By Dira Sudis
Xander ran a hand through his hair and waved the flashlight around, aiming at knee-level. He’d memorized the plan, he was in the right spot, and Spike had seemed attached to this place. He ought to be here.
“Spike?” Xander thought, again, about how much easier it would have been to buy the beer, instead, and spend his solitary Friday night in the customary fashion. “I brought you something.”
On the other hand, this plan would have been irresistible after a six-pack, and then he’d be here anyway, but drunk, and he’d have fallen over when Spike popped out from behind a file cabinet.
Xander aimed the flashlight beam for center of body mass, so that he wouldn’t blind Spike. The same spiffy blue shirt he’d been wearing for over a week was brightly illuminated, and Xander noticed it was even grimier now than it had been in the woods last night. Spike had picked up what looked like a big smear of grease somewhere, and spatters of, presumably, blood.
It was Spike who finally broke the silence, his voice hoarse and uneven, so that it took Xander a moment to decipher the words. “You don’t know when’s my birthday.”
Xander tried not to sigh out loud. He’d known coming into this that Spike was as crazy as a very, very crazy thing. He could deal. “You want to come upstairs with me?”
Spike waved one hand, a wild slashing gesture full of no. “You said you brought me something, but you don’t know when’s my birthday, so why would you do that?” Spike moved closer, squinting warily at Xander like he was a math problem just outside comprehension, trying to figure the puzzle without losing his cool. “Who are you, anyway? Can’t fool me, I’m not stupid.”
“It’s me, Spike, just me.” Xander lowered the flashlight as Spike moved closer. “The thing I brought you–-it’s not a birthday present, it’s a reward. Job well done.”
Spike’s eyes shifted up to meet Xander’s straight on.
Xander gentled his voice as much as he could. “You were a big help last night, tracking that demon.”
Spike nodded, and his gaze drifted lower again. This close, it seemed like Spike was staring at his throat, but that wasn’t true. Probably. Not important, anyway. “Got ‘im, then?”
“Yeah, yeah. Buff gouged out his eyes.”
Spike looked up again, suddenly sharp. “So now you throw the dog a bone, that it?” He turned away, back toward his fortress of filing cabinet solitude. “Don’t like bones.”
Xander considered letting him go, but, hell, he’d already bought the stuff, might as well go through with this. “Do you like Weetabix?”
Spike half-turned back, and Xander was surprised by how much it pleased him to see the familiar expression of amusement on his face. “You never did.”
Xander grinned and waved the flashlight back the way he’d come. “You gotta come upstairs with me.”
The prospect of Weetabix, which, even dry, would make a nice change from rat’s blood, sustained Spike through the basement and up the stairs. But Xander, a couple of strides ahead, just kept walking, through the night-quiet hallways. They were strangely dimly illuminated, as though a full moon was shining from all around. That was obviously a crazy thought, but Spike got so distracted trying to sort it out that he stopped walking, and Xander, halfway down the hallway, had to call to him.
“It’s just the night lights,” Xander said, as Spike caught him up. “It’s a thing, they didn’t want it to ever be dark in here.”
Xander kept walking, leading him down another hallway and through a set of double doors, and a little bird whispered to Spike that this wasn’t quite right. “No,” he whispered back, “No it’s not.”
Xander glanced back at him as they walked through the rows of lockers, and Spike walked slower. “Why couldn’t you just bring it down to me?”
Xander turned back, walked a little faster, leading him on, and Spike caught him just at the doorway, grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. “What’s going on here? Where is it?”
Xander’s eyes swept over him slowly, head to foot. “I want you to do something for me first.” Spike snatched his hand back, staring warily at (the alleged) Xander as he met his eyes. “Take off your clothes.”
