It was that time of day when the great red eye of the sun glared briefly into the world from beneath its heavy eyelid of choking smoke. Like an insane old man peering into a box that held a once treasured but long ago forgotten pet.
And like that pet, pathetic in its continuing eagerness and hope to please, the people of the earth hurried towards their makeshift altars of stone and earth and offered their small green goods to the chlorophyll producing eye of Rah.
At the highest point, near the edge of the cliff, miles-long rows of greenhouses stood, glass boiling orange with reflected sunlight. Common in their materials, rusted metal and pipes, crazed and fractured glass panels. All with the ancient, well-used solar panels hanging crookedly down the cliff’s edge beneath. Each had a shape and style unique to itself. As if made without blueprint. Inside, the light gathered and trained upon tomatoes, zucchinis, vitamin rich vegetables only, much squash and beans, rooted in hydroponic systems that stretched in their polyethylene tubing, twisting and turning along the cliff’s edge as if pieced together by a large, fanciful child.
For a scant hour, though hour was a concept long ago lost to these people, the sun hovered above the horizon, sharing its warmth and life indiscriminately across the carefully tended plant life, the small pale bodies that tended it and the scorched cinder plain of earth that lay beneath the high cliff’s edge. Then it sank and the world fell once more into its accustomed darkness.
They had their brief ceremony. Spurred, perhaps, by the energy absorbed by their skin, they chattered and visited as they climbed down from their glittering temples. Eventually drifting into silence again, they separated into their smaller group units, and made their way back towards their homes.
One small group passing tiredly behind the tall, reflective surfaces at the top of a hill, carefully skirting the two canvas tents, which sat shielded from the setting sun by the husk of a giant old oak tree. The younger daughter saw something on the ground and lagged behind, stooping to scoop up the bit of shiny metal.
A pair of torn and grayed leather boots appeared almost silently beside her. She saw them, her eyes widened; her gaze followed the boots up long legs covered in the standard loose rayon, the telltale ultraviolet reflective material of the shirt. Her mouth opened, but the stranger was quick and captured her before she could protest, placing his chill palm over her mouth.
Struggle was useless.
The child’s mother looked worriedly around in the thick darkness for her youngest, who always seemed to be drifting from the herd. She sighed and flicked on her solar torch, reluctant to waste its energy, but if Daya would always go missing…
Her torch picked up the silent silhouette approaching. She flicked it off immediately. “Gan,” *no* she said.
She fell to her knees. “Deahel, tabra orma.” * Please, I’m so sorry*
“No worries, luv.” Spike carefully placed Daya on her feet beside her mother. Turned and slipped back into the shadows. Daya clapped her hand over her mouth to stop herself from crying out at the chastisement she saw in her mother’s eyes.
“What had she found?”
“Just a bit of shiny metal. Like monkeys they are.”
“Monkeys.” Angel almost smiled. He wrapped the blanket around himself and stepped up beside the hollow trunk of the old oak, looking off towards some distant spot on the black horizon. “Do you still remember monkeys, Spike?”
“Sure I do.” Spike cast an uneasy glance at Angel. His companion seemed fixed to his spot at the cliffs edge, literally gazing off towards nothing, as not even the few normally visible stars had yet appeared. “Saw a right lot of them in South America or thereabouts.”
“South America!” exclaimed Angel, shaking his head.
“Yeah, think so.” Spike cast back in his mind. “All over the trees and um, think some had big fluffy tales, y’ know?” he recalled, smiling. Getting caught up in it a bit himself.
“Maybe they were lemurs,” said Angel dreamily, gazing into the dark. He frowned. “I had almost forgotten lemurs.” He sounded anxious.
This would never do. Spike huffed and stamped his feet a bit. “Whatever. Made bad eating as I remember and were covered with fleas. You coming, mate?”
Angel drew himself away from the place in which he had been brooding. He pulled the thermal wrap more tightly around himself and followed Spike down the path and across the face of the cliff, by way of the wide steps carved into it. They found their accustomed spot at the bottom amongst the cinder and ash. A little hollow in the center of the wide cliff, already filled with coal. Spike expertly struck flint and a small glow lit the tiny space.
