All About Spike

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Thirst
By Carolyn Claire

Many, many thanks to MonaNotLisa and Snoopygirll for their wonderful beta assistance, and to Julia for her kindness and input.



If he wasn't so damned thirsty, it might have been funny--bad sitcom funny, with Xander cast as the poor slob who never caught a break. In the unmitigated disaster sweepstakes, Jack Tripper had nothing on him. Except maybe the hot blonde.

"Gonna fry out there. And you lack the tan for it."

His own blond, Xander mused, was more room temperature, most of the time. And more likely to tear his throat out. He shaded his eyes from the sun's glare with one hand and squinted at the shaded doorway of the shack, only yards from where he sat. "That would be the pot calling the kettle black, I'm thinking. Or, in this case, white." Something tickled a trail down his neck that might have been sweat, might not. He didn't want to know.

"You'll get heat stroke. Drop over dead in a few hours, maybe." Spike leaned casually against the doorjamb, shirtless and pale almost to iridescence, his white head gleaming against the darkness of the room behind him.

"I can wait." Xander uncrossed his legs, straightened them out slowly and leaned back a little, his hands braced in the dirt behind him. Hot. He sat up again quickly and dusted his palms off on his jeans.

"Prat." Spike was probably rolling his eyes--that was his eye-rolling tone. Hard to tell from where Xander sat. "You know I wouldn't have. I told you--"

"Just a light snack, right. No crazed blood-lust in your eyes, huh-uh. And, while I'm usually the first to believe the slobbering vampire with his teeth in my neck, this time--no."

"I don't want to hurt you." That might have been real regret in Spike's voice. There was certainly real fear pounding in Xander's chest. Shouldn't listen to the serial killer.

A drop of sweat rolled down Xander's forehead toward his nose. He grimaced as he swiped it away with the back of one dusty, unsteady hand. "Yeah, well, I guess sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do."

Spike shifted in the doorway, crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at the peeling floorboards at his feet. After a moment, he raised his face to Xander again.

"Yeah." Regret, yes, and resignation. "Sometimes."

********

He'd realized something wasn't right about the time Spike manhandled him into the trunk of the car; he was perceptive that way. While he tried to think positive and give Spike the benefit of the doubt, no happy scenarios involving car trunks and kidnappings sprang readily to mind. Taking slow, deep breaths against the rising panic, he felt around the ancient sedan's dark nether recesses for a lid release and tried not to think about Jimmy Hoffa, who no doubt had just been walking home, minding his own business, too.

After a cramped half-hour of terror and exhaust fumes, the car slowed, rumbled over gravel and stopped. A door slammed, and footsteps crunched toward him. Xander prayed the frantic prayers of the semi-religious and pressed himself as far back into the trunk as he could go.

The lid popped open on moonless darkness. The tip of Spike's cigarette flared brightly as he inhaled. Xander lay motionless, poised for flight, prepared for anything, for nothing.

Spike stepped back. "You going to get out, or do you like it better in there?"

"Better than what?" Xander didn't move.

Spike paused for a beat. "The front seat." He studied Xander a moment longer, then turned to glance over his shoulder. When he looked back again, his voice went low, conspiratorial. "S'okay, we weren't seen." He held out his hand. "C'mon, then. Not safe hangin' around here."

"It's not?" Xander raised his head a little and peered out the back of the DeSoto. There were no lights approaching down the dark highway behind them, or in any direction that he could see.

Spike made an annoyed sound and reached down to grab his arm. Xander held up one hand in instinctive defense and found himself caught by the wrist and hoisted to his knees, then set on his feet on the gravel shoulder, Spike's hands wrapped around his waist.

"Okay?" Spike watched as Xander stumbled back a few steps, bending forward to rub protesting leg muscles. "Sorry about the accommodations. Didn't want to take a chance you'd be seen. Like I said." He flicked his cigarette to the ground, stepped on it, and reached to slam the trunk shut. "Right, then. We're off."

Xander watched Spike walk to the driver's door, then limped slowly around the other side of the car. At the slam of the passenger door, Spike was off, throwing gravel behind them as he fishtailed toward the highway.

"So, we're, uh, running from someone? Something?" Xander felt around himself for a seatbelt. There wasn't one, of course.

In the light from the dash he could see Spike eyeing him sideways. "Yes, that's what I said. Back there when I picked you up. Thought you were paying attention."

"It was a little difficult, under the circumstances." Xander rubbed the back of his neck. "And that would be why the chip didn't do its thing?"

Spike's stare was frankly surprised. "Chip only goes off when I hurt someone." He blinked at Xander. "Did I hurt you? M'sorry about that--didn't mean to."

"I'm getting that." Xander watched Spike closely as he drove. "And we're going where?"

Spike grinned. "Someplace great. Never find us there."

"Uh-huh." There was an edge to Spike's smile that made Xander uneasy. "That's, uh, that's good." He could only hope that it was.

********

Giles had once told him that the desert was the place to go on a vision quest, to catch an epiphany. Xander's was about a week in coming--a week, plus two hours on his ass in the dust, staring down his abductor.

"You knew. All along."

"Probably." Spike grinned and stretched against the doorjamb. "About what, exactly?"

"About the damned chip! That it wasn't working. That's why we're here, isn't it? Something to do with the chip."

Spike shrugged. "It wasn't safe."

Xander grabbed his hair in both fists. "You keep saying that. Not safe? From what?" He gestured at the empty desert around them. "This is safe? Stranded, miles from anywhere, no help--"

"We've water, at least. Plenty of that." Spike smirked and gestured toward the room behind him. "Fresh from the well, all you want. Why don't you come in and have a drink? Must be getting thirsty by now."

"Thank you, no."

"Then you won't mind if I do, I hope?" Spike grinned again, edgy and slant-eyed, and disappeared into the depths of the house.

Xander stood quickly and looked around at the parched landscape. A weapon of some kind--there had to be something. There was evidence of what once might have been a shed, now a pile of collapsed, sun-bleached boards, on one side of the house, but there was nothing left in the rubble that he could use; he'd picked through it the day they'd arrived. His first day's desperate search of the area for provisions, a phone, a hot air balloon, anything that might help them, had been thorough.

Spike was back in less than a minute. Leaning against the shadowed doorjamb again, safe from the bars of sunlight that slanted across the porch, he sipped at a glass of water. "S'good. Sure you won't...?" Smiling, he held the glass forward, just shy of the light. Xander glared at him. "No? Pity. I've so much." He mock-toasted Xander with the glass and drank half of it down in a few long, noisy gulps.

"Mmm, cool." He licked his lips, then raised his chin a little and drank again, letting rivulets of water dribble past his mouth and down his neck. He lowered the glass, closed his eyes and sighed as he slid the fingers of his other hand across his wet, bare chest and around the back of his neck. He smiled a little as he looked at Xander again. "Feels nice."

"You're insane." Xander took a few angry steps closer to the house, the creep of the sun's rays across the porch making him bolder. "I knew it. You lost what little mind you had when the chip blew. It fried your brain, didn't it? That's why you dragged us out here. That's why you--" He stopped talking as he stopped walking, close enough now to see the guarded expression in Spike's dark, shadowed eyes.

Spike looked down into the glass in his hand. "Had a plan all along, I told you. Knew what I was doing."

