Rides a Pale Horse


by
Rayne Jelly



Part Thirty-Six

Xander closed his eyes. He held his body still and his breath slow, let the noise in his head fade to a silver-blue stream of emptiness, cool and soothing and winding like a ribbon where his heart brushed the world. And then his stomach lurched up a bubble of air from the evening’s excitement, and he sheepishly opened his eyes to find Spike staring at him. The meditation thing was still a work in progress.

He’d had a ripping headache since their scuffle in the cemetery. Something he hadn’t noticed or let himself feel before because he’d been distracted, first by Spike, shoving him down and grinding until he thought his hips would break or his brain would, and then by the incident with Buffy that smothered his burgeoning migraine in a hot pink cloud of embarrassment. It was back with a vengeance now though, in a moment of stillness and silence – the left side of his head felt like it was going to break apart and fall in sloppy gray pieces onto the carpet, but he decided against telling Spike. He didn’t feel concussed, his head didn’t feel bruised, he just feel like parts of his skull were going to come detached at the eye socket and the less he thought about it the better.

Spike was being unnervingly patient with him. He’d asked the question, and when Xander didn’t know how to answer, when he’d stammered out a panicked plea for time to think about how to phrase it… Spike backed off. He’d sat down across the room and picked up a copy of Frankenstein of all things, and looked, for all the world, completely absorbed in his paperback while Xander… thought. It was enough to stop a heart because the vampire was being reasonable. Xander knew that eventually he would ask again, that the question of how the big ugly biker with the scary teeth had dissolved under his hands without the aid of so much as a wooden spoon would rear its ugly hydra-like maw and eat him with a dozen mouths, because Spike could pester, and it wasn’t as though Xander would be walking away. But the vampire was being patient, giving him time to get his head together before he tried to explain something that couldn’t be put into words. Kind, patient, and disconcertingly, demonstrably, affectionate. Sex he could just about handle, but when Spike wandered into the kitchen to get a beer and absentmindedly planted a kiss on his forehead, Xander didn’t know how to react. He’d never been very good with public displays of affection, or even private displays of affection, but especially not when it felt so…. He gave up, gave in, and pretended to meditate to avoid thinking altogether.

It wasn’t working. The little hamster wheel in his head spun and squeaked on its frame, but with his eyes shut and the room full of the silence of one pair of pumping lungs, he could at least get the hamster running in the right direction. And the direction was typically due Buffy. He thought she was more or less a safe place to start, and not simply because he knew her well, or had died trying to answer the question “what would Buffy do,” though that probably had something to do with it. Buffy was the place to start because he’d lived with her, eaten meals with her family, laughed at her terrible puns, didn’t want her to die. He didn’t want her to watch her mom die. It was that simple. And Spike would get that, probably, so he started there. “It was Joyce.” The vampire put down his book, and very calmly did not say a word. Xander kept his eyes closed. “I… don’t… like to look too close, y’know? I feel like… I’m invading their privacy, I guess. Seeing things I shouldn’t.”

“Always look close at me, Pet.” The vampire returned in a voice that made his eyes pop open and his skin flush pink down to his belly button.

“You’re different.” Xander muttered hotly, and Spike snorted in what could only be confirmation, “You don’t mind do you?”

“Never been much for modesty, me.”

“No kidding,” It was Xander’s turn to snort, “where was I?”

“It was Joyce,” Spike prompted, and he shut his eyes again.

“Yeah. She was why I started… practicing, I guess. I saw her every day, and… at first I tried not to look too hard, y’know? Because… I can’t explain it. It’s weird, you’re just gonna have to trust me when I say… it feels like taking pictures of naked people through a bathroom window.”  Spike made a startled “snerk” noise and Xander ran that image through his head, cringed, “Or maybe not exactly like that. I… is this part important? I dunno. It’s…”

“You’re seeing a private moment, let’s just leave it at that, yeah?”

“Yes. Thank you. A private moment people aren’t even a little bit aware of, and most of them are hurting and afraid and… it’s woogy.”

“Intimate.” The word rolled with satisfaction.

“Yeah. And how many people on the street do you want to be intimate with?”

He saw Spike think about it. “Point taken.”

“Anyway, I can’t help seeing it. God knows I rather wouldn’t because… with Joyce it was so soon, and so sudden. A lot of people, there’s a difference between… what they look like when you’re talking to them, and what they’re gonna look like. They’re… bloody, or skinny and wrinkled or… you get the idea. But she wasn’t. And… Buffy isn’t. She looks so healthy… It’s just… one minute alive, and the next it’s dead and I didn’t… wanna see that.”

“Xander…” They sympathy in Spike’s tone was unwelcome. He wanted this done with.

“I’m fine. I wanted… I needed to know if there was a way to stop it. If there was like… a point of no return or something. And I guess I missed my window there, huh?” He stilled, pulled himself back to the moment, to the murder – and it was, somehow it was a murder – of the unnamed vampire. “I um,” he phrased it delicately, not wanting to put a name to the weeks of awful separation, the misery and insomnia and twisting anxiety that he could have lived without, and they’d just gotten the apartment put back together so he wasn’t about to set Spike off. “When I was patrolling with Buffy, I guess I started looking harder. Really… thinking about what I was seeing, y’know? And I guess… I got better at seeing… exactly how, and exactly when. Cause all I really had to do was wait to find out. Zepple demon comes oozing up out of the sewers and… all I had to do was time it until the axe in its polyps was really there.”

“Zepple demon? Really?”

“Yeah. It was gross. And Giles made us look it up first… I did not need to know you could use toenails like that.”

Spike’s grimace was entirely genuine, and Xander got a kick out of seeing him curl his toes up so hard they cracked. “Handy skill though, for fightin’ demons. Know where the soft spots are.”

Xander laughed, surprised because he hadn’t put those two thoughts together and probably never would have. He saw them die, sure, and he was getting really good at seeing exactly when and how, but he was more famous for his flail-and-pray approach to combat strategy. “Guess so.”

“Still doesn’t explain how you took out that vamp. I mean… it can be done, but I didn’t think you’d pulled its heart out.”

Xander rubbed a hand over his sternum, shaking his head. No, he definitely hadn’t done any de-hearting lately – the whole idea had made him a little bit queasy ever since he saw Temple of Doom as a kid and then the nightmare with the first slayer… if Xander never saw a beating heart again it would be too soon. But his nausea was a nice distraction because this was the hard part. The part he really couldn’t explain, couldn’t even think about because the headache flared sharp and stinging across the back of his head. It was like prodding a sore tooth every time he tried to recreate that feeling, but the tooth was secretly a volcano situated right on top of his spinal column. “I don’t…” his head throbbed, “I don’t know how I did it. I don’t even know if I did it. I just… I saw what they were gonna do to those girls, I saw…” Girls Dawn’s age.

The brunette died first, but Xander was willing to bet she wouldn’t have stayed dead. Thought he saw the vague outline of a monster under her skin, something not there yet, not certain, but green and roaring, like a signal from far away. But one teenaged girl wasn’t going to be enough for them, especially not one they wanted to keep in decent physical shape before they made her eternal enough to cater to their needs for the next century, so they were going to turn on the little blonde. Turn on her and keep her, and by the time she died she’d looked haggard, worn down and tired with grooves in her cheeks like canyons from crying, and she looked relieved. Relieved to be dying – probably on her friend’s teeth, if he knew vampires – and Xander knew what that felt like. It dappled his vision red, and when that vampire leered up at him, whispered something lewd and vicious about fucking his little sister so hard she’d beg him to come before she died… that was it. It had to end. Poof and he was coughing on dust. Xander didn’t even have a little sister. “I was so angry.”

“So angry you decided to break your fist with good old Rodney’s face, huh?”

“Rodney?”

“I dunno. Looked like a Rodney.”

Xander snorted. “I forgot I gave the kid my stake.”

“Well first thing,” Spike said darkly, wearing his most blustery accent, “Yer gonna start carryin’ a spare.”

“Yes mom.”

But Spike was on a roll. “Can’t always be relyin’ on mojo,” It was really hard not to chuckle, and it made his head feel better. This was what Buffy called his “mother hen” routine, Dawn got the voice a lot and resented it, but Xander let himself be fussed over, “and I don’t care if ye think yer immortal, I’m not helpin’ ya pick up yer teeth next time ya start a fight with something that’ll take ya apart and haul ya off as leftovers in his doggy bag. And no more charity! You keep the weapons ya got.”

“All right, all right!” He was laughing for real now, full belly shaking laughter. It only made Spike’s scowl darker and his unique talent of strutting while stock still that much more pronounced, which made Xander laugh that much harder, but eventually he settled down enough to wheeze out, “I promise, no more charity. And I’ll look after my teeth. And I won’t dress up in a doggy bag for any strange demons.”

“All right then.”  Slightly mollified, Spike sniffed, and came out of the guttural snarl, using the rounded vowels that showed when he was comfortable, “Shall we make a pot of coffee?” Which set Xander off all over again.

Spike stalked away into the kitchen, probably as an excuse to get away from Xander and his laughter, but he couldn’t seem to help it. He felt like a spring loaded deep in his belly had been set loose, or popped or something, and the tension that had been living there sprang away, leaving him slightly giddy and more than a little giggly. He still didn’t know what the hell was going on in his life, but Spike didn’t seem mad at him about it, just… concerned. Like Xander, who wanted to know what the hell was going on but was so afraid of looking too closely. He didn’t want to stare the gift horse in the mouth in case he saw something staring back. The privately held fear that whatever brought him back had been evil held him kept him from pursuing it. He did not want to confirm the idea that he was put back in the world for some demonic purpose and that fate was punishing him as a kind of supernatural whipping boy. And he was, of course, afraid to share the thought with Spike because the vampire would scoff at him and inform him – quite rightly – that he was one little cog in a giant unfeeling universe and not nearly important enough for the respective powers that be to give a shit about him, especially given all of the mystical lightning rods he hung around.

