Disclaimer: This is fanfic, based on the shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the Series. Characters are property of Mutant Enemy. This story was written for fun, not profit.
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Before the Time of Dawnby: Shadowscast
Spike stalked onto the stage, resplendent in his long black leather coat. The thud of his heavy boots on the wooden planks was the only sound in the room. A spotlight lit his scowling face in stark planes.
He stopped at an invisible mark at center stage, spun on his heel to face his audience, crossed his arms and lifted his chin. In an almost accusing tone, he began, "You've heard that vampires are real." He waited—a soft rustle of whispered translations filled the dramatic pause. "You've heard that they're strong, that they drink blood, that they love to kill your kind." Another pause. "Maybe you've also heard that some of them are as liable to sit down with you for a cuppa tea as to fight you, that some of them hold down real jobs and pass in human society without ever harming a kitten, that some of them are bloody fantastic ... conversationalists." There was a nervous twitter of laughter in the audience, and Spike waited it out with a hint of an indulgent smirk. "It's all true. But know this." All traces of amusement left his face. "Every vampire is a demon. Every vampire dreams of ripping your throat open and gulping your hot, bitter blood until there's none left in you. Every vampire that walks this earth delights in murder, rape, and torture. I know this because I used to be one."
After the lecture, Xander caught up with Spike in the senior staff lounge.
Spike was stirring his coffee so violently it was in danger of splashing over the edge of his mug. "What did you think?" he asked as soon as he noticed Xander. "Did I overdo it?"
"Nah, it was great. They needed that. It's better than learning the hard way, right?" Xander gave Spike a quick kiss and took away his coffee spoon. "Calm down, okay? It's over, you were awesome—actually, you made three of them cry."
Spike snorted. "Was hoping for at least six." He took a gulp of coffee and casually straddled a wooden chair. "Bit different from anything I've done before, that's for sure. But I think I like this teaching gig. I'm considering making them call me Professor Smith. Sounds posh, don't it?"
Xander grinned. "I'm just wondering when you're going to get around to explaining Angel and Harmony."
"Oh, that's all set for the second lecture: Moral Ambiguity and the Post-Modern Slayer. Andrew made a Powerpoint."
"I cannot wait to see it." Xander glanced at his watch. "Oh, hey, speaking of Andrew, I saw him right before your class. He said Giles wanted to see us both in the conference room as soon as you were free."
"Right." Spike took another long gulp of coffee and then set his mug aside. "Did it sound like the world was about to end, or can we stop in the broom closet on the way?"
"Hey, if the world's about to end I insist on a broom closet break." Xander tugged on the lapels of Spike's coat to bring him close enough to kiss. "Impending apocalypses are big turn-ons for me. Did I ever tell you about my first time?"
They made it to the conference room fourteen minutes later, only slightly rumpled. Giles and Andrew were standing at the whiteboard, puzzling over a diagram with a lot of arrows in it. Dawn was sitting cross-legged on top of the big wooden table with a heavy old book open in her lap. "Hey guys," she greeted them. "How did Vampires 101 go?"
"Spike kicked ass," Xander said proudly. "Best class ever. Man I wish they'd offered that as an elective back at Sunnydale High."
"It would have come in handy," Andrew agreed.
Giles turned around, adjusting his glasses. "Funny you should mention Sunnydale High. In fact, you're going to have to go back there."
"A bit late for that, ain't it?" Spike said, sweeping his coat out of the way to sit down.
"Yes, indeed. I'll get to that." Giles glanced back at the whiteboard. "You see, there have been portents—"
"It's the end of the world," Andrew supplied helpfully.
Spike poked Xander in the ribs. "Told you so."
"You did not."
"When did that phrase stop being impressive?" Dawn asked, addressing nobody in particular. "Can anyone remember?"
"Familiarity breeds contempt," Spike said with a shrug.
Xander mock-punched Spike in the shoulder. "I sure hope you're not talking about our relationship."
"It's the end of the world," Giles said, rather more emphatically than Andrew had, "and we're six years too late to stop it."
Xander settled into the seat next to Spike's. "Well, that can't be good." Since the meeting lacked the panicked air of a true we're all about to die strategy session, Xander kicked his chair back and rested his feet against the table. "What're we going to do about it?"
Giles looked pained. He took his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose before finally saying, reluctantly, "You and Spike are going to travel back in time."
Andrew almost looked like he was going to start hopping up and down with excitement. "I got the idea from Star Trek: The Voyage Home. You know how they had to go back in time to get a whale? It's like that, only with a demon. See, there was a marathon on Space last night and I was thinking about our little apocalypse problem, and—"
"Thank you, Andrew," Giles cut him off. "Now, needless to say, this is going to be both a dangerous and delicate mission—"
"Wait, we can do that?" Xander stared at Giles and Andrew. "Since when can we do that? 'Cause, uh, I can think of a hell of a lot of things in our collective lives that might have gone better with a do-over."
Frowning, Giles put his glasses back on. "We do not propose to rewrite history. It would be appallingly unwise even to try. According to the top thinkers in magical temporal philosophy, any alteration in the timeline is bound to change it for the worse."
"Then why are we even talking about this?" Spike asked.
"We found a loophole," Andrew said.
Dawn nodded. "Me."
"We have come to believe that when the monks created Dawn, they projected her reality backwards," Giles explained. "Thus, even though Dawn did not exist as a human being six years ago, if you travel back in time six years you will find her there, just as you remember her."
"I had a childhood," Dawn said, grinning widely. "For real!"
"Because Dawn's life before the spell projects backwards rather than forwards," Giles continued, "changes in her timeline should not have any sort of deleterious effect."
Xander stared blankly at Giles for a moment, then turned to Dawn and Andrew. "Okay, could somebody maybe paraphrase that? Possibly with Star Trek references?"
"It's simple, really," Dawn assured him. "The point is that it doesn't matter if you change my history at any point in time before the monks do their spell, because when they do, everything gets reset. I won't remember anything that happened."
"In fact," Giles added, "we are reasonably certain that any events involving Dawn will be reset in all our memories, as well, when that spell is cast."
"Reasonably certain?" Spike repeated, raising his eyebrow.
"The important thing is that you don't make any changes that don't involve Dawn," Andrew said. "'Cause those wouldn't be overwritten by the monks' spell; they'd just be incorporated into it."
"And every change is a bad change," Dawn reminded them.
"Got it," Xander nodded. "I don't want to come back to a world where everyone has tentacles, let me tell you."
"Dunno," Spike said, pitching his voice so Xander and Dawn could hear but Giles couldn't, "Bet we could have a lot of fun with tentacles."
Dawn glared at him. "By the way, while you two are back there, I'll thank you to please not shatter my childhood innocence."
"What?" Spike asked, all wide-eyed innocence. "You'll forget it all anyway, won't you?"
"Yeah, but not for like a year and a half!"
Giles cleared his throat. "If you would please—we have a lot of details to go over."
"Speaking of which," Xander said, "exactly which part of my not-so-glorious past am I going to be reliving?"
Giles picked up a sheaf of handwritten notes from the table and quickly shuffled through them. "Do you remember the Sisterhood of Jhe?"
Spike's eyes went wide and he snuck a look at Xander. "Isn't that when you and Faith ...?" he asked in a voice somewhere between a whisper and a snort.
Xander let his feet thud to the floor. "Oh ... god."
"Wait a mo'," Spike said, looking out the passenger side window of the rental car, "What are we doing here?"
Giles had parked them in front of a building that had clearly seen better days—like, maybe the 1920's. To Xander's eye it looked ready to collapse in the next earthquake, which didn't make him exactly eager to go running in and start working the dark mojo, but Spike sounded like he had more specific objections.
"It's an abandoned hotel," Giles said, and got out to unload the trunk. Xander went to help him.
"I know that," Spike said, getting out and slamming his door. "It's the bloody Hyperion. Are we doing the spell here?"
"Angel suggested it," Giles said, slightly defensively. "We needed a place near Sunnydale—but not in it, for obvious reasons. And we needed to know with absolute certainty that the location was deserted on the day six years ago that you two will, er, appear."
Xander looked back and forth between the two of them. "Is there a problem?" he asked, addressing Spike, not Giles.
"No," Spike said, in a very obvious yes-but-I-don't-want-to-talk-about-it tone. "Just would've been nice to get a little notice, is all."
Giles picked up the duffle bag that held his magic supplies. "He did mention that it was, er, will be haunted when you arrive there in 1999. Which is why we can guarantee it will be, or rather was, deserted."
"Haunted?" Xander stared at Giles, then at the hotel, then back at Giles. "Wouldn't that qualify as one of those unnecessary complications we're trying to avoid?"
"Actually, possessed would perhaps be a more appropriate term than haunted," Giles corrected himself. "There was a Thesulac demon residing in the premises. It's gone now, but while you're in the past you will want to minimize your time inside the hotel. Oh, and if you hear any voices urging you to kill each other or yourselves—well, don't listen to them."
"Can I just say there are aspects of this plan that worry me?" Xander shouldered the second duffle—the one he and Spike would be taking into the past—and waited for Giles to lead the way.
"And that makes it different from our other plans how?" Spike asked, sliding his arm around Xander's waist as they walked.
Xander ignored the obviously rhetorical question. "So, you've met the resident evil, I take it?"
"The Thesulac? No, that was news to me, though I can't say I'm surprised."
"Then why didn't you want to do the spell here?"
"I stayed here with Angel for a while after I turned human. Wasn't the greatest time in my life."
That made Xander immediately curious, because Spike never talked about the time period between the big battle with the Senior Partners and meeting Xander at the porn store. Unfortunately there was no time to ask for details; they were already inside the lobby.
Giles had stopped, staring at the floor; as his eye adjusted slowly to the dim light Xander realized there was a giant red pentagram painted there, faint but visible. Giles cleared his throat. "I think we had better make our circle off to the side."
The actual spell was surprisingly simple; Spike and Xander stood close together, holding hands, while Giles poured sand in a circle around them and chanted something in Sumerian. He'd explained the process ahead of time, so Xander knew to expect the gradual darkening of his vision and the growing feeling of weightlessness. He squeezed Spike's hand tightly until he couldn't feel it anymore.
Then there was nothing. No light, no sound, no touch. He wasn't sure if he was breathing. He had no sense of up or down, no sense of now. He thought, this is what it means to be timeless, and he wasn't sure if he was remembering thinking those words or if he hadn't thought them yet.
Then there was something solid under his feet and someone holding his hand and bright light and a rush of sound.
"Xander?" It was Spike. "You all right, luv?"
He was perfectly all right except for his stomach trying to turn inside out. He took a deep breath, clenched his teeth, and gave Spike the thumbs-up signal.
The look of the lobby was a bit worrying. They'd supposedly traveled into the past, but this place looked more dusty, neglected and decrepit than it had when they'd walked in.
Angel's going to move in later and clean up the place. It all makes sense. Get a grip, Xander. He noticed that the pentagram was gone—or, rather, not there yet.
"Right, we'd better close this thing up," Spike said, stepping carefully out of the glowing white circle that had taken the place of Giles's poured sand.
"Ymmph," Xander replied, and ran outside to throw up.
Spike joined him a couple minutes later in the overgrown front garden. Wordlessly, he handed Xander a water bottle. Xander rinsed out his mouth, then took a couple careful swallows.
"That, I gather, was the reason Rupert told us to skip breakfast." Spike nearly managed to sound more sympathetic than snarky. But not quite.
Deciding he probably wasn't about to puke again, Xander stood up. "What, I was supposed to come back to California and not eat at Denny's?"
Spike snorted. "Thought I was supposed to be the one with no impulse control? Anyhow, we're done here; I locked up our circle, and here's the key." He opened his hand to reveal what looked like a cat's eye marble with a pink swirl in its center, perfectly ordinary except for the fact it was softly glowing. In fact, Xander knew, the magical sphere was far more fragile than ordinary glass. "Where should we put it for safekeeping?" Spike asked.
Xander looked around. The tangled garden offered a wealth of hiding places, but there was too much risk; what if a stray dog found it and thought it looked tasty? If they couldn't find it when they came back they'd have to default to plan B: move to the Midwest and pass the next six years in real time, trying not to do anything significant while they waited for the day they could come back to this hotel and meet Giles and give him what he needed to stop the world from ending. "Inside," he decided.
Back in the lobby without the pressing urge to vomit, Xander was aware of a subtler discomfort: a nagging disquiet at the back of his mind, a sudden lack of confidence in his and Spike's ability to come through this mission without disaster. He had a feeling like he'd left his stove on or his door unlocked. "Are we forgetting something?" he asked Spike. "We brought the list, right? And Dawn's instructions? And the money? Did we make sure all the bills were dated before 1999?"
"Shhhh." Spike touched his finger to Xander's lips, a crease between his eyebrows betraying concern. "I feel it too. It's the fucking Thesulac—the paranoia demon. It's hungry. Don't let it run away with you."
"Right." Xander shuddered. "Let's stick the marble in the reception desk and get the hell out of here."
The first step in the careful plan they'd worked out back in Rome was to make sure Giles had sent them to the right day. That was easy; they walked three blocks to a corner store and checked out the front page of a paper. January 22, 1999. "Perfect," Xander said softly, and Spike nodded.
Xander bought a can of Sprite to kill the lingering bad taste in his mouth, and they set off in pursuit of step two on the bullet-point list Andrew had printed out for them: get a rental car.
Two and a half hours later, they passed the "Welcome to Sunnydale" sign.
"This is weird," Xander said.
Spike, driving, nodded. "Hell yeah. Never been a time I came to this place that wasn't weird somehow, but this is one for the bloody record books." He ran a hand absently through his hair, which was dyed back to something resembling its natural sandy-brown color. "Right about now Dru and I are painting the streets of Fortaleza red and having the time of our unlives. She's already thinking of leaving me, of course, makin' eyes at that chaos demon behind my back..." He shook his head as if to clear it.
And hey, that was something else Spike never talked about: his vampire escapades. "Do you miss Dru?" Xander ventured. He didn't really want to know, but it seemed like something he should ask.
Spike's knuckles went white on the steering wheel. "When I said painting the streets red," he said quietly, with a sort of disconcerting intensity, "I was being more or less literal. Right now I'm murdering people, pet. So don't ask me if I miss any part of that."
Xander winced; right, this was why they never talked about the past. Only now they were living in it. He touched Spike's thigh. "That wasn't—isn't you," he said. "The demon did the killing, and it's gone. There's nothing left of it in you."
Spike smiled humorlessly. "And that's exactly my problem, innit?" Before Xander could answer, he changed the subject. "Hey, look, one of those What is the Matrix? billboards. Don't that just take you back?"
They stopped on the outskirts of town at Sunnydale's only nice hotel. It was the third bullet-point: Check into the Holiday Inn.
Too bad it was full.
"Full?" Xander repeated, voice full of disbelief. "How—who the hell comes to Sunnydale in January? Who comes to Sunnydale at all?"
The desk clerk, looking slightly offended, pointed at the signboard propped up to the left of the reception desk: Welcome, Funeral Directors of California! "The conference is running until Sunday," he said. "If you need accommodations in the meantime, may I suggest the Downtowner? It's only a one-star motel, I'm afraid, but since you didn't make reservations..."
"That'll be fine," Spike said, touching Xander's hand in a shut up and let me handle this sort of way.
"Would you like a map?" the clerk offered.
Spike shook his head, still squeezing Xander's hand below the clerk's eye level. "Thanks, we know the place."
Walking back out of the car, Spike said quietly "Don't argue with people, pet. We want to be as forgettable as possible, right? Who cares if we have to stay in a crap motel?"
"You think I'm worried about roaches? Spike, that's the place where Faith lives."
Spike stopped. "Oh. Bloody hell." He stared at Xander over the roof of the rental car for a long moment, sharing in the dismay. "There aren't any other hotels in Sunnydale, are there?"
"No—we'd have to go all the way to Santa Barbara."
"That's too far from the action."
"Yeah, I know."
They got into the car, and Spike started it up. "We'll have to stay at the Downtowner," he said. "We probably won't even see Faith. And even if we do—she's never seen me, and she's not likely to recognize you."
They'd talked about this, back in Rome—not about Faith in particular, but about the chances of being recognized in general. Xander was six years older, missing an eye. He wore his hair back in a short ponytail, and he chose clothes in earthy, dusty colors. They figured that anyone but his closest friends would pass him by without looking too closely. As for Spike, he was wearing glasses, he'd dyed his hair brown, he'd let Andrew pick out his clothes, and hey—out in the daylight. Short of silicon prosthetics, it was about the best they could do.
"Okay," Xander sighed, "The Downtowner it is. What could possibly go wrong?"
"Faith was living in this place?" Spike said, looking around. "No wonder she went evil."
"Is living, and will go evil," Xander reminded him, dropping the duffle bag on the sagging bed. The mattress squeaked. That's gonna be fun to sleep on, oh yeah.
Spike pushed the deadbolt into place. "Makes you wonder, don't it? How it all would've played out if one or two little things had gone differently?"