"Then explain it to me." Xander's fists clenched at his sides. "Because I'd really like to understand why I'm going to die before I actually do."

"Well." Spike looked past him, across the miles of scrub and dirt to the hills in the distance, and shook his head. "Didn't exactly work out as planned, did it?"

********

"This is it?"

They'd arrived at the old house just as the sun had, racing the dawn across a griddle-flat expanse of scorched shrubs and not-so-succulent cacti to the tumbledown porch. Spike made a beeline for the dark interior, his coattails swishing around a corner as the first direct rays of the sun pierced the grime of an east-facing window.

"Get that, would you?"

Xander blinked into the light, then reached up to twitch the ratty curtain across the glass. Ratty, but serviceable--nothing penetrated the dark cloth; more than adequate protection there for the overly-flammable. Vampires in the desert, Xander wondered to himself. You learn something new every day. Whether you want to or not.

He glanced around at what had once been a living room and was now a mausoleum for wasps and mud daubers. There was a musky odor much like the smell that used to tell him it was time to lay mousetraps in the basement. He hated mice. These had thoughtfully left a few pieces of tattered furniture only partially eaten before moving on to what had to be greener pastures.

The drumming of falling water on metal roused him, and he followed Spike around the corner. Here was the kitchen, and there was Spike, alternately working a pump handle and splashing water on his face. As Xander watched, he pulled off his T-shirt and threw it on top of his discarded duster, draped over the back of a chair. Bare-chested, he went back to flinging water over his head and neck, much like a bird at a birdbath, Xander thought. A bald eagle, maybe. A bird of prey.

Spike looked around the kitchen, water dripping from his nose and chin and dribbling down his body, then reached for his shirt and scrubbed at his head with it. When he looked over at Xander again his hair was standing up in tufts and swirls on his head. Xander almost laughed. Scruffy eagle.

"Home sweet home, yeah?" Spike grinned at him and dropped the shirt on the countertop. "And none too soon."

Xander shook his head. "Out of gas? It's like a bad date."

Spike leered at him. "If you like, pet." Xander flushed and frowned a little and Spike chuckled, then shook his head. "Don't like leaving it out on the road like that--wanted to park it behind the house. We'll go get it tonight, soon as the sun's down."

Xander stared at him. "You mean, push it? It must be four miles from here. No way."

Spike frowned. "Shouldn't take chances. We'd be found in a second if anyone spotted it. Don't want to make it easy."

"And, about that, I never did catch--"

"First things first." Spike clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "Old Sparky must be away, so we'll have a look around and see what's what." He glanced around the kitchen, his eyes narrowing. "Not done much with the place since I was here last."

"Which was?"

Spike shrugged. "Few years. But ol' Sparky's always up for company. Expect he'll be back any time."

Not having seen any tracks, tire or otherwise, in the dust outside, and having taken in the condition of the house, Xander had serious doubts they'd be enjoying ol' Sparky's hospitable presence any time soon. And the enormity of his situation--stranded in a desert shack, out of gas, miles from anywhere, with a vampire whose behavior was growing increasingly strange, even for him--was beginning to press in on him in a way that made his eyeballs hurt.

Spike had started to root through cabinets, muttering to himself. "Has to be here, wouldn't be without...." He slammed a door shut and turned to Xander. "Make yourself useful, what do you say?"

Xander opened his mouth, closed it, held out his hands, dropped them, and sighed. First things first. He tried a light switch, flipping it up and down a few times--nothing. Not surprising, as the lines he'd seen stretching from the roof of the house to the pole beside it seemed to go no further. It was a sure thing, then, that he wasn't opening that refrigerator.

"No joy there, I'm guessing." Spike glanced over his shoulder at him, and Xander shook his head. "Why don't you have a look around, see what you can come up with." He was on his hands and knees now, feeling around the back of a dark, lower cabinet. Xander watched him for a moment, then turned silently and left the room.

He'd seen the living room, so he walked down the hall, looking into doorways as he passed. A bathroom he intended to avoid, a nondescript bedroom with most of the furniture still intact, and, at the end of the hall--

He stopped and stared into the room. He didn't move when Spike gave a triumphant shout from the kitchen, or when he slipped up beside him, grinning from ear to ear.

"Found it." He clutched an open, dusty bottle of amber liquid in one hand and two glasses in another. "Sparky always has the best stock you'll find anywhere. Knew he wouldn't let us down." He beamed at Xander, then seemed to take in the other man's blank stare. Turning his head, he looked past Xander and into the bedroom.

The dried, shrunken corpse of something definitely non-human but otherwise unidentifiable lay among the insect bodies littering the bed--unidentifiable to Xander, but not to Spike, apparently.

"Bloody hell." Spike shook his head and took a healthy swig of whatever it was. "Poor ol' Sparky. Wondered why he'd let the place go." He sighed and held the bottle out towards his fallen friend. "Here's to you, old man." Xander wondered for a moment if Spike was going to pour some on the floor in Sparky's honor, but instead he pulled the bottle back and took another long drink. "Explains a lot," he said, and turned to wander back down the hall the way he'd come.

Xander wished someone would explain it to him.

********

A big, black bird, probably a vulture, circled high overhead. It was the only other living creature Xander had seen in this dry, dead place since they'd arrived, present company included.

Spike shifted uncomfortably in the doorway. "If Sparky'd been here, I could've--"

"You had no idea if he'd be here, or if he was even alive or dead--you haven't been here yourself for years, you said so." Xander walked in a tight, agitated circle, following his own tracks through the dirt. "So why grab me off the street, shove me into your trunk, and take off like the proverbial bat, pardon the Dracula reference," he could see Spike rolling his eyes, this time, "for a run-down hole in the middle of the desert that no one ever comes to? With less than a full tank?" On so many levels, Xander thought.

Spike stared at him, watched him pace, and shifted back a little further into the dark room as the sun inched its slow way across the porch floor and closer to the threshold. After a few considering moments, he looked away, frowning.

"You don't even know, do you?" Xander stopped pacing and sighed, watching Spike contemplate the wall. "In your more lucid moments, you're as confused as I am."

"I know I've been trying to save you, here, you--" Spike broke off, looked down, then started again, his voice low. "You weren't supposed to get hurt."

"You know, I'd love to be able to believe that. God only knows why." Spike looked up at him, one eyebrow raised. Xander blushed. "Okay, so I know why." He shook his head. "I just want to know--why me?"

Spike frowned again, staring at him as though seeing him for the first time, which was pretty funny, considering how much of Xander he'd seen during the past week. His expression softened, and for a moment he looked as human as Xander had ever seen him. "Danger's real, pet, always has been. You're a babe in the woods, and it's a big, bad world out there. You need looking after, need a proper keeper. Known it for years." He blinked, looked away, then glanced sideways at Xander and grinned. "You're helpless as a kitten."

Xander stared back at him and forced thoughts of what Spike did to kittens aside. "So, you're saying that, for a while, now, you've had a secret desire to, what, mother me?"

"Well." Spike's face had gone sly, coy, lips a little pouted, eyes a little cruel. Xander felt a chill run up his back that he didn't want to analyze. "Secret desires, maybe. Nothing to do with your mother."

Xander did shudder at that. "I should hope to God not," he muttered. Spike laughed.

