Coming Around Again




Xander'd had a particularly shitty day at work. Spectacularly shitty, actually. Beyond shitty and into...whatever was worse than shit, and at that moment he couldn't think what that was. He had a blister on his right thumb that had split open and now felt like someone had poured acid over it, and his empty eye socket ached like hell, like it always did when he was over-tired. All he wanted to do was collapse on the couch for a couple of hours, stare mindlessly at the TV until he dozed off, and count his blessings that he didn't have to work tomorrow.

So what he saw when he opened the door and stepped inside the apartment was, to say the least, pretty much the last thing he'd expected to see.

"Willow?" Xander reached up to rub at his aching eye socket, coincidentally with his injured hand. "Fuck! Ow!"

Willow jumped up from the sofa, her hands nervously twisting at her skirt. "Hi, Xander! I guess you meant 'Hello', right? Instead of 'fuck,' unless you didn't. Oh, and I'm sorry I broke into your apartment, but it's really cold and your neighborhood is a little scary. No! Not scary! It has character, and I wanted to talk to you and you don't answer your phone and this all made a lot more sense when I practiced it an...ooof!"

Xander cut off her babble by hugging her slight body to his chest. He buried his face in her hair and breathed in deeply, filling his lungs with a scent that would always mean safety and love to him. The pain in his head and his hand fell away, and he felt calm and safe and...good.

"Hey, Willow," he whispered.

"Hi," she whispered back, then didn't say anything, just stood there with her arms wrapped around his waist.

After a minute, he let her go again and closed the front door. "Okay, start again. Why did you break into my apartment?"

Willow tucked her hair back behind her ear, a nervous gesture that was more familiar to him than his own face in the mirror, and smiled tentatively. "Are you okay?" she asked. "I mean, with the swearing and the 'ow'?"

"I'm fine, I just have a blister on my thumb." Xander barely had the words out before Willow's 'resolve face' came out and she had him seated on the sofa, telling her where his first aid kit was.

She sat on the table and cleaned and bandaged the blister, frowning in concentration. "There," she said, then grinned and leaned down to drop a kiss on the bandage. "All better."

She put the first aid supplies away, then held Xander's injured hand between both of hers and looked at him until he met her eyes.

"I need you, Xander," she said. "We need you. I want you to come back to England with me."

Xander sighed, his frustration coming out in a rush of air. "Will, we've talked about this. A lot. It's not - "

"I know," Willow said, cutting him off. "I know you've got all these reasons for not wanting to go. And I know it's complicated. But it's complicated for us, too, and we need you. I wouldn't ask otherwise."

Gently, Xander disentangled his hand from Willow's. He would have stood up, but he was just too damned tired. "What is it? Why now?"

Willow looked away, and Xander knew. He dropped his head into his hands and rocked back and forth. "No. No, no, no, no. Not him. Not now. Please, Willow, I can't deal."

Willow's hand came down in his hair, stroking gently, fingers not faltering as they brushed the strap of the patch. "I know," she crooned. "I know it was awful for you, Xander. It was awful for him, too. But this is bigger than the two of you, this is big. Apocalypse big."

Xander looked up at that, a bitter smile twisting his lips. "Isn't it always?"

"No," Willow said. Her eyes were hopeful. "There was that time with the spell that went wrong and there were all those fireflies, remember? That wasn't apocalypsy." She tilted her head to one side a little bit. "Well, maybe it was for the fireflies."

"I can't," Xander said, his voice harsher than he'd meant it to be. "It's not...you don't get it, Will. Having me there'll just make things worse. We can't even be in the same room together. Actually, us being in the same room together might result in...I don't know, a black hole. The anti-matter to end all anti-matters."

"Buffy said you were going to say stuff like this," Willow said. "And she said I wasn't supposed to take no for an answer."

"Will she let you take 'hell, no' for an answer?" It was over. Xander knew it, Willow knew it. On the phone and in endless emails, he could resist. He could say or type the words and stand behind them, strong like a mountain, the immovable object. Unfortunately, in person, Willow was the irresistible force.

"You're caving?" she asked, patting his hand.

"I'm caving," he agreed. "I'm going to live to regret it, but not as much as you and Buffy will. I'm caved. When do we leave?"

Willow smiled a little bit guiltily. "Three hours," she said. "I have the tickets and everything."

Xander nodded. He didn't point out that for all she knew maybe his passport was expired - it wasn't. He didn't ask what she would have done if he'd gone out instead of coming straight home after work.

He didn't ask about Spike, either, because he didn't want to know. Or, at least, that's what he told himself.

Instead, he got up and gestured toward the bedroom. "Come help me pack."


Settling into the comfortable seat, Xander pondered. First class to London, likely a last minute ticket just before Christmas, Willow escort. Things were boding...apocalyptic.

It was a good thing the Watcher's Council had connections.

Willow had wisely dropped into 'catch-up' mode as they'd packed, updating him on Giles, Buffy, Dawn and the other Slayers. Neither Spike's name nor Kennedy's had come up, and Xander had kept his responses neutral.

"Can I get you a drink before takeoff?" The flight attendant was blonde, pretty and shapely, and her casual lean against the row of seats ahead of them flashed a view that Willow, from her expression, appreciated even more than Xander did.

"Jack and Coke, for me. Will?" Willow ordered a red wine, and the drinks came quickly. Xander took a long sip of his, then turned to face Willow.

"So, what's the what?"

She looked tired, he noted for the first time, like she hadn't been sleeping enough. "You remember that spell we did in the Initiative?"

Xander did - he knew immediately what she was talking about. "That whole merging, Super-Buffy thing, right?"

"Uh-huh." Willow didn't seem interested in actually drinking her wine. "Well, looks like we might need to do something like that again."

"'Something like?'" Xander asked.

"Mm, yeah, okay. That exact same thing, pretty much." Willow gave a funny little grimace-smile that indicated she wasn't too thrilled with the proposition herself. "There's big evil a-brewing."

"I got that," Xander said. "Am I going to get details? And if you've got -" He wasn't going to say Spike's name, he wasn't. "-him, then why do you need me?"

Willow frowned. "It's not that easy. You don't just substitute one person for another. We don't. We need you. Spike can't just fill in."

Xander couldn't hide his wince, but Willow just kept talking.

"Anyway, you know the story. Big evil, and all of Giles' prophecies and translations say that she can't do this one alone. No slayer can."

Xander couldn't deny that the first spell had been powerful, and not just in a smashing Adam, let-our-powers-combine, scary-First-Slayer-dreams kind of way. It had been a powerful reaffirmation of the friendship between the four original Scoobies. It had brought them closer after a year of turmoil, and Xander had taken no small amount of pride in being the heart of that equation.

Willow looked over, and he realized that he was smiling when she smiled shyly back.

"That first spell," she said.

"Yeah, it was something else, all right." Xander took her hand in his, and it felt...right. It felt good, being close to Willow. He felt like the Grinch, except he'd say his heart grew one size, max. No need to overstate things.

"And we can just...I mean, if you and Spike don't want to talk to each other, we'll figure something out." Willow looked sorry to even be bringing that up, but even Xander knew that it was the kind of thing she couldn't fail to acknowledge.

"I don't get why he even has to be there," Xander said, tightening his jaw. "Couldn't he go on a long vacation?"

"We need him, too," Willow said softly, her thumb rubbing reassuring patterns on Xander's hand. She smiled apologetically. "There are some things that vampires can do that humans just can't. He's...kind of a secret weapon."

"Fine. Whatever. Can we just...not talk about him?" Xander looked at Willow pleadingly, because on an airplane was so where he didn't want to get into this.

Willow was silent for a second, then began twisting her hands in a way that clearly telegraphed her intent to meddle. "Xander, he really misses..."

"Can. we. just. not?" Xander struggled to keep his voice calm, but the icy coldness that he felt in his heart when he thought about Spike was coming through. The big eyes and wobbly chin that his tone caused on Willow were a dead giveaway, but he refused to apologize, even to her.

Willow sucked in a deep breath and let it out. "Of course," she said, and Xander thought that she seemed to be absorbing a little British stiff-upper-lipness.

Which, of course, brought out his need to placate, because this was Willow, and she was still his best friend. "It's too hard. I just...can't."

"I know." Willow's voice was gentle, almost lost under the loud thrum of the plane's engines.

They might be able to stop talking about it, but Xander couldn't stop thinking about it. About him. After months and months of not thinking about Spike, now his mind was filled with him, layers of memories fighting their way to the surface. It hurt.

He didn't know which memories hurt more; the good, or the bad. There were certainly plenty of both. Xander drained his drink and turned to look out the window. He remembered his first time in first class, with Spike, of course. They'd gone to Morocco, looking for a Slayer. The trip had been long and very educational for Xander, and very annoying for the fight attendants. He smothered a smile as he remembered.

"Does that almost-smile mean you're not mad at me?" Willow asked, squeezing his hand.

Xander looked back at her. "I'm not mad at you," he reassured her. "It's just..."

"A lot of memories, huh?" Willow guessed.

It wasn't like he should be surprised, considering how well she knew him. "Yeah. Something like that." Spike had dragged him into one of the tiny bathrooms and...no. Not going to think about it. Thinking about it made him happy and sad and confused all at once, and he couldn't live with the despair of it anymore. It was over.

Xander shook it off. "You need another drink?" he asked, eyeing Willow's nearly empty glass.

She picked it up and swirled the remaining wine. "What the hell," she said, smiling. "It's a long flight and I can't think of much I'd rather do than get drunk and unruly with my best friend."

He returned the smile and felt some of the awful weight lift off his shoulders. He was with Willow, and it was a long flight. There were hours and hours before he'd have to face Spike, and drunk and unruly sounded pretty damn good. He motioned for the flight attendant.


Six hours and some minutes later, they'd done a pretty good job of getting themselves soused, and Xander didn't even feel sick. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so drunk, and it took all their concentration - and not a little bit of hysteria - to collect their bags from the dizzily-spinning luggage carousel.

"And...remember when...Cordelia..." Willow was saying as they got to the top of the escalator. She had her arm linked through Xander's and they were both laughing as they stepped off.

She must have felt Xander tense, though, because she stopped at the same time he looked up and saw who was waiting for them.

Spike.

God, he looked good. He'd grown his hair out, and it was honey-brown and worn in loose curls. He had on a black cashmere overcoat and cream-colored leather gloves, a cream scarf hung carelessly around his neck. His eyes were exactly as Xander remembered - the cold blue of the Baltic Sea in an expressionless face. An expressionless face that suddenly broke into a small, gentle smile.

"Hey, Red," Spike said, looking straight past Xander.

Willow straightened up. "Hi, Spike," she said, and when Xander looked at her, she was smiling, too.

He didn't want to look at Spike, but apparently his body didn't care what he wanted because there he was, turning his head to look at Spike again. He remembered what this was like, this being drawn to Spike like he was some kind of powerful Xander-magnet.

Spike didn't meet his gaze, though. "Let me take that," he said, moving past Xander like he wasn't even there and taking Willow's bag from her hand. "Good flight?"

"Oh, you know. Long."

Anger flared in Xander, and he could feel the heat suffusing his body. A sarcastic comment was waiting on his lips. But somewhere in his whiskey-fogged brain, he remembered all the progress he'd made in the past months, remembered all the promises he'd made to himself to control his anger and the insecurities that fueled it.

He watched Spike take Willow's bag and waited until he turned back, presumably to lead them to the car.

"Hello, Spike," Xander said calmly, holding out his hand to shake.

He felt Spike's eyes flicker over him and then away again, but at least it was some kind of acknowledgment. "Harris," Spike said. He paused for a very long couple of seconds, then very slowly put out his hand and shook Xander's.

"See? Isn't this nice?" Willow chirped, but she wilted visibly when both men gave her a look of astonishment.

Willow blushed to her hairline and Xander released Spike's hand. He was thankful for the leather of the gloves. It was cool and smooth, but nothing like the cool smoothness of Spike hands. Xander was positive that feeling Spike's hand in his would have been a Very Bad Thing. He didn't want to open the floodgates on the stockpile of ultra-vivid memories of what those cool, smooth hands could do - had done - to him.

Xander slung his arm around Willow's shoulder and kissed her lightly on the temple. Spike turned on his heel and they followed him through the terminal.

The car ride was harder than Xander had thought it would be. Spike and Willow made small talk, Spike filling her in on what she'd missed in the relatively short time she'd been gone, and unknowingly providing Xander with a few of the details that Willow had forgotten to mention. But never once did Spike include Xander in the conversation, and Xander couldn't get up the guts to call him on it. Apparently, he'd used up all his guts on the Great Handshake at Heathrow.

By the time they got where they were going, he was just grateful to be able to get out of the small, enclosed space with Spike and, hopefully, away from him. Far away. For as long as possible.

The 'Council House,' as they called it, hadn't changed - it was still very large and very British, and Xander felt a small pang for the place he'd called home for more than three years, two of them with Spike. He hoped to God that he'd be in rooms far, far away from the ones they had shared.

"I put you on the third floor, next to me," Willow said, as if reading his mind. Her rooms were about as far away as it was possible to get from the basement flat without utilizing the attic.

Spike carried Willow's bag inside and set it down in the foyer. He hugged her briefly and turned toward the door.

"Spike, won't you stay for the welcome dinner?" she asked, and Spike turned and looked directly at Xander for the very first time.

"You...should," Xander said. "If you want to." It took everything he had to keep his voice calm, and he was fairly impressed that he hadn't actually blown his metaphorical wad on the handshake. Also, ew.

"Thanks," Spike said. "But I think we both know it'd be better if I didn't." He didn't wait for either Xander or Willow to try to convince him, just turned away and left.

Xander wondered why this all had to hurt so bad. It made him glad that he'd decided to go back to America when he had.

"Come on," Willow said. "Let's get your stuff put away, then we'll go find Giles."

"You don't need to find me," Giles' voice said mildly, and Xander turned to see him standing in the hallway. "You didn't really think I'd wait until dinner, even though it's..." The older man glanced at his watch. "Less than an hour away."

"I brought him," Willow said, in the voice that meant she was looking for praise.

"I knew you would." Giles favored her with an approving smile, then stepped closer, holding his hand out to Xander.

Xander dropped his suitcase and took it, but Giles used the grip to pull him into an awkward hug that included pats on the back from both of them. "Hey," Xander said.

"Hello, Xander," Giles said, releasing him from the hug. "How are you?"

Xander was surprised to feel tears burning his eye. He shook his head and laughed ruefully. "Confused, overwhelmed, exhausted and a little drunk," he admitted. "You?"

Giles reached out and squeezed Xander's shoulder kindly. "Perhaps you'd like to freshen up? Your room is to the left of Willow's."

Xander nodded appreciatively and hefted his bag, heading for the stairs. "Dinner in an hour?"

Giles and Willow nodded, and Xander mounted the stairs. Behind him he heard Giles whisper, "Have you told him?" but he was too tired to care.

Xander found his room - it was neat and tidy, with some small candles and other decorative touches that he was sure were Willow's doing. In the tiny bathroom, a brand new tube of his favorite toothpaste sat next to an unwrapped toothbrush. He noted all of this with a weary eye, and, instead of doing any of the things he probably should have done, he lay down on the bed without taking off his shoes and promptly fell asleep.

His dreams were confusing, a combination of memories and the present swirled together. He kept opening doors only to find that there was a wall on the other side, and no way through.

Then someone was shaking his shoulder, and he heard Willow say, "Xander?"

He forced himself to sit up. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Guess I fell asleep."

"You should drink some water," Willow said, looking at him with concern. She'd turned a small lamp on across the room, and it glowed a pale yellow, making her hair appear more orange than it really was. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Just tired." Xander covered a yawn and got up. "Is it time for dinner?"

"You've got about ten minutes," Willow said. She walked into the bathroom and brought back a glass of water and three Tylenol, which he downed gratefully.

"Spike doesn't live here anymore?" Xander found himself asking.

Willow's hands began twisting again. "No, he moved out right after you...right after. There's a carriage house about a half mile away - he lives there."

"Oh." There wasn't much else to say about that. "OK. I'll be down in ten."

Willow nodded and left, closing the door softly behind her.

Xander went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. England. Council. Willow. Spell. Spike. Apocalypse. He sighed. Well, he thought, you can take the boy out of the Hellmouth, but you can't take the Hellmouth out of the boy. Unfortunately.

There were so many things he didn't want to remember, and, now that he was here, he couldn't help thinking about them. Which was one of the reasons he'd gone in the first place - he'd known that staying would have been a mistake. Now it was all pressing in on him, like he was some kind of deep sea diver and the weight of millions of gallons of water was threatening to crush him, and, okay, time to dispense with the metaphors and get his ass down to dinner.

Buffy was waiting for him in the doorway to the dining room. She looked good - she'd put on some weight, and she looked strong again. She hugged him just about breathless, and as soon as she let go of him, there was a squealing Dawn in his arms.

"You could think about letting him breathe," Giles observed, patting Dawn's shoulder and handing Xander a glass of wine when Dawn backed off. "Just one," he cautioned.

"Yes, dad," Xander said obediently, grinning.

"Xander! You're back." Andrew's voice at his left shoulder, and he had to turn his head to see him. "We've been waiting for this day."

"Hey, Andrew," Xander said, not knowing if he could deal with Andrew on top of everything else. Dawn swooped in for the save, leading Andrew away with a wink over her shoulder. Xander let Buffy and Willow lead him into the dining room. The whole house was decorated with an eclectic blend of Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule and Kwanzaa items, but the mix worked.

Xander was seated to the left of Giles, who was at the head of the table. Willow, Dawn and Buffy maneuvered to sit as close to him as possible, and Andrew was occupied at the other end of the table by a couple of younger slayers Xander didn't recognize.

