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They didn't understand. Maybe they just couldn't. Xander didn't blame them, but that didn't stop it from hurting. He didn't say anything though, not even weeks later when they still couldn't quite meet his eyes--no, eye, and that was the problem, wasn't it?

Dawn was still visibly fighting back tears whenever she looked at him, stared briefly before tearing her gaze away and finding something else to do, something that took her to a completely different room of the house.

Willow couldn't seem to find the words she wanted so she'd taken to hugging him. Brief, hard hugs and maybe that was just as bad as an endless litany of "I'm so sorry" would've been. But never as bad as the way her gaze inevitably moved to his eye patch, then quickly jerked away, guilt suffusing her expression as she let him go, backing away with excuses of things to be done, right now, that minute, and she'd see him later and Xander knew how much she cared about him, right? And then she was gone.

The guilt was worse in Buffy's face, always directly following that vaguely shocked expression she wore whenever she looked at him, as if even after the passing of almost a month she still couldn't believe that this had happened to him. Xander thought she saw it as a personal failure, that she'd let him down, let herself down by not protecting her friend. She held that guilt close, like a reminder of what would happen if she didn't do better and if that helped her in the coming battle, then Xander wouldn't deny her that, but it was still painful to see, the way she smiled at him through that guilt, the strained look to her expression. The love there wasn't strained though and he always smiled back, because for all that she held herself responsible, he didn't blame her even the slightest.

Giles put up a brave front, of course, with his oh-so British "stiff upper lip" routine, not mentioning what was plain to see even as he found so many other things to look at besides Xander's face. The first few times Xander had wondered if there was something happening behind him or off to the side, one of the Potentials needing Giles' attention or something. But then he'd understood, and he didn't blame Giles for finding his own way of dealing with it.

Anya was...well, she was Anya. Asking him directly how it felt, was it hard to compensate for the missing depth perception, telling him that he'd look so much better with a glass eye and he should think about that and she knew a demon that could get him a good deal on one if he didn't mind that it might be a little cursed and glow red at night but that was very fashionable now, really. An endless stream of words, questions and comments and suggestions and Xander wasn't required to do anything more than make the occasional grunt of interest or agreement where appropriate; her way of coping, finding comfort in words. Until the words ran out and she couldn't do anything more than stand there with a distinct lack of comfort, staring down at his hand held in hers, a touch that was friendly in nature, not romantic, which she'd been very clear on, wanting to "establish boundaries" before taking his hand. But she found silence difficult and couldn't stand it for long; with nothing else to say she'd give his hand a squeeze and leave to see if Willow or Giles wanted her to do anything, never once having looked Xander directly in the eye. And somehow Xander thought that she would've acted exactly the same had they still been together.

But Xander didn't blame her or any of them for reacting the way they did. He hated the pity and the guilt he could see just before they looked away but he couldn't blame them, didn't even blame himself. He'd thrown himself into the fight, put himself in danger to give others a chance to escape, and that was what he did, who he was. Did he regret it? Of course he did. He missed his eye like...like he'd miss some other gouged out thing he'd used to see with his entire life. But he'd do it again in a second. He didn't have any doubts about that. But they didn't understand that, that he'd made his own sort of peace with it and wasn't looking to find any fault. Or maybe that's why they blamed themselves; he couldn't so they did it for him.

It made it difficult to be around them though, these people who were more like a family to him than his own parents. He didn't doubt for a moment that they loved him, but he couldn't stand their guilt either, not every hour of every day, not without feeling his temper slip. Sometimes he just wanted to yell at them, tell them to just stop it already, to just move on. And that wasn't fair, he knew that. They had to deal in their own ways and he had to give them the time. It was easier to just leave, take himself out of their sight so they'd all have a break, some fragile, fleeting peace of mind. They understood that much, he thought they were even grateful for it, so there'd been no objections to where he'd taken to spending his time.

He could've just gone back to his apartment, but it was so empty there, so alone, and the silence hurt almost as much as the looks on his friends' faces. He'd take those looks before he'd spend hours sitting by himself where he'd probably give into the temptation to have way too many beers, just for something to do.

