Xander's vision singed and curled and charcoaled around the edges.
"A little help here?" he gasped. He watched Buffy out of the corner of his eye straddle Spike on the floor of the crypt and attack him with her mouth. Xander fizzed with jealousy and resentment.
Dammit, I'm going down here! And he throttled harder on the demon throttling him. Anya pounded on the same demon, hanging from its back, and he liked her more than ever for trying. But neither of them was making a dent.
"Buffy," he pleaded. She didn't hear.
A flicker of lightning by the crypt entrance drew his attention and Willow appeared. She chanted. And he lost interest. She had been by turns increasingly self-absorbed and insulting in the weeks since Oz left and he couldn't let her divert his attention from staving off a world of hurt right in front of his face.
And then the demon trying to kill him disappeared.
Getting his legs steady under him, Xander panned around the vault. Anya looked as blindsided as he felt. Spike and Buffy were making a production of being mutually disgusted with each other. And Willow was in a mood of self-flagellation. He staggered out of the mausoleum, his way lit by the moon, and he rounded the corner.
One hand on the crypt wall, one hand on his thigh, Xander fought back a compelling impulse to cry like a lost puppy.
It was the spell. He knew it was the spell. But he couldn't help it. Something inside him howled because Buffy had chosen to kiss Spike rather than save him. And because Spike had chosen to kiss Buffy rather than . . . kiss him. And both those things added up to the fact that Spike had pushed him to the outside of his own circle.
And how in hell had that happened? Spike was the outsider here. Spike was the helpless one. Spike was the demon they were supposed to band together to defeat. Was Xander so insignificant to his friends that a bad guy, a powerless chipped bad guy, could crush him with a . . . a raised eyebrow?
He hated that he cared so much, but his burning shame at being the runt of the litter again almost brought him to his knees. No matter what he did, he couldn't seem to get away from his assigned role in the group.
"Going to help me do something about this Buffy-breath, Harris?"
Startled, Xander spun around. His fingers almost brushed Spike's duster, the vampire had snuck up so close. Wound up tighter than a crossbow, Xander grabbed lapels, and swung leather and smoke and blue eyes against the crypt wall. The moonlit silver-blond head fell back with a sharp crack. Spike winced.
"Why the hell should I help you?" Xander said, breathing harshly.
Spike's eyes flashed luminous gold for a second, and he emptied his lungs slowly, but his gaze didn't trace their usual contemptuous flick upwards. Instead, his oh-we're-back-to-that-are-we? look said it all.
"Closest you'll ever get to kissing Buffy," he said with a hard edge, eyes glittering like chips of polished azurite.
A stuttering strobe flashed inside Xander. "Oh no, Spike, you so do not get to gloat."
He grabbed Spike's jaw and pinched the hinge hard enough to bruise skin and open Spike's mouth.
"Want some help with that Buffy-breath there?" he gritted, his words sandblasted with soft and lethal tones of ground glass. "Sure." And he proceeded to brutalize the neutered vampire's mouth with his own.
Wrapping both hands around Spike's jaws and ears, nails gouging his cheekbones and skull, Xander crushed and sucked and bit that mouth, grinding teeth against teeth, bruising and breaking skin, soaking up the smoke-and-pepper, cloves-and-cinnamon sharp-and-tart taste that was Spike—Slayer lemonade at Christmas stripping old English pennies back to their copper shine— digging for bonfires and the ocean, searching for . . .gods, what?
And Spike just took it.
A tiny spark of remorse made Xander mad at the vampire for submitting, but testosterone overwhelmingly made him exultant. With a violent shove, he grated his chest and hips and thighs against Spike, denying the lust that filled his body while his mind blazed with the need to punish.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" Stop this, Xander, before you say something you regret. But when did he ever listen to his grown-up voice? "You think because Buffy kissed you, you're all that? You think you're part of the in-crowd now?"
