She'd said yes. She'd said yes; when they were alone together, dreading the inevitable and he'd stammered out his graceless proposal. It hadn't been how he'd planned it. He knew better than to wait for the perfect moment. Life on the Hellmouth had taught him that love and the people you loved were too important to wait for everything to be perfect to tell them how you felt. But he had hoped for a lull in the action-maybe not moonlight and roses but some breathing space, just a spot of serenity, without a hell god trying to not only kill them, but also to destroy the world. With Glory and Dawn and, oh God Joyce.... And hadn't he tried to explain--looking into Anya's troubled eyes--that no, there isn't a handbook on life. Not knowing what to do, not knowing what to say, not knowing how to feel, feeling too much, feeling you're not feeling enough, being confused, being frustrated, desperate to hold on but afraid to want, need, love because it slips away, people slip away like sand gripped in a tightly fisted hand, but he couldn't. Couldn't find the words. Couldn't voice his thoughts. So he held her, trying with his body to say all the things he wanted to say. Say he needed her. That she wasn't the only one who was confused, scared, doubting life, fighting the persistent slide into inertia which seemed to embrace every adult he knew. How could he explain what it meant to be human when he hadn't figured it out for himself yet? The helplessness--the flat out risk of loving and living--of letting someone close enough to hurt you, when the simple truth was that they would; no matter what they did or how they tried, just by being, they offered up potential and inevitable pain. How did he tell her it was worth the pain, now that he was begining to doubt it himself?

They had all been going full tilt. Ever since Glory had first kicked Buffy's ass with her size six designer stilettos, they hadn't marshalled a single offensive move. They'd lost ground length by length. Glory had confronted Buffy in her own house and they had actually packed up and run, not that it had done any good. Glory had Dawn, and desperately, grasping at straws, they had thrown everything they had at her. The seven of them who had stumbled into the magic shop in the gray morning light were as much in shock at being alive and that there was still a world to be on as they were at the loss of the Slayer. Spike had ceased sobbing, and hadn't that been disturbing. Xander wasn't sure if he was bothered more by the sight of one of the fiercest creatures he knew being wracked by open and obvious grief or the guilt he felt for the way he had misinterpreted the nature and depth of the vampire's feelings for Buffy.

Dawn, still in her sacrificial wear, looked like an enchanted princess in a fairy tale. She sat in one of the chairs at the research table, remote and unmoving, her eyes focused on nothing as tears streamed down her face. She was eerily quiet, not a sob or a sniffle breaking her silent heartache. Willow fussed over Tara and flitted about the room checking on Giles and Dawn, anything to keep moving and to keep from thinking about how much they had all lost. Xander set Anya on the research table and knelt down in front of her. He took her ankle in both hands. He was examining it for swelling when she jerked it back and said, "No!"

"What? Honey, it's sprained. We should..." he trailed off looking at her. She was shaking her head from one side to the other as she sobbed out another soft 'no'. He realized how he looked to her, down on one knee. She thought he was proposing again. But why didn't that make her look happy, and why did she say....?

"No, Xander... I can't. I know after the Ascension, when I came back...I..." she wiped her eyes on the back of her hand and looked away.

"Anya? Cupcake?" That usually made her laugh. They had watched an Ally McBeal episode where Ling had given her approval for pet names only if they were based on food. He had spent the rest of that evening going through the Hostess and Dolly Madison product lines while he nibbled on Anya to make her shriek and giggle.

"I...Xander...Buffy's the Slayer, I'm not...I meant it, you know, you really are a good boyfriend." She forced a smile while sniffing and widening her eyes in a failed attempt to stop her tears.

"You're not making any sense. I don't..." Before he could finish she stood, favoring her bad ankle but looking up at him with her frank brown eyes which had always before grounded him but now just added to his confusion. "I'm sorry. I-I have to go." She left the shop, the bell ringing as she exited. He took a step to follow her, but stopped. It was daylight, she was safe. This was all too much for him and for her. He would give her time, and give himself time. They could talk later. She would go home and take a shower, get some sleep, and make more sense later. Right now, he should take care of his friends. He smiled at the thought that the term 'friends' now included Spike, but if that was what Buffy wanted, well then, so be it. The smile felt unnatural on his face; in just the past hour the whole world--his whole world--had changed and it would never be the same again. He hadn't felt this empty, this lost, since Jesse had died. When that had happened he had had the luxury of disbelief. There had been someone to hold off the monsters while he dealt with the consequences of a changed worldview. No more. Buffy had been the guardian at the gate; without her they were going to have to pull themselves together, clean up Glory's mess and patrol for the usual Hellmouth activity.

It was late when he got home. He'd left Dawn with Giles. Giles, Willow and he had talked quietly in the practice room while Tara had tried to get Dawn to drink some tea. She had said Dawn needed something hot inside her to combat the shock. Xander figured Tara knew what to do, but thought Spike quietly taking Dawn's hand calling her 'nibblet' had more to do with stopping the tears than the tea. He was exhausted. Being grown up and discussing Dawn's custody now that her only 'relative' was an absentee father, whom she remembered but had never met, was not something for which he was prepared. Another hushed conversation with Willow about how they were going to take care of Giles and Spike in the aftermath of losing Buffy just made him feel old. His apartment wasn't overly large. It took only moments for him to check every room and determine Anya wasn't there. He really hadn't expected her to go to her place. He started to phone her, then on second thought picked his keys up from the table and left.

Minutes later, he pulled into the parking lot of her building. Her car wasn't in its usual spot but he went up to her floor, taking the stairs two at a time. He let himself in, turned on the lights and quickly headed for the bedroom. Drawers were open and empty, the closet door stood wide. The pictures she kept on the dresser were gone, all her make-up and toiletries were gone, everything was gone. There was no sign of a struggle. His heart was screaming that something had taken her. Surprisingly, his brain was calm. You always knew this would happen, she's not a demon anymore, no right-thinking person would stay here, and live this life. After pacing around the apartment and checking to see if there was any sign of where she went, or at least a note--something--he stopped in the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He took out the carton of pineapple juice and leaned back against the closed refrigerator door feeling numb. He slid down to the floor, wishing he had the strength for tears but so much had happened he just couldn't. Couldn't think, couldn't cry, couldn't imagine the future without her.

He shook the carton, removed the screw top and drank straight out of it. He riffled though his pockets and pulled out the ring. He had bought it the day after Riley left. All that time, carrying it around, waiting for the world to be safe enough for two people to be in love. He had daydreamed often about a simple ceremony, had planned to ask Joyce if they could have it in her garden. He would ask Willow to stand up for him. He figured Giles would walk Anya down the aisle, Buffy would be her maid-of-honor, and Dawn would have been the flower girl. Everyone he loved would have been part of the happiest day of his life. The tears finally came.

* * * * *

Routine was good. Routine let him get though the day without thinking. Routine helped the days slip by, blend together, until one was so much like another that you could lose a week without realizing you had lived through it, or at least survived. It had been two weeks since Buffy died; two weeks since Anya left. Xander wondered if he would measure the rest of his life in relation to That Day. When he was sixty, would it be forty years since That Day? Who the hell was he kidding? He wasn't going to see sixty. He'd be lucky to see twenty-five. That was why Anya had left. His routine started at 5:00 A.M. on weekdays now. He was showered, shaved and on the site by 6:00 A.M. every morning. He had been surprised at how quickly everything had changed.

One day he had met with his boss, to apologize for missing work; yes, another funeral, yes, his family. Then he'd stopped and looked the man in the eye, and told him everything. Not about the Key, not about Glory, but about Joyce, about Dawn and Buffy. About what it felt like to be looked up to as a big brother, by a girl whose whole existence had been shaken to its very core. About how lost he felt without Buffy, how strong she had been when they had watched Joyce slip through their fingers. How he felt he had failed her. How he had to be there for Dawn, he owed it to her, to Buffy, to Joyce, to himself.

He hadn't expected the promotion. He hadn't expected anything and had wondered when the words were pouring out of his mouth why he was burdening this man with his grief, his shame. Now Xander opened the site every morning. His first four hours were spent at a desk, in front of a computer-Willow was so proud.

He managed the crew, the supplies, tracked the progress of the work, prepared reports for payroll and by the time the boss made it in from his morning meetings had up-to-date information for him on every aspect of the job. As someone who had hated school, Xander was amazed at how quickly he had mastered the spreadsheets and databases. But the best part was that he was off by 3:00 P.M. every day. Just in time to swing by the school and pick up Dawn. Dawn wasn't having problems in school anymore, now that she was going.

And hadn't that been surreal, Xander Harris at a parent-teacher conference with Dawn's guidance counselor. Well, Spike was out, 'cause sun, duh, and the nasty tendency to attack anyone who appeared to threaten the Dawnster. And Giles, well, they all were walking wary with Giles; he would have done anything for Buffy, even died for her, but living without her was an entirely different matter for Rupert Giles. Willow said he just needed time. Willow had also deemed that letting Ripper get his hands on any school staff, other than Principal Snyder, to be not of the good. Since Xander remembered that this was the counselor that had used the threat of Child Welfare to blackmail Buffy into becoming Control Freak Slayer, he took the meeting. After all, he had a secret weapon; he had clocked a hell of a lot of field time in that office or the one like it in the old school. Even if she recommended removing Dawn that day, he knew the Sunnydale social services were just as blind as everyone else in this hellhole and Dawn would probably be eighteen before any action was taken. Case in point--somewhere in the debris of the old high school--which he had rigged the explosives on, and wouldn't the overly concerned lady have loved that piece of information--was a thick file on Alexander L. Harris, which had started to recommending his removal from his home in, what was it, seventh grade? So he said he would field this one.

That afternoon, instead of waiting in the car for Dawn, he had gotten out and leaned against the door. Arms folded across his chest, eyes cast down at the ground he wondered if he should have worn his suit. No, the only time he had recently had been the funerals. Dawn didn't need that. He had worn black jeans and a black tee shirt, after taking off the work shirt he had worn over it he figured he was clean and presentable. It would have to do. He was brought out of his ponderings of the fashion do's and don'ts of the parent part of the parent-teacher conference by a burst of giggles from a flock, gaggle? herd? of teenage girls. God, was I ever that young? Dawn broke off from the group, looked both ways good girl and crossed the street to where he was parked.

"Is something wrong?" She worried her bottom lip between her teeth.

"No! No. Nothing bad, just have to meet with your GC, you know, just standard stuff." He gave his biggest smile. He also resolved to point out to said GC that she was putting undue stress on Dawn at a time when life was doing that all by itself.

"Is this about... ? She told Buffy...I don't... oh, Xander..." Dawn blinked rapidly, in an attempt to dry her tear-filled eyes. Xander put both hands on her shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. He leaned forward and until their foreheads almost touched.

"Stop. Right now." His tone of voice was soft, as if he was afraid to frighten her. He gave her a gentle shake and continued. "I'm not Buffy. Buffy wasn't a troublemaker. Buffy was a good student who wanted to fit in; it was just the whole saving the world thing got in the way sometimes. You know, you're a lot like her."

That earned him a sniffle and a shaky smile. "Am not." But Dawn didn't sound very convincing.

"Are too." Xander followed that up with a mild head butt, forehead to forehead, to stop any further protest. "Just play along; agree with anything I say, and we'll deal with anything you disagree with when we get back to the magic shop. The important thing is to show a united front. This lady isn't going to know what hit her. We're Scoobies, remember?"

He slung one arm across Dawn's shoulders and steered her back toward the school. Which oddly enough, earned another burst of giggles from the girl gaggle. Well, what is that about? They couldn't have overheard our conversation from there. He thought.

Inside, Dawn led the way to the office. Xander was surprised he wasn't nervous. He had been last night, with Willow during her coaching/strategy session. He had been today whenever it crossed his mind. Right up until Dawn had come up to him looking all scared and vulnerable, like she was steeling herself for some fresh new horror. Maybe, as the Key, she had the super power to gift those around her with amazing adult-like abilities.

He winked at her when she turned to look at him before opening the office door. She gave him back a conspiratorial smile. He shook hands with the nice guidance counselor, giving her the smile he used when interviewing people he knew were not qualified enough to get the position. He hoped the smile didn't say 'how soon can I get rid of you so I can get on to more important things,' but since her smile faltered when she suggested Dawn wait outside while they talked, maybe it did.

"She's not a pet. Don't you think it's cruel to expect her to wait outside when you and I are deciding her fate? I think her input on this matter is critical." Xander was proud. He hadn't cross his arms over his chest. He hadn't closed his stance. He had pitched his tone into the calm, reasoning tone he had developed for explaining bizarre human customs to Anya. If only Willow could have seen him. He had remembered all the nonverbal cues she had stressed.

"Don't loom, Xander, and keep your body open, you want to appear accepting and willing to negotiate." Willow had been pushing his shoulders back and tugged him forward by his belt loop.

"Keep my body open? Will, that sounds obscene." Which had earned a Spike snicker, since the three of them were on patrol together. Supposedly, they were looking for vampires, but in actuality they had been scouring the town for any of Glory's left over obsequious little minions.

Willow, of course, ignored it and continued her instructions. "Don't cross your arms, and if you sit down don't cross your legs."

"Ah, Will, I'm a guy." He really hoped this wasn't news to her.

"I know that. I just don't want you to scare her, Xand." The witch looked up at him with an earnest expression of concern. That expression was becoming too familiar.

"Will? We are talking about me, right?" That earned him a small smile from the tiny witch. Willow smiles were becoming quite rare. Even small ones were worth major points. "It'll be just fine, you'll see," he reassured her.

"It had better be, whelp. No one is taking Dawn." Spike stalked ahead in a swirl of leather after lobbing his threat. Xander pulled Willow in under his arm and they had followed him through the dark back alleys of Sunnydale. Willow had keep up a steady steam of 'nonverbal message' and 'red flag' words and negotiation techniques. Xander didn't tell her that he didn't intend to offer up a compromise. He wholeheartedly agreed with Spike. No one was taking Dawn, not now, not ever.

The interview with the guidance counselor lasted forty minutes. They both smiled. They both thanked each other for making the time for the meeting. Both of them lied through their teeth. Xander said he appreciated her attention to Dawn considering how many other students she was responsible for. She said that just meeting Xander was a weight off her mind in regard to Dawn. In politically correct language, couched in some of Willow's Psych 101-speak and various catch phrases gleaned from his company's human resource manual, he had told her to back off. That she was making a bad situation worse, and that he would not hesitate to bring her part in any damage to Dawn's recovery before a review board. Judging by the forced smile she gave them as they left her office, Xander was sure this woman would go to any lengths not to have to meet with him again.

Once they were in the car, Dawn said she wanted Chinese, so he told her to get the menu for Ling's Hunan out of the glove compartment. He knew Willow preferred Cantonese, but Ling's was near the blood bank, and it was Thursday. Thursday was the night Laura worked late at the blood bank. It was only five o'clock so Xander gave Dawn money and let her go into Ling's by herself. He told her he wouldn't be long and that he would be back to help her carry it all. Swinging an empty cooler by its handle he walked the two blocks to the office of the Sunnydale Blood Bank.

There had been a bloodmobile parked across from the construction site about a month ago. He hadn't intended to donate, he'd just stopped by to see who was suicidal enough to staff a vampiric meals-on-wheels in Sunnydale. He had been at a loss for words when a tall redhead had tugged on his arm and said "C. O. T. H." almost like a cheerleader. Now wasn't that blast from the past? How many other graduating classes could boast the rallying cry 'Children of the Hellmouth'? She gave a throaty chuckle, which would have sounded evil to someone who didn't know Spike.

"General Harris, how the hell are you?" And he'd been good. Good as in his girlfriend was waiting for him to pick her up from work. Good as in he still believed that somehow they could make it through the Glory thing intact. So he had donated blood. How could he not, with Laura Brendon's full laugh punctuating her own view of life on the Hellmouth and her polite but disinterested questions about how everything was with his 'crew'? As he scanned the mandatory reading material, he had asked about what they did with the blood it mentioned they would not use if the tests were inconclusive.

"Thinking of changing your diet, General?" Her tone of voice was light, but he was reminded of the girl who had shown up at the briefing before graduation. It had been the first time he remembered seeing her without her nose buried in a science fiction paperback. She had been carrying a very large, very sharp katana.

"It's not what you think. Well, it is what you think. But it's complicated." At the time he hadn't even know why he asked. He looked into her gold-green eyes and wondered for a moment if he was about to be doused with holy water. "Do you trust me?" He'd asked.

After a pause that felt as if she was measuring the weight of his soul against a feather she said, "Yeah, I do. It's just medical waste. How much do you want?"

"Can I let you know?" It had been that simple. She had given him her card. He called her after Buffy died. And now Thursday afternoon was part of his routine. He stopped by the blood bank and gave the cooler to Laura and she gave it back filled with bags of human blood. Some of it had minor drugs that donors had overlooked; nothing serious-diet pills, allergy medicine, just enough to make it not good for other humans.

"Kelly, Xander. Xander, Kelly." Laura nodded the introductions as she brought the cooler back. Xander thought Kelly, a dark hard man about his height with a full goatee, would have appeared less threatening if he wasn't holding a two-handed broadsword Sci-Fi geek meet Ares, Ares meet sci-fi geek. Talk about a match made in heaven.

"Thanks. This means a lot." And it did. The steady diet of human blood was making a real difference in the speed of Spike's recovery from the repeated poundings he had endured.

"Just promise you won't carry that stuff around after dark," she said as she held the door open for him. How she managed to convey concern for his safety while still implying 'get the hell out, Kelly is going to show me his sword' was really quite impressive. He should take notes, but not tonight.

In half an hour he and Dawn were back at the magic shop. Xander of course was carrying dinner of the Chinese and the bodily fluid eww variety. Dawn carried her knapsack. She bounced into the shop ahead of him and ran over to Spike, who was waiting as he did for her every day.

"Xander made her cry!" Her voice conveyed awe, and he wasn't sure if he was more disturbed by the pleasure that awe gave him or by the fact that she really seemed to believe he had made someone cry.

"I did not!" Where had this come from, she hadn't mentioned the meeting in the car? He thought, now that it was over, she hadn't even been thinking about it. So much for his ability to read the adolescent female.

"Did too." She started to clear the research table. They had brought enough food for Giles, and Willow and Tara when they stopped by.

"She was not crying." Xander tossed a blood bag to Spike and took the rest to the refrigerator in the back. This too had become part of their routine. Dawn and he would run errands and end up back at the store. Spike, of all people, would make sure she did her homework, helping with anything language or history related. Willow and Tara would stop by, and Willow would field any math or computer-related questions. While Dawn worked on homework, Xander worked around the shop. He cleaned up, made minor repairs and was even helping the witches transfer the inventory onto a database. Giles hadn't replaced Anya yet so they all pitched in to see that he wasn't overwhelmed.

"Her hands were shaking." Dawn was still recounting the battle of the guidance counselor to Spike when Xander returned to the front room.

"Dawn, I just reasoned with her." He handed Dawn a cold BlueSky ginseng ginger ale to go with her spring rolls and dumplings.

"Tell it to Willow. You had her so scared." Xander rolled his eyes, not sure if it was at Dawn's exaggerations or Spike's snickering. He didn't score Spike snickers as high as Willow smiles, being that there was a higher supply of said snickers, but it felt oddly good seeing that Spike wasn't as broken as he had seemed That Day. As the three of them sat down at the table, he thought, just maybe they would make it through this. Not back to where they had been, but if they could just hold on to the routine, maybe they would be all right.

* * * * *

Bronzing. With Spike. Xander had spent his life since Jesse died drowning in estrogen, so the whole beer and pool after the Friday night sweep was new. Odd, he would never have pegged Spike for the male bonding type. Although the only people--in the loosest form of that word--that he had ever seen Spike interact with, outside of the gang, were either dead or dust. Not counting Deadboy, and Dru, and, snerk, Harmony. Whoop; not wise to snerk when the vampire misses a shot. And, hello, William the Bloody. Luckily, even under Spike-glare Xander made a fairly complicated bank shot. Not that he was into the game, but the shot would pass the inopportune snerk off as comment on how Spike had set up the shot for him and not a shot at his romantic entanglements. Guy speak. A grunt or a nod covered most topics. You didn't have to take out the broken pieces of your life and poke them around. There was much to be said for the unexamined life when the wounds were so raw. No need to pick at the scabs with Spike. Not that they didn't talk, they had some spooky parental-like conversations about Dawn when she wasn't with them.

He hadn't really had a guy friend since Jesse. G-Man didn't count. Not that he wasn't a guy. Well, he wasn't. He was an adult. Someone you could go to if you needed to know how to kill a Cltari demon or break a spell, but Xander was pretty certain they would never have a belching contest while watching 'Pinky and the Brain'.

He had tried the whole bonding thing with Riley, but they hadn't been able to fool each other. Xander had been wrapped up in Anya at the time and Riley had pretty much fallen into the category of 'this guy makes Buffy happy so I'll be nice to him'. Like Tara, who, having survived the trial by fire was now part of the pack, Riley had started out as a friend's accessory. Riley had fallen by the wayside, like Cordy, like Oz, like Anya.

That wasn't really fair to Cordy. Willow had told him about the vision thing. So the alpha female had gone off to form her own pack. More proof that once your life was touched by the Hellmouth there was nowhere to run. He felt bad that Willow had made that trip alone. It couldn't have been easy for her, telling Deadboy; Willow could never bear to cause anyone pain.

He hadn't counted Angel in his list of former fringers, because he had never considered him even a fringe member of the pack. He had been alone in those feeling, so once Angel left, the issue hadn't been worth crossing his alpha. Whoa, gotta stop the hyena thoughts.

Xander didn't have the enhanced senses or the drive to hunt thrumming through his body anymore, but he did remember. Remember how simple it had been to divide the world into pack and not pack. You protected pack. Everyone else was prey or predator. He had been surprised how well that had carried over to his life after the demon had been banished. The only difference was you didn't hunt the prey, you protected it.

Giles had never told the girls that Xander still had the memories, so he never talked about them. Buffy had thought that the mating urge was fueled by human-Xander's attraction to her. Attraction had nothing to do with picking her as a mate. Hyena-Xander was only concerned with what was best for the pack. She was the strongest female. She would have been perfect; the best hunter, and the best protector for the pack. He shook off that line of thought. They turned the pool table over to the guys waiting for it and sat at the bar.

"Just say it, whelp," Spike snarled, leaning over the counter and helping himself to a beer and stealing one for Xander as well.

"Huh?" Oh, I should probably pay for those, Xander thought, and pulled a ten out of his wallet to appease the bartender.

"You've been doing an impression of the Poof all night. You're in a snit over my giving the Watcher what for, so spit it out." Spike flipped the top of the beer back over the top of his head. It bounced off a light, hit a moving waitress in the head and landed with a 'plunk' in a pitcher of beer on a table over eight feet away. It didn't set the chip off, and the people at the table were looking in the wrong direction due to the numerous banks. Cool. Oh yeah, Spike, Giles, major blow up, multiple 'sod offs'.

"You mean all that bugger, wanker, piss off and other English-type slang you two were hurling when Dawn and I showed up?" It hadn't occurred to Xander to ask. One thing his parents had taught him, although he doubted they knew it, was the advantage of keeping your head down and pretending you didn't know what was going on.

Spike just snorted and drained half his beer. Using both his vast experience in ducking his friend's menstrual cycles and his inborn guy-speak knowledge, Xander interpreted that to mean that maybe Spike needed to talk. "So what was that all about?" There, that was vague enough, encouraging him to talk while not taking sides. How much worse could this be than a Slayer after the whole Parker debacle?

"Xander." Exasperated Spike, so not good and he was using Xander's name; he never used his name.

"He's really hurting, Spike." Suddenly, he didn't want the beer and set it down on the bar.

"We're all hurting; we all loved her." Xander wondered if Spike said 'we' to see if he would call him on it.

"No, we loved her; Dawn loved her. Giles was responsible for her." Xander held up both hand to stop Spike and continued.

"You know what he's been doing every day? Besides trying to pickle himself in single malt? He's been reading his journals. Every line, and between the lines. He's examining every action, every word to see how he let her down. He's trying to find what he could have done different, which time he wasn't hard enough on her, when he missed the opportunity to pass on that one piece of knowledge that would have saved her life." Spike's eyes had never left his, but where they had been the cold eyes of a merciless killer when he started, by the time he finished Xander thought they were starting to gloss over with tears. Oh God, please don't. He hadn't seen Spike cry since That Day. If Spike started crying Xander would lose it, and they would have to scrape them both up off the floor in wet little puddles.

"I promised her..." Spike's voice was low and he was obviously fighting the need to cry.

"I know." Xander spoke equally softly, and hoped he wouldn't choke on his words. "When we were sixteen, and were told how short a Slayer's life was, I promised Buffy if anything happened to her I would look after the people she loved. I never thought I would have to keep that promise. I mean, she always seemed so indestructible." Xander's eyes had been anywhere but on Spike while he spoke, thinking that that would keep him from bawling like a baby. But as he ended his eyes met Spike's and he said, "Let's get the hell out of here."

About a block form the Bronze, Xander said, "That's not all."

"All that you promised?" Spike had his emotions back under control and sounded like his old self.

"All that's got the G-Man courting disaster. The whole Ben thing. I mean, I don't think I could have done it. Not that I'm condemning him but, you know, wow." They had cut across the park and were almost to the playground. The trees were cut back and since it was a clear night the area seemed bright with moonlight.

"What are you babbling about?" Spike stopped, with his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his duster.

