Xander stared into the dark grey water streaming about one hundred feet below the bridge.
This was for the best. He really didn't have a reason to go on anymore.
Anya was gone. Dead in the last battle, dead because she was human, dead because of him. The Scoobies were gone, far away in England, after insisting that he join them, but guiltily relieved when he'd categorically refused. Not that he could blame them; it must have been horrible to see the silly joking boy they liked so much turn into a depressed, pseudo-widower cripple. The job was gone. No building company wanted a site foreman, or even a carpenter, with no depth perception. And he really wasn't good at anything else. He'd tried to work in a colorant factory for a while, but he'd eventually quit without getting anything from it. Well, aside from maybe orange lungs. The last of the money he'd got from the Sunnydale destruction indemnity, he'd spent on buying a bottle of whisky to give himself courage.
Yeah, here he was, in Cleveland's unforgiving winter, a drunk, unemployed cripple about to commit suicide on Christmas. At the venerable age of not even 23. Must be some kinda record.
He barked a drunken laugh at the irony of the whole situation, ignoring the few finely dressed passer-by's who glared at him. Not even his father had reduced himself to this point. Last he'd heard of him, he was in Florida, living on the indemnity and on his cousin's charity.
He glared at the cheerful lightings, at the feasting people and at the beautiful snow. What right did they have to be so jolly, when he was about to kill himself? Didn't they know that if it hadn't been for him, they'd all be dead by now?
No, obviously they didn't. They weren't supposed to.
And moreover, it wasn't like he had saved the world. He had got himself a poked-out eye and a humiliating rescue from Dawn, of all people. Oh, yeah, and a dead ex-fiancée.
Andrew had long taken his place as the funny, food-bearing geek, and it was all right like this.
The Scoobies wouldn't miss him as much like this. He only hoped that by killing himself, he wouldn't ruin their Christmas. The last disaster.
Nah. With this cold and this wind, he wouldn't be found before next year.
He took one last swig from the bottle, then let it fall from his limp hand. It didn't even shatter.
He snickered at his nth and last failure, then shrugged and braced his hands on the railing to climb over it.
"You really sure you want to do it, mate?"
Xander's head whipped around. His droopy eye widened as he recognised the too-familiar smirk.
The white head cocked on the side, bright blue eyes regarding him intently.
"Water looks bloody cold, you know... not very wise to take a bath at this time of the year. Well, not here anyway."
"S-Spike?" Xander clung to the railing in utter shock. Oh God. What-? He was dead. He had already fallen off the bridge or he'd stumbled under a car and he was already dead and he hadn't realised and Spike was here to tell him.
The Vampire chuckled. "That we established, Pet. Now we're moving on to why you shouldn't try bungee jumping without the big fancy elastic or you wanna know how I get this wonderful hair colour?"
"But you're... you're dead, how--?" Then it hit him. Xander laughed. Of course. Delirium tremens. Well, at least a hallucination. He'd drunk too much and it was just so damn cold and this was the last step before he went down for good.
"Lo-look Spook" he managed to babble between incontrollable guffaws, "ju-just fuck off while I kill myself and then feel f-free to torment me for all eternity, okay? Ju-just too fucking fair... what else could my pu-punishment be? Aaahhh..." He swayed and leaned over the balustrade.
Spike waited for Xander to straighten, then walked into his personal space and grabbed his chin.
"No Harris, I'm not some drunk-ass sexy vision. I'm really here, and I'm here to tell you that you're about to do the stupidest thing in your whole life. And that's really saying everything."
Xander blinked into the steely pools that were Spike's eyes. "Oh yeah? You told me. Now fuck the fuck hell off. I've got stuff to do." He tried to pry himself from the unearthly strong grip, but failed. It was funny how he was scared by the arcane presence, when thirty seconds ago he'd tried to convince it not to disturb him while he killed himself.
"Can not do, Pet. The world would be much too boring of a place without you. Moreover, I have orders."
Xander laughed again. "You?!? You have orders? And you wanna tell me you're going to follow them?!? Oh please, Spike! What the Hell is going on? And by the way, what the fuck are you now?"
Spike smirked. "There. That's how I like my Harris. All struggly and diffident."
"Your Harris?!? I'm not fucking yours, Spike! Now let me go!"
Spike didn't seem eager to let him go, though. "I'm not letting you go until I decide you're sober enough not to behave like a complete idiot, Xander. And I thought you wanted to know what was going on."
Xander reluctantly quit his attempts at freeing himself. "So," he muttered grudgingly, "What?"
Spike grinned maniacally. "I'm your Clarence."
Ooookay. Spike had lost it. Let's humor him. "Sorry, what did you just say you are?"
"Your Clarence. You know, Clarence Oddbody, from It's A Wonderful Life? Just pretend you're Jimmy Stewart."
Xander blinked owlishly at him, then began to giggle.
Spike frowned. "You know, considering you were about to kill yourself, you are laughing a lot."
Xander actually leaned his forehead against the Vampire's shoulder as he kept giggling. "So- sorry! Sorry! It's-it's just... heee, heh heh heh heeeeh! You're an-an-an Angel, you're here to-to show me how the-the World would have been wi-without me, and-and then what... you-you get your wings?!?" At that thought, another burst of giggles muted him.
Spike assumed a very solemn and outraged _expression. "I'll have you know, Harris," he stated, his chin slightly raised, "that that's exactly how it works., besides the wings."
Xander cocked his head. "Oh really? No pretty fluffy flying thingies? What's in it for you then?"
The trade mark smirk returned to grace the pale features. "Oh, believe me, whelp. I do get something from this whole thing. No way I'd be strolling around acting like a bloody poof for nothing, right?"
"What's that?" Xander asked, suddenly feeling very sober. Very... Scoobie.
The white head shook. "Huh huh Pet, that's a little secret of mine, be a good boy and I might decide to share it later, mmmhhh?"
Xander studied the lithe form before him for a second, then shrugged. "Whatever. Not like I really believe you anyway. I'm just dreaming, or the girls have found a way to get you back, just like Angel and you asked to have some fun with me before they told me. Either way, I don't care. I didn't have plans for the evening, so I might just as well humor you, yeah? I wanna see how this goes."
Again the wolfish grin, and this time a benevolent pat on the side of his arm. "That's the spirit, Pet. Let's just go then, huh? The landscape's beginning to bore me."
Spike began to walk towards one end of the bridge, his coat flapping in the icy wind. Just then Xander noticed that Spike wore the usual, very Summer-friendly outfit: black leather duster, black cotton t-shirt, black jeans. Xander, himself, was wearing a pile shirt and a heavy windbreaker. And still he was freezing. Okay, maybe Vampires couldn't die of pneumonia, but Hell...
"Hey, Clarence," he called as he trotted to reach Spike's side, "aren't you feeling a little cold?"
"Just walk, suicide boy" the smaller man chuckled, "They say it helps to keep warm."
"Ooookay. Not that I care anyway."
They walked in silence until they reached the street corner, then Spike motioned for him to enter a bar.
"What's up, Spike? Wanna have a drink before the angelic mission?"
Spike turned to watch him as he entered, but his eyes wore no annoyance. Actually, they looked sad. "Nah, Pet. Seems they already drink a bit too much in this place."
Xander followed him into the tavern, and threw a look around. He stopped dead in his tracks and didn't even try to shrug Spike's hand off his shoulder, where it had just laid.
This wasn't a bar.
This was the living room of his old house.
And that was his father.
Xander began to back away from the scene of his father pulling his pants on as he drunkenly wandered towards the kitchen, leaving a battered and naked boy to lie on the floor.
"O-okay, Spike" he whispered brokenly, "Got it. No suicide. Let's go now, huh?"
He didn't want this to happen. He had never wanted this to happen. Yet it had happened, all the times his father felt like it. At least he didn't want anyone to know it. Least of all Spike.
The hand on his shoulder tightened, but not in a restraining way: Spike was offering the minimum comfort he could give without Xander feeling his dignity crushed by it.
The Vampire followed the drunk rapist with his eyes until he disappeared behind the living room threshold, eyes golden with fury, lips a thin white line. Then he turned to the prone form, and the golden fury bled out of the blue, pitiful gaze. As he faced the present version of the boy, his whole features softened.
"Sorry, Xan. I hate to do this. But you really have to see."
Xander averted his gaze from Spike's sympathetic one to his younger self, and watched as he shakily rose and collected his torn clothes, and then limped to the bathroom. Great. Not only now someone, Spike, knew about that, but the Vampire, the man he'd hated above everyone, even pitied him. And this was just the beginning.
Just immediately after younger Xander had walked out of his sight, the older one heard his father shout, then a scream, and a rustling noise. What? Hadn't it been enough? Usually it was...
