The young witch cowered beneath Riley's glare.
"He's asleep. It's not natural, so the tales must be true. He'll sleep until something undead comes for him. There was no time to cast any spells or wards. Lord Rayne will be pleased?"
Graham sneered. "I'm sure you will be well rewarded for your time. You usually are. Now let us be on our way. We may yet make it home before the sun is fully set. I have no wish to be out here after dark, there are too many demons on the loose."
And so our hero, Alexander of the Giles Clan, lately of the Valley of the Sun, slept, and as he slept he dreamed, and as he dreamed the magic of the place surrounded him and slowly sank into his bones and blood and mind.
Ten years passed, in which his loss was mourned. His siblings, the young witch Willow and the budding mage Jesse, tried, repeatedly at first, to rescue him from his endless slumber, but neither spells nor any incantation or supplication could open a doorway into the Mouth of Hell, and eventually their fervour was worn down. The wild magic guarded its treasure too well. Only one of the undead could steal that treasure away, and there was no vampire willing to risk unlife for a look behind the flames.
And then, one day, there was.
William the Bloody, of the Clan Aurelius, more recently known as Spike, tethered his demon-reared horse to the last living tree on the edge of the barrens and studied the column of fire that stretched up to the sky. He'd been away from his undead family for over one hundred years, since that unfortunate incident with the gypsy and his Grandsire's damnable soul, and he was only returning now because of the odd dreams he had been having, dreams he believed had been sent to him by his insane Sire Drusilla.
The dreams were confusing, full of kittens, and fires, old family, and little burning fishes. That was how he knew it was Dru. And he had seen this very image behind closed eyes a dozen times. A ring of flames the locals called the Mouth of Hell held that which he'd been sent to find. His grail was the eldest son of the greatest mage in the land, or so he had been told by those unlucky enough to cross his path. A youth who had enclosed himself within the flame to wait for a vampire fearless enough to claim him as Consort.
Spike wasn't so sure about the Consort bit, but he'd always been cursed with more than his fair share of curiosity, and he'd been around long enough to trust that Dru usually knew what she was doing, so here he was. Of course, the fearless bit was neither here nor there now he'd been blessed by the kiss of Amara. One hand moved absently to trace the permanent scar on his left collarbone in the shape of a pair of pouting lips. It had been agony to receive, but the benefits were more than worth it. He was almost completely immortal. Neither sun nor fire nor holy water nor stake could truly kill him. The only way he would lose his life was if he lost his head. Literally. And as he would rather keep the secret of his new status from his estranged clan, Spike made certain he was never seen travelling in daylight.
Shaking off his moment of deep thought, Spike sauntered across the moonlit barrens, right up to the wall of fire that rippled as he moved closer, like the surface of water when it was disturbed. Curious, he reached out and poked one finger into the flickering sheet and watched in awe as it disappeared into the flames without causing even a twinge. With a wicked grin he leapt forward, passing easily through the red-blue-yellow-orange wall into the enchanted land within.
Light flickered beyond Xander's eyelids, and, after a joint-popping, ligament-creaking stretch, he opened them to look around. Fire. And more fire. And, yes, behind him there was yet more fire. Memories rushed in to fill the gaps left by fading dreams, and he twisted back around, reaching out for the jug of water, and instead wrapping one hand around a black-clad leg. He almost swallowed his tongue.
"Who the... What the...? Huh?"
Spike had watched the languid stretch as the young man slowly woke from his lengthy sleep, and had silently admitted to himself that he liked what he'd seen. Then he'd decided to see if the sleeping beauty was as wily and clever and fearless as the stories told, and had moved silently to stand beside the makeshift pallet, grinning when a warm hand clasped around his ankle.
Xander scrabbled backwards off the bedroll onto the loose shale and felt his hands slide out from under him.
As quick as lightning a pale hand shot out and latched onto the front of his shirt, stopping him just before he smashed the back of his head into the unforgiving ground. Silently, he was hauled to his feet and brushed off, and he found himself in the befuddling position of trying to ignore the reactions generated by the occasional lingering stroke across his butt.
