Babylon - part seven
On day twelve of their crystal-bought fortnight Spike came back from scavenging with a gash across his back, a full belly and a map. Ready to move on - get out of Boston and find some other place to be. Maybe go to New York and see if there was passage east - see if those junk-rigged ships he'd seen passing along the horizon went out to sea or only hugged the coast.
Xander, despite his claims, was better - better enough to be chafing at the confinement of the room. Spike had put the wards up anyway, because even this many years later he didn't exactly trust Harris not to do something...impulsive. Xander was reading, though, when Spike came in - wrapped up in blankets with the last of the nonpareils smudged on his chin and cheek.
*Leave it to Harris to be able to keep down chocolate,* Spike thought, but he had more - a dented steel thermos of hand-made hot chocolate, thick with nearly-cream. He'd traded a match-box with ten working watch-batteries inside for it. Xander looked up as he shut the door, lips curling in a sleepy smile, The Moonstone slipping out of his hand and sliding down the slope of his knees.
"Hey, Spike." Low and rough, whiskey-voice that, it seemed, would never recover. It stroked over Spike's senses like a warm and callused hand and Spike coaxed and teased for more, always.
"Like the book, then?" Spike asked, slipping his pack off and dropping it on the bed - going around to the side and sitting down. His hand went out to Xander's forehead - palm to warm skin, checking for fever. Automatic motion, one Xander didn't flinch from anymore. Xander's temperature seemed normal and Spike let his hand comb back through the silky hair, pausing for a moment to rub the fine strands at the nape of Xander's neck, his thumb stroking behind Xander's right ear. Routine now, these touches. Xander's eye blinked and then closed and Spike worked his fingers into the muscle at the top of Xander's spine, gently prodding. Xander sighed and let his knees fall, settling cross-legged, blanket edge unwrapping a bit from his shoulder.
"S'a good book," Xander mumbled, and Spike touched the leather-bound volume with his other hand, stroking its worn cover. Willkie Collins' epic tale of a stolen Indian diamond, and William had adored it. A rare books shop in Philadelphia had yielded several such volumes and Spike kept them in his pack despite the weight and bulk. Ties to a past long-gone that he...needed, somehow.
"Yeah, it is," Spike said - got up and got the thermos and poured out a cupful and brought it over - handed it to Xander with a small smile and Xander took it and sniffed and then grinned up at Spike, his whole face lightening - his eye sparkling. Flash of that boy that had shared his home - his friends - with Spike so many years before.
"Can't believe you found any," Xander said, taking a tentative sip.
"Mmm...yeah. You have some too, Spike," Xander said and Spike lifted the cup from thin fingers and took a sip.
"Yeah, that's all right, then. Look here, Xander..." Spike handed the cup back - pulled his pack closer by one strap and fished the map out - spread it over the worn duvet between them. "Look - we're gonna leave in a day or so - go to New York and -"
"Locus Obiti," Xander said softly - sing-song voice that made the hairs stand up on Spike's neck. He looked up and Xander was gazing at the map, a dreamy expression on his face. Dreamy and gone, his hand lax on his thigh, the cup tipping in the other, chocolate slopping over the edge.
"Harris - Christ -!" Spike snatched the cup - recoiled when Xander leaned forward and reached out, tracing a damp finger over the map.
"Ha-de-ron-dah...there... there in mountains, there behind the veil, west, north, up, down... Passing...through."
"Passing through what?" Spike asked, staring at the map - at Xander's trembling finger that traced a path from the coast to the interior to - "Adirondacks, pet? What's there?"
"Ha-de-ron-dah...Locus Obiti...passing through..." Xander whispered. He sat utterly still for a moment and then he looked up at Spike, grey and shivering and with a sheen of sweat across his face. "What's that mean, Spike? What's - locus -?"
"Means...means place - destination. Obiti..." Spike shook his head. "I can't - remember. What - did you see something?" Spike asked - held out the still-steaming cup of chocolate and Xander took it in weak-fingered hands - carried it carefully to his mouth to sip slowly.
"I saw...a veil, a...a portal? A - hole, Spike. There's a hole, there. And something - on the other s-side."
Xander shrugged - drank another and another tiny sips and sighed. "I don't know. Couldn't see that. We should g-go there," he said finally, and Spike lifted an eyebrow - looked at him. Xander shrugged again and drank his chocolate and Spike sat there, studying the map - looking out the balcony doors at the clouded, curdling sea.
