Xander Harris had just spent nearly a year in the bush of Africa and was still getting used to walls and people and rooms full of things and the English language. Which was why he'd been "requested" to come back to England for a face-to-face meeting of the de facto governing committee of the new Watchers' Council. Everyone agreed it was a good idea for Xander to not lose all touch with civilization, though no one remembered who had come up with the plan in the first place. Andrew kept his mouth shut and reminded no one that it was his idea.

Xander preferred the corners of rooms, places where he could get cover for his blind side and allow him to see all approaches. The Council had offered him a chance for a hair cut and wardrobe replacement, but he'd declined, briefly but politely, and continued with shoulder-length hair he cut himself and worn khakis. He wasn't hanging out with any of the old Sunnydale crowd between meetings, despite best efforts. Willow was too distracted by her spectacularly collapsing relationship with Kennedy to spend much time with Xander. Every time Buffy tried to connect with him, she got a phone call from the Immortal, and she went off into giddy-land. Still, Xander had actually managed a real smile when Buffy told him--at rapid-fire length--about her new romance.

Andrew watched all this from his own corners and from behind his desk in the reception room of Headquarters. Xander had taken to lurking there, watching the flow of business from the most remote position possible, halfway behind a book case and shrouded by a potted aspidistra. Andrew often forgot he was there, until a faint chuckle would remind him, most often after Andrew muttered a complicated curse involving Klingon, Romulan, Spanish, and a little bit of Fyarl thrown in for extra fricatives.

In two days, Xander would head back to Africa, and Andrew knew he'd have to overcome his cowardice soon. The envelope was tucked into a corner of his desk blotter, precise Victorian handwriting glaring at him every day. He took a deep breath. If Xander got angry, Andrew could always run and hide behind Giles. He pulled out the envelope and stood up.

Xander looked asleep there in his corner, but his eye popped open before Andrew took two steps. Andrew took a deep breath and held out the envelope placatingly.

"There's a letter for you. From Los Angeles."

Xander stared at the envelope. "Who's in Los Angeles that would be writing to me?" He glared at Andrew. "This isn't some last farewell from Cordy, is it?"

"Uh, no. It came with a letter to Giles." Andrew braced himself. "It's from Spike."

"Spike's dead."

The flat whisper made Andrew shiver. "N--no, he's--he came back. To L.A. He was with Angel."

"And he's writing to me?"

Andrew nodded quickly. "You and Giles."

Xander frowned. "Not Buffy?"

"I think there were some messages Giles was supposed to pass on, but yours is the only separate letter."

Slowly Xander took the envelope and stared at the hand writing. "How long?"

"About a month."

"He's been back for a month?"

"Oh, I thought you meant the letter--um--he came back not long after Sunnydale . . ."

Xander uncoiled from his chair and stood up. Andrew kept forgetting how much taller he was. "He's been back for a year and no one told me?"

"We didn't know! Well, I found out when I went to L.A. to get Dana, but that was a lot later, and, anyway, he told me not to tell anyone, though of course I told Giles, and Giles said it was better if no one knew because that was all behind us now and it was time to move on, and Angel and everybody were probably going evil anyway, so we didn't want to get involved--"

"Stop," Xander whispered, and Andrew nearly swallowed his tongue. Xander closed his eye, the letter crumpling in his fist.

"I wanted to tell you," Andrew whispered after a minute or so. "I wanted to tell everybody. I don't think Giles has said anything about his letter to anyone, but I took yours and kept it."

Xander slowly smoothed out the letter. "He's back. He's alive."

"Um . . . maybe." Xander glared at him, and he went back into babble mode. "Giles said his letter was a 'We who are about to die tell you to sod off' sort of thing. Apparently there was some big fight brewing in L.A. Giles said not to worry about it, that it was evil fighting evil and none of our business unless it got out of hand. But I was keeping an eye on it, because, well, they were nice to me when I was there, and that nice Fred lady died, and there was a dragon, and I think Angel's dead and I know Wesley's dead, but no one knows for sure about the others . . ."

Xander dragged his sleeve across his eye. "He came back but now he's dead again?"

"I don't know. There was a big fight, and an old hotel caught fire or blew up or something, and the L.A. police are calling it a gang war."

Xander didn't answer, and Andrew retreated to his desk. He watched Xander sit down again, then slowly open the envelope. A blinking light on his phone caught his grateful attention. "Reception."

"Mr. Wells, this is Nathan on the front door, I've got this bloke under a blanket demanding to be let in. Something about hellhounds on his trail and all that. I know you've said to let just about any one in, no matter how loony--"

"I'll give you loony!" said another voice in the background. Andrew shivered. "You tell that pathetic little nancy to tell you to let me in, or there will be fire and brimstone raining down on you--"

"Let him in," Andrew said quickly. "Send him up."

"You're the boss," Nathan sighed.

Andrew started to tell Xander, but his own little curl of evil said, "I want to see this." Besides, Xander seemed engrossed in his letter, oblivious even to the tear tracking down his cheek.

The voice arrived first. ". . . and as if I haven't had enough grief getting here, with those damned goblins jumping me in New York and the imp in Gatwick--but full points to the SAS blokes, I wonder who told them to pack supernatural weaponry--" The office door was knocked open, and a disheveled, slightly mad-eyed Spike strode through. "Though I suppose that was your lot, with your fingers into all the pies--"

Andrew's hug cut him off. "You're alive, you're alive."

"Oh, god, with the hugging again." A swift, breath-crushing hug in return, then Spike was peeling Andrew off. "If you've got wards for this place, best fire them up. I've got things following me that you don't want getting in."

"They're always up," Andrew grinned. "Nothing of evil intent can get in."

