Summary: Spike apologises. Xander feels obliged.
Setting/spoilers: vague references to season sevenish, maybe projected a little into the future. Didn't start off as an AU, but it ended up that way.
Pairing: Xander/Spike sort of, with mentions of Xander/Anya
Disclaimer: none is mine, unfortunately. I'll put them back when I'm done.
Feedback: if you love it or hate it I'd love to know what you think.
Author's notes: This is a weird one. I didn't quite know where I was going with it when I started. I just kept writing and hoped I'd find an ending. I think I found one, but I may just have tried to be too clever for my own good, so don't get upset if the whole thing falls flat on its face. And, err, if all that hasn't put you off... on to the fic!
Beta: thanks to Edibbea and Spikebot for their valued opinions!
I was lying in a burned out basement
With the full moon in my eyes.
I was hoping for replacement
When the sun burst through the sky.
~ Prelude: After the Goldrush
It had been a long, uneventful day, stretching out endlessly before him as the minutes slowly ticked past like hours. He had become a robot, using his hands and his body to carry out the tasks required of him, while his mind was elsewhere, always elsewhere. He thought of many things, seeing the past through a comforting blanket of calm disassociation. He was Xander Harris. The same Xander Harris who had lived on the hellmouth most of his life. The same Xander Harris who had been possessed, on more than one occasion. The same Xander Harris who had fought vampires, bested demons, bedded women that mere mortal men could only dream of, and, on occasion, he had also saved the world.
But no one here knew about that. He doubted if anyone here cared. In space no one can hear you scream, but they were bound to notice if you failed to check the connections on the circuit boards that sailed past you in a never-ending stream of silicon and jutting, naked wires. This was his job, such as it was. He was a cog in the machine, a seat on a conveyor belt, where the end product was a toy angel, dressed in a white toga, complete with little golden halo. The angel flapped its wings, walked in a shuffling two-step, sang catchy little songs and told fortunes, to about the same standard as a magic 8-ball. Xander never got to see the wings flap. He made the singing and the fortune telling possible, but never got to stick the miniature plastic heads onto the miniature plastic bodies. A cog in the machine. A ghost of the robot.
The irony was not lost on him.
He had become used to the work required of him, at this point simply waiting and trusting in the promotion he hoped was coming. Had to be coming. It was only a matter of time. The staff turnover in this place was a slow but steady trickle, but Xander was in it for the long haul. So, he figured, it was only a matter of time.
Turns out that only having one eye plays havoc with your depth perception. Not so good when you're clambering over scaffolding several stories high. So no more construction work for Xander. Now it was back to the mundane jobs he'd always imagined... expected for himself.
Today, as per usual, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. This place was nothing if not monotonous; a slave to the time-clock. So he had ghosted through the hours, unfocused and unaware of the time passing, performing delicate operations with an ease born of endless practice. The day seemed to last forever and a day, but at last it was over, and he was released, finally free to go home.
He punched out with a private smile, leaving the other drones chained to their posts, and exited the large, nondescript, pale grey building. He headed across the deserted parking lot, searching his pockets for his keys. The keys that opened the different parts of his life. Home. Car. Mailbox. Magic Shop. Parents' house -- not that he ever used that one. All neatly contained in the unique pieces of crafted metal in his pocket. He paused, thumbing the ridged length of the largest key still inside his pocket -- his car key. It was good that he finally had a car again. A real car, with optional extras and noticeably lacking in rust patches. The wipers didn't even squeak. For a job well done, he had told himself at the time. Xander smiled. Maybe good things really did come to those who waited. God knows he'd waited long enough.
He slipped the key smoothly into the lock and opened the door. The seat was comfortable, already adjusted to his height, and the door closed with a reassuringly solid -thunk- behind him. Out of habit, Xander touched the rear view mirror before starting the engine.
There was no one on the street in front of him. There was nothing approaching on the road on either side and the way ahead was clear, the only cars safely parked by the side of the road, well out of his way, even if he couldn't tell exactly how far away they were.
Caution: objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are.
Score two for the lack of depth perception. His left eye was aching. He resisted the urge to take off his eye patch so he could rub the achy tiredness away. It was pointless. There was nothing there to rub.
With the cold sun low in the sky, he pulled out of the empty lot and started his drive home. Anya would probably still be waiting for him. At least he hoped she was. He didn't want to miss her. There had been too many disappointments in that department already.
He reached home in record time and pulled smoothly into the driveway. The sound of music and laughter met his ears even before he'd opened the back door. There were clothes lying across the backs of chairs in the living room, tried on once and quickly discarded. Scant women's clothes; scraps of cloth that sparkled and ran through his fingers like water. Party clothes. A series of half-empty glasses adorned the coffee table, their rims smeared a little with lipstick, alongside a number of abandoned cosmetic bags spilling their contents. Music blared from the stereo in the living room and Xander turned it down as he passed by.
Footsteps came running down the stairs and he saw Willow, followed by Anya and then Buffy, wide, breathless smiles on each of their faces. He knew, without having to ask, that they'd been in the bedroom, admiring themselves in the full-length mirror Anya kept there.
'Hello ladies,' he said, nodding in a gentlemanly fashion as he passed on his way to the kitchen.
There was no immediate reply as the girls bounced to the floor, speechless with laughter as they made a beeline straight for their abandoned cocktails.
Good. This was good. It was good to be home and it was good to see Anya having fun with Willow and Buffy. They were all his girls and he liked to see them playing nice. They had a party to go to this evening and they had come to pick Anya up and take her along with them. They were making an effort. Being young again. Being girly. Being almost... neighbourly. Anya was tough, and she was hard, but it was only a shell, worn to protect her from the world. Inside she was fragile. He knew her better than she thought. She needed this. It was hard for her to accept, and to be accepted, but maybe things were starting to change for her. For all of them. It was long past due.
They rushed by him, too caught up in their whirlwind of costume changes, make up applications and pre-party cocktails to leave space in their hectic preparations for exchanging pleasantries, so Xander retired to the kitchen and did what any real man would do in the face of such unbridled girlish activities. He hid.
