Time Has Told Me
She looked so pale. He held her hand, and watched little motes of energy float off of her like fireflies. She was dissolving. Effervescing, like soda or Alka-Seltzer. It was happening too fast, they’d never make it in time to save her. She hadn’t spoken in days, just looked at him with tired eyes. Before that though, she had said it didn’t hurt, except that she couldn’t remember her mother, and then Buffy, then Spike, and finally Xander himself.
She faded, until there was nothing left but one tiny glowing piece of her. As it died away, he could finally hear her voice.
He slides three fingers of one hand over the bracelet on the opposite wrist, liking the sound.
The shiny beads don’t make the noise; those patches of the bracelet slide under his fingers as he assumes snake scales would. If the snakes he’d seen had ever been ‘normal’ and would allow gentle touch while their owner looked on, and not demonic and looking for a feed of human with one snap of gigantic jaws. The sound comes from the clouded beads, the purple ones like dark rain and the red like dusty rubies.
They sound like the swish of the African grasses as the winds part them, and he’s transported back to standing in their tallness, dwarfed by the two-foot-above-head lines of vertical yellow which slash straight down into the earth by his feet; lightning strikes with the zag zigged out of them by a harsh godly hand. As the wind dies, he’s cautioned by the man in front of him to stand still, because it may not be a lion that is watching them, but something else...
Even still, Xander likes the sound and will keep the rhythmic timing of his fingers over the beads when he feels the need, even though the bracelet is not African, not even close, and can never be returned to the one who gave it to him, even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t.
The sound is a focus, a way to keep his thoughts from jumbling out of control. A control he desperately needs to still the jumping of his heart as he rounds a bend in the meandering path and sees who has come to pay their respects.
Spike is crouching in front of the headstone, tracing Dawn's name over and over again. Xander steps up behind him and clears his throat. Spike doesn't stop what he's doing, but speaks to the headstone. "You put Niblet on the headstone. Why?"
“ Buffy insisted. How did you know I made it? And why are you here, now, instead of when it was important?" Xander crosses his arms over his chest.
"I promised to protect her. 'Til the end of the world." Spike ignores the questions and drops to sit with his legs crossed, his forehead pressed against the cool stone.
"Yeah, and you weren't here. I guess that shows what your promises are worth." Xander hisses the last few words, anger making his jaw stiff and his skin hot.
A sob rips through Spike. "I would have been here. No one called. I would have come. I didn't know." His fingers find the word 'Niblet' on the stone and trace it. "I would have come. I would have."
Guilt makes Xander's chest tight, and he draws in a hard breath. He touchesthe bracelet again, remembers how much Dawn loved the vampire sitting on her grave. "I'm sorry," he says. "You're right. I assumed someone would call you. Giles or Buffy. I didn't think -"
"You lot never do." It's a quiet voice, and there's no reprimand in it, just an ache that makes Xander's eyes sting.
Xander kneels beside Spike, placing a single white rose on top of the stone. “Where are you staying?”
Spike shrugs. “Not a whole lot of crypts in this part of the world. I got some dosh, though. Could rent a room.”
“Wanna come crash in my apartment for old times’ sake? I have an actual room-sized guest room with an actual bed in it.” Xander grins. “We can pick you up some blood on the way.” It isn’t really enough of an apology, but he has to start somewhere.
“I’m long past needing charity from Scoobies,” Spike replies acerbically, angrily wiping tears from his eyes.
“I have imported beer...” Xander singsongs, knowing the vampire will cave.
Spike gives him that look, eyebrow raised, skepticism written on every line of his face. “Since when do you share the good beer with me, mate?”
“Since I stopped being an asshole.” Xander stands, giving Spike a hand up after him. Xander grins again at the stunned look Spike gives him, but leads the way to the bus stop.
Three in the morning sees them both lying on Xander’s living room floor. Spike is halfway through the second bottle of Jack, and between the two of them, they’ve slain a case of German lager, the name of which neither of them could pronounce. Tasty, though.
They talk about Sunnydale, Buffy, Anya, Los Angeles, Angel, and apocalypses in general. By mutual unspoken agreement, they avoid the subject of Dawn’s death until they are both plastered enough.
“So what happened? Bloody Angel didn’t give me any details.” Spike sounds sad rather than angry, and Xander isn’t sure how to feel about that.
“Dawnie was living here with me. She was studying several languages at Boston Language Institute, and teaching English as a second language. Translating stuff for the Council on the weekends.” Xander sighs, stroking the beads on the bracelet. “One day she started feeling tired. She started… coming apart. Little fireflies would float up off of her. She started forgetting things. People. Even me, in the end. Finally, she just faded away. I heard her voice, though, as the last little bit was floating away. She said, ‘Find me.’ By the time everyone got here, she was already gone. Giles thinks the voice was a hallucination under stress. They wouldn’t even help me research it, but I think there’s a way to bring her back. Giles says that the power source for the spell that made her human was either damaged or destroyed. Probably by someone seeking to use her as the Key again. He says that no one has the power to repair the spell.” A tear leaks from the corner of his eye. “I couldn’t stop it. They never should have left her with me.”