"You mean if Faith hadn't killed the Mayor's aide?" Xander shrugged. "She would've found some other interesting way to fuck up. She was headed that way from when she first hit Sunnydale."
"She turned out all right in the end, though."
"Which we would almost certainly prevent if we tried to fix anything. Remember Murphy's Law of Time Travel."
Spike rolled his eyes and flopped down on the room's battered armchair. It wobbled precariously. "Don't get your knickers in a twist, I wasn't suggesting we go around changing things. I was there for Rupert's lecture, and I watched the whole Back to the Future trilogy, too. I was just saying, hey, what if? All theoretical, like."
"S'alright. Being back here, it puts you on edge. I get that."
Xander flashed Spike a wan smile. "You could say that, yeah. I mean, it's like visiting a ghost town. Where the actual town is a ghost." He started unpacking the duffle. "Okay, what should we do with this?" He held up a bulging manila envelope, post-marked Sao Paulo. A last-minute contribution from Willow, it contained dried Lethe's bramble and detailed instructions on how to remove specific memories without turning all your friends into helpless amnesiacs. If things are careening wildly towards worst-case scenario, she'd advised them on the phone, give that stuff to Giles and get him to do cleanup. Just, whatever you do, don't let me have it.
Spike shrugged. "Anyone comes snooping around, there's no place in this room that stuff would be safe. Just stick it in the drawers over there and try not to give anyone reason to look."
Xander frowned, but followed Spike's advice. He tucked their cash reserve into the drawer next to the spell stuff, for the same reason—no better place to hide it. Some neatly-folded shirts went on top as a weak attempt at camouflage.
He tried to tell himself this was no different from checking into any other hotel room with Spike. Since they'd started working for the Council together, they'd been doing a lot of traveling. This room was actually way nicer than the one they'd shared with Illyria in Kathmandu. This one just happens to be nearly identical to the room where I lost my virginity.
"Hey," Spike said, "It's quarter to five. We should go find Dawn."
It hadn't been easy to figure out a way for two grown men to secretly make contact with a 12-year-old girl. The plan that they'd eventually come up with in Rome was not what you might call "flawless." Dawn had a memory of ballet lessons; in the history created for her by the monks, she'd taken them from when she was eight until when she was fourteen. She claimed to be fairly sure, almost definitely, at least seventy-five percent certain, that when she was twelve she'd been dancing from 4 p.m. 'till 5 every Friday at Madam Tremblay's studio on Oak Street. It was only four blocks from Revello Drive, and she'd usually walked home alone.
At 5 p.m. they walked along Oak Street. It was a residential area with well-groomed lawns sporting occasional tricycles. The dance studio was in the basement of one of the houses; Dawn hadn't been able to remember the address, but she'd told them it was about halfway up the street.
"Is that her?" Spike asked quietly. He pointed across the street and four houses up to where a brown-haired girl carrying a small pink duffle bag was just coming out the front door.
They crossed the street and walked towards her. She paid them no particular attention; she skipped a few steps and twirled, maybe remembering some choreography from her lesson. Her long hair was pulled back in a high ponytail and her sweater had a white teddy bear embroidered on its front.
"She's a child," Spike murmured.
Xander didn't bother to comment on Spike's statement of the obvious. He was feeling the weirdness too—the shock of seeing her so young, the familiarity of it, the brain-bending paradox of realizing that in some sense this was the first time he'd ever seen her at this age. "Hey," he said out loud, because they were almost in front of her, "Dawn!"
She looked up, startled. "Hi?"
"We need to talk to you," Xander said.
Her expression wavered between suspicious and puzzled. "I'm not supposed to talk to str—" and then she laughed. "Xander! Why are you dressed like a pirate?"
He glanced down at his khaki Dockers and suede jacket. "I was going for business casual..."
Spike kicked him gently in the ankle. "Go on, say the bloody line."
"Right. Dawn, we're here from the year 2005, and we need your help to save the world."
Dawn rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right. Did Buffy put you up to this?"
"Look at him, niblet," Spike said. "There was a reason you didn't recognize him at first glance."
Dawn looked at Spike, instead. "Hey, I know you," she said. "You're ... Spike, right? Aren't you supposed to be a vampire?" She and Spike both glanced automatically towards the sun—it was low in the western sky, bathing all three of them in its warm golden glow.
"Used to be," he said. "Turned human in 2004."
Dawn frowned, backing a step away from them. "That's impossible. My sister says there's no way to cure vampires."
"We didn't know it was possible," Spike said, "and we're still not sure how it happened. But here I am in the bright sunshine. Wanna take my pulse?"
She shook her head. "That still doesn't prove you're from the future."
"Right," Xander agreed. "But I can prove it."
"Oh yeah?" Dawn said. "Okay, how?"
This had been a big question, back in Rome. At first they'd thought of bringing photos of Dawn's and Buffy's older selves, but Giles had been worried about the potential for polluting the timeline. In the end, Dawn had offered up a solution.
"I know what happened to Mr. Fluffy," Xander said.
Dawn suddenly looked pale. "What are you talking about?" she asked, in a completely unconvincing bluff.
"The class gerbil," Xander clarified, to make sure that she knew that he knew exactly what he was talking about. "He didn't die of natural causes. You stole a spellbook from Willow. You tried to give him fairy wings. It didn't work."
"I ... I told you that? In the future?" Dawn looked like she was about to cry, which made Xander feel like an asshole.
"Yeah," he said as gently as possible. "You told us so that we could tell you, so you'd trust us."
"We're not mad at you, pet," Spike added. "We know you didn't mean to hurt him."
In fact, as adult Dawn had pointed out, the whole thing hadn't been her fault at all—it was just part of the history concocted by the monks. "And I felt awful about it for years," she'd added with exasperation.
Not that they could explain that to younger Dawn—they were definitely not going to tell the poor kid that she didn't technically exist.
"Okay," she said, voice trembling, "I believe you. But what do you need me for? Buffy's the Slayer."
"She is what she is," Spike said, "but you're the one we need." Keeping it nice and vague. "Your older self told us all about it." And here came the white lie... "You remember all of this happening, so it's got to be you that helps us." That reasoning didn't make sense if you really thought about it, but time travel was confusing at the best of times and Dawn had been pretty sure that her 12-year-old self would buy it.
Dawn took a deep breath and stood a little straighter. "All right, let's say I believe you. What do I have to do?"
"Next Tuesday, your sister and her friends are going to be fighting a demon cult in the high school," Spike said. "They're going to win. But there's what you might call a slight misunderstanding. The demon cult isn't trying to destroy the world—they're trying to save it."
"Misunderstanding?" Xander had repeated, staring at Giles. "They opened the fucking Hellmouth. What's to misunderstand?"
"Their motive in doing so." Giles picked up one of the books from the table in front of him. Xander recognized it immediately as the volume he, Spike and Illyria had collected a month previously in Nepal; the swastikas embossed on its red leather cover had freaked him out until Spike explained that they were a Hindu sacred symbol predating the Nazi party by at least seven thousand years. Giles flipped through the pages of tight Sanskrit text until he came to an illustration, and handed the open book to Xander, who held it so Spike could see too.
In the drawing, two demons were locked in battle in front of an abstract starburst pattern that might depict anything from an exploding volcano to a beautiful sunrise. One of the demons was a two-headed snakelike thing; the other one was vaguely recognizable as a Sister of Jhe. In the foreground of the drawing, seven small human figures bowed in either abject fear or wondrous gratitude.
"I had the text translated," Giles said. "It describes an event in southern India in the first century BC. It seems there was an active Hellmouth there at the time. Following a series of increasingly serious demonic and seismic disturbances, the Hellmouth spontaneously opened. All manner of chaos and destruction followed, as one would expect. Tens of thousands of humans were killed. In the end it was a local clan of demons, adept in both physical combat and magic, who managed to fight back the armies of hell and perform a ritual to close the Hellmouth. That clan subsequently became the Sisterhood of Jhe, and dedicated themselves to preventing such a disaster from ever happening again."
"Well, hugs and puppies for the Sisterhood then," Spike said, "but what were they doing opening the bloody Sunnydale Hellmouth?"
"Think of Earth as a sort of mystical pressure cooker," Dawn said. "And think of the Hellmouths as vents. Mostly they're closed up tight, which is good, because when they open up it's not steam that comes out, it's big hungry demons and wacky mystical energy. But the longer they all stay closed, the more pressure builds, until eventually one of them has to explode open like that one in India."
Giles picked up the story again. "For the past two thousand years, the Sisterhood of Jhe has been visiting Hellmouths all over the world and opening them briefly to bleed off the pressure. They have a powerful ritual which allows them to safely open a Hellmouth and let it vent for about an hour, during which time they kill any monsters that should happen to emerge."
"I think I see the problem, then," Spike said. "You lot stopped them from doing their thing, and now the pressure's building, innit?"
"Indeed." Giles grimaced. "The Sisterhood had already run into several setbacks in the twentieth century which left their numbers much reduced, and I believe that in Sunnydale in 1999 we destroyed what was left of the order. Unfortunately, we have no clue as to how to perform the ritual to safely open a Hellmouth. I am afraid that knowledge died with the Sisterhood."
Xander turned to Andrew. "So when you said this mission was like in Star Trek when they went back in time to save the whales..."
Andrew nodded. Lacing his fingers together, he said solemnly, "You must return to the year 1999 to rescue the noble and misunderstood Sisterhood of Jhe."
They walked Dawn to within a block of her house. She promised to call them at the hotel the next evening at a time when she could talk on the phone without her mom or Buffy listening, and she swore she wouldn't tell anyone about them in the meantime.
"I think that went pretty well," Xander said once Dawn was out of sight. "She didn't freak out or anything. Now all we have to do is steal those books, which should be easy, and stay out of sight until Tuesday."
Spike mock-slapped the back of Xander's head. "Stop counting those bloody chickens, luv. Do you want to jinx us?"
They walked back towards the motel, keeping to quiet side streets to decrease their chances of running into anyone who might recognize them. The sun set as they walked. With no one around, Xander dared to take Spike's hand. Being out and proud might not technically be the best strategy for staying inconspicuous, but Xander couldn't stand being close to Spike for so long without touching him. It made his skin tingle and his heart race and his fingers feel all jittery.
Spike closed his hand around Xander's hand without comment. "That used to be one of my favorite cemeteries," he said, nodding his head sideways at the place they were passing. "Peaceful Acres. Had all the best epitaphs."
"If you like the place that much," said a harsh, mocking voice behind them, "you might be interested to know they have an opening."
Xander and Spike both spun around to face the speaker. It was a vampire, of course—three feet away from them, its ugly ridged features twisted into an eager grin.
"Bugger," Spike said quietly, with feeling.
We are total fucking idiots, Xander had time to realize. Out in Sunnydale after dark without a single stake.
The vampire lunged forward and grabbed for Spike's arm. Spike managed to duck aside at the last moment and the vampire stumbled between them. Xander gave it a quick jab in the kidneys and leapt backwards before it could turn and grab him. It grunted, hopefully in intense pain. When it turned to see where Spike was, Spike punched it in the nose and called out in Xander's direction, "Hey luv, can we dust this wanker?"
"Are you kidding? It's nothing but a fledge." A little bravado in the middle of a fight never hurt anyone. The vampire didn't need to know that neither Spike nor Xander was considered an active combatant by the Council these days. He ducked a wild vamp punch. "It's still got clumps of dirt clinging to its burial suit." The fledge spun and kicked Xander before he could dodge again. He managed to tense his abs in time to take the kick without serious damage, but it sent him flying backwards to land on his butt in the grass.
"I don't mean are we capable, I mean if we dust him will we fuck up the sodding timeline!?" Grabbing the Peaceful Acres' wrought-iron fence, Spike jumped and kicked out with both legs to catch the charging vampire square in the chest. The vampire stumbled backwards a couple steps but didn't fall. It surged forward again before Spike had time to get out of the way and threw him against the fence so hard the whole length of it vibrated. Spike's face went tight with pain and Xander decided the timeline could go fuck itself.
Looking around wildly for anything made of wood, he saw a white picket fence on the other side of the street. He hesitated for a split second between running to help Spike now and losing precious seconds crossing the street, but without some kind of stake there was no way to defeat the vampire. Then the fledge howled in pain and let go of Spike; he'd kneed it in the groin. Yeah, Spike! Xander silently cheered, and dashed across the street.
It was no problem to rip a slat off the shoddily-constructed picket fence, but up close Xander could tell the top of the picket was way too blunt. He knew he couldn't shove it through a vampire's chest. He shot a frantic look across the street and saw things were getting worse—the vampire had pinned Spike up against the iron railings and it looked like it was about to bite him.
Xander snapped the slat over his knee. It broke in a jagged diagonal, as he'd hoped; now it was a stake. Across the street, the vamp plunged its teeth into Spike's neck. Xander charged, screaming some kind of war cry, maybe just screaming. He barely even felt the stake go through the vampire's jacket and flesh. Then there was nothing but a cloud of dust, and Spike wild-eyed on the other side of it, clapping his hand to his neck.
"Bloody hell," Spike croaked. "That was close." And then his knees gave out, but it didn't matter because Xander's arms were already tight around him.
"We're going to the hospital."
"No, we're bloody well not."
"You got bit, Spike. You're bleeding from the neck." Xander managed to keep his voice from cracking, but he had to clench his fist hard to keep his free hand from shaking. The other hand was tucked under Spike's armpit, holding him up.
"It's nothing." Spike moved his hand, uncovering the neck wound. "Is it spurting?" He waited for a second until he could answer his own question. "No. Not spurting. He didn't get the jugular. He was a sodding fledge, fresh outta the ground. I just need a bandaid and I'll be fine. We go to the hospital, things get very fucking complicated."
"Okay," Xander conceded reluctantly. "Let's at least get back to the motel before any more of the Sunnydale nightlife tries to eat us."
He tucked the broken fence slat under the back of his belt, just in case. Then they made their limping way towards the Downtowner, avoiding graveyards and dark alleys.
"So do you think that dusting that fledge will screw things up?" Xander asked.
"Moot point now," Spike observed. He shrugged, and winced. "I didn't recognize him. Probably in the original timeline Buffy dusted him some night on patrol. Shouldn't make a difference that we saved her the trouble." He stumbled, and Xander caught him.
"I will be really pissed," Xander said, making sure Spike was steady before he let go, "if we get back to the future and find out that vampire was supposed to have saved the world."
They made it back to the Downtowner without any more excitement. When they got close Xander kept out a wary eye for any other guests coming or going—specifically, Faith—and with the coast clear, they ducked quickly into their room. Spike tossed his blood-soaked shirt in the garbage, Xander cleaned the bite and taped a bandage over it, and they collapsed into bed together.
The bed squeaked.
"Well, that was a fun day," Spike said. "Wonder what tomorrow will bring?"
"And you said I was jinxing us."
"Touché," Spike admitted.
Xander rolled up on his elbow and took a good look at Spike. He'd taken the brunt of the beating from that vampire; Xander had just got knocked to the ground once, and then run off for the stake. Spike's face was almost unmarked, which was a good thing considering that they still needed to move inconspicuously around town: there was a scrape just outside his right eye, probably where he'd banged against the fence, but that was all. Then there was the white bandage taped to his neck with two red dots already soaking through: not an uncommon injury in Sunnydale, though usually a fatal one. His torso had taken most of the damage, and Xander wondered whether Spike would even tell him if he had a broken rib. "Hey, Spike," Xander said softly, touching his undamaged cheek, "how badly are you hurt?"
"I'll be fine," Spike said predictably, avoiding Xander's eye.
"Seriously, I want to know." Xander ran his finger down Spike's cheek to his jawbone, trailed down to the collarbone, hesitated there. "'Cause I really wanna have sex with you and I want to know if it's okay."
"Oh." Surprise, pleasure and relief mingled in the syllable. Spike looked at Xander straight on. "In that case—it's perfectly okay, luv, but we'd best be gentle, I'm a bit banged up."
Sex was slow, sweet, life-affirming. A lot of kisses before anything else—exploring, testing, celebrating. When they were done they lay snuggled together until the shift in Spike's breathing let Xander know he'd fallen asleep. About the same time, Xander's stomach started growling. Between jet lag and time travel Xander's inner clock felt like a Salvador Dali painting, but he suddenly realized it had been a hell of a long time since he last ate.
It wasn't even very late, local time—not quite ten o'clock. There was a 7-11 a block away from the motel, so Xander left Spike sleeping and came back ten minutes later with two plastic-wrapped ham sandwiches. He woke Spike up, they shared a not very exciting dinner and watched basketball on cable—"I think I remember this one," Xander said, "The Lakers win,"—and they finally went to bed for real. Xander pretended not to notice that Spike took a couple of prescription-strength painkillers along with his normal bedtime pills. If he said anything about it he worried Spike would just start hiding them from him again the way he had the first few months they'd lived together.
"I love you," Xander whispered once the lights were off and Spike's warm body was pressed against his.
"Love you too," Spike whispered in return.
