They tell him it's like what migraine sufferers get. They call it "aura." He sees...light, a glow, sometimes sparks. And then there's pain. Xander's felt his share of pain - broken bones, stitches, concussions, contusions, having his eyeball shoved back into his skull where it popped like a grape...so the pain in the empty socket ranks somewhere in the upper third. It starts out icepick-like, a sharp jab straight back, searing and hot. For an encore, it starts up a dull, grinding ache that gets more and more demoralizing the longer it lasts.
And it does. Last. And last. Six hours isn't unusual, 48 not unheard of. There are drugs - bottles and bottles of little prescription sleepytimes. Some give him freaky, hallucinogenic, Willy Wonka dreams and others give him junkie-with-spiders-under-his-skin nightmares. They take him down and flatten him out and eventually wear off, leaving him feeling empty, drained, detached and dumb.
He tries to be normal, to talk to Willow, to laugh with Buffy and Dawn on the phone, to talk to Giles about going back to Africa. He had been okay in Africa. Eight months and everything had been fine, until he was felled by the pain on a Daallo flight from Nairobi to Burao, scaring the living shit out of himself and the flight attendant and most of the other passengers.
It's been seven months. Seven months and twenty doctors and a thousand pills and uncounted hours in his small flat in London, located within walking distance to the small, private clinic where the Watchers Council pays the bills and the doctors try every new technique they can dream up. So far they've tried drugs, hypnosis, massage, biofeedback, acupuncture, special diets, everything. His flat is also close to the dark shop that has a back room where they've tried less well-known remedies and therapies, at least as far as Xander can stand magical intervention, which isn't far.
No one ever calls him - they're afraid of waking him or triggering an attack with the noise of the phone. Xander has to call them, and lately, it hasn't seemed worth it. Purely by mistake, he found out that smoking massive quantities of hash-laced pot could keep the pain at bay. Or, at least, make him not give a flying fuck about it. He buys it from a girl who lives two streets over. She looks like a cheerleader and swears like a trucker, and she delivers. It's a sweet deal. He looks at her and her interested expression and feels like a dirty old man. She's three years younger than him.
Smoking and drinking keep the aura at bay. He eats whenever he thinks about it, showers and shaves when he thinks about it or starts to itch, calls Giles or Buffy or Willow infrequently and misses doctor's appointments. He expects the intervention any day now, but doesn't care. He's gone eighteen days without the pain, and he fears that it's coming, fears the telltale sparks of the aura, fears that he won't be able to stand it this time. Waits.
On day nineteen, he wakes up with his head mostly clear and realizes he's out of food, out of booze and out of dope - triple threat. The water in the shower feels like needles in his skin, and he washes his hair and thinks about getting a tattoo. Maybe something tribal, or a Masai design over the whole ruined side of his face - something else to scare the kiddies. He gets out of the shower and shaves without looking too closely in the mirror, pulls on jeans that are so loose he has to tighten up his belt and a Sunnydale High sweatshirt that he carried out of the nightmare in his duffle. Socks, shoes, jacket and patch and he's ready to face the world.
He calls the cheerleader's cell and leaves a message, tucks his wallet and phone in his pocket and heads out. Xander doesn't drive - likely never will again. It's just past sunset and the streetlights come on with a hazy glow. The grocer on the corner yields the basics of his life - soup and bread and peanut butter and Pop Tarts, plus two bottles of JD. He doesn't even bother to buy the Coke anymore. He pays with the Council's credit card, knowing he'll never see the bill.
The cheerleader calls back, and they meet in a pub. He buys her a drink and passes her cash for the two packs of cigarettes she hands him. It amuses her to package joints in Silk Cut or English Oval boxes. She takes his money and drinks her drink and gives him a look that says she's interested. Xander downs two shots in quick succession, says thanks and leaves. He's only four blocks from home when he starts to see the aura.
Four blocks from home, but only two from the magic shop. He thinks about cracking open one of the bottles, one of the cigarette packs and trying to self-medicate on the spot. He's still sane enough to realize the folly of that. He heads for the Dark Haven with a sigh.
The shop is nothing like the Magic Box - the Box was all warmth and light and the smells of herbs and the perfume of his girls. The Dark Haven has the herbal scents, but it's darker, the scents are deeper, older. Where the Box was white magic, the Haven is a mix. Xander feels it, thrumming in his bones. It's like parts of Africa - ancient, mysterious, not to be trifled with. He'd rather not trifle with magic at all. He doesn't trust it, not after what he's seen. If Buffy's resurrection and Willow's fall hadn't skeeved him out completely, some of the shit he'd seen in Africa had finished the job.