"Reckon?" he asked finally, and Xander reached out and touched his cheek - cupped it, his fingers hot from the cup, smelling of chocolate and salt and Ivory soap.
"Yeah. Reckon. It's out. We should go s-soon." Spike closed his eyes and leaned into the touch and when Xander's arm started to tremble from the strain of being held up, Spike reached up and folded Xander's hand into his - rubbed his thumb over the too-prominent, scarred knuckles.
"You can't walk that far," he said, and Xander nodded.
"All right, then," Spike said, and got up - started laying out every item he had in his pack - from the cart. They'd need transportation - another sleeping bag - warmer clothes. He had work to do.
Later, when the sooty-grey sky had turned an ominous greenish-black and rain was slashing like buckshot against the hull of the ship they sat rib-deep in the tub, the small bathroom lit by a Coleman lantern that Spike had brought back the week before. The generators had been turned off, apparently, in the face of the storm. But not before Spike had drawn a bath.
Spike slowly ran soapy hands up and down Xander's back, tracing the lash-marks there. Silvery tracks like a pulled seam, skin slightly wrinkled, the scars themselves a little sunken, stark over sharp bones. "Those bastards beat you," Spike said, and Xander curled down into himself a little bit. Spike snarled silently. "Don't curl up like a damn snail in salt. Isn't your fault, what they did."
"Sure it is," Xander said, and Spike shook him - took one bowed shoulder in his hand and tugged Xander half around in the steaming water.
"How do you figure, then?"
"I fought 'em. All the time," Xander said - looked up at Spike for a moment and then dropped his gaze again, fingers twisting in his lap - water-drops and soap foam slipping down his chest. "Don't know why, r-really. Couldn't - get away from them and they were stronger than me... Should have just -"
"Just what? Gave up? You don't ever give up, Xander. S'why you'd make such a good vamp - tenacious, just like me."
"You mean obsessive-compulsive with a side of ADD," Xander mocked, but he smiled a little, and his shoulders came back up and Spike grinned.
"Turn 'round now, let me wash your hair. Growin' out nice, it is."
"Yeah. Haven't had it this long since... Well, they kept it buzzed to keep the - the wildlife to a minimum."
"Huh. Didn't work though, did it." Spike kneaded shampoo into Xander's hair, careful to keep it away from both eye and socket. Then Xander tipped his head back and Spike picked up his smallest cooking pot and poured water over Xander's head, sluicing the soap away until the dark strands lay sleek and clean, close to the skull. Xander sighed - eased back slowly until he was lying along Spike's chest. Buttocks to groin and his hands loosely on Spike's thighs - his head on Spike's shoulder. Spike just wrapped his arms around Xander's chest and rested there, cheek to the wet hair, listening to the strange, stumbling tattoo of Xander's heartbeat.
*Not right, that. Seems to trip - almost stop. And it's too...liquid. To rushy* Spike thought maybe a faulty valve - blood leaking back into the chamber it was supposed to be pumped out of. It would explain a lot - Xander's tiredness, his dizzy spells - the sometime pain he had in his chest. The wheeze and gurgle of lungs that never quite emptied of fluid, despite the pills Spike had given him. Xander was better, but he was right, too - he wasn't ever going to be well.
"Why is this so nice?" Xander asked softly, his thumbs stroking gently on the insides of Spike's knees, and Spike shrugged - pulled Xander a fraction closer.
"Oh...suppose it's just...us knowing each other all these years. You can...trust me. You know?" Xander was silent for a moment and then he turned his head - twisted a bit to look up at Spike. Spike looked back, not daring to blink for fear he'd miss...something. Miss that - that light in Xander's eye - that crinkling of the skin as Xander smiled.
"Yeah, you're right. I guess - I can. I...do." Long silence, and Xander's breath warm against Spike's jaw - breath tea-sweet and chocolate rich. Spike tipped his head a little, half an inch closer and just wanting the warmth - wanting...
And then Xander's lips, light and soft on his and the weightless kiss seemed to last forever.
It took every bit of trade Spike had - and could scrounge - to get what he wanted. But it was worth it and he said goodbye to the bits and bobs of gold and semi-precious stones - and one diamond - without a quiver. A handful of still-viable electronics and the rifles and he was mobile again. He patted his sleek new acquisition and climbed aboard - drove with a sense of nostalgia through the streets and back to the Dens. He parked - gave the demon on duty a glare and a flask of moonshine to keep watch and bounded up the gangway to the room. Gather up the wards, gather up their gear - gather up Xander and get on the road.
