The whiteness of the room was almost blinding. Xander looked at Spike, the only non-white thing in the room. Even the paleness of his skin and hair seemed dark and warm in comparison to the hospital walls.
The last thing he remembered was the cemetery at night, demons, sharp pain, someone screaming his name...
"Did I loop?"
Spike jerked, his head coming up, eyes blinking in confusion. When he saw Xander looking at him, he leaned forward slightly, leaned closer. It was nice. "What's that, pet?"
Xander frowned. His brain wasn't working right. He felt really confused. "I remember the demons, and fighting. And then ... I'm here. Did I loop?"
"No, luv. The time loop's done. No looping anymore."
Xander relaxed slightly. "Oh. Okay."
Spike's face was close, leaning above him. It was familiar, somehow. It made Xander feel warm inside. His head wasn't working right and everything was weird, but he was glad Spike was there. "I'm glad you're here," he said quietly. Spike swallowed heavily, his throat working visibly in the bright hospital light. He nodded, but didn't reply. Xander tried to smile, and murmured, "I love you."
Spike's head jerked as if he'd been slapped, but then he regained his composure and said in a choked voice, "You're not thinking right, Xander. You'll be better soon, though."
He wanted to ask Spike why the world was so squishy and bright and swirly, but his eyelids were really heavy and he didn't think the words ever made their way out of his mouth before he fell asleep again.
* * *
The next time he woke up, Spike was standing on the other side of the room talking with a doctor who looked strangely familiar. The doctor was wearing a white coat. White white white. But his hair was dark and his skin was very brown. Dark against all that white.
At the sound from Xander's left, he turned to look, and Willow was there, reaching out to take his hand with a broad smile. Against the hospital white, her red hair seemed very very red, like Ronald McDonald.
Xander frowned. His head was hurting and he couldn't remember, couldn't seem to remember what was going on, couldn't seem to think straight. He looked at Willow, but his head was heavy on the pillow. "Did I loop again?"
Willow's smile dimmed a watt or two. "No, Xander. You didn't loop. You're in the hospital."
Xander nodded slightly, then rolled his head to look back at Spike and the doctor. "I know that guy," he murmured, and then his eyes were closing and he just wanted to take another quick nap.
* * *
Xander woke to find the familiar doctor looking down at him. Xander couldn't figure out where he'd seen the guy before. Maybe he dreamt it? Maybe this was a dream? His brain wasn't working right, and he couldn't remember why.
"Did I loop?" he asked weakly.
"He keeps asking that," Spike said from near the doorway. Why was he standing so far away?
"Perfectly normal," the doctor assured him. "He's perseverating -- repeating the same thing over and over again -- which is to be expected with a concussion of this severity. Nothing to worry about." The doctor was shining a light into Xander's eyes, holding his eyelids open. "Now, Xander, can you tell me what day this is?"
Xander tried to remember. "Um ... Wednesday?"
The familiar doctor smiled, his teeth very white against his brown skin. "That's good. Yes, today's Wednesday. Can you tell me the date?"
Xander peered up into the guy's smiling face, confused. "I know you from somewhere."
The doctor glanced over toward the doorway, where Spike was standing, then looked back at Xander. "That's all right, Xander. Yes, we've met before. I'm Spike's friend, Jeremy." The doctor didn't give him a chance to respond before quickly continuing, "I'm glad you remember. That's a good sign. Now can you tell me the date today?"
Xander answered all the questions as best he could, and finally the doctor -- Jeremy, his name is Jeremy -- said seriously, "I'd like to keep you here for observation for the rest of the day, but I'm willing to send you home if a responsible adult stays with you for the next 48 hours to observe you for complications."
Xander frowned, trying to make sense of this, but his head was still very muddled and he was starting to notice that his arms hurt, and his chest, too. And he had little tubes going into his nose, and other ones attached to his hand, and suddenly he just really really wanted to be out of there.
