"Xander, it's time to get past this. I have a new mission for you."
"Fuck, Giles, what part of 'I am never going back to Africa again' didn't you get?"
"Not Africa. America. A rumor surfaced last week about a young woman in LA killing a pair of Fyoral demons alone and barehanded. I don't know how a Slayer could have escaped our notice for so long in what's essentially your home territory, or why she hasn't been flagged by Willow's spells, but it certainly sounds like..."
"Send Andrew, it's his zone."
"You need to get back out there, Xander. I'm not asking, I'm telling you—you're going to California."
It took him eight days in the city to track down the girl.
He found her in a back alley at three in the afternoon, battling a Polgara demon. He stood well back and watched.
She was petite and delicate-looking, like most of the Slayers he'd met—the Powers had a sense of irony, that was for sure. She was fair, with long chestnut hair pulled back in a practical braid. She wore a red fitted t-shirt, blue jeans and Docs—a good, practical ass-kicking outfit.
And Christ, was she ever kicking ass. At first glance he'd thought she was struggling against the six-foot-tall demon; he'd even slipped his hand under his jacket to touch the hilt of his hunting knife, wondering if he should jump in and help out. But a few moments' observation had made the situation clear; she was toying with it. Every time it went down she took a couple steps back, waiting for the dumb thing to lurch to its feet and throw itself at her again. Her face was set in an eerie, calm expression, and her movements were oddly mechanical, as though she were concentrating on half-memorized dance steps.
He'd only ever met one other Slayer who'd looked that scary in a fight without the benefit of any Watcherly training, and that one...let's just say he didn't want to think about that one.
After a minute or so she glanced in Xander's direction. Then she tilted her head, regarding him thoughtfully as the demon bull-rushed her. Without even looking at her opponent she snapped out the heel of her hand to break its wrist spine, then quickly grabbed the bony spear and stabbed the demon with it.
Xander cleared his throat and walked towards her, holding his empty hands out in front. "Hey, nice work. That thing looked nasty."
She smiled, and all the scariness melted away. She was just a pretty girl out for a walk on a warm afternoon. "It was strong, but too stupid to be a good fighter." She had some kind of soft accent—Texan, maybe. Up close, she wasn't the teenager Xander'd taken her for at first; she more like his age, maybe even a little older.
"Hi," he said. "I'm Xander."
"Fred," she said, shaking his hand politely.
She accepted his help caching the Polgara corpse in a nearby dumpster, and his offer of coffee.
"I didn't just happen to meet you in the alley," he told her straight off as soon as they were seated with their drinks. "I was looking for you."
She nodded, not visibly freaked out by the strange man with the eye patch admitting to stalking her. "I figured there was something—you were pretty casual about that demon for a random passerby." She sipped her coffee, gave him a look that might have been flirty if she didn't have such an innocent face. "So what do you want?"
"Actually, I'm here to help you." Not that she'd seemed like she needed any help during the fight with the demon, but hey, he had one spiel and he was sticking to it. "Something strange happened to you about a year ago, right? You started having nightmares about demons, and you suddenly discovered you were crazy strong?"
"I don't see where this leads to me needing help," she said, a bit more distantly polite now.
"All right, maybe you don't," he conceded. He'd thought it, she'd said it; this wasn't a girl panicking in the face of the mystical power. Hell, she'd already set herself up in her own slaying gig. He could reasonably go back to Giles and say 'Our work here is done.' "But you must at least have questions. I know what happened to you, and why. See, you're what we call a Slayer."
She sat patiently through his explanations, but he got the feeling she was only acting interested for politeness' sake. When he got to the part where he invited her to go back to Rome and train with the new Watchers' Council, he wasn't at all surprised at her refusal. He didn't press the issue. She seemed comfortable with her powers, her fighting skills were a-okay, and she was doing her bit to keep the world safe from demon-kind. If Giles thought she needed to be recruited, he could damn well come over here and do it himself.
When the phone rang in his hotel room that evening, he figured it was Giles checking up on him.
"Hello, Xander?" Not Giles.
"You have a car, right?"
"Yeah, a rental. Why?" He scarfed another bite of his pizza, holding the receiver away from his mouth so she wouldn't hear him chewing.
"I know this is kind of forward, since we barely know each other, but you did say to call if I needed any help. My roommate's gotten sick at work, and he needs someone to drive him home. I don't have a car, so..."
Xander rolled his eye. This was not exactly the kind of help he'd meant to offer. Still, not like he was doing anything else right now. And Giles would probably say this was a great opportunity to get on the Slayer's good side, in case they had to come begging her for help fighting some apocalypse down the road. "Okay, where does he work?"
XXX-citement Books and Videos. Novelty items and Marital Aids. Peep show $5!
He checked the address he'd scribbled down against the one on the storefront, and raised his eyebrow. Fred hadn't mentioned it was a sex shop.
