Steam

Mid-October is a tricky time for construction. The days are shorter, darker, and colder, but buildings still keep needing to go up. With the deadline for the new mall extension rapidly approaching, all the construction crews were putting in extra hours. Xander Harris' interior finishing crew had had to put on additional people to keep up. By the time Friday night came around, everyone was exhausted, but the construction company was looking for volunteers to come in on Saturday to do some clean-up work outside.

"Time and a half or sleep," Xander debated at the site. "Time and a half or sleep."

"Take sleep," said Melek Alatas, one of the new guys on Xander's crew. "You learn, by the time you get to be my age, to sleep when you can."

"Ah, but these are my prime wealth generating years," said Xander. "At least according to my girlfriend."

Melek shook his big head slowly. He was probably twice Xander's age, but taller and broader, and he moved with careful deliberation to avoid smashing into fragile things and lesser mortals. "Which is why women run the home and men go to hunt. Women understand these things. But after a hard week's hunt, a man deserves a little rest. She'll want you to do things around the house tomorrow, won't she?"

"Actually, no. She and the guy who works with her in the store headed down to LA to track down a missing shipment." And considering said shipment consisted of very rare and quite possibly semi-sentient gems of the gaki from Japan, having them missing was cause enough for Giles to want to take a hand in the search.

Melek smiled. "So you are alone tonight."

"I'm glad that makes someone happy."

"No, you misunderstand. If she is not waiting for you, then you don't have to go straight home."

Xander tossed his hard hat into the back seat of his car. "I'm not really up for the usual Friday bar invasion, Melek."

"Bar, bah. Ouzo and lies are all well and good, but the baths are better."

"Baths? You're saying I should spend Friday night taking a bath?"

"Not a bath. The baths. There is a bath house just outside town, run by some of my countrymen." Melek smiled nostalgically. "Back home, all the men of the neighborhood would gather at the Turkish baths to talk and relax. A massage, the steam room, you will feel like a new man."

Xander grinned wryly. "Not always the best of things, being a new man. But why are they called baths if there's no water?"

"Oh, there is water, there is the warm pool and the hot pool, but the cold pool is the most invigorating."

"Wait, you jump into cold water? On purpose?"

"Yes! Sit in the steam room, then into the cold pool, very reviving."

"Or it kills you outright." But the hot tub and the steam room sounded very appealing after a long day with dry wall and nail guns. "So who all goes to this place?"

"Ah, it is a place for men, the women's bath house is somewhere else."

"That's allowed this day and age?" The place sounded appealing. "Ok, sounds like a plan. Better than the tv dinner and video roulette I had lined up."

There was no name on the place, and all the cars were parked on the other side of the old building from the road. Friday evening seemed like a busy time. The number of cars reassured Xander that the place was not likely the center of evil cult activity, so he followed Melek into the building.

"Istvan, hello," Melek called to the man sitting behind the desk inside. The two men embraced and spoke a while in a language Xander didn't recognize--hardly a challenge, though he had a nodding acquaintance with Spanish, French, and, oddly enough, Arabic, from hearing Giles swear to himself.

"This is Xander," Melek said, gesturing. "I told him about the place."

Istvan studied Xander a moment, then nodded. "Your word is good enough."

As the man turned away, Xander gave Melek a carefully curious look. "What did that mean?"

"This is a quiet place, no trouble here. Istvan tries to make sure no one comes in who would bother the other people."

They paid the cover charge and received a pile of towels each. Melek led the way to a locker room where they could change. Xander remembered a concern.

"Uh, Melek, I don't have any swim trunks with me." He blinked at his companion's casual shrug.

"They're not needed here. The towels are sufficient for modesty."

"You can't wear a towel in the pool."

"Oh, you could if you wanted, but most people don't bother."

Oh, lord, shades of the communal shower in gym class. Xander had mastered the art of the comprehensive thirty-second shower facing the wall with one eye keeping watch behind him. Part of the joy of graduating was in the end of compulsory gym class. He ducked into a curtained cubicle, debated for a few seconds about claiming an embarrassing skin condition that required he stay clothed, then took his courage in hand and vowed to become one with his towel. He stuffed his clothes into a locker, wrapped his towel securely around his hips, and strolled out.

Melek barely glanced at him, but Xander noticed he seemed even larger with only a towel around him. "We shall start with the warm pool," Melek declared. He grinned at the smaller man. "But we'll have you in the frigidarium soon enough."

As Xander followed him, he thought about how close the words frigidarium and Frigidaire were.

The huge main room housing the pools was foggy. At the far end of the room was the hot pool, and the cold pool was at the opposite end. The rising air from the two pools mingled over the larger warm pool in the middle, obscuring vision. Roughly thirty people lounged in the water, occasionally talking amongst themselves but for the most part soaking peacefully.

Xander's first thought was "More naked men than I've ever been around in my life!", but his second thought was of how little people seemed to care. Some men wore their towels draped around their hips, some towels were slung over shoulders, some didn't bother at all. It suddenly seemed gauche to be paying attention to other guys' dangly bits.

