Chapter 33: Homecoming

Chapter 33: Homecoming

                The phone was ringing and Xander groped for it, his heart pounding and his hands sweating already.  *Three in the damn morning, can ONLY be bad news -* 

                "Hello?" he croaked, and distantly, he could hear the phone in Oz's room ringing, too.  *Oh, god, WHAT?*

                "Xander?  Xander, is that you?"  A reedy voice - static-riddled and tired sounding, and Xander propped himself up on one elbow, trying to figure out who it was.   Plummy 'Giles' sort of accent.

                "Yeah?  Who -"

                "Oh, Xander, it's Aunt Portia!"  Static drowned out the next words, and then her voice came back, loud and strong and Xander winced.  "...seven pounds and four ounces, tiny thing!"

                "What?  A-aunt Portia -"   *Drake's Aunt!  Right...what in hell?"    "There was some static on the line, what did you say?"

                "I said -" Portia bellowed - and a woman who'd worked in the sun and wind of Egypt and the Sudan for forty years, directing hired help to dig up the desert could really bellow - and Xander almost dropped the phone.  "Anya's had her baby!  A girl, seven pounds and four ounces, two weeks late!"

                "Oh.  Oh!  Oh, that's great, that's - congratulations!  Is Anya okay?  Is -"

                "She's fine!" Portia continued at the top of her lungs and Xander glanced up to see Dawn in the doorway, eyes half-shut and her own phone to her ear and *Anya's had her baby,* in the link from a muddled-sounding Oz.  "They've named the poor thing Alice Magdalena Sunny - Sunny for Sunnydale and all her good friends there, Anya says.  Daft thing.  D'ya hear me, Xander?"

                "I hear you, Aunt Portia!  That's - that's great, tell Anya we love her and - and to call us soon -"  He could hear Dawn telling someone to email a picture and then Portia had to 'ring off and call the twins, somewhere in Malaysia, should be awake -' and the phone went dead.  There was a thump and then Oz was in the doorway as well, grinning sleepily, leaning against Derio.

                "Who'd you get?" Oz asked.

                "Portia," Xander said, wincing and rubbing his ear.  "Who'd you get?"

                "Grandpa Arthur.  He was babbling.  Dawn?"

                "Huh?"   Dawn blinked and jerked her head up, looking dazed.  "Oh - I got that cousin - the one that was here before?  Tad.  Or Tod...some - ahhhhhh - thing."  Dawn yawned hugely and shut her eyes.

                "Jar of moonshine in the kitchen from that guy with the guitars," Oz said thoughtfully, and Dawn's eyes popped open. 

                "A toast to Alice -?" Xander paused, trying to remember.

                "Magdalena," Derio mumbled, rubbing his chin through Oz's tangled shock of purple hair.

                "Sunny," Dawn said, and they all looked at each other for a few seconds and then started to giggle.                "I'll get the glasses," Xander said, shoving back the covers.  The moonshine was as sharp and biting as liquid fire and Dawn coughed for two whole minutes.  But the baby was wished long life and much happiness on the first day of September.

 

 

               

                November was a cold and windy month - a blustery month, Oz said, and Xander liked that word - blustery.  He spent most of it carving and wood-scouting, and the eight statues in the studio were like a strange garden that he wandered through.  Sometimes by sunlight but more often by candle-light; unless he was working and then he sweated in the glare of a halogen light.  His single eye, he had discovered, got strained in dim light more quickly then two ever had.   When he was too stiff to carve, and the wolves were busy - and Dawn was in class or growling at him from her desk, surrounded by mounds of books and papers - he'd go for long walks all along the edge of the Duwamish, or all over Downtown or Discovery Park.  A couple of times, unable to sleep, he'd taken the first ferry up to Victoria and walked around on Canadian soil for a day, some tiny part of himself marveling at the city-boy that now had a need for earth and open sky, water and wind and no other people.  The wolves' sensibilities creeping in maybe, or that night on Mt. Rainer, that came back to him often in his dreams.  Making the hyena restless until he found a bit of open space and could breathe free.   The ache of missing Spike seemed less, out there - as if the hyena could cope with it better, or transform it.  Remembering...didn't hurt as much.  So he indulged himself and came home in the dark, wind-burned and chilly, his mind eager to get back to his carving but his body, sometimes, too tired.

                "You're thin, Xander," Derio said, frowning at him - standing behind him in the bathroom while he shaved.  Looking critically at the ripple of rib-cage and the sharp wing of shoulder-blade and hip-bone above the towel.  "You're too thin."

                "I'm all right," Xander said, rinsing the razor out and putting it away - washing his face off and looking in the mirror, too - seeing nothing different but the socket of his eye and the length of his hair, that was past his shoulder-blades now and gleaming with dark-red highlights from all the sun he was getting.  No tan on his face because Dawn had drilled sunblock into him all summer and it was habit, now - plus it helped with the chapping wind that blew in and in off the sea. 

                "You're not.  Xan - c'mon down and have some breakfast.  Oz made French toast and bacon, even."  Breakfast at one in the afternoon, but that was how this household worked.