'So - good day at work?' Willow asked, while simultaneously scrunching up her nose and shaking her head at Buffy's choice of lip-gloss.
'Uniform, unchanging, with a mildly samey period around lunch,' he called, his head stuck in a cupboard, habitually looking for cookies that today he just didn't really have an appetite for. 'Just work, y'know? Seemed to go on forever.'
'Same old, same old,' said Anya with a wise nod.
'It always is,' said Willow, sharing a conspiratorial smile with Anya as together they decisively handed Buffy a paler shade of pink.
'Right. That's it. We are, officially, hot,' Buffy announced, pouting her shiny lips as she snapped her compact shut, finally satisfied with her appearance. 'What do you think?' She turned this way and that for their approval.
'I think that I'd have to agree with you,' he called from the doorway. If there was a wistful hint in his smiling appraisal of her, no one in the room caught it.
Anya and Willow grinned their agreement as the three girls critically examined one another.
Xander smiled, and moved his body behind the door, so he could watch surreptitiously though the crack as his girls laughed and primped and sipped their drinks through lipstick-stained straws.
'You ready to hit the road?' asked Buffy.
'I'm ready.' Anya nodded, wearing that expression Xander knew all too well. The one when she was trying her level best to be happy even though she was anything but. Even now, she was still so easy to read.
'Anya?' said Willow, a hint of innocent concern in her voice. Willow always did have a knack for seeing what others missed.
'I'm good, really.' Anya shrugged, just the tiniest lift of her shoulders. 'It's just...'
'You don't want to go without Xander?' Willow's voice was soft, almost a whisper, and Xander had to strain to hear her.
Anya sat on the edge of the couch, and Xander was alarmed to see tears in her eyes. 'It's not that,' she insisted, her voice wavering slightly as it lowered to a whisper. 'It's just... I mean, he used to take me everywhere, and now...'
I'm busy, Xander's mind insisted. I can't be expected to do everything with you. Some of us mere mortals have to work the crappy jobs. Crappy jobs where having depth perception isn't a prerequisite. That way lies promotion, and I'd rather not be the butt monkey for the rest of my natural born life if at all possible. Excuse me for not being Mr. Perfect.
Meanwhile, his heart reached out to her. Anya, baby, don't be sad. I'm sorry I can't come tonight. I'd rather be with you than working another early shift, you know that.
Concerned, he watched as Buffy and Willow shared a look, and sat either side of Anya on the couch ready to give tissues and comfort should they be required.
'You know that he'd come with us if he could,' Buffy said, running a soothing hand over Anya's shoulder. 'He'd love this.' She looked again at Willow. 'Scooby night out. For the whole gang.'
'Definitely,' agreed Willow. 'He'll be with us in spirit. You can't spend all your time here alone. You deserve a night out for some fun. And there'll be boogying!'
'Absolutely,' Buffy nodded, smiling a little as she saw Anya look up hopefully. 'Fun to be had of the dancing variety; side order of boogying. With maybe one or two icy beverages along the way.'
'Yes. Yes, you're right.' Anya gave an airy little sigh. 'You're usually right.'
'Of course we are,' said Willow.
'Yes. Except for all those times you've been wrong.'
'Hmm.' Buffy frowned, then reconsidered, her smile smoothing the frown lines away as she caught Willow's eye over the top of Anya's head. 'Y'know, I think the girl just might have a point.'
Cheeriness recaptured, the girls gathered their things and picked up tiny purses, giggling as they finished off their cocktails.
'Time to go. Look out Sunnydale, here we come,' grinned Buffy as she slipped on her jacket, getting only slightly tangled in the sleeves as she headed towards the door.
'Anya, we're leaving without you!' called Willow as she ran out the door.
'See you later guys,' Xander called.
'Bye!' called Willow, already halfway to the street.
'See you later,' said Buffy, hot on her heels. 'Anya! We mean it, we're really leaving!'
Happy to finally have the peace and quiet to himself, Xander left the confines of the kitchen, only to be brought to a halt in the middle of the living room at the sight of Anya. She stood with her hand on the door, a sad little smile on her face.
'Bye, Xander,' she said. 'I love you.'
Giving her what he hoped was a smile cheerful enough to chase away whatever worries were bothering her about him not joining her that evening, he waggled his fingers at her.
'Bye Anya, have a good time. I love you, too.'
The door closed.
Dreams of fire and voices. There's smoke everywhere, choking him. He can't breathe, can't see. The patch keeps getting in the way. It's too big, covering his face, it wants to blind him, the elastic cutting his skin, and it's smothering him.
I can smell burning.
He can hear them calling his name. Shouting and screaming for him. For help. Dying for him -- except they don't -- but they would, you know. They said they would, once upon a time. But there's nothing he can do. They're all going to die here, and there's nothing he can do because there's nothing to fight. Only the smoke and the flames and there's nothing he can do.
This time he's going to lose.
Xander, be careful. The floor doesn't look safe.
Trapped in a room in a building he doesn't recognise. Backed into a corner by a demon with no face. So there is something to fight, except he can't, because he's afraid, frozen to the spot and he's so scared he just might lose control and wet his pants. Wouldn't that just be the best thing to do? Go out in a blaze of glory, cowering in a corner, with his own piss running down his legs.
That doesn't make any sense, because Glory isn't here. Maybe Caleb chased her away. No, that's not it. She's dead, has been for a long time. There's only Xander here. Xander and the fire.
No! No, it's too hot! Go back.
And it's getting closer.
He woke, sitting bolt upright in his own bed, the sheets cold and damp and clingy with sweat. One brief, hot shower (that did nothing to chase away the chill) later, and he got dressed again. He picked clothes up from where he had left them folded neatly on the chair by the window, not knowing, not registering why he was getting dressed. He paced up and down in the darkness, cracking his knuckles until they hurt. He was restless, and couldn't shake the uneasy, clammy feeling from his skin. A decision made, and he grabbed his patch from the bedside table, hesitated, then lifted his keys, too. It was too claustrophobic. He had to get out of the house. He moved quickly, purposefully, wanting to feel the night air on his skin.
