Xander dreams that he's attending a Halloween party. He's there with Anya, winding through the crowd. It's perfectly normal in the dream that some of the guests are in costume and some are actual monsters. Demons, vamps, hairy shambling things no one has a name for. They nod to him, and he gladhands a few, like a politician on an election circuit. Everyone knows him, Xander Harris. He feels oddly at home. Leaning on his arm, Anya is bored and chatty but he can't isolate individual words. They flow by his ears, a river of girl talk.
In his dream, he's a pirate wearing an eye patch, but his eye is really missing. He walks with Anya out a back door of Lowell House and onto school grounds. The high school football stadium is a crater and they sit up on the bleachers like sweethearts and stare into its depths. Neither of them can move, and Anya is terrified of what's under the bleachers: at any moment now it's going to grab her ankles and look up her skirt. Dig its claws into her. Chew down to the bone. She's telling him this in gory detail, and Xander can hear the thing down below them, scraping as it climbs, and he begins to feel her terror. They stumble down the steps toward the field--if they fling themselves over the edge, into the Hellmouth, they can escape what's coming for them. But it's Anya who falls in, half pulled from his hands, dangling over the edge like a doll.
When Xander wakes up, his heart is pounding like something trapped inside a coffin, and the other half of the bed is empty. Disoriented, he scrubs at his face, hides behind one hand as if facing the world is going to take some effort. Stages. He fingers the socket of his left eye, and the soft skin there. He can see out of both eyes. Waking up is always good.
For some reason it's evening, and then he remembers the last few days, spent down in the sewer system on one of those creepy bug hunts best left to the professionals--movie stars, in other words, who get paid to fake it. Reality sucks. The bugs did too, sort of like giant ticks. He's heard Willow say 'probosces' too many times in the last forty-eight hours. He thinks it must have been giant ticks after him and Anya and he can suddenly remember the feel of ticks big as cats swarming all over his back--still the dream. That didn't really happen. Thank Christ.
Xander is naked, but not it's not a shucked and fucked sort of naked. He'd been too tired to fuck when he went to bed. He feels up to it now, though, and walks naked from his room and down the hall, toward the stairs.
The dream had been real. Very real. Xander finds his house reassuring. The carpet under his feet is soft and clean. Music from the television floats up from below. The second-floor landing used to be empty but as of a week ago it has a plant and a picture. He's not the art-on-the-wall type of guy, but he can adapt, and Dawn's getting into art, like Joyce used to be--she's drawing, painting, thinking about switching her major, and now one of her paintings is on the wall with a special light fixed above it, the kind you see in museums. She'd been tickled when he'd visited her school show and bought the painting, and he doesn't know if it's good or not, but he doesn't care. It's blue and red and he likes it, and so does Spike.
The window glass reflects the landing and makes a picture: the soft hooded light above the painting, the plant fronds, his naked body. He turns sideways and strokes his stomach, studying himself, and decides he has a good body, and hopes that there isn't anything down on the beach staring up at him from the darkness.
His feet carry him downstairs step by step. His house has a good and quiet feel to it. The music is the score to some movie, rising and falling with actorly voices. When he reaches the doorway to the living room, he stands in the dim hall and pokes his head in just a little. There's his living room mirrored in another window, nearly transparent: lamp and couch and flickers of television, but not the blond head of the vampire sitting there. He's not reflected by the world.
Spike looks up from his computer, aware of him lurking. "You awake, or wandering in your sleep?"
Xander: "Mostly awake." He comes in. "Bad dream."
As he crosses the room, Spike closes the laptop and makes room for him on the couch. He's not wearing a shirt. Serious, pretty, creature of the night. Xander lies back between Spike's legs and puts his head in Spike's lap and lets himself be petted, upside down. Fingers in his hair, the curve of a palm under his jaw.
Spike: "What's got you dreaming?"
Xander: "Ticks. Giant ticks." A pause. "Anya."