Giles cleared his throat and the table fell silent. Xander gave him his 'impressed' face, and Giles grinned before raising his glass.

"Right," Giles said. "We certainly don't stand on formality here - "

"Which is good, because you're sitting down," Dawn supplied helpfully.

Giles gave her a dry look. "Yes, thank you. While we prefer to keep things informal, it wouldn't seem right not to mark this occasion with some sort of speech. But, as I'm so often reminded by all you lot, I have a tendency to go on, so I'll keep it short. Welcome home, Xander."

There were general murmurings of agreement, and Xander decided it was better not to point out that, as far as he was concerned, this wasn't home. There was a little, niggling feeling in his gut that said otherwise, but he ignored that. This wasn't home anymore.

"Where's Spike?" Dawn asked, and was immediately shushed by Buffy.

"No, Buff, it's okay," Xander said. To Dawn, he explained, "We just thought it would be better...you know, under the circumstances."

"He wouldn't stay, huh?" Dawn said, and there was a world of compassion in her eyes. At Xander's short nod, she muttered, "Stupid vampire."

Buffy leaned over and put her hand on Xander's arm. "So," she said brightly. "Tell us about California. How's your job?"

Xander let himself fall into small talk while various slayers carried dinner in and filled their plates. Everyone seemed determined to keep things light, which Xander knew in his heart was inversely proportional to the enormity of the coming apocalypse, but he was too tired to care. He answered questions, ate his food, drank his wine and struggled valiantly not to fall asleep right at the table.

"That's it," Giles announced finally. "Xander, you've done your time - feel free to go on to bed, if you like."

"Before dessert?" Dawn exclaimed. At Xander's nod, she said, "Okay, but you keep that up and we're going to have to stage an intervention."

"It'll never happen again, I promise," Xander said, giving Dawn a tired smile and standing up. "Thanks, everybody. Really."

The staircase seemed steeper and longer than he remembered it being, even just a couple of hours before, but he struggled up manfully, grateful when he got to the top. There was a scent lingering in the hallway, a scent so familiar that he wouldn't have mistaken it for anything but what it was.

Spike was leaning against the wall on the other side of the door into Xander's room. He didn't have a lit cigarette, but Xander knew that he'd been smoking. His eyes were down on the floor, but he glanced up as Xander came closer. "Don't know why I'm here," Spike muttered, dropping his gaze to the floor again.

Xander brought a hand up to rub at the patch, and he felt rather than saw Spike's hand twitch to move up in an achingly familiar gesture - the way it always had, coming up to remove the patch and run gentle, cool fingers over the scars. But it was just a twitch, just a tiny motion that stopped before it truly began. Xander dropped his own hand to his side.

"You could have come to dinner," he said.

"And had everyone watching the both of us every second?" Spike sounded tired, too.

Xander tried not to let the word 'us' - just a little word, a tiny word, really, one that didn't mean anything - get to him. They stood there for a long time, neither of them saying anything, then finally he asked, "What do we do now?"

"I don't know," Spike said sharply. "Told you I didn't know why I was here, didn't I?"

"Can we not do this right now? Whatever 'it' is?" Xander asked, feeling like he was repeating himself. "I've had too much travel and too much to drink and too much...everything." He rubbed the patch again, then looked at Spike, who was watching him with a carefully blank expression. "Look, Spike," Xander continued. "I do want to talk to you, but if we do it now, I'm likely to screw it up somehow."

Spike nodded then, and shoved his hands into his coat pockets. "All right, Xander," he said quietly. "Tell Niblet when you're ready - she knows where to find me." He nodded, and Xander returned the gesture, opening his door.

He stepped into the room, but it seemed, somehow, unforgivably rude to shut the door in Spike's face, so he stood there waiting.

Spike nodded again. "Good night, Xander," and started down the hall the way Xander had come.

Xander shut the door quietly and leaned against the other side of it, letting it hold him up. Seeing Spike was just as hard as he'd thought it might be.

Despite his tiredness, Xander had trouble falling asleep. His mind was whirling - a jumble of memories, dreams and endless replaying of the scene in the hallway, running through every possible scenario from Spike ripping his throat out to the big Hollywood kiss, with the rising music and the rising...music.

One thing was certain - he still wanted Spike as much as ever; still loved him in a way that was so primal it was right up there with breathing. It didn't change anything, never had. Love wasn't their problem. Mercifully, exhaustion won, and Xander slept.


He did what he could to keep busy the next day, but it was hard. Willow and Giles were in full research mode, so he and Dawn spent a couple of hours putting Buffy through her paces. She was in the best form Xander had ever seen her in - kicking, punching, twirling. There was no way he and Dawn could keep up, and, in the end, they had to turn Buffy over to the other slayers. At least the girls could give her a run for her money.

"She's good," Xander told Dawn, as they sat against the wall of the large training room. "I mean, she's always been good, but..."

"She started training extra hard a couple of weeks ago," Dawn said. Her voice was low, like she didn't want Buffy to overhear them. "That was when Giles found out about the big evil apocalypsy thing. The first night, after he told her...she locked herself in her room and wouldn't come out. She wouldn't even talk to me. But in the morning, there she was."

They both watched as Buffy pulled a blow and still ended up sending a trainee slayer half way across the room.

"This is big, isn't it," Xander said.

Dawn nodded. "Uh-huh." Buffy did a spin-kick that would have put an Olympic gymnast to shame. "So...are you, like, going to talk to Spike at all?"

"He was waiting at my door last night," Xander admitted.

"Really?" Dawn's voice went up two octaves, and Xander gave her a look. "What did you do?" Dawn whispered.

"I sent him away," he said.

"Xander! You know what it took for him to come to you..."

"Not forever, Dawnie," Xander explained, warding her off with a raised hand. "I wasn't ready. I'll talk to him tonight, I guess."

"Before or after the big meeting?" she demanded.

"What big meeting?" Xander asked.

"Oops?"

Xander sighed.

"I'm sure somebody meant to tell you," Dawn said. "It's just that everyone's been so busy. I've been translating, and Willow and Giles and Andrew have been big with the research, and Buffy and Spike have been training - um, not together, but you know."

"Spike doesn't train with Buffy?" Xander asked, genuinely interested in the answer.

"He kind of keeps to himself these days," Dawn said. She sounded sad about it. "That's why I was hoping..."

"Okay," Xander said, getting up and stretching. "Okay, I'll go talk to him. Happy?" He took a step toward the door and then turned back, grinning sheepishly. "Uh, where does he live?"

Dawn led him to the door and watched as he pulled on coat, gloves and muffler. She let him out with instructions to walk up the driveway and then follow the path that led to the carriage house, and to bring Spike back with him for dinner.

Xander started out, watching his breath fogging the cold air. The sun was setting, the gardens were beautiful, and he had not one idea what he was going to say to Spike.

It took almost a minute of standing in front of Spike's door before Xander could get up the nerve to knock, and, just as he lifted his hand to do so, the door opened.

"Thought I heard someone out here," Spike said, stepping back.

"Yeah. I was just..." But Xander still didn't know what to say.

"Come in," Spike said gently, and Xander did.

The house was small and it looked lived in. Cozy. There was a fire going in the fireplace, and Spike was wearing soft khakis and a pale beige sweater that just about matched the color of his hair.

"I can take those," Spike said as Xander shrugged out of his coat and things. He hung Xander's coat in the closet and gestured for him to sit. Xander sank onto the corner of the sofa and wondered what the hell he was going to say. Not surprisingly, his mouth started without him.

"What's the deal with the meeting after dinner?" he asked.

"You mean nobody's told you?" Spike sounded stunned. "How'd they get you here without telling you?" He held up a hand and answered his own question. "Wait, I know - Red gave you that look and said the magic word: apocalypse, right?"

Xander nodded, grinning sheepishly. "Yeah," he said. "I'm a sucker for a good world-ending." They shared a smile, and for a second, Xander felt something inside him slip a little, felt the coldness he'd carried for so long shift a tiny bit. He clamped down on it mercilessly. "So, what's the story? Big Bad, big spell, big party after?"

Spike looked thoughtful. "I'll let Giles give you the rundown on the baddie, but I can tell you about the spell. Remember the one you did to beat Adam?"

"Spiritus, Sophus, Animus, Manus: Spirit, Mind, Heart and Hand. I remember," Xander said. "And calling on the strength of the Slayer - first to last. I hear that didn't work out so well."

"Yeah, I take it the whacked-out fever dreams weren't exactly a barrel of laughs," Spike said.

Xander remembered his own dream, a jumble of French and cheese and clowns and getting his heart ripped out. "Can we skip that part this time?"

"As a matter of fact, yes," Spike said, meeting his gaze. "This time we change the focus. We add another member to the spell and take the focus inward."

"And the new member?" Xander asked, even though he was pretty sure he knew the answer.

"Gladius - the Sword," Spike said, looking down. "That would be me."

He'd already known it, but that didn't mean hearing it out loud didn't make Xander's heart do a funny little fluttering thing that for just one second he thought might be the start of a heart attack, or at least something that would call for one of those defibrillator things. "Which would be why Willow didn't tell me," he said.

"But you still would have come," Spike said, quietly but surely.

Xander took a shivering breath. "Yeah," he said. "I still would have come."

He thought back to the first spell. Everything had been so freaky. The four of them had been joined. He had felt what Buffy felt; been inside her mind, and Willow's and Giles'. And they'd been inside his. And now Spike was going to be added to the mix.

Xander rubbed at the patch. The first spell had been done when they were all relatively innocent. Before Buffy's death and Willow's power surge, before Xander had done...so many things. They had also been too young to understand what was going on inside Giles. This time the wouldn't have the luxury of innocence - they would see and know and understand what they saw.

He didn't know if he could handle it. Not the Giles part, but the Spike part. He knew Spike better than he probably knew anyone except Willow, and that had been what he'd been trying to forget all this time. You always heard people say that walking away from a relationship was the hardest thing they'd ever had to do, but that wasn't the case for Xander.

Walking away had been easy, really, because by then he hadn't been anything but empty.

The thought that he'd be that close to Spike again - closer - made him want to crawl out of his skin. "Is this really the only way?" he asked.

Spike gave him that look - the one that said he could see right through him, the one that stated without reservation that he knew exactly what Xander was thinking.

"It's probably not the only way," Spike said. "But it's the only way that every non-evil magic user in the better part of the world could come up with for use by midnight Tuesday."

"The new Big Bad is rising on Christmas Eve?" Xander shook his head. "I guess Halloween really is evil's only day off."

"Can't say he doesn't have a sense of occasion," Spike said, with a small smile.

"Yeah, the bad guys are always such drama queens." For a second, Xander felt comfortable, felt almost good. He wondered which one of them would ruin the mood, and how soon.

"Not that either of us would know anything about that," Spike said, looking at his hands like they were really interesting. It gave Xander a chance to study Spike, to look at how different his hair was. He couldn't help but wonder what it would feel like to touch it. Spike looked up then, catching Xander at it. "Xan..."

"No," Xander said, stopping whatever it was Spike had been about to say. Then he remembered that was the whole reason he'd walked over here in the first place. "Sorry. What?"

"About what happened," Spike said.

Xander had to force himself to say, "What about it?"

"I didn't mean for it to turn out like this." Spike's long fingers plucked at an invisible - to Xander, at least - thread on his slacks.

Xander sighed. "And you think this is what I wanted? Not likely." He looked away, trying to get his emotions under control. After everything, he wasn't going to make a scene. He wasn't going to turn into a big girl over a failed love affair. "It's been a long time, Spike. We don't have to go over everything again."

"Did we ever go over it in the first place, Xan?" Spike asked, still messing with his trousers, not looking up. "What happened to us?"

Xander swallowed hard at the question. It was one he had been asking himself for almost a year. He still didn't have much of an answer. "I...I don't really know. I guess we just lost our way."

"'Lost our way?'" Spike echoed. His voice was strangely flat.

"Yeah," Xander said.

Spike sighed. "Didn't want this to happen," he said again. "I thought..."

"What?" Xander prompted after a minute.

"Didn't think this," Spike said. "Me alone here, you alone there..." He glanced up suddenly. "You are?"

"Yeah," Xander said. "Have been, since. God, Spike - you know me, I tend to brood."

"Crap American beer and Patsy Cline?' Spike said, smiling a little.

"Nah, you got me addicted to Newcastle, but Patsy's a classic. How about you? Maudlin poetry and Giles' best Scotch?" Xander found himself smiling back.

"Yeah," Spike answered. "Xander, I..." He stood up and walked to the fireplace, holding his hands out to warm them. "I'm sorry I was a prick at the airport. I thought...hell, I don't know what I thought."

"No," Xander said, watching Spike. "I'm the one that left without saying goodbye. I mean, not like we were really talking at all at that point, but..."

"But you were already gone before you left," Spike finished for him, and Xander wasn't sure how he felt about the fact that Spike knew him that well.

"I think we both were," Xander said. "Not that I'm trying to shirk my share of the blame. It just hurt so much, you know? At the end. It was dying by degrees, and it seemed better to just go." He looked up, seeing the recognition in Spike's eyes, and he couldn't help but be a little glad that Spike understood, that their problems hadn't been all in his head.

"So, was it?" Spike asked.

"Was it what?"

"Better?"

He couldn't answer right away, and after a minute Spike turned, looking out the window instead of at Xander. Xander knew it was because Spike knew that he'd have an easier time saying it that way. "I don't think it was," he said finally. "I don't think it was better. Easier, maybe, at first, because at least everything single fucking thing I looked at didn't remind me of you. But...I think when I did get reminded, it just ended up hurting that much more."

"Yeah," Spike said, raising one hand to touch the mantel. "I moved out just after - hardly brought anything with me."

Xander stood and walked closer to Spike, stepping into the circle of warmth cast by the fire. Spike stayed where he was, about three feet away, and he watched as Xander crouched down to get the poker and shift the burning logs around.

"The spell," he said, watching a small shower of sparks fall to the floor of the fireplace. "It's pretty intense. At least, it was last time. We'll all be joined for however long the fight takes. Can't say I'm looking forward to that."

He wasn't looking at Spike, but he could tell just from the tone of Spike's voice that the vampire had straightened up, gotten tense. "Has to, for it to work," Spike said.

"Yeah. But I don't..." Xander stopped poking at the fire and just stared into the flames instead. "This is big. We can't chance screwing it up, you know?"

"How could we screw it up?" Spike asked. "Seems to me all we have to do is show up."

Xander sighed. "It's never that easy. Part of the spell is that we have to join willingly. We have to allow all the other members access."

Spike put one foot up on the hearth and rested a hand on his knee. Xander looked up and watched the way the firelight danced across his face, highlighting his eyes and his cheekbones, casting his mouth in shadow.

"Is that what you're afraid of?" Spike asked. "What the others will see when they get into my head?"

"What?" Xander blinked up at Spike. "No. Well, okay, yeah, maybe a little bit, but that's not what I was thinking about."

Spike frowned. "What, then?"

"Think about it," Xander said, with more patience than he felt. "You, me, inside each other's heads...don't you think that's a little too close for comfort?"

"Oh." Spike ran a hand through his hair, and no, Xander was not thinking about what he was actually thinking about. "Sorry. Brain's a bit slow right now."

Xander felt his lips curve in a smile. "Yeah, I know what that's like."

They just looked at each other, smiling. The fire was warm, and Xander let himself relax just enough to bask in the heat and in Spike's presence. For just a moment, he allowed the hurt and the anger and all the misunderstandings and insecurities and petty grudges, both real and imagined, that hung between them to fall away. And it felt good, felt right.

He hated to break the companionable silence, so he didn't. He knew that there were all kinds of things they could be talking about, but then, talking had been the place they'd always fallen down. Not that they couldn't - he and Spike had had more incredible conversations than he could count - but, well, they'd also been prone to the aforementioned misunderstandings.

"Why couldn't we make it work?" Xander asked without thinking.

Spike looked away, staring into the fire. "If I knew that, Xander, we'd still be together, wouldn't we?" He sighed, running his hand through his hair again, and the gesture got Xander in the gut. It was number one on the list of 'signs that Spike is frustrated,' and he'd learned it well. The other problem was that his fingers were itching to touch, to be the ones sliding through that silky mass, feeling the bones of Spike's skull under his fingertips.

The phone rang, and Xander didn't know whether to smash the damn thing or thank it.

"Hang on," Spike said, as if Xander might take the opportunity to bolt otherwise. He went and picked up the phone. "Yeah?" He glanced at Xander. "Yeah. Right, I'll tell him." A small smile. "I know. See you later." He put the phone back down.

Xander stood up. "What's wrong?"

Spike just looked at him for a few seconds, then shook his head. "Shouldn't tell you you're too young to assume a phone call means something wrong, should I. Giles. Wants to see you when you get the chance. No hurry."

"Oh." Xander glanced toward the door, then at Spike again. "Should I go?"

Blue eyes met his steadily. "I don't want you to," Spike said.

"Oh," Xander repeated. He was stunned. Spike usually wasn't so direct, at least, not outside of bed. He wondered if maybe he wasn't the only one who had made progress in the months apart. "Dawn said I was supposed to bring you back for dinner."

Spike glanced at his watch, causing Xander to think, Spike? Watch? "Dinner's not for another half-hour, and it's Sunday."

"Sunday?"

"Andrew takes the Slayerettes out for fish and chips on Sunday evenings, so dinner's just...family." Spike hesitated just long enough over the word for Xander to realize that he still felt surprised to be included.

"Family," Xander said. "Does that make me the black sheep?"

"You're the prodigal son, Xan," Spike said, smiling. "I'm the black sheep."

