Many thanks to seductivembrace, alwaysjbj, and just_sue for using their skils to beta this fic. Any mistakes still here are undoubtedly due to my inability to leave well enough alone.
Anya had been settled into a bed in the hospital. The ward was crowded, but space was found to keep her until they could be sure her head injury wasn't serious. Xander waited as long as he could, but when she drifted off to sleep and the overworked nurse assured him it was all right and that she hadn't slipped into a coma, he left her there and went out into the bright light of day,..
Dead. Buffy's dead. And yeah, okay, Glory's dead too and the world was saved, but… Buffy's dead.
The tears he'd been fighting back all morning spilled over. He walked through the streets, lost in his grief, ignoring the looks from people he passed—until he glanced up and realized where he was. The tower loomed above him, strange and less forbidding in the daylight. His contractor's eye found multiple faults with what he could see of the construction, and he shook his head.
Isn't going to last more than a few months. Not that it matters, I guess. It only had to last long enough to get Glory home. It's not like she cared if it fell down after that.
Instinct, and a slight movement – just caught from the corner of his eye – had him reaching for a weapon. He picked up a nearby piece of lumber and crept toward where he'd seen the motion. The two-by-four fell from numb fingers when he focused on what he was seeing.
"Spike!" Xander stared at the battered vampire trying to drag his smoking body further under a pile of debris. Guilt swept over him as it sank in that they'd all left within a short time of Buffy's death – Giles to take her body home, Willow and Tara to escort and comfort an inconsolable Dawn, and him to get Anya to the hospital. None of them had stopped to worry about the badly injured vampire who had fought beside them and been thrown off the tower in a vain attempt to protect Dawn. They'd left him, broken and sobbing, on the concrete with no thought to how or if he was going to avoid the rising sun.
Moving with a speed and purpose that surprised him, Xander began pulling sheets of plywood out of the pile and constructing a makeshift roof over the small cave Spike had burrowed into. An eye on the still-moving sun showed Xander where the shade was going to be needed and he quickly made a sun-proof cover that would keep the rays off Spike no matter which direction they came from. When he was satisfied with his work, he crawled into the cool darkness.
"Spike?" There was no answer but a groan from the body lying on the debris-littered ground. Xander waited a minute, then crept closer. "I can't…" He reached a hand towards the still figure, then hesitated. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry we left you here. I never thought—I'll come back and get you out tonight."
"Blood," Spike rasped out.
"Need blood. If the legs are gonna heal enough for me to walk out, I'll need blood. Lots of it."
"Oh. Yeah. Sure. Okay. I'll see what I can do." He hesitated again. "Will you be all right here? You're not going to…."
He stopped talking, not sure exactly what he'd meant to ask, knowing only that the broken creature he'd seen dragging himself toward Buffy's body a few hours ago hadn't seemed very interested in living in spite of his body's apparent instinct to seek darkness. Common sense told him Spike was only a vampire, an unsouled, evil being whose obsession with the Slayer had been the result of being unable to kill her. Yeah, he might think he was grieving, but in a day or two, he'd be fine. On the other hand, the "drama queen" label fit pretty well on a vampire who'd been ready to stake himself over a Hawaiian shirt…
"Not going to off myself," Spike said, as if reading his thoughts. "Promised her, didn't I?"
"You promised Buffy you wouldn't kill yourself?" Xander didn't try to hide his disbelief, "Really having a hard time picturing that conversation, Spike."
Spike gave a ragged cough and said, "No, you git. She asked me to protect Dawn and I said I would. Till the end of the world. Failed her once. Won't do it again. Need to get well." He stopped talking, taking unnecessary deep breaths as he tried to find a comfortable position. "Need blood," he repeated. " 'Less you want to volunteer the good stuff, right from the tap…"
"You wish," Xander said, backing up just a bit.
"Was worth a try," Spike whispered. "Slayer would've done it."
"I'm not Buffy."
"No, you're not. She… much prettier…." Spike's voice trailed off and he didn't move or speak again.
Xander backed out of the shelter and after making sure the sun's rays couldn't find their way to the unconscious vampire, he left to check in with Giles and get some blood for Spike.
"He's where?" Dawn screeched, her eyes widening as Xander repeated his story of finding Spike at the foot of the tower.
"He's safe enough for now," Xander added, patting her arm in what he hoped was a soothing fashion. "I'm going to get him some blood and I'll go back tonight with the truck and pick him up."
"And then what?" Willow stared at Xander, clearly wondering if he'd lost his mind. "Who's going to take care of him?"
"I will," Dawn said. "He can stay here, in the basement or—" She flinched at the thunderous look on Giles's face. "Or in the basement… " she finished quietly.
"Surely, he won't want to remain in Sunnydale, now that…." Giles stopped, unwilling to say what they were all trying so hard to forget.
"I think he will," Xander spoke up, shrugging at Willow's shocked expression. "Seems he promised Buffy he'd take care of Dawn for her, and he's taking it pretty seriously."
"We are perfectly capable of seeing to Dawn's welfare," Giles said, his offended tone causing universal eyerolls.
"No offense, G-man, but I'm pretty sure once he's healthy, Spike's gonna have a much better shot at keeping demons and vamps off Dawn than you are."
"He is very strong," Tara ventured, Encouraged when Willow smiled at her, she continued. "Buffy called him the best fighter she'd ever gone up against."
"It makes sense she'd ask him to protect Dawn for her," Willow said. "I mean, I can use magic, and Giles is all with the knowing things, but none of us are much with the bam! pow! stuff, you know?" She cast an apologetic glace at Xander, who shrugged.
"No offense taken," he said. "I'm pretty sure Spike can kick my ass any time he wants to, even with the chip. I know which one of us I'd want on my side in a fight."
"So, it's settled then," Dawn said in a tone of finality. "You'll bring him here and I'll take care of him until he's better."
