The second story in the Rippers Files chronology
Old Friends New Beginnings
Xander had chosen the table because it gave the best view of the doorway. He was sitting in an armchair, in a bar with heavy curtains and thick carpet, muffled against the world and the roar of mighty engines.
Upon his arrival at Heathrow that afternoon, the first thing he had done was to find a relatively quiet area of the concourse and punched into his phone the number that had Giles at the other end of it. He announced his arrival and then had to apologise for phoning with this news on the wrong day and from the wrong country. Clearly Giles had expected him to keep his promise about giving a few days notice before he left Nairobi, so that arrangements could be made for the returning hero's welcome.
Well, the hell with that. Xander had never felt less like a hero. Right now he'd pay top dollar to feel like just an ordinary human being. He could do without whatever home-coming triumph Giles, or more likely Dawn, would be liable to devise.
“Yes,” Giles's voice was sympathetic. “I suppose you're right. I can quite see how you wouldn't want a great fanfare. At the same time, there are preparations to be met at this end: a room has to be got ready for you; Mrs Penhaligon will need to know how many she has to cook for, and so on.”
Xander heard Giles draw in a sharp breath. There was silence for a moment then Giles continued, “All of which pales into insignificance against the simple fact of your arriving safely and your actually being here.
“Now then, I think it would be best if you were to book yourself into a hotel. You should have a good night's rest before making the last leg of your journey, I think. It will also allow you to wait in comfort for Spike who will be coming to collect you. It will take him at least a couple of hours or so to get there and airports are bad enough when you have no choice but to wait in them. So get out of there and find somewhere local, for the both of you. Phone me back to let me know where you've ended up.
“Um, and Xander? I... I can't tell you how happy I am to know that you'll be here tomorrow.” The line went dead.
Wait. What? Wait for Spike? It was Spike who was going to be meeting him? Now how about that for a culture shock? Or at the very least a rather large culture surprise. He still had not really taken on board the news (to him) that Spike had somehow survived burning up at the Hellmouth. Dazed, Xander almost missed the rest of what the voice at the other end of the phone was saying - something about a hotel? Then Giles' final words registered and he felt a warm glow, of homesickness becalmed, infusing him. He smiled as he pocketed his phone.
Okay then, bags, and somewhere to stay for the night; Xander metaphorically shook himself and headed towards the busier end of the arrivals hall. Collecting his meagre luggage didn't take him long and, as he pushed his lightly laden trolley towards the exit, an advertising board caught his eye. It listed the many non-descript hotels littering the airport's periphery and picking one at random he booked in and arranged for a taxi to take him there.
Excerpt from the diary of Xander Harris:
Captain's Log, Heathrow, London, England. 18.28 GMT. Newly touched down from the Continent of Dark. The natives seem friendly and the bartender's willing. Though not that sort of willing. Probably just as well. That reminds me... OK. I've just got me a postcard for Jim – I'll write it out when I've finished this the first entry of this my new journal.
Another day another dollar – or rather another life another diary. I don't know how long I'll keep it written up. Just writing it now, makes me remember times I'd sooner forget of writing in my African log. Setting pen to paper, and I'm transported to a stuffy tent ripe with the smell of dirty clothes and shoes that would walk away if I didn't tie them down each night. And I'd feel stiff with the cold echo of loneliness as I wonder how to catalogue the latest horrors. No, it wasn't all bad I had some wonderful things to record but I won't be looking at it for a long while. It's safely hidden away in a bag I don't need to open.
Resciat in pace.
That was then, this is now. If I've discovered an unsuspected satisfaction in, and dare I say it flair for, writing I should make it something positive not scurry away from it's fearful beginnings. Jim thought that I had a neat turn of phrase – when I wasn't being totally illiterate – and told me that I should work on it, both the writing and the literacy – apparently punctuation, spelling and grammer are my friends. How? We've never even been properly introduced. I'd get him to write a letter to Mrs Gillespie who tried to teach me English for years, telling her his opinion. But of course, shes gone...
Damn it! No negative thoughts, not yet awhile, anyway. I'll show willing and attempt to keep a record of this new beginning. So there was little sign of it when I was in school where it could have been useful, but this writing stuff down has proved a powerful impulse. It's become a habit and, at times a consolation. I also enjoy it. Just call me Peeps!
