He hung up to find Xander staring at him in trepidation.


“What the – “ Xander blinked. “What did you do that for?”


“Well, first off, if you’re gonna tell a lie, tell it straightaway,” Spike told him. “Wait till you’re caught out, you look guilty right off and your story’ll sound thinner.”


“But what am I going to tell them?” Xander said desperately.


“You’re not,” Spike said firmly. “I’m gonna tell ‘em, ‘cause you can’t lie worth a shit, Pet. Now do me a favor and sit tight a minute while I arrange the evidence.”


Xander shut up and stared as Spike hurriedly moved boxes out of the bedroom he’d used for storage. He moved the air bed in there and made it up with fresh sheets, then mussed it up as if someone had slept there. He tucked Xander’s bag out of sight in a closet. As an afterthought, he pulled all the bottled blood out of the refrigerator and hid them, too.


“Right, that’ll do,” he said with satisfaction, just as Giles’ car screeched to a stop in front and Giles, Buffy, Dawn, Willow and Tara burst through the door, regardless of sunlight and its possible effects on Spike.


Xander patiently endured Giles’ examination of his injuries; worried at first, the mortal looked confusedly at Spike’s reassuring smirk. Spike wasn’t worried. With the welts healed, the bruises and abrasions that were left would fit his story nicely.


Right on cue, Giles asked, “Xander, whatever happened to you?”


“Bloody whelp couldn’t mind his own business,” Spike grumbled. “I had a bit of a run-in in an alley with a pack of human toughs, and they were having a jolly old time seeing as I couldn’t fight back, so what does this idiot do? Wade in after me.” He frowned sulkily. “I was doin’ just fine on my own, thank you very much,” he added.


“My mistake,” Xander said, with just the right amount of sarcasm.


Who knows, the whelp may have potential.


“Anyway,” Spike continued, “when they started whaling on him for busting up their fun, I grabbed him and we got out of there.”


Giles glanced at Spike.


“So you brought him back here?”

Spike shrugged.


“Owed him,” he said, rather embarrassedly. “Cleaning him up a bit was the least I could do, innit?”


“You did a good job,” Giles admitted. “Excellent, actually. I suppose you could tell his ribs were cracked but not broken?”


Spike shrugged again.


“Do enough damage to people, you learn a bit of what’s what,” he smirked.


“Who’s staying here?” Buffy said. She was standing in the door to the spare room, staring at the air bed.


“Well, I couldn’t very well put the whelp on the couch, not with cracked ribs, could I?” Spike said negligently. “’Sides, we’ve come to an agreement.”


“You have?” Giles said, his brow furrowing.


“We have?” Xander echoed. Then he hurriedly revised, “We have.”


“What agreement?” Buffy asked suspiciously.


“Well, the whelp was looking for low-rent digs so he could move out of that basement,” Spike said, giving Xander a glance. “I figured I could use somebody around in case I had a run-in with humans again, like that Initiative, maybe.” He gave Buffy a glare. “I figure it wouldn’t be so bad to have somebody around who could answer the door during the daytime and suchlike. And to maybe actually see to it that I get enough blood sent over to live on, like I was promised.” Giles had the good grace to look slightly abashed at that last dig.


“Here?” Buffy said incredulously, staring at Xander. “You want to live here? You want to move in with SPIKE?”


“Buff . . . “ Willow darted Xander an unconvinced ‘I’ll talk to you about this later’ look and laid her hand on Buffy’s arm. “It’s not very nice for Xander at home, y’know? His parents fight a lot. And drink a lot. And Spike can’t hurt him, you know that. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea. We didn’t like the idea of Spike running around with nobody watching him, but he is useful. He deserves some protection, doesn’t he?”


“I’ll tell you what he deserves,” Buffy said darkly, scowling at Spike, her hand touching the pocket in her purse where she kept Mister Pointy, her lucky stake. “But Xander’s a big boy. He can make up his own mind, I guess.” She glanced at Xander. “Next time, though, call me, okay? Don’t try to play hero. It’s what I do. You know, me Slayer, you – um – bartender.” Spike barely stifled a growl over that one. “Anyway, you need to stay out of situations like that.”


“Believe me,” Xander said sincerely, “I plan to make sure I’m never in that situation again.”


“Well – good, then,” Buffy said, mollified, looking rather surprised at Xander’s failure to defend his own alleged heroism.


