Fred worries about other people. It's a nervous tic, runs in the family. Her aunt used to have that way about her too except with things, not people. She couldn't keep her long, bony fingers from adjusting the crocheted antimacassars on the armchairs, the sideboard runner, the drapes and doilies. Twitch, twitch, twitch, all day, trying to set things to right that weren't wrong.
When Fred was fourteen, Aunt Lulah was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. It made Fred afraid for her own self, because everyone told her that she took after her aunt Lulah, so all her life--if life started at fourteen--she's tried hard not to twitch or straighten things that maybe weren't bent.
But Spike isn't just bent, he's broken. He's been that way ever since coming back from Yothre with Wes. Fred is supposed to just smile politely, let her eyes skate over the weird moments along with everyone else, like when he rubs that one spot on his temple as if he's trying to find something under the skin and dig it out; or when he throws a glass across the room in the middle of a meeting. Not to mention his habit of wandering into the Hyperion lobby with an open bathrobe and nothing but God's gifts under it, which reminds Fred of her old after-school job at the nursing home. No client has complained yet though; that's something.
And no one gets upset with him, of course, least of all her; but they're not supposed to say anything at *all*, and that's hard sometimes.
"Just send him to me," Wes says whenever Fred stammeringly mentions some little incident like, oh say, the time when Spike threw lit matches into the waste-basket until he started a fire. Wes handles everything Spike now. He's the official Spike-wrangler. That used to be Angel's job, before Wes's and Spike's portal trip to hell, and Fred suspects Angel hasn't gotten used to standing by and doing nothing instead of going a few rounds with his grandspawn. He sometimes gets this look on his face as if he's concentrating hard so as not to grab Spike's neck and shake him like a rat, but worse than that is when the moment passes and he takes on a different sort of self-control. Fred has watched him watching Spike and seen pain and pity there, and every time she sees that look--badly hidden behind flat eyes, flat mouth--it chills her. If Wes were gone, she doesn't think Spike would last long. Angel doesn't always put things out of their misery, but he does when they get under his skin. Spike's under all their skins.
"Thanks!" Fred says now as Spike returns from his errand and hands her the bag from the magic supply shop, all rolled and crumpled. She opens it and takes out the items he's picked up for her. "This'll be so helpful. I want to get the protection spell up tonight, even though we're probably all right until the--oh." She moves the little baggies around, setting them in order to match her mental list. All the ingredients she asked for are there, except the grynwar root; instead there's a bag of crushed ginger.
"All there," Spike's saying. He's pulled her shopping list from his jeans pocket and is shoving it across the counter toward her. There's something sad about the gesture, as if he's saying: *I know you don't trust me to get it right, so go ahead and check on me.* The list is as crumpled as the bag, but Fred can read her own handwriting and sees that she didn't make an error.
"I--I think the shopkeeper made a mistake," she says in her most apologetic voice, feeling intense discomfort as she meets Spike's blue eyes. He's taking on that tight, particular frown she hates. "He gave you a bag of ginger."
Spike refuses to lose the frown; he's staring at the bag as if trying to remember how it came to be something else it wasn't supposed to be, and for a moment Fred feels impatient to the point of wanting him gone from their lives, a vicious, horrifying feeling. He should have checked his purchase, they both know that; it's a small and ordinary mistake, one that anyone could have made, but it's Spike who made it, so it's hard not to blame him in particular because of how he is now.
"What," Spike says. "Not what you needed?" There's an affected note in his voice, one too familiar to Fred; the tone of people who habitually do things wrong and are always prepared to blame someone else. She just doesn't respect that, can't. She hates incompetence. Even with Spike all messed up the way he is, it grates on her nerves.
"I needed grynwar root." She hears the impatience edging into her voice and makes it go away with a bright, forceful smile. "That's okay. I'll go back tomorrow when the shop opens--"
"I've got it." Spike grabs the bag and the list with a rough swipe but doesn't head right off; he's got to stare at the list and puzzle at it some more, making a show that suggests her handwriting could have been unclear. It's only his way of saving face but Fred grits her teeth and nearly loses it. It's late, she's tired, he's crazy.
"The shop will be closed now," she manages to say reasonably, keeping even and calm, not at all homicidal.
