Before eternity began, there was the Fall, and among the fallen there was the demon. The demon knew desolation, pain and rage. Among its own kind viciousness was virtue, and weakness was eradicated. In abject solitude among the teaming hordes of the nether regions it dwelt, fighting to subsist, subsisting to grow in power and influence, gaining power not for pleasure but to ensure survival. At last, in time, it ascended to the world of man though the will of the Maker. The Maker gave the man unto the demon to consume and through that consumption the demon was brought forth into the waking world. The man gave the demon form and face, mind and memory, and so in a fashion the two were made one.

But the Maker was flawed and new to the world. Unlike others of its kind it sought not to dominate its childe but to be nurtured and protected by it. So the demon drew on the memories of the man and from its first moonlit, blood-filled night it was set apart from its own kind. The Maker's Maker had shackled her power through his deliberate shattering of her mind and spirit. Her gift brought forth her pertinacious childe to stand between her and her Master's whim.

But Fate removed the Maker's Master and the demon called on the man's compassion and bound itself to its Sire not only by lust and blood, as was the way of their kind, but by loyalty and honor. Together the Maker and her childe roamed and hunted, ever at her caprice. To provide succor to his fragmented sire, drawing on his lost humanity, the demon used the man's patience and intellect, but hid this weakness from his own kind. To hide his humanity he made sport of legends, and unable to rise in stature through his Maker's deeds, sought the Chosen Ones and became the Slayer of Slayers.

His Maker, seeing her flaw reflected in her imperfect childe, cast the demon adrift. And the demon dwelt apart; separated from the darklings by the very traits the Maker crafted, shunning the light-kinder it hunted, even as it was hunted.

Time passed and the world changed, man made new magic of caged lighting and studied dark arts of the mind and body. Humanity, no longer cowering in fear or oblivion, bred new children ripe for war. The demon fell, as prey became predator, and was torn apart and reborn with synthetic magic. The magic harnessed the demon but not the man, and so this one, unique among its brethren, secured freedom. The demon's nature was obstructed and turned more and more to the man's reason and guile to survive. The memories of the man suggested sanctuary lay not among its own kind, who by nature would turn on the weak, but with the light-kinder, whose very fostering of such weakness made them prey to the darklings. Upon receiving sanctuary among the warriors of light the demon made study of their weakness and plotted its rise back into power.

But the man studied also and noted their strengths. The demon was unsuccessful. Its bid for freedom was foiled and its dark hopes were sown on infertile ground. Alone again, the hunger for security and kindred raged as strong as the bloodlust, and the demon was schooled by the man. He saw the very weakness he had attempted to exploit turned again and again into strengths. The demon waited and the man studied and forced treaty on the defenders of mankind.

Weakened, he craved strength, and worthy foe became worthy ally. The very one he had hated was now desired, and the demon chose his mate. The mate was fierce and strong, loyal and beautiful without the fractures of his sire. She gathered around her unworthy minions and the demon was jealous. He called on the memories of the man and pursued his mate, but his suit was rejected. The demon raged, and the man studied. The minions lacked its mate's fierceness and strength yet were valued and accepted. The man reasoned that the demon must embrace loyalty and show compassion for these were the weaknesses the mate valued in her minions. The demon had honed both in caring for its damaged maker, and again pursued its mate. Again the mate spurned him, but called on his strength and wisdom to guard the light. The man despaired but the demon accepted cruelty and returned loyalty to the mate. And in the end the demon's mate gave unto him that which she most valued; not her love, but those whom she loved, and entrusted to him the care of her most precious one.

* * * * *

Bid me weep, and I will weep while I have eyes to see And having none yet I will keep a heart to weep for thee. [1]

The 'cold' gray light of morning was anything but as it danced along the surface of his skin. Even wracked with pain after his plummet from the tower and his previous capture by Glory, Spike couldn't summon up the wherewithal to focus past his numbing sense of loss. The emotion of the shocking realization that she was gone blanketed his perception. Buffy, his beautiful golden Buffy was dead. Over and over those words repeated in this head. Yet still the concept that she was gone slipped from his grasp. Her strength, her perseverance, her raw, focused determination against insurmountable odds had been his bulwark during the single most unsettling time of his unlife.

When he had first been chipped, he had denied her power. He had been at a disadvantage-couldn't hunt, couldn't feed, shaken to his very core. It had been worse than when he had been fledging, the sense of powerlessness. The Big Bad had never had to depend on anyone, not to feed. Spike never had found he could depend on anyone, not since his death or before. Reluctantly the Slayer had offered him sanctuary and obediently her minions had followed suit. He hadn't been able to bring himself to depend on that sanctuary. Unable to bring himself to rely on humans, he had been unable to believe they would hold up their end of the deal. No more than he had been able to believe that the bonds of that little group, not being enforced by pain and fear, could stand against his interference. He had been wrong, painfully wrong.

He had first admired Buffy as a worthy opponent. Gradually over time, watching her with her 'minions', he came to respect the way she had enhanced her Slayer persona with their support. Her loyalties and loves had not weakened her, as any vampire would believe. These qualities had not left her open to attack or distracted her at a crucial moment but had time and time again turned the table on more powerful antagonists.

Her relationships with them were so unlike the way a vampire used its minions. When they put their backs together they could stand against anything. There was no struggle for power, no jostling for position. They each gave all they had; building on each other's strengths and without conscious thought they fortified each other's weaknesses. Nothing could sway their faith in each other. Spike had learned that first-hand from the results of his attempt to divide and conquer them in his agreement with Adam. And now they had placed their all-too-brief and fragile lives between all the power and rage of a Hell-God and the rest of humanity.

It was impossible. They lacked the rigid discipline of an army or the viciousness of a mob. What they were was something far more subtle-kin. In the oldest sense of the word; stronger than any blood bond, much like the primal hunt/coven bonds of vampires but lacking in the darkest traits. They were a collective of determined, independent individuals. Each one would at times willingly circumvent their own wants and needs to protect the others.

Spike saw that his mistake in the past had been in first treating them like prey, and then when that failed approaching them like a rival master's conclave. His failures had been mostly due to his wrong assumptions of who was this group's master, and what their weakness was. Time and time again, the traits he had assumed would work in his favor had been the very ones to blow his plans to hell and back.

Rupert's insistence that he only guide, not control his Slayer should have hampered both his ability to impart his knowledge and the speed of her response while she questioned his instructions. Instead it had created a more powerful Slayer, one who could make her own decisions under pressure, yet was unafraid to expose her limitations by seeking help.

The whelp's eagerness to please and willingness to let the others take all he had to give and more should have drained the boy. Xander had no enhanced strength, and while Spike had noticed that he was far more perceptive than most people thought, he wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. Somehow the boy used that. Seeming completely oblivious to slights and insults, the whelp remained ever ready to bleed himself dry in his feral devotion to his friends.

Red, with her self-effacing insecurities, should have been easy to manipulate. Wouldn't she make a pretty and powerful pawn in the right hands? Yet there was a steely resolve to the fragile-seeming witch, and Spike knew from personal experience that the girl did not back down. Buffy had called Willow her big gun before the tragic battle in which they had won the war, but lost what had made it worth fighting. They had won, largely due to Red. She had managed to brain-suck a hell-god minutes before she was tossing that mob of humans around like tenpins. Would have thought twice about kidnapping her and the whelp, if I knew she could do that.

When the seven of them tumbled into the magic shop it seemed days had passed, rather than hours. Wellesley [2] was right, funny you don't see a won or a lost battle as melancholy, when the remains resemble a food fight--when it's not your own that's lying broken and lifeless.

Spike thought this might be it; Buffy had been their linchpin and without her the little group might just slowly drift apart. Rupert had fought for the white-hats before Buffy had come into his life, but the others cared more for the girl than any cause.

Spike dropped onto the metal stairs leading up to the loft and watched as the others settled around the shop. Or attempted to. The Watcher led the Nibblet to one of the chairs at the table, and guided her to sit. She sat, unaware of her surroundings, shedding quiet tears for her sister, for her mother, for the safe world she remembered but would never know again. Red fluttered about, fussing over her girlfriend and the little one, covertly keeping a close eye on the Watcher.

Spike admitted to himself he was waiting, waiting for when one of them to look at him and ask, 'why are you here?' waiting for them to close ranks against him and possibly drive him out into the sunlight. He wondered if he would resist, at least make some token effort at self-preservation.

As his tears blurred his vision again, he could almost see Buffy in front of him. He could almost take himself back to that one brief moment, when they had gone back to her house and she had said, "Come inside, Spike." She had crossed the Watcher and the whelp to include him on that disastrous escape attempt. She had trusted him with her beloved sister's life. It more than made up for her repeated rejections. Those small words, that show of trust, more than justified his turning his back on his dark princess for her. She had trusted him, and for one brief moment he had belonged. Belonged to her and to hers, and Spike didn't think he could bear it if they turned him out. He promised his lady he would protect Dawn, and in retrospect all her minions would fall under his protection now that the Slayer was dead.

He was jarred out of his introspection by Anya's hysterics. At least her disjointed words had sounded like hysterical gibberish before she had limped out of the shop. He expected the whelp to follow after the demon bint. She has the boy well trained; he should follow, Spike thought, looking at the shattered looks of the humans. When he goes, that will start it. They will each stumble off on their separate ways. Spike reasoned it would be just like he had predicted to Adam, they would drift apart in their own private miseries. But the boy hesitated and surprised him by turning back to the gang. Maybe he shouldn't be surprised. Spike remembered those strong human arms dragging him out of the collapsing library only hours after the whelp had threatened to kick his shiny white bum. If nothing else, the boy was unpredictable.

The little blond witch said something about shock, and that they should make Dawn drink something hot. She said she would get something. The Watcher had gone back to the office. Spike could hear his stifled sobs. He didn't think the humans could hear that soft sound, but Red went back anyway. Given the uncanny powers she had so recently displayed Spike wouldn't have put it past her to have read his mind.

The boy knelt in front of Dawn, his hands enveloping her small white fingers as he first pressed her hand between both his palms and them gently kissed its back. Angelus was right, a true white knight. The girl remained unresponsive, and if not for Spike's enhanced hearing he would have missed Xander's soft words.

"You know Dawn; there's so much I don't know. But I can tell you this with absolute certainty. When you love someone, you give them a part of yourself. It binds you to them. Nothing, not even death can sever that connection. Part of you is with Joyce and Buffy and always will be. They're even now drawing strength and love from it. And part of them will always be within you. I know it hurts too much now, but eventually you'll be able to look inside and feel that part of them and wrap it around you, and nothing will ever be able to shake the love and strength you draw from them." Xander swallowed hard, and Spike felt a pang of sympathy for a boy raised in an era where men just didn't cry. Xander's voice was rough with suppressed emotion when he continued. "I love you, Dawn. You have a piece of my heart and you always will, in life and in death. I loved them too. That hasn't stopped. It never will. I just want you to know you're not alone. We're family. You know what that means-even if you wanted to, you can never get rid of us."

The blond witch returned with the hot tea, and coaxed Dawn to drink. Spike saw Red catch the whelp's eye and wordlessly summon him to the office. As the boy passed by, Spike was astonished to feel a warm hand briefly squeeze his shoulder. He had thought they were so wrapped up in their own grief they had forgotten him. He had still expected at any moment one of them would notice he was there and chuck him out. That wordless 20th century gesture expressed so many things. In that one fleeting gesture he was included, acknowledged, and the precarious welcome he had obtained courtesy of the Slayer had been reaffirmed. It also reminded him of the last promise he had made to Buffy, the promise that hadn't ended with her death but had been a just in case-just in case I don't make it she had said, like there was a chance in hell she would. Spike, who had been privy to the secret of this unit's power, had always been on the outside looking in. Now, with that one unconscious gesture, Xander had given him a glimpse of what it felt to belong, a taste of the wellspring of power that the Slayer had drawn upon for five years.

The nibblet hadn't shown much interest in drinking the hot tea, but she did clutch the warm mug in both hands. Spike quietly slipped into the seat next to her at the table. The boy's words hadn't seemed to reach her so he wrapped the long fingers of one hand around her hands and gently stroked her hair with the other. The witch seemed to sense the futility of trying to make her talk and just offered her quiet, comforting presence.

At length Spike spoke in a low, calming voice. "Hush now, nibblet. There, there, you'll make yourself ill." Dawn did not answer with words but gradually her tears slowed and stopped. Tara had to pry the mug loose to take the cold tea and went to make more. Once they were alone, Spike said, "The whelp's right, you're not alone. As long as they draw breath and blood flows in their veins they will stand by you, through hell and back. Not being hampered by those restrictions myself, I'll be there to dandle your great-grandchildren on my knee when you are old and gray. This I swear."

"That's a promise, isn't it?" She whispered softly, eyes still unfocused. Spike was so relieved that she had spoken he barely managed a firm nod and squeezed her hands. She turned, still clutching at his hand; the fires of grief in her eyes banked but not burned out. Her voice was raw from her silent crying when she said, "I remember. That man said you didn't have a soul, that he couldn't understand why you would risk yourself, and you said you had made a promise. You take your promises pretty seriously."

"Very seriously, Pet." There's hidden depths to this one. She reminded him so much of Joyce, he was hard-pressed not to start sobbing again.

"What can I promise you?" Twice in the space of an hour he was astonished. He knew that she grasped the concept of a demon, more than most, given her background, or the background she remembered. Yet the trust she placed him, which now shone in her eyes, made him fear for her and long to keep her safe in any way that he could.

"You swear you'll listen to the Watcher, and the witch, and the whelp. You keep yourself safe. You promise me you won't let this break you." He hadn't meant to sound so fierce. He feared for a moment he might drive her back into her silent shell, but she tried to smile.

"This is one of those 'do as I say not as I do' things, right?" Still resilient under such a burden, her feeble attempt at humor, accompanied by the Dawn version of Buffy's patented eye roll, was oddly reassuring. Sums and parts. Wonder if this was what the Slayer was like at this age.

Spike countered, "I'm willing to try." It seemed only fair to trade her endeavored sarcasm for his less than classic smirk.

"I guess we'll have to stick close to each other," She squeezed his fingers between both hands. "Just to keep each other honest." And didn't she just wink? Amazing. She's going to survive this.

* * * * *

Hadn't that been a shock? Spike had been in the shop and strolled back to see if, in all the commotion, anyone had thought to stop off at the butcher's. Instead of finding the tiny refrigerator in the corner of the training room, there was a huge 1950's monster blocking the passageway. The boy had shown up early and had been working on the framed part of the practice space. Xander had taken to working on the shop to stave off the frustrating hours of unsuccessful research they had been doing since Glory had arrived. In addition to installing a tiny galley kitchen the boy was also working on the basement storage room and various display areas out in the shop's public area. Spike had tuned out the noise of power tools and banging, assuming the whelp needed an outlet for his grief and frustration; this was at least productive.

The fridge hummed with power so Spike took a look inside, not expecting the Slayer's minions to remember the pet vampire, but hoping the cupboard wasn't bare. He stood there, mouth gaping in shock. There were over a dozen bags of human blood. The good stuff, marked and typed by the blood bank, and by the dates written on the bags; fresh. He looked around in amazement.

Spike had kept a wary eye on the nibblet since they had lost the Slayer, and the Watcher hadn't left her side. The store was closed but they were cloistered in the office, taking care of making the arrangements for Buffy. The witch and her mate hadn't arrived yet. Only the boy had been bustling about, going in and out of the store since the daybreak. Beside the blood the only items in the icebox were cases of the soft drinks he had seen the boy hauling in on his broad shoulder earlier. A touch told him that the ginger ale Dawn liked was chilled, and catching her eye through the window of the office door Spike held up a can and inclined his head in query. She nodded and smiled weakly at him. The Watcher was on the telephone and looked almost as weary as she did. The office reeked of dust and dry leather bindings when Spike slipped quietly in to bring Dawn her drink. Taking the drink in one hand she reached out with the other and squeezed his long fingers in her small grip. Her tears had dried and she looked up at Spike from where she perched on the edge of the single chair, besides the one behind Rupert's desk, with red-rimmed eyes that burnt into his heart. Spike was still staring into those lost eyes when the Watcher ended the call.

"How about you, Rupes?" He asked. "Fancy a cuppa?" Well, good now we're both bewildered. Least I don't show it so openly.

When Giles finally managed to wrap his mind around the fact that William the Bloody had just offered to make him tea he said, "Er, no. Thank you. Oh! I do apologize. There has been so much- I'll ask Xander to restock the blood."

"Don't bother, looks like he already did." Spike stroked Dawn's hair before heading out to the currently homeless microwave to fix himself a thankfully palatable meal.

Afterwards, he strolled back to where the whelp's racket had been coming from all morning. Xander was stripped to the waist, in loose, well-worn jeans and safety goggles. Sweat highlighted the movement of his muscles along his broad back as he used a power drill to screw on brackets to mount a shelf above the sink. He had framed the small room with speed and confidence over the past weeks.

Spike was surprised at the transformation a few hours of that day had made. Prepackaged cabinets had previously been hung but now their doors had been attached and the drywall was covered with laminated tile. The floor and walls being finished made a world of difference. The aisle space looked just wide enough to maneuver the refrigerator back into the niche Xander had left in the far corner.

"Hey, super powered vampire guy, I was just going to shamelessly draft you as grunt labor." Xander removed the goggles and ran his fingers through his hair where the elastic had mussed it. Spike raised an eyebrow and considered playing the 'what's in it for me' card, but knew that if he didn't help it would take Xander longer to do it. That would be time in which the refrigerator would be unplugged and he had a vested interest in keeping its contents safe.

"That mean you want my help moving the fridge?"

"Help? I thought you would do it, and the microwave too." Xander turned a fake innocent look on him and actually batted those ridiculously long lashes.

"Isn't that a union job?" Spike crossed his arms and wondered if he could get the whelp to work for it.

"Spike, vampires don't get hernias." Xander reasoned. It felt good. Almost like Herself would step in any minute to settle it between them.

"All right, Whelp, but you guide it from the other side, otherwise I'll be forced to hear you whine about the scrapes to your floor."

Together, they made short work of it. Appliances installed, Xander alternated fussing about with the finishing touches with drinking one of the sodas. Spike noted that the boy didn't even look at the bags of blood when he grabbed his drink. Spike heated a second unit of blood. No use letting the good stuff go to waste, it won't stay fresh forever. He sipped it, now that the need had been blunted. Sitting on the counter, he watched Xander move about with quiet confidence. Eventually the boy noticed his attention and looked up from where he knelt attaching handles to the drawers and smiled self-consciously.

"What?" Xander asked.

"What brought on the urge to redecorate?" Spike gestured with his mug at the transformed room.

"Just figured we'd be all here more, couldn't..." He paused awkwardly, brushed at his hair and added softly, looking down, "I just need to keep busy. You didn't notice all this crap before?"

"Wasn't exactly welcome lately. This monstrosity wasn't lurking about when we regrouped here after that road trip to the Crusade." Spike nodded at the old refrigerator.

"Had this set aside, got a friend who works down at the Goodwill store. I was waiting for things to settle down, thought I'd draft Buffy into doing the heavy labor." Spike watched Xander sneak an appraising glance up at him under those dark lashes, asking if Spike understood but seeming to doubt he would.

"Yeah." Spike answered both the words and the look and contemplated the contents of his cup. Boy tries to hard to be strong, to be everything his friends need. "Yeah." He added again.

"You look good." Xander blurted out, then followed up with a burst of babble. "Better. I mean better. You look better than before. I mean more like your old self, less like Glory's punching bag, I mean."

"I know what you mean, Whelp." Spike interrupted before Xander wound himself up so tight he exploded. "This helps." He nodded to the mug.

"Yeah, I read that somewhere." Xander offered up a paler version of his usual bright smile and continued. "Giles would be so proud, I managed to retain something from all the research sessions."

Xander washed his hands at the sink and said he was going to see what the others wanted to do about lunch. He hadn't mentioned the blood, but Spike was sure now that he was the one who had supplied it. It wasn't just that he wondered where the boy had laid his hands on one of Sunnydale's hottest black market items. What really had Spike's brain ticking away was the fact that in the slightly more than twenty-four hours since losing the Slayer he had thought to get it at all. It occurred to Spike that having someone like Xander in his life, who went to such lengths for his friends, would not be such a bad thing.

Later on the witches arrived, smelling of tears and grief. Willow and Giles held counsel on what would be best for Dawn in the office. Spike noticed that the demon chit still had not arrived. He had been watching for her since the boy showed. Now that the others were all here, he wondered which one would be the first to ask. She wasn't coming. He had known in that instant when Xander had looked up at him when he was attaching the handles to the drawers with the pain in those eyes... the boy was frantically trying to be strong enough for everyone else to lean on, but felt he had no one to turn to himself. He eavesdropped shamelessly when he saw Red go back to the new kitchen, where Xander was cleaning up after lunch. After suitable praise for the transformation she was the one to ask the question. "Where's Anya?"

"Ah," In the reflection of the office window, Spike saw Xander wipe his hands on his jeans and lean back against the counter. "She- This all..." He looked away from the concerned witch. Not the subtle avoidance he might be hoping for since he faced a bare wall in doing so. "She's gone," he said finally, turning wounded eyes back at her.

"Gone?" Willow said in confusion, and then looking up at her friend seemed to register his pain through the fog of her own grief. She wrapped her small frame against his and squeezed him into a hug. "She'll be back," she said with fierce conviction.

"I don't think so." Xander's voice was hardly more than a defeated whisper. Spike longed to pull the bitch's intestines out slowly while she watched. That desire didn't strike him as odd that he wished to inflict pain on her for the distress she caused a boy he himself had taken great pleasure in manipulating in the past. The whelp was Buffy's, so he was now his. Spike was going to take care of them all whether they wanted it or not.

"What's going on?" Dawn whispered in his ear, taking it for granted that he was listening in on the activity in the back.

He thought about asking what she meant, but she always saw through him anyway so he whispered back "Demon bint's skipped town."

"For good?"

How should I know? Instead of asking, he hugged Dawn against him and they both turned their attention to the back. After a while, Spike said. "Might be for the best if you just follow your boyfriend's lead on this. See how he wants to handle it."

"He's not my boyfriend," she said, not sounding at all annoyed by the implication. She hugged Spike back and after a moment murmured into his chest. "Why does everything have to change?"

* * * * *

They kept the service simple; Dawn insisted they have it after sunset. Spike had expected a sparse crowd, only friends of Joyce and Dawn. Buffy had spent all her time performing her Slayer duties, other than the overstuffed Boy Scout she had been shagging, he never saw her with anyone but her minions. Cars lined the quiet cemetery, mostly California plates but some from out of state. Young people, somber, well-dressed and carrying weapons, came out of the evening darkness. Dawn kept Spike close to her and he pitied the fledge that crossed path with one of these stake-wielding humans.

"Who are all these people?" Spike was glad that Dawn had asked. He was, after all, a Master vampire; it wouldn't do to seem impressed by the army of mourners.

"Children of the Hellmouth," Xander answered with a trace of his glib humor. "Sunnydale High Class of 1999. Buffy was voted class protector. Remember? They might not have a handle on the whole Slayer deal, but they know that there are things that try to kill us and that Buffy stood between them and those things. We had the lowest mortality rate of any graduating class."

One by one they stopped and offered Dawn their condolences. Xander greeted each by name and introduced Dawn to them by how they knew Buffy. "This is Jeff. He was on the swim team, and Buffy stopped him from eating the coach. This is Marcia. She was in Mr. Whitmore's Sex Ed; Buffy kept her egg baby from brain-sucking her. This is TJ. He worked out just where to position the explosives so that the school would bury the Mayor." It went on and on.

Spike noticed when he stopped by the grave in the nights that followed that the people remembered their protector and mourned in their own way. Candles and flowers, bits of poetry and CD's were left at what was becoming a shrine to the young woman. It would never make it into the Watcher Chronicles but no Slayer had been so embraced by and her community. Spike made sure that the candles stayed lit and took the poetry and CDs home to Dawn.

* * * * *

The blood kept being restocked and the boy checked on Spike daily the same as he did the witch and the Watcher. It became so he could set his watch by when the whelp showed up with the girl, usually with dinner for all and the news of the town. He was surprisingly well-connected and kept up a steady stream of gossip to Willow and Dawn on who was engaged and pregnant, who had flunked out of college and who was moving and to where. Gradually it was not only the boy's chatter at the dinner table, but the girls joined in with questions and comments. Xander ceased to have to work so hard to make them smile and participate. Spike thought they were going too easy on Rupes. The Watcher was drinking heavily and would lock himself in the office for hours at a time. The kids had practically taken over running the store and on occasion had left Spike running the till. Which was just wrong-he was evil, not a shopkeeper.

Spike had taken to spending most of the day in the shop. Usually one of the minions was about for company and Dawn spent most of her time after school there. But he was alone with Rupes when the call came in from the Watcher's Council. Although he went into the back to take the call, Spike was more than able to overhear the conversation. They were rather vocal with their opinion of ringing a fellow Watcher and reaching a vampire. When Spike had asked whom he should say was calling that tosser had snapped, "Who is this?" Spike had calmly drawled, "This is William the Bloody, you wanker. Who the hell wants to know?"

After the call Spike and Giles spent the next twenty minutes exchanging candid views of the Watchers and their impending visit. Spike was almost grateful for the chip; otherwise he would have ended the argument in a rather colorful manner. The Whelp arrived with Dawn. The boy acted as if they weren't still hurling insults, until he seemed to notice the girl shrink into herself watching the adults with a quivering lip. He surprised Spike by interrupting him mid-tirade. "Hey, chip dip. Come on, it's Friday, lets get hunting."

"It's daylight, moron," Spike snarled eager to get back to his argument.

"And we're burning it," Xander persisted. "Come on, so little time, so much ground to cover."

"What are you raving about?" Spike couldn't believe the boy had actually grabbed his arm and was pulling him toward the back.

"No work tomorrow. I want to sweep the tunnels, the Initiative caves, and the old high school before sunset, then we can hit the usual spots. Hurry up-if we hit all three spots before dark I'll spring for one of those onion things you like at the Bronze."

It was an obvious attempt to distract him. It was also an attempt to stop what had upset Dawn, so Spike went along with the whelp. Spike spent most of the time they were roaming the tunnels, caves and corridors waiting for the boy to comment on the argument, or at least to ask about it. Irritatingly, the boy ignored it and didn't seem any different than their normal nights of patrol.

They ended up back at the Bronze and the boy was still refusing to get drawn in; he even had the audacity to laugh when Spike missed a shot in their pool game. Finally, after barking at the boy and infuriatingly sounding like he was confiding in the whelp instead of ordering him to do something about the Watcher, Spike was able to get him to listen to his point. And with a few stuttered words didn't the cur have him feeling sympathy for the drunken sod. Damn it, I'm evil.

They left the club and Spike dropped his real concern into the conversation and waited to see what would happen. He looked the whelp in the eye and told him the Watchers were coming and that they had better not find out that Dawn was the Key.

* * * * *

Spike watched the two of them, heads together in conference, silhouetted against the glaring sunlight. Xander and Dawn usually both jumped out of the car and came straight into the shop. Spike knew Xander intended to brief Dawn about the Watcher's visit. He wished they were with him in the dim shop so that he could gauge her reactions by sight and scent. When they emerged from the vehicle Dawn sedately crossed the street without the bounce she had just begun to display when arriving 'home' from school. Upon entering the shop she came straight to him and asked, "You know?"

"Not to worry, nibblet, they've been here before. For all their bloody books and lore, they're as Hellmouth-blind as the rest of the blighted buggers that live here." Spike tried to sound nonchalant and hoped that his attitude soothed the girl. The truth was he feared for her, but the boy was right; in Spike's experiences with both Slayers and Watchers, they tended to see just what they wanted to see.

He sat at the table with Dawn as she unpacked her books and told him about her day, more subdued than usual. Xander brought her a cold drink and Spike a warm mug. Normally Xander waited only on Dawn, so perhaps that was what made Spike watch the boy so intently. The dark-eyed youth moved about at his normal pace but Spike noticed that in the process of straightening the store the boy secured the exits and stashed weapons about the place.

Spike had been prepared for an argument the night before. The boy had fought beside the Slayer for five years and held Rupert in the awe usually reserved for beloved parents or heroes. Yet the moment Spike had pointed out the threat, a feral light had gleamed in Xander's eyes and he had begun to consolidate their defenses and marshal their rescources. When the boy had said, "Let's go see the witches," Spike had been relieved and a bit shocked to be believed so readily.

He had never been so completely trusted. Angelus would have questioned him thoroughly to ensure he had not misinterpreted something or that he was not just plain wrong. Xander had accepted that if Spike thought that something had the potential to hurt Dawn, then it did. He didn't waste time with that other rot, he just acted.

The boy often belittled his own intelligence with his jokes and Spike, like many others, had begun to accept Xander's statements as fact. But over the past weeks since they had lost the Slayer, Spike had spent more time with him than any of the others except Dawn. Spike realized that what Xander attributed to 'lack of intelligence' was in actuality the result of poor education. Given the American educational system and Xander's penchant for head-butting walls and frequent sleepless nights while saving the world, Spike was surprised the boy knew as much as he did. Sure, the kid couldn't pick Portugal out on a map if you put a gun to his head, and he thought Henry VIII was a British pop singer from the Sixties but there was real intelligence in those big brown eyes.

Xander spotted Spike's scrutiny as he was hauling an ax and some crossbows up into the loft. He gave a self-conscious shrug and grinned at the vampire. The Watcher emerged from his office and nervously began checking over everything in preparation for their visitors. He found a sword stashed behind the checkout counter and looked pointedly at Spike. Spike smirked and nodded to the boy in the loft.

"Er, Xander." Giles held the sword flat in both palms and raised an eyebrow.

"You don't have to throw it at anyone, G-Man, I just thought it might, you know," he shrugged and brushed his hair out of his eyes, "keep down the interruptions." Xander's grin was contagious. The witches arrived to see all four of them smiling.

"Why are we happy?" Willow asked, smiling a little hesitantly herself.

"Xander has been redecorating again," Giles said. "Are there any more of these I should be aware of?"

"Here and there." The boy looked completely unrepentant and Spike thought again about what a lovely vampire he would make.

By the time the Watchers arrived Spike had taken up a post on the stairs to one side of Dawn. The witches sat at the table, on her other side. Blond and red hair pressed together, side by side, as they shared the same tome, softly whispering disjointed comments and finishing each other's sentences. When the four Watchers entered through the front door, Spike wondered if they had tried the other entrance only to find it bolted. He had to stop himself from turning to look at the boy as the Watchers spread out in a defensive pattern. When one pulled a squirt gun full of holy water, Spike almost apologized out loud to the golden-haired Slayer for failing her so miserably.

Before he had done more than register that he had placed himself in front of Dawn, the threat flew across the room and he heard the boy say, "Drop it."

From the look on Quentin Travers face, there was a weapon pointed him, probably one of the crossbows. Spike growled, flashing his game face and flexed, gnashing his teeth and clenching his fists. The truth was he was in shock and didn't want the Watchers to read his human visage.

He had seen the Slayer's minions react when one of their own was threatened; it was a thing of beauty, their fierceness. Spike had never expected to receive that protection, to be wrapped in the unquestioning loyalty they reserved for one of their own. It was all he could do not to laugh out loud, to crow his delight. In all those years as part of 'the Scourge of Europe' he had never felt this good, this powerful. Sweet Dru, bless her black heart, could never be relied on from one moment to the next. Angelus was besotted with his Sire and too concerned with losing face or being betrayed to ever rely on Spike or to show him loyalty. And Darla, the selfish bint, had only tolerated Spike because he could manage Dru and was so far down in the pecking order that he wasn't considered a threat. This...this was warmth, this was safety. Spike was one of them and he would risk his unlife to protect them, he would keep them close.

Dawn was tugging on his arm and he couldn't not laugh when he met her eyes. That increased the scent of fear coming from the Watchers. Spike wondered what he had missed while growling and threatening the Watchers. Dawn seemed less tense, Rupert had lowered his weapon, the witches still clasped hands and now that Spike had turned toward Dawn he could see that Xander was still braced for a shot with the crossbow. It was leveled at Quentin Travers.

