Rating: PG-13 (briefly described sex, some language)
Disclaimer: Don't own any of them, except in my heart
Feedback: Very welcome, with this caveat: this is the first thing I've ever written, at all, so I'd love constructive criticism, but try not to crush my soul
Summary: Post-Chosen AU, and Xander just isn't the same.
Note: The title is lifted from Emily Dickinson
Remembered, If Outlived
It wasn’t right. How he felt. Or, really, how he didn’t feel.
He didn’t feel victorious. He didn’t feel hopeful. He didn’t feel curious about what lay ahead. And, okay, there were reasons for that. There were losses. The place he’d never strayed from for more than a few weeks, where he’d grown tall, and spilled blood, and loved, and failed – a sinkhole, a ghost. And Anya, whom he’d failed worst of all (though he’d loved her, hadn’t he? Or at least, tried to?) now just another among the dead he’d once held in his arms. And duh, his fucking eye. So, yeah, there were reasons.
But it wasn’t right that he didn’t feel relief. No relief that he had, again, miraculously, survived. No feeling of gratitude that Buffy, and Dawn, and Willow, and Giles had survived with him. And he didn’t feel grief – at least, not in the way he had in the past, for Jesse, and for Joyce, and Tara. Before, he’d been intimate with grief, and it had been a palpable, crushing, living thing. A thing that he could feel, that forced him to feel.
After, though, it was different. After, it was something else. It was as if he were the sinkhole. As if something had been torn out of him – no, as if, inside, an absence, an emptiness, that he hadn’t known existed, had collapsed in on itself, leaving only an echo of what had been. And the hollowed out place was bigger than what had been there before.
It was physical, too. He saw everyone as through thick glass -- not distorted, just...apart. When they spoke to him, their voices were tinny in his ears. He touched them, when he touched them, with hands that were thick- fingered, clumsy. He remembered, once, an ashtray hitting him square in the chest through a thick woolen sweater, and then bouncing lamely away; and his father's fury at realizing he'd barely felt it. That's what it was like being touched, now.
At first, he thought it would pass. That’s what he told himself, anyway, and Willow, too, when she cautiously ventured that he didn’t seem like himself. “I guess it just takes time,” she agreed, hopefully. “I’ve heard of it. Heals all wounds, right?” he joked, trying to sound like he was supposed to. And then, an awkward silence, as they both thought about the wound that time clearly wouldn’t heal, Willow quickly shifting her gaze to somewhere just below his ear. The certainty flared up in him in that moment: time wouldn't heal him, because there was nothing to heal.
It made things easier, in a way. The knowledge that this is who he was, and would be. Once it was clear who he wasn't, it took only a bit of self-conscious attention to act like who he'd been. From the beginning, he'd refused to talk about that day, or to listen, and they'd decided it was his way of grieving. So, if now and again, they noticed a certain vagueness in his expression, a flatness in his tone, a distance in his eye, they'd tell each other "Anya," nodding. All except for Dawn, whose gaze he refused to meet, as she looked at him, first questioningly, then probingly, and still later, with despair, until she finally stopped looking at him at all. She had never acquired the gift of self- deception.
It was when the planning began in earnest that he knew he'd have to leave. He could wear the old self for them now, but he couldn't see his way to projecting it into the future -- not the future they had in mind. Not a future of seeking out Slayers, convincing them to fight the good fight, setting up schools, rebuilding the Council. That future belonged to someone no longer there, and not to him. It was time to let go, and, really, hadn't he, already?
So one night, as they were finishing a dinner peppered with conversation about London, and Brazil, and the Ivory Coast, he ahemmed and plunged ahead.
"Um. So I think I'm gonna finally take that road trip. Remember? Kerouac? Finding myself? Made it all the way to Oxnard?" Awkward and bright, letting a goofy half-smile take shape.
"Good idea," Buffy said, a little too quickly.
Dawn picked up her plate and placed it quietly in the sink. She stood there for a moment. Then she turned and left the room without a word or a backward glance.
"I'll just go see..." Buffy trailed off, following after Dawn. She paused at the door. " It's just that she's gonna miss you." And then, turning, muted: "We all do."
