An unfamiliar kerthunk roused Xander Harris mid-morning. He hazily blinked to a state of semi-alertness and considered the sound. Kerthunk. Kerthunk. Kerthu— Mail. He had mail. The spark of excitement that flared at the prospect of contact was extinguished by the wash of suspicion that rapidly ensued. He didn’t receive mail. Ever. He was hidden away like a dirty secret and no-one that mattered knew of his whereabouts.
Xander stretched under his duvet, waggling the foot that perpetually threatened to cramp, and considered getting excited about anything Giles would send in his direction. For a few seconds he let himself believe it was a plane ticket home to California’s sunnier climes, but he knew that was out of the question. Xander sighed and swung himself up. Not that California had much to offer him any more, beyond the superficial. He could be isolated and lonely in England just as easily, and there’d even been a couple of gorgeously hot summer months that had allowed him to top up his tan. The wish that he could show it off to someone who mattered led him to wondering where everybody else was, and that alone was enough to ruin his day before it had barely begun.
His cosy little house was warm enough to wander about in boxers and bare feet, so he rarely showered or dressed before early afternoon; once clean and clad he customarily went for a stroll along the sea-front. Today would have been no different, if not for the kerthunk.
“Don’t move me, don’t move me, don’t move me,” Xander muttered to the absent Giles as he approached his front door, peering resentfully at the large padded envelope that lay on the mat. He was settled, he didn’t relish the prospect of being uprooted yet again. Given the choice he would never have ended up where he currently was, but he’d lived here for two years and that was the longest he’d remained in any one place since Africa. This was very nearly home.
The envelope looked cunningly innocent: his name and address was unremarkably hand-written, it was stamped not franked, and there was no sender or return information. A quick grope proved inconclusive, all he was able to determine was that he had an envelope with something in it. It was almost painful to ignore his inherently nosy nature in order to follow correct procedure. Tutting at himself, he picked up the phone and dialled.
“Hey, Giles, it’s me.”
“How are you? How’s…everyone?”
“I’m well, everyone’s well. And you?”
“I’m fine, but… Did you send me something?”
“I got a package in the mail today, an envelope. Kinda…A4, manila, bubble-lined by the feel of it…”
“I haven’t sent you anything.” Concern was immediately, painfully audible in Giles’ tone. “Operatives will come and collect it. Meanwhile place it somewhere secure but removed from yourself, and…”
“I could just open it.”
“There’s nothing special about it, it could be harmless…”
“…and it’s not as if I’m scared to open it,” Xander said crossly, “just…trained. Like a damn dog or something.”
“Trained to stay alive,” Giles remonstrated.
“Maybe it’s some sort of promotion, or a free gift, or…”
“A bomb, or a trap, or…”
Xander groaned impatiently.
“I’m sorry I asked.”
“Yeah, I know, I know, don’t start lecturing me.”
“It isn’t merely your security…”
“I said don’t start.”
Both men fell silent and an uncomfortable pause followed.
“I’ll authorise a collection,” Giles eventually said, somewhat apologetically.
With a sigh, Xander agreed.
“Okay. Although… No, okay.”
“They’ll be there within the hour.”
“I’m going out, I’ll leave it in the porch.”
“Very well. Do take care, Xander.”
“Yeah, you too. Give my love to…whoever.”
Xander broke the connection, feeling lower than he’d felt in months. He showered, dressed, and left his cottage, leaving the suspect package where it could be easily found by one of Giles’ henchmen.
Three hours later Xander was back home. He’d had a very late, deliciously unhealthy breakfast in his favourite café, read the local newspaper from cover to cover, and wasted an hour discussing soccer with one of the locals. Football. Not soccer. Football.
The first thing he noticed as he climbed the stairs to his porch was that the mysterious package was precisely where he’d left it. Perplexed by this show of uncharacteristic inefficiency, he took it back indoors, only to find a card bearing the Watcher’s Council crest informing him that, although operatives had visited and searched the porch and vicinity, the ‘target’ had not been located. Xander scowled at the card, and then he scowled at the envelope. He scowled pre-emptively at the answerphone which was flashing at him: Giles, naturally, urgently demanding to know, essentially, what the hell? Xander called him back.
“Xander, thank goodness! Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I did exactly what I said I’d do: I left the envelope in the porch, went out for a couple hours, and when I came back I found it precisely where I left it.”
“It was— This can’t be good.”
Xander studied the envelope with renewed interest.
“Let’s face it, this is for me. Good or not, somehow it’s just about me.”
“Perhaps you could bring it…”
“No. I’m not going anywhere.” Xander was adamant. “Last time you said ‘Perhaps you could bring it’ about anything it was an excuse to relocate me, so…no. This place is almost home, I’m almost happy, and it’s almost Christmas. And before you say the obvious, if your guys can’t even see this package there’s no point in me mailing it to you, agreed?”
“We can’t be entirely sure…”
“I’m not going anywhere and you can’t come here.”
“Xander, you will not…”
“Hey, c’mon, we both know I’m going to open this thing. Know what else? I’m way past being intimidated by your ‘Run for the hills’ voice. I’m gonna open this thing, not because I have a death wish, or because I want to spite you, but because I’m fed up of being wary of my own shadow.”
“At least allow me to arrange some basic safety measures.”
“This place has a ward on it. If I go bang I don’t take the neighbours out, that’s good enough for me. I like the neighbours, did I ever tell you that? I know their names, and their kids’ names, and their grandkids’ names, and the names of their respective dog and cats. They talk to me, in person, over the garden fence. How about that?”
“Xander…” The Watcher’s tone held a wealth of frustration but, after a moment, Giles took a deep breath and stood down. “Take care.”
“I will. And I know your guys will be poised to jump in if I really do go bang.”
“Bye, Giles, speak to you soon, maybe. Happy Christmas.”
“Yes. Happy Christmas, Xander.”
Xander was both happy and somewhat sad that Giles hadn’t put up more of a fight, but he blamed himself for that. He’d become rather difficult over the last few years – rather difficult being Giles-speak for a fucking nightmare when it came to accepting his lot and living within life-saving limitations.
