Chapter 26: Preparations

Chapter 26: Preparations

                Thirteen days.  Seven, since Spike had grudgingly allowed Xander to be up and walking about.  The pain still took him at odd moments; Spike would watch, gritting his teeth, as Xander would clutch at his head if he bent down too far, or turned to look too fast.  Oz and Derio had argued the both of them into going to a clinic - the only one of its kind left open in Sunnydale.  The staff had been harried - snappish - but thorough, and Xander's succinct 'Fight', had been enough to explain his eye.  The doctor had made a swift examination - had exclaimed mildly over the swiftness of the healing and said they could leave off packing the wound.  He'd given Xander a scribbled phone number for an office in San Diego and told him he could think about a prosthetic in a few months, once the socket had settled.  And then they'd left.

                Now Spike watched as Xander haltingly worked on a piece of sculpture, his hands shaking a little, his eyebrows drawn down in a fierce scowl.   There was only a small square of gauze over the socket now, and Xander wore a dark leather patch over it.  The band annoyed him.

                *Damnit!*   Xander's frustration boiled up in the link and Spike crossed over to him, crouching down and putting his hand on Xander's thigh.  Depth perception was still a bit of a problem, and his remaining eye got strained a little, doing all the work.  Spike could feel the headache building.

                "Leave be for a while, eh love?  Come sit with me and let me make that headache go away."  Spike rubbed small circles over Xander's knee and Xander poked one more time at the wood - sighed in resignation.

                "I just - I really wanted to work on this," he said softly.  He was *tired*, in the link, and unhappy - sick of hurting and feeling useless, and struggling to suppress it all.

                *Love - don't hide.  It's all right,* Spike thought, and Xander put his knife away - turned a little on his chair and hugged Spike to him.

                "I'm sorry, Spike...  I feel so -"   *Useless, damaged, what the fuck can I do now -*

                "Stop, love.  Stop."  Spike stood and made Xander stand up, too - drew him over to the couch and tugged him down, arranging them both until they were curled together, Xander's back to Spike's chest, his head resting on Spike's shoulder.  Spike slowly and gently rubbed his fingers through Xander's hair - rubbed small circles at this temple beside his eye and matching circles on Xander's sternum.  Gentle pressure and no noise - nothing else - and after about ten minutes Xander heaved a sigh and seemed to finally relax

                *Better, love?*

                *Yeah.  Better.  M'sorry -*

                *Stop it, pet.  No 'sorry'.  Nothing to be sorry for.  Not your fault your head hurts.*   There was a long silence after that, and then Spike felt the tiny tremors that grew quickly into the shakes, and he scrambled to twist around - to see Xander's face.   Xander's fist was pressed to his mouth and tears were tracking down a face twisted in silent agony.  Tears that were clear on one side, slightly pinkish on the other and Spike could feel the stinging pain in the socket from them - could feel the guilt and despair and wanted to howl.  Instead he pulled Xander close - tucked the dark head under his chin and just held on tight until, slowly, the storm subsided and Xander's warm, hitching breath against his neck was all that remained.

                *Please don't, please, love...  Please tell me what to do - I don't know what to do, pet, I don't know how to fix it -*

                *There's no fixing, Spike!  We came back, and the its revenge and...  Fuck, I - I don't know what I'm gonna do, I don't...  So fuckin' tired of being...*

                "Being what, Xan?  Tired of being mine?  Tired of being a bloody hero to Dawn? Tired of being the one who - who fixes things?  The one who -"  Spike cut himself off, but not in time, and Xander laughed rather hysterically against his neck - sat up a little and wiped at his face, flinching when he pressed too hard against the wounded side.

                "Being the one who sees?  I don't really see now, do I?"

                "Yes you do!"  Spike didn't know how to fight the unhappiness that welled up in Xander at odd moments all through the day - didn't know how to fix it, didn't know what to do.   Sex - which fixed most things, as far as Spike was concerned - didn't help; the increase in blood pressure made Xander's head pound and the wound ache like a broken bone, and Spike was missing the physicality of their relationship almost as much as Xander's usual optimism.   And the grief was too deep - was mixed up with something else - and Spike didn't know what it was - couldn't get Xander to tell him. 

                "You still see!  Damnit, Xan, you can't -"

                "I can!  I - will.  Fuck, Spike, I get a little moping time, don't I?  Aren't I entitled?"  Xander was struggling to pull away and Spike fought him - growled in sheer frustration as the headache crashed back and Xander flinched and sagged on the couch-edge, head in hands.  Spike just sat there for a moment, leg crooked around Xander's hips, one foot braced on the floor, fists clenched in a fit of helpless rage.

