It was quiet.
It was always quiet after seven in the evening. The last of the visitors had gone; those residents unaware or unable to decide if they needed to stay in the television lounge or not had been wheeled to their rooms; and the rest… The rest were residents of Keeble Gardens who, despite various physical ‘impediments’, were still fully aware, cognisant of their final journey and capable of acting as navigator… if only any one carer would listen and take them seriously…. Usually if anything was ‘wrong’ the staff simply booked them in to the resident doctor and recommended a review of their meds.
Xander’s walker was too far away to be bothered going to, just for Christmas Eve supper.
He was close enough to hear the ceremonial bells from his room so simply turned off his hearing aid.
Of the four others on his designated table, only one was dementia free and good for a chat anyway. Mira – she was good value.
The previously pretty blonde had been cruelly struck by a drunk driver whilst walking home in her own street some twenty five years before. After fourteen weeks unconscious, she had woken to a missing number of memories and a body with movements restricted to those of a serious cerebral palsy victim.
Prior to her accident she had been one of the World’s top lady golfers and a respected business woman, yet now, at age only sixty (and good lord that was less than two thirds his years!), her parents were dead and her sister unable to care for her. She was ‘lucky to have money' so able to secure a place at Keeble Gardens. The double edged sword. A room and care in exchange for being condemned for all time to being treated like a child… kindly treated there was no doubt, but... sometimes the staff forgot that not everyone in the establishment was suffering dementia!
Ironically, it was Mira who now pulled Xander to the present as she banged the arm of her chair then smiled sadly into his room when her chair passed by the open door and a rather officious orderly continued to quietly reprimand her regards ‘visiting hours and please make sure they leave before eight’.
Xander couldn't help it, he stared at his neat, near empty room with a single photo frame containing the images of his loved one and the Sunnydale women. At least Mira still had a someone who cared.
Another staff member came to collect Xander. Thankfully it was Jarad – a beautiful chocolate coloured boy with green eyes, somewhere in his late twenties, Jamaican and still hoping to fund some sort of medical career ‘down the track’. He treated Xander like he was still a person, asked his advice and listened, and consequently was a ray of sunshine in Xander’s life, and there were precious few these days.
Jarad and he had ‘an understanding’ – Xander would not tell the bosses that Jarad wasn’t dumb, had another job… and was planning to move on in the New Year, and (oh by the way) was absolutely gay… and in return Jarad occasionally took refuge in his room for a quiet chat and brought him a beer. Tonight it was good that it was Jarad.
Jarad pushed a wheelchair into Xander’s modest room, “Come on Mr H?! Free ride to paradise… Hear the fare’s all ham ‘n holiday food… Not figurin’ you for carin’ but Santa Claus will be attendin’, but ya gotta eat right?!”
Xander sighed and complied. With the aid of a kind young hand, he levered himself slowly from his recliner to the chair. The walker be damned – a free ride was a free ride… and he was tired, he wished he could tell Jarad just how tired… but it really didn’t matter. Instead he opted for patting the dear youngster with a thin left hand (the ring finger and middle one both missing two sections – ‘go the wrapper look Mr H’, his apprentice Jake used to say)
Memories, so many… memories…
Eighty years ago today, his best friend Jesse had silently joined him in a sleep over on his parents’ front lawn… Seventy years ago he had been supervising the building of houses in AIDS ridden sub-Saharan Africa…Sixty years ago he was about to get on a plane to visit Willow and the very ill Giles in England… Fifty years ago *their* Christmas eve dinner had been a smash… Forty years ago Justin and he had celebrated their twentieth anniversary, his birthday and their love (and a hot festive season) in the tropical beauty of Cairns and northern Australia… Thirty years ago they were at home – annus horribilus – the terrible year, Willow’s passing and Justin’s lung cancer and traumatic surgery and treatment just two of many ‘things’ that year… Twenty years ago, the house was dark and the telephone disconnected as Xander grieved. Justin’s twin brother had died earlier that year resulting, somehow, in Justin’s own life force had waning, so much so that two days after Thanksgiving Xander had held his dear lover as cancer finally claimed another victim. Ten years ago he had just moved in to his final residence. Aged eighty five and with two knee and one hip replacements (and still sporting the eye patch) he was quite the ‘catch’ for those still cognisant enough to notice. But this birthday… this time it was done.