Inside, the store was small and crowded, colorful and cheerfully obscene. The girl behind the cash register registered his entry with a disinterested glance, and went back to reading her magazine. Her short hair was dyed green and gelled into little spikes, and she had piercings in her eyebrow, nose and lip; her earlobes were stretched out over circles big enough to poke a finger through. Xander took a couple steps toward the counter and cleared his throat awkwardly; she looked up again and raised her eyebrows at him in a 'what the hell do you want?' kind of gesture. Clearly, she was a consummate public service professional.
"Um, hi?" Xander flashed her a quick grimace, the closest he could manage to a smile under the circumstances. "I'm supposed to pick someone up here. I think."
"Oh, you're Billy's friend?" Suddenly she looked honestly glad to see him. "He's in the back."
"I'm more a friend of his roommate," Xander clarified, though even that was a pretty stretchy version of the truth. "What's wrong with him, anyway?"
She shrugged. "Migraine, I guess. He's pretty out of it. Here, you'll need the key."
The room behind the 'employees only' sign was pitch dark. Xander groped around on the wall until he found a light switch to flip.
The light illuminated a small room containing just a desk, an office chair, and a battered couch. A guy was lying on the couch, curled up with his back to Xander.
"Hi, Billy?" Xander said quietly, "Fred sent me to take you home."
The guy rolled over and sat up, clutching his head with his hands, and stared at Xander.
Xander stared back.
"Fuck me," whispered Spike.
Xander found himself sitting in the office chair without quite remembering the transition. "Spike? You're dead."
Spike winced, and sucked in an audible breath. "Turn off the fucking light, would you? 'S like my eyeballs gettin' gouged out."
Xander didn't make a move. "Been there, done that. Suck it up and take it."
Spike pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and hunched over. "Sorry. Fuck. Forgot about your—just turn off the bloody light, okay?"
Xander just stared at Spike. Spike! Last seen fourteen months ago burning up in the Hellmouth. They'd held a fucking memorial service for him, and he was working in a porn store in L.A.?
"You did get dusted, right? I wasn't just imagining that?"
"I burned up, yeah," Spike said in a dull, low voice. "Got trapped in the amulet. Popped out again a couple weeks later in Angel's office. Andrew never told you, then?"
"That would be a resounding no." He wondered if Andrew had told Giles—hard to imagine he hadn't. Nice of Giles to tell Xander before sending him here.
He looked different. The hair, first of all—no bleach. It was dark blond, what Xander had to assume was Spike's natural color, and just long enough to curl a little. He looked thinner, too, though it was hard to tell for sure with him hiding his face in his hands. The sweater he wore was baggy, a loose gray knit thing with unraveling sleeves.
He wondered if Spike still had a soul.
That didn't seem like the most important question, though—not the way it would be with Angel. "Does Fred know you're a vampire?" he asked instead.
That set off a hollow laugh. "She knows exactly what I am, and I know what she is," Spike said. "You, on the other hand, know bugger-all. Now turn off the fucking light before I rip your throat out."
Xander pretended to think about it. "Hanging out in a dark room with a vampire? Tempting, but...no."
Spike muttered something profane-sounding under his breath, then grabbed a grubby-looking yellow throw pillow from the end of the sofa and pressed it over his face. "What the fuck do you want?" he asked, the words a little muffled by the pillow.
Well, that was a good question. The answer popped out without him thinking about it, harsh and raw. "I want to know why out of all the people who died that day, you came back."
"If you're wanting a glimpse at the Powers' master plan, let me tell you mate—I haven't got a sodding clue," Spike said wearily. He lay back down, keeping the pillow over his eyes. "It may've all been the work of evil lawyers, if that helps."
"Not really," Xander muttered, and he let it go. Maybe later he'd get drunk and rant to some bartender about the vast unfairness of the universe; right now there was the question of what to do with Spike. "Look, I told Fred I'd drive you home—"
"I missed the bit where you explained how the hell you know Fred," Spike interrupted him.
"That's none of your business."
"I bloody well live with her, don't I?"
Xander winced; he'd somehow managed to not really think about that, yet. "Christ, you really have a Slayer fetish, don't you?"
"Slayer?" Spike let out a short laugh, muffled by the pillow. "So that's what you wanted with her. She's not a bloody Slayer, Harris, and we're not shagging, neither."
"If she's not a Slayer, then what is she?" Not that he'd normally take Spike at his word, but that would explain why Willow's locator spells never turned up a hint of another Slayer in L.A. "Not a vampire—I saw her in daylight."
"She's a long and macabre story, is what she is, and you'd best stay the hell out of it."
"Sounds good to me." If she wasn't a Slayer, she wasn't his problem. "So, hey, nice seeing you and all. I'll be sure to say hi to Andrew for you." He spoke the formulaic phrases with flat sarcasm as he stood up and started to leave.
