Chapter 31 Over When It's over
A little after seven-thirty that evening, Angel showed up, accompanied by the dashing figure that was the improbably named Zooza. And when Zooza introduced himself with his actual name, Xander could understand why Spike settled for calling him Zooza.
Angel took Spike to one side for a rapid catch-up on the forthcoming events, and Zooza studied Xander with professional interest.
“You’re acquainted with magic,” said the demon, who would have borne a striking resemblance to Tyrone Power if Tyrone Power had been slightly purple and slightly shiny.
“Is that your real face?” Xander asked, good manners tossed aside as he took in the colourised vision of a childhood hero, care of a free channel that constantly ran old movies.
“No,” Zooza grinned. “I selected it when I chose Earth as my home. Nineteen-forty-two.”
“Didn’t happen to see The Mark of Zorro around the time you chose it, did you?”
Zooza threw back his handsome head and laughed, slapping Xander between the shoulder blades and almost dislocating several vertebrae.
“Oi!” came Spike’s voice across the vast living room. “We need him in one piece.”
“I’m good,” Xander assured Spike, still chuckling at Zooza’s infectious humour.
“Now, young man… Magic?”
“In what respect?”
“My employing it in your vicinity.”
“Yup, no problem.”
Zooza took Xander’s hand and cradled it within his both of his own, shutting his eyes and concentrating. Xander wondered if it was the mage’s own form of psychometry and let him proceed without question. Spike wasn’t quite so happy about the contact and was glaring in Zooza’s direction with unmistakeable jealousy; willing Spike to meet his eye seemed to work, and Xander was able to shoot him a warning look.
The two vampires strolled over, Angel perturbing Xander with a disconcertingly friendly pat on the shoulder.
“You think I’m gonna die,” Xander muttered.
“I appreciate what you’re doing. We all do.”
“Remember that when I need a month in the Bahamas to recover from this.”
Angel smiled, and patted again; Spike knocked his hand away.
“Stop distracting him. Xander, focus on Zooza, like you did with the brooch.”
A little surprised, Xander nevertheless did as he was told, naturally unable to read the man but experiencing a sensation of warmth that vibrated throughout his body.
“I’m familiarising myself with your usual state of being,” Zooza told him quietly. “Will you be changing anything for tonight? Your clothes?”
“There’s just my coat.”
“Spike,” Zooza directed; a few seconds passed and Xander felt his coat slipped onto his shoulders. “Do you always wear the eyepatch?”
“I will tonight, yes.”
“Spike has explained about the entity that’s been pursuing you recently, and we need to be sure that it can’t use you to influence the night’s proceedings.”
“You think that’s what the uber-nasty has been about? It’s been trying to put a stop to the contact with Dead Guy?”
“We don’t know, do we, Pet? No point in taking any chances though. Now he knows how you’re supposed to feel, Zooza’ll recognise if you change at all and we’ll be able to call a swift halt.”
“Hopefully before any damage is done,” Angel added.
“So…you don’t actually want me to be hurt, you just think I’m gonna die,” Xander couldn’t resist teasing. “That’s probably an improvement on the past.”
Angel refused to be drawn, his expression grim as he exchanged a telling look with Spike.
“I don’t want anyone else to die.”
“Else? Anyone else? What don’t I know?”
“I think you’ll find that was a generalised anyone else,” Zooza explained as he returned Xander’s hand. “The past decade has been…bloody.”
The expression of loss that Xander had repeatedly witnessed on Spike’s face flashed over Angel’s as the older vampire turned away, and Xander couldn’t help the wave of sympathy.
“Spike’s told me…well, not much really, but I… I know you’re uncomfortable around me – me as a medium – but if I can help…”
Angel switched back, gave Xander’s shoulder another of those perplexing pats, and visibly moved on.
“The venue for this meeting tonight is a disused stone barn, middle of nowhere. Nothing apparently remarkable about it, no documented history, other than the fact that it was used as a church for a while.”
“Was the ground ever consecrated?”
“Is that a problem?” Spike asked. “It wasn’t our choice and if those bastards are trying to pull a fast one somehow…”
“I was thinking more about any difficulties caused by it being consecrated. If we still don’t know the kind of demon Dead Guy was…”
“That was part of the reason we let the Escolets choose the location,” Angel interrupted to inform Xander. “But it may be a good idea for you to, er…”
“Read the place?”
“Yeah, read the place before the Escolets arrive. You can do that?”
“Sure. You going to run away again when I do?”
Spike snickered and Angel had the grace to look a little sheepish.
“Not this time, no.”
“Is that why it took so long to set this up? Finding the right location?”
“The right location, and the right artefact. Despite their insistence on it being one of the family’s most precious relics, the Escolets managed to mislay it for the past century. It wasn’t the easiest of items to track down.” Angel reached into his coat and drew out an object wrapped in ancient leather; Xander gave an involuntary shudder at the sight of it. “Sorry, yes, it’s human,” Angel apologised as he unwrapped the item, revealing a foot-long dagger made of dull metal, every inch carved with unrecognisable symbols. He wielded it toward Xander, who took a step back.
“Whoa. Did I sleep through the conversation about human sacrifice?”
“Apparently your best chance at contact with Ezequiel Escolet.” Xander went to take the dagger but Angel hurriedly moved it out of his reach. “No-one’s entirely sure of how this facilitates contact, so…right time and place, and the alleged security of having the family present.”
“On the subject of security, you ever find the guys that tried to kidnap me?”
“Someone did. I know the descriptions were pretty vague, but we found a couple of demon hybrids with their heads removed, sitting in a car similar in description to the one that rammed yours. We checked it out and the damage corresponded to that of the Mustang’s, so we’re assuming…”
“Is my car okay, is it fixed?”
“That’s right, Pet,” Spike chuckled, “get your priorities right.”
“It’s not just a car, Spike, you know that.”
“The car’s good as new, waiting for you in LA,” Angel assured. “You, uh…didn’t want a re-spray?”
“Hey! The colour’s good,” Xander protested, struggling into his coat sleeves. “And I didn’t choose it, so I’d like it even if I hated it. What colour is your car? I’ll take a guess and say…black? Black, goes with everything, particularly a complete deficit of personality or imagination.”
“Shall we go?” Zooza asked brightly, quickly ushering Xander toward the door.
Spike picked up their luggage and glanced around for the last time, eyes settling on a troubled-looking Angel.
Angel shrugged huffily and followed Xander and Zooza.
“It’s midnight blue. It just looks black.”
Spike was aware of Xander’s tension level rising as they settled in the rear of Angel’s car, and he shuffled a little closer.
“Yeah. It’s just…starting to feel real.”
“You say and I’ll put a stop to this.”
“No, you won’t,” Angel contradicted from the driver’s seat.
“That’s right, you won’t,” Xander agreed, resenting Angel but appreciating the sentiment from Spike, and the soft smile he gave him showed that.
As they pulled out onto the road, Spike took a swift look around.
“That our people in the SUV?”
“Yes. We’ll be picking up another on the far side of town.”
“To the teeth.”
With a semi-satisfied grunt, Spike fell back in his seat. He spent a few minutes listening to the long, deep breaths that Xander used to bring himself back to the calm place after facing the shock of reality. Then he dug into his pocket for the stereo, unwinding the earplugs and using the excuse of sharing to move closer still to Xander. Securing Xander’s attention with a nudge, he handed over a plug and, in unison, they pressed the little plastic buttons into their ears.
Spike flicked through the playlist for something appropriate to the moment, wishing that Ghostbusters had been available because of both its momentary involvement in one of their jokes, and the memory of where that joke had been made. Leaning in, Xander peered at the list and, with a stabbing finger, made a choice of his own, dancing in his seat and pointedly ignoring the expression that had to be on Spike’s face as he was treated to Love Shack.
But no: a perky enough tune to lift the spirits, and Spike adopted more of a ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ attitude and danced too. Zooza, despite being unable to hear precisely what they were listening to, picked up enough of the beat to join in, and did so with verve. End of the song and Xander sighed with pleasure: this had to be the way to be transported to your death.
Before Spike could choose the next song, the shuffle prevailed and Xander was already bouncing along to The Dandy Warhols, loudly making the most of…
“‘I really love your hairdo, yeah,’”
…and threatening Spike’s plastered down coiffure with probing fingers that were repeatedly slapped away and eventually caught. As the silliness passed, the grip on only one hand was released. Xander stared hard at Spike, once again willing him to behave; the vampire’s only concession was to shift in his seat, managing to cover their joined hands with a piece of his coat.
For the sake of the comfort it gave, Xander pretended that they weren’t being obvious, and that Angel and Zooza hadn’t or wouldn’t notice, but that became immaterial as the next song stirred a depth of feeling that shook Xander to the core. Spike felt it too, Xander could tell that by the complete lack of reaction until the vampire’s hand began to tighten around his.
I'll stand by you,
Pretence be damned. Xander closed his eye and tilted his head toward Spike’s, only to have it met halfway. They rested against one another. More contact, more comfort, more strength. A trace of a smile touched Xander’s lips as Spike’s fingers flexed and flexed again for emphasis.
‘And when, when the night falls on you, Baby,
With music to distract him, and freed from the drone of voices by his proximity to Spike, Xander finally dozed, slowly relaxing the unconscious tension in his body and slumping against Spike’s side, head drooping to rest on his shoulder. Spike waited for comments from the front of the car, but none came; mollified, he set aside the hundred-and-one acerbic replies he had on standby and carefully manhandled Xander to lie in his lap, losing his earpiece as it accompanied Xander down.
“There’s a blanket in the trunk,” Zooza whispered to him. “Would you like me to…?”
“Nah, he’s fine. This is what he needs, he was too wound up to get his head down earlier.”
“It’s endearing. His trust in you.”
Spike gave a shallow nod and swallowed hard, knowing how close he’d come to losing that trust and treasuring it more for that.
“Only hope I don’t let him down.”
When they arrived at the barn, Spike gently shook Xander awake, and they remained in the car for a short while after Angel and Zooza left. Upright now, Xander turned in his seat to meet Spike’s eyes.
“Okay…” He took Spike’s hand and squeezed. “I expect you to keep to every promise you ever made me, no letting anything use me to hurt anyone. If the uber-nasty takes advantage of this situation… Well, you know.”
“And don’t overreact until there’s something genuinely worth overreacting to.”
“Sure? ‘Cause although I like the over-protective, you’re— Or are we done with that now? You had to deliver me and I’m delivered, so…?” Spike brought Xander’s hand to his mouth, holding it against his lips. “Not done with,” Xander smiled. “That’s…nice.” Spike kissed his fingertips. “That’s nicer. You’d better stop before the niceness gets outta hand and Angel comes back to the car for the biggest shock of his not-life.”
“I tell you, Love, I totally respect what you said back at the house, but… I’m going to have you again, remember that.”
“You’re impossible,” Xander laughed.
A short, playful struggle ensued, and Xander finally reclaimed his hand. A whole two seconds passed before he was back holding hands with Spike as he gazed out of the window at the barn.
“What do you think?” Spike asked. “Other than big, stone, empty.”
“First impression? Nothing, not while I’m this near to you.”
“Shall we get to it then?”
Xander turned back to Spike, leaning in to give him a single, heartfelt kiss.
“Thank you, Spike.”