"I guess you were up protecting Dawn at the time." Spike nodded, so Xander continued. "Well." This was the first time they had spoken of That Night. Xander turned and walked over to the swings and sat down. Spike followed and sat on the next swing. Briefly, Xander flashed on that peculiar nightmare after Adam with Spike as a Watcher. It was enough to break the mood. He could do this. He could talk about That Night. "Well. I said that already didn't I?" He took a deep breath. "After Buffy pounded Glory into a fine red paste, she changed back to Ben. Buffy left him there bleeding and gasping for air, and went to rescue Dawn." Did my voice just crack? God, I can't even just say it, poor Giles. "Giles knew. He knew even if Glory couldn't complete the ritual, once Ben recovered, there would be no stopping her. She would just make this world into another hell dimension. Giles, he just did what had to be done."

"How did he do it?" He wished Spike sounded gleeful or ruthless, but he just sounded tired. Tired the way Buffy had seemed before the final battle. Tired the way they had all seemed since Buffy died.

"Quiet. He just clamped his hand over Ben's mouth and held his nose shut. One handed." Was he expecting one of the Scourges of Europe to understand what killing an innocent had done to a good man? Maybe. "God, I suggested it, there in the shop and hated myself for it. His life's work is protecting people."

"It's done." Okay maybe, not. "He has the rest of his life to examine his actions and motives. Xander, the bloody Watchers are coming again; he's going to need his full faculties to make sure they don't find out about Dawn." Spike took a swig from his flask, and offered it to Xander. "I don't trust them not to turn her into some sort of lab rat. I won't let that happen to her."

"When are they coming?" The pack, protect the pack.

"Monday, late." Spike was looking at him expectantly. One hundred and twenty-something vampire looking to a glorified bricklayer for a decision. Ironic.

"Let's go see the witches." Xander got up, and Spike followed. Another day, another battle.

* * * * *

Monday afternoon, he picked up Dawn and they drove to the store. United front. He had told her the Watchers were coming, and that the whole Key thing was going to remain a secret. They had their stories straight. Spike had come up with some pretty inventive lies, and Willow had pretty much analyzed the angles to death. But in the end, Xander had pointed out that it was easiest to give them what they wanted. And since the Watchers wanted to believe that the Slayer did all the work, and that they were all there at the whim of Buffy's eccentricity, then they would just play along. Buffy had never told anyone what the Key was, and had taken that information with her to the grave.

"I thought they were the good guys. " Dawn was biting her nails, while Xander parallel parked across the street from the store.

"Most of them are, honey, but there are too many of them. We can't control who they tell or where they archive the information." Xander put the car in park, but made no move to get out. He wanted to be sure Dawn was okay before heading into the shop. They might not be there yet, but he remembered how quickly they had taken over the place last time, and they didn't have Buffy to fling swords anymore if they got out of line. "You're going to be all right with this?" Dawn's eyes seemed to take up her whole face, but she nodded. "Hey, you're a Summers. If they give you any trouble, hit them over the head with an axe."

"Huh?" Well, that was better-he had the 'Xander is so goofy' look instead of the 'I'm about to be sacrificed, again' look.

"When things get back to normal, ask Spike about the night he met Joyce." Xander said, tugging on her hair.

Later, when the Watchers arrived, Giles was behind the counter. Dawn and the witches were at the research table surrounded by spell books and a trig text. Spike lounged on the metal stairs, as close as he could get to Dawn without hovering. Xander was above him sitting on the floor of the balcony. Apparently cleaning weapons; but if he just happened to have a couple loaded crossbows in easy reach that was all well and good.

There were only four of them. The old bossy guy, who had threatened Giles; the nervous, nearly impaled, interrupting-Buffy guy; the lady Watcher, who was so not working the Scully look--if that was what she was going for, it was hard to tell--and the new guy, tall, blond, seemed to be embracing the European hit-man style rather than the fanatical, stuffy British academia look. There was no telling how it would have gone down if the Watchers had stayed true to form and started asking questions. But the Scully wannabe had to gasp out, "William the Bloody!" Xander couldn't tell if she was going to ask for his autograph or pull out a stake and he didn't care, not when he saw the hit man pull out a water pistol.

"Drop it now." Xander didn't even remember picking up the crossbow. Damn, Buffy was better with this, if I miss... The gun went flying one way. The guy went flying another. Oh, of course, Willow and Tara had their hands clasped under the table.

Spike had moved forward and was standing in front of Dawn in game face, growling at all and sundry. Dawn clutched at Spike's bicep.

"Guys." She looked to Willow, and then to Giles. "Why don't we...?" She pulled harder on Spike's arm, until he tuned to glare at her. She giggled. He dropped his game face and laughed at her, or maybe at the cowering Watchers. Dawn had told Xander about that moment on the top of the tower, just before Doc tossed Spike over the edge. Dawn said the creature had said that there was no smell of a soul about Spike, but that after she met his eyes at that moment, she would never be afraid of him again. "Why don't we," she looked up at Xander, he could see her in his peripheral vision, but he hadn't lowered the crossbow, "order pizza?"

The British are not known for their reverence of pizza, but it broke the tension. They might have ended up sitting around, feeding the Watchers the 'we know nothing line' if at that moment the door hadn't opened and Laura hadn't entered. She stopped by hit-man guy and kind of nudged him with the toe of her boot. "Hey, General." Another nudge. "Human?"

"Ah, yeah. What's up." Xander kept the crossbow and picked up a small helm axe, and descended the stairs. This was not a place Laura would come so near dark.

"Monster. Oh, hey, Willow." She rocked back and forth on the heels of her well-worn riding boots.

"What kind?" Xander recaptured her attention.

"Dragon. Can we blow it up?" Xander blinked. She really thinks I know what to do with a dragon? Geeze, you explode one giant snake into ground meat and suddenly you're the Dragonslayer. This isn't even funny.

"Where is it?" he asked while Giles pulled out a large book. Spike had headed back to the training room and dragged Dawn with him, probably to get more weapons. Tara and Willow were huddled in a conference. The Watchers just watched. Like this was some play, or maybe they thought the gang was trying to get one over on them.

"Out near the paddock by White Cross Beach. You know, where they rent horses. Kel's keeping an eye on it." She walked over to Giles and looked over his shoulder. "That's not it. It has four legs, and it has bigger wings, and Kel said it's not a reptile and that we should have at least two hours before it moves."

"There are no dragons." The lady Watcher said, as if that would make it so.

"Who's Kel? And what makes her think we have some time?" Willow asked.

"Kel's a he, and that thing killed four horses. It's fast but I doubt it will be able to fly right away once it finishes eating all that." Laura was beginning to show interest in the sharp shiny objects Giles kept away from the public. "Ooh, do you have an Ivanhoe, one not more than thirty pounds in weight?"

"There are no dragons." Useful piece of knowledge; ignoring Watchers pisses them off.

"I saw one." Dawn said, coming out of the back room. Spike was hovering close but he didn't silence her. "I saw one the night Buffy died." Dawn looked at Giles when she said it, and her eyes watered but no tears dropped.

"Will, ideas?" Xander was hoping for a 'this is wonderful, now I can try out that dragon banishing spell'. Instead she gave him the 'It took you all this time to figure out smart chick were hot?' look.

"Giles, do we still have the rocket launcher?"

* * * * *

Watcher panic did not ensue until they actually saw the dragon. Because, after all, dragons do not exist. Vampires, demons and the Hellmouth, they wrote papers about, but dragons sent them into a tizzy. It had to be a British thing. Ok, that's not very PC, maybe it's just that normal British people don't join the Watchers and we get stuck with all the Principal Snyder types.

While the Watchers were arguing with Giles about the extremely large flesh-rending beast a quarter of a mile away which did not exist, Kelly and Willow had moved on to the 'kill it now/we can't just kill it' argument. That was originally Tara's argument but Willow had taken over when Kelly had done the Ares scowl thing, doubly effective when you happen to be holding a broadsword, and Tara's voice had trailed off to a whisper. All Tara had suggested was that maybe they shouldn't kill the dragon, being it was one of a kind and all. But Willow now looked like she was going to change Kel into something icky, and so help him if that guy raised his broadsword to Willow, Xander would feed him to the dragon.

Dawn was staying close to Spike. He was excellent Watcher repellent. The Scoobies hadn't wanted to bring her, but there was no way they were leaving her alone at the shop, and when they suggested dropping her at Giles' place she had said, "You're not leaving me. I'm coming with you." And that settled that.

"We're not going to kill it." Hey did that come out of my month? Don't I sound sure of myself? I wonder what I think we are going to do with it. Now Xander had Willow looking at him like, 'hey you have a plan,' and Kelly looking at him like 'I already don't like your plan.'

Laura said "Why not?"

"Because if it smells this bad on the outside, we'll probably all drop dead if we open it up." Which was an excellent point even if he hadn't realized he was going to make it. Dragons smell bad; really bad, eye-watering, nose-running and maybe even skin-peeling bad. Dawn had inched over to him, with Spike shadowing her, keeping one eye on the Watchers and one on the dragon.

"That's the one that came through the vortex, before Buffy..." She stood on her toes and pulled on his arm to lower Xander's head to her, her voice hushed. She trailed off, eyes big, looking at the Watchers, who were ignoring her. "It's not from here; can't we send it back? Like the troll guy."

Spike looked at Xander. Xander looked at Spike. They both turned to Willow, but it was Xander who asked, "Wills, you think we can use the Olaf Maneuver on this thing?"

Well, that put an end to the discussions. The Watchers looked baffled. Giles looked pensive. Tara looked hopeful. Laura still had that 'whatever you say, General Harris' look, which was just wrong. Kelly looked suspicious, but that could be the whole Ares thing working for him. Willow, well, Willow just looked incredulous and said, "On something that size? Xander, do you have any idea of the mass we're talking about?"

"Mass? Um, Physics? Not really my strong suit. Couldn't you just use more of whatever you used before?" Oh well. That look just said Xander shouldn't even think about magic, let alone make suggestions. But on the plus side, it did spark a flurry of activity. The end result of which was Willow and Giles taking Dawn and two of the Watchers back to the shop to get books and supplies, while Tara and the third Watcher established a sort of base camp to wait for them. Spike, Xander, Kelly and Laura were supposed to cautiously circle the area and keep the dragon in sight. Do they really think we're going to lose something that size?

'The Battle of the Dragon' was almost anticlimactic. Except for when they had nearly been eaten. Giles came back with about thirty disposable hibachis. Yeah, Wal-Mart! The Watchers and witches began filling them with herbs and parchment, then sent the four who had been circling to lay out the braziers in a large circle around the dragon.

One second it was somnolent, the next it was there, roaring. It snapped at Laura, nearly taking off her head, but Kelly slashed it across the nose and it reared back and howled in pain. Apparently wherever it had come from, food did not fight back. It futilely flapped its wings, bottom-heavy from its recent meal. It didn't fly but sent great gust of air, full of hay and sand, swirling around the area. Xander and Laura scrambled to get the rest of the braziers lit. Crack. A tree snapped by its flailing tail sounded like a gunshot. Another crack, but it wasn't a tree.

One of the Watchers had pulled a gun. Not having thought to move away from the base camp before he started to fire, he was now drawing the beast's attention to their most vulnerable area. Giles, the witches, and the Watcher who Buffy had nearly impaled, were on their knees holding hands around a basin of water. Dawn stood well back, with the lady Watcher and the old guy. Xander, who had been running at full speed since he heard the shot, vaulted the Watchers' rental car, tackled Dawn and shoved her under Kelly's pickup truck; just in time to hear the lady Watcher's screams. Since the screams didn't cut off abruptly and started to be interspersed with "bugger all" and "fuck", Xander ventured a look at the carnage. Can you be a Watcher and say fuck? She wasn't dead, or maimed. She had been slimed by dragon goo, or ichor, or sap, whatever it was that wasn't blood. It was thicker, and smelled worse, a lot worse, and probably couldn't be removed from tweed. He hoped she wouldn't have to shave her head.

Xander motioned for Dawn to stay down and cautiously looked around. It was quiet. No sound of the wings flapping, no roars, even the Watcher was calming down. Tara was holding Willow and stroking her hair. Willow's eyes were closed and her nose was bleeding. Giles had removed his glasses and pulled himself into a standing position, but didn't look steady on his feet. The other Watcher looked unconscious, or dead. Nope, definitely unconscious-dead people don't drool, except for Spike when he's sleeping. Spike, who was heading across the clearing toward Xander, had also been doused with dragon fluid, but not as bad as the softly sobbing lady Watcher. It had missed his head completely.

"What happened?" Xander asked, meaning Spike's goo-covered Docs and jeans. Spike just shrugged and knelt down to look under the truck.

"You can come out," he said to Dawn.

The old guy, who was looking back and forth from the goo-covered lady to the paddock which still contained the remains of the dragon's meal, answered Xander. "He, he," the Watcher swallowed and Xander wondered if it was the smell that made him look like he was going to hurl. "He impaled it with a grounding rod." The stunned Watcher was back to staring at where the dragon had been. "It reared back into the circle and vanished." I wonder what's got him more rattled, that William the Bloody saved their lives, or that they were wrong about the no dragons deal. Xander didn't think it would be diplomatic to point out that Spike would have gleefully sucked out their eyeballs for putting Dawn's life in danger, or that it had been Dawn's location near them that had forced Spike to save them, not any previously cut deal with the Scoobies.

Instead he commented on the vanishing part of the story. "Go super witches!" Willow opened her eyes and gave him a weak smile. Tara helped her to her feet and Dawn, who had rolled out from under the truck, brought her a juice box from her knapsack. Laura was bouncing beside Kelly, gripping his arm while telling him how wonderful he was, and how it was too bad they didn't have a video to show all the other Rennies. Apparently Kelly worked weekends at the fairgrounds up north for the Renaissance Festival. He was a knight, but just killed other knights, not dragons. He was surprisingly good with a broadsword for an actor. After the rocky start, Willow and Tara had warmed up to the Rennies. They were making plans to visit the fairgrounds with Dawn next weekend. Giles was speaking softly with the other Watchers. Xander really hoped Giles took the opportunity to point out that there were no such things as dragons.

Dawn came over and stopped about six feet in front of Spike. "Oh, you really smell bad." Spike snorted. Dawn giggled. "I saw a hose. Follow me," she added.

The Rennies offered Spike and the goo-covered Watcher a ride back to town in the back of Kelly's truck. Xander wasn't sure what happened to the lady Watcher, but he got custody of Spike. After removing all the towels and the rug from his bathroom Xander showed Spike his clean-up supplies.Beside the first aid kit, which saw a great deal of use, he had a pile of rags and a row of refilled twenty-four ounce soda bottles all labeled with their contents: gasoline; turpentine; mineral oil; vinegar; bleach; salt; baking soda; powdered carbon.

"I've found that if you can't get something off with some combination of this stuff, it just isn't going to come off," he said in answer to the strange look that Spike had given him. He knew most people didn't keep this stuff in their bathroom, but most people didn't end up covered in dragon juice. "By the way, impressive move with the grounding rod. Not thinking of changing your name, are you?"

Spike snorted and started peeling off his clothes. Peeling being the operative word, since the dragon juice was no longer in a fluid state. It sounded like a very large band-aid being removed. Xander thought it was lucky Spike didn't have a great deal of body hair, because he probably wouldn't have any by the time he was naked.


Naked Spike.

Is it warm in here? Ventilation. Fumes. Oh, I should probably do something about that. Xander flipped the switch and the bathroom fan whirred softly to life. "You'll want to watch the fumes on most of that stuff..." Xander trailed off. Spike had just started to push the wet jeans down over his hips and had stopped when Xander spoke. Xander in turn was staring at the fine dusting of dark hair that seemed to form an arrow starting at Spike's navel and trailed down the pale skin revealed by his partially removed jeans. "Um..." Xander eyes almost audibly snapped away from the hypnotic flesh at the sound of Spike's snicker. Well, you're not going to get me to acknowledge I was just checking out the semi-naked vampire; as if that would be the only reason you have to laugh at me. "Right. Fumes. You don't breath. Stupid Xander. Just try not to set yourself on fire. I'll go make up the couch."

Xander had fallen asleep while Spike was still trying to smell normal again. He looked very clean and surprisingly young when Xander shuffled by the couch on the way to the kitchen the next morning. Spike hadn't left the bathroom a disaster area either. Which was unusually considerate, from what Xander remembered from when they were living together. He poured a large glass of milk and alternated drinking from it while peeling one of the three hard-boiled eggs he had grabbed from the bowl in the refrigerator. Hard-boiled eggs were cheap, portable protein; they were also the only eggs he felt safe sleeping in the same house with since the whole egg baby incident.

He hoped he wouldn't feel awkward around Spike after getting caught checking him out. Most of the guys he knew casually maintained that you couldn't find another man attractive and not be gay, but Xander had never hesitated to admit if a man was physically attractive, even if he didn't like him, like Angel. But he did like Spike, and he remembered the Willow debacle. He didn't want that estrangement with Spike, not when their friendship was so new. Hopefully, Spike, being a guy, wouldn't want to examine all the sticky emotionally feelings and talk about what was happening. With luck maybe they could both ignore it.

The Watchers had stayed. Xander wondered if they were going to reread every report that Giles had filed, and all of his old journals. The were obviously reevaluating certain assumptions they had previously made. He tried to not let it disrupt what passed for normal life for Dawn and the rest of the gang, but having the academics loitering around the shop--or worse, asking inopportune questions--was unsettling. Apparently Buffy not staying dead the first time, and splitting the Slayer line, had interfered with their ability to find the new Slayer. They had to wait until they stumbled across a girl dusting vampires, or wait for Faith to die. Xander wasn't sure they planned on waiting.

It came to a head Wednesday night when shouting erupted over the test they had run on Buffy when she had turned eighteen. They implied Giles had weakened Buffy by interfering, and Giles maintained the whole test undermined the credibly of the organization. Xander figured that with the 'test', and the attempt to whack Buffy while she was in Faith's body, and then the 'we will deport Giles if you do not follow our orders' maneuver, the Watchers had no credibility. Somewhere along the way they had moved from the prey we protect, to the predatory against which we must guard the pack. And again with the Hyena thoughts, bad Xander.

Especially since Dawn had slipped like a ghost off to the practice room. He saw Spike, in his usual spot lounging on the staircase, watching her and almost get up to follow, but he met Xander's eyes and gave a tilt of his head in the direction Dawn had vanished. Xander nodded to him and casually followed her back into the practice room. He was quiet at the door for a few seconds, just watching her pound the heavy bag with her little fists. He was struck, not for the first time, by how much she was like Buffy, except for the whole strength thing; when she hit it the bag it barely moved.

He slowly paced the length of the room, stopping just behind the bag. He placed both hands on it and asked, "Want me to spot you on it?"

She answered with a strange blend of laughter and tears. "Xander."

Frustrations, grief, anger; so much in one word. He pulled her under his arm, wondering when she had gotten taller than Willow, and steered her over to the inner wall. They slid down the wall and sat on the floor. Xander kept his arm across Dawn's shoulders and she sniffed and wiped her eyes on the back of her hand. The arguing in the other room had quieted, but it still reminded Xander of so many nights lying awake listening to his parents and feeling so powerless. "I feel like I'm always crying," she said resting her head on his shoulder.

"Yeah, me too." Dawn went very still at his soft words.

"You cry? Wait I didn't mean that the way it sounded. It's always seem're just always there. You're always ready...for whatever.... I don't think I'm saying what I want to say." She had tensed up while speaking and Xander lifted the hand from her shoulder and gently stroked her hair.

"I know. It's okay. It's all going to be okay." Well, Buffy would still be dead, and Joyce. They still hadn't heard from Mr. Summers, and wasn't that odd. But tonight was going to end and soon the Watchers would leave. They had people they trusted to watch their backs and their pack, such as it was, would stand together against whatever life or death threw at them. He hoped she understood that, because he wasn't sure he could put it into words.

"How do you do it?" she asked.

"Do what?" What had he done? Xander wondered if he should have tapped Willow and tag-teamed this conversation.

"How do you know what to do? What to feel? Who to ...I don't... Xander, everything is so complicated." She punctuated her frustration with a light rap on his chest. Xander remembered when Dawn was younger and cried tears of frustration because Buffy would bar Dawn from her room because she was always pestering. Yet the reason Dawn pestered was because she wanted desperately to be with the 'big kids'. He used to take her down to the kitchen, because hey, the kitchen, food. He would make up outrageous stories for her with Willow, Buffy and himself as the main characters. Never Angel, unless he was a monster, although sometimes Giles made an appearance as an oracle or a wizard. She would listen so seriously, all the while serving up whatever dessert Joyce had made the night before. Xander couldn't really grasp that all those memories of milk and pie had been planted by the monks. He bet Dawn couldn't really wrap her mind around it either, even knowing she was the Key.

So instead of answering her questions he said, "A very long time ago, when the world was new, people discovered that not everything was what it seemed. They knew the world was dangerous. It was very wild. You could die from a fall or a fire; wild animals saw you as dinner and wouldn't hesitate to attack. There wasn't always food to eat. Crops would fail, and animals died. People would die and other people didn't always know what killed them. But they dealt with it, because it was part of life. Life was short. Twenty was old. People started their families at fourteen or fifteen and often never lived to reach thirty.

"One day something horrible happen, no one knows what because it was so bad hardly anyone lived through it, and those who did where so traumatized they could never speak of it. The most horrible thing about it was that it wasn't natural. It was supernatural. It was outside the normal rhythms of live and was so devastating because the only way to stop it was to step outside of the sacred balance.

"One day a great king approached this great Evil and said 'I have come to fight you.' And the Evil replied 'Why do you fight me?' The king answered 'This is my world, and I will not have you slaughter my people.' and the king was no more. Another day a famous hero confronted the Evil and said 'I will destroy you.' And the Evil replied 'Why will you destroy me?' 'I would rather die fighting for what is right, then live under your rule,' the hero replied, and was no more. A holy man was next to oppose the Evil and he said, 'I banish thee.' And the Evil replied 'Why do you banish me?' 'You are unnatural. You are not of this place. The balance must be restored.' and the holy man was no more.

"Now, people had pretty much given up hope. The apocalypse was over and the world had lost. The Evil would always be a part of this world and there was no use fighting it.

"Then, quite unexpectedly; without the pomp and ceremony of the King; or the war drums of the hero; or even the incense of the holy man, a young girl approached the Evil. There was a tremble to her step, but she straightened her back and climbed the steps to the dais where the Evil sat on its throne of skulls. She said 'I'm going to stop you from killing any more people.' And the Evil replied 'Why will you stop me from killing any more people?' and the girl said 'Because I love them.' And the Evil was no more.

"Now that wasn't the last evil, you know. We still fight it today. But what you have to remember is it started with just the girl. She wasn't alone. Even then there were people who considered her to be their girl. They loved her. Back then, they were her parents, her siblings, her friends, and her lovers. They fought alongside her, helping where they could, sometimes just loving her, letting her know she wasn't alone. Eventually, as in any story of a life, that life ends. The girl died. But when she died another was chosen. The people, who loved the first girl, helped the next one. They passed on what the first girl had learned, hoping the knowledge would help the next girl live longer, hoping it would give her some advantage in the fight that never ends.

"But they were just people, and the girls never lived long. It was hard to reach out to the newest girl. Hard to love her, or hard to let themselves love her when they knew no matter what they did, no matter how hard they tried, they would lose her too. So they organized and concentrated on teaching and training, but never loving, because that would interfere. They became the Watchers. And they record and research and do everything but the most important thing.

"Which is why, in answer to your question, I know everything will be fine. You see," Xander leaned over and kissed Dawn on the forehead. "It's not complicated if you remember the most important thing. Love the girl. Everything else is just window dressing."

The clapping startled them both. They looked over and saw Spike and Giles standing at the doorway. Giles ignored Spike's applause, but added, "While not historically accurate, once again you've managed to reduce a quite complex dispute into its basic components. Quite well done, Xander." Giles entered the room and looked down at Dawn as she huddled against Xander. "It is getting late, dear, and it doesn't seem likely that we'll finish here in the immediate future. Tara and Willow have extended an invitation for you to spend the night with them. Would that meet with your approval, Dawn?"

Dawn love staying at the dorms, and even though she did it about once a week now she still would get bouncy and excited. At least she got as bouncy and excited as she ever got since That Day. No, she didn't need to stop at Giles' place for an overnight bag. Yes, she had clothes at Willow's room. Yes, she had a toothbrush in her knapsack. Why did he want to know why she carried a toothbrush? Can we leave now please? Xander liked seeing her like this, she seemed almost the same as before. As Spike followed the girls out onto the dark streets of Sunnydale, Xander paused at the door. He caught Giles' eye and raised an eyebrow. He didn't feel comfortable leaving Giles alone and outnumbered.

"It's fine, Xander, we're only going to exchange information."

As he nodded and turned to leave, he noticed that slime lady and almost-impaled guy were giving him uneasy looks. That reminded him that no one had referred to him as 'the boy' during this visit. He wasn't sure he found that very reassuring.

By Friday, things were back to normal. Sunnydale normal. The Watchers had left the day before. Giles had hinted that they might stop by the LA operation and have a chat with Wesley and Cordy. Remembering their original meeting with Spike during their pre-Glory Buffy investigation, Xander had to wonder just how many crosses and stakes they would need to be in the same room with an unchipped Angelus. But all in all, better them than us. Xander sighed. It hadn't been very Hellmouthy lately. Except for the dragon. Vamp activity was down and the Glory thing had wiped out a great number of demons. Spike was scowling as he stalked back to where Willow and Xander waited in the cemetery.

