He made a point of mentioning the date, in passing, twice. He even managed to squeeze in a reference to birthdays without making it blatantly obvious, but Willow never even blinked. Giles had frowned for a moment, glanced across the room to the calendar, marked with every Pagan festival known to man and witch, that hung behind the Magic Box counter, before shrugging and returning his attention to his books.
Xander didn't blame him for not knowing, just as he didn't blame Willow for not remembering. Life went on. She had Tara now, and a whole new life to explore. College, witchcraft, 'gay now!' - it was no wonder she'd forgotten. He knew that it would only take one word to wipe the smile off her face, to grind her laughter to a halt, to have her eyes well up with tears of grief and guilt. And he knew that he could never be that cruel. Instead he buried his nose in the book Giles had nudged his way, and he waited for the evening's research session to be over so he could go home and toast another year gone in solitary splendour.
Spike watched the drama-that-wasn't play out from his place on the stairs, itching to know what had Harris feeling so blue. They'd had their weekly pool match down at the Bronze only two nights before. The lad had been in as fine a form as ever, losing game after game, keeping the beers and snacks flowing, along with a constant line of chat and jokes and painful one-liners that had Spike laughing and groaning by turns. If anything had been weighing on his mind back then, Spike was sure his friend - and boy, did that take some getting used to! - his friend would have mentioned it. But no, he'd been just as goofy as always. At one point Spike had actually begun to imagine that Xander was flirting with him, but a quick examination of that open, guileless face had convinced him he'd completely lost the plot.
But the unmistakeable scents of sadness and guilt were seeping freely from every pore of Xander's body, and Spike knew he couldn't leave without knowing the reason why. And no matter how many times he told himself it was the demon inside that wanted the details so it would know what buttons to push to increase the pain, he never quite managed to be convinced. Of course he knew he'd never admit out loud that he actually cared, not even if he was tortured by burning irons and Barry Manilow. He was a demon, after all. A vampire. And they didn't sink so low as to care for their food.
With a quiet snort at his continued attempts at self-delusion, Spike hovered in the background as the meeting was brought to an end. The girls left to walk each other back to campus, and Xander wound up Giles with one last 'G-Man' before trudging, head down, in the direction of home.
Xander never looked back or even up, so it was something of a surprise to his vampire shadow when he stopped at the end of his parents' driveway and, still without turning, spoke quietly into the night.
"Thanks, Spike, for making sure I got home in one living piece. You want to come in for a drink? I've got some Jack stashed behind the dryer." Blinking in surprise, Spike followed him in.
It took almost half the bottle of Kentucky's finest for Spike to get Xander to actually talk about what had got him so depressed, but eventually the alcohol soaked in and loosened the gears and springs that held closed the iron-bound mental closet in which Xander housed his secrets.
They were sprawled out on the bed, still unmade from that morning, passing the bottle back and forth between them when Xander finally gave in and shared his pain.
"It was my best friend's birthday today, and nobody cares. It's as if he was never really here at all." He rolled over, presenting Spike with a close-up view of a well-toned ass, and scrabbled to reach a photo on his bedside table. With an uncoordinated lunge he managed to catch one creased, torn corner between two fingers, just as the sliver of card began to slip off the far edge. Then he twisted and squirmed through one hundred and eighty degrees, ending up nose to nose with the evil undead.
"This is a picture of me and Jesse when we were fifteen. We'd just spent the weekend camping out in his back yard when his Mom came home with a new camera and caught us wrestling on the lawn. She threatened to turn the hose on us if we didn't behave and help her bring in the groceries, and then she made us stand and pose so she could figure out what all the buttons did." Xander traced the profile of the second skinny youth in the photo and smiled wistfully. "This is the only photo I have of just the two of us. Usually Willow was there, and that was fun, but..." He frowned, and sighed. "It was different when it was just me and Jesse."
A heavy feeling made its presence known in Spike's belly and he tried to swallow his next question, without success.
"What happened to him, luv?"
Xander laughed, harshly and grinned without mirth.
"Sunnydale happened to him, Spike, just after Buffy came. Darla got her fangs into him and turned him to act as bait. Then there was a showdown in the Bronze for the Master's Harvest, and he got pushed onto the stake I was threatening him with. It was... a mess." There was a pause while Xander grabbed the nearly empty bottle from Spike's grasp and threw the remains down in one eye-watering gulp before continuing.
"One minute he was standing in front of me, telling me how powerful he felt, how great it was, and then some girl ran past and pushed him out of the way, straight onto the pointy piece of wood I was slowly strangling."
The empty bottle was tossed to one side as Xander held out the trembling hand that had committed the devastating deed.
"I couldn't do it... I... I never would've... Not... It was Jesse, Spike. I couldn't kill him, I just couldn't, but she... and then... I breathed him in, Spike. I...I could taste him there for days, even after I brushed my teeth so hard my gums bled, I could still taste him there. I killed him, Spike. I loved him and I killed him."
And suddenly Spike had his arms full of gasping, sobbing Xander, and every hitching breath shook Spike's foundations that little bit more. Absently he began to croon nonsensical sounds, petting the tobacco brown hair that tickled his chin as he followed instincts he'd honed in the century and more of caring for Dru.
As he soothed, he wondered whether Xander and his lost friend had ever done more that innocently wrestle on the lawn. There had been something in the way that Xander had spoken of their time alone together, and the reverent way he'd stroked the other boy's picture that screamed to Spike of lost love, of something deeper than simple friendship. Spike didn't need a reflection to know that the expression in Xander's eyes at the thought of Jesse mirrored the sense of loss that gleamed in his own at the thought of Dru.
