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Part Five

Warm skin beneath his fingertips, firm but yielding. It was addicting; with every inch exposed, the desire for more simply increased. The soft cotton t-shirt was easily removed, giving full access to a nicely defined chest. Cool fingers traced over faint blue veins, light and teasing, provoking a murmur of complaint.

“ Spike, please hurry,” Xander demanded lustfully.

“ Patience, luv, patience,” Spike said with a grin, before lowering his head and laving Xander’s skin with a wet tongue.

“ So good,” Xander said, surrendering completely to the assault.

“ You’re so warm, Pet; all hot just for me.”

“ And you’re so wonderfully cold. Cool me down?”

“ My pleasure,” Spike said, beginning to trail sucking kisses down Xander’s body. Gentle moans, both his and his partner’s, filled the air, and hands carded through his pale hair, brushing at his sensitive scalp, and urging him to go lower. The waistband of Xander’s boxers briefly interrupted his quest but with a thought, the final item of clothing disappeared, and Spike finally got to feast his eyes on all that bared flesh.

Thus it was rather disappointing when the newly revealed bit of skin remained vague and unfocused to him. Damn it; Spike was dreaming.

“ Spike? Honey? Is something wrong?” asked dream Xander. Xander’s voice was decidedly too sweet, and he was far too accommodating and sycophantic to be realistic. Had Spike not been so willing to believe the deception, it would have been obvious he was dreaming sooner. Still, there was no reason not to continue the little fantasy now that it had begun. Hell, maybe he could even make a few improvements.

“ Nothing’s wrong, luv, just appreciating the view,” Spike said. Xander smiled beatifically, eyes filled with devotion and adoration.

“ I want you to take me, make me yours,” Xander cooed, long-eyelashes fluttering.

“ Right, need lube or something,” Spike muttered to him.

“ I’m prepared already,” Xander said cheerfully, pulling Spike up and over him, and lifting his hips.

Spike smiled widely, “ Of course you are.” Spike lowered his head, dragging Xander’s lush bottom lip into his mouth and sucking gently. Xander licked his way into Spike’s mouth, and in the way of dreams, Spike was suddenly and inexplicably in game face. Dream Xander didn’t even register the change, he just continued to kiss and press forward into Spike, finally slicing his tongue intentionally on one of Spike’s throbbing fangs. Warm blood filled Spike’s mouth, and he groaned as the heady mixture was shared between their hungry mouths.

“ An excellent accompaniment for that flavour would be a morsel of cheese,” said a funny little man, holding out a silver tray of carefully arranged cheese slices.

“ What?” Spike asked.

“ I said, stop playing around with my friend. Can’t you see you’re hurting him?” Buffy said. She was dressed all in black with a beret perched on her head, and a stake topped with a pink pom-pom aimed at his chest.

“ No I’m not,” Spike denied. Except this time when he looked at Xander, the boy was dressed in jeans and a stained, white shirt, and he was curled into a ball, defensively clutching a blue baby blanket to his chest. “ Oh, I’m sorry Xander.”

“ Why did you leave us?” Xander asked, raising tearstained eyes.

Before Spike could say that he wasn’t going anywhere, there was a flurry of movement visible from the corner of his eye and a stake seemed to materialize in his chest.

Spike woke up, still gagging on imaginary dust. With considerable relief, Spike wriggled a little closer into Xander’s warmth, having first checked that Xander was still asleep. The disturbing moments of the dream soon faded from Spike’s memory, though he knew he would not be falling back asleep. Instead he watched Xander doze, and deliberately replayed some of the more interesting dream scenes. He was still annoyed that his imagination hadn’t done a better job of picturing what was under Xander’s boxers. Maybe he should sneak a peek now; then he’d have an accurate image for future reference.

It was only Spike’s acute hearing that saved everyone from a potentially mortifying moment. For some reason, he didn’t think Buffy would be exactly thrilled to discover his hand down Xander’s pants (and Xander would probably have something to say about it as well, though his reaction was a little harder to predict). As it was, Spike was snaking his hand down toward the elastic waistband of Xander’s plaid boxers, peeling back covers as he went, when Spike heard Buffy on the couch start to turn over and wake up. With obvious regret, Spike stopped what he was doing, and swiftly and silently untangled himself from Xander, and headed for the kitchen. By the time Buffy was alert enough to sit up and take in her surroundings, Spike was already brewing coffee. The strong, unmistakeable smell soon permeated the small apartment, and it was sufficient to alert Xander, who stumbled out of bed entirely on automatic.