But, well, he was back from the dead and it hadn’t happened through any known magical intervention, zombie voodoo, or vampire blood, so that had to lend some weight to the argument.  He was back from the dead and he had just murdered a vampire just by hating him enough, really actively wanting him to be dead. Xander hadn’t felt that way about anything since… Angelus had torn a new asshole in Sunnydale. The thought made his stomach cramp with sick anticipation, fear and bile because what if it wasn’t a fluke? What if it happened again because he couldn’t control it – something done once was always easier to do a second time, hadn’t he learned that lesson again and again, staking vampires the normal way? He felt, in that moment of red-hot cave-man rage like he was reaching through to the demon’s soul and ripping something apart. It was, at minimum, freaking him out.

Spike popped into his line of view with a steaming cup of coffee and Xander felt himself jump. “You okay?”

“Feelin’ kinda insane, actually,” he said in a moment of unadorned candor. Better to get it out now while he was still calm and capable of sentences than vomit it out later during a panic attack or – god forbid – another humiliating crying jag. “I hated that guy and it killed him.”

“So?” Sometimes it was easy to forget that Spike didn’t give a damn about the people he… didn’t give a damn about. Xander might’ve killed a distant relative, but Spike had taken out four of them. The realization didn’t help.

“So he’s not the only person I’ve ever hated. What if it happens again? What if… it was totally an accident. What if I have another one?”

“Who’re you worried about hatin’ so much?”

No one in the room, though he knew that’s what Spike was asking. And he couldn’t tell him so, not convincingly, because all of his affectionate gestures, all of the soft looks and the gentle touches, bringing him thick creamy coffee seasoned just right with so much sugar his teeth stuck together, that smacked of guilt to Xander. He didn’t think Spike was in danger, but he couldn’t say that for the next nest of vampires or the next time someone jostled him in the grocery store and set off a volley of pain and fear and airless agony spearing him, because sometimes Xander really did hate. Hated that the clumsy people – the normal people – in the grocery store would only feel it once, hated that he had to see and feel, and Willow’s meditation helped but it wasn’t enough to negate that moment where he wanted to scream and lash out, hurt and fiery as a cornered cat. He couldn’t say any of that, so he shrugged, “Angel?”

Spike snorted, took a deep draught of his own coffee which was black and probably shot through with hemoglobin. “And what makes you think you’ll be facing off against Angel any time soon? Think he’s gonna come take his robe back?”

He recognized the reprieve, was grateful for it. “It is a comfy robe.”

“So you keep tellin’ me.”

He sighed, and let Spike take the coffee out of his hands and crawl into the chair with him like it was anything like big enough. It wasn’t, but the squash was nice. “I just wanna know what’s happening to me. It was okay when it was just the swirly lights and the occasional hallucination. I was getting used to it but… I just wanna know I’m not a loaded gun.”

“So we’ll find out. That’s what you lot is best at, isn’t it? We’ll pool the gang together, do some lookin’ in and find out.”

“What happens if it’s permanent? Or I can’t control it?”

Spike’s face, sharp and pale but calm, flicked quickly to green cracking under the surface, shifted suddenly from contemplative to downright evil. “Got plenty of folks I wouldn’t mind seeing dead. Think I can give you a list?”

***

The Magic Box looked different from the last time he saw it. Not that Spike had ever given much thought to the particular feng shui of the watcher’s little business, but it was hard to miss that the store had been rearranged a bit, the wide circular table shoved into the charred center of Willow’s burnt out power circle and shelves that were rattlingly full of cheap baubles shifted into an arrangement that afforded the back some privacy. Rupert was waving a customer away when they came in, telling him something in earnest “please come spend more money” tones that the candles should burn for twelve hours and that slughorn was indeed a powerful aphrodisiac for a Cquequi vixen. To Spike, the passing bag smelled like marmite and bees’ wax, but he thought the lime and verbena version was quite nice and maybe he’d nick one. Just to keep his hand in.

It had taken two weeks to arrange this meeting, working around the witches’ midterms schedule and Rupert’s bizarre pedantic need to narrow down a selection of texts for Scooby perusal. He supposed it made sense because it would do no good to look for clues to Xander’s condition in a book on Mandraz mating rituals, and if it was, Spike didn’t want to know, but the man’s rigorous insistence on preliminary research was a bit absurd. And of course the night before they were all supposed to have congregated for the ritual consumption of pizza and knowledge, he got a call from Buffy. A choked, despairing Buffy who was nearly incoherent with horror, whispering because Dawn had gotten into the magic and she’d done something unthinkable.

She’d brought Joyce back.

Joyce, who sat patiently in their living room with a strange vacant expression making Buffy’s stomach turn to ice.

Spike hadn’t let Xander come along, wanting to spare him that. Didn’t even tell him until after it was done why he’d gone out, just told him that the Slayer needed help with a demon. He offered to come along, but was already curled up with a bowl of popcorn and a movie on the fancy new TV, having admitted to a viciously persistent stomach ache a few hours before, and with no small relief, Spike said he would handle it. Xander beamed at him, let him steal an impossibly sweet popcorn-salty kiss and told him to be safe.

It was over quickly and quietly: one of those intensely intimate Scooby dramas, the kind they never brought to the light of day. Buffy opened the door with a smile on her face that looked like it was carved into cracking glass and invited him, ever so graciously, ever so cautiously, into her home, where the normal procedure was to fling a weapon in his direction and tell him to saddle up. He saw that Buffy was shaking, but her smile never moved, even as she said, hushed and tight, “Help.”

And Dawn… Dawn was sitting still and very quiet, wide eyed and staring at the thing across the inadequate barrier of the coffee table. She flicked frantic pin-point pupils in Spike’s direction and back to the thing, afraid to take her eyes off it for more than a moment. Because Joyce was not Joyce. She was an eerie, wavering reflection on a green pond, staring fixedly at Dawn. She wore Joyce’s face like an ill-fitting suit, smiling that friendly, absent-minded smile that the woman had employed to conceal the steel hiding underneath, but it was the limpness in her hands that was so wrong, the way she sat forward, intent, waiting.

He couldn’t wait to find out what. Not with Dawn sitting there, frightened rabbit with her quivering fingers clutching, white handed, a photograph. She held it like a rosary. Like a totem and a shield. The slayer clutched his elbow. Joyce waited.

Spike didn’t speak, and didn’t think. Crossed the room with all the confidence and swagger he could muster, strutting to Dawn in her lonely corner of the universe where she was trying to convince the couch to swallow her, pushing his body between her and the thing she’d created to pluck the picture out of her grasp. The creature jerked, its gnarled hands twitching into broken claws, a marionette first lurching into life, and he ripped.

The air shrieked, arcing green banshee crescendo cutting away as abruptly as it arose. The jagged white line he’d torn through Joyce’s photograph cracked across the creature’s face, too fast to see, and crumbled, chunks like dried clay falling away from her. Her face, as it fell apart to dust, came over twisted white and clotted with rage, and then it was gone. Then it was over and the room was silent and theirs again. He hoped like hell Dawn hadn’t seen that.

The teenager’s hug as she pelted into him forced a grunt out of him, and he turned around to see Buffy sitting on the floor with her hands pressed together over her face, breathing. “I’m so, so sorry!” Dawn was telling him, chanting it over and over again into his back, and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” It had taken perhaps thirty seconds.

            Spike stayed with them for a while, jaw set in stony silence long enough to clean up the mess of dirt, long strings of seaweed and a stench that had to be demonic in origin; left Dawn beside her sister and got out the dust buster. It was a long wait and a cup of cocoa, dosed with a jot of the whiskey he kept in his pocket before Dawn could give him anything more than “thank you”, she took a sip, made a face, took another and filled in the details without protest. Buffy forewent the cocoa and took the flask right out of his hands. She missed her mom. She’d been spending so much time with Willow and Tara, learning little things like floating pencils, and they could do anything; Willow could make apple-sauce cupcakes grow out of her hand. They could do anything, and it was possible, she had proof. Xander had come back, after all. So she did some research, when Red and Glinda were busy with classes and Dawn was left to her own devices, she was thumbing through grimmories bound in puppy skin, looking for an answer. [1]  Hoping to be happy.

Spike couldn’t bring himself to be forgiving. But neither could he bring himself to tell her off, afraid he was angry for all the wrong reasons. He was calm – because he loved Dawn – and deferred the inevitable lecture on the sheer fucking stupidity of meddling with anything from the otherworld without reflection and guidance and, preferably, lead walls three feet thick. He was afraid to open his mouth in case a stream of too-coherent rage poured out and shredded Dawn’s heart, still so fragile after everything, into bloody little chunks, and he could feel the muscles in his jaw twitching from the strain of saving it until morning, or until Red could hear it too.

He needed to leave, needed to find something big and scaly that would scream nicely while he killed it. He needed to feel it in the tug of his nails and his teeth, needed to feel something die, feel any kind of control at all. He stayed until Dawn shuffled off to bed, sniffing and breathing in little traumatized hitches that made the need more, made him crave a victim, and the Slayer walked him out.

“I’m sorry,” Buffy said on the porch, so quiet he almost hadn’t heard it. He saw she was trying not to cry. “I’m sorry. I… usually I can do the creepy stuff…” she sucked in air, ragged over her teeth, let it out again, “but I opened the door and she was there. Smiling. And she… she didn’t even see me, she went right to Dawn and I… couldn’t.”

Something that would squeal like a dying pig.