                "Sure," Xander said, smiling - dressing and cinching his belt down tight, layering a wife-beater under a thermal under a flannel because he was chilly, sitting in the studio.  And the fluffy, wooly socks Dawn had got that he had to use the shop-vac on, because they tended to attract every twist and flake of wood off the floor. 

                The kitchen was steamy with tea and coffee and bacon-grease - good smells and good flavors, but Xander barely finished one piece of toast and only nibbled at the bacon, not as hungry as he'd thought.  Derio watched him, hawk-like and *Xan, please, it's good, c'mon,* in the link.  Dawn was half-hidden behind a textbook and Oz ate slowly, one hand rubbing up and down Derio's thigh, his own eyes flickering from Xander's plate to his face again and again, until Xander finally stood up, pushing his chair back harder then he intended.

                "I'm just not hungry right now, okay?" he snapped, and Dawn's head came up as if on a string and her eyes fixed on him, narrow and angry.

                "Are you ever hungry?  That's not going to help, Xander!"

                "Jesus, what the fuck?    I'm not gonna shove food down my throat if I don't want it, Dawn."  Xander took his plate to the trash and scraped it clean - stuck plate and fork in the sink and retrieved his coffee-cup. It was only lukewarm now and he grimaced and dumped it, not wanting it.  *Just want some water, just want - some fresh air, gonna go for a walk -*

                "Stay in today," Oz said, just there next to him, faded-violet hair contrasting oddly with his eyes, his skin porcelain-fine and nearly translucent in the mellowing mid-afternoon light.  "Come watch a movie with us - we were gonna revisit the wonderful world of Willy Wonka."  Oz grinned, and Xander had to smile back - had the sudden urge to hug the werewolf so he did.  The hug just...lasted, and after awhile they were on the fold-out couch, the four of them in a puppy-heap of plaid throws and pillows, cheering on Charlie and Grandpa and yelling out Veruca Salt's whiney 'Daddy, I want -!' lines along with her. 

                *Better than a walk,* Oz thought, hugging him a little closer.

                *Yeah, okay...better,* Xander thought, and *love brothers love love,* like a ray of warming sunlight from Dawn.  He ended up falling asleep and woke to Derio curled, wolf-form, at his back, keeping him warm.  Oz in the kitchen, cooking again, Dawn off to class and he ate this time.  Not enough for Derio but enough.  His fingers were twitchy, though, and he was in the studio until patrol-time.  That night, as he did about every ten nights, he went to bed with the wolves, and shuddered and writhed guiltily - desperately - under their coaxing, gentle hands. 

 

                Six years gone for Spike, seven coming fast-but-not-fast-enough.  Xander stood staring at the calendar in the kitchen, where December sixteenth was circled in thick, bright red.   *Will it be midnight of the fifteenth or midnight the sixteenth?  Dawn or - dusk?  When, when, when...and WHERE?  Not the Hellmouth, it's gone, so...  Damnit, Jack, didn't tell us enough...*   Five days until Spike came home.  Five days until this was all over, and Xander's nerves were fraying fast - his hands were stiff and sore from clutching carving knife or sandpaper, and the wolves were both on edge.  Dawn was nervous, too, but she had finals as well as Spike coming home and had resorted to headphones and flannel pajamas in an effort to both comfort and distract herself.   

                Oz and Derio had gone out early on some sort of elusive equipment-finding trawl through the pawn shops of Seattle and Xander was contemplating going out and getting dim sum - there was a place not six blocks away - when the sound of a vehicle pulling up outside made him go to the front door.  A pale blue sedan was parked there, with a U-Haul trailer behind it and - Tara - getting out of the driver's side, stretching hard, Cordy getting out of the passenger side, waving and smiling.  Xander darted outside and jogged down the walk, feeling a grin stretching his mouth wide.

                "Tara?  What are - what's going on?" Xander asked, meeting her at the hood of the car and grabbing her into a hard hug.

                "Hey, Xander -"   Tara hugged back - smiled up at him, her blonde hair wisping into her face from a messy ponytail.  "I just...   I'm m-moving back."  Xander stared at her and then he hugged her, lifting her off her feet and spinning her around, laughing.

                "You are?  Is everything okay?  Did Angel do something?  God - I'm so glad!"  He finally put her down, reluctant to let go, *love you brother family* rippling out from Tara, warm and sweet.

                *Oz!  Derio, Tara's back, she's back home!*

                *What? Why?  We're coming -* Oz, faint but there, and Xander laughed. 

                "The wolves are coming.  Tell me what the deal is."   Tara looked nervous and Xander squeezed her shoulder a little.

                "The deal is there's luggage," Cordy interrupted, straightening up with Connor in her arms and a carry-all slung over her shoulder.

                "Uncle Xan, Uncle Xan!" Connor was wiggling - struggling - and Xander held out his hands, taking him from Cordy and swinging him around before setting him on his feet.   Connor grabbed his legs and hugged.  "Missed you! We drove all night!  Wanna drink - Uncle Xan, we drove all night!"

