Without Price

A/N: 6954 words. In the style of [info]eliade, beta by [info]crazydiamondsue, title by [info]mpoetess and [info]lumenara.

After Anya happens, Xander lets Spike move in with him. 'Lets' because it wasn't an invitation, but Spike didn't ask. There's no word to describe what it is for them except 'hideous', but they keep doing it, and they don't know why. They can't stop.

They don't fuck. They don't share meals. They barely talk. When they do, it's to bitch at each other - blood in the mugs, towels on the floor, bad music, worse clothes.

One night they're yelling at each other, nothing new. They both know how bad they sound - whiny and defensive all at the same time, the fight is soul-crushing, even if one of them doesn't have one. Leeches the life out of them, leaving them feeling drained and pointless. This time, though, Spike gets in one pointed barb too many, and Xander snaps. "That's it! I can't take you anymore! You either pay rent, fangless one, or you walk!"

Spike looks nothing if not disgusted, and Xander feels it too. It's a hollow threat, an unoriginal insult, they're not even trying anymore. Spike walks out, and doesn't even bother to slam the door.

He comes home late. Despite every bit of sense he had that told him he was being an idiot, Xander's still lying awake in bed, waiting up. Spike makes it in before the sun, cutting it close, and Xander's relieved for a split second before he realizes that things will go back to normal now, and hates it. He turns over on his side, back to the door, and is prepared to settle in and sulk for an hour before he has to get up to go to work, but when the door crashes open and a drunk Spike reels in, crashing into the furniture, Xander has to spin around, sit up. He's so surprised - this is so different from the norm - that he doesn't remember to yell at Spike for any of the thousand reasons he could, and just stares.

Spike stands at the bedside and regards him for a moment. It's regard, no question - Spike's wearing Contemplation Face, and despite the little bit of weaving he's still doing, it's impressive in that way that Spike used to be.

Then he raises one arm, cocks his head to one side and lets five one-hundred-dollar bills fall from his hand to scatter on Xander's sheets and pajamas. As he turns to leave the room, the scent of cigarette smoke and leather follow him, but there's another smell underneath, sort of a musky thing that Xander doesn't want to place. And then the door shuts, and Xand can hear Spike hit the mattress in his closet. Out like a light.

It goes like that for a while. Xander will buy the blood and the food. He'll pay the bills, the rent. Spike never asks for money, he never would, but he appropriates stuff in the house like it's his again. He's getting some of his attitude back, and even though there's an edge under it, Xander thinks it's a good thing. He doesn't ask about that edge, though. How do you ask someone why they go out and come back smelling like something sordid and dirty and possibly illegal? How do you explain to someone that you can see something haunting their eyes sometimes, when there's a show on TV about the wrong thing, or when he brings up any of the women? Buffy, Anya, Dawn, Tara, even Willow, if they talk about her for too long.

Instead, Xander focuses on the attitude, because that makes things easy. Xander has always been a fan of easy.

So it goes. Spike has attitude, but Xander never sees it when he wants it. There's no more fun in the fights they have, not like there used to be. Spike's... Spikeness disappears when they start harping on each other, and eventually Xander insists again that Spike pay up. He tells himself that he's doing it because Spike owes him money, but that's not really true. When Spike came into his room, he felt a thrill of something he hadn't felt in forever.

He felt danger.

Xander misses danger. Well, sure, scary monsters, but that's just life-threatening. Xander's life hasn't been worth spit lately, so why would that bother him? No, the danger Xander wants is way more personal than just losing a limb or an eye. He can't really articulate it, wouldn't want to try, but he knows he used to have it, and now it's gone. He had it, for that split second when Spike stood at the side of his bed and cocked his head, with that regard in his eyes, and he wants it back.

That night, when the door opens, Spike isn't alone. There's another voice with him, and Xander lies in his gray room and tries not to listen. Spike's bed squeaks, the cheap piece of shit. Xander thinks he should get it replaced.