The clean-flame blue of Spike's eyes focused on him with such intensity, Xander expected the fallout to his words to hurt like blasts from a phaser set on Kill. Expected and hoped. Hoped it would hurt enough to unseat the bite of his humiliation.
"Come to think of it, yeah," said Spike evenly, "it was nice for about the five minutes it lasted."
A furrow creased Xander's brow. The vampire's cool neutrality didn't compute. And Xander didn't want to calm down.
"Fight me, dammit Spike!"
But instead of reacting to Xander's provocation, Spike seemed to absorb it and channel it away.
Xander's world tripped into slow motion as he took a step back, jaw tightening, and felt his hands ball into solid weights at the ends of his arms. He knew he was going to hit Spike, and with helpless grief, he knew he would never recover from it. He would never forgive himself for venting on someone defenseless. He would never forgive himself for becoming his father. And he would never again be able to look the vampire in the eye, because he didn't hate Spike, he— But he couldn't stop himself any more than the Titanic could brake for the iceberg.
As he hauled one arm back, strong hands whipped around his waist and pulled him in tight, off-balance, sending his forearms over Spike's shoulders to steady himself, somehow turning a brawl into a deadly dance. Xander stared at Spike's reddened swollen lips, simultaneously appalled and aroused. The finger-shaped bruises, split skin, and half-moon nail punctures around them weren't so pretty. Xander quivered with shock and desire.
"Like it rough, do you boy?" Spike growled.
In Xander's moment of distraction, Spike twisted them both and propelled Xander back against the wall in his place. With the vampire's hard body leaning against him, Xander gasped and blinked as lust broke free and burned away all the hostility and resentment inside him. Which left him, panting roughly, to grapple with a startling truth: Spike took charge and Xander was putty.
Fingers of one pale hand dug into Xander's ass, those of the other grabbed a tight fistful of dark hair, and Spike's mouth closed over his again. Cool tongue shoved in hard and deep, delving into every crevice like a bully violating his personal space. And Xander stuttered out a moan, partly from wanting and needing so badly, partly from never before in his life attaching 'thrill' to being bullied.
"Spike," he gasped in syncopation with a moan from the blond, as the rivets of the vampire's button-up jeans, armor over hardness compared to the worn fabric of his shabby sweatpants, nuzzled against his own erection. The slim blond's fingers loosened fractionally and every nerve in Xander's body was primed with the energy sent out by those trembling elegant hands.
Xander hardly registered the prickle of fangs against his mouth, that one whispered word a storm surge that lifted and pushed him into another intense kiss. He couldn't stop himself arching into the cool hard body pressed against him. Then Spike jerked and sprang away, and Xander's heart rhythm stumbled.
Xander's lower lip and tongue began to burn. And he gazed at the figure before him in surprise because . . .
"You—you're not hurt."
Game-face faded away. "No."
The men stared at each other, and Xander's mouth started to fill.
So the chip didn't go off. What did that mean? And Spike pulled back as if it did. What did that mean? The top half of the vampire's face seemed taken up with huge, wide, fearful blue eyes under dramatic black brows, while below, lower lip caught under even white teeth, his mouth was an eloquent expression of panic. And he couldn't look more vulnerable, or more . . .
Oh gods, Spike.
"I—I don't know what happened," said Spike unsteadily.
Neither did Xander. But with drippage starting down his chin, he knew what he wanted to happen next.
He took a step forward, put a shaking hand around Spike's head, and pulled him in. Felt a huff of crisp air against his cheek, maybe from a silent sob or maybe from simple relief.
Spike changed to game-face. Then a cool tongue in Xander's mouth and over his lower face, vampire lips quivering, firm hands sliding around his ribs. Xander's free hand grazed repeatedly over Spike's cheek and ear, through his hair and down the slender cream pillar of his neck.