In that moment, Xander's mother stumbled into the room. Her face was a mask of blood. As she screamed, he could see she was missing several teeth. His father came back into view, this time bearing a baseball bat. As his mother fell to the ground and curled into a ball, raising her hands above her head to protect herself and pleading with her husband to stop, his father approached her and prepared to strike.
Xander tried to run and help his mother, shield her, whatever. The hand resting on his shoulder stopped him. "What?!?" he barked as he turned to glare at the Vampire. "We have to help her!!!"
Spike shook his head, a grim expression on his face. "There's nothing we can do. We are not even really here. All we can do is watch, Xander. Do you think that bastard would still be in one piece if I could help it?"
Xander turned back to stare at the horrible scene. Tony Harris hit his wife. He hit her again. And again, and again and again, until Xander lost count of the times, his attention completely taken by his mother being beaten to a pulp. Even as she stopped moving, his father kept hitting her, all the time shouting obscenities at her.
He only stopped when someone banged loudly at the front door. "Police! Open this door immediately!!!"
"Fuck off! None of your business! It's between me and the bitch!" his father slurrily shouted back.
"Open the door NOW!!!"
A loud crash, and two officers were instantly in the room, their guns ready to shoot. The second officer, probably a new recruit, gasped "Oh shit" as he saw the bloody woman on the ground, but the first shouted: "Put that bat down, now!"
Tony raised the bat to attack the intruders.
The first officer shot him in the elbow, which shuttered with a sick sound.
But the second, too young and too scared, opened two holes in the man's forehead.
The drunk man fell to the ground like a sawed tree, the bat still raised above his head.
The first officer turned to glare furiously at his inexpert comrade, then rushed to feel Jessica Harris' pulse.
"Sh-should I call an ambulance?" the second policeman asked tremblingly.
The older man shook his head.
"It's no use. She's dead."
"No!" Xander screamed, as he tried to free himself from Spike's hold. "No! No! NO!!!"
"Xander, Xander calm down! It's not--" "We have to help her!" the younger man pleaded, straining to touch his mother. "There must be something we can do, we can't just--"
Spike interrupted the bigger man by taking his head between his hands, and forced him to look him in the eye as he stated: "It's not real, Xan. It never happened. Never. She's fine, she's in Florida and as happy as she can be. So's that unworthy piece of shit, but what's important is that this. Never. Happened. Look."
Pale hands turned a more pliant head so that Xander could see what was before them. They were still standing outside the bar door. They had never even really entered.
Xander sagged against Spike, weak with the relief that washed over him. The smaller man held him with no effort at all, but the moment Xander noticed their position, he shoved Spike off.
"What the fuck are you playing at, you bastard?!?"
Spike ignored the insult. He could see how upset the boy was. "I'm not playing at anything, Xander. I did nothing but what I told you I would: I showed you what would have happened if you weren't born."
Realisation hit Xander: this sure as Hell wasn't a joke. And it really didn't feel like a hallucination. So Spike was really--?
The white-haired man let a minute pass in silence as he allowed Xander to absorb the blow, then continued, speaking as clearly as he could: "This would have happened to your family if you weren't born. Your father wouldn't have anyone but your mother to take out his rage and frustration on, and he would have eventually killed her."
Again, Spike remained silent for a while, as he saw emotions, doubts and pain scroll behind the deep eye. Finally he cocked his head and asked: "Got it now?"
Xander looked intently at him for a while, listening to the loud and fast thumping of his own heart. Then he composed himself and shrugged. "Okay, so what? He had fun with me, mum's fine. Wasn't completely useless. Big deal. I am now, though. So if you don't mind, I have an appointment with Miss Cuyahoga."
He turned to walk away, but he knew that this was a bluff and that probably, Spike knew too: the fright had sobered him, and now what had seemed so easy would be impossible again. He was booked for another pathetic Christmas. Yay.
"Not so fast, boy." Spike had appeared right before him. Xander jumped, but hid it well, and added some snark for good measure. "Getting all cool special effects boy, huh? Good for you. Have a nice Christmas, entertain a coupla Demons down at Willy's new bar. See if I care."
"You really still don't get it, eh whelp? That's not the point. Today's lesson is, you must not die. World still needs you. We just got started."
"Oh neat, the world needs me. To do what? Nail my hand to a wall when I want to hang a picture? Walk into some more doorjambs? Get my ass kicked by some yucky Demon? Oh wait, I know" he added, his face a mockery of an "Eureka" one "I could be the Bane of Vengeance Demons! Sure, I do something stupid, they come, they try to curse me, they fail and become human and then they get killed! That'd be great! I'd save all the unfaithful men on the globe! Tell you what, though, Blondie: I watched too much Discovery Channel. It's never good to destroy a whole species, as annoying as it can be. It messes all the balance up."
With that, Xander sidestepped Spike and tried to walk away again.
"Anya sends her greetings."
The dark-haired man stopped dead in his tracks. He swallowed several gulps of icy, snowy air to calm himself and to stop the tears from flowing, then stated out, without turning: "Don't. You. Dare. Speak. Her. Name."
Spike did the appearing trick once again. "I'm not kidding. Me and her, we were in the same place. But I got bored of the white peaceful thing, moreover I still had a couple accounts to close. So I was sent here, and she told me to say "Hi" from her before I went. Well, she didn't actually say anything. Little hard when one doesn't have a mouth. But the point is, this is from her."
With that, Spike leant in and posed his lips on Xander's.
As the mouth under his opened in shock, he delicately entered it with his tongue, and when the broad body tried to push him away, he embraced it tenderly, but strongly.
Abruptly, all struggles ceased. Xander didn't feel Spike's cool lips on his anymore, and for a few moments he forgot he was even kissing him: something was happening. Bright light exploded behind his eyelids, and he could see it with both eyes, included the one he'd lost. A dazzling sense of warmth crept across his whole body, and a sense of pure peace, and pure love, spread in his chest.
It was an Epiphany.
Suddenly, without knowing how, he was aware of the fact that Anya had never felt pure love, or tasted real life, before she'd met him. He felt her serenity at having done the right thing by abandoning her demonic mission, and her joy at having known how being loved, and to love for simple love's sake, was. He experienced her wonder at discovering every single, irrelevant, human thing, and her satisfaction as she deciphered meanings she'd never cared about before. He felt sorrow and fear and pain, too, from Joyce's death, from him leaving her, from being in danger, getting hurt and eventually dying, but those feelings were like black velvet that made diamonds which had been put on it shine more brightly. He felt her relief at the realisation of death being only a passage, and the peacefulness she felt when she'd accepted it as something inevitable. And finally, finally he felt her love and gratitude for him, who had given her all of this, a gift no amount of the money she'd liked so much could have ever bought.
Then the sensations vanished, leaving behind some of the warmth and light they'd brought, along with a serene feeling of acceptance and closure to soothe his sorrow and guilt.
Now he was in the blizzard again, Spike's lips against his, the strong arms embracing his body.
He knew that Spike knew that Anya's message had been completely delivered, but the soft lips lingered for one more moment on his before they retreated. The arms, though, kept holding him, maybe in case his legs would betray him. He felt like it could happen. Especially since he'd just realised that he wasn't so sorry about Spike dithering before releasing his lips.
As the pale man leaned back from the kiss he regarded the young man intently, almost bracing himself for the straight macho act, but Xander was regarding him with an _expression of deep wonder.
"Wow" the taller man breathed out.
Spike nodded in agreement. "All right?" He received only a shaky nod in answer, but took his arms off the almost completely recovered man.
"See? If you'd died, you'd never felt that. You die now, how many things like that will you miss? Worth a thought, ain't it?"
Instead of the snarky reply he'd expected, he only got another nod. This was going better than he'd thought. "Good. You all right with seeing more then?"
Spike just chuckled and led the way. This time they stopped before a Nightclub. The Vampire didn't enter immediately. "Sure you're fine?" he asked, concerned by his companion's unnatural silence.
Xander nodded again, but this time he also asked: "I'm not gonna like what I see, am I?"
"No pet. But it'll help eventually."
"First time didn't feel very helpful, Spike."
"That's why you have to see it all to really get it. Look, I know it hurts, Xander. I don't like it much more than you do. But this I can tell: nothing here is being done to hurt you; it's to make you better, alright?"
There was an actual question in Spike's eyes, and although Xander felt the temptation to say no, just to see what would happen if he didn't agree, he eventually gave in and conceded: "Okay, let's go. But if I barf on your precious coat, it'll just be fair."
Genuine alarm appeared on the beautiful features. "You wouldn't dare."
