Cost Benefit Analyzing
Xander woke up groaning. It took him a second to parse through the recent past to try and decide if this was self-inflicted or one more example of the universe hating him. Willow's engagement party had been a good month earlier and the wedding wasn't for at least a year. Giles' birthday party had been way too boring to lead to hangovers, and Buffy and the Immortal weren't having another anniversary party for eight months, and Xander swore that he was leaving that one before the g'nashka demons started passing out that fruity wine that gave you that extra special hangover. Since he couldn't come up with any recent celebration that would have caused this much pain, Xander was forced to admit that the universe was probably, once again, playing with him like a toy full of catnip.
Slowly, he blinked open his eyes and studied his surroundings. Absent: black candles, ritual pentagrams, and alters with horned gods. Good. Present: chains and satin sheets on a king sized bed. Bad. Or possibly good. Xander had a pretty small list of lovers, but this might be up Rick's alley. But then Rick was still in India tracking down something hairy and big that ate Slayers before their powers could activate in adolescence. Either Rick was back early, or Xander was screwed. Royally screwed. And with the satin sheets, that might not be a metaphor.
"Ah, Sleeping Beauty awakes. I had wondered how long you would leave me to amuse myself."
"If I go back to sleep, will you go back to amusing yourself and leaving me alone?" Xander asked hopefully. Considering how this guy looked, he really wasn't looking to be part of the amusement. Wrinkles lined his face so deeply that the skin folded and gave the guy a shar-pei look, and eyes that had once been dark were now filmy and watery. This guy must be about a hundred. Then again, if he had demon in him, he might be a thousand, but however old he was, he was really, really old... and disgusting. Xander was definitely noticing the disgusting part.
The man chuckled. "You can hardly be uncomfortable given the number of times you have put yourself in that position. What is his name? Mike?"
"Rick," Xander corrected the guy before his brain pointed out that he really shouldn't be giving the creepy guy more information on his life. "First, I am more than a little freaked out that you would know that because ancient and potentially magical stalkers are on my list of 'no'," Xander said as he watched the man turn and shuffle toward a far shelf. "And second, no offense, but you are so not my type."
"Ah, and what is your type, young cub? Tall and strong and dominant?"
"Okay, officially into the off-limits and creepy zone, here," Xander complained. A few subtle pulls and he could tell right now that he was not going to be freeing himself from the chains. On top of that, the lack of windows or even a door in the room suggested that he probably needed magic to escape, and he was fresh out.
"But your life is all about the creepy, young one. Good lord, you really are so very young," he chuckled as he shuffled back to the bed. The room was illuminated by a single bulb dangling from its electrical cord from the ceiling, which was really weird considering the Goth look in the rest of the room. The walls were stone stained with white trails from dripping water, and heavy wooden furniture lined the walls. Xander was most worried about a tall armoire in the far corner. The shelves had books and vials, which were scary enough, but a closed armoire could hide anything from a body to a nice whip collection. "I can't ever remember being so young," the old man laughed softly as he reached the bed and sat on the edge.
He was dressed in a black robe that made Xander think of a judge, and the idea of getting judged worried him about as much as the satin sheets and the closed armoire. Emaciated hands stained with age spots reached up for his eye patch, and Xander jerked as it was neatly slipped off.
"Okay, that is just totally unnecessary. An empty eye socket and air are not always friends. You may not have heard of a little thing called a virus, but let me..."
"Enough," the old man said, resting a dry finger on Xander's lips. "You choose to not get a prosthetic because you would rather show off your injury."
"I don't--" Xander started, ignoring the warning glare from the filmy, old eyes.
"You do. You would show off your injury as proof that you are as committed as the others, that you are as willing to sacrifice for the good. You do this because you secretly fear that you are not. Buffy fights to save the world. You fight to save your world, and your world is so very small."
Xander had worried waking up chained to a bed, but not really panicked. Panic was reserved for when things got really bad, but now, caught in the path of that much honesty, something close to panic started grabbing him around the heart so that he had trouble breathing. He stared up at the man who now pulled a stopper out of a crystal vial.
"I do not say that you are not as committed. I know you are. I do believe you doubt yourself. However, this is not something I am willing to leave untended. You'll need both your eyes to watch out for yourself. And I do hope you watch out for yourself, boy," the old man said with just a hint of amusement as he tilted the vial over Xander's head. About a second too late, Xander thought about turning his head. The drop touched his empty eye socket and the burning pain engulfed his skull. It reached down his neck and pulled his guts up through his nose. Xander threw up all over himself.
The pain continued for some minutes before it slowly ebbed, and Xander realized he was screaming, his throat hoarse and vomit covering his chest and the sheets. The sour stink nearly made him vomit again, and that really wasn't being helped by the dry hand rubbing his leg.
"Bad touching," Xander croaked out. The old man withdrew his hand.
"Look at me Xander." Xander stared at the blank ceiling and tried to avoid even thinking about the red chunks laying all around him. Licorice was not as good coming up as it was going down.
"Boy!" the old man snapped in a tone of voice that demanded Xander's attention, and Xander looked quickly at him. The old man shook his head and reached out to again lay a hand on Xander's leg as Xander was hit with a wave of vertigo so strong he nearly vomited again. His eye was back and his brain hurt at the suddenly three-dimensional view of the world. "I do know how that hurts."
Xander didn't even bother to answer.
"You made so many sacrifices. So very many. It seems strange to give you back that loss and not others, but then you've already learned the foolishness of trying to return the dead to this earth, haven't you my boy?"
And now Xander was even more with the not answering because this was just getting to creepy levels that were new for even him, and considering that he'd once had a date try to use him to open hell, that wasn't good. The old man pulled another vial down from a shelf before coming back to the bed and eying Xander with a rather disgusted look. "I suppose I deserve this for what I'm about to do, but cleaning up your vomit was certainly never in my contract," he sighed as he put the vial down and pulled a cloth out of his robes.
As he cleaned Xander, calloused hands brushed across Xander's skin, and his balls did their best to rejoin the rest of his organ inside. A cold shiver of revulsion made him jerk hard enough to rattle the chains, and the old man paused for a second before continuing at his task.
Finally Xander was somewhat cleaned. At least he had nothing more than streaks of vomit across his chest. The old man dropped the cloth in a far corner and picked up a vial. A few drops and a mist spread across Xander and the bed, and when it cleared, Xander was again clean and vomit-free.
"Look, whatever is on the agenda, can we just get it over with? I have a root canal that I'd really hate to be late for," Xander said through tightly clenched teeth.
The old man sighed. "This next part is the part I do hate."
"Can't say I'm looking forward to it myself because ick. Just tell me that we aren't talking some dumb ass mystical pregnancy here; even the Council health insurance has limits."
"The mystical pregnancy has already come and gone," the old man said sadly. Xander just blinked for a second and tried really hard to not think about that too much.
"Look, I'm obviously not going anywhere, so what do you say that you just do this and then toss me out to have my emotionally crushing breakdown and then get on with life."
"I am sorry, my boy." The old man looked at Xander so seriously that Xander could almost believe him, except for the part where the man was still doing this. "You should not always have to be the one to make the sacrifice, but who would you put in your place? Dawn?"
"No!" Xander jerked furiously and glared at the man. "You touch Dawn and I'll rip your balls off," Xander threatened. Yep, it was totally worthless as far as threats went, but the old man still nodded as though taking Xander seriously.
"I told you so," he said with some smugness before he returned to the bookcase and the mysterious vials. Picking up one in a disgusting shade of baby poop green, he walked to the foot of the bed.
Holding the vial out, he dropped the entire vial and the green smoke filled the room, snakes of green smoke writhed and snapped and then collapsed to the ground and vanished.
"Cheap special effects," Xander muttered, and the old man chuckled.
"Not so cheap," he corrected Xander as he pulled a cloak off the wall and carried it to the foot of the bed. Xander couldn't see, but it looked like the old man had laid it over someone or something.
"Where?" a rough voice asked.
"Hush. You were caught between two planes. The old god tried to open a portal, either to allow you to escape or to push the demons to another world, who knows. Instead she trapped all of you."
"I'm trapped here?" The man stood, and Xander groaned in humiliation as his cock shrunk more. Of course, Angel. Precious Angel. Never did know how to stay dead Angel.
"I saved you from the void," the old man corrected him.
"What? Why?" Angel slowly started looking around, and he froze when he spotted Xander chained to the bed.
"Deadboy," Xander said grimly, trying for normal. It really wasn't easy given the circumstances.
"You really aren't that bright, Angel. I would say the 'what' would be an evil wizard with a vial in a dungeon," Xander pointed out in his best 'Clue: The Board Game' voice, "and of course it's me."
Angel turned to look at the old man who was leaning against the wall. When Angel flashed into gameface and lunged, Xander jerked so hard that his wrist popped and started aching, but the old man didn't flinch at all. Of course, he probably already knew that Angel was going to rebound off some magical barrier and end up just looking confused. Angel reached forward and slid his hand along some invisible barrier looking like a demonic and mentally retarded mime playing 'look at me, I'm in a box.' And Xander's wrist hurt too much for him to suitably appreciate a befuddled and stupid-looking Angel.
"What do you want?" Angel snapped. "Xander, I'll get us out of this."
"Oh, yippee. Deadboy's going to rescue me," Xander said with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. This was just looking worser and worser from his perspective. If the old man had shown a distinct disinterest in raping him, then Angel being here was probably not a coincidence.
"Shut up," Angel snapped.
"Now, now, is that any way to speak to the young man destined to be your salvation?" the old man asked with a fond chuckle.
"What?" Angel dropped back into his human face.
"No more being caught between a soul and a demon. No more doubts. Oh yes, Xander is going to do you quite a service." The old man tossed a small vial to the stone floor where it shattered and the smoke created a column around Angel, nearly hiding him before the vapor settled back to the floor, and when Angel turned around again, Xander knew exactly how screwed he was. Oh yes, he did. That was the smile he hated even more than he hated the brooding one's brood. Fuck and double fuck with fudge on top.
"If it isn't the white knight. Where's your princess to save you now, boy?" the vampire asked with a smirk. Slowly he turned toward the wizard. "Let me out of here or you'll pay by eating your own innards."
"Angelus," Xander sighed.
"Quiet boy. You speak when you're spoken to," Angelus snapped as he went into gameface.
"Or what? Or you'll torture me to death? Hello! You're going to anyway if the wizard lets you out of that magical cage you're in, so the threats... not really threatening, more like just simple statements of fact."
"Well, well," Angelus said as he shifted to look at Xander with a calculating gaze. "The boy might have grown a few brain cells after all because you are going to die boy. You're going to die slowly and painfully and very creatively." That evil smile turned toward the wizard. "What do you want, mage?"
"To put right the order of the universe. A vampire with a soul... that's just not natural."
"You're telling me? But the soul is still here, mage." Angelus sounded disgusted. "It's squirming away in my guts like the pathetic worm it is."
"Ah, but if you have a moment of perfect happiness, it won't be."
Angelus narrowed his eyes and glared. "Speak plainly unless you want me to rip your tongue out."
"Okay, even you can't miss the symbolism here, idiot," Xander said as he kicked a chained foot. If he was going to die, he might as well get Angelus good and mad so he broke Xander's neck fast. Hopefully he'd even die before Angelus got around to the raping, and while Xander was hugely squicked at the idea Angelus would probably still go through with raping a dead body, he'd be a whole lot more squicked at living through the rape. The old man walked over and patted him on the leg as Xander glared.
"The boy is so much like Angel. He would even try to provoke you into killing him the way Angel once tried to provoke Spike when Spike had captured him. Do you not find it amusing that in rutting with him, with breaking and feasting on his blood after months of existing in nothingness, you can find perfect happiness?" Xander looked at the old man in horror. This guy was Angelus level creepy.
Angelus' gaze grew more calculating. "If you're lying..." he said slowly.
The mage shook his head and held up an orb. "I even plan to trap the soul and hold it here. We are in a dimension that even Ms. Rosenberg's magic can't reach, so she won't be able to ensoul you again. And after her recent purification ritual, she will not want to dirty herself by using dark magics to destroy you, especially not with her new bride now knitted to her soul. So, what do you say?"
"What do you want in return?" Angelus demanded as he crossed his arms over his chest.
"Destroy the slayer line."
Angelus slowly smiled. "All of them?"
"All of them," the mage repeated firmly. "No playing your games. You take the easy kills when you can get them. You play with the ones you can't."
"They'll all be easy," Angelus said with a wicked smile that made Xander turn cold.
"You can't turn him loose on the world. You don't know," Xander started arguing, and the old man laughed.
"I know too well, my boy. I know exactly who Angelus is and that's why he will be my champion. I even have a gift for him."
"Open this cage," Angelus said as he slapped the force field keeping him trapped in the center of the room. "That's gift enough for me."
"Oh, but this is special." The old man reached into his robes and pulled out a knife. "You'll like this. Have you heard of an oporotheca? It's old magic. Very powerful. To create one requires magic the likes of which does not now exist on earth. But one may pass the gift to another."
The old man reached down and rested his hand on Xander's shoulder, and with the chains, Xander couldn't even shake him off. "The word is Latin. It means a place for keeping fruit, and it turns the human body into a feast for a vampire. Of course, it requires a touch of an old one's blood so the human will live longer." The old man bent over and studied Xander's face carefully. "I doubt you will see a long life as much of an advantage in the years to come," the old man mused.
"Willow is going to find you and turn you into little tiny pieces of mage kibble," Xander warned darkly as he watched the old man's knife. The old man flicked the knife against his thumb and a drop of bluish blood rose to the surface.
"I doubt it," the old man said calmly. "If she does, I have certainly earned my death, so I cannot complain. But certain needs must be bought at certain costs, and you, my boy, are the cost this time." He brought the knife to Xander's neck and Xander went cross-eyed trying to watch the man cut a matching notch at the place where his breastbones met.
"Let us hope I get this right. Latin is not my forte," the old man said in an almost friendly tone that was really starting to wig Xander out. "Viva vox, caelestis. Viva vox, deus. Viva vox, lares. Ego go tribuo is donum ut is puer." The old man pressed his thumb to Xander's neck, and when blood touched blood, Xander's whole body stiffened like the time he had grabbed a live wire. His legs kicked, and his mouth opened, but nothing came out as some force grabbed him so tight that he thought his head would explode, and then it was over.
"Do you feel any different?" the old man asked.