Xander woke up before sunrise. He lay quietly in bed beside Spike until there was enough light to distinguish the patterns in the wallpaper from the water stains, and then he slipped out from under the covers. The digital clock said 6:47. He pulled on shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes, and threaded the room key onto a chain he could wear round his neck. He opened the door a crack, peeked down the walkway to make sure Faith wasn't around—if memory served she'd probably be asleep at this hour, but if she wasn't she was more likely to be on her way in than out—and seeing that the coast was clear he eased out the door and closed it gingerly behind him. He was always so careful not to wake Spike up, even though he knew from experience that these hours in the morning were the time Spike was most deeply asleep.
Keeping the Faith problem in mind, he jogged immediately away from the motel, covering a couple blocks at a gentle pace before he stopped to stretch.
These morning runs had become routine over the past few months. He'd needed something to do to fill the time until Spike woke up. Spike needed a lot of sleep, about nine hours a night, while Xander could never manage more than about six. Even when they were in their own apartment in Rome, it was hard for him to kill three hours in the morning without disturbing Spike. So he left the apartment—he went running.
He'd been surprised at how much running seemed to help with everything else. It was like meditation, kind of, only without the need to sit still. Things would come up in his mind while he ran, and the rhythm of his sneakers on the ground and his in-and-out breath would keep him from getting lost in the worry or fear or regret, and then after a while the thoughts would slip away and there'd be nothing but the running. He didn't have nightmares about the Congo anymore, or about Caleb, or even about high school. And as an added plus, he was in the best shape of his life.
One thing he thought about a lot when he ran was Spike. They'd been dating now for over half a year, counting from that night in Germany. Xander tried to imagine what his younger self, probably asleep now in his parents' basement, would say if he told him. He wasn't even sure which factor would freak him out the most: that he was dating a former vampire, that he was dating a guy, or that he was dating Spike.
Probably his younger self would punch him in the face, call him a liar and a demon, and go running to Buffy for help. Good thing he wasn't planning on making that visit.
Still, he let the dialogue with his younger self play out in his imagination.
"He's not evil anymore," he silently told teenaged Xander. "He's human now. And he died saving the world—twice! And even before that, he went and got a soul—on purpose, not like Angel. And even before that he helped us fight demons, baby-sat Dawn, let Glory nearly kill him. I don't think he ever was all that evil, not like other vampires."
"Are you insane?" his younger self exploded inside his head. "You know when the last time I saw Spike was? He gave me a concussion, threatened Will, and kidnapped us away to the old factory. Cordelia caught us kissing and got impaled on a piece of rebar!"
"Well, okay, yeah," Xander admitted, "I mean, he was a vampire."
"So what the hell do you see in him?" younger Xander asked.
"For one thing, he's fucking hot," Xander said. "You can't tell me you haven't noticed—I know damn well you have."
"No comment," said younger Xander, since of course he couldn't deny it what with older Xander knowing his every thought. Well, and it didn't hurt that older Xander was actually controlling both sides of this conversation.
"You wouldn't believe the things he knows how to do with his tongue," Xander went on. "I mean, seriously: think over a century of practice."
"Does he still do that thing where he tilts his head a bit and raises his eyebrow and looks at you like he's thinking about eating you?" younger Xander asked. "'Cause that always was weirdly sexy..."
"Now you're getting it!"
"Okay, but even if he's sexy, and not necessarily evil, what about the fact that he's an asshole?"
"Hey, you're the one who dated Cordelia."
"Technically, wasn't that you, too?"
In the real world, Xander came to a red light and jogged in place, waiting for the green. "Try to stay with the point, okay?" he thought at younger Xander. "The thing with Cordelia worked for as long as it did because insults are sexy. Fighting with her made you hot. You never wanted to date someone sweet; if you had, there was Willow." The light changed and Xander loped forward. "And hey, Spike can be sweet. But he's also snarky and prickly and a little bit dangerous."
"Oh yeah, that sounds like a great basis for a relationship," younger Xander said, bitingly sarcastic. "I mean, okay, I'll admit that me and Cordelia weren't the poster children for happily-ever-after. But that was a high school thing. You're, what, twenty-four? Shouldn't you be taking things more seriously now?"
"This is serious," Xander said. "Maybe I'm not explaining it right. Being with Spike is really good, okay? Good like the best times with Anya. He's ... I'm better, when I'm with him. I stopped smoking, I stopped drinking, I can talk to him like no one else. He gets me. And you know, I think I'm good for him too. I think he was kind of ... lost, until I came along."
Younger Xander stayed silent for a moment, as though in contemplation of the many very serious issues Xander had raised in that little speech. Then he asked, "Who's Anya?"
Xander laughed out loud. He broke his own rhythm and stumbled over a crack in the pavement and steadied himself against a nearby brick wall, still laughing. "I don't even know who Anya is yet!" he said to the wall.
"Hey man," said a strangely familiar, slightly out-of-breath voice behind him, "are you okay?"
Xander turned half around and his eye widened. Larry. He barely stopped himself from saying the name out loud.
"Xander!" Larry said, sounding surprised. "I didn't recognize—I've been pacing myself off you for the past couple blocks, hope you don't mind. I didn't know you ran," he added.
Shit. Shit. Shit. "I'm sorry," he said, "you've got the wrong guy." He turned all the way to face Larry, revealing his eyepatch.
Larry frowned slightly. "Oh, yeah, now I see—man, you look just like this guy I know. Only, I guess he's a bit younger. Hey, you wouldn't be any relation to Xander Harris, would you?"
"Oh, Xander Harris," Xander said, grasping at the straw Larry had just handed him. "Yeah, actually. He's my cousin."
Larry nodded. "You've got a major family resemblance going on there. Oh," he held out his hand, "I'm Larry. I go to school with Xander."
Xander shook his hand, feeling very weird. "Rigby," he said, giving the name of his real 30-year-old cousin in Tulsa. "Nice to meet you."
Larry grinned and gave Xander's hand a healthy squeeze. "I'll have to tell Xander I ran into you."
"No!" Xander said quickly. "I'd, uh, rather not let the Harrises know I'm in town. I'm just here on business. We're not on good terms."
"Oh. Uh, sorry to hear it," Larry said, looking a bit awkward now. "Anyway, I'd better get going before I cool down. I won't say anything to Xander."
He started to turn to leave, and Xander suddenly flashed on the memory of the last time he'd seen Larry. Graduation Day.
Xander sprinted to catch up. "Hey," he said, "I have to finish my run, too. Mind if I join you?"
What the hell are you doing, you idiot? Xander asked himself. This is the opposite of being careful and lying low!
He thinks I'm Rigby, he told himself. He won't say anything to anybody. And he'll be dead in six months.
That's what it was about, of course. If Sunnydale was a ghost town, Larry was one of the ghosts.
Not like they'd ever exactly been friends, but Larry had proved himself in the end. Hell, if he'd survived Graduation Day he might be an Associate of the new Council now, just like Xander and Spike.
"I'm gay," Xander said out loud suddenly, without preamble. "That's why the Harrises don't like me."
"Huh?" Running alongside, Larry cast him a startled look. "No kidding! So am I!"
"I know," Xander said without thinking, and then bit his tongue.
"Xander tell you?" Larry asked.
"Yeah," Xander agreed quickly, "I realized it was you when you told me your name." Oh yeah, Xander, you are a smooth operator, he winced mentally.
"Is he out to you?"
Xander thought about his eighteen-year-old self, about the desperate panic that had seized him every time Larry tried to have a frank talk with him about sexuality. "No," he said, thinking it was an honest answer in some sense. "I don't think he's even out to himself, yet."
"It's weird," Larry said, "he came out to me last year—gave me the courage to face myself, you know?—but ever since then he's been living in Narnia."
"Narnia?" Xander repeated, slightly confused.
"Way the hell in the back of the closet," Larry explained with a grin. "Hadn't heard that one before?"
Xander shook his head, grinned back.
"Maybe you should talk to him about it," Larry said.
"It'll happen when he's ready," Xander said. "I think he needs to grow up some more—get out of Sunnydale, maybe."
"Hell, we all need to get out of Sunnydale," Larry said, laughing-serious.
Suddenly there was a lump in Xander's throat and he couldn't reply. He swallowed hard and concentrated on the rhythm of their sneakers on the sidewalk. "Someday," he managed to say, "he's gonna look back on all this and admire you."
"I guess," Larry said, not really listening. "Hey, I have to turn off here."
"Okay," Xander said, slowing down alongside Larry and thinking of all the things he wished he could say. Stay away from giant snakes. Look behind you. Tuck and roll. "I'm really glad we met," he said. "Good-bye."
Spike stirred in bed when Xander closed the door behind himself. "Luv?" he said sleepily. "That you?"
"It better be, or you're in trouble," Xander pointed out. He kicked his sneakers off and went to sit on the edge of the bed beside Spike.
Spike took his glasses from the bedside table and blinked up at Xander. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Xander said.
"Don't give me that. It's written all over your face." Spike braced himself on one elbow and sat up so he could cup Xander's cheek in his hand. He brushed his thumb along Xander's jaw and said, "Tell me."
Xander was distracted for a moment by the sight of Spike's chest—the blanket had slipped down to reveal numerous bright red bruises, big and splotchy. There were bruises on his forearm, too, where the vampire had grabbed him. "Shit," Xander said, "you're a mess."
Spike narrowed his eyes. "Don't change the subject, pet."
"Okay," Xander sighed. "I ran into someone I knew from school. Larry. We talked a bit. It was a head trip."
Spike raised his eyebrow. "You didn't say anything foolish, did you?"
"Nah. I said I was my older cousin, and we just talked about life and stuff." Xander let out a slow breath, and then added, "He was one of the kids who died fighting the Mayor."
"Oh," Spike said. "Like Harm."
"Yeah, only he didn't get vamped, just dead."
"Sorry, luv," Spike said softly. "You want to talk about it some?"
Xander shook his head. "Nah. It's okay. I'd better have a shower."
Spike shrugged. "Then let me come along and wash your back."
"I kinda want to be alone," Xander said.
"No you don't." Spike touched Xander's hair and seemed to consider kissing him but decide against it. "If you did, you wouldn't have come back here yet."
"You're hurt," Xander said, protesting for form's sake now because he really did want Spike to take him into the shower and kiss him and make him forget that there was no real reason beyond the capriciousness of the universe that Larry had died and Xander had lived.
"Bruises, scratches, nothing serious," Spike said. "Hot water will do me good."
So Xander let Spike lead him into the bathroom, waited for him to run the shower, and then in the wet and the steam he closed his eye and let the gentle feel of Spike's hands take him away from everything else.
They dressed in black for breaking into the school library. Nothing conspicuous, nothing that screamed "I'm out for a pleasant evening of cat-burgling!"—just black jeans for Spike, black cargo pants for Xander, black t-shirts all around. Spike wore his motorcycle jacket, and Xander had a black corduroy blazer he'd borrowed from Giles before the trip.
They took the rental car and switched the headlights off when they pulled into the school's driveway. At the library's rear entrance—the little-used door that led directly into the stacks—Xander listened with a stethoscope for a minute to make sure the place was empty. Sure, it was nearly midnight on a Saturday, but remembering the hours the Scooby gang used to keep, a little caution was in order.
He couldn't hear a thing. "Go for it," he whispered to Spike.
Spike pulled out his lock picks and set to work. They glinted silver in the beam of the sodium light mounted over the door.
In a very short time the door swung open, silent on its hinges.
The library was dark inside, which was good—if anyone was there, they'd have the lights on. Spike slipped inside first and Xander followed, pulling the door shut behind him.
It wasn't pitch black; the moon, three nights from full, shone though the skylight. Once Xander's eye adjusted he could easily make out the bookshelves, the big table and chairs, the circulation desk, the door to the rest of the school.
A shiver ran down his back. For just a moment it was as though he could see them all gathered around that table: Willow in her fuzzy pink shirt poring enthusiastically over the latest dusty text, Oz beside her all cool and laconic, Cordelia pouting and remote but working with them anyway, himself cracking jokes and secretly wondering if he even belonged, and Buffy golden in the center of it all.
Spike's hand on his shoulder brought him back. "You see if you can find the ones out here while I break into the office," he whispered.
Giles had given them a list of six books to bring forward in time. "All six of them are irreplaceable, full of vital information," he'd said, "and after the First's assault on the Council and the destruction of Sunnydale, no copies remain at all. As long as you're in the past anyway, it would be very useful if you could collect them."
"Wasn't there some little thing about not altering the timeline?" Spike had said pointedly.
"I never did find the need to consult these particular volumes in the later years in Sunnydale," Giles had assured him. "If I happen to miss them, I am sure I will attribute their disappearance to the confused evacuation on the morning of the mayor's Ascension."
So here they were. Xander pulled out his pocket flashlight and started searching.
He'd found two of the books on the list when he heard footsteps and voices in the corridor outside. He killed his flashlight and dashed for the office, where Spike was standing on a chair to scan the titles of the books Giles kept on the high shelf.
"We've got company," Xander said, shutting the door behind himself as quickly as he could without slamming it.
"Bugger," Spike said, and snapped off his own flashlight.
At almost the same moment, the library itself was flooded with bright fluorescent light.
"Fuck," Xander whispered, "Get down on the floor."
They sat side by side, backs pressed against the door. If anyone glanced in from the main room, they wouldn't be visible, but if anyone actually tried to come into the office they were screwed. Xander scanned the room for a better hiding place, but nothing presented itself.
Buffy's voice carried easily through the door. "...definitely some kind of nest," she was saying, "right where you thought."
"And you didn't get a good look at any of them?" Giles asked.
"Just shadows," Faith said. "Like B said, we stayed pretty far away. There were too many of them to take on without some kind of plan."
"Well, that's where we come in," Xander heard his own cheerful voice, only slightly muffled by the door. "We're plan-tabulous!"
In the dark office, Spike poked Xander in the ribs and raised an eyebrow. Xander cringed. "I'm eighteen," he whispered defensively.
"I've been working on a spell that might help," Willow said out in the main room. "I think I could fill the cave system up with a sort of dense fog—they wouldn't be able to see what's going on, and maybe you could take them on a few at a time."
"Well that—that's a promising line of attack," Giles said. "Let's talk about techniques for fighting in low visibility."
"They're talking about the Sisterhood, aren't they?" Spike whispered. "Thought this meeting wasn't supposed to happen until Sunday."
"That's what Giles said," Xander whispered back. "I guess he was wrong."
"What do we do if he decides to come into his office for a spot of tea?" Spike whispered.
Xander shrugged in the darkness. "Run for it?"
"And outpace two Slayers who are already between us and the exit?"
"Fuck." Xander grimaced. "I guess we explain ourselves nicely and as vaguely as possible, and then break out the Lethe's Bramble."
"You do realize that's a terrible plan, right?"
"Oh yeah. I'm well aware."
"All right then."
They lapsed back into silence.
In the main room, it sounded as though Faith and Buffy were practicing some combat moves on each other. There were feminine grunts and occasional clatters and thuds. Faith hasn't crossed the line yet, Xander reminded himself. She's still one of the good guys. Hasn't even fucked me yet.
"Wish I could see her," Spike whispered.
Xander was actually confused for a moment, until he realized Spike wasn't talking about Faith.
Buffy was out there, probably fifteen feet away from them. A younger version, sure, but Buffy nonetheless.
Spike hadn't seen Buffy since the day the amulet had burned him up saving the world. She'd found out that he was alive after Xander found him in LA, and of course she'd been furious at Spike for not contacting her and with Giles and Andrew for keeping him a secret. But then there'd been a lot of things happening at once—Xander had gone straight to South Africa to meet up with Rona's team and fight vampires who'd taken over a gold mine, Spike had been sick, and Buffy herself had had to go to Siberia to help Faith fight a frost demon. By the time everyone was safe again, Buffy had heard from Willow that there was something between Spike and Xander.
Ever since then, Buffy had been away from Rome whenever Spike and Xander were in it. And they never talked about it—not him and Buffy in their rare, stilted phone calls, and not him and Spike.
He was a little afraid that Spike was still in love with Buffy. He wasn't sure whether Buffy had ever been in love with Spike, but six months of awkwardness and silence said she felt something about him.
"Can I take this book home, Giles?" Willow asked.
"Yes, of course. Just let me stamp the card."
They could hear Giles's footsteps as he passed the office door on his way around to the back of the circulation counter.
Spike coughed, muffling the sound against his sleeve.
"Shhh," Xander whispered. "He's really close."
Spike nodded, but Xander could hear him breathing. Struggling to breathe. Fuck. He was having an attack.
Spike fumbled in his jacket pocket and his inhaler clattered to the floor between their feet. Wincing at the noise, Xander snatched it up and pressed it into Spike's hand. Spike shook it and then took it between his lips and inhaled sharply. Xander held his own breath for as long as Spike held his. In the heavy silence, Giles's footsteps headed closer to them again and then away as he rounded the desk and went back into the central area, presumably to give Willow the book.
Spike exhaled slowly.
"Are you okay?" Xander whispered.
