Title: Swan Lake
Rating: Mature Audiences – for content and themes
Summary: Xander has PTSD after rescuing one too many slayers. Spike is recovering (sort of) after the battle with W&H. Fate may have it they eventually find each other - she's funny that way.
Spoilers: Sometime in early season five – or possibly late six BtVS.
Warnings: M/M – if you don’t like boys together, don’t play here!
Disclaimer: Don’t own the characters nor make any money from stories etc, and bow down to their original creators Joss, et al., plus all the wonderful online writers who continue to give the Buffy/Angel verse characters life.
Spike leaned casually on the concrete balustrade of the small outdoor patio and waited. Xander came to a halt just outside the doors and stared rather forlornly into the darkness beyond where Spike stood, apparently unwilling to go any further.
Waiting for Xander to make any sort of comment, Spike stared upward, noting that only a few stars managed to peep out from behind the thin veil of cloud.
Silence abounded for what seemed endless minutes with the vampire intensely aware of Xander’s tense, still figure silhouetted by the light from inside.
Ultimately it was the human who broke the silence in a barely audible, “The nights were always alive with noises over there.”
Spike raised an eyebrow and was about to make a comment but decided against it as the brunette’s stance relaxed a little, hospital pale arms winding around a too thin torso to grasp the dull grey sweater in a protective hug as his gaze seemed to wander though still unfocussed.
“I never thought places worse than Sunnydale existed you know?” Xander gave a derisory snort, “Yeah right… Oh I knew humans could be vicious and unpredictable… heck I watched the news. But in the States it’s always guns and drugs and money, and an occasional random mass murder-suicide by idiot teenagers with a misguided grudge against their classmates or something… at least there you’re pretty much safe if you put your mind to it.
“Africa was different… you just didn’t know… Religious differences, territory battles, famine and disease, power and money, hell, even tribal squabbles going back hundreds of years… And the whole place is like the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nothings’. Just throw in a few corrupt politicians and a fanatic or three, add firepower (usually supplied by outsiders wanting something from the outcome) and stir.”
Spike stared hard at the man in his midst as Xander finally began to move toward him as if sleepwalking.
“I thought I’d seen the worst of people, you know? I mean…” His good eye closed and face screwed up as if in pain, Spike noticing for the first time that the sunken empty socket was without patch or prosthetic.
“… I just used to think demons or magic or something ‘other’, you know? But anything we saw back there was… I met this ex SAS guy last time I was in… you know… the hospital. He’d done two tours in the Gulf war, and one in Afghanistan before he volunteered for the UN Peace Corp. Got posted back to Afghanistan, lasted six months before he… lost it. Sent home for ‘R&R’ for… Anyway… He was a really nice guy too…”
Spike was still processing the ‘was’ in the final sentence when Xander seemed to switch gears mid thought and turned to stare hard at Spike as if willing him to pre-empt what he was about to divulge. Spike met the scrutiny with what he hoped was a steady, noncommittal gaze and waited. The voice that had been flat and without emotion began to change to one filled with anger and pain as he continued.
“Have you ever been in a war zone Spike? Wait, of course you have. Except these places… it’s not like regular war, whatever that is. It’s like there’s no rules, none. And all I was there for, was to try to find these potential Slayers when everyone and everything around was totally f#@%ed, human f#@%ed. Not just guns and bombs, but machetes and knives and disease and starvation… and there were…” Xander began to shake as memories of the horror flooded in, his stare becoming as intense as his emotions took over.
“It wasn’t even the first or the second or even the twentieth one I retrieved and sent back here, it wasn’t that I didn’t have the right contacts, or the resources to get them out safely… Her name was Halla, it means ‘unexpected gift’, kind of ironic really considering her Slayer status was pretty much unknown until... well you know that bit I guess. Wills and Giles told me to be ultra careful – they always said that. Still, it was my decision to leave Farah (the slayer assigned to me) in Algiers, safe ‘cause the Democratic Republic of Congo? Not the easiest of places on a good day, even with the UN Peacekeepers around. I figured I’d be OK doing an in and out, quick mission, so I flew into Bunia from Kampala with some of the UN forces.
“The UN’s there to try to stop the ivory trade and control the radically political insurgents along the eastern borders - well all the borders really. The militants are armed and/or paid for the ivory by smugglers (some of whom are even corrupt government officials) who don't care how many elephants or people get killed or where the guns end up, just that they get their booty out and onto the black market.
