Babylon - part eight

 

 

It took them almost two weeks to reach Saranac Lake.   The tea the Hnuk had made seemed to be working - seemed to be doing something, but Spike wasn't taking chances and anyway - there was no hurry.  It was amazingly pleasant to ride along at slow speeds, watching the mountains unfold and rise up all around them.  The woods were mix of dense evergreens and sugar maples, the still-vivid crowns winding through the dull, dark green of the pines like threads of ruby and antique gold.   The towns got further between - the demons and hybrids thinned out and it was...quiet.  Normally that would have put Spike right over the edge but somehow, it didn't.  The demon who'd traded the bike had done something to the motor and Spike didn't have to forage for gas too often.  He'd traded his bottle of whiskey for that little bit of magic but so far all the stations they'd come across had still had petrol in the big underground tanks.  He didn't begrudge the whiskey, though - he just didn't take some risks, anymore. 

They would ride for three or four hours and then stop.  Find a house or a hotel and camp for the night.  They even slept in the tent a couple of nights but it was cold and damp and Spike didn't like how it made Xander's chest sound.    So it was beds and fireplaces and sometimes, if there were demons, hot water and hot food that Spike would sniff and taste and dither over until Xander would remind him he wasn't actually all human anymore, so hand over the damn stew, Spike.  Xander never got sick but Spike couldn't keep himself from checking, every time. 

Here where the land was mostly untouched and the towns simply deserted rather than destroyed the pickings were easy.  In the back of a pawn shop Spike found a rifle that slotted nicely into the scabbard on the WLA, with a box of hollow-point ammo besides.  Most of the hybrids could be killed by a well-placed round, and he wanted something Xander could use, if he had to.   Spike also got them all new clothes at least twice - nobody had working washing machines and he'd be buggered if he'd try and wash jeans by hand.  Xander just dressed his freshly-bathed self in layers and layers, snuggling down in a cocoon of blankets by the fire Spike had made, reading 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' now - reading aloud to Spike who fed the fire and lay with his hand on Xander' thigh, letting the rough, low voice lull him into a half-doze; scent of woodsmoke and chocolate and salt, honey-sweet tea on his lips from Xander's mouth.

 

'Chauvelin, who, as he told Marguerite once, had seen a trick or two in his day, had never dreamed of this one.  With one ear fixed on those fast-approaching footsteps, one eye turned to that door where Desgas and his men would presently appear, lulled into false security by the impudent Englishman's airy manner, he never even remotely guessed the trick which was being played upon him.

He took a pinch of snuff.

Only he, who has ever by accident sniffed vigorously a dose of pepper, can have the faintest conception of the hopeless condition in which such a sniff would reduce any human being.'

 

Xander stopped reading, his voice choking off and Spike twisted around to look up at him, wondering what, exactly, the odd snuffling noises were.  Xander was giggling.

"He g-gave him snuff?" Xander wheezed.   "That's the b-big plan?   Chauvelin's gonna sneeze himself to d-death?"

"You ever done snuff, then?  It's wicked if you get a nose-ful of what he did."

"But - b-but -"  Xander let the book droop down out of his hands.  He was laughing out loud now, his eye leaking tears and his breath getting wheezy - his whole body shaking and Spike couldn't help grinning at him - squeezing his thigh and poking him in the belly when he started to double over.

"Not that funny -"

"It is!  It is, i-it -  Oh god."  Xander squirmed lower in the bundle of blankets, pulling Spike up closer, his breath hitching in little snorts and huffs as he tried to control himself.  "Okay, maybe it isn't but...it just ss-struck me...  Snuff."  Spike propped himself on his elbow over Xander and Xander grinned happily up at him, his chipped tooth and thin face making him so damn boyish - so innocent in the soft, amber light of the fire.  Even the empty socket seemed nothing more than shadow - a trick of the light - and Spike had to lean down and kiss him.    