He could hear Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ as they approached the eating hall. Jarad saw the tightened grip on the arm rest of the chair and observed as Xander reached up a shaky hand check his eye patch was in place. Jarad knew it was the old man’s birthday… Ninety five today. He liked Mister Harris… Alexander… He seemed… different to the other residents. He had done so much, seen so much… and yet was so very alone and of late, so very sad.
Just before they entered the eating hall, Jarad stopped in a darkened spot in the hall.
“You OK tonight O’Pa Alex?” The young man rounded the chair to squat down and stare at his charge with the genuine concern of a caring friend. “We can go back to your room if you need...but I think some of the ladies would like to wish you a happy birthday… So what do you say, hmm? I’ll stick around… And hey! Someone has to direct the fire service when they light all those candles and set the alarms off… C’mon O’Pa Alex… Let ‘em make a fuss of you yeah??… Hmmm???” Jarad reached out and offered a dark hand.
Xander looked up with apologetic gratitude and grasped the young man’s hand with his very shakey one. Jarad could not fail but notice the sadness, the shaking and the incredibly soft paper thin texture of the skin covering sinew, bone and vein, and squeezed back with genuine love for the old man.
Xander was wheeled past his usual table and ‘presented’ to the board members and guests as ‘the oldest resident at Keeble Gardens’, before being ‘invited’ to read a predetermined passage from the bible, blowing out his candles and making the effort to join in singing a Christmas hymn of thanks.
He did all dutifully, knowing that the intent on behalf of staff was genuinely to treat him and provide the other residents with an event – though for most… not a memorable one. They had cake with their cups of tea/coffee and night time medications, and the board members went home.
Mira leaned over just before they were all ushered away and in slow moves, offered her congratulations, and a gift. Xander did her the honour of unwrapping it at the table. It was a tiny wooden cross and a tiny corked bottle with ‘Holy H2O’ written on it in barely descernable, shakey writing.
Xander was flabbergasted and looked to the younger woman for clues. Despite her head’s unwillingness to cooperate she eventually managed to look him in the eye and simply whispered brokenly, “Mother… Slayer… Know *you*.”
Jarad pushed Xander back to his room then assisted his charge with his night time ablutions, helped him into bed and thought little of the two strange objects now clasped firmly in the old man’s right hand as he tucked him in. As he pulled up the covers, however, an ancient hand touched his and stopped him.
“Just doin’ my…”
“No… Thank you… I need you to know… tonight… and I want you to take this for you and your family… You'll understand.” Xander reached over then pushed and envelope into the young man's hand. It had a rather silly ‘perky’ Christmas Santa and message on the front… but when Jarad opened it…
“*I can’t take this*!!!! *O’Pa Alex* I can’t!!!”
“Everything I have is fairly divided, but I selfishly wanted to give *you* this for Christmas. Please Jarad… take it. Treat yourself - be the doctor I always wanted, and the person you deserve... please!! And if it's not enough... then do something nice for your family for all I care… but … You will make a wonderful doctor Jarad… so *please*, take it!”
The young man clasped the envelope to his chest and fell to his knees at the edge of the old man’s bed, overcome, and now, literally in tears, “Oh… [breath] O’pa?!! But this is too much you [breath and another tear]… you can’t mean… there has to be fifteen thousand dollars here???!!!…”
“It's only a drop in the ocean… Now get out of here, go ring your pretty boy, and let a grumpy ol’ man be… *grumpy* on his Birthday… Christmas… whatever!!”
But Jarad was in shock. The money would indeed allow him to start college, something he had never been able to afford, and had given up now his sister had no husband and a child on the way… Xander watched the reaction closely then reached for the young hand one more time to emphasise his point, “You and your fellow sort it out… but, as a wonderful English friend used to say… ‘My dear boy, you are better than this’… so please! Tell no one, invest it wisely, and be happy.”