Xander was waiting on the bed, leg bouncing in anticipation and nerves, pale face looking a little pinched under the dark knit cap he had on. He'd woken up fevered and the weather wasn't co-operating; it had turned chilly in the last twenty-four hours and Xander was moving stiffly. Sore he said. Aching in his joints. Spike had found him a fleece-lined coat and wool gloves - a scarf against the wind and Xander sat with his hand on the pile of things, shivering.
"You up for this, then?" Spike asked, tucking the wards away into their pouch - secreting that in his pack and making sure the pocket was closed tightly.
"Yeah, I - want to g-go. How are we gonna get there?"
"Oh, just you wait," Spike said, grinning - picking up his pack and Xander's - gathering up the bundles of the stove and the extra blankets. He hadn't wanted two packs, but in the end he just wasn't able to jettison his things - his books and a few keepsakes. Xander hadn't said anything but he'd nodded, smiling a little, when Spike had packed them back away. And he'd assured Spike he could carry a pack that consisted of little but sweaters, jeans and an all-weather sleeping-bag.
Xander tucked his scarf into the front of the sweater he was wearing - sweater, flannel, thermal undershirt and he was still cold, Spike could tell. Then he dragged the coat on - pulled on the gloves and Spike stretched the cuffs over the coat sleeves, to keep the wind from blowing right up. Spike did a last check of the room and then they walked out. Slow, for Xander's sake, but it still felt...special. Felt good.
*Good to have some fuckin' purpose in my life. Even if it's a goose-chase.* Spike wasn't sure they'd find anything in the hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness where Xander had seen a 'veil' - but it beat dying of boredom. It beat...remembering.
The sky was low and dark that day - dry and silent lightning the color of snow flaring and snapping overhead and they stood at the head of the gangway for a moment, Xander taking in a few deep, slightly bubbly breaths - squinting at the lighting. He looked down and stomped his feet inside the hiking boots Spike had found - looked up again.
"Haven't walked around in...shoes in a long time. Probably get a blister."
"That's why we're gonna ride in style, Xander. Come and see." They walked slowly down - crossed the dock and Spike was grinning - anticipating. Xander didn't disappoint.
"Oh! Oh - wow. That's so cool! Th-that's really - Indiana Jones style, man! What kind is it?"
"Harley-Davidson WLA. Used 'em in the war. Scouts and couriers and such. Good overland, tough as nails. Had one in '44."
"Yeah? Where? What happened?" Xander was grinning back and Spike flipped open the panniers on either side of the rack and stowed their gear, being fussy and making sure it was all seated just so.
"In Belgium. Me an' Dru - we were havin' a Christmas in Antwerp and the bleedin' Krauts thought they'd do some fighting. Stole one of these and chased the moon, getting the fuck out of there before they burned us out. Went right through a line of Panzers..." Spike had to grin at the memory - at the wild night of cross-country travel on a stolen motorcycle, Dru perched behind him with a 9mm Luger, shooting at shadows as they'd jounced and slithered over the slush-covered ground. "Never let a crazy vamp have a pistol, Xander - always leads to tragedy. For somebody," Spike added - patted the cushion that was rigged on the old ammo box. "Climb on, then."
"I'll keep that in mind," Xander said, still grinning. He swung his leg over the bike carefully, unsteady, and Spike held his arm while he settled. Then he held the pack while Xander threaded his arms through and buckled it in front, struggling a little with gloves and the bulky coat. Then Spike got on himself, pack already in place - patted the gas tank in appreciation. Xander touched his arm.
"Where's your coat? Why don't you have your coat, Spike?" Xander said, his hand lightly on Spike's sweatered forearm.
"Lost it," he said shortly, putting his foot on the kick-start - half standing. "We should -"
"Spike. You need a coat," Xander said and Spike sagged - looked around at Xander and saw the serious look on his face - the determined frown. "You can't ride like this - you'll freeze."
"Don't really feel the cold -" Spike started, and Xander poked him.
"Yes you do. I know you d-do. Let's go get a coat. Can't have William the Bloody on a motorcycle in a sweater. That's lame." Spike opened his mouth to argue and just - stopped. If Xander wanted him to have a coat, then... He'd have a bloody coat.
"Whatever you say, pet," he grumbled, and Xander poked him again, grinning.
"That's what I like to hear. Let's get ramblin'."
