Chapter 30: Counting

Chapter 30: Counting

                Xander never actually remembered...what came next.  The drive to L.A. was a timeless nothing, with brief, sun-lit stills of people, or things.  Oz crouching beside him with a bloodied towel.  Spike's duster, lying over the back of the built-in seats.  Tara turning from the steering wheel to look at him, tear-tracks on her face.  One of the dead Potentials fading into existence on the floor, and Dawn snatching her feet away from the body.

                But mostly he simply sat, and reached for Spike.  Reached through the link, over and over, until his head felt like it was splitting and the empty socket of his eye wept pinkish tears.   The little cuts from the broken glass stung and added to his misery but he couldn't spare a moment for them - found out later Oz had taken the glass out of his shoulder and back and arm, and he hadn't flinched once.

                *Cold, he said it was cold, he doesn't like the cold...Spike, Spike, I love you, I love you -*    The silence that came back to him hurt.  Oz had tried, so softly, to soothe him through the link and he'd cut him off, frantic and furious.

                *Shut up!  Shut up, I can't hear him if you're talking to me just SHUT UP!*   Later - days later - he would find Oz and hug him tight and tell him he was sorry, so sorry.  But just then he didn't care, because he had to hear Spike.  And he couldn't.

                At the Hyperion, he gathered up Spike's duster and held it, and it was warm from the sun and that was wrong, so very wrong.   He stumbled over the dead girl on his way out of the RV, ignoring her - ignoring the wounded Potentials that staggered out onto the sidewalk, ignoring the wolves, who circled anxiously, not quite touching.  He made his way into the dimness of the hotel, his head hurting so badly he could barely see.  He just wanted quiet, just wanted someplace he could go and try to hear Spike and not be interrupted by all these...people.   He stumbled across a wide, marble-floored lobby towards a staircase and ran abruptly into something - something that moved and held him and he looked up into Angel's face.

                *Angel...weeping angel, like that one on that tomb near Spike's old crypt 'Heaven's loving arms enfold her and the angels weep for those left behind'...creepy fucking thing...don't cry, don't cry, only makes it real, Angel, fucking stop it -*   "Stop it, Angel, just fucking stop it," he shouted.  But it was really just a whisper and Angel curled his hand into the duster Xander was hugging and just stood there, head down.  Xander watched a tear fall on the leather and brushed it hastily away, not sure whose it was - not wanting it on the coat.

                "He'll be back -" Angel said, and Xander shuddered all over.

                "Fuck you.  Don't, Angel."  Exhaustion made him sway - exhaustion and pain like twin hammer-blows that were driving him to his knees, right there in the lobby and Angel just got an arm under him and lifted and they went up.  Third floor, corner room, morning light struggling around the edges of the heavy curtains, *not even noon yet, not even fucking noon, Spike...* and a made-up bed.  Xander sank down onto it with a sigh - curled himself into the middle of it.  He pulled the coat in close, inhaling leather and smoke and *cloves blood lemon whiskey...Spike, Spike...please...  I love you, I love you, Spike...*

 

                He didn't know - how much time passed.  He was asleep, and there was something cool in his arms and a touch on his shoulder.  He lifted his head abruptly, gasping in a sharp, startled breath.

                "Spike?"   His throat hurt and his lips were cracked, stinging and sore.

                "It's Oz, Xander."

                "Oh, I -"   Xander hunched down again and there was a low, growling sound - there was something pushing at the link and Xander fought it but he was so...tired.  Weak and hurting and hungry but...  *Spike...Spike...*

                "Xander - damnit -"   *Stop, Xan, PLEASE, you can't do this, please let us back in, we need you, Xander, please...*

                *Pack pack pack love you please, pack...*   Derio, a shadow in the doorway and Xander moaned, pushing his face into the duster, squinting his eye tight shut.

                *No, no, no, can't, gotta wait, gotta...listen...can't hear him, can't hear him...*

                "Xander - please...you can't - you won't.  He's not...  He's gone, Xander..."  Oz's hand was stroking his hair and he twitched away - tried to - but he hurt, god, he hurt all over and he needed...needed something, needed...

                "No," he rasped, and coughed, and that hurt too, and Derio moved over next to Oz, both of them on the edge of the bed, both touching him now and....he ached.