Even the bell over the door in the Haven is dark, a low tone, flat. The man behind the counter looks up and smiles.
"Ephraim," Xander says.
"Sir," the small man replies, in an even tone. "Alistair's in back."
Xander doesn't like Ephraim. Has nothing to do with the man at all, except that he looks like Doc, the demon who had cut Dawn on the tower, and it makes Xander angry and sad to look at him. Ephraim, for his part, seems to sense the animosity, and always has his partner work with Xander.
Xander hears the sounds of Alistair returning; the man is so big that he constantly bumps into things. He pops his shaggy red head around the corner.
"Thought I heard you, mate," he says to Xander. "Let me finish up my business with one other customer and I'll be with you. Aura?"
Xander nods, confirming both that he would wait and the diagnosis. He closes his eye, but the sparks don't lessen. The glow comes next, then the pain.
He hears Alistair bump his way around the corner, and hears the squeaky sound of a Styrofoam cooler being set on the far counter. "Eight pig, two otter, two human," Alistair says.
His customer answers, "Ta, mate."
And Xander turns around and sees Spike.
Spike looks...wrong. Smaller. Less. Also, not dead. Deader. Dust, whatever. He looks bad. He looks smaller.
"What happened to you?" Xander can't believe he said that - can't believe he spoke at all.
Spike turns, lips curling into a snarl. "What's it to...Xander?" He whispers the name, as if saying it out loud will make Xander disappear.
Xander looks down at the crumpled, stained bills in Spike's hand and makes a snap decision.
"Wait," he says to Spike. "Will you wait? I need..." he gestures toward the back of the shop. Spike nods, and Xander looks at Ephraim. "Put his blood on my bill, and add a bunch more human. Al, you ready?" He turns to Alistair, who gestures toward the back room.
Xander follows Alistair to a tiny, curtained alcove and sits in the chair there. "Pain block - an hour, max. Neck up."
Alistair doesn't bother to argue, he simply lays his hands on either side of Xander's neck and starts chanting. Xander accepts the tiny bit of magic with poor grace, hating the necessity. It jolts him a little, and he jerks as the block takes effect. It makes his head feel slightly woolly, but it's better than the alternative. He nods at Alistair and they return to the front.
Spike is still standing at the counter, looking at Ephraim and at the cooler, now barely able to close. Ephraim tapes it shut, and Xander tosses the Council's card down casually, signs the slip and pockets it and the card without looking. Spike hefts the cooler and follows Xander out the door.
They walk toward Xander flat in silence for a block. Xander can see the top of his building when Spike stops and sets the cooler on the ground. He pats his pockets, as if looking for something, but comes up empty.
"Where we going?" he asks.
Xander sets his carrier bags down carefully and turns to face Spike. "My place," he explains. "What are you looking for."
"Smokes," Spike says. "'M out." From the look on his face, Xander knows that means he can't afford them.
"I can hook you up at my place," Xander says. "We need to get moving." He picks up his bags and resettles them over his arms. Spike picks the cooler up and they keep walking.
"What are you doing in London?" Spike asks. "Thought you were in Africa or some such."
"Was," Xander says. "I'm...unfit for duty. On the bench. A sidelined sidekick. Back to loserville."
Spike keeps walking, but turns his head to look at Xander. "Huh?" he says.
Xander gestures toward his left eye. "It still hurts."
Xander's place is small, bare and neat. He's got furniture that looks like it came with the place, and the windows are all darkly draped. He puts his bags down to open the door, then stands for a moment, looking at Spike.
"Come in, Spike," he says. "You're welcome here."
Spike hesitates for a second, then walks in. Xander gets his bags and gestures to the kitchen. It's just big enough for the both of them, provided neither needs to move much. Xander puts his food in the cabinet and puts the two bottles of JD on the counter. Spike puts his blood in the fridge.
"Eat," Xander says, pulling down a mug that also looks like it came with the place - featureless white china. An equally featureless plate comes down and Xander makes two sloppy peanut butter sandwiches, which he carefully cuts into triangles, while Spike heats a bag of the human blood in Xander's microwave. Xander also gets down three glasses, filling one with tap water and two with whiskey.