It's not long before there's the sounds of the doors opening and closing, and Xander doesn't have to wait long for his door to open, light spilling over the covers and floor and silhouetting Spike's body, rumpled jeans tugged around his hips. Spike strides in confidently - no more drinking this time - and unfolds his fist, and lets the bills sift from his fingers like sand. He looks at Xander again, for a long moment, and the air is full of things unsaid, but neither one of them want to say them. There are a thousand things to say, but words are useless between them, would only fuck it up. They both know it. So when Spike turns to leave, and Xander's voice drifts after him, it surprises them both.

"Why don't you ever... ask them to stay?" As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he knows how stupid they sound. "Nevermind," he waves off, picking money up off his lap. "Dumb question. Go back to bed."

Spike stands in the doorway for a long moment as Xander sorts the money into a little stack and puts it on his bedside table. When he's done, Xander just watches, waiting to see what Spike will do next. There's a tiny thrill in the pit of his stomach - this is dangerous, though he couldn't tell you why. A smart man would turn over and go to sleep, but someone with courage, he thinks, will hear Spike out.

"None of your fucking business, Harris," Spike finally says in a low, even tone, and the surge of disappointment in Xander's stomach is palpable.

Spike goes to bed, and Xander barely sees him for weeks.

Then they're sitting at home one night. Nobody has anything better to do and Xander's in fine form. Every word he says is insult art. He shreds Spike's ego, calls him impotent and weak and evil and petty in a hundred cute ways. Finally, Spike looks him straight in the eyes and sneers. "I make four hundred a night sellin' it for you, Harris. That's more than you see in a week, so you'd best take that nose out of the air before you lose it."

"Fine," Xander snorts, particularly vicious as he swigs off the can of beer he holds. "Surprised you haven't offered to pay rent in trade, it'd take less time out of your very busy schedule of doing nothing."

Spike goes still. Xander follows suit, realizing as he lowers the beer that he's gone too far. When Spike speaks, his voice is quiet, precise, rising in decibels as he goes. "Harris. You could work at that construction outfit for the next five hundred years," and he's shouting now, mouth wide and finger jabbing in Xander's face as he stands up, "and you would never even begin to make the kind of money it would take to buy me! Fuck! You!"

With those words, screamed furiously into Xander's shaken face, Spike retreats to his closet, and the walls rattle with the force his door makes, slamming into the frame.

After that, everything is different.

No longer does Spike lounge around the house in sweats, drinking. No more eau de vampire, no more stinky socks by the door. Xander doesn't see Spike in an unguarded moment for weeks on end. Day by day, Xander begins to realize what's happening.

Spike's hair is done every time he comes out of his room. The uniform is back in black, the attitude out and swinging every second. The slight scent of something wicked lingers around the house when Spike goes through, and Xander finds himself smiling secretly as Spike sweeps majestically out of the house.

The differences are subtler, sometimes. Spike touches him lightly now, when he wants something. There's a look that he does, that sultry sex look he flings around all the time, but for the first time in, oh, never, it's turned on Xander. But still, that edge of something dark and unpleasant lingers around; Xander won't ask, and Spike won't tell.

Spike brings home more money. He puts it where Xander will find it, have to take it; in pockets when Xander's doing the laundry, in the penny jar, even once in Xander's wallet. Spike knocked into him in the hall, then again later on, and Xander got suspicious and checked. He'd expected his twenty gone, not a crisp hundred in beside it. When Xander awkwardly brings it up, Spike just laughs it off, smirking and secretive. Stole it from you, ponce, not a week ago. How are you still living, this unobservant on the Hellmouth? Spike knows that Xander doesn't buy it, but what's he gonna do, complain?

Flash of fangs when he grins. The clothes he wears, sexy and tempting. The low voice he pulls, since when did he start doing that at home? Xander knows what Spike's doing. Ignoring it will be easy. He'll just...


He has one date, after Spike starts doing that. He feels restless and he goes to the Bronze and picks up some girl. She makes it back home to the apartment, takes one look at Spike and loses all interest in a world-weary young man with dark hair and darker eyes. Spike gleefully flirts with her, stringing her along just long enough to prove that she's completely lost to Xander, and then takes off. "Got a date," he announces smugly. He means a trick, and Xander knows it.