The envelope accompanied Xander to the kitchen, where he made tea – so bloody British nowadays – and considered his options. Which amounted to: a) open the package, expect the worst yet hope for the best; b) dispose of the package sensibly and safely. The fact that Giles would approve so heartily of b tilted Xander acutely toward a.
A tap at the back door failed to startle him, and Xander called a hello and come in without so much as glance. This would be Dorie, his favourite next-door-neighbour, who invariably turned up a short time after he returned from any excursion. She had an uncanny knack of knowing just when the kettle would boil; it constantly amused him that, in Sunnydale, he’d have seen that as something far more sinister than an intuitive septuagenarian’s good instincts.
“Hello, dear, what are you up to?”
“Oh, y’know… Nothing.”
Dorie had already poured the tea by the time Xander remembered it; he stood and sat in rapid succession as a mug was placed beside him, and Dorie took the seat opposite, cradling a mug of her own.
The envelope sat between them. Xander stared at it, and Dorie stared at Xander staring at it.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” Dorie asked after several sips of tea.
“I don’t know what it is.”
“You would if you opened it.”
Xander distractedly acknowledged the obvious with a nod.
“It could just blow up in my face. Literally.”
“It’s probably a Christmas present.”
“I don’t get Christmas presents. You know that.”
Dorie did. Although Xander had received a gift the previous year: a hand-knitted Aran sweater that the old girl had left on this very kitchen table, festively wrapped and affectionately labelled, last Christmas eve. That sweater alone would be reason enough for Xander to blow himself up rather than be relocated.
“Are you going to pop in on Christmas day? Ken’d like that, and there’s plenty of food to go round.”
Xander finally looked at his friend, and a genuine smile broke out.
“I’d like that too.”
“Don’t let him talk you into fixing the greenhouse door,” Dorie warned.
“I’ll fix the door, I always fix the door.”
“Not on Christmas day you don’t.”
“I will if it makes Ken happy,” Xander chuckled, and Dorie reached over to pat his arm.
They finished their tea and discussed seasonal wheelie-bin collections; before she left, Dorie washed their mugs, gazing out of the window.
“I think we’ll have snow tonight.”
Xander perked up immediately.
“Wait, wait, I know this one.” He faked an appalling English accent. “It’s too cold for snow.”
Dorie giggled once, then stopped, and then giggled again.
“Open your present,” she told him on the way out. “It might be a nice surprise. You deserve a nice surprise.”
A nice surprise. Xander mulled that over for a while. Was he due a nice surprise? Before he’d been relocated to this place a similarly innocuous package had almost taken his hand off; he still bore the scars of that particular surprise. Would this one be any nicer?
The knowledge that Giles’ team was only moments away gave him courage that he didn’t want to acknowledge he needed, and he reached for the envelope, tearing the end away before he could talk sense into himself. The conflagration he was braced for never happened. The open envelope was nothing more than an open envelope. Tentatively, Xander shook the contents onto the table, jumping back as an indefinable object clattered onto the wooden surface. Still no explosion of any kind, simply… It looked like a lump of burnt…something, it’s shape suggesting that it had at one time been fashioned but now it was so charred and damaged any features had been completely lost. A gentle prod with one fingertip rocked it but didn’t bring the world to any kind of end, and Xander took a deep breath before lifting the object and placing it in his left palm to study more closely.
The requisite ‘What would Buffy do?’ moment came and went. Kick it’s crusty ass being little use under the circumstances, he turned to ‘What would Willow do?’. Research. As popular a word to Xander as syphilis. Now all he had to do was figure out what the thing in his hand was, in order to find out what the thing in his hand was. Yes, that made perfect sense, or as much sense as anything.
Sitting back at the table, Xander cautiously ran a fingernail over the object’s surface; fragments flaked easily away. He repeated the action, more firmly this time, and the object began to tremble. Xander was up and out of the room in seconds, stopping in the hallway to peer back around the doorframe to where the cindered chunk was visibly quaking. Minutes passed.
“Is that it?” Xander demanded as an intense wave of anti-climax kicked in. “That all you do?”
Xander had shuffled two steps back into the kitchen when the mystery object flared up, and he fell back with a startled yell at the battery of loud pops and cracks that accompanied the shooting flames. The show couldn’t have lasted more than thirty seconds and, post-finale, Xander peered across the room to the mess of ash and charcoal on his ruined table, inching closer to see what exactly was left of the original object. He whistled in admiration when the result of the firework display finally came into view: it was a claw, a large, sleek claw, almost metallic in appearance and certainly as sharp as any lethal blade.
“Now, that,” he muttered to himself with grim satisfaction, “is something I can work with.”
Settling himself at his desk, Xander placed the claw in the beam of the lamp and studied it as he waited for the computer to boot up. It was a beautiful object, both visually and tactilely, and, if it was a quarter of its present size, would have made an incredible piece of jewellery. The artistic side of Xander yearned to work with it, see if it could be carved like hardwood, but he knew better than to start playing around with anything that mystically appeared out of a chunk of ancient slag.
He accessed the Watcher’s online database, gritting his teeth in irritation as he was made to enter multiple passwords and jump through hoop after verifying hoop, but then he was in and quickly entering the claw’s basic description. Seven corresponding results popped onto the screen, and it took mere seconds for Xander to identify what sat alongside him.
“A dragon claw? It’s a dragon claw?” Xander grouched. “I got to stare down a shitload of the ugliest demons on the planet but I never got to see a real dragon. Which are allegedly real. Job satisfaction fail, screw you Sunnydale.”
Beyond seething jealousy, Xander gained little from the Watcher’s database. There was no real symbolism involved in the delivery of a dragon claw, or any shock revelations attached that indicated pestilence, plague or the like. There was however a footnote suggesting that an item such as a claw would make a good receptacle, despite the possibility of the claw going up in flames – apparently a high risk with anything dragony. Receptacle, in this context, wasn’t further explained but Xander could make a fairly accurate guess, and it was a shame because he’d had all the magic he could stomach for one lifetime.