The clouds of mist thinned, and Xander's Scooby-senses suddenly resolved what he'd been trying to tell himself was a physical deformity not to be stared at. The man climbing out of the pool on the far side of the room did indeed have a tail and his skin was indeed bright yellow. And those weren't drops of water catching the dim light, but scales.

"Melek, what is this place?" he said tensely.

Melek glanced at him, then at the--yes, demon--strolling along the edge of the pool. "I told you, this is a place men come to relax. A safe place where no one bothers each other."

Xander heard the uncertainty and encouragement in his co-worker's voice. "And you brought me here because ...?"

"Because it's a good place. Because you are a man who knows the world is not as it seems."

"And how do you know that?"

Melek smiled. "Normally only priests consider vials of holy water to be an important part of their tool box. And when you opened the trunk of your car the other day, I saw sharpened stakes."

Xander blinked for several moments. "And this made you think I wanted to socialize with demons?" He saw disappointment in Melek's face.

"My apologies," the big man said. "I thought, since you only had weapons against vampires, that other demons didn't bother you."

"Well, when they're trying to rip off your face to use as a napkin while they try to eat your brain--" He broke off at the look of queasiness on Melek's face. "Sorry."

He looked around the hazy room again. About a third of the occupants were recognizably non-human and, true to the standards of the place, they weren't bothering anyone.

"But what if somebody goes nuts?" he asked nervously. His stakes were in the car, and he didn't see any obvious guard types around.

"They're not allowed."

Xander frowned, then glanced towards the front door. "Istvan?"

"Istvan," Melek smiled. "He has ways. I don't ask."

"I've heard Giles mention these kinds of places, but I didn't think we had any in Sunnydale. Well, there's Willy's--"

Melek snorted. "Yes, if you want to get drunk. This is better."

He headed towards the pool, leaving Xander to debate. Sure, he was a Scooby, supposed to defend the innocent against evil, but nobody was acting evil. Maybe they'd go evil later. It was clearly Xander's duty to investigate the place further, keep an eye on things, make sure everybody behaved. Best place to start was in that lovely warm water.

And with demonic sorts wandering around, it seemed silly to worry about who might be catching a glimpse of merely human skin. Still, he had to take a deep calming breath before pulling the towel from around his waist and draping it on the railing next to Melek's. He couldn't help grinning at sudden not-memories of that job he didn't have in Oxnard where he didn't take his clothes off for women. Too foggy in here anyway for anyone to see.

He failed to consider that demonic eyesight was a whole lot better than human. Especially vampiric eyesight.

On the other side of the pool, Spike watched the new arrivals. He'd heard Harris first, and the warm water hadn't been enough to stop the cold chills. One of his last refuges, finally invaded by the forces of, blech, good. And yappy narrow-minded good at that. He watched Harris through the fog, watched him realize what kind of place he was in. Spike couldn't help smirking at the way the boy clung to the towel wrapped around his hips. Mustn't let the demons feast their eyes on any more lovely skin than they already were.

Spike paused, replaying that mental statement. Well, yes, doughnut boy did have lovely skin. Faint droplets of condensation and sweat dotted the muscled torso. His body was finally gaining the bulk of a man from the rangy leanness of a hyperactive teen. Spike gazed appreciatively at Harris' shoulders as the whelp argued with the walking wall he'd come in with. The new man was an absolute stranger to Spike, who wondered if he was discovering Xander Harris' secret life.

Then Harris grinned that sudden devil-may-care grin and unwrapped his towel with a practiced flip of the wrist. He tossed the towel over the railing next to his companion's and climbed down the ladder into the water, presenting a lovely view of his ass to those who had eyes that could see.

The drool reflex still worked on vampires. Spike swallowed twice as he watched muscles flex. Why had no one told the boy about the wonderful opportunities available in the exciting world of male modeling? Though maybe it was just as well that Harris hadn't been told that he was far more decorative nude than clothed. Otherwise everyone would be getting a look, instead of just the ex-demon girl--oh, and all the patrons in the baths tonight, but Spike imagined he was the only one making a point of ogling.

The water came up midway on Harris' chest. He slogged his way after his large friend to a place against the pool wall, where he slid down to neck level and sighed happily. Spike sank slowly down to eyeball level--periscope depth, he said to himself--and began moving across the pool, tripping over and apologizing to an aquatic demon lounging on the bottom of the pool as he went.

Xander let the warm water soothe away the accumulated aches of the week. "So, Melek, tell me about this place. You said your countrymen ran it."

"It was first built by some Russian immigrants when the railroads were a-building, but they tried to keep the non-humans out. They never broke even, so some of my folk bought them out before World War I."

"Not to be rude, but just who are your people?"

Melek shrugged. "Greeks, Turks, Armenians, folk from that region who saw which way things were going in the homeland. But still, so many were caught in the great pogroms."'

"Pogroms?"

"Massacres. Millions of Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottomans."'

Xander bit his tongue before he could ask how the hell footstools had killed millions of people. On the Hellmouth he supposed it might have been possible, but the look on Melek's face said something a bit more straightforward had been involved. "So folks came here?"