                "You did?" Xander asked, stroking the bright blond head and looking at Cordelia, who looked - tired.   She nodded and turned back to the car, saying something quietly to Tara, who was pulling a bag out of the back seat.

                "We did!  And Auntie Tara sang songs about woods and stuff and me an' mommy played Slug-bug an' we ate Jack in the Box two times!"  Connor was leaning back now, fists in Xander's pant-legs, swinging wildly as he chattered.  Xander leaned away a little, bracing himself, smiling down at Connor and swiveling his leg a little so Connor got maximum swing.

                "Wow!  Two times!  Better go tell Auntie Dawn."

                "Auntie Dawn's here?" 

                "Of course she's here, she lives here!" Cordy swooped down and grabbed Connor, kissing his neck noisily and Connor shrieked and squirmed away - ran up the walk and up the steps, yelling for Dawn.

                "So what's going on, ladies?" Xander asked quietly, taking a bulging string bag from Tara's hands and another from Cordy.

                "Lots of stuff.  Can we - let's talk inside, okay?  Are O-oz and Derio almost here?"  *Brother* still in the link, but worry too, and a little fear, and Xander nodded slowly.

                "Okay, sure...  Inside.  The wolves..."   *Where?*

                *Ten minutes - oops!  Didn't want that drink, anyway.  Eight minutes.*   Mental laughter and a cranberry juice stain on the atrocious upholstery of the van.   Xander grinned at Tara. 

                "They sacrificed juice for you.   They're almost here."

                "What?"  But Tara was laughing, because it just felt good, to be standing there - family again, almost perfect.  He shouldered the bags and Tara pulled a pet-carrier out of the car, cooing softly to Miss Kitty, who looked pissed off. 

                "Hey, Miss Kitty," Xander said, and she said 'mwuuuur' in the most pitiful tone imaginable.  "Sinclair's missed you," he added, looking straight at Tara.   She nodded sadly and they went inside, tension layering on tension because why would Tara be afraid?   Connor was squealing, on his back on the couch with Dawn alternately tickling and squashing him.

                "Help!  Uncle Xan, help!" Connor yelped, breathless, and Xander swung the bags down, ushering Tara and Cordy towards the kitchen.

                "Nope!  I'm skeered of Auntie Dawn!"  Dawn growled and pounced again and Connor rolled of the couch, he was laughing so hard.

                "If he pees his pants, you have to clean him up!" Cordy yelled, then walked into the kitchen with an exclamation of pleasure.  "Oh!  Wow, it really looks nice!  Where's Tara's room?  She's talked our ears off about the herb room."

                "Here -"   Tara showed off her still-room, her hands touching lightly at bowls and plants and the many-drawered cabinets Xander had made for her, the link settling and her whole self becoming more relaxed.  More...*at home.  She's home...*   And that felt so good.

 

 

                "So - what's he going to do?" Xander asked, slowly eating a last mouthful of rice, watching Cordy wipe Connor's face off.  They'd gotten dim sum, after all, and everyone had crowded around the big kitchen table, eating and talking - catching up.  Listening to Cordelia's story about L.A. and a law firm called Wolfram and Hart, and the lengths they were going to to get Angel to join them.  Or to kill him.

                "He..."  Cordelia stopped wiping - kissed Connor on the nose and he blinked sleepily back at her, smiling.  "I don't know.  He's running Wes and Fred ragged, researching - trying to find out - anything.  And he and Gunn are all over the city, every night, trying to make deals.  To find..."

                "Allies?" Oz asked softly, and Cordy nodded.  The Sidhe gift, that allowed her the visions without the pain showed through more clearly when she was tired.  A certain angularity to her features that hadn't been there before.  A certain fey aura that Xander didn't need the seeing to detect.   Her eyes had a moon-beam sheen to them in the candle-lit room, and she moved with a fluidity that was beautiful to see.  But there were still tiny lines of stress around her eyes, and her knuckles were chapped from washing up after Connor.

                "Yeah.  I wanted to ask...  Do you think Mr. Giles would help?  Do you think...the Council?"

                "Course they will," Dawn said, and there was steel in her voice.  "The Pembrokes are different then all those old bastards that attacked Buffy.  We'll call 'em right now - Giles is always up."   Dawn was up and out of her seat, grabbing her cell off the charger and Cordy just grinned.

                "I knew there was a reason I liked you better than Buffy," she said.  Connor wiggled out of his chair and trotted over to Derio, who scooted back and held his hands when they went straight for the winking beads and trinkets in his dreads.  He made Connor clap his hands and sock himself in the chin, light as a feather, while Connor giggled and struggled.

                "Uncle Der-o, be the wolf!  Wanna play with the wolf!  Please please please Uncle Der-o?"

                "What?  You're not scared of the wolf?" Derio asked, and Connor shook his head hard.

                "No!  Please?"

                "Dawn's right," Xander said, watching Oz catch Connor up and hug him while Derio stepped into the laundry room to strip.  "The Pembroke's are...really cool.   I'm sure they can help."  Cordy sighed, her chin on her fist, watching Connor with an almost desperate gaze.

