WHAT'S IMPORTANT

Spike/Xander Slash by Fojiao2

RATING: PG-13 DISCLAIMER: Joss Whedon owns every character used here, not me.

DEDICATION: For GioGio, The Single Loveliest Woman in Berkeley, CA.

An alternate ending to the 4th Season episode "Doomed." Just the very last scene has changes. The threat to the Hellmouth has been stopped. Spike has learned that he can kill demons. And he is still dressed in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt as he, Xander, and Anya walk back to Xander's parents' house.

          "Did you SEE her?" Spike groused, kicking at a can on the street. "Fawnin' all over that soldier boy, as if he'd done anything. I killed one of those demons, I helped save the world. AGAIN."

          "Actually," Anya said, "didn't Buffy say that you hastened the end by throwing that demon's corpse into the Hellmouth?"

          Spike shot her a hateful, spiteful look and went silent, still scuffing the street with his boot heel every other step.

          Xander had been uncharacteristically silent for a while. The fact was, he had actually run out of the disgusted sounds he could make three blocks back. Now he could only cast hateful glares in Spike's direction. He finally broke his silence when he cried out, "Yes! Home! I have NEVER been so happy to see it!" Xander increased his pace as they neared the darkened house. He went to the side, toward the basement door, thus avoiding the living room and the other people who lived there. The strangers who called themselves his family.

          He was surprised when the doorknob didn't turn in his hand; instead, his hand slid around the securely-locked knob. He turned and looked with annoyance at Spike, as if it were the vampire's fault. At least the vampire was the easiest to blame. "An, hun, do you have the keys?"

          "I have the keys now?" she said. "I thought you had the keys. Because this is YOUR place. With YOUR bed. With YOUR sheets that will be washed in YOUR sweet time. And when WILL that time ever come, Xander?"

          Xander put up a hand, their signal for her to be quiet. "Okay," he said. "So can you go through the front door and then come around and unlock this for us?"

          "Why should I go? It's YOUR house, Xander."

          Just the thought of seeing his father lying drunk on that plastic-covered couch, with two days' worth of stubble giving him that charming Fred Flintstone look, sent a shiver through the young man. "Thank you, no. Can you please just do this for me, Anya?"

          Anya put her hands on her hips and stomped one delicate foot into the turf by the door. "Sometimes you make me so mad," she told him, and stomped off toward the house's front.

          His inability to think ahead once more brought him to suffering: he was now alone with Spike. The vampire crossed his arms, kicked back on one heel, and looked speculatively at Xander. "Do you think it's a secret?" he asked.

          Xander stared at him. "What are you talking about?"

          "The fact that the sheets on your bed reek," Spike answered. "I may be dead, but I have a bloody nose, whelp."

          Xander looked him up and down. "Who are you to talk?! You can't even wash your own clothes correctly!"

          "At least I try, boy," Spike growled at him. "I recognize a need and make an attempt. While you—" His head tilted to the side and his mouth snapped shut.

          Xander couldn't help but laugh at the sight. "What are you—?" But Spike put a finger on the human's lips, shutting him up.

          "I just heard something," Spike said in a whisper. "Something bad. Let's see if Anya's okay." He then moved into the shadows against the house's walls, the garish clothes not hampering him at all in becoming a silent, deadly shadow that intimidated the hell out of Xander. He stomped after the vampire, trying to be as quiet as possible but sounding to himself like he was stepping on every dry leaf in the yard. When he came around the corner to the front of the house a pale white hand shot out of the shadows and pressed against his chest, stopping him. It was the most heroic thing he'd done that day to keep himself from screaming.

          "There's blood spilled on the front porch," Spike said, no longer whispering. He took a long sniff and said without emotion, "It's Anya's."

          "An-yaaaaaaa!" Xander screamed, already running for the porch.

          "Bloody hell," Spike muttered, throwing himself through the window in the house's front room. The scent of blood and death was much stronger inside. He stayed close to the floor, made as few movements as possible, and made no sound at all. As he expected, the front door was set as a trap: it was wide open, with Anya's body draped through the entrance. He moved closer to her and saw Xander rush onto the porch, throwing himself upon the prone form of Anya. The sobbing young man, who cradled his dead girlfriend unbelievingly in his arms, clearly didn't see anything else. And he had no clue that the killer was now stepping out of the shadows behind the couch, a wiry teenager with wild eyes and a butcher's knife in his right fist. He was still carefully moving outside of the light cast by the open door, sneaking up on his weeping prey silently.

          But of course, he was completely unhidden to Spike's undead eyes. Spike stood up and said, "Steppin' out on the bill, lad?"

          The young man stopped short and turned to look at Spike. He'd known something was thrown through the window but hadn't imagined it had been a man. It was a complication, but not one he felt he couldn't deal with.

          Xander looked up and for the first time noticed the gore-covered blade only three feet from his head. He stared in frozen horror, thinking he was about to join Anya. He couldn't imagine what was stopping the knife from advancing.

          The killer was frozen, halfway between Xander and Spike. The vampire had to make a move. He opened his arms invitingly, flicked his hands in a "come hither" gesture, and said through a deadly grin, "C'mon, pet, give us a kiss."

          The kid gave him a similar grin and lunged forward. Xander watched his progress and now saw Spike standing in his living room, inviting the killer to take him out.

          The human was trapped in molasses compared to how quickly Spike could move. Spike had time to consider ten different moves to take the kid out, but as the victim was human none of them would work. So he did the only thing left to him. When the energetic psycho flashed forward with his blade, Spike made sure that it passed directly through his left forearm; then, with a slight twist of the bones in his arm, he tore the knife out of the young man's hand. Just pushing the blood-covered freak off of him caused his chip to give him some warning twinges. Christ, if he couldn't even defend himself against some spoiled California teenager then what good was he?

          Before the gangly teenager hit the floor, Spike righted him and put his right arm around the kid's shoulders. While the wide-eyed human watched, he brought his other arm around and slowly pulled the knife out of his flesh. His cold lips were pressed right against the kid's ear, and Spike could feel the heat of fear rising from the guy. "It's experiment time, mate," Spike told him. "I got this little thing I've been considering, but it was so hard to find myself in a mood where I'd want to try it. But guess what? Now I got a bloody excuse to get bloody." He held the knife to the kid's throat, then stepped back and wrapped his left hand around the throat where the knife had been. He pulled the blade back, not looking into the kid's eyes, not looking at Xander just past him. He concentrated on his own hand. "I'm not stabbing you, kid," he said, fixing his concentration upon his own voice. "I'm just stabbing my hand. I'm not stabbing the human. I'm just stabbing my hand." Spike brought the knife forward quickly and expertly sent it through the back of his left hand, slipping it between the bones there as only someone with a century's experience at killing people could. And, naturally, it jammed into the young man's throat which was beneath his hand.