Spike smirked, but inwardly he was grimacing. What the hell was he doing? He’d just made himself look like a helpless weakling to save the whelp’s pride. What the hell was that about?


Okay, not to save his pride. To keep his secret. Because I know how bad shame tastes in your mouth. I know how much more bitter it gets every time you have to spit it back up and chew it over again, the way I’m always stumbling over the damned chip in my every thought. I remember how it felt the first time Angelus fucked me raw in front of Drusilla and Darla, made me crawl, made me scream, made me plead, made me beg him not to stop – how I hated him afterward, how I wanted him, how he smirked and knew it.


And if Xander’s dirty little secret got out, why, then there’d be police and trials and newspapers and whatnot, and he’d have to chew it over again and again and again. And in the end what’d it get him? Fine, his dad’s in jail, and Xander’s out on his own. Well, never mind that. Xander’s free of ‘em, and someday, somehow, I’m gonna find my way around this fucking chip and give his dad something one whole hell of a lot worse than jail.


So I guess it wasn’t just for his pride, all right. Fine, I lost a little dignity. Isn’t as if they had any respect for me in the first place. And it’ll help keep them underestimating me, thinking I had to be rescued by Xander, of all the wimps. Got me one more thing, too. Got me the boy to stay here. And how pathetic is that, then, that having the whelp taking up my room is a fucking reward? Well, never mind. I wanted him, and looks like I got him. That’s what matters, innit?


“There’s nothing much more I could do for you,” Giles said, pulling Xander’s shirt back down. “Your ribs don’t need taping, although I’m certain they hurt abominably. Spike has more or less treated everything that could be treated.”


“I found a recipe for some liniment in this old herbal,” Willow offered. “It’s supposed to speed up healing. I’ll make some and bring it over.”


“I wouldn’t say no to that,” Xander said ruefully. Then he blushed darkly. “Ummm – could I get a favor, Will?”


“Sure, Xan, anything,” Willow said anxiously.


“Would you mind – um – “ Xander took a deep breath. “Would you mind going to my place and loading up my stuff while my parents are at work? If they see me like this – “ He waved a hand at his injuries. “ – I mean, hospitals and police reports and things are probably a bad idea, ‘cause it might be hard to explain about Spike and all.”


“Oh, sure,” Willow said hastily, accepting the key Xander handed her, and Spike wondered if she’d guessed rather more of the real story than the rest of that ignorant lot. “No problem at all.”


In point of fact, he was fighting mad. Best he could figure, this had been going on for a long time. Probably years. Now that he thought about it, he could remember plenty of times Xander had shown up at Giles’ moving stiffly, sitting gingerly or showing bruises here and there. He scowled. He himself had written off the stiffness and bruises to prior battles with local nasties, or Xander’s unconvincing explanations about straining something at his construction job or running into doors, or just the whelp’s uncanny bad luck. But Spike could be excused for that. He was supposed to be the git’s enemy, fer chrissake. He wasn’t supposed to be looking out for him. But at least he’d seen the clues and noticed them, even if he hadn’t done the math out to the proper sum. What the bloody hell were his “friends” thinking all that time? That Xander was a masochist with a door fetish?


Well, it didn’t matter. There weren’t going to be any more “accidents” for Xander to lie over. Spike smirked. Although if he had his way, and he was going to, mind, there would certainly be mornings when Xander would be sitting gingerly.


After a little more fussing around, Giles took the rest of the gang away with a stern admonition to Xander to rest. When the rest of the gang was gone, Spike picked up the phone and called Glitz. As he had expected, the manager was livid at Xander for not showing up at work, since he was supposed to open the bar today. Spike quietly explained that a gang of toughs had seen Xander coming out of the gay bar, waylaid him and beaten the snot out of him, and that it would be some time before Xander would be able to come in to work. Whereupon the manager said he’d need to see a doctor’s note. Whereupon Spike told him what he could do with a doctor’s note, a bottle, and one of his bar stools. Whereupon the manager told Spike that he could pick up Xander’s final paycheck, or it would be mailed to him. Spike said to mail it, and gave the address.


Xander gave Spike a rueful look when the vampire hung up the phone.


“Gee, thanks,” he said sarcastically. “Another brilliant career opportunity gone. Although the part about the bar stool was creative, I admit that.”


Spike shrugged.


“You thought you were fired already,” he pointed out.


“Yeah, but he would have let me stay when he heard your gay bashing story,” Xander argued.