                "You know - when I first met Angel he was just - this gorgeous guy, you know?  This different guy.  And all he saw was Buffy and...all I saw was him."  Cordy smiled a little - laughed softly as Derio trotted out of the laundry room, wolf-form, and Connor squealed in excitement and slithered out of Oz's arms, running full-tilt into the wolf.  Derio sat down and let Connor - whose head came just to his shoulder - hug him and step on his paws.  After a moment Derio stood up again with Connor triumphantly astride his back.

                "Hold on tight, Connor - hold on to his fur!" Cordy called, and Connor was grinning like a jack-o-lantern, eyes locked on Derio's ears.

                "I'm riding him!  I'm riding the wolf!  Mommy, look!  Uncle Xan, look!  I'm riding the wolf!"

                "We see you, baby boy," Cordy called, as Oz opened the kitchen door and Derio strode serenely out into the back yard, Oz following behind and Connor bouncing now, kicking his heels.

                *Expect a looong massage, later,* Derio thought, and Oz laughed, pulling gently on the heavy, fringed tail.

                "Anya, that's great but I need to talk to Giles, okay?" Dawn walked through, snagging a fortune cookie, rolling her eyes.  Anya always had baby news - more than even the most tolerant of baby-lovers could absorb, usually, and Xander grinned in sympathy and then turned back to Cordelia, who was slowly stacking plates and gathering silverware together.

                "Yeah, I get that you...had a crush, Cordy," Xander said, stacking empty containers, and Cordy shook her head slowly.

                "It wasn't so much a crush as...  I just wanted to have something, you know?  Somebody.  I mean - I was Queen C and I had my...court, but...  I didn't really have anybody - not anybody that cared about me more than they cared about my dad's money. "  Cordelia stood up and carried the dishes to the sink - got some water running and Xander cleared the rest of the table, stuffing the little white and red boxes into the big paper bag they'd come in and shoving it all in the trash - going over with cups and glasses and showing Cordelia where the dish soap was.

                "And then there was you -"  Cordy looked over at him and smiled - the old smile, that she'd given him once or twice when they were dating.  That fond and happy smile that, once upon a time, Xander had lived and died for.  That now only reminded him of the same smile on Spike's face, and made his heart twist painfully in his chest.    "I really screwed that up, Xander," Cordelia said softly, and Xander stared at her in surprise.    "I didn't realize - until it was way too late - how special you were.  How special you made me feel."   Xander didn't know what to say to that - leaned over and kissed her cheek, softly, smelling witch-hazel and saffron and rosemary. 

                "Always be special to me, Cordy," he said, low, and Cordy sniffed and smiled - nodded her head and stuck the forks and knives into the soapy, hot water in the sink.

                "Yeah.  And now - Angel is...that.  Angel is the one that makes me feel...so special and Connor...  God, Xander - if anything happens to Connor I don't - I don't know -"

                "Shhhh - Cordy, hey -"   Xander grabbed her and hugged her hard, and for a moment Cordelia just clung to him, shuddering.  

                "Cordy, I've got Giles on the phone - come on and tell him what you told us!" Dawn called from the other room and Cordelia slowly pulled away - took the dish-towel off Xander's shoulder and dried her hands.

                "Thanks, Xander.  I -"

                "Yeah, I know.  Go on," Xander said.  He wiped the tears off her cheeks with the towel and shooed her towards the living room and she took a deep breath and lifted her chin - so much herself, and strode into the living room. 

                "Giles!  Have I got a story to tell you..."  Xander smiled after her, and found the dishrag, and started washing.

 

                "So why'd you really come home, Tara?"  Cordelia and Connor were tucked snugly into the spare room, and Dawn was passed out on her books downstairs.  Xander and the wolves had got the last of Tara's things upstairs and now they were all piled on the bed, worshipful court at their Queen's feet.  The cats were running in and out, still a little skittish of each other.  Tara smiled tiredly at them and ran a finger down Xander's arm to his hand - curled her hand into his.

                 "You know I really...like Fred.  I think I - love her."  She glanced up at them, curtain of blonde hair and quickly lowered eyes and Xander squeezed her hand encouragingly.

                "Yeah?   That's - isn't that good?"

                "It's good," Tara said, then took a deep breath.  "But...I don't love her, not like..."  Like Willow, all unspoken.    "And I don't like living in L.A.  I really m-miss you guys."  There was a moment's silence and then Xander was hugging her, and Derio was trying to, and Tara was laughing a little, confused.  "What?"

                "I'm sorry Tara but...we're glad," Oz said, getting his own hug.

                "Missed you," Xander confirmed, not letting go.  "We wanted you home.  Is it - awful?"  Tara was smiling - bright smile and wet eyes, and she hugged them all back fiercely. 

                "No - it's not awful.  And I w-wanted to be here for - for when Spike comes home," she finished softly, and there were small noises of agreement from all of them. 

                *Family now, pack pack pack, all good, love you all, love you,* Xander thought, and he felt - for the first time in that long and awful year - as if things were finally going to be all right.