Spike: "Right tick herself."
Xander, mildly: "Shut up." He could go back to sleep like this, sleep forever. "I dreamed I was at a party and the world ended, and Anya fell into the Hellmouth. I had just one eye."
Spike: "Yeah." As if he's heard this one before.
Xander: "It was really real. Unmonked real."
Spike, rubbing Xander's stubbled jaw with a deep, relaxing rhythm: "What's that mean?"
Xander: "You know, with Dawn, how the monks made her. Changed everything so that we knew her. It's just, sometimes it feels like...it might have been more than that. Like our entire lives have been rewritten. Don't you ever feel that?"
Spike, after an abstracted moment: "No."
Xander: "It's like 'Crisis on Infinite Earths', when the DC Multiverse collapsed and left only one universe...one earth. Maybe we're on one of the other earths, and someday it'll all be folded together. How do we know if this is where we're supposed to be? Maybe Willow really *was* supposed to be a vampire. Maybe I'm supposed to be dead, and you're supposed to be with Dru. Or with Buffy."
Spike, finishing the thought: "In some other reality."
Xander: "Or this reality. That's what I mean...is this the real reality?"
Spike: "You're making my head hurt." He cups Xander's chin so he can't open his mouth or talk any more. "We're here, aren't we?" Xander tries to answer, but Spike won't let him. "Don't have an existential meltdown. Leave that to high school students and the French."
His hand eases, and Xander says: "It's too good though." He runs his hand down Spike's shin, feeling up its firm length through denim. "Being here with you. It's too fucking good."
Spike: "So it can't be real?" An exasperated, maybe even sympathetic sound. "Christ. You Hellmouth kids. Every gift horse's a nightmare with you. Not even vamps are that pessimistic, love. So what, you want proof this is real? Everything bad makes it real, yeah? Well, you got Becca losing her arm and Dawn dating snot-nosed little tossers, and Buffy tearin' herself up over some bastard who deserves to have his testicles ripped off by Hrothar demons--you need more than that?"
He sounds angry and Xander swallows, ashamed. Aware of being naked and vulnerable and upside down, he shifts himself to sit up.
Spike: "Maybe you think you don't deserve what good you've got."
Xander sits next to him with his feet back on the ground, feeling tired: "Maybe." He can feel Spike looking at him, and then a hand slides between his legs. That's Spike, always looking for easy answers. But Xander begins to harden, and after a minute he leans back and spreads his legs a little, closes his eyes. His hands, resting against the couch on either side of him, clench.
"You deserve a lot more than what I can give," Spike murmurs after a minute, sounding pissed and sad.
Xander opens his eyes, removes Spike's hand and holds it. "Come here," he says. Spike climbs across his lap, straddling him. They don't say anything else for a while. Xander mouths Spike's neck and shoulders and chest, tonguing and then biting him. Spike shifts astride him, making those soft, ambiguous noises that Xander has learned mean: yeah. His skin is fine under Xander's hands, hair barely visible in the lamp light. After a while they end up on the floor, shoving the coffee table over, writhing like snakes on the rug until Spike is shed of his jeans. They rub off on each other, a bit dry and painful, but so good neither of them is able to stop. When Xander comes, Spike groans his name and copies him.
Later, Xander steals one of Spike's secret stash of cigarettes and smokes it on the deck, naked. It feels necessary to do something entirely out of character, different. He's going to leave a mark on the universe, even if it's not the universe it seems to be.
I could be totally imaginary, he thinks--though he doesn't think he is, because he can feel gritty sand under his feet and hear the wind in the reeds, and he almost but not quite needs to piss. It isn't the Matrix, and it isn't Jonathan's reinvented universe, and so what if a few monks played around with the forces of time and space, if it gave them Dawn.
He feels like he's in his proper place, as if he couldn't be anywhere else. And the night is dark and huge, and Spike is inside, showering. Xander thinks he should go join him.