Outside, the pressure lifted from his skin like a veil, and the decision was made to walk instead of drive. Driving required too much concentration these days, especially at night, and besides, nothing pulls you out of a nightmare inspired funk faster than a little vampire attack. It felt like he was hardly ever outside these days, anyway. Always at home, sleeping, or cooped up inside in the factory where they mass-produced angels day and night. Night and day. Might just put God out of business one of these days if orders kept up.
After being inside for so long, he wanted to be out.
He fingered the stake in his pocket. No paid up member of the Slayerette little leagues should ever leave home without it.
The town was quiet. Dark. Spooky. Somehow Sunnydale always seemed to be so much more menacing, so much more impending, so much more when he was out by himself. In the daytime it was easy to forget. Lost in the ever-decreasing circle of his friends it was easy. But at night... at night he could feel it. Under his skin, it was there. Prowling. Uneasy. He understood, perhaps better than anyone else, he understood.
Having Buffy there to hide behind, or munching on a bag of chips with Willow on patrol were still dangerous things, but in a way that could be dealt with. Acceptable risks. Shelved and happily ignored and dealt with only when the situation warranted it. Then he was strictly back up. His girls did most of the fighting. Slaying, magic, vengeance. Their department.
When he was alone in Sunnydale, he walked tall. His eyes-- his eye and ears took in more. He was aware of his surroundings and the potential dangers that lurked all around him. Dangers here meant your life was for the taking any night of the week.
Dangers just like the game-faced vampire currently staring at him from across the street.
Xander froze; every fibre of his body suddenly alert. His hand went to his pocket, feeling the solid length of the stake that might just become necessary if he was going to live through the night. There was cold, hard fear inside of him, burning an icy line through his torso, leaving a bitter taste of adrenaline in his mouth. There were much worse things than dying; this was another valuable lesson to be learned.
For the longest moment the two stared at each other. Waiting.
Xander wore an expression of fear. Fear tinged with both weary acceptance and the knowledge that he wouldn't be an easy meal for this vamp. He'd faced worse odds and always walked away. True the last really big evil that they faced Xander lost an eye, but he was still standing when that big evil was nothing but dust in the wind.
He could take a vampire. The fear faded a little as his hand closed around the stake. He knew he could take a vampire.
The vampire blinked, hollow amber eyes snapping off and on like a camera lens. It tilted its head to one side, sniffing the air, and Xander's chest tightened, muscles clenching. The vampire stood there, a demon dressed in jeans and black boots and a faded Metallica t-shirt. The bottom half of a tattoo peeped out from under one sleeve. The vampire shifted his weight. Xander swallowed in anticipation. How did he keep on killing these creatures that were so damn like humans, anyway? How did he keep right on-- No. No more philosophising. No more comparisons to Angel, or to Anya, or to Willow, or to Spike -- especially to Spike -- no more wondering if somehow he could have helped Jesse, or the skanky vamp Willow, or god, even Harmony. No more. It was better just to kill them, to put everyone out of their misery rather than talking them to death. No jokes, no regret. No guilt. Just dust.
With a look of disgust, the vampire snarled its disinterest with a shake of its head and walked away, melting effortlessly into the shadows. Xander was left alone with only his fiercely beating heart and the bitter tang of the fear in his mouth. He stood, staring after the vampire. He was tired, but nothing could hurt him. Not tonight. Nothing ever had. Not really. Broken bones, cuts and bruises, the occasional eye?
He shook himself out of it and walked in the opposite direction, with many glances over his shoulder to make sure that he wasn't being followed.
It wasn't to be the only vampire he met that night.
Somewhere a lot closer to the bad side of town and Xander checked his watch. It was almost three. The girls would probably be on their way home by now, more than likely worried if they didn't find him safe and sound asleep in bed. Anya would wait up for him, perhaps a little worried, perhaps a little frisky after her night of cocktails and dancing. He was cold and the thought of her warmth was intoxicating. He knew he should probably go to her. If he closed his eye he could see her. She would be pink and hot and breathless, and maybe she would bring home to him the scent of sweat and smoke and the other bodies she had been dancing with, but he didn't turn around. He kept walking, letting his feet lead him where they wanted. His feet didn't lead him home, and that was apparently okay. The decision was out of his hands.
With a start, he realised where they were taking him. Towards his house.
Correction: towards his parents' house.
He stood on the road in front of the old house, looking up at it. He hadn't been by in a while, but then they hadn't called in a while. Or ever. He skirted around the back, his breath loud in his ears, trying to keep to the shadows, walking silently on the grass. He didn't know why he was here, but since he was, he had a sudden urge to look in the tiny window that opened into his basement to see what they had done with it since he had left. He had to lie on his stomach in the long grass to get level with the window, wriggle around and bend his neck awkwardly, but the view was somehow worth the discomfort. It was surprising, but his room was exactly the same. Nothing had been changed since the last time he saw it. Nothing. There was the same box of comics he had left behind and had been meaning to go by and pick up forever. There was the uncomfortable bed, unwashed sheets still adorning its mattress.
It was like being given a pass to step back in time, and then told that you couldn't touch anything. He lay there for a long time, looking at the last dregs of his childhood. Looking at the spot where he'd first seen Anya naked. The bed he'd lain in when Giles had come to see him, wearing the body of a demon and looking for help. The washing machine he'd tried to drown a different demon in after Willow's best-forgotten will-be-done spell. Looking at the chair he'd tied Spike up in. Looking at the meagre possessions that were once so precious to him because they were all that he had.
It all didn't mean as much as he thought it would.
He eventually got up, dusted himself off and walked away. No backward glances. It was time to go home. But things on the hellmouth are rarely that simple, so when he rounded the corner, and tripped over a pair of outstretched legs, it was harder to say who was most surprised.