Jarad floated home, embraced his beautiful partner Eric, and called his sister. They spent the evening planning their newly funded future carefully.
After his lovely helper left, Xander looked at all the tablets… his walker… his tiny room with no photos but the one… and knew it was time. The eye socket ached as it always did when he was upset… and he rolled out of bed onto the floor and knelt in prayer. The act in itself caused an arrhythmia, but he didn’t care. His prayer was to any deity listening. He was the last of the line, no family and few friends. His post mortem assets were divided into two thirds to charities in the third world, and one third to the Watchers’ Council fund for old slayers, and all his other loose ends tied up.
He was ninety five, his lover had been dead twenty years and all his friends were gone. He was sans an eye and wore a colostomy bag. His highlight last month was to pee unassisted into the toilet rather than have the catheter or a pad catch his fluids. And the treat of the year was the thrill of someone ‘doing’ his feet – calluses and toe nails apparently harder than steel coming with extreme age. Oh there were nice things... the nurse who regularly treated the ulcers and re-bandaged his lower legs was called Sandy and was ever so sweet, and his ‘meds were upped’ if he ever reported feeling unhappy. He still had seven of his own teeth… but he realized belatedly that his favourite food was now, in truth… apple sauce.
Xander was tired. He cuddled the rather odd gifts from Mira close, then offered up another appeal to relieve his existence… pleading his case, long past asking for anything, simply begging… oblivion.
It was his turn. Exhausted from the recent trip to Bangladesh sweeping the results of yet another flood…
This time was different, and he had been touched for a purpose. The ‘brief’ included images of selflessness, of pain, of heroism, but not in the public ‘look at me’ sense as usually happened, but rather in the very genuine ‘you are important to me, hero of the people’ type genre. After close to seventy years of ‘call outs’, Spike was sceptical, but something about this subject felt very familiar, regardless he murmured out loud ,“Not another bloody oldie!” The comment gained him a hard slap on the backside and a grin from the kindly Phillias, “Get back to me with your complaints after you’ve passed your second millennium, pretty boy! Now come on! Client’s a waitin’.”
Spike grunted then launched himself again – as he had every night since the fall of the Black Thorn, his curse (or blessing, depending on the day), to be one of Michael’s crew - an Angel of Death whose calling it was to judge then ease (or not) the way of all those stricken and begging passage… He was one of the true angels now – a minor one, but it had turned out to be alright, regardless of the day, he came home to a loving embrace that was… family and adoration… and the promise of contentment, one day.
His stretched his wings, spreading them to their full span and took off into the night. It would probably be quick. It was an oldie, a relatively easy one, given the history, and marked his two hundred thousandth spirit eased to the next plane.
Alexander Lavelle Harris woke momentarily then fell asleep again at twelve sixteen in the morning.
Spike’s angelic form read the spirit not the physical man, and knew the whole story courtesy of his status. He begged his superiors but knew there was really no need.
On this night, on Christmas eve, he would pleasure the human, and if it was Xander’s choice, the aged Scoobie would join the realm. Spike knew the changes would surprise, but hoped, nevertheless…
He must have drifted off. His room was illuminated so he kept his eyes closed. It was probably the last check, the ten pm lights out check. If they thought he was awake they would fuss…
He’d had a disturbed sleep – but then that was not so unusual. What was odd was the strange pain down his left arm and across his chest, not sharp, just a slow crushing pain that burst into white agony then, then it was gone and Xander felt himself lifted by incredibly strong, warm arms that seemed to give off love by mere contact.
In truth, he wasn’t sure if he was awake or asleep, but really couldn’t care, he’d asked for oblivion so if this was to be it… He felt his ancient failing form settled lovingly on his own bed. He opened his eyes to see a long lost face smiling down at him, framed by a magnificent white span of wings. His life had been long, his sins many. He just hoped for purgatory rather than Hell. And his angel heard the thoughts even as he settled the ancient man onto his death bed.
