Red Apple Falls

Red Apple Falls

By Morula/_dellamore/Christina Melani

Rating: R
Pairing: S/X
Summary: Every decision has its consequence.
Notes: For Wiseacress's Hallowe'en challenge. Thanks to Glossing for the last-minute beta; any remaining screw-ups are all me.
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters. Happily for them. Spoilers: None; it's set vaguely near S5.

***

Xander was in the bathroom washing his hands when he first felt it. A backwards shiver, moving from outside his body, sneaking in towards his spine. His first thought was that someone had walked over his grave, and he'd brushed it off. Bound to happen when you risked your life every night. You were going to have a grave, and it was going to be walked on.

Hours later, stepping inside the Magic Box, he felt the chill again. It was altered, but more acute, and he had a clearer picture. It felt like someone had slipped a knot around his heart and was winching it tight, ever so slowly. Or, maybe like the dream Slayer, taking his heart in his sleep. Or. Something equally bad. The paranoid Scooby part of him said that terrible things were happening.

That was around seven o' clock.

After Giles delivered the breaking news, Xander forgot his palpitations.

There was something amiss in Sunnydale. No big there, amiss being the Hellmouth's only state. But the news trumpeted reports of a killing that puzzled investigators; involved superhuman strength and something long and sharp. Old railroad spike.

They mulled over that, scene paused. Someone looking in might have found it amusing. Mouths agape, hands in mid-gesture.

Breaking the silence of shock, Xander made the obvious leap and said that Spike had finally done it. The chipectomy. Had to give the guy kudos for going the mile.

Buffy paced the Magic Box, blaming herself out loud. Should've staked him when she had the chance, and she'd had the chance pretty regularly. She should've noticed his relapse, should've known what was going on.

Worrying at his lip, Xander told her it was no one's fault--they all knew Spike was never without a few cards up his sleeve.

The words resonated, but tasted hollow; guilt had lodged near his uvula, flavoring every sour swallow. And the goose-flesh prickle of his skin said he was to blame. He was to blame for everything. Warmed by hot, heavy stones of shame, he turned his head away from Buffy. Wiped at his thigh like it would erase the memories.

Really, he should've known better. The problem with messing around with arrogant, love-sick vampires. Is that they don't take 'no' for an answer.

The news reports banked on their viewership's morbid curiosity. All the details helped when it came to piecing the scene together. Two bodies--a couple leaving a movie theater; both young, male; one dark-haired, the other fair. Xander jerked involuntarily, not quite out of surprise. Giles looked at him quizzically, and he turned it into a cough, ducking his head. No parallels there, not at all.

Spike had just been warming up then, but there was something melodramatic about it, almost comical. Xander wondered what he'd done with the hearts. Witnesses gave tacit responses, eyes haunted with their grisly encounter. They spoke in shaking voices of the most horrible things they'd ever seen. Xander thought Sunnydale people were made of stronger fibers, accustomed to that sort of wetworks.

"So." Buffy squeaked and fell into a chair, small bird-bones collapsing in on one another.

"Do we--what do we do? We have to do something." Willow's voice was thick, muddied as though underwater. The question shouldn't have been difficult to answer, but looking around at one another, they realized they'd never properly addressed this scenario. Spike made piddling threats. He was a nuisance. But it'd been a while since he'd made any major effort to de-chip. And that hadn't panned out, anyway.

Giles shrugged, exhaling with a uniquely British effort. A smudge on his glasses called for attention and he seemed to forget a question had been asked, or was too busy thinking of the answer.

There was a tacit need for bravado, for a tasteless, spirit-raising joke, but Xander couldn't think of one. Couldn't have voiced it if he had. He thought about violence and cigarette smoke-cured leather. Inconsiderate lips and the enamel scrape of sharp, sharp teeth.

He coughed on a misdirected swallow and the memories sputtered dangerously. Had to think of something else--like--Marlon Brando, wriggling, stuffed with cotton balls.

The silence was suddenly unnecessary; they were Scoobies, they were peoples of action and this was certainly the time for it.

"Guess you can't beat the inevitable," Buffy pushed herself upright. Tucked hair behind her small ears and looked at Xander again. He didn't meet her eyes.

"Hence, that whole concept of inevitability."

"Which is kinda like us, right? 'Cause you can't beat the good guys," Willow said, momentarily her old Willow-self. She frowned. "Or, you hope not."

