Pairing: Spike/Xander, eventually
Rating: NC-17, eventually
Thanks to [info]eyezrthewindows for her help with the Andrew dialogue!
Beta: [info]kitty_poker1 who deserves many snogs for the, as always, amazing beta. Words cannot express how much you've helped me during the process of writing this fic. Thank you so much
Author's notes: This is set immediately after the Ats ep "Damage." Xander discovers Spike is alive and comes to L.A. to see for himself. In my world, about a year has passed between the destruction of Sunnydale and "Damage."




Shadowlands


by
Lunabee

Part One

Xander Harris sat on the damp sand, chilly waves slowly licking up his outstretched ankles. He’d found the small, private niche formed by an outcropping of rocks on the second day he’d been in Nerja. Behind the boulders, a Mediterranean beach teemed with tourists—American college students slathering oil on each others’ backs and begging for more ice in their precious Cokes; old women, locals, naked from the waist up, their breasts long and flat against their stomachs; families building sandcastles and combing the shoreline for shells and sea-smoothed bits of glass. But inside this circle of rocks, Xander was alone. The tiny headphones in his ears blocked out the noise from the beach, and the bottle of wine propped in the sand blurred the rest.

He’d left Africa a week ago. The newly re-formed Watchers’ Council had pulled him out when the U. N. refused to consider the bloodshed in Darfur genocide. Giles had said on the phone in an accent thickened from nearly a year spent back in London, “Good Lord, Xander. Get out of there. I won’t take no for an answer.” And he hadn’t, not even when Xander had protested that Sudan wasn’t the only African nation where Willow had sensed emerging Slayers; he could go to South Africa or Egypt and keep busy until Sudan was safer. Instead, he’d found himself in an airport buying a ticket for the first city that caught his eye—Malaga, Spain. A short bus ride to Nerja later, and he was eating paella in a seaside restaurant and planning long, lazy days watching the surf.

Nine months in Africa had changed the former Scooby. His body was hard and lean, his hair much longer than he’d worn it in Sunnydale. He had tan lines on his face, thin strips of skin that had paled under the straps of his eye patch. However, the most noticeable change in Xander Harris wasn’t something an observer could have pinpointed, exactly. He’d changed physically, sure, but the things he’d seen in Africa had left a mark on him as well.

Sunnydale had been a kind of alternate universe, Xander now realized. A little anomaly on this planet called Earth. Bad things happened in Sunnydale, but not real world bad things. Xander had seen death, too much death, before his sojourn to the Dark Continent. He had first-hand knowledge of loss and despair. Still, he found Africa shocking. The bodies leached of blood, not through twin punctures in the neck, but gunfire. Refugee camps stuffed with too many people trying to eat/shit/heal/love/play/SURVIVE in too little space. An entire fucking continent dying of an STD, and not the sort to be magicked away, but the kind that left mothers sobbing, “What else do I feed my babies? There’s no formula. No clean water to mix it with, anyway. I can either watch them starve or kill them with my milk?” Xander saw those babies sometimes when he closed his eye, the same way he could still taste in the back of his throat the settling dust of Sunnydale. He wore that intangible, indistinguishable mark pain leaves somewhere on the face; in the square set of his jaw, maybe, or the slow, sad curve of his smile.

Xander drank a mouthful of wine and listened to the opening bars of a song that never failed to remind him of Sunnydale and the people he’d known there.

Oh, the city rain
It floods the city streets
And in my city bed
Out of my fucking head
Is it snowing in space?
God, I wish I could talk to you
Is it snowing in space?

And all the city snow
Freezes the Chelsea hotel
It stones the Chelsea girls
It stones the Chelsea boys
Is it snowing in space?
God, I wish I could talk to you
Is it snowing in space?


