Xander collapsed onto his sofa, head lolling and eye shut.  He was too weary to utter the obligatory ‘kill me’, and settled for a despairing groan instead.  Three weeks.  Three weeks of being run ragged at the site, of staying up later than he did when he was a teenager, and definitely waking up earlier.  Mainlining coffee like Starbucks was going out of business, subsisting on chips and fast food, and pouring entire bottles of eye drops into his right eye in a vain attempt to keep it from drying out and aching.  His muscles were leaden, any hint of vibrancy or strength long ago leeched out by sitting for hours, staring at numbers that didn’t change and people who remained unhelpful, coming home to an empty home that echoed every time he exhaled.

He was tired.  No, he wasn’t tired.  He was so far past tired that he didn’t remember what merely ‘tired’ was anymore.  Quick to anger, quicker to whine, and there were tears pricking the one socket left to prick.  His left ‘eye’ throbbed dully all the time, now, a grinding, low-level ache that polluted any brief good mood and soured it within moments.  It’s why he wouldn’t cry, either.  Not some stupid manly belief that men didn’t cry—spend most of your youth with girls and you were quickly disabused of that notion, usually with dainty fists that hit harder than you could—but because crying would hurt.  Dripping wet fire, scalding into delicate flesh already rubbed raw from forced all nighters, making his voice go hoarse and rough like a smoker only now really understanding that the three packs a day for the past thirty years?  Caused cancer and buddy, you had it.  Xander almost wished he did smoke, just to give him an excuse for sounding like a fifty year old.

This was what he’d survived Sunnydale for?  To become one of the mindless managers too numb to see past their own noses and too stupid to realize they were trapped?  Not really dead, but definitely not alive?  He’d seen zombies before, and the few times he actually saw himself in the mirror, it scared him more than any zombie ever had.

He knew it didn’t have to be like this.  The presence of the Hellmouth had skewed things so badly that it’d come as a shock when he finally left, seeing human and demon, magic and science fused together in a way his poor, black-and-white brain couldn’t really handle.  He’d been offered jobs, highly paid, challenging jobs, if he could just get over that little prejudice that all demons were bad—one he didn’t really even have so much anymore, but working with demons?  Finding practical applications for magic?  After fighting for so long and losing so damned much, it had felt like betraying himself, betraying everything he believed in and fought for.  So he ran.  Found a job far, far away where vampires were still a tale to get a chick hot and he could live his life in peace.

If only he’d known how much he hated peace.

Tears came again, boiling underneath to leak out the sides, and he knew that he wasn’t going to stop it, this time.  These weren’t the pathetic tears of a man who had lost everything, who had nothing left to hope for, to look for, to keep his head up and his eyes—eye—open.  Those tears would’ve been humiliating, betraying the legacy of Harris genes that took crap and made it even worse.  But these?  His body was so worn out it was doing anything it could to find relief.  Any kind of release was sought after, and he heard some far-away health teacher in his mind, explaining that if the body started forcing things, don’t stop it because it means you’re heading towards a collapse.

A collapse would be fucking wonderful . . . for the five seconds before the guilt set in over missed work, or the worry about how he was going to pay for the hospital bills, the medicines, the house he wasn’t living in but still had to upkeep because it was his.   Xander had learned one thing during his youth very well: possessions could be yanked from you at any moment, so take damned good care of them while you could.

“Well aren’t you a sorry sod.”  Familiar voice, familiar words and Xander tried to laugh through the tears, but they sounded too much like sobs—deep and despairing and so fucking hopeless—that he stopped.  “No wonder they’re in such a tizzy about you.”

The cool edge of a glass was pressed against his fingers, Xander identifying the liquid as soup—chicken soup?—through smell alone.  “Go away,” he croaked.

“And miss the chance to annoy you into hitting me?  Nothin’ doing.  C’mon, now, worked hard to make that for you, drink up.”

He hadn’t heard anyone come in.  Hadn’t heard a single tear, or mutter, or drip from the faucet, let alone the subsonic hum from the microwave that made his ears ache.  “Please tell me you aren’t my Jiminy Cricket.”