The microwave dings, and Spike pours out a mug of blood and watches Xander drink half a glass of JD without flinching. Xander then tops up his glass and juggles whiskey, water and plate as he heads toward the sofa. Spike follows with his own glass and mug. He tries to go slow, but he's hungry. Human blood is usually held in reserve, to heal injuries, and the rich smell wraps around him, drawing the demon out. He feels the fangs dropping and tries to get the change under control.
Xander kicks off his boots and stuffs half a sandwich in his mouth, washing it down with the water. "Fuckin' eat," he grumbles. "I don't care what you look like when you do it."
Spike stares at him and Xander slaps a triangle of sandwich down next to the mug before turning back to his own lunch. With a shrug, Spike lets the change come over him, reveling in the freedom that showing his true face gives him. He takes a long, appreciative sniff of the blood, then drains the mug in one long swallow. He changes back, then swabs out the inside of his cup with the sandwich before eating it.
"Why'd you change back for the people food?" Xander asks, wolfing another half sandwich.
"Peanut butter. Gets stuck to my fangs."
Spike pounds Xander on the back when he chokes on his sandwich. He takes the mug and Xander's water glass back into the kitchen and refills them both. When he returns, he's got the Silk Cuts box in his hand.
Xander takes his glass and drinks, then switches to the whiskey, draining the glass. "Gimme," he says, reaching for the cigarette box. He opens it to reveal twenty carefully rolled joints and selects one before reaching for a plastic lighter from the side table. He lights up and pulls a long drag of smoke into his lungs. He makes as if to pass the joint to Spike, who's just finished his second mug of blood. Spike takes the spliff and carries it with him to the kitchen.
"'ey!" Xander squeaks, not letting go of any of the precious smoke. He relaxes back onto the sofa when Spike returns with both bottles of whiskey. Spike passes the joint and refills both of their glasses.
By the time the joint is stubbed out in a plain glass ashtray, they're both mellow and a little drunk. Xander slouches to the bedroom and throws a pair of sweatpants at Spike. A few minutes later he returns to the living room, dressed in his own sweats and his tee shirt, to find Spike looking at the faded black cotton draped over the sofa back.
"They're sweat pants. You wear them. They're more comfortable than jeans." He flops onto the couch and swallows another sip of whiskey, and doesn't even look up when Spike toes off his boots, stands and strips off his jeans right there in the living room before pulling on the too-big sweats.
"There's plenty of blood in the kitchen," Xander says, his voice carefully neutral as he watches Spike fold the jeans and stack them neatly on top of his boots.
Spike decides not to take offense. "You aren't exactly headed for Weight Watchers yourself," he says. "You living on peanut butter and hash these days?"
"No," Xander says, grinning. "Sometimes I have soup."
"Does it help?" Spike asks, gesturing toward the patch. "With the pain?"
"Soup? Not so much," Xander replies. Then he sits back and looks at Spike. "Are we gonna do this?" he asks. "Swap sad stories of our mighty falls from grace?"
Spike thinks about it for a second. "No," he says slowly. "We aren't nearly stoned and drunk enough for that."
Xander smiles and reaches for the Silk Cuts box and lighter, and Spike pours.
Two spliffs and the better part of the second bottle later, and Spike's forgotten he was ever sad. He and Xander are watching Blackadder and crying with laughter. They've settled into the center of the sofa with their feet up on the coffee table and they're gone. Drunk. Stoned. Wasted. Plastered. Pissed. Shitfaced. Kneewalking. Six sheets. Skunked.
"Spiiiiike," Xander sing-songs. "Spike, Spike, Spike, Spike. D'jever notice that a word gets silly if you say it over and over?"
"No, I hadn't noticed, Xander. XanderXanderXander." Spike knows he's got a Cheshire cat grin on his face, but he's warm and full and happy and drunk. Stoned. Other words.
"You think English words are funny when you're stoned, you should try Swahili." Xander looks serious for a moment, but then bursts out in a grin to rival Spike's. He looks so carefree and happy that, for a moment, Spike's taken back to the first time he ever saw him, dancing in the Bronze with Buffy and Willow.
"Tell me a funny Swahili word," Spike says.
"Ibilisi," Xander says. "That's you." He breaks up laughing.
"What's it mean?" Spike demands, but Xander is lost in an attack of the giggles. Spike pushes him over onto his side and leans on him, pressing his shoulder into the couch. He can't help but notice how warm and yielding Xander is. "What's it mean? Vampire? Sex god? What?"