"Think the medicine's doing the trick," Spike whispered back, hoarse now and quieter than before. "Already breathing easier."
"Been feeling ... off, all day," Spike confessed. "Maybe it's the Sunnydale air."
Xander's stomach tightened in familiar worry. "Are you getting sick?" he whispered.
"No," Spike insisted. "Nothing like that."
Xander laid his palm over Spike's forehead. He didn't feel feverish.
"I'm fine," Spike said.
Out in the main room, the party seemed to be breaking up. "So we'll reconvene tomorrow at four o'clock," Giles said. "Willow, you should come an hour earlier to practice the spell."
There was a bit of random chatter and squeaking of chair legs against the floor. Xander held his breath again; if Giles was going to decide to come into his office, this would be the moment.
The library light turned off.
"Oh god," Xander said, allowing his voice to rise just above a whisper. "That was too close."
"Good warm-up for Tuesday, then, wasn't it?" Spike said. "Let's find the rest of the books and get the hell out of here."
They drove back to the motel with six stolen books in their trunk.
The thing they forgot to take into account, Xander realized slightly too late, was that driving was faster than walking.
As he was unlocking the door to their room, he heard Faith's voice behind them, "Hey, mister, can I bum a cigarette?"
Xander's hand tightened reflexively on the doorknob. He stepped even closer to the door, keeping his face hidden. "Sorry luv," he heard Spike say behind him, "Don't smoke anymore."
"No?" Faith said. Her voice was all teasing and sultry. "Now why would you give it up? Don't tell me you're one of those clean-living types."
She's flirting with him! Xander realized, appalled. In three days I'm going to lose my virginity to her, and she's flirting with my boyfriend!
He couldn't just keep standing there with the key in the door; Faith would realize something was weird. He was afraid to even say anything to Spike, in case Faith recognized his voice. So he just opened the door and slipped inside. He left it open a crack so that Spike could follow.
Which he wasn't doing.
"Turns out," Spike said in a low, amused, silk-and-sandpaper tone, "the things are bad for you."
Xander stood with his back pressed against the wall between the door—still open a crack for easy listening—and the window. He didn't turn on the light in the room.
My boyfriend is flirting with Faith.
"I have been told I'm a bad girl," Faith said.
"Fuck," Xander whispered to the empty room. "I am gonna kill Spike." He turned and took a step sideways, peeked carefully between the room's closed curtains.
Spike and Faith were standing face-to-face, closer to each other than strangers in a deserted parking lot had any business standing. They were right in front of the rental car; Faith had one combat boot perched provocatively on its bumper, and she leaned slightly forward with her elbow on her knee. Spike had his thumbs hooked in his belt so his fingers just happened, so very casually, to frame his package. He was looking at her with that subtle I'm-gonna-eat-you smile that made Xander's knees wobble when it was directed at him, and this was wrong on so very many levels.
"I used to like bad girls," Spike was saying.
"Used to?" Faith repeated, putting on a blatantly seductive pout. "So what do you like now?"
"Nice boys," Spike said, nodding towards the room he shared with Xander.
"Really." Faith chuckled, low in her throat. "Should've known. So," she lifted one finger to touch Spike's chest, "What would you say to both at once?"
Spike caught her wrist in his hand, brought her finger up to his mouth and sucked on it for a moment, locking eyes with Faith. Xander shivered, watching them. "Love the idea," Spike said, releasing her hand. "But my good boy is a little more on the conservative side, so I must regretfully decline."
"Too bad." Faith took a step backwards and caressed her hips with her hands. "If you change your mind, you know where I am, bad boy."
Spike watched Faith until she disappeared into her own room, and then finally came inside.
"What the hell was that?" Xander demanded as soon as the door was closed.
Spike flicked the lights on and blinked in the brightness. "What?" he said, innocent as a kitten. "We didn't do anything."
"You talked," Xander pointed out acidly. "Remember the fucking timeline? The one we're not supposed to screw with?"
"She'd never even seen me before," Spike said, taking his coat off and tossing it over the armchair. "No way of knowing who I was."
"But she'll see you again! For what's supposed to be the first time!"
Spike shrugged it off. "She won't recognize me. My hair'll be all different, and I won't have the glasses."
"Oh yeah, glasses, that's an impenetrable disguise." Xander rolled his eye. "Who do you think you are, Clark Kent?"
Spike sat down on the bed and started unlacing his boots. "All right, say she does recognize me later. So what? She'll think she had a narrow brush with the Big Bad, she'll wonder why her Slayer sense didn't tingle, and that'll be the end of the story. Doubt she'll even bother to mention it to anyone." He kicked the boots across the room and flopped down on the bed.
Xander threw his own jacket on top of Spike's and stalked around to the other side of the bed. "You're not taking this thing seriously enough," he accused Spike. "If we fuck up here, we could ruin everything. You took a stupid chance. Why did you even talk to Faith? You could've just said you didn't smoke and then followed me into the room!"
"Why did you talk to Larry this morning?" Spike retorted.
"Okay, that's totally different. I mean, for starters, Faith's not dead. You can fucking call her up and flirt with her as much as you want as soon as we get back to the future, I don't fucking care."
"Oh." Spike propped himself up on his elbows so he could look at Xander better; now his expression was serious. "Yes, you do. You're not mad at me for the timeline, you're mad at me for Faith."
"No I'm—well, yeah!" Scowling, Xander kicked his shoes off and stripped off his t-shirt. "You were writing act one of a porno flick with her, right in front of me. I think I have a right to be pissed off!"
"I wasn't going to do anything with her," Spike said. "It was all just ... fun."
"You sucked her finger."
"If you calm down, I'll suck all sorts of different parts of you," Spike offered.
Xander was not ready to be appeased. "I know you think you know her, but that's later—you don't know her from now. All she wants is to use you and throw you away."
Spike tilted his head. "Who are we talking about now, exactly, pet?"
Under the influence of Spike's penetrating look, Xander stopped and thought about what he'd just said. "Okay, I may have some outstanding issues here," he admitted. "But that doesn't change the fact that you shouldn't have talked to Faith."
Spike lay back down on the bed. "May've got a bit carried away. Sorry," he said to the ceiling.
Xander sighed, and decided he didn't want to fight about it any more for now. He finished changing into the boxers he'd been using for sleeping in. When he turned around he saw Spike's eyes were closed. "Are you even going to get undressed?" he asked. Spike didn't respond. Xander crawled across the bed and shook his shoulder.
"Hm?" Spike said, opening his eyes.
"You're not going to sleep in your clothes, are you?"
"Right. No." Spike dragged himself into a sitting position, sat with his head hanging low for a minute, then started peeling off his shirt.
Xander tucked his knees up under his chin and watched. The bruises on Spike's back and chest were on their way to bright purple, and from the slow way he was moving, Xander guessed there was some pain involved.
The transition from being pissed off at Spike to being worried about him was so routine that Xander barely even noticed it happening. "Are you sure that fledge didn't break any ribs?"
"Positive," Spike assured him curtly. "Had enough broken ribs as a vampire, I bloody well know the difference between that and a bit of bruising."
"It's not a bit. It's—damn, we should've put ice on them or something. I could run to the 7-11...." Xander uncurled, moved as though he was about to get off the bed.
"No," Spike snapped. "Let's just go to sleep."
Xander glared back at him. "Why are you mad at me all of a sudden? I'm not the one who was making come-fuck-me eyes at Faith."
Spike's hand curled into a fist but he didn't do anything with it. "I'm tired, all right? My chest still hurts and I ache all over and I hate being human and I was only flirting with the fucking bint, it didn't mean anything!"
"Jesus," Xander whispered, almost under his breath. Spike's frustration with his human situation almost always went unspoken; it scared Xander, sometimes, how bad it had to get before Spike would say something.
He had no idea how to respond to Spike's explosion.
Spike was taut, angry—he had a look like he wanted to storm out of the room, but wearing nothing but pajama pants and covered in bruises he couldn't exactly head down to the local bar. Xander pitched his voice low, conciliatory. "Faith doesn't matter, you're right. She's a ghost here." Trying to talk Spike down from his trembling furious isolation on the other side of the bed. "I didn't mean to—I didn't realize you were so wiped out. I'm sorry." He crawled across the bed and wrapped his arms around Spike from behind, and Spike didn't relax but he didn't resist. "Let's go to sleep. I'm tired too. It'll all be better in the morning."
"No it won't," Spike said. Flat, no tone. "I'll feel like shite in the morning. I feel like shite every morning."
Xander felt a chill run down his spine even though the room was perfectly warm. He wanted to hug Spike tighter, but remembering the vibrant bruises he brushed a kiss across the nape of his neck instead. "When we finish here you're going to go back to London and see your doctor again," he said. "Promise me, Spike."
Spike made a noise that sounded vaguely affirmative.
"Out loud," Xander insisted. "In words. Promise it."
Spike squirmed around so he was facing Xander. "I promise," he said against Xander's lips, suddenly sounding like himself again, "as long as you promise to come to Camden Market with me and get something pierced."
Xander blinked. Thought about it for a second. "Okay," he said. "Deal."
They sealed it with a kiss. Ten minutes later Spike was asleep with his head on Xander's shoulder. Xander lay there for a long time, holding him, until finally sleep came and took him too.
"I'm gonna be in big trouble if Mom looks in my room before I get back," Dawn said, frowning nervously. "This better be worth it."
"It is, Niblet," Spike assured her. "You're saving the bloody world,"
She heaved a dramatic sigh. "Yeah, and nobody's ever even going to know about it."
"Welcome to my life." Xander gave her a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "Tell you what: in 2005 we'll throw you a big party to thank you for all this."
"If I have to wait six years, there'd better be a lot of ice cream," Dawn said.
"All you can eat," Spike promised.
She started to smile. "And presents?"
"Many, many presents."
"And if Mom catches me and yells at me, you'll make sure she apologizes in the future?"
Xander felt his own face freezing into a horrible parody of a smile as he tried not to show by his expression that there was anything wrong with what Dawn had just demanded.
She wasn't looking at him, though, she was looking at Spike, who said without hesitation, "Absolutely. I promise, pet." Then he turned to Xander and said, "We'd better start going over the battle plan, don't you think?"
Tremendously grateful for the change of subject, Xander unfolded a diagram of Sunnydale High and spread it on the table. "Okay. Here's the situation. It's a full moon, so Oz got locked in the book cage at sunset. Willow will be there with him. Giles and Buffy started out there too, but then Giles went to Restfield to consult the Spirit Guides, and Buffy went to Willy's." He glanced at his watch. "That's where they should be now. All we have to do is avoid them."
"This is so cool!" Dawn interjected. "Can we have code names, by the way? I've got one picked out and everything."
"All right, Niblet," Spike said. "What've you got picked, then?"
She grinned. "Magic Spice."
Spike's lips twitched but his voice remained completely level as he said, "Good choice. Now, we're on a tight schedule here, so we'd better let Xander get on with it."
"Right," Xander said, getting himself back on track. "At this point the Sisters are ranged around town individually. At about quarter past ten, Faith is going to meet one of them at the park on Clarkson Street, but I intervene and she, uh, leaves the Sister alive."
"You you or other you?" Dawn asked.
"Other me," Xander said. "Past me." He noticed Spike giving him a significant look. Xander shrugged slightly—don't worry about the Faith thing, we've got more important things to focus on. Spike nodded, apparently getting it. "By then," Xander went on, "we want to be in the school. Because it's about to get crowded in there, and we want to get into a good hiding place before the fun starts."
"The Hellmouth will open in the library, right?" Spike said.
"Yeah. Angel and Buffy will be there, and Willow and Giles, and Faith. The Sisterhood will be ranging a little farther; they'll be in the corridors and the classrooms. Mostly on the first floor. And, um, that's when I come in with some undead friends."
Dawn crinkled her forehead. "I'm not undead," she pointed out.
"Not me me," Xander said. "Other me."
Spike tilted his head, looking appraisingly at Xander. "Wait a mo', pet. Didn't Rupert send you on this interesting job because you know the area and you weren't in the school that night?"
"Well. Yeah. There's a few things Giles doesn't actually know about that night."
"Jack O'Toole and his undead buddies tried to blow up the school." Xander hesitated, strangely reluctant to let go of the secret he'd kept for six years. "I stopped them."
"Well." Spike gave him an odd look. "Good for you."
Xander held his gaze for a moment, silently promising to talk about it later. Then he pointed at the diagram of the school. "We should hide here, around the top of the main staircase. I'm pretty sure no one ever went up to the second floor that night. From there, we can keep track of what's going on. After I—younger me, I mean, leaves the school, there won't be much time before Giles manages to close the Hellmouth. That's when you come in, Dawn."
She nodded. They'd talked about this part already, on the phone. "I run into the library screaming 'Buffy, Buffy, you have to help, there's demons attacking the house!'"
"You have to pant hard," Spike reminded her. "Like you just ran all the way to the school."
"How many demons?" Xander asked her.
"Um, what do you think—maybe eight?"
"No, answer me like you'll answer Buffy when she asks."
"Okay." Dawn nodded firmly, then opened her eyes wide in feigned panic. "Maybe ten! I don't know! It was a lot and it was dark and I ran through the bushes so they wouldn't see me!"
"You don't look like you've been running through bushes," Spike noted. "We'll find you a bush on the way to the school."
"What did they look like?" Xander asked.
"About as tall as Angel, with long pink hair, big teeth, and tails!" she said, still putting on a convincing show of desperate panic. "The tails had this three-part forky thing at the end," she added, slightly calmer.
"Not so much detail, Niblet," Spike said. "Not at first. Stick with the tall, big teeth, tails. That's general enough. Sounds scary. When you all get to the house and find nothing there, Mr. Giles is sure to ask you for more detail. Then throw in the pink hair and the fork at the end of the tail, and he'll recognize them as Chiradimen demons. They're a mostly harmless breed. Like to dance around a house and scare the wits out of the occupants, then teleport back to their lair and laugh about the funny faces the humans made."
"Those sound like pretty lame demons," Dawn said, wrinkling her nose.
Xander shrugged acknowledgment; they were pretty lame. "So, ready to roll?"
Dawn nodded. "Magic Spice reporting for duty, ready to save the world!"
They parked a block away and scurried through the shadows up to the front door of the school. Spike peeked through the door and then motioned for the others to follow.
The school was still quiet. The three of them ran straight to the main staircase and up, and stopped at the top. They sat side by side with their backs to the wall.
Dawn and Spike, sitting to either side of Xander, were both panting a little from their sprint. Xander wasn't; he had his morning runs to thank for that.
There were twigs and leaves stuck in Dawn's hair and on her shirt, and she had a faint red scratch on her right cheek. True to his word, Spike had stopped at a park with some good bushes on the way to the school, and Dawn had enthusiastically plunged through them to attain the desired effect. Xander squeezed her shoulder. "You are awesome, you know," he whispered.
She grinned. "Big party in 2005, right?" she whispered back.
"You bet." Even though Dawn wouldn't actually remember any of this, Xander decided they should throw her a party when they got back to the future. Eighteen-year-old Dawn certainly wouldn't object.
On Xander's left, Spike was still trying to catch his breath. He was sounding a little wheezy.
"Spike?" Xander whispered. "You all right?"
Spike pressed his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. He looked like he was trying to control his breathing, but not so much succeeding.
"Is he okay?" Dawn whispered, sounding a little scared.
"He'll be okay," Xander whispered back, outwardly calm. He reached into Spike's pocket and took out the inhaler. "Spike, you need this." He took Spike's hand and closed it around the molded plastic. Spike opened his eyes, and his gaze darted to Dawn for a moment before returning to Xander. With obvious reluctance, he shook the inhaler and took a dose.
Xander breathed again as soon as Spike did. Spike tucked the inhaler back in his pocket, eyes straight ahead and jaw tight. Xander guessed that it hadn't been easy, doing that in front of Dawn. He put his hand on Spike's leg and wished he could say something.
"Do you have asthma?" Dawn asked.
Spike flinched, barely noticeably, then turned to face Dawn. "Yeah," he said. "Ever since I turned human."
"A girl in my class has really bad asthma," Dawn said. "She's not even allowed to do P.E."
"Ah," Spike said. "Well, mine's not that bad."
"I bet you miss not having to breathe, huh?"
Spike was saved from the conversation by the sound of the school's front door opening. He put his finger to his lips in the 'shhh' gesture and raised his eyebrows at Dawn. She nodded and pressed back against the wall. Spike peeked around the corner quickly and then retreated. "Think it's your boys," he whispered to Xander.
"Where are we going to make the cake?" said someone down in the lobby. Xander thought he recognized the voice of the first guy Jack had raised, the big dumb one who'd been buried in his letterman's jacket. Bob? Bob.
Dawn tapped Xander on the shoulder. Cake? she mouthed silently, looking puzzled.
Bomb, he mouthed back. And then, since she still looked confused, he mimed an explosion with his hands. Her eyes widened.
"I know just the place," said Jack O'Toole. That wasn't a voice Xander was ever going to forget. "Come on, boys, we're going to the boiler room."
Their footsteps faded away down the hall.