********

Had to give old, dead Sparky his due--he had kept a mighty fine liquor cabinet. Xander topped off another glass and sipped appreciatively. He'd spent several days sampling the stores, both straight up and lacing the cool well water. Sparky's taste in canned goods left something to be desired, though--Spaghetti-O's, stacks of them. Xander looked at the rows of happy red and white wrappers, sighed, then took one down and picked up the can opener. He'd held off at first, afraid of the effects of time and heat, but the cans had looked all right--no scary bulging--and, after one long, hungry day and quite a bit of good whisky, he went for it. Better than starving, anyway.

Lunch in one hand, drink in the other, he wandered out of the kitchen and into the living room on his way to the porch, carefully slurping faux pasta from the can. The house was oven-like when the sun was high, and he spent most of the day outside in an old rocking chair, sipping whisky and throwing stones at nearby cacti while he watched the horizon for warning dust clouds. It almost felt like a job, this porch-vigil, like he was doing something useful besides drinking and eating and waiting for whatever was going to happen.

He'd spent a lot of time thinking over their situation during the last three days, wondering about the reason for their surprise midnight run to the desert; another pending apocalypse, maybe, or a really big, big bad come to town, or possibly the draft. Something must be out there that was best avoided. And that part, at least, was going well; this was the best place for avoiding things he'd ever come across.

His attempts to get more information out of his undead roomie had met with limited success. Okay, so it was "bloody dangerous," he got that part, and something that could be hidden from, because, so far, nothing evil (besides Spike) had shown up. And it wasn't anything that threatened the girls, if he was interpreting Spike's cryptic answers correctly. He wished he knew for sure. He wondered if they were thinking about him, too, hoped they weren't too worried. They all depended on each other that much more, now, since Buffy had jumped from that tower--even Spike, who'd seemed to suffer nearly as much as the rest of them.

Spike had been very different since that day, strange in ways that were hard to define. He was oddly watchful, protective, exhibiting a near-mania for Dawn's welfare that was kind of touching, and an interest in everyone else's doings and whereabouts that bordered on spooky. Considering how often he'd turned to find Spike's eyes on him, or arrived home late at night to find him watching his door from across the street, it wasn't surprising that Spike would be the first to know if anything remotely evil threatened any of them. Funny to remember, though, what a threat Spike himself had once been to all of them.

That strange protective behavior had continued in their desert hideout--his obsessive checking and rechecking of the food supply, for instance, and the way he prowled through the house, peering carefully outside around the edges of the curtains. He slept fitfully, popping out of the bedroom at intervals to check on Xander, frown worriedly and go back to bed. After the first few startling times that had happened, it had become a regular, expected part of Xander's day. He glanced toward the doorway behind him as he rocked, expecting one of Spike's restless, sharp-eyed appearances any moment, now.

Sometimes, instead of going back to bed, Spike would keep him company for a while. They'd sit together on the shadowy porch in silent, semi-comfortable companionship or, occasionally, Spike would entertain him with what were probably seriously edited tales of his past exploits, some of which were surprisingly funny, while others were just...surprising. The whole Billy Idol thing, for instance--wild.

He felt at times that he ought to sober up and take the situation more seriously. Watching Spike play the Harrison Ford part from 'Witness' for days on end was only marginally entertaining, at best; but, without knowing what it was they were hiding from, he couldn't really be sure he wasn't better off right where he was. He had food, and water, and much alcohol, which he had come to see as a pretty good thing, his family's predisposition to alcoholism notwithstanding. And Spike's fevered expectancy was contagious. Xander felt a sort of anticipation, a tense trembling on the brink of something he couldn't explain. Something was coming, something was going to happen; he just didn't know when, or how, or what he'd do when it did. And, until it did, there wasn't a lot he could do about it, anyway.

A noise from the house startled him, and he turned. Spike was squinting at him from the doorway, shirtless and barefoot, his head a disorganized tangle of curls. At least he'd worn pants this time; he didn't always bother, unless he was planning to stay up for a while. Not that casual guy-nudity bothered Xander, usually, but there was an odd kind of intimacy about their situation, the two of them alone together for days with nothing much to do but notice each other, that was almost honeymoon-like. The thought made Xander twitch a little.

"You okay?" Spike rubbed one hand through his hair and leaned against the doorway.

"Yeah." Xander felt like he should say more, but couldn't think of anything. Silence stretched between them. He watched Spike, who seemed more tired than usual, sort of listless. "You?"

"Mmm." Spike scratched at his chest as he scanned the desert beyond the porch. He looked towards Xander, then down at the empty can next to his chair. "Had about enough of those, I imagine."

Xander looked down, then shook his head. "For a lifetime. Maybe two."

Spike chuckled and stepped out onto the porch, settling down to sit in the corner, near the door. "Could be worse. Could have been ravioli."

"Hell, yeah. I hate ravioli." So true, and something to be thankful for, anyway, Xander thought.

Spike smiled. "Yeah, I know."

Xander blinked at him. Spike eyed him back, still smiling, then looked out at the desert again.

Well, yes, of course he did, or he wouldn't have brought it up, Xander thought. He forgot, sometimes, that they'd actually lived together for a little while, if you could call it that--and Xander didn't, ever. What he ate, listened to, wore, none of it would be a secret to Spike by now, though he was a little surprised that he had remembered something as trivial as a dislike of squishy, canned ravioli. Weird things stuck with you in times of trauma, he supposed. Thinking about how much of his life Spike had seen, and even been a part of, over the years made him feel a little strange, though.

"Knew this Italian bird, once, who made the real thing. No canned shite back then, people cooked. You'd have liked hers."

Xander wondered for an unpleasant moment what had happened to the Italian bird, how she'd fared and how much Spike had had to do with it. He'd tried to think like that as little as possible since they'd run away together, and usually it wasn't a problem. Up until that moment, he hadn't thought about Spike killing anyone in days. Might have been the tomato sauce imagery, he supposed.

"Italy's an amazin' place. It's not what it once was, now, but, back in the day...." Spike smiled, looking relaxed and comfortable, and Xander settled in for another story. They had nothing better to do, after all.

********

"I mean, look at yourself. You're a hopeless case, Harris." Exasperated affection colored Spike's voice as he gestured with one hand toward Xander. "You stumble through life, you bumble through romances, f'you can call them that--adolescent floundering, most of it. Take your little pet demon--"

"Don't start on Anya." Xander clenched his fists at his sides again.

Spike raised his eyebrows and stepped back from the doorway in mock-fear. "Or you'll what? Attack me in outraged, manly fury, will you? C'mon, then. Show us what you've got." Spike grinned at him. "Oh, wait--you've done that."

Xander winced. "Shut the fuck up, Spike."

"Thing is," Spike said, stepping forward again, "it'll never last, you and her. You're bored, and she's useless--not what you need, at all. Not like me, now."

Xander laughed, a little hysterically. "Nothing like you, no. Not trying to kill me, for one thing."

"Oh, they're dangerous enough, these bloody women. Work you into an early grave, if nothing else." Spike shook his head and took another half step toward him. "What you want is someone to watch your back, let you relax a bit, have a little fun. You can't do for yourself, let alone some silly, grasping bint--"

"Stop it." Xander covered his ears and closed his eyes for a long moment, sighed, then looked at Spike again, dropping his hands to his sides. "What the hell does any of this have to do with why we're here?"