“Bollocks!” Spike tries to sit up, but ends up leaning over Xander, supporting his weight with one hand. “You were prolly the bes’ thing to ‘ave ‘appened to Niblet since Joyce died,” he slurs. “You supported ‘er. Let ‘er figure out what she wanted to do.” He frowns deeply. “S’not your fault they wouldn’t bloody listen to you. Watcher thinks he has the monopoly on smarts. He’s a sodding fool.” He puts down the bottle and clumsily pats Xander’s arm. The bracelet catches Spike’s eye as Xander’s fingers slide over the beads, and he stares at it for a minute, and then looks up at the boy’s face. Their eyes lock for a long moment. Spike takes a deep breath, then another, like Xander did at his grandmother’s house when she was baking cookies. Xander can see small gold flecks in his blue sky eyes. Finally closing them, Spike leans down and places a relatively chaste, if whiskey-flavored, kiss on Xander’s lips.
Xander just lays there, shocked. He wants to say something, he really does, but the only words he can think of are Please don’t stop! and he’s not sure he’s quite ready to be that open with Spike, copious amounts of alcohol not withstanding. Still, it feels good to be touched, so Xander smiles when Spike pulls back, looking nervous.
Spike smiles back, tentatively. “I’m pissed and knackered. Gonna kip for a while. We’ll work on getting Niblet back in the morning.”
In the morning, Xander has a small freakout. Spike kissed him! Spike kissed him, and he had let him! Was he gay now? He thought about it for a minute. Seven of Nine, nekkid. Mmmm, yeah. Okay, then, Spike nekkid. Oh, hell yeah! So maybe bi. Xander thinks back to his days with Anya. You’re supposed to buy things for people you want to interlock parts with. Does he want to interlock parts with Spike? Maybe. He’d like to find out, though. So, what do you do for someone you are maybe interested in? You buy them nice things, again, if his relationship with Anya is anything to go by. Spike doesn’t like nice things. What does Spike like?
So, he sneaks out before checking on his houseguest, returning with coffee, donuts, and blood. He remembers how Spike likes his blood, but he doesn’t have any Weetabix, so he puts a box of Cocoa Pebbles on the tray. Chocolate goes with anything. Carefully balancing the tray, he knocks on the guest room door twice, before opening it. He almost drops the tray when he finds the room empty.
He sets the tray down on the floor, and picks up the piece of folded paper lying in the Spike-shaped depression on the bed. The handwriting makes Xander think of his grandmother. Better not mention that to Spike.
Xander – Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t stop thinking. The demon in Africa – the one I fought for my soul – She offered me any wish at all. I’m betting she could bring Dawn back to us. I called the airport, and there was a redeye flight to Gulu, so I took it. Do me a favor and don’t mention it to the Watcher or the Slayer, yeah? If I make it, I’ll come back and let you black my eye for leaving without telling you. We have unfinished business, I think, Spike
“Xander, if Spike wants to rush headlong into suicide, quite frankly, there’s nothing I can do about it. Dawn is gone. You need to accept that. I’ve made you an appointment with a therapist associated with the council, in Cambridge…” Xander doesn’t listen to the address or directions Giles gives him, instead flipping the address book to the page with Angel’s numbers.
He doesn’t expect much help there, but he is pleasantly surprised. He nervously twists and strums the beads on the bracelet, as Angel books a flight for him, at his firm’s expense. “Uganda can be a little hard to navigate as a foreigner. I’m sending a contact I have there to meet you. His name is Mpanga. He’ll take you as close to the cave as he’s comfortable getting. You might have a few days walk.”
“I don’t know what to say, Angel.” Xander carefully avoids the nickname he had used to plague the vampire before. “Thank you.”
“Just… do your best to get him back undusted, okay? I’ve kind of gotten used to not being the only souled vampire in the world.”
“I’ll do my best,” Xander says sadly, hanging up and going to pack.
He hadn’t thrown away any of his clothes from Africa. They were in the bottom drawer, smelling like sand, and wet earth, trees, and dry scrub, depending on where he had worn them last. He breathes in, holding a shirt to his face. Like the bracelet, these were a connection to Africa. He crouches before the drawer, running his fingers back and forth across the beads, shirt still in his other hand. Hosts of expressions battle for dominance, but his features finally settle on a profound sadness. He grabs the small pile of things and shoves them into a leather backpack that looks older than he does. He had traded a pair of button-fly Levis for it on his second day in Africa, when some bug had chewed its way into his duffle and infested most of his clothes. He had traveled the length and breadth of Africa with what fit in this pack.
He turns towards the closet and looks thoughtfully at it for a few moments, before opening it, and looking at the crate of weapons, before remembering that he was going to be taking a commercial flight. Looking longingly at a large hunting knife he had brought back from Somalia, he shuts the closet, and strides out of the apartment without looking back.
Landing just outside of Gulu, nearly forty hours later, an exhausted Xander stumbles off the plane. Apparently, there had been bombing threats, so his plane had been grounded on a tiny landing strip in the desert somewhere for hours. He had had to reschedule his next flight, which meant waiting several more hours at the airport when he finally got there. There had been a problem with his visa, and he had been detained by customs. That had been cleared up, and he is finally here.
There is a scarred and very old man waiting for him. The scars across his cheek are pink stripes across a face whose darkness does nothing to dispel the smile lines written across it. Xander instantly feels comforted, and the man has yet to notice him. He looks a little lost in thought, the smile hidden behind lips that move, but don’t part, as if he is silently reciting something. He turns and sees Xander, and the smile comes out of hiding, spreading across his face like the sun over the mountains. He holds up a sign that says, “Mr. Harris,” and waves at Xander.