As soon as the sun began to set, Xander drove his old truck to the tower site. Except for the yellow police tape around the perimeter, it looked much the same as it had the previous night. "Minus the scabby minions and crazies," he muttered as he pulled as close as possible. He got out and walked cautiously toward the shelter he'd constructed earlier, bending down to peer into the now dark interior.
"Spike? Are you still in there?"
"Where the bloody hell else would I be?" There was a rustling sound that got closer as Spike dragged himself toward the entrance.
"Hey! Little gratitude wouldn't be out of line, fangface. Here." Xander shoved the shopping bag at Spike. It was full of old blood that he'd liberated from the hospital's biohazard trash. He flinched when Spike immediately went into game face and snatched it from him, watching with a mixture of satisfaction and horror as the vampire ripped the bags open with his teeth and drained them one after the other. When he'd emptied the last bag, Spike slumped back against a piece of wood and sighed. His eyes were closed and he gave no indication that he even knew Xander was there.
When Xander noticed the sun had completely gone, and the tower area was very dark, he gave Spike a nudge with his foot. "Hey, Sleeping Ugly. Not to interfere with your disgusting enjoyment of your meal, but this is not a place I want to be after the undead start walking." When Spike didn't answer, Xander poked him again. "Spike? Was that too subtle for you? We need to get going. Come on."
Spike's head turned in his direction, falling back into his human mien he said, "We?"
"Uh… yeah. I'm supposed to take you back to Bu— Dawn's. She wants to see for herself that you didn't spontaneously combust."
Spike looked around at the plywood piled around and over him. "I didn't, did I? Guess I owe you one."
"You owe me more than one, but we'll worry about that later." He almost paused for one of Spike's normal innuendos, but the vampire seemed uninterested in his usual snark. "Can you walk?"
"Give us another minute, yeah?" Spike's voice sounded stronger, although he still hadn't moved. Xander was just getting ready to grab his arm and start dragging him out when the vampire finally stirred. He sat up and felt his legs. "Not sure," he admitted, finally responding to Xander's question. "Think the right one's broken pretty bad."
"Well, let's get out of here so I can half-way see you," Xander said, backing out into the dim light from distant street lamps. Spike followed him, dragging himself across the ground until he was in the clear. He attempted to stand, sagging back to the ground when his leg buckled. "Just hold on sec," Xander snapped, getting to his feet. He bent down and threw Spike's arm over his shoulder. "Okay, on three…"
The short walk to the truck was painful for both of them. While Spike's weight was nothing to Xander's work-hardened muscles, he was acutely conscious that every uneven step sent pain shooting through the vampire's body. "Almost there," Xander said, tightening his grip and taking more of Spike's weight on his shoulder.
Spike gave no reply, just exhaling a relieved sigh when Xander lifted him into the bed of the truck. The drive back to the Summers' house was quick and they were reversing the walk in no time; making their way from truck to house with an ease that made the dive Xander had taken into the potentially toxic trash worth it. Spike's already recovered ability to help himself with minimal assistance from Xander was proof that bringing human blood had been the right way to go, although he insisted on keeping Spike's arm over his shoulder just in case.
"You know this isn't helping that much, don't you?" Spike muttered. "What with you being so much taller."
"Well, I'm not going to walk on my knees for you, so just deal."
"Shut up, Spike."
Normal relations now established, they waited for someone to answer Xander's knock on the front door. It was thrown open by an anxious Dawn, who backed away so they could get through it together. Before she could ask him in, Spike stumbled forward, dragging a surprised Xander with him.
"What happened to the barrier?" Four sets of eyes focused on the vampire now leaning against the bannister and trying to disguise his shaking legs.
"Slayer invited me in… just before," he said, squeezing his eyes shut briefly as he remembered her soft voice drifting down those stairs, reinstating his right to be in her home. "Guess it still holds, even with her being… gone." He took a deep breath to strengthen his voice and looked into the living room. "Where's your bird?" he asked, turning to Xander with a concerned frown.
"She's okay." He suppressed his surprise at Spike's question. "She'll be out of the hospital tomorrow morning."
"So we didn't lose anybody else, then?" Spike's eyes went to Giles for verification. There was an abrupt nod, then the man turned away.
Dawn broke the uncomfortable silence that followed. "You need to sit down. You look like you're going to fall any minute."
"Should just get out of your way, Bit. I appreciate the thought and all, but I jus' need some more blood, a bit of a lie-down, and…" he glanced up at Giles again. "And whatever I can find in the way of strong drink."
"I want you here," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I thought you were dead too."
"You don't need me here, luv," he said, wincing at the pain on her face. "Not till I'm strong enough to be of some use to you." His tone turned bitter. "Not that I was much use… but I promise to do better. Won't let anything happen to you. Gonna keep my promise this time."
"What promise? What are you talking about?"
"Was my job to keep you safe. Was all she asked of me, and I failed. Failed you, failed her, bloody useless git…" A shudder went through his body and everyone except Dawn looked away to give him some privacy while he mastered his emotions.
"You got thrown off a tower, Spike! Did Buffy ask you to learn to fly? You did what you could do, and she—"
"And she died because I couldn't get it right." His face was a rigid mask. "Don't belong here. Not till I can protect you."
Dawn raised her tear-filled eyes to Xander's, their silent plea saying more than words. He stepped forward and put a hand on Spike's arm. "Come on," he whispered. "You're not going to win this one. Just let me help you downstairs and you can hide down there until you can walk out on your own."
The two men – one breathing, one dead – worked their way through the kitchen and down the basement stairs. Xander left Spike sitting on a pile of laundry, saying, "I'll be back with more blood after I pick up Anya."
"This isn't right," Spike said without conviction. "Shouldn't be here. Don't deserve it."
"Probably not," Xander agreed easily. "But it's what Dawn wants, and as bad as all of us feel about… " His voice trailed off; he still couldn't say it. Buffy's death. "Look." His voice was weary and tired. "She's the one who lost her mother and now her sister all in the same few months. I don't know about you, but I don't feel much like arguing with her right now."