          Which Spike knew only too well. Which was why the pain that now exploded through his head was only the first shock—there was a flood of torment coming up his spine like a runaway train and he only had time to spit out, "Bugger! Guess it didn't—" when he could suddenly do nothing else but scream and clutch at his head. When the knife slipped from the young man's throat the kid fell back with blood shooting up from him. He hit the floor and didn't get up again. Spike, meanwhile, with a giant butcher knife still embedded in his left hand, was trying to keep his head from exploding by gripping the top of it with his right hand and making sure it stayed in place. Finally, another crest of pain slammed through  him and he lost consciousness.

          When Spike woke the pain was the first reality that impinged itself on him. It was still there, still very strong, but now it was no worse than having, say, a broken limb or his intestines hanging out of his gut—both things he'd experienced more than once in more than a century of pitched battles. After all, he'd killed two Slayers—but that didn't mean he'd only fought two.

          Next he noticed that blue and red lights were sweeping across him in a repeated pattern. Sirens. Then his memory cleared suddenly: Anya, Xander, and a killer. He sat up quickly, then found that that was a very wrong thing to do. He fell back to his pillow moaning and gripping his head—and that was how he found that the knife was out of his hand, and that his left arm and hand were bandaged up.

          "You're awake," said a deep, unaffected voice near his feet.

          Spike decided to raise only his head this time. He now saw that he was on a bed in a darkened room, probably the parents' bedroom judging by the pictures on the walls, and that the flashing light from police cars and ambulances in the front yard provided the only illumination in the room. Never mind: Spike could still clearly see that Xander was sitting at the foot of the bed, his back to Spike, staring into the dark.

          "So what happened?" Spike croaked.

          "You got the guy," Xander answered.

          Duh, Spike thought. "I mean: who? What? When? How many?"

          "He was just some Sunnydale kid. He— I guess he saw a little too much at graduation last year. Went pretty nuts. Saw some big conspiracy with the new mayor, started killing families of those who graduated before him. Apparently they've been after him for a while." He turned around and looked at Spike with a serious expression. "I told them I killed him. Is that okay?"

          Spike wasn't quite sure what to say. "Uh, sure, I guess. I mean, what were you gonna tell 'em? That a vampire took him out before you could?"

          Xander turned back around, looking at nothing. "I don't think that I could have. I was so close to dying, there. If I'd gone first instead of Anya . . ." He trailed off into silence.

          "He get any others?" Spike asked.

          Xander nodded. "Mom. Dad. My Aunt Sarah and Cousin Joan—they were staying with us for a month. Joan was just ten." He said all of this in a monotone that Spike didn't like. "I found 'em all. Then I dragged you in here and hid you in a closet, 'cause . . . 'cause they'd think you were just another corpse. You were pretty out of it, and the lack of breathing and all would've been the first hint. They'd have dragged you out in a body bag along with the others." He then lapsed into silence again.

          "I'm sorry about Anya," Spike offered.

          Xander let out a small laugh. "Yeah. I'm sure you really cared for her."

          Spike's quick anger overrode the throbbing in his head. "Screw you, Harris," he said. "I liked the demon girl just fine! She was the only one o' you lot with any real spark. She was honest and cheerful, and never afraid to feel something. This world's a damn sight poorer without her in it." And if I'd accompanied her to that door none of this would've happened, he thought.

          "Ya got that right," Xander replied. And said nothing else for some minutes.

          "You do realize that you're in shock, don't you, Harris?" Spike asked.

          Xander nodded. "One of the paramedics looked at me earlier. Said they wanted me to come with 'em to the hospital. Told 'em I'd wait in here 'til they left."

          As if on cue, there was a knock on the door. "Mr. Harris?" came a muted voice. "Are you ready to leave?"

          "Just a minute!" Xander called. He stood and closed the Venetian blinds on the one window, cutting the flashing lights and plunging the room into complete darkness. Spike could still see, though, and Xander moved through the room with familiarity. Before he reached the door he turned back to Spike, not realizing that the vampire could clearly see the desperate expression on his face and the tears swimming in his eyes. "Spike?" he said. "Can you, like, stay here? The sun shouldn't be able to get in here tomorrow, and . . ." Xander hung his head. "I'd really like someone to be here when I get home."

          "No worries, Harris," Spike said. "With the pain in my head I won't be doing many somersaults anyway. You just go do what you need to do. I'll keep the house safe while you're gone. I swear." Spike didn't know where or when he'd developed a proprietary feeling about the Harris household, but suddenly it seemed very important to him that this place not be emptied of life once again.

          "Thanks," Xander said, and opened the door just a fraction so that he could exit. Soon all the noise and the lights and the delicious heartbeats disappeared, leaving Spike alone in this dark house of death. Not like he'd inhabited any other type since the 1800's. Sleep was the only way to escape the pain in his head, so he dove into it and found once again the only sanctuary the world offered him these days.

*********************************

          Spike was up by noon and wandering the house. He was grateful to learn that all that foolishness about chalk- or tape-outlines was just that: foolishness that movies and TV used but real police didn't. Someone had thankfully put up a piece of board to cover the broken window in the living room, so the light flooding in was significantly lessened. From what he could see of the outside, it looked like the front yard had been roped off with police tape, and he could only assume that the front door was the same way: there was no way he was going to open it to find out, not while that killer sun still burned above. The bloodstains on the carpets would probably need to stay there, and when he thought about it it seemed best to leave everything untouched, in case the police happened to come back to catalogue new evidence.

          So he threw himself onto the couch, grabbed the remote, and flipped on the telly. This was all much more comfortable than the crappy furniture the Harrises threw down into the basement for their son. Of course, if half the stories he'd heard about them from Xander were true, it was just like them to treat the boy so. He thought that in some ways Xander should be happy to be rid of them—but Spike would never tell him that. He knew from experience there was time for hard truths and a time to shut one's mouth. He had only to remember how he was treated as a young man, a gentleman saddled with a widowed mother and graceless sister, both dying of consumption. Many was the time a "well-meaning" friend would be "brutally honest, for his sake," and tell him to leave them to die in England while he found his pleasures in Italy or elsewhere on the continent. "They're dragging you down," his best friend had told him—a friend he never spoke with again after that day. He saw the man again, of course, but at that point a railroad spike was all he used to get his message across. His mother and sister had indeed dragged him into financial ruin, and he hadn't cared one bit. He'd stayed with them to the end, and after they died he tried to find the one thing that would distract him from the dark thoughts that haunted him each day: love. It was then that he'd formed his obsession with Cecily, one that would eventually lead to his new unlife. He thought of his mother's sweet face and the TV blared on, unwatched.