"Everything was barbed wire and blue berets when we arrived and the town seemed peaceful and fairly well off - they even had a school and university there - but I was warned by the soldiers that outside the zone could 'get messy'.
"I found a driver with an old four wheel drive truck who was willing to take me where I needed to go, for a fee - the Council was paying so… anyway…
“It was wet season and we were driving out onto the flatlands, so that made a quagmire of what passed for the road out to the village in the Apanwaza region where Willow had located Halla, the new Slayer. It was only around a hundred kms but took us a day and a half of digging out bogged wheels, avoiding debris and occasional the dead animals to get there. I should have guessed there was trouble ahead on the second day when the driver got spooked as we crossed the Aruwimi River. We were met on the other side by a band of gun-toting young boys who demanded we pay them for our ‘safe passage’, and ‘accept’ their offer of two of them accompanying us on our journey west.
“The village was only just visible from the road, just a few houses made of tin and whatever materials could be found in the scrubland around. I should have guessed there was something wrong straight away, there was no smoke from fires or human noises, but I figured I’d been in too many places where... Anyway... The boys with the guns sort of grinned at me when I jumped from the truck, but I didn’t take much notice at the time – except for the fact that they had their guns at the ready, but again with the ‘normal’ I guess.”
Spike focussed on the brunette’s hands and noted that the shaking remained even as he began mechanically rolling and unrolling the hem of his t-shirt. He contemplated commenting that a lone Scoobie in the scrubs of middle Africa was hardly the wisest of travel plans, let alone venturing on a mission in an unstable war zone to pick up a random newly emerged Slayer. But Xander’s voice had dropped to barely above a whisper, and Spike realised that this was something beyond a normal travel log, perhaps the only time Xander had divulged fully what had happened to anyone, so remained silent.
“It was too quiet, well apart from a few chickens and goats wandering around, and a mangy dog or two sniffing at things. Villages usually have... you know... at least a few people at home even if the majority are out tending their farm or whatever. But there was no one, just mud and animals and quiet. So I walked through the mud and into the first hovel. There were some cooking pots on the floor and what looked like the start of a meal being prepared, but no one around.
“I was kind of aware of the truck engine still running, but figured Lhawi wasn’t going to risk us getting stuck there any longer than he had to.
“By the time I had been to the third house I knew there was something really wrong. There were signs of a struggle and blood on one of the outside walls. I think I picked up a hoe as I walked into the fourth place, and that’s where I found them...”
Tears began to flow from Harris’s good eye and leak slowly from the maimed scar of the missing one, and Spike fancied the man was going pale as the memories overtook him, but the whispered recount of the experience did not stop.
“They were there. Bloated bodies and bits of...” Xander’s voice hitched but he continued, “There was a foot, a child’s foot, tiny... and one body with no hands or head... I... and the flies... and the smell! Ghod! The smell!!”
Xander gripped the edge of the balustrade, turned suddenly and promptly threw up into the garden. He coughed a few more times, roughly wiped his sleeve across his mouth, then bent further to rest his forehead on his arms.
Spike knew the smell Xander described too well and was assailed by memories of his own. Images of he and Dru stumbling past just such a scene in the Dardanelles during WWI, him cursing their vampire sense of smell and the stupidity of humanity, Dru alternately trying to dance to the 'pretty lights' of the artillery fire and trying to pull away from Spike as he guided her around the carcasses of too many men.
He pulled himself back to the present and waited, somehow gleaning that the worst of the story was yet to come. He knew better than to touch the man, but instinctively moved closer as Xander took a shuddering breath and let the man continue.
“I... I couldn’t... I’d seen bodies before hundreds of them, blown up, gun shots, dead in the street, even witnessed an execution style... but these were just... butchered, every last one... I... I didn’t lose it then, at least I don’t think I did, but it’s all a bit of a blur really. I know I found a little can of oil, for cooking I think... tipped it out over the pile of... over... them and set it alight... set the whole house alight. When I stood back to watch, that’s when I saw... her. She was face down near the edge of a clearing that led towards a track.