There was no reply from Spike, now lying face down in the pile of dirty sheets and towels. With sudden insight, Xander realized that Spike could probably smell exactly who had slept on or used every one of those linens. When Xander saw his shaking shoulders, he knew Spike had found the sheets from Buffy's room. Without saying anything else, he blinked back his own tears and went up the stairs, leaving the grieving vampire to deal with it in his own fashion.
Some time later….
"Hey, I thought it was your turn to do the shopping? What's with leaving me a message to get my ass over here right now?"
Spike glanced up from the book he was reading. "The Bit needs something and she needs it now. She wants to go to the store and get it herself, so she needs a ride."
"That's it? She wants it now, so I have to take her shopping before I go home from work? What the hell, Spike? Why didn't you just tell her to call me and tell me what to get? Or, why didn't you tell her to wait until dark and you can take her?"
"Don't want her to know that I know what she needs," he said shortly. "An' I sure as hell don't want to be the one buyin' it… them… whatever."
Xander blinked in confusion, then turned red. "Oh."
"Yeah, 'Oh'. So, unless you want to be the one to tell her the resident vampire can smell the problem and you'll handle it later…."
"I'm on it."
"Thought you might be." Spike gave a rare grin at having won an argument with Xander so easily.
"And can I just say… ewww, by the way?" He glared at the grinning vampire and shook his head. "You mean you can always… you always know?"
"I do. Why do you think I spend so much time hidin' down here? There are three women in this house. Four if you count your bird… although, now that I think of it, she hasn't been around much lately." He raised an inquiring eyebrow.
Xander shrugged and looked uncomfortable. "She's… we're thinking we might need a… a break." He met Spike's incredulous look with a wan smile. "Seems like, all those years of eviscerating men didn't prepare her for fighting vamps and demons every night. She's thinking she'd be better off living somewhere else."
"I'm sorry." Spike's voice was quiet and sincere.
Xander shrugged again. "Can't say it's a surprise, really. I mean, she's the closest thing I've had to a normal girl—well, since Cordelia, and she—"
"She was way out of your league," Spike snarked. "Not that working for the poof is much of a step up, but…."
"Nice, Spike. Way to build my confidence."
"Was I supposed to be doing that? You might give a bloke a little hint."
"That's what friends do, you know. They support each other when things go bad for them."
Spike cocked his head and looked at the man standing in front of him. He glanced around the small efficiency apartment that Xander had helped him construct in one part of the basement. He thought about the good-natured banter they'd indulged in while building it, and the way they'd come together to take care of Dawn, sharing the duties – one working days, one working nights.
"I guess they do at that," he said quietly. "I'll try to work on that a bit."
"See that you do."
Spike stood up and walked over to look up into Xander's eyes. "Said I would, didn't I? I keep my word."
There was an uncomfortable silence until Xander nodded and punched him on the arm. "Yeah, and speaking of keeping your word…."
"I'm hitting the nest tonight." Spike turned back to the couch, saying casually, "You want to come with? Long as you don't have to worry about going home to keep demon-girl happy…"
"I thought you said I was a hindrance when you patrol."
"Might be a mite outnumbered this time. Could use the backup, is all. Don't have to if you don't want to."
"I didn't say that."
"So, you'll come then?"
"Yeah. I'll be back after dark." He turned to go up the stairs. "And now I'm off to help Dawn purchase feminine hygiene products. My life as a man is officially over."
"Bollocks! You think I don't know Anya's sent you shopping for her?"
"How did you— I mean, that's ridiculous, and slanderous, and any other kind of "ous" you can think of."
"Whipped-ous comes to mind," Spike said, throwing himself back onto the couch and picking up his book.
"See you later, Pot."
Xander disappeared to the sound of Spike's laughter behind him. It crossed his mind that he hadn't heard a genuine laugh from Spike in a very long time. Drunken laughter that turned to sobs he'd heard often enough in the first few weeks after Buffy's death, but once Spike was able to go out and patrol with them, he restricted his drinking to a few hours in the early morning. As soon as Dawn was up and ready for Xander to pick her up for summer school, Spike would wave good-bye and disappear down to his room where the empty bottles continued to accumulate. Only Willow's insistence that the smell of cheap booze was permeating the entire house got Spike to load up his empties and leave them out for the recycling pickup.
When Dawn had been safely delivered back to her house, and Spike had come upstairs to help with her homework, Xander went back to the apartment he was still sharing with Anya, only to find her packing things in clearly labeled boxes.
"It's what we talked about, Xander. I love you, but I can't live like this – in fear for my life all the time. I'm not used to it and I don't like it."
"So, that's it? You're just going to leave? And do what?"
She took a deep breath and stood up straight. "I'm going to England with Giles. He thinks the Council would be very willing to remunerate me financially for sharing what I've learned in a thousand years of being a vengeance demon. I can make a living, and be safe."
"Giles. You're going with Giles."
"It's not like that, Xander… He's just helping me out."
"Well don't let the door hit you in the ass," he said, whirling to leave the apartment. "And leave your key on the table."
Ignoring her angry "Xander!" he ran down the stairs and jumped into his truck. He sat there for several minutes, breathing hard and glaring at the steering wheel before turning the key and backing out without a glance behind. Fortunately, there were no little old ladies walking behind him, and he was able to leave the parking lot without having committed manslaughter. Shit! I need to get a grip. I can't afford to get tossed in jail now. More than a little shaken by his lack of attention, he made his way back to the house on Revello Drive, parking carelessly and slamming open the kitchen door.
Without explanation to any of the women in the kitchen, he went directly to the basement and to Spike's stash of cheap booze. He was just tilting the bottle up to his mouth when Spike's voice came from the corner near the washing machine.
"Was plannin' to use that to get to sleep tomorrow."
"This is an emergency. I'll buy you more."
Spike glided up to him, pulling a clean tee shirt over his head as he did. Without realizing he was doing so, Xander ran a critical eye over the vampire's torso, noting the visible ribs and corded muscles of his abdomen.