Spike scrambled to his feet, kicking an empty bottle of bourbon away in the process, holding onto the wall for some much needed support. 'Is-is is that really you?'
'Of course it's me,' Xander hissed, glancing up towards his parent's bedroom window, praying that the light wouldn't suddenly come on, signalling their discovery.
'But?' Xander gestured impatiently for him to hurry up and spit it out.
'But... why are you here? Have you come to punish me?'
'Punish you? What? Why, what have you been doing?' Xander took a step back and looked the vampire up and down. Spike's eyes were hooded and bloodshot and he seemed to be trembling slightly as he held on to the wall for balance. Xander didn't miss the two other empty whiskey bottles lying on the ground at the vampire's feet, clinking as Spike's restless feet nudged them together.
'Uh, Spike? Not that it isn't nice to see you, because it isn't, but why are you getting drunk outside my house?'
Spike seemed terribly worried about the right way to answer this, his eyes wide and lost. His eyebrows were too dark for his face; white blond hair and even whiter skin making him glow in the darkness. Under Xander's watchful eye, the vampire recovered himself a little, swiping purposefully at his mouth with the back of his hand and drawing himself up to his full height. He blinked and blinked and blinked again until he seemed to come back to himself and that well-worn cocky expression appeared. The expression that Xander loved to hate.
Xander opened his mouth to argue with this, but decided that he couldn't be bothered, and that he really didn't want to be here. Perhaps it was time to leave. Suddenly his warm bed and even warmer Anya seemed like a much better idea that arguing with a drunken Spike in the wee small hours of the morning on the wrong side of town.
'Fair enough, Spike. See ya around.'
Spike crumpled against the wall and let it hold him up for a moment. His eyes unfocused and there was a look of pure misery on his face.
'Fair enough,' he whispered, then let out a disparaging breath of humourless laughter. 'I'm a fairy. My name is Nuff. Fairy Nuff.'
'What?' Xander froze in uncomfortable surprise, a mocking smile half-formed on his lips, wondering if he could really just have heard those ridiculous words leave Spike's mouth. 'What did you just say?'
Spike raised his head, a strange tangle of emotion laid bare in his eyes for Xander to see. It should have been funny, seeing Spike like this, hearing him spout drunken nonsense, and Xander usually enjoyed nothing more than to enjoy a laugh at the intoxicated vampire's expense, but he didn't. Somehow, it wasn't funny this time. Spike used pale, shaking hands to push himself off the wall, and he tested his legs, putting his weight on one, then the other to see if they would support him. He swayed alarmingly before righting himself.
'Fairies can't help me with this one,' he said sombrely. 'Very unreliable sorts fairies. Always popping up where they're not wanted, see.'
Xander's expression warped into something resembling incredulity. 'Okaaay. That one was for all you crazy people out there. And on that note--'
Xander turned on his heel and walked away.
He hadn't got farther than a few feet when he heard the irregular thump thump of Spike's boots jogging to catch up with him. Spike fell into step beside him, choosing to walk on Xander's left side. His blind side. It was with a strange sense of relief that Xander knew he wouldn't have to see the white blond hair trailing along like an apparition beside him. The footsteps, however, were a constant reminder that he wasn't alone.
'Go away, Spike.'
'I'm not in the mood. Go away.'
They turn a corner and a blast of whiskey fumes introduced itself to Xander's nose on the cool night air.
'Wait, wait, it's important, see. I need a favour.'
'Oh really.' Xander snorted softly. 'A favour? Why the hell would I want to do you a favour?'
Spike hooked his thumbs through his belt loops, then had to rethink the manoeuvre because it threw his already precarious balance off. 'Cause I asked nicely and I really need it.'
Knowing, knowing, that he was going to regret it, Xander slowed to a halt, and without looking at the vampire asked, 'What? What's so important? What do you need?'
It was a long moment filled with tiny, distant nighttime noises before Spike built up the courage to answer.
A muscle clenched in Xander's cheek. 'We'd better not be talking about what I hope we're not talking about. You get me?'
Spike burst out laughing at this. A little too loud, a little too hysterical, a little too eager. He finally caught Xander's eye and the laughter stopped more abruptly than it had begun.
'No, mate, nothin' like that. Jus' need you to come somewhere with me. I'm skint and I need some blood.' He patted his stomach. 'Haven't eaten in a while.'
'Yet you have enough money for booze,' Xander said with distaste, shoving his hands further into his pockets as he resumed walking. He didn't care if Spike was hungry, didn't care if the clothes Spike was wearing hung off him like a shroud, didn't care that the duster had gone missing and Spike looked strangely smaller without it wrapped around him like a shield against the world. He gritted his teeth as Spike caught up again a moment later, falling into a shuffling step beside him as they crossed the road.
'What? That?' Spike gestured back in the general direction of the Harris residence with his thumb. 'Nah. That stuff I can nick. It's a bit harder trying to steal blood if you can't fight for it. And I can't.' He raised his hand halfway to his head, then caught himself and let it drop again. 'Can't fight anyone these days.'
'These days? Spike, these days you can fight anyone you want. No chip, remember? Now all that holds you back is that pesky soul. So go on, go kick some ass. Steal some blood. Kill a couple of innocents. Go wild.' Xander sneered in disgust. 'Ooh, or here's a novel idea: you could get a job and stop mooching off of us.'
'Can't fight.' Spike shook his head slowly. 'Can't work. Don't work. Like clockwork, 'cept I don't.' He looked up and realised that he was falling behind, and jogged a few uneven paces to catch up. 'But, see, I have a source,' he said, as though divulging a great secret.
'A source,' repeated Xander. 'Why do I think that this may be a source of ill repute?'
''Cause you'd be right.'
'Oh. Well in that case...' Xander stopped again and looked Spike in the eye. 'My answer is no. Not a chance. No way, no how. Go away, piss off, go and... bugger yourself, or something else uncomfortable and Britishy.'