Once he was thoroughly dust-free, he was released and then examined from head to toe. Spike made no effort to hide his pleased reaction at what he saw. A shaggy mop of tobacco brown hair hung down over eyes as dark and shiny as freshly hulled chestnuts. The ragged curls just brushed the tops of a pair of broad, lightly muscled shoulders, and Spike slowly dragged his gaze down the narrowing torso, wilfully ignoring the harshly coloured shirt as he mentally sketched out the sculpted pecs the atrocity was hiding. The pants were just as bad, there looked to be enough of the coarse brown fabric to make two pairs that would fit the boy well, but with an expert eye he traced the faintest hints of solid thighs and well-muscled calves. Dru's gift was looking better by the second.
Xander mirrored the curious gaze, taking in his unknown visitor, from the head bedecked with a mass of sandy curls, past eyes of a glorious blue, over cheekbones as sharp as knives and pouting lips that made his stomach flip, down the full length of a slim, muscular body clad entirely in expertly tailored rich black clothing, to narrow feet tucked into leather boots bound up with braided thongs. Gulp.
Blue eyes locked onto his and Xander forgot any other words he had planned to use. One thin, scarred eyebrow arched in query, and Xander lost himself in wondering how his visitor had incurred the damage and whether he knew how devastatingly attractive it was.
"Alexander Giles, I presume?"
It took a moment for the question to filter past the lust that still held Xander in its unexpected grasp, but eventually the sound of his own name being repeated shook him out of his stupor.
"Um, yeah? That'd be... me. Ah, Xander, really, if you'd like." Spike smiled a smile of way too many teeth, and something clicked inside Xander's mind. "And that would make you one of the undead, right?"
Spike nodded and plopped himself down on one end of the thin sleeping pad.
"I'd have a seat, if I were you, this might take a while."
And take a while it did.
Spike, who had spent much of the last century alone, was quite willing to sit and talk as Xander drank the water and ate the bread and meat that were all as fresh as they had been when he carried them into his 'sanctuary' over ten years ago. That, of course had been his very first question, and Spike had been surprised by the reaction he'd received upon his answer. Apparently the boy had been sure he'd sleep for much, much longer, awaiting a vampire of sufficient courage to dare the flames. He was joyous to learn that his family was still alive and indeed in better circumstances than they had been before. The details Spike provided were sketchy, at best, but Xander hung on each and every one.
But eventually Spike grew bored of being the font of all recent knowledge, and called a halt to the hesitant questioning.
"I've been in here for hours recounting tales of what's long gone. I left my horse tied to a tree and it needs water and probably food. The sun will be rising shortly and I need to find shelter for the day, but I promise to return again tomorrow so we can talk more."
Xander looked down at his hands and then back into the face of Wi... Spike.
"One more question, please?" Spike nodded and Xander continued. "Why did you come for me?"
Spike had been expecting and dreading the question since the moment he'd stepped through the fire. He hadn't managed to come up with a believable lie, and so fell back on the honest, but ultimately unhelpful, truth.
"I dreamed of you, pretty one. I saw you every dawn when I closed my eyes, so here I am."
It wasn't until Spike returned that he realised what must have happened the previous night when he had left Xander standing just a few feet from the wall of flame as he passed through to the outside world.
He re-entered the circle to see Xander slumped in a heap on the floor, only just beginning to stir as Spike removed himself completely from the fire.
"Bloody stupid spell! I'm sorry, pet, I never thought..." And quite before he realised it, Spike was helping Xander to his feet again, brushing him off again and offering to massage away the kinks developed from a day spent scrunched on the ground.
"Just... Help me sit down, please? On my bedding? It's not much, but I swear I'll be forever grateful to the guardsmen for allowing me to bring it along. If this what it feels like to spend one day sleeping on this ground I'd hate to think what kind of knots I'd have after ten years. Did you bring me water? And... maybe food?"