"Anything?" Willow sounded disappointed, and Xander was hoping it didn't mean there was a spell in the testing stage she was preparing to use. Spike just shook his head and stomped off in the other direction. As Willow and Xander followed in his wake she said "I'm going to call it a night-we want to leave early for the Faire tomorrow. We're going to rent costumes; I gotta admit I'm almost as excited as Dawn."

"You just keep an eye on her, witch," Spike growled back at them. Willow frowned and looked as if she was going to give Spike more than just a piece of her mind, and not in the Glory sense, because eww. She took exception to Spike's attitude that no one but him was capable of taking care of Dawn.

So Xander poked her gently in the ribs and teased, "Aw, he's worried about you. You know in Spike-speak what he just said was 'even though you're leaving Sunnydale, don't let your guard down. It's a big bad world out there.' And on behalf of myself may I just say, renting costumes, my you do like to live dangerously."

Willow poked him back. Then she said goodnight, and walked off towards campus. So Xander and Spike followed her back to the dorm, then walked in silence until they were back at the cemetery. "She's right, this place is dead." Xander winced at his own pun, and gave Spike an apologetic smile.

"Bronze?" Spike asked raising an eyebrow.

"Too many kids. My place? It's quiet." Oh God! Did I just proposition him? Does he think I just propositioned him? If I did, do I want to have done it? Do I want to do it? Do IT? Oh God? He's not laughing, and hey, we're walking in the direction of my apartment. Can he hear my heart racing? Wait, get off the train, Xander, you're not fifteen, it's entirely possible that he assumed that after the week of the Watchers you don't want to spend the evening in a club packed with sweaty bodies and loud music.

* * * * *

This is nice, Xander thought. They sat on the couch, feet up on the coffee table, with only the glow cast by the television illuminating the room. On the way back from the kitchen to get a couple of beers, Xander had noticed that the lighting made Spike look eerie and otherworldly; not scary, just beautiful and aloof. Now that they sat side by side in the dim quiet room he reexamined his attraction to Spike. Spike was attractive, very attractive. Hell, he reeked of raw sensuality; Xander could admit that. Willow was smart, the Hellmouth was dangerous, and Spike was sexy, there were just certain truisms you knew down to your bones. A commercial came on and Spike turned and caught Xander looking at him.

"You sure she'll be all right?"

"She'll be with Willow. Can you imagine what would happen if anyone crossed Willow?" Spike snorted and looked back at the TV. Just to rattle his chain, Xander added, "Summer vacation is starting soon. How are you going to handle her being out on her own every day?" He regretted it the minute he saw Spike's wild-eyed look of panic. Spike was willing to let Dawn stay with Giles, although Xander knew he occasionally stood guard outside, smoking and making it clear to everyone that what was inside was his and they had better stay clear. But it was obvious that the idea of all those hours of sunlight when Xander was at work and Spike could not follow Dawn did not appeal to him. "It'll be okay."

"I'm not Dawn, whelp. I know what's what. Someone finds out what she is, there's a hundred different rituals they could use her in." And so not a reassuring thought. Thanks, Spike. Xander sighed. He set his empty bottle on the table, and tucked the leg closest to Spike underneath him. He put his hands on his knees and looked into those angry blue eyes.

He took a calming breath and used the same tone he had used with the guidance counselor. "That's not going to happen. No one knows but us and we are not telling anyone. Listen, I know you made promises to Buffy. I respect that. But you're not alone in this." He tried to lighten the mood and added, "Look at it this way; even I managed to survive growing up on the Hellmouth with Willow's help."

Spike was not amused. "You had Buffy."

"Dawn has us, she's not alone. You're not alone. None of us are alone in this; we never will be." That was when Xander lost his mind. At least that was what he told himself. In fact he could hear the same voice that had been screaming at him about propositioning Spike earlier asking just what the Hell he thought he was doing. What he was doing was leaning forward and, oh yes he was, he was kissing Spike on his bottom lip. When Spike didn't pull back, Xander parted his own lips just enough to take that bottom lip in between them. Spike surprised him with a low-throated rumbly noise. Xander felt quite daring when he raised his hand and tentatively stroked the side of Spike's face. He pulled back to watch his fingers trace the sharp angles of Spike's face. When their eyes met, Xander was at a loss for words. Words normally bubbled up, with no consideration to his brain, but now they were gone and he had no idea what to say to the naked hunger in Spike's eyes. So he tried the truth, "I...I really don't want to be alone tonight. Will... will you stay?"

And it had been that easy. There hadn't been a mad rush to the bedroom. None of the frantic scrambling like with Anya. There had been more soft kisses on the couch while they slowly undressed and took time to admire each other's bodies with glances and caresses. It was much like Xander had always imagined his first time would be, before Faith had introduced him to the joys of autoerotic foreplay.

When they moved to the bedroom Spike had asked for lube as if this was something Xander did every night. "I think we'll have to improvise. Oil?" Spike smiled. It was a real smile. Not sneering or maniacal, it was the kind of smile Xander had only seen directed at Dawn. And isn't that a disturbing thought when I'm naked. By the time Xander's conscious had finish chastising him for thoughts of Dawn when sex was imminent Spike had come out of the bathroom with couple towels and the bottle of oil.

"It's likely to get a mite messy, Pet." Spike said in answer to what Xander was sure was a look of utter bewilderment at the towels. Spike laid one of them on the bed and positioned Xander in front of it and gently pushed him back until he was first sitting and then lying on the towel. Spike lay down beside him and brushed Xander's hair off his face and, well, petted him. He caressed his face and stroked his hair, but it was different than it had been on the couch, more soothing.

"You've never done this before have you?" Was that Spike? His voice was barely above a whisper, even his accent sounded different. Oh God, do not let me start crying. I started this and now he's treating me like a skittish virgin.

"I...Spike, I think...Please, I think I really need this." Xander looked over into those blue eyes and willed him with all his might to see him as an adult, not some scared kid, holding on to anything in a world turned upside down. And it worked. It must have worked because Spike was kissing him. Oh was he kissing him; it felt so good. These weren't the teasing; tasting kisses from before, these were invasive and possessive, demanding and colored with lust and desire. He was breathless when Spike stopped to open the oil.

Unexpectedly, he poured some on Xander's stomach. Spike laughed at his gasp as the cool liquid contacted his skin. But Xander didn't have a chance to say anything, because Spike's mouth was back, stealing his breath and scattering his thoughts. Spike dragged his fingertips through the oil and began to coat first his cock and then Xander's balls with the slippery substance. Spike's hands were never still and when the first finger breached and then slid deep into Xander's body, Xander reach blindly for Spike. Spike made the softest shhhing noises while Xander whimpered with need. A second finger moved inside and sparks exploded behind Xander's eyes. He tried to pull Spike closer but he seemed so far away. Xander gulped in air like a drowning man, and managed to say "Please..."

Spike crooned in that strangely accented soft voice, "Luv, this will be easier for you on your stomach."

"No. Here. Stay. Please. Stay." Xander had no idea what he had just said, but it didn't sound like English. He moaned and prayed Spike spoke whatever language that was. By the size of the grin on Spike's face whatever Xander had said had pleased him. For a moment he seemed to be moving away, but a whimper from Xander summoned him back for a kiss.

Spike positioned himself between Xander's legs, and lifted those legs up and over his shoulders. It was only then that he removed his fingers, and almost before Xander could register the loss, he began to slowly replace them with his cock. Xander had expected many things, but not this, never this. He had never felt so connected. He looked up and Spike was so close, so near. This felt right. Spike moved. He moved so slowly, his eyes locked on Xander, so focused. Xander felt his face start to hurt and realized it had be too long since he smiled this much.

He laughed out loud, which made Spike grin and ask, "Good, pet?"

"Yes!" Yes, God yes. I need this. Don't stop. Wait what's he laughing at? Please tell me I'm not saying this out loud? "Move, damn it!" Spike moved. With every thrust Xander felt fuller and closer to him. Xander didn't know when Spike's hand had started to stroke his cock in time to those thrusts but he felt his whole body shudder as if he hadn't come in years. A few more thrusts, and before his own seed could cool on his stomach he felt Spike follow him over the edge.

After Xander's breathing returned to normal--Spike's had never stopped being normal since being normal meant that it wasn't there--Spike slowly slipped out of Xander's body. Oh yeah, the towels were a good idea. Xander felt boneless. He wanted to reach out to Spike, who was wiping them both down with the oil and remaining towel. Spike seemed to sense that, and after sealing the bottle, tossed it and the towels in the general direction of the bathroom. Spike tucked Xander under his arm, and kissed his temple and stroked his face, rubbing his thumb against Xander's bottom lip.

Xander's eyelids were starting to droop and he was surprised to hear Spike whisper, "Thank you."

Xander made the colossal effort and turned his head to look into Spike's eyes. He really intended to say thank you back, but really good sex sometimes disconnects the brain so what came out just before he plummeted into sleep was, "I need you."

* * * * *

How the hell did that happen? Xander couldn't tell if it was minutes or hours later that he found himself blinking into the darkness. He wasn't sure if he was seeing or imagining the vague shapes. It was his room. Since his brain knew what was there, maybe it was supplying impressions of what he thought he should see. What was real? Did perception make reality? Hey, no, stop that, see this is why I don't think, his internal babble shouted at him. Here, there be dragons. He suppressed a sigh and admitted to himself that questioning reality was probably a bad idea for someone who had lived though the lowering of the walls between the worlds.

Hey, wait, there had been a dragon, hadn't there? The day Buffy died. The day Anya left. The day Dawn became a ghost of her former self. The day Giles started to doubt himself. The day Spike had transformed into the adult of their little group. Willow was still Willow, but between trying to take care of all of them and trying to hold herself together even she was starting to look worn around the edges. If she hadn't had Tara with her constantly, Xander thought, she might just shatter into a million pieces. She was his best friend, his soul-sib, he would have cut off a limb for her, but that wouldn't help and he didn't know what would. He wanted to ease her stress, her fear, whatever it was that seemed to vibrate through her spirit and made her appear even tinier and more fragile than he had always seen her. But he didn't know how. Didn't know what to say. Didn't know if anything he did would help, or if it would be that one last thing that would fracture her, finally breaking the strongest one of them.

About six feet ahead of him the flat black shape was a window. He lay on his side, looking with all his might, trying to make out the outline of the window. It should be easy being that there was no curtains or blinds. He'd left it that way so the sun would save him from sleeping in and losing his job. No curtains, Xander thought. Or blinds. Sun. That could be a problem for the undead guy whose arm was wrapped around his waist. The undead guy pressed so tightly against Xander's back that he would have been breathing down his neck, if undead guys breathed.

Hmmm, morning after conversation, versus removing recent lover from the bed with a dustbuster, tough call. Xander didn't have a dustbuster, so he stealthily slipped out of the bed. He had some supplies left, from when he had built the training room at the shop, in the storage closet near the balcony. He turned a light on in the living room and sorted out what he would need. Hammer and nails are out if I don't want shot by the neighbors, he mused. He settled on a heavy drop cloth and some wood clamps, it was quick and quiet and would do until he could rig something more permanent. Hey? What? More permanent? See, thinking bad. Bad Xander.

He left the bedroom door open while he worked, enough to shed light on the window but not on the bed. He made sure that the cloth wasn't heavy enough to pull down the clamps or what they were clamped to, and soon had it secured. He spent more time fussing with the edges to make sure no light would sneak in than it had taken to get, and hang the drop cloth. Room-temperature hands gently slid from his waist to his abdomen, stroked down and back out to his hips. His hips were pulled back until his ass came into firm contact with his naked lover.

"You've got a gallant streak in you, Pet." Spike purred in the low growly voice that bent Xander's mind into abstract shapes. "You really are a white knight, aren't you?" Xander could hear the smirk in that voice, but it was gentle teasing, from the gentle man whose cock was twitching against his bare ass. He turned slowly, luxuriating in the feel of Spike's hands never leaving his body as they slid across said ass, and stomach, to end up on the opposite sides they had held before. He tilted his head until their foreheads touched, and thought again how perfectly Spike's height complemented his own.

"Well," he said suppressing a smirk of his own, "I don't have the proper cleaning supplies for combustible lovers." Xander moved his parted lips to just barely brush them across Spike's lips. Once, twice, and in between the brief contacts his own warm breath ghosted against Spike's mouth, and the patented Spike Smirk was replaced by a genuine smile. Xander kept teasing and soon felt a hint of wetness as Spike upped the ante and brought his tongue into play. Spike's hands slid back and down, until they firmly grasp both cheeks of Xander's ass. Xander felt a wide grin spread across his face as he desperately tried to continue the kissing/sparring, maneuver his lover back into bed, and not break out laughing.

It was almost impossible to keep up the persistent worrying. He wasn't alone; he had to trust the others not to break the way they trusted him. And hey? "White knight?" He had never told anyone what Angelus had said outside Buffy's hospital room, just that he had come to kill her and left after the making the appropriate threats.

"Think I didn't hear about that? You really pissed him off, Pet." Xander leaned over and claimed Spike's mouth. This is so not a person we should be talking about during sex. We are going to have sex, aren't we? Just to confirm it, Xander trailed kisses across Spike's jaw and down his neck. When he met the bunch of muscle above his collarbone he gave it a soft nip.

Completely independent of his brain, which wanted nothing to do with thoughts of Angel while feeling up Spike in bed, his mouth said, "Oh, yeah. Nothing like threatening to die loudly and messily to really get under Angel's skin." Since Spike had made such a nice noise the first time, Xander nipped him again.

There was a blur of movement and Xander found himself underneath Spike staring at his game face. His gold eyes reflected the limited light from the living room. "Now, Pet, it's not nice to bite when I can't bite back."

For a moment, Xander just lay stunned, looking up into the face of a demon. He knew Spike was soulless. He had always prided himself on being aware of his place on the food chain. He had never trusted Angel. He knew, chipped or unchipped, that Spike was a dangerous killer. But Spike was his friend, he was sure of that. Spike was pack. He trusted him. Slowly he lifted his hand to stroke the ridges of Spike's face. Xander slid his hand to the back of Spike's neck and gently pulled him down. He kissed him softly and then slipped his tongue in to slide against his fangs.

In a voice so quiet it belied the ridges and fangs Spike said, "You really have no idea how special you are, do you, luv?" Xander didn't have an answer to that so he just pressed their cocks together and began to thrust against his lover. After they came, Spike again cleaned them up and pulled Xander against him. This time Xander faced him and wrapped Spike in his arms as well.

* * * * *

The routine changed over the next few weeks, or rather evolved. Dawn's school let out, Tara and Willow started a new summer schedule. The patrols continued, but usually ended with Spike coming home with Xander. Giles hired Jonathan of all people to help in the shop. Well, it's not like he doesn't have an interest in magic, and at least this way we can keep an eye on him. Dawn was with them in the evenings, but spent most days with her friends; swimming, shopping, doing girl stuff. Xander was surprised she came to him instead of Giles to ask things like, 'can I go to the mall, can I sleep over at Stephanie's, can I go to the concert?' The answers were 'Yes you can go to the mall, just be back before sunset. Who's Stephanie? You're staying inside all night, right? You'll call if her parents are aliens or demons or robots? You can go to concert only it you promise not to get pissed when Spike and I follow you; those things are a freaking smorgasbord. You don't want to get eaten do you? Err... wait!--you don't...erm, ah, Spike, help me out here.' All in all Dawn was amazingly tolerant of their smothering... ah, hovering... err, concern.

The first time she caught Xander who had oh-so-casually stopped by the mall after work to, shirts, yeah shirts, she had let him lie himself into a corner. She had spotted him unobtrusively using one of the security mirrors to watch her, while pretending to check out the merchandise. Dawn had been with a group of three other girls, and had disengaged herself to the sound of catcalls and giggles. "What. Are. You. Doing. Here." Poke. Poke. Poke. A sharp little finger to the rib cage punctuated each word.

"What? Shopping." Disbelieving look, and raised eyebrow. Hey, that's Willow's look. "Dawn, I shop." Oh oh, arms crossed, foot tapping, time for a defensive diversion. "You think it's easy to look this good? The Xander style takes constant maintenance." Okay, it wasn't that funny.

"You are not buying that shirt." Dear God, she sounds like Cordelia. Wait, what's wrong with this shirt?

"You don't like orange and pink?"

This just proved lying was bad. The whole 'Willow said to kick his ass, Buffy' thing and the Amy spell deal, which in addendum had been blackmail, not lying, but still had spooky scary end results, so there you go. Here he was, shopping with Dawn, Spike and the witches. The whole hell concept was so overrated. Why worry about the afterlife when you could suffer immediately for the consequences of your actions, right here on Earth? I should have stuck with the truth. Yes, Dawn, I am stalking you. It's not that I don't trust you, I just wanted to make sure none of your friends were going to turn into a hyena. But no, I had to go with the 'I desperately need new clothing' excuse. So help me, if any of them show me one more black shirt I'll bang my head against the wall. You'd think they've forgotten I have a pulse.

"How about this one?" Tara held up a dark gray, loose-knit sweater, and Xander went over to look at the display from which she had selected it.

"Hey, it comes in green." Well light green, but it's a larger size and that's what's important.

"Spike," Dawn cupped her hand in front of her mouth and whispered loudly. "Do you think Xander is colorblind?"

After two hours and buying more clothes than he could possibly ever need, Xander manipulated... ah, maneuvered the gang into the food court. Willow had gone to the Potato Patch to get fries and drinks and had dragged Spike with her to help carry. Tara and Dawn were having a hushed discussion about Willow's birthday dinner. It wasn't a surprise. Willow had suggested that they stay in this year, but Dawn and Tara were keeping the menu secret.

"I'll get the cake." Xander said, when he heard they were now having salmon.

"Xander." Dawn gave him the junior varsity version of the Buffy pout.

"I want to do something, too." Xander saw he pout and raised her big eyes.

She laughed, "You want to get the cake so that you can be sure it's chocolate cake with chocolate icing."

"Dawn." Busted

"You're supposed to try to get something Willow would like."

Yes, Joyce. "I think I know what Willow likes." Did she really think she could win this?

"Okay, what does Willow like?" Dawn had that 'girls remember everything about each other' smile, and was daring him to guess wrong.

"Willow likes to make people happy. Chocolate makes me happy. Therefore Willow likes chocolate."Xander folded both arms on the table and was leaning forward when he finished, because Spike and Willow were on their way over.

Tara laughed. "Well, you can't argue with that flawless logic."

* * * * *

The dinner was subdued. The food was excellent, and it felt so good to be together with no prominent crisis, but something was missing. Obviously. Xander kept looking around, expecting to see her. When Tara and Dawn had splashed water all over the kitchen, and then shrieked with laughter as they tried to clean up before the party started, he could picture Buffy with them right in the thick of things. When Giles toasted Willow and commented on 'what a wonderful young woman she had become' he could see the tears that would have formed in Buff's eyes. Even when Spike had said "You're all right, Red," he almost heard the classic Buffy comeback of, "She's much more than all right, bleach boy."

Tara had brought videos, so they grouped around the television the way Victorian families must have gathered around the fire. He would have to ask Spike about that. Xander sprawled on the couch next to Spike. Giles sat in a rocker to the right of the reading lamp and was paging though Xander's yearbook; it had been on the end table. Willow took an oversized chair to the right of the couch. Tara and Dawn sat at her feet. Xander felt his eyes droop and he forced them open, thinking it would be in bad form for the host to crash at the party. But it was a Julia Roberts film, with no sex and no car chases and for as quiet as it had been, the evening had been emotionally draining. Willow was French braiding Tara's hair. Dawn had asked to be next. The movement of the brush through the golden strands was mesmerizing. Xander felt hypnotized watching Willow's fingers weaving the hair back and under.

The next thing he knew Willow was looking down, wearing her concerned look, and stroking his face. "Xan, we're leaving. Don't get up. I had a really good time." Xander was never at his best when he first woke. He blinked, and decided he should probably try to say something.

"Happy Birthday. I love you." Well, that must have been coherent-she's smiling. He had almost rolled over and went back to sleep. In fact he started to, but got a face, full of Spike's lap. He sat up and ran both hands through his hair, and ventured a look at Willow. Great, she's smirking. Since he was felt like living dangerously he decide to see how Giles was handling his head gravitating into Spike's lap while he slept. Yep, that is definitely a 'we will talk about this later' look. Dawn took it in stride.

She kissed him on the cheek before saying, "Good night Xander. Get some sleep." She kissed Spike and led the others out the door.

"You all right, Pet?" What no smirk, no snort, no merciless teasing for my lap diving? He looked into Spike's eyes, and occasionally, like now, he was almost certain that he saw what William had been like before he met Dru in that dark alley. Xander remembered how when Jessie had been turned, there had been something of him there. Not a soul; but something, something that made him Jessie and not Bob or Steve. That was there in Spike's eyes, some memory of humanity.

"I..I just..." Xander hated that he never seemed to have the words. He never could hold on to the emotions long enough to choke them out. "I'm...really glad you're here."

"What brought this on, Luv?" Funny how the softer Spike spoke the closer he felt. Right now, right now felt so good. Just, this. This was good. If he only had the words.

"I... tonight... When the shit hits the fan, and hey, the shit always hits the fan, you look back on times like these and you think of the people you lost." His voice broke and Xander took a steadying breath. "You wish you... you wish you had told them how much it much they important...I...I'm just really glad you're here."

And it was all right, because Spike was petting him. Running his fingers through his hair, across his chest, up his thighs, and it felt so good to have him here. It wasn't always like this. After patrols, there was frantic scrambling that started before they finished undressing and ended in the shower, on the floor, even on the kitchen table or against the wall. But sometimes, it was almost like the first time again, reverent and hushed. Xander pulled Spike up to face him from where he'd been dipping his tongue in Xander's navel. "It's just, important, you know?"

And Spike had nodded, "I know, Xander. I know."

* * * * *

It was his own fault. With Dawn staying over at Stephanie's and the witches engrossed in spell books at the research table, he should have known he was walking into a Giles lecture.

"How did you get it in the first place?" He never asked how I get over fourteen units of whole human blood a week, but he want to know where I got the beer? Can you say priorities, G-Man? The blank look had worked and Giles continued in a more reasonable tone. "She looks up to you, Xander, you must realize that your actions speak louder than your words. The fact that you're only a few months under age and she is several years is not a justifiable excuse."

"Hey, I told her it was Spike's." An improvisation I was rather proud of.

"Really? As in the community property sense?" I am so not ready to have that conversation with you. Time for a diversionary tactic.

"I gave her the 'Beer Bad' speech. I told her how it de-evolves people a la cave Slayer." Take that, Ripper.

"Did you also give her the 'Boy Smells Good' lecture?" Erp? Sex? Talk about sex with Dawn? Help?

"I thought you'd do that, you're the adult." Ha! I still have the sex with Joyce on the hood of a police car in my arsenal.

Giles looked at Xander. Xander looked at Giles. Blink. Blink. Blink. Ding! Light bulb! "Willow?" Oh look, stereo.

* * * * *

After the party, Xander expected the concerned look from Willow, or a sternly worded lecture from Giles. It never happened. Willow never said, 'I want to talk'; Giles never took him aside and recommended he read ancient texts on the dangers of vampiric lovers. He knew they knew. It wasn't overnight, but gradually the names Xander and Spike became 'Xander and Spike'. They started calling Xander's apartment instead of checking Spike's crypt when he wasn't at the shop.

Spike hadn't taken Buffy's place. There was still a gaping hole in their lives. Not one of them didn't occasionally look around, expecting to see her there, and realize all over again that she never would be. Spike still grieved, they all did. Xander wished he had the words to tell him how much Spike staying and keeping his promise to Buffy meant to them, meant to him.

Not much changed; Dawn became more Dawnlike, Willow and Tara started a new summer schedule of classes, Spike still laughed at him. Oh, like sex was going to stop that, snort. Now I'm snorting like him, next it'll be smoking and bad fake accents. I so know that's a fake accent. Not that he doesn't have an accent, and a damn sexy one, 'cause I heard it, but it's not the one he uses every day. No, it comes out to play with the moans and the purrs and the whimpers. The everyday one hangs with the snorts and the snickers and the "Nice to see you're embracing the lifestyle, Pet." I dye the laundry pink once and I'm branded for life. To think that when it happened I thought I was lucky it had only been a load of socks and underwear. I forgot who sees my underwear. Accident my ass, lurking around the Hellmouth laundromats and throwing demonic red items in with unsuspecting loads of whites is probably in that '101 evil acts you can still perform while chipped' book he's writing.

Xander took off his tee shirt and wiped his face with it. It didn't help; it was soaked. Summer had hit Sunnydale hard and the basement of the magic shop was hot and stuffy. Xander had spent all morning building a new storage unit and was now organizing the eclectic stock. Spike had joined him about an hour ago, and while his tee shirt was dusty, it wasn't marred by sweat. And yet another advantage to no body temperature. Xander draped his wet shirt over the banister of the stairs leading up to the shop, and started to sort though a new box. He didn't know how long he had been staring at the button eyes of the floppy bunny that had so scared Anya That Night when he felt Spike's arms slip around his waist. His whipcord body felt firm and sure, and Xander leaned back, knowing Spike was more than strong enough to support him.