Blue eyes narrowed. "Well, since you're fine enough to risk your bollocks, I think we're ready to go." And with that, Spike stormed into the local.
Xander followed with a snicker, but all his good humour disappeared as he realised he was now in the Bronze, and saw what was happening in a corner.
"Jesse, man, don't make me do this."
Xander watched with morbid fascination and crescent dread as sentences he'd remember for all his life where punctually spoken.
He screamed as his best friend disappeared in a cloud of dust, then everything went black for a second.
He felt long arms help him to remain on his feet. "Xander..."
"Back off, leech" he gritted out through clenched teeth "I'm not in a very Vampire-friendly mood right now."
Xander opened his eye, and saw a completely un-Bronzy landscape. Only, it was the Bronze. As if it'd been in the twisted nightmare of a Vampire, though.
The Bronze was full with Vampires.
Oh well, okay then...
In the corner, a leather-clad, gamefaced Jesse leaned coolly against a wall, while an equally leathered up brunette was eagerly giving him a blow-job.
Another Vampire approached him. "Your toy's requested, boy."
Jesse sneered at the newcomer. "Yeah? Well, she's busy now. And, oh yeah, she's also mine."
The Vampire simply grabbed the woman by an arm and hauled her on her feet, then led her towards a red velvet curtain, without even glancing back at the unsatisfied fledging as he replied. "Yeah? Well, she's neither of that now."
"Hey!" Jesse exclaimed, outraged, and fumbled his erection back in his pants as he followed.
"Hey!" he repeated once he got behind the heavy cloth, "Hey, big guy, you can't do that! I hunted her on my own, it's just not fair that--"
Xander didn't even have the time to wonder how he'd got behind the curtain too, without moving a step. A clawed hand shot out from behind the backrest of an ornate chair and grabbed Jesse by the throat. Its twin reached into the gasping mouth and tore his tongue out, then held it for the screaming Vampire to see.
"Watch your tongue, boy" a cavernous voice hissed.
Then the hand threw carelessly the bloody appendage away and twisted Jesse's head off his neck.
Before the dust even settled, one of the hands beckoned the brunette from before closer, and as she came into the light, Xander could recognise the twisted features of a gamefaced Cordelia.
As his once-girlfriend eagerly raised her leather miniskirt and happily prepared to ride the thing that had just killed who had made her, Xander heard a voice he knew too well coming from the thing's lap.
"What about me?"
One of the hands patted the pouty, wet gameface of the redhead who'd spoken.
The thing leaned closer to her as it passed her a set of keys, and with a shiver Xander recognised the Master.
"You've been good, Willow," the Master cooed as Cordelia began to ride him, "Go play with Puppy."
Willow whooped and ran toward a door.
Xander turned a horrified gaze to Spike. "No" he whispered desperately, "This can't be, right? Buffy..."
Spike just looked at him sadly, then turned his eyes towards something placed on a stool right before the Master's throne.
The features were twisted by decomposition, but he recognised them anyway.
He tried, he really tried.
But he couldn't avoid throwing up at the sight of Buffy's mummified head.
He felt a cool hand rest on his forehead, and raised his eye to meet Spike's anguished ones.
"No, it didn't happen." The Vampire's voice trembled despite his words. "But it would if you hadn't been there. Jesse would have thought he was very powerful just because he had fangs, and would have turned Cordelia into a mindless sex toy. But he was only a minion, as powerful as a kitten in a cage full of lions. And eventually the lions would have eaten him."
Xander regarded his best friend's bloody tongue lying on the ground, then Cordelia getting it on with the Master.
He averted a disgusted eye from the scene and its meaning and breathed: "Willow..."
"The Master would have felt her power, and he'd turned her into his pupil."
"But... but Buffy killed him!"
"He'd killed her before, remember? Only this time, no-one revived her. Hell, no-one even went to help her! The bloody poof just sat whimpering in his posh Zen apartment until they came and transformed him into "Puppy"!" Spike jerked his head toward the door Willow had disappeared in, a furious _expression on his face, which turned sad again as he shook his head and murmured: "They went back to get her body after the tosser rose. He wanted her to be a warning to everyone who would want to mess with him. Giles... Giles faced him to avenge her, but he was fortunate. The Master just tore his heart out and threw him away."
Spike put his best nonchalant face on and shrugged. "Or better, that's what would have happened if you hadn't saved her. But you did, and now we're all happy, alright?"
Xander closed his eye and shook his head. "Just... let's get out of here, okay, Spike? Please."
The older man nodded, relieved by the request, himself. "Sure, Pet."
Xander welcomed the cold snow that soothed his hot face.
"This is not fair," he croaked as he cupped his hands to collect some snow into them. He washed his mouth with it and spit it out. "This is just not fucking fair. You can't show me all this, you don't slap he few good things that I did in my life and blackmail me with what could still happen: shouldn't it be a good reason to stop now? While I still have some dignity? Or do I have to wither in some alley peeing on myself and muttering about how I used to save the world from Demons until some Nazi or Pneumonia kill me?!?"
Spike shook his head. "You know, it really won't take with me. I know you're a lot smarter than you pretend to be. You know perfectly well what the point is."
Xander stared at him for a second, then shook his own head. "First you kiss me, and okay, that I can let pass. But now, hey, compliments? Nah, I'm dreaming. Or I'm dead and this is my private Hell, whatever. Never mind, takes more than that to convince me to take more of this shit. I'm off. Say "Hi" to Saint Peter, or Saint Vigeus, for all I care."
"Is that it? You see something you don't like, you just sign off? Oh, wait, yes. That's what you do."
Xander turned and marched right into Spike's personal space. "Oh really? Yeah sure, that's what I do. That's why I didn't help Buffy after Jesse died, or when she became a bitch 'cause she couldn't stand having died, or why I refused to take your skinny cold ass into my home after you'd tried to kill us all, or why I didn't just drive away when Caleb took my eye-"
"But you walked away after the battle, didn't you? Can't blame you. You've lost a lot in these years. Anya was just too much, wasn't she? You don't want to risk seeing Buffy and Willow or Giles die now, right? Now that they have enough help that they don't need yours, but not enough so they just can quit the fight. You thought you could live the next boring, quiet life, didn't you? When they told you that you could but they wouldn't, that's when you broke. I can see that. Hell, maybe I would have left. To you, it must have seemed the worst of jokes..."
"You done Freuding me?"
"I'm not Fr-- that's not even a word, Xander! Bloody Sodding Hell, you really don't get it, eh? Too bad, you're in for an ugly ride mate..."
"I'm not in for any fucking ride, Spike. I'm leaving. And this time you'd better not fucking following me, or--"
Spike's laughter interrupted Xander's manly exit. "Or what, boy? You punch me like the big American macho you are? Please. I could snap your neck before you even realise I got closer. And stop this diva shit, saying we go on then getting the entire sulky "going home with your toys" act. You know you won't leave. You don't get to leave. See, Power's are pesky gits. Sometimes they give you one greasy chance and if you miss it, you spend the rest of your life regretting it, sometimes they just won't leave you alone until you get it, willing or not. And that's our case. Which means I get to hunt you until I drive you crazy, and I'm still in the good boys ranks. So what do you say, we acting like the adults we are, or are you going to keep playing the petulant kid and me the scary ghost? 'Cause you really never saw me getting scary, boy, and you so don't want there to be a first time."
Xander gritted his teeth. "Fine. Let's dig into any decent deed I ever managed to do in all my life and turn it into crap, why don't we? By all means, I think I've lost my last bit of dignity the moment you saw how my darling daddy found me entertaining. And don't you dare verbalize a syllable about it, I don't need anyone's pity, especially not yours. But let's clear one thing: I'm not doing this 'cause I'm scared of you, I'm doing this because the idea of having your unbearable nattering in my big ears for the rest of my life is a lot more annoying than the Hell you're making me go through with your fancy visions. And don't you dare saying a word about having to pass through Hell to gain Heaven, 'cause I've read about the Divine Comedy in High School, too, and I hate when people take me for an ignorant dork. No jokes allowed," the dark-haired man interrupted when he saw the other open his mouth.
Spike just smiled, and shook his head raising his hands in a mockery of surrender and peace offering.
Xander nodded, relieved that the Vampire had allowed him to pretend he was in control. "Good. Where now?"
A pale hand motioned them towards the more repaired and populated streets, where many shops where still open for the last, conspicuous Christmas purchases. One brown eye rolled. "Oh come on Spike. And you're talking about behaving like kids. You may talk, just hold back the wise man philosophical trips, they just don't suit you."
"Oi! I'll have you know I was very good at philosophy when I went to school!"
"Great. One more piece of information I don't care about. No wonder you were good at something useless. Lead the way, Socrates."