"I'll make him open up." He's closing in on himself, stubbornness taking over. She can see a stormcloud of anger darkening his features; the situation has embarrassed him, and from experience she knows he'll go to great lengths to try and correct it, all out of proportion to the problem.
Wesley's mild voice floats through the open door separating the anteroom from his office, and they both turn their heads. He's sitting at his desk, attention focused on the book in front of him; looking at him, you might swear he was absorbed to the exclusion of anything else, but Fred knows he's heard every word.
The shopping list is allowed to drift onto the counter from Spike's hand and he walks into the office with the immediate, unthinking obedience that makes Fred sick. She is drawn to follow but pauses in the doorway, held back by an invisible barrier that has nothing to do with magic; it's just that, at night like this, with the one goose-necked desk lamp turned on low and Wes in his leather chair, it feels wrong to intrude past the threshold.
Spike has been invited though. Wes hasn't even looked up. "Kneel," he says, and if you didn't know him well, you might think his tone was offhand.
And Spike sinks down on the floor next to Wes's chair, body hidden behind the edge of the desk, leaving his dirty-blond, curl-tangled head visible. He gazes up at Wes attentively like a dog.
Fred's stomach twists. A minute ago she was pissy; now she isn't sure what she feels.
"He didn't do anything wrong," she says automatically, the way you might stick up for a little cousin who's too dumb to take care of himself.
"I know that." Wes's voice is level. He's writing something on a notepad, hasn't even looked at Spike yet, but when his pen stops moving he looks up at her. His eyes do warm and terrible things to her insides just as they have for the last year, things she shouldn't let them do anymore. He's got a gaze that's clear, maybe even a bit hard, but she thinks she can see right through to the other side of his thoughts. "You know I'm not punishing him," he reminds her as he always does, because she forgets.
And like a switch thrown from on to off, he's that new someone she doesn't know; nothing has changed in his expression--his eyes are still clear and he's still Wes--but she feels shut out by her own inability to understand him, them. It, whatever the big fat *it* is between him and Spike. Their years on Yothre. All the breakage and sticky putting-back-together of themselves that took place in some weird offstage blip that no one else got to be a part of. The pretty collar Spike wears that you might not realize was a collar unless someone told you.
"I can do the spell just as easily tomorrow." She can't shut up, is picking at things like a scab. The way Wes's dark hair curves to his scalp is beautiful, she notices, and the way his hands rest on the desk, sleeves rolled up, gold watch gleaming on one wrist. None of it is hers.
"Good," he says simply, and he's looking at her as if waiting for more. Not as if he's hoping she'll keep talking, but as if he knows her and knows there's more to come.
Fred glances briefly at Spike, and she still has Wes's attention, his eyes, but his left hand moves almost casually to stroke Spike's hair, fingers pushing into curls as if picking up rings of wood shavings. In his right hand, his Mont Blanc rests between two fingers like an interrupted cigarette.
"I should probably have called in the order," she says. She wants him to think highly of her. His respect is as critical as his smile, and it hadn't taken her long to figure out that he bestows both only on those who treat Spike well.
Wes's expression shifts, taking on shades of recognition and tolerance. He's putting up with her, she can see it. God. She *hates* that.
"It's all right, Fred."
Spike is leaning into Wes's hand now, head almost bowed, eyes half closed under a dark smudge of lashes. There's something demony and angry about the tilt of his head and the set of his eyes and the intensity of his face; at least Fred would like to think so. But she knows better. He's lovesick. A lovesick vampire.
Wes's fingers keep lazing through Spike's hair, and conversation dries up. Fred is forced to smile and nod and turn away back into the outer office. The door remains open and for a moment as she busies herself with some records there's nothing to hear, and then Wes says, in a voice so low and gentle it brings a tightness to her throat, "It's been a long day, hasn't it." No response, nothing in words, then the sound of a desk drawer sliding open. "Hold up your wrists...that's good. You're such a good boy."
The genuine, soothing praise makes Fred's stomach seethe and boil, makes her nail-spitting mad, hand-trembly; it's as if every ounce of human kindness in the universe has been melted together like warm butter and poured into the words.
The kindness of love is too much to bear. Especially the love you once turned down.