Xander holds out his hand, grinning. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Mr. Harris. Angelus told me you would come.” The man shakes his hand a little more thoroughly than an American would, but Xander remembers this tendency, so he smiles.
“Mr. Harris is my father, sir. You can call me Xander.” Fingers nervously rattling the beads against his wrist, Xander fidgets, uncomfortable being treated like a ‘real adult,’ even this late into his twenties.
“Then you must call me Mpanga.” Mpanga’s accent is a little British, tinged with something older and richer. Xander notices that he has a gnarled stick that he carries like a cane, but sees nothing in the man’s stride to indicate he needs one.
“You are abatonzi musajja.” Xander observes.
Mpanga chuckles at Xander’s misuse of the local language. “Yes, some people would call me a man of the gods.” He waves his stick at Xander. “You see many things, omalaguzi. You will see the path to save your friend.” His eyes twinkle, and he puts a small emphasis on the last word as he strides away.
Xander wants to ask what the old man just called him, and why he thinks Spike is his friend, and if he’s implying that Spike is more than a friend, but Mpanga manages to stay just out of speaking range until they get into the jeep. It’s hard to see the original color through all the mud and dust, and Xander concludes that it must be at least half as old as Mpanga himself. Xander takes a breath to start asking questions, but Mpanga starts the jeep with a roar, and floors the gas as he peals out of the parking lot. Xander’s breath goes out in a whoosh as he hits the back of the seat, and then he’s too busy hanging on to talk. He and Spike will have to stick around awhile if they get out of this alive. Spike and Mpanga will most likely get along very well.
This impression bears out when it’s Xander’s turn to drive, and Mpanga claims Xander drives like his grandmother. Xander laughs and ignores him, which seems to delight Mpanga, which is different from Spike, who usually pouts.
Xander wonders when he started comparing everything to Spike.
They head east, towards the mountains of Kenya. Mpanga tells him of the Tokido region, on the Kenya border, as they take a somewhat roundabout route, avoiding military and rebel patrols. Xander tells Mpanga about his earlier travels through Africa. Mpanga sounds sad when he says, “Ah, omalaguzi, you were too busy looking for slayers to see Africa. You should see it again, when you’ve rescued your friend.”
Xander can’t really argue with that, but he comments, “I saw enough to know that it can be ugly and beautiful in the same breath,” he replies, absently stroking silver beads with his middle three fingers.
Mpanga grunts his agreement with this statement, as they pass the bullet-riddled body of a man on the side of the road bordered by lush vegetation. “Perhaps you saw more than I thought.”
It’s about a week before they get to the point where Mpanga stops the car, but Xander’s not really sure. He’s been sleeping and eating at odd hours, and has lost track. “Follow the sun, Xander. Do not travel at night; find someplace to hide. The demon of the cave feeds on the life she finds in the darkness. I will wait for you here.” He hands Xander a stone. “When you need light, tell the stone. When you want darkness again, put the stone in your pocket. Do not use fire if you can help it.”
Xander doesn’t bother to ask why. He clasps Mpanga’s hand. Mpanga pulls him into a brief hug. “Remember to use your heart as well as your eye to see. It is your strength, and it is formidable, even against such a demon.” They clap each other on the shoulder, and Xander turns towards the foothills. His courage wavers for a moment, but like every time he has had to go to battle, he shrugs it off. He’s still terrified. He almost always is, ever since he met Buffy. But that’s never stopped him before. He straightens his shoulders and marches off into the mountains without looking back.
The second sundown sees Xander climbing the tallest tree he can find. He knows he’s close. Even the insects are gone at this point. If Xander knows anything about Africa, he knows that anything less than teeming insect life is a sign there’s something weird going on. The smaller trees look shriveled as well, only the tallest escaping, which is why Xander is going to spend the night far above the ground. Closer to the actual mountain, the land is completely barren, desert-like. He is lashing himself to the tree when he sees it. There’s a glow, a sort of purpley-green light coming from a crevice in the rocks not far away. Xander considers trying to get there tonight. Mpanga probably didn’t get to be an old man by being stupid, though, so Xander quells the impulse and tries to sleep.
He hasn’t been walking long the next morning when he starts to see the paintings on the rocks he passes. He gathers some story as he goes, about the life of the people who had to flee when the demon came. He hopes they found someplace good to go. The signs become more and more gory as he gets closer to the crevice, and Xander’s fingers caress the beads on his wrist anxiously. The bloody sigils stop suddenly about ten yards from the entrance. Apparently, whoever had been brave enough to try and warn whoever came after hadn’t wanted to get closer. Xander stops, too.
Sibilant laughter comes from the cave entrance. “Omalaguzi, he calls you. You cannot see your own life’s ending, how can you see anything else?”
“Where’s Spike?” Xander demands. He hopes the trembling isn’t noticeable.
The chuckle gets deeper, takes on a nasty edge. “He is here. He sees to my needs admirably since he failed the Trials.” The demon purrs, and Xander’s stomach turns.
“How do I know you’re telling me the truth?”
“I have no reason to lie, sightless one. The old one’s life is almost over. When he is gone, I will be free again. He has no son to take the magic from him. I have no need for you.” The sneer attached to the last word would bother anyone who hadn’t grown up with Xander’s parents. Xander just shrugs, and the demon snorts in irritation.