Angel found a seat against the black graphite face of the ledge and sighed. It was warmer now than it had been. A light breeze, seeming to carry the taste of the sun in it, licked up over the edge of the cliff. Angel let his worn thermal blanket fall from his shoulders.
He rested the back of his head against the crumbling wall behind him and shut his eyes lightly, crossing his legs in a loose lotus position and letting both arms fall limply to his sides.
Spike turned his back to him and waited.
It was barely discernible when the visions came to Angel. A flicker beneath his eyelids, like a human dreaming; a little flinch across the cheeks. Sometimes his mouth distorted or he drooled, sometimes his tongue jutted uncontrollably from between his lips and his eyes would open, rolling. It was embarrassing to watch the ancient, reticent vampire so completely out of control. Embarrassing for both of them.
Spike knew when the vision had passed. He couldn’t have said how. But eventually he heard Angel’s shifting legs and hands.
Angel bent his head and pushed his fingers through the long waves of hair that had fallen into his eyes. He tested his throat, but made only a dry sound. Tried it again. “They’ve said to choose another,” he told Spike raspily.
Spike whirled and stared. “No. Fuck. Bastards, Angel! We can’t.”
“Fuck.” Spike ineffectually kicked at the ground and sat down in a protesting heap beside his tiny charcoal fire. “I know you can’t communicate with them proper like, Angel. But can you at least explain to them…”
“I’m sure they know, Spike.”
“Fuck,” said Spike unnecessarily again. He picked at the blackened cinder that was the ground beneath him and threw it savagely into the hot wind that was picking up from the plateau below. “Did they say why, this time?”
“I gave up asking why, Spike. I told you…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Spike sighed, and looked out over the darkness. The hot wind was driving now, the smell of burning following.
They sat for a bit. “So,” said Angel finally.
Spike looked at him suspiciously. “I ain’t contributin’ any more names t’ this, Angel.”
“It’s to be both our decisions.”
Spike didn’t bother to curse. He looked closely at Angel. The vampire clutched the old thermal blanket closely to him. His hands seemed thinner and somehow, impossibly, more aged. The worry and pain in the young face made it appear gaunt.
“Sorry,” said Spike. He leaned back on his hands, legs stretched out, and gazed straight up into the smoky, blackened sky. “Well, you know my ‘no’ list.”
Angel sighed. “I’ve been thinking again about that, Spike. Slayers are better able to handle the stresses of a situation like this. And she could help…”
“No. For so many reasons…” Spike drifted off, closing his eyes. “Angel, you know why.”
“Yes, but the Powers…”
“Fuck to the Powers. I promised her, Angel.”
Angel nodded. He looked relieved. “I can’t … Spike, there’s no one else I can bear to …”
“Seems so fucking unfair,” Spike said at the same time. “Poor buggers …”
“Such an impossible fate. So hopeless. Who can we…”
“Bloody hell, wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy…”
“Of all the mortals we have known… who do we trust enough? Who do we believe…”
Spike snorted. “Who do we hate enough, you mean.”
There was a tiny beat of silence. And then, with that seemingly preternatural synchronicity that only two creatures who had spent centuries in each others company could achieve, the two vampires’ heads came up and their gazes met.
Something like a twinkle appeared in Angel’s eyes. Spike couldn’t remember the last time he had seen such an expression there. “It would be wrong,” said Angel, a tiny smile playing at his lips.
Spike sat up. “Heh, yeah, rat bastards that we are, though…”
“Shame on us for even thinking it,” said Angel, delightedly.
“Harris,” said Spike. He tipped his head back and grinned at the swirling dark mass of poison and smoke that choked the atmosphere above their heads. “Xander bloody Harris.”
“Harris,” said Dr. Thompson, referring to the clipboard in her hand. “Alexander L.” She swung open the door to the hospital room and ushered in her small team of first years. The room’s sole occupant, an elderly man, looked up eagerly as they entered.
“Hiya,” he wheezed past the tube in his nose. His one eye squinted to focus as he surveyed the group, A huge smile, with decent dentures, pulled his face up. His face was a mass of yellow skin and wrinkles. Scars stood out prominently white against the sallow complexion.