Spike's suggestions only make Xander laugh louder and Spike eventually gives up.
Xander struggles upright and gets himself under control. "Devil, it means devil," he says, then laughs again when Spike preens.
"Tell me another one," Spike demands.
"OK," Xander says, taking a sip of his drink. "Buzi. It means goat."
"You callin' me a goat?" Spike says, reaching for his own drink.
"It's slang," Xander explains. "A buzi is a rich man, big man on campus sort of deal. They have a saying: 'kuchuna buzi;' literally, it means 'to skin the big goat,' but it's slang for sleeping with the big guy."
"So, you were the buzi?" Spike asks, figuring that a Council-backed guy in Africa had to rate pretty high on the scale.
"To some," Xander agrees. "To others, I was ibilisi and the word that means 'white,' which I can't remember."
"Got your end away a lot, then?"
"Less than you'd think. Do you have any idea what the infection rate for AIDS is over there? It'll scare your dick to death." Xander drank a little more whiskey. "I learned to stick to other expats." The expression on his face says that this is a sore subject, and Spike decides to let it lie, for once.
"So," Spike says, thinking. "'Kuchuna ibilisi' would mean to shag the devil?"
"Yeah, I guess," Xander says, smiling again.
Spike thinks on that for a minute, then turns so he's facing Xander. "So, pet, you want to?" He's surprised when the smile falls from Xander's face and his eye fills up with tears.
Xander takes a deep breath and forces the tears away before they can fall. He slumps back against the sofa and is relieved when Spike does the same. A little disappointed, too.
"We're stoned and drunk enough, then?" he asks. Spike nods. "Sorry to be a buzz-kill," Xander says, and Spike shrugs. "I...had somebody. In Africa. A guy, and don't smirk at me. Australian - he was there with the Surfrider Foundation, doing environmental work."
"What was his name?" Spike says quietly, and Xander turns to see that he's not smirking, or leering - he just looks thoughtful.
"Jake," Xander says, and it still hurts. He clenches his fist on his thigh in annoyance. "He had a place in Cape Town - little crappy house. I met him at Jeffery's Bay. Best surfing in South Africa, not that it has a lot of competition. I was working with a Slayer who was also a surfer, and she tried to teach me." He makes a crisscrossing motion with his hands, like two lines intersecting. "I cut Jake off and he cussed me out like only an Aussie can. The only part I got was 'shark biscuit' and some words I remembered you using. After he stopped yelling at me, he asked me out."
Xander grins a little at the memory. It's a good one. He can still remember the way he'd stared at Jake - all bleached, floppy hair and darkly tanned skin stretched over his lean frame, and the way his trunks had clung wetly to his thighs. And Jake's mouth - filthier than Spike's, softer than Anya's. And blue eyes, twinkling and snapping. "It turned into a casual thing - we'd meet in Cape Town when we could. It was...good. To have a place to go - someone to have fun with - I'd kind of forgotten what fun was."
"How much did you tell him?" Spike asks.
"Not much," Xander says. "Told him I was a researcher for a private British foundation. Told him I collected folklore stories."
"What about the girl? The surfing Slayer?"
"Layne? She turned down the offer. She's ranked third in the world right now." Xander smiles, remembering Layne's bright smile and quick wit.
"No, what did you tell...whatshisname, Dick? About the chasing young girls?" Spike's face is expressionless and he reaches for his glass.
"Jake," Xander corrects automatically. "Layne was the only one he ever saw me with, and by then she and I were friends. Jake didn't much care about the details, so I didn't share. We were...casual."
"Doesn't seem like you took it as casual," Spike observes, and Xander feels a little stab somewhere around where he's pretty sure his heart used to be.
"I," Xander says haltingly. "I'm not real good at casual. Never was." He toys with his glass, watching the amber liquid swirl.
"So, what happened?" Spike asks, leaning forward a bit.
Xander sighs and gestures upward, to his eye, his head, possibly heaven. "The headaches started - the first one happened on an airplane. I made it back to Cape Town and stayed with Jake for a while, but..." Xander's voice trails off as he remembers.
"Wasn't what he was looking for, eh? Liked you well enough when you were fun and games, but didn't have the stomach for the rough stuff."
Xander stares at Spike. Not because of the words, which are true, but because of the tone. Spike sounds...pissed. For him. For him. For him.
