It wasn’t as if Xander didn’t know the area. The address scribbled on the paper in his perpetually shaking hand overlooked the memorial park that used to be a school before it was destroyed. Three times. Three times and someone finally figured it would be cheaper to re-lay turf than rebuild a school.
He knew the area and he felt awkward, like he was returning to the scene of a crime. Standing, staring at the park, he fought the memories, didn’t want to examine flaws in plans or losses or reasons for fleeing not only the town but the state. It was a surprise not to see one of the ornamental beds featuring ‘Hellmouth’ spelt out in marigolds and petunias. Three trees, seven shrubs, three beds, four benches, six adults, seven children, one dog.
Later, when the park emptied, he’d go and pay his respects. Five fallen comrades. One fallen slayer.
Xander tore his eyes away and took another glance at the paper, although he’d memorised the words several buses ago. Looking along the row of houses he studied the numbers and began to walk, counting the paving slabs compulsively and refusing to recall when that behaviour had started. But he counted paving slabs and counted lampposts and counted red cars and counted blue cars. He…counted. The trip had been a nightmare, numbers rattling through his head until he was dizzy. There were steps up to the porch and he counted them. He stared at the house number and added, subtracted, divided, multiplied. He wasn’t crazy. He just needed his mind to be harmlessly occupied, or else he’d begin to think and he couldn’t risk that.
‘You have no choice. Be here by Friday,’ the writing, curly black on white, told him. And the address. Xander added the words, juggled the figures, decided on how many knocks. Six. Excessive but he couldn’t bring it down. His trembling hand rose and gave six sharp raps. As he waited nervously for an answer he questioned for the first time why he had no choice. Then he counted the nails in the boards of the porch. It was Friday and he couldn’t knock again. His hand rose and fell, rose and fell. He began to recalculate the numbers and when he got back to six the door opened.
The householder smiled warmly, kindly, as his eyes exclaimed ‘What the fuck!’ in large glowing letters.
“Come in, Xander.”
“Come on. Daylight,” the vampire pointed out.
Xander entered the house cautiously; he was better outside, not so keen on confined spaces. Spike offered to take his coat but he misheard and kept it, wondering what he hadn’t listened to but knowing there were sixteen stairs to the first landing.
“Come with me,” Spike told him and led him through to a plainly decorated, sparsely furnished living room; it looked like Spike had lived here for a couple of months rather than years. “Let me take your coat, you’re looking flushed.”
Xander allowed Spike to slide the big wool overcoat from his shoulders and stood, lost, in the centre of the room as the vampire took it back to the hall to hang up.
“Dull?” Spike supplied as he returned.
“Minimalistic,” Xander contradicted and Spike gave a soft laugh.
“Can’t complain. It comes with the job.”
Spike solicitously took Xander’s elbow and sat him down. Xander jerked back as a cool hand pressed to his forehead.
“I don’t travel well.” Which was the truth but a lie in this case and they both knew it. “You have anything cold to drink? Non-alcoholic. Water’s fine.”
Spike went away and came back with a jug of something pale and sweet and icy, pouring Xander a glass and watching neutrally as the young man tried not to spill it all over himself.
“Why?” he asked as Xander finished the cordial with a sigh of satisfaction.
“Do you shake?”
“Just kinda wound up.”
“Why are you so thin?”
Xander shrugged and counted the ice cubes in the jug before flicking a look in the vampire’s direction.
“You look well. You look…sane.”
Except for the naturally dark blond hair, Spike had reverted to what Xander considered to be the norm: black t-shirt and black jeans and the hefty DM’s, even in the house; still smelling of the distinct cigarette-based Spike smell that Xander remembered from their days sharing the basement, sharing the car, sharing a little corner of hell.
“I was going to order in later. Can I get you something now?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Are you ill?”
“Then why are you so thin?”
Xander unscrewed the paper in his hand, offered it to Spike.
“It’s Friday.” Spike nodded, stared. “Anyone else going to be here?” Spike shook his head, stared.
“Can I…?” Spike poured more cordial, not filling the glass quite so full this time.
“Where’s your stuff?”
Xander almost choked on the drink, wiped his mouth, felt a prize fool.