Xander chuckled, gave Spike another kiss, and was out of the car.
Angel and Zooza came to greet them as they wandered up to the barn’s entrance, Angel gesturing for Xander to proceed with his reading, and stepping aside with Spike. Whatever Zooza was beneath the manufactured exterior, he had no effect at all on Xander’s abilities, and kept protectively near to the man. Xander opened himself fully to the energies and concentrated, resting a hand on one of the roughly hewn stones that made up the front wall of the barn.
“Interesting. For its apparent age, this building is surprisingly neutral.”
“Is that good or bad or…”
“Just…as it is,” Xander explained to an anxious Angel. “There is a sense of community, which would go with the fact it was used as a church at some point, and…” Xander fruitlessly scanned the immediate area. “There are graves associated with this location.”
“Church, graveyard,” Spike supposed.
“Not entirely sure about that; but we established it was unconsecrated, so that may be why it feels a little diff— … Okay.” Xander was listening hard, fingers twitching in encouragement. “Okay.” Xander backed away from the barn. “Yeah, I see that, I feel that. … Okay.” He turned to the North, peering into the darkness. “There’s – there was – a family home…” He pointed. “And the only activity here seems to be due to that, the energy is pulling me in that direction.”
“Do we need to go there?” Angel asked.
“It isn’t there any more, not physically at least. Yeah, okay, I’m listening.” Xander took a few more steps in the direction he’d pointed until he was brought to a halt by Zooza’s hand on his arm. He glanced at the demon and nodded before turning his attention back to the spirits. “No, I can’t come to you now, maybe later. … Saul, can you try to convey… Okay.” Xander tried his best to shut out those particular voices, and turned back to the barn. “They’re very agitated, I hope they don’t disrupt this reading.”
“Nothing to do with this and here,” Spike confirmed.
“Nothing, as far as I can tell. This place…” He stared up at the building and shrugged. “Shall we try inside?”
The party entered the barn and Xander once again separated himself and focused on the energy. Once again he was left with the vague feeling of people gathering, and nothing more.
“Perhaps that’s why the Escolets chose this place,” Zooza surmised after Xander conveyed his findings. “Is there any indication that they were a part of the family that owned the house you felt earlier?”
“None. You want me to go read that area?”
“No,” Spike told him sharply, looking over his shoulder to where the participants of this meeting were arriving. “No wandering off, nothing beyond the call, all right?”
“Yeah, sure, I’m not going anywhere, Spike, no need to get excited.”
“I’m not bloody excited, you’ll know when I’m excited.”
Spike glared, Xander tried not to laugh, Angel and Zooza beat a hasty retreat with the pretence of greeting the newcomers.
“We’re pretty obvious,” Xander said the moment they were alone.
“Not like I did.”
There was a long pause filled with feigned disinterest and half-glances. Then, shoulder-to-shoulder they took in their surroundings: the barn was large, chilly, virtually empty other than the semi-circle of chairs gathered around what Xander presumed to be his reading area, and a few tables bearing an assortment of scientific instruments; a more popular one carried the stock of coffee and snacks, and that was where the huminions had gathered.
“Going to introduce me to your people later?” Xander asked.
“Can do now if…”
“No, not now.”
“Are you… How are you feeling?”
“Nervous. Nothing I can’t cope with.”
“You just say if…”
“I’ll be glad when this is done and you can stop fussing.”
“All right, I’m stopping. I’m stopping.”
“Yeah, this is me stopping.”
“Yeah, I’ve stopped.”
“I can tell.”
Xander smiled sweetly and Spike grudgingly, then ungrudgingly reciprocated.
“Hey, Angel kinda likes Zooza, doesn’t he? Are all vampires…flexual?”
“They’re just friends. Good friends. I like the bloke too. He’s a constant,” Spike explained quietly, “nothing’s going to kill him.”
“Tough as old boots, his kind. You could even take his head off for a week and…”
“Hey. Here’s company,” Xander muttered under his breath, and then they were meeting and greeting the Escolet family and their associates. Hezekiah, the Escolets’ patriarch regarded Xander curiously, staring hard at the patch. “It doesn’t affect how I do my job,” Xander frostily pointed out.
“My apologies. I was actually wondering if it was a…a window to the place of the spirits,” the man explained, his accent rich and exotic and not entirely pleasant.
“Just an empty socket,” Xander told him, forcing the bare bones of a smile to disguise his instant dislike.
“May I see?”
“When hell freezes over,” Spike cut in, brusquely excusing himself and Xander, and ushering Xander away. “Ignorant bastard.”
“You’re starting to get it,” Xander smiled ruefully, “and I almost hoped you wouldn’t.”
“Job done and that cunt will be staggering away from here blinder than you, that’s a promise.”
“You wouldn’t.” Xander took a closer look at Spike. “Wow. You would. That’s…that’s… I daren’t even think about it.”
“Is there time for some just sex?”
There was time for lust to flare in Spike’s eyes but little else. Angel was approaching, leather-wrapped dagger in hand, accompanied by Hezekiah.
“Xander, are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
They moved to where the witnesses to these proceedings were taking their seats, Xander being ushered through a narrow aisle to the ‘stage’, which was approximately fourteen feet wide and similarly deep.
“Where will you be?” Xander asked both Spike and Angel.
“Far enough away to ensure we don’t mess with the voices,” Spike replied.
Angel gestured back toward the door, then over to where Zooza was already in place, ten or so feet behind the chairs to the left of the stage.
“He’s ready if you need him.”
The mage was visibly thrumming with power, and that was reassuring to Xander, knowing Zooza wouldn’t be held in such high esteem without exceedingly good reason. Their eyes caught and Zooza gave a broad grin and a cheery thumbs up. Turning back to Spike, Xander took his hand and squeezed.
“If anything happens to me, you know where the letters are for all my friends, and you make sure people get their Christmas presents.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered. Good luck, Lo— Xander. Now…think of…”
“Shoe shopping,” they finished together, and a bemused Angel patted Xander’s shoulder for the last time before handing the dagger to Hezekiah and withdrawing, followed by a clenched-jawed Spike.
A couple of deep breaths and, with determined focus, Xander looked to Hezekiah, who reverently unwrapped the family relic, turning the handle toward Xander.
“If nothing more can be achieved,” the old man whispered, “please convey my love to my grandson.”
The softly spoken words undermined Xander’s earlier opinion of the man, and the smile he gave him now was genuine and sympathetic.
“I’ll try my best.”
Unsure of what to expect when he took hold of the dagger, Xander braced himself, and was a little confused to experience nothing at all. As Hezekiah moved to his seat and stared at the medium in high expectation, Xander tried again, mentally repeating the process of lowering his meagre defences and opening himself fully to whatever forces were present. Nothing. He glanced to where Angel and Spike stood, expecting anxious expressions but not full game faces as they watched the proceedings, alert and poised, ready to intervene should it become necessary. Spike saw his uncertainty and nodded him on.
Focus back on the dagger, Xander concentrated yet again, with the same unproductive result. Nothing beyond the usual hum of voices and the reassuring presence of his guide, who could offer no help whatsoever under the circumstances. Xander waited, trying to be patient and reason this through. Maybe Ezequiel’s absence was simply about the average medium not being able to contact spirits who had been condemned to their own hell, as he’d suggested to Spike on more than one occasion.
Xander was just considering how to tell the gathered representatives of the Escolet clan that their kin was so damned it made communication impossible, when he turned the dagger in his hand, laying the blade across his free palm. He shuddered as the, till now, inert object throbbed with unknown power; his fingers abruptly, uncontrollably, went into spasm, grasping the blade and trickling blood on the surface. A blast of energy zipped through Xander’s body, as if placing both his hands on the dagger had completed some kind of circuit, and he gasped as he felt the psychic aspects of his mind expanding. Both fascinating and alarming, it was as if he been transported to the spirit world whilst remaining in the physical. He saw Saul watching him, Jesse at his shoulder; he saw a vast expanse of space that was pure and unsullied and vibrated peace and tranquillity; he saw— The vision broke apart as another sense kicked in. He heard a rumble that appeared to roll around the perimeter of the barn. The rumble he had heard at New Forest, prior to Douglas being assaulted by the entity.
The crippling vulnerability that Xander had experienced since that fateful day in his home chapel kicked in, and knowing that if the uber-nasty somehow gained control of him there would be no hope of contacting Escolet, Xander tried to drop the dagger, only to find his hands clenched around it in an unmovable hold. The rumble grew louder, vibrating through his body; he opened his eye to observe Angel, no doubt waiting to see how the situation developed, tugging Spike back after the younger vampire had tried to make a break for Xander.
Another pulse of energy from the dagger shocked Xander out of thought and into feeling, actuality succumbing to psychic impressions, and he was in this place at another time, a much older time. The barn was transformed: there was an altar and roughly hewn pews, coarse matting on the floor and…and…hissing? Hissing. Xander’s mind jumped to the present and was as quickly yanked back into the past, to what had been hidden from his abilities by some spell or unknown force. In a nauseating flash of knowledge he experienced the desecration of this place and the slaughter of the men, women and children who frequented it. Graves, yes, he’d recognised that there were graves here. These were the inhabitants of those graves…grave. Grave. A single pit of hideously mangled bodies, telling of violent death and vicious contempt for the human remains. A sacrifice of innocents to provide an unholy power, and there, drenched in human blood before the altar and taking delight in the massacre, the desecration, was Hezekiah Escolet.
Hissing. Breathless, terrified by the sense of reality within the vision, Xander concentrated on the hissing and broke out of the past. Having no wish to come into closer contact with the kind of creature who could participate in such atrocities, he’d settle for the uber-nasty and inter-dimensional warfare. Another spasm: the dagger tore into his fingers as he tried to release it. Hissing, louder, like bugs, but not the bugs, it was…the sound from New Forest, the slick sound of a thousand merged voices. A thousand tortured voices. Desperate for escape, for assistance, for Spike, Xander was held captive by the power surrounding his human form, struck dumb, immobile, barely able to think of a last vain attempt to drop the knife, let alone carry out that thought. A huge bolt of energy coursed around his body, through the dagger and into the atmosphere, hitting a wall of the barn and charging it, forming an impenetrable force-field around them all.
Searing pain from the energy and then…nothing. Nothing was…good. Better than good. In a cocoon of utter serenity, Xander waited, and he knew he was waiting for Escolet. Not thinking too clearly, he had a fuzzy notion that the power from the dagger was keeping the uber-nasty at bay. Or was the uber-nasty keeping Escolet at bay? Or… The growing ache in his head, another pulse from the dagger and, in an instant, it became shockingly clear. That Escolet and the uber-nasty were one and the same, and that he’d been primed over the past month, simply so his body could accommodate this…thing.
Ezequiel Escolet was there with him, as clear as day, and he made his approach with a triumphant grin on his inhuman face. Xander’s instincts told him to bolt, but his body was beyond his control and, as Ezequiel had threatened in their first contact and now proved as he literally stepped into Xander’s shoes, entirely accessible.
“Stop this,” Xander heard, and that was possibly Zooza’s urgent voice. “Stop this. Angel!”
“Xander?” Most definitely Spike. “Xander.” Or maybe not, because Spike never sounded that afraid. “Xander. Love.” Spike.