Spike knew the drill. The process was usually a standard one, but something in Phillias’ tone said this might be a special one. One in every hundred thousand… one that required more careful attention… one that might…
Spike’s time on the earthly plane had faded in his memory, though daily he prayed forgiveness for his killing when a vampire, something he had atoned for many years before. He recalled flashes – like an adult recalls one’s infancy, images faces, smells, but no logic and limited timeframe. And yet… there were a few. The first touch of this old man and he remembered, vividly, he knew the missing eye and suddenly understood why he had been tapped, yet still cried to his higher power for clemency… “Don’t make me judge… not him… *please* Father!… Mother!… Michael!! Please… Philias!!!?… I can’t…”
All he received as an answer was a severe jolt that made his throat ache and his wings extend to the point of pain. He knew he must… and that this was his test just as much as it was his subject’s rite of passage. It was not so much his High Lord’s wishes that he suffer – rather it was a given… every few hundred or so souls he had been tested, usually a teenager, old enough to sin but not old enough for the sin to be premeditated; or a drug addict, or mother of many… the Higher Power had nothing if not a sense of cruel irony. The last time it had been a young poet, a good one, a pretty one, a boy who had no sins to speak of particularly but perhaps for lust. The dear lad still trapped in the mangled wreck of his car, had struggled to confess more than a few minor misdemeanours, and most of those in thought, but then fell instantly in love with the angel and so confessed to a lust directly linked to his white winged messenger. Really there was no problem, but it threw the angel a little.
Now, after all this time, an old friend begged his own passing… and was asking that his life be judged. Phillias had known – so had the Power – this was his to do.
So the angel, Spike, did something that he had done literally several thousand times before. He landed beside the bed of the dying, but as he let his visage be known, he was somewhat amazed by the reaction of the dear old man.
The angel was met with a derogatory snort and a self deprecating tone that gave the angel cause for worry. The Harrises had been Catholic, lapsed of late, but Xander had been baptised and confirmed so the final confession was required. And of late Xander had taken his faith far more seriously, so now the judgement was expected.
“Spike ?!… Of course it would manifest as you… All my sins revisited yeah?” His eyes had been… resigned, but as the angel’s wings undulated and the blonde looked just a little worried, Xander’s attitude shifted, looking simply regretful and pained. He reached out toward the wings and was amazed that they really were tangible. Soft, warm even… as was the pale figure who sported them. The beautiful face, the strong pale body, the crystal blue slightly sad looking eyes, this was the Spike he remembered from the end of Sunnydale, the hero, the comrade… someone who had seen him at his worst – well his worst at the time… now he had seventy or so years more to ‘own’. Confession seemed to make so much more sense when the being one had to confess to had already seen the worst of you…
What he didn’t expect, as the massive hole in the wall of his atria opened, was the angel’s reluctance to accept his admission of sin.
Xander’s skin was so thin and soft that even the kindest ‘firm hold’ normally led to bruising at least and bleeding at worst. But as the angel chose to hold the thin hand and steady the old man, there were no such issues, the touch was feather light yet firm, warm and soothing and drew tears from the old man, and those Spike had not jurisdiction over. It always seemed to happen, and he always wondered… but even asking Michael brought no insight. He had concluded that he was simply the Angel of Sorrow… and never really understood his charges’ overwhelming sense of joy as they touched him.
The angel knew to remain silent as the ancient dying human confessed for the last time. Xander’s breathing was laboured and interspersed with bouts of panting but still he confessed.
“Greed… I wanted her favour… and so… Oh… Geez… It was Angel – And a deliberate betrayal even after he was ensouled – and I knew… I really did but I still … Oh Spike! I sent him to *Hell* ensouled and I sent him to Hell… I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!”
Spike of old would have said something but the angel knew that this was not about old vendettas or anything even approaching that. So the angel answered, “And yet later you gave most of the money from your Sunnydale disaster fund to victims of natural disasters over the years, then went to Africa to build houses for the poor. Putting yourself in danger and worrying about everyone but yourself.”
Spike saw the desperate look as Xander rallied a little and tried to speak again. He knew from experience that this was important so ceased speaking.