“I’m sure Mpanga has a few good years left in him.” Xander pointedly looks at the dead landscape around him. “I’m sure you’ll get plenty hungry between now and then.” He sits down, pulls a powerbar out of his pack, and chews slowly, showing every intention of merely waiting until then.
There’s a stony silence from the cave, but Xander can feel the eyes on him. He begins to hum off-key. He hears a snarl and the demon moves away from the entrance. A wide grin crosses Xander’s face as an idea comes to him. If there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s annoying demons. If she can’t be tempted, maybe there are other ways to get to her. He belts out, “This is the song that doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friend…” in the whiniest, most nasal, most out-of-key voice he can.
He’s on his third repetition when the roar comes from the depths of the cave. “ENOUGH!”
He hides what wants to be a smirk behind an innocent look he stole from Spike. He obviously needs a better source of innocence, because the demon growls at him anyway. “What do you want?” She’s back in the doorway.
“I want Dawn and Spike, unharmed.” Xander frowns. “And no tricks, or I will spend the rest of my days doing my level best to make you insane.”
The demon snorts. “From those to whom much is granted, much is expected.”
“I’m prepared to give you my life, if need be.” Xander feels sad that he won’t see Dawn or Spike again, but if they’re okay, it’s worth it. He thumbs the purple bead resting on his pulse point, and smiles sadly, thinking about how happy they’ll be to see each other.
She snorts again. “What profit is there to me in your life?”
Xander thinks for a few moments. “You’re trapped here, right?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “What if I could arrange to have you sent back to your home dimension?”
A bitter laugh twists its way out of the cave. “And just how do you propose to do that, sightless one? You have no magick in you, and the old man is too weak for such magicks.”
“My best friend is a very powerful witch. I don’t have much knowledge to judge with, but she brought Buffy back from the dead, almost destroyed the world, and called every potential to slayerhood using only her magic and an axe. I’m pretty sure she can handle a dimensional portal for long enough for you to step through.” Xander’s almost positive this plan will work. Maybe he’s not as dumb as he thinks he is.
“The White Witch? You keep interesting company, human.” A thoughtful silence lasts longer than Xander expected. He waits.
“Give me your word, sightless one. Promise me a way home.” She can’t be crying, demons don’t cry. Unless they’re Spike.
Xander’s heart clenches in sympathy anyway. He moves to the entrance. “I promise I will do everything in my power to get you home.”
“You may enter and begin the Trials,” she pronounces formally.
“Wait – what? Trials? I just promised you a way home!” Xander shouts indignantly.
“I can grant nothing to those who do not prove themselves worthy.” A pained look crosses her face. “Please, please be worthy,” she whispers.
“I don’t understand.” Xander is honestly confused. “You obviously want to go home, so why can’t we just trade? I have something you want, you have something I want…”
“Power must be restrained. There are rules to my power that are older than this dimension. Otherwise my kind might become powerful enough to challenge the Great Powers, and throw all the universes out of alignment.” She sighs.
“I guess that makes sense. I’ll do my best to be worthy.” Xander sighs and straightens his shoulders, and allows his fingers one last pass over the beads. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“You may enter and begin the Trials,” she repeats, and Xander steps into the cave.
Xander steps in, but the interior is no longer a cave. It’s his parents’ house. He winces as his father bellows out his name. “Yes, sir?” he says, stepping into the older man’s line of sight.
“Make your worthless ass useful, and get me another beer,” he says tossing an empty bottle at Xander’s head. It bounces off, and he fumbles to catch it, knowing there will be unpleasant consequences for him if it breaks. “What are you waiting for? A tip? I got one for you – shoot yourself. You’d be of more use as compost.”
“Yes, sir.” Xander mumbles, rubbing his forehead and going to fetch the requested beer. The kitchen is wrong, though. It’s the kitchen of the apartment he shared with Anya. As if the thought conjured her, she strides through the door and starts packing up the coffee pot.
“Hi, An,” he says, happy to see her even if he knows it’s not really her.
She just throws him a withering look. Confused, he follows her into the living room. “What’s up?”
“Don’t you ‘what’s up’ me, Alexander LaVelle Harris! You are the most inconsiderate, irresponsible… man-like… MAN ever!” He winces as her volume rises with every syllable. “I don’t know what I was thinking, being with you. All you’re good for is fetching Buffy’s doughnuts. You act more like a minion than a man! And I’m not going to wait around until you lose this job too, and we get thrown out of the apartment. I’m certainly not going to live in that hole of a basement with you.” She storms back into the kitchen. Xander hesitates, but follows, beads smooth under his fingers.
Into the Magic Box. Buffy hops the counter and makes a beeline for him, but the embryonic smile on his face dies when she looks disappointed. “Xan-derrr… I thought you were bringing doughnuts,” she whines piteously.
“I’ll run back out and get some,” he offers.
“Great! I want one with sprinkles!” Buffy enthuses.
“Sure thing.” He turns toward the door.
“Hey! Aren’t you forgetting someone, Mister?” Willow looks up from the book she’s reading to chastise him.
“Sorry Wills, How – “
“I want a mocha, no foam, okay?” She’s already looking back at the book.
“are you…” he mumbles. “Yeah, sure. Be right back.”
