The painkillers were taking effect and he knew it wouldn't be long until he was on the verge of slipping into unconsciousness. He struggled to hold on, stay awake because when he was awake Spike was there to keep him safe. And he could pretend that it hadn't happened. That he was whole and not damaged. He tightened his grip on Spike's hand, the reciprocal squeeze easing something inside. Knew that even now he wouldn't lose this – that what they had transcended mere physical looks.
Spike sighed and shifted closer to the hospital bed, closer to Xander. He looked so much older. If only he'd been faster. If he'd told her that it wasn't a good idea, that she couldn't take them into what was obviously a trap. But he hadn't – had let his loyalty and the remnants of love lead him astray. He knew the boy would follow her – the White Knight could do no less for his fair Lady, regardless of what his gut was telling him. And as long as the boy was going, he would be there too. But there were too many of them to keep an eye on, too many of them being kicked, punched and beaten and he couldn't be everywhere at once. Couldn't protect them all no matter how he tried.
But the one place he should have been, he wasn't – the one person he was sworn to protect he let down. He heard the priest say something about the boy being the one who sees, saw the movement of his arm as he reached out with his hand, but vamp-speed just wasn't fast enough to prevent what he could see happening. The sound the boy made echoed in his heart as he fell backwards, hands towards his face, protecting his remaining eye. He couldn't even take his revenge, the Slayer in there with her scythe, cutting Caleb down. And he was too late – couldn't save his boy from this.
Stroking his hand through the damp, sweaty strands, he smoothed down a cheek and cupped his boy's face. So beautiful he was – a smile that lit up the darkest places in Spike's heart; love, innocence and trust shining from his eyes despite all that he had seen. But now that eye was full of pain and suffering, the smile hidden behind a drugged, pained mask.
“How is he?” Red's voice from the doorway, not encroaching. They were all respecting his right to be there at his side, even the doctors and nurses not fighting him on his continued presence. Every time Xander opened his eye, Spike was there – holding his hand, stroking his arm, reaffirming his presence.
“Sleeping. Drugs kicked in and he's gone off.” Taking the silent cue, Xander closed his eye and just listened.
“Spike – it wasn't your fault, you know that right?”
“Shoulda been faster – shoulda stopped this happening. S'not right – he's lost so much. Didn't deserve to lose anymore.”
“I know. I know.” Risking the demon, Willow stepped into the hospital room and walked to his side. Rubbing her hand up and down his arm, she could feel the tension and pain Spike was holding inside. He'd barely slept, definitely hadn't eaten – had refused to leave Xander's side for even a moment. As though by sticking to his side now, he could compensate for not being there when Caleb shoved his thumb in and gouged out Xander's eye. Just thinking about it caused a tide of darkness within her to rise, the urge to destroy buried but still present. And she could feel the same within Spike, the desire, the need to rend, hurt, destroy. “Buffy wants to come and see him.”
Instantly Spike growled. No way was she was coming in here. He might have been too slow, but she'd led them down that path. Walked them straight into a trap to claim what was 'hers'. What was another weapon against what his boy had lost?
“Don't want her here. He doesn't either.”
“Spike, she - ”
“Don't care what she wants or how she feels. It's about him now, yeah? What he wants – what he needs. And he doesn't need her guilt weighing him down. You know him – he'll try to make her feel better, put on a front.”
“But - ”
“I said NO! D'ya have any idea how long it took me to get him to just be himself? To accept that I was there for him - not the jokes, the sarcasm, not the shoulder to cry on. S'time for him to get to be selfish and concentrate on himself.”
“What does that mean? Spike – what - ”
“We're leaving, Red. Me and him, talked about it. Can't do this anymore. Slayer don't want me here – don't blame her for not trusting me, not with the First playing merry hell with my head. And he's had enough, done enough. We're taking the Bit and we're heading off. S'what we were gonna do before she decided to go to the winery. Wish we'd done it – this wouldn't have happened if we'd done it when we said we were gonna.”