Spike frowned at him, then shook his head slowly and sighed. "There are things, love, that you don't understand. Bad things. And if I can't stop them--"

Xander's lip curled. "Like you couldn't stop 'things' four nights ago?"

Spike blinked at him and looked away.

********

He'd gotten used to not sleeping well. He couldn't bring himself to spend nights on the porch, not with Spike out prowling somewhere and unnamed menace lurking everywhere. He used the same bedroom Spike slept in during the day, lying naked on top of the dirty sheets with the window open, grateful for every hint of breeze that touched his skin. Hours after sunset the starry desert nights would actually become quite cool, the house would give up some of its heat and he could sleep. Whisky and well water, easy on the water, helped, too.

It was the alcohol that gave him the dreams, he was sure. He'd never really believed in ghosts, as such--demons, yes, evil phantoms from another dimension, sure, but your garden-variety spook, nah. So if he thought he saw Sparky's spirit hovering at the edge of his vision, moving silently through the bedroom when the night was darkest, it was most likely Sparky's stash, and maybe guilt at the inroads he was making on said stash, causing the visions. Well, sorry, guy, but you really couldn't take it with you, after all.

And that was okay, until the night the apparition touched him.

Xander froze, half-awake and confused, his heart pounding, and willed his eyes to focus. The moon had set and the darkness in the room was nearly total. The pale form near the end of the bed had touched his foot as he slept, he was sure of it. It was the nameless evil, come to get him at last, and he was alone, and a little drunk, and very, very naked.

"Xander."

And, fuck, it was Spike, of course. Three days of booze and paranoia had eaten away at his brain, apparently. The relief was so intense that Xander could have hugged him. Wait, no.

"What?" Xander rose up on one elbow and felt around himself for the sheet, which must have fallen on the floor.

"I can't," a pause, "I can't stop it anymore."

Shit. The pounding in his chest started up again. "It's here?"

He felt one side of the bed sink, then the other, as Spike climbed onto the mattress and crawled up his body, caging Xander between his arms and legs. Cool skin slid along the side of Xander's calf, and he realized with a cold thrill of shock that Spike was naked, too. There was a higher brain-function stopper for you.

"Wanted to leave you with Sparky," Spike said, "and then the car, and this goddamned desert...."

"So, what? What are you saying?" Hysteria edged Xander's voice. "We're sitting ducks? We're gonna die? What?"

"No." Spike's body dropped onto his, cool against sweat-slicked heat, and his mouth pressed against Xander's with a ferocity that was stunning. A wave of astonished fright sent tingles down Xander's arms, and he grabbed Spike's shoulders and tried to shove him up and away. Without breaking the kiss, Spike wrapped strong fingers around Xander's hands and pulled his arms up over his head, crossing his captive wrists near the headboard and holding them firmly in one hand. The other hand slid down Xander's arm and tangled in his hair, fingers skating across Xander's scalp and gripping the strands tightly as he plied his captive's lips with his tongue.

Xander convulsed, his entire body straining against Spike's as he twisted his face away. He gasped, flexing his hands in Spike's grip. "What? What are you doing? What?"

Spike stilled and pulled back. In the blanketing darkness, Xander could almost make out the features of Spike's face above his, shadowed eyes and curve of lips, as the other man looked down at him. "Not like that," Spike murmured, and rose to his hands and knees again, releasing Xander's wrists. "Too dangerous."

"What?" Xander asked again, aware that he was repeating himself but unable to dredge up much more in the way of vocabulary at the moment. He took a deep breath and tried again. "What the hell are you talking about? What are you doing?" That was a little better, anyway.

Spike was still poised above him, sitting back a little on Xander's legs. Xander brought his arms down to his sides but otherwise didn't move as he watched Spike watching him. The chip should protect him, he knew, and the fact that it hadn't fired meant Spike probably had no designs on his blood supply. Rape, strange as that thought was, would be out, too. He ought to be able to slide out from under Spike and get away, now--he had a feeling, as he looked up at the pale form above him, that Spike wouldn't stop him.

He didn't do it, though. After a moment, he felt Spike's hand on him again, fingers sliding over his chest, tracing a nipple. Xander caught the hand in his and stilled it, and, again, neither of them moved.

"What?" Xander asked again, more softly this time.

"Like this," Spike whispered, and lowered his mouth slowly onto Xander's.

This is crazy, Xander thought as Spike's lips feathered over his, then pressed more firmly, absorbing his warmth. He's crazy, I'm crazy, the world's gone insane and we're all going to die. A soft flicker of tongue, a hint of breath, and then Spike's lips were moving over his face, across his cheek to the hollow under his ear. Xander gasped at that, gripping the hand he still held tightly. Spike stopped and waited until Xander's racing heart had slowed a little and his fingers had loosened before resuming his kisses, open mouthed, down Xander's neck to his collarbone. He lowered his body onto Xander's again, gently, carefully, and the brush of Spike's firm stomach over Xander's groin sent another tingling shock racing through his body.

So, okay, then. Not his first man, thanks to that best-forgotten interlude in Oxnard, and not his first demon, either. Not even the strangest sexual situation he'd ever found himself in, but certainly the most unexpected. Dangerous, maybe, in ways he didn't even fully understand yet, but strangely comforting, with a thrilling, tightrope-walking edge. Spike's body was cool and strong, his hands and lips careful and skilled, and Xander's fear evaporated as the bubble of tension that had been building inside him for days finally broke in a warm wave of melting pleasure. Nothing had felt this good in way, way too long, and there was always tomorrow for second thoughts.

He closed his eyes, sighed, and gave in to it.

********

"Fine. Great." Xander looked at the house, at the wasteland surrounding them and the sun edging towards the west, sliding toward the hills that formed the vast bowl of emptiness that contained them. "Whatever. Say any of that's true--and there's no way I'm doing that--then, how the hell did we end up here?" He gestured, open-handed, at the empty stretch of dust between them.

Spike sighed. His brow furrowed angrily, and for a moment Xander wondered if would go to game face, the way he had just a few hours earlier. "By you not trusting me, that's how."

"Trust you?" Xander barked out a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. "Trust the insane, un-chipped demon who wants to drain me? Let you suck me dry?" The scarred eyebrow rose again. "You know what I mean." Xander wished he could growl the way vampires did--it would so perfectly express his frustration. "How can you even ask that? How can you expect--"

"Told you, I wouldn't kill you, would never." Spike's frustration seemed to equal his own, though he didn't growl, either. "Just need enough to get my strength back, so I can make it to--"

"Where? Where would you go? Do you even know? How far could you get before the sun rose?"

"A hell of a lot farther than you could. If I was in proper condition." He gestured at himself, at his nearly translucent skin and shadowed eyes. "I'm fucking starving, here. At least you have the damned Spaghetti-O's."

"For as long as those last, yeah."

"And how long will that be, d'you think? Have you counted the bloody tins? I have." Spike ran one hand through his hair. "What do we do when they run out? What do I do when you run out?"

Xander stood still, breathing hard, and considered the other man. "People can live maybe a month without food."

"Jolly for you. Vampires can't." He pinned Xander's eyes with his own. "Not and be any bloody use at all. Might as well break me up for kindling, by then--s'all I'll be good for."

Xander's eyes narrowed. "Interesting thought."

Spike did go to demon face then, fangs bared and eyes glowing. "Well, perish the thought, kitten. The sun's gonna set, and I'm gonna come out there, and that'll be that." He tilted his head to one side and narrowed his golden, cat-like eyes. "Don't like it, then you best start running now, love. How far do you think you can get?"

