A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows
In every man's existence there comes a point when he has to bow out of the fight, lie down in the gutter, and drink till he's immobile, and if there's no gutter handy he shouldn't let that stop him. Spike's suite had a well-stocked bar courtesy of the Grauth, with a rainbow of bottles, all full, except for the ones he'd already emptied. He'd lost count, but he'd started at purple and worked through the spectrum and was at yellow now, which was a fair stride toward pissed.
"It's the same old story," he said to his companion, steadying the bottle against the glass and pouring with care. When he'd filled it brimful, it seemed a shame to drink his accomplishment, so he left it sitting on the rug and took a pull direct from the bottle neck before collaring his thought again. "You love a girl, kill things for her, prat yourself up in a fancy uniform, and what does it get you? You're King Turncoat of the vampire world and she's still mooning over some soulful sod who--"
He broke off, emotion collapsing in on itself, and then snarled and threw the bottle into the fire. It shattered and doused the flames with 110 proof blonde gin. He fucking hated gin.
"Angel," he said in disgust as the flames leapt. "The man's every wank is a tragic opera waiting to happen. Know what his idea of a good time is?" he asked his silent listener, brows rising with the question. "No, you wouldn't. Exactly my point. Probably has some tepid and dreary hobby. Postage stamps. Putting ships in those little bottles."
He contemplated his own fresh bottle of something-or-other and thumbed out its cork. Another long swallow went down smooth but left a trail of fire behind. "Thought she was coming around to me. She said she cared." Vision was shiny, the room a wet shimmer he couldn't quite focus on. "But I know now. I'll always be the replacement."
Blinking a few times, he looked at the ghost. She was sitting cross-legged on the far side of the fire place, in a corner of darkness. Cool eyes in a white face stared unwaveringly at him. Eyes like the little glass beads in the faces of Dru's dolls.
"You might tell a bloke what you're after." He offered her a drink, shrugged when she didn't take it. "Don't know why you hang around. All the entertainment's elsewhere. Why not go haunt His Majesty, King of Pain," he suggested. "There's one gagging for another pound of guilt. Another soul on his bleedin' conscience."
The ghost stared.
"You're no fun at charades," Spike accused, uncurling one finger from the bottle and pointing it at her. "And Twenty Questions is right out." At once seized with another wave of fury, he sent the bottle flying her way. It passed through her and crashed against the wall. "Piss off!" he yelled. And then he slumped and closed his eyes. Sighed as he sank into the dark waters. "Go where you're wanted," he whispered.
"How was it?" Anya asked, interested.
"An, please." Xander had to raise his head from his folded arms to speak, and muster the nerve to look at her. "For once, I beg you, try to imagine a normal girlfriend, and then be that girlfriend. I need you to be angry, not digging for details of--" He broke off, reburied his head, and groaned. His body was a mudslide and he felt as if it could take the entire magic shop with it, collapsing into the bowels of the earth. Yay.
"Your illicit sex with a male vampire? Xander, I'm insulted."
That deserved another effortful look. "That's it? You're insulted?"
"I'm insulted you're underestimating my mad girlfriend skillz. Did you ever stop to think that maybe interrogation is my vengeance?"
"Oh dear god."
She leaned back in her chair, assumed an expectant look, and picked up a cracker from a plate at hand. "Just pretend you're on Jerry Springer," she said brightly. "Tell the viewing audience all about it."
Her tiny cracker-chewing noises unmanned him. It was time to fight dirty and change the subject. "Maybe, some night, years from now, if you get me drunk enough--but right now I need to figure out how to save my parents."
"Why don't you just ask Spike for help? The two of you have a bond now. Bonds create obligations."
"We have *no* bond."
"Well, it's better than asking Willow." Anya was spreading cheese on a cracker, wearing the satisfied expression of a gossip whose guesswork has proved true. "I always knew she couldn't be trusted."
Xander shook his head in confusion, ignoring that remark. "Why would I ask Willow?"
"You mean, why did you?"
"I didn't ask Willow for help. Dawn did."
"Oh. Right." She frowned. "I didn't know Dawn was a lesbian. Did you?"