Spike, and the last thing Xander heard as his consciousness was sucked from him.
Nearly two hours passed before the energy had subsided sufficiently for anyone to approach Xander. What previously was Xander.
“This better be worth it,” Spike said for the hundredth time, fraught, pacing, furious at everyone around him but especially himself for letting Xander be involved in this act of lunacy. “We gave him to it, that disgusting thing that’s been haunting him, we just handed him over.”
“This may be the only way Escolet can communicate the information we need,” Angel replied, also for the hundredth time.
Spike couldn’t bring himself to repeat the threats the uber-nasty – Escolet – had made regarding the appropriation of Xander’s body and his plans for it. If no-one else knew of the threats, Xander remained safer, Spike reasoned, vainly trying to convince himself that Escolet’s bloody vision of the future had been more about testing Xander, or somehow weakening his defences rather than revealing future plans.
“Don’t come any closer,” Zooza instructed when they were ten feet from the medium. Zooza stroked the hand that remained rigidly folded around the hilt of the dagger. “You may still affect Xander’s abilities, we don’t him unstabilised.”
“Actually, some of us do,” Spike contradicted. “Some of us want him unstabilised right back to the person he was three hours ago. You told us to stop this, Zooza.”
“I know. Too late. Now…we can’t go back, Spike, we have to go forward.”
Hezekiah joined them.
“This has been traumatic for us all,” the old man said as he studied Xander. Ezequiel.
“We need to talk with your grandson,” Angel said briskly, blocking any show of anger from Spike. “Perhaps if you could initiate contact…?”
“I’m sure he’ll speak when he’s ready.”
Hezekiah was right: despite several attempts at communication, it wasn’t until an hour later that Xander took a hoarse, shuddering breath and his eye blearily opened.
“Xander?” Zooza asked hopefully, despite being convinced that it wasn’t.
Xander took several tries to make his mouth function correctly.
“Ezequiel,” Spike repeated flatly, before exchanging a tense glance with Angel.
Angel gave a diplomatic bow of the head to Ezequiel, and took a step forward, then a hurried step back.
“I’m unaffected by you, demon,” Ezequiel said stuntedly and then, very deliberately, he affected a smile. “Please, come to me.”
Angel and Spike did as they were bid.
“You have information we need, to prevent a catastrophe for this world,” Angel explained. “I’m sorry it was necessary to disrupt your peace.”
“Peace. Peace.” Ezequiel fixed his gaze on Angel. “We know our own. You have experienced hell. How did you feel about having your peace disrupted?”
“Is Xander all right?” Spike demanded, unable to keep quiet any longer.
The cool, unwavering gaze flicked over to him; he recognised not a hint of his Xander in it.
“Unharmed.” Needed or not, Spike took a relieved breath. “But…”
“But?” Spike prompted, relief short-lived.
Ezequiel twisted the beloved face into an ugly, unpractised grin.
“Temporarily, yes, that’s understandable,” Zooza said quickly as he saw Spike fall back a step in shock before turning savage yellow eyes on the impostor. “Ezequiel, perhaps you’d like to make yourself more comfortable? Come along with me and sit down. Then we can talk.”
The moment Ezequiel took a clumsy step, jolting this new body, he hissed, eye closing in pain.
“Head hurt?” Spike asked.
“Good. Suffer. Xander had to.”
“A necessary evil,” Ezequiel said as he once again fell still, allowing himself time to recover from the discomfort.
“Necessary evil?” Spike muttered as he turned away, “that’s you, you fucker.”
Ignoring the admonition from Angel, Spike strode belligerently off, taking time out to calm down and, as ridiculous an exercise as it was, attempt to quell the fears for Xander’s safety that were raging through him. Nothing had shown on Xander’s face, but he would have been terrified at Ezequiel’s approach, Spike knew that, and the knowledge was torture.
“I shouldn’t have let this happen,” Spike muttered to himself. “Should’ve said no.”
“Luckily Xander’s braver than you,” Angel said from behind him. Startled, Spike swung around to face his grandsire, fist already rising. Anticipating the reaction, Angel efficiently caught the fist and very deliberately lowered it. “What do you know that I don’t?” Angel asked.
“Blimey. Where do I start?”
“Regarding this case?”
“This isn’t a case,” Spike snarled, “this is us hanging Xander out to dry.”
Angel studied Spike for a moment, took an accessing breath.
“Y’know, I never thought I’d see the day when Xander Harris was in…”
“He isn’t in love,” Spike adamantly insisted. “With me. He isn’t.”
Upset and unable to meet Angel’s eyes, Spike stared past him to where Ezequiel stood, statue-like.
“Do I get to finish a sentence?” Angel asked. Spike shrugged. “The day,” Angel clarified, “when Xander Harris was involved with a vampire. In…volved.”
The awkwardness became tangibly awkwarder.
Angel stepped closer, dropping his voice until it was audible only to Spike’s ears.
“Do you want him to be in love with you?” The gently curious tone provoked no response. Angel tried a little friendly taunting. “I thought he was wrapped around your finger, not the other way…” With a coarse, subsonic growl, Spike turned on his heel and headed back to Ezequiel. “Spike?” Spike paused, projecting his feelings with a mighty pissed off sigh as Angel caught him up. “Spike… Are you in love with him?”
And this would have to be the awkwardest moment of all. Despite knowing what he should say, what he wanted to say, Spike was speechless at hearing the question asked so delicately, and yet so bluntly. His body language spoke for him, sagging, and recovering with difficulty. Besides, what could be put into words without tempting fate? Spike walked off in silence.
There was a growing tension in the atmosphere, it was unmissable. No-one on the vampires’ team liked the Escolets, regardless of whether it was a question of their amoral past, their equally amoral present, or simply the fact that they were effortlessly arrogant and unpleasant, and patently needed a good hiding to wipe the smug smiles off their ugly faces.
The heavies that had accompanied the family of the not-quite-deceased-enough were on edge, and waiting for what they probably considered the bloody highlight of the event to kick off. Even the so-called non-partisan observers and specialists had picked their side by now, and as Angel, Zooza and several huminions stood to one side and casually sized up the potential battlefield, Spike made his way to Ezequiel, caring less about warfare than welfare, stopping in front of the man and trying to assess what made Xander Xander, and why it was so easy to think of this as Ezequiel and not Xander.
A slow smile appeared on Ezequiel’s face shortly before his eye opened.
“Ready to talk?” Spike asked as politely as he could manage under the circumstances.
“Why the rush?” Ezequiel was now in perfect control of Xander’s body, and there was something in the smooth voice that appalled Spike, a slickness that made him feel as if he’d never be able to scrub the filthy residue of it from his skin; he thought back to New Forest, a sensation of freezing oil running down his spine. “What have you remembered?” Ezequiel enquired as he assessed Spike’s expression, and his manner was leading, very nearly coy. But Spike knew the type, could practically see the cunning mind at work beneath this harmless exterior, ready to seek out and exploit any weakness. “Spike,” Ezequiel belatedly added, trying to sound like Xander. It made Spike want to hit and keep hitting until this infestation was pummelled out of Xander’s system.
“What do you remember?” Spike countered, crossing his arms to keep his fists from flying.
“I remember living. I remember…dying.”
“And do you remember a piece of information that’s crucial enough to prevent a war?”
“Do I…?” Ezequiel’s fingers fluttered to his temple. “I…think I might. In time.”
Spike was aware of Angel stepping to his side.
“How long will this take?”
Ezequiel smiled at the older vampire, the kind of smile that freezes blood in veins.
“It will take…as long as it takes.”
“The medium who is helping you does not have as long as it takes,” Angel explained in best idiot-speak. “Apparently, the world does not have as long as it takes.”
Ezequiel tsked, a poor show of sympathy.
“Bravery will have its consequences.”
Pummelling was starting to seem like the best solution, and it was only Zooza snatching at Spike’s coat tails and dragging him back that prevented Ezequiel facing a few consequences of his own.
“Gentlemen… Let me talk to him.”
They parted to allow Hezekiah through, and the old man strode purposefully toward his grandson, taking him into his arms and hugging. Both vampires shifted uncomfortably when they smelt fresh blood as Hezekiah leaned against the hand still clutching the blade. Words in a bastardised demon tongue passed between the Escolets, the translation of this peculiar dialect eluding Spike, and leaving Angel grasping after the few phrases he vaguely recognised from his research into the family’s possible roots.
“Can I take a guess?” Spike muttered to Angel. “Not discussing the weather.”
“China, something about China.”
“They’re talking crockery?” Spike frowned.
“The country. And…”
“Was there anything in the prophecy about China?”
“No. The only links to China…”
Angel paused to carry out further eavesdropping; Spike turned to Zooza.
“The only links to China?”
“The only links are…”
Spike was ready to scream as Zooza fell silent too, but when he saw the look that passed between the mage and Angel, he began to realise that merely suspecting the worst was simply wasting time; what was needed here was a full-blooded leap directly to the worst.
“Kreear na’faa,” Angel said very deliberately.
“Kreear na’faa,” Angel repeated, raising his voice to ensure Hezekiah and more heard. “Kreear na’faa, menoosh…varah.”
A ripple ran through the Escolet family, and their heavies stepped a little closer to their masters. Both Hezekiah and Ezequiel turned to stare at Angel, their expressions pure evil.
“A fair attempt at our language,” Hezekiah said coldly, affectionately patting the hand that held the hilt of the dagger before moving to ensure he was between Ezequiel and any threat to his safety.
“China?” Spike asked loudly, directing the question to anyone who’d listen.
“The demon hybrids who were beheaded,” Zooza whispered. “We found tokens in their possession that bore ancient Chinese symbols.”
“And those demons were trying to stop this?” Spike asked. “Stop Ezequiel’s return?”
“Prevent the reunification of the Escolet family,” Angel confirmed.
“Oh. Fucking. Ada,” Spike groaned. “You want to state the obvious, or should I?”
“Revenge,” Zooza volunteered. “The Escolets discovered who killed Ezequiel and…”
“This isn’t about preventing a war; it’s about starting one,” Angel concluded with a disappointed sigh. He gestured with a weary hand. “Zooza.”
A sleek thread of energy shot from Zooza to Angel, leaving Angel wielding a six-foot sword. Elsewhere in the barn the response was immediate: weapons were drawn and tension soared. But Hezekiah was quite calm, a triumphant smile growing on his face.
“Too late. Ezequiel has returned to us and his re-birth brings us immortality; together we are invincible.” Angel brought up the sword and pointed it at Hezekiah’s throat; as it caught the light a pattern of carvings showed up, identical to those on the dagger. Triumphant disintegrated into thoroughly peeved. “Ah…crap,” the old man whined. “Nothing’s ever easy.”
With a click of his wizened fingers, a plume of smoke disguised Hezekiah’s escape attempt. Blinded, but with a sense of smell that could pick out a nasty piece of work at forty paces, Angel was in pursuit. A few smoky tricks of his own and Zooza joined the fray as the bloody highlight well and truly kicked off.
Amid the noise and the magical firepower, Spike remained motionless, staring at Ezequiel. The being who had stolen Xander’s body seemed determined to ignore him, placidly observing the chaos over Spike’s shoulder. Spike had had his fair share of being ignored in the past and was generally pretty immune to it, but this was enough to make him seethe, and his body started to tremble with the violence of his hatred. He took two steps forward, not trusting himself to get closer without lashing out.