So instead, he took another option.

It hadn't been comfortable at first, or even the second and third time Xander sought out Spike's company. They'd never been friends, had barely rated as acquaintances as Xander's hatred and sometimes jealousy had clouded his view of Spike over the years. For Spike's part...well, Xander couldn't speak for him but he suspected Spike simply hadn't thought of him at all. That might've changed when Spike had been forced to spend time tied up in Xander's basement, but Xander doubted it. He'd probably been little more than a passing annoyance to Spike.

But that was exactly why Xander began spending time with him. Spike didn't care about him and even with the soul there was no big, heavy mass of guilt sitting between them, getting in the way of conversation. Spike had nothing to feel guilty about and those first few times Xander came to see him, there was no conversation anyway.

With the trigger broken, Spike could've moved out of Buffy's basement, maybe back to a crypt or anywhere else that suited him, but for whatever reason, which he never spoke of -- or maybe Buffy knew and she wasn't saying, Spike remained in the basement. Xander found him there, during the hours when Spike wasn't helping train the Potentials. He seemed to sleep in the morning hours, just after daybreak and Xander didn't bother going down there then. It was almost as bad as being by himself, sitting at the bottom of the basement stairs, staring at a vampire who slept, appropriately enough, like the dead.

Not that Spike was all that welcoming when he was awake. He didn't say much when Xander came down, probably expecting that they needed him to do something upstairs. When Xander just seated himself on the stairs though, Spike raised that scarred eyebrow and went back to whatever he was doing.

That lasted a couple days, until Xander had grew bored, and curious enough to ask what exactly Spike was doing over there, stretched out on the cot, head propped up on a frilly pillow that looked out of place -- probably one of Dawn's -- writing in a small spiral notebook. And of course that was the answer he got, "Writing." No insult to go along with it, no "git" or "wanker" or other fun little British-isms that Spike had thrown at him over the years. Not that Xander understood what most of them meant, but it was a measure of how much Spike seemed to have changed. Although it was hard to tell if it was the soul or just him not wanting to talk. Still, Xander sort of missed the insults. It would've given him an excuse to insult Spike back and then they would've been talking, sort of. It wouldn't have been so quiet there.

Xander didn't spend more than a few minutes down there, those first visits. Spike wasn't volunteering any conversation and Xander wasn't good at filling in uncomfortable silences, not with words anyway, not without sounding like a fool.

So the next time he brought beer.

It was just two bottles, some cheap off brand he'd found in the back of Buffy's fridge. Beer: the ice-breaker of the American male. Granted, Spike wasn't American, but he was a guy and hopefully beer would work if not get him talking, then to at least make the silence a little less uncomfortable.

This time Spike's eyebrow traveled further up his forehead, but he didn't refuse either, easily catching the bottle Xander tossed his way.

Xander settled down in what was becoming his usual seat on the basement steps before opening his bottle, a twist top that he pocketed, not comfortable with just tossing it on the floor when it wasn't his house. Spike didn't seem to have that problem, casting the top aside negligently, the metal clanking on the floor, a high, tinny sound as it bounced once, then rolled out of sight behind the ironing board.

The first drink Xander took of the beer told him why it'd been kept in the back of the fridge; it was pretty bad. He grimaced and swallowed it. Spike wasn't as polite about it. He didn't spit it out but the curses he directed at it said he'd been close. Interestingly enough he didn't stop drinking it, neither did Xander. And it was entertaining, listening to Spike mutter about Americans and piss-poor excuses for beer with each drink. He hid his smile behind his own bottle, not wanting to give Spike an excuse to stop. It was good, hearing someone else speak without the weight of apology and pity behind the words.

The beer was gone all too soon and Xander almost dropped his bottle when Spike tossed his in Xander's direction. Fortunately he caught it without making a mess of shattered glass.

And Spike told him to bring something proper next time instead of that "American piss."

Next time. Xander had to hide another smile when he left.