"You need less booze and more blood, anyway," he said, tossing his head back and pouring alcohol down his throat until he began to choke.
Spike snatched the bottle away and pounded him on the back. "Are you trying to kill yourself?" he growled, holding the bottle behind his back.
"I've seen you do that dozens of times," Xander wheezed, his eyes streaming tears.
"I don't have to breathe, you bloody stupid git!" Spike made a disgusted face and put the bottle down on the floor. "'sides, I don't want you for backup if you're going to be too drunk to swing a sword." His tone softened as Xander sank onto the bed and dropped his head against the wall, his eyes closed. "So, what's this all about, then?"
"She's leaving. Now. Not eventually, or even next week. She's leaving when Giles leaves. Going to England with him."
"Thought the watcher was only taking a short trip to feel out if the Council of Wankers knew about Buffy? You think he's taking a runner?"
Xander shrugged. "Who knows? There's really not much reason for him to come back here. He might have the same memories we do about Dawn, but he doesn't seem to have as much trouble remembering that she didn't exist until this year."
"No, he doesn't." Spike's voice was cold as he remembered Giles's willingness to sacrifice Dawn in order to thwart Glory. "Thought for a while he might be different from those other cold-blooded wankers that sacrifice little girls instead of fighting themselves, but I guess not."
"Guess it's gonna be you and me," Xander said without opening his eyes. "I mean we've got Willow and Tara for the girlie stuff, but it's gonna be up to us to see that Dawn's safe and doesn't feel like her whole family is gone."
"Her whole family is gone," Spike said, flopping down on the other end of the bed. "Glinda makes a damn good mother-figure, but she's got a life to live, and Red…"
"Willow's a good mother!" Xander said. His automatic defense of his best friend didn't even bring a rebuttal from Spike, only a snort. His shoulders sagged and dropped his head back again. "Okay, maybe not the best mother figure, but she's very responsible. You know she is."
"I know she's thinkin' she's got the magic thing all figured out, and without the watcher around to rein her in, I'll be surprised if she doesn't go off the deep end."
"That's not going to happen. We won't let it."
"When did we become the grownups?"
Xander opened his eyes to see Spike had fallen into an identical position, head back, eyes shut, a frown wrinkling his brow.
"Asks the man who's older than dirt..." A glare was the only response as Spike rolled his head to the side. "And I've been the only grownup in my family since I was nine or ten."
"'s not right. She needs something better than a couple of spell-happy witches, a neutered vampire and a…."
"If that sentence isn't going to end with 'a shining example of a smart, brave, human male,' just keep it to yourself."
"Took the words right out of my mouth."
Xander snorted. They sat at opposite ends of the small bed, backs against the wall and heads rolled toward each other.
"So, you and me, yeah?"
"Looks like." He smiled into the eyes looking at him with more warmth than he could recall ever having seen in them. "We can do it."
Spike nodded and dropped his gaze as if embarrassed at being caught. "She's not dating till she's thirty, you know."
"Goes without saying."
"Just so we're clear."
They sat in comfortable silence for awhile, then Xander stirred. "So, are we still on for the vamp nest slayage?"
Spike shook his head. "Don't think so. You just drank half a bottle of my best cheap booze. Might as well finish it off. The vamps will wait till tomorrow night."
"Are you all right now?"
Spike blinked at the sudden question and took a swallow of the bottle Xander had just handed him.
"I'm healed up, if that's what you mean. You know that. Been working off my issues against the nasties for a while now."
"It's not what I meant," Xander said, taking the bottle back and swallowing before he continued. "I meant, are you all right about… you know, Buffy? Or Dru? How long was it before you got over being dumped by your girlfriend?"
"Are you asking me how long it's gonna hurt that demon-girl is leaving you?"
"I guess so."
"Well, she's not dying, so no sense comparing her to the Slayer." He held up the almost empty bottle. "I'm not over that, and don't expect to be anytime this century. Don't imagine you are either," he continued with a shrewd glance at Xander.
"No. Not over it. You're right. It was a bad comparison. Buffy was… Buffy. And she's gone. Forever." He looked at Spike, sudden fear in his eyes. "You don't think she's in a hell dimension, do you? That portal was—"
"Don't be daft. Heaven's Chosen One? She's where she should be. With her mum. Safe and warm… and done. She'd been the Slayer how long? Five years? More than that?" Spike shook his head. "We buried the body, but her soul is where it belongs."
"Do you know that? Or is it just what you want to believe?"
"It's what keeps me from going crazy," Spike replied softly. "Knowin' she's resting and happy. It's what keeps me here. That and the Bit."
They were both silent for several minutes, each lost in his own thoughts of what he'd lost. Xander raised his eyes and spoke quietly. "Neither one of us ever had a chance with her, did we?"
"Prob'ly not. Closest I got was that bloody spell – and it was all fake, wasn't it? Just meant to tease with what might have been." He quirked an eyebrow at Xander. "What about you?"
"Me?" He snorted. "The closest I ever got was one night when she was trying to make Angel jealous. I thought I was going to spontaneously combust on the dance floor before she snapped out it." He made a face. "I think Cordy might have had something to do with stopping her. I'm pretty sure Buffy was wiling to drive me crazy if it meant Deadboy wouldn't like it. I guess neither one of us ever had the real thing. Not so much as a kiss."
"Naught but the one…" Spike's voice trailed off, and his face went very still.
"Buffy kissed you? For real?" Xander sounded seriously offended and Spike couldn't resist a smirk. Then he shrugged.
"Was just a thank you. After the hell-bitch did her tune-up on me and Buffy came prancing in all dressed like the bot to see if I'd told."
"How did you convince her you didn't? I remember that day. She was so sure you had when she left – and so pissed off at Giles and me for not dusting you – and then when she came back, she was so sure you didn't do it. All of a sudden you were one of the gang. How'd you do it? Why'd she believe you?"