“‘Employ indirect and steady heat’,” Xander read aloud. “‘Wet heat is often ideal as contents may be saved from the constant, inherent danger of fire.’”
Obvious then: Xander picked up the claw and headed for the bathtub.
Upstairs, Xander ran the water until it was as hot as possible, then began to fill the tub. Not knowing how long, if ever, it would take to persuade some action out of the claw, he accepted that achieving a steady heat might prove tricky once the water began to cool. Still, he could boil the kettle and keep topping up, so…
“Can’t believe I’m doing this. Other people get frigging socks for Christmas, what do I get?”
Bathtub hot and steaming, Xander spent only seconds wondering if he’d live to regret his actions before gently dropping the claw as close to the centre as possible. When there wasn’t an immediate whoosh of activity he sat back on his heels and questioned his inclination or ability to give a fuck if this exercise should take until the new year or, in fact, any new year, but that point became moot as the water began to swirl and ripple of its own accord, becoming dark and glassy, as unappealingly as an oil slick. Fat bubbles rose and burst, vile-smelling gaseous plops that could only hint at what was happening beneath the surface, spattering what Xander supposed and dreaded was spray after spray of blood across the room’s white tiles, and streaking his own pale shirt when he moved too slowly to avoid it.
Backing away, he pressed against the wall, reassured by its sturdy support as he swore under his breath, belatedly reminding himself that he was considerably out of practise when it came to the mystical, magical, and downright spooky. The bathtub belched, once and again, filling the air with a foul stench and leaving Xander gagging, his eye watering profusely. A heroic groping his way out of the room seemed the obvious course of action, but Xander couldn’t make himself move and, between blinks, couldn’t drag his focus from the ominous goings-on occurring not quite enough feet away.
With an almighty burnt and smoky screech, the oily substance spewed an indistinguishable mass out of the tub onto the bathroom floor; Xander grimaced as its leading edge came to rest on the toes of his boots.
“Oh…fucking…god,” he choked in disgust, as the mass began to writhe and slurp, covering the last few patches of clean space with greasy smears, and then there was a furious, agonised cry; Xander was both delighted and relieved that it didn’t come from him.
Silence followed. Stillness. The smoke hung eerily in the damp air. Xander slid down the wall to get a better, if wary, look at what he’d been magically given. Accepting that just about everything in the room was ruined anyway, he grabbed for a towel and tentatively wiped at the increasingly human form sprawled on his floor, doing his best to remove some of the seriously obstinate gunk from its face. A rattling gasp eventually greeted Xander’s actions, a shudder and an unctuous slurp, then one filthy hand rose, fumbled, and finally managed to weakly grip his wrist.
“You’re okay,” Xander promised. “You’re safe. I’m trying to get you cleaned up.”
The man (a quick glance along the body established the sex) seemed to relax slightly at Xander’s words, so he kept talking, endless platitudes as he worked to remove the oily residue.
Another sharp gasp and the man was jerking himself into a sitting position, scrabbling back to collide with the wall. Long minutes ticked by as Xander waited in suspense for whatever was due to happen next. The smoke finally began to thin, and Xander carefully draped the towel over the man’s lap, a little dignity reclaimed after a rebirth that reeked of defilement. The man fought to open his eyes to slits then peered at Xander, seeming to calm further and gesturing a casual acknowledgement.
“Are you okay? Can you understand me?” Xander asked.
The man’s hands shot to his own face, and he used his fingers to force his eyelids fully open. He stared at Xander, and Xander stared back, frowning as a distant memory stirred.
It took a ferocious shiver from the not-so-stranger to break eye contact, as he groggily pulled another towel from the rack and draped it around his shoulders, taking his time to study his surroundings. The room was coated in thick, black, greasy residue from the unleashed charm; the floor was afloat. Clearing his throat once, twice, and again, the man finally managed to clear his pipes. Wiping a finger through the gunk on the floor he held it up for Xander’s inspection.
“Might need a mop,” emerged as a croak.
Xander gave a whimper worthy of his distant sixteen-year-old self. Oh, god, yes. Yes. He recognised the eyes; he recognised the timbre of the voice; the recognised the instant Pavlovian reaction of believing he was in deep, deep shit.
Another half-hearted yet amiable gesture was offered.
“Spike?” Xander pressed. “Spike?”
“Tell me something?” Spike asked quietly, ignoring Xander’s consternation.
“Spi— Okay. Okay. Spike. Okay. What?” The mobile hand flailed in Xander’s direction, apparently expecting to be grasped; Xander obliged and cautiously held on. “What? Tell you what?”
“Am I…” Spike almost choked on the words, emotions barely contained. Without a thought, Xander tightened his grip. “Tell me… Am I real?”
“Real?” Xander repeated blankly.
Xander floundered over his reply, not able to make much sense of the question.
“You’re real,” he said at last, “I mean…you’re here, you’re…” Xander squeezed the hand he was holding. “You’re real, Spike. As real as me.”
Spike closed his eyes, sending tears racing down his cheeks, clear and clean against the filth that still clung to his skin.
“Real.” Barely a word, more a breath, a broken breath. “Real.”
“Spike, what happened to you, where have you been?”
With a brief shake of the head, Spike dismissed – or simply could not answer – the question. He reciprocated Xander’s tight grasp and drew Xander closer, until he could press both their hands to his chest.
Once again Xander was left floundering, unsure of what Spike needed or expected. But then the chaotic thinking stopped and the feeling started, his muddled thoughts coming together in one abrupt moment of realisation. Unable to free himself from Spike, his spare hand shot across to press against the layer of grime that coated the heaving chest, fingers sinking into the ooze until they hit skin and experienced.
Their eyes met and locked as Xander made himself accept. Let himself believe.
“You have,” he began shakily, “a very…healthy…heartbeat.”
“Real then.” Spike sounded just as breathless. “Real.”
“Real. Alive. I don’t know how you did this, but… Spike. You’re human.”
