Rides a Pale Horse


by
Rayne Jelly



Part Four

By late November, Spike had made the decision to lay low for a while. He told himself it was because the Slayer would be on the rampage until she exhausted herself but knew somehow that he was lying. Not about the slayer being on a rampage, because she was – her friend was dead, her mum’s health was failing, and demons were quaking in their footie pyjamas at the sound of her name – but about the threat that she posed to him. He was in now. He was part of the team since he'd rescued Harris' corpse from inevitable desecration and it was... bloody awful. The friction just wasn't there anymore; Giles had taken to sharing his stash of loose-leaf from the mother country, Buffy hardly threatened to stake him anymore, the witches invited him to birthday parties – the spark had officially gone out of their relationship.

He was in on all the Scooby hijinks now too, apparently, super marines, mystical trances, sick mums, and crap fathers at the aforementioned birthday parties he felt his hat bleaching; he was being domesticated; he was being nice; he was getting nauseous. Then the Slayer got staked by her own trusted Mr. Pointy and Spike wanted to run at light-speed in the opposite direction even as he told her about the two that he offed, back in the day when he was less of the cuddly teddy-vamp that Dawn clung to whenever they were in the same room.

This was not something he'd ever wanted – destroy the precious Scoobies from the inside out, yes, become their pet vampire, no. The smart thing to do would be to skip town before he got too much softer – just pack up his meager belongings (a few of Dru's ribbons, a spare pair of trousers) and get the hell out of dodge before he was contracted into playing dress-up or something. But there was nowhere for a chipped vampire to disappear to. Spike supposed he could find his princess, head down to Rio and hunt her down, but Dru was a fickle creature at best and the chances were she wasn't there any more. With the chip in his head he didn't have the wherewithal to make it on his own. So he was stuck – it was either take his chances in Rio with no money and no murder, or keep playing the Slayer's lap dog until he was treacle-sweet and a total disgrace. Not that there weren't third, fourth and even fifth options, but he would rather go three rounds with a Rhitcy in the slimy stage than go to Angel, or get Harmony to take him back. The worst part was that he liked them, god help him, he liked the Scoobies – they were tough as old boot leather but so vulnerable.

Spike wanted to squeeze the world like a ripe papaya just to watch it bleed – he had wanted to split the Scoobies open fresh and crisp and glistening and drink down their strength but they'd domesticated him – bought him a lamp for fuck's sake. It would be too easy now to hurt them and he knew when he got the chip out that he wouldn't enjoy it – they'd sucked the fun out of it by opening up and being so damned nice. Betrayal wasn't his game, Spike preferred things straight forward, go find the Slayer in a warehouse and dance your girlfriend around the corpse. He wasn't a fan of getting in close, getting under their skin, and feeling the flavor of broken trust in his veins - that was always Angelus' gig. So he had to get out before he got too much closer, had to because when the chip came out he wasn't going to feel guilty for ripping their spines out - what the hell kind of demon would feel bad for offing a Slayer anyway? He was pathetic, and he had to go.

So he scooped up a box of clothing and some old records, left the lamp they'd bought him in the crypt, and tried to get the hell off the hellmouth before it turned him softer than he was. Spike figured he'd drop by some of the old haunts first, grab a quick farewell drink from Willy's, collect his poker debt from Clem and skip town before the Shark caught word and decided to collect his dues. He figured he'd head to Clem's little out-of-the-way dive that he kept with his cousin first, invite him out for a drink and be out of town by the time he got around to spreading the news of Spike's egress. But the fastest way to get there from the Restfield crypt was to cut across Main then through Hillside cemetery – the cemetery where the boy was buried.

Spike sighed hugely, dreading seeing the Slayer because she spent a lot of time at that grave, just talking to the freshly laid sod. Sometimes Spike heard her monologues asking for Xander's advice about her mom, her little sister, the Marine; most of the time he avoided the place like the plague. Tonight the vampire didn't really have a choice and it would be rude not to say goodbye to the boy anyway. He'd never realized exactly how vital Harris was to the Scooby life, but now he was gone and there was a great bloody hole in the center of the saving-the-world hijinks. It was only polite, he supposed, to say his final goodbyes to the boy – not that they'd talked much in the first place, but there was history between them. Sure the best times they spent together one or the other was cursed into silence but there had been times when he hadn't wanted to rip the boy's tongue out, and who would have guessed it was the boy that made Sunnydale bearable?

Maybe it was just the direction his thoughts were taking, or maybe it was the direction his feet were moving, but Spike would swear he could smell him. That curious blend of clove and clover, sharp, clean, grassy sweetness and just a pinch of something darker, spicier. But it wasn't possible and Spike told himself that he was just smelling the grass of the graveyard. He was going around the bend – felt painfully sharp stabs of fondness well in his gut, tempered by irrational frustration. The boy was dead, that wasn't going to change and if Spike's olfactory senses couldn't process that information then it was his nose’s fault.

But... was there any harm in taking a look?

Cursing himself seven times a fool, Spike let his boots detour from his route to Clem's place and headed towards the kid's grave. He found it easily, and despite knowing that there wouldn't be a headstone for several months; he knew the plot of land like he knew his local grocery store – better, in fact, since he never bought shit from greengrocers but spent all of his time in boneyards.

And his nose hadn't led him wrong. As he crested the hillock he'd been climbing he spotted the dark shape there on the ground where Xander Harris had been buried, sitting on the plot he'd filled in with his very own hands. Not only could he smell it, but he could hear a heartbeat, faint and frantic in strange counterpoint to the gently chirruping late crickets. And he smelled blood, the iron tang of it dry and bitter in the night air – Spike crept in closer keeping as low as he could coming down from the side of a hill. The person – thing – whatever, crouched over Harris' grave didn't seem to notice him, but he ducked between conveniently large headstones anyway, trying not to alert the thing to his presence. If it was some sort of demon with appallingly bad timing he didn't want to frighten it off and have to chase it across town.