Not too far, Xander thought, not too damned far. But maybe he wouldn't have to.

********

The desert seemed to stretch on forever, brown and harsh and lifeless. Occasional dust devils danced between rocks and scrub in little swirling columns before dissipating and disappearing into the heat-saturated air. Those, and the slow crawl of shadows across the hardpan as the sun crossed the vivid blue sky, provided the only movement Xander ever saw from his spot on the porch. No approaching evil, no stalwart rescuers, no curious tourists moved through his line of sight. He tried to imagine what he'd look like to passerby--naked in a rocking chair, legs slung wide over the wooden arms, a bright blond head nestled between them, licking at his balls. Very photogenic, he imagined. Hey, Mable, take a look at that--click.

Spike's tongue worked its way up his shaft, sliding in slow, cool arcs from side to side. Spiked loved to suck him off, loved to lick the salt from his body, to kiss him slowly and deeply while they undulated together. He loved to lick up after himself, too, off Xander's groin and stomach and hands, which had been a little startling, at first. Kind of turned Xander on, now, and it made sense, really--vampire, oral fixation. He could dig it.

The last few days had drifted by in a sleepy haze of alcohol and languid, sweaty sex. Xander no longer even considered putting on clothes if Spike was awake and nearby, though he'd slept in his jeans one night just to enjoy the sensation of Spike pulling them off him again when he got home from his nightly prowl. Early evenings like this--the sun set behind the craggy horizon, the first hint of cool night air on tendrils of breeze that teased his skin--were made for long, slow sessions of lovemaking on the porch. The rocking chair, the floor, the warped, cracked wallboards, the windowsill--all had seen service. His favorite was the chair, and he let his head fall to rest on its slatted back as Spike slid one finger inside him, engulfed his cock in his cool mouth and began to slowly rock him, forward and back. Yes, he was going to have to get himself a rocking chair, just as soon as he got home. He spread his legs a little wider and sighed.

Spike growled low in his throat, and Xander clutched at his hair. As a lover, Spike had been a revelation, gentle where Xander had expected ferocity, slow and skilled and thorough, teasing him to more climaxes in a day than he'd thought himself capable of, but never approaching him again with the aggression of that first kiss.

A second finger joined the first, and he moaned. It was only ever fingers that entered him; Spike never took him that way, though Xander had asked him to, once; though Spike had allowed Xander to, once. That had been amazing, Spike's temperature, his muscle control, his suppleness all fascinating Xander, bringing him to orgasm much faster than he'd intended. He could tell, though, that it wasn't what Spike preferred, and since then he'd allowed his partner to lead the dance, happy to let him lavish whatever unique, pleasurable attentions on him he chose--and there were many.

He was gasping, now, one hand gripping his knee, the other wrapped around the back of Spike's head, pulling in rhythm, encouraging him to go faster. As usual, Spike slowed, instead, teasing him with hints of teeth and flicks of tongue, making his legs shake and his chest heave with need. When he was finally allowed to come, finished off with deep, sucking strokes, Xander exploded, his head thrown back, his body a smooth arc, held in place in the chair by Spike's hands on him and inside him.

That one probably registered an 8.9, Mable--click.

He was a long time coming back to himself. Spike was licking the sweat away, following the trails up his body with his tongue, his tireless tongue, working his way up Xander's chest, his shoulder, his neck. Spike loved to lick his neck, to breathe across his skin and suck gently at the spot where his pulse jumped. He'd moved forward between Xander's legs, now, and was sliding smoothly against him, the rhythm of his body keeping time with the suction of his mouth, the gentle scrape, the almost-nips, of his teeth. Xander loved this part, this loose-boned afterglow under Spike's mouth and hands, feeling himself start to swell to hardness again before he'd even opened his eyes, like he was right now.

He wrapped himself around Spike, arms and legs twining, drawing him in closer as he matched Spike's tempo and they moved together in perfect time. Perfect, it was perfect, all of it, even the damned Spaghetti-O's.

Eat your heart out, Mable.

********

Xander could feel his back burning. If he'd known this morning that he'd end up on his ass in the dirt under the desert sun for hours, he'd have put on a shirt, at least. At best, he'd have staked Spike in his sleep.

"We don't have to do this." Spike had dropped the vamp face and was trying to appeal to him, now, making with the eyes. Crafty, evil vampire. "I can get us out of it, both of us. You're putting yourself through all this shite for nothing."

"Living beyond today doesn't qualify as nothing, to me." Xander shifted uncomfortably. Maybe he ought to turn around, roast the other side. He liked an evenly cooked roast.

Spike rubbed at his face with both hands, then ran his fingers up through his hair, roughly rearranging the tousled curls. Even without his usual grooming products, this was a pretty, pretty man. Xander blinked at the thought and glanced away quickly.

"I'm telling you, I didn't bring you all this way just to kill you. I'm not--"

"Crazy?" Xander laughed and shook his head. "News flash, Spike--you so are." Spike stared at him coldly. "May not be your fault, though--what happened? Chip spontaneously combust? Fall on your head?" Spike's eyes went wide, and he looked away quickly. "Or did you grab a high-tension line, just for kicks? Or maybe you did it on purpose." Xander frowned. "Did you? Find a way to get it out, a spell, something--"

"No. It wasn't--I don't know." Spike wouldn't look at him. "I don't know what it's done, what it's doing to me. I just remember," he closed his eyes, "thinking that I had to get you away, knowing I had to. That you weren't safe, that you would die if I didn't."

"Because...." Xander offered, not really wanting to go here.

Spike didn't look at him.

Xander took a deep breath, hesitated, and answered his own question. "Because, if you didn't, you'd kill me yourself, wouldn't you?"

Spike glanced at him, looked away, and didn't speak.

Xander felt sick. He'd known it, he'd actually seen it in Spike's eyes, sometimes, when Spike was touching him. He'd felt it in the restrained power of the vampire's hands, the scrape of his teeth--the desire to take him in, consume him. Oral fixation--what a joke. Like a lovesick fool, he'd relied on a dead piece of hardware to keep him safe, when all the time he'd been sleeping with a tiger, a predator, one that by its very nature equated sexual urges with murderous impulses. One that was no longer leashed, and that hadn't fed in a week.

Their first night. 'Not like that.' Not fighting it, not struggling, like prey. Don't excite the tiger. 'Too dangerous.' Fuck.

Neither of them spoke for several minutes. The porch posts cast vertical shadows across the weathered boards of the shack, an ephemeral cage that would disappear with the sunset, releasing the beast within.

And that, as Spike said, would be that.

"It's not what I want," Spike said, so low Xander could barely hear him.

"You don't have a lot of choice, do you?" Xander's voice was low, too, and it shook. "You haven't found anything all week, when you've been out hunting."

"I'm in control. I don't have to...." Spike's knees seemed to give a little, and he dropped to a squat on his heels, one hand braced against the doorframe. The cage bars were very close to him, now.

"You haven't been in control since you grabbed me off the street, and you know it." Spike didn't answer. "You are what you are, and so am I. I worked that out four days ago. I guess it applies in this situation, too."

Spike looked him, head tilted a little, direct blue gaze searching, unreadable. "Philosophical of you."