"Now what?" Dawn whispered.
"We wait," Xander said. "They'll be coming back the same way in a few minutes. It'll be a while before the serious excitement starts."
Dawn rocked her knees back and forth. "I didn't know saving the world was going to be so boring."
Spike leaned closer to Dawn—casually putting his arm around Xander as he did so. "Tell you what, Niblet. I used to tell you vampire stories, keep you entertained—used to, that is, from my perspective. Hasn't happened yet from yours, obviously. Wanna hear one?"
She nodded, eyes sparkling.
"All right then. So, let's see. It was the winter of 1885, and four especially evil and powerful vampires had just arrived in Vienna by train...."
Xander listened to the story, as fascinated as Dawn but for different reasons. Spike never wanted to talk about his vampire exploits to Xander—not in any specific terms, anyway. Sometimes in the middle of the night he woke up sweating and shaking with tears on his face, and when Xander woke up too and asked him what was wrong he'd say he was dreaming about being a vampire, but he never got into details.
For Dawn, though, there were details. There was a velvet dress and a diamond necklace and blood and soot mixed in the snow. Spike was spinning a gothic horror story, and Xander didn't know for sure whether every detail was true but he guessed that the bulk of them were. Spike didn't use the vampires' real names; Angel was the big brooding Irishman, Darla was the pretty blonde lady, tough as steel, Drusilla was the dark fey beauty, and Spike himself was the fey one's lover, the wild youth. Xander wasn't sure whether Dawn at this point knew enough of Spike's or Angel's history to figure out who the story was really about; if she did, she wasn't saying a word. She just listened in wide-eyed fascination.
Eventually the story was interrupted by the sound of running down below. Spike took a quick peek, then turned to Xander. "You're here," he said.
"Oh man." Xander pressed himself harder against the wall, as though that could make any difference.
"I want to see!" Dawn whispered, and tried to crawl over Xander.
He grabbed her shoulders and held her back. "Too risky."
A door crashed open and there were more footsteps, multiple people this time. "He must be around here somewhere," Jack said. Then the sound of running. Spike snatched another glimpse, just as a roaring squeal and a bigger, further-away crash sounded from the direction of the library.
"One of the Sisters just ran by," Spike reported. "This is shaping up into a bloody French farce!"
Xander tugged Spike back behind the wall. "All we have to do is stay out of the way until it's over."
They could hear muffled screams and shouts now coming from the library.
Dawn cringed. "Buffy's in there. Are you sure she's going to be okay?"
"As long as we don't interfere," Xander assured her, "everything has to go exactly like it did the first time."
Spike shook Xander's hand off. "I have to watch for when you leave, remember?" He edged around the corner again. "Hey, you're chasing one of the dead boys with a fire ax!" he whispered, sounding way too amused with the situation. "Good on you!"
Xander frowned, trying to remember the exact sequence of events. "Was it the skinny one? 'Cause if it was, we're about to come back this way..."
"You're right!" Spike whispered. "Now you're the one fleeing with the zombie on your tail—no, wait, there's three Sisters chasin' the both of you! ... Uh oh." He pulled back around the corner fast.
"Uh oh what?" Dawn said.
"Think maybe one of 'em saw me."
Xander sprang to his feet and yanked Dawn up too. "Dawn, move. Get into a classroom, close the door."
She hesitated, her eyes huge in her face. "What about you?"
There was no time left. Spike made it onto his feet just as the Sister came snarling around the corner. Xander quickly put himself between Dawn and the demon, while Spike held up his hands and said quietly, "Whoa there, girl." Then he made a more complicated gesture, pointing at the palms of his hands each in turn, then at his mouth, and finally making a swoosh motion with his left hand, index finger crooked.
The Sister of Jhe stopped short and ceased growling. She cocked her head, narrowed her glowing red eyes, and then started gesturing back at Spike. She smacked her left palm with her right fist, baby finger extended, and then made a twirling motion with her two index fingers.
"What's going on?" Dawn whispered behind Xander.
"They're talking," Xander explained, pitching his voice low. "Demon sign language." That was the reason that Giles had chosen Spike, in particular, for this mission: he was the only one on the Council who knew the language. In fact the existence of a standard demon sign language had been entirely unknown to the Council until Spike had happened to mention it a few months previously. It opened up a whole area of research that had the more scholarly members of the Council all excited. But for now, the important thing was that this Sister of Jhe seemed to be fluent. Xander relaxed a little, and let Dawn creep up beside him.
Spike and the Sister kept signing at each other. To Xander's admittedly untrained eye it looked kind of like American Sign Language, only with more violent stabby gestures.
After another flurry of hand motions culminating in Spike miming slicing his own throat, the Sister bowed awkwardly and quietly ran away back the way she'd come.
Spike turned back to Xander and Dawn and, leaning against the wall, said "That's done, then. She'll pass the word to the other Sisters."
Xander rubbed his arms uneasily. "It's too early. We weren't supposed to contact them until the Hellmouth closes. What if they change something now?"
"In the original timeline, the Sisters didn't play much of a part in the battle in the library," Spike reminded him. "Their big excitement didn't come until afterwards, when your bloody Scoobies chased them around the school and killed them all."
"And that's where I come in," Dawn said—somewhere between reminding them of her part and seeking reassurance.
"Right," Spike agreed. "And that moment's coming up soon, so we'd better keep an eye out."
"Spike?" Dawn said. "What does this mean?" She mimicked the last sign he'd made in the conversation with the demon, sliding her fingernail along her throat.
"Oh." Spike smiled. "Means 'good-bye.'" He peeked around the corner, then ducked back. "And there you are," he said to Xander. "Walking out nice and peaceful-like."
Xander felt an unexpected rush of adrenaline, realizing what that meant—two floors below them, the bomb had come within a second of detonating. "Okay," he said, reaching for the same calm he knew the Xander downstairs was feeling, "time to get Dawn into position."
"Good luck," Xander whispered. "See you in the future."
Dawn gave him a quick hug. "Big party," she whispered one last time.
Spike gave her a wicked smile. "Go get'em, Magic Spice." Then his eyes widened in surprise when she threw her arms around him, too.
And then she was gone—running around the corner to the library, where the sounds of combat had ended abruptly less than a minute ago.
"Hope this works," Spike said.
"No kidding," Xander agreed. "Okay, where are the Sisters?"
They were in the student lounge. There were three of them huddled around the tipped-over vending machine, eating—"Oh god," Xander gulped.
"They do that the first time through?" Spike asked. He didn't look nearly as close to puking as Xander felt.
"Don't know. Don't care." Come to think of it, the next morning at school there'd been no sign of Bob's rotting corpse, and Xander had never thought to ask. "You talk to them. I'll wait here."
So Spike went over to try to convince the remains of the Sisterhood of Jhe that it would be a really good idea to go into hiding for six years, and Xander studied the student council bulletin board and carefully breathed through his mouth.
Huh, Dingoes Ate My Baby is playing at the Bronze Thursday night. Wow, that brings back memories. Behind him, the disturbing sounds of snapping bones and crunching gristle slowed down and then stopped.
"This is all that's left of you?" he heard Spike say—presumably for Xander's benefit, as the Sisterhood of Jhe didn't understand spoken language. "Only three? ... Sorry to hear it. Tell you what, though. We're here to help."
Dawn had done her job well; the school corridors were deserted as Spike led the way out into the night. The three last Sisters of Jhe followed him single-file, their claws clicking on the linoleum, and Xander brought up the rear.
When they got to the rental car, Spike handed Xander the keys. "You drive. I need my hands free."
"Where are we going, exactly?" The idea all along had been to get the Sisters out of harm's way, but their plan had been pretty fuzzy as to precisely where 'out of harm's way' would be.
Spike exchanged another flurry of gestures with the Sisters, then turned back to Xander. "The desert. They can find a cave, go into hibernation. They do it all the time between Hellmouth events."
"Great." Xander felt a profound sense of relief—things were finally falling into place. They were going to pull this off. He got into the car, then waited for the three Sisters to pile into the back seat. They elbowed each other uncomfortably, but managed to get the door shut. He decided not to bother getting Spike to tell them to fasten their seatbelts.
The drive out to the desert was largely uneventful, though each glance in the rear view mirror was fairly disturbing. Once the Sisters settled down for the ride, they started licking each others' battle wounds.
"They understand, right?" Xander said quietly as he took them through the low hills that bordered Sunnydale on the east. "About not messing up the timeline?"
"They're not invested in it like we are," Spike pointed out. "I did tell them our deal—that we're from the future, that we came back to stop them from being destroyed. They know there's not enough of them to do their job now—not enough to fight the beasties that come out of a Hellmouth when you vent it. I told them that if they wait six years, there'll be all sorts of super-powered girls ready to lend them a hand."
Forty-five minutes later, at the edge of the desert, Xander and Spike said good-bye to the Sisterhood of Jhe. The Sisters' pale blue-gray skin almost glowed in the light of the full moon as, one by one, they made the throat-slitting gesture and loped off into the harsh wilderness.
"That's it," Xander said, sagging against the car. "We're done. We can go back to the future."
Spike snorted. "Hold your horses, Marty McFly. Have to go back to Sunnydale first and check out."
"Well, yeah. Obviously. But the hard part's over, right?" He held up the car keys. "You wanna drive back?"
Spike shook his head and reached for the passenger-side door. "I'm all fagged out. Think I'll sleep on the way back."
Xander frowned, a bit worried. Spike loved driving, and what with having depth perception and all he was actually better at it than Xander. If he was begging off driving, he must be feeling pretty crappy. He'd been coughing on and off on the ride up, insisting the whole time he was 'fine.' Xander hoped he wasn't getting sick.
Of course, it was nearly two in the morning. Xander was tired himself, though he knew he was okay to drive. "No problem," he said. "Hop in."
At first Spike leaned back against the headrest with his eyes closed, but he was coughing too much to sleep. Xander didn't say anything; he was already getting them home as fast as he could, and there was nothing else he could do.
Spike gave up on trying to sleep. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. His breath was sounding wheezy. He dug in his pocket and got out his inhaler and took another dose.
At that point, Xander had to say something. "Uh, Spike? Are you having another attack?"
Spike gave him a scathing look. "What's it ... look like?" he managed to say.
"Shit." Two in one night was seriously not of the good. It didn't seem like the inhaler was helping like it was supposed to.
Spike, meanwhile, was trying again.
"Aren't you supposed to wait longer than that between doses?" Xander asked.
Spike handed the inhaler to Xander. "Think it's ... empty."
Xander hefted it in one hand. It did seem a bit on the light side. "Fuck." He glanced at the dashboard—they were about thirty miles out from Sunnydale. Thirty miles of barren, cactus-covered hills. Not even a gas station, let alone an all-night pharmacy.
He drove as fast as he dared, faster by far than a one-eyed man had any business driving on winding unfamiliar roads at night. He hoped a cop would stop them—then he could turn over the driving to someone with depth perception, flashing lights and a siren. Then he could hold Spike's hand and rub his back and calm him down and ... okay, maybe it was Xander who needed the calming. Spike was perfectly calm, entirely focused on the fight to get air in and out of his resisting lungs. 'Not breathing doesn't scare me,' he'd told Xander once in the wake of an attack. 'Went more'n a week without breathing this one time.'
'Yeah, but that was back when you didn't need oxygen to live,' Xander had pointed out.
Spike had conceded the point with a shrug, and kissed Xander to shut him up and change the subject.
Now, in the car, Xander talked. He wasn't sure if Spike was really listening, but Xander needed to fill the air with sounds other than Spike's labored breaths.
"Never did catch sight of Cordelia," he said. "Probably for the best, but still, I would've liked to see her one last time. I never saw her again after the prom, you know. She moved out to LA and ended up working for Angel, which was completely weird but I guess you already knew about that. Willow went down there a couple times but I never did. And then Wesley ended up working with them too, how crazy was that? Try to imagine telling that to Angel at this point—that Cordy and Wesley are going to end up his intrepid team of adventurers. Or detectives, or whatever the hell it was they were supposed to be doing. Of course, I guess no one's even met Wesley yet."
He was babbling, he knew. When you've got to fill thirty miles with impromptu monologue and you're trying not to talk about the only thing you're thinking about, which is whether your lover will die before you can get him to the hospital, babble just kind of happens.
Spike didn't seem to get any better, but he didn't get any worse either. Hunched over, hands clawed on his knees, forcing the air in and out. Thirty miles of breathing.
They made it.
Half-helping, half-carrying Spike, Xander pushed open the familiar door of the Sunnydale ER and staggered inside, looking for the first nurse or doctor or orderly or anyone who could help.
He was looking for someone in scrubs, of course. Which maybe explained why the group of people walking down the hall towards him didn't register at all until they stopped abruptly a few feet away and Angel said, "Spike."
The bottom fell out of Xander's stomach. He froze—a deer in the headlights, a statue in the Louvre, a snowman in fucking Antarctica.
Angel. Faith. Willow. Giles. Buffy with her arm in a sling. All of them in a cluster, blocking the hall, looking at Spike now with varying expressions of startlement, anger and dismay.
"Peaches," Spike said, pulling himself up straight and half-pushing Xander out of the way and acting like he was going to fucking bluff his way out of this.
Angel glowered, taking a half step forwards and nudging Buffy behind him. "You should've stayed gone, Spike."
"Spike?" Faith repeated. "You know this guy?"
"AKA William the Bloody," Buffy supplied, sounding severely unimpressed.
Faith blinked. "He's a vamp? Huh."
"An old friend," Buffy said dryly.
Faith raised her eyebrows. "Don't tell me it's another one we can't dust," she said with a significant glance at Angel.
Buffy narrowed her eyes. "Oh, this one we can dust."
"No!" Xander yelped. Thus drawing everyone's attention to him.
"Xander!" Willow gasped. "What happened to your eye?"
"What happened to your hair?" Buffy added.
"I'm not Xander," he said quickly, panicked. "I'm his cousin. Rigby. From Tulsa."
"No you're not," Willow said. "I've met Rigby."
"Spike," Angel said, "I don't know what you're up to, but you're going to let Xander go."
Spike, meanwhile, in his effort to hide his asthma attack, was barely even breathing. His lips were tinged with blue and he was swaying on his feet. "Out of the way," he managed to say, "or I ... kill the ... boy."
"You're not even holding on to him," Giles pointed out with a hint of exasperation.
Spike looked like he was trying to reply, but he couldn't. His knees buckled and Xander lunged forward to catch him.
"Xander?" Willow said in a small voice.
Xander was supporting almost all of Spike's weight. With his head tucked against Xander's chest, Spike struggled to breathe.
"He needs a doctor," Xander said. "Now."
"It's a trick—" Angel started.
Xander cut him off with a fierce look. "I'll explain everything, just let us through!"
Giles stepped forward, frowning intently. "Willow, this is not Xander. The resemblance is striking, but look closely—this is not your friend."
"Yes I am! I am Xander!" He turned to Willow, desperate in his appeal. "Will, you're my best friend. Make them listen. Spike can't breathe."
"Uh, guys?" Willow said to the rest of her group. "Maybe we should..."
"He's human." Angel had moved in closer; now he was looking down at Spike with a mixture of confusion and horror. "His heart is beating." He started to reach out to touch Spike, but stopped himself. "It's beating much too fast."
Xander glared at Angel. "Get out of the way." A vampire, two Slayers, a witch and a Watcher. The adrenaline surging through Xander's veins said he could fight them all if they didn't stand aside.
"Angel," Buffy said quietly from the back, "bring Spike into the ER."
So in the end it was Angel who carried Spike, barely conscious, into the Sunnydale hospital's emergency room. Xander hovered at his side, way past worrying about the timeline now, waving over the nearest nurse and explaining in quick, short phrases the empty inhaler, the thirty mile drive. Faith and Buffy lingered at the edge of the room, conspicuously guarding the exit. Giles and Willow stayed closer, watching and listening.
In under a minute Spike was on a bed getting oxygen. A doctor was listening to his breathing, frowning, calling for a nebulizer and listing off drugs that sounded vaguely familiar to Xander. She had Spike's t-shirt bunched up to expose his chest for her stethoscope, which gave Xander and Angel a good view of the ugly greenish bruises from the fight with the fledge Friday night.
The doctor was a tall woman with salt-and-pepper hair held back in a low bun. Xander thought he recognized her; maybe she'd treated him for concussion once or twice. "Is he going to be okay?" he asked as soon as she tucked the stethoscope back in her pocket.
"And you are ...?" she prompted.
"His partner." Xander reached for Spike's hand and held it, both for comfort and to let the woman know he didn't mean his racquetball partner. Beside him, Angel shifted uncomfortably.
The doctor nodded. "He should improve rapidly once we administer medication." She motioned Xander a little distance away from Spike. "He'll definitely need to stay overnight for observation. He won't be able to speak for a while, so can you give me an idea of his medical history?"
"His asthma's usually not bad unless he's sick. He's, uh, had pneumonia," Xander counted quickly in his head, "four times in the past year." He knew he should probably tell her about all the drugs Spike was on, but he couldn't remember their names.