“I couldn’t,” she repeated. She choked on it, “That was my mom.”

Spike could only nod, and made a note to pass by Joyce’s grave to see if she’d made a mess crawling out of it. He did so much killing that evening that the underground wire thrummed with news of a prince among the people. It didn’t feel as good as he’d hoped. And when he finally made it back to Xander, he crawled in behind him and confessed the whole sordid affair into his dismayed shoulder blades, thinking that forewarned was forearmed.

They’d pushed back the meeting.

He regretted that he had been so insistent on having it, that he had been so determined to get the rest of Xander’s pals stuck in with the research because now he had to face them. Had to choke down his rage at these children and their willful arrogance, using magic in grief, putting a run in the fabric of things. Dawn had stupidly and unthinkingly broken something fundamental, one of the laws that even demons respected, but she had done it out of ignorance. Willow was no better, and the watcher just as harmful as she, handing a child a toy as bright and shiny as a newly turned knife, and not telling her it could cut. They were a danger to themselves. They were a danger to him. And heaven help the soul who cast a spell on Xander today because the chip would not.

Spike did not like magic. It skewed things that were true. It made itself into a panacea and an addiction; it hurt everyone. It hurt the Slayer, and he hated to see her weak. She was strong, that was her purpose, and that moment of utter fragility, a complete failure to act in her own defense, was wrong when she wore it, as unnatural as Joyce’s dead eyes. It might have been hypocritical, given that he was semi-mystical himself, but magic gave him the creeps. He didn’t know what he’d been thinking, going to see Doc – grief, horror, disgust, like Dawn, perhaps, angry at the world, and all of it handed to a man who would use it – and he was so fucking glad he hadn’t gone through with it, hadn’t found out first-hand the price. Because magic never solved anything that time couldn’t. And he had what he wanted now – nearly – which was more than adequate compared to the nothingness he’d been so desperate for. He had to be satisfied with that.

Even if satisfaction came with a selflessly offered blowjob and a silent prayer to “please don’t let me hurt anyone” that Spike fucking couldn’t take him up on. But by Christ he’d wanted to. It came with Xander clutching the bend of his arm tight enough that it ached until they walked through the sewer grate and up through the store room. Until Xander peeled himself away to greet the watcher while Spike squared his shoulders, sauntered toward his customary lounge on the stairs, well away from the circle he refused to touch, and lit up a smoke to calm his jangling nerves and soothe the part of him that wanted to beat Rupert to death with his own collection simply for breathing in Xander’s direction. He sucked it into his lungs – sweet death, sweet tobacco and habit and preoccupation for his flexing hands – and sighed.

“Spike, please don’t smoke in the store…”





Part Thirty-Seven

The words on the page were making his head swim. Xander didn’t realize how spoiled and lazy he’d become in the two years since the Mayor’s ascension. He had done some reading the year before, some idle flipping through demonic picture books looking for bits and pieces and the occasional mystic frat-house rune carved into a corpse, but he hadn’t sat down to an intensive search for vague prophecy and the doorways to apocalypse since high school. Since he’d died, the closest he’d been to research was bringing Spike coffee while he went through the dusty old spell books with considerable more talent. He worried that he’d lost the knack for scanning.

It was just the five of them, the core scoobies and a vampire, hovering in their separate corners of the new library. Tara was in her Intro to Anthro class, one that Willow, surprisingly, had no interest in whatsoever, and Dawn was still at school, under constant watch until the week after Easter. She was supposed to join them at the Magic Box no more than twenty minutes after the final bell, chafing against the restrictions because of what she called “one mistake.” Not that Xander hadn’t achieved his share of stupid, but when Spike told him about it, so subdued he was hardly himself, shaking against his skin, Xander had to crawl out over him to heave his guts into the toilet. Dawn’s stupid had been… stupid. He could sympathize because he knew what it felt like to have it rubbed in your face – the fiasco with the love spell alone – but he was right on board with restricting her access to the magic-crack. And right on board with Spike’s bitter sarcastic disapproval when he told her there were enough resurrections around the place and they didn’t need her running amok over the holiday.

Xander hadn’t seen her since he spent the day curled up around his cramping stomach, and he hoped the two events weren’t related. But it gave them something else to look into, another corner of the worst superpower ever that they were spending the morning sorting out. The sorting was not going well. He thought he was reading about a river and there was something about petite orangutans, but turned the page to a woodcut of an envy-inducing priapic demon called “Lord Craynel” and his head hit the table with a thump. “What the hell is wrong with this picture?”

Spike shoved his head off the book to look, and snorted, “It’s in Thrillik, love.”

“What?” He flipped back to the part about the muddy golden river and pointed, “No! Look. Words. Pronouns. Things. I mean, I thought it was a little dialect-y, but… that says ‘the fish leapt,’ with, y’know, the verbs in the right place and stuff. English!”

“Oh dear,” he listened to Giles make his standard tut-tut noises and shared a look with Buffy, who sat across the table resting her face on her fist. It was the look that said my how familiar we’ve been here before and can’t we just go kill something? “Yes, it would look like a dialect. Absolutely fascinating phenomenon, all the possible configurations of phonemes in the world and Thrillik mimics common English. Completely different referents of course, and structurally the language is quite dissimilar. But the truly interesting thing is its radical departure from classical Thrillik. We suspect that a migrant Thrillik community split from the primary population and adopted their neighbors’ linguistic patterns, perhaps as a break from the dominant ideology…”

“They don’t care, Rupert.” Spike cut in, saving them all from the polysyllables, “Just hand the boy a book he can read.”

It was always a pleasure to see Giles flustered, “Yes, of course, my apologies, it must have landed in the stack by mistake.”

“Could you maybe hand me pizza instead?”

“Is that the sweet, satisfying sound of Xander crumbling first and requesting a break?” Buffy’s tone was light and playful, but she sounded in pretty desperate need. Xander had been watching her scrape her hands back through her hair, sigh, and re-situate herself on her fist for the last half hour.

“In this,” he said in his best samurai voice, “There is no shame in admitting defeat.”

“But you are admitting it, right? So we can stop? Please?”

“Wait! Wait!” Willow, silent and studiously ignoring their whining the way she had all through high school, stuck her hand in the air like she was waiting to be called on, long delicate fingers pointing at the ceiling while she tracked a line in a dark red book, “Wait. I think I’ve got something.”

They waited. Spike snorted, soft and sardonic, beside him, and Xander fought down the urge to elbow him because he knew exactly what the vampire was thinking. Giles cleared his throat with unnecessary delicacy, “Yes, Willow?”

“Oh. Right. Sorry. Says here ‘In the time of the sisters, the dead will rise. In the last of years, they will speak. The dead will reign at the last swelling of the tide.’ I mean… Xander’s walky and talky if… maybe not so reign-y, but it might be something, right?”

“Yes, it could very well be…”

She handed over the book over to their resident watcher with a hopeful little grin, and Xander rolled his neck, weary of the dust and the dim light filtering towards the back of the store and the little wooden table. Spike laid a casual hand across the curve of his spine where his skin met his shirt, and the coolness dragged the tension out of him with a soft “mm” noise that had Buffy raising a knowing eyebrow at him. Spike was… irrationally indulgent of him. Awake during the brightest hours of the day, doing the kind of tedious Scooby scut-work that he hated, and he hadn’t complained, hadn’t even grumbled when Giles handed him a book with a highly skeptical little smirk that made Xander’s teeth clench in sharp irritation. And he wanted to be able to return it; put his hand over Spike’s chilly one because he thought he maybe should, and he wasn’t ashamed. Not of Spike, anyway, but it was nice that no one had said anything. Buffy’s eyebrow and a sappy little smile from Willow before she dove into a stack of research like Xander dove into pudding were it. Spike squeezed; he groaned.

Giles coughed. “Yes, this does seem promising… I believe the swelling of the tide indicates a lunar cycle…” he licked his fingers and flicked quickly through a fabric-bound reference book in yet another language Xander couldn’t read, straight back finally speaking relief. But a moment later, his shoulders slumped. “But apparently… it happened several years ago. During the incident with… the Sisterhood of Jhe, if this text is accurate. Which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense, the prophecy said it would happen in the last of years? And of course with the Sisterhood and the Ascension…”

“We did have a kinda apocalypse heavy year…” Buffy mused quietly, yawning. “Lots of things to hit.”

“Good times.” Spike took his hand back to point.

“Totally.”

“Um, guys…?” Willow was wearing her ‘Nobody light a match, I may’ve made nitroglycerine’ face, “Did we see walking dead people um… between the crazy women and the tentacle thing?”

“Oh…” Willow’s nitroglycerine face was met and matched by Giles’ guilty ‘I think I left the kettle on’ expression, and Xander took a moment of pure satisfaction in, for once, knowing something that the geniuses didn’t. It was an old satisfaction, and a balm to a wound he hadn’t realized he still carried. “Oh dear, I rather hope they didn’t do much damage.”  

“Nah,” he managed with something approaching aplomb, “I got most of ‘em with the car, and I think Oz ate one.”

“What?!”

“Oz!?”

“You?!”

“Full moon.”

It was an explosion of noise, and chaos, and maybe a little bit of jealousy because over the din of Willow babbling out her surprise, Giles rubbing the finish off his glasses, and Spike’s full-throated laughter, the kind that made Xander want to touch his adam’s apple to feel the vibration, was Buffy, whining, “But I never got zombies!”

“Yes you did, Buffy,” Willow, ever the stickler for accuracy, destined to set off another round of bickering, “Your welcome-back party, remember? With the mask thing?”

“But that doesn’t count, cause they weren’t all… prophesied. Mojo zombies don’t count.”

