Spike didn't like being a ghost. Or a spirit, or whatever he really was, as even Fred never figured it out. He hated it for so many reasons, but most of all he despised the cessation of all feeling, all sensation, all evidence that he was really there. He had always been alive in his death, and then he was just… a figment. An image that came with a soundtrack and nothing more.

Things got better after his fight with Pavayne, when he started to learn how to touch things, hold things. Nothing substantial, usually, but it was enough that for a short space of time, he could feel things again, and for those brief moments, he was real.

But he might as well have stayed a true figment, for all the attention that he got. Spike was always a person who saw his existence as reflected by those around him- unless the spotlight was on him, he didn't exist. It didn't matter if the attention that was turned his way was cruel or kind- Angelus had long ago taught him not to be picky- as long as he held some kind of attention.

So he could touch things- sometimes- and could even, if the need was great enough, punch someone. But did anyone ever notice? No. When he saved Charlie-boy's life from one of the robots, he was yelled at for not being faster, instead of thanked for doing it at all. Occasionally he saw Wesley watching him, and he thought that there was something else there, and Fred was always a gem, but Angel…

Angel, whose attention he craved the most, never gave him a second's thought. Unless it was a vague sort of annoyance, the sort of attention you would give to an especially persistent mosquito that kept buzzing in your ears. Spike was no more than an insect to Angel, and that drove Spike insane, sometimes, make him want to tear and rend his own flesh to prove that he was real, was more than Angel saw him, but of course he couldn't. His flesh wasn't real even to him.

And then there was the fateful package, and he was solid again. He was fucking real, and nothing in his life or unlife had ever felt so good. The only thing that came close was the feeling when he crawled out of his grave and realized that his world had opened up for him, and once or twice after one of Angelus' more… creative punishments, when the pain became a whole new being that lived inside of him, and it was as if he was seeing the world with a sudden sharp-edged clarity that never lasted longer than the short instant when the whip connected with his skin.

But even those times were nothing to suddenly having a body again, and yet there was Angel, staring down at him with dawning horror. Like Spike had graduated from being a mosquito to being a walking disaster all over again, and hey, it wasn't the attention he was looking for, but it was good enough.

So he'd played his role, and raced Angel for the cup, and then they fought. And it was like crawling out of the grave again, feeling the world opening up when he landed a blow, and it was like being with Angelus again, feeling the world narrow down to nothing with every bruise and cut that Angel dealt him.

And he actually won. For all that he was just playing, molding himself to the expectations of people around him just as he always had, he'd actually succeeded far better in his role than he knew. He'd reached the cup first, and had drunk while Angel lay on the floor.

Of course, it wasn't real. How could it be? Nothing in Spike's life ever went that well. So they returned to Wolfram and Hart, and as they walked through the doors, Angel glanced over at him, winced as if dismayed to see him there at all, and then turned away.

Just like he always fucking well had.

Things quickly fell into a horrible sort of monotony, in which Spike barely existed for anyone. Harmony stalked him relentlessly, of course, and Fred still cared about him, but she was always busy with something, and now that he wasn't being lost to hell she just didn't have the time to comfort the other vampire with a soul. Because this wasn't his place, and these weren't his people, and as much as he wanted to leave, there was nowhere to go.

Buffy? No. He loved her. Maybe he would always love her. But she wasn't for him. He felt like going to her now, with his tail between his legs, would be negating everything he'd done for her, in the end that hadn't been the end.

But his life had revolved around her for so long. He couldn't think of a time in his life, as human or vampire, when he hadn't lived for someone. And now that he was on his own, no one to devote himself to, he felt like he had to learn everything all over again. Like he had to learn how to be a man again. His own man, this time, only how did he start?

Help came in the form of the ex-Watcher, the one with the curious gray eyes and the intriguing hints of darkness. Not so much hints, anymore, as big glaring black holes, since shooting the robo-Dad, even if his leave of absence had given him a chance to smooth over the rough patches again. The Watcher turned out to be a decent drinking partner, and despite all of Spike's earlier impressions of the man, he didn't seem to mind Spike's company. They spent many a pleasant night in Wesley's flat, going through a bottle of whiskey and either laughing their arses off about some stupid thing or trying to drown memories of loves and lives lost, and one or two that had never yet been found. Fred, of course, was the center of Wesley's world, but if she noticed she didn't let on.

