Airports, Xander decided, didn't quite inhabit the same reality as the rest of the world. They were pocket dimensions—lesser hell dimensions, maybe—labyrinths filled with blank-faced desperate people, incomprehensible signage, and a pervasive stink of floor polish, stale cigarettes and sweat.
Or maybe he was just tired. That could very well be it. He hadn't really slept since 1999.
That last day in 1999 had been exhausting enough on its own, what with the late-night rerun of the battle with the Sisterhood of Jhe, followed by the trip out to the desert and back, Spike's asthma attack, and the ER confrontation with everyone they'd been trying to avoid in Sunnydale. By the time they'd sorted it all out, ensured the safety of the timeline and made it back to LA, Xander had been awake for going on twenty-four hours.
As soon as they'd made it back to the present, they'd taken Giles out to the desert to collect the Sisters. And okay, yeah, Xander had dozed a little in the car during that two-hour drive, but that didn't really count—not against the kind of exhaustion he was dealing with here.
Giles had arranged beforehand for passage to Australia by container ship—it was the fastest way to get three very conspicuous demons across the Pacific Ocean to the Brisbane Hellmouth. Spike and Xander had gone with him down to the port, planning to drive the car back to the hotel and collapse into bed once they'd seen him off. It had been a good plan.
They'd been literally walking into their hotel room when Xander's cell phone had rung. It had been Kennedy, with frantic news: Willow was in labor, and it was going very wrong somehow, and she was asking for Xander.
Eighteen hours later, here they were in Sao Paulo.
Specifically, here they were in the Sao Paulo international airport, standing in line for customs. The line they were in was moving at the pace of a badly crippled snail. The line to their immediate left was moving at the pace of a healthy, athletic snail, but a look at the stern security guards at the front of the room killed Xander's fleeting thought of ducking under the cordon. Xander had learned a thing or two the hard way in the past couple years, and never mess with airport security was a notable example.
God, he was tired. So tired that he kept forgetting why the hell they were in Brazil—or where they were at all, for that matter, not to mention what year it was—and then he'd remember, and get scared all over again. They hadn't heard anything about Willow since that one call from Kennedy. Xander had tried Kennedy's cell as soon as the plane had landed, but she wasn't answering.
He glanced over at Spike, mostly to reassure himself that he was still okay—or, anyway, still upright. Xander was worried about him, too. It had been maybe twenty-four hours, relative time, since the terrifying asthma attack that had landed him in Sunnydale General. He'd had a minor attack in Miami, too, while they were switching planes, but he'd controlled it easily with one dose from his inhaler. At that point Xander had suggested borrowing one of the airport wheelchairs. And, well, that conversation had ended when an exaggeratedly polite security guard with a Southern accent had asked them to please stop shouting at each other, as they were scaring some nearby children.
So, no wheelchairs. Check. But they'd been standing in this fucking line for forty-five minutes, and Xander was sure Spike was paler now than he'd been at the beginning, and he'd been quiet for a long time too—that was never a good sign. Xander wished there were at least someplace for him to sit. Up and down the line, some other weary travelers were resting on their own suitcases, but Spike and Xander were traveling light—just one shoulder bag each, small enough for carry-on.
The line shuffled forward about six inches, and they moved along with it. Xander thought he saw Spike start to sway and then catch himself. His face was definitely paler now, Xander decided. His lips were tinged gray, apart from the bruised corner of his mouth where Xander had punched him under the Thesulac's influence. Fuck.
There was something wrong with Spike. It wasn't just the exhaustion of the past crazy week, or yesterday's asthma attack. He'd said something back in Sunnydale ... they'd been fighting about Faith, one of those not-really-about-what-it's-about fights, and Spike's frustration with his own body had boiled over in an angry rant. Xander had backed down from his own hurt over Spike's flirting with Faith and tried to make peace with some lame everything'll be better in the morning assurances, and that was when Spike had told him that no, it wouldn't.
I'll feel like shite in the morning, he'd said. I feel like shite every morning.
They hadn't talked about it since then, but Xander had had time to think, and his thoughts were going places that scared him. Because when he thought about it, he realized that he'd been noticing changes on a subconscious level for months: Spike got tired quickly these days. He slept a lot, and lately he had permanent shadows under his eyes. It hadn't seemed like a big deal, especially in the context of the rest of the health problems that had come along with his heartbeat. Xander was used to Spike getting sick frighteningly and dramatically—incapacitating migraines, asthma attacks, pneumonia. But now that he thought about it, he realized the difference: it used to be that in between crises, Spike was fine. He'd attacked life with a sort of wild energy: spontaneous all-night motorcycle rides across Europe, relic hunting with Illyria across India and Nepal, dancing till 3 a.m. at whatever club was hot that week in whatever city they were in. For the last two or three months, though, not so much. Xander had gotten used to Spike being the one to say "let's stay in tonight, watch the telly"—and hey, cuddling on the couch watching the new Battlestar Galactica? Definitely of the good.