Now then, let's get this postcard written and then...
The armchair was comfortable but Xander was not. Despite falling asleep for nearly an hour when he first sat down he was now wide awake and restless. He found himself constantly hiding his walking stick in different and hopefully less obvious positions - the damn thing sent out all the wrong vibes. Even the barman had come out from behind the bar to help him to the table and, while he appreciated the kindness, he didn't appreciate the assumption that he couldn't do the basic things for himself.
If he'd managed to get from Africa to England without the man's help, he could certainly cross this tiny room to a table, thank you very much. Though he had to admit that the advantages of being classed as disabled had made the ordeal of the plane journey, especially the embarking and disembarking, much easier. He still felt a fraud, though; he wasn't exactly incapacitated – just needed a bit of help holding up his weight at times.
Constantly shifting in his seat, he kept fidgeting and running his fingers through his hair. The hand that wasn't holding his glass kept returning to his eye-patch, fiddling with it and resetting its positioning. He still hadn't got used to the glass eye and had opted for the comfort of familiarity tonight. He had already downed a couple of doubles, in double quick-time, just to help allay his anxiety, and was now spending more time swirling the generously iced-and-lemoned gin and tonic around his third glass, than drinking from it.
His nerves were brittle: he was, after all, waiting for a lost part of his old life to walk through the door, and his emotions were a jumbled mess of memories, hope and trepidation. The impression he wanted to portray was that of casual, globe-trotting man-of-the-world, but the veneer was wearing thin - he felt he was dancing on flames of uncertainty. Consciously relaxing; he pulled his hand away from his face, dropped his shoulders, took a deep breath in and exhaled slowly. His pretence at reading the evening paper, could not, though, prevent him from continuously glancing up and looking for the familiar, yet impossible figure to appear in the doorway.
When he finally saw the unmistakeable blond hair and easy swaggering grace, all his fragile sang froid disappeared and, as Spike walked across the small room towards him, he felt his stomach lurch in apprehension. Until that very second, a not small part of him had, deep-down, not really believed that he would ever see Spike again. He had heard of, but not really credited, Spike's miraculous regeneration; yet here he was, as large as life and twice as arrogant. Nothing new there, then. With a breezy attempt at normality, despite having to hold on to the table to lever himself up, Xander stood and stretched out his hand. “Damn it, Bleachboy, how many times have we got to kill you before you remember to stay dead?”
Excerpt from the diary of Xander Harris:
I'd been there a while before he arrived and saw immediately that I was not what he was expecting. He hid it pretty quickly but I'd been especially looking for his reaction to his first sight of me – narsiscm? I can't even spell it - and the spark of shock in his eyes was what I had dreaded. The last time he'd seen me I had been a grown-up boy teetering on the verge of manhood. Many things in my life had made me grow up fast, but I still hadn't been a mature man. Now he was meeting with the shell of a man old before his age and even my smiles were hollow.
Had we met accidentally he would probably have made some polite attempt at passing conversation then made his excuses, and left as quickly as he could get away with. But Spike was here to meet and greet me and bring me to Ripper's HQ in Bath.
Of course, up until a month ago, the last thing I had known about Spike was that he was dead - finally dead that was - so the curiosity was mutual. I looked for signs of death and resurrection expecting to see SOMETHING, damn it! But he seemed like the old Spike in every way. Black shirt, black jeans, black leather coat. No glowy eldritch sparkles in his eyes or hint of ethereal aura around him. The only aura I could detect was the smell of cigarette smoke. He was just Spike. Somehow, that was just so him. To have gone through so much and show nothing. Apart from an extra chattiness. And he seemed kind of – a bit more mature, is the best I can put it. Well, he'd proved in the past just how adaptable he could be. That had always been his strength. I recognise that now.
I stood up, made some snarky greeting, and we looked at each other for a few endless moments. I studied him with more open curiosity and less manners than he did me and damn if we didn't both tear up and laugh both at the same time, and then hug each other. Of all the weird things I encountered in the last year or so this was like one of the weirdest! And yet, during that final horrendous struggle against The First, we had to admit to ourselves at any rate, if not to each other, that the old hatred had long gone. I don't know when we first realised it or who was most surprised, but there it was in front of us, a prospective friendship which was there to make or break. By the end we were a fair ways toward making it.