"On that perky note, I'd like to emphatically declare that there's gonna be a dusting in Sunnydale tonight. Pooh. One more than usual, anyway." Buffy rapped her fist on the table, face Slayer-set.

"Yes, yes, certainly." Giles leaned against the display case, still rubbing at his glasses. Xander remembered a dream he'd once had, of Giles on a swing set with Spike. "It's been leading up to this, in any case. As long as you're ready for it, Buffy--"

"I am so more than ready. I'm already jumping the gun." She shoved back her chair and moved to collect weapons. "He had a chance, he blew it. That's just. That's it. We've been more than fair."

The sound of snuffling started everyone and they looked at Willow, who waved in dismissal.

"Sorry, I think some shock got in my eye," she said, wiping at her face. "You'd think I liked him or something."

Xander found himself rising, approaching his girls. This was the worst time for Spike to go ballistic. Not that anytime was the right time. Xander swept gold and red into his arms, loving their weight, their smells, their noises, loving they way they filled him. He wondered whether this would be his last night with them.

He felt the cold again, sharper and clearer, and hoped that wasn't his answer.

They agreed that Willow and Xander would hold down the fort at chez Summers. They agreed that Giles would accompany Buffy on patrol. And that if they ran into Spike--and they would--there'd be an end to their peroxide problem-child.

Xander would have insisted upon slaying with Buffy, but Giles seemed… taut. Muscles and twine, his fibers pulled to the point of snapping. The man was tense for action and Xander felt obliged to let him act.

While they discussed, he felt a confession creeping on his tongue, desperate to fall free, but he couldn't. It wouldn't matter anyway; the damage had been done. He'd rather. Rather deal with it himself.

They left the Box as a group, splitting up as they neared Buffy's house, all knowing what the others were thinking and not knowing the way to address it.

They'd lost Spike even if they'd never had him. So he'd never been a Scooby, at least he'd been a reluctant ally. Rather, the enemy of their enemy, which sometimes made him a friend.

"Sort of like the end of an era," Buffy said before they parted with her. "Crazy, what-were-we-thinking era, but definitely the end to it."

And Xander only felt colder.

On Revello Drive, Dawn had seen the news and knew something was going on. Willow gave her a censored run-down of the plan while revoking Spike's invitation inside the house.

It would've been the perfect time to ask. She was doing one already, she could've done another one with no problem and very little judgment.

But he couldn't say it. His stomach lurched, cap-sized and he hastily excused himself to the restroom.

Upon returning down the stairs, he stoically announced the top-rated lamest excuse ever: if he was staying over, he'd need to pop home for a change of clothes. The girls almost tackled him to keep him there. But he allayed their fears. He'd be right back, he had a stake, and Spike was probably off gallivanting, edging closer to his final showdown with Buffy.

He'd be right back.

And he couldn't blame them for letting him go, but he'd still been disappointed. If there was a chain-of-events in motion, he wasn't sure he wanted to reach the end.

Walking briskly in the pumpkin-rich October air, he almost forgot what had caused all this. Until a bruised muscle twanged in his back.

After a few minutes, he realized he was being followed. Fear dropped like the Hindenburg. Buffy had said something about inevitability.

He felt himself waiting for it, partially welcoming it.

But it didn't come. He reached his apartment and opened the door. Paused for a moment, inviting the night. Then closed the door quickly, heart pattering, and locked the door. Bolted it. Uselessly. He turned away, floor creaking beneath him.

"Hello, pet."

Xander inhaled sharply, a startled sparrow noise catching in his throat. The temperature in the room went arctic. He stared at Spike, confused by the logistics of it all.

"Take it you've heard the news?" Spike leaned against the arm of the sofa, arms crossed with Steve McQueen-cool. He ran a hand through his hair and left an inexplicable red streak. Then the tang of meat and copper hit Xander, shook him from his reverie like smelling salts. He turned and scrambled at the front door.

It was stuck. No, locked. He'd locked it. His fingers shook, scrabbled, clawed, but he'd forgotten how to unlock doors at some point. Spike watched this for a second, then advanced with lazy assurance.

Something clicked in the door and Xander wrested the knob, but Spike was quicker, always quicker.

Hand on his shoulder, pushing him around and up against the door. He stared at Spike, heart beating rabbit-quick, shamelessly afraid. Looked at the lips he'd kissed in the cover of night.

"Thought a bit of celebrating would be in order," Spike said, watching Xander with interest, "and there's no one I'd rather share this with than you."