The barrage of babble left Spike blinking in surprise. Somehow, since his first visit, his sleeping beauty had gone from hesitant questions and long silences to being able to breathe through his ears while talking incessantly. It would appear that the magical sleep that held him fast was not the same as the sleep of the dead. The body might be trapped in repose, but the brain obviously still retained function enough to process new data. While he slumbered, Xander had moved on, from the muted shock of being woken, to the eagerness of receiving a visitor after a long period of solitude. Spike wondered what else had gone on inside Xander's head while his body was unaware.
Spike returned every night for a month, and slowly they grew closer. Shared smiles turned into kisses and caresses and soft sighs. And eventually that turned into more.
Each visit Spike brought food and wine or water, and occasionally he also bore small gifts. He growled whenever Xander tried to thank him, and then one day -
"'S just junk, Xander, pieces I picked up along the way. That knife you're fiddling with is all chipped and twisted, barely worth a second glance. Give it here and I'll find a better one tomorrow, if I can."
They both glanced down to look again at the battle-scarred weapon, and what they saw instead stunned them both. As they had passed time talking, Xander's fingers had been stroking along the blade, feeling out each scratch and nick and every tiny kink. The magic that had seeped into his mind and blood and bones had heard his wish to make the blade as it once was, and so it did. Beneath fingers full of power the iron had heated and reshaped, and the blade they looked at now was sharp and true and red-white hot.
"Whoa!" The knife went flying into the air as Xander's shock transmuted into mindless 'get-it-away' panic, and Spike reached out and snatched it from the air by the still cold hilt.
"That's... quite a party trick you've got there, pet. Care to share what other secrets you've been hiding?"
"I... What... H-Holy..."
Xander threw a glare down at his hands. "I swear, Spike, I never knew I could do that. In fact, I'd swear I couldn't. You know Giles took me in when my father was banished for his crimes, I'm not his real son. I never learned more than simple tricks and curses and a minor spell or two to keep me safe. This is..." Xander raised his eyes to Spike's in dawning realisation. "This is fire magic, Spike, I can feel it in my veins."
The vampire's grin was wide and full of fangs.
"Oh, luv, I think I'm keeping you. How does being Consort to William the Bloody sound to you?"
It took Spike another couple of hours to wheedle Xander out of his stunned stupor and convince him to repeat his trick with coins and a few brass nails, but eventually the evidence was in. Xander was full to the brim with fire magic, and metal was like putty in his hands. Twigs and leaves combusted on his palm with just a thought and water boiled and bubbled on his skin. And it didn't hurt a bit.
"C-Consort, Spike? You sure? I mean, it could just be this place. What happens if we leave and I go back to what I was? Will you still love me if I can no longer make you pretty rings from nails?"
Spike caressed the brass and copper twist around his finger, then pulled it off and passed it to the human he now loved.
"You wear this, keep it safe till I return, it says you're mine. I have to go and make nice to the bitch and her brood before I take a pretty thing like you back home with me. I'll make sure they don't stab us in the back."
"I'll wait. I'll miss you... Well, okay I'll sleep while you're gone, but I'll gladly be the Consort of the vampire who next appears through those flames. I'll kneel at his feet and pledge my troth with this very ring, this I swear."
They shared a final smile, and then Spike watched as Xander carefully placed the ring he'd wrought by magic on the finger reserved for wedding bands, right beside its twin. He pressed a lingering kiss on those lush lips and then helped Xander to the ground and smoothed the blanket into place.
"I'll be back before you know it, my love. I promise."
So, finally, Spike completed his return to the heart of his family, the Clan Aurelius, and after debts of blood and pain had been repaid, he was welcomed into their homestead in the Valley of the Moon.
His insane Sire, Drusilla, was very pleased to see him, and whispered in dark corners about kittens and fires and rings. She told him there were trials still to come, that he must listen now and wait, but he had always been the impatient type.
The matriarch, the elder of the clan, the bitch called Darla, overheard Spike speaking to his Sire. She'd heard the human stories of the boy who hid in flames, and she knew his clan was not without great power in the neighbouring valley. The thought of William gaining that much influence made her hiss and spit and she devised a plan to give the boy to Angel, her soul-cursed Childe. She knew he'd never dare to use the power for himself and he'd still be loyal only unto her, while his crazy spawn Drusilla and her brat would sooner see her turned to dust.