The vampire crept closer and his eyes began to feed him information that couldn't quite be believed. Broad shoulders curled over themselves, long limbs that wrapped around a vulnerable core and all of it so fucking familiar that Spike choked on air he didn't need. It had to be a doppelganger, simulacrum of some variety and whoever had summoned the bastard thing had done a fair job of it, right down to the sweet spicy smell and the exhausted sobbing. If Spike had been anywhere else, if he wasn't sitting on a hellmouth surrounded by impossible occurrences every day, he would have believed that he saw Xander Harris clutching his bony knees to his chest on his own grave. But he was on the hellmouth, and the idea of a doppelganger demon wasn't all that outlandish – he was surprised this hadn't happened before, but it wouldn't be happening tonight, not with this particular Scooby. The idea of it outraged him.

Spike didn't have a problem with the dead. Being dead himself he thought it would be a little silly to be squeamish about things like zombies or ghosts, but impersonating the dead, mimicking every detail down to the smell and wounding their loved ones – hurting the Slayer through Xander who wouldn't be able to defend himself against unlicensed use of his image – that was unacceptable. Hypocritical, maybe, for a vampire to feel that unpalatable blend of disgust and grudging admiration for the technique, but Spike was more about the crunch than any psychological agony, and he'd never let his demon use his face to hurt the people he loved. They would be having a chat, possibly one in which Spike showed its own intestines to the demon wearing his friend's face (because Xander wasn't here and could hardly contest the label), and explained the situation to it. This was his town, and those people were, for whatever reason, off limits. He'd gone fucking soft.

But as he crept closer still Spike's brain churned over his personal brand of sense-making; a nugget of Darla's logic lodged in his brain "Occam's Razor: all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one"; Angelus' too-frequent clichés and aphorisms as he growled out "The truth is stranger than fiction, lad"; and Dru's dreamy and frightening insight twisting it around in his head to say "Pretty pictures stirred up by the wings of moths, but what's real will always have its way." So Spike caught himself thinking maybe, just maybe doppelganger demons were too stupid for reality, and the simplest explanation was simply that it was Xander sitting there, sounding like him, smelling like him, looking thin and careworn but still very much like him, oblivious to the world. Spike was less than three feet away now, crouched beside the vulnerable fetal pose of his sometimes-friend and he reached out, a careful hand resting gently against the thin and shaking shoulder. "Xander?"

The boy's head snapped up and he caught Spike's eyes with a vacant gaze, wide and lost, helpless like a baby bird drawing the strength to chirp its first nonsense. "N-no."

And damned if that wasn't a typical Xander Harris reply. Except it hadn't been sarcastic, it had been frightened, and the shoulder beneath his hand was quaking now in fear and something else – the blood scent, old and dull, sharpened and the boy scrambled to his feet and took off limping at a dead run. "Xander!"


~*~*~*~*~


His hands were broken, mangled and bloody, full of pine splinters and fresh soil. He clutched them to his body as he staggered away, reeling against familiar headstones. The nice thing about crawling out of your own grave, Xander thought hysterically, was that even as the dirt did it’s damnedest to suck you back under, if you moved your feet fast enough it gave you something to stand on. And the really great thing about the hellmouth was that no one stopped him as he staggered out onto Main street, bleeding, dirty, seeing things that couldn't possibly be real – people and not people at all – but he couldn't draw the breath to scream, still felt like he was suffocating under six feet of dirt.

Xander reeled, left then right, spinning in traffic driven circles down the street, and he knew where he was, and who these people were, but couldn't make himself pick a direction, couldn't force himself to look any of them in the eye. It had to be a spell, there had to be something wrong with his eyes and he thought if his hands would just uncurl themselves that he could claw them out. He stumbled forward, ricocheted off the shoulder of a man in his mid-forties and gaped at him in horror as the man grabbed his shoulder, "Hey!"

"T-t-two years," Xander stammered.

"You okay, son?"

"Two years," Xander said more firmly, "heart attack," he said, and broke away, his hands screaming at him as he ran, full steam away from the man who was going to have a fatal heart attack in two years, and away from all of the people he could see slowly dying around him.

Eventually his panicked run around Sunnydale brought him back to where he'd started – a hole in the ground in one of a dozen cemeteries. Xander pressed frantically around the grave he'd sprung out of, looking for clues that might explain this newest insanity, but all he managed was to shift the dirt back into the hole and twist the pinky of his left hand completely out of line. The new, sharp pain caused him to cry out and ended his frenzy. Xander collapsed in the dirt, exhausted and panting – he thought maybe if he went to Buffy... but everything was so strange – images swimming slickly over one another and he wasn't sure he'd recognize her.

Xander didn't know what the hell he was going to do. Wait here until one of the scarier denizens of the Sunnydale nightlife made an appearance and ate his liver? Go wandering again in a world that looked like it was dipped in LSD and cellophane? Or just wait until later when there would be fewer people around and he might make it home. There wasn't much of a choice in that, he was too exhausted to move just yet, his hands were one screaming ache and his head another; so he would wait here until he had the strength to try again or until something ate him.

It was the second part of the plan that worked out, but not nearly as quickly as he’d hoped.

“Hello.”

Xander whipped around at the sound of the voice, startled and caught like a deer in headlights. The man on the street had been different; like thousands of sheets of transparent glass, each showing a different picture, layered together as a three dimensional puzzle. A four dimensional puzzle, because as the man stood the infant, the boy, the man with high cholesterol, and the dust his bones would become. But this man… Xander fought with his eyes for control, tried to see one image in the place of fog, a bat, a wolf, a handsome gentleman, a monster – he saw the demon in the shadows and tried to be afraid as well as confused, panicky, and sore. Insane. He was going insane. “Hi.”

“Interesting.”

He didn’t feel very interesting, he felt like meat. “Who are you?”

“I am the Prince of Darkness,” Answered the man who was not a man, his pretentiousness was strangely soothing and not at all lost on Xander, despite his state. “I am the son of the dragon. I am Vlad Tepes, I am the night.”

The old instincts were coming back, the default programming that kept Xander wisecracking under the gun and he pushed himself to his feet, cradling his injured hands, “Good for you.” He breathed hoarsely, in, out, he had to get out of here. “I’ll let you get back to that then.”