“All zombies are mojo zombies, Slayer.”

“See? They were zombies. I think your mom got one with a baseball bat. And! And! Zombie cat.”

Xander sank into the memories and the warmth and let himself forget for a bit that the monster they were researching was him, that he’d ripped something out of someone and had no idea what it meant. It felt like everything he needed in one room.

“Oh good lord.”

He shot Giles a cheeky grin, “Pizza?”

“Anywhere around here do a decent anchovy?”

 “Ugh, Spike! That’s… unholy!”

“That’s something I generally appreciate in a snack, yes.”

“Or at least a level of moral neutrality, I’d imagine. Though I do agree, pizza is particularly evil.”

“Egn! Buzzer says you lose this round. Pizza is the food of the gods. You just can’t desecrate it with fish. Especially bony fish.”

“Xander, you eat pineapple on yours. You don’t have any room to talk.”

***

The trouble all started with Dawn. She had been sulking, and miserable, confined to a corner with her history book, late in that first meeting when they were all so hopeful of finding an obvious explanation for what Xander had started calling his “un-superpowers,” and Spike wasn’t terribly inclined to play teddy-vamp to drag her out of her funk. She wasn’t making the distance too hard on him either, grumbling under her breath all night and muttering just at the level of hearing about how she was being unjustly punished and all Slayers were tyrants and taking the time-honored tack of recalcitrant youth everywhere. They were, for the most part, completely ignoring her except to sometimes say “You have that essay on Robespierre done yet?” to which of course the answer was always “I’m working on it.”

And then he made the mistake of touching Xander. Which, to be fair, was a mistake he’d been making all evening and as much as possible in the weeks before, marveling that the boy would let him nearer than a hundred feet, enjoying the freedom to dote. He laid both his hands across Xander’s shoulders, where he carried all of his tension, kneading briefly and dragging a short pained moan out of him before dropping a kiss on his forehead and wandering back towards the training room where the mini-fridge was keeping his dinner cool. He brought an Orange Crush back for Xander as well,  and came back into the room to hear Dawn complaining bitterly. Saying one of those things that teenagers said just to be spiteful, because she was hurting, “Oh, so you all hate me for trying to bring my mom back, but it’s okay for Xander because Spike’s dating him?”

“Shut up, Dawn.”

“We don’t hate you,” Spike bit out, managing to mean it. Because she was young, and she was stupid, but she was his. But that was all he managed to come out with because he was furious with her, and he might have fixed things, but it wasn’t his responsibility to put up with teenaged snits, or make her feel better.

“You brought back a reflection. It wore her shape, maybe it even carried her memories, but it wasn’t her.” That was Giles, stiff and tight and trying to draw the dotted line between Dawn’s mistake and their current research project with limited success. Especially when every instance of resurrection they found came with a horrible sub-clause attached – alive again, but only for an afternoon. Alive again – but an unstoppable flesh-eating zombie with a hunger for loved ones. Alive again – but… an infinite number of buts each more tragically ironic than the last. Maybe Dawn hadn’t understood at the time why Spike did what he had to, but she sure as hell did now.

“B-besides, sweety. Your m-mom is in a g-good place,” Glinda stumbled out, moving away from Willow to take her hand, and she was the only one who could have without Dawn jerking away, because no one jerked away from Tara. She would turn wounded, understanding eyes on you and it felt like you’d slapped her. Easier just to let her hold your hand.

“And Spike and I aren’t dating.” The skeptical burst of silence cut across Dawn’s incipient whine of ‘How do you know?’ and even Spike found himself raising an eyebrow. “What? We’re not.”

“Xander,” Willow paused, clearly searching for a way to phrase it delicately, “You’ve been kinda… handsy? Or… with the touching, and… Spike brought you a soda.”

The vampire groaned, but before he could dust of shame, Buffy cut in, “Plus, I totally caught you guys…” edited for all Dawns present, “making out in the cemetery.”

“And it’s okay. You’re allowed. No judgment, Xand. We promise.”

He realized later that it was a distraction. That Xander had effectively led them away from speculating on the afterlife and where they went where they died – where Xander had gone when he died, and when he’d come back – and had cut off the line of questioning that meant spitting up Dracula and chewing on it again and again. And later, after he figured out that Xander was simply tossing in an off-hand comment to distract them from the continuing misery of Joyce’s passing, Xander had treated him to a surprise, guilty, hot, unconscionably spectacular, practiced suck job in the shower that left him trembling to make up for the awkward humiliation that followed. “Oh, no. We’re totally sleeping together, just not… dating.”

“Xander!”

“Young ears!”

“Whatever Buffy, it’s not like he gave us details.”

“Thank god. I’ve seen…”

“Oh good lord.”

“You don’t go on dates? Never?”

“Dating on the hellmouth?”

“He kinda has a point.”

“But you’re telling me Spike’s too cheap to spring for dinner and a movie?”

“I dunno, we do take out and watch TV.”  

Spike goggled, and could have kicked himself for what came out of his mouth. “Did you want to go to a movie?”

Xander only gave him a deeply pitying look, and Spike felt the yawning black pit of uncertainty open up underneath him while the predictable Scooby bickering swelled and heaved around him. It was a never ending source of shame that these children, flighty, irreverent, energetic children had so thoroughly kicked his arse time and again until he’d been forced to go to them for help or shrivel away into nothing. It amazed him further still that they had taken him in, made him part of them even after all he’d done, and after years of exposure, their way of dribbling like brainless schoolchildren was no less mystifying.

“I’m not complaining,” Xander was saying with complete honesty. He never did complain.

“I’ll take you to the cinema,” he didn’t know why he was so defensive, “Anything you like. Provided it’s not Bridget Jones.”

“Mm. Hugh Grant. Smarm. No.”

“Right. Anything you like provided it’s not Hugh Grant.” 

“Or a day on the beach,” Buffy added perkily, all too familiar with the downside of dating a vampire.

“Maybe, oh! Oh! Maybe a night on the beach?”

“H-how romantic.”

“Sexy.”

“Dawn!”

“Yes, and on that note,” Rupert, ever the voice of sanity and sounding particularly strained, though Spike thought the beach idea might have some merit but not in bloody April, “I believe any further research this evening would be unproductive.”

So they went home to collapse into their assorted beds and reconvene in the morning, but it felt like they never really left. Or that they were always in a state of settling in or getting up, because the books went on and on in massive daunting pyramids of knowledge, and the polish was wearing off the seats from constant shifting, leaving, coming back.

***

“Oh goddess, I can’t do it anymore!” Red. Her blasphemies changed when Tara was in the room. And when she broke, it was only because she’d been working harder and longer than anyone else, still looking to be the A student; Spike bet it galled her to no end that professors didn’t give plus signs.

“I daresay it’s getting rather late. I know you girls have class in the morning, perhaps we should let it be for the evening.”

Spike was grateful for the excuse to stop again. They’d been at it for days, digging up more and more obscure texts that none of them could accurately read, looking for any kind of translation of “undead” or “resurrection” or any of a dozen other terms that signified that the dead didn’t always stay put. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands – folk lore and hypothetical science papers and whispers in the dark that dated back thousands of years, an entire language dedicated to hinting at death’s impermanence. Vampires, Zombies, Kings, Saints, and Saviors. But even digging through the assorted muck was better than the more immediate alternatives. Xander had sat still on the second day, letting Willow run a battery of tests on him, this time with an actual consultation from the watcher and no scorch marks on the floor. She’d done a swirly light show that Spike was too busy silently panicking about to actually pay attention to. She’d taken samples of his hair and his skin and his blood to peer at the smallest parts of him under a microscope and made Spike want to stake a claim right there on the floor of the Magic Box, dissuaded only by the fact that Xander probably would have let him. She’d even tried hypnosis, and that was where the tests stopped because Xander had screamed and screamed, frantic and flailing, lost somewhere in his own head until three-two-one-snap, and he came round with no idea why his throat hurt and everyone in the room looked so horrified.

Anything was better than the testing, but every carefully unearthed instance of the dead coming back to life revealed itself to be for some gruesome purpose, each more terrible than the last, and he could feel Xander shrinking in on himself, afraid to look in a mirror. On the third day, after a particularly ugly recitation of the war crimes perpetrated by one of the Japan’s most famous – and, they learned, undead – monsters, Xander looked like he wanted to jump off a bridge. Spike dragged him down into the cellar ostensibly to retrieve some mungroot – the wise man’s Adderall – but looking to buck him up, and he was utterly astonished when Xander, shaking, leaned in to him. Spike wasn’t stupid enough or mindful enough of the Dawn in the building to resist, succumbing instead to the lure of a pizza-sweet kiss in the darkness. It felt like ‘thank you,’ it felt like ‘you’re wonderful,’ and he felt the slick slide of tongue drawing a sensitive line across his mouth that tingled when he touched it. It made Spike hard enough to etch steel, and he hated Xander – just a little bit – for walking away, back to the trenches. Loved him too, of course, for the torture, which was as it should be.

“No, I mean, this is like… the millionth time I’ve seen this book, and we’re not getting anywhere. I’m even starting to learn to translate Cyrillic languages on top of the Latin-based and the Greek and… my head hurts.” The aforementioned head dropped forward like a lead ball, cushioned by her arms and Glinda’s gentle fingers coming to pet through her hair. Spike could sympathize, Giles had stuck him with the Mandarin.

They established a routine. Fifteen minutes listening to the slayer describe the beastie of the evening, have her minor panic attack about the lady in red and some bad Robin Hood extras that he never bothered to listen to, none of which he ever bothered to listen to because he was busy with the books. Busy with Xander, looking for anything that could help him put it all straight in his head. Days of pouring over the research texts uncovered a prophecy regarding the razing of turnips around the twenty-second century, which was something to look forward to – Spike hated turnips – but nothing relevant to his boy, nothing that could help him make sense of what he’d become. And become was an important word, because on the fourth day they’d moved off humans altogether.