 

 

               

                The sixteenth came - and passed - and Xander hadn't eaten, hadn't slept.  The whole household was silent - frozen - just waiting.  The link was a wordless ache, and Dawn - finals done - spent her time going from the wolves to Tara to Xander, doing her best to comfort and begging, silently, for comfort of her own.  The knowing was over them all, and Derio was pale, with dark circles under his eyes and he never stopped pacing, pacing, pacing.

                *What is it, what's coming, where IS he?  Spike, Spike, Spike...*   The constant thrum and friction of whatever was stirring was wearing them all down, and Xander knew if something didn't happen soon he was going to snap.   And something was stirring - he could feel it - they all could.  He could feel the hyena waiting; so tense and ready that it hurt.  The eighteenth came and then ticked over midnight into the nineteenth and suddenly Derio stopped, lifting his head.  A storm had been working its way inland all day and now it broke over them; rain and wind and thunder - lightning blue-white and dazzling.  The few lights they had on went off, between one shock of thunder and the next and the candle-glow was eerie and confining - threatening.   Sinclair was yowling like a lost soul - like a banshee - and Miss Kitty was under the couch.

                "Dawn -" Xander said, holding out his hand and she hurried to him - got behind him when he pushed and the wolves were already half-changed, circling restlessly.  Tara was chanting softly, pouring power into the wards and they sparked up bright all around the house - will-o'-the-wisp glimmer around every door and window - around the whole foundation, new and old.

                "It's close, it's close, it's -"   *Not Jack, not Scavenger, what, what-?*   Derio whined, wolfish bewilderment and the wind gusted; rain like pebbles battering the house.  And something else, flying at the front door, solid weight like a bird or a cat.  It clung there, outlined in the ward-fire - strangely elongated and making a hissing noise as tiny fists battered at the screen.

                *Jesus, do I -?*

                *Let it in, it's all right, it's -*   Derio was rigid, watching it, and Xander moved slowly to the front door and opened it - cracked the screen.  The creature ducked around and flew inside, chittering.  It circled the room once and then perched on top of the tallest bookcase, looking down at them.  Obviously ill at ease and soaking wet, besides.   Sinclair spat, hissing furiously, and fled upstairs.  They all just stared blankly for a moment, and then Tara stood up slowly, her hands out.

                "You're welcome here.  We won't harm you.  Do you - h-have a m-message for us?"  The creature - long and skinny, a hairless cat with a disturbingly human face - launched itself from the bookcase and flew on tissue-thin wings straight at Tara.  Inches from her it pulled up and hovered, and Xander realized that it was female, and had a tail and talons on its primate-looking hands.  It was just barely twelve inches, over all, but the gauzy wings were twice that, nearly transparent and pulsing with veins.

                "She sends, She sends, She, She, She!" the thing lisped, and Tara nodded slowly.

                "What - what is the message?" Tara asked, voice impossibly quiet - almost drowned in the raging storm that continued to batter at them.

                *She?  Does it - she - mean the Queen?  Or the - the other one or - where the fuck is SPIKE?*

                *Calm, calm, just a messenger, just a - homing pigeon,* Oz said, and Xander clenched his fists and nodded.  Dawn was sketching surreptitiously in a notebook, her eyes enormous, and Derio was crouching beside her, looking ready to spring.  Xander felt Oz's hand in the small of his back and he tried to just...wait.

                "Scavenger comes - he has the news - do what he says - two days!  Two days."  The creature flicked up and then down and then sideways, like a hovering dragonfly and Tara nodded slowly.

                "He'll tell us - in two days - what to do?  For...Spike?"

                "Sssssspiiiiiiiiike...." the thing hissed, its face twisting in what might be a smile or a snarl and Xander felt his heart lurch - his stomach drop.  "Yesyesyes.  Now there is cake.  Scavenger said cake."

                "Yes, there's cake," Tara said faintly, and got up and moved slowly to the kitchen.  The creature - the fairy? - followed her, humming around her head.

                "What - the fuck - is going on?"  Xander couldn't catch his breath - couldn't actually see, the hyena was so enraged.  Everything was a grey-washed tunnel, with *pack pack pack* the only thing that made sense.  He wanted to rip throats and bellies open wide until he found *mate mate mine Spike mine mine MINE!*

                "Xander -" Oz's hands on him - around him - and he turned and buried his face in the familiar scent and taste of the wolf - felt Derio's heat and weight behind him, and then Dawn crowding close as well.

                "Fuckin' kill him, kill Jack, what the fuck -"   He didn't think he could survive two more days without knowing.  Tara came back into the room, holding a paper towel to her finger.  The fairy had a lump of pound-cake in its front - paws?   It was eating hungrily and the hyena smelled blood, and roared.

                "It's okay!  Xander, it's okay -"   Tara was holding his arm hard, other hand to his face, and Xander stared at her - at the creature, who was baring its teeth.  "It's how you do it.  It's just a drop of blood, it's okay," Tara said, trying to sooth him.  He glared at the creature, who made a gruesome face back, huge eyes like amber lamps and long, predator-sharp teeth.