                *But if he calls, if he calls...have to wait for him, have to LISTEN -*

                *Querido, please...*

                "Xander - he can't.  You know he can't."   *Please let us in, Xander, love you, love you, let us -*

                *Pack, need you, we need you -*  Xander felt the heat of them - of hands on his back and in his hair - knees pushing at him, and someone's lips on his forehead and it was all too much, too much.  With a sob he turned over, pulling them both in tight, the duster crushed between them.  The tears came then and he cried until he felt as light and empty as a husk - as the discarded skin of a snake.

                *We're here, we're here, never leave you, never leave you, oh, love you, we're here...*

                *Pack, pack, never leave, always, love you, love you, love you...*

 

                After a shower he went shakily downstairs, Oz and Derio flanking him.  The cuts from the glass stung under his old thermal shirt but he didn't care.  The burn was keeping him awake, and he had to try.  It was dark outside - blue twilight and the sparkle of L.A. lights and he stared in confusion around the lobby where the remaining Potentials - where everyone - was gathered.  A Christmas tree was in one corner, with many small packages heaped underneath, and on a chair next to it were a glass of milk and a plate of cookies.  Connor was standing there, in little sweat-pants and a long-sleeved t-shirt, moccasins on his feet.

                "What - what's - going on?"  For some reason it just wouldn't connect, in his head, and Xander knew in a detached sort of way that it was because he hadn't eaten - had barely drunk anything.  That he was in shock, still, and that was why everything seemed to be wrapped in layers of cotton.

                "It's Christmas Eve, Xander," Oz said, and Xander realized with a small shock he'd been upstairs for three days. 

                *Three days, three days, we had three days...*

                *Don't, Xander - please -*   Xander shook his head - let Oz put an arm around him, holding him against a surge of dizziness. 

                "Okay, I'm okay."

                "You are not, querido.  You need to eat." 

                "Yes, abuela," Xander murmured, Derio's Granny flashing in the link and Oz hrummf'd down in his chest, wolfish laughter.

                 The kitchen was deserted, with the remains of a turkey and a ham on the counter and pots and pans of things all over the stove-top and table.  Xander sat wearily in a chair and let Oz and Derio get him a plate, pushing his wet hair back over his shoulders and rubbing tiredly at the empty socket.  It still ached a bit, and he hadn't bothered with the patch. 

                *You look thin.  And you're all...pale.  Can't just...can't just sleep...*   There was fear in that, from Derio - fear and a  quickly-hidden thread of anger, because losing Spike was bad enough - he couldn't lose Xander as well.  They couldn't.

                *Sorry.  I'm sorry, Xander.  We need you, we have to...  You have to stay here with us.*

                "You really do," Oz said, putting a plate down in front of Xander and settling into a chair - pulling it up close.    "Xander?"  Oz's face was serious - was drawn with pain and fear - with misery as keen as what Xander was feeling and he reached out and gripped Oz's hand - felt Derio behind him, hands on his shoulders.

                "I'm sorry.  I'm so sorry...it hurts so much -" he whispered.  *Can't bear it.  How can I bear it?  I can't just...  He's not HERE and I...miss him, I miss him, I can't just go...on...*

                *HAVE to!   You have to.  He's coming back.  You have to BE here for him.  You - we all do, we all have to...*

                "Live, Xander.  We have to.  We can't...can't just hide.  He's coming back; he's going to be here and we..."

                "Have to be ready for him," Derio said, and in the link was the idea that Spike's time away might...bring changes.  That they might have a hurt Spike to deal with, or one who had...suffered.  And they had to be strong.

                "Oh," Xander said, shuddering, and Oz pulled him into a hard hug.

                *He'll be BACK.  He will, he will, and you'll be here and we'll all be all right.  We have to be, Xander.*

                *I....know.  I know.  God...hurts so much...  I'm sorry, I didn't mean to...to make this so hard for you -*

                "Don't, Xander.  Don't.  You're hurt more than any of us.  Don't apologize."  Derio was crouching beside him now, rubbing his knee, looking up with tears in his eyes and Xander cupped his cheek gently - sighed, finally, and then drew in a long, hard breath and sat up a little straighter.