“I left it on the middle bus. I was distracted.” Counting the uprights of a picket fence.
“I thought you’d drive yourself.”
“I… No.” Xander put the glass down, picked it up. “Why didn’t I have any choice? I mean, I didn’t question that and I don’t know why I didn’t question it.”
“You had a choice. I just wanted you here and put what I thought would bring you.”
“Fine. That’s worth losing my stuff over.”
“I’ll call the bus company tomorrow. And I have a spare toothbrush,” Spike said with a smile.
“All your guests get the same one?” Xander asked and Spike’s smile broadened.
“I’ve missed you, Xander.”
“Okay.” Quietly, uncomfortably, head down.
“At least that’s honest.”
“I didn’t mean… I meant…”
“Xander,” Spike said in that cosseting tone that Xander hated because it made him feel so vulnerable.
“Shall I show you around the house? You can see how your average hell-hole guardian lives it up.”
“That’d be good.”
Xander started to rise but his legs shook so hard he tipped back into the seat. He looked around for something to count but only met Spike’s eyes, and was pinned like a butterfly to a board by the sympathy and anger he saw there. A hand shot out and Xander took it, thanked Spike as he was hauled to his feet.
The next room was a library; the large circular table piled with open books or closed books with all manner of items as bookmarks.
“How’d you find the number when you want pizza?”
Spike glanced over the pile and unburied a large leather-bound tomb, opening it and showing off the bookmark which happened to be for the local pizza delivery firm.
“Eighteenth-century witches and warlocks, European edition. Means a meat feast, no garlic every time. Chinese is The Ghaneski Chronicles. Italian is…”
“I get it.”
“Which volume do you fancy tonight?”
Xander made a ‘Your choice’ gesture and quickly looked away. Spike stared at the nearest hand as it shook its way over the ancient volumes on a nearby shelf.”
“I remember a lot of these. Researching, y’know?”
“Some of these were Rupert’s.” Panic flitted over Xander’s face as he turned to Spike for further explanation. “He’s fine. He gifted them to me.” Relief and suppressed emotion drained Xander and he sank into one of the chairs at the table, hand coming up to cover his mouth, eyes clenched shut. “He’s fine,” Spike reiterated, and Xander acknowledged that with a nod, jumping with shock as hands landed on his tense shoulders and squeezed. Xander forced open his eyes and counted the books on the table, sub-dividing them into size and re-counting, sub-dividing into binding colour… “Come on.” And hands slid around his upper arms and eased him to his feet.
They went to the kitchen, a pleasant, homely room that Spike apparently spent most of his time in, the table here piled with newspapers opened at the crossword puzzle, cigarette packs and the general detritus of existence. Spike propped Xander up against the nearest counter and started to make tea, blocking Xander’s view of the mugs so it wasn’t possible to see quite how much sugar he was putting in the Xander’s drink.
“I’d prefer cold.”
“You’ll drink this.”
Spike turned back, came to Xander without hesitation and grasped the hand that worried a loose cotton on his shirt. He gripped tight to stop the shakes. Xander tried to withdraw but Spike was so much stronger, and the only evasion possible was counting the floor tiles.
“Are you going to tell me?”
“Will you let me help you?”
“Do you want to be here?”
Spike brought the hand to his face, held it against his cheek and cherished the warmth.
“You want to leave then?”
There was a long pause. Long, long pause. One-hundred-and-forty-eight tiles.
Spike returned Xander’s hand. Went to pour boiling water then was back, scarily close and forcing Xander to pay attention. He silently played with Xander’s too long, too untidy hair, eventually pushing it back and holding it as if tied at the nape of his neck.
“Was this a sartorial decision? Or just that you couldn’t be arsed to get it cut?”
Xander’s weary, empty eyes met his.
“Couldn’t be assed.”
“I like it.” Spike let the wavy locks fall loose again, pulling them around to frame the expressionless face. “Still so handsome, Xander. You were always handsome.”
“Again with the no. What happened to the Xander Harris with the yammer? He’d have had more than
‘No’ for me.”
“Can I sit down?”
“No,” Spike replied, imitating Xander. Then he smiled. “Course you can.”