“ What time is it?” Xander asked, yawning and stretching.

“ Almost eleven,” Spike replied, handing Xander a mug of milky coffee.

“ Eleven? Wow, I haven’t slept that well in ages,” Buffy said, looking pointedly at the coffee pot. Spike rolled his eyes, but got her a cup of coffee as well. She smiled brightly, if a little obnoxiously, when she accepted the cup. Xander and Buffy settled themselves at the table, and Spike hopped up onto the counter to sip his mug of warmed blood.

“ Does this scene strike anyone else as being… oh, I don’t know, very far on the side of much oddness?” Buffy asked.

Xander tilted his head questioningly, drumming his fingers lightly on his rotund stomach, while Spike drained the last of his blood, tapping the bottom of his ‘don’t worry, be happy’ mug to get the very last drops, a noticeable blood-moustache gracing his upper lip, before considering Buffy’s question.

Buffy took all this in, including the loud, yellow t-shirt she was wearing, with the statement ‘Runs with Scissors’ emblazoned across the chest, and sighed deeply. “ Never mind; I forgot for a split second that we’re in Sunnydale, where a pregnant man, a vampire and a slayer having breakfast isn’t worthy of notice.”

“ Don’t know about that, we’re not trying to rip each other’s throats out,” Spike interposed with a shrug. “ Abnormal for this group.”

“ Ah yes, the good old days,” Xander said, falsely nostalgic.

Buffy declined an offer of breakfast, deciding it was well past time she got back to her sister. After changing back into her clothes from the day before, she gave Xander a final hug, happy to be back on good terms with one of her closest friends, said a stilted goodbye to Spike, and left the apartment.

“ It’s a good thing she’s gone, I didn’t think I could hold out any longer,” Xander said plaintively, moving into Spike’s personal space. Xander’s eyes were full of want and pleading, and Spike once again felt that strange state of breathlessness (strange because he didn’t really need to breathe, so why the sudden ache in his chest when Xander was near?) before rationality set in again.

“ You want more blood, I presume?” Spike said, keeping a tight control on his facial expressions. Not that he didn’t appreciate how Xander looked when in the midst of one of his cravings, but whenever Xander looked at him with naked hunger in his eyes, it was all Spike could do to remember that it wasn’t directed at him. And why had he thought of the word ‘naked’? Spike shifted on the counter top, suddenly conscious of the fact that he was seated with his legs splayed, and Xander was just steps away from standing snugly between his thighs.

“ Yeah, baby wants more blood,” Xander said tonelessly. A little voice in Xander’s head was saying that it wasn’t just the baby who wanted blood, but Xander as well. Specifically, Xander wanted the slightly sticky blood that was gathered around Spike’s lips. Xander got a full Technicolor picture of himself leaning in and removing all crimson traces from Spike’s sensual mouth with the tip of his tongue.

“ Well, I think I’ll go take a shower,” Spike said, trying to unobtrusively shift away from Xander.

“ Huh?” Xander said, thoughts still happily vacationing in the land of fantasy. They came scurrying back when he saw that Spike was edging towards the bathroom. “ Wait, you can’t!”

“ What do you mean I can’t?” Spike returned, partly confused and partly irritated that Xander was giving him commands.

“ I need a shower,” Xander said. And he did. A nice, long, cold shower, and maybe some soap for his brain – far too many dirty thoughts up there for Xander’s comfort.

“ Well, so do I,” Spike said, once again trying to adjust himself so that it wouldn’t be obvious to Xander why he needed a shower so desperately.

“ It’s my place, I pay the rent. I should get the first shower if I want one,” Xander said testily.

Spike had reached the bathroom door while Xander was ranting. “ You snooze, you lose, isn’t that what you wankers say?” Spike got behind the bathroom door and locked it before Xander could retaliate. The pounding on the door just made Spike chuckle as he stripped off his sleep-wrinkled clothes. “ Give it up, Harris, unless you want to join me?”

