Xander has to admit that having Buffy around perks Spike up. The inner vampire is coming out in ways that have nothing to do with face time. They're working out together, sparring two or three days a week, and Xander has noticed a return of flash and force to Spike's fighting style, especially when Buffy's around. He's no longer just going through the motions, but showing off.
Like you would for a sister, Xander tells himself.
At least he isn't wearing the duster. He's still got it, hanging in the back of the closet, an enduring item of his wardrobe, but now more of a relic, saved like one of Elvis's jackets. Or that's been Xander's impression; after Buffy came, he thought the duster might be brought out of retirement. He isn't sure if it would be important, if it was. He doesn't want to get hung up on a coat.
Riley comes back to Sunnydale to set up his station, trailing a squad of soldiers like ducklings to his mother duck. Just three of them, no one Xander recognizes, though Riley mentions that two of the men had been posted here previously. Back in the day. Xander hopes they were chosen on sound psychological principles for their flexibility and stability. The Hellmouth can deliver a lot of wear and tear on a person over time.
Riley, in his mildest voice, irony hidden in a cornfield: "Don't worry. We watch for signs they're going postal."
Like you did, Xander thinks, remembering that whole vamp-junkie phase he ended up hearing about secondhand. But he says nothing. They've all been there in one form or another. That's the point. You want people who can come out the other side of their personal shitstorms more or less intact, and keep fighting the good fight. Screwed away your boyfriend's soul? Tried to destroy the world? Deal. Move on.
On the other hand, Xander doesn't extend the same line of credit to strangers as he does to friends, so he intends to keep an eye on the goon squad himself, especially when it comes to Spike.
It's nice though, having another guy around again, someone he's not sleeping with who exists purely in the friend category. He hangs with Riley the way Spike hangs with Buffy. Sort of. Helps him move into his apartment. Shoots a few games of hoops with him. They don't have a lot of common ground, interest-wise, but they're both making efforts. More of a barrier, even more than the whole gay-straight thing, is the couple-single thing. Because if they were both single guys, they could at least go out for beers and pool once in a while, or to the movies. But doing those things without Spike feels wrong, and doing them *with* Spike in tow is a recipe for disaster.
At least, Xander believes that at first. But with both Riley and Buffy around, new social mixes come into play and actually go pretty well. The four of them make a night of it once in a while, and the Buffy buffer keeps Spike and Riley in line. After a few weeks, time and familiarity and changed circumstances combine to bring the two men into grudging ease with each other. A few ferocious patrols help the whole male bonding thing along to the point where they'll even play nice when left alone together, though neither man ever looks thrilled with the other's company.
Things are okay. Spike becomes obsessed with making the perfect omelet for several days, despite Xander's assurances that all of them taste fine, from omelet one all the way through omelet seventeen, and dear god, he gets sick of omelets, but he doesn't tell Spike, because it's too much fun watching him whip eggs and chop things--his beautiful hands wielding the knife in an expert style picked up from *Iron Chef*--and try to intimidate the puffy contents of his pans into submission. Expensive omelet equipment is bought, many eggs broken.
He's not especially housewifely, despite his barefoot charms. More masculine than ever, Xander sometimes feels, given the way he and Buffy riff off each other. He's almost flirty with her. But I am a strong man, Xander thinks. And it's his bed that Spike shares, his body that gets Spike off.
Buffy likes to take Spike with her when she shops, and Spike lets himself be dragged around local malls, wherever sunlight is indirect or forbidden. But Spike also has to yield some ground to Riley. It doesn't seem likely that Buffy wants to pick things up where they left off--she still has a boyfriend back east--but she's making time for him. Riley's the one who seems to be holding out a sad hope. It's hard to watch.
One night, just one of many, Spike massages Xander's shoulders--him on the couch, Xander resting on the floor between Spike's legs. Spike's hands feel like love. But how likely is that? Spike has always been devoted to women, men just sidenotes, a way to pass the time or make easy money--and maybe even a way to punish himself, though he'd denied that possibility with scoffing laughs when Xander asked him once about New York.
What would Spike do if Buffy decided right now that she wanted him back? Wanted him and would treat him right?
Ordinary guys, guys like Alexander Lavelle Harris, do not inspire great and obsessive love: this Xander knows. Spike seems comfortable staying with him, but it's obvious that he's settled. Not in the nesting sense, but in the sense of accepting what's offered instead of yearning after what's not available. And there's nothing truly wrong with that, Xander thinks now and then, because a vampire is someone you can have a long-term relationship with only if you're a vampire too.