Apparently it was Spike who had acknowledged this, in conference while they were deciding what was to be done with me now that I was finished with Africa. So it was decided he would be the one to come and meet me. And here I was, a stranger in a strange land, with a resurrected vampire to welcome me to my new home. Yup, Weird Things and Weird Times.
The two men stood in silence for a moment trying to assimilate the changes in each other.
Xander thought that Spike seemed older. Just something about his eyes and the way he held himself. It was very subtle, but... Xander struggled for a satisfactory metaphor. Yes, it was as if the teenage vampire years had been left behind and this was the grown-up version. Spike saw a battered, anguished version of his old companion, still fighting against the odds and denying any incapacity. That Xander was undoubtedly incapacitated was made obvious by the difficulty he had in standing up. Spike also noticed the walking stick propped unobtrusively against a plant pot behind his chair but Xander was quick to indicate that this wasn't open for discussion just yet. "So, Spike, do you want a drink?"
"God, yes! The traffic round here makes you want to kill - and Bath! The term 'bottle- neck' was probably invented there. Rupert keeps giving me directions to avoid the worst bits, but I can never follow 'em, so I got stuck in traffic jams at both ends.”
Spike, aware that he was in danger of talking too much and letting Xander know how shocked he was at his appearance, casually hooked a foot around a chair to pull it out. He sat down with a sigh, stretching his legs out, determined to relax. He turned his head. "I'll have a large Scotch and considering the occasion I think we should make it a Glenmorangey. Plenty of ice, no water.” This to the barman who had sprung to attention behind the bar when Spike arrived. Business was slow at the moment. “You okay there?” This to Xander whose glass was still full. He frowned. “What is that, vodka?”
Xander nodded. “Yeah, this will see me alright a while. And no, it's gin and tonic. I sort of acquired the taste in Kenya. They said it would get me set for living in England. I've uh, I've had a few already, waiting for you.” His reluctant smile was shy. “It's quite a thing, all this.” His gesturing hand indicated more than just the claustrophobic little lounge.
There was a brief pause for a moment's solemn silence, as they considered everything that “all this” encompassed. Then Spike snapped out of it. He sat up straighter in his chair and leaned in towards Xander a little more. “You got us all booked in for the night? I'd have got here earlier, but I got ambushed by Percy yammering about the soddin' short-cuts. Again.”
“Percy?” Xander frowned in bemusement.
“Wesley. I keep telling him to piss off and not confuse me with facts. For a man who's changed so much, he really hasn't changed at all,” Spike grumbled.
“Your drink, Sir,” called the barman.
Spike heaved himself back up and stalked to the bar. “Yeah, right. On his bill.” He jerked his head in Xander's direction and took an appreciative sip before returning to sit at their table.
“Cheers!” Spike clinked his glass against Xander's, “So, welcome to Blighty, Bwana! 'Xander Harris, Great White Hunter'.” He shook his head in bemusement. “From Gatoraid to gin and tonic. Bloody hell!”
His hand went to the cigarettes in his pocket, before he remembered the new no-smoking law. “Bloody fascists,” he muttered. “You'll find it OK here, you know. The natives are friendly - in general - and if nothing else it doesn't never rain like it never rains in Southern California. You'll be missing that African sun before long." Shut up, Spike, he's going to think you've come back as a chattering idiot.
Xander blinked several times at this unaccustomed wordiness and Spike laughed sheepishly admitting, "Yeah, OK, I am wittering on a bit. It seems that with the security and acceptance at Ripper's, comes a bad dose of logorrhoea. An' anyway, I'm still making the most of getting a word in edgeways, since the Great Pouf ain't around to gag me."
He declined to mention that an unexpected nervousness and self-conciousness also had some part to play. Since when did the Big Bad give a damn about what Xander Fuckwit Harris had to say about his return from the dead? Even though he did. Sort of.