Giles cleared his throat. "Are you certain this plan is a good one? There's a great deal you could do."
"Totally of the good. Recharge the old batteries. Mine, I mean, not the car."
" Well, then." Giles took a step towards him. " I suppose it's decided." He patted him on the shoulder clumsily, letting his hand rest there for a moment, and then sighing.
"Hey there, G-Man. It's not forever."
Giles straightened. "Of course not," he said, and left the room.
That left only Willow, looking down at her folded hands and clenching her jaw to keep it from trembling.
"When will you go?" she asked.
His bags were already packed. "Soon."
"Because you can't stand it here. To be around us. Around me."
"What are you talking about? It’s not --"
"Just don't, okay? Do me the service of not treating me like an idiot."
Ah. So it was to be a real conversation. Probably the last.
"I’m tired, Willow. I’m just so fucking tired. I can't do what it is you want me to do. What you want to do. I wasn't much good at it before, let's face it. And that was with two eyes."
She shook her head. "That's not it, and you know it."
He sighed. "It's not what I want anymore. None of it. It's not who I am."
"If this is about Anya...why can't you just talk about it? To me? I’d understand. After Tara --"
He heard his voice go flat. "I'm not evil, Will. I'm not a murderer. I don't want to destroy the world. So what is it you think you understand?"
He looked away when she flinched. He hadn't wanted to hurt her. He had no interest in hurting anyone.
"But I love you. I want you to stay." Crying now.
He took her chin in his hand and faced her. "Listen to me, okay? Really listen." Debating with himself for a moment, before going on: "It's not me you want. You want who I was before. This is who I am after."
"They're the same!" Her voice growing shrill on the last word. She drew a breath and collected herself. " You just can't see it."
"No," he said. “I'm living it."
They were quiet for a few minutes, and then, "Do you love us, after? Do you love me?"
He'd thought about it, of course. He knew he'd loved them; remembered the feeling. Loved so much that his heart had ached with it, had grown heavy and full with it, had punished him for it. Sometimes, it had overwhelmed him with its power. Was it too much -- a love that had literally stopped the world from ending?
There was something, still. Something that remained. Not an ache any longer, but a tenderness, a faint penumbra around his heart. Like a shiny pink scar covering a wound -- still sensitive to the touch, a reminder of the pain that came before. Something you didn't want to look at too often, but didn't want to fade away completely, so that sometimes you could say, yes, that happened to me.
In the end, he told her he did, and hugged her close.
She let him.
He started in Oxnard, for the symmetry. The Fabulous Ladies Nightclub was boarded and shut, but next door was a porn shop, where he browsed for a bit, until a thin girl with nervous eyes pointed to a room in the back and offered him a massage with happy ending. He accepted, just to see how that would go, and it was fine. That was something. He tipped her fifty dollars and tossed his cell phone on the way out.
He aimed for the bigger cities, at first, welcoming the anonymity he found there. But by the time he reached Cheyenne, he realized that he could be anonymous anywhere, and with anyone. The company of strangers suited him; strangers sought him out. Women, in particular, were drawn to him, and he accepted what they offered -- their stories, their mouths, their beds. And from men he accepted the easy companionship that had eluded him before, over beers, or games of pool, or boasting complaints about wives and girlfriends. He saw that his willingness to accept, without offering or demanding, made him somehow attractive.
Driving one night on I-25, somewhere near Truth or Consequences, he began thinking of how many years he had spent trying to crack the code of cool, trying to learn popularity. He remembered a conversation with Oz -- Oz telling him that uniqueness wasn’t the answer. Later, he’d decided it came from not wanting things, or not caring, and resentfully understood that he’d never not want, or not care, and so the admiration of others would never come without being hard-earned, if at all. Now, though, without even trying, he’d been let in on the secret. It wasn’t about not wanting, or not caring, because he still wanted, and, sometimes, still cared. But he didn’t need. Couldn't even imagine what it was that he'd needed so badly, before. It was the not needing that was the lure. And it didn’t matter, much, whether not needing was a price he had paid, or a gift he had received.