                "What's going on, you?" he snapped.  The fairy swallowed the last of the blood-stained cake - licked itself, too catlike to be real.

                "War, it's war, Ssspike'sss," it hissed, and then it was gone, flitting out the screen door and seeming to take the storm with it.  The rain settled to the usual relentless drum - the thunder rattled rapidly away and they all slumped to the floor, exhausted - heartsick.

                "Sounds like Spike," Oz said, shaky voice - shaky joke - and it was laugh or cry.  They laughed.

 

 

                Two days, Tara had pointed out, was the Solstice night and that seemed to make everything worse.  The longest night of the year - magic and otherness and secrets - and when a shadow with red-glowing eyes appeared at the door Xander pounced, snatching Scavenger inside and slamming him into a wall.  The pooka snarled, aspect shifting, and Xander slammed him back again - rapped his head into the wall and growled, and Oz and Derio were right there behind him.

                "What the fuck is going on?  Where's Spike?  What has Jack done?" he grated, and Scavenger sagged in his grip, not fighting. Not standing, and Xander watched dispassionately as the pooka slumped, sliding down the wall.  There was blood on his face - dirt, or soot - and a raveling bandage on his arm.

                "It's war, Alex-an-der.  The...pixie said, didn't she?  War."

                "I don't give a fuck for your wars!"  Xander crouched down and grabbed the raveling sweater Scavenger was wearing, jerking him close - letting the hyena rise up.  Watching the shift of unease in the pooka's eyes with satisfaction.   "Jack said Spike would come back - the same as he was - a year and a day!  Where is he!  Jack lied."

                "No - didn't lie.  He came back."  Scavenger held very, very still and Xander was aware, just barely, of Tara behind him, and Dawn - of a sword-point coming over his shoulder and coming to a stop in inch or so from Scavenger's face.  The pooka hissed and tried to twist away from it - from the iron that hurt him - but Xander leaned on him, hard, making him be still.

                "Where.  The fuckIS HE."

                "Ss-seelie Court!  He's - in the Seelie Court.  When - they let him go, out of hell, Jack was there, and the Queen.  She wanted to - to see the one that hell had given up so much for and she - wanted him.  She t-told Jack he could come back to the Seelie Court if he got S-spike to come to her."

                "He wouldn't stay there -" Xander gasped out, his whole body singing as if he'd been hit - as if he'd fallen down a flight of stairs.

                "No, he - he wouldn't, he didn't - Jack put a g-glamour on him.  Said he was free of hell and l-like he was and that fulfilled his - pact so then - he -"

                "Shut up," Xander choked out, and the pooka's mouth snapped shut, his eyes very wide.

                "Can he do that?  Is - is that -"

                "He can," a new voice said, and they all jerked - looked around wildly, searching.  Another figure - much like Scavenger but thinner - blond - crouched in the doorway, leaning on the wards as Drusilla had leaned on the barrier before.  

                "Wing -" Scavenger moaned, and the other shot a look at him, eyes like blazing white fire.

                "He can, he could, he did.  Now they have him in the Wild Hunt, and tonight he consummates his marriage to the Queen.  And the She has lost her consort, and the She...is at war."

                "Say it again - explain it again!" Xander snapped, jerking Scavenger towards the point of the sword that - Xander finally realized - Dawn was holding.

                "The Queen of Air and Darkness had a king - and he fell in love with the Queen of the Seelie Court, and he made a bargain, and he was hers.  But she lost interest and sent him back again and he - he has plotted and planned to get her back - to have her back."  Scavenger's eyes flicked from sword-point to Xander's face, his skin ashen, his whole body trembling from the poisonous iron.    "He thought she would take him back for this - for the easing of the tithe, but she's taking another - she's taking Spike, and she'll never want him again - she's giving him to her Court.   And the She - wants her own back.  Wants Jack back."

                "How do I get my own back?  That's all I care about god damnit, Scavenger -"   The pooka held up a shaking hand, shivering hard as the sword eased closer yet and Derio snapped at him, wolfish fangs and jaws.

                "Ride.  Ride with me.  North - to the Hunt.  You'll see the Court - you'll see them all and you'll see him, and you must take him and hold him and not let go, Alex-an-der, not let go no matter what, do you understand?  No matter what is said, no matter what is done."  Xander stared at him - felt despair and anger welling up in him so high that he was close to just killing the pooka right there - not even sure if he could, but he wanted to, oh god.

                *Xander, no - think -*   Oz pushing something at him, image - image of Drusilla and her new companion - Drusilla leaning on the barrier and the wards flaring up around her. 

                "You, mind your book and mind your heart and take the Slayer's skin when you're called to go riding.   That's the only way you'll see your love again."

                *She knew - she knew, she knew, god -*   Xander stood up abruptly, pulling the pooka to his feet, pushing the sword-blade gently aside.    "I know what I have to do - and you're taking me there.  Where are you taking me?  They're going to meet us there -" he said, gesture back towards his family and Scavenger took a hard breath and nodded.