The bell on the door jangled, the Watchers not having locked it behind them, and a redhead smelling of horses and iodine entered. She stopped to examine the unconscious Watcher and prodded him with her foot. In a moment she had all their attention; there was a dragon in Sunnydale, and she seemed to think that the Slayer's minion would do something about it. Spike took the opportunity presented by the distraction to drag Dawn into the back.

Later, after unsuccessfully trying to get the nibblet to stay at Rupert's place, Spike watched the redhead lead the boy through the under brush. They had parked the cars back on the dirt access road and circled around. The girl looked at Xander with obvious lust and Spike wondered if they were shagging. The scent was wrong but the demon bint was out of the picture and the boy was young and healthy and shaggable. Where the hell did that come from!

He stuck close to Dawn, hoping his presence would make the bleeding Watchers keep their distance and provide protection from the dragon. Spike had been unconscious from his plummet off the tower when the beast had made its appearance through the vortex, but if the nibblet said she saw it, she saw it. Not to mention he could smell some sort of huge carnivore as soon as they pulled up to the access road.

The young man who met them in the clearing by a pickup truck looked enough like Xander to be his brother. Same height, same coloring, but added were a beard, a broadsword, and the clinging red-haired bint. Before long, arguing broke out. No one knew what to do about the dragon but none of them wanted to concede that fact. They could have been there all night, or until the Watchers regained their composure and took over, but quietly, with his trademark humor, Xander got them all working together. The Watchers, minus their walking wounded back at the shop, still tried to explain away a dragon on the Hellmouth, while Giles and the witches made a list of what they would need to use the Olaf Maneuver on a dragon. Spike was relieved when they took Dawn with them to get supplies and set out after Xander to take in the lay of the land and keep an eye on the dragon.

Of course, the plan went to hell the minute the dragon woke up. They were laying out the braziers that the magic users had prepared when the beast snapped to attention and started to thrash about in a bottom-heavy attempt to snatch the circling humans. The futile flapping sent up blinding gales of sand and debris. Spike almost missed the sound of the gunshot in the racket of the dragon; the dragon didn't. It zeroed in on the loud noise and incidentally, the location of the rest of the humans. Spike followed the beast at a run, snagging a twelve-foot grounding rod as he careened through the paddock, leaping over the horse carcasses. Fortunately, due to the lay of the land and several large trees surrounding the clearing, the dragon had to snake around to strike. Adjusting his course to come at its exposed chest, Spike launched himself and his weapon at the screaming beast. He felt the metal rod impale the dragon and sink a good four feet into its massive body before he let go to drop to the ground and roll away from its slashing claws. Wet hot fluid splashed his lower body and a stench far stronger than previously practically knocked the vampire unconscious.

When Spike staggered back to the humans, he wasn't sure Dawn was all right. He had heard a female scream and had known it wasn't one of his, but needed to be reassured. The sight of Xander leaning against the truck flooded him with relief. The boy was exhausted but not hurt, and Spike knew the girl would be near. He heard her rapid heartbeat from under the truck; she would probably have been safe there even if he hadn't managed to drive the dragon off. He told her to come out after he was sure it had been banished and she went to look after the witches. The Watcher bint looked like she had been dipped in dragon's blood and had been the source of all the screams. Dawn came back and dragged him to the barn to hose off his jeans. She suggested with a blush that he take them off, but he told her they would be clearing out before the authorities worked up the nerve to have a look at all the racket.

"Spike? Where'd they get a gun? I saw a movie where the police in England don't even carry guns." She was worrying her bottom lip between her teeth and smelled more strongly of fear than she had all night.

"What's going on in that head of yours, Nibblet? You're an American. You people get guns before you get driver's license; the mindless violence is my favorite thing about this country. Well, that and the Ramones." Spike tried to draw her attention away from the Watchers. She didn't answer but her eyes were wide as she considered the Watchers who were clustered about their reeking comrade.

It was Xander's quiet voice that broke her rapt contemplation as he wandered over to them. "Dawnie, not all Watchers are English, and they could have picked up anything once they came through customs. We," the boy indicated both Spike and the witches, who were standing over with the sword-welding couple, "have taken every precaution. I guarantee, after the wet work crap they pulled when Buffy was stuck in Faith's body and the threats they leveled last time they were here, we're ready for a fight. I honestly don't think it's gonna come to that." He tucked the girl under his arm and offered her a smile that she, after a moment, returned.

The redhead who was so enamored of Xander offered Spike a ride back to town in the open bed of the truck and the boy surprised the vampire by suggesting they drop him at Xander's place. Spike would never have been able to get rid of the smell at the crypt. Xander had remarked earlier that judging from the outside he imagined the inside of the dragon would smell really bad. He had been right. Spike was never sure how much the Watcher taught them about vampires, other than how to kill them. Vampires, like most hunters, had a very sensitive sense of smell and Spike was miserable. He desperately wanted to get clean. He was grateful that Xander was letting him into his apartment smelling like he did. Even a human's limited sense of smell would be offended by this stench, as the sobbing Watcher cow proved.

Later, as the boy showed off his cleaning supplies, Spike was treated to a brief glimpse of the quirkiness of being a Scooby. Most twenty-year-old men were just learning the art of removing their own stains and general laundry upkeep. Xander frowned at the Spike's sticky jeans and said, "I think I can get rid of the smell, but it will probably take all the color out." He looked up with questioning expectancy, and at Spike's nod fetched a metal bucket, probably from the construction site, and filled it with cold water. He emptied an unmarked bottle of colorless liquid into the water and said, "This is really toxic. Make sure you don't get any on...Oh yeah. Duh." Xander brought him a change of clothes for when he was clean and then stumbled out in a fit of awkward shyness at being caught ogling Spike. The vampire had it on good authority that he was worth more that a passing look but tried not to snicker too obviously at his friend. Friend? Bloody hell, I'm a wet little sod.

Alone in Xander's bathroom, Spike pondered the boy's reaction. There had been no mistaking the increase in his heartbeat or the solid wall of pheromones that had slammed into Spike's senses. Xander had, on occasion, flirted with the vampire, whether he had been aware of it or not, but never had he given off such obvious signs of sexual attraction. But then again, he had never flashed the boy before-maybe he should have. It was fun to watch the easy confidence Xander had displayed when garnering his troops to do battle with the dragon evaporate like a morning mist. Hadn't the Watchers been surprised by that? You would think with all the time they spend tossing off about the supernatural, one extra-dimensional beastie wouldn't set them all agog.

Spike finished peeling off his clothes and lined up Xander's odd assortment of cleaning supplies along the edge of the bathtub. He tried small amounts of each to see which had the best chance of cutting through the smelly slime. Surprised I could scent the boy at all. The gasoline and paint thinner seemed to have the best effect. With a snort, Spike spared a thought for the silly bint who had been drenched in the dragon's blood and the other Watchers trapped in a hotel suite with her. Hope this makes them leave. Bad enough trying to keep them from finding out about the nibblet, but I don't like the way they were looking at Xander. Hold on. Why don't I like the attention they're paying to the whelp? Spike sat naked, perched on the edge of the empty tub, completely at a loss.

Sure, these were Buffy's minions and, as far as he was concerned, that made them his responsibility, but the boy was different. It wasn't just that Xander had trusted him; it was that he could trust Xander. Tonight for instance, at the same time Spike had realized that the dragon wasn't playing along with the plan and was in fact about to attack, he had seen Xander running for all he was worth toward the others. Spike had only been free to assault the dragon because he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Xander would first get Dawn to safety before attempting to save the others. When he saw Xander gulping in great gasps of air he didn't even have to see Dawn to know she was all right.

It was a relief to have a stable hunt partner, one whose priorities and vigilance he could trust. Dru had never been like that. Pretty colors, shiny objects, talking dolls... there was no telling what would distract his dark princess. But Xander, for all that his mind seemed to flit from one thing to the next like a crack addict channel surfing, never lost sight of what was important. Xander protected the same people Spike was now guarding and had been doing it longer. Yet he accepted Spike and relied on him. The Slayer had given Spike the first sense of belonging, but she lacked Xander's feral loyalty. That was what made Spike feel secure.

So what had Spike feeling all possessive, beside the usual vampire shit? The boy certainly wasn't hard to look at, with thick dark hair, long lashes, and big eyes. Xander was more along the lines of sweet Drusilla than the golden beauty of the Slayer. The boy's long, hard body was an added bonus. But a shag was a shag, and as much as Spike might like to consider dipping into that hot, hard package it wouldn't be worth risking his place, as tenuous as it was. Not without a stronger basis than a wave of lust from a randy lad hardly out of his teens.

Tonight had been fun. The Slayer would have been pleased. He'd met the challenge, fought the good fight, and kept the nibblet and the rest of the minions safe. And they had protected him. No, no shag was worth that feeling he had gotten in the magic shop when they had all stood with him against the Watchers. To be protected and to be turned to for protection, what more could a demon have wanted? Well, being a demon he could want quite a bit more actually, but time and the chip had taught him to hold tight to what he had.

Now, if he could just get rid of the bloody Watchers.

Much to everyone's relief, the Watchers left after another two days. They now seemed more wary of the Slayer's minions, since they had seen them in action. Rupert still had a job, monitoring the activity surrounding the Hellmouth. That seemed to please him. Spike would have preferred to sever all ties with the Wankers. The only upside of the visit was that they had mentioned visiting LA to assess Faith's progress, which meant that they would be harassing the Magnificent Poof and his minions.

The rest of the week was routine. The witches were working on some top-secret spell and the nibblet was planning a day trip with them to the Renaissance Festival up north. Dawn had been coming out of her shell more and more, and with summer approaching, there seemed to be a social whirlwind among the girls her age. Though she had always received the invitations, now she was more inclined to accept a sleepover or afternoon trip or a swim party. It was Friday. The Nibblet stayed at the dorms with the blonde witch, planning on an early start in the morning. Red had come with he and the boy on patrol. Spike was antsy; he didn't feel safe letting Dawn out of his sphere of influence.

He had pretty well established Sunnydale as his hunting ground. Since he and the Slayer were credited with offing a Hellgod, and he and the minions had been dusting any and all rivals, he was unofficially considered the Master of the Hellmouth. He didn't mention that to Red when she sighed in disappointment at not getting to test whatever new spell she had ready. Spike had hopes that it wasn't as dangerous to her vampire ally as the ball of sunlight.

Sunnydale should stay quiet until some new big bad got wind of who was holding this prime territory. Spike didn't delude himself; very few of the old ones would think twice if they thought he was all that stood between them and the power of the Hellmouth. Yet the minions remained oblivious. They patrolled, and expected things to stay much the same as they had when the Slayer had, for all intents and purposes, owned the Hellmouth. For a crew who had spent the past five years hunting vampires, they were surprisingly ignorant of the social nuances of the species.

A shared look was all it took before he and Xander reached an unspoken agreement and shadowed Red on her way back to the dorms. She might be a powerhouse, but she looked like a meal and could always have attracted the unwanted attention of another human.

That was happening more and more; Xander seemed to read his mind on occasion. Admittedly it could be that they had the same goals, the same priorities. Spike was pretty sure it would be quiet the rest of the night. Between Red's ball of sunlight and his private hunts after his humans had turned in for the night, he didn't expect to see many fledges until someone new moved to town. It would happen; Sunnydale was a prime hunting ground and someone his age couldn't be expected to hold it long, but he had no intention of running. This was the Slayer's territory and her minions were what anything taking over would have to go though, so Spike would go down fighting-he had to.

Thinking a beer would cap off the evening nicely, he suggested they swing by the Bronze. After being hammered by another wave of pheromones and enduring a bout of babble, they headed back to the boy's place. Xander had beer and blood in his fridge and much better reception on his telly than the crypt. Xander's heart rate dropped back to normal and he and Spike spent some quiet time watching the telly and knocking back a couple of pints. The small talk faltered and he caught a whiff of Xander's returning lust. Thinking of something to divert the boy's admittedly limited attention he brought up Dawn. When the boy pointed out that soon she would be out of school for the summer and that every day would be filled with hours of burning sunlight in which Spike couldn't follow, the bulk of which she would insist on being away from him, Spike was seized by blind panic. Spike was then treated to the disconcerting feeling of being reassured by the boy. Xander's voice was calm and soothed his agitation, more with the sound than the meaning of the words. Truth told, Spike had all he could do to keep from howling his frustration at the need to protect the girl and to keep her happy.

Gradually the meaning of Xander's word crawled through the primal reaction of his higher brain functions. Xander was telling him he was part of the pack, that he belonged, that he would always belong. This affirmation that the alliance that the minions had formed with him wasn't as fragile as he thought soothed him. Spike almost purred at the pleasure he felt. He didn't want to admit how unsure of his position with the Slayer's minions he had been. He protected them to honor her memory, but what did they get out of it? How could they trust him? He had betrayed them before. They knew he was evil. Despite all that, and Spike knew that the boy knew exactly what he was, Xander firmly and with all the authority of the alpha male of the group didn't just offer him sanctuary, but acknowledged him as an equal. He promised Spike that he would never have to be alone again.

Unlike the half-truths and grudging deals he had been offered by his own kind, Spike knew in every fiber of his being that Xander would die before he would betray a friend. Xander's scent was open and straight-forward; there was no duplicity or suspicion emitted when he said the words, just the same sunlit smell he gave off when talking to the witch or the Watcher. It was enough to know that. Knowing that on a primal level Xander considered him to be a member of his pack, to use the boy's term. Wonder if he knows how often he lets that slip when the girls aren't around.

But that wasn't all Xander offered him in the blue light of the telly. The boy lowered his defenses and exposed his vulnerable underbelly to the consummate predator. Xander leaned forward and kissed him. The kiss wasn't flavored with the lust that had sparked earlier; it held an aching need, a longing, an aloneness that Spike would never have guessed could come from someone as well-loved as Xander. Spike couldn't help but kiss back. And in another display of fearlessness the boy asked him to stay the night.

There had been fear in Xander's eyes, a brief moment of panic when Spike had lain him down on the bed. Not, 'Oh God, vampire' but a sadder, more desperate, 'please don't laugh at me' expression that flittered across his face. But so like him, Xander had made a weak joke, taking a shot at himself to break the tension, and had manfully asked for guidance. Again he put Spike to shame, this mortal boy who was willing to risk so much to express his feelings, to show his needs. The boy, young man rather, was a gentle and affectionate lover. Spike sent a brief thought of thanks to that horny demon bint that the boy wasn't virgin tight; otherwise they could have never managed this without the damned chip going off. Talk about a bloody mood killer.

Regardless of Anya and her bag of tricks Spike was willing bet he was the first vampire as well as the first male anything that the boy had had in his bed. The utter intensity of Xander's undivided attention had almost been too much. Spike didn't want to frighten the boy and was certain that slipping into game face right now would horrify him.

Bedding a human that he had no intention of eating, in a nonsexual way, was a new experience for him. The smell alone of the blood rushing through the boy's body and rising to his skin in a sensual flush was intoxicating. Adding to the fact that Spike was still riding high from the simple sure words of acceptance Xander had gifted him with earlier on the couch and it was all that Spike could do not to howl with pleasure. Spike was aware he was emitting a low thrum of contentment and hoped Xander wouldn't find it too animalistic. On one hand he didn't want to disgust the boy for fear he would change his mind and on the other, if either of them were going to stop this, it had better be soon.

"Are you sure?" he whispered, more a purr than a question.

"I think...I think I need this." Xander breathed out against Spike's bare skin, sending waves of pleasure coursing along in its wake. His brown eyes were hot and seemed to take up his entire face. Tentatively he reached up and stroked his warm fingers softly along Spike's face. Spike lost his battle for control and his demon visage rippled forth. He looked away from Xander's frank stare but the boy gently turned Spike's head back toward him and pulled himself up onto his elbow then placed light kisses along the ridges and continued down the bridge of Spike's nose. The smile Xander shared with him when he lay back looking up at Spike was not one of pity, nor was it a brave front. Xander had not had to overcome fear or disgust; his face shyly conveyed wonder and trust.

Spike gave in and stopped fighting the full body purr he had been trying to suppress. He positioned himself between Xander's legs and playfully poured the cool oil onto the boy's stomach. Xander's laugh wasn't all nervousness as Spike spread the quickly heating liquid thoroughly over his genitals and further back to his anus. When his slick fingers breached Xander's body relief flooded Spike when he felt Xander relax into the movement. He had expected a jolt from the chip, but before long Xander was whimpering and begging Spike to hurry.

It was so much more than he had dared to hope for. For a moment before he mounted the hot, horny, bucking, body Spike spared a moment to worry if the boy's reaction in the morning would destroy all that they had built between them since the Slayer had died. But it's almost impossible for a demon to brood under the best of circumstances and soon Spike was distracted by the delicious feeling of blood-warm flesh surrounding his erection. Oh thou, my lovely boy,.....Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy hour.[3 & 4]

Warmth indeed surrounded him. He fell into those beautiful dark eyes. As he did with everything Xander threw his whole being into their coupling. Spike marveled at his responsiveness and strength of will. Xander's unflinching eyes seemed to drink in every aspect, gauge every flash of emotion that crossed his lover's face with perception and passion. Too long. It's been too long!

Had he ever felt this connected with a lover? Dru lived in her own world and Harmony was her own world. There had been mutual pleasure but it had been parasitic on both sides, if that was possible. This, this was symbiotic. How strange it is only such gentleness begets the fury of joy and all its tenderness.[5]

Here now with Xander, all the emptiness, all the terrible loneliness fell away. He belonged. He was seen and accepted. Nothing felt so much like home; had he a soul he would have traded it on the spot for this feeling, this connection. Somewhere deep inside he felt the warmth which surrounded him melt some cold core and give rise to feelings he had only held in dim memories. Life--this was life. He almost believed his dead heart beat in response to the pulse of the blood, which embraced him.

Too soon he felt his lover's muscles ripple and contract around his rhythmic thrusts. Watching, rapt with awe, as the orgasm brought a flushed, almost pained grimace to Xander's face, Spike sighed needlessly and spilled his seed deep inside. Xander pulled him tight against his sticky body. Spike stayed embedded a moment in the warm slick flesh, petting the boy's flushed skin, brushing back sweat-soaked hair off his handsome face.

Slowly he disengaged their bodies while kissing away Xander's quiet whimper of protest. He wiped them both down, thankful he had thought to bring a wet cloth along with the towels, as he was reluctant to part with the boy even briefly. Greedy to capture every moment he had with the boy Spike wrapped himself around his lover's warmth, sure that with the daybreak regrets would come.

He knew he wouldn't be able to blame the boy. Xander had offered him everything he had ever wanted and Spike, as always, had insisted on taking more. The first vulnerability that the boy had revealed and Spike had used it to stave off his own empty, aching need. In the bars of Sunnydale there were a thousand faceless bodies he could have buried himself in, any one of whom he could have had for a wink and a smile. This boy, this man was the only one who offered him succor, offered him his family and his trust. This man will stand your friend with the whole world round agin you.[6]

Spike listened to the steady beat of the boy's heart. He anticipated panic and regrets when Xanderwoke. He resisted the urge to stroke the firm torso and contented himself to watch the boy sleep. There'll be babbling, and he won't be able to look me in the eye for days, if ever. Spike had intended to drink in every minute until his lover woke, but the rise and fall of Xander's chest and the delicate movement of his eyes beneath their lids was unexpectedly calming. Spike was lulled into a light doze, feeling both sated and apprehensive.

Later, Spike woke alone and noticed light spilling across the bottom of the bed. He heard muffled noise from the next room and considered rising to deal with the inevitable regrets, but decided to follow the advice he had given Dawn and wait to see how Xander wanted to handle this. Briefly the boy's tall frame blocked the light and Spike shut his eyes, feigning sleep. Curiosity overcame him when instead of coming back to bed Xander made rustling noises at the far end of the room. He opened his eyes and saw that the boy had secured a thick tarp across the room's only window. Spike watched as Xander carefully examined the border to make sure that the morning's sunlight would not pass. If he had regrets, he could have simply waited for morning.

Gambling that Xander's reaction would be more favorable than he had anticipated, Spike slipped from the bed and crossed to the window. He took a moment to admire that lovely backside before sliding his arms around the boy's waist and marveling once again at the warmth of his body. Spike was delighted at finding his arms full of a confident, teasing young man. This was no blushing virgin, no stammering boy; this was an equal, a man. Xander was well aware of who he was and whom he had in his bed. As the thickening of his scent told him, Xander also knew what he wanted. Spike was overjoyed that for now, apparently, Xander wanted him. It was Xander who maneuvered them back to bed and Xander who started the slow tandem thrusting as their cocks brushed together. After a second climax and clean up, Spike was wrapped in the strong arms of his young lover and lulled back to sleep by Xander's steady breathing.

Sunlight brightened the outer room but only dimly reflected into the bedroom when Spike next woke. Xander slept on his back, with one arm across his eyes and the other loosely around Spike. Spike's head rested on Xander's chest and he faced toward the boy's exposed throat. Watching the subtle pulse under Xander's chin, which matched the beat under his ear, Spike was unaware that he spoke the words in his head out loud until Xander murmured, "That's pretty. Is it Spanish?"

"Sort of." Spike replied as he watched the boy stretch. Xander looked at him and a slow smile spread across his face.

"You're a closet brain, aren't you?"

Spike snorted and lifted himself off the boy. Hovering close, he moved up to claim a kiss. "Didn't think you were awake."

Xander tentatively caressed the angular line of Spike's face, speaking softly as if Spike might pull away if his voice were more than a whisper. "What'd it mean?"

He couldn't resist and said, "When, with you asleep, I plunge into your soul, and listen with my ear on your naked breast to your tranquil heart, it seems to me that, in its deep throbbing, I surprise the secret center of the world."[7]

Xander silently watched him a moment, blinking and then ventured, "You're so busted. You went to college, didn't you?"

"Wasn't quite the same back then, but you might say I had literary ambitions." Spike said, not meeting Xander's eyes.

"You wrote stuff? Stories?" Interest peaked, Xander rose up on to his elbows.

"Poetry," Spike said, unsuccessfully suppressing a shudder.

Xander sat the whole way up and radiated excitement, "Lay some on me, Wordman."

"No. It wasn't just bad, it was horrendous. I know enough about what is good to know that everything I produced was beneath mediocre."

Xander pulled Spike into his arms, almost into his lap, and murmured in his ear, "Fortunately for you, I'm an idiot and won't realize that."

"Don't do that." Spike snapped and Xander with a noise of inquiry released him immediately. Spike grabbed both arms before Xander could completely pull away and wrapped them firmly back where they had been. "Don't put yourself down, idiot: not don't touch me." Spike briefly considered what he had just said and added softly, "Xander, you're not an idiot."

Xander didn't respond verbally but Spike felt him smile against the back of his neck and his arms tightened their hold. They sat quietly for a while, Xander's fingers dancing across Spike's cool skin. Eventually it was Xander who asked, "Not having regrets?"

"No, pet, thought you might." Spike kept very still, straining for some sense of the boy's true feelings.

"I'm good." Xander sighed deeply and closed his eyes, his lashes sweeping softly against the skin of Spike's shoulder.

"You are." Spike said, but his leer was half-hearted. He felt as if this whole thing could come tumbling down if he made the wrong move-said the wrong word. Xander lifted his head to look at Spike, searching his face as if asking how Spike wanted to handle this. Spike stroked the side of Xander's face. He was pleased to note the boy needed to shave; it at least gave the illusion he was old enough to know what he was getting into. "Sweet boy," he murmured. "Bedding a vampire, do you have any idea?" Spike shook his head. He knew the answer. If he didn't know what would come of this Xander couldn't possibly.

Xander placed his hand over the one Spike rested on the side of his face and said, "You need me. I need you. This was good, huh?"

Speechless, Spike nodded.

"Can't we just try it? See what happens? Xander's fingers tightened on his and the boy swallowed hard.

"I'm evil." Spike said softly, more to himself than to Xander.

"Is the chip the only thing keeping you from killing me?" Xander's look wouldn't let Spike break eye contact. The look he leveled said that there was no way Spike could prevaricate.

Spike shook his head. "I like you. You taste like sunlight. I smell the blood in your body, but you don't feel like food. We've hunted together. There's a bond. You almost feel like another vampire, 'cept I trust you."

"I trust you, too. I like you. Might just fall in love with you, if that'd be okay?" Xander watched him so intently that Spike was forcefully reminded of the night before.

"So... How do we handle this?" Spike thought it would have to be Xander's call; he was willing to take what he could get, if the boy was willing to continue this, no matter how temporary, it was more than he had expected.

"I don't have a clue." Xander's smiled and gave a self-deprecating shrug. "Can't we make it up as we go?"

"The others won't like it; think I'm having my wicked way with you, they will." Spike ventured his most prevalent doubt now that Xander seemed willing to try this, whatever this was.

"You are. And I'm having my wicked way with you, that's the fun part." Xander's laugh bubbled up and bathed Spike in joyous relief. This conversation had apparently been as stressful on the boy as it had been on him. More than anything, he wanted to bury himself in Xander's warmth again but he had to clear up one more thing.


He got no further before Xander clamped a hot hand across his mouth and firmly stated, "Rule one: we will never, ever, mention Dawn when we're naked."

* * * * *

A week later, Spike leaned back against the smooth-tiled wall and felt a purr of pleasure start at the base of his spine and move up and through his body to emerge from his panting mouth. Warmth surrounded and embraced him, made him feel alive with its welcome sensation. The water cascading from the showerhead pulsed forward, hitting him square in the chest with a vigorous rhythmic massage. The air of the small bathroom was thick with steam, wafting about as it rose from water heated well above human body temperature and condensed on his cooler skin. Xander knelt in front of him, wrapping Spike's cock in the moist heat of his mouth. Occasionally he paused to breathe out along the rigid shaft.

Looking down at the dark tendrils of hair plastered forward across Xander's face by the force of the water, Spike was hit by a deep need to freeze this moment. He desperately wanted to hold onto this feeling, this man. But perfection never lasted. That was the one hard lesson of his unlife. No one stayed on top for long; something, something would fuck this up. Spike fought the desire to thrust his hips and pump into the warm, wet throat of his lover. He tried to hold off his orgasm, always fearing that this one would be the last. Fearing that the boy would walk away from whatever spell had made him seek a demon lover. Not even the first there.


pike had been relieved that first night they were together that Xander hadn't been a virgin. Xander had confessed very little, blushing beautifully when Spike asked about the wealth of experience that the young man was endowed with by months of experimentation with Anya. Although apparently the bint got custody of the toys. Spike knew that there had been toys by the delicious flush which stole down the boy's body when he mentioned a few items which nice young men would not know to equate with sex.

Bad idea, that. Thinking of the boy's flushed body and sex toys when you're trying not to come. You know that, right? Spike felt his third orgasm of the night rush through his body, bringing forth fangs and ridges as his beautiful boy milked his softening cock. Xander stood slowly, his body brushing up against Spike's from knee to shoulder. Spike felt the boy's erection brush his hip. His lips barely touched against Spike's before he started to pull back. Spike grabbed Xander's hair, stopping him, and plundered his mouth, tasting his own flavor and stealing his breath. Xander laughed and playfully nipped at Spike's lips.

"Think the Watchers are gone for good?" Spike asked more to play with the boy than out of real concern.

"You so had better not be thinking about the Watchers when I'm going down on you." Xander seemed to have trouble suppressing his grin as he attempted to scowl.

"Xander?" Spike purred. "You know it's only you, she meant nothing..." he broke off with a wicked chuckle at the real emotion that gleamed in his lover's eyes.

"You better not be talking about that tweed-clad head of the William the Bloody fan club, you... you undead Lothario."

Spike pulled that warm body closer and whispered in his ear. "Getting a bit possessive, love?"

Xander placed both hands on Spike's chest and pushed back enough to look him in the eyes. The boy nervously chewed on his lower lip and said. "Who said I can't be the possessive one once in a while? Unless you... we never..." He looked down as if to avoid Spike's gaze.

Spike regretted the teasing. He didn't want Xander to think about what was between them--whatever it was--too hard. If the boy examined it he would realize what a bad idea it was, and Spike would be left knowing just how much he was missing.

Those deep brown eyes lifted. Drops of water clung to the long lashes and looked almost like tears. Spike brushed a thick, wet lock of hair off Xander's face and tried to sooth the boy, who suddenly looked so lost. "Are" he started again and Spike almost cursed out loud at the stutter, which rarely showed in Xander's voice. Xander reached up and caressed Spike's jaw line. "This is good, huh?" He whispered.

"Oh pet, this is wondrous." Spike was afraid to speak too loudly for fear of shattering the fragile confidence that seemed to surround the boy. They had been lovers for such a short time and Spike still anticipated a torrent of emotions and then the boy would bolt.

"I need this. I need you. I want to hold on, tight...for as long as possible...okay?" Xander's voice remained steady and calm. Once again Spike was amazed by the boy's strength and courage. From the beginning he had taken all the risks, starting that first night when he had first kissed Spike and then asked him not to go. What had that cost him? The boy had to have feared rejection, but had dared Spike's scorn and sarcasm. Time and again Xander had taken the first step, then and now. What was he offering? Not permanence, but? Wasn't it time Spike risked something? Gave the boy some chance to reject rather than be rejected?

Spike spun around, reversing their positions. Using both hands he pressed Xander's shoulders back against the wall and slowly dragged his teeth against his neck and down his collarbone. "Do you have any idea how much I want? How much I want you? What I want?" Spike morphed into his game face and spragged his fangs along the boy's trapezius muscle.

"Tell me." Xander gasped, clutching at Spike's hips.

Spike answered with a deep purr and managed to rasp out, "Pet, oh sweet boy, I want..." He stopped and buried his face against the boy's wet neck, his scent faint beneath the vanilla shower gel. "If not for this damned chip." His purr transformed into a growl, but he held the boy gently, rubbing against his hard, naked form. I've been loveless all my life, but now that love is mine it drives me mad.[8]

"W..would you feed? Off of me, I mean?" Xander's voice sounded concerned but he wrapped strong arms around the rumbling vampire.

Spike shifted back to his human face and looked into Xander's startled eyes. "No." He laughed at Xander's look of surprise and nuzzled over his jugular. "Here is where you feed; fast, hot blood pumps out like new wine." He nibbled his way down the thick muscles above the boy's collarbone. "Here's where you mark, deep in the flesh, a scar to warn all the pug nasties that this here," and he raised his head until their lips were but a whisper apart, "is mine!" He growled out the last part, and plundered the boy's mouth. Spike morphed into the kiss. Cutting both their tongues on his fangs, he endured a blast from the chip as he blended their blood.

When the kiss gentled, due to the boy's need to breath, Xander's eyes were laughing when he asked, "I'm yours?"

"Does that bother you?" Spike hadn't intended to say as much as he had. He didn't want to scare the boy or ruin what they had. Once he had said it, he thought he would brush it off with his usual bravado, but suddenly what Xander thought about this was very important. Important that Xander realize that this thing, whatever it was, wasn't the same as if they were two humans.

"I think what bothers me is that I think I should be bothered or afraid, and I'm not." Xander blushed and looked sheepish. He whispered, "Spike, no one ever... It's just nice that you want me."

"Xan." It was Spike's voice that broke at the sound of past pain in his lover's tone.

"No. You're here, that's what matters. I'm yours." He blushed again and looked down, then glanced shyly up through his lashes and ventured, "You're mine too, you know?"

Spike answer was a deep, full-bodied purr as he began to rub against his still aroused lover. And on that cheek, and o'er that brow so soft, so calm, yet eloquent, the smiles that win, the tints that glow, But tell of days in goodness spent A mind at peace with all below a heart whose love is innocent. [9]

* * * * *

Morning light glowed behind the thick tarp that covered the bedroom window. Xander had installed decorative shutters in the public rooms, but had yet to choose a more permanent cover for the bedroom. Spike scowled at the light, and was tempted to grumble at the early hour. He was getting used to waking up early with Xander. Usually Xander rose before Spike had slipped into the deep, death-like slumber he spent at least four hours in every day. If it got him a kiss or a blowjob, he wasn't opposed to greeting his freshly-showered lover with a hot cup of coffee.