On a long stretch of flat road in Kansas, with nothing to distract him but an unending blur of anti-meth and pro-life billboards, it came to him that he was very much like what they had once thought vampires were: someone that looked like him, and walked and talked and remembered his life before; but without the demon setting up shop inside, and, instead, just that hollowed out place. It occurred to him that, perhaps, he had lost his soul. And if that’s what it was, if this was soullessness, he could live with it. If he'd learned one thing, it was that, really, you could live with anything.
When he’d left, he’d taken three bags with him: his clothes, his tools, and his weapons. Hesitating over the last, but figuring that there would always be demons, and they’d find him, even if he wasn’t looking. And he’d been right about that. He found that he was a better fighter, even with his blind side, maybe because it wasn’t personal anymore. He wasn’t angry at them; not even that time with the little girl in Flagstaff, which had been ugly. He accepted that the killing was necessary, but he couldn’t be angry at something for acting out of its nature. He might as well be angry at himself, and he wasn’t. He wasn’t afraid, either. He didn’t want to die. He knew that. It was more that he was...uninvested in the outcome. So when he had to, he fought cleanly, brutally, but without passion to gum up the works.
Occasionally, after dispatching a demon, he'd call home; he'd have a story to tell, which made it easier. He usually spoke first to Buffy, who did him the kindness of engaging in idle chatter and allowing him to do the same. Then, with "Dawn says hi," in lieu of a goodbye, she'd pass the phone off to Willow.
"How are you? Where are you?"
"Idaho Falls. It's weird. The vamps are in a time warp. They have this whole Saturday night car culture cruising thing straight out of American Graffiti."
She'd laughed, so that was good. Or sometimes:
"Indiana. Indianapolis. Just got in."
"Are you heading to Cleveland?" Where Faith was. Which made for a slightly awkward moment.
"Nah. Don't think so. Just passing through."
"Are you feeling better?"
Better than what? Better than who?
"Sure. Everything's good. I feel--" He stopped himself. He didn't want to use that word, which he no longer really understood, because he didn't want to lie to her. Instead, truthfully: " I'm fine."
It was at a bar in Columbus, approached, once again, by a handsome boy with a drink in his hand and a question in his glance, that he realized there was no reason to answer no. It was a revelation, of sorts -- not the fucking a man part, which was very, very good, but that he had the capacity for preference; that probably, this would have been his preference before, had he known himself then.
He settled in New York, in a room in an SRO, whose residents might have once frightened him. When his money began to run low, he got a job at a lumberyard in the Bronx, and then another, tending bar at a midtown hotel at night. The lumberyard led him to some carpentry work, at which he made an impression, and ultimately landed him a steady and decently- paying gig with a high- end furniture designer in Red Hook. He got an apartment in the far East twenties, an area he appreciated for its unapologetic ugliness. "Why do you live here?" Brad, or was it Chad, asked him one night. "Because it's never tried to be anything other than what it is," he answered, smiling, his hand curling around a waistband, shutting him up with a kiss.
He fended off pleas to come home, first for Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, and after that, the pleas stopped, as they began scattering. First Giles, to London; then, Buffy and Dawn, to Rome; and finally, Willow, to Brazil, taking Kennedy with her, which would have surprised him if it was in his nature. The frequency of his contact with them diminished in a way that could be gratefully explained by distance and duty.
He acquired things: co-workers, clothing, furniture, food, bills, blankets, books. He acquired Jack, who used the word love, but meant "this is enough," a sentiment that he could accept, and even return, willingly, with his hands, and mouth, and cock. And with Jack came an established, peopled world that he found he was able to walk through. One evening, as they were dressing to go to the wedding of one of Jack's many cousins, a hand cupped his cheek, and then Jack's voice: "It's so nice of you to do this with me." It made him remember how much people needed, and how little they expected, when the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other could be misinterpreted as kindness.
And so, in this way, time passed.
And then the dreams began.
