The journey back to The Magic Box was tense. Spike and Dawn weren’t talking to each other, Angel wasn’t talking at all and Xander was talking enough to set a new record. Well, someone had to make some noise before somebody else decided to fill the silence by saying something really stupid.
Xander glanced at Angel as they entered the shop and decided he felt grateful. He wondered if Spike felt the same and if he’d ever admit it.
‘Why didn’t anyone mention anything about this before?’ Wesley asked, and Dawn folded her arms, raised her eyebrows and leaned back in her chair.
‘We wanted to be sure,’ Xander said. ‘Spike and Angel didn’t think the girls’ graves looked like a vampire thing and Dawn thought it was. Me? Undead is undead and I would have preferred to argue Meat Feast versus Hawaiian.’
‘Hawaiian,’ Cordy said from where she leaned against the counter, her arms folded in a mirror image of Dawn’s.
‘You crazy, girl?’ Gunn said. ‘Meat Feast.’
‘Tex BBQ,’ Fred said quietly, and Xander nodded and pointed at her. ‘Good call.’
‘Moving on, please,’ Wesley said, and Xander was struck by how much he sounded like Giles, that tired and resigned tone.
‘There was an eggshell at the sisters’ graveside,’ Spike said. ‘Looked like Ghora demon.’
Xander looked at him in shock. ‘You didn’t tell me that!’
‘Are you quite sure?’ Wesley said.
Spike shook his head. ‘I wasn’t. I am now.’
So that explained why Spike was being uptight about the whole thing, why he didn’t want to tell anyone, why he’d involved Angel.
This was one of the ways he and Willow and Tara had considered using to bring back Buffy. This was the way Dawn had tried to bring back her mother.
Xander drew in a sharp breath and looked away from the table. The voices of his friends faded into the background and he felt his skin cool; the air conditioning, but it felt like something cold and dead. He shivered and then felt annoyed with himself. What was he, some sort of girl? He dragged his consciousness back to the table and found Spike’s blue eyes staring back at him.
‘Spike?’ Wesley said. ‘Did you hear me?’
They stared at each other, Xander caught in his gaze like a gazelle in the path of a lion, no escape, even if he wanted to.
‘Yeah, we’ll discuss it tomorrow.’ Spike swung his gaze back to Wesley. ‘You lot work on it, we’ll be here as soon as the sun sets. And someone needs to stake out the Espresso Pump.’
‘I’ll come straight after school.’ Dawn said, and she smiled faintly at Spike.
Xander unclenched a little more and his gaze drifted to Angel, who was trying his absolute hardest to look like a shelf or a pillar or something else that was as inanimate as his sense of humour. Xander waited until everyone was busy with goodbyes and last minute conversations and then he cautiously approached him.
‘Uh, you didn’t cut zombie chick’s head off to stop the arguing, did you?’
Angel didn’t say anything. He stared off into the distance in an annoyingly stoic manner. But he just happened to be staring heroically at a plush, purple unicorn, so the effect was kind of ruined.
‘Did you do it so Spike wouldn’t have to? So that Dawn wouldn’t hate him?’
Angel finally met his gaze. ‘You think too much.’
Xander nodded. ‘Would you believe I had the exact opposite problem in school?’
‘Xand.’ Spike stood waiting at the door, Dawn at his side looking slightly embarrassed. ‘You coming or what?’
Xander wondered if he should thank Angel and he still hadn’t made up his mind when he turned back to find he was gone.
Probably for the best. He joined Spike at the door and waved one big goodbye to everyone.
Things were quiet for a while, which should have been a good thing. The whole gang were on a rotating stakeout at the Espresso Pump, alternately lurking in the shadows outside and sometimes going in to drink coffee and spy on the clientele. If Elise Western’s pained claims were correct, the coffee shop was central to the zombie problem and the culprit, be it a demon, a witch or a dabbling human, had a connection, even if it was only a weekly mocha.
The problem was, Spike and Dawn were too quiet. They tiptoed around each other, quietly polite, and if Xander was honest with himself, it was getting annoying.