This, though, was a very different Xander from the man he remembered from Sunnydale. He studied the lean, no, thin - far too thin - deeply tanned figure sitting before him. Beneath the tan, there was an unhealthy pallor that spoke of an illness too closely related to death. The hair was shaggy and just long enough to be tied back in a careless ponytail, though ends had come loose and fell about his face. The clothes were clean but creased and travel-worn, and the heavy shoes carried evidence that they had been chosen for practicality and not for fashion.
Strangely, the most familiar thing about the man was his eye-patch. Spike took a large gulp of his drink and continued, "So, the plan is to R&R at this wonderful hotel,” his mouth curled in disdain, “so's you get a good night's sleep, then we mosey on down to the West Country in the morning.”
Xander nodded affably. “That's the plan. And now I need feeding up. Let's get some dinner. The menu threatens a good-sounding steak, with what I've got to learn to call chips, not fries – though it calls 'em fries on the menu - I'm sure they can serve one up good and rare for you. A steak that is, not a chip. And while we're eating I'll tell you about all the rains we get in parts of Africa. This SoCal boy's had enough rain to last him a life-time.”
They wandered through a small archway into a diminutive restaurant, not much more than an annexe to the bar, and installed themselves at a corner table where both veterans of the unexpected and unpleasant could keep an eye on the doorway. Following a discussion with the tiny Filipina waitress, who could have got her job because of how well her size matched that of the dining room, they decided on both a hearty starter before the steaks and a satisfying pudding afterwards.
“Dessert!” pointed out Xander. “Pudding!” corrected Spike heatedly. “Tomaytoe!” prodded Xander. “Crisps! Biscuits!” countered Spike.
Xander gave up with a laugh – damn it, when was the last time he had laughed so easily? “Okay. Alright already. I'm in a new country, I've got to learn the language! But I bet my Swahili is better than yours.”
Spike narrowed his eyes. "Maybe. You show me yours and I'll show you mine!”
Just then a table-load of foodstuffs arrived. Both men fell silent for a while and applied themselves to the task of doing justice to the surprisingly good repast which was set before them.
The meal acted on more than one level. Both men felt the tension between them ease continually as they chatted while eating. The topics of conversation were carefully neutral, for the most part, although they did skim over their assorted experiences of Africa. Neither felt inclined to ask or tell too much about his ordeals but a warm glow of supportive sharing burned gently around them.
Xander was keen to hear all about Spike's return from the dead and questioned him closely about his doings at Wolfram and Hart. He hung on Spike's words: sad as he heard about a God-king taking over the body of the lovely sounding Fred; sharing anger against Angel when warranted; and sober when he heard about the final fight. Spike explained how they were scattered and how he and Wesley had returned to England. Then Spike started in on a scurrilously slanderous story about Wes. At this point the warm glow of companionship became a burning in Xander's lungs and em-purpled face as he came close to choking, he was laughing so much.
“No way! No-one could change that much – you're out-and-out lying, Dude! If you think I'm gonna believe that, your brain's turned to mush.”
Spike smirked unrepentantly, “Okay, that one's a bit of an exaggeration, but I could tell you a lot more about the new, improved Mr Wyndham-Pryce that would be all true, however unlikely. Unfortunately, I'm not one to kiss and tell.” Spike regarded Xander with a blank, straight-faced expression which screamed to be ripped open, to find the implications hidden beneath.
Xander froze, mid-mastication, wide eyes fixed on Spike. Then he very carefully resumed chewing, slowly and deliberately. He swallowed, looked down to place his knife and fork precisely in the middle of his plate, took a deep breath and finally looked up again – his expression as blank as Spike's. “You're telling me that you and Wesley Wyndham-Price, asshole-dork extrordinaire, are together.” Xander studiously made it a statement, not a question. Asking a question risked getting an answer.
“So. That's it. I didn't survive that attack in Nigeria after all – I have been dreaming my time in Kenya. I am dead and in some strange hell dimension, and you are some sort of pitchfork-proddy-demon type Spike, whose job it is to torture me with impossible stories about people I thought I knew. Just to totally fuck with my head.
“Listen to me, Spike, and just agree. 'I'm dead and this is an illusion.' Okay, nod your head, now.”