'Oh.' Spike stared at him until it got embarrassing and dropped his gaze. Xander watched Spike staring at his unsteady feet, not knowing why he couldn't think up another insult for the vampire, or even simply turn and walk away.
'Oh,' Spike finally said again, his body never quite ceasing its drunken tendency to continually drift and then suddenly jerk and right itself. 'Yeah. You're pro'ly right. You usually are when it comes right down to it. Not intentional, though. An instinct, like.' He gave a little nod. 'Sorry then. Truly.' He glanced up again and there was more in the tiny look than Xander wanted to see. But it confused him. He didn't understand what had been reflected back at him in those glassy blue eyes. 'I am. Sorry, I mean. For... well, y'know. Guess I'll be off then.'
Xander watched him walk away, recrossing the street, and disappearing back around the corner. He waited until the heavy footsteps had blended away to he looked down at his own sneakers, lifting a foot and kicking his toe viciously into the concrete.
'Crap.' Another kick. 'Crap. Why did he have to apologise?'
Shaking his head, and knowing implicitly that this was a bad idea, Xander began retracing his footsteps, following the direction Spike had walked in.
It was a couple of streets past his old house and that little bit closer to the worst part of the bad side of town before Xander caught up with him again. Spike was meandering over the pavement, muttering under his breath. It wasn't until he stopped in front of a large detached house with boarded up windows that his mutterings finally ceased. Xander paused a few feet away, watching Spike stare unblinkingly up at the house, not sure what he should do now.
'You came then?' Spike asked without moving, without giving any indication that he had known Xander was there at all. 'Thought you might.'
'Yeah.' Xander shifted his weight, running his thumb absently over the stake in his pocket. 'I've been here before.'
It sounded like a question.
Spike looked sideways at him. 'Is that supposed to be a joke?'
Xander frowned, trying to remember when he'd been here before, because he was having trouble remembering. But something was teasing at the edge of his memory, dancing just out of his reach. 'If it is it's not one of my funniest.' He shifted his weight. 'Say, Spike?'
'I'm just curious. When exactly did you go completely insane... uh... again?'
Spike didn't answer. An odd little smile appeared on his face, so Xander looked up at the house, too, wondering what was so fascinating about it.
'In there? What the hell for?'
'Because it's there.'
'No. The house.'
Xander eyed him curiously. 'Seriously. Are you crazy? ... Crazier?'
Spike shrugged. 'Maybe. Craziness is a state of mind. You know that.' He cast an interested glance in Xander's direction. 'So why did you come?'
'Because...' Xander gritted his teeth again. 'I came because you apologised, fool that I am. And because you look like you've spent some quality time in a concentration camp.' Xander tilted his head. 'Drunk in a concentration camp.'
'I'm not being literal.' He can't help but smirk at the thought of a practising Jewish vampire. This lead him to some unpleasant thoughts about Willow -- about the once Willow and nevermore to be -- and he dropped the line of thought.
'Didn't know you cared.'
'I don't. I'm just... You do realise you're doing a damn good job of talking me out of this?'
Spike smiled, but it was empty and didn't quite reach his eyes. He walked up the short path to the front of the house and pushed open the door. The interior of the house was dark. The walls were charred and marked with billowing, black smoke stains. Xander's lip curled in disrelish, his reluctance to enter the house obvious.
'You coming?' Spike asked without looking back. 'Last chance.'
Hands still deep in his pockets, Xander looked up at the front of the house. He watched with a crinkle of a frown as Spike knocked on the door, like he actually expected someone to answer. 'Thanks. Think I'll pass.'
'So be it,' said Spike, and stepped inside.
So apparently there was no one who still called this shell of a building home. Xander stood, the night cold around him. He was freezing, but couldn't see his breath in the air. Completely alone, he stared up at the house. What on earth was Spike playing at this time? Spike's little solo adventures seldom made any sense at the time. It was only afterwards that Xander could piece them together, and then usually with a litany of mocking and finger pointing and liberal threats of staking.
There were voices coming from inside the house, so faint that Xander could barely hear them. He wasn't sure if it was just Spike talking to himself, or if there was actually someone else in there. He waited, wondering if the faint voices he could hear were engaged in animated discussion, or had they crossed over that invisible line into heated argument? The voices were carried on the light breeze that didn't even seem to ruffle his hair.
I can smell burning.
Be careful, the floor doesn't look safe.
Cursing his stupidity with every step, he walked slowly to the overshadowed door, walking on the outsides of his feet to try and make less noise.
'I can't believe I'm about to do this,' he said aloud as he frowned at the prospect of entering the building.
The door was still open.
Holding out a hesitant hand, he paused, contemplated knocking, then thought about just walking in, then thought about knocking again. Neither option held much appeal. In the end, his decision was made for him. There was laughter. Cruel laughter, just a shade too hysterical to be completely sane. And there was Spike's voice. Words ran into one another, too muted to make it past the invisible barrier of the door to Xander's straining ears, but the voice was unmistakable.
The barely audible voice -- voices? -- inside the house stopped and then there was a shout. More of a yelp, really. Spike's yelp. And before he knew it, Xander was inside the house and halfway up the rickety stairs, trying not to get soot on his clothes. His senses were hit by the rich cut of smoke in the back of his throat and the smell of wet, burnt wood, much worse than it had been outside.
'Spike? Damn it, I'm here. If this was just a ploy to get me to be bait in one of your nefarious schemes I'm going to be very upset. Spike?'
A whisper of movement somewhere behind him. Xander spun around, eye wide but almost blind in the darkness. He needed to get over beside the window, where the thin stream of moonlight floated in through the ragged curtains. At least with the faint light behind him he might stand a chance of seeing more of the room.
Hands outstretched, but crawling at the prospect of actually touching anything in the darkness, he inched his way slowly towards the window.