The pounding ceased immediately, and Spike grinned again, before turning on the shower and waiting for the water to heat. Outside in the kitchen, Xander gave an exasperated sigh, and headed for the kitchen. After all that, he still had a craving for blood.

“ Okay baby, here it is, one whole mug of bovine special. And if this doesn’t prove to you that I love you, nothing will,” Xander said, grimacing as the red liquid filled his mouth and coated his throat. Once finished, the baby did seem appeased, and Xander was able to eat a regular bowl of cereal without complaint. “ So what are your plans for today? Oh, you’re going to sleep for a while and then kick my bladder all afternoon? Going to give me any more strange thoughts regarding Spike? Because, let me tell you, that little thing in the kitchen was a real doozy. Yep, you scared daddy good. Not funny, little person, don’t think just because you’re unborn that I won’t start laying down the rules.”

“ Do you often have conversations with your stomach? Then again, considering what you usually eat, I guess it’s not so surprising that your stomach can talk back,” Spike said snidely, coming out of the bathroom bare-chested and running a towel through curly blond hair. Xander forgot to breathe. “ Harris? Xander? Mate, you alright there?”

Xander blushed, “ Oh yeah I’m fine.” He then glared down at his stomach, “ What did I just finish telling you? No more scaring daddy!”

“ You look bloody ridiculous doing that you know,” Spike said, before grabbing a shirt and flopping onto the couch.

“ The books say that babies can detect sounds from inside the womb. Talking to them gets them used to a person’s voice, and makes it less upsetting when they’re born,” Xander replied, reiterating what he’d read.

“ Really? Hey there, little Munchie, your old man’s completely barmy. Look for me, the good-looking bloke, when you come out and I’ll look after you proper like. Oh, and you kick and scream all you want – don’t think you have to take it easy on Harris here just because you’re related.”

“ Thank you, Spike. I’m so glad you’ve decided to get involved,” Xander said sarcastically.

“ You’re welcome,” Spike returned pleasantly. “ So what are we doing today?”

Xander fell onto the couch next to Spike, and lifted his feet to rest on the makeshift coffee table. “ Well, I need to get groceries at some point, but I’m feeling too lazy right now. Plus, my shoulder still hurts. Not to mention my back, my head, and my ankles. Being pregnant really sucks some times, no offence baby.”

“ Wait until dark, and I’ll go with you to the store. Need a few things myself,” Spike suggested. Xander knew better than to thank Spike; they had come to an understanding early on wherein Spike would help out around the house where he could in exchange for getting to stay, and Xander would contribute by not making mention of it whenever Spike did something nice. It was a system that worked well for both of them.

With the chore of groceries momentarily solved, Xander let himself sink deeper into the couch cushions, content to do nothing all day. It was so rare that he had a day to spend exactly as he wanted to and the thought of so much rest and relaxation was making him positively giddy. Two minutes later, he was bored.

“ Spike, I’m bored,” Xander complained.

“ How can you be bored when there’s so much to watch on telly? Look, we have the grey fuzzy channel, the white fuzzy channel, the messed up colours and wavy lines channel, the emergency broadcast channel, and a special report on pesticide use in Kansas. It’s all so riveting,” Spike said, before shutting off the television.

Xander actually chuckled. “ I don’t suppose you’d be up for a little bit of global domination?”

“ Don’t tease me whelp,” Spike said.

“ Nah, I meant do you want to play ‘Risk’? I have that, or ‘Clue’, or ‘Life’. I think I might even have ‘Candyland’ somewhere.”

“ What are you blathering on about? You don’t have a clue, and you certainly don’t have a life.”

Xander blithely ignored Spike’s comments, and explained: “ I’m talking about board games. You do know about board games, don’t you?”

“ Yeah sure I do,” Spike replied quickly. He honestly did, but he had never been invited to play one before. Vampires weren’t really big on chutes and ladders.

“ So, you want to?”