          While remembering his life and considering other things, he looked down to his left arm. If it was true that he'd been hidden from the paramedics, then who'd bandaged his wounds? It must have been Xander! The very thought of it made him shiver. There he'd been, unconscious and helpless, Xander's girlfriend and family dead in the hallway, and the git was wrapping bandages and strapping him with tape? The poor boy must have really been out of it, he thought. Then brought himself up sharp: did I just think of Xander Harris as "poor boy?" That shock from the chip must have zapped me more harshly than I thought.

          Before he could think further on this, he heard movement at the outside basement door downstairs. In a second he was through the inside basement door and halfway down the stairs, ready to throw himself at whoever came through. His feelings were strong on this point and he didn't question them: this home had been violated once and he'd make sure it didn't happen again.

          The doorknob was still locked, but some powerful hand on the other side twisted the entire mechanism within the door and it broke cleanly. The door swung open and Spike was able to see the intruder: Buffy. Her eyes were luminous in the sunlight, her hair flashing gold, and she didn't seem at all surprised to see him there. Their eyes met, and she smirked at him: "Shouldn't you be tied to a chair?" she asked.

          He frowned at her. "They don't do that anymore. Harris has me doing laundry."

          "Which explains the shirt."

          "Worked for you last night."

          "Yeah, lots of help you were, throwing that demon in the Hellmouth."

          "At least I can be of help, now," Spike said, at the bottom of the stairs by this point and looking harshly across the room at Buffy. "I got my rocks back. I can defend myself against other vampires and demons, and I intend to do so."

          "So—what? Are you going to help me on patrols?" Buffy asked, barely able to keep her bubbling laughter at bay. "I can see it now: me, Riley, and 'a friend of Xanderrrrr's.'"

          Just the mention of Riley cooled Spike's mood: he'd been enjoying the banter up to that point. He put his hands in his shorts pockets and said, "So why are you here?"

          "A mission of mercy, actually." She lifted the bag in her left hand. "Blood for you. Xander wanted to bring it himself, but I thought it best that I do it. And, strangely enough, he wanted me to tell you that."

          "You've seen Xander? How is he?"

          Buffy looked at him through squinted, suspicious eyes. "He's okay. He's been with us at Giles' place. Since when do you care?"

          Spike's eyes widened in alarm. "Care? I don't care! I just— He—" He let out a deep breath and said with his eyes closed, "I promised Harris I'd stay here and take care of the place. Until he came back. So I wanted to know when he'd be back. I'm worried, that's all." He waited for the verbal stabbing to begin. When it didn't happen he opened his eyes cautiously and saw Buffy staring at him, still with deep suspicion.

          "Did you do something to Xander? Some kinda thrall thing?"

          "What are you talking about?" Spike snorted. "Thrall's never been my style. Never had the patience for it."

          "Well," Buffy said, rolling her eyes, "Xander's over at Giles' apartment talking about you. Saying that you saved his life, that you would have saved Anya's life if he'd taken you all through the front instead of the basement. And he's talking like you're going to stay in this house for a while."

          "It's Xander's house now, innit?" Spike retorted. "'Spect if he wants me to stay for a while I have no problem with it. Bloke's right, you don't get a trauma like that and just shrug it off."

          "Yeah," Buffy said, looking wistful. "We'll all miss Anya. She was just starting to become part of the Scoobies."

          Spike stared at her with utter contempt. Bloody Slayer thought the sun bloody rose and set in her bloody bedroom on Revello. Through gritted teeth he said, "I meant his parents."

          Buffy's eyes snapped to his in alarm, caught out in her selfishness. "Uh, right. His parents. Yeah, they'll really be missed, too."

          Spike looked her up and down. "Not your favorite people, were they?"

          She looked back warily. Ah, it was only Spike; no need to be polite. "They didn't exactly contribute to the community. And it wasn't like Xander liked them, either."

          "Doesn't matter," Spike returned. "Sometimes the people you hate the most make the largest impressions in your life. Sometimes they even define who you are. Take a Slayer, for instance."

          "What about me?"

          "Oh, I didn't mean you specifically, Blondie." He slowly approached her across the dim room as he spoke. "I meant Slayers in general. They're usually defined by their enemy rather than anything in themselves. Learn to hunt, learn to kill, mainly by watching their prey. Oh, the Watchers teach 'em a few tricks, teach 'em to handle weapons. But you know as well as I: when you're in the heat of battle and it's do or die, you're not thinking about anything Giles may have told you. You're using something that worked against Angelus." By now he was standing face-to-face, watching the emotions and memories play across her face. "Or you're thinking of something you saw me do. Every day, in some small way, through every battle, you're picking up a piece of us. And eventually we'll be a part of you, until that one good day when you're just a little too slow, a little too curious about what it'd be like to be one of us. And then you're dead, Slayer."

          Buffy looked into his powerful blue eyes and said, "You're forgetting one thing."

          "And that would be?"

          He never saw her fist, but it slammed into his face and shot him across the room, depositing him at the foot of the steps. He was chuckling, though, as he wiped blood off his split lip. Arrogant chit, she deserved to get taken down a peg or two, and if words were his only way to do that then he'd use them.

          She set his bag from the butcher's on a coffeetable, looked down at him imperiously, said, "You're a pig, Spike," and turned to leave.

          "And you, luv, are—" He sang: "The wind beneath my wings." He then began to laugh in earnest.

          Outraged at his reminder of how they'd been engaged just a few weeks before, she slammed the basement door behind her . . . only to have it fall open again. She slammed it again and it once more fell open.

          "Ya broke the bloody knob, ya bint!" Spike cried from inside. "Don't worry, I'll fix it, I'll fix it." She then heard him laughing again and stormed away from the Harris residence. She had to find somebody who respected her no matter what: where was Riley right now?

********************************

          It was late. Too late. Xander should have been home by now. Sure, sure, it was less than 24 hours since his parents were killed in this house and thus maybe he wanted to avoid it for a while and stay with Giles or Willow or even Buffy. But something inside Spike told him that wouldn't be the case. He somehow knew that Xander would have called or sent a message if that was his plan. He also felt sure that Xander would come back to the house tonight. And if he was coming back then he was LATE. More than twenty times he'd put his hand on the front door knob, ready to race out into the night and find the young man. But every time he did he remembered his promise to be here when Xander returned. And that was more powerful in him than even his worry.

          Finally, he heard voices on the front lawn: Willow and Xander. Red was telling him that she'd stay with him tonight, that it was the least she could do, and at the same time telling him that she didn't mind leaving Tara alone, that he was more important to her. As if holding out a hand and stabbing him with the other: none of these "friends" in the Scoobies could ever stop with the guilt. And Xander was telling her that it was all right, he'd be all right, he had to be here and had to face his demons head-on.

          They were on the porch, about to open the door, when Spike did it for them. Willow took a small hop backward in alarm and said, "Spike!" Xander looked up to the vampire and broke into a big smile. "Spike," he said.