“Smart,” he told Ezequiel, “but not smart enough. You’re done here. Go.”
Ezequiel’s gaze finally switched to Spike, examining him, hair to boots and back, and that kind of lingering look from Xander would have had him dripping hard in ten seconds flat.
“You have such a passion for this man. Why?”
“None of your fucking business. Go.”
Ezequiel released a chuckle of genuine bemusement
“I have no intention of going anywhere. At least, not at your behest.”
“That body is not yours.”
“But you chose it for me. Guided me to it. Surely even a vampire doesn’t offer a gift with one hand and snatch it back with the other?”
“That isn’t how it happened,” Spike snarled.
“You gifted me this man,” Ezequiel continued to goad, still in the most reasonable of tones, “and then, tonight, when you had the chance to intervene, you stood back and did nothing to prevent our assimilation.”
“We were acting in good faith, you—”
A man thudded into Spike’s back, almost sending him sprawling. One of Escolet’s hybrids: very handy. Glad of a victim to pour his rage into, Spike hauled the man from the floor, snapped his neck so viciously it almost twisted his head from his body, and hurled him back to his colleagues.
“Temper, temper,” Ezequiel teased. Spike spun round, fist rising, but…it was Xander. Ezequiel, but…Xander. The fist dropped. “Oh, so weak, so sad.”
Spike did his best to ignore the pseudo-sympathetic provocation.
“Not long before your last chance. Go, or I’ll make sure the pain you suffer when you’re driven out…”
“Uh-uh-uh. Too late, can’t you see? You lost your…lover?” Ezequiel grinned cruelly at Spike’s sudden undisguisable pain. “You lost your lover by deserting him when he needed you the most. You witnessed his passing, and now I’m established…you won’t be rid of me.”
Spike stared unseeingly at the monster before him, hearing Xander’s true voice in his head demanding promises, demanding action from the person he trusted most right now.
“It isn’t that easy,” he whispered to Xander, dropping his head forward, and Ezequiel looked at him curiously, tilting his head in an attempt to better see the vampire’s half-hidden features.
Spike shook his head, not actually knowing what Ezequiel had thought he was referring to, but when he glanced up he saw a sight that called to him: the scar on Xander’s neck, exposed by the tilt of Ezequiel’s head.
“No,” he said, firmly now. “No.”
“You can’t have him.”
“Another ploy? Spike.”
“Not a ploy: a fact. A cold, hard fact.”
“And what is this cold, hard fact?” Ezequiel smiled, humouring the vampire. “Why can’t I have him?”
“Because he’s mine.”
“Mine.” Spike strode forward, startling Ezequiel with his sudden boldness. “You want him, you get in line, Mate, because first and foremost he belongs to me.”
“And you failed to mention this before because…?”
“Ah. You know, my grandfather had a similar problem with this sweet little Wimmereen I brought home once, and nothing I could say or do…”
“Right, yes, you get the picture. Now…fuck off.”
Ezequiel further closed the gap between them, leaning forward to rub his cheek over Spike’s. The thought of XanderXanderXander was all that prevented the hybrid losing half his face to Spike’s fangs.
“I feel it. A connection.”
“Yes, a connection. Hell of a connection.”
“In which case… I won’t have you think I know nothing of connections and affection and…more. I actually have quite a soft heart.”
“Decomposition will do that.”
“Naughty. When I’m being so nice.”
“You want your Xander?”
“Then…I’ll have to keep you.”
Spike jerked back.
“Keep you. It’s the best of a bad situation.”
“You are joking.”
“But we could have eternity. You didn’t want to watch this body you desire grow old and unappealing, did you? I appreciate that it’s not perfect but improvements can be made, and then you’ll love it all the more, regardless of who inhabits it. Think of the possibilities,” Ezequiel offered seductively. “I keep you, and you keep Xander. Un-withered. For ever. Eternity, Spike.”
“Eternity?” Spike repeated hoarsely, eyes suddenly brimming with tears at the unbidden memories of loss upon loss.
“We could have fun. Lots of fun. Now the prophecy is fulfilled, this world, in its entirety, could be ours. More than a playground: an investment, an ongoing concern supplying our fellow demons with sport and fodder, and humanity will be our harvest. Fun, Spike. You and— You and your eternal Xander.”
“And I will learn to love you, Spike. Something your human, with his ludicrous sensibilities, could never offer. I will love you.”
There was a long moment as Ezequiel revelled in Spike’s pain, his tender smile becoming malevolent as Spike finally croaked,
Ezequiel leaned in once more, gently kissing Spike’s cheek.
“First… There’s Angel. He wouldn’t approve of us, you know that. In the heat of battle you could…dispatch him. It wouldn’t occur to him to suspect you, you can get close enough and…”
“No, that’s not first. First is…making it worthwhile.”
Ezequiel took a good look at Spike, saw the hunger on his face as he gazed at Xander’s mouth.
“Sweet. Sweet, sweet, sweet.”
Their lips touched, and Spike shivered, but it was nothing to do with the fact that the flesh he kissed, he adored, was freezing.
“Xander,” he groaned, “my love, my precious love.” Deepening the kiss, his hands rose to cup the medium’s ice-cold face, the tips of his fingers playing in hair that now felt like wire. “Still mine. Always mine.”
Ezequiel giggled playfully into the kiss, convinced that this harmless interaction took him one step closer to the freedom he wanted. He was prepared and somewhat content – temporarily – to indulge his host’s lover, but he certainly wasn’t prepared for the potency of the vampire’s claim of ownership when Spike’s fingers trailed down his neck, and sharp nails unexpectedly dug into the bite scar.
The entire building throbbed with power as Ezequiel succumbed to the sensations of the claimed, barely able to stand without support; dazed by newly awakened desire, he followed the touch of Spike’s hands as they skimmed down his body.
“I – I never imagined,” he gasped.
“Bet you didn’t,” Spike replied in a tortured whisper. He stroked Ezequiel’s hands – Xander’s hands – knowing the touches that Xander enjoyed best and teasing the hybrid with them. “Arrogant son-of-a-bitch like you wouldn’t have imagined for a moment.”
Ezequiel’s eye flickered open in surprise at the venomous tone, and the surprise turned to amazement and horror as Spike exploited the scar-induced weakness and wrenched the dagger from Ezequiel’s hands, twisting it and using it before his own selfish needs could overwhelm the voice of Xander that lived in his head.
An agonised wail filled the air, causing the combatants to pause in their battle, but it wasn’t Ezequiel’s pain they heard. As the being in question staggered, disbelievingly, back from its assailant, Spike jerked the weapon free and repeated his attack, screaming with agony and fury, tears pouring down his face as he plunged the ceremonial dagger deep into Xander’s body.
He’d soon gathered that only the symbols on the dagger could end the manifestation of this evil, and in any other situation Spike would have delighted in the Escolets’ sacred relic bringing about their ultimate end rather than the fabled new beginning. But all Spike could think of was the damage the blade itself was doing to the human he had unwittingly betrayed, and how Xander’s blood felt, splashing over his hands as he dragged out the embedded dagger.
With an ear-popping whump, the power surrounding the building dispersed, leaving the Escolets weaker and more vulnerable, a state that Angel and his team were quick to exploit. Hezekiah fought his way back to Ezequiel’s side, and was close enough to witness the defeat of his twisted plan, his grandson’s spirit having no choice but to vacate the now-worthless body he had claimed as his own, the use of the family’s dagger to dispatch him ensuring that Ezequiel was bound to death rather than life.
Spike watched Ezequiel lose his grip, desperately hoping that this was enough, that he wouldn’t have to do any more damage, not entirely sure that he could sink the knife into Xander for a third time. He was shoved aside as Hezekiah made a lunge for Ezequiel, hands glowing with the last of his supernatural power as he seized the medium; at the same moment Spike took enormous, if empty, pleasure in seeing the old man brought down by the sword in Angel’s hands, his skull crushed by that immense weight and vampiric strength. The hybrid’s energy was released in a surge that coursed through Xander, blasting him from his feet and bouncing him off the barn wall with an almighty crunch that was perfectly recognisable as the sound of badly damaged human.
Dropping the dagger, Spike ran to where Xander had landed, falling to his knees and momentarily despairing because he didn’t know what to do for this broken body, then his reflexes kicked in and he was pressing the wadded tail of his coat into the dagger wounds to staunch the bleeding, shouting for the medical assistance he knew had to be somewhere in the vicinity and despairing at the knowledge that they were trapped beyond the continued fighting.
Xander took a gurgling breath and heaved a cough, splattering blood over his face and chest. Spike turned the man’s head and body slightly so he could spit more away before he choked. Another breath, slightly clearer, and Xander whooped in a third to try to speak. Spike laid him flat once again so it was possible to keep up the pressure on his wounds.
“Xander, Love, save your strength. Telling me I’m a total fuck-up can wait, eh?”
Xander gave a stilted shake of the head, offering Spike a weak, but clearly grateful smile, and managing a soundless ‘thank you’ for Spike from his trembling lips. Frantically blinking away tears that he was afraid would send the wrong message, Spike helped Xander lean to the side to bring up more blood, feeling the tremors as pain wracked this failing body. More coughs, and several gasps followed.
“Spike.” So weak it was barely audible, but Spike heard and shushed as he tried to make Xander comfortable. “We…we stopped it?” Spike couldn’t meet Xander’s eye; with his free hand he reached inside his coat and tore a strip from his shirt, using it to wipe clean Xander’s face. “We didn’t?”
“We did, Love. You did,” Spike assured. “You saved the world.”
“Can I… Go home now?” Xander smiled weakly, but the smile was abruptly snatched away by the pain of Xander’s internal system breaking down. A whispered groan and his eye screwed shut. Spike frantically patted his cheek.
“Xander. Love. Stay with me, Petal, c’mon, stay with me.”
Xander forced his eye open, and made the effort to rub his head against the floor. Spike took a few seconds to understand what that was about, and then he gently removed the patch, tucking it away in his pocket as what would likely be a morbid memento. He ran his fingers through Xander’s flattened hair, then stroked the indentations around Xander’s left socket; for the first time, the skin did not recover.
“Help’ll be here soon,” Spike promised in a shaking voice.
Xander’s hand rose and vaguely waved in the direction of the noise.
Spike looked at the ongoing ruckus for the first time, becoming aware of damage being sustained by his colleagues, the ones he thought meant nothing compared to those he’d lost in the past, and he was shocked to find they did matter. Very much.
“Um… Bit of a muddle. Few injuries. Zooza’s lying over there with what looks like a machete sticking out of his head.”
“Go help him. Help them.”
“No. He’ll be fine. They’ll be fine.”
“But… Oh. Oh, my…”
Spike panicked as Xander’s gaze drifted and his voice faded.
“Hey.” Xander was smiling at someone over Spike’s shoulder, and the vampire’s head snapped round to see who was there. No-one. Or rather no-one he could see. “Hey, Jesse.”
“God, no,” Spike murmured, aware of the significance, knowing from Xander that loved ones came to collect the dying, and fearing how close Xander had to be to the spirits for his demon to no longer keep them at bay. He moved to block Xander’s view, leaning down to kiss his brow, whispering over and over…
“Please, Love, stay with me. Don’t go with him, please stay. Jesse doesn’t need you like I do. Don’t go.”
