the Watcher didn't know it, either. Desperation made people do odd things.

He started hanging around the Scoobies more often, on the theory that at least for the moment, Harris was the most interesting oddity Sunnydale had to offer. The Amazing Prematurely Aged Boy. Who couldn't talk. And was afraid of his own shadow. Not much of a show, unless he'd learned to bite the heads off live chickens as well.

In fact, Willow reported, it was hard to get him to eat at all.

"I think it's his mouth," she said, turning her coffee spoon over and over. "I don't think he can taste anything, so he's just not interested."

"How old are the burns?"

She made a quick, puzzled face. "I'm not a burn specialist, I don't know from burns. But they look old."

"Healed."

She nodded glumly, flipping her spoon. "Tara made a decoction, some chamomile and slippery elm and stuff, but he won't take it, and if you go anywhere near his mouth, he gets all—" She widened her eyes and twitched her hands frantically. "He almost knocked himself out the first time we tried."

"Can't talk," Spike said, mainly thinking out loud, trying to put together something, anything. Enough to get the Watcher to cough up a few more twenties. "Can he write?"

"He just holds the pen and sits there."

"But he gets what you tell him."

"Sit, stay, come here—yeah. He's like a—" She stopped short and looked away. After a minute, she said carefully, "It's like someone's trained him."

"Makes sense," Spike said absently. "Burn his voice out so he can't drive you crazy with that constant nattering, then train him to do something useful." There was a pause—he realized Red was looking at him oddly, and not nicely. "I mean, it's terrible. Poor bugger. What do you think he was trained to do?"

She was already ahead of him, he was realizing—he wasn't so much pumping her for information as serving as her sounding board. Letting her say the things she'd only thought so far. Without a pause, she said, "Manual labor. Some kind of hard manual labor. Did you see his hands?"

He hadn't seen any part of Harris in more than a week—Buffy wasn't letting him back in the house anytime soon—but he remembered. Big, dark, painful-looking. He nodded.

"He had grit in them," she said. "Worn into the cracks, you know?"

"Right."

"I think maybe, mining. Something like that."

"Right."

They sat there for a minute in silence. Around them, the coffee shop was alive with nineteen year-old nits braying laughter. At least Harris wasn't a brayer. He didn't laugh much at all, actually. You had to give him that.

"Thing is," Spike said finally, "how'd he do all that between Monday night and Thursday morning?"

"I don't know," she said miserably, staring at her spoon. Then she glanced up at him, seemed to come to a decision, and leaned down to reach into her purse. "I brought something. To show you."

Hoping it wasn't a pair of damp sweat pants, he waited.

She pulled out a clear Ziploc bag with something ratty folded up inside it—a piece of clothing. For a second he was afraid she'd actually brought him some new low in Harris's loss of dignity, but when she pushed it across the table at him, he saw it was old. Old and dirty, shredded up, barely holding together. A T-shirt, maybe. Red. He frowned and picked it up.

"Xander was wearing it," she said. "When I found him in his apartment."

Spike looked at the shirt. It didn't look special.

"Okay," he said.

"It's GAP," she said, pointing at the faint, frayed remains of a navy blue tag. "It looks like it used to have a number on the front. Like, you know, those athletic numbers—forty-three, ninety-nine, whatever."

He waited.

"Xander doesn't have a shirt like this," she said. "I know what he has, and he doesn't have it."

"Not his shirt," he said. "He borrowed it, maybe. From some other poor sod in the GAP sweatshop dimension."

"GAP doesn't make this shirt," Willow said. "I checked online. They don't make this number, at least, and when I called the distributor and, um, maybe pretended to be a snooty buyer type of person, they couldn't find it for me. They hadn't heard of it."

He sat there holding the shirt, trying to figure it out.

"It has the number twenty-three on it," Willow said. "That's Xander's birthday—the twenty-third."

"Coincidence," he said in an offhand tone, but his eyes were drawn back down to the ragged bit of cloth in his hand, and the back of his neck was prickling.

Chapter Text

The best way to learn more about the situation, he realized, was to get close to Red, promote the fluffy puppy angle. Between her and Dawn, dropping by the crypt to report alternately on traumas (Xander won't eat, he has nightmares) and successes (he's using a fork, he smiled), Spike kept pretty close tabs on the Harris front.

Then things heated up with Glory--minions everywhere, giant snakes, confusion--and suddenly he was back in the Slayer's good books. Or if not her good books, at least her ranks. A night or two after the anaconda visit, Buffy dropped by the crypt and told him he was needed back at the house.

"Won't I upset Nell?" he asked, because there were such things as principles.

"Don't push me," she said, and slammed the door when she walked out.

 

The idea was to keep Xander and Spike in opposite ends of the house at all times. They still didn't know why Xander was afraid of Spike--nobody'd cracked the code in the weeks since he'd reappeared, so they couldn't ask him. Spike suggested hand puppets, and Buffy almost kicked him out again.

"You're here in case Glory shows up," she told him in a private military meeting, locked in the bathroom. "If anything happens to me, you're the next strongest in line to protect the others."

"I know why I'm here," he said sourly, and when her back was turned, "Because you can't keep your eyes off me, you greedy little--"

"You're disgusting," she snapped, and slammed yet another door in his face.

 

 

Keeping out of Harris's way was easier than he'd thought it would be, since Xander spent most of his time confined to Joyce's old bedroom. It was the witches' room now; apparently Harris slept on a cot at the foot of their bed. Spike entertained a few brief mental film reels of how he might himself exploit such a position, then found himself abruptly too busy to do much of that.

With two major crises happening simultaneously, the Scoobies were spread thin. Willow and Tara seemed to be focusing on trying to figure out what had happened to Xander and whether they could reverse it. Rupert was busy with the Glorificus question, and Buffy had her hands full making Dawn's life miserable.

"You're killing her yourself," he told her after watching her deliver a ten-minute tirade when Dawn came home late from school. Not the best choice of words, he could later admit. It led to a period of even higher household tension, and then an abrupt about-face in which Buffy took Dawn to movies, the mall, mini golf--anything useless and sisterly and unaffordable.

"I could raise her better and I'm a vampire," he groused to the back yard during evening cigarette sessions.

It all left him alone in the house during daylight hours--alone except for Xander, who was a silent, unseen presence somewhere upstairs, like the ghost of Joyce. One Thursday afternoon, dragging himself to the kitchen for another mug of blood, Spike saw the ghost. They practically ran right into each other, in fact.

Spike stopped short and so did Xander, both of them heading kitchenward from different directions. Before he could do anything about it, Spike realized he'd boxed Xander into the little hall alcove. He took a quick step back and held his hands out to show how harmless he was. Then he realized he had a mug of blood dregs in one hand, and hid it behind his back.

Xander, meanwhile, had pressed himself against the wall, as if he were trying to disappear straight through it. He'd gained some weight, didn't look quite so starved anymore. They'd cut his hair, but there was still grey in it. Still lines around his eyes and his mouth, and a red scar on his lip where the stitches had been, and fatigue stamped all over him like an expired warranty. Still breathing fast and scared through his mouth, whistling a little in the base of his throat.

"Don't piss," Spike said automatically, and then regretted it. Not really fair, kicking a man when he was that far down. "Look, it's all right, I'm backing away--" He took slow, careful steps back the way he'd come. Xander stayed where he was. His face was turned slightly away, his eyes down and to the side. Avoiding eye contact, the way you did when you didn't want something big and bad to notice you. His breathing sounded like a saw chewing through wood. His larynx is just--

On the other hand, a Harris sighting was a rare opportunity to collect a little more information. Spike paused, considered, then said, "Xander." No reaction. "You know who I am?"

A slight flicker of the eyes, there. Red said it was like he didn't really remember any of them, or like he knew who they were the way you knew characters in a play, without caring much about them one way or another.

"You know what my name is?" Spike asked, wondering where he was going with this.

No response, but the breathing quickened, and he noticed that Harris's hands were behind his back, palms pressed to the wall. Head down, legs apart. Submisive posture, like a dog. Which Red wouldn't let herself say, but calling a dog a dog was Spike's specialty.

"I'm not going to hurt you," he said, feeling like an idiot. "I mean, I could. It's not that I can't hurt people, but I'm in a good mood and I like you." That was almost true, he realized. Harris was interesting, and that was almost the same as liking him. "I live here now. I keep you and Dawn safe. You know that?"

No movement at all. Whoever trained him had done a bang-up job.

"D'you remember anything?" Spike asked, taking a step forward in spite of better judgment. Maybe if he could get a better look at some of those scars--

Harris flinched, so abruptly that his elbows cracked the wall. Spike paused. A setback now would be bad. Better to just lay low, take it slowly. He had a good thing going here, all the free blood he could drink and full use of the cable.

"Right, off you go." Rikki was talking to pyromaniacs, and he was missing it. He turned and went back into the living room, still carrying his empty mug. Behind him, there was the rapid pitter-pat of little feet haring straight back up the stairs, as if the devil himself were in pursuit.

Chapter Text

A week went by. Spike said nothing to anyone about his encounter with Harris—what was there to say? The man was mute, monastic, took off running when you came within ten yards of him. Spike had had better times tormenting fish. And unlike everyone else in the house, he didn’t care to spend his evenings speculating in hushed tones about what was wrong, what might have happened, what kind of a god could have allowed this? There was telly to be watched.

“You lot aren’t doing him any favors,” he told Dawn one night on the back porch, hiding his cigarette alongside his leg. “Whatever happened’s happened. Best thing you can do is move on and stop nursing him so much.”

Dawn looked doubtful but didn’t say anything, and he had a moment of satisfaction. Thinking, Take notes, Slayer. That’s how you parent. That was followed by a wave of absurd self-awareness that made him stand up suddenly, drag hard on the smoke, and mumble something about walksies before escaping stage left.

Living full-time with the Scoobies was beginning to get to him, he realized.

Still, it was blood in his mug and there was satisfaction in poking holes in all of them day to day, especially with so much anxiety in the air. And there were little surprises, too, like the morning Dawn came down for school with a little shadow in tow.

“What’s wrong?” Red was getting her own kit together, off to meet Glinda and the Watcher for more study. She stared over Dawn’s shoulder, shock and worry in her face. Spike peered around the door frame from the living room, where he was setting up for a day of Montel and onion crisps. Dawn stood at the foot of the stairs with a defiant look on her face. Harris hovered on the step behind her.

“Nothing. I think Xander should spend more time downstairs, that’s all.”

“But Spike’s downstairs,” Red said, apparently not caring that Spike was standing right next to her. “And Xander’s scared of Spike.”

“Spike’s not going to hurt him. And we can’t keep nursing him forever.”

“But we don’t know what he’s been through.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dawn said firmly, reaching back and taking hold of Harris’s hand. He let her, but didn’t seem much comforted by it. “What matters is that he gets better, and he won’t get better lying in bed all by himself forever.”

“I’m not getting in bed with him,” Spike muttered, which was enough to make Harris’s eyes flick over to him, and the breathing ratchet up again. “Look, niblet, I don’t think this is the best—"

“You said we had to stop nursing him,” she said, and Spike winced. Red was eyeing him now, and Buffy was coming down the stairs behind Dawn, death glare already set.

“I didn’t mean you had to drag him down here right now.”

“He’s better than he used to be,” Dawn said, rubbing Harris’s hand briskly. “Look. Xander, you’re safe. Spike isn’t going to hurt you.” She over-enunciated, and Spike thought briefly, irritably, Is he deaf now too?

“What’s going on?” Buffy asked.

“Dawn wants Xander to stay downstairs,” Red said, and the two of them did that silent communication gaze thing they did now. “I don’t know, Dawnie, I think it’s too soon.”

“He’s getting better!” Dawn said a little desperately, letting go of Harris’s hand. He stood there, eyes down, breathing fast, surrounded by women who wanted to fix him. Spike felt a rush of something strange and unfamiliar. Pity, he realized after a minute.

“Xander?” Buffy pitched her voice low and gentle, as if he were an alley cat who might take off running at any moment. Which, well. Fair enough. “Xander, do you want to stay downstairs today?”

He just stood there, staring at the carpet. They all stood watching him. Finally Spike opened his mouth to say Look, he’s a vegetable, have pity and take him back up to bed. Before he could, though, Dawn broke in.

“He’s better,” she said definitively. “He’s not as scared now. Are you, Xander?”

It was true, Spike realized. The man’s breathing had slowed down and got quieter. He glanced up when Dawn said his name, and while he didn’t smile or nod or say Downstairs? Sure, no problem!, just the fact that he responded seemed to be a huge gain. Buffy and Red did another eye conversation, this time in a different key.

“I don’t know,” Red said again, chewing her lip. “Xander, you know you don’t have to, right?”

No response, but it seemed less like catatonia and more like he just wasn’t paying attention. Good for you, Spike thought. Nice to see someone give Red the cold shoulder once in a while.

“If he’s really okay with it,” Buffy said. “If you’re really okay with it, Xander.”

He ignored her too, and Spike felt a whole new level of liking for the git.

“He’s getting better all the time,” Dawn said, pulling her coat on with an air of I am fifteen years old and I know better than all of you. “He’s sleeping more and he eats by himself sometimes now—"

“I’ll just set up his Jolly Jumper in the kitchen doorway then,” Spike said, turning back to the living room. He heard the Slayer coming after him, surprise surprise.

“Spike. Spike. If you do anything to scare him—"

“I’ll have to clean up the mess. I know.”

“He needs breakfast,” Red said from the hallway. “I’m late, and Dawn’s bus has already gone. Spike, could you--?”

“I’m not feeding him,” he said, schlumping into the couch, eyes on the telly. “And I don’t change diapers.”

There was Slayer in front of him, blocking the remote. “You do anything to hurt him, Spike, and so help me God I’ll scatter your ashes from here to Pasadena.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Spike.”

He met her eyes. “Slayer.”

“I mean it.”

“I see that.”

She hung there a minute longer in indecision, clearly wanting to smack him and not quite knowing how to justify it. Finally Dawn put her head through the door and said, “Buffy, I’m late for school.”

I’ll stake you, she mouthed, making a quick one-two jabbing motion with her hand where Dawn couldn’t see it.

“Have a nice day, niblet,” he called. “Witch.”

“There’s cornflakes on the counter, okay? And—oh God, where’s my lichen?”

The Slayer gave him one last pre-emptively murderous look, and he smiled back, and then they were bustling out in a tangle of girl-scented purses and coats and little bags of sphagnum. The door closed behind them, and there was silence.

For a second or two Spike just sat with his eyes closed, soaking it in. Then he remembered he wasn’t alone, and raised his head again. Harris was standing in the living room doorway, looking not terrified for once, but as if he didn’t know what to do with himself. Studying the carpet.

“There’s cornflakes on the counter,” Spike said, and turned the telly on.

 

 

Having Harris downstairs wasn’t all that different from having him upstairs, it turned out. He didn’t talk, didn’t get in the way of the telly, didn’t actually do much of anything apart from disappear into the kitchen and not come out. There were a couple of clanking sounds, the gasp of the fridge—human minutiae. Spike kept an ear cocked but didn’t interfere. The man could get his own bloody cornflakes.

After an hour or so, though, curiosity and blood lust got the better of him. His mug needed filling, and there hadn’t been a sound from the kitchen in ages. Eerie, frankly.

“Like living with a dead man,” Spike groused, shoveling himself out of his chair.

Harris was sitting at the kitchen table, half-empty bowl of soggy flakes at his elbow, staring at the paper. The funnies, Spike noticed. He looked up when Spike came in, though, and for just a second his eyes were pure fear response. Nice.

“Like Mary Worth, do you?” Spike said, deliberately keeping his voice low and neutral, heading to the sink. Leaving plenty of escape route, in case Harris decided to use it. “Always thought you were a bit of a Mary.”

Harris was silent. Spike took a minute or two to rinse his mug, shake it dry, towel it off. All with careful, intentional, nonthreatening movements. Felt like he was in a bloody pantomime.

“And what are the international economic developments?” he asked quietly, turning around with the mug still in his hands. “Whither the yuan?”

Harris was staring at him, fingertips smoothing the edge of the newspaper with a light, absent touch. He didn’t look terrified now—lost and wary, yes, but not scared out of his wits. What wits, Spike corrected himself.

“Don’t know what Dawn said to you,” he went on, heading for the fridge, “but just so you know, we don’t like each other. You and me, that is. Dawn’s all right.” The blood supply was getting low; he finished out a bag with a grimace, and left it slumped on the counter. “Be better if she didn’t have to worry about taking care of you all the time, though.”

Putting the cup in the microwave, he glanced back over his shoulder to see if any of that was sinking in. Hard to say. Harris was still sitting there, motionless, watching Spike with a combination of unease and fascination.

“Don’t know if you’ve realized, but there’s a spot of bother right now. There’s this god.” None of this was making any impression, he realized. “Look, do you even speak English anymore?”

Nothing. Spike sighed and watched his cup go round and round. Once upon a time, a mute and mentally defective Harris would have been his heart’s dearest wish. The reality, however, was less exciting. Especially when you weren’t allowed to stick pins in it.

“Somebody ought to put you out of your misery,” he muttered, and then realized that he actually sort of meant it. There was something unfair about this. Obviously it wasn’t going to get much better; if the man’s larynx was gone he wasn’t ever going to talk again. Playing with your food was one thing. Cutting a man’s legs out from under him and then dragging him around on a leash for thirty years was another.

The microwave dinged and his blood came out warm and steaming, salty and sweet and completely fake. He could still smell the plastic on it. He took a sip, and realized he’d lost his appetite.

“Poor bugger,” he said, walking over to the sink and sluicing the blood down it. Harris, of course, didn’t say a thing.

 

At some point between Judge Judy and the shitty Stallone film, Harris entered the living room. Spike didn’t notice exactly when it was; he just woke up and found the man on the far end of the couch, curled up snug against the arm in a disturbingly girly way. Knees up to his chest, hands jammed in between, feet slipped under the cushion. Watching Spike sleep.

“Where the hell’d you come from?” Spike asked indignantly, checking his chin for drool. Harris dropped his gaze, then shifted it to the telly as if he’d been watching it all along. “Git.”