‘Are you going to have another fight soonish or do I have to put up with an eggshell carpet for the next month until one of you cracks? Boy, my metaphors are not mixing well today ... Are you listening or zoning?’
‘Who?’ Spike looked away from the Espresso Pump and turned to Xander, his fingers never faltering in their drum, drum, drum on the steering wheel.
‘You and Dawn. Are you going to make up yet or let it fester a while longer?’
‘We’re not arguing.’
‘No, but you’re not quite speaking either so that equals a problem. Maybe if you both apologise to—’
‘I was out of line,’ Spike said suddenly. ‘I know it, she knows it. I was too harsh. I’ll apologise for that if I have to, but I wasn’t actually wrong.’
Xander nodded to himself. No, Spike hadn’t been in the wrong and neither had Dawn. It was just their communication that had got out of hand. They needed to apologise to each other, and Xander suspected that if Spike went first, Dawn would follow along shortly.
‘Yeah, I know, but you’re the adult. You should take the higher ground and she can learn by example, and I can drop all these terrible clichés.’
That earned him a little smirk and Xander was struck by a childish and dangerous urge to pinch one of Spike’s cheeks. He resisted. He liked having eight fingers to go with his two thumbs.
‘I’ll have a word when we get back,’ Spike said, and Xander believed him. Spike had a family now and he took that responsibility very seriously, even more seriously than he took the care and welfare of his coat and the daily goading of Angel.
‘Heads up,’ Spike said, straightening in the driver’s seat.
Xander saw immediately what he was looking at. A young girl, maybe in her early twenties, blonde and pretty and dressed in a long fawn-coloured coat and a pink fluffy scarf, had just exited the Espresso Pump carrying a tall cup of coffee. Behind her, a dark-haired young man followed, short black jacket open at the neck, no scarf.
‘Don’t turn on the engine yet,’ Xander said. ‘Wait until they’re round the corner, then we’ll follow at a discreet distance.’
Spike groaned. ‘Stop watching Kojak.’ But Xander noted, with great satisfaction, that he still waited until the woman and her stalker were around the corner.
‘I don’t know what it is about him,’ Xander said. ‘He could just be going the same way.’
‘Some people have a vibe. They scream pervert or thief. Or geek,’ Spike finished, glancing at Xander as they pulled away from the curb.
‘Hey, I’m a shadow of my former geek.’
‘You’re wearing a Babylon 5 t-shirt, love.’
‘Lots of people have sci-fi t-shirts. It’s retro.’
‘Stop talking to Cordelia.’
Xander sighed. ‘Yeah, okay.’
They followed the woman, her coffee and her stalker down the street towards the mall. There was definitely something odd about the man. Every so often he walked faster as though to catch her up, then he dropped back and let her get ahead. He turned and looked around him.
‘He’s definitely going for it,’ Xander said, a little more urgency in his tone. ‘He’s going to pounce any second unless we pounce first. Oh, oh, he’s pouncing!’
Just ahead of them, the young man reached his target, stretched out his hand, gripped her shoulder. She turned—
‘Shit!’ Spike said, and slammed his foot on the accelerator.
Xander held on tight and braced himself. The tyres screeched and the car slid to a stop. They got out together, but Spike was closer, faster, and he sprinted at the attacker, leapt and brought him rolling and crashing to the ground. Xander went for the woman, grabbed her and hauled her back.
‘It’s okay, ma’am. Rescue is here. There’s no need to ... slap me. Ow.’ Xander rubbed his cheek and glanced at Spike, who was just done pinning Mr No Scarf to the ground in an efficient and painful manner.
‘How dare you?!’ the woman shouted. ‘Who are you people?!’
‘We’re the good guys! We just saved you!’
‘From who? Roger?’
‘No, not Roger. From this guy.’ Xander leaned towards the man with his face squashed against the sidewalk. ‘Who are you?’
‘Roger,’ said Roger, with a little whimper.
‘Ah. Uh, erm.’ Xander drummed his fingers on his chin, lost for words.
‘You know this guy?’ Spike said.
‘But he was following you. People you know normally walk beside you.’
‘I ...’ The woman hesitated. ‘Roger? I saw you looking at me in the coffee shop. Did you ...? Did you want to ... ask me anything?’