Xander massaged the sides of his nose, through which he seemed to be breathing in one headache after another. Maybe if he just stopped breathing.
"Dawn is not a lesbian. Willow is not Spike. Spike is not the slayer."
"Speaking of," Anya said. Her tone alerted him, and her face was rewritten with a sympathy that scared him. She gave him a pile of paper. "I've been asked to hand these out to customers."
It was a sketch of Buffy, her eyes blazing off the paper like a warrior princess on the verge of a battle cry. *SLAYER*, the caption read. *Wanted for crimes against the state. 10,000 turgrik in reward for information leading to her capture*.
"I guess I know where I won't be going for help," he said.
He stared at the sketched face and it was as if Spike echoed there a moment, then echoed again as Buffy. The world was supposed to be topsy again but there was a lot of turvy left over, and he remembered the last grazing good-bye of Spike's lips, and looking at Willow with a bone-deep hatred. Who was he supposed to hate and who was he supposed to lean on?
"You should have some crackers before you go," Anya said, and laid one soft little hand over his. And like when you find yourself suddenly slapped, he almost, but didn't quite, cry.
"So that's it. You're get here, toss reality like a salad, and now you're just going to leave." Buffy turned to look at Angel as she challenged him.
He knew he should be focusing on the present drama. How could he? Every memory of her crowded his thoughts and pressed for attention. Her beauty was a distractive music in the room; his reply an absently read script. "You know what will happen if I stay."
"It's a risk, not a certainty. A risk I'm willing to take."
"There's so much good you can do here."
"You have Spike." He couldn't believe he just said that.
"I can't believe you just said that."
"He made a good slayer." He asked her with his eyes to share the joke and the truth behind it.
"Yes. Okay. Yes." She visibly struggled with that. "But now he's got his old job back, and not to sound all Obi-Wan here, but we need rebel leaders. I can't do this alone."
"You'll have Giles. And I'll get more help to you."
"Assuming you make it out. And remember. And can crack the barrier again." None of that was cynicism exactly, just flat odds laid out for his consideration, but he'd already thought those thoughts, examined those fears.
"I have to go back. I have my own people who need me."
"More than me?" She seemed to shake off that personal argument with impatience, and her voice rose stridently, as if she were sixteen again, living on the cusp of dying. "This is *not* your average apocalypse. This whole town is going under."
"If I don't go back, the whole universe could end."
"What is this, a game? Your straight beats my flush?"
"Actually--" He rethought the wisdom of explaining poker rules during a fight. "Never mind." He stepped closer, saw her tense, and stopped short. "If I could stay, I would. You know that."
Lines of defeat surfaced in the angles of her neck and shoulders, as if drawn forth by the eternally sketching pencil in his mind. Every image in his heart's sketch-book was of her. He couldn't imagine finding those pages blank again. He couldn't forget her, and for just a moment it was impossible--he couldn't go, he could never leave her again.
Then she turned away, her resignation making her angry, hopeless, as if he'd already left. "I guess we'd better get ready."
Giles wiped his bloody hands off on a towel and tried to pretend, by not looking directly at the refugee sprawl behind him, that no one else needed help. He felt he could sustain that fiction for at least long enough to eat something.
"Kind of gets you, doesn't it." Oz was eating a bowl of corn and, despite his comment, behaving as if all this were perfectly normal. Giles envied his aplomb, especially given how he'd been plucked from some distant square of the chessboard and dropped here.
"Yes," he said. "It does." He sat down tiredly, and then looked at the boy again. "How have you been?"
"Good. Did you know that a Tibetan monk has the ability to consume an evil spirit and hold it captive?"
"I--I believe I may have heard something like that." Startled, his interest whetted, he asked the only possible question. "Are you saying that you're no longer a werewolf?"
"It's been a year now."
Giles absorbed this. "Yet you didn't return to Sunnydale," he noted, keeping his words gentle to avoid any accusatory note. It was none of his business, of course, but he was curious.
"Kathmandu is the new Seattle. I had a band. We'd just gotten this kicking pi-wang fiddler." He paused. "What about you?"
"I've been re-indexing the council's library of demonic texts and preserving them on microfiche."