Spike bit back the reply he'd be about to spit and slammed a video store door open.
Xander took a deep breath and exhaled it, then entered.
He managed to remain still and silent at the grim view of Angelus, entering undisturbed into a fevering Buffy's hospital room as she slept, stuffing her mouth with a silk handkerchief and breaking all her limbs, then breaking her jaw, replacing the cloth in her mouth with his erection and raping her like this until her weakened body succumbed and she died suffocated. At that point he whipped his head toward an equally sickened Spike, bit out "Are we finished here?" and stormed off immediately after having received a curt nod.
"You know," Spike casually said after Xander quit dry-retching in the snow, "he came back that night pissed off as I rarely had seen him before. He kept sneering and saying that the White Night had saved the Sleeping Bitch, but he never came back. He was so furious at the idea that you'd faced him down."
Xander nodded, feeling a little better thanks to the cold air. After a while he snickered.
"What?" the Vampire asked confused.
"I even gave Buffy the flowers he'd brought. She said I was very nice."
At that, both men gave way to a round of very childish snickering.
"That's the mood, Pet. Keep thinking about what happened, and just use what you see to finish the puzzle."
"I remember puzzles. Puzzles don't include men with their dicks- oh, I don't want to know" Xander sternly concluded at Spike's tell-tale look.
But when Spike stopped before a hardware store, he entered first.
He found himself in the old High School basement, just in time to see a house-made bomb display the last three seconds before it exploded, no-one there to interrupt its deathly count.
He shielded himself by instinct, but he didn't even feel the slightest vibration, although the sound was deafening. When he turned to watch, he saw that the room had now changed into the familiar library.
The explosion had clearly turned the tables of the fight with the Hellmouth Beast. He had just enough time to see Angel's pained and shocked expression before he dissolved into ashes, his heart pierced by the frame of an exploded window.
Buffy screamed at the sight of her dying love, and didn't see the tentacle that wrapped around her head. It roughly hoisted her up, and a crunching sound was barely heard in the scream-filled area.
When the tentacle released the Slayer's body, Xander could see that nothing but a bloody, unrecognisable pulp remained of her head.
Xander didn't have the time to mourn: Willow's scream made him whip his head around, just in time to see another vicelike appendage sever her body in two neat halves.
Giles saw just then what had been of the girls he considered as daughters, and with a rage-wild war cry threw himself at the huge creature, that drove another tentacle through him with the sharpness of a katana.
Giles fell on his knees, then on his side. He began to crawl towards Buffy's mangled body, but barely managed to reach an outstretched hand. "My... Slayer" Xander got to hear him whisper. "My... beautiful... brave girl... so... sorry..." Then the green eyes glazed out, and Xander and Spike turned to see the Beast crawl out of the Hellmouth with obscene effort, giving way to thousands of smaller beings that Xander was very happy to have never imagined before.
Feeling the need to abstract himself from the mind-blowing scene, he turned to Spike and shouted above the infernal noises: "What about Faith? She was here too!!!"
"No" shouted back Spike "Demon bitch got her, remember? You weren't there and your car wasn't either!!!"
Xander turned to watch the Demons swarm out -literally, since many of them had wings- of the window, and realised that it was whole again, as was the library, although deserted of all books. All the Demons, included the Beast, were gone.
"What...?" The dark-haired man looked at Spike for explanation. "What sent them away?" he asked, his voice back to a normal level.
"Nothing. This is just not that night anymore. As a matter of fact, it's not even night. Look" he gestured towards the window.
Xander approached it and saw that although outside it was still dark, what looked like a flaming ring could be seen in the sky. He didn't need to glance at the rows of students sitting in front of a talking guy to understand that this was the day of the Mayor's Ascension.
As the man in question became a huge snake, Xander realised what made this scene different from the real one: all the student were screaming and trying to run away, just to fall in the unwelcoming arms of the Vampires waiting for them.
No-one had organised them into an army.
He saw Willow trying to throw a weak spell at the Demon, just to follow Larry's fate and get her spine broken by the enormous, lashing tail.
Buffy realised too late how desperate the situation was: she shouted at the top of her lungs: "Giles! Do it!" Before she was swallowed whole by the Mayor.
The library around Spike and Xander exploded, and they could see Giles stand in the flashlight just before the blast swept him away, as it did with all of the students that, this time, couldn't escape.
Then everything became fire.
Xander was panicking: not only had he seen an explosion from within, something that could seem appealing only to a six-year-old psycho, but he didn't know how to get out of it: there had always been a door or Spike to show him where the exit was, but now he couldn't see either.
All he saw were flames.
He cried in surprise and fear as he felt something grab him by the hood of his windbreaker and haul him backwards, but then he was in Cleveland's Winter, hanging onto Spike, whose hand was still gripping his jacket, for dear life.
He didn't let go for a while, knowing that his whole "I hate Spike and everything that concerns him" attitude was being irremediably compromised now, but too shocked to care. And anyway, damn, they had kissed, so what the Heck?
"Oh m-my G-God" he stuttered when he regained some control, "I n-never want to d-do that ag-gain! What the-the Hell... Spike thank-k God you were th-there, I was lost, there was f-fire everywhere..."
"I know, Pet, I know... I've seen it. Sorry, couldn't warn you. Sodding rules." The deep voice sounded slightly guilty and amused, but not mocking. Xander was extremely relieved to hear that, mostly because he didn't plan to let his safe, pretty Vampire anchor go for the following, ah, three Centuries.
'Pretty?!?' Xander let go of the safe, pretty Vampire anchor immediately.
"O-Okay" he squeaked. "What now?"
A scarred eyebrow raised, but Spike simply pointed a finger towards a cheap gift shop, like a diligent boy to whom someone had asked a piece of information.
"Good! There we go then! Another round, another pressie and all that stuff, huh?" The younger man walked a little too eagerly, and too cheerily, towards their next stop.
"Ah, Xander, you sure you don't want to put your head, I don't know, in the snow, for a moment? I didn't feel any heat from the fire but maybe you--"
"No! Why? I'm fine! Really! Just let's go and see what's next, okay? Come on Spike, your ass got full of lead all of a sudden?"
"No, did your head?"
"Ah ah, come on, I'm getting bored here!" And without waiting for Spike, Xander entered the shop.
"May I help you?" the clerk behind the counter asked, her smile wavering only for a second at the sight of the eye patch marring the otherwise handsome face.
Xander stared at her as if she'd just took her human mask off to reveal green features and had demanded to be taken to the Earth leader.
"Huh... sorry..." Xander answered, trying to recover fast. "I... kinda saw... someone I... I thought I saw someone I know..."
The clerk swept her puzzled gaze around the momentarily deserted shop.
"I mean," Xander smiled in what he hoped was a winning, or at least reassuring way, "I thought I had recognised you... from High School... but I was wrong... sorry to bother you. Good evening."
"Merry Christmas" beamed the clerk, relieved that she hadn't to deal with some maniac.
"Yeah" Xander replied eloquently as he got out and closed the door behind him.
He stood looking at Spike with rigid nonchalance.
The Vampire returned his gaze in silence for a second, just as if he'd actually been waiting for Xander to go in the shop to buy something and then come out.
"That was brilliant Pet." he finally stated with solemnity.
"Found something you liked?"
"It was all pretty tacky, but stuff was cheap so there really is no point in complaining. The clerk, though, was pretty and kind."
"Those are rare nowadays."
"They are." Xander paused, then: "Why was there a clerk in the shop?"
"Well, they are pretty useful, you see: this way they can help costumers if they need to, moreover that tends to discourage said costumers from leaving without paying for what they bought. Works most of the times."
"That it is."
"Why was there the shop at all?"
"My modest opinion is that, as capitalistically egoistic it may seem, whoever owns the lot is interested into make it fruit, therefore they set a commercial activity up so that they could gain money thanks to it."
"Wonders of free market."
"They do have their cold advantages."
"Why wasn't it - in there - some place from my past?"
"Oh, you mean that" Spike stated, eyes wide with wonder and understanding.
"Yeah, it'd be nice to know that."
Spike dropped the solemn mask, and walked past him and to the shop door with a smirk. "This is only a shop. All the places we went to, they were only normal places. It's me who uses the doors as gates to enter the visions, so that you don't get all dazed by the shift and can focus on what's showed to you. But if I don't get to them and open the doors, you just get into the shop. See?"
Spike opened the door Xander had recently closed, revealing a huge white hall scattered with screaming people and roaring Demons. One of the creatures ran right toward the door, and Xander keenly jumped behind Spike, in case protection was needed. But as the demon reached the door, it disappeared.