But this was Saturday and they had hunted into the wee hours before coming back to clean up, so he was less than pleased to be wide awake. Xander's deep breaths brushed warmly across Spike's face. He took a moment to examine his lover's appearance. Even lacking his happy smile, looking at Xander made Spike think of sunlight, and all the warm forbidden things he had lost when he was turned. It wasn't just his smooth, tanned skin; his smell, the very taste of his sweat and come was bright and vibrated with life. Spike longed to taste his blood, but couldn't bear the thought of polluting such an intimate act with a blade. A mate should be claimed, and the scar should be his, not that of a tool. Granted, it would have to wait until he found a way to bugger the chip, but some day that sweet flesh would be his.

They had come across two fledges when hunting earlier; so new you could smell the shit of their first death. Xander had dusted the first almost reflexively. Spike had ripped the head off the second with his bare hands when it went for Xander. It had happened so quickly that Xander had stood blinking in the settling dust before either of them realized that the battle was over. Since they had crossed paths with the fledges outside the Bronze, Spike kept a wary eye out during the rest of the night, to see if Harmony was back in town. Not that he had anything to fear from the dozy cow, but she had tried to hurt Xander before and Spike knew from experience that, though inept, she could hold a grudge. Oddly enough, the minions seemed to have a soft spot for her, maybe cause the boy and the witch had been tykes with her. Even the Slayer hadn't dusted her, and she could have a couple of times. Spike snorted softly, so as not to wake the boy; funny he was considering not dusting a vamp 'cause the humans might not like it.

Xander sighed and rolled forward, throwing an arm over Spike and pulling him close into his body heat. Ah, that's better. Spike didn't snuggle because vampires don't snuggle, but he did melt into his lover's body and begin to purr. A heart as soft, a heart as kind, a heart as sound and free, as in the whole world thous canst find, that heart I'll give to thee. [10] Spike could almost feel Xander's pulse move through his body as they lay pressed together. It felt like Xander understood, or at least understood as much as Spike did, flying blind like they were.

Being with the boy was a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Just when Spike would convince himself that Xander was deluded and seeing what he wanted to see, not what Spike really was, he would do something or say something proved that he knew. Knew that Spike wasn't human, was evil and that this, whatever this was, was dangerous, possibly to both of them. Yet he was still willing to love Spike.


From the first, the emotions between them had been deeper than he had anticipated. Maybe that was his fault. Xander always seemed to give as much as Spike would take, and of course being Spike, he took everything and still the boy found ways to offer more. Spike sighed as Xander's warmth permeated his body. As they lay together this all seemed irrelevant; it was too late for him, he had already fallen hard. Xander's quiet strength and steadfast loyalty, his tender seductions, seemed to answer long unspoken prayers.

But was it too late for Xander? Could he find a way to free the boy before this bonding, this potential spiral into damnation became irreversible? Would this boy with his teasing laugh and 'rule number two, never use the word necrophilia when we're in bed' want this to stop before it was too late? Maybe it was too late already. Spike didn't think if Xander cast him out this minute that he could fight the bond, which was so much more than lust or possessiveness. He didn't think he could let the boy go, even if it was what Xander wanted. He knew little about such pairings. Humans had always just been food.

He stroked the boy's thick hair as he contemplated how dangerous the bond could be. "I'll never hurt you." He whispered. "I'll never let anything hurt you." But he wasn't reassured and lay unquiet and fretting as he considered that he might be the biggest danger in Xander's life.

* * * * *

After catching them in the cellar of the store, the witches gave up all pretenses and set about asking the most inappropriate questions. At least Red did; Blondie just blushed and smiled, seeming to enjoy the slightest display of Spike's allegedly Victorian attitude. Xander was apparently quite used to having sweet young girls ask with wide-eyed innocence if he were a top or a bottom. That remark, launched pointedly by Red when they had finally emerged from the storage room, had been greeted by his smirking lover with the reply of, "It doesn't matter, either way you don't get the toaster." I understand one hundred and sixty two languages which includes most demon tongues and I still can't crack the Sunnydale code.

If shopping at the mall and Xander's snuggling at Red's birthday dinner hadn't outed them to the rest of the group, their frequent uncontrollable need to touch or taste each other would have broken the news sooner or later. Xander told him to expect some sort of explicit threat from Willow on what she would do to him if he broke the boy's heart-the boy had called it S.O.P. for the witch. Spike was sure Rupert's Watcher instincts would have him lecturing the boy on what a bad idea their being together was, and how he couldn't trust Spike, but neither happened.

Xander had asked Spike if he would move in to his apartment with him. He had said he knew Spike had a lot of stuff at the crypt, but pointed out that his new place was larger than it looked. He added that he hardly used the basement storage area assigned to the unit and watched for Spike's reaction. Spike had been too stunned by the offer to react in a visible or audible way; he had just sat there dumbstruck in the flickering blue light of the television. Xander seemed to take that as a sign of reluctance so had sweetened the deal by offering to get satellite. "Six channels of ESPN, Spike. Proper English football." Spike had caved at the first bat of those gorgeous eyes and jumped at the chance to wrap himself in Xander's warmth on a daily basis. So they were lovers, and roommates, and sometimes it all seemed just too perfect, too human.

As a result, they were hosting their first dinner party. Not counting Red's bash, because no one knew they were shacking up at the time. Xander had invited the witches over for English food and flicks. The Watcher had been clever enough to invent other plans and Dawn actually had other plans. Spike had mostly just sat back and enjoyed the boy's nervous excitement at being what he had referred to as being 'such an adult.' The witches were going to pick the movies and said they were bringing a lemon tart, although why they thought that was particularly English dessert, Spike didn't know. Spike shuddered to think what their reaction to Xander's meal would be and hoped they weren't too hard on his boy. For his part Spike was just glad he was drinking his supper.

Spike had wandered into the kitchen after cleaning the bathroom and straightening up the living room. Apparently he had agreed to do both sometime during the blowjob when they had showered earlier, but had no recollection. When he had pointed his lack of memory out to Xander, his lover had said, "Too bad, must be the chip," and smacked Spike's bare ass on the way out of the shower stall. Xander was currently bouncing, literally, around the kitchen. The boy thought he was Martha Stewart-he was using two pots, had preheated the oven and had purchased a gravy boat for the occasion. Spike leaned against the frame of the kitchen entrance and watched Xander cook.

Cook being a relative word in this instance. Xander dumped two packages of frozen vegetables into the pot, which already contained cooked ground beef. He put a lid on it and turned off the heat. Springing over to the counter he unwrapped two prepackaged, already baked pie crusts and put them and their foil pans on a metal baking sheet. He paused on his way over to the stove to kiss Spike so quickly that he was stirring the pan of instant mashed potatoes before Spike could fold him in his arms. Spike watched in fascinated horror as Xander spooned the mixture of cooked beef and thawing vegetables into each of the pie shells and shuddered when the boy topped this with the mashed potatoes, smoothing it over the top of the pie like a meringue. He was distracted briefly from his question as Xander bent over to place the pies under the broiler and in doing so presented Spike with his ass, firmly packed in the black jeans Spike had insisted he get during the Scoobys' adventure in shopping for Xander.

"Er...Em.. Pet?" Spike's mind was freed for higher thought processes when Xander straightened and turned to face him.

Xander gave him another quick kiss and said, "They'll be here any minute. Did you set the table?"

"Pet? What the hell is that?" Spike asked nodding toward the oven.

"Shepherd's pie. It's English, " Xander said over his shoulder as he bounced over to the cupboard to take out the plates.

Right. I've been living with him less than a month and he's already got me doing the blinking thing. "That's not shepherd's pie."

"Uh huh," was Xander's comment as he brushed by his lover on his way to set the table. He was back in a flash to peer into the oven before filling water glasses.

"Luv, shepherd's pie is a stew." Spike called after Xander's bustling figure as he took the glasses to the dinning area.

Xander paused on his way back into the kitchen and blinked twice at Spike before reasoning, "Then why would they call it pie?"

Not having an answer, Spike set out the flatware. The doorbell chimed and Xander bounced off togreet their guests. Red surprised Spike with a hug before handing him the movies while Tara handed Xander the dessert box. Angelus thinks he spent time in hell; we have three, count them three, Hugh Grant movies.

Spike was treated to another view of Xander's backside when the boy stooped to sprinkle cheese on his creations. Even the Cheddar was packaged pre-grated. While he was thankful he had a blood option for dining he worried that the girls would hurt his sweet pet's feelings when they saw just what he was serving.

Xander put the glass jar of gravy in to heat with Spike's blood and then dashed out to see the girls to their seats. After the bag of salad, Xander served the pies with the flare of a showman. He pointedly offered each of the girls gravy, having made a special trip to the resale shop that day when he decided he shouldn't just dump it in a bowl. Red, of course, made a great fuss over the hot, home cooked meal. Not only did she dig in but she asked for seconds.

Blondie then shocked Spike by addressing him, "Did you help?"

"I beg your pardon?" Spike asked.

"With the authentic English cuisine. This is good." She sounded sincere. Spike blinked at her. He looked at Red. She looked back, expecting an answer. He looked at Xander.

Xander beamed at him and said, "He gave moral support."

"Xander." Spike didn't want to squash his pet's enthusiasm but was having nothing to do with this meal. "Shepherd's pie is a stew."

"Then why is it called pie?" Red asked. Blondie helped herself to another slice. It looked like Xander was going to need both pies. This was unbelievable. And six hours of Hugh Grant... Spike was in hell.

After they had cleared the table, Xander whipped the peach shnapps he had had Spike procure the night before into a milkshake for the girls. Spike refilled the whiskey he had been downing since he saw what the movies titles were. Xander opted for a beer and in a nod to the formal occasion used a glass. As Willow and Xander loaded the dishwasher, Spike eavesdropped until he discerned the conversation was about Dawn and what to do about the Summers' house. He turned his attention back to the witch sitting across the table from him. She frowned while consulting a book. Then Tara handed Spike a deck of cards, what there was of it. The cards where huge, about five by nine inches and there were only a few, maybe twenty or so.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked.

"Just shuffle, and think about you and Xander," she said, then blushed.

"Not sure I want to know the future." Spike surprised himself by the confession to the quiet blond. "Got a lot to lose."

"This is just a way to get insight, don't think of it as prophesy. Think of it as a tool for contemplation."

"You do know I'm a demon, right?" He was already uncomfortable by how much she did see.

"Yeah, I know. Remember, I'm the one who spent most of my life thinking I was too. Sometimes you have to look past all the labels we put on ourselves and just decide who we are and what we want. That's what the cards do." She looked down at his hands, then met his eyes, " don't have to do this. I can practice on someone else." Spike thought that little speech might have been the most he had heard Willow's girlfriend say at one time to anyone except Willow.

"No, pet, just tell me what to do."

"I'll point where you put them, you deal out four cards. This is you, this is Xander, this is your relationship, this is the future." She indicated three spots side by side on the table, and one centered above them.

Xander and Willow came in from the kitchen. Willow sat next to Tara. The movies apparently forgotten, she eyed the cards with interest. Xander circled around to Spike's side of the table but hung back and asked, "Is this private? We can..."

Spike snagged the boy around the waist and pulled him into his lap in a lightning-quick move and said, "She's reading us."

Willow giggled, "Which one is Spike?"

"One of these is Spike?" Xander perked up and turned his attention to the cards. "Tell me it's not the pregnant lady. You ah, you can't... I know there's a lot of freaky vampire shit I don't understand,but you-"

"Stop sputtering whelp. That's me." Spike pointed to the card Tara had told him was him.

"Spike's an angel?" Willow squeaked.

"An angel with black wings, yeah, I can see that." Xander kissed him and tightened his grip on the arms that held him.

"This is Temperance, she's a symbol of dynamic change. She blends both animal and human attributes." Tara said after checking her book.

Xander twisted in his arms and poked Spike with his index finger. "She nailed you." Spike mock growled and morphed to his demon face to nuzzle the boy's neck with his fangs.

Tara cleared her throat and continued with a shy smile. "What she says about you is that you are aware that you don't have all the answers and you are willing to seek them through others. You are drawn to groups and desire interaction and the establishment of ties."

"Which one's Xander?" Willow nudged her girlfriend, and nodded at the cards.

"The Sun." Tara pointed to the card in question.

"Told you you taste like sunlight, pet," Spike purred into Xander's ear.

"Tell me about me," Xander prompted the shy witch.

"You symbolize all that is glittering, great, and joyful." She smiled. "And indicate optimism and prosperity." Spike continued to purr as Xander laughed.

"It's a good card for you, Xan." Willow said.

"It says that your love has brought light to Spike's life or um...death, unlife." She blushed and added, "Since he's the one who cast the card, I mean."

"Go on, little bit, now I'm curious." Spike said and shifted back to his human visage.

"It says that Xander's quiet optimism and happy nature make him a joy to live with. It says he has a constructive approach to life and he is on course with his destiny and will follow his true path. His love is simple and infinitely strong." She shared a smile with Willow before turning back to them.

Xander was blushing and quickly diverted the attention from himself by asking "And the pregnant chick?"

"Xander," Willow teased, "there's this spell I've been wanting to try."

"Pay attention." Tara firmly admonished. Xander and Willow shared conspiratorial smiles. Spike had noticed them both making an effort recently to get the blond to assert herself. They often took her rare outbursts as personal victories.

"I'm sorry. It says she's the Empress. What does that mean?" Willow said.

"She is abundance and fertility incarnate." The blond witch winked at Xander. "In the position of the relationship card, she symbolizes long term commitment, lasting love and enduring pleasure." Spike purred loudly and squeezed his lover. "Harmony," Tara continued. Xander snickered, and Willow tried to kick him under the table but connected with Spike instead. Tara shot Xander a stern look and raised an eyebrow. "Of mind, body and spirit prevail. You complement each other and your physical relationship is absorbing."

"And the future?" Spike eyed the last remaining card with reluctance-it looked foreboding.

"That's an odd one." Xander picked up the card and traced the picture with his finger. "Who is she?"

"Hecate. This book says she's the goddess of death, but she's much more," Tara said.

"Isn't she the one who turned Amy into the rat?" Xander asked Willow.

"The Moon isn't a bad card." Willow looked to Tara for confirmation. "I've done a lot of reading on Hecate, to help Amy. She is unusual, but not evil."

"No." Tara added quietly. "The Moon symbolizes uncertain forces, visions and the flux of life and death. In this position it emphasizes enhanced imagination and intuition-new approaches and ideas. It seems to say that uncertainty will come, but don't panic, ultimately you will benefit."

* * * * *

Spike noticed that like soldiers, the Scoobies tended to rest when they could. They spent so much time scrambling to save the world that inevitably on their rare quiet evenings they fell asleep. This time it wasn't just Xander who couldn't keep his eyes open. Red was spooned against Tara and both were sound asleep on the couch. When they had moved from the table to the living room area, Xander had sat in front of the couch and patted the spot of floor between his spread legs. Which was how Spike ended up propped comfortably back against the chest of the sleeping boy, wrapped in his warm arms and the only one awake to suffer through 'Notting Hill'.

Upon hearing first one then three rhythmic sounds of breathing, Spike began to plot a way to avoid watching the movie. He stealthily extricated himself from the boy's embrace and scooped up his tall lover, moving slowly to prevent his waking. Once in the bedroom, Xander groggily drifted awake and blinked in confusion. Realization of Spike's vampire strength swept across his expressive face and he cuddled back into his broken sleep. Spike lay him on the bed and went back to the living room to shut off the telly and cover the witches with a decorative throw. He returned to Xander and with little effort removed his clothing and picked the sheet up off the floor to cover the boy. While shaking the sheet free of wrinkles and carpet lint, Spike drank in the sight of his sleeping lover.

Xander's dark hair was tousled and his lashes swept across his tanned face. The boy lay lax and looked like a work of art. His cock nestled against one well-muscled thigh, emerging from a thick patch of dark curls. His stomach was flat and Spike could discern the faint six pack of his abdominal muscles-not the cut look of a gym addict but sinew earned by hard labor and frequent physical activity. Tonight, if I may guess, thy beauty wears a smile of such delight as brilliant and as bright as when with ravished aching vassal eyes lost in a soft amaze I gaze, I gaze! [11]

It wasn't yet ten thirty. Time was he would have been just starting to look for trouble at this time of night. He was spending too much time with humans. He considered going out, hunting a bit, but Xander tossed in his sleep and for the third time in as many hours presented Spike with his ass, this time unhampered by the black denim. Decision made, Spike skinned out of his clothes and tossed them with abandon. He slid into bed, pulling Xander close, and was rewarded by the boy wrapping him in his warmth. Spike lay inches from his lover's face, each breath bathing him in warmth and scent.

This wasn't the first time he had forgone a hunt to hold vigil over his sleeping boy. Each time, he was torn between knowing that eventually, a rival would come to town and if he were not alert the newcomer would have him at a disadvantage, and the knowledge that because of that inevitability that time with Xander was fleeting and he should grab any opportunity while he could. He wondered if what he had said in the shower, about wanting to claim Xander, mark him so all would know he belonged to Spike, was enough. It was important that the boy not think that he was second choice. Not to diminish his feelings for the late Slayer, but what he felt for Buffy could not be compared to this. He had loved her, but it was unrequited. Unrequited love was like a seed never planted. This struggling sapling that he and the boy nurtured between them was far more precious.

Again, Xander had taken the lead. When he had first stammered out his concerns for and admitted the pain caused by his ex, Spike had been too absorbed in what the boy had been feeling to process his own reaction. Xander admitted that he had hoped to marry the silly demon bint and was still worried about her. He knew what Xander had shared with Anya had been real and grounded in the human world. Xander still tended the love that had grown between him and the ex-demon, but as always, when only one person cared for it, the love mutated. Instead of becoming bitterness or obsession that Spike had seen most often in the past, it had become the nurturing concern Xander offered all his friends tempered by both pain and insight.

* * * * *

Due to his weekday hours, Xander, much to his own mortification, had started to wake early even on weekends. Spike sensed the change in his breathing immediately, just as the intricate dance of the boy's fingers along the cool flesh of Spike's stomach became knowing and started to drift down. Spike stretched, luxuriating in his mate's warmth, then turned, pulling Xander close against his morning erection. A radiant smile spread across the boy's face as his hips bucked forward into the contact.

"Spike." Xander packed a wealth of emotion and meaning into the single word. Spike kissed him long and slow, thrusting into the touch of their cocks.

"Sunlight. You taste like sunlight and laughter pet. Glittering, great, and glorious."

Xander blinked and asked with bubbling laughter, "I light up your life?"

Spike nodded, showing a trace of suspicion.

"Spike?" The boy batted his lashes and tried to stop giggling. "Am I the wind beneath your wings?"

Spike pounced with a growl and pinned Xander underneath him. He couldn't maintain a straight face even in his demon visage, so he buried his face against the boy's stomach. Spike reveled in the feel of the boy's body shaking with silent laughter. Xander wrapped him in a warm embrace and pulled him up to feather kisses across his ridged brow. He then dropped down to slip his tongue in and deliberately cut it on Spike's fangs. It no longer even set the chip off it had become such a regular occurrence. It was almost part of their morning routine to blend blood in each other's mouths. Spike bit his own tongue and Xander swept his mouth with long deep licks even as Spike morphed back to his human face. Spike renewed his efforts to grind against his lover. Xander broke the kiss and rolled on top of him. Looking down with mirth-filled eyes, he was youth incarnate. Tara really had been right-the boy was joy personified, his love was simple and infinity strong.

Xander appeared to have had enough of Spike's rapt attention and swooped down for another kiss. Spike reached for the lube, groping blindly through the drawer of the bedside stand, not willing to break the kiss. Once found he lifted them both to a kneeling position, taking shameless advantage of Xander's gasp of surprise to plunder the boy's mouth once again. Before Xander could question the sudden change in position Spike slapped the tube into his hand and turned to grip the headboard. Immediately in tune with his lover's demand, Xander set about thoroughly preparing Spike. Ignoring the vampire's growls of impatience the boy lovingly coated and slowly stretched his mate's entrance. Spike had been a virgin when he died, and thanks to vampiric healing would remain that way until he was dust. Though he had told Xander that he needn't be so careful, Spike was touched by his lover's tenderness. In life and in death no one had shown such attention to his feelings. While he took his time preparing Spike, Xander teased him with caresses and gentle pinches and bites. Just before he moved into position, Xander leaned forward, spreading warmth across Spike's back, and stole a kiss.

In a stunning example of his inability to communicate and think about sex Xander asked, "Good? Now? Yes?" Not the most eloquent of lovers, the boy was most often reduced to incoherent grunts, moans and whimpers in the middle of sex. Xander had been making a concentrated effort to overcome this disability, but privately Spike hoped he didn't succeed. He was rather fond of his boy's delicious babble; no matter how little sense he made Xander's comments always came from his heart.

"Ready, love." Spike thrust back on the moving fingers and steadied himself as Xander replaced his slick fingers with his equally slippery cock. With infinite slowness Xander entered his body. Spike reveled in the feel of his lover's heat impaling him and spreading out through his body. Once fully seated inside Xander stopped, stroked Spike's sides, carded his hair and murmured nonsense in his ear. Xander's pulse throbbed from the center of Spike's being, making him feel almost alive himself. For one brief moment it felt as if they were one person, then the boy moved. Slowly back, slowly forward, it was hardly more than a rocking of his hips. Xander eased Spike into the sensation of movement. Gradually, he increased the length of his thrusts and the speed of the rhythm. Xander held onto Spike's hip with one hand and snaked the other around to tease at Spike's heavy cock. He began to pump Spike's erection in time with his thrusts, and Spike lifted his head back and his purr became loud and feral. Eventually, Spike felt Xander's rhythm slip and knew he was about to come.

"Xander!" he hissed, needing more. Xander, in another display of his ability to read Spike's mind, leaned into his orgasm and bit hard into the muscle along Spike's collarbone. Spike came with a howl. Xander pulled him back into his lap as he slowly softened and slipped out. Xander licked at the bite and watched fascination as the blood slowed and began to stop before his very eyes. Spike had turned his head to watch Xander and grasped both hands around the warm arms, which embraced him. Watching makes my heart beat fast because, seeing little, I imagine much.[12]

Xander seemed to sense his attention and looked over with a grin. "No work today." He whispered suggestively. "We can stay in bed all day."

Spike snorted and couldn't resist saying, "You do remember Red and her snuggle bunny are on the couch, don't you?"

Staggered, Xander sputtered. "Willow! I had sex with Willow in the next room? Loud sex! I am so gonna burn." He buried his face in Spike's neck and mumbled. "You're evil."

There was a tentative knock on the door and as Spike called out, "Come in." Spike shifted to his human face and Xander frantically scrambled to cover the best parts of both of them with the rumpled sheet. Willow stuck her head in the room.

Blushing, she tried to look anywhere but at the bed. "Xan, we didn't want to leave without saying goodbye and thank you for the home cooking. Sorry we crashed like that, it's been a long week." She had been unsuccessful at avoiding the sight of the sweaty, sticky, naked men, and froze with her mouth open. A look of anger crossed her face and she walked into the room and over to the bed. "Spike? My God! Are you? Xander, you bit him!" Whack. She slapped Xander's bare shoulder, sounding loud but obviously not really hard. Spike growled but maintained his human visage. "Oh?" Willow said and looked baffled.

"Ah...Just kinky sex, Will." Xander volunteered and Spike felt the heat of a blush spread across the boy's body. And, although Spike hadn't believed it was possible, she turned redder.

"Oh? Oh! Well thanks for dinner, it was great. And thanks for tucking us in. I'll call you." Willow backed out in full babble mode.

"It didn't cross your mind to even mention that they were here, did it?" Xander hissed.

"Oh, it crossed my mind." Spike purred and leered at his mate.

"You're evil."

But of course.

* * * * *

The call from LA came when they were all at the magic shop. It sent them into serious research mode. Spike thought about pointing out that if large green demons with moldy faces existed, he would know about it. But all his time with Dru had taught him that visions were tricky things, so he kept quiet. He wondered if the prom queen would accompany the Poof in this unasked-for visit. It might be interesting to see how Xander and his other ex reacted to each other, or at least amusing. Xander, at the moment, was idly flipping through a book written in a language which had died over a millennium before his birth. He had started to get that desperate 'there must be something I can paint, or move, or refinish' look. When their eyes met, Spike inclined his head toward the back of the store, then casually headed to the kitchen. Moments later, after he not-so-subtly asked if he could get anyone a soft drink, Xander followed.

Spike tracked the boy's progress by sound. Facing the counter, Spike was aware the instant the boy entered the small kitchen and soon felt Xander's hands slide around his waist. Spike turned toward him, not even having made the pretense of heating blood-that wasn't what he was hungry for. Xander kissed him and pushed him back against the kitchen counter. The kiss heated up when their groins made contact through two layers of denim and one pair of boxers. The underwear hadn't been his fault. Although it had been amusing, both the sight of the boy in his petal pink bloomers and the 'only in Sunnydale' idea of a laundry demon. With both hands full of Xander's tight, young ass and his senses swimming in the boy's arousal, Spike was surprised along with him when Dawn popped her head around the corner.

"I thought it might be quicker if I got the drinks." She giggled at catching them unaware. "You," she continued, indicating both of them, "might want to make coffee. Willow says its going to be a long night and no one will drink mine."

Spike had released Xander immediately upon her appearance. Xander, on the other hand, had tightened his hold and had pointedly not stepped away, though he had blushed and had to try twice before he stammered out, "No problem. Think this calls for a food run?"

"Pizza?" Dawn asked, as she pulled cans of soda out of the fridge.

"Tacos?" Xander countered with an item that didn't deliver.

If he thinks he is escaping into the sun, and leaving me here to research with the girls... "Chinese," Spike interjected, knowing that they were in the delivery area of three Chinese restaurants.

"You don't eat, " Xander and Dawn said in unison.

Dawn laughed, "That's twice in one night Xan, you must be on everyone's wavelengths."

"I eat. Don't have to, but it's variety. Order me some sesame beef, Pet, and make sure the tossers don't put in any garlic." Spike purred in Xander's ear. He refused to be outdone by a twenty-year-old. If Xander wasn't going to let Dawn's presence make him self-conscious about their physical relationship, he would just get over his 'Victorian' inhibitions. After all, he was evil.

"Ooooh, I want dumplings!" Dawn bounced, cocked her head and asked, "Do you want me to get everyone else's order?"

"Sure, I'll call it in," Xander grinned indulgently. Dawn darted back to the others, on a mission.

"Sesame beef?" The boy's grin became slightly evil as he bumped his forehead lightly against Spike's. "You're gonna dip that in blood, aren't you?"

Well, of course. I'm evil. Not like I need to eat, it's mostly for entertainment purposes. Instead of answering, Spike decided to take advantage of Dawn's absence and began to nibble on Xander's bottom lip.

Angel and his minions arrived in a little over two hours. The Poof was as large as ever and twice as gelled. Spike thought it was a good thing that the nancy boy didn't have a reflection anymore, otherwise they would never get him out from in front of a mirror. He entered the shop flanked by his minions, with a dark coat billowing around him. It's ninety-five fucking degrees with the humidity so thick you can slice it and spread it and he thinks that what? Makes him look human? Blends in? Asshole. Xander was halfway through greeting his ex when his scent plummeted into a panic, and his heart rate raced. Spike almost let out a growl at the girl, before he realize that the only thing wrong was that Xander's babble had backed him into a social faux pas. Angel hadn't missed Xander's reaction, by the way his nostrils flared.

Spike was not at all comfortable with the way the Poof was eyeing what was his. He wondered if soul-boy was having a similar fight or flight moment or if the reason Angel was sizing him up was purely based on past experience. Their minions socialized and seemed unaware that the predators in the room had yet to decide if they were going to kill each other, let alone if they could work together.

The Watchers went off to the office and the witches, after asking a few polite questions, went off to the storage room. Xander gave both Angel and Spike an appraising look and seemed to leave Dawn to baby-sit, before leading the remaining minions on a tour of the facilities. Since they had been tied up with a case, none of the LA crew had returned for the service. Spike knew that Angel had been a frequent visitor at Buffy's grave, since little happened in Sunnydale at night of which he was not aware. But this was the first time either group had met face to face since they had lost the Slayer.

Angel awkwardly approached Dawn, and offered condolences over both the loss of Buffy and Joyce. As he loomed over her with his hands shoved in the pockets of the needless trench coat he made what Spike found to be an uncomfortable picture. Souled or not, Spike knew just how dangerous what was standing over his Nibblet was. He felt himself morph to gameface and tightened his grip on the metal banister of the staircase to prevent him from launching himself at the wanker. When the growl escaped him Dawn ignored it, being quite used to how overprotective he could be, but Angel seemed to think he was out of line. Again? What a surprise.

"Problem, Spike?" Angel now regarded him, but hadn't retreated from his spot next to the girl.

In retrospect, Spike might concede that the Poof couldn't help looking like Angelus, and that the smirk he normally wore whenever addressing Spike was reflexive, but then Spike growled, "Back off you tosser, you're practically on top of her!"

Which turned out to be the most congenial of the exchanges which rapidly increased in volume and degenerated in vocabulary. Before the others could interrupt they took their disagreement outside. After killing a dumpster and taking a few chunks out of a building, Spike found himself pressed face first into the wall across from the shop's back entrance. Now this is more like the family reunions I remember.

"This stops now." Xander never had sounded that angry, not with him. Angel, lacking the ability to read Xander's tone, had no idea just how deep the shit was that they were in; otherwise he wouldn't have told Xander to go back inside. Spike took the brief second provided by Angel's distraction to give the Poof the opportunity to kiss the wall, but Xander's scent prevented him from taking advantage of the situation.

Xander had a tight grip on a rage that Spike feared would spill out at any moment. His voice was oddly calm when he laid a hot hand on Spike's arm and asked him to go inside. Spike was so relieved that, judging by the touch, Xander wasn't angry with him that he froze. Xander added, quietly and with equal calm, "Dawn is really upset." So he went. One minute he had been ready to rend something he saw as a threat to his mate and his minions and the next he had had an unbelievable pang of sympathy for Angel. Xander was pissed, apparently at Angel. Glad it's not at me.

When he entered through the back door into the practice room, Dawn threw herself into his arms. Angel's minions stood open-mouthed as she cooed at and petted him. He was worried until he discovered that all that was the matter was she had been worried about him. Odd, that. He knew he hadn't been in any danger. His unlife was more in jeopardy from one of Willow's experimental spells than from anything Angel might do to him, especially when the soul was attached. He hauled her out to the research table and pulled her into his lap and with teasing words set about quieting her fears.

When Xander and Angel didn't immediately follow them, he began to worry about just what was going on out in the alley. It was strange to see Xander angry. Spike wasn't sure, as he quickly reviewed his memories of the boy, if he could recall ever seeing that white-hot rage even before they were lovers. Spike had spent quite a bit of time purposely irritating the boy and even after the whole betrayal with Adam, Xander had never sounded more than annoyed or exasperated. Anger, real anger, just didn't seem to be in tune with his sunny disposition. At times Spike had scented unbelievable grief, deep fear, and a wealth of happy loving emotions, but the scent his lover had emitted in the ally was new. It seemed only the magnificent poof was capable of inspiring such intensity of feeling in his Xander.

While he stroked Dawn's hair, Spike watched for the two of them. Angel came in from the back room only a moment after Xander. Spike wondered if he was jealous of the past that Xander shared with his Sire. Granted, it had all been bad, but it was time Angel had with Xander the he would never be able to erase.

He was less than pleased by the way Angel was watching his Xander; he was paying far too much attention to him for Spike's comfort. Hate and love were often the flip sides of the same coin. Intense love could often turn to equally intense hate. Spike had seen quite a bit of that-it was one of Angelus' favorite games. So what does this tosser think he knows, hm? He can't have my boy. He tries any of his tricks, he's dust.

Dawn seemed to notice Spike watching Angel and Angel watching Xander, and she shivered in her spot on his lap. After a moment she whispered to him, "You know the sooner we slay, the sooner they leave." Spike nodded, but kept a wary eye on Angel and his minions.

