"Xander, hide me!"

Xander slid a book back on the UC Sunnydale central library bookshelf and, as he turned, a furtive pale body with bleach-blond hair slipped by him.

"Spike?" Xander frowned at the annoyingly gorgeous vampire. "I don't have time for your games right now."

He picked up another book to be re-shelved from the cart by him. Unable to afford dorm rent, Xander commuted to college from his basement apartment. He'd been angling to ditch his roomie for weeks, and it irked him that he couldn't escape the distracting vampire even here. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Spike tensely fingering books on the shelf at the end of the stacks nearest the wall.

"Get out of here," Xander snarled. "I need my student income and have enough trouble holding onto jobs without you fucking things up for me."

"Xander, please."

The sweet sound of Spike begging got Xander's attention. Spike had turned to face him, a picture of distraction.

"They're here," whispered Spike.

"Who?"

"Initiative."

Xander's lip curled. "Highly doubt that."

"Word is they're looking for some demon," said Spike urgently, "here on campus."

"Well then, maybe I should save them some time, Fangless," said Xander as he sauntered to the walkway between the stacks, "and let them know where you are."

The helpless stutter of Spike's inhaled breath made Xander turn and really look at the vampire. He was shocked to see in Spike's human face that his eyes were glittering circles of golden ice, pupils barely registering as pinpoints, the demon kept at bay by a thread. It should have sent a quiver of fear through Xander, except that Spike had shoved himself against the wall, and was pushing back from head to heels as if trying to escape through it. His hands were scrabbling at his sides.

Picking up the crackle of a radio, Xander's soldier came to the fore in recognition of a military presence. He ignored the urge to stand to attention, and met Spike's eyes where he saw his own sudden anxiety reflected ten times over. He had never seen dread like this. Not on Big Bad who took faking it to a whole new level of dazzling and diverting brilliance. A sharp glance, and Spike's frantic hands stilled.

Xander redeployed silently, stealthily, to the vampire's side, never breaking eye contact. He stopped one step away and golden eyes faded to Smeagol-like blue: wide, child-like, and trusting. Something inside Xander unfurled at the implied confidence from the vampire willing to put himself unreservedly in Xander's hands.

Spike's gaze flickered away as the sounds of radio white noise and low male voices came nearer. "Xander!"

Xander gripped the blond's cheeks, keep the vampire's attention solely on him. Though Spike barely whispered, Xander shook his head to signal silence. Overwhelmed by the torment in the winter blue eyes that filled his vision, he wanted to offer safety or assurance or something. Unblinking, he let Spike take whatever he could find to anchor onto through the conduit of eye contact because all that mattered in Xander's world just now was to stave off the slighter man's imminent panic.

Fisting his hands at the waist of Xander's tee-shirt, Spike closed his eyes. Xander felt the loss of connection acutely and wanted to shake the blond into looking at him again. But tears slipped out from beneath closed lids and Xander's throat and ears and mouth filled with a pounding throb of deep unease and ferocious protectiveness. He gently thumbed away the vulnerability trickling down Spike's face.

Approaching booted footsteps achieved what Xander could not as Spike's eyes flew open again. Crackling and beeping of the radio. Twitching eyebrows tripled the impact of white-rimmed blue terror. Xander's back prickled.

Standing right there, right there, right there, this is so to the bad!

Xander knew his limitations: youth, inexperience, noticeable lack of superpowers. He stepped up and pressed tight against Spike's shaking body, forehead to forehead, running his hands up from the vampire's face to obscure his distinctive platinum hair—one glimpse of that and it could all be over for Spike. Pulling back a little, Xander regained his line of sight on the desperate blue gaze trained unwaveringly on him.

"No HSTs here," said a low voice. "Just civilians. Making out." The uninflected voice somehow transmitted distaste as the footsteps retreated.

Xander let himself relax a little, aware that Spike's tremors didn't let up.

"What the hell did they do to you in there?" gritted Xander in response to his companion's unrelenting distress.

Spike just shook his head, concentrated on drawing a breath. Failed. His body jerked as if he actually needed the air he couldn't pull in.

"Shh, shh, shh," murmured Xander, cradling Spike's head against his ear and neck while his other arm went tight around the vampire's back to pull him as close as possible. "I've got you now."

"Xander!" Spike let out on a harsh sob that spoke of torture remembered.

Xander shivered at the agony expressed in the whisper of cool moist air against his jaw. And at the same time he curbed the stirrings he felt on hearing his name said with such need more times in the last fifteen minutes than in the previous three years they'd known each other. All barriers between them, for the moment at least, were demolished.

He wondered grimly whether the Initiative had even used anesthesia when they put in Spike's chip. Was that the only procedure they put Spike through? Or did they experiment on him in other ways? What ways? How many times?

"You're safe now, buddy, it's over, " said Xander softly, wondering how to stop his own tears. "I've got you."

Spike's fingers slackening in his shirt, Xander felt reassured and fiercely glad when trembling fists ran up his back. He savoured the hard embrace while he could.

He had a pretty good idea there was going to be some fallout from what had just happened. Spike was a complicated guy. He wasn't going to deal well with the knowledge that Xander had witnessed him dissolve into a puddle of goo with fear, and had every reason to believe the younger man would mock him with it for years to come.

Xander pressed his lips to Spike's forehead with a sigh. This was nothing to tease about, and he'd figure out how to convince Spike of that when the time came. Then he'd figure out how to convince Spike that Xander hoped they could be friends. Or . . . something. Whatever the future might bring, for now, he knew he never wanted to let the vampire go home alone again.