Xander had barely spoken to the remnants of the Sunnydale gang since they’d left the crater in the earth to forge new lives, or some other such end-of-the-book nonsense. He’d wanted to talk to them, lying in his cot in the dark, draped in mosquito netting. He’d had exactly a million and one imaginary conversations with his friends since he’d gotten on that plane at Heathrow headed for parts unknown. He told them how he took his malaria pills every day, without fail, that sharp medicinal taste as much a part of him now as anything else. How he’d ordered a gin and tonic on the flight to Malaga, and left it untouched once the bitter draw of quinine touched his lips. Those little things, things he noticed that would interest Willow or make Buffy laugh. But the few times he’d tried to call them, his throat felt like it was closing and he couldn’t find any words, just mumbled greetings and silence that went on too long before someone finally said goodbye. Dawn, he wrote to without fail, never leaving her a forwarding address.

His reticence wasn’t their fault, not really. Buffy was flitting around Italy with some immortal named the Immortal. How original and true to form for her. She had decided that she was going to live, Dawn was going to live, everybody was fucking going to live, goddamnit! And that’s what she was doing. Living. Getting a taste of what it was like for all the girls who couldn’t smash bricks into powder with a well-manicured fist. Willow was still in South America with Kennedy. That continued relationship surprised Xander, but he saw it for what it was. No child of the Hellmouth ever passed something that looked like it could be, might be, should be love without grabbing hold with two hands. Xander really had no idea what Giles was doing; the older man spoke to him in his capacity as current head of the Council and occasionally threw in a “Take care.” Xander thought Giles always sounded busy, harried. They were rebuilding the Council from its smoldering ruins, after all.

Xander’s mood shifted as the singer began the third verse of the song.

How does your body feel today?
I forgot to ask
Genius in a hospital bed with brier patch hair
It just isn’t fair
Taking bullets for a team of bad poets
How is it up there?
Taking bullets for the team
I really miss you
I fucked you over a million times
I fucked you over a million times
I fucked you over a million times and you died
You died
You died
You really died.
*

This was the part of the song where he thought about the people they’d left in the bottom of that hole. Anya, who he’d loved more than he ever thought was possible. The girl he’d once upon a time hoped would make all his dreams come true. And if he could only think about her in clichés, who was going to call him on it? In the days leading up to the final battle with the First, Xander had made a kind of peace with Anya. She’d forgiven him for leaving her and forgiven herself for the messy swathe she’d cut in human lives across the centuries. When she’d had the chance to flee, she didn’t. Instead, she’d reached deeply inside her mortal frame for the dignity that allowed her to face death with a joke and a sword tightly gripped in her sweating palms. That’s the part that got Xander. He never really thought Anya would die—himself maybe, or Buffy again, and surely some of the Potentials. But not Anya. She’d done the right thing, chosen humanity, chosen the good fight. How could she die? He was glad he hadn’t found her body, hadn’t seen her face locked in the pain of her final moments. Xander could almost smile, thinking his girl finally had answers to all those endless questions about heavenly dimensions.

I fucked you over a million times and you died

Now, that line was for Spike, the strangest vampire that Xander believed had ever, or would ever, walk this earth. Xander hadn’t seen Spike die, either, but he’d heard Buffy tell the tale to Dawn. The Slayer had wiped her little sister’s tears and told her that Spike had glowed with the same light she remembered from her stay in heaven. She said that, in the seconds before he died, she could see his soul, shining even more brightly than that holy light. Most importantly, Spike had given his love and goodbyes to them all, Dawn especially. Xander was certain that Buffy was taking a bit of license with the story from the hard edge of pain she tried to keep from her eyes, but Dawn hadn’t questioned her sister. Just hugged her knees tightly to her chest and stared out the window as the bus crossed state lines.

Though he didn’t understand it, Spike’s death filled Xander with even more regret than Anya’s. He’d continually baited Spike since he’d become an unwilling Scooby. He’d tied the vampire to a chair for hours on end, forced him to beg for his food, and laughed at his slow emasculation. He’d refused to trust him, even after Spike had clearly shown that he loved Dawn, that he would literally die to protect her. He made himself believe that Anya and Spike sleeping together was something more sinister than two very lonely people trying for a short time to touch something that didn’t squeeze bruising hands around their hearts. Towards the end, they’d almost been friends. If Sunnydale was still standing, he might be playing pool at the Bronze with Spike right now, letting bygones be bygones. But the Big Bad was dead, dust. Xander felt the loss keenly. He’d fucked Spike over a million times. Anya, he’d only fucked over the once. Maybe that was the difference.

