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Before the Time of Dawn


by
Shadowscast





Part Seven


"Good luck," Xander whispered. "See you in the future."

Dawn gave him a quick hug. "Big party," she whispered one last time.

Spike gave her a wicked smile. "Go get'em, Magic Spice." Then his eyes widened in surprise when she threw her arms around him, too.

And then she was gone—running around the corner to the library, where the sounds of combat had ended abruptly less than a minute ago.

"Hope this works," Spike said.

"No kidding," Xander agreed. "Okay, where are the Sisters?"

They were in the student lounge. There were three of them huddled around the tipped-over vending machine, eating—"Oh god," Xander gulped.

"They do that the first time through?" Spike asked. He didn't look nearly as close to puking as Xander felt.

"Don't know. Don't care." Come to think of it, the next morning at school there'd been no sign of Bob's rotting corpse, and Xander had never thought to ask. "You talk to them. I'll wait here."

So Spike went over to try to convince the remains of the Sisterhood of Jhe that it would be a really good idea to go into hiding for six years, and Xander studied the student council bulletin board and carefully breathed through his mouth.

Huh, Dingoes Ate My Baby is playing at the Bronze Thursday night. Wow, that brings back memories. Behind him, the disturbing sounds of snapping bones and crunching gristle slowed down and then stopped.

"This is all that's left of you?" he heard Spike say—presumably for Xander's benefit, as the Sisterhood of Jhe didn't understand spoken language. "Only three? ... Sorry to hear it. Tell you what, though. We're here to help."


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*

Dawn had done her job well; the school corridors were deserted as Spike led the way out into the night. The three last Sisters of Jhe followed him single-file, their claws clicking on the linoleum, and Xander brought up the rear.

When they got to the rental car, Spike handed Xander the keys. "You drive. I need my hands free."

"Where are we going, exactly?" The idea all along had been to get the Sisters out of harm's way, but their plan had been pretty fuzzy as to precisely where 'out of harm's way' would be.

Spike exchanged another flurry of gestures with the Sisters, then turned back to Xander. "The desert. They can find a cave, go into hibernation. They do it all the time between Hellmouth events."

"Great." Xander felt a profound sense of relief—things were finally falling into place. They were going to pull this off. He got into the car, then waited for the three Sisters to pile into the back seat. They elbowed each other uncomfortably, but managed to get the door shut. He decided not to bother getting Spike to tell them to fasten their seatbelts.

The drive out to the desert was largely uneventful, though each glance in the rear view mirror was fairly disturbing. Once the Sisters settled down for the ride, they started licking each others' battle wounds.

"They understand, right?" Xander said quietly as he took them through the low hills that bordered Sunnydale on the east. "About not messing up the timeline?"

"They're not invested in it like we are," Spike pointed out. "I did tell them our deal—that we're from the future, that we came back to stop them from being destroyed. They know there's not enough of them to do their job now—not enough to fight the beasties that come out of a Hellmouth when you vent it. I told them that if they wait six years, there'll be all sorts of super-powered girls ready to lend them a hand."

Forty-five minutes later, at the edge of the desert, Xander and Spike said good-bye to the Sisterhood of Jhe. The Sisters' pale blue-gray skin almost glowed in the light of the full moon as, one by one, they made the throat-slitting gesture and loped off into the harsh wilderness.

"That's it," Xander said, sagging against the car. "We're done. We can go back to the future."

Spike snorted. "Hold your horses, Marty McFly. Have to go back to Sunnydale first and check out."

"Well, yeah. Obviously. But the hard part's over, right?" He held up the car keys. "You wanna drive back?"

Spike shook his head and reached for the passenger-side door. "I'm all fagged out. Think I'll sleep on the way back."

Xander frowned, a bit worried. Spike loved driving, and what with having depth perception and all he was actually better at it than Xander. If he was begging off driving, he must be feeling pretty crappy. He'd been coughing on and off on the ride up, insisting the whole time he was 'fine.' Xander hoped he wasn't getting sick.

Of course, it was nearly two in the morning. Xander was tired himself, though he knew he was okay to drive. "No problem," he said. "Hop in."

At first Spike leaned back against the headrest with his eyes closed, but he was coughing too much to sleep. Xander didn't say anything; he was already getting them home as fast as he could, and there was nothing else he could do.

Spike gave up on trying to sleep. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. His breath was sounding wheezy. He dug in his pocket and got out his inhaler and took another dose.

At that point, Xander had to say something. "Uh, Spike? Are you having another attack?"

Spike gave him a scathing look. "What's it ... look like?" he managed to say.

"Shit." Two in one night was seriously not of the good. It didn't seem like the inhaler was helping like it was supposed to.

Spike, meanwhile, was trying again.

"Aren't you supposed to wait longer than that between doses?" Xander asked.

Spike handed the inhaler to Xander. "Think it's ... empty."

Xander hefted it in one hand. It did seem a bit on the light side. "Fuck." He glanced at the dashboard—they were about thirty miles out from Sunnydale. Thirty miles of barren, cactus-covered hills. Not even a gas station, let alone an all-night pharmacy.

He drove as fast as he dared, faster by far than a one-eyed man had any business driving on winding unfamiliar roads at night. He hoped a cop would stop them—then he could turn over the driving to someone with depth perception, flashing lights and a siren. Then he could hold Spike's hand and rub his back and calm him down and ... okay, maybe it was Xander who needed the calming. Spike was perfectly calm, entirely focused on the fight to get air in and out of his resisting lungs. 'Not breathing doesn't scare me,' he'd told Xander once in the wake of an attack. 'Went more'n a week without breathing this one time.'

'Yeah, but that was back when you didn't need oxygen to live,' Xander had pointed out.

Spike had conceded the point with a shrug, and kissed Xander to shut him up and change the subject.

Now, in the car, Xander talked. He wasn't sure if Spike was really listening, but Xander needed to fill the air with sounds other than Spike's labored breaths.

"Never did catch sight of Cordelia," he said. "Probably for the best, but still, I would've liked to see her one last time. I never saw her again after the prom, you know. She moved out to LA and ended up working for Angel, which was completely weird but I guess you already knew about that. Willow went down there a couple times but I never did. And then Wesley ended up working with them too, how crazy was that? Try to imagine telling that to Angel at this point—that Cordy and Wesley are going to end up his intrepid team of adventurers. Or detectives, or whatever the hell it was they were supposed to be doing. Of course, I guess no one's even met Wesley yet."

He was babbling, he knew. When you've got to fill thirty miles with impromptu monologue and you're trying not to talk about the only thing you're thinking about, which is whether your lover will die before you can get him to the hospital, babble just kind of happens.

Spike didn't seem to get any better, but he didn't get any worse either. Hunched over, hands clawed on his knees, forcing the air in and out. Thirty miles of breathing.

They made it.

Half-helping, half-carrying Spike, Xander pushed open the familiar door of the Sunnydale ER and staggered inside, looking for the first nurse or doctor or orderly or anyone who could help.

He was looking for someone in scrubs, of course. Which maybe explained why the group of people walking down the hall towards him didn't register at all until they stopped abruptly a few feet away and Angel said, "Spike."

The bottom fell out of Xander's stomach. He froze—a deer in the headlights, a statue in the Louvre, a snowman in fucking Antarctica.

Angel. Faith. Willow. Giles. Buffy with her arm in a sling. All of them in a cluster, blocking the hall, looking at Spike now with varying expressions of startlement, anger and dismay.

"Peaches," Spike said, pulling himself up straight and half-pushing Xander out of the way and acting like he was going to fucking bluff his way out of this.

Angel glowered, taking a half step forwards and nudging Buffy behind him. "You should've stayed gone, Spike."

"Spike?" Faith repeated. "You know this guy?"

"AKA William the Bloody," Buffy supplied, sounding severely unimpressed.

Faith blinked. "He's a vamp? Huh."

"An old friend," Buffy said dryly.