                "Xander, stop it.  It's something else - you're not telling me something, pet.  You have to!  Stop hiding from me -"

                "Fine!"  Xander shouted, jerking halfway around and skewering Spike with a wild, tear-bleared stare that was part anger and part desolation - too much guilt and Spike wanted to hold him and kiss him and just make it be better.  "Here, here's what - just -"   Xander opened the link wide - let it all out in a crashing wave, and Spike shut his eyes and shuddered.  Guilt, that was foremost - the overriding emotion.  Guilt because Xander didn't want to be there - because he was regretting coming back - was wishing they never had come back.  And then was upset with himself - was guilty for wishing he could abandon his friends and just run and hide.  He wanted desperately to take his family and just go.  And that made him hate himself - made the words *coward* and *useless* and *traitor* din in his head until he thought he might scream.   Resentment, anger, loathing of himself.  Loathing how helpless he felt - how crippled - and loathing how pathetic that was when he wasn't dead like Rona - like Molly; wasn't dead, wasn't thousands of miles from home, wasn't alone...  The spiral of grief and hate, anger and sorrow and helplessness was building - growing - churning in him until he was sick.  And somewhere, deep, deep down was the worst thing - the thing Xander struggled to hide and that Spike pounced on and dragged to the light - ruthlessly exposed because he had to know, or he could never fix it at all.

                *Ugly, god, everything else but it's fucking UGLY and you have to look at that mess every day for the rest of fucking time and I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so fucking sorry for doing this to you -* 

                "Xander - stop -"   The rage was building out of proportion, fueled by frustration and despair and Xander pushed Spike sharply away - jumped to his feet and paced across the room, snarling.  Letting the hyena come because he didn't know what else to do, hating the pain that bewildered and maddened it - that made it feel too vulnerable. 

                *C'mon then, love - let's go -*   Spike rose also - stalked to Xander and took his shoulder in a hard grip - spun him around and was unsurprised at the fist that came at him.  He ducked enough to save himself the worst of it and let his mouth stretch in a mocking grin - let William the Bloody come out and sneer, coolly unimpressed in the face of Xander's rage.

                "That all you got, Harris?   That's pathetic, that is."  Xander growled - his eye was a burning mote of green witch-fire in the dimness of the shuttered house and he launched himself forward with barely-leashed fury.  Stinging, furious blows fell on Spike, and he backed and dodged and taunted - got in his own well-timed hits, goading Xander into more, and harder, and faster.  He could feel the wolves - knew they were there, in the garden, watching and waiting and holding their own grief at bay.  Knowing what Xander was doing was what he needed to do; willing to let it play out but ready to help, if they had to. 

                Xander's blows were becoming more erratic- his balance was going - but he managed to bloody Spike's lip - split his cheekbone - and suddenly he was retreating, snarling but confused as Dawn flew out of the library room, eyes wide in horror.

                "Xander, stop it!  Stop it, you're hurting Spike!  What's wrong with you, stop it, stop it!"   *No no no no no* - denial and grief in the link and her fists pounding at Xander's chest and Xander backed off, panting - crying; choking sobs that hurt, everywhere.

                *Oh god, oh god, Spike - Spike, m'sooory -*   Xander's knees cracked painfully on the stone of the floor as he went down and Oz glided in from the garden, his eyes suspiciously wet.  He gathered Dawn into a hug.

                "Dawn, it's okay - he's not...  It's really okay.  Come on, come out here, let me talk to you -" Oz shushed her - tugged her away - and she went with a pleading look at Xander, clutching for a moment at the hand Spike put on her shoulder.

                "It's all right, Bit - you go on and let the wolfling tell you what's what, yeah?"

                "Okay -" Dawn whispered, and they went back out to the garden and to Derio, and the link just ached.

                "Xander - please love - Xan?"  Spike went to his knees as well - pulled Xander close and held him tightly - stroked his back and his hair and kissed his temple and whispered to him.  Crooned nonsense into his ear and rocked him until the second wave was over - until the hysterical, breathless sobs - the agonized groans - finally eased off and died down.  Until Xander was limp in his arms, aching and breathless, shaking all over.  Spike just pulled him in closer.