Somewhere along the line, getting drunk on Wesley's couch graduated to shagging on Wesley's bed, and when Angel glared at Spike like he had committed mankind's first sin but said nothing, they stopped bothering to pretend that it wasn't happening. Not that they were obvious, because Spike understood Wesley's desire for privacy and somehow the Englishman didn't make him feel like another dirty secret. Maybe it was the way that Wes would smile at him when Spike showed up at his door at the end of a particularly hard day. Or maybe it was the way that Wesley would sometimes flirt, very carefully, if they were with friends, which he would never do if he was ashamed of being with Spike. Fred still seemed clueless, about the two men now as well as Wesley's love for her, but Gunn got it, and Spike couldn't help but wonder if the man wanted something that Spike now had.

They never flirted in front of Angel. Not anymore. Wesley had made the mistake of doing so only once, and Angel had burned them both with a hateful glance before storming out of his own office to escape them. Spike just thought that the bastard was being overly possessive of what he considered his property- the Watcher was so obviously his, though perhaps not in the same way that he was temporarily Spike's. Wesley said it was jealousy, though Spike would later realize that he never said who Angel was jealous of.

It was simple for a little while, but pretty soon Spike realized that he was doing what he'd promised himself he'd never do again- he was living his life for someone else. Nothing extreme, just restructuring his time so that it was always best for Wesley, but he knew himself well enough to know that it was just the first part of a pattern he'd repeated before. He couldn't do this again, because he was just starting to learn to like himself- he didn't want to get lost in someone else.

He spilled this all to Wesley one night, and Wesley, instead of laughing as Spike had half-expected, had just laid one warm, comforting hand on the cool bare skin of Spike's back and told him that if he wanted to learn how to live his life for himself, then he would have to go back to the beginning and do it over again.

For a while Spike chewed over that. Where was his beginning? He didn't think the alley where Dru turned him was what he was looking for, because he had no desire to retrace the bloody steps of William the Bloody around the world. And not enough patience. Besides, that wasn't what he had done wrong, precisely- the demon inside had ruled, and Spike had had very little say.

So then he thought about Sunnydale. Another no-go. First of all because he couldn't go back, what with the town being a big hole in the ground now, and second of all because of the same reason as before- Spike had been a demon. A vampire without a soul.

And there was his answer. The soul. That was his beginning, the spot where he should relearn himself.

So he went back to Africa.

Spike had lived his life by four-letter words. With Dru, there had been Lust, and Love, twisted as it was, and finally Loss. So he'd gone to Sunnydale.

Hate. Chip. More Hate. And then there was Buffy, and so there was Love again.

And more Loss. He could still remember what she'd looked like, lying there on the pile of rubble like a fallen angel, which wasn't too far away from the truth. The way her gravestone looked, so peaceful when he was so ripped up inside. He still had dreams about that night, and every time he saved her.

And then she was back. And there was Love again, only not. There was Fuck, which was all that he was to her. Sometimes barely even that, because sometimes he thought that he was barely even real to her, just a little wind-up doll that she used to burn away her misery and shame, even though of course it never worked.

And then Loss. Again. A pink shirt and a serious smile, and she'd walked away. And he'd burned. For her, without her. He'd wanted to show her, wanted her to understand the pain inside him, wanted to make her make it go away.

So then there was Rape.

And then to Africa, where there was Pain. And then a Soul. And then he learned to redefine Pain, because all the cuts and bruises and broken bones he'd ever had were nothing compared to the Soul.

And he made his way back to Sunnydale- to this day he wasn't sure how- and there was Mind, which he'd lost completely. And then Buffy was there again, but so was Evil. A long battle, and then Caleb, and there was Fast. As in, not Fast enough, and Xander had lost his eye. Not the first casualty by any means, but for some reason the most shocking. Xander was one of the inner circle, one of the Scoobies. The Scoobies would always come back strong and unharmed, except this time they didn't. And Xander would never heal from that.

And then despite everything, right up at the end of the world, Spike had found Love. And for one brief moment, it had been real.

And then it was over.

Only it hadn't been, and now here he was, back in Africa again, trying to do it all over again. Trying to relearn everything, but most importantly himself.

He'd been to the cave. That was where it started, right? Only he hadn't felt anything. The demon hadn't been there, and he hadn't gotten any closure, or even an inkling as to what he was supposed to do next.

So he wandered for a while. Maybe learned a little, but it was like a whisper when he was looking for a shout. Not enough.