Xander tasted of honey and salt and the complicated green flavors of the heart-tea - underlying tang of not-human that was like tin and licorice.  But all of it warm - all of it opening eagerly to him as Xander kissed back, his hand curling loosely into Spike's hair and his leg shifting over, thigh to thigh under the blankets.  Long, slow kissing that made Spike feel - breathless.   Made him inch his hand up under Xander's layers and stroke the finely-textured skin of his back.  Scars over muscle felt like coarse silk under his fingers and Xander sighed into his mouth - pulled Spike over a little closer and did his own slow exploration of backbone and ribcage and sternum, making Spike laugh.

"You think there's gonna be a test later, pet?" he asked, and Xander pulled his hair a little, laughing back.

"No, you jerk.  I just want to...know you.  Want to know everything.  All the stuff I didn't b-bother with, before."

"Yeah?" Spike asked, and Xander's smile faded, then - went to something solemn and intense and young, again.  So very, very vulnerable and open and Spike felt that look like a fist to his gut.

"Yeah," Xander said finally, fingertip skipping up and down Spike's ribs, his eyebrows drawn down and his eye veiled behind lashes and lid.  Looking like he wanted to say more but just not quite able.  Spike tipped Xander's chin up and studied the dark, defiant eye that gazed back at him and then he just leaned in and went back to kissing.   But they both knew something was different, after that.

 

 

 

They sheltered from an ash-fall about ten miles from Saranac Lake - the town there the closest they could get on the bike to where Xander said they had to go.   Spike was fretting about that - fretting about Xander having to hike miles and miles through forest, on trails meant for experienced hikers or at least people with properly working hearts.  Xander ignored him - took out the book and started looking for their page, nibbling a piece of dried meat that was possibly demon, possibly dog.   The demon selling it had been suspiciously unclear and Spike wondered if it was family, which would account for the absurdly low trade-price.  But it tasted salty and savory and good, and Xander seemed to like it so Spike wasn't going to quibble.  The ash made him restless, though - that and the hike ahead and he couldn't settle enough to listen.  After a while Xander shut the book and reached out - touched his arm.

"Tell me what happened?  With Angel and - the others?  It felt sad and...angry.  You were angry."

"I was out of my mind, pet," Spike said softly - carried Xander's hand to his lips and then folded it into his own.   He lay on his back and told the story, his voice tremoring and breaking from time to time, but steady enough.  When he was done Xander tugged until he turned over - let himself be pulled and pushed until he was lying with his head on Xander's chest, the rushy start-stop of Xander's heart right under his ear.   He lay there for a long time, thinking he might cry but in the end Xander's hand, sweeping over and over his hair lulled him to sleep and when he woke up, the ache had passed.

 

Breaking down the tent, Spike's anxiety returned but it wasn't about Xander, this time.  It was about where they were and he moved fast, rolling and packing and getting things settled - not liking the feeling of the place.  The air was damp and the ash clung to everything and made Xander cough.  The clouds were high and moving fast - deep, pearly grey lit with intermittent, silent lighting.  A strange day - the sun was up there somewhere - and the skin on the back of Spike's neck prickled.  Crows were circling and cawing away to the east and then a covey of morning doves started up out of the tall birch opposite, whirring away with small peeps of alarm.  There was a deep, breathy, growling sort of noise from - somewhere.  A guttural huuh huuh that reminded Spike uneasily of a lion, beating the bush for prey.

"Xander - get on the bike," Spike said.  Deliberately kept his voice low.  Jerked the buckle down tight on the off-side pannier and put his hand out, steadying Xander as he straddled the bike.  "Keep hold of my pack for now, all right?  I just want to -"

Something moved - something struck, fast as a snake but infinitely larger and Spike felt himself hit tarmac and then ground, rolling hard, cloud of ash kicking up and covering them.   Something all angles and bone and coarse fur - all snarling, fang-filled mouth tearing at him and he jammed his leather-clad arm into its jaws and pushed - heard something crack, loud as fucking canon and Xander yelled and then Spike was free, crashing hard into a tree-trunk and scrambling to his feet, ash gritty between his teeth.

