Xander rubbed a hand absently up and down Willow’s arm, feeling her press into his chest, leaning back on him, as they stood looking at the chasm - the great big hole - that had been their home a few short hours ago. Had it only been hours? One day? Two at most? Xander wasn’t sure. It felt like years that they’d been battling The First. In a way, Xander guessed they had. Everything had started to take on a surreal effect with people leaving Sunnydale, like rats on a sinking ship. Kind of fitting that that’s what had happened then. The sinking.
Dust should feel dry. That would be the very nature of dust. Dryness: which allows dirt and particles to float and become dust. Which is dusty. And dry. The stuff they were breathing in as they stood near the bus held a dryness that was not. Xander could feel, even taste, the moisture. Heavy and chalky, it made them all cough in a distracted way. Concrete dust from the buildings that had crumbled into nothing. Should be dry. Xander knew from working on site that it never was. Some kind of chemical reaction, he guessed. Concrete was wet at the beginning, it sent up wet dust that would harden your lungs over time and could eventually kill you if you breathed in enough. Concrete dried out. It became hard. Dry. But when it was smashed, broken up, or used as landfill in a spectacular end of world abolition, it reverted to type and became wet. Wet dry concrete. It floated around them, the wet concrete dust that they were breathing in. The OH&S officer in Xander wondered if he should worry about the potential damage that could be happening to his lungs.
Willow held his hand across her stomach. Tight. Her fingers stoked the fine skin across his knuckles, skittering around the cut on his forefinger that ran down it’s length and continued onto his palm, sending shocks of ‘don’t touch that!’ through his nerves, which he ignored. He was probably getting her shirt all bloody.
If he didn’t feel as dry as the dust that should have been drier, inside and out, parched and rather crinkly like a rag that’s been rung out and left to harden out of shape, Xander could have offered more comfort. Would have. But didn’t want to.
He thought about Anya. He’d have to make sure his grief was real, he supposed. Cry the manly tears for the girls’ benefits, that sort of thing, while he waited. Then, when she came back, he would be as surprised as everyone else. Sure, they were not together, but that was not a factor. He didn’t want her dead. He wondered if she’d felt pain, and if she would remember it.
Willow moved out of his arms with one last run of her hand down his arm, to grasp his uninjured hand for a tight squeeze, before walking over to Kennedy who looked buzzed yet drained at the same time.
Xander let himself take a close look as Buffy turned towards the bus with an extremely deflated Dawn, starting a shuffling conga line of young girls, Slayers in their own right now, to following her. Buffy looked younger than she’d ever looked to Xander, younger and more grown up then ever.
He followed the last girl, slipping a hand into a pocket to feel the small weight of the thing he’d sewn into the material two night’s after The First had visited in Jesse’s skin. He had been worried that they’d notice the fact he wore the same pair of jeans almost every day, but they hadn’t, had thought about using a pouch around his neck but gave that up for practical reasons. Had to have it on him almost constantly, had to keep it secret, had to keep it safe. The promise of a demon, stored in a stone the size of his thumbnail. Better than any written word, so Sweet had sworn as he’d handed it over. It was a small miracle that Xander had managed to get even that. Another that he’d managed to keep it safe and on him for over a year. The sewing was a new thing.
As he stepped up into the bus, Xander let his hand slip out of his pocket. As long as he had the stone, he had Sweet’s promise. He’d just wait until Sweet brought Anya back.
Waiting was a bitch in England; the grey sky weighed him down. Africa was better: like a dampener on his senses. The brightness, the harshness, the ‘ness’ of everything there, the moreness of everything, worked its way under his skin, into his very bones, until he couldn’t tell if it was heatstroke or the fact that he and almost everyone he cared for had survived something that statistically speaking they shouldn’t have. He felt alive in the corniest possible way, except it wasn’t corny, because he was alive, and that was a miracle which Africa and all that he saw there, helped show him. And surprisingly, being alive and waiting for Anya to be, wasn’t a hard thing, and there wasn’t any guilt either. It just was.