Astonishing revelations barely dealt with, the practical offered a welcome refuge. While Spike remained slumped on the floor recovering from his ordeal, Xander worked through his admittedly limited selection of cleaning products and beyond until he discovered that malt vinegar was the agent of choice when dealing with dragon oil, as he chose to name the disgusting residue marring his bathroom.
Xander made quick work of cleaning the tub, refilling it with clean water and adding a hefty dose of vinegar before turning to where Spike sat staring into space.
“You need help getting in?” Xander asked, too audibly self-conscious.
Spike slowly looked up.
“Well… Shall I…”
Cross with himself at being so awkward, Xander stuck out his hand and waited to see if Spike responded. He did. It took a few minutes but he did. Xander carefully eased Spike to his feet, trying his best not to be embarrassed when the towels fell away.
“Doesn’t matter,” Spike told him.
“It doesn’t? Well, I mean, it doesn’t, no, but…”
“Good. Okay. Good. Let me…”
Still handling his visitor as if he’d break, Xander gently assisted Spike into the bathtub, allowing him to settle in his own time.
“You want me to leave?” Xander offered, already on his way to the door.
“No,” Spike said adamantly.
Spike was already sniffing at the water.
“I’m going to smell like chips,” he observed.
That broke the tension, and Xander let himself laugh at the thought, surprised that Spike smiled along as he leaned back and slid under the water. Within seconds Spike was up again, spluttering and splashing.
“I have to breathe. And there’s no oxygen under there.”
“You know this. You’re a smartas— Uh, you’re a smart guy. No gills, you can’t breathe underwater.”
Xander offered Spike a cloth; it was accepted and immediately put to use, enthusiastic scrubbing steadily revealing patches of friction-pink skin.
“I must be…” Spike fell still and shook his head. “Xander.” The name sounded strange coming from Spike; Xander briefly relived the Pavlovian response. “Xander, I think I’m…alive.”
“You are. Heartbeat, y’know.”
“Yes, you said.”
“Heartbeat. Healthy, healthy heartbeat.”
“How did I get here? And…” Spike looked around the room. “Where is here?”
“Where would be my home: Bexhill, south coast of England. How did you get here was kinda my question. But…there was an envelope with a piece of crusty shit in it, under the crust there was a claw, and when I…”
“Claw? What kind?”
“Dragon. I looked it up on the Watcher’s database, and…”
“It was a dragon claw?” Spike interrupted. “I think I remember… It was LA. Bit of a showdown. Can’t think how it ended. Do you know about this?”
Xander gave a shallow nod.
“I know of it.”
Dread flickered over Spike’s features at the sombre tone of Xander’s voice.
“Wasn’t yesterday then,” he said flatly.
“No.” Xander swallowed hard, hating to break bad news. “It was a few years ago now. And, uh… No-one survived. Good, bad, bystanders, all struck down and there’s no way to say how. Just…no-one got out. Until now. You.” Xander paused, lost for further words. Other than a heartfelt, “I’m sorry.”
Xander turned away from Spike, offering him a little pseudo-privacy in which to deal with his grief. Grabbing up a fresh cloth and the bottle of vinegar, he began to scrub at the walls.
“It’s not like you think,” Spike said as he resumed washing.
“What do I think?”
“This beating heart isn’t broken. I’m not traumatised.”
“You seemed traumatised.”
“The shock of birth?” Spike suggested with disinterest. “The past is numb. Can’t explain it any better. I was a monster, and a murderer, and although I know that, the memories are numb.”
“If humanity is some kind of prize you won, then sharp memories would make it the booby prize. So…”
“Shanshu. The prize. Humanity. It was Angel’s prize.”
“You ripped Angel off?” Xander asked with a poorly hidden grin.
“It’s not funny.”
“Yes, it is. Spike, it really is.” Xander turned to confront Spike’s mournful expression. “I said this before, when you were presumed dead after Sunnydale. Okay, you weren’t there, I could be making this up, but I swear I’m not. You were a good guy, there at the end. Better than Angel ever was. He was cursed, you fought to better yourself. He handed over the amulet and ran, you battled to the death. You win. You deserve to win and you get to win.”
“Is this winning?” came the reply, sneered and irrationally defensive, Spike sounding like the Spike for the first time since he’d shown up. “Bexhill? Who’d you piss off to win this?”
“Long story. I’ll give you the edited version another time.” Spike snorted into his facecloth. “You’re alive, Spike. Forget Bexhill, you didn’t win Bexhill, you won life. Congratulations.”
“No, you listen,” Xander snapped. “You don’t have to play the part of the hard done by, neutered vamp inflicted with my company anymore. Get yourself cleaned up, I can give you clothes, I can give you money, I can show you the front door and you can walk away. Alive.”
Xander exited the room with an irritated flourish, slamming the door behind him. Spike watched him go before rolling his eyes, tutting, sighing, totally overdoing the exasperation. It was only seconds before his hand returned to his chest, pressing against the wet flesh to feel his heart racing – and not good racing – at the prospect of being thrown out. Being alone.
“Oh…bollocks,” he murmured under his breath. “Bollocks.”
He looked up sharply as Xander made a noisy entrance.
“And another thing…”
“I’m a wanker,” Spike told him frankly, magically stealing Xander’s power of speech. “I thought I was a dead wanker, but it turns out I wasn’t a wanker because I was dead, but because…I’m just a wanker.”
“I, umm… Whatever. Do you want me to tell Giles?”
“That I’m a wanker? He’ll insist he’s always known.”
“That you’re here. You’re back.”
Spike didn’t even need to think that over.
“No. No.” Xander gave a single nod and started to leave. “Xander!”
Xander paused, taking a deep breath.
Spike sploshed about a bit, trying to find a subject that was harmless, maybe even a bit of common ground.
“Bexhill… It’s nice. Me and mum used to visit the south coast when I was…the last time I was alive. Just along from Hasting, yes?”
“Always liked the castle. Hastings. And the abbey. Have you been to the abbey?”