The doctor asked firmly, "Xander, do you understand me?"
Xander nodded very very slightly. "I think so. Kind of."
Doctor Jeremy said, "Spike has said he's willing to stay with you. He'll need to wake you up every 3 hours to check on you, to make sure no problems occur. Do you understand this, Xander?"
Xander glanced over at Spike. "Spike said he'll stay with me?"
Doctor Jeremy said, "Yes, and I don't want you returning to work or other normal activities for at least a week. You need to rest. The next two days, you must have Spike with you to keep an eye on you, but after that you just need to rest. Do you understand?"
Xander nodded. His head was feeling very slightly better. It still hurt, but nodding didn't make his eyes water anymore. "Spike. Rest. Got it." In truth, his head was still pretty fuzzy, but it sounded like Spike had offered to take care of him. That couldn't be right, could it?
Well, if this was all a dream, then it wouldn't matter. So he smiled and nodded.
Doctor Jeremy patted Xander's non-tubed hand and said, "Well, then, let's get this paperwork taken care of. It's almost dawn and you'll be wanting to get him home before the sun's up."
Xander wondered if the doctor was talking about him or Spike.
* * *
The ride in a wheelchair out to the car was mildly entertaining. At least he was wearing his own clothes again, though Willow had brought a new shirt for him. Apparently the one he'd been wearing on patrol was ruined.
Wheeling through the hospital was like watching a really weird IMAX movie full of people dressed in white. Some of them wore plastic shower caps. Other ones wore blue-green pants and tops like he saw sometimes on "E.R." when he channel surfed into a re-run. There were other people in wheelchairs, too. And some on gurneys. And some who weren't. It was all very surreal.
And then he was in the car, and the world was racing past the window and making him feel sort of sick, and by the time they got him home and into his own comfy bed, covered in his own comfy blankets, head on his own comfy pillow, he was ready to sleep some more.
* * *
He woke, eyes still closed, to the feeling of a hand on his hair. Stroking. Soft. Slow. Sort of threading through to brush lightly against his scalp. It felt really nice. Like somebody was taking care of him. Watching over him. Keeping him safe. Loving him.
The hand stroked along and through his hair gently, over and over, until it lulled him back to sleep again without him ever having opened his eyes.
* * *
The next time he woke up, he opened his eyes to find he was in the dark. Well, not pitch-black, but a lot better than the hospital's glare. Looking around, he recognized his own room, dimly lit. The blinds must be closed.
Spike had apparently pulled one of the kitchen chairs into the bedroom and so he was sitting on Xander's left. When Xander looked at him, their eyes met. Spike looked tired. He didn't say anything.
"Did I loop?" Xander asked quietly, confused.
Spike smiled, just a little, and shook his head. "No, Xan. No time loop. You just need to rest."
Xander tried to nod, but it felt like his head weighed a thousand pounds, so he just murmured, "Okay," and closed his eyes again. Eyes still closed, he asked softly, "But you'll stay?"
A hand stroked his hair again -- he vaguely remembered that happening earlier -- and Spike's voice, much closer now, said gently, "I'll stay. I'll be right here."
Xander smiled, or thought he did -- he smiled inside his head, anyway, because he was glad Spike was there -- but he was already part-way asleep, so he wasn't sure if his lips actually moved.
* * *
When he needed to go to the bathroom, Spike helped him walk. It would have been embarrassing, except that he was so sleepy and weak and sort of drunk that he was just grateful for the help.
Thankfully, Spike didn't stick around to watch.
Then back to the bed, and he was exhausted by the trip, and so fell back asleep before Spike had even gotten him under the covers.
* * *
Spike woke him up to ask him, "How's the head?"
Xander peered at him blearily, then raised a hand to rub at his eyes.
He tried to say, "Why do I have bandages on my arms?" but even he could tell it was a bit mumbly.
Spike's jaw got that tight, jumpy thing going on, and then he spat, "Bregni."