He didn't know what to say to that. "I don't think I know how to talk anymore," he said, as if Spike had asked for an explanation.

"To me, you mean," Spike said.

"No, to anyone. It's..." Xander shrugged helplessly, a perfect example of his own inability.

"Spent too much time alone," Spike said. "Know what that's like."

"Yeah, I guess you do." Xander didn't like the thought of that. "So...we have half an hour."

"Yeah," Spike said. "I spent a lot of time thinking about what I'd say to you."

"Really?" Xander said, though he wasn't completely surprised - he didn't exactly have a corner on the brooding market. "What did you come up with?"

"A lot of shit I can't remember right now. It was a lot easier without you actually in the room."

"You want me to stand outside?" Xander joked, lifting his head to grin at Spike, who grinned back.

"No." Spike's grin faltered, like he thought he'd said too much in just that one word, then turned wry. "Stupid of me not to want to admit that I'm glad you're here. It's not like you don't already know."

Part of Xander had hoped it, sure, but hearing Spike say it out loud...He couldn't say it back, though. There were enough things between them, and he didn't want to add lies - or any more lies - to that list.

In the time he spent thinking that, something in Spike's faded into the background, got shuttered off. "Just like I know you didn't want to come back."

"I can't deny that, Spike," Xander said. It was true. Without an apocalypse, he wouldn't have come. Not on his own. Yes, he could be stupidly brave in certain circumstances, but brave enough to seek Spike out to talk about their relationship? Nuh-uh. No way. "But, now that I'm here, I can't say I'm sorry to see you. I...missed you."

The look on Spike's face said that he hadn't expected that little confession, and that it made him happy on some level.

"I missed you, too," Spike said softly. In that moment, everything about him was soft - his eyes, the gentle curve of his lips, the slope of his shoulders. It made Xander want to put his arms around Spike and just...hold him, for the comfort it would give both of them.

He had to wonder if Spike could see that wish on his face. If Spike could still read him like a book, a book that was in two languages; one that you knew by heart, without even having to think about it, and the other so foreign that you'd get it wrong every time. Because that was what had happened, wasn't it? They'd gotten so many things wrong, intentions misunderstood, words thrown out that couldn't be taken back...

Xander didn't know what to do. There was a huge part of him that wanted to close the distance between them and take shelter in Spike. If he did, he knew what would happen - they'd fall together like they always had, but nothing would change. Sure, it would be great - earth-shattering, awe-inspiring, but they would end up right where they started - miles apart in each other's arms.

"Maybe it's good," Spike said. "That you went when you did."

"You think so?" Xander managed to ask.

Spike shrugged a little bit, casual, like he was trying to shake off something he wasn't quite ready to admit was hanging onto his shoulders. "Gave us a bit of distance, at least."

"Distance," Xander repeated. Yeah, distance - that lovely thing that let him sit at home drinking Newcastle because it reminded him of Spike, wearing a too-small black tee shirt because it was Spike's, and listening to the friggin' Ramones because...well, you get the pattern. Distance had also allowed him some perspective, and that perspective had made him realize that he'd handled things badly. Not just the leaving part, but most of the parts, and even distance didn't soothe that ache.

"Speaking of," Spike said, stepping closer to wave his hand in front of Xander's face. "Where did you go just then?"

Having Spike that much closer made Xander's throat go suddenly dry, and he had to clear it before he could answer. "Sorry," he said hoarsely. "Just...I don't know. I think the distance is easier."

"'Course it is," Spike said. "You can go about your daily business and do all the normal things, and everything feels fine." He ran a hand through his hair. "And then you're looking in a drawer for a pen and you come up with a rock on a leather thong, and everything comes back."

Xander remembered the rock. He'd worn it every day he was in Africa. A shaman had blessed it to ward off evil spirits. He had transferred it from his own neck to Spike's one lazy morning in bed. They had joked that it would make Spike disappear.

He'd had it easier than Spike, in that respect - he'd taken as little with him as possible when he'd left, knowing that everything would remind him of Spike. Coming back like this was like being hit with a tidal wave of memories all at once, like Spike was everywhere, crashing into him with every breath.

"Must be hard," Spike offered, as if he'd read Xander's thoughts. "Coming back here."

"Yeah, that's why I avoided it for so long," Xander said. His voice was still kind of rough, and when his gaze met Spike's, he felt caught. Trapped. Spellbound.

"Yet Willow has only to ask and you're here?" Spike's tone was light, but Xander could see that the question was important to him.

"No, she had to ask and there had to be an apocalypse," Xander said, looking into Spike's eyes, feeling the intensity there.

"And if I had asked?" Spike's gaze didn't waver from Xander's face.

"You didn't," Xander said, his chest tight. It actually felt like there wasn't enough air in the room, which he'd always thought was one of those clich kinds of things. "You didn't ask."

Spike nodded. "What if I had?"

"I don't know." Xander's reply was barely above a whisper.

Xander took a moment, breathing deep to ease the ache, but he never looked away - couldn't. "Neither of us was exactly good at asking for what we wanted, were we?" he finally said.

"No, we weren't...aren't," Spike answered. His hand came up to rake through his hair yet again, and yet again Xander stifled the urge to bury his hands in those silken curls.

"I always assumed you knew what I needed," Xander said, laughing at the irony. "I was stupid."

"So was I," Spike said. "I thought I knew what you needed, too. Turned out I was wrong, but that didn't stop me from wishing that it was me."

"Is that what you think?" Xander's voice cracked on the final word, his heart slamming up into his throat. "You think I left because I didn't need you, didn't want you?"

Xander finally gave in to the urge that had been dogging him since he first set eyes on Spike at the airport, and he reached forward and smoothed an errant curl back from Spike's face. His hair was as heavy and soft as it had always been, and the strands caught on the roughness of Xander's fingertips.

Spike's eyes closed for a second or two at the touch. "Sometimes people want what's not good for them." He stood there, impossibly still, searching Xander's face, until Xander started to pull his hand back. Then Spike's hand shot up and grabbed Xander's wrist, firmly but gently.

"I couldn't do it anymore," Xander said, not trying to free his hand. He didn't want to acknowledge that, even though Spike's skin was cool, it felt like the touch was burning him.

"Couldn't do what?" Spike asked.

Xander just stood there for a moment, trying to draw on whatever scraps of courage he had left. He'd never have a better chance to say what he had to say - never have a better setup than Spike actually asking.

"I felt like...like I was always chasing you, Spike." Xander let out a sigh. "You know that cartoon? The one with the big dog and the little dog? And the little dog is always bouncing around the bigger one, asking questions, trying to get his attention? I was the little dog." Xander pulled slightly, and Spike released his wrist. He rubbed at the patch, then looked back at Spike. "One more thing," he said, grimacing. "And this is going to sound completely girly, but it's true. I needed you to say the words, and you never could."

"Wore my heart on my sleeve, Xan," Spike said quietly. "I've always done that, and you weren't any exception. If that wasn't enough...if you didn't know how I felt..." He shook his head slightly and started to turn away.

"There's a difference between knowing how you felt and you saying it," Xander said, moving with Spike, not letting him hide his face, because it had taken them an awfully long time to get here and he didn't want it to be over until it was really over. "How many times did you think I could stand saying it to you and not hearing it back?" Xander continued, his voice rising. "Jesus, Spike, how many times did you say it to Buffy?"

Spike's eyes widened and he drew his head back as if he'd been slapped. Just as he opened his mouth to answer, the phone rang.

"What?" Spike snapped into the handset. "Fine, on our way." He turned to look at Xander. "Dawn. It's time for dinner."

"I don't care about dinner," Xander said. "I care about - " He let all his breath out in a heavy sigh. "No, you know what? Forget it. We're not doing this. I'm not. There's no point."

"Fine," Spike said curtly, turning toward the hall. He stepped out and came back with both of their coats. He handed Xander's over and slipped into his own, reaching into the pockets for his gloves.

Xander put his coat on and wrapped his muffler around his neck, not looking at Spike. He was having the worst deja-vu ever - this was just the way they had fought before he'd left London for good. Normal conversation, escalating snappishness, and then the inevitable 'Fine!' usually at top volume, followed by at least one of them stomping off in a snit.

"I can't do this again, Spike." Xander said it so softly that Spike would have been the only one able to hear him.

"Then we won't." Spike's shoulders were tense as he took his gloves from his pockets, and, as he put the first one on, his fingers tore right through. "Bugger," he muttered, his voice giving away his emotion even though Xander was sure that was the last thing he wanted it to do.

Xander stepped closer and took the mutilated glove from Spike. He looked down at it, shaking his head. "I think you sent it to Isotoner heaven. Do you have another pair?"

Spike smiled a tiny bit at the joke. "There's another pair here somewhere, but it doesn't matter."

Xander reached into his own pocket and pulled out his gloves, handing them to Spike. "Wear mine - these pockets are lined and you hate it when your hands are cold."

Spike hesitated before reaching out and taking the gloves from Xander. "Thanks," he said awkwardly. "Xander...we can't just leave it like this. Between us. It's no good."

"Believe me, I know," Xander said. He wasn't sure if it was better to just get it over with all at once or keep killing each other by degrees, but the others were expecting them, so, either way, this wasn't the time. "Look...we'll talk again, okay? Just not now."

Spike nodded, pulling on Xander's gloves, which were a bit too big. "How do we handle it in front of the others?"

"Well," Xander said, opening the door. "I guess we'll just have to behave like adults for a change." He stepped outside and waited as Spike closed and locked the door behind them.

"Where's the fun in that?" Spike asked as they started down the path.

"This isn't supposed to be fun," Xander reminded him. "We're supposed to be trying to stop the world from ending, here, not having a good time." He glanced at Spike, noting that the vampire was walking on his right so that Xander could actually see him. It was something that Spike had done almost instinctively starting shortly after Xander had lost his eye, something most other people didn't think to do.

"What?" Spike asked.

"World saveage - serious business," Xander said, hunching his shoulders against the cold.

"Since when?" Spike asked. "I thought laughing in the face of peril was number one in the Scooby handbook."

"Oh, no!" Xander exclaimed, remembering a Monty Python skit the two of them had done to death. "Not the peril - it's much too perilous!"

Spike snorted. "'Least there's no Holy Grail on this little adventure."

"And most likely no fanged rabbit," Xander said.

"And none of that thing with the swallows and the coconuts," Spike grumbled. "Never could get that one."

"That's because you, my friend, don't have the patience to develop the skills of a master," Xander told him, hunching his shoulders against the cold. "Just because you weren't up to sitting and watching the same movie thirty-something times in a row..." He trailed off when he realized that Spike was looking at him kind of funny again, and then he heard what he'd said.

"Am I?" Spike asked after a few seconds.

"What...my friend?" There didn't seem to be much point in pretending he didn't know what Spike was talking about. "Yeah. I mean..."

Xander hesitated and scrunched his hands down in his pockets. He was about to do something really stupid. Monumentally stupid. Something he was likely going to regret. He turned to face Spike.

"I...miss having you as a friend. Almost as much as...the other."

"Had some good times, didn't we?" Spike had stopped walking, too. His hands, in Xander's gloves, were at his sides, and his hair was falling forward into his eyes again.

"Yeah, we did," Xander said.

"We could...Do you think..." Spike shook his head. "Come on, if we're late we'll never hear the end of it."

"Wait," Xander said. "Say it."

"Say what?" Spike looked toward the house, well-lit in the distance.

"What you were about to say." Xander stood his ground and kept his eye on Spike's face. "I think I know, but I've learned not to trust myself on things like that - I'm sure you remember my talent for misunderstanding."

"It wasn't just you," Spike said. "It was both of us."

"Yeah," Xander said. "It was. And I'm still waiting for you to finish what you were going to say before."

Spike looked at down at Xander's feet, then up, meeting his gaze with some difficulty. The pause was very long. "You think we could try again?" Spike asked finally, and, while Xander was still blinking, added, "That's what I was going to say."

Xander's heart started pounding, and he was sure that Spike could hear it. He took in a deep breath of the cold evening air and just looked at Spike for a long moment. He was...still - which never happened - and his face was unguarded, also a rarity. He looked beautiful and golden against the dark fabric of his coat and the indigo of the sky.

"Try again?" Xander said. "You mean...as friends?"

Spike just kept looking at him, patient, unmoving. He was like a statue. "No," he said finally. "I mean, yeah, if that's all I can get, I'll take it. I'll be grateful for it. But I'd be lying if I said it was all I wanted." He smiled, the expression immediately twisting into something with more than a little bit of self-hatred in it. "I want you back, Xan."

"You...I..." Xander stammered, unsure of how to respond.

Spike stepped forward and placed his hand against the side of Xander's neck above the plaid muffler. "Just think about it, OK?" he said. "No rush. I just wanted to tell you."

"Actually, you didn't," Xander said faintly. "I had to make you." Having Spike touching him like that - it made the world seem a lot smaller, suddenly, like it was just the two of them. He hadn't realized until right then how big the world had been lately, and how he'd felt like a tiny, insignificant part of it, something that no one saw.

It was confusing to have Spike seeing him, now.

"I would have said it sooner or later," Spike told him, dropping his hand but not moving away. "Would have said it a long time ago, if you'd come back sooner."

"If I'd come back..." Xander could feel himself getting angry, but tried to stifle it and speak in an even tone. "I guess you never thought of coming after me, huh?" He turned toward the house and took a couple of steps.

"You left," Spike said behind him, and there was a desperation in his voice that Xander hadn't heard for a long time. Maybe ever. He couldn't help but stop and turn around again. "What was I supposed to do? You got on a plane and you went pretty much as far away from me as you could get, and you never even said goodbye. Was I meant to think you wanted me to go after you?"

Xander opened his mouth to form a heated reply, but then shut it with a snap. Not going to fall back into old habits - thinking part first, talking part second.

He took and released a deep breath and tried again. "You're right. I did. I took the coward's way out because I couldn't stand the way I was acting, the way I was feeling. I ran, and I owe you an apology for that. I really am sorry that I handled it so badly, Spike."

"When I found out you'd gone..." Spike was looking anywhere but at Xander now.

"It must have sucked," Xander said, watching Spike intently, studying his face.

"Yeah, that's one word for it." Spike inhaled shakily, the way he did when he was trying not to let emotion get the better of him. "Promise me you won't just walk away again? Not 'til we've had a chance to really talk, at least."

That little shaky breath got Xander in the guts every time. It wasn't as if Spike even needed to breathe anyway, but to do it with that small, vulnerable sound...it made Xander's chest hurt.

"I promise, Spike. I won't run this time." He held Spike's eyes with his own. "You've got to promise me something, too, though."

"What's that?" Spike asked.

"That when we talk, you'll remember the part where I can't read your mind, OK?" He thought for a second about the spell and realized that, for a little while, he would be able to read Spike's mind. He also thought it would be best to let Giles hand over that bit of information, on the off chance Spike hadn't already figured it out for himself.

Spike just looked at him, then nodded. "Okay. I promise."

"Okay." Xander wanted to reach for Spike's hand, to hold it, just for a second, even through his glove, but that seemed too...something. Intimate, maybe. So instead, he just stepped close enough to pat Spike on the shoulder. "Come on. Let's go."

They didn't speak on the rest of the short walk to the main house, they simply walked together, shoulders brushing occasionally. Just as they stepped up onto the front porch, the door was flung open by an anxious-looking Dawn.

"Get in here," she said, wrapping her arms around her body and shivering dramatically. "It's freezing out there."

"It's not that bad," Xander protested, letting Spike go in first because of the whole vampires not having their own body heat thing. Spike didn't complain about it often, but Xander knew he felt the cold more acutely.

"Yes, it is," Dawn said, dancing from one foot to the other and shutting the door once they were both inside. "I'm ready for spring. If there is one this year, that is."

"There will be," Giles assured her from the next room.

"Might only last five minutes," Spike muttered conspiratorially to Xander and Dawn.

"I heard that," Giles said.

Spike and Xander hung their coats up and let Dawn lead them into the dining room. Only one end of the long table was set, and Giles, Buffy and Willow were already seated. Dawn plunked down next to Buffy, leaving Xander flanked by Willow and Spike.

Dawn reached into the center of the table and lifted the cover from the large tray sitting there.

"Woo hoo!" Xander exclaimed, reaching for the familiar red-and-white bucket. "Manna from the Colonel."

Buffy reached across the table and snagged a drumstick. "Eat up," she said. "It's in your honor."

"There's more in the kitchen," Dawn said helpfully. When she nodded like that it made her look about five years younger.

"You guys are the best," Xander said, helping himself to three pieces and breathing in the familiar scent of the secret recipe. "Which, I realize, I won't be saying when this whole spell thing goes down."

"But it's not like you guys didn't do it before." Dawn looked to Giles for reassurance.

"We did," Giles said, and Xander could tell from his patient tone of voice that he'd been through this at least a couple of times already. "This will be slightly more complicated, but essentially it's the same spell."

"But without the insane-o dreams, right?" Buffy said, scooping mashed potatoes out onto her plate and gesturing toward Giles with the spoon. "Right? I can't deal with that again. Seriously."

"Second," Xander said, dropping a chicken breast onto Spike's plate and passing him the coleslaw.

"Third," Willow added, reaching for a biscuit.

"And it's unanimous," Giles said.

"Good," Xander said. "The last thing we want is to go through that again." Although, to be fair, there were parts of his insane-o dream that he wouldn't have minded re-experiencing, a fact that firmly cemented his ranks in the halls of the bisexual.

"It shouldn't be an issue," Giles assured him.

"So, if we don't call on the power of the First Slayer, where do we get the mojo?" Xander asked, looking from Giles to Willow and back.