"Many did, yes." Melek gave him a wary look. "And with the human folk came many of the night folk. They were hunted too."

"And the Hellmouth seemed like just the right part of the promised land for them. Not surprised. And let me guess, your countrymen here opened the doors to everybody who promised to behave, and it's been a going concern ever since."

"Exactly. There have been very few challenges to the sanctuary. Istvan said even the dread Angelus respected the place when he was here a few years ago."

Xander lost his grip on the wall and slipped under water for a moment. "Angel--Angelus came here?"

"Only the once. Istvan said he became bored and left, never to return."

"Yeah, he probably had better things to do than sit and soak in the hot tub. Stupid poof." He blinked and wondered when he'd started using Spike-isms.

Melek's slapped him companionably on the shoulder. "And so do we. To the steam room, then the frigidarium,"

"Oh, gosh, Melek, look, about the cold water bath--"

But Melek was already out of the water, grabbing his towel and headed towards the hot end of the room.

"Steam room. I can do steam room," Xander said to himself as he followed. He snagged his towel as soon as he could reach it and wrapped it around himself. He didn't hear the disappointed "Bloody hell" muttered behind him.

The half-dozen men--Xander mentally classified them all as men for his sanity's sake--already in the steam room ignored him and Melek when they entered. He followed Melek up to the top row of benches, being careful to make sure his towel was under him as he sat on the hot wood. It took a few moments for his lungs to adjust to the humid environment, and he twitched a little at memories of his ill-starred career on the swim team. He relaxed eventually, lulled almost to sleep by the heat and the occasional murmurs of the other occupants of the room. Not all of those murmurs were in human languages, but he was beginning not to care.

He jumped as Melek thumped his shoulder again. "I'm not asleep!"

"Of course not. Sleep is for beds at home. But now that your muscles are relaxed, it's time for the frigidarium. Let's go."

"OK, in regards to the cold water, I think I'm going to take a pass. But you go have fun."

"But you'll miss the most important part of the whole thing. The change from hot to cold tells your body that it's alive."

"My body knows quite well that it's alive. Maybe where you come from dropping comfy warm bodies into ice water is a good thing, but I'm a wimpy American, and I'd probably have heart failure if I jumped into cold water."

Melek nodded in agreement a little too easily for Xander's ego. "Yes, I've done this all my life. If you're not used to it, it could be bad. You should get a massage, then, very relaxing."

"I get any more relaxed somebody's going to have to rent me a bed."

Melek laughed and headed out, followed by most of the other occupants.

Xander leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. Every pore felt open. He'd forgotten how clean one could feel while sweating in peace. He was going to sleep well tonight.

Someone poured more water on the hot stones in the corner, sending a billow of steam into the room. Footsteps climbed to the top benches, but Xander didn't open his eyes. The creak of the bench as the man sat down only added a Zen note to the experience.

Minutes passed.

"If I told you that I want to lick off that trail of sweat that's running down between your pecs, would you hold it against me?"

What an odd hallucination, Spike's voice saying something rude. Xander smiled. "Vampires don't have an internal cooling system, they'd cook in here," he muttered, dismissing thoughts of Spike.

"Nope, we like it hot. You'd go down to the heat before I did."

Slowly Xander opened his eyes. If hallucinations talked back, wasn't that a sign of serious mental illness? He rolled his head to look. Spike gazed back at him, blinking like a contented reptile in the heat. His towel lay in a pile next to him. Xander caught himself before his gaze dropped below Spike's waist, but that view was--upsetting. Lots of smooth skin, tiny droplets of moisture outlining the muscles. The vampire's hair hung loose, one lock hanging down in front of his eyes.

"What are you doing here?" Xander asked intelligently.

Spike smiled lazily. "Visiting the baths, of course. Angelus may have been bored here, but he grew up thinking more than one bath a month was sinful. Me, I like saunas and hot water."

"You were listening."

"To you and your large new friend? Yep. Who is he, anyway?"

"A guy I work with."

"Oh, well, I guess you're not the sort to pick up a new friend to play with while Demon Girl's away."

"You are probably the single most disgusting person I know, and that includes Anya when she's getting nostalgic about punishing wayward men."

Spike grinned in delight. "Thank you, Xander, that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

Xander couldn't help smiling a little as he shook his head. "I knew you were going to say that." He leaned his head against the wall again, deciding that a plan of ignoring the vampire was the best option

A minute passed. "You didn't answer my question," Spike said.

"What question?"

"About licking--"

Xander sat up and glared. "Spike, I am having a very nice evening here, do you think that maybe, for once, you can just keep your digs and insults to yourself?" He closed his eyes and went back to leaning and ignoring.

Spike contemplated the boy who cried wolf and how that story applied to him. "Wasn't meant as an insult," he muttered. He watched another line of moisture run down Xander's shoulder, circle a bicep, then curl into the hollow of his elbow-- He made himself think of Angelus complaining about the bathhouse.