Xander snorted. "Okay, I'm not really likely to tell you anything." Yeah, he might not be willing to admit it, but he did feel different. He felt younger, stronger. Trying to be subtle, he slowly tightened his fist and pulled against the chain seeing if he was stronger.
The old man gave Xander's shoulder a friendly pat and then stood up to face Angelus. "Xander might not want to willingly share, but he feels stronger... better. And his blood will be ambrosia to any vampire who drinks it. Last time you returned you were weak from Angel's ridiculous insistence on drinking animal blood. This time, you'll be strong, the magic from the old one coming through Xander's blood to you. The only thing I want from you is the slayer's line dead. Do that and you can bathe in the blood of virgins for all I care. Fail, and I will deliver your soul to Rosenberg myself."
Angelus slipped into his monster's face again. "Don't make threats you can't carry out."
"Oh, I can carry them out. After all, if you aren't nice to me, all I have to do is let you die in here because in case it's escaped your notice, there's no door. So, I let you out, you get to feast on the boy however you like, and I promise you his blood and pain will give *you* perfect pleasure, and then I put that soul away where no one finds it. Or I let you out, you kill me, and then you spend eternity in this place with only Xander as company... at least until he dies of old age at which time you will spend eternity with a slowly rotting corpse. Your choice." The old man waved a hand, and Angelus nearly tumbled to the ground as the barrier he'd been leaning on vanished.
For a second, Angelus stared at the mage, and Xander thought the insane vamp might actually kill the man. After a second, Angelus' gaze turned slowly to Xander, and then Xander knew that he really wasn't getting out of this. Angelus stalked forward. "Boy, you're about to pay for every stupid thing you've ever said, and there are as many stupid things that have come out of your mouth as there are bones in your body."
Xander swallowed and closed his eyes and braced himself for a whole lot of hurting.
"Ah, my boy, how are you tonight?" Angelus asked in that blissful tone of voice that suggested another slayer had gone down tonight. The demons who had flocked around Angelus grew bolder with every slayer who died, and Xander was slowly giving up hope. And the fact that Xander's blood was what was making Angelus so damn unstoppable... well that was just the icing on the big old 'kick me' sign the universe had stuck on his back. But since Xander couldn't say any of that, he could only blink up as Angelus went on, cheerful as ever. "Good, I see. Are you warm enough? After all, I can't have my favorite toy catching cold, can I?"
Xander wished he could catch cold. He wished he could just die, but Angelus was careful about not going too far, and the magic that had made his blood strong enough to juice Angelus up made Xander's body strong enough to endure the vampire's attention.
Angelus crouched down, and Xander didn't even try to hide the flinch. Angelus liked to see the fear, and if he didn't get it immediately, he'd find a way to get it sooner or later. A large hand traced the edge of the heavy metal bit in Xander's mouth. "Now, that must hurt," he pointed out casually. Then Angelus let his hand trail down Xander's body. Xander's arms and legs were wrapped heavily in canvas so that Xander couldn't do much more that twist, and that seemed like a bad idea with the broken ribs, so he just lay still and closed his eyes. The hell had to end eventually. Maybe once Angelus finished his little game and had successfully broken every bone in Xander's body, maybe then he'd let it be over.
"My beautiful bobble. You're getting a visitor today," Angelus whispered as his hand reached Xander's exposed ass. With no more warning, Angelus sank his fangs into Xander, and Xander screamed around the metal bit wedged deeply into his mouth. He could taste is own blood where his dry and peeling lip finally cracked at the corner and all he could do was sob.
Eventually, Angelus sat up and made smacking sounds like a child who has just finished a feast. "She's coming. I bet you'd given up on her, but you're the perfect little lure to bring her home to me where she belongs."
Xander closed his eyes and ignored that voice. Only one person got Angelus to sound that nostalgic, and Xander really, really didn't want to think about her coming. He'd thought about her a lot when this first started. He'd dream about her coming in and sending vampires flying with a few well timed kicks. She'd quip, Angelus would say something incredibly stupid, and then the over-gelled vampire would turn into a pile of dust that Xander could stomp up and down on. Sometimes, in his dreams, he'd even peed on Angelus' ashes.
Only his fantasy always stopped without her actually seeing him because even in his fantasies, he knew that her face would twist with horror and guilt. True to his word, Angelus was doing a good job of making Xander pay for every stupid thing he'd ever said and then some. His body carried marks, some of which Xander honestly couldn't remember and others he didn't want to remember.
"No look of hope in your eye? Wakey, wakey, Xander. You don't want to miss the grand show when she gets here, do you? You want to see your master drain the oldest living slayer, don't you?" Angelus asked in that friendly tone that usually meant more pain was coming.
Xander realized he had closed his eyes, and now he blinked them open, but couldn't do much more given the tight bindings around most of his body.
"That's my boy," Angelus said with a friendly slap on Xander's cheek. "She's coming for you, and you need to make sure you greet our guest when she comes." Angelus reached down and unhooked the horrible metal contraption that had been locked around Xander's head. His mouth and jaw hurt even worse now, and it didn't help when Angelus reached down and stroked a thumb over his lips. Xander moaned in pain, and Angelus got a smug look on his face as he brought his thumb up and licked the streak of Xander's blood from the pad. "Finger licking good," Angelus offered.
"The sun is spinning bright and good, but all the good is spinning, spinning away," another voice sang, and Drusilla came dancing into the room, her stupid doll in hand.
"I know, baby." Angelus immediately abandoned Xander and caught his crazy childe up in a one-armed embrace.
"Men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie," she sang as she embraced him for a moment and then twirled out of his grip.
"Dru, do you see something?" Angelus asked, and Xander tracked the insane vampire's movements as she danced close to the windows. If he was lucky, she'd open them and turn into a big Roman candle. If he was lucky, he wouldn't be here at all, though, so he didn't really count on it. Angelus must have had the same thought because he grabbed her arm and yanked her to his chest.
"Daddy!" she exclaimed, both her arms going around his neck, the doll still hanging from one hand.
"Dru, tell Daddy what you see," Angelus crooned.
"Four and twenty elders wandering farther and farther away," she said with a pout, "but I have my Daddy, and the bad, old soul is far, far away."
"Hear that Harris? I figure your Council and all their sycophantic humans are going away. Did I tell you that a group of K'ilsh took out another Council house last night? They nearly got Dawn, but the fools let her get away. That's okay though; I have time. I can be patient," Angelus said with a benevolent smile that made Xander shiver in dread. Xander sometimes worried that the stories Angelus brought him were lies, but then there really wasn't much reason to lie. It wasn't like Xander was going to get up and leave if Angelus said the wrong thing. Hell, Xander might never walk again since Angelus had crushed his knee. Of course, the ritual that had turned him into a human blood fruit seemed pretty good at putting internal organs back together, so it might just heal.
Angelus turned his attention to Drusilla, slipping a hand up under her skirt and obviously doing crude and obscene things because she squealed and brought her legs up around him, grinding and throwing her head back as she gasped.
"Hurt me," she pleaded.
"Not until you tell Daddy about the nasty, old slayer," Angelus teased. Xander might have been sick on general principal if he'd had anything in his stomach. It'd been a couple of days since Angelus had a minion deal with food and cleaning up the urine and shit Xander was laying in.
"She would have been arrayed in fine linen, clean and white," Dru said dreamily, but then she got a wicked look on her face as she looked over her shoulder at Xander. "But Daddy will flay her at the maiden tower and her body will wash to Lipari."
Xander tried really hard not to react, but he could feel the fear gathering in his guts. Dru was nuts—she was the whole bag of mixed nuts, but she was right way too often. Xander swallowed and tried to keep the bile in his stomach. However, Dru's words made Angelus smile widely and twirl her around so she squealed in joy.
"I don't know about the maiden part since I took care of that years ago, but I'll flay her just for you," Angelus promised her before putting her on her feet and turning to look at Xander. Drusilla stood next to him, her head resting against his shoulder so that she temporarily looked almost harmless. The illusion really didn't work well after watching her play with Satsu's guts like streamer paper. The slayer had been young and innocent, and her face twisting with pain still made regular appearances in Xander's nightmares. Angelus tilted his head and gave Dru a kiss on the forehead in a mockery of affection. Xander could feel himself losing the battle of the bile.
"Any words of support for your master, boy?" Angelus asked.
"Fall on something sharp and wooden," Xander suggested, his voice a dry rasp. Just saying that made his lip bleed harder.
Angelus laughed. "You know, I originally had every intention of going back and killing that mage just for having the nerve to put me in a cage, but I'm not even going to try and find his little dimension. After all, without his blood gift, I would've had to turn you to keep you kicking this long, and a vampire just wouldn't have been as fun. A vampire would have learned to keep his mouth shut," Angelus said as he stalked toward Xander. Xander screamed as Angelus' boot caught him on an already cracked rib. He could feel the bloating pain of internal injuries as Angelus kicked him three or four times before he lost consciousness.
"Xander. Xander!" A voice floated in, and Xander groaned as arms and legs sluggishly moved. "So not the time for a nap. Come on, up and at 'em," the voice coaxed him, and Xander forced a swollen eye open. Buffy was there, kneeling beside him with tears running down her face.
"Xander, please," she said, her voice breaking with a small sob.
"Buffy?" Xander asked, his mouth feeling like sand.
"Hey, you're looking..." she flinched, "really shitty," she admitted with a shrug. "Come on, up and at 'em."
"You have to get out," Xander said even as he tried to get his legs under him. Of course he didn't really have much of a choice since Buffy was effectively picking him up by his good arm. The heavy canvas restraints lay on the floor in pieces, but Xander still couldn't walk. His knee was fire and he had to hold onto Buffy just to stay upright.
"Getting out would be the point," she said as she got an arm around his waist and pulled him toward the door.
"Warded. You just have to stay with me, Xander," she said, and Xander could hear the sounds of fighting, metal against metal. Buffy's eyes were worried as they started toward the door, and Xander suddenly understood why Angelus had been in such a good mood. Slayers had walked into a trap with him as the bait.
"Get them out," Xander begged hoarsely.
"We came for you," Buffy said firmly as she dragged him toward the door. She pulled the knob open, and Xander could hear that mocking laugh, low and dangerous. His body reacted immediately, his heart raced and sweat that broke out along his back, which considering how little water he'd had to drink, he was amazed he could sweat, much less get the full-on cold stinky sweat going.
"Buffy, get out of here," Xander said as he struggled weakly to free himself. "My blood is making him strong, you can't fight him." Xander hadn't cried in a long time, but he could feel his eyes grow hot and itchy as tears threatened.
"Maybe my boy has learned his place, groveling on the floor," Angelus said softly as he stepped out of the shadows in the hall. From his smirk, he wasn't worried at all about Buffy, but Xander could see the frown on Buffy's face.
"You're about to die," Buffy said calmly as she backed up and slowly let Xander down just inside the room that had been his prison for countless days. Angelus followed her into the room, his gaze flickering briefly to Xander.
"I don't think so. The spell that keeps him alive is making me stronger than ever, and you know it. You're about to die and he's going to watch you."
Buffy pulled a sword out from her jacket and struck a defensive pose in front of Xander. Oh god, this wasn't happening. Xander closed his eyes and made a quick prayer that he was just delusional again, but when he opened his eyes, Buffy was still there, shifting her pose to defend Xander where he lay sprawled helplessly on the floor, the leg with the shattered knee stuck out in front of him.
"This is going to be good," Angelus said with way too much smirk. The man was a walking stereotype... a bad one. Comic books wouldn't run anyone as hackneyed as he was. Hackneyed... Xander flashed on Willow using flashcards to try and help him learn that word for the SAT's he'd never gotten around to taking.
"Buffy run," Xander said in the firmest voice he could muster.
"Yes Buffy, run and leave your little friend here for me to torture. I'm about half through my plan to break every bone in his body. The ear bones have me a little perplexed, but I'm sure I'll figure out how to break them, too," Angelus said with a smile as he paced a half-circle around Buffy.
"I'm going to send you to hell," Buffy said, anger coloring her voice, and Buffy really didn't fight her best angry. Oh, this was so not going well.
"Kill me," Xander said quickly. Buffy looked down at him for a half second before she focused on Angel again. "You can't get me out of here. You have to kill me, and when he doesn't have my super-powered blood to feed him anymore, you can come back and fight him," Xander said, desperate to get her to see the logic. "Please. You meant this to be a flying raid, run in, grab me, run out. The slayers down there need you to get them out. Buffy... please," Xander begged her. He reached out and brushed a hand over her pants, hoping to get her to see the rightness of this solution.
"No." Now Buffy sounded hard. Right, if there was anyone less on top of things than angry-Buffy that would be shut-off-Buffy.
"Aw. I don't think she respects your opinion, boy," Angelus offered with mock sympathy. "The irony, of course, is that you're offering her the only plan with any chance of escape, but then Buffy was never much of a thinker. She had Giles to do her thinking for her, only, oops, Giles is dead, isn't he?" Angelus asked with a mocking smile and a bounce in his step. "I so wanted to handle that one personally, but the minions do sometimes take too many liberties with my easy-going nature."
"You're so dead." Buffy flew at Angelus so fast that he stumbled back and barely had a chance to pull a sword out himself.
Xander levered himself up onto his good knee, but he couldn't see anything he could use as a weapon, and he couldn't move from his spot. As it was, the world was starting to turn dim as the pain from his shattered leg went from the familiar levels of agony to the sharp edged torture that led to being unconscious. Giving up, Xander sank back to the cold concrete floor and watched helplessly as Buffy and Angelus danced and twirled around each other with swords clashing. Buffy drove Angelus back against the wall with the tall, covered windows, but then he did a diving roll and aimed a sweeping strike at her knees. Buffy leapt back and before she could catch her balance, Angelus was pressing her, bringing his sword down so hard that the sound of the two weapons nearly deafened Xander.
Buffy slipped, went to her back, rolled, and came up attacking Angelus' leg. Her sword sank into his thigh, and Angelus' fist flashed out, slammed Buffy's head to the ground. She darted back, her bloodied sword still in hand.
"And here I heard you had gotten good. Still the same tired old moves. Angel did more damage when we sparred," Buffy taunted, but she was panting, and Angelus looked as smug as ever.
Angelus' gaze left Buffy and lingered deliberately on Xander, and he could see death coming. "Well, that's Angelus for you, all bark and no bite," Xander added. "The phrase 'compensating for something' comes to mind when looking at the size of his sword and his big old factory, so you can't be surprised at the lack of challenge," Xander said, leaning forward and putting every bit of contempt he could into his voice. Angelus narrowed his eyes. Oh yeah, if Buffy lost, Xander was so incredibly screwed. But then, Buffy wasn't going to lose if he had anything to do with it. Buffy wasn't the only one who could lose his cool and be big with the stupid.