About twenty feet away was a hybrid, snarling as it clawed at the leaf-mold; struggling to right itself as well, blood pouring down its arm.  Spike, ears ringing, threw a wild glance at Xander who was lying on his back beside the motorcycle, the rifle clutched across his chest and a stunned look on his face - one foot hooked on a pannier. 

*Oh, fuck, did it hit Xander too?  Fuck, fuck, got to get the fucking gun -*  Xander wasn't making any move to get up and Spike dove across the space between them, snatching the rifle and chambering another round - taking aim before the hybrid was able to do more than howl.  He pulled the trigger - cocked - pulled again and the hybrid went down, gurgling.  The 45-70 round left an exit wound the size of a dinner plate and Spike had hit it mid-trunk with both shots.  Half its spine was gone - lungs and heart pulverized - and it crumpled into a heap of bony limbs and brindled fur, fanged snout gaping open as the wide, black eyes slowly glazed and went dead.  Blood pooled beneath it, black and silvery-grey as the ash mingled with it.

"Xander?  You all right?"  Spike dropped to his knees beside Xander, hardly daring to touch him until the man moved on his own.  Xander lay there blinking up at the sky, his mouth twisted into a grimace of pain. 

"Ff-fuck, that's got a wu-wicked fucking - kick," Xander muttered.  He made an abortive attempt to get up and Spike leaned the rifle against the bike - carefully hauled Xander upright.  Xander yelped and put his hand gingerly to his right shoulder.   "That's gonna leave a m-mark," he said, and Spike snorted softly.

"Scared me, pet.  Didn't know if it got you or not.  Just the shoulder, then?" 

"Yeah, just the shoulder, turned into mincemeat.  No w-worries." 

Spike couldn't resist a quick kiss to Xander's forehead and then he was standing up - lifting Xander with him and picking up the rifle again.  Just in case.  Brushing at Xander's coat and hair, cursing at the mess.

"Is that - it?" Xander asked, and his voice sounded - odd.  Sounded off and Spike looked at him sharply.

"Yeah, that's it.  What's wrong?"

"N-nothing.  I mean...  That's -"   Xander's voice trailed off into a ragged intake of breath, his eye fixed on the hybrid.    Spike laid his palm against Xander's cheek and stroked the jut of bone there lightly with his thumb. 

"What is it, Xander?  Have you seen that kind before?  Do they hunt in pairs or - packs?" 

Xander blinked - started to lift his hand and then winced.  He held his right arm close to his body with his left and stared for another moment at the hybrid lying crumpled on the tarmac.   It had been tall and lanky, darkly pelted and maned. Long, clawed hands, clawed feet and a blunt snout that was reminiscent of a hyena.  Human enough that it was obviously female but the legs bent backwards at the knee, like a dog's. 

"N-no, they don't - hunt in pairs or packs.  Th-they - hunt alone.  Always - alone..."  Xander's voice trailed off to silence and Spike felt a twist of unease in his belly and let his hand drop away from Xander's cheek. Something - familiar about that.

"Listen, pet, you need to tell me what's going on, you hear?  Makin' me nervous, now."

"Oh."  Xander sniffed - looked away from Spike, rubbing his hurt arm slowly.  "When it happened - when the change happened...  That's what - the Slayers turned into, Spike.  That was - that was a Slayer."

"Slayer?  Christ."  Spike tugged Xander gently closer - hugged him - and Xander hugged back, pushing his face into the collar of Spike's coat and just breathing, for a long moment.  Then he stepped back - wiped at his eye.

"Spike?  Can I - borrow your knife?"  Spike nodded silently, slipping the short-bladed one from the sheath at his waist and handing it over.  Xander took it - took a deep breath.  Walked stiffly over to the - body - and knelt down.  A moment later he was coming back, and Spike watched him tuck the long lock of dark, brindled hair into his pocket without comment.

They rode in silence, Xander's hand on Spike's hip, and settled into a resort cabin for the next three days while Xander's badly bruised and strained shoulder healed.   Then they shouldered their packs and a cache of tinned food - said a fond farewell to the motorcycle - and walked into the forest.