Xander fully re-entered the room, sat down on the closed toilet seat and shook his head in disbelief.
“The frequently dead alive guy in my bathtub is making small talk about tourist venues?”
The cloth in Spike’s hand flew at Xander, smacking him wetly in the chest. Xander simply observed in silence as it further ruined his shirt before flopping to the floor.
“Actually, can I have that back?” Spike asked.
Xander obliged, happily retrieving the cloth and flinging it into Spike’s face.
“I’m going to the store, anything you want?”
Any snark due for the soggy slap in the face dissolved instantly.
“Can you wait until I’m clean? I’ll come with you.”
“You’re filthy, I’ll be back before you’re out of there.”
“Don’t, please…” Spike began urgently, then stopped as abruptly as panic consumed him. He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, whispering a miserable, “Please.”
As annoying as Spike was, Xander couldn’t turn his back on that plea. He knelt alongside the tub.
“Sorry. I’m sorry. Is that enough?” Spike’s eyes flickered opened and he turned to Xander in desperation. “Is it enough to be sorry?”
“It’s not that big a deal,” Xander promised. “Put scarily sincere contrition back in the armoury until you’ve really fucked up.”
“And I will,” Spike said dolefully.
“Hey. I’m going to the store, I’ll…”
Spike’s hand shot out to grab Xander’s collar.
“What if… What if I’m lost. Again. What if…”
“You sitting on anything unpleasantly pointy? That’d be a no. No claw. No receptacle. No magically going anywhere. This house is warded, foundation to chimney pot. You’re safe. You may be in Bexhill but you’re safe.” Xander patted Spike’s hand away and stood. “And just so you know. Our colonnade, the pavilion? Way better than Hastings Castle.”
Alone again, Spike topped up the bath with hot water and thought about Xander’s reassurances. Strangely enough, he did feel reassured. Even stranger, he realised, was the fact that he trusted Xander on the matter. Strange toppled headlong into bizarre as he reluctantly accepted the fact that he may have always trusted Xander. Xander’s contempt had always been honest; only time would tell if as sincere a friendship could be won.
“Hey, I’m home, where are you?”
Xander looked up as Spike appeared in the kitchen doorway, swathed in towels; for an instant he was reminded of Carmen Miranda and it was all he could do to stop himself breaking into Heatwave.
“Did you get bleach?” Spike asked casually, as if hair dye was a staple of every single guy’s weekly shop.
“My hair is ruined, can’t get the colour of that shit out of it.”
Xander crossed and tugged the turban from Spike’s head, fluffing up his hair and examining it.
“That’s the trouble with bleaching, your hair gets so porous.”
“Expert, are we?”
“Well, there were my girls…and more girls…and more girls. One ex-demon and multiple slayers, ninety percent of them freakily drawn to bleach and dyes of some description or another.”
Spike let Xander primp for a while longer, and he certainly didn’t hide the fact that he was enjoying the attention.
“Can it be saved?”
“This is kinda cool. It’s silver.”
“It’s grey. I look my vampire age.”
“It’s good, I like it. I have greys,” Xander offered as some sort of compensation.
“Who cares about your grey bits, you weren’t flawlessly gorgeous prior to— OW!”
“Oh, sorry, did I accidentally rip some of your…”
Xander returned to unpacking his purchases, sniggering as he went. Several large bottles of malt vinegar were placed on the charred table.
“Know what the woman at the till said? She told me I’d overshot the season for pickling. Damn, I love this place.”
Spike picked up a pack of t-shirts, one each of white, grey and black.
“They’re not great quality, but it was all I could get without going further and,” Xander threw Spike an apologetic glance, “I thought you’d want me back as soon as possible.”
“I’m all right.”
“I know you are, but this is all weird and I now how horrible it is to be alone in a strange place, even if you’re not strictly alone, and the place isn’t strictly strange. Here. Jeans. It was either stonewashed or brand spanking shiny new, so…”
“Stonewashed is good.”
Xander paused, hands on hips, and took a good look at Spike.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to do?”
“It’s almost Christmas, so if you want to travel…”
“Again, yeah. You can…”
“I was gonna say you can go anywhere you want providing you decide right now, but you can…”
“You really want to stay?” Xander asked in surprise.
“You mind the company?”
“No, I just never assumed this would be better than any other option. You may have wanted to head to London, try to find family. Now that you’re human—” Xander caught his breath and suddenly laughed. “Fucking hell, Spike. You’re human.”
Xander’s joy wasn’t entirely infectious; Spike smiled sadly and nodded.
“Let’s hope it was worth the sacrifice.”
“Hey, c’mon, you can do anything, you can make a great life for yourself.”
“I couldn’t before. William was useless. Worse than useless.”
“You’re not that man. You have a wealth of knowledge and experience that you can call upon. Although I’m not suggesting you should become a serial killer.” Spike shrugged and Xander finished unpacking; underwear was tossed onto the existing pile of clothes. “I have things you can borrow until you get the chance to buy some stuff that properly fits. Shoes, though, tell me the size and I’ll have to…”
“Don’t go out,” Spike said a little too quickly. “I mean…I’ll manage. Steal something of yours. Always worked for me before.”
Xander didn’t acknowledge any of that, the alarm or the forewarning of theft, he simply handed over a large bottle of vinegar and a roll of J Cloths.
“Make yourself useful.”
“What about your family? I don’t want to find my family but what about yours? I don’t mean your folks, but the girls. We could go to them.”
Xander’s body language visibly tightened.
“You could go to them.”
“Do I sound ungrateful? I’m not, I just…”
“I’m not taking offense. Long story, edited version? You can go to them. I can’t. I can’t be anywhere near Buffy or Willow, the three of us have to live on different continents. We’re cursed. You want hell on Earth? Throw a reunion party.”
“That’s…that’s… What about Rupert?”
“He wasn’t on the spot when it happened. Thanks to that I can just about be within twenty yards of him, but I gotta say, it’s not very comfortable.”
Xander looked blank.