"A mage has his soul in some weirdo dimension that he said Willow couldn't find, but I'm willing to bet she can. And if Angelus isn't a good little lapdog and doesn't kill the slayer line, the mage will deliver his soul to Willow. So all you have to do is protect the slayers long enough, and his boss is going to drop in with an Angel-sized delivery." Xander smiled at Angelus, and he could feel the trickle of blood down his chin as his lip split wide open.
"And you'll never live long enough to do anything with that information, slayer," Angelus said, and suddenly the good mood of a second ago was gone.
"Buffy, go," Xander said, begging her with his eyes to take the information and get the hell out of here.
"I'm going to break you boy, break you so that you won't even twitch without my permission." Angelus turned the tip of the sword toward Xander, and the cold sweat of earlier turned into a fucking freeze. Xander couldn't even breathe as that cold stare pinned him in place.
"You'll never—" Buffy had moved in, her sword coming down, but she'd never seen Angelus' grip shift, never seen the sword that had been aimed at Xander suddenly twist toward her. Xander hadn't seen it either, but he'd seen enough examples of Angelus' increased strength and speed to know that it was real. The sword sunk deep in Buffy's belly and allowed a thin trail of blood to seep out... it was real. Buffy didn't realize that right away from the way she just stared at it.
"Now, I could pull that sword out and let you bleed to death quickly, but you pissed me off, slayer. I think you can just stay here long enough to see the boy punished for his mouth," Angelus hissed, his yellow eyes staring her down.
Slowly, Buffy's fingers let her own sword slide away and clatter to the ground before her hands found the hilt of Angelus' sword. Xander willed the universe to undo itself. He found the 'w' word on his lips, and damn the consequences, he couldn't watch Buffy die... not again.
"No no no no no!" a voice wailed from the door. "It is sharpened to make a sore slaughter. The stars wail because the glitter blinds the night. No!" Dru came in through the door, one side of her face smeared red with blood, and Xander's stomach clenched at the silence from the lower floor.
"Dru, I'm trying to enjoy the slayer's death, now go away and eat someone," Angelus snapped.
"The sword is sharpened. Sharp like a serpent's tooth and all the stars weep!" Dru reached for Angelus, clawing at his arm with her fingers, and he backhanded her across the room. "Sore slaughter. Sore slaughter." Dru sat on the ground and moaned the words, tangling her fingers through her hair, and Angelus strode over and grabbed a handful of her hair and started dragging her out of the room, her feet kicking.
Xander was left alone with Buffy, watching her slowly sink to her knees as her blood stained her hands red.
"Buffy." Xander whispered the word guts tight with anguish. She looked up at him with eyes that were lost and confused. "Buffy," Xander repeated.
"Xander?" she called him, and he'd never heard her sound so young. Xander could feel the hot tears sting his cuts, his vision blurred. "I..."
"It's okay," Xander hurried to say.
"I should have listened."
"No, you're the slayer. You slayer, me the guy who fixes windows. It was always about you," Xander hurried to tell her. Painfully he dragged himself across the concrete, the rough floor dragging at his knee as he rushed to reach her, but right now, rushed was a matter of inches... of centimeters... of millimeters of movement with each labored effort. His ribs ached and his leg screamed, but as Buffy sank from her knees down to one hip, he reached out and brushed his fingers across the back of her hand. She lifted her hand and below was a perfect palm print in red.
"You shouldn't have come, not that I'm saying you were wrong because now is not the time for Monday morning quarterbacking, and hey, Riley would be proud of me. I'm fairly sure I used that term right," Xander tried for a laugh, but as Buffy's bloody hand grabbed his wrist, it turned into a sob.
"You aren't the guy who fixes windows. You're the guy I love who I could always count on to love me back," Buffy whispered, and Xander couldn't breathe through the pain. "You always loved us. Love you." Buffy's words started to fade, and Xander squirmed forward another inch until he could stretch and stroke her cheek, brush a bit of hair back out of her face and watch as the pain slowly faded from her expression. "I'll be waiting," she breathed, the words so soft that Xander almost couldn't hear them.
Laying his head down on his arm, he sobbed as he watched the center of his universe die for the second time. Her fingers tightened around Xander's wrist for a few seconds as a small smile transformed her features into the fifteen year old girl Xander had first met so many years ago. Then her fingers slipped away, and Xander was left staring at a body.
He knew the moment the soul wasn't in there anymore. Part of him wanted to get away from this reminder of the beautiful spirit who used to be inside, but most of him was just too tired to even pull his arm back. So he lay stretched on the floor with a corpse's fingers still resting on top of his hand.
"Well now, that is not the expression I wanted on her face when she finally died," Angelus' voice said from behind him, and Xander didn't even bother to react. Buffy was gone, and from the sounds of it, a good number of slayers had died with her. "I guess you'll just have to make it up to me, boy. You and that childe of mine who is going to learn that interrupting her elders is just not something that leads to the good kind of whipping."
Xander didn't react when a strong hand grabbed the ankle of his good leg and started dragging him back toward his corner of hell. The concrete scratched and dragged along his skin like fire ants eating him alive, but Xander somehow couldn't connect with the pain. It wasn't real. Nothing was real.
No, that wasn't true. Somewhere out there Dawn and Willow were still real. Willow's new girlfriend—Adelle—she was real. Faith was real. Xander didn't even flinch when he felt teeth bite into the back of his leg. He just let himself sink into darkness wondering if he was real anymore.
Xander heard the lock turn on the door, and he slid off the narrow window ledge where he had a nice view of iron bars and a brick wall. It still beat his view if he looked at Angelus' room. Xander had become an expert at not seeing what was right in front of him like the vampire's big obnoxious bed. Silently, Xander went to the foot of Angelus' ugly bed and sank to his knees. Hopefully Angelus would be in a bad mood... well, a bad mood or exhausted, Xander could deal with either one. The first would lead to a quick broken bone and a fucking. Sometimes the latter led to Angelus storming around without even bothering to rape Xander. Then Xander could crawl off to a corner and pretend to sleep until Angelus went out again.
Funny, but some days he even missed the dungeons where he'd been chained to the wall until his shoulders dislocated and his lungs pressed against his chest so tightly that he would finally pass out. It was easier when there were chains holding him in place, making him do things. When he had to force his own muscles into place, it just hurt so much worse. It made him feel like he was betraying Buffy every time he got on that bed without Angelus physically dragging him, but the price for not getting on the bed was just way more than he wanted to pay. He flashed on a memory of frightened blue eyes. Way more than he could afford to pay.
The door swung open and Xander flinched from the light in the hall. The room was kept dim most of the time, and he let his hair hang in front of his face to shield his eyes.
"Fuck," a voice whispered, and that was not Angelus. Xander looked up in confusion, and Faith stood there, a machine gun slung over one shoulder and a sword in hand, looking like one of those Internet pictures Andrew loved to stare at: the ones with women who were all boobs and heavy weaponry.
"Faith?" Xander whispered roughly, and his guts curled at the replay of this particular nightmare. "No, no, it can't be," he said as he used the end of the bed to push himself to his feet and back away.
"Shit. Look boy-t--" Faith stopped, but her refusal to call him a boy toy actually stung worse than the words themselves would have. It used to be a joke, a gentle jab--or a not so gentle jab anyway, but now it was true. Xander had long ago come to terms with the fact he was a boy toy. According to Angelus, he was a good-tasting boy toy which put it in a whole new level of disturbing.
"You have to get out of here," Xander said, desperate to make her listen before he had a repeat of that horrible moment months ago.
"That's the plan, now if you want clothes, you'd better grab some or I'll haul your skinny ass out of here buck naked," Faith said firmly as she turned her eye to the hallway.
"I'll slow you down."
"Yeah, you're slowing me down now," Faith snorted. Faith was harder, closer to the girl who had sided with the Mayor, and Xander shivered in sudden fear. What if this was a test? What if this was one of Angelus' tricks. Maybe Dru had come back and this was Dru trying to make him see what he wanted... only Faith was looking way too sane to be a version of Dru.
"You have to kill me," Xander suddenly blurted. "My blood. There was this mage and a spell and he turned me into some sort of supercharged battery Angelus can plug into."
"I know. Now move your ass," Faith said and with two long strides, she was in the room, grabbing Xander by the arm and forcing him to come stumbling after her.
"I'll slow you down. You can't--" Xander started arguing in a whisper, but Faith stopped him with an angry glare.
"Look, we need your blood," she snapped. "Plan A is to get you and your blood out of here. Plan B is that you piss me off or slow me down, and I put two bullets in the back of your brain and I take a sample of your blood out of here. There is no Plan C. Got it?" Faith demanded, and even though she spoke in a whisper, Xander definitely had the feeling he was being yelled at. He also felt relief wash through him. Death was actually looking really kinda good right now, especially since it would be one last 'screw you' to Angelus by taking away his source of super-charged blood.
"Got it," he agreed. "Just don't go waiting until the last minute to decide because Angelus is approaching freaky levels of fast."
Faith gave him a long searching look and then nodded. This time when when she headed down the hall, Xander padded after her. The office building Angelus had converted into his own private den looked like it'd been decorated with the leftovers from a Lon Chaney set, complete with chains attached to the walls. Xander flinched from the rust-colored stains he could see which were definitely not rust. He moved a little closer to Faith.
She had put her sword in its scabbard at her waist and now led with the machine gun at the ready, and Xander couldn't help thinking about every horror film he'd ever seen, which was not helping with the creep factor. The building was way too silent, and Xander kept waiting for vampires or zombies or even aliens to jump out from behind a corner because whenever it was this quiet, something not of the good lurked just out of sight.
Faith led them down the stairs, her boots rattling the metal treads so that Xander had the insane urge to tell her to be quiet, and right now that would be slightly on the insane or possibly just suicidal side because from the expression on her face, she was not really in the mood to be annoyed.
A half-story from the bottom, she leapt over the railing and landed at the bottom, yanking the heavy door open. When a vamp charged at her, Xander thought he might have a heart attack, but Faith clubbed him with the barrel of the machine gun and then stabbed him in the back with a stake before he could turn. The second vamp caught a stake in the chest, and by then Xander had recovered enough to race down the rest of the steps. Faith sailed into a fight with a dozen vamps in the near-empty basement, and Xander threw himself at the closest vamp's knees. Worst case, he'd get drained, and at least he'd have the pleasure of knowing Angelus would torture whoever had taken his blood fruit away.
Xander crashed to the ground with the vampire he'd chosen to tackle, grunting when he caught a knee to the side. A strong hand grabbed Xander by the back of the neck, and he hunched his shoulders involuntarily as he was jerked closer to a mouthful of fang. Then the fat vamp caught sight of who he was about to bite, and he threw Xander to the side.
Rolling away, Xander jumped onto his feet and repeated his trick with three vamps who were working in formation to corner Faith. One exploded into dust above his head, and he could hear the other two shout.
"It's the master's pet. Get the pet." Half the vampires broke off and grabbed at Xander's arms and legs, and Xander lay on the ground like an upside down turtle kicking and flailing for all he was worth. Yeah, he was worth exactly nothing in terms of actually winning the fight, but he must have been pretty good distraction because the whooshing of disintegrating vampires filled the air, and pretty soon, Xander was coughing as ash filled his mouth and nose.
"Come on pretty boy, time to blow this fucking popsicle stand," Faith offered right before Xander found his wrist grabbed, and he was yanked to his feet by sheer slayer strength.
"Just like old times," Xander coughed as he struggled to just keep his feet under him as Faith dragged him toward an exit, the glowing exit sign giving Xander the feeling that they were rushing toward a red-eyed monster.
"Yep, always were good bait," Faith agreed, and that was almost good humor in her voice as they reached the old ticket booth, now boarded up. Faith jumped the barricade, and Xander nearly broke ribs as he slammed into it stomach first.
"Human here," he protested as Faith stopped and pinned him with an aggravated look. Scrambling under the barricade, Xander didn't even complain when Faith grabbed his arm again and started running up the ramp.
The squeal of tires against the road made Xander stop so suddenly that Faith's pull on his arm took him to the ground. Both knees hit the pavement hard enough that Xander could smell the sudden blood and his shoulder popped out of its socket.
"Fuck. What the fuck are you doing?" Faith demanded as she let go of him.
"Freaking out about Angelus coming back," Xander honestly answered as a black van stopped at the mouth of the garage, only when the side door opened, it wasn't vampires but soldiers.
"Move it. Beta team's withdrawing," a familiar voice yelled, and Xander found himself very ignominiously scooped up in Faith's arms and then practically tossed into the back of the van before she jumped in after him. The door slammed shut and whoever was driving would have made Buffy look like a little old lady behind the wheel because he hit the gas so fast that Xander rolled toward the back and slammed into the rear doors of the van.
Xander cursed when warm hands caught him. "Shoulder! Shoulder!" he gasped.
"I think I pulled it out of place when he stopped dead in the middle of the drive."
"He thought you were Angelus," Faith cut the man off, and there was silence in the van. Funny, but it was only once the van was quiet and everyone was carefully looking away that Xander suddenly realized that he was buck naked in the middle of a whole bunch of seriously scary-looking soldier types... and all of them were definitely dressed.
"Um, you think maybe I could have some clothes?" Xander asked, still cradling his injured arm.
"Xander, I'm sorry." A man handed over a blanket, and Xander suddenly realized that the man in question was Riley... a much older Riley. He was starting to get gray, and how weird was that. Riley was only five or six years older than Buffy, and Buffy would have been... Xander stopped when he realized that he had no idea how old Buffy would have been. Xander draped the blanket over his lap as he sat cross legged on the cold floor.
"Okay, this is going to hurt, so just hold on and I'll be as quick as I can," Riley said as he put a gloved hand on Xander's chest and reached out for his arm. Xander closed his eyes and took a deep breath, exhaling as Riley jerked his arm back into place.
Opening his eyes, Xander found Riley staring at him with concern. "Ow," Xander offered softly as he moved his shoulder gingerly.
"Fuck, you've toughened up some," Faith offered in the silence that followed.
Xander could only roll his eyes as he thought back on just how little a dislocated shoulder hurt in comparison to other things. "You said you needed my blood. Does Willow have a way to stop Angelus because I'm all on board with any plan that ends with Angelus as either a pile of dust or a grease spot on the floor. In fact, I'll bring the dust buster," Xander offered.