Xander watched him from the corner of his eye. He'd heard the vampire's mutter and was trying to decide if Spike was being serious. Not that the vampire was serious. Spike was after Buffy. Besides, if Spike was thinking those kinds of thoughts, Xander would have to wonder if those thoughts had also taken place while the vampire was in the basement, and the idea of being watched and considered and speculated about made him very uneasy.

And now the vampire was visibly sulking. Pouting? Nah, it was just because his latest insult battle wasn't going the way he wanted. Xander perked up. Maybe ignoring Spike really was the way to go. It was certainly a better course of action than studying the downcast eyes, disappointed mouth, the messed up hair--all the things that said Xander's mind was headed straight into Lifetime movie land and that he needed to get a grip.

He gathered his towel and stood.

"Where you going?" Spike asked.

"I think I'm cooked enough. Enjoy the steam." He picked his way down the steps and out of the steam room, not looking back just in case that look of abandonment he'd caught just a glimpse of was still there.

Xander strode along the edge of the big pool as casually as he could. Nope, no one who attracts lewd remarks from vampires here. A trickle of sweat ran down his chest, flashing him back to the wistful way Spike asked if he could-- No, no, there will be no thinking of any kind of contact between a vampire's tongue and the Xanman's bod. The Xanman's chick magnet bod, Anya's bod. Dammit, why did Anya have to go off with Giles to L.A.? He'd been looking forward to the weekly "Xander's tired after a week of work, let's see what we can do to get him interested" encounter.

And now he was horny. Great. Maybe the cold water pool wasn't such a bad idea.

He looked around for Melek and found the big man up to his neck in the pool at the far end of the room, chatting with several people, three of whom were not human-type people. Despite the claims of non-interference and the number of times he'd had been to Willy's, Xander had not yet progressed to the mental place where he could loll around naked and socialize with thingies with more eyes than he.

"Massage," he said to himself. "I need a massage."

The massage rooms were just off the main room. There were multiple tables in each room, and in the second room Xander checked, he found two human men who looked like they worked here.

"Uh, hi," he said, hoping his grin was the confident one, not the idiot one. "I'm new here, what do I do to get a massage?"

One of the men, clean-cut, medium build, completely unintimidating, stood and patted one of the tables. "Just lay down here, sir, and we can get started. My name's Jim."

"Hey, Jim, I'm Xander." He debated, considering all the massages he'd seen in the movies and on TV, and decided to keep his towel as he crawled up to lay face down on the table. I am the suave Xander, I can handle having a strange man put his hands on my body. OK, I also need to deal with that twitch reflex.

He briefly wondered if he'd be more comfortable if the masseuse was a gorgeous blonde named Gretta, then Jim started working his thumbs into the new knots in Xander's shoulders. The man's hands were coated with some sort of oil and slid along the skin smoothly. Xander sighed and went limp. He was a Californian, why had he never had a professional massage before now? Anya had often rubbed his shoulders, but her hands just weren't strong enough to get at the tense spots down deep. Jim ran his thumbs from the base of his skull, down his neck and out along his shoulders, sending prickles along his scalp as his muscles unknotted.

He was thinking of a his-and-hers spa trip as a possible honeymoon destination when the other masseuse--masseur? what was the word?--got up from his bench. "Yes, sir, would you like a massage?"

"Yeah, I would," said that familiar voice. "You're Tony, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Bloody genius, you are."

"Thank you--Spike, isn't it?"

"Yep."

Xander sighed deeply. "You're following me, Spike."

"Am not. I was here first, not my fault I like a rubdown after the sauna too."

Xander turned his head. Spike was face down on the other table, his towel being used as a pillow as Tony began pummeling the vampire's back. Something cracked, and Spike sighed happily.

"You enjoy broken bones?" Xander asked.

"That was a vertebra going back into place. You sleep in a crypt, see what it does to your lower lumbars." Something else in his spine popped, and he grunted happily.

Xander studied him thoughtfully. The only other times he'd seen Spike this content had involved threats, pain and violence. Well, even Attila the Hun took days off occasionally. He watched Tony the Masseuse started doing karate chops up and down Spike's spine. Then Jim's knuckles started digging in to either side of his spine and one of his own vertebrae popped. Xander gasped in surprise and relief.

Spike chuckled, his voice vibrating with Tony's chops. "Toldja."

Xander glared at him. "Are you afraid somebody's gonna steal that towel or is it just your new best friend?"

Spike snuggled against the towel tucked under his head. "Nah, I'm just a hoopy froog who knows where his towel is."

Xander gaped at him, then grinned. "Don't try to outweird me," he declared, "I get stranger things than you free with my breakfast cereal!"

Blinking, Spike raised his head, then a glint appeared in his eyes. "Put your analyst on danger money, baby."

Xander started laughing, ignoring Jim as the masseuse started working on his legs. "Since when have you read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?"

"I read 'em before you learned to read, whelp. Read the books, heard the radio play, saw the TV show."

"There's a radio play?"

"Thank the dear old Beeb--BBC, for you Yanks."

"I thought the BBC only did stuffy Giles things."