He hadn't talked to anyone about Anya, not really, other than a reflexive 'I'm fine, really' to Willow's frequent offers to talk about how he was feeling. He wondered if he could talk to Spike, if he should.... What was the relationship etiquette involving this? He had never been too sharp on major do's and dont's in the conventional boy/girl relationships, let alone this, whatever this was. Where did the line between friend and lover blur? Would it be uncaring and insensitive to talk to Spike now? He desperately did not want to hurt him; God knew they had all had enough pain. Maybe he should say nothing. But if he did, wouldn't that be just as cruel, not letting Spike know what he felt, especially now that Spike had, at least Xander hoped he had, a vested interest in what was in his heart? Xander didn't have a clue, but at least he thought, I'm smart enough to know how clueless I am. That's a start, isn't it?

"What magical properties does that have, Pet?" Spike's voice was low and suggested inopportune sex with the possible discovery by Giles, or, oh no, Willow, or eep, Dawn.

"It scares the bejesus out of vengeance demons." He gave the toy a menacing wag and felt Spike smile against the side of his neck. "You wouldn't happen to know how this got here, would you?" Oh yeah, you are so busted.

"Might." Spike's hands slid back until they rested on Xander's hips. "Might have hid it for that girl of yours. She had a fine scream, and it's not like it would set off the chip." Spike's tone had hushed when he spoke of Anya, like you would talk to an animal to keep it calm.

"She didn't scream, not really, but she was scared, she thought it was an omen." Xander picked at the rabbit's fur; it was amazingly soft, the kind of toy you got for really little kids so that they couldn't hurt themselves. "She was sure it meant that the world was going to end."

"But it didn't." Spike pointed out.

"Yes, it did." Xander dropped the toy and turned to face Spike. "We're just to stupid to give up." Xander softened his words with a kiss, much like that first one they had shared, and then he continued, "That's why we're rebuilding it." He pulled away and took Spike's hands in his and looked down. He thought he was probably making the worst decision of his life but something told him he had to open this wound. He just prayed that opening it with Spike was going to help it heal, not add salt. "I...I asked her to marry me." It was hard, but Spike's silence compelled him to look up, to meet his eyes.

"What did she say?" He used the real accent, the one that spoke the truest words, the one that matched the wide-eyed concern and let Xander know he hadn't ruined everything by mentioning 'his girl'. Because Spike never called her Anya, always 'your girl' or 'the demon girl' and come to think of Spike never mentioned her at all now that she was gone.

"She said yes, and no. She was angry and scared and frustrated." Xander looked away. He couldn't help but laugh when he thought of it, so he did. "I asked her That Night. I carried the damn ring around for weeks, and I picked that night to ask her. Can you imagine it?"

Spike wasn't laughing. He pulled Xander close and wrapped him in his arms. It took very little maneuvering before they were sitting on the wooden steps. Xander sat one step below Spike and leaned back into his embrace.

"The thing is ...I understand why she left ...I just..." Xander pulled away again and twisted until he could look Spike in the eyes. "It's the how that hurts so much...Spike, we were friends. Beyond the orgasms and interlocking parts.... I thought we were friends. I was her first friend...but I thought even after everything else, we were still friends."

Xander waited and watched Spike. He looked for some sign that Spike didn't want to hear this, or a word that said he did. Instead, those riveting blue eyes never broke contact and strong fingers reached up to gently stroke his face. "Is it stupid of me to want a letter, or a call? Just 'Xander, I'm okay, I'm happy, the world outside the Hellmouth is fine.' I can live without the 'wish you were here' but this not knowing... It's bad. If I knew she had her center of power, then at least she could..."

Xander was stopped by a blatant eye roll, and bit his lip thinking he'd said too much. "Luv, are you listening to yourself? You do remember that when she had the bloody trinket she worked for the other side." Spike leaned in for a kiss, which took the sting out of his trademark sarcasm.

"You mean your side." Xander murmured into the kiss and nipped at Spike's lower lip.

"Oy!" Spike pulled back and tried to scowl, lost it and laughed. "Only you love, only you."

"Only me what?" Xander asked. Did he call me Luv or love?

"Only you would feel the need to take care of a chit who spent over a millennium finding creative ways to make men's heads explode." Spike said and gave one quick pull, and had Xander sitting on his lap.

"Hey, a little sympathy for the fellow demon." Xander whispered as he lowered his head so that he could nibble Spike's earlobe, and continued more seriously, "Can you imagine eleven hundred years, never feeling pain, never being sick, anytime you have a problem you wave your center of power and poof, it's gone. Then one-day bam! Bad hair days, zits, P.M.S., indigestion, and you're trapped in this flesh sack that you can feel dying around you. And on top of that, she had all of her memories, every case, year by year. God knows she recounted most of them to me during prom. She didn't even have the luxury of denial, she knew the worst of what was out there; hell, she had been the worst and now she was trapped here on the Hellmouth." Xander had pulled back to look Spike in the eye while he spoke. Hell even I know talking about your ex while making out is just wrong. So why is he still petting me, why doesn't he say something? "I'm sorry. You don't need to hear this."

"I need to hear whatever you need to say." Spike's hands were busy, but they had stayed above Xander's waist. They had been together long enough that Xander had figured out that hands below the waist meant 'shag now' Well, duh. but that hands above the waist meant you're tired; you're stressed; you're empty; you're sad; come let me fix it.

"You want to hear a story?" Xander peeked up though his lashes and the over-long locks of his hair, which really did need to be cut.

Spike snorted, then tilted his head to look past the hair and tucked Xander against him. Spike rested his chin on top of Xander's head and said, "Yes Luv, tell me a story."

"Not so very long ago, on the Hellmouth, there was a school. It was a very scary place filled with math and history and teachers, some of whom were really giant preying mantises. Vampires occasionally came to that place to bash people in the head with science equipment. Children were imprisoned there and only the lucky ones were allowed to leave, after enduring the torture for twelve years.

"Time went by and an evil man decided that he needed a final evil act to culminate his ascension to greater demonhood. He decide that the most evil thing he could do would be to wait for the day the children were scheduled to be released from the horrible prison and destroy not only their lives, but their hope of freedom. The children decided to fight back.

"Shortly before the day of release, a boy saw a girl crying in the courtyard. Other students walked past rushing to class. No one seemed to see the girl. The bell rang, and still the girl cried. Now the boy knew the girl had been laid off from a job of which she had been very fond, and he knew that she was an eleven hundred year old girl and that she knew the evil man was not going to let the children leave the horrible school. He thought that either of these were very good reasons to cry, but when he saw her cry his heart hurt. Being rather fond of his heart he thought he should do something to make her stop crying.

"So he walked over to her and asked, "Why are you crying?" And she showed him; on her finger was a tiny cut. She had turned the page of a book too quickly and the book had bitten her. The tears that streamed down her face weren't angry tears for the power she no longer had. The tears weren't frightened tears because she knew the time was approaching for the evil man to come. The tears were the tears of a child. A child hurt for the very first time, who can't conceive that there is an end to pain or that it will get better. Because all that the girl knew was the now, and the now hurt. And at that moment, the boy realized how alone the girl was. It wasn't just that she had no friends, and had no family. She was trapped in a bubble of 'me'. Her whole world was so new and so strange that she couldn't understand anything but herself, and because of that no one could understand her. At that moment the boy decided that he would try and understand her, that he would be her friend."

Xander sighed and added, "I really tried to be a good friend."

"What did you do about her paper cut?" Spike asked absently.

"Bought her a soda from the vending machine and told her to hold the can against it." Xander squirmed on Spike's lap so that he could see him. "I never told the others about that. For a long time they thought it was just sex, but...but she needed me, and it was good... to be needed."

"I need you." Spike said in a very serious tone.

"You do? What do you need me to do?" Xander ask in an equally grave voice.

"Move some more," Spike whispered, using blunt teeth to trace the line of Xander's jaw. Xander tilted his head back to give Spike better access to his neck. He felt Spike's face morph while it pressed softly against his skin and the blunt teeth were replaced by bladelike sharpness tracing the pulse points with a feather-soft touch. Xander squirmed again, torn between desperately wanting more contact and his finely honed survival instincts that still, on occasion, backhanded his cerebral cortex and asked 'What the hell do you think you're doing?' Spike's fingers moved up to tease around, but never quite touching, Xander's nipples. Blindly, Xander grabbed Spike's hand and placed it on the fabric of his cargo pants that covered his rising erection.

The door opened and Tara stood at the top of the stairs. She blinked, she blushed, she looked at her feet. Willow's voice came from behind her. "What? Giles said he was down..." Willow blushed. She looked at Tara. They both grinned.

Tara said, "I don't think he wants sushi." Willow shut the door. Xander blushed and looked down, then he looked at Spike, laughed and pulled him close for a kiss.

"You're one of a kind, Pet." Spike picked him up, and can you say disconcerting, and moved him out of sight of the door, near the old shelves. He set Xander down to stand by a sturdy table Xander had used earlier to brace the planks he had cut for the shelves. Spike reached into a basket on the top of the shelf and pulled out a tube of lube.

"You are so busted." Xander started to turn towards him, but Spike placed both of Xander's hands firmly on the table, then removed his own shirt.

"Now, now, you have a suspicious nature. I just had that there for an emergency," Spike purred and place the tube on the table. He kicked off his boots. And just when did he untie those? Then he dropped his jeans and stepped out of them.

"What kind of an emergency?" Xander had trouble following the conversation since Spike was busy; his hands were unzipping Xander's cargo pants and pulling back on his hips and Spike's foot was nudging Xander's feet into a wider stance.

"This kind of an emergency." Xander felt air replace fabric from his mid-thighs up, and the light, soft kiss Spike placed on the spot where his neck met his spine. Soft kisses trailed down the vertebra, each bump worshipped as Spike slowly sank to his knees. By the time Spike's mouth reached Xander's tailbone Spike was softly caressing Xander's inner thighs with light sweeping strokes which started almost at the knees and stopped just shy of his balls. Xander felt his whole body tremble and Spike hadn't even reached for the lube. He bucked forward wildly when Spike's tongue penetrated him. If not for Spike's strong, sure grip he would have hurt himself on the table. The table and Spike's hold on him were the only thing keeping him standing as stars exploded behind his eyelids. When he was sure he couldn't take any more without losing complete use of every muscle in his body for days, Spike stood up and turned him around.

"That was the most amazing thing..." Xander whispered.

"Like that, do you?" Spike grinned, and softly kissed him.

"Hell yeah!" Xander looked at the table, and the tube Spike had been so obvious in placing there. Not that this wasn't good, but why...? "Spike? What's the lube for?"

He climbed onto the table facing Xander and lifted his knees and said, "Thought you might want to use it."

* * * * *

Either Willow didn't tell Giles about 'the basement incident' or he was implementing the same denial skills he had perfected during the Anya/Xander circus of debauchery and semi-public sex. Xander was betting on the latter. The smell alone, in an area as poorly ventilated as the storage room, would take days to dissipate. So he endured Willow's knowing smirks and Tara's shy smiles, yet was spared any awkwardness with Giles, for which he was deeply grateful.

Dawn knew, not about the sex in the basement, or that time in the training room, or the kitchen, but she knew that Xander and Spike were more than just friends who spent a lot of time together. Xander had only one truly terrifying moment when Dawn had looked at him all wide-eyed and earnest and said, "You realize you've scarred me for life, don't you?" But when that remark had met with blind panic from Xander, she had been unable to keep a straight face. "I'm joking, you moron. Although," and her voice became so wistful that he wasn't sure if it was real or shammed. "It isn't every girl whose first two major crushes end up together, but I think I'll get over it."

June ended with a 'bugger' call. The kind of phone call where Giles said 'Bugger!' loudly, and then proceeded to grill the caller for details, while the rest of them waited for him to get off the line and tell them how the world was going to end. They gathered around the research table while Giles was on the phone. After a while, Willow looked at Xander with a single raised eyebrow, so he returned it with two raised eyebrows and a "humph." Dawn giggled. Spike snorted. Tara said, "I'll make some tea," and went to in the small galley kitchen. Giles was still on the phone when she returned with the tea things.

Dawn took Giles a cup fixed the way he liked it and was rewarded with a smile and a nod, but he gave no sign of wrapping up the call. "Any idea what it's about?" she whispered as she perched on one of the iron stairs, on a step slightly lower than the one on which Spike was lounging. She was answered by assorted shrugs and head shakes, but the focus of their attention was still Giles and his interrogation of the caller. Tara and Willow sat at the table with Xander and fussed with the tea and cookies. Tara handed Spike the blood she had warmed. Go T, with Martha Stewart's Undead Living. Dawn had opted out of the 'at least beverages give us something to do with our hands' stall and worried the skin along her thumbnail. Willow reached over without looking and gently tugged her hand away from her mouth, but replaced it with a cookie so that it didn't count as nagging.

Giles finally hung up the phone. "Apocalypse?" Willow and Xander asked in unison, paused for a startled look and said "Jinx!" And then both hung their heads, at least appearing guilty for acting like kids.

It was Tara who voiced the question they all had been thinking. "Has something bad happened?"

"Well," Giles paused to refill his cup. Oh so not good, a two cup crisis, something bad has happened, all right. "Actually," Giles continued, "it seems that something bad is about to happen. Something that the Powers That Be have brought to Angel's attention; he's apparently involved in the resolution. That was Wesley, it seems Cordelia has had a vision concerning the Hellmouth."

And, oh bonus, the LA team is road-tripping it to the Hellmouth. Xander watched Dawn for her reaction. She seemed to have come to terms, though it had been a struggle, with the whole 'Key' concept. It had helped that when she did find out, she had had a few months of real memories to back up the manufactured ones. He knew she had memories of Cordelia and Angel, and even Wesley, but had never really met them. This might just serve as a test run to what her reaction to Mr. Summers would be when he came back into her life. Xander had thought about asking Willow if there was a spell involved in his continued absence, but wasn't sure he wanted to know if there was. He wasn't sure how he would handle it if a complete stranger, albeit her father, showed up and tried to take Dawn, but he was pretty sure how Spike would react.

Willow hadn't told Angel about 'the Key', just that Glory had needed something to lower the walls between the worlds and that Buffy had stopped her, with her life. Willow had also told Xander that Angel was keeping eye on Faith, and visited her frequently in prison. Xander had been concerned about Faith himself. Not the way he worried about the gang, more along the lines of how he worried about the Watchers, and the Initiative and didn't Riley's bailing put to rest any false hope we may have had that that bunch of genocidal thugs had dispersed with the Adam catastrophe and akin to the way he worried that Angel would one day check that pesky soul in a locker at the nearest bus station and show up one night and kill them all. Xander had always considered it wise to know who wanted to kill him and where they were, but over the years the number had grown to the point he was thinking of starting a Rolodex.

Giles decided that since the vision had been sent to Cordelia that they should wait for Angel to arrive before attempting any physical reconnaissance. So they hit the books, checking out demonic holy days and various enigmatic prophecies. They were well ensconced in the research when the four of them strode into the shop like they were on camera. Sheesh, Hollywood.

"Cordy...your makes you look..." OH GOD! Abort! Abort! She'll kill me. Think of something, think of something. "famous." Xander stammered and it's a fabulous save by Alexander Harris; the crowd goes wild. Well, maybe not wild, but it did earn me Queen C's million dollar smile and a big hug. Wait, did she just growl? Spike? Jealous Spike? Okay, in a stunning display of my ability to multitask I have warm gooshy feelings and am scared stiff at the same time, and not stiff in a good way "Angel. Wesley." Xander nodded to each and checked out the new guy while Cordelia introduced him around. From the way he was sizing him up Xander figured this Gunn must be Cordy's new boy toy. Xander wondered if she let this one be seen with her in public.

Giles and Wesley went back to the office, to exchange secret Watcher handshakes or swap gossip about who was who in the 'even though we study things too weird to be believed we can still manage to make the dissertations about them boring' club. They couldn't have been talking about the 'case' since between the limited information Cordy had, and what the rest of them had found with the research they had done so far, they had squat. Apparently Cordy's 'visions' weren't full-blown SenSurround experiences like Buffy's dreams had occasionally been. Even Buffy's dreams had been open to interpretation and usually could only be completely understood after it was too late.

Willow and Tara, after making the polite social small talk, excused themselves, saying they were going to get some components for a scrying spell out of the storage room. Xander saw right through that and figured they were going to the storage room for the same reason he and Spike would have been if he had been quick enough to call it first. Angel and Spike, after a brief round of 'wanker vs. psychopath', had retired to neutral corners. Spike was not-so-casually lounging on the stairs near the research table and obviously, to Xander, standing guard over Dawn. Angel lurked near the front of the shop, feigning interest in the merchandise. Xander figured Dawn's presence would forestall any bloodshed, so when Cordy asked to see the rest of the shop he gave her and Gunn the tour, Angel having declined to take in the highlights so that he could continue to not watch Spike not watch him.

Xander was preening under Gunn's praise of the training facility. He had seemed especially impressed by a storage unit Xander had installed along the wall near the back door. It was built in, but Xander had kept the design simple. He wondered which the tall black man was really impressed by, the functional design or the fact that one of Cordy's spoiled suburban friends had a job from which you actually got dirty and developed calluses. They hadn't been there long when Dawn rushed in and without a word began trying to pull Xander toward the back door. The silent tears were back and she didn't even seem to notice. "Dawn, honey, what's the matter?" Xander soothed and began to stroke her hair with the hand attached to the arm which was not in the death grip. She didn't answer immediately but turned a wide-eyed, suspicious stare on Gunn and then Cordy.

"Dawnie, you know me..." Cordy didn't finish; she had reached out while she spoke and Dawn stepped back out of reach and pulled Xander close.

Dawn stood up on her toes to get closer to Xander's ear and whispered, "Angel...he... Angel and Spike were arguing... I...They went outside." Her eyes pleaded with him to do something, to fix it, to not let her go through yet another loss. She was scared and frustrated, and yes, Xander thought, looking at the deepest, most basic raw emotion in her eyes, she was resigned. Resigned to the belief that Fate was yet again going to kick the legs right out from under her, and leave her broken and alone.

"You stay here, with Cordy and Gunn. I'll take care of this." Gunn made as if to come with him, but Xander just shook his head and nodded at the girls. He paused at the storage unit by the door. Most of the cubbyholes held personal items, textbooks, shoes, umbrellas, sweaters, and purses but the two nearest the door held a supply of stakes and several flasks of holy water. Xander grabbed one of each and went outthe back door.

The alley was wide and had plenty of room for a fight. As he suspected, Spike and Angel had degenerated past the name calling stage and had moved on to slamming each other against the walls. He had to stop this before someone got dusted. Angel currently had Spike pinned face forward against the wall and was growling out something about Spike's lack of brains. Xander resolutely walked over and stopped just out of reach before saying, "This stops now, right now."

"Xander, get inside. This has nothing to do with you, it's between Spike and I." But Angel had taken his attention off of Spike for a fraction of a second and it was a fraction of a second too long. Spike reared back and cracked his skull loudly against Angel's face and in a flash their positions were reversed. Xander stepped forward, and placed his hand on Spike's bicep, not grabbing, just touching.

"Spike, go inside. Please." Spike looked like he was about to argue and Xander added, "Dawn is really upset." And he went, without a word. That seemed to surprise Angel more than the broken nose.

"We have to talk." Xander watched as Angel pulled out an old fashioned handkerchief and blotted his nose. But hey, vampire, so it'll probably heal by the end of the night.

"I said that this is between Spike and I." Angel growled.

"Wrong. It ceased to be just the two of you when you dragged Dawn into it." Xander snapped. Am I insane? Well, obviously. I wonder if he'll kill me?

"Xander, he's a killer." Angel reasoned.

You know Angel I'd be more inclined to listen to you if you didn't always talk to me like I've had one too many head injuries. Xander thought, but what he said was, "So are you." Oh, and what's with the pained look? You supposedly spend all your time working on penance for your sins, but no one's allowed to point out the truth?

"Xander, listen," Angel started, but Xander saw where the conversation was going and decided it would be a waste of time that they didn't have.

"No. You listen. Spike is part of the team. If that's something you can't or won't deal with you should have just called this one in and stayed in LA. Do you understand? You don't get a vote. He is one of us. Whatever is between you two, deal with it." It had taken every bit of Xander's control to keep his voice low and emotionless. He wanted nothing more than to rage at this man who seemed to posses the uncannyability to sweep out of the shadows and mess up his life.

He walked back to the door of the shop, but stopped and whispered just before opening the door,trusting that the vampire would hear him. "You selfish bastard. I know you're hurting. We're all hurting. But whatever you feel, it's only a fraction of what Dawn's going through. Did you even notice what you did to her?"

Xander walked back into the main room of the store. Over at the table, Dawn was sitting on Spike's lap and someone had made hot chocolate. It has to be ninety degrees out. This is taking comfort food too far. Tara and Willow had been looking for scrying supplies, or at least they were smart enough to follow through with their cover story. Cordy just looked stymied as she watched Spike stroking Dawn's hair. Spike and Dawn spoke in hushed voices as Willow bounced and explained a great idea; she had a 'new spell in the testing stage-everybody duck'. Gunn wasn't faking interest well, and Tara had a mildly worried look that Xander found telling, and he went to warn Giles.

Angel had come back inside while Xander had gone to the office to fetch Giles and Wesley. Xander wasn't sure which had Angel more off center; the frightened glances Dawn now leveled against him, or Spike's tender nurturing of Buffy's little sister. Currently, instead of just glaring at Spike, he seemed to be taking in the whole dynamics of the group's interaction, evaluating the changes which had taken place since he had left after graduation.

They were none of them the same people they had been. Giles no longer treated them as students but as colleagues. Willow was more assertive; she had found her place with her witchcraft and seemed more at ease in her body and the world around her. She trusted her own judgment more than when they were kids. Xander knew it was partly due to her testing her limits and not yet having found them, but mostly due to Tara's quiet faith in her and her rock-solid support. He knew he himself now thought more before speaking, and no longer needed to be reassured that he had a right to be there. This was his pack, and although Xander still regarded Angel as an unpredictable predator, he no longer feared that Angel would or could usurp his place.

"Breathe, Wills." Xander's comment earned him an annoyed glance but didn't slow down the petite redhead's description, complete with gestures and diagrams, of her great idea. Said great idea involved summoning an elemental, hence Tara's worried look, which was now accompanied by anxious lip biting. Even Wesley looked askance at Willow's theory.

Giles had once told Xander that he blamed the computer for most of Willow's, how did he put it, "creative catastrophes" with magic. When Xander had mentioned that Giles had a built-in prejudice towards the 'infernal machines' because they clashed with both his stuffy British intellectual image and his bad-assed Ripper persona, Giles had said that what he had meant was that Willow tended to think of spells as programs; and that that lead to both her powerful successes and her equally spectacular disasters. So loved the whole demon magnet thing, thanks, Wills. Giles had pointed out how for most magic users, spells were an extremely formal intellectual ballet with every word and gesture choreographed, where the slightest deviation would change the results. One spell, one result; no mucking about with it. But Willow tore spells down to their basic components and reassembled them to achieve unpredictable results. Just like programmers would cut and paste pieces of various subroutines together to perform more complex functions, Willow took smaller harmless spells and combined them and strung them in sequence until you got a human who could stand toe-to-toe with a hell god.

Xander felt a rush of pride for his friend and thought he should tell her more often how impressed he was by her, unless she was going to be actually doing magic, then he should be far, far away. The elementals Willow was describing were usually harmless. It was at that word that Giles gave Xander the look and arched one brow toward Dawn. Xander gave the look right back and arched his brow toward Willow. Briefly they were at a stalemate. Xander wondered if any of the LA crew had picked up on the silent battle of wills raging in the same room with them.

Willow reassured Wesley that as long as they picked the right place they should not have any trouble with the gossamer-like sprites, which she claimed would be and excellent source of information. The trick, and the reason they had never used this solution before when research had failed, would be getting far enough from the Hellmouth that the creatures would not be influenced by its malignant power, but close enough that they would have information about it. The sprites were supposedly shameless gossips and excellent sources of information. The were also often liars and very mischievous, and had all the powers of the air. Xander didn't know what that meant but he did know he didn't want to let Willow out of his sight when she stirred them up.

Although he couldn't help her if they attacked magically, Giles could. He conceded defeat and dropped his gaze. Someone had to stay with Willow and someone had to stay with Dawn and in this case Giles was the best suited back-up for Willow. He looked over at Spike and Dawn. Spike's nod was almost imperceptible. He would watch 'Red' and if it was something Giles couldn't take care of with knowledge and magic, Spike would tear it apart with brute force.

Xander walked over to Dawn and knelt down in front of her. "Hey, feel like catching a flick?" Over Spike's shoulder he saw Cordy's shocked look. She seemed just about to let loose with one of her prom queen diatribes when something, or someone, caught her eye and she swallowed it.

Dawn looked at him, then she looked at Giles. She looked back at him, then turned to Spike. She swallowed, looked back at Xander and smiled. "Sure." She got up and picked up her backpack and added as she stopped by the door, "Good luck with the airy things. Be careful."

Xander held up his cell phone and gestured with it. "Call, keep us posted." Then they left.

* * * * *

When they were in the car, Dawn said she couldn't sit still for a whole movie and suggested going to her house. She said at least that if he were busy then one of them wouldn't be worrying. Xander had arranged for a sub-contractor to repair the major damage Glory had done to the house, but had spent a great deal of time there recently. There was much to do, fixing the general wear and tear that had accumulated in a house full of females who defined maintenance as fixing something that was broken. Once they were at the house, Dawn had wheedled him into walking her to a neighbor's to hang with her friends. She promised to stay inside and to call when she wanted him to come get her.

He called the shop to check on the progress. They were going to Lanier's Bluff outside of town, feeling the high windy area would be conducive to the summoning and far enough from the Hellmouth. He still couldn't go with them and chafed at the restriction. They had reached an agreement shortly after the Dragon's visit that one: They were not taking Dawn on anymore Hellmouthy field trips, and two; whenever possible, one of them would sit out the potentially fatal activities, like parents who take separate planes to ensure that one crash does not orphan their children.