Riley and Faith shared a deep look. Xander had to look up because they were all seated on benches and he was still cross-legged on the floor near the back doors, and everyone's gaze slid away from his. Even Faith looked suddenly unsure of herself.
"Here," Riley said as he thrust sweatpants at Xander. Xander took them automatically, but he didn't even try to put them on as he just clutched them and imagined the worst thing that could happen, the one thing that no one would want to tell him. Riley was studying his boots. Faith didn't even bother to pretend to look at something else as she stared at the front of the van and kept her back to him.
"Willow?" Xander asked, swallowing around the fear that threatened to choke him. One of the random soldiers got an expression of sympathy on his face, and Xander felt his breath leave him so fast that he couldn't get anything back into his lungs. Willow. Xander thought about her smiling in the sun, her as a tiny girl with a yellow crayon in her fist, her looking at Tara with that wistful expression that whispered about regrets and hope. No. He couldn't lose Willow.
"Xander, I'm sorry," Riley offered, but Xander couldn't understand the words.
"Fuck," Faith broke the mood with a snarl. "It's fucking war out there, and things happen. Look, she's dead just like Buffy's dead and Sam's dead and most of the fucking slayers are dead. Welcome back to fucking reality, Harris."
Riley stood, holding onto a rail to keep his balance as the van rocked. "Faith, back off."
"What? You want to hold his hand?" Faith asked with a sneer as she turned to look at them. "You want to sit around and sing kumbaya and pretend the last three fucking years haven't happened?"
Xander's breathing started again with a gasp. "Three years?" Weirdly that was a harder blow than Willow being dead... or he just wasn't processing Willow's death. Not processing was a very real possibility.
"Three years since Buffy died," Riley offered quietly, like a man trying to talk a jumper off a ledge. "Three and a half since you disappeared."
Xander found himself nodding like a bobblehead without actually being able to figure out why.
Riley's voice got even softer. "Xander, it will be okay."
Faith's snort brought Xander back to reality. "It's never going to be five by five again. Fucking monsters crawling the streets of major cities. Won't be long before we lose all control, and who the fuck knows what the government will do then." Faith pounded the side of the van so hard the metal shivered under her touch. "Stop the van!" Her bellow made Xander flinch back, and Riley's hand was there on his shoulder.
The van stopped, and Faith yanked open the door. "Faith!" Xander called, weirdly reluctant to lose one more piece of his past, and he had the weird feeling that if Faith left, he wouldn't see her again. She stopped, her face a study in shadows as the streetlight caught her at an odd angle so she looked almost demonic.
She stared at him, a thin, pathetic version of the old Xander Harris covered in an army blanket and clutching sweats. He couldn't even begin to imagine what she saw. "You stay safe Harris. Get yourself killed, and I'll follow you and kick your scrawny ass," she threatened before she slammed the door shut and was gone.
Xander started to get up and follow, and Riley helped him up, but only as far as a bench, where he pushed Xander firmly down on the seat. The van started again, and Xander could feel one more piece of his world pull apart. "She doesn't work well with others. She's stayed alive by being out there alone; it makes her almost impossible to track," Riley offered. "She'll be fine, but looking at you, I'm a little concerned that you don't a drop of blood to spare. Damn, you're as pale as a vampire."
Xander fought the grip that held him down on the bench for a moment before he sighed and realized that he wasn't going to overpower Riley. At this point he couldn't overpower Riley's eighty year old grandmother, assuming he had an eighty year old grandmother. Xander stared down at the sweats in his hands. They said "Army" down one leg like they were someone's workout pants, and no way could Xander fit in them. Actually, he could probably fit himself in one leg of the pants, but they'd fall off him if he even tried to wear them. And he was probably losing his mind now.
Xander looked up at Riley who was still standing, hovering over him with a worried expression. "Who else?" Xander asked even though he didn't want to know.
Riley studied him for a long moment, and Xander suddenly remembered that Riley studied psychology in school. Oh yeah, see Xander the bug in the glass all ready to be psychologically dissected, just don't expect to find flowers and hearts inside. Xander was pretty sure that if Riley went cutting into Xander's psyche he'd find something dead and rotting that smelled like a Umk demon.
"Dawn was fine last I knew. We all lost touch when Willow died because Adelle isn't as good with tracking. Faith is obviously still Faith. My wife... we lost her about two years ago to Chvo demons. Giles went down to a group of vampires over three years ago. You know about Buffy." Xander closed his eyes and thought of the dozens of other faces and names.
"He never showed up after LA. Angelus was the only one to escape whatever happened in that alley."
Riley paused. "She died with Buffy," he finally said, and Xander swallowed. She'd died trying to save him.
That made Riley smile in a sad, crooked way. "He cooks and generally drives my unit insane," Riley said with a shrug and a number of the soldiers chuckled.
Riley's smile faded. "All the slayers you knew are dead. Every year thousands of new slayers are called, and they're all dead within a year. We can't find or protect them fast enough," Riley admitted, and Xander could hear an echo of his own guilt in that voice. "They're getting called at ten or twelve, and dying before we can even teach them how to hold a weapon. The government has officially ordered us to avoid all contact with a slayer because the demons..." Riley just stopped and swallowed heavily before oneof the men reached over and rested his hand on Riley's arm.
"Son, we used to try to protect them, but every time a new slayer appeared, the demons dogpiled on her, and whoever happened to be between that little girl and the demons ended up dead. It's how we lost Sam Finn and it's how we've lost almost 70 percent of our company."
Xander looked at this soldier, this man who looked like he had stepped out of a Sylvester Stallone movie with his scarred cheek and deepset eyes. The demons were winning and everyone he knew who had held the demons off for so many years... they were dead. Willow, Tara, Buffy, Giles.... the Scoobies were dead and he was the worthless one who would never be able to fix any of this. Xander closed his eyes and tried to deal with the waves of pain that made anything Angelus had ever done... that made *everything* Angelus had done fade to a mere nuisance.
"The demons are getting bolder. They have major footholds in most major cities. In some places, the people are pretty educated about the demonic, but in America, we're just starting to have people publicly talking about mutants or alien invasions. But Faith is right, we're getting to a point where the government is going to have to start taking draconian measures, and once that happens, that's a door we can't unclose."
"Which is why you came for me," Xander said softly.
Riley used his knee to shove at the soldier next to Xander and the man vacated, taking Riley's old seat on the bench on the opposite side of the van. Riley sat down next to him.
"We need fighters. We need someone who knows Angelus' operation and is trusted enough to take out a few key players before being identified," Riley said softly, but Xander was shaking his head.
"I couldn't take out anyone. No one ever sees me, so if I was outside my room, the closest demon would just grab me and slap on some chains before hand-delivering me back to Angelus."
"We know," Riley nodded. "Buffy... when she died, she was connected to Willow. Willow was watching through her eyes."
It took Xander a second to even put those two pieces of information together. They needed a powerful spy; they heard what he had told Willow. And then the grief and pain and loss of just a moment earlier turned to anger. A burning white rage that made Xander seriously want superpowers so that he could bitch-slap Riley.
"No." Xander said firmly as he pulled the blanket up a little higher.
Riley sighed and looked at him with this sympathy that just made Xander want to punch him even more.
"No!" Xander said even more forcefully, which being the naked guy in with a bunch of special ops soldiers still wasn't very impressive, but it was the principal of it. "Don't you get it? If he had just fucking died when he was supposed to, this wouldn't have happened," Xander yelled as he waved a hand around to indicate that he meant the whole damn world.
"I know that," Riley snapped back.
"Then you can't ask me to help you go and get that bastard's soul and shove it back in him. If you want me to help you shove a stake or a telephone pole or a fully automatic weapon in him, I'll go for any and all of that, but if you shove that soul back in him, you're going to forget what he is. You're going to let him walk around like some kind of fucking hero again, and then in another few years, he'll slip that soul off and whammo... right back to psycholand. He's a vampire. You're vampire hunters.... soldiers... whatever. Anyway, you kill vampires. So, get out there and fucking kill him." Xander could hear his voice shake, and he was pretty sure he was making himself look like an idiot, but he just couldn't seem to stop.
"Don't you think we would if we could?" And now Riley sounded mad.
"I don't know. It seems like you've been doing a pretty good job of not doing it up until now," Xander shot back. And that was not a good look on Riley's face. On Angelus' face, that expression often led to life-threatening injuries. Instead of hitting him, Riley got up and walked to the front of the van, holding onto the over rail and rocking with the motion of the van. The nameless soldier from earlier made a small noise, and Xander glanced over.
"We've all done our best to kill the bastard," he offered, and Xander felt the guilt rise like a slimy tide. Yeah, they couldn't kill Angelus because Xander's blood protected the bastard--made him stronger and faster than a vampire should be. Xander could feel himself curling up as that reality hit him... again.
"We aren't going to forget what he is or how dangerous he is," the soldier said as he reached over and patted Xander's arm the way a man might pat a stray dog or a young child, and Xander didn't even have the mental strength to mind. "Whether he has that soul or not, he's a murderer in my book... in all our books. But if he could take out a few of the top demons, we might start to get a handle on this. And if he gets dusted in the process, none of us are going to cry over a vampire."
Xander chewed his lip and thought about that. The part where Angel got potentially dusted wasn't half bad.
"We are going for the soul, soldier," Riley said from the front of the van and where the soldier's voice was comforting, Riley was cold and sharp.
"Oh, right, you can just order me around because I'm not totally human, is that where we're going with this? I'm an Initiative experiment now?" Xander glared at Riley, daring him to say it if that was the truth.
Xander could tell he'd scored a direct hit from the number of uncomfortable looks and restless shifting from the other soldiers, but Riley just narrowed his eyes and kept focused on Xander.
"I understand why you need to hate him, both the souled and unsouled versions. I understand that, Xander. You're incredibly strong... you haven't given up on your hate even after years of torture, and I'm not sure I could survive that long without having something inside me break."
Xander glared back at Riley. "Don't fucking patronize me," Xander warned. Okay, so it was totally a worthless warning because whatever supercharging had been done to his body, it sure hadn't made him strong, but he could still glare with the best of them.
"I'm not," Riley said seriously. "But you need to think about this. Angel will remember everything he did. He will remember killing Buffy, killing hundreds of slayers, uniting demon clans and summoning demon lords that are quietly threatening to destroy our world. For the first time since the plague, the world population is shrinking, Xander. How much guilt is Angel going to be carrying? He'll do anything we tell him to. And we are this close to losing the whole fucking world, so I'll order him into hell if that's what it takes to save the world, Xander. I know you. You will do the right thing even when it tears you up inside, so we are all going to take your blood and we are going to have Adelle open a portal, and then my men are going to go in there and get Angel's soul. And after we've shoved it down his fucking throat and gotten his help, then we'll decide what we're going to do with him afterwards."
Xander stared at Riley, wanting to find a reason why this was stupid. He wanted to find a reason that just taking a missile and blowing Angel up was a better idea. But Riley was right, if the government took a public position on demons, which blowing up buildings on American soil would pretty much require… well, badness lay that way. The government and demons were unmixy like gasoline and matches. At least with Angel Xander could shove a stake in him once this was all over.
Xander thought about Angelus' hands on his body, touching him, stoking him when he wanted the pleasure of humiliating Xander by forcing his orgasm. Oh yeah, Xander was so staking Angel.
"I want one promise," Xander said seriously.
"If I can give it to you, anything," Riley said seriously. The van slowed and took a sharp turn before rolling to a stop.
"When this is over, Angel is mine."
Riley looked at him for a second, and Xander could almost read his thoughts. Riley was wondering if Xander wanted to torture him. He was probably wondering if Xander could even lift a stake because Xander's arms were way more sticklike than armlike. Hell, if he had two brain cells still working, he was wondering just how mentally stable Xander was.
"You got it," Riley finally promised, and even knowing that Riley's promises were only good until his commanding officer contradicted him, Xander still felt himself relax. He could do this. He could deal with Angel being out there doing the caped avenger thing… he could deal with it until he shoved a stake so far in Angel's chest that the wood dissolved with him.
"Well fuck," Xander breathed as he looked around the Gothic room and the familiar shelves. At least this time he was awake, but he really was going to nominate Adelle for the Willow award for wonky magic. The thought of Willow sent a sharp stab of regret and pain through him, but the fear that quickly followed pushed that to the side. Yep, he was screwed. Riley and his team had the potion for the return trip, and the minute this old guy saw him, Xander was going to have a one-way ticket back to Angelus' bedroom, which was one place Xander definitely never wanted to see again. He could feel his skin grow cold at the thought of Angelus, so the actual presence of Angelus was a big old 'no' in his book.
Eyeing the shelves, Xander quickly decided that he couldn't tell a desouling potion from a portal potion and better safe than turned into something slimy and soulless. So, if he couldn't escape, he needed a weapon. Xander went to the tall armoire and pulled it open. He'd braced himself for a lot of things: bodies, pieces of bodies, ancient weaponry. A neat kitchen with a window overlooking a purplish-blue sky would not have been one of his guesses.
"Oh. Hey." Xander looked right and the old man was standing there with a giant sandwich, and at that point, Xander was really pretty sure that he had either developed a severe concussion or breathed in hallucinogenic demon spores. The old man slowly put the sandwich down on a wooden table that sat in the middle of the kitchen, and that prompted Xander into movement. He darted forward and grabbed a knife from the far counter.
"Stay away. You so much as touch a vial, and I'll use this," Xander said as he waved the dirty butcher knife, and he was even a good ninety percent sure he meant it.
"Xander," the old man said softly, and then double doors came slamming open. Angelus was there, his long hair pulled back into a ponytail, and when did Angelus have time to grow a ponytail, not that Xander cared about ponytails because he was more about panicking. He was caught somewhere between wanting to kneel and wanting to run like hell and his brain couldn't get his legs to do either one.
"What's going--" Angelus spotted Xander and stopped. His eyes scanned the kitchen, the open door to the dungeon room, the sandwich sitting on the counter.
"We have a visitor," the old man said with some humor, and Xander was up to being ninety-five percent sure he'd stab the guy.
"Xander," Angelus said softly, only Angelus didn't do soft. Angelus did pain and humiliation and even did mind-blowingly good sex when he was more into humiliation than pain, but Angelus did not do soft.