The single word and its desperate tone stopped Xander. "Don't what?"
"Don't tell them I'm here."
Xander frowned. "Didn't you say they already knew?"
"A year ago, sure. Just—I don't matter anymore, all right, Harris? Move along folks, nothing to see here. I just want to be bloody well left alone."
"Hey, so do we all," and that came out sharper than he'd meant it to, "but that's not how it works." Like, for instance, right now all Xander wanted to do was say 'screw this' and go find a bar to get drunk in, but Spike was making a puzzle for him and now he fucking well had to solve it.
Spike. There was something different about him, and not just the fact that he wasn't dust. Something about him reminded Xander of when he'd first shown up in the school basement. Maybe it was just the clothes and the hair—the post-soul crazy period was the only time he'd seen him let the punk look slide.
He was lying motionless with the pillow still pressed over his face. No, not motionless—his chest was rising and falling in quick, shallow breaths. Vampires didn't need to breathe but Spike often did anyway, and Xander knew he breathed like that when he was in pain. Unexpectedly, he felt a bit of real concern. "What's wrong with you, Spike?"
"I get headaches, all right?" He sounded defensive. "Come and go. Don't know why."
"Aftereffect of the chip, maybe?"
Spike gave a jerky shrug. "Doubt it, they never started up until after—until a couple months ago. Not like chip headaches, anyway—not as intense. Last a hell of a lot longer."
"Maybe Giles could help."
"Still—look, I can get you home. We can talk later, when you're feeling better."
"Can't go home. Store's open 'till 2 a.m."
Xander gave him a disbelieving look. "Uh, not that I don't admire your dedication to the porn industry, but what's the point of staying if you're just hiding in the back room anyway?"
Spike moved the pillow off his eyes for a moment so that he could glare at Xander, squinting. "Can't leave Lisa alone in the store on the late shift. You know what kind of perverts we get in here?"
"Oh." Xander rubbed the back of his neck, feeling like a jerk for needing something like that pointed out to him by Spike, of all people.
Of course, most of the girls Xander saw on a regular basis didn't need any protection at all, thank you very much.
"fuck" Spike whispered, pressing the pillow over his eyes again.
"Can you get someone else to come in? I mean, the two of you aren't the only ones who work here, are you?"
Spike shrugged. "Ask Lisa. She was trying."
So Xander went back out into the store, where a couple of college boys were snickering together over the obscene greeting card display. The punk girl was behind the counter, still reading her magazine and looking pissed off. She looked up when Xander shut the 'employees only' door behind him.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"Spike doesn't want to leave you here alone. Is there anyone else who could work tonight?"
"Spike?" she repeated, giving him a puzzled look.
"Oh." What had she called him, earlier? "Uh, Billy."
"He goes by Spike?" She grinned. "Oh man, I'm so not letting that one go. Anyway—I tried calling everyone. No fucking luck. Couldn't even get hold of Georgie." At Xander's blank look, she added, "He owns the place."
"Okay, then you'll have to shut down early."
She looked at him like he'd just spoken to her in Japanese.
"Spike...Billy's too sick to work. You can't do the shift by yourself."
"Who says I can't? I don't want to, but what the hell, it's money."
"Billy seemed to think the night shift wasn't safe for you."
Lisa rolled her eyes. "Bullshit. He's such a fucking mother hen. There's a gun behind the counter, okay, I can take care of myself as well as he can."
Xander doubted that, but he wouldn't go into why. "I'll tell him what you said," he said instead—maybe Spike could convince her to close the store.
The light was off. When Xander flicked it on, he saw that Spike was gone from the sofa, which was a mystery for all of two seconds until he heard the retching sounds coming from behind the half-closed door at the other end of the small room.
Behind that door was a bathroom, and Spike was kneeling in front of the toilet, clutching the bowl with white-knuckled fingers.
"Oh, shit. Are you...?" Xander stopped himself from saying 'okay,' because obviously Spike wasn't.
"turn...the light...off," Spike croaked, head still hanging over the blue porcelain bowl.
"Right, yeah, sorry..." This time, Xander did what Spike asked. He didn't want to see him puke again.
The toilet flushed, and Xander heard the water in the sink run hard for a few seconds, then he heard shuffling footsteps and the creaking sound of Spike settling his weight gingerly on the couch.
"Lisa couldn't get anyone else to come in, but she says she doesn't mind staying alone," Xander said into the pitch darkness.
"No fucking way." Spike's voice came out weak but stubborn.
"You'll have to convince her to close the store down, then. She wouldn't listen to me."
"Can't close the store."
"Georgie'd have a fit. Fire us."
Xander rolled his eye. "Look, as someone who once worked a long string of jobs about equally as crappy as this one of yours, let me reassure you—they're not hard to get."