          Spike held up a hand before they could enter and said, "Wait. I've wanted to do this since I saw that movie." He then hopped to the right, turned sideways, bowed deeply to them, and said, "Enter, and of your own free will."

          Xander and Willow stepped into the house, and Spike closed the door, locking it securely. The two friends drifted over to the couch and Spike took the recliner that had been the father's. The humans didn't know what to say.

          "Xander," Spike said, and the young man turned to him eagerly. "Uh, thank you for the blood. It was very thoughtful."

          "The least I could do, man," Xander said. "If you hadn't been here last night—"

          Spike held up a hand. "I actually don't want to talk about it. Unless you do, of course."

          Xander shook his head. "Nah. Nothing to be said, really." He continued to watch Spike, when suddenly a detail caught his eye. "Hey! You're wearing your clothes! I mean, YOUR clothes, and not the Hawaiian shirt."

          Spike looked down at his black shirt and black jeans. "Yeah. I was looking around the house for tools to fix a broken doorknob—don't ask—when I came across these books. Pretty dusty, but they turned out to be useful. They're this thing called the Time-Life Home Improvement Series."

          Xander chuckled and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, the parents got 'em when I was born. Always planning to improve the place but never got the chance." At the realization that they never would, he suddenly found nothing to laugh about. Willow reached out to take his hand—to give comfort and to remind him that she was there.

          Spike was just as serious. He leaned forward in his chair. "Well. Anyway, they're bloody marvelous books. Step-by-step instructions on all this crap, like how to install a doorknob or fix a washing machine or build a deck. And right there with the washing machine repair were instructions on how to wash clothes proper-like. So I did a load for me, and then did that huge pile of clothes you've been neglecting, Xander. Even did your sheets—" Ah Christ, Spike thought, really wish I hadn't said that. Xander's eyes widened at the mention of that, at the last conversation he'd had with Anya, and he turned a good deal paler.

          Xander stood up abruptly, rushing away, saying, "I need to get something from the bathroom," and disappearing from the living room. Which left Spike and Willow staring at each other.

          "I'm sorry," Spike said. "It's what he and Anya were talking about last night, washing his sheets. Right before—" He let it remain unsaid, and Willow caught the hint. "Um, how has he been? Today?"

          Willow frowned. "When we first saw him at the hospital, he was like, too calm. He told us everything, but it was like a story that happened to somebody else. When he started to get over the shock he loosened up a bit, but every time he starts to cry he runs to the bathroom. He won't open up to us."

          Spike nodded. "He was like that earlier. 'Course, with how the Slayer laughed most of this off, I can kinda see why."

          "Laughed it off?"

          "She was a lot more sorry about Anya being gone than his parents."

          Willow's frown turned dour. "His parents were horrible people," she said. "I grew up around them, I know. It might be for the best that they're gone."

          "Oh Lord, not you too," Spike said. "Listen, Red, monsters or not they were FAMILY. They didn't die naturally, they were taken away, and that means there's a great deal of unresolved stuff inside him. He's gonna be hurting about this for a long, long time, and the more you push this stuff into a corner the worse it's going to be when it comes to light again. Which it will definitely do."

          Willow's frown somehow deepened. "I don't agree. The nuclear family is not a static form. The place of these authority figures in an individual's psychosocial makeup can be replaced. They—"

          "Christ!" Spike interrupted. "Red, I'm older than psychoanalysis, and I can tell you right now, this is hurting him a lot more than he's showing. And the only reason I can see for you not getting this is that you're bringing your issues with your own parents into this."

          "What?" Willow looked utterly shocked. "Well— Well, like you're not?!"

          Spike sighed deeply. "Of course I am. But unlike you, I've been through this. I'm not trying to attack you, Red. I'm just trying to get my mind around this, while trying to not hurt Xander."

          "And since when have you not wanted to hurt Xander?"

          Spike leaned forward even more. "Since I stopped someone else from killing him!"

          The two then sat there in silence, digesting what had been said and what they thought, until Xander came back into the room. He had a towel around his neck and looked like he had just washed his face. "Uh, hey guys. What's going on?"

          Willow stood up. "I think I'll go," she said, stopping to search Xander's eyes. "Unless you want me to stay? I don't want to leave you alone."

          "He won't BE alone," Spike said from the recliner, but not harshly.

          Xander hugged Willow close and said, "He's right, Wils. Look, I— I feel safe with Spike here. I feel like he can protect me, even from human monsters. Right, Spike?"

          Suddenly the vampire didn't want to seem so eager. He sighed heavily. "Yeah, if you say so," he said. "I did promise. And it's not like I have anywhere else to go." Spike stood as Willow and Xander moved toward the door, still arm-in-arm.

          "Oh, one last thing," Willow said, and stepped over to Spike. She looked up to him and then hopped up to kiss him on the cheek. "Thanks for saving Xander's life," she said. She looked at a smirking Xander, said, "I'll see you tomorrow," and then she was out into the night. Once more, Spike locked the door securely.

          Then Spike and Xander were left alone, standing in front of the door, just looking at each other. Spike was the first to move, stretching out his arms and yawning. "It's late," he said. "I guess we both need to get some sleep. I made sure your bed downstairs was set for you, Xander."

          Xander looked in the direction of the basement door. "Yeah. Yeah, I am tired. I haven't had any sleep since before—" He trailed off, but they both knew what he meant.

          "I was thinking I'd take the couch," Spike said. "Unless you'd like me somewhere else?"

          "What? What about my parents' bed?"

          "I didn't think you'd want me on it."

          "You slept there last night, didn't you?"

          "Yeah, 'cause you were hiding me from the medicoes. But I thought—"

          "Look, it's still the least sunny room in the house. It'd be the best place for you to sleep. Go on, take it. I'll be okay in the basement."

          Spike reluctantly started edging to the bedroom's door. "You need anything, you just shout," he told Xander.

          "I'll be cool. Thanks for the concern." Xander then turned and took the steps down into the basement.

          Spike was half-awake when he heard a light click on in the kitchen: he assumed it was Xander getting a late-night snack. He was fully awake when he heard someone moving through the living room. He extended his senses and reassured himself that it was indeed Xander. Then Xander was at the bedroom door, and opened it.

          "Spike?" he asked.

          "Yeah, Xander?" The light spilling in from the hall caused him to blink, but he could clearly see Xander standing in the space of the open door, shirtless, sky-blue pajama bottoms on.

          "Um, I— Dammit!" He slammed his fist into the door frame and looked down, not able to meet Spike's eyes. Spike just stayed quiet. Finally Xander said quietly, "I don't feel right sleeping by myself. Can I— Can I sleep there with you?"