Spike snorted. "This from the man who can name all the Doctor Whos in order, with their Companions."

"Oh, yeah. Tom Baker rules!"

"Jon Pertwee, ya oik."

"Leila," Xander sighed.

"I'll give you that. Loved the leather dress. And you never saw her screaming her fool head off and getting captured like that stupid tart Sarah Jane Smith. 'Ooh, the Doctor won't mind if I completely ignore what he told me and wander off without telling anyone,'" he said in falsetto. "'Oh, eek, whatever is that, is that the monster? Save me, doctor!' Jammy little git."

Xander giggled helplessly, his head buried in his arms.

Spike watched a moment, grinning. "'Oh, no, the Doctor's dead, whatever shall we do?'" he went on. "The man's got two hearts, ya dozy bint, get a clue. God, how often I wished the Daleks would eat her or something."

"Exterminate!" Xander wheezed.

"Too right."

Xander finally raised his head and grinned at Spike. The vampire could only stare. Those happy, sparkling eyes peeking up over his arm. A laugh with no sub-tones, just pleasure. A mischievous grin that invited more of whatever had made its owner so delighted. All aimed at Spike, and Spike had forgotten all words except "that's me he's looking at like that." Well, except for the irresistible visceral reaction.

"You're gorgeous," he said.

Surprise erased the smile, and suspicion took the light out of the eyes.

There was silence for a couple of minutes though Spike tried to push start the conversation with a reference to Star Trek. Xander only looked at him warily. Spike subsided, staring at the far wall instead of the face that had been so happy just a few moments ago. Not even the massage felt very good any more.

"Thanks, Jim," Xander finally said, "that was good." He sat up, pulling his towel around him. "Unfortunately, I think I left my wallet in my other towel."

"That's all right, sir, tips aren't necessary."

Xander nodded and left. Jim gathered up some linens and headed out another door.

Spike pounded his head on the table. "Idiot! Like he'd ever believe you. And you don't have to agree," he snapped over his shoulder at Tony.

"I didn't say anything," the masseuse protested.

"Your hands agreed."

Tony looked at his hands a moment. "If you say so, sir."

Spike sat up. "Thanks for the rubdown, mate. I'm not wrong, am I? He is gorgeous."

"I--really couldn't say."

"Oh, don't grovel, you give the place a bad name." He grabbed his towel and stalked out.

Spike stood next to the pool, wondering if Xander was hiding in the water or getting dressed in the locker room. Scents were unreliable in the heavy air, but he caught a whiff of off-balance, barely legal construction worker not far away. A familiar dark head bobbed in the water near the hot end. Damn he'd wanted another chance to see that strip-tease move with the towel.

He slipped into the water and began moving in.

It had been such a nice evening, Xander mused sullenly. Relaxing, comfortable, feeling just a little bit naughty for doing something none of the other Scoobies knew about. Then Spike. Always it was inconvenient, annoying, disruptive Spike. But after that first weirdness in the steam room, it hadn't been so bad, especially finding out Spike liked sci-fi--British sci-fi, anyway. Xander had been just about to ask the important question of classic Trek versus new Trek when Spike had to open his big mouth and say something embarrassing.

Except that the embarrassment had taken a couple of seconds to appear. Happy, giggling Xander had heard Spike say he was gorgeous, seen the smile that looked sincere instead of cruel and the appreciative eyes that were enjoying whatever they were seeing. And Xander had been flattered, thrilled, even, until the suspicious Hellmouth voice said, "And why is William the Bloody, chipped but still conniving, choosing now to tell you this? What's going on in that devious, snakey brain?" Then the sub-brain kicked in, with twinges of "that's a guy looking at you like that, that's Spike looking at you like that, run away, run away."

He'd gone looking for Melek to tell him he was leaving. They'd come in separate cars, so that would be no trouble. But the big man was nowhere to be found, and Xander had felt the need to hide in the water for several minutes as he got his mental feet under him.

And while he tried to decide if he was flattered or disgusted that Spike might give him a compliment.

"You're not Irish, are you?" said that voice, suddenly nearby. "You and the poof, brothers under the skin, especially with the brooding."

"And tell me why I should be at all pleased that you're comparing me to Deadboy? You know, there are laws against stalking in this state, Spike. And how fast do you think you'd get thrown out of here if I complained about you bothering me?"

Spike settled back against the pool wall, just out of reach. "I told the truth, Lord," he muttered. "How am I supposed to learn any moral lessons if you keep confusing me?"

"What are you babbling about?"

"Don't know why you're getting all pissy just because I said something nice."

"Oh, well, gee, here's Spike, speaking to me, words coming out of his mouth, generally designed to be vicious and cruel so he can get his rocks off on our pain. Snap judgement, Xander, is the bleached wonder being nice or mean when he says something completely unexpected?"

Spike shrugged. "Point. But I was just stating the obvious."

"The--the obvious? An embarrassing remark in front of people I've barely met?" He was trying desperately to not-think about that remark he'd half-heard in the steam room about Spike, Xander's sweat, and what Spike would like to do about it.