Spike shook his head instead and chuckled – somewhat demoniacally it must be said. “Nah, you're still in the land of the living and Wes and I aren't 'together'. We were new boys together at Ripper's and, well, things were strange after LA, so we sort of fell into... an understanding.”
Xander cocked an interrogative eyebrow at that but didn't say anything. He didn't need to: his expression said it all.
“Look, things were rough. We were worried about Charlie and Himself and... what can I say? He'd tried to hide it, but it was obvious back in LA that he fancied me.” Spike shrugged, his expression making an attempt at modesty. He couldn't help being irresistible, after all.
“We were both back from the dead. We're both very tactile. We find comfort in physical closeness. I told you he changed a lot, working with Angel. It was only a brief fling, couple of weeks or so. Comfort copulation's all. And if you think that's weird – wait 'til you hear about his mad, passionate affair with Lilah the Evil Lawyer from Hell after he had his throat cut and Angel tried to suffocate him while he was in hospital getting over it...”
Xander found the Lilah story captivating but the shock of discovering that Spike and Wes had been intimate, for however short a time resonated for a long while. Uber-English, stick-up-his-ass Wesley having sex at all came as a huge shock. To find out that he had loosened up? chilled out? dropped his standards? enough to have a 'fling' with Spike was... Xander couldn't think of a word expressive enough of his shocked disbelief.
Then, of course, there was the other half of the equation: Spike had had a fling with Wesley.
Xander closed his eyes in a long, slow blink and shook his head to clear his thoughts. He had always been good at delayed cogitation. He wasn't going to think about this any more, right now. He couldn't afford to go into shock – he never wanted to see the inside of a hospital emergency room again. He cleared his throat. “So, you say it rains a lot, around Giles's place?”
The conversation eventually resumed upon less controversial topics and they continued their meal without any further undue revelations. Slanderous remarks about Andrew didn't count.
Finally, when the last scrap of the third helping of gateau and ice cream had been chased from Xander's plate, he sat back in satisfaction and burped softly, smirking at Spike's affected grunt of distaste. “So! It's 'Welcome to England, Xand-man!' With food like this to be had, I guess I could really get to like the place. One whole meal down and no sign of boiled beef or carrots!”
“You'll get carrots enough at Ripper's place. Got himself a kitchen garden could feed half the county. But I reckon more red meat would do you good right now,” Spike eyed the slight form beside him critically, “but we'll go light on the boiled stuff, 'less it's a damn good stew from the charmed Aga of the sainted Mrs. Penhaligon. I warn you, you're going to fall in love with Ripper's cook. She's magical.”
“Delights of the morrow await me, but a good sleep will do me most good, right now. How long will it take us to get there?”
“It's only a couple of hours away; the plan is to get you well settled into Ripper's Acre by mid morning. I suggest that you have a bloody good breakfast before we go; Dawn has insisted that she produce a welcome-home brunch for you and although willing, she's not altogether as wise in the ways of culinary magic as her mentor is. So be warned. Not that you wouldn't know all about bad cuisine, or just plain lack of cuisine.
"Jesus, Harris,” Spike finally exploded, “what the fuck happened to you? If I hadn't expected to see you, I'd have walked straight past you, without knowing.” Spike's face crumpled with a sharp pang of sorrow he couldn't be bothered to try to hide. “What the hell did they do to you, Lad?"
Excerpt from the diary of Xander Harris:
I sat silent for a while before I attempted to reply. All so mundane all so impossible. Spike. Not only alive, or at least undead, but chatting to beat the band. Just that would make this a special entry in Dear Diary. Whatever the heck happened to Mr. Cutting-and-Taciturn?
Truth is, I was overcome, and the pernicious tears I had felt prickling when Spike and I hugged earlier threatened to burst and become a regular Niagara. I think I could have coped with sympathy and side-long looks, God knows I'd got used them over the last six months and if I'd been met with the brusqueness I expected from Spike I would have been okay. But this friendly banter, insults included, was so surprising yet familiar I felt as if Africa had never happened. We could have been back in a bar in SunnyD toasting the overthrow of that week's Big Bad. But then, of course, it would have been me doing all the talking and Spike doing the rolling of the eyes.
"You okay, Harris?" he asked me then.
I looked at him and Niagara fell.
