It’s nearly sundown when Xander finally finds the right road to the cottage. He’s only got lost three times, which he thinks is respectable given the French habit of putting road signs on walls where you can’t see the directions until you look in the rear-view mirror. He’s spent a lot of time in reverse. He turns down a narrow lane, more of a track really, and drives cautiously between two rows of poplar trees, the fading light strobing as he passes.
The cottage is at the bottom of the track. It’s white, with a dark roof that looks like it’s seen a lot of moss in its time. It looks old. Older than Sunnydale, not that that’s hard, but it’s the benchmark he has. Africa doesn’t count because it’s too alien to the rest of his limited experience to compare to anything else.
He stops the car and sits. Contemplates his options. Back in the States it seemed like a good idea to come. Like the right thing to do. But now, on the other side of the world, his confidence is shot and there’s a temptation to turn around and drive back the way he came in. If he can remember the way without getting lost again.
His problem is solved by a knock on the car window. Spike is standing outside, a less than welcoming expression on his face. Throwing the car into reverse gets more attractive by the second, but Xander knows in reality his bridges were burned the moment he picked up the rental car at the airport. He opens the door. “Hi,” he says.
“Harris.” There’s a world of ambiguous subtext in Spike’s delivery. “You’re a long way from home.” Spike’s arms are crossed and he’s giving out fuck-off vibes, but his eyebrow is raised in the way that Xander used to practice in the mirror and never got quite right. It’s an expression that means curious and just a little bit wary. After seven years on the Hellmouth and seeing Sunnydale implode, Xander understands wary.
“Yeah,” Xander says. “First time in France, would you believe?”
“You’re a long way from Paris if you’re planning on playing tourist.”
“I’ll see it on the way back. I mean, I’m headed for Nice, which with my luck with French road signs means I’ll probably end up in Paris. Make lemonade out of lemons, you know?”
“I’m sure there’s a logic in there somewhere, but I’m buggered if I can be bothered working it out.” Spike takes a step back and shoves his hands in his pockets. “You going to sit in there all night, or are you coming in?”
“Are you going to let me come in?”
“Not like I can stop you. You’ve obviously come a long way, so the sooner we get this done, the sooner we can both get back to whatever.” Xander wonders what kind of ‘whatever’ Spike’s been up to in the middle of nowhere France, but he suspects Spike isn’t in a sharing mood. He’s proved right when Spike turns and head back towards the cottage. Xander sits watching him go, before easing out of the car. His back is stiff from too long behind the wheel. He wonders what the hell he’s doing. Nothing new there.
The cottage door is open. A pool of light spills out onto the gravel path and Xander swallows hard. He thinks about locking the car door, but it’s not like there’s anyone else around and if Spike wants to steal his car, he couldn’t really do much about it. He tells himself to get on with it. His inner voice sounds a lot like Giles. It’s enough to get him moving and he hurries up the path, following in Spike’s footsteps, and steps into the light. The irony hits him over the head with a cartoon hammer.
“Took you long enough.” Spike stands in front of the fireplace, back lit by the small fire burning in the grate. He’s like and yet so unlike the vampire Xander remembers from the last days of Sunnydale. His hair is the same platinum blonde, but it looks healthier, less brittle than of old. Obviously the French have a better quality of bleach. The black jeans are almost the same, but more faded, not quite grey, but no longer statement stark. The full grey is in the button down, its collar open, sleeves rolled up past the elbow.
Xander pauses, taking in the full effect. Platinum, to grey, to fading black – gradations on a scale of fading morality, or perhaps of fading corruption, depending on whether you’re viewing top down or bottom up.
The look isn’t the only thing that’s kind of shifted. Spike’s whole body language is different, despite the cat-like wariness. He’s softer, less angular, like he’s oozing a bit at the corners – elbows and knees not as bony and weaponlike as before. Xander recognizes ooze. It’s a softness that comes with age. With weariness and futility and a healthy doze of what’s the point. He knows how easy it is for ooze to shift to blurred lines and finally to the kind of indistinctness that makes you see an ink blot when you look in the mirror. There’s that test. He wishes he could remember its name.
“Harris? Harris, you in there?” Spike’s right in front of him, snapping his fingers. He’s all sharp angles again. Funny, Xander hadn’t seen him move from the fireplace.
“Inkblot,” Xander mutters.
“The test. You look at an inkblot and they ask you what you see. I can’t remember its name.”
“It’s the name of the test, moron.”
“Oh right.” Funny how being called a moron by Spike is almost comforting. It’s familiar, at least.
Spike moves again while Xander woolgathers. This time he leans against the sink. “Why are you here?”
Right. There’s the $64,000 question. Xander sheepdogs his rambling thoughts back into some semblance of order and decides he might as well just go for it, since he’s come all this way.
“Buffy’s dead,” he says.
Spike nods. “Should have guessed.”