I feel like shite every morning. He'd been watching Spike more carefully since then, and he'd noticed the way his body language changed when he thought no one was looking. Xander had come out of the shower quietly one morning in the motel room and watched Spike getting dressed—every movement slow and heavy, his jaw set tight against unspoken pain. And okay, yeah, that was after the vampire beatdown, but Xander was intimately familiar with the ginger movements of someone who was just plain bruised all over—having been a Slayer's sidekick for nine years and counting— and this was more than that.
"Luv?" Spike's quiet address and his hand on Xander's arm broke Xander out of his worried reverie. "You all right?"
"Huh?" Xander blinked, disoriented by the question. "I'm—sure, why?" He followed Spike's gaze to the line in front of them—oh. The line had moved again, leaving a good four feet between Xander and Spike and the person ahead of them. Xander shrugged and took a couple steps forward. "I guess I zoned."
Spike frowned. "You look like you're about to fall over."
Xander almost laughed. "I was thinking the same thing about you," he said, trying to make his tone light.
"At least I slept on the plane." Spike touched the side of Xander's face, just briefly. They never showed much physical affection in places like this where they weren't sure what the reaction would be. "We'll get to her soon, don't worry."
Willow. Xander actually shivered, remembering again. His fear for her was sharper, more acute than his worry for Spike—so terrifying that his brain kept shying away from it, but it had kept him awake in a miserable exhausted fugue state through the entire eighteen hours of international travel. "I know," he said, even though he didn't know anything at all. "If we ever get out of this airport. Fuck." He took another frustrated look at the faster-moving line to their left, and his gaze settled blankly for a moment on a petite blond woman in a short blue dress. It took him a good three, four seconds to register that he knew her, and then his mouth worked before his brain did. "Buffy!"
She looked up sharply, and so did Spike. Buffy's eyes widened at the sight of him, and she called out "Xander!" with a sort of desperate joy.
"Fucking hell," Spike whispered, and backed up a step to put Xander more thoroughly between himself and Buffy.
Before Xander had any time at all to process the implications, Buffy was ducking under the cordon containing her line, dragging her absurdly large wheeled suitcase across the intervening linoleum and throwing her arms around Xander in a bone-crunching hug.
"Oh God, Xander," she said, "I'm so glad to see you. Have you heard anything? I tried calling Kennedy as soon as I landed, but I guess she's got her cell turned off in the hospital—"
"Same here," he said, letting his chin rest on the top of her head for a moment, holding her tight. It was the first time he'd seen her in nearly a year. "I mean, I tried, no answer."
"God, I'm scared," she said in a tiny voice, tight like she was holding herself back from the edge of crying.
"Me too, Buff. Me too."
Their hug was cut short by a frowning security guard, who tapped Buffy's shoulder and said something in gruff Spanish—no, Xander reminded himself, probably Portuguese.
"Um, sorry?" Buffy said, turning around. "Uh, habla inglés?"
The guard shook his head impatiently, said something else—in Spanish this time, Xander was pretty sure—and gestured towards the other line.
"He says you have to go back in your own line," Spike said. From Buffy's startled expression, she hadn't noticed Spike until that moment. "Hang on," Spike added, and then addressed the guard—in Spanish? Portuguese? Xander wasn't sure. When he finished, the guard nodded, still frowning, said something quickly to Buffy that had a sound of "I'll let you off this one time," and walked away.
Buffy and Spike looked at each other warily. Spike spoke first, a quiet "Hello, Buffy."
"Spike." She crossed her arms in a protective gesture. "I can't deal with this right now. So can we just ... not?"
"Not sure what you mean, pet." Spike was using a strangely gentle tone of voice.
"I mean—" she waved her hand vaguely, indicating the space between them, "—everything. Could we just pretend for now that we're, like, old friends from high school and nothing weird's ever happened between us?"
"Okay," Spike said, sounding cautious. "We can do that."
Then there were a few moments of tense silence. The line advanced another two feet.
Xander cleared his throat. "Hey Spike," he said, a little too brightly, "I didn't know you spoke Portuguese."
"Spent a few years in Brazil, here and there," Spike said, his eyes still locked on Buffy's. "Dru loved the place."
Buffy flinched at the name of Spike's old lover. Xander wasn't sure whether Spike had been aiming for that effect, or whether he was suddenly nostalgic or just too tired to think straight. This had to be a serious head trip for both Spike and Buffy—it was their first meeting since Spike had burned up in the Hellmouth. Even for Xander, it was awkward. He and Buffy had been quietly and unofficially estranged since he'd started dating Spike. It didn't seem important now, compared to Willow, but it was still hard to figure out what to say now that they'd got past the hugging.