Spike stepped back and Xander moved to the table and sat, fiddling with a pack of Spike’s cigarettes before taking one out and lighting up, drawing deeply before Spike had time to snatch the offending object from his fingers. Xander couldn’t be bothered to argue; he started to count the boxes in the crossword puzzle closest to him. He didn’t look up as Spike held his hand still and put the cigarette back between his fingers, and it was at his mouth before Spike went for the tea.
Spike sat beside him, placed a mug on the table before him. Xander tapped at the crossword.
“Eleven across. Tambour.” Spike cocked the scarred eyebrow, picked up the paper and a pen, filled the word in without question. Another look and Xander shook his head. “That’s all I’m good for.”
Spike rifled through the papers and pulled out a week-old edition, scanning through the clues.
“Here. Six letters. Flush joint. Something, something, R, something, E, something.”
“Carvel.” Spike grinned, filled the last empty squares as Xander counted along, admired the finished puzzle, then tossed the paper into a pile beside the sink unit. “The recycling vampire,” he laughed at Xander’s curiosity.
“I’m pathetic,” Spike snorted amiably as he lit his own cigarette.
“Why am I here?”
“Usual. End of the world.”
“I think I’ve averted my share of apocalypses, Spike.”
“But you’re so good at it. Wouldn’t dream of having an apocalypse without Xander Harris. Be like trying to reform the Pistols without Sid.”
“They did, they proved it could be done.”
“Yeah, well, maybe Sid didn’t have the key to the explosives cabinet.”
Xander’s expression screamed, ‘Look at me, for God’s sake!’ but Spike didn’t want to look, refused to see the debilitated version of his acquaintance.
“I’ll phone for pizza then I’m going out for a while.”
“Out for a bite?” Spike nodded. “Perk of the job?”
“Could say that.”
“Do you kill them?”
Spike shook his head.
“Thrall ‘em – Dru’d be proud of me, I tell you - couple of pints, they’re woozy for a day or two, that’s all.”
“The soul lets you do that?”
“What does your soul let you do, Xander?” Spike asked, tone harsh, and Xander took a sharp, telling breath. Spike’s hand covered his and he jumped yet again. “You’re one of the great and good, mate. Nothing on your conscience, I’ll bet.”
Xander swallowed hard, throat clogged by too much sugar in the tea.
The chilly hand on Xander’s stroked and explored, every inch of flesh, the shape of every prominent bone. Xander bore it as long as possible then moved his hand away, flushing with inexplicable embarrassment.
“Want to see your room?”
They took the stairs slowly, Spike fighting against the desire to help Xander but eventually offering his arm and Xander defeatedly taking it.
“I’m just tired,” Xander unconvincingly explained his weakness away as he rested on the landing, counting the banister spindles. “It was a long trip and I don’t…”
“…travel well,” Spike finished for him.
Into Xander’s room and Spike sat him down on the bed.
“Can I stay here now? I’d like to rest.”
“Did you sleep at all last night?”
“No. I was…”
The wallpaper was patterned; there were insulating tiles on the ceiling. The room was perfect: Xander could count himself into a stupor. Spike sat close and put an arm around Xander, running his hand over the back that stiffened in reflection of its owner’s anxiety.
“Shall I put you to bed?” Spike asked quietly.
“I can manage.”
“Sleep now, food later. Promise me you’ll eat something.”
“I’m really not hungry. I’m too tired to be hungry.”
Spike leant closer and nuzzled Xander’s neck, up to his ear, changed direction and kissed his cheek. Xander remained completely passive.
“You still smell of chocolate.”
“It’s in your head. You’re still crazy.”
“You were never very good at accepting the obvious.”
“Go away, Spike.”
“Anything I can bring you back?”
Spike nodded and stood, fished into a back pocket and pulled out a card.
“Here,” He offered it to Xander, who stared for a minute before taking it. “My cell number’s on there if you need me.”
“You have a card?”
“And now you have a card,” Spike told him in idiot speak.
“Where’s the phone? House phone?”
“Kitchen table. Throw the papers on the floor and you’ll find it. I won’t be gone long.”
“Take your time, I’m fine.”
“Yeah. You look it.”