Willow leaned her elbows on the table. "We get the power from all of us. From inside." She reached out and grabbed several unused plastic knives and forks. She arranged them in a five pointed star and drew a circle around them with her finger. "See, the five of us make the five points of a pentagram - super-powerful in and of itself. Dawn will draw a circle around us, and we'll do the candles-and-chanty thing like last time..."

"And then someone says, 'Let our powers combine'..." Xander said.

"And I smack Xander in the head and we ruin the spell, right?" Spike concluded.

Xander kicked him lightly in the shin under the table, and nearly choked on his dinner at the wide grin Spike turned on him.

"And here you have an example of why we only did it with four people last time," Buffy said, but her eyes were twinkling.

"I was evil then," Spike said lightly. "You wouldn't have wanted me anyway."

"No, but that's all changed now, hasn't it." Giles' voice was warm, and the look he and Spike exchanged made it clear that stuff between them was even better now than it had been back when Xander was still in London. In fact, it gave Xander a funny little squiggly feeling in his stomach that might have been jealousy.

Dawn grinned. "I'm just glad I get to help this time, too."

Once dinner was completed, Xander watched in amazement as Buffy cajoled Spike into helping with the few dishes while Willow, Giles and Dawn went to get ready for the big talk about the Big Bad, Willow muttering something about a Power Point presentation.

Xander grabbed the last few plates and carried them into the kitchen. Buffy was washing and Spike was drying, so he grabbed the clean plates to put them in their usual cabinet, which was now full of glasses.

"Sorry, Xan - we rearranged; plates go in the third cabinet now." Buffy pointed with a foamy hand, and Spike deftly caught the dripping suds with his dishtowel.

That little squiggly feeling in Xander's stomach that might have been jealousy reared its little squiggly green head again. He didn't like feeling like a stranger in what had been his home for several years. He hated feeling like an interloper, especially while Spike seemed closer to the others than ever. He knew it was dumb and petty, but it still hurt.

He stood back and watched while Spike piled up the dried dishes, trying to pretend that he wasn't sulking as Buffy and Spike continued to joke and talk. Every once in a while he added something to their conversation, but he was being stupid, and he knew it, and the longer it went on, the more stupid he felt.

There was a lull when Buffy let the water go down the drain, and she turned to look over her shoulder at him. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Xander lied. "It's probably just jet lag catching up with me."

Spike looked at him with concern. "We'll keep this short, tonight, then. Let you get some sleep."

The kindness from Spike wasn't helping his rotten attitude, so Xander excused himself and followed the sounds of voices to the library. Willow and Giles were setting up a laptop and organizing some papers. Dawn was curled up in a large leather chair with a thoughtful look on her face.

"Hey, Dawnie," Xander said, stopping in front of her chair.

"Hey," she replied, and in a supple motion she stood up, wrapped her arms around him and bodily pulled him down into the chair with her. They struggled with knees and elbows for a minute before settling into a warm, comfy heap.

"I'm glad you're here," Dawn said, snuggling her head against his shoulder. "I missed you."

"I missed you, too," Xander said, catching a strand of her hair that was tickling his neck and tucking it back where it belonged.

"You could stay, you know," Dawn said. She kept her voice low, so that the conversation was just theirs, which Xander appreciated. "You don't have to go back. We all missed you."

He knew what she was saying with that. "Yeah. I know." The problem was, he didn't know what the chances were of him and Spike actually working things out, and if they didn't, he wasn't sure he could handle staying in London. Xander leaned his head against hers. He kept his voice low. "It seems like you guys are taking good care of Spike."

"You're jealous, aren't you?" Dawn asked, showing that startling talent of hers for cutting through the bullshit and digging out the truth.

"Totally," Xander said. "Even though I don't have any right to be - I'm the one who left."

"He really did miss you," Dawn said. "He hasn't been like this all this time, you know. It took us months to get him to come and hang out with us again. He wouldn't even talk to me or Buffy for, like, weeks."

"Really?" Xander almost liked the thought that Spike had been so devastated, but then he felt guilty for liking it.

"Yeah."

"And he hasn't...been with anyone else? Since I left?" It wasn't something he could ask Spike, really.

"Xander - he hardly ever leaves the grounds," Dawn said in a scandalized voice. "For the first couple of months we had to drag him up here to see him at all, and then we made up the whole fish and chips thing so we could get him here once a week."

Xander rubbed his cheek thoughtfully over Dawn's silky hair. He couldn't deny that he was sort of glad that Spike had had as rough a time as him over the breakup. He, too, had closed himself off for a while, only going to work and the grocery store. Even now he was well-known at work for not being the 'let's get a beer after work' kind of guy.

"Thanks," Xander said. "Thanks for taking care of him."

"We wanted to," Dawn said. "Even Giles tried to distract him, although personally I still think that was about looking for an excuse to drink whiskey."

Giles, busy with Willow, looked up. "Are my ears burning?" he asked mildly.

"No, they look okay to me," Dawn said, feigning innocence. "Willow, you're closer, what do you think?"

Willow glanced at Giles, who was standing behind her. "I think he meant burning in the metaphorical sense," she said, grinning.

"Dawn says you're a drunk," Xander said, blocking her elbow as it headed for his ribs. "Kidding! Kidding!" he yelped, struggling out of the chair. He raised his hands and backed away from Dawn, and backed right into Spike, entering the room ahead of Buffy.

"I've got you, love," Spike said, bracing Xander by grabbing one shoulder and the opposite hip as he lost his balance.

Xander froze, and there was an awkward silence in the room. Then he managed to move, getting his feet under him as Spike slowly relinquished his hold. "Thanks," Xander said, turning. Spike was so close that they could have kissed, and they both blinked, then Xander took a deliberate step back. "Thanks," he said again.

Spike nodded, then stepped past Xander into the room. Buffy followed, and they all busied themselves finding seats and accepting handouts from Willow.

Xander sat on the floor in front of Dawn's chair, and she put her feet on either side of him, flanking him with her long legs. Spike and Buffy sat on the couch. While everyone fussed with their papers, Xander pondered.

He pondered the way Spike had steadied him, the way he'd spoken in that low, gentle tone. He pondered the soft glance Spike had given him as they looked at each other, just a hair's breadth apart. He pondered a minute longer, then realized something. Something that was so shocking that his mouth dropped open.

Spike was trying to woo him! He, Xander Harris, was the object of sexy vampire woo-age.

He was so doomed.

He couldn't even pay attention to the Big Talk the way he should have been - he was too distracted, which was just what he'd been worried about being by Spike. Everything about Spike was distracting - the way he watched Giles when Giles talked, the way his lips moved into little smiles and frowns, and, most of all, the way his hands moved. He didn't have to be doing anything but turning pages to distract Xander.

"Okay, so," Willow said, like she was wrapping things up. "I think that's everything. Any questions?"

Xander made a little huffing noise in preparation for owning up to the fact that he hadn't heard a single word Willow had said. Before he could speak, Spike turned and shook his head slightly at him before tilting it at the door. Xander nodded - message received: Spike would give him the short version after the meeting. The whole exchange made Xander wonder - if he could get all of that out of a nod and a head tilt, why was he so lousy at communicating with actual words?

Still, it took them a good fifteen minutes to get out of there, because Dawn had questions - and Xander tried, really tried, to listen to the answers and make sense of them - and then there were three or four little 'one more details' that Willow had forgotten to mention.

"Okay, I guess that's it," Willow said finally.

"We should make it an early night," Buffy said. "Xander's tired."

"I'm a what?" Xander said, turning to face Buffy.

"You're tired," she said, enunciating each word clearly, like she was speaking to a child. "You have that drifty look."

Xander frowned as he watched Spike struggle to mask a grin. "Yeah, jet-lag," he finally said to Buffy. He stayed where he was on the floor as Dawn crawled over him and the others filed out of the room. Spike stayed in his seat on the couch, grinning at him.

"Laugh it up, Fang," Xander said, pushing himself up to sit in the chair.

"Me?" Spike said, with a hand splayed across his chest like he was totally innocent.

"Yeah, you. You were the one being all...distracting." Which might have been more than Xander should admit to, but hey, apparently old habits died hard. Or maybe not at all.

"I was just sitting here listening to the plan like a good boy," Spike said. He even managed to sound innocent. "Not my fault if you couldn't pay attention." His expression and voice softening, he asked, "Unless you really are that tired?"

And Spike saying 'good boy' so should not have made a shudder run through Xander like it did. Nope. Not at all.

"I'm okay," Xander said. "I am still a little jet-lagged, but that's not why I was distracted - that was all you."

"What was I doing?" Spike asked, and he looked genuinely perplexed.

Xander sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face. "Just the equivalent of finding the rock in the drawer. I'd forgotten about your hands."

"My hands?" Spike slid to the end of the sofa closest to Xander and leaned toward him, holding out his hands.

Xander captured one in both of his and just held it for a moment. "The way they move," he said, releasing Spike's hand reluctantly.

But Spike turned his hand and grabbed onto one of Xander's gently. "Like this?" he asked, tracing two fingers along Xander's palm.

Xander inhaled sharply, his skin tingling. "That...wasn't what I was thinking of."

Uncertainly, Spike let go of him, pulling back. "Should I apologize?"

"No," Xander said. "Don't apologize for being who you are. I never wanted you to do that."

Spike's hand rose again, but he stopped a few inches from Xander's face and waited. Xander nodded, and Spike brushed his fingers over the skin lightly.

The touch was soft, fleeting and wholly electrifying. Xander shut his eye and breathed through his mouth as the touch became stronger, stroking over his cheekbone and the hollow below, tracing down to run across his lower lip.

"What do you want me to apologize for?" Spike asked.

Xander drew a shaky breath, felt his lower lip tremble at Spike's touch. "What?"

"What," Spike repeated slowly, "do you want me to apologize for? There must be things."

Barely able to think with Spike so close, Xander swallowed. He didn't want to get into it, but then, if they didn't, they'd never find out if things could be different. "For thinking that you weren't enough," Xander breathed, chancing it. "For thinking that you knew better than I did what I needed."

Spike's hand left his face, but Xander reached out, covering it with his own and pressing the cool skin back to his cheek.

"It..." Spike looked away and swallowed heavily. "Didn't have anything to do with you, love. Never meant to make you think..." Finally, Spike turned his head back, and Xander could see the anguish in his eyes. "I wasn't enough, Xander. You left."

"I left because we were hurting each other and I couldn't figure out how to make it stop," Xander said, tugging at Spike to pull him closer.

Spike moved off the couch, but instead of coming to sit where Xander really wanted him, on his lap, he curled himself down onto the small space of floor in between the two pieces of furniture, his temple pressed to Xander's knee, his face hidden. "I didn't want to hurt you," he whispered.

Taking advantage of the moment to run his hand over Spike's hair, Xander leaned down and kissed the top of Spike's head. "I didn't want to hurt you, either." His throat felt thick and swollen, hot.

This hurt, almost as much as making the decision to leave had. It was one thing to deal with his own feelings, but seeing Spike looking so small, there at his feet, hearing the pain and tears in his voice - that voice that was supposed to arouse, entice, comfort, seduce - not to hurt, not at his hands. It was torture.

Xander leaned his cheek against Spike's hair and trailed a hand down his shoulder. Spike grasped the hand, turning it to kiss the wrist.

The touch of Spike's lips was so intimate, so right, that Xander pushed the chair back and slid down onto the floor with Spike, wrapping both arms around him and just holding on.

Spike burrowed into the embrace, his face still hidden, head bowed. "I'm still in love with you, Xander," he said hoarsely.

Xander tightened his arms further, clutching Spike to him in desperation. Still in love...words he was pretty sure he'd pay every dollar he had and every dollar he could get to hear, and his throat was so tight he couldn't speak.

He bowed his head over Spike's and breathed in the clean scent of his hair until something in his chest loosened and he felt tears prick his eye. "I never stopped," he whispered. "Never stopped loving you."

Spike started shaking at that, a fine tremor that shivered its way through his whole body. His hands twisted themselves into Xander's shirt, pulling it tight across his back. There was a small, muffled sound, and after a second or two, Xander realized that Spike was crying, crying and trying to stifle it.

This was wrong. Bad wrong, major wrong. Spike wasn't supposed to cry. Not like Xander hadn't seen him cry before, but not like this. Not quietly. When Spike cried, it was usually accompanied by shouting and throwing things.

Xander had cried like this before. He'd shed a number of tears over Spike, but that was to be expected - when such a bright light burned out of your life, you were expected to mourn. That made sense. But this? Did. not. compute.

Xander held on, listening to the soft sounds, the sniffles that made him think of a little kid who was trying hard not to cry over a skinned knee or being left out of a game. It would have been adorable if it hadn't been ripping his heart out. Xander held on and rocked their bodies together in the tiny bit of space they were occupying, and he didn't even realize that he was crying, too, until he tasted salty tears at the corner of his mouth.

Spike's hands were still clutching Xander's shirt. He shivered, took a shuddering, painful-sounding breath, and then let go with one hand, rubbing at his face with it without otherwise moving. "Sorry," he muttered, after a couple of seconds. His voice was rough, raw.

Xander shook his head, his cheek ruffling against Spike's hair. "Don't be." His own voice wasn't much better.

"Never thought we'd be back here," Spike said hoarsely. "Dreamt it plenty of times, but didn't think it'd ever happen."

"God, the dreams I've had about you," Xander said, and he was surprised at how dirty his voice sounded, even with the teary huskiness.

Spike lifted his head and fixed Xander with eyes that shone with a few tears, a little humor and frank appraisal. "You tell me yours and I'll tell you mine," he said.

"Not likely. Not here on the floor with the others in the next room probably placing bets," Xander said. He got one hand between them to lightly touch Spike's cheek, then inclined his head and brought their lips together.

It was tentative, hesitant, both of them feeling their way through it, but as soon as their lips parted Spike moved forward again, like he couldn't stand for it to be over.

Spike still hadn't let go of the front of Xander's shirt, but he didn't take advantage of the grip. Didn't use it to pull Xander closer, or hold him when he didn't want to be held. Instead, Spike's fingers twisted, stroked the fabric gently as they kissed.

"Don't know if I can do this again, pet," Spike murmured. "If you walk away..."

Xander pulled back a little, trying to make his brain think about anything other than how Spike's lips felt and the rush of desire that was going through him. He dropped his forehead to Spike's shoulder and breathed deeply. "Spike, we still have to talk, have to figure out if we can do this," he said.

Spike stiffened and drew back, pushing Xander away to make him raise his head so they could look at one another. "Xander, I'm telling you that I love you, and you're telling me that we need to talk?"

Xander sucked in his breath at the easy way Spike said the words that he couldn't manage to say for two years. The words made him dizzy, made him want to fold Spike up in his arms and never let him go.

"I love you, too," he said, caressing the back of Spike's neck. "You don't know how long I've waited to hear you say that to me. But it doesn't change anything. Loving wasn't our problem."

"Our problem," Spike said, jerking his head back and getting to his feet, "was that you left without even saying a word to me." He looked angry, but Xander knew that underneath it he was hurt.

"We had problems before I left," Xander said, trying to stay calm.

He pulled himself up to sit on the chair again and propped his forearms onto his knees, leaning forward as Spike paced back and forth in front of him.

"Problems. 'Course we had problems - human, vampire, day, night, that sort of thing, but nothing that warranted you dumping me without so much as a by-your-leave," Spike said, the cadence of his words matching his short, angry strides.

"First, I don't know what a by-your-leave is. Second, a lot of our problems had nothing to do with the fact that you're a vampire and I'm not - they had to do with the fact that you and I are two of the most insecure morons on the planet." Xander ran his hands through his hair and looked down at the floor.

He watched as Spike's boots made two more swift passes back and forth in front of him, then as they faltered and stopped.

Spike knelt suddenly on the floor, reaching for both of Xander's hands. His expression was serious, conflicted. "I can't do this again, Xan. No matter how much I want to take the chance, I can't do maybe. Either we're in this together, and we'll find a way to make it work, or..." He shook his head, his voice barely above a whisper. "Or just tell me now that you're going to walk again. But don't put me through this."

"Jesus, Spike," Xander said, freeing one hand to run through Spike's hair, carding through the thick waves. "I don't have all the answers, I never did. I don't even know all the questions." He leaned forward and pressed his lips to Spike's forehead before leaning back a little. "You just told me that you love me, words I would have traded my other eye for two years ago. Can't we just...bask a little?"

The smile Spike offered him was strained, uncertain, but he nodded. "Yeah. Nothing wrong with basking." Still on his knees, Spike reached up and took Xander's face between his hands, looking at him seriously. "Should have said it a long time ago, but I can say it now. I love you, Xander."

Xander smiled, and it felt as if his face would split. "Say it again?"

"I love you," Spike whispered, and his real smile came back - one that was almost as big as Xander's. They stared at each other for a long minute, grinning at each other like loons.

"So, things are looking up?"

They both turned their heads to see a very smug-looking Dawn propped in the doorway.

"You tell me," Xander said, pulling Spike close and kissing him gently.

When he looked up again, Dawn's hands were clasped together, her eyes sparkling. "I knew it," she squeaked, in a voice that reminded Xander of how she'd sounded years ago. "I knew that if we could just get you guys together again, everything would be okay."

Spike looked from Dawn to Xander. "It's not as simple as that, but yeah. Closer to okay."

"Much closer," Xander agreed.

"So, I guess you haven't been using your time to bring Xander up to speed on Willow's presentation. Which she's very proud of, and which Xander zoned out through and might want to compliment her on before she turns him into a Nubian goat - just sayin'." Dawn still looked smug. Way smug. Smuggest.

