Xander got up every morning. He showered and shaved, brushed his teeth and pulled on clothing. He ate breakfast, mostly cereal, but sometimes he splurged and had oatmeal. Never anything else. He gathered his things for work and opened the door.
Then he stopped, and listened:
To Mrs. Rodriguez down the hall, who noisily shepherded her four kids off to school, full of shouts and kisses and children making ‘yuck’ noises. He listened to the nameless couple two doors down, who never spoke outside of their apartment, but who’s thumps and groans and operatic music spoke for them quite nicely. He listened to the floor above, as Mr. and Mrs. Barus had their usual screaming fight about the morning—cold, hot, wet, dry—and then just as loudly made up. Xander listened to all of this, and then locked his door behind him.
At work, he did his job with his customary skill and efficiency. He spoke when spoken to, even laughed and joked when he was in a crowd. He never responded to the careful overtures of several people, or the more blunt demands of many more. He just did his job. Some nights, after work, he went to the Magic Box, but more often he went home. Ate dinner, watched tv, went to sleep, and then did the whole thing all over again.
On weekends, he woke up a little later and cleaned his apartment from top to bottom. It was always spotless, but Xander still cleaned every Saturday until it nearly glowed with polish, not a single item of clutter to make it feel lived in or homey. The landlord often used Xander’s apartment to show off the building now, because it always felt empty and ready to be moved in to. After cleaning, Xander went shopping for whatever he needed that week. He would call the Magic Box, just to make sure there were no major problems that needed attention, and then, since there usually weren’t, he would lock the door to his apartment, turn on something low and wordless, and carve.
At first, he carved stakes. This would have worried his friends, who watched as closely as they could, except the stakes were always meant for Buffy’s hand, and were never more than very functional, very balanced and sharp stakes, the kind she stocked for normal patrols. After he’d carved enough stakes that even if Buffy allowed each one to dust with the vampire she was killing, she’d still have enough for the next year or more, he started doing other things. The lumberyard called Xander their most valued customer and always made sure he had everything he asked for. One enterprising manager even created the Xander Alcove, where the woods Xander wanted were stocked so he could go there at any hour of the day or night and find what he wanted.
He didn’t keep any of the things he made, as far as anyone else knew. For Giles, he made an ornate chair, designed with scrolls that gave the impression of curled pages and arcane symbols. Anya’s half-muttered comment about the state of tables at the Magic Box prompted two new ones custom made for her. Chests of varying sizes and carved with sun-bursts were presented to Dawn, for her clothes and jewelry. When Buffy admired the complicated spice rack with wheels and levers he’d made for Willow and Tara, she was given one a week later to hold her innumerable pairs of shoes.
He did this for nearly a month.
The knock started out polite, but after it was ignored three times, it became an extremely unpolite meeting of knuckles on wood. When that still provoked no response, Willow huffed and grumbled and dug out the key Xander must not have remembered he’d given her, because it turned in the lock easily enough, allowing the delegation to file in behind her.
They’d been to the apartment a few times since Xander’s return, but those were quick, fleeting glimpses as Xander ushered them out after grabbing whatever item he needed. They’d never just stood there, trying to get the feel of a place that used to be warm and welcoming, full of laughter and the ever-present smell of sex that never seemed to fade away.
Now it smelled faintly of wood shavings. And despite the uncovered windows letting in the spring sunshine, it felt very cold inside.
Willow crossed her arms. “Xander Harris I know you’re in here. We want to talk to you.”
Buffy and Anya had already started searching the apartment, starting in the two most obvious places. Buffy took the kitchen, claiming she could wrest away any food from Xander’s clutching hands if she needed to. Anya took the bathroom, since she’d already seen it all before and she knew how to unlock the door, anyway. Tara stuck by Willow, studying the room and easing her hand into Willow’s. It felt desolate in Xander’s home. Like a dead thing just waiting to stop.