Spike nodded, hoping his eagerness didn’t show on his face. Xander rooted around in the closet before returning triumphantly with a stack of battered and collapsing boxes. They set up the game, both of them opting to sit on the floor to better reach the pieces. ‘Risk’ lasted for hours, with the end being somewhat anticlimactic when they decided to just give up. ‘Monopoly’, which Xander was delighted to find in his pile of board games (it was Willow’s actually, and therefore in considerably better condition than the rest of the games), proved to be a much rowdier game. Spike had absolutely no tolerance for the element of chance, and continually cursed and swore at the pieces, the board, the dice, Xander, and all the deities he could think of; fortunately, when the luck was in his favour, his excessive gloating and cocky mood quickly made him forget that he had ever been upset.

Spike considered his next move carefully, taking his turn slowly and with a frown of concentration over his features. He couldn’t understand why he wasn’t winning. He was cheating quite regularly, even more than he had in ‘Risk’, and yet he was barely a few dollars ahead of Xander. There was clearly too much luck involved in this game, and just as clearly, Xander was hogging all of that good fortune. The bastard.

‘Monopoly’ went the way of ‘Risk’; neither one of them was able to get an appreciable advantage so they had to agree to a draw. Xander slyly set up ‘Candyland’ and Spike was playing it before he even realized what was happening. Even worse, he was finally winning.

“ Ha! I am the king of Candyland. Suck on that, Donut Boy,” Spike crowed. After all, when it came right down to it, winning was winning.

“ Yes, I can see why the demon community fears you so much,” Xander said dryly.

Spike gave Xander the two-fingered salute; “ Now, now. No need to be a sore loser. Just a loser is fine.”

While Spike was distracted with the elation of his victory, Xander got out the remaining board games he owned, trying to decide which one he wanted to play next. Xander firmly believed that the world would be a better place if people played more board games. He remembered as a kid how he had used to set up the boards in his bedroom, and face-off against his stuffed animals and Transformers. Spike was substantially better competition, even if his personality wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as Elmer VonPudgy’s had been. What had ever happened to that Teddy Bear anyway? Xander shook his head, turning his attention back to the game at hand. He was fully enjoying this opportunity to indulge in his board game addiction, and he was going to take advantage of Spike’s willingness to participate for as long as he could.

While Spike was reading over the rules to ‘Sorry!’, trying to figure out the optimum way to cheat, Xander unfolded the board and began to shuffle the cards. He was leaning over to straighten the deck when the baby decided to take-up the sport of kickboxing. Xander winced, placing a hand over his belly, and felt a familiar tingle of wry amusement when he felt the baby’s movements beneath his flattened palm.

“ What’s wrong with you?” Spike asked, observing Xander’s scrunched up face.

“ Baby has caught onto the Tae-Bo craze,” Xander replied. Seeing the blank look on Spike’s face, he went on to explain. “ The baby is moving around and it feels kind-of weird.”

“ Really? Can I see?” Spike asked. He was already pushing up Xander’s shirt, not really waiting for permission.

Although shocked for a moment, Xander adjusted quickly, and he caught one of Spike’s hands in his own. “ It’s easier to feel then to see.”

Xander guided Spike’s hand until it rested on a particularly active area, and it wasn’t long before Spike felt a little push against his hand. His smile was almost as wide and awestruck as Xander’s.

“ That’s bloody brilliant! The little Munchie’s a right proper hellion – we can train it up so it won’t be as useless as you are in a fight.”

“ Hey!” Xander exclaimed out of habit. Truthfully, he wasn’t as hurt as he would have Spike believe; he was glad to hear that Spike planned on being around after the birth, long enough to train his kid at least. Why exactly that was true, Xander couldn’t be sure.

“ Whoa, there it goes again! This kid’s moving all over the place,” Spike said gleefully, drawing closer to Xander’s abdomen, and using both hands so that he could detect as many movements as was possible. How strange it was to feel life growing inside another person’s body, and how fascinating.

Xander let his own hands fall away, using them instead to prop himself up while Spike leaned over him. He fought the urge to run his fingers through Spike’s un-gelled hair, before freaking out that he’d had the impulse in the first place. This was all because of the hormones, right? And then Spike was pressing his head right up against Xander’s bare skin, and Xander lost whatever resolve he’d managed to build. He brought up a hand to cradle the back of Spike’s skull, his fingers gently tugging at the soft blond hairs, and held him close in what could only be described as a caress.