Xander gripped the knife harder and tried to negotiate some sort of deal with his legs for partial custody of the muscles, but they were pretty much locked in place. The old man spoke quietly. "Xander, this isn't Angelus, this is Angel. You know as much as you hate Angel that he'd never hurt you."
At the same time the old man was talking, the vampire slowly slid forward, and Xander brought his knife up. Of course, a knife against a vampire wasn't really much of a fight, especially when the vamp was all supercharged, only this vamp might not be supercharged because this vamp wasn't looking like Angel or Angelus. And Xander was fairly sure his brain was just going to break. He quickly reversed his hold on the knife and pointed it at his own throat. Okay, if he had to do this, this was going to hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.
Angel froze. "Xander," he said in that desperate tone that was all soulboy.
The word finally broke the hold panic had over Xander's legs, and he turned and bolted for the door, the knife tightly clutched in his hand as he raced out into the sunshine, into safety, only the sunshine might not be safe with the old man back there.
His heart pounding with fear and with exertion, Xander dashed past neat houses with picket fences, all with perfect paint jobs. He didn't see a single kid or a face at the window or even a stray dog. Instead, he raced down a street that was somehow just wrong. At the end of the street, a circle street went off in four directions, and Xander randomly chose right and started at a more steady trot, still ready to panic at the first sign of old guy, but until dark fell, he should be fairly safe.
And now Xander started thinking about defenses, about finding help, about finding someone who knew enough to send him home or holing up until Adelle could send Riley and reinforcements. But this whole town was setting off Xander's wiggins dial. Bracing himself for monsters behind bushes, Xander detoured into one of the yards. The tulips were lined up and all perfectly blooming without a sign of bug and if that wasn't a sign of evil, Xander didn't know what was. With a growing certainty that he was screwed no matter what he did, Xander reached out to ring the bell. Inside, nothing happened. Xander couldn't even hear the doorbell.
Step two was knocking, and by the time no one answered that, Xander felt like the damsel from pretty much any standard horror movie because he had an overwhelming urge to try the doorknob. Calling himself stupid using as many synonyms as he could, Xander swung the door open and checked inside.
The whole perfect theme kept right on going inside. There was no dust, the living room looked like the jacket of a book for decorating with ferns. Xander slammed the door and turned his back before he did something really stupid like searching the house and finding bodies. Just wanting to get away from town now, Xander started trotting down the road, passing perfect house after perfect house until finally the perfection started slipping in little ways. On one house, the windows were a little too small. On another house, the front door was missing, and yes, this would be where Leave it to Beaver met the Twilight Zone.
Xander stopped in the middle of the road as it dead ended into a field with hip-tall grasses swaying, their movement broken at perfect intervals by white dots sticking up through the spears of grass. Wading into the field, Xander pushed the grasses aside to reach the first dot which turned out to be a neat cross. The crosspiece read Addy Arsham—1966 – 2051.
Okay, if he was Giles, this so would mean something important and meaningful. For Xander, this just was one more weird on top of way too much weird. Turning his back on the neglected graveyard, he eyed the houses and tried to decide where to hole up for a while.
"Harris?" a voice, called, and the sight of Spike jogging down the road, his white hair gleaming in the sun was just way, way too much. Xander sat down right in the middle of the field and waited as Spike came closer, his duster flying like a cape, although saying that would probably earn him a slap upside the back of the head.
"Harris? You hurt?" Spike asked as he finally reached Xander and started a borderline inappropriate frisking as he checked for broken bones. Xander's first reaction was cold terror, and Spike rocked back on his heels and stared at Xander.
"Bloody hell, Harris, just checking for broken bones. Wot? You don't trust me now?" he asked, and it was just too normal. It was normal like they were back in his parents' basement, but he hadn't been that Xander for a long time. The insult still came to his lips quick enough.
"Like I trust the bubonic plague," Xander blurted.
Rather than being insulted, Spike smirked. "Yeah, not like I trust you, either, mate, not unless I'm looking for someone to muck up a spell; you're a treat in that department."
"You're dead," Xander said softly, afraid that if he looked away, Spike would turn to smoke and one more piece of his world would vanish.
"Blue did something to shove us through into some bloody void. I have to assume she had a plan other than trapping us, but bein' a god and all, she wasn't really big on sharing. Angel just yanked me out."
"Angel," Xander trembled as he remembered how the old man had pulled the souled one out of the void. He tightened his grip on the knife he suddenly remembered he had in his hand. "The old man took his soul out and turned him against the slayers. Everyone's dead. Buffy…" Xander swallowed. "Willow." Xander felt the tears started, and he waited for the jab and jokes, but instead a hand caught him by the back of the neck. Struggling, he threw himself backwards and brought the knife up, but strong fingers captured his wrist, holding it safely to the side while Xander was pulled close, and for a second, the fear nearly overwhelmed Xander, but this wasn't Angelus. This was smoke and leather and sharp bony angles. Eventually Xander gave in and sobbed for long minutes, clutching Spike's t-shirt in one hand.
"You bloody bastard, do ya think I can't smell ya?" Spike's voice was soft but angry, and Xander stiffened in Spike's arms.
"It's a long story." The voice was little more than a whisper, but Xander froze, his lungs unable to even pull air in. He hated losing himself to the fear, to the darkness that rose like a bubble in him when he least expected it. Riley kept telling him it was normal, but it wasn't. It was broken. Xander reached out and grabbed Spike's coat, the leather a familiar part of his old world. These arms had held him when Caleb had poked his eye out.
"What the bloody hell is going on?" Spike demanded, but Xander ignored that, he focused on trying to hide his face. Spike was a vampire. Maybe Spike could protect him.
"Spike," Angelus sighed. Only that wasn't Angelus, that was Angel. Either way, the sound sent a tremor through Xander.
"Bloody fuck, Xand?" Spike asked, and Xander nodded.
"It is you, isn't it?"
Okay, that didn't make sense. Xander looked up, but Spike wasn't looking at him, Spike was looking down the street. Xander twisted so he could see what Spike was looking at. Angel stood with his arms crossed over his chest. His clothes were simple, and the shirt made out of rough cloth. His hair was too long, and pulled back into a ponytail that made Xander think about Highlander. Behind him, the old man stood.
"Peaches, you want to explain what exactly you've fucked up this time?" Spike asked. "Or was it Red? Seems like the boy's just the bloody center of every fucking spell gone wrong in the universe, don't it?"
Xander pushed himself away from Spike, and Spike let him go, rocking back on his heels as he tilted his head and studied Xander. "Pet?"
It was like when Faith refused to call him 'boy toy.' It was proof that he was wrong because Spike didn't call him 'pet.' Spike called him 'wanker' and 'git' and if he was in a good mood and if Xander hadn't tripped him recently, 'mate.' The single word made Xander scramble to his feet.
"Wait, you aren't burning," Xander suddenly pointed out. Spike rolled his eyes, and Xander actually preferred that… that was normal.
"Not our dimension, is it then?" Spike asked as he studied the purplish sky.
"It's a refuge,"Angel said softly.
"Not bad." Spike finally found a pack of cigarettes and pulled one out.
"The last of humanity," the old man said, like that made any sense, which it didn't.
"So, what's up with the split personality here, mate?" Spike asked as he waggled his cigarette between Xander to the old man.
Xander inched closer as the old man gave a low chuckle that made the hairs raise on Xander's neck. "Good to know someone still recognizes me."
"Can't say I did right away, mate, but the smell doesn't lie."
"Okay, time for all insane vamps to start speaking English," Xander interrupted, and the panic attack had faded, leaving embarrassment and more than a little anger behind.
Spike rolled his eyes and nodded toward the old man. "That's you, ya git. Mind you, it's you with about eighty years and a whole lot of ugly on top, but it's you."
The old man smiled wryly. "Hey, not all of us have the eternal youth thing vampires have going. Come on, Xander, you know I look like a cross between Uncle Max and a sharpei."
The minute the old man said it, Xander could see the similarities: the shape of the eyes, the gray curls of hair, the caterpillar eyebrows. "Oh fuck." Xander grabbed for something and ended up catching Spike's arm as reality shifted beneath him. Spike cocked his head and gave Xander a look that made it clear Spike was questioning Xander's sanity, which was fair since Xander was questioning Xander's sanity.
"Xander, we need to go back to the house," Angel said, and Xander had heard that tone, that 'don't fuck with me tone' too much. That was the tone that meant that Xander had to obey or Angelus would pull some girl into the room crying and begging and kill her slow while telling her how Xander could have saved her, how Xander could have given her a quick death if he wasn't so stubborn or so stupid or so selfish. Xander could feel his legs respond, and he moved a half step closer even as his brain screamed and ran in circles like a monkey on crack. Yep, so much with the not-sane.
"Peaches, mind telling me why the pup is ready to have a heart attack and why he smells like you?" Spike carefully turned, one hand still holding one of Xander's wrists as he turned most of his attention on Angel.
Angel sighed. "It's a long story."
"You still got that soul tacked on tight?"
Angel answered "Yes" at the same time that Xander gave a firm "No."
The old man stepped forward and put a hand on Angel's arm, a way too familiar hand. Xander felt nausea rise up and challenge fear as the dominant emotion. "We're from the future... or maybe *a* future is a better way of putting it. Ahn had a way of explaining all these dimensions, the could be's and might have's and worlds without shrimp." The old man closed his eyes for a second as though in pain.
"And future me thought that past me needed a good raping by Angelus? Okay, why did no one lock me in a little cell when I lost my mind?" Xander demanded, intentionally vetoing the crack monkey in his brain who wanted him to fall to the ground and start shaking. Spike let him go and shifted into a stance Xander had seen a thousand times, usually right before some fledge got his head ripped off. The fact that Angel was the center of Spike's focus made Xander feel a whole lot better.
Angel got a sour expression on his face. "I never wanted you hurt. The spell... it connects me with your version of Angel, and I can't say how sorry I am," Angel seemed to shrink as he backed up. But the old man was there, shaking his head.
"And I felt everything you went through, and it isn't a drop in the bucket compared to the future if we didn't turn Angelus loose," he argued.
"Drop in the bucket?" Xander temporarily lost words as he tried to find a way to express just how angry he was about that. "Drop? Bucket? Buffy's dead!" he finally screamed. "Angelus killed her in front of me. And Willow is dead and Kennedy and the slayers. And Giles..." Xander gasped. Giles wasn't supposed to ever die. Giles was supposed to always show up out of nowhere and fix things, that was Giles' job. Hot tears burned, and Xander couldn't even remember the last time he'd cried.
"What the fuck is going on?" Spike demanded as he turned back toward the other two, a deadly calm over him, and the old man stepped in front of Angel, which was funny considering that no way could Xander, much less a geriatric version of Xander, protect anyone from Spike.
"We lost the world," the old man offered as he leaned back into Angel's body, and Angel's hand came up to his shoulder, and now Xander was fairly sure he was going to be sick.
"Lost?" Spike asked, but from the expression on his face, Spike was nearly as squicked by the Angel and geriatric Xander show.
The old man sighed. "When I gave Buffy CPR, we unbalanced the scales. Evil used that opening to try and tempt Angel to the dark side of the force, only Angel didn't go, and everything was balanced again. When we brought Buffy back, we unbalanced the world enough to let the First through, and a good time was not had by all. So I'm really not sure what we were thinking when we activated hundreds of slayers and opened hundreds of doors for evil to keep coming through. I'm not sure we were thinking at all."
Angel shook his head. "It wasn't just you. The universe might have righted itself after a few hard years, but then we took out the senior partners. Good had hundreds of new champions and evil lost three of the most powerful champions. The universe was too unbalanced."
"Are we going to have this fight again?" the old Xander asked with some fondness.
"If you try to take all the responsibility, yes," Angel immediately answered, and that was just a wrong, wrong expression for Angel's face when he was looking at Xander, especially an old and gross Xander. That was a creepily soft expression that made Xander think of the way Giles used to look at Jenny with this cross between affection and annoyance.
"Bloody hell, you mean…" Spike straightened up, his cigarette hanging forgotten from one hand.
"We won the battle and that lost us the war," Angel said wryly. "All my plans for fixing the world just sent it crashing down. I think the word is hubris, and I have had a few years to think about just how badly my hubris affected the universe."
Old gross Xander spoke, his voice uneven. "We all had the same arrogance. Me and Willow pulled Buffy out of heaven, and that is where everything started changing." He closed his eyes, and Angel tugged him close and held him tight, and that was just so disturbo. Eventually the old man started again. "We lost Buffy and Dawn first. They were grabbed in Italy, and what happened to them..." Old Xander shook his head. "They shouldn't have died that way. They shouldn't have seen each other suffer that way." Angel's arms tightened around Xander's stomach, but old Xander looked over at Xander. "I saw your Buffy die through your eyes, and I'd take every rape, every beating and more just to give my Buffy that ending. But I can't. We're trying to fix things, but time is like a river. We can divert most of the energy to your universe so that most Buffys get to die quickly, but we can never divert all the energy. My Buffy will always live for so much longer than she should have. She--" the old man stopped.
Angel took over the story. "Willow tried to harness white magic to save Buffy and Dawn. She gathered her power, but the minute she had all the white magic concentrated in her own body, thousands of miles away, the monks in Tibet lost control of their hellmouth. No prophesies or warnings or mastermind, just a hellmouth suddenly gaping and thousands of demons flowing through. Willow felt the hellmouth go, and she tried to close it, but she was sucked into it."
Xander stopped breathing. He wasn't sure when he'd started believing these two, but he did. "Willow's in hell?"
The old man shook his head. "Willow's stuck like a cork in a bottle... always in pain, always growing older, always hearing Tara and Adelle, but never able to join them. She says that she can see her freedom coming, but she may be there a thousand years before the last human on earth dies and the dimension falls. There are plenty of humans on farms or in kennels. We couldn't save them... we couldn't save hardly any of them." The old man turned his head and laid his cheek on Angel's chest.
Angel reached up and traced circles on the old man's back. "A whole clan of Verka were chasing Faith. She led them in circles until she was surrounded, and then she blew up a gas station. She took out herself, the entire clan and half a city block. Andrew was eaten alive from the inside by Uita bugs. Riley was publicly drawn and quartered along with most of the other soldiers the demons could catch, which is why the government collapsed fairly quickly. Dawn..." Angel stopped for a heavy second. "Dawn died not long after Buffy. Spike, you were bringing newly activated slayers to the council house when you were attacked. You took on Dracula and his brides and bought them time to get away."
"But I didn't win," Spike said thoughtfully.
"You took out Dracula and about half his childer," Angel offered.