Faith raised her eyebrows. "Don't tell me it's another one we can't dust," she said with a significant glance at Angel.

Buffy narrowed her eyes. "Oh, this one we can dust."

"No!" Xander yelped. Thus drawing everyone's attention to him.

"Xander!" Willow gasped. "What happened to your eye?"

"What happened to your hair?" Buffy added.

"I'm not Xander," he said quickly, panicked. "I'm his cousin. Rigby. From Tulsa."

"No you're not," Willow said. "I've met Rigby."

"Spike," Angel said, "I don't know what you're up to, but you're going to let Xander go."

Spike, meanwhile, in his effort to hide his asthma attack, was barely even breathing. His lips were tinged with blue and he was swaying on his feet. "Out of the way," he managed to say, "or I ... kill the ... boy."

"You're not even holding on to him," Giles pointed out with a hint of exasperation.

Spike looked like he was trying to reply, but he couldn't. His knees buckled and Xander lunged forward to catch him.

"Xander?" Willow said in a small voice.

Xander was supporting almost all of Spike's weight. With his head tucked against Xander's chest, Spike struggled to breathe.

"He needs a doctor," Xander said. "Now."

"It's a trick—" Angel started.

Xander cut him off with a fierce look. "I'll explain everything, just let us through!"

Giles stepped forward, frowning intently. "Willow, this is not Xander. The resemblance is striking, but look closely—this is not your friend."

"Yes I am! I am Xander!" He turned to Willow, desperate in his appeal. "Will, you're my best friend. Make them listen. Spike can't breathe."

"Uh, guys?" Willow said to the rest of her group. "Maybe we should..."

"He's human." Angel had moved in closer; now he was looking down at Spike with a mixture of confusion and horror. "His heart is beating." He started to reach out to touch Spike, but stopped himself. "It's beating much too fast."

Xander glared at Angel. "Get out of the way." A vampire, two Slayers, a witch and a Watcher. The adrenaline surging through Xander's veins said he could fight them all if they didn't stand aside.

"Angel," Buffy said quietly from the back, "bring Spike into the ER."

So in the end it was Angel who carried Spike, barely conscious, into the Sunnydale hospital's emergency room. Xander hovered at his side, way past worrying about the timeline now, waving over the nearest nurse and explaining in quick, short phrases the empty inhaler, the thirty mile drive. Faith and Buffy lingered at the edge of the room, conspicuously guarding the exit. Giles and Willow stayed closer, watching and listening.

In under a minute Spike was on a bed getting oxygen. A doctor was listening to his breathing, frowning, calling for a nebulizer and listing off drugs that sounded vaguely familiar to Xander. She had Spike's t-shirt bunched up to expose his chest for her stethoscope, which gave Xander and Angel a good view of the ugly greenish bruises from the fight with the fledge Friday night.

The doctor was a tall woman with salt-and-pepper hair held back in a low bun. Xander thought he recognized her; maybe she'd treated him for concussion once or twice. "Is he going to be okay?" he asked as soon as she tucked the stethoscope back in her pocket.

"And you are ...?" she prompted.

"His partner." Xander reached for Spike's hand and held it, both for comfort and to let the woman know he didn't mean his racquetball partner. Beside him, Angel shifted uncomfortably.

The doctor nodded. "He should improve rapidly once we administer medication." She motioned Xander a little distance away from Spike. "He'll definitely need to stay overnight for observation. He won't be able to speak for a while, so can you give me an idea of his medical history?"

"His asthma's usually not bad unless he's sick. He's, uh, had pneumonia," Xander counted quickly in his head, "four times in the past year." He knew he should probably tell her about all the drugs Spike was on, but he couldn't remember their names.

She made a note on her clipboard. "What's his HIV status?"

"Negative." Xander didn't even blink; he'd got used to that question in Rome.

"You didn't give a name or MediCal number on admission," she observed. "It would be very helpful if I could get his previous hospital records."

"He's not American," Xander said. "He doesn't live here. Doesn't have a MediCal card." He knew she couldn't refuse him treatment as long as it was an emergency.

"You want to tell me about the bruises?" she said.

Xander hoped she didn't think he'd beaten Spike up. That would be messy. "He was mugged Friday night near Peaceful Acres," Xander said. "Big guy with a messed-up face. He barely managed to get away." It was a Sunnydale kind of story; he hoped the doctor would subconsciously recognize the type of attack and decide not to question him further.

Angel, who obviously knew exactly what Xander was talking about—he could see the healing bite mark on Spike's neck, anyway—crossed his arms and scowled. No way to guess what he was thinking.

"What about the scars?" the doctor said.

"Oh. Uh..." Xander was thrown by the question. He didn't really even think about the scars anymore, he was so used to seeing them on Spike's bare skin every night. His left forearm had a dusky rose four-inch line where the junky had sliced him that night at the porn store. Then there were the dozens of thin scars on his other arm and his chest, pale pink now and fading towards white, more visible than usual in the hospital's harsh bright light. Any time Xander had tried to ask about them, Spike had given him a different vague story and changed the subject. Xander knew better than to press when Spike didn't want to talk about something.

"They look self-inflicted," the doctor said impatiently. "Is he under psychiatric care?"

"What? No!" he said emphatically. "He was robbed at work last year, the guy cut him." Inside, he was shaken. Shit, that's why he wouldn't tell me. It had never occurred to him that Spike had cut himself, but as soon as the doctor suggested it he was sure it was true.

"All right." The doctor sounded like it didn't matter one way or the other to her. She made another note on the clipboard.

At that point a nurse finally arrived with the nebulizer, and Xander backed off to let them set it up. Still thinking about what the doctor had said, he decided that once they were safe back home he was going to ask Spike about it, up front.

Angel grabbed his arm. "Now you're going to talk," he said very quietly.

He let Angel lead him over to the side of the room, where Giles and Willow had settled on hard plastic chairs. He didn't like getting farther from Spike, but he knew he had to deal with this. Faith and Buffy, seeing the movement, came over to join them.

"It's time to tell us the truth," Angel said. "Who are you? And who is that over there?"

Xander sighed. "I'm Xander. That's Spike. Only ... we're from the future."

"That's impossible," Angel said flatly.

"Giles?" Xander turned to him. "Help me out here. You're the one who sent us back here in the first place."

"It is not impossible," Giles admitted. "However it is highly inadvisable, and I cannot conceive of any circumstances under which I would have committed to such a course of action."

"That's not the impossible part." Angel glared, folding his arms over his chest. "The impossible part is Spike somehow turning human."

"Well obviously it isn't impossible," Xander snapped. "Because there he is."

"Listen, Giles," Faith edged in over Angel and Xander's back-and-forth, "I've seen these guys around. They're staying at the same motel as me, two doors down."

"Really." Giles looked thoughtful. "Faith, Buffy, why don't you go and see if you can find anything in their room that could shed light on their true identities or their purpose here."

"Giles," Xander said quickly, "think about it. We're from the future. Do you want to risk messing up the timeline?"

"As far as I am concerned," Giles said, "the future hasn't happened yet. Buffy, Faith—go."

"Oh god." Xander sank onto the vacant chair beside Willow. His legs felt like wet noodles. Overcooked ones, even. "We are so fucked."

"Xander!" Willow said, sounding shocked. "Language!"

"Will," Xander started wearily, and then didn't know where to go with it. I'm twenty-four years old. I've seen more death than you can imagine, some of it caused by me, some of it caused by you. I'm having hot gay sex with the guy who waved a broken bottle in your face two months ago, or at least I would be if he weren't in the middle of almost dying. I've blown up my high school, I've watched my hometown crumble into a giant crater, I've walked into villages where the flies are so thick on the hacked-up remains of what used to be people that you can't even tell they used to be people. I say 'fuck' now, Will. "Sorry," he said out loud. "It's been a rough night."

"Tell me about it," Willow sighed, slouching lower in her chair. "You can't even imagine what kind of night we've been having."