In the dream, he saw just the eyes. Someone looking at him, but he couldn't see who. And in the way of dreams, though he didn't recognize the eyes, he seemed to know them, seemed to know whose eyes they were. And whoever it was seemed to know him, but in a way that no one really did anymore; in a way no one ever had. Because when those eyes looked at him, they saw who he was. Saw him. Not who he was before, or who he was after, but both, and more -- an essential him, a complete him. A him that he, himself, didn't know, had never known, would never know; a him that didn't really exist, that seemed too good to be true -- too good, even, to exist in dreams. In the dream, he could feel again, and although the dream-feeling was utterly foreign to him, he somehow knew what it was. It was true happiness; it was ease of spirit; it was peace. And the feeling came because the person behind the eyes understood, and loved him. And the love he felt for this person was unlike anything he'd known in life, because it was limitless, and it was returned in full.
When he'd wake, the feeling was gone, and in its place, a profound sense of loss; but a loss for something that wasn't his, and never could be. (Yet, had it been within his grasp, before? Had he simply been unable to see it, until after?) It left him with a physical ache, in his bones, his muscles. His skin seemed bruised and tender; his head too heavy for his neck. It was as if the feeling had beaten its way out of his body, or beaten its way in, and left him battered in its wake. And there was a trace of something else, too; something reminiscent of need. He didn’t want it, any of it, and it stirred something akin to anger, and he didn’t want that either. Coming out of it was an effort of will.
Eventually, the dream changed, and in it he reached out to the person, but before his hand touched, they were ripped apart, and the hollow place returned, swallowing the feeling. He heard the person’s voice calling him to come, come, and then he was running through a building of chrome and glass, and pounding on a door, and he could hear the voice saying his name, again and again, begging him, sobbing, but he couldn’t get in, and he couldn't get the person out.
When he was alone, he’d wake thrashing, twisted in sheets soaked with cold sweat. Once, his eye was swollen almost shut, and, examining himself in the mirror, he realized he’d been crying. When he wasn’t alone, Jack would shake him out of sleep, and try to soothe him, gently. But the best thing for it was fucking -- frenzied, feverish fucking -- and he’d grasp and grab, mouth and bite, grind and strain, fuck and be fucked, into a mindless place where there was nothing: no eyes, no voice, no feeling, no need. Afterward, panting and spent, he’d be himself again.
One Indian summer evening, coming home, an arm slung casually over Jack's shoulder, whispering dirty promises into his ear, he saw a small woman with a crew cut and a cast on her wrist, seated on his stoop. She turned her face toward him, and it was Willow. A year had passed since he'd seen her last, a tiny, waving figure receding in his rearview mirror. It had been months since they'd spoken.
"What are you doing here?" he asked. "I mean, great to see you, but wow, big surprise."
She looked at him, and at his arm around Jack.
"This is Jack, my..."
"Boyfriend?" Jack supplied.
"My boyfriend. And Jack, this is Willow, a friend from home." Seeing the look on her tired face: "My best friend."
"Nice to meet you, uh, Willow?" Jack said, in a tone that made clear he'd never heard her name before.
"And you," she replied, not rising, but extending her uninjured left hand.
They were all three silent for a moment. He cleared his throat. "Hey, would you mind...?" Offering up his keys and a look that foreclosed questions.
"Sure," Jack said. "Hope we get to talk later, Willow." And went inside.
He eased onto the step beside her, waiting.
"I didn't come here to intrude, and I didn't come for myself. I want you to know that."
"It's not okay. It's humiliating. To have to come and ask you for something, when you've made it clear that a fucking phone call is too much to ask for. You're into guys now? Congratulations. Thanks for the update."
"You're not. But forget it. I'm not here about that." She drew a shaky breath. "Angel asked me to come. He wants me to bring you to L.A."
"Angel... L.A." He looked at her, but she had focused her gaze somewhere across the street. "What could he possibly want with me?"
She continued to stare at nothing, but her face seemed to crumple.