Spike looked offended. "I got in!" Andrew just kept grinning. "Git. Now, where's everyone? Got news that needs spreading."

Andrew hesitated, then nodded towards the corner where Xander was sitting. Spike glanced over, then managed a triple-take before focusing. "Xander . . ."

Slowly, Xander stood up, staring, the letter still in his hand.

Spike glared at Andrew. "Is that the letter I--he only just got it?"

"He's been in Africa! Moving around, no forwarding address!"

"Fuck." Spike turned to Xander, who was slowly walking towards him. "Look, mate, that letter--just throw that out, ignore that. I think I was drunk, and the poetry is awful, despite what the blokes in the bar said. That sort of thing, it ought to come with a self-destruct switch in case you don't really die, stuff gets written that shouldn't be taken all that seriously, so don't be pissed off--"

Xander threw his arms around the babbling vampire and squeezed hard enough to make him stop talking. After a moment, Spike's arms came up and wrapped around the human.

Andrew sat on the edge of his desk and hugged himself in delight. The door of the inner office opened, and Giles poked his head out. "Andrew, what is all the ruckus out--oh, bloody hell."

"He's back," Andrew grinned. "Isn't it wonderful?"

"As wonderful as the return of the Black Death. Why is he hugging Xander?"

"Xander started it."

"Dear god."

Spike raised his head just a little from Xander's shoulder. "And I meant every word I wrote to you, you tosser," he told Giles.

As Giles sighed, Xander tipped his head back to look at Spike. "Did you mean what you wrote to me?"

Spike only hesitated a moment. "Every word."

Xander's grin made the new lines on his face bend in unaccustomed ways. "Cool."

Giles' took off his glasses. "Now they're kissing. Dear god."

Andrew just sat and watched and wished for his video camera.

Giles cleared his throat loudly. "If you two would stop that . . ."

Xander pulled back first, still grinning. The grin began to fade as he stared at Spike. He slowly traced the line of a fading wound on Spike's neck, then rested his hands on the sides of the vampire's face. "You're not all right, are you."

Spike closed his eyes and shook his head very briefly. "Been running for weeks. Don't know how long they'll keep after me, how long till they lose interest." He opened his eyes again to look at Xander. "They're all dead," he whispered. "Every fucking one of them." He reached up to take one of Xander's hands in his, leaning against it.

Andrew gasped. "Everybody?"

Spike nodded. "Except me. The woman, she said I was the only one who could keep them alive, because no one but me would care to remember."

"Angel finally bit off more than he could chew, then," Giles said thoughtfully. "Considering what he was playing with, I'm not sur--"

He gasped as Spike was suddenly there, one hand wrapped tight in Giles' shirt and demon fangs bared.

"You shall keep a civil tongue in your head when you say his name, Rupert," Spike said very softly. "You shall not discuss matters which you do not understand."

Xander very carefully put a hand around Spike's wrist. "Dude, come on. Let him go. When's the last time you ate or slept, huh? You're a mess."

"Can't sleep. He gets farther away every time I sleep. I close my eyes and they slip farther away." Spike let go of Giles and clenched his fist. "I'm forgetting how he felt."

"What do you mean?" Xander asked carefully.

Spike stared at his fist. "There was a dragon. He killed it. Well, me and Blue helped, but he did the hard parts. It ripped him up. I was holding him, trying to hold his guts in, telling him I'd get him out of there, somewhere he could heal. He said--he said he was glad I'd come back to him--then he was sifting through my fingers, and I couldn't hold on to him anymore." He started to shake. "All I can feel is the dust falling through my fingers . . ."

Xander grabbed him so no one would see him cry.

The main office doors opened to let in Buffy and Willow, burdened with shopping bags. "Hey, Andrew," Buffy said, "who was that Nathan was talking about, coming in under a--"

The bags slipped through her fingers when she spotted the pair on the other side of the room. Willow stood and gaped.

"Is that Spike?" Buffy whispered. "He's not dead?"

"Is he crying?" Willow added. "Why is he crying on Xander?"

Andrew looked around, hoping someone else would field the questions. As he started to answer, though, Giles broke in.

"We can settle all that later, ladies. But, yes, Spike is, well, back. There was some trouble, apparently, in Los Angeles, and he seems to have had a rough time of it."

"Rough time?" Spike growled. He started to straighten, but Xander held on. Spike didn't fight it. "Tell them the truth, you sanctimonious hypocrite," he said in an exhausted voice. "If you don't know all about it, then Miss Moneypenny over there certainly does."

Andrew blinked, then grinned. "She had neat toys."

Giles glared at Spike. "There is nothing to tell."

Xander had to hold on more obviously as Spike snarled. "Nothing to tell. You letting Fred die is nothing?"

Willow gasped in horror. "What happened to Fred!"

"There was nothing we could do," Giles snapped.

"You didn't even try! All we got was 'Forces of evil' and 'I thought you had resources of your own' and 'terribly sorry, we can't to anything, stop bothering us.' You wouldn't even let us talk to Willow!"

"What happened to Fred?" Willow demanded again. "Why were you looking for me?"

Spike turned his head, but he let it fall back onto Xander's shoulder. "Fuck, I'm tired. Little Fred got bit by something old. We tried to save her, but . . ."

Andrew cleared his throat. "She was infected by the essence of the ancient god-king Illyria. It consumed her. Angel and the others called to see if we knew of a way to stop the progression or some way to pull Fred's soul back as it was being pushed out. Giles told them we couldn't help."

Willow turned to Giles. "Without asking me?"

Giles glared back. "You agreed with it, Willow. No contact with Angel at Wolfram & Hart without knowing much better if he was being corrupted. And nothing we'd seen was reassuring."

"But--Fred . . ."