"Okay, Bit. I'll coach him and then he can smooth the ruffled witch's feathers later," Spike said, sliding his arms around Xander. "So you can sod off, message received."

"You guys just want to make out more," Dawn accused.

"You think?" Xander said.

"Can I watch?" Dawn asked hopefully.

"No!" Spike said, with something like fond irritation in his voice. "Now get lost."

"Okay, okay." Dawn sighed and turned to go.

Xander and Spike both listened to her retreating footsteps - Xander was sure Spike could hear her a lot longer than he could - and then smiled at each other slowly. Xander couldn't stop from stroking his hands over Spike's shoulders and upper arms, feeling indulgent and awe-struck. "Tell me again?" he said.

"I think you may be going mad on the power, love," Spike said, with a low laugh.

"Indulge me," Xander replied. He brought one hand up to rest at the nape of Spike's neck.

Spike leaned forward so that their foreheads touched. "I love you. And I've missed you terribly."

"Missed you, too," Xander said. "Waking up alone sucked so bad."

"Going to bed alone wasn't much fun either," Spike said, so close that Xander could feel the air breathed across his lips as Spike spoke the words. "Wouldn't mind not having to do it again."

Xander knew that the danger here was in letting how amazing this was carry him away. "I don't know if that's such a good idea," he said. "Tonight, at least. I really think we should - "

"Talk," Spike finished for him. "Yeah, I know, pet."

Xander nodded, then tugged at Spike until he stood and sat back down on the sofa. Xander moved to his side, making sure that their legs were pressed together from knee to hip.

"OK, tell me about the new Big Bad. I could live my whole life without being turned into a Nubian goat by Willow."

Spike grinned at the goat comment, but then his face got a serious look. "This guy's a warlock. Most likely not human, and he's got his hands on a prophecy and all the necessary ingredients to essentially take over the world by binding all demons to him."

"All demons?" Xander asked. "Like, including you?"

"Yeah, pet. Including me," Spike said.

"Well, then tell me how we kick his ass!"

"That's what the spell's for," Spike said, putting his arm around Xander. "Buffy kicks his ass with us."

"Yeah," Xander said, remembering. Now that he and Spike were maybe working things out, the thought of them being in each other's heads wasn't as scary, although the thought of Spike and Buffy occupying the same space was a little disturbing.

"The spell will pretty much go as you remembered it - candles, chanting, a little facepaint for flair. Then we all merge and Buffy kills the warlock with whatever it is she gets from us," Spike explained.

"Well, since I don't think she's going to love him to death, looks like the Heart will have an easy time of it," Xander said.

"Nah," Spike said, leaning down to rub his face against Xander's hair. "The Heart isn't just about love; you're the strength that binds us all. You're what we fight for."

Suddenly, Xander couldn't speak. The whole concept of being the only normal one in the group had just flipped over, showing him a side he'd never dreamed. Him being the strength, the focus, really - it was mind-boggling that he could be so...important. To anyone.

The thought was so overwhelming that he actually forgot to breathe for a minute, and he didn't remember again until Spike's hand grabbed onto his chin and turned his head so that his startled eye had no choice but to look into Spike's startling blue ones. "Don't tell me you didn't know," Spike said.

Xander drew a breath. His heartbeat felt wrong, skittish, like a horse about to bolt without any regard for where it was headed. "I didn't know," he said.

Spike grinned, a black kind of smile that said he just might hate himself for not having told Xander sooner. "I'm not the only one that loves you."

Xander closed his eye and swallowed hard. When he opened it again, the look on Spike's face had changed into something wide-eyed and curious, and a tiny bit sad.

"You really didn't know?" he said softly. "Xander, you're...you're everything."

He might have wanted to say more, but Xander stopped him with a kiss.

It was a long, slow kiss, the kind that was about comfort and affection and, yeah, love, with Spike's hand still cupping Xander's chin and Xander's hand stroking along Spike's side gently. They didn't stop for a long time - Xander wasn't sure how long, but by the time they stopped, he was feeling genuinely jet-lagged; sleepy and warm and wanting to cuddle up with Spike and not let go. The realization that he wasn't actually turned on might have been disturbing if he hadn't been so content.

"You all right?" Spike asked. "You're looking a bit muzzy around the edges, there."

Xander made a soft sound of agreement and leaned in against Spike, resting his cheek on Spike's shoulder.

Xander felt the world move as Spike levered them both to their feet and got them moving toward the door. He heard quiet conversations around him without comprehending any of it.

He had the impression of movement, stairs, hallway, door and then rest, as Spike took him up and sat him on the edge of the bed. Spike knelt and removed his shoes, and Xander rested one heavy hand against his hair.

Divested gently of shoes, socks, jeans, shirt and patch, Xander let himself fall back into the welcoming embrace of the bed, and when Spike turned as if to leave, he spoke his heart: "Stay."

Spike's hesitation felt heavy in the quiet of the room. "You sure?" he asked, his accent smoothed out.

Shifting more toward the other side of the bed despite the effort it took, Xander nodded. "Yeah. I'm sure."

Spike moved to the door, but only long enough to shut it quietly. He turned back and walked to the bed, toeing off his shoes before sitting down, the mattress dipping under his weight. His hand settled on Xander's bare shoulder, comforting, but his expression made it seem like he was still making up his mind about something.

"Come here," Xander said, and Spike nodded and lay down, putting an arm around Xander and pulling him close.

Xander's hands immediately remembered exactly where they were supposed to go - one around Spike's slim waist, the other across his back, stroking the tense place between Spike's shoulder blades. For his part, Spike nestled his head against Xander's chest and tangled their legs together.

Xander managed to stay barely awake long enough to register that finally, finally all was right in his world, and that, for the moment, his world was the perfect size - not too big, not too small - just enough to encompass the two of them.


When Xander woke up, it wasn't morning. From the total blackness of the sky that he could see through a part in the curtains, it was still the middle of the night. But he was alone in the bed - at least, he thought he was, until he sat up suddenly, turning around, his heart beating quickly because something was wrong, something had to be wrong, and -

Spike was sitting on the other side of the bed, just far enough away from him that he hadn't known he was there. It looked like he'd been sitting there and staring at the wall. But he turned his head and then his whole upper body toward Xander, reaching a hand out and setting it on Xander's thigh, which was bare but underneath the covers. "Shh, love," he whispered soothingly, and Xander was aware of the fact that there were probably people sleeping in the rooms on either side of his.

"I thought you left," Xander whispered back, and it sounded accusatory.

"No, love," Spike said, speaking softly and moving a little closer. "Not gonna pass up an invitation to stay with you - just couldn't sleep."

"Whirly brain?" Xander asked, using their short version of 'too many thoughts whirling around in your head to sleep.'

"Yeah," Spike said, easing up the bed to sit leaning against the headboard. "Good old whirly brain." Xander could hear the smile - the sad, slightly rueful one that meant Spike was thinking about the past.

Xander pushed himself more upright and moved so that he was sitting next to Spike. He wanted to put an arm around Spike, to soothe him, but the few hours of sleep had left him uncertain as to what this was, exactly, and what they should let it be. He reached for Spike's hand instead, curling it up and holding it in his own. "What are you thinking about?"

"Oh, you know," Spike said. "Place of a perfectionist in this world." When Xander gave him a confused look, he clarified, "Just brooding. Thought I would have got over it by now, wouldn't you?"

"Got over what?" Xander asked, still confused.

"The tendency to brood." Spike watched their hands as Xander rubbed his thumb back and forth along Spike's life line.

"Family tradition," Xander said, bringing Spike's palm up to his mouth for a kiss to take any sting out of the words.

"Git," Spike said, curling his fingers around Xander's jaw for a second.

"I missed being called silly British names," Xander said. It was true, except that he'd missed them for quite some time before the two of them had split.

Spike seemed to pick up on the uneasiness. "Is everything going to be like that from now on?" he asked. "Is every good memory going to have hurt attached?"

"I dunno," Xander said. "Up 'til now, when I've broken up, I've stayed broken up."

"That mean we're not, anymore?" Spike asked, with his head tilted to one side.

Xander couldn't help it - he smiled. "I thought that was something we were going to decide together."

Spike nodded, his hand disentangling itself from Xander's and stroking over Xander's face lightly. Brow, cheekbone, lower lip, jaw. "You already know how I feel, pet. I don't want to be without you again. If there's something you need, something I can do, to convince you, you just say the word and it's yours."

For a second, all Xander wanted to do was reach out and pull Spike to him and lose himself, bury himself in the strong animal attraction they'd always had for each other. They'd never lacked communication when they shut up and let their actions speak; let their bodies show their feelings. He took a deep breath and blew it out, then reached up to place his hand over Spike's to still the wonderful but distracting touches.

"Can you tell me what happened to us, Spike?" he asked, voice low and urgent. "I still don't understand, and I'm scared it might happen again. I don't think I'd survive it."

Spike pulled his hand back, and the loss of contact was disturbing. He turned his head, looking over at the far wall, then made a small shrugging motion. "If I'd known what it was, I would have stopped it." He sounded like it was something he'd thought about a lot.

"I know." Xander said the words gently, but he didn't touch Spike. Maybe this was one of those things it was just better that they do without touching. "But if we don't figure it out, then we can't stop it from happening again."

Spike got up. He was still fully dressed except for his shoes, whereas Xander was sitting there in nothing but his boxer shorts, and the sight of him pacing, even in the dim light provided by the small lamp over on the table-that-was-supposed-to-be-a-desk, took Xander back. Way back. Made his stomach tighten and his lungs feel too small.

Xander took a deep breath, willing the air into his chest. He sat up on the edge of the bed, draping the sheets over his lap so he wouldn't feel so...undressed. "I always hated it when you paced like that," he said. "I always wondered what I had done to make you mad." He looked down at his hands, twisting the sheet in his lap. He hated admitting that - it made him feel like he'd turned into a big girl.

"Doesn't have anything to do with you, pet," Spike said. He stopped, though. Took out a crumpled pack of cigarettes in a brand Xander didn't recognize and stuck a likewise crumpled cigarette between his lips before lighting it. "Doesn't mean I'm angry, either. Just...need to move."

"Okay," Xander said. He waited.

"I don't want to hit the replay button on this any more than you do," Spike said, moving closer to the bed again. "You think I liked it? Knowing that I was driving you away?"

"God, Spike - it wasn't just you. I know I did plenty to drive you away. We were both driving. To a bad place. And I think I've lost the metaphor, but it's late and I'm tired and there's you and..." he trailed off, noticing that Spike was staring at him, wide-eyed.

"Never thought I'd say it, pet," Spike said, his lips turning up in a smile - his real smile, the one that made Xander's heart threaten to fly out of his chest. "But I think I missed the babble."

Xander smiled, too. There was no way he could have not. "No, you didn't," he said.

"Yes," Spike said seriously. "I did. I missed everything. And I'll never forgive myself for letting it go so far. I thought..." He didn't finish.

"You thought what?" Xander asked.

"That you'd be better off without me." Spike's voice was so quiet that Xander had to strain to hear it. "That sooner or later, you'd leave. Find someone better. Seemed like maybe it was the right thing to let you go."

Xander stood up, heedless of his state of dress, knowing only that he had to get to Spike, had to hold him and make him see. Spike stood still and allowed the approach, and as Xander's arms engulfed him, he grabbed on like a drowning man.

"There's nobody better," Xander muttered into the soft hair above Spike's ear. "Not for me. Nobody better - ever. Just you."

Spike stood totally still. "I wanted a good life for you," he said hoarsely.

"Yeah, well I wanted a good life with you," Xander said. "That hasn't changed."

"Hang on a tick, love," Spike said, stepping back with one hand held to the side, keeping the lit cigarette away from Xander. He went to the bathroom, ran water in the sink for a second or two, then came back out. "Got the toothpaste all right, I see."

Xander blinked at him, remembering the moment when he'd seen it - his favorite kind - sitting on the countertop. "That was you?"

Spike looked down and smiled the bashful smile that made Xander want. The expression was so innocent and sweet, and the juxtaposition of those two ideas and, well, Spike could always give Xander a secret charge.

He closed the distance between them and cupped Spike's cheek, tilting his face upward. "Thank you, Spike," he said. "Seeing that there, it made me feel a little more at home."

"At home in California?" Spike asked.

"That's not home," Xander said. "Home's pretty much with you, which explains a lot about my non-decorated apartment in California and its complete absence of a welcome mat."

"Stupid things," Spike said. "Open invitation to vampires."

"You're focusing on the wrong part," Xander said, grinning. "Welcome mat: unimportant; you being my idea of home: important. Also very romantic and likely kiss-worthy."

Spike looked pleased. "That an invitation?" he asked.

"More like a statement of intention," Xander told him, moving in closer and kissing Spike softly, one hand sliding around to the back of Spike's neck.

Spike's hands were on Xander's waist, barely touching, and that reminded Xander that he wasn't all that far away from naked and that the room was really cold.

"Come back to bed," he murmured, backing up and drawing Spike along with him.

Spike followed along, smiling. "That an invitation to bed to bed?" Spike asked, then rolled his eyes. "I sound like Dawn. Wait, strike that, I sound like you."

Xander aimed a quick kiss at the end of Spike's nose, then tumbled them onto the bed, manhandling Spike to get him under the covers and settling them on their sides, facing each other.

"I won't pretend that I don't want you," Xander whispered. "But can we just...sleep? Together?"

"Yeah, love," Spike whispered back, pressing deeper into Xander's arms. "Yeah."

They stayed that way for a long time, neither of them sleeping. Spike's hand rubbed Xander's back in slow, gentle strokes, tracing over his spine so carefully that Xander wondered if he was counting his vertebrae. His own hand had relaxed on Spike's hip, just resting there.

"You smell nice," Xander said drowsily.

Spike chuckled. "So do you." He leaned forward and licked the side of Xander's throat. "Taste nice, too."

Xander shivered, and Spike responded by pulling the blankets up higher.

"Shhh. Go to sleep," Spike murmured.

Xander rubbed his hand lightly against Spike's hip, relishing the feel of sharp bone beneath denim.

"I missed this," he said.

"Me, too," Spike said. "We were always good at this."

"Lazing around in bed?" Xander asked. "Yeah, we were."

"Some weekends we never did make it out, remember?" Spike's voice was still soft, and his hand was still gently stroking Xander's back.

"Yeah." Xander remembered all kinds of things about those weekends, things that made him feel warm and fuzzy and..."Don't wanna go to sleep," he muttered, leaning forward and burying his face in Spike's neck.

"S'okay, love," Spike said reassuringly, running his hand through Xander's hair, and oh, that felt good. "I'll be right here when you wake up."

"Promise?" Xander asked.

"Promise."

So Xander breathed, and sighed, and drifted off, safe in Spike's arms.


"Awwww." The quiet voice woke Xander, but he kept his eye closed for a moment. He was on his side, and Spike was in his arms, his back pressed tightly to Xander's front, Xander's nose buried in that silky, wanton fall of waves that smelled like juniper and sandalwood and home.

"Hey, Dawnie," Xander said, lifting his head. He felt Spike waking up, instinctively pushing back against him.

"I thought I should wake you guys up so you could eat," Dawn said, still just peeking in through the small wedge of opened door.

Xander's stomach growled, right on cue. "Yeah, I could go for breakfast."

"Ha!" Dawn said. "More like dinner." She grinned at him and closed the door quietly.

Xander put his face back into Spike's hair and breathed in deeply. "Wake up, gorgeous - time for food," he whispered.

Spike made a muffled sound of protest. His hand shot out and grabbed his unused pillow, then pulled it over his face.

Smiling, Xander nuzzled Spike's hair. "I know you're awake," he said, keeping his voice low.

"Let me be," Spike muttered.

"Okay, fine," Xander said, slowly and exaggeratedly pulling back the covers and starting to sit up. "I'll just get up without yooo - "

He'd almost forgotten how fast Spike could move when he wanted to. In a flash, Xander was flat on his back with Spike above him, hands on his shoulders pinning him to the mattress. "No, you don't."

Xander smiled up at Spike. For once in a very long time, he was happy; glad to be exactly where he was, and, truth be told, he wanted to bask some more.

Spike leaned in close and brushed his lips over Xander's forehead, nose, cheeks and chin. "What're you grinning about?"

Xander wrapped his arms tightly around Spike's back and rolled them so that he was on top. "You," he answered.

"What about me?" Spike asked, wiggling in a very distracting fashion.

"Love you," Xander said.

Spike's expression melted into one of what Xander would not have dared out loud to call sappiness, his body relaxing underneath Xander's. "Love you, too, pet. Have for a very long time."

With Spike's eyes all soft and warm, there was no way Xander could resist kissing him, so he didn't try. Just leaned down and did it, teasing Spike's lips with his own until he felt Spike take a shaky breath.

"Love that I can make you breathe," Xander said, his lips still moving against Spike's. "But right now, I seriously have to pee."

Spike rolled his eyes and loosened his arms. "You really are the last of the great romantics, aren't you, pet?"

"Oh, yeah," Xander said, getting up and heading toward the bathroom. "I'm practically 'Romance R Us,' baby."

When he came back, Spike was lying with his hands propped under his head, looking at the ceiling and radiating uncertainty. It was enough to slow Xander down, but not enough to stop him from returning to the bed. He reached out and rested a hand on Spike's chest. "What's with the serious face?"

Spike turned and looked at him. "Something we didn't talk about last night."

Xander's stomach clenched tight. "What?" Had Spike been seeing someone while he was gone, someone Dawn and the other didn't know about?

"Don't look like that, love," Spike said, reaching out and pulling him down into a comforting embrace. "Just need to make sure you realize what'll happen if this spell doesn't do the trick."