“Xander? Where the—there you are.” Anya’s discovery brought all four girls into the bedroom, peaking over her shoulders to stare into the room. It was the only room that was dark, since the blackout curtains remained drawn and locked down, but light from the rest of the apartment cut into some of the gloom, letting them make out shapes and shadows and a few shimmering reflections.
Xander lay in the center of his bed. He wasn’t asleep any longer, but the way he blinked and squinted his eyes meant he had been until Anya opened the door. He eased himself into a sitting position, self-consciously tugging on his undershirt so it went down past the covers he kept around his waist.
“Get up, Xander. We want to talk to you. And stop acting virtuous—it’s not like none of us haven’t seen it before.”
Buffy made a small noise. “I’ve never seen it,” she said faintly. “And if Tara and Willow have, please don’t tell me?”
“I have,” Willow said grimly. “Jesse pulled his pants down when we were swimming, one year. He didn’t know I was still there. And I know you’re wearing boxers, mister, so don’t think you can use that excuse. Get dressed and get out here. Now.”
The door shut behind them with a small click, not doing a thing to muffle Anya when she asked, “Wait a minute, none of you have ever seen Xander’s penis? I thought you had!”
“Anya!” Buffy snapped, trying desperately to use anger to cover up the slight pout. “When would we have seen Xander’s—thing? You’re the only one who dated him!”
“Yes, but I thought you and he—when you came back from the dead, are you telling me you never tried to sleep with Xander? That’s what you told all of—”
“Yeah right, like Spike would’ve—”
Silence descended abruptly. Xander walked into the living room a few moments later, dressed in jeans and a loose t-shirt, heading directly to the kitchen to make coffee. He didn’t seem to notice the four girls perched upon various seats in his apartment, all of them watching him with huge, solemn eyes. He just made coffee. One cup’s worth.
Now that Xander was there, up and awake and ostensibly ready to listen to the wisdom his four female friends had to offer, none of them could think of anything to say. They looked at each other, silently begging someone else to start talking because once someone started, they’d know what to do to make Xander see reason. They had to, because this quiet, focused Xander wasn’t anything like the boy they loved.
Sipping from a mug that proudly declared him to be the best employee ever, Xander leaned against the doorless jamb of the kitchen. “Is this going to take long?” he asked in a diffident voice. “I’ve got an appointment in an hour. Hair cut.”
Spike never let anyone else but him cut Xander’s hair. That usually meant it was trimmed only when it was too ragged and getting in his eyes, something they quarreled about—who, and when, and how much—constantly. It was an ongoing feud anyone who spent more than two seconds in their presence was asked to give an opinion about. Not that either of them ever cared about the opinion, once it was given.
“All right. That’s enough.” Anya stood up right in front of Xander, arms crossed and head back to look him in the eye. “You’re miserable. Stop it.”
Xander took another sip of coffee and tilted his head, listening. The Barus’ upstairs were starting their normal Saturday morning war—the toilet seat, this time, which meant Mr. Barus had been out drinking the night before. He smiled, just a little. Those two were so predictable. “I’m fine.”
Four voices immediately erupted at once.
“You are not fine, you’re miserable,” Anya repeated, “and it’s bothering me. I don’t like to see you so miserable. So stop it. I don’t like feeling guilty for something I wasn’t even part of.”
“Oh, please,” came hard on Anya’s comment, “if that’s fine, Xand, then I’m—I’m the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man!” The comparison momentarily flustered Buffy, but she plowed on ahead gamely, “And yes, okay, I watched GhostBusters last night, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. You aren’t fine, and as your friends, we want to help you. So we’re taking you to the Bronze tonight to shake your groove thang, and maybe find another gorgeous guy—not that anything’s wrong with a girl, you know—and you are not arguing. I’ll carry you there, if I have to.”
“Xander LaVelle Harris, I’ve known you all my life and you are not fine.” Thunder and storm clouds danced on Willow’s furrowed brow, but her eyes were worried and scared. “You’re moping. You’re moping and depressed and that’s not your fault because—because it’s not, but Xander, sweety, we want to help you. You won’t let us come over anymore, you don’t hang out at the Box, and everybody at work says you’re acting like a zombie. Please let us help you, okay? We love you, Xander, we just want to help.”