"I'm from the future," he reminded her. "I know you just fought that monster from the Hellmouth."

"Oh," her eyes widened. "I suppose you do."

"Perhaps you could tell us," Giles said in his polite talking-to-a-maybe-enemy voice, "what you have been up to tonight."

Xander shook his head. "I can't tell you things. We shouldn't be talking at all. This is all horribly, terribly bad."

"You can hardly endanger your timeline by telling us about things that have already happened, can you?" Giles said.

Xander closed his eye, rubbed his temples against the dull headache that was building there. He tried to think about what Giles had told him in Rome about timelines. It had pretty much boiled down to all change is bad. Unless caused by Dawn, in which case it didn't count. But Dawn wasn't here to save him now. "We were saving the world," he said. "What else would we be doing here?"

Angel snorted derisively. "You and Spike were saving the world?"

"He's good now," Xander said. Weary, wary—he didn't really expect them to believe him.

"He threatened to kill you," Angel reminded him. "Just now. In the hallway."

Xander rolled his eye. "That was a bluff. He just wanted to get past you."

"If he's human," Willow said, "he has a soul, right?"

"Yeah," Xander said, "of course." Silently he marveled at how naïve they'd all been back in high school, thinking of souls as an on/off switch for evil. Faith was going to shake that belief pretty soon. Spike was going to gray things up a whole lot more in the coming years. But not if I screw it all up, first.

"Giles," Angel said, "we can't trust him."

"Spike?" Giles looked up over the tops of his glasses. "I most certainly don't trust him, though it seems rather a moot point at the moment, given his condition."

"No. Xander. This Xander. He's ... with Spike."

"Well, yes." Giles looked at Angel as though he were stupid. "He did just say that."

"No, I mean, he's..." Angel cleared his throat and looked pained. "with Spike."

Giles blinked and suddenly his glasses were in his hands, getting a vigorous polish. "I see."

"I don't," Willow said, sounding slightly cranky.

"Spike's my boyfriend," Xander said, because the euphemisms were pissing him off.

Her eyes went wide. "Oh." She looked at Xander. "But you aren't—are you?"

"I'm bi," he said. "I didn't come out until long after—" after you, he nearly said. He acknowledged to himself that exhaustion and worry about Spike were leaving him very prone to saying stupid things. "—after high school," he managed after the awkward pause.

"Oh," Willow said again, obviously working hard to assimilate the surprising information. "Well ... good for you!" She gave him a brave attempt at a smile.

"And now I'm going to go sit by my lover and hold his hand," he said, standing up, daring Angel or Giles to stop him.

They didn't stop him, but this time it was Giles who followed him to the bed. Xander didn't make an issue of it.

Spike opened his eyes when Xander's hand closed over his. "Sorry, luv," he whispered, the sound muffled by the oxygen mask he was wearing.

"Don't be stupid," Xander told him gently, "it's not your fault. Anyway, everything's going to be fine. Just rest, okay?"

Spike closed his eyes again.

"If you are Xander Harris," Giles said, "then you must understand why I cannot trust you without knowing far more than you've told me."

He understood. Hell, he'd been the victim of a fake 'Xander-from-the-future' prank himself one time—though of course Giles didn't know about that, the aborted wedding was years and years away. Still, as a Watcher he'd certainly know about the potential for that kind of deception.

As for how to convince Giles now that he and Spike were the good guys, Xander had no fucking clue.

"We weren't supposed to meet you." Xander's gaze rested on Spike while he talked. His chest was moving up and down evenly now. "I forgot that Buffy broke her arm that night—this night." Behind the plastic distortion of the oxygen mask, Spike's lips were a healthy shade of pink. "All you have to do is let us go. We'll leave town right away. We aren't any threat to you."

Giles had his hands folded neatly on his lap. He was watching Spike, too. "You realize I have nothing but your word for that, and your association with Spike tends to strain my trust."

"He's human, Giles. You've got to see how that changes things, right? Like Angel getting a soul, only more so. And he's sick. If you don't believe me about anything else, you must believe that I want to get him home as soon as possible."

"I'm feeling much better now, actually," Spike said without opening his eyes.

"Spike?" Xander said, his voice going involuntarily high as his combined relief and frustration mixed into an absurd urge to giggle, "that was not helpful."

Someone tapped his shoulder from behind. He looked around, craning his neck because the person was on his blind side. It was Willow, standing there with two styrofoam cups of coffee from the hospital canteen. She handed one to Xander and one to Giles.

"It seems like we're going to be here for a while," she explained. "So I thought—wouldn't this be more fun if we all were buzzing on caffeine?"

"Oh god," Xander said, almost reverently. "Will, you so completely rock." He stood up and gave her a one-armed hug, careful not to slosh the coffee.

It wasn't just the coffee. It was the fact that she'd brought him a cup, while everyone else was busy trying to decide if he was evil.

She hugged him back tightly, and stepped back with a tentative smile. "Xander? You probably don't remember, but earlier tonight I told you I loved you. I do. That's not ever going to change."

"I know." For some reason his mind flashed on Kingman's Bluff. Willow at her darkest moment, ready to commit murder-suicide with the whole entire world ... stopping only because she couldn't do it if it meant killing him first. The Willow standing in front of him was years away from that, but it was coming. "I love you too," he said. "I always will."





Part Eight


Giles and Xander sat side by side, silently sipping their coffees. Spike seemed to be sleeping. Minutes crept by, punctuated by bleeping monitors, the rubber-soled footsteps of nurses and doctors crisscrossing the room behind them, and the steady hiss of the oxygen machine.

And then someone grabbed Xander from behind, yanked him to his feet and shoved him hard face first against the wall. What was left of his coffee splashed all over the floor. He gasped at the pain of his shoulder nearly being dislocated as whoever was behind him pinned his left arm against his back and used it for leverage. "What did you do to Dawn?" Buffy hissed.

"Ow," was all Xander could manage to say. "Ow ow ow ow fuck ow!"

"We didn't do anything to her," he heard Spike say. "She's safe at home, ain't she?"

Buffy backed off, let go. Xander gasped in relief and rolled his shoulder. Turning around he saw Spike sitting up in bed, the mask hanging down around his neck. Buffy, nearly trembling with fury and looking very ready to rip him to pieces with her bare hands, was holding a well-creased piece of paper.

"Look," she said, thrusting the paper at Giles. "They were stalking her. They've got the schedule of her ballet lessons, and some story about her killing her class gerbil."

"Let's not be hasty, Slayer," Spike said. "There's a good reason for everything."

"Why would you travel back in time six years and stalk a twelve-year-old girl?"

"Xander already said," Spike replied calmly. "We were saving the world."

An orderly in green scrubs ran up. "What the hell is going on here?" He turned to Buffy. "Miss, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

"No," Spike said quickly. "It's all right, just a misunderstanding. But you'd better get someone to mop up that coffee."

The orderly hesitated, but either he decided that Buffy didn't look like much of a threat or he decided she looked like far too much of a threat, sling notwithstanding. "Okay then," he said, and left.

"So," Buffy said, making a brittle pretense of calm, "explain to me, someone, what this—" she shook the paper, "—has to do with saving the world."

Spike swung his feet over the edge of the bed. "Think it's about time to go somewhere more private, wouldn't you say?"

"No!" Xander said. "No fucking way. You are not leaving this hospital."

He met Xander's eye, but Xander couldn't read him—he was wearing a hard, calm expression. "Sooner we get done here, sooner we get home," he said evenly. "That'd be a good thing, yeah?"

"He seems fine to me," Buffy said, clearly not caring if he was or not. "I think getting out of here is a really good idea."

"Agreed," said Giles, already on his feet. "Where is Faith?"

"Still at the motel, going through the rest of their stuff."

"Then we can ring her there and tell her to meet us at my apartment."

Xander stepped up next to the bed and, putting his hand on Spike's shoulder, faced the others. "Nobody seems to be getting the part where no fucking way are we leaving the hospital."