* * * * *

Spike was relieved when Xander stepped down from his battle of wills with Rupert and took Dawn out of potential danger. When they had decided to give Red's plan for gathering more information a go he had a flashback on just how successful her 'will be done' spell had been. Not that ending up with a lapful of amorous Slayer was such a bad memory--no matter how many times Xander teased him about the 'Wind Beneath My Wings' incident--but all his instincts said to keep Dawn far away from any untried spells.

The first part of the evening wasn't too exciting. It involved Rupert producing a detailed map of Sunnydale and the surrounding area. Tara spread it on the research table, chanting over the fist-sized crystals that she used to ring its edges. Willow's voice was a soft descant to Tara's chant, and she dowsed with a sky-blue piece of agate hung on a silver chain. Once both witches were in agreement that the spot to perform their as-yet-untested spell was Lainer's Bluff, they packed up the huge scrying bowl and various magical ingredients, along with the book in which Willow had discovered the spell. Angel and his minions piled into his car while Spike and the witches rode in Giles' convertible.

Once at the bluff they parked the cars and headed up to the moonlit cliff. While the witches walked the area to chose the best spot to attempt the summoning, Wesley and Giles compiled a list of questions. If it worked, the trick would not be getting information, but getting the right information.

Willow had proposed summoning air elementals called sprites. Any elemental was dangerous. The fact that this particular elemental was a well-known gossip and privy to all sorts of useless and useful information did not mean they were incapable of doing harm. Spike had crossed paths with any number of supernatural creatures over the course of his unlife; that was what accounted for his impressive knowledge of languages and cultural nuances. He had never come across sprites, though. It might have something to do with them not liking vampires. Now, should I mention that to the Poof? No. It wasn't just the usual bad karma associated with vampires and their blood lust; apparently the little critters took the whole not breathing thing as an insult.

The witches picked a flat open space about thirty feet from the lone gnarled tree that fought for purchase on the windswept bluff. They filled the bowl with bottled water and the girls took turns adding the ingredients. Spike cautiously stepped back to keep his minions in view and lit a cigarette, sucking in deep and exhaling a cloud of smoke. Slowly, their soft feminine voices were joined by first one and then many whispers and giggles. The voices were of indeterminate gender and had no fixed direction from which they originated. Small, glowing blue lights emerged from the moonlight and swirled around the witches and then spread out to dip and bob around the rest of the group. The ones who swooped near Angel darkened and their giggles became scolding chatters. Spike exhaled a billowing cloud of smoke as the critters approached him and those sprites wheeled away to join in chastising Angel. The sprites hovering near Cordelia brightened and made a trilling sound. The noise seemed to summon the others and soon the whole glittering cloud was swarming around the seer.

Since the leggy brunette had their attention, Giles handed the girl the list of questions he and Wesley had compiled. The questions were specific and the whole mass of tiny elementals answered yes or no in unison. Things were going swimmingly until, in exasperation, Cordelia asked a question not on the list. The sprites formed a whirlwind of light and sound. They took off in a million different directions and returned at random, each trying to convey a separate message. As the sprites all homed in on the girl she crouched down and covered her head, squealing in frustration at her inability to understand them. Angel came to her rescue, lifting her up into his arms. This, while not acting as sprite repellent, did slow their swooping and lower the excited volume of their chatter.

"Spike, this isn't going as I planned." Willow tugged on his arm and pulled him back away from the swirling mob. Tara looked frightened and stood near Giles and Wesley.

"Does it ever?" Spike snorted and was instantly contrite when he saw tears form and her lip quiver. He pulled the little witch under his arm and added, "It's not going that badly. You got some of your questions answered."

"But they told us about that thing, the one that would help stop the Hellmouth from opening or could be what is going to be used to open it. That doesn't do any good if we don't know which it is or what it is or where it's at." While she babbled, Tara carefully skirted the storm of sprites that surrounded Angel and Cordelia. They had now been joined by Gunn, as he shielded Cordelia's other side from her chattering friends.

Tara took Willow's hand and said, "This isn't getting us anywhere. Do you understand what they're saying?" She directed the question to Spike and looked at him with hopeful eyes.

"You understand what they're saying, we all do." Spike sighed needlessly. "Trouble is, you can't get just one of them to talk. This sounds like a New York metro terminal during rush hour."

"If we could have only got one more question asked. If we knew the location of this thing, maybe we could find out the rest in research." Willow said, still looking about to cry. The fact the she hadn't shaken off his arm clued Spike in more than the way she tightly clutched at Tara's hand.

"Well, the conversation is over, but we can still see them. Go on, Red, ask them to show you where this thing is." Spike gently propelled the witches toward the cloud of sprites. Oddly enough, it worked. Not the first time, when Willow asked, but once Cordelia caught on and voiced the question, the creatures responded.

As before, they began to leave and return but this time it was not at random. The mass of sprites swooped first in one direction then the other. They swirled back and forth until even Spike was regretting the recent solid food he had consumed. When Cordelia took a tentative step in the direction which they were undulating in, they broke into ecstatic chitters and swirled faster. The sprites led them to the single tree and after pulsing up and down above the ground and showing signs of their returning frustration, Gunn suggested that they dig. Not having come equipped for this contingency, it was up to the vampires to move the soil by hand. As they peeled back the covering sod the sprites burst in to a glittering display of light and sound. Gunn had interpreted the movement correctly. Once the object--a grapefruit sized sphere of indeterminate origins--was revealed, a sigh passed through both the sprites and the living members of the supplicants.

Giles recommend not asking any more questions, as, if they did not luck into a solution a second time, they may not have to worry about the Hellmouth, having been destroyed by angry elemental. Tara emptied the bowl of water and herbs into the hole and Spike helped her refill the hole with dirt. The spell had been hacked together by Willow from three others and the herbs assembled on short notice when they stopped at a supermarket on the way to the bluff. From the offerings she had picked up there, Willow now scattered rice, pistachios and endive over where the hole had been and Tara gave Cordy a bag of brightly colored feathers to give to her new friends when she said thank you.

They headed back to the store and the Watchers immediately set about trying to find out what the sphere was and what it did. Willow answered the store's phone, which had been ringing when they entered. Spike heard her reassuring Dawn that no, there had not been a disaster; yes, they had got some information; yes, they were all fine; and no, Angel and Spike had not dusted each other. Spike waited only to hear that the girl was safely ensconced at a neighbor's, with whom she was spending the night, and that Xander had opted to fill the time with one of his ongoing projects at the Summers' house.

He immediately set out, leaving by the back door. He wanted to fill Xander in, letting him know that the dangerous part of the evening was probably over and that he could come join the others since Dawn was safe. It had never taken him long to travel from the shop to the Summers' house. When he traveled alone, unlike when he had Dawn with him, he could make the trip in a matter of minutes. It was quicker on foot, owing to the fact that he rarely used the streets. Like when he hunted, Spike's route gave little thought to the established boundaries of personal property and often took him across roofs, through trees, sewers and back yards.

Spike strolled into the back yard of the Summer's house, noting the light spilling from the kitchen windows. He had lost count of the number of nights he had stopped by that back door and Joyce home alone, with the girls out living lives of their own, had invited him in for a mug of hot chocolate. In the process of sharing her day with him she often asked the questions it had never occurred to the children to ask. Not just how he was doing physically but if he still had heard from any friends he had when he and Dru were together and whether he was 'socializing', as she had so discreetly put it. He knew she read a lot of her own relationship with her ex into him and Dru, but he never tried to set her straight. He wasn't sure he could have made her understand how he was less lonely after they had split. He didn't have the words to show what it had been like when they had been together, how he had spent all his time trying to connect with someone who so seldom seemed aware that he was any more than a large male version of Miss Edith. No, he definitely was not ready to visit Joyce's kitchen.

He circled around to the front of the house. The front porch light shone, just like it always had when Joyce was waiting for Buffy to come home from patrol. His boy had done some work on the front walk though and the crooked flagstone had been relayed and was level with the rest. Xander stopped by the house a couple times a week, usually sometime after work but before they either patrolled or went home for the evening. Never less than an hour but never more than three. His visits were supposed to be getting the house ready to sell. Spike suspected he was delaying but didn't mention it the way Willow did. He figured Xander had his own happy memories of this house, which he was just as reluctant to part with.

The front door held its own significance to Spike and he paused before it. He remembered that night, standing there in the doorway, content to wait outside just relieved that Buffy trusted him enough to let him accompany her that far. He had seen her start up the stairs and then turn to him. How often had he replayed those few earth shattering words? "You can come in, Spike." What had she been thinking? He longed to ask her and wished there had been time that night. Did she think it didn't matter because the world would end? Had she realized his sincerity? Had she thought about it at all? It was entirely possible that the single most important event in his life, until that moment, had meant nothing at all to her. He shook off that line of thinking, wondering how long he had stood woolgathering on the porch. Steeling himself, he opened the front door and stepped resolutely across the threshold.

Spike entered the quiet house for the first time since Buffy had invited him in the night she had died. He heard Xander's breathing and smelled his lover's grief and sorrow, thick in the air. There were no noticeable changes to the entry hall, despite the boy's frequent trips. Spike had avoided coming here, not wanting Xander or Dawn to see him break down. He flashed on when Buffy had introduced him to Joyce that first time on the front step. Joyce hadn't remembered braining him on parent/teacher night. Ever the gracious hostess, Joyce had tried to make awkward small talk while assimilating the news of Buffy's destiny. How many secrets had Joyce let slip during their kitchen klatches? Stories about Buffy and Dawn as girls and later on as they got older, when they would wait for a promised phone call from their father, which never came. What kind of man could have just written the three of them out of his life?

A single step forward brought Xander into sight. Through the archway that separated the foyer from the living room he watched a moment as the boy contemplated a small framed photograph. He wondered what memories were visiting his pet and hoped they were happy ones. He owed so much to this fragile mortal. Daily Spike marveled at how much he had as a result of Xander's love, and shuddered at the thought of how much he now could lose. Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, Before we too into Dust descend; Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie; Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and sans end![13]

Xander reverently placed the photo back onto the end table and turned toward Spike, his brow still furrowed. Spike was at a loss when dealing with Xander's pain or sorrow. It made him want to rend the cause limb from limb. Before he could growl in frustration, Spike was mesmerized by the soft smile that the sight of him brought to Xander's face. More and more he noticed that his mere presence seemed to at once calm and excite the boy. Just being with him seemed to make Xander more confident and happier. It was a new experience for Spike. The boy didn't seem to care if they argued or fucked--well, he seemed to enjoy fucking more--but somehow was content either way. This was so new, so refreshing, and a bit unnerving to have someone so in tune with his emotions. Humans as mates were rare among vampires, but not unheard of.

Spike wished he were better informed. He knew that the life expectancy among them was short, but that was due to the lifestyle. They had to contend with the master's rivals and any jealous childer he may have. He had heard rumors they could bond much like a mated pair of vampires. The one time he and Angelus had talked of the subject had been when the older vampire had been referring to a pair in legend. Angelus had told of a vampire known only as Cain who had had a human mate called Lilith. Angelus had speculated that they had chosen those names to make themselves seem older than they were. Yet according to Darla, when the two had ruled none could remember either who Cain's Master had been nor a time when he and Lilith had not been together. Though they had allegedly been brought down at the turn of the last millenium, for several hundred years they had held a vast hunting ground, covering much of Eastern Europe. At the time, what had intrigued Spike had been the hints that this Cain was somehow stronger and had developed a resilience to holy objects from the pairing.

Angelus had been set on warning him of the dangers, much like he tried to make a boogieman out of the Slayer. Spike, true to form, had found the idea of flaunting tradition fascinating and had asked why all vampires didn't take humans as pets, if there was something they were good for besides food. All Angelus had told him was that the vampire would have no control of that human and would be at their mercy, that it was far too dangerous to treat lightly, and that the risks far outweighed any supposed advantages. What now caught his interest about that story was the reference to them being together for centuries. He wouldn't mind that, having a few centuries with his Xander.

They had become so close, so quickly. Spike often wondered if there was something supernatural about Xander's ability to sense his moods or if it were just the boy's perceptive nature. Xander was so open, so readable, Spike wondered if he would know if he had some sort of connection to the boy, more than the obvious. Spike knew Xander loved him. From observing the attention and tenderness that the boy bestowed upon the members of his 'pack', Spike also knew exactly what that love meant. Even after their conversation in the shower, what Spike did not know was if Xander understood what he meant by 'claiming' him. Spike was sure what he wanted but wasn't sure what the results would be. Darla had hinted at secret rituals, mostly in her intention to take Angelus as a mate before he got souled up. Spike couldn't be sure she wasn't making it up-the cow would have used anything to keep her childe wrapped, including blatant lies. Dru, dear useless Dru, hadn't even been able to keep the Sire/Child relationship straight. Hence Spike had the unique curse of two Sires; his dark princess who had turned him, and the bleeding Irish bastard who had beaten what little sense he had into him.

Xander's soft smile transformed. With every thought written plainly on his face, he looked adorably confused. The boy knew Spike had not been to the house since Buffy had died and was clearly trying to figure who had invited Spike in. That look was replaced to the one Xander called 'the wiggins' when Spike told him that Buffy had issued the invite.

"Not now, you moron." Why do I do that? He underrates himself as it is, I'm just confirming that belief. Spike lost track of the conversation as Xander's eyes sparkled with mischief and he teasingly pulled Spike into his arms. They maneuvered their way to the couch and Spike pinned his naughty pet against it, wondering how long he could keep him distracted and if there were time for a quick shag before they headed back to the shop. He held Xander's squirming body under him, tormenting him and reveling in the frustration.

When Xander breathed in that lust-filled whisper, "Punish me," Spike nearly lost control. Bloody thrice dammed chip! This wasn't the first time he had had to modify their games to prevent a blast of pain. He could almost feel his teeth sink into his lover's corded muscles.

Then Xander stopped his pleasant struggles and whispered someone else's name. Spike shifted to game face and was growling out a threat before he turned to face his stunned Sire. He couldn't think straight and was hardly aware that Xander has renewed his quest for freedom. Xander's movements now had less effort directed at arousing Spike and more on freeing his hands. If he could have formed words he would have screamed at the rival but was currently expending all his energy at preventing two all-too-likely things. First, he didn't want to launch himself at Angel; part of him realized that having knock-down-drag-out fight here was not acceptable. Second, and more important, he felt he was dangerously close to hurting Xander physically.

The same inner sanity which was telling him Angel was not going to try to take Xander here, now, in front of him, also reasoned that Xander had only spoken Angel's name because he was startled to see him here, not because he welcomed the older vampire's attention. But the fact that the two were now speaking, never mind that Spike was too far out of control to follow the conversation, was driving him further into madness.

Rather than risk hurting him, Spike released one of Xander's hands but did not take his attention from their stunned audience. Instead of pulling away, Xander reached up and with gentle strokes soothed away his blood rage. Spike noticed that Xander did not smell at all of fear and seemed to take his reaction to Angel's presence in stride. Aware that Xander's soft shh-ing noises and caresses to his face were asking for some sort of acknowledgment, Spike still kept his attention riveted to his rival. From the look of shock on Angel's face if he had not realized Xander was Spike's before, he knew it now. Though Xander's actions had removed himself from danger, at least from Spike, the situation was still volatile. It was all Spike could do not to demand satisfaction due to Angel speaking to his mate without permission. It was Willow who unknowingly saved them all.

Red, followed by Tara, and peeked around Angel's bulk to say, "Xander? There you are." Angel remained frozen in place at the entrance to the living room, but the witches slipped easily past him, and crossed to the couch. It was more what they didn't do than what they did which showed such easy acceptance of Spike's place by Xander side and among their group. The young women dropped into a relaxed sprawl right beside Xander and his lap full of snarling vampire. Tara watched fondly as Willow babbled and Xander attempted to look like he knew what she was talking about. As the blinding rage faded Spike was shaken by how close he had brought them to true disaster. Angel cautiously took a seat far from Xander, being the only one in the room beside Spike to know what had nearly happened. If possible the prancing nancy boy looked even more bewildered.

Now Xander's scent was nervous. William the Bloody in obsessive, possessive rage doesn't faze him, but Red catching him unaware of the results of her summoning sends him into a panic? Someday I'm gonna have a loooong talk with that boy. Ack, I have got to stop watching 'Nick at Nite', whoever heard of a vampire quoting The Beverly Hillbillys? Xander obviously didn't want the witches to know he had been too horny to ask what happened at the bluff. Rich! I can have some fun with this.

"Yes, Pet, tell Red what you think about the Thing." He purred in his most seductive voice, knowing that it wouldn't take much to rev up Xander's engine once they had started foreplay.

The boy verbally dismissed him, while physically sending out 'I want sex' signals. Being a vampire, Spike chose to respond to the physical ones with a leering purr. Red was smart enough to catch on and her little blond blushed and shared a shy smile with Spike. The magnificent poof hadn't taken his eyes off Xander since interrupting impending sex, but Spike was pleased to note that Xander seemed unaware.

The boy vastly underestimated his own physical appeal. Dru was a perfect example of how Angelus' taste ran. Most people who saw Darla assumed he liked them small and blond, but they forgot that Darla chose him and he chose Dru. Tall, dark-haired, large brown eyes; it was all too similar. Spike wasn't blind. He would see these two were chaperoned until the bastard was dust or out of town for good.

* * * * *

Back at the shop, the LA crew was going through the books with Rupert. Angel had reopened the mansion, so at least Spike didn't have to worry about Xander volunteering their couch to one of them. He didn't like that idea at all, especially with the Princess eyeing his Xander like he was the one that got away. He had caught that hyphenated ex-Watcher taking in an eyeful of Xander's ass when the boy had fetched some volumes from a lower shelf. Spike was silently cursing whatever madness had possessed him to talk the boy out of his old baggy, loud clothes and start dressing Xander with more emphasis his long muscular beauty. Angel's new boy, the one who had only met Xander that day, was currently sidling up to him with some flimsy excuse about getting his pet to point out the tunnel accesses on the town map.

It was Giles who noticed that Spike was emitting a low growl and after briefly surveying the room said, "Er...Perhaps- Have you had-? Spike, go get something to eat."

Xander followed him back to the kitchen and sat on the counter sipping a soft drink while Spike's blood heated. "Tired, pet?" The brown eyes did look a little red and the lids a bit heavy.

"I'm just glad tomorrow's Friday. What are the chances we'll get the weekend alone together?" Xander rolled his eyes toward the front and reached for Spike with a long leg. Spike let himself be hooked by Xander's foot to be drawn in and encircled by his legs.

After a kiss that tasted of ginger and sugar he said, "The rogue demon hunter was checking out your ass." He hadn't intended to say that. He lied as readily as breathing, well, like he had breathed when he had been alive. But when he was this close to his boy, tasting him, touching him, he spit out every thought.

"You're such a goof." Even Xander's laugh sounded tired, but he leaned forward and kissed Spike before adding. "But in a good way." He nipped Spike's bottom lip and they both forgot about the blood, and the guests, and tomorrow for a moment. When Spike finally let Xander breath the boy asked, "So, you're doing the book thing? When do you think you'll be home?"

Then the nancified sire was back, looming in the door, ogling his boy. Spike grabbed his mate off the counter and his meal from the microwave and relinquished the galley. When Angel stopped him from leaving by grabbing his arm, Spike came close to replaying the scene from earlier. This time the tosser's attention was on the food and not on Xander so Spike could be almost civil. Xander ignored Angel. If he could just keep the boy away from the Prom Queen, the night might remain bloodless. Angel paid too much attention for Spike's comfort when Xander mentioned home and gave Spike a look that said 'we'll talk'. Something else to look forward to.

Once the boy had left, Spike found it easier to concentrate. The Watchers assigned research based on the Prom Queen's vision of large green demons with moldy faces and any type of sphere. Spike noticed Giles watching Angel and Angel's minions warily eyeing him. He suppressed the urge to see how high they would all jump if he growled because it would delay his getting home to his boy. They had been wading through demon lore for a few hours when he noticed the poof not-so-subtly trying to get his attention. Spike pointedly ignored him and pretended to be absorbed by a compilation of the Watcher's prophecies.

Finally Giles cleared his throat and said, "Spike, I believe Angel would like a word with you. You may use my office. But I want it understood, I will not tolerate violence directed toward the furniture or each other."

Angel looked contrite. Spike smirked and led the way into the back. Spike sat behind the desk in Rupert's chair and propped his Docs on the corner of the desk. "What's up, Ducks? Don't tell me you still got your panties in a twist over me taking over the Slayer's minions."

"I don't know what game you're playing," Angel started, but was cut off by Spike's snort of derision.

"That song again? Didn't we dance this dance, earlier in the alley?"

"As I recall, you didn't answer." Angel looked ready to launch into a tirade.

"As I recall, I had you face-first into a wall when my pet saved your ass." Spike leveled a hard glare and stood up in a smooth, lightning-quick move.

"What the hell are you thinking? Xander Harris? You're playing with fire, Wil. Even I can see that this has gone farther than you realize." Maybe it was that by now Angelus would have been bouncing his head off the floor, or maybe it was just calling him Wil. Whatever it was, it saved the furniture.

"You're talking out of your arse, you great tosser. You have no idea-" Spike shouted.

"Do you?" He interrupted in a calm, reasoning voice, which might have been why Spike listened. "Do you have any idea what you're doing? And if you don't, whose going to pay the price? Xander? Wil, you can't take him for a consort. You will make him a target for every purist out there. I lost a good friend recently to the Scourge; if they got their hands on the human consort of a Master vampire..."

"Fuck the Scourge!" Spike growled out, seeing red at the implied threat to Xander. "They think we're mixed as it is, with the human host for our demon. Cor, Angelus! We were the Scourge-The Scourge of Europe, and not one of those nancified purists has our body count. When did you become such a big girl? I know they attached a soul, but did they replace your knackers with it?" Spike was nose to nose, with the taller vampire, in full game face, snarling out all his frustration at his sire and the world.

"Damn it, boy!" Angel morphed and matched Spike's baleful, yellow-eyed glare. "You never think! It's not you or me at risk here. You're not only placing Xander in danger, but everyone he holds dear. You think every demon from a fledgling on up won't want to score a hit on the human consort of 'the Slayer of Slayers'?"

"No one hurts what's mine!" Spike grabbed the lapels of the ridiculous overcoat and pulled him forward.

"You can't even protect him from another human." Angel gripped his hands and attempted to pry them off.

"Leave the fucking chip out of this! The boy isn't some delicate flower. He's survived longer on the Hellmouth than you did."

"So help me Spike, I will not let-" A hard shake cut him off and Spike growled his words.

"You won't let? Who the bloody hell do you think you are? You're an outsider here. These humans are mine!"

After a tentative knock on the door, Giles and Wesley, obviously having heard the exchange, came in. Giles removed his glasses and met neither vampire's startled eyes. " both have been rather vocal. Rather than perpetuate the illusion of your privacy, I thought it best to confess. I have more than a passing interest in this subject." He glanced at Wesley; there was some sort of wordless exchange before he continued. "Spike, I assure you nothing we say will go any further, but I must admit Angel's accusations have...I would like some reassurance regarding Angel's accusations." He held up a hand, forestalling Spike's immediate protest. "I know you would never intentionally harm Xander. But the Watchers know so little about vampire lore. Almost all references are from the human point of view. The books focus on how to kill them, not their social nuances. I admit, that while your physical involvement with Xander has been painfully obvious, unbelievably you seem to have outdone Anya in the discretion area." That comment earned Giles a triumphant smirk from Spike and blank looks from Angel and Wesley. "I hadn't realized that there could be a more paranormal connection forming."

Spike was at a loss as to what to say. Tossing off to Angel was one thing, but Giles was a different story. Yes, a bond had formed and was strengthening by the day, but Spike had no idea what it meant, or what it would become if he and the boy continued on this course.

It was Wesley who rescued Spike from blind speculation when he ventured, "Some of the histories have speculations about mated pairs. They're extremely rare, you and Drucilla being one of the most- "

"Dru and I weren't mates." Spike spoke softly and sank into the chair nearest the door. "She turned me, but we weren't mates." He stood again, wanting to pace but the small office lacked the space so he leaned on the edge of the desk.

"Spike, you were together for over a hundred years." Giles voice held the incredulity of someone for whom that was more than a lifetime.

"She needed me. I took care of her. That's why I was made." Spike studied his hands and wished that they were not having this conversation with an audience, but then again, without the audience they both might have continued to avoid this topic.

"You were lost...distraught when you two parted." Giles said gently, as if reluctant to remind Spike of that pain, and sat next to Spike on the edge of the desk.

"You were pretty out of it when you got sacked from the Watchers," Spike said pointedly. "I was made and trained for one thing and that was gone. Just took me a little longer to find my feet."

"And Xander?" Giles asked firmly. Spike had to admire the man. Like Xander, Giles always kept his priorities straight. It was the fact that Giles had repeatedly and would continue to put Xander's safety ahead of his own which caused Spike to reluctantly admit that this man, unlike anyone else in the room, had the right to ask these questions.

"He's mine. I'd claim him proper if not for this bloody chip." Spike answered with conviction.

"What does that mean? What...what would that do to him?" Giles asked. Angel and his Watcher were watching like this was some tennis match. After Giles asked the last question, Wesley leaned forward from where he leaned against the door. Spike shot a suspicious look at Angel. He would never be able to bluff his way through an answer with the prancing poof ready to jump in and call him on anything he made up.

"Don't know," He settled for honesty. "Reason you Watchers don't have much information on this is that it just doesn't happen that often. Our kind rarely take mates, especially among our own, because we rarely love. To love you have to share part of yourself. We're demons." He nodded to indicate Angel as well as him. "No matter how much soul-boy would like to deny it, without the demon he would be just a decaying corpse. Demons are by nature selfish. Why do you think we create so many minions, and so few childer?"

Spike watched Giles carefully. He had seen the wheels turning behind Angel's pet Watcher's eyes, but didn't care what conclusions that poofed-up hyphenated nancy-boy drew from his little revelation. His souled Sire could pound salt, and the minion too. It was Rupert who mattered. He was whom Xander would turn to with any doubts. His acceptance of what was growing between Spike and his mate would smooth over the eventual dangers.

"Have you spoken with Xander about this?" Giles' voice was calm but his gaze was penetrating. He could have been inquiring about a library book if not for Ripper lurking there in his eyes.

"He knows as much as I know." Spike dropped all pretenses, including his guttersnipe accent. This man loved his mate like a son and had earned Spike's respect in ways that Angelus never had. "He knows what I want and he hasn't chucked me out yet." Spike finished without his upper class accent, when he realized that there might be someone left in the room who didn't know it was a complete sham. The last thing he needed was Angel's boy asking for stories of his early years to update the Watchers' records with his fledgling foibles.

Giles' quiet contemplation instilled a fear in Spike that all of Angel's ranting had failed to do. Angel ranted quite frequently. Giles had been known to face the apocalypse with an 'oh, dear'. It would have made for a study in opposites if not for the fact his future could be decided by what this quiet man decided here and now. The silence was eerie as not one of the remaining three wanted to disturb Giles rumination and they all sat or leaned awaiting his conclusion.

The time gave Spike a chance to turn over Angel's pessimistic view, where legions would come out of the woodwork hunting his Xander for sport and status. It wasn't as if Xander didn't draw enough unasked-for attention as it was. At that thought, Spike scowled at Angel's minion, remembering the heated look he had turned on his mate when Xander's back was turned. Wesley, showing a level of self preservation he certainly didn't learn from Angel, pulled back as far from Spike as the tiny room permitted. Angel stepped between Spike and his minion, and Spike could hear his teeth grinding as he exerted himself not to shift into game face.

Oh, ho! How much energy he spends trying to pass for human. What does he tell them? That he keeps the demon that animates his corpse locked up or on a leash? Bloody hell, he has some nerve saying I'm endangering Xander. Xander has known from day one what I am and what I am capable of. It's his choice to let me into his life, and it's a far more informed choice than Angel's minions get to make if he's still deluding even himself that by having a soul he has some how gotten rid of his demon.

Spike finally couldn't take the silence any longer. He spoke to Giles, quite conscious that Angel and his minion were considering his every word. "Xander loves me." It was the first time he had said those words to anyone but himself, and then they had been tinged with awe as he talked to his non-existent reflection. "You know that means he would be in danger, even without all the fucking demon shit. You know what he's like when he loves someone-he'd take on the devil himself to protect them." Giles nodded and a sad, rueful smile crossed his face. "He'll never be alone." Spike was aware that he had slipped back into what Xander called his bedroom accent but no longer cared. "Anything that goes after him will have to go through me."

Angel said he wanted to talk to Xander, to make sure the boy knew just what he was getting into. Before Spike could loudly tell him that would never happen Giles suggested, with implied concern for Angel's safety, that he not try to do that alone. Spike was grateful. If he had suggested it Angel would have put it down to his possessiveness and would have insisted on seeing Xander alone. But coming from Giles, after a pointed reminder about the volatile history between Angel and Xander, Angel agreed to have Spike present. Relieved that this issue was now behind him, Spike slipped out of the shop when Angel was conveniently distracted and headed home.

It was just before daybreak when Spike left for home. He didn't bother to tell Giles since it was normally assumed that if he wasn't at the shop he would be at the apartment. It took him longer than it usually did to get home as he spent extra time clouding his trail and doubling back to make sure he wasn't followed.

Home. He had had so many lairs and boltholes, but a home? Had he ever really had a home? His father's home hadn't been his. The closest he could think of was a few brief years when Darla had run off to her Sire and left Angelus with he and Dru. That had almost been like family, if you had a scary, violent family. I'm channeling Xander. How the hell do I know if this is 'freaky vampire shit' or if I've just been spending too much time listening to his stream of thought chatter while he channel surfs through a Sunday morning? That's it. If I can change his wardrobe, I can cut down how much time he spends watching the telly.

He entered the foyer of their building and stashed the blanket he had used to guard against the first light during his bolt from the tunnel entrance. The last thing he needed was Xander spotting it when he left for work. His mate had no problem with Spike seeking a bit of fun with numerous large, dangerous demons, but refused to see the lighter side of him taking unnecessary risk with the sun.

Stealthily Spike let himself into their apartment. When he had accepted Xander's request for his company, the boy had presented him with a key ring with the key to the door, the deadbolt and the storage locker. Xander had tried to pass the key ring off as a joke, but Spike hadn't fallen for his rampant babble. The key ring Xander had chosen for him was a three inch long pewter railroad spike, a perfect miniature of the weapon which had spawned his name. It spoke to something deep inside the vampire that Xander didn't try to deny the scope and violence of his past. The boy may not approve of Spike's history, but he respected it.

Kicking off his boots, Spike then stalked into the bedroom and crawled across the bed until he loomed over his prey. Due to the rash of brownouts, Xander had left the AC off and opted to leave the window open, but the tarp and the shutters, which he religiously secured before going to sleep each night, prevented much movement of the air. The boy sprawled over most of the bed, as if trying to present as much flesh as possible to any stray breeze. Naked, he had kicked off the single sheet with which he covered himself at night.

Spike thought about waking him and having a serious talk-let him know what to expect. Xander wouldn't like Angel meddling. The boy rarely mentioned Spike's Sire so he hadn't really thought about their history--other than that there was one--until the Watcher had brought it up. He had overheard Buffy saying Xander had been jealous of Angel, but Red had hinted to Dawn that there was more there that Buffy wouldn't understand. The sodding ponce would swoop in soon enough whispering trepidations and warnings in his boy's ear. The last thing Spike needed was to waste perfectly good shagging time brooding about Xander's reaction to the poof and Angel's sudden interest in Xander's safety. That could wait. Given the way events unfolded around here they might all be dead tomorrow and if they were Spike wasn't spending his last morning with the boy talking about his Sire or any negative speculation.