Even in the darkness and the useless dim glow of the street light, Xander could see she was blushing, her whole face pinker than her fluffy scarf.
Spike wrenched the man to his knees and pulled his head back by his scruffy black hair. ‘Explain yourself!’
‘I ... I ... I was watching you. I wanted to ask you out. On a date. On Saturday. I wasn’t sure if you’d say yes. Sorry. I’m sort of shy.’
‘I noticed.’ The woman looked away. ‘Me too. That’s why I didn’t say anything to you. And yes, by the way. Saturday would be great.’
Roger’s eyes seemed to sparkle with tears of emotion. Or maybe Spike was holding his hair too tightly. ‘You would? That’s great!’
‘Oh, bugger this.’ Spike let go and Roger fell back to the ground. His future date ran to his side.
‘Call it a night?’ Xander suggested.
‘Yeah, call up the next mug for Espresso duty.’
There were little voices coming from the house, singing. Either the Von Trapp kids were inside or Dawn was home and watching the Sound of Music again. By the flicker through the window, Spike guessed the latter was true. As they walked from the car to the house, Xander chatted on about stupid shy people and even stupider women with their slappy hands. Spike let the words slide over him the same way Xander’s hands often slid over his back, over his shoulders, down his arms and across his thighs. It was soothing. Where once only a single word from Xander was enough to drive Spike to drink, now it was exactly what he needed.
‘Are you listening?’
‘’Course I am, love.’
‘Well? What do you think?’
‘See, I think so too. They’re definitely the way to go. My feet aren’t too hairy, are they?’
Spike fished the door key out of his pocket and poked it into the lock. ‘Nope.’
‘Are you sure? Be honest with me, Spike; do I have Hobbit feet?’
The lights were off when Spike swung the door open and Dawn was seated on the couch, her jean-clad knees drawn up and her eyes fixed on the television, staring as though they weren’t really focusing on anything.
‘Give us a minute,’ Spike said quietly.
Xander wandered away, switching on lights as he went, his voice quietly denying any Frodo-like qualities, including size of feet and thickness of hairs. He couldn’t help it if he was dark, blah blah.
She glanced at him. ‘Uh-oh. We’re gonna talk, aren’t we? I can tell because you sat down without taking your coat off. It’s exactly the same when you have to tell Xander the pizza place shut early.’
‘You mad with me?’ Spike asked, getting straight to the point before they danced around it again.
Dawn sighed and gripped her legs tighter. ‘Sometimes I think about Buffy. Actually, I think about her all the time. But sometimes I wonder what would have happened if Willow had actually done it – if she’d brought her back.’
Spike leaned on his knees and rubbed his face with his hands. ‘We all think about it, Dawn, course we do. But it doesn’t mean we regret what we did. We did the right thing.’
‘Yeah, I know.’ Her expression was solemn and she looked away when she spoke again. ‘What if Willow had brought her back? What if it had worked and Buffy had come back wrong?’
‘Don’t think about it. It didn’t happen.’
‘I can’t help it. I want to think about it!’ She met his gaze now, challenging him. ‘If she’d been wrong, would you have cut off her head like Angel did to that woman?’
He wasn’t sure what he was expected to say, what Dawn wanted to hear. He knew she was trying to sort things out in her head, compartmentalise everything now that life was quieter. All he could do was be honest with her, as he always had been, more or less.
‘I wouldn’t have let her suffer.’ He let that hang in the air between them before he continued. ‘I loved her too much for that. I’d have done it for her. And for you.’
She was silent, and for a moment Spike thought she wasn’t going to answer at all. Then she lifted her head and smiled faintly. ‘And for Xander?’
Spike made a noise that was a cross between a scoff, a snort and a ruptured gas pipe. ‘Not back then, love.’
‘Oh, come on, once you two started talking you couldn’t get enough of each other. I think you were always meant to be.’
‘Love at first fight?’ Spike said. ‘Maybe.’ Looking back, it was weird to think how much he’d once hated Xander. It was difficult to think that once he’d have pierced the skin at his neck and sucked him dry without a second thought.