There were whispers in the darkness. A woman's voice. Then a man's. Unintelligible words, but there was a sense of terrible urgency, a sense of something so bad and Xander had never wanted a flashlight more in his entire life. He took a few deep breaths and tried to tell himself that old houses make weird noises. Especially old burnt-out houses. They made the weirdest noises of all. Creaking wood and ruined skeletons of houses would sound like people talking. Right. Xander blinked hard to try and clear his vision in the darkness. Maybe in Kansas. On the hellmouth, old haunted houses with people whispering in the darkness, generally meant there were actually people whispering in the darkness in old haunted houses.
'I've dealt with worse,' he murmured, sounding braver than he felt.
He found Spike alone, standing in the centre of an upstairs room. It looked like maybe it had once been a nursery. Or maybe a playroom. Not a room that should ever end up looking like this one did. Charred and gutted.
Spike was staring at the far corner, slowly shaking his head. Xander glanced around the room, looking for any immediate hazards. He'd set only one foot inside the door when Spike spoke, making him pause.
'Be careful,' Spike said without turning. 'The floor doesn't look safe.'
'I'm being careful, for your information I--' Xander's head shot up. 'What did you just say?'
Spike glanced back over one shoulder, nonchalant. 'I told you to watch out for the floor. It could give at any minute. Everything's charcoal in here, or hadn't you noticed?'
'Oh no, I noticed, which begs the question: what the hell are we doing here?'
Spikes head swung back around, eyes wide, drawn by something that Xander couldn't see. Whatever it was in the corner must have been entertaining, to say the least, because Xander couldn't regain Spike's attention. Spike was still; fists clenching and unclenching at his sides.
No reaction. Xander swore loudly, and began to inch his way across the floor. It didn't look or feel safe, but it held. A thousand scenarios of ceilings crashing down and buildings collapsing played out in Xander's head with every step, everything he'd learnt about the construction game telling him he was a fool to be here, and through them all one thought rose above the others. He should have stayed at home in bed.
He really should have stayed at home in bed.
Infuriated, Xander grabbed Spike's arms as though to drag the vampire bodily with him. Out of that house and away from this place. Spike jumped, his whole body shuddering, and finally looked at Xander.
'Why are you touching me?' he demanded.
Ready and willing to argue, Xander was annoyed when he had to pause and reconsider the question that had caught him off guard. 'Because you're zoning out on me,' he frowned, his voice insistent. 'Now I really don't think there's any blood here for you, so can we please leave already?'
'But you can't touch me! It's not allowed, in fact, it's not possible.'
'It's very possible,' said Xander, his hands clenched into white fists around Spike's arms.
Spike only shook his head, eyes wide and terrified.
'Spike! Snap out of it! What's going on here?'
'Fine. Forget it. You know what? I've had it with this. You want to stay here, be my guest. Me? I'm going home.'
'Home.' Spike shot him a shaky, sad grin, perplexed. 'Isn't anywhere now. Closest thing I've got, and it's about to be taken away, I'll wager.' He snorted. 'Isn't that always the way?'
'Nuts. You're nuts. This house is nuts. And I'm nuts for coming with you. I'm outta here.' Xander turned to leave.
'Be careful, the floor doesn't look safe.'
For the second time that evening, Xander felt like someone had just slapped him in the face. Halfway out the door, he stopped and turned to look at Spike, anger bubbling just beneath the surface. He stood very still, not moving a muscle, wanting to hear exactly what Spike had to say. 'What did you just say? Why do you keep saying that?'
Spike looked confused. 'It needs to be said. The floor,' Spike pointed at his feet, 'doesn't look safe.' He cocked his head to one side, looking as sane as he'd managed all evening. 'You all right, mate? You look like you've seen a ghost.' Xander opened his mouth to reply, but the words disappeared when a strange emotion passed slowly over Spike's face. Wild, insane laughter danced through his eyes, swept away by a sheen of tears, which were, in turn, blinked furiously away and covered by a frown. 'Watch yourself. I don't want another death on my conscience.'
'Like you care,' shot back Xander lamely.
'I care. I do. S'all I do now. Care.'
Xander shook his head, wishing for all the craziness to go away. Wishing that he'd stayed in bed and waited for Anya to come home. How the hell had he ended up in a condemned house on the wrong side of town with a drunken Spike? This had bad monster movie written all over it, and knowing Xander's luck, he was likely to be the plucky comic relief who always got eaten in the third act.
'What are we doing here, anyway? It doesn't exactly look like a blood bank to me.'
'It's not,' said Spike, frowning in confusion. 'Gave that idea up for lost. This is for you. I thought you wanted to go over it again. Rake over the coals, as it were. Thought that's why you wanted to go in.'
Xander took a deep breath. He gritted his teeth. 'I didn't want to come in. I followed you.'
'Did you knock?' Spike asked.
Xander was unamused at the question. 'Your escort, remember?' Spike looked rather taken aback at this, and took a hesitant step away, as though he was afraid. 'And you thought that I wanted to go over what again?'
'Nothing,' said Spike, taking another step away. 'Nothing. I misunderstood. Thought it was a test or something. Or I was seeing things again. My fault.' He grinned humourlessly. 'Usually is. I should be used to that by now. We can go if that's what you--' He paused, as though something far away had caught his attention, and sniffed the air. 'You smell that?'
Xander's blood ran cold. 'What?'
Xander sniffed. 'No. Nothing.'
'I can smell burning.'
'Spike! The whole fucking house smells like...!' A balloon of anger burst inside Xander's chest. 'That's it! I'm out of here. I've had it with this. Had it with being played with.' He turned and walked towards the door. 'Try and fall on something nice and sharp and wooden on the way out, won't you?'
Spike hung his head at the harsh words, only to have it snap up again at the sound of the door slamming. 'Said I was sorry,' he murmured grumpily.
'I don't care!' shouted Xander, still in the room, heart hammering from the slam. He glared at the door. It had closed behind him without him touching it. 'Did you close that door?'
Spike shook his head. 'Didn't move from this spot.'
'Great!' Xander threw his hands into the air. 'Just great. You've brought me to a fucking haunted house, you-you dead idiot!' Of their own volition, his hands grabbed at Spike again, this time at the front of his tattered shirt, wanting to shake the stupidity out of the vampire.