"You can't get much more fun than microfiche."
"It's like being on the receiving end of dentistry," Giles said, with a depth of distaste that had materialized since his return to Sunnydale. Memory recovered and finding himself in the thick of it again, he realized how desperately bored he'd been.
"At least with dental work, you've got the hand puppets to distract from the pain."
"Actually," Giles hesitated with head inclined, "I don't think hand puppets are typical of the profession."
"Huh." Oz frowned. "Now I'm disturbed."
"Strange." Giles had absently picked up a can of green beans and was thumbing the label. "I remember so well everything that happened--the invasion, going into hiding. As if I'd never left Sunnydale. If one were to use microfiche as an example, it's as if two entirely different plates had been overlaid." He paused, took a breath. "That was a tragic simile."
"Hey," Dawn said, coming up to the table. "Have you guys seen that woman with the anti-demon petition? They're saying she's missing."
Oz shot Giles a look. "I don't want to panic anyone, but those Burthak demons were eating some dodgy-looking stew earlier."
"Perhaps we should look for the bones."
"Yay!" Dawn said, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "Scavenger hunt!" When the others looked at her she adjusted her shoulders rather defiantly. "Oh come on. Like you weren't thinking that."
"Well," Giles conceded, "it has been some time since I've needed to search for remains. It could be fun."
"I really missed you guys," Oz said after a moment. The sentiment seemed to complete the conversation.
Tara had spent the whirlwind where it had swept her, into a disregarded corner of the universe, peripheral to everyone else's action. Not much different than her usual reality. But the memories Angel's visit left her with weren't insignificant. They were enough to make her blush. In all the time she'd known Dawn Summers, she'd never once fantasized about the girl, and now there wasn't enough sage in the world to purify her brain of the images.
*I've corrupted youth*, she thought. A few tumblers of rum softened the terrible idea of this, made it almost funny.
And now she was back in the Peacock, trying to avoid Malivia's hard eyes and remember her job. To sing, to smile, to listen for secrets. Her small bed chamber off of the dressing room had no windows, and almost no decoration. She was hiding here like a mouse in a hole, because when Malivia had nothing for her to do, there was nothing to do. Except admire the way the light hit the facets on her glass and lit the rum inside its bottle.
After a while of this, Dawn and drink mixing uneasily in her head, she sat up and swung her legs over the bedside; the movement pitched her forward a little with lightheadedness. She picked up a small jeweled compact from her bedside table, pressed the catch to open it, and took a fingerful of black powder; and then another. It left a taste on the tongue like crushed aspirin and she'd already gotten used to it.
When a knock came on the door, she tucked the compact beneath her pillow and wiped her lips to remove any evidence. Assuming it to be Malivia or the seamstress, she uttered a sharp, "Come in."
Willow came in, lips parted, eyes bright, face lit up with a million candle-watt happiness. "You're okay! Oh thank god." She crossed the room and bent into a squeeze of a hug; her coat smelled of rain. Tara returned the hug, rum and emotion making her teary.
It wasn't as if they hadn't seen each other recently, but only at opposed, distorted angles, a thought that seemed to strike Willow at the same time it did Tara. Willow drew back with a sudden awkwardness and hovered next to the bed. Tara was eye-level with her lover's hands, small and white and powerful.
"Do you hate me? For the evil plots and haughtiness and mocking."
"There was mocking? Oh, right." She remembered some offhand snark, but the less important of her memories were beginning to acquire misty edges, watercolors blurred by a wet brush. "It's okay. I know you weren't you."
"Right." A lip curl of disgust. "I was *him*."
Anticipating a diatribe, Tara said, "You walked a mile in another man's shoes--or, boots. They say that builds empathy." She could feel the lack of her own empathy and wondered if it showed.
"He's not a man."
"He was a hero," Tara snapped, her patience thinned by the swirling in her head and the musty smell of her bedroom and the persecution of Malivia, who was never far enough away. "Do you always have to sneer?" She stood, twisted away from Willow's closeness and churned in the confines of the room, ending up at its far edge. "Do you think I don't know you slept with him?"