Tears had been dried and laughed at – by Xander at least. Spike was irritated by his concern for the younger man, and didn't crack a smile until they had ordered a post-postprandial brandy which Spike had insisted would calm Xander down and help him sleep. He, of course, had one too, just to keep Xander company.
Yawns were threatening to dislocate Xander's jaws as they walked into the room he had booked for them. Mouth already gaping, he dropped his bag and looked around in confusion. His two cases were neatly placed at the foot of the large double bed which was the only bed in the room.
Spike regarded him with mocking derision. “That keen to get me into bed, huh? Mm, Sweetie! You could have given me a hint!” Spike put his hand to his hip and leered.
“Shit, I asked for a double. I was expecting two beds, not just one big one!”
“Ask for a double and you get one double bed. You should have asked for a twin-room, we'd have got two singles.”
“Damn, I didn't think. The porter offered to bring my cases up for me, cause there's no elevator and I stayed downstairs.” Xander turned to leave the room. “I'll go and...”
“Don't bother on my account. I don't flatter myself that you won't be able to keep your hands off me. You need to be getting to sleep, not arguing the toss with some dozy night porter about changing our room.” Spike's gaze could have been described as solicitous, had it adorned anyone else's face. Xander chose to suspect that it was the result of vampire indigestion, but it was nice to imagine that Spike actually had his best interests at heart.
“OK, sure. I'm so tired my hands haven't got the energy to stray into vampire territory during the night. Your virtue is safe.” Because Spike was Spike, he huffed a camp little huff before taking himself over to the far side of the bed. Xander continued, “Safer than mine was the night the rhino decided to investigate the tent while I was sleeping in it. Man, you wouldn't believe where those horns can get! And they're biiiig!” He drew his hands apart in emphasis.
Spike laughed derisively. “Oh yeah, a likely story!” He sat on the bed and bounced experimentally, before stripping quickly and sliding in. “This'll do. I hope you notice that I'm letting you have the closer side so's you don't have so far to walk. Or so far to run in case of stray rhinos!” He snorted his disbelief.
“It's true, believe me! And never forget: On the Savannah No-one Can Hear You Scream!”
Hands at his shirt buttons, Xander briefly considered disappearing into the bathroom to undress, but remembered in time that he was all grown up now. Despite this, he was still apprehensive about Spike's reaction to his wasted body. Sympathy was one thing – in small doses it could be wallowed in – but pity was anathema. He took a deep breath and mentally girded his loins, All the better to ungird them, he thought. Chuckling heroically to himself, he stood his ground and stripped down to boxers and socks then threw his eye patch on to the bedside table. As he sat on the bed to pull his socks off, Spike's indignant voice said, “Trust you to go from Michelin Man to walking skeleton. Didn't you ever learn to do things by half, Harris?”
Xander snorfled. A genuine belly laugh shook him for several moments and suddenly everything was okay. He twisted around to face Spike who was now lying propped against the headboard, hands behind his head, scowling at him. It was an indolent, frequently insolent, posture that Xander remembered from Spike's days chained up in Buffy's basement while The First was playing them. Seeing Spike's mock-fierce expression, Xander's face crinkled with sudden fondness. “Spike! Man, I wish I'd had you with me in Africa!”
“Yeah, well, you'd be twice the man you are now, I can tell you. Even if I'd had to drain you and turn you to keep you fit. Look like you've been dead a week and just warmed over. Those idiots should have known you'd never be able to look after yourself. Shame I wasn't there earlier, to keep them on their toes.” His expression softened. “You're okay now, Harris – we'll soon see you back good and healthy.” As if to compensate for a moment of unnecessarily girly compassion he stared hard at a point on Xander's neck. “Unless... This is the easiest way of doing it, you know - in a nice big comfy bed. And seeing as we've got one going spare....”
Xander laughed again, bent down and deposited a mocking but friendly kiss on Spike's forehead. Then walloped him with a pillow. “Not right now – let's see what kind of hell Dawn can make my life, as she tries to make it better! I might be taking you up on your offer by this time next week.”
Spike smirked, feeling absurdly pleased at Xander's daft display of affection. Satisfied, he rolled over to face the window, and fell asleep.