“I-I’ve talked with Angel, Xander,” was Tara’s mostly unheard contribution. “A-and Spike’s not doing any better than you.”
Xander waited until all four women had their say, some how managing to look like he was following each bit of scolding, despite the wall of overlapping words and emotions. Four pairs of eyes glared at him, four pairs of arms firmly crossed or balanced on hips, and all of them angry because they were so worried. He sighed. “I’m fine. Really. Now if you’ll excuse me, ladies, I have things I need to do. Let me know when you want me at the Bronze.”
Not the response any of them had expected, not even Buffy, who looked like she was swallowing back preplanned conditions the way someone might swallow down frogs. Xander smiled at them—it wasn’t a fake smile, it wasn’t the smile of a brave little toaster, but it wasn’t a really happy smile, either—and gestured with his coffee mug toward the door.
The Make Xander Feel Better campaign wasn’t off to a great start.
“Can I talk to you?” Tara asked suddenly. “Privately? Willow, sweety, why don’t you make eggs?” She followed Xander into the bedroom without waiting for an answer, shutting the door behind her.
Xander stood in the center of the room, staring into his coffee cup. “How is he?”
Tara didn’t smile, even though Xander kept his back to her, but it was a near thing. “Not good. Cordelia says she’s ready to kick him in the head. He won’t leave Angel’s side except when Angel makes him, and when he does. . . well, he’s just as ‘fine’ as you are.”
“Good. I’m happy Angel’s taking care of him. He needs—I’m glad.”
Tara didn’t miss the break in Xander’s voice, or the way he heard things she clearly hadn’t said. Her call to Angel had come after Willow’s and Buffy’s frantic, angry arguments with Angel, demanding that Spike be sent back home, just so Buffy could stake him the way the bastard deserved. Not that Buffy really meant that, and everyone knew it—but watching Xander act so normal when he clearly wasn’t. . . no one was really sure how to handle that. Xander never asked for help with his relationships, and never indicated he’d been willing to receive it.
“I didn’t say that, Xander.” Her voice was low, mixing in with the darkness of the room; not trying to break through, because that wouldn’t work. This wasn’t the darkness of depression, the kind she herself took shelter in when she needed to hide from things. This was punishment. Xander stayed here, in this apartment, in this room, because he was punishing himself with the memories of Spike. “Angel’s getting pretty fed up with him, actually. Cordy said that he’s taken to kicking Spike around the room.”
A flare of outrage squared slumped shoulders, but only for an instant. “He’s his Sire. He can do whatever he wants.”
Tara knew that whatever this was, it had a great deal to do with the concept of Sires, and of Angel in particular. She wasn’t sure of what yet, but she was planning on calling Angel that afternoon with a lot of questions. Because he was the only one who was going to be able to fix this. Probably. Well, she was pretty sure, if she could just convince him that he had to.
“Spike misses you. You left a shirt down there. . . Cordy says he carries it around like a security blanket. She says it’s kind of cute, actually, watching the Big Bad act like a three year old.” Xander didn’t respond to that, but Tara wasn’t expecting him to. Not when there were thumps coming from upstairs that were unmistakable, and the low grind of some kind of machinery providing a weird kind of rhythm. “She says that if things don’t get better soon, though, she’s going to bring Spike back up here, no matter what Angel says.”
Tara ignored the flat denial. “It’s a funny thing, kids and parents. We’re so anxious to grow up and get away from our parents—until we actually are. Then we just want them back.” She’d done her research, carefully checking things and talking a lot with Giles before she did anything. She talked with Anya a lot, too, because Anya understood Spike very well. “We’ll do anything to have what we thought we’d never want again.”