The stone went missing on his trek to meet with a group of Kikuyu, North East from Nairobi. He noticed its lack of being in it’s sewn-up home in his cotton pants when he scratched a persistent bug bite on his upper thigh while resolutely ignoring the idea of tsetse fly courtesy of a month of fruitless searching in Tanzania. He was travelling in the back of an open jeep over terrain that threw up rocks into their path just for the fun of it, when bushland didn’t obscure the road completely. A heart rending moment when he realised that there was no way to make the driver stop, to let him go back, check the - what? Two miles of nearly invisible road in the hope of finding a thumbnail sized stone in amongst all the many other stones and rocks. Not to mention the lions that seemingly were everywhere. And the fact the group of Kikuyu would only wait the agreed upon time before leaving the arranged meeting place. He couldn’t chance it, setting everything up had already cost him enough money for Giles to have a serious coronary. There wasn’t even a small possibility of getting the stone back.
With the sun making the horizon seem like a wavy ocean and his eye feeling the strain, Xander felt like someone who’s grip had slipped at the most important time, letting the person they’d been holding onto fall to their death over the edge of the cliff. Because, that’s exactly what he’d just done.
Three months later, newest and littlest slayer standing solemnly by his side like a carved wooden doll, in the Nairobi International Airport, Xander ended a phone call back to England. He stared at his phone. He thought of the stone that he’d lost. But maybe not lost. Maybe it had been used. And that was not to be thought of. He clenched his jaw. Sweet was a bastard. Spike was back.
Waking up and wondering where he was, should not have become a reality he had gotten used to. Waking up and realising that he was in England and maybe he wouldn’t have to wonder any more, made him relax back into the clean sheets that he just couldn’t get enough of. Clean things were good things. Almost a year spent in small impoverished places, some which didn’t have names, with hardly any time spent where there were working amenities, or even health regulations, made clean sheets seem blessed. Xander smiled, smelled the deep sent of cloves again. He may not be that far of the mark. Would explain the best night sleep he’d had in days, and was just the sort of sisterly thing Willow would do. She’d mentioned the drawn look on his face the afternoon before.
The door to his bedroom crept open an inch, something he would not have noticed but for the fact he was looking straight at it. He quietly pulled the sheets up over his shoulder and waited. Didn’t even bother with the patch, because whoever was coming in without knocking, well, it was their own fault, and Xander felt a certain smugness that if they had a problem with his face ‘unmasked’ as it were, they wouldn’t be prone to sneaking in again.
Dawn’s face, or rather half of it, squished around the doorframe and Xander snickered at her eye that was scrunched closed. At the sound, Dawn smiled and opened her eyes and the door the rest of the way to allow her to come in and sit on the bed.
Moments with Dawn had never been awkward the way they’d been at some time or another with Willow and Buffy. Xander had never noticed that fact until now. He touched her foot gently from where it lay curled under her leg. She smiled a little.
“Ready for today?” The question was so heartfelt that Xander wanted to give her a hug, but that would mean sitting up and maybe revealing the fact that he’d slept without anything on that night. Something he didn’t want Dawn to know. He sighed,
“Why’s he coming, and how come it happens to be the day after I arrive? Couldn’t he have come and gone while I was away?” It was a question he’d been burning to ask since last night when Buffy had sprung the news on him as he’d been walking up the stairs to go to bed. As it was, he’d stubbed his toe due to unforseen emotions that he still hadn’t looked at. Didn’t want to.
“I have scones and toast downstairs and some of that English tea you surprisingly like.”
“Dodging. I can do that too, you know.” They looked at each other quietly for some time.
“Seems to me, his arriving has upset you more than it should have. Unless I was wrong in thinking you guys had stopped hating each other before the last battle.”
“No. You’re not wrong.”
Xander cursed the fact his bad eye socket had developed a twitch when he was caught out. Normally not a problem, but without the patch - a telling sign, which came back to bite him in the ass as Dawn caught it and her stare narrowed. Not wanting to go into the whole ‘Sweet Promise, loosing Anya, maybe saving Spike by default thing’, and the whole slew of mixed emotions that stirred up, Xander decided on evasive action. He sat up.
“Xander! Are you naked under there?” Dawn squeaked and made as if to lift the sheet. Xander clamped one hand down hard and wagged his finger on the other,
“If you see, I will then have to marry you.”