Spike stared at him. 'Well... yeah,' he said, as though this were the most obvious thing in the world. 'That was the whole point, wasn't it?'
'What point?! Spike!' A shake to emphasis his words. His frustration. 'What are you talking about?'
Spike looked terribly confused as he searched Xander's face. 'You mean... Don't you know?'
A horrible sense of deja vu made Xander shiver. This... this was... He wanted to be out of here. Now. He was alone here. Alone in the dark. It wasn't right. Completely alone here... except for Spike.
I can smell burning.
There was nothing he could do. He could soldier on, fight the good fight, try to save himself, and maybe a few others along the way, but when it came right down to it, he was always alone. Buffy taught him that. She also taught him the value of friendship against all odds. Or maybe it was Willow who taught him that one. Got so it was kind of hard to remember. But he was alone here. That much was obvious. Alone with Spike. Crazy, skinny, drunk Spike. Spike who stood expectantly in the shadows so Xander could just make out the crystal blue eyes like saucers, like cats' eyes, glinting as they stared right back at him in the dark. Looking at him with something akin to awe. Or perhaps it was fear.
'Why did you come back?'
'Too many questions, Spike. Not enough standing around in the scary, haunted dark house time to answer them all. Now I'm...' He sighed, his anger evaporating. Spike could still make him more incensed than possibly anyone he knew, but it was no longer a murderous rage. Usually it fizzled out right about the time the subject of the soul came up. 'Come on,' he said, suddenly tired. 'Let's go.'
But Spike was not to be that easily dissuaded. 'Why did you come back?'
Xander gritted his teeth. 'I told you. Because you apologised.'
Spike seemed to melt in his grip. 'I did.'
'Yeah, you did,' Xander said, getting more exasperated with each passing second. 'Good for you. I'd like to leave now.'
'Seems like as good a time as any.'
Xander blinked when he felt Spike's muscles shift under his grip, cold hands coming up to grip desperately at the front of his shirt, scratching against his stomach in their haste.
'Spike,' Xander shook his head, at a loss, 'what the hell are you on?'
'You can't go yet, Xan-Xander.' Xander wondered in passing why it seemed to take Spike two attempts to say his name. 'I meant it, you know.'
'When I apologised. Don't think the others believed me, but I meant every single blessed word of it. A day hasn't gone by when I didn't mean it.'
Imagining cartoon cuckoo clocks chiming over Spike's head, Xander gave up trying to reason with the vampire to leave this place and tried physically dragging him out. That didn't work either. Whatever Spike was on, or however long he claimed it had been since he last fed, he was still a vampire and still stronger than Xander could ever hope to be.
'Spike,' he said slowly, trying to be calm, trying to talk the vampire down from whatever insanity had got its claws into him this time. 'We need to leave. I have to go home, and this is a bad place.' His expression softened a little and he was shocked to see Spike practically drink this in. 'Come with me.'
'Come with... I can't go with you. It doesn't work that way,' Spike said simply, with real longing in his voice. 'I have to stay behind, see. Have to wait it out and make amends.'
'What the hell is wrong with you?' Xander's hands hurt from clutching so hard at Spike's shirt, balling the material up under his chin. 'Did you get another soul or something?'
Spike laughed again and the sound of it was even worse than his last laugh. 'No. Just the one, thank you very much. Just the one will suffice.'
There it was. That touch of something so very not Spike in that shaking voice. Something so very upper class and proper and ancient enough that it made Xander's head spin. Not the oldest creature he had ever come across, but Xander was a child of the nineties. Spike was a child of the eighteen-nineties and sometimes, when Xander least expected it, this knowledge blindsided him, made him wonder what it would be like to have lifetimes at your fingertips.
He hoped he would never find out.
'Great. Good for you. I'm very happy for you. Now can we please leave?'
'Can't leave.' Shaking his head now, slowly, thoughtfully, his head downcast and ashamed, dragging his chin purposefully, painfully, back and forth across Xander's knuckles. Knuckles that for some unknown reason Xander left where they were. Didn't move them. Took the pain of scraping, barely-there vampire stubble.
'This is where it has to be,' Spike said in a small voice. 'Not my choice, but I don't really have a say.'
Be careful, the floor doesn't look safe.
A low howling wail came from the hallway behind them, safely behind the door that did nothing to alleviate Xander's fears. More voices. The sound of running footsteps. Wood cracking and groaning and breaking under great strain.
Xander swallowed hard and looked at Spike. More than that. Looked into Spike, wanting to know, with no more babbled half-answers, exactly what it was that he had been led into. And, more importantly, if he would be able to simply walk away.
'Spike? What is this place? What's going on?'
Spike trembled in Xander's grasp, looking as though he was about to crumble, as though he wanted nothing more than to simple fold himself into Xander's arms.
In another part of the house a door slammed.
With a grunt of disgust, Xander pushed Spike away from him, grabbed the door handle and it swung open.
Abruptly, the noises in the house stopped. There was only eerie silence left in its wake. Xander peered around the doorframe, but couldn't see anything in the blackness of the hallway. He'd had enough. It was time to leave.
Spike, however, had other ideas.
'Xander! No! Don't go in there. Don't do it!'
No! No, it's too hot. Go back.
Throwing himself across the room, Spike clung desperately to him, making Xander stagger as he tried to support their combined weight. Arms, hands were everywhere, clutching, grabbing -- soothing and petting. Not letting go. Legs were practically wrapped around him, heavy awkward boots hooked around his ankles, behind his knees, threatening to take them both to the floor.
'Don't do it. Please. Please. Don't,' Spike gabbled. There was a wild, terrible desperation in his voice. 'Please, Xander, I'll do whatever you want. I'll do anything to make it right.' Spike clambered up his body like an oversize spider, unnatural strength a solid and scary thing. Xander could have held the weight, but he couldn't keep his balance with Spike's inelegant movements and they stumbled, as one, to the floor, Xander only just managing to get his hands out in time to catch them. 'I'll do anything. Anything you want. Anything you need. Just... don't.'