The girl leaves. Xander winds up with a shot glass and the floor, but that only keeps him in place for so long, and then he gets up and heads out after Spike, practically frothing at the mouth. Fucker. Xander thinks that if he finds Spike, he's angry enough. This time, goddammit, he'll do it. He's completely gonna do it.

Spike's only a block away, making out with a dark-haired kid in the big park across the street from Xander's place. Xander's hand closes on his shoulder and he feels the leather alive and writhing in the second before he yanks Spike up.

The kid's darker eyes go wide, and Xander only has to look at him once before he's taking off. Spike pays no attention to the kid, smirking at Xander in that way that makes Xander just want to fucking pound it right off his face.

"Aren't you gonna get on my case for costing you a hundred bucks?" Xander feels wild and unpredictable, fingers tight around the stake in his pocket.

"Nah," Spike smiles, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it. "That one was for fun."

Spike nods in the direction of the retreating kid, and only as he glances up at the broad back does Xander realize how much that kid looked like him. He looks at Spike, not understanding but still fuming mad, and Spike smirks in unmistakable victory, dragging on his cigarette and blowing the smoke in Xander's face.

Xander swings and connects, feels the thud of flesh under his knuckles as they tear open. The stake in his pocket forgotten, he attacks like a wild thing, beating Spike bloody. Spike won't stop laughing. Xander is no slayer, and by the time he's done, Spike looks a bit bruised up, but that's all. With some blood, he'll be fine in an hour. He stumbles off of Spike's body, backs away, appalled. Spike hoists himself up against a tree, lounges there and lights a cigarette, smokes it like it's post-coital. That smug, self-satisfied expression is clear, even through the purpling smears.

Xander runs.

When he gets home, he goes so far as to call Willow. She's not there. He slams the phone down and stalks into his bedroom, but when he gets there, he realizes he's got nothing to be there for, and the tension drains out of him in a rush. He sits on his bed, pillows his head in his hands and tries desperately not to think of that... that...

Every word he tries sounds wrong.


"Too British."

They're still, predatory, cautious as Xander raises his head. Spike's already healing and Xander hates it, wants to put those marks back on him, see them on his face. Xander's reasons for that are blurry and buried, and he doesn't dig, just lets them simmer there. Spike looks pissed off, and Xander almost smiles to see that, but this isn't normal Spike pissed-off-ed-ness. Spike's really angry.

"Bastard. Just gonna leave? Since I've paid my dues and you can't kick me out?"

"I can kick you from here to Timbuktu, chip dip. Nobody knows you're here anyway, so it's not like I'll catch flak for setting you free to roam the streets. You're only here because..."

"Because what?" Spike explodes, cutting Xander off. "Because it's just not home without a blond that hates you hanging about? Because you're 'lonely'?" He sneers that word, knowing it's not the answer, and Xander hears that in his voice. Spike stalks up to the bedside, invading all kinds of personal space to shove the crotch of his jeans in front of Xander's face, pretense of arrogance, or maybe just actual arrogance. "Or is it because you've been dying to suck this since you met me, you wet bastard, but you're too much of a ponce to ask for it and you're hoping you can just sneak it in somewhere?" His voice is hard, cold, furious, but there's a horrible and faint edge of desperate hope in it, and Xander can't bear it.

Spike should be strong. He should be clean and bold and proud, proud so that Xander can tear it down, make him hurt, just like everybody else. Like everybody has to. This Spike is wrong; open and vulnerable but still so horribly right, like he always is. It lowers them both that he knows, that he said it and now they can't ignore it like they've been doing, and Xander didn't think he could get any lower, it can't be like this, no, no, no...

But through it all, his heart is pounding. Spike has a weapon and he is wielding it, and Xander is being cut to ribbons. It's a rush, fighting with Spike, always has been, even if he comes out of it bleeding and mangled. This is where he is tested. And he'll be goddamned if he's going to lose this round. Any round.

"Spike," he says, low and dangerous, his eyes flashing as he looks up Spike's long body to his face, shadowed and raging. "Besides your obviously being insane, you're also barking up a very heterosexual tree. But even if I weren't? I'd date Larry before I'd go anywhere near you. I mean, hell, at least he's fresher, as corpses go."