Xander relaxed a little bit. Freaky apocalypse stuff he could handle. "Well, we all die, right? Maybe not instantly, but..."

"Maybe instantly," Spike said. "I get bound to this warlock, I could turn on you. I need you to be ready for that."

"So, you're asking me if I love you enough to kill you?" Xander couldn't help the shrill quality of his voice, and he pulled back enough to see Spike's face.

"Killing might be extreme," Spike said, smiling a little. "But you might need to subdue me, or help Red and the Watcher do it."

Xander smiled back. "Yes, Spike," he said. "I love you enough to chain you up...and that so didn't come out right."

"Sounds pretty good to me," Spike said, smirking. "Maybe after the apocalypse." His face took on a more serious look. "If it happens, Xan, if he gets control of me...I'm afraid."

Xander ran his hand over Spike's hair and down to his back. He wanted to say something like, "But, you're never afraid," but last night he had seen Spike afraid - afraid of losing him or hurting him.

"Promise me that the second you know it didn't work - or even if you just suspect something's off - you'll knock me out. I'll have Giles bring something; a tazer, maybe. Don't hesitate. I'd rather have a headache for nothing than chance hurting you." Spike's voice had that tone that told Xander this wasn't the time to joke around.

"I promise," he said.

Spike's smile wasn't a real one. "Hurt you enough for one lifetime, I think."

Xander nodded. "Me, too. I don't want to screw this up."

"You won't," Spike said. "I have faith in you."

Xander was shocked speechless. He didn't think anyone had ever used that precise turn of phrase to describe their feelings about him. Love, yes; trust, yes. But having faith in someone, in him. That was...wow.

"It's all or nothing with you," Spike said, shaking his head and looking at Xander fondly. "You either don't talk, or you talk too much."

"I think I'm kind of out of things to say," Xander said. He pulled Spike closer, like if he held him tight enough they could become one person, or something. Spike didn't protest, just went along with it. "I don't want to lose you."

"Good," Spike said. "'Cause I don't have any intention of getting lost."

"That's settled, then," Xander said into the top of Spike's head. "Can we go eat now?"

Spike laughed and untangled them and shooed Xander toward the dresser to get some clothes. He pulled out jeans and a t-shirt and looked over to see Spike plucking at his own shirt, which looked, appropriately enough, like it had been slept in. He sighed and reached into the drawer and tossed Spike a black tee. It was one of his own - Xander had taken it when he left as some sort of souvenir or totem or woobie.

"Not a word," he warned Spike, who was grinning like an absolute loon.

"I've got plenty of words, but I'll keep them all locked up tight like a good boy," Spike said, miming 'throwing away the key.' He looked at Xander thoughtfully. "You get enough sleep, then? Not that there's much we could do about it at this point, anyway, but wouldn't want you going into this all addle-brained."

"I'm always addle-brained," Xander said, getting dressed quickly and pulling on some socks. It took him a minute to find his shoes, half under the bed where Spike left them the night before.

Bent over, feeling around on the carpet, something finally registered for Xander and he froze. He slowly unbent and sat heavily down on the bed.

"Oh, God - it's tonight," he said.

Spike just looked at him and cocked his head.

"I thought today was Monday, but it's not - it's Tuesday. Tonight. Tonight is Christmas Eve. We're doing it tonight."

Spike sat down next to him, putting an arm around Xander's slumped shoulders. "What difference does it make?" he asked.

"Duh!" Xander said. "I thought we had more time. I turned down sex with you because I thought we had another night and now we have to go down there and eat dinner and prepare for the spell and then do the spell and the world could end and I will have not had sex for nearly a year when I die! That sucks!"

Spike struggled valiantly to control his laughter. "Well," he choked out, patting Xander's back. "It'll give you something to look forward to, and also incentive."

"We could skip the food in favor of having sex now," Xander suggested, but his stomach complained loudly at the idea, making Spike smile.

"C'mon," Spike said, getting up. "Put on your shoes and let's go to dinner. If we're lucky, we'll find time for a quickie in a closet somewhere." His eyebrow lifted expressively.

Xander laughed and put on his shoes, lacing them up. "No quickies," he said. "I don't care if it makes me sound like a romantic - I want the next time to have sex again to be, you know...special."

"It doesn't make you sound like a romantic, love," Spike said. "Makes you sound like a big girl's blouse." Spike was already moving away as he spoke, and Xander chased him a few steps before trapping him against the bathroom door.

"At some point in the future," Xander said, leaning down to playfully bite at Spike's neck. "I'm going to make you very sorry you said that."

Spike groaned softly and tilted his head to the side a little bit more. "Like the sound of that."

"Me making you sorry?" Xander asked, tracing a vein in Spike's neck with his tongue.

"No, the part about the future." Spike's body was responding to the position Xander had him in.

Xander pulled back. "Now who's a big girl?"

Spike opened his eyes slowly, blinking at Xander. "Oh, I've never denied it."

Xander lowered his head to Spike's neck once more, nipping and kissing at the silky skin. "You can be my girl," he muttered, knowing that Spike was hanging on every word. "Have you like that, on your back, feet in the air."

Spike moaned and clutched his fingers hard against Xander's hips. Xander kissed Spike's neck a final time and pulled himself away.

"Okay," he said brightly. "Let's go eat."

Spike stared at him, then swallowed hard. "Wha - what was that, pet?" he asked, looking equal parts dazed and annoyed.

"Oh, that?" Xander said. "That was your incentive."

Spike blinked and frowned, reaching down to adjust himself. "Bloody good incentive," he muttered, still looking kind of irritated. But that was okay with Xander. An irritated Spike would throw himself into the spell with everything he had, would let his mood take over and not worry about what might happen. It was better that way.

They went down to eat. Buffy had made some kind of lasagna type thing, but as always, when she was distracted her ability to cook melted away to nothing. Not that it mattered, because none of them were really hungry anyway. Even Dawn wasn't doing anything but moving her food around on her plate.

"Ought to eat some of that," Spike told her.

"I know," Dawn said. She pushed the food around some more with her knife.

Xander sat down next to Willow, who was totally ignoring her food in favor of a text decorated with yellow sticky notes. Her hands were moving as she mouthed the words to the spell.

"Hey," Xander said, tapping the table next to the book. "Stop that. You'll do great."

Willow looked up and gave him an uncertain smile. "Just a little case of nerves; this is really important," she said, her voice wavering a little.

Xander gently closed the book and pushed it away, then took her hands in his. "I know you can do it. You know you can do it. It'll be fine."

"You sound so sure," she said, looking up at him beseechingly.

"I am," Xander told her.

"Of course he is," Buffy broke in, reaching over to put her hand on top of one of Xander's, making a hand sandwich with Xander's in the middle. Xander didn't fail to note, in his own head, at least, that there would have been a time when the thought of a Buffy-Xander-Willow sandwich of any kind would have made him hard in about two seconds. Now, though, he didn't feel anything but affection. "C'mon, Will," Buffy was saying. "Good thoughts, right?"

Willow nodded, her chin stuck forward determinedly. "Good thoughts," she repeated. "Good thoughts. I can do this."

"Maybe when this is over we can have a party," Dawn suggested, hopeful.

"Sure we can," Spike said. He'd just been saying something serious to Giles, but he added his two cents to the positive-fest.

"Yes, well," Giles said, putting himself into the conversation. "We're all agreed - everything will be fine. Perhaps now we should all eat our...dinner." He looked down at his plate uncertainly, then at Buffy, then back down at his plate again.

"I'm aware that dinner sucks, you guys," Buffy said, picking up her plate and standing. "I say we make pb&js."

The others agreed very quickly, even Spike.

With all of them in the kitchen, in each other's ways even though the kitchen was actually plenty big for more people, it felt like old times. There was a sense of family about it that made Xander relax, and breathe deeply, and believe that they really could do this.

"In half? Or across?" Dawn asked him. She'd somehow managed to end up wielding the knife.

"Across," Xander said, scraping peanut butter back into the jar as Spike moved to put the jelly in the fridge. He knew that Spike didn't really like pb&j, but that wasn't the point. They were a team, they were eating together. No one had had to say it out loud.

Giles slipped back into the kitchen, and Xander watched as Spike's head came up and their eyes met. Spike turned as Giles walked over to them, and there was a subtle brush of Giles' arm against Spike's as Giles handed him something.

Xander didn't think anyone else had seen it.

"What's with the tazer?" Dawn said, licking the last traces of peanut butter off her knife.

Spike opened his mouth and then shut it again without speaking and looked from Giles to Xander.

"Well, er..." Giles began, but Xander raised a hand to stop him.

"It's for me," he said, holding his hand out to Spike, who handed him the tazer. "If the spell doesn't work and Spike gets bound to the bad guy, I'm supposed to zap him."

Dawn took a bite of her sandwich and a sip of milk from her glass. "Not bad," she said, once her mouth was empty. "We should probably have a couple more of those, in case you get the drop on Xander," she said, giving Xander an apologetic look.

"Like you did in the car that time?" Xander asked her, making a mock-angry face. She giggled, and Xander realized that that was the best part of being in London - being surrounded by the people who knew him best and loved him anyway.

"No, she's right," Buffy said, stopping their playfulness dead in its tracks. "We need to be prepared."

There was a momentary silence, then Dawn said, "Buffy, we've already talked about this. We know."

The two sisters' eyes met for a long moment before Buffy looked down and away. "I know. I just want to make sure you're safe. We're all safe." She turned and looked at Spike, who'd gone very still again.

"Like Bit said, we've been all through this," Spike told her. "Can't do the spell with me chained up."

"I know." Buffy picked up her sandwich and walked over to the doorway. "I need a few minutes. I'll be right back."

Xander turned from Dawn to face Spike, and the frozen look on Spike's face made him hurry to stand in front of him. He cupped Spike's face in his hands and leaned in to give him a light kiss on the lips.

"Don't look like that," Xander said, not caring who heard him. "I have faith in you."

Spike gave him a small, tight smile and nodded. He brought his own hands up to touch Xander's wrists.

"Thank you, love," he said. "Now, go talk to Buffy; I know you want to."

"If you're okay," Xander said.

"Go on," Spike said. "I'm fine."

Xander went. It didn't take long to find Buffy - she hadn't gone far, just into the nearest unused room. It was supposed to be a sitting room or something, Xander thought. There were padded chairs that gave you really good posture, some tables, and a couple of small bookcases.

Buffy was standing near the window, looking outside. She turned her head and smiled at him as he came into the room. "Sorry," she said. "Sometimes it just gets a little too intense, you know?"

Xander nodded. "I know. You want to talk? Or are we doing the avoidy thing?"

Buffy seemed to consider the question. "Avoidy," she said. "Definitely avoidy." She hadn't moved from where she was standing. "I didn't want you to come back like this."

"Define 'this,'" Xander said. "You mean 'this' as in 'looming apocalypse' or 'this' as in the reconciliation with Spike?"

"A lot of apocalypse and a little Spike," she admitted, frowning. "Is that what it is? Reconciliation?"

Xander stepped closer and put his hand on her shoulder, hoping she would drop the hugging-herself posture that meant 'Buffy upset.' He rubbed his thumb against her shoulder, glad that he couldn't feel the bone, for once.

"I want it to be," he said truthfully. "I know it's weird for you, but I was miserable without him."

"You were miserable with him for a long time before you left," she said, hugging herself tighter, but leaning into his touch slightly. "Don't forget, I know how intense he can be."

"That's not why I was miserable," Xander explained. "I was miserable because he wasn't intense enough, and I didn't know how to tell him I needed it."

For the first time he realized that some of Spike's holding back with him may have had something to do with his extreme openness with Buffy in the past, and her reaction to it. The little voice inside said, "Duh."

"Really?" Buffy asked, raising one eyebrow. "I would have thought that...oh. Well, yeah. I guess I can see that."

Xander was grateful that he didn't have to explain. "Yeah."

"I just want you to be happy," Buffy said, smiling a little bit. "I didn't want to drag you back here, knowing that there'd be all that post-breaky stuff. But this was the only way."

"I know," Xander reassured her. "I know. And it's okay."

"Are you guys really going to get back together?" Buffy asked.

"For both their sakes, I hope so," Giles said from the doorway. "I don't know about you, but I'd just about reached the end of my rope watching Spike mope about all the time."

Buffy's smile slid into something more genuine. "There is that," she agreed. "Okay. moment of freakage over. I'm gonna go get a tazer for Dawn." She slipped past Giles and into the hallway.

"And when did that sort of segue become normal?" Xander said, watching Buffy walk away.

"Sometime around your freshman year in high school, I believe," Giles said, coming to stand next to Xander. "You know, 'have a nice day at school, and don't forget your axe.'"

Xander laughed, then replied in a high-pitched 'mom' voice. "You know the rules, no demon hunting until you've taken the trash out."

They stood quietly for a moment, looking out the window. Xander debated with himself. There were several things he wanted to say to Giles, but he didn't want to make it seem as though he expected them all to die before morning. Finally, he touched Giles lightly on the arm and said, "Thank you."

Giles sighed, still looking out the window like he might see something helpful out there. "For what? Bringing you right back into the line of fire?"

"What?" Xander frowned. "No. This isn't your fault any more than it is Buffy's. She might have been chosen, but I chose. This. All of you."

"I suppose I should apologize for being maudlin," Giles said, turning to look at him. He had that quarter smile on that he wore sometimes when he was probably laughing at himself.

"Is that something you can help?" Xander asked. "I always thought it was just a British thing. Inbred."

"I hope you mean 'ingrained,'" Giles said. "What did you mean, then?"

"Huh? Oh, you mean when I said...right. I guess I meant a lot of things." Xander tried to remember what they all were. "Thanks for taking care of Spike, for one."

Giles took off his glasses, but didn't take out his handkerchief. Xander thought that he was showing incredible restraint.

"He's...much more than I gave him credit for," Giles said, tapping the folded spectacles against his palm. "His devotion to you was quite..."

"You can say 'unexpected,' Giles. I get that," Xander said, smiling to show that he wouldn't take it the wrong way.

"He was very upset when you left," Giles said. "Even I was worried about him, and, as you know, that's saying a lot."

Xander nodded. "It made it easier to go - knowing that you guys would make sure he was okay."

"We all missed you, as well." Giles frowned and put his glasses back on. "Was it the right thing to do?"

Trust Giles to ask the hard questions. "I don't know," Xander said finally. ""It was easier than staying. But I don't know if we would have got even as far as we have now without some time."

"I'm," Giles began, and then he stopped, blinking rapidly. "I can't quite believe that I'm saying this, but I'm glad the two of you worked things out. You're...good together."

Xander grinned. "Better than we are apart," he said, realizing as he said it that it was true. Knowing that Spike was his again, knowing that Spike loved him, that Spike had said it - repeatedly - made him feel quietly calm and grounded, ready for the upcoming fight.

"Then we'll have to be sure to keep you here," Giles said, patting his shoulder.

Spike appeared in the doorway, clearing his throat. "Red says she's ready whenever we are."

Back in the library, all the furniture had been pushed to the sides of the room, and the rug sat rolled against the wall. Dawn and Willow were fussing with herbs and books at a corner table, and Spike and Buffy stood in the center of the room, both with arms crossed over their chests, not talking.

Xander went over to Spike, while Giles joined Willow and Dawn.

"You okay?" he asked Spike quietly.

Spike nodded. Then, like he'd realized that Xander would need more than that, he turned his head and offered him a tight smile. "Yeah. Just want to get this over with. You have everything?"

'Everything' meant the tazer. "Yup." Xander patted his pocket.

The little knot that consisted of Giles, Willow and Dawn broke up, with Dawn crossing the room to join Buffy, Spike and Xander.

"Makeup!" she chirped brightly, brandishing what looked to Xander like a stick of dirt at him. "Take off your shirt."

"Magic," Xander grumbled. "It's always shirtless or dying of syphilis or being mute, never hot tubs and supermodels."

"Whatever," Dawn said, drawing a few lines on his face. She turned to Spike and looked at Xander over her shoulder. "See Willow for candles and Giles for cards."

"You remember how this goes, right?" Willow asked, handing him a white pillar candle. "I mean, considering how you weren't paying attention last night during the briefing?" Her lips turned up at the corners, and she looked so much like she had all those years ago that Xander had to pull her forward and kiss her forehead.

"I remember," he said.

"Good." Willow tilted her head in Giles' direction.

Xander took a step sideways so that he was standing in front of Giles. "Hit me."

Giles grinned and gave him the Animus card. It wasn't from the same deck - either that, or Xander's memory was really crappy - but it still looked familiar.

He stepped aside and watched as Spike, who had two stripes of paint across one cheekbone, accepted a red candle and his card.

"Lemme see," Xander said, holding out his hand. Spike stepped close enough that their bare shoulders touched and proffered his card.

"Nice," Xander said, tracing the stylized sword graphic with a finger. "Very manly; goes with your makeup."

Spike snorted. "Interesting choice of words, pet." When Xander raised his eyebrow, Spike clarified, "Manly and makeup."

"Yeah, well, what can I say? I have many talents." Xander wanted to stay like this, bantering, for as long as possible, even though he was cold without his shirt and the tazer was an uncomfortable reminder in his pocket.

"You ready, pet?" Spike asked, looking at Xander.

"I guess," Xander replied. "Hey, wait - last time we did this, Buffy was in a totally different place from us. I guess I'm asking this a little late but where's the Big Bad? I mean, the current Big Bad," he said, grinning at Spike.

"We'll call him to us within the spell," Giles said, joining them.

"Here?" Xander said, shooting an alarmed look at Dawn.

"Not physically," Giles said. "We'll summon his spirit; the fight will be carried out on another plane of existence."