                "It's north - north, the park by the Hill, by the grove of the dead -"

                "Interlaken?" Derio asked, and the pooka nodded.

                "Lay lines - power, there.  She can ride out and ride in, and then he's hers.  We have to hurry, Alex-an-der."

                "Yeah.  Oz - you guys go!  Get there and maybe - Tara -"

                "I'll do what I can," Tara said, and turned and ran towards the still-room.  Dawn was yanking on the old work-boots by the door and Oz had taken the sword and Xander suddenly turned and ran himself, pounding up the stairs.

                "Wait -!" the pooka shouted, but Xander ignored him.  *Skin of the Slayer.  His coat - Spike's coat.  Has to be.  God -*   Xander stumbled into the bedroom and yanked open the closet door - pulled out the coat.  He held it for one moment, the feel of it, the scent of it flooding him with *Spike mate mine family mine mine*.  And then he pulled it on and ran, down to the pooka and the night. 

                Scavenger was on the porch and he leaped to the yard as Xander came out - changed, in a flurry of blackness and coal-red sparks and the horse that he became bowed down, foreleg bending - offering its back.  Xander climbed on awkwardly - looked down to see the pale, blond Sidhe - Wing - looking up at him. 

                "You'll not fall off a pooka's back if he wants you to stay on.   When you see your Spike, you must take and hold and not let go.  And when he is himself again, cover him with that coat.  Do not speak, do not falter.  All rides on this, all hinges on this," the Sidhe said, hugging itself as if it were cold and Scavenger shifted, stamping.

                "Why?  Why does it all hinge on - on me?  And Spike?"

                "Pacts have been broken.  Things have shifted.  If they fight - it will be a war the heavens have not seen for a hundred million years.  The She will fight for it all back.  Ride now!  Scavenger, run!"  Scavenger half-reared up and Xander saw Tara and Dawn and the wolves running to the van - getting in and the headlights flicking on.  The pale Sidhe ran as well, towards the Duwamish and leapt and dove, transmuting as he went into something sleek and pale - seal, or whale, or snake, Xander couldn't tell.

                 And then Scavenger was running flat out, heading north, skimming water and earth as if they were nothing - muscles like iron under Xander's thighs and he bent down low, hands fisted tight in a mane of silk and smoke.  The patch whipped away in the wind and he buried his face, Oz and Derio in the link, the string of beads burning his chest.  Going to get Spike.

 

               

                They stopped somewhere in dense woods - it was dark, and the storm had come muttering back while Scavenger ran, and Xander was lost.  He slid stiffly down and the pooka shifted, human again, naked.  He grabbed Xander's arm in a steel grip and pulled him down. 

                "They're coming.  All along here.  Hide, and let them pass by until you see Spike.  He's on a white horse," Scavenger whispered, and then they simply waited.    Long moments passed, and Xander felt his body trembling - his breath tightening in his chest.   He chanted the wolf-chant softly softly in his head; his fingers on the beads and his eye open wide, trying to see in near-blackness.  There was water somewhere nearby, moving lightly and quickly.

                *Safe?  See him?* from Oz, and Xander shook his head.

                *No - I don't - Oz, god -I...  Wait - wait, there's -*   He stared, straining his eye - shaped the seeing-word with his lips and felt Scavenger's fingers, hot and dry, on his mouth.

                 "No, must not.  They'll feel it.  Just wait," Scavenger murmured and Xander subsided.  There was a pale blue-green light coming from somewhere to the right of them, and as he watched Xander saw the shapes of horses slowly emerge from the blackness.  Black horses and brown ones and grey, all sparkling like glass figures in a shop-window.  The people on their backs were tall - thin - beautiful, and Xander stared as they rode past, sending the images to the wolves.

                *God - the Queen - that's her -* Xander thought, as Scavenger stiffened beside him and a woman on the back of a dancing grey horse rode past.  She was pale as snow, with long silver-white hair done up in braids and loops and falls.  She was like ice and fire together and Xander felt...small.  Grubby.

                *No.  Hero.  Spike's Knight!  His love and his life and his own, Xander - do you see him?* Oz, growling through the link and Xander blinked and looked again.

                "Where is he?  I don't see him!" he whispered frantically to Scavenger and the pooka shot him a look - pointed with a shaking hand.  A white horse - a man on its back.  Black trousers and boots, a shimmering white shirt and a brocade coat like Jack's, blood red.   And a fall of long, dark hair oiled into ringlets and held back by a band of silver and ruby.  Another Sidhe.

                "That's not -" Xander started, and then he looked, and it was - it was.

                 *Spike!  Spike, my god, that's - Spike!*   "He can't hear me!"

                "It's the glamour!  Go, now!"  Scavenger pushed him, hard, and Xander leaped up and ran - ran to the line of horses and Sidhe, to the still, pale figure on the white horse that rode as the others did - eyes only for the Queen.   He reached up and grabbed fistfuls of leather and brocade and silk and pulled, and with a small cry of surprise Spike toppled off the horse and onto him.  Xander's breath was knocked out of him and he lay there, clutching Spike so hard it hurt, gasping for air.  He buried his face in Spike's neck, searching for something - anything.   And found it.