                "Don't, love, don't - please don't.  You didn't make us come, you didn't force us - we all came, we all - had to.  Can't abandon the family, can't ever, you know that."  Inarticulate mumble from Xander, and Spike hugged him harder - let his grip loosen a little bit when Xander flinched.  "You're not to blame for anything, love...  And I want to run, too - I want to get out of here and never fucking come back.  Want to pack up the Bit and Glinda and just go, and to hell with the bloody Potentials and the First and all of it, love, all of it."  The truth of that was in the link - the fierce ache to go and never come back.

                *Then go!  Let's just go - just take them -*   Xander's mental voice was almost hysterical - the tension was coming back into him and Spike made him sit up - shook him, even though that hurt Xander's head.

                "No!  We can't do that.  Don't you get it, Xan?  We could never do that."

                "Why not!" Xander cried, but it was more a whisper - hoarse, broken voice panting out the words - his expression a mixture of desperation and hopelessness.

                "Because, love, it's family...  Niblet would never leave her sis - witchling wouldn't leave the Watcher and the mage...  It's a fuckin' bloody knot that we can't undo, love - can't ever untangle this."

                "I don't care -" fierce whisper, but Spike shook his head - gathered Xander close again, so fucking glad that the Slayers and the Potentials were all out of the house - that research and study had the magic-users oblivious in the library.

                "You do, love.  That's the bloody irony of it all - that's the sand in the gears, yeah?  You do care, my love, my own - you care so bloody much."  *Demonslayer, builder, strong right, lover, hearthfire, my love, sunlight and laughter, my one, my own...*

                "My knight in patchwork armor, love, forever and always.  It would kill you, Xan, you know that.  You'd give your other eye - you'd give your fucking life for your family, you know you would."  Xander shivered in his arms, crying again and hating that weak, sick feeling that washed over him.  It was all too much, just too much, and he clung to Spike and let his soul empty itself of everything - let it all wash out in bloody tears and heaving pants until Spike's t-shirt was wet and Xander could barely see straight - couldn't breathe through a clogged nose.

                "God - fucking disgusting...  Spike, I love you, I love you so much -"

                "Hush now, shhhhh..." Spike whispered.  "Just hush.  I love you.  Love you always,'re so fucking beautiful, you're so damn beautiful..."  Xander shuddered - barked out a harsh, strangled laugh.

                *Love is fucking blind, isn't it -*

                *You tellin' me I don't know a good thing when I see it?  You tellin' me I'm LYING to you?  You telling me you're not good enough?  Don't fucking doubt me, love, don't EVER.*   Loud enough in the link to get a distant flinch from the wolves - to make Xander take in a sharp breath and finally, slowly, sit up, wiping his face again and again on the tails of the flannel shirt he wore.

                "No.  You don't lie to me, Spike.  Thank god, you don't lie to me."  He sat there in a heap of limbs, his legs sprawled like a child's, his face blotched and red.  He sniffed and then coughed - wiped his mouth.  "I feel disgusting."

                "Yeah.  Me, too," Spike plucked at his soaked t-shirt and Xander laughed again, this time a softer, more natural thing, and Spike smiled at him - pulled him back in.  "We're not gonna die here, love - I promise you that.  We're not gonna lose.  We'll go home yet.  Promise."

                "Yeah?" Xander whispered, and Spike kissed his forehead - hair - whatever he could reach.

                "Yeah.  You're the good guys - good guys always win, right?"

                "Good guys always win," Xander echoed, and his hand crept under the edge of Spike's shirt - rested possessive and warm on his belly.   "You're good, too - you're one of us."

                "M'not.  M'only playing along, like.  Soon as we kick the First back to some hell m'gonna go back to evil twenty-four-seven, just you wait."

                "Okay," Xander mumbled, and snuggled closer - turned his face enough to kiss Spike's neck - kiss the scar that bound them so very, very closely.  "I love my vampire big and bad..."

                "Loves you too, pet," Spike murmured, and they sat that way for a long time, the link gradually smoothing out - the emotions from Xander calming and settling and going back, finally, towards normal.  Healing some of the awful hurt, and Spike sighed in relief - in happiness at getting his Xander back, even a little.  He looked up once to see Tara, just watching, and she smiled softly at him and faded away back into the library.  Not so oblivious, after all.

                *Knight in patchwork armor - don't you EVER forget.*

                *Not with you to remind me...*   Xander ached all over - felt sticky and sweaty and gross - and after a while they made their way upstairs and took a long bath.  Afterwards, Xander took a pain pill and fell asleep, curled tight around Spike.  Spike lay in the green-gold, filtered light of late afternoon and hugged his boy close, and hoped for something to make it all come out - right.