"Gotta admit, not in the partying mood."

"Well, we could skip the preamble, I suppose, dove." He easily captured Xander's arms with one hand and raised them above Xander's head, eyeing his caged lover with affection. "Not one for small-talk anyway. I'm more for the main event--bloody fireworks and all that." Spike's free hand found the space of skin exposed where Xander's shirt rose over his belly. His fingers trailed lovingly, light as bird's wings.

The touch sparked a gun-powder trail to Xander's groin, his spinal column, his knees. He felt shaky, unspooling in a puddle of warmth. Xander's secret shame--every spot was an erogenous zone once Spike touched it. The vampire smiled with the barest hint of fang, still rubbing intimately.

"So. How'd you do it?" Xander asked, concentrating on a spot behind Spike's head.

The fingers made cool trails.

"Wasn’t easy, I'll have you know. Not many demons out there looking to lend me a helping hand, what with you lot tarnishing my reputation."

"And for that, I apologize."

Spike's lips curved, giving that insouciant half-smile he probably trade-marked. Lifted the scarred eyebrow.

"Had to see this real shady bloke--demon, actually. Mallecho, not known for his benevolence. But I told him the story and he seemed eager, you know, to help me get my life back on track." His head tilted seductively close, hand creeping and creeping. Slow, even, exploring the world under Xander's shirt as though there hadn't been an evisceration just scant hours prior, as though it was just an evening in, last week, alone and entangled.

"You pay a lot for the thing?" Anything to postpone this. Though he actually did want to know the answer.

That's the tricky bit. He was never quite clear about the price-tag. Said I'd pay later, when it was right," Spike tweaked one of Xander's nipples, "and that was fine by me. You know, sweetheart--if it weren't for our last conversation, I wouldn't even have bothered. Want to thank you for that."

Xander's mouth fish-gaped until he forced it closed. He shook his head, refusing the ready tide of guilt. He had nothing to do with this.

"So, I guess you could say this was all your fault. Least, your friends might see it that way. Don't suspect you've told them anything, have you?" Spike eased into another cocky grin. "Hardly the trustworthy Scooby, are you?"

There was a flash, as Xander remembered, of Spike, pathetic-eyed and wet with fitful tears, *growling* about love and the things he deserved.

I refuse to deal with this, Xander told him, ignoring the tectonic shifts of his heart. This isn't the healthiest thing for either of us, even if you're undead. Especially if you're undead. I'm sure there's some infection I can get.

They'd fought. They always fought. Part of Spike's snarky charm. They'd fought brutally, with only a miming of violence. Which wasn't unusual. But that night, the Rubicon was crossed, and Xander was pretty sure that meant something important.

Spike had murmured, I love you, you ungrateful git, while crushing Xander against the floor, lips smothering and rough. Xander had slapped at him, caught him across the jaw--still not uncommon. But Spike's punch had shocked them both. Snapped Xander's head sideways with a ghastly click, quick and devastating. He spluttered blood, reeling in the sudden, shocking pain.

Spike fell off of him, yelled once, and strangled off into retching noises. Knocked his forehead on the ground as in supplication.

Xander lay there, dazed, replaying the punch like a surprise touchdown. You hit me, he said simply.

Xander, Spike said, slightest touch of whimper that disgusted Xander so much he saw red.

I'll stake you if you try to fucking apologize.

Spike lifted his head with effort from the carpet, blood trailing like yarn. Xander, he said again.

I'd say we're over now.

And Spike hadn't so much thrown a fit as much as he'd scared the shit out of Xander. Ripped deep past the rind of pathetic, chipped misery he'd grown and found the raw pulp of the Big Bad. If it hadn't been for the chip, one of them would've died messily that night.

Apparently, life always gives second chances, however inconvenient.

"As flattered as I am by all this, all you had to do was buy me some fucking chocolates," Xander shook away the past, twisting hard against Spike's hipbones. "See, I tend to opt for the less psychotic maniacs, so really? This wasn't the best approach."

Spike watched him, his glacial eyes humorless and bleak. Gold-tinged with fervor.

"You scared of me, Harris?" He asked so quietly Xander found himself leaning forward.

"In a manner of speaking. Spike. You just." His throat stuck. He ahemed until he caught himself. "You just killed those people. Being a white hat, I can't say I approve. And. The thought 'he just killed those people' keeps springing to mind." He looked down, away from the closed stare. Time was winding down. Time until what, that was the question.