          In Spike's continued silence, Xander began to splutter, "Now, now, it's not, like, any gay thing or whatever, it's just, it's just—

          "Mate," Spike's deep baritone interrupted him. "Ya don't have to explain a thing to me. C'mon." He stood up and pulled back the covers, dressed only in a pair of boxer shorts. "You get under the sheets, I'll sleep on top. You should be comfortable then."

          Xander's eyes held a world of thanks, but he didn't have the words. Spike just smirked and shook his head. "C'mon, you need your sleep." Xander closed the door and moved to the bed, once more comfortable in the room's darkness. He slid under the covers on the left side while Spike stretched out across the blanket on the right side and buried his head in a pillow.

          In the pitch black, not having to look at the vampire, Xander found his voice once more. "Thank you, Spike. I really needed someone close to me now."

          "Don't worry. I've been where you are, I've been that alone and scared. You'll pull through—just don't feel like you have to hold it all in. Your friends are here for you, Xander." He paused. "We'll see that you come out the other side okay."

          Spike couldn't say anything more, unsure if Xander heard how he'd just included himself among the man's friends. He was very thankful that he was turned away from Xander and didn't have to see his face. The silence stretched out, yet Spike couldn't sleep, and he knew by Xander's breathing that the human was also awake.

          "Spike?"

          "Hmm?"

          "Are you still evil?"

          "Last I checked. Why?"

          "Do you think about being damned? Do you have, like, dreams of Hell and stuff?"

          "This has got to be the stupidest line of questioning I've heard in a while. But no, you don't. If you're evil, you simply—well, you don't feel guilty for the wrong things you do. You cause pain, torment, bloodshed, and the consequences just slide away."

          "Well, why do that, then? Why cause pain when you don't have to?"

          "Ah, that's the point. Your average demon doesn't—he's just interested in surviving, and if that survival means eating babies that's what he'll do. It's not like he gets pleasure from it, it's just how he was made. But with vampires, we're a special breed. Most of us get off on the pain and killing right away, and we just get better at it with age. We join with humans, and thus we take the worst of the demon side and mix it with the worst of the human side. The result's greater than the sum of its parts. That's why most demons won't have any truck with vampires—when it comes to finding pleasure from bloodshed there're none finer. And we don't hesitate to kill other demons or our own kind if we're looking for a good time."

          "And you still get that pleasure from causing pain?"

          Spike closed his eyes. "It's all I've known, Xander. Maybe if Angelus hadn't taught me so well I'd be different. But he did. Not that that's the only way I can find pleasure, but . . . yeah, I'm real good at it."

          "Hmp. Now I'm confused."

          "About what?"

          "I thought I was evil."

          "What?!"

          "I mean, I wished my parents were dead. And then they were. So I thought that I was evil now."

          Spike spun around so he was facing Xander. Xander was already looking at him. "You been holding that in your brain all day?" Spike asked. Xander only nodded, tears running down his face. "Well, you shoulda talked to me earlier. 'Cause I can tell ya, whelp: you ain't evil."

          "But I—"

          "But nothing. You wished your parents were dead? How many times?"

          Xander's confusion was clear on his face. "What?"

          "How many times? Was it a prayer, a mantra, or just a general feeling you kept through the whole day?"

          "What? I don't know how many times. Lots."

          "Like you'd wake up in the morning, say, 'I wish mom and dad were dead,' then as you were brushing your teeth you thought, 'yep, wish they were both six feet under.' Then as you were tying your shoes you'd think, 'sure hope they'd die now.'"

          "NO!" Xander protested. "I just— There were times when—" He couldn't get the right words out.

          "There were times when you wanted them dead. Like when you heard them fighting."

          "Yeah."

          "Or when you had to pay 'em rent."

          "Yeah!"

          "Or when you had to drag your father's drunken ass off the front porch and clean the vomit off his face, and drag him out of his wet clothes that he'd pissed himself in, then put him in his jammies and throw him into this bed."

          Xander was silent again. "You saw that?"

          "Last Tuesday. You never were very good at tying ropes. But that's not what's important. I was asking a question. When you had to go through that, did you wish he was dead?"

          "Yeah," Xander said in a quiet, little-boy voice.

          "Then you never did wish it."

          "Excuse me?"

          "Nope. Never really did. You were just angry, Xander, like every child is at their parents. You were angry and you lashed out, even if it was just in your head. An unfortunate choice of words, yeah. But I'm betting that you had that same wish in your head for years and nothing happened. Not until last night. Am I right?"

          Xander silently nodded.

          "Then you never really wished them dead, Xander," Spike said. He dared to reach out and put his hand on the young man's shoulder, trying to drive his words in through his thick skull. "Wishing 'em dead is when you leave your dad on the front porch and don't even look at him as you go to work in the morning. Wishing 'em dead is when you stay downstairs screwing your girlfriend, instead of telling said girlfriend that you had job interviews when you were actually holding your mom and letting her cry on your shoulder." He sighed deeply and lay back down. "You got nothing to regret on that score, son. You did right by them, even up to the end. Wherever they are, they're proud of you. 'Cause despite everything they did and didn't do to you, you're NOT evil. You're a white hat. You've helped save the world—a couple o' times. And you can tell yourself for the rest of your life that on the night they met their fate, you were doing that—saving the world. How could they not be proud of how you turned out?"

          Xander pushed the covers aside and sat up. Spike sat up as well and opened his arms. Xander grabbed Spike's torso for all he was worth, burying his head against the cool, smooth chest and weeping with an abandon he'd never known. While he sobbed and wailed, Spike just patted him and rubbed circles on his back, crooning to him that everything would be all right. Within the hour Xander was asleep, clutching Spike and snoring into the vampire's chest. And Spike looked down on his new charge—the new anchor of responsibility in his life—and felt satisfied that he'd chosen the right person to help.

*****************************

          The funeral was still another day away, so Xander announced in the morning that this day was Clean-Out Day. Down in the basement he'd been collecting dozens of boxes for when he finally saved up enough money for The Big Move. Now he was the one staying, so it was time for everyone else's things to move. He and Spike started in the guest room (which had been Xander's room just a year before) where Aunt Sarah and Cousin Joan had been sleeping. The sum total of their things only filled a single box. Sarah was divorced and looking for work in Sunnydale, of all places; but worse, she wasn't even a Harris. If not for Xander's mother she would've had to look for a hotel. Xander had called her brother Ron the day before, and he'd pick up her belongings when he took the bodies back to their family plot in Tennessee.

          Then came the master bedroom. All the clothing was swept away, folded and put into boxes and bags for Goodwill. All the pictures, except for those of his parents, were also taken from the walls. There were a hundred different things, a houseful of little belongings that belonged to the Harrises, which Xander wanted packed away and sent to the basement. Maybe in a few months he'd be prepared to drag things out again and make the place more livable, but at the moment he wanted the house clean so he could also clear the clutter from his mind. And naturally, while they were sorting through jewelry and CDs and a choice collection of porno mags in the closet, Xander would break down every once in a while. But Spike would be there to hold him and rock the young man gently until he could get control of himself.