                "What's the matter, vato?" Spike asked, and Derio shook his head - stood in the doorway to the garden, looking out with a preoccupied air.

                "I'm not - not sure.  Something..."   *Feels like something's coming.   Something...powerful.*   Unconsciously, he plucked at the string of beads that showed in the 'v' of his shirt, and Xander found his own hand doing the same.  Spike's hand twitched towards his strand of beads but he stopped himself, snarling a little.  Oz just grinned at him and pulled the long strand out of Spike's shirt, rattling it.

                "Go ahead and worry them - we all are," Oz said, and it was true - his own fingers were twisting in his gold and yellow strand and Spike just shook his head, letting the snarl go and giving a quick caress to the beads around his neck.

                "Yeah, okay.  Is it the First, wolf?"

                "I don't think so," Derio said.  He stood stiffly for another moment and they could all feel the knowing stretching out from him - could feel it twanging and shivering like a plucked string on a violin.  Then the feeling faded and Derio relaxed, shaking his head.  "I dunno.  We just - we should just be careful, hermanos."  He shook himself and came back inside, settling cross-legged on the floor with the rest of them where they were passing the time sharpening weapons and playing poker.  So far, Xander and Derio owed Spike pretty much anything he wanted.  Oz, whose poker-face was phenomenal, was in the black.  Spike owed him a brand-new Les Paul.

                Fifteen days since they'd killed Caleb, and the last two nights, the Bringers had come back - had thrown themselves against the wards like moths into a candle flame and died just the same.  The perpetual magical hum of the wards was a peculiar and irritating background to everything they did - even the Potentials were affected - but they didn't dare let them down.   Clem and his clan were still in town - although leaving by the weekend - and Spike had got the demon to find a back-hoe and come out to the house with it.  In an empty part of the lot away from the house, Clem had dug a trench and the Bringer corpses were being dumped there.  They'd dusted them with lye and a thin layer of dirt, and it hadn't started to stink yet, even to the wolves or Spike.  It was a grisly solution but better, Spike pointed out, then corpses putrefying in the courtyard.  Xander refused to burn any more of them - he hated the reek of burning flesh and fat.

                The sun was setting on the far side of the house, and cooking smells were getting strong in the air.  Tonight they were having a small party - a send off, really.  Anya and Drake had been convinced to go to England to help find a new location for the slowly-reviving Watchers Council.  Anya - nearly two months pregnant - had been the source of whispered 'talks' between Buffy, Tara and Giles for days, and the whole house had unanimously agreed with them when they'd announced that it was too dangerous anymore for a pregnant woman in Sunnydale.    The deserted campus was depressing for Drake, besides, and they'd both felt as if they could contribute more elsewhere.  The Pembrokes had fervently agreed and round-trip tickets were waiting at LAX.  In the morning, Anya and Drake would be driving a 'borrowed' moving van full of books and other paraphernalia south.  A couple of crates were for Wes, and the rest were being shipped to London.  The library was echoingly bare, but Giles and Ethan both felt that the time for research was over.  There was nothing new to discover, and the only thing left was to fight.  The how of that - still eluded them.

                "They're here!" Dawn called, trotting out of the kitchen and toward the front door, and the poker-game ended on a laugh as Xander disgustedly threw down his only good hand of the day.



                The dinner was slow and relaxed but melancholy.  The original 'Scoobies' plus Spike told stories of the early days - told about blowing up the school, killing the Master and the Anointed One, bringing down the Judge and the Initiative.   Johnathan shyly told the story of Prom and the 'Class Protector' award, and Buffy sniffled into her napkin.  Even Ethan's costume trick was remembered fondly and Ethan was amazed to learn that the soldier influence had lingered for so long in Xander.   The Potentials told their own stories; how they had come to be in Sunnydale, what they had left behind, what they hoped to go back to.     Around midnight a toast was made to all the ones they'd lost to the Hellmouth, and tears glittered in the guttering candlelight.   Despite the sadness of it, Xander felt...right, saluting Jesse and Ms. Calendar and the kids who'd followed him into battle against the Mayor.  Even Ampata, who'd only wanted to live, and Harmony who wasn't actually dead but was somewhere in L.A. (according to Cordelia via Fred) and that was nearly the same thing, or so Spike said.  After that the Potentials went up to bed, and Anya and Drake made their goodbyes.