“Yeah, cause I’m dying to return to the basement.” Xander put his mug down, turning to look at her for the first time. Even in the gloom, Tara could see his eyes—bloodshot and glassy, with an edge of despair he wouldn’t let anyone else see. “Look, Tara, I know you want to help, but—”
“Are you willing to give up that easily?” she interrupted. “Because you had one fight, even a really messy a-and complicated fight like this one, you’re going to let him go?”
For a moment, she thought she had him—his breathing went up and she could see anger curling his lip. . . but then it just disappeared. “I’ve been fighting for him for months now,” Xander said, using the same tone as he had outside in the living room. “He doesn’t want to be won.”
Despite repeatedly asking, Spike refused to speak with Tara, relying on Angel to communicate what he wanted to say. He hadn’t even responded to Cordy’s barb that relying on Angel for any kind of communication was a nuclear accident waiting to happen. Just folded himself at his Sire’s feet, while Angel sighed and buried his head in his hands.
Which was why Willow and Tara had arranged to travel down to L.A. Sunday afternoon.
“Xander.” It should’ve been easy to do this, but it wasn’t. Laying her hand on Xander’s arm, hoping he wasn’t going to jerk away from her, was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. “He doesn’t know he can be won.”
Angel slammed into the wall, the prone form in front of him acting as a shock absorber. He grunted a little as he backed up, smearing a drop of blood down his arm. “Is that all you’re going to do?” he asked.
Spike collapsed onto the ground, forehead touching his knees, arms wrapped around his shins. His head twitched a little, not quite a shake but definitely not a nod.
Angel nodded and picked up one of the weights stacked on the side of the room. It made a hollow thunking sound when it slammed into the side of Spike’s head, sending the vampire sprawling face-first onto the mat. “You know Spike, I’m a little tired of this. I said I’d give you a hand, maybe try to help you, but I’m not really seeing any effort on your part.”
Pulling himself onto shaking arms, Spike retreated to his prior position—though he did keep his head, this time, to watch Angel. He didn’t say anything.
“You’re never quiet, Spike. It’s unnatural.” No response, and Angel gave up trying the but-really-I’m-not-Angelus track and slumped against the opposite wall. The room was splattered with blood—all Spike’s—and over half of the training weapons were scattered around the floor, battered and in some cases, broken. Spike wasn’t fighting back, but that didn’t mean he was suicidal. Yet. “Say something!”
The tone was mulish, childishly stubborn and aching for some kind of relief. Angel felt something in his chest tighten at the first word he’d dragged out of Spike since Xander left. This Spike wasn’t the boy he’d broken so many years ago—because he’d never really broken William, just forced Spike into existence to distract Angelus. No, Spike had done the breaking all on his own. “Gonna play games with me, boy?”
That produced a ghost of a smile. Angel slid all the way down to the floor, stretching his legs out in front of him. He was still panting, the artificial sound of wind whistling in useless lungs always strangely calming after a fight. He knew what to do, of course. He knew what Spike wanted. It’d taken him this entire time—nearly a month since Xander’s departure—to gather up enough courage to do it. He’d always assumed that a few days of separation would send Spike hurrying back to his lover, no involvement from Angel necessary.
That morning, Cordelia had complained about Spike trying to ‘help’ her again, organizing all the files in a such a way that she couldn’t find anything. Granted, Spike’s wacky system was just the alphabet, but Angel wasn’t going to win a Cordy-argument. So he’d taken Spike into the basement to try and knock some sense into the bleached head, resulting in this.
“Spike. . . Childe.”
Spike’s head rose fully, shadows from the bare light bulb highlighting the slightly crooked path of his nose. One eye was completely swallowed up in grey, reflected light blinding Angel’s attempts to see into the right—it made Spike look eerie, a physical representation of what they all knew Spike was now: a body with nothing inside.
Angel sighed, rubbing his face to rid himself the image of an eyeless Spike. “Childe, talk to me.”
There was no willingness in those words, not really. But Sire had spoken, and Sire must be obeyed—that was the earliest lesson Angelus had beaten into a then-brown-haired head, and it would override anything else. “Why did you do it?”