Eventually, Xander's tears slowed and his trembling tapered off, apart from the occasional jerky sigh. Five minutes later he was asleep, still fully clothed and wrapped around Spike like a human pretzel. Spike began to argue with himself about what to do next.
The boy crawled into my arms, held on tight and went to sleep. It'd be rude to peel him off just like that. But he's still got his jeans and shirt on and I know that has to chafe. I'm sure he'd be more comfortable without...
The internal bickering went on for quite some time, until Spike felt his jeans begin to chafe.
Right, that's enough of that. The jeans come off and so do the shirts. At least it'll give him something nice and normal to get all flustered over, instead of feeling guilty for giving a toss about someone else.
Spike woke to the sound of a tap dripping rhythmically somewhere upstairs and the sensation of being stared at. He opened his eyes to see Xander's face just inches away, resting on the same pillow, a serious expression tinting his eyes to a dark, bitter chocolate. The previous evening's events came back in a rush.
"Did you sleep okay after I passed out on you?"
Spike blinked. Where was the denial, the embarrassment, the determinedly heterosexual scrambling away from the naked male vampire in the bed?
To cover his confusion, Spike stretched. A bone-cracking, sinew-creaking, full body stretch, which caused all sorts of interesting body parts to rub against their warmer, human equivalents. And still Xander wasn't pulling back and getting twitchy. Interesting.
"Once I'd got us stripped off and under the covers, with you snuggled up to me like a giant hot water bottle, I slept fine, thanks for asking." Spike paused, again expecting panic, denial, some sort of reaction! Xander continued to study him, a tiny smile creasing the corners of his mouth. "How 'bout you? Hangover kicked in yet? Stomach doing back flips? Bet you think someone replaced your tongue with some old carpet."
The tiny smile stretched slightly as Xander shook his head.
"Nope. I got up about an hour ago, peed like a racehorse, drank a gallon of water, brushed my teeth and then came back to bed and just... watched you sleep."
Spike glanced down the bed to where their bodies were practically aligned from chest to toe.
"You..." He stopped, swallowed and tried again. "I slept through your clumsy attempts at being quiet? Did you drug me?"
Xander treated the indignant question with the contempt it deserved and completely ignored it.
"You didn't wake up. You just wriggled into the warm spot and snuffled a bit, then - nothing. And when I got back into bed you made these cute little happy noises and smiled in your sleep and I realised something." Xander lifted a hand and rubbed at the scar in Spike's quirked brow.
"You trust me, the same way that I trust you. I told you about Jesse - and don't think I don't realise you managed to fill in the gaps yourself - but I know you'd never use it against me, just like you know I'd never try to stake you in your sleep. So."
"It's Sunday, which means I don't have to go to work. Which is good because it's..." Xander leaned up over Spike to peer at the alarm clock, presenting him with an arched column of throat at eye-level. Spike swallowed a most unvampiric whimper. "...Nearly eleven a.m. So. We could have breakfast and watch cartoons; we could start an argument and spend the afternoon sniping at each other so we don't have to deal, or..."
Spike knew he must be misreading the situation because just yesterday they were 'Droopy Boy and Fangless', right? Maybe not arch enemies, but certainly not snuggle bunnies, and yet he could swear...
Warm lips brushing gently over his sent his thoughts scattering off into tiny crystalline fragments of glittering gold and pulsing red. He leaned into the kiss, trying not to act too eager in case it was some kind of 'tease the vamp' torment Xander had thought up to repay him for stripping him to his boxers while he was unconscious.
The tongue that brushed the seam of his mouth, delicately begging for entry, told him otherwise and Spike's resistance crumbled. With a groan he parted his lips and the kiss was suddenly transmuted into something wild and hungry. Tongues duelled for dominance, lips and teeth were brought into play. And then as suddenly as it started it was over, and Spike belatedly realised that he had been the one to call a halt.
"You're not still drunk."
It wasn't a question, but Xander shook his head anyway.
"You're not going to close your eyes and pretend I'm Jesse."
Another shake of the head.
"Did you and he ever... ever get much further than that 'wrestling' his Mom caught you doing that time?"
There was a third shake of the head, and then Xander spoke.
"We hardly even knew what we were doing, half the time. We'd kissed and... 'wrestled' naked a few times, and we figured out that friction was our new best friend, but neither of us was ready for anything more. Maybe, if..."
Spike leaned back in and derailed that potentially moment-wrecking line of thought with a quick, hard kiss. Then had to go and ask a potentially moment-wrecking question of his own.
"What about now? You think you're ready now? Yesterday we were enemies, near enough. What's changed? What's going on inside that weird head of yours?"
"Spike, yesterday you were unattainable. That's a Giles word, by the way. D'you think he'd be proud?" They shared a short-lived grin. "You were - are - a beautiful, sex-on-a-stick evil predator, and I'm just... Xander. No superpowers, no magic, no demon. Although sometimes I think maybe the hyena... Never mind." He pointedly ignored Spike's blatant curiosity. "The point is, I couldn't see any reason for you to want me until today. And then I woke up with your arms around me and... I got it. I finally figured out that you might want me, plain old me. No superpowers, no magic, no demon, just me. And the fact that you were naked in my bed kinda helped."
Spike manoeuvred his naked self even closer until they were skin to skin, then ground his solid erection against Xander's own.
"You want this? Me? You want me, here, now. No second thoughts?"
Xander copied Spike's move and they both groaned.
"I've never been more sure in my life. I want you, Spike. So, what'll it be? Breakfast, cartoons, more UST or...?"