Xander looked up, surprised to see Spike standing next to him. The Magic Box was still closed, but Xander had come here anyway. It had been. . . good, here. She had been so happy, and not just because she was working with money. They guys had never really understood that about her. It wasn’t the money, although yes she had a more than healthy appreciation for it. It was about having a place. Being useful to the world.
Being useful to the girls, too. Face it, she had way more to offer to the Scoobies.
Spike was still standing there, holding out the pads Giles used to use when he trained Buffy. He looked tired, which was odd. When had Spike ever looked tired before? He was looking more than a hundred-plus vampire than the eternal teenager he pretended to be.
“What do you want, Spike. Can’t you see I’m brooding?” Or sulking, or trying very, very hard not to cry, which was all the same thing. Didn’t really matter which label he put on it. He was an idiot. Not because he wasn’t as smart as Willow or as strong as Buffy or as innocent as Dawn. He’d never had that and the longing for it had faded over time, once he’d found his own place.
And then he’d let it go.
He was an idiot.
“Taking lessons from Peaches, then? Put these on.” Xander just looked at him, waiting for the insults. They’d come fast and furious a few nights before, when Buffy had gotten sick and hadn’t that been a strange turn of events. Buffy had—no, don’t think about it. His life was balanced on few supports, and he didn’t need to kick out those that remained. Buffy was better now, anyway. Talking again, starting to deal. So she was okay.
“Harris! Bloody hell, boy, do you even hear me?”
“What do you want Spike?”
“Put these on, Harris,” Spike mimicked, again pushing the worn plastic and fabric against his shoulder. “Hurry up, the girls’ll be here soon enough. I want time for this.”
“Time for—if I do this, will you go away?”
Spike cocked his head to one side, looking like a bizarre version of the little white dog in those television commercials. “Yeah, whelp. I’ll go away.”
Xander slowly began strapping the pads on. Spike had sounded. . . sad. Xander studied the bleached blonde vampire as he stripped out of leather coat, shirt, and boots. There were old injuries and bruises still half-healed on his body, and his expression was—adult. Mature. Especially when he touched a scar on his chest, right over his heart.
“So what are we doing?” The silence had been comfortable, even companionable. He didn’t want that, now.
“We’re going to the training room.”
Xander swallowed his comment about Spike imitating the Dark and Broody One. That was a sure way to piss Spike off. . . except maybe it wasn’t, today. The more Xander thought about it, the more he was certain that if he got any response at all, it would be a smirk or a raised eyebrow.
Xander knew why he was acting weird. Most people did, given that almost anyone who meant anything to him—and a few that really didn’t—had been there when he’d done it. Spike hadn’t, he realized suddenly. He hadn’t noticed it at the time, busy fending off a snarling vampire and trying to help Buffy, but there had been surprise and a sense of not knowing exactly what had happened behind the insults. He knew Spike had been invited, and that he’d arrived but. . . he hadn’t stayed?
His brain hurt.
Old sweat, wood, a hint of vanilla. Sunlight creeping around high windows to make dust motes dance. Sanded wood at his feet, cool air on his skin. The echo of a lone adult trying to reign in bouncy and exuberant children that hadn’t been children for too many years. Siblings bickering. Speculation about using training equipment for nothing they were intended for.
He hadn’t been here since the wedding.
Spike was by the weapons racks. Racks that Xander had built. His throat closed up, closing his eyes against reminders of so much happiness. Pain, too, but old pain. Familiar and expected, necessary because without the pain, how would you know the good?
What good would come of this?
“Spike? Why are you handing me tape?” It had taken a moment to realize Spike was standing in front of him, staring with those eyes that saw too much.
“Oh, for christ’s sake. Gimme your hands.” Xander stayed passive, fighting an instinct to run or hit or hide or scream or—
White bandages made his skin look tan. “You hurt me.”
“Don’t be a baby.”
“You hurt me.” Wasn’t he supposed to be upset about this? Afraid? He wasn’t. How could Spike scare him? Xander had caused more pain than Spike ever had, and he couldn’t offer his victims the sweet oblivion of death.
“Not a lot. Wasn’t trying to. Chip’s a bit more. . . discriminating, now.” Xander flinched, suddenly hearing what he should have heard before. Pain. Raw, tearing, soul-searing agony. Something savage and primal reveled in that pain, fiercely glad that someone else was hurting—and the sick joy swelled and broke over compassion for this man—monster?—that hurt as much as he did.