Another jump as Spike caressed the back of Xander’s head, a touch of comfort and statement: no, Xander wasn’t fine and it hurt to see.
It was barely dark out but Spike wanted to leave Xander alone to sleep, if he could sleep: he didn’t look as if sleep played a great part in his schedule. With a grin he pulled on Xander’s coat, hugging it around himself and enjoying the scent that enveloped him. Why did Xander need such a big coat in this clement weather? Too thin to keep to himself warm? Quick recce through the pockets: bus tickets, keys, pen, change, wallet. Spike rifled through the wallet: just under two-hundred dollars, bank card, driving licence, various IDs. No photographs, nothing personal. He studied a year-old ID card that seemed to permit Xander to drive anything up to a space shuttle providing it was on a building site. The picture was the Xander he’d remembered, the one
he’d written his note to. He drew a fingertip over the face.
“Beautiful, Xander. I’ll get you back. Promise, love.”
Quietly closing the front door he stepped to the edge of the porch, taking a deep, searching breath. That was handy, someone still in the park. Quick snack and the chance to commune with the Powers, all in one convenient package. He needed to get the nod on what the fuck had happened to Xander; if he was going to keep him he had to help him, and he couldn’t help him without knowing and, yeah, right, Xander would just tell him everything.
The sugar had kicked in; Xander felt a bit better, a little stronger. He considered a shower and went looking for the bathroom, finding Spike’s bedroom first. Unable – actually, unwilling - to fight his curiosity, he went in and looked around, fascinated by the lack of personal touches. The only item that spoke of connections was a photograph: Willow, Xander, Buffy, Dawn. His chest ached; he touched Buffy’s half-forgotten face and whispered a hello and a sorry, lied as he promised Willow and Dawn he’d be in touch.
He looked in the dresser. The top drawer was packed to overflowing with letters, too many to count, and he guessed they were from Angel. Xander liked that and he could see it – two obstinate bastards who rarely picked up a phone but would write one another long, eloquent epistles. Taking the top envelope and pulling out the contents, Xander glanced over the back page for the signature. Yes, Angel. His own name caught his eye:
‘Xander will never agree…’ and Xander had the pages back in the envelope and the drawer shut in seconds, shaking his way over to the bed and sinking heavily onto the edge. He wasn’t frightened of Spike but he was frightened of plans and intentions and commitments, and if Angel knew he would never agree, then surely he would never agree? To what? Didn’t matter.
Xander spread his hands over the bed cover: velvet. Hedonist, his mind smiled. Allowing himself to fall back, he stretched out, wondered how many people had shared this bed, before he mentally slapped himself and turned his head to count the quirks in the gothic headboard. With a frown he pushed himself back up, moving closer to the head of the bed to examine a small stone pendant hanging from a metal twirl. It was his. Lost, he thought, in the last battle at the school. It had been a gift from Willow. Lost, he thought. Spike had it.
“Spike had it,” he said, as if hearing that aloud would permit the fact to make sense. He stared at the pendant for a few minutes before turning away and rolling onto the bed, dragging a pillow to him and getting comfortable. “Keep it,” he muttered, all thoughts of showers and what he’d never agree to forgotten. He wanted to sleep. He needed to sleep. Spike’s velvet was comforting. The smell of Spike on the pillow was comforting. He slept.
Spike looked in Xander’s room for his guest, then he looked in his own. Xander in his bed, very nice. He put the bagful of items he’d bought Xander in the bathroom and returned to the fitfully sleeping human.
“Xander,” he said in a whisper as he joined him on the bed.
“No,” came the dozy reply.
“Not everything is an automatic no. This was a yes. Unless you have amnesia, in which case I’ll take advantage of your memory loss, persuade you you’re all mine, and fuck you through the mattress.”
Xander felt the touch, wanted the touch, knew it was wrong, wanted to scream with the wrongness.
“No,” he told Spike, and Spike removed his harmless, unthreatening hand from its resting place on
“I’ve ordered pizza. I got you some stuff to make yourself gorgeous again.”
“In the bathroom.”
“Oh. Right. Thanks. I’ll give you the money.”