The funny thing, Xander thought, or maybe the sick, scary, not-funny-at-all thing, was that Spike didn’t ask any questions after that, just blinked once, nodded like that made sense, and turned half away as he pulled the shirt off over his head. Xander turned away as well, to the bag he’d left on the bench before going down to find Spike. He was thrown almost literally off balance by Spike’s easy acquiescence, and he steadied himself for a moment, pulling out the stuff he’d brought, dismissing all the arguments and explanations he’d had prepared.
When Xander turned around, Spike was just standing there, naked. Really, really naked, and almost glowing in the dim white light. Xander fixed his gaze on Spike’s face, willing even to make eye contact at this point, because if he didn’t look at all that exposed skin, maybe it didn’t count.
He tossed the soap, and the washcloth, and crazy or no Spike still had vamp reflexes, and caught both before he had time to register the surprise on his face. Xander, not looking down, not looking, gestured through the doorway where Spike had stopped him. “Shower time.”
Spike pitched an eyebrow.
Xander stepped back, through the doorway and into the shiny-new echoing shower room. Leading the way had worked up to now. “Come on, Spike. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you smell awful. You need a shower.”
Spike looked down, hefted the bar of soap in his hand. When he looked back up, he was on top of things again, all cool amusement. “It’s your world, boss.”
Spike strolled in, brushing past Xander just inside the door, just close enough to be deliberately invading his personal space, and crossed to a showerhead on the other side of the small room. He turned the water on and stood still under it for a moment, then started soaping the washcloth. Xander was just starting to wonder why he hadn’t yet retreated back to the locker room when Spike looked back at him over his shoulder. “So, I smell, do I?”
Xander had the horribly familiar feeling that there was no earthly way to answer this question correctly. Spike had a strange look in his eyes, not crazy, not angry, but intent. “Well, Buffy said something last night,” and, wow, that was so not the right answer.
Spike turned his face back toward the wall and slapped the soap down in the little metal tray. “That what this is, then? Slayer sent her errand boy to give the dog a bath before his biscuit?”
Xander, safely out of Spike’s sight, rolled his eyes. “No. Buffy didn’t send me. She doesn’t even know I’m here.”
Spike turned all the way around to face him, soaping one arm as he looked Xander over, head to toe and back again. Xander held very, very still, and fixed his eyes on Spike’s chin. “Dirty secret,” he murmured, his voice almost lost in the sound of the water as he turned away again. “Right. I can do that.”
Xander let his hands open and close, clench and unclench, before he tried to answer. Spike went on washing methodically. “It’s not like that.”
“Yeah, no, I know.” Spike bent slightly, washing his legs, and was he . . . ? No. Surely not. “Not like that at all,” Spike continued, half to himself, as he grabbed the bar of soap. “I’m just standing here all naked and soapy and wet and then I’ll probably–-“ There was a dull clattering sound, and Spike bent all the way over and looked back at Xander, upside down, hair hanging in wet clumps. “Oh, look.” He blinked at Xander, and then looked at the floor. “I’ve dropped my soap.” And now he was, yes, undeniably, shaking his ass, a slow, sinuous motion.
Xander closed his eyes, pressed his fingers into his eye sockets like he could squish out that image, and reminded himself that Spike was crazy and almost certainly not doing it on purpose. “You should pick it up, then, huh?” He didn’t lower his hands or open his eyes until he heard the soap slap back into the soap dish and the faint sound of a washcloth running over skin.
Spike was facing Xander now, balanced on one leg and bent over as he scrubbed intently at the toes of his raised foot. Spike glanced up at him, once, just for a second, and then returned his attention to washing as he switched feet. “So, explain to me why you care, then? If I smell bad?”
Xander had been asking himself that for hours, and still hadn’t come up with an answer that didn’t sound lame. “I know hygiene isn’t a huge priority for vamps, but you never used to stink.”
Spike put his other foot down and just stared at Xander for a moment. “Yeah, well, maybe it’s because I’m crazy!”
Xander couldn’t stop himself from recoiling at the shout, which echoed almost unbearably in the small room, but stood his ground. “I know that. That’s why I’m here.”