"Was head of their research and development department, making full use of all the resources of Wolfram & Hart."

"Not all of 'em," Spike muttered. His eyes were closed as he rested against Xander. "They put a stop to the sentient testing and the blood sacrifices."

Xander shifted his hold. "Geez, man, you're out on your feet. Let's find you someplace to crash."

Spike pushed himself upright. "I'm fine, dammit. Don't need to sleep."

"You know, a sleep-deprived vampire is not high on my list of favorite things to have hanging around. You need to sleep, Spike."

Spike was curling his lip for a typical rebuttal, when Buffy finally found her voice in the confusion.

"Spike, how long have you been back?"

It took several moments before Spike could look at her. Xander winced at the way the vampire's hands clenched on his arms, but he kept quiet.

"Hello, Buffy," Spike said softly.

She slowly walked to him and touched his cheek. "You're back. How long?"

"Nearly a year."

She blinked. "Why didn't you . . ."

"Find you?" She nodded, and he smiled. "Didn't know how. No one would tell me where you were. When I knew--" He looked away for a moment. "Comin' back from the dead, never works like you hope."

Buffy swallowed hard. "No, it doesn't."

Spike straightened his shoulders. "'Sides, you got a chance to move on, find some happiness. That's good. Even if it is with that git the Immortal," he added bitterly.

"Who told you about the Immortal?" Buffy gasped. She glared at Xander, who shook his head.

It took Spike a few tries to speak. "Angel . . . had somebody watching you, keeping an eye, making sure you were safe."

"He has a spy on me? Of all the nerve! Well, he can just pull that spy of his--"

"Not a problem anymore, pet," Spike whispered. "Nobody jumping to do his bidding any more."

Buffy licked her lips, looked over at Giles, who wouldn't meet her eyes, then back at Spike. "What's happened?"

Spike closed his eyes, trying to speak. He opened his eyes, startled, when Xander put a finger over his lips.

"I'll tell her," Xander said. "You've got to rest."

"I told you, I don't need to sleep."

"Then I'll wait till you pass out from exhaustion and carry you somewhere."

Spike pulled himself up and glared. "You think I'm going to let you just cart me around like some swooning damsel, you're wrong."

Xander smiled very faintly. "There's a letter in my pocket that suggests otherwise."

Buffy frowned. "What's with you two?"

"Later," Xander told her. "Spike . . ." He slid his fingers into Spike's hair and met his eyes squarely. "You're not going to lose them. They'll still be there. I promise."

Spike stared back for several moments, then closed his eyes and nodded.

Xander nodded back. "Andrew, we got any spare guest rooms, preferably without windows?"

Andrew didn't need to think long. "The one next to you's open." Xander gave him a long stare. "It is!"

Buffy put a hand on Xander's arm as he started to lead Spike off. "Xander, what are you supposed to tell me?"

"I'll tell you as soon as I get him settled. In the meantime--" Xander glanced over at Giles, who was starting to fidget. "Chat with Giles."

Giles obviously did not like the smile he saw, but Xander didn't care.

Spike woke to quiet darkness. New smells. Damp, a bit of dust. He remembered having aches and injuries, but they were only memories. The pain in his gut was more than hunger, it was anguish, but his mind hadn't supplied the name to that pain yet.

He was naked and alone in a large bed with soft, clean cotton sheets. He felt clean, too, something he hadn't been in a while. The sheets felt sinfully good against his skin, but he was too tense to enjoy the feeling.

The only light came from a lamp on a table on the far side of the room. An old lamp with a beaten copper shade, with the light focused in a small circle around the table. The circle included an armchair by the table. Someone sat in that chair, reading a piece of paper. Spike saw dark hair and broad shoulders.

"Sire?" he whispered, fighting hope he didn't trust.

"No. Xander."

Spike stared up at the ceiling. "Yeah. Sorry. Stupid of me. I should stop doing that soon."

"No problem." Xander folded his letter and slipped it into his shirt pocket. "How you feeling?"

"Empty."

"There's a thermos of blood on the night stand next to you. That should do for starters."

Spike pushed himself up to lean against the pillows and ornate headboard, then reached for the thermos. He paused when he unscrewed the lid and smelled the contents. "This is human."

"We figured you could use some of the good stuff to help recuperate. It's not all one type, sorry."

"That's OK." He started to drink, then stopped to chuckle faintly. "There was a strict no-human policy at the office. Kept the literal back-biting to a minimum."

"If you've sworn off--"

"Not hardly. I just went along because it wasn't worth the fight. Still, I'm surprised you've got supplies on hand in Watcher Central for feeding stray vampires."

"We don't. That was a special acquisition."

Spike sipped at the still-warm blood, savoring the taste. He blinked, then stared at Xander. "I know this--this is Willow."

"Huh," Xander said. "We thought it would mix more. She's not the only one, no-longer-fangless. Think of it as a 'Thanks for saving the world, we're glad you're not dead, welcome home' Scoobie cocktail."

Spike took another cautious drink. Willow faded to Buffy, a more familiar flavor that sparked guilt and longing, then another taste that twisted his heart.

"You let Dawn donate?"

"She insisted." Xander leaned back against the wall, the lamplight throwing shadows across his face that minimized the eyepatch. "How many people do you really want to talk to?"

Nobody, was the first word on Spike's tongue, but he knew he wouldn't be left to his solitude. "You. I guess I have to talk to Buffy. Did you tell her?"

"Yeah. She's out in the garden, getting herself back together."

Spike continued drinking, thinking of the taste of the people. He smiled a little as he realized something. "Most of this is you."

Xander shrugged. "So I got a little proprietary. I'm bigger than them anyway, I won't miss it."