Xander turned to see if some of the passers-by had noticed the chaos unchained just inside what looked like a common shop, but no-one even glanced that way.
He looked at Spike. "Are we even actually here?"
The Vampire shrugged. "Not exactly. Kinda."
"Could you have entered the shop?"
A bitter laughter answered him. "I'm dead, mate. I'm nothing but dust at the bottom of a huge crater in California, of all places I could chose to die. I'm not even really on this plane. Of course I couldn't enter. And considering the level of the shop, I'm not really complaining."
"You're not on this plane? But I can touch you. You can touch me. Am I on your plane too? Hey, does that mean that I'm dead?!? 'Cause I'd be very pissed if it came out you set all this crap on if it was pointless. Somehow perversely flattered, but pissed as Hell. Oh, no, wait, the clerk saw me. That means I'm still on my plan. I'm alive... or was that a ghost apparition?"
"Bloody Hell whelp, you're not dead, but the way you don't need to breathe, I could say you aren't! You're alive, that's for sure. I wouldn't bother this much for a joke. Since I'm on this intermediate plane to help you, you get into it too. This means you're on the living plane, but people just won't touch you or see you –not that you're incorporeal, mind you, they just won't run into you or notice you."
Xander nodded. "Getting ignored, that's something I understand. Okay. But what about the clerk?"
"You were acting like you were on a sugar rush. Had to ground you down with something. This is not a game, Xander."
"Let me check, me not existing, all those I care about getting horribly de-limbed, in more than one gruesome way... oh, okay, I believe you: not a game."
"Right, now that we established that, shall we?" Spike asked, jerking his head towards what Xander had already recognised as the Initiative headquarters.
"Sure" Xander agreed, trying to recover from the horrid figure he'd cut by acting cool.
This time they had to make their way among the fighting Demons and soldiers until they reached the door to the room Xander remembered himself, Giles and Willow performing the spell to give Buffy their strength. In the room Willow and Giles were facing each other and holding hands. Willow was chanting the spell, but when the moment came to call the card that had been reserved to him, the two remaining Scoobies exchanged doubtful glances as Giles spelt it. When Willow begged to be brought to the Vessel, nothing happened. Suddenly the wall beyond them disappeared, and it looked to Xander that Buffy was in the chamber with them.
Adam was there too.
As Willow's pleadings became more hysterical and hopeless, and dark resignation began to crease the Watcher's face, Buffy's struggles became more and more slow and weak.
Finally, Adam grabbed Buffy by the throat and spun her around, then ripped her spine right off her back.
What remained of the Slayer fell to the ground with sick smoothness, her body literally boneless, her neck and abdomen pliant like rubber.
Adam kept examining her spine with scientific, almost childish interest. "Uhm, this spine shows no peculiar thickness or any kind of strengthening; yet it was harder to remove than the average human's."
Xander was distracted from Adam biological disquisitions by the hairy Demon that crushed the room door open and jumped on Willow, interrupting her screams by biting her upper skull off. Giles, who apparently had some kind of a suicidal vibe hidden somewhere in his huge brain, threw himself on the thing, that effortlessly gutted him.
Xander looked one more time at the mangled bodies of his friends, then shivering, averted his eyes and asked tremblingly: "Is that it?"
"Yeah" Spike confirmed, and putting a comforting hand on the bigger man's back he led him to the room door and directly in the street.
Once deprived of the gruesome sight of his dead beloved, Xander remembered something. "Hey, wait a minute! Adam I understand, but what about the Bigfoot? I was as helplessly as Giles and Willow when it attacked us! It was you who killed him!"
Spike nodded. "Yeah. But I couldn't this time. Remember when you took me in? Hadn't you been there, Giles wouldn't have found anyone else to drop me onto, the girls just wouldn't even hear about me and Angel and I... well, we'd just shared a particularly sore spot, so..."
"What?!? Don't tell me they let you go!"
"No, Xander. They killed me."
Xander remained actually dumbstruck for a second. "No" he finally breathed out "They wouldn't."
"Oh but they did. Giles actually gave me a choice: die here or being sent to the Watcher Council. What can I say, I'd been poked on enough. So I chose the fast way."
"But... but... killing a helpless being..."
"To quote them, "It was more merciful than let me starve to death." Must agree."
"No, you mustn't! One thing is to kill you if they hadn't had any choice, but to kill you so Giles could get screwed!"
"Aw Pet, didn't know you cared. Anyway, even if they hadn't killed me... remember when you caught me trying to off myself?"
"Oh come on! You had tried to impale yourself on a stake stuck to my coffee table! That so wasn't a suicide! If you'd really wanted to kill yourself, you would have just drove it through your heart... Dammit, Spike, you could have simply taken a stroll in the sun!"
"True. All right, so I might have been a little... melodramatic about that, but later in the school a beam fell on me, remember? And it was you who rescued me. All the others would just have left, and I'd have remained there to starve to death, for real this time. Gone to keep company to Mr. Big Snake's rests."
Xander shook his head in disbelief. "So it was me? You survived thanks to me? Oh well those are satisfactions."
"Yeah, Pet, but look at the upside: Bad-Hair bloke didn't eat your guts, that's something, innit?"
"Huh uh, guess so. Look, many of these nice pictures left to go? 'Cause honestly, Spike, the Cuyahoga doesn't look much less appealing..."
"There there, Xander... don't say you aren't even a little curious."
"About what? See in how many ways you can slice a Slayer? Can see how you'd like that, fangless, but really not my thing going there..."
"Look, I know this is hard, alright? I care about that bunch of losers too, thank you very much. Died to prove it, didn't I? But see it this way: you clean an infected wound, it hurts, you don't? There goes the leg. Or arm, for what that matters. This I can tell you: we're past half, happy? Now let's go, you don't want to stop now that you've seen most of it, do you?"
"Is this a brit thing that you ask so many questions that you don't mean to be answered to?"
"Is this an American thing that you ask so many questions that you know won't be answered to?"
"Oookay, let's go before we get lost in it. I remember Willow's wordgames, they were micidial."
"Yyyesss. So, we going?"
Spike led the way to a shoe store, and as he swung the door open he gave Xander a jokingly gentleman gesture to go in first.
Xander batted his long eyelashes at him and taking the hem of his windbreaker in his hands, he bowed at him like a maid, then entered.
He immediately recognised the tower Buffy had thrown herself from when she'd died.
Looking on the side, he saw Buffy herself and Glory fighting.
The Goddess sneered at Buffy, who spared a longing glance at the Troll Hammer that lay several feet beyond her reach.
"You lost your hammer, sweet cheeks. What are you gonna hit me with now?" Glory asked, then lunged at Buffy.
They fought for a long time, but Buffy was wearing down, like she had with Adam.
Xander glanced at Spike. "I don't get it. When would have I got in?"
"Don't you remember? "The glorified bricklayer picks up a spare." You slammed a wrecking ball into the bitch. Buffy got to the hammer again. This way she remained without weapons. No match for a God."
Just as Spike finished speaking, Glory managed to kick Buffy in the guts. The petite blonde flew back into a wall, opening a huge hole into it. When she recovered, it was too late: the Hellgod had picked up Olaf's hammer, -"Pretty trinket you had here, Supergirl"- and using all of her strength, she slammed it into Buffy's face.
After that, the battle was lost. Glory kept beating Buffy to a puddle, careful not to kill her. Suddenly, she gasped and stopped her cruel ministration, glancing up with glee.
Xander followed her gaze and realised that he could see what was happening on the platform high in the night sky.
He could see the old man he and Spike had got the information about the ritual from, and who had come up to have a very skilful tongue... but not in a good way.
He saw him cut Dawn in several places, and he saw the girl he cared so much for weep in pain and fear as the blood flew from her.
Then he saw the dazzling light that indicated the opening of the portal, and this time no-one was there to seal it.
The world around him began to change, and not for the better.
The ground began to shake and crack, houses caught on fire without apparent cause, and all the trees along the streets began to move their branches as if they were clawed arms.
The burning houses began to pulse with horrendous life as screaming creatures appeared and disappeared in the walls, and horrible Demons appeared unharmed into the flames.
What looked like giant caterpillars with fly-like wings swarmed into the sky, and Xander stared in horror as a tree grabbed one with its branch-claws and ate it, absorbing it into its wood.
The grass itself began to slither, and one of the crazy persons hanging around the tower was unfortunate enough to stand on it as it happened. Bright green tentacle-like vines grabbed him and drove through him, and as he was sucked into the ground, Xander could see him begin to implode and dry out, as if he was being sucked from within.