Watching telly turned into a strangely formal affair, with every program seeming too crass, too dumb, or too effete to settle on. He’d never given a damn before what Harris thought of him; in that hellhole basement, he’d turned the volume on Passions up loud enough to make the twit’s parents apoplectic. Now, suddenly, he felt strangely self-conscious, as if sitting here watching daytime telly made him less of a man, or less of a vampire.

“Don’t you have baskets to weave?” he asked grimly, flicking.

They watched a bad American soap opera in silence, Spike fingering the remote but not using it. While they waited for the results of the DNA tests, he half-turned in his chair and studied Harris back. Maybe not thirty-five after all. A few weeks of food, sleep, and girls making a fuss over him had restored him a bit. He was twenty-something, probably. With grey hairs and blank eyes and a lot of scars, yeah. Maybe twenty-nine.

“Where’d you get that shirt?” Spike asked, tapping the remote on the arm of the chair. Harris stared at him, the way dogs looked at you when you told them things. “The one you had on, the red one.” He paused. “Twenty-three?”

No reaction.

“What were you, a miner?” Harris’s hands were hidden, tucked between his chest and his knees as if he was keeping them warm. “Show us your paws, puppy.” Spike held his own hand out, palm up, and Harris flinched back. “God, this is depressing.”

He went back to watching television, and it took him until the confrontation about lesbian tendencies to realize that Harris’s hand was out. Not very far, but out in the open, hovering.

“Right, thanks.” He leaned over a few degrees, careful not to get too close, and studied it. The girls had done some work there, too. The skin was smooth, no blisters or open cracks. Dawn had said something about a lotion, vitamins, herbs. They hadn’t got the nails to grow back properly—those were still black and broken—but otherwise it looked all right. Big and scarred, but clean. Better.

“What’d they have you digging for?” Spike asked absently, trying to think of demons that cared about rocky things. There were those things, the ones he couldn’t remember, they looked like hot cross buns, but a hot cross bun couldn’t hold a whip. Dwarves weren’t interested in human slaves. Morlocks just ate you.

“You’re an enigma,” he said, settling back in his chair. Harris took his hand back quickly. “Don’t suppose you want to just, say, write it all down for us?”

Harris watched the hospital confession scene with an aura of confusion and dismay, as if he were just as bewildered about his own backstory as the rest of them.

 

 

The girls got home en masse at six o’clock. Spike was in the chair, Harris was asleep on the couch. Hadn’t moved all day.

“How was it?” Red asked quietly, sitting down next to Harris and stroking his hair. He came awake with a start, looked panicked, then saw her and relaxed.

“Like spending eight hours with a marmot,” Spike said. “I want better blood. And Weetabix. And video rentals.”

She sat curling Harris’s hair around her fingers, smiling when he gave her a sleepy blink. Spike watched in silence. In the kitchen, Dawn was exclaiming over the half-empty cereal bowl. Groceries were being unpacked. Slayer was sharpening her stakes, no doubt.

“We’ll see what we can do,” Willow said at last, sounding so tired and so happy that Spike felt briefly evil again.

Chapter Text

It became a routine before Spike had a chance to realize it was happening, much less defend himself. The witches left for study, the Slayer took Dawn to school and then went off to her own classes, or to beat the stuffing out of whatever the Watcher set up for her. Spike stayed home with the puppy and watched Reading Rainbow. It got so he knew what the glossy soap magazines in the supermarket line-up were talking about.

Harris was calm around him now, didn’t even look up sometimes when Spike walked into a room. Slayer still kept tabs though, and Spike could feel her eyes burning little holes in him whenever the three of them were in the same room. Made for some good fun. “Six-letter word for ‘useless,’” he’d muse aloud, then let his eyes light on Harris and scribble madly. Harris giving him one of those uncomprehending glances, the Slayer seething. When the phone rang, startling Harris into momentary idiocy: “Get that, would you?” Veins pulsing in Buffy’s neck. Good times, as Harris himself might once have said.

Alone all day with the git, Spike had free run of the remote, a steady supply of Weetabix, and an increasing ability to understand the complex, subtle patterns of Harris’s moods. He was learning to read the weather, as it were. Harris had good days and bad days. Bad days, he sometimes didn’t come downstairs until past noon, and when he did, he was skittish, dark-eyed, lost in some private inner world. He looked smaller somehow, and had a tendency to creep. Like someone who’d just come from the wrong end of a beating. Didn’t meet your eyes, didn’t respond to much, was generally boring. Spike didn’t interfere, just watched his program or read his book or worked on getting the Slayer’s diary unlocked. Best thing seemed to be to ignore him, and after a while he usually got his bearings and perked up.

Good days were more interesting. Red and Glinda had started teaching him sign language, which wasn’t going very well, but which seemed to have helped him twig to the fact that he could communicate if he tried. He seemed more alert, more anticipatory, more present somehow. When there was broad humor on the telly, Spike often looked over to see him watching with a little smile curling his lips. Alternately, when there was shouting or firearms, he got up and left. Spike spent an interesting afternoon flipping back and forth between I Love Lucy and The Wild Bunch, seeing how many times he could get Harris to smile, start to leave, smile, start to leave. Six, it turned out. Then the girls came home and the slate was wiped.

He got better at knowing when Harris wanted things. For all that he was a mute, shellshocked imbecile, he was fairly self-sufficient. There wasn’t much guesswork for Spike, because there wasn’t much for him to do. Harris fetched his own cereal in the mornings, got a glass of water when he wanted one, and that was about it until Dawn came home and made macaroni. It didn’t occur to Spike that Harris might want anything else until he noticed the eyes watching him dunk Weetabix in his blood. Not what you’d call a hungry look, but…interested. Spike paused, considered, then held the mug out.

“Have a go, then.” Mainly he was curious—how many taboos were gone, exactly?

More than he’d thought, it turned out. Harris took the mug, sniffed it, then sipped experimentally. Spike watched in silence. The expression on Harris’s face was contemplative, internal, like a wine taster judging a glass. He took another sip and ruminated over the Weetabix. Then he turned back to the television, the mug held carefully in his big fist like an expensive item on temporary loan. Within ten minutes, he’d finished it off.

“Didn’t say you could have it all,” Spike muttered, partly to cover his discombobulation. Harris flicked a glance at him—the I’ve heard you glance, Spike thought of it now—and went back to the telly.

In a spirit of pioneering discovery, Spike started trying out new menu items. Red had been right—Harris wasn’t much interested in food, didn’t seem to taste it, but he was agreeable enough when you put something down and told him to try it. Didn’t matter if it was wallpaper paste or a bit of soap. Ice cubes didn’t go over well—the cold got through, apparently—although the wounded look Harris gave him after spitting them out was worth the price of admission. It took some coaxing to get him back to the table for a wary go at one of those little oatmeal sachets the girls all took for breakfast. Trust was restored. Plus, Spike had a new hobby.

It kept him busy for a few nights, drinking in his crypt and thinking up new possibilities—club soda, raw potato, dirt—and at the same time it taught him to read Harris’s responses quickly and accurately. In the kitchen one evening, hanging about waiting for the Watcher to come over and be fleeced a little more, he saw Harris eyeing the cupboard over his head. Without thinking, or altering the sneer he was wearing for the Slayer’s benefit, he reached up and opened it, fumbling for the crackers up there. Awkward moment—Red was just reaching up for them too. Spike snatched his hand back, and she jumped. Then she smiled.

Embarrassments like that aside, it was all going okay until Glory turned up and nearly killed Tara in the park. The Slayer stopped things from going too wrong, but Tara came out of it with a broken arm and a real scare, and Red got a new, haunted look. Rough luck, Spike reflected. Lost her girlhood chum to something totally random, some blip of the Hellmouth that turned him into a mental mushroom, and then there’s Glory, having a go at her girlfriend as well. Being a Scooby wasn’t the smoothest ride in the world.

Besides, he didn’t much mind Tara.

Still, he wasn’t prepared for the summit Buffy called two days later, in the living room at Revello Drive. She came and got him specially. It was the weekend, he was off duty.

“I’m charging double for this,” he said, traipsing after her through the cemetery. “Just so you know.”

“You’re drunk,” she observed, following no logic he could see. Of course he was drunk.

“Sharp as a tack, you are,” he muttered, then tripped over a headstone.

The meeting was short, tense, and stunning. The witches were going away—there was some library on the east coast they needed to use, some spell they thought might send Glory back where she’d come from. The Watcher had taken a plane that morning. They’d be gone a week.

The east coast of where? Spike considered asking, but didn’t. There was bigger news. The Slayer was leaving. Taking Dawn with her. Period.

Spike sat in silence, the room tipping slightly with the weight of the words.

“It’s safer in LA,” Buffy said. “Angel has the hotel, he has a team—“

“A team?” Spike broke in, his mouth unfreezing. “What, do they play cricket or something?”

“It’s safer,” Buffy snapped, rounding on him eagerly, as if she couldn’t wait to fight over this. “I don’t know whether you noticed, but Tara almost died--"

“That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” he half-shouted, a bit slurrily. “LA’s not home, she should stay at home—"

“I’ve already decided.”

“Oh right, you’re going to let the poof take care of her? Poof doesn’t know her, doesn’t give a damn about her—"

“I’ve decided, Spike.”

“Doesn’t give a damn about you either, if you think he’s still in love with you you’re an idiot—"

He knew he’d scored some kind of a point, because she punched him in the face. He hit the newel post going down, nice solid clunk in the back of the head, and by the time he got up again, there was general confusion. Dawn was crying, Red and Buffy were arguing, Tara was on the couch with a ruptured look on her face, her cast cradled in her lap. Harris had disappeared completely.

For a few seconds, Spike felt the savage urge to leap into it feet first, tell the little bitch just how stupid she was, say everything he saw coming down the pike for her. Then Dawn’s tears registered fully, and he slumped back down onto the stair, rested his elbows on his knees, and wiped the blood off his chin. The whiskey he’d been drinking—not bad stuff, on the Watcher’s tab—was sour in his belly.

After a minute or so the shouting got to him and he stood up, hauling on the banister to do it. Felt a million years old all of a sudden.

They stopped yelling and looked at him, and he flicked blood onto the carpet and said, “Fine. We’ll go to LA. But I’m not staying in the poof’s hotel.”

Both of them stared at him open-mouthed, as if he’d just dropped his trousers. Then a complex series of expressions went over Red’s face, and she said, “Spike—"

He waited. After a second he raised his eyebrows. “Yeah?”

“Well, it’s just—" She broke off and looked at the Slayer, which sent a chill down his spine.

“Yeah?”

“You’re not coming to LA,” Buffy said flatly. “We need you here.”

He frowned. “What?”

“We need you to stay with Xander,” she said, and then had the grace to look abashed.

He stood there a second in silence. Things weren’t clicking right.

“What—here?” he asked stupidly, all his fire momentarily squashed by bewilderment.

“We can’t take him with us,” Red said quickly. “It isn’t safe for somebody like…like him.”

“It’s a library,” he said in disbelief.

“Sort of. Not really. ‘Library’ is sort of a metaphor, it’s more like a—"

He waited.

“Marketplace,” she finished, with a glance at Tara.

“So take him to the bloody market. I’m not staying here and feeding him grapes while you lot are all off on vacation.”

“It’s not a—" Buffy started, but Red cut in.

“We can’t take him," she said. “Spike, he can’t talk, he doesn’t remember anything, we couldn’t take him where we’re going.”

“So—so stick him in the bloody hotel and let one of the team look after him.”

“I’m not moving him,” Buffy said. “And I’m not leaving him here alone. He’s staying put, Spike. And so are you.”

“I don't bloody think so.”

“Or I can stake you and we’ll figure out a plan C. I’m good with that.”

Dawn gave a muffled sob and they all looked at her.

“I hate you,” she said, staring at Buffy with wet red eyes, one hand shaking at her mouth. Buffy flinched.

“Dawn, you don’t—"

“I hate you.” That was steeped in all the bitter heart’s venom a fifteen year-old girl could offer. Spike felt momentarily impressed.

“Dawn, this is the best we can do, it’s the only way we can keep—"

Buffy didn’t get to finish; Dawn was already trampling up the stairs, then slamming the door to her bedroom.

They all stood listening to the faint sounds of gut-wrenching tears through the ceiling.

“I’ll go up,” Tara said, and slipped out.

Spike turned to the Slayer, who looked like she'd just seen a puppy hit by a bus. “You,” he said, “are the stoniest little harpy I’ve ever had the opportunity to kill but haven’t. Yet.”

Her face firmed up. “Yes or no, Spike.”

He looked at Red.

“It’s the best thing,” she said. “It’s only for a week. Or until Glory’s history. That could be sooner, right?”

He looked back at the Slayer. No optimism there.

“We need you here,” Red said gently.

Which was a nice way of saying that they didn’t need him in LA. That anything he could do, Angel could do better.

“Please, Spike.”

Upstairs, Tara hushed Dawn in almost inaudible tones. Something folded in Spike’s belly. Felt old and familiar, the usual phantom punch of a woman in tears. God, he was a pathetic wanker.

“A week,” he said, and walked out without another look at the Slayer.

Harris was on the top step of the front porch, huddled against the railing. He looked up when Spike stalked past, his eyes going straight to the blood on Spike’s face.

“Fuck you,” Spike snapped, and stomped out into the night.

Chapter Text

There was nothing in the agreement about having to be sober, so when he reeled up under his blanket at eleven the next morning and Buffy gave him a freezing glare, he flipped her off and pushed right past her.

“Here if you need me,” he said to no one in particular, dropping onto the couch and passing out.

Then someone was shaking him. His mouth tasted like shit, there was glass in his head, and he sat up too fast. Almost clipped Dawn in the chin with his forehead.

“What—sorry, niblet.” A wave of pain through his temples. “You off, then?”

She had her coat and her monkey backpack on. Her eyes were red, her face was puffy and pink. Like a peony, he thought irrelevantly. Dru always liked girls who wept nicely.

“I don’t want to,” she whispered, the tears starting up again. Inwardly, he groaned.

“Well…” Dammit, the Slayer was standing in the foyer with her own coat on, staring at the doorknob, pretending not to hear. “Look, you’ll be fine. Short trip, see the sights, home before you know it.”

“I’m scared, Spike.” Her fingers were in his coat, twisting the sleeve. He raised his hand, hesitated, glanced over at the Slayer, and finally just patted her clumsily on the shoulder, like a trained bear.

“You’ll be fine. Angel’s…he won’t let anyone hurt you.”

“But he doesn’t know me, I’ve never even met him—“

God, little pitchers. “Look, I was drunk last night, I said some stupid things. He used to be the biggest bad in Europe, and now he’s all…souly and noble and God, hypocritical, but the point is, nothing gets past him. He’s the best, Dawn.”

She stared at him, still clinging to his coat, her eyes filmed with wet. So much fear in there. He had a sudden urge to hug her, and stomped on it.

“You’ll be fine. I’ll come visit when the witches get back, right?”

“Dawn,” Buffy said gently, from the foyer.

“What about Xander?” Dawn wiped her eyes, and he noticed she’d bitten her nails down. “What if Glory comes here looking for us and she finds Xander—“

“Spike will take care of Xander,” Buffy said, still in that tired, gentle voice. “Come on, Dawnie. We have to go.”

“You’ll take care of him, right?” Dawn asked, easing back from her knees to the balls of her feet. She was leaving, he realized. Not that he hadn’t known she would.

“Sure.” He barely knew who she was talking about, or what he was agreeing to. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”

“We’re late,” Buffy said, and Dawn stood up, then swooped down unexpectedly and wrapped Spike in a bony, awkward, fifteen-year-old hug. He lay paralyzed, unreciprocating. She smelled like the bargain coconut hair conditioner they bought now, part of the general effort to make ends meet.

“Come visit soon,” she whispered, muffled, into his neck. He opened his mouth to say, Sure, but she’d already straightened up and pushed her hair back and started for the door. Buffy opened it and let her out without comment. Then she turned and looked at Spike. He waited for the blast.

“Thank you.” Her fingers fidgeted on the doorknob, and he had the sense she was teetering along a high wire, gratitude on one side and dire, righteous warning on the other. Well, he didn’t owe her any favors.

“One week,” he said. “That’s all you get.”

“That’s all we asked for,” she said, and shut the door quietly behind her for once.

 

 

Red gave him a brief, bizarre tour of his duties while Glinda waited in the cab outside.

“You know where all the food is—if you run out there’s some money in the drawer beneath the toaster. Blood’s in the fridge, don’t smoke inside, okay?”

“You’re leaving me money?” he asked, in total disbelief. He must be drunker than he’d thought. Red gave him a doubtful look, and hurried on.

“He knows how to brush his teeth and wash up and everything, but sometimes you have to remind him. He needs consistency. Routine is good, if there’s no routine he starts to get—“ She waved her hands vaguely. “He drifts away, kind of. Dinners are in the freezer, you probably have to do that part, he doesn’t get the microwave yet. Um…” She drummed her fingertips nervously against her lips, looking around the kitchen. “He sleeps in our room, you can use our bed, there’s fresh sheets, and there’s a list here on the fridge of things he likes and doesn’t like to eat, as far as we can tell because you know, he doesn’t really give a lot of feedback, so broccoli’s kind of a guess at this point—“

Spike held up a hand, woozily catching up. “You want me to sleep in your bed?”

There was something a little dodgy about the look she gave him, there. Evasive. Nervous. If he didn’t know better, he’d think there was something she wasn’t telling him. “He can’t sleep all by himself, he has nightmares, but he’s okay if there’s someone in the bed. Not in his bed.” She gave that nervous, hiccupping little laugh. “He has his own bed. Just, in the room. Oh, and there’s this.” She dug in her pocket and produced a little amber vial with a dropper top. “Usually Tara spells him to sleep, but you can’t do that, so I made up a sedative. Just until we get back. Three drops in a glass of water before bed, and he’ll be fine.”

She set the bottle on the counter, and Spike regarded it.

“What’s in it?”