Spike just snarls. It's silent, his lips the only thing that give it away, but it's there, and seriously menacing, and just for a second Xander remembers that he's actually about two inches away from a demon. Then something white distracts him, and he glances down.

Spike's hand, so pale in the lack of light, is in front of his eyes, heel of the palm pressing into the blackness. Spike's voice comes whispering out of the darkness, wrapping around Xander's head and sliding into his brain like something slick, insidious, evil. Xander's eyes go wide all the same.


"I'm not..."

This time, Xander trails off on his own. He's lost track of what he was supposed to say, staring at Spike's hand. He feels a great precipice yawning at his feet, an abyss from which, if he dives, he will never return. Not nothingness there, though, something, just... dark...

So dark...

Xander flinches. Spike sneers at him, puts a hand on his face and pushes him down, onto his bed, and Xander scrambles backward, but Spike's already leaving, turning to walk through the door, disgusted snort in the air as he goes.

"Wait." Xander hears his own voice, wonders how it got out there, into the world.

Spike pauses in the doorway, not turning, just... waiting. His shoulders are stiff and braced.

Xander fights himself until finally Spike begins to move, and then his voice is out again without Xander's permission, without asking. "Stay. Please?"

There's a long silence, Spike standing in the door and Xander in the fetal position on his bed. The dark stretches between them, light separating. Finally, Spike's head bows, just a little.


Xander breathes again, doesn't dare to speak. He knows anything he says right now will piss Spike off, and he can't bear to face the empty house. Spike was right about that, too. Slowly, Spike turns around and looks at him, his eyes shadowed and dark.

"Bed in the other room sucks."

"I know," Xander agrees quietly. "I was going to get a new one..."

"Don't bother." Spike moves up, quiet but with an air of challenge, and sits down on the edge of Xander's bed. He kicks up one heel and starts unlacing his boots.

Xander tenses, but Spike won't acknowledge him until finally Xander says, "You know I'm... we're..."

"Oh, yes, have a care for your sodding dignity," Spike snarks, and the tone just fits so perfectly into place with how everything should be that Xander actually sighs in relief. "Just want a more comfortable place to crash. Not planning on divesting you of your precious virtue in the middle of the night."

"Oh, you would."


The snark is back, and they are safe. Xander wakes in the morning with his virtue intact, and wonders for just one moment why he feels both disappointed and relieved.

He doesn't get an answer to that question for over a year.

~ Tanzania - Two Years Later ~

Xander's waiting on the tarmac when the first glint of moonlight off steel sparks in the black sky. He got a call from Cleveland a couple of days ago - Giles told him they'd been contacted by some law firm, and that Xander should be here to meet about something important to Team Slayer. "Best humor them," said the static-y voice on the sat phone. "See what he wants, but keep your guard up."

Xander had acknowledged and signed off, brisk and simple.

He leans on the driver's side door of the jeep, tucks his long hair behind his ears and watches the plane come down. A cold nose touches his hand, and he absently turns his hand over to allow Kioni to assess his mood. When he goes into the bush to investigate another rumor of a girl possessed by a demon, touched by the gods, insane or heroic, Kioni comes with him. The people in the village fear her, and maybe that's why the slayers take to her so well. Always, there's a wary respect at first, but sooner or later, they warm up. Many people think Kioni is a dog. Those people are wrong. Her name means "she sees things". Xander met her in Kenya.

It was sundown in a village, the fire still in the sky, but the sun below the horizon, so everything was darkening. His job was done, slayer off to join the others, and he was packing up the jeep to leave. It was a desert, red sand blowing in little clouds around his feet, still warm from the day. He noticed her watching him from across the street, in an alleyway. Her eyes were bright and dark, and she took a step toward him. At first he was wary, but she seemed thoughtful, and her teeth were covered. Xander watched her for a bit, and then they reached an understanding and she loped across the street. Xander opened the jeep door, she climbed in, and they've been together ever since.