Since the sun wouldn't be on that side of the building for hours, Spike crossed to the window and moved the tarp so it prevented the dim light from reaching the bed. Almost immediately the air began to circulate and the room seemed cooler. Spike took a moment to admire the view and decide where to start. He went back to the bed and knelt near Xander. He blew a cool breath over the smooth, almost hairless skin over the boy's sternum and moved up to place feather-light kisses over the base of his neck. Working his way down the lax muscles of Xander's torso he licked and kissed with miniscule pressure until he reached the navel, in which he plunged his tongue. Xander began to stir, his hands reaching blindly for Spike in an attempt to pull him up to face him. Spike had another goal in mind but skimmed up his lover's body, brushing his lips up along Xander warm skin, sensing the blood which pulsed beneath it and let himself be pulled into a full deep kiss. The boy was struggling to rid Spike of his tee shirt, so Spike pulled back to skin out of both it and his jeans.

Xander, still heavy lidded with sleep and now pushing a full bottom lip out as he sulked because Spike had pulled back to undress, couldn't possibly know the wantonly precious picture he presented to his mate. Spike laughed and kissed away the pout. He started to trace his path downward again, fully intending not to be dissuaded from his goal again. Spike lightly tongued the head of Xander's erection before moving down the shaft to its base. He realized that the boy was throwing off his morning stupor when Xander spread his thighs to allow him better access. As a reward for that unasked-for assistance, Spike first sucked one testicle and then the other into his mouth. Xander, true to form, wasn't making much sense, but the babbled words brought a smile to Spike's busy mouth. He was more amused by Xander's continuing effort not to be mute during sex than by any particular blurb of thought that tripped off the boy's lips.

Xander grabbed one of Spike's hands, apparently frustrated by his inability to convey meaning by words, and slapped a tube of lube into it. Spike would have taken a moment to ponder how the boy had reached this and wonder if he had hidden it under a pillow anticipating an early morning assault, if not for the boy's rather fervent insistence that Spike fuck him now. Xander might not be up to speaking, but never let it be said that Spike's boy wasn't a born communicator. As soon as Xander had relinquished the lube to Spike he had grabbed both of his knees and lifted them up almost to his ears. Spike would have to be thick indeed not to get that message. Spike laughed with his mouth full and began quickly preparing Xander with practiced ease.

By the time he was ready to enter Xander, the boy was rather vocal in his encouragement and his request for the shagging to start. At least that was what Spike thought he was trying to say. As he pushed into Xander, wrapping his painfully hard cock in tight blood-warm tissue, and began thrusting into his eager lover, Spike wondered if Xander's affliction was contagious. He knew words of endearment and possession were tumbling out of his mouth, but had no idea what he was saying. Spike hoped Xander was too far gone, too lost in lust and passion to take offense at his possessive terms. Spike did know he was saying 'my' and 'mine' quite a bit, and that contrary to the last twelve hours, Xander would call him on that. Xander had some inner sense which seemed to make him very protective of Spike's pride. That was what most likely had prevented him from protesting the vampire's actions when they'd had an audience.

Xander came hard against Spike. The come dripped down and soon they were both drenched in the scent of sex. Spike had watched Xander ride his orgasm and for a moment wondered if the boy had lost consciousness as his gaze unfocused and his mouth slackened. But before he could consider what the human etiquette would be regarding coming in your unconscious lover, intelligence returned to those deep brown eyes and a sated smile brought Spike over the edge. Spike came and collapsed over Xander's body. Instantly he was wrapped in the warm arms and legs. He loved when Xander enfolded him like this. He had no breath to catch and could have rolled off the panting boy, but was reluctant to give up this quiet, perfect moment.

All too soon Xander would be off to work. Spike knew the boy enjoyed his job. Spike stopped by the site once to scope out the competition and let them know Xander was taken. Xander seemed completely unaware that it might be unusual that the crew of workmen and the staff in the office turned to him to make the decisions. They all looked to a boy barely out of his teens to handle the day to day dilemmas of managing a million-dollar site. Five years of facing the end of the world on an almost weekly basis tended to trivialize a mucked up order or a couple of workers who couldn't seem to get along.

Spike had used his enhanced senses to overhear one of Xander's office girls telling another how the owner of the company marveled at Xander's ability to work under pressure. She had said that it was hard to remember how young he was. And that the reason he had his position had less to do with the boss accommodating a favored worker than his quick and life saving handling of a fatal crisis that had occurred shortly before Buffy had died. Spike wished he could question Xander about it without giving away that he had been checking up on him. All he had gathered from his eavesdropping was that some city workers had been performing routine maintenance on a water main under the street that ran in front of the construction when a pipe had exploded. One man was killed instantly and another seriously burned, as it was a gas main that exploded.

The site had been in chaos as flaming chunks of human flesh had accompanied the metal and concrete shrapnel, which injured two of the construction workers who had been eating their lunches near the edge of the site. Xander had strode into the melee shouting orders. He had sent someone to call 911 and had called for the one man on the site he knew had some first aid training from the National Guard. He organized a triage and used site material to block off the street until the fire trucks had arrived. Spike wasn't surprised that Xander's quick action had saved lives. He didn't think it was odd that adults with more experience looked to his boy for guidance; Xander was a natural leader.

Xander however, had never shared this particular story with anyone, as far as Spike knew. That was unusual. Xander was a born storyteller. He loved to make his friends laugh or have Dawn sitting on the edge of her seat asking 'then what?'. Thinking about it Spike admitted to himself; Xander's stories were always about someone else. About Buffy, about the Scoobies, but they were never just about Xander, what Xander did, how Xander felt.

Spike reveled in Xander's soft, stroking touches. He put his weight on his hands and lifted himself to look into those warm loving eyes. He was surprised that the smile was sharing space with traces of tears and lifted one hand to trace the tracks.

"You're a part of me." Xander said, and Spike was transported to that first empty aching morning after Buffy had died and the boy trying to explain love to the silently grieving girl. "You're in my heart." Xander caressed the side of his face, and Spike figured he had been forgiven his few overly possessive words.

Best to see if he could get forgiven in advance for the that alarm which was about to ring. "Good, because you're going to be quite cross with me, Pet." He spoke softly, trying to control any waver Xander's words might have put in his voice.

"What did you do?" Too bad there wasn't time for a spanking. Xander sounded like he would do him proper, even if he looked like he might start laughing. Well, since we don't have time for him to stay cross, let's see if I can make him laugh.

"Me, Pet?" Xander had repeatedly told him that the sight of a vampire trying to look innocent was possibly the most unbelievable sight he had ever seen and began to snicker.

"Did you dust Angel?" The stern voice was belied by the fact that the bed now shook with Xander's silent laughter. The alarm clock picked that moment to go off loudly. Xander winced and reached for it with another adorable pout.

"That's why you'll be cross, luv. Bit of bad timing on my part." Spike smirked and kicked the beautiful body out of bed and rolled himself up in the Xander-scented softness. This was one of the non-shagging perks of not living in the crypt.

The rest of their apartment sported mostly Xander's dorm-room-style furniture with assorted odds and ends, including some that Spike had picked up in various mausoleums and junkyards, but the bed was a nearly new queen size. Xander had splurged to celebrate his escape from the basement of doom. Xander, in his storyteller mode, had told him that Anya had found it listed amoung the items in an estate sale. He had then proceeded to impersonate the old man he had bought it from and his reaction to Xander showing up with Buffy to help him haul it back to his apartment.

"Have a good day at work, dear." Spike said, calling Xander's attention to how comfortable he was. He was evil, after all, and it didn't harm the boy to rub in that he would be able to sleep all day.

"Not fair!" Xander knelt back on the bed and kissed his forehead. Despite the groan he had offered in response to Spike's words, his eyes were still lingering on the blonde's naked body and Spike considered how much encouragement it would take to lure the boy back to bed. Before he could act on his half-formed plot, his beautiful boy whispered, "You never have bad timing. Even if we had had all night, I still wouldn't want to leave." No, the boy was never eloquent, his words were never flowery or stilted with practiced formality, but every one rang true. Xander never offered what he thought Spike wanted to hear just to placate him, or to get his own way. He teased and argued but when he spoke with quiet conviction, Spike always knew he meant every word.

Xander turned back before entering the bathroom and asked, "It would be wrong to ditch the Angelenos and spend the whole weekend in bed, wouldn't it?"

All thoughts of tempting the boy to stay home from work left him; Spike knew that Xander would just blame himself if he did. So he said, "You're asking me what the right thing to do is? That's rich, Pet." Spike stayed very still, watching as his sweet boy leaned against the doorway frame and frowned down at the floor.

"No, I know what's right." Xander said with a sigh and sounded reluctant to go. "I just I guess I'm selfish."

That was it. Spike was by the boy's side in a moment, pulling the warm body into a comforting, rather than lascivious, embrace. He cooed words of encouragement to his young lover. As soon as this latest threat to the Hellmouth was settled the boy was taking some down time, even if Spike had to hit him over the head to make him. Twenty was too young to be shouldering the kind of responsibility Xander handled, and admittedly handled well, on a daily basis. The boy needed a vacation, one not involving saving the world or fighting for his life and by all that was unholy Spike would see that he took one. After sharing a tender kiss, Xander was showered and shaved and out of the apartment in under half an hour.

After a brief shower, Spike readjusted the tarp to block any future light that might come while he slept and snagged the peacock blue sheet from the floor and shook it out, draping it over the bed. Many equally eye-piercing pillows were tossed about the room and Spike threw them in pairs against the headboard. Then, he curled back up in the sadly empty bed.

Ever since the shopping expedition the witches had been giving Xander brightly colored pillows at a rate of about one a week. Xander would suspiciously thank them and find a home for the newest addition; so far he hadn't connected it to Spike.

It had all started back when Dawn had organized the 'keep America beautiful by doing something about Xander's wardrobe' campaign. Willow had given Xander the 'throw of many colors' for a house-warming present when he moved in and it was prominently displayed in the living room. Standing in line with Spike at the food court she had confided in him that it was all part of her strategy for satisfying Xander's love of bright clashing colors in a non-publicly humiliating way.

Spike had enjoyed her open-mouthed amazement when he had reminisced about his mum's good parlor with its lilac print wall paper and apple green draperies. He had told her that modern Americans' insistence on neutral décor was a sign of their inability to commit. They were so sure they were going to sell the house that they never wanted to risk bold, bright colors. He had told her that in his day the clothes were more neutral because the laundry facilities were primitive but that the houses, inside and out, were beautiful, with all the colors of a garden.

Since by then she was looking at him as if he were speaking in tongues, he had suggested that she may have better luck getting Xander to part with his riotous shirts if she talked him into painting his apartment something other than the standard off-white. Spike missed the fun he had had pulling Willow's chain before she caught on that there was something between Xander and him. Of course, now he could share with her the details on the creative uses he and his pet had found for all those extra pillows.

To be fair, even before Red had known they were together, she had never let him get away with putting Xander down, even when the boy was not around. She was very protective of Spike's boy. Spike, surprisingly, didn't mind. He should have; it wasn't in a demon's nature to tolerate anyone being close to his mate. Red was different. Spike knew she loved the boy but he didn't consider her a threat, and he wasn't discounting her as a potential rival for Xander's affection just because she was 'doing spells with Tara'. Red was better at some things, more sensitive. She was very attentive to Xander's feeling, even when the boy didn't want to talk.

Although Spike would die, so to speak, for his boy, he was often the cause of Xander's emotional pain. Spike knew he ran roughshod over the boy's ego and insecurities. He cursed himself loud and long, but couldn't help blundering over the human's tender feelings. Red was always willing to not only tell Spike how he had fucked up, but to offer help at setting it right. She doted on both of them and he had overheard her refer to them as her boys, which was amusing, since Spike was older than her great-grandfather was. She would talk to Xander for hours on the phone until he finally gave up and told her everything. Though her only excuse for Spike's prickly nature was 'that's Spike', she would come to the shop and drag Spike into the back to tell him exactly what he had done wrong. They were two stubborn men and would sulk, refusing to speak of their deepest hurts, but Willow always knew when to remind them how good what they had was, and how empty their lives had been without each other.

Thinking this over, Spike thought it might be best to have Willow present if Angel ever got around to bending Xander's ear about how insane it was to be with Spike.

He sighed and buried his face in Xander's pillow, inhaling the boy's warm scent, still tasting him in his mouth. How close had he come last night to screwing this all up for good? What would have happened if he and Angel had thrown down right there in Joyce's living room? Red had saved him again. He snorted as he remembered the look on Angel's face when she had said, "Oh, there you are," and sat next to them as if they almost copulated in front of her every day. Well, they did, but she never remained that calm. Normally she blushed and stammered and backed out of the room. That was fun, too.

Spike wasn't sure when he had fallen asleep, or how long he had slept when he woke to both a loud pounding on the door and the continuous ringing of the doorbell. Scowling at the clock, he saw that it was only eleven thirty. He stomped naked to the door. He was tempted to yank open the door full-monty, but that would have violated rule number three, so he checked the peephole. Oh! Look! A pissed-off Sire. Since most of the neighbors were at work, he opened the door anyway, in flagrant disregard of rule number three, and placed one hand on the inside of the frame and the other on his hip. Well, that stopped the bloody bell.

"What?" Spike snapped, before Angel had had a chance to recover.

Angel closed his eyes, shook his head, opened his eyes and said, "You're naked."

"I'm also a bleeding vampire. Did you come all this way just to stand around stating the obvious?" Of course Spike knew the answer to that, but it felt good to have the great and powerful Angelus at a loss.

"Why are you naked, Spike?"

Oh, do use the 'Spike's a moron' tone, that'll work. "Because there is a fucking heat wave," Spike snarled. "Only undead nancy-boys like you prance around in bloody great trench coats when the humans are dropping in their tracks from heat prostration."

"Spike, this is Xander's apartment." Angel was now leaning one forearm against the invisible barrier across the door and looking past Spike at what he could see from the door.

"Oy! I know that. I know I'm a vampire. I know I'm naked. And I know who lives here." Spike turned and headed back to the bedroom, he called over his shoulder. "Why are you here? Not in the metaphysical sense, not in the why are you in Sunnyhell--got that-vision--why are here as in why are you standing there," Spike voice was muffled as he pulled a tee shirt on and came out of the bedroom in an unbuttoned pair of jeans, "tossing off and telling me things I already know? And for that matter why are you here at this unholy hour?"


"Oh, come in."

Angel narrowly saved himself from diving face first onto the floor tiles of the small entrance area when Spike interrupted him.

Spike snickered at the sight and made a mental note to have Red do the de-invite spell soon.

"You really live here? I thought you were just..." Angel's voice trailed off as he took in the eclectic decor, which mixed both Spike and Xander's tastes.

"You just stop by for a cuppa? Want to reminisce about the good ol' days?" Spike asked as he pulled his boots out from under an end table and started to pull them on. As an afterthought he added, "Or are you trying to steal my Xander?"

"I'm working on a case." Angel said through gritted teeth. "This is important. We," he paused significantly to indicate Spike had no choice in the matter, "are going to shake down as many of the local demon haunts as it takes to find out if anyone new is in town." Crossing his arms, Angel leaned against the living room wall. He looked down at Spike and added, "That is, if you're serious about helping."

Spike snorted. "If it'll get your fat arse out of my town any quicker, I'll sing a bleeding Manilow medley while tap dancing on the Hellmouth. Red's a dandy little source of information now that she and the Prom Queen check in once a week since Harmony's visit.

Spike followed Angel out the door. Angel lifted an eyebrow, which was a drastic change in facial expression for the brooding one, when Spike used his key to lock the deadbolt, but said nothing. It was a good thing that Angel had stopped by, Spike thought, but he didn't voice that opinion. Any source Angel might have had from two years ago was most likely relocated to another hellhole, if it was still around at all.

Glory had shattered the whole infrastructure of demon society with her join-or-die attitude. With the way her little power play had ended there had been no way that either of those choices were healthy. She or her followers had eradicated most who had hidden or flat out refused to join, and now her minions and followers were all but obliterated. In the weeks since she and the Slayer had perished, Sunnydale had become much like the Wild West; everyone was looking over their shoulder for the new sheriff to come to town.

When Angel had lived here, the power structure had been moderately fixed due to the Master's and the Mayor's long term residency. Now empires were built in one night and tumbled down the next. It wasn't even the loss of a Slayer which had caused the upheaval; Nature abhorred a vacuum, and this was all just part of natural selection. What caught Angel's attention, judging by the looks he was shooting at Spike every time they entered a new squat or bar, was Spike's obvious high rank in whatever pecking order was being established. Spike thought about pointing out that briefly, before coming up with the brilliant idea to kick Alcathla in the ass, Angelus had been Master of the Hellmouth, but decided to save it for when the poof was riding out of his town.

As they walked in silence along the tunnel leading back toward the magic shop, Angel sighed and said, "You're insane." He spoke softly and sounded tired, which may have been why Spike didn't feel inclined to snap at him. Spike didn't answer; he just lit up a smoke and let Angel say his piece. "How long do you think you can hold it? I mean..." he trailed off, no longer even sounding exasperated, just worried and exhausted, and a little like the Sire who had taught him hunting tricks and explained in that soft brogue that he had to learn more and faster than other Childer because Dru would always depend on him.

Which was why Spike answered at all. Even with this souled-up version of his Sire he knew better than to show any weakness to another demon, so it was a hard glare that answered Angel's searching look. Spike said in a cold voice, "Whatever it takes. I'll do whatever it takes. I protect what's mine."

He glared until Angel looked away. That glare held Dru, and Buffy, countless betrayals and all the blood between them, bad and otherwise. It was a different story when they got back to the shop. When they got back to the shop, Xander wasn't there.

"He said he was going shopping!" The prom queen gave her chin a quick lift, up and back, as if she still had long hair to fling about. She drummed her perfect nails against the surface of the table and had the nerve to stare down Spike while he was in game face. "Now shoo, I have work to do."

"Spike, leave Cordelia alone." Angel emphasized his request by grabbing Spike by the back of the collar of his tee shirt and forcibly escorting him into the back of the store.

Neither his Sire nor the girl seemed at all concerned that Xander was late. This was past the time he normally came in from work. Giles was mumbling something about sixty pizzas. Angel's Watcher had barely glanced up from the book he was reading when Angel had inquired about his newest minion. The Brit hadn't calmed Spike in the least when he had replied, "I believe he is still with Xander. They left some time ago." Spike's perfectly normal reaction, wanting to interrogate the others about where Xander had gone and when he would be back, was, for some unfathomable reason, pissing off Angel.

So now he and his poofed-up Sire were back to growling and pushing each other around-there's progress. They had moved the shoving match out of sight of the steady stream of humans who were out in the store's front room.

" t..this a bad time?" Tara stood hesitantly in the doorway of the training room, her voice was even more quiet than usual. She looked about to cry and both vampires took a tentative step in her direction. Angel, of course, was instantly contrite and shifted to his human face.

Spike leveled a glowing glare at the witch and barked out through fangs, "Where's Xander?"

"I j..just talked to him." The blond witch stepped forward and took Spike's hand. "He should be back soon, he has a phone-do you want me to call him?"

"No." Spike shifted back out of game face. "What the hell is going on?" Spike scowled toward the front room, indicating all the activity. Angel looked nonplussed that this young woman seemed unconcerned by his snarling, dangerous Childe.

Tara shrugged, "Xander set this up. Cordelia said she had no idea that he knew how to get in touch with all these people." Tara stroked his arm and added softly, but not softly enough to keep Angel from hearing, "We have got to get you a phone. I'm sure Xander wanted to call you, but you were out killing things. Ah...Were you? Killing things? Did you find out..?"

"Nah," Spike stopped gnashing his teeth and really looked at the shy witch. This was more than her normal nervousness around all these strangers. With his free arm he reached up and rubbed her back. "Where's Red? Thought you two were joined at the hip?" He offered her a leer and found it disturbing when she returned a weak smile and seemed to be reassured by it.

"We split up, to cover more ground. She should be here soon. I...I...Spike," she swallowed hard. Spike smelled no fear, but there was uncertainty, sadness, and a helplessness he hadn't sensed from her since shortly after Buffy had died. Her nails bit into his arm and she looked almost as if she were ashamed. "Spike, I ran into Riley. He's back."

Spike snarled and pulled away from the witch. He ripped the heavy bag off of its chain and sent it crashing into the wall. Angel first moved to restrain him and then seemed to think more clearly and stood back, then tried to stop Tara from getting closer.

Spike saw red, lost in the memory of Buffy and how utterly distraught she had been at how she and the soldier boy had left it. The unresolved status of their relationship had caused her a great deal of pain. Finn hadn't contacted her for her birthday, or when Joyce had died. After he had claimed to love her, he had disappeared without looking back. Xander showed more concern for the ex-demon and she hadn't been worthy to have Buffy wipe her feet on her. As far as Spike was concerned, the Slayer had gone to her grave blaming herself for far too many things. Finn's departure shouldn't have been one of them. He was weak and that weakness had endangered her and her minions. If Spike had had a hook like that when cutting his deal with Adam he would have had the chip out long ago; on the downside, Frankendemon would be master of the Hellmouth. The thought of Xander's pet name for Maggie Walsh's favorite son stopped Spike short.

This was not good. He was likely the only one to whom Xander had shown his real feelings regarding the commando. Xander valued loyalty. The boy might forgive a betrayal to himself but was fiercely protective of his 'pack'. Xander hadn't known the whole story when Riley left. Gradually, over time, he had realized exactly what Buffy had meant in her sobbing and fragmented references to their break up. Spike cleared up the last details for him one night on patrol shortly before they had become lovers. Xander's response hadn't been the white-hot rage that he had leveled against Angel for sweeping into town and frightening Dawn and threatening Spike, it had been a loud, scathing tirade. Xander had paced between the tombstones, treating Spike to his quick-witted sarcasm and dead on impersonations. He had played out scenario after scenario of how Riley's 'vampire Russian roulette' could have killed all of them. It was only later, after Spike had finished his sardonic snickering, that he realized what he had witnessed. If you peeled away the comedy routine and looked past the Sunnydale-speak, the boy had boiled down the various elements of the situation and analyzed every way that Finn's 'addiction' could have been used by an opponent. His Xander had one of the best senses of strategy Spike had ever come across. No, this was not going to be good, but Spike gleefully anticipated the meeting of those two.

"Let go," Tara barely whispered at the large strange man who had grabbed her arm. Wouldn't Red and Xander be pleased that she stood up for herself. Even such feeble resistance must have cost the shy one quite a bit. Angel let go and Tara slipped past. She placed a palm against Spike's rumbling chest. She didn't flinch from his yellow-eyed glare as she spoke. "I'm sorry. I'm so bad at this. It was worse with Riley. It was like I sucker punched him. I didn't mean to tell him about Buffy-not like that. But he knew as soon as he looked....Oh God, then he asked about Joyce...." Tears filled the little blonde witch's eyes and her breath came in gasps. "Spike....I couldn't have hurt him more if I tried."

Good! Cheering would be in bad form, so Spike pulled the weeping girl into his arms. He rubbed her back and said, "There, there, little bit." The deep rumbling purr that vibrated through him had nothing to do with this warm body in his arms. This sweet child had hurt Finn far more than he could have. Spike gave outward comfort to Red's girl, while drinking in the satisfaction of Finn's pain.

"Find Red." Spike mouthed the words at the great gaping poof while Tara sobbed against his chest. After a brief look of confusion, Angel exited the practice room while Spike continued to make soothing noises.

Spike wondered if his mate knew that Finn was in town, but figured that if Tara had just spoken to Xander that he probably did. Spike had never shared the little stake-through-the-heart story with Xander. In the beginning, before they were together, he had figured Xander wouldn't care and later he feared Xander would take some drastic action against Finn. Not that Spike cared if Finn lived or died, or thought Xander couldn't handle the walking biology experiment. But Spike worried that once Xander had hurt the commando, he would blame himself. The boy took on too much guilt and worry as it was; Spike wasn't having that blood-junkie burden his pet with his death.

Willow was suddenly there, smelling of melon shampoo, and gathered her girlfriend into her arms. As she steered Tara toward the stairs leading down into the storeroom, Willow called out over her shoulder. "I got beau coupe hot plates, but Laura said there isn't good ventilation in the kitchen. Angel, will you help Spike rig up some sort of table in here?"

They were gone before Angel finished stammering out his affirmative. In response to Angel's questioning look Spike said, "Well, I'm not following those two down there and that's the only place I can think of to get a table."

"There's an old door out in that dumpster we were hitting each other with. At least it was there last night," Angel said.

Due to rampant sunlight, they ended up having Wesley and Jonothan drag the door into the shop, leaving it for the vampires to clean it and assemble some sort of work surface. The witches had yet to come up the stairs and the prom queen was making dire threats as to what she would do to Xander when he finally got back. Jonothan kept bringing bags, boxes and crates into the back. They contained everything from first aid supplies and cases of soda to fire axes and wooden javelins.

Spike had heard from Dawn shortly after going to bed that morning. She had been at Megan's and called to say they were going over to Stephanie's. The nibblet was amazingly tolerant of the group's overprotectiveness, but tended to treat them all as one entity at times. She would tell one of them what her plans were and where she was, and assume that meant that the rest of them knew. It had led to some laughable incidents of miscommunication.

Laughable with hindsight; not so amusing when he and Xander had tracked her to the fitting roomat Old Navy--by scent--in the crowded mall. It still had been hard to explain to the startled pack of teenage girls why he had cast no reflection. Only in Sunnydale could Xander's babbled explanation of 'it's a new security mirror, I've heard that sometimes happens' have been met with nods of agreement and one girl actually saying she had seen a segment on the Discovery Channel about it. As Xander had pointed out, it could have been worse. At least Old Navy had coed-fitting rooms-twenty minutes later and it would have been The Limited. Spike snorted to himself, earning him a sharp, wary look from Angel, and thought what they ought to assemble in the practice room was a detailed, wall-sized map with a big, movable red 'X' for 'Dawn is here'.

Xander was back. Spike wondered if he had smelled him or heard him. All he was sure of was that he sensed it just before hearing two doors shutting on a large vehicle out in the alley and the sound of feet hitting the ground from a height. Spike closed his eyes and tried to sort though the abundant and varied information that his enhanced senses offered him. Normally he let his brain process the myriad sensations without thought as to what signal had been interpreted to draw any given conclusion, but it was important to him to know if he had sensed his mate's arrival on a physical level, or if they were connected in a less mundane way by some sense he had never yet used. He was lost in this contemplation when warm hands slid around his waist and Xander pulled him flush against his long, lean frame. Spike was surrounded by the scent of sunlight and bathed in the heady aroma of Xander. For a moment the boy paused and seemed with his limited human senses to drink in Spike's scent, and take comfort from embracing his cool tight body.

Xander's breath ghosted along Spike's neck, sending ripples of desire after it as 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?"

Adorable! He's flirting in right in front of Angel and his minion. Guess that'll let them know what they can't have. "Try it. Maybe Peaches will volunteer," Spike teased, knowing that even in a low whisper Angel heard every word. Take that, you big poof, told you he was mine... Hold on. He was where? "Groceries?" Pet, I love you, but I wish you came with instructions in English, or at least a translator.

"Well," Xander smirked and nipped at Spike's ear. "Most of what we got are the ingredients to bake a cake, zombie style, along with a few party favors." Maybe there are Cliff Notes?

"Xander, I think you may want to talk to Cordelia," Angel said. Spike glared at him but refused to rise to the bait. Spike was perfectly secure in having the great looming fairy talk to his Xander. He would have been just as secure if Xander's arms weren't tightly holding his back flush with the boy's warm chest.

Xander didn't even look at the poof; he was still nuzzling Spike's neck when he murmured against it, "What? She doesn't like being worshipped by the masses?" Then he released Spike.

The look in Xander's eyes as his gaze traveled up Spike's body to finally meet his eyes spoke of longing and need. The boy looked tired as well as horny. Xander swallowed audibly. Spike could see his randy lad struggle against his libido and firmly throttle it into place. To break the thick air of desire which had settled between them in that heated look Xander rapped his knuckles against the door and asked, "What's this for?"

While Spike was updating Xander on the recent activity at the shop, they were interrupted by an angry cheerleader. Xander calmed her with a few words and sent the new boy out with Angel's minion to string up a tarp between the truck and the back entrance to the shop. Soon they were alone, accompanied only by the poof, who feigned interest in the piles of supplies, while Spike looked at Xander-really looked. The boy looked tired, not worked-all-day-slayed-all-night-let's-spend-the-weekend-in-bed tired, but running on reserves, nothing but caffeine and sugar tired. For too long Xander had been writing his body IOU's for sleep and living on take out food. Spike vowed to take better care of his mate-if they made it through until tomorrow.

"You all right, Pet?" Spike asked, reaching over to cup Xander's face and rub his thumb along his boy's stubbled jaw. A flash of loss and confusion and perhaps the desire to curl up in Spike's arms and shut away the world crossed the suddenly pain-filled brown eyes before Xander tried to answer.

It wasn't hard for Spike to follow Xander's disjointed and fragmented answer. The boy was overwhelmed, not by the actions he was taking but by their anticipated consequences. Spike pulled him into a tight embrace, and over Xander's shoulder watched realization steal over his Sire's face. This young man, who had done more about this most recent crisis in the past twenty-four hours than all the rest of them dithering about, had been two years younger when he put the same children he had raced around the playground with in the front lines and watched them die. And now he was doing it again. This time he lacked the naivete of believing that he could keep them all alive. He had to go into this battle knowing that if he lived through it he would most likely have more blood on his hands. Spike could give a rat's ass about the lunchables of Sunnyhell, but Xander would feel every injury, every death, with his whole being.

Spike waited until Xander finished lamenting. Spike wasn't sure if he had been talking about graduation or now when mentioned not having a chance in hell, but decided now was not the time to indulge Xander's tendency to assume responsibility for events he had no control over. He loosened his hold and looked deep into Xander's eyes. Spike spoke low and soothing but with firm conviction. "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."

It was the right thing to say and earned him a kiss and a thank you. After another interruption, this time from Xander's blood dealer friend--who apparently insulted Angel by treating him like a vampire--Xander sent Angel to round up the others for a strategy session. Spike watched Xander blink and nod while the crazy red-haired bint explained how to make explosives out of common household chemicals. When Xander said, "Okay, great," Spike was convinced the boy hadn't understood a word. Spike shadowed his mate as he went from one person to the next, calming and instilling confidence with a wide smile and a few joking words. No wonder he had caught Angel watching his Xander so intently-this was not the same boy he had left here two years ago. Spike glared at Angel the next time he saw him looking at Xander, but received only a blank look in reply.

* * * * *

The office had been crowed enough when it had only held Spike and Angel and their Watchers. Now it also had to accommodate Xander and his witches and Angel's other two minions. The witches shared a chair, easily fitting side by side with their tiny frames. Cordelia sat on Angel's new minion's lap and paid far too much attention to Xander as he spread out blueprints of a parking garage on Giles' desk. Whatever the witches had done to the office made it resonate like a cavernous space. It was eerily silent. As soon as the door had shut, all sound coming from outside had ceased. Even with his vampiric hearing Spike couldn't hear the ringing phone, the complaint-rock blaring out of the boom box or the general hubbub of all the humans milling around the store. Other than the sound of Xander paging through sheets on a clipboard and the shifting of too many people in too small a space, there was nothing. Spike unobtrusively maneuvered to stand immediately behind Xander-not so much watching over his shoulder as blocking the view of his ass from Angel's Watcher.

Spike suffered a fleeting moment of panic when Red said she hadn't been able to reach the nibblet. It was instantly quelled when the witches assured them they could locate her at any time by magic, even if someone was trying to shield her location. Xander never ceased to surprise him. After the fitting room incident Spike had gone off on a rant about how vulnerable the nibblet was and how he could track her physically but that there was mojo that could bollocks that up. Xander had not only listened, but also acted on Spike's observations.

The others now listened to him as he outlined the sketchy information obtained from all their various sources and drew a conclusion that silenced and frightened them all. Red, for the first time since Glory, looked about ready to give up when Xander pointed out that all the signs indicated that the Initiative was back.

In her half-hearted attempt at humor she asked Xander if they had time to implement the 'Omega Plan'. For the second time in a matter of moments Spike realized Xander had taken his randomly articulated fears and formed a planned defense to be used should the circumstances of his speculation ever materialize. Only once had Spike worried out loud that the reason Dawn had been sent to a Slayer was that the Powers That Be had determined that only a Slayer could keep her safe. After all, they hadn't put her in a one-time protection role; had Buffy lived she would have guarded her, like family, for the rest of her life. Yet again his young military genius had anticipated the end of the world and taken steps to prepare a defense.

