Buffy: "Are you in love with him?"
They're sitting having coffee together. Xander is starting to think that being a grown up is all about the coffee. Not the coffee per se, but the whole social ritual of drinking coffee and having serious, life-like conversations. He wants to rewind to high school, when they all drank pop and gossiped about the horrible fashion sense of their doomed classmates.
Rewind to high school? Jesus. Let that one go. Adulthood, he thinks: I embrace you.
Xander: "Did you get script coaching from Willow? I'm hoping so, because otherwise you're Willow in Buffy's body, and I think we've played that scary movie out."
Buffy, lowering her eyes with a small half-smile: "It's natural for us to be curious, don't you think?"
Xander has a meditative look for his own coffee cup. "Because it's Spike." Who'd be a scary person to love, no matter how you sliced it.
Buffy's kind, gentle correction: "Because it's you."
Xander gazes through the open cafe wall to the street, where cars ease by, kicking up splashes in the unexpected rain. "I look at him sometimes," he says absently, "and I think of that saying--about repeating past mistakes?" He catches her eye again, and she nods just enough. "Fell for a demon, fucked that up," he notes. "It's the been-there, done-that dance. Except it's not the same. He's not Anya, and I'm...not even me. Not the me I was." He tips his head, thinking about stuff, and rather than breaking in, Buffy waits him out. It's a new restraint for her. Or an old one he's never noticed before now. "I look at him sometimes," he says again, "and it's..." He gropes for words. "...it's like my life is rewiring itself."
Buffy, reaching to try and make a connection: "Is that the," uncertainty, "the gay thing?" She asks this with the caution of the indelibly hetero. Meekness, almost.
Xander smiles. Her social efforts are usually far more endearing than her heroic ones. "It's the Spike thing." His eyes grow more intent on her, and he has to ask: "Did you love him?"
Buffy considers, head posed at a slight twist: "I don't know. I was so messed up then."
Xander doesn't force his gaze against hers, drops it. Thinks it might be best not to dredge too deeply into the past. "Do you think it's love," he asks, "if you just have the little stuff and not the big stuff?"
Buffy: "What do you mean?"
Xander: "Like the other day. I'm telling him about some stupid mix-up with a shipment of some insulation. And I'm getting my bitch on, and all of a sudden I tune in, and--he's asking me about fiberglass versus rock wool, and composite versus foam, which has *nothing* to do with the issue, but god. It just about killed me." The memory makes his overfull heart squeeze against his ribs; he feels as lucky as when he won the lottery. More. "No way did I tell him that stuff." Xander shakes his head. "He must be going online, reading up. That shit's boring even to *me*, and he's talking shop like it actually matters."
Buffy seems strangely subdued by this. "He cares," she says, half-lost in her coffee cup again.
Happy thoughts are pressing up like dogs at a window, wagging for Xander's attention, distracting him: "I like being with him. It's the dumbest stuff he does that kills me." A faint smile. "I think he's writing a book," he confides, unaware of his diffident pride, "but he doesn't want me to know."
It's a far cry from New York City, from a flash life of clubs and tricks and contemplations of the eternal.
And later, driving home, Xander's still thinking of Spike. That thing with the insulation, and so many other conversations he hasn't paid attention to, have been slipping gently by him. Spike has been trying hard to make it all look natural.
Xander doesn't always miss the obvious. There are times when life folds together, sweet as a pie--they're deep in the cherry filling and the universe is warm--and he wants to pull Spike close and bring the universe to an abrupt end, so he can be certain that Spike will be the last thing he feels.
Xander more and more thinks love is beside the point, except when he panics and decides love is everything.
It's the most common word.
I love blueberry muffins, Xander thinks. How stupid is that?
Sometimes he trades a dry, wordless look across the Magic Box table with Spike, when Willow is complaining about the difficulty of finding decent clerks or how Anya's new web sites are sucking away their own share of online ordering. Their eyes know how to talk to each other now. Days pass, rise and fall like a tide, and Spike's still around.