                "I can't believe so much," Anya said, standing with her hand on the barely-there bulge of her belly, her eyes far away and sparkling with an inner delight.  "I thought it wouldn't matter until it was born.  But...I love it."   She sniffed and smiled over at Drake, who slipped his arm around her and hugged her close. 

                "I love it too...and I love you..."  They shared a small kiss, and then Drake looked up at the rest of them, smiling shakily.   "I feel a little bit like - we should be staying.   I hate the thought of leaving you all here."

                "You'll be doing more good in England, Drake," Giles said warmly.   "We need the Council to be back in working order no matter what happens, but especially if - if things go badly here."  Giles hesitated to say that - Xander could see an almost guilty look on his face - but it had to be acknowledged.  Even if they won, it could cost them - everything - and they had to be ready.  Xander brushed his fingers fleetingly over his patch.

                *Know all about that.  But if this is the worst thing then...  I'm okay, I guess.  I with this.*

                *Live and love and be happy, pet.  You'll see.*  Spike rubbed his head on Xander's shoulder, their hands linked over his belly and Xander kissed the arch of his cheekbone - nibbled on an earlobe for a moment, feeling Spike's pleasure in the link.

                *Happy already, love already....not dead yet.  We're all right.  Love you...*

                *Love you always...* 

                The kisses and hugs goodbye took too long, but not long enough, and Dawn broke down and cried, watching the van pull away from the house and disappear into the night.  Buffy and Johnathan took her away to the table to console her with the last of the cake and the rest of them settled on the couch and the rug-strewn floor, basking in the fire Oz had lit in the fireplace.

                "I can't b-believe it's almost Christmas," Tara said, and there was a murmur of agreement from the others. 

                "I guess we won't have any kind of - celebration," Dawn said, wandering over with her plate and slumping dejectedly at Tara's feet.  The witch's hand came out to stroke her hair, automatic and soothing, a very faint *sad sad sister* from Tara in the link.  Johnathan settled on the back of the couch with a cup of tea, and Giles stirred, but Ethan tugged him back, settling the Watcher firmly into his embrace.

                "Not this year, maybe, but we'll ma-make it up at New Years, how about th-that, Dawn?"

                "I - guess..."  Dawn sighed and ate some cake.  "It's just...Christmas, you know?  It just feels so...wrong."

                "Christmas isn't Christmas without any presents," Buffy said, standing close by the fire and they all looked up at her, surprised.  "Hey!  I'm just quoting - someone...  It's a book!" 

                "It's Little Women," Tara said, laughing, and quoted the book again. "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.  It's so dreadful to be poor!  sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.  I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all, added little Amy, with an injured sniff."  Tara got a far away look on her face.  "We don't have a father and mother here, like Beth says, but we have each other..."  She looked at them all staring at her and ducked her head, flushing crimson, but Derio got up on his knees next to the couch and kissed her cheek.

                "We do, gatito, we do.  We'll be fine."  Tara nodded - looked back up and smiled at him.  Her essence - her self, intangible and gentle - swept gently over them, *pack family ours* in the link from all of them.

                *This feels - strange.  Like the end.  Like we're just waiting for someone to walk through the door.*   Xander glanced towards the door and shivered, because - Hellmouth!  He didn't really want to see anything there, but he couldn't help looking.

                *Never know - maybe we are,* Spike thought, and readjusted his head on Xander's thigh, pluming out smoke and tossing the cigarette butt into the fire.

                "Yeah but, here - that's not a good thing," Xander said, and shot a mock-glare at Buffy when she prodded him with her toe.

                "Stop doing that!  Half your conversations are in your head and then you just blurt something out and it makes me think I missed something!  You're making me crazy!" Buffy laughed.

                "Couldn't possibly do any harm, Slayer -" Spike drawled, ready to launch into one of their verbal sparring matches.  But they all froze - went silent - as headlights swept across the windows and the crunch of tires on gravel sounded loudly in the calm.

                *Who the fuck is that?  It's almost one in the morning.*

                *Maybe it's demon-girl and her Dr. Honeydew - had some trouble with the van...*

                *Maybe - and I can't BELIEVE you watched The Muppet Show!*   Everyone was scrambling to their feet and heading for the door, and Xander poked Spike in the ribs, grinning.

                *Oi!  Stop that.  Dru liked it, didn't she - couldn't say no.*

                *I think Dru is a good excuse,* Oz chimed in, and Xander laughed out loud.

                "I think so, too!" he said, and suffered a tackling hug that turned into a brief, hard kiss.  Then Buffy was opening the door and Spike stiffened in his arms.

                *Bloody hell -*