“Because it was right,” Spike said, eyes fastened on the floor in front of his bare feet. No need to ask what Angel was talking about—conversations with Spike never featured a different topic.
“It was right to hurt him like that? To deny Xander—to deny both of you—what you wanted?”
“Not about what I wanted, Sire. Not even what—what he wanted.” Spike’s voice was so low it was almost a whisper, like if he spoke too loudly he’d have to really hear the conversation. Hear how final it sounded. “It was right.”
“And you think that Xander will just move on? That he’ll get over you, and find someone else? Have the two point four kids and the minivan? While you stay down here in the dark, wasting away when you could’ve had a chance?”
It wasn’t until the words were out of his mouth that he heard how they sounded. Spike hadn’t responded yet, but Angel wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. Bad, since Angel had asked a direct question and as Sire must be obeyed.
But good, because Angel really didn’t need to be told his kettle was just as black as any pot.
The silence settled heavy and thick over the two of them, not even the sound of breathing to disturb their thoughts. Two immortal creatures, lonely and alone, and not because they had to be. Not because they hadn’t been given ways to at least find comfort in their darkness.
“Would you change your mind?” Spike asked eventually. “Do it different, now?”
“My situation and yours are—”
A flash of the old Spike peeked out with the utter derision Spike tossed Angel’s way. “Goes both ways, you know,” he said, “this Sire thing. Don’t lie to me, all right? This’ll go the better, if you don’t.”
“You don’t want to be here, Spike! Don’t sneer at me and tell me I don’t know you well enough to know if you do or not, either. I know you that well. There’s no reason for you here, and you haven’t stayed anywhere without one.”
“So there’s a reason for me with him, is there? And you never answered my question. . . Sire.”
“I don’t have to answer your questions, Childe,” Angel growled, hand tensing around a nearby staff. “And of course there’s a reason for you to be there—he loves you.”
Spike leaned forward out of the glare of the lightbulb, his face still marked with shadow but no longer empty of personality. He met Angel’s gaze squarely, something bleak and broken inside his eyes making Angel shiver. “Answer my questions, then,” Spike said clearly. “Would you do it differently now? Stick around, just for love?”
“You don’t have a soul. You don’t have a curse!” Angel exploded, on his feet, staff poised to hurl into Spike’s. . . well, kneecaps given his current position. “It was different!”
“Vampire. Human. Both in love, and wanting to make it work. Not seeing a lot of differences.” Again, the pause was as loud and as sharp a slap. “Sire.”
“What I did was—” The best he could do for both him and Buffy. The right thing. The only real option they had. The best thing for Buffy. What the situation demanded.
Selfish. Cowardly. Wrong.
Angel sat back down.
Willow and Tara found them like that, both staring moodily at the floor, brooding in their own individual worlds. “Angel. Spike.” The glance Willow shot towards Spike was cold and hard, the breeze chilling Angel as it winged past. “Cordy said you were down here trying to beat some sense into Spike. Is it working?”
“Want me to help?” The almost-hostility in her voice was surprising. Angel thought that Willow and the others had accepted Spike and trusted him—it’d certainly seemed that way, from what Xander had described.
“I think I’ve got it covered. Can I. . .?”
“Cordelia said we could come down,” Tara said, clasping Willow’s hand. She looked nervous, but she smelled determined, lavender and roses with a hint of thorn underneath. “We w-want to talk with Spike.”
“Ah.” Angel knew he should stay, that as Spike’s acknowledged Sire, anything they wanted Spike to do would have to be run past him first. “I’ll just be—”
“Sit!” Willow didn’t even glance at him, certain that she’d be obeyed. “Were you trying to kill him?” she asked Spike. “To rip him into shreds just so you could be happy?”
Tara and Angel exchanged a quick glance, confirming that no, Xander wasn’t ripped into shreds or dying, and that Spike wasn’t anything resembling happy. “Willow, maybe this isn’t the best way to—”
“He knows not to hurt my friends.” Willows voice had always been soft and fuzzy, pink like the fabric of Buffy’s stuffed pig. Even the few times Angel had heard her issue orders, the crispness had never muffled the caring and friendliness underneath.