Spike patted his hand. "My call, pet, not yours."

Xander glared at him. "It'll be my call once I get you declared legally insane. You just had a near-fatal asthma attack, Spike. I'm pretty sure that calls for a few hours of bed rest."

"Don't be such a drama queen. It wasn't that bad, and I'm fine now."

Buffy's expression was still dark. "He's fine, we're happy, let's go."

"Buffy, go find a pay phone," Giles said. "Angel and I are quite capable of keeping the situation in here under control while you ring Faith."

"Get Willow to do it," she said.

"Buffy," Giles repeated more emphatically, "go and ring Faith."

She hesitated a moment longer, glaring at Xander, but then she went. Xander relaxed a tiny bit.

"Don't move," Giles said, in a tone that did not allow for argument, and he walked away.

"What the hell are you thinking, Spike?" Xander whispered. "We don't even know what they're going to do to us. What if you have another attack?"

"The longer we're with them, the more things can go wrong," Spike whispered back. "We just have to convince them we didn't hurt Dawn, and then get the fuck out of Sunnydale."

Giles came back accompanied by the doctor who had treated Spike earlier. She took out her stethoscope and said, "Your friend here tells me you want to leave. I don't think that's a good idea."

Spike tilted his head, regarded her with calm blue eyes. "But you can't stop me."

"No, I can't," she agreed. "Pull up your t-shirt." When Spike complied, showing off his abs and giving her an expression just on the polite side of a leer, she pressed her stethoscope against his chest and said, "Take a deep breath."

Spike complied. Halfway through inhaling, he broke down coughing.

The doctor pressed her lips together. "Try again."

This time he didn't cough; Xander was pretty sure he didn't try to breathe as deeply as the first time.

The doctor straightened up and let her stethoscope hang around her neck. "Well, I don't think you're at immediate risk of another attack," she said. "I'll write you a new prescription for albuterol. I strongly suggest you get it filled immediately; there's a pharmacy attached to the hospital, open 24 hours." She got her prescription pad and pen out. "You'll need to give me a name. It doesn't have to be your real one."

"Will Smith," Spike said, with a quick glare at Giles that the other man had no hope of understanding, considering it was still five and a half years before Giles would saddle him with that name.

The doctor gave a tight smile, murmured "Will Smith it is, then," and wrote the scrip.

By then Buffy was back from calling Faith. Now that they were headed for Giles's place, she seemed content to wait for the confrontation. They all went together to the pharmacy to get the new canister for Spike's inhaler, Buffy and Angel acting conspicuously as guards on either side. Spike refused to lean on Xander, so Xander just held his hand and forced the whole group to walk slowly.

When they got out to the parking lot, it was negotiation time again.

"Our car is right there," Xander said. "I know the way to Giles's apartment, no problem."

"Yeah, right, like we'd send you off in a car by yourselves," Buffy glared at him. "Angel, you can drive, right?"

In the end only Willow ended up in the Citroen with Giles; Buffy insisted on riding with Xander and Spike, to keep an eye on them. They shared the backseat, while she rode in front but twisted around backwards to watch them with hard eyes as Angel drove.

"I don't care if you are the real Xander," she said. "If you've hurt Dawn, I'll kill you."

"Buffy, I swear to you," Xander said, "I would never in a million years hurt Dawnie."

She didn't look convinced. "What does a million years mean when you're time traveling?" She didn't give him time to answer. "You're holding hands with Spike," she said. It was an accusation, not an observation.

"Yeah." Xander felt Spike squeeze his hand tighter. "A lot can change in six years, Buff."

"I don't get it, Xander." The cold, angry expression was cracking now; she sounded like she was on the edge of tears. "I thought I knew you. I would have trusted you, any version of you, old, young, whatever. How could you do this to me?"

"He's not done a thing to you, Slayer," Spike said much more gently than Xander would have managed at that moment.

"Whatever's going on between them, I'm pretty sure it's Spike's fault," Angel interjected.

"Oh, sod off you great big poof," Spike snapped. "You know fucking nothing about it."

"I know you, Spike. I knew you for twenty years. You're ... a bad influence." Angel had been going to say something else, Xander was sure of it.

Spike, meanwhile, was sitting up straight, his eyes flashing with rage. "Oh, all those times were my idea, were they?"

"Wait, what times?" Xander asked. They can't be talking about ... Spike would have told me if he and Angel had ... His brain shied away from finishing the thoughts.

"Yeah, what times?" Buffy repeated. She sounded as wigged by this turn in the conversation as Xander was.

"Nothing," Angel said abruptly. "Never mind."

Spike sank back against his seat, still looking daggers at the back of Angel's head.


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*

As soon as they got to Giles's place, Xander made sure Spike lay down on the couch. He got nothing but a short token protest from Spike, which meant he was at least as tired as he looked. While Angel glowered and Buffy frowned and bit her lip, Xander propped Spike up on a couple of pillows and draped a blanket over his legs. Giles, who'd wordlessly provided the spare bedding, stood aside watching thoughtfully. Willow sat cross-legged in an armchair, looking very small and worried.

Faith came in the door just as Xander finished getting Spike set up. She had Spike and Xander's duffle bag slung over her shoulder. "Hey guys," she said. "I tossed the room, brought everything that looked interesting. Which sure as hell didn't include their clothes, Christ."

"We were trying to keep a low profile," Spike said, sounding offended.

"So, let's see what's in the goody bag," Buffy said. Her mood seemed to have swung back around to tight anger. "Anything else to do with Dawn?"

"One thing at a time, B." Faith dropped the bag down on Giles's coffee table with a thud and yanked the zipper. Everyone moved in closer, and Xander perched on the arm of the couch. "Recognize this, Giles?" she said, pulling out one of the stolen books.

"Good lord," he said, taking it—and then another and another, as she handed them to him. All six of the books Spike and Xander had stolen from the library. "These are mine." He peered at the titles, frowning. "All of them are exceedingly rare. This one contains extremely powerful dark spells. My God," he said, looking up at Xander, "What were you planning to do with them?"

"I don't know," Xander said, mentally cursing the Giles of the future. "You're the one who told us to steal them."

Giles carefully set the books aside and put his hands on his hips. "Why on earth would I send you back in time to steal my own books?"

Xander sighed. There was no way they were going to get out of here safely without giving some info about the future; he'd just have to try to keep it as vague as possible. "Because they were destroyed," he said. "And there weren't any more copies in the world, so you thought it was worth the risk."

Giles leaned back against the wall. He had a Ripper kind of look to him at the moment, Xander noticed with a mental shiver. "Well," Giles said, "that simply isn't true. The Council has copies in their main library."

"Those ones were destroyed too."

Giles looked startled, then skeptical. "The Council library is extremely secure. How could those copies have been destroyed?"

"You know we can't tell you that, Rupert," Spike said in his hoarse, low voice. "You might be tempted to meddle."

"Next item," Faith said. She pulled out a small black toiletries bag and tossed to Giles. "Check it out. Some crazy pharmaceuticals in there."

Giles unzipped the bag and peered inside. He'd be seeing a lot of little prescription bottles of pills, Xander knew, all with the labels made out to William Smith and dates in late 2004 and early 2005.

Giles took out the bottles and peered at the labels one by one. "I don't recognize most of these drugs," he mused. "This one's a painkiller."

Spike didn't seem like he was going to speak up, so Xander did. "They're Spike's," he said. "And he, uh, should have taken a bunch of them a couple hours ago, so if you'd just throw the bag over here and get us a glass of water, that'd be really nice."

"What are they for?" Angel asked.

Spike scowled. "That's none of your fucking business."

Giles handed the bag to Willow. "I'd like you to look up the names of the drugs online, see if you can find out what they do."

"Okay," Willow said with an anxious glance in Xander's direction. "Do you want me to go home and do it now?"

Giles shook his head. "I think it can wait until morning."

"Hey!" Xander said. "I said, he needs those. Willow?"