Xander rocked his head to make Spike move back; a trembling hand rose and was helped to its destination by a cooler one that shook just as heartily. Xander took a tear from the tip of Spike’s nose.
“Not for me,” he croaked.
“For you, of course for you, you stupid arse.” Xander smiled at the insult. “Stay with me, Xander.”
“It’s okay, Baby. I’m not scared.”
“I am. Xander, I am so scared.”
“Not my Spike.”
“Yes, your…” Xander whimpered in pain, flinching beneath Spike’s hand. Beneath the last traces of blood on Xander’s face, the skin was ashen but for the lips, which were tinged blue. “Hold on, Love, please. You can do it. Do it for me, eh?”
“Doug,” Xander gasped, fighting to breathe now. “Through Doug.”
“No, this is how I’ll talk to you, this.”
Xander’s head tilted and his expression changed, physical to emotional pain. Relief. A tear welled and trickled down his cheek.
“Honey, you…you look…beautiful.”
“Anya. She made it. She made it…and…and she’s beautiful. Says…” Xander hauled in a rattling breath and feebly tapped his fingers on Spike’s hand. “Place for… Says…”
“Xander, save your strength, please.”
“Place. For…Spike.” With a huge effort Xander turned his head back so he could meet Spike’s eyes. “You…you made…” A violent shudder wracked his weakened body. “Heaven.”
“I don’t want…”
“Spike… Here. Ann…Arm…Armit…”
The whisper of his mother’s name shocked Spike into silence, but however much he had longed for this contact, his immediate priority was Xander preserving the little energy he had left; wordlessly shushing, he wrapped his hand around Xander’s fingers which, even now, flicked their encouragement.
Then there was new noise, bustle rather than warfare, and Angel was beside them, checking on Xander and shouting across to the medical personnel who were spreading through the barn, aiding the fallen. Hands he recognised as his grandsire’s fell on his shoulders, but Spike shrugged them off, refusing to be taken from Xander’s side.
“Xander, please,” burst from him, “please don’t leave me. Please don’t go, I lo—”
Angel tugged at him.
“Come on, Spike, you have to make some room.”
“Leave me alone, he needs me.”
“Not right now.”
“What do you know?” Spike spat.
“I know that he’s seconds away from dying and you’re preventing the medics getting to him. Is this your way of never hearing him say he doesn’t want you?”
Spike spun and leapt at Angel, tearing into him with mindless, wounded fury, a successful diversion that allowed a medical team to gather around Xander with their machines and paraphernalia. Swiftly coming to his senses and seeing the trick for what it was, Spike turned back to Xander, only to find himself trapped in Angel’s firm hold. Unable to fight free he resorted to screaming at the people who now surrounded his partner.
“Do something! I’m warning you! If he dies he won’t be going alone!”
Xander’s hand flopped to the ground between sets of feet, still flexing spasmodically; Spike lunged for it, only for the grip on him to tighten.
He watched the medics fight what should have been his fight alone: he was the one who had promised to keep Xander safe; he was the one who had promised to see Xander through this ordeal in one piece; he was the one who had promised they would survive together or not at all.
Now, all he could do was watch, helplessly as the twitching fingers finally fell still.
Spike was aware that Xander’s struggling heart had fallen silent. That the dirt floor was saturated with more blood than a human could stand to lose. Spike was aware that he was fighting for breath while Xander was not. But… Unreal. It was unreal.
There was a strange pause as Angel’s restraint became an awkward attempt at comfort, and a heavily bloodstained, machete-less Zooza staggered to them to urge them away from the scene.
But Spike couldn’t tear his gaze from the motionless fingers, and he resisted the gentle pressure to leave. Because this couldn’t be real.
“Come on, Spike. Let’s get out of here. It’s over.”
“No,” Spike refused, voice cracking under the strain. “It’s not over till it’s over.”
With two steps Angel was masking Xander from view, and Spike’s eyes, filled with tears and fear and deprived of their focus, gradually rose to meet Angel’s. Pleading.
“Spike… I’m sorry.”
“Don’t. Don’t. It’s not over till—”
The words descended into an enraged, heartbroken cry and Spike tried to break away, only to be caught and pulled into a self-conscious yet compassionate hug.
“I’m sorry, Spike. I’m so sorry. It’s over.”
Chapter 32 Reality
I guess if you’re reading this, the event went pretty much as I thought it would. I swear to you I didn’t go in with a death wish, it’s just the way I feel at this moment (I’m editing this with a couple hours to go). I don’t mind dying. Well, I do mind, but not so much for me. I hope I didn’t screw up, and I hope we saved the world.
Wherever I am right now I know I’ll be more worried about your state of mind than I will be about myself, because if you’re reading this then you didn’t die too, and if I died alone you’ll be blaming yourself like crazy, I know that. Even without knowing what happened to me, I know you don’t have to blame yourself, cos if anyone was going to do their best to take care of me it was you. Even if it meant keeping those promises you didn’t want to keep.
You thought I wasn’t listening, but I was, and I heard and believed you. Even with the whole ‘big picture’ thing going on you were always going to do your best for me. Thank you, Baby. Hey, how weird does that look written down? Should I change it? No, I damn well shouldn’t. BABY!!!
I have so much to thank you for, Spike, an immeasurable amount. Stop thinking about my death and give yourself credit for letting me live a little before I went. This has been fun. Even getting beaten up was okay cos of the fuss you made of me afterwards. You may have scared me at times (go on, enjoy that, you know you want to) but I’ve felt more alive over the past month than I have in years. You’re a great guy to be with, you know that? As friends and more.
Friends speaks for itself. Want a list as long as your arm? No, I’ll just say you were polite to Walter Battin for me, how terrific a friend does that make you under the circumstances?
The ‘more’? I’m glad that I told you it wasn’t just sex for me. However great the sex was it wasn’t as great as what I got to feel for you, and from you. I guess dying right now is good timing, cos any longer and it would be me threatening you with the scary over-possessiveness. The thought of not being with you, and if I say physically I don’t mean that kind of physically I mean on the physical plain, hurts, I admit it. But I’m convinced that one day we’ll meet again. One more thing I choose to believe rather than know, maybe, but I do believe you’ve done enough good to outweigh the bad. We’ll meet again and I can’t wait to hold you and kiss you, cos if I can’t kiss you it won’t be heaven.
I should be embarrassed writing that last line, shouldn’t I? Well I’m not. Take the smush like a man, damn ya!
Does it matter that I should forgive you for all that obnoxious stuff? Once again I’m editing this knowing we’re leaving soon, just so you know the timing, and I forgive you completely (despite still not really understanding). I trust you enough to know that however bad it felt you were doing it because you believed you had to, for the right reasons. I trust you enough to know that I should forgive you with all my heart, and I do.
This letter is very difficult to write, so I’m sorry if there are things you want to hear that I’m not saying. I hope there’s nothing that I do say that you don’t want to hear.
I know I’ve written to them and you’ll make sure all my friends get their letters, but please tell them I was thinking of them and I love them, it will mean more hearing it I think. And being equally practical and probably making you roll your eyes in despair at the choice, I have to tell you what I want played at my memorial service (yes, I demand one, don’t just sweep what’s left of me under a rug). Up to you whether you blame Simone’s love of musicals or the re-runs of Quantum Leap, but I want The Impossible Dream. You absolutely can blame Simone that it’s the Peter O’Toole version. For years I assumed that song was about attaining a goal, but it turns out to be about fighting for a goal that’s unattainable, but you still keep fighting. What does that sound like to you? Who and where? I guess I have to insert a ‘Yay! Sunnydale!’ here because, what a crazy life I’ve had! My girls will love the song and you’ll hate it. Feel me smiling? I bet you do.
I’m becoming too aware of time passing, and I’m getting increasingly lost for words so, in (inadequate) conclusion: Spike, you are (as was correctly observed and I’m laughing now) FUCKING AWESOME!!! That I came to care for you so much after the past we had is incredible, isn’t it? What does that say about the exceptional person you’ve become? Tons of stuff I can’t begin to write down. Can I say I love you in a non-threatening, you’re presently the best thing in my life way? Cos I’ve always been good at loving my friends and you’ve been a wonderful friend.
Also in conclusion: the spell checker in the laptop deserves a medal.
If I end up where I should (and deserve after this life GODDAMMIT) I will pass on the messages to your mom and family, and tell them how proud they should be of Spike, not just William.
Now I have to go meditate and get ready for The Event. <— Note the capital letters, I’m taking this seriously. Or even Seriously. I hope to God I don’t let you down. I also hope that at some point tonight I’ll pluck up the courage to kiss you silly while I still have the chance. Before it’s over when it’s over.
Thank you, Spike. BABY. Thank you.
Spike read the letter for what had to be the several-hundredth time.
Today the reference to Walter Battin rattled him in a new way and, rather than feeling gutted about small gestures becoming big deals, he went through Xander’s possessions until he found the crucifix the medium had been given at Lestor. Ignoring the pain in his fingertips as he removed it from its box, Spike pushed up his sleeve and with great deliberation pressed the cross to his inner arm, concentrating on the relief this deserved pain offered. As he watched his flesh smoke and burn his mind flashed back to the early days of the soul, embracing a cross in a church, and how much Xander hated him back then. Spike recalled that he couldn’t even be bothered to hate Xander back because the boy had been too insignificant.
Xander. Insignificant. How was that possible?
“Spike!” came from outside the room, the direction of the elevator.
“Spike, there are lights flashing, if you set off the sprinkler system…”
Spike peeled the crucifix from his charred and clinging skin just as Angel barged into the room. Latest complaint undermined by what he witnessed and the open sore left on Spike’s arm, his grandsire looked on in complete exasperation.
“Because,” Spike muttered, returning the cross to its box, and the box to exactly where Xander had placed it.
“That’s no answer.”
“It’s all you’re getting.”
Spike removed the unwashed t-shirt that lay on top of Xander’s possessions, unable to resist holding it to his face and inhaling.
“It’s all I’ve heard for three weeks and that’s not right.” Angel spoke softly now, despite having tried every possible kind of approach and knowing not one worked better than any other. “You need help. Talk to somebody. Better still, listen.”
Angel took a step forward and Spike defensively put the t-shirt away.
“At least answer your phone. People are trying to do what Xander asked them to and…”
“Go away, can’t you? I’m not in the mood.”
“I understand if you can’t talk to me, but Willow is here, in the building, so is Giles. Buffy and Dawn are in town. Henry has called, Simone has called, Doug…”
“I can’t talk to them.”
“Xander wrote them: look after Spike.”
“I know,” Spike whispered, choking on the emotion that he couldn’t seem to release, however tortured he felt.
“I know what you’re going to say.”
“Do you? You know I’m going to tell you to change your damn clothes because, apart from stinking, you walking about covered in Xander’s blood is upsetting people? If you know that why don’t you do it?”
“I don’t care if I upset people.”
“Xander would care.”
Spike was across the room in a flash, pinning Angel against the wall by his throat.
“Don’t you fucking dare!”
A gesture so futile it wasn’t even a distraction. Defensively, Angel was doing less than nothing, he hadn’t even tensed against the attack. Spike gradually released his hold, turning away, head hanging in misery. With a resolved sigh Angel reached into his own back pocket and drew out one of life’s little necessities.