“Gluttonly - surely that’s it… My parents *suffered* with over indulgence… and I never understood… I blamed them and did not understand… Ohhh but I did later and then it was too late!”
The elderly man was beginning to pant again and Spike knew there was limited time, so simply said, “Self restraint, ‘n self preservation on your part Pet… You loved them and lost them and have done nothing to disgrace their memory.”
As the agony of his final minutes began, however Xander needed to let… someone know. His voice now all but failing he whispered, “Lazy! I was lazy at school and after you and Anya… and Sunnydale… I just didn’t know how to…”
The angel snorted with disbelief, “So years of survival then becoming one of the most respected project managers on the western seaboard doesn’t count as diligence… *please*!” But the old man’s weak grip tightened a little and Spike saw the need. “You’re more than forgiven, Pet, more than forgiven.”
Xander curled up for a moment, the foetal position comforting, “I’ve sinned so… much… I lusted after so many… And yet paid for it already in demons and… distress… And *loved* Justin… that wasn’t about lust… it was about love… friendship that grew into adoration and partnership… there is no sin in that.”
The angel stroked the old man’s face. In the absence of family or friends, Spike knew Xander’s blood had begun to drown him, unable to be serviced by the now failed, valiant pump. The aged human called for clemency once more…
“Anger… Wrath! I was guilty of that too… I hated… oh God in Heaven… I hated and I killed! … Jesse… my friend and I… So many others… and I was so angry with the world… so many lives and children and the cure, and I hated you… Oh *please* *I’m sorry* I hated you because I… you were the first man I truly *wanted* for my own… but you were… and I… I’m sorry… dismember me now if you must. God, you are still beautiful… so very beautiful.”
Spike’s fate was to have a direct connection to his charges, so felt the emotions on a visceral level but was still stunned as his own wings were stroked instinctively. The act of a kindly owner or a lover… A tear from the angel fell onto the old man and Xander was overwhelmed by the sensation of love for a moment but rallied. He stared up at his judge. The angel was the epitome of his darkest moments, and his deepest shame, but also some of his greatest triumphs and a saviour many times over, a friend and a hero. And so he began to pray as his body convulsed with pain once more.
“Lord forgive me for my sin of … envy - for coveting that which was not mine to have… Cars houses, women, men! And forgive my pride. Please forgive that. I disappointed so many, yet tried to tell myself I was the better one. And forgive me for wishing for death after my darling Justin... passed. And…”
The angel was rather overwhelmed by the depth of self deprecation, and unprepared for the very physical connection as his wings continued to be stroked. Finally the old man reached up for the angel’s hand again. It was given willingly,
“Please bless Dawn and her daughter Grace…. and... just… let it be…” Another bout of white agony ripped through his chest. He closed his eyes, sensing it was finally at an end, he squeezed the angel’s hand and rasped “Take me now, I’m ready.”
“You come with me willingly Xander. Lift up now and join me in the realm of light.” Xander nodded slightly then simply mouthed the words of the old prayer, “Our father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into tempta… ” He lost his train of thought, then opened his eyes, stared, and with complete clarity saw the beautiful angel above him, the familiar face, the twinkling eyes and loving smile, and breathed a sigh of relief.
It was Xander’s time. Unlike his other charges, Spike chose to kiss him firmly on the lips taking in the last breath the old man expired, and felt the shift.
The hand he held became younger as the spiritual form moved out of its earthbound shell. Spike tugged a little until Xander, still disorientated, was free, and then scooped up the pretty boy, looking just as he remembered him from Sunnydale, held him close as a parent might a small child and took off toward the heavens.
There would be a quiet service for the old man’s body two days after Christmas, but it was for the benefit of those left behind. Dawn and Justin’s brother received the balance of his estate, and his room was taken over by a new resident within the week.
But there was no reason to grieve, and the angel was witness to the joy that was Xander’s awakening in his new realm, the boy’s essence now able to commune with those he loved for all time, and eventually… eventually Spike figured to put in the good word... even source him a pair of wings… he'd look pretty with wings...
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