And so it happened that Spike was working on getting himself royally pissed in a bar somewhere in… Zimbabwe, maybe, when he just happened to look up at the right moment. And he saw dark hair, broad shoulders, eye patch. Xander Harris.

Time stood still.

He had always hated Xander, and Xander had always hated him. That was just the way things were.

But time and life had complicated things between them, until it wasn't simple hate but something much more tangled, and much more compelling. There is little as powerful as shared history, and he and Xander Harris had a hell of a history together.

And then he'd gotten the soul, and things had gotten even more tangled. Living with the boy again, and wasn't that a trip? Only instead of the vague attraction he'd felt the first time, stuck in the basement with nothing to look at but the drab walls and the significantly less drab Scooby, he could only think of Buffy and trying not to fail her again, and of the look in Xander's eyes the night that Spike had slept with Anya. A cacophony of voices, and while Xander never again looked at him with hate, his eyes were never friendly, either.

But then the end had been drawing nearer, and Spike was living in a basement again, and this time he'd actually gotten rid of the chains because he'd earned it instead of Xander just getting tired of actually tying him up, and that's when things had started to seem better. Unbelievable, because the First was poised to wipe them all out, but still, it was the best time of Spike's life. He had people who actually liked him, and even better, people who trusted him. And the oddest part? Xander was one of them.

They made the peace then, the night before the final battle. Spike storming in, filled with fresh pain from seeing Buffy kissing Angel, who always had to fuck up his life, and there was Xander, standing in the kitchen and looking at him with eyes that smiled at him. And Spike had just broken, told him everything, and Xander had wrapped one arm around his shoulder, told him that shit happened but Buffy would, in the end, come back to the people who actually stayed, and kissed him on the forehead. There'd been a smile on his face as Spike had almost gaped at him, and then Xander had walked out of the room, leaving Spike to watch those broad shoulders, and a hint of his profile as he almost turned back to look at Spike, but in the end he just shrugged, and he walked away. Spike had stood there for a minute, but finally his anger at Angel had returned, and he'd gone down the steps to be found by Buffy and his destiny. He hadn't known it at the time, but it was the last time that Spike would see Xander alone, and the image would be burned into him for the rest of his life.

Maybe if he hadn't been so drunk, Spike wouldn't have gone up to him. Wouldn't have had the courage, and anyway he would have remembered his resolution to stay away from the Scooby gang. Better for all concerned. He'd already figured that out.

But he was drunk, and so he did go up to Xander, just walked right up behind him and tapped him on his shoulder, careful not to do it on his blindside because he could just imagine how many people did that and how frustrating it must be for the boy. But then Xander turned around, and if Spike had breath he would have lost it, because Xander Harris was no longer a boy- he was a man. Lean, hard, and beautiful in the same way that lion in the brush is beautiful, or a snake in the undergrowth- beauty because it is untouchable, and deadly if you try.

And then Xander turned and grinned at him, and Spike was back in the kitchen, filled by a brief moment of warmth in the midst of his grief, and it was like the intervening year hadn't occurred.

Xander grabbed him by his hips and lifted him into the air- Christ Jesus, he was strong- and spun him around in a dizzying circle. When he was set down for a moment he still felt like he was spinning, and then there were warm, human lips on his in a brief caress, and he knew that his world would never be the same again.

It turned out that Xander was well-liked in this village. In all the villages he'd been in, in fact, because it turned out that Xander was a traveling agent for the New Watcher's Council, and he was in Africa, searching for new Slayers. All of them had to be found and at least informed about their new powers, and brought in for training if possible. If not, they were left with emergency contact numbers, and told to call for backup if anything demonic happened, or if they changed their minds about the training. Spike wanted to know what happened when one of them didn't like the idea, and Xander just shrugged and said that they all agreed with him in the end.

Watching the way Xander handled everyone he talked to, Spike could well believe it. They'd be angry, or argumentative, or at least disagreeable, and then Xander would smile at them and talk softly and the next moment they'd be agreeing with him. The new Slayers that he found were at heart still just young girls, and they were especially susceptible to Xander's particular brand of charm. In the weeks that followed, Spike saw that the worst part wasn't Xander's skill with manipulating people- it was that he was always right.

After the first kiss that tilted Spike's worldview a few degrees to the left, there was nothing remotely sexual from Xander. They talked a bit at the bar, but when it turned out to be too noisy, Xander dragged him back to the room he had at the local inn. They stayed up talking well past dawn, with Spike telling him more than he ever meant to and learning less than he'd like about Xander in return, and when Xander moved on the next night Spike went with him.