Suddenly, the phone in his pocket rang. Xander checked the caller I.D. and grinned. Andrew.

Andrew was the one exception to his code of silence. The two talked regularly on the phone, and Andrew had even spent a few days with Xander in Africa after Xander had found a new Slayer willing to relocate to London for training. They’d gotten drunk on something sweet and spent the night trying to outdo each other with ghost stories. The U. N. aid workers had laughed uneasily as the tales got more horrifying, never dreaming that each bit of terror was a page ripped right from the young men’s lives.

Andrew was, surprisingly, the most well-adjusted to life after the Hellmouth. Xander knew Andrew carried scars. Although he’d never asked, Xander was fairly certain that Andrew had been in love with Warren, maybe even Jonathon, too. Andrew still blamed himself for Anya’s death, though it now took half a bottle of tequila for him to admit that. Somehow, he’d managed to gather all the pain inside himself and worry it like a pearl under his skin, until it was something tangible he could hold or put down as he wished. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the mission of rebuilding the Council. He squawked over the shiny toys the Watchers gave him. He sent Xander boxes of books and cartons of cigarettes to trade in the markets. The annoying virgin was no longer quite so annoying. And probably not a virgin anymore either, if his tales of forays into the London nightlife could be believed.

“Xander, where are you?”

“In Spain. Sitting on the beach, drinking wine, and scaring the locals with the pirate get-up. You?”

“On a plane back to London. Listen, Xander . . .” Andrew paused. Xander could hear his Adam’s apple working furiously and guessed that whatever his friend had to say merited one huge drink before he could spit out the words. “I went to L. A. to see Angel. They had a crazy, newbie Slayer on the loose, and the Council sent me to bring her back to London for safe-keeping and the strongest dose of magical Xanax known to mankind. While I was there, I found out some things.”

“What kind of things?” Xander’s heartbeat sped up. Andrew never talked this seriously for anything other than apocalypses or the all important Deep Space Nine vs. Voyager debate. “C’mon, Andrew. The suspense is killing me.”

“It’s Spike. He’s alive.” Andrew paused for dramatic effect, then frowned when his pronouncement was met with silence. “Xander. Xander! Are you still on the line?”





Part Two

Xander’s fingers closed slowly around a handful of sand, powder-fine and warmed from the sun. The water that seemed to stretch out in a straight line from his toes to endlessness was blue and green and, in places, a kind of deep purple. The raw feeling he’d carried in his gut far too long eased marginally; he could feel the brokenness inside him wanting desperately to knit back together. Beach noise collapsed into nothingness, while Andrew’s voice magnified to fill the void it left behind.

Xander drew a breath that, for once, didn’t fight its way to the surface through a heavy weight. He smiled, one he thought just might crack the corners of his mouth and answered. “Yeah, I’m here, Andrew. I just can’t believe it’s possible. Whaddya mean, Spike’s alive?”

Andrew snorted. “Well, he’s not technically alive, but ya know, as undead, as he ever was."

“How?” Xander thought he might get up and dance; grab one of those sorority girls lounging on towels just beyond his cover of rocks and swing her around until they were both dizzy and her boyfriend felt compelled to protect her honor from the crazy pirate. Spike is alive. He's alive. He's alive. He's alive he's alive he's alive.

“That amulet he was wearing in the battle with the First sucked him inside somehow. I don’t know exactly. Giles seems to think figuring out the mystery is really important. I can see research-frenzy seriously cutting into my Star Gate SG-1 time."

“Sounds about right.” Xander laughed. “So Giles knows about Spike? Do the others know yet?”

Xander heard Andrew’s throat working furiously again and the tinny clink of glass against metal. When he spoke, Andrew’s voice sounded small and very far away. "That's sorta the reason I'm calling, Xan."

Xander tightened his grip subconsciously on that handful of sand, the grains sliding between his fingers until his nails met no resistance and drew blood in his palm. Andrew had called him Xan precisely three times to date.