* * * * *

Hours later, Xander vigorously scoured his hands at the kitchen sink with a stiff-bristled brush. He had grouted Joyce's bathroom. He was running out of things to do before the appraisal. Truth be told, he was putting it off; this house had been a home to him as well as Dawn. They had all talked it over, the six of them, over dinner in the shop one night. They would sell the house and put the proceeds in a trust for Dawn. After paying for her education the balance would pay out to her when she reached twenty-one. The contents were to be put in storage. So Xander had stalled. He didn't think Dawn was ready to go though Joyce's and Buffy's things, to sort through all those memories. Hell, he wasn't ready. Drying his hands, he turned and leaned back against the sink. The memories crowded around him like a thick fog and were just as impossible to hold. Flashes of Buffy and Dawn in a mad scramble for the phone, with Slayer strength and speed no match for little sister determination and whining. Joyce finding a way to make it seem like he was doing her a favor to take that last piece of pie. It all seemed so real, so now, yet he knew if he reached out to touch these memories that they would slip though his fingers, as insubstantial as mist.

He tossed the towel on the counter and moved though the house like it was a museum. He stopped to look at personal knick-knacks and photos. He had been in and out of this house throughout the past five years. He had passed most of the items almost daily, without really seeing them. When he reached the living room he almost expected to see a younger version of himself ensconced between Willow and Buffy, watching the TV and making sarcastic comments about the age of the cast of 90210. He had taken Dawn aside after they had decided to sell the house. He wanted to make sure that they hadn't pressured her into the decision. After all, it had been such a happy home, except for near the end. She had tried to explain to him how the good memories made it seem so much more hollow and empty without Joyce and Buffy. Tonight he thought he understood.

More than ever, Xander was grateful that Buffy had never returned his puppy love. Instead, what she had offered him was so much more solid and lasting. Instead of memories of fleeting gropes in the back seats of cars or dark corners, like he had with Cordelia, Buffy had given him loyalty and a heart-sib's love that had offered him both her family and her home. Frequently, since Joyce had quietly slipped from their grasp, and Buffy had been yanked away, Xander had wakened with the words she had spoken in that uncanny dream from the night that the Initiative had self-destructed. "I'm way ahead of you, big brother." She had been, ahead-then and always. At sixteen she had opened a whole new world, not just the vampires and other creepy crawlies, but the concept that you didn't just have to lay down and take what life threw at you, that you could fight back.

Now again she had gone ahead, into whatever the next world held. He wondered if she was still guarding the gate, only it would be a new gate and she would be waiting for time and circumstances to reunite them all again. Once again, she was teaching him by example. That love doesn't end with death and that how we do what we do in life matters just as much, if not more, than what we do. He was surprised when the first tears blurred his vision and relieved that Dawn wasn't there. He realized he had been holding a framed photo of the three of them, the Summers women. He didn't know how long he had been staring at it. They were laughing and not paying attention to the camera. He would have to ask Dawn for a copy of it.

He wished the others would call. He knew Will had her phone but he didn't want to call for fear he would interrupt at a crucial moment. Dawn had called twice to see if they had called him and he had told her not to call Willow and that he would call her when they called him, so he didn't feel he could break his own rule, know matter how antsy he got. Xander gently placed the photo back on the end table with a sigh.

When he turned he saw Spike standing there watching him, looking sad and perhaps caught up in his own memories. He was surprised to see Spike, not only because no one had called to say, 'hey stop worrying, we're alive' but because he remembered Willow doing the uninvite spell on Spike and did not remember him coming here since That Night.

His surprise must have shown in his face, because Spike said, "Buffy invited me in," and then laughed at his look of utter confusion. "Not now, you daft git. Before... when... when we came back here to get the weapons and extra clothes for the robot."

Anything was better than the two of them thinking about That Night, so Xander teased, "Oh yeah. Your girlfriend." He smiled-no more pained nostalgia here, Spike looked ready to play. "The one you had programmed for total obedience." Xander hooked his index fingers through the belt loops of Spike's jeans. In a nod to the heat wave, Spike had forgone the leather trench coat and silk shirt and was just wearing his trademark black tee shirt. And a smirk, of course. Tugging Spike forward, Xander backed into the couch and sat down. Spike chuckled and placed a knee on either side of Xander's thighs and straddled his body. Xander couldn't suppress a face-splitting grin when he continued.

"Poor Spike, I bet you miss that total obedience surrounded by such..." Spike cut him of with a kiss. Xander started to lift Spike's shirt; he wanted it off and longed for the skin-to-skin contact. Xander's fingers were drinking in the touch of Spike's slim, muscled body, when Spike clasped both wrists in a firm, unyielding grip. He pushed Xander's hands back and pinned them against the back of the sofa. Xander looked up hungrily into his lover's laughing blue eyes and strained against his Spike prison to reach up for another kiss.

"Behave, Pet." Spike added with a smirk, "time you learned some lessons."

Xander swallowed and nodded. He was winning his battle to suppress laughter and he felt he had conquered the smile, "I've been bad." His words had barely been whispered but they brought back Spike's shit-eating grin.

"Not bad." Spike's words tickled against his neck as he leaned down to scrape blunt teeth against the pulse point just behind Xander's ear. Xander frantically tried to buck up and bring any sort of friction against his throbbing cock, but Spike held him like a vice and he whimpered in frustration."You're never bad, Pet, just a bit naughty. You didn't even ask how things went."

"You're here. They're fine. Please touch me." Why is it he retains the use of language when we're having sex? I must be doing something wrong. I've degenerated into gasping babble and he wants to have a conversation. Xander struggled to reach Spike. Spike relented with a chaste kiss, which was so not what Xander had been trying for. "Please, Spike."

"You're right; they're fine. Dawn called the shop as soon as we got back. All the batteries on the phones died-something to do with the elementals. Red's probably still on the line with her."

"Great. Kiss me." Stop laughing, you limey bastard. Amusing Spike was always fun, but not, at the moment, his primary goal. Xander decided it was time to go on the offensive, and leaned forward to lick what he could reach, the spot where Spike's collarbone dipped to attach to his rib cage.

"Don't you want to know what they.....?" Spike broke off with a howl as Xander bit down hard on the spot he had been sucking. Spike pulled back but did not release Xander. Xander looked up in to his golden eyes and shivered when Spike growled, "You've been very wicked, Pet."

"Are you going to punish me?" Xander barely breathed the words up into the slowly lowering face of fangs and ridges.

What Spike would have said when he finished his low throaty chuckle was forestalled when some noise or movement capture Xander's attention, and he glanced at the entrance to the living room.


Well, we've managed to knock him out of brood mode. Although at least when he's all soulful and sorrowful he looks like he has a brain. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that since Deadboy looks like he just got hit in the back of the head with blunt object, deep thought has been disengaged. Spike still pinned Xander to the couch, but twisted at the waist to face Angel, snarling and growling. Great, out of the two of us, let's make the one who has been reduced to the use of three words--fuck me now--do the talking. Xander squirmed under Spike, not sure if he was trying to convey 'let me up I'll get rid of him' or 'ignore the hulking vampire and shag now'.

"Xander?" Oh good. Angel's regained the power of speech, wonder if I have?

"Yeah?" English, yes, good! Now what do I have to say to get him to leave? Spike, Mr. 'I can assume any sexual position and still say things to make your brain explode' was oddly quiet except for the continuing low growl, which Xander felt more than heard.

"Xander, what are you doing?" Angel looked baffled.

"Grouting the bathroom." Score! I think I just instigated a total mind meltdown, he looks even more puzzled. And in a startling display of sympathy for the big guy, I feel guilty for getting some when he's got the whole curse thing going. Not much, but maybe I should let him off the hook. "I, ah," struggle, squirm, at least let go of my hands, you smarmy bastard, "I've been fixing up the place, before Dawn sells it." Yes! Right hand free. I can now take over the world. Xander used his new freedom to stroke Spike's shoulder, arm and chest, trying to sooth him out of the overprotective guard-dog mode. While this didn't succeed in turning Spike's suspicious yellow gaze from Angel, it did free Xander's other hand.

"Xander, he's a vampire."

Since Xander had a lapful of about one hundred and fifty pounds of growling, yellow-eyed, ridge-faced and fang-filled vampire, he considered suggesting Angel apply for a job with the Watchers. Xander looked at Angel, looked at Spike, looked back at Angel and said, "No, really?"

"Xander?" Willow's voice came from the foyer, and she peeked around Angel's large frame. "There you are." Followed by Tara, she slipped past Angel, who was still rooted in the entrance. Willow sat beside Xander, with Tara sitting on her right. "What busy work did you pretend absolutely needed to be done tonight?" She showed she was teasing by poking his ribs and giggling.

"Hey, not busy work, I re-grouted the master bath." Xander smiled and thought it was lucky nothing had come out of Willow and his first, stumbling, startled recognition of 'wow, look, male and female' and that they had never tested out their interlocking parts. Because nobody could drive all thought of sex from his mind and body like the tiny redhead could when she looked at him with the concerned face.

Which she was giving him now as she said, "You know, Xan, eventually we'll get to a point where we have to bite the bullet and call a broker." Then she turned the concerned look on the room and the house in general. Tara reached over and clasped Willow's hand, entwining their fingers in one of her trademark quiet shows of support.

Willow sighed and then looked at Angel. "Stop looming and take a seat, I want to hear what Xander thinks about the Thing." Well, the couch was out because, while not overly crowded with the four of them sitting there--after all, Spike was sitting on Xander--it didn't really have room for a fourth. But the closest chair to the couch was next to Spike and that obviously wasn't going to happen. So Angel sat on the far side of the room looking as if he wanted to be anywhere else, including a short vacation back to hell. "So what do you think?" Willow asked putting away the concerned look and bouncing slightly.

"What do I think?" I think I probably should have asked Spike how it went out at the bluff before jumping him. Well, never let it be said my academic career was a complete waste; nobody has had more experience pretending they know what is going on than me. "About the Thing?" Now if I can just figure out what the Thing is.

"Yes, tell Red what you think about the Thing, Pet." Spike's voice oozed with encouragement and he morphed from the yellow-eyed protector into the blue-eyed tormentor. Oooh, Smug Spike, keep it up and no nookie for you. Wait, that would mean nookie for me. That would be bad. "So, you think this Thing will work?" Xander ventured vaguely. I could just tell her I have no idea what we're talking about, it wouldn't be the first time. After briefly considering the rest of their audience, Xander decided to wait it out; nothing was likely to come bursting through the wall, now that Glory was dead.

"Yeah, it could be helpful, unless this is a trick." The concerned look was back and Willow bit her lip.

"No," Tara said. "It was a good idea, I think the sprites really wanted to help."

"And they gave you the Thing?" Xander asked. I need more information. In a subtle attempt to persuade his lapful of undead lover to help him out, Xander slid his left hand along the side of Spike's thigh until it rested on his ass. Their bodies blocked the view from the witches, but he had to move slowly so that Angel wouldn't notice.

"Well, they led us to it. There's sort of a communication problem. Didn't Spike tell you?" Willow finished with a pensive tilt to her head.

"Well, Spike," Xander shrugged dismissively. "I'd rather hear your version."

"Oy!" Before Spike could launch into a diatribe of English slang, Xander squeezed hard on his butt check and transformed whatever he had been about to say into a low rumbling purr.

Willow's eyes widened and she looked at purring Spike, and she looked at panicking Xander and in true Willow form said, "Oh God, we're interrupting sex."

"No!" said Xander.

"Yes!" said Spike.

Glares were exchanged.

* * * * *

The five of them took two cars back to the shop. Willow and Tara had stopped at the Summers' neighbor's and brought Dawn a change of clothes so that she could spend the night. Spike filled Xander in on the ride over in between complaining about the interrupted sex.

Sprites were glowing, gossamer entities that dance and tumbled on air currents. They did not like vampires but did apparently like Cordelia. Spike said Giles had thought it had something to do with her visions. Since air was practically everywhere and they were basically air, Sprites were excellent sources of information. The problem was that they didn't have an index. When you asked a question you had to be very careful how you worded it. It gave 'information' overload a whole new meaning when hundreds of tiny beings swirled around you trying to do a core dump on everything they knew about a given subject.

Although they had tried to keep their questions closed-ended with limited answers, as close to yes or no as possible, in the excitement an open-ended question had been unintentionally asked and pandemonium had ensued. After becoming frustrated at the humans' inability to comprehend their message the little critters had swarmed and led the humans to a thing buried beneath an ash tree. The Thing looked similar to the Dagon sphere that Glory had destroyed. The etchings on it were different and Giles and Wesley were currently researching their meaning.

The problem was although both agreed the marking predated both the Germanic and Celtic languages it had properties of each. Yet if the translation leaned toward Celtic it meant one thing, and if it was Germanic it meant practically the opposite. So they weren't sure if the Thing would stop whatever was tampering with the Hellmouth or if it was what the bad guys needed and would therefore come after.

More good news-when Angel had done a sweep of the old high school ruins earlier that evening, he had found signs of recent activity. Nothing definite enough to tell them who or what was prowling around but he said it felt like magic had been used, whatever the hell that meant. Willow had wanted to set up a warding spell like the one she used to hold off the crusade that killed the Winnebago and tried to take Dawn. Giles had vetoed the idea. He said it would be too draining on Willow's vitality to keep it up for a long period. He felt that whatever it was would just wait until she was too weak to maintain it and attack when she was vulnerable.

Back at the shop, Wesley launched into a detailed description of what they didn't know, which was a lot. Xander tried to stifle a yawn but Giles noticed and cut off Wesley's speculation. "We've cast spells to warn us if anything happens, tonight at least. Willow, you and Tara have classes in the morning and Xander has work. Go home get some sleep. Whatever does happen you'll need to be alert tomorrow."

Wesley, Angel, Giles and to Wesley's and Angel's obvious surprise, Spike, stayed to hit the books. Before leaving to take the witches back to the dorm Xander stopped in the kitchen, where Spike was heating his dinner. "So you're doing the book thing?" Spike gave a deprecating shrug and just smiled. Since Spike and he were might as well admit it living together, Xander had picked up on many signals that pointed out that Spike was highly educated and a great deal smarter that his street persona. Not only did Spike not like to admit this, he went out of his way to hide it. "When do you think you'll be home?"

Before Spike could answer, Angel stopped in the entrance to the small kitchen. "Um, sorry," Angel looked uncomfortable, and he really had no reason to be, he wasn't even interrupting sex this time. "Giles said there was..."

"Blood? Help yourself, Peaches." Spike took his mug and pulled Xander out of the galley to give Angel room to get in, or maybe just as an excuse for a quick grope. Yeah, like he needs an excuse.

In a blur of movement Angel grabbed Spike's wrist. "That's human." Let's give it up for the vampire super senses. And do you want to let go of him, asshole?

Xander waited for Spike's reaction. As long as they weren't physically trying to kill each other, or upsetting Dawn, he didn't feel it was his place to interfere in whatever freaky vampire-type family thing they had going. Spike seemed more amused than angry. "That's right," he said and took a slow deliberate sip from his mug. "What did you think it would be? Pig?"

"Xander, you know about this?" Angel turned an incredulous look on Xander. So much for staying out of it.

"Well, it's pretty well marked. Check out the fridge. We keep most of it at home but there should be a selection of types." Xander deliberately misinterpreted the question.

Evidently two could play that game because Angel said, "You mean like cow and pig?"

"Actually I meant 'O', 'B', 'AB', and 'A '." Enough sparring, Xander thought. He was tired and just wanted to go home and wrap himself around Spike.

Spike had other plans and threw a taunting smirk. "He takes good care of me, my Xander. Guess your humans don't care if you eat right."

Normally, Xander took exception to the possessive pronouns but he let it slid. He wasn't blind. Ever since Angel had strutted his over-gelled ass in here Spike had been giving off waves of insecurity. Xander remembered that feeling. Angel had had the same effect on him at one time. He had always felt that if there was a place for Angel in Buffy's life that there might not be a place for Xander. He should have trusted her. She had tried to let him know that they each were very dear to her in different ways.

Suddenly he felt sorry for Angel. He had missed the last two years of Buffy's life. Her starting, and finding her feet in collage. The time she suspected her roommate was a demon-and had been right. Discovering the hazards of dating and drinking on the Hellmouth. Her brief engagement to Spike. snerk. He hadn't been there to see what Xander had. What was it Giles had said about Willow? 'What a wonderful young woman she had become'. Angel had missed it. He had dated and fallen in love with the girl. Xander had loved the girl and the woman. All in all Xander thought he had the better deal.

"I've gotta bail. I'm beat and I still have to take the witches home. Don't kill each other-err... any deader than you already are." Xander left, giving Spike a semi-chaste kiss and receiving his promise to wake him when he got home. Spike and Angel were still discussing diet issues when he left with Willow and Tara. He hoped the two of them would find away to if not get along then to at least work together.

This was the first threat of the Hellmouth nature since they had lost Buffy. A day didn't go by that he didn't miss Buffy. He missed the friend things. Like the way she would listen to him try to learn to play the harmonica without bludgeoning him to death, because she had given it to him for his birthday two years ago and should have known better than to do that to someone with no musical talent. Right now though, he missed the Slayer. He missed her take-charge attitude and the way she marshalled their resources. Buffy could have had Spike and Angel working together, or at least tolerating each other, with a few well-placed quips. Xander had a feeling that they were going to need both of them on this and had no idea how to make it work. He would just have to wait and see what tomorrow would bring.

* * * * *

Xander felt cool hands slide across his body as Spike licked the pulse point behind his ear. The dim light spilling through the open bedroom door didn't reach the bed but did illuminate his eager lover. Slow soft kisses and tender touches insistently lured Xander further into consciousness. A sleepy smile spread over his face as he reached up to help Spike remove his shirt. He pouted at the loss of contact when Spike pulled back to shuck his jeans. Spike leaned over him and kissed the look away with a laugh. Continuing down Xander's body Spike feathered kisses and soft nips down his chest and across his abdomen. When Spike paused, darting his tongue in and around his navel, Xander reached for the lube. Blindly Xander grasped at Spike's hand as he continued his trek and slapped the tube into it while simultaneously lifting his knees and tilting his hips. Xander moaned as Spike's chuckle at his wanton readiness vibrated against his balls and revved the pulse thundering though his cock. As Spike prepared him, Xander pulled down on his lover's shoulders, whimpering into a demanding kiss. This was what he needed; to feel Spike's presence, his cool weight above him, his driving body inside him, to give control over to his lover until nothing existed but a world of crisp sheets and firm flesh. As he looked up into the intense gaze of Spike's blue eyes, Xander thought this, this it the best place in the world to be.

"Now. Now. Please now." Xander hissed and Spike slid home.

Spike's voice wrapped around Xander's thoughts; the disjointed phrases bounced around inside Xander's brain without having seemed to pass through his ear. Each slowly building thrust was punctuated by purred words of desire. "Yes now, yes sweet pet, beautiful boy, so beautiful, so sweet, Xander luv, mine, my love, my boy."

Xander came and spots clouded his sight, his ears rang like a FCC test warning. But Spike's words and thrust continued, so that as sight and sound slowly returned Xander heard, "beautiful, my love, my Xander, sweet boy, love you." Just when Xander though one more thrust would cause him to explode into a quivering heap of glimmering blue light, much like the one that had all but replaced his vision, Spike came and collapsed across his body. Xander wrapped his arms and legs around Spike, barley noticing the tears on his own face.

He stroked Spike back into consciousness. Spike lifted himself, putting his weight on his hands. Before his lover could voice his concern over the tears, Xander smiled. When Xander spoke his voice was soft but steady, with no sign of his tears. "You're a part of me." Xander said, freeing one hand to trace the angles of Spike's face. "You're in my heart."

Spike seemed stunned. He quickly recovered, although the rough emotion in his voice belied the teasing in his words. "Good. Because you're going to be quite cross with me, Pet."

"What did you do?" Xander tried to sound long-suffering, but was unable to remain stern when facing the devilish light in Spike's eyes.

"Me, Pet?" No matter how wide he made his eyes or bitable his lower lip was Spike just could not do innocent.

"Did you dust Angel?" Xander asked, his laugh cutting though his attempt at mock annoyance. The alarm clock next to the bed then clicked and sounded a piercing buzzer.

"That's why you'll be cross, luv," Spike said as Xander reach over to silence the alarm. "Bit of bad timing on my part." Spike smirked as he rolled off his lover and made a great show fluffing his pillow and snuggling down to sleep. "Have a good day at work dear," he laughed at Xander's groan.

"Not fair!" Xander leaned in and brushed his lips across Spike's forehead and whispered. "You never have bad timing. Even if we had had all night, I still wouldn't want to leave." He got out of bed with obvious reluctance and turned just as he was entering the bathroom and said, "It would be wrong, wouldn't it, to ditch the Angelinos and spend the whole weekend in bed?"

"You're asking me what the right thing to do is? That's rich, Pet." The words were pure Spike but the accent was that of the quiet well-spoken man who read to him in bed, and quoted thing that sound like all the answers Xander had missed on the SAT's.

"No. I know what's right. I just... I guess I'm selfish." Xander leaned against the frame of the door lost in thought, knowing he should move, that he had a schedule to keep, but needing just a few more moments to himself.

"No. Not you." Spike rose and wrapped his arms around Xander's naked torso. He stroked his hair and back and said softly, "It's been a rough summer, Xan. You try and take too much on these broad shoulders. You just lean on me, eh?" They kissed and Xander wanted now more than ever to crawl back into bed and curl up beside his lover and hide from the world. He wanted to shut out everything but the well-toned body of the man who was rapidly becoming his everything. But duty called so he reluctantly disengaged the tender embrace with a thanks and a kiss and headed for the shower.

At the site, the morning moved quickly. The thing Xander liked best about his job was how busy he was and how fast that made the day seem to pass. He decided to skip lunch and leave early so he ate at his desk. He tapped an egg against his desk to break the shell and was absentmindedly rolling it against the hard surface to skin it while reading his e-mail, when his mind wandered back to that morning. He knew he had a goofy grin on this face but it was so weird. He got so sappy with Spike sometimes. He had never said to Anya most of the things he said to Spike, but then maybe that was why she left. No, he knew she had loved him, but love could only do so much. Words were good. At least Spike didn't laugh at him--well, no more than usual--when he said them. And what Spike said to one had ever told him he was beautiful, ever, and Spike told him all the time. Xander could feel his goofy grin get wider.

He looked up as Abby came in the office. If Xander ran the site, Abby ran the office. She was the most disorganized person he had ever met and yet she knew everything. He occasionally had asked her for invoices just to marvel at how she could reach into the piles of chaos on her desk and hand him the exact piece of paper. "Good night?" Abby winked at his goofy grin.

Xander blushed and replied, "Good morning."

Spike had stopped by the site one morning before sunrise. Allegedly to deliver the lunch Xander had left on the kitchen counter after having his mind blown--among other things--before leaving for work. In reality Xander got the impression Spike was checking out the place, and warning off any potential competitors. As if anyone could compete with him. In Xander's opinion, Spike pretty much destroyed the curve on any charismatic rating chart.

Abby was the only one who had immediately assumed they were a couple. But after a couple of lunch hours listening to the slash potential of his favorite television shows--which he would now never see in the same light--he thought she might have seen them as a couple even before they had gotten together. "There's a very demanding young lady to see you. She doesn't have an appointment, but she said she was sure you would make time for her. Her name is Ms. Chase. Do you know her?"

Abby was very protective of Xander's time. She had met Dawn and the witches when they stopped by for lunch but considered them to be family, and when Xander considered the frequency they were featured in the photos around his office he could understand why. "She's an old friend; I can make time for her." Xander laughed and mouthed the words 'old girlfriend' as Abby rolled her eyes and went to get Cordelia.

After offering her coffee, and advising against it due to the fact it, well, sucked, Xander closed the door of the office in the back of the trailer. Cordy was seated in the only other chair and glanced appraisingly around the room. "Did we find out anything definite?" Xander interrupted her evaluation.

"Well," She sighed and tossed her shorter streaked hair in a gesture the brought a pang of nostalgia to Xander. "We know that someone, as in human--Angel is pretty sure that it was human or humans--has been prowling around the Hellmouth. Willow did a walk-through after sunrise," She held up a hand, sparking another wave of nostalgia. "Angel and Gunn went with her. She said, and I quote, that there was no magical signature and no magic worker had triggered any of the detection spells she has set up on that place, and their presence alone should have done that. Did you know she had some mystical alarm system on that place? And I didn't quote exactly, she took much longer and did much more bouncing when she said it. Giles said the town's been dead-and not in the undead way; vamp activity down, demons almost nonexistant. He said he put it down to Glory's join-or-die attitude but Wes thinks there may be a new sheriff in town."

"So we don't know anything." Xander sighed and ran the fingers of both hands back though his thick hair. Twice he had resolved to get it cut and Spike had talked him out of it. If Spike kept interfering it would be past his shoulders by fall. If they were all still alive by fall; if they could keep the Hellmouth closed; if they could get rid of Angel and company; sorry, Cordy if some new and improved horror didn't crash into the fragile house of cards in which they were sheltering their partially rebuilt lives.

"...his contacts are gone and no one is talking. Xander, pay attention." A frown marred Cordelia's perfect features. "Am I keeping you from something?" she asked archly.