Except now, when Willow sounded deadly.
“Willow.” Tara tugged at her girlfriend’s hand, finally making Willow look away from Spike’s slumped posture. “Spike’s our friend, too.”
Letting out a long sigh, Willow slumped and leaned against Tara. “I know. I just. . . hey, you’re bleeding!” Suddenly Angel was the recipient of Willow’s anger and not happy about it. “Why is Spike bleeding, Angel?”
“Um, because I was trying to beat some sense into him?”
“Very funny. Hang on, lemme go get some bandages and stuff from Cordy.”
The room seemed smaller when Willow disappeared up the stairs, muttering under her breath about stupid vampires and stupider men. “She, um, means well,” Tara said.
Angel knew. He was actually grateful the two of them were there—Willow was someone who knew Xander better than anyone, and even in this short time Angel could see how much Tara cared about Spike. It wasn’t hard to guess that Spike reciprocated those feelings—strongly. He was actually looking at the blonde girl, a huge feat for someone who hadn’t acknowledged anyone but Angel for weeks.
“Hey, Spike. How’re you doing?”
Spike flicked a glance towards Angel. Feeling sick, Angel nodded and then closed his eyes. He wasn’t going to let Spike play that game anymore. “Sore,” Spike said, still in that low, sad voice. “Bit tired.”
“You don’t look like you’ve been sleeping.”
He wasn’t, something Angel knew for a fact. Every night, Spike would try and crawl into Angel’s bed. The first night, Angel had let him, figuring he could try and offer some kind of comfort. That had been the wrong thing to do. Spike had tried to give himself to Angel, going as far as prostrating himself in a way that Angelus had loved. It sickened Angel. He’d been forced to chain Spike to the other side of the bed to make him stop. The second night Spike hadn’t tried sex, but the almost wistful expression on haggard features was even worse. With or without sex, by allowing Spike access, Angel was giving him hope. That somehow Angel accepted Spike; that if he stayed, Angel—Sire—would want him. The damage had already been done, by the time Angel understood. If Spike didn’t sleep in his bed, he hunched himself into the corner of Angel’s room and just stared.
Tara approached Spike cautiously, hands up and hovering like he was a wounded animal that might attack if threatened. “He’s back at work,” she continued, voice slow and steady. “He’s doing a lot of wood-working, too, in his free time. He doesn’t hang out with us much anymore, though, unless we tell him we need him to. Just gets up, goes to work, and comes back home.”
“So he’s good, then.”
Tara frowned, halting a few feet from where Spike sat. Her skirts brushed against the floor as she knelt, stirring dust and picking up a wet spot of what Angel hoped wasn’t blood. “You know that’s not true, Spike. He misses you.”
“He’ll get over it.”
Willow didn’t say anything when she came back, handing over antiseptic and gauze before tugging at Spike’s shirt. He let her manhandle him, body lax and pliant for whatever she or Tara wanted. “Of course he will. He’ll get over it, Spike, because he has people who love him and eventually that’ll be enough for him again.” Willow bandaged the worst of the cuts, tsking over the bruise on his face, adding, “But it shouldn’t have to be enough, Spike. That’s the point.”
Angel could’ve told them this line of reasoning wouldn’t work. He’d tried already, although he hadn’t mentioned that yeah, Xander would get over it. Humans were resilient creatures, and Angel had experienced just how resilient Xander could be. Usually at the worst times, but that didn’t matter here. “So you don’t think he’ll find someone else?”
Tara caught his meaning. “He’ll settle. But it won’t be what he wants.” Spike the mannequin didn’t move under her steady gaze. “Spike? Can you answer something for me?”
Angel glared a warning across the room.
“What do you want?”
The room smelled of old sweat, staining the concrete floor and worked into the wood of various hafts. Angel concentrated on that smell, identifying each and every person so Spike couldn’t use him as an excuse. His Childe was bruised and heart-sore, and Angel could feel the aura coming from Willow’s lover: soft as swaddling cloth and as intimate, wrapping around with a mother’s loving touch. He wasn’t sure if it was magic or something else, but in the end, it didn’t matter.