“It’s nice to meetchya,” said Xander, cheerfully.
Dr. Thompson read from her clipboard. “Senile dementia with paranoid disorder. The family was attempting care but the last stroke made it too difficult.”
Xander’s kept smiling bravely at the only people he had seen that week, outside of the nursing staff. The students stared back at him, passive and unmoved. The aluminum blinds that covered his window were moved slightly by the new current of air, and he was distracted. He squinted at them as if to bring something into focus. “Willow,” he said suddenly. Then he remembered. Put on the winning smile again. “Have I told you about Willow?” he asked brightly, turning back towards the students, seeming to focus on a young woman standing next to the doctor. He stared at her long enough that she became uncomfortable, looking to the doctor for some sort of guidance.
Dr. Thompson huffed impatiently and flipped pages on her chart, “Mr. Harris appears, on occasion, to believe he is speaking to remembered acquaintances.”
“Willow,” said Xander, trying to focus his eye on the kids with a promising twinkle, “was a witch.”
One of the first years, one of those who still persisted in thinking of the patients as human beings, dared to step forward. “How are you today, Mr. Harris?”
The patient grinned. “Call me Xander,”
“Xander,” said the young man patiently. He looked at the old man spread out on the hospital bed before him. His withered arms lay on the carefully turned down hospital blanket. An eye trained in the human body could see that the hanging flesh there had once covered a decently developed musculature. The scar tissue from an old wound twisted miserably across the unused, unfilled eye socket. The patch pushed up into the old man’s thin white hair. The intern impulsively reached over to adjust it. A wave of painful pity swept through him as the old man pushed just slightly into the touch. So many of these elderly patients were seldom touched. And he wondered, as he often had, at an entire life hidden behind failing eyes. What worlds would disappear when this man was gone? It gave him an unutterable feeling of sorrow and loss and he stepped back from the patient, dropping his hands.
But Mr. Harris caught at him with one dry hand. It was a weak, limp grasp and the intern was able to prise his wrist free easily, but the look on the patient’s face held him.
“They took my stake,” said Mr. Harris.
“Your steak?” The intern looked back at Dr. Thompson.
“I made a new one, though,” the patient said in a low, conspiratorial whisper. He nodded towards the little bedside table.
With troubled curiousity, the young man opened the drawer. He found the broken remains of what looked like a bit of molding. He looked up at Dr. Thompson, at a loss.
Dr. Thompson stepped forward and took the dangerous looking piece of scrap out of the drawer. She made an exasperated noise and looked for the nurse. He took the piece from her, wincing at her glance of condemnation, then turned a hostile glare on the old man still pathetically reaching for his bit of wood.
“No! No, I need that,” said the old man, wheezing.
“Now, Mr. Harris,” said the nurse. He grimaced disapprovingly and followed the group as they trouped back out of the room. “I’ve warned you about keeping these bits of trash. You could cut yourself…”
“I need that,” said Xander Harris weakly. He wheezed and closed his eyes. Exhausted by the effort. His lips moved barely, whispering the words. “He’ll come for me. I need my stake.”
In a small house in Vista, California, a woman, balancing a young child on one hip, propped her briefcase against the door and reached for the phone.
“Yes?” The baby tugged at the lapel of her pristine business suit with a wet hand and she attempted to free herself while still keeping her ear to the phone.
“Yes,” she sighed. “He’s my father in law. Stop it, Ryan,” she pleaded with the boy who was now tugging at an earring. “Yes, I understand. I’ll…” She juggled the phone against her chin and adjusted the weight of the child again. “I’ll tell my husband. Yes. Thank you.” She hung up. Now even later for work than before, she grabbed her briefcase, levered the door open expertly with one foot and, swinging out, she shouted in the general direction of the house’s interior. “The nursing home called, honey. Your father is making trouble again,” and let the door fall closed behind her.
“Dad.” James Harris rested his elbow against the driver’s side window and drove with one hand, holding his cell phone with the other. “Dad, they said you were outside again last night. I’ve told you, Dad, you can’t…”
“This is a public place,” said Xander, wheezing excitedly into the phone pressed tightly against his ear, as if hearing every nuance of sound would somehow bring the voice at the other end closer. “You realize they can come into public places, don’t you?”