"It's Spike," she said, faintly. "Spike's alive. Or anyway, not dust. He's like he was before. Only not, because Angel says something's wrong. Really, really wrong. And they've tried everything, but they can't help him, and Angel thinks maybe you can. Help him, I mean. He said he couldn't explain, just that you needed to come." The words came rapidly, like gunfire, without pause for breath. " I told him how things are now. I told him I didn't think you'd do it. I told him you don't want any part of this." She looked at him, finally. "He begged me --Angel, begging. He asked me to say that he's begging you, for Spike's sake. And I know you don't want to talk about that day, but I thought...maybe...maybe, because of what he did, because when he did it, he saved your life, too-- maybe you'd be willing to try to save his."
She had spoken so fast that it took him a moment to sort out what she'd said.
"Who's Spike?" he asked.
Willow, at first, thought he was telling her no in a particularly nasty way; “Who’s Spike to me,” was how she’d heard it. When she realized that he genuinely didn't know, that he didn’t even recognize the name, she put her arms around him and wept, her small body heaving. It went on for a long, long time. But the choking sobs gave way to gasps, and then to shuddering breaths, and finally, she began to tell him. She started with the first time they'd seen Spike, stepping out from the shadows behind the Bronze, and walked him through the enormous entirety of it: from enemy to ally; from soulless to ensouled; from monster to martyr. Listening, he had the sensation of the earth moving too quickly beneath him, like sand shifting under his feet when the tide went out. This life, inextricably interwoven with his, this history that had happened, simply did not exist for him. How could there be nothing -- no hole, no scar, not a trace left behind -- to show that it ever had?
Willow, oddly, seemed almost relieved, as if hope had been rekindled that he might not be permanently lost to her. It was like she'd discovered a clue that might lead her to learning how to fix him.
“Magic,” Willow said. “Definitely dark magic. Or else a brain tumor.”
He didn't think it was either, but he didn't have a better explanation. Sometime, somehow, his past, or his memory of it, had been re-written. And if there was a reason, he wouldn’t find it here. "Okay," he said. "L.A. Let's go." It seemed to him that he didn't have a choice in the matter, or, if he did, he had somehow made it long ago.
When they got upstairs, the table had been set for three, but the candles had already burned low. Jack was trying to hide his irritation, but when he saw their faces, the look vanished. "My God, what is it? What's happened?"
His mouth opened, and snapped shut. Words wouldn't come, and even if they had, he couldn't have spoken them.
"Someone's sick," said Willow, waiting by the door.
"Family? A friend?" Jack asked, looking at him closely.
He shook his head.
"Someone...important, I think," he said, an unfamiliar tightness in his throat making his voice sound foreign to him. "Someone important to me."
He went into the bedroom, and began taking clothes out of the dresser, tossing them into a duffel. He heard Jack come in and sit on the bed.
"So you're going," Jack said, not asking a question, but waiting for an answer all the same.
He walked over to the bed and sat, taking Jack's hand. "You've been very kind to me," he said.
"Kind," Jack repeated, searching his face. "Are you coming back?"
"I'm not sure. I don't think so. I think it's out of my hands."
Jack lowered his eyes and nodded, as if the hurt had been what he'd expected all along. "Sometimes I wish you'd just lie to me. You know, the way people do? To make each other feel better?" Then, with a broken laugh: "The way you lie to yourself."
"What do you mean," he asked, cautiously.
Jack tapped him on the forehead with the tip of his finger.
"I think someone's still in there," Jack said.
Angel told them that Spike had simply appeared one day, suddenly just there, sitting on the floor of Angel's office, staring blankly into space. They didn't know how he'd been brought back, or by whom, or for what purpose, if any. And though he looked like himself, it was immediately apparent that he wasn't. He didn't seem to hear, or see, or even feel, when they touched him. He didn't speak, and he didn't feed. They had to force the blood into him, and he didn't react, even when the tube was snaked down his throat. He didn't react, either, to the poking and prodding, the endless tests to discover what was wrong with him, all of which came to nothing.
"We have a lot of resources now. Every kind of expert. But in the end, he's...how he is. You'll see. We do what we can. We keep him fed. We watch over him." Angel looked up. "They could take a look at you, too, if you like. The doctors. About the...amnesia."