Spike snorted. "Didn't know it was her, did I? She was all perky and botty, and I gave her answers she wasn't expecting to hear. Was too out of it to know the difference at first. Not till she kissed me. Was a bit late then, she was already leaving. But she started letting me in. Bit at a time, we were… working on being friends, I guess. Not what I wanted, but—"
"But when it's Buffy, you take what you can get. Been there, worn that tee-shirt for a long time." He was quiet for a while, then, "Having Anya in my life made it a lot better." Spike nodded silent encouragement as he passed the bottle back and Xander continued. "Knowing I had a beautiful girl who loved me… made it easier to think of Buffy as the good friend I knew was all she'd ever be. And now… "
"And now we're a pair of pathetic wankers getting drunk in a basement, mourning a dead girl and pining for… Well, you're pining. I burned my bridges with Dru a long time ago."
"Maybe we weren't meant to have women in our lives." Xander waved the almost empty bottle around. "Did you ever think about that? We weren't meant to have women. That's why we can't keep them."
"Speak for yourself, Harris. I like having women in my life. Always have at least one."
"Harmony doesn't count, Spike," Xander said with as much dignity as he could muster while listing to one side. "I'll give you Dru, but Harmony? Even I'm not that pathetic."
"Harm's all right… when she's got something filling her mouth so words can't come out of it."
"She's a moron!"
Spike just looked at him until he saw the light dawn, then he added for good measure, "She's one hell of a lay."
"That's disgusting! I'm offended on Harmony's behalf."
"You just called her a moron."
"Well, yeah, cause… moron. But she's a Sunnydale moron. You can't come in here and be all English and insulting about her."
"And you're done for the night." Spike took the bottle away and quickly drained the remaining alcohol.
"Hey! I didn't say I was done!"
"You were defending Harmony."
"Right. Done. Absetively, posilutely done." Xander dropped his head down to the mattress and mumbled, "I'm just going to take a little nap…" Shaking his head, Spike lifted Xander's feet up and covered him with the blanket. He stood up and stretched, too drunk to think about patrolling and not drunk enough to fall peacefully to sleep like Xander had. He dug around until he found another bottle that wasn't quite empty and took it upstairs with him.
"It's a good thing it's not a school day." Dawn's voice broke into the dream Xander had been having in which he cowered behind Spike while Buffy, Cordelia, Anya and Harmony fought over him. Spike was snarling at the girls, saying, "You bints find your own carpenter. This one is mine."
Tapping her foot impatiently, Dawn waited for Xander to notice her.
"Oh, hi, Dawnie," he said, wincing when he tried to lift his head. "Where am I?"
"You're in Spike's bed, and he's passed out on the couch. I got there just in time to pull the curtains."
"Is he all right?" Xander tried to jump to his feet, but ended up on the floor holding his head and moaning.
"I'm fine," came a croak from the vampire making his way down the stairs. "Jus' need a little sleep… in my own bed." Spike stumbled past Xander and fell face first onto the bed, snoring immediately.
Xander fumbled to his feet and followed Dawn up the stairs.
"I'm going to guess you aren't coming with us to see Giles and… to see Giles off?"
"It's okay," he said with a shrug. "I know Anya's going with him. And, no, I'm not planning to see them off."
"Okay." Dawn's expression was sympathetic and much too mature for a girl her age. "I'll leave you here to wallow with Spike." She picked up a jacket and began to walk out of the kitchen. "But you guys better get it together by tonight. Willow is planning a meeting to decide what to do now."
"We'll be okay by then. I promise."
"Are we all here?" Willow's rhetorical question met with the rolled eyes it deserved and she hastened on. "Of course we are. That's the whole point. We're all here. All of us. We're the us… the… we're all here."
Tara patted Willow's hand reassuringly and Willow took a deep breath. "Okay. Sorry about the babble. I've called this meeting because… because we are us. The only us there is. And we need to be sure that we're all on the same page."
She looked around the room from Tara's supportive smile, past Dawn's frown, to Xander's confused gaze and Spike's narrowed eyes.
"What page would that be, Red?"
"Well, you know. I just meant… " She turned to Xander. "You guys have worked this out, haven't you? Dawn, I mean. Watching Dawn. You get her to school and back, Spike helps with homework…" She paused while they all were surprised all over again by the knowledge that Spike had a good, if somewhat old-fashioned, university education. "And takes her anywhere she has to go after dark." Without waiting for confirmation, she went on. "And we all help with patrolling. Sometimes."
"I've got that covered," Spike said quietly. "And Harris can help me if—when I want him to. No need for you two to get involved unless the situation requires magic."
"Well, you never know when… but that's kind of where I was going." She looked at Tara for support. "We… we've agreed to run the Magic Box for Giles. It's going to bring in a little income, and we'll still have it for research and—"
"And you won't be around here much," Spike stated, ignoring her glare and staring back unapologetically. "That's what you're saying, isn't it? You need to know that Xander and I are gonna be around all the time because you aren't."
"We'll still be living here," Tara spoke up in her soft voice, easing the developing tension. "We'll be here for breakfast, and to sleep at night. We'll be home most nights before you go out to patrol. It's not like we're leaving Dawnie alone. There will always be somebody here."
Dawn waved a hand around. "Hello? Still in the room? You guys do realize that most girls my age are doing babysitting, not having it done to them don't you?"
"Most bints your age aren't the Slayer's little sis, and don't have Hellgods gunning for them."
"Buffy's gone," she said, biting her lip. "And so is Glory. There's no reason for anything to be coming after me. I'm ready to just enjoy my first year of high school like any normal kid." She fixed Spike with a hard stare. "Which I'm pretty sure will be easier if there isn't a vampire slinking around behind me, ready to scare the pants off any guy who tries to talk to me."
Spike shrugged and tried to look innocent. "No idea what you're on about, Bit. And if I did, scaring the guy's pants off would definitely not be the plan."
Willow interrupted the glaring contest. "Speaking of Buffy… we were thinking…." She paused to glance at Spike, then rushed on, "We were thinking I could maybe get the Buffybot patched up and working enough that she could patrol with you. Just to help keep the demon world on its toes."