“Um…chamomile, extract of lettuce, a few grains of giflarvlia…” She was turning away, patting at her pockets, and he didn’t quite catch the last bit. “Just to help him sleep, that’s all. He should be fine, but if he gets upset because we’re all, well, gone, just give him a drop in a glass of water and he’ll be mellow.” Her voice sounded all right, but her face looked troubled, almost stricken. Not for the first time, he wondered how humans managed to get by without knowing even half of what they were thinking or feeling. Dumb beasts, even the smart ones.

“All right.” He pocketed the vial and stood swaying slightly, surveying her. “So what you’re saying is, keep him drugged up until you get back.”

She flinched, and he thought, Bingo. “It’s only for a week. And it’s better than letting him suffer.”

“Fine with me.”

“I made a calendar,” she said, pointing over his shoulder. He turned and looked; there was a piece of paper pinned to the wall under the clock, with big felt-marker dates in boxes. “I already showed it to him, so he knows when we’ll be back.”

“Sure.” God, he was sick of humans. “Got a plane to catch, don’t you?”

She fussed with a pile of mail, checked her pockets again, glanced at the clock, then finally bit her lip and said, “You’ll be…nice to him, right?”

“Sweet as cream, witch.”

“Because if you’re not—“ Her face hardened slightly, and for just a second there was static at her fingertips, enough that a telephone bill lifted up and clung to them. “I’ll find you. And I’ll make you really, really sorry.”

He took a step back, smiling as easily as he could. “Got that, thanks.”

She kept looking at him for a few seconds, long enough for the silence to be uncomfortable and the point to be very bloody made, thank you—then turned away. “We’ll check in,” she said, heading for the door. “If there’s any problem, we’ll let you know.”

“What kind of problem?” he asked with a frown. “One week, right?”

“I gave Xander some of the sedative last night.” She picked up her bag, shouldered it, and opened the door. “He might be a little out of it, but he should get up soon. Don’t let him lie in bed all day.”

“What kind of problem?” he asked again.

“I’m sure it’ll all be fine.” She took a last look around the hall, then gave him a little wave. “We’ll see you soon.”

The door closed. Silence and dust motes descended. He stood in the hallway with his hand in his pocket, fingering the cool glass bottle. Outside, a bird was singing.

“Fuck this,” he said finally, to the only audience he had left, his own hangover. “I need a drink.”

 

One drink from the dusty, neglected old liquor cabinet led to two drinks, and two drinks led to three. There wasn’t any reason for a houseful of girls to have half a dozen bottles of nice-quality whiskey, but they did. With mingled surprise and pleasure, he realized that this babysitting stint might not be as bad as he’d thought. He hadn’t spent a solid week drunk since…Prohibition. Time to make that up.

He sat in front of the television, drinking and smoking and fingering the little glass bottle Red had given him. He wasn’t sleeping in Harris’s room, that was for sure. He might be babysitting a crippled Scooby while Angel saved the world again, but he still had some standards. He slugged from the whiskey and fell asleep.

When he woke up, the telly was playing a program for imbecile children, and Harris was sitting on the floor at his feet, deeply absorbed.

“Christ.” He reached down and fished for the bottle nearest his armchair. “You poor, pathetic wanker.”

For a moment Harris didn’t react at all. Then his head swiveled slowly and loosely around and he looked at Spike without much recognition. His eyes were wide, black, opiated. He wasn’t concentrating on the show, Spike realized—he was lost in some other, inner world. Stoned out of his gourd.

“Lucky you.” Spike poured himself another shot, slugged it, and studied Harris a little more. He was in sweat pants and a T-shirt, his hair sleep-flattened, his feet bare. All his muscles had that lax, melted look that meant he’d probably tip over if you tapped him. He radiated the warmth of bedclothes. “Got to ask Red what her secret ingredient is.”

They sat for a while in silence, Harris’s eyes back on the television again, watching the light and movement and probably not taking in much more than that. Outside, it was getting dark. Probably six, seven o’clock. About time for a former Spike to start thinking about co-eds, campus walks, public parks. He hit the bottle again.

“So.” There was blood in the fridge, Red had said. He couldn’t imagine actually standing up and going in there for it, though. The chair was deep and comfy, and there was plenty of booze right here. “How’s it feel to be the reject Scooby?”

Harris blinked at the screen, then slowly turned to face Spike. Yes? his face said, distracted and defenseless.

“Noticed anything different yet?” Spike twirled a finger around in a little circle in midair. “Any changes around the homestead?” Now Harris was looking at his finger. Great. “Like, for instance, nobody else being here?”

Harris frowned, still studying Spike’s finger. God, fruit was sharper. “Remember how there used to be other people around? Remember Willow?”

Harris blinked, and his eyes slid over to Spike’s face, more alert now. Progress. “Well, she’s gone. Scarpered. Said to tell you not to wait up, she suddenly remembered she’s got a life.”

He was pretty sure Harris wasn’t getting the finer details, but something was definitely getting through. He was breathing faster, and after a second or two he looked away at the windows, at the darkening sky, then towards the kitchen door.

“Not in there,” Spike said, pulling a cigarette out of his packet. Too easy really, and yet. Still worth doing, somehow. “Don’t bother, she’s gone. So’s everyone. They all had better things to do than look after a semi-vegetated—“

He broke off, because Harris was struggling to his feet, off balance but determined. He padded off to the kitchen while Spike lit his cigarette. The light clicked on in there, and there was a pause. Spike watched telly. After a few minutes, the feet came staggering quietly back in.

“Like I said,” Spike said, savoring the smoke in his sinuses. “All gone, cleared out. Left you to me, which don’t think I’m happy about, I’ve got better things to do than hang about playing nursemaid to a mental defective.” He blew out a column of smoke and ashed carefully into the bottlecap. “There’s cornflakes on the counter.”

Silence. He gave it a minute, then glanced up. Harris was standing there swaying, breathing heavily, a circle of color high up in each of his cheeks. His eyes were fixed on Spike with radical intensity, not desperate yet but glassy with expectation. Waiting for the yell of Surprise, for everyone to jump out from behind the sofa.

“Not going to happen, mate.” Spike turned morosely back to the television. “Believe me, if I could bring them back I would. But you can’t really blame them, it’s not like you’re a rewarding experience.”

Harris’s breathing hitched up and started to get that wheeze, the same high-pitched bagpipe sound it had when he first reappeared. Spike picked tobacco off his tongue.

“Maybe if you could talk…you know, hold a regular conversation. Like a grown-up. Might have made it a little easier on them. But you’re a potted plant. Can’t expect a healthy adult woman to spend her whole life taking care of a walking ficus tree, can you?” Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Harris cast his eyes nervously up to the ceiling. “Look, I told you, they’re gone. You were just up there, you know they’re not there. Took a cab this morning, gone off east, who knows when they—“

Harris was taking a few wobbling steps back, turning on his heel, and, oh shit. Who’d have thought a man that stoned could move that fast? He was halfway to the door by the time Spike had hauled himself out of his chair. “Just a minute, hang on—“

Harris knew how to open a lock, apparently. Knew how to turn a doorknob. His hands were clumsy, though, and it took him a few seconds longer than it should have, which gave Spike enough time to catch up and slap his palm against the door. Harris tugged, but it didn’t open.

“No point going after them,” Spike said, his head reeling a little from the sudden rush. “They’re long gone, halfway to Neverland by now.” Harris tugged at the doorknob again, and seemed totally bewildered by the fact that the door didn’t open. Then he noticed Spike’s hand on the door--What did you think I was standing here for?, Spike wondered—and started to pry at it. His fingers were hot. “What are you going to do, run out there in bare feet and chase them down?”

Harris kept prying, and Spike realized that yes, that was exactly what he was going to do. For a moment, Spike considered the option of just letting him go. Might be entertaining to see how far he got before a vamp took him down or the loony bin picked him up. If he hadn’t made that half-hearted promise to Dawn… And if he could be sure that the witches wouldn’t barbecue him the minute they got back.

“Right, that’s enough.” He used his free hand to bat Harris’s fingers away, which made no impression. Harris just kept right on prying, and it sort of tickled and it was sort of annoying and you sort of almost had to admire the git. His single-mindedness, at least. “Come on, you’re not doing any good here.”

Harris dropped his hands suddenly, and Spike relaxed. “Okay, then. Come and watch—“ Harris was walking away, heading for the kitchen. “Oh, good, heat me up a cuppa while you’re in there, will you?”

He went back to collect his whiskey from the carpet beside the armchair, and as he was standing up and preparing to swig, he heard the back door open. He froze. “Oh, shit.”

Then he was jogging through the house, the bottle still in his hand, and oh yes, the back door was wide open, warm evening air was drifting in, the curtains were lifting in the breeze, and Harris was gone.

“You’re supposed to be stoned,” Spike muttered, poking his head out to test for flammability. Nothing caught, so he stepped out into the dusk. Harris was at the back fence, fumbling with the gate. “Oy! Halfwit!”

No response. Spike set the bottle carefully down on the top step and vaulted down to the lawn. Felt good to stretch his legs, walking fast over the grass. Harris didn’t even seem to notice him, still trying to figure out how to make the latch give, and just getting it as Spike caught up with him. He started to open the gate and Spike took the last few steps at a run, miscalculated slightly, and crashed into him from behind.

“Listen, you can’t—“

Harris swung around and clubbed him in the face, the gut, the chest. Bang bang bang, big fists raining down, and it actually hurt. He tried to stagger back and couldn’t get his footing. Harris kept punching, driving him back, and he couldn’t get his bearings, he was too surprised, it wasn’t supposed to go like this. Then his ear exploded in red heat against Harris’s knuckles and he felt his face break open, the killing surge that always offered. He had Harris pinned against the fence, had his teeth against the artery, before he knew what he was doing.

They stood there a second, time reassembling around them. Harris’s breath came in high, tight wheezes.

If he took it an inch farther the chip would blow his head off. Still. There was some satisfaction in just this, the hot smell of prey, the drumming of fear. He could smell the narcotic, now, whatever it was. Smelled…spicy.

“Wanker.” He gave Harris’s shoulders a final shove, then stepped back and wiped his mouth. He wasn’t bleeding. It had just been a few punches, probably just panic. He should have expected it, creeping up behind like that. “You’re lucky I’m in a good mood.”

Something was wrong, though. Harris wasn’t moving, wasn’t trying for the gate again. His heart wasn’t slowing down. Spike paused and studied him. He was pressed against the wood, shaking all over, his eyes locked on Spike’s face. Looked like he was having one of those, what did they call them, breaks. Looked absolutely, totally blotto with fear.

“Oh, Christ.” Game face. He dropped it, smoothed it over, forced a smile. “Look, it’s fine, I’m not mad. You’re a git, I expect it.” Don’t piss, he wanted to add, but it probably wouldn’t do any good anyway. “Come on, then.” He took a step back, trying to lead. Harris didn’t move. “Can’t stay out here all night, can you?”

Harris dropped his eyes and stayed where he was, head down, eyes averted. Submissive pose, right. Training. Right. Spike sighed and put a hand out. Harris didn’t move.

“Come on.”

Nothing. Spike hesitated, then reached further and took gentle hold of the collar of Harris’s shirt. No response. “Come on, let’s go in.” He gave it a little shake, then tugged. Harris leaned forward obediently, almost to the tipping point, and finally took a step forward. “Good, right, let’s go.”

If he let go of Harris’s shirt, he found, that was it. Full stop, no more progress. He had to literally pull the man inside, pausing briefly to collect his whiskey and to take a quick look around from the vantage point of the porch. No neighbors’ lights on. Nobody seemed to have noticed. Good.

“Come on inside,” he said, ushering them both in with worried, housewifely gestures. Inside, Red’s calendar was front and center, right beneath the clock. Seven days and they’d be back, and Harris had to be operational. “No problem.” Witches could do terrible things to you. That one bloke in Vienna, who’d had his cock covered in mold… “No problem.”

Harris stood silent, his hands at his sides, his eyes cast down. Everything about him saying Gone for the duration.

“I’ll get you some cornflakes,” Spike said, and hurried off to the cupboard.

Chapter Text

After about ten minutes, he had to admit that the situation was maybe a bit worse than he'd thought. Harris sat at the table where Spike had put him, staring down at the bowl of cereal in front of him as if it held the key to the ages. Spike had carefully fitted the spoon into his hot, dry hand, and he was still holding it. Hadn't used it, didn't seem inclined to. The cornflakes were past soggy.

"Look," Spike said, sitting across from him in a backwards-turned chair, his forearms propped to look casual. "Nummy cornflakes, full of vitamins. Your favorite, remember?"

Harris just sat there, tuned to some other station. There was a sense of absentia about him that hadn't been there before. Even when he'd been unresponsive, ignoring them, he'd still been at home. Pootling around in his own inner world, maybe, but he'd come if you called him. Now he'd just…gone.

Spike took a quick swig off the bottle and rubbed his lips. "Come on, Harris. Stop being such a bloody pathetic…look, you punched me, all right? Can't go punching people and expect them not to do a thing about it, can you?" Nervously, he flicked the cereal box with his fingertips. "Not like I bit you or anything. Still got the chip, remember?"

Except Harris probably didn't remember the chip, because he didn't remember much of anything. Too easy to forget that, because after all he looked the same, he was the same approximate shape and size as the irritating wanker he'd once been. Inside, now, he was a stranger. A stranger who couldn't talk or write or eat a bowl of cornflakes without help.

"What you need," Spike said, standing up decisively, if a little unsteadily, "is a proper meal. Cornflakes, that's bloody ridiculous. Need…some kind of proper, um, three veg. Meat and three. Fix you right up." He started for the freezer, trying foggily to remember what Americans actually ate. The Slayer just ordered pizzas all the time, maybe that was the thing to do. But pizza wasn't healthy, Dawn had printed out the nutritional table for Domino's and left it on the kitchen table during one of those sisterly cold wars, and it looked like a lingering death. Besides, if he used the money they'd left for pizza, he wouldn't be able to buy blood and booze with it.

"Salisbury steak. Wonderful." It looked revolting on the box, like someone had thrown up on it. He ripped it open and chucked it into the microwave. "Look at this, cooking for you. I'd call that pretty bloody nice of me, wouldn’t you?"

He wasn't really expecting responses anymore, and he wasn't disappointed.

The dish came out warped and plasticky, filmed with grease. Probably should have read the directions on the side. He gave it a doubtful look, then turned it all out onto a plate and exchanged it for the bowl of cornflakes. "There you go. Tuck in."

Harris just sat there. After a minute Spike fished a fork out of the dish drainer and eased it into Harris's fist in place of the cereal spoon. He stood back and waited.

Nothing.

"Shit." Where were his cigarettes?

He stalked off the living room and found them, then came back smoking anxiously. Harris hadn't moved. On the wall behind him, the calendar loomed. Shit.

"Look, I get it, I was a bit rough and I'm sorry, I won't do it again. Totally out of line, really. Don't know what I was thinking."

Harris sat staring at the plate, steam rising into his face. Spike chewed off a thumbnail, spat it aside, then hauled a chair over next to him and straddled it. Leaned in confidentially.

"See, the thing is, I wasn't serious before, about Red not coming back. Or about her being mad at you. She's just gone for a week, she had to go do something very important and she said, she specifically said, to take good care of you and I'm doing that, aren't I?" He waved his cigarette at the plate of brown meat and grey vegetables. "Nice dinner, better than the Slayer makes, right?" It smelled like carrion; he was having to remember not to breathe. "They're all coming back, not to worry, just try…just have a bite—" He reached out in frustration and took hold of Harris's hand. Lifted it, shoveled a little of some kind of vegetable onto the fork, and raised it to Harris's mouth. "Eat that, will you?"

Harris opened his mouth mechanically, let Spike tip the fork in, and chewed. After a few seconds, he swallowed. Totally automatic, no expression on his face.

"Great, great job." His nervousness on the increase, Spike went for a second mouthful. "And that." Harris repeated without variation, his gaze hovering loosely somewhere around the middle of the table, his free hand in his lap. "Fantastic. Have you back watching Teletubbies in no time. Now you go ahead, keep doing that." Spike let go of Harris's hand, which sank immediately back down onto his knee and stayed there. "Fuck."

They sat in silence. Spike studied Harris's profile for any change. Nothing but a drop of gravy on his lip. Absently, Spike reached out and thumbed it away.

"Well, I'll tell you one thing," he said, dragging hard on his cigarette and reaching for Harris's fork hand again. "I'm not having my balls cut off and fed to me by those women on your account." With renewed energy, he forked up a mouthful of the meat. "Have a go at that, will you?"

Obediently, Harris ate it. And the next bite, and the next, and the next. Spike kept feeding him, one eye on the calendar, half his brain making rapid calculations. Seven days. No problem. He hoped.

Chapter Text

What did you do with a comatose Scooby who didn’t talk or fight or even blink much, who’d do whatever you wanted as long as you guided his hand? Once upon a time the answers would have been manifold and a lot more fun; post-chip, they were depressing.

“Nice Cheez Nips,” Spike said wearily, navigating another semi-stale Nip between Xander’s unresisting lips. “Oh look, they’re going to find out Jack’s not a poof, what will the girls do, better hide in the—oh, fuck it.” He dropped his head onto the back of the couch, while the laugh track roared. “Let them stake me. I don’t bloody care.”

Harris didn’t give any sign of having heard, which sort of took the drama out of things. Spike closed his eyes and listened to the telly for a few minutes, then sighed and sat up again.

“You used to like these things,” he said, studying the Nips box critically. “Better than sex, you said. Well, you were drunk. And that mantis bint had just tried to rip your head off, which may have skewed things. But still.” He sniffed the Nips: egregious faux-cheese tang. “God, you people are disgusting.”

With a sigh, he tossed the box aside and stood up. “Come on, then. Telly and vomit crackers aren’t doing it, let’s try something else.” Harris didn’t move until Spike put a hand directly into his field of vision, prompting. Then he stood up. Zombie eyes, dangling hands. Waiting.