British beer was hard to find in a town that was rapidly closing up, the residents of Sunnydale finally realizing that something was wrong, packing up and moving out. Xander eventually found a small import shop that carried enough varieties of lager, stouts and ales to confuse him. Dark and light, pale ales and bitters and Xander didn't have the first clue what he was looking at. He ended up getting two pale ales because they looked closest to the beer he was used to drinking.

There was no raised eyebrow at his appearance this time, but he did get something that might've been a smile when Spike saw the bottle Xander tossed him. The corner of Spike's mouth turned up slightly as he popped the top off the bottle.

This time Spike had suggestions on what Xander should get at that shop.

It was an...interesting experience, drinking strange imported beers with Spike. Most of them Xander could stand, a few he even liked, but the stouts made him gag, something Spike found amusing. Xander didn't understand why Spike couldn't just drink good old American beer, but saying that got him a long, pretty much incomprehensible to him, lecture on what made British beers so superior to the "flavored water" made in America. Incomprehensible, yes, but Spike was talking to him and Xander even found a few things to say back. Mostly his comments made Spike roll his eyes and go off on another tangent about the subtleties of brewing, none of which Xander really understood, but it was actual conversation.

And at one point Spike told him to, "Move your arse over here so I don't have to shout across the whole bloody room," and Xander was sitting on the cot next to him. Not right next to him, it was big enough that there was plenty of breathing space between them, but they were no longer talking across the width of the basement either.

The next time he came down, Xander sat in the same place on the cot. Spike never said a word about it.

Now that he had Spike talking, Xander had to wonder if Spike had missed conversation as much as he had. Once he got going on a subject, he seemed to switch over to something that resembled what Xander thought of as Giles' "lecture mode" -- not that he'd ever say that to Spike, or mention the fact that when he really got into a subject, Spike lost much of his gutter accent. He had a nice voice to begin with -- Xander had always liked accents -- but with the more cultured tones it became a real pleasure to listen to. Something else Xander wouldn't be telling him any time soon.

The conversation didn't stay on beers, you could only say so much on that subject and it was obvious that Xander didn't get it anyway. Xander didn't care to talk about what was happening out there, outside of the basement, the Potentials, the First, the upcoming battle and their likely impending deaths, and Spike certainly wasn't making any efforts to steer their talk in that direction. Xander kind of thought they both wanted a distraction, to think of other things. After what had happened with the trigger, he doubted Spike would want to talk about the specifics of his life either, but with just a bit of prodding he didn't seem to have any problems talking about things he remembered in passing.

Taverns, bars, those were safe enough to talk about, and a natural segue from the beer conversations. Spike hadn't gone into them just to look for victims but to get a good drink and maybe some decent company too. (Apparently Willy's wasn't the only demon bar in the world. It shouldn't have surprised Xander, but he'd never given it much thought either.) The stories he told ranged from interesting to funny to one that made it hard for Xander to keep his beer down while gagging -- and he suspected Spike had told that one to get that exact reaction out of him, judging from the brief smirk he'd seen cross Spike's lips.

Xander didn't have nearly as much to contribute, just that time a few years ago when he'd lied about his age to tend bar, a job that had ended faster than most of his brief employment experiences back then after the owner of the place had served magically drugged beer. The story of cavegirl Buffy did get a laugh out of Spike though. The only other time he'd worked in a bar-like environment had been that summer in Oxford, and nothing was getting that story out of him.

"Nothing," of course, being nothing short of three beers, which were had one evening, just a few minutes prior to Xander telling that story in all the detail he'd refused to share with his friends. For some reason Spike laughing hard enough to fall off the cot wasn't nearly as humiliating as Willow or Buffy laughing. Xander found that looking back on the experience, he could laugh with Spike in a way he couldn't have with the others. Maybe it was a guy thing, although he didn't think he could've shared something like this with Giles so that wasn't a good explanation. Maybe it didn't need one.

"Bet you were a right pretty sight up there, shaking your--" Spike didn't make it through the sentence before laughter overtook him again. Sitting on the floor in front of the cot, braced up on his hands, he just laughed and Xander had to fight not to join him.