He steps out, into Giles’ apartment. Giles, Buffy, and Willow are poring over a map. Willow points at something, and Xander leans over to look. Buffy shakes her head. “That alley is open at both ends. It’ll run out the other side and be in the sewers before I can kill it.”
“Why don’t we split up, and cover both ends of the alley?” Xander offers.
“Shh! Xander, I’m thinking.” Willow says. “If only there were some way to block the other end.”
“Hrmm… We could split into groups, and enter the alley from both sides.” Giles adjusts his glasses as he peers over Willow’s shoulder. Xander sighs, rolls his eyes, and goes to the kitchen –
And he’s back in the cave. The demon is there. She shakes her head. “Such a sad waste of potential. You have so much to offer, and they just don’t see.” She steps into his space, and speaks millimeters from his lips. “I could make them see. I could give you power, more power than the slayer or the witch. You could be a Champion. You could outshine all of those who have kept you in shadow,” she purrs.
Xander steps back. “No,” he says, resolutely.
“Why?” is the petulant response.
“Because that’s not my job. My job is to be there when they need me. To comfort them when things are bad. To make a stupid joke when everyone’s tense. To see them as human and not just Champions, tools of the Powers.” He looks down at the beads catching the meager light. “Even if they never see me. They’re a formidable army without me. But I help make them a family. That’s what makes us strong. That’s why we win. That’s my job.”
“Excellent,” the demon grins. She makes a gesture, and the cave is gone again, and there’s a room with two doors. “The Key lies beyond a door. You must choose.” She gestures again, and he’s alone in the room.
Xander examines the doors. The first one is silver, and has a small plate, inscribed: “There is no Key to this Door.” The second is gold, and has a similar plate, also inscribed. It says: “Only one sign can ever be truth.”
His legs fold underneath him, and he sits cross-legged on what he knows is an illusion of ugly carpeting. Crap! Puzzles. I should have called Willow. I’m going to screw this up and lose Dawnie! Sighing, he reminds himself that there are no superpowered friends here to bail him out. If Dawn is going to be rescued, Xander has to be the one to do it.
He stands, and goes to examine the doors again, taking a deep breath. “Well,” he mutters to himself, “if only the first one is true, that makes the second true by default, which can’t be right, because there’s only one of Dawn. So the second must be true, which means the first one is a lie.” He opens the silver door. It’s Dawn’s bedroom back in Boston. She’s asleep on the bed. He kneels beside the bed, tears flowing down his cheeks.
The demon leans against the doorframe. “She isn’t real. This is a vision of what will be, if you complete the trials and keep to your word. Do you wish to stop now? If you fail the other Trials, you will lose her.”
“I’m not leaving without Spike.” Xander stands up and squares his shoulders. “What now? If I have to fight something, can I have an axe?”
The demon chuckles, “Steel is not your primary weapon. Everyone is tested on their merits, sightless one.” She makes another gesture. He’s alone in a huge room full of statues in different poses. It takes him another second or two before he realizes that they’re all Spike.
“What am I supposed to do?” he calls out. There’s no response. “Guess I’m on my own for this one.” He meanders around the room examining the statues closely. He stops at one in a pose so familiar, it makes his heart hurt. The one Xander privately thinks of as Spike’s Big Bad stance. The statue is leaning to one side, as if against a doorframe, legs crossed at the shin, arms crossed loosely as well, and superior smirk firmly in place. A scar-creased eyebrow raised over it all, as if to say, “Yes, I’m the sexiest thing you’ll ever see. What’re you gonna do about it?”
Xander remembers clearly how it got progressively harder to summon up the irritation that would kill the urge to do something about it. Something he would most likely regret. Like kissing away the smirk, and replacing the mocking laughter that shone in those blue eyes with desire. Xander sighs deeply, and brushes the quirked scar with his fingertips. A three glows brightly on the statue’s forehead. Xander blinks confusedly.
The statue crumbles to ash at his feet.
Horrified, Xander stumbles backwards, inadvertently brushing against another statue. He falls to his knees, sobbing as he sees the blazing two on its forehead. He closes his eyes against the tears, unable to watch the second statue disintegrate.
Oh, gods, he thinks, I am so useless. Zeppo Xander strikes again. I should have called Buffy. She wouldn’t have screwed up. He conveniently forgets that the Scoobies had not believed his account of Dawn’s death, and that Buffy would be unlikely to rescue Spike from anything, much less a suicidal wild goose chase.
One more chance. Xander knuckles the tears out of his eyes. Get it under control, doughnut boy. He closes his eyes. Mpanga said to see with my heart. What the bloody hell does that mean? A snort of laughter escapes him, as he is reminded of Spike yelling at things. Manchester United, Buffy, Giles, the DeSoto, the empty box of Weetabix. The irascible vampire’s fluid mockney cursing had been the soundtrack to the latter part of Xander’s teenage years. Apparently, it was viral, as all the Scoobies had picked up some part of it, much to Spike’s disgust, and Giles’ dismay. Xander grins in spite of himself, screwing his eyes shut tighter, as if that would hold the memories of a happier time.
“Oi! Over here!” Xander’s eyes fly open as he heard the familiar voice come from somewhere that wasn’t his memory. White room, white statues, grey piles of dust. Xander walks quickly in what he thought was the direction the voice had come from.