The looks on Angel's and his minions' faces were priceless as Xander casually informed them that they had the means to break the other Slayer out of prison at any time the situation warranted risking her psychotic behavior.

It was amusing to watch his Sire wrap his souled-up mind around the fact that this was Xander's town, and that while most of the demons of the Hellmouth acknowledged Spike as its Master, it was Xander who ran the show.

Spike wasn't like Angelus. He had never desired power or status. Spike was in no mood to cut a deal with something bigger and badder than himself, for a part in the greater evil. Angelus had always been making and breaking deals. He had been all wrapped up in whatever endgame would occur between good and evil, desiring to be one of the major players. Why? What more was there to undeath than what Spike had? All the blood he wanted, violence ensuing at a moment's notice, minions he could trust who were smart and capable, and a mate who was a great shag and had a gift for mass destruction.

The conference was interrupted when Xander took a call from one of his minions. All Xander's preparations made sense now that the Initiative was in town. Once off the phone, Xander briefly outlined what was happening all over Sunnydale at that time and what the result would be. A few clipped orders, given out regardless of whether they were issued to a member of the LA crew or the Sunnydale group, kicked off an organized evacuation of the magic shop. Spike watched to see if Angel would protest Xander's usurping of his minions. Just when it looked as if he would speak Xander used the word 'bombs' and both Angel and his pet Watcher suffered a brain meltdown.

After sending the rest out to start the evacuation, Xander asked Spike and Angel to come with him. The inclusion of Angel forestalled Spike's hope for a pre-battle shag, but he eagerly anticipated Xander's next move. Angel may not like Xander's unpredictable actions, but Spike loved them. Spike blinked in disbelief when Xander presented both of them with long black suits of heavy material. Xander brooked no protest from either of the vampires and quickly explained why he had procured the thermal suits. Spike remembered how quickly the soldier boys had followed the tracking device implanted in him before it had been removed, and how they had efficiently located the single walking corpse in a dorm full of warm-blooded humans. He was touched that Xander had taken such precautions to remove that advantage from their adversaries. Xander quickly overrode Angel's protest and Spike listened gleefully as his mate put the poof in his place. Xander's words to the souled one--reminding Angel that the possession of a soul did not make one a saint--were moving not by the literal content but due to his belief in what he said. Xander was prepared to defend Spike, his pack, and the minions he had assembled from the remnants of his graduating class against all threats, be they human or not. The quiet conviction and steadfast loyalty of this man constantly reaffirmed Spike's choice. Xander was the perfect mate.

Unfortunately, being perfect, Xander could read Spike like a thirty-foot billboard and almost always knew what he was up to. Before Spike could even begin a round of Sire abuse, Xander dismissed him. He told Spike to change, check on Dawn and to fetch Red. Normally Spike would have made a token protest for the sheer enjoyment of bantering with Xander, but not now, and not in front of Angel. He knew Xander was under a great deal of pressure, and wouldn't risk undermining his authority.

That didn't stop him from eavesdropping on the two of them as soon as he rounded the corner. Spike wasn't sure what he expected to hear. Intellectually he knew Xander was right, that he was a 'goof' for thinking that Angel wanted his boy. But emotionally he was sure, that if Angel ever looked--really looked, past all the preconceived images he had of Xander in his head--and saw the man he had become that he would either try to take the boy from him or destroy the boy, as his Sire had done with everything Spike had ever cared for. Spike didn't know which he was least prepared to hear; Xander ask Angel if he could depend on him to kill if asked to, or Angel admitting that he feared he would be too able to kill and not able to stop. Angelus would never have admitted either the lack of control or that he feared anything. Spike decided that maybe he had underestimated both his Sire and his mate and went to check on Dawn.

* * * * *

Spike waited for Red to laugh. The thermal suit Xander had found for him fit like body paint and looked ridiculous. He considered how his lack of body temperature made him and those around him vulnerable to the soldier boys and admitted Xander did think of everything. Willow cocked her head and said, "It doesn't really look that different, except for the hood. You wear your clothes so tight anyway-not that I look."

Spike had found her downstairs directing Xander's minions on what to pack and what to leave. She followed him upstairs and walked with him to the front room. They found Xander leaning over a table reviewing details with Cordelia. Spike was distracted from the pleasant view of Xander's ass this pose presented when the girl turned to comment on something Xander had said and her lips almost brushed the boy's ear.

Xander turned at the sound of his growl, placed one palm flat against Spike's chest and began talking to Willow.

When had it happened? What magic had this beautiful dark-eyed man used to quiet his rage, to sate his blood lust? Spike wasn't even sure that it was the chip anymore. Xander's total lack of fear, the absolute trust he gifted the vampire with was like plunging that fire into a cool, calm pool. I like your way of moving, slip into my stillness-silence me.[14]

It was odd that this babbling boy should so bless him with silence, but that was the only word to describe the lack of rage and the fulfilled longings. Right now, he should be tearing his rival to bits. Yet, avoiding the pain of the chip wasn't what stopped him. Somehow Xander had figured out just when to accept Spike's reactions and when to protest. Xander was showing no more interest in Cordelia than in any actress on the telly. Even when curled against Spike after an exhaustive struggle for the remote, Xander sensed when it was safe to show appreciation for the female form and when to disinterestedly classify each as real, fake, or who cares?

Xander and Willow had dropped into an abbreviated conversation. Listening to them as he followed them back to the office Spike assumed he would have had to have known both of them from birth to decipher it. Their half-formed sentences were traded in rapid succession and Spike gave up attempting to translate when it started to sound as if they were discussing Willow's cat. Their words stopped and Willow looked nervous. She said she needed Tara and left.

Xander looked tired. His weary smile still warmed Spike. In spite of the pending battle, when Spike expected to be eager to get some of his own back at the Initiative, all the vampire wanted to do was lift the weight off his boy's shoulders; to take him home and shelter him from the world. Lock the door. Come to me naked. No one's here.[15] When this is over, you and me, pet, we're going to get you some rest, if I have to sit on you to keep you down. But Spike could think of other ways to keep his mate in bed, and to see he was too sated to leave it.

Xander reached for Spike's hand and taking it, pulled him close. Warm fingers traced the neckline of the thermal suit and played along the skin over his exposed collarbone as Xander familiarized himself with Spike's new look. Spike wondered if the others realized how much strain the boy was under, how personally he took the safety of each and every one of them. Sooner or later, no matter how well prepared Xander was, he would lose another one of his 'pack', and trying to anticipate when and how that would happen was killing the boy. Spike nuzzled Xander's hair, drinking in his scent. Xander flirted with a bashful look and suggestive words when he issued Spike's orders for the upcoming battle-Spike was to follow him and no matter what stay near. Not hard orders to follow, since that was what he had intended to do anyway.

Spike's instant agreement seemed to please Xander. It occurred to him that Xander might consider him a liability, since Spike couldn't fight humans-Spike didn't want that. He didn't want the boy looking out for him when Xander needed to be looking out for himself. He wondered why he wasn't enraged that a human, even his mate, thought he was weak. It was possible that the expected rage couldn't surface though the thick, blanketing fear which struck when Spike realized that he wouldn't be able to defend Xander-this enemy was human. It was one thing to risk this himself; even chipped Spike had never backed down from the solider boys. They could dust him but he would not let them break him. But Xander was unpredictable and Spike had witnessed just what lengths the boy would go to for the people he loved and of one thing Spike was confident-Xander loved him.

"You don't have to protect me. I know they're human but..."

"I know." Xander didn't sound patronizing or even concerned, he sounded sincere and certain.

Willow and Tara slipped into the office. Willow shut the door and Tara began to set out the supplies she had carried in in a large bowl. He started to ask what was going on after Willow had asked if they were ready, but was forestalled by Xander quiet, "Do you trust me?" Did he trust him? What kind of question was that? The man had trusted Spike with his love, his life, his pride and his 'pack'. Xander had opened up his very soul to Spike-not out of naivete, not out of some deluded fantasy that Spike was human. No, this frank young man knew exactly what Spike was and what he was capable of and held no false illusions. Yet still he had given Spike the one thing that had eluded him in life and in death. Requited love. Such a simple thing; those who had it probably assumed it was quite common. After almost a hundred and fifty years of looking, Spike knew differently. But if love itself was a blessing, being loved back was walking though the gates of Heaven. Trust Xander? Spike would drink holy water for the boy.

"I trust you."

Xander placed firm hands at Spike's waist and whispered, "Close your eyes, and stand perfectly still. Don't move until I say so."

Spike felt the boy rest his forehead against his own. The witches began to chant. It was a good thing that Xander held tight. His hot hands prevented Spike from twitching his hips to the rhythm and the light feel of his head resting against the boy's stopped him from pulling away from Red's soft, tingling touch. He smelled magic, strong magic, in the air. He had meant it when he had told Xander he would follow him though the gates of Hell, but the gates of Hell were familiar to a demon. One of Red's untried spells was an entirely different matter.

He longed to open his eyes and meet that warm brown gaze, but Xander had asked only two things of him-to stay still, and to shut his eyes. It was probably only a protection spell of some sort or maybe something to make it easy to find each other in the upcoming chaos. Xander had sounded serious about wanting Spike to stay near-as if that wasn't his first choice of where to be at any time. Anything the witches could do to keep Xander safe, or to keep him safe so that Xander wouldn't endanger himself by looking after him, was fine by Spike.

Spike had never stood still well, or waited, or been patient. Come to think of it neither had Xander, but the boy stood rock steady, almost holding his breath. Spike scented tension, nervousness and anticipation, but Xander had smelled that way all day. Spike tried to think of anything but staying still and Red's odd touch, which was making him nauseous. Vampires don't get nauseous, do they? He thought about Xander. He thought about taking Xander home and licking off the thin layer of salty sweat the day had left behind. He thought about starting at Xander's neck and working his way down across his chest, down over his abs then up along the inside of his thighs...

"Open your eyes." Xander was so close his eyes were Spike's world. Spike, not for the first time since these were his favorite eyes, watched as the muscle around the pupil expanded and contracted. He could see that the color of the iris was two entirely different shades of brown, lighter near the pupil and darker near the whites. He also saw that those eyes were slightly bloodshot both from the boy's sporadic sleeping pattern and his habit of rubbing them when stressed. When those beautiful, warm eyes looked toward Willow, Spike followed his gaze. Nestled in the witch's tiny, open palm was a small, light gray object. It took a moment before Spike realized it was the chip.

Spike stared at that small man-made harness which had caged him for so long. He blinked, realizing he should say something, and wondered just how long he had been contemplating the chip. The witches smelled nervous, with a subtle undercurrent of fear. Willow's hand wavered slightly from holding the chip out for his examination. Without speaking, Spike slowly lifted his hand to hers and instead of taking it, closed her hand into a fist so that he was no longer mesmerized by the sight of the chip. Spike was glad that Xander still had a firm hold on his hips. Wouldn't do your Big Bad image much good to swoon in front of the children, eh?

He leaned into Xander and nuzzled his hair, breathing in deep the scent of his lover. Since breathing was unnecessary he held that Xander-scented air in his undead lungs while he contemplated the emotions tainting his mate's musky essences. Xander was afraid, but judging by the minute changes Spike discerned in his scent, he was less worried about an unchipped Spike than he had been moments ago about the witches performing the spell. Xander's grip tightened; then the hand furthest, and most likely out of, the witches' sight moved south to cup Spike's ass while the other trailed up his torso and started carding Spike's hair.

"You okay?" His brown-eyed boy radiated concern and tenderness.

"Yes, Pet. I'm fine." Spike leaned into Xander's embrace to look into those eyes.

Xander's hand moved down to trace the angle of Spike's jaw. "The plan's the same. You stick with me. You watch both our backs. Under no circumstances do you give them the opportunity to get their hands on you. Are we clear on that?"

Spike tried to speak. The fierceness of Xander's naked concern stripped away Spike's usual bravado. Spike had yet to wrap his mind around the fact that the chip was gone. Spike had anticipated that if it was removed during Xander's lifetime he would have to convince the boy of his love all over again-prove that he wouldn't kill him and those who were his. Inconceivably, the young man who had spent the better part of his life as a defender of mankind now sounded ready to kill anyone who might harm Spike. It was too much to take in. For years Angelus had considered him expendable. He had been valued only for his ability to baby-sit Dru. Dru, sweet, mad Dru had expected him to protect her but had left Spike to pretty much take care of himself since he had been turned. Xander--human, fragile, ephemeral Xander--would move Heaven and Hell to give him the means to defend himself. Spike hoped the boy was satisfied with a nod, because that was all he was capable of at the moment.

The smile that greeted his nod was worth being caught speechless in front of the witches. Xander kissed him hard and in one of his characteristic lightning-fast mood swings said laughingly, "Places to go, people to kill. I'll meet you in the truck."

Before Spike could follow the boy's sudden exit, Willow touched his arm and said, "Spike? I...I need a minute, okay?"

Hoping to hide the fact that he was still reeling not only from the fact of his new found freedom, but from Xander's ready acceptance of his chipless state, Spike asked, "This the shovel talk?"

"No." She paused, considering what he just said and asked, "You know about that?"

"Xander told me to expect it-figured you would have got around to it weeks ago."

Spike carefully evaluated the nervous witch in front of him, who could produce sunlight with a word. One arm was behind her back, her hand tightly gripping the hand of her girlfriend. She was biting her lip and looking down at his boots. Slowly, so as not to startle either witch he lift one hand, gently placed his index finger under Willow's chin and tilted her head up until she was looking into his eyes. "Red?"

She took a deep breath and showed him what Xander called her 'resolved face'; the boy maintained that there was no arguing with the 'resolved face'. "Promise me.... you have to promise..."

Tears welled up in her eyes and Spike knew what she was going to ask--that he not kill, not feed--he had expected it. He knew that she was powerful enough to enforce that request, more powerful than any chip. The only alternative would be to kill her now, before she got her defenses up-still not a simple task with her mate's ready, wide-eyed attention on him. If he did kill her, he would lose Xander. Losing her like that would kill the boy--if it didn't, having to kill Spike would. Spike knew no matter how much it would hurt Xander, that the boy would kill him it he harmed Willow.

Tears started to slide down the witch's face that she impatiently brushed away, releasing Tara's hand as she did so. Swallowing hard and mastering her wavering voice with concern for her friend she continued, "If you leave, promise you'll tell him-don't just disappear like Anya. He'd imagine all kinds of things happening to you. So...if you're gonna just bail, and go back to Dru or...or whatever, you tell him first."

"I would never leave him." Spike abruptly cleared his throat and looked away. He had been so startled that he had answered in his original accent, which had earned him an even wider-eyed look from Tara. "Won't leave-he's mine." He shifted to game face to try to hide his raw emotions. "'Til I'm dust no power in this world or any other'll keep me from him. We clear on that?"

Red was bad enough, but that little blonde of hers saw far too much for Spike's comfort. Willow nodded and offered him a tiny smile through tear-filled eyes and said, "Clear." She stood on tiptoes and kissed his cheek, then left with her girlfriend.

Spike shifted to his human visage and looked down at his hands. They didn't look any different but now they could rend flesh, break bones, choke the breath out of his prey while it bucked and struggled. Hot rushing blood was his for the taking. He could pull any of those warm bodies out in the shop into the office and sink his fangs into the living, yielding flesh. All it would cost him was Xander.

There had always been consequences to killing and feeding. Spike had never before paid them any mind. Since Angelus had never succeeded in making Spike wary of the fact that humans could and eventually would fight back given enough proof that vampires did indeed exist, it would never be likely that fear of Angelus--the souled version--would be what stopped Spike from his indiscriminate carnage. The rage of his Sire had never swayed Spike from any course he decided to take. He knew after what Angel had done to Darla that blood ties alone would never protect him should his Sire realize the chip no longer harnessed Spike. No, even knowing the repercussions that it would cause among the humans and his Sire, the only thing that prevented Spike from bathing in the blood around him was Xander. Spike could blaze a blood-soaked path across the Hellmouth, but Xander would take the blame. Xander protected him, loved him, would die for him-but would also destroy him if Spike gave him no choice. Even knowing the act would destroy himself would not stop Xander from dusting Spike if he had to. That sweet loving man had an iron will and a warrior's heart. Spike could no more put the boy in that position than he could kill Xander himself. Right. You do realize we're both likely to be dead by sunrise? You're wasting valuable time with the boy. Plenty of time tomorrow to figure this out-if the world don't end.

Spike shook off his introspection, squared his shoulders and went out in search of his mate. As he wandered out into the front of the shop, a young woman consulting a palm pilot brushed past him and took over Rupert's office. Though the closed sign hung on the front door the bell above it jangled almost non-stop from the steady stream of young humans systematically evacuating the store. The prom queen stood in the center of the floor reigning over the grunt labor. Before Spike could ask where Xander was, the boy strode through the front door, haloed by the evening sun.

"Cordy, Jonothan, I want you to go with this load," he said.

"Xander." Exasperated, Cordelia gestured with a sheaf of paper at the surrounding hubbub.

"I need you to control the chaos at the beta site. I'll follow with the next load." Xander took the lists from Cordelia and she left with the other boy.

Spike paid less attention to how quickly Xander's orders were followed and concentrated on the long, lean, sun-kissed man who had issued them. Xander's shaggy locks were pushed back off of his face by his sunglasses which rested on his head. He had removed the work shirt he had had on all day and was now in only the white tank he had worn under it. It emphasized his broad shoulders and strong arms. The dark jeans he wore fit well and were worn old ones that he had stashed in the back of his closet as too small before Spike had started dressing him.

As the minions scrambled to do his bidding Xander only had eyes for Spike. The boy took one slow step toward him, bringing him out of the sunlight streaming in from the shop window. He stopped to watch his lover watch him and smiled shyly. Under Spike's intense concentration Xander took another step and then another. Once in arm's reach, he tentatively reached up cup his palm against Spike's cheek.

"We'll take the next truck," the boy said. "Do you remember your orders?"

"Had the chip removed, didn't I-s'not like I got brain damaged." Spike had meant that remark to drip with his trademark sarcasm, but it came out in a husky, bedroom whisper. Which surprisingly, in the general melee of the evacuation, earned him a full-blown Xander-grin, the final step forward, and a slow, passionate kiss.

* * * * *

They didn't take the next truck. There always seemed to be one more detail for Xander to take care of-one more person who needed to be reassured by the boy. When the young man who had helped with the dragon showed up he looked angry, but smelled scared. Spike guessed he was most likely worried about his bouncy, combustible-obsessed girlfriend's safety, since Xander had apparently given her free reign in the explosives department, against the scowling boyfriend's express orders. Spike didn't even get a chance to try out his chip-free brain before Xander had defused the situation with a look of wide-eyed innocence and a half-hearted joke. The two men put their heads together and devised a way to transport the volatile material. It made Spike wonder what the Rennie did in his spare time, besides mock jousting.

Once the redhead was firmly focused on her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's attention was monopolized by the explosives, Spike was finally able to get Xander to hop a ride on the U-haul's last trip. They had a few minutes alone in the dim back of the jostling truck, too few. Someone had cracked a glow stick, the kind humans used to mark trails when they went caving. Though it cast enough illumination for Xander to see alittle detail in the dim interior its soft orange radiance highlighted the boy quite well for Spike.

Xander slid down the locked door and, wedged among the food and first aid supplies, was able to lean back and seemed to be steeling himself against what might happen. There was so much Spike wanted to say to Xander, questions he needed to ask. Spike sat next to him. Reaching over, he pulled Xander's back flush with his chest and cushioned him from the jarring movement of the truck. Xander's eyes fluttered closed when Spike began to run his fingers though his hair. Judging by his even breaths Spike thought he might have fallen asleep if the truck hadn't started down the tight spiral of the parking garage's ramp.

Hearing the door unlock, Spike and Xander scrambled to stand. Light flooded the truck bed when the door opened. Looking out across the parking area Spike saw organized groups of minions stacking weapons and supplies. Runners came and went from a line of tables along the far wall, including the one he and Angel had assembled. As he and Xander stepped down to the floor, a contingent swarmed the truck and began to unload its contents. They had not walked the distance to the command tables when Spike heard the truck start again and turned to see it head for the lower level.

Humans wielding clipboards and Palm Pilots descended on Xander like a pack seeking the attention of their alpha. Xander held up one hand and instead of listening to them in turn snapped out his questions to the group.

"Are we secure?"

"Willow said it's set, she did it first thing," an overeager cheerleader type piped up.

"We have people watching our exits from six exterior vantage points," Jonothan said. "So far nothing about our base looks out of the ordinary."

"We have perimeter guards inside at all entries; they're in coveralls and posing as painters," said the sleek young man that Xander had said was a former teammate of his.

"How's our recon?"

"Screwed." Jonothan looked down at his clipboard and then offered, "This phone thing is even messing up the landlines. They work; our patrols just can't get to them 'cause everyone is using them."

Xander ran the fingers of both hands back through his hair and contemplated the garage and the people milling around it. He heaved a sigh then said, "Okay. Sunnydale is about to get hit by a fitness craze. Send the runners out in gym wear and have them lap the recon circuit and bring in verbal reports."

Jonathan peeled off from the group to implement his order.

"Infirmary?" Xander continued his shakedown of the site.

They circled the area three times. At first Spike thought Xander was indulging in some pre-battle superstition, or that the witch had him working some kind of spell. It was a kind of magic. Jittery, frightened young people saw Xander's sure and rolling gait and received his calm and optimistic smile and were transformed into quiet, determined men and women. Walking also served to dispel some of Spike's nerves-waiting had never been his strong suite.

While they walked along inspecting the preparations, Xander frequently brushed against Spike or lay a hand on his arm or shoulder, almost as if to reassure himself that Spike was still with him. Spike was with him, all right. Even under the smell of stale carbon monoxide and various leaked automotive fluids, Xander's scent teased at Spike's limited self control. Spike longed to throw the boy up against the wall and bury himself in his body. He imagined sinking his teeth into the tense corded muscle above Xander's collarbone and felt himself salivate. The drive to finally claim his mate, publicly--to mark him for all to see--was beating against Spike's higher brain functions like the fluttering wings of an endless flock of birds.

After another check-in with his administrative officer, Xander took them off in search of Willow and the others. About halfway to the infirmary Spike managed to ask the question that the removal of the chip and Xander's intoxicating scent kept driving from his head. What was the plan? His boy teasingly admitted, at least to Spike, that there was no plan, other than to put themselves in front of whatever was heading their way and to hope that they were strong enough, prepared enough to meet the challenge. Claiming a quick kiss, Xander then ran ahead, perhaps to avoid the swat on his rear he so richly deserved. His dancing brown eyes sparkled with laughter as he turned back to make sure that Spike followed. Xander looked so young, so alive, Spike was riveted. He covered his distraction by leering and watching the reaction of his mate. Each deliberate step Spike took toward Xander corresponded to a subtle change-his eyes dilated, his breathing deepened, and a lovely flush spread across his face and neck. They know not much what I am like, not what he is, my Avatar....He is the Jester and the Jest and he the Text himself applies.[16]

Spike was careful not to touch Xander, fearing the boy's wrath if he lost control and jumped him in front of his graduating class. Instead, after closing the distance between them, he ghosted his lips across the warm flesh of Xander's face and murmured into his mate's ear, "Thought we were going to find Red."

Xander swallowed and nodded. They continued along side by side, more subdued. Spike watched Xander covertly glancing up at him from under his long lashes. He gave a self-deprecating laugh when Xander's shy smile told him he had been doing the same thing. They quickly found out that everyone was awaiting their arrival upstairs in an office normally used as the cashier's break room. The mood changed abruptly when they reached the top level of the garage. Sunlight was still spilling though the entrances, though softer and approaching nightfall. Xander clenched his jaw and, placing his body between Spike and the searing light, made sure their route was as far into the artificially lit interior as possible.

Spike wondered just who and how many of the white hats Red had shared the information about the chip. He wasn't letting Xander out of his sight, no matter what state his Sire was in. He only hoped Rupert would keep focused on the problem at hand and not divert Xander's attention from the upcoming battle. Spike tried to prepare himself for anything as he flanked his mate and they entered the office.

All eyes turned to the door as they entered the break room and silence greeted them. The room was considerably larger than Rupert's office and the humans were having coffee around a long, cheap table. Spike tensed, waiting for Angel to attack. Giles was standing by the coffeemaker and seemed far too calm to know that the chip had been removed. Red and the poof began to compete for Xander's attention. Since his Sire was largely ignoring him, Spike assumed that the witch had kept her mouth shut about the chip.

Once they had gone over the plan, or lack thereof, Xander put Cordelia in charge of the base and left the witches and the Watchers to sort out the magical details. He took Spike, Angel, and Angel's newest minion, along with two of the runners to send back with orders, and they went to explore the remnants of the school. Angel and his minion fretted out loud about defensive liabilities and the quality of the forces they had at their disposal. Xander paced the dilapidated corridors of his old school and looked grim and determined. Just as the minions were beginning to eye the outsiders with concern and showed signs of mounting terror, Xander clapped his hands once and said, "Okay this is what were going to do."

The minions' attention was immediately focused on the calm young man who knelt down to diagram his strategies in the dust on the floor. He pointed out where explosives would be placed and indicated three separate lines of defenses. Xander's minions scribbled frantic notes on clipboards. Angel and his minion looked on in stunned silence. Xander countered most of their previously voiced apprehensions and had obviously considered a great many more details than they had. The boy used his knowledge of the school's layout and each perimeter he established had an evacuation contingency planned. The fact that one of their own was in charge and showed no intention of throwing their lives away reassured the minions. When Xander sent them back to the parking garage with orders for Jonothan and Cordelia their eyes burned with a light of determination.

Xander showed Angel and his minion the ins and outs of the library, and noted the changes the area had gone through since the last time they had defended it against demons. Then, leaving them to start setting up a defensive barricade, Xander and Spike headed back to the base. After a brief conference with the magic users, Xander had Spike escort them and their supplies to the library. Xander stayed with the Rennies, readying and directing the placement of the explosives.

Spike hurried back to the parking garage, having been reluctant to be separated from his mate for even such a short time. He hoped this tense attachment was due to the upcoming battle. If Xander ended up having to be trapped in his tiny office every day with a stir crazy, over-protective vampire he just might start to regret their involvement.

The tunnel access was two levels above the one that housed their makeshift army. As Spike emerged from the stairwell into the deserted infirmary, he heard Xander's voice resounding in the parking area. Spike was drawn toward the sound and once in the vast pillared space easily spotted Xander standing on a table surrounded by his minions.

Public speaking obviously wasn't the boy's forte, but he wasn't babbling and he didn't stutter. He was honest to the point of bluntness. He told them just who and what the Initiative was and detailed how dangerous the upcoming battle could be, along with the expected results if they did and if they did not fight. Without offering false hope he managed to convey his belief that they had a chance of succeeding.

To Spike's surprise Xander wrapped up his impromptu speech by offering every one of them the chance to back out. A demon would have leveled threats and perhaps killed the first to look hesitant as an example, and would still have lost at least half his force to desertion as soon as a losing battle was engaged. Xander said he understood fear and the need for self-preservation but he wouldn't have asked them all to be here if he thought that hiding anywhere would have been safer. He pointed out that each of them would be depending on the others to hold their position and stick to the plan. The only way the tiered evacuations of each perimeter would work would be if each of them could trust the one behind them to watch their backs, and he would rather anyone who was going to bolt do it now than when others were staking their lives on them. Spike shook his head in amazement; not one left.

Spike had slowly made his way to he back of the crowd as his boy spoke. When Xander clapped his hands and dispersed his troops Spike closed the remaining distant to the table. Looking up, he was blessed with Xander's smile. Before Xander could jump down on his own, Spike reached up and placing both hands firmly on the boy's hips, slowly lifted him down.

"You're such a romantic." Xander whispered and kissed him softly. Then he pulled back and placed both hands on Spike's shoulders. Spike watched as he visibly shifted from lover to leader and added, "How are the witches holding up?"

"Nervous but optimistic. Red's hoping this can be solved without bloodshed." Seeing Xander's grimace, Spike asked, "Not likely, eh?"

"Spike, you've seen the way they operate. Thinking things through isn't their strong point. They react, and usually on the basis of incomplete or inaccurate information. Take Adam," the boy shook his head with disgust, his warm hands dropping down from Spike's shoulders to his chest. "They fucked up-I can't begin to list the ways. I keep asking myself why."

Spike tightened his hold on Xander and pulled him closer. "Not going to disagree with you, Pet. But why does it bother you? Any mistake they make is--what do you lot say--of the good."

"No. Yes. Aragh!" Xander was exasperated. In Spike's experience that was always either as a result of no or resulted in an inability to communicate. Spike gave him a gentle shake and waited for him to sort out what he had been trying to say. Xander closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. When he opened them he spoke in the calm, authoritative voice he had used to garner his troops. "I'm not even twenty one yet. I have no training. Why are well-trained, experienced officers making mistakes even I can spot? I keep asking myself are they really this stupid, or are they being set up? Most of them only follow orders-could whoever is directing this want them to fail?"

"All good questions, love. Might want to save them for another day though." Spike offered with a smile, and was pleased when it was halfheartedly returned.

"Spike, do you have any idea how much worse it could have been, even without the whole Adam fiasco? How much higher the body count could have been? We got so lucky. The worst part is that they never knew. The never realized that blind chance and the Slayer kept the whole thing contained."

Xander sounded scared for the first time since he had taken over the operation. He had been worried and sometimes in doubt but this-this was fear. Spike wouldn't let his mate go into battle smelling of fear and attempted to break the mood by oozing charm while seductively saying, "Too right, Frankendemon could have taken out the chip and then they would have had me to deal with."

He wasn't prepared for Xander's frankly stated, "Exactly."

"Joke, pet. Xander?" Spike marveled. Xander's gaze was no longer fearful but he had never seen the boy look at him like this. Xander often looked at him with love, lust, friendship and, yes, exasperation, irritation, taunting amusement and a variety of other emotions. But at the moment Spike felt all his carefully constructed facades stripped away. Xander was looking at him the way he had looked at the blueprints of the garage and the way he had cased the high school. At this moment Spike felt that Xander saw all his weakness-every bad decision and poorly executed plan.

"Spike, you're a Master vampire, smart, street-savvy, dangerous. That whole operation was set up on assumptions-unwarranted assumptions. One; that you're an inferior being and that they are smarter, more experienced, and better prepared. Based wholly upon--my guess--dealing with fledges so new that they still think like humans. Two; that you are all they had to deal with--like a stray dog--again largely true with minions, but that completely discounts that you could be part of a community-one just as likely to have a standing military and defensive response protocols as their own. Three; that each of the species of hostiles is as unlikely to communicate with others as, say, different animal species-suicidally wrong. Think of it. Someone looking to consolidate power could have used this common threat to unite demons species who would never have fought side by side without a shared enemy."

"I love it when you talk like that-let's take over the world together," Spike purred.

Xander dropped his intensely paranoid look, laughed, and shyly lowered his lashes. "Sorry." Then he looked up and cocked his head and said, "Hey! You never want to take over the world. Eat it, fuck it, trash it, yeah. It was always Angelus who was into politics."

Spike snickered. "You know me too well, Pet. Got everything I want-never had the poof's ambitions."

"Or his suicidal tendencies. Did you ever notice, Angelus has the survival instincts of a lemming? With the soul attached he's not as bad, but soul-free psycho boy made some really questionable choices." Spike wished Angel were near to hear Xander assess the Scourge of Europe.

"Crossed me for one," Spike agreed.

"Smartest move he made," at Spike's questioning look Xander added, "If you hadn't double-crossed him....well, just think about it. What sort of 'reward' do you think Acathla would bestow on the one who freed him, hum? The honor of being his first meal? In my experience, Gods, demons or whatever do not let anyone who may have some claim on them stick around to call in debts on their power base."

"Did you know that the Judge wanted to kill me? Said I wasn't demon enough, tainted with humanity." Spike growled and morphed to his game face thinking of that dark time with Angelus and Dru.