Spike took a shoulder and rolled Xander onto his back, meeting no resistance, which seemed to be a feature of this Xander despite everything being no. Their eyes met, the dead man’s sharp and alive, the living’s dull and dead.
“What do you want, Spike?”
“You like my room better than your own?”
“Yeah, nice, innit?”
“What do you want?
Spike studied the unhappy face for a while.
“Can I kiss you?”
“No.” Quiet. Subdued. No offence, no objection, just the same air of bleakness.
“Why the hell would you want to?” Not really a question at all. At least not a question for Spike to answer.
Nothing to count in this room, nothing to count. Xander began counting his inhalations and his exhalations. Spike studied the utter misery laid out before him, and the need to explore what had destroyed Xander burned in him.
“Talk to me.”
“Leave me alone. I’m tired, I want to sleep.”
“You don’t look like you do much of that. Sleeping.” No response beyond Xander turning his face away. With a gentle touch Spike brought it back, trying to make Xander meet his eyes again. Xander was horribly compliant; he gazed back at Spike, unafraid to expose the emptiness. “What happened to you, eh?” Spike asked gently as he stroked a sunken cheek.
“You trying to like me?” Xander asked.
“I do like you.”
“Well, don’t. Don’t like me. Don’t lower yourself.”
Xander pulled away and turned his back to Spike, tense and hunched and a million miles away from the debateable comfort of sleep. Spike moved closer to the inhospitable back, leant up on one elbow, rested his chin on Xander’s shoulder.
“So… No kiss?”
“Then I guess a shag is out of the question?” The slightest smile touched Xander’s mouth at the old joke and Spike rolled away, satisfied. “Come on, love. Come and eat.”
Such pain in the whisper that Spike flinched.
“Call me that. Not love, I’m no-one’s love.”
Spike filed that gem away and returned to his previous position, snuggling against Xander’s warm back.
“I was hoping you meant move. Don’t move. ‘Cause this is good.”
“Begrudge me the warmth? Share, you miserable git.”
Xander fell silent and Spike got comfortable, wriggling as close to the heat as possible, wrapping an arm around Xander’s bony frame.
Spike watched as Xander expertly demolished pizza slices, picking them to pieces, rearranging what was left to make the plate look more empty than full, occasionally putting tiny scraps into his mouth and making a show of chewing and swallowing. To someone who was not specifically looking for such behaviour it might have worked as a decoy, but Spike was looking and saw straight through to the truth. He made Xander sweet tea and Xander drank it because he had to, resenting Spike and throwing him sullen looks.
“‘You have no choice. Be here by Friday,’” Xander quoted. “Tell me.”
“There is a choice. I’m trying to decide whether you get to make it.”
“What kind of choice?”
“Hard one for you.”
“When does it have to be made by?”
“But that’s too close.”
“How do you know?”
“You said it was a hard choice.”
“I also said I’m wondering about whether you get to make it.”
Too much for Xander, and he leant forward, head in hands, counted crumbs until the plate was taken away, then he counted the knots in the surface of the wooden table.
“Got you an old favourite.” Xander smelt the chocolate as Spike placed a pastry box by his elbow.
“Cheesecake. Seen you eat your bodyweight in these before now.”
The box was opened and Xander turned his head away, but not before Spike had seen the expression on his face. Appalled. He’d been appalled. Xander and chocolate?
“I’m not really hungry,” Xander announced uncomfortably, sensing Spike’s concern. “Tomorrow would be good.”
He turned back and tried to look sincere. Spike stuck a forefinger into the top of the cheesecake, scooping up a curl of the topping, offering it to Xander.
“For me. Because I made the effort.”
Before Xander knew what had happened Spike had moved, his chair was jerked back and the vampire was straddling his lap, facing him. The one finger of chocolate still offered. Xander froze. Spike tilted forward, whispering in Xander’s ear.
“Be a nice boy for Spike.”