“Dad…” The car in front of him came to a sudden stop and James’ attention was momentarily taken up with keeping his car in the lane without mishap. He switched the cell phone to the other ear. “Dad, no one is going to come into the Home. There is no one after you.”
“He always hated me. I know it. Buffy thought he had changed …”
James sighed and almost severed the connection. He held the phone away from his ear, stared ahead at the blocked freeway, and invoked patience. “Okay, Dad,” he said, finally placing the phone back against his ear. “Here’s the deal. Patricia is swamped with work for the weekend and Ryan has had a cold all week. I’ve got meetings all day and a dinner event to go to. We can’t have you getting in trouble right now, do you understand?”
Xander held the phone tightly against his ear. “You said you would come up here soon,” he whined, cursing the weakness in his lungs and his body that allowed his voice to quaver like that.
“I know, and we will. It’s just…” James slammed on his brakes, just barely avoiding a collision with the car in front of him. He rapped his hand uselessly against the horn. Saw the middle index finger on the hand of the motorist in front of him come up, shook his irritation down firmly and sighed again. “Dad, we are so busy…” traffic picked up again, his car slowly passing by the accident that had caused today’s slowdown. “We want to visit, we do…” The cars were picking up speed around him; soon he’d need both hands to drive. “Dad, I’ve gotta go. I’ll talk to you again soon.” He disconnected.
“James?” Xander clutched the suddenly silent phone. He knew there was no one there but he held the phone a bit longer anyway. As if the call would continue in some way as long as he didn’t replace the receiver in its cradle.
He leaned back into his pillows, his eyes traveling their familiar pattern over the blinds that always covered his windows. To save the air conditioning, he had been told. Heat penetrated the windows and power was needed to keep the rooms cool. But I don’t need air conditioning, thought Xander, I need to see the sun.
Maybe he could call someone else. Xander Harris cradled the receiver in his hand and could think of no one to call. There was no one left. He set the phone down carefully in its base. Leaned back onto his bed, his arms laid out over the blanket on either side of him. Closed his eyes.
James focused on the road in front of him diligently. Damned idiot drivers in Los Angeles. What was it about a little rain that made people drive like the end of the world had come and they were in a desperate race to escape the deluge. He changed lanes as his exit approached and tried not to think about his father.
Sitting at a light, though, his mind slid unhappily back to the Evergreen Retirement home and the lonely old man he had placed there. They had tried, he and Jennifer, they had really tried to care for his father themselves. But the last stroke had been too serious, and they weren’t home enough, couldn’t afford a private nurse. Even with their combined salaries, they couldn’t even afford the private care nearby. The day they had moved his father to the facility, Jennifer had cried all the way home. “Those people don’t know him, James,” she stated sadly. He had nodded, choking back tears himself. “He’s … he’s not demented, he’s just dear old Dad with his stories…”
And she was right. It was a fine facility. It had very good references. But the doctors who had diagnosed the dementia simply couldn’t understand, James reflected sadly. Those people his father spoke to all the time weren’t just random paranoid figments of a senile mind. James had been hearing stories about them all his life, until they were almost real to himself as well. Werewolves and Vampires with funny names. Girls who were superheros. Witches. James had grown up with legends of apocalypses and the high school kids who had saved the unknowing world again and again.
And he thought that some of the people had actually been real. Not monsters of course, but real. His father’s friend, Willow had come around sometimes, when James was quite young. A spunky, spirited lady with great green eyes and a wonderfully raspy voice who seemed much younger than his father. But his mother hadn’t liked her. There had been arguments. James remembered them because, happily, in his home there had been few arguments. The person, ‘Buffy’ his dad told stories about, he had never met. He guessed she had died because when he spoke of her, his dad always looked so sad.
Now those people were more real for his father than the strange nurses and doctors set to keep his body alive, and James could kind of understand. Because growing up in a home where the monster in the closet was named “Clem” and the thing under the bed was exterminated with ‘holy water’ from the bathroom sink every night, he knew the charm of that magical world where evil was evil and good always triumphed.