"Not bad, especially considering the ponce has a few years on me," Spike answered with a shrug and a smirk.
"You had an advantage at that point," Angel said as he stared at Xander. "As the only fully human member of the group, Xander and Ilyria did a ceremony turning him into an oporotheca."
Spike frowned. "A fruit cellar?" he asked with some confusion.
"A human whose blood carries some of the power of the old ones. Xander became a blood fruit so that you and I would have a better chance against the evil that just kept getting more and more powerful. But when Ilyria was trapped in a globe and shattered, it was down to just me and him, and we knew we'd lost. That's when we started looking for an escape."
"You ran away?" Spike asked, one eyebrow raising, and Xander could see Angel's anger gathering--it was a familiar expression.
"We evacuated as many as we could, and when the demons overran our Cleveland base, we closed the portal behind us."
"But we didn't give up," the old man quickly added. "We could contact Willow because she wasn't properly in any dimension, and this place is the same, it isn't part of a real dimension. As near as we can figure, it's a left over from some wish-verse where the wish has started to fade away. It had houses and when we first came, there was still electricity and running water."
"Not now?" Xander asked.
The old man shook his head. "The dimension is failing. After I die, Angel is going to have to find somewhere else to live because this whole place is slowly vanishing... literally. The edges are just fading out to black. But the big worrywart doesn't want to drag me around dimension shopping only to have me get eaten by something bigger and nastier than him. I have a bad track record with demons." Spike made a noise that roughly translated into agreeing.
"What about all the people you brought through; you can't just leave them," Xander pointed out, but even as he said it, he looked at the empty streets, the magically perfect houses with no sign of life, the overgrown cemetery with white dotted flowing grass that went as far as Xander could see.
The old man shook his head. "They're all dead of old age, and whatever magic created this world, it didn't create it right somehow. No one could ever have children. We saved a few thousand people from being food for demons, but we didn't save the human race."
"So ya come up with a plan to change the past, and the best you can come up with is ta turn Angelus loose?" Spike sounded downright contemptuous. "Mate, I've heard better plans outta Crackerjack boxes."
The old man shook his head. "The scales were out of balance."
"And now, now Buffy is dead and most of the slayers are gone, and my world is pretty much about to turn into your world, only with Willow dead instead of stuck in a hell bottle, and I never thought I'd be glad that Willow was dead." Xander just stopped, the pain of losing Willow still raw where Buffy's death had grown worn and dull with all the remembering.
"Good went too far, and now evil went too far. It's balanced," the old man said slowly. "I asked you if you would trade places with Dawn, if you'd rather have her raped, and you said 'no.' If I hadn't done this, if I hadn't made you the sacrifice, there would have been so many more deaths. Your Dawn is still healthy and quietly researching in a little library in Tibet, and without Willow to throw the balance out of power, the Tibet hellmouth is about the safest place around. And the last slayer just died, so the whole tangled mess that was the slayer line just ended and can now restarted with the chosen one, and not the chosen four hundred or so."
Xander stopped breathing again... and he really did know how to breathe regularly, he just couldn't seem to get his body to do it today. "Faith?"
The old man nodded. "She died yesterday, and with her, the corrupted energy of the slayers is gone."
"You son of a bitch." Xander lunched forward, and Angel flashed into game face, pushing the old man behind him as Xander moved. But before Xander could get there, Spike's arm was around his waist, swinging him around and forcing him back while Spike snarled at Angel.
"She was your bloody friend!"
"She was the last tie to a spell that was going to destroy the world. Do you think she would want to live knowing that her life would be at the cost of everyone else's?" Angel yelled back, and both vampires were in gameface. "She earned her redemption, so let her have it. Don't turn her life into one more perversion."
"Is that what you are? A perversion looking for redemption?" Spike smiled, but that wasn't a pleasant expression.
"Yes," Angel said quietly, and the word drained all the anger from the argument. Spike fell out of his battle pose and even dropped into his human face as he stared at Angel. Angel repeated himself. "Yes. The Powers wanted the final battle, the end of the world. They used me to help tip the scales," Angel added. "They wound me up and aimed me at Wolf, Ram and Hart, and I dragged the rest of you along for the ride. Fred, Wesley, Cordelia... they died because I thought I could set myself up as a champion."
"Um," Xander raised his hand, "does that mean that you plan to do evil stuff because I'm voting that as worse plan ever, even behind the whole turning Angelus loose plan." Xander struggled to get his eyes to meet Angel's gaze, and felt like high-fiving himself when he could, even though his guts were ready to turn inside out and the crack monkey in his brain was approaching seizure levels of fear. Spike's hand found his arm, so Xander could pretty much guess that he looked like as big of a mess as he felt like.
Angel was already shaking his head. "No. That means that maybe I need to listen to William a little bit more and focus on the small ways to make the world better instead of... how did you put it?" Angel looked at Spike.
It took Spike a second to stop looking stunned and actually answer. "Wot? The bit about you running around like the great hair gel crusader poncing up and down the street in your guilt complex?"
Angel actually smiled. "I've missed you, you know. You're a pain in the ass but when you weren't around... " Angel just stopped, his jaw tight as he took a deep breath. Usually it was Spike who randomly started breathing, but Xander could feel the anguish rolling off Angel. "If I could do it all again, I'd have my detective agency and fight demons peeking into back windows and call Buffy when anything approaching an apocalypse appeared. But I just had to try and prove that I could handle it, and I screwed up. My granddaughter turned out to be a hellgoddess who wanted to eat the world, and looking back, she still would have been a better choice than the demons I did turn my world over to. And maybe this is hubris," Angel said with a wave toward Spike and Xander. "Maybe this is hubris and trying to change the past is going to eventually end up even worse. Maybe without the memory of bringing the end of the world, I'll go right back to destroying everything I love in some stupid attempt to prove I'm worthy of anything good. I don't have answers. I used to think I did, but I don't," Angel snapped, but for once, the anger didn't sent Xander fleeing. Angel's anger was all for himself. "I only know that I have to try and right what I've done. Willow's portals can't reach beyond the major stepping stones, so we couldn't go back farther than the alley. I just don't know if it's enough."
The old man, the old Xander, rubbed his hand up and down Angel's arm, making small noises under his breath. "The split slayer line was like an open door allowing one evil after another to come crawling into the world. Having hundreds of slayers meant hundreds of open doors. Now… now there's evil in the world, more than ever. But if you can kill the evil, fight it back, there aren't any more open doors. You can reset the balance."
"Right then, so you've reset the balance, so now the boy and I go back, get your soul shoved up your arse and get to work saving the world, seems like old bloody time, mate."
"No," the old man stepped forward, shoving Angel to the side and then trading looks with him that had everything to do with fond exasperation, the way Xander used to look at Jesse, and this was just too freaky. "Evil has the upper hand now so a little tipping to the side of good will just help the world balance, but somewhere on earth is a ten or twelve year old girl, one who would have been called into the corrupted slayer's line and shortly died if Faith had survived her last fight with Angelus. It's like we hit the cosmic reset, and I have great questions about any universe that requires a reset button, but that's way beyond me to figure out. The point, which I seem to have lost somewhere, though, is that when she's fifteen or sixteen, she will become the slayer. She will be the champion and as long as she's the only champion, evil is limited to only as much power as good has."
"Which means that you have to be out of the champion business before she comes of age," Angel said seriously as he focused on Spike. "You and your Angel have to quit... even if that means you move to another dimension."
"Quit as in..." Spike raised an eyebrow.
The old man rolled his eyes. "Quit as in help old ladies across the street and investigate good old fashioned disappearances and stake the occasional vampire and sit on the couch on Saturday night drinking blood with Wheatabix and watching soccer. Quit as in have a normal life."
"Been trying to get the wanker to chill out and just play a game of fucking pool for months. Never knew I was all connected to the greater good with that bit of advice," Spike smirked, and from the look, Xander was guessing that he pretty much planned to torture Angel with this for a long, long time. "Right then, let's get this show on the road."
"Oh no," Angel held up his hand. "We need to get the soul back into Angelus, but if you go back, no one is going to believe that Angel is soulless."
"Bloody hell, you can't expect me to just sit here while other people fight. I'm missing a good round of fisticuffs," Spike said with a cocky tone. "Not looking to save the world, and after a couple of years, I'm more than happy to let the new slayer and the gits in green take over, but it sounds like good needs a hand right now."
"Yeah, but you go down there and you'll really ruin Riley's plan, and yes," the old man said even louder as Spike opened his mouth, "I do know that you live to mess up Riley's plan. However, this time Riley has it right, and if you plan to get out of the champion business, that means letting guys like Riley do their normal, human jobs fighting with normal, old fashioned guns... only not so much with the guns being old fashioned."
Xander stared at the old man, suddenly struck by just how much that was totally him. Freakily him. Really, really old him. For the first time, Xander admitted to himself that he hadn't ever expected to get old, not just after the whole hell in a handbasket, but even before. Back in Cleveland in his bed with his gaggle of slayers, he still assumed he'd die before he had the whole Uncle Max look going for him.
"You know about the plan," Xander suddenly blurted.
Old Him nodded. "Angel and I are connected to you two, well, I'm connected to you and Angel's connected to Angelus."
"Then why the big surprise when I came through the door?" Xander asked suspiciously.
Old Him blushed. "Okay, I know what you know, which means I thought Riley's guys were coming through, but to be honest, I should have remembered that any time I'm in a room with a spell, it's pretty much guaranteed to go wrong. The armoire is charmed. If someone is armed with anything bigger than toenail clippers and they open it, they just get to see a closet full of clothes left over from the seventies, which is weird, but fairly boring if you're looking for a soul. I thought Riley would come through, check the armoire, and then find Angel's soul on the shelf in there."
"I should have known you'd get in trouble and end up in the middle of it," Angel agreed, and the friendly tone made Xander's skin crawl. Happy Angel equaled pain in his head, and he edged closer to Spike, who promptly gave him an odd look.
"I'm sorry," Angel quickly offered, and at least the guilty look didn't inspire terror in Xander's heart.
"Over three years," the old man said softly. "Angelus may not have bothered trying to break you, but over three years with him and you're close."
"Bloody hell. You left Harris with Angelus for three years? I'm not so sure you have your soul still attached, not if you could do that. Hell, I'm surprised he isn't curled in a corner babbling about stars." Spike reached out and pulled Xander close, and the feel of cool hands against his skin made Xander freeze.
"Oi, just tryin' to help, no need to have a heart attack, pet," Spike quickly said as he quickly let go.
Xander just stood with his hands around his stomach as he tried to get control of fear that was threatening to turn him into a gibbering idiot, and being near Angel really wasn't doing much to make that feeling go away.
"I'm sorry," the old man said as he walked forward. "I know. I remember my life and yours."
"You did this," Xander said quietly as he watched Old Him walk closer. The old man slowly reached out with and age spotted hand and rested it against Xander's shoulder.
"Yes, I did. Someone had to sacrifice, and I made the choice to have it be us. I made the choice to have it be the two of us and Angel who will always live with the memory of what he's done."
"We made the choice," Angel said, and Xander's gaze snapped over to the vampire, but he was keeping his distance.
"Don't listen to the idiot," the old man said. "He's been feeling so guilty for so long he pretty much goes along with whatever harebrained idea me and Willow come up with. Willow wanted me to turn her dark again, to turn her against the slayers she had created."
Xander opened his mouth, and the old man chuckled before Xander could say one word to argue about what a bad idea that was. "I know. Willow had already sacrificed enough, and we always did think we needed to prove something, you and I. Well, the two of us and Angel. I always hated how sure of himself Spike seemed, soul or no soul."
"Oi," Spike objected, but he didn't sound actually upset.
The old man's weak grip tugged Xander forward. "We'll meet you back at the house, Angel," the old man said, and Angel opened his mouth as if he were going to argue.
Spike sauntered over and got Angel moving with a shove on his shoulder, and from the look on Angel's face, there was nearly a fight right there. "Yeah, Peaches, you can walk with me and explain exactly how bad you've mucked things up and where my universe is right now." And then the two vampires were walking up the road away from Xander and old Xander.
Eyeing his old self, Xander waited for the other shoe to drop. Yep, he knew manipulation when he manipulated himself. The old man chuckled. "Don't look at me like I'm about to eat you. I gave up eating children for Lent."
"If you're calling me a kid, you're way off track," Xander snorted. He didn't feel like a kid; he felt old, so old that his bones would turn to dust if he wasn't careful.
The old man had turned to walk back toward the house, but now he stopped and turned. At first, Xander thought he was staring at him, but then he noticed the old eyes scanning the field behind him. Xander turned to look at the gently waving grasses.
"How long to you think it took for every grave to seed over, for the mounds to be worn down by footsteps and soft rains, for the grass to grow up that even?"
"What?" Xander turned to look at the old man.
"The last of them died in 2094. Louisa was four when she came through. This world doesn't like change, so the grass refused to grow over the graves for a long time."
Xander stared at the old man. "But that means…"
"I'm a good deal older than you think. After all, I have to have been around long enough for Willow to teach me to make all those potions, which was not always fun or safe. I blew up our first house," the old man said with a crooked smile. "I'll tell you a secret. On the bottom of every vial I wrote crip notes—you know, which potion will blow up the house and which will open a portal." The old man pulled a vial out of his pocket and tipped it upside down so Xander could see the bottom. In tiny letters on a green sticker it said, "share memories."
"Why do you have that potion?" Xander asked, suddenly suspicious.
"You want to kill Angel," the old man said simply. "I don't want you to."
Xander snorted. "Now I know you're not me because if someone would've killed Angel the first time I said to, maybe none this would've happened."
"True," the old man agreed. "But he's suffered for that, too."
"Not nearly enough," Xander snorted. The shattering of glass interrupted him, and Xander choked as smoke like heavy velvet fell over him, suffocating him as he drowned in a thousand memories: Angel's teeth in his neck, gathering around a computer and watching demon porn that immortalized his friend's death, the sounds of Dawn's screams, the cackling boasts of Dracula's wife who'd appeared with Spike's duster, the fights, the losses, the long line of humans shoved hastily through a portal and the desperate struggle to get them away from the portal so others could come through, to make them move when they wanted to sag to the ground and cry.
He remembered Angel standing under the sun screaming at God and begging him to fix things when they both knew that nothing would ever be fixed again. He remembered watching Angel collapse and feeling so utterly helpless as the man… the vampire… he'd always envied turned into someone who couldn't even function without someone to take him by the hand. He remembered sitting next to the pool and casting the spell to let him talk to Willow and trying to hide his tears as he watched her turn into a monster—an emaciated form with a few straggling hairs and no teeth, her hands shaking with pain and the screams of hell around her as she tried to joke and pretend that her existence was anything but agony.