“And where’d you have come up with a doctor’s note, Pet?” Spike said practically. “Never mind, wasn’t a good job for you anyway, working nights and all.”


Xander sighed.


“There doesn’t seem to be a good job for me,” he said sourly.


“You seemed to do okay at that construction stuff,” Spike pointed out. “Hours are good, pay’s good, they seemed to like your work. Why’d you quit, anyway?”


“I didn’t quit.” Xander stared at the floor. “There was a couple of times I, um, had to call in for a few days, and they got tired of me doing that.”


Meaning he’d either been too beat up to do his job or too marked to show his face. Spike wondered whether Xander’s father had beaten him for losing that job, too. He decided he’d better not ask; he was holding his game face back by an effort of will already.


“Ought to see if you can’t get back into that sort of thing,” Spike said idly. He went back to the kitchen to brew Xander another cup of tea. “Nice regular daytime hours, good pay, and the tanned muscle look’s a good one on you.”


“Wha-HUH?” Xander’s jaw dropped comically.


Spike smirked.


“Oh, come on, Pet,” he chided. “You’re a lovely piece of work under those mum’s-boy clothes. Nice shoulders, good hard chest, tight tummy, righteous arse – “


“God, will you stop it?” Xander said through gritted teeth, hiding his face in his hands. “Look, you got what you want, okay? I owe you for saving my life, I owe you for fixing me up, I owe you for keeping my secret, I owe you for giving me a place to stay when I don’t have anywhere else to go, I owe you for the goddamned blowjob, okay? I get it, okay? You don’t have to play this game. Just . . . whatever you want for all that, fine, it’s yours.” His voice was dull, tired.


Spike froze in his tracks.


He’d been so busy trying to figure out exactly why he was doing all this for the whelp, it had never occurred to him that Xander was probably wondering the same thing. He wasn’t surprised Xander had reached the conclusion he had. From the viewpoint of a lad who wasn’t used to receiving kindness, consideration or respect even from his friends, there could only be two real reasons Spike might have gone to all this trouble: As some kind of mind-fuck, or to get something from him. Those were the only two reasons, after all, that anybody but Willow had ever done anything for him. Also, to be quite fair, Spike hadn’t exactly earned a sterling reputation with the whelp for altruism.


Spike finished brewing Xander’s tea, put in lots of sugar the way the mortal liked it, and carried it in, setting the cup on the coffee table in front of Xander. He sat down on the couch next to Xander, sighing pensively.


“Look, Pet,” he said quietly. “I’m gonna tell you this straight up, all right? There’s no game, no strings. I wish there was; then I guess I’d know what to make of myself right now. Thing is, I haven’t thought much about why I did any of those things. I did ‘em ‘cause it seemed the thing to do at the time. Maybe I’m just – “ He grimaced. Sigh. “ – all right, lonely, all right? I’m not used to being on me own. Never have been since I was turned. First there was Angel’s whole little family when Dru turned me. Then there was Dru. Then minions and Childer of me own. Then me own nest here in the ‘Dale.”


He shrugged.


“Now I hunt me own kind, or avoid them,” he said flatly. “I can’t be around ‘em. Once word gets out that William the Bloody can’t so much as put a bruise on a human, I’m screwed, Pet. I’m dust. All any demon or vampire or ambitious minion has to do is get a couple of humans to hold me while they poke a stick through me heart. Or maybe something slower if they’re in a mood for it. So I’m fucked, royally fucked, see? Can’t go to Dru; even if she’d take care of me, she’s no saner’n she ever was. She’d blurt it out to somebody, or wander off to shag some demon and leave me again. Can’t go to Angel, even though he’s more or less my Sire; he’d as soon stake me as look at me. So there’s nobody. Nobody at all. Just the Slayer and her pack who all hate me.”


Long silence. At last Xander spoke softly.


“I don’t hate you,” he said.


Spike grinned wryly.


“I know that, Pet,” he said. “I don’t hate you either. You’ve been decent, you and Red an’ her girlfriend. If that weren’t the case, I might’ve still followed you through the cemetery, but it’d most likely have been to pick up the leavings when some demon did you in. No matter what a fine arse you’ve got.”


Xander blushed faintly.


“So you want me here for company?” he said skeptically. “Because you’re lonely?”