"It's good." Spike stared at the foot of the bed as he said it. He remembered the embrace and the kiss from before, but now that he'd slept he was wondering how much of that had been the shock of the moment. His soul felt too bruised to let hope get far. Fortunately he had a change of subject handy. "Where's my clothes?"

Xander grinned. "What can be salvaged is being cleaned. What can't be salvaged is being fought over."

"Fought over?"

"Some of the new Slayers--especially the ones who don't know you--want a souvenir of the souled vampire who saved the world and came back to tell the tale."

Spike looked around the room anxiously. "Where's my coat?"

"Being cleaned, too."

The thermos creaked in his hand. "You cleaned out my coat? Damn it, Harris--"

"And!" Xander said loudly, "everything that was in the pockets is in here." He tapped a wooden box that sat on the table next to him.

Spike stared at the box. "Everything?"

"Everything."

Xander stood up and took the box over to the bed. He exchanged it for the thermos, then, after a moment, sat on the foot of the bed, leaning against the footboard. "I'll leave if you want," he said as Spike rested his hands on the lid.

Spike shook his head silently, then he opened the box.

His flask, a companion from the '30s. Book of matches and a crumpled, empty cigarette pack. The soul had made him stop littering. A switchblade knife; a notebook with a pen shoved in the spiral binding. A cell phone he was sure had been decommissioned, if not being used to track him. Two sets of car keys from Angel's stable. A Zip-lock bag that he'd never seen before containing the item he'd been most worried about. He opened the bag, but didn't pull out the contents.

A scrap of cloth, the finest Egyptian cotton, dyed black and woven thick. An edge with two buttons on it showed the cloth had been ripped from a shirt. It was stiff and a bit sticky from the blood that had soaked into it, dried into a crumpled wad from being pressed to a wound that would not heal, and it was caked with dust in places.

"I was the one who cleaned out your coat," Xander said after several minutes. "Nobody else saw anything."

"Thank you," Spike whispered. He slowly resealed the plastic bag, then closed the box. He tipped his head back to keep the tears from falling. "He wouldn't be acting like this for me, dammit," he muttered.

"I always thought you hated him."

"There's the kind of hate that makes you keep half a planet between you at all times. Then there's the hate that causes you to wake up in the morning with the sole purpose of finding the most annoying thing you can do to that person, just so you can hear them yell your name in utter frustration."

Xander smiled. "That doesn't sound like hate to me."

"The word will do to go on."

Spike slid the box from his lap to the bed itself, then leaned back against the pillows with a sigh. He found himself looking at Xander and being quietly watched in return. "You've changed." The questioning tilt of Xander's head was the only remark. "You've gone quiet." He studied Xander's worn, khaki clothing. The only spots of color were the muted reds and greens of the roughly-shaped fetish beads he wore on a cord around his neck. "You're not the bright and noisy Xander that I knew."

Xander gazed back calmly. "No, I'm not. I've stood on the Serengeti under the full moon and realized I was the only human for a hundred miles. I've stood in the Sahara and watched villagers give up their homes because not even the Slayer and all her allies can stop the desert. I've listened to a very wise women tell me that wild chimpanzees know how to murder. I've had my soul shaken out, beaten flat, and stuffed back in, and I've learned that only a few things are important."

"Like what?" Spike asked softly.

"There are worse things than dying. Souls don't make people good. If you care about somebody you tell them, even if it makes you look like an idiot, because it's better than knowing you've lost the chance forever." Xander dropped his eyes briefly, then looked back, meeting Spike's eyes squarely. "Am I a replacement for Angel?"

Spike blinked, both in surprise and acknowledgment of the aptness of the question. "No. I don't think there could be a replacement for him."

Xander nodded. "What you wrote in that letter was everything I didn't know I wanted you to say. I know you never intended to have to take responsibility for what you wrote, and if the cold light of continued existence makes you think it was a bit too much, I'll understand. I'm still glad you said it."

"I meant every word, even if I didn't think I'd ever have to answer for it."

Xander dropped a hand on Spike's ankle, buried under the blankets, and slowly massaged the joint. "I'm glad you made it out of California still alive-undead. I've kept thinking of things I should have said to you--nice things," he corrected, seeing the look Spike gave him. He smiled. "And you're falling asleep again, so I'm not going to say them now." He squeezed the leg one more time and let go. "Go back to sleep."

"Stay," Spike said quickly as Xander started to stand. Xander glanced at the chair on the other side of the room. "Here?" Spike added, hoping he didn't sound utterly pathetic.

The old, easy smile slowly reappeared. "Sounds comfier than the chair."

He swapped ends on the bed, but didn't slide under the covers. Spike couldn't decide between curling up against Xander or around his box of belongings; Xander solved it by shoving Spike towards the box and spooning up behind him. Spike put a hand on the box, marking its location for his subconscious' comfort, then pushed back a little into the warmth he felt through the covers.

"Thank you," he whispered.

He felt a kiss on the back of his neck. "You're welcome."

Andrew knocked very carefully on the door of what was now Spike's room. No response, but hopefully that was enough of a warning that he wouldn't get jumped when he went in.

Only one light was lit in the room, barely sufficient to avoid tripping over furniture. Andrew closed the door behind him and waited until his eyes adjusted. With a snort, the figure in bed jerked awake, and Spike pushed himself up to glare over his shoulder.

"Just me," Andrew said quickly. "I brought your coat and your clothes. There's more blood, too."

Spike blinked at him for a few more moments. "Andrew." He touched the box on the bed next to him, then looked at the other side of the bed. A piece of paper lay on the empty pillow. He hesitated, then picked it up to unfold and read it. His shoulders relaxed as he read. "What time is it?"