"So, you're going to kick his astral projection?" Xander asked, smirking.

"Something like that," Buffy said, bouncing a little bit on the balls of her feet. She looked up at Spike and they nodded at each other, two creatures built for the hunt and radiating tension.

Dawn giggled. "Kick his astral projection." Giles gave her a look and she reined in her grin, trying to seem serious. It made Xander feel better knowing that he wasn't the only one who still had a sense of humor even at times like this.

Willow joined them then, carrying several more candles, a bundle of dried herbs and the spell book. The others fanned out, instinctively forming a circle with Buffy and Spike on either side of Willow, with Xander next to Spike and Giles filling in the empty spot. Dawn stayed on the outside, taking up a pitcher of salt, ready to pour a circle around them.

"Ready?" Willow said, looking at each of them for a moment. They all nodded solemnly and settled themselves on the floor. Spike pulled his lighter out of his pocket and handed it to Willow.

"I'm sure I don't have to remind any of you that this spell is extremely volatile," Giles said. "Once we begin, we mustn't be interrupted."

"Right," Spike said shortly. "Got it."

Dawn finished pouring the salt, and Willow lit her candle. "The power of the Slayer and all who wield it. Last to ancient first, we invoke thee," she said. "Grant us thy domain and primal strength. Accept us in the power we possess. Make us mind and heart and sword and spirit joy. Let the hand encompass us. Do thy will." She handed the lighter to Xander and flipped her card onto the floor in front of her. "Spiritus...Spirit."

Xander lit his candle and lay his card down, too. "Animus...Heart."

Giles. "Sophus...Mind."

Spike, looking pale as marble in the flickering candlelight. "Gladius...Sword."

"And Manos," Willow said, not turning her head to look at Buffy, who was standing perfectly still. "The hand. We enjoin that we may inhabit the vessel - the hand...daughter of Sineya...first of the ones..." She took a breath, and there was the faintest hint of air crackling around them. "We implore thee, admit us, bring us to the vessel. Take us now."

The air crackled again, and then suddenly there was something swirling up from the floor, like a tiny vortex of mist. Xander watched it as it grew, widening out to fill the space inside the ring of salt. It stopped at the edge like there was an invisible wall, and through it, Xander could see Dawn, slowly walking around the outside of the circle, holding a smoking bundle of herbs and chanting a spell of protection.

Xander closed his eye and took a deep breath, and opened it again. He looked at Willow, and her eyes snapped open to meet his. Her eyes were dark and flashing, and he felt disoriented, like he was falling, for a second. Suddenly, he felt a shiver, a slithery feeling that raced through his body, and then he was there. With Willow. Inside her mind.

The first thing he felt was power. It thrummed through him like the pulse of a live wire. He felt strong, felt brave. There was something on the edge of his consciousness, something that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. It was like a voice, whispering just a tiny bit too low to be heard. The voice was indistinct, but Xander could feel that it was offering power, more power, dark power. Was this what Willow had to live with? The price for her descent into darkness? The voice was...seductive. It made him want.

"No." Xander heard the word clearly, felt it echo in his head, and he knew the voice. It was Tara's voice - strong and sure and gentle and loving. He concentrated on Tara and felt something of her - clean and white and pure and good - touch him. He felt the tears in his eye, welling up and falling to streak his face. His heart felt too big for his chest, like it would burst with sadness and love and the stunning realization that some little bit of Tara survived, inside Willow. Some residue of the magic the two girls had shared, some echo of love.

He wondered if this was a fight that went on all the time, or if it only happened when Willow used magic. If it only happened when she practiced, it made Xander suddenly understand why Willow had become so much quieter, so much more mature - to access the last vestiges of her lost love, she had to face her biggest fear. His mind reeled at the thought.

He was spinning, the world tilting with the magnitude of it all, and then Spike and Giles were there in his head, too, reassuring. There weren't any words; it was like being bookended, all of them pressed together in one space that wasn't big enough for any of them, really.

Xander blinked and looked at Buffy, then saw all of them sitting there through Buffy's eyes - and if seeing with depth perception again after all this time wasn't dizzying, he didn't know what was. The wall of the spell was around them like a force field, binding them together. He wanted to reach for Spike's hand, but he couldn't. He felt Spike reassure him, felt love, it's all right but without the words, just a soothing presence.

He felt it when Buffy told Willow now - it was like a spark in the air, sharp and demanding. Words he didn't understand from Willow, another language, crisp and fine like the blade of a knife cutting through something unwilling to be cut, and the world parted and opened up, flipped, the air inside their pocket swirling and resettling with someone Xander knew was the mage.

Calm drifted over him.

They'd beat Adam, and they could beat this guy, too.

The mage was standing in the center of their circle. He was tall and thin, with dark hair swept back from a high forehead. His eyes were small and mean, and he looked pissed. Xander looked at him and felt something like a cold breeze flow over him. He looked away quickly, instinctively seeking out Spike's eyes.

But Spike was staring at the enemy, and Xander let his gaze track to Buffy. She cut her eyes toward him momentarily, and Xander felt the falling sensation again for a moment before he was jerked upright by a feeling that was like electricity through his bones. It was Buffy.

The first time around, he remembered how Buffy had felt - strong, fierce, angry, scared. But this time, she felt invincible. The strength was like a tongue of fire, running through her and then down, into the Earth, where Xander could feel connections. He could feel each line radiating out from his body to encompass all of the other Slayers, and he was suddenly overcome with affection for Buffy. He was also a little bit envious of the feeling of belonging that came from that thrumming wire of power. Buffy, who had always been so quick to cut herself off from others was tied in, was networked to her ancient power and its influence in the world.

Xander stared into Buffy's eyes and thought at her. She smiled broadly and nodded at him before she broke the eye contact. Message received: kick his ass.

There was no hesitation - Buffy went for the mage fluidly, starting with a kick to the chest that knocked him back into the invisible wall behind him. For one glorious second, satisfaction swept through all of them.

And then the mage straightened up and held out a hand that sparkled with green and blue lightning, and that lightning shot from his fingers and flung Buffy head over heels to the other side of the circle.

Xander could feel Giles' concern, could feel him reminding them all to stay calm, to focus, that it would be okay. There was something about Giles telling you that everything would be okay that made you believe it, and Buffy must have felt it, too, because she got to her feet, pulling her shirt down to her waist and tossing back her hair before engaging again.

Xander watched Buffy as she moved forward, snapping a rapid series of punches into the mage's face. He retreated a step, moving back slightly, and made the tactical error of ignoring Spike, who took the opportunity to kick him in the head. The mage flew forward, bounced neatly off of Buffy's fist, and sprawled backward.

Xander felt a stab of unholy glee spread through the group, rushing around the circle like a freight train. A freight train that screeched to a halt when the mage moved like a blur, coming to his feet, shouting words in a language that the Giles in Xander's head immediately identified as Sumerian. The Giles in Xander's head was quickly overwhelmed by a sudden blast of deep, bone-shaking fear. From Spike.

That was not okay, not at all. Xander knew that this was it, the defining moment that would either make or break them, and he couldn't, wouldn't, just sit there through it.

He scrambled to his feet, and everything after that happened really fast. Spike was frozen, unmoving, and Xander could tell that it was because he was too scared to do anything. Willow's voice in his head was whispering something, words and sounds like the hiss of a snake, and Buffy was fighting the mage, but this was going bad. The mage knocked Buffy down again and turned to Willow, chanting something in what sounded like a thousand voices all together, and Willow...faltered.

In that instant, Xander darted forward, tazer suddenly in his hand as if from nowhere, and pressed it to the mage's side.

There was a scream - Xander never knew if it was real or just in his head - and something like an explosion, and Willow was there again, and then Xander felt pain surge through him.

He never felt himself hit the floor.


It was quiet, and dark, and Xander hurt.

"Don't move him," he heard Giles' voice say. "Spike, don't. Just..."

There was a sniffle that sounded suspiciously like Dawn.

The pain was like electricity, sparking down the long bones in his legs, rattling the small bones of his hands. Sound was blunted, like there was cotton in his ears. But there was a cool hand brushing his forehead.

"Xan? Love?" Spike's voice was tight, like a twisted thread stretched between two points, seconds from breaking.

Xander wanted to move, wanted to put his hand over Spike's and reassure him that he was fine, but his hand wouldn't lift and the words wouldn't come.

Xander took a deep, aching breath and concentrated on opening his eye. His vision was blurry, all the colors seeping into one another until they solidified as blazing blue. Xander looked into Spike's eyes and gasped as the world shifted.

The pain in his body receded, only to be overtaken by stark terror - Spike's terror. Spike's mind was a maelstrom of fear and anger, but underneath was a current of something rich and pure and warm - love. Xander let it flow over him, pushing all of the other emotions aside. He had always believed that Spike loved him, but this - this was unlike anything he'd ever experienced.

Around him, he could feel the fear and anguish, hear the low, angry tones of what must be the demon, radiating hatred and vengeance, but those things paled in comparison.

*Spike?*

*Yes.* And then Spike was there, with him.

*It's all right, love,* Spike thought to him, which was actually kind of like Xander thinking, since they both seemed to be inside him. 'Red's got the mage trapped.'

A taut, elastic message came from Willow, indicating strongly that the mage was immobilized for now, but that if Xander was okay, it'd be a good idea to take care of him once and for all.

Xander sent back that he was fine, that Buffy should administer the ass kicking now, even though he really wasn't fine and he knew that the rest of them knew it.

Spike's hand folded over Xander's, and when Xander opened his eye again, he was seeing through Buffy, seeing what she saw as she moved over to stand in front of the mage. He was furious, looking ready to pop a vein any second, shaking with anger - unless that was part of the immobilization spell.

They watched as Buffy's eyes glowed orange and she rose up, her feet hovering six inches above the floor. Xander felt Giles' hand close over his shoulder, felt Willow, straining with the effort of holding the mage, inching toward them. Buffy's head snapped up and the word *NOW* swept through their linked minds.

There was an easing of tension, like all the air had been sucked out of the room as Willow released her spell and sagged against Giles. Xander felt her mind join theirs more fully - tired, but still frighteningly strong.

Xander closed his eye and reached out, feeling power and magic from Willow, laced with the pure, gentle light of Tara's shadow. From Giles he felt pride and righteous anger, mixed with a deep sadness, a longing for things lost. Ripper was in there, and so was the side of Giles that had loved Jenny, that had admired Joyce, and also the part that had broken under Angelus, and the part that missed...Ethan?

Buffy was there, searching - picking through their minds, finding the weapons she needed and taking them carefully, gratefully; giving back joy and exultant power and love.

But the biggest and best part was Spike. The fear was still there, but it was pushed down, away - in its place was fierce determination, a cold possessiveness that encompassed them all, lightened by love. The love of friendship for Buffy and Willow, each touched with a little sadness. Protective love for Dawn; the love of a big brother or a father, and for Giles, grudging respect and admiration.

But, for Xander - it was pure, clean, radiant. Xander basked in the feelings like he was baking in the sun. Every fear he'd had about his future with Spike evaporated, every insecurity fell away, because this was what forever felt like.

Xander felt Spike gathering them all together, felt him channeling their strengths and offering them to Buffy - the four of them combining to become the sword. Buffy accepted, took them and blended them into herself and looked at the Enemy with certainty shining from her eyes.

"This," Buffy said, staring the mage down, "ends."

The mage moved, conjuring a handful of flames and throwing them at Buffy, who just stared at him. The flames stopped a couple of inches from her chest, caught there, then they dissipated, like they'd been absorbed into her. "You can't touch us," she told the mage.

She held a hand up in front of herself, and in it materialized a glowing, silvery sword. It wasn't totally solid, but it looked - and felt - like the strongest weapon Xander had ever seen.

"You think you can beat me?" the mage scoffed, but Buffy never faltered.

"We already have," she said, and stepped forward, swinging the sword in a glistening arc down toward the mage's head. It sliced through him cleanly, his whole upper body separating into a series of chunks like she'd split open a watermelon with a meat cleaver, but the pieces evaporated before they could hit the floor.

Alarmed, Xander sat up, almost doubling over as all his nerves screamed. "Where'd he go?" he gasped.

Giles put a warm hand on his back, reassurance pouring through the link. "It's all right. When his spirit is destroyed here, his body dies wherever it was. It's over."

"Oh, good," Xander croaked, falling back, feeling himself caught against Spike's chest, arms like iron bands coming to wrap around him.

"Red," Spike said, voice taut. "Can you break the spell without hurting Xander?"

Willow sighed, and Xander could almost hear the resolve face snap into place. "Yeah, I think so."

"Good," Spike muttered. "I'd really like to have you tossers out of my head, if you don't mind."

"Aw, come on, Spike," Buffy said, slumping down onto the floor next to them. "I wanted to rummage around and see if I could find out what sort of things you've been teaching Dawn."

"Now's good, Willow," Spike said.

"Hang on," Willow said distractedly, and Xander could still hear her in his head, too, along with Spike and Buffy and Giles and it was too much.

He whimpered, thinking that this must have been what it was like for Buffy when she'd been able to read everyone's thoughts, only he didn't think she'd felt like she'd stuck her hand in a light socket. Spike tightened his grip, but that didn't help.

"Okay, I've got it," Willow said, and the walls in Xander's mind came down with a crash that made him twitch.

"It's all right, love," Spike murmured, soothing him with gentle hands as he twisted and turned into Spike's embrace. "I've got you."

Xander buried his face against Spike's chest and just breathed. He still felt shaky, his limbs felt as if they were vibrating, and his head ached, but the clean scent of Spike's skin centered him and he relaxed by degrees. He relaxed further when he felt Buffy and Dawn and Willow and Giles all move closer to each lay a hand on him, on shoulder or ankle or knee, drawing them all into a tight knot on the floor. They simply lay there, catching their breath, coming down from the magic, trying to gather their wits.

There was a quiet knock at the door.

"Yes?" Giles said, settling Buffy's head against his shoulder.

"Is it safe?" Andrew asked from behind the safety of the door. "Has Darth Maul been defeated?"

Xander laughed weakly, sure he was the only one who got the reference, and Spike cradled him closer.

"We're all right," Giles called. "We'll be out shortly."

"Ms Rosenberg's Wild Ride's over, right?" Xander asked.

"Yeah. We totally kicked his ass...tral projection," Buffy said, sitting back on her heels.

"That was so awesome how you tazered him," Dawn said, as Buffy reached out and smoothed her hair back.

"Yeah," Willow said. "I couldn't have done it without you, Xander. You were the perfect distraction."

"Is that what I was?" Xander asked, trying to sit up and wincing, because, whoa, with the hurting. "Hey, I walked away from it without losing an eye, so I consider it a success." He tried to sound like his usual self, but wasn't sure he was pulling it off.

Giles was the first to stand, pulling away with obvious reluctance. Buffy let Dawn pull her to her feet, and they both reached down for Willow. Spike kept his arms around Xander and stayed where he was. The others walked slowly to the door and slipped out, closing it against the babble of Andrew and the other slayers.

Xander braced his forehead against Spike's shoulder and groaned.

"Hurting, love?" Spike asked, petting his hair.

"Only a lot," Xander said.

"Never," Spike said, pulling back and forcing Xander to look at him, "do that, or anything like it, ever again. You hear me?"

"Willow said I helped," Xander said feebly.

"That's not the point," Spike told him. "Point is, you could have been killed. Never again. Right?"

Xander blinked and swallowed. He couldn't say that he'd never do anything dangerous again, because it wouldn't be true. "It's freezing in here," he said instead, hoping Spike would let him change the subject. "Do you see my shirt?"

Spike looked at him, then sighed. "Stay here. I'll get it."

He came back with both of their shirts, then crouched down and helped Xander into his before pulling his own on. He sat back on his heels and ran a hand through his hair.

Xander sat up straighter with a wince and laid his hand on Spike's knee. "Hey," he said, rubbing his hand lightly up Spike's thigh.

"Hey, yourself," Spike replied.

"You kicked ass," Xander said, looking up. "I mean, you always kick ass, but that thing with the channeling energy sword thing...pretty sweet."

"You weren't too bad, yourself," Spike said, a small smile breaking through his scowl. "I didn't even know you could tazer an astral projection."

"Me neither," Xander said. "It's got a bitch of a backlash, though."

"Yeah," Spike said. He looked at Xander, tilting his head to one side. "We need to get someone to check you out?"

"What?" Xander said. "Oh. No, I'm okay. Nothing a week and lots of sleep won't cure."

"Come on, then. Let's get you upstairs to bed." Spike stood up, putting a hand underneath Xander's arm to help him stand on shaky legs.

"No, wait." Xander told himself that he was only holding onto Spike to get him to stop, so they could talk, and not because otherwise he wasn't sure he could stand up, but it wasn't a very effective lie. "Can we...can I spend the night with you? At your place, I mean?"

"'Course you can, love," Spike said, easily propping him up. "You're the big damn hero; you can have whatever you want."

"I want to lie down," Xander said. He ached all over. His muscles, his bones, his skin, his teeth - everything hurt. "Also, I'm not the hero, I'm the diversion."

Spike leaned in close and whispered into Xander's ear, letting his lips ghost over the sensitive skin. "Don't you want to be my hero, Xan?"

Huh. And Xander had been sure he couldn't get any shakier. Wrong.

"If you say stuff like that, I'm not going to be able to walk as far as the front door," Xander told him, trying to keep his voice light. "And there's no way you're carrying me unless I'm unconscious or dead, so be nice."

"I am being nice," Spike said mildly. "Come on, pet. Let's get you somewhere warm and cozy where you can put your feet up."