"Keep it up and I'll take away your beer," he threatened, although it was more of a tease as he held up both bottles.

"Pillock," Spike said through his laughter, reaching out with his foot to whack the side of Xander's ankle, the blow as much of a tease as Xander's threat.

Xander couldn't hold back his laughter any more, nor the wide grin that accompanied it.

And somewhere along the way, between the conversation and the laughter, Xander realized he was comfortable there, in an ill-lit basement, drinking beer with a vampire, talking about anything but the fate of the world that would be decided sometime soon. Spike seemed comfortable enough with it himself, and the more frequent smiles/smirks that crossed his lips made Xander dare to ask something else.

"What are you writing?" Late one afternoon, looking at the closed notebook peeking out from beneath the pillow.

For a too long moment Spike was silent and Xander worried that he'd been wrong, that he wasn't allowed to ask that much. But then Spike pulled out the notebook and flipped it open to the first page.

"Poetry," was the answer, spoken in a flat tone that didn't invite any further questions.

Nodding, Xander leaned back against the wall, cradling his bottle between his raised knees. He asked anyway. "Read me some?"

Both of Spike's eyebrows went up and he stared, not that Xander could blame him. Xander wasn't a big reader and what he did read had never included poetry, not outside of a Hallmark card anyway. He didn't make a big secret of that and Spike had to know it, probably wondered why Xander would want to have anything other than a comic book read to him. Xander wondered himself, but he didn't take it back, didn't shrug and move on to another subject; he did want to hear it.

There was suspicion in Spike's expression as he began to haltingly read the words he'd written, a suspicion Xander could guess at having faced rejection and laughter himself throughout life. But Xander didn't laugh, didn't smile, didn't do more than nod when Spike finished the four short lines. He didn't trust himself to say anything, not because he thought it was bad -- he wouldn't know bad poetry from good if it danced by him half naked in a conga line carrying a blinking neon sign -- but because he didn't know what to say. It rhymed, and he liked that, but he didn't understand more than one word out of three. They were English, he was pretty sure of that, but big, three and four syllable words he'd need a dictionary to understand, and even then it was a good bet he still wouldn't get it.

"You don't like it." Another flat-toned statement and Xander knew the wrong response would put an abrupt end to the odd sort of comfortableness they'd established, so he told the truth.

"It's pretty."

That seemed to be the right response. Spike nodded once, and Xander thought he saw something soften in his expression before he began to read the next poem.

Xander never heard more than one or two of them at a time, that seemed to be all Spike could do before he began frowning, pulling out his pen from where he kept it hooked to the metal spiral of the notebook. Xander didn't see what needed correcting and said so at one point, which earned him a small, amused smile.

"You don't even understand what they say, prat." No accusation, no anger.

"Yeah, but I like it," Xander said with a shrug.

Pen halting mid-word, Spike looked up at him and smiled.

Not all of the poems were short, some of them were things Spike called "sonnets" and a couple were epic in length and Spike stopped every few lines to make a change of some sort, often just a different word or phrase but sometimes he'd rewrite the whole line. And he began to explain as he wrote. In an offhand, absent-minded sort of manner he'd mention what the bigger words meant, why he'd used them and how they affected the whole poem. And his lower class accent completely vanished.

It was mesmerizing, listening to that voice, the variations in tone. Sprawled out over his half of the cot, mellowed by the beer and the words, which really were pretty, Xander could lose all track of the passing of time there. More than once he was surprised to see dim light filtering in through the small, gritty widow nearest the bed. Diffuse enough not to be a threat to Spike, but still a shock for speaking of how long Xander had been there.

Muscles stiff from being in one place too long, he'd pull himself up from whatever position he'd found comfortable hours earlier, sometimes having to untangle his feet from Spike's, or use Spike's shoulder to balance himself so he wouldn't fall, grinning along with Spike at his own awkwardness. He'd leave Spike to get some sleep, to go try and grab a couple hours himself before greeting another day and its troubles.