Her eyes flickered between Xander and Giles and she bit her lip. Then she stood up and walked towards the kitchen.

"What are you doing?" Buffy asked.

"Getting a glass of water." Willow was using her resolve voice. Xander breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

"Okay, next exhibit," Faith said over the sound of Willow running water, "I think this might explain a few things. Didn't read the whole list before I threw it in the bag."

She walked over and handed it to Giles, who adjusted his glasses and read out loud. "There are bullet points," he said. "Confirm date, January 22, 1999. Rent a car, drive to Sunnydale. Check into the Holiday Inn."

"They screwed that one up somehow," Faith observed.

"There was a sodding convention," Spike muttered. "It was full." Willow came out and handed him the glass of water and his bag of pills. "Ta, Red," he said quietly.

"You're welcome," she said, but she was looking at Xander.

"Contact Dawn," Giles continued reading. "Steal books—yes, and it lists the titles, the same six you found." Then he looked up from the list. "The last bullet point says 'save the Sisterhood of Jhe.'"

"Yeah, that." Xander sighed. "Funny story. Wanna hear it?"

"I want to know what Dawn had to do with it," Buffy said, moving threateningly close. "Tonight, at the school—did you send her?"

"Got it in one," Spike said. "Always said you were clever."

"Spike, you've never said that about me," Buffy snapped.

"That you know of," Spike pointed out. He popped a small handful of pills in his mouth and chugged the glass of water.

Giles cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should let Xander and Spike explain why they were saving the demons who just opened the Hellmouth."

Xander looked to Spike, unsure what to say. Spike gave a little shrug. "Might as well tell them at this point, pet."

"Okay." Xander tried to think of the shortest version of the story he could get away with. "Giles, six years from now you're going to figure out that the Sisters actually had a good reason for opening the Hellmouth. And you're going to realize that you need them to do it again, only by then they're all dead. So, world in peril—cue desperate measures. You send me and Spike back to get the last few Sisters out of harm's way. We figured that that little ruse with Dawn was the best way to get you guys away from the Sisters long enough for us to rescue them. No muss, no fuss, no awkward timeline-altering confrontations."

"But Dawn knew what was going on?" Willow asked.

"Yeah," Spike said. "She's a good little soldier."

Willow scrunched her forehead. "Weren't you worried she would mess up your timeline?"

"We had our reasons for trusting her," he said evenly.

"And those would be?" Giles prompted.

"Can't tell you, mate. Sorry."

Buffy fidgeted—her anxiety so physically obvious that Angel put a hand on her shoulder. "I don't like it," she said. "It doesn't add up. I want to go check on Dawn."

"Okay, but first you gotta open your birthday present," Faith said. "Last thing I found." She pulled the envelope future-Willow had sent them. Knowing what was inside, Xander felt his mouth go dry. "It's post-marked Sao Paulo, no return address. Express post to the COW in Rome. Wanna see what's inside?" She tossed the package to Buffy, who caught it one-handed.

"Careful," Giles said. "We have no idea what that might be."

Spike rolled his eyes. "That's right, we're traveling with a sodding letter bomb."

"I'll open it," Angel volunteered grimly. He took it from Buffy, ripped a corner off the envelope, then stuck his finger through the hole and tore open the whole end. He reached inside and pulled out the plastic baggie of Lethe's Bramble. "What's this?"

"We were going to smoke it later and get high," Spike said. "Want some?"

"Let me see it," Giles said. Angel handed it over via Faith, then reached into the envelope again.

Giles held the baggie up near his face, squinting, then lowered it suddenly. "Dear Lord," he said, "it's Lethe's Bramble."

"What's that?" Buffy asked.

"It's used for spells of—"

"—memory removal," Angel interrupted. He held up the letter that had accompanied the herbs. "There's instructions here."

Willow perked up. "Can I see?"

"They can alter our memories?" Buffy looked horrified. "Then—this might not even be the first time we've caught them! Maybe we've been having this conversation over and over!"

"The envelope was still sealed," Xander pointed out. "We haven't used it yet."

"How do we know you didn't have another one?"

"Um, guys?" Willow had taken the letter from Angel. "Guys? This is my handwriting."

"Oh, shit!" Xander jumped up and went to take the letter out of her hands. "Willow, don't read that!"

"Huh?" She was wide-eyed. "Xander, I wrote that!"

"Future-you wrote it, and told me absolutely not to let you see it." He stuffed the paper quickly in his back pocket.

She looked for a moment like she was going to ask why, or maybe argue with him, but instead she turned to Giles. "Don't you see? If I'm helping them too in the future, and—the address? COW is Council of Watchers, right? Okay, I don't know what they're doing in Rome, but—I think they're telling the truth."

Buffy frowned. "Maybe. I still want to check on Dawn, though. Faith, was that everything you found in their room?"

Faith nodded. "Plus clothes, toothbrushes and a whole lot of empty pizza boxes, yeah."

"At least she didn't find the money," Spike said, out loud, ostensibly to Xander.

Xander had a quick huh? moment and then he clued in. "Right," he agreed. "The four hundred dollars cash that was hidden right next to the envelope. Good thing she didn't find that."

"Oh, yeah." Faith rocked her hips, shot a guilty look in Giles's direction and then glared at Spike. "Didn't look like a clue, so I left it where it was. Yeah, it's still there."

In the background, Willow yawned, covering her mouth. Giles noticed. "It's going on four a.m.," he pointed out. "Buffy, go home, check on Dawn, go to bed. Faith, Willow, you should get some sleep as well. I'm sure we will be better able to resolve this situation in the morning."

"What about them?" Buffy asked, nodding her head towards Xander and Spike.

"I'll stay here and make sure they don't make any trouble," Angel said. "My bedtime isn't for a few more hours, anyway."

Willow hugged Xander one last time before she left. Buffy didn't, but she gave him a long, worried look. Faith didn't even say good-bye; she was probably pissed off about the money.

Spike had fallen asleep while everyone else was going out the door. Xander fussed over him for a minute, making sure he was well tucked in on the couch. He could feel Angel and Giles watching him like a physical presence crawling up and down his back.

"I'm afraid I don't have a proper place for you to sleep," Giles said to Xander when he stood up again. "The best I can offer you is a sleeping bag on the floor."

Xander shrugged. "I've had worse. But, um, first ... Giles, can I talk to you privately?"

Giles looked thoughtful. "I suppose so. Angel, will you keep an eye on Spike?"

Xander gave Angel the hardest look he could manage. "Don't touch him," he said. "If you do, I'll know. And you won't like what I'll do next."

"I'll keep an eye on him," Angel said to Giles, conspicuously not addressing Xander. He pulled the armchair into position for watching the couch and sat down, arms crossed.

Xander followed Giles upstairs into his bedroom. Giles shut the door behind them and turned to Xander, looking cautious but at least somewhat curious. "What did you want to say to me?"

Xander hesitated a moment, asking himself whether this was the only possible way to salvage the situation or whether it was just an incredibly bad idea, and then he sighed and decided to go with it anyway. "I want to tell you the truth," he said. "The whole truth."





Part Nine


It took Giles a while to get past the Dawn thing.

"I met her only a few weeks after I first met Buffy," he said. "I've seen ... baby pictures."

"Right," Xander said, nodding patiently. "All part of the history the monks constructed."

"And you claim she doesn't exist yet."

"Well, she does, obviously. But she didn't start existing until a year and a half from now, and then it all projected backwards." Xander wished future-Giles were here to explain this to past-Giles.

"But how can Dawn be the key to a hell dimension?" Giles protested, shaking his head. "She's—a little girl."

"Actually, she's a glowy green ball of energy disguised as a little girl." Rubbing his eye—God, he was tired—Xander squinted at Giles. "So, um, are you actually believing any of this?"