The mailbox of the nearest house sprouted spiderish legs and jumped off its pole, running towards another crazy man. It jumped on his back and closed its lid over the man's head, severing it. The body wavered for a second, but the legs plunged into the stumped neck and immediately the human form let the way to an insect-like one. The mailbox lid opened and it emitted a burp that would have put Xander's father's best performances to shame.
Then the monstrous body began to chase the remaining mindless victims.
One of them, a woman, passed Spike and Xander, screaming, what remained of her self-preservation instinct making her run. A fanged hole opened in the ground, and swallowed her whole. But the rest of the humans simply kept wandering around like mild sheep, ready to be eaten.
Xander whipped his head upwards as Dawn's whimpers turned into a scream: he shouted in denial as he saw her features begin to melt and evaporate, her whole body slowly, painfully turning into a swirl of green light.
The Key was taking its true form.
Spike had to hold him still again as he lunged towards the stairs to run to Dawn's rescue, eager to do something, anything to help her.
But the Vampire's force was almost not enough when Xander saw Glory laugh, and force what remained of Buffy's face to watch her dying, disappearing sister.
Then Dawn ceased to exist, and the green light was sucked into the portal.
Glory's wild laughter turned guttural and thunderous as her features began to twist, and she began to return to her own original shape.
Xander couldn't look away: soon nothing remained of the shallow beauty he'd come to hate, and a giant, bright red blob began to spread and raise into the air, continuously sprouting new tentacles, mouths and red ball-shaped eyes.
When he sought for Buffy he couldn't find her: the thing had assimilated her. He heartily hoped her death had been painless.
He turned to see Willow and Tara cowering in a corner, weeping softly and exchanging vows of eternal love.
Glory turned to them, too, and one of the yawning mouths blew a river of fire towards them. When it extinguished, all that remained of his best friend and her love was one charred mass of singed, black bones.
Tara and Willow had molten together.
Giles lay lifeless a few feet away, his own sword driven through his chest.
Xander hadn't seen him die, but if what he'd seen earlier that night meant anything, the Watcher had probably chosen his own death.
A human, hysterical laughter made both Xander and Glory turn once again, and the young man almost passed out in fear as he saw Spike interact with the scene. This was sure as Hell a very bad moment to begin to interfere with this reality.
He jumped with a squeak as a hand posed on his shoulder, and he spun, almost ready to have his head eaten by the burping mailbox from Hell, but it was only Spike, who shook his head at him and then gestured for him to look.
Spike was laughing like a crazy man as he knelt in the dirt, but it wasn't "his" Spike.
This Spike was bloody and covered in dirt, and Xander realised it was the Spike from that night.
He'd lost his mind.
The Glory-Blob curved above him, and a voice that sounded like thunder and nails on a chalkboard at the same time asked: "What's so funny, Vampire?"
"We-well," the battered man managed between guffaws "I never thought you could get any uglier..." he snickered.
The thing bellowed in rage, and swung a slimy, blade-etched tentacle at him.
Spike ducked, and ran into the open area outside the tower site. He stood into the dawning sun, smiling in triumph at the thing that had taken the only two things he cared about.
But the sun didn't burn him.
As he turned to stare at the orange, dripping sphere that had replaced the star, Glory lunged at him, moving with surprising speed.
"NO!!!" Spike screamed, and grabbing a shard of wood from the dusty ground, he plunged it into his chest. Relief and quiet sorrow graced his face for a brief instant.
Then he turned into dust.
Glory bellowed in rage, and the sound made Xander fall into a merciful oblivion.
When he woke, he was laying into the snow, Spike crouching beside him, regarding him with a concerned look.
"About time Xan. You scared the Hell outta me."
"S-Spike?" What... oh. OH.
He sat up abruptly as the memories rushed back to him.
"Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. You fine Pet?"
"Huh huh", Xander nodded absently, staring in the void.
"You know, I really got scared when I saw you... Spike... you... well, when I saw the other you talking with Glory. I thought it was you... I mean, this you, the, huh, you you..."
Blue eyes rolled. "I got it whelp."
"Yeah, well, I almost peed myself. I thought we had got into that reality for real somehow and... well, guess you get it."
Spike chuckled. "So, not that eager to die anymore, are we?"
"Well, not like that!!! God, have you seen what happened to that... huh... well, to everyone!"
"Yeah. A lot more painful than drowning, I guess."
"Yeah. You didn't die very well, and that was still the less-- hey! Wait a minute! You said that if I hadn't been there, you'd have died before the whole Adam thing... how come you were there?!?"
Spike looked at him in earnest confusion.
'Cuuute... No! No, what the Heck?!? Spike's not cute! Spike's evilly attractive to emotionally broken girls and mean and I hate him!'
"You mean, you thought about that now?!?"
"No! I never thought you were cute!"
The confused expression got even more confused. "What?"
"I-I mean... well, of course I thought about it now! How was I supposed to know that you were dead last time, but not now??!?"
"Do you even listen to yourself? Xander, you've seen Buffy, Willow and Giles die every time we entered into the you-free plane, and be alive the following... and now you ask how I was there if I was dead before?" There wasn't mockery on Spike's face, only true wonder.
"Well... yeah. How did that happen?"
Spike burst into laughter, but there wasn't malice in this, either.
"Well, Pet, you didn't save the world's huge blue arse only once, now did you?"
"Think like the little good geek you are, Xan. Pretend this is a Star Trek eppy."
Xander's brow crinkled in confusion, then in concentration. Then it smoothed.
"Aaaahhh" he nodded in understanding.
"Good. Knew you were smart."
"Don't push it Luv. You good to stand?" At Xander's nod, Spike stood and offered Xander his hand.
On his feet and brushing the snow from his frozen ass, Xander observed: "You know Spike, had some of my teachers told me to watch the world through Picard eyes, I might have gotten a few better scores in school."
"What can I say Pet. Passed a few days since I was a teacher."
"Here endeth the topic."
"Like Hell!! Can you think of the material I have now to--"
"Well, it's only one more reason to go back to your friends. Now shall we?"
Sobering at the thought of his suicide and of more gruesome visions. "How many do we still have to see?"
"Patience, Pet. That was the worst, though."
Xander was a little put out by the easiness with which he now followed the Vampire through this hallucinating journey, but after thinking about it for a second, he decided that since the worst part was over now, he might as well go through with it. After all, it was that or having Spike around to haunt him for the rest of his life... and maybe even after.
So when Spike entered a bookstore, Xander trotted docilely behind him... and found himself at the bottom of a deep hole in the ground.
Buffy and Dawn were there, and he quickly understood this was the time Willow had gone crazy after Tara had died... he'd seen the girls fall into that hole, but then he'd rushed to stop Willow.
He hadn't witnessed, though, the fight between the Summers sisters and what looked like mummies with insect jaws in place of their arms.
The two girls fought fiercely, Dawn herself being a meaner fighter than he would ever be -'But after all, I already knew that, didn't I?'- but in the end the monsters became too many, and one of them grabbed Buffy's waist from behind as she fought with other four mummies, and cut her in two like the Hellmouth Beast had done with Willow.
The things then disappeared, and just as Dawn realised what had been of her sister, the hole walls crumbled down, burying her alive.
Xander closed his eyes as he tried to suppress the panic of being buried alive himself, and when he opened them again, he was on the hill with Willow, who was filling the Satanic Temple with dark energy.
Streams of what looked like black smoke, of maybe swarms of insects, but that probably wasn't either thing, began to flow off the half-buried building, and spread across the air. A wave of destruction preceded them, turning everything and everyone they met into nothing.
Something burned, something desiccated and something melted, but nothing remained of the object, animal of person that had been touched.
Xander braced himself against Spike as one of the black wisps came towards him, and when it passed, he was in the Magic Box.
Giles lay among the rubbish, covered in blood, sweat and dust, breathing weakly. His eyes flashed green once, and he whispered shakily: "Willow..." Then his gaze went blank, and he let out his last breath.
A second after, the shop was no more.
Again Xander flashed into another place, but he didn't recognise this one. He could barely see rough stone walls with grim pictures painted on them.
On the dirty ground someone was weeping softly, curved into a ball. As the sound that accompanied the waves of dark magic Willow had released got louder, the man lifted his head, and Xander could see it was Spike.
He was incredibly thin and pale, and had scratches all over his body, but his face was marred by deep gashes that from immediately under his eyes ran trough his cheeks towards his chin like tears. Spike had clearly made them himself.
True tears flowed down his mangled face too, and the Vampire's features were twisted in a symphony of sorrow, self-hatred, guilt and plain pain.
But then Spike seemed to understand what that sound meant, and his beautiful face smoothed in painful joy.
"Oh please, please" he croaked, pitifully eager to meet his death.