So with all that, it should be easy to lay the word on Spike, to give it like a gift, a fancy bracelet--or, if not that, then a magazine you've picked up at the supermarket. Something casual, spur of the moment, stripped of its heavy significance. But Xander doesn't say the word, because he overthinks it. He has two modes: thinking too much, and thinking not at all. When he doesn't think at all, long periods of time can pass.
He says it anyway, one day. He's not forcing the issue, doesn't work it out beforehand. It just happens. Impulse purchase. No fancy bracelet.
Xander: "I love you."
Spike is dripping with demon goo, standing in the middle of a graveyard--headstones splayed out like broken teeth all around them. He stares uncomprehendingly at Xander. He's holding an axe and his face wears a confused frown: he's been slapped by surprise. Xander's gut turns over with fear. You can't take words back.
Spike, lowering his head slightly to process the words: "Love." The briefest pause. "Me." He seems to be having trouble with the basic concepts.
Xander braves it out: "Yeah."
There's a moment of frozen uncertainty, and then Spike actually turns around to look behind him, as if acting out some comical--and yet heartbreakingly terrible--imperative. He's not making a point, he's just unable to help himself. He's trying to find the audience, the laughtrack, the joke.
"You," Xander whispers, and it drowns him.
Love changes everything. But it does it slowly and you usually don't notice, and by the time you say the word, it's far too late. Saying the word changes nothing.
Xander doesn't expect Spike to claim love back, leap to meet him over the abyss. It's enough that Spike nods at last, smiles a little: the right signs to show he's not going to freak out, pull back. Leave.
Drugstore. Xander's shopping for the boring, necessary stuff--the supplies that get you through life, things you'd gladly do without if your existence were simpler, if you were, say, a Neolithic cave-dweller. Shaving cream. Soap. Minty mouthwash. Dental floss. And while he's there, he meets up with Susan Pilgrim for the first time since junior year of high school. Could there *be* any woman more oblivious? She's Classic Sunnydale Lite, but hadn't she moved away? And how the hell did she remember his name? He'd been a non-entity then to everyone but Willow, Buffy, and Giles. Cordelia, if you wanted to get technical, but he tries to block that out. Yet here Susan is, a chick who shared only one English and one Health class with him in four years, her face a high-beam of recognition. "Xander!"
Xander: "Oh...hi." He's blank, no memory at all. At first he thinks she's the wife of an employee.
Susan: "How are you?!" She seems so absurdly delighted, and what that says about her life is terrifying. Her last name is actually Jerome now, he learns. She wants to catch up on old times, and invites him over for some kind of cocktail party or housewarming. It isn't very clear.
Xander thinks in bafflement: The hell?
Bemused, he allows her to press her number and address on him, words looped onto a piece of paper. It's pink, lined paper from a small notebook she carries in her purse. He has no plans to attend, and their meeting seems almost Twilight Zone to him, but then at work, Jack asks: "Are you going to be there Friday?" At Susan's, he means, and it turns out that she's social with a lot of people at his company, and that's maybe why she feels like she knows him better than she does. It starts to come clear, and Xander's Hellmouthy radar, ready to peg Susan for a demon, is apparently off for once.
He's not planning to go, he tells Jack, but somehow by the end of the conversation his no gets arm-twisted into a maybe. Xander can tell Jack thinks he's stand-offish, and it's kind of funny that he's now a guy people try to persuade to parties. His geeky high school past seems firmly dead and buried. Of course, in this town, that means nothing.
When he talks about the party with Spike, it's clear the vampire's interest in attending is located slightly south of the Marianas Trench. He's not horrified or anything. It's simply that Xander's remarks about the party don't seem to penetrate.
Finally, Xander has to get explicit and say: "I was thinking of going...you want to come?"
Spike looks up, his tiny distracted frown giving way to full focus on Xander. There's this pause, like a car jumping the air across a broken drawbridge, and then he says: "Yeah, all right." And turns back to his laptop.
It's a hellishly anxious hour of preparation to get ready for the party, and when he's done, Xander realizes there's still another hour before they even have to leave. Disgusted with himself, tense, he gets a beer and bides his time alone in front of the TV, trying to run his brain down to empty. He doesn't want to be in the bedroom, because he's afraid he'll drive Spike bugfuck the way he's driving himself.