          Of course, Spike had gotten very little sleep himself while he was comforting Xander. So when Willow showed up at lunchtime to help her friend prepare something and even help with Clean-Out Day, Spike wished them both well and adjourned to the big bed. There he snuggled into the blanket and caught up on his daylight sleeping. When he awoke several hours later it was just nearing evening. He could tell by the atmosphere of the house that doors had been opened, that a car had been started, and that Xander and Willow had left and returned.

          When he staggered into the kitchen, still a vision in pale and black, he found Xander and Willow sitting at the small table there sipping coffee and talking. Willow greeted him with a smile. "There's the man of the hour!" she saluted. "Twilight time comes and he springs into action."

          Spike looked back at her through bleary eyes, his hair looking like an experiment in fractal geometry. "Wha?" he moaned.

          Willow looked at Xander. "This is what you're reduced to living with?"

          "It gets better," Xander said. "Wait until you see him carry five of those boxes that you can barely lift by yourself."

          Spike's erudite commentary on their conversation was: "Wha?"

          "Funny," Xander said. "I would have pegged you as an evening person. Hey, Spikey, check the refrigerator."

          Able to follow simple commands, the still-sleepy vampire opened the fridge and was greeted by four dark red bottles of blood. He was immediately cheered at the sight. He turned back to the humans with a dopey grin, and they laughed at him. He removed a bottle, poured its contents into a mug, warmed it up in the microwave, and came to find a seat at the table. His first sip of the warm blood sparked his brain and opened his eyes. He looked at Xander and Willow with glowing satisfaction. "Thanks ever so," he told them. "Xander, you're a prince among men. Willow, you're a giggling nymph of the black earth. And you're both the kindest humans I know."

          "Wow," said the red head. "Give him a drop of O-neg and watch him go."

          He saluted with the mug. "Thank you. I'm here all week, don't forget to tip your waitress."

          Willow leveled a playful punch at Spike's shoulder. "You're definitely more chipper than you were last night. And this guy," she said, hooking a thumb at Xander, "is looking ten times better than yesterday. And I have a feeling that it's your influence."

          Spike shrugged. "Eh, we talked. I have that whole testosterone perspective that you and Buffy lack."

          "And Giles couldn't help him because . . ?"

          "Cultural differences," Spike said. "They're separated by a common language."

          Willow grinned at that. "Outright plagiarism."

          "The finest kind."

          "Wait a minute," Xander said. "Am I the topic of conversation here or some experiment you two are running?"

          Spike raised a scarred eyebrow and gave Xander a serious look. "At the moment," he said, "you're the center of our bloody world, mate. You're a friend in need, so we're here to hold you up."

          Willow went serious as well and reached out a hand to take Xander's free one. "He's right. Getting you better is job number one."

          Xander looked from one face to another and his eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry," he said. "Thank you guys, I do appreciate it. There's just so much—" His voice caught and he dabbed at his eyes with a napkin.

          "He's been like this," Willow explained.

          "Don't I know it," Spike told her. "But I think it's healthy. He's got a lot to get over."

          "Hey, 'he' is right here with you," Xander said, pulling his hand from Willow's and getting up to fill his mug with more coffee.

          Willow sat back in her chair with her mug, looking at Spike. "It's so weird to see you sitting at a table, calmly sipping blood," she said. "Didn't you try to off yourself two days ago?"

          Spike made a gun with his finger and shot it at her. "That's what you call your classic 'cry for help,' Red. Little wonder that it barely made a blip on the Scooby radar."

          "So what's different now? Besides the fact that you've learned to wash clothes," she asked. Xander took a seat beside her, looking like he wanted an answer to that question as well.

          Spike sighed deeply. "You live long enough, you start to see patterns in people. And it's not thousands or hundreds, like you'd expect. It's really just a few dozen basic forms that get repeated over and over." He could see that Willow was following along, but Xander looked a bit confused. "Like the Zodiac. You know the Zodiac?" Xander nodded. "Okay. I'm a Virgo."

          Xander smirked. Spike pointed at him threateningly. "It was a lot more relevant when I was alive," he said, "and I've been working on correcting it ever since."

          "I'm sure," Xander said through his smile.

          Spike mock-growled. "Anyway! Virgo's are the long-suffering type. We're down on ourselves, think everybody's got more of a reason to live than we do, and generally live in the shadows of others. The shy and retiring type." He shrugged. "It ain't completely correct—no system is. And like I said, it was a lot more true for me when I was alive. But one pattern was established while I was alive that continued into my unlife: taking care of others. When I was a man I took care of my mother and sister, until they died."

          He took a moment for silent contemplation and drank his mug dry, and the humans listening didn't dare to interrupt. "I don't know if Drusilla knew that about me, that I'd stay that way even as a vampire. But it was true enough. As long as we were together I was her willing slave, always at my ladylove's beck and call. That was true for more than a century. Until last year. Then not only does she leave me, but I get this blasted chip in my head. And now, suddenly, I'm not the one taking care, I'm the one being taken care of. It's humiliating, frustrating, and yeah, enough to make you stake yourself. And make everyone around you miserable, just for the giggles in it." Spike looked up from the table, straight into Xander's eyes. "But now I have someone to take care of. Doesn't matter how long it'll last. Doesn't matter if I get kicked in the teeth for it later. As long as I have friends I can help and a cause to fight for, can't say that I have much to complain about."

          Spike took advantage of the silence after that to re-fill his mug and warm it up. He downed it in one long gulp, then washed out the mug in the sink. "Hey Xander," he said. "Think I could get a shower in that bathroom of yours?"

          "Huh? Oh! Yeah, yeah, whatever."

          "It should be full dark by the time I get out. We said before that we were gonna go to Anya's apartment and clean that out. You still wanna go?"

          "Definitely," Xander said. "I want to get this all taken care of before the funeral. My relatives get into town tomorrow and . . . it's gonna get rough."

          "Really? Well, just remember, I'm rougher. You want me to deal with them for you, just ask. See ya in a few minutes, kiddies," he said, leaving the kitchen.

          The shower was warm and invigorating, just what he needed to keep him going through the night ahead. When he got out, though, he could hear the sharp voices from the living room. He opened the bathroom door as he dried off, listening.

          "—Never thought you'd take it this badly, Xander," Willow was saying.

          "How was I supposed to take it?" Xander responded.

          "Well, you were sleeping with Anya, I understand that. But you never seemed to like THEM!" she said.