“Spike?” he calls, carefully stepping between a statue of Spike in a wheelchair, and one of him holding a huge axe just at the top of its swing. He listens carefully, but there is no sound other than his own breathing. “Damn it!”
Mentally backtracking, Xander thinks about Spike hiding Giles’ remote, getting hair bleach on Buffy’s favorite strappy sandals, stealing spell components from Willow, money or Twinkies from Xander. He remembers making sure he had a few dollars in his pocket before he came home, back in the basement days, so Spike would be able to buy his own cigarettes.
“Sodding, bloody, thrice-damned demons and their moronic Trials! Xander! Xander! Keep coming that way, you’re getting closer.” Xander opens his eyes and again walks carefully; picking the direction that feels right. Tucked in behind two other statues, one with something in its hand catches his eye. Holding his breath, Xander steps cautiously behind the statues in his way.
Once he can breathe normally again, Xander stops to look what this statue is holding. It’s a sketch on thick, yellowing paper. A man sits in a wingback chair, hair in loose waves around his face. He is holding an old-fashioned looking pen, and there is what looks like an ink stain on one perfectly chiseled cheekbone. There is no mistaking the face, but the man in the picture is very different from the Spike Xander knows. There is a suit jacket thrown casually over the top of the chair, and not-Spike is wearing a soft-looking button-down shirt that is mostly undone, and pants that look like they go with the jacket. He can’t see not-Spike’s eyes, which are looking down at a journal he holds in his hand, but Xander knows if he looked into them, he would see none of the hardness he sees in Spike’s eyes.
Closing his eyes again, Xander concentrates on the Spike he knows. He remembers how damaged Spike was after refusing to tell Glory about Dawn. The smell of butane and cigarette smoke accompanies a memory of a shack, and lighting a cigarette. “Have I mentioned today how much I don’t like you?” A bloody, bandaged hand takes the cigarette away from a foul, cruel, sarcastic, cutting, perfect mouth for just long enough to retort.
I did like you though. I liked you, and admired you, and respected you. You didn’t even have a soul yet, and you still did more to help us, and to support Buffy, than Angel ever did. And then you went and got a soul on purpose. For Buffy. I realized you loved her every bit as much as I ever did. Maybe more. I started wanting to know you, then. But I was afraid to get closer. I never got the chance, anyway. You died to save us.
“We can hold meetings of the mutual admiration society later, pet. Touch me, already.” There’s a grin in the voice, though the statue doesn’t smile. The statue looks kind of sad, actually. Xander stoops a little, swallows, closes his eyes, and places a tiny kiss on the statue’s lips.
When he opens his eyes, the white room and all the statues are gone, and he’s pressing his lips to the real, flesh-and-stolen-blood Spike’s. Xander straightens, but doesn’t step away. Blue and brown eyes lock for several moments. A throat-clearing noise startles both of them, and they step apart quickly.
“He’s a bit noble for a vampire’s pet, but such a tasty morsel. You should claim him before other demons start getting ideas.” The demon chuckles when Spike pulls Xander behind him and starts to growl at her frankly appraising look. Ignoring him, she locks eyes with Xander over Spike’s shoulder. “You must make good on your promise, human. I wish to go home. You may have neither the vampire nor the Key until I have proof that you will make good on your word. You will need to bring the old man. I cannot go far from the cave unless he releases me.”
Xander places two fingers on Spike’s lips to halt the inevitable outburst. “I know what I agreed to. I just need to contact Willow.”
The demon extends an arm toward the cave’s entrance. “Go and do what you must. Your prizes will remain unharmed until you return. Be swift. I may get a better offer.”
“You couldn’t just conjure me up a SAT phone?”
“Do you want to change your wish?” The demon’s teeth are like long needles in her mouth, thousands of them, shiny and slick with her saliva. Smiling is not an alien expression to her, but Xander thinks it should be.
“No. I’m going. I’ll be back. No tricks.” Xander squeezes Spike’s arm as he passes on his way outside. He hears the vampire murmur, but doesn’t stop or look back.
Xander runs all the way back to the camp he set up with Mpanga without stopping for more than water. It’s long after moonrise when Xander makes it to the camp, but Mpanga is awake by the fire. The SAT phone is already sitting at his feet. Xander sits, well, more like falls, near Mpanga’s feet. The old man helps him sit up, gives him some hot stew and cool water. Xander tries to push it away and reach for the phone, but Mpanga refuses to be dissuaded, so Xander eats. Mpanga raps him on the head with the knobby stick every time he starts to bolt his food, so he forces himself to chew. It’s really good stew, but Xander knows better than to ask what’s in it.
Finally, Mpanga lets him have the phone. Xander’s fingers tremble as they dial Willow’s number from memory. “Wills, it’s Xander… Yeah, I need a favor. I have a demon who would like to be sent back to her home dimension, and I kind of owe her a favor… Yes, I know I probably owe you a million favors by now… I wouldn’t be calling you if it weren’t important, Willow… I know you’re busy… Look, I can’t really explain, but I promise you’ll understand when you get here… Yes… It can’t wait that long Willow, I need you to transport yourself here… Okay. Yes. Okay. See you in a few.” Xander doesn’t get up, just flops back into the dust near the fire. In less than a minute, Mpanga lays a blanket over his sleeping form, and sits next to him to await the others.