The smile was cold and made of marble. “Be silent.”

Xander’s mouth slid shut against his will and he rebelled, tried to speak but the words were lodged like sea glass in his throat.

“What is your name, boy?”

“Alexander LaVelle Harris.” Came the automatic response as some of the glass came free. His full name, which he hardly admitted to anyone, and he could have kicked himself if he’d been capable of moving his feet.

“Yes, you’ll do very nicely.” Dracula was closer, had been moving all the while, while Xander stood rooted to the spot by feet that refused to obey him. “Who am I?”

“Master.”

“Perfect.” He felt the cold lingering touch of Dracula’s hand on his cheek, shuddered in terror and exhaustion. The voice was heavy, pushing him pack down to the earth and wrapping his mind in a fog. Xander felt himself growing sleepy and wouldn't it be nice to just... curl up and take a nap? “Sleep, child.”

Xander slumped forwards into the monster’s embrace and was swept into a dream.


~*~*~*~*~


Spike took his quarry in a flying tackle, bracing himself for the inevitable migraine on impact. The boy was quick, frantic, moving like an animal as he skittered from one headstone to another without an actual plan, a rabbit drawn from its warren without anywhere to go. Spike caught him on the open stretch of grass and gravel where the hearses and the gravediggers drove and leapt, hoping like hell he wasn’t about to smash Xander’s face into a headstone and kill him again – that wouldn’t be easy to explain to the Slayer. He prayed he’d be able to hold on long enough to ride out the waves of the chip, he hoped he’d knock some sense into the boy, he hoped the gravel wouldn’t tear the duster…

Impact.

Spike’s shoulder hit Xander’s back with a thump and they both went sprawling, scraping hands and knees and tearing a good chunk of skin off Xander’s arm which suddenly bloomed with the sweet, distracting smell of fresh blood. Distracting enough, but only for a fraction of a second, just long enough to realize that the chip wasn’t trying to blast him into unconsciousness, and just long enough for Spike to not feel a sudden and sharp pang of realization that this wasn’t Xander. He’d half convinced himself of the opposite but reality had its way and Dru was right, it was a bully.

“What the hell are you?” he growled at the thing, which was squirming and struggling, tearing more of its skin on the rough path and smelling so much like Xander Harris that Spike was ready to rip it in half for sheer audacity. None-too-gently he flipped the thing over and pinned it, ignoring flailing hands and the muffled cry of pain. “What are you?!”

“Dead…” the thing gasped back, and this close Spike saw the differences he hadn’t from afar, saw the pale, drawn skin, saw how thin and rickety this creature made Harris out to be. Saw bruises and scrapes and raw looking skin even as the thing fought to get away, weak and panting hoarsely, its struggle wild and feverish. “Dead dead dead…”

“What… are you?” Why, if it could mimic Harris so well, down to the smell and the face of desperation, had it chosen to look like this? Like a cheap, abused facsimile, wearing the same suit they’d buried him in? Why did he smell, ever so faintly beneath the usual combination of grass and spice, like jasmine and myrrh? It looked tired now, and resigned – panting in the dust and crying tears that left clean streaks in the smears of dirt and blood on his face. Gently, now the thing had stopped fighting and Spike had a hand free, gently the vampire gripped the thing’s chin, stared into the gaunt and exhausted face, watched as huge brown eyes skittered away from his, and licked a smear of blood away from the jaw. Spike tasted graveyard dirt, tasted salt and clover, he tasted truth. The shock left him breathing, groping at the boy’s wrists and shoulders, holding him upright, trying to shake him back to reality.

“Dead dead dead” Xander was chanting, voice rough and cracking, but whether it was a prayer or a statement Spike didn’t know. “They tell you dead and gone… they lie.”

“Xander… you’re…?” There weren’t words. “Jesus.”

“Real?” the boy that wasn’t dead managed to ask him in a reedy quaver, he looked exhausted, eyes hardly tracking as he drew in breath after ragged breath before finishing his thought, “God… please be real.”

Spike didn’t have the opportunity to answer him before all the tension left his body and Xander lost consciousness.

Spike, almost dizzy with the revelation, disentangled himself and scrambled to his feet. Xander Fucking Harris. The name deserved the emphasis, because until now Xander Harris had been dead – a lost friend, fallen hero, martyr to the noble cause blah blah blah – until now.

Spike wondered if he was crazy. Hallucinating in some way – a throwback to Dru’s special madness or… hell, the Initiative had cut open his head and jammed a piece of hardware in there, maybe they’d jogged something loose with a careless scalpel and he was imagining it. All of it, the mad dash through the headstones, the brief and furious scuffle, the infuriatingly accurate smell… all of it something his idle brain cooked up and really he was standing here on the gravel path with the knees of his trousers torn out because he’d gone mad.

Except that he hadn’t, Spike knew about stars and delusions, and this wasn’t either. This was something new and strange, something Spike would definitely be staying in town to figure out. For the second time in his unlife, the vampire gently lifted Xander, this time mindful of his injuries. He could feel the feverish warmth of the boy even through the thick leather of the duster, could smell his blood, and plainly see the wrecked state of him – Spike knew Xander would need medical attention, but didn’t dare take him to a hospital; there was a heartbeat, Xander was warm and breathing, but not long ago he had been dead, the kind of dead that would undoubtedly show up on a monitor. The vampire sighed, shifted the unconscious human so Xander’s weight leaned into him, and headed back across the cemetery. At least this time he wouldn’t have to boot Harm out.





Part Five

Xander Harris was unconscious, and then he wasn’t. There was no gradual process of twitching and moaning between stages, simply an indescribable moment where dead-to-the-world simply became fully-aware. His eyes flew open and he was falling, Spike’s grip on him as he climbed down the ladder in his crypt having been contingent on Xander’s remaining unconscious. Falling, landing with a painful thud that made agony bloom in red and orange flowers from his elbow and his hip. Fully aware always meant pain.

“Shit! Sorry.”