Lips. God have mercy, there were lips on his throat. Where the blood ran, pumping and hot. Lips. Resting and separating and tasting.
Xander was too stunned to do anything but lie there, half propped up on the wall, half sprawled on the floor under Spike.
Spike's body on his. Trembling and cold, but no colder than he already was; muttering these insane things. Spike was tasting him, testing the limits of the demon he used to be, tasting to reassure. Lips rested on his unbroken skin, moving restlessly as the words fell from Spike like drops of water.
And Xander just lay there.
'Sorry, Xander. Told you that already, didn't I? 'Strue, though, meant it. I did. I'm sorry. Kills me when I think of it. Sorry. I tried, but it wasn't good enough. Never good enough, no matter how hard I try.'
Xander tensed as the lips moved up, ghosting over his chin and getting worryingly close to his own lips. The words never stopped.
'Sorry, Xander, I'm sorry. I'll do anything to make it up to you. Anything you want.'
Xander pushed Spike hard enough that he lifted him right through the air to land a few feet away. Spike landed on his side and quickly scrambled into a hunched crouch, head bowed in a submissive way that Xander found extremely disconcerting.
'What are you doing? What is it that you think I'm going to do that's so bad?'
'I'm sorry. So sorry. I'd didn't mean it. Didn't mean any of it.'
'Any of what?' With trepidation, Xander wiped at his throat. He felt wetness under his fingertips and shuddered at the touch. Spike's saliva rubbed between his fingers. This was so wrong.
'Why didn't you bite me?'
'Why didn't you bite me?'
Spike looked up, still submissive, but genuinely confused. 'What... ever? You never asked me to. I never could.' He tapped hard enough at his temple to make a tock tock sound. 'Then...' The hand at his head drifted down and hovered somewhere over his heart. 'Then I couldn't.'
'No,' Xander rolled to his feet, dropped to a crouch and took Spike by the chin, making the vampire look into his eye. 'I mean now. Why didn't you bite me just now. You're hungry. The chip's gone. You're obviously nutso. Plus mega-drunk. You had me. Why didn't you do it?'
It was obvious that Spike was more confused at the questions than at the way Xander was treating him. More confused than why they were both still in this house that gave both of them more than just a slight case of the creeps.
And Xander just didn't know why he was bothering to ask, instead of just leaving. Why could he never just leave?
'Something's not right here, and I know you know what's going on. Something to do with this house. Now tell me why you didn't bite me.'
'You can tell me,' Xander said forcefully, his anger making Spike wince.
'No, don't mean that. Mean I can't bite you now. Doesn't work that way.'
'Spike,' Xander said in a warning tone.
Spike pouted like a sulky child. 'What? It doesn't.'
'Don't you know? I thought at least that they'd tell you. A man with a clipboard, someone on the other side, you know?'
'What are you talking about?'
'You're...' Spike paused and looked at him. Really looked at him. 'You mean you really don't know?'
Xander was starting to feel the first brushes of cold, panicky fear. 'No, I don't know, Spike,' he said, fighting to keep the alarm out of his voice. 'What's going on?'
'Xander.' Spike moved as though to shuffle forward, then seemed to think better of it and stayed where he was. 'Xander.' Something about the repetition of his name grated against Xander and he wished urgently that he would never have to hear his name pass those pale, dead lips ever again. Never hear it spoken with such sadness. With such reverence.
'Xander. It happened here. Here. In this house.'
All the breath in his body left him in a cold rush. 'What happened?'
'What the fuck happened?'
But it was too late for explanations, because he already knew the answer.
Be careful, the floor doesn't look safe.
I can smell burning.
Xander, be careful. The floor doesn't look safe.
No! No, it's too hot! Go back.
Xander backed away in horror, listening to the sound of a solitary voice chanting. With a start he realised it was his own voice he was listening to.
'Not right. Not true. Can't be real. Not true. You're lying. You're a filthy liar. Filthy fucking dirty cocksucking liar. Not true. Not true. Not true.'
He stopped when his back hit the wall, lips still moving but no sound coming out.
Not right, not true, not my fault, I'm not dead, I'm not a thing. I'm me. I'm Xander. I don't remember any of this.
'You-you brought me back here.'
'Didn't bring you anywhere. You just arrived. Out of the blue. And this place?' Spike shrugged miserably. 'It's my home now. Where I live.'
'You live here now?' His voice was a raspy, airless sigh. Not his own voice at all.
'Yes. Ever since. But...'
Spike hesitated when a light flickered from under the only other door in the room. A faint yellow light, and it distracted him, stealing his attention away from Xander. Slowly, he got to his feet, drawn like a moth by the light.
Spike didn't hear him. He walked to the door and the light grew brighter by the second, breaching the gaps around the door to shine into the room.
Xander didn't care about the light. Didn't care about these precious seconds that were slipping away while Spike gathered his thoughts, chose his words, tried to explain himself. He only wanted to get away. He only wanted none of this to be real. That wasn't so much to ask. So many things before hadn't been real. Why should he have to start now?
It was too late. The door opened, and Spike was lost in the light.
'That's never happened before,' Spike was saying, his voice weaving awe and confusion into one solid mass.
The light flared, reflected in a pair of ancient eyes that glowed like a cat's, and the room imploded under its weight. Xander's head snapped around at the loud intrusion and the light captured him, shining on him, blinding him, until all he could see were the flames, and all he could hear was the roaring of them, and Spike's hoarse screams behind him.
Shortly before dawn, Spike staggered away from the smoking building, the roar of fire and the dying screams still echoing inside his head. There was still an hour before the sun would rise and Spike had to hurry if he wanted to have time.
For Spike had a grave to visit.
Xander had gone again.
Spike had to go and say sorry.
Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun.
There were children crying and banners flying
All around the chosen one.
~ Prelude: After the Gold Rush
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