For a moment Spike thought he was going to get a real, honest-to-god, Xander Harris reaction and be unceremoniously thrown aside, but Xander’s clenched body didn’t so much relax as give up, and his hands lay limply on Spike’s thighs. Spike touched the unwilling mouth and gained admittance, watching with greed and lust as his finger slid in, moaning softly as Xander sucked the chocolate away and his tongue completed the clean-up job. Spike’s finger fucked the soft, hot mouth and Xander let him, eyes half-closed, mind out of the body, out of the building, off of the planet for that moment. Then Spike saw that wretched mind return and switch Xander over to automatic pilot. His head drew back and Spike slid his finger out, wetly tracing over the bottom lip, back and forth.
Spike’s head ducked forward, tongue swiping between Xander’s closing lips, one pass, stealing the provocative flavour of chocolate and Xander. Ragged gasp and Xander wanted out, and he tried to push Spike away.
“I need to go up now. I need to shower. I feel dirty,” he finished under his breath.
“Because of me?”
Xander was surprised into looking at this Spike who spoke anxiously at having caused such a reaction. Authentically surprised, Spike noted with relief. Relief turned to dismay as Xander followed up with:
“No. Because of me.”
Spike stood, helped the fiercely shaking human to his feet.
By himself in the bathroom, Xander sorted through what Spike had bought for him, touched that he’d gone to the trouble of buying the brands he remembered Xander favouring. Shampoo, soap, toothpaste, deodorant. Toothbrush. And there was an electric razor because Spike wouldn’t put anything with a naked blade in those unreliable hands. An act of kindness. Lots of individual acts of undeserved kindness in one bag. Xander felt the pain of it and counted ceramic tiles.
“You forgot your towel.”
Spike moved in slow motion, strolling over to place the towel in the ring beside the shower, gaze fixed upon the figure semi-disguised by steam and pouring water.
“Don’t look at me,” Xander said in that quiet, defeated voice, not seeing Spike but knowing Spike.
So Spike didn’t. He sat on the closed toilet seat and faced away. Now he was looking at the mirror not at Xander. That Xander was reflected in the mirror was coincidental. Spike smoked a cigarette as he analysed the once-proud body that was now a delicate apology of itself, trying to convince himself that he’d made a mistake and he had to send Xander back to where he’d come from. But his compassion said keep him, care for him. His instincts said that if he didn’t intercede Xander wouldn’t see another birthday. His soul merely reminded him that this was Xander Harris, and that Xander Harris was what he wanted.
Xander was trying to open the shampoo; it was a special offer pack that had two bottles sealed together. He couldn’t find a way in and his infuriating, clumsy hands shook harder the more he tried. These were the moments when he questioned his actions, when he thought about the destructive speed of trains and cars and bullets. A swan dive from a local viaduct. It was the tiniest inconvenience that made him want to weep and maybe he would have if he remembered how.
Spike, close, and Xander almost collapsed with fright. As he leant against the wall on one arm, Spike, fully clothed and rapidly becoming drenched, took the bottles, easily separated them with sharp nails; he tossed one bottle outside the cubicle and took a palm-full of shampoo from the other before dropping it and proceeding to wash Xander’s hair. Now with both arms propped against the wall, Xander leant his head back and luxuriated in the contact as Spike slowly and methodically worked the lather along every strand, taking time to massage scalp and neck.
“You want me to stop?”
Spike’s hands slid easily down the soapy back and around the waist.
“No,” Xander pleaded.
“I’m just holding you.” Proving his point by leaning against the hot body and tightening his grip, manoeuvring Xander beneath the spray and letting the suds stream away.
“Won’t you let me help you, love?” Spike coaxed.
“Don’t,” Xander told him again, pressing back hard against the inflexible body, face turning so his lips touched Spike’s cheek. “Please.” Mixed signal, Spike thought, totally confused because the tone of that word would have got Xander fucked in any other situation. He was already hard from touching Xander, harder from Xander’s wet body pushing against him, and he had to check because he couldn’t help but desire.
“Want me, Xander?”
“Figures.” The pressure didn’t let up; Xander’s breathing grew heavier, shuddering in time with the distinct waves of trembling that wracked his body. Despite the almost unbearable temptation Spike refused to look, or drop a hand lower and see how Xander was really feeling. “Sure you don’t want me?”
“Can I have you anyway?”
“No,” they said together.
Spike pushed Xander away from him, turned off the water, grabbed the towel and wrapped it around the thin body. Then he carefully swivelled Xander until they were facing.