The traveled from town to town, guided by a pendant that Willow had enchanted to work as a sort of magical compass that always pointed Slayer-ward, always moving at night because of Spike. Somehow Xander lost none of his sun-baked darkness, probably because in addition to traveling at night, Xander was up most of the day while Spike slept. He only seemed to need a few hours rest, much less than Spike himself, which seemed odd since, after all, Spike was the supernatural creature and Xander was the human.

But something seemed to ride Xander in this country, something that affected him much deeper than the sun on his skin. Spike could see it in the look in his eyes, sometimes, when they were traveling across a flat plain and you could hear the animals calling from miles away, and in the charm that always seemed to Spike to be more supernatural than human. Finally he asked Xander about it, and Xander just laughed and explained that he'd once been possessed by a hyena, and so for a part of him Africa would always feel like home.

Spike thought that more than a part of him was at home in Africa, but didn't say so. He rather thought that Xander knew that perfectly well. Spike also thought that when all of the Slayers were found, this was the country where Xander would make his home.

They always shared a room in whatever village they stayed in, and Xander never offered any explanations for this, to the villagers or to Spike. Sometimes they camped out between villages, and when they did they always slept under the stars, and they always shared a bedroll. Xander gave no explanation for this either.

Finally Spike told him what he'd told Wesley- about learning to live his life for himself. And Xander, like Wesley, didn't laugh at him, though at this point Spike knew Xander well enough to know that he wouldn't. But unlike Wesley, Xander offered him no advice. He just grabbed Spike by the shoulders, kissed him, and pulled him down to the bed. For a brief moment Spike thought that maybe he was in love, and then he realized- this was just friendship, and there was nothing sweeter.

Being with Xander in this sun-drenched land was nothing like being with anyone else, anywhere else. Neither was in love with the other, and never would be. Spike wasn't sure he understood it. For him, sex had always been about love to one degree or another, even with Wesley. And now he wasn't sure what to do.

He told this to Xander, because for some reason, he could tell Xander anything. Xander told him that he was learning what he'd come here to learn- he had to live his life for himself, instead of for love, for someone else. And when Xander said it, it made sense, like it was so much simpler than he'd thought, and he'd been making things difficult for himself with needless complications. Maybe he had.

Spike blamed it all on Africa. During the day Spike lay drowsing, feeling the heat of the sun in the air that came through the window, covered with thin curtains. He let it inside, and though his heart didn't beat, he still felt the heat moving through his veins like syrup. He tried to describe it to Xander, who just laughed and said that it was Africa, and everyone felt like that. Africa had different rhythms than the frenetic pace of the West, and Spike learned to follow them instead of trying to fight against them.

At night Africa was huge and cool and empty. The drowsy heat of the day was gone, leaving a sort of peaceful alertness in its place. Every nerve ending was wide awake, and Spike could feel himself opening up to fill the vast emptiness of Africa, and finally, finally, his soul began to find some measure of peace.

It couldn't last, of course. There were only so many Slayers in Africa for Xander to find, and as they made their way towards the home of the last one, Spike began to lose the peaceful sense of home that he'd found by Xander's side. Xander knew something was wrong, but when Spike said nothing, Xander just stood next to him, soothing him just by being with him, and didn't press. Xander knew that if something was wrong, Spike would tell him in his own good time, and if he never did then it wasn't for Xander to fix.

The fear that this would be over, that Xander would go back to England and Spike would have to find something else, began to take him over, and on the night before they reached the village of the last African slayer, Spike finally told all of this to Xander. Xander didn't say anything, didn't try to soothe him or come up with a plan or explain that it would all be all right, just smiled at him, and said that if Spike wasn't ready to leave Africa, then something in Africa would keep him there.

Spike let himself be comforted. Xander had fallen into African rhythms without a thought, and his way of thinking would be laughed at in make-your-own-way America, but Spike had noticed that Xander was almost always right, and this helped soothe some of his fear.

It turned out that the Slayer who they found the next day was interested in some training, but didn't want to leave her home. Xander was about to contact Giles and arrange for a Watcher to come, but just then he had three phone calls in a row from other Slayers who'd changed their minds and wanted training as well. None of them wanted to leave Africa, and when Xander called Giles, he didn't have four extra Watchers to send. Spike, who Giles knew was alive but was sworn to secrecy about this, told Xander that he'd be willing to do some basic training, if the girls would accept. Giles thought this was a brilliant idea, and the girls found the idea of a vampire-turned-good-guy far too interesting for words, and so the School was born.