He shrugged impatiently. "Maybe later." He studied Angel, who seemed less broody than he remembered, more defeated. "Why do you care? Willow says you've always hated him."
"He's my blood," Angel said. "Why do you?"
There was no answer he could give. I'm supposed to be here, he thought. But he stayed silent, and Angel went on.
"His...condition changed. I thought I was imagining it at first, but I wasn't. He'd get a look on his face, like he was seeing something that made him... happy." Angel shook his head. "Not just happy. I've seen him look happy." He gave a rueful smile. "I've known him a long time. I've seen a lot of looks. I'd never seen this one before. He looked...contented. At peace."
Something stirred, faintly, inside him. A muscle near his jaw twitched. But Angel wasn't looking. "Well, if he seems, like you say, peaceful..." he began.
"Do you think he’d be allowed that? Peace? None of us are that lucky, are we? Least of all him. We get what we deserve, and what we deserve is eternal torment. And he's getting it, right here. Whatever's going on when he gets that look -- it doesn't last. And afterward, he's in agony. Agony." Angel's voice went low. "I've caused a lot of pain to a lot of people. I've caused a lot of pain to him. I've never heard screaming like that. Not anywhere. Not ever."
The thing stirred inside him again. "I still don't see why you think I can do something for him."
A shadow seemed to pass over Angel’s face as he spoke.
"Because when he screams," Angel said, "he's screaming your name."
Spike was in a room in Angel's apartment, behind a locked metal door. There was a window in the door, its thick glass cross-hatched with wire. "We have to keep him locked in. He's tried to get out, in daylight. I thought he was trying to dust himself. But maybe he's just looking for you."
He stared through the window. The man inside was small, with dark blonde hair, dressed in hospital pants and no shirt. He sat on the floor, hugging his legs to his chest, head resting face down on his knees. He was terribly, terribly thin. You could count every rib, every protruding knob in his spine.
"Ring any bells?" Willow asked, hopefully. She had insisted on coming with him. He shook his head.
"Was he always so thin?"
"Not like this," Angel said. "It's harder to get blood in him now. He fights it."
"He seems pretty calm."
Angel nodded. "Sometimes for days. You hope it's over. But it isn't." He unlocked the door and gestured with his chin. "Go on."
He stepped into the room, heard the door shut behind him, the snick of the lock. He was conscious of them, watching him through the window. He was conscious of the quickening beat of his heart. He was conscious of his own voice in his head: now I'm in the room; now I'm walking across the floor; now I'm standing over him.
He crouched down, a few feet away. Spike didn't move, didn't look up. "Spike?" he asked. "Do you know who I am?" Spike still didn't look at him, but let out a sound -- part sigh, part sob. It sounded like relief.
"Hello, Xander," he said. "Hello, love."
Xander knew the voice. Not from memory, not from a time before or after, not from his waking life, but from the dream. He thought some part of him had already understood that this was why he'd come. And, all at once, hope surged in him, and fear. "Spike," he said again. But still, Spike wouldn't look at him.
"Come in the flesh, this time, have you? Thank you, pet. But it won't make a difference. You can't get me out. I know it, and so do you. Know how hard you've tried, and I'm grateful, but you don't belong here. Please, do as I say this time, and take it back. Just take it, love. I was a selfish bugger to have kept it at all...but I was afraid to be here alone. Well, you know that, better’n anyone. S'why you gave it to me, innit? But you have to take it back, and you can't come here again." A choking sound came from somewhere low in Spike's throat. "It gets worse each time you leave, don't you see? I won't keep you here, and you can't get me out, and I love you for trying, Xander. I love you. But you've got to let go now."
Xander heard the words. They seemed familiar, but their meaning remained just beyond his grasp, floating somewhere at the edges of remembrance. He squeezed his eye shut, straining for it.
"Shh," Spike said. "It'll come. It always does."
And then, the memories began drifting back to him, like ghosts. "I've come to you before," he said.
"Never stay long enough, do you? Though you're always with me, really."
"And I try to get you out of this room."