A little unnerved, Spike looked him over. “You’re covered in cheese.” Somehow, the process of Nips consumption had resulted in a drift of bright orange flakes down Harris’s front, like nuclear dandruff. Spike brushed him down, noticing when his palm bumped ribs and hipbones under the baggy sweats. A bowl of cereal a day didn’t build a man up, apparently. “And you're bloody skinny for a man who sits around on his arse all day.”

Nips dust successfully transferred to the floor, they stood facing each other in silence. Harris’s eyes were on the floor, or possibly on Spike’s boots. Spike found himself fingering his cigarette packet neurotically.

"Um." What would Angelus do? No, wait, that was the wrong role model. What would someone less evil do? Spike didn't know a lot of non-evil people, apart from the Scoobies, i.e., Harris himself. That was an interesting question. What would Harris do, if he weren't a doorstop? Probably ask Red for instructions. Which led straight back to the original problem of Red and Glinda and a mold-covered cock for Spike.

"Right, okay, um..." With a new sense of urgency, if not direction, he pulled a new cigarette from the packet and lit it. "Dawn's not evil. I mean, she's got potential--clever little monkey, does a nice job on her sister's big fat head already, but that's not the point, the point is--" He dragged deeply and blew smoke into Harris's face. "Sorry. The point is, what would Dawn do?"

Dawn wouldn't have scared Harris into a coma in the first place, a little voice whispered, but he ignored it. Dawn would...well, she'd take care of the git. She was always at him, petting his hair and his shoulders, they couldn't sit down to watch South Park without her rubbing Harris's neck or painting his fingernails or something equally irritating. The thing was, Dawn liked Harris. Or she liked who he used to be. She was...nice to him. And as much as it burned to admit it, that was what had made the most difference in him since he'd reappeared. Niceness.

Spike fought down a wave of bitter nausea, and dragged hard on the cigarette. Dammit. Moldy cock. Christ. Fuck. Moldy, though. Bits falling right off. God damn the Scoobies, each and every one of them.

"I...like you," he muttered, staring at the floor. No sound but the bloody chatty telly. "No, really. I think you're...swell. Super. You're a bang-up chap, Harris. You're--" He broke off, looking around. "Hang on a minute." The whiskey bottle was nestled in the embrace of the armchair; he scooped it up and drank long, fast, and deep. When his head was reeling and his throat felt cauterized, he blinked the tears from his eyes and faced Harris again. "You're, uh, nice. And you take a good punch, and you're entertaining sometimes, when you're not being boring, and you've got a devious streak in you, I like that." That was true, he realized. Harris could occasionally get a beady look in his eye that ran counter to the general Scooby credo of Oh No, We'd Never, That Would Be Wrong. If you turned your head and squinted, you could almost see how he wouldn't make a bad minion.

"You're all right when you're drunk," Spike went on, warming up a little. "And you don't whinge. Much. You told the Slayer to fuck off that one time. Oh, and you hate Angel. That's a plus." Without thinking, he held the whiskey bottle out for Harris to take. Instinctive gesture of comradery, thwarted by Harris's complete failure to notice. "You make a nice paperweight."

They stood there. Spike thumbed his lip and ran silently through the list again. Had he mentioned taking a good punch? Damn. "I'm not very good at this." He found belligerence again in another slug of whiskey. "Because I'm bloody evil, and you're bloody good, and I'm supposed to be ripping your throat out, not building your esteem." He went to light a cigarette, and found he already had one going. "What the fuck do you want from me?"

Harris didn't want anything, apparently. Spike stared at him, tempted to punch him just to see what would happen. A bruise would heal up in seven days, right? Witches wouldn't see it. But what if it didn't, or they came back early, or... He was headed for eunuch territory. Or worse. No law saying that they had to stop once they'd made his peter drop off. They could keep going--God knew what they could manage that would be worse than that, but they were lesbian witches, they could probably think of something.

The realization that he'd done something extremely, debilitatingly stupid sank into his brain suddenly, and with all the weight of three liters of Cutty Sark and a pint of tepid pig's blood.

"I'm going to throw up," he said, and made for the loo.

Thankfully, his stomach was just having him on. He rinsed his face with cold water, then sat down on the edge of the tub, dripping wantonly. The Slayer's pink bathmat smirked at him.

"I fucking hate you all," he said conversationally, then reached over and started the hot water running.

 

It only took a minute to get Harris up the stairs; he went where you drove him, after all. At the top, he veered automatically for his room, or the witches' room, or Joyce's room, whatever you wanted to call it. That was a good sign, Spike decided--it meant there was still somebody at home in there. Somewhere.

"Not yet," he said, snagging the back of Harris's collar with one finger. "Come on, this way."

Harris paused, then redirected and padded obediently down to the bathroom, where the tub was still filling.

Over that threshold, there were new levels of discomfort to be explored.

"Right," Spike said, realizing too late that he'd left the bottle downstairs. "Off with the clothes, then." Fond hope. Harris stood staring blankly at the hand towels, the ones with the little goats on them. Why goats? Never mind. "Come on, get undressed." Spike made a monkeyish sort of gesture with both hands around his torso, intending to convey: Shirt off. Your job. I'll be over here, reading the paper. "Come on, you know, take your--oh, fuck."

Harris didn't resist when Spike reached over, grabbed the hem of his shirt, and hauled it up over his head. "Arms up, git." God, he was a bony bastard. He lifted his arms, and the veins showed blue under his skin like some Roman's marble bathhouse boy. Then the shirt caught around his head and he started to topple.

"Careful." Spike caught him with a forearm, as impersonally as he could, but he still got a whiff of the sleeping drug, and of hot Harris blood. Unfair. Mouth watering, he pulled the shirt off the rest of the way and chucked it into the corner. "Don't want you cracking your head open on my watch. Wait till the others get back. Let them skewer the Watcher for it."

Harris blinked. His hair was pulled up in a couple of dark licks, which made the grey show more. Mentally, Spike added You're older to the list of things he sort of liked about Harris now. Grey in his chest hair. A lot of bad days had been taken out of Harris's hide, a lot of bits had been cut away, and that made him more likable.

Not likable enough that the next step was anything Spike wanted to put in his diary, though. "Any chance of you taking your trousers down on your own?" Harris drifted in oblivion. With a sigh, Spike hooked a thumb in the waistband of his sweat pants. "Don't say anything, all right? I want this to be special." He hauled them down, and there was skinny, naked Harris teetering in front of him, about to topple over again. Spike caught him by the hip and shoulder. Again, there was the cruel tease: warm skin and the smell of stoned, unresisting prey. Fucking chip. "Not to worry, women don't care about size. Much."

Lifting Harris's legs by the ankles got him into the tub, and a push on his shoulder got him to sit down. Belatedly, Spike thought to test the water. "Too hot?" He cranked on the cold, which made the pipes bang alarmingly. "Shit, hold on a minute--" Fiddling with the taps kept him busy until the tub was full. Time was, the plumbing would have been Harris's job, and all the taps would have worked fine. You keep the house from falling down, Spike added to the list. Then he amended it: Kept.

"Right, okay." He sat back at last, his shirt front soaked, one finger smarting where he'd pinched it in the faucet threads. "There you go. Nice hot bath, that's lovely, isn't it?"

Harris was slumped against the porcelain, his knees drawn up and to the side, arms over his chest. Fetal position. His eyelids had sunk, and he was watching Spike steadily from beneath them. Eye contact. That was something.

"Hello," Spike said, wiping his hands dry.

Harris didn't say anything, of course. After a few seconds his eyelids dropped all the way, and his head tipped sideways against the edge of the tub. Down and out.

"Is that all it takes?" With a wary sense of accomplishment, Spike eased back onto the balls of his feet, then stood up. "I don't know about you, but I could use a smoke and a drink."

Harris lay still, submerged and pinkening. Spike made his escape.

Chapter Text

Spike left Harris soaking while he took care of more important business. I.e., drinking. The problem with putting a full-grown man into a bath was that sooner or later you’d have to go back and get him out of it, and he was going to be just as naked then as when you put him in. Without thinking too closely about any of it, Spike decided he wanted to be drunk for that part. Drunker. As drunk as he could get, off the diminishing supply of booze in the house.

“Fucking Scoobies,” he muttered, stumbling over the carpet on his way back from the liquor cabinet. “Fucking we’re-so-good-happy-fluffy-save-the-world fucking Scoobies.” That was satisfying, so he said it a few more times, with variations, while channel-surfing. Fucking television. Never anything on. It was dark in the living room now, getting late. Dawn, in LA for the first time ever—how was she doing? Not that he cared, but…maybe he should just call, make sure they’d arrived okay. Tell her to go eat Chinese at Fong’s, she’d like it there, the hot hot ginger beef was pretty good—

He’d hauled himself half out of the chair before remembering: the poof. She was staying at the hotel, with Angel and his “team.” If he called there was every chance the poof would pick up, and Spike would have to hear his flat American accent and his flat unimpressed tone and his flat-out disapproval, and that would make Spike’s brain leap frothing out of his ears and he’d start breaking things. Never failed. Not that he minded breaking the Slayer’s things—he could always blame it on Harris—but he didn’t need the agita. He subsided into the armchair and glared at the television, fingering the neck of the bottle. Fucking poof.

Half a bottle later, he switched the telly off and sat silently in the darkness, coming to terms with his fate. Upstairs was a wet, mute Scooby. Somehow, that was his responsibility. When he tried to trace the tangled path of his own wanderings, from Drusilla’s first kiss to the Slayer’s fraying lounger, he couldn’t do it. He had the bad feeling that he’d come down in the world.

With a sigh, he stood up and trudged for the stairs. He hadn’t heard a thing from up there since he’d come down, which made sense, since Harris wasn’t exactly brimming with volition. Please God he hadn’t pissed in his own bath, that was all. Spike swigged morosely on the landing, contemplated the last few stairs, wondered what the witches would do if he just left Harris in the tub for seven days, and stumped on up.

It was dark up there, and silent. Well, the tap dripped. Slayer was great at twisting the heads off vamps, but not so good with the plumbing. Spike had a brief, strange sensation, as if he’d put his hand out to pick up something familiar and it hadn’t been in its usual place—he realized after a minute that he was missing something. Harris. Actually, Harris’s plumbing skills. Then he realized it wasn’t the first time he’d felt that. He’d felt it before, putting Harris in the bath, when he’d realized there was nobody left to keep the house from falling down. He paused, swaying. He missed…Harris’s plumbing. Huh.

“Definitely getting soft,” he muttered, staggering up the last few stairs. “Definitely…damned shame, is what it is…” Down the hall, hang a left, push the door open, and there was the plumber in all his glory. That ought to put a damper on the nostalgia.

Except it didn’t. Because the plumber was slumped against the white side of the tub, and his own limbs were white as porcelain, blue-veined and slender. In the darkness you couldn’t see the grey in his hair, or the marks on him—he could be a boy, almost. Someone’s soft-lipped, black-haired, drifting Shropshire lad. Breathing so gently he almost wasn’t at all, and again, somewhere in the back of his mind, Spike had a thought about a minion.

He was drunk, that was all. He was the kind of drunk you only got off two bottles of whiskey and a whole lot of despair. His judgment was, as they said, impaired.

“Come on,” he said wearily, sinking down beside the tub and fishing for the stopper. “Let’s get you to bed.”

Harris opened his eyes and blinked at the ceiling, then at Spike. There was a curve of black hair pressed to his cheek, like a crack in his surface. His expression was mild and interested.

“Bed,” Spike said, holding out one hand.

Harris stood up on his own, dripping and apparently not bothered by his own nakedness. Spike handed up a towel. Harris looked at it. Didn’t move.

“Oh, for the love of God.”

With his temporary sense of relief puddling back into his boots, Spike climbed to his feet. “They didn’t have towels where you were, I guess.” He waved his hand in a come here gesture, and Harris stepped out of the tub. Spike wrapped the towel around his shoulders like a cape, stuffed the ends into his fists, and gave his back a brisk rub. “There you go, nice and dry. Come on.”

Harris followed him down the dark hall to Joyce’s room, no questions asked. Come to think of it, a mute minion would be a lot less trouble than one that could talk. Or maybe the vocal cords would regenerate as part of the general affair—that would be a nasty surprise. Turn a mute halfwit so you’d have a handy footstool, end up with a snide, backtalking limpet that plagued you for a hundred years. That was why it was important to think these things through.

There was a clunk behind him, just as he went into Joyce’s room. He turned back and saw that Harris had walked into the hall bookcase.

“Sorry.” He clicked the light on, and Harris jumped, a look of sudden panic on his face, the towel clutched tight. “Shit, sorry.” He clicked it off again, and Harris stumbled sideways into the wall. “Fuck, look, just come here.” He got a hand under the man’s arm and guided him forward. “Sorry, forgot about all this.” He waved a hand vaguely at the darkness, then remembered that Harris couldn’t see that either.

The moon was in the bedroom window, which made it light enough in there for Harris to see outlines, at least. The witches’ bed was made up neatly with fresh sheets—smell of fabric softener, bleach, a faint lingering undertone of women having sex, no complaints there. Harris’s cot was set up at the foot of it. It was a little camping bed they’d pulled down from the attic and made up with some old spare sheets of Dawn’s. Blue flannel, with little animals on them. On top of that, an unzipped sleeping bag. Harris had kicked that half off the cot, and ditched the pillow as well. Overall, it looked like a dog’s bed. But that, apparently, was what he liked.

“Right, down you go.” Spike maneuvered Harris around so that the backs of his knees touched the cot, then pressed on his shoulder. Harris sat. Spike waited, and when Harris didn’t fold, added: “Go to sleep.”

Harris sat motionless, his hair still dripping down his neck, and Spike swallowed a fresh dose of irritation. “Lie down, will you?”

Harris didn’t move. He didn’t seem comatose, the way he had been earlier, but he also didn’t seem inclined to do what he was told. He just sat there, as if Spike hadn’t said anything. Spike gave it a minute, in case there was some kind of temporal rift between his mouth and Harris’s ear, then reached out and pushed Harris over. Harris slumped onto his side with a creak of rusting cot springs. His feet were still on the floor, but strictly speaking, he was sort of lying down.

“Good. Great. Now…sleep.” Spike turned and started for the door, rubbing the back of his neck to get the frustration out. Behind him, the springs creaked. He turned back; Harris was sitting up, still clutching his towel cape, staring at him. “Lie down.”

Nothing. Spike tensed, then forced himself to relax. “Look, it’s late, you’re tired. Time for all good Scoobies to go to sleep, right?”

Harris just sat there. Little red ants of irritation marched across Spike’s neck and temples, planting territorial flags along the way. “Lie down.”

Nothing. He walked back to the cot; Harris stared up at him with those dark, silent eyes. He wasn’t terrified, he wasn’t comatose, he was just…not doing what he was told. Spike put out a finger and pushed him over onto his side again. Obligingly, he slumped.

“You going to stay put?” Spike took a step back; Harris watched him with horizontal neutrality. Another step, then another, and then one more—and Harris sat up. Spike ground his teeth together.

“Look, it’s bloody naptime, all right? Time for you to go to sleep and me to go get drunker, and—" He broke off, wondering how he could have been so stupid. “No, I’ll tell you what, let’s have a drink together. How about that?” He rooted in his pockets and pulled out the little amber bottle. “Nice drink of…whatever the fuck this is. Ought to knock you right out.”

There was a tooth glass in the bathroom; he went and got it, ignoring the fact that Harris got up and followed in silence. “Here, this is the stuff…” It smelled less spicy in the bottle, and how much had she said to put in the water? Three drops? Five? One? He couldn’t remember, so he waved the dropper in the general direction of the glass and called it good. “Here, drink this.”

Harris was standing in the doorway to the bathroom, and Spike reached without thinking to put the glass to his mouth. His eyes shot wide open and he stumbled back, lost his footing, and landed on his ass on the carpet. From there he scrambled backward on heels and hands, naked and crablike and wheezing.

Spike stood where he was, glass still extended, processing.

When Harris reached the head of the stairs, he stopped crabbing and got carefully to his feet. One hand on the banister for balance, his head tipped, listening. His sides were going in and out like bellows, and he was making that high-pitched whistling sound, like someone sucking air through a straw.

“Right,” Spike said quietly, putting the glass back on the sink. “I forgot, you don’t like people messing with your mouth.”

Harris flinched at the sound of Spike’s voice, but held his ground. Spike sat down on the edge of the tub and massaged his temples.

For a few minutes, neither of them did anything particularly useful. Slowly, Harris stopped making the whistling sound. Spike looked out the bathroom window and thought about all the other places he could be right now. In the Tube, choosing dinner from among the straphangers. In Marrakesh, smoking high-quality dope. In a dank subbasement of a disused glass factory, chained to a wall while Angelus took the skin off his back with a cat o’nine and a potato peeler.

It was good to remember that things could be worse.

“Sorry about that,” he said finally, when he realized that his cigarettes were downstairs and that sooner or later he’d have to go get them. “I didn’t realize that feeding you dinner off a silver spoon was all right, but handing you a glass of water was bad and wrong.” Tone, he reminded himself. Harris might not get the words, but he got the tone. You had to try not to sound too pissed off, no matter how much you wanted to separate him from his spine. “Anything else you’d like me to know?”

Harris adjusted his grip on the banister and said nothing.

“You weren’t really all there before, I guess.” Spike stood up, picked up the glass of water, and collected Harris’s towel off the floor. “And now you are, again. Lucky me.”

He reached for the light switch, then remembered to say, “Watch your eyes.” For all the good it would do.

It didn’t do much; he flicked the light on, and Harris blinked and winced and squinted like he hadn’t seen it coming, which he hadn’t, because apparently he didn’t speak much English anymore. Spike stayed where he was, glass and towel in hand, waiting for Harris to get used to it. While he waited he considered the long scars down the man’s sides and arms. Whip marks. Still a puzzle.

When Harris was sufficiently recovered to blink at him with some kind of equanimity, Spike held up the water glass. “This is for you.”

Harris just stood there. Spike slung the towel over his shoulder and started toward the stairs. Harris tensed, lowered his head in that bullish submission pose, but didn’t move. When he was close enough, Spike held the glass out. “Drink this.”