"Yes. This place doesn't run itself; I have over eighty men I have to keep working and paid, and as much as I miss hearing Queen C's color highlight of the game, I really need you to boil it down. Tell me what you need. What do we need right now to get us to where we have some plan of attack or defense."

Cordelia blinked just for a moment and then the resilience that had first made him fall in love with her clicked in and she switched gears without slowing down. "We need information from the demon population, we need to both find informed sources and get them to cooperate. We need to know if anything new has come to town, human or not. We need to know about the green men I saw in my vision and if they were opening the Hellmouth or trying to keep it closed."

"Little green men?" Xander looked up from the pad where he had been writing her list. Is she serious?

"Big green men, with moldy faces." At his questioning look she waved her hand and said. "Hey, if it were up to me, the PTB's could just fax me the info."

"I'll make some calls. Tell Giles I should be at the shop in a couple hours. How about you? Are you okay?"

He stood as she rose to leave. She gave him her Hollywood smile then laughed, "I'll be fine, as soon as Angel has something to do. His pacing around the shop is driving me crazy." She dropped her lashes and then looked up at him. "I know it's been hard on all of you, but it's so new to him, being here without her. He really loved her, you know?" Xander pulled her into a hug and she continued. "Now, he's even worried about Spike."

"Worried about Spike? Why?" Xander left an arm around her shoulder as he led her out of the trailer. Spike's fine. Isn't Spike fine? What happened? He didn't mention anything, but we were kind of busy. I have got to start having the conversation before the sex. The sex always makes me forget to have the conversation.

Xander's internal babble was stopped when Cordy continued. "Well, maybe not worried. I told you his connections in this town are practically non-existent; he stopped by Spike's crypt, wanting to get him to show him who to shake down and no Spike."

"Tell him to ask Giles," Xander said dismissively, "he has our number. Spike should be awake by now, and there's tunnel access less than a half a block from our building."

Cordelia's stunned look was replaced quickly by annoyance at the whistles and catcalls that greeted her emergence onto the work site. Once back at his desk, Xander tried to put the project planning skill he used to manage the site into mapping out some plan to deal with the situation at hand. He listed what they had, what they knew and what they could obtain on short notice. Then, as he began to make phone calls, he wondered what the penalty would be if they couldn't complete this job on time.

It was a quarter 'til two when Xander entered the magic shop. Cordy was just ending a call on her cellular. "Anything new?" he asked. As he pushed his sunglasses up onto the top of his head, an act that held his thick dark hair off his face, he held a long cardboard tube under one arm and a clipboard filled with paper. He consulted the clipboard and frowned.

"Angel and Spike are off shaking down the demon lairs, and Willow and her friend went to check on a Wiccan group they know. Oh, Willow said to tell you it's not the one from campus. Does that make sense?" Cordy asked.

"Actually, it does." Xander laughed. He nodded to Jonathan, who was working behind the register. Glancing up to the loft, where Giles and Wesley were sorting through the 'don't-touch-them' books Xander caught Giles' eye and shot him an inquiring look. Giles just shook his head. "Okay then, Cor, I'm glad you're here," he said, removing a thick sheaf of paper from the clipboard. "I need you to stay here and coordinate operations." Cordelia looked puzzled as she glanced over the lists.

"Xander, who are all these people?"

Xander laughed again and shook his head. "Most of them went to high school with you. Don't worry, it's not important that you know them, what is important is they will recognize you. See, you were right all those years, popularity is power."

"Okay, but what exactly am I going to be doing?" Engaging prom queen attitude; hand on hip, perfect eye brow lifted and scathing comment primed and ready, God, Cordy, I've missed you.

"Sit here." Xander pulled out a chair from the side of the research table that faced the shop's entrance. "When someone comes to you, get their name. If they aren't on the list ask who they report to and list anything they bring under the name-be sure you keep track of the quantities. Then," he set down the clipboard and opened the case. Unrolling large detailed maps of Sunnydale he continued, "go to the list of questions, on the yellow paper, they apply to the last four weeks; only document positive response. If it's positive refer them to Giles to get as much detail as possible." He stopped and looked up at the loft. "I have a list here on what we need to know on positive response, but I thought you could kind of play it by ear, the more information we get the more you may want to narrow the scope. Is that okay with you?" Xander added the last as an afterthought.

He didn't want to usurp Giles' authority, but it had been nearly twenty-four hours and all they knew was that Cordy had had a vision that the world would soon end. They had known that yesterday. Xander had spent the last hours calling in favors he didn't feel he had earned; he had never contacted these people when he was out of a job. Now he had called people who had put their lives in his hands once before and survived. At at least most of them had. It wasn't a position he wanted to be in again, but he was torn. How could he deprive them of the chance to fight for their own lives simply because he was too much of a coward to risk them?

"Of course, Xander. What exactly are we asking?" Giles seems all right with this, Xander thought.

"It starts out pretty general, just a list of the 'normal' Hellmouthy activities that make Sunnydale the tourist trap of the undead. I figured we oughta take advantage of this one Starbuck town. You know what people say about small towns, everybody knows everybody else's business. Well, graduation punched past the river of denial our neighbors swim in for most of our class." Xander rubbed his eyes and looked down at the table. "Guess we might as well take advantage of that." He sighed. Switching gears rapidly he smiled. "I figure if we only refer the ones to you who have seen or heard about something... well, unusual isn't a word that applies to the supernatural in Sunnydale, but you get the picture. That then you could get some idea as to anything or anyone new in town. Cordy, once you've screened them assign them to quadrants on the maps. They're numbered by priority; make sure you send them out in groups of two or more and tell them to call in only if they find something. They're to come back here before sunset unless we notify them of a different location--that's why it is imperative we verify their phone info, that's on this sheet--before sending them out. Make sure they have the store's number, it rolls to three lines. Jonathan, you can stay and run communication?" Xander barely glanced up and considered the question only a formality.

"Ah...sure." Jonathan's wide-eyed nod was hesitant at first and then he beamed as if the thought of being on the inside of whatever was going on appealed to him.

"Great." Xander shuffled though the remaining pages of the clipboard. He hoped he had covered everything but figured Cordy would be sure to let him know if he hadn't.

"And me?" Gunn asked. Someone has had way too much exposure to the Queen C attitude.

"You're with me." Xander pulled the keys to the truck he had rented out of his cargo pants.

"What are 'we' doing?" Gunn replied.

"Shopping." Xander smirked. Bad Xander, bad Spike, bad influence. Now I'm sporting a smug Spike-like smirk and cryptic comments. Xander looked up to see Giles and Wesley leaning on the railing of the loft. Giles looked a little smug himself, Wesley just looked confused. Then Xander glanced around the store, keys in hand, wondering why he felt he was missing something. "Giles, where's Dawn?"

"Dawn?" Giles seemed to be having trouble with Xander's rapid topic changes, but that was nothing new. "I believe she is still at her friend's home. Megan, wasn't it?"

"She hasn't called? No. Wait. I'm acting freaky and stalker-like, aren't I?" Xander's confidence faltered for the first time since he entered the shop.

"I would say you're acting very much like a parent." Giles said, sounding too amused.

"Great, even better." After his sarcasm, Xander picked his clipboard up and sighed. "Listen, I need to know she's okay. Will you call and have Willow pick her up?"

"Certainly. Anything else?" Giles sounded sincere so Xander said, "Yeah, have the witches scour the dorms and round up as many hotplates as they can get their hands on, I need them here in under two hours."

"Hotplates?" Giles now sounded as puzzled as Wesley looked.

"They're small portable heating units that..." Xander was cut of by Giles' pained expression.

"I am well aware of what a hotplate is, Xander." Giles said.

"Oh, I thought it might be a British thing, you people have different names for everything and all." Xander shrugged, and still didn't understand what Giles had wanted to know.

"Let's get going with this 'shopping' already." Gunn did not sound patient.

Just before they went out the door, Xander turned and called up to Giles. "We'll be back in a couple hours. Can you order pizza?"

"How many?" Giles had begun to rely on Xander's estimation of the gang's appetites ever since he had seen Buffy consume a large avocado and sliced cherry tomato by herself.

Xander frowned at the floor, then looked up at Giles and said "Sixty?"

Gunn had been quiet as they drove. He didn't look happy, but Xander didn't know the guy; maybe he never looked happy. It must be a bitch getting dragged to the Hellmouth all because of one of Cordy's visions.

"So?" Xander said after the silence became too much for him. "How did you get into the whole 'let's go save the world' business?" Judging by the way Gunn clenched his jaw and stared impassively ahead, Xander thought he might have asked the wrong question. He wondered if Gunn would answer at all. It had been clear that he had not wanted to be commandeered for this detail, but Xander need an extra pair of hands. Xander would have preferred Spike but, well, daylight.

"Sometimes a job just needs to be done." Gunn finally answered.

Wow, there's a story there. Funny how I never thought that this shit touched people outside of Sunnydale. I guess there really is no place to hide from it.

"So, what are we shopping for?" Gunn said in a not-too- subtle change of subject.

"Groceries," Xander said. He felt a grin spread across his face. He hoped it was a goofy grin and not a wild-eyed maniacal grin.

"Groceries?" Gunn asked. Maybe it was a goofy grin, Gunn was now smiling and didn't appear as if he were thinking about jumping out of the moving vehicle.

"Yeah. You might say we're gonna 'bake a cake'," Xander said, and started to hum the tune he just couldn't seem to get out of his head.

Their first stop was up a sandy road next to an actual barn. Waiting for them was a handsome Asian man about Xander's age and height, wearing dark glasses and khaki pants with a tight black tee shirt. He was leaning against a flatbed truck that had a small tarp-covered load in the back.

"T.J." Xander and T.J. grasped forearms.

"Xand-man." Without another word the young man jumped up onto the truck bed and began removing the tarp. Underneath were three army- green metal lockers.

Xander looked up at the young man standing above him and said. "Have I mentioned that I want to have your children?"

"Dude. I just wish I could get leave. I can't believe I'm missing this." It took all three of the men to move the lockers from one truck to the other.

"Promise I get an invite to the next war?"

"Thanks, man, this is amazing. I don't know how you do it." Xander smiled and when they clasped hands he added, "I don't want to know how you do it, either."

Their next stop took them down a long dusty access road bordered by many rows of orderly plants. Xander backed the truck flush up against a loading dock. Gunn followed him into the offices of the nursery. A tall black woman unwound herself from her perch on a high stool behind a well-lit drafting table. "Xander Harris, is that you? How have you been?" She came forward and hugged him.

"Kayla, you look great. I didn't know you worked here." Xander was surprised by the hug. She hadn't said three words to anyone outside of art class in high school. She had, however, survived graduation, an event that bound their class tighter than most.

"It's a summer internship. I wanted to stay back east where I'm going to school, but my parent insisted I come home." While she was speaking, she had crossed to the drafting table. Xander looked down at the precise design, which resembled the blueprints he used but without the straight lines.

After Xander introduced Gunn and Kayla to each other he asked. "Kel around?"

"You're the one he's putting together that order for? I thought it was that crazy girlfriend of his." Kayla said with a smile. "I'll page him." She picked up the receiver of a phone and hit three buttons and when she spoke into the mouthpiece her voice resonated from outside speakers. "Kel, come to the office please." She hung up the phone and then said, "This is..." She looked down and then up, her large brown eyes filling with tears. "This is something like Graduation, isn't it?"

"I'm sorry Kay-" Xander started, but stopped to let her continue.

"I was right next to Harmony that day. You know, Kendall, Kendrick...we were never close, different friends and all. But, my God, Xander, we'd sat next to each other since kindergarten." Her eyes seemed focused inward when she said, "I'd never even been in a car accident. I'd seen violence on TV or in movies never...I was never touched by it." Her eyes were dark and haunted. "Talk about losing your innocence. I picked a school as far away from here as I could get." Xander pulled her into another hug, this time as he patted her shoulder he felt her sob. "I guess I'm not much of a 'Child of the Hellmouth'," she said in a small voice.

"You're the best kind," he said. "You survived. You haven't forgotten. You remember how dangerous it is to pretend that this crap doesn't exist, but you moved on, you've rebuilt your life."

Kelly came into the office from a door off the back. Xander introduced him to Gunn and as they were shaking hands he said to Xander, "Please tell me Laura did not give you this shopping list." Xander just shrugged and smiled. "All right, I don't wanna know. I get off at six; any idea where this is going down?"

"Unless you get a call telling you different, come to the magic shop." Xander checked his clipboard and asked, "You want us to call the nursery for you?" Kelly gave him his cellular number and the three of them went out to the loading dock and added several canisters to the U-Haul.

Just before Gunn and Xander got into the truck Kelly said, "Whatever you do, just keep Laura out of the kitchen until I get there."

"Shouldn't be a problem." Xander didn't think any of them would have time to cook, which was why he had told Giles to order something. As they were pulling off the access road out onto the highway, Xander's phone rang.

"Xander, its Tara." She sounded shaken. He was surprised it wasn't Willow.

"Problem with the Wiccans?" He asked.

"No, no. I called...Xander, I ran into Riley on campus."

"Oh shit. How... I... Tara, are you okay?" He gave up trying to voice his hundreds of questions and frustrations he had regarding Buffy's former lover. He had only given voice to his barely suppressed anger to Spike. He had known that eventually Riley would return, and figured that it would have to be him or Giles who broke the news of Buffy's death to him. There was no way Xander was letting Willow go through that again, not after how deeply she had been affected by telling Angel. Dawn telling him, and recounting those last painful days, was out of the question.

"I blew it, Xan. I... He asked me not to tell Buffy he was back, he said he wanted to tell her himself. I... I guess just the look on my face... Then when he had pulled himself together, he said he wanted to stop by and talk to Joyce..." Tara sounded like she was starting to cry, her breath was coming soft and uneven. Xander made soothing noises but before he could say anything she continued. "That's not why I called. I mean, I do feel wretched telling him like that and all but I thought you needed to know. If Riley's in town.... maybe his 'friends'..." the emphasis she placed on the word reminded Xander that the call just might not be secure, "are here too. Giles said finish your 'shopping' and hurry home."

"Will do. And T, you did fine. None of us wanted that job, but... Hey, is Wills okay, how did she...?"

Tara interrupted. "Thankfully, we had split up at the time, to cover more ground. She should be here when you get back."

"Okay." Xander said. "We'll see you soon."

They made a few more stops: Lowe's; Wal-Mart; Radio Shack; and an Army/Navy Surplus store. At each they went to the back and were met by a member of the last class to graduate from the old high school. Gunn and Xander were then assisted in loading merchandise, for which they never paid, into the U-Haul. When they arrived back at the shop, they parked in the alley behind it, the same alley Angel and Spike had had their throw-down in the night before. Was that only last night? Xander backed the truck as close to the door of the training room as possible. He thought it should be easy to tie a tarp between the roof of the building and the top of the truck to fashion a makeshift awning.

In the training room Angel and Spike were assembling a temporary table out of two carpenter's horses and an old door. Xander walked up quietly behind Spike just as they were finishing and slipped his arms around the blonde's waist. Hugging him tightly, Xander rested his head on Spike's shoulder and turning until his lips were almost touching Spike's ear. He whispered, "If I bat my eyelashes and string up a tarp, you think I could get some big strong vampire to carry in the groceries?"

"Try it. Maybe Peaches will volunteer." Spike rumbled back in an equally quiet purr. Then he seemed to think about what Xander had said and asked not louder. "Groceries?"

"Well," Xander smirked and nipped at the still temptingly positioned ear. "Most of what we got are the ingredients to bake a cake--zombie style--along with a few party favors."

Spike turned slowly toward the sharp teeth worrying his earlobe. He wore a look that made Xander sure his next words were going to be either, 'shag now', or 'pet, what is going on in that screwy little mind of yours'; but they were neither since Angel interrupted. "Xander, I think you may want to talk to Cordelia."

"What? She doesn't like being worshipped by the masses?" he asked. Xander reluctantly let go of his lover. At that moment he wanted nothing more than to take Spike and go home. He had a clear picture in his mind of Spike, fresh from the shower, wearing only an oversized pair of Xander's old sweat pants. Xander had spent most of last Saturday watching the blonde amble around barefoot with his hair drying in soft wisps before it was gelled, and absentmindedly performing routine chores while never taking his nose out of some old book he had been reading. Last week the sheer domesticity of the scene had been laughable, this week it seemed like a glimpse of heaven.

"What's this for?" Xander rapped soundly on the 'table'.

"That crazy redheaded bint said something about there not being enough ventilation in the kitchen and needing more space for the hotplates."

"That crazy bint is your blood connection." Xander replied, more for the sheer pleasure of arguing with him than because he felt that Laura might care what she was called by Spike.

"Xander!" Cordelia stood in the doorway to the front of the store, one perfectly manicured hand on her hip. "Practically everyone in town has stopped by here. I need help."

"Fine. Tap the next two people to show up and make them your assistants." He spoke without thinking and then softened his voice and added, "I'm counting on you, C."

"I'm on it." She sighed and rolled her eyes, but added a smile before heading back to the front of the shop.

Jonathan poked his head into the back and said, "I, um, we've pretty much stopped doing business for the day. I..."

"Great. Can you help Gunn string up a tarp out back? I need everything from the door to the back of the truck shaded." Gunn didn't look happy but he went with Jonathan to get the material out of storage.

"You all right, Pet?" Spike asked. Reversing their positions from before he folded his arms around Xander and gave a brief squeeze. Spike's naked concern chipped away at the walls which Xander had been desperately reinforcing all day.

"I don't... I... Spike." Xander pulled Spike's arms even tighter and leaned his head back, rubbing his cheek against Spike's. He was unconcerned by Angel's presence. He needed this, needed Spike. "I don't know if I can do this again. If... I.. It's so different from putting myself in danger, that... well, that sucks too... but that I can do, have done...this... I'm asking them to risk their lives. Again." He took a deep breath. He knew if he let the tears start they wouldn't stop. As much as he wanted to wrap himself around Spike and hide from the whole Hellmouthy world he knew he couldn't. "Larry had a full scholarship, a top ten school-four more years and his life would have been set. He could have gotten out, gone far away, done anything. I... I.." Xander's voice broke and he swallowed hard, forcing the lump back down. When he continued his voice was hard and cold. "I put him there. Right in the front line. It was a stall, so we could get the mayor into position. He didn't have a chance. His life bought time-he died because I needed time. God, Spike, he didn't have a chance in hell, and I put him there."

He might have gone on, to the point where he would have broken, dropped into a sobbing mass at his lover's feet. Spike's voice was unusually firm, and lacked his everyday accent when he interrupted. "No one has a chance in Hell, love. Trust a demon's word on that, or if you don't, ask Peaches. That's why you fight, to prevent Hell from being here, to keep this place a little better than Hell. It must be working; otherwise all the Hellspawn wouldn't be trying to crash your party."

Xander smiled and straightened and again disengaged himself from his lover's arms. "You're right. We can do this." He turned and softly kissed Spike, lingering only a moment over his bottom lip. "Thank you," Xander whispered.

Laura came into the room carrying one too many hotplates. Just as one slipped, Angel rushed forward in a blur and caught it. Laura jumped back, wide eyes never leaving the predator in front of her. Xander could almost see the wheels turning as she contemplated how effective it would be to bludgeon a vampire with a hotplate. Angel froze, and since he didn't seem to be attacking, Laura backed up until she hit the wall. Giving Angel a wide berth she circled to the table and started setting up the hotplate, seeming unconcern by Spike's close proximity.

Seeing Angel's look of confusion and annoyance, Xander tried to play diplomat. "Laura, you remember Angel, he was at graduation."

"Lots of dead people were at graduation; more after than before." She bit her lip and shot Xander an I-am-so-not-shaking-his-hand-even-if-he-is-your-friend look.

"You don't seem to be disturbed by William the Bloody," Angel said with just a trace of the Angelus smirk.

"Spike? The Dragonslayer? No, I'm just glad he's on our side." She left, again circling widely around Angel.

"Dragonslayer?" Angel looked from Xander to Spike and back again.

"Angel, let it go. Spike will tell you she's insane. But hey, it works for us, so it's of the good." Since Angel didn't look any less confused, Xander continued. "Is Will here?"

"She went to check on the nibblet," Spike said.

"What are you planning, Pet?"

Xander wasn't sure the shop was secure; it was a great meeting place because it was so well known. That fact also made him uncomfortable with an open discussion. Fortunately, he had considered this. Previous overtly paranoid contingency plans were now simply resources for survival. He hoped that Willow had also acted on the few wild speculations they had made into worst-case scenarios.

"Angel, as soon as Willow gets here, round up Giles, Wesley and Tara. See if Willow can do a 'cone of silence' on Giles' office." Xander checked his watch. "Tell her I need this now, but I'll settle for having it in fifteen minutes.

It was a tight fit when they all crowded into the office. Since Angel had insisted on adding Gunn and Cordy, Jonathan was out front with Jeff, a swim team survivor, and Marcia, a former Cordette, handling operations. Fortunately, Giles had angled an ornamental mirror on the wall across from the window in the office's door so that the front of the shop was visible. Xander divided his attention between what was happening in the office and the steady stream of people out front. He would just have to trust that Laura would not blow up the training room now that she had been left alone with the groceries and the hot plates.

"I called Megan's, her mom said they went to the mall. She isn't answering her phone but Megan's mom said they were going to a movie..." Willow looked appealingly at Xander. In under fifteen minutes she had erected a barrier which not only blocked any form of technological eavesdropping but also any magical eavesdropping and yet she seemed to think she had failed Xander by not producing Dawn.

"I'm sure she's okay. If we don't hear from here within the hour can you and Tara find know?" Xander made a wavy motion with his hand.

Willow smiled and started to bounce but it was Tara who said, "We can track her anywhere. We made it part of a slumber party game. Even if another magic user tried to block it we could follow the blank space."

"Good." Xander didn't mean to cut Willow off but she had looked like she was going to elaborate. While he was impressed, proud, and a little frightened by how powerful the two witches were together, now was not the time to find out how they did what they did. "The important thing is that she is safe and out of this."

"What is this?" Angel asked. "Do we know any more than we did last night?"

"What we know is that Cordy's vision said that the Hellmouth was going to have an attempt made to open it, that if that attempt was successful... Well, we all know the drill. Since then we have been setting up a system to find out who or what is going to do that, and getting ready to take it out before it can completes its objective." Xander sat on the edge of Giles' desk with his back to the wall. He ran his fingers though his hair. "We have a vague description of who will be there when the attempt is made, from Cordy's vision."

"So help me," Cordelia interrupted. "if one more person," and she shot Xander a meaningful look, "says one more thing to me about little green men-"

"Big," Xander cut in calmly. "Big buff commando types, with 'moldy' camouflaged faces."

Silence greeted that remark. Tara grabbed Willow's hand, her eyes never leaving her. Willow looked at Xander. He could see that brilliant brain of hers realizing the implications. Her lips moved but no words came out, her eyes filled with tears and she looked to Giles. "But... Riley said... There is no more Initiative. Is there?" Her voice begged Giles to tell her Xander was wrong. Xander would have given his right arm to tell her that there was no chance that the well organized, highly trained, weapon-wielding commandos weren't going to be the ones they were throwing the remaining members of their graduating class at in a desperate bid to save the world. But he couldn't. Couldn't lie to her. Couldn't lie to himself no matter how much wanted to.

About a week after her birthday, Willow and Tara had come over for another movie night. Spike had been getting drunk on JD and the girls had been sipping peach schnapps. Xander had missed the exchange, he and Tara had been in the kitchen making snacks, but Spike had told him later. Spike had been cursing the 'fucking soldier boys' as usual. He said he had offhandedly made a remark to Red about how he knew since they had been protecting humans that she probably thought they were the good guys. She had shocked him when in a soft breathless voice she had said no, that she thought they were scarier than anything she had ever met, including Glory. Xander wasn't surprised. He had learned about the Holocaust at the knee of the same grandmother that Willow had. In everything else Willow was the most liberal person Xander knew, but the moment something seemed to take the power from people and put it into the hand of a bureaucracy, especially a government-backed bureaucracy, she became very conservative.

Giles seemed at a loss looking into Willow's eyes. Then he straightened and once again became their foundation. "While we can be sure that the installation at the university is now defunct, we have had every indication that the agency behind it is still very much active. We know when Buffy faced the Quellor demon that while Riley did show up late, he did not arrive alone. That suggests that he had a means, other that the one Buffy used to summon the doctor when he was ill, to contact them. We also know that when he left Sunnydale, he went as a part of a team with enough influence to rate what Buffy described as a 'black ops' type helicopter.

Willow smiled weakly at Xander and asked, "Is it too late to put the Omega Plan into play?"

He nodded and smiled back. "We'll have to save that one for when we have more notice about an Armageddon."

"What is the Omega Plan?" Wesley asked.

"We're almost positive we can break Faith out of prison, and with a combination of illusion and a magically enhanced computer virus we should be able to wipe out any record of her existence." Seeing the shocked looks on Cordelia, Wesley and Angel's faces, Xander said to Angel. "What? You're the one who thinks she's all changed and stuff."

Jeff knocked at the door and opened it without waiting for a response. "Xand, I got T.J. on line one, he has to speak with you now."

"Thanks." Xander nodded a dismissal and Jeff closed the door. Xander took the call from the desk's phone. "T.J.?"

"Dude, I wanna know who your sources are. You're amazing." He sounded like he was calling from outside and Xander could hear engines in the background.

"What d'you have?" Xander grabbed a pen and Spike handed him his clipboard.