The vampire was being as thorough as the rest of them, something that, in quiet moments, had his fists clenching together and his eyes squeezed shut to tamp down the building rage and anxiety because he was content to leave it. Like the Slayer when Angel had popped back from a hell dimension like a particularly stubborn weed, Spike was happier living in a kind of conscious denial. If he didn’t know, then nothing had to change. As far as he was concerned, even if Xander were evil, it didn’t made a damned bit of difference, and Spike would finally have an ally who didn’t mind how he ate. Except, as he’d said again and again, as he’d utterly failed to convince Harris who insisted he was the king of Dark Lords for letting nature happen, for not stopping death, Xander wasn’t evil. He wasn’t even a vague approximation.

“I’m sorry you guys, we can stop.” Xander was holding his own elbows, wrapped around himself and eyes pleading with Willow to forgive him for the inconvenience. “This is getting us nowhere, and I know we’ve got more important things. It can wait.”

“No, Xander. We want to help, we really do…”

“But it doesn’t have to be now,” Spike butted in before Willow could convince them to stay another hour out of useless guilty loyalty. His announcement of, “’Sides, got us a date with Morgan Freeman” was met with a round of “aaaw”s that made him cringe and bite back a snarl.

Dating, heaven help him. The word was ugly; a pitiful failure of language to describe the process of courting, of finding a mate, and it inspired a sharp wave of irritation in him.

Not that he and Dru hadn’t seen their share of films, they’d been to see the original theatrical release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in ‘74 and Dru had cooed over the absurd theatrics and the screaming and dragged them out to Texas just to see. To find the broken toy maker and all his wares, she said. He was fairly sure, at least, that Xander wasn’t going to beg him to hunt up James Patterson at the end of the evening. But Spike liked movies, liked that no one really minded when he rooted for the bad guy and laughed at all the blood – a dark theater could be a refuge, somewhere quiet and comfortable where he could be lost in the labyrinthine windowless palaces for hours on end, ducking into the bathrooms to avoid the spotty teenaged attendants and entertained while he waited for the sun to drop. A dark theater could be his private playground, a muffled breathy squeak when he pressed his hand over some unknown’s mouth, tooth deep and bruising, enjoying the quiet desperate struggle and the sweet bloody wriggle of his victim, pulled across the seat while all around him no one cared. Spike liked theaters. He had been looking forward to this evening.

Spike got them outside, got them saying their long goodbyes as though they didn’t see each other all the bloody time, and as they walked away, he thought he heard faint whispering following them, cut off by a sharp muffled noise. Willow, probably, reined in by her girl, and if she made one more “Spike is so cute” face he might risk the chip to give her ear a good flick. He managed to trot Xander a ways down Maple Court to the Sun before his human started stalling.

“Spike, are you okay with this? I mean, you don’t have to take me out on… dates. Won’t you be kindof bored?”

Spike shrugged, “Sure, we’ll catch a midnight show. Not every day has to be killing demons and sniffin’ round the Slayer’s skirts.”

“That… image aside, this isn’t really what you want, is it?”

“Got exactly what I want,” Spike told him leadingly, soft and low, enjoying the way Xander’s skin pebbled up and his eyes grew wide. “And I’m not adverse to the idea of you stickin’ close to me, keepin’ me warm… all alone in a dark theater… and maybe if I’m very lucky you’ll let me get a little… closer.”

“Oh. Okay.” Spike pinched him to remind him to breathe, and smirked, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just… go hunting? Or stay in?”

He laughed, and the sound warmed him, “Nope. C’mon, I’ll buy you some Goobers.”

“Please, Spike? I know the girls were teasing you and all, but you don’t have to.”

“I know. I want to.” He walked Xander a bit further, pressing in close and in enjoying the solid warmth of him, properly, away from the insipid cooing and ‘aaw’ing of the girls and Giles’ muttering. He felt good, clean and sweet and all his. “C’mon, Xander. Give in.”

“I… okay. Thanks.” He paused for a moment, looking awkward in his skin, and Spike disentangled himself long enough to buy tickets from a bored looking kid in a red vest. “Murder mystery movie, huh?”

“It’s either that or the French one about the autistic girl.”

“Oh no, totally on board with the psycho killer.”

There was faint snickering on the edges of hearing, but nothing less than he expected in a building full of teenagers deep in the throes of puppy-love, not his and not Xander’s, so he ignored it, buying Xander his chocolate with a smile. It was all the same, really, giblets of a young girl to chocolate covered peanuts, except that Xander never made demands of him or deliberately toyed with him to set his teeth on edge. He was kind, generous lover, and didn’t take any malicious pleasure in having Spike wrapped around his fingers. He didn’t take any pleasure in Spike at all. But the vampire refused to dwell. Xander smiled back, looking thoroughly awkward on the paisley curls of the deep purple carpet. It was a gentle smile, and worth all the Goobers in the world.

The movie was predictably awful. An absurd and contrived detective story based on a novel by a wrung out pulp-producer, but it was moody and Monica Potter’s upturned nose was watchable enough. Especially as Xander did snuggle up against him, pushing himself into Spike’s side, whispering hot words into Spike’s ear about avoiding the painful heart attack of the corpulent man on his left. Not the most seductive dialogue, but neither did he pull away when Spike rested a hand on his thigh, kneading the slab of muscle there, dipping down to follow the inseam of his jeans, hot and firm, filling his palm.

Spike even enjoyed it when Xander fell asleep, tucking his head against the vampire’s neck and blowing warm air out across his collar bones with a contented little sigh. The boy didn’t sleep much, he was always out of bed when Spike woke up, always moving, and the days of fruitless research cramped over a book had taken its toll on him, whether he would admit it or not. It was the hope that did the damage, and the fear, and the looming May deadline, coming ever closer. Spike wasn’t exactly looking for the Slayer to die, but that was what slayers did, a few of them at his own hand, and he wasn’t about to let Xander wear himself out over it. Xander didn’t stir when Spike readjusted, wrapped his arm around the boy’s shoulders to keep him near, and moved his free hand to stroke the soft skin over his pulse point, thumbing along his jaw; the man beside them sneered, and Spike reminded himself with a serene little smile that despite not getting to kill him, the fat man was going to die of an excruciating heart attack in a few short years. Apparently the smile was eerie enough to frighten some wits into the obnoxious blighter because the blood drained out of his face and he turned to watch the screen. Sometimes he really enjoyed Xander’s super powers. And his skin, which the fat man would also never know the joy of, and the lax lips mumbling against his shirt. He was crippled and helpless and a pathetic excuse of a vampire, but he had cause to smirk.

Xander’s body was pleasantly sleep warm and pliable by the time the credits rolled and the lights rose, it was near two in the morning, plenty of time to get in a lovely hunt though Spike was loath to wake him.

Xander startled him instead, “You didn’t have to do this,” he breathed without opening his eyes or moving so much as an inch. It tickled.

Spike pushed the limp hair out of his face, planting a brief kiss against the smooth slope of his forehead. “Yes I did.”

“Mm.” It was a non-committal noise while he pushed himself away from Spike’s chest and rolled his neck, slurping out of the dregs of his over-priced soda to swish around in his mouth. “Kinda expensive for a nap. We going hunting now?”

“Tempted to take you home and put you to bed instead.”

Xander barked with laughter, “Oh I bet. Just once through the park on the way home, then I’ll let you take me home and put me to whatever purpose you like.” There was a brief and thoughtful pause while Spike pulled him to his feet and ushered him down the aisle, suddenly thrumming with desire despite not liking the precise meaning of those words. It was a constant war between wanting exactly what was on offer and taking only what he thought he should. Xander made it easier for him by blurting with a sudden open disgust, “Wow. I’m… kindof a slut, I guess.”

“No,” He wanted so badly to sweep the boy up, to kiss him and coddle him and wrap him in cotton wool until he believed, until it didn’t matter anymore and the only thing he thought he was was Spike’s. He ushered him out of the theater instead, into the spangled darkness and the laughing post-movie crush, “Don’t be sorry, I want… I want you to…” There were so many things he wanted he didn’t even know where to start. A smile would be nice, and some of the closeness that he’d become accustomed to, that he loved without caring who knew it. He would about give his left testicle for Xander to feel the same way, to say so, to let him back inside, sweet and slick and loving-tight the way he’d dreamt of, and he knew the boy would if he only asked, would roll himself over and give himself willingly and it was a line he could not cross. Not again, not so soon. Maybe not ever, and he’d live with that. Happily. “I love you. I want you.”

“Thank you.” The noise swelled and died as they made their way to the park, taking the scenic route towards home, and there was a faint crackle somewhere in the background but Xander had all of his attention, soft voice and bitten lip too serious expression, “I guess I’ve just been thinking about it.”

“What are you thinking?”

“That I really like sleeping with you.” The words were steady, but Spike could practically feel the heat radiating from the boy’s blush and it was sweet.

 “Yeah?” Spike felt a little smug about it, wanted to lean in and nibble the line of Xander’s neck, wanted to listen, wanted everything and a little bit more.

Xander did him the mercy of laying those big, warm hands on his hips. “Yeah. Wow. I mean, so good. The thing in the shower…” He wanted to kiss him. The inevitable word came, “But you took me to a movie instead of just…. And I think I’m using you because I can’t… I don’t—”

“Xander…” he didn’t know what he was going to say. Only that he didn’t want to hear what came next.

“I don’t… feel that way. I’m sorry.”