About three-quarters of an hour later, there’s a shimmering on the other side of the fire. Mpanga shakes Xander’s shoulder gently, and he sits up immediately. “Thanks,” he murmurs to the older man, who just pats his shin in a fatherly fashion as Xander knuckles his eyes, trying to come to full awareness. They both stand when the first person to step from the portal is not the expected Willow, but Angel, then Buffy, and finally Willow herself follows, just before the portal closes with a snapping sound.
Mpanga steps forward, hand extended. “Angelus!” he smiles. They two men grasp each other’s arms just below the elbow. Angel actually returns the smile.
“The years have treated you well, my old friend,” Angel replies. The Scoobies all stare. Mpanga ignores them and bows to the women in the group.
“Angel told us what we’re here for, so let’s get going,” Buffy orders. Mpanga and Xander exchange a quizzical look. Buffy hefts an axe over her shoulder, and Xander knows he must have been out of it not to notice a blade that big. Buffy looks at Xander expectantly. “Xander, point. Buffy,slay. Get with the pointing.”
“Um, you’re not here to slay the demon, Buff. She and I made a deal, and that deal was that Willow would send her home.” Xander shoots a glance at Willow, who doesn’t look at all apologetic.
“Xander, it’s not a good use of resources to be doing favors for demons. Even with so many slayers, we really should conserve our resources for the important things.” Willow gives him a pitying look.
“Dawn’s not important?” Xander sighs, not wanting to explain about Spike, since they’re resistant already. He knows if he mentions Spike, they won’t hear another word he says.
“Dawn. Is. Dead.” Buffy enunciates very slowly.
“Begging your pardon, Slayer, but the Key cannot die.” Mpanga shorts out the tirade Buffy is drawing breath for.
“Whatever. She’s a green ball of energy now, not my sister.”
Xander gasps at that last statement, and turns to fully face his two best friends. Anger glimmers in his eyes. “I see. Well, let’s talk about resources. I figure the Council owes me a rather large sum of money, since I didn’t get paid for rounding up slayers in Africa, plus all those years in Sunnydale. Room and board for a vampire and several potentials, wear and tear on more than one car, pain and suffering in my body, and let’s not forget mental anguish.” Xander folds his arms across his chest. “You can either do this, or I’ll have my lawyer present the Council with an itemized bill.”
“Xander – “ the girls breathe in shock. He holds up a hand to forestall their words.
“Mpanga, I need you to release the demon from the spell that binds her. Can you do that?” He doesn’t look at the older man.
“Of course, omalaguzi. I will need to go to the cave.” Mpanga comes to stand beside him, facing the girls.
Much to Xander’s surprise, Angel steps to his other side. At Buffy’s shocked look, he just says, “I don’t know what you came for, but I came to help Xander.”
Willow caves under the disapproval of the group across from her. “Xander, you don’t have to be like that. I’ll do what you need me to do, just lead the way.”
Xander feels a little bad about using Willow’s sensitivity to peer pressure against her, but it’s not as if he planned it that way. He’d feel much worse about losing Dawn and Spike. As they pile into the jeep, Xander wonders when ‘right’ become ‘less wrong than the other option.’
At Mpanga’s driving speed, they get there just before dawn. They set up Mpanga’s biggest tent to wait for the night. Willow’s spell requires moonlight, and the demon involved is nocturnal. Xander throws his pack into a corner, and uses it for a pillow, determined to get some rest. He sees Mpanga get ready to do the same. Angel shrugs, takes off his leather jacket, bunches it into a pile, and follows suit.
The girls shoot them a look, but Buffy silently sits and begins sharpening her axe, and Willow begins to meditate in preparation for the spell. The soft sound of stone on metal and Willow’s familiar chanting lulls Xander to sleep.
Xander wakes from a dream of thousands of crumbling statues of Spike, to Angel patting gently between his shoulder blades. Xander looks up at the vampire towering over him. “Moon’s up,” is all he says. Xander is immediately up and out of the tent. Willow is setting up a circle and chanting and Mpanga is taking apart a pile of rocks near the cave. Xander goes over to help, and the old man smiles at him. They roll away a particularly big one, and Mpanga makes a satisfied sound. He pulls a jar out of a little niche they have uncovered, and holds it up triumphantly.
“Is that it?” is the demon’s sibilant hiss from the cave’s opening. “That can of camel piss is what held me here all this time?”
Mpanga looks offended. “It’s brandy, Omúkulú táyoná: omúto n'âyoná.” (An elder never makes mistakes; it is the younger who makes mistakes. – Ugandan proverb.)
The demon chuckles. “I’m older than you are, old man. Does that make me right in your eyes?”
Mpanga looks shocked, and then laughs. “I meant that I would not repeat the mistakes of my youth at this age, but perhaps that saying needs to be revised.” Man and demon grin at each other. Mpanga is unperturbed by the teeth that had given Xander the wiggins earlier.
Mpanga opens the jar and downs half the jar in a single gulp, then hands it to the demon, who looks at it suspiciously before drinking it. Draining it, she hands the jar back with a shrug. “That was not the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted.” At Mpanga’s wide grin, she continues, “It was very close, however.” Mpanga’s peals of laughter ring from the rocks all around them. Still chuckling, he holds out a hand to her in a gentlemanly fashion. She takes it, and he leads her to Willow’s circle. Buffy stands over Willow with an axe, looking fierce.