The wave reached the cave, and the prone man relaxed, his body uncurling, his head falling back into the dust. One last tear fell from his eyes as he closed them for the last time.
"Thanks" he whispered.
Then the world was destroyed.
Xander was on the hill again, staring incredulous at the landscape spread before him: nothing but an endless plain, black with charred wood, stone and flesh and grey with ashes, some red fire the only real colour he could see, since the sky was black with smoke and ash, too.
He saw something move in the dirt a few feet away from him, and ran towards it, desperate to find anything, a man or a cat or even a bug, to prove that the world wasn't entirely dead.
As he reached the crawling thing, he stopped dead in his tracks, staring at it in utter horror, pain and pity.
The thing was a little longer than a foot, and looked like a big, fat grey worm. It crawled in the dirt thanks to the twisted stumps of what once had had to be limbs, and emitted a painful mewl every time it moved, as if moving, or simply existing, was for it cause of great pain.
Its muzzle was deformed horribly, and one small jet black eye twinkled with pain and evil speculation in it, the other replaced by a grey protuberance.
And still, in that monstrous face, Xander got to recognise what the dark energy had left of Willow.
His screams were muffled into Spike's shoulder.
The Vampire had turned the younger man away from the maddening spectacle as soon as he'd begun to scream, embracing him and letting him throw angry punches at his sides and eventually dig his fingers into his back.
"Sssshhh" he whispered, his lips against Xander's ear, "Shhhhh... it's over, Xan. It's over. Never happened. She's fine. She's fine. She's fine."
He kept chanting his reassuring words until the screams faded into sobs, and then on until the broad body ceased to shake.
It took a while for Xander to recover.
Finally, he leaned back with a sniffle, his face white excepting for the red streak that ran from cheek to cheek, his fists clenched.
"You said it was the worst" he gritted out. "You son of a bitch, you said the worst was gone. DON'T TOUCH ME!!!" he screamed when Spike motioned to step closer.
"I'm sorry" the Vampire said sincerely, his own eyes wet with emotion "I'm so sorry, Xander... I thought... I thought that seeing Hell break lose would be worst than seeing Willow like that... I'm sorry... I-I was wrong, I'm sorry..."
Xander barked with laughter. "Sorry! You're sorry! But have you seen her?!? How could you think Hell itself could be worse than that!?"
"NO! Fuck off, Spike! Just let's get this shit over with and then fuck OFF! I don't ever wanna see your fucking face again! EVER!!!"
Spike stared at him as if he'd just staked him, eyes filled with tears of hurt and sorrow, lips slightly parted in stunned grief. He didn't look much different from his cave self.
After a moment, though, he'd recovered, and lowering his eyes, he nodded and turned.
He didn't bother to look at the door he was opening, he just got to the closest he could reach: then he simply entered, his head still bowed.
Xander marched behind him, decided to have this shitty gift from the Powers out of his teeth as soon as possible.
And eager to send Spike to fuck himself along with it.
He snorted as he thought about it. "Gift." Were all of the Powers' gifts like that? Buffy's was Death, this was his... what when they wanted to punish somebody? Oh yeah. They probably sent Spike.
As he entered, he saw a bunch of girls battling against legions of Ubervamps in a pit.
Again, he let out a mirthless laughter.
"Oh yeah, thanks Spike! I really wanted to know how the Hellmouth was! Show me where the exit is now. I'm finished here."
Spike turned, after having suspiciously rubbed his face. His eyes were still damp. "What?"
"Has the shit from your brain molten into your ears fangless? Get me out of here! I really don't wanna see how useless I was here! So just take me back out, tell the Powers thanks but no thanks and then fuck off! I'm over with you! I'm over with all this shit!"
"For what? Seeing how better Dawn fought without having to rescue the cripple every two seconds? Seeing what a happy little Vengeance Demon Anya could be? No, Spike. I kept my part of the deal, now you keep yours. Get me outta here and leave me the fuck alone."
He turned to leave, but a strong hand clamped on his arm. He whipped around, eyes wild with rage. "Don't you touch me, you--"
Spike was pointing at the cliff the Slayers were fighting onto.
They were losing. And they were losing badly.
Disorganised, discouraged, they kept letting the Turok-Hans scatter them and take them alone.
Buffy kept shouting to remain united, to hold the line, but her voice was weak, unconvinced.
Faith sat with her back against a rock, and Xander wondered if she'd really been crazy enough to take a pause during the battle. But she wasn't resting. An axe was deeply embedded in her skull.
Xander flashed into the school, and saw an horde of Ubervamps march past Andrew's body. His head had been twisted until his face hovered above his back. Xander grimaced. He knew what that meant, and knew that Andrew had known too, being the geek he was: a little homage to "The Exorcist", where a guy had been reserved the same treatment, due in the ancient Satanic Sects to traitors.
He flashed further, and saw the too many Turok-Hans swarm on Dawn and tear her into pieces.
He saw them reach the classroom Willow and Kennedy were in and swing a mace in the Slayer-in-Training's face, destroying it and sending teeth and chunks of bloody flesh everywhere, then getting to Willow, who was desperately chanting the spell over and over without success, and beheading her, then getting the Scythe.
He saw them reach Giles and Wood's position. He saw them reserve Wood the same treatment Buffy had reserved to Caleb. He saw them slit Giles' throat, and then wander around the dimly lit hallway waiting for their Master to give them further order.
He flashed back down into the Hellmouth, and saw Spike fiercely fighting Turok-Han after Turok-Han.
He saw one of the monsters harm Buffy, and saw her incorporeal double approach her and mock her, then gesture to an Ubervamp- that grabbed her by the hair and hauling her up, tore into her throat with savage fury, draining the powerful blood and dropping her almost-decapitated body to the ground.
He saw the First turn into its true form for a second, then enter Buffy's body.
Buffy-First got up and adjusted its head as if she'd have done after a particularly tough training, then smirk and spread its arms, tilt its head back and open its mouth, letting a foul black cloud, not different from the one Willow had summoned, flow out of it and towards the ceiling.
Xander saw the black thing seep into the rock, then through the school levels and finally, with improved strength, jump towards the sun.
The sky became black, a blood red circle embedded in it as a mocker of the real star.
The Turok-Hans began to swarm out of the school and into the world.
Down in the Hellmouth, Spike doubled over in pain as the amulet began to work its magic.
But no column of Sun and fire, like the one Buffy had described him, burst out of the Vampire's chest. There was no Sun to reflect.
Instead, Spike kept quivering in pain, eventually falling to his knees, roaring for Buffy to get everyone out of there, 'cause something was bloody wrong.
The First-Buffy approached him, and suavely asked: "Something wrong, Sweetie?"
Xander saw Spike whip his head up, face tight with strain and pain, blood streaking from his mouth.
The words he'd been about to pronounce died on his parted lips, and his eyes filled with tears, the pain on his face replaced by horrified stupor and angry sorrow.
"No..." he breathed.
The thing that had been the woman he'd loved smiled tenderly, then bent to plant a bloody kiss on his lips.
"You could have been my prince, William, with your cruelty and your brain, but no, you had to play this pathetic hero act. Too bad. Didn't need a limp king, anyway. Maybe Angelus will fit better. That pesky soul of his is being removed right now. Goodbye, flaccid boy."
He saw Spike double over in pain again, his soul uselessly consuming him, his body arching off the ground as he was engulfed in light, then he began to burn.
The First turned on the steps. "There there, Precious. It only hurts... well, actually, it's gonna hurt forever. Hell is not a good place to mess with the landlord. Bye."
With that, it turned and kept walking up the stairs that led to the world.
Spike kept withering on the ground, his whispers of denial becoming a chant.
"No no no no no no no..."
The amazing features melted onto a charred skull, through the holes of which the light from William's soul could still be seen.
Then Spike became dust among dust.
Snow began to shield Xander from the Hellish vision, but even as he found himself back into Cleveland's streets, he kept staring ahead and remaining silent.
Finally, he turned to Spike.
"No", he stated firmly. "There was no reason for this to happen."
"No? Well, it seems there was. You really thought you were useless, didn't you? You're the one they just can't stay without, Xander. You tested the lack of all of them on your skin, boy: Giles, Willow, and even Buffy: you managed even without her. But hadn't it been for you, they'd be long dead, and the world would be a big ball of shit. It was you who kept them together, you who showed them what was worth fighting for. You who could see when their behaviour was so wrong it would became dangerous, you who cleared their minds when they were suffocated with hate, grief or fear."
Spike produced something from his duster pocket and handed it to Xander.
It was a tarot featuring an armoured horseman wielding a sword. "Animus", was displayed in ancient letters at the bottom of it.