He's never been sure what to make of it, that he found her or she found him, but, as always, he chooses not to examine it too closely. Whenever he thinks too long or too hard about anything, he comes up with answers he doesn't like, so he learns from experience. What he does know is that she's something like family (pack) and he doesn't want to be alone. Away from people he doesn't want to think about or talk to: good. Alone: bad.

He doesn't know who this visitor is, but all he can think of is that he hopes he won't have to take whoever it is back to base camp. He's only got a few more days with the girls before Giles's "colleague" gets here and takes over as their watcher. Xander won't be here for their training, he's got more to find, but more than that, he doesn't want to be. The girls - some savage, some more savage - won't respond well to the kind of person Giles thinks would be suitable, and some serious growing pains are going to happen before it all works out. He tried to tell Giles, but... well. Some people are watchers with years of experience in the supernatural, and some people are half-blind carpenters who, while they have considerable yadda yadda yadda are nevertheless unqualified to etc, etc. Xander tuned most of it out.

Half-blind. He's had so many offers of ways to get his eye back. All over Africa he was feared when he turned up, but after he'd found the slayer and gained her confidence, invariably some yahoo would show up with a sly offer, very quiet, only a slight possibility. As if it were original somehow. As if the scam should immediately sucker him.

Xander follows up every one. To date, there've been four dark mystics, two transcendentalists, eleven demons and forty-seven plain ordinary snake oil salesmen. Xander asked the girls once if they wanted to go kill one of the demons, who was harvesting eyes from living people and transplanting them for the low, low price of three babies. They didn't. Xander told them that was smart, and then dragged them along anyway. He killed the demon himself, right in front of them, and then gave them the three babies (after brushing off the salt and seasoning). They never hesitated after that to listen to anything he had to say, and gave hell to any new girl who did.

He should be training them.

Instead, he's in Kilimanjaro International, watching a plane carrying a probably-evil lawyer touch down at the end of the runway. There's the brief puff of smoke as it does, as the tires stir up the dust, and then it's just taxiing comfortably, the attendants behind him rolling out the staircase. Xander crosses his arms and waits.

Perspective skews the picture, and the plane that arrives is actually a private jet, and not a 747. When it unloads its only passenger, Xander is surprised to find that he recognizes him instantly.

Xander knows him despite the carefully tousled hair, shining blond in the floodlights. He knows, despite the gray Brooks Brothers suit and briefcase, despite the fact that he's so far away that he can't really make out anything but the cheekbones. An old feeling courses through him, familiar and still confusing - disappointment and relief - as a hard, tight knot of pain he's been carrying for months uncurls and relaxes.


Spike's alive.

As soon as the first shining black shoe touches the concrete, Xander knows he's been seen. Spike strides toward him, exactly as Xander remembers, incongruous with the clothes and tinted sunglasses. He can almost see the duster flowing around Spike's calves, off his shoulders like a waterfall. In the backseat, Kioni growls, but Xander assures her that he knows about the fact that there's incoming demon, and she sits down to keep a close eye on him.

"Harris." The voice is the same: insolent, arrogant, throaty and amused. Spike looks perfect and wrong and too happy to be up to anything good. The mask's perfectly in place, and Xander thinks he remembers how to play, so he'll try.

"Hey, Spike. How was hell? I hear the miniature golf sucks."

Spike winces, glances down and pulls off his sunglasses. Then he raises his eyes to look at Xander, eyes burning into Xander's good one. "Fine. How's being shunted off to the middle of the dark continent to do a job any very expendable monkey could do, while your mates gallivant about the mile high club?"

Xander gapes. That was below the belt, and Spike's not playing by the rules. Spike nods once, gravely, in acknowledgement that this is not the way things should be, and he knows it. Xander gets his breath back and then nods back. He tries to assimilate that they'll be telling the truth now, and there's that feeling again - relief and disappointment. He sticks to the relief that he won't have to squirm uncomfortably and dance around the truth so that the person he's talking to won't be uncomfortable.

"I didn't know you were alive," he says, starting with the simplest truth he can think of. "They didn't tell me."

Spike nods slowly. "Haven't been for long. Spent a while playing Casper around Angel's Evil Company Incorporated." He plucks at the front of the suit to illustrate the point, and Xander's gaze is drawn to it.