It neatly solved the issue of what next for Spike, and when he told this to Xander, Xander just smiled and told him that he'd known all along.

Spike discovered to his pleasure that he could teach far more than the basics, and more importantly, he actually liked teaching. The girls liked him teaching them, were fascinated by his accent and his clothes and pale skin, and his hair, grown out to its natural honey brown and curly. They laughed when it grew too long and got in his eyes, and teased him about how handsome he was when he finally got fed up with it and pulled it back with a leather thong. They said he looked like a romantic hero out of one of the old novels that was the only reading material they had, and he growled at them and secretly enjoyed their teasing. Xander, who kept everything running smoothly, just stood on the sidelines, and watched, and smiled.

Giles, once he heard about the success of the School, asked if perhaps Spike would be interested in having a few other Slayers from other countries who were having trouble with their Watchers sent to him. Spike was interested, and it wasn't long before the School grew in size. Spike taught and shared his bed with Xander, and thought that he had everything he'd ever wanted.

But still, he was troubled by a longing he couldn't name.

This longing soon began to consume him, and it drove him insane when he couldn't figure out what it was for. He wanted something so desperately that he couldn't sleep, and yet he didn't know what he wanted. He told no one, but he knew that Xander, at least, knew that something was wrong.

His girls, of course, were fooled by his bright smiles and smirks and teasing. They were all his girls, the Slayer he trained, because in a way they all loved him, and in a way he loved them all in return. He was responsible for the training that could keep them alive, and that created a bond that was unique in every way. The fact that they all enjoyed each other's company made the bond a pleasant one, and Spike was grateful for that.

Three of the first girls he trained, two African girls and hard-eyed Violet from the Sunnydale Potentials that used to seem so soft and breakable, started training the newer girls when Spike began to run out of time. The School had grown in size, and there were too many for Spike to teach, and between that and the insomnia he was slowly running himself into the ground trying. So two more girls that he had taught and sent out to do Slayer things came back and started teaching as well, taking up some of the slack. Spike was able to breathe again, metaphorically speaking, and even had some time to himself.

And it still haunted him, this mysterious thing. This craving. And he couldn't do a damn thing about it, because for the unlife of him, he couldn't figure out what it was for.

Finally he went to Xander, as he inevitably did, and told him everything. And Xander sat, and listened, and in the end, he told Spike what he had to do.

"You have to go home."

"I am home," he said, and of course he'd been trying to convince himself of that. Home is Africa, home is the School, home is Xander.

Only it was none of those things, and he knew it.

Xander knew this too, and he shook his head. "Go back to LA, Spike."

"The School-"

"Can run without you. You know that as well as I do. Stop stalling."

"But I need-" He cut himself off before he could finish, before to be needed could escape his lips, but he might as well have said it because Xander heard him perfectly well.

"Spike," Xander said gently, "the School here doesn't need you, true. But there's no reason why there can't be a School in LA."

And of course it was a brilliant suggestion, and solved everything. So Spike packed up his things, which had grown significantly in number, mostly because of gifts from his girls, and he made arrangements with two of his best Slayers to go back with him to LA. One of them was Cara, a quiet and dignified girl that had been sent by Giles from England, and the other was Mzuri, one of the African girls, who to him will always be a flash of white teeth against black skin and the grey blur of the long bone-handled knife that she prefers.

His goodbye to Xander lasted all night long, and held no sadness. They both knew that they weren't meant for each other, and they also knew that there was a connection between them that couldn't be broken. They would see each other again, and so this wasn't goodbye. It was just until-next-time, and it was just the next step.

He and the girls left the next day, took a Council-chartered flight back to California. At first everything seemed too bright, too noisy and fast and crowded, but then he felt himself settling in, and he realized that Xander was right, as usual, and this was definitely home. Mzuri loved it, loved the energy and life of the city, but Cara was more reserved. Spike smiled all day at the memory of her inspection of their new quarters, again Council-provided, the way she had examined every nook and cranny like a cat let out of its cage in new surroundings. Mzuri was very much like him and they had fun together, but Cara he loved like a daughter, and she made him smile despite the dissimilarities in their characters.

He got their headquarters set up and sent a message to Giles, telling him that the LA School was ready for Slayers. Giles messaged him back, saying that he was getting everything ready, and they'd be on their way in a few days, and in the mean time why didn't he see Angel?