Xander recognised it immediately: it was the card that had determined his role in the spell used to defy Adam. When they had had to become one, he had become their heart... and in his magically induced dreams he'd had his own heart torn out because of it.
"You are the Heart, Xander. Buffy's strength, Willow's power, Giles' knowledge... they mean nothing, they can do nothing, without your soul to tie them and give them a reason to be. What they do is not worth doing if you're not there. You're the one real Warrior among them, because even if you hate the war you won't give up the fight. Even if it's not your fight, and you're the only one who gets nothing out of it."
Xander raised his wide eye from the card to the Vampire before him, who returned his gaze with earnest firmness.
"I can't show you the future, Pet. I'm not supposed to know about it. But let me tell you this: they just won't work without you. Oh, they'll slay Vampires and some slimy Demon, they can do that... but when the time comes to fight for real, to face themselves and everything they were so sure about, to accept their weaknesses and get over them... they won't have you to see what they need and keep them whole. And they will fall apart, wither and die, like you saw them do."
Tentatively, Spike stepped closer to Xander and gingerly rested a hand on his shoulder.
"I know you're tired. I know how it feels, to be powerless among a bunch of superheroes. But that's your place and the truth is, you will never be happy faraway from there."
Xander remained silent for a long, long time. Then he raised his head.
"O-Okay" he croaked. "Okay. I'll phone them when I get home, tell them to send me some money for the plane. Happy?"
Spike smirked. "Oh, I am, Pet. Point is, are you?"
The dark head cocked. "No" Xander admitted "But I think eventually, I could be."
The pale hand patted Xander on the shoulder before letting go.
"Glad to hear that, Pet. Ta, eh?"
Then Spike turned and left.
"Spike!" The Vampire turned. "Yeah?"
Xander stared at him, dumbfounded. "But... where are you going?"
"Well, my job's done Xander."
"Yeah but... you can't say "Ta" and leave, just like that!!"
It was Spike's turn to cock his head. "I thought that was what you wanted, Pet."
Xander had the good grace to look castigated. "Okay, okay, I've been an ass, but what the Heck, Spike, I was upset! You can't change my life from black to white, when I was planning on not having a life anymore, and then disappear!" He trotted to reach Spike and grabbed his sleeve.
"Even if I go back, I'll have to spend Christmas alone... shouldn't good little Angels like you do something about that?"
"Oi! 'M not an Angel!"
"You said you were my Clarence. He was an Angel, right?"
"Bloody Hell, whelp! It was just something I said to make you get the gig! I'm nothing like those bloody poofs!"
"Okay, okay... but couldn't you spend the rest of Christmas with me, just to be sure I don't fall back into Holidays depression and try the big dive again?"
Spike's eyes narrowed. "Well, I guess I should do that, what with having gone through all of this Hell for nothing and stuff."
Xander agreed with a solemn nod. "You should do that. You just can't trust a guy who just tried to kill himself."
They began walking towards Xander's home together.
"I missed you, you know" Xander muttered after a while.
"I never got to tell you... you know, that we were okay. I mean, I still owe you a major ass-kicking for what you did to Buffy... but in the end, I believed that you had changed. But I was too proud to just tell you. I thought you'd have laughed in my face if I told you. When... when it was over, I regretted not doing that. Hell, I regretted lots of things. Most about Anya. But not having told you I respected you, too."
Xander glanced up at the dazed Vampire from beneath lowered lashes.
"Did... did it really hurt that much? When you... when you died?"
Spike stared at him for a moment, then turned his head back to the street. "Nah," he said nonchalantly, "Not that much. Well, it hurt, it hurt alright, but I knew... I was doing the right thing, you know? Like I belonged there. Like it was a gift, not just... dying."
"Some taste the Powers have with gift."
Spike chuckled. "Yeah, tell me that."
"By the way, what are your wings?"
"You said you would get something from this, but not wings like Clarence... so, what did you get?"
"Oh, that. See, I could chose between eternal peace -and considering the things I've done in the past, that's something only the Powers could give me- or getting back down here and getting a little bonus I could chose myself."
Xander looked very impressed. "And you got..."
"What can I say Pet. Always liked to be in control."
"Oh. And what's the little bonus?"
Spike chuckled. "Take off that ugly eyepatch, Xander."
The younger man froze. "Uh, Spike... it's really better not to, I mean... what's under is even uglier..."
"Just take it off, Xan. I'm sure I've seen worse."
Reluctantly, Xander removed the eyepatch, but kept his head bent, not wanting the Vampire to see the empty socket. He brought his hand up to scratch the just-exposed skin... and yowled.
"Ow! Ow! My eye! Dammit I stuck a finger in my..."
Both eyes widened. He had... "Two eyes! I have two eyes Spike! Oh God I got my eye back! How... Oh God I didn't pop it out again, did I? Spike, is it still there?"
The Vampire chuckled. "No worries, whelp. It takes more than a poke like that to take out one's eye. It's still there."
"It's still there! Again! I have two eyes! I have two eyes! I have two eyes!!" Xander grabbed the smaller man, swirled him around and finally kissed him soundly on the lips.
Ignoring the sideways meanings of his gesture, or Spike's dumbstruck expression, or a bunch of confused passers-by, he waved his arms upwards and shouted: "Two eyes! I have two eyes!!! Not a cripple anymore, I have tw-"
Xander froze in mid-sentence, and turned to return Spike's dazed gaze. "You... you did this, didn't you? The bonus... you did this. You could have anything and you... why?"
The blond regained his nonchalant posture. "Well, there really wasn't much I could ask for, and since you lacked something... well, I thought it could be a slight incentive to go back to your old self."
"To... Spike, but do you realise what this means? I'm not a cripple anymore, I can get back to my old work, I can... I, I--"
Suddenly, Xander stopped talking and taking Spike's head between his hands, he kissed him passionately.
As Spike leaned back, lips swollen and eyes wide and glazed, the broader man whispered: "Hope you don't mind. You're a very good kisser."
An almost shy smile graced pale lips. "Not bad yourself, Pet. But you could use a coupla more lessons."
With that, Spike leant forwards and tenderly kissed Xander again.
This time it was Xander who remained dazed, but eventually he asked: "You... you think we could... I don't love you, Spike. Not yet" he added in a rush as he saw the stricken _expression he'd induced "But... Hell, I don't even think I'm gay, but... you know, you were a little less unbearable last year, and even I missed you when you... when you died, and, and okay, since you know so much about me, you'll probably know I was always a little attracted... in a manly way... and knowing... knowing what you gave up for me... I mean, Spike, you gave me my eye back... I mean..."
"Xander, I got it" Spike interrupted with a chuckle. "It wouldn't be hard to fall for you, either. When I got all that information about your life I thought, "I could love this man." But you don't have to do that for the eye. It really cost me little, and I always liked pretty things, so I guess I got something from it too... really, Xander. One thing is to stay together for one night, but for all the rest of your life?..."
Xander lowered his eyes. "Spike, it's not only the eye, or about you being beautiful... not that you aren't." He took a deep breath. "I don't know if I can do this alone. It's... it's really a lot to put up with, I mean, it's not like suicide was something I always wanted to do... but I can't just live for my friends, or because I belong with them. I need someone, Spike... someone who gets it, someone who can see the weak me, the bad me... and who won't try to ignore it. I need someone who... who cares. Someone... someone who'll take me for what I am, for... and that who'll stop me when I begin talking like some soap opera idiot."
They both sniggered. "It's okay, Xan." Spike brought a hand to his chin in a mockery of pensiveness. "You sure this not of your infamous mood swings? 'Cause you went through a lot of them tonight."
Xander laughed, and shook his head. "No more of that, promise. Well, not for a while. I might be a little... eager, about some things, Spike, but I would never say something like that if I didn't totally mean it. To you, of all people. I already lost the chance to have you as a friend... I won't lose this one too."
Spike stared at Xander, the boy's awkward words being the ones he'd always needed to hear, and that no-one had never spoke to him. He recovered almost immediately, though, and swinging his arm around the broad shoulders in a gesture of camaraderie, he said with a cool tone: "Well, let's put it this way, Pet. I need someone to take care of, you need someone who cares... let's see it as a fair deal for now, eh?"
Xander nodded vigorously, grinning.
They resumed walking. "You know, I feel bad about this thing, I mean, you gave me a Christmas pressie, I didn't get you anything..."
"That can be easily helped when we get home Pet."
"I was more of thinking about that Gift shop from before..."
"I think you upset the clerk enough."
"Wanted to buy you something."
"The only reason you don't get kicked in the arse, literally, is that I know you spent your last dosh on that booze."
"Ooookay. Merry Christmas Spike."
"Merry Christmas Luv."