Tears welled in Willow's eyes on cue. "You know I would never--"
"You loved him. Don't pretend that doesn't mean anything, Willow."
"It doesn't!" Anguish tore Willow's face up, pushed her voice into rawness. "How can you say that?"
The thudding drum of her heart rose in Tara's ears. "You think that you can take any memory you don't like and make it go away." She could see the cut of her words in the other woman's flinch.
Willow seemed to gather herself, shoulder muscles and defenses locking. "Okay, why are we even fighting?" And then: "This isn't like you."
"Do I always have to be me?" Tara lifted her chin a little, let her hair slide back like an unveiling. She wanted Willow to notice the necklace she wore, that it wasn't her gift, but the gift of a Grauth. But Willow was looking into her eyes and didn't see.
"You're you. You're Tara." Willow came close. "I love who you are."
What do you love, Tara wondered. The shy girl, the second-fiddle witch with admiring eyes and soft voice? An ungenerosity of spirit was flooding her. She truly was feeling unlike herself.
"I know," she said, and let Willow embrace her, their heads on each other's shoulders.
"I'm a terrible person, baby. I got people killed," Willow whispered. "I just wanted my magic back."
Words stuck in Tara's throat, a wishbone she could have pulled both ways: reassurance or a reproach that could never match the crime. "I know." And the expressionlessness of her face was hidden against Willow's shoulder.
Knocking on the door of Spike's hotel suite wasn't like knocking on the door of a desecrated crypt. The glossy oak and shiny brass room number made Xander feel even scruffier than usual, as if he were a black-sheep cousin slinking by for a loan.
A furry red demon in a butler's suit opened the door and gazed at him as if the meat delivery had arrived and the meat was on the turn.
"Nice horn section," Xander said, looking up at its looming brow. "Spike in?"
"Captain Aurelius is not at home." The red dust-mop had a forbidding voice to match its horns, and yet Xander had to fight a strange urge to pet it, the kind of urge you get when you've had a little too much weed and the shag rug starts to rub suggestively against you. Eight years of knowing the demons for what they were and sometimes, still, the Muppets looked friendly.
"Is that the American not-at-home, or the British not-at-home-to-visitors not-at-home?"
The demon shut the door in his face. Xander gave it a moment, then knocked louder. When the door opened again, he said, "The captain would want to see me."
"Indeed?" Red Fur did an impressive Spock imitation.
"Yeah. Maybe he hasn't mentioned me. Xander. Harris. He pays me for certain services." He'd only meant snitching, but after the words were said, the second entendre struck and he realized he would never again have a life innocent of subtext. "Information," he added. "He pays me for information, and I'd appreciate it if you'd pretend to believe that."
After a pause that might have encompassed a full FDA drug review, the butler stepped back and held the door open. "It is my job to recollect all visitors, sir," he said in what sounded like faint reproach. "Sir is remembered from his last visit."
"My last visit. Right. That would be my visit before this. Just out of curiosity, was I a seventeen-year-old girl at the time?"
The butler passed him with a long-suffering look, ushering him into a large room whose furniture loomed like grey icebergs in a sea of shadows. A fire burned and Xander could see parts of Spike--head, one shoulder, sprawled legs--behind the edge of an armchair. He was sitting on the floor among a collection of bottles. Red Fur melted away, leaving them alone. Xander wasn't even sure Spike knew he was there.
Reality was being shifty again, flipping back and forth between canon and stories that shouldn't exist, with dialogue and plotlines and images--terrible, wrong images--that he rejected. He'd always regretted the destruction of the DC multiverse; now, post-personal crisis, he got why it had to be done. When you had too many Supermans, history began to blur and contradict itself and you remembered what you'd never done.
"Didn't expect to see you...ever." Since Spike hadn't actually turned to see him, it was one of those metaphorical sees, and Xander was just as happy to avoid eye contact. "Come to finally scratch that itch of yours?"
"Let's be clear: I have *no* itch that involves you."
"Meant killing me."
"Oh. That itch." This wasn't playing well. Talking to the slump of Spike's shoulders from two yards away reminded Xander of too many one-sided conversations with his dad. And it made him wonder what he was doing here, trying to save one grim old bastard with the help of another. Was that all it came down to, preserving the status quo of your own life, even when it was only marginally less miserable than an invasion of demons?