And the Hellmouth chose its moment to remind them of all the reasons that dating was foolish, swarming over them both in a tide of moldy, grey-faced little warty toads that had been on the edges of hearing all evening. It was like playing whack-a-mole, but the things never stayed down for long, faces caving under his fists like wet sponge and springing back with thick swampy noises. Thunk-Gloop. And then they’d hit back. Not hard, but enough to bruise, enough to be annoying and exhausting because the harder Spike hit, the harder they bounced. He was buried, fighting up to his neck in toadstool minions who had sprung out of nowhere, springing out from behind the trees like they’d grown out of the moss. He couldn’t even see Xander, dark brown robes flapping around his face, they reeked of dying leaves and rotting pumpkin and clotted in his nose, so wrong in the fresh Spring he choked.

“Fucking Demented Hobbits!” He heard Xander yell, and then yelp when a crackle of electricity split the air.

Spike fought a little harder to get to him, straining to claw through the sponge cake monsters and roaring, deep and low and lost in the folds of the robes that were drowning him. Something hit him in the stomach where the duster couldn’t guard him, dual wasp stings that burst into lightning to ignite him and drop his knees out from under him. He felt himself screaming but couldn’t hear a sound. Something conked him in the head. The world sparked white and died.





Part Thirty-Eight

“Dude!” He felt himself groan, cough, and acid ate his throat. “Dude, you okay!?”

Just what he needed, surfers. Another groan, this one because his head was a rotted grapefruit, all smashed down one side and there was grass in his nose. It was like sleeping on a disgruntled porcupine. Sleeping? He tried to push himself upright and at dirt when his shaking limbs wouldn’t support him, but in that blurry half-second of awareness he could see the horizon, still deeply purple gloaming and only starting to pink up at the edges.

“Man, I don’t think he’s okay,” a different voice said, and the noise hurt his head enough that he started to cough out little sobs that were noises of pure self-pity without meaning.

He wasn’t okay. His breathing was tight and pained, and his skull throbbed with black and purple stars that tasted like limey tin, and there was wetness starting to crack his face too high up to be tears and cradling his ear. He idly hoped he wasn’t lying helplessly in dog shit because Spike would never let him live that down. “Spike…” he flailed incoherently, making the extreme effort to roll over to find his vampire missing, no dust that he could see but no blonde either, and the flailing got a little hysterical, “Spike! Where’s Spike, he’s… sunlight, can’t be… Spike…”

“Dude, dude!” One of the surfers again and the world was a throbbing slurping maelstrom of gelatinous pudding that was sucking him under, pitching and heaving and drinking him down, “We gotta get him to a hospital man. Calm down, dude, we’ll find your dog…”

Xander dizzily heard himself trying to say “Not dog… not… demon…” before he was swallowed by the blackness.

The first thing was cold – a clammy, shuddering kind of cold that lingered in the back of his throat, threatening to gag him. Then the rest of the world came back, replete with noise and sensation and  low hollow groan that he recognized as his own voice. The chill and the beeping noises and the stale antiseptic air that he tried to struggled to suck in through his nose said “hospital” before he even opened his eyes. He woke up without his shirt on, attached to a beepy thing and a long plastic cord that dripped chilly saline into his veins, and had no idea how he’d got there.

Xander pried himself upright, swallowing hard and clutching at the narrow bedframe while the world lurched into the appropriate vertical alignment. His guts shrieked at him while his vision echoed and blurred with kaleidoscopic colors. The headache was all consuming, no longer bursting in his brain like a road flare, but the world was wrong wrong wrong. A spinning reminder of his recent head trauma, and everything felt little less real, a little softer around the edges, and a little see-through. Xander thought he heard himself giggle on the edge of hysteria, and snapped his eyes shut again, clinging to the smooth metal of the bedframe, solid and comforting as the handle on his favorite axe.

“Welcome back,” A firm but friendly voice said somewhere close enough to make his head scream, and he wanted to clap his hands over his ears but he was afraid of falling. “I’m nurse Jane. You can laugh about that, but it won’t get you anywhere.”

He tried the eye thing again, thought he was going to fall through a floor made of crackling smoked glass, and pushed them shut again. “What…?” His tongue,  thick and dry, lay in his mouth like a dead sock. He said it again just in case it made more sense the second time around, “What?”

“Sir, you’re in the hospital. Do you think you can answer some questions for me?”

Xander shook his head trying to clear it and only succeeded in making white starbursts erupt behind his eyelids, moaning against the sick dizzy pain. The third time got him somewhere, “What?”

“Can you tell me your name, sir?”

“Yeah,” Xander croaked, still not up on current events. The silence told him she was waiting for something, “can I have some water?”

More silence, but this time it was less expectant and punctuated by some shuffling and a gurgling splash noise from about five feet away. He wished he could open his eyes because the blackness behind his lids was heaving and lurching like a choppy sea. Xander had been told that concussions were a bit like sleeping drunk and he should keep one foot on the floor, but he didn’t have enough experience with liquor to confirm that. But opening his eyes meant more information than he knew what to do with, things he hadn’t seen since he was three feet deep in thrall, more of the bones of things. In those glimpses, it had been the world with the skin peeled off, and he could have counted the number of people in the waiting room from three walls away. So many people, so many layers of shifting atoms and lives that were like sparks in the distance, racing towards nothing. The nurse pressed a luke-warm plastic cup into his hands, he sniffed it, sipped it, then guzzled it down, desperate to clear away the last of the park grit and the rawness that had taken up residence in his throat.

Drank so hard he forgot to stop to breathe, and whooped in a gust of air that left him choking and hacking around what he was beginning to realize were bruised ribs and a headache ten fathoms deep. It wasn’t fair, and he wanted to cry, waking up damaged and disoriented in a room that remained belligerently iridescent and shifting, refusing to adhere to the simple rules of reality. And God his head hurt trying to track it all, trying to do anything but lie there and moan brought sparkles of agony twinkling across his brain. All he wanted was for someone to make it all go away and didn’t understand why his usual person wasn’t there, snarling at these people who didn’t even know his name. He wanted his person.

“Spike? Where’s Spike. I don’t, I don’t know you. He wouldn’t leave me here… where’s…” His body was a long way away, and he realized he was panicking and probably wasn’t making much sense.

“It’s all right, sir.” Said the voice he couldn’t look at yet. “It’s okay. You’re in the hospital.”

“Buh…” Alarm brought the coughing back, stealing his words and making his eyes water. The flicked open, shut, open, shut in quick staccato bursts, hunting for his vampire, blonde, gray-green distinctive, and utterly absent. “But he knows I hate hospitals. He wouldn’t… where…” the truth came slinking up slowly, waving from across the street after its brief injury-induced vacation. No Spike, and he felt himself grow very cold and still. “What time is it?”

“It’s about eight o’clock in the morning, hon.” He stared at her, full of horror and too shocked to try to hide from it anymore. “Was Spike with you when you were attacked?”  

“I was… no. I… probably.” He couldn’t remember. Couldn’t remember anything after they ordered Indian, and Spike was bitching about the garlic naan and making the korma spicy enough because it had better be worth it if he was going to smell it in his clothes for days… he couldn’t remember anything. The not knowing left him helpless. “I don’t remember.”

“Okay.” She said, and she was kind, he could see that. Kind and somewhere in her early thirties, and two people at once. She was thirty two. She was fifty seven. She was young boy with an impish grin under a dark fringe, and an old old man, smiling vaguely and stooped over at the shoulders, the conflicting images laying over each other like stained glass, so many colors and so many faces and all of them absolutely real. “Okay,” she said again, touching his wrists, holding him steady and it was supposed to be a comfort but it tasted like cigarette smoke and a last heaving emphysematous wheeze, “What do you remember? Can you tell me your name?”

“Xander.” He said plainly, trying to tug his wrists away, trying not to tell her that nurses shouldn’t smoke. There was no sense in it, and Xander wanted to reach into the amorphous shimmering clay of her, of her unborn son, closer than usual, ruddy mauve and alive under their skin, and stretch and pull until they had just a little longer. Because she was nice. Because she only had twenty five years left. Hellmouth life expectancy that he didn’t have the time to fix because the concern for Spike was overwhelming, sucking all the air out of the room before it could reach his lungs. He made himself focus. Forced a wedge between the chest-crushing panic and the dizzily spinning upset and refused to give into the terror of imagining his vampire, stranded outside in the bright Spring morning. Or worse. His head throbbed at him and his tongue felt thick against his teeth. Focus. “Xander Harris.”

“Okay Xander, that’s great. Can you tell me a little bit about how you’re feeling?”

Fear. “My head hurts.”

“That makes sense,” she nodded at him, and the solemnity, the sincere kindness in the face of his panic choked a giggle out of him; he would be fine, he knew. He wasn’t worried about himself. “We think you might have a concussion, Xander. It looks like you got hit in the head.”

“And some other places it feels like. Where’s, where’s my stuff. I’ve gotta go.”

“No, no, no,” The grip on his wrists tightened, pushing him back towards the bed without any effort at all, and Xander squeezed his eyes shut again because the mattress was there, under his butt, thin and hard, but it wasn’t there. He could see the ghosts of springs and wires beneath it, could see the outlines of the cars in the parking garage below him, fragile and illusory as candle light. He missed unconsciousness. It was simple. “Xander, you were found unconscious in the park and brought in about two hours ago. It looks like you were hit by a Taser, and you’ve got some pretty nasty bruises on your abdomen, so we want to make sure you’re all right, okay?”

“I’m fine,” He managed, trying harder to fight her because the park was bad news. The park was outside, where the sun was making its merry – deadly – way across the sky, and it could be too late, it could be too late but it might not be and he needed to get out of here, and she was holding him off like he was a toddler. “I’m fine, I need to go… I need to find Spike.”