"What the hell is embarrassing about the truth?"

And the weird thing was Spike looked honestly baffled.

"So ... when did this truth occur to you? Just now? Cause I'm thinking, haven't seen a lot with the appreciation from you."

Spike grinned a very Spiky grin. "Oh, I may have thought you were foolish, overly trusting, and have more balls than brain, but I've always thought you were gorgeous. Or at least had the potential to be gorgeous. You need a wardrobe make-over. Though I like what you're wearing now."

Xander knocked his head back against the edge of the pool. "And it was such a nice evening, too. Should've just gone to the bar with the rest of the guys. I'm going to regret asking this, Spike, but why the hell did you pick now to confess your appreciation of my looks?" And why the hell did he care so much, when he knew--he knew--that Spike lied like other people breathed?

"Like I'm going to say anything in front of Slayer and the rest. Might have done there in the basement, but I was feeling too pissy. More fun to annoy you." He looked over at Xander's shoulders appreciatively. "Besides, that was before construction worked so well for you."

"Stop looking at me like that! It's--it's disturbing." Xander wanted to say it was gross, but disturbing was the most negative thing he could come up with.

Spike pouted. "Supposed to be sexy."

"Don't be giving me sexy looks, Spike, I'm a practically married man."

"Demon bint keeps such a leash on you, you're not even allowed to be looked at?"

"Please don't call my fiancee a bint, Spike. I am actually planning to marry her."

The vampire gaped at him. "Since when? No one tells me anything. Though I'm hurt to find out I'm not on the announcement list."

And he did look a little put out, Xander realized. "We really haven't announced it yet."

"Why not?"

All the reasons that made so much sense in his head sounded so lame when said out loud. "Well, there was the Glory-are-we-going-to-be-alive-tomorrow thing, then the whole Buffy's-dead thing, then the Buffy's-back thing--"

Spike gave him a disgusted look. "When a girl gives you that many excuses, I think you're supposed to get the hint."

Xander looked away. "It's not Anya. It's me."

"If you didn't want to get married, why'd you ask her?"

"I do want to get married! It's just--"

"Scares the hell out of you? Or you're just not ready to settle down?"

"You know, Dear Undead Abby, somehow taking relationship advice from you takes 'What the hell am I thinking?' to a whole new level."

"So who else you talking to about this kind of stuff?"

"I've got lots of people I can talk to, mister--" Xander broke off at the disbelieving look he was getting. "I really do hate you, and the only reason I'm not staking you is your dust would clog the pool filters, and I like this place."

"Yeah, it's nice. So why don't you want to get married?"

"What the hell business is it of yours?"

"You brought it up."

"So I could get you to stop hitting on me!"

"Not going to happen, mate. Though I don't blame you for having second thoughts, it takes some damned big knackers to hook up with a vengeance demon, even an ex one. Then again," he grinned, "always knew you had a big pair."

"Stop talking about my--anything."

"So why not get married?"

Xander debated the peace to be found at the bottom of the pool. Then he sighed. "I don't know how to be married. I don't know anybody who does married well." He blinked as Spike raised a hand. "What?"

"Married is sticking with someone through everything and not bailing when it gets tough."

"And what do you know about--oh. Dru. Spike, I hate to remind you, but she left. Not a good ad for the life-long for-better-or-worse thing."

"Things got really bad, she couldn't do it anymore. It happens." Though Spike didn't look nearly as accepting as he tried to sound. "You only saw the nasty last act of the story. Doesn't change the fact that for a hundred years she and I were the Ozzie and Harriet of the vampire world. Though maybe more Ozzie Osborne than Ozzie Nelson."

Xander watched the vampire's face, looking for something that would allow him to dismiss Spike's obvious pain as nothing more than what the evil undead deserved. But all he saw was a man thinking about the woman he'd loved and lost. "I very much resent feeling at all sorry for you, bleach boy."

"Not asking you to feel sorry for me, boy." The growl segued into a leer. "Besides, we were talking about you."

"My life may be the featured article in this week's Hellmouth Enquirer, but I am not so far gone that I'm going to take advice from William the Bloody. So can we just drop the whole interpersonal relationship thing?"

Spike gave a pout that would have landed him on the cover of any glamour magazine that featured gorgeous men with cut-glass features and ice blond tendrils falling across the forehead and in front of naughty blue eyes. And Xander took a holy oath with himself that it was the salami sandwich from lunch that was causing his stomach to tighten like that, not the effect of those eyes and that pout aimed at him. And his crotch was reacting to something unseen from another dimension, not to anything at all that might be within the vicinity of a square yard. God bless the cover of water.

Xander cleared his throat to speak. "It's--uh--been lovely visiting with you, Spike, but I think it's time for me to go. Turning into a prune, and all, Anya won't like me if I turn into a prune."

Spike sighed theatrically. "Fine, fine, wander off and leave me. I'll always have the picture of you in the steam room to inspire me."

"God damn it, Spike," Xander snarled, turning back. "I am tired of you finding new ways to make fun of me."