                "I am sorry.  I'm...  Yeah.  Gonna try.  Okay?  I'll...have some food and -"

                "Need more cookies, Uncle Oz."  Connor was in the doorway to the kitchen, looking speculatively at Xander, chocolate smeared on his mouth.  Xander could see Angel in the dark, wide eyes, but Connor was blond and slim, and Xander remembered how small Darla had been. 

                *God.  That's weird.*

                "Do you?  You sure?" Oz said, smiling, and Connor nodded.

                "Da ate the ones for Santa!" he said, his little voice filled with outrage and Oz gave Xander's shoulder a squeeze and stood up, crossing over to the pantry and getting out a package of cookies.

                "Okay, how many?"

                "Da says three is 'nuff."

                "Three sounds good."  Oz got out the cookies and held them out, and Connor slowly crossed the kitchen - stood there for a minute, staring at Xander.  Xander tried a small smile back, and Connor ducked his head.

                "Who's that?" he whispered, and Oz knelt down, pointing to a picture on the refrigerator.

                "That's Uncle Xander.  Remember?  We looked at the pictures yesterday."    And there were pictures, all over the front of the 'fridge, and all of them down low so Connor could see them easily.

                *Who put - pictures up?  Can't see Angel...*   Xander took a bite of ham and Derio snorted softly.

                *Nah.  It was Wesley.  He said family is too important and Connor was gonna know his.*

                *He's right...* Xander thought, frowning a little.  Family...was all.  And Connor had a lot.  *Lucky kid.*

                "See, there's Uncle Xander right there," Oz was saying, pointing, and Connor gravely studied the picture.  "Remember?"  He nodded slowly.

                "Yeah.  And Uncle Will."  Xander felt his heart skip and then pound, and he carefully took a drink of the milk in his glass - set it down with a hand that shook.

                "You call him Uncle S-Spike, okay, Connor?  He doesn't like Will."  His voice was still a rasp, and Connor looked at him for a long moment.

                "Uncle Spike," Connor said, and grinned, and then he turned and ran out of the kitchen, clutching the cookies in his hand.  The picture on the 'fridge was one Dawn had taken with her digital camera when she'd visited them in Seattle.  Xander in a chair, a piece of wood in his hand and shavings all around him, Spike leaning over the back of the chair, hands lightly on his shoulders.   Casual - smiling - and Xander closed his eye and tried not to cry all over again.

                *Okay, I'm okay...god...pack, pack, need him, need him...*

                *We're here,* Oz thought, and they were, and Xander nodded and slowly, slowly finished his Christmas dinner.

 

 

                Three weeks later all of the Potentials were gone.  A few had gone back home - determined to finish school, get back on track.  The rest went to England, to learn about Slaying and to become the newest part of the old, old Council.  The Pembrokes already had a building somewhere near Wimbledon Common for the Academy, as they called it.  Anya had been on the speaker phone for a half-hour, detailing the building and the new Council headquarters and then, on the private line had asked Xander if he was all right.  Xander hadn't been able to say much more than 'no' and 'I'm trying', and Anya had, for once, and surprisingly, left it at that.             

                Giles and Ethan were gone as well.  Giles was eager to get the new Council organized, and Ethan was eager to throw a wrench into the proceedings.   They'd argued for days about what to keep and what to get rid of, and Xander had silently agreed with Ethan that most of the old Council ways should go right in the trash.  When they'd left, on a morning of rare rain, Xander had hugged Giles hard and just leaned into him for a moment, memorizing the scent of Souchong tea and dust, musky after-shave and the faint, sweet scent that reminded him of hash.  Giles' scent and Gile's faded blue eyes and hard grip on his hand, and then they were gone, and Xander went away upstairs and lay silent and shaking in the bed for hours.

                He felt useless, roaming around the Hyperion - felt numb, and half asleep.   They'd all stayed on mainly to be sure the First was really gone, and to fill out forms and paperwork for government Disaster Relief checks.  Sunnydale was going down as the biggest sink-hole in history and the government - whether prodded by horror or guilt - was paying up fast and big.   And now that things were slowly going back to normal, Xander wanted to simply go.  Wanted to buy another truck - he'd left his in Sunnydale with Oz's van - and get back to Seattle - back to their house.  He ached to be alone with his family.   Dawn - had decided to come with them.  She couldn't face high school - not after everything that had happened.  She was so far ahead in some areas and so far behind in others she wanted to just get her GED in Seattle and start at a community college.  She was sixteen-going-on-seventeen but her eyes were ageless and Buffy only fought her half-heartedly before giving in.