"6 P.M. Two days after you got here. People are off getting ready for dinner." Taking his courage in hand he went to the bed and held out the thermos he carried.

Spike accepted it with a grin. "Is this one the result of a Pass the Cup too?"

"No, we've made contact with some of the local hospitals. Rupert says they ask fewer questions than the ones in Sunnydale. England on the whole doesn't seem to make as many excuses as other places, I've noticed."

Spike ignored him and drank his blood. Andrew laid the refurbished duster on the foot of the bed, then the jeans and a new black t-shirt. "Your boots are going to talk a little bit longer. What melted the soles like that?"

"Dragon blood's acidic. It sure as hell didn't appreciate me kicking it in the side of the head."

"You kicked a dragon in the head? A real dragon?"

"Yes, a real dragon. And I'm not telling that story tonight."

Andrew shook himself. "No, of course not. You're still recuperating." He turned around quickly as Spike threw back the covers and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "Instead of boots, though, I brought you these." He held up a pair of black corduroy house slippers.

There was a moment's pungent silence. "My feet don't get cold, mate. I'll wait for the boots."

"Right."

"So what do you folks do around here?" Spike asked as he reached for his jeans.

"Uh, we find and train the new Slayers, hopefully before something else finds them."

"Like what?"

"Well, there was a girl in Nairobi, a dark wizard was trying to get her family to turn her over to him. Xander managed to convince them otherwise. Then, well, a girl in Indonesia was . . . sacrificed by her tribe to fight the evil spirits that possessed her."

"She didn't fight back?"

"Apparently she was the one most afraid of the spirits. Ethan was told she was terrified of hurting someone."

"So she let them . . ."

"Uh huh."

Spike shook himself. "Ethan who?"

"Oh, uh, he's just a wizard who works with us."

"And the girl from LA?" Spike asked after a moment. "Dana?"

"She's OK. We've got a great clinic, and they're taking good care of her."

Spike stood up, buttoned his jeans, and reached for the t-shirt. "I need a belt."

"We'll get you one."

He hesitated before putting on the shirt. "This clinic--is it anywhere near here?"

"No, it's out in the country." Andrew glanced over his shoulder and turned around now that the disturbing bits were covered. "She's very sorry she hurt you, she kept saying that. She's got a lot of problems, but she's getting those taken care of."

"You've got her kept close, I hope."

"She knows you're not the one who hurt her, Spike. She just got confused."

Spike stared at him. "She cut off my hands, Andrew. So I couldn't touch her ever again."

Andrew blinked, then looked at Spike's hands. "Cut--off?"

Spike raised an arm and considered his hand, turning it. "Took both of 'em off at the wrist. I saw them laying on a table on the other side of the room."

"How . . ."

"Those wicked, evil doctors at Wolfram & Hart. Know a bit about vampire medicine, they do. Fred oversaw the surgery herself, and Angel kept checking on me."

Andrew frowned. "Why didn't they go to dust?"

Spike blinked, distracted from his thoughts. "Excuse me?"

"Your hands. Why didn't they go to dust when they were detached from the rest of you?"

"How the bloody hell should I know?" Spike pulled on his t-shirt, then gave Andrew a nasty grin. "The same way Angelus was able to make an uppity minion eat his own liver, I expect."

"With a nice Chianti?"

Spike had a very disturbed look on his face. "Ghoul." He started to pick up the coat, then paused. "Does this room lock?"

"Sure."

"And who's got the key?"

"Well, I've got the master keys, but--" Andrew went over to a dresser near the door and pulled a key out of a small bowl on the top. "Here you go."

Spike weighed it in his hand. "The key to my own lock, hm?"

"You're not a prisoner, Spike." Andrew grinned. "You think Xander would let us lock you in somewhere? Without giving him the key?"

Spike snorted. "Cheeky bugger."

"Hey! I know what that means now!"

Spike smirked at him, tucked the note from the pillow into his pocket, touched the box in the bed lightly, then headed for the door.

"You sure you don't want the slippers?" Andrew asked, holding them up.

"Yes, I'm sure. Find me a pair of fuzzy black ones and I'll think about it."

Andrew left the slippers and followed. Spike locked the door and happily pocketed the key.

"Are you supposed to be my little guide dog?" he asked Andrew.

"Well, no. But you don't know your way around, and you might have more questions I can answer."

"Quite the eager little helper, you are." He looked up and down the genteelly decorated corridor. "Questions like, what the fuck am I supposed to do now?"

Andrew shrugged. "Pretty much anything you want, I guess."

Spike's smile was bitter. "I was actually thinking a little more existentially."

"So was I."

Spike gave him a quick, suspicious look, then shrugged. "I guess I'm going to have to talk to Rupert. I've been here two days, you said?"

"Yep."

"Has there been any trouble? Anything trying to get in that shouldn't?"

"Not--really." Andrew winced at the way Spike whirled on him. "Really. No actual attempts. But some of the mages are a little twitchy. They say we're being watched."

"Don't like being on the other side of it, huh? Fuck," Spike muttered. "They've found me."

"Who's found you?"

"I second the question." Giles stood at the crossing of another corridor. "What has found you, Spike? What's following you?"

Spike sighed wearily, but there was a faint malicious smile on his face. "The Senior Partners."

Giles blinked, then looked at Andrew. Easily interpreting a look he'd seen before, Andrew took himself away. Giles turned back to Spike. "Why are the Senior Partners chasing you?"

"I imagine they're fairly pissed at me, being the only one to get out that alley. I imagine there's a basement torture chamber all fired up for me."

"Spike, just--why?"

The bloody-mindedness necessary to continue the baiting drained out of Spike's mind. "We kicked them in the balls, broke their favorite toys, let them know we weren't going to accept their game plan. Haven't you found out anything about what happened in L.A.? I really don't want to go over it all."