Xander closed his eyes and gasped out a moan, the whispered sound of his name once again driving him wild. Legs weakening, he sagged in the vampire's firm grasp. The blood flow in his mouth wouldn't last long, but for now breathy-squeaky-contented noises from Spike made Xander's spine ripple and his belly quiver. His fingers became ensnared in hair that crackled with gel.
"Gods," murmured Spike, "you taste so, so . . . nothing else can . . . could ever . . . gods Xan."
A kiss without alarming prickles in Xander's mouth, but lots of trembling tingles through his core, a kiss as slow and sweet and hot as chipotle molasses . . .
"Sp-Spike, I'm sorry about my hissy fit," he said at last, pressing the side of his nose and lips against the vampire's cool, desecrated cheek.
Spike went still, then sighed, finished licking up the remnants of blood, and pulled Xander into a full-body hug.
"It was Red's mojo, love, it wasn't your fault," he said in a low voice. "And trust me, I know about venting frustration in ways you can't begin to imagine."
Arms gratefully wrapping around the vampire, Xander's eyebrows climbed at how far he could reach. The immense power vibrating within the blond's already slender frame did nothing to disguise the fact that, in the Scoobies' care, Spike was still shamefully underfed.
All traces of aggression in Xander transmuted in that moment into a sense of protectiveness for the demon who had the instincts and capacity to destroy him. Xander's arms tightened. Yeah, the chip was a game-changer, but this is where Xander's rep as not the brightest bulb in the hardware store came from—because he could be as logical as anyone, but his emotions trumped intellect every time. With resigned acknowledgment that his self-preservation instincts couldn't always recognize danger or plain didn't engage if they did, he stood as one solid piece with his lethal companion in marble moonlight.
It seemed a moment for confidences.
"I-I just don't seem to matter to anyone who . . . matters to me." Xander was glad he didn't have to look at Spike as, chin over leather-clad shoulder, he screwed his eyes shut and leaned into the blond head.
The leather and smoke aroma Xander now associated with comfort and safety started doing its job, and his muscles felt noticeably looser. A distant part of his brain picked up a citrus-and-rain smell from Spike's skin and catalogued it as the vampire's natural scent.
Spike gave him a quick squeeze, then let go. "You matter to me," he said gruffly, and he walked away to prop himself up against the mausoleum, facing away from Xander, digging in his pockets. "If that means anything." He lit a cigarette.
Heart thumping, Xander stared at his back, startled on so many levels: the heartfelt reaching out from a vampire he'd abused, the abrupt physical separation just now, Spike's blatant vulnerability. And the sudden appearance of Anya from around the crypt. At the thought of getting caught 'fraternizing' by Buffy, a critical part of Xander's anatomy deflated. He distantly noted that his status within the group still mattered enough to send thoughts of Spike skittering.
Spike inhaled deeply one more time and trod on the cigarette butt, before walking on ahead as if to distract Anya who looked from one to the other of them wide-eyed.
"You look . . . you look like you've both been attacked by the same face-bashing demon." She stifled a smile and turned back to Buffy. "It's OK, they're here, and both still alive." Anya smirked. "Just."
Ohhh, Willow was in a world of trouble.
Walking back to Giles' apartment, Anya animatedly shared what she knew about the demons that had shown up to molest Xander. She started with those at his apartment where, she explained, she had been trying to borrow a cup of sugar as a traditional human way to initiate sex. Xander rolled his eyes, but despite her unnerving narrative, he couldn't keep his focus on her.
Spike. He may be chipped, but he was still an agent of chaos. He turned Xander upside down and made him spin on his head. He made Xander mad as hell, but then seemed to know intuitively how to listen to him and calm him and arouse him and—seriously—arouse him in equal measure. He made Xander want to reject him and throw him out and yet at the same time want to keep him close and protect him. He made Xander afraid of him, yet also idiotically fearless of him by turns. Xander's knees rippled at the incredibly erotic memory of Spike savouring his spilled blood. And what's the what with the chip?