“We need to move on, Spike.”
“How can I when…”
“I’m not having this conversation again.”
“He died, you can’t just brush that aside.”
“That’s not what I’m suggesting.”
Spike crumpled to the floor as Angel’s metal-clad knuckles thudded into the back of his head.
“What I’m suggesting…” Angel explained as he heaved Spike’s inert body over his shoulder, “…is a sharp dose of reality.”
Spike struggled to wake, then finally came to with an uncoordinated jolt, practically tumbling himself off the seat he was slumped in. Gazing around, he was unimpressed to see Angel frowning at him, Zooza, wearing a slightly more sympathetic face, and one of their doctors, a granite-faced English woman with a buzz-cut, who went by the wholly incongruous name of Bunny.
Zooza stepped forward and squeezed Spike’s shoulder.
“How’s your head?”
Spike glared at Angel.
“Sore.” A sudden memory of Zooza with a machete wedged in his skull struck Spike, and he realised he hadn’t even asked after the mage since they’d returned from the barn. “How’s yours?”
“Fine, absolutely fine. You know me: fast to heal.”
“Yeah. Lucky you. Right…” Spike wobbled to his feet and in the direction of the door. “If you’re not about to hose me down…”
“Spike!” Angel snapped; Zooza whacked his arm.
“Spike doesn’t respond to nice.”
“Spike, respond to nice,” Zooza tried ordering.
“Then what will you respond to?” Zooza crossed to Spike and forcibly took his hand. “What do you want?”
“What do I want?” Spike repeated incredulously. “I should be dead. I want what I was due.”
Angel reached for Spike.
“Angel, don’t you dare kill him!”
“Don’t tempt me.”
In a swift move, Angel grabbed Spike and heaved him against the wall that separated this room from the next, forcing his face against the observation window. It took a while, but when Spike finally looked through the glass, it was all Angel could do to keep him on his feet. Nudging Angel aside, Zooza took Spike from him, supporting the traumatized vampire in a much gentler hold.
“I don’t…” Spike whispered. “It can’t be…”
“Seeing, dear friend, is believing. It can be.”
“Yes. See. Believe. At last believe, and you’ll heal too.”
“Bunny,” Angel cued.
“Spike,” the doctor began. “As I have tried to tell you on numerous occasions, after we operated, Xander was coherent enough to agree to this treatment, and subsequently we’ve kept him heavily sedated to allow his injuries to heal as quickly and least traumatically as possible.”
“I think I would know if my patient were dead,” Bunny said crossly.
“Think of it as a nice, safe, healing coma,” Zooza suggested.
Spike looked to Angel.
“Xander died, yes. The appropriate medical intervention, whatever the hell it is that Zooza does, and…” Angel gestured into the next room.
“And… And…” Spike peered at the familiar form in the next room, taking a moment to watch the chest rise and fall of its own volition, not a machine to be seen. “And… Nobody told me?” Amazement predictably gave way to anger. “Nobody told me! You bastards! You didn’t think to tell me!”
“Actually, I am gonna kill him,” Angel said quite reasonably to Zooza.
“Can I kill him after you?” Zooza replied in the same tone as Spike furiously shrugged him off.
“Be my guest.”
Bunny stepped between the various factions and fixed her beady stare on Spike.
“You were told. Repeatedly.”
“Spike, you were told. Shock and denial are powerful reactions, and the combination…” Spike was shaking his head incredulously and Bunny took a deep, highly irritated, breath. “I am a consummate professional, not given to lying. You, on the other hand, have suffered severe trauma and are not accountable, on this rare occasion, for your unreasonable behaviour.” She pointed at the glass. “The medication keeping Xander sedated will be wearing off today, and at some point he will wake up, quite naturally. I hope for his sake that you manage to pull yourself together by then. And, incidentally, if you ever call me a bastard again, I will remove your bowels with a meat hook. Good day.”
The men watched Bunny leave. Zooza patted his hand over his heart.
“How I adore that woman.” He rushed to follow her. “I’ll be back. Or not. Don’t wait up,” his voice disappeared down the corridor.
Spike once again turned to the wall, leaning on the glass with both hands and staring at the unbelievable sight of an apparently living Xander in the next room. Angel joined him, and they remained in silence for ten minutes.
“He can’t be. Angel…”
“Go see for yourself.”
“You think… Should I go in there?” asked Spike warily.
“Yes, you should. And you could have been here all along.”
“And he lived.”
“You told me?”
“We all told you.”
“I wouldn’t listen? I don’t remember not listening.”
“As Bunny said, shock and denial…”
“Would that be enough? Really enough? When it’s something I’d want to hear?”
“I’ve said it before, Spike, and I have to say it again, preferably without you deliberately taking it the wrong way this time. You need to get out of this business. Every time we lose someone, we lose a little more of you too, and, however much you infuriate me, I don’t want to watch your sanity being gradually eroded. For all your bravado, the person you are now isn’t cut out for this life.”
“I can’t stop what I do. If I stop… I can’t, it’s out of the question, too much suffering will have been for nothing.”
“Okay, then… Be selective. If you can’t, then let me be selective for you.”
“Something has to change. You try your best to be blinkered over the people who work for us, but what happens if you see me dusted, or Zooza killed?”
Spike tired to stop the involuntary shudder.
“You can’t take that for granted.” Spike drew breath to protest but, in the face of such undeniable truth, gave up on any futile argument and simply offered a shaky nod. “Think about it. Get some rest. Spend some time with Xander and…”
“I don’t know if I can, if—”
“You weren’t there. Back in Sunnydale. You didn’t see Buffy when they yanked her out of heaven. All she wanted was to be left in peace rather than brought back to a life she discovered she hated. Xander was dead. We’ve just done the same for him.”
“This is different.”
“You weren’t there.”
“Minutes rather than months. And I was there when Buffy died and Xander brought her back after minutes rather than months. She had no regrets, I promise you.”
“What if he hates me?”
“Then…he’ll tell you, and you’ll know.”
Spike fell silent, and Angel took that as his cue to leave.
Frightened to take his eyes from the still unreal vision of Xander, it took Spike a long time to get as far as the corridor. A disturbed glance from one of the orderlies reminded him of the state he was in, and that motivated a move: he found himself a room where he could shower, borrowing a set of pale blue scrubs to replace the clothes that reeked of dirt and rotting blood. He tried to flatten his wayward hair, but without gel it was impossible, and besides, if Xander woke up to see him like this… The emotion that had remained bottled inside him for weeks welled and, once again, became painfully and debilitatingly trapped in his chest. He’d have screamed it out if that were possible, but the only way to deal with this grief was for Xander not to be dead.
Composing himself as best he could, Spike made his way to Xander’s room, needing several attempts before he could walk inside. Needing a while longer to move to the bedside and take a good look at the bandaged and braced, but peacefully unconscious man who lay there, unknowingly the reason for Spike’s meltdown. Spike cautiously touched the back of his fingers to Xander’s cheek, almost collapsing in relief when it was warm rather than freezing cold, as it had been in the barn. He stroked the smooth skin, face and neck, every inch that wasn’t covered, and then he ran his fingers over the bandages too, a reminder that he had to find Bunny and familiarise himself with what damage Xander had sustained and the repercussions. Any ongoing problems and he wanted to be the one to tell Xander.
His fingers drifted back to Xander’s cheek, and it was only then that Spike realised the obvious, that Xander had been shaved recently, and his urges became less desperate and more basic: he wanted to hurt, very seriously, whoever had dared touch this man so intimately. A possessiveness that tilted toward murderous. That felt so much better.
But first… Spike leaned forward and pressed his ear to Xander’s chest, listening to the slow and strong, rhythmic drumming of Xander’s heart. It couldn’t be real but it was real.
“I know. I was there.”
“I know. I’m here. He’s…” Spike leant up and tapped Xander’s cheek. “Xander, Love. Time to tell your old mate whether or not he’s hallucinating. Xander…” A few more taps and Spike gave up: Xander waking up today didn’t mean sooner rather than later. “Git,” Spike told him. “Selfish git.”
He touched his lips to Xander’s in farewell, the lightest kiss, something to console him but not offend Xander too badly if there was any post-resurrection hatred to deal with.
It took a further ten minutes to get back into the corridor; Spike leaned against the wall with a sigh and reviewed what next.
Firstly, locate Bunny, get the lowdown on Xander’s condition. He also needed to speak to Zooza. Then… Back here? Or try a little resurrection of his own, revive the real Spike and fall back on the booze, brawl, fuck mentality of old. The latter option, Spike told himself belligerently, and when he eventually returned he’d be ready for Xander being awake and dumping him with a hasty over when it’s over and a protracted glare that accused him of snatching away heaven. Booze, brawl, fuck and Xander would be bound to know, would certainly dump him then, even if he’d had the kind of change of heart that was apparently only ever acceptable from a fickle bloody human.
Booze, brawl, fuck. Yes. Bottle of the best, and then maybe he’d kill someone just because he could, prove his strength in the wake of Angel’s molly-coddling. And the fuck would be female, blonde, short, weak, scrawny, two eyes, and ugly, the total opposite of Xander. Then maybe he’d kill her too, because he could, and because he wasn’t losing it, or going soft in his old age. Booze, brawl, fuck and he’d jump at the next assignment, ready to prove he was able to do the worst of this job standing on his head, or, better still, standing on someone else’s.
Catching movement from the corner of his eye, Spike looked around to see the squat, streaky-mopped vision that was Dylan loping along the corridor toward him, twirling a set of car keys on his finger.
“Hey, Boss,” the young man cheerfully greeted him. “Like the hair.”
“I could cripple you with one finger, Short-arse. Don’t tempt me.”
“Now you’re getting me all excited,” Dylan grinned, tossing over the keys. “New car, bay six, Big Daddy says don’t break it.”
“Buffy broke the last one,” Spike griped, but Dylan’s attention had already wandered to the occupant of room three.
“He’s cute,” Dylan observed, nose pressed to the window. Spike refused to be drawn. “He with you?” Spike silently studied the car keys. “’Cause if he isn’t, I’ll…”
“Touch him and you’re dead,” Spike said under his breath.
Dylan’s attention switched to Spike, and his large grey eyes were brimming with humour.
“You are so sexy when you’re homicidal.”
“Do me a favour, Pet? Sod off before I’m obliged to break your legs.”
“Hey, at last! The Spike we know and are terrified to love. Welcome back.”
“Been that far out of it, have I?”
The nonchalance was betrayed by the anxious look Spike shot Dylan.
“Kinda. Like when Hennessy died and then some. Major then some.”
“Did they tell me about Xander?”
“Sure they told you, we all tried. You just weren’t…here. They said you were out of it before you’d even left the scene. They said you gave up. I don’t wanna believe that.” With an abrupt change in mood and a friendly smile, Dylan took a step closer and squeezed Spike’s forearm. “Glad you’re okay now, Boss.”
A horrible thought occurred to Spike.
“None of the immediate crew were hurt badly,” Dylan reassured. “But a couple of the guys we brought in were seriously injured. And…um…Paolo Roski died.”
“Paolo?” A well-known face flashed through Spike’s mind: scarred brows, bent nose, cauliflower ears and broken teeth. An absolute thug with the sweetest nature and sunniest disposition. “He lived with his mum, didn’t he? He was all she had.”