The first time--they drank whiskey together in the tiny motel room they shared in Memphis, a battered school bus just visible through the slats of the blinds. Andrew gripped his arm and whispered, “I still feel it sometimes, Xan. The knife . . . just . . . going into him. It—it was easier than I thought it'd be. And his blood was on my hand; the blade...it caught on something inside him. I can't believe it was so easy.” And then Andrew cried until he threw up, the dirty tile of the bathroom floor scoring his knees.

The second time Andrew used that name--he and Xander were helping Giles organize his library in the office building that now served as the new Watchers’ Headquarters. Andrew carelessly knocked a pile of books to the floor, and Giles responded angrily, “Stupid boy! These books are particularly volatile and could cause great harm should their bindings be broken. Pray go pester someone else. I’m sure Robin would love to hear again your fascinating rendition of the ‘Tale of the Slayer of Vampyres.’” Giles took the armload of volumes to the back of the room and began to shelve them. Andrew recoiled from the Watcher’s tone and ran a hand self-consciously through his dark blonde hair. Before he left, Andrew turned sad eyes on Xander. “I’ll—I’ll see ya later, Xan. I know I’m not needed or wanted here. I’m the Star Trek nerd that should’ve realised I was just a red shirt back in Sunnydale. I should’ve thrown myself on Ubervamp’s sword and given Spock’s farewell speech from Wrath of Khan. That would’ve been the way to go out. Not that Anya would’ve gotten it, but maybe she’d be here now instead of me.” Before Xander could even respond, Andrew was gone, jamming his hands in his pockets and walking away with his chin nearly to his chest.

The last time--they were in the desert, smoking hash Xander had bought from the local shaman and laughing at the mini-model of Uncles Owen’s place on Tatooine they’d built from rocks and a desiccated piece of wood. It looked very little like the movie set, but the drugs were good, and they were pleased with the results. Xander rocked back on his heels and grinned at Andrew, his teeth a blinding white in his darkened face. Andrew loaded another bowl of the sticky stuff, starting to smile himself, when the hand holding the lighter shook violently. “Are you okay?” Xander asked, concern pulling him quickly to something resembling sobriety.

“Yeah. I’m okay. I got hit with some mojo two months ago. One of the new Slayers Buffy found in Rome was a witch. Nothing to rival scary, veiny Willow, but a pretty powerful witch all the same. Long story short, she didn’t want to play the white hat so she zapped me. I still get shaky sometimes.”

Xander took the pipe from him then and, holding it to his friend’s mouth, lit the ball of hash. Andrew blew thick smoke down on Uncle Owen’s igloo and said, “I met a guy that same trip. A nice, normal guy who teaches English at a language school just outside Vatican City. He came to the hotel to pick me up for dinner right after WitchBitch sent about a bajillion volts through me. Buffy was all powerful and firm and didn’t even let him in the room. My clothes were charred; I smelled like Porky’s Barbecue minus the yummy sauce. He must’ve seen past Buffy, though, ‘cause I never heard from him again.” Andrew stared at his hands as the shaking reduced to a tremble, then an occasional twitch. “How do we start over outside Sunnydale? At least on the Hellmouth, everybody knew that things really go bump in the night. Even the ones who pretended not to see knew there just aren’t enough rabid dogs on the whole planet to account for all the people who die from ‘canine’ bites. People out here don’t know. Really don’t know. I just want somebody to understand all the freaky shit I’ve been through and love me anyway. Xan, I’m so lonely.”


Xander felt an icy wash of apprehension threaten to overwhelm the first moment of joy he’d felt in what seemed like years and forced himself to concentrate instead on what Andrew was saying. “Giles sent me to L.A. for the psycho Slayer, but also to deliver a message. Angel and his team of Scoobie-clones have joined forces with Wolfram and Hart, this empire of lawyers that have their demonic fingers in evil pies all around the world. Angel’s CEO of their California office now, and he’s trying to do good with their resources, but the Council is afraid he’s being, um, corrupted. The seers in the Council seem to think something bad is coming and that the L. A. gang will be involved. They want no part of whatever, and I quote, ‘misery they bring on themselves.’ Giles even made me memorize a little speech—‘Nobody in our camp trusts you anymore. You work for Wolfram and Hart. Don’t fool yourself . . . We’re not on the same side.’ I didn't really have a problem with this scenario. I’d go, get the Slayer, deliver the message, come home, and be playing WarCraft again before two days had passed. So, I waited in the conference room for Angel, but when the door opened, it was Spike.”