"I'm just picking up where things left off before Angel's tilt-a-whirl." Xander pushed his unbusy hands in his pockets and felt the pistol tucked in the small of his back, souvenir of their break-in at Lady Elked's, shift against his belt. "I need your help. My parents--"
"Ghettos." Spike's hand lifted into view holding the neck of a bottle; he started to take a pull, then left off, lowering his hand again. "Don't know why you're bothering. You all die in the end."
Once he would have leapt for Spike, punched the shit out of him if only to release some of his own pent-up fears and frustrations. Now everything that people said or did seemed to be filtered through special 3D lenses, one red, the other green, and that double-vision superimposed two worlds of thought. Xander couldn't take the glasses off.
"I know. But I have to keep them alive as long as I can. It's a son thing."
As if with some arrested thought Spike's head lifted and he almost looked back over his shoulder. Xander could see his profile now, unreadable. "Guess that's so."
"So you'll help."
Spike rose to his feet, looking not so much unsteady as tired, though he tipped a bottle over on its side with one stray boot nudge. "Said I would, didn't I."
Not to me, Xander thought, but of course that didn't really matter.
This was a section of Sunnydale Xander had never seen, sentineled by tall grey buildings arranged in geometrical grids, with rows of identical windows and doors that didn't call attention to themselves. Kliegs were set along the roof edges and their beams periodically swept the courtyards below. He could just make out the figure of Grauth soldiers standing between them.
"Are you sure you have the right address?" Xander asked. It was his high school voice: a nervous suspension between disbelief and belief.
"Yeah." Spike had sobered up and settled into a watchful posture, angling looks at their surroundings. "Block nineteen." He didn't sound unsympathetic, but didn't sound much of anything else either.
"Was this here before?"
"Don't know your own slums?" Spike lit his millionth noxious cigarette.
"Don't try and tell me I had a privileged upbringing, Mister Bourgeois Victorian."
"I think you filled in that blank yourself, pet." Spike did a double-take. "What did you call me?"
"Don't call me 'pet'."
They'd entered the apartment building and stood side by side at the elevator, waiting for its arrival. They looked at each other warily, grudges in their eyes. Spike was in uniform again, a figure of influence in black and silver, cap brim pulled low, cape flaring back off his shoulders. Cognitive dissonance struck again and for a split second the weight of false history bore down, and Xander had a prism flash of cold objective sight in which he wondered if someone would recognize the slayer in his audacious disguise, and thought of L.A. and his own stupid losses. Then the world snapped back.
Spike cocked his head. "You think you know me now, that it?"
"Oh, I know a lot about you, *William*. You really should watch that pillow talk."
"God," Spike said with feeling, looking away. "Stake me now."
"Not just yet," Xander said. But the jibe tasted stale, and his lips remembered the shape of other words.
Upstairs, the hallway carpet stank of unsavory things and the fluorescent track lighting in the ceiling flickered on the periphery of Xander's vision. The walls were cinderblock with a thin coating of green paint, peeling in places and crowded with graffiti. A pint-sized cat wandered mewling down the hall, and a single sock lay lost, an S on the carpet, strangely unsettling to Xander.
At their arrival, a few heads poked out of anonymous doors and were quickly retracted.
"You can certainly clear a path for yourself," he said.
Spike said nothing and they reached the door of the apartment assigned to his parents, 2B. Xander knocked. The dented metal of the door was cold against his knuckles. For a minute there was no answer, but when he knocked again, a muffled voice said, "Who is it?"
"Mom, is that you? Let me in--it's Xander."
A chain rattled and the door opened wide. He'd expected his mother's face to be shocking, prematurely aged, lined with suffering, but she looked the same as always. "Xander!" she said and in the same moment froze, mouth open, staring at Spike.
"It's okay," Xander said. "He's a friend."
Spike grimaced and looked around the empty but listening hallway. "Keep it down."
"Oh, Xander." His mother was clutching her hands to her chest as if she wanted a rosary for her grief, even though she was in no way Catholic. "What have you done?"