“Hop on your shoulder I won’t, though you continue lying there like a useless lump of suet, I’m gonna do more’n just rattle my chains at you.  Drink the fucking soup, Harris.  You haven’t eaten in a week.  No carpin’ about the vending machine, neither.  That’s not food.  Now drink it.”

He drank.  Not much he could do, haunted by his own Ghost of Sunnydale Past, and he’d seen Scrooge McDuck rail uselessly too many times to try it himself.  Hot liquid, salty and rich, lacking the telltale tang of preservatives, soaked through his tongue, bypassing his stomach to flow directly into his bloodstream.  It should have given him more energy, he thought, but mostly it made him feel heavier.  He was Xander the Immovable, one man, multiple types of stone, and okay, maybe it was doing something because he hadn’t had the energy to be loopy, lately, even in his own head.  Prying his right eye open, Xander tilted his head two degrees.

Spike.  Black jeans, black shirt, black duster, white hair, eyes that were more grey than blue and why the hell was he noticing that?  Spike wasn’t see-through at all, the way a ghost should be, and was looking at him with an expression Xander couldn’t hope to decode.  Maybe concerned?  Annoyed?  Something in Fyarl?  “There, now.  Should be the ticket.  Mama Jo’s chicken soup’s the best for what ails you.”

Meaning this wasn’t one of the packets of dried crap he had scattered around his kitchen.  “Are you a ghost?”

“Want me to spin your future, then?  Tell you all the bad things that’ll happen, if you don’t change your ways?”  Spike looked utterly serious for a moment, long enough that Xander tested—before grinning.  The kind of grin Xander wasn’t sure he’d ever seen on Spike’s face before, open and free and actually happy, instead of mocking.  Xander blinked, certain he was hallucinating.  “Still a ghost, Harris, though I’m solid enough, now.  Touch an’ go for a while, but Fred’s a decent chit, found a way to give my oomph some shove.”

Fred?  Girl?  Oomph?  Draining the dregs of the mug, Xander let his head fall back and didn’t even try and understand.  Spike babbled as much as he accused Xander of ever doing so, and eventually he’d get to the point and then Xander could tell him to get the hell out and go haunt somebody else.  He was too busy trying not to have a nervous breakdown.  The lingering warmth of the soup, crackling sweet and smokey in his stomach, was easing the constant sting and prick of tears, but he was still so utterly exhausted.  Too exhausted to want to demand Spike leave, because, well, Spike was oddly familiar, and even oddlier comforting.  Xander could do with familiar and comforting.  Just for a little.  Then he’d kick Spike out, back to wherever the hell he’d come from.

“You really are far gone, aren’t you?  Well, not gonna be fixed in a day, so up with you.  Time for bed.”

What happened next was something of a blur for Xander, one he examined for days.  Sofa to bed he could understand, even Spike undressing him and pushing him onto the mattress.  Weird on the order of demented, but since Spike had this insane desire to take care of Xander, it made demented-insane-sense.  It was the rest he couldn’t even begin to fathom.  How his cock got hard, why Spike was bobbing over it, humming and generally having a gay old time as he brought Xander off to a stuttering orgasm that felt like bullets dragging through his gut.

Waking up alone didn’t help.

Two more days went by.  Liquid lunches and dinners of the kind Xander and his colleges didn’t usually consider ‘liquid’ were delivered, and it seemed a waste not to drink them.  Tomato soup rich with milk, beef barley hearty enough that it needed to be chewed, potato soup so clotted he was afraid it would make him sick, but didn’t.  By the second day, his head felt ten pounds lighter, particularly around his sinuses, and he realized the headache had been so constant that he’d forgotten what it felt like not to have one.  It wasn’t gone, yet, but the consistent influx of real food was having some kind of affect on his poor, overtaxed body.  Xander felt like he was stuck in a fog of bewilderment, his actions close enough to exhausted-Xander’s that no one noticed the difference.  He did, though.  He blinked a lot more, and an observant Willow would’ve immediately pegged it.