In one horrible instant Spike had to make a decision. It broke his heart a little to do so, but he decided not to go there, even if it meant never getting answers he’d now crave.
“Doesn’t matter. Getting mixed up with LA. No Dawn.”
Apparently and literally, no Dawn. With a forced smile barely disguising the pain inside, Spike clutched the vinegar and cloths to his chest and made for the bathroom.
“It looks silver,” Xander called after him, “it looks cool.”
The hair was no longer the issue, Xander could easily figure that out, but he had no way of knowing what the problem was without asking, and he didn’t want to ask. The old Spike had always been tiresomely vociferous; Xander just had to hope that this version would be as talkative if he needed help.
It was a pleasant evening, quiet and comfortable, as if Spike had only been away for days rather than years, and as if they’d been friends before he’d left. No longer brimming with a vampire’s lust for excitement and carnage, Spike made pleasant company, intelligent and witty, growing more stable and less prickly hour by hour. Xander failed to notice that ‘less prickly hour by hour’ could be applied to him too. Subjects of conversation were kept deliberately neutral, and they mostly talked about what was on the TV, what had been on the TV, and what was due on the TV. They avoided the evening news: Xander wasn’t about to have his Peace on Earth screwed with by reality.
It was only after they’d watched a trailer for the Christmas schedule that Spike got fidgety. He glared at Xander until Xander could no longer withstand the unremitting attention.
“What?” Xander demanded.
“Where is everything?”
“What kind of everything?”
“If it’s Christmas where’s the tree? And the decorations, and the candles, and…”
“I don’t do that stuff.”
“Because it doesn’t work when you’re on your own.”
“You’re not on your own.”
“I wasn’t expecting company.”
“Well, you’ve bloody-well got some, do something about it.”
Xander stared at Spike in a mixture of shock and amusement.
“Do something about it?”
“You want Christmas, you do something about it.”
“I’m broke, I haven’t even got a pair of shoes to my name!” Spike’s socked feet waggled provocatively between them. “So unless you put your hand in your pocket—” Spike shifted uncomfortably. “What do you do, Xander? I should have asked, shouldn’t I? Are you going to be out working tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” Xander conceded, “I have no doubt I will be ‘putting my hand in my pocket’. If Christmas means that much to you…”
“You won’t be going out?”
“Yes, I will. Shopping, with you. Shoes first, then…what? Tree? Decorations?”
“Can we afford it?”
“You know what I mean.”
Xander’s incredulous expression broke apart with a laugh.
“Yeah. We can afford it. I do work, some carpentry, usually in the summer, but I don’t need the money. I’m on a pension.”
Spike’s left eyebrow shot up.
“Oh, sweet,” Spike grinned, so wickedly that it made Xander laugh again.
“You sure that soul’s securely fixed?”
“Small pleasures, mate. They were a bunch of bastards.”
“Are. Nothing much has changed.”
Spike wandered off to search the kitchen for beers and Xander took a moment to look at his living room with fresh eyes. Eye. There was space for a reasonably-sized tree, and the chimney breast screamed for a little tinselly action.
“What do you want for Christmas?” Xander asked Spike when he came back with two cans and handed one over.
“I get to want something for Christmas?” Spike beamed. Xander gestured a ‘hit me’. “Right…” The decision took as long as the music for Match of the Day. “A phone.”
“Something flashy. Lots of tricks. Can I have an account if the Council ends up paying? Net access, naturally, I want to cost them a bloody fortune.”
“What?” Xander nodded toward the TV, and Spike followed his prompt, performing an almost comical double-take. “Man United!” he exclaimed.
Spike sprang up from his armchair and crossed the room to crash onto the sofa beside Xander, securing a better view of the game and barely noticing, not only the way he was lounging against Xander, but the fact that Xander made no objection.
Two hours later, as Xander tried to find the right anything to make up the bed in the ironically labelled guest room, Spike called him into the master bedroom.
“You have a double,” Spike announced from where he was spread-eagled in the centre of Xander’s expensively comfortable divan.
Xander crossed his arms and leant against the doorframe.
“That time as a private investigator served you well.”
“So why are you making up the spare?”
“You and me sharing? Isn’t that a little too cosy?”
Spike turned his head and frowned at Xander.
“You’re content to share a bed?” Spike looked a little surprised at the question, and Xander’s face reflected that surprise when Spike nodded without hesitation. “But this is us. Shouldn’t we be fighting, or awkward, or fighting, or unable to communicate, or fighting…”
“Is that what you want?”
“That’s what I’d hate, but still… I don’t get this.”
“Maybe getting this is a part of getting me. And we may be us, but I’m no longer the me you’re thinking of. Besides, you think it was an accident that I was sent to you, specifically you?”
Now it was Xander’s turn to frown.
“Not an accident, but I can’t think of any legitimate reason why you should have been sent to me rather than anyone else. You think there’s a reason?”
“I don’t know much about anything. Perhaps we need to find out who locked me in that claw.”
“Or maybe it would be safer not to.”
“You want safe?”
“Yeah,” Xander instantly confirmed. “Safe would be good.”
“No more thinking tonight,” Xander insisted, hands held aloft in submission. “Maybe in the morning things will make more sense, and safe will no longer be this year’s black. Meantime…” He studied where Spike lay stretched on the bed. The cat-like grace had gone, he noticed, and was slightly uncomfortable to admit to himself that he’d scrutinized Spike hard enough in the past to notice the difference. “You really staying in here?”
Spike rolled to the edge of the mattress and sat up.
“I’m not planning on going anywhere else, is that the same thing?”
Without argument, Xander accepted that and found some pyjamas, handing them over before unselfconsciously removing his eye patch, shedding his own outer layers and climbing into what he now supposed was his side of the bed. Spike tossed the pyjamas aside and stripped down to his boxers, joining Xander and sighing with satisfaction as he relaxed. Xander reached out to turn off the light but paused with his hand on the switch.
“You okay with me turning the lamp off?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
Xander shrugged against the covers.
“Thought it might have been dark in that claw. Didn’t want to remind you of being stuck in there.”