"Cut me up, huh?"
Spike just nodded, still looking like he wanted to tear something's head off.
"Don't really remember that very well."
Spike relaxed slightly and almost smiled. "Well, at least this time you didn't ask if you'd looped."
* * *
Xander woke to a hand on his shoulder. Not shaking him, just touching firmly. Sort of holding. Spike was standing next to the bed.
"Need to wake up again for a bit, pet." Spike sat back down in the kitchen chair and smiled a sort of soft smile that looked just ... weird on Spike's face. Except that he'd looked that way at Buffy a thousand times. Xander had seen it, and hated it. Spike's voice was gentle when he asked, "Remembering anything yet?"
He was feeling a bit more awake this time, less drunk-feeling, and his head was feeling clearer. He could even sort of remember about the fight in the cemetery. It was all a little hazy, but it was better now, and he thought he remembered...
"Dawn." His voice sounded kind of creaky.
Spike tilted his head. "What's that, luv?"
"Is Dawn ... how is she?"
"She's fine. Not so keen on patrolling again right away, but that's a good thing. Needs more training."
Xander frowned, searching his memory. "I was joking around. I distracted her."
Spike leaned forward, face serious. "Bollocks. It was me that brought her along before she was ready, just because I..." He broke off, lips tightening.
Xander looked away. He considered just going back to sleep mid-conversation, using the whole head injury as an excuse, but the truth was that he was feeling a lot better, and so instead he said quietly, "I know you were avoiding me, Spike. It's okay. I'm just sorry Dawn almost got hurt." Silence. Yeah, Dawn almost got hurt because Spike couldn't stand to be alone with me. I remember that part. Without turning back to look, Xander cleared his throat and said tiredly, "Maybe you were right. It might be best if we patrolled separately from now on. It would probably be better for everyone."
Spike grabbed Xander's face -- his fingers resting where the bruises had been on his jaw -- and turned him so that they could see each other's eyes again in the darkened room. "There's no bloody way I'm sending you out alone, not after this."
Xander smiled sadly. "Always trying to protect us, huh?"
Spike didn't reply, but his eyes were still blazing, his face still tense and strange.
After a long moment, Xander closed his eyes. "Spike, I'm tired, and I don't want to fight with you anymore. Please?"
Spike's hand on his face withdrew, but as it went it felt oddly, unexpectly ... almost like a caress.
As Xander started to drift toward sleep, it all just seemed so sad. So broken. He said softly, "I'm sorry I messed everything up."
He could have sworn he felt a hand softly stroke his hair again, just once, as he fell asleep.
* * *
A hand on his shoulder woke him up from a bizarre dream. "It's in the sandcastle," he mumbled emphatically as he rolled to get away from the hand.
When he opened his eyes, Spike was standing there with a grin on his face. "It's in the sandcastle, is it? Well, that's a fine place to put it, I suppose."
Xander rubbed his eyes and blinked hard. Yep. Spike was still there. "I was a fish. And Fish!Willow was looking for her green fuzzy sweater, but it was in the sandcastle at the bottom of the tank."
Spike rolled his eyes. "Fish sweaters? Even your dreams are boring." He handed Xander a mug, but it was too hot to hold. Xander made an ouch face and set it down on the bedside table, jerking his hand away. He sniffed the liquid.
"I don't like tea."
"It's good for you."
"And it's too hot, anyway."
"Tea's not meant to be drunk anything other than piping hot. Now drink it down." He picked up the mug and held it out to Xander again, but Xander shrunk away, trying to melt into the mattress.
"I told you I don't like tea! Sheesh! Who are you, Nurse Ratched?"
Spike put the mug back on the bedside table and sat down in the kitchen chair beside the bed, scooting it a bit closer. "You're supposed to have liquids," he admonished, his brows knitting in obvious concern.
Concern? About me?
"Well, uh, liquids? I like soda. Mountain Dew is good. Or root beer. And juice is okay."