"Nothing! Calm down. Why do you always assume--" He gripped the thought and wrung its neck. "Never mind. Look, can you let us in? I'm going to get you out of here. Spike's--he's helping me."
Though keeping her dubious expression, his mother let them in. Spike entered gingerly as an alley cat, as if unsure the mute invitation could be relied on, his cape brushing against the close, mustard-colored walls. It was hot inside the apartment and smelled like canned tomatoes and mildew. A television was on near by, and with a few more steps Xander was standing next to it in a small living room filled with people--his father, Uncle Rory, cousin Carol and spawn, and another entire family, Mexican and strangers to him.
"These all yours?" Spike said in confusion.
A little girl shrieked and burrowed into her mother's ample arms, hiding her face. Everyone else remained sitting still and silent in shock; most lowered their eyes, fear passed off as a show of respect. Xander's chest tightened at the tableau.
"Yeahhhh," Spike said, breaking the silence. "Maybe I'll just wait outside. Be quick about it, pet. Longer we stick around, more questions we have to answer."
He flowed out of the room in a swirl of black cape, and no one moved while his boot steps carried him down the hall and out the front door. When the latch clicked his father's ruddy face rose and Xander caught his familiar disgusted glare.
"Guess you've landed with the bun butter-side up," his father said, drawing the observation out to scathing length.
There is no innuendo more skin-crawling than a parent's innuendo. "Spike is not my gay demon lover, if that's what you mean, dad."
His father twisted up one side of his lips in what someone unrelated to him might have mistaken for a smile. "Called you 'pet', didn't he."
"He's British." That sounded weak even to him.
His mother squeezed his shoulders with awful sympathy. "We understand how it is, honey."
"The it isn't, mom. Spike lived in our basement for three months and drank all your wine coolers, remember?"
"Ohhh." His mother's face showed the mechanics of thought and the resulting confusion. "The punk rocker?"
"Sure. Whatever. Look," he glanced around the room, "we're here to rescue you." It sounded grandiose but he had to break through the brick wall of collective density. "We have a place you can stay. A hide-out."
"A hide-out," Rory said with a smirk. "Sounds like a kid's fort."
"We're safer here than with your traitor friend." His father's snort and expression said that the matter was settled and he had no more interest in the conversation; his gaze had fixed again on the TV.
"Yes," cousin Carol piped up, "we've got free cable and the Hernandezes have been so welcoming."
The Hernandezes, who'd been crowded to the edges of their own living room, traded uncomfortable glances. Xander had the strong feeling they'd have been glad to see the Harris clan go.
"Look," Xander said with voice raised to cut across the noise of the TV. "I know that by this point in my life I shouldn't need to ask, but: are you nuts? Do you know what ghettos *are*? Have you *heard* of the Holocaust?"
"Oh, honey." His mother had resumed her seat and her knitting. "I don't think it's that bad."
Staggered, Xander realized he was holding out his arms and waving his hands like small hapless flags. He'd had plenty of proof in the past that there was no talking to his family when they'd made some half-baked decision like investing in lemon mines or vacationing in the Bahamas during hurricane season, but this took the cake and smashed it against the wall in a blast of crazy icing.
Minutes later he left the apartment, still dazed. Spike was leaning against the opposite wall, and straightened at his appearance, ditching his cigarette to smolder on the carpet. Maybe it would burn the place down; maybe he should care.
"Well?" Spike said, looking at the closed door over Xander's shoulder with a pinched brow of mystification. "They coming?"
"No." He felt like punching the wall, but withheld the urge. Concrete wasn't as forgiving as plaster board. "I am descended of mental defectives."
"Could have told you that."
"They also think I'm your bitch."
He was just setting himself up for that one, but when he glanced at Spike's face it was smooth and cool as marble, so smooth he almost missed the low embers in the vampire's eyes. "Sire and clan'll unman you if you let them, pet. Nature red in tooth and claw."
Xander swallowed, wanting no reassurances and taking them anyway. "Can you try not to call me that?" he asked almost plaintively as they headed back down the hall.
"Sure, love." A sly smile woke in profile. "Anything for you."