Dawn stood up and shrugged with an unrepentant gleam in her eye, “Say that a few years ago and that sheet would have been history. But as we are now adults and beyond all this childishness,” they looked at each other with plain amusement, “we will just have to count our losses and go down to breakfast instead. Hurry up.” Dawn kept standing there, looking down at him. Xander grinned and grabbed the sheet around his waist, making a motion to swing his legs over the side of the bed. Dawn blushed, her bluff faltering under Xander’s ante up. Stammering an excuse and making Xander laugh again, she took off out of the room.
“Shut the door!” Xander called after her. A hand snaked back around the doorframe to grab the handle. Xander was still smiling when the door shut and he let the sheet drop as he stood up. The smile left his face when he thought of Spike.
Spike looked good. Xander would give him that. A little tired maybe, but all in all, good. Africa had changed Xander in ways that he didn’t know of and some that he did. Seemed like being burnt to a crispy golden brown on both sides and then getting resurrected had done something similar to Spike. But Xander wasn’t thinking of the reasons why Spike was back. Alive. Undead. Whatever. He just wasn’t.
There’d been more than a few moments of awkwardness when Spike had arrived. The group had milled around the large living room after he’d been invited in and no one seemed to know what to do until Giles had suggested tea to which there’d been the almost too-quick reply of, “Hell, yes, Watcher.” And now here they were. A hug for Dawn, a slightly colder one for Buffy, a nod to Willow and Giles and a surprising handshake for him.
To be floored by a handshake wasn’t pathetic was it? Xander blamed his shock on being greeted with anything other than contempt, for the reason why out of all possible sitting arrangements, he’d managed to end up sitting next to Spike on the double leather seat.
He stared at Spike. Before everything, he possibly wouldn’t have felt okay with just looking at him the way he was. Nerves around Spike were normal beforehand. Now, even with Spike feeling the stare and looking back over at Xander, catching his eye and raising an eyebrow, Xander didn’t look away. He had the right to stare, dammit. If it actually was how he thought it might be, and Sweet had brought back Spike instead of Anya. Bastard. Both of them. Sweet for gypping him, Spike for sitting there, sipping tea. Making polite talk with Giles. When did Spike ever do polite?
Xander’s fist connected with Spike’s jaw with more force than he thought it would, giving the angle in which it connected. He was mildly impressed, then disgusted with himself as he’d sworn not to do that anymore. Violent expressions of his emotions were not the way to deal with things. Only, where Spike was concerned, it seemed it was. There was shocked silence from everyone, not just Spike, as Xander watched him work his jaw. Although, come to think of it, Spike didn’t look that shocked.
“Do that again, I’ll hit you back. And I hit harder than you.”
That was it. Xander couldn’t help it. He smiled at Spike and agreed, feeling lighter than he’d felt since his home had been swallowed by hell.
Kissing was something Xander had always liked to do. He missed kissing. He was musing on such topics as Anya and kissing as he sat in the library the next night. Not being someone who read all that much, Xander appreciated the library in the house for purely aesthetic reasons. It’s warm woods and deep cushioned chairs, its bookcases with books he’d never touch, made him feel comfortable. Possibly something to do with the first library he’d spent any worthwhile time in. He twisted the small bit of metal he held in his hands and tried to figure out where to slide the next piece to undo the puzzle. He’d already worked out the three other pieces sitting on the table in front of him and was planning on sitting there until he’d worked out the seven that were left. A surprisingly useful and non-embarrassing, homecoming present from Andrew. Xander had been touched. He didn’t think he’d ever treated Andrew all that well.