“Yeah. Big Daddy and the Zooz went to see her. It was…difficult, I’m told.”
Dylan squeezed Spike’s arm again, gave him a sad nod, and wandered off.
So much for the booze, brawl and fuck scenario. Sliding too easily into a daze of remembrances and losses, and unable to find the will to move, Spike was still propped against the wall when Bunny came looking for him some time later.
“Spike. We need to talk.”
“Yes. I suppose we do.”
“God, you look like crap. If I fill you with blood and coffee, think you can hold it together for this conversation?”
“Maybe. Dyl told me about Paolo.”
“Very sad,” Bunny agreed without any hint of sympathy, seizing Spike’s elbow and frogmarching him in the direction of her office. “But life goes on. Sick as you are of hearing that.”
“You don’t really give a monkey’s, do you. Ever.”
“Surely you recognise professional detachment?”
“And beyond that…?”
“I don’t really give a monkey’s.”
Bunny pushed Spike into the guest chair by her desk and brought him a flask of blood which he rapidly gulped down, realising this was the first thing he’d consumed since before the barn. He felt his energy returning and some of the depression lifting, perfect timing if he found any reason to break Bunny’s figurative balls over Xander’s treatment. More blood, and an ultra-strong coffee blend for that extra lift, and he and Bunny faced one another across her desk.
“Tell me about Xander. Put heavy emphasis on the life goes on.”
“Certainly.” Spreading open Xander’s case notes, Bunny gave Spike her renowned velociraptor smile. “Xander, yes. Xander has proved…fascinating.”
“Fascinating? Is that good, or…?”
The velociraptor smile widened.
“I know where the tree’ll be,” Spike told Xander as he wandered the room. “I had a think and, near where I grew up, there’s this public green – bit of grass, few trees, shrubs, puddle that we affectionately called a pond – and I used to go there when it was sunny, sit and compose my sadly lacking little verses lauding Mother Nature’s finer gifts. Francis actually used to refer to it as ‘William’s Patch’, so…obvious really. I’d be happy to show you. The Patch, our house, the street where Francis and his folks lived. Assuming the houses haven’t been demolished. Assuming the green wasn’t built on. If they bulldozed my tree I think you’ll let me terrorise someone, so that should be fun.”
Spike fell still, stared at Xander, willing him to wake. Nope. He wandered.
“It’s been a funny old day,” he sighed. “If I’d stopped beating myself up long enough to think about it I’d’ve known, wouldn’t I? Who on Earth – or otherwise – can kill off Xander Harris? Seen better attempts than Escolet’s if I’m honest. Didn’t have a lot of style, did he, Love?” Spike threw a wry smile at Xander’s snoozing form. “Love.” He shook his head and moved on. “Bad case of what you fear consuming you, I s’pose. Zooza’s said that to me…oh, about…several hundred times over the past few years. Don’t let your fear consume you, he says. First time he said it I thought he was calling me a coward so I punched him out, but it made me think. Think, but not take it to heart, obviously, otherwise I’d’ve been in a fit state to listen when they told me you’d been revived.” Moving to the bed, Spike laid his hand over Xander’s and started to squeeze, quickly snatching his hand back as he tried to figure out which of Xander’s palms and fingers had the scars from clutching the dagger’s blade. Left. Yes. Left, not right. He squeezed Xander’s hand – the right. “Heard your heart stop. Felt you leave me. Xander, I—”
A caught breath, another squeeze, no reaction, and Spike once again paced.
“You should be dead. You should be dead, but Zooza… He has this ability to jumpstart a heart and hold it in rhythm until the purveyors of modern medicine deign to shift their collective arses and take over. He can’t cure a body, but he can keep it hanging on. I’ve seen him do it before, but never with a human, and it never occurred to me he’d manage it this time. I was…consumed by fear. He can be a right bloody know-all.” Spike leaned on the frame at the foot of the bed; for a moment, it seemed to be all that was keeping him upright. “For all our wittering on the subject, this is whatever it takes, isn’t it? Whatever it takes to get you better. Get you back. Not sure you could walk past a magnet factory without kicking yourself to death now, but… Wonder if you’ll be the same Xander. No-one knows what Escolet did to you. Beyond the obvious. Think he quite fancied me for a moment back there in the barn, maybe that’ll… Or maybe not. I know you think it’s irrational, when I’m honest about how much I want you, and I agree with you, one-hundred percent. Completely irrational. Completely. We’re right about that but…I can’t find it in me to care.”
Spike leant forward and prodded the lump in the bed covers that was Xander’s foot. And again. Prod, prod, prod. Nothing.
“No dreams, at least. I can see you’re at peace. Still think you might hate me for letting them drag you out of heaven, and I don’t care what Angel says, he doesn’t know you.” Spike’s voice dropped to a gruff whisper. “He doesn’t know you once stepped in front of a car to get away from this life. Hope it was once. Course it was just the once, what’d be the point in you telling me you tried to kill yourself, but then lying about how often you tried?” Spike cleared his throat and prodded the foot again. He affectionately rubbed it. “Who knew? All of them, or any of them? Bet Medusa knew. I know the type. Oh, yeah, she’d have it out of you. I’m not criticising that, can’t afford to, can I? Not while I’m avoiding Dawn, ‘cause she’d have every detail of our trip out of me in about ten minutes.”
No answer to that, naturally, but Xander did shift his head slightly before getting right back to some more heavy-duty sleeping. Spike crossed to the cabinet beside the bed. On it sat the tiny stereo.
“Would music work, you think?” He began flicking through the tracks. “Need something with a bit of punch to start your engine. Christ, you have some shit on here, you should be ashamed of yourself. What’s this? ‘Folder two.’ Missed that before. Maybe there’s some— Neil Young? You have Neil Young? No wonder you felt you had to hide it.” He went back to flicking, shaking his head. “Neil Young. Next it’ll be— No, not even going to joke about it.” Spike paused in his search, shuddered, and very deliberately deleted the Traveling Wilburys. “Should’ve let you die, Petal, it would have been an act of mercy.”
More flicking and Spike stopped abruptly as a song title and memory collided. He went back to searching, but…
“‘Every breath you take’,” he unconsciously sung under his breath.
Xander stirred. Spike froze. Waiting. Xander gave a contented sigh and slept on. Spike grumbled to himself as he tossed the stereo back onto the cabinet and returned to prowling, suddenly breaking into song.
“‘A wandering minstrel I,
Prowl. Glances. Memories.
“Tell you what else is pertinent?” Spike asked, voice soft now. “The French song that you called oral sex? You wanted to hear the English version and I wouldn’t sing it for you.” Back to the foot of the bed and Spike gripped the metal bar of the footboard. “‘Too depressing for words’, I said at the time. Can’t get any more miserable than I am right now, so…want to hear a bit?” Spike drew breath to start singing but hesitated. “You could wake up and tell me to shut it,” he fruitlessly prompted. “Xander. Xander.” He banged his fists against the metal, taking the strength out of the blow at the last moment.
“‘If you go away, as I know you must,
Spike took another breath, deep and hoarse, all about dealing with those undealable emotions raging inside him. He gave Xander’s hand a single stoke, then sat on the edge of the bed, back turned on his… Friend? Partner? Lover? He swallowed hard. Ex?
“‘I'd have been the shadow of your dog,” he murmured the remainder of the verse, “‘If I thought it might have kept me by your side.’” Spike slowly shook his head at himself. “Let you down, didn’t I? Start to finish. He – Escolet – told me I’d guided him to you, made a gift of you. Which is what you accused me of at the Stokes’, remember? I was too up myself to even consider the possibility, just wanted the job done and didn’t care at what cost. Didn’t care then. I knew how much I cared when you died, when I…I killed you. I killed you. Damn, that’s… You asked me, feels like a long time ago, if I ever got scared any more. I was scared then, that dagger in my hand, your blood on it. It wasn’t about me losing you, I don’t have any right to think that. Feel that. It was just about you being…lost.” Spike paused. Thought about Xander liking his honesty. “It was about me losing you.”
Tears pricked at Spike’s eyes but that was as far as an emotional outburst went.
“Keep this up and you’ll refuse to come round, eh? Wretched company, I know I am.”
Xander shifted; the anticipation of his waking swiftly came and went.
“Right.” Pause. “Right.” Pause. “I should have brought something to read to you, shouldn’t I? Bunny says this is good, a familiar voice being a stimulus. Course I know lots of better ways to stimulate you, but I think you’d need to be at least semi-conscious for those to have the desired effect. Talking of reading, I went through those reports you left for Willow, tidied ‘em up a bit like you asked me to. You raise more questions than you give answers to, so we’ll have to have another editing session before you hand them over. See, you shouldn’t assume anyone knows anything about anything when it comes to your work, spell it all out like the reader’s an idiot. Nine times out of ten, they probably will be.”
He inched a little further onto the bed, feeling a vague sensation of heat. That was nice. Consolation. Xander’s latest shift was ignored on the off-chance it would mean moving away.
“I enjoyed it, working on your reports, and not just because it made me feel closer to you. I enjoyed it and it made me want to write something of my own. Not, you’ll be relieved to hear, poetry, been there and done that. But something similar to what you’re doing, sharing experiences and, in my case, blowing my own trumpet, ‘cause…well, me, innit? Y’know, must have been about a year or so before I was turned I read A Study in Scarlet – Sherlock Holmes, even you must know him – and even if I was sniffy about it in public, being above that kind of thing, naturally,” Spike rolled his eyes at the thought of William the poet’s snobbery, “secretly I was so excited by it. I read the rest as a vampire so I was past hiding the stories as if they were porn, but… I wonder if I could write something like that. I could nick all the details from our cases so I wouldn’t have to think too hard about—”
Spike stopped, frozen in place by overwhelming, choking relief as Xander’s hand floppily tapped against his back.
“Jeez,” Xander croaked, “love the sound of your own voice or what?”
“The doctor told me to,” Spike replied, equally as croaky though for different reasons. “Said if I kept talking it’d help you to wake up and…”
“Tell you to be quiet.” Xander cleared his throat. “Yeah, I can see how that would work.”
Spike risked a glance, to find Xander blearily trying to focus on his surroundings.
“Can I get you something? Water?”
“That mean I have to wake up? Can’t I just roll over and go back to sleep like the good old…er…recent days?” Spike stood as Xander pointlessly tried to turn onto his side, and there was a deal more blinking as he looked down his semi-sheeted body, studying the uncovered limbs that were encased in metallic braces. “Oh. My. God. I am Locutus of Borg.”
“Are you raving?”
Spike accepted that with a single nod.
“The whole of your left side got banged about. All mending well though.”
As Xander prodded the bandages on his head, Spike fetched some water, helping Xander to drink before begrudgingly buzzing for the doctor. He stood back and watched in edgy silence as Bunny and one of her minions performed their checks; when it came to Xander having blood drawn, Spike couldn’t even bear to look.
“Hey. Hey. They’re gone. Spike?” Spike dragged his fixed gaze away from the floor and gave Xander a strained smile. “You okay? Spike?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
“You don’t look okay.” Spike shrugged. “Have you stopped eating, you’re…”
Spike shrugged again and deliberately turned the question around.