                And the Hyperion - the A.I. team - made Xander twitchy.  Cordelia was so different now - so very much not Queen C.  The Sidhe had given her something - some small bit of their own magic - and now the visions were more like a psychic trance.  A little work-around of the Powers' 'gift', one that Cordy had embraced whole heartedly.   There was one hitch - she had to have a garden, with trees, and she had to sleep overnight in the garden once a month - full moon - to 'recharge' her magic.  Angel was busy directing a crew that was ripping out paving stones and concrete in the hotel's courtyard and meeting with a landscaper so that Cordy would have the best garden his money could provide.  The profits from the heroin sale had turned out to be superfluous and after some discussion - one Xander had barely participated in -they'd turned it over to A.I.  To help the hopeless or helpless or whatever it was Angel was doing.  Connor was a filthy mess every night, covered in dirt and cement dust and Xander would track that small blond head with a wary, bemused eye, never quite getting used to the 'Uncle' or the 'Da', either.  Or that he called Cordelia Mommy, and that Cordy...loved it.

 

                "Oz - we really need to go.  Get back home," Xander said, sitting down in the lobby one evening, watching Angel read to Connor on the couch; something about dogs and circles, and Connor was making little dog noises.

                "Yeah."  Oz was slowly winding a piece of copper wire into one of Derio's dreads.  It had green and black beads on it, and Xander put his hand onto the white beads around his own throat - thought for a moment, with a lurch of sorrow, about the beads Spike had been given.  *Ogoun is your protector,* Derio had said.  Green and black beads and Xander reached out and touched the ones in Derio's hair. 

                "I'm - finding a truck tomorrow.  Calling Manny.  I can't - be here.  I want to go h-home."  The waiting on this and that was over - ennui had kept him in this small orbit for the last three weeks.  Now he felt awake, at last - felt ready.   So very ready.

                "Okay.  That's okay," Oz said, small smile and *Pack, love you, home, home, home.*    The desire in him was as strong.  The city was too much - too many demons and too many humans and there was no place quiet, it seemed - no place that was just theirs.    Derio looked up from tuning his fiddle and smiled as well, *Pack, go home, need to go home.*   As tired of the city as Oz was, and happy to see the first flash of real want from Xander.  *Welcome back, hermano.*

                *Yeah...back for sure, Derio...I am.*   "We got so much money...let's build.  Let's - add to our house.  Dawn needs her own room, and...and maybe a place for carving...  I want...I have to have something to do," Xander said quietly, desperate, and Oz nodded.  Outwardly calm, joyous in the link and Xander felt relief and a strange sort of fluttery happiness wash over him.  *Didn't screw this up.  Still here...still family.*

                "Yeah.  It's okay, Xander.  We can."   *ALWAYS family, Xander.  Never doubt us.*   Xander drew a shaky breath and pressed a fast kiss to Oz's temple - got up and wandered away, trying to calm down.  Buffy and Faith were out on patrol with Wes and Gunn.   The rest of 'the girls' were out shopping for a cold-weather wardrobe for Dawn.   And Johnathan and Robin were sparring downstairs, Robin trying to teach Johnathan the basics of self-defense.   He had decided, with Faith's encouragement, to move to Cleveland where apparently another Hellmouth had opened.  And they were taking Johnathan as a fledgling Watcher, which Xander found...fitting.  They were just waiting on the finalization of paperwork - the Council had bought them a house, but the 'closing' was taking forever by fax.

                Xander went behind the counter and stared at Cordy's desk - stared until his eye watered and then something clicked - an idea suddenly formed - and he walked over.  A calendar lay there, a new calendar for the year, one from a bank or store because it was cheap - plain black printing on white paper, generic scenes from around L.A.  Xander stared down at it, and remembered what Jack had said. 

                *Seven years.  Seven years to one, so that means...*   Xander grabbed the calendar and a pen and found a piece of scrap paper.  *Three-hundred and sixty-five days in a year, so that's...five and...*   He scribbled hastily and then looked at the number.  Fifty-two.   Solstice on the 21st of December, and thirty days in December so that was....  *That's...twenty-one days to today, and fifty-two days is...*   He counted silently, and then circled February 11th with his pen.  *That day.  One year for Spike is that day.  Two years is...*    After ten more minutes he had seven circles on the calendar - seven days.  Seven years in his one and he had something to count, now.  Something to look forward to, something to give the days a purpose, instead of the formless, endless daze of nothing he'd been existing in.