“Right pissed at you, she is.”  Standing in the middle of his home, staring goggle-eyed at the creature draped casually over his couch, eyes sultry and annoyed at the same time.


“No, not her, git.  Your bird.  Happy as a bloody harpsichord, she is, till she sees you workin’ yourself to death in the life you left her for.”

That made sense of the not kind, so Xander just blinked.  He was getting good at blinking.  Plus, it kept his remaining eye from wanting to crawl out of his skull and find a nice warm pool to bathe in.  At least, until his eyelid went gummy and then the knives came back, scraping into the soft, squishy parts of his brain.

“You do remember Anya, right?  Former vengeance demon?  Became one again when you left her at the alter, then turned back to human since she’d discovered you don’t need a soul for a buggering conscience?”

“She’s dead.”

“Course she is.  Died saving the world, sacrificing herself, which means she’s not in some great big ball of aether, or whatever you thought.”  Spike moved the way glass did, when it was so hot that it turned to liquid, slow and graceful and glittering-smooth.  Faster than seemed logical, too, since Spike was off the sofa and into Xander’s personal space before he could blink a final time.  “Told me she expected you to have kids, so she could watch over little Xander’s for the next few centuries, keep her busy, you know, till she got bored.  S’not gonna happen with you playing workaholic hermit, now, so she tapped me.”

Too much explanation, too many words, and Xander let his eye fall closed.  “You’re not gonna go away, are you?”

“And get yanked back tp L.A., listen to Angel mope over his bloody Watcher?  Not likely.  I’ve gotta be tied to something.  No idea how Anya switched it from Angel to you, but I’m not complaining.  You’re a hell of a lot easier to talk to than Mr. CEO.”

Still with the not understanding.  There was another familiar mug steaming invitingly on the end table, so Xander busied himself with drinking it all and then tottering into the bedroom.  Ignoring Spike was a long-standing tradition he didn’t feel like violating.

They fucked that night.  Or rather, Spike fucked himself on Xander, who could only lie there like a dumb mute, wide eyed and gasping while something tightertightest than anything he’d ever felt worked over him.  His hips were leaden, unable to move despite the tensing muscles that were near to shattering from strain.  Spike didn’t seem to mind, riding to the slow swish of the ocean at night, hands on Xander’s chest never pressing hard enough to constrict air-flow.

Xander dreamed of seagulls and clouds fighting against eyeless men in robes.

He wasn’t sure when he noticed Spike sleeping next to him in the mornings.  Didn’t notice when he started eating more than just soup, when the constant ache behind his eyes—worse with the one that wasn’t there—started lessening and he started smiling more.  He didn’t care that there was a new tv and more movies than Xander could watch in a year straight, with new additions arriving at semi-regular intervals.  Definitely didn’t mind when Spike fucked him for a change, and maybe that was when Xander started paying attention again, but he was enjoying himself too much to care.

“Is she still mad at me?”

The question popped up from no where, interrupting the dinner out at a burger burn, an indulgence that night.  Spike never cooked for him, never helped him clean no matter how much he nagged about what needed to be done.  He’d been upset when Xander figured out just where Spike was getting the meals he continued to send for Xander’s lunch—a restaurant who’s owner was a client of Wolfram and Hart—and how he was paying for it—the law firm again—but Xander didn’t care.  He could handle cleaning and cooking, since Spike took care of other things.

“Mad?”  Spike had this trick where his eyes widened and he became an innocent three year old, impressionable and silently begging for protection.  “Why would I be mad?”

“Not you, moron.  Anya.  Since I’m pretty sure I’m not. . . going to have, you know, little Harrises.”  They never talked about why Spike was there or when he was going to leave.  Spike wouldn’t have answered, but Xander knew better than to even try asking.  Seven years and he finally got that lesson down.

“Playing for the other team, are you?”  Spike raised an eyebrow, but he was losing the toddler-look, so Xander didn’t complain.  “Not forever, I bet.”

But when they went back home to what was now Spike’s as much as Xander’s, there was a hint of summer in the air, a touch of promise that was as good as forgiveness.  And the unmistakable scent of Herbal Essences hair-dye.

Good enough.