She made a note on her clipboard. "What's his HIV status?"
"Negative." Xander didn't even blink; he'd got used to that question in Rome.
"You didn't give a name or MediCal number on admission," she observed. "It would be very helpful if I could get his previous hospital records."
"He's not American," Xander said. "He doesn't live here. Doesn't have a MediCal card." He knew she couldn't refuse him treatment as long as it was an emergency.
"You want to tell me about the bruises?" she said.
Xander hoped she didn't think he'd beaten Spike up. That would be messy. "He was mugged Friday night near Peaceful Acres," Xander said. "Big guy with a messed-up face. He barely managed to get away." It was a Sunnydale kind of story; he hoped the doctor would subconsciously recognize the type of attack and decide not to question him further.
Angel, who obviously knew exactly what Xander was talking about—he could see the healing bite mark on Spike's neck, anyway—crossed his arms and scowled. No way to guess what he was thinking.
"What about the scars?" the doctor said.
"Oh. Uh..." Xander was thrown by the question. He didn't really even think about the scars anymore, he was so used to seeing them on Spike's bare skin every night. His left forearm had a dusky rose four-inch line where the junky had sliced him that night at the porn store. Then there were the dozens of thin scars on his other arm and his chest, pale pink now and fading towards white, more visible than usual in the hospital's harsh bright light. Any time Xander had tried to ask about them, Spike had given him a different vague story and changed the subject. Xander knew better than to press when Spike didn't want to talk about something.
"They look self-inflicted," the doctor said impatiently. "Is he under psychiatric care?"
"What? No!" he said emphatically. "He was robbed at work last year, the guy cut him." Inside, he was shaken. Shit, that's why he wouldn't tell me. It had never occurred to him that Spike had cut himself, but as soon as the doctor suggested it he was sure it was true.
"All right." The doctor sounded like it didn't matter one way or the other to her. She made another note on the clipboard.
At that point a nurse finally arrived with the nebulizer, and Xander backed off to let them set it up. Still thinking about what the doctor had said, he decided that once they were safe back home he was going to ask Spike about it, up front.
Angel grabbed his arm. "Now you're going to talk," he said very quietly.
He let Angel lead him over to the side of the room, where Giles and Willow had settled on hard plastic chairs. He didn't like getting farther from Spike, but he knew he had to deal with this. Faith and Buffy, seeing the movement, came over to join them.
"It's time to tell us the truth," Angel said. "Who are you? And who is that over there?"
Xander sighed. "I'm Xander. That's Spike. Only ... we're from the future."
"That's impossible," Angel said flatly.
"Giles?" Xander turned to him. "Help me out here. You're the one who sent us back here in the first place."
"It is not impossible," Giles admitted. "However it is highly inadvisable, and I cannot conceive of any circumstances under which I would have committed to such a course of action."
"That's not the impossible part." Angel glared, folding his arms over his chest. "The impossible part is Spike somehow turning human."
"Well obviously it isn't impossible," Xander snapped. "Because there he is."
"Listen, Giles," Faith edged in over Angel and Xander's back-and-forth, "I've seen these guys around. They're staying at the same motel as me, two doors down."
"Really." Giles looked thoughtful. "Faith, Buffy, why don't you go and see if you can find anything in their room that could shed light on their true identities or their purpose here."
"Giles," Xander said quickly, "think about it. We're from the future. Do you want to risk messing up the timeline?"
"As far as I am concerned," Giles said, "the future hasn't happened yet. Buffy, Faith—go."
"Oh god." Xander sank onto the vacant chair beside Willow. His legs felt like wet noodles. Overcooked ones, even. "We are so fucked."
"Xander!" Willow said, sounding shocked. "Language!"
"Will," Xander started wearily, and then didn't know where to go with it. I'm twenty-four years old. I've seen more death than you can imagine, some of it caused by me, some of it caused by you. I'm having hot gay sex with the guy who waved a broken bottle in your face two months ago, or at least I would be if he weren't in the middle of almost dying. I've blown up my high school, I've watched my hometown crumble into a giant crater, I've walked into villages where the flies are so thick on the hacked-up remains of what used to be people that you can't even tell they used to be people. I say 'fuck' now, Will. "Sorry," he said out loud. "It's been a rough night."
"Tell me about it," Willow sighed, slouching lower in her chair. "You can't even imagine what kind of night we've been having."
"I'm from the future," he reminded her. "I know you just fought that monster from the Hellmouth."
"Oh," her eyes widened. "I suppose you do."
"Perhaps you could tell us," Giles said in his polite talking-to-a-maybe-enemy voice, "what you have been up to tonight."
Xander shook his head. "I can't tell you things. We shouldn't be talking at all. This is all horribly, terribly bad."
"You can hardly endanger your timeline by telling us about things that have already happened, can you?" Giles said.
Xander closed his eye, rubbed his temples against the dull headache that was building there. He tried to think about what Giles had told him in Rome about timelines. It had pretty much boiled down to all change is bad. Unless caused by Dawn, in which case it didn't count. But Dawn wasn't here to save him now. "We were saving the world," he said. "What else would we be doing here?"
Angel snorted derisively. "You and Spike were saving the world?"
"He's good now," Xander said. Weary, wary—he didn't really expect them to believe him.
"He threatened to kill you," Angel reminded him. "Just now. In the hallway."
Xander rolled his eye. "That was a bluff. He just wanted to get past you."
"If he's human," Willow said, "he has a soul, right?"
"Yeah," Xander said, "of course." Silently he marveled at how naïve they'd all been back in high school, thinking of souls as an on/off switch for evil. Faith was going to shake that belief pretty soon. Spike was going to gray things up a whole lot more in the coming years. But not if I screw it all up, first.
"Giles," Angel said, "we can't trust him."
"Spike?" Giles looked up over the tops of his glasses. "I most certainly don't trust him, though it seems rather a moot point at the moment, given his condition."
"No. Xander. This Xander. He's ... with Spike."
"Well, yes." Giles looked at Angel as though he were stupid. "He did just say that."
"No, I mean, he's..." Angel cleared his throat and looked pained. "with Spike."
Giles blinked and suddenly his glasses were in his hands, getting a vigorous polish. "I see."
"I don't," Willow said, sounding slightly cranky.
"Spike's my boyfriend," Xander said, because the euphemisms were pissing him off.
Her eyes went wide. "Oh." She looked at Xander. "But you aren't—are you?"
"I'm bi," he said. "I didn't come out until long after—" after you, he nearly said. He acknowledged to himself that exhaustion and worry about Spike were leaving him very prone to saying stupid things. "—after high school," he managed after the awkward pause.
"Oh," Willow said again, obviously working hard to assimilate the surprising information. "Well ... good for you!" She gave him a brave attempt at a smile.
"And now I'm going to go sit by my lover and hold his hand," he said, standing up, daring Angel or Giles to stop him.
They didn't stop him, but this time it was Giles who followed him to the bed. Xander didn't make an issue of it.
Spike opened his eyes when Xander's hand closed over his. "Sorry, luv," he whispered, the sound muffled by the oxygen mask he was wearing.
"Don't be stupid," Xander told him gently, "it's not your fault. Anyway, everything's going to be fine. Just rest, okay?"
Spike closed his eyes again.
"If you are Xander Harris," Giles said, "then you must understand why I cannot trust you without knowing far more than you've told me."
He understood. Hell, he'd been the victim of a fake 'Xander-from-the-future' prank himself one time—though of course Giles didn't know about that, the aborted wedding was years and years away. Still, as a Watcher he'd certainly know about the potential for that kind of deception.
As for how to convince Giles now that he and Spike were the good guys, Xander had no fucking clue.
"We weren't supposed to meet you." Xander's gaze rested on Spike while he talked. His chest was moving up and down evenly now. "I forgot that Buffy broke her arm that night—this night." Behind the plastic distortion of the oxygen mask, Spike's lips were a healthy shade of pink. "All you have to do is let us go. We'll leave town right away. We aren't any threat to you."
Giles had his hands folded neatly on his lap. He was watching Spike, too. "You realize I have nothing but your word for that, and your association with Spike tends to strain my trust."
"He's human, Giles. You've got to see how that changes things, right? Like Angel getting a soul, only more so. And he's sick. If you don't believe me about anything else, you must believe that I want to get him home as soon as possible."
"I'm feeling much better now, actually," Spike said without opening his eyes.
"Spike?" Xander said, his voice going involuntarily high as his combined relief and frustration mixed into an absurd urge to giggle, "that was not helpful."
Someone tapped his shoulder from behind. He looked around, craning his neck because the person was on his blind side. It was Willow, standing there with two styrofoam cups of coffee from the hospital canteen. She handed one to Xander and one to Giles.
"It seems like we're going to be here for a while," she explained. "So I thought—wouldn't this be more fun if we all were buzzing on caffeine?"
"Oh god," Xander said, almost reverently. "Will, you so completely rock." He stood up and gave her a one-armed hug, careful not to slosh the coffee.
It wasn't just the coffee. It was the fact that she'd brought him a cup, while everyone else was busy trying to decide if he was evil.
She hugged him back tightly, and stepped back with a tentative smile. "Xander? You probably don't remember, but earlier tonight I told you I loved you. I do. That's not ever going to change."
"I know." For some reason his mind flashed on Kingman's Bluff. Willow at her darkest moment, ready to commit murder-suicide with the whole entire world ... stopping only because she couldn't do it if it meant killing him first. The Willow standing in front of him was years away from that, but it was coming. "I love you too," he said. "I always will."
Giles and Xander sat side by side, silently sipping their coffees. Spike seemed to be sleeping. Minutes crept by, punctuated by bleeping monitors, the rubber-soled footsteps of nurses and doctors crisscrossing the room behind them, and the steady hiss of the oxygen machine.
And then someone grabbed Xander from behind, yanked him to his feet and shoved him hard face first against the wall. What was left of his coffee splashed all over the floor. He gasped at the pain of his shoulder nearly being dislocated as whoever was behind him pinned his left arm against his back and used it for leverage. "What did you do to Dawn?" Buffy hissed.
"Ow," was all Xander could manage to say. "Ow ow ow ow fuck ow!"
"We didn't do anything to her," he heard Spike say. "She's safe at home, ain't she?"
Buffy backed off, let go. Xander gasped in relief and rolled his shoulder. Turning around he saw Spike sitting up in bed, the mask hanging down around his neck. Buffy, nearly trembling with fury and looking very ready to rip him to pieces with her bare hands, was holding a well-creased piece of paper.
"Look," she said, thrusting the paper at Giles. "They were stalking her. They've got the schedule of her ballet lessons, and some story about her killing her class gerbil."
"Let's not be hasty, Slayer," Spike said. "There's a good reason for everything."
"Why would you travel back in time six years and stalk a twelve-year-old girl?"
"Xander already said," Spike replied calmly. "We were saving the world."
An orderly in green scrubs ran up. "What the hell is going on here?" He turned to Buffy. "Miss, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"No," Spike said quickly. "It's all right, just a misunderstanding. But you'd better get someone to mop up that coffee."
The orderly hesitated, but either he decided that Buffy didn't look like much of a threat or he decided she looked like far too much of a threat, sling notwithstanding. "Okay then," he said, and left.
"So," Buffy said, making a brittle pretense of calm, "explain to me, someone, what this—" she shook the paper, "—has to do with saving the world."
Spike swung his feet over the edge of the bed. "Think it's about time to go somewhere more private, wouldn't you say?"
"No!" Xander said. "No fucking way. You are not leaving this hospital."
He met Xander's eye, but Xander couldn't read him—he was wearing a hard, calm expression. "Sooner we get done here, sooner we get home," he said evenly. "That'd be a good thing, yeah?"
"He seems fine to me," Buffy said, clearly not caring if he was or not. "I think getting out of here is a really good idea."
"Agreed," said Giles, already on his feet. "Where is Faith?"
"Still at the motel, going through the rest of their stuff."
"Then we can ring her there and tell her to meet us at my apartment."
Xander stepped up next to the bed and, putting his hand on Spike's shoulder, faced the others. "Nobody seems to be getting the part where no fucking way are we leaving the hospital."
Spike patted his hand. "My call, pet, not yours."
Xander glared at him. "It'll be my call once I get you declared legally insane. You just had a near-fatal asthma attack, Spike. I'm pretty sure that calls for a few hours of bed rest."
"Don't be such a drama queen. It wasn't that bad, and I'm fine now."
Buffy's expression was still dark. "He's fine, we're happy, let's go."
"Buffy, go find a pay phone," Giles said. "Angel and I are quite capable of keeping the situation in here under control while you ring Faith."
"Get Willow to do it," she said.
"Buffy," Giles repeated more emphatically, "go and ring Faith."
She hesitated a moment longer, glaring at Xander, but then she went. Xander relaxed a tiny bit.
"Don't move," Giles said, in a tone that did not allow for argument, and he walked away.
"What the hell are you thinking, Spike?" Xander whispered. "We don't even know what they're going to do to us. What if you have another attack?"
"The longer we're with them, the more things can go wrong," Spike whispered back. "We just have to convince them we didn't hurt Dawn, and then get the fuck out of Sunnydale."
Giles came back accompanied by the doctor who had treated Spike earlier. She took out her stethoscope and said, "Your friend here tells me you want to leave. I don't think that's a good idea."
Spike tilted his head, regarded her with calm blue eyes. "But you can't stop me."
"No, I can't," she agreed. "Pull up your t-shirt." When Spike complied, showing off his abs and giving her an expression just on the polite side of a leer, she pressed her stethoscope against his chest and said, "Take a deep breath."
Spike complied. Halfway through inhaling, he broke down coughing.
The doctor pressed her lips together. "Try again."
This time he didn't cough; Xander was pretty sure he didn't try to breathe as deeply as the first time.
The doctor straightened up and let her stethoscope hang around her neck. "Well, I don't think you're at immediate risk of another attack," she said. "I'll write you a new prescription for albuterol. I strongly suggest you get it filled immediately; there's a pharmacy attached to the hospital, open 24 hours." She got her prescription pad and pen out. "You'll need to give me a name. It doesn't have to be your real one."
"Will Smith," Spike said, with a quick glare at Giles that the other man had no hope of understanding, considering it was still five and a half years before Giles would saddle him with that name.
The doctor gave a tight smile, murmured "Will Smith it is, then," and wrote the scrip.
By then Buffy was back from calling Faith. Now that they were headed for Giles's place, she seemed content to wait for the confrontation. They all went together to the pharmacy to get the new canister for Spike's inhaler, Buffy and Angel acting conspicuously as guards on either side. Spike refused to lean on Xander, so Xander just held his hand and forced the whole group to walk slowly.
When they got out to the parking lot, it was negotiation time again.
"Our car is right there," Xander said. "I know the way to Giles's apartment, no problem."
"Yeah, right, like we'd send you off in a car by yourselves," Buffy glared at him. "Angel, you can drive, right?"
In the end only Willow ended up in the Citroen with Giles; Buffy insisted on riding with Xander and Spike, to keep an eye on them. They shared the backseat, while she rode in front but twisted around backwards to watch them with hard eyes as Angel drove.
"I don't care if you are the real Xander," she said. "If you've hurt Dawn, I'll kill you."
"Buffy, I swear to you," Xander said, "I would never in a million years hurt Dawnie."
She didn't look convinced. "What does a million years mean when you're time traveling?" She didn't give him time to answer. "You're holding hands with Spike," she said. It was an accusation, not an observation.
"Yeah." Xander felt Spike squeeze his hand tighter. "A lot can change in six years, Buff."
"I don't get it, Xander." The cold, angry expression was cracking now; she sounded like she was on the edge of tears. "I thought I knew you. I would have trusted you, any version of you, old, young, whatever. How could you do this to me?"
"He's not done a thing to you, Slayer," Spike said much more gently than Xander would have managed at that moment.
"Whatever's going on between them, I'm pretty sure it's Spike's fault," Angel interjected.
"Oh, sod off you great big poof," Spike snapped. "You know fucking nothing about it."
"I know you, Spike. I knew you for twenty years. You're ... a bad influence." Angel had been going to say something else, Xander was sure of it.
Spike, meanwhile, was sitting up straight, his eyes flashing with rage. "Oh, all those times were my idea, were they?"
"Wait, what times?" Xander asked. They can't be talking about ... Spike would have told me if he and Angel had ... His brain shied away from finishing the thoughts.
"Yeah, what times?" Buffy repeated. She sounded as wigged by this turn in the conversation as Xander was.
"Nothing," Angel said abruptly. "Never mind."
Spike sank back against his seat, still looking daggers at the back of Angel's head.
As soon as they got to Giles's place, Xander made sure Spike lay down on the couch. He got nothing but a short token protest from Spike, which meant he was at least as tired as he looked. While Angel glowered and Buffy frowned and bit her lip, Xander propped Spike up on a couple of pillows and draped a blanket over his legs. Giles, who'd wordlessly provided the spare bedding, stood aside watching thoughtfully. Willow sat cross-legged in an armchair, looking very small and worried.