He's just one short chapter in what will be a very long book for Spike.
If he thinks about it with this perspective, it shouldn't hurt so much when he comes home one day and finds Spike and Buffy in his bed, having sex. And perspective should help make sense of the surprised looks on their faces when they see him standing there, should give him a hint, a small one, just enough to keep him tethered to earth for as long as it takes to get to the truth of something so wrong.
Of course, perspective is a fucking joke. He has none. When they say time stands still, it means that your life ends on a certain moment and hangs there, like a ship on the edge of a black hole, tearing apart. Buffy says, "Xander," in a small voice, and Xander feels a flush of blood descend through his body from head to feet, a tingling wave he's felt before when facing down the worst. Terror. He should stay, but his feet carry him back out, and he ignores the sound of their voices behind him as he leaves the house. It's his house. Spike is on the deed, but it's his house, and if he were the same man he'd been four or five years ago he'd have told the vampire to get the hell out, told Buffy off, cut them both out of his life with a self-justification so deep it became a cold comfort. There's nothing stopping him.
Instead he goes to a hotel with a bottle of Jack Daniels--shades of his failed wedding--hides there and watches the nothingness of television, sleeps for hours. After he wakes and pulls himself together, he thinks of Willow. If anyone is going to find him, it'll be her. A snap of her fingers, eyes closed, she could find him. But he doesn't want to see her. Or anyone. He sits on the edge of the bed with head in hands, not wanting to move or deal; but knowing he has to, he finally calls her. She's heard about what happened and tries to talk to him, but he interrupts. "I want to see you," he tells her. "And them. At your place. Neutral ground."
He hangs up. It's night, and he drives to his empty house, collects his passport and a bag of clothes, and leaves town. The drive south is mindless, the drive east a blur. Will they find him? Track him? He goes liquid in L.A., withdraws cash, and uses this to travel across the desert and into the heartland, drives aimlessly until he hits New Orleans. Then jets out of the country.
At every moment he expects them to catch up, for Willow's locator spells to find him. He isn't sure how far her powers range. Locator spells work best the smaller your search area, but she's amazingly strong.
He goes to Japan. He's always wanted to see Japan. He takes a room in Tokyo, drinks a lot, goes to insane clubs with go-go girls and crazy cheerful businessmen. Doesn't try to learn the language. Just makes an ass of himself with savage thoroughness. Once he wakes up in an alley, dazed and dehydrated, burrowed into the most repulsive blanket on the planet, quilted with garbage. A rat pauses near his head to look at him. This is the bender to end all benders, and the end is...going to be a doozy.
In a booth, crying, with a bar girl trying to soothe him in chirruping tones and with little patting hands. That's where he is when Spike finds him. He's so drunk he doesn't tune in at first to the voice saying, "Xander," somewhere at the table's edge.
There's a trip back to his place, a taxi ride, Spike digging the key from his pocket and finding the hotel. His body a slump against the vampire's, lights smearing by the taxi windows, a sense of nausea and tiredness and soul weariness. He can't entirely focus, but Spike is wrapped close and his cheek is resting against Xander's hair, and his hands keep touching Xander in the good way. Stroking with a tenderness that matches the sound of his words, which are hard to make out and probably unimportant.
Morning comes: another room in a strange country with the blinds drawn. It could have been a dream, but Spike is in fact there, sitting in a chair, closed eyes immediately opening as Xander sits up. Spike looks haggard and strange, as if he's been packed in a box and shipped around the world, express delivery. He finds a rough voice and says,
Xander turns his face away and staggers to the bathroom, bangs the door shot, sinks to the toilet and is violently ill. It's a miserable thing when Spike comes in and puts a washcloth on the back of his neck. He has no right to do that, but he's there anyway, stroking Xander's hair, his touch so familiar it hurts.
During the next half hour there's a strained silence broken only by tiny words as Xander brushes his teeth and drinks water and showers and gets dressed in what clothes he has available, which suddenly seem unfit for public or company.
Spike: "Xander, it was a spell."
Something in Xander leaps with sick hope at the word, but it's so beside the point. "You don't say."
Spike: "You know I'd never--"
Xander: "Sleep with Buffy? Please." He stares at Spike, his brain a flat-line. He can't get his life or his heart started again. "She crooked her little finger, you fell into bed. Enough said."