"Mate, woah, back up." Spike looked honestly shocked. He started to grin. "The picture of you leaning all relaxed against that wall, eyes closed, with the sweat rolling down --" He looked away and swallowed, apparently trying to compose himself.

A cold water eddy must have gone by, that was why Xander suddenly shivered.

Spike looked back, the corner of his mouth twitching. "Nothing in that picture to make fun of. Plenty to mull over when I'm all comfy in my favorite chair at home or something." The leer made it plain what Spike would be doing in his favorite chair while thinking of Xander in the steam room.

"That's--that's--" And so help him, Xander was really trying to say the word disgusting again. All he got was a mental picture of his own, of that lean, lazy body with the steam condensing on the chill skin ...

Mockery and lewdness faded from Spike's face. "What, you didn't think I was serious when I said you were gorgeous?"

Xander could only shake his head.

"Anya never tells you this stuff?"

Xander shrugged.

"And you don't believe her either?"

He shrugged again. "She knows the basic etiquette, you say nice things to the person you're sleeping with so you can keep sleeping with them."

"Fuck," Spike breathed. "Who would you believe?"

"Considering my statistical universe consists of my best friend since pre-school, the conniving undead, and an ex-vengeance demon who's still working on not mentioning various bodily functions in public, I don't think I've got an unbiased sample. Not when put against an entire graduating class of girls who laughed and walked the other way when I said hello."

For a moment, Xander had an emotional mirror. The memory of pain and rejection flashed across Spike's face, with a brief defensive hunch of the shoulders that Xander remembered so very well. It was followed by a very dark gleam in the blue eyes and a faint smile so evil it would have flattered Angelus. Xander wanted to ask what Spike had done to the girls of his youth who'd rejected him, but he knew vicarious enjoyment of another man's revenge would put his white hat status in jeopardy.

The moment passed, and Spike moved a little closer. "I am going to tell you something true, Xander Harris," he said softly. "Make a note of the occasion in your journal if you like. You are a gorgeous man. When you grinned at me there in the massage room I would've fallen over if I hadn't been laying down, the way my knees went weak. When I found myself in your basement, I hated the world and everything in it, but even then I'd look at you and think of how beautiful you could be. Knew I'd get nothing but a stake, though, if I said a word." He made himself stop talking, knowing how close he was to bad poetry on the subject of Xander's shoulders, not to mention his eyes.

Xander stared at him, barely breathing. He'd wanted to hear words like this his whole life. Luck of the Hellmouth that they'd finally come to him from someone with every possible strike against them.

Spike sighed. He wanted to say he was sorry for upsetting Xander in the massage room, for driving away that beautiful smile, but the twisted part of his brain refused to let him apologize to a human for making said human unhappy.

"Where were you when I was sixteen?" Xander muttered, still staring.

"Trying to kill you, I think," Spike said honestly. "Or on my way here to try."

The young man shook himself. "Thanks for that. For a second I forgot what you are. I think it's time to call it a night and forget all this ever happened."

Spike shrugged. "Be my guest." But his gaze was all over Xander, memorizing lines and angles for future use.

"I'm serious, bleach boy, I don't want to be thinking about you sitting in your favorite chair thinking about . . ." The look on the vampire's face made Xander catch his breath and have disturbing mental images of his own, of Spike lounging in a chair, eyes thoughtful as one hand went to the fly of those oh-so-tight pants . . .

The boy's heart rate was up. Spike eased a little closer. "I can't help what you think about. You can't help what I think about. And if I think about my fingers tracing your collarbone . . ."

He reached out and very gently touched. Xander shivered as the water-warm fingers ghosted along his shoulder. The water moved and wrapped around his cock as Spike stepped in again.

". . . about being close enough to smell you . . ."

Spike smelled arousal with just a whiff of panic. Why had no one ever gone to the trouble of properly seducing this boy before?

". . . about running the tip of my tongue along your lips . . ."

The wall at Xander's back stopped him from moving away. But he never thought of closing his eyes as Spike leaned in very carefully, watching him, mouth opening just enough for the tip of the tongue to slip out and caress his mouth with the lightest of pressure.

". . . about feeling that hard body of yours against mine . . ."

Skin hotter than the water around them, shivering faintly. Just contact for now, chest to chest, hard erections bumping hips, uncertain dark eyes on persuasive pale ones.

" . . . about making you understand what pleasure is . . ."

Xander gasped as hands drifted across his chest, staying below water level and exploring his nipples. Spike smiled faintly and settled his mouth against those tempting mortal lips.

No one had ever kissed him like this, slow but full of promise. Xander was used to hot kisses that definitely led the way to other good things. This was almost an end in itself, two pairs of lips moving against each other, two tongues investigating. He snatched breath when he could, letting his mind drift off into that other world where the words "I'm being kissed, this feels so good, I'm being kissed by Spike, I don't believe this, I'm being kissed by a guy" kept circling in search of a resolution.