          "Never liked them," Xander said, and Spike could feel the deep sorrow in that voice from half a house away. "Never liked them. I'll tell you what I don't like, Wils. I don't like my hair. It's this basic black that never goes anywhere. I've always been jealous of your hair, 'cause it stands out, it gets noticed. I never did. You know what else I don't like? These love handles. No matter what I do I just can't seem to lose that right amount of weight to lose them entirely. Ooh, and you know what else? My brain, Wils. I'm really tired of dragging this run-down model around when I could have a speedster like yours.

          "No, wait. Y'know what? I think I'll keep all that. 'Cause as run-down and basic as it all is, Wils, it's MINE. I'm not a hero like Buffy or a genius like you, but what I do have is 100% ME, Willow, all mine! Every inch of it! And my mom and dad weren't good parents by any stretch of the imagination, but they were MINE, they were part of what makes me ME. That's why I miss 'em, Wils, that's why I'll be missing them for a good long time. Not 'cause they were great to have around, and not 'cause they made me feel good about myself—neither of those things are true. I want 'em here because when they were around I knew who I was, I could feel comfortable in my own skin. I'd see them and know that north is north and south is south and mom and dad are bickering drunks. They made sense in a world where your best friend can become a vampire and demons are waiting to swallow the planet. I don't get nearly enough of that, and now it's been robbed from me.

          "So now I want something else to be MINE for a while, okay Wils? I'm not teasing Spike, I'm not leading him on. I seriously want him around! He saved my goddamn life, and he hasn't called that marker, not once. I can trust him. And I plan on trusting him. And that's all there is to it."

          "Good to know, mate," Spike said, stepping out of the hallway, dressed in his tight black clothes with his leather duster billowing around him, peroxide hair slicked back.

          Xander and Willow stared at him, neither knowing what to say. He smiled back. "A bit difficult to breathe up in these high altitudes of honesty, ain't it?" he asked. "Well, I'll get some empty boxes from downstairs and then we'll head over to Anya's. Everybody game?"

          Willow lifted a hand as if waiting to be called on in class. Then she flushed and put her hand down. "Um, I can't. I skipped two classes to come see you this afternoon, Xander, and I want to make the funerals tomorrow. So that means lots of extra studying tonight. But I'd stay and help any other night, really I would. Is that okay?" She looked at Xander, but he seemed to have run out of words after his big speech.

          Finally, Spike stepped forward. "I think it'll be fine, luv. You can't have your classes suffer. Xander and I can handle anything that's over there." He stuck out his hand. "Are we okay?"

          She looked at the hand before her, then took it and shook it. "Yeah. I think we're fine."

          "Good," he said. Then, her hand still in his, he leaned forward and said quietly, "And y'know, I can be your friend, too. Especially when you have your own big revelation to tell the group." He let go of her hand and stood straight, but his eyebrows wiggled at her suggestively.

          Willow stared at him with an open mouth, then clacked it shut. "I'll think about that," she said, then stepped over to Xander. She stepped over to Xander. "You gonna be okay, big guy?"

          He blinked at her, then focused on her clearly. His worried expression shifted to one of great affection. "I'll be fine. Thanks for coming over, Wils. You really are my best friend. I love you." He took her up into a bear hug, and she squeezed back as best she could with her feet off the floor.

          "I love you, too," she said. "Don't forget that." And then she was skipping out the door.

          Xander looked around. Spike seemed to have disappeared. Then he was clearly heard clomping up the basement steps, the sound of his Doc Martens distinctive. He opened the door and stepped into the kitchen, carrying four large cardboard boxes folded flat. "This oughtta serve for a start," he said. "Whatever we encounter there, we're not carrying more than this back with us. At least not tonight."

          "Uh, yeah," said Xander. "Let's get started." He began toward the door, but noticed that Spike was still standing in the kitchen, watching him. He returned to the kitchen and asked, "Spike? Problem?"

          "Not really," Spike said. "I just wondered, now that you're in this honest mood, if you could answer something for ME?"

          "If I can," said Xander, crossing his arms.

          Not a good sign, Spike thought. Ah well, in for a penny . . . "Two days ago I was the evil undead, just another soulless monster. Now I'm YOURS, whatever that means." Xander started to answer, but Spike held up his hand. "And don't say that it's because I saved your life. Angel saved your life, too, more than a few times. I don't see you joining his fan club. Why am I so accepted all of a sudden?"

          Xander stuck his hands in his back pockets, trying to give as honest an answer as he was capable of. "Yeah, Angel saved my life, but it was never as close as what I saw two nights ago. He was always a lot more showy, y'know?" Spike smiled and nodded. "Besides, he's working off his sins, doing penance. Like a hundred years of community service. It's not like he turned himself in."

          "Well, neither have I, Xan," Spike said.

          "Yeah, and that's the point," Xander said. "You don't have a soul, you don't have that, uh, whatcha call it? Moral compass! Yeah, that's it. You just do whatever's best for you. But I saw you that night, Spike. That kid with the knife was exactly halfway between us. You could've let him take me, no problem, and then you wouldn't have to worry about Xander calling you Deadboy Jr. anymore. No witnesses there. Hell, the kid didn't even see you himself 'til you stepped out of the shadows. And if he killed me you could've still taken him, no problem. But you chose, Spike. You chose me over yourself, with not a thing in the world to gain. And, well, I think that's pretty special. So I got over a lot of hurt feelings concerning you and decided, 'Hey, having Spike around isn't so bad after all. In fact, I feel really safe just knowing he's near.'" He couldn't meet Spike's eyes all of a sudden. "And I do. You make this whole house safe for me."

          "Well, good," Spike said, and Xander looked up to see his brilliant smile. "That's kinda what I was aiming to do."

          "Cool," Xander responded. "So over to Anya's now?"

          "Yeah, let's go. I can't wait to see what she was hiding in her closet."

          That night the sleeping arrangements were the same. Xander once again cried in Spike's arms, but before he could fall asleep he looked up into that tender, pale face that held nothing but sympathy for him. "What are we doing here, Spike?"

          "Dunno. I'm trying my best to hold you together, myself."

          "That's what I mean. I feel bad about this . . . THING that's developing between us. I just take and take and you give and give. That doesn't sound too right to me."

          "That's not important," Spike said, pulling Xander's head down onto his chest. "Like I said earlier, I'm fine with the arrangement. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to be of service, especially to someone who's worthy of my affection. Which you are, Xan. You're in much more pain than me, you need this more than I do, and that's what's important. And if the day ever comes that I'm in the same amount of pain, I feel that you'll be there for me just as I am for you."

          "I will be!" Xander said, struggling to raise his head so he could look into Spike's eyes and say this. But Spike kept him just where he was, patting his head and shushing him. "I will be," Xander said into the vampire's chest, clutching him tighter to show that he meant it.

          "Sounds like I'm a lucky bloke, then," Spike said. "So why don't you just sleep, eh? Just go to sleep."

          And once more Xander fell asleep wrapped around Spike. And again Spike stayed up late wondering just who was this complex young man he was holding.