“Suppose so,” Spike shrugged. He grinned. “’Course, can’t say that’s all I’d like.” He met Xander’s eyes squarely. “But just because I’d like it don’t make it part of the rent or anything. You get me, Pet?”


Xander blushed again, but this time the comment seemed to please him.


“Okay . . . “ He glanced at the spare room with the air bed. “So – I sleep in there?”


Spike gave an exaggerated sigh.


“If you want,” he said. “Might feel good, anyway, the air mattress, with all the bruises and your ribs. But we’ll see about getting you a bed. Don’t expect Red can pack yours up for you.”


Xander looked uncomfortable.


“I told you, I don’t have any money,” he said. “At least until I find another job.”


Spike shrugged.


“Not to worry, Pet. I’ve got some. Not lots, but enough. Call it a loan if it makes you feel better.”


Xander looked surprised.


“Where do you get money?” he said. Then, hastily, “or do I want to know?”


“Depends, I suppose,” Spike grinned. “Lots of demons and vampires and the like have money, money they’ve made themselves, or that they’ve nicked off humans they’ve done. So I do them, I take the cash. Fair’s fair. Got a nice little nest egg now.” He grimaced. “Got more than that, but I can’t get at it.”


“Huh?” Xander said blankly.


“Oh, Angelus was big on saving up,” Spike said sourly. “So I’ve got money in banks. Don’t even know how much, but it’s bound to be lots. Trouble is, Angelus set it all up, so it all takes him to get it back out. Chance’d be a fine thing, eh? Trouble is, I never cared about it when I was with Angelus – he took care of all that. And then when I was with Dru and all, never needed the stuff.” He shrugged. “We just took what we wanted.”


He shook his head.


“Anyway, I’ve got money. Some credit cards I’ve nicked, too, but I can only use those for a bit before they get cut off.”


Xander gaped.


“You use somebody else’s credit cards?”


Spike shrugged.


“Sometimes,” he said. “Not ones taken off humans; those are trouble. The other ones, though, that I get off demons and the like, those are good for about a month. Couple times I got those bank machine cards and managed to – “ he grinned. “ – persuade the bloke to give me the code. One Revogsh demon had it written on the card, stupid git. Not that I minded.”


“Wow.” Xander grinned reluctantly. “Monster slaying for fun and profit.”


“Don’t forget food,” Spike grinned. “Nobody ever said it had to be drudgery, Pet. Well, all right, the Watcher’s probably said it. He would, though.”


“Wow,” Xander said again. He finished his tea and put the cup down. “So, um.” He cleared his throat. “Where’d you put my clothes? I probably ought to, you know, take a shower, get dressed.”


“You know where the shower is, Pet,” Spike said patiently. “I’d not bother dressing, though. Shorts and a robe would feel better on all those bruises, and you’re not going anywhere looking like that, are you?”


“Willow will be bringing my stuff over,” Xander reminded him.


“Well, she’s already seen you in a robe, hasn’t she?” Spike said practically. He shrugged. “Do what you want if you don’t mind her knowing you brought clothes with you. Kind of ruins the ‘chance encounter’ story.”


Xander sighed and trooped off to the shower without fetching clean clothes. Spike, who was still grimy from the battles of the night before (not having had a nice tub bath like Xander), and who would have thought the bleeding git would at least let him have the first shower in his own home, grimaced and went to make the beds. Both of them. And wash the bloody (one literally) cups, too. Hopefully Xander’s guilt over letting Spike support him would manifest itself in Xander being willing to take over most of the chores. Spike wasn’t used to cleaning and so on; he’d always had minions about whom he could make do whatever menial work needed doing.


Xander stepped out of the bathroom, thankfully with just a towel around his hips – at least the whelp had sense enough not to put a silk robe on his wet body. Spike fought down the urge to leer at the almost-naked body and strode by gruffly instead.


“Suppose there’s no hot water left,” he said sourly. Vampires weren’t supposed to care about that sort of thing; heat and cold didn’t really bother them either way. But Spike had grown up in an era when a hot bath meant hauling in buckets of murky, bad-smelling water, heating it on a stove or hearth, pouring it in a big tub, and carting it all back out afterward; not exactly the sort of luxury poor street children or starving poets saw often. One of the loveliest things about this century, to Spike’s way of thinking, was going into the bathroom, turning a tap and seeing sparkling clear, hot water fill up the tub, soaking in that wonderful hot water and plenty of nice-smelling soap, and then just pulling a plug to be rid of it afterward. Bloody wonderful. Showers were nice, too, although it felt somehow wrong to stand under something so much like rain and it be hot, but Spike just loved that tub too much. Most vampires, all caught up in immortality and blood and hunting, seemed to forget about human pleasures as if their mortal lives had never happened. Like Dru, however, Spike had never lost his taste for mortal comforts. He even had some nice cedar-scented bubble bath hidden under the vanity for those nights when he was feeling really self-indulgent and wanted a long, slow wank in the tub.