"Always been my strong suit. That and my mad carpentry skills." Xander climbed slowly to his knees, then to his feet. After a few seconds, Spike stood, too. "And my amazing ability to blister. The topless thing, not working for me, here. You mind?" He held one hand out toward Spike.

"Just prolonging the inevitable, aren't you? Come inside." There was something flat and cold behind Spike's eyes, now.

"Humor me. For all we've, uh, been to each other." Please, God, he thought. Please.

Spike chuckled, then turned and reached into the room. Xander almost wept with relief as Spike pulled the black duster off the hook by the door. He folded it in his hands, looked at it for a moment and then threw it out into the dirt a few feet from where Xander stood.

Xander picked it up off the ground and gave it a little shake, then circled it carefully behind himself and slowly slipped his arms in. Leather on burned skin--not so good. Pockets, though--very, very good. Still praying silently, he slipped his left hand inside.

"Looks good on you." Spike's voice was mocking again, the demon lurking just under the surface of his skin. "Better on me, though. Gotta have attitude to carry it off."

"I think I'm growing one," Xander said, and pulled out a rattling box of matches. They'd outlasted Spike's meager supply of cigarettes, thank God.

Spike's eyes narrowed, his gaze flicking quickly from the little box in Xander's hand to the other man's face. "What're you thinking of doing with those, then?"

"I'm thinking," Xander said, and looked directly up into Spike's eyes, "I'm thinking, signal fire."

Spike's eyes widened. "You wouldn't."

Xander rattled the box again. "Sometimes," he said, voice low but no longer shaking, "you gotta do what you gotta do."

********

He didn't look so good. His gaunt, white face, the high, sharp edges of his cheekbones and the shadowed depths of his eyes reminded Xander of the way Spike had looked the first time he'd seen him with the chip--hungry, needy. He hadn't stayed out very long the night before, coming back and slipping into bed beside Xander after only a few hours, snuggling in close, his body seeming cooler than it had yesterday. He should have noticed sooner, but he hadn't seen it until this morning, this change in Spike; alcohol and endorphins had apparently slowed Xander's mental processes to a crawl while he'd soaked up pleasure like a dry sponge. He saw it, now.

The day was warming, but Xander was reluctant to leave the bed, hesitant to leave Spike's side, as though it was his eyes on Spike as he slept that kept him from fading out of sight completely; he would look away, and Spike would disappear. The heat finally drove him out, and he slipped into his jeans before he left, feeling the need to adopt the protector's role and gird his loins, be ready for action, for anything. He watched Spike sleep for a few more tense, unhappy moments, then slipped quietly out the bedroom door.

From his spot on the porch, he scanned the horizon with an urgency he hadn't felt since their first few days in the desert. Nothing moved, nothing ever moved, not during the day and apparently not at night, either. There was nothing alive out there, and yet there had to be--lizards, rabbits, hardy little birds. He'd seen a film about the desert in school, watched things scuttle and crawl as the narrator insisted that even the harshest environments were 'teaming with life.' He'd like to get that guy out here for an hour or two, show him 'teaming.' He'd give his rocking chair for a fat lizard or a lame rabbit right now.

Last night, for the first time since their first time, Spike had become aggressive with him in bed, controlling Xander with rough, economical movements as he brought him to one bucking orgasm after another. What he didn't do was come, himself, and now Xander knew why--he didn't dare spend the resources. That hurt him to think about. Spike had even eaten some of his Spaghetti-O's, yesterday, and Xander had laughed at the faces he'd made over them. That hurt to remember, too. He'd been an idiot, a stupid, besotted slacker, to think that things could just keep on the way they had been, or, more truthfully, to not think about it at all. They were in serious trouble, here.

Spike had said that if they left the car where it was, four miles away down the thin strip of asphalt that passed a hundred feet or so from the house, it would be found, and they would be found, in no time. It hadn't happened, obviously; no one had appeared, and there were probably never any pursuers looking for them in the first place. That left Xander wondering again, for the first time in days, why they were there, why Spike had brought him to this place. Danger, Spike had said, and Xander had pretty much let it go at that, not so much trusting as not challenging. That was something like the story of his life, really--the follower, the protected, not the leader, the protector. It was time for that to change.

A plan, he needed a plan. He watched the shimmering waves of heat that had already started to rise from the desert floor and decided against striking out for help just then--he'd probably be dead of sunstroke in hours. Nighttime would be better, and Spike could come too, then, if he was up to traveling. There was still the question of exactly where they were, how far they were from a town or even another lonely house, and whether they would find shelter in this barren moonscape before sunrise. He couldn't remember seeing anything like human habitation for quite a ways, the night Spike had brought him here--unsurprising, as he couldn't imagine anyone choosing to live in this deadly place, Sparky being the exception, of course.

A sound from inside the house made him turn. Spike was standing just inside the door, shirtless and vividly pale, peering around the corner at him. The bone-china fragility of his face was heartbreaking.

He smiled fleetingly and motioned to Xander. "Come inside, love. We need to talk." Xander nodded and hurried to follow him into the dim living room.

"I'm an idiot," Xander started, "I should have realized--"

"Shhh, not to worry, pet. S'all right." Spike stepped forward into his arms and leaned into his embrace for a long, quiet moment. He clung, running his hands up and down Xander's back before pulling away a little to caress his chest, tracing the muscles with smooth, cool fingers.

Xander shook his head. "It's not all right. We're fucked, we've got to get out of here, find a house, or a car, or--maybe someone's coming?" Those mythical pursuers, for instance.

"No one's coming, love. Just us, now." A rueful smile barely curved Spike's lips.

Xander frowned down at him and swallowed his questions unasked. 'Why' wasn't important, now; they had 'how' to worry about. He sighed, dropped his forehead to rest on Spike's and closed his eyes. He needed to think, not feel, to breathe and clear his mind and concentrate, the way Willow had taught him.

Spike cupped the side of Xander's face in one hand. "I know, love, I do, but trust me, it'll be fine." He smiled at him again as he stepped back and took Xander's hands in his. "Come on."

He led Xander to the bedroom, walking backwards before him, his smile promising, encouraging. Once there, he pushed Xander down to sit on the edge of the bed and climbed onto his lap, straddling his legs and pulling Xander's face to his chest.

The heat in the room was like a blanket, oppressive, thickening the air. Spike caressed Xander's head, massaging his scalp and stroking his hair as Xander laved Spike's nipples with his tongue and pressed warm, wet kisses against his pectorals. He murmured endearments into Xander's ear, warm, sweet, wicked things that made rational thought difficult, then took his chin in one hand and raised it for a kiss. Just for a moment, he teased the other man's lips with his own, and then he sank into Xander's mouth, deep and slow, as he lowered them both onto the bed.

After a long, delicious interval, Xander broke the kiss and looked up at him, willing his drowsy eyes to focus. "We need a plan, Spike."

Spike shushed him and smiled again, lightly touching Xander's mouth with his fingers. "Got a great one, love. Can't wait to tell you." He leaned in closer and tongued Xander's ear, taking the lobe between his teeth and tugging gently at it, then whispered low. "Solves all our problems."

Xander's heart leapt a little at that, though he'd been sort of psyched to think of himself as the one who'd save the day, who'd plan their escape and rescue Spike. The image of the two of them on the cover of a paperback romance flashed through his mind, with himself as Fabio and Spike in the ripped bodice--he had to stifle a grin at the thought. Plenty of time to role-play when they were safely back in Sunnydale and Spike had downed a bag or two of pig's blood and lost his intensely Goth look. He was just happy that they were both going to get out of this all right.