It was a stupid idea, seeing Angel. Spike knew this. Angel had been more than glad to see him go, and probably wouldn't want to see him back again. But Giles talked about corruption and evil influences and wanting to be sure, and Spike was now the head of the LA branch of the Watcher's Council, so apparently it was his responsibility to assess threats to their welfare. When that included Angel Spike didn't know, and he figured that Giles was just being nosy again, but he shrugged and went anyway.

Mzuri and Cara wanted to go with him, but he told them that despite Giles sending him there, it was personal. Mzuri grinned at him- Mzuri was always grinning, and it was hard not to grin back- and sauntered off to do god-knew what, but Cara very quietly and very determinedly insisted on joining him, and so when he walked in through the doors of the LA branch of Wolfram and Hart, Cara was pacing beside him like a tall blonde shadow.

He completely ignored Harmony, who started squealing when she saw him again, and went right to Angel's open door and entered without knocking. Angel was talking to Wes, but stopped when Spike cleared his throat.

The oddest expression crossed his face when he saw Spike standing there, but it was gone too fast for Spike to see what it was. "Spike," Angel said, and Spike nodded to him.

"Angel." Then he grinned at Wes, who was grinning back at him in sincere happiness at his return, and he added, "Good to see you, Wes."

"Good to see you too," Wes said, and then asked, "What brings you here? Last I heard you were settled in Africa."

"I was, but the School there didn't really need me anymore, so Giles sent me back here to open a new branch. I brought two Slayers with me, and Giles is sending more in a few days. Stopped by because Giles wanted me to see how things were doing around here, and to check up on you, Wes, make sure Angel wasn't running you ragged." He smiled at Wes, who smiled back, and Spike wondered at the look that had crossed Angel's face when Spike had said why he was here, a look that was almost… disappointment?

"As you can see, I'm doing well," Wesley said. He inclined a head towards Cara, standing behind Spike and slightly to his left like the bodyguard he didn't need. But that was just Cara's way, and as long as she stayed on his left, on his bad side, he didn't see any problem with it. "This is one of your Slayers?"

"This is Cara," Spike said, knowing the girl wouldn't introduce herself. She wasn't mute by any means, just… quiet. "Mzuri is out… I don't know what she's doing, actually. Girl will give me gray hairs one day, I know it."

Wes laughed, teased him about his "father act," but Spike's eyes were on Angel, who was looking at him as if he was seeing him for the first time.

He and Wes talked a bit more, but Spike's real focus was on Angel, who was watching him the whole time. Finally Spike couldn't take it anymore and beat a retreat, telling Wes to come down anytime, visit a little, and Wes telling him to return the favor now that he was in LA to stay. Spike said he would, said his goodbyes and left with Cara following him silently, feeling Angel's gaze on his all the way out.

He left knowing that he hadn't gotten what he came for, but at a loss as to what to do about it.

He came back the next night, while Cara lay sleeping and Mzuri was out, either patrolling or hitting the clubs or both, he didn't know. He didn't come in through the front door this time, but through secret entrances he'd found during his time there as a ghost. He felt like one again, wandering through the grave stillness of the building at night, and as he always had as a ghost, he ended up standing in the living room of Angel's penthouse apartment. Unlike when he was a ghost, however, he knew exactly why he was there, and he didn't turn and run away when Angel emerged from the bathroom, rubbing a towel through his hair and wearing nothing but a pair of black drawstring pants that hung low on his hips. Once he would have, once he would have been ashamed of looking at Angel who he hated, but that was before Africa, and before Xander and the School and life.

Angel stiffened when he noticed Spike standing there, and he slowly lowered his hands, dropping the towel carelessly to the ground. He stared at Spike for a long moment, not saying anything, before he finally cleared his throat and said, "Why are you here?"

"Unfinished business," Spike said, and Angel stiffened again. He turned his back on Spike, padded over to the bar and poured himself a drink but didn't drink it.

"More Council business?" he said harshly, not turning around to look at Spike, and Spike shook his head though he knew that Angel couldn't see it.

"No. Personal business."

That got Angel to turn around, the untouched drink still in his hand. "What do you mean?"

So wary, so careful. Suddenly it was so easy for Spike to see what Angel had been hiding, and he would have laughed if it wouldn't have caused Angel to retreat further into himself. How could he have possibly missed this before?

"When I left LA for Africa, I was looking for something," he said, not quite answering the question, but Angel stood still and listened to him anyway. This was the most honest speaking that had been between them for years, and neither of them was willing to do anything to break the moment.