I-90 wasn't very clear and they had to test the WLA's off-road ability often. It got colder as they headed inland and after about four hours it was obvious Xander couldn't go much longer. He was clinging to Spike's ribs, face pushed into the pack somewhere. Between bouts of coughing a steady whimpering sound creaked out of his throat. Spike was pretty sure he wasn't even aware of it.
They only made it as far as the exit to Springfield - not even a hundred miles. Too much back-tracking and long detours around dragon-blasted areas and cities that looked - or smelled - wrong. Demons not friendly to much of anything had moved in in force in several places and for once Spike wasn't looking for a fight.
Springfield was lit up with magic and bonfires and they found an abandoned house easily enough, Spike choosing one with three chimneys and solid brick walls that showed no signs of damage. Xander coughed, bent double and stumbling as they made their way up a cracked walk, hanging on to Spike's arm. The fireplace in the downstairs sitting room was choked with rubble and Spike hauled Xander upstairs, pushing him down onto a rumpled bed while he broke up furniture to start a fire. Xander's lips were blue - his face ashen and streaked with tear-tracks. And the choking cough seemed to go on and on, and Spike was getting worried.
"Gonna live, mate?" he asked, setting up the stove and getting water heating for tea - finding his 'wildlife' herbs and crushing them into a pot on the hearth in the hope that the astringent steam would help.
Xander dragged in a hard, ragged breath, eye wide and still spilling moisture. "Just - n-need to - catch my -- b-breath, I'll b-be - fine."
"Yeah. Sound it, you do." Spike went into the bathroom that was attached to the room and found mostly clean, slightly mildewy towels under the sink. He brought one back and wet it with some of the warming water - carefully wiped Xander's face. "Get you warm, get you some tea - rest a bit, you'll be all right." Xander nodded - doubled over, holding his ribs and all but strangling on the cough and Spike helplessly rubbed his back - slipped the cap off and rubbed his hand through Xander's hair.
"Maybe one of those - inhaler things, yeah?" he said, and Xander blinked up at him, shrugging a little - catching Spike's hand and squeezing it in his.
"Don't - know. Never tried. M-maybe. But - l-later? Don't - l-leave," Xander said, his hand curling tighter into Spike's and Spike squeezed back - rubbed his thumb over the bones and tendons standing out on the back of Xander's hand.
"No, okay. Later. I'm gonna - make a pallet up, yeah? Right down by the fire. Bake that cough out of you."
"Yeah, okay," Xander rasped, and Spike rubbed his back one more time and then got up - went down the hall, searching. In a third bedroom there was a kid's bed - a narrow mattress that wouldn't take up every bit of floor space and he hauled it into the master bedroom - heaped duvet and blankets on it and then their sleeping bags - knelt down and helped Xander unlace his boots and get them off.
"Undo your coat, now - you're holding all the cold in." Xander's fingers struggled clumsily, even after he'd stripped the gloves off and Spike ended up doing it for him - got him settled on the pallet, the steaming pot of herbs near his head and the rest of their blankets draped over him. The fire was burning hot and fast and Spike went downstairs and gathered up what cut wood there was in the house - birch and pine, it seemed - and took it up. After Xander fell asleep, he'd get more - probably a whole stack in the back yard or something.
Xander was breathing in the steam and coughing a little less by the time the tea was ready and they both had a cup. But Xander wouldn't eat and he set his cup down and curled into an exhausted heap, fever-warm and shivering. Three aspirins in his belly and not much else and Spike didn't like it. But he didn't know what to do about it, either. He shed his own too-new leather coat and scooted in close - hugged Xander to him - stroked sweat-damp hair off Xander's forehead and, after a moment's hesitation, lightly kissed his temple.
"S'okay, you know," Xander murmured.
"That. You... I don't mind if you...kiss me. S'nice."
"Yeah?" Spike asked, but he was grinning and Xander twisted his head a little on the pillow, looking up at him.
"Yeah. Been - a long time and... And I -" He stopped abruptly, chewing his lip. Twining his fingers with Spike's and closing his eye briefly, as if sorting his thoughts. "I - never would have minded. Not after that...summer."
'Yeah?' seemed like a stupid thing to say again and Spike just lay there, silent. Remembering the long summer of Buffy's second death and how he and Xander had...called truce. Let go the old hates so they could concentrate on keeping what was left of their family...alive.
"You were supposed to kiss me again," Xander said, teasing edge to his voice but his grip tight and needing and Spike smiled - bent his head and kissed him again, mouth on mouth and just - lightly. Letting Xander breathe - letting him pull back when he wanted. Which he didn't seem to do, and they kissed slowly until Xander was half-asleep, his breathing slowing and his body going lax beside Spike's - shivers easing as the fever broke.