Andrew laughed then, a genuine belly laugh. “I was just so shocked to see him. It was like . . . he was resurrected for being such a real hero. You know? I was so nervous I babbled—‘You’re like Gandalf the White, resurrected from the pit of the Balrog, only more beautiful than ever.’ That's what I said. I think he was happy to see me too. He didn't throw me off when I started hugging him, even though, I kinda snotted on his shirt, I think.”

Xander laughed too, despite the feeling that Andrew had other, more unpleasant things to say. “I would’ve gone with the Search for Spock metaphor, myself, and wow, I think I really hit the top of the geek threshold with that comment."

Andrew giggled. “I just couldn’t help myself, Xander. You know how I feel about him. He’s like Han Solo and Worf and David Bowie all rolled into one. He's just so amazing. Anyway, I realized right off that Spike is working for them, with them. I’ve come to chew out these people I don’t know, just like Giles told me to, and instead I get to tell the guy who saved my life—the whole world, really—to s-s-sod off.”

Xander smiled internally at Andrew’s choice of words. The new Watcher often peppered his conversation with British slang, but Xander couldn’t tell if Andrew did it for effect or if the change in his friend’s speech patterns was the unconscious result of living in London. “What did you do?”

“What did I do? What did I do? I acted like a total loser; that’s what I did. It's like I went back in time and turned into that geek everyone knew and distrusted back in Sunnydale. I couldn’t stand to face Spike the way I am now. I’ve changed so much, Xander. I didn’t want to look at him with my true face and tell him that we’re leaving him to sink or swim. So I played the part. I told Wesley that I was more of an expert on the paranormal than he is and implied that Giles still has doubts about him. I told ‘The Tale of the Slayer of the Vampyres’ and could feel their eyes on me. The looks on their faces said it all. They weren't impressed even a little, just like back at Headquarters. I chomped on a pipe and generally made a huge ass of myself in front of everybody. It felt easier that way, less of a betrayal somehow.”

“I’m sorry, Andrew. Really sorry they sent you to do a shit job. But Giles obviously didn’t know Spike was alive, or he wouldn’t have . . .”

“That’s just the thing,” Andrew interrupted. “He did know. Whoever called him from L. A. told him Spike was alive. He knows, and he just doesn’t care.”

“What?! I don’t understand. Spike went up like a Roman candle for the good of all mankind, and Giles doesn’t think that deserves some consideration? He thinks something bad is going down soon in L. A., and Spike doesn’t get a heads-up?” Xander drew a ragged breath and thought Calm calm calm calm calm. He looked out at the sea and willed the rage welling up inside him to subside. He focused on the sailboats dotting the harbor, the salt drying on his calves, the tiny waves folding in on themselves and merging to dash like lemmings against his feet.

“It gets worse, Xander. Angel’s gang doesn’t seem to care, either. About Spike, I mean. Psycho Slayer cut both his hands off . . .”

Xander shot to his feet, all pretense of calm abandoned. “His hands! She cut off his fucking hands!”

“Hey, Xander, breathe, my friend. Some demon doctor on the Wolfram and Hart payroll reattached them, and he’s good as new. The point is, no one on Angel's team seemed to give a flying crap. They had Spike patched up, but nobody went to the hospital to check on him or acted like they really cared about what had happened to him. It was so sad, Xander. He was all alone and hurting and couldn't even move his fingers and . . . he was so alone. Most of the time I was in L. A., everyone treated Spike like...well, like how I'm treated. And he doesn't deserve that. I know what I am, what I was and . . . he doesn't deserve that. Not after all he's done. I don’t think he wants to stay there but he’s afraid to leave. He doesn’t want Buffy to know he’s alive. I think he feels like he has nowhere else to go.”