Harris’s eyes flicked left and right along the carpet, as if he were looking for the trapdoor to open up for his great escape…then took the glass. His fingers were bigger than Spike’s. The glass looked small in his hand.

“Go on,” Spike said, when he hesitated. He cut a quick glance up to Spike’s face, hardly long enough to evaluate whatever he was seeing there, then drank.

“I bloody hope it works,” Spike said, watching Harris’s throat move. “Because I swear to God, if it’s seven days of this I’m going to need a lot more booze than I’ve got.”

Chapter Text

It worked. Sort of. Twenty minutes after drinking the water, Harris drifted in a waking doze, his face slack and all his movements slowed to quarter-speed. He followed Spike back downstairs and collapsed on the sofa, his face turned to the telly but his eyelids so low they were almost closed. Somewhere in there, Harris pupils glittered like black glass. Somewhere beyond that, Harris brain lay submerged like a mastodon in tar.

“Witches mix a good roofie,” Spike noted, studying Harris briefly before going back to the wasteland of the television listings.

They were stuck in a trough of late-night rubbish, none of it bad enough to be really interesting, and after a while he fell asleep himself. He woke up with a start when something landed on the roof.

He sat straight up and stared at the ceiling, supersonic vampire senses deployed—then heard a wheezy grunt behind him and realized that it hadn’t been the roof after all. Harris had fallen off the sofa.

He was lying on the carpet, staring around with an expression of surprise and dismay. Spike sighed and relaxed back into his chair.

“Bloody idiot.”

Harris didn’t answer, of course. He didn’t seem to notice the comment at all, in fact—after a few seconds he pushed himself cautiously to his feet and started for the kitchen. He had some trouble walking straight. He was still naked.

“Where are you going?”

The twin moons of Harris’s albino ass cheeks disappeared into the darkness of the kitchen. Spike waited warily. Just as he was starting to relax again, he heard the faint metallic scrabbling of a hand at the door chain.

“Fuck.”

He got up, clamped a hand to his forehead for the ice pick that immediately impaled his brain, and went into the kitchen. Harris was at the door, messing with the lock.

“Cut that out.” Spike stood still a minute, letting his brain pound, then went to the sink and drew a glass of water. “Stop it, will you? Go back to sleep.” The clock on the microwave read 3:45.

Harris didn’t stop pawing, like a cat that refused to listen when you told it, well, anything. Spike drank some water, then put the glass down and walked over. Before he was even halfway there, he knew Harris wasn’t awake.

He can’t sleep all by himself, he has nightmares. Red had said that, a million years ago when she’d walked him through his new job as Harris’s keeper. And apparently it was true, because Harris was giving off a sleepy low-level adrenaline cloud, a smell like licking a battery. Spike’s nose wrinkled.

“Just…go back to bed.” He reached out, caught hold of Harris’s shoulder, and jumped back when Harris spun around. They’d already done this dance once, out in the garden, and he didn’t need another punch in the face. But Harris wasn’t in a punching mood. He stared at Spike with wide, fear-blackened eyes for a few long seconds, then blinked, visibly shook himself, and floated up the last few inches to break the surface of sleep.

“You awake now?” Spike kept his hands to himself, watching Harris look around. Troubled expression, where the hell am I? expression. “You’re in the kitchen.” That seemed too vague, so he added, “Slayer’s house. Slayer’s kitchen.”

Harris sniffed, wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and turned the same look on Spike. Now, the translation was clearly, Who the hell are you?

“I’m…” Spike sighed and massaged his eyelids. “I’m your good friend Spike. My job’s to walk around after you with a folded newspaper and a spray bottle.” He gave Harris a smile that was mostly a sneer. “Been doing that all day already, and I’m fucking tired and fucking drunk, and please just go to fucking bed. All right?”

Harris stood there, considering. His eyes drifted away from Spike and off towards the sink. Spike turned to look—his glass of water.

“You want a drink?” He walked back and lifted the glass. “You want some water?”

Like a zombie, Harris took a step forward. Then he stopped. Spike raised the glass to his lips, sipped, and smiled. “Mmm. Water. Want some?”

He kept the glass raised, and Harris came stumbling after it, all the way back to the living room. At the couch, Spike handed it over. Harris drank it noisily, spilling a little down his front. Spike tried not to notice its progress towards Harris’s trouserlessness. The television was showing some kind of local fishing program. Cable access. Christ.

“Good. Now go back to sleep.” Spike gathered up the telly schedule and considered the booze that was left to him. He had almost a whole week left here, and he wasn’t sure he could leave Xander alone in the house to get more—he should ease up. He sighed and flipped pages, then noticed that Harris was still standing beside the sofa, staring at him.

“What?”

He has nightmares, but he’s okay if there’s someone in the bed.

They stood there in silence, stalemated. Harris’s lips were still wet. His fingers played nervously at the rim of the glass.

Through the shrieking of the four thousand infuriated baboons inside his skull, Spike said slowly, “Do you want to sleep upstairs?”

Harris’s eyes flickered. Yes.

“In your own bed?”

Yes.

Spike waved a regal hand. “Right then. Off you go.”

Harris’s eyes widened slightly, and the baboons started pummeling and eating each other. Spike tried killing Harris with his brain. No luck.

It was amazing how irritating silence could be. It wasn’t more than a few seconds before Spike heard himself say, “What if I walk you up there? That make you happy?”

Harris didn’t seem to know what to make of that—he rubbed his jaw carefully, his eyes still on Spike’s face as if he were waiting for the subtitles to show up. Spike sighed and dropped the schedule.

“Come on.”

He trudged up the stairs without bothering to look back. He could hear Harris’s bare feet following along behind, docile as a lamb now that he was getting what he wanted.

“Only poofs need to be put to bed,” he narrated glumly, rounding the top of the stairs. “Sad, really. Full-grown semi-sentient thing like you.” At the door to Harris’s room, he stopped and made an ushering gesture. “In you go.”

In Harris went, without a second look. Spike briefly entertained a fantasy of slamming the door and nailing it shut. Instead, he hovered in the gloom of the hallway and waited. Sure enough, Harris didn’t lie down on his cot right away, but turned back to face the door.

“I’m not sleeping with you.”

At the sound of Spike’s voice, Harris shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other, and scratched his head. Like a big, naked monkey.

“I’m coming in there until you fall asleep, and then I’m going to leave, so when you wake up you’ll be alone and terrified. Sound all right?”

Harris didn’t move until Spike crossed the threshold; then he slumped down on his cot and melted into the blankets. His breathing slowed, his heartbeat quieted.

“I’m only toying with you,” Spike said, easing himself onto the witches’ bed. It was soft and the blankets smelled good. The room was dark. He lay down on his back and laced his fingers over his belly, staring up at the ceiling. As soon as the Scoobies got back, he was going to LA. Going to pay a little visit to Angel and his bloody team. Maybe call in a little of what they owed him for this. He could get a flat. Dawn could visit…

 

 

“He keeps singing ‘Blister in the Sun,’” Willow said, turning to frown at them over her shoulder. “That’s not the way to make a cat yawn.”

“It works in the Alleghenies,” Harris said absently. He was leafing through a magazine, which was unbelievably irritating, because it was the exact magazine Spike had wanted to read. There were corset ads in the back, grainy black-and-white illustrations of boning and gussets, all of them unbearably erotic. He didn’t want any of them to know about those, least of all bloody Harris.

“Shut up, both of you.” He yanked at the chain around his ankles again, but it didn’t bend. Made a nice loud clanking sound when he let it fall in the bottom of the tub, though. “God, I want you dead.”

“Just wait,” Harris said, smirking at the magazine. “We’ll all be dead sooner or later. Hello.” He raised the magazine and let the centerfold gate fall open. “I didn’t even know they had indoor plumbing in 1883.”

“Because you’re an idiot.” Spike sank down into the tub and watched the little blue bird alight on the faucet. “You’re an idiot too.”

The Watcher was due back shortly, probably not with good news, and there was the sound of music out in the streets, which was why they’d drawn all the shades. Willow’s concoction smelled like burnt hair and coconut. Upstairs, Dawn was still in the shower. That bothered him—she needed to get out and get dressed. You couldn’t be in the shower when bad things were about to happen.

“Did you ever meet the Violent Femmes?” Willow asked, stirring some kind of leafy greens into the pot.

“They’re not dead,” Spike said grumpily. “Why does everyone assume I’ve met every important person in the history of time? I’m not Forrest fucking Gump.”

“No, but you are a starfucker.” Harris licked his thumb and turned the page. “You’d sleep with Mick if you got the chance.”

“Wrong band,” Spike snapped. Then, with great amusement at his own cleverness, he added, “I have shagged a mick, though.”

They both turned to watch him laugh, and he noticed that the chains on his wrists were tearing long red wounds in his skin, and then someone knocked on the door and it was Harris riding an elephant, with oompah music in the background, and the elephant could fly.

 

 

He flipped over into consciousness without knowing why. It was dark, the room was silent. He was…in the witches’ bed. He’d fallen asleep there. He was lying on his back on top of the blankets, his arms up over his head in an attitude of surrender, all his clothes still on. He wasn’t quite conscious enough to feel the state of his head, but he was receiving shadowy communications, whispers along the line, telling him that when he did finally break that seal, there would be no beauty in the revelation. His mouth tasted like cat shit.

Why was he awake?

He rolled his head to one side and noticed that he wasn’t alone in the bed. Harris was lying next to him, curled in the other direction with a foot or two of mattress between them. In the darkness, the scars on his back made an interesting pattern, like a series of attempted sketches that had been vigorously crossed out. He was asleep, breathing quietly.

Spike blinked slowly. He considered lifting his left arm and poking Harris in the shoulder, telling him to get out. Then he considered lifting his right leg and getting out on his own side of the bed. Then he fell asleep again.

 

 

When he woke up again it was still dark, but a few things had changed. There was a warm body tucked along the length of his, a warm heavy arm circling his waist. He was lying on his side now, and there was hot, rapid breath on the back of his neck. Harris was lying behind him, gasping and shoving, and the zip of Spike’s jeans was open. His belt was undone, and his shirt had been pulled up a few inches. His dick was out. Harris was jerking him off.

It all hit him in less than a couple of seconds, intermingled with a half-memory of dreamed oompah and gigantic fishes, and with the realization that he was urgently, frantically hard. Harris’s hand was hot and fast, and Spike rode hips-first into it without a second thought, closing his eyes right after he’d opened them, and grabbing a fistful of blanket to add leverage. He could feel Harris’s dick shoving into the small of his back, blunt needy stabs that made him jerk even harder into Harris’s fist. They were both gasping. The headboard banged. Then Harris buried his forehead in the blanket, snapped his teeth, and soaked the back of Spike’s shirt in a series of warm, wet pulses.

His grip didn’t loosen, and in three, four, five more thrusts, Spike came too. It was white-hot and partially paralyzing. He heard himself make a sound like a man being gutted.

He drifted slowly back down, or up. Harris lay breathing into the blanket for a minute or so. Spike lay trying to feel his feet.

Then Harris rolled back onto his side, and his breath was hot on the nape of Spike’s neck again. He disengaged his hand gently from Spike’s cock, wiped off in a desultory way on the top blanket, and rolled over onto his back. Spike licked his lips and glanced down at the mess on the blanket in front of him.

He was still trying to decide what to say when he realized Harris had fallen asleep.

 

 

He woke up for the millionth time in pale gloom. It was morning outside, or maybe afternoon. He felt dead. The bed was cold and empty except for him, curled up flat under the blankets like a hibernating snake. Still wearing all his clothes, still innocent as a babe if you overlooked the fact that his jeans were wide open and the back of his shirt was stuck to his skin.

He lay for a few minutes, mostly brain-dead.

It had been a really good orgasm.

Eventually he had to form a plan, or at least get out of bed. He was relieved to be alone for this part of things, and it only took a few seconds of actual thought to reach a decision: deny everything. He couldn’t quite believe any of it had happened anyway. Harris was catatonic, imbecilic, traumatized, and a berk. Harris had not given him a fantastically-timed handjob in the middle of the night, with no explanation or apology. Harris had not rubbed off on his back. Harris was American. Americans weren’t like the French; they didn’t do that kind of thing.

Picking his shirt uneasily away from his back, he headed down the hall to the bathroom.

The shirt was a loss, so he dumped it in the hamper for the Slayer to discover months from now, ran a hot washcloth over his face and under his arms and in the general, unexamined direction of his crotch, then loitered a little in the hallway, reading the spines of Joyce’s self-help manuals. He couldn’t hear anything downstairs except the television, which he’d left on last night. That realization brought on a memory of Harris scrabbling at the lock on the back door, which in turn dropped a lead balloon into his gut. Harris could be halfway to Modesto by now. Or, more likely, roadkill.

He came down the stairs at a lively jog, ready to see the front door standing wide open and a deathly spill of sunshine on the hall carpet. Things were still dim and shuttered. He took a quick stock of the bottles on the carpet, already heading through to the kitchen. Where Harris was sitting at the table in a T-shirt and pajama pants, a bowl of cornflakes deteriorating at his elbow, the previous day’s paper open in front of him.

Spike stopped short in the doorway, and tried to look casual. “Still working on those funnies, I see.”

The look Harris gave him was mild, but more alert than any he’d dredged up the day before. Not catatonic anymore, that was good. Not dope-addled, not panicky. There wasn’t any particle physics going on in there, but at least he seemed to know where he was. All good, in terms of keeping Spike’s anatomy intact and mold-free.

Also, they were both now wearing clothes. That was good.

“Right,” Spike said, suddenly uncomfortable in his shirtlessness. “I’m just going to…” He made a vague backward gesture with one hand, then turned and started for the living room. Something niggled in a corner of his mind. It was one thing to decide to play it as if nothing had happened; it was another to find that Harris had beat him to it. There’d been no flicker in Harris’s expression. Not a single spark of recognition or regret. With faint surprise, Spike realized he’d sort of been looking forward to taking that particular piss, possibly for years to come.

He hoisted bottles in front of the television, absent-mindedly gauging their contents even though the smell of the whiskey made his nostrils curl. The television yapped about laundry soap until he muted it with his toe. Then he realized that Harris was standing in the kitchen doorway.

“Yeah?” He turned, a bottle dangling belligerently from each hand, expecting to see the flood tide of American heterosexual panic.

Harris was yawning, scratching his belly with one hand. In the other, he held a milk carton. Spike stared at it. “What?”

Harris gave him a look of sleepy condescension, and shook the carton. Empty.

“We’re out of milk?” Spike asked.

Harris walked over, held out the carton, and waited until Spike juggled the bottles and took it from him. Empty, yeah.

Message delivered, Harris walked past Spike, went up the stairs, and disappeared back to bed.

Chapter Text

“Shit. Hang on a mo.” Spike left his singles crumpled on the counter and walked back to the cooler. He grabbed a gallon of milk, defiantly didn’t check the best-by date, and schlepped it up to the counter. Pilar hesitated. “Just bloody ring it up, all right?”

“Yes, fine.” She made a calm down, weirdo gesture and started hitting buttons on the till. “You…drink milk?”

“It’s for—“ Spike hesitated. He hadn’t been about to tell the truth, but he also wasn’t sure exactly what his planned lie had been. “Kittens. For the kittens.”

Pilar’s face brightened. “You have kittens?”

“Yeah. Won ‘em at poker. Gotta feed ‘em for a bit, till they get bigger.”

“How many kittens?”

He considered. “Four, five. Dunno.”

“Will you keep them?”

“Till I eat ‘em, sure.”

There was a pause. Pilar’s expression seemed to have crumpled slightly. It gave him a sense of satisfaction, of things being right with the world. He gathered up his cigarettes, beer, and milk, and raised a hand in cheery farewell.

“Ta then.”

She gave him a minute wave in response, just a weak curl of her fingers. The bell dinged behind him.

He made it back to the house without any further demoralizing encounters, and with an even greater sense of having come out on top despite the odds. He had almost two hundred dollars in his pocket, donated without strings by the witches and the Slayer. Well, without strings if you didn’t count the fact that they expected him to spend it on Harris. Which was laughable. He had cigarettes and whiskey and a week-old copy of the Daily Mail, from the only decent newsagent in town. He’d lured Harris out of his coma, and he didn’t intend to put him into another one. And he’d had a pretty decent hand job, too.

Sometimes, life was little short of miraculous. He practically skipped up the front steps.

“Honey, I’m home!” He kicked the front door closed behind him and swung his bags onto the hall table. He could hear the television still playing in the living room, and he put his head through the doorway. Harris was still sitting in the armchair, right where Spike had tied him. “Miss me?”

Harris gave him a sleepy sideways look. It was some women’s movie on the telly—something with cancer in it. Exactly the kind of thing that Harris would have hated if he’d had half a brain cell left. Spike grinned.

“There are times,” he said, pulling the cigarettes out of the bag and tearing away the paper, “when it seems like life’s got it in for me. The wheelchair—that was a low point.” He fished a packet out of the carton, and chucked the carton onto the couch. “Getting turned in the first place was a real kick in the goolies, I don’t mind telling you. First little while, I thought I’d go insane. Then, that bloody basement—“ He flipped a cigarette between his lips and sparked the Zippo, pausing to point at Harris for emphasis. Harris watched the flame. “Tied to a lounger in your smelly basement, watching Captain Scarlet and listening to your parents come to blows…I tell you, I thought about staking myself. Well, I thought about staking you more, but I was very depressed.” He blew out a column of smoke, and flipped the lighter closed. “Now, though.”

The pause drew out. He watched a minute or two of the telly, conscious of Harris’s dope-heavy eyes still on him. Some middle-aged woman was weeping in a doctor’s office. Looked a bit like Joyce, actually.

“Now,” he said sharply, coming back to himself and stabbing a finger in Harris’s direction again, “I know it all evens out. Quid pro quo, right?”

Except the quo in question was watching him with eyes like the Buddha on opium, gentle and deep. Yes? the eyes said. Are we not all brothers beneath our skin?

“Keep the Ravi Shankar crap to yourself,” Spike said, leaning over and jerking the end of the rope to undo the knots. “You start folding little paper peace cranes, I’m lowering your dosage.”