"I'd realized… well, I'd realized a lot of things, but one of them is that I always live my life for the person I love. Try to mold myself into who I think they want me to be. Stupid, y'know? It never works, and it's never any good for me. But it's all I knew how to do.

"So I needed to figure out how to learn to live my life for myself. Wes told me to go back to the beginning, and the best I had was the soul, and the soul was Africa, so Africa it was.

"Didn't learn jack shit, so I just wandered for a bit. No reason not to. Ran into Xander, and that was… everything. He's not a kid anymore. Learned a hell of a lot from him. Almost loved him, but… not. Friendship."

Spike was aware that he wasn't making the best sort of sense, but Angel understood him loud and clear. He was also not liking this part of the story, if his body language was anything to go by, but Spike wasn't finished.

"It was because of him that I started the School. And I fit there. I was happy. But there was something missing, and so Xander told me to go home.

"Turns out, LA is home. And for the unlife of me, I couldn't figure out why. I couldn't think of a single thing here to hold me.

"And then I walked into your office and you looked at me, and I knew."

"What did you know?" Angel's voice was hoarse.

"The reason why LA is home. The thing I was looking for. The missing bloody element." Pause, and when Angel didn't say anything, Spike said, "It's you, Angel. Maybe it's always been you."

Angel didn't say anything, didn't even move, and for one awful moment Spike thought that he had misjudged, that he'd gotten it wrong sodding again, and then Angel's hands were fisted in his shirt and there was a glassful of expensive scotch soaking into the carpet and Angel's lips were on his, and that was the only thing that mattered.

It was a long kiss, hard and wet and almost punishing, and Spike loved it but at the same time he knew that this wasn't what he wanted. This wasn't how it was supposed to be.

So he pulled back, ignoring Angel's moan of frustration, and smoothed his hands up and down Angel's bare spine. "Soft," he whispered, and then pulled Angel back into a kiss. A different kiss, soft and sweet and slow, and Angel seemed to get it then because he finally relaxed, and his arms went around Spike. Months in Xander's arms hadn't prepared him for this moment, wrapped by flesh and muscle and bone of someone so much larger than he, but it was just exactly right. He didn't feel protected. He felt… loved.

Moving back to the bedroom took a while, because they stopped every few steps for another kiss, and it felt like dancing. Angel lay down on the bed and watched, propped up comfortably on his elbows, as Spike shed duster, shirt, boots, and finally his jeans. Angel's eyes were hot, and Spike couldn't help but run one hand down his stomach, teasing himself, teasing Angel, and they both groaned.

On the bed, with Angel, and Spike's hands were more hindrance than help as Angel tried to wriggle out of his pants, but finally they were off and laying somewhere on the floor and Angel was flush against Spike, skin to skin, and it was possibly the best thing he had ever felt.

The rest was like a dream, fogged around the edges and delightfully out of focus. His hands on Angel, his tongue on Angel. Skin slick with sweat against his, a mouth around his cock, causing him to arch, to cry out. Angel inside of him, and it was like the world was born anew.

He felt asleep to the soft shush of Angel's hand stroking his skin.

When he woke up he was alone.

He lifted his head, forcing his eyes open and his brain into some semblance of consciousness, and saw that Angel was standing in front of the only window that opened in this entire sterile, sealed place. It was raining, and Angel was wearing pants for modesty's sake, but he didn't seem to feel the cold, or the misting of rain on his skin.

Spike got out of bed and padded over to him, not bothering to put his own pants on. Angel opened his arms in obvious invitation and Spike didn't hesitate, sliding into his embrace and resting back against Angel's chest with a sigh.

They stood together like that for a while, silent, watching the rain over LA. "I never did know what to feel about you," Angel said finally. "What the right thing to feel was."

"There is no right way to feel, Angel, you know that."

"Shh. Just listen."

When Spike said nothing more, Angel continued. "You were… beautiful. You always were. And complex. As Angelus, it was easy to dismiss you, because that's what I did.

"With a soul, it was even easier to see you in simple terms, because I had to. I could be a good person if I tried, and you were absolutely the bad guy. That's just how it was.

"And then you got the chip, and eventually starting helping the good guys. Doesn't matter what your motivations were, it muddied the moral waters for me. Harder to see you in black and white.

"And then the soul. Well, that turned things around, then, didn't it? You were a good guy, right, because you had the soul? I had to believe that, because I had learned to define myself by the soul, and I could not think of a soul as evil, because that would make me doubt everything I believed about myself.