Glancing at Spike, he bit his lip and frowned, taking in a sharp breath when he felt cool fingers in the waistband of his sweats pull him back a few steps. Spike cocked a questioning eyebrow at him as he mashed another spent cigarette underfoot. They resumed walking just out of earshot of the others.
Xander glanced at Spike's face and winced, aching to stop and to touch and to . . . well, the time-honoured remedy was to kiss it better. But he wasn't willing to risk attracting unwelcome attention.
"Sorry about the . . ." He gestured at the damage.
"You should see the other guy," Spike grinned. "So, what's up?"
I want the world to melt away and let me spend the rest of my life kissing you.
Xander put on his resolve face. "You're going to have to hit me," he said.
Eyes trained on Xander, Spike could be eerily still, even when walking. "Ask me to hit you when I'm holding a bottle of Jack and you've got a glass needs filling, and you've got a deal," he said at last.
Something very like warmth swelled in Xander at the way Spike deftly avoided this issue of doling out pain to him. Nevertheless, he wasn't willing to let the point go.
Had the chip quit working altogether? Or only with Xander? Or were they just finding some escape clauses? Because this was the second time the chip, designed to stop vampires biting, hadn't fired when Spike bit him.
"I need to know about your hardware," he said.
After a moment, Spike nodded understanding.
But now wasn't the time for experimentation. With a sigh and a tip of the hat to Willow's unmatched steadfastness, Xander's resolve face dissolved.
Slanting a sideways glance at Spike, he was tempted to jump his demon and to hell with the others. And he sensed his feelings reciprocated. In unconscious dialogue, hands rose, fingertips brushed, they slid closer together.
He jumped as Buffy turned to look at him, all but ran away from Spike. "Yeah, Buff?"
"Anya doesn't know anything about what attacked outside the mausoleum after Willow did her thing," she said in crisp all-businessy tones, studiously ignoring Spike. "What can you tell me?"
Xander glanced at Anya who shrugged with a slight smile, her features innocent. Blind panic emptied his brain.
"Uh . . ." What attacked? What could he say? A human male Caucasian, 5'11", dark hair, brown eyes, orange and white long-sleeved tee, black sweatpants with white side stripes . . . "Um, I didn't get a good look—"
"There really shouldn't have been anymore demons showing up," interrupted Willow all breathlessly helpful, "after I, uh, undid the spell."
Buffy turned her green eyes away from Willow back to Xander who, heart pounding and face flushed, noticed the disgraced witch shrinking away again. Under other circumstances, he might have felt bad for her, but he was too taken up with his own anxiety as Buffy's intense scrutiny started to burn him up like an ant under an angled magnifying glass. And no matter how hard he tried to jumpstart his brain, he couldn't thread together a coherent response for her.
"It could have just been a random demon on the prowl," interjected Spike.
Xander almost slumped with relief at the suggestion, but Buffy was still avoiding an accidental visual brush against the vampire's baby blues.
"Xander?" she said, her body held tight and vibrating with tension. "What can you tell me?"
Spike huffed in exasperation. "Any demon's attention—" breath "—Slayer," he iterated with faux patience, "could have been attracted by a pair of aggressive males too wrapped up in each other to pay attention to their surroundings."
Xander almost moaned in despair. Sure, tell her we were—what's your word for it? oh yeah—snogging, why don't you? Before he knew it, he'd turned and flipped his fist into Spike's nose. It wasn't a hard blow, but Spike yowled, his hands cupped around the centre of his face.
Buffy cast a smile of infinite gratitude on Xander. He hadn't actually made the move for her, in fact he was aghast at what he had done to shut Spike up, but his chest involuntarily puffed out. Her special look was a universal balm for all his wounds.
"Xander, I know your hatred of vampires runs deep," she said, her posture relaxing, "but don't let aggression make you oblivious. I can't always be there, and I wouldn't be happy if anything happened to you."