                *One year in...thirty-one days...get through a year...Spike, Spike...I miss you, I love you, I love you...*    He wanted to show the wolves and he got up, clutching the calendar close, heading back to the main area of the lobby.  Derio was on the couch now with his fiddle, playing something that sounded...folksy.   Spike would have made fun, but listened all the same.  Angel was holding Connor on his lap and his face...  He looked content - he looked happy - his eyes shining in the lamplight, moving his legs a little so Connor swayed to the beat.

               

"What for should I sing you of classical fun,
Or of games, whether Grecian or Persian?
Sure the Curragh's the place where the knowing one's done,
And the Mallow that flogs for diversion.
For fighting, for drinking, for ladies and all,
No time like our time, o'er was made, O,
By the rollicking boys, for war, ladies and noise,
The boys of the Irish Brigade, O!"

 

                "Hear that, now?  That's us, Connor.  We're Irish and that's us," Angel said, pride and love in his voice, and Connor giggled, watching Derio's deft fingers and the rise and fall of the bow - mimicking him with his own little hands.  The song ended and Derio made a small bow when Angel clapped Connor's hands together and then he grinned, wolfish and sly, and started another tune.  After a moment Angel recognized it and groaned.

                "No!  Not that one!"

                "It's Irish too," Derio said, laughing, and started to sing.    Angel growled but Connor was laughing and Oz sat up from his sprawled position on the floor and started singing too, in a ludicrously exaggerated Irish accent.  Xander felt a reluctant smile tugging at his mouth and then suddenly memory, flooding into his consciousness.   Memory decades old, of Spike singing this same tune to Angelus, wicked grin on his face and Angelus howling and chasing him - trying to catch him and Spike nimbly skipping away, staying one step ahead and singing the whole time.  Teasing and tormenting until he fell down laughing and Angelus pounced on him and squashed him to silence.  The words were right there, and Xander wiped at a sudden tear and looked out at the late-afternoon sun that was sifting, thick and golden, through the front door.  And softly sang along.

                "Mush-a ring dum-a do dum-a da...wack fall the daddy-o, wack fall the daddy-o...There's whiskey in the jar..."

 

 

                Leaving L.A. felt good.   Xander had never been happier to watch something disappear in the rear-view mirror.  Beside him in the truck, Dawn listened silently to music on her iPod.  Trying to be a grown-up, even though three days ago Buffy had flown out of LAX to England and Dawn was feeling more than a little lost.  But she was adamant that she was going - that she wanted to stay with her 'other' family, and the link sang softly with her sorrow and excitement and love.  It was soothing, to have her in there -   distracting, so Xander didn't have to think about how sad Buffy had looked under her veneer of cheerful adventurism.  How she'd held them all a little too long, and how she'd looked so small and so alone, walking away down the concourse.

                Oz had found another strange old van - a VW one that was painted sea-green and pale pink like some monstrosity out of Miami Vice.  Derio called it the pimpmobile and had threatened to hang beads in the windows and put down shag carpet.  Oz had laughingly agreed to get a paint job 'soon'.

                *Home...home in two days, home...the Sound and the sea and the mountain looking over us...  Going home, Spike.  Waiting for you.  Thinking about you every day...every night...  Missing you so much.  Love you so much...  Spike, my Spike, my love...*   

                Tara was staying in L.A. for a while longer.  She wanted to learn some things from Fred - from Wesley.  Magic and science in equal measure, and she promised to come visit in a bit, when they were settled.  Leaving her had hurt - a tearing ache that had shivered in the link and made them all cling tightly together, doing their best to reassure each other.  

                *Tara's going to come and stay.  We'll talk her into it.  Can't have her gone...miss her too...  Spike, Spike...vampire-mine.  Waiting for you.  Just waiting...  Trying to be strong...  Hold fast, my love.  Hold fast.*

 

 

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The Boys of the Irish Brigade - traditional - Sung by David Kincaid

Whiskey in the Jar - traditional