Faith came in the door just as Xander finished getting Spike set up. She had Spike and Xander's duffle bag slung over her shoulder. "Hey guys," she said. "I tossed the room, brought everything that looked interesting. Which sure as hell didn't include their clothes, Christ."
"We were trying to keep a low profile," Spike said, sounding offended.
"So, let's see what's in the goody bag," Buffy said. Her mood seemed to have swung back around to tight anger. "Anything else to do with Dawn?"
"One thing at a time, B." Faith dropped the bag down on Giles's coffee table with a thud and yanked the zipper. Everyone moved in closer, and Xander perched on the arm of the couch. "Recognize this, Giles?" she said, pulling out one of the stolen books.
"Good lord," he said, taking it—and then another and another, as she handed them to him. All six of the books Spike and Xander had stolen from the library. "These are mine." He peered at the titles, frowning. "All of them are exceedingly rare. This one contains extremely powerful dark spells. My God," he said, looking up at Xander, "What were you planning to do with them?"
"I don't know," Xander said, mentally cursing the Giles of the future. "You're the one who told us to steal them."
Giles carefully set the books aside and put his hands on his hips. "Why on earth would I send you back in time to steal my own books?"
Xander sighed. There was no way they were going to get out of here safely without giving some info about the future; he'd just have to try to keep it as vague as possible. "Because they were destroyed," he said. "And there weren't any more copies in the world, so you thought it was worth the risk."
Giles leaned back against the wall. He had a Ripper kind of look to him at the moment, Xander noticed with a mental shiver. "Well," Giles said, "that simply isn't true. The Council has copies in their main library."
"Those ones were destroyed too."
Giles looked startled, then skeptical. "The Council library is extremely secure. How could those copies have been destroyed?"
"You know we can't tell you that, Rupert," Spike said in his hoarse, low voice. "You might be tempted to meddle."
"Next item," Faith said. She pulled out a small black toiletries bag and tossed to Giles. "Check it out. Some crazy pharmaceuticals in there."
Giles unzipped the bag and peered inside. He'd be seeing a lot of little prescription bottles of pills, Xander knew, all with the labels made out to William Smith and dates in late 2004 and early 2005.
Giles took out the bottles and peered at the labels one by one. "I don't recognize most of these drugs," he mused. "This one's a painkiller."
Spike didn't seem like he was going to speak up, so Xander did. "They're Spike's," he said. "And he, uh, should have taken a bunch of them a couple hours ago, so if you'd just throw the bag over here and get us a glass of water, that'd be really nice."
"What are they for?" Angel asked.
Spike scowled. "That's none of your fucking business."
Giles handed the bag to Willow. "I'd like you to look up the names of the drugs online, see if you can find out what they do."
"Okay," Willow said with an anxious glance in Xander's direction. "Do you want me to go home and do it now?"
Giles shook his head. "I think it can wait until morning."
"Hey!" Xander said. "I said, he needs those. Willow?"
Her eyes flickered between Xander and Giles and she bit her lip. Then she stood up and walked towards the kitchen.
"What are you doing?" Buffy asked.
"Getting a glass of water." Willow was using her resolve voice. Xander breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
"Okay, next exhibit," Faith said over the sound of Willow running water, "I think this might explain a few things. Didn't read the whole list before I threw it in the bag."
She walked over and handed it to Giles, who adjusted his glasses and read out loud. "There are bullet points," he said. "Confirm date, January 22, 1999. Rent a car, drive to Sunnydale. Check into the Holiday Inn."
"They screwed that one up somehow," Faith observed.
"There was a sodding convention," Spike muttered. "It was full." Willow came out and handed him the glass of water and his bag of pills. "Ta, Red," he said quietly.
"You're welcome," she said, but she was looking at Xander.
"Contact Dawn," Giles continued reading. "Steal books—yes, and it lists the titles, the same six you found." Then he looked up from the list. "The last bullet point says 'save the Sisterhood of Jhe.'"
"Yeah, that." Xander sighed. "Funny story. Wanna hear it?"
"I want to know what Dawn had to do with it," Buffy said, moving threateningly close. "Tonight, at the school—did you send her?"
"Got it in one," Spike said. "Always said you were clever."
"Spike, you've never said that about me," Buffy snapped.
"That you know of," Spike pointed out. He popped a small handful of pills in his mouth and chugged the glass of water.
Giles cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should let Xander and Spike explain why they were saving the demons who just opened the Hellmouth."
Xander looked to Spike, unsure what to say. Spike gave a little shrug. "Might as well tell them at this point, pet."
"Okay." Xander tried to think of the shortest version of the story he could get away with. "Giles, six years from now you're going to figure out that the Sisters actually had a good reason for opening the Hellmouth. And you're going to realize that you need them to do it again, only by then they're all dead. So, world in peril—cue desperate measures. You send me and Spike back to get the last few Sisters out of harm's way. We figured that that little ruse with Dawn was the best way to get you guys away from the Sisters long enough for us to rescue them. No muss, no fuss, no awkward timeline-altering confrontations."
"But Dawn knew what was going on?" Willow asked.
"Yeah," Spike said. "She's a good little soldier."
Willow scrunched her forehead. "Weren't you worried she would mess up your timeline?"
"We had our reasons for trusting her," he said evenly.
"And those would be?" Giles prompted.
"Can't tell you, mate. Sorry."
Buffy fidgeted—her anxiety so physically obvious that Angel put a hand on her shoulder. "I don't like it," she said. "It doesn't add up. I want to go check on Dawn."
"Okay, but first you gotta open your birthday present," Faith said. "Last thing I found." She pulled the envelope future-Willow had sent them. Knowing what was inside, Xander felt his mouth go dry. "It's post-marked Sao Paulo, no return address. Express post to the COW in Rome. Wanna see what's inside?" She tossed the package to Buffy, who caught it one-handed.
"Careful," Giles said. "We have no idea what that might be."
Spike rolled his eyes. "That's right, we're traveling with a sodding letter bomb."
"I'll open it," Angel volunteered grimly. He took it from Buffy, ripped a corner off the envelope, then stuck his finger through the hole and tore open the whole end. He reached inside and pulled out the plastic baggie of Lethe's Bramble. "What's this?"
"We were going to smoke it later and get high," Spike said. "Want some?"
"Let me see it," Giles said. Angel handed it over via Faith, then reached into the envelope again.
Giles held the baggie up near his face, squinting, then lowered it suddenly. "Dear Lord," he said, "it's Lethe's Bramble."
"What's that?" Buffy asked.
"It's used for spells of—"
"—memory removal," Angel interrupted. He held up the letter that had accompanied the herbs. "There's instructions here."
Willow perked up. "Can I see?"
"They can alter our memories?" Buffy looked horrified. "Then—this might not even be the first time we've caught them! Maybe we've been having this conversation over and over!"
"The envelope was still sealed," Xander pointed out. "We haven't used it yet."
"How do we know you didn't have another one?"
"Um, guys?" Willow had taken the letter from Angel. "Guys? This is my handwriting."
"Oh, shit!" Xander jumped up and went to take the letter out of her hands. "Willow, don't read that!"
"Huh?" She was wide-eyed. "Xander, I wrote that!"
"Future-you wrote it, and told me absolutely not to let you see it." He stuffed the paper quickly in his back pocket.
She looked for a moment like she was going to ask why, or maybe argue with him, but instead she turned to Giles. "Don't you see? If I'm helping them too in the future, and—the address? COW is Council of Watchers, right? Okay, I don't know what they're doing in Rome, but—I think they're telling the truth."
Buffy frowned. "Maybe. I still want to check on Dawn, though. Faith, was that everything you found in their room?"
Faith nodded. "Plus clothes, toothbrushes and a whole lot of empty pizza boxes, yeah."
"At least she didn't find the money," Spike said, out loud, ostensibly to Xander.
Xander had a quick huh? moment and then he clued in. "Right," he agreed. "The four hundred dollars cash that was hidden right next to the envelope. Good thing she didn't find that."
"Oh, yeah." Faith rocked her hips, shot a guilty look in Giles's direction and then glared at Spike. "Didn't look like a clue, so I left it where it was. Yeah, it's still there."
In the background, Willow yawned, covering her mouth. Giles noticed. "It's going on four a.m.," he pointed out. "Buffy, go home, check on Dawn, go to bed. Faith, Willow, you should get some sleep as well. I'm sure we will be better able to resolve this situation in the morning."
"What about them?" Buffy asked, nodding her head towards Xander and Spike.
"I'll stay here and make sure they don't make any trouble," Angel said. "My bedtime isn't for a few more hours, anyway."
Willow hugged Xander one last time before she left. Buffy didn't, but she gave him a long, worried look. Faith didn't even say good-bye; she was probably pissed off about the money.
Spike had fallen asleep while everyone else was going out the door. Xander fussed over him for a minute, making sure he was well tucked in on the couch. He could feel Angel and Giles watching him like a physical presence crawling up and down his back.
"I'm afraid I don't have a proper place for you to sleep," Giles said to Xander when he stood up again. "The best I can offer you is a sleeping bag on the floor."
Xander shrugged. "I've had worse. But, um, first ... Giles, can I talk to you privately?"
Giles looked thoughtful. "I suppose so. Angel, will you keep an eye on Spike?"
Xander gave Angel the hardest look he could manage. "Don't touch him," he said. "If you do, I'll know. And you won't like what I'll do next."
"I'll keep an eye on him," Angel said to Giles, conspicuously not addressing Xander. He pulled the armchair into position for watching the couch and sat down, arms crossed.
Xander followed Giles upstairs into his bedroom. Giles shut the door behind them and turned to Xander, looking cautious but at least somewhat curious. "What did you want to say to me?"
Xander hesitated a moment, asking himself whether this was the only possible way to salvage the situation or whether it was just an incredibly bad idea, and then he sighed and decided to go with it anyway. "I want to tell you the truth," he said. "The whole truth."
It took Giles a while to get past the Dawn thing.
"I met her only a few weeks after I first met Buffy," he said. "I've seen ... baby pictures."
"Right," Xander said, nodding patiently. "All part of the history the monks constructed."
"And you claim she doesn't exist yet."
"Well, she does, obviously. But she didn't start existing until a year and a half from now, and then it all projected backwards." Xander wished future-Giles were here to explain this to past-Giles.
"But how can Dawn be the key to a hell dimension?" Giles protested, shaking his head. "She's—a little girl."
"Actually, she's a glowy green ball of energy disguised as a little girl." Rubbing his eye—God, he was tired—Xander squinted at Giles. "So, um, are you actually believing any of this?"
Giles looked thoughtful. "Absurd as the concept is, it would explain one mystery," he admitted. At Xander's questioning look, he explained, "When Buffy was first called, the Council used a form of divining to discover who the new Slayer was. The divining method provides a rough location and a few biographical details, hopefully enough to locate the girl. Apparently, among other things it was determined she was an only child. When my predecessor Merrick found her he was quite surprised to learn about Dawn, but Buffy was very clearly the Slayer, so he concluded that the bones had been read incorrectly in that detail. But perhaps ... the divining spell was simply unaffected by the monks' changes. Tell me again what you know of the original timeline?"
After three or four times through the details, Giles seemed to be catching on. "And that's why you wanted to involve only Dawn in your plans," he said in a now-I-get-it tone. "The timeline will resume its original state when the monks perform the spell."
"Only now it's all fucked up," Xander pointed out, sinking onto the edge of Giles's bed and resting his head on his hands for a minute. God he had a headache. Maybe he could steal one of Spike's painkillers later. Or just drink more coffee, maybe that'd help. But Giles seemed to believe him now, and that was a good thing. Now he just had to convince him that they needed to fix things. "I mean, just for starters, now Angel knows that Spike's going to turn human. He's not supposed to know yet that that's even possible. I mean, now that he knows, maybe he won't even leave Sunnydale!"
"When does Angel leave Sunnydale?" Giles asked, startled. "Does Buffy remain here?"
"Yeah, she stays here and he goes to LA. And then they both do all sorts of important things that have to happen so that the future can work out the way it's supposed to. And you're the one who told me, in the future, the going theory about the consequences of time travel—"
"Every change is a change for the worse, no matter how well-intentioned." Giles nodded. "That's why I was suspicious of your original claim that I was the one who had sent you here. But if, indeed, I believed that Dawn provided a loophole in that law...."
"Right," Xander said quickly. "And that's why I need you to do the Lethe's Bramble spell." He pulled the crumpled instructions out of his pocket and handed them to Giles. "Make everybody forget about the past three hours. Spike and I will clear out and it'll be like all this never happened."
Giles sat down next to Xander and took a long, careful look at the letter Willow had written. Xander read over his shoulder, and couldn't help smiling. She'd drawn her trademark little stick-figure diagrams and everything.
But then Giles folded up the paper and cleared his throat. "There is a rather large flaw in this plan," he said. "I can't safely perform the spell on myself."
"Huh? What do you mean? Willow did it to herself, once..."
Giles raised an eyebrow. "Really? How did that turn out?"
Xander focused on his own fingers. "Pretty much a total disaster and we all almost died," he admitted with a grimace.
"Well, that sounds lovely," Giles said, rolling his eyes. "Why don't we try it right away?"
Xander quelled an urge to bite his nails. "What if you do it on everyone else, and just use your Watcherly discipline to pretend you don't know anything for the next six years?"
Shaking his head, Giles frowned. "I appreciate your confidence in me, but there is no possible way I can live the next six years without letting what I learned tonight inform any of my choices. I would be constantly second-guessing myself with no way of knowing which choices I'd made the first time around."
"And every change is a change for the worse, which in our lives might mean the end of the world." Xander sighed. "Any ideas?"
"One." Giles gave him a wry sort of smile. "The same idea I had the first time, apparently. Let Dawn do it."
Giles said it was important to do the spell right away, while everyone was still asleep; the difficulty in targeting the right memories would increase exponentially once they all woke up and started the new day.
"You really think Dawn can do it?" Xander asked. "I mean, it seems kind of complicated. Remember how she killed the gerbil?"
"If what you tell me is true—and bizarre as it sounds, I believe that it is—then the event with the gerbil was constructed for a particular purpose. Most likely the monks wanted to deter Dawn from practicing magic, perhaps to prevent her from discovering her own nature." Giles smoothed the letter from Willow open on his knee. "I will compose the incantation, all Dawn has to do is perform the spell. Willow's instructions are very thorough and comprehensible. Has she considered writing textbooks?"
Giles chuckled softly. "I'm sorry; you should treat that as a rhetorical question. Well," he stood up, "we'd best inform Angel of the new plan."
Angel was sitting exactly where they'd left him. Giles did all the talking. He didn't tell Angel how Xander had convinced him, only that he had, and that it was essential that Dawn perform the spell.
They needed to get Dawn out of the house without Buffy or Joyce waking up, and by Giles's calculation it would take all three of them: Xander to actually talk to Dawn, Angel to boost him up to her bedroom window, and Giles to cast a minor charm to deepen the other Summers' sleep.
"Is it safe to leave him here alone?" Angel asked, looking doubtfully at Spike.
Xander grit his teeth in frustration. "Christ," he said, "he could barely walk in from the car. What the fuck do you think he's going to do?"
"Right," Angel said, turning his troubled gaze on Xander, "That's what I meant. Will he be all right here on his own?"
"Oh." Xander stared at Angel for a moment while the world metaphorically tilted. "You meant—okay. Sorry." He shook his head, trying to organize his thoughts. I am never going to understand Angel and Spike. "Yeah, he should be all right. We won't be gone very long."
Dawn didn't wake up when Xander climbed in through her bedroom window. Feeling pretty fucking awkward, he whispered her name, then said it out loud, and then finally threw a stuffed zebra at her.
She shrieked when she woke up. He shushed her, wincing, hoping Giles knew what he was doing with the charm to keep Buffy and Joyce asleep.
"What are you doing here?" she asked as soon as she realized who'd broken into her bedroom. "Didn't it work? Aren't you supposed to be gone?"
"It worked," he said, "you were awesome. But we ran into some trouble afterwards and we need your help again. We need you to do a spell."
"A spell?" she repeated, perking up in a way that reminded him eerily of Willow.
She followed him out of the house on tiptoe, still in her dinosaur-patterned pajamas. They met Giles and Angel at the front door, which they carefully left unlocked. Dawn's eyes went wide at the sight of them.
"I thought you weren't supposed to talk to anyone but me," she whispered to Xander.
"Yeah," he said, "That's pretty much the problem."
He explained the situation to Dawn while Giles drove them all back to his house, which they'd decided was the safest place to prepare the spell.
Sitting cross-legged on Giles's living room floor, Dawn rehearsed the spell under Giles's direction. Angel stood by the wall, watching, while Xander packed all the items Faith had taken from the motel room back into the duffle bag. Spike still slept on the couch, undisturbed by Dawn and Giles's whispers.
"You should leave, Angel," Giles said finally. "You'll need to be back at the mansion when the spell takes effect. Ideally, you should be asleep—otherwise you might experience some disorientation."