Harris watched the ropes fall away without rancor, and Spike went off to the kitchen to put the milk in the fridge and heat up some blood. That didn’t take long, and he was alone in the kitchen, so after a while he wandered back to the living room. Harris was still watching the bints smile bravely through tears. Godawful. Spike settled into the couch with a cigarette and a mug of blood, for ease of heckling.

But the one who looked like Joyce came back on and he wasn’t in the mood to make fun of her, so he ended up just drinking his blood and smoking and actually watching it. It took him a few minutes to find the plot. Brave young newlywed with brain cancer, essentially. Tough but loving mother, namby-pamby husband, golden retriever. Why in God’s name did people watch these things?

He sat watching, smoking cigarette after cigarette, while the chemo failed and the dog visited the hospital ward. In the armchair, Harris watched too. Neither of them said anything.

They were almost at the end—the namby-pamby husband had said his goodbyes, and it was down to the real stuff, the mother-daughter stuff—when the phone rang. Spike jumped, sloshing blood on his jeans, and grabbed the receiver off the side table.

“Hello?”

“Spike?” It was Dawn. He sucked hard on his cigarette and butted it, glancing at Harris. Who was sitting wide-eyed in his chair, as if he were watching Spike battle an orc.

“Hi, it’s me. Dawn. What’s wrong with your voice?”

“What—nothing.” He sat up straight and frowned. “Nothing, I’m fine. How’re things?”

“Fine. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine. Listen, everything okay there? No Glorificus?” For some reason he felt like he had to be formal, militaristic, abrupt. “Angel there? Everyone all right?”

“We’re fine. They’re downstairs, I was just going to bed and I wanted to say hi. See how things are going there.”

“They’re fine.”

There was an uncomfortable pause.

“How are you?” he asked again, and winced.

“You’re not drunk, are you?” She sounded worried, and he imagined how fast the Slayer would jump on that faint whiff of wrongdoing. By all rights he should be drunk, but in point of fact he wasn’t, and he mildly resented the implication.

“’course not. You get drunk when you babysit people’s brats?”

“I’m fifteen, Spike. I can’t drink.”

“Anyone can drink. Not that you should. Anyway, I’m not drunk, I’m just—what’s Angel doing about Glorificus?”

She sighed, giving in to the segue. “Not much. So far we’re just laying low, which means I’m not allowed to go see Melrose Place or Rodeo Drive or Sunset Boulevard or anywhere at all. I’ve never been to L.A. in my life, and now I’m here, and I’m going to die without seeing any famous people.”

“Don’t say that,” he said automatically. “You’re not going to die.”

“Everybody dies,” she said, deploying full adolescent angst. It meant she was feeling better, less frightened, and so it cheered him up a bit. “Anyway, I’m not supposed to be calling so I have to go in a second, but I had to see how you guys were doing.”

“We’re fine.”

“You said that. How’s Xander?”

“He’s fine.” He glanced at Harris again. Still there, still stoned. “He’s watching telly.”

“He doesn’t like violent stuff.”

“I know, bit.”

“He likes being sung to.”

“I’m not singing, bit.”

“How’s his sign language?”

“Um…” He’d completely forgotten about the sign language. “It’s great.”

“You’re not doing it, are you?”

“Listen, when are the witches getting back, exactly?”

“They said a week, but I don’t know.” She muffled the receiver for a few seconds, then came back in a whisper. “I have to go. But I’m going to send something for Xander’s birthday, okay? Tell him I’m going to send him something.”

“His—“ Spike gave Xander a hopeless look. “Bit’s sending you something for your birthday.”

“It’s Thursday,” Dawn whispered. “Will you do something nice for him? I’ll try to call but I may not be able to, and it’s his birthday, could you just, I don’t know, be nice to him or something? Just for Thursday?”

“The witches get back Sunday, right?”

“Please, Spike?”

“I am nice to him, bit.”

“I know, but—“ She disappeared again, then came back in a rapid-fire whisper. “Just be nice, please, and I miss you both and I love you and tell him that please I really appreciate it Spike thanks a lot, bye.”

Dial tone.

He sat staring at the receiver, feeling troubled. In the armchair, the source of all his troubles blinked slowly and wetted his lips with his tongue.

“Happy bloody birthday,” Spike said, and hung up.

 

 

They watched telly all night and went to bed when the sky turned blue. Harris seemed ready-made for the nocturnal life, padding up the stairs into the dim upper story without complaint. He settled easily in his cot, under his blue flannel sheets and rumpled sleeping bag. Spike, in turn, dropped onto the witches’ bed and lay staring at the ceiling, his hands laced behind his head. The air was still and heavy up there, and it smelled of women and sleeping drugs.

Harris slept for an hour or two, twitching occasionally like a dog chasing rabbits. Around ten he started sweating. Half an hour after that he sat bolt upright and almost fell off the cot.

Spike stayed where he was, just shifting his head a little so he could follow events.

Harris sat there in the darkness, breathing hard and looking around for traces of the nightmare. It took him almost five minutes to convince himself it was gone, it wasn’t stuffed in the corner or under the armoire. Finally he wiped his hands over his face, screwed his palms into his eyes, swallowed, and turned to crawl up into Spike’s bed.

Spike let him do it. For one thing, Harris was warm and he didn’t smell bad. A little sweaty, but not bad. He was clean enough. His skin radiated heat beneath the soft cotton of his T-shirt and pajama pants. He lay on his belly, very close, his hip and shoulder against Spike’s. His breath was warm on Spike’s neck. It was invasive. Unselfconscious. Fascinating.

Spike lay still and let Harris do his thing, his middle-of-the-day nightmare thing, his new abdication of social norms. Did he do this with the witches? He must have tried it, which would explain the strange, shifty look on Red’s face when she said Tara always spelled him to sleep. Be a damper on your romantic life, having a git like Harris worming his way into your bed every night. If you were a lesbian, at least.

If you weren’t, though.

Spike closed his eyes and drifted, telling himself he wasn’t that desperate yet, a hand job was a hand job and who cared whose hand it was, but this was Harris after all, and you had to remember your dignity sooner or later. Besides, he was tired. He needed sleep.

He woke up from a half-doze because Harris’s hand was stroking his cock through his jeans. It felt incredible. It felt like he hadn’t been touched in years, like every needle-point nerve ending in his dick was standing up and shouting approval and encouragement. He was getting hard. No, wait, he was already there. The jeans were chafing. He slipped a hand down his belly and helped out with the logistics.

Harris didn’t freak out, didn’t withdraw when their fingers brushed. He was preoccupied, panting against Spike’s neck, thrusting awkwardly into the mattress and the side of Spike’s leg. His palm on Spike’s skin was hot and dry and efficient. He was good at this, Spike realized. Not at making it last, but at doing it now. Quietly and quickly, two corks popping at once. Even as he was thinking this, Harris gave a strange guttural clicking sound and grabbed Spike’s hip, shoved against his side, and came.

God, he was fast.

He was equitable, too. His hand stripped Spike’s cock, hard and fast and quiet except for the sound of abused denim. Spike turned toward him, got a hand on his shoulder, and pressed down. It gave him something to grip, something to jerk against. He could smell come and blood and sweat, and he replayed the moment of Harris releasing, losing control for those few seconds and stuttering physically, spilling into his pants. That was enough.

Spike came with a slippery alleluia of raunch tumbling through his mind’s eye, all the things he didn’t get to think about very much anymore. All the knees he’d hoisted, all the wet lips he’d kissed, every time he’d seen Angelus’s cock sucked. It all merged with Xander Harris helplessly thrusting into the sheets, getting himself off. Making that sharp little sound when it finally overcame him. The sound that meant—this, here, now. God. Fuck.

“God,” Spike gasped, trying to screw himself farther into Harris’s fist. “Fuck.”

It lasted longer than it usually did, and left him dazed and stupid. Very stupid. Their faces were inches apart on the mattress. They were both gasping. It felt natural, like scratching an itch. Spike turned his head the crucial three degrees and put his lips to Harris’s.

For a brief, silent moment they were kissing.

Then Harris shoved him hard, and suddenly they weren’t lying close together anymore. Suddenly personal space was a concern again, and Harris was rolling out of the bed on the far side, one hand over his mouth and the other waving blindly in the darkness. Trying to get away. Spike sat up, baffled.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?”

Harris tripped and dropped from sight. Spike craned his neck, then got off the bed on his own side and walked around it. Harris was lying on the carpet with his hand still clamped over his mouth, his eyes closed. A big wet mark on the crotch of his pajamas pants.

“What?” He looked pathetic like that, and Spike crouched down and touched his shoulder gently. Didn’t flinch, didn’t open his eyes. “Should have told me you’re not that kind of bloke, that’s all.”

Harris swallowed hard, but that was it. Oh, fuck. His mouth. Didn’t like anything near his mouth.

Spike sighed and sat down tailor-style on the carpet. “Look, I’m sorry, I forgot. Can’t blame me, can you? Temporary insanity, you know how it is.”

Nothing.

“So I guess a blow job is out of the question.”

He sat there long enough, with no company except for Harris’s fast, unhappy heartbeat, that he started to worry that Harris was incommunicado again. This was not something he wanted to explain to the witches. Maybe he should draw another bath—that had been popular last time. But a bath meant a hassle.

He likes being sung to, Dawn had said. She’d sung a lot of Avril Lavigne, if he remembered right.

“I’m not singing,” he said grumpily, and prodded Harris in the rib. “I’m not going to—look, it’s not a big deal, it’s just a kiss, never happened, Russians do it all the time.” No response. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a kip.” Nothing.

He sat staring glumly down at Harris’s hand, tight over his mouth like a child playing at Speak no evil.

“Oh, all right.”

Softly, he began to croon. “Don’t shoot shoot shoot that thing at me. Don’t shoot shoot shoot that thing at me…”

Harris’s eyes opened, and his hand slipped off his mouth. It was a quarter-time Muzak version, but still. Spike sang it most of the way through, mimed the drums, and jumped to his feet.

“You ever tell anyone I did that, I’ll rip your tongue out.” He paused. “Er, sorry.”

Harris slept the rest of the day on the cot, apparently nightmare-free. Spike dreamed fitfully about finding giant birthday presents on the front step, and opening them to find lizards, puppies, frilly undergarments, and, shortly before dusk, a large damp zucchini.

Chapter Text

The really irritating thing about being the Slayer being multiply mortgaged and deep in the red was that it meant basic cable. Basic cable meant no dogs. It meant Passions only came on once a day, and there was no entertainingly irrational Chinese-language channel. It meant that when the knock came on the front door at half past two in the morning, they were slumped in front of another women's weeper, this time with Mercedes Ruehl. Spike straightened up in a hurry, reaching for the remote. Harris gave the front door a dreamy, hopeful look.

"Stay here." Visitors at two am was not a good thing, he reflected, muting the set and wondering where his shoes were. Visitors at two am could in fact be a very bad thing. So far, he hadn't actually entertained the notion of Glory showing up here, looking for another opportunity to peel the apple. Or core it, this time. He hadn't actually thought much about her at all in the last couple of days.

He found himself wishing he weren't quite so drunk. And that Harris weren't quite so stoned.

Harris, the stoner in question, was rising slowly from his chair as if Spike hadn't said anything. The expression on his face was snookered but clear: They're back.

"Sit down," Spike whispered sharply, shoving Harris back into his chair. "Don't move unless I tell you, you got that?"

Staring hard into Harris's bovine brown eyes got him nowhere. With a growl, he started for the door. There was a hand axe on the table behind the sofa, and he picked it up as he passed. Nice heft, but he knew he was kidding himself. If the god was on the front porch, they were both screwed.

"Who's it?" he barked, one hand on the doorknob. There was a brief pause, while he tried to smell through the door. Nothing, except maybe a faint odor of cologne.

"Spike," said a voice, low and insinuating. "You're so…cautious."

Spike flipped the lock and opened the door a crack, keeping the chain on and the axe ready. The porch light was dim—a bulb had gone out and nobody'd replaced it—but it was indeed Gildersleeve standing there. Bolivar Gildersleeve, the Pincushion himself, the busiest half-man in Sunnydale's underworld. The garter snake, the impresario, the snappy dresser with a heart of carbon. The wheeler and dealer. The bloke with both ears always pressed firmly to the rail.

"Gildersleeve." Spike said it civilly enough, glancing around to make sure there wasn't anyone else cluttering up the place. "What do you want?"

"Heard you were watering the Slayer's houseplants." Gildersleeve grinned, and popped a few pins over his eyebrows in a suggestive way. "Well done you, if I may be so bold."

"Well done me," Spike repeated tonelessly. He had the axe in his left hand, behind the door. "I'm not looking to share, if that's what you're after."

"By no means. By no means, Spike. In fact, just the opposite. I came across an offer I thought might interest you." Gildersleeve hesitated, wetted his top lip with the tip of his blue-black tongue, and gestured minutely at the door. "May I come in?"

Spike pulled his head back inside and saw that Harris was making a slow approach, relying on the furniture for support. Frowning, he looked back to Gildersleeve. "Gave at the office."

He was swinging the door closed when Gildersleeve said smoothly, "It's about the chip."

Spike caught the door. Then he opened it again, and looked at Gildersleeve.

Gildersleeve smiled. When Spike brought the head of the axe into view, he didn't look concerned.

"May I come in?" he asked again.

There was a pause. Behind Spike, there was a muffled thump and a short intake of breath.

"Yeah," Spike said slowly, wondering what he was doing. "Yeah, all right."

He opened the door wider, and Gildersleeve slipped in like a shadow across the threshold.

 

 

"A lovely house." Gildersleeve was sitting on the edge of the lounger, a glass of white wine balanced on his knee, looking around with an expression of effete distaste. "Arts and Crafts, I think. Somewhere…underneath."

Spike sprawled a little wider on the couch, his boots up on the coffee table, the whiskey propped on his belly. Harris was on the floor by the far armchair, staring openly at Gildersleeve with a kind of dazed, slow-witted alarm.

"What's the matter with him?" Gildersleeve asked, without much interest. The wine glass indicated Harris, who blinked muzzily.

"Retarded," Spike said. "What's the offer?"

"Ah. You aren't known for your patience, are you?" Gildersleeve took a deliberate, prolonged sip of his wine, wincing slightly as it went down. Then he lowered the glass to his knee again and dabbed at his lips with the tips of his fingers. "The offer is to disable the chip in situ. That means 'in place.'"

"I know what it means."

"It means not having your head cut open. It means not risking death or…" Gildersleeve nodded at Harris. "Disability."

"Lovely offer. Who's making it?"

"My clients wish to remain anonymous. I can tell you, however—"

"'Clients'? Makes you sound like a pimp."

"I can tell you, however," Gildersleeve repeated, not deigning to notice the slight, "that they are renowned technologists. I don't doubt their credentials in the slightest." He leaned forward, glanced in both directions, and half-whispered, half-mouthed, "They do work for Wolfram & Hart."

"That's nice," Spike said. "Not your head, though, is it?" He took a swig of whiskey, and watched Gildersleeve try the wine again. "What's the price?"

"That," Gildersleeve said, with real pleasure, "is the best part. The price is something you are uniquely well positioned to offer at this point in time. In fact, I wouldn't have come to you if it hadn't been such a perfect trade."

Spike waited, saying nothing.

"They're scientists," Gildersleeve said smoothly. "They do research. They need research subjects. Sometimes these subjects are hard to come by."

"I'm not bloody putting myself up for research," Spike snapped. "That's how I got this thing in the first place."

"Not you," Gildersleeve chided. "Of course not you, yourself. I would never suggest such a thing. They need a human subject."

The room was quiet. Harris scratched his nose.

"Under normal circumstances—that is to say, before you found yourself in this unusual, ah, housekeeping role, it would have been difficult for you to procure such a subject. Ironically, the chip prevents you from harming humans, so you could scarcely have overpowered one—"

"I can overpower a bloody human," Spike said, ignoring the fact that it was a lie.

"But now, you have the perfect window of opportunity. The Slayer is away, you have access to a human whom you can easily coerce—"

"What's in it for them?"

Gildersleeve paused. "Who?"

"These…technologists. What do they get out of this?"

"I would have thought that was obvious. They need a subject—"

"Yeah, and why are they so keen on that, exactly? What's the research project?"

Gildersleeve raised his glass and sipped genteelly. "It really isn't my business to ask."

"But you know."

"Now how would I know something like that?"

"Because you always do." Spike sat up and leaned forward, his hand around the neck of the bottle. "Just like you knew I was here in the first place. Like you knew I had…access…to him." He jerked his head toward Harris, without looking at him.

Gildersleeve's nictitating membranes slid down halfway. "That's right, I always do know."

"So what is it?"

"What makes you ask?" Gildersleeve's head dropped to one side, its angle inquiring. "Why do you care what happens to a retarded human boy? Perhaps you're a little…" He broke off and inhaled significantly, his tongue flickering again.

"A little what?" Spike asked. His tone hung in the air, along with the smell of booze, sleeping drugs, and probably sex.

Gildersleeve shrugged. "Perhaps it isn't just the chip that prevents you from harming humans now. Perhaps it's become a habit?"

"I just don't like making deals with every little puff adder that shows up on my doorstep."

"But this puff adder," Gildersleeve replied, unoffended, "has something you want. Very much."

Spike let that sit for a couple of seconds. Finally, he sat back in the couch and took another swig from the bottle. He glanced at Xander. "He's been kicked around a lot already, is all," he said. "Didn't use to be such a waste."

"If you're attached to him," Gildersleeve said, "you can put your mind at rest. The research is painless. No vivisection, I can guarantee that."

"Yeah?" Spike fingered the bottle, studying Harris's profile. "What is it, then?"

"Very simple, really. There's no earthly reason for me to tell you this, but I like you, Spike. And so I will." Gildersleeve leaned forward and lowered his voice. "It's a portal."

Spike sat still. He was trying to think, but he had the feeling he'd be doing a better job of it if he could stop drinking. Unfortunately, having Gildersleeve in the room made him want to drink. "A portal," he repeated.