"What's with the wardrobe?"

"Oh," Spike smiles almost shyly, and Xander feels a little flutter in his heart-like-region. "Just to lose the poof. Posed as one of his lawyers and left a ghost image of myself drinkin' in the airport bar. Don't want anyone to know I'm here."


"Yeah." Spike seems not to move, but Xander's eye is suddenly drawn to the briefcase. "Brought you something." Xander doesn't know what to say. All he can think is Schroedinger's briefcase, and keeps picturing it full of either grenades or puppies. "Not here, though, yeah? You got a hotel?"

"Yeah," Xander says, nodding and turning to get into the jeep, his movements autonomic as his mind races. Spike goes to get into the passenger side, but as soon as he opens the door, Kioni growls low in her throat. Spike immediately growls back, his eyes flickering gold, and Xander's about to warn him that she isn't tame, but then he remembers who he's talking to. Spike gets into the car and slams the door, and the snarling hasn't stopped. Kioni lunges at him, teeth bared, but he's much faster and takes her by the throat, holding her dangling. She immediately whines and squirms, and Spike drops her, growling low in his throat. She whimpers and puts her head down. Spike makes one more low noise, satisfied, and turns his back on her. She doesn't make another sound. Xander doesn't move once.

"Come on, then."

They go to the hotel. Xander stays on the top floor because he likes to be able to see for miles. He notices that Spike doesn't book a room, has relief and disappointment (or relointment, as he's coming to think of it) and leads him upstairs. The girls stay on the floor below him. They never come up without calling first, and it took him forever to get them to come to see him at all. He's a white man, they explain, and they know he's Xander and therefore not really white, but it's still strange. Xander wishes they could meet Spike. Then they'd know what it really meant for someone to be called 'white', and not 'dark tan but still much less dark than you'. But they'd sense he was a vampire, and it would go downhill fast.

He's only been living out of this room a couple of weeks, waiting for the girls to come in from all over, calling to harass bus lines and telegram companies, but all the same, it's his personal space. Xander doesn't let housekeeping in, ever, because the spirit wards, demon talismans and astral dampeners that keep them all safe might indicate that he isn't exactly normal. Xander imagines, as he unlocks the door, that the resulting pile of sheets and towels by the door must make Spike feel right at home.

"Want anything? I don't have any blood, but..."

"Nah, 's all right."

Silver moonlight pours through the windows until Xander flicks on the light. Low and gold, it spills over the tiny table and chairs, over the end of Xander's bed. He pulls one out and is about to sit down, when Spike clears his throat. "Oh," Xander says, remembering. "Come in, Spike."

He steps through the doorway gingerly, looking like a rich man who doesn't want to dirty his suit, but Xander knows better. Spike feels the heady, rich magic in the air hovering around him, protected from it only by the fragile, thready memory of Xander's voice that wraps around him, inviting him in. That's what makes him move carefully here.

"So..." Xander says, unsure suddenly how to be direct without being offensive. Never had to do it with Spike before.

"Right." Spike shrugs off the nerves and comes over, lays the briefcase down and clicks it open. The lid swings up under his hand like a black, well-oiled machine, and Xander hears the rustle of parchment. Spike shuts the case and lays a package on top of it, lumpy and strange smelling under its paper wrapping. "There you are."

"What is it?" Xander asks curiously, poking lightly at it.

"Protection. Nobody ever made an ancient prophecy about the one man in all the world chosen to find and protect hundreds of slayers, so I figured you could use some help at it."

It's on the tip of Xander's tongue to ask why. Suspicion is second nature now, not only because the world is hell, but because it's Spike, and there's a sixteen year old boy in his head hanging from Angelus's fist with the breath of two demons on his neck insisting that vampires are not to be trusted. But this is not then. Some vampires burn up in the Hellmouth saving the world, and even if it doesn't make sense, it happened. All the same, he has to ask.

"And you're sure you're not evil?"

Spike just smiles. "Bad. But not evil."