And today he definitely needed that wank.


He filled the tub, glad to find that there was plenty of hot water left, relishing the cedar scent that immediately filled the air when he poured in the bubble bath. He stripped and settled back into the bubbles with a sigh. Didn’t take much to get him hard as a rock, just a brief memory of Xander walking by in that towel. One of the nastier facets of the bloody chip in his head was that the necessity for avoiding too much contact with his own kind, or others who might discover his vulnerability, meant that he hadn’t gotten laid in too bloody long. Spike was as unaccustomed to celibacy as he was to solitude; he’d had far too much of both during his mortal life. From the start, he’d been something of a favorite with Angelus, and of course there’d been Dru. Then he’d been a master vampire himself. Why would a master vampire ever need to go without? Master vampires were powerful enough to take whatever they wanted from whomever they wanted. And even if rape wasn’t to a master vampire’s taste – and unlike Angelus, it had never been much to Spike’s taste, for the same reason that flogging would probably never be to Xander’s taste – there were always minions or Childer or younger vampires simply dying (so to speak) to fuck their way into a master’s favor. So it had literally been decades – hell, more than a century – since Spike had found himself doing without. It was an unpleasant reminder of his wretched mortal life.


And he hated it.


He stroked himself slowly, teasingly, the way he liked it best, remembering the feel of Xander’s body under his hands, the taste of blood licked from the long welts. Ahhhhh, the firm length sliding between his lips, the sweet/sour/salty nectar of Xander’s precome, mmmmmm, the way he moaned when Spike –


Tentative knock on the bathroom door.


“Uh, Spike?”


“What, Pet?” Spike said, not pausing in his strokes, eyes closed. Mmmmmm, heated pulse of blood just under silky skin, the way Xander’s thighs trembled . . .


“Ummm, where’d you put the pain pills?” Xander asked apologetically.


“Oh, right,” Spike said, stroking harder now. “They’re in here in the medicine cabinet. Help yourself.”


“Thanks,” Xander said, opening the door. He was dressed in his old jeans now, no shirt. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to – “


Xander’s jaw dropped. He stared.


“Bottom shelf,” Spike said.


“Um – “ Xander swallowed hard. “Um – you’re – uh – “


“Having a wank,” Spike supplied helpfully. He focused on that gorgeous mouth, added it to the fantasy image. Mmmm, just imagine those lips on my skin. “Gonna watch, leave, or join in, Pet?”


“Uh – “ Xander flushed crimson and fled the bathroom without going anywhere near the medicine cabinet. Spike grinned, mentally replayed that glorious moaning scream Xander had made when he came, added in the hot salty gush of Xander’s come, and came himself with a groan of satisfaction. He savored the afterglow until the water began to cool, then quickly washed up and got out of the tub. He dropped his dirty clothes into the hamper and walked back out just as he was, causing Xander, who was sitting in the living room nursing a cup of tea, to spit his tea at least six feet.


“Clean that up, would you, Pet,” Spike said as he passed, too relaxed to mind that Xander had just spit tea all over his living room. Modesty and privacy were two concepts Spike had never really grasped well. In his youth, they’d been more or less unavailable; when he’d become a vampire, they’d been virtually unknown. Master vampires did what they liked, when and where and with whom (or what) they liked. Angelus had certainly applied all possible permutations of that power with Spike. He’d done him alone, with Dru, with others in varying numbers, in front of others, on whatever surface had happened to be handy. Spike had done the same when he’d become a master. But there had been a difference – Dru. Dru didn’t like an audience, and she did like a comfortable bed. Angelus hadn’t humored these preferences; Spike did. When Spike and Dru had sex together, whether alone or whether they were sharing another, they went off to the nicest bedroom Spike was able to fix up for his dark princess wherever they happened to be at the time. Dru had rarely expressed any appreciation for this consideration, but Spike knew it had been one more small way in which he’d been able to keep his lady happy and content. He wondered, with a flash of hurt, whether whatever bloody demon Dru was shagging nowadays paid any mind to Dru’s love of these human creature comforts.