“You're taking him away? But Xander wouldn't - ”
“Yeah, Red, he would. Can't ya see what this is doing to him – even before this? We talked to Rupert, told him and he agreed. We were just gonna let Buffy know and then we were off.” She looked down, stunned. It had never occurred to her that Xander would leave – wouldn't stay to see this through. Hand clenched on Spike's shoulder, she battled with her initial reaction to reject the very idea of them leaving. How would she cope without Xander there? He had always been there - in the background, a reassuring presence whenever she needed him. Whenever they needed him. And there it was, the very thing that Spike was talking about – Xander was always there whenever they needed him, always in the background, fixing things, cracking jokes to break the tension, shoring up their esteem when they wavered. And this was where it had got him.
“Where will you go?” Her voice wavered but she was determined not to cry, not to burden either of them with her tears or fears.
“Start with L.A. The poof is coming here, wants to help the Slayer with the big fight that's coming – said sommat about a talisman. Xander'n'I are gonna take over AI for a bit til we decide what to do.”
“You've given this some thought.”
“Yeah, not like me 'eh? But got the Bit to take care of, so gonna do this right, proper. Soon as the doc's say it's alright, we're gone luv. Not hanging about here. 'm sorry – wish I could do more but – just not gonna happen.” Shaking her head, Willow stroked his shoulder.
“No, you're right. Far better that you take Xander and Dawn away – you can protect them, they'll be safe with you. And – and when this is over, we – I can come and see you.” Resting his hand on top of hers, Spike looked up and smiled at her sadly.
“Wish you'd come too luv, but know ya gotta stay. We all have our places yeah.”
“Yes. I'll speak to Buffy, explain. I guess that's what Giles was wanting to talk to her about.” Looking at Spike for tacit permission, she moved closer to Xander, leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on his forehead. “I don't need to ask you to look after him – I know you will. Just – I'll miss him.”
“It's not forever Red. Just – it's just that it's past time to go, you know?” Nodding sadly, she quickly moved in and dropped a kiss on Spike's cheek before leaving the room. She stood in the doorway, looking back at her childhood friend – he had saved the world, had saved her. It was past time for him to save himself. Blinking rapidly to hold back tears, she walked out and closed the door behind her.
“You can stop pretending to be asleep now.” Flushing, Xander opened his eye and looked up at Spike.
“I just couldn't - ”
“S'lright. Know how hard this is on ya. You still wanna do it – leave I mean?” A trace of insecurity in his voice, the unspoken fear that Xander rightly blamed him for being too slow, for not protecting him the way he should have. Sighing, Xander let his head loll back, thought about it for a moment or two.
“Yes. I still want to leave. It's like you said – it's past time.” He tugged Spike closer, pushing into the curve of Spike's hand, hiding the bandaged side of his face from view. “Spike, what if – if they don't win – what if - ”
“Ssshhh Pet. You know as well as I do, it'll take more than the Hellmouth to do in her Buffyness. She's got Red and all that mojo backing her up, and Capt'n Broody is coming down – they'll be fine. They don't need us here, Xan – we're better off taking the Bit and getting out. 'Sides, when alls said and done, they're gonna need somewhere to recuperate – we can get everything set up for after the big fight. Get 'em comfy and happy-like before we strike out on our own.”
They sat in silence, both recognising that there was nothing more to be said. The decision had been made and even with second and third thoughts, they both knew it was the right thing to do.
“Hey Spike - ” Xander's voice was slurred, the medicine finally kicking in and dragging him slowly into oblivion.
“Yeah Xan?” Long, slender fingers stroking the dark hair, scratching lightly in a move he knew was guaranteed to send his boy to sleep.
“How come if we're doing the right thing, I feel so crap – like a rat deserting or something?”
“I don't know Xan, I really don't know.” Smiling sadly, Xander placed a kiss in the palm of Spike's hand and allowed the drugs to take him away from all the pain and the hurt. Spike sat back in his chair, determined to protect his Pet from any harm – from friend or foe. It wasn't easy walking away from the fight – went against his very nature – but Sunnyhell had been nothing but bad news for him from the very beginning. He was sad to leave Red behind – felt guilty and heavy of heart – but it was her choice. The Bit was coming with them and that fulfilled his promise to the Slayer. Yeah, it was past time to go.