"They are if you haven't got a green card, you stupid git."
"Oh." Xander massaged his temple, trying for a moment to remember exactly how he'd gotten wrapped up in this, how Spike's legal employability or lack thereof was any concern of his.
Spike was supposed to be dust.
Spike was mysteriously not dust, and mysteriously sick, and mysteriously living with a girl who killed demons for fun and was strong like a Slayer but apparently wasn't one. And either Giles had known all this from the beginning, and had sent Xander in 'cause he wanted him to deal with it—or Giles didn't know a thing about it, in which case he'd be majorly pissed off if Xander didn't do his best to find out what the hell was going on here.
"Okay, hell with it. I'll take you home at two a.m.," he said.
The college boys were gone, and Lisa was unpacking a cardboard carton of vibrators.
"He won't leave you here alone," Xander announced. "He's staying 'till closing."
Lisa finished emptying the box and started breaking it down. "He can do what he wants. But if I'm the one working, I'm the one getting paid." Suddenly she stopped, looking up. "Are you staying?"
Actually, Xander had been planning to go somewhere less creepy to kill the time, but as soon as she asked, he realized he couldn't leave her here with just Spike to protect her. Super strength or not, Spike seemed pretty much incapacitated right now. "Yeah," he said, "I'm staying."
"All right, so how about you run the store? I've been here since ten, Billy was supposed to take over at six. Ever work a cash before?"
"Well, yeah, but—"
"Great! Anything tricky comes up, just ask Billy what to do. He knows how to lock up." And suddenly Lisa was pressing the keys into Xander's hand and walking out the door.
He wasn't exactly jumping up and down with joy over the way the evening was going, but after the first hour or so he figured it wasn't that bad. Spike stayed quiet in the dark back room after Xander let him know what was going on. Xander smoked a couple cigarettes, profoundly not caring about the No Smoking sign on the wall. Customers drifted in and out. A trio of giggly embarrassed thirty-something women came in looking for props for a bachelorette party. A middle-aged man in a business suit came in, bought an issue of Leather! magazine, and left without ever making eye contact with Xander. The most cringe-worthy from Xander's perspective was a couple of guys who came in and loudly discussed the merits of various buttplugs for a good fifteen minutes before asking for his advice.
At about half past ten, Fred walked in.
She saw him behind the counter and her forehead crinkled with concern. "Where's Billy? You said you'd bring him home."
"He wouldn't leave, there was this thing with the coworker..." Xander shrugged and trailed off, not in the mood to go through the whole stupid explanation. "He's in the back room. But could I talk to you for a second first?"
"About what?" Her eyes flickered towards the 'employees only' door, but she waited.
"Um..." Xander tried to figure out what he wanted to say. "How well do you know...Billy?"
She frowned. "I don't see how that's any business of yours," she said, soft and polite, but firm.
"Look, it's just that he might not be what you think. And he may not be such a safe person to live with."
At that, Fred looked startled. "What do you know about him?"
"We go way back, luv," said Spike from the back room doorway. He was leaning against the door frame, holding the door ajar. "Now seeing as there aren't any customers at the moment, why don't you both come back into the nice dark room here before my head explodes, and we can all have a friendly little chat?"
Xander glanced sideways at Fred, and found her looking appraisingly at him. There was something about the way her head was cocked, something mechanical—it reminded him of the weird vibe he'd got off her during the fight. "Yeah, okay," he said.
Spike lay down on the couch again and flung his arm over his eyes; Xander stayed close by the door to the store, keeping it ajar in case anyone came in. That let some light into the back room, which maybe sucked for Spike but Xander was happier being able to see what was going on.
As for Fred, she pulled a bottle of pills with a prescription label out of her pocket and pressed it into Spike's hand. "I'll get you a glass of water, sweetie," she said and headed for the bathroom.
"Illyria, luv, you can drop the act," Spike said.
Fred came back with a paper cup of water. "What are you talking about, silly?" she asked, with a laugh that hovered between nervous and affectionate. "Is your headache making you confused again?"
"Drop the act," Spike repeated, harsher this time.
Fred passed him the cup and stood up straight. "You said I must always maintain the guise in the presence of humans," she said, her voice suddenly pitched lower in a way that made the hairs on the back of Xander's neck stand up.
"Well, this one's a special case. Like I said, we go way back."
Fred turned her head to look at Xander, and the movement was smooth and cool, alien again. The shivers traveled from his neck down his back, and he fought down a sudden surge of flight instinct.
Something changed. For a second he thought it was his eye playing tricks in the dim light, just the shifting of shadows—but no. Fred's hair was changing, her skin, even her clothes. Her jeans and t-shirt melted into a leather bodysuit, while her hair suddenly seemed blue where the light hit it, the color creeping down her forehead as well. She gazed at him with inhuman eyes full of disdain. "Xander," said Spike, who in the meantime had swallowed a couple pills, "meet Illyria, king of kings. Look on her works ye mighty, and despair."