Dark fantasies chased themselves through his head. Spike, burning and suspended in agony in the sunlight for a moment but far too long. But that couldn't be right, it couldn't because he’d feel it, or felt it. Spike was supposed to be around for hundreds of years more. Dust. No. Carried off. Had to be carried off because Xander knew he wouldn't leave him lying, bleeding in the park, knew it with a certainty that was twisted up in his guts and should have been comforting but wasn't. Spike wouldn't leave him, so Spike had to have been taken. And anything could be happening. Anything. While Xander was weak and useless and dithering about see-through mattresses: helpless.

“Mister Harris, you were bleeding when you came in, and we’re worried you might have a skull fracture. I need to let the doctor at least look at you before you run off, all right?” It wasn’t, but the question was rhetorical anyway, because the brief struggle to get out of bed had sapped the last of the strength from him. He was shaking and clammy with sweat, panting. “Is there anyone we can call for you?”

“I’ll call. Can I call? I’ll call…”

It took thirty minutes of negotiation, poking and prodding and letting her clean the blood off his head and his neck with a hiss and gritted teeth. He was sure he was the most impatient patients Sunnydale General had ever seen, asking an endless series of questions – did the guys who brought him in say anything? Was there a dead guy with him? Did he have any weird dust on him? Why, apart from the obvious, would someone attack him? Did anyone see a blonde? Would someone please tell him what happened? – and by the end of it nurse Jane was pretty annoyed with him, but he got what he wanted. She shone a light in his eyes, bright starburst of pain that shot straight to the back of his skull, muttering things about light sensitivity and pupil dilation that he wasn’t paying any attention to whatsoever, too busy re-creating every enemy he’d ever made, but eventually she agreed to let him use the phone, and wheeled him out to the nurses’ station in a creaking blue chair.

The phone was one of those ancient office numbers, yellowing khaki plastic and about a thousand buttons he didn’t know the use for; Jane told him to dial nine to get out, and he found himself squinting at the 10-key which wavered and swam under his scrutiny. Xander didn’t let it deter him, and he didn’t bother with home because he knew Spike wouldn’t leave him here alone, and reached out instead to a person as familiar and necessary as breathing.

It was a bust, Willow’s warm, tentative voice on the recording: “Um. Hi, you’ve reached Willow and Tara. We’re probably in class or…” there was a brief nervous giggle, “something. But do the name and number thing and we’ll call you back soon, kay?” He hung up.

His second call was just as useless, another answering machine, this time “Thank you for calling the Magic Box. Our hours of operation are Tuesday through Sunday, nine aye em to…” and he didn’t even let the message play all the way through before hitting the little plastic lever. Xander wanted Giles, or Willow, or someone who knew how to use bits of hair and sparkly lights to find lost children and mystical hand grenades, someone who would find Spike for him and take the vampire home where he was safe from sunlight and fire and a million other potential unknowns so Xander could let go of the desperation twisting in his lungs and really wallow in the head trauma as long as the vampire was safe on the couch.

The duty nurse was starting to glower at him, but he dialed his third number, punching the little buttons with more force than necessary and praying that someone was on the other end because he was stuck here. “’Lo?” Buffy’s voice was thick and garbled with sleep. He sucked in a breath.

“Buffy! It’s Xander. I don’t know where Spike is.”

“Xander?” The faint noises of a slayer coming back online from whatever dream space she’d been occupying.

He felt guilty about it for less than a second before he babbled all over her. “I tried Willow and Tara and they’re not home, and I can’t remember Giles’ home number, and the sun’s up and Spike’s not here. Please help me.”

“You’re at home?” She sounded confused.

“I’m in the hospital. We were attacked or… something. I don’t know, but—”

“You’re in the hospital!?”

“Yeah, it’s not important. I—”

“Of course it’s important. Okay. Gimme ten minutes, I’ll be right there…”

“No, no! Buffy. Listen. Please.” The urgency made him short, and his breath came in ragged puffs, exhausting him with the anxiety. The ensuing silence surprised him. “I’m fine. I’m fine, but I don’t know where Spike is – he was with me, right?”

“Yeah. Of course he was with you.” Buffy’s voice was infected with his alarm, tight and a little quavering because she knew better than to be unconcerned, and Xander felt some awkward step-sibling of relief uncurl in his blood now that he’d helped spread the fear around a little. Because Buffy could fix it. Or at least she wasn’t stuck in a chair with nurse Ratched standing over him with an industrial sized sedative. On any other day he might have taken her up on it. “Okay. Okay, Xander. We’ll figure this out, just gimme something to go on. You see any piles of dust?”

“No! He’s not… I just woke up here, Buff. I don’t know what happened, and I don’t… remember anything.” he forced himself to take a deep breath, to take a step back from fear and hope and the things that left his mind empty white and crackling with anxiety because he was useless if he couldn’t think. Bad information – scared information – was worse than no information at all, he had too many apocalypses under his belt to forget that. “I think he’s… alive,” He said cautiously, “but I don’t know… how it works for sure.”

“He is. Why kill him and leave you alive?” she spoke with the abrasive bluntness of a military strategist, and he didn’t think he’d ever heard anything more comforting in his life. “The question is, who would wanna take Spike?”

“Dru?”

“Would’ve killed you.” That was true. After last time, she probably would have taken her time about it, and Xander would definitely know. He was stuck. There were plenty of people that Spike pissed off on a semi-regular basis, plenty of people he owned money to, and worse, plenty of people who owed money to him, but he didn’t talk about any of it, didn’t write down names and details like “Geoffrey the Annihilator is out for my blood” – Spike played all of that pretty close to the vest, never let it get in the way of Chinese food and rented movies, and Xander didn’t have any idea where to start. Geoffrey the Annihilator probably would have dragged him along for the ride anyway – the crazy demon types could be like that. Spike was like that.

Buffy was apparently coming to the same conclusions. He heard her muttering vaguely to herself, hoping for the inevitable eureka moment, but all she managed was a sigh and a guarded tone, like he was a bomb set to go off down the phone line, “What if it’s not about Spike?”

“Who would it be about?” The penny dropped a few seconds later, sinking slowly through the sludge of his concussion, “Oh. I guess it’s possible, maybe. I mean… what would she want with Spike?”

“Spike knows who the key is.”

“According to Spike,” he said ultra-cautiously, “I am the key.”

“I don’t know, Xander. It’s just a theory… but if she has Spike… that is the last straw. Seriously. The last. He’s ours.” The vehemence surprised him, and seemed to startle her into silence as well, but after a second she started making sputtering noises, eager and trying to string together a sentence, “Were there guys with swords? Giles says fourteenth century knights – I say bad movie extras. Pretty recognizable?”

“I. Don’t. Remember.” He spelled out, frustrated and starting to panic again because Buffy didn’t have any answers either. Nurse Jane shot him an alarmed look and made a “hurry it up” gesture. He thought fast, “But I was tased, not skewered.”

“Tased? Okay. That’s not normal. Okay…” A lot of people were saying that to him today, it made Xander pretty sure things were the opposite. Nothing was okay. “I’m gonna call Giles. I’ll get ahold of Willow, see if she can do a locator spell or something, mind if I run by your place and grab some of Spike’s dirty laundry?”

“What?” It had been a singularly pointless question. “No.”

“Okay. Are you sure you don’t want one of us down there?”

“I’m fine, Buffy. I’m gonna get out of here as soon as I can. Just find him.”

“Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Find my vampire. I’ll call you if I need a ride.”

The whole call had taken maybe three minutes, and he handed the phone back to the duty nurse who reclaimed it like it was made of solid gold. He drummed his fingers on the rims of the wheelchair, desperate to be out of it, running around like a chicken with his head cut off if he couldn’t do something productive. The way his head felt, a little decapitation might’ve been a nice change. But nurse Jane was back, leaning forward enough that he had a nice glimpse of the white cotton bra and the throbbing red muscle under her scrubs, “Okay, Mister Harris, let’s get you to radiology.” He didn’t fight it, just put his feet in the metal stirrups and held on with his eyes shut, a little lost in thought on the way up to have his pictures taken. “Your vampire huh?”

“It’s a long story.”

***

Xander had to wait until shift change to make his escape. It felt like decades – maybe eons – while people fussed over him using words like contusion and subdural hematoma. But it was the chance to learn to think around the headache and the wonky vision and the horrible blank spaces in his mind where he knew certain words should go. It was a chance to think, which was possibly the worst thing in the world because all he could get his head around was the idea that Spike was missing and, after that phone call with Buffy, a monster had him. The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. Because if it didn’t make sense, and if Spike was gone for a different reason… Xander’s brain refused to offer him alternatives. Abandonment was impossible, dust… dust had to be impossible. He couldn’t lose Spike. So Glory fit. The puzzle pieces, albeit fuzzy and a little distorted, clicked together. It wasn’t even a little reassuring to remember that, technically, Spike was a monster too and could take care of himself.

It was all waiting, and breathy spinning silence, and nurse Jane watched him like a hawk.

The CT confirmed that Jack had indeed fallen down and broken his crown, low, behind his right ear where the blood was thickest, clotting and flaking off like the world’s worst dandruff. Like he’d been hit with a baseball bat. He finally met the on-call resident who introduced herself as Louisa – she pronounced it with a Z – Montgomery and told him he was wonderfully coherent for a man with a skull fracture. So coherent, in fact, that it didn’t make any kind of sense, but it was unlikely they would have to perform a craniotomy to relieve the pressure on his brain. Xander was all for not drilling holes in his skull and back to the theory of what didn’t kill him… not killing him. He told her it was all the practice, and basically guaranteed himself the MRI where they took his pants and fed him into a big, cold machine – more time to think because the technician told him to stay still still still and listen to the giant magnet while it whirled around his head. The noise and the iodine left him dizzy, and he could feel his pulse all the way through his nose. When the doctor was satisfied his brain wasn’t about to implode, they sat him up and left him in a quiet room for observation.