Xander lay in bed for a few minutes before remembering that the bathroom he'd been so quick to reject was meant for more urgent tasks than undressing in. When he returned he looked down, for a while, at his unexpected bed-fellow. He shook his head in disbelief; he found the situation strangely soothing. How weird was that? He slid back into bed and soft sheets draped arms of cotton around him; Spike's immobile form sleeping the sleep of the just – as were his just deserves – was a reassuring bulwark against the night. Within minutes, Morpheus had claimed him and all his dreams, for once, were good.
“Oy, wake up you lazy sod – rise and shine!”
“Wha' huh?” Xander snuffled into consciousness and wiped away a sliver of drool that was snaking down his chin.
“Come on, out of your pit. And who's this poor, bloody Jim bloke you bin calling all the names under the sun since I've been prodding you awake? Used to be his job, huh? He sounds like a right task master.”
Xander stared dumbly at the grinning idiot, freshly washed and fully dressed, who stood before him. What the hell was a vampire doing acting so lively at this time of the morning? And what the hell time of the morning was it?
“It's time to go, O Travel-lagged One. The car's got vampire-proof glass but I got to get into it before the sun reaches it. Next time, pick a hotel with underground parking.”
Xander grunted and hauled himself into the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, still damp from the shower, glass eye gleaming, and shaved following the rules of the hit-and-miss school of barbering, he poured himself into fresh clothes from his overnight bag and started to feel almost awake. “What about breakfast? Coffee. I need coffee. Feed me coffee.”
“No problem – just get your arse moving in that direction.” Spike held the door open and nodded down the corridor. “I recommend the Full English. You'll like the Full English.”
Xander did enjoy the Full English and admitted as much as they were, eventually, barrelling down the M4. A low, early-morning sun was pouring in through the back window, highlighting a vampire's incredibly resistant head of bright blond hair.
“I've wondered what you'd look like in sunshine. Never thought to actually see it,” remarked Xander. “At least,” he said with an evil grin, “not for more than a few seconds!”
“Oy! I've done more than my fair share of burning up in sunlight. Only right I should get to enjoy some. Even if it is only through specially tempered glass. And,” Spike's evil grin was professional level compared to Xander's, “I've wondered how you'd enjoy black pudding. Now I know, and you obviously do! Doubt that you knew what you were eating, of course.”
“Black pudding? What those slices of lumpy stuff with white fatty bits and red splodges?” Xander's eyes were wide with innocence and glinting with jubilant mockery. “Yeah, we used to have something much the same in the bush. You'd like it – made with goat's blood.”
Spike's face fell and Xander laughed. “Oh, man, you've got to go a lot farther than that to get me these days. You wouldn't believe the things I've had to eat to keep body and soul together. Though I drew the line at chimp. A bit of good, old-fashioned pigs'-blood black-pudding aint nothin'!”
“An expert on old fashioned English cuisine, now, are you?” Spike was sulking but only because he was trying hard. He was rather enjoying this new, world-wise Xander.
“My friend Jim studied at Oxford and was well into local foodstuffs while he was there. His family runs a hotel back in Kenya and, since he's been helping out there, their Olde Englishe Black Pudding is riding high on the list of must-haves among the ex-pats.”
“Oh, yes. Jim. So, any story there?” Spike raised a quizzical eyebrow and looked interested. “Don't tell me Willow gayed you up, after all.”
“Jim.” Xander's face softened as he thought of the man.
For a brief moment Spike wondered what it would be like to see that expression and know that it was himself, Spike, whom Xander was thinking about. He denied the thought immediately and tuned back in to what Xander was saying, keeping his eyes resolutely on the road.
“He was a damn good friend when I needed one. We helped each other. He's one of the good guys.” Xander's reply was affable but bland and guaranteed that Spike was getting no more than these necessary basics.
There was, however, something about the laconic explanation that told Spike much more than Xander intended. But then, Spike had always had a prurient imagination and a dirty mind to go with it. He dipped his head. “They're out there, the good guys. Sometimes.” The image of Fred, firmly on his side and determined on finding a way to make him corporeal, came irresistibly to his mind. He breathed in deeply. “I'm glad you found one when you needed him.”