Giles looked disturbed. "There are--reports of immense disruptions in the power structure and operations of most of the darker organizations. Many of the top leaders have come up dead." He met Spike's eyes. "You?"

"Angel. He picked the targets and sent us out."

"Why?"

Spike gazed off. "You know the Black Thorn?" Giles frowned and nodded. "They offered Angel a position."

"My god. Did he accept?"

"Yes."

"The initiation rites? The killing? And you dare tell me that he--"

"It made sense when he explained it! He had to get in so he could have access to all of them so he could destroy them." Spike rubbed his forehead. "It made sense when he explained it. We undid all the deals he made to get in, we tried to disrupt as much as we could--Sebassis. Did we get the Archduke?"

Giles gasped. "That--that was Angel? At least a dozen creatures have died settling that."

"That was Angel."

"Why?"

Spike gave Giles a level look. "He realized what was happening, to him and his--hell, might as well use the word--his quest. The compromises, the acceptable losses--he had a vision of where it was going, and he said 'No.'"

"Why not just walk away?"

"I don't know. He wasn't explaining much by the end." Spike shrugged, at a loss. "Maybe they wouldn't let him, maybe he couldn't stand the idea of slinking away into the shadows and letting them think he beat them. He asked us if we were with him, and we said yes."

"Even though it would likely kill all of you?"

"You think a Slayer and her pals are the only ones who do damned stupid things like that?"

Giles glanced away. "Well--the fate of the world was at stake. This in L.A., what did you accomplish? All you did was delay them, inconvenience them."

"Proved they could be beaten."

"But not forever."

Spike had no trouble meeting Giles' gaze. "When we dropped the Hellmouth on the First Evil, did we beat it forever?"

"No," Giles sighed. "There will always be evil." He returned Spike's look just as firmly. "But we didn't murder anyone to do the job."

"Not that you didn't try."

"So!" said a brand new voice that made both men jump. Xander came quickly down the corridor. "Renewing acquaintances, I see. Glad I stopped by."

Xander made a show of standing close to Spike as he faced Giles. Spike couldn't help a smile. "I don't need you to protect me, love."

"How about if I want to?" Xander bumped his shoulder into Spike's and looked pleasantly at Giles.

Giles took his glasses off completely and glared at the pair. "While I must accept, though with some disbelief, that the two of you are apparently to be considered a unit, it does not change the fact, Xander, that having Spike here compromises us."

"If you're still insisting we can't trust him--" Xander started angrily.

Spike put a hand on Xander's arm. "That's not what he means, love. Well, Rupert? Andrew already told me the place is being watched."

"Watched?" Xander repeated. "By who?"

Giles grimaced. "The facility is under arcane surveillance. There have been probes at the wards, but no attempts to get through them. The answer to the question of 'Who watches the watchers' is, currently, the Senior Partners of Wolfram & Hart."

"Who are the Senior Partners?"

Spike gave a humorless laugh. "Better question is, what are the Senior Partners? They're the powers Angel made his deal with, when he took over the office. The ones that killed him when he decided he didn't want to play any more."

"And they're after you? Why?"

"While I'm around, they can't just pretend nothing happened in L.A. If they can shut me up, they can write the whole thing off as a minor personnel problem."

"Minor?" Giles protested.

"You should have seen what passed for corporate entertainment." Spike studied Xander for a few moments, then looked seriously at Giles. "Could they get in? If they made a determined push, could they get through your wards?"

Giles hesitated, then nodded. "Yes. If they wanted to push the point far enough, they could get through."

"I can't stay, then. I'll not bring that mess down on your heads. Thanks for the kip and the food, tell Andrew I need my boots."

"Spike, that won't be necessary--"

Xander grabbed Spike's arm and yanked him around. "What the hell do you think you're doing? They're waiting for you, and you're going out there?"

"It's better than them peeling the place a layer at a time, killing whatever they find." He touched Xander's cheek. "I won't have that. Not this time."

Xander grabbed the hand. "And I'm not letting you stroll off to certain death all by yourself. Not again."

"Gentlemen--"

Spike took Xander's face in both hands. "Xander, they wouldn't even notice you if they steamrollered in to get me. They've tried active grabs on me twice already, they killed people who got in their way. Not again." He looked at Giles. "Could you give me a diversion?"

"Like I said, that won't be--"

"A diversion?" Xander protested. "This isn't 'The Great Escape,' this is the last reel of 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid!' And a lot of 'em died in 'The Great Escape,' too!"

"Bloody hell, Xander--"

"Dammit, Spike--"

A piercing whistle cut them both off. Giles glared at them. "If I may be permitted to speak without histrionics getting out of hand, there is no need for all this. There will be no attacks, they're just watching very closely."

Xander sighed in relief, but Spike gave Giles a very suspicious look. "And how do you know that, Rupert? What haven't you said?"

Giles looked away. "There have been--some communications with--individuals with connections."

"What?" Spike said, baffled.

Xander tilted his head. "Ethan's back in town, isn't he. Willow said you were a whole lot more cheerful today. He's the one most likely to have those kinds of connections."

"He has been--involved," Giles conceded.

"Who is this Ethan?" Spike demanded.

Xander grinned. "You know Ethan, Spike. Ethan Rayne, he of the possessed Halloween costumes and turning old friends into Fyarl demons. He and Giles have kissed and made up."

Spike's jaw dropped. "The bloke who got shipped off to the Initiative? When the hell did this happen?"

"While we were packed into Buffy's house, Giles and Ethan were having great adventures and getting cozy while hunting down the Potentials."