"Right." Angel took a last long look at Spike, frowning, then motioned Xander towards the door. "Can we talk, before I go?"
Xander wanted to say 'no,' but didn't think it would be a good idea to make waves at this point, so he followed Angel to Giles's courtyard.
"I want to know what happened to Spike," Angel said as soon as they were away from the others.
Xander shook his head. "You know I can't tell you."
"It doesn't matter what you tell me, I'm going to forget it in half an hour anyway," Angel pointed out.
Xander scratched his neck, thinking that one through. "So why are you asking in the first place?" he asked. "Isn't it completely pointless?"
"I'll know it for half an hour," Angel said, making Xander uncomfortable with his intensity. "I can't bear walking home, not knowing—will it happen to me, too?"
"Turning human, you mean?" Xander sighed. He didn't have the energy left to hold out on this. "No," he said bluntly. "Just Spike." And then, seeing the broken expression that darted across Angel's face—almost a trick of the shadows, but definitely real—he added, "It was your choice. I think. You gave it up."
"Oh," he said. He waited for a second or two, frowning in the shadows, and then asked, "Why?"
"I don't really know." Xander hesitated, then clapped Angel on the shoulder. "You were probably trying to save the world. Isn't that why we do everything around here?"
Angel's mouth twisted, like he wasn't sure if Xander was joking or how to respond. Xander wasn't sure himself.
Finally Angel shrugged a little deeper into his leather jacket, gave Xander a curt "Bye," and strode quickly away. Xander breathed a little sigh of relief and went back inside.
Giles and Dawn were still huddled over Willow's letter, muttering together. Dawn looked serious and intense despite her flannel dinosaur pajamas, biting her lip and squinting a little as she followed Giles's instructions.
Xander took the liberty of making coffee and helping himself to a couple of aspirin from the bottle over the sink. Then he went and sat on the arm of the couch, staying close to Spike while he sipped his coffee and watched Dawn rehearse her lines. Her hair, loose, kept falling over her eyes. She pushed it back each time without faltering in her recitation.
When Giles judged she was ready, he told Xander to wake Spike up. Spike moved to the armchair and sat there groggily rubbing his eyes while Xander folded up the blanket and carried the bedding up to Giles's closet.
Giles was washing Xander's coffee mug when Xander came back downstairs. "We have to make sure we've eliminated all signs of your presence," he explained. "Now, are you ready?"
Xander grabbed the duffle bag and slung it over his shoulder. "Oh man, am I ever."
Looking at Dawn, Giles tapped his wristwatch. "Give me twenty minutes. I want to be in bed, hopefully asleep, when the spell takes effect."
Dawn held up her own naked wrist. "Uh, Mr. Giles?"
"Don't worry, pet." Spike patted her shoulder. "We'll tell you when it's time."
Giles hesitated, then held out his hand to Spike. "It was ... interesting ... meeting you again, Spike. I suppose I'll see you in the future." And to Xander, "Good luck. And take care."
Rather than lurking outside the Summers' house while they waited for the twenty minutes to creep by, Xander drove them slowly around Sunnydale. The radio was tuned to light rock and Dawn was staring at her own reflection in the rear passenger window, muttering under her breath.
Spike's hair was flattened on one side where his head had lain on the pillow. Xander smiled to himself, but didn't say anything about it. Spike held the Lethe's Bramble on his lap, keeping it safe until the moment Dawn would cast the spell.
Dawn finished her rehearsal. "So, I'm going to be the only one who remembers any of this," she said out loud. "That's so weird. What if somebody asks me about it?"
"They won't," Spike said. "They won't know there's anything to ask."
"Did you ever think—what if people do stuff like this all the time? And nobody else would know, and everybody would have a different memory of how everything happened." Xander saw her in the rearview mirror; her expression was more curious than troubled. She had no idea, of course, how ironic it was for her to be asking questions like that.
"Not many people know how to do the spell you're about to do," Spike pointed out. "And you mustn't ever do it again after this."
She leaned sideways so she could look at him directly. "But how would anyone even know?"
Spike twisted around in his seat so he could meet her eye. "They might not, pet. You could go right ahead and change their memories to suit you and they'd never know. Now, would you like it if someone did that to you?"
Solemnly, Dawn shook her head.
"This is serious bloody business," Spike went on. "We're treating you like a grownup here. Now are you going to behave like one?"
She nodded emphatically. "I am. I promise."
Xander seriously hoped she would behave better than various adult-type people he could mention. But anyway, it was time for the spell and he'd already turned onto Revello Drive. "Here we are," he announced. He pulled the car into park at the side of the road across from the Summers house. "Ready, Dawn?" He pushed the car's cigarette lighter into the dash so it would start heating, and Spike handed back the herbs.
Dawn took the sprigs of Lethe's Bramble in her small hands, and stared down at them with an expression of intense concentration. "Lighter?" she said.
Spike handed it to her carefully. The tip glowed red. She touched it to the dried herbs and they flamed up immediately. She held them gingerly by their stems and started speaking. "I char these herbs for Mr. Giles, Angel, Buffy, Willow and Faith. Let Lethe's Bramble do its chore, let them remember leaving the hospital and nothing more. Let it purge their memories of meeting Xander and Spike, and let them believe nothing important happened after the Hellmouth fight. Tabula rasa, tabula rasa, tabula rasa." The flames on the bramble flared high and blue for a moment with an audible rush, and Dawn's shoulders jerked but she managed not to drop the herbs or cry out. And then the flame was gone and she held nothing between her fingers but a couple charred stems. "Did it work?" she asked breathlessly.
"Let's assume yes," Xander said.
"Bloody well hope so," Spike muttered.
"So, really truly good-bye this time!" Dawn reached around the car seats to give them each one more awkward hug. And then she was gone, dashing barefoot across the street and up her own doorstep, opening the door and slipping inside.
"Rupert rhymed Spike with fight?" Spike said as they watched the door close. "That's fucking pathetic."
Xander shrugged and started the car. "Let's hope the Powers that Be don't judge incantations on literary merit alone." He sniffed. "Huh. Lethe's Bramble kinda smells like pine."
They made a quick, heart-pounding stop at the Downtowner to collect their clothes and the remaining money, and pay their bill. Despite the risk involved in checking out, it was still preferable to the questions they might raise by simply disappearing.
They were in and out in less than ten minutes, and they saw no sign of Faith. Xander allowed himself to secretly hope their luck was changing.
The sky was brightening with false dawn as they passed the 'You Are Now Leaving Sunnydale' sign. Spike was already asleep in the passenger seat. "Bye bye, Sunnyhell," Xander whispered to his hometown. "Hope I never see you again."
A tall cup of coffee from a gas station convenience store and high-energy music on the radio kept Xander awake for the drive to LA. Spike slept the whole way, and mumbled in confusion when Xander finally shook him awake outside the Hyperion.
"What?" he said, blinking at the sunlight.
"We're here," Xander said. "It's time to go home."
They walked through the weed-choked garden together, hand in hand. In the gloomy interior, they found their white circle and dumped the duffle bag in it, and then Xander went to the reception desk to get the mystical marble that would act as the key to send them back home.
He stared into the empty slot. "It's not here."
"What do you mean, not there?" Spike joined Xander and bent over along with him, peering into the desk.
"I put it in this slot, the second shelf down." Xander pointed. "It's not there."
"Are you sure?" Spike squinted into the desk's dark interior. "Maybe it just stopped glowing. Let me feel for it." He stuck his hand in the slot and groped around. The expression on his face telegraphed his lack of success. "Maybe you're remembering the wrong shelf," he suggested, and started checking the others.
"You saw me do it. I put it on the second shelf." Xander repressed a frustrated growl that tried to creep up his throat. "Maybe it fell out." He got down on his hands and knees and started feeling around on the floor.
"I hate this place," Spike muttered.
"That's right, you lived here with Angel." Having failed to find the marble on the floor near the desk, Xander sat back on his heels. "So when were you going to tell me that you were fucking him?"
"What?" Spike stood up so fast he bonked his head on the underside of the desk. "Ow! Fuck!"
Xander watched Spike's startlement with a cynical gaze. Obviously this wasn't something Spike had wanted to talk about. But it was about fucking time they did. "That's what you were talking about in the car back in Sunnydale, right? 'All those times'? You weren't playing Parcheesi."
Spike rubbed his head. "I have played Parcheesi with Angelus, in point of fact. Didn't have the telly in those days, so we made our own fun."
"Yeah, I can imagine what kind of fun you had." Xander spit the word 'fun' out like it was a bad-tasting mint. "What about tonight? His attitude about you sure seemed different when I came back downstairs."
"What?" Spike stared down at him. "Now I don't know what the bloody hell you're talking about."
Xander came bristling to his feet, taking advantage of his extra inches. "Why were you hiding your relationship with Angel from me, Spike?"
"What relationship with Angel? The only relationship we have is that we can't fucking stand each other."
"Oh yeah? Is that why he was there every time I turned around when I met you in LA? Is that why he followed you to Rome?" Xander was stalking towards Spike now, and Spike was backing away. "You're still fucking him, aren't you?"
Spike's back thudded against the wall. He glared rebelliously at Xander. "You're off your fucking rocker."
"Then tell me you haven't fucked him," Xander said, clenching his fist.
Spike's eyes gave him away; they widened for just a split second, full of guilt.
And before he knew it, Xander's fist was smashing into Spike's face.
Spike's head crashed back against the wall and Xander stepped back, raising his fists. Spike raised his hand to his lips and looked at the blood on his fingers and looked at Xander, wide-eyed. Xander felt a surge of horror wash through him, seeing what he'd done, but just as fast the horror was gone leaving cold anger in its place. "Slut," he hissed. "Do you miss the vampire orgies? Do you think about him when you're with me?" This time Xander's fist pounded into the wall, because Spike slipped sideways away from him.
"Want to fight, do you?" Spike shouted from behind him. Xander spun around. "You could give a bloke a little warning, first!" Xander tried to hit him again, but Spike stepped backwards and then grabbed his wrist before he could retract his fist. He yanked Xander off balance and pulled him towards the door.
"You like it rough, huh?" Just before they reached the door Xander twisted in Spike's grip and elbowed him hard in the ribs. "Is that how you play it with him? Come on, tell me, I really want to know."
"I'll tell you anything you want," Spike gasped, his voice tight with pain. "Just let's get some fresh air first!" He tackled Xander and they slammed together against the hotel's door. The door gave way and they fell out over the threshold in a tangle of limbs.
"Fuck!" Xander scrambled to his feet, about to strike back at Spike, maybe kick him if he didn't roll out of the way, when suddenly he realized what he was doing.
Spike lay on the marble step, panting and glaring up at him with blood dripping down his chin.
"Spike?" Xander said in a choked voice. He looked at his own hands, saw the scrapes on the knuckles, felt dizzy. "I ... I hit you."
And then Spike was on his feet, reaching out to Xander with a look of intense concern, and it was all fucking wrong and Xander spun away from him and stumbled a couple steps and then found himself on his knees, puking.
And then he felt Spike rubbing his back and saying "Shhh, shhh, it's okay, it's okay luv, it's okay."
"I hit you," Xander repeated, dumbly. "I ... I was so mad, I don't know where it came from ..."
"You've been up all night," Spike said, still in a gentle soothing tone like he was talking to Dawn or something. He handed Xander a tissue from his pocket. "You're in no state to fight off a bloody Thesulac."
"Thesulac," Xander repeated. The paranoia demon. "I ... forgot." He shuddered, and wiped his mouth with the tissue. He didn't want to face Spike. He wanted to curl up into a little ball of guilt and disappear.
Spike got a firm grip on his arm and tugged him away from the place where he'd been sick. "Come on, let's sit on the step for a spell," he said.
Numbly, Xander let Spike lead him over and sit him down. Then he let his head sink onto his hands. "I'm so sorry, Spike."
"No real harm done." Spike's tone was light, but Xander knew him well enough to detect the truth; he was shaken, but playing it down for Xander's sake. "No loose teeth, nothing that a nice ice pack and a couple weeks' time won't put right."
"It's not okay." Staring at the rocky ground in front of him, Xander searched for words to explain what he'd just felt. "I wasn't possessed, Spike. I knew what I was doing. I knew what I was thinking." It was hard to push the words out but he wouldn't let himself stop. "I thought about you and Angel and I got so mad I wanted to hurt you."
Spike put his arm around Xander's shoulders, and Xander stiffened against the hug. "You weren't wrong," Spike said, low and soft. "Me and Angel have fucked. Many times." A pause, and Xander could hear both of them breathing. "I should say 'Angelus,' rather," Spike went on. "Me and Angel, it was just the one time." He squeezed Xander in a tighter hug. "Now," he said, "do you want to hurt me?"
Xander shook his head and swallowed hard against the sensation of wanting to puke again.
"Right then," Spike said, "that part of it was just the Thesulac."
Xander shook his head harder. "You don't understand." He didn't want Spike to understand, either, but suddenly he couldn't stop himself from talking. "Remember the time I caught you and Anya screwing? I went down to the Magic Box ready to kill you. I told her she disgusted me. I think—I mean, I didn't but I think I could've hit her then."
"But you didn't," Spike said.
Xander ignored him. "I had a ... a vision once. The demon who came to the wedding, remember? He showed me what was supposed to be my future, and I know it was fake, but I lived it. I ... I hurt Anya. I hit her. I think I might've killed her."
"That wasn't really you."
"But it was." Xander made himself turn to face Spike, to look at his swelling lip and the blood smearing his chin. "It's in me, Spike. All the Thesulac had to do was wake it up."
Spike met his gaze steadily. "Xander, luv, I can tell you a thing or two about living with demons. Remember that last year in Sunnydale? After Buffy got me all dechipped? You think I never wanted to knock the head off some bloody Potential for clomping around in the kitchen when I was trying to sleep? I had an actual fucking demon living in me, whispering constantly that all of you were nothing but food. But I also had a choice, and I made it every day by playing nice with the humans and drinking my pig's blood. I could imagine hurting you, I could imagine ripping your throat out and drinking you dry, but I didn't ever do it."
Xander swallowed. He could still taste the bile from earlier. "I'm actually not sure what you're getting at."
"The Thesulac just now took away your choice. The demon vision thing, too—that script was written for you." Spike put his hand on Xander's, brushing the bruised knuckles with his thumb. "It's not what you have the capacity to do, luv, it's the choices you make. I trust your choices." And then he patted Xander's hand and stood up. "Also? If you ever hit me again I'm bloody well hitting you back. Now wait here and I'll look for the sodding marble."
Not even a minute later, Spike called him inside.
"It was on the fucking ceiling," Spike explained, holding up his closed fist with chinks of soft golden light shining between his fingers. "Bloody thing went lighter than air somehow. All I had to do was look up."
They stood in the circle. Xander picked up the duffle bag. Spike took his hand and held it tight while he crouched down and smashed the marble on the floor.
There was a flash of light, then floating darkness. The now-familiar disorientation washed over him; Xander couldn't tell up from down or now from then.
And then he felt Spike's hand in his and the tug of the duffle on his shoulder and Giles was in front of him saying, "Well? Did it work?"
Xander swallowed hard against his nausea; at least this time his stomach was thoroughly empty.
"The remains of the Sisterhood of Jhe is hibernating in a cave off the old desert highway out of Sunnydale," Spike said. "We can take you there."
Xander tossed the duffle at Giles's feet. "Here are your books."
"Books?" Giles looked momentarily puzzled. He unzipped the duffle and started pulling out the books, with an expression of perplexed delight. "My lord, I lost these books when the Mayor ascended—"
"No," Xander corrected him, managing to keep himself from snapping, "you lost them when you sent us back in time to steal them."
"Oh." Giles blinked. "I suppose—yes, that makes sense. I hope you didn't have too much trouble ... Spike, are you all right?"
Spike touched his lip. "Had a little Thesulac trouble right at the end. Nothing to worry about." He stepped out of the chalk circle, and Xander followed him.
"Oh, dear," Giles said. "Sorry about that. Were there any other difficulties? Did you manage to keep the timeline intact?"
"We're standing here having this conversation," Spike pointed out. "I'd say that's a good sign."
"Quite," Giles acknowledged with a nod. He re-zipped the the duffle bag, picked it up, and started walking towards the door. "Then there's nothing left but to inform our vampire overlords of your successful mission."
Xander and Spike both stopped cold in their tracks.
Giles turned back towards them and burst out laughing. "If you could see your faces!"
"Spike?" Xander said, loud enough for Giles to hear, "Remember that conversation we just had? Notice how right now I'm choosing not to strangle Giles?"
"I'm proud of you, pet." Spike patted his arm.
"No one appreciates a subtle sense of humor." Giles shook his head, keeping up his mock disappointment for a beat or two, and then he gave Spike and Xander an apologetic shrug. "It's been a bit tense, the past few days. I'm immensely glad to have you safely back. Now, let's go save the world."
"You all right for going out to the desert?" Xander asked Spike quietly.
Spike nodded. "As long as you promise to sleep in the car."
Hand in hand, they followed Giles into the bright sunshine.