Xander groaned quietly as they started down the hallway toward the front of the house. Times like this, with his arm around Spike's shoulders, he was reminded of how small Spike was. Small, and strong.

They stopped in the foyer, and one of the slayers rushed to get their coats. Xander slumped back against the wall and tugged Spike to stand more fully in front of him, hanging his arms over his shoulders and letting his forehead roll across one collarbone. Back and forth, back and forth.

"Whatcha doing, Xan?" Spike asked, laughter in his voice.

Xander tipped his head up enough to get his lips onto Spike's neck, mouthing his way up from collar to earlobe.

"Nothing bad," Xander said, his words muffled by a mouthful of earlobe.

"Giles, can you drive us to the carriage house? Electro-boy's lost the plot." Spike leaned into Xander, tilting his head and shivering lightly.

Xander couldn't see Giles, but he could hear him answer, "Yes, of course. Are you sure he's all right?"

"Yeah," Spike said. "He just needs a good night's sleep."

Getting to the car was kind of a blur - Xander was too caught up in Spike, and the fact that Spike was touching him, holding him up, taking care of him. When the car stopped and Spike opened the door, letting the cold night air in, Xander made a small sound of protest and tried to burrow deeper into Spike's embrace.

"Come on, pet," Spike said gently. "Not far now."

"I don't want to," Xander said, even as Spike pulled him out into the cold.

"I know." Spike said something to Giles, and then Xander was being guided into the house, where it was warm, at least. "Sit," Spike said, pushing him down into a chair. "Stay."

"I'm not a dog," Xander muttered as Spike disappeared into another room.

"No, but I figure you're about five minutes from falling over, and I don't want you trying to walk anywhere." Spike came back and knelt down at Xander's feet, untying his shoes and glancing up at him.

"Walking is pretty much the last thing on my mind," Xander said tiredly.

"Just once more," Spike said, taking off his shoes and getting up, pulling Xander to his feet and leading him back into the bedroom. There, Xander managed to balance on his feet long enough for Spike to strip him down to his boxers. Then Spike pulled down the covers and urged him down.

"Warm," Xander said, sighing in relief.

Spike smiled and started to take off his own clothes. "Electric blanket."

Xander lifted the corner of the blankets and welcomed Spike to his side, wrapping arms and legs around him. He yawned hugely, getting a mouthful of Spike's hair in the process.

"Go to sleep, pet," Spike said, pressing his face against Xander's neck. "You'll be good as new in the morning."

Xander tried to keep his eye open, tried to stay awake. He really wanted to talk to Spike, to tell him what he had felt when they were linked in the spell, but thy covers were toasty warm and Spike's hand was lightly tracing his bicep, and it felt so good to simply...rest.

Xander's brain churned up one last thought, and he whispered it, his lips lightly brushing Spike's temple. "Merry Christmas, Spike."

"Merry Christmas, love," Spike whispered back, and then sleep swallowed Xander.


Xander woke up several times during the night, but only long enough to remember where he was and to feel the ache deep in his bones before he slipped away again. Spike was always there, warm and pressed against him, and that was all the reassurance he needed.

When he woke up for real, still sore, he was alone in the bed. The room was dark, the thick curtains covering the two small windows keeping out the sunlight, but the clock said ten.

"Spike?" Xander called. His throat was so dry that he winced.

Within seconds, Spike appeared in the doorway. He was wearing a pair of flannel pants and a long sleeved t-shirt. "Right here, pet. Red just came by. Brought some breakfast down for you."

Pushing himself up onto his elbows, Xander said stupidly, "I didn't even hear her."

"You were dead to the world," Spike said, smiling gently. "I told her we'd come to the house tonight for Christmas dinner."

Xander's stomach growled loudly at the thought, and Spike headed back to the kitchen. Xander stumbled into the bathroom, took care of his pressing need to pee, and then looked at himself in the mirror over the sink. He was sleepy-eyed, wild-haired, stubbled, and still had streaks of Dawn's ritual drawing left on his cheek. He washed his face and hands, rinsed his mouth and smoothed his hair as best he could with a little water before returning to the warm and welcoming bed.

Spike returned shortly with a laden bed tray, which he settled over Xander's legs before joining him.

Xander looked at the covered plates suspiciously. "There'd better not be anything weird under there," he warned, scowling at Spike. "I still haven't forgotten the kipper incident."

"Neither have I," Spike said, grinning. "Never saw kippers fly before."

"Yeah, well, they were scary. Even if they didn't have heads." Xander lifted the lids and Spike took them from him, setting them on the floor. He was relieved to see that his meal was fish-free, and that it looked like a traditional American breakfast - eggs, bacon, sausages, even pancakes. "Funny shapes."

"Yeah. I'm supposed to tell you that Dawn made those." Spike shifted and jammed a pillow between himself and the headboard.

The pancakes looked like amoebas. Amoebae. Whichever. "She brings new funny to funny shapes," Xander said, picking up his fork and digging in.

He caught Spike's longing look and offered a forkful of pancake, making sure to slop it through the syrup first. Spike accepted the food and licked his lips in a fashion that made Xander realize that he felt a lot better than he had the previous night.

They worked their way through the entire tray, and Spike stretched to set it onto the floor before turning back to curl into Xander's arms with a happy sigh.

"Quite the hero last night," Spike said, mildly.

"I wasn't letting him have you," Xander replied, tightening his arms. "It probably wasn't the best plan ever, but I couldn't let him cast the binding spell. I couldn't lose you. And then after..."

"After what?" Spike asked, not raising his head. "What did you see, love?"

"It's not so much what I saw," Xander said, stroking his hand along the soft fabric of Spike's t-shirt. "More what I felt. That spell..."

"Pretty intense," Spike said.

"Yeah, that's one word for it." Xander's voice was gentle. "It was amazing, being connected to you like that." He couldn't help but wish that this had happened years ago, when knowing how Spike felt about him could have made all the difference. It was hard not to feel bitter about the time they'd lost.

Spike lifted his head and looked at Xander. "You all right, love?"

"Yeah," Xander said. "Just having an attack of the coulda-been's. That, and kicking myself for being so insecure, for leaving you. I'm an idiot."

"It's okay, love." Spike laid his hand against the side of Xander's face for a moment, then reached up to trace the lines of the scars and ghost his fingers over Xander's eyebrow. "You're my idiot."

Xander smiled a little and nudged a knee against Spike's thigh and leaned closer to the delicate touches around his ruined eye socket. Spike was the only one who had ever touched the scars that way. Doctors had poked and prodded clinically, and Xander himself had rubbed medication on them and scratched at them as they healed, but Spike's fingers slid over the skin with something like reverence, with no disgust or fear, and it was something that Xander had missed intensely in his months away. It was pure acceptance. Of him. Scars and all.

"Besides, you're here now," Spike said, his touch whisper-light and warm, like sunshine. "That's what matters."

"Yeah," Xander agreed. "About that..."

Spike pulled his hand back. Carefully, not quite tensing in Xander's arms, he asked, "What about that?"

"I was wondering if you wanted a roommate," Xander said. He didn't want to tease. He didn't want Spike to be insecure - they'd gone down that road already, and it hadn't led them anywhere good.

Spike relaxed. "Depends on who it is," he said, but he was looking right at Xander, making it clear that he wasn't really teasing, that he knew what Xander was asking - offering - and that he wanted it just as much as Xander did.

"Me," Xander said simply, touching Spike's face with the same kind of reverence Spike used. "I want us to be together. For good, this time."

"I'd like that," Spike said. "When do we leave for California?"

Xander's eye opened wide. "Huh? California?"

"To get your stuff, git," Spike said. "Not letting you out of my sight again. Not for a long time."

"And this would have nothing to do with the fact that it's sunny and warm there and colder than a snowman's ass here, right?"

"Maybe a little," Spike conceded. "It would also be nice to be away for a bit - just you and me, no slayers, no witches, no Watchers, no Dawn, no Andrew. No apocalypse."

Xander smiled. "Just you and me," he mused. "That does sound nice." He tucked Spike's hair back behind his ear slowly, letting his fingertips trace the gentle curve of sensitive skin and watching as Spike shivered. "What about you? Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Spike said, tilting his head to one side. His eyes looked dark. "Long as you're here." He swallowed, worried at his lower lip with his teeth in a way that made Xander want to kiss him. "When you were out of it, last night...Xan, I can't lose you."

"You won't," Xander said, sliding down and pulling Spike half on top of him, hands on the sides of Spike's face. "I know you want me to tell you that I'll never take any chances. And I know you know I can't do that. But I can promise that I'll never make a decision without thinking about the potential consequences, for both of us."

"I know that," Spike said, and Xander detected a trace of smugness in his tone.

"You know what?"

Spike looked up, and Xander was startled by the peaceful expression on his face. "I know where I stand - know how much I...this, us...means to you. I saw it, felt it."

Xander felt a little touch of fear flash through his mind. He was just the smallest bit concerned about what exactly Spike had seen when they were joined, whether what was going on in his head in any way compared to the love he'd felt coming from Spike.

"Can you tell me?" he asked softly. "I'd like to know what it was like for you."

Spike kept looking at him steadily, seeming to get that this was reassurance that Xander needed. "It was everything I could have asked for," Spike said. "It's why I wasn't surprised when you asked if you could move in here. It was like..." He trailed off, his eyes soft and a little unfocused. "It was perfect."

Relieved, Xander pulled Spike closer, cradled against his shoulder. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah. It was."

They held the eye contact, and, for once, Xander didn't feel like he should look away. There was nothing that Spike was going to see in his face that they hadn't both felt the night before. It made Xander feel...safe.

Xander made a contented humming noise, finally closing his eye and leaning his head against Spike's, breathing in the clean scent of his hair, his fingers painting abstract designs on the soft skin just below the sleeve of Spike's shirt.

"So," he said. "Going back to California...it's been a long time since we've been on an airplane together. You think we still remember all our boredom-fighting activities?"

Spike smiled and rubbed his face against Xander's chest. "Yeah," he said drowsily. "Like the flight home from Australia."

Xander dropped a kiss on Spike's temple. "You mean the one that got us banned from Quantas?"

"Yeah," Spike murmured. "Good times."

"We'll have more," Xander said, closing his eye. It was stupid to want to go to sleep again when he'd practically just woken up, but he did. Or was. He yawned hugely, and Spike chuckled.

"Go back to sleep, love," Spike said. "I'm not going anywhere."

Xander nodded, his chin rubbing against Spike's hair. "Don't wanna miss Christmas dinner."

"I won't let you." Spike ran his hand soothingly along Xander's arm.

"Promise?" Xander said.

"Mm. Promise."

"I didn't get anyone presents," Xander said, settling back into the warm covers. "You think they'll mind?"

Spike relaxed even further against his chest, snuggling down like a cat in a warm lap. "They won't care. 'Sides, saving the world - again - is a good enough present."

"Nah - we get that almost every year."

"I guess we do," Spike agreed. "Well, you can give them the big news that you're moving back."

"Yeah," Xander said, stifling another yawn. "I'm anticipating one of those Dawn squeals that threatens to shatter glass."

Spike made a small noise of amusement. "Everyone'll be glad. They all missed you, too."

He could feel drowsiness washing over him. It was so nice, to be there with Spike in his arms, warm and mostly comfortable if he ignored the little aches and pains. "I know. I missed them."

"Scarecrow, I missed you most of all," Spike said, in a falsetto that instantly had Xander giggling.

"Watch it, or I might get you a gingham dress and some sparkly red shoes," Xander threatened.

Spike snorted, but seemed too comfortable to rise to the bait, choosing instead to drop a line of soft kisses down the side of Xander's neck.

"I know you're tired, pet," he said, pausing to slide his lips back and forth over a collarbone, his tongue sneaking out to draw a tingling line. "Sleep a while. You'll need your strength after dinner."

"Really?" Xander's tone was pure and innocent. "Why? Is there going to be caroling?"

"Could be," Spike said. "Or something like it." Lower, rougher, he added, "Want to find out what your voice's capable of?"

Xander shivered in spite of himself. "With you? Yeah."

Spike's breath hushed over Xander's skin as he spoke. "Good. Can learn all sorts of things together."

Xander's voice had also moved into decidedly huskier ranges. "Can we have remedial class, too?" he asked. "I may need a refresher course; I've been out of the loop for a while. Think you can help me out with that, professor?"

Spike closed his eyes and shuddered, then leaned in to rest his head on Xander's chest. "Yeah," he croaked. "Yeah. Sleep. Then family. Then fun."

"Yeah," Xander repeated. "All night."

Spike's only answer was a low groan.


Surprisingly - well, maybe not, considering how exhausted Xander was - it didn't take him long to fall asleep. With Spike curled up beside him, he spent the better part of the day drowsing, not waking up for good until Spike's lips brushed against his forehead.

"C'mon, love. Wake up."

Xander made a muffled sound of protest, then opened his eye and looked at Spike. "Food?" he asked hopefully.

Spike nodded. "Yeah. Only catch is, you have to get up."

"Oh, trust me, I am up," Xander said, his body responding to Spike's voice like it never had to anyone else's.

"Trained, you are," Spike said, leering and smirking at the same time.

"No kidding," Xander deadpanned, throwing off the covers and stretching ostentatiously, making sure to flex every muscle he had and arch his back, drawing Spike's hungry gaze to the center of his body. He basked for a moment, then stood up and slid out of his boxers, letting one hand ease across his belly to scratch at the trail of dark hair that arrowed down.

Spike made a little sound that might have been a growl. "They're expecting us up at the house."

"Yeah, I know. That's why I'm getting dressed," Xander said innocently, rubbing the back of his shoulder with the same arm, knowing that position made his body look leaner, made his muscles stand out. "Now where are my clothes?"

"Clean ones are up in your room," Spike said. He was staring at Xander wide-eyed, like he couldn't make himself look away.

"I've got time for a shower, right?" Xander asked.

Spike's gaze slowly crawled up to his face, eyes still wide and hazy. "Yeah, guess so."

Xander made a humming noise and looked down at himself. "Okay, think I'll go..."

"Wank in the shower?" Spike finished for him, sliding onto the bed, hand reaching for his pants.

"Yeah." Xander breathed. "What are you gonna do?"

"Listen," Spike groaned.

"I think I can say with complete assurance that if you wanted to join me, I'd be done a lot sooner," Xander said. Right then, the thought of Spike touching him was almost enough to push him toward the edge.

"No," Spike said, shaking his head. He sounded determined.

"No?"

"If I join you, we're never gonna get to dinner," Spike said.

"How do you figure that?" Xander asked.

"Because," Spike said slowly, "once I start touching you, I won't be able to stop. Won't want to."

Xander opened his mouth to reply, but there were no words. None at all. His mouth was dry, his heart was racing and his blood was thundering through his veins. He was two seconds away from saying, "Fuck dinner."

"Go," Spike said, voice raspy. "Go on now."

Xander nodded dumbly and stumbled to the bathroom.

He did what he had to in the shower, quickly and not very quietly. He was acutely aware of Spike listening in the other room, of the fact that Spike could probably hear each gasp and maybe even his accelerated heartbeat.

It was even possible that, at the crucial moment, Xander moaned Spike's name.

By the time he returned to the bedroom, one towel around his waist and drying his hair with another, Spike was up and dressed in new clothes. Xander's clothes from the day before were laid out on the bed.

"Couldn't find anything of mine that'd fit you," Spike said. "I could go up to the house and get you something, if you want."

Xander shook his head. "Nah. Not worth it."

Xander dressed quickly, then toweled his hair until it was mostly dry. He put on the patch for the first time that day and met Spike by the front door. They got their coats and scarves, and Xander watched as Spike pulled on the pair of gloves he'd kept.

"You ready?" Spike asked.

"Absolutely," Xander answered. He felt good. No, he felt great. He had Spike, and, after dinner, he was going to have Spike. He was going to see the people he loved best in the world, to tell them that he was coming back, coming home. He stepped out the door and waited while Spike locked it behind them, then slid his arm through Spike's for the walk to the main house.

It was cold - see your breath cold - out, and dark, and when Xander looked up he was instantly so transfixed by the sight of the night sky that he stopped walking after only half a dozen steps or so. Velvet black and studded with stars, it felt kind of like the universe went on forever.

"Wow," Xander breathed.

Spike stood quietly beside him. "Big difference, between here and the city," he offered.

"Yeah. In more ways than one." He'd forgotten.

"I'm glad you're here, Xan," Spike said.

"Me, too," Xander replied. He eased his arms around Spike and pulled, so that the stood back-to-chest, with his chin resting on one cashmere-covered shoulder.

"I'm in love with you, Spike. Wildly, sappily, crazily, painfully in love with you. The forever kind." He felt a little twinge, knowing that he'd once said similar words to Anya, a lifetime ago, just without the 'forever' part.

"Yeah," Spike said, a bit roughly. "Know what that's like."

That wasn't enough for Xander - he needed to hear it again, for real. "Tell me."

Spike turned in his arms, twisting awkwardly until their noses were almost touching, earnest blue eyes meeting Xander's anxious gaze. "I'm in love with you, Xander. Nothing's going to change that."

Xander leaned in and placed the softest of kisses on Spike's waiting lips. He stayed close, pulling back only far enough to speak. "You're in love with me."

"Yes," Spike murmured.

"Wildly?"

"Yes."

"Sappily, crazily, painfully?" Xander's smile was gentle.

"Yes," Spike repeated.

"Forever?"

"Forever, Xan." Spike's voice was as strong as the piercing look he leveled on Xander's face. He sounded exactly the way that Xander felt - certain.

They shared one more kiss and one more look at the clear, serene, perfectly ordinary, no-apocalypse-on-the-horizon sky, then turned and walked arm-in-arm to join their family.




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