“ I can hear the baby’s heart beating,” Spike whispered. “ It sounds fragile somehow, like a bird’s.”

They both held their breath, Xander less successfully then Spike for obvious reasons, and Spike began tapping out the rhythm of the baby’s heartbeat against Xander’s body with a finger. For several minutes they remained frozen in the tableau, with Spike listening to the tiny beating heart and feeling the continued movements of the baby against his cheek. Spike couldn’t have moved, even had he desired to. A feeling of acceptance, and not just from Xander, overwhelmed him. Though he had definitely been suffused with a profound sense of contentment when Xander had pulled him closer, as though at Xander’s side was where Spike belonged, he had also felt some pull from the new being as well. For most of his life and un-life, Spike had felt unwanted, shut out even by the people he cared most for. Here there were bonds forming, and it was a heady experience being connected to something other than himself for a change.

“ I’m sorry,” Xander said suddenly and completely out of the blue. Spike reluctantly pulled back, and waited for Xander to pull down his shirt and explain what he meant. Xander started fiddling with the various game pieces that had been left out, carefully avoiding Spike’s gaze as he gathered his thoughts.

Spike sincerely hoped Xander wasn’t about to say that he regretted what had just happened. Spike could handle a lot of rejection, but even he had his limits, and right now he was feeling particularly vulnerable.

“ Damn rights you should be,” Spike said emphatically, masking his anxiety with bluster. He then racked his brains trying to guess at possible reasons for Xander’s unexpected apology. “ Umm, why?”

Xander shrugged. “ I never liked you, that’s no secret, and although at first you completely deserved it, you don’t anymore. So I’m sorry for continuing to be such an ass, especially since lately you’ve been… You’re the only one who’s asked to feel the baby kick, did you know that? I wanted to share this with my friends, with Willow, because I was so excited, but I knew if there was even a flicker of disgust on her face that it would ruin things between us, so I didn’t say anything. You didn’t even hesitate.”

Spike looked hard at Xander’s down-turned face, and saw the sincerity written in both Xander’s limpid eyes and tense posture. Every signal coming off of Xander made it clear he was anticipating some painful retaliation for his admission. Spike’s need to protect rose clear off the charts.

“ No worries mate,” Spike said gruffly. “ It wasn’t like I expected you to act any differently.”

“Yeah, but here you are, playing games with me on a Sunday afternoon, when all my other friends can hardly look me in the eye. It means something. I think if I hadn’t been so prejudiced towards vampires, you and me, we might have been friends sooner.”

“ So we’re friends now?” Spike asked carefully.

“ Aren’t we?”

“ Yeah, suppose we are.”

“ Well, good,” Xander said slowly. Glad to have a few things out in the open, Xander quickly finished setting up the board game, and encouraged Spike to go first. They were about halfway through, with Spike in the lead, before they spoke again.

“ What made you change your mind?” Spike asked curiously.

“ About you? The baby. I love it unconditionally. No matter what it turns out to be, demon or human or something else entirely, I know I won’t be able to hate it just because of what it is. I think that must be what real love is. There is nothing this baby can choose, or do, or have that will make me stop loving it. Nothing. So, I realized that I had to change a few of my misconceptions, and that meant no more hating you simply because you’re a vampire.”

“ Sounds fair,” Spike agreed. “ But does this mean you appreciate Peaches too?”

“ Nah. There’s plenty of reasons to dislike Dead-boy without delving into vampirism.”

“ Bloody right. Plus, it’s good fun making the Brooding-Wonder squirm.”

Xander grinned and nodded, wondering if Spike was aware that during their brief discussion of Angel they hadn’t once mentioned his actual name. They finished the game, with Spike winning due to extensive scheming, plotting, and cheating, and decided they had time for one more game before they needed to go to the grocery store.

Xander was looking for the pieces to the game of ‘Life’ when a few extra houses from the ‘Monopoly’ board rolled out of his sleeve along with an extra ‘Risk’ card.

“ You lousy cheat!” Spike exclaimed, trying to look affronted. It was obvious, however, that he was a little bit impressed with Xander’s audacity.

“ Yeah, well, you cheated too,” Xander said, not terribly concerned with either cheating or being caught out.