He remembered Willow softly saying that she deserved the pain, that she had corrupted the slayer line, she had killed in anger and the punishment was her crucible. Xander had tried to not call her stupid because it wasn't like Willow needed him adding to her pain, but he wanted to scream at her that she didn't deserve this. She didn't need to burn her sin away because she had always done her best. He remembered the pain when they realized that no one would be having children, and how Angel had driven himself from one dimension to another seeking another home--a better home, until he had appeared through a portal so battered that Xander thought he might dust before Xander could get enough blood in him, and Xander had faced losing the last person who connected him to his past, he faced losing the vampire who had loved Buffy as much as he had, who had seen Willow as a little sister even while the demon in him feared her power. Louisa aged in his memory until he sat by the bedside of an old woman, holding her hand as she rambled about people who'd been dead for years, but she didn't know that. The Alzheimer's had been so bad she hadn't known anything by the time she died.
Xander remembered so much that the weight of a lifetime not his pressed down on him, making three years with Angelus fade into nothing. It was nothing. A rape compared to Willow's suffering in hell—a beating compared to Dawn's torture at the hands of laughing demons and their video camera—it was less than nothing.
Reaching out, Xander tried to find something to hold onto as the blackness filled his vision and the grief and pain pushed him over into a nightmarish sleep where his brain struggled to fit together more pain than Xander had even known existed in the world.
Walking down the street, Xander hurried past the open door to a parking garage, and he could almost feel the eyes on him. He so hated being bait. Seriously hated. Needed to have his head screwed back on for volunteering for this mission type hated. Okay, volunteered might have been the wrong term. What was the term when other people wanted to protect you and you refused to tell them where a soul was, escaped from federal custody, and went out on your own? The word stupid was coming to mind, but it just didn't seem to cover it. Not having to fake the fear, Xander broke out into a run, the calm that came from four hundred years of memories fading as the animal instinct for survival took over.
He could hear scrambling in the building, and Xander detoured to stay in the sun as he aimed for the last hotel where Faith had been staying. Angelus was nothing if not predictable, and the vamp had been haunting Faith's hotel and bragging to everyone he could that he had taken the oldest living slayer. Xander wondered how long it would take the demons to figure out he had taken the last living slayer.
And hopefully Angelus would be Angel before that bit of news got out because Angelus' celebrations tended to cause serious blood, pain, and death. Xander reached the seedy motel and dashed up the stairs two at a time. Pounding on the door to Faith's empty room, the word 'stupid' became a mantra in his head as he considered all the things that could go wrong. The demons might just kill him. Angelus might gag him before he could whisper the right words. Hell, Angelus might rip his tongue out, and why had *that* never occurred to him before? What the hell use was it having the memory of living for four hundred years if you couldn't think of this stuff beforehand?
Living longer was not a guarantee of being any smarter, but then Angel had already proved that one. Oh yeah, Xander was going to hold on to the Angel hate as long as he could, even if he knew what it felt like to cradle Angel through a nightmare and to sit and drink beer with him as they watched a sunset. Even if he knew what it felt like having all that strength so totally focused on you and protecting you that Xander suddenly understood why Buffy had fallen so hard for the over-gelled one. And if Xander ever met his future self again, he was kicking the old man's ass. Okay, so he'd get in one punch and future Angel would pound him into the ground, but it would be worth it to get one punch in. Memories of caring about Angel were doing the freaky on his brain.
Yep, Xander might have memories of being older, but he was definitely not smarter. Rethinking the whole getting himself captured plan, he decided to get himself back to Riley's base. He'd teach Riley the spell and let Riley play sacrificial goat. Soldiers were paid to do that shit. Xander turned and started walking quickly down the walkway. Okay, he had time before sunset. He could do this.
Xander started running, because he knew full well that the second he decided he could do something the universe had a personal interest in proving that he couldn't. And he really needed to come up with a world-saving technique that wasn't suicidal. This made three times that his big move to save the world included just standing at ground zero and refusing to move, and it really wasn't the brightest. Nope, not even a little bright.
Xander was jogging past the parking garage when a man stepped out from one of the offices. And when Xander said man, he meant that in the general sense of two arms and two legs. The whole tail sticking out from the bottom of the trenchcoat kinda suggested that it wasn't actually human.
Stopping so fast that he almost tripped himself, Xander stood in the middle of the road and eyed the figure strolling casually toward him.
"Hey, why don't you go your way and I'll just go... somewhere else?" Xander asked hopefully. Maybe this was just a random demon, not someone hunting him. Yeah, and maybe Angelus was going to wear a purple hat and dance a jig.
The demon didn't answer as he kept walking, and Xander did the first smart thing he'd done all fucking day—he turned and ran. The impact of a heavy body into his and the sound of his own skull smacking the pavement were the last two things Xander noticed before the world went dark.
"Wakey, wakey, Xander. You have some explaining to do, boy." The little slaps across his face made Xander struggle to lift heavy eyes. Leather pants. Tight leather pants. Tight leather pants with a serious hard-on. Oh yeah, Angelus was already thinking about all the ways to make his little pet suffer. Xander's groans were for the evidence of his coming torture as much as for the twelve-piece band pounding away in his head.
"Oh my boy. Running was stupid, but getting caught..." Angelus tsked. "I'd be upset about Tion damaging your brain with that tackle of his, but you don't have many functioning brain cells to begin with, so it couldn't have done you too much harm."
Xander felt hands at his body, ripping clothes off so violently that Xander knew he was going to be a beautiful mass of bruises tomorrow. At least Angelus would think they were beautiful. If Xander couldn't get the potion into Angelus and say the spell, then he was going to spend tomorrow draped over Angelus' knee as the vampire alternatively stroked the bruised flesh and dug his thumbs deep into it.
"I'll teach ye better than to run," Angelus whispered, and that soft baroque scared Xander more than any threat. The little crack monkey in his brain wanted to curl up and start begging. His lizard brain wanted to fight, even knowing that fighting Angelus was more stupid than... well, than any stupid thing Xander could remember doing before, and he was a man who left an ex-vengeance demon at the altar when there were current vengeance demons in the audience. Hell, fighting Angel wasn't all that bright, but fighting Angelus was stupid on a grand scale.
Pushing both instincts aside, Xander closed his eyes and tilted his neck to the side in a silent offering. Angelus chucked and stroked a thumb down the stretched muscle of Xander's neck. "Won't save you from your punishment, boy. The slayer's dead, you know."
"I figured," Xander said softly as he kept his neck bared. Just bite already. And the universe was really doing freaky things to his head if he wanted to get bitten. Old Xander might remember the bites of Spike and Angel as being sensual and way, way too good, but Angelus biting did not lead to addiction so much as running away screaming in pain.
"I won't have you run."
"I didn't want to run," Xander said, and the huge hand on his neck paused long enough for fingers to wrap around his throat in warning. Lying bad... yeah, Xander had learned that one already. "I wanted to die. Her and Buffy, I asked them to kill me," Xander said truthfully. Angelus didn't move for a second, and then the hand around Xander's throat pushed him back onto the bed.
Xander yielded, allowed Angelus to shove him up onto the bed on his back before Angelus straddled him. "You always were the weak one," Angelus said with a sneer, and Xander didn't argue as he again tilted his head and bared his neck. Angelus struck, teeth sinking deep into Xander's neck so that he had to strangle a scream. And with Xander's blood, Angelus also drank the potion that was in Xander's blood.
"Vor," Xander called out, and he really hoped the goddess of vows was listening because this whole trying out a new soul spell was seriously scaring the crap out of him. "Líkami og sál að eilífu," he carefully pronounced. A wind tore through the room, ripping the blanket off the foot of the bed and for a second, the flapping fabric looked like a sheet of feathers. Angelus stiffened and sucked harder until Xander couldn't hold back a pained scream. Large hands gripped Xander's arms so tight that for a second, Xander feared he might have new breaks. And then the wind stopped, the blanket crumpled to the ground, and Angelus slowly sagged.
"Okay, I'm seriously hoping that means something happened," Xander said quietly as he tried to not move. Angelus was still draped over him, his hands clutching Xander's shoulders and his weight pinning Xander to the bed, suggesting that trying to move would be a really bad idea.
Angelus groaned. Slowly, he moved his hands to either side of Xander and pushed himself up, and the confused look on his face was pretty much enough to tell Xander that Angelus had left the building... or Angelus had been shoved into the basement might be a better description.
"Xander?" Angel asked as he looked around and blinked owlishly. His gaze stopped at his own clothing, and Xander could almost see the moment at which the memory returned.
"Xander. God, I'm sorry," Angel immediately offered, his voice low and pained. And then he scrambled off the bed and stood standing on the far side of the room looking like a deer caught in the headlights. "Buffy?" Angel looked around as though expecting her, and Xander felt that familiar ache in his heart for a girl who he had his own part in helping to kill. Angel closed his eyes, and Xander was caught between sympathy and anger. "I killed her," Angel said, and the pain in his voice tipped Xander over into sympathy. Yeah, Angel had killed her, but it was Xander's lame plan to try and fix the world by wiping out the slayer line. A Xander's idea, anyway. The fact that future him had made the plan didn't make the current Xander feel any less guilty.
"You had help," Xander said as he pushed himself up. Okay, naked in front of Angel was weirdly bothering him way more than naked in front of Angelus. Xander grabbed for the blanket and draped it over his waist. "I need to tell you a story."
"I need to leave," Angel said, and Xander had a near heart attack as Angel went for the door. With that look of guilt on his face, no way could Angel pass as Angelus. Xander leapt for the door himself, dropping the blanket and colliding with Angel in the middle of the room. With a wordless cry, Angel pulled away as though burned and retreated to the far corner again.
"Geez, way to overreact, Deadboy," Xander said as he turned and grabbed the blanket off the floor, wrapping it around his waist.
"I'm sorry. I know how you must—" Angel stopped, and Xander was glad because if the vampire said he knew how Xander felt, there were going to be stakes and dust in the near future. "I should leave."
Xander snorted. "Oh yeah, Angelus with a guilty expression darting away from his favorite boy toy without so much as an hour of playing. That's not going to look suspicious," Xander pointed out as he dragged a chair across the floor and parked it in front of the door before sitting down. The minute his butt hit the wood, Xander could feel the panic start and the crack monkey in his brain start screaming in terror. He wasn't allowed on furniture.
Cold fear held Xander so tight that for a second, all he could do was breathe and focus on another memory, one that wasn't his. What he'd suffered at Angelus' hands wasn't anywhere near to the suffering future Willow endured in the other future. His Willow was safely dead. His Dawn was still alive, and his Spike was waiting to come back home just as soon as Angel had finished some undercover work. It was worth the price he'd paid. Now he just had to convince himself to not have a heart attack every time he sat on the furniture.
"Boy t...?" Angel echoed Xander's last words, only he choked on them and looked ready to be ill. And really, this was seriously bad for Xander's ego. Okay, so he'd looked better in his life, but it wasn't like he was some ugly troll. He wouldn't approach Uncle Max levels of trollishness for a couple of hundred years, and wasn't that just a freaky thought.
"Just listen," Xander snapped, and Angel frowned for a second. The expression just about drove Xander to the point of running out of the room himself, but he just tightened his grip on the arms of the chair. "Imagine a future world. Buffy is coordinating a few hundred slayers, they're some weirdness with Amy, Willow figures out that you and Spike and Ilyria got trapped in a void dimension and pulls you out, and all seems to be good except for where the big bads keep getting bigger and badder. People die, more people die, slayers get called up faster and faster. Buffy and Dawn get kidnapped by Nylt demons who..." Xander stopped. He couldn't say it.
"Xander?" Angel asked, his voice quiet and more than a little confused.
Holding up a hand to ask Angel to be quiet, Xander took a deep breath and kept going. "Ilyria did a spell to juice up my blood, and I started feeding you and Spike. More big bads came through. A hellmouth went kerflewy, and the whole demons secret was pretty much out after that, which led to open war. Willow got stuck in the hellmouth trying to close it again. Spike died. Hell, everyone died. It was down to you and me, Deadboy, and that's mostly because I didn't fight so me getting dead wasn't really likely. We opened a portal and evacuated as many people as we could to another dimension—one that turned out to be the remains of a wish-verse, only with shrimp."
With a deep breath, Xander risked taking a look at Angel's face. Yep, that would be a confused look. "So, it's you and me and a couple of thousand strangers, and the bad keeps right on coming. People can't have kids in perfectsville, so you try to find another dimension and nearly get dusted. I find a way to contact Willow, and she's always aging, her body literally falling apart, but she can't die."
"What are you talking about?" Angel finally interrupted.
"The future," Xander said quietly, but Angel was already shaking his head. Xander kept right on going. "Our future. Only once we'd made that future, we wanted to unmake it. Willow figured it out. The split slayer line let the First crawl into the world. But hundreds of active slayers... it was like opening all the doors to hell and leaving them open. The world wants balance so lots of good means lots of evil. Last showdown. Armageddon. Only now, we changed that. We closed the doors to hell by closing down the slayer line so now it's not so much Armageddon as a few really, really crappy years."
That drew an incredulous look from Angel. "Crappy years?" he echoed. "I—" Angel stopped again and sat down right where he was, which left him on the floor with his knees drawn up in front of him. The posture was so familiar that Xander had to stop an automatic urge to go sit next to him. Memories of being Angel's lover and Angelus' rape victim were definitely doing the clashy-clangy in the brain. Xander just sat still and waited as Angel breathed, which was a pretty good sign that he was way too emotional to actually listen.
"This isn't possible."
"Okay, if that's true, where did I get a shiny new soul spell? You know that's Willow-level magic."
"Willow's dead," Angel said softly, and Xander knew how much Angel cared about her. He didn't want to know, but he did.
"Yeah, our Willow is. She's safe in heaven where she deserves to be, but the alternate Willow from the timeline we can never completely erase... she's still stuck in a hellmouth and had a couple hundred years to figure out a new soul spell."
Angel looked up, obviously still confused, but Xander could see the faint beginnings of belief creep into his expression. Eventually, Angel nodded. "You must hate me." The words were soft and definitely weren't phrased as a question.
"Hate doesn't even touch it," Xander agreed. And he did... he was big with the hate, but the fact that understanding and guilt were in there too softened the edges a little. "But the blame gets shared here."