Spike swallows once, and then repeats: "Xander. It was a *spell*--"
Xander: "So? What the fuck does it matter? Do you love me? No." The rejection is his to give this time and it should be easy and free of humiliation. But it isn't. "And I don't love you. I was wrong. I've done this before. Anya, now you. It's obvious, isn't it? I'll sleep with anything that gives me a second look. Doesn't even have to be human."
Spike's head turns aside and down as he averts his gaze. It's too deliberate to be a flinch but there's hurt there. It just doesn't matter. It's the wrong kind of hurt.
"Someone boring," Xander goes on, "that's who I need to be looking for. Someone who thinks magic is a card trick. It'll be hard to find a guy who doesn't want me for my money, but hey, as long as he sticks around and doesn't sleep with my friends...."
Spike: "I love you." His voice is low and sore and raw, and he looks up at Xander again, blue gaze cutting into his own like a laser. Pain.
Xander, cold: "Please. Don't even try." His hands are shaking. "I've got nothing you need. You've said it yourself--you don't care about money. And I'm no slayer. Slayer, vampire. Good, evil. Me, I'm just middle of the road."
Spike, soft as a kiss, his gaze not wavering: "I love you."
Xander: "Stop," one hand raises, flattened in warning, "saying that."
Spike, his voice a husky, finely-tuned instrument: "You make me hard." The statement throws Xander off, bewildered. His heart wants to shout: that has *nothing* to do with love. But he's unable to knee-jerk a response Spike's way, and Spike is taking a step closer, pinning Xander with his eyes. "The way you touch me...makes me feel alive."
Stupid, stupid words, Xander thinks. Spike's pathetic, like bad verse on a Hallmark card. No man can say stuff like that and mean it.
Spike: "Nearly killed me when Red undid the spell, when you'd gone. I thought you'd offed yourself, I--" And his voice locks up, and Xander can feel it in his own throat. Spike is closer now, his shirt stale and wrinkled and his hair awry, the shell of a tired man except that his eyes are glowing, as if the magical fire that keeps his body upright is starting to burn wild. "I would never hurt you." Spacing his words out with care, giving each one a weight of almost religious intensity: "You are the best man I have ever known."
Xander: "And that's," his throat tightens, "that's it. Big dick, nice guy--"
Spike takes a final step forward and sinks to his knees in front of Xander with one smooth, eloquent slump. His head bows. "I love you," he says, as if he intends never to stop saying it. He says it to the carpet, then looks up into Xander's eyes. "I need you." Xander can't find anything to say, but his entire body is one big question mark asking why, and Spike says: "No one's ever taken care of me the way you have. Not money." A deliberate correction of what Xander hasn't said. "Love." A faint, miserable smile, as if it's almost too much to bear: "You've got me on the ropes. Addict for it." Another deep breath of admission, and an earnest humility. "Need you bad, pet." And he bows his head again and leans forward just a little to rest it against Xander's leg, and a charged bolt of love and desire and longing goes through Xander's body, nearly toppling him.
"Oh god," he says, close to losing it. "Oh god."
His hands are in Spike's hair and he can't think. He'd thought it would all go differently, Spike harder, impatient with him, bringing him back for Buffy's sake, or just never bothering to find him at all. Xander isn't ready for love, to be loved. He needs time to prepare, to set up some defenses and excuses so that it won't sweep him away.
And he wants more, he wants Spike to give him a thousand reasons for his love so that Xander can be sure that it's not a joke or a fluke, something that will pass. He feels so needy. It can't be healthy.
There's no call for wanting more, just false expectations set by a thousand Hollywood movies. Cue rising music, passionate kiss, certainty. But there's no music and this is it. This is what he's getting. Oh Jesus, Xander thinks, as he realizes Spike has started to cry.
Xander drops to his knees and desperately mouths Spike into a kiss, hands locked to the sides of his face. The carpet is hard under his knees, even through his trousers, and Spike tastes off, as if he hasn't had the chance to brush his teeth in a while, and Xander grows sharp and hungry anyway. He can't find anything wrong to break them apart. They fuck desperately on the floor, pants unzipped, cocks rubbing against each other, mouths kissing and then gasping, their bodies and voices a rush of wild love. Love, promises, need. Spike's hips thrust frantically against his, and need swells and bursts, they're coming with laughs, and Xander cries out, "Oh god, I can't--oh Jesus, oh Christ--" as he holds tight what he'd lost, and Spike whispers with shock, eyes falling shut: "Xander."
Japan is a place Xander intends to visit again.