“More to the point, are you all right?”
“Tired,” Xander yawned, and wasn’t aware of dozing for ten minutes.
Spike was still standing watching him when he opened his eye again, not having moved an inch.
“Other than tired?” Spike asked.
Xander attempted to stretch whatever body parts were still flexible; he rolled his head and flinched.
“My head hurts.”
“It will for a bit, apparently.”
“But everywhere else… I’m okay.” He ran his hand over his abdomen. “Wouldn’t know I’d been…”
Xander peered at Spike, worried now.
“Spike, I want you…”
“Can we…y’know…another time?”
“Y’know? Y’know is pretty sweeping.”
“Talk. Another time.”
“Sure,” Xander yawned, and yawned again. Xander put out his good hand and urged Spike closer. “You look exhausted, haven’t you had any sleep since this happened?” Taking the hand that gestured to him, Spike’s fingertips crept over it until they felt the pulse at the wrist. “Spike? Have you slept?”
“No,” Spike muttered, “no, I haven’t.”
Xander tightened his grip and pulled.
“I always sleep better with you.”
“Do this for me.”
“I shouldn’t. You’re…”
“Fine. No playing softball with my head and I’m fine.” Xander tugged. “C’mon. You know how it goes: resistance is futile.”
Spike allowed himself to be persuaded, giving up the pretence of reluctance and cautiously joining Xander on the bed. Far less delicately, Xander manhandled Spike to where he wanted him, not happy until the vampire’s head was on his chest, arm around his waist, and his own, un-caged arm was wrapped around the disturbingly thin shoulders. He finally relaxed with a weary sigh.
“That’s better. Isn’t that better?”
“It is,” Spike conceded, exhaustion rapidly catching up as he was mesmerised by the steady beat of Xander’s heart. “You’re alive.”
“Sure am,” Xander agreed as he once again began to doze.
“I decided. Heaven…” Yaaaaawn. “Heaven can wait.”
Spike growled at the hissing in his ear and, with extreme care, removed himself from Xander’s embrace. Dylan stood waiting, beaming smile upon his cherubic face. Grabbing a handful of shirt, Spike dragged the young man to the door and thumped him against the frame.
“What do you want?”
Dylan’s arm rose to reveal a compartmented carrier containing six flasks of blood and a tube of hair gel.
“No need to thank me,” Dylan joked, peering past the grouchy face for a better look at Xander. “Do I get an intro—”
“No, you don’t. And winding me up isn’t funny, Git.”
Dylan sniggered and looked back to Spike.
“Big Daddy needs you to go talk to the Vree’vathets.”
“Not a chance.”
“I told him, but he’s not reasonable like you.”
Spike stared at the contained amusement on Dylan’s face and dared him to smile again, but he’d trained the man too well: the mouth didn’t so much as twitch.
“I’ll speak to him. Later.”
“Sure thing, I’ll pass that on and bear the brunt, as usual.”
Dylan gave the container to Spike, threw a glance at Xander and followed it up with a provocative wink. Fortunately, Spike had a hand spare to throw him from the room.
As Spike was finishing the fourth flask, Xander stirred and managed a stunted stretch, feeling Spike’s weight on the bed and nudging him with his knee.
“Where am I?” he asked with a sleepy chuckle. “I always wanted to say that.”
Spike set the flask aside and turned to Xander, patting his good leg.
“This is where I recovered when I had my hands chopped off.”
“But… Didn’t that medical unit belong to the law firm that you guys took down?”
“We managed to hang onto certain facilities when it went belly up. This was much too valuable to let go without a fight.”
“You ever going to fill in the blanks of…”
“’Kay.” Xander’s attention switched to his left arm. Through the spiny metal exterior he examined where the pins went into his flesh, holding the damaged joint in the correct position as it healed. “They discuss this with you before fitting it? Say what was wrong?”
“I thought they’d told you. After you were operated on.”
“Uh… I guess they did. Yeah. Yeah, they did.”
“And what did they tell you?”
“That the…um…the blah blah that connects the blah blah to the blah blah blah…”
“You think they should’ve waited for you to wake up fully before…”
“Oh yeah, they should have.”
“Bunny’ll be in eventually to talk to you, you can…”
“Doctor Bunny? Is Doctor Bunny an eight foot demon with pink fur?”
“No, she’s an old cow with a bad attitude.”
“What a waste.”
“I can fetch her now if…”
“No, no, it can wait.”
“How’s the head?”
“Achy. Hey, what if it isn’t anything to do with what happened with Dead Guy, what if it’s caffeine withdrawal?”
“I seriously doubt it.”
“Haven’t you learnt anything? That’s supposed to send you in the direction of the nearest coffee shop. And I think…oh, yeah…oh, yeah, no doubt about it, getting the doughnut deprivation shakes.”
Spike gestured toward the drip feeding into Xander’s arm.
“All the nutrition you need.”
“Until there’s a way of introducing caffeine straight to the vein…”
“In a bit, all right?”
“Can you send the little guy?”
“The one who was here when I was waking up. I think his name was…git, but that’s a fairly common name for the people around you.”
“Can you send…”
Xander was presented with a tumbler of water and a bent straw. He discontentedly sipped. Water finished, the tumbler set aside, Xander took a good look at Spike. Less exhausted, yes, and less starved, but the vampire looked…anguished, that was the best that Xander could come up with. Anguished. Xander was trying to find a way to ask what had happened in his comatose absence, worried that Spike might have lost friends and colleagues at the Dead Guy Event and wondering whether or not he’d want to share that, when Spike suddenly forced a smile and made An Effort.
“I sent the presents. Wrote cards and everything.”
“Thank you, I really appreciate it. I hope you made light of what happened to me. Did you tell them I was okay?”
“Umm… Angel or… I think Willow might have spoken to them at the time.”
“Not you?” Xander frowned.
“Haven’t felt too talkative,” Spike admitted, and Xander could see that was still true, that every word was a struggle.
He reached out his right hand, tapping Spike’s elbow.
“Hey,” he said softly, “you’re not right, are you?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“What I mean… Since I woke up, you’re…” Xander took a deep breath and leapt in. “What happened to you after Escolet left?”
Spike paused, in thought or otherwise; an audible swallow was followed by barely audible words.
“Yes. But what happened to you?”
Xander shuffled the tiny bit closer to Spike that he could manage, running his hand over a cold forearm, trying to instil a little comfort but instead finding something that made him feel quite queasy. He pulled Spike’s arm toward him and studied the slowly healing sore, very definitely in denial over its familiar shape.
“I burnt myself.”
“That’s nasty. How did you do that?”
“By burning myself.”
“Okay. I guess that’s something else you don’t want to…”
Xander took Spike’s hand and coaxed him a little nearer, finally persuading him to turn in the appropriate direction, but still unable to make Spike look at him.
“Anything you do want to talk about?”
It took some time, but eventually Spike braved the question that had been haunting him.
“Where were you?”
“When— You know when.”
“When… Oh, when I died.” Spike looked away again and Xander tugged at his hand until he looked back. Anguished. “I didn’t go anywhere,” Xander explained. “Outside my body for what felt like a few seconds, then back in it. Not even time to high-five Saul.”
“This isn’t like Buffy coming back. That was a monumental foul-up. Well, that’s what I’m supposed to think but she’s happy now so I feel I can be selective over whether I regret it or not. Not. But this isn’t like that. Spike. Baby,” Xander finished with a grin.
Not so much as a hint of a smile from Spike.
“Did you have some kind of premonition about…dying?”
“I don’t have premonitions. What makes you ask?”
“You seemed resigned to your fate.”
“Did I? Maybe…maybe it’s because I’ve always thought that’s how I’d go, caught up in something creepy and unnatural, and that was probably the last time it’d happen.”
“I promise you that will not be the last time,” Spike insisted in a suddenly passionate outburst. Xander questioningly raised his visible eyebrow. Spike thought. “That didn’t come out quite right, did it?”
“I get the point.”
“You’ll be around for a long time yet.”
“And that would be the point I got, yes.”
Spike rose as Bunny and her sidekicks bustled in.
“I’ll leave you to it then.”
“Can I have coffee?” Xander asked the medical team. “And doughnuts? Especially doughnuts?”
“Go ahead,” Bunny told him breezily. “My work is just about done, I won’t be the one watching you die from clogged arteries.”
“Right. Coffee. Doughnuts.”
“Twinkies. Chips. Couple slices of pizza…”
“Coffee and doughnuts.”
“Sprinkles. And jelly. And…”
“Be nice to the sawbones,” Spike interrupted. “I won’t be long.”
He hesitated before leaving, and Xander privately enjoyed the fact that, from his expression, Spike obviously wanted to kiss him before going but didn’t feel able to because of the audience. At least, Xander thought it was the audience preventing him. Hoped it was that. Unless they’d arrived at over when it’s over and no-one had told him. Although…hadn’t he insisted on it before the Dead Guy Event? Because…because… There had to have been a good reason at the time and it was sure to come back to him, but here, now, and Spike. Spike kisses. Spike cuddles. Better than coffee and doughnuts, and…and…
The train of thought chugged to a halt as an uneasy feeling crept over him. Uneasiness closely pursued by panic.
“Can you be quiet a moment,” he snapped, ordering rather than asking the people around him, adding a belated, “Please,” to take the edge off his rudeness.
He was, he could tell from their faces, indulged, and in the ensuing quiet, there it was.
Xander was so used to the zone that he’d taken the silence for granted, with Spike being so close. But Spike had gone, and he’d taken the zone with him.
No Spike zone and...no voices.
With growing dread, Xander desperately tried to find Saul or Jesse, but there was nothing other than an impenetrable silence. For the first time in years his mind was his own and…he hated it. Feared it.
“No,” escaped him in a distraught whimper, “this can’t be happening.”
The joy of his saved life was snatched away from him in an instant as he was confronted with an existence that he saw as ultimately pointless, the life he had led before the first voice sounded in his head.
As tears squeezed past his tightly clenched eyelids and began to roll down his face there were concerned murmurs, questions, reassuring touches that were struck away.
There was no possible reassurance, no consolation as the enormity of this revelation hit home, and if he’d been alone, Xander would have screamed with the horror and misery, the rage, the sheer injustice of it. Habitual self-control, no screaming, and the pain turned inward, straining his body and causing human muttering and technical beeping.
“Xander, you have to tell me what’s wrong,” Bunny urged, and Xander felt his hand taken and squeezed, the weight as someone sat beside him on the bed. “Xander. Talk to me, let me help you.”
Xander whooped in a breath and made himself look into the woman’s face, and he fleetingly wondered what was in his expression to cause ‘an old cow with a bad attitude’ to look so disturbed.
“You should have let me die,” he forced past the emotion constricting his throat. “That’s what’s wrong. You should have let me die.”
“Oh, good grief, not you too! Now, I want you to tell me, calmly, why…”
The words were unwanted and ignored, grating until they faded from Xander’s hearing as he concentrated his attention beyond this mortal plain, pushing a mind that no longer seemed able to function in such an unlikely way, straining to reach his beloved guide. He snatched his hand back and folded his arm over his face, the only privacy he could find as he tried to deal with a pain far greater than a blade slicing into his gut.
His mind felt dead and empty, and the loss was unbearable.
Self-control wasn’t cutting it.
He gave it up.