Xander waited for a response but Spike was obviously taking time out to think.
“I don’t remember. Anything. Not the last moments in LA, not being confined in that claw, not… I don’t even know how long.”
“Must’ve been… I don’t know either, can’t even guess. Years? Years and years.”
“Fucking hell. I’m glad I don’t remember.”
Xander switched off the lamp; in the darkness, Spike shuffled a little closer.
“You okay?” Xander asked again.
“Fine,” Spike confirmed, and he sounded it, which begged the question:
“Are you really okay with all of this? Really okay?”
“You think…what? That I should be an emotional wreck?”
“I don’t want you to be, but it would make sense. If it was me, immortal demon one day and plain, vulnerable old human the next…”
“You’d know that you didn’t have any choice, and you’d get on with it.”
“And if you did have a choice?”
More thought-filled silence.
“I’m happy without one. I wanted this. Not always, but…I did want this.”
“I’m glad. There’s so much you could’ve regretted.”
“Like I said, the past is numb. This is better, here and now, feeling.” Spike turned on his side, closing the gap between them and sharing Xander’s pillow. “I’m sorrier that you lost your girls. That’s brutal.”
“You haven’t lost them.”
“What then? I abandon the man who rescued me…”
“It wouldn’t be like that.”
“…to go off roaming the world, visiting his old pals, and…what? You live vicariously through me?”
“You’re still such a drama queen, that much hasn’t changed. And it wouldn’t be about me, they’d be happy to see you.”
Spike crept closer still, making himself comfortable on Xander’s shoulder, his arm sliding around Xander’s waist.
“You snore when you sleep on your back?”
“Probably,” Xander admitted.
“Hope I’m a heavy sleeper then.”
For a split second Xander thought he should object to Spike’s proximity, but the protest wouldn’t have been valid, he didn’t care to the point of approving. This wasn’t like him. Probably. Possibly. He wouldn’t have stood for it, years ago. But…maybe his past was numb too. And perhaps, he admitted to himself as he closed his eye and laid his cheek against Spike’s soft, silver hair, it was better that way.
Spike insisted he was going to learn how to cook, starting right now; Xander inwardly meeped and insisted they buy breakfast out, for purely practical reasons, fitting it somewhere between shoes and trees and phones and various other seasonal paraphernalia. The lure of the phone swung it, and several hours later they returned home laden with a six foot Scots pine, various lights and decorations, an art deco nativity set, a thousand-and-one hair products, and bag upon bag of new clothes and footwear. Plus an irresistibly shiny new Blackberry that Spike was all over the moment they set foot inside the front door.
“Charge it properly, or your battery will…”
“Bollocks to that. Lithium, mate, lithium.”
Xander rolled his eye and singlehandedly manoeuvred the tree into the living room.
“Where do you want this?” he called to Spike, knowing how he’d arrange the room but deciding that as this had all been Spike’s idea, he should have the final say.
“Window,” Spike called back, unknowingly agreeing with Xander’s plans. He arrived seconds later. “Right, what’s your number?”
“The local code is…”
“Excuse me? We fake English call them mobiles, and…I ain’t got one.”
With a huge show of exasperation, Spike plugged his phone in to charge, grabbed their coats, and marched Xander straight back to where they’d bought the Blackberry, making him buy an ever so similar but slightly different model for himself ‘so we can tell them apart’.
Home again, and Spike was generally a nuisance while Xander did his best to work around him; it was almost like old times. There was a holly bush at the foot of Dorie’s garden and Xander nipped next door to beg a branch or two; by the time he returned, Spike was already using his new toy, gossiping away. It made Xander smile until Spike turned toward him, excitedly holding the Blackberry out.
“Buffy. Say hello.”
Xander heard the distant shouted warning, Buffy as ever trying to protect her friend before he fell away with a shriek of pain, greenery flying as blisters instantly began erupting on the side of his body closest to the phone. Spike couldn’t find the off button fast enough so he simply hurled the phone away, racing to Xander, ineffectively trying to help him without so much as touching his raw skin.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise.”
“Curse,” Xander gasped.
“I should have known, I didn’t know, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Xander’s good hand grabbed Spike’s wrist as he tried to allay the panic.
“It’s okay, it’ll pass.”
“Don’t make a fuss, it’ll pass.” Shakily crossing to an armchair, Xander cautiously sat, now tightly grasping Spike’s hand. “It’ll pass.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Nothing. Nothing helps.”
“I’m so sorry. She doesn’t matter and I hurt you and— I’m sorry.”
The distress in Spike’s voice made Xander pay attention; tears welled in the blue eyes and the remorse was unmistakeably genuine.
“Go get your phone. If it’s damaged we’ll have to…”
“Fuck the phone.”
“And a merry Christmas to you too.”
“Bollocks.” Spike was instantly up and away. “Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks.”
“Did you break it?”
“No, it’s fine. Landed in the tinsel.”
Something about the venomous delivery of that sentence made it hilarious, and between ouches Xander let the laughter erupt.
“Spike! Come back, c’mon.” Spike sheepishly re-entered the room, kneeling at Xander’s feet and staring into his ravaged face. “It’s already getting better,” Xander assured, pointing out where the welts on his hand were well on the way to healing.
“Maybe this is all a mistake,” Spike said quietly.
“Don’t say that. Ten minutes ago you loved the phone.”
“I don’t mean that, I mean… If I was a vampire I’d be able to help you.”
“What could you do? The demon who cursed us is dead and gone, only he could lift this.”
“I could…I don’t know. Make it better somehow. I don’t know.” Spike’s gaze gradually slid from Xander’s cheek to his eye, and from his eye to his mouth. “If I was a vampire I’d probably risk…kissing it better.”
His attention flicked back to Xander’s eye, waiting trepidatiously for a response.
“You could try that,” Xander said with knowing and precise nonchalance. “Never been tried before. Might help.”
Xander turned his head a little, offering the rapidly healing cheek. Spike leant in, brushing tentative kisses across the scarlet surface.
“Good,” Xander whispered.