Spike shook his head. "So you've got a chaos mage on tap, do you, Rupert? One who merrily worked evil against you for years. And you have the gall to say Angel couldn't be trusted?"

"I know Ethan and what he's capable of," Giles snapped. "It's not the same."

"The word hypocrisy means nothing to you, does it."

Giles abruptly frowned and wouldn't meet anyone's eyes. "On the contrary, it means a great deal. I know what I've done and what it means. But there is a great deal more politics involved in re-establishing the Watchers Council than people realize. Dozens of the old guard are still around, and it's taking them quite a while to adjust to the changes." He looked at Spike and Xander. "You could easily have Roger Wyndam-Pryce in charge here instead of me, you know. If certain parties decide I'm taking things in too radical a direction."

Xander frowned. "A relative of Wesley's?"

"His father. An appalling man." Giles grimaced. "Dammit, we'll have to tell him about Wesley."

"I think you'll want to hold off on that a bit," Spike said thoughtfully.

"Why?"

"Trust me." He grinned at the glare he got. "Anyway, your boyfriend the chaos mage. I take it he's been chatting with folks at Wolfram & Hart?"

Giles sighed and nodded. "He knows some people at the London office. When you showed up, I called him back from Turkey and asked him to see what he could find out. They didn't say the Senior Partners themselves were involved, just suggested that the situation could be resolved to everyone's satisfaction."

Xander frowned. "Everyone's but Spike's, I imagine."

Spike stepped away from Xander, his eyes never leaving Giles as he loosened his shoulders. "What did they offer you, Rupert? What carrot did they dangle in front of you to get you to turn me over to them?"

Giles met the gaze squarely. "Replacements for our library. A few duplicate volumes from the Wolfram & Hart archives."

"They are good," Spike admitted. Xander started to protest, but Spike put up a hand. "They'd offer you your eye back, love, and they could deliver. These folks know weaknesses. So, Rupert, do I at least get a head start, for old time's sake?"

Giles stared at him a moment longer. "What will it take to get them off your back?"

"Excuse me?"

"What will it take for the Senior Partners to leave you alone?" He smiled at Spike's confusion, a Ripper smile. "I said they could get through. I didn't say we'd make it easy."

Xander stared at Giles. "You're not going to turn Spike over to them?"

"You're really going to turn down one of their offers you can't refuse?" Spike asked suspiciously.

"I may have thought about it for a few less than sterling moments, but, no. I want no part of one of their deals." Giles grimaced. "And I wish I was entitled to feel offended that either of you think I would."

Spike shrugged, but he was smiling. "I always knew you were a ruthless son of a bitch. You'll do anything if you think it serves your cause."

"Not anything," Xander protested.

Giles gave him a sad, fond look. "Thank you for believing that."

"Anyway," Xander said quickly, "if you're not going to cash Spike in for valuable prizes, what do we do?"

"They're not going to be content to hunker down on your doorstep forever, mate," Spike added.

"Which is why we need to know how to get them to back off," Giles said. "What can we do to make you less valuable to them?"

"Try to say that with a little less gloating. Anyway, they won't be happy until they know I can't spread the tale of our kicking their asses hither and yon."

A faint, cunning smile slowly appeared. "Or it becomes irrelevant."

Spike looked uneasily at Xander. "I've never seen him smile like that, have you?"

Xander nodded nervously. "Generally he's conspiring with Ethan, then they both laugh. They're scary."

Giles shook his head impatiently. "Focus on the current problem, please. Now, in Wolfram & Hart's ideal world, Angel would disappear from public consciousness. Another crusader who appeared, then burned out and faded away."

"'But, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light,'" Spike murmured.

Giles hesitated, then shook himself. "They're trying to hunt you down stop you talking, but at every stop you tell more people."

"We knew this," Xander said impatiently. "What's your plan?"

"We help him spread the word. Once everyone knows, killing the messenger is fruitless."

Spike gaped at him. "Unless they like killing messengers! Trust me, messenger killing was an art form at Wolfram & Hart."

"So you'll have to wait until they get bored. I'm sure the Senior Partners have better things to do than hang around waiting to eviscerate one lone vampire."

"I can keep you entertained," Xander grinned.

Spike smiled back at him, but it didn't last long. "And then what? You've got work you're supposed to be doing, and I doubt the old guard of the Watchers would be pleased at having any kind of vampire hanging around. And the Senior Partners are a patient lot." He looked at Giles. "How're you going to justify the blood and board on the yearly budget?"

Giles thought for several moments, then gave Spike a considering look.

"And I'm not being anybody's cabana boy," Spike said quickly. He glanced at Xander. "'Cept maybe his."

"Works for me," Xander nodded.

Giles rolled his eyes yet again. "Please. There is something that would justify you being around. The truth."

Spike narrowed his eyes. "Dangerous stuff. What truth?"

"The truth about Angel, for one? What was he actually trying to accomplish at Wolfram & Hart, what went wrong--" Giles sighed. "Why we should have tried to help him when we had the chance."

"So you admit it."

Giles nodded. "Yes--not that it would have done any good."

"You don't know that."

"Yes, I do. I'm sorry, Spike, but we couldn't have saved Fred. Even if we could have kept her soul from slipping away, there was no place for it to go. Illyria was in command of her body and would not have allowed her to return. There are containment vessels for souls, but they're not something you want to inflict on someone you care about."

Spike paced several angry steps away, then came back, muttering. Xander rubbed his shoulder, and Spike leaned into him. "I knew that," he said quietly. "I knew there wasn't any saving her. But she was fighting so hard, and we were so helpless . . . She was the fairest of the lot of them, she only ever wanted to help."

"And all we know of her here is her name and the fact that she willingly worked for Wolfram & Hart."