"So, Buffy," Xander tried, giving the small talk one more shot, "did you fly straight from Rome?"
She shook her head, finally looking back to Xander. "I was in New York, remember?"
"Oh, right. How'd that go?"
She shrugged. "Made the rounds of the demon bars, knocked some heads together, got some info. Looks like we might have a problem next fall in Borneo, but Angel's on it."
Xander's shoulders tensed at the sound of Angel's name. He still wasn't over the shock of finding out that Spike and Angel had been—was lovers the right word? Probably not, but trying to think of a better one was likely to break Xander's brain. Anyway, thinking about that led to remembering the rage he'd felt under the Thesulac's influence (yeah, blame it all on the Thesulac said a sarcastic little voice deep inside, and he shushed it). Spike's bruised mouth was enough of a reminder of that; Xander really didn't want to get into a conversation about what Angel was up to these days.
Lacking any encouragement from Xander, Buffy lapsed back into silence. Xander was too fucking tired to try the conversation thing again. So they all stood together, waiting, shuffling forward occasionally, with Buffy and Spike conspicuously keeping to opposite sides of Xander now and avoiding each other's eyes. The minutes crept by. The line in front of them shrank to eight people, then five.
"Xander," Spike said, suddenly, quietly. "I think I need to ... sit ..."
His face was almost white, and even as he reached a hand out towards Xander his knees sagged and his eyes fluttered shut.
"Shit." Xander caught him under the shoulders and looked around urgently. "Buffy, your suitcase."
Her eyes were wide, but she saw immediately what Xander meant. She pushed her big red Samsonite suitcase right up behind Spike, and Xander lowered him down onto it. Spike wasn't quite unconscious; he crossed his arms over his knees and rested his head on them.
Buffy looked shaken. "What's going on?"
Simultaneously, the man standing behind them in line asked, in heavily accented English, "Is everything all right? Do you want me to go get help for your friend?"
"Be all right in a minute," Spike said weakly, the words muffled from being spoken into his own lap.
"Um, I think he's okay, thanks," Xander said, speaking to the man behind them first. He kept a worried hand on the back of Spike's neck, ready to catch him again if he toppled over. His skin was clammy. "It's been a really long trip, he's just tired." Then, more quietly to Buffy, "We came here straight from dealing with that thing in Sunnydale. Didn't even have time to nap in between."
"Sunnydale," she repeated, slowly. "I heard you were—I don't know the details, though, Giles was being all tight-lippy about it. Did you really go ... back?"
He gave a tight nod. "All the way. It was ... intense."
Spike lifted his head and looked at Buffy. "You nearly made a right mess of things, pet, but Dawn got it all sorted."
Buffy frowned, but before she could say anything the customs agent up front called out something and waved to them. The last group left in front of them had been processed.
"Right," Spike said, and made a move to push himself to his feet. Xander went to help him, but Buffy got there first. She walked with Spike to the inspection desk, subtly supporting him, leaving Xander to trail behind them with her fifty-pound suitcase.
He knew it shouldn't piss him off. Buffy was just being helpful. Hell, she was being fantastic, considering all the shit she and Spike had unresolved between them. And besides, she was a better height for Spike to lean on. So. He definitely wasn't burning with resentment and desperate jealousy.
They made it through customs with no real hassles. There was an awkward moment when Xander forgot his own birth date—which was kind of ironic considering Spike was the one who had a fake one on his passport—but the customs agent was unfazed by exhausted, confused travelers. Outside the airport they caught a cab and left it to Spike to give the driver the name of the clinic where Willow was. Then Xander blinked, and next thing he knew they were stopped and Spike was shaking his arm while Buffy paid the driver. Which was good, that she did, because all of Xander's money was in dollars and Euros.
Xander kept an eye on Spike as they all got out of the cab and headed into the clinic, but he seemed to be fine. Being the only one who spoke any Portuguese, he went to reception and got directions for them.
"She's here," he confirmed, returning to Buffy and Xander. "Third floor."
In the elevator, Spike's hand closed around Xander's and squeezed. Xander stared straight ahead at the doors until they opened again, noting in an abstract way that he felt like throwing up.
They walked out into a spacious foyer containing a nurses' station and a small waiting area. Spike headed for the duty nurse to ask about Willow, and Xander's eye drifted blankly over the room. The bench-style seats in the waiting area looked well-padded and comfortable. A red-haired guy sat on one of them with his head ducked down, fingering what looked like some kind of rosary.
It was like it had been with Buffy in the airport—it took a long, dazed moment before Xander's brain even told him the redhead looked familiar.
This time, though, it was Buffy who found her tongue first. She took a step towards the guy and said, in a tone of stunned amazement, "Oz? What are you doing here?"