"Twenty minutes ago two fucking huge choppers set down with biological cargo. Whatever it is it came from a base out in Nevada and they have more guards on it than the president. They're locking everything down, every cellular and digital signal in a three-mile radius should be toast. All the landlines on the base are inoperative. Whoever these Special Forces are they should be moving out within the next two hours."

"Thanks. Anything else?" Xander set aside the clipboard.

"Yeah, I just wish I was there." T.J. sighed.

Xander hung up, sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. What the hell is everyone looking at me for? He looked at Spike and then Angel. "You heard?"

"Fill in those of us with a pulse," Gunn said.

"The Initiative is back in town. They brought someone or something with them and are mobilizing a major effort. For those of you just joining us these guys are the KKK of the demon world. They drew a line between species that they couldn't enforce and one of their little biological experiments nearly started a race war, as in humans verses everybody else." Xander was tired, bone deep tired like he hadn't been since that first empty week after Buffy had died.

He had told Dawn that when you loved people you kept a piece of them with you even after they died and because they loved you back, they took a piece of you with them to heaven. He had wondered if the binding they had used to take down Adam hadn't exchanged a large part of them all with Buffy, if the reason he felt so tired was because part of him had died with Buffy. Was part of Giles and Willow also missing? If they lived through the night maybe they could discuss it.

"Cordy, I need you to move operation to the beta site. Use who and what you have to but get everyone and everything there in one hour. All communication from now on is landline only. Will, can you extend the spell blocking any taps on the phone to cover the incoming lines at the new base?"

He looked at Cordy; she seemed to be waiting for more. "That's it?" she asked in a disbelieving tone. He knew it was going to be like evacuating a sinking ship but he thought she could pull it off if anyone could.

"Yeah, you might want to get started. Load up the weapons; pack every thing in the U-Haul. Get the rocket launcher out of the storeroom and bring that damn thing the fairies gave you."

"Sprites," Willow corrected, as Cordy pulled Gunn out of the office.

"Xander, as we realized with the dragon, the rocket launcher won't be useful without ammunition," Giles said.

"Gunn and I picked that up while grocery shopping." Xander frowned down at the list, now resting on the desk. "Now if I can just think of a safe way to transport the bombs Laura's making."

"Bombs?" Oh look, Wesley and Angel can do the stereo thing too.

The group dispersed. Giles and Wesley went to pack up the texts they had sorted out to take. Tara and Willow were going to rely on the others to bring spell components, and were tracking down Dawn to make sure she would be somewhere safe for the rest of the night. The sun wouldn't set for a couple of hours at this time of the summer, but Xander thought Angel and Spike would be safe in the back of the U-Haul for the move to the new site. Before the vampires could be drafted for grunt work, Xander gestured for them to follow him. He led them to the 'changing room', really a remodeled closet, but Buffy had used it to change from street clothes to workout gear so the name had stuck.

"Angel, I had to guess at your size, but I want both of you to put these on." He held up slick, long sleeved black body suits. They would cover them from ankle to wrist and had hoods.

"Pet, you shouldn't have." Spike looked at the skin-tight suit with some distaste.

"It's not a fashion statement, chip-dip; this is a thermal suit. The soldier boys use this to change their thermal signatures. It's going to give you a body temperature so they can't spot you with the thermal scopes. Well, they will spot you, but you'll look human."

Spike looked impressed. Angel looked like Xander had suggested he switch hair gels. "Xander, I don't think..."

Xander cut him off. "It's not your call. This is where you're vulnerable. Any liability to you is a liability to us." Xander really looked at Angel, met his eyes firmly and unflinchingly, in a way he never had before. "Trust me. You do not want to be at these peoples' mercy."

"Xander, you can't go at this like these people are monsters, they're human." Angel was looking martyred, as usual.

Xander didn't have the time or the strength to coddle him. "So help me God, if you start angsting about souls right now, I will slap you." Angel looked too shocked to comment and Spike, of course, was grinning like he had said it instead of Xander. "Listen, I realize you have a blind spot about redemption and all... Angel, some of the most heinous acts in history have been committed by humans, to humans. Having a soul is no guarantee that you or anyone else is going to do the right thing." Xander turned to Spike. He didn't want his lover's need to 'kick Sire in the arse' to interrupt this conversation. "Go change; I don't want an argument. Then find Willow and find out what she has on Dawn. Bring Willow back here with you." Spike hesitated, glaring at Angel. "Now, Spike." Xander softened his last words with a squeeze to Spike's hand.

Xander leaned back against the wall; they were out of the traffic pattern but the place boiled with activity. At that moment he felt the weight of every bad decision he ever made, every day of his twenty years, every person he had ever let down, resting on his shoulders. "Angel," his voice was almost a whisper, but vampire hearing and all, "I need to know. If I tell you to kill someone, if it comes to that, can I depend on you?"

Angel clenched his jaw. His eyes looked away at the young men and women bustling about. Xander watched the play of emotions on his face, the fear, the resignation. He wondered when he had started looking out for Angel. Wouldn't Buffy get a laugh out of this? Angel looked down at the younger man. "I'm worried if I start," he said in a pain-filled voice, "I won't stop."

"If this gets to the point that you have to start killing humans, stopping won't be an issue." Xander swallowed and figured since in all likelihood he would be dead by morning, he had nothing to lose. "I'm trusting you with my pack. Can I depend on you?"

Angel just nodded, and since he didn't react to the hyena-speak, Xander continued. "If I go down, keep Willow and Tara together; they're both more powerful together than apart. Willow doesn't go for the kill on her first shot. That's a liability. She thinks too much in a combat situation. Don't shackle her with instructions that are too specific. She's creative under pressure, just don't let her waste time with explanations. Just tell her the end result you want and how fast you need it. She will come through or die trying-another reason to keep Tara close. Tara will watch out for Willow. Tara's practical. She sees the big picture. Any perceived threat to Tara will get Willow past her reluctance for violence. Don't under estimate Giles, he's not just knowledge guy. He will do whatever is necessary. But if one or more of us go down tonight, do not leave him alone when this is over." Xander stopped and focused back on the tall vampire in front of him. "We almost lost him after Buffy... Dawn will know how to handle Giles, but she...She's had a lot on her plate. She's strong, like Joyce, she'll be there for him."

"What about Spike?" Angel voice sounded heavy and tired.

Xander wasn't sure if Angel really wanted him to evaluate his Childe's assets and liabilities, but decide to go with the truth. "If I go down, that won't be an issue. You know that." Angel's eyes widened and Xander said, "If none of us make it, take Dawn to LA. Willow has the contingency plans in her dorm room. Have Wes use the Omega plan to bust Faith out. Tell her...tell her I said she owes us-that she owes Joyce and Buffy. Tell her that from that day forward she is to treat Dawn as an extension of herself. To protect her like she would herself. And you, do not let either of them out of your sight; consider yourself her parole office. Relocate. I don't give a damn about the 'lawyers from hell', find another city to protect, change your name, change Faith's name and whatever you do keep Dawn safe."

"Xander, don't you think that's a little extreme?" Angel looked like he was starting to doubt Xander's sanity.

Xander wasn't going to risk it even with Willow's spell. None of them spoke about the Key any more, not since the Watcher's visit. The hadn't agreed on it or talked about it. He knew it still crossed his mind so he didn't think it was a magic compulsion or anything, they just referred to it obliquely. "Angel, the last promise any of us made to Buffy was... This is what she needed. Her last request before the final battle. Can I depend on you?"

"You can." Angel said quietly and then again louder. "You can." They clasped hands, levelly taking each other's measure. It occurred to Xander that in five years they had never spoken this much at one time. He left Angel to finish changing.

* * * * *

Xander leaned over Cordelia's shoulder and reviewed her notes while she detailed what supplies had been delivered while he and Gunn had been gone. Jeff, Marcia and Jonathan were contacting the field units and redirecting them to the new site. Gunn was rounding up labor from among the people who had returned to the shop to assemble the next load for the U-Haul.

"Xander, I moved the triage back to this side of the building." She pointed to the schematic of the parking garage a block from the old high school. Fortunately, unlike most in California, this garage was entirely underground, having a park and large fountain on the ground level. Since his call earlier in the day the bottom two floors had had signs up saying they were closed to repaint the lines on the floors. Even now the 'children of the Hellmouth' were being discreetly let into the closed sections. Those in cars parked on the bottom floor. Those on foot went straight to the next level, where the food, charts and weapons--which had already been forwarded--were transforming their new base of operations. "It's farther away from the school and has easier access for the ambulances afterward," she continued.

"Good call. How are we doing for time?" he asked. She was Cordy, and yet she wasn't. The proud girl who had been embarrassed by what people would think if, perish the thought, she had a job, was gone. She was intelligent and confident. Xander was relieved to have her to depend on in this crisis. She hadn't changed so much as she had been refined. Whatever she had lived through since graduation had burned away all the assumed shallowness she had hidden behind. He was saddened to think of what pain had most likely caused that, and felt guilty for not keeping in touch with her. What he had said to Spike about Anya applied to Cordy as well; first and foremost they had been friends. If tomorrow did come, he promised himself to do better. A two-hour trip by freeway wasn't that far, and Dawn would love shopping/bonding with the prom queen.

"Twenty minutes tops and the whole operation except the explosives and flammables with be centralized. Any ideas on transporting that stuff without taking out the vehicle and driver?" As she looked up over her shoulder to ask him that question, Xander heard a low vicious growl behind him. He straightened and turned to see Spike in game face with Willow beside him.

Willow ignored the snarling vampire and said, "Dawn and Megan are going to sleep over at Stephanie's. She promised that they would not leave the house between sunrise and sunset. Megan is still in the dark, but Dawn filled Stephanie in weeks ago on why night is bad in Sunnydale."

"And she believed her?" Xander was impressed. He hadn't believed until he came face to face with Darla.

"Spike went all 'grrr' on her as proof and Dawn has an oddly morbid list of mortality rates that either support vampires or the large pack of wild dogs theory." Willow bounced, a too-much-caffeine and not a 'this is good news' bounce. Willow bounces, yet another language like Spike snorts and Cordelia eye rolls that I can't put on my resume. "Spike said you needed to see me?"

"Yeah, let's go to Giles office." As the three of them filed into the back he asked casually, "Did you ever get a chance to do that animal testing we talked about?"

Willow stilled. She blinked and said nothing as Spike closed the door behind them. "Tara and I....We did some volunteer work at the shelter we got Miss Kitty from... the preliminary results are good. It should work. I... Xander, are you sure?"

"Did you lose any subjects?" He watched her carefully.

"No, there isn't even a great deal of pain, but... Now?" Willow looked nervous.

Xander knew he couldn't give her time to psych herself out of doing this. "Now."

"You're sure?" Her eyes drifted over to where Spike was lounging on the desk, looking bored and unconcerned with the conversation.

"What do you need?" Xander asked.

"Stillness, quiet, Tara. I'll be right back." Willow slipped out of the office, into the slowly dispersing hubbub outside.

"Spike?" Xander took his hand and pulled Spike into a standing position. Spike gave him a sad smile and pulled back until the young man was in his arms. For a moment they just held on, drinking in each other's scents. Spike didn't look that different in his new outfit. He wore his jeans and Docs over the thermal suit. It was unzipped and showed his pale collarbone and the lean muscles that corded his throat and chest. The hood hanging back was the only jarring difference from his everyday attire. Xander kissed and then nibbled on his bottom lip. Immediately both of their bodies vibrated with Spike's subsonic purring. "The thing to remember about giving orders," Xander said conversationally, "is that if someone," he poked his lover in the chest with his index finger, "is inclined not to follow them, just order them to do what they were going to do any way."

"What are my orders, love?" Spike asked.

"Stay with me. What ever happens, you stay with me." Xander said as softly as he could, looking though the fall of overlong hair that blocked his vision.

"Through the gates of Hell." Spike said. He seemed to think about what Xander had said and added. "You don't have to protect me. I know they're human but-"

He was interrupted by Willow and Tara coming into the office. "We're ready," Willow said. "Are you ready?" She looked from Xander to Spike.

"What's this about, Red?" Spike started to turn to the witches, but Xander held him fast.

"Do you trust me?" Xander asked.

Spike looked confused, and hundreds of questions flashed behind those intelligent blue eyes. He asked none. He squared his shoulders and looked straight into Xander's eyes. "I trust you."

"Close you eyes, and stand perfectly still. Don't move until I say so." Xander firmly took Spike's hips in his hands and tipped his head until their foreheads nearly touched.

Willow and Tara were chanting softly in an island rhythm. Tara held Willow's left hand as Willow reached up with her right and began to brush her fingertips slowly against the back of Spike's neck, then moving over the base of his skull. Xander closed his eyes and strained to sense his lover. Spike remained as immobile as a statue. It seemed to last forever. The soft words repeated by the girls over and over, the sensation of movement in stillness. Xander heard Willow sigh and the chanting stopped. He pulled back but kept his hands on Spike's hips. Willow held up a small white rectangle, smaller than a pencil eraser. It was inconceivable that this was it. The product of all that government funding, the greatest creation of Maggie Walsh. Somehow Xander had pictured it much larger and metallic, but this almost looked ceramic.

"Open your eyes," Xander said. Spike looked at him and them followed Xander's gaze to the tiny object Willow held in the palm of her hand.

* * * * *

After they arrived at the parking garage, Spike shadowed Xander's long strides as he checked over the preparations. Spike still had a look of awed wonder whenever he glanced at Xander. Xander was confused. Willow had done all the work and yet Spike was looking at him like he had removed the chip.

Kelly's truck slowly pulled onto the operations floor. Laura was in the back watching over the cases that Kelly had rigged into a hammock for transport. Both of them had assured Xander that the precautions were unnecessary but he had insisted. If Kelly had had his broadsword in his hand when he had stopped by the shop, Xander figured he would be missing his head by now. How was I to know what he meant by 'keep her out of the kitchen'? Technically she wasn't in the kitchen due to the whole ventilation issue.

As soon as Kelly had arrived, Laura had bounced over to her boyfriend and brandished what she called a modified pipe bomb. By which she said meant she had experimented on the usual recipe and used a pipe with a much wider circumference and packed in roofing nails with the homemade plastique. She believed, if it worked, it would produce 'one hell of a shrapnel effect', but it was untested. She had made half as many experimentals as the regular ones and had filled similar transport devices in three other trucks with Molotov cocktails, which for obvious reasons were being stored elsewhere. Laura had said she wanted to wait for Kelly to really 'cook'. That should have tipped Xander off to the whole 'kitchen' analogy, but to tell the truth he hadn't really been listening to the little pyromaniac.

"Jonathan!" Xander, practiced at being heard over a din at the construction site, summoned the young man for an update. "How are we doing?" he asked as Jonathan jogged over and fell in beside he and Spike as they prowled the perimeter.

Jonathan consulted his own clipboard and said, "We have the two phone landlines, each roll to two other numbers. Cellulars are shot-you were right, something is jamming all radio and digital communications. We do have two modified scanners; they're picking up some activity on the upper 800 megahertz but it's scrambled-we think it's the target. Recon says there are two unidentified observers, one on the roof of those new loft conversion units and one on the signaling tower. I know the tower is pretty far but I've got three confirmed sightings. It would be a clear shot to the entrance, but at that distance..."

"Anyone see a weapon?" Xander finally stopped and looked squarely at Jonathan.

"Um... I... Yes on the rooftop. Not positive on the tower; the guy is dressed in a work-style coverall and has tools but..."

"But what?" Xander prompted, attempting to hide his impatience.

"Xander, it's after six, you really think the guys legit?" Jonathan scoffed.

"Well, I'd rather not shoot him just 'cause he's pulling overtime." Xander said. Jonathan gulped and Xander reconsidered how he sounded. "Good work. I'll see what we can do. Anything else?"

"So far no one has gone into the school since you set up monitors this afternoon. Gunn and that Angel guy went to check and see if some sort of tunnel access is still available. You know about that, right?" Seeing Xander nod, he continued. "Kelly wants to know if they should mix up the big stuff here, and Willow needs to talk with you." Jonathan seemed to calm down a bit as he spoke.

"How volatile is that stuff?" Xander frowned as he scanned the floor of the garage. Along the wall, the explosives were being neatly stacked as far away from the weapons as possible. They had far more explosives than firearms. Their normal weapons, staffs, stakes, crossbows, and swords, weren't suited for going up against the Initiative. Where's a demon when you need one? Well, right beside me, duh. He gave Spike a goofy grin, completely out of place with the fact that they were going to kill or be killed. It seemed to rattle Spike as much as it did Jonathan.

"Err, ah, not at all, actually. I... I think that's what Willow needs to talk to you about." Jonathan stammered.

"Then tell him to start cooking. Where is Willow?" Xander clapped his hands and Jonathan jumped."O.. over b.. by the triage with Mr. Giles," he said.

So much for being calm, Xander thought. "Jon, you're doing fine. We're doing fine. We have a plan." Xander was surprised at how confident he sounded.

"We do?" he asked.

"We do. It's all coming together. We'll make it through this." Xander reassured him. The young man gave him a shaky smile and headed back to the operation/communication table.

As they headed over to where Cordelia and Tara had set up the infirmary Spike asked, "What is the plan?"

"We play it by ear." Xander laughed and kissed him quickly before hurrying ahead.

He and Willow hadn't had a chance to talk after the chip removal. Xander had left her with Spike while he took Tara to review the set up of the medical supplies and the evacuation plans for the wounded. Kayla had shown up just as they were leaving the store and had shyly shrugged. "I won't be any use in the front lines, but I did take a class in first aid."

Xander knew that just walking in the door had taken more courage for her than he could imagine. He made sure to give her a smile and hug before turning her over to Tara. They had set up a makeshift infirmary off the parking level in a room containing the elevators and vending machines. Kayla was organizing piles of blankets and first aid supplies. She looked up as Xander came in and offered him a brave smile.

"All alone?" Xander looked around the room, he hoped they wouldn't fill it before the night was over.

"The others got called to a conference on the top floor; they're in the office. They said they sent for you." She shrugged and gestured toward the elevators.

"Go have Jonathan assign three people to run this place with you. Have someone set up one of the coffee makers in here and bring in a couple of the cases of juice."

She nodded and headed out into the parking level. Xander and Spike took the stairs up to the highest level of the garage. Sunlight spilled into the east and west sides through the vehicle entrances, but it was softening as the day faded to evening. They kept to the deep shadows along the wall as they crossed from a similar room near this floor's elevator bank to the office behind the glass-enclosed cashiers. Inside, Angel and Gunn pointed to details on the blueprints of the old high school, updating the others on changes to the substructure and its accessibility since it had been remodeled by explosives.

The room fell silent as Spike and Xander entered. Oh come on guys-it's Xander. You really aren't going to let me make all the decisions are you? He smiled weakly and asked, "How's it going?"

"It's a tight fit, but we can get people into the school without going above ground." Angel said.

Simultaneously, Willow said, "That damn Rennie wants me to do a temporal acceleration spell on his fertilizer bombs. Do you know how dangerous that would be?"

Giles said, "Quite." Gunn scowled; Cordy rolled her eyes; Tara squeezed Willow's hand; and Wesley, thankfully, was the one person in the room not looking to Xander for an answer.

Xander ran the fingers of both hands back though his hair in what was becoming a nervous habit. Briefly, he wondered it the stress of his lifestyle would cause him to go bald from it before that lifestyle got him killed. "No, Will, I haven't a clue. Magic's right up there with math and French in the things you've never really been able to explain to me. Is there anyway to make it safer? We need firepower."

"Well..." She worried her lip between her teeth and looked at Tara. Tara gave her an encouraging smile and an almost imperceptible nod. "I think... It's still in the testing phase..." Xander tried to hide his shudder. "With Giles' and Wesley's help I think we can set it all up ahead of time with the spell set to activate on a password." Now it was Giles' turn to suppress a shudder. He offered Xander a conspiratorial smile at the thought of testing yet another computer-programming-meet-witchcraft spell. "We may even be able to rig a countdown to the spell so we have a chance to clear out before everything blows up." Willow offered a smile and nodded at the end of the babble. Xander really hoped it was him she was trying to convince and not herself, but judging by Tara's expression whatever Willow had just said must be at least feasible.

"Okay, make it so, Number One. Now, how stable is this back door and is there any chance they know it's there?" Xander turned his attention to Angel.

* * * * *

Since Angel had used his vampiric mining abilities to reopen the tunnel access to the school, they were reasonably sure that the Initiative didn't know they had breached the target. Even if the guy on the tower was one of their lookouts they should be able to secure the library without him reporting it. In a little under an hour the explosives were moved from the parking garage and secreted about the school. A communication system was organized between the school and the base and lines of defense were drawn up and manned.

One minute they were alone, and the next the troops poured into the building with eerily silent efficiency. Runners brought messages from the garage and from closer to the school's entrance. The fertilizer bombs were in place. One word from one of their four magic users would start the detonation countdown. It might be overkill but if Xander died today he wanted the piece of mind of knowing that the Hellmouth was buried under several thousand tons of rubble.

Xander tensed. Impatient, yet dreading the confrontation, he felt Spike's reassuring presence against his back. Looking across the hall he saw Gunn and Angel also primed and ready. They were the last line of defense before the library. Willow, Tara, Giles and Wesley were inside behind the barricade. He hoped it didn't come down to Willow and Tara blocking the assault with their combined power. He didn't feel comfortable with the Initiative knowing just what his witches were capable of; the girls lacked the ruthlessness necessary to break free if captured by that organization.

As the first sound of a taser firing echoed down the halls from the only stable entrance of the school, Jeff came skidding around the corner. Gasping, with his hands on his knees, he didn't even look up as he spoke. "We have the snipers; one's unconscious, one has a broken leg. Stripped them naked and tied them up in the infirmary. Jon said reports are that thirty armed assailants, three lab-coated administrative types and one guy in restraints were dropped off. We took the drivers and blew the trucks just before I left; they've probably been stripped by now."

"Why are you taking their clothes?" Angel asked.

Oh sure, look at me like it's my idea. Actually it not a bad idea, if we were doing something covert-y we could use the uniforms. I wonder why we're taking their clothes? "Laura said it was the only way to be sure they weren't hiding weapons or communication devices." Jeff answered, and looked at Xander to see if that was right.

The sound of explosives announced that the Molotov cocktails were being brought into play. Xander nodded to Jeff and said, "Have Cordelia interrogate them each separately; if she can't get any info she will at least make them rethink their career choices."

Jeff had just dashed off further into the dilapidated building when two uniformed figures cautiously rounded the corner. Angel and Gunn body-checked them in a move they must have spent nights choreographing it was so beautiful. They pinned them to the wall using the commandos' own rifles to choke them.

Just for a second Xander was stunned then he said, "Well, well, well, Riley Finn.


"Xander," Riley gasped, his eyes darting from Angel to Spike and back. As far as he knew Spike was still chipped and Angel had kicked his ass before so it was Angel he kept a wary eye on.

"Who's you friend, Ri?" Xander nodded to Gunn and Angel, they released the commandos but kept their weapons. Gunn and Spike took up positions with the tasers watching the direction from which the men had come.

"Graham Miller, Xander Harris." The quick response to Xander's unspoken orders seemed to have Riley reevaluating the command structure.

"Welcome to the Hellmouth, Mr. Miller. I think I remember you. Didn't you try to kill Riley once?" Xander pitched his voice light and conversational, but warily watched the tall, powerfully built commando. This one is dangerous.

"Xander, what the hell is going on here?" Riley interrupted the two warriors' silent assessment of each other.

"You tell me," Xander said, his attention still on Miller. "What's the cargo? Why are you storming the Hellmouth?"

"You know we won't talk," Miller said quietly.

"I know you guys haven't always shown a strong survival instinct. Frankly, I'm tired of cleaning up your messes. I'm prepared to do whatever it takes to see that this doesn't turn into another Adam. Are you sure you're on the right side, Mr. Miller?"

Xander could practically see the thoughts whirling behind Miller's eyes. He knew no matter what he said Riley would think he was bluffing. He really hoped he could get through to Miller; he didn't have time to bluff. The floor shook with an explosion and a pained scream was heard in the distance. Xander almost flinched; these were his people he did not have time for this macho bullshit.

"Riley, how's that little addiction of yours?" Xander still watched Miller and saw, even though his stoicism, the slightest look of surprise. "I bet the past twelve hours have been a living hell for you. Finding out that because you weren't man enough to face your shortcomings, that your cowardice left the woman you loved alone at the worst period of her oh-so-short life. There probably isn't anything you want more right now than oblivion. I've been there. You can't stand the sight of yourself. If you had only been a little stronger, a little faster, a little braver, you could have saved her. Instead, she died alone and exhausted, beaten by life and betrayed by someone she loved." Xander's voice remained calm and clear, even though he felt like throwing up at his own words. "There isn't a bottle deep enough or a drug strong enough to shut out your memory of how things could have been. But you know what'll make it better. What you turned to every time you couldn't face..."

"Shut up, Xander." Riley voice was ragged and broken as he cut into Xander's taunt. "Just shut up." There were tears streaming down his face. Angel looked at Xander with bewildered distaste.

"Ri?" Miller was torn by Riley's outburst. Xander could see as Riley slid down the wall into a sobbing heap that the other commando wasn't sure how to react.

"It's okay, Riley. I can get you what you need." Xander's words felt oily and he hated himself as he said. "It'll be all better, just tell me what you know."

"It... the power here is too unstable..." he started.

"Finn!" Miller finally showed emotion, only to be slammed into the wall by Angel. Riley watched and seemed to be in shock, not quite registering the action. He continued, "We just want to tap it. That way we can release it when it builds up-like a safety valve." He did seem to notice the sounds of gunfire and explosion as he looked up at Xander, who squatted down in front of where he had collapsed. "What is this? Xander, no one was to suppose to get hurt. We were just to escort the guy in, have him tap the source and get out. What is this?"