Xander smiles back. Then his fingers pry apart the string, the package falls open and there's a flash of bright light that jolts the whole room. Something rushes through his body, his heart pounds and his vision turns black for a second, then bright white. His brain is going a thousand miles a minute, his palms are sweaty, he's rigid in his chair and he feels warm everywhere, his breath coming faster. The last thing he sees is the parchment paper, empty, with black spidery words melting off the page and into his hands like sweet molasses.

When he comes to, Spike is over him. His collar is loose and he's sprawled out over the bed, and Spike's asking if he's okay, trying to rouse him. "I'm all right," he mutters, but his voice is strange, too deep. He clears and tries again. "I'm okay." There. That's better.

"Good. Fred said there'd be some side effects, but they'll wear off in a minute. Don't sit up, I don't want to have to hold your hair back."

"I feel okay." Body temperature up, he feels his heart rate is a little fast, but it's evening out. He actually feels great, but he thinks it'll pass.

"All the same." Spike lightly presses his shoulders down, and Xander offers no resistance.

"Spike," he asks, still a little light-headed. "Why me? Buffy..."

"Don't," Spike says, pressing fingers to his lips. "Just... don't. Like I said. No ancient prophecy about you, so here I am."

Xander understands I don't want to think about it when he hears it. He mentally allows it, but he still wants to know. "Okay, but... why not Giles? Or Dawn? Why..." Why me? Why did you fly across an ocean on a private jet you suckered out of a huge law firm and, also, Angel, who will definitely make you pay for it when you get back, just to give me this?

Spike doesn't answer. Silence stretches between them, all the answer Xander really needs, even if it isn't what he wants. Disappointment, relief.

Finally, it begins to clear. Relief, because he doesn't want to hear about why Spike doesn't want to talk about the Scoobies. He already knows. Same thoughts he's had, about being ignored, left out, not worth as much. Disappointment, that Spike didn't say that, didn't draw the lines like Xander's always wanted him to, even if he didn't always know how. Never once wanted to know how Spike felt, to feel excluded, because Spike was the one who was excluded, which was because he was evil. Xander was a Scooby, he couldn't be excluded, it wasn't right or fair and therefore wouldn't happen. Because it was Spike, always Spike. But Spike made a better hanger-on donut boy lackey than him because Spike could fight and talk with demons, then Anya...

Relief. Not to think about that. Leave that alone.

Please. Don't think about that...


"I'm sorry, Spike," he breathes, feeling tears pool in his lashes, unwilling to let them fall and trying desperately to hold on. "I didn't mean... I never wanted to..."

Blue eyes are wide above him as Spike sits up. Xander follows him, wrestling with gravity to get upright. "Spike?"

He is met by soft, cool lips pressing against his. Spike kisses him gently, carefully, not pushing or asking for anything. Xander feels it tingle, feels the unaccustomed hardness and notes, in passing, that Spike does not actually have blood breath. Shock stills him, whatever he might want to do, and makes him just sit there, passively accepting.

When Spike pulls away, it's only a hair's breadth, and he sits there for a long moment, so close that Xander can feel soft breath on his lips. "I only wanted to thank you," he says, just a whisper of sound.

Xander considers that, feeling the barest brush of his lips against Spike's as they both breathe. Time passes slowly as they study each other's features, memorizing, noting tiny changes.

"You're welcome," Xander finally says, and moves that quarter of an inch necessary to close the gap between their mouths.

They kiss, and in it there is a very quiet thread of desperation, but also, after so long, there is understanding. They acknowledge the harshness outside with the gentle touch of their mouths over each other's faces and necks, and when Spike's fingers trace like butterfly wings over top of the patch, Xander chokes back tears. Many have asked how he lost the eye, but he always lies.

They undress because it's necessary, clearing cloth away from skin. Xander licks a hot tongue over the spot on Spike's chest where the amulet hung, shining sunlight into the depths of the Hellmouth. Spike nurses the lump on Xander's arm from where it was broken in a vampire attack on the library. Xander traces the place over Spike's heart where Riley's hilarious joke of a plastic stake pierced him. Spike takes Xander's third finger into his mouth and suckles it right up to the hilt, covering the place where his wedding ring would have rested.