"A portal. They're experimenting with what they call a crosswalk, and I'm sure I don't know what that is, but it appears to involve a great deal of mathematics. They gave me a pamphlet." He sipped his wine. "I couldn't make heads or tails of it."

"Where's it go?"

"It seems to be not so much an issue of where as of when."

"What, it goes back in time?"

"Or forward. And from what I understand, it has a tendency to zigzag between parallel universes." Gildersleeve executed a demonstrative zig with his glass. "Purely theoretical, of course. But they've had good success with cats." He frowned. "I think."

"So…" Spike thumbed the rim of the bottle. "So I give Harris over to these blokes, they zap the chip for me. What about you?"

Gildersleeve touched his chest lightly, his expression clearly reading, Moi?

"Just doing me a favor, are you?" Spike smirked. "Good of you, Pin."

"The satisfaction of helping a fellow demon in need," Gildersleeve said smoothly, "is its own reward."

"They're paying you to get them a subject, you mean."

"An honorarium. I thought of you immediately when I heard of their need, and thought the least I could do was put your need up against theirs." Gildersleeve smiled. "As I said, it's a perfect trade. You lose the chip, Spike. For free. You can even arrange for the boy to be returned to his own place and time. I'm sure my clients won't care—and that way, no one will ever notice." His tone sharpened. "It's an offer you can't refuse."

Spike sat quietly, studying the level of whiskey in the bottle. On the other side of the room, Harris nibbled a cuticle. Gildersleeve took another look around the room, nodding slightly. What at, Spike didn't want to know. All of a sudden, the fact of the Pincushion sitting in Joyce's living room, passing judgment on the state of her carpets, was too annoying for words. Spike heaved to his feet, noticing with some part of his mind that Gildersleeve jumped slightly, but Harris didn't.

"You've said your piece," he said, starting for the door. "Now off you go."

"But the arrangements—"

"Haven't said yes, have I?" Spike opened the door and leaned on it. The air outside was sweet and cool, and suddenly he very much wanted to go for a walk in it. "I'll let you know."

Gildersleeve stood up, set his glass carefully on the table, and straightened his jacket. "I must warn you, the offer is for a limited time only."

"Thanks."

"Frankly, I don't see what you have to lose. If you give them the boy and lose the chip, you win. If you give them the boy and they aren't successful in defusing the apparatus, you're no worse off than when you started." Gildersleeve gave Harris a pitying look, shaking his head like a mournful uncle. "Really, you could look at it as doing him a favor. He's in no shape to take care of himself. He might end up in a universe where men like him are worshipped as kings."

"Men like him." Spike cocked his head. "You mean, blokes that can't get their own meals?"

"Quite. He'd have starved to death by now if not for the help of others. Natural selection, you know."

Spike picked a flake of paint off the edge of the door. "I think I know a thing or two about that, yeah."

Gildersleeve paused, his mouth a perfect O. Then he smiled, recovering. "I wasn't talking about you, of course."

"Of course." Spike smiled back. "I'll find you if I want to."

"Quite." Gildersleeve executed a neat little half-bow, although his expression was slightly troubled now. "Until then."

It was almost admirable, how he could exit with such speed and yet still keep some of his dignity. Spike took a moment to appreciate it, then shut the door on the sight of the Pincushion melting into the shadows. He turned to find Harris watching him hopefully, clearly hoping he was going to open the door again to reveal someone better.

"Sorry," Spike said, flipping the locks on and grabbing his cigarettes off the side table. "That's all the fun there is. I'm going out back for a smoke."

Harris tried to follow him out, of course, but he locked the door behind him and stood in the back yard by himself, smoking and staring up at the stars.

Chapter Text

He came back in a while later and found Harris curled in a lump on the sofa, the telly flickering a monster movie over his closed eyelids. His side moved gently up and down, and his fingers twitched. He's like a dog, Red had said—or almost said, before she'd caught herself. Harris-as-dog was in some ways a more tolerable bloke than regular Harris, but just now, watching him sleep, Spike felt unaccountably sorry for him. It made no sense. It was perfect luck, Harris falling into his hands just when he was useful, just when the offer was made. It was the perfect opportunity.

Spike hadn't learnt much along the way, but he had learned to be wary of perfect opportunities.

Sitting on the arm of the sofa, staring down at Harris's fluttering eyelids and three-day stubble, he tried to see the holes in Gildersleeve's argument. Hand over Harris and lose the chip: win. Hand over Harris and don't lose the chip: no great loss. That was the logic, at least. Hard to fault it. But for some reason it didn't feel right.

"Someone ought to just bash you over the head and be done with it," he said softly. Harris didn't move, so Spike pulled the blanket up over him, turned off the television, and fell asleep in the chair.

 

 

The morning mail arrived with a thump like a dead smelt hitting the porch. Spike opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. After a minute he tested some of the farther reaches of his mouth, and hastily retracted his tongue. He had a bad feeling he was still drunk—but not drunk enough. It required an immense harnessing of energies to prop himself up on his elbows.

The sofa was empty, but he could hear Harris in the kitchen, doing nothing much. Through the slats of the dining room blinds, he could see thin shafts of daylight. Another day of watering the Slayer's houseplants lay ahead of him. The prospect was bleak, until he remembered the previous night's visit, and the offer. The bloody chip. He could get rid of the bloody chip, without anyone messing around in his skull.

He closed his eyes again and thought about it—really thought about it, what life had been like before the chip. He'd been free. Flat broke a lot of the time, hungry and cold for some parts, living mainly by his own wits and Dru's on-again, off-again psychic fancies. Had his teeth bashed in more than once, and spent a couple of unpleasant days trapped in sewers and cellars. But that didn't matter—he'd been free. Life had been…fun. He'd gone where he wanted, done what he wanted. No leash, no newspaper across the nose when he didn't do what he was told. He'd been a wild beast, and in retrospect, it had been heaven.

Last night's whiskey rolled turgidly in his belly as he got to his feet. His temples throbbed, and the back of his throat felt raw. Empty cigarette packets were scattered around the room, he noticed. He'd smoked a lot last night, out in the back yard. Staring at the stars. No reason not to smoke another one now, though. Fumbling a cigarette out of the foil, he staggered to the door.

The mail was mostly bills, marked "Urgent" like they all were these days. There was a parcel too, though. Something small, sent priority rate, red white and blue. It was sitting in the sunshine a foot or two from the door, and he had to reach out and hook it fast with his right hand so as not to catch on fire.

It was from LA. From Dawn. Addressed to both of them in her blocky, childish handwriting—they didn't teach children to write anymore. It was all instant message and cell phones. Frowning, he dumped the rest of the mail onto the floor beneath the mail table, and ripped the strip off the heavy envelope. There was a piece of card in at the top, with his name on it. He read:

Dear Spike,

This is for Xander's birthday (Thurs 23rd.) Maybe if you show him the date he'll remember? I wanted to get you something too, but Buffy wouldn't let me buy cigarettes. :( So far no Glory. When we got Xander's present I got some crop pants and flip-flops. LA gets the new stuff sooner than Sunnydale. I can send you a belt buckle if you want. (Looks like a skull.) Miss you a lot, please tell Xander happy birthday and we'll be home soon. OK, running to mail now.

Love,
Dawn.

 

He read it twice, then paused for a lengthy drag on his cigarette. He had the strong sense that he already knew what he'd find inside the envelope. Reaching inside seemed a mere formality. He did it anyway.

The shirt was brand-new, pre-faded and soft the way they made them these days. The numbers on the front were dark blue, almost the same color as the tag in the back of the neck. Twenty-three. Harris's lucky number.

Spike shook the shirt out, draped it over the mail table, and sat on the back of the sofa. For a while he just looked at it. It didn't do anything special. It was just a shirt.

I came across an offer I thought might interest you. Gildersleeve, with his pointy little face and his wet little tongue. They're scientists. They need research subjects.

The look on Harris's face when he was balled up in the sheets in Joyce's old bedroom, when he first came back. Looking at Spike, his face showed something like recognition. Thinking about it now, Spike wondered if it might have been memory, struggling to cohere. The poor battered brain struggling to follow its breadcrumb trail back to some kind of a beginning.

There was a sound by the door to the kitchen—he turned and saw Harris standing there, still slowly gumming some cornflakes. Spike got off the back of the sofa, picked up the shirt, and held it out.

"Bit got you something." He watched closely, and for a moment he was sure he saw that same stir of memory in Harris's face. His jaw stopped moving and his eyes widened. He looked afraid. Then he blinked, and seemed plainly confused—what was he looking at? What had be just been thinking?

"It's for your birthday," Spike said. "You don't know what the hell a birthday is anymore, do you?"

Harris didn't move, so Spike walked over and pressed the shirt into his unresisting hands. Big, bashed-up hands. Mining, Red had said. Well, hard work never killed a man, did it? It was good for you, it built character.

Biting his thumbnail viciously, Spike said, "Put it on."

Harris didn't do anything, so Spike made the monkeyish gestures he'd made before when he wanted Harris to get his shirt off for the bath. This time Harris seemed to understand. He obligingly pulled the shirt on over his head. He had it backwards, so Spike had to stop him and swivel it round the right way. Together, they got his arms through the short sleeves. He stood there in his sweats and the T-shirt, his hair standing up in grey and black licks, looking down at his own belly and touching it gently as if in awe of the material.

"Looks all right," Spike said. He felt sick. He was hung over, that was all. He needed a drink. "She sent a letter too, but you can't read, so too bad."

Harris blinked at him. He didn't understand words, but he got tone. His expression was wary and slightly hurt.

"Don't look at me like that," Spike snapped. "Go—go…I don't know. Go eat paste or something."

Turning on his heel, he stomped away and up the stairs to Joyce's room, where he closed the door and locked it and lay down on the bed trying to think. Trying not to think.

 

 

He was playing cards with Glinda, Angelus, and the Pin. His cards were all crap, and he was almost out of kittens. The one he had left was a little grey-and-black number, a runt, and he was strangely attached to it. He had it in the breast pocket of the duster, against his chest. He was hoping nobody else knew it was there.

"You have to take care of yourself," Glinda said, laying down two for two back. "That's the only way to get by in the world."

"And find the easy way out," Gildersleeve added. He had kittens piled up to his wrists.

"For once." Angelus gave Spike a sideways smile. "You never like the easy way, do you?"

"Not if it's paved with poofs." Spike kept his eyes on his cards. The kitten was getting restless, moving around in his pocket. He suddenly remembered that he hadn't fed it in a week. It was probably starving to death. "Be right back."

"He can't do that!" Gildersleeve said, as Spike left the table and hurried to the toilets.

He let the kitten out on the filthy tile floor and watched it stagger in a circle, loopy with hunger and confinement. He could try it on blood, he realized—just a few drops. But that might turn it, and he didn't want a vampire kitten. Not the kind of thing he was into. He needed proper kitten food, but he was in the men's room at Willie's, and Pilar's market was half a mile away. Someone was coming in. Hastily, he grabbed the kitten and stuffed it back into his pocket.

"What's that, boy?" Angelus came through the door with his trousers already unzipped, his dick in his hand. "You show me yours, I'll show you mine."

"Seen yours," Spike said. "Mine's better."

Angelus laughed and went to piss. While his back was turned, Spike beat a hasty retreat out through the bar, pressing through the crowds, until he was walking alone down the yellow center line of Revello Drive. His boots clicked rhythmically. He was going there to kill the Slayer. He had to hurry, to get it done before Dawn came home, because he didn't want her to find out and be upset.

 

 

There was a tapping sound, rhythmic and muted. Slowly, he sat up and tested his temples with his fingers. His brain felt swollen and grumpy in his skull. He hadn't eaten in a while, he realized. Had to take advantage of the free blood bar while he still had it.

The tapping continued. It was coming from the door, he realized. With a low groan, he rolled off the bed and staggered over.

Harris was sitting just outside on the carpet, pressed to the wall as if he were trying to osmose through it and into the bedroom. Still wearing the T-shirt. He blinked up at Spike, his hand raised in tapping position.

"What the fuck?" Spike rubbed his eyes. "What d'you want?"

In silence, Harris raised his other hand and offered Spike an envelope. On the outside, it said Spike. Spike stared at it.

"What's that?"

Harris just held it up. Slowly, Spike took it and opened it. There was a small slip of paper inside. On it was written, in an elegant black hand, Tonight, at sundown. The Slaughtered Lamb. No other chance. Beneath that, a single swooping G.

"This from the Pin?" Spike asked, shifting his gaze to Harris. Harris watched attentively, but said nothing. "Bloke that was here last night? With the—" He flared his fingers by his face, to indicate the pins. Harris's eyes narrowed in concentration—after a moment, his lips quirked in a smile and he nodded.

Yes.

It was their first communication, the first time Harris had actually responded definitively to a complex question. Without meaning to, Spike felt a silly little surge of pride. Then he frowned, tamping it all back down.

"Shouldn't be opening the door to people," he said gruffly, stuffing the note back in the envelope. "Shouldn't be opening it at all. Since when can you open a door?"

Harris, his eyes trained on Spike's face, seemed baffled. When Spike walked out of the room past him, he scrambled to his feet and hurried to follow. It was irritating. Spike's head hurt. He was hungry.

"If you're running around opening doors now, you could at least bloody make me some breakfast." He grabbed a bag from the fridge, threw it into the microwave, and slammed the door. The kitchen was a mess, full of half-full bowls of sour milk and cereal. Willow's calendar hung on the wall like an accusation, the numbers watching him. They were due back in a couple of days.

"I'm a bloody vampire," he said, staring at the long, explanatory note she'd left on the fridge. "I'm bloody evil.. Why do none of you ever remember that?"

Harris appeared in the doorway, tentative, his eyes big and dark. The shirt made him look like he was wearing a target. A big red bulls-eye with a crosshair over his heart. What was wrong with these people? Why did they keep coming back for more and more punishment? Weren't things bad enough already?

The microwave beeped and Spike pulled the bag out, bit into it, and drank half of it standing over the sink. Blood ran down his chin and neck. It felt savage and good, even while a little voice at the back of his mind told him, You're a zoo animal. Grrr, argh! Tear into that Ziploc bag!

He threw the rest of it into the sink, wiped his mouth, and sat down at the kitchen table, propping his head on his hands.

He could be wild again. Be what he was meant to be. All he had to do was take Harris to the bar tonight. Just take him out, buy him a last beer, and send him on his way. Maybe it wasn't what he thought it was, maybe Gildersleeve was right. Maybe Harris would find a parallel world that worshiped him, supplied him with all the cornflakes and Sunday funnies and midnight handjobs he could stand. Maybe it would be a good thing.

While he was sitting, Harris approached quietly over the linoleum. He walked cautiously, ready to jump back at any moment, but without the same blind fear he'd shown when he'd first come back. Now he was more like a man carefully approaching a wild animal. Or like a wild animal approaching a man.

Spike looked up at him wearily. "What'm I supposed to do?"

Harris sat down at Spike's feet, his arm wrapped his around his knees. Spike considered him.

"This bloody thing." He plucked at the collar of Harris's shirt. "I'm very bloody sick of this."

Without moving his head, Harris rotated his eyes to try to see the spot Spike was plucking at. Spike sighed.

"If I've already done it, it's done, right?" He rested his chin on his hand and stared at the grey in Harris's hair. "No control over it now. I've already sold you up the river. So it doesn't really matter if I do it again."

Harris watched with fascination, as if he were telling a spellbinding tale.

"You've already been and gone, and I've…" Spike paused. "I've still got the chip. What the hell does that mean?"

Either the deal hadn't gone through right, or there was something about time portals he didn't understand. To tell the truth, he'd never understood a single thing about time portals. Never really got how things could happen twice, two needles running the same groove. Maybe the technologists had done the job right on his future self, just not his present self, and since Harris had been dropped off early, they were just crossing paths a little oddly. Maybe none of this had ever been meant to happen. Or maybe the deal was bogus and he'd never get the chip out.

Either way, no great loss to Spike. At least that was the logic.

He was still holding onto the collar of Harris's shirt, he realized. Harris had stopped trying to see what he was picking at, and was sitting patiently, his shirt rucked up around his chin.

"Just between you and me," Spike said, "what was the sex about?"

Harris gazed at him in silence. Out of curiosity, Spike let got of Harris's collar and dropped his hand to the waistband of the sweat pants. Harris looked mildly surprised, but didn't interfere. Maybe the sex was just kneejerk, the basest human drive toward comfort and company. Hard manual labor, Red had said. It had been hurried, impersonal, desperate sex. The kind of sex you could get in prisons and camps. Automatic, practically.

Spike let his knuckles brush Harris's groin, just out of curiosity. Just to see if there was anything else to it. He wasn't expecting much, and for a moment he didn't get anything. Harris seemed to take it as a mistake—his eyes didn't waver or change expression. Spike did it again, then let his palm fall over Harris's dick, pressing gently. Just to make things clear.

Harris's eyelids fell halfway, and his legs dropped open. Under Spike's hand, his cock warmed and moved. His cheeks flushed.

"Anybody home?" Spike asked softly, intending to take his hand away in a second or two. But at the sound of his voice, Harris's eyelids lifted and he looked straight into Spike's face. His eyes were clear, unclouded by the narcotic or by fear. He was inside, looking out. And he was smiling.

Spike dropped off the chair onto the linoleum, and this time it wasn't desperate, or impersonal, or even particularly fast.

Chapter Text

The phone rang, like a scream cutting the post-coital haze. Harris surged to sitting, his eyes huge and panicked, his heart racing. Spike grabbed his arm.

"It's all right, it's just the phone." He pointed at the phone, and Harris gave it a blank, frightened look. When it rang again he flinched. He was still wearing the red T-shirt, although his sweat pants were balled up under the kitchen table. He had a cornflake stuck to his shoulder.

The phone rang again and Harris started to wheeze, that old bad sound Spike hadn't heard for a while now. With a sigh, Spike got up. It was getting late, he realized, glancing at the clock.

He stretched, scratched the sex-stain on his belly, and reached for the phone, just as the machine cut in.

"Spike—Spike, are you there? It's Willow." At the sound of her voice, Harris's eyes widened and he moved toward the phone, crowding Spike unconsciously into the counter. "Pick up if you're there, okay?"