Silence fell and Xander found himself nodding off. The soft sibilance of tyres on tarmac was soothing. That, along with the heavy breakfast he had eaten and the gentle motion of the car connived at lulling him back to sleep.
When he awoke his eyes were gritty and his shoulders ached from being held in one position for a couple of hours. The silence, however, had long gone. Spike was swearing - a rowdy and continual stream of obscenity directed at the traffic that was holding up their progress. They had arrived in Bath and every motorist in the city was out to get him.
“Hey, it's pretty! It's just like in the movies.”
“You back with us, then? See what I mean? If I'd remembered to set the sat-nav we could have avoided all this and gone via the hidden by-ways that Ripper and Pryce keep urging on to me. Then, joy of fucking joys, we could be fighting for road space with some bolshy bloody farmer driving his tractor in front of us at five miles an hour up the middle of a lane spraying us with bloody cow shit. Can't fucking win. I knew the bike would have been better.”
“If you've got sat-nav, why do you keep getting lost?”
“Keep forgetting to use the bloody thing, don't I?”
Xander gazed around with interest, at the pale, old buildings, some dirty and dark with ages-old smoke and blackened from exhaust fumes, some recently cleaned, their soft honey-coloured stone glowing in the sunshine. He had done some reading-up about his new home and Jim, who had spent a summer at a Roman dig just outside the town, had added extra nuggets of knowledge. “So, did you use to come and 'take the waters' with all the Regency rakes?” His delighted grin followed Spike's scowl, as night did day.
“Bloody hell, how old do you think I am? Course I didn't. Though Angelus and Darla were wont to dally around here, back in the day. Hear Her Nibs prattling about it, you'd think she'd actually got to eat Jane Austen herself.”
An energetic haul at the steering wheel, following signs to Wells, and suddenly they were in a lightly trafficked street with the promise of countryside at the end of it. The buildings fell back abruptly and all that could be seen for the next mile or so, were high hedges surrounding the rumours of grand houses set in large grounds. Then they too were gone and all around were the gently rolling hills of Somerset, welcoming and verdant in the languid autumn sunlight.
“You know, when I first realised that not only was the Bishop of Bath and Wells a real personage but that I was going to be living in the area, I couldn't believe it. I really thought that someone was having some big joke on me. I mean come on, the baby-eating bishop of Bath and Wells? Jim was a great friend but he had a mean line in mocking, I found out. The bastard! We're talking Black Adder, here, damn it! I'm supposed to know that the bishop guy was real? Well, at least, that the position, or whatever it's called, is real. It's a bit like finding out that Scotty's running the local auto shop, you know?”
“The office is real enough but I think the baby-eating was an exaggeration. Perhaps Angelus dressed up in his clericals one night, when they were here. That's the sort of thing that starts rumours.” Spike raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips, nodding in satisfaction at the notion.
Xander groaned and refused to listen to any more of Spike's slanderous (he hoped) pondering on the matter.
A while later they crested the top of a hill and he saw, across the valley, a glorious, vast, old house which, tumbling down the lower slopes of a small hill, seemed to grow out of the surrounding countryside. Its eccentric mix of styles were apparent even to him. Delighted at the sight, he was about to ask Spike if he knew anything about it, when Spike interrupted his thoughts to say, “Behold! Your new home – the ancestral abode of the gentlemanly Gileses.”
“You're kidding! That's Giles' house? I was expecting something... like... not... nothing like... but this! Holy Crap! That is a serious hunk of abodeage!”
Unexpectedly, Spike found himself laughing with unguarded glee at this utterance of almost-forgotten Sunnydale speak and a metaphoric weight, he didn't know he still carried, sloughed off his metaphysical shoulders.
Another half mile and the house disappeared out of sight as they dipped into a shady copse which straddled the road. When they left the trees behind, a set of wrought-iron gates came into view, guarding the access to a long, winding drive above which, in the distance, could be seen the distinctive Elizabethan chimneys and a bit of roof.
Spike fumbled in the door pocket for a remote device which he poked, stabbing it in the direction of a sensor on the gate post. The gates grandly and ponderously opened inwards.
Through hell and high water, Xander had survived to come, at last, to Raven's Abbot.
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