Spike just nodded, leaning over to rest his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped together. "I'm supposed to get you talking every few hours, make sure you aren't gone brain dead."
Xander blinked. Shouldn't Spike have made some kind of joke about him being brain dead already, or how would they know the difference, or something like that? Man, Spike must be off his game!
"So we're supposed to talk now?"
Spike nodded slowly.
"Not too good at that, are we?"
Spike gave him a long look. Then, "Not lately, no."
Xander nodded, then turned his head to stare at the ceiling. Stucco. Tiny stalagmites of death, waiting to fall on him while he slept. He tried to think of something to say.
"Are the Bregnis dead?"
"Not yet. The witches are working on some rain mojo. Bregni demons aren't good with water."
"How many of them were there?"
Spike's voice was hard. "More than we thought."
"So why aren't you out there looking for them and kicking their asses?"
"Somebody's gotta keep you from staggering out into the night."
"Well, Dawn could do that." This doesn't make any sense. Why are you here when you've been working so hard to avoid me? What's with the mixed messages, mister? "Why doesn't Dawn stay with me instead?"
Spike's jaw tightened. He didn't say anything.
Xander joked lamely, "I just thought you didn't do charity work."
Spike made a sound that was almost a snarl. Then, "Look, I know you don't bloody want me here, but I owe you for the Kashithnet. After this, we call it even."
Xander frowned in confusion. "Wait ... that wasn't what I meant..."
But Spike was already gone, storming out of the room, his back stiff with pride.
Jesus Christ, Spike! Always jumping to conclusions! Like when I said you were my best friend and you acted like I was trying to let you down gently or something and got all offended.
Sometimes I think if the Scoobies had an insecurity contest, you and I would beat everybody else by a mile.
Xander lay on his back, staring at the stalagmite ceiling, and thought maybe he should go after Spike and explain, but he was still feeling so sleepy that he drifted off in mid-thought.
* * *
The next time, Spike woke him with a brusque, "Oi. Harris. Drink this."
Xander slowly blinked open his eyes to see a glass of orange juice in front of his face. He tried to shift up against the pillow, to sit up enough to drink, and Spike quickly put down the glass and helped him, placing a supportive hand on his arm and pushing the pillow into a comfortable position.
"I can do that myself, you know," Xander grumbled sleepily.
Spike pulled away sharply. "Right. Of course. Drink your juice. Supposed to keep hydrated. And I'm fixing you some soup."
"You made soup?" Xander was a bit frightened at the thought, given his past experiences with Spike's culinary exploits.
Spike's face tightened, as if he knew what Xander was thinking. "Tinned soup."
They somehow managed to avoid an actual argument, and Spike even let Xander leave the bedroom to go sit on the couch for a while, though he wrapped an arm around Xander's back and practically lifted him off the ground while they walked.
The walk to the couch had made his head ache and spin again, but Xander ate a little bit of soup and watched a few minutes of Mighty Mouse before he started fading. He didn't remember falling asleep in front of the tv.
When he next woke up, he was back in bed with the blankets tucked around him securely, and Spike was snoring quietly from the kitchen chair nearby.
Xander drifted back to sleep, weirdly comforted by the sound of Spike's breathing in the darkness.
* * *
Xander woke on his own, hearing noises out in the kitchen. At first, still sleepy, he was spooked, but then he remembered Spike and relaxed.
Xander eyed the bandages on his arms. He could feel another one on his chest, under his pyjama top. The demon must have scratched him up pretty good with its claws.
Spike came into the room, carrying a steaming mug -- it smelled like the much-debated tea -- which he set on the bedside table. The tension was almost unbearable. Xander felt pretty much all the way awake now, unsure what was going on between them. He didn't want another fight, even if Spike had brought tea into the room. But then Spike took a sip of the tea, and Xander relaxed another notch.