Sometimes it was easier to just sleep where he was. Spike never said anything about it, never shoved Xander's head off his arm when Xander couldn't keep his eye open and let that soft voice lull him away from consciousness. Xander thought that sometimes he could feel a hand in his hair, just before he drifted off.

He knew he wasn't imagining it one night when Spike stopped speaking and his hand slid from Xander's hair down to the side of his face. Xander wasn't so far gone to sleep that he could mistake that for anything but what it was, and opening his eye, looking up from where his head rested against Spike's shoulder, he found Spike watching him.

Xander couldn't say he was surprised when Spike kissed him, it seemed like he'd been waiting for it on some level. It was hesitant, almost shy -- if that was a word that could be applied to Spike, and Xander didn't think it could. Brief, just a brushing of cool lips over his before Spike drew back, his expression already closing off, his hand falling away from Xander's cheek, probably expecting Xander to yell at him, or hit him, or some other form of rejection.

Xander reached up with a hand gone numb from being pressed between them and rested it against Spike's neck. Cool, smooth skin, and Spike went still, suspicion in his gaze as he looked at Xander. Xander just smiled, a slight quirk of his lips before tugging at Spike, urging him back down at the same time as Xander pushed himself up a little, just enough to let him press his lips against Spike's.

It was awkward, almost as awkward as those first few visits when he'd had no idea how to start a conversation, no idea if Spike even wanted to. But he thought maybe Spike did want this, why else would he have started it? And even if Xander wasn't sure how everything worked between two guys, he was pretty sure kissing was the same no matter whose lips were involved. The thought gave him more confidence and he slid his other arm around Spike's back, pulling him closer, pressing them together. And Spike's lips parted beneath his.

Minutes or hours later, he couldn't tell, sprawled out along the cot, naked beneath Spike, cool skin pressed along the length of his body, Xander had long since lost the ability to judge the passing of time. Spike was staring down at him, not breathing, so still and Xander couldn't stop gasping for air, his heart pounding.

"Missed this," Spike's voice was quiet, soft. "You?"

"Yeah," Xander said on a gasp as Spike shifted against him.

And it wasn't the sex, not for him and he thought not for Spike either. They both had working hands and if release was all they missed they could have that any time they wanted. It was this, touching, having someone else there, someone else's hands, lips, body, something besides the loneliness of their own company. Sex was...wonderful and Xander wasn't about to lie and say he didn't want this, Spike pressed against him, rocking as they touched everywhere they could reach, kissing hard, hungrily. But it was the ability to finally touch someone else that made it perfect for Xander.

It could've turned awkward again, afterwards. It would've been easier to blame it on the beer -- although they'd only had a couple bottles and so far as Xander knew it took far more than that to get a vampire "pissed," as Spike called it. It would've been an acceptable excuse though -- and Xander wasn't even tempted to take it. It was too comfortable, even lying there on a cot that wasn't meant for two fully grown men. Pressed tightly against Spike, both of them desperately needed a bath; Xander's shirt was sacrificed in the clean up but it was a long while before he left.

The next time he went to the basement he didn't expect anything. Spike could ignore it or not and either way Xander was still content to slouch on the cot, back against the wall, listening to Spike recite more of his poetry.

They made it through one poem before Spike was straddling him, mouth open against his, hands tangled in his hair, holding his head still as Spike kissed him hard enough to leave Xander dizzy and panting for breath.

Spike's fingers clutched at the elastic of the eye patch and in one abrupt move he pulled it off and tossed it aside, the *smack* of it hitting something in the corner barely noticed as Xander blinked in surprise.

"Better," Spike said before his mouth covered Xander's again.

Xander couldn't have stopped himself from moaning against Spike's tongue, and he didn't even try.

Being with Spike was easier than Xander thought it should've been. It wasn't about the sex, not totally, although it was simpler to figure out what another man liked, much less of the "grope and guess" method Xander had used briefly with Cordelia and then Anya after her, until he'd figured things out. There wasn't much to "figure out" with Spike, they both had the same parts and the same things felt right. That much didn't surprise Xander, he'd kind of suspected it actually. What happened outside of that though wasn't anything he'd expected. The way he felt comfortable lying there afterwards, sleeping more often than not but sometimes talking or listening to Spike compose poetry out loud. And Spike never stopped touching him. An arm over his chest, a leg over his or fingers combing through Xander's hair; always touching and Xander just smiled and relaxed against him.