Xander cleared his throat. "Um, hi, Illyria. Nice to meet you."
"Your heart accelerates, yet you do not fear me as you should," she said in that same low voice. "You have become accustomed to dealing with lesser demons; you have become complacent, confident of your survival. I should disembowel you slowly, that your shrieks of drawn-out death might teach others the wisdom of terror."
"Illyria," Spike said, sounding like he was addressing a petulant five-year-old, "Xander is our friend. He's doing my shift for me so that I don't get fired and I can buy you the new Grand Theft Auto."
She turned her cold gaze towards Spike, leaving Xander free to sag against the door frame and swallow hard. "You demanded I drop the act," she reminded Spike.
"That's right, pet, I did," he replied soothingly. "Sorry for snapping at you. I thought he'd better know what you are before he went and tried to rescue you from me."
"The idea of him helping me is as laughable as the idea of a mote of dust giving aid to the sun," she said, not laughing.
"Yes, luv. Now, you brought me my pills and Xander's going to drive me home at the end of my shift, so I'm fine. Why don't you go out and find something to kill? I heard there were some Squiglar demons lurking around Sunset Boulevard."
"That would ease the tedium of my existence, albeit briefly." She gave a sharp nod, and then Xander had a quick feeling of vertigo as her skin and clothes shifted again, and a perfectly ordinary brown-haired girl stood in front of him. "Thanks for helping us out," she said to Xander, her voice girly and soft again. "Maybe I'll see you later."
"Right, uh, later." He quickly moved away from the door so he wouldn't block her path. "Have fun with the killing." He waited until she was out the front door before turning back to Spike. "Nice girlfriend you've got there. What the hell is she?"
"Not my girlfriend, for one thing." Spike had the pillow over his eyes again. "She's a god-king of the primordium, in point of fact, though rather down on her luck these days, what with her kingdom having gone to dust and half her powers being stripped away."
If half her powers left her able to toy barehanded with a Polgara demon, Xander didn't really want to know what she'd been like at full strength. "And what's with the Jekyll/Hyde thing?"
"Fred...was a real human woman. Your friend Willow knew her, I think. Illyria killed Fred and took over her body, including access to her memories."
"Yeah? Hm, now why does that sound so familiar?"
It took Spike a moment to get it, then he gave Xander the two-fingered salute. "Sod off, Harris."
It seemed like a good time to go back out front.
As the hour got later, the clientele got creepier.
A balding, sweaty man came in with big box of old porno tapes that he wanted to sell to the store. Xander told him he'd have to come back when the regular staff was on duty.
A man in a long trenchcoat came in with a crumpled five dollar bill and said he wanted to see the peep show. Xander had go out back to ask Spike how that worked. Spike was lying curled up on the couch with his back to the door again, and when Xander first walked in he heard something that sounded disturbingly like the tail end of a sob. Anyway, Spike explained the functioning of the peep show in a rough voice, without looking up.
After Xander showed the guy into the booth and started up the video, he took the broom from behind the counter and started sweeping. He tried not to think about what the guy must be doing back there, or what he was or wasn't wearing under the trenchcoat. He thought he heard panting from the booth, maybe the slap of skin on skin, so he started humming to himself to cover up the noise.
Another guy walked in, this one in his late teens maybe with skulls tattooed on his shoulders. He looked at Xander, looked around the store, and jittered on his toes. "Where's the normal guy?"
"Uh, he's sick," Xander said. "Can I help you?"
"Help me, yeah." The guy scratched his chest sort of convulsively, and when he lowered his arm again Xander noticed the bruises on it—track marks. "I need a fix."
"Sorry, I don't have anything." This guy was worrying Xander a bit; he moved toward the cash register, just to get the counter in between them.
"I think you fucking do." The guy's hand darted behind his back and before Xander could even register the movement as a threat, he pulled out a gun.
"Shit." Xander held his hands up, nice and non-threatening. The gun was pointing approximately at him, but the guy's hand was shaking like an off-balance washing machine. "Hey, you can look around for drugs if you want. I don't even work here."
The gun went off. Instinct took over and Xander hit the floor. He remembered Lisa saying there was a gun behind the counter, and he reached up blindly for it. His hand closed on metal at the same moment he heard the guy shout "You! Fucking freeze!"
The guy couldn't possibly see him.
"Calm down, mate." It was Spike's voice. "What do you want?"
"I'll show you fucking calm! Where the fuck is Barry?"
"He got fired on Thursday. Seems he was dealing smack on the late shift. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
Xander quietly pulled the gun down, checked that it was loaded, took the safety off. As long as the guy's attention was on Spike, this shouldn't be too hard.