Xander did a quick catalogue, brain spinning as it processed this new ache – his skin was an incessant itch where it was torn and bitten, pulled muscles ached in time to the throb of veins and organs, constantly struggling in a near permanent state of anemia, and his hands… he didn’t have the vocabulary to describe his hands. The skin there was hot and tight, swollen and puffy – painful to look at, his knuckles were misshapen and battered, and blood – there was always blood from where he struggled to pick away grit and soggy splinters with his teeth. Sometimes he wanted to cut them off for the novelty, but then… he couldn’t hold a saw, and once he got the left one done, how would he manage the right? Sometimes he thought he was crazy.

This last he couldn’t be sure of – but some recessed part of his mind was fairly certain that sane people didn’t see things that weren’t there. When he remembered about the hellmouth he thought maybe he was possessed, or haunted, but Master had said he was quite mad, and Xander believed him.

“Back in the land of the living I see,” said the thump of boots on hard-packed dirt. “Sorry, poor choice of words.”

He hadn’t always been crazy, he remembered that much, but time slipped and slid, moments crashing into one another like heavy boulders in a landslide, memories and realities crumbling away. He remembered not being crazy, but tomorrow he might not. It started with shadows, slipping in to the corners of a room, lingering behind torches and tapestries – not altogether unusual in the home of a vampire, but these were different… these shadows breathed. Or it started with the nightmares. It didn’t matter, the sequence of events had long since ceased to make sense and it didn’t matter – what mattered were the faces. Ghostly, looming figures, pressing against him, hundreds of them in the dark, all of them needing him, every one a visage of fear, pain, and confusion, some of them angry or in agony – every single one so fucking distinct he could almost name them. He didn’t know there could be so many faces in the world. Silent testaments to the potential suffering of all mankind, all of them pressed against his skin and his soul, needing something from him that he didn’t know how to give. They were suffocating him, slipping down his throat and filling up his lungs with every breath… he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe.

“Xander?”

Coughing and gagging he tried to sit up, find his bearings, push past the ghosts that he knew weren’t real but were dragging at him anyway but suddenly his ribs were electricity and he fell back with a cry of pain, trying to curl around the source. “Too much…” he rasped, feeling the dry catch of the specters, “it’s just too much.”

“Sorry about that,” said the voice, which gained relevance as it suddenly came with a face and a name, a memory, before it was pushed under the tide of rage and confusion from the shadows. “I think I cracked a rib or two when I tackled you… heard something pop.”

“I know… I know…” he pleaded, trying to placate them, trying to force them away until he could catch his breath, “you need… I’m sorry, please just… I’m sorry.”

“Which I find particularly interesting, as there wasn’t a fireworks display in my skull,” the voice he wasn’t bothering to listen to continued.

“Have to bear witness.”

“M’sorry?”

“Someone has to bear witness, she said.” Xander tried to explain as he’d been trying to explain for weeks, as though to say it aloud would help it make sense. “She said it would hurt, she said it would hurt, she said it would hurt, but someone has to see it all, them’s the rules.”

“Xander… what?”

“There’s always been… there has always been and now it’s me,” he babbled out, a little hysterical but unable to stop himself. He remembered the dreaming and tried to explain to the shadows – an old man watching him with such stony dignity he cringed – remembered the pain, living under the skin of people he would never meet for the time it took them to die, “But it’s too much and I can’t close my eyes, I won’t, it’s so much worse when I close my eyes.”

“Well keep ‘em open then, pet.” This time when Xander tried to sit up he succeeded, gasping and heaving as he propped himself up by will alone. When he was upright the dizziness struck and he rode it, following the lift and swoop into the black pit of a stellar headache. “Xander… d’you know where you are? Who you are?”

He knew that voice, remembered it with fondness, and for the first time managed to find the vampire’s eyes in the maelstrom. Color. Red and gold and grey and blue all at once. He knew who he was, knew who Spike was and… despaired. Wanted to scream with the injustice of it but couldn’t draw the breath. It was a horrifying suspicion that began to form in the back of his head, working on unending loops of pain and confusion, and Xander couldn’t stand the fact that Spike was part of it – that they’d use such a familiar face to hurt him. He couldn’t breathe, and he couldn’t die. Would he be passed around from demon to demon for eternity, was Anya next? Anyanka? Angel? “Are you… you’re going to hurt me now?”

“Maybe once you’ve healed.” The vampire’s response had been flip but Xander’s trembling multiplied tenfold and he fought against the pain to sit up. Flashes of agony in his ribs and hands made him gasp, but he couldn’t be sitting on hard dirt for this conversation, couldn’t be so helpless. “Hey, woah! Where do you think you’re going?”

“I get it, I guess. No fun playing if the toy’s broken when you pull it out of the box…”

“Huh?” Spike sounded confused. Confused and concerned. Xander was shaking his head, unconscious denial and unmitigated panic thinking he was going to spend the rest of his life – death – here; when Spike’s hand landed on his shoulder he flinched. The hand moved, grabbed his shoulders, touched his face, his neck, his face again, and it hurt, every touch was pins and needles on his skin… but it was eerily reassuring, felt real. “No… Xander…”

The gentle voice was almost as bad as Dracula’s, “I do get it, I do… I mean, the Prince and Count always insist on everyone being healthy before they're broken. I remember. It’s just… I always thought, I tried, I think, to be a good man.”

“Xander?”

“A decent man, at least. Like Giles, or… Ben Franklin. I’ve run out of examples, and I know I wasn’t perfect but I… I didn’t think I deserved…”

Spike grabbed his chin, stilling his head and forcing it around until he was looking the vampire dead in the eye. It didn’t hurt as much as Xander anticipated. The other hand that had been gripping his shoulder began to move, running down the line of his arm and back up – which didn’t hurt at all, and made him distinctly nervous. “Xander, very slowly, and in words of two syllables or less, explain to me what you are talking about.”

“Why am I in hell?”

“Well done…” Spike said vaguely, rocking back like he’d been slapped, his hands falling away from Xander completely, but he recovered quickly snatching Xander by the shoulders in a grip that was painful, and exactly what he needed. “No. Xander, no. Why do… why d’you think you’re in hell?”