"It...wasn't good," Xander finally says. "He was honest about it, but it hurt. I...thought I could count on him. It kind of sucked that he wasn't willing to take the bad with the good, you know? I always hated feeling like a liability, and that brought it all back."
"So, you let the Council bring you here?" Spike says.
Xander looks up at him and smiles, a sad little twist of lips. "Yeah, right. This is me we're talking about here. I stayed in Africa another couple of months, until I had an attack right in the middle of trying to explain to a Slayer's mother why she should give me her fifteen year old daughter. That went well."
Spike snorts and pours the last of the whiskey into their glasses. "And Jake?"
Xander smiles wryly. "He doesn't write, he doesn't call."
"That sucks," Spike says.
"It does," Xander agrees. "It sucks less as time goes on."
"Were you in love with him?" Spike asks, looking pensively into the bottom of his glass.
"Nah," Xander says, finishing his own drink. "I don't know anything about love. You should know that - you were there for my formative years."
"Always loved your friends." Spike's voice is quiet. "You loved those worthless bags of blood you called parents; you loved Anya."
"Oh, love I can do; it's the in love part I suck at." He turns the glass around and around in his hands, thinking about Sunnydale and South Africa and Nairobi and LA and every other place he hadn't fit into. "Wanna hear something hilarious? I always envied you - before you even had a soul, you could love. You just threw yourself into it. Drusilla may have been completely nuts, but you lived for her. Or, not, as the case may be. Same for Buffy - you gave her everything you had."
"Yeah," Spike agrees, voice tired and bitter. "And both of those sterling examples only wanted my love when Angel wasn't available. Is that my defining trait? I'm convenient?"
"I always thought it was the hair, myself," Xander says. He looks at his empty glass again, knowing that he needs more. He doesn't know if he needs it to buffer the pain from his eye or to make him able to continue this unguarded conversation with Spike, but either way, he needs it.
He looks up to find Spike absently running a hand through his hair and, for the first time, he notices that it's grown out, the roots are showing, and it's dirty. This is not the normal Spike; this is something different.
He stands up and walks to the bar between kitchen and living room, grabbing his wallet, carrying it back to the sofa. He turns it in his hands, then looks at Spike.
"We need more booze, but I am way too messed up to be on the street," he says.
Spike turns his head to the side and smirks a little. "Want me to be your errand boy, then?" He doesn't sound mad or snarky, just tired.
"You be doughnut boy and I'll be Big Bad?" Xander jokes.
"What's in it for me?"
"More booze," Xander says, then hesitates, not sure if he should make the offer he's contemplating. What the hell, he thinks, nothing left to lose. "And you can stay here if you want - get cleaned up, eat, smoke some more of my dope."
"Safe haven?" Spike says, looking at the floor.
"It'll be like old times."
At that, Spike smiles. "You haven't got some distant relative of that wretched chair hidden around here somewhere, do you?"
"Nope," Xander says. "Hell, you can even sleep in my bed."
Spike's head snaps up and he leers. "Reconsidering my offer?"
Xander can hear the humor in Spike's voice, but there's intent there, too. He looks at Spike for a minute, realizing that he's offering to, well, pay rent, for lack of a better euphemism. Xander thinks for a second, and realizes that he doesn't want that. Doesn't want there to be any sort of...obligation.
"I..., um," Xander stammers a little. "I don't actually sleep in there." He gestured to the hallway that leads to the bedroom. "I don't do well in bed alone. I mostly sleep out here." It's true. He's never spent a whole night in the bed. Nightmares. Night terrors. Aura. Headaches. Grief. Sleep's not what he's good at these days, nothing is. He opens his wallet and pulls out five crisp twenties, laying them on the sofa cushion between them. "Couple more bottles of JD?" he says. "And whatever else you want - smokes, bleach, Weetabix."
Spike stands, and for a second, Xander thinks he's about to get a facefull of patented Sunnydale vitriol. He's more than a little startled when Spike strips off his sweatpants, relieved when that's followed by the pulling on of jeans. Spike stomps his feet into his boots and reaches for the duster, settling it into place with a practiced shrug.
Xander holds out the money. "If you decide that you don't want to come back," he says, studying the toes of Spike's boots. "Keep the money. It's the Council's anyway." The money is taken and tucked away in a pocket, and Xander thinks he feels a palm ghost lightly over his bowed head, and Spike is gone with a swirl of leather and the quiet click of the door closing.