The Company We Keep by Enigmaticblue

ReviewsRating: PG-13

Summary: How far can the bonds of friendship be stretched before they're irreparable?

Author's Notes: Set in the CMNA-'verse soon after "Bonding Experiences." You don't need to read any of the other shorts, but if you haven't read "Cast Me Not Away," this one won't make sense.

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Early November 2006

Xander Harris felt like a fool.

It was not an unfamiliar feeling. There had been plenty of times in the past where he'd felt like an idiot, sometimes deservedly so, sometimes not. Right now, he compared the feeling with the one he'd had when the nightmare world had been unleashed on Sunnydale, and he'd found himself in front of a class in his underwear. It was that kind of foolishness.

The problem was that this time he'd brought it all on himself. He couldn't blame a little kid in a coma, or one of Willow's spells gone wonky, or anything but his own stupidity.

Xander honestly couldn't have said why it had bothered him so much that Buffy was with Spike. Sure, Spike was a vampire, but he had seen how happy she was with him, even in the brief time he'd been in L.A. He would have liked to argue that he had been bitterly disappointed over his final breakup with Anya, that it had utterly pissed him off that he wasn't able to make it work with a Vengeance demon when Buffy could be happy with an unchipped, soulless vampire.

Of course, the fact that his relationship with Anya had been over for two years before Buffy had found Spike again threw that excuse into question.

The only thing that Xander knew for certain right now was that he had only seen pictures of little Meg, and those had been displayed on Willow's refrigerator. Buffy had a kid, and he had never even laid eyes on her, never held her.

And Spike was essentially the father.

When he'd asked Willow what she was going to do for Thanksgiving, she'd first denied doing anything at all. She had reiterated the speech about the Native Americans that she'd first made any number of years ago, the year that chipped-Spike had shown up on Giles doorstep, in fact. Xander had pressed a little harder, however, and Willow had eventually admitted that she was going to L.A. to visit Buffy, who was having dinner at her place, and was doubling it up as a bridal shower for Nika.

Xander (pointedly) hadn't been invited.

And he'd complained about it. Had, in fact, said he didn't understand why Buffy would be so cold to one of her oldest friends. Then Willow had given him this look-the look that she'd somehow found while in England with the coven, the one that made her look older and mature and oh, so wise-and had said that he was being an idiot, and when he stopped, Buffy was certain to let him back into her life.

Then she'd said, "Look, Xander. I understand that you don't like Spike, but he's really made Buffy happy. She hasn't been this happy since high school, before Angelus. If you were really her friend, you would just be happy for her."

Xander wasn't completely averse to admitting he was wrong, but it took him a while. It took him longer to think that he might have been wrong about Spike-whom he'd actually once liked for a while that summer, when Buffy had been dead. It had been Buffy coming back that had changed all of that, because suddenly there was a risk of Spike getting what Xander could never have.

Sour grapes, and all that. Xander had always had a problem with sour grapes.

So now, as he realized how close to he was to losing one of his best friends, wanting to see her daughter, wanting to be a part of her life again-well, he was prepared to apologize. Xander was drawing the line at groveling, however.