“For not shoving you up against the wall and fucking you raw?”
“For washing my hair,” corrected Xander without so much as a blink.
Xander glanced over him.
“Got a bigger problem than that.”
Xander waited, expressionless, for further explanation, allowing Spike to take his hand and place it over the prominent bulge in the front of his soaking jeans.
The hand lay still. Spike let it go. It withdrew into the towel. Spike’s attention focused on the face before him, and he found himself wishing that he didn’t need to see an emotion, a reaction, a smile: a smile would be good. Anything in the eyes, anything at all, even if it were hatred; he’d lived with the hate in Xander’s eyes before and come through it, won him around, forced those eyes to reflect their camaraderie. Now those lovely eyes were vacant, and Spike wanted to put a smile on this face.
“Can I kiss you?”
Xander wanted Spike’s bed rather than his own. Without a word he went to it and, dropping the towel, climbed under the covers. Naked, dried-off Spike entered the room five minutes later, joined him, eased him into a sitting position and moved behind him, using the dry towel he’d brought to take the remaining moisture from Xander’s hair before it all sucked into the pillows. Spike couldn’t resist playing: combing through again and again, braiding and un-braiding, curling strands around nimble fingers that still exhibited muscle memory of fussing over Drusilla’s dark locks. He hummed constantly: such a happy, peaceful sound. Bar the now minimal shaking, Xander sat motionless between Spike’s thighs and let him get on with it, trying not to enjoy the attention, but it was soothing and restful and he so wanted to rest. Eventually he leant against Spike’s chest, exhausted and grateful and too weak to resist the offer of comfort any longer; his head fell back onto Spike’s shoulder and a creak escaped his throat as a sure touch ran over his arms, collected his hands and held them.
“I’m dying, Spike,” he murmured.
“I know, love.”
“I deserve it.”
“You don’t understand…”
“I do, as it happens. And I’m going to turn it around.”
“But you don’t even like me.”
“I like you well enough. Chose you, didn’t I?”
“You…” Xander’s head rose and he tried to pull away and face Spike, but the vampire needed little strength to keep him where he was. “You chose me,” Xander said flatly as his head sank back once more.
“I didn’t know you’d be like this. I had you in my head as you were: strong and stubborn, loyal and fearless. I thought of you saving the world, reckoned you might like another pop at it.”
“I’m useless like this. Useless to you.”
“That’s why I’m going to help you. Get you back to where you were. Save you.”
Spike wrapped his arms around Xander and held him tightly, feeling the heightened shudder, knowing what was going through the human’s mind about not deserving even this much affection.
“What are you dying from, Xander?” Xander tried to get away but the struggle lasted only seconds.
“Tell you, shall I? Guilt. I can see it, smell it. I know it, Xander. And I know that starving yourself to death may be sufficiently painful to make you feel you’re paying the price, but you’re not.”
“You know the price?”
“It’s why you’re here, love. Back to saving the world. I save you, you save everyone.”
“I can’t help you, I’m too weak.”
“I’ll make you strong again. I’ll give you a reason to be strong.”
“You chose me?”
“Is that why I have no choice?”
“You have a choice, Xander. I just doubt that I’ll let you make it, I told you that.” Spike cradled Xander, hands moving over his skin, making him shake harder, until one hand settled over his rapidly beating heart. “I never dreamed you’d be the one to give up. I counted on you being the Xander I knew, and I have to have that man for this fight.”
“I can’t be him.”
“You will be him. Inside you’re still him. You’ll understand what’s happened and move on.”
“We have time before the next showdown. I’ll teach you to be him again. I’ll bring him back and you’ll be healthy and powerful, smart, self-opinionated, maddening, beautiful, loud – so bloody loud – and…I’ll let you drive me to drink.” He kissed Xander’s neck and when he next spoke it was tenderly. “I’ll hold you and care for you. Have you. Fuck some love into you. Bring you back to life.”
“That’s almost funny. The undead showing you how to live.”
“It would be wrong. To live would be wrong.”
Tipping Xander forward, Spike went back to humming and combing, and Xander wouldn’t remember exactly when it was that he finally passed out.