When Spike finished dressing, he came out to find Xander mopping up the floor with paper towels.


“’Y all right, Pet?” he asked.


“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Xander mumbled, low enough that apparently he was only talking to himself. “The man invites me into the bathroom while he’s jerking off, walks out stark naked, and now he wonders if I’m all right.”


“What I mean is, you oughtn’t be down there doing that, not with your ribs,” Spike said patiently. “That’s what the bloody mop’s for.” He held out his hand to help Xander up. After a long hesitation, Xander took the proffered hand, letting Spike help him up to his feet.


“Sit,” Spike instructed. He picked up the paper towels Xander had been using and threw them away; the floor looked okay. He poured Xander another cup of tea and carried it in to him. “Try to get this one down, Pet. And here.” He handed Xander a pain pill. “Forgot this.”


“Duh, I guess something kind of distracted me,” Xander said, grimacing.


“Been known to do that now and again,” Spike smirked.


Xander glanced up at him, blushing.


“Are you always going to, um, flaunt yourself like that?”


Spike snorted.


“Far as I know, no laws against having a wank in the bathroom,” he said. “You gonna tell me how I’ve got to dress in my own home now?”


Whatever reply Xander might have made was cut off by a knock at the door. Spike ducked into the kitchen to avoid the sunlight as Xander opened the door. Willow trooped in carrying two grocery bags, followed by Tara, similarly laden.


“Rosenberg Relocations,” Willow said cheerfully. “Where do we put everything?” She headed for the room with the airbed.


“Hang on, hang on, we need to get the whelp a dresser or some such, so don’t clutter it up in there,” Spike said impatiently. “Just pile it all along the wall over there, we’ll shift it ‘round later.” He laid a hand firmly on Xander’s shoulder when Xander would have gotten up to help. “No, you sit and supervise. Those ribs won’t thank you for moving around.”


“Yeah, consider us menial labor,” Tara laughed, stacking boxes.


“And Good-Idea lady present too,” Willow grinned, bringing in a long bag. “Spike, why don’t you go in the bedroom and shut the door for a few minutes? I think we’ve got your sunlight problem fixed.”


Spike frowned suspiciously, but went; he was uneasy enough in the living room with that open door anyway. He’d rather hoped the girls wouldn’t come until after dark, but there were still a good three hours of daylight left. Still, he felt more comfortable with just Willow and Tara in his home than he’d been with Buffy, Dawn and Giles too.


He listened from the bedroom, hearing shuffling, scraping sounds, chatter – Xander laughing, “Hey, Will, that was a great idea!” and, by God, a drill? No, electric screwdriver. God alone knew what they were doing to his flat.


“Okay, you can come out now,” Tara called. “We’ll turn the lights back on in a minute.”


Spike gingerly peeked out the bedroom door, raising his eyebrows when he realized the flat was almost pitch dark. He came out, grinning in approval.


“Hey, Red, I like it,” he admitted grudgingly. “What’d you do?”


Willow pulled one of the heavy velvet drapes aside over the small street-level window, grinning reassuringly when Spike almost leaped for the bedroom.


“Sorry,” she said, grinning apologetically. “Blackout curtains over pull-down shades. The really heavy ones. These are even rated for photo darkrooms. You can just flip ‘em up at night. And the curtain liners take care of any light leaking in around the edges. You know, if you put up an awning outside over the door, or even just put a big metal plate or a sheet of plywood across where the stairs come down, sunlight wouldn’t come in when you open the door.”


“Good idea,” Spike said, grinning. He shrugged. “Sorry, can’t offer you girls much but tea or beer, I’m afraid. Guess we’d better hit the grocer’s first thing tonight.”


“Well, some of this isn’t Xander’s, or I mean, it wasn’t Xander’s,” Willow said. She and Tara carried several of the bags into the kitchen; Xander and Spike trailed after them. “I mean, since Xander’s moving out into his own place – sort of – we thought we’d – “


Willow blushed.


“I mean, ordinarily we’d throw, like, a housewarming party or something, see? But we thought maybe, you know, Xander wouldn’t want to see anybody right now, and Buffy’s all miffed anyway about Xander moving in with Spike – I mean, she didn’t even offer to help, and Xander needs this stuff now, so we just went ahead and . . . well.”