He stood up in one fluid motion, pointing the gun at the junky and keeping his body half-turned to make a smaller target. "Drop it."
The guy just about jumped out of his skin, as though he'd already forgotten Xander even existed. He managed to keep his gun more-or-less pointing at Spike, though, as his eyes darted wildly back and forth. "I'll fucking kill him if you come one fucking step closer!" he shouted.
"Go ahead," Xander said evenly, stepping out around the counter and keeping his own gun steady. "Then I'll shoot you and my problems will be over."
"You fucking wouldn't," the guy said, sounding uncertain.
Xander gave him what he knew was his scariest grin. "Look me in the eye and say that again."
Xander knew what the guy was seeing: a one-eyed man with a two-day growth of beard, a man whose gun hand was not shaking, a hint of a smile saying 'make my day.'
The junky wavered; his aim drifted away from Spike and towards Xander, but slowly.
Spike tackled him and Xander ducked. The junky's gun went off again and the glass in a display case shattered. He must've lost hold of it when it fired, because it landed close to Xander's feet. Xander snatched it, took it out of the equation, then turned at the sound of Spike swearing to see him alone on the floor, clutching his left arm with his right hand. The junky was already halfway to the door, knocking over a shelf of dildos in his mad scramble. Xander took off after him, and Spike shouted "Let 'im go!"
Xander ignored Spike, chasing the teenaged junky out into the warm L.A. night. The guy was violent and desperate, and if he got away he could hurt someone.
He got away.
Xander walked back to the porn store, breathing hard and hating the world. The guy had scrambled over a chain link fence and disappeared into a maze of back alleys. A Slayer could've caught him, maybe, but not Xander.
A vampire should've been able to catch him, too, and a big resounding 'thank you!' to Spike for his help on that one.
Spike was still curled up on the floor where Xander had left him, surrounded by chunks of broken glass and a scattering of popsicle-colored dildos. The curtain of the peep show booth was pulled open, and the trenchcoat guy was gone.
"I lost him," Xander announced, heading for the counter. "I'm calling the police."
Spike shifted slightly. "No."
"We can give them his gun, it'll have his fingerprints all over it."
"No," Spike repeated emphatically. "I can't talk to the bloody cops."
Xander put down the phone reluctantly and looked over at Spike, who still wasn't getting up. "So what do you think we should do?"
"Clean it up."
"Right. And by 'we,' you mean 'me'." Considering Spike had been walking around just fine a couple minutes ago, Xander was getting less willing to buy the invalid vampire shtick. "How about you get up and help?"
"How about you fuck off and die?" Spike suggested in a tight voice.
"That's what I love about helping you, Spike. The unending gratitude."
Spike finally started to struggle to his feet. He looked like he was about to fall back down, so Xander went around to give him a hand—and saw the red-black wet patch on Spike's left sleeve.
"What happened?" There was a small pool of blood on the floor where Spike had been lying, Xander noticed now.
"Wha?" Spike squinted at Xander for a second, then covered his eyes with his right hand.
"Bugger had a knife," Spike said. "Doesn't matter. Head hurts—" and then his knees buckled, and Xander just managed to grab him around the waist before he fell.
"Shit," Xander muttered, shifting Spike's weight so he wouldn't drop him. Spike seemed to have fainted, which was pretty freaky when you thought about it. Whatever the hell was going on with him, he was definitely messed up.
Xander half carried, half dragged Spike into the back room, laid him on the couch, and considered calling Giles. Before he had time to decide, Spike woke up again with a groan.
"Spike? What happened back there?"
"Feels like m'head's splittin' in two," Spike mumbled, and Xander saw a tear tracking down his cheek.
"Can I, um, do anything for you?"
"Where's the pills?"
The bottle Fred...Illyria...had brought—it was sitting on the desk along with the paper cup. Xander handed the bottle to Spike, filled up the cup for him, and watched the vampire swallow three times the recommended dose. He wondered idly who 'Ian Curtis' was—that was the name on the prescription label.
"Hey, you're still bleeding," Xander pointed out when he took the bottle away. "Want me to patch that up for you?"
"S'pose you'd better," Spike said, throwing his good arm over his eyes again. "Blood's harder to come by than it used to be. Plus Georgie'll kill me if I mess up the couch."
Xander refrained from pointing out there was already a wet patch under Spike's arm. There were enough suspicious-looking spots on the old brown couch, he was sure Spike's boss wouldn't notice one more.
"First aid kit?" he asked.
"Bathroom, behind the mirror."
Xander found the kit, got out a roll of gauze and scissors, and took them back to Spike. He pushed the sleeve up and wrapped the gauze quickly around the gash in Spike's forearm, not bothering to clean the excess blood away first. Vampire first aid was pretty easy; just close up the holes and wait a day or two.
After that, Xander left Spike in the dark to rest. There was plenty to do out front, cleaning up, and Xander was happier overall when he had something to do with his hands.