“ I’m the Big Bad. I have to cheat, it’s in my contract,” Spike said.

“ Of course it is and that’s why I have to cheat too. It balances things out,” Xander said.

“ What about ‘Candyland’? I beat you at that.”

“ That’s because I really couldn’t be bothered to try too hard. Not many gloating privileges come with winning a game designed for pre-schoolers.”

Spike looked rather upset at this bit of information, and sulked for a good, solid minute, before he got wrapped up in their current game. The irony certainly wasn’t lost on him either when he started to win at the game of ‘Life’.

Having admitted to being, at the very least, friends, Spike and Xander didn’t feel like they needed to be constantly on guard around each other anymore, and they no longer felt compelled to make excuses for seeking out the other’s companionship. The shift in their relationship was felt immediately, and was demonstrated quite strongly while they wandered around the grocery store. The insults were still there, but the edge to them was missing, and there were certain sore subjects that both of them avoided entirely. Spike made fun of Xander’s completely overhauled eating habits, and Xander asked for advice concerning which cereal went best with blood. They got an extremely affronted look from an elderly, grey-haired woman, when she overheard the query. Spike glared at her, daring her to say something, so Xander hurried them out of the cereal aisle.

Spike carried all the grocery bags, whining that Xander didn’t need half the amount of liquids he had purchased. Xander grinned because it was true he had chosen weightier objects than he usually did, purely because he knew Spike would be doing all the lifting. Spike’s complaints lasted all the way back to the apartment, and were only halted when Xander let him have control over the television for the evening.

“ So, back to the grind tomorrow, eh?” Spike asked.

“ Yep,” Xander said with a nod. “ Shoulder should be good by then. And we’re meeting with the gang in the evening, so I’ll just head straight there after work. You are going, right?”

“ I’ll be there,” Spike replied. For once, Spike had a legitimate reason for attending the meeting, and he was going to be at the shop immediately following sundown. Spike was developing a plan, and he needed to speak to Giles as soon as possible, hopefully without Xander hearing, and that meant arriving before any others.

It was Buffy, however, who appeared at the store first. Giles was just turning the sign on the door from ‘open’ to ‘closed’, when Buffy strode inside.

“ Hi Giles! Am I the first here? Good, I need to talk to you. It’s urgent,” Buffy said.

Giles moved swiftly around the counter, wondering what was so important that it had Buffy pacing up and down the floor.

“ Is it serious? Are you hurt? Is Dawn hurt?”

“ No, no. We’re good. Actually, it’s about Xander.”

“ I thought you went to speak to him? Are you two still having problems?”

“ What? Oh no, that’s all fine and dandy. Had some quality bonding time over pizza and Molly Ringwald movies,” Buffy said quickly. “ It’s about his pregnancy, I’m really worried about him.”

“ We all are. If we could just get him to talk, and make him realize the dangers of pursuing this endeavour…”

“ That’s just it, Giles. We’ve all been so dead set against him having this thing, that he’s stopped confiding in us. We’ve made it so he can’t even ask for our help, because he thinks we’ll just say ‘I told you so’. I’ve since come to realize that if I’m really to be his friend, that I have to support him in all his decisions, even when I don’t personally agree with them.”

Giles thought Buffy had never sounded so mature, and he felt ashamed that for once, his was not the voice of reason. He had stated his opinion concerning the pregnancy loud and clear from the onset, and by doing so he had washed his hands of the whole situation. However, it was no way to treat a friend, and Giles shouldn’t have let things go on the way they had for so long.

“ We have been remiss,” Giles admitted. “ But you seem to have come to a solution.”

“ Well, it’s just a little thing, but Xander’s been working himself to the bone, trying to save enough money to support him and his… whatever it turns out to be. And I thought if maybe he had a different job, maybe one that wasn’t so hard on his body, and where he could be around people who know his condition?” Buffy hinted, none to subtly.

“ You mean, could he work here,” Giles said plainly.

“ Well, Anya’s gone, so it wouldn’t be completely unreasonable, and he’s got experience in retail.”

“ It’s a good idea. I must admit that I don’t like the idea of him at that construction site, and I will feel much better with him around where we can keep an eye on him, especially with his unique ability to attract trouble.”