 

 

 

Walking was easy - worrying about Xander was exhausting and they made the journey in fits and starts, resting often despite Xander's protests.  Spike kept alert, the rifle in his hands just in case.  The woods were quiet, though.  The dim light filtered down all dapple and shadow, dimmer yet under the close-knit pines and the air was thick with the astringent smell of them - with the thick scents of leaf-mould and mushrooms, rotting wood and water.  Rills and creeks, ponds and springs at every turn and Xander scooped up a handful from a tiny waterfall, drinking and then smiling - amazed that it tasted so good and was so cold.  Spike had some himself and it was sharp and clean on his tongue.  Xander said it made the tea taste better and drank an extra cup.

But halfway through stirring in the honey - while he was re-winding his scarf - adjusting his gloves...  He'd get that look in his eyes.  Dazed and strange.  Turning a little, this way and that way, whispering.

"North, up, sideways...through the looking glass...broken glass...broken record, there's a skip..."   Rasping whisper and a little shudder and Spike touched his cheek - made sure he was awake - was there, before they went on.

Picking their way around the skeleton of a huge, fallen maple Xander slipped and scuffed his hand - stood sucking the red, scraped skin of the heel for a moment while Spike dug around for a length of clean gauze and some A&D that he'd picked up in the Lake town.

"I was born with a caul, you know?"
"You were?" Spike looked at Xander for a moment - held out his hand and Xander put his hand in Spike's, fingers open, palm up.  Tiny beads of blood welled along the scuff.  "Had a cousin that was," Spike said.  Cousin Jules, who had died at the age of eight.  He remembered the caul - a thin membrane stretched over the face of some newborns, reckoned to be - good luck.  The midwife had taken it - sold it, or so William's mother had said, with a sniff and a moue of disgust.

"Yeah?"  Xander flinched a little from the cold ointment - smiled at Spike's cluck of amusement.  "My granny - my mom's grandma - she saved it.  Buried it.  Said it meant I was special - meant I would do...great things."  Spike wound the gauze around and around - tied it neatly and tucked the ointment away - ran his fingers over Xander's palm and wrist, just - touching.

"Guess she was right," Spike said finally, and Xander shook his head - laughed softly.

"I don't think being the 'last pure-blooded human' is special, Spike."

"They used a caul to tell the future, pet.  For divination.  Guess that's special.   I think - it's special." 

Xander's fingers curled into his - held fast - and Xander hitched his pack up a little higher.  "I think...  I think I was already part demon before the changes happened.  I think - that was my...m-mark -"

"Of what - Cain?  What are you hinting at, pet?  Not gonna tell me you're evil or some such, are you?"

"No, no...  I meant...  What I was, in Sunnydale...   I think the caul meant I'd be that.  Different.  Not - right."

"Bollocks, Xander," Spike growled, squeezing his hand - glaring at him.  "Nothing wrong with you that isn't wrong with the whole bloody planet.  We're all changed."

Xander sighed, his shoulders sagging.  "I know.  It's not...  It's just, I'm...afraid," he whispered.   "What if where I'm taking us is - l-like Cleveland?  Or - what if it kills us?"

"What if it takes us to the Land of Milk and Honey?  It doesn't make any sense to fret about it, Xander.  We'll know when we get there.  For the record -"   Spike tugged Xander closer - leaned his forehead into Xander's and trailed his fingers gently over Xander's cheek.  "For the record, I trust you.  I think it's going to be grand."

"Liar," Xander said softly, but he tipped his head a little and got a kiss - started back up the slope they were trying to climb, a small smile lingering on his mouth.  Spike took a deep breath - lit a horded cigarette, the familiar action and taste calming him a little.  He'd found a Latin dictionary in the last town and looked up Xander's 'veil'.  'Locus' he already knew - a place, a designation.  'Obiti', though, had two meanings.   Going, which would make this portal simply a place to step from here to there.  But also...destruction - death.  