Spike's face shut down completely, only the twitching muscle in his jaw showing any animation.
"I'm sorry, Spike," Willow said with surprising sympathy. "I know that's probably going to be hard for you. It's going to be hard for all of us… but she's—it's— there and we know it can fool people. It would be a good thing to have her seen out and about at least once in while."
"You don't know what she's like," he said, eyes squeezing shut. "You don't know what she's programmed to be like—"
Xander interrupted. "Trust me, we've all got the visual to scrub from our brains, not to mention having to listen to her babble about what you look like naked."
Spike shuddered and dropped his head, staring at his knees. Willow glared at Xander, then said, "I think I can fix that. I can take out most of the 'I love Spike, he's so sexy.' stuff and just leave in the slayer parts."
"Do whatever you want, witch," he said, getting to his feet. "I'll be here doin' my job no matter what. You want to get the bot up and running, go for it. Jus' keep her away from me." He started to leave the room, then dropped to his knees in front of Dawn. "Are you alright with that, Bit? Having the bot around? Don't want anything to cause you any more pain than you've already had."
"Really? Then could you please stop reminding me that the only reason you're here is because you promised Buffy?"
He rocked back on his heels, staring at her tear-filled eyes with shock and regret. "Ah, Bit. I've fucked up again, haven't I?" He reached a tentative hand toward her face and touched her cheek. "Didn't mean that being around you was a chore, love. You know that. You'd still be my Nibblet no matter what your sister had or hadn't said. It's just… it gives me a good excuse to be here with you. Without it, don't know as an old vamp would be quite as welcome in this house."
Dawn's gaze went from his sorrowful face to Xander's and then to the two girls sitting across the room and frowning at her. "It's my house," she said. "And I'll say who is and isn't welcome in it." She shifted her gaze back to Spike. "I already told the school that Buffy was really busy and my older brother was living with us now and he'd be taking care of me." She glanced at Xander and smiled. "I told them you and your gay lover were my surrogate parents."
While the adults in the room stared at her with their mouths open, she smiled sweetly and stood up. "So, that's the story, guys. Make sure you get it right." Without another word, she left the room and went upstairs, smiling to herself at the silence she'd left behind. "Make decisions about me without me, will they? Take that, bossy people."
"Honey, I'm home." Xander's voice rang out as he followed Dawn into the kitchen. He stared around the sunny space, then headed for the basement door.
"Go on, put your stuff down and relax for awhile. Need to talk to your "big brother" about that PTO thing at your school. I still think it's a really bad idea for us to show up there together. I'm not sure how Social Services feels about having a gay couple as parents of a teenager. It's bad enough one of us is pretending to have a pulse, never mind pretending we're gay."
"It's fine," Dawn said with conviction. "Spike turned on the charm the last time the social worker came by and he's got her eating out of his hand. I think he convinced her that he might go straight for the right woman and now she's all hot to prove to him he's not gay."
"Wonderful," Xander muttered, wondering why a bolt of what could only have been jealousy had just shot through him. Spike had every right to flirt if he wanted to. It's not like they really were a couple, after all…
"Hello, sweetie. Tough day at the construction site?" Spike's sarcastic smile greeted Xander at the top of the stairs. His tone quickly changed as he glared at the sunny room. "When are we going to get some decent curtains in this room?" he said, sounding for the moment just like an angry woman. "I can't even feel safe in my own kitchen."
"You're not crippled," Xander shot back. "Feel free to hit Home Depot for some sun-proof blinds any time you want. I hear they're open until ten."
"Somebody's touchy today. What's the matter? Did all your little nails not go into the right holes?"
"Some of us have to go to work every day – not sit around watching soap operas and flirting with stupid women." Xander walked into the darkened living room and threw himself onto the couch.
Rolling her eyes at them, Dawn walked past the living room and went up to her bedroom, turning on her music and looking through her closet for something to wear. While the parents were being subjected to a talk by the school's principal, some of the students were going to be setting up refreshments in the cafeteria and library. Dawn had volunteered to serve, as much to watch Spike and Xander in action as to get into the good graces of the school administration.
Spike followed Xander at a more leisurely pace, sitting on the end of the couch across which Xander was sprawled.
"Bit told you about the social worker, huh?"
"Yeah. She told me." He slid his eyes sideways. "Are you going to let her 'cure' you of being gay?"
"Don't know yet," Spike admitted. "It's been a long time since I had my dick anywhere more exciting than my hand. If she was a little younger, and a little prettier, I'd be sorely tempted…"
"You are such a slut."
Spike blinked at him. "What? Why? Because I'm thinking about getting laid for the first time in almost a year? Some of us haven't spent all but the past few weeks living with an insatiable ex-demon, you know. Maybe you're all shagged out for a while, but—"
Xander glared at him. "The only reason the school isn't screaming about the living arrangements is because they think you're related to Dawn and I'm harmless. How's it going to look if the social worker is bragging about turning Dawn's "gay" brother around? Where does that leave me?"
"It'll look like I'm cured and you're still a poof." Spike's grin faded as he watched Xander's face darken. "What the fuck is wrong with you? I think it was bloody brilliant of the Bit to think this up."
Xander stood up and walked to the kitchen, getting himself a glass of water and rummaging around in the refrigerator. He ignored Spike, who was now leaning against the door jamb and staring at him. He finally slammed the door and turned around.
"We're never going to pull this off. You'll be hitting on every half-way good-looking woman you see, and I'll be left standing there looking like…"
"Looking like you're jealous," Spike said, moving into Xander's personal space. "What's wrong with that?"
"I'm not jealous!"
"No?" Spike moved even closer. "So, what then? You think I can't convince anyone we've got a thing going on?"
Xander swallowed hard as he felt Spike's hand brush his arm. "Well, no. Yeah. I mean it's not like we… you… we won't know what to do. Not that we're going to do anything!" he added quickly. "Not in public! Not anywhere! Can we talk about something else now?"