****************************

          The day of the funerals was mostly uneventful for Spike. Later that night he could visit Anya's grave and pay his respects. As she had had no relatives, of course, Giles had paid for her plot and burial himself. Spike was already thinking of something he could do pay the Watcher back for that. Xander's lady deserved the best of everything, and since he couldn't deliver any cash himself he was glad that Xander's other friends could. He stayed home and slept the daylight away so that he and Xander could be a united front against the horde of Harris relatives. And quite the horde they were. Luckily, they didn't show up until dusk. Xander was the first to arrive, and he immediately slammed the front door and locked it.

          He had good news and bad news. The good news was that both of his parents were insured, his dad through his work and his mom through a private life insurance policy. The fact was, his father had insured his mother for $40,000—but there was a clause in it that paid off triple if she died from a stabbing. Spike stared open-mouthed at this information and Xander's only response was, "Yes, yes, I know. But I don't want to think about it. I won't think about it!" Anyway, the gist was that Xander was coming into a cash payoff of something over $100,000.

          The bad news: all the Harris relatives knew about it. The two men barricaded the front door and unplugged the phone, but Uncle Louis and his brood still camped out on the front porch and wheedled with the men inside to gain entry. It was amazing. Spike had known Fyoral Demons with more shame, and Xander longed for the days when The Master had been their greatest enemy. Spike was now doubly happy that he'd repaired the lock on the basement door and that it was secure.

          "Really, gentlemen," Louis's voice drifted in, "you're being awfully rude about this."

          "I've got fifty calibers of rude in here with me!" Spike screamed. "You get on home, you lot! Xander's got nothing for you!"

          "Oh, please," said the experienced swindler. "I know that the checks are weeks from arriving. Of course I know that. But we need some place to stay, my family and I. We don't have enough for a hotel. We're just asking for lodging. And after that, who knows? Does a single man like Xander need a house this big? I don't think so!"

          "My partner and I are gonna kick your asses if you're not out of here in five minutes!" Xander warned. Uncle Louis just chuckled at that empty threat.

          "What are we going to do?" Xander asked Spike.

          "So we're partners now?" Spike asked.

          "Huh?"

          "Partners."

          "Well, duh," Xander said, then broke into a smile. "Harris and The Bloody, esquires."

          Spike smiled back. "You're always much funnier in a crisis situation, I've noticed."

          "And I get lots of opportunity to test that, don't I?"

          "It'd get boring otherwise," Spike replied. "Okay, I have an idea for getting us out of this. But it will require you to trust me, and also not to laugh at me."

          "I can promise the first. Can't guarantee the second."

          "Close enough," Spike said, pulling the couch away from the door and shoving his way past Uncle Louis onto the porch. The entire family was there, a way of showing Louis's array of troops, and among them was the man's five-year-old daughter. Spike went into game-face and picked the girl up, spinning around to show everyone that a vampire was holding their tiniest treasure. "Get out of here or this girl is first on the menu."

          Xander watched him from the door. He knew that the only was Spike could pull this off was if he meant absolutely no harm to the girl. If he was serious about his threat at all the chip would have him down on his knees in pain by now. Yet the Harrises on the porch appeared genuinely frightened. Xander did his best to keep from smiling and watched the spectacle.

          "Vampire," said Uncle Louis bitterly. "Ah, if only my Romany cousins were here. They'd have a curse for you, my friend. Let's see how long you'd last with a soul tied to you, eh?"

          Christ, this old man was getting scarier by the minute. "I mean it, you old fool. She's my first snack if you don't get back into your car."

          Louis waved a hand at him, "We're going, we're going," he said, while the twelve other members of his family sullenly stomped their way back to the custom minivan they'd arrived in. Only when Louis was behind the wheel did Spike hand him the little girl. Xander stood beside him on the darkened lawn, showing that Louis would have to face them both if he wanted near the house again.

          "See you at Christmas?" Louis asked.

          "Not if I see you first," Xander replied, in longstanding Harris tradition. He watched them drive off, then he and Spike walked wearily back into the house, locking the door behind them.

          Spike looked around the depressing little living room. "Can we get rid of this bloodstained carpet?" Spike asked. "It's making me hungry."

          "I'll call the police tomorrow and find out," Xander said. "Help me with the couch?"

          The two men pushed the large couch back into place in the living room and then promptly fell onto it, companionably close to each other. Xander threw his arm around Spike's shoulder without thinking. Spike looked at the arm, then at the young man beside him. He knew only too well what Xander was feeling right now, but wanted to be sure that Xander knew it also.

          "So, now begins the post-battle snuggling?" Spike asked.

          Xander suddenly became very conscious of where his left arm was. He began to draw it away, but Spike stopped him. "Not that I mind," the vampire said. "I simply wanted to know."

          "I— I don't know," Xander said.

          "Of course you do," Spike returned. "You just want me to do the work for you. Sorry, Xan, but this is one case where I won't be helping you. You have to decide."

          Xander stared at him. Spike seemed to be a monument of patience, his cool blue eyes matching the chilled nature of his skin. His skin, which Xander could feel beneath his hand, a hand that was slowly rubbing the base of Spike's neck. When Xander woke up that morning he had been delighted with the texture of the skin he was resting on, the smooth chest just inches from his mouth. He had had to restrain himself from kissing and nipping at it, maybe finding a nipple and biting down. But there had been things to do, larger considerations all around him.

          Now they were alone on the couch, one of his arms already around Spike. He pulled the vampire closer, and then cupped that beautifully sculpted face with his hands. He brought it closer and kissed him, tentatively at first but then more aggressively, with tongues and passion and energy and life, more life than Xander had felt in days.

          Spike was the first to pull away. He looked at Xander seriously. "Are you sure you want this? I have to be absolutely clear on this, Xander. Do you want this?"

          "I want—" Xander closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then looked into Spike's stunning sapphire eyes again before starting over. "I want happy memories instead of regrets. I want loyalty and courage instead of running away. I want experience instead of attitude. I want affection instead of a thrill ride. I want you, Spike. You're all those things and more."

          "I'm a bad influence," Spike said. "A few days with me and you're becoming a silver-tongued devil."

          "We'll have to wait and see about that," Xander responded.

          "Ooh, and suggestive! I have a feeling that you're gonna be incorrigible, luv."

          Xander leaned forward to plant another kiss on Spike, and the older man's experienced mouth showed him just what lay in wait for them that night.

          "Say it again," Xander told him.

          "Say what?"

          "You know."

          "Luv."

          "I like that word."

          "Like to hear YOU say it."

          "I don't think I can. Not yet."

          "'Sokay. I've got time."

          "And I know how you can spend that time."

          "Like I said: incorrigible."

          "You're never wrong, are you?"

          "Not about what's important," Spike said, and leaned forward for some serious kissing.

THE END