Spike glared at him. "Don't try that Brer Rabbit routine on me, Rupert. I know you'd love to get your hands on the stories I could tell. You Watchers writing your theses, trying to figure out who did what to who. Maybe I'm not in the mood to lay out my memories for the private amusement of you and your Watcher cronies."

"Then history remains where it always does, in the hands of the winners. The Senior Partners will get their wish: Angel will fade away until few people will even believe he existed."

"We'll remember," Xander protested. "Not likely to forget, here."

"But when we die, our memories die with us. When the last is gone, it all becomes second-hand knowledge."

Spike growled in frustration. "I know what you're doing. Me and Lorne, we're the last of the crew--and god knows what's happened to Lorne. He's probably babbling to the peons in some bar somewhere."

"What's the problem?" Xander asked. "Why not go ahead and write it down for us?"

"Be the Watchers' very own Scheherezade, earning my protection with the tales I weave? I'm sick of being kept by the people who used to be my enemies. Think I'd rather take my chances on the run." Spike looked away from the worry on Xander's face.

"Oh, less Scheherezade and more Sinbad, I would think," Giles said mildly. "What good would it do to keep the tales for ourselves? I was thinking more of making sure they were distributed to all the satellite libraries, plus making them available to whomever might be interested. Information should be shared."

"Publish them, you mean," Xander said.

"Essentially. He's proven to have some competence with the language--despite the level of obscenity in the letter he sent me--he should be able to turn out something relatively readable."

"I see that tarbaby, Brer Fox," Spike muttered with a glare.

"Will you two stop showing off your educations?" Xander complained. "What's a tarbaby got to do with anything?"

Giles smiled faintly. "He's just being stubborn. Well, I can't force him. Though I imagine there are many people in this world would be quite anxious to read the memoirs of William the Bloody."

Xander snickered. "Well, Anne Rice's stuff has been getting boring."

Spike twitched, and Giles glanced at him briefly. "The point of this is not to produce potboiling thrillers," he said in close to a sincerely chiding tone. "I'm thinking more of history, here. Biography. More Boswell, less Laurell K. Hamilton."

"Giles, how the hell do you know about Hamilton?"

Giles shuddered. "Andrew keeps them in his desk drawer. I had to threaten him with a bored Ethan to stop him asking if various things were possible." He turned to Spike as Xander snickered. "There's the offer," he said more seriously. "You're the only one left to set the record straight, but it's yours to refuse. If you'd rather leave, I'll get you that diversion."

Spike looked at the floor a moment, then at Xander. "You're due back in Africa, aren't you?"

"That's what they tell me." He glanced at Giles.

Giles put on his glasses. "Well, if you insisted on a bit more vacation leave, I doubt anyone would protest. And the geographical assignments aren't set in stone, if you wanted to arrange something that would allow you to come home more often."

"Home," Xander mused. "Still working out where that is, G-man." He grinned at the glower he got. "But vacation would be nice. It's very bright and quiet out in the bush, and I'm a little tired of talking to myself." He raised an eyebrow at Spike. "So where are you going to be?"

"You know you'll catch hell for consorting with the undead, don't you?" Spike said to Giles.

"I've consorted with worse."

"I won't be your lackey, and I tell what I want to tell."

"Agreed. No strings, no restrictions."

Spike abruptly stalked away a few feet, then back. "I'm missing something here. Why the fuck are you offering me so much? You never trusted me, you helped Woody try to kill me. Why all this? Why now?"

Giles started to reach for his glasses, then stopped himself. "In the days after Sunnydale, I found myself judging my actions against those of a vampire. And I came up lacking. It was not a comfortable realization. I don't know if your return was some sort of reward for your sacrifice--"

Spike snorted. "It wasn't. Completely the workings of the other side. Interesting twisted story."

"Really?--in any case, simply put, we owe you. I owe you. And there it is."

There was less tension in Spike's shoulders, but he still kept a narrow eye on Giles. "I believe you mean that. But I also believe you're still the Slayer's man first, not a vampire's."

"I'll never pretend to be otherwise," Giles said proudly.

"And you'll let me tell my story the way I want to, without worrying about shocking the old folks."

"I'm trusting that the soul won't let you to be too gleeful in describing the bloodletting, but, yes. Unexpurgated, with every overwrought word in place. Though I might fix the spelling."

"Overwrought? Fix the spelling! There is not a fucking thing wrong with my spelling, you--" Spike stopped himself, glared at the giggling Xander, then at the nearly-smiling Giles. "You're evil, Watcher."

"At least I'm on your side."

"For now."

Giles nodded. "For now." He glanced at Xander, started to speak, then did pull off his glasses. "I'm sure you two have things you want to discuss. I'm off for dinner."

Xander found a bit of wall to lean against as Giles walked away. He smiled at Spike. "So, you're staying."

"Looks like." He smiled suddenly. "At least till the wind changes."

"Even I know a Mary Poppins reference when I hear it. I'm glad, though. There's some stuff I want to figure out how to say."

"There's nothing you have to say, love."

"Well, I should make a few declarations to keep up with the ones you made."

Spike walked slowly over. "I didn't make any declarations."

"In the letter? What were the remarks about how I made you feel safe and you wished you hadn't been blinded by bright things to see the treasures in the dark, then, if not declarations?"

"The truth." Spike brushed Xander's hair back. "Just the truth." Xander blushed hard and looked down, trying to keep the grin hidden. "You've already said everything you need to."

"I haven't said anything."

"You don't care who sees you touching me. You keep my secrets. That's all I need."

Xander put an arm around Spike's waist. "But that's easy stuff."

"I think I could stand a little easy stuff for now."

"Yeah," Xander said, just before Spike kissed him, "easy is a nice change."