Xander couldn’t look at him – a demon he’d never known was one thing, but Spike as his confessor, Spike who knew too much about him already – Xander couldn’t look at him, so he looked away, imagined, tried not to imagine, remembered. “I always thought we were… doing the right thing, but the path to hell is paved… as they say” he giggled a little hysterically and brought himself back under rein when Spike squeezed his shoulders. “All those different spells, praying to pagan gods and I shouldn’t have kissed Willow and… oh no. No no no… Buffy and Willow, no… no. When they, no, they can’t come here, they shouldn’t. If I’m here its cause I deserve it but not them, no I’ll…”

“And they wonder why Abraham couldn’t find a righteous man…” Spike muttered as he put his hand over Xander’s mouth, stopping the string of nonsensical pleading before it had a chance to begin. “Shush. Just hush for a minute, I’m sorry I asked that.” The quiet, distracted sincerity in Spike’s voice was deeply unnerving. “You’re feverish, and you’re injured, and I shouldn’t have asked any of what I asked, or said any of what I said.” Xander tried to shake his head, look away, anything to keep from being still, but Spike’s hand wrapped around his face kept him still, a gentle, painless prison. “You are safe here, Xander. You’re safe. I’m not going to hurt you, I don’t even want to try – you are safe. Do you know that?”

Xander nodded as the hand slipped away to let him answer, though he knew no such thing. He didn’t trust this, didn’t trust Spike, or what his eyes were telling him, or anything but the ache in his ribs and tight, dryness of his skin. He trusted pain, and for the moment everything else was confusing.

“Can we move you somewhere softer? Do you think you can stand?” The vampire continued, slowly, like he was talking to a spooked horse, and that didn’t make much sense either. Spike could catch him if he ran – Xander knew that like he knew the sky was blue – so he wouldn’t run because it made being caught infinitely worse. It was the softness he didn’t understand – why, or how, or… any of the standard questions. But he didn’t have to answer them because even the unstandard ones like “can you?” were being handled by Spike as he was lifted, up in the air and floating for a brief and terrifying moment before being set – gently, oh-so-gently – on the promised soft surface. A bed, a bed that was real, and creaked, and smelled of crisp linen and sweet candle wax. The faces moved with him, following, dragging at his skin and his eyes, but Spike didn’t seem to care. Propped him up against a pillow and held on, fingers tracing his newly bruised elbow, inspecting the damage, one hand on Xander’s knee. He could focus like this, ignore his eyes in favor of his skin – but he couldn’t close them. Never never close them. “There. See? Safe.”

“No. They always lie. Did you know there was a difference between demons and the devil? Nowhere that’s real is safe.”

“You’re real. You’re here, you’re real, and fuck knows how, but you’re okay. You’re just running a fever… Christ, mate, it must be up over a hundred. Running a fever and… and…”

“Crazy?” Xander giggled a little hysterically and heard it echoed, the touch – hands- slipped back down to his neck.

“Maybe a little?” There was a woman watching him, full of sorrow and regret and Xander watched her back until she was swallowed by the constant churn and replaced by a very old man. Hand on his shoulder, hand on his shoulder – that was real. “But I know the resident expert on crazy, and I’ve seen worse, Xander. You’ll be okay.”

“Oh, yes. Right as rain. Just like last time. I think I died. It rains in hell you know.”

“Definitely crazy.” The tone was amused. “Can I leave you here to fetch some water?”

“No!” He sounded hysterical, even to his own ears. Water, Spike had said, water that sounded so good, so pure, so necessary… and there was no guarantee of water, no guarantee that Spike would ever come back. Xander couldn’t let him walk away, and his heart started to pound. “No. No don’t. Please don’t go please don’t go.”

“Shh shh shh. You’re okay, you’re fine.” The vampire murmured soothingly while Xander got himself back under control, and he knew he was being ridiculous, knew that when Spike walked away he was still there, knew in his rational mind all of the things that a rational mind knows, like why governments are good in theory and crap in practice, and why it feels warmer under the snow, but his rational mind wasn’t calling the shots, and when Spike walked away he was gone.

“I… I’m sorry. I’m crazy, I know I’m crazy, and a huge inconvenience, and I’m sorry but please… please don’t go.”

“Not goin’ anywhere… just…” the pressure on his shoulder became lighter, but didn’t disappear, and the bed dipped and rolled a bit, tipping Xander when he couldn’t catch himself with broken hands and a sudden sharp, starburst of pain in his side stopped him from trying. He tipped drunkenly towards Spike, who didn’t let him fall over. “There, isn’t that better?”

The voice was closer – Spike was closer – the entire cool length of his arm draped across Xander’s fevered neck, and Xander couldn’t keep himself from squeezing his eyes shut and tilting his head to the side in open invitation of the pain of a bite. “Thank you.” Pain was real, pain was the ever-present, ever-still center of the tornado. Pain wasn’t happening. “Thank you thank you thank you.”

“Dru told me once…” Spike said quietly after a long, horrified pause, his deep voice reverberated through his chest and hummed against Xander’s side. Real real real. “That she needed someone to hold her down. That her bones were hollow like a bird and someone had to hold her down or she’d float away like a balloon.”

“No.” Xander tried to explain through the craziness and the sudden longing to be a balloon. “I’m not floating… I’m not… I think I’m not anything, I’ll dissolve away and be swallowed up by the air if someone’s not holding my hand. If there’s not…” pain. A presence. The shadows and the faces fought for recognition behind his closed eyelids – he was crazy, he knew – but Xander focused on the arm, on his hands, on not sliding away to be swept away into their inky chaos.

He started to shake. A tremor he had lived with for the better part of a week re-emerging under the onslaught of adrenaline and exhaustion. He stared at Spike’s hand. Thought about water. About how clean it was. How… wet. How much his adjectives sucked when his lips were dry and cracked and his skin felt like crepe paper, his tongue was a dead thing glued to the roof of his mouth, and his head pounded and his blood was acid. How, in the lush and verdant oasis of Sunnydale, California he hadn’t managed to get his hands on any in… too long. He shouldn’t be alive for more reasons than Spike knew. And Spike said this wasn’t hell. “You…” He started, stopped again, felt, tried to breathe himself into a serene place, “You said you had water?”