No one said anything in the world outside of the basement. Xander never mentioned it and Spike didn't give anything away; they didn't act any differently towards each other, or at least Xander didn't think they did. But he could've been wrong. Maybe they touched more or smiled in a different way. Or maybe they hadn't been quiet enough when they were together. They'd made an effort, knowing without saying that being too vocal wasn't the best idea, but the resolve didn't always last and maybe that's how his friends knew.

Not that anyone said anything outright, but sometimes he'd see Willow look from Spike to him and she'd smile, a sad, brief smile before she'd go on with whatever she was doing. He only caught Buffy once, a troubled expression when he looked over to find her watching him and Spike. They were doing nothing more than standing there, watching two of the Potentials train but something Buffy saw made her frown like that. Seeing him watching, she smiled, shakily at best, and turned away.

Anya was, unsurprisingly, the least subtle about it, but also the easiest to take, and that was a surprise. She walked up to him once, stared at him long and hard, then nodded once and leaned in and kissed his cheek. Then she walked away and never said a word. It was probably the strangest interaction he'd had with her, the least embarrassing too.

Dawn was grinning far too widely when he saw her now and Xander really didn't want to know what was going through her mind. Giles, well, Giles was comfortingly predictable. Never saying a word, he'd go from looking at Xander to Spike, then straight to polishing his glasses and deliberately *not* looking at them. Xander actually found that funny and he guessed from the slight smirk he saw at times on Spike's lips, that Spike was just as amused.

There was no pattern, no ritual to it anymore. Sometimes Xander brought beer but more often, he just brought himself and a growing fondness for poetry. He hadn't tried reading any books of poetry, there was no time for that outside of the time he spent here and he wasn't going to ask Spike to quote anyone else's poetry, that might've made him think that Xander didn't like what he was hearing. He was content enough anyway, lying there propped up against Spike in one way or another, listening to whatever Spike brought to mind. It wasn't always poetry either, not all the time. There were lyrics, none that Xander could identify but sometimes Spike would tell him. Punk songs and the occasional pop one that would make Xander laugh when Spike admitted to knowing anything by a boy band, though he claimed it was because Dru made him listen or because he'd gotten stuck in a music store during the day once or anything other than just confessing that he might like it.

Sometimes they didn't say anything, just sitting or lying there, touching. Always touching. Most times, more than that.

Spike called it "shagging" and Xander supposed he preferred that to "fucking" because he didn't think that's what this was. It wasn't love; he wasn't desperate or stupid enough to mistake it for that. He knew love; he'd been in love with Anya -- still loved her, so much so that it made his chest feel tight sometimes, his eye sting when he thought of what he'd lost. But that wasn't what he had with Spike. He couldn't put a name to what this was, it felt good though and Spike was smiling more now, laughing, so it had to feel just as good to him. It didn't need a name, it just had to exist. Xander needed it and he guessed Spike did too.

"Why do you come here?" It came out through short, harsh pants, the breathing Spike would deny doing later.

Xander barely heard the question over his own strained gasps, might've ignored it anyway -- but Spike went still. Hands braced alongside Xander's head, Spike stared down at him, blue eyes narrowed, not in anger but still demanding an answer, one Xander had never given a thought to.

He opened his mouth to say he didn't know, but Spike moved then, over him, in him, and Xander's words were lost on another deep gasp, fingers digging into the rough blanket covering the cot. Spike never stopped looking at him, staring, an expectant expression there now, like he knew the answer already and was just waiting for Xander to see it.

And he did. In that moment, meeting Spike's unwavering gaze, Xander did know.

"You see me," Xander said, a shiver moving through him with the words.

Spike smiled. Pressing closer, deeper, he leaned down. Xander pushed himself up on his elbows and met him halfway.

"That I do," Spike whispered. Then kissed him.

Fin