Spike didn't trust to luck - didn't trust to fate or destiny, only to his instincts and his desires.  But here - at what seemed the heart of an untouched, primal world...   He had no compass - nothing telling him yes or no.  And his only desire was Xander.  Was that connection of history and blood and pain - love and happiness that they shared.  He hoped - for something 'grand'.   For his sake, and for Xander's as well.

 

 

 

They came to the portal on their fifth day in the forest.  Xander was looking pale, that day - feeling the cold.  The temperature seemed to have dropped several more degrees and he was shivering in his layers.  Breathing too hard and not catching his breath, his heart laboring.  Spike was ready to call a halt - set up camp and rest for a day or so but Xander just shook his head, standing with his hand on the peeling parchment bark of a birch-tree, his teeth chattering together while he tried to talk.

"It's close.  Spike, it's r-really close.  Feels like - feels like a-ants on me or - s-ssstatic electri-city.  Just - want to get there, Spike.  Just - get there."  Edge to his voice, something close to panic and Spike couldn't tell if it was because they were so close to the portal or because Spike wanted to stop.

"Just sit for a minute or two, Xander, you're all in..."

"Please?  Spike?  Please just - help me -"  Stopping, then, was the panic and Spike cursed as Xander swayed a step and then another away from the tree, clutching reflexively at Spike's arm as his legs wobbled.

"Fuck.  Xander -"  Wide, wide eye - sheen of moisture and Xander's hand trembling, clutching tight enough to make the leather of Spike's coat creak.  "God damnit.  Fine.  We'll go.  But if you fall down you're staying down and I bloody well won't be talked around.  Got it?"

"Yu - yu -"  Labored breath in - out - and Xander clenched his teeth and nodded, abandoning his attempt at speech.  Gestured with his head upslope, where Spike could see glimpses of dark rock between the tree-limbs.

"Right.  Hold on, now."  Arm around Xander's waist and they walked, boots slipping on the dead leaves and old pine-needles, the sound of running water getting louder.  A sort of roaring, and Spike saw white water foaming and falling and realized they were coming up on a waterfall.  His skin felt - itchy.  His ears buzzed and he imagined this was what Xander had been talking about.  Shivery pulse of wrongness that was the magic that made the portal or that held it open - who knew?   The blood in his belly - deer that he'd hunted and drained a few hours before - seemed to curdle and for a moment he just wanted to turn back.  Find what was left of civilization and just...live.  With Xander.

*He doesn't want that, though.  He wants this.  Whatever this is.  God...*

Xander's breathing was harsher now - a tearing gasp that hurt to hear and he sagged in Spike's arms - shook his head when Spike stopped.    "No, no, no - no ss-stopping, we go, Spike!"

"Xander -"   Frustration and anger and panic - visions of Xander's heart just stopping - pushed past all limits and failing at the critical moment.  But Xander gulped and breathed and coughed.  Breathed deeper, eye closed and sweat standing out on his lip - on his forehead.

"It's closing.  T-tomorrow, today - ss-oon.  Has to be now Spike.  Come across, come across, come across..."  Shake of his head and a dazed look up and around and Spike snarled, flashing into the demon-face.   Xander laughed - coughed hard.  "You ss-scared?"

"Fuck you!  Scared your fucking heart's gonna stop, you git."  Xander's mouth was still curled in amusement and he leaned in close to Spike and kissed him, hard.  Not minding the fangs and he drew back with a bead of dark blood on his lip and a look that was full of affection and - happiness.

"Git, yourself.  N-not gonna stop.  Just get me th-there!" 

"Fine.  Bastard.   I'll get you there."   They staggered onward, upward - came out of the trees to a sandy margin and a small pool that churned and foamed under the hammer of falling water.  Forty or more feet high, a waterfall as wide as two men fell in a champagne-torrent down black, slick rock.  And at the base - behind the boiling cloud of mist and spume was - light.  Shiver-flicker-flash, coldly white, bright enough to make rainbows dance in the humid air.