‘How does Angel live like that?’ Dawn said. Spike wasn’t sure what she meant and it must have shown on his face because she continued, ‘He killed that woman so callously. He didn’t blink, he wasn’t upset, he wasn’t at all bothered. You heard her, Spike. Tell me that didn’t affect you.’
‘She was a zombie.’
‘But she was in pain. She was aware.’
‘Yeah, I know, and she was also dead and there’s nothing that could have made that better. Nothing except ending it, ending her.’
‘I do get that,’ Dawn said. ‘But Angel didn’t even—’
‘Blink his beautiful black lashes? I know. That’s just Angel.’
‘It seemed so heartless.’
‘Angel’s been to hell and back,’ Spike said, standing up. ‘Literally. He’s seen and been through horrors far, far worse. He’s hard as nails for a reason.’
‘You’re not like that.’
Spike shook his head. ‘You can’t compare us. He’s got that bloody soul torturing him. Guilt. It gnaws at him.’
There was sympathy in Dawn’s expression now. ‘Poor Angel.’
‘Christ, don’t feel sorry for him. Angel’s not happy unless he’s depressed, the old misery guts.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t say that,’ Dawn said. ‘Cordy seems to make him happy, even when she’s shouting at him.’
‘That’ll be his masochistic side coming out.’
‘Really? I think it might be love.’
From the kitchen came the sound of gagging.
Spike put his finger to his lips. ‘Shh, you know the thought of those two playing happy bunnies makes Xand sick.’
‘Not just sick!’ Xander declared, appearing in the doorway wielding a piece of bread in one hand and a slice of turkey-ham in the other. He flapped the ham at Spike. ‘And comparing them to rabbits, complete with pom pom tails and rampant breeding habits, only makes my gag reflex worse and my stomach way more unsettled.’
‘Euw, you think they’re having sex?’ Dawn asked.
‘Ahh, gah, no, please. If you don’t want a vomit sandwich I suggest you desist with all talk of Angel and Cordy and whatever it is they do or don’t do which we won’t mention in any anatomical way.’
Angel and Cordelia did seem to be getting closer and Spike did sometimes wonder if they’d got around to sleeping together yet. Giles had telephoned shortly after he’d cottoned on that the LA crew were sticking around Sunnydale on a permanent basis. He imparted all sorts of information, including everything he knew about Angel’s curse. Spike already knew most of it and he suspected Giles’s intentions were less about wanting to supply useful information and more about reminding him that Angel was a vampire with a catch.
Even if Giles hadn’t thought to remind him, Spike would never have forgotten. His eye was closely on the situation and he was positive that, even with a sideways glance, he would know Angelus the moment he appeared. The fact that he hadn’t threatened Angel with that yet showed an enormous trust on Spike’s part, something that he felt rather superior and smug about, thank you very much.
Anyway, enough of Angel’s sex life. Spike had his own to think about, and he was determined to get some tonight, right after a sandwich. He grasped Xander’s shoulders, turned him towards the kitchen and promised to never to mention Angel’s or Cordelia’s anatomy ever again.
The next two days passed peacefully, the only incidents being Dawn’s overzealous twirling of a stake that resulted in a splinter large enough to make even Angel’s eyes water, and a mistranslation of an apocalyptical text by Wesley that made Xander set his alarm clock four hours early for absolutely nothing.
It was relatively obvious that harmony wouldn’t last and, unfortunately for Xander, the peace and tranquillity officially ran out in the middle of a rainstorm, on a Monday of all days, and with only Angel for company.
‘Let’s go.’ Angel slipped into his coat, swept his car keys from the counter top and ran to the shop door. ‘Come on!’ he shouted to Xander, who was stumbling behind him, half tangled in his jacket because he couldn’t find the armhole.
‘Who was on the phone? What’s going down?’
‘Fred’s going down?’
Angel glanced at him as they walked.
‘Pretend I didn’t say that,’ Xander said. ‘Please.’
‘Fred called. There’s a disturbance at the mall.’
‘Disturbance as in a bit of shoplifting out of control?’
‘Zombies,’ Angel said, and punctuated himself by slamming the car door behind him. Xander got into the passenger seat.