With fifteen minutes left to go, Spike comes into the living room, readied for the evening's social experiment.
Spike is wearing expensively fine suede shoes, brown. Faded blue jeans that rest on his hips in a way God never imagined: not especially tight, but following the line of his legs. A belt that looks right, without catching the eye too closely. A dark-blue fitted shirt, cuffs rolled up, the top few buttons undone. His leather choker. His leather bracelet. His white-blond hair stiffened by hair gel to a nervous mix of curls and tufts, but looking stylish and strokable.
Xander stares, gaze lifting from feet on upward to take it all in. That's my boyfriend, he thinks with dumb wonderment.
They go and it's about what Xander expected. Pricey house in Beechwood with a lot of pastel wall art. People mingling, some known to him, most unfamiliar, all with drinks firmly in hand. A few stray children lurking and mugging on the fringes. Cheese, crackers, wine. Jack coming up to him and clapping him on the arm. Conversations about work, about rezoning, about the Oscars. Spike wanders, looking perfectly at ease. Hangs by Xander's side from time to time, goes to stare out over the landscaped backyard, studies a few bad paintings, buzzes the buffet, gets himself a drink. At one point when Xander looks, Spike's cradling a cut-glass tumbler in his palm, whiskey over ice, and talking in a laid-back way to some woman Xander doesn't recognize. One of the many women who gravitate to him during the course of the evening.
Another time, Xander searches for him and sees Spike by the stairs, looming over a few children who are sitting on the treads. They're gazing up at him, he's gazing down, chit-chat going on. Spike always enjoys being a bit scary, likes to play with an easy audience, and the kids seem transfixed by whatever he's saying. Xander isn't entirely sure he wants to know and hopes that none of the adults overhear.
Xander has been "out of the closet" for a while now. It's a catchphrase, not meaningful when you examine it. He's had few relationships with men lasting longer than a month, which means he's rarely reached that point where it's time to tell co-workers and more casual acquaintances that you're seeing a steady someone. At the office, no one asks if he's gay or straight, but also--on the spectrum of identity--he's just not the kind of guy who drops mention of his orientation into small talk.
Tonight he makes no attempt to hide, and that's a kind of turning point for his dealings with several people in the room. He calls Spike his partner when introductions are being made. It seems the right word when you share a checking account with someone. Spike gives him an odd glance the first time that makes Xander realize they should probably have talked about this first, but then seems to accept it.
After they've been there a few hours, they find themselves on the rear deck, half-hiding in the shadows. Light filters through the nearby trees and shrubs from a few torches. Good taste shows in the design of the backyard. Xander thinks it can't have been Susan's. There are people here and there on the grass, voices carrying to the deck only as murmurs along with the faint smell of cigarette smoke.
For a few minutes they talk, an easy space between them as they relax by the deck rail.
Xander: "Thanks for coming. I know it's boring."
Spike pauses, head tilted as if he's considering possible replies, and then: "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger." A curve of mouth. "'Sides, all the tortures I've been through, not sure I'd rank this top of the list. Somewhere above Sally Jesse, below flaying."
Xander feels a wash of small, ridiculous tenderness and can't stop staring into Spike's eyes, loving the way they speak back to him. He puts his hand out without thinking about it, cups the side of Spike's neck, plays his thumb up and down. Just because he can. And Spike lets him, which is amazing. All that cool flesh, living by magic, standing still for him. A demon with ordinary habits. His close companion with a soul.
If you set your expectations of a relationship low, every small thing is a surprise and a gift. Xander can't do that. He wants a lot. But he's getting a lot already. He thinks about how he once punched Spike's nose hard enough to make it bleed, the vicious thrill in his own knuckles, and the tight fury of humiliation in Spike's eyes as they spoke to Xander, promising that one day he would exact his revenge in the most thorough and painful possible way.
Spike: "Susan wants us to come over for dinner next week--she tell you? Already decided the menu. Told her I like chops." Dry tones. "Should be interesting."
Xander, shaking his head and feeling strangely peaceful: "Not the word I'd use."