The demon turns to Xander, and with a now familiar gesture, Spike is standing with them. She fixes them both with a look. “I require a great deal of energy to power the spell to make the Key human again. Any power I take from myself will dissipate once I leave this dimension. I have decided, that since you came to rescue her, I will use a piece of both your souls and bind it to her. The three of you will be bound. Your fates will entwine.” She gestures again, and Buffy and Willow freeze, mid-outburst. “I cannot take your souls, or any piece of them, against your will. You must agree.”
“I agree,” they say, almost in unison. Xander looks over at Spike, but he is looking back and forth between Angel and Buffy. Xander pushes down the hurt that flares at the expression on his face.
“Be as you have said.” She gestures again. Xander feels a burning in his chest, and gasps in pain when a sliver of light comes from his chest and floats toward the demon’s hand. It spins between him and Spike, meeting the light that comes from the vampire, and they swirl around each other. The light begins to take a humanoid shape, and suddenly, with a hiss and a pop, Dawn is standing between them.
She sways a bit on her feet, and Spike is at her elbow before Xander can even have the thought. She buries her head against his chest and cries.
Buffy and Willow are suddenly shouting again, but the demon growls at them and they silence quickly. “Now, witch. I have fulfilled my part of our pact. Send me home.” Willow just nods, dumbstruck. She looks down at the book resting on her folded knees and begins to chant. There’s a roar, and the air splits in two. The demon smiles toothily, and steps through the rift, and then both are gone.
Standing up, Willow dusts off her hands. Buffy is stroking Dawn’s hair with an awed look on her face. She looks up at Spike with tears in her eyes. “You saved her,” her voice wavers.
“Made a promise,” Spike says without lifting his face from Dawn’s head.
The shimmering starts again; Willow is staring hard at the air. “Train’s leaving now, guys, let’s go,” she says, waving them through.
Buffy grabs Spike’s arm and pushes him through the portal, following him through. For less than a second before he goes through, his eyes meet Xander’s.
“Coming, Xan, Angel?” Willow asks. Xander just shakes his head dumbly. Angel says, “I’ll find my own way home,” and she nods distractedly and walks swiftly through the portal. The shimmer stops.
“Can I get a ride back to Gulu, Mpanga?” Xander asks dully. He knows that in any contest between him and Buffy, he’ll always lose, so why does it hurt every time he gets proof? He stifles a sigh.
Angel puts a hand on his shoulder. “I was going to visit with Mpanga for a few days. If you want to stay, I’ll make sure you get home.” Xander nods and sits by the fire Mpanga is building.
Mpanga and Angel share a look. Mpanga puts his hand over his heart. Angel’s eyebrow goes up. Mpanga nods. Angel gives Xander a long, considering look and sits next to him. Mpanga pulls two bottles of Glenlivet out of the jeep, and sits with them. Xander is brooding so hard he doesn’t really notice that they’re passing a bottle among the three of them, much less that as the one in the middle, he’s drinking twice as much as Mpanga or Angel.
Angel waits until Xander has had a few slugs to start the conversation. “You didn’t come here just for Dawn, did you?” he asks quietly.
“No.” Xander’s cheeks are flushed, but Angel can smell the misery under the alcohol.
“Want to tell me about it?”
Xander rolls his head around on his neck and looks at Angel. “Why?”
“Because I know him, and I know Buffy, and I know you, and I’m listening.” Angel reaches for the infinite patience he’d seen Gunn use with Wesley when the Watcher had been drunk. Before.
“Yeah,” Xander muses on that for a few, his arms resting on his knees, and his head hanging down between them. “He kissed me first, you know.” He lifts his head and stares into the fire for a minute. “Why’d he do that if he wanted Buffy? Isn’t he supposed to be all good and not evil head gamey guy anymore?”
Angel thinks about his answer for several minutes. “I don’t think Spike was trying to hurt you. Sometimes Buffy is like… a force of nature. Spike is attracted to that.”
Xander looks at Angel a minute. “Yeah, she went off with Spike and just left you here, huh?”
Angel nods with a sad smile. “Yes, she did. But she and I have been over for a long time.”
“Still sucks.” Xander lies back in the dust and watches the stars spin.
“A little,” Angel admits. “Buffy and Spike are over, too, you know.”
Xander snorts. “Oh yeah, it looks like it, too.”
Mpanga shakes his head. “The eyes they turn to each other are those of obligation, not passion.”
Angel nods at that. “And Buffy isn’t the same as she was when they were together. Spike needs a certain amount of… dominance in his lovers.”
“Dominance?” Xander asks muzzily. He’s not asleep, but the tired is starting to pull him down. Gotta be jet lag catching up with him.
Angel full-on grins at him. “We can talk about it some more tomorrow.”
“I'm glad you're here. I know neither of us ever thought I'd say that. It’s good to see you smiling. I know things kind of sucked for you for a while, there. It makes it easier to save the world when you feel like there’s something worth saving it for.”
Angel smiles again, but Xander’s eyes have fallen shut and he doesn’t see. “Yeah, it does.”
It’s quiet for a while, then Mpanga starts to sing in a language Xander doesn’t recognize. Angel hums along, but doesn’t sing. Xander falls asleep to those sounds and the noise of an African night.
|Feed the Author|
|Home||Categories||New Stories||Non Spander|