"What guy?" Xander ask softly. Riley seemed to see though whatever haze had been making him docile and launched himself at Xander. The two of them had hardly hit the floor before Spike lifted Finn by his throat and shook him before slamming him into the wall.

"Let him go, Spike." Xander said getting to his feet, and Spike dropped him instantly. "He can't tell us anything if he's unconscious." Xander offered his lover a rueful smile and said, "Thanks. Make sure we're not interrupted."

Spike went back to his position with Gunn, and Angel apparently just realized that the chip was gone. So did Riley, judging by the pale clammy color he had turned and the beads of sweat that began to drip from his forehead.

"The cargo, who is it?" Xander prompted.

"Xander." Riley gasped, his eyes frantically darting between Angel and Spike.

"Come on, Ri, don't make me break your kneecaps, it'll ruin your career." Xander spoke in a joking voice but his eyes were cold as he stood toe to toe with Buffy's ex. Xander was alarmed by the fact that he knew he could slam a heel right into Riley's knee and move on to the next order of business.

Now Riley's full attention was on Xander, and he didn't appear to think Xander was bluffing. He licked his lips and rasped out, "Ethan Rayne."

"Fuck," Xander whispered softly, but not soft enough to get past vampire hearing.

"Pet?" Spike didn't take his eyes off the corridor but his voice held concern.

"Angel," Xander barked. "Take these two inside. Tell Giles what's going down. If they try to escape break something non-fatal. If they try to contact anyone from this society of asinine death-wish junkies snap their necks so loud we can hear it out here."

When Angel had gone into the library Xander turned to Gunn. "Watch the door, I'll send someone to back you up as soon as I can."

"Where are you going?" Gunn said.

"The objective has changed. If I know Rayne we're going to have to protect the Initiative from him." Xander took off down the hall, not even checking to see if Spike followed. He knew he would.

Within the hour, Spike and Xander squeezed past the temporary barricade they had put in front of the library and reunited with the others. Finn and Miller were still unarmed but hadn't been restrained. Xander crossed over to where Giles and Wesley were set up behind a table, which seemed to have been thrown together out of scrap materials. Angel was keeping an eye on the prisoners and Spike joined Gunn who was now watching the door from the inside. Willow and Tara sat cross-legged on the floor on either side of a large blue ceramic bowl and chanted softly. Willow held the Thing in her hand and the bowl began to emit a shimmering light that lit up both witches in a weird blue glow.

"We pulled everyone back to the base. No fatalities among the Children but there are six dead commandos and ten more aren't mobile." At Giles' sharp look Xander sputtered, "Spike didn't do it!" He continued more reasonably, "We do have one really bad injury-Jeff took a hell of an electrical jolt from one of the tasers. He's twitchy and he smells like burned meat but Kayla said he should be okay. There are four commandos, two white coats and Rayne himself unaccounted for. They're somewhere in the building; we have all the exits secured. There was a dead white coat not far from here, just down the hall. He didn't have a mark on him, Spike says he smelled funny."

"Smelled funny?" Wesley raised an eyebrow, asking Xander to elaborate. How does someone manage to give a look with a British accent? Xander just shrugged and waggled his hand it the universally understood Xander-speak that said, Hey, you're the one who does magic, I just kill dead things.

Xander was torn. He didn't want to distract Spike and Gunn, because that was the most likely direction of attack. He didn't want to distract the witches, because they were busy doing something witchy and besides, magic + Xander = bad. Giles and Wesley had returned to discussing something that was way over his head, and that only left Angel.

"So, how's it going?" Xander asked leaning against the wall near Angel. Well that's a feeble attempt at a conversation starter, way to go Xand-man.

"He doesn't look so good." Angel nodded in Riley's direction. He was right. The young man had gotten even paler since hearing Xander run down the list of fatalities and wounded. "Is this 'addiction' something we should worry he'll go into withdrawal over?"

Riley's head snapped up from his contemplation of the floor and glared at Angel.

"No. It endangers him, and the lives of everyone who trusts him, but right now he is safer than in rehab. I can practically guarantee he can't feed his habit-and right now he probably doesn't want to." Xander sighed and tilted his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. It was about 10:30 PM, and Rayne, being the predictable bastard he was, would probably time his assault so that he could capture the Hellmouth by midnight. Xander expected a response from Angel. Angel had never been known to share the title of cryptic guy willingly. But it was Riley's voice that cut into his moment of rest.

"How can you say that? I never endangered Buffy. I loved Buffy." Xander had had about enough of Riley blaming everyone else. If Finn had stayed at least long enough to talk things out with Buffy she might not have died blaming herself for their meltdown.

"You really believe that, don't you? How many times did she pull a punch when you surprised her on patrol? How many times in the thick of battle did she stop herself from staking you? What would it have been like for her to find your cold drained body when sweeping the park? I know what coming home to find Joyce did to her. What would your death done? Would she have blamed herself? She certainly wouldn't have blamed you. It would never have occurred to her that you hadn't been killed because you were the Slayer's boyfriend. It would never have occurred to her that you were getting your rocks off having mindless fledges feed from you." Xander now had not only Riley's attention, but Angel's and Miller's as well.

"If Spike hadn't..."

Riley tried to jump in, but Xander ruthlessly continued. "If Spike hadn't what? Told Buffy she might have come home to find Joyce and Dawn drained and you waiting for her? That some night when she stopped herself from staking you on patrol you may have just turned the tables on her, may have distracted her long enough so whoever sired you could get a Slayer under their belt? Listen, asshole, you owe him, if not for saving your life by telling Buffy then at least for not taking it." Xander clenched his fist to keep from grabbing Riley and banging his head against the wall.

"He would have killed me if he could. Chipped, he settled for destroying my relationship with Buffy, that was the worst he could do," Riley spat out.

"Shit, man, I could do worse than that chipped and I don't have his creativity or experience to draw on. He's William the Bloody, Slayer of Slayers. He let you live, farm boy, not because he had to, but because...because it would have hurt Buffy. God, Riley, use your head. One word in the ear of one of those blood whores and you would have been meat." Xander sighed in exasperation and shook his head.

"He didn't do it to protect Buffy." Riley said. "He did it to hurt her."

"Killing you would have done that; she loved you." Xander said. That stopped the retort on Riley's lips.

Xander watched as Riley looked back down. "Riley, you're endangering everybody on that squad. One of these days you're going to get killed or turned playing this game."

Xander gave up. He crossed back over to Giles and Wesley who had stopped with the book thing to listen to the confrontation. Angel and Miller had stayed back. They were both hard to read in an over-controlled facial expression kind of way. Miller reached out and put a hand on Riley's shoulder. Xander heard Angel say softly, "Riley, I've seen this before; it never ends well." He handed Riley a business card and said, "I know some people, I might be able to get you some help. If we survive this, that is." And hey, humor? From Angel? The world really is going to end. Xander contented himself with pacing the defenses and checking the weapons, several times. He knew that it was just to fill the time; the final conflict would be a battle of magic. Two distinctive roars cut through the silence. Or not.

"That's Fyarl," Spike said.

"Well," Giles added, adjusting his glasses, "Ethan is nothing if not predictable. Do try not to kill them; it's highly likely those are the missing members of the Initiative."

Angel looked at Xander. Xander looked at Angel. Xander shrugged. "Arm them. They're idiots, but they don't deserve to die without at least fighting back."

Angel gave Miller and Finn each one of the captured tasers. Spike put down the rifle and reached for a steel crowbar. He twirled it like a baton and grinned at Xander. Xander met his twinkling blue eyes and hoisted the rocket launcher, sighting on the door and smiled. Nothing happen for several tense moments and then a darkness seemed to seep under the door. When it touched Gunn he dropped to the floor. Angel started to rush forward to his friend.

"Hold position." Xander bellowed. "Ah, guys?" He didn't take his attention away from the door but sensed Tara and Willow moving forward. Gunn's body lifted and skittered across the floor until he was safely back against the far wall. The witches kept walking forward, hands linked. Willow still held the Thing. They brought the blue light with them and it shot out sparks into the creeping darkness. As the darkness recoiled the doors burst open.

"Well, Ripper...." Whatever witty Britishism Rayne had been about to hurl at Giles died on his lips when he saw the rocket launcher. Ha, ha, ha, he who has the biggest gun, wins. And is this really the right time for an inappropriate phallic moment? Just as Xander noticed Rayne gesture, he felt the rocket launcher and himself thrown against the wall.

Two of the Fyarls attacked. One shot mucus at Riley and then punched him to the floor with a sickening crunch once he was trapped. Miller stood over Xander firing at the second demon. Xander shook off his ringing headache in time to see Ethan thrown against the wall by the witches. Light burst out of the Thing and the demons dropped to the floor in their human forms. Spike pulled the crowbar out of the now-human corpse he had prevented from reaching the witches.

Giles got to be the adult by default. The Children of the Hellmouth faded into the gray light of the Sunnydale dawn. Giles summoned the Watchers to take Ethan, who was still in a coma. Miller said he would smooth things over with the Initiative. He didn't think it would be too hard considering how badly they had fucked up.

Xander had still wanted to level the high school, but was vetoed by Willow and Giles. They felt it was an unnecessary risk but had agreed to leave the explosives hidden in place, just in case. Angel wanted to talk to him. Xander had a feeling that it had something to do with the chip and begged off, pleading exhaustion. He told him to call him after the weekend. He thought Angel just might, and oddly enough, he wasn't dreading hearing from him. They shook hands as Angel helped Gunn limp back to the base. After kissing Cordelia goodbye, Xander collected Spike and went home.

Unsurprisingly, after stumbling into the apartment in the pale light of morning, Xander slept all the way through Saturday. Surprisingly, he woke alone. Groggy from too much sleep he looked around his empty bedroom and wondered where Spike had gone. He had vague memories of struggling to consciousness several times in the past twenty four hours, and there had always been a slim hard body wrapped around him. Naked, he walked over to the window and peeked around the blackout curtain to see if it was daylight. Blinded from the white glare he quickly let go of the window covering and groped about for something to wear.

July was opening with sweltering heat. Even with the AC cranked it was going to be hot. Xander wore only a pair of thin cutoff sweat pants as he padded from the bedroom in search of his absent lover. Xander leaned against the frame of the doorway to the kitchen, watching as a barefoot Spike gulped down a mug of blood. Spike then removed the second bag he had heated and refilled the mug.

"Should I keep restocking that?" Xander asked as Spike put the empty bag in the small medical waste container they kept in the cupboard underneath the microwave.

"Thinking of chucking me out, pet?" Spike spoke with his eyes cast down at his meal. His voice was soft and controlled, but Xander wondered if his eyes were blue or gold.

"No dipshit. I thought... I figured you might want... to start..." Xander's head hurt. I should have stayed in bed. Should have avoided this subject as long as possible. Should have at least figured out what to say when he wants to go back to a diet of happy meals with legs. What if...?

In a flash that line of thought was ended. There wasn't even a blur of movement. Suddenly, Spike's mug was on the counter and he had pinned Xander to the kitchen wall. Growling, golden-eyed, fangs bared, Spike pressed his body into Xander's, their faces almost touching. Spike sneered out his words in a low silky voice, "What? Thought I'd start culling the herd?"

Xander couldn't look him in the eyes. Using his dark lashes to veil his vision of the angry vampire, Xander kept his head lowered as his spoke. "I don't want you to leave." His voice was barely above a whisper. "I don't want to lose you."

With a lightning lunge Spike's fangs were scraping along Xander's jugular, as gently as when he had been chipped. "I'm not going anywhere," he murmured against the pulse point. "Not ever. We clear on that?" he asked as he pulled back to look Xander in the eyes.

Wide-eyed, Xander met his gaze as Spike's eyes shimmered from gold back to blue. Xander swallowed and asked the question that been haunting him since Willow had removed the chip. "Are you going to turn me?"

"Do you want me to?" Spike asked forcefully.

"Do you want to?" Xander shot back with equal strength.

"Xander." Spike loosened his hold on Xander, but Xander grabbed both hands and held them where they had rested on his hips.

"I need to know what you want. I need to know... how you feel." Xander looked down again, not sure which answer he wanted to hear less.

"I want you," Spike hissed. "However I can have you, for as long as I can have you. If Red can find a way for you to still be you-then fine, but otherwise..." He finished in a sardonic voice, "I can bag it for your lifetime."

"And Dawn's?" Xander lifted a hand to caress Spike's angular cheek.

"And Dawn's," he said with a smile.

Xander felt a great big goofy grin nearly crack his face, but didn't care. He got to keep Spike, or Spike got to keep him-it really didn't matter which. "I have something for you." He reached into the pocket of his shorts and pulled out a small jewelry box.

"This better not be an engagement ring, pet." Spike tried to sound annoyed but his hand trembledwhen he opened the box.

Inside, mounted to a pendant on a silver chain, was the chip. He had had the pendant and chain since Spike had moved in with him. The back had previously been the front and had an ornate 'S' and 'X' engraved on it. The chip had been mounted by Kelly before the battle, when Xander had been helping move the bombs.

"What's this?" Spike asked.

"What do you mean 'What's this?'" Xander did a credible imitation of Spike's everyday accent.

"What does it mean, Xander?" Spike asked, switching to the bedroom accent.

"It means...." And for a moment he was stumped. What does it mean? Then, thinking back to some pillow talk about Victorian times, he said, "It means, I greatly esteem you." Okay, so not working the Victorian speak. Spike snorted and rolled his eyes. "I do, you know. You didn't just survive this." Xander gestured toward the chip. "You conquered it. I... If I haven't told you, I admire you. Your tenacity, your strength. You've really come through for me, for all of us." Xander faltered into a whisper. Great! Any minute now, he's going to call me a big girl.

Spike took the necklace from the box and stared at it a long moment. Then he lifted his deep blue eyes and stared at Xander. "Put it on for me, eh pet?"

Xander reverently placed the necklace on Spike. Willow had chosen the perfect length for the chain. It was suspended just over the spot where Spike's collarbone met his ribcage. Xander's favorite place to bite. Xander leaned in and softly kissed Spike's lips. He trailed kisses down the line of Spike's jaw and as he reached his neck began to intermix them with tiny nips. He pulled back to gaze at the handsome creature in front of him. After a few moments under his stare Spike laughed and said, "Say something, Pet."

"Fuck me?" Xander's voice was breathless and heady.

Spike's grip on Xander's hips tightened and he smoothly lifted him off the floor. "Here, or in the bedroom?"

Xander seemed torn only for a moment before answering. "Both?"

Spike lowered Xander down and emitted a low predatory growl as he turned him to the wall. The growl transformed to a purr as Spike ripped Xander's shorts neatly down the seam. Xander pressed his arms against the wall, spread his legs and thrust his hips back toward his lover. Kneeling behind him Spike pressed in and gently scrapped his blunt teeth against Xander's balls. With sweeping licks Spike slowly worked his way back toward Xander's opening. Xander moaned, his eyelids fluttered open just in time to see Spike lift the mug down from the counter. "Rule four, rule four!" he hissed, bucking his hips in time with his lover's tongue.

Which caused Spike to stop his assault and ask in a teasing voice, "What was rule four again?"

Xander whimpered at the lose of contact but manage to gasp out, "No using blood as lube."

"Need something, Pet." Spike said, returning to his task with vigor, but thankfully setting the mug aside.

Supporting himself with one arm, Xander frantically reached toward the counter, while attempting to maintain contact with Spike's talented mouth. The salt shaker bounced across the floor, but Xander managed to snag the bottle of olive oil. He passed it down to his lover and waited for the cool liquid to be worked into him. Xander relaxed and leaned into him as Spike rose behind him while working his fingers deep inside. Spike was still fully clothed and snickered softly in Xander's ear. Nothing like having a lover who can monitor your heartbeat to thoroughly map out your kinks. Spike had teased Xander often about how quickly he got hot when he was naked and Spike was still dressed. Xander sighed and lay his head back on Spike's shoulder. Spike's purr kicked up a notch as he began to lave the corded muscles along the top of his shoulder with his tongue. Each thrust of his fingers sent waves of desire trembling over Xander's body.

Spike whispered softly against Xander's neck,"Want you. Want to mark you. Deep in the muscle, leave a scar. Want to claim you." It was his human visage Spike rubbed along Xander's neck and across his shoulders, like a rutting cat. "Xander," Spike hissed with passion and need.

Xander moaned, his mind scrambling around a thousand thoughts. He knew what this meant to Spike, and what it would mean for him. They had had this talk when Spike was still chipped. Would the others understand? Xander didn't care about the rest of the world, but Dawn? Willow? Giles and Tara? Would they misinterpret this, blame Spike? Could they know what it meant to them, both of them?

"Do it," he gasped. He was acutely aware of the flesh rending for one brief moment, then ecstasy. He never felt more alive, more connected. The fact that he knew what this meant to Spike was intoxicating. He had a guilty flare of sympathy for Riley. No wonder this was too much for him to resist. Although, the thought of letting just anyone--anyone other than Spike--do something this intimate is revolting. Then, euphoria swept over him, obliterating all thought.

Slowly Xander became aware of the world around him. Spike was bathing the mark with long sweeps from shoulder to neck. Spike's fingers were still lazily moving inside Xander. His strong arm holding Xander around the chest were the only thing that had prevented the young man from collapsing to the floor with the force of his orgasm. Xander's come was dripping down the wall and Spike hadn't even undressed yet.

Spike slipped his fingers out and turned Xander to face him, never releasing his firm grip. Exerting tremendous effort and fighting post-coital languor, Xander lifted arms and draped them around Spike's neck. Wishing he could purr himself, he settled for Spike's steady vibrations. Xander drowsily requested, "Bed now?"

Spike didn't throw him over his shoulder, like Xander expected. He gathered him into his arms and in a disconcerting show of vampire strength carried him slowly to the bedroom. After laying Xander down on the crumpled sheets, Spike knelt on the bed beside him and admired him like a work of art. Spike's look of unbridled lust, and something else deeper and more permanent, was making Xander wish his had a vampire's recuperative powers. Spike's fingers ghosted across Xander's naked flesh, brushing his lips, his nipples, trailing through the line of dark hair between his navel and genitals, but stopped nowhere.

"Please." Xander hoped his eyes and his feeble attempt to lift Spike's tee shirt conveyed his need for Spike to get naked. He knew he was down to wrapping his mind around only a few words and didn't think they would be very coherent.

Spike, ever the linguist, laughed as he leaned back and pulled his shirt off. He slowly unbuttoned his jeans, smirking at Xander's obvious frustration. His cock sprang out, rigid and ready as he tossed the denims off the bed. "For me?" Xander whispered, determined to show his lover he had been working on the whole retaining-the-ability-to-speak-during-sex thing.

Spike's laugh deepened and he crawled over Xander wearing nothing but the necklace and tongue-kissed the mark. "Mine." Spike's voice sounded happier than Xander had ever heard him. It contained none of the possessiveness he had expected; instead the rich deep tones were almost giddy. "My beautiful brown-eyed boy; my sweet precious pet; my Xander, so sweet." His hands tumbled and tickled, rolling Xander into a gasping giggling ball of desire. Spike finally lifted Xander's ankles over his shoulder and slid home into the well-oiled passage.

Xander bucked up into his purring, laughing lover and called out, "More, faster, harder, now, Spike, now." So much for the whole speech thing.

Spike obliged him by quickly increasing the tempo of his thrusts and angling for his prostate. As the repeated stimulation sent blood pounding to his head Xander could just make out Spike's words. "O, how thy worth with manners may I sing, When thou art all the better part of me? What can mine own praise to mine own self bring? And what is't but mine own, when I praise thee?[1]"

Xander hugged Spike tightly to him with both his arms and legs to prevent Spike from rolling off his body after his climax. He asked, "Did you write that?"

Spike lifted his head from where it was tucked under Xander's chin and met Xander drooping gaze with an incredulous look. His voice held exasperation and affection when he said, "Idiot."

Time passed. Basking in the afterglow segued into lazing about in bed, until the front door bell nudged Xander out of a light doze. "I told you Red was bringing over Chinese for supper, didn't I?" Spike asked, lifting his head up off Xander's stomach, which he had been using as a pillow.

Xander bolted from the bed, pulling on a crumpled pair of jeans as he left the bedroom. Bad vampire. Bad Xander, going commando with Willow in the apartment. Xander ran toward the front door, doubled back and slingshot into the kitchen. He scooped up the remains of his shorts and mopped up the spilled oil off of the floor. Using the oil soaked rag he wiped the dry come off the wall. Tossing the damp item into the covered trash bin, he flipped the switch on the fan above the stove in an attempt to get rid of the reek of sex. He finished his dash to the door just as the bell rang again.

Being Sunnydale, even though it was Sunday afternoon, he checked the peephole. So not Willow and Tara, and speaking of commando. Outside the door were the two commandos, Riley and Miller. Xander felt Spike stroking his bare spine and turned to be handed a tee shirt. Spike? Covering me up? He spends all his time ripping my clothes off. Spike smiled at Xander's confusion and trailed a finger across the mark. Oh, duh. Goofy grin back. Erection back; commandos outside the door. Thanks, Spike.

"It's Riley and that Miller guy. I'll totally lose the cleaning deposit if you kill them," Xander joked while biting his bottom lip.

"Told you I wouldn't," Spike scowled.

Xander pulled on the shirt and leaned in to plant a calming kiss on his pissed off lover. "Actually, you said you wouldn't hunt to feed, you never swore off revenge. Vengeance... Well, let's not go into my experience with vengeance." Xander offered Spike a wobbly smile. "But I owe Miller, and Finn's an asshole but he's Buffy's asshole. Wait... That really came out really wrong."

Spike snorted and turned and strolled back in to the apartment. "Unless they hurt you, Pet they're safe for now."

Thinking that was as much as he could hope for from Spike, Xander opened the door. Riley was using a pair of crutches and sported a cast from the top of this thigh to his ankle. Xander invited both men in, and lead the way into the living room. The bedroom door was shut and there was no sign of Spike. "Can I get you anything?" Xander asked the men.

"No. Thanks. Xander, I just wanted to say..." Riley faltered and looked to his friend for moral support. Graham didn't say anything, but he gave Riley a slight nod. "You were right," Riley said. "About everything."

"Riley, some of that stuff... I would have said anything to get you to talk. Those were my people in the front lines; the sooner we stopped you, the fewer would die..." Xander temporized, but Riley cut in.

"It was true, and you know it. I was a liability to Buffy, to all of you. I put you in danger, and I'm doing the same thing to my unit now. I'm going to resign my commission and get some help." He looked down at the floor, seeming almost as broken as he had seemed the two nights ago. Miller looked uncomfortable, like he wanted to offer support to Riley but didn't want to make him seem any weaker in front of Xander.

"I'm sorry to hear that." Xander said. "Not sorry you're getting help, but that you're resigning. You've learned some hard lessons about blindly following orders and not questioning the results. I believe that deep down you're a good man, Riley Finn. I think that if good men leave the hard jobs to those without the moral conscious for it to bother them then only the bad men are doing those jobs."

"Thanks, Xander, that means a lot." Riley clenched his jaw and squared his shoulders. Graham placed a supportive hand on his back.

"She loved you," Xander said softly. "Believe that that means you're worth loving. I do."

The doorbell rang and Riley used the distraction to break eye contact with Xander's frank gaze. Spike emerged from the bedroom, much to the surprise of the commandos. "That'll be the girls," he said as he continued to stroll to the door.

Riley looked like he was going to say something, but was interrupted by the sounds from the doorway. Dawn squealed and threw her arms around Spike's neck and the men in the living room heard her clear voice say, "I always miss the explosions!"

Spike snorted and swung her up in his arms. He carried her into the apartment, trailed by witches bearing paper sacks of Chinese food. Dawn stopped laughing when she saw Riley. Spike set her down on her feet, but she locked both arms around his waist and pressed close.

"Hi, Dawn." Riley said.

"Riley," she answered. Her eyes darted from one commando to another. If she looked this scared with them in street clothes, Xander was glad she hadn't run into them in uniform.

"I can't tell you how sorry I am. About your mom, about Buffy..."

The young man looked so helpless, apparently Willow couldn't stand to let him twist in the wind. "Thank you, we appreciate your sympathy," Willow said quietly, setting her bag down on the dining table and turned to take Tara's and doing the same. "I feel horrible about your finding out like that," Willow continued. That's my Willow, always ready to forgive and forget.

Willow crossed to stand near Dawn and Spike. "We would have told you as soon as it happened, but of course we couldn't. We tried to reach you before Buffy died." She gently stroked Dawn's hair. Or maybe not, maybe she's just going to bludgeon him with a shovel.

Xander stepped in before Riley and his friend ended up sharing a cage with Amy. He cast a significant glance at the little group standing so close together, complete now that Tara had sidled up to Willow. Maybe the whole pack thing isn't just hyena-speak. "We're all glad to hear you're getting help, Riley. We've lost too many good people to the Hellmouth.

The doorbell rang again, and Riley and Graham declined to stay for dinner. Xander let Giles in while he let the commandos out. He responded to Giles' raised eyebrow with a shrug and a shake of his head. They could discuss it later. For now, food beckoned and all else was secondary. Xander sat at his table. He watched Dawn pumping Spike for details about the battle. He caught Tara's covert eye roll to Willow over some piece of Spike hyperbole. He looked across the table at Giles and smiled. This was home.

This was family. Whatever tomorrow brought, they could face it together.

[1] Shakespeare


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