"No," Angel snapped as he exploded off the ground and started forward. "You were the victim, so you don't take the blame for this. You don't blame yourself. You don't blame Faith. You don't blame Buffy." Angel was angry, and angry Angel pretty much looked like Angelus. Xander flinched back, and immediately Angel was on the far side of the room again, blinking in surprise. "Xander, you need to get out of the room." Angel pronounced each word softly and carefully.
"Um, demons and random bad guys out there. I'm thinking that's a stupid plan," Xander snorted.
"Something's wrong. The soul.... it's not right."
"Yeah, Deadboy, it is. Willow cooked up a new spell, one without the clause. If your soul comes out again, it'll shred your body on the way out. So, no more Angelus."
Angel looked up in surprise.
"Oh come on, Deadboy. You've gone evil one times too many. Hey, I'm the first to say that everyone on the team gets a 'first evil' free card, but you've played yours a little too much. The Willow I met from the future just wanted to make sure you couldn't go all evil again."
"From the future?" Angel still wasn't totally with the believing it plan, but then he didn't have four hundred years of alternate memories shoved into his head, and Xander truly had to call himself a manipulative bastard for that trick.
Leaning forward, Xander spoke slowly, like he was talking to someone of questionable mental stability. "Everyone died. Everyone was tortured and then they died. The wonky slayer spell gave evil a 'get out of hell free' card. You and me survived. We changed the past and now not everyone is dead."
"Not everyone is dead? Xander, make sense," Angel said with more than a little annoyance.
"Okay, you're pissing me off now." Xander crossed his arms and glared.
"Careful, boy." Angel said the words, and then immediately jerked back so hard that Xander could hear his head hit the far wall.
For a second, Xander studied Angel, wondering just how good the new spell really was. Willow was so sure that this would work, but Angel was definitely not up to his normal brooding best... either that or Xander just naturally brought out the evil parts of the vampire's soul. "Okay, honesty time," Xander finally said. "You scare the shit out of me, so I can either be scared or angry, and no fucking way am I going to let you see me scared."
From the look on Angel's face, that surprised him. "I'm sorry," he offered again.
"So am I," Xander sighed. "The old man who took your soul—the one turned you into Angelus and then sent you here so you could do all sorts of terrible things and then remember every single one. What do you remember about him?"
"Humor me," Xander said as he struggled to not yell. "I put up with three years of torture and rape, the least you can do is answer a question or two." The way Angel flinched away, Xander was willing to bet he could get a whole lot of mileage out of the last three years. He probably could make the broody one wear a purple hat and dance a jig. "What did the old man look like?"
For a second, Xander didn't think Angel would answer, but then he slowly offered up a description in a confused voice. "Curly hair, Caucasian, about ninety years old. Brown eyes, starting to go blind. Xander, what's the point here?"
"Think about what the old man would have looked like when he was twenty," Xander suggested. Immediately, Angel got a frown on his face.
"Um, yeah, that would be why I'm sorry, too," Xander quickly pointed out. "Future me decided that if good had to get its wings clipped to avoid Armageddon, then Angelus was just the demon to do it."
"You set yourself up to be raped and tortured?" Angel asked.
"Yeah, not the brightest, am I?" Xander shrugged. "Zombies want to blow up the school, I just stand there with the bomb and offer to go up with it. Willow tries to end the world, I offer to be victim number one. There's a really disturbing pattern here which probably indicates a need for serious psychological counseling. Oh, and if Riley gets his hands on me, I will probably be in mandatory counseling paid for by the government for a good long time. The whole resouling plan was supposed to be his only I went and decided to play sacrificial lamb again."
"You ripped my soul out. You turned Angelus loose on—" Angel really was not doing good with the finishing sentences today, and Xander made a mental note to get a reference for a therapist who could work with Angel on anger management issues because that was not a happy vampire face.
"Yeah, I know."
"No. No, you don't. I have to live with the memories of all those deaths, and you're going to sit there and tell me 'you know'?"
"Yes, I do know." Xander stood up and tried to ignore the fear as he faced off against Angel. "I turned you loose. And yeah, that was a future me, but it was me. So every person you've killed, I have my own guilt for that. And more than that, when I went back to that dimension, I went and I shoved my old guy memories into my young guy head, so it's not like you're the only one to do raping. And having brain raped myself... that is something that not even therapy is going to fix. And the worst part is that I *still* think it was the best solution. The slayer line was holding open the door to evil."
"So you took it upon yourself to close it? You made that decision for the rest of us... for me?"
"Hey, I don't make a decision about pizza toppings without asking for input, so Willow and me and you all made that decision together. You, Deadboy. You decided that remembering three years of murder and mayhem was better than letting Buffy and Dawn be raped to death by demons making porn. You decided to carry the guilt of being a murderer rather than let Willow stay trapped inside a hellmouth. I'm not the only one with a serious case of martyrdom."
"There must have been another way." Angel's whole body was tight with a need to deny the truth. Xander could understand that too. It was weird remembering going through all these stages with Angel once already.
"Kettle calling pot, come in pot," Xander teased as though calling Angel on a radio. "You're the one with the dumb-ass plan for taking down Wolfram and Hart. In fact, my plan looked a lot like your plan."
"My plan just about ended the world. Why would you copy my dumb-ass plan?" Angel asked with resignation.
"Your plan did end the world," Xander said quietly but firmly. "Those of us in Sunnydale tipped the scales by adding too many champions for good. You idiots in L.A. tipped the scales by removing champions for evil, and between us, we ended the world."
That stopped Angel. The anger and tension drained from him and he took a short step to the bed where he sank down.
"And now you're thinking about crawling in some hole and pulling the dirt up over you," Xander said knowingly.
"Don't assume you know me, boy." The words were sharp, but the tone was exhausted.
"Oh, I do know you." Xander tapped his head. "I have four hundred years of knowing you in this brain. I know that you actually do like human food, but you won't eat it because it reminds you of all the other parts of humanity you'll never have again. I know that Spike annoys the piss out of you, but when I tell you he's waiting for us to do some cleanup work before he comes back, you're going to be relieved." Sure enough, Angel's head came up and had such an expression of relief that Xander had to sigh at the raw need and grief in the vampire's face.
Getting up, Xander tightened the blanket around his waist and picked a corner of the bed far from Angel to sit and watch the broody one brood. "I know how you worked your way across the Atlantic once by sitting in a hold eating rats and winding keckle around ship cables."
"Keckle's a verb, not a noun," Angel said softly.
"Great, and now your English professor side comes out. I know how you like Christopher Marlowe more than Shakespeare. I know how you secretly read Chaucer even when you all you talk about is how he used crude language. Which is the only reason I like him," Xander admitted with a shrug. "Or rather, I like him when you read it out loud to me because stories told in poem form are really not my thing. I know that I got you interested in Tony Hillerman and you were always sorry that we gave the world to demons before you could see the Grand Canyon. See, four hundred years of knowing you, all up here."
Angel glanced at Xander, and the suspicion and the hope were pretty much balanced. It was weird the way Xander suddenly understood Angel's expression, or maybe not so suddenly since he had the whole Vulcan brain download.
"Come on, do you really think I'd know the word keckle on my own?" Xander pointed out. Angel stared at him, his frown deepening until finally he sighed.
"Exactly, saved by my own famous lack of paying attention in English."
"That's not a word you'd learn in English," Angel pointed out. "That's a word you'd learn working on a boat in the nineteenth century."
"Which I can safely say I've never done. Furthermore, I am officially voting 'no' for any plans that require more time travel. My brain is full, so all future, current, and past me's are hereby ordered to keep their brains to themselves and their bodies in their own time periods."
"Xander?" Angel asked, and Xander knew that tone too. That was the tone Angel'd used after he came home nearly dust after trying to find a new dimension. That was the lost tone that Xander couldn't help but respond to, and part of Xander really wanted to rip Angel's lungs out for sounding so much like the man he'd loved... the man from his memories who would never exist in this dimension because they had stopped the Armageddon... hopefully. "What are we doing now?"
"Um, pretending to have sex so your minions don't kill us?"
Angel glared, and Xander relaxed since that was an expression he knew how to handle. "Okay, I see the upgraded soul spell did not come with the sense of humor accessory," Xander snarked. "But the plan is that you find excuses to kill one of two or maybe even three or four big bads before they figure out you've gone all soul boy. With the doors closed between earth and hell, new big bads won't be able to come through and take their place."
"Xander, it's gone too far for one or two demons to make a difference," Angel said wearily.
"No, it really hasn't. Until you've seen my memories, you have no idea how far it can go before it goes too far. We still have Dawn, and she's researching, so she may come up with some neat ways to take out a few. Riley has a whole team, and once he doesn't have to deal with a supercharged Angelus, he can focus on some other bad guys. And Spike is fine. He was just caught in the same void with you, so as soon as you've done your undercover bit, he'll come back and the two of you can have demon hunting parties and your pissing contests about who kills more demons."
Xander watched Angel, and debated telling him that this was a temporary assignment. In three years, a new slayer would be called, and Angel would have to get out of the champion business. He would have to give up the idea that he could do some act so good that it erased all the evil he'd done. But watching determination slowly take the place of despair on Angel's face, Xander decided that conversation could wait for later. That conversation could wait until he had Spike and a whole lot of whiskey to back him up.
"So, we just have to put things right," Angel said more firmly.
"Except not so right that we make it all go wrong again because I'm not up for a repeat performance of the grande finale. There is a..." Xander started counting on his fingers. The Master, Acathla, the mayor, Adam, the First, the weird guys when Spike figured out he could hit demons, the sisterhood of weird things when the zombies tried to blow up the school, veiny Willow, Wolfram and Hart, the current mess... "There is a ten Armageddon limit on this sidekick."
Angel kinda blinked in surprise at that.
"Seriously. The whole good and evil mutually assured destruction arms race? I am so ready to call it done. So let's disarm the other side's nukes without trying to give ourselves an advantage, okay?" Xander asked.
Angel looked at him seriously. "You're sure?" he asked.
"Nope, but Willow is, and I always listen to Willow," Xander pointed out. That seemed to reassure Angel a whole lot more than Xander's declarations. "So, goal one. Riley has a potion that can make me invisible for an hour. Any chance you could go and get it from Riley so that when your cover is blown I don't end up being vampire kibble?"
Angel shook his head. "I'm getting you out tonight."
"Oh, so not happening, Deadboy. This was our dumb-ass plan. You and me together survived the end of the world, and you and me came up with this suicidal idiocy, so you and me are going to see it through. That means I'm staying right here and feeding you the supercharged blood as long as you're undercover."
"It's not safe."
"Oh yeah, like my life has been all about being safe. I've never ended up in the middle of a demon war before," Xander snorted. "Okay, let's get one thing straight right now. Yeah, there's a big part of me that's screaming in terror in my head right now, but I also have memories of a whole other world, a world where I lived for four hundred years."
Angel sat up straight at that comment.
"Yep, Ilyria's blood, it's better than milk in terms of health benefits, and that means I'm not a kid to get pushed to the side."
"Xander, you've already..."
"I've already been a fucktoy for a demon trying to wipe out the human race," Xander interrupted, "which is really dumb considering vampires need humans for food and childer, but let's not go into how stupid you are right now. Right now, I'm telling you that I have a right to be one of the people fighting to pull us back from the edge of Armageddon. That means I'm here, and you're going to feed and I'm going to be part of you kicking demon ass."
Angel stared at him with a frown of concentration as though he'd never seen Xander before.
"Those who come up with dumb-ass plans are responsible for trying to make the dumb-ass plans happen," Xander pointed out.
Slowly Angel nodded. "I don't like this," he warned.
"Who cares what you like," Xander pointed out. Yeah, the crack monkey was about to stroke out, but for the first time, Xander was grateful for the memories his old self had given him. Four hundred years of life trumped a crack monkey of phobia in the brain. "We do this together. But when they figure you're all soulboy, and you and Spike do the street fighting bit, then I'm staying home and watching reruns of Star Trek because me and fighting are still not buds, super charged blood or not. Or maybe I'll stand in back and shoot a crossbow or something."
Angel gave Xander a concerned look, and Xander pretty much translated that into a sarcastic comment about the idea of Xander with a wooden weapon at his back.
"I'll even try to not hit you, Deadboy."
For a second, Angel looked startled, but then he nodded. "I trust you."
"No you don't," Xander shrugged, "but you will. We've got a few hundred years to get to know each other, so I figure we have time to make up for a lot of stupid shit we both did in the past." Xander leaned back against the headboard and watched as Angel's expression subtly shifted so fast that not even Xander could read it.
"Look, I'm tired. I'd say dead tired, but I really don't want to jinx us here. The fact is that I haven't exactly been sleeping well, and someone just took a little more blood than he should've so I'm dizzy and tired. And don't get your guilty face going because I'll be fine after about twelve hours of sleep," Xander said as he gave Angel a dirty look. He couldn't sleep with Angel brooding.
"Oh, and I'm not sleeping on your floor anymore. I call the right side of the bed, and if you put cold feet on me, I'm kicking you out of the bed altogether," Xander said as he pulled the blanket off him, and scooted under the covers. The sheets felt heavenly and Xander flashed on one of those nights when Angelus had used humiliation instead of pain, when the vampire had forced orgasms out of him and then taunted him, forced him to wear his own semen on his skin and clinging in flaky bits caught his curled pubic hair.
"Xander? Are you okay?" Angel asked.
"No, but I'm working on it," Xander answered as he pulled himself out of that memory and focused on the day they two of them had built the tree house for little Louisa, Angel's arm around his waist and keeping him from falling when a board cracked under his weight. Angel didn't answer, but he turned off the lights, and then the room was silent for a long time.
"It's going to be a long few weeks if you won't even sleep, Angel, just get in bed." Xander used his best aggravated tone, and within a couple of seconds, the bed tilted as Angel sat.
"Xander." Angel strangled the word. A couple of years ago, Xander would have called that Angel being patronizing. Now he thought it sounded more afraid.
"Just go to sleep, Angel. We'll figure it out tomorrow." Xander closed his eyes and listened as Angel got in bed trying not to move. He wondered how long it would take for Angel to revert to his true form and seek Xander's heat in the middle of the night. Right now, the vampire seemed pretty content to cling to the far edge of the bed. Well, whatever came, Xander figured they'd muddle through together. They always had. Pushing aside fears and uncertainty, Xander closed his eyes and went to sleep.