Something warm and full of regret broke in Xander’s chest. Nowhere to go. Why would he think we want him? After all the things we said, I said . . . “Do you think Angel really is being corrupted?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Harmony is his receptionist!”

Xander snickered. “Good one. I’ll bet Cordelia is just eating that up with a spoon.”

“Oh, God. That’s the other thing. Xander, Cordy’s in a coma.”

Suddenly, Xander felt numb. Apparently a body doesn’t forget the proper way to respond to tragedy, after all. He’d felt like this after Jesse died, after Ms. Calendar died, after he’d become the hyena, after they’d put Buffy in the ground. His lips twisted in a wry parody of a grin. Nope. No breaks for us. Nobody ever really escapes the Hellmouth, I guess.

“For how long?” Xander demanded. “Will she get better?”

Andrew sighed. “I don’t know. Months, maybe. Since before Spike turned up. No one would say. They almost seemed confused about what happened to her. I did a tiny spell in Angel’s bathroom to check for magical residue. I think their memories are being controlled somehow, like in that new cool new movie with Julianne Moore. Only, you know, not really cool so much as...twisted and weird. Except Angel and Spike. Their auras are clear. The only ones that are, actually.”

Xander sat back on the sand and let a long, companionable silence grow between them. Silence had cemented their friendship in the first place; their willingness to share the same space and not say anything was a precious commodity. He could hear the Slayers on Andrew’s plane laughing and giggling. He heard Andrew pour another drink.

Finally, Andrew spoke. “You’re going to L. A., aren’t you?”

“Yeah. I owe it to Spike and Cordelia. I can’t just leave Spike where he’s not wanted. And I have to know what happened to Cordy and if she’s in any danger.”

“I thought you’d go.” Xander could hear the wistfulness in Andrew’s voice and thought again how deeply his friend’s charade must’ve hurt him. “Call me when you get there?”

“You bet. Thanks, Andrew.”

Xander hung up the phone. At some point during the conversation the wine bottle had tipped, spilling a wide arc on the sand. The stain was deep reds and browns like old blood. Xander dragged a finger through its wetness and made a call to the Council’s travel agent.





Part Three

Xander settled down into his aisle seat and smiled companionably at the middle-aged woman wedged between him and the tiny airplane window. She cast a lengthy sidelong glance at his missing eye, smiled tentatively, and immediately returned her attention to the crossword puzzle spread across her ample lap. The woman’s obvious interest in his defect didn’t flush his cheeks under their tan or radiate self-pitying heat down to his chest, as it would’ve a year ago. Still, Xander couldn’t help the unease that skittered down his spine with her glance. Even after all the lack he’d noticed in Africa—human bodies missing parts far more essential than a single eye—Xander felt a deeply secret shame, a brokenness, every time he was reminded of what he’d lost. He shifted slightly in his seat and forced his attention away from his missing eye.

Xander pulled a novel, one he’d read before, from his rucksack and began to read. Lady Audley’s Secret was perhaps a surprising choice for the Scoobies’ scholastic underachiever, but his work for the Council had awakened in Xander a thirst for the simple, uncomplicated, unmechanized leisures of life. He remembered acutely that first month in the desert before he’d come to terms with the differences between his life in Sunnydale and life in a developing country.

Of course the village didn’t have a television; it didn’t have electricity, either. Or running water. Or a septic system. Two weeks of a nagging restlessness, an itchy twitchy feeling under his skin, and Xander was ready to make some serious negotiations with Lucifer himself just to watch commercials. For anything. Even feminine hygiene products. He’d discovered in his first days at the camp that sitting around the fire listening to the aid workers translate tribal stories that sounded like brutal, strange poetry relieved his boredom more fully than he ever would’ve imagined. Xander also found that the passable singing voice he’d uncovered thanks to Sweet’s spell improved rapidly with practice. Fire time usually included several rounds of songs that often lasted into the late hours of the evening; Xander eagerly learned the words to African folk songs, old English ballads, and a surprising number of eighties’ top forty hits.

But alone in the night, when all the camp was sleeping, and Xander could feel the cold air wrapping around his body and seeping into his bones, could hear muffled crying, and smell the rot of sickness around him, he longed for the oblivion of television, the radio, the PlayStation. Something to drown out Africa and transport him somewhere else.