"No." Xander leaned forward and brushed his lips lightly across Spike's brow ridges. "You're perfect." Then he added in a teasing voice, "But stay pissed off, we can use you in 'Slayer of Slayers' mode for this."

Spike chuckled and shifted to his human face. "Come on, Pet, let's go check on your minions."

"Ah, Spike?" Xander blinked.

"Yeah, Pet?" Spike said turning and heading toward the exit, sensing Xander fall in behind him.

"You might not want to call them that."

Spike shadowed Xander as he paced the defensive lines and reviewed the positions the explosives had been planted in. The minions, while leery around Angel, accepted Spike. Spike was surprised at how many he recognized, not just from Buffy's memorial service, but from around town. Spike often accompanied Dawn, Xander or the witches when they went anywhere after dark. Now the girl from the video store was dispensing weapons and the young man who was manager of the local Cineplex was carting around a cooler of soda for the troops. It was strange. They were food. Yet, he knew that the black man listening so intently to the Rennie lecture about explosives worked at the vet's and had let them in after hours when Willow had been sure her cat was poisoned after eating some spell components. All of this fearful food rushing about acknowledged his place at his mate's side and this helped to calm his blood lust, which was strained by the anticipation of battle.

They ended up outside of the library. Angel and his minion had erected a barricade, which left room for a single person to go in or out at a time. Xander updated them on the troop placement and outlined the most likely scenarios of attack. His mate's beloved rocket launcher was inside the library, Xander having opted instead for a dart gun with tranquilizers. In answer to the speculative looks of both Angel and his minion, Xander had simply said, "Oz," and left Peaches to explain to his boy. Spike enjoyed their looks of confusion almost as much as he had the shock on Angel's face when Xander had earlier snapped open the crate of shells and with quiet, practiced efficiency loaded his portable cannon.

"Xander?" Angel had asked. "I always wondered, where did you get a rocket launcher?"

"It's Buffy's." Xander said and Spike had stepped close to glare at his Sire for distracting his mate with dark thoughts before the battle.

"Yes, I remember. Where did Buffy get it? I don't think the Watcher's Council has these in their training kits."

"I got it for her-birthday present. You got her the Judge. She liked my present better." Spike watched regret seep into Xander's eyes at the reminder of Angel's soul-free vacation and Xander added, "Cordy and I heisted it from an Army base. Willow and Oz worked lookout from the getaway van." Xander smiled at Angel's minion and said, "Dating, Hellmouth style. It was actually one of Cordy's and my better dates-probably because it was so much like shopping."

Spike was surprised when Xander wanted the four of them to hide, since if the Initiative made it this far they would be well aware of the resistance. Xander explained that they were hoping that the Initiative's history of overestimating their superiority would work in favor of the Children. Since this plan had him pressed close against Xander's warm back, Spike was all for it. Even his trademark impatience didn't plague him as he listened to his mate's steady heartbeat.

Time passed and soon the only thing Spike found himself fighting was the impulse to throw the boy against the wall and shock the hell out of Peaches and his new pet. After the sounds of the battle being engaged began, Xander's scent changed abruptly and he tensed. Spike wondered if the boy had picked up the sign of intruders on his own or if the bond between them gave him access to the information Spike's enhanced senses were providing. It was the runner's foot falls which had alerted Spike, and Xander, being human, shouldn't have reacted until the sound came closer. One of Xander's minions rounded the corner and brought word of the struggle. It seemed as if they had been waiting for hours, and Spike knew he would never have been able to stay still this close to so much mindless violence without the sunlit scent of his mate. The runner reported that, so far, there was no loss of life or serious injury among the Children. Spike felt his boy sag with relief once he knew his minions were safe. His mate had the makings of a fine Master vampire. Xander sent the runner off with orders and visibly steeled himself for what was about to happen.

Seconds later it was all Spike could do to keep himself from ripping into the humans Angel and his pet had so quickly pinned to the wall. Two commandos struggled to escape from their captors, but both familiar-smelling soldier gits who had chipped him were instantly out of the action. The one thing that kept him from ripping them out of the care of Angel and company was Xander's predatory prowl towards the helpless men. Spike had never sensed the emotions that churned through Xander's scent, but he knew one false move on his part just might send Xander spiraling into a berserker rage. Xander's voice was cold and dripped with sarcasm when he said, "Well, well, well. Riley Finn."

Spike's sweet, gentle boy had torn into the commando with a cold, manipulative rage that did him proud. With a few calm sentences Xander reduced the all-American soldier boy to a sobbing heap. When he asked Finn to not make him break his kneecap in a seductive whisper, Spike shuddered. How much of this was Xander and how much was some demon-born taint to the boy's heroic soul? Was his association with Spike turning him into what he had fought against for so long? Spike worried this thought over and over in his mind until he and Xander left the captured commando with his Sire and went to change the objective of the mission.

Xander seemed to think Rayne a greater threat than Spike did, but Xander was better at these things so Spike followed and waited for orders. He was almost giddy with relief when the two of them stopped briefly before reaching the back of the first perimeter and Xander let the mask of indifference slip. This wasn't a tainted soul; this was his boy, his loving overburdened boy. His boy was sick with what he had done and what he might have to do. But the sight of that clenched jaw and white-knuckled grip on his weapon told Spike that Xander was prepared to do whatever it took to protect the people he loved and felt responsible for.

So they made the rounds, Xander supervising the evacuation of his troops while keeping careful tally of the Initiative's dead and wounded. A Buffy-like blond ran up to Xander and grabbed his arm, prompting a growl from Spike, and said, "Jeff got zapped."

"Shit!" Xander looked ready to kill something.

"No, well, yeah. But Kayla says he'll be okay. Anyway, the guy that shot him told Cordelia that the three ranking officers just dropped in their tracks for no apparent reason. We have them back at the infirmary under guard- well, they're still unconscious, but, you know. Is this magic? Cordy wants to know if we did it?"

"No." Xander looked around and flagged down a fresh runner. "Do this," he said to the girl. "Stay here and speed up the evac-get everyone out. Have our people watch out for each other first, but if at all possible remove the Initiative's dead and wounded." He addressed the runner, "Tell Cordy that I commandeered Amy to run the retreat. Tell her we didn't put the whammy on the soldiers, that Ethan Rayne has turned the tables on his captors and is making a power play and to act accordingly-she'll know what to do. Go!"

"But if this guy is their enemy..." Amy started to ask.

"This guy is no one's friend; these people are his fall guys. Don't give any of them a chance to hurt our people but don't kill any of them if you don't have to." Xander handed the tiny blonde over to the front line leader and made sure that they were clear on what to touch and not touch on the way out. The back door Angel had arranged was off the boy's locker room under what was left of the gym. The last of the minions to leave was to shift a row of lockers to hide the tunnel should anyone try and follow.

They were on their way back to the library, skulking along the eerily quiet corridors when Xander cautiously approached a fallen lab-coated figure. Just as the boy reached to check the body's pulse Spike grabbed Xander and pulled him away.

"Ouch!" Xander rubbed his upper arm.

"Sorry," Spike said absently. "It smells wrong-like magic."

"You hurt me," Xander said.

"I'm sorry, Pet," Spike said, paying more attention and making eye contact.

Xander grinned and kissed him and said again, "You. Hurt. Me."

"I'm sorry..." The chip. The chip hadn't gone off. He had hurt Xander and the chip hadn't gone off. Spike had known it before but now-now it sank in. He had hurt his sweet boy--albeit mildly--but still the chip was gone. He could kill Xander. What if he did? He was impulsive. He was a demon. What if in the heat of anger he destroyed the one person who had ever loved him?

Worried brown eyes broke into Spike's train of thought as Xander gripped his shoulders and gave him a mild shake. "Spike? I'm happy for you but this is not the time to zone out. You have to pay attention. Promise me you won't forget you can fight back. Remember, you hold a piece of my heart, and I'm counting on you to keep it safe-keep yourself safe." Xander gave him a soft kiss and added, "Come on, let's head back to the library."

Just before they entered the library Xander stopped Spike and kissed him hard. "I'm going to tell you to do something you don't want to do; you're just going to have to trust me." Spike offered the boy a skeptical look but waited to hear him out. "I know if there's a melee your instinct is going to tell you to protect me. I'm asking you to trust me to survive on my own-I've made it this far." Xander clamped a hand over Spike's mouth to prevent the inevitable comment. "I need your first objective to be to protect the witches. Going up against Rayne--they are our best shot at defeating him--I need you to see they stay safe long enough to do something."

Spike didn't like to admit it but Xander was right. Still, that didn't stop him from tracking his mate's every move once he had taken up a position inside, watching the door along side Angel's new boy. As a card-carrying evil undead bastard Spike had never given much thought to karma, but the almost instantaneous reward he received for his obedience had him pondering the concept.

After checking in with the others upon entering the library, Xander was once again drawn into a confrontation with that sniveling soldier boy Finn. Xander not only pointed out just how much danger Finn had put them all in, but defended Spike's action in revealing the weakling's addiction to Buffy and outed the blood whore to his commando partner and the fang gang. Angel of course was all concerned for Buffy's castoff version of Angel-lite, but Spike wondered just where that interest came from. He was willing to bet that the gelled one had paid for it more than once since he had had that soul slapped on him.

The actual endgame wasn't much of a dustup. Spike had had far more vigorous workouts playing slap and tickle with the Slayer. His sweet brown-eyed boy hadn't even gotten to fire his rocket launcher. That moment though, when Xander had flown into the wall and hit the floor dazed--even seeing the tall, silent commando taking up a guarding position over the boy--it had been all Spike could do to follow Xander's orders. He had killed the demon/soldier instantly. Rupes might have said to try to spare them but Spike wasn't wasting time, he wanted to be free to defend his mate should the commando fail. Then, in a flash of blue light, it was over and all that was left was to sort through the dead and the wounded.

Xander wanted level the high school. Spike told him he could have all the explosions he wanted but the witch and the Watcher said that no, he couldn't. Since Xander's lower lip did not have the same mysterious persuasive power over them as it did over Spike, the remains of the school were left intact. Spike thought they would never get out of there. Xander's extended pack all seemed to need to touch and be acknowledged by their alpha male. It was downright wrong to hear humans saying 'let's do this again sometime' when they were referring to the events of that night.

They evacuated the parking lot base as if they were leaving a covered dish picnic, although the leftovers they were discussing the distribution of were mostly weapons and bombs. One bright soul worked in a self-storage warehouse and volunteered space until the surplus could be sorted out. Xander asked Jonothan to take the U-Haul and see to it and asked if he would mind returning the truck for him later. Spike held back a snicker; the boy looked at his Xander with such hero worship the vampire though he might faint when Xander shook his hand and said, "Thanks. We couldn't have done this without you."

Xander was kind and generous to all his minions, and had expressly forbidden Spike calling them that as rule number eight. When Angel approached Xander and asked if they might have a word, Spike was torn between mentioning that Angelus could take some pointers on how to treat his minions from his Xander and ripping out the poof's over-gelled hair. He settled for growling and wrapping his arms around his mate's broad chest from behind. Xander laughed, turned his head and kissed Spike's cheek. Spike was catching on to the fact that Angel looked more disturbed when Xander's displays of affection were conducted when Spike was in game face than when he at least looked human.

Xander reached out and shook Angel's hand, further confusing the poof's tiny little mind, and said, "Thanks. I know you're more of a loner, but you really came through for the team. Did you really mean it? Can Riley be helped? Is it a death wish? I gotta admit, five years of trying to stay alive in this hellhole has me questioning his sanity."

Well, that obviously wasn't where the souled one thought the conversation was going to go. From the baffled look at the snarling vampire Xander was currently wearing as a cape, his Sire might just launch in to a pot and kettle speech. Spike snickered and shifted to his human guise. "Oh, believe me, Pet, Peaches really wants to help our Riley." Spike leered. Xander ignored him, and Angel glared.

"Actually, Xander, I was more concerned about your relationship with Spike..." he started.

"Oh God, Deadboy, I am so not prepared to have you as a father-in-law." Xander giggled-quite a bit. He continued until Spike started to worry that he might have to snag one of the humans to do mouth to mouth. Angel looked irritated.

"You're loopy, Pet. I'll admit he's a riot, but this isn't like you." Spike rubbed his boy's rippling abdomen, and waited for him to stop gasping.

"I'm sorry. Really. I'm fried. Really fried. If you want any sort of serious conversation, I need sleep first." He leaned back against Spike.

Angel sighed and looked contrite. "No, you're right, this isn't the time, but we do need to talk."

"Cordy has my number, just give me the weekend to unscramble my brains."

If Spike had need proof of just how few brain cells were functioning for his Xander he had it when the boy didn't even flinch when the brooding one almost touched him. Xander's eyes had begun to flutter shut as he leaned against Spike. Angel reached up with tentative fingers that hovered less than an inch from Xander. Spike glared at Angel. Angel glared at Spike. The standoff broke when Angel's boy summoned him to the Watcher.

Right. Time to get him marked good and proper and keep the bloody competition away!

Xander tripped three times on the stairs up to their apartment. Spike gave up all pretense of trying to appear human and carried the boy up the last few flights. He stood Xander against the wall and fumbled for his keys. Once the door was opened, Xander grabbed him and pulled him close. "Need sleep. Need you. Come sleep," Xander mumbled against the side of Spike's neck.

"Very poetic, Pet." Spike carried Xander to bed and spent the better part of the next twenty-four hours wrapped tightly around his mate. Xander made three trips to the bathroom and one to the kitchen to chug a quart of orange juice, but Spike was sure the boy would have no memory of the events since each time he was asleep again before his head hit the pillow.

Keeping a watchful eye on the boy, Spike paced while fretting over the need to mark his mate, and in general behaved like the bloody souled-one. Angel had been right about one thing; the sharing of blood they had been playing at singled Xander out to any of the night breed. Once marked the boy would be safe from any attacks from all but the most irreverent of challengers. Once the mortal was bound to Spike the only acceptable way to kill him would be to go through Spike. Given his own careful adherence to protocol and demon lore Spike wasn't willing to bet Xander's life on such conventions, but a little insurance never hurt.

Red called to see how Xander was and to leave an update on the Nibblet. Dawn wanted to see them both and after Willow explained separation anxiety in an endless stream of babble, Spike told her that Xander was practically a corpse and wouldn't be able to speak in complete sentences until at least dinnertime. She giggled and said they would bring Chinese.

The talk of food sent Spike to the kitchen. Given his restraint since the chip was removed he opted for two units of O neg as a reward.

"Should I keep restocking that?" Spike turned to see Xander leaning in the doorway. He looked delicious and tussled. All that tanned flesh covered by a tiny pair of raggedy, cutoff sweat pants-which had a disturbingly misplaced bulge next to the one Spike was focused on.

Dragging his gaze away from the distracting boy, Spike considered what Xander had just asked. Could he be having second thoughts now that the chip was gone? Had Spike let his guard down to soon? This was it. Well, fine. If the bastard didn't want him Spike would... Would what? What could he do?

"Thinking of chucking me out, Pet?"

Xander's heartbeat skyrocketed. The scent of fear filled the air. Spike was crushed. How could Xander think Spike would harm him-in any way. "No, dipshit. I thought... I figured you might want... to start..."

Spike pinned Xander to the wall. Spike wanted to hurt him-hurt Xander like Xander was hurting him. Spike inhaled the fear and pain, and yet this warm, blood-filled human didn't smell like prey. Even in his rage part of him screamed 'MINE!' and prevented any physical violence. That part didn't prevent him from snarling out in full fang, "What? Thought I'd start culling the herd?"

Xander's thick dark lashes were wet with unshed tears but what he gasped out was the last thing Spike expected to hear. He didn't beg for mercy, he didn't say he had expected this turn of events given Spike's demon nature. The boy whispered, "I don't want you to leave. I don't want to lose you."

Heaven and Hell. Heaven and Hell-Good and Evil! How could he have been so blind? Spike had told Red, but not once since the chip had come out had he told Xander that he still felt the same. It was so easy to forget how young Xander was. From the very beginning, Xander had been the aggressor; even with his limited experience, he had been the one to take all the risks-to plunge forward blindly and bravely. The fear--the sadness in his scent--he was afraid he would lose Spike.

Spike knew his own romantic history left him with a 'strike first' attitude toward rejection, but was Xander's former love life any better? In his short life Spike's boy had been abandoned as much as Spike had been in over a century. It was time to show some trust, time for Spike to be an adult and take a risk. All his brooding over how to approach Xander about marking him seemed silly. He knew the boy was head over heels in love with him. Interesting picture that, getting Xander's long, strong legs up in the air while pounding into his hot tight body is definitely on the to do list for today. At that lovely thought Spike dove forward and scraped his fangs across Xander's neck, careful not to hurt him, but delighting in the anticipatory shiver that moved though his boy. "I'm not going anywhere-not ever! We clear on that?" Spike morphed to his human form and forced Xander to look him in the eyes.

Once again the boy hit him with an unanticipated question. "Are you going to turn me?"

Bloody hell! "Do you want me to?" As a Childe, Xander would worship Spike, but Spike was rather flattered that Xander wanted him--loved him--without that coercion.

"Do you want to?" Great he's angry, guess that's better than afraid. What's the right answer here, hm? If I say no will it seem like I'm rejecting him? Shit, if I say yes, will he think I just want to shag his demon-possessed corpse into a blood-soaked puddle? Oooo, lovely image.

"Xander." I just can't win this one, by all that's unholy I swear sometimes my boy has PMS.

Before Spike could let go of the boy, Xander warm hands pinned Spike's slim fingers in place and he said, "I need to know what you want. I need to you feel."

Was that the solution? Should he just tell him the truth? Novel approach. "I want you. However I can have you, for as long as I can have you." There would be time later to mention that this might be longer than Xander thought even without the turning. "If Red can find a way for you to still be you, then fine, but otherwise...I can bag it for your lifetime."

A glimmer of hope crossed Xander's expressive face followed by a touch of awe when he stroked Spike cheek. "And Dawn's?" he ventured almost reluctantly.

He asked so little and offered so much Spike couldn't help but smile. This man-this good man loved him. Him, William the bloody awful poet, the Big Bad, fuck up, psychopath--an odd term of endearment but it suited him and when Xander said it, it seemed lovely--in all of Spike's freaking incarnations Xander loved him. "And Dawn's," Spike agreed.

Oh, wasn't his boy beautiful when he smiled. Xander must be the sun god's favorite bastard-seasons changed, night became day and the world was reborn in his darling boy's smile. "I have something for you." From defiant, to awed, to inexplicably shy in the space of a moment, now Xander's scent shifted to anticipatory.

An intriguing proposition when he reached toward his shorts, but it was the other bulge he removed. Xander pulled out a small box-the kind that held jewelry. Skunked again; his boy had knackers-always in the lead that one, absolutely fearless. The last love Xander had bought jewelry for had run out of his life at the next sunrise. All the while Spike had been worrying over Xander's possible refusal to the visible marking of mate and here the boy was offering some sort of human equivalent. Spike worked on staying calm as he reached for the box and tried to distract his love's attention by joking, "That better not be an engagement ring, Pet."

The chip. It was the chip. Mounted on a silver pendant, the back of which was engraved with an 'X' that had the letter 'S' wrapped around it like a lover. How the hell? Spike had been hovering about his boy almost nonstop since the chip had been removed; when had Xander arranged this? In all that chaos, with everything--everyone--he had to worry about Xander had somehow found time for this. Spike wanted to say how much that simple fact meant to him. He wanted to somehow express what it meant to have been thought of, for the first time in his existence, ahead of all others. Instead he said, "What's this?"

Why do I do that? Why do I strike out first? With anyone else it makes sense to hurt them before they can hurt me, but this is my boy, my Xander. I want him bound to me forever, yet I never trust him enough to let down my guard.

Spike marveled when Xander, as he did with everything else, let his snarkiness roll right off him and mimicked Spike's accent while saying, "What do you mean 'What's this?'?"

"What does it mean, Xander?" Hold on, that didn't come out exasperated. And how come I sound breathless when I don't need to breath? Couldn't be the thought that this might mean he'd agree to be mine--all the way--blood bond, flesh marked, mated human to vampire, whatever that entails?

Without a blush or a trace of teasing Xander looked him firmly in the eyes and said, "It means....It means, I greatly esteem you."

Spike couldn't stop the snort of derision. As soon as he did it he regretted it. Wonderful way to seduce him. First force him to be the one to put his feelings into words and then show contempt and disbelief. And you wonder why everyone leaves you? Wanker.

"I do, you know." Xander motioned hesitantly toward the pendant. "You didn't just survive this. You conquered it." Happy, Spike? A minute ago he was confident and now he's looking down and biting his lip. Are you proud of your accomplishment? "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." How many times have I wanted to tell him that, but me--The Big Bad--was too afraid to say the words. He's the brave one.

"Put it on for me, eh, Pet?" Spike didn't trust the steadiness of his own hands to fasten the clasp. Then there was the added incentive of Xander's warm finger lingering over his neck as he adjusted the chain. No one-no one had ever looked at him like this. Not Dru in the alley that last night of his life, certainly never Angelus no matter how hard Spike tried to please him. Xander's gaze was not acquisitive like Drusillia or calculating like Angelus; Xander looked at Spike as if he were a rare work of art or the last sunset the boy would ever see. Dark one, all I request is a portion of love. Whatever my defects, you are for me a name of raptures. Let the world cast its judgment, nothing changes my heart-a single word from your lips is sufficient.[17]

"Say something, Pet." Spike said with a laugh, if Xander didn't focus his attention on something beside Spike he was going to find himself thrown to the floor. Hold on! What's wrong with that?

It seemed Xander's inner voice were shouting out something similar as his eyes dilated and Spike could swear he heard all the blood in Xander's body rushing toward his boy's cock. Xander's whisper slipped into every corner of Spike's mind when he said, "Fuck me?"

A request? I can do requests, Dark One. "Here, or in the bedroom?" Spike asked, raising Xander a good three inches off the floor by holding firmly on his hips, prepared to take him wherever he suggested. Spike hoped once he sated the desperate need to reestablish their physical bond he could broach the subject of marking to Xander with some control.

Any hope of control was flushed when Spike watch Xander's expressive face reveal his turmoil at having to choose one or the other before turning his wide-eyed, oh-so-innocent-seeming gaze on his lover and gasping out, "Both?"

Spike growled as images of tearing into this trusting human battered at him. He leveled what Xander had referred to as his patented-serial-killer-look on the boy as he lowered him with the slow control that vampiric strength gave the shorter man. Without the chip as a safety net, Xander had no idea what a dangerous position he was in. As Spike firmly turned Xander to face the wall the boy's body transmitted desire and readiness in scent and a variety of unconscious reactions. As his growl changed to a purr, Spike felt a moment of fear. What if Xander hadn't responded willingly? Would this be a rape or a murder? How would he have reacted, unchipped, if Xander had given off a scent of fear? It was a moot point at the moment, since as soon as Spike had ripped the shorts off Xander's body, the young man had braced himself on the wall and thrust back willingly spread legs as an offering to his demon lover.

Spike trailed his fingers down Xander's broad, beautiful back as he lowered himself to kneel behind his boy. He needed a moment. Standing put him too close to the tempting mortal's neck. The desire coursing through his demon-animated corpse had little to do with feeding but was not entirely fueled by lust. The thought of plundering his boy and his new found ability to cause pain was far too tempting.

Spike buried his face between the muscled orbs of Xander's offered ass. Slowly licking deep into his boy's puckered entrance he inhaled the scent of his lover, hoping to stave off the vision of his own cock covered in Xander's blood. Not that he really wanted to cause his boy pain-well not much, although all those threatened spankings danced about in his chipless head, but that would have to wait. Right now he needed to sate them both before he hurt the boy, and then get him marked.

Oddly enough Xander's heavy breathing and the soft whimper he released as Spike scraped his human teeth over the boy's balls served to calm the demon more than the two bags of human blood. Spike would have sworn Xander was too far gone to offer up more than a 'Mhureegl' as he reached for the remains of his snack which could double as lube, so he was surprised by the amazingly coherent cry of "Rule four! Rule four!" coming from over his head.

Must be doing something wrong if he can still talk. Lifting his face from Xander's alluring backside, Spike asked, "What was rule four again?"

"No using blood as lube." How that had escaped being rule one had a lot to do with Xander's odd human values. Spike had intended to enjoy the whimpering that resulted from his ceasing his attention to Xander's second favorite hot spot, but realized he was at a point where he had to either bury his tongue or his fangs in Xander.

Choosing his tongue he set the mug down and said, "Need something, Pet," and plunged back in, leaving Xander to produce lube. There was a delightful struggle as Xander attempted to remain in contact with said tongue--as if he had a choice-and rummage around the kitchen. There was a crash and something rolled across the floor just before Xander frantically thrust a bottle of olive oil down to Spike. Spike reluctantly parted from the taste of Xander and began to work the oil deep into his lover. The way Xander's body so willingly yielded to the penetration of Spike's fingers made up for the loss of the tempting taste of him. Spike felt safe enough to stand behind his naked human as he buried three of his fingers in the hot, moist cavern of his mate.

Xander leaned back into him, exposing his long, strong throat. Such a tease. Or was he? They had been lovers long enough to know just what buttons to push to crank the each other up. For instance now, Spike was fully clothed--well, barefoot--but Xander was naked. Naked with the better part of Spike's hand inside him. How many times in the middle of a footie match had Xander, in a bid for attention, baited Spike until the vampire grabbed him, threw off the boy's clothes and turned him over his knee? And if the chip prevented him from beating that bottom bloody it never stopped him from finger fucking his human until the match was over. Of course that just insured he would do it again next time, but that was all well and good, eh? Spike had tormented his boy over that peculiar vanilla kink. Xander, in turn, had learned how riveted Spike was to his neck and how sensitive an area it was on a vampire. Biting during sex wasn't the only way his human catered to his demon lover. Spike had lost track of the long, hard sessions of bedsports Xander had initiated with a knowing pout and the words, "Would you kiss my owie?" No one cut themselves that often, but Xander would hold up a pricked finger or small cut beading with blood and the scent of desire pouring off him.

So Xander knew. The human's body shook not with fear but with need. He sighed as Spike licked over the spot he had grazed his teeth on that first night they had spoken of marking. Xander knew what he wanted, what he needed. If they had both been demons it would have been enough. But Xander was human and over a hundred years younger-Spike needed words.

Of course, he should have thought of that before he had his mate teetering on the brink of orgasm. Spike desperately wanted to mark his mate now but wasn't sure `Schpadoinkle' would qualify as an affirmative. Still, he had to ask. "Want you. Want to mark you. Deep in the muscle, leave a scar. Want to claim you," he gasped out while rubbing against the spot, hoping that their previous talks would enlighten Xander to what he wanted.

"Do it!" was Xander's surprisingly coherent reply. Although, to be fair, judging by the clenching around his thrusting fingers, Xander just might have offered up his parents' life's blood right now if Spike would just shut up and let him come.

Oh! It had been so long! The rapture of his fangs sinking into taut flesh and firm muscle, the explosion of scent and taste, the hot blood slipping over his tongue and down his throat. Plunging into Druscilla had never been like this--this was his--this was Xander.

Once, shortly after he was turned, Angelus had had enough of Spike snarking 'you're not my Sire' at him and unbeknownst to Darla or Dru, when the ladies were out 'shopping', had told Spike to kneel before him.

"Hear me, Garmhac, and know that she who made you is mine as you are hers. I will suffer you as kin for her sake and claim you as my Childe." That was the only time he had called Spike 'garmhac'; usually it was dalta or leanbh og, but then, he had acknowledged the blood ties and Spike had been awed when Angelus had bitten his own wrist and offered it to Spike. A primal memory of the demon's had stirred and he had known that this would bind him to the older vampire much as he was to his dark, mad Sire, but he hadn't hesitated when he had grasped onto that wrist and, carefully not dropping his fangs,licked up every drop of Angelus' blood. The ladies had known what they had done as soon as they had arrived home. Drucsilla, of course, would deny her 'Daddy' nothing but Darla had been right pissed.

That moment, that archaic piece of demon blood binding, that came close to this. Perhaps because, unlike his turning, they both had chosen each other. Xander, even with the signs that this was more than just 'kinky sex', had willingly continued the bonding, had chosen Spike as his mate as surely as Spike had chosen him.

The force of Xander's orgasm when it hit splattered the wall and turned his bucking boy into deadweight for a moment. Xander's body felt boneless in Spike's arms and the vampire reluctantly removed his fangs and cut his own tongue to bathe the wound with his scent and blood. Spike held his now-claimed mate tightly and kept brushing his still-buried fingers against Xander's prostate while he watched the mark heal to an angry red scar. In a few days it would be all but invisible, but they could renew it often now. Let Angelus talk all he wanted, Xander was his. Spike wouldn't mind his Seanathair's[19] blessing but nothing short of dusting him would separate the two of them now.

The weight this lifted, the desperate aching need.... Spike hadn't been aware how influenced he had been by the driving instinct to claim his mate. Now that this human bore his mark he felt drunk on the sense of control it gave back to his life. Even more than having the chip removed this reaffirmed him; he was a man, a demon, a master and anyone who went after what was his was going to meet up with the Big Bad, at least for the last seconds of their life.

Spike gently slipped his fingers out of Xander and turned the boy to face him. The sleepy, sated smile that greeted him melted his unbeating heart. Xander draped his warm body on Spike and whispered, "Bed now?" Spike almost laughed out loud. He had forgotten that Xander had requested 'both' when offered the choice of here or in the bedroom for his requested fucking. Spike felt a bit like Rhett carrying Scarlet as he transported his long lover to the bedroom. He put his boy into the rumpled bed and sat back, trying to wrap his mind around the fact that Xander was finally his.

All of those nights, coming in to watch his boy sleep in the moonlight; every time he had stood outside the shower, enraptured by the foam of Xander's shampoo as it slithered over the his wet, tanned flesh; evenings lit only by the flickering television, when Xander woke from a doze, his head pillowed in Spike's lap to ask, "How long have you been staring?" Always there had been a sense of impermanence. The fear that the moment was fleeting and the boy would be taken from him had always pressed at Spike's senses. It was apparent to him now that it had influenced his actions. Had that been what made letting Xander know just how important he was so difficult? Had that been what prevented him from showing his sweet Pet how much he needed him, loved him? No more. Now they were bonded-no one could take what was his without dusting him. Spike was going to show Xander over and over how much he was desired.

Spike knelt beside his gloriously naked mate. He had laid Xander out on the rumpled bed as if he were a full course banquet--now where to start? First, touch - though satisfying on a primal level, their mating had been driven byneed and passion, causing it to be over far too quickly-then taste; now that Spike had claimed his mate he was eager to immerse himself in the scent and flavor of every aspect of his lover. Xander's blood and sweat, saliva and semen must all be retasted so that Spike could reacquaint himself with their essence now that his own would be forever mixed with them. He didn't know just why it was that the blending of blood they partook in almost daily would never alter Xander's scent but the blood he had licked into the claiming mark would change it immediately, but it was obvious that it did. Whatever that change had been had calmed his demon and was responsible for the euphoric state he seemed to be in as he watched as Xander smiled up from his languid sprawl.

Spike's fingers moved of their own accord, brushing lightly across the warm lips of his lover and trailing down Xander's neck, carefully skirting the mark. He wanted to touch all of him, and moved from his nipples to follow the enticing path of dark hair down from Xander's navel to caress his sated cock and stroke his inner thighs. He was transfixed, both by the perfection of his mate's body and by his own bite, vivid on the corded muscle that stretched down to Xander's collarbone. Spike had no idea how long he had been exploring every inch of Xander's body when he felt his boy tug at the hem of his tee shirt. He hadn't meant to tease--that was just an added bonus--and was enchanted by the unbridled lust in Xander's eyes when the boy managed to whisper, "Please."