Vampires: hatred. Right. This time Xander allowed a sense of reprieve to fill him as he replayed Spike's words and saw how they could be interpreted differently. He gathered Buffy in a hug. And he ignored the slightly patronizing assumption that he needed her to save him from demons. From Spike. If she only knew . . .
Buffy squeezed his arm and started the walk back to Giles' again, the girls flanking her. He and Spike fell in behind. Buffy was soon absorbed in questioning Anya once more while Willow remained lost in her own thoughts.
Xander flickered a look towards Spike, guilt dredging his throat. "I—um—I'm sorry . . ."
He didn't know how to continue. It was in his nature to be loyal, and he'd known Buffy and Wills for years. After all that shared friendship and saving the world with the Slayer, his reflex to keep the group whole shouldn't have been a surprise.
But left to develop their own rapport, Spike was becoming important to him. Maybe a friend. Maybe something more. And he couldn't believe how bad it hurt to think he'd screwed it up.
The blond didn't respond, kept walking with his head bowed, reminding Xander with a pang of his demeanour the evening Spike had sat alone at Giles' Thanksgiving dinner table. Xander reached out to touch the vampire's arm, but was shaken off. He briefly closed his eyes, wondering whether there was a way to make amends. His relationship with Spike was fragile and so new it barely existed, but already he wasn't sure if he could live with a permanent rift.
"Y'know, no one else's witchy curse brought down danger on their best friends," Xander murmured at last. "Isn't a magnet supposed to draw trouble to itself? But I bring equal madness and mayhem on myself and everyone else around me."
"Only cuz everyone else jumps in to help you, love," Spike jumped in. Then he paused. "I'm—I'm just sorry I can't be one of them."
Xander's heart lurched because there was that vulnerability again. And Spike had re-opened the portal between them.
"Xander," Spike interrupted, "You think—" He struggled. "Things have changed for me now. I can't . . . there are a lot of things I can't do anymore. You think you're the lowest man on the totem pole, but you . . . I have nothing left, no one . . ." He took a deep breath and spoke so low Xander had to strain to hear. "But you still have the power to evict me from the group. If you think you're at rock bottom, then I'm tunneling."
And the boulder crashing in Xander's stomach brought him to an abrupt halt because, with Spike's self-characterization of being somehow beneath him, Xander had the uneasy feeling the platinum blond's Powerhouse lantern light had just dimmed.
Xander realized that what Spike had drawn his attention to was true, that while Xander didn't have the snap-your-fingers-and-it's-done kind of power, Spike really did have very little now and Xander probably could get him ditched by the Scoobies without too much effort. And with power comes responsibility, and how much did it suck about the tiny scrap of power he had to know he'd never use it?
He glanced at the creature ahead of him who made his heart turn over. He couldn't use that little bit of power because he'd just fallen for Spike. Hard. And emotions trumped intellect every time.
Xander hurried to catch up with the group, and pulling Spike around by the arm, kissed him softly on the mouth. Anya caught a glance of them and might spill the beans to the others, but for the way Spike had opened up to him, Xander didn't care. He saw Spike stare from her to him, then look away. As the two men resumed walking, a shy smile appearing on the vampire's averted face stunned Xander. Could he get any more beautiful?
"Maybe someday," Spike flashed his game-face, "I'll show you that being a demon magnet doesn't have to be all bad."
Entranced by Spike's darkening eyes as they looked at each other, Xander stumbled. A cool, long-fingered hand grasped him above the elbow to steady him, then skimmed the length of his forearm, meshed with his fingers, and squeezed before withdrawing.
All anxiety whirling inside Xander vanished when he found a sudden clarity in Spike's words. "That would be . . . nice," he said.
Because emotions trumped intellect every time. And Xander thanked merciful Zeus they weren't living in the same space since he would probably embarrass both of them.
A/N: As always, reviews feed the muse :o) Let me know what you like and what you don't like (constructively) because nothing makes me happier than seamless interaction between my stories and you the reader.