“Course I do.” He made no move to get it, which Xander appreciated more than he could say. Deep breaths.

“Can you… God I’ve lost it. Can you get it? Really quick I mean? I… just… please? Sorry.”

Gently, without losing contact, Spike disentangled himself, waiting with that ever present hand on Xander’s shoulder for the okay, a nod, a gesture, something. “Okay, okay, stay here; I’m just going across the room. I’m right here, the whole time, okay?”

Xander… breathed, steeled himself, tried not to imagine an indefinite stretch of time with shadows and dusk pressing into his skin and stealing bits of him away, nodded. And Spike was gone.

Into the dark shadows, where Xander’s eyes couldn’t penetrate. He heard some rustling and the plasticky rush of the seals on a refrigerator opening and closing, and tried to breathe, deep, even breaths, trying to push the faces and their oily presence out of his mind, because he was panicking without knowing why. Spike had said water, had he meant it? Xander’s breathing became less even, the constant rattle of his nerves worsened, and then Spike was back. Back with an open, clear plastic bottle full of water. He could breathe again. Xander didn’t say anything as Spike crawled up to sit beside him, simply held his hands out, hoping Spike would know enough to feed the bottle into his palms without letting it jar his fingers too badly.

“Jesus.” Spike muttered, set the bottle aside for a moment, and grabbed Xander’s arm by the wrist, well away from the damage, inspecting him. “How the….”

“I don’t like being buried, Spike. Please don’t bury me again,” Xander begged a little desperately, “I don’t think I can crawl out a third time.”

“A third…? You know, never-mind. It’s okay. You can explain that later when you’ve had some rest. Water?”

“Please.”

This time when he held out his hands, Spike gave it to him, and he held it clutched between his palms like a squirrel with an acorn. The water tasted strange, a little plasticized, possibly, but it was cold and good; so good Xander could hardly believe it even as he gulped it down, some of it escaping his cracked lips and slipping over his jaw and down his neck. Too good to be real, but too real feeling to be an illusion and he wept, hot, grateful tears that mixed with the water on his chin. “Thank you…” Xander gasped out when he could, for the water, for the bed, for everything even if it meant hell in the morning. “Thank you.”

“That’s all right.” Spike’s hand combed through his hair a few times before plucking the empty bottle out of his hands, and Xander wasn’t exactly sure why that was okay, but it was. The vampire pushed gently on his shoulder, laying him back down, trying not to disturb his ribs, and resumed his petting, “That’s all right, you just rest now.”

A fog was rolling in, the world was hazy with it and sleep seemed like just the thing, except… “Don’t make me dream,” he muttered, eyes already drooping shut because the funny taste in the water had been secobarbital.





Part Six

Spike, the amateur anesthesiologist, hung around for about twenty minutes composing a mental list of things he needed and things to do while keeping an ear out for Xander’s breathing to make sure he hadn’t dosed the boy into a second death. Then, confident that the knock-out drugs would carry Xander into a natural sleep, he disentangled himself and went shopping.

Spend any length of time protecting a madly magical vampire from her own whims and one is exposed to a number of hell dimensions. Spike, having spent a hundred-plus years beside just such a vampire, had become intimately familiar with a number of them, and considered himself something of an authority. He was, therefore, convinced that there were at least two portals to various hells in the Sunnydale Walmart. The noise, buzzing fluorescents and squalling children, even at this time of night, seemed designed to penetrate his skull with uncanny accuracy; the gusts of hot, fetid air and wind from cooling fans swept over him until he was neither hot nor cold but uncomfortably clammy, and the smells… overwhelming scented candles and bad perfumes in one corner, dusty rubber and Freon in another, vying for dominance in the world’s most odiferous wrestling match; this place was the product of a hell dimension, he was sure. Nevertheless, Walmart was open twenty four hours and had nearly everything [if not a few choice CDs or movies he wouldn’t mind pocketing] and right now Spike was fairly sure he needed everything. He even accepted a cart from the bored looking kelfa demon charged with morosely greeting people at the door.

The first thing Spike tossed in the cart was an enormous aluminum tamale bucket – it would come in handy. The boy was in a bad way. Understatement. Train-wreck was somewhat closer to the truth of the matter; train cars overturned, spewing out fire and screaming passengers, big clouds of billowing smoke, broken bodies and debris strewn along the track for miles…. Xander was a highly localized train-wreck – Spike hadn’t needed to spend more than five minutes with him to see that. He tossed a number of Ace bandages, rolls of gauze, tape, rubbing alcohol, tweezers, scissors, a handful of sturdy finger splints – no better make that two handfuls – and a bottle of Tylenol before he made his way down to the sports equipment for some fishing line.

Then the hunt got harder. Spike had electric, but it was crap and wouldn’t sustain a hotplate for more than a few minutes, and while there was water by way of tapping the main that ran just under his crypt and towards the Apple Grove housing development, it was stone cold; Spike wasn’t about to fix Xander up only to have him die of hypothermia. He didn’t waste time thinking about why he was bothering as he scanned the aisles for some heating agent he could dump in the bucket. He knew, didn’t he? Xander was the heart and soul of the Scoobies and Spike was now – irrevocably – a Scooby. He had to acknowledge it now; even the hellmouth was conspiring against him. It had done this before, dragging its children back when they tried to escape – the moment Spike wanted to leave Xander came stumbling and crawling back into his life, trapping him. So there was no reason to ask, and no question of what was to be done.

No, the question was what had been done to him. And where, why, and by whom. The full set from grammar school, and Spike didn’t even know how to begin asking. The boy said he’d been in hell – Spike wondered if it were true.