"Christ. Just. Just do whatever you want, Spike. You're de-chipped and soulless--great, you're a man, I'm impressed. Now, just skip the drama, fuck me, kill me, quit dragging it out--"

"Is that what you think I want out of this?" A flicker of something almost sad wavered and was gone.

"How do I know? I don't care; you want what you always want--whatever makes you happy. And hey, I get it, you're a vampire. Vampires get off on the bloodshed. So, just do it. Shed some blood." Xander found his chin turning up, exposing his throat. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime offer, blondie."

Spike considered the section of neck, his face unchanged.

"You know I love you," he said finally.

"Hold that thought--I don't want to hear that before you kill me."

"I love you, pet. I'd do anything for you, it's just that it wouldn't matter, would it?"

"Spike, shut the fuck up."

"You think you're so bloody noble, but I know you, Harris," Spike leaned close, voice deepening to a warm husk, "I've been inside you. You're just as arrogant and selfish as any of us."

"Please, Spike. Shut the fuck up." Xander swayed, his body a loose tree-limb. The wall was numbing behind his head.

"You have no fucking idea how humiliating this is." Bitter, madman's laugh. "Not that you particularly care. And I can see why that demon of yours ran off--"

"No, you don't get to do this, Spike."

"--you're a thick-headed nonce with the happy future of janitor and self-loathing poofter."

"Just shut up and kill me." He closed his eyes tight as fists. Then he couldn't think of a single thing to retaliate with, so he just hung there, chest hollow and hitching.

"And now you're the one begging. Nice change." Spike's hands turned rough. "This has been worth the expense already."

Xander tugged at the bracelet twining his wrists together, his body skimming against the wall, half-heartedly attempting to wrench free. They pushed and pulled at one another, souring the air with desperation.

"Spike," Xander sighed suddenly, falling slack. He opened his eyes, but didn't look up. Spike's hips cut into his waist; skinny bastard. "I never said I didn't love you. I just. This is not right. It's very unright. We're wrong for each other. I mean, you think blood-breath's a turn-on."

"Say it, then."

"What? You have blood-breath?"

"Say you love me." Spike leaned close, autumn unbreath cooling Xander's neck, lips brushing like leaves against his pulse.

"I can't."

"Say it, Xander."

"Spike, I *can't*. Are you deliberately not getting this?"

"Say it. Don't make me force you." Spike's goldenrod eyes narrowed, dark pupils wide and storming.

"See that's--that's what I'm talking about," Xander almost giggled. This was hysterical, really. "You can't threaten me into a loving relationship."

Spike's jaw tightened more than humanly possible. Made sense.

"You knew what I was. And from what I remember, you used to like threats." He sounded seductive again.

"I *never* liked that. Or, maybe I did, but I didn't. It doesn't fucking matter." A merry-go-round of thoughts looped by. "Stop this crazy ride, I want to get off."

"Then tell me you love me, pet."

"Do you really want to hear it if I don't mean it?" Which wasn't the right response, the three short words his lips had planned. Didn't matter what was true; there was only one way for the conversation to end. He was cold again, scared.

He'd almost forgotten the chip was gone, remembered when Spike's hand closed his arms together with a nauseating series of crunches. He shuddered, breathing fast and sharp through his nose, and heard Spike's low keen against his neck. Noise he'd never heard before, never wanted to hear again. Miserable, damaged sound. Sound of something hit by a car, dying in a stupid tangle on the side of the road.

He wanted to say something, say what he should've said, but he couldn't. If someone took a Polaroid of this, the caption would be: Xander can't lie to save his life.

"I hate you," Spike said raggedly, releasing Xander's arms. The pain returned and he felt his hands flop dumbly. "I wish I could kill you."

"Wait, Spike."

"No, fuck it. I can bloody well kill you, pet," he leaned close, teeth suspiciously sharp, "and I will. Twice, if I want. Earth to earth, dust to dust, y'know?"

Xander considered that, terribly confused. Then someone flicked the light-switch over his head. He shoved Spike away with swollen hands and made a daring escape.

Or, he would have. Until the room tilted, crashed, inverted, and he came to with stars in his eyes and a weight on his belly. Golden eyes leered down at him.

"I think I'll cut your fingers off first," Spike whispered dreamily. His face was cartilage-masked in ridges as familiar as home to Xander. "Could eat them like little sandwiches. Finger sandwiches, if you don't mind the irony."