"You want to know a secret about vampires?" Spike said, paying no attention to Xander's babbling. He moved even closer, sliding one hand up Xander's arm to behind his neck, using it to pull Xander's head down where he could put his lips right next to the other man's ear. "We aren't all that fussy about who we shag."
"Wha—?" Xander tried to pretend the cool breath in his ear and the lips just touching it weren't haven't any affect on him.
Spike stepped away with a smile. "I'm just saying. One of us does know what to do. And how to do it. So, no worries, mate. We'll be very convincin' as a couple. All you have to do is follow my lead."
Leaving Xander standing, open mouthed and with a bulge in his jeans, Spike went downstairs to finish getting dressed. When he came back up, wearing his usual black attire, but with a dress shirt over his usual tee, and a denim jacket in place of his normal duster, Spike acted like nothing had happened. He went into the living room and dropped onto the couch, clicking the remote until he found something interesting to watch.
Xander waited until the visible sign of what Spike's touch had done had gone away before he forced himself back into the living room. More than happy to deny the incident in the kitchen had ever happened, he sat in the chair and pretended to be watching the inane game show to which Spike was shouting out answers.
The drive to Dawn's school – located on the other side of town from the still debris-filled site where Buffy had blown up the old high school – was peaceful and quiet. Only when Dawn asked a question about where Xander was working did he become animated.
"I think we're going to get the job of rebuilding the old high school," he said, leaning forward. "That's a big project and should keep me gainfully employed for at least a year."
"Working over the Hellmouth?" Spike's voice contained just enough real concern to make Xander glance at him in the mirror. Of course, he saw nothing there, but he made a face at it anyway.
"It's not like I didn't spend four years of high school working—" At Dawn's snort of disbelief, he amended, "Okay, not working, possibly sleeping, but the point is, there was no permanent damage from it."
"So you say…"
"Shut up, Spike."
The presentation in the auditorium was blessedly brief and the parents were soon filing out to tour the school or get the free refreshments in the cafeteria. Xander and Spike did their best to appear interested in meeting Dawn's teachers and seeing her classrooms, following a map she'd given them until they'd at least peered into every room. When Spike got sidetracked by Dawn's very attractive Government teacher, Xander had to grab his hand and pull him out of the room.
"Stop it," he hissed.
"Stop what? I was just…"
"I know what you were 'just'. We're supposed to be a couple and you're acting like a…"
The whispered argument was interrupted by another man who walked up and introduced himself as one of the school counselors.
"Hello, I'm Mike Brewer. I'll be Dawn's counselor this year. I don't think we've met yet. I met your… sister?" he glanced at Spike, who nodded, "but Dawn tells me you're going to be our contact person now?"
"Yes," Spike said smoothly. "I'm William… Summers." He stumbled over the last name, remembered just in time that he was supposed to be Dawn's brother. "And this is my partner, Xander."
Mike shook hands with both men, squeezing Xander's just a bit harder than necessary and giving him a sympathetic smile. When Spike moved off to look over the cookie selection and talk to Dawn, Mike said, "I take it he's bi? I know that can be a problem sometimes. If you ever need a sympathetic ear…"
Xander flushed and mentally cursed Spike and his obviously flirting, even as he struggled to smile and respond without punching the other man.
"Uh, yeah. His last… he was with a woman and sometimes he forgets… But it's okay. We're good. No problems. We're both very concerned about giving Dawnie a stable home life." Xander gave a weak smile and moved in Spike's direction. "I'm just going to…"
"I'm just saying, I know how it is when your competition isn't just other men… Give me a call if you need a shoulder to cry on, or just a friend…"
With sudden clarity, Xander realized that the man was hitting on him. Subtly, to be sure, but hitting nonetheless. Gasping in panic, he mumbled something about needing to talk to Dawn, and almost ran across the room to where Spike was standing at Dawn's station, pretending to steal the cookies.
"There you are!" Xander said, grabbing Spike's arm and hanging on for dear life. "I thought I'd lost you."
Spike raised an eyebrow. "Not that easy to get rid of, pet. You know that. Now what's wrong?" He patted Xander's hand where it rested on his arm, giving it a little squeeze.
"That Mike… that guy… he was hitting on me! Me! Xander Harris. Ladies' man. He thinks I'm gay!"
"He's supposed to think you're gay," Dawn hissed, gesturing for him to be quiet. "What's wrong with you?"
"He's supposed to think I'm being gay with Spike," Xander whispered back. "Not with other guys!"
"Relax, Harris," Spike said, not bothering to hide his grin. "He'll know you're gay with me." Before Xander could ask what he meant, Spike slid an arm around him and stuck his hand in Xander's front pocket. Rubbing his thumb against Xander's hipbone, he purred, "Could show him right now, if you'd like."
Xander grabbed Spike's hand and pulled it away from his body, softening his expression when he saw Mike watching them.
"Not now, honey," he said through gritted teeth. "We don't want to embarrass Dawnie."
"Yeah. Let's not get Dawnie kicked out because her guardians get arrested for having sex in the school cafeteria," Dawn said, laughing at Xander's red face. "This is going to be more fun than I thought."
"No it isn't," Xander said. "Fun time is over. We came, we gayed, we ate cookies – it's time to go home and just be us."
"I can't leave yet," Dawn said. "I can't leave until all the parents have left and all the cookies are gone."
"No problem." Xander began stuffing cookies in his mouth, elbowing Spike in the ribs. "Come on, fangface, do your part."
"Why? I'm not in a hurry to leave. Maybe we can sneak off to a dark corner and…." Xander coughed and gagged on his mouthful of cookies, unable to prevent Spike from pounding him on the back. "I'm sorry, pet. I didn't mean to make you choke. If I wanted to do that, I'd have used something more interesting than cookies."
Xander's coughing redoubled, bringing Mike running up to the table.
"Are you all right? Can I get you anything?" He hovered over Xander, giving a grinning Spike a fierce glare. "What did you say to him?" he asked.