Giles looked thoughtful. "Absurd as the concept is, it would explain one mystery," he admitted. At Xander's questioning look, he explained, "When Buffy was first called, the Council used a form of divining to discover who the new Slayer was. The divining method provides a rough location and a few biographical details, hopefully enough to locate the girl. Apparently, among other things it was determined she was an only child. When my predecessor Merrick found her he was quite surprised to learn about Dawn, but Buffy was very clearly the Slayer, so he concluded that the bones had been read incorrectly in that detail. But perhaps ... the divining spell was simply unaffected by the monks' changes. Tell me again what you know of the original timeline?"

After three or four times through the details, Giles seemed to be catching on. "And that's why you wanted to involve only Dawn in your plans," he said in a now-I-get-it tone. "The timeline will resume its original state when the monks perform the spell."

"Only now it's all fucked up," Xander pointed out, sinking onto the edge of Giles's bed and resting his head on his hands for a minute. God he had a headache. Maybe he could steal one of Spike's painkillers later. Or just drink more coffee, maybe that'd help. But Giles seemed to believe him now, and that was a good thing. Now he just had to convince him that they needed to fix things. "I mean, just for starters, now Angel knows that Spike's going to turn human. He's not supposed to know yet that that's even possible. I mean, now that he knows, maybe he won't even leave Sunnydale!"

"When does Angel leave Sunnydale?" Giles asked, startled. "Does Buffy remain here?"

"Yeah, she stays here and he goes to LA. And then they both do all sorts of important things that have to happen so that the future can work out the way it's supposed to. And you're the one who told me, in the future, the going theory about the consequences of time travel—"

"Every change is a change for the worse, no matter how well-intentioned." Giles nodded. "That's why I was suspicious of your original claim that I was the one who had sent you here. But if, indeed, I believed that Dawn provided a loophole in that law...."

"Right," Xander said quickly. "And that's why I need you to do the Lethe's Bramble spell." He pulled the crumpled instructions out of his pocket and handed them to Giles. "Make everybody forget about the past three hours. Spike and I will clear out and it'll be like all this never happened."

Giles sat down next to Xander and took a long, careful look at the letter Willow had written. Xander read over his shoulder, and couldn't help smiling. She'd drawn her trademark little stick-figure diagrams and everything.

But then Giles folded up the paper and cleared his throat. "There is a rather large flaw in this plan," he said. "I can't safely perform the spell on myself."

"Huh? What do you mean? Willow did it to herself, once..."

Giles raised an eyebrow. "Really? How did that turn out?"

Xander focused on his own fingers. "Pretty much a total disaster and we all almost died," he admitted with a grimace.

"Well, that sounds lovely," Giles said, rolling his eyes. "Why don't we try it right away?"

Xander quelled an urge to bite his nails. "What if you do it on everyone else, and just use your Watcherly discipline to pretend you don't know anything for the next six years?"

Shaking his head, Giles frowned. "I appreciate your confidence in me, but there is no possible way I can live the next six years without letting what I learned tonight inform any of my choices. I would be constantly second-guessing myself with no way of knowing which choices I'd made the first time around."

"And every change is a change for the worse, which in our lives might mean the end of the world." Xander sighed. "Any ideas?"

"One." Giles gave him a wry sort of smile. "The same idea I had the first time, apparently. Let Dawn do it."


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*

Giles said it was important to do the spell right away, while everyone was still asleep; the difficulty in targeting the right memories would increase exponentially once they all woke up and started the new day.

"You really think Dawn can do it?" Xander asked. "I mean, it seems kind of complicated. Remember how she killed the gerbil?"

"If what you tell me is true—and bizarre as it sounds, I believe that it is—then the event with the gerbil was constructed for a particular purpose. Most likely the monks wanted to deter Dawn from practicing magic, perhaps to prevent her from discovering her own nature." Giles smoothed the letter from Willow open on his knee. "I will compose the incantation, all Dawn has to do is perform the spell. Willow's instructions are very thorough and comprehensible. Has she considered writing textbooks?"

"Well, uh..."

Giles chuckled softly. "I'm sorry; you should treat that as a rhetorical question. Well," he stood up, "we'd best inform Angel of the new plan."

Angel was sitting exactly where they'd left him. Giles did all the talking. He didn't tell Angel how Xander had convinced him, only that he had, and that it was essential that Dawn perform the spell.

They needed to get Dawn out of the house without Buffy or Joyce waking up, and by Giles's calculation it would take all three of them: Xander to actually talk to Dawn, Angel to boost him up to her bedroom window, and Giles to cast a minor charm to deepen the other Summers' sleep.

"Is it safe to leave him here alone?" Angel asked, looking doubtfully at Spike.

Xander grit his teeth in frustration. "Christ," he said, "he could barely walk in from the car. What the fuck do you think he's going to do?"

"Right," Angel said, turning his troubled gaze on Xander, "That's what I meant. Will he be all right here on his own?"

"Oh." Xander stared at Angel for a moment while the world metaphorically tilted. "You meant—okay. Sorry." He shook his head, trying to organize his thoughts. I am never going to understand Angel and Spike. "Yeah, he should be all right. We won't be gone very long."


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*

Dawn didn't wake up when Xander climbed in through her bedroom window. Feeling pretty fucking awkward, he whispered her name, then said it out loud, and then finally threw a stuffed zebra at her.

She shrieked when she woke up. He shushed her, wincing, hoping Giles knew what he was doing with the charm to keep Buffy and Joyce asleep.

"What are you doing here?" she asked as soon as she realized who'd broken into her bedroom. "Didn't it work? Aren't you supposed to be gone?"

"It worked," he said, "you were awesome. But we ran into some trouble afterwards and we need your help again. We need you to do a spell."

"A spell?" she repeated, perking up in a way that reminded him eerily of Willow.

She followed him out of the house on tiptoe, still in her dinosaur-patterned pajamas. They met Giles and Angel at the front door, which they carefully left unlocked. Dawn's eyes went wide at the sight of them.

"I thought you weren't supposed to talk to anyone but me," she whispered to Xander.

"Yeah," he said, "That's pretty much the problem."

He explained the situation to Dawn while Giles drove them all back to his house, which they'd decided was the safest place to prepare the spell.

Sitting cross-legged on Giles's living room floor, Dawn rehearsed the spell under Giles's direction. Angel stood by the wall, watching, while Xander packed all the items Faith had taken from the motel room back into the duffle bag. Spike still slept on the couch, undisturbed by Dawn and Giles's whispers.

"You should leave, Angel," Giles said finally. "You'll need to be back at the mansion when the spell takes effect. Ideally, you should be asleep—otherwise you might experience some disorientation."

"Right." Angel took a last long look at Spike, frowning, then motioned Xander towards the door. "Can we talk, before I go?"

Xander wanted to say 'no,' but didn't think it would be a good idea to make waves at this point, so he followed Angel to Giles's courtyard.

"I want to know what happened to Spike," Angel said as soon as they were away from the others.

Xander shook his head. "You know I can't tell you."

"It doesn't matter what you tell me, I'm going to forget it in half an hour anyway," Angel pointed out.

Xander scratched his neck, thinking that one through. "So why are you asking in the first place?" he asked. "Isn't it completely pointless?"

"I'll know it for half an hour," Angel said, making Xander uncomfortable with his intensity. "I can't bear walking home, not knowing—will it happen to me, too?"

"Turning human, you mean?" Xander sighed. He didn't have the energy left to hold out on this. "No," he said bluntly. "Just Spike." And then, seeing the broken expression that darted across Angel's face—almost a trick of the shadows, but definitely real—he added, "It was your choice. I think. You gave it up."

"Oh," he said. He waited for a second or two, frowning in the shadows, and then asked, "Why?"

"I don't really know." Xander hesitated, then clapped Angel on the shoulder. "You were probably trying to save the world. Isn't that why we do everything around here?"

Angel's mouth twisted, like he wasn't sure if Xander was joking or how to respond. Xander wasn't sure himself.

Finally Angel shrugged a little deeper into his leather jacket, gave Xander a curt "Bye," and strode quickly away. Xander breathed a little sigh of relief and went back inside.