He'd mopped up the blood, set the dildo shelf back in order, and had just started sweeping up the broken glass when Angel walked in.
He looked exactly the same as the last time Xander had seen him, years ago in Sunnydale, right down to the black leather jacket and the hair gelled up off his forehead. His eyes were wide and his mouth was kind of gaping; he obviously hadn't expected to see Xander.
Xander was less surprised. He hadn't heard one way or the other whether Angel had survived the events in L.A. in the spring that had ended with Wolfram & Hart pulling right out of the dimension, but then he hadn't wondered very hard. Now calculations ran through Xander's head: Angel = bad? Exit = blocked. Broom = stake. Last he'd heard officially, the Watcher's Council considered Angel an enemy even though he still apparently had his soul. That was when Wolfram & Hart was still operating, with Angel as the head of the L.A. branch, and if there'd been a memo since then Xander had missed it. He figured he'd better buy time, see if he could figure out what Angel was up to. "You're looking for Spike, I guess?"
"Uh, yeah. This is his shift. What are you—?"
"Filling in for him. He couldn't work tonight." Without having any idea what the situation was, it was Xander's natural instinct to give Angel as little info as possible.
"But why are you—" Angel stopped. "Is Buffy around?"
"No, but if you try anything funny with me there'll be fifty Slayers on your ass faster than you can say 'ouch.'"
Angel held his hands up. "I don't know what you've heard, but I wouldn't hurt you, Xander. I just want to know where Spike is. And what you're doing here. And...what happened to your eye?"
Xander stopped himself from touching the patch. "Lost it."
Angel's brow furrowed. "I can smell his blood. Xander, you'd better tell me what's going on here."
Xander shrugged one shoulder and tightened his grip on the broom handle. "A guy came in looking for drugs, Spike got cut. No big deal."
"I want to see him," Angel said. "Is he in the office?"
"Yeah," Xander admitted reluctantly, since he figured Angel could probably smell the truth anyway what with all the blood. He wasn't sure why he felt the need to run interference on Angel for Spike—maybe it was just because hating Angel was the one thing he and Spike had been able to agree on right from the beginning. "He's sleeping, though. He had a headache. I think you should leave him alone."
"A headache?" Angel repeated. "Was it bad?"
"I'd say yeah." Xander relaxed his grip on the broom; Angel just seemed concerned about Spike, not dangerous. "You know what's going on with him?"
"I want to talk to him," Angel insisted in lieu of answering the question.
"Well, I get to close this place the hell up in—" Xander checked his watch, "—twenty minutes, and then I'm driving him home. You know where he lives? Check up on him later."
"I can't," Angel said with a grimace. "I don't have an invite."
"I thought that only mattered with humans."
"Well, yeah. So, now that Spike's human, I need him to invite me in. And he hasn't."
"What?!" Xander choked, dimly aware that now he was the one gaping like a fish.
"Well, I think he's still annoyed with me for some things I said back when he was a ghost—"
"Yes," Angel confirmed, looking pained. "I thought you knew?"
"No!" Though this maybe explained the different vibe he'd been getting off Spike since the start of the evening. "Christ, I nearly let that guy shoot him."
"Well, I thought he was a vampire!" And Spike hadn't said anything about it. "Wait, what was that about him being a ghost?"
Angel shifted impatiently. "He was a ghost, then he was a vampire again, and now he's human. It's not like this kind of thing has never happened before, you know."
Anya. Xander closed his eye for just a second against the wave of grief that always came with her name. He'd managed to make it this far through the night without breaking down, he could hold on a little longer. He opened his eye. "Wait here," he said to Angel. "In fact, better yet, finish sweeping up this glass." He thrust the broom at him and headed for the back room.
Angel was frowning, but he didn't look like he'd try to follow. Still, Xander locked the 'employees only' door behind him.
Spike opened his eyes, only half squinting against the light. "Wha's up?"
"Are you feeling better?" Xander asked, pulling the office chair up close to the couch. "Let me see your arm." Spike didn't resist when Xander took hold of his left hand and pushed the sleeve up—wincing a bit at the way the dried blood stuck the sweater to the bandage, God the whole arm was covered with blood, he should've cleaned that up— but his eyes opened a little wider when Xander pressed two fingers to the inside of his wrist.
"What tipped you off, then?" Spike asked quietly.
"Angel, actually. He's out in the store."
"Bugger," Spike said, and closed his eyes.
His pulse throbbed against Xander's fingers. His hands were cold but his arm was warm; Xander wondered how he'd missed that when he bandaged him up.
Sometimes you only see what you expect to see.
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"I said I wasn't important anymore."
"You think turning back into a human makes you less important? God, when Giles hears about this—"
"I said I want to be left alone."
"Is that why you won't let Angel into your apartment?"