"The room's just a marker, a place holder. Like the body. But yes, you've tried to get me out. For the better part of a year. Stubborn git. Tilting at windmills, like always. Won't face the fact that this is where I'm supposed to be."
Hell, Xander thought.
"Yes," Spike said, as though Xander had spoken aloud.
"Why is this happening? Why am I able to come to you?" he asked.
"Did that on your own. Wasn't the only one sacrificed himself that day, was I? You gave up something, too. Knew I was afraid. Wouldn't let me go alone. You made sure I had something connecting me to this world. Gave it to me. So you could find me." Finally, Spike raised his head, and looked at him. "Your soul, mate. I've been keeping it for you."
When he saw the eyes, it was like returning to the dream, which hadn't been a dream at all, but a place, and a time; it had been him, and Spike. The feeling came again -- that he was whole, that he was right, that he loved, and was loved -- but it was even stronger, now. It filled the hollowed out place, and spilled over. He felt it radiating, in him, and from him. There was a reason he'd surrendered his soul, and it was this. It was destiny; it was love; it was Spike. The feeling, the need, consumed him, crashed over him, threatened to break him apart; the need to touch, to hold on, to bury himself in it and have it buried in him.
"What's stopping you?" Spike asked.
The shame of it almost kept him from speaking, and when he did, his voice was thick with misery. "That I'll fail again. That I'll lose you again. That I'm not strong enough to get you out. That I can't save you. That I can't save either of us."
"That's right, love. Mostly right, anyway. You can save yourself. Gonna see that you do." Spike patted the floor next to him. "Sit by me, there's a good boy."
Xander moved over. "What happens now," he asked, trying to breathe.
"I'll give it back to you. And after that...you'll remember me. You'll remember everything. You'll be right as rain." Spike's gaze drifted for a moment. "What happens now is, we say goodbye."
"And then I never see you again."
"That's right. It's as it should be." Spike looked at him intently. "No one's ever done for me what you have. No one's ever loved me like that. Like this. So I need you to let me love you back. I need you to let me do what's right." Spike cocked his head, and smiled. "Now tell me you love me, and give us a kiss."
"I love you, Spike," Xander said, and leaned in.
Spike's mouth was gentle, but Xander could taste the hunger there. He wondered if Spike tasted his, too. He felt hands cradling his skull, a thumb tracing his ear. He pressed closer, wrapping his arms around the narrow frame, feeling bone, muscle, skin. He felt his soul return to him, felt it humming inside him before it settled. And then, he felt Spike being wrenched away from him, and heard himself screaming; and when he tried to hold on, he felt fire tearing through him, burning him from the inside out; and the pain was like nothing he'd ever felt, worse than his eye, worse than anything. He heard Spike screaming his name; felt the pain, the terror, the anguish in that scream; felt it slice through him like a razor. He felt, with a desperate certainty, that he was dying; yet he knew that he could stop it. It would stop if he let go. If he just let go. Spike had told him to let go. He had let go before, and survived it.
In that moment, he heard something, indistinct, at first, then growing clearer. There was a voice, and it spoke to him. It said, trust yourself. It said, trust in him. It said, he is the one you were born for, and he was born for you. It said, don't let go. It said, don't let go. It said, don’t let go. And he recognized the voice, and believed it, and obeyed it. Because it was his voice that had spoken. It was the voice of his soul.
When he woke, he was on a bed, staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling. He panicked, for a moment, until he realized that the weight in his arms was Spike. Xander's hands felt stiff, and he saw that his fingers were dug so tightly into Spike's back that he'd drawn blood. He loosened them, and shifted, so that he could see Spike's face, resting on his chest, lightly rising and falling with Xander's breath. His face was tranquil in sleep, the sharp features softened, childlike. Xander wondered if Spike knew, even as he slept, that he was free.
Xander waited, and watched Spike sleep. It would be some time before he woke up; before he blinked into consciousness and saw Xander looking at him; before they smiled, and laughed, and wept; before they kissed, and pressed against each other; before they made love and promises; before Xander could tell him, how, in the end, it had been so simple.
He hadn't let go.
Watching Spike sleep, Xander was content to wait. They had all the time in the world.