Spike frowned, looking puzzled.
Xander sighed and waved a hand toward Spike’s head. “Did you get behind your ears?”
Spike obediently raised the cloth and washed behind his ears, and then the back of his neck, all the while staring at Xander, waiting for an explanation. “Look, I know you’re crazy, all right? It’s pretty obvious. But that means you need a little help looking after yourself, and you’ve been helping us, so here I am. To help you.”
Spike’s head whipped sharply to his right. “Yeah, well, nobody’s talking to you,” he snapped, “so sod–-“ and his face changed, just like that, as if he’d been slapped; suddenly he was pleading. “No, no, I’m sorry, baby, I’m sorry, I didn’t–-“
Spike froze in place, his head still turned toward the apparition, but his eyes were on Xander.
“Come on, Spike. Stay with me, here. Finish washing up.”
Spike’s eyes slid back to his vision, and he gave–-her?–-a sneering, superior little nod before turning his attention back to washing. “So, you’re to be my keeper, then?”
Xander shrugged. “I don’t have a plan, I just. Wanted to do something tonight.”
Spike started rinsing out the washcloth, frowning down at it in his hands, and Xander ducked out into the locker room and pulled the shampoo out of the bag, tossing it to Spike as he came back in. Spike caught the bottle and then stared down at it. “What is this?”
“Shampoo. For your hair?” Craziness, as it turned out, had not dulled the edge of Spike’s who-ate-your-brain look.
“This stuff’s English, innit? Giles had this brand.”
“Yeah, Will brought it back, it’s for color-treated . . .”
Spike’s hand had clenched on the bottle, and he was staring at it like it was full of holy water. “Red’s come back?”
“Yeah, she–-hey, when Buffy and I came down to talk to you, she was here, wasn’t she? You were talking to her?”
Spike clutched the shampoo to his chest, pressing his hand to his head and staring down. “No, no, she wasn’t, she couldn’t. She didn’t have papers.” He looked up at Xander. “I double checked! She wasn’t real! You’re real, and you couldn’t see her.”
“No, Spike, she was really there. It was–-that was the rest of the world being crazy, okay? Not you.”
“Not–-“ his face started to crumple, and he turned away again to face the wall, lifting his face into the spray. Xander slipped out, picking up the towel he’d filched from Buffy’s when he’d stopped to get the shampoo. It was from the linen closet, all clean and fluffy and not overly pink.
When he stepped back into the shower room, Spike was under control, lathering his hair with steady hands. Xander suspected that somewhere deep inside, Spike was freaking out, but at least it had distracted him from the prison-shower sex kitten routine.
Spike rinsed and repeated, all the while pretending he was alone, and Xander wasn’t sure what made him stand there and watch. It was somehow more personal than anything yet; this was what Spike looked like when he was alone and naked and washing his hair, and there couldn’t be many things more private than that. Still, Xander stood quietly and waited, towel in hand. Finally, Spike shut off the water and stood there, the water dripping off his body loud in the sudden silence. Xander walked over and pressed the towel into his hand, and Spike took it and began drying himself off. When the towel was safely tucked around his hips, he finally looked at Xander, spreading his hands. “So, do I pass muster?”
Xander tried for a grin and got only an uncertain smile. “You’ll do.”
When he headed back out to the locker room, Spike followed close behind. He stopped by the forlorn heap of his dirty clothes, and Xander went on over to the bench and rummaged through the bag. He pulled out the black jeans and held them out to Spike. Spike blinked. “Where’d you get those?”
Xander shrugged. “Thrift store. Hadn’t been there in a while, but they had some good stuff.”
Spike’s brow wrinkled as he reached out and took the jeans. “Yeah, well. Ta.” Xander turned to the bag and stayed bent over it, fiddling with the next item, til he’d heard the zip of the jeans.