“ Just be sure not to tell him that part of it when you ask him to work here. It has to seem like it’s you who needs the favour. The last thing he needs is to feel like we’re pitying him.”

Giles looked insulted, and he protested: “ I would never be so callous!”

“ I didn’t mean you’d do it on purpose, just that we, you know, sometimes don’t treat him so great. My little episode the last time we were all together springs to mind,” Buffy explained.

Giles sighed deeply, once again acknowledging that Buffy was only speaking the truth. He would have to be very careful when he offered Xander a job; it would have to be persuasive enough that he accepted, without being damaging to Xander’s pride.

“ Watcher! I need to speak with you,” Spike demanded, his voice ringing out in the quiet shop and interrupting Giles’ thoughts.

“ What do you want now?” Giles asked peevishly.

Spike cast a disparaging look at Buffy, before hauling Giles roughly into the training room, out of earshot.

“ It’s about your boy there. Not that you lot would notice, but he’s running on empty energy wise, and I need you to do something about it,” Spike said forcefully.

“ Xander? You want to speak to me about Xander?” Giles asked incredulously.

“ Yeah. Me and him, we’re sort of like mates now, you get it? And I’m thinking that his job is a little too tough for him right now, especially with all that’s going on. It’s dangerous.”

“ Dangerous? Let me get this straight: you, Spike, previously the bane of all our lives, think that Xander is working too hard?” Giles asked. It was one thing to be reminded of his responsibilities by Buffy, but it was quite another to have Spike notice something about Xander before Giles himself did.

“ Right. So you’re going to give him a job here, see? And it’s going to pay pretty good, and it’s not going to start early or end late, and you’re not going to let him walk home at night, unless I’m here to walk with him. Oh, and you’re not going to let him handle any nasty potion stuff or practice any spells when he’s on the premises. You got all that, or shall I write it down for you?”

“ I think I can remember, thank you,” Giles said tightly. He was tempted to tell Spike exactly where he could stuff his orders, but Giles had no intention of giving up on his plan for Xander simply for spite. Plus, he had no intention of discouraging Spike’s new (albeit strange) fixation on Xander’s safety. Probably it was because Spike wanted to ensure he had a place to call home that wasn’t a crypt or a tomb, but regardless of his motivations, Spike was looking out for Xander’s welfare and the more people protecting Xander the better.

Spike had said all he wanted to, so he turned on his heel, heading back to the main room. Just before he got there he halted, calling back: “ Oh, and if for one second you make him feel like he’s some sodding charity case, I will personally drag your intestines up through your body and out your nose, chip or no chip, get me?”

Giles gave another weary sigh when Spike left the room in a swirl of leather duster. He took off his glasses to give them a therapeutic polishing, and pinched the bridge of his nose to forestall the oncoming headache.

“ Giles? Are you back here?”

“ Willow,” Giles acknowledged. “ Has everyone arrived?”

“ Dawn is being dropped off by a friend’s mom in a little bit, and Xander hasn’t gotten here yet. Actually, he’s the reason I wanted to speak to you. Have you got a moment?”

Giles felt like banging his head against the wall, but he tried to keep his exasperation from showing as he listened to Willow’s polite and well-intentioned request.

“ See, I was talking to Buffy and she was saying how hard Xander’s been working lately, and so I got all worried, because he’s my friend, and I was saying to myself that I was a complete Dunder-head for not thinking about this earlier, so then I was trying to think of some way that I could help him, but without seeming like I was helping him, because I don’t want him to feel like he needs my help or anything, because I know he knows that I know that he can take care of himself, but I couldn’t think of anything, because it’s a really tough problem, and after I couldn’t get to sleep for the second night in a row, Tara asked me what was going on, so I told her that I wanted to help Xander, and she said that it was a really sweet thing to want to do, but that I shouldn’t make it seem like I was thinking of doing Xander any favours, and I told her that I had already thought of that, but that I still wanted to get Xander a less difficult job, and then she was all ‘why don’t we see if Mr. Giles needs help in the store?’ and I thought that was a really good idea, so I thought I’d come and ask you, though I wouldn’t call you Mr. Giles because that’s really a Tara thing. So can he?”