James pulled into the Warner Brothers lot and wished with all his heart that his father could be left to peacefully exist in that world in his head. Old guy has earned it, he thought sadly.
He needed his stake. The blinds lifted, swished and rattled in a pattern infrequent enough to be suspicious. The soft rubber soles of nurses and doctors and who knew what else passed shadows across the crack below his unlocked door.
He was tied to this bed, with his IV drip and the respirator tubes, the heart monitors and pumps; he was shackled to his bed by the machines that monitored his life and he needed his stake. In case they came.
They could still come. Xander wasn’t sure why he had stopped worrying about them for so many years, raising his family, having a normal life. But as the years progressed and it seemed the shadows moved to follow him, he had become more and more convinced that they were out there again. Perhaps another Hellmouth had opened. He had no one to ask.
Giles was gone years ago. Buffy and Dawn in that accident. Willow. Xander’s old body sent a dull throb of pain to his tired mind as he remembered that Willow was dead. It was a fact that came and went and the pain was fresh every time he recalled it. She had been the last. He had no one to call; no one would come to protect him. He would fight this last battle on his own. But they had taken his stake, he thought despairingly. How could he fight Angel without his stake?
He clutched the covers, shutting his eyes against the shadows that swayed and encroached. The blinds rattled, then squeaked as if lifted.
“Angel?” he whispered, not opening his eyes. His heart raced, the monitors bipped in alarm, a soft step near his door, a cool chill as if something passed over his bed. Xander lay his hands across his blankets because they had taken his stake and he was an old weak man and there was no one left to help him.
“What did he say?”
Spike snorted in surprise. “Sounded like ‘Angel’.”
“He can’t be conscious yet. They never become conscious this quickly.”
“Well, we’re ready when he does.” Spike moved to the head of the small cot and expertly checked the soft straps that bound Xander’s wrists and ankles. “Poor bugger,” he said, not sounding at all sympathetic.
He tucked the thermal blanket, that covered Xander’s body, in more firmly at the corners. The Powers always delivered their choices totally nude for some perverse reason Spike could not understand. And the temperature drop that followed sunrise made the average temperature in their tents dip below freezing quite frequently. It didn’t bother him so much, though Angel seemed to suffer off and on, but a human could easily take a chill and possible become sick.
Spike cocked his head sideways and regarded the semi-comatose figure lying under the green blanket. They had delivered him much younger than Spike had remembered him. The last time he had seen Xander Harris had been at Buffy and Dawns… Spike’s mind automatically flinched from that memory. The last time he had seen the man lying before him, Xander had been in his mid thirties. As far as Spike knew, that had been the last Angel had seen of him as well, though the old poof had some mysterious habits. In the past the Powers had delivered the men as the two vampires had last remembered them. The Xander Harris that had appeared on the cot a few hours ago had looked to be still a young man.
It had been strange, almost a shock for Spike, after all these years of starved, grey-skinned humans, to see a robustly healthy male. To smell the hemoglobin rich blood flooding beneath the smooth, tanned skin. Muscles resulting from a 20th century protein rich diet, that bunched and slid as the delivered mortal began to breathe. Spike had been tempted, before he pulled the blanket over him, to run his hands over that surrealistically healthy body. Just to feel all that life.
What the Hell were the Bloody Powers up to this time?
“He’s coming around,” said Angel.
Spike straightened and stood beside Angel at the foot of the cot. He suddenly had an absurd urge to pull a hand through his hair, straighten his shirt. He laughed at himself, a twisted, bitter smirk, and Xander Harris opened his eyes.
Xander surfaced slowly from his dream of death. He had had the dream frequently, of late. It wove itself, a black velvet ribbon, through the Mardi gras fabric of childhood memories, dreams of friends long lost, nightmares. Old man dreams, he thought. Someday, the dreams I won’t wake up from. He felt the IV drip in his wrist tug painfully. It dragged at his arm. He reflexively jerked at it anyway and had the odd and immediate sensation that his wrist was, in fact, tied. His eyes popped open.
“Hello there, mate,” said Spike, savoring the drama. “Welcome to Hell.”
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