He clutched the paper sack a little more tightly and rang the doorbell.

~~~~~

"Spike, will you get that?" Buffy called. Spike rarely used his basement apartment anymore, and then it was usually only when he and Wesley had gone out on a job and he didn't have time to get back to her place. Their unspoken agreement was that he would make his move official in December, when Enid came in from Wales. Until then, Spike spent most of his time at Buffy's place anyway, preferring to be near her and Meg.

The vampire had the girl tucked securely under one arm, and she was making happy noises. Nika had told them early on that it was impossible to spoil babies by holding them too much, which was probably a good thing. Meg liked to be held, and Spike was perfectly happy carrying her around all the time.

Well, almost all the time. They still had "mommy and daddy time" regularly.

She could hear Spike move to answer the door, grumbling good-naturedly about lazy Slayers, and Buffy rolled her eyes. She was fixing dinner, including his blood, but she didn't bother saying anything. Spike always grumbled and then did pretty much exactly as she asked. That was just Spike.

The Slayer could hear him talking to Meg as he approached the door, wondering out loud who would be there, and if it was her Uncle Wes and Aunt Nika maybe they'd stay for dinner. The door creaked a bit as he opened it, and then there was a long silence. Long enough so that she came out of the kitchen to see what was wrong.

Buffy froze at the sight of Xander in the doorway, wondering if she was going to have to kick him out again. The last time they'd spoken on the phone, Buffy had ended up telling him not to call again until he could stop making nasty comments about her boyfriend.

Before she could say anything, Xander held up the paper sack. "I brought a peace offering, and there's more in my car if someone would give me a hand." As a token of good faith, Xander pulled the bottle just out of the sack to reveal the label of a really good bottle of wine. While Buffy wasn't one for hard liquor, she and Spike had gotten into the habit of sharing a bottle of wine on occasion. She had to wonder how Xander had known, and she was impressed by his selection. Judging from the look on his face, Spike was as well.

There was a long pause, where Buffy looked over at Spike, trying to figure out how he was feeling about this. When he shrugged and took the bottle in his free hand, Buffy relaxed slightly. "I'll help, Xander."

The Slayer followed him out to his car with a growing sense of curiosity. "So what brought this on?"

Xander shrugged. "I kept seeing pictures of Meg on Willow's fridge, and I realized the only way I was ever going to see her in person was to make nice with the vampire."

It was supposed to be funny. Xander was good at funny-he used his talents to ease tension, to laugh in the face of danger. Buffy wasn't laughing now.

"Xander-"

"Look, Buffy," he said, his tone uncharacteristically serious. "I'm happy you're happy. Spike is obviously good for you. So I'm going to be nice, and I'll try to keep the comments to a minimum, but don't ask me to be friends with him."

"I never asked you to be friends with Spike, Xander," Buffy replied, a trace of heat in her voice. "All I ever wanted was for you to be civil."

Xander raised his hands in surrender. "I know, Buffy. I'm an idiot, I get that. It's just-" he broke off, unsure of how to explain. He had vampire-issues, big-time; he just wasn't sure if it was because they were vampires, or if it was because Buffy would sleep with a vampire when she wouldn't sleep with him.

Buffy's face softened. "It's fine, Xander. Just-I'm not doing this again. If you do something to make me kick you out again-"

"I won't."

They stared at each other for a long moment, two old friends reassessing the ground that lay between them. There was a history there that couldn't be denied, but Buffy had long ago set her eyes on the future. She honestly hadn't been sure that Xander was going to be a part of that. "So, what have you got for me?" she inquired perkily.

"Well, it's more for Meg, actually," Xander explained, pulling the tarp away to reveal his gift. He'd borrowed a truck from the worksite, not wanting Buffy (or Spike) to have to put the crib together. It was easier to get the full effect if you could see it in one piece.

Xander's gift was undeniably a work of art. The carpenter had only gotten better at his craft over the last few years, and he'd obviously spent a lot of time on this particular project. Carefully constructed, the handmade crib was stained a golden hue and varnished to a high shine. Both sides were intricately carved, with "Margaret Joyce" among flowers and trailing vines.

Buffy and Spike stood admiring it, and whatever animosity Spike might have been nursing for the other man was considerably diminished. The way to Spike's heart was through his girls, and a gift like the one Xander had given changed the vampire's attitude considerably. "That's really somethin'."

Xander smiled just a bit at the understatement. It had taken him most of the summer and the fall to complete-it was more than "something." On the other hand, coming from Spike, that was quite a compliment. "Thanks."

"Are you staying for dinner?" Buffy asked.

"I could eat," Xander acknowledged.

There was a pause, and then Spike's lips twisted in a half-smile. "You want to feed Meg?" he asked, passing the girl over to a surprised Xander, who held her awkwardly. Meg eyed him suspiciously for a moment before beginning to gurgle again, and Xander grinned down at her, pleased that she seemed to like him.

"Uh, sure."

Part of Spike's offer to let Xander feed Meg was the opportunity to have fun at the other man's expense. Meg was just beginning to eat solid food, and she was by no means a neat eater. Xander had cereal all down his front by the time he was done. Spike had to give him points for having a rather bemused grin on his face the entire time though.

Spike was rather disposed to liking anyone who liked Meg.

At one point, Xander glanced over at Buffy, awe washing over his face. "She's beautiful, Buf. Looks just like you."

It is a strange-but true-fact that babies sometimes build bridges between the most unlikely of people. If Xander and Spike only agreed on one thing thereafter, it was the importance of one little girl.

And that was enough.