Thinking still, slipping the next piece around another then cursing when it locked the puzzle up tight, he didn’t look up when someone walked into the library and was only a little irked when that person paused at seeing him then continued on to the books. That caught his attention. Moving his eye but not his head, he tensed, watching Spike seemingly search for a particular book and find it, pulling it out of the bookcase and running an appreciative finger over the spine. When Spike looked over at Xander, his eye was back on his puzzle, like it had never moved. Xander entertained the idea that he’d managed to get away with that move for about one second. Spike came over and sat down in the chair opposite Xander with a calmness Xander could not say he shared. Nevertheless, Xander raised his head to catch Spike’s eyes in acknowledgement, but found himself looking at the crown of Spike’s head as he opened the book he held. Bringing one foot up onto the chair, he propped the book onto a knee, the other leg stretching out across the floor, towards Xander. It was an action that caught Xander off guard for some reason, and made him think he’d never seen Spike look so content to be around him before. It made him feel humble and he turned his attention back to his puzzle.
Conversations with Spike were never going to be that normal. Or at least, Xander had always thought so. As Spike walked away from where Xander was making a midnight sandwich a few nights later, Xander knew with utmost certainty that Spike had changed. He wondered who this new Spike was, who had come into the kitchen, said hello, heated up blood, drunk it, said goodnight and then left, all to the accompanied deafening silence that was Xander’s own mouth doing a rather unflattering impersonation of a fish. Mentally berating himself for being rude, another thing he was trying to work on, Xander found he didn’t feel all that hungry anymore. He decided to go sit in the library and work on the eighth puzzle.
When he sat down across from Spike and flipped open the puzzle box, Spike merely flipped another page.
Right. Bombshell. Turned out Spike had been brought back by an evil law firm, not him. Right. Xander could deal. Hadn’t realised so much had come to rest on the assumption that he’d been the one to effectively ‘save’ Spike. Except he hadn’t. And it looked like he hadn’t saved Anya either. But the Spike thing hurt more. He didn’t go looking for the reason why.
*That I’m the one you’ll hold forever*
Xander was in his room, balancing his phone between ear and shoulder, looking at the calendar trying to work out when he could catch the next available flight to Russia. Seems his days of rest were over, and he was back on Slayer finding duty. Which was fine with him really. He liked being useful. He’d been to Russia once before, and was glad Giles handled all the necessary paperwork for travel insurance and passports.
He got off the phone after making a booking for the red eye flight in two weeks time, looking up and jumping a little at seeing Spike standing in the doorway.
There was a noticeable pause. “Chilly this time of year. If I remember correctly. Humid though. Take an umbrella.” Spike turned and left.
Xander frowned and looked down at his bed, dropping the phone near the calendar. Realising as he looked at the dates, that Spike had been visiting them for close on three months. No one had said anything.
“Spike’s living here, isn’t he?”
“You mean you didn’t know?”
“I was told he was visiting.”
“For three months?”
“It’s been known to happen.”
“So why ask now? Maybe he’s still visiting.”
“No. He’s not.”
“He’s living here.”
“Yes. Problem with that?”
“Actually, not so surprisingly.”
“Are you hiding a smile?”
“Why would I be doing that?”
“I don’t think I want to know.”
“Yes. Living in ignorance has its benefits.”
“I hate it when you’re a smart-ass Dawn.”
“Don’t insult me, Xander. Or I’ll use my smart-ass skills for evil instead of good.”
“You’re smiling again.”
The night before his flight to St. Petersburg saw Xander sitting back in the library, only this time without Spike. Truth be told, it felt weird. They’d started a kind of ritual, to Xander’s way of thinking. Spike read, Xander did his puzzles. He’d finished them all, but at a loss as to what to do to keep sitting there, he’d started them over again. Tonight, Xander felt at a loose end. The seat across from him was empty and the puzzles lacked their usual appeal. His eye fell on the book Spike was currently reading, laying next to the puzzle box. Leaning over, he picked it up.
A few seconds later, he sighed and realised no matter what his intentions had been, here was yet another book destined never to be read by one Xander Harris.
“Sorry ‘Tartuffe’, you and I are not to be. It’s just not fated.” He reached forward to place the book back where Spike had left it.
“Surely you’re not giving up so easily?”
Xander turned quickly to look up at Spike who, sneaky bastard that he was, had crept up to stand on Xander’s blind side, his hand resting on the chair’s back, near Xander’s head. Xander tried to scowl for effect but failed,
“I’m sorry to disappoint, but yeah, I am. Never been a book person. Not patient enough.”