"Nothing. I was just kidding with him, and when he laughed the cookies went down the wrong way. He's fine, aren't you, darlin'?" Spike began to rub Xander's back and murmur endearments to him. With a final worried frown at Xander, Mike began to move away. He turned to Dawn and suggested she wrap it up for the night so that her brother and his friend could go home and take care of Xander's throat. When a teacher called him over to meet a set of parents, he gave a sigh and reluctantly moved away, giving Xander a last, lingering smile as he did so.
"Think you've got an admirer there, pet," Spike said, keeping his arm around Xander and continuing to rub his back, even though Mike was no longer watching them.
"Whoopee, with a side order of wonderful," Xander muttered, wincing as he pulled the words from his abused throat. "Now I can never enter this building unless you're with me."
"Don't worry, I won't let the big bad poof get you. You're mine." Spike ran his hand over Xander's ass and then turned to Dawn. "You ready to go, Bit? You've got permission to take off."
"Yeah, okay. Let's go. I've probably made enough brownie points just by showing up."
Dawn went to her room as soon as they got home, insisting that she didn't need any help with her homework because it was just reading a book. She waved her goodnight and ran up the stairs, watched by both men.
"She seems to be doing okay, don't you think?"
Spike shrugged. "She's doing the best she can – just like the rest of us. She still cries sometimes. But not every night like at first."
"I wonder what the girls would say if they knew you can hear… and smell… everything they do?"
"Let's just keep that between us, yeah? I think Red might turn me into a toad if she knew I could hear them…."
"You can hear them? When they… I think I need to sit down. Possibly with a drink."
"It's downstairs. Nothing but beer, though." He turned away and started down the stairs, closely followed by Xander.
"I don't think beer is going to be strong enough to…. You can really hear them? From all the way down here?"
Spike shrugged. "Not always down here, am I? And yeah, I can hear a lot. Can hear your heart beating now." He stepped closer. "Could hear it speed up when I stuck my hand in your pocket back at the school."
"Leave my heartbeat out of this conversation. We were talking about girls – women – not… not your hands in inappropriate places."
"What was inappropriate about it? If I'd been a bird, you wouldn't have thought twice about it… even if it was making your pants a little tight…."
"My pants were fine! Are fine! My heart beat faster because I was embarrassed. That's all."
"Alright. Have it your way. You don't find me sexy. I get it." Spike took a can of beer out of a cooler and sat down, popping his can open and saluting Xander with it. "Here's to pretending to be a gay couple without actually doing anything about it."
"Exactly!" Xander slid his eyes sideways as he took a big swallow. He watched as Spike squirmed on the couch until he was almost lying down, his legs stretched out in front of him, open and relaxed. One hand rested on his hip, his fingers almost touching his crotch. He studiously ignored Xander, who was sincerely hoping that his heart rate had not just gone as high as he was afraid it had. He yanked his eyes away from the taut, strong body next to him and gulped down the rest of his beer. "I'm not gay! Not that there's anything wrong with that…" he added quickly, a response that had become automatic since Willow and Tara had become a couple.
"I'm not gay either," Spike said with a sigh. "But I don't feel a need to be sayin' so all the time. Don't know who you're tryin' to convince."
"You!" Xander said, grabbing another beer from the cooler and almost spilling it in his haste to get it open. "I'm trying to convince… I'm trying to get you to understand that we're just pretending, and you keep…. Argh!" He tipped the can up and drained it without looking at Spike again. He reached for his third can, flinching when Spike's hand touched his arm.
"Easy there, Harris. Your virtue's safe with me. No need to drink all my beer to brass me off. I'm not trying to seduce you."
"You're not?" Xander cursed the slight tinge of disappointment that slipped out in his voice.
"Nah," Spike said, sliding closer. "If I was tryin' to seduce you, I'd be sitting over here… beside you. And I'd be looking for excuses to touch you, like this…" Spike slid a hand behind Xander and began massaging his neck. "You're so tense. No need to be like that around me. It's just old, harmless Spike." He put down his beer can and moved behind Xander, now using both hands to rub the tight, tense shoulders in front of him. "Just relax. See? Isn't that better?" Spike continued to work Xander's muscles in a surprisingly skillful manner, until Xander relaxed in spite of himself.
"Oh God, that feels so good…." He bit back a moan just in time, although Spike's quiet chuckle told him he wasn't fooling the vampire. He rolled his head back, his eyes meeting Spike's. "You lied, didn't you? When you said you weren't trying to seduce me. You lied."
"Might have," Spike admitted. "You want me to stop?" His hands continued their soothing stroking, now moving down Xander's back and working the muscles there. When Spike's hands slid around to move up and down Xander's ribs and began edging their way to his chest, he stopped pretending he wasn't caressing the other man's torso. One hand went up to rub lightly over a hardened nipple, the other stroking along his belt. Spike slid a finger under Xander's belt, just brushing the skin on his stomach. Xander's increased breathing and pounding heart couldn't be denied, so he didn't try.
Instead, he put his own hands on top of Spike's, stopping their stroking, and holding them still.
"Just 'old, harmless Spike' huh?" He gave a shaky laugh. "There is nothing harmless about you."
Spike gave a soft snort of laughter, his cool breath across the back of Xander's neck sending a shiver through the other man. "I'm just pulling your chain," he said, moving his hands away. "Know you're not ready for the real thing yet. I was just givin' you a little taste."
"N… nice taste," Xander croaked out. He moved away from Spike and finally met his eyes. "But I'm not—"
"If you say you're not gay one more time, I'm going to bite you – headache or not."
Xander shook his head. "I wasn't. I was just going to say… I'm not ready…"
Spike nodded, watching as Xander stood up and moved toward the base of the stairs. "But you will be," he predicted. "You will be."
"I hate it when he's right," he muttered as he ran up the stairs.
"I heard that!"
"Bite me!" Xander yelled back, cursing himself immediately as laughter drifted up the stairs.