There was nothing battery operated that could heat a bucket of water, but there were propane-based camp stoves. Spike wasn’t too thrilled with the possibility of blowing up his crypt, but well… it wouldn’t be the first time. Embroidery needles, a three-pack of boxers, and a few cans of soup later and Spike was home a hundred dollars poorer, thirty of which went for some non-standard prescription pain killers from a demon on the far side of Restfield. The demon had cocked an eyebrow at the contents of Spike’s tamale bucket and asked if he had something special planned. Spike returned the eyebrow, raised him a smirk, and said quite realistically “You have no idea.” Because really… who would?

Spike slid down the ladder, half dreading this next encounter with the mysteriously not-un-dead young man, but Xander was exactly where he’d been left, his breathing slow and even. He dumped the contents of the bucket on a soft-ish noise-deadening pile of tapestries and crept past the bed without quite knowing why he was sneaking. The duster – which he had obtained by peeling off a dead girl, meaning he was never particularly gentle with it – hit the floor with a heavy “crump” and he flinched at the noise. Then, calling himself seven kinds of fool he turned on the tap and pushed the bucket under the flow with a clang. The roar of water hitting the enormous tub reverberated in the background while Spike blustered about fiddling with the camp stove, kicking crap out of his way, cursing, and generally over-compensating for his nerves. Then he laughed, finally settling down when he realized that he was playing to an audience that was dead to the world. Yet another poor choice of words.

Spike’s ears kept him aware of the rhythm of Xander’s heart beat, but when he’d finished having his little snit he checked for a pulse with his fingers too, feeling feverish skin and grime under his fingertips. Xander wouldn’t appreciate any of what he was going to do next, but Spike was temporarily declaring him non compos mentis so he didn’t get a say. The last time he’d seen this suit – the only suit Xander owned, which inspired a flood of tears from Red when she found it in the back of his closet – he and Tara had been wrestling the dark blue material over limbs that were barely starting to come out of rigor. She was a rock, was Glinda. Thinking he’d have to wrangle the boy out of it now, having to unbutton shirt cuffs that were caked in blood and grave muck, made Spike’s skin crawl, so he pulled a knife out of his boot and started to cut the damn thing off.

Xander wasn’t wearing shoes – hardly a surprise – and his feet were filthy. Spike started at the right ankle anyway, distancing himself, and the knife shearing through the cheap wool as if it were coming off the sheep. He stank, sweat, desperation, and earth clinging to his skin and his hair, but he didn’t stink of the grave – didn’t reek of decay. As the trousers came away (and Spike raised an eyebrow when he saw that Harris wasn’t wearing pants because Spike all-too-distinctly remembered wriggling Aquaman undies onto his corpse) Spike tried not to look too closely. It wasn’t the nudity, or even the dirt, but the damage. There was torn skin under Spike’s fingertips; three long parallel gashes on a calf, the lowest cutting across the tendon in Xander’s ankle. They had stopped bleeding but had not healed, their edges jagged and caked in muck. Spike stared at them in horror for a moment, thinking of the pain the boy must have been in, amazed he could stand, let alone run from him.

Harris was bruised everywhere – globs of purple and blue fading into greenish brown like paint just under his skin. He was skeletally thin too, Spike discovered as he unbuttoned Harris’ shirt. Too thin for a young suburbanite, something Spike never thought he’d see. Xander had never been fat, but he’d always been solid – muscle, blood, and golden skin. In those nights spent tied to a chair in the kid’s basement as he paraded around in nothing but boxers and a wife-beater Spike fantasized about sinking his teeth in, imagining the rich quality of that blood pumping just under the skin. He’d always been a decent weight, full up on life and life’s blood. Now he looked like he’d hardly fill a teaspoon.

Spike sliced open the jacket and shirt sleeves, feeling bony wrists, sharp elbows, the points of collar bones pushing up through skin as thin and delicate as paper. He looked worse than he had when they’d buried him.

And he’d been bitten.

Spike saw red when he saw the distinctive semi-circle over Xander’s heart. Not a killing bite, a tasting bite, an owning bite. A bite that perfectly framed a starburst of scar tissue – and Spike he supposed he knew where that came from too. Once upon a time, Spike would have seen it on Xander’s skin and been insanely envious – sinking in to the gums, feeling the muscle throb around his fangs as a heart – so close – pumped blood just his beneath his teeth. A bite like that re-defined oral sex, and it was at least two weeks old. Once upon a time.

When Spike pushed gently at Xander’s shoulder, mindful of the bruises but rolling him over to get at the fabric trapped under his body, he saw another just under Xander’s ribs. A third revealed itself on his hip when Spike rolled him back, and now that he was actively looking for them he saw tooth marks everywhere. The bicep near the brachial artery, the inside of his thigh too close to the femoral for comfort, and the freshest, most ragged bite on his throat – the killing bite – caked in dried blood and mud. Xander should have been dead at least twice over. Yet here he was – heart beating a little fast for resting, breathing a little erratic now he wasn’t drugged out of his mind, but sleeping – alive.

Four vampires, he saw when he looked a little closer, six bites. The minute he could get away Spike was going to hunt down the nest that had done this and rip them to shreds.

He hadn’t, for a century, been in the habit of taking human companionship. He’d had Dru and Dru was all. Circumstance had forced change, and now Spike had humans. But circumstance couldn’t change the nature of the beast. Vampires were possessive. The Scoobies were his. Even the slayer was his – and, no, he and Xander had never gotten on, but Xander was a Scooby; therefore Xander was his. Tautological, but no less true for the redundancy. That something had dared touch, let alone sink its fangs into, one of Spike’s possessions was unforgivable; he would eviscerate them – make them choke on their own testicles before ripping out their hearts and eating them. He thanked every twinkling star in the sky that the initiative didn’t leave him helpless against demons as he conjured up brutal fantasies of revenge. Rail road spikes weren’t the half of it.

The water boiled.

Spike felt like his head was boiling too. The pan rattled and heaved on the stove, and it dragged Spike’s focus back to the task at hand. He was grateful for the opportunity to turn his back for a moment. Him, a vampire, and grateful to get away from the marks of destruction. His blood sang with rage and the frustration of being able to do nothing. Daylight. Xander. Potential infection setting in while he had a little snit. Rage and loathing – variety: self. Moving quickly once he’d pulled his head out of his ass, Spike plucked the bucket off the stove and wound down the propane, snatching up a clean rag on his way back to Xander.