Spike scoffed as he moved around from the side of the chair to his own, “Patient enough for those bloody puzzles though. Infernal things that they are.”
“You’ve tried to do them?” Xander couldn’t help the pleased thrill that thought gave him. Spike shrugged,
“One or two. Would say I’m not patient enough for them,” he replied glibly, picking up his book and opening it to the bookmark. He looked at Xander with a half smirk. Xander held up a hand,
“Fair enough.” He brought the puzzle box closer to him, “Maybe I’ll teach you one day.”
“Teach me now.”
“Teach me now.” Spike didn’t wait for a reply, book back on the table and big comfy heavy chair making a remarkably easy transition closer to Xander’s own, so they were touching. Spike ended up staring at Xander expectantly, his knees almost resting on Xander’s, while Xander tried to ignore the hot flush he seemed to be experiencing.
“Uh, sure.” Managing to open the box and pick up a puzzle, he then nearly dropped it when Spike’s hand closed around his and picked the pieces out of his suddenly nerveless fingers. Spike leant over the table,
“Started alright with this one, then the bugger got stuck. Didn’t want to break it on you, so I left it.” Xander could see what Spike meant when he looked down from Spike’s face to the puzzle in Spike’s hand.
“Yeah, good thing. Vamp strength would have twisted it into something that couldn’t be fixed if you’d forced it. Better to just do it gently like this,” Xander let his fingers slide over Spike’s palm as with a slow turn the puzzle twisted, ready for the next step, “See?” He was feeling a bit breathless. He looked back up at Spike, who seemed very close. Spike was looking back at him, then shifted his gaze to the puzzle,
“Don’t force it, go slow,” looked back up at Xander, “Got it.”
Xander realised their knees were touching now as they’d both leant in to the puzzle. Spike smiled.
The red eye flights were easier for Xander than normal flights for some reason. Never would have thought that all those years of staying up late saving the world, training his body with long periods of disturbed and sometimes non-existent sleep would eventually come in handy for flying. Xander was just glad he didn’t look like a zombie from ‘Night of the Living Dead’ when he stepped out of the tunnel into the arrival area, like the rest of the passengers did. He’d been there for real, almost done that. And if he felt a smile showing on his face before he could stop it, at the sight of Spike coming forward to meet him, he could blame it on the non-jetlag and no one, except possibly Spike with his answering smile, would be any the wiser.
“Just us on the way home then.” Xander’s smile grew bigger if that was at all possible.
Xander liked clean sheets. The thought was always there on his first morning waking up back home. How strange that it wasn’t strange to be calling England that anymore. Home. The smell of cloves wafted over him again as he buried his face in his pillow and breathed it in. England, home, would forever be connected to the sent of cloves for him.
“Love?” And how surprising was the feeling of comfort that swept over him whenever he heard that word, or spoke it. Surprising that it felt so good.
“Go back to sleep.” A hand stole over his bare back and tugged him closer with a gentle grip on his side.
“Come with me.”
“To Prague? Bad memories, Love. No.”
“I know, but. It’s only for a few weeks.”
“Few weeks too long. Don’t go.”
“I have to.”
“Do not. Bloody Watcher.”
“Not his fault.”
“It is if I say it is.”
“Come with me. Spike? Please.”
A grumbled, “Few weeks only?”
“Yeah. Willow said Giles promised and that he really is sorry about landing himself in the hospital but they really need this thing and I’m the only one who...”
“Not the only one, there’s plenty of others...”
“The only one he trusts, Spike. He trusts me. I want to go.”
“You said that already.”
“I’ll say it again too, because it’s true. Frickin’ bloody pompous arsehole plank of a Watcher.”
“Come with me. Only a few weeks.”
“Willow said it would only take...”
“I don’t ruddy care what Red told you. You. Promise. Me. Only. Two. Weeks.”
“What if it...”
A sigh, “Two weeks.”
A pointed look. Another sigh, “I promise, Spike, we will only be in Prague for two weeks.”
“Alright then. Get packing.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“You promised. Good enough for me.”
“I’ll show you the Kinsky Palace in Old Town, Love.”
“Most beautiful Rococo building in Prague. Reckon you’ll like it.”