When they finally peel off the last layers, Xander's the first one there. His mouth is hot, kissing at Spike's belly, Spike's fingers holding his hair as he breathes hard, and he has to ask something. "Spike... I bitched all the time about the money. I didn't know how to tell you to stop when you started... doing that, but I wanted you to stop..."

"Don't," Spike breathes, and Xander's about to protest about how no, it's really important this time, but Spike's drawing another one, too turned on or maybe emotional. "Don't think it was about you, love. It was never about you. I... there was too much going on, and I wanted to..."

Each word hits Xander like a knife. It wasn't you. Just like everybody else. He lifts up off Spike and swings his legs over the edge of the bed, starts looking around for his jeans, but Spike's instantly up after him, taking him by the shoulders.

"Listen! I just thought... I just thought if I was really that fucked, I might as well get to choose who did the fucking. Get some of my own back. I didn't think I had to."

Xander is still under Spike's hands, understanding. "Yeah," he responds, thinking back, "but why did you say that about... about me not being able to buy you?" It makes sense, except for that part. Everything else - the part where you do something so horrible to yourself that other people look at you like you're insane and you're only doing it because you want so desperately to be able to choose something for a change, instead of it just happening - yeah, I get that fine. But the guy in the park, that looked so much like me... why?

Then it's Spike's turn to be still, his hands falling slowly from Xander's shoulders to land in his lap, birds with broken wings. He looked like an angel, silver and gold light touching his face like gilt. He bowed his head, looked at his hands. "Because once you said it, if I'd ever... tried... it wouldn't be my choice. I never had a choice there. And I wouldn't do that, which meant I'd never..."

Xander gets it. Oh, he gets it.

So he stops Spike with mouth and tongue, kissing him fiercely. His hands move over Spike's body, memorizing hard planes and muscle. They lie back down on the bed, and Xander finally tears his mouth away to make his way down Spike's body, whispering the secrets they hold between them. "I don't owe you anything," he says, biting softly at Spike's chest. "You can leave whenever you want." His hands move over white hips, thumbs tracing the delicate skin as Spike gasps and scratches at his shoulders, the tiny sting welcome. "I never expect anything in return for this," Xander breathes against Spike's belly, hearing the groan of pleasure above his head. "I know who you are, Spike," he sighs, curling his fingers around Spike's cock and lifting it high, "and I'm here because I want to be." Xander looks up at the blue eyes locked on him in the darkened room and opens his mouth, and when he licks softly up the ruby tip, Spike shivers and groans, but he doesn't look away.

Xander sinks down on Spike, groping on the bed for the white hands. He puts one in his hair and tangles his fingers with the other, holding tight as he licks away the wrongs he's done. And then, just when he thinks it can't be any more of a relief (finally, relief, and disappointment, now it finally makes sense, because I wanted this so much and I didn't have it, never, but he didn't leave and I never had to face it) Spike begins to talk.

"You aren't a real Scooby and I don't love you. You aren't like my brother or my son. I could live anywhere I wanted, got lots of money. Don't need you to take care of me. If I yell at you, you can tell me to go fuck myself and I'll still talk to you. I'm here, I'm still here... oh, fuck, Xander..."

His name, sounding like sex on Spike's lips, after that litany of things he didn't know he needed so badly to hear, is too much for Xander to bear. He reaches down between his thighs and grips his cock hard, starts stripping it in time with his movements on Spike, and they come together in a blinding haze. When they can both talk again, their pillow talk is nothing but things that nobody else would ever understand, apologies and disavowals. They understand it perfectly.

The night is long, and they use it fully. The next day at practice, the slayers ask why Xander looks so tired. Xander explains that a friend came in from out of town, and he stayed up all night with him, talking about old times. He doesn't talk about a five-am departure from Kilimanjaro, in which they did not promise to see each other again, or stay in touch. He doesn't mention that Spike never said why he was going back to L.A., or ask about the slayers, or where Xander'd be in a month. He certainly doesn't explain why he's wearing yesterday's clothes, or why they smell so strange. But the girls seem to understand anyway.

They tell him he looks happy. They've never told him that before.