Xander tried to speak but a crust of something bitter and salty clenched his lips shut. He worked, licking off the stick of his blood, while he struggled underneath Spike's grip. Each move they made was almost synchronized, almost dancing. Dance with death. He'd always made a game of it and in return, it'd always been consequence-free. Until now.

"Spike," his breath came in jogging pants, "do you ever wonder how we got from point A to point B?"

That did something. Spike blinked slowly, mouth quirking into that bastard half-grin, looking at Xander through monstrous yellow eyes. His tongue tapped his front teeth once.

"I realize this is a diversionary tactic, doll. And quite a pathetic attempt at that."

"Can't answer, can you?" Xander shrugged, as much as it hurt him to do so. "Gets a bit complicated with all the in-between parts."

"And they said you were the dumb one."

"This how you treat all your great loves, Spike? Surprised you make it past the first date--"

"And you're gonna hit the next two points in this play if you don't shut your trap, Harris."

Xander felt himself smile, despite the threat. The witty badinage, just like old times. Except he was probably going to die in a minute or so.

"Still want me to tell you I love you, Big Bad o' my heart?"

Make that less than a minute.

He'd never actually been bitten before. Had a hundred different ideas about how it would feel, but the main one was painful. Really fucking painful. Thank god for misconceptions.

There *was* a supernova flare of pain, yeah, and that was his throat opening up--then Spike found his rhythm and everything dropped away. He felt the pull of blood, felt the arterial rush, felt it all the way to his toes and back. Head to feet, rushing outward, somehow managing to be exhilarating, ecstatic.

He heard an ululating moan, muffled against his neck, heard a responding cry spill into the air. Spike rocked against him.

Something shuddered once, quaked through his highways of blood, and his mouth opened, shut. This was not how it was supposed to happen.

Waking up had never hurt so terribly.

Light was sandpaper on his retinas and his throat felt like the Old West. Tumbleweeds blew down his esophagus.

He tilted his head and swore he heard his spine creaking.

"Shit." Bullfrogs sounded more human.

Xander forced his eyelids open again, and looked straight into a tableau from Lovecraft, or what he knew of Lovecraft from a few bad TV movies. Serpentine, wind-scarred shapes, covered in bristling hides, blistering sores, fire, brimstone. Hell. He was dead and in Hell. No way that was fair.

His heart thundered in his mouth, stealing every synaptic scrap of thought.

A *wall* of bloated things that went beyond scary, surpassed anything Giles could pick out of his books. And something was walking towards him. Grinning, as far as he could tell, with a welcoming rictus of shark's teeth the size of spades.

Waiting for you, it said, outstretching its arm in a showman's gesture. Man's got a price to pay, man's going to pay it. And we got you a special place.

"I don't belong here."

Not just yet, anyway, it laughed. But it'll all work itself out. Spike's gonna own up to his debts.

"The chip--" The word barely left Xander's lips before something powerful grabbed his arm.

The screaming jerked Xander awake. That, and the hands on his shoulder.

Apparently, he was in the hospital. Being restrained by orderlies. He'd lost a significant quantity of blood, not enough to cause any lasting harm--on and on, same old tap dance. He didn't tell them that, technically, the blood wasn't lost since he knew where to find it.

Spike. Hadn't turned him, hadn't killed him; had dragged him to the ER. Had let him go. For how long, Xander didn't know, but he couldn't risk it. The deadcold hands, not the orderlies', were pulling him now, insistent and inexplicable. He couldn't stay here. He needed to move.

He waited until the commotion died down and they left him alone, then gritted his teeth and ripped the tubing out of his arm. Blood substitute marbled the pristine hospital floor.

Carefully, carefully, he forced his shaky legs to stand. The process was slow, because the room spun if he wasn't careful. He couldn't risk passing out, not if Spike had more elaborate plans, which he undoubtedly did. Vampires were nothing if not showy.

He held his clothes under his arm, shuffled weakly to the doorway.

Time seemed to flux, almost conveniently. He'd found a payphone down the corridor, which he used to call Buffy's house collect. She wouldn't mind. Willow answered and he glossed over the specifics. Wanted to minimize the freaking out. He just needed someone to come get him. Spike was around. And something weird was going on.

While she was talking, Willow's voice abruptly turned to dial tone. Xander looked up, already expecting it.

Spike took the phone from his shoulder and hung it back in the cradle. Smiled without looking at him, blood dust caked in the corners of his lips. Xander stared at the blood, his blood, too weak to do anything but remember not to drool.