"There.  God, th-there.  C'mon, Spike let's - let's go."  Xander's gaze was riveted on the portal and Spike hesitated, searching.  The sides of the pool by the fall were sheer - there was no way Xander could get past them.

"How do we get there?   You're not climbing that.   And that pool could be - twenty feet deep.  No way you can swim it."

"No, not deep, it's - it's okay"

"Xander, you can't know -" Spike growled and Xander swung around to face him, his hand coming up and grabbing the back of Spike's neck, wool glove prickly and damp.

"I can.  I do.  It's shallow.  We just - walk.  T-t-trust me, Spike.  Okay?"  Tug at his neck - tip of Xander's chin and they kissed again.   Xander tasted like sorrel and honey and saltine crackers and Spike suddenly pulled him into a hard, hard embrace, burying his face in Xander's neck.

"You hold on to me and don't let go, you hear?   Don't even think about it," Spike said, his voice gone husky and Xander tugged at the messy braid of his hair - hugged him back.

"Promise.  I promise."

 

 

 

The water was cold - bone-freezing cold that crept up to mid-thigh and Xander was wheezing - breathing in sharp, tight pants that hurt to hear.  Spike grimly held him, arms around his waist; plowing through the water and slipping on the worn rocks underfoot.   They paused for a long moment at the foot of the fall and then plunged ahead, gasping and ducking on reflex when they passed under the sheet of glass-clear water that flowed past the portal.  It pounded down on them and Xander flailed and lost his footing, kicking out and tangling his feet with Spike's.  They both went down, the water sluicing in past Spike's coat collar, icy wash of it down his back.  Spike struggled upright and found Xander's pack - yanked him up by it and shoved him forward.

Xander was reeling - coughing - and Spike scrambled and slithered and splashed, heading for the lip of stone that rose out of the water - heading for the portal that shimmered at the back of the tiny alcove that the fall had hid.   Like a TV turned to static; it buzzed and sizzled and made Spike's head hurt and he stumbled up against Xander who was clutching the stone edge, coughing so hard he was gagging.

"Fuck - fuck - grab hold, damnit, Xander - pull!"  Spike got his shoulder into Xander's flank and heaved and Xander scrabbled at slick, wet rock, half out of the water and his face a ghastly blue-grey.   Spike clambered after, hindered by the sodden weight of the pack - the blankets - the awkward bundle of the stove that Xander had talked him into keeping, just in case.   His jeans clung, making it hard to bend his knees and he finally flopped down next to Xander, pulling the shaking body half over onto him.  Holding him close.  The energy from the portal washed over them, sickly whine in Spike's ears and his skin all but crawling off his bones.  It was horrible.

"Bloody fucking hell - you all right?  Xander - you okay?"

"Ju-ju-jesus Christ it's c-c-c-"

"Yeah, I know.  I know."  No way to light a fire here - no room to change and he doubted the clothes had survived their dunking and they had to get out of here - he had to get Xander warm and dry.    "Gotta get the fuck out of here."

"Go th-through, Sss-pike, we gotta -"   Xander was grimacing; teeth clenched shut and his hands clutching fiercely at Spike's coat, his whole body spasaming with chills.

"You're gonna get pneumonia for fuck's sake," Spike snapped - pushed Xander over and levered himself to his feet, hauling Xander with him.  The overhang was too low for them to stand straight and they both crouched there for a moment, Xander wiping his gloved hands back over his head, wiping water off his face, his lips a pale blue.

"N-now or n-n-never," he said, gaze wide and glassy.  Staring at the portal and Spike looked out - past the falls - at the wavering scene of furling clouds and upright pines - green and grey and autumn-gold, water like crystal.  Then he grabbed Xander and pushed, launching them both through the air - into the portal.

The interface was sticky - hot - and it pulled them in and then repelled them with a bone-jarring push that sent them flying - falling - spinning off into a grey-static nothingness.  Spike clamped his hands down hard, holding onto Xander but he couldn't feel anything.  Everything was numb - everything was roaring and he shouted, twisting.