‘Oh. Good,’ Xander said once they were racing down the street at a speed that would make even Spike raise an eyebrow, or more likely whoop with delight. ‘Was that zombies as in plural?’
‘Three. One already taken care of, plus the Cadillac sisters. Looks like our dead girls have finally surfaced.’
Angel definitely had punning potential. That would have been twenty percent funnier if only it had actually been a joke.
‘Are the others meeting us there?’
Angel shook his head and swung the car around the corner. The tyres squealed and the mall loomed ahead, almost lost beneath darkness and the rain pouring over and around the glass of the windshield and the squeaking windshield wipers.
‘Wesley, Cordelia and Dawn are clearing out a nest at Quinn Cemetery. Spike and Gunn are investigating a stray Fyarl demon that’s strayed onto the new school grounds.’
‘So that’s a no?’
‘Right. So you’re stuck with me.’
Angel glanced at him. ‘And Fred.’
There was definite glowering going on, Xander decided. Angel was stuck with the weakest two of the group: the guy he couldn’t stand and the odd Texan girl with the strange sense of humour and nervous disposition.
Xander wondered if he needed to prove something here. Did he need to show Angel he wasn’t the same high school kid that spent all his time being jealous and resentful and getting into trouble? Did he need to prove to Angel that he was the best thing that’d ever happened to Spike, that he was worthy? He glanced at Angel’s annoyingly handsome, brave and intelligent face. Did he need to prove to Spike that he was the better choice?
They screeched to a halt outside the mall, wrenched opened their doors and slammed them in unison, as though they were in some sort of wrenching and slamming competition. Now for the running event and Xander made better time when he cut Angel up and forced him into a puddle. They both arrived at the mall’s automatic doors together, one slightly wetter than the other. Angel squelched inside first.
It was immediately obvious which direction the panic was coming from. Even if they didn’t have directions and a shop name from Fred, all they had to do was watch the flow of fleeing people. Word had obviously spread and shoppers swarmed towards the exits. Xander and Angel kept to one side and made their way along the wall in the direction of the ruckus. By the time they reached Scott’s Sports Emporium, the screaming was fading in the distance.
‘Over here, guys!’ Fred said in a bad stage whisper.
Xander glanced around, into each corner, the counter, the rack of ski suits. ‘Fred? Where the hell are you?’
‘Over here!’ She waved from behind a mannequin and a zombie with its skull caved in.
Xander noticed Fred had a bloodstained tennis racquet in her hand. ‘Um ...?’
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘one of them was chewing on an old lady. Did I ever mention my backhand skills?’
‘Did you bring it?’ Fred asked, and Angel immediately dug into his coat pocket and pulled out what looked like a handgun.
‘My latest work,’ she said at Xander’s inquisitive look. ‘It fires a remote device. First squeeze of the trigger fires it, the second triggers three million volts. No wires so if you’re a good enough shot, you can fry them no matter how far they run.’
‘How about ten paces to the left?’
‘Fire!’ Xander yelled. He lifted his sword and swung it back, but Fred had already pointed the stun gun and fired. The shot seemed to confuse the zombie girl, who went growly and cross-eyed trying to see what had just hit her forehead. Fred squeezed the trigger again and the zombie shook and quivered where she stood, quaking from head to toe until Fred released the trigger.
The zombie dropped to the ground and Angel took off her head with one clean slice of his sword.
‘One to go,’ Xander muttered, peering down and grimacing at the slowly pooling blood. It looked already halfway congealed and the stench it gave off was enough to put him off his food for at least a day, maybe even two. He was about to ask Fred if she knew where the other zombie was, but Angel was already moving, his limbs slow and controlled, his stalkery face in place, his eyes fixed beyond the counter as though he could see right through it. Xander wouldn’t have been surprised if his nose had started twitching.
Xander circled around to the right, Fred to the left, and together they moved forward, slowly, slowly, slower until Angel put his arm up, cocked his head to the side ...
‘What?’ Xander just had time to say before the zombie launched itself over the counter right at him. Strong hands gripped his throat and pushed at him and he felt himself buckle under the sudden weight. He went down hard on his back, his spine impacting on the corner of a display stand.