“Want me to sto…”
The kisses found the corner of Xander’s mouth, and Spike watched that single, beautiful brown eye flutter shut. Impossible to stop there: more kisses, kisses that made Xander groan with longing followed, and Spike let himself be tender, let himself be William, the admirably gentle and romantic man he’d lost so long ago.
Drawing Xander to his feet, Spike coaxed him to their bedroom, undressing him without meeting a word of protest, and easing him onto the bed. The kisses continued, every scrap of skin that bore signs of trauma was treated with loving concern, and eventually the attention widened to include flesh that was whole and undamaged and simply wanting.
“Spike, let me…”
“No, love, you let me.”
“I want to…”
“No. It’s Christmas, the joy of giving and all that. After everything you’ve done for me in the last twenty-four hours, just let me try to reciprocate.”
“I bought you a phone, that’s all.”
“Bloody idiot,” Spike murmured fondly. “Bloody idiot.”
“Did this happen too fast?” Xander asked later, after they’d dozed and woken up, naked and entwined.
“Probably,” Spike grumbled, “stupid human body, no stamina.”
“Not what I meant.”
“Then what… Oh, right.”
“No. Not too fast.”
“But what if…”
“How are you?” Spike very deliberately changed the subject. “How’s your skin?”
“It’s good, I told you it would be.”
Spike pushed the covers down and closely examined Xander’s torso, arm and hand. Satisfied that the damage had healed itself, he laid his head on Xander’s chest and enjoyed the steady, rhythmic beat of his very generous heart.
“We should’ve left all that behind.” He sighed, full of regret and sympathy for Xander’s situation. “You don’t deserve to be cursed.”
“If it’s any consolation, at this precise moment in time I’m feeling pretty blessed.”
As he waited for Spike’s response, Xander’s heartbeat quickened; Spike pretended not to melt.
“You’re sentimental. I had no idea.”
“Neither did I. Maybe I can be, about this.” Xander’s next words could’ve been regarded as a leap of faith, but he didn’t think twice before he leapt. “Deny you feel the same way.”
Spike drew breath to speak, then exhaled and slumped, happier to sprawl over his newfound lover than pointlessly argue against something he fervently agreed with.
“And you have no need to question the way we’ve just…just…”
“I don’t know. How did this happen? You turn up and can cope with everything that’s been inflicted on you, which has to be some kind of miracle; I can cope with having you here, I’m liking you being here, and that’s miraculous in its own way when I think about how I’ve spent so long pushing people away. Then we fall headlong into this…this…togetherness, and you seem – no, you are – happy, you’re happy, and I’m ridiculously happy, and… It’s like all the time you’ve been locked in that claw, I’ve been locked away here, waiting for you to show up and somehow…free me.” After a moment’s embarrassed silence, Xander started to laugh. “I’ve turned into a Disney princess.”
“You have,” Spike affectionately agreed, making Xander laugh harder still.
Spike smiled contentedly at Xander’s mirth, leaning up and studying his face for any sign of disingenuousness. There was none.
“Yeah.” Xander’s laughter tailed off and he caught his breath, returning Spike’s gaze, stroking his fingers across his cheek. “I was the only one left alone, I made that choice for myself, and… I couldn’t admit until now how miserable it made me.”
“Hey, did you ever wonder about us, back in Sunnydale? If things had been different…”
“Things are different. Everything has a time and a place. This, now… Could be ours.”
Xander looked as if he wanted to believe that more than anything he’d ever heard; in an instant, Spike decided he’d make it happen. After all, you could take William out of the vampire, but you couldn’t take the ingrained by time, single-minded, scary stalker fanaticism out of the man.
“For our own amusement,” Xander broke into his thoughts, “shall we try to think of something even more unlikely?”
Spike did think, but not exactly about what Xander intended.
“You probably think it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll still be in your bed when I’m balding, wrinkled, riddled with arthritis, and verging on incontinent, but I’m willing to put money on it. Your money, obviously, nothing much has changed there.”
Xander gawped, then shook himself out of his shock in a move straight from Hanna Barbera.
“You, er… How much do you want?”
“Plus, I’m a faithful sort, and I can out-sentimental you any old day. Particularly when you consider that, technically, as a human, I was a virgin until a couple of hours ago. As a vampire, I stuck with my first shag for over a century.”
“You were— And I— Wow. Frankly…wow. In which case… How was it for you?” Xander finished with exaggerated jauntiness, from awestruck to stud in all of five seconds.
Spike fell onto his back and absolutely guffawed.
“This will work,” he gasped as he wiped tears from his eyes.
“Christmas,” Xander grinned, “we’re due a miracle.”
Sliding out of bed, Xander dressed and didn’t even bother looking for the eye patch that had been dislodged in the throes of passion.
“Tree to fix up, room to decorate, food to buy, more presents would be cool…”
“Xander… Do you believe in miracles? Major or minor.”
The to do list stopped and Xander considered the question.
“You think that’s what we’ve got here?”
“I think…that maybe Santa saw I’d been a good, virtuous boy and brought me something to keep me warm, and I don’t mean another Aran sweater.”
“Good enough for me. If an intervention from Saint Nick means we never have to analyse what we’ve got and how we got it…”
“All the more time to enjoy having it?”
“Makes excellent sense. And now we’ve got that sorted… Christmas, the joy of giving, round two?”
“If I get back in that bed, our tree will never so much as see a bauble.”
Spike kicked off the covers and sensuously stretched his admirable, newly human form.
“Your point, love?”
“Uh… No point,” Xander made clear as he hurriedly began to strip. “No point at all.”
On a distant, some might say heavenly firmament, the unlikeliest Angel of them all watched his handiwork and smiled. If it was a little smugly, he felt he could, on this occasion, be forgiven.
A stocky, red-suited old man with a huge white beard and reindeers in attendance came to peer over his shoulder.
“Did it work?”
“Like a dream.”
The two men laughed and vigorously shook hands.
“Merry Christmas, Liam.”
“Merry Christmas, Nick.”
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