"Then you died. A hero. And I mourned you, because it was only then that I realized how much I missed you. How much I counted on you being in the world."

Spike said nothing, just listened the way Angel had listened to him earlier. "And then you were back, and things were so complicated, and it was just too easy to fall back into old patterns with you. Even though I knew better, even though I thought I'd learned. Too easy, when everything was so wrong.

"Only you weren't the same. Too easy to forget that, too. You felt displaced, lost, I could see it. And I couldn't figure out how to fix it. I wanted to, and I was trying to figure out how to approach you so that you wouldn't spit in my face when you took up with Wesley."

Spike could feel Angel tensing behind him, even at the memory. "Christ. I was so jealous. Wes knew it- bastard knows fucking everything, I swear- but didn't do anything about it. My problem, right? You were happy with him.

"Only you weren't, and again, before I could say anything, you were gone. Not just to someone else this time, but to fucking Africa, and I couldn't chase after you. Just… couldn't.

"Heard from Wes what you were up to. I was proud of you, you know that? You're doing so much better than I am… Stuck up here in this tower, trying to hang onto the reins of this… this place, all this evil. Not really succeeding. You've made something of yourself, and you're more hero than I am.

"I also heard that you were with Xander. And that just… burned. No love lost between the two of us, as I'm sure you know. But Wes read pieces of your letters out loud to us, and I could tell that you were happy. Better than here, with me, right? Better that you were free of it.

"And then, what do you know, you're here. Again. And just when I thought I'd finally get a chance, finally tell you or show you or something, and then you stand there and tell me that you're on Council business."

Angel paused, laughed and it was an ugly sound. "God. Went out after you left, picked a fight in a demon bar. Killed seven and trashed the place. Still didn't help.

"So I drag myself home, take a shower. Try not to think about it. And then I come out and you're there, actually there and real and solid, and then you tell me… everything I wanted to hear. And somehow, it was real.

"But it's just not that simple, is it? I'm still the ex-hero who's in the wrong place, and you're still the one who's got his life on track. And even now, I'm so fucking jealous of that I can't see straight."

Spike decided that it was time to stop listening and turned in Angel's arms, placing a gentle kiss on his collarbone. "It doesn't have to be like that, Angel," he said softly. "You know that you're doing good."

Angel laughed, almost hysterically. "Oh yeah. I'm doing great, running an evil law firm and all."

Spike lifted his head and pinned Angel with a serious look. "Stop. Just stop. You know it's not like that. You save lives, Angel. Maybe not the same way, but I can see the difference in this town. The difference that you're making, Angel. Don't ever forget that."

Angel hunched his shoulders a little. "I know. It's just…" Pause. "Not that long after you left, a girl broke out of an insane asylum. She's been made a Slayer. We tracked her and caught her, and this geeky kid showed up from the Council with a dozen Slayers at his back, saying that she was theirs to care for, and they didn't trust us at all, working for Wolfram and Hart." He sighed, a soft rush of breath that stirred the fine hairs on the back of Spike's neck. "I asked to speak to Buffy, because really, she couldn't be turning on me like that, right? And he said that his orders came from her. That none of them trust me anymore. That I'm in a place of evil, and so that's what I must be."

"And then I show up saying that Giles sent me, and you think I feel the same way," Spike finished softly, finally understanding. "Angel. She's wrong. She doesn't know you like I do. She hasn't seen you, day in and day out, trying to make things better. To her, you're just the romantic figure that suddenly got complicated, and she doesn't understand that." He reached up, ran a thumb over Angel's jaw. "Look. I'm not saying that everything's perfect, because it's not. And it never will be. But it can get better, and it will. You've got me."

"Do I?" Angel said, and Spike stretched up to kiss him. The kiss stretched on, wet and heat and every bit of emotion Spike could give, and when it ended Spike said, "Yes. And I will help. You know that."

"Yeah," Angel said. "I do. Now."

Spike turned again till his back was once again resting against Angel's chest, and felt Angel's arms settle around him, like they were meant to be there. They stood there in silence, just… together, and it was one of the best moments in Spike's life.

He suddenly smiled as a piece of a song that Xander used to listen to ran through his head. There's a feeling that runs through your veins/one that has no time no space/taking you high/so that you can't deny it/ that's when you're in love.

Yeah. This was what he'd been looking for. This was what he'd been needing.

This was living.