Anything, Pet, anything. Xander rarely asked for anything--well, anything Spike hadn't intended to do anyway--this being a case in point. Spike was giddy that he could so readily give him his wish. Being an evil undead bastard though, he couldn't resist teasing a bit more and did a slow strip out of his shirt and jeans. When Xander, still spent and boneless from their bout in the kitchen, reached for him, Spike started to laugh. It was all too wonderful. This beauty was his. He hadn't stolen or coerced or forced Xander into his bed, Xander had chosen it. Eyes wide open, damn the consequences, Xander had chosen him. The most loyal, loving, fierce, passionate man Spike had ever met had chosen to bind his life to Spike's. Knowing what he was, having seen Spike at his lowest points, this man loved him.

Spike loomed over Xander and blanketed him with his body. He licked the now-red mark. There was no taste of blood left, the bite had healed. There was just the musky flavor of Xander, even now accented with a dash of Spike's own scent. Spike took shameless advantage of Xander's distraction to tickle all of his most sensitive spots. Soon his boy was gasping for air and begging to be fucked.

Eager to oblige, Spike lifted both long, limber legs up over each of his shoulders and slid into the warm, well-oiled body of his mate. Spike entrance was greeted by an unintelligible noise from Xander before his boy began to babble encouragement and shout out demands. If laughter and purring weren't embarrassing enough for the Big Bad, before he knew what he was doing he was quoting Shakespeare to his boy. "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?"

"Idiot," was Spike's reflexive response when, after Xander slid his legs down and around Spike's waist, wrapping him in the warm embrace of his arms and legs he had asked if the poetry was something Spike had written. So all his resolve to stop feeding the boy's self doubts was just so much drivel. He could admit to himself what a fine man Xander was but again and again he failed to tell-to show Xander his true feelings. Resolved to take back, or at least amend his comment, Spike lifted his face from the warm bend of Xander's neck. Xander continued to lazily card Spike's hair and with a heavy-lidded, besotted gaze, smiled. In that moment the poet realized that just as 'psychopath' had become a term of endearment to him, Xander now heard 'idiot'--at least when it came from Spike--tinted with all the tenderness that the vampire had such trouble expressing.

Later, Spike rested his head upon his lover's stomach. Xander's fingers brushed slowly through the vampire's hair. The boy's pulse had finally returned to normal. As they lay sprawled together across the bed, Spike's mate's breath assumed the slow even rhythm of sleep. The boy dozed on and off. When he woke he would whisper soft endearments, in between languid caresses, or soft comments about what the vampire had just said.

"Pretty words," Xander mumbled. "Give me pretty words." He was completely unaware of the sated, sensuous picture he posed lying naked, spread across their bed with Spike's mark his only adornment.

Spike rolled over and propped himself on his elbows, smiling to himself as he drank in the sight of his sleepy, debauched boy. "Joy divided life, like blood staining anointing love wetter than death,"[21] he said, his voice resonating and the words rolling out in a suggestive purr.

Xander showed extreme initiative in lifting his head a couple inches to look Spike in the eyes. "Psychopath," he said with a tender smile and he added, "You're such a romantic," before dropping his head back to the pillow. Xander pulled him back into place, cushioning Spike's head on his warm stomach. "Love you...glad you did it...I think the others will understand."

"Xan? You know I'll never leave you, right?" Spike felt his lover's calloused hand cup his cheek and caress the side of his face. He had been unaware he had shut his eyes until he opened them to see those deep brown ones regarding him with calm acceptance. Xander had raised himself up onto one elbow and was watching him. The boy nodded but made no comment. "Don't know what to tell you. Never took a mate. Never knew anyone who did, let alone a human."

"What about Dru?" Xander was always careful to avoid her name. It pleased Spike that Xander could ask, without reservation or hesitancy, about the woman who had been his constant companion for so long.

"She turned me, she wasn't my mate. Closest to that would have been Buffy. What a fucking disaster that would have been." Answering Xander's look of confusion, Spike hastily added, "I loved her, respected her, but what made her a Slayer and what makes me a vampire would have always been at war. It would have torn us apart from the inside. I do know that much."

"And us?" Xander's hand, which had been softly stroking the line of Spike's jaw, moved back to comb though his bleached gel-less hair.

"We're good for each other, yeah?" At Xander's enthusiastic nod, Spike leaned up and kissed his lips, because he looked like he wanted kissed-needed kissed. "Don't know about the rest. But I will dust myself before I hurt you."

Strong fingers pulled his hair, hard. "Don't talk like that. I'm serious. We will hurt each other. I'm young-not naive. When you give someone the power to make you feel as good as you make me feel, well, they get equal power tohurt you. The only thing that will destroy me is if you take yourself permanently out of the picture." Xander broke the intense gaze he had leveled on Spike and offered a goofy grin before adding, "California community property rights guarantee I get one tirade everytime you fuck up. If you walk into the sun I'll be really pissed." A confused look crossed the boy's face as if he were listening to an instant replay of what the just said and he added, "I mean pissed in the American sense, not the English 'get drunk and sing turn of the century, smutty pub songs' sense."

Spike snickered and kissed the boy again, hard. Xander lay back and spread out while Spike nibbled his way down and across Xander's muscular neck and shoulders to lick the mark again. He feathered kisses and bites down the boy's chest, dipped into the concavity of his stomach and stuck his tongue in Xander's deep navel. Nuzzling lower he drank in the subtle change in scent that his claiming had made in his mate.

Though Xander's spirit was willing his flesh remained flaccid. It had been an eventful day. When Red had called before, she had confided in Spike that she too thought Xander need some down time. Spike returned to his favorite spot and pillowed his head on Xander's stomach. He lazily stroked Xander's arm and watched his lashes flutter closed. If the boy said the others would accept their bond, then they would. Spike would let Xander handle it. His mate managed the humans well and was better at keeping priorities in perspective. Spike knew his own attention wandered if there was no immediate threat, but Xander was well suited for anticipating preparing for the worst.

Later when the doorbell rang. Spike was treated to the slapstick sight of his mate frantically trying to forestall the questions which would be bound to arise as a result of their earlier activity. Spike was impressed by the speed of Xander's reactions as he careered about the apartment, using his multitasking mind to dress while cleaning and ventilating the kitchen on his way toward the door. Spike met him at the door with a shirt, which would hide his mark until the boy could warn the others to not to try and stake him.

Spike suppressed a growl when Xander told him it was Finn and his commando boy. Rather than break his word within hours of giving it Spike retired to the bedroom to smoke and pace, and keep an ear open. He didn't think either of them would or could hurt his mate and the simple act of claiming had given him perspective in the everyone-wants-Xander issue. Not much, he admitted, but some.

Ever since they had started sharing blood, Spike had wondered if it was his imagination or if Xander's reflexes were becoming even quicker than Hellmouth-honed. He hadn't noticed any increase in strength, but it was hard to tell--humans had always seemed so fragile. He honestly didn't know if there would be any obvious physical changes in the boy. He hadn't lied, he was operating blind. He had no idea how this would affect either of them.

Time crawled by as Spike eavesdropped on Xander attempting to make awkward amends with the Slayer's ex. Spike was willing to follow Xander's lead, but hoped it wouldn't mean Finn would be hanging around. They had just gotten rid of Angel and the last thing Spike wanted was another one of Buffy's castoffs looming about and lusting after his mate. Thankfully the doorbell rang, which meant that the girls would be here to run interference and hopefully keep the attention of the two commandos off Xander.

Spike reveled in the stunned look on captain cardboard's face when he emerged from the bedroom and strolled to the door. But the vampire's attention was quickly diverted by Dawn's need to reassure herself that both he and Xander had survived the assault on the Hellmouth intact. He was instantly aware of her rising panic at the sight of the commandos. Another reason to get rid of the tossers. Willow had told him earlier that Dawn had been deeply disturbed when she heard that it was the Initiative that they were facing. The nibblet's fears centered around her belief that the military would somehow recapture Spike and do experiments on him.

Her protectiveness would have been laughable if it were not so heartfelt. Here he was, the Big Bad--a chip-free Master vampire--and she was hardly more than a mouthful, yet she was one more person who would mourn his passing and truly loved him. They too were blood-bonded in a way, by the Slayer's blood. A Slayer he hadn't slain, but who had treated him like a man-an untrustworthy man, but a man. Dawn was his, but not his alone. His mate claimed her as kin and so did the witches and the Watcher. Because he had failed to protect her that night on the tower, she had lost her sister, and Spike was determined that she wouldn't lose anyone else. She teetered now between trying to seem as if everything were fine, like when she tried to wrangle more leeway from her overprotective 'family' and spend time with her friends, and times like this, when she clung to Spike, throwing herself into his arms as if she were half her age.

Dawn alone would have bound Spike to the Slayer's loved ones even had they not accepted or acknowledged that bond. But this, standing here in his own living room--his and Xander's--staring at the shocked commandos-this was rich. The girls stood by him and leveled all the power of their scornful gazes on the broken boy that had left their Buffy. Xander alone prevented Red from venting her not inconsiderable wrath on Finn. Surprisingly it was sweet, forgiving Willow who would not let go of the grudge she held against Finn for running out on Buffy when she needed him the most. Spike was here, this was his place, and Riley Finn was the outsider. Even though Xander extended an invitation for the commandos to stay it was clear that here was where Spike belonged and not Finn. As Xander was showing Finn and his silent shadow to the door the Watcher arrived. Giles' arrival sent the commandos scurrying and Spike regretted not having a chance to see Ripper tear the boy a new one.

Soon Dawn was pumping Spike for information about the battle and Ethan Rayne, while Xander and the witches bustled about setting the table and wondering out loud if this were a late lunch or early dinner. The scene was oddly domestic. The most disturbing part to Spike was how easily he fit into this warm, extended family. He had never had so much, and he had never had so much to lose. Chipless and mated; obviously Red and Rupes hadn't been comparing notes or this evening wouldn't have this relaxed camaraderie.

After dinner Red tugged Xander out onto the balcony for a private chat. Her little blonde witch was giving the Nibblet a lesson about the tarot deck while Rupert discreetly sat himself down close enough to supervise just what information was being shared without seeming to hover. Spike strolled over to the CD collection, ostensibly to choose new music, really to eavesdrop on the babble twins though the open window.

"I can't believe how nice you were to Riley. I just wanted to throttle him." The sweet witch sounded nearly as upset as right before Spike had ended up engaged to the Slayer.

"Will..." Spike watched though the heavy vertical blinds as Xander maneuvered himself in front of the pacing witch.

"No! You're a guy. You can't possibly under..." Oddly enough none of Spike's overprotective instincts were urging him to protect his mate from said mate's best friend.

"Hello, Anyanka. You still bucking for that job? We could give D'Hoffryn a call," Xander joked and Spike stifled a snort.

"You weren't there, well you were, but you didn't see how much she was hurting," Willow said.

"What? You mean when he never called, never wrote-bad enough when he blew off Valentine's Day, and her birthday, but Joyce? Like with all the covert-y shit they pull keeping an eye on the Hellmouth he couldn't have least gotten word to her that he hadn't run out and met death head on during his first mission?"

Xander's voice had been getting louder and Spike watched the others look toward the window and then pretend to go back to what they were doing. "God, Will," Xander continued in a softer tone. "Know what she went through? I lived it. Still do, although it gets easier. You think I don't wake up wondering about An? Wonder how she is? If she's alive? Hell, for all I know she packed up and didn't make it as far as the city limits before someone or something got her!"

"I'm sorry. I... you seemed so okay, since you and Spike...I didn't ask, because ... well, I thought you wouldn't..." Willow had wrapped both of her hands around one of Xander's, looking up at him as she babbled.

Xander cut her off. "I'm good. I feel guilty I'm so good. I just...Listen, up until Friday I would've been right with you on the 'let's lynch Riley' train, but ... I..." He faltered, looking away.

"Xand?" Spike suddenly had to be there, he had to hold his boy, but unbelievably was able to rein in that urge as Red wrapped her arms around Xander.

Xander held her tucked under his chin, "It would have made you sick to see me. The way I laid into him in the library was nothing compared to the buttons I pushed to get him to tell about Rayne."

"You had to! Xander, if we hadn't known about ... the body count..." Red stepped away and leveled a glare at Xander. "No one but you could have got us out of this with out losing anyone. No one. Are you listening to me, Alexander LaVelle Harris? Even Jeff will be out of the hospital in a few days. You cannot hold yourself accountable for the Initiative losses. They would have had a lot more dead if Ethan Rayne had gotten control of the Hellmouth."

"You talked to Jeff?" Xander's attention skipped to another track and years of experience enabled Willow--who most likely had the same fragmented thought processes--to keep up.

"Yeah he's fine, well, fine for being zapped. They're keeping him until Tuesday under observation, but he has his laptop and he wants to talk to you about implementing a permanent patrol schedule." She smiled and tugged Xander to sit down next to her on the ancient glider he had scrounged from somewhere.

"Did the taser fry his brain?" Xander asked.

"Xan, a lot of people have spoken to Jeff and Jonothan about this. They're not blind. Buffy isn't here to watch out for them and, hey, they have younger brothers and sisters-it won't be long before some have kids of their own. They aren't the same trusting fools that their parents are." Willow put her head on Xander's shoulder.

"I don't know," he said.

"We don't have to talk about this now...How are you?" she asked.

"Good. Really good." He hesitated, then pulled his shirt off.

"Oh my G...Xander!" Whap! She hit him. "What the hell are you thinking?"

"It's not what you think..." He started.

"You are so not passing this off as kinky sex." She stood up and glared down at him, hands on her hips.

"Not kinky. Not sex, not just sex...more. Will, I don't have the words but this means something," he said.

"What?" she asked suspiciously.

"Spike and I...we're not just fooling around," he said.

"Duh! You think I can't tell that by the way you look at him? Xander, we've know each other since we were mewling babies-as the last demon who ripped out your heart pointed out--I know you're in love with him." She cocked her head and contemplated the subdued young man.

"Will, this is real-this is forever," he whispered.

"You sure you know what you're doing?" She sat back down, reaching toward the healed bite, hand hovering just above the mark.

"Not a clue," he shook his head ruefully. "But," he said, "my heart tells me this is right."

She pulled him up into a tight hug. "I love you, you know. Always have, always will."

"I know," he whispered. "Same here."

Spike moved away from the window and put a Bonnie Raitt disc in, replacing the angry young woman bemoaning her love life that had been playing. He crossed to watch over the Nibblet's shoulder. The soft voices from the balcony tickled at the back of his consciousness but he resolved to give them as much time as they needed.

Eventually they came in; Xander had put his shirt back on. Tara was wrapping up Dawn's lesson. Rupert said good night and invited them all over for pizza and a clean-up party at the store the next day before leaving. The girls stayed to make root beer floats and made the appropriate 'ewww' when Spike drizzle blood into his.

Finally, shortly after dark, they were leaving. Xander, of course, insisted on seeing the girls to their car. It was Willow's parents' car but since they weren't scheduled back from the seminar in Paris until September she had the use of it. Dawn and the witches lingered another half an hour in the parking lot, talking about nothing. Spike stopped his growl of frustration by burying his face in Xander's neck. Standing behind him with both arms wrapped around him he looked up to glare at Dawn and the blonde witch, who were giggling as Xander and Willow chattered on, oblivious to Spike. Spike had shifted to his demon face mid-glare, with no effect. Even through Xander's shirt Spike was aware of the bite above the young man's collarbone; his very scent had changed and Spike could smell himself on Xander, the scent now part of Xander. They really need to get to bed.

Spike desperately wanted to be alone with Xander but shifting his yellow-eyed glare to Willow didn't even register with her as she gushed, "Jeff wants you to give him a call. I gave him your e-mail address and once you review the timetables he's drawn up, let him know what you think. Jonothan has some good ideas-but I kinda get the feeling that he needs your okay before he does anything."

"You sure you think that this is a good idea? I mean ..." Xander bit his lip. His grip on the forearms which Spike had wrapped around him tightened. Spike nuzzled Xander's temple and purred when the young man leaned back against him.

"We can't do it all ourselves, not forever." Willow sighed and pushed back her hair. "Even the Watchers don't know if or when they'll find the new Slayer-I have a bad feeling about that." Tara moved closer to Willow and took her hand. Willow continued, "I kinda got the impression that they thought we would be a bad influence on a Slayer anyway. I don't think that they would send a Slayer here, unless we screwed up big time and all died." She turned to smile at Tara and seemed then to realize at the same time as Spike released his growl of frustration, that it was time to leave.

Xander kissed him absently and said, "All right. I sorta feel guilty dragging them all into this..."

"They volunteered," Willow interrupted and gave Xander her 'you're not responsible for everyone' look, which had been making an appearance often lately.

"You know they have no idea..." Xander shook is head.

"They have some idea," Willow interrupted, "and they'll either stick with it or run and hide. We were a lot younger when we started."

"Okay," he laughed, "just so I don't have to bring donuts for all of them. I don't-they're not coming to the meeting, are they?" he added with a bit of panic.

Willow shook her head with a smile and said, "Read Jeff's proposal. Xan, we gotta go. Someone," she inserted a raised eyebrow into her significant pause, "is giving us pointed looks."

Willow gave each of them a kiss before the girls got into the car and drove off.

Spike purred and stepped up his public--even though they were alone--molestation of his mate. Xander, instead of blushing or pulling away, turned in his arms and began to reciprocate. After a few minutes of heavy groping Spike pulled back to look into Xander's lust-dilated eyes. He had intended to make a leering suggestion, but was mesmerized by the look in Xander's eyes. Reverently Spike lifted his hand and stroked Xander's lips with the pad of his thumb. Xander looked at him as though Spike were the most precious thing that the young man had ever seen. Spike was so enthralled by the feel of the smile spreading across those lips he almost missed the mischievous gleam enter Xander's eyes just before his thumb was lodged firmly between his mate's teeth. Teasingly, Xander held it trapped but did not bite down.

"It's all right if you do," Spike said softly.

Xander shook his head, still holding the thumb and laughed. He released it and kissed the indents his teeth had left on the vampire's thumb before saying, "I don't want to hurt you. Let's make quiet love tonight. I want soft touches and pretty words." His breath ignited tingles across Spike's skin and Xander added, "Will you give me pretty words?"

"Anything, Pet. Anything you want." Spike looked up at the night sky, almost devoid of stars due to all the lights. He looked back at the man who held him and said, "You are my sun, my golden boy. Your dark-eyed mirth ties me to life. Your taste, your touch, your scent bind my heart and cage my beast. My only want, my only need, my only desire is to be yours for all time. Shine my Sun-light my shadows-drive back the darkness." Spike spoke hardly above a hushed whisper.

Xander quietly kissed his temple, then drew back to look into his eyes. "It's beautiful," he whispered.

"It's drivel, not worthy of you," Spike snorted, looking away.

"It's mine." Xander poked Spike hard in the center of his chest. "And I say it's beautiful."

Spike laughed and said, "Yes, Pet. Whatever you say, Pet."

Xander rewarded his compliance with a kiss. The boy didn't care if Spike read the back of the cereal box to him. Xander listened with the same rapt expression on his face if Spike read Kerouac or Jackie Collins-when Spike spoke them the words were worth listening to. Not that Xander couldn't recognize drivel in general. Some of the many small gifts Xander constantly hid for Spike around their apartment had been books of poetry. One had been a book of heinously bad verse. They laughed together when Spike read it aloud. Spike chose not to mention that the only reason his own work wasn't in there was because he had been too much the sniveling coward to attempt to publish. No, Xander's only real blind spot was Spike's voice. Once Spike started to read aloud Xander's eyes would start to glaze over, in a good way. There was nothing like looking down into the dark eyes of the man who lay with his head in you lap and hear him pant out as he reached down adjust himself, "Oh God, read that part again." Dru, poor dear, had had trouble following a conversation without the subtle language and allusions of verse-although she had loved nursery rhymes. Harmony had never looked past Cosmo as the ultimate literary source. Xander, however, said 'read that again' at all the right passages. The boy's academic career might have been quite different if Sunnydale High had just been staffed with hot young teachers in tight jeans with sexy voices.

Xander broke the kiss to breath. Spike watched Xander contemplate him and wondered just what was going on in the man's head. It had been a rough couple of days-even to sleep through. Although it was still obscenely early for a vampire, it was late for a human who had to work the next day. Yet Xander showed no intentions of wanting to go to sleep, what with both hands firmly griping Spike's ass and his brown eyes sparkling with desire. Not that necking in the parking lot wasn't appealing but Spike was ready to throw his mate over his shoulder and run him up the stairs when Xander whispered, "Let's go to bed."

They made the quiet love Xander had requested. They spooned, with Xander's warmth wrapped around him. Spike was treated to a long slow fuck peppered with words of endearment tickling his ear as Xander's warm breath sent tingles in its wake. Spike would have given Xander all the pretty words he wanted except he seemed to have lost the power of speech. As Xander stroked Spike's cock in time to their languid coupling, Spike pondered that the boy had words. He suffered a giddy moment of envisioning them like the three sisters in mythology who passed one eye around between them. Maybe he and Xander had only one voice and since Xander was now using it, Spike would be mute. With his mate's warm length rocking gently inside him Spike really didn't mind and began to purr.

* * * * *

Spike headed over to the magic shop shortly after Passions the next day. Part of him thought that it would be best if Xander talked to the Watcher and another part thought that since Xander had talked to Red that he should be the one to approach Giles. Fortunately, Rupert was out when Spike dodged in through the back door of the shop. Really should talk to the bloke about installing a tunnel access in the cellar, can't rely on these dark, rainy days all the time. More out of boredom than guilt over trashing it, Spike set about putting the training room to rights while ignoring Giles' nervous, quiet assistant out front.

He was surprised when Willow showed up early and after stashing her books and purse in one of the storage cubbies she regarded him solemnly.

"You bit him," she said. The witch's eyes were full of concern.

"No. Well, yes. But it wasn't... I marked him, Red. Marked him as mine-anything goes after him it has to come through me. Understand?" Spike admitted to himself that it wasn't the subject matter that made him uncomfortable so much as that this tiny woman was Xander's family--practically the only family that the boy had had growing up.

"I guess... I guess today isn't that different from last week... but I don't like the idea of anyone biting Xander. Does it hurt him when you bite?" she asked.

If she hadn't been biting her lip and almost trembling Spike might have snarked out something cruel. Instead he said, "What did Xander say when you asked him?"

"He blushed and babbled but really didn't tell me anything. Spike, you don't hurt him...this isn't dangerous is it?" she said in a breathy, oh-God-I-unchipped-the-vampire-boffing-my-best-friend voice.

"It hurts. It hurts in a good way." At her wide-eyed look he continued, "Think of it as another form of penetration, luv." It was tempting to use her embarrassment to cut off this line of questions, but Spike wanted her on their side when Rupert found out. "Willow," Do I use her name so rarely that she looks so shocked when I do? "Xander and I are bound, 'til dust or death takes one of us. I won't hurt him. I'll kill anyone--including you--that does."

She sniffed, blinking her bright eyes as if to dry the tears she hadn't shed and said, "Right back at you, blondie-you hurt him and I'll make your time with the Initiative look like a health spa." There wasn't a light show and her eyes stayed the same human green as always but Spike was intensely aware of the power that thrummed through the young woman and how she had used it against the hellgod.

"Fair enough." He crossed his arms and asked, "Shouldn't you be in class?"

"Semester break." At his puzzled look she added "Hello, Fourth of July? Spike, how long have you been in this country?"

"Enlighten me, oh Red, White and Blue," he snorted, thankful that she had changed the subject.

"Tara and Dawn are poring over Joyce's recipe books as we speak and will be baking Dawn's favorite blueberry pie. Over the next two days they'll make fried chicken and homemade ham salad and the jello thing with the little marshmallows, cole slaw and red potato salad. Wednesday, those of us who do not burst into flames out in the sun will go to the parade and in the evening we'll pack up all the food and head to the picnic area of the park to sit under the stars--it is supposed to stop raining by then--and watch the fireworks. Welcome to the United State, William the Bloody, hope you stay awhile-just don't put blood in the jello thing."

Spike went down to the storeroom to set it right and Willow busied herself at the computer in Giles' office. He was pleased with how their chat had gone. After they had covered his opinion of American holidays Willow had informed him that Xander has volunteered him, with his connections, to help she and Tara find a nice, 'reasonably-priced', two-bedroom, near campus. With all the extra courses and summer work the witches had pursued, they would both be seniors this year and wanted out of the dorms.

When Spike had cocked a curious eyebrow at the two-bedroom specification Willow had said she wanted Dawn to have her own room there for when she stayed. It wouldn't be long before Xander would be thinking the same thing. Giles had moved his study from his flat to the store and Dawn had her 'real' room there. But she had spent a few Friday nights on Xander's couch, because--as she had confided in Spike--she loved what a big kid Xander was on Saturday mornings. So whether it was girl's nights giving pedicures in the dorms or Japanese monster-movie marathons with the boys or a relaxing evening writing in her journal on Giles' sofa, Dawn lived with all of them.

Spike sensed Xander when he entered the building. He was sure he did. But when Xander didn't call down or come in search of him he started to second guess the feeling. Unable to shake the suspicion that he hadn't been wrong Spike went upstairs. He tensed when he heard raised voices coming from Giles' office-the whole 'cone of silence' spell had been lifted during the evacuation. Stopping at the corner Spike saw that Xander had his back to the window in the office door and angry Rupert was visible over the young man's shoulder.

"Yes, but you didn't see fit to tell me." Rupert's voice was hard with controlled anger.

"I'm telling you now," Xander reasoned in a monotone.

"Xander, this is...I can't believe...What are you thinking? Are you thinking?" From anyone else Xander would have responded with sarcasm or scathing humor but since the tirade was coming from Giles he dropped his eyes and hunched his shoulders.

Spike had had enough with eavesdropping. He wasn't about to just lurk about in the corridor when Xander appeared unwilling to defend himself. Now that they were mated it wasn't as if he didn't have a right to butt in, he reasoned, and opened the office door. "Now, Rupes, ease up. You've been letting that nancified Sire of mine and his pet Watcher fill your head with all sort o' speculation." He pulled Xander into his arms and wrapped himself around the human much as he had the previous night. "I'll tell you same as I told Red, no one--no one, we clear?--hurts him. Anyone that tries comes through me. Vampires mate 'til dusthe's mine."

"Oh, dear." Giles sank to the seat behind the desk and Xander groaned and buried his face in both hands.

"Pet?" Spike lifted a hand to gently tug at the barrier of Xander's hands.

"Xander," Giles said through clenched teeth, "was there something else you wanted to tell me?"

Xander lifted his face from his hands and let Spike keep one; he used the other to pull down the collar of his shirt to expose the scar, white now against his tanned skin. "Look, Dad. We got hitched."

Giles shot up out of the chair. He started forward then began to pace. Twice he started to reach out toward Xander's collarbone and twice he pulled his hand back. He started to mutter about blood bonds and turned back to a shelf behind he desk and pulled out a book.

"Wait, what was the row about if you didn't tell him about us?" Spike asked the resigned young man in his arms.

"I told him about the chip, Dipshit." Xander's tone was long-suffering and he brushed a kiss over Spike's temple. Deciding that he had been forgiven--not that he had felt guilt, but he hated having Xander angry with him--Spike shifted to game face and buried his nose in the crook of Xander's neck and purred loudly. He was ready to say 'vampires do not sodding purr' should Rupert take note of it but the man seemed far too distracted.

Giles but down the book on the desk and stepped over and examined the scar. He seemed wary of Spike but that didn't stop him from glaring at him and saying, "You expect me to believe that after all your talk about bathing in our blood that your love for Xander will somehow prevent that? That we're all safe?"

"No." Spike dropped his street thug stance and accent, unwrapped his arms from Xander and stood squarely in front of the Watcher. "No, you've all been safe from me since the night Buffy died. I... I promised her I'd take care of Dawn. Taking care of Dawn means all of you have to be kept safe. I take my promises just as seriously as you do, Rupert Giles."

"Did this promise cover the rest of the populace? Happy meal with legs, I believe was what you called them." Giles' heart was beating a mile a minute and Spike could smell fear, but the man showed no outward signs.

"No. But I promised Xander I wouldn't kill..." Spike started.

"He promised he wouldn't hunt," Xander interrupted. "Giles...he will kill, but not unless he has to. You can't expect him to not defend himself-not after what those bastards at the Initiative did to him."

"Well, I can see my opinion isn't going to matter on this," Giles said.

He turned back to the desk and studied the book. He looked as if he were going to speak but was stopped by Xander's quiet words. "Of course it matters. I...I really want you to be okay with this-with us. I'm sorry I didn't tell you about the chip before, but with the invasion and all, the project moved from R and D to field testing way ahead of schedule."

"And the blood bonding?" Giles asked.

"Come on, you knew about us." Xander crossed to the older man and sat on the corner of the desk next to the text Giles was focusing his attention on.

"You've watched us dance around each other forever and you had to know-I mean, this is Spike. He just doesn't do discreet."

"Standing right here, Pet," Spike said.

Giles lifted his gaze from the book and offered Xander a small, commiserating smile and said, "Angel wanted to speak with you regarding...well, this."

Spike growled and stepped closer so he could grip one of Xander's arm and card the fingers of his other hand through Xander's thick hair. Xander ignored him and said, "Yeah, I told him we'd talk...Giles? Does he know anything? I mean... Was he given some sort of handbook or users manual when he got turned that Spike traded for a bottle of JD?"

"Standing right here, Pet," Spike said.

Xander absently pulled the vampire onto his lap and kissed him quick before saying, "Shhh," and turning expectantly back to Giles.

Giles regarded them both and smiled again. "Xander, you do have a way of hmmm... 'cutting through the bullshit' I believe is the way it is expressed. My own research on blood bonding has not been very rewarding-the little that is known is speculative in nature and not from what I consider reliable sources. Angel did admit to being somewhat in the dark regarding it and could give no concrete reasons for his misgivings--other than the obvious one of it involving Spike..."

"Hello, I'm in the room with you. Would you like me to leave?" Spike was pleased that his words prompted Xander to hold him tighter.

"Shhh, be good and I'll do something nice for you." Xander whispered suggestively in his ear, causing the Watcher to blush. "How about this, Giles? You continue to research--I'll answer any questions you want, as long as it's for you and not the Council--and I'll talk to Angel."

Spike growled and shifted to game face. He wasn't at all opposed to Xander talking with the poof over the phone, but he knew if he growled Xander would do what he was doing now-nuzzling his neck and saying, "Shhh." Spike was beginning to like that sound; it made Xander's breath ghost along his skin.

"I'm not saying I'll believe him or that it will influence us in any way, but he can talk all he wants," Xander continued. "In return...just...give us a chance. Okay?"

Giles agreed. The conversation moved on as Xander handed the older man a disc for his computer and they discussed the details of the plan for patrolling Sunnydale that one of Xander's minions had devised.

Willow had taken her car to pick up Tara and Dawn. The girls arrived with bags from Boston Market. Willow, in full mommy-mode, as Xander called it, had decreed that they were eating too much junk food. She covered the long makeshift table, still standing in the far end of the training room, with a plastic cover before laying out a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Dawn bubbled over with excitement and chattered about the picnic she and Tara were planning. Spike caught Xander's eye across the table and shared a moment of complete understanding. This was something neither of them had ever had-family. They had built it with iron will and perseverance. And if anything tried to take it away, then the Gods of Heaven and Hell had better help them.


1. Robert Herrick 'To Althea Who May Command Him Anything'

2. Arthur Welllsey, Duke of Wellington

3. Shakespeare 'Sonnet CXXVI'

4 Shakespeare 'Sonnet CXXVII'

5. Delmore Schwartz 'How strange love is, in every state of consciousness'

6. Rudyard Kipling 'The Thousandth Man'

7. Juan Ramone Jimenez

8. Hsu Tsai-Seu 'on love'

9. George Noel Gordon 'She walks in beauty'

10. Robert Herrick 'To Althea Who May Command Him Anything'

11. John Keats 'To Fanny'

12. Sappho

*'The Lovers' Tarot' by Jane Lyle .

13. Rubaiyat

14. Rubaiyat

15. Trudi Parana 'Skinsong'

16. Jealuddin Rumi

17. Rudyard Kipling 'An American'

18. Mirabari

19. Garmhac = grandson

Dalta = pupil

Leanbh og = young child

20. Seanathair = grandfather

21. Douglas E. Winter "Joy Divided"

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