“What Willow means,” Tara said gently, patting her anxious girlfriend on the cheek, “is we bought stuff to stock the cupboards for Xander. The sort of stuff a vampire probably doesn’t keep around the house.”


They had, too: Kitchen utensils, cleaning supplies (Spike was vaguely offended at that one; did they think he didn’t clean?), Xander’s favorite junk foods and beverages, bread, crackers, peanut butter, fresh fruit, canned foods, TV dinners, frozen pizzas.


“Hey, Tara, I forgot something,” Willow said. “The jar in the front seat – do you mind?” Tara smiled, kissed Willow on the cheek and exited. Willow blushed but turned to Xander.


“I, um, didn’t know whether to leave a note at your place, I mean your folks’ place,” Willow said quietly. “And then I thought, if I didn’t leave something, your dad would probably call Giles. And Giles would tell him – well, you know. So I left a note saying if he needed to reach you, to call me. Is that okay?”


Xander’s eyes widened, then filled with tears as he realized Willow knew, or at least guessed. He swallowed hard, nodded once, then turned away, and Spike could fairly taste the emotions pouring off him – love, gratitude, sorrow, shame.


Spike shifted awkwardly. He wanted to comfort Xander, but he didn’t know whether the whelp would welcome it or just feel more ashamed; Willow’s presence made it twice as awkward. Thank God, Willow came to the rescue, stepping around Xander and firmly pulling him into a hug.


“I won’t ask,” she whispered in his ear, but Spike heard it easily. “I won’t say anything to anybody, either. But I wish you’d told me a long time ago. I’d have done something, or tried. Really. I should’ve seen. I was stupid, I guess. Forgive me? Please?”


That did it; Xander broke down, sobbing helplessly on Willow’s shoulder. Spike bit his lip hard in frustration and resentment. At last he stalked out of the kitchen and sat down on the couch. Xander hurriedly fled to the bathroom just as Tara came back in holding a clay jar, which she handed to Spike after a brief sympathetic glance at Xander’s retreating back.


“I fixed this liniment while Willow packed up Xander’s stuff,” the witch said quietly. “I’ve never made it before, but there’s nothing dangerous in it, so I guess it can’t hurt. It smells kind of nice, actually. I rubbed some on my arm and nothing happened, although it warmed up on my skin.”


Spike took the jar.


“Thanks,” he said grudgingly.


“Thank you, for looking out for him,” Tara said softly. “Willow feels really bad. She thinks – well, never mind. It’s not our business unless Xander says it is. But we’ll help if we can. Anything. Willow really loves him a lot, you know. It’s just – well, I suppose she thought that if something was, well, wrong, he’d have told her, if nobody else.”


Spike shrugged, not answering. To him, it had been bloody obvious – at least in retrospect. But, then, he was pretty damned experienced, ey? Willow was a bit na´ve, he had to admit. Na´ve enough to actually believe all the stupid lies Xander had told to cover up the limp, the ache, the bruise. He supposed he had to give her that much benefit of the doubt.


“You know, if somebody ever, well, hurt Xander,” Tara said deliberately, “We’d have to do something. Willow and I would. There’s ever so many spells, nasty ones.”


Spike bristled, for a moment thinking he was being threatened – then he realized that Willow and Tara had no idea that anything had transpired between him and Xander; Tara was obliquely referring to Xander’s father. He grinned slowly.


“That bears some thought,” he said. “Problem is, you’d have to queue up for the privilege, see?”


Tara smiled slightly.


“I sort of thought that,” she said. “We’d have to work fast, before Buffy just rammed a stake through Mr. – well, whoever.” She glanced at the kitchen. “I think Will’s had enough time to get herself back together,” she said. “We’ll let Xander rest.” She raised her voice. “Come on, Will. Time to go.”


Willow nodded and followed Tara to the door. The red-haired witch’s eyes were red and swollen, but she gave Spike a tremulous smile.


“Thanks,” she said in a small voice. “For taking care of him.”


Spike, surprised at himself, managed a smile for her too.


“Thanks for helping,” he said simply.


That looked like it would break Willow up again, but Tara firmly steered her out, closing the door behind her. Spike glanced after them, obscurely pleased that he’d previously decided to let the witches off easy when he got rid of the chip.


All right, so I’m getting soft, he thought, mentally shrugging. But it’d be a lark to see what sort of spell those two might come up with . . .


Email: Shadow