                *Scar.  That's the claim.  Oh GOD, Spike - Spike, wake up!*   Xander's breath whooped back into him and under the smells of horse and rain and mud and myrrh, he could smell Spike.  Blood and cloves, and he felt tears in his eye.

                "Spike?" he whispered, and Spike lifted his head.

                "Oh, you do not dare," a cold voice said, and Xander looked up at the Queen of the Seelie Court and Spike twisted, convulsing - screaming.    And then he wasn't holding Spike anymore.  He was holding a hot, heavy body - stink of sweat and cheap wine - of Aqua Velva.

                "You've done nothing but disappoint the both of us.  Just one long string of regrets and sorrow.  You're a sorry excuse for a son - for a man - for a human -"   Xander shuddered in revulsion but hugged the man close - buried his face in the sour flesh of the joweled neck and hung on.  A cough - a convulsive heave - and the body shivered and changed and shrank.

                "Why'd you do it, Xander?  Why'd you do it?  I thought we were friends - I thought you loved me!  You didn't even give me a chance - not a chance -"  

                "Jesse, oh god -"   Xander hugged the wiry body closer - sucked in boy-scent and soda-sweetness and tears.  *Not him, it's not him, Xander - pack, pack, pack -*   Oz's voice, whisper in his head and Xander shuddered - held on.  *Hold fast, hold fast, we're coming, querido!*   Another shuddering twist of the body in his arms and Xander smelled blood - blood and old wine and something musky-sharp and that drawling, hated voice -

                "What is it that you see NOW, sinner?  What do you see?  I see an empty heart - an empty house - an empty life.  Forever's too long to ask of an angel, don't you think?  Flawed and imperfect and MAIMED that you are -" 

                 "Fuck you!" Xander gasped, teeth gritted and his hands like claws in the black coat of Caleb's priest-garb.  But he held on tight as the man fought him - as iron hands scrabbled at his face.  "You're not him, you're Spike and I'm not letting go!"

                "Let go, oh, let go, let go..." a new voice sighed, and the body he was holding cooled - thinned - became softly feminine and Dru's dark hair foamed across his mouth - her legs twined with his and her scent of church incense and jasmine filled his nostrils.  "I've had him for a century and more - I MADE him, I chose him - I can UNMAKE him, sweet little boy - kitten without claws...  I KNOW him, sweetling, like you NEVER will...my poet, my sweet William -"

                "No, you gave him up!  You left him and I took him and he's mine!  You hear me?"  Xander crushed Drusilla to him - lifted his head and let the hyena roar its rage and terror.  "He is mine!  I chose him - I love him - I want him and I will not let him go!"  Then he let his face drop into cool, white flesh and bit, hard and deep.  Drusilla screamed - writhed - shrank in his arms and suddenly Xander wasn't holding an animal or a human - he was holding fire, that danced along his arms and face and burned like acid.  He screamed, clutching it closer - felt a hand in his back pushing him and he staggered up and ran; stumbled and fell and rolled through wet leaves and mud and a crunching dead bush and suddenly into water.  The fire hissed like a thousand snakes and his arms were empty.  Gravel dug into his elbows and knees - into his shoulder and he scrabbled madly.

                "Spike!"  His hands found something in the darkness - ice-cold flesh.  An arm - a shoulder - and Xander was grabbing Spike and hauling him up - stumbling backwards and falling onto the gravel and dirt edge of the stream, falling on his butt and almost knocking the wind out of himself again.  He twisted, Spike like a lifeless doll in his arms as he fought to get the duster off.  Hands were at his shoulders, suddenly - hands and someone yanking - pulling - and the duster slithered free and Xander flung it over Spike.  Over a Spike who was naked and still, and far too thin - far too cold.

                "Spike - Spike - wake up, love, please - Spike -"  Xander pulled him closer yet, tucking the duster around Spike's ribs and shoulders - aware of Oz and Derio, of Tara and Dawn crouching not far away.   And Scavenger, half in the water, mud on his hands, his eyes like scarlet fire.  Light was coming closer - cold and white-blue, and the Queen sat there, astride her horse.  Shining like a star or a firefly, staring down at him with her lips drawn back in a snarl.  Xander looked back at Spike - at the mud on his face and the leaves tangled in the impossible, knotted hair.  He gently stroked Spike's face - his lips - leaned down and kissed him, tasting iron and water and something like lemon, and nothing else.

                "Spike -" he whispered.  There was a sudden shift under his hands - a heaving of ribs and belly, and Spike's eyes opened wide, staring at him.  He lay there, utterly still; blinking once, slowly, when something fell onto his face.  A tear, that landed on his cheek and wended away into the hair.  "Love - love, it's me -" Xander whispered, and there was a tiny shiver - a tingle.  And then a flood - sensation, emotion - pain and pleasure and horror and despair, slamming into the link and out again in seconds.

                *Xander -* like a distant echo.  And then stronger.  *Xander.  Love...*   "Came b-back," Spike whispered, and Xander gathered him in as close as he could and just held on.