Then he felt those hands slide down his ribs to settle on his hips. His own hands were still drifting aimlessly in the water, torn between pushing away and pulling closer. When Spike reached between to fondle his erection, all he could do was whimper. Xander shifted helplessly, his cock slid in the vampire's hold, and part of his brain exploded.

Hot and throbbing in his grip. Spike moved his hand up and down slowly, smiling as Xander gasped against his lips. He shifted closer until his own cock was pressed between them. His free hand slipped up to trace the edge of Xander's jaw. "God, I want you," he whispered. "Let me have you." He rocked his hips against the other man, feeling mortal muscles jump under him.

Xander felt his own knees shake. He gingerly brought his fingers up to touch Spike's torso, feeling the hard curve of muscles. Spike grunted and brought his lips back to Xander's mouth, no longer delicate now but demanding. Xander spread his hands across Spike's ribs, absently noting how slender the man was, even though the shape was nothing like a woman's . . .

Like Anya's.

He managed to pull his mouth free and his hands back. "No," he growled, fighting every instinct that wanted to say "God, yes, more."

Spike glared at him, his breath for speech ragged. "What the hell do you mean, no?" His own hands were still moving.

"I mean, no, I'm not going to do this--" He couldn't talk for a moment as clever fingers toyed with his balls. "Please let go of me, Spike."

"Tell me what you mean, boy." Too much warm, lovely flesh under his hands to leave alone, too much silicon in his brain to ignore the words. Spike felt muscles shiver as he kept himself from simply taking what Xander's body had just been offering.

"You were the reason I wrecked what I had with Cordy, I'm not going to let you be the cause of me wrecking things with Anya."

Spike had heard that story too many times. "I didn't make you kiss Red," he snarled.

"No, I know, but I'm not going to be stupid again." Arguing with a man who had a hand around your dick did not give you a lot of bargaining points. "Did you ever cheat on Dru?"

Spike went still and let his hands drift away from mortal skin. "No," he finally said. "If she wasn't a part of it, she agreed to it." He did not add that playing with humans didn't count, since that was so often part of the hunt.

"And I'm not going to cheat on Anya. And I don't think you can make me." He swallowed hard at the look on Spike's face, a look that said "wasn't going to/wasn't able to" did not mean "didn't want to."

Fear of the chip stopped him long enough for grudging understanding to kick in. Spike reluctantly stepped away from the body he wanted to be getting a whole lot closer to. He couldn't fault Xander for having the same respect for his relationship with Anya that he'd had with Dru. Even with his evil half--evil three-quarters? Seven-eighths?--begging him to ignore it all and just take the boy.

"Thanks," Xander said cautiously. "Look, I'm sor--"

"Finish that," Spike snarled, "and I will drown you."

"Yeah, right." Awkward conversation would be--awkward. He saw his towel was close enough that he could reach it and pull himself out of the pool without flashing his achingly hard cock to the world. He didn't look back as he made his way to the locker rooms.

There was supposed to have been a wedding that day. Spike had shown up to prove how civilized he could be when he wanted to--though that didn't really excuse the tart he'd brought along. But he'd been civil to Buffy, and he'd made a promise to himself that he wasn't going to drop any kind of lewd innuendos when he saw Xander in the receiving line. Probably.

No receiving line, though, and no wedding. Just lots of confusion and recrimination and tears. Spike retired to the baths after hearing various reports from people eager to share the news, sitting in the steam room and mulling over how close life in Sunnyhell resembled the plot of an episode of "Passions".

He didn't believe it when he smelled it, and he didn't open his eyes when the weight settled down on the bench next to him. He listened to the sound of breathing, still occasionally ragged even hours after the fact.

"You couldn't have found a better way to do it?" he finally asked.

"I'm not here to talk."

Spike turned his head. Xander's eyes were filled with shock, shame, and confusion. "And what are you here for?"

Xander fidgeted with his towel, tucked neatly around his waist. "Hoped you were here," he whispered.

"Come looking for Spike, the happy fun toy that you can play with for hours and throw away when you're done with him? I'll pass."

"Not even if you get to play with Xander, the stupid toy that deserves to be thrown away when you're done with him?"

Oh, so very, very tempting. Spike hadn't gotten to play Punish The Deserving And Willing in ages. His cock twitched hopefully as he imagined dozens of scenarios to play on willing flesh, many of them chip-hazard free.

The steam room was empty, so he reached over to trace the line of sweat that was building on Xander's chest. He rested his fingers over the heartbeat, feeling it speed up. He met Xander's eyes, and the other man didn't look away as he leaned in for a kiss. Xander opened his mouth, hungry for that desire he'd felt, that passion that had erased everything in his mind. Spike's fingers slid up into his hair, holding his head still as their tongues explored. He relaxed into the grip, giving himself over.

Then Spike let go and pulled away.

"What?" Xander blinked.

The vampire's voice was bitter. "When you wake up in the morning hating somebody, it's not going to be me."

"No . . . Please, Spike. I don't want to be alone."

He gave a twisted smile and ran a finger along Xander's lips. "Nobody does. Fuck all if that's not how we always end up."

He leaned in for one more kiss, then gathered his towel and walked away.