Giles and Dawn were still huddled over Willow's letter, muttering together. Dawn looked serious and intense despite her flannel dinosaur pajamas, biting her lip and squinting a little as she followed Giles's instructions.

Xander took the liberty of making coffee and helping himself to a couple of aspirin from the bottle over the sink. Then he went and sat on the arm of the couch, staying close to Spike while he sipped his coffee and watched Dawn rehearse her lines. Her hair, loose, kept falling over her eyes. She pushed it back each time without faltering in her recitation.

When Giles judged she was ready, he told Xander to wake Spike up. Spike moved to the armchair and sat there groggily rubbing his eyes while Xander folded up the blanket and carried the bedding up to Giles's closet.

Giles was washing Xander's coffee mug when Xander came back downstairs. "We have to make sure we've eliminated all signs of your presence," he explained. "Now, are you ready?"

Xander grabbed the duffle bag and slung it over his shoulder. "Oh man, am I ever."

Looking at Dawn, Giles tapped his wristwatch. "Give me twenty minutes. I want to be in bed, hopefully asleep, when the spell takes effect."

Dawn held up her own naked wrist. "Uh, Mr. Giles?"

"Don't worry, pet." Spike patted her shoulder. "We'll tell you when it's time."

Giles hesitated, then held out his hand to Spike. "It was ... interesting ... meeting you again, Spike. I suppose I'll see you in the future." And to Xander, "Good luck. And take care."


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*

Rather than lurking outside the Summers' house while they waited for the twenty minutes to creep by, Xander drove them slowly around Sunnydale. The radio was tuned to light rock and Dawn was staring at her own reflection in the rear passenger window, muttering under her breath.

Spike's hair was flattened on one side where his head had lain on the pillow. Xander smiled to himself, but didn't say anything about it. Spike held the Lethe's Bramble on his lap, keeping it safe until the moment Dawn would cast the spell.

Dawn finished her rehearsal. "So, I'm going to be the only one who remembers any of this," she said out loud. "That's so weird. What if somebody asks me about it?"

"They won't," Spike said. "They won't know there's anything to ask."

"Did you ever think—what if people do stuff like this all the time? And nobody else would know, and everybody would have a different memory of how everything happened." Xander saw her in the rearview mirror; her expression was more curious than troubled. She had no idea, of course, how ironic it was for her to be asking questions like that.

"Not many people know how to do the spell you're about to do," Spike pointed out. "And you mustn't ever do it again after this."

She leaned sideways so she could look at him directly. "But how would anyone even know?"

Spike twisted around in his seat so he could meet her eye. "They might not, pet. You could go right ahead and change their memories to suit you and they'd never know. Now, would you like it if someone did that to you?"

Solemnly, Dawn shook her head.

"This is serious bloody business," Spike went on. "We're treating you like a grownup here. Now are you going to behave like one?"

She nodded emphatically. "I am. I promise."

Xander seriously hoped she would behave better than various adult-type people he could mention. But anyway, it was time for the spell and he'd already turned onto Revello Drive. "Here we are," he announced. He pulled the car into park at the side of the road across from the Summers house. "Ready, Dawn?" He pushed the car's cigarette lighter into the dash so it would start heating, and Spike handed back the herbs.

Dawn took the sprigs of Lethe's Bramble in her small hands, and stared down at them with an expression of intense concentration. "Lighter?" she said.

Spike handed it to her carefully. The tip glowed red. She touched it to the dried herbs and they flamed up immediately. She held them gingerly by their stems and started speaking. "I char these herbs for Mr. Giles, Angel, Buffy, Willow and Faith. Let Lethe's Bramble do its chore, let them remember leaving the hospital and nothing more. Let it purge their memories of meeting Xander and Spike, and let them believe nothing important happened after the Hellmouth fight. Tabula rasa, tabula rasa, tabula rasa." The flames on the bramble flared high and blue for a moment with an audible rush, and Dawn's shoulders jerked but she managed not to drop the herbs or cry out. And then the flame was gone and she held nothing between her fingers but a couple charred stems. "Did it work?" she asked breathlessly.

"Let's assume yes," Xander said.

"Bloody well hope so," Spike muttered.

"So, really truly good-bye this time!" Dawn reached around the car seats to give them each one more awkward hug. And then she was gone, dashing barefoot across the street and up her own doorstep, opening the door and slipping inside.

"Rupert rhymed Spike with fight?" Spike said as they watched the door close. "That's fucking pathetic."

Xander shrugged and started the car. "Let's hope the Powers that Be don't judge incantations on literary merit alone." He sniffed. "Huh. Lethe's Bramble kinda smells like pine."


*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*`*

They made a quick, heart-pounding stop at the Downtowner to collect their clothes and the remaining money, and pay their bill. Despite the risk involved in checking out, it was still preferable to the questions they might raise by simply disappearing.

They were in and out in less than ten minutes, and they saw no sign of Faith. Xander allowed himself to secretly hope their luck was changing.

The sky was brightening with false dawn as they passed the 'You Are Now Leaving Sunnydale' sign. Spike was already asleep in the passenger seat. "Bye bye, Sunnyhell," Xander whispered to his hometown. "Hope I never see you again."

A tall cup of coffee from a gas station convenience store and high-energy music on the radio kept Xander awake for the drive to LA. Spike slept the whole way, and mumbled in confusion when Xander finally shook him awake outside the Hyperion.

"What?" he said, blinking at the sunlight.

"We're here," Xander said. "It's time to go home."

They walked through the weed-choked garden together, hand in hand. In the gloomy interior, they found their white circle and dumped the duffle bag in it, and then Xander went to the reception desk to get the mystical marble that would act as the key to send them back home.

He stared into the empty slot. "It's not here."

"What do you mean, not there?" Spike joined Xander and bent over along with him, peering into the desk.

"I put it in this slot, the second shelf down." Xander pointed. "It's not there."

"Are you sure?" Spike squinted into the desk's dark interior. "Maybe it just stopped glowing. Let me feel for it." He stuck his hand in the slot and groped around. The expression on his face telegraphed his lack of success. "Maybe you're remembering the wrong shelf," he suggested, and started checking the others.

"You saw me do it. I put it on the second shelf." Xander repressed a frustrated growl that tried to creep up his throat. "Maybe it fell out." He got down on his hands and knees and started feeling around on the floor.

"I hate this place," Spike muttered.

"That's right, you lived here with Angel." Having failed to find the marble on the floor near the desk, Xander sat back on his heels. "So when were you going to tell me that you were fucking him?"

"What?" Spike stood up so fast he bonked his head on the underside of the desk. "Ow! Fuck!"

Xander watched Spike's startlement with a cynical gaze. Obviously this wasn't something Spike had wanted to talk about. But it was about fucking time they did. "That's what you were talking about in the car back in Sunnydale, right? 'All those times'? You weren't playing Parcheesi."

Spike rubbed his head. "I have played Parcheesi with Angelus, in point of fact. Didn't have the telly in those days, so we made our own fun."

"Yeah, I can imagine what kind of fun you had." Xander spit the word 'fun' out like it was a bad-tasting mint. "What about tonight? His attitude about you sure seemed different when I came back downstairs."

"What?" Spike stared down at him. "Now I don't know what the bloody hell you're talking about."

Xander came bristling to his feet, taking advantage of his extra inches. "Why were you hiding your relationship with Angel from me, Spike?"

"What relationship with Angel? The only relationship we have is that we can't fucking stand each other."

"Oh yeah? Is that why he was there every time I turned around when I met you in LA? Is that why he followed you to Rome?" Xander was stalking towards Spike now, and Spike was backing away. "You're still fucking him, aren't you?"

Spike's back thudded against the wall. He glared rebelliously at Xander. "You're off your fucking rocker."

"Then tell me you haven't fucked him," Xander said, clenching his fist.

Spike's eyes gave him away; they widened for just a split second, full of guilt.

And before he knew it, Xander's fist was smashing into Spike's face.