One night, Xander remarked to Andrew during one of their scheduled phone calls, “I would chop off my left hand and complete the Captain Hook ensemble just for something to do at night, Andrew. I think I’d even read!” And they both laughed, and Xander forgot what he’d said almost immediately. A week later, a box of books came for him. Andrew had apparently indiscriminately cleared out a shelf of a used bookstore. The box contained science fiction novels, romances, some biographies, murder mysteries, and more than a few classics. Xander read them all over the next months, discovering that he truly enjoyed the Victorian novels. They were full of fantastic situations, outlandish secrets, and written with subtle, but witty humor. He didn’t always get the literary allusions or the outdated British slang, but Xander had only time on his hands, and he was patient. Sometimes he’d let himself think, This is something Spike might’ve read when he was living.


As the plane began its ascent, Xander turned the well-worn pages of Lady Audley’s Secret to a familiar passage:

Once, while they were abroad, Robert Audley ventured to congratulate him upon his recovered spirits. He burst into a bitter laugh. “Do you know, Bob,” he said, “that when some of our fellows were wounded in India, they came home bringing bullets inside them? They did not talk of them, and they were stout and hearty, and looked as well, perhaps, as you or I; but every change in the weather, however slight, every variation of the atmosphere, however trifling, brought back the old agony of their wounds as sharp as ever they had felt it on the battle-field. I’ve had my wound, Bob; I carry the bullet still, and I shall carry it into my coffin.*

Xander closed the book and rubbed at the scar under his eye patch. He wondered idly if the plane would fly over Sunnydale’s crater.


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*


Xander walked cautiously from the elevator onto Angel’s floor of the Wolfram and Hart office building. Seated directly in front of him at the receptionist’s desk, Harmony stared intently at a computer screen, her brow furrowed in intense concentration. Over the staccato of one-fingered typing, Xander imagined he could hear her brain gradually overloading from the exertion. Some things never change. He immediately spotted Angel’s office and strode quickly across the open foyer, hoping to avoid a high school reunion with the former Cordette.

Two steps from Angel’s door, a cold hand grabbed his arm with surprising strength. Harmony tugged Xander back towards her desk, her eyes slowly appraising him as Xander resisted. With some shock, Xander realized Harmony was checking him out and evidently not disliking what she saw.

“Where do you think you’re going? Nobody sees the boss without an appointment. I’m, like, Angel’s executive assistant.” (Xander snorted internally.) “If you want to see him, I’ll schedule you in. I think the boss has an opening for next Thursday.”

Harmony let her hand linger on his arm a few seconds longer than necessary before releasing it. The blond woman smiled at him, and not so subtly allowed her breast to brush his back as she leaned over the desk to retrieve her appointment book.

Xander smirked. “Look, as fun as all this is, Harm, I really need to see Angel. Before next Thursday. I don’t think he’ll mind the interruption.”

Harmony’s eyes widened comically, and she put one perfectly manicured hand to her coral mouth before squealing, “Oh. My. God. Xander!!! You look . . . really sexy. Which is a completely new look for you. I should’ve recognized you, though. You still smell the same. I guess my vamp senses are going wonky on me; it must be all the pig’s blood the boss makes us eat. Company rules. Anyway, what are you doing here? What happened to your eye?”

“Long story. Let me see Angel.”

“Okay, but wait until I buzz you in.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “He’s been in a joy-sucking broodathon for, like, forever now.” Harmony rolled her eyes and pressed a button on the speakerphone. “Angel, you have a visitor that needs to see you immediately.”

Xander heard a long sigh and then the low timbre of Angel’s voice. “Fine. Send whoever or whatever it is in.”

As Xander once again approached Angel’s door, he heard Harmony call out from her desk. “Hey, Xander. Maybe we could get drinks or something tonight after I get off work. Rehash old times.” Xander waved his hand behind him noncommittally and pushed open the door.