~~~~~

Even simple weddings require careful planning, as Wesley was finding out much to his dismay. If he had thought that Nika would take care of the details, and all he would be required to do was to show up, he'd thought wrong. His fiancee wanted his input, and so Wesley was obliged to go over things like invitations, seating arrangements, and color schemes.

He would have much rather faced a horde of rampaging Fyarls in full blood-lust.

"I'm still not sure where we should seat your parents," Nika said with a frown.

"If they even show up," Wesley said sourly, "which I doubt. I have a feeling that Father will find some excuse and send his regrets."

"You're their only son," Nika pointed out. "Their only child, as a matter of fact."

Wesley gave her a bitter little smile. "Be that as it may, I still have my doubts as to whether or not they'll come. They still haven't replied to the invitation."

Nika's brow furrowed, and she gnawed on the end of her pen. "Hmm. If they do show, I think we should seat them at the table with Angel."

Wesley's eyes widened. "Are you mad?"

"No," she replied, a sly smile crossing her features. "But perhaps he'll be intimidated enough by Angel not to make a scene. And if not, they can just make one another miserable all evening, rather than making things harder for us."

Wesley wasn't sure he wanted to inflict his father's presence on the souled vampire, especially as he and Angel had actually managed to make up. "Shouldn't my parents be at a table with Nain?"

She shook her head emphatically. "Not if you want your father in one piece at the end of the evening. Nain would almost certainly make certain he was miserable."

"Why have a seating arrangement at all?" Wesley asked. "Let everyone sit where they will. It's an informal enough affair that no one's going to care."

Nika opened her mouth to disagree and then shut it again with a snap, chuckling a little. "You're absolutely right, cariad . I've been going over and over this, trying to get it right, and the best solution is yet again the simplest. I'm marrying a genius."

Wesley grinned cheekily. "Are you just now figuring that out?" He laughed as she batted at him with her hand, and then captured her mouth for a kiss.

The ringing of his cell phone interrupted them, and he gave Nika an apologetic look before answering. "Wyndam-Pryce."

"Wes." The voice on the other end was easily identified as Angel's. "I need your help."

Wesley hesitated. While he and Angel were in a much better place in their relationship, he still disliked being used. After all, he and Spike never called on Angel or his friends; Wesley was unsure whether to be flattered or upset by their continued calling on him. "What is it, Angel?"

"Cordy's had a vision. There's a demon-"

"I hardly see why you would need my help with a demon, Angel," Wesley said patiently. "You take care of them all the time."

Angel sighed. "This is different. It's a Balox demon. There's a spell-"

"I know the spell," Wesley replied quietly. Angel was right. A Balox demon was not a simple matter, easily taken care of. Killing one required both experienced fighters and a magician, and the fighters needed to have more than the natural sort of strength. Gunn and Fred would be of some help, but Angel would need his expertise with spells-not to mention Spike's strength. "I'll call Spike. We should be there within the hour."

Wesley disconnected, not giving Angel a chance to protest about Spike coming along. It wasn't that he feared Angel in the least; it was simply that it would be much more fun with Spike there, riling the souled vampire every chance he got.