He turned his head a little and rubbed his cheek against Spike's. "Tell me," he whispered through his smile.

Spike licked his ear again. "Can't manage like this. Too weak." He was moving against Xander now, rubbing their groins slowly together. He reached down between them and opened Xander's jeans, then his own, pushing zippers and buttons out of the way as he pulled both of their cocks free.

Xander moaned and thrust up against him. "I know," he sighed. "You need--"

"I need you," Spike whispered, and bit Xander's neck.

Xander screamed.

Terror and pain shot through him together, and he jerked back hard and scrabbled desperately at Spike's head. The violence of his reaction must have taken Spike by surprise. The vampire's teeth slipped from his neck, his grip on Xander's body loosened, and Xander pushed him away and rolled out from underneath him.

Spike was on him again immediately, eyes glittering, mouth smeared with Xander's blood. Xander struck at him repeatedly, scrambling back until he felt the wall against his shoulder blades. Cornered, he kicked out and caught Spike squarely in the stomach, knocking him back to the edge of the bed.

He couldn't think, couldn't breathe. Nothing felt real, and everything was moving either too slowly or way too fast. This couldn't be happening--the chip, what had happened to the fucking chip? What had happened to Spike? He sat coiled on the bed with his back to the wall, waiting for another lunge from his suddenly murderous lover, cold with fear and sick with betrayal and sure he was about to die.

Spike didn't lunge. Instead, he stood up next to the bed, raised his hands in the air and took a step back. His features smoothed, and he was Spike again, Xander's Spike, but really, not. Not with Xander's blood on his lips.

Xander wanted to ask him why, how, wanted to scream again, or cry. He made do with breathing hard to the point of nearly hyperventilating.

"Wait a minute, love. You've misunderstood."

Xander's eyes bulged, and he gasped. "I...what?"

"I know what this must look like, but you've got to listen to me."

Xander blinked at him, stunned, and then he started to laugh. He gasped and shook, and his chest hurt, and when the tears started he knew he couldn't really call it laughing anymore. "You, I can't believe," he gulped, "you're trying to spin this. You just tried to kill me, and you're trying to spin it."

"No, now that's where you're wrong. Not trying to kill you at all." Spike looked into Xander's eyes, frowning, and then his own eyes widened a little and he licked quickly at his bloodstained lips. Xander sobbed. Spike leaned toward him, then away again when Xander flinched. "I just, I told you. I need you. To get us out of here. Just a little--"

"You expect me to believe that?" Xander felt himself shaking, felt his stomach churning. "Just a quick one? While you," he gestured at Spike's open jeans and his still semi-firm erection, "while you fucked me? What the hell is that? How could you--" His throat closed up.

Spike looked down, then quickly moved to tuck himself into his jeans and button them. He looked up at Xander, seemed at a loss for words, and held out his hands. "Thought it would be romantic," he offered. He even had the balls to look disappointed as he said it.

Xander turned his head and vomited over the end of the bed.

"Bloody fucking hell." He heard Spike leave the room, and he wished he could move, get up, get out of there while there was a chance, but another wave of nausea took him and he retched again. Before he was through, he heard Spike come back, heard him approach the bed and then stop. A wet towel landed with a soft plop next to him.

"I'll be out here, if you want me." Xander didn't move, and after a moment he heard Spike leave the room again.

He'd passed through shock, denial, hysteria, and nausea, and was moving into numb despair, now. Was that the final stage of reaction to a vicious attack from your vampire boyfriend? Without looking, he reached over and picked up the cold, wet towel and wiped his mouth, then turned it over and held it to his face. It helped, a little, as he worked to get his breathing under control. His heart still hammered in his chest, and every sound Spike made in the other room made his vision go a little gray around the edges.

There was no way that that should have been able to happen. Spike hadn't shown any sign of pain when he bit him, and there was no question about his violent intentions. What had happened? When had it happened? And how was Xander going to get out of there alive, now?

There were footsteps in the hall again, and they stopped in the doorway. "You all right?"

Xander bit his tongue to fight down the returning hysteria.

"Why don't you come out here? Have a drink?" Spike's bare feet scuffed softly against the wooden floorboards.

He thought about the window, about diving through it and out into the sunshine. He thought about how the glass would cut him, the blood, and the weakness in his arms and legs, the way they still shook.

He didn't jump. He sat up, instead, and slowly scooted toward the side of the bed, closer to where Spike stood waiting in the doorway. When he reached the edge, he stilled and sat, feeling the floor with his feet and gauging his strength.

Spike looked uncomfortable. "You want to zip up, love." He gestured at Xander's lap.

Xander went hot with shame and covered his crotch with his hands, then adjusted himself and slid the zipper up, nearly catching skin.

Spike stepped back into the hallway. "C'mon, then."

He rose slowly, feeling detached and distant, like he was sleepwalking. Silently, a few paces behind him, he followed Spike down the hall to the living room.

When he got there, there was a drink already waiting for him on the low table in front of the sofa. Spike moved across the room to stand near the kitchen door. Xander considered sitting, but didn't, and picked up the glass, filled to near the rim with a ridiculous amount of whisky for a man who'd just barfed up his guts. He looked at it for a moment, then closed his eyes and took a small sip.

"The thing is," Spike began. Xander shook a little at the sound of his voice, but didn't flinch noticeably. He was proud of that. "It's not likely you could get anywhere on your own, and fucking impossible that I could get anywhere like this. The thing to do would be for me to, well, replenish myself, get my strength back, and then head out on my own, bring help back. You see that, don't you?"

He sounded a little like Giles when he talked that way, Xander thought, so reasonable, logical. He pictured Spike in tweed and gold-rimmed glasses, a dusty book in his hand and Xander's blood on his lips, and wanted to cry again.

He heard Spike take a step towards him, and then another. Had this been his role in this demented road trip all along--back-up rations? In case of emergency, break Xander? That would answer the why, and why him, in particular, since he was the most expendable, the least important member of the team, with no special skills or powers to use in their defense, or even his own.

Four days spent making love to a man who saw him as nothing more than a food group. He thought he might be sick again.

Spike was very close to him now, just a few steps away. "You see that, love, don't you? That it's the only way? I wouldn't do it, otherwise, I swear to you."

And maybe he meant it. Maybe Spike really meant to leave him alive, would take the strength he drew from Xander to go for help and send them back for him. Maybe he'd be there waiting when he got home, flowers in hand, overjoyed to have him back, ready to pick up where they'd left off. Maybe Xander really was overreacting. He turned to look at Spike, who was almost at his side now, looked up into his eyes and knew...

...he wasn't overreacting.

Spike must have seen it on his face, that moment of realization, and he snarled and released the demon as he lunged for Xander's neck. Without thinking, Xander threw his drink in Spike's face and his elbow into his throat. Blinded and staggered, Spike fell back, and Xander broke for the door, sure that his next step would be the one that tripped him, that he'd feel a claw-like hand on the back of his neck that would jerk him to the ground. It didn't happen.

Seconds later he was on his knees, his eyes squeezed tightly shut against the blazing desert sun. He gasped, one shaky breath, then another, and sat back on his heels, letting the light fall full in his face, feeling it warm him, the chills subsiding. Slowly, he opened his eyes.