“She was older, I figured the grandmother or something, I thought it must have been her that put up a fight - two dead militia boys nearby kind of indicated someone had at least. There was a gun shot wound in her back but I rolled her over anyway... and as I did... as I did her ::hitch:: her stomach... and all the... it just all spilled out, all over my boots and into the mud. They had... it was... Her face was sliced but you could still see... And I couldn’t just leave her there, but I couldn’t move her either, not without... ::hic:: I tried to dig a bit of a hole with the hoe but it was too muddy, so I went back to one of the huts and got a few of the thin blankets there and rolled her back over, and kind of just put them over her. I pulled some branches down from the scrub trees to pile on top.
“It was raining again and the driver started yelling something to me. As I turned to head back I thought I saw something in the trees, and there she was. I don’t know how or why, but I knew it was the Slayer I had come for, Halla.
“When I got closer I saw she was still alive... somehow she was still alive. She didn’t move when I approached her, just sat there in the mud with a sort of blank stare. She was spattered with blood and bleeding from a huge gash down the arm holding a broken chair leg. There was one of the militia rifles in her other hand but she didn't raise it, so I squatted down in front of her and, just talked to her quietly, said everything was going to be OK, that I was Xander and I knew she was Halla, that she was OK, that I was…
"But there was more shouting from the truck and I knew we had to get out of there. When I grabbed her good arm to pull her up, she let out an almost silent scream and shoved herself backwards. I thought she was going to attack me but instead she dropped the chair leg, grabbed what I thought was a bundle of rags she had been cradling in her lap and struggled to standing with the gun pointing at me.
"Something must have clicked for her then, I don't know, maybe just the fact I was a westerner or… I just dunno… Anyway, she eventually lowered the gun and followed me back toward the truck. As we rounded the building I had set on fire, I saw what all the shouting was about. There were three older men with guns standing around my driver who was kneeling in the mud apparently pleading with them, one of the gun barrels only inches from his head. The two boy soldiers we had come with didn't seem to be around.
"I tried to back away, hoping they hadn't spotted us, but the driver saw, and then it all happened so quickly…
"He shouted a warning, then the shot fired and he fell to his side, executed, in the mud. In those few seconds Halla had shoved the bundle at me as she pushed past cocking her weapon as she went, and opened fire. It must have been a rapid fire assault rifle because the magazine was empty before I could even register what was going on or move. The militia men must have been surprised too, 'cause they only got off a few round before she mowed them down and collapsed back onto me.
"One of the guys was still alive, screaming on the ground, by the time I pulled from under her. She tried to move but her leg was shattered, one of their bullets had torn through her thigh. She kept pointing to the truck and the carnage in front of it, and I realized the injured man was still trying to reach for his weapon which had fallen along side him somewhere. So I… I… ran forward and picked up the gun and… I was going to… I don't know… but then he sort of saw what I… and went to grab something from his belt… and I shot him… and he stopped… time, noise, all just… stopped.
"I really don't remember anything from there until I was carrying her into the hospital some time at night back in Bunia. I don't even know how we got into the truck, or crossing the damned river, whether we saw anyone, or paid anyone or got bogged again, not even how long it took really… But then I was waiting in a white room outside the operating theatres and someone was shoving a hot tea into my hand, and I just sat there, for hours, while people rushed in and out…
"Then there was a young doctor with bloodied scrubs and a mask around his neck standing over me, and he was saying sorry… that they had done all they could, but the leg… and the blood loss had been to great… and together with her other injuries… and they had tried but couldn't save her… And then a nurse was there saying the baby in the truck, the bundle Halla had been holding in the bush and which I had apparently brought with us, had been dead for days. And that our driver’s body had been delivered back to his family – I didn’t even remember putting it him in the back of the truck… Then she led me to another room where I was to wait and give a report to the UN officer who would be there within the hour…
"After that it's all just blank. I don’t really know how I got back to Algiers, but I did, and then we were on a plane to Heathrow, and then… here… And I just… It was all just… wrong.”
Xander turned, the look of utter desolation and grief so evident it caused Spike’s breath to hitch. This time he did reach out and just managed to catch the human as legs gave out. He gentled Xander to the cold paving stones and sat beside him cradling the now sobbing man to his shoulder, rubbing small circles on the too thin upper arm, still not game to break his own silence, opting to wait in case there was more pain that needed to be expressed.
After many minutes, and a shirt sleeve wet with Xander’s tears later, the brunette began to speak again. This time it was accompanied by Spike’s soft, rumbling purr as he continued his comforting action against Xander’s skin.