Spike's head crashed back against the wall and Xander stepped back, raising his fists. Spike raised his hand to his lips and looked at the blood on his fingers and looked at Xander, wide-eyed. Xander felt a surge of horror wash through him, seeing what he'd done, but just as fast the horror was gone leaving cold anger in its place. "Slut," he hissed. "Do you miss the vampire orgies? Do you think about him when you're with me?" This time Xander's fist pounded into the wall, because Spike slipped sideways away from him.

"Want to fight, do you?" Spike shouted from behind him. Xander spun around. "You could give a bloke a little warning, first!" Xander tried to hit him again, but Spike stepped backwards and then grabbed his wrist before he could retract his fist. He yanked Xander off balance and pulled him towards the door.

"You like it rough, huh?" Just before they reached the door Xander twisted in Spike's grip and elbowed him hard in the ribs. "Is that how you play it with him? Come on, tell me, I really want to know."

"I'll tell you anything you want," Spike gasped, his voice tight with pain. "Just let's get some fresh air first!" He tackled Xander and they slammed together against the hotel's door. The door gave way and they fell out over the threshold in a tangle of limbs.

"Fuck!" Xander scrambled to his feet, about to strike back at Spike, maybe kick him if he didn't roll out of the way, when suddenly he realized what he was doing.

Spike lay on the marble step, panting and glaring up at him with blood dripping down his chin.

"Spike?" Xander said in a choked voice. He looked at his own hands, saw the scrapes on the knuckles, felt dizzy. "I ... I hit you."

And then Spike was on his feet, reaching out to Xander with a look of intense concern, and it was all fucking wrong and Xander spun away from him and stumbled a couple steps and then found himself on his knees, puking.

And then he felt Spike rubbing his back and saying "Shhh, shhh, it's okay, it's okay luv, it's okay."

"I hit you," Xander repeated, dumbly. "I ... I was so mad, I don't know where it came from ..."

"You've been up all night," Spike said, still in a gentle soothing tone like he was talking to Dawn or something. He handed Xander a tissue from his pocket. "You're in no state to fight off a bloody Thesulac."

"Thesulac," Xander repeated. The paranoia demon. "I ... forgot." He shuddered, and wiped his mouth with the tissue. He didn't want to face Spike. He wanted to curl up into a little ball of guilt and disappear.

Spike got a firm grip on his arm and tugged him away from the place where he'd been sick. "Come on, let's sit on the step for a spell," he said.

Numbly, Xander let Spike lead him over and sit him down. Then he let his head sink onto his hands. "I'm so sorry, Spike."

"No real harm done." Spike's tone was light, but Xander knew him well enough to detect the truth; he was shaken, but playing it down for Xander's sake. "No loose teeth, nothing that a nice ice pack and a couple weeks' time won't put right."

"It's not okay." Staring at the rocky ground in front of him, Xander searched for words to explain what he'd just felt. "I wasn't possessed, Spike. I knew what I was doing. I knew what I was thinking." It was hard to push the words out but he wouldn't let himself stop. "I thought about you and Angel and I got so mad I wanted to hurt you."

Spike put his arm around Xander's shoulders, and Xander stiffened against the hug. "You weren't wrong," Spike said, low and soft. "Me and Angel have fucked. Many times." A pause, and Xander could hear both of them breathing. "I should say 'Angelus,' rather," Spike went on. "Me and Angel, it was just the one time." He squeezed Xander in a tighter hug. "Now," he said, "do you want to hurt me?"

Xander shook his head and swallowed hard against the sensation of wanting to puke again.

"Right then," Spike said, "that part of it was just the Thesulac."

Xander shook his head harder. "You don't understand." He didn't want Spike to understand, either, but suddenly he couldn't stop himself from talking. "Remember the time I caught you and Anya screwing? I went down to the Magic Box ready to kill you. I told her she disgusted me. I think—I mean, I didn't but I think I could've hit her then."

"But you didn't," Spike said.

Xander ignored him. "I had a ... a vision once. The demon who came to the wedding, remember? He showed me what was supposed to be my future, and I know it was fake, but I lived it. I ... I hurt Anya. I hit her. I think I might've killed her."

"That wasn't really you."

"But it was." Xander made himself turn to face Spike, to look at his swelling lip and the blood smearing his chin. "It's in me, Spike. All the Thesulac had to do was wake it up."

Spike met his gaze steadily. "Xander, luv, I can tell you a thing or two about living with demons. Remember that last year in Sunnydale? After Buffy got me all dechipped? You think I never wanted to knock the head off some bloody Potential for clomping around in the kitchen when I was trying to sleep? I had an actual fucking demon living in me, whispering constantly that all of you were nothing but food. But I also had a choice, and I made it every day by playing nice with the humans and drinking my pig's blood. I could imagine hurting you, I could imagine ripping your throat out and drinking you dry, but I didn't ever do it."

Xander swallowed. He could still taste the bile from earlier. "I'm actually not sure what you're getting at."

"The Thesulac just now took away your choice. The demon vision thing, too—that script was written for you." Spike put his hand on Xander's, brushing the bruised knuckles with his thumb. "It's not what you have the capacity to do, luv, it's the choices you make. I trust your choices." And then he patted Xander's hand and stood up. "Also? If you ever hit me again I'm bloody well hitting you back. Now wait here and I'll look for the sodding marble."

Not even a minute later, Spike called him inside.

"It was on the fucking ceiling," Spike explained, holding up his closed fist with chinks of soft golden light shining between his fingers. "Bloody thing went lighter than air somehow. All I had to do was look up."

They stood in the circle. Xander picked up the duffle bag. Spike took his hand and held it tight while he crouched down and smashed the marble on the floor.

There was a flash of light, then floating darkness. The now-familiar disorientation washed over him; Xander couldn't tell up from down or now from then.

And then he felt Spike's hand in his and the tug of the duffle on his shoulder and Giles was in front of him saying, "Well? Did it work?"

Xander swallowed hard against his nausea; at least this time his stomach was thoroughly empty.

"The remains of the Sisterhood of Jhe is hibernating in a cave off the old desert highway out of Sunnydale," Spike said. "We can take you there."

Xander tossed the duffle at Giles's feet. "Here are your books."

"Books?" Giles looked momentarily puzzled. He unzipped the duffle and started pulling out the books, with an expression of perplexed delight. "My lord, I lost these books when the Mayor ascended—"

"No," Xander corrected him, managing to keep himself from snapping, "you lost them when you sent us back in time to steal them."

"Oh." Giles blinked. "I suppose—yes, that makes sense. I hope you didn't have too much trouble ... Spike, are you all right?"

Spike touched his lip. "Had a little Thesulac trouble right at the end. Nothing to worry about." He stepped out of the chalk circle, and Xander followed him.

"Oh, dear," Giles said. "Sorry about that. Were there any other difficulties? Did you manage to keep the timeline intact?"

"We're standing here having this conversation," Spike pointed out. "I'd say that's a good sign."

"Quite," Giles acknowledged with a nod. He re-zipped the the duffle bag, picked it up, and started walking towards the door. "Then there's nothing left but to inform our vampire overlords of your successful mission."

Xander and Spike both stopped cold in their tracks.

Giles turned back towards them and burst out laughing. "If you could see your faces!"

"Spike?" Xander said, loud enough for Giles to hear, "Remember that conversation we just had? Notice how right now I'm choosing not to strangle Giles?"

"I'm proud of you, pet." Spike patted his arm.

"No one appreciates a subtle sense of humor." Giles shook his head, keeping up his mock disappointment for a beat or two, and then he gave Spike and Xander an apologetic shrug. "It's been a bit tense, the past few days. I'm immensely glad to have you safely back. Now, let's go save the world."

"You all right for going out to the desert?" Xander asked Spike quietly.

Spike nodded. "As long as you promise to sleep in the car."

"Promise."

Hand in hand, they followed Giles into the bright sunshine.





The End



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