Then there was a thump - a trembling surface that caught and stretched and finally broke, spilling Spike down onto something springy and damp - fragrant.  Spike rolled, the pack and bundles banging into his sides and finally catching him on something and he lay there, panting - blinking into a spangled darkness that gradually resolved into...  Tree branches.   Stars.  A warm, steady breeze that smelled of salt and grass and green leaves - smelled of earth and somewhere, blackberries.   Crickets, the rushy hiss of the surf, the low call of a territorial owl.

And a muffled thud-shush - faltering heartbeat that he knew so, so well.  He grabbed branches and a long vine of creeper - pulled himself upright, the branch that had tangled with his pack parting with a sharp crack.  Wetness down his face and he smelled blood - shook it off with a snap of his head, impatient.

"Xander?  Pet - where are you?"  He staggered through brambles that caught at coat and pack and his hands, the sweet, thick fragrance of blackberries rising up heady and warm as he crushed them under foot.  Something pale flashed, away to his left and he stumbled faster - barely avoided a tussocky lump of grass and fell to his knees beside...  "Xan - hey, Xander - you awake?  Xander?"  He ran his hands over the crumpled figure, not daring to move him until he moved on his own.  Snarling, unconsciously reverting to the demon in his distress.

The heart sound went on, stuttery and wrong but still going - sharp, wheezing breaths that caught and then evened out and Xander stirred - reached out for Spike.

"Spike?  Can't - see you -"

"Here, I'm right here, Xander, right here."  Spike grabbed the questing hand - held tight, his other hand scrabbling in the unfamiliar coat, searching.  Finally he found his Zippo - flicked it open and lit it.  Xander's face in the wavering, golden light was pale and scratched - smudged with dirt - tracked with tears.  His pack was askew and his coat torn - dirty. 

"Oh - god!  Spike-"  And then he was yanking Spike down, arms going around in an awkward embrace, mouth seeking Spike's and Spike fumbled the Zippo shut and just held on, kissing back, the both of them shaking into half-hysterical laughter.

"That was fucking - awful, god - Xander, you okay?  Can you stand up?  We have to get you warm, pet."

"I th-think - think I can, just -"  Momentary confusion in the dark, Xander uncertain where to put his feet and Spike got up and lifted him - held him close.  Xander's hands curled tight into his back and they stood there a moment.  "You smell like blackberries," Xander said finally, his voice muffled.  "And you're bleeding."

"So're you.    Can you walk?  Let's - let's get out from the trees, see if there's any - anything."

"Yeah, okay."  Xander held on as Spike guided them twenty yards or so through bracken and trees, toward the sound of the sea.  They broke free and staggered down a sudden slope onto a rocky beach, the waves crashing and curling over, phosphor glow and white foam.  Starshine lending a faint glow to everything. 

Far, far down the strand - glimpsed through tree-limbs and tall grass - Spike could see light reflected on the water, blue and red and gold.  Jewelry strands of diamond-white and movement - cars.  Faintly, the sound of traffic came to him, carried on the breeze.

"Look there, Xander.  Looks like - something."

"Yeah.  Something good.  Hot b-bath," Xander said, swaying a little, his arm tight around Spike's waist.

"Yeah?  You think so?" Spike asked, pushing his hand through Xander's hair - plucking out a leaf and a tattered bit of bark.

"Know so, Spike.  Special, remember?  It's - something.  Not home.  But - look."  Xander gazed at him, smiling that smile - innocent and so, so young and Spike had to grin back - had to laugh again, softly.

"Yeah, special.  I remember.  Let's go, then.  Sun'll be up in an hour or so."

"Will it?   Wow.  It's been...a long time."  They started walking, picking their way over rocks, following the gentle curve of the shore.  Somewhere far above a plane moved, blinking lights and the distant roar of the engines.  Spike tracked its progress for a moment, blinking at what might be tears.  They weren't home - never would be again.  But Xander was there, and that was...enough.