"That's right," Spike said, reaching for the receiver. "It's Red, very good, your ears still work."

"It's about Xander—we think we know what happened."

Spike's hand froze. Harris glanced at him, then at the machine, then back at him. His expression was pathetically clear: She's here, where is she? Spike frowned.

"Or we know when it happened," she went on. "We think something's going to happen tonight. Something…some kind of distortion, like a portal or something. Spike, if you get this message, it's very important that you don't let Xander out of your sight tonight. We're calling Buffy too—she can send someone from L.A. to help you."

"I don't need anyone from—oh, for the love of Christ." Spike suppressed the urge to smash the phone into the wall, and batted Harris's hand away from the machine.

"We didn't find it before because it hadn't happened yet," Willow said, her voice speeding up as if someone were telling her to get off the line. "It's going to happen tonight, Spike. I can't believe I didn't think of this sooner, I was so stupid—" She broke off, and there was a fast, muffled exchange at her end. "I have to go. We got what we need, we're flying back tonight. If you get this, please call me back. Or call Buffy. Just…just be careful, please. Take care of him. Okay. Bye."

The machine clicked off. Harris poked it with his forefinger.

Spike stood pressed to the kitchen counter, staring at the handmade wall calendar in front of him. All of a sudden, the numbers seemed less like a countdown to freedom, and more like impending doom.

 

 

The easy answer, the quick answer, was just to stay put. If he didn't take Harris to the Lamb, the deal was off. The chip stayed in, Harris stayed here. Presumably a houseplant for the rest of his days, but at least not back in whatever hell dimension they wanted to slingshot him into. That was the easy answer.

The thing was, there was just enough afternoon left to think through some of the other possibilities. He wasn't going to just hand Harris over to the bastards, he knew that now. Maybe it meant he was going soft, maybe it meant he was getting toothless in his old age and he valued a quick tickle on a kitchen floor more than he should. Or maybe it was the fact that he'd been a research subject himself recently, and that gave him some perspective. Whatever—the offer on the table didn't appeal to him. But maybe he could finesse the deal a little. Swing things his own way.

If he went to the Lamb and demanded they take care of the chip first, before he handed Harris over—well, now there were possibilities there. Once the chip was out, he'd be wild again. He could handle any humans who came his way, and try his luck with the demons. Harris could sit it out somewhere safe, like the parking lot. Afterward, the Scoobies wouldn't know anything had happened at all—or maybe they would, maybe they'd get wind of the fight and Spike would get the credit for saving Harris from the bogeymen. He liked the sound of that very much. And then, after a while, when he'd finished lapping up the praise and free whiskey, he could slip away into the night and be William the Bloody again. They'd probably mourn him.

He liked the sound of that all very much, the more he thought it over. That was the plan, he decided. There was some risk involved, but all good plans carried risk. And what was the worst that could happen?

This is a very bad idea, said the little voice in his head, the one he always ignored. He ignored it.

"Come on, get your kit on." He helped Harris into a pair of corduroys, then knelt down to put socks and shoes on him. It had been ages since Harris had been shod, he realized. Harris seemed perplexed by the process, and uncomfortable when the shoes were on. He flexed his feet experimentally, a frown on his face.

"Don’t whinge." Spike looked up from where he was tying Harris's shoelace. "Just going for a little walk, is all."

Harris smiled faintly, and Spike looked back down.

"Going to be fine," he muttered, straightening Harris's trouser leg and standing up. "Just do what I say, all right? You got that?" He stared into Harris's eyes, trying to recover the connection. It took a second or two, but then it was there—Harris was in there, staring back at him. Impressed with his seriousness. The foot stopped flexing, the smile disappeared. Harris's eyes moved between Spike's eyes and his lips, waiting for an intelligible command.

"Come with me," Spike said, grabbing his duster off the coat rack and opening the front door. It was just dark enough for him to go out. The air smelled fresh and green, and he realized he hadn't been outside in a long time.

Harris looked doubtful, but followed him without much fuss. On the front porch, Spike fumbled the keys and took a minute to get the door locked.

You'll take care of him, right? Dawn's voice, muffled in his shoulder. Her smell of cheap conditioner and exhaustion. He'd given her his word.

"Come on," he said, jamming the keys into his pocket, and starting down the steps. Harris hesitated half a second, then followed.

 

 

The Lamb was on the other side of town, sandwiched in between a dry cleaner and a pawnshop. The front was unremarkable, barely recognizable as a bar. Heavy amber plastic covered the windows on the inside, filmed with dust and final home to hundreds of dead flies. On the sidewalk outside, cigarette butts and bottle caps littered the sidewalk. There was no sign, no doorman. If you wanted to walk into a place that looked like that, you did. And you took whatever they gave you.

Spike didn't particularly want to walk in now, but he'd come this far and he was damned if he was going back. Half a block away, he turned and took hold of Harris's arm.

"Listen very carefully." Again, he made hard eye contact. Harris didn't notice—he was stumbling along, staring at the businesses, the street, the cars, as if it were all brand new to him. His mouth was open slightly. Spike snapped his fingers. "Oy. Harris. Look at me."

Harris blinked and looked at him, vaguely at first, then with definite recognition. Spike waited for the whole sphere of Harris's attention to cohere behind his eyes. When it was there, he went on. "You're staying outside. Outside. Here. You got that?" He pointed at the sidewalk under their feet. Harris looked down, clearly expecting to see something there. "For fuck's sake."

In frustration, he half-dragged Harris across the street to a sickly little park with a couple of half-grown trees. There was a bench, with a lumpen shape asleep on it. Spike planted a foot in the middle of the shape and shoved. A bearded, weatherbeaten face emerged from the folds of what looked like a dark blanket.

"Feck off, you."

"No," Spike said, flashing fang. "That would be your part."

The man scowled, then grudgingly sat up, opened his arms, and revealed a seven-foot wingspan of leathery black skin. His belly and legs were covered in fine black hair. He smelled strongly of shoe polish.

"Fecking vampires," he said, and flew away, raising a small whirlwind of fast food wrappers behind him.

"You sit here," Spike said, shoving Harris down onto the bench. "Don't move. You understand?"

Harris was still staring up, following the flight of the bat-man. His face showed amazement and delight.

"Hey." Spike shook his shoulder. "You stay here."

Harris's eyes came down fast, and met Spike's. He was home again, present. He nodded. Yes.

"You don't move."

Yes.

"Okay." Spike straightened up and faced the Lamb, studying the front window for signs of movement. He saw none. "Okay. I'm going in to talk to some blokes. I'll be back soon. Wait here. You got that?"

Harris paused, looked over his shoulder, and caught sight of the Lamb. When he turned back to look at Spike, his expression was troubled. His eyes seemed clouded, distracted by whatever was going on in his head.

"It's going to be fine." Spike patted Harris's shoulder. "Just wait here and don't move. If anyone comes up to you—" Well, Harris couldn't exactly yell for help. "Just wait here."

Faintly, Harris nodded.

"Okay," Spike said. He squared his shoulders, but didn't take the first step just yet. "Right, then."

He wanted a kiss, but that was stupid and poncy and anyway, Harris didn't kiss. Good thing, too—they were already getting poofy enough. Still, Spike couldn't shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen. It was a good plan, he reminded himself. When the chip was gone and he was himself again, he'd feel incredible. He'd take care of everything. All he had to do was go in there and start the ball rolling.

He almost jumped when something touched his fingers. It was Harris, of course. Reaching up and taking hold of Spike's hand in his big battered paw. Just holding it, that was all. They stared at each other for a few seconds. Harris's eyes were calm and clear and direct. I trust you, they said. It's going to be okay.

"Right, then." Spike gently disengaged his hand, smiled as well as he could, and started for the Lamb. Just before he opened the door, he glanced back over his shoulder. Harris was watching over the back of the bench. His face was white in the darkness, and he looked very far away.

Chapter Text

"Spike. I knew you'd come to your senses." Gildersleeve was sitting on a slat-backed chair, wearing a dove-grey suit and drinking a martini. As always, he was the very image of the dapper gentleman, and it was only thanks to the benefit of long association that Spike noticed the pins near the base of his neck were bristling a little. Gildersleeve was nervous. That was interesting.

It was also unsurprising, because the three other men around the table made Spike nervous, too. In fact, there was nobody else in the Lamb tonight—even the barkeep had left a bottle out and taken himself off. The place was a tomb. No music, nothing. Just the four of them sitting around the table at the back of the room, and the white sheet folded neatly on the tabletop between them. There were things under the sheet—little things, hard things. Things that looked like surgical instruments, if Spike was any judge. And he was. He swallowed.

"You always know everything, don't you, Pin?" He did his best swagger up to the table, hooked a chair with his toe, and sat down in it. The three men were all looking at him. Their expressions were, if anything, assessing. Beyond that, they didn't seem to have expressions.

"That I do," Gildersleeve said genially, setting his drink down and picking up the whiskey bottle beside him. "That I do. Our barman has disappeared, I'm afraid—but can I pour you a drink myself?"

Spike nodded, letting his legs fall open and his hands fall into his lap. None of the three men had drinks in front of them, he noticed. Just the white sheet, hiding whatever it was hiding.

"I can't help but notice," Gildersleeve went on, pouring a generous amount into Spike's glass, "that you're here alone."

"That's right." Spike accepted the glass Gildersleeve passed him, while the three men watched expressionlessly. "I want a little more information before I make my decision."

"Make your decision?" Gildersleeve tipped his head, as if Spike had said something very droll. "But surely your decision is already made."

Spike frowned. "No, it's bloody not. I want the chip done first, then we'll talk about Harris."

"Harris." That came from one of the three men. The technologists, Gildersleeve had called them. His voice was low and dry, practically crumbling, as if he didn't use it very often. At the sound of it, Gildersleeve jumped a little, and the tip of his tongue emerged to wet his lips.

Spike turned to look at the man. He was tall—they were all tall. Thin, with pale skin and pale blue eyes. It was hard to look at his eyes for very long. They seemed both blank and endless, like the glass eyes of a stuffed, mounted animal. He had short red hair—they all had short red hair. His fingernails were very clean. His lips were girlish and soft-looking.

"Yeah," Spike said. "Harris. The bloke you want for…whatever is it."

Without blinking, the man turned his head and looked at Gildersleeve. Under the weight of his gaze, Gildersleeve shrank inside his suit. The pins at the base of his throat popped wildly. "I told him only what was necessary," he said.

The man said nothing. He stared at Gildersleeve for a few more seconds, then turned and locked eyes with the two other men at the table. There was silence while they stared at each other. Gildersleeve swallowed, and his throat clicked.

"It doesn't matter," the man said at last, breaking his colleagues' gazes and turning back to Spike. Gildersleeve exhaled, and Spike straightened up to meet the man's eyes. "We can erase what you know."

"Erase this," Spike said, tipping his glass. "I'm here to get the chip fried, and then we'll talk."

"Spike—" Gildersleeve said, and there was a craven, almost apologetic tone to his voice that made Spike tense.

"What is this chip?" the man asked, the faintest sign of a frown creasing his smooth brow. "And where is the other one?"

"The human," one of the other men said.

"There should be two," the third one added.

"I know," Gildersleeve said, setting his glass down and trying to smile. "There are, there will be—Spike, where did you leave the boy?"

"What the hell is going on?" Spike shoved his glass away and stood up. The three men looked at him without concern. "I'm here to do a deal, get the chip zapped and you get Harris, do whatever you want with him, I don't bloody care." He could hear the anxiety in his own voice, raising his tone. "Sounds like that's not the deal after all, is it?"

"Spike—" Gildersleeve was trying to smile, with unpleasant results. "Calm down, it's just a misunderstanding—"

"It's a bloody double-cross," Spike said, ignoring any irony. He reached down and flipped the sheet open, then stopped short. Inside gleamed an array of hypodermic syringes, filled with clear fluid, primed to different levels.

"The crossing is easier if the subject is sedated," one of the men said mildly.

"Lacking sedation, subjects run a high risk of myocardial infarction or mental disturbance."

"The levels of sedation necessary for a human are simple to calculate. For a vampire, they are more challenging."

Spike raised his eyes and stared at Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"Fuck you," Spike said. Then he turned and ran.

He was halfway across the floor when one of the men grabbed him from behind. He turned, threw a punch, and the chip fired. His brain exploded into glass and razor wire. Yelling, he punched again, and again the pain burst in from both ends—against his knuckles, and deep in his skull. Dimly, he could hear Gildersleeve shouting something about sedation. There were feet all around his face, well-polished black shoes. He felt a sting in the side of his neck, and jerked away from it. His vision started to spin.

Then there was a breath of cool air across his face, as if someone good had leaned down and seen him, taken pity on him, given him a second chance. It was just the door opening. He could see it, foggily, in the corner of his eye. Someone was leaving—no, someone was coming in. Another sting in his neck. He was in game face, snarling and writhing, and there were heavy knees in his chest.

He saw red hair, a calm pale face leaning over him, the clear plastic safety cap of a hypodermic syringe fixed between its lips. A look of concentration. Everything swooned. He couldn't move his arms or legs, and the pain in his head kept coming. Wave after wave. He saw a hand come around behind the pale face, and take hold of its chin. The hand was big and battered. It yanked. There was a grunt and a snapping sound.

No, Spike tried to say, but his mouth wouldn't work. This was how they got Harris, this must be the point in the loop where it all happened over again. I told you not to move.

Smashed down on the filthy barroom floor, he watched through descending layers of gauze while skinny, big-handed Harris beat a red-headed man until blood came out of his ears. There was still one more, though. Watch out, he tried to say, slipping down the slope into darkness. I didn't mean for it to go like this. I didn't mean it.

Something dropped to the floor beside his head—a syringe, he saw faintly. It glittered in the light from the doorway. Watching it, he thought, How beautiful.

 

 

"I can't believe you didn't get my message." Willow was sitting on the very edge of the armchair, as if she were afraid there might be something contagious in it. Which there might—he hadn't dusted in…ever. "It was still daylight here—where were you?"

"Told you," he said. "I was asleep. I'm a vampire, remember? Sleep during the day?"

"You could have checked before you went out." Her tone was grousing, not recriminatory. "Maybe we should get you a cell phone."

"Maybe we should sod off."

"It's just a suggestion. With the chip, you're kind of at a disadvantage on the human side of things. To wit:" She waved a hand at him, encompassing all his bruises, the nasty neck punctures, all that. He grunted, nursing his beer. "Not that we want you to have an advantage, because that, after all, is why we have the Slayer in the first place, but still…" She took a sip of her beer, paused to let the taste settle, and sighed. "I'm sorry you got hurt."

"S'okay."

"I'm still mad that you took Xander to a demon bar, though."

"I know."

"Good."

They sat together in silence for a while. Even now, two days after the whole mess, Spike's left eye was still swollen almost shut. But he could see Harris sitting at the base of the sarcophagus, wearing his lucky red 23 T-shirt, fiddling with his flash cards. Pathetic. Or sort of comforting, depending on your point of view.

"We should get back," Willow said finally, setting her mostly-full beer down gingerly on the floor beside her chair. "Now that Glory's gone, Buffy and Dawn are on their way home, and we still have to clean up the mess you guys left." There was a little recrimination in her tone now, which was nice. "You could have at least done some dishes."

"'m not a maid," he said, closing his eyes and leaning back into his own chair.

"Shockingly, neither are Tara and I." She stood up, walked over to Harris, and held out a hand. "Come on, Xander. Let's go."

He gave her an absent look, shuffled his cards into a pack, and stood up. There were still bruises on his knuckles, and some skin off. Red was looking at them too, Spike realized.

"I really can't thank you enough," she said, not looking at him, but still at Harris's hands. "For saving him, I mean." She touched Harris's knuckle lightly, as if it might break apart under her fingers. "Are you sure you want to stay here? I mean, maybe, just until you're feeling better…?"

"Nah." He swigged from his beer. "I'm a vampire, pet. Be better by morning, probably."

"Is there anything you need? Some more blood, maybe? Or, um, cigarettes?"

He shook his head. She sighed. "Okay. Well, I'll tell Dawn to give you a day or two before she comes over."

He nodded. He wasn't sure he wanted to see Dawn right now. It was a little odd just being around Red, who kept thanking him for saving Harris's life. They all did. Even Rupert had taken off his glasses and held out his hand to be shaken. They all thought Spike was the hero in this, and that's what he'd wanted them to think all along, but it had turned out to feel like utter crap.

Red was still standing there, not saying anything, and after a moment he looked at her. She was blushing a little, he noticed. He frowned.

"So, one thing I didn't mention before was that I changed the sheets on our bed."

Oh shit.

"Maybe I'll just wait outside for a minute or two," she said, looking not precisely at Spike or Harris, but somewhere in between them. Then she exited, stage left. The crypt door closed behind her. Harris looked confused.

Spike groaned, bringing Harris's attention to him. It was a less blank attention than it had been even a few days before. There was a sharpness to it, and the distinct impression that even if he didn't talk, he understood more of what was being said to him. He'd started taking a lot more interest in the flash cards, and in the signs Glinda tried out on him. There was something to be said, Spike thought, for beating your worst fears to death with your bare hands. It seemed to be good therapy.

"Look," Spike said, pressing the bridge of his nose, "I know I owe you one already, but I'd really appreciate it if you could not fucking mention any of the sloppy stuff to them. Or to me, come to think of it. I was drunk, I don't know what I—"

Harris walked across the crypt toward him, his steps surer and more purposeful than they used to be. Spike sat up, a little wary.

"No offense," he said quickly. "It wasn't bad or anything—"

Harris leaned down, took the beer bottle out of Spike's hand and set it aside with a wrinkled nose, then leaned further down and brushed his lips across Spike's. It wasn't a proper kiss, it was something else. A meeting of some kind. An assurance. Spike sat still and let Harris's mouth touch his, repeatedly and gently. Finally Harris seemed satisfied. He stood up, patted his pocket for his flash cards, and headed for the door.

"Thank you," Spike said, quietly.

Harris turned back and smiled. Then he let himself out.