The pants fit fine, so his vague memory about Spike’s laundry was correct. He held the shirt out hesitantly. “I got a blue one, since you seem to like that now.”
Spike looked at him like maybe he was the crazy one, and took it carefully from his hand, just an old second-hand shirt, soft with wear.
“I can take your other stuff and wash it, if you want. Bring it back Monday, I’m working here just about every day.”
Spike nodded slowly, and picked up his boots and sat down on a bench to put them on. Xander bundled the dirty clothes into a bag and withdrew the main attraction: a big yellow box of Weetabix and a thermos. He set them both on the bench next to Spike, and sat down across from him. “The blood should still be hot, it’s a pretty good thermos.”
Spike’s hands went briefly still in tying up his boots, but then he went on with no other response. When he’d got them fastened up, he carefully unscrewed the top of the thermos and sniffed. A little steam escaped, and Xander rubbed his nose and braced himself not to notice the smell.
Spike poured himself a cup, and opened the box of Weetabix and crumpled some of the cereal into his blood. His hands shook a little as he gulped the mixture, but he didn’t spill a drop. When he’d done that, he put the lid back on the thermos and pulled out another Weetabix-unit to munch on, and finally looked at Xander again. Xander looked back, waiting, wondering if Spike was going to start arguing with invisible people again.
“I can’t do it all myself, you know.”
“I mean,” he waved toward the shower room. “I was trying, to make it easy for you in there, but obviously you’ve got this scene all planned out, so, if you could just get on with it, I’d appreciate it.”
Xander blinked. “Spike?”
“I mean, look, you’ve never liked me, I know that, and I’m crazy, so not the best company. But you’re not here to enjoy my riveting conversation, and we wouldn’t be dallying about like this if there was work you wanted me to do, so, fine. I see why you’re here. Fair’s fair. You’d have been out with Rocky’s mum right now if I hadn’t gone off and scared her, and I can see how you might want me to pinch-hit, but I can’t do all of it myself.”
Xander wished, devoutly, that Spike were directing all of this at some imaginary, or possibly invisible, other person. Because he couldn’t possibly be thinking...
“I mean, it’s not that I wouldn’t, I do as I’m told. The loot, that’s a real nice touch, and I’m grateful. I just can’t. Chip won’t let me, right? Sooner or later, you’re going to have to jump my bones, so–-“
He wrapped his arms around his stomach, like Xander might try to take back the food he’d already eaten. “Yeah?”
Xander sighed and then crossed the space between them and leaned over Spike. “Listen carefully.” When he got a wide-eyed nod, he went on, “I’m not here to have sex with you.”
Spike nodded again, slowly, obediently. “Right. I know that. You’re here to help me, ‘cause you’re a white hat. Altruist, I get that. But then, the fucking. Because. That’s what you get out of this.”
Xander shook his head, and moved back, sat down beside Spike with a couple of feet between them. “Wrong.”
Spike nibbled on the Weetabix some more. “I’m never going to be able to tell when I’m being crazy if you insist on acting crazy around me all the time.”
“I’m not being crazy. I’m just . . . trying to help.”
“Like I said.”
Xander sighed. “Okay, fine. Truth is, the girls are all out doing girly things and I was bored, and this was all just a way for me to pass the time. So, now time has been passed, and I’m going to go home.” And the beauty of it was, if Spike ever tried to tell anyone they’d had this conversation, Xander could claim he’d hallucinated it, so there was nothing to stop him from repressing the whole evening.
He went and gathered up the stuff he’d brought and Spike’s dirty clothes, ducking into the shower room to retrieve the soap and cloth and Willow’s shampoo. When he was ready to go, Spike was still sitting there, half-eaten Weetabix in his hand, staring at the locker across from him. “So, I’ll see you Monday, all right? Bring you your stuff.”
Spike didn’t look up. “Whatever you say.”
Xander nodded, pointlessly as Spike was quite oblivious, and walked out.