He was a comfortador. His job was to ease that pain. Even when he felt like fragmented glass. “Okay, so—”
“So you hit me.”
The crack of skin on skin echoed through the room. Spike shook his head like a dog, rubbing his cheek as he turned back to Xander. “Again.”
Xander was staring at his fist, not sure what had happened. “But—”
Xander hit. Again and again and again and again. He barely heard Spike speaking to him, the low voice pushed to the back of his mind. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but keeping the rhythm, trying to beat white flesh to pink when he knew it never could. Distant even while his body sweated and groaned, he felt numb and alone.
Spike tripped him.
Xander stared at the ceiling, panting, feeling his body ache from the impact. For one brief second, he paused to wonder if he should stop, and if this was safe after all. Then he got angry.
Scrambling back to his feet, he used every ounce of skill he’d acquired to hit Spike. Nothing got through. Spike blocked him at every point, scrambling out of his reach and laughing when Xander fell on his face.
“Poor brick-layer. Can’t even hurt the neutered vamp.”
Snarling, Xander renewed his efforts. More blocking, although now Xander was getting a few good hit in between. Spike was talking again and occasionally throwing more than just a block. A few connected, but the pads absorbed most of force and he felt no pain. Later, he doubted he would have. All that mattered was trying to make it stop. . .
He didn’t know when he started crying, or when he started talking. Spike wouldn’t tell him what he’d said, but he had a good idea. ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘why’ had probably headed the list, the middle being a whirlwind of words he wouldn’t say in front of Dawn, and ending with—
The tears came hot and hard now, mixing with sweat and making already flushed skin burn. Collapsing to the ground he tried to shove himself through planed wood, sobbing helplessly as he finally let it go. Let it out.
It was dusk when he finally calmed. He stared at the thick brown blanket that surrounded him, wondering how it had gotten there. Sniffling, he pushed himself into a sitting position, automatically scanning the room to see if he would have to repair anything. Not too much damage, although he could trace the path of their fighting easily enough.
Clothes were piled by his feet, a cup of water on a low table near the wall. Gulping thirstily, he peeled out of his sweat-stained clothing and into the fresh set. Glancing at the clash of colors that made him wince, he remembered why he kept them at the store in case of demon slime attacks. Shrugging philosophically, he gulped the second cup of water he found near the door and went back into the store proper.
Spike was seated at the table, cleaning a gash in his arm. “Hey. Looks like you should’ve been wearing those pads.”
Tiny shrug and Xander was reminded that Spike was wearing only a pair of jeans. Then he looked harder.
“Are those bite marks?”
“No.” He was lying, the flatness of his voice made that perfectly clear. Xander knew that voice. It meant whatever caused the pain had been going on for so long it wasn’t worth even thinking about. Could’ve been the chip, but he didn’t think so.
“You still should’ve worn the pads.” Taking the bottle of antiseptic, he pushed Spike’s other hand away from his wound. “I didn’t mean to do this.”
“Didn’t want to hurt you.”
Spike could have been a marble statue, some detached part of his mind decided. The rest of him was caught up in bloodshot eyes, split lip, and the light bruising on his forehead. It wasn’t the bruises themselves, which were healing as he watched them, but where they were.
“Your chip went off.”
“You care?” Disbelief rang strong, reminding Xander of conversations in a bathtub.
“That it went off? Actually reassuring. But you had to have known it would go off.”
Spike was silent for a while, considering. “I knew it,” he said slowly, “but it didn’t matter.”
“Why not?” He rummaged in the open medicine kit to find butterfly bandages. “You hurt yourself.”
“No. This was just a different kind of hurt.”
Xander placed the bandages carefully, lost in thought. He didn’t like to fight, usually. He would to defend and protect those he loved, but he didn’t like fighting the way Buffy did—or Spike did. Spike, who let himself be beaten on by a boy who shouldn’t have been able to touch him without a reason.
“Watcher should’ve trained you lot. Not enough to give her Highness competition, but for someone who’s been fighting my kind for six years now, you suck.”
Spike smirked. “What do you think I was doing in there?”
Oh. That’s why he’d been talking. Xander grinned back, feeling better than he had in over a month. “Tomorrow?”