Used to be, he'd come home most nights and drink with the TV on. He perfected aloneness. Because he'd gone north. Because he'd gone north alone. Because he'd had no Anya, no job, no thing. Years of Hellmouthing off, and he still had no thing. So he'd ended up in this northern city where it snowed a lot. He wasn't even sure of its name. It existed outside his windows and every day he went out and constructed it and every night his work was undone and he started all over again, directing men to raise the girders toward the overcast sky.
The telephone lines didn't go beyond the city anymore; he couldn't reach Buffy or the others. He wasn't sure it mattered.
He prided himself on his clear head. Clear enough. His time in Sunnydale had left him with the ability to separate magic from reality when others couldn't. So he and maybe he alone could see the city for what it was, knew that this was a very wrong place, a dark city that was becoming darker every day, and turning back in time, from a city of skyscrapers and glass to one of five-cent diner meals and movie houses with newsreels from the war, to one of coal fumes and muddy streets and horses and streetlamps with white glowing globes. Its parts were different and stitched together and didn't add up. Like a dream.
It didn't matter, though.
Every night he headed home the same way with his hands in the pockets of his navy pea-coat, left turn, right turn, left. The blocks were similar to each other, warehouses followed by department stores followed by apartment houses, all with admirable masonry, the buildings separated by eerily clean and widely spaced alleys that might have been slipways into other dimensions. Over his head at the corner of 9th and Pine the elevated train always passed; a clatter on the rails, a swish of lighted windows through which he could see no one.
One night as he was heading home this way, he passed the pet shop and looked into its window. It was a disturbing pet shop, with people and other creatures in the displays, staring out forlornly. He usually kept his eyes ahead, so it made no sense that he should do anything differently. But he did and saw Spike. He was slumped in a display case, partitioned off between a green-skinned alien woman from Star Trek and something manlike that squatted on all fours, with fur and horns and a glower. Spike looked up and met his eyes through the glass and recognized him. It surprised Xander. People didn't usually know each other here unless they'd already met.
He stopped and stared through the glass, then his gaze moved away, down to the sign that hung there, which said, "Vampire - $10." Not a bad price. He didn't spend much of his pay except on movies and diner meals and liquor store deliveries. So he went inside. The clerk unlocked the case, made Spike climb out, hooked a leash to his collar, and handed the leash to Xander.
Spike looked like a doll that had been kicked around the playground for a while. Dusty, somehow. Bruised. His hair was untended, a doll's hair, scrunched in odd directions, but it was white to the roots. He said nothing at all as he was led to Xander's apartment. Xander thought about giving Spike the coat to cover his nakedness, or at least of taking him off the leash. But these were passing thoughts. It was probably illegal to have your pet off its leash, and Spike had less need for a jacket than Xander did in the cold.
He stopped at the corner store and bought bread, milk, and blood. Spike waited outside leashed to a pole across from the fruit stand, staring at the crates of apples and oranges with a grave expression. Xander caught him at it through the shop window as he was being rung up.
Xander couldn't remember the last time he'd held a conversation outside work. A few words here and there, thank-yous to cashiers and waitresses. He'd forgotten how to talk. When he got Spike home, set him in place like the bag of groceries, he wasn't sure what to do with him next. He gave him the blood and Spike drank it. He couldn't figure out what to say or ask. The only question that occurred to him was, how'd you get here. And that didn't matter. And if that didn't, what else did? Nothing.
As the silence went on it was clear that Spike also had nothing to say. Or maybe he couldn't say anything. His eyes were a dark, heavy watchfulness on Xander. He was still and pale, like a store mannequin, but with more feeling.
Several days passed while Xander thought about what to do with Spike. When he came home now, the vampire was waiting by the door. Knowing he'd be there made Xander's steps quicken, focused his thoughts on a specific point. He bought blood every night now. It came in deli containers, plain white buckets scrawled with the word "blood" (35 cents) in black grease pencil; rows of similar containers lined an entire shelf in the fridge unit of the corner market. It almost made him wonder. He'd forgotten how it felt to wonder about something.
Habit and ritual gave him small things to look forward to. When he came through his apartment door, Spike would rub up against him like a cat intent on marking him, then slide off diffidently. Xander began to make brief remarks as he fixed his own dinner, puttered around the kitchen and the living room, sat down on the couch in front of the TV. He was talking to the silence; Spike was part of the fabric of the silence. A fixture, a pet. He didn't talk back.
He wore an old pair of Xander's jeans and nothing else, because Xander didn't give him anything else. There wasn't any point. He never went out. The view from the windows showed bits of rooftops, a park scattered with bare trees, the plot of land fenced off and strangely without purpose, situated across from a library but never used. Snow fell for hours every night and every day, piling up on the window ledges, and in the mornings Spike sat there by the radiator looking out. The sky was always overcast; he never burned.
Sometimes memories tried to stir in Xander's head, but he shoved them back down with a sense of panic so vast he couldn't even name it. When this happened, like an animal sensing a brainstorm, Spike would press closer, rest his chin in the dip of Xander's collarbone, or collapse in a graceful heavy heap across his lap to stare up at him from under half-shuttered eyelids. And then Xander would pet him and make aimless remarks into the silence and start to relax again, and the TV would flicker and his favorite TV show would lull him and the evening would pass.
Eventually Xander took Spike to bed, because. Because he was horny, because Spike was a pet but not a dog, because of how he stretched and looked up at Xander, because. That was a revelation, that was memory of something that had never happened before but should have, that was Willow and Buffy and Giles and high school and Sunnydale and Cordelia and Jesse and...nothing, nothing, fade to black, go to sleep now, nothing.
When he walked home now, he sometimes saw people acting more strangely, as if they could sense his disturbance. Vampires walking arm in arm with game faces on, but sedately, with affectionate murmurs, would look up and catch his eye and growl. Groups of squint-eyed boys on street corners watched Xander pass like a school of fish waiting to sink their teeth in and strip him to the bone. Drunk, stumbling women in fur coats and flashy jewels would sometimes pause and ask him for a light. Once, one slapped him.
At work, his job became more difficult because the men gave him sass, gave him lip and trouble and suspicious looks. He worked harder, longer, went home tired to his bones, feet chilling in the slushy snow. His neighbors were acting funny too; he thought they might be spying on him. Curtains were often pulled down as he walked up the steps with his grocery bag.
The corner market started selling cannabis, which was odd. It seemed like it should be odd, anyway. But he brought a bag home and smoked it. It tasted like oregano at first, but then it got him buzzed and sleepy. Spike watched from the end of the couch, interested, and Xander thought about giving him a toke or two, but it seemed cruel. He started smoking every night, and liked how it took the edge off, made him forget things. Sometimes it gave him odd new thoughts; he thought Spike might be reading his mind. The vampire seemed to know just how to accommodate his needs. Would take Xander's feet in his hands and shove the knots out, rub the bones out, would blow him while he sat and smoked, while he watched TV, before he went to sleep, before he woke up, as he walked in the door, as he was trying to make dinner. Looked at him with fathomless eyes and never smiled or spoke, but grew more pliant in Xander's grasp every time Xander fucked him, settling on Xander's cock as if he'd finally grasped his purpose, head falling back, lips parting, eyes closing.
It seemed that it had been winter for a very long time, maybe a year. Maybe two. It didn't matter. Other things changed; his job got easier again. People's eyes didn't linger on him.
One day when he came home, Spike smiled.