For a moment neither of them spoke. Xander noticed that Angel seemed to have aged at least a decade since they’d last met, his haggard look even more shocking to Xander since vampires can’t physically age. Angel radiated weariness; his eyes were bloodshot, and the intensity of gaze that Xander remembered so well was gone. In its place was a look of numbness, the kind of apathy only created through relentless pain. Xander knew that look; he’d seen it staring back at him in the mirror many times.

Finally, Angel broke the silence. “Why are you here, Xander? Andrew made it very clear that the new Council isn’t interested in any of our problems.”

Xander crossed the room and put his hand on the large window that shed light into the office. I bet Spike loves this glass. “I don’t want to waste my time in L. A. on small talk with you, so I’ll just get this all out at once. Not everybody agrees with the Council, Angel. Not even Andrew. Giles sent him here to do his dirty work, and Andrew looks up to the G-man too much to argue. You might have been a murdering bastard, but I'm willing to give you a break. For every time you’ve tried to kill me, or actually killed someone I care about, you’ve also saved my life or the life of someone I love. If you need help, I’m offering. Secondly, I’m here because of Spike. I want him to know he doesn’t have to stay in L.A. if he doesn’t want to. He’s got a Scoobie-sized list of people, myself included, who wouldn’t mind putting up that particular vamp for as long as he needs. Finally, I’m here because of Cordelia. You’re hiding something about her coma. And before you give me a hard time, Andrew could tell that everyone’s memories are mojoed. Everyone except yours. What’s going on, Angel? If Cordy’s in danger, I can take her out of here. She’ll be safe in London.”

Angel glanced down at his hands, his lips set in a grim line. When he looked back up, the vampire suddenly looked very fragile, as if he might shatter from the sheer effort of continued existence.

“She’s not in any danger, Xander. I’ll tell you what happened.”


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*


Xander held Cordelia’s hand and softly stroked it with his fingertips. She looked good, like maybe she’d just drifted off to sleep on top of a pile of books after a late night Scoobie research party. Angel had spared no expense for her care. Her hair was combed and arranged, her nails manicured, her lips shiny and smelling faintly of strawberries when Xander placed a chaste kiss there.

“Hey, Queen C. How’re ya doing in there? I’ve really missed you. Not the soul-crushing emasculation, mind you, but your smile and your honesty. Those I’ve missed. Angel told me everything that happened. I’m so sorry, Cordy. I really thought that one of us would get the prize in the cereal box, and I always thought it would be you. You escaped the Hellmouth and never looked back. I guess I was naïve to think the creepy crawlies couldn’t find you here in L. A.”

Xander settled back in the bedside chair, still holding Cordelia’s hand in his own. “So, Angel has a son. Who knocked you up with an ancient hellgod. Man, we’re an incestuous little group. Me and you. Me and Anya. Me and Willow that one time in high school. You and Connor. You and Wesley. Anya and Spike. Let’s not even mention Buffy’s track record.” Xander grinned at the motionless woman in front of him. “I understand why Angel wanted everyone to forget. Sometimes I wouldn’t mind a spell that could erase Sunnydale for me.” Xander sighed. “I guess you didn’t know that Anya and I were going to get married. Well, we didn’t. I left her at the altar. Some tiny piece of me thought we might make up one day, but she went and did what we white hats seem to do best. She died.”

He peeled the eye patch from his face and stuffed it in his pocket. Not like Cordy’s gonna mind. “You would’ve liked her, I think, once you got past the whole she-sent-me-to-a-hell-dimension-where-I-was-eaten-by-vampires thing. You and she were a lot alike, actually. Totally tactless but full of heart. I miss her. You probably don’t know this either, but Spike’s alive. What am I saying? You probably didn’t even know he was dead. The last time you saw Spike wasn’t exactly his finest moment, what with the hot pokers and all. He changed so much, Cordelia. Underneath all that Big Badassedness, Spike is just as vulnerable and alone as the rest of us. We really should have been friends. He’s the only reason I’m not sporting a seeing-eye dog. I never told him how much that means to me. I don’t say the ‘w’ word anymore, but I hope he knows.”

Cordelia opened her eyes and grinned. “Well, dumbass, why don’t you just tell him?”


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*


Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Penguin Classic pg 52




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