Spike started at the opposite end this time, washing the boy’s face first. The fine layer of dirt and grime that had been providing him the illusion of color slid away under the wet rag, revealing skin that was pallid and grey. He looked more corpse-like than Spike, and the water clinging to his skin glistened appallingly in the dim light. But Xander’s heart was steadily pumping and his breath stirred the hair on Spike’s arm as he worked. It was the best he could expect.

The process took hours. He worked as gently as he could, trying not to be the impetus that would push Harris across death’s threshold again, and as filthy as Xander was, Spike had to replace the water twice so he wasn’t bathing Harris in freezing muck. He quietly counted potential stitches as he worked, pieces of Xander’s skin that he would need to sew back together, and while there weren’t many, he was glad he had bought the embroidery needles. Not the bites. There wasn’t much that could be done for a vampire bite save a bandage and some aspirin; they would scar and the knowledge reinvigorated the fury that coursed under his attempt at calm professionalism. Every time he looked at them it gave fresh significance to how profoundly he’d failed to protect what was his – on the day he died and now. The gouges on his leg, however, those could be cared for. And the similar slashes arcing from his shoulder blade to the outside of his ribs – they could be sutured. And his hands… something had to be done about those too. Spike figured, fervently hoped, that because tackling Xander and cracking a few ribs hadn’t set off his chip, stitching him up wouldn’t either. He could only hope that Harris would stay unconscious long enough for Spike to do what needed to be done. He didn’t get his wish.

There wasn’t much of a change in Xander’s heartbeat. One moment Spike was picking grit out of the boy’s skin, the next Xander was sucking in a great whooping breath and shooting straight up in the bed. Panting and coughing and choking – Spike barely got the bucket under him before he was vomiting up wet, brown gobs of bile into the dirty water. Each heave resulted in a revolting splash and the stench was… impressive; bitter and so foul that Spike stopped breathing in the defense of his nose. It was the sour, dead smell of a stomach that had been empty for far too long.

When he was through, Xander remained slumped over the top of the aluminum, shaking and coughing weakly while tears slipped down his cheeks. Spike winced on his behalf, imagining the fire in his ribs just now, and the taste in his mouth. He was muttering too, between ragged breaths, “Drowning…” Spike caught before Xander had to cough again. “Drowning. It’s not… your lungs that want to explode.” Another shuddering gasp. “Fucking all night drowning… my head oh god my head.”

“Harris?” Spike risked moving in next to him to put a hand on his bony shoulder. His skin was nightmare feverish and clammy with sweat. “Xander, mate? You in there?”

Xander turned to glower at him through a fall of dark, lank hair. “Where the hell else would I be?” At a loss for words, Spike said nothing, but he didn’t have to. Xander laughed sharply, then moaned when the action made his ribs twinge. “No. Don’t answer that, it might make sense. Spike?”

A question he could answer, “Yeah, Harris. S’me.”

“Never liked Smee. Not really a pirate.”

“What?”

“Spike.”

“Yeah.”

“Spike?”

“What, Xander?”

“I just… can’t believe it. Don’t believe it.”

“Who would you believe?”

“That’s… not fair.” Seeming to have gotten himself under control, Xander pushed himself away from the bucket full of filth and slumped backwards against the pillows – wincing, readjusting, sighing – and then there was a moment of bizarre clarity when he looked at Spike and Spike looked at him. “Am I naked?”

The vampire snorted, “Fraid so. You cold?”

“Spend all my damn time naked,” he grumbled, almost an aside before addressing yet another question Spike’s way. “What the heck am I doing here? I thought I was dead.”

“You don’t remember?”

“I…” in a movie, the haunted pause that stopped Xander’s next words would have blurred into a flashback, or he would have burst into tears and been cradled in the arms of Sally Field. In a movie, Spike would have laughed. But when Xander’s voice turned high and distressed, Spike didn’t feel much like laughing. “I remember.”

“I found you, brought you here. I was just trying to clean you up.”

“Did you kill him?”

“The Krecht demon? Yeah mate, I killed him. Couple months ago.”

“No… D-d… the master. Is that how…?”

“What master? How what?”

“Spike?”

“Don’t start that again.”

“Is there a toothbrush somewhere?”

It was an abrupt shift in the conversation, but as Spike had no idea where the conversation had been headed he let it slip past unawares. “Yeah, maybe. Can I leave you here to go find one?”

“We’ve had this conversation before…” Xander murmured in wonder, as though memory were a remarkable new thing. “Yeah. Tastes like something died in my mouth. Please?”

“Yeah. No problem.”

The travel aisle at the local Walgreens had been Spike’s friend for years and he’d built up quite a collection of crap from idly pocketing whatever came to hand. He had toothbrushes, tooth paste, little packs of Listerine strips, aspirin, Tylenol, mouthwash, lotion, shampoo… a small convenience store of little bottles and blister packs that he hardly used. When he handed Xander a toothbrush, blue so as not to confuse it with his red one, preloaded with Aquafresh, and a fresh bottle of water Xander looked like Christmas had come early. He scrubbed with a will, clumsily using both hands and brushing so intently Spike thought his teeth would wear clean away before Xander deemed them clean enough, but they were still there, gleaming white when he spat spent toothpaste into the filthy bucket and asked, “Shower?”

“There’s not really…” The question had sounded flip and presumptuous, like Xander any other day of the week, but when he actually looked at the boy… Xander was practically vibrating on the spot, tense with nerves and something else that Spike had never seen directed at him. Xander was afraid; naked, vulnerable, and afraid of Spike. Are you going to hurt me now? Spike sighed.

“Okay, this is how this is gonna go. I’m gonna work at patching you up – there’s no way I’m putting you under running water in the state you’re in. Then we’ll talk, okay? Figure something out…”

“You’re gonna let me be clean?”

For just a moment the thin veneer of Xander Harris on top of this new, shivering wreck of a creature peeled away; it crawled and groveled and stabbed Spike in his unbeating heart.




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