“Everything back here was so… normal… but not, you know? The coven, the slayers in training, people I knew just carrying on with their lives… and I just… couldn’t. I just couldn’t… nothing seemed to have meaning any more, I didn’t have anything to… I don’t know… and they kept saying I should eat, even when it all tasted like ash, and every dream I had I’d see it… her… them… And the smells of cooked meat, of petrol or mud, it was all still there. And they kept asking what was wrong… asking me to explain what had *really* happened, as though I had missed something or that there was some monster or demon involved that I had not mentioned. Shit Spike!” Xander’s posture stiffened and he turned to stare directly at his vampire audience.
“I mean the coven and everyone here want to know about demons and possessions and magicks… and the psychiatrists want to know about my upbringing and all that ‘normal’ response to crisis situations stuff, at least they kind of got the in a warzone trauma thing I s’pose… And everyone kept telling me that I was important… and that what I did in life had a purpose… that I did the right things despite the outcomes, and that I need to ‘focus on being in the moment’ and ‘enjoy the now’… And it’s all bulls@#t! Arrrghhh!!! It doesn’t mean anything! I’m still here and I don’t know why, and there is so much wrong out there, and I just… I’m not… Urgh! You have to understand… I’m not worth it anymore. ‘M a lost cause or something. Nobody can… *F@#$*!”
Xander was shaking with rage and almost shouted the last rather incoherent statement, after which he seemed to lose all his energy, pulled slightly away from Spike and curled in on himself, forehead on his knees and arms over the top in a protective gesture.
Spike stared at his own hands in the silence that followed, smelled further tears and the scent of anguish and pain flowing from the boy. He understood. Not just the reasons for Xander reaching his breaking point, but the collective effects of being participant, or even simply bearing witness in a life of violence, whether voluntarily or by chance, involving the natural or the supernatural, and regardless whether actions were deemed courageous, selfless and successful, or maleficent, or simply foolhardy and doomed.
He contemplated his existence as human and the years post his vampiric state; the years with Dru; Sunnydale before and after the chip, then the soul; unlife as a ghost and then corporeal at Wolfram and Hart; and after. His own nightmares still plagued him, there were still times when he questioned his own purpose for existence. Memories of experiences and motivations, good and bad, often warred within, torturing his psyche if he let them. How had he endured? In the end, he just had.
He turned to examine the miserable figure of the formerly irrepressible boy he’d known in Sunnydale. What did a future at the coven or the Watcher’s Council really hold for the man now? While Xander stayed in this environment he was treated with ‘kid gloves’, seen as a wounded individual in need of care, someone to be rehabilitated and either sent back into harms way or ‘put out to pasture’ as it were, relegated to some sort of normalcy that had, for the ex Scoobie, never really existed.
Spike sighed and shook himself out of his reverie. He knew what to do, but it would take a number of phone calls and some convincing of Giles and the others before he could put his fledgling of a plan into place, and even then he was unsure of the ultimate outcome. Still, he was here and Harris needed him, he knew that much, and it was enough.
He stood and held out a hand to the man on the ground, “C’mon mate, reckon it’s time to get some rest somewhere horizontal and bed-like.”
Xander stirred, wiped his face with both hands and sniffed hard, grasping the offered hand and stood with a less than elegant groan. He stumbled a little as he began to transfer his weight and walk, giving a wry smile and rather derisory snort, “Foot’s gone to sleep, sorry.”
Once inside, Spike pushed the man toward the small ensuite, “You do your human thing. I’ll just wait ‘til you’re settled then take my leave, okay?”
Spike moved back to the sitting room, closed the French doors and turned the main lights off. He heard the toilet flush and the sounds of a face being washed and teeth cleaned. He waited a few moments then moved to the door of the bedroom as a small table lamp switched on illuminating Xander’s gaunt but much more relaxed looking face on his pillow in the gloom.
“Right well… Reckon I’ll take my leave mate.”
Xander looked momentarily crestfallen, and bit his bottom lip a little before eyeballing Spike and in a small voice replied, “Please don’t tell the others all that stuff… I mean they know pretty much everything anyway, but they’ll just get all worried again… and…”
Spike’s hint of a smile held genuine understanding as he turned to leave, “Right you are. Sleep tight, ‘n I’ll see you on the morrow.”
As much as Xander knew nothing had been resolved, or that he was any the wiser as to why Spike was even here, he felt somehow a little lighter for Spike’s visit, his last thought before falling asleep was that he actually looked forward to a ‘morrow’ with a certain blonde vampire, apparently now friend and confidante, in it.