"You rest now," Spike whispered into his cheek - brushed his lips through Xander's hair and snuggled down behind him, pulling him close. Xander sighed and wormed backwards and was out not two minutes later and Spike lay blinking in the heat and dance of the fire, waiting. Letting Xander slip far, far under, stroking his hand up and down his arm - over his fingers. He'd do his hunting and foraging...later. There was no hurry.
They ended up staying four days in Springfield - the fever lingered and the cough worsened until Spike started seriously thinking about finding a healer of some kind. And Xander had a sort of...relapse. Asked brokenly for the shot, over and over, until Spike yelled at him - told him the bloody shite was down the drain and gone, no chance. It wasn't - not really. It was riding in cotton-wrapped splendor in a side-pocket of Spike's pack, just in case. But they weren't anywhere near 'just in case'. Not by a long shot.
*Not unless you really are dying, Xander, and you're not - nowhere near dying. Just sick, is all - just got too cold. I'll get you better clothes - figure a way to keep you warm on the bike. You'll be fine.* He found camping gear in a high-end shop - silk long-johns and space-age fiber sweaters - wool shirts. And the real prize, a box-full of some hunting gadget; little chemical packets that heated up after you flexed them - started some kind of reaction. Small enough to tuck into boots and gloves and pockets - radiate warmth for hours. Xander looked them over and nodded, wan smile on his stubbled face. Spike thought a beard would help keep him warm but Xander wanted it off - it itched, he complained. So Spike found a nice straight-razor in a pawn shop and carefully removed every bit of stubble - suffered with a smile Xander rubbing his cool, smooth cheek over Spike's.
"Isn't that - b-better?" he said, and Spike just kissed him, silent approval.
Their next stop was some little town near the border of New York and Massachusetts - the signs were all gone. But there was a clutch of Hnuk demons there and on the second day of raging fever and bloody phlegm Spike tracked them down and got one to come back to the community center he and Xander were squatting in. It had a fireplace as wide and tall as a truck and a generator in the basement and Spike had got the boiler working - got hot water, finally, and was giving Xander baths in between roastings.
The Hnuk took one look at Xander and went off on an herb-hunt, coming back an hour later with a bushel-basket of stuff. It diced and boiled and stewed in the kitchen and smeared a stinging, eye-watering poultice over Xander's chest and throat. The sludge-brown stuff was foul, but within ten minutes Xander's agonized, liquid breathing had eased and he fell asleep, sweating face bathed in fire-light, his clothing all stuck to him with sweat.
"Every day - three times a day. Heat, hot in the belly - no more of this." The Hnuk eyed the inhalers Spike had found with distaste and shoved them away - gave Spike a packet of dark-red leaves. "Make tea - as much as he'll take. Honey fine, sugar fine, no al-co-hol. His heart -" The hirsute, heavy-lidded Hnuk shook its head, clicking its tongue behind its teeth. "Heart not good."
"I know. Nothing to be done about that, then?"
"Tea will help - hawthorn, thistle, rosehip, tchka. You find me trade - find me good plant things - I give you enough for...six months." Spike couldn't go foraging for three more days but he ended up raiding a police warehouse two towns over for gro-lights, drip-irrigation supplies - somebody's marijuana-growing set up, it seemed. Plus a biscuit-tin full of seeds from a nursery that specialized in 'antique' plants. He was gone for almost twenty hours but it was worth it - the Hnuk were pleased and Xander... Xander just pulled him down onto the pallet and hugged him, sighing softly into Spike's neck and not letting go.
"Missed you too," Spike said.
They were there ten days all told, and then they were in New York and turning north - coasting along increasingly better roads toward the Adirondack Park and Xander's Locus Obiti. Spike had no idea what they would find - if they would find anything. But hope was a little coal in his chest, as warm and welcome as Xander's lips on the back of his neck - Xander's hand on his chest while they slept. Hope, anticipation....excitement. Things he hadn't felt in a long time, and Spike held Xander close in the rustling darkness of the tent, listening to an ash-fall slither over and down, over and down - rasping susurrus that went on and on. He slept deeply, his only dreams that of primal forest and clear, cold water - long march of dark evergreens upright and prickly against a snowy frieze of stone. Nothing of Gunn, or Illyria, or Angel. Nothing at all.