Spike opened his eyes again, and smiled for the first time all night. "He told you about that, then? Best thing about turning human, seeing the look on the poof's face when he ran smack against the barrier."
Xander couldn't help an answering smirk; it was a pretty funny image, all right. "But you live with Illyria...?"
"She needs...someone." Spike kind of shrugged. "Anyhow, I'm sort of accustomed to having a crazy bird with superpowers around."
Xander nearly took offense on Buffy's behalf, but then he realized that Spike probably meant Drusilla. "So do you want me to get rid of him for you?"
"Ta very," Spike murmured, closing his eyes, which Xander thought meant 'yes.'
Xander had to give Angel credit—the glass was all swept into a neat little pile. Angel, meanwhile, was standing behind the register with a handful of cash, looking perturbed.
"A lady came in and bought a...a Jessica Rabbit," he explained when Xander walked up. "I told her I didn't have a key for the register, so I couldn't make change. She said that was all right."
"Oh. Okay." Xander shrugged and unlocked the cash drawer. "Look, Spike doesn't want to talk to you."
"I know, I heard everything you two said through the door. Xander, I need to see him. He's not well."
Xander hesitated, looking back towards the office. "Yeah, I could tell that much. What's wrong with him?"
"The transition's been hard on him. He gets sick a lot, and the headaches—" Angel stopped, wrinkling his nose. "You've got more of his blood on you. How badly was he cut, again?"
"Not bad—when I thought he was a vampire. Shit." Xander rubbed the bridge of his nose. He wanted another cigarette, he wanted a drink. "He'll need stitches."
"You've got a car, right? That's good. There's an all-night clinic on West Elm Street."
It was two a.m.—time to close up the store anyway. Xander went back into the office to peel Spike off the couch.
"Where's the poofter?" Spike asked as Xander helped him to his feet.
"Still there. He wants to take you to a doctor."
Spike stiffened. "No. Not this time. I'm not even sick."
"You need someone to fix your arm up properly."
"Oh, right." Spike looked at his arm vaguely. "Forgot about that."
"Yeah, I can see how you'd forget about a giant gash in your own arm." Xander took a hard look at Spike, who'd just stumbled and caught himself on the edge of the desk. The pill bottle was still there; Spike tucked it in his pocket now. "How's your head?" Xander asked.
"How many did you take?"
Spike turned to face him, and Xander could see how wide his pupils were; his pale irises were barely visible. "Just enough to help," he said defensively.
Xander stifled a sigh and reached an arm out to steady Spike. He lowered his voice to a whisper so that Angel wouldn't hear. "Look, I don't care one way or the other—but you're overdosing, right?"
"Mebbe a little." Spike ducked his head. "Fuzzy."
"When we get to the clinic, they'll notice."
"They won'care. Just keep the big bloody poof off m'back, right?"
"I'll try. But seriously—Angel just seems like he wants to help you. Why not let him?"
Spike made a sound that was almost a growl, like he was a vampire again for just a second. "He never gave a rat's arse what happened to me before I turned human."
Xander didn't really get it, but hating Angel was a lifestyle choice he could respect. "I won't let him in the car," he promised. "Now let's go." He threaded his arm under Spike's shoulders, took a moment to reflect on the weirdness of a universe that put him in this position, and helped Spike out into the store.
Angel was looking pouty; he'd probably listened in on their conversation again.
"Thanks for cleaning up, Angel, I'll take it from here," Xander said.
"You'll need me to show you where the clinic is," Angel said, getting between him and the door.
"I know where the bloody place is," Spike mumbled into Xander's ear.
"You heard him, Angel. Now get out, so I can lock up."
Angel went out the door, but waited just outside. Xander sort of propped Spike against the store's plate glass window while he locked the door, and Angel made a move as if he was going to move in and hold him up.
Spike stopped him with a glare. "Don't even think about it, wanker."
"Xander," Angel appealed to him, "Make him see reason. He needs help."
"Yeah, maybe." Xander shrugged, and offered Spike his arm. "But he doesn't want it from you." He headed for the car. Angel hovered nearby, but Xander pointedly ignored him.
When they were finally both in the car and pulling away from the curb, Angel's frown receding in the distance, Spike giggled. "That was brilliant, mate. I love you."
Xander glanced sideways, highly skeptical. "You're high as a kite, Spike."
"Yeah." He smiled, and leaned back against the headrest. The breeze from the rolled-down windows ruffled his hair.
Xander smiled, too. He didn't know what the hell he was going to do with Spike, but standing up to Angel had been fun. And he'd solved the mystery of the L.A. Slayer, so Giles couldn't complain. And he'd finally found out what Kegel Balls were—he'd been wondering ever since Willow's birthday party.
All in all, it was the best night he'd had for a while.
He lit up a cigarette, turned on the radio, and drove.
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