“Free. I want to be free.”
Wesley accepted the book with a small frown. “Forgive me, but can you please explain what we’re doing again?”
“Yeah, me too? Cause we have books at home.” Willow didn’t look up from her tome, yellowed pages staining her fingers. “We have cleaner books.”
“Yes, but you don’t have me in Sunnydale,” Angel explained. Again.
Gunn, secure in his lack of research status, glanced up from honing the hub-cap ax. “You too good for cars now? Or is your hunk in the shop again?”
“My car is fine. And I’m going to Sunnydale. That isn’t the point.” Angel ignored the glances exchanged around him. He knew it was here somewhere, if he could find the damned thing, and then Spike would be permanently out of his life, never to return, and he could happily ignore him for the next few centuries, or maybe just forever.
Angel totally dismissed how uncomfortable that made him.
“So what is the point, Angel?” Wesley asked again. “I’m not even certain I know what I’m looking for.”
Angel did not want to explain this all again. If he didn’t have to explain it, then he wouldn’t have to think about how much he didn’t want to do this. Fortunately, Tara’s return offered the perfect distraction. “How’s Spike?”
“He’s sleeping. You’ll have to carry him, probably, to the car. He’ll be out f-for a while.”
It was purely the aesthetic that caught Angel’s eye as Tara settled down at her lover’s side, shoulders touching and skirts puddling into a brown green swirl. They looked happy together. Angel remembered the last time he’d seen happiness like that and redoubled his efforts. This had to work. Because he wasn’t going to put up with Spike trying to crawl into his bed for the rest of his unlife. “Good. That’s good. That’ll make this go easier.”
Wesley’s exasperated question was cut off by an upraised hand. Cordy had her glare on, and every man in the room flinched in preparation. “Angel. Words of one syllable, now. What are we doing? And how will this help Xander?”
“It won’t help Xander. Not really.” Angel tuned out the resulting babble. He didn’t want to hear them dissect something none of them understood.
The book in front of him held more sketches than notes—images of a life and time that Angel had tried hard to forget. Pictures of Spike, dark hair held in a messy ponytail, smiling up at something Dru had just seen. Spread out against a wall, the lash marks on Spike’s back so carefully drawn that they almost seemed to drip down the page. It looked like a Rodin image, grotesque in every way, and done so intentionally. Angel remembered that night and why he’d been so meticulous in each pen-stroke. He remembered, because that was when Angelus had finally started asking about the bond of a Sire and Childe.
Granted, at the time, it was to learn how to control a wayward brat that wouldn’t heel to anyone but a mad woman who didn’t know how to say the words. But he’d still learned, and Angel was certain there’d be something in his findings to use. There had to be.
Cordelia was tapping her foot, expression clearly explaining just what she thought of Angel’s evasion. “It won’t help Xander? So why are we all scrambling around like this was a paid case, which, by the way, it isn’t. Cut the cryptic-talk, Angel. What are you doing?”
“Undoing. What I should’ve never done in the first place.” When Cordelia opened her mouth again, Angel suppressed a growl. “Enough. I’m not telling you anymore. If you don’t want to help research, fine, take the rest of the day off. My treat.”
“You aren’t our boss anymore,” she snapped. But she took the book Willow handed her and started to read.
Angel flipped through the journal, noting a few things that might help and then reverently closing it and putting it to one side. He only had two or three left. “Tara, Willow. Why don’t you two drive back up? I’ll join you tonight.”
“Not without Spike. I can carry him too, you know. Okay, I think I can without dragging him, since he’s kinda a lot heavier than a pencil, but we’ll manage!” The mulish set to Willow’s lips meant she was protecting her friend—an admirable quality, but Angel had yet to make any of them understand that it wasn’t Xander who needed it. “He needs to be home.”