“Why.” Xander’s genuinely curious.
“Scooby turns up on my doorstep out of the blue. Not like you’re dropping around for tea and cakes. Has to be something big, something brutal.’
“Yeah.” Xander’s eye socket is gritty under his patch.
Spike pushes himself off the sink. This time, Xander tracks every movement as he walks towards the kitchen table, pulls out a straight back chair and sits astride, arms folded over the back. “Is it final this time?”
“Yeah,” Xander repeats. “Third time’s a charm.”
“Something like that,” Spike agrees. He stretches out one leg and hooks another chair with his ankle and kicks it in Xander’s direction. “You going to sit down?”
“Since you asked so nicely.”
“You’re the one who arrived at my door without an invite. I don’t have to be nice.”
“I can go. I’ve given you the news. Not much else to say.”
Spike sighs. “You’ve got better at this.”
“Not rising to the bait. Holding your own.”
“I’m not sixteen anymore. I’ve been out of the basement for a long time.”
For lack of something pithy to say in return, Xander pulls the offered chair towards him and sits. Now he’s delivered his news, he’s not sure what else to do.
“You going to tell me how?” Spike asks.
Xander doesn’t pretend not to know what he means. “Ritual sacrifice. Mage was going to offer up a couple of kids as tribute to his patron demon. We saved the kids and killed the mage, but not before the demon manifested. Buffy killed it, but it cut her up bad. Poison in the wounds. There was nothing we could do.”
“Not even Red?”
Xander shook his head. “She had to close the portal before any other nasties could come through. By then it was too late.”
Spike drums his fingers on the back of the chair. “How’s the old man taking it?”
“Calmly. On the surface anyway. You know that good old British reserve. He’s torn up, but he’s been preparing for it for so long, in some ways I think it’s almost a relief that it’s finally over. That he doesn’t have to worry about her every night she goes out.”
“I can see that. What about Red and the Nibblet?”
“Willow’s grieving, but in a quiet way. Not in a going to end the world way. So’s Dawn. They’ve grown up too. They know the risks.”
“That leaves you?”
“What about me?”
“How are you doing?”
“I’ve made my peace.” Xander studies his boots and rounds up a few unruly thoughts that have escaped their pen before he looks back up at Spike. “I couldn’t close the portal and I couldn’t do anything about the demon poison. But I got the kids to safety and I held Buffy’s hand. It’s not much, but it’s all I could do.”
“And now you’re playing messenger.”
“It felt like the right thing to do.”
Spike stands up abruptly and wanders back over to the fireplace where he started. He stares at the flames for a good minute before turning around. “Thanks. For coming to tell me. And it’s not nothing. Saving the kids, holding her hand. It’s what she would have wanted.”
“And this?” Xander waves his hand in a vaguely all-encompassing gesture. It’s easier than finding the right words.
“Don’t know if she’d have wanted this or not, but I appreciate it. So thanks, yeah. I’d rather hear it from you than from Peaches.”
“Willow phoned Angel. I didn’t really want to deal with him, or with Wolfram & Hart.”
“You always were smarter than you let on.”
Xander chuckles. “Thanks, I think.”
“I didn’t want to deal with them either – Peaches and Wolfram & Hart. That’s why I’m here.”
“I figured that. There are some brains under the bleach job if you know where to look.”
“Git,” Spike says. There’s no heat in it. “How’d you find me?”
“You write Christmas cards to Dawn. They’ve got a return address. It wasn’t hard, apart from the whole French road signs and the people speaking French, and you know…”
“The French,” Spike finishes.
This time it’s Spike’s turn to study his boots. Xander wonders if it’s a male thing to look for answers in a piece of shoe leather, or maybe it’s a Hellmouth thing. Even though they’re about as far away as they can get, old habits die hard.
Eventually Spike raises his head. He looks Xander is the eye. “Do you fancy a cuppa? Not sure I’ve got any cake. Not been to the shops in a while, but I can always whistle up a pot of tea.”
It’s such an unexpected offer all Xander can do is smile, even if there’s a part of him that’s boggling at the thought of Spike grocery shopping. “Sure, why not,” he says.
“All right then.” Spike moves back towards the sink and fills the kettle, turns on a ring and sets the kettle on the stove top.
Xander sits at the kitchen table in a rundown cottage in the middle of nowhere France and watches Spike – century-plus, twice-dead guy – fuss with cups and saucers, milk jug and sugar bowl and wonders what his sixteen-year-old self would make of it all. He wonders what the little blonde girl who was really a superhero that both the boy and the dead guy fell in love with, would make of it too.
Then he watches Spike measure tea into a pot, pour in the hot water and load up the tray and bring it back to the table. He decides it’s time to be kind to the boy he was and to allow himself to mourn their fallen with a comrade-in-arms. Even if there isn’t any cake.
He thinks their superhero would approve.