‘Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh—’
‘Don’t fire!’ Angel shouted, and then Xander felt blunt teeth sink into his neck. It was a weird sensation and he realised he’d never been bitten by anything other than a vampire. It was much more painful, not like the sudden sting and then bloom of pain from a pair of fangs. This felt like being crushed, as though those teeth were going to press and mash their way right through his entire neck.
Then there was a tugging sensation that made him groan and the zombie’s weight was gone. Xander sat up. Experience at playing the victim meant he wasn’t one for lying down. Lesson one: during any kind of Hellmouth attack, if your legs are still working, fricking use them. He got to his feet and saw the zombie doing the same. From her position and Angel’s, Xander guessed the zombie had just been thrown. Now Angel was drawing his sword back and Fred was loading another dart into her gun.
The zombie leapt before Fred had a chance to finish. It, she, was fast, vampire fast, which apparently even caught Angel by surprise when he received a face-full of matted blonde hair and smeared ruby-red lipstick. Angel crashed back into the mannequins but, unlike Xander, the smart-ass managed to stay on his feet and he flung the zombie onto the floor. She surged back up and latched on, her teeth attaching to Angel’s sleeve.
‘Hold out your arm!’ Xander shouted. ‘I’ll chop it off!’
‘Her head! Hold out your arm and I’ll chop off her head.’
If the expression on Angel’s face was anything to go by, it was a definite no. Instead, Angel tried shaking her off like she was a Jack Russell hanging from a six pound steak.
‘Oh, god, Angel,’ Fred said, ‘does it hurt?’
‘Pinches,’ Angel replied through gritted teeth. ‘And this coat is ruined!’ Perhaps it was the latter realisation, but Angel chose that moment to vamp out, drop his sword and punch the zombie repeatedly. It didn’t work. Yes, Angel was using his right hand, but still his strength seemed to mean almost nothing.
‘Nobody said anything about zombies having super strength,’ Xander said. He hovered over them both for a moment and debated leaving them to it. He had a brief daydream/fantasy about Angel having to cart around his own personal zombie for the rest of his existence.
‘Nobody asked!’ Angel snapped.
Xander nodded down at him. ‘You didn’t know, did you?’
‘Not a clue. How about a hand here? Distract it!’
‘Oh. Right.’ Xander gripped his sword in both hands and brought it straight down through the zombie’s back. The resulting scream made everyone flinch. Fred dropped her stun gun and covered her ears.
‘Oh my, that is ...’
‘Inhuman?’ Xander supplied, pulling out the sword and backing away fast as the zombie released Angel’s arm and swivelled towards him. ‘Unholy? A tragic abomination that renders you sympathetic in a strange and more than faintly disgusted way?’
‘I was just going to say painful, but those will work just fine.’
The zombie advanced and behind her bulging, clouded eyes and decomposing flesh, Xander could see something much more frightening. Something human.
‘Helllp me. It hurts. Please.’ She screamed again and fell to her knees, reached out her hand to him.
Xander stared at it, the bloody palm, buckled fingers and the fingernails painted pink, chipped like Dawn’s when she chewed them on a Sunday morning. ‘Help me, please. Oh god, please help me.’
‘Get away from her, Xander,’ Angel said.
‘Please, please, please you sack of shit, I’ll fucking KILL YOU!!’
She lunged at him and he jerked back and felt Fred clutching at his arm.
The zombie cried, although it was more like wailing and there were no tears, her eyes wide and dry.
‘Please,’ she whispered, and then Angel cut through her neck and her head fell into a basket of tennis balls.
The moment directly afterwards, Xander would never forget. The quiet come-down, Fred’s ragged breathing, his own thumping heart and the fleeting expression of sorrow that crossed Angel’s face.
‘Tell me I’m not gonna turn zombified,’ Xander said, pressing his hand to the wound at his neck.
Angel shook his head. ‘This isn’t an infection. This is dark magic. We have to stop this.’
Beta'd by kitty_poker1. Thanks also to literati and amejisuto for their help and encouragement.