Time fluxed again and he was in an elevator. Spike was gone. This made no sense, but his fingers hurt. There was skin gooped underneath his nails. He examined this until the doors opened. He walked out without question and followed a small staircase onto the roof of the hospital. Something was leading him, but he couldn't see it.

The thunderous quiet of Sunnydale at night deafened him. It rushed through his ears, dulled him to catatonia. A fire-flash of nightmare came and went.

It wasn't until a door opened to his left that he remembered he'd been in the middle of running for his life.

Backing away from Spike, Xander felt the air on his skin, whistling through the holes in his neck. He wondered where Buffy was, what was taking her so long. She was always nick-of-time gal, but the nick was counting down.

Wind swept past him, a breeze that had hands. He moved backwards with it. Felt like the right thing to do.

"This has been a long time coming, pet."

"Yeah, I've noticed," Xander said, head doing Olympian somersaults. He was going to faint, he was going to fall. He couldn't, not with Spike here.

He stepped backwards.

He felt like singing, like putting on a Patsy Cline record. His stomach burped; he could clear out a buffet, then put his head down and sleep for a century.

Mostly, he just wanted to go home. A susurrant murmur, comforting as stream ripples, urged him on. He knew he should fight it, but he was tired of fighting.

"What do you want to do, Xander? Only two ways out of this," Spike stepped forward, "and neither of them include a happy ending."

Xander's breath slipped silent into the starry sky. He blew a tired raspberry at Spike, who had recently lost a few strips of skin along his cheeks.

"Never really expected one, you know."

Spike nodded sadly, eyes stained by shadows.

"She's not coming."

"Yeah, I noticed that, too." He was chilly. Worn as carpet.

"I love you…" Spike whispered, staring off into the cityscape behind Xander, hunched like the misspent decades he was. "You know, I've been thinking about that demon who did my little procedure. I didn't get what he meant by all that bollocks about paying, but. I think I do now."

Home beckoned Xander. Pulled him backwards, whispering softly of peace and quiet.

Another flickering reel of images, mouths gaping, hungry and needle-sharp. Waiting for him.

"How did you pay, Spike?"

The vampire hugged his jacket tighter around his thin frame. His expression was changing into something close to realization.

"I haven't--not yet. Xander," he said, his sudden fear more disturbing than any threat, "don't move."

Xander opened his mouth to reply, but he was suddenly lifted from the ground. No impact, no wires, just gentle hands that took him up and away. Wind sliced cold and smooth around him, eddying like water. The stars were beautiful.

He flew.

When Spike grabbed his wrist, he almost protested. Then he looked down at the ground, eight stories below him. Quickly found the self-preserving fear.

"Oh, shit." He was dangling over the building. Only one thing keeping him from plummeting to the dark that churned in anticipation.

"Well, look where we are." Spike said, no hint of a smile.

"Spike."

"I could drop you, right now."

"*Spike*."

"Or, I could pull you up."

"Jesus Christ, Spike." Xander's mouth dried like dunes, his tongue felt rough and unmanageable. His heart was kicking in his feet. "Please."

The sky was so dark, he could barely see two inches in front. Could just make out pale bones, sharp lips, everlasting eyes. That eyebrow. The moment froze, stuck.

"They say you always hurt the ones you love. Bastard had a sense of humor."

A tsunami of panic rose over Sunnydale Memorial, and Xander's eyes widened.

"I didn't want this, pet, believe me, I didn't." Why did he sound so afraid? "Did you hear me, I never agreed to this!" Xander knew Spike was yelling at something, but the noise should've been closer; it sounded as distant as the horizon.

There was a wrestling of hands now, a clash of otherworldly forces. The hands from below were stronger, multiplied in number. And rough; they'd only been pretending earlier. A fog of nightmare sheathed Xander like spider web and he knew that if he looked down, he'd go mad. What was waiting was worse than being vamped, worse than falling off a building.

He wanted to ask Spike what he never agreed to, but it wouldn't matter. Everything had its cost.

Something snarled, guttural and resonating through dimensions. Spike continued to fight, but his eyes said he'd lost.

And Xander was flying. For good this time. Flying downward, into darkness, into mouths.

Spike's hopeless face followed him, weighted him like lead, and it was all over fairly quickly. Though it lasted a lifetime.

He watched Xander go, watched the spot where the ground swallowed him and resettled itself. He stayed until he felt the night change, then gathered his jacket around himself and headed out of the dawn.

The End

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