Wesley still loved the look Angel got on his face every time Spike called him "Peaches."

~~~~~

"You have got to be kidding me," Wesley said flatly. "Xander apologized?"

"Not exactly," Spike replied. "But it was a really nice bottle of wine, an' the crib is-you'll have to see it to understand. Was enough just for him to be civil, an' it makes Buffy happy."

Wesley just nodded. He knew all about doing things to make the woman you loved happy. "Well, as long as Buffy's satisfied with matters."

"How are we goin' to play this?" Spike asked.

Wesley raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"Do I have to make nice, or can I be myself?"

Wesley laughed-a full-out, belly laugh. "Oh, please, Spike. Be yourself. In fact, as long as you don't get the both of us killed, feel free to piss Angel off as much as you like."

Spike grinned. "Neat."

Five minutes after they'd gotten to the hotel, Wesley was trying very hard not to smirk. Angel was looking more disgruntled than ever, and it was obvious that Spike was having a really good time. What possibly made it worse-for Angel-was that everyone else was trying hard not to laugh as well, since Spike was busy being amusing.

He was also driving Angel crazy in a very short space of time.

Wesley had to admire how much space Spike seemed to take up without even trying. When Spike swaggered into the hotel, he seemed to suck all the air right out of the room until all that existed was himself. And Angel, who liked to be the center of attention though he would hardly admit it, immediately began to look sour.

"Spike. Wesley." The souled vampire's look seemed to suggest that he took it as a personal insult that the ex-Watcher would have brought Spike along. "Gunn's getting the rest of the supplies that we need."

"Great," Spike said, throwing himself down on the round couch in the center of the lobby. "Good to see you again, Peaches. You're lookin' broody as ever."

"Spike." The single word came out as a warning growl, which Spike ignored completely. "Did you have to bring him?" Angel demanded, turning his glare on Wesley.

"As a matter of fact, yes, Angel," Wesley said with perfect composure. "If I'm going to be doing this spell for you, I'd like someone to watch my back."

Silence descended over the lobby as the import of that statement sank in. "Wes-"

"That's what happens when you try to kill someone," Spike said cheerfully. "They generally don't trust you any more." There was a long silence. "Oh, an' Peaches? Been meaning to ask you what you use to get your hair to stand up straight. We need somethin' with extra strong hold to keep Meg in her chair. Those Slayer genes have her crawlin' early."

There was a snicker from Cordy who had just walked in and heard the last part of Spike's comment. "I can get you some, Spike," she offered. "Although, you might just need to pull out the superglue."

"Thought of that," he admitted. "An' it's tempting." Spike shot a sly look over at Angel, and then turned to Cordelia with a charming grin. "I ever tell you how Angel got the nickname 'Peaches?'"

"Gunn!" Angel exclaimed with obvious relief when the black man came in. "Did you get everything?"

"Yeah, we're all ready to go." He handed the bag of supplies to Wesley. "You know what to do?"

"Of course," Wesley replied easily. "It's a rather simple spell. Angel could do it." The backhanded insult wasn't lost on anyone, and there were more snickers from the audience. "If he wasn't needed to fight, of course," Wesley quickly added.

"Of course," Angel muttered sourly.

Connor ambled into the hotel right about then. "I heard you might need me."

"It's going to be dangerous," Angel said doubtfully.

"Which is why the boy is welcome," Spike said. "Good to see you, lad. How's Dawn?"

The boy got a sheepish grin on his face. "Good. She said to say hello and that we'd be there for dinner on Thursday."

"Thursday?" Angel asked sharply. "That's family time."

Connor frowned. "I told you I was spending Thanksgiving with Dawn, Dad. We're having dinner at Buffy's house." When Angel opened his mouth to argue, Connor glared. "I already promised Buffy I would be there."

Angel looked unhappy, but Cordelia rolled her eyes. "We never have a big dinner, Angel. If Buffy wants to have Thanksgiving at her house, more power to her. It just means I don't have to cook." At the looks from the others scattered around the lobby, she shrugged. "Okay, order something in and pretend I cooked." She tapped her foot impatiently. "Are we going now?"

~~~~~

The Balox was as nasty as Wesley had thought it would be, and this particular Balox was old and crafty. It immediately recognized the ex-Watcher and his spell as the primary threat and went after him with a vengeance. The human minions it had picked up kept Angel, Gunn, and Cordelia busy. Fred had been pressed into service helping Wesley get the spell ready, and that left Spike and Connor to keep the Balox off Wesley's back.

There were several rather tense moments when it looked as though the Balox would succeed in throwing off either Spike or Connor, or that it would manage to disrupt Wesley's attention-the most important ingredient in the spell.

Both the vampire and the boy were terribly persistant, however, and when one was thrown down, the other was right there. And Wesley kept up the chanting, not faltering even for a moment, knowing that the others' lives depended upon him finishing the spell.

When the last word was proclaimed in Latin, Spike and Connor both moved aside as though they had read Wesley's mind. Wesley threw the magic sand, and the Balox went up in smoke with a shriek of rage. With its disappearance, the human minions fled the scene, and the AI gang let them go. The major threat had been taken care of, so there didn't seem to be a need to do any more.