Angel just shook his head. “As far as Spike’s concerned, Willow, he is home.”
Giles hung up the phone, glancing over at the girls clustered around the table. Books were spread open, some of the pages gleaming faintly in the light, the lacquer faded over the centuries but still visible to the naked eye. Anya was flitting around the room, gathering the materials Angel had requested and piling them neatly on the counter while Buffy sat on the table, kicking her heels back and forth and flipping through a magazine. She had wisely suggested that since there was nothing to kill, perhaps she should sit this one out. Anya had immediately agreed, charming smile reminding Buffy that she was not forgiven for dropping a vial of unicorn blood, priced at several hundred dollars and difficult to obtain.
“You don’t seem very surprised, my dear,” Giles said mildly. His was reading a book Angel had suggested for examples of how things should be laid out. It was written in Kyprish and frustrating to translate, mocking him with its pristine white pages. Magicked to withstand the vagaries of age, it was also magicked to be impossible to read. Or so Giles suspected. “In fact, you seem to have expected it.”
Anya didn’t bother to look up. “Magic is just ritual repeated enough times to give it otherworldly meaning.”
Buffy blinked, glancing between the two of them in confusion. There had been any number of conversations that began this exact way, although usually Buffy just waited for enough key words before speaking. “And this relates to Xander how?”
“It doesn’t. Well, it does in that it relates to—never mind. Yes, Rupert, I was expecting this, or something like it. I am surprised that Angel’s agreeing to it. I didn’t think he’d want to accept that much responsibility.”
Buffy bristled at the implied insult, but fortunately didn’t try and defend her ex-boyfriend. Fortunately, because Giles knew as well as Buffy did that Anya was correct—at least when it came to vampiric responsibilities. “So,” Buffy continued, “there’s a ritual and poof, Xander and Spike are back together? And I get to stop feeling bad for Spike?”
Giles nodded. “It seems so, yes. It probably won’t be quite that simple, however. Angel wasn’t very forthcoming.”
“Angel doesn’t really know what he’s doing, either,” Anya pointed out with a shrug. “He just knows it needs to be done, so he’ll figure out how.” She headed behind the counter, gently pushing Giles out of the way so she could check their supply of the more potent herbs. Lifting one packet released an almost sulphurous scent into the air, making the other occupants of the room gag. “There won’t be any poofing, I don’t think. Probably a lot of screaming, though. Honey, did we get the order of Burmese crystals? They’ll probably need that as a focusing-agent. I hope Angel brought his credit card, because I’m not giving him a discount. He’s not family.”
The firm way she said that caught Giles’ attention. “I didn’t know we had a family discount, Anya.” He carefully didn’t mention Willow, since the truce between those two stubborn ladies was cautious at best.
Anya gave him a look. “Rupert, you know I still care for Xander. Of course he gets the family discount.”
If Xander was included, then Spike was by default. She’d always been supportive of the relationship, one of the reasons that Giles himself had stopped trying to quietly sabotage it. Not that he’d been very successful, since his darling had caught him every time. “So Xander and Spike, but not Angel?”
“Of course. That’s the point.”
The point? Giles watched as Anya began mixing several common herbs into a compound that glowed faintly. “Anya, what are you talking about? All Angel said was he was going to do a binding ritual and—and you’re adding black pepper which is hardly ever used in binding spells.”
“Because Angel will need it. And if not, I can throw it at Xander and make him sneeze. He’s very cute when he sneezes.”
“She’s your girlfriend,” Buffy said when Giles looked at her. “You translate.”
Anya glared at them both, fists planted on her hips in exasperation. “There’s nothing to translate! Angel comes, does the ritual, and then he goes away. After that, well, we’ll see after Spike wakes up. Now stop pestering me for answers I can’t give you and go prepare the backroom. Spike will feel comfortable there, and Angel won’t, which is good. I don’t think I like Angel.”
Giles knew that asking anything now would only make her angry, so he went into the training room obediently. It was just typical that his store would be used. He wouldn’t get the smell out for weeks now.