Giles blinked and put his glasses back on. He blinked again, and finally managed to say: “ Pardon me?”

Willow took a deep breath, obviously preparing to deliver the entire spiel over again, and Giles hastily motioned to her that it wasn’t necessary.

“ I’ll give Xander a job…”

Willow obtruded: “ But you have to make it seem like it’s Xander who’s doing you the favour.”

Giles was getting rather irritated that everyone assumed that he had absolutely zero tact. Out of all of them, Giles considered himself to be the most thoughtful and the most considerate, though to be fair, he supposed that in this particular instance, he had made some errors.

Giles was just about ready to head back into the main room and join the rest of the group, when he ran into an eager and exuberant Dawn.

“ Giles! Perfect, I need to ask you something,” Dawn began.

“ Let me guess, you want a favour?” Giles asked flatly. “ Well let me make it easy for you. Yes, I’m aware that Xander is working too hard at a position that is hardly salubrious considering his precarious condition, and yes, I am fully prepared to offer him a position here should he so desire, and no, I will not proposition him in such a manner that it injures his sense of worth. Now, have I left anything out?”

Dawn stared at him blankly. “ Uh, I just wanted to know if you could help me with my report for English, but um, it’s cool that Xander’s going to work here.”

“ Oh. Sorry,” Giles said. Feeling a little silly for his false assumption, Giles plunged quickly into the subject of Dawn’s homework, pleased when she accepted the change of subject without complaint. Xander eventually arrived, and with all the regulars accounted for it was time to start the meeting. Two minutes later, all official Slayer news had been shared, and it was time for the hours of gossip, idle chatter, and half-hearted research that made up the bulk of their typical meetings.

“ So there was this really cute sweater, but it was just a little outside my price range…”

“ The basic plot revolves around the archetype of…”

“ Yes, mother, I drank all my tomato juice at lunch…”

Giles was trying to figure out the optimum method for getting Xander to work at the Magic Box. He tried to run a number of scenarios in his head, but they all ended with Xander either laughing at the very idea of working retail, or with Xander yelling at him to mind his own business. It didn’t help Giles’ state of mind that everywhere he happened to look, someone was staring back at him or tapping their watch, reminding him that time was running out to complete his task. Buffy and Willow were at least nice about it; Spike had raised an eyebrow and then given a rather disturbingly accurate pantomime of a disembowelling.

The meeting was rapidly drawing to a close, and Giles knew it was now or never.

“ Xander, might I have a word with you?”

Buffy, Spike, and Willow all looked supremely smug, silently congratulating themselves for what they knew was about to happen. Tara and Dawn looked at each other and shrugged their confusion.

“ Sure, G-Man,” Xander said. Giles rolled his eyes and indicated that they would talk in the back room. After many false starts, Giles eventually managed to get a word out.

“ Xander, as you know, it is a busy time of year for the store, and with only me here, and occasionally one of the girls, well I’ve been wondering, if you might possibly consider, if it is not too inconvenient, and I would certainly be willing to make it worth your while…” Giles was rambling, and he hated it when he rambled because he never rambled. He wondered if inane babbling was contagious.

“ You want me to work here, is that it?” Xander asked calmly. Giles let out a sigh of relief.

“ Yes, that was precisely what I wanted to request.”

“ Sure, I mean, I was going to ask you about it anyway. The guys at work are already teasing me about the beer belly I’ve developed, any longer and I think they’ll really start to wonder. I’ll start next week, yeah?”

That was it? All his stressing and Xander had been about to ask anyway? Giles was definitely going to need a drink or seven when he got home. He was too old for this; he could feel it.

“ Next week would be fine,” Giles said eventually. Xander nodded.

“ So, is that it? For a second there, I thought this was something serious.”

“ No, that’s everything. Everyone is probably anxious to be on their way. We had best get out there.”

“ Right,” Xander agreed. “ Besides, Buffy, Spike and Willow are probably dying to know if their plans worked. Not exactly subtle, are they?”

Giles actually laughed, and started laughing harder when three pairs of curious eyes immediately latched onto Xander when they arrived back in the main room. No, they weren’t nearly as clever and underhanded as they liked to imagine they were, but Xander wouldn’t have them any other way.


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