"Well, that was fun," Angel said cheerfully as he looked around. "We should do this more often." Both Spike and Wesley gave him incredulous looks. "What?"

The partners exchanged looks, and then both shrugged. "Was a bit of a lark," Spike admitted grudgingly.

Wesley smiled. "At least no one got hurt. That's something to be thankful for."

"We really should do this more often," Angel said, ignoring the uncomfortable looks Gunn, Cordy and Fred were giving each other. "Pool our resources. It only makes sense."

Wesley blinked. "You mean you want us to come work for you?"

"No," Angel said, a little too quickly. "You know, maybe just have an agreement, work together more often. Not work for me."

Wesley felt as though that last comment was directed more at Spike than at himself, as though if he were to decide to come back to Angel Investigations he would be welcomed with open arms. As long as he left Spike behind, of course. He would be on the inside again, and Spike would be that independent contractor, the muscle for hire.

It would be unfair in the extreme.

Wesley glanced over at his partner, who was pointedly looking everywhere but at him, and he knew that Spike wouldn't say no. He'd let Wesley make this decision for the both of them.

And Spike was terribly afraid that Wesley would choose Angel.

"I don't think that would be wise at this point in time, Angel," Wesley said as gently as he could. "Of course, it only makes sense to help one another out from time to time, but I don't think this is a good time to enter into any kind of formal agreement."

The ex-Watcher was suddenly very tired, drained both from the use of magic and from the stress of just being there. "We should go," Spike said abruptly. "You're done in."

They left without saying much more, Spike hovering unobtrusively near his elbow, obviously wanting to make sure he wasn't going to fall on his face. Wesley handed the keys to the SUV over to the vampire, not really wanting to drive. "You could've said yes, you know," Spike said in the stillness that lay over them. "If you wanted to."

"You would have felt I was choosing Angel over you," Wesley replied quietly, making an observation.

"A bit," he admitted. Spike drove for a few blocks before forging on. "From the very beginning, was always that way, yeah? Angel was always makin' people choose, an' he always won. He was bigger, an' older, an' more evil. Always felt like I had to measure up, an' I never quite did. Never figured Buffy would choose me over him."

Spike left unsaid that he'd had similar doubts about his relationship with Wesley, that the ex-Watcher would eventually make his way back into the fold, leaving Spike behind. "I owe Angel a great deal," Wesley said quietly. "I wouldn't have survived had it not been for him. But there is no choice between the two of you, Spike."

"Wesley-"

"There's no choice." He couldn't say it, couldn't put a voice to what he was feeling because they didn't do things like that. They didn't say things like that. Wesley willed Spike to read in his face the meaning behind his words-there was no choice because it had already been made.

There was no choice because he owed Spike a great deal more.

After a moment, the vampire nodded, the ghost of a smile playing over his lips. "Yeah."

"When or if you ever believe we should join forces with Angel," Wesley added, "we'll do it as a team. It's not my decision to make. It's ours."

Spike's smile broadened. "Think the Great Poof would let us change the name to 'Peaches, Inc.'?"

Wesley's laughter filled the car.

~~~~~

Thanksgiving was an American holiday, and not one that Wesley could remember ever celebrating. Cordy had never been much for cooking, and Angel wasn't much for eating, and Wesley was British. It changed things.

This year, however, Wesley didn't exactly mind gathering around Buffy's table. The food was good; the company was better.

He watched as Dawn and Connor snickered over some private joke on one end of the table. Buffy and Spike were laughing over the faces Meg was making as they tried her out on mashed peas. Xander was watching the whole thing, looking slightly uncomfortable, but giving off an air of wary friendliness. Willow and her girlfriend, Adrienne, were chatting amiably with Nika, discussing various herbal remedies and spells they'd found useful.

It was a good place to be, this company of friends and family he'd chosen for himself. And Wesley was very thankful indeed.

Nika leaned over to him. "What are you thinking of, cariad ?"

"How very much I have to be thankful for," Wesley replied with a smile.

Nika looked around the table, her eyes thoughtful. "It seems very far away, doesn't it?"

"What does, love?"

"The past. The pain."

Wesley didn't answer with words-his kiss said it all. There was a lot he had to be thankful for.


The End.

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