Xander gestured vaguely to the white gauze on his arms. He quipped, "So I must've been bleeding a lot. You get a chance for a quick snack before they bandaged me up?"
Spike's head jerked up, his eyes shockingly dark and wet. "I carried you all the fucking way to the hospital, Harris. Didn't have time for ... and anyway ... I wouldn't ... it was different when you..." Spike looked away, shaking his head with jerky movements. When he looked at Xander again, his face was composed, though his eyes were still wounded. "Your head doing all right?"
Xander nodded, sighing, "It's not like this is the first time I've had a concussion, Spike."
"Yeah, I never understood why Rupert and Buffy let you all come on patrol. Bloody dangerous is what it was."
"First of all, I helped. And second of all, I was an old pro at the concussion thing way before Buffy came to town." They didn't say anything for a few minutes while Spike unnecessarily smoothed the blankets, tucking them around Xander in a bizarrely motherly way.
Xander continued, "That's part of why I wanted my own place. Wanted to get out of the basement. Dad still likes to take a swing now and then when he's had a few too many." Another long silence. "I try to just stay away from that sort of stuff."
Spike's hands jerked back, into his lap, where they tightened around each other to form a knot. "Said I was sorry," he mumbled, looking at the floor as if something fascinating were happening down there.
"No," Xander replied quietly, firmly. "No, you didn't."
Spike looked up, mouth twisted with some deep emotion, and choked out, "I'm sorry."
It wasn't enough. Not for punching him. That wasn't okay. Just saying "I'm sorry" wasn't enough. But Xander wasn't sure how to make it right. If it was even possible.
Xander closed his eyes, leaning back against his pillow, exhausted, and said softly, "Yeah. Me too."
* * *
Spike shook him awake and gave him a glass of orange juice. The lights in the room were on low. Spike sat in the kitchen chair and watched him sit up and take a drink. Spike took a sip of the tea he had brought for himself again. Xander'd never realized what a tea-drinker Spike was. Maybe it was stress.
"Found your box of toys under the bed."
Xander didn't spit orange juice all over himself, but it was a near thing. He swallowed and then asked archly, "You were snooping through my stuff?"
Spike shot him a look, one eyebrow raised. Right. The diary. Well, he'd be living that one down until ... pretty much forever.
Xander rolled his eyes and sighed. "Okay, maybe I had that coming."
"Been using the plastic cocks long?" Spike sounded so calm, like they were discussing ... uh ... something that had nothing to do with anyone's butt.
Xander blushed. He wanted to say it was none of Spike's business ... but in a strange way it sort of was. So he opted for honesty ... a refreshing change of pace. "Uh ... since the time loop."
Spike let that one sink in.
"The time loop," Spike repeated slowly.
"When we ..."
Xander couldn't believe Spike had brought it up again. He was momentarily paralyzed by the surprise, but then he nodded, not knowing what to say. Not wanting to mess things up again. He had that jumpy twisty feeling in his stomach again. Nervous.
After a long time, Spike shifted in his chair and set down his mug of tea. Then he shifted in the chair again.
"It's not like I was looking for pain," Spike started hesitantly, still looking at the floor. "But, you know, chip. I figured I'd go on anyway, even if it hurt." He looked up, looked at Xander, and his face was so very sad. "When it didn't hurt as much as I expected ... well ... I jumped to conclusions."
Xander wasn't sure what to say. And then suddenly his mouth was moving and words were coming out. "Well, you know what they say about conclusions. They make a 'con' ... of ... um ... 'clu' ... and ... 'sions.' Wait, that doesn't make as much sense as I remember. Maybe it was 'assumptions'? They make an 'ass' of 'ump' and 'tions'? That doesn't sound right, either. Let me start again."
Spike shook his head, smiling a little smile that didn't look happy at all. "It's all right. You need to rest." He got up out of the chair and walked silently out of the room.
He forgot his tea.
And he was wrong. It wasn't "all right" at all.