Yards away from him, in the shaded doorway of the shack, the demon watched him and waited.

********

"You're going to kill me." Spike's voice was thick with disbelief.

"It's going around, this killing thing. All the cool kids are doing it." He was too close to the house, Xander knew. One good lunge and Spike might be able to grab him, drag him inside, before the sun burned him to ashes. Might not, though; Spike wasn't himself, physically or mentally, didn't have his usual strength, couldn't automatically beat Xander in a fight. Xander had already won twice, after all. Under normal circumstances, with normal Spike, he would've never made it out of the bedroom.

"I wasn't, I swear it. Please, love." Spike was pleading with him, now, and Xander really didn't want to go through this part, didn't want to hear the fear and pain in his voice, the desperation to live that Xander had recently gotten to know so well. He should just do it, strike the matches, one by one, walk around the house and light every side, every corner, on fire. Then he'd stand back and watch the flames, smell the smoke, and listen to his lover scream as he burned.

The sun would be going down, soon. He was running out of time. If he was going to do it, it had to be now.

If only Spike weren't so pale and frightened, and so familiar; if only Xander could stop remembering how he felt, and how he made him feel. For a week, Spike had watched over him, cared for him, kept him company, in bed and out. For four days, he'd made love to him like no one ever had, and maybe never would again.

In one afternoon, he'd made it all a lie.

"It was to stop it happening again, don't you see? Everyone I touch--" Spike shook his head. "Couldn't let it happen to you, too, could I? Had to do something." Xander stared down at the little box in his hand and didn't answer. "Could you live with yourself, if you did it?" It was Spike's voice that was unsteady, now, and it made him sound so human that Xander wanted to cry. He bit the inside of his cheek and tasted blood.

"The question is, could I live at all, if I didn't?" He slid the little drawer of the matchbox open and looked inside. Maybe half a dozen matches left. Enough to do the job? Probably yes, considering the age and dryness of the boards, the hint of breeze, the total lack of moisture anywhere. Probably yes, if he started now.

"Think about it, love. I could have killed you any time, if that's what this was about. Could have snapped your neck in Sunnydale, stuffed you in the trunk and dumped you here. I've never wanted you dead. I just, I wanted you."

Xander looked up. Spike's hands were shaking a little as he held them out to him. They'd been sliding over his skin, those hands, just a few hours ago; they'd been wrapped in bloody bandages, a few months ago, after gripping the blade of a sword. Xander had lit his cigarette for him, then, with a little flicker of fire.

Spike was trying to get him to meet his eyes. "Got a heart like a bloody lion, and you cared, even when you shouldn't have. Always saw it. Couldn't help wanting you."

Mustn't listen, couldn't listen, even when it made his chest hurt. He forced himself to remember the feeling of Spike's teeth in his neck and shook his head. "That's the problem, Spike, the wanting. You don't know whether you want to fuck me or eat me. You're just playing with your food. Bad habit."

Spike's eyes were wet. "I can love as well as you can."

"That's not saying much, actually." Xander pulled a match from the box, struck it and watched it flare, holding it up in front of him. Such a little flame. Such a deadly thing.

He glanced over at the shack, into Spike's wide, horrified eyes. So blue, his eyes were, in his fragile, beautiful face.

He let the match burn, watched it crawl down the stick toward his fingers. It was like a game of chicken he played with himself--how long would he hold it? Would he throw it? Snuff it out?

The flame licked at his thumb and forefinger. He let it burn him for the length of one breath, endured it long enough to know the pain, then dropped it in the dust. It sputtered and died, leaving a crooked little corpse. One down. Five to go.

"God, Harris." Spike leaned against the wall, looking stunned.

Xander looked up at him and was angry, all of a sudden, filled to his eyeballs with it. "Why should I believe you? Why should I trust you?" His voice was hoarse with pain and thirst. "Just one reason, that's all I need. You're a demon, you're brain-damaged and you're starving. You just tried to eat me alive, you fuck," he held up one hand as Spike opened his mouth, "don't try to tell me you didn't. I saw your face when you did this." He touched the same hand to the marks on his neck. "You couldn't stop yourself if you wanted to, so saying you don't want to do it does me no damn good. Maybe you'd walk out into the sun tomorrow," Xander's breath hitched, "but today you'd tear my throat out, because you want to live as much as I do. And you're an animal, you bastard, a fucking man-eater without a heart or a soul. Why should I let you walk out of there?" He was the one pleading, now.

Spike stared at him, tried to speak, swallowed, tried again. "Because I love you." His voice cracked. "And you know it. You felt it."

A tear slipped down Xander's cheek, and he closed his eyes.

"You'll do what you have to do, love. What your feelings tell you. That's all you have to go by, now." He sounded defeated, and tired, and very old.

Too much time had passed; soon it would be too late. Maybe it already was. Xander took a deep, slow breath. "Tell me," he asked, blinking at Spike, his voice breaking, uncertain, "if you were me, what would you do?"

Spike leaned his head against the wall and looked straight through him, studying him as though he was imprinting him on his memory. He sighed. "I'd burn the fucking place to the ground," he whispered, and closed his eyes.

The bottom of the sun touched the top of the hills in the west. The evening breeze would come soon, with the first soft touch of night and that time just after sunset he'd come to love--the time he hated, now, because, by that same time tonight, one of them wouldn't be here. It was time for him to decide who that was going to be.

Xander took a ragged breath, wiped the tears away, and took a step toward the shack.

********

"Good idea, setting the place on fire, but pretty risky." The man with the pickup truck stood beside him and watched the smoldering pile that had been Sparky's home.

"You have no idea," Xander said, and wiped at the sweat on his forehead.

"Pump's probably melted by now, so there goes your water. If I hadn't been out this way, seen the fire--well. Tomorrow would have been pretty sad."

Xander just looked at him.

"You feeling all right, son?" The man studied him more closely, seeming to take in his pallor and the circles under his eyes even in the weak, yellow light of the truck's headlights. "You need a doctor? You look kinda sick."

"I'm fine," Xander said.

"He just needs a rest." Spike slipped up beside him, one hand sliding around his shoulders. "And maybe a drink." He handed an open bottle of whisky to Xander and smiled.

Xander smiled back at him. "Good old Sparky," he said, and then turned and gestured with the bottle toward the wreck of the house. "Best stock you'll find anywhere." He sipped, then let Spike take the bottle and drink from it, too.

"Better be going, then--it's nearly an hour to town. You can stay in the motel tonight and get somebody to help you pick up your car tomorrow. The gas station opens at six."

"I think we'll be sleeping in," Spike said, and Xander chuckled.

"Suit yourself." The man looked at the two of them a little sideways, one eyebrow raised, and then turned and walked around to the other side of the truck.

Xander looked at the glowing rubble again and then at Spike, and he reached out to pull him close. Spike leaned against him, his arms wrapped around Xander's waist, and rested his head on his shoulder until they heard the truck start. When he looked up into Xander's eyes, his own were bright and clear, the planes of his face smooth and perfect. Xander couldn't help kissing him quickly, his back to their rescuer, before walking beside him to the pickup and climbing inside.

At the slam of the passenger door, they were off, dust rising from their tires, the rocking chair bobbing gently in the bed of the truck.

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