Jane, who would probably be a very good mother in another eight months, popped by every twenty minutes or so to ask him questions and shine a light in his face, did he still remember his birthday? was the pain any better or worse? could he still feel all of his fingers and toes? could he hold up four fingers? Xander hadn’t really been paying attention when the doctor was trying to explain the significance of it all to him. His head hurt and his skin itched, but he was pretty much resigned to surviving by this point, and it would probably be pretty horrible to pass out on the street and spend the rest of his unnatural life in a coma, but if he was going to suffer some brain damage he could always try jumping off a bridge to see what would happen, and after that he didn’t give a damn. He had better things to worry about. But he kept an ear out for the hospital gossip and turned it into the opportunity he’d been looking for.

It was all hands on deck in the vegetable garden – they didn’t have the staff to deal with the overflow and the crazies were restless today. Worse, they were short-handed because one of the interns hadn’t shown up for his shift so they were pulling in support from wherever they could get it, ER, neo-natal, the radiology staff, anyone who could wield a needle or a bedpan and spare five minutes up on the fifth floor was asked to lend a hand. It was minor chaos. Xander used it. He sat quietly, trying to be innocuous and think around the corners of his headache because getting out of the hospital was suddenly Escape from Alcatraz. He tried his legs out the minute Jane turned her back and hunted up his clothes, digging through the pockets and piecing together the memories that were lost to him. It made him dizzy until not puking was five minutes of herculean effort; Xander just about had the sweating under control by the time she came back.

He found ticket stubs for a movie in his jacket pocket and entertained a brief fantasy of bursting into The Sun and shaking the employees by their lapels until they told him what they remembered, but he’d been an usher, once upon a time, and spent those three months either gigglingly blitzed on Steve’s bottomless little baggies of weed[1], or totally apathetic to the couples making out in the dark. He wondered if he and Spike had been one of them, and tried not to let himself be swamped with despair because he couldn’t remember.

Shortly after noon, Jane went off shift after introducing her replacement, Priya, who was dark and pretty and all legs that he wasn’t in any kind of position to appreciate; she asked him the questions, he smiled pretending to be a good patient, and the minute she was off on the rest of her rounds, he was staggering into his pants and down the hall towards the elevator. Jane had been watching – Priya didn’t know yet that he was a royal pain in the ass and he had to leave. He rode up to the fifth floor and finally lost control of his stomach in the elevator, motion sickness magnified by the pain in his head, and heaved up the little sips of water he’d been allowed throughout the day; it came up through his nose, acid and blood and the dauntingly empty shaft stretching below him for a mile. And for a long, dry moment he wanted to sit down and cry, to give in and curl up in a little ball and die because he couldn’t even walk in a straight line and Spike was going to be dust and he wouldn’t have anything left except an endless pounding headache and other people’s deaths.

Then the elevator dinged and he made himself pull it together because Spike needed him and he had a plan. Sort of. It was one of those plans that would give Giles conniptions, but somewhere in the murk and slosh of his memory was the knowledge that somehow crazies and Glory were connected, that if he could get to one, he could get to the other, and it all had something to do with Dawn shining like starlight and mercury glass. Maybe he was one of the crazies and belonged on the fifth floor after all.

Xander dodged an orderly, twitchy and afraid, then realized he fit right in and no one minded a slightly unsteady man wearing a johnny and a metric ton of gauze around his head provided he didn’t cause problems. He slipped through the ward like a ghost, head down and stricken with vertigo while people moved under his feet, but he bothered no one, and stumbled into some kind of purgatorial nightmare where half the patients were strapped into their gurneys and the other half wandered, frayed and harmlessly tracing patterns in the empty air. It scared him to look at these people, maybe more than he’d ever been frightened of the ravenous hellmouth fauna; people without their minds, half-lives lingering on and on, doped to the gills and repeatedly performing the same meaningless gestures like shadowed moths bashing into a light bulb over and over. It scared him wondering what they’d seen, how much of it had been real, how many of them were Glory’s or just broken victims of Sunnydale. He made himself think about Spike while he changed into his clothes and peeled the tape off his forehead. Made himself think about how sometimes insanity was insightful.

A woman, rickety thin and fuzzy wave hair chopped “manageably” short, approached him with a gaping grin and breath that smelled like day-old raspberry Jello. She touched his mouth with smiling fingers, testing, and picked up his hand; she was going to live for another fifteen years, and die just as confused and alone as she was now. Xander shuddered, and led her away, knowing in the same way he could spot suspicious obituaries that this was one of Glory’s, that this woman had been dinner once. She laughed at him, a high tinkly sound and followed him down the hall back towards the elevator, protected from security by chaotically busy negligence and a sense of purpose like a shield.

Out through the parking garage and blinking into the bright afternoon sunlight that made his eyes shriek greens and orange-yellow, her laughter turned coarse and wild. She dashed away from him, and it was all Xander could do to keep up, to battle back the horrible vertiginous sickness and the ugly translucency of things, praying that her mad dash would lead him straight to Glory. Because if she killed him, whatever, but maybe he’d find Spike. He caught the woman on the corner of Elm and 52nd, three blocks from anything remotely interesting and spinning around a lamp post like she was Fred Astaire. She stopped when she saw him, but only for a moment, pointing and screaming, and running in a circle with eyes that left him cold, “You can’t catch me! You can’t catch me! You don’t even know what you are!”

He left her there, still circling pretending to be an airplane, and maybe later he would feel guilty about it because this was Sunnydale and she was helpless, but guilt could wait until the numbness wore off. He thought for sure that she would lead him somewhere worthwhile, that set loose on the world, Glory’s victims would flock to their maker, but maybe they were just crazy. Broken down and used and good for nothing, and he could fucking sympathize, because he could wander the streets for the next seven years, looking through buildings and praying for a miracle and he wouldn’t stand a chance. Without Spike, he was fucked.

Xander wandered, slowly, a little aimlessly, back towards civilization, getting out of the warehouses and into the park where there was a bank of payphones. He dug a quarter out of his jacket pocket and dialed the familiar number, hoping that this time someone would pick up.

“Thank you for calling the Magic Box, this is R—”

“Giles, it’s me.”

“Xander! Are you all right? Buffy said you were tased?”

“Yeah, apparently there were fishhooks? It was a thing. Have you found Spike?”

“I’m afraid not. We have managed to ascertain that he is, er, for lack of a better word, alive, but Willow is having some difficulty uncovering his exact location because he is not, in fact, living.”

Alive. The word pumped cool water through his brains, gave his lungs fresh sweet air to breathe and dropped the line of his shoulders a solid inch. Alive. His legs wanted to give out. Alive and missing. “What do we do?”

“Well, Buffy is pursuing alternative avenues of information, with any luck we’ll—”

“Giles. Concussion. Translation?”

“She’s gone to shake down Willy.” For Spike. Xander thought maybe he loved her. “She was very angry.”

“Good.”

“Xander, Willow is beside herself. Are you sure you don’t want us there with you?”

“No. I’m… no.” No sense in telling them he’d done a runner because then they’d come looking for him too and take their attention off Spike. Besides, he’d promised Buffy he wouldn’t do anything stupid. “Thanks Giles. I’ll call again soon, kay?”

He hung up before he got an answer.

Xander staggered fifteen feet to the nearest park bench and collapsed on it, exhausted and shaking and caught in a dark, insidious swirl of panic that threatened to drag him into the earth. He couldn’t breathe. There had to be an alternative – some way to find Spike without using a heartbeat or a life-force or whatever it was that Willow’s magic needed. There had to be. Because Xander felt like his lungs wouldn’t expand and his heart wasn’t beating right but he couldn’t die. There had to be a way to get Spike back, but he sat there, useless.

Maybe if his memory didn’t have a huge fucking hole in it between Dawn’s tongue, poking at the vampire in some show of affectionate abuse and waking up cold and afraid in a strange place with strange eyes. Maybe if he were at the Magic Box letting Willow pry his brain open with a crowbar he would be more use, he could help fix things, but he couldn’t bring himself to move. His head throbbed in time with his heart, and his breath came in sharp short gasps that left him dizzy and tipping sideways on the bench, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t stop it, and he knew that Spike was going to die and he was going to be trapped and he was selfish and panicking and stupid and a thousand other things at once. But he wasn’t moving.

Xander didn’t know how long he sat there – an hour at least – the sun slipped far enough from its apex in the sky to cast long shadows towards the east, but he couldn’t quite muster the energy to get back to the phone, to dial again. A man in a brown, pin-striped suit sat beside him; he pulled off his narrow glasses and fussily fished out a handkerchief to clean them with before replacing them on his nose – it reminded him of Giles, and it didn’t at the same time. Xander ignored him, but only for a moment.

“You’re the boy,” The man said, and Xander looked up at him, finally, seeing something dark blue and seething, something angry and terrifying, and he wanted to scramble away. There was a burst of powder in his face when he gasped, itching and stinging and fading as fast as it was there, and suddenly he wasn’t nervous anymore. “You’re the boy,” the thing repeated, chilly, “my mistress is very eager to meet you, if you’ll come along.”

He promised to call Buffy, promised he’d let her know where he was because Glory could, and probably would, kick his ass. He promised not to do anything stupid. But his head swam, spangled with the lights and the slow syrupy pour of time he hadn’t seen since master’s thrall and Spike was his. When the man stood, Xander followed.




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