This Time

Cuba sucks. Too much sun. Too many moskitos. Very little Bacardi feeling. Plus the sweltering climate makes his eyesocket itch.

It's okay in the larger cities with their airconditioned hotels, but riding an antediluvian bus full of bustling families and clamoring chicken to distant villages? Less fun. Not with his expense account.

It's true, the Cubana are beautiful, as seen on TV, with skin that shimmers like satin, and few inhibitions. Xander's eyepatch rarely earns him a second glance. His dollars could go a long way, but to Xander's Sunnydale-sharpened sensibilities people here are bruised in body and soul, and the Jinteras reek of desperation and fear.

Besides, Xander didn't travel all the way to Cuba for the women, he's here to find a man.

Xander watches the dented bus disappear in a cloud of dust, peers at the crooked map that the Council informant in Havana drew for him on a paper napkin, picks up his luggage – mostly clean underwear, stakes and a few bottles of holy water – and starts to walk.

He crosses the road, then turns left at the next street corner. A mangy dog bares its teeth at him. Xander is not impressed. Stares it down. Smiles when the dog scampers off with its tail between its legs.

He passes a square full of hundreds of foldable chairs. No doubt some party bigwig will soon roll in, smile at the carefully orchestrated crowd, blame the brownouts on the class enemy, and talk about the Revolution with a capital R.

Xander slaps his neck, painting yet another red smear of squashed moskito on his skin.

Yep, Cuba sucks. A haven for bloodsuckers of all kinds. Why would a self-respecting vamp pick a place with so much sun? Can't be the nightlife, not here, in the middle of nowhere. Maybe the vamp likes cigars?

Xander doesn't. He tried smoking once or twice, but it doesn't work for him. Spike, now there's a guy who always looked good smoking.

Xander has the whole ritual memorized: pale fingers with black nail polish fishing the cigarette out of the pack, the unlit cigarette bobbing between pursed lips, because Spike is talking some stupid shit while patting the pockets of his duster to search for his lighter; the squint and tilt of his head as Spike touches the flame to the cigarette, and then the lazy flick of his wrist and the almost musical sound of the lighter snapping shut. Xander remembers sharp cheekbones and pursed lips, and that first greedy lungful. Spike. As hungry for nicotine as he was for everything else...

Xander swallows. Stores the memory away with the same care he gives the slightly blurry photograph of Anya that he always carries in his wallet.

Hard to believe that Mr. Roly poly finally bought the plot, kicked the bucket, snuffed it, went up in flames. Again. Reliable reports say, Spike got roasted in L.A. - by a dragon, of all things. Way to go, Spike!

Stifling a sigh, Xander glances at the drawing on the napkin.

It leads him to of a house of crumbling colonial splendour. The evening sun lends its peeling paint a golden glow. There is no sign to lure in customers. Yet this is the right adress.Third floor, the Council informant said. The door, at least, is open. And Xander thinks he smells oregano. Xander pockets his map and steps inside.

On the third floor he knocks on a sturdy wooden door and finds himself appraised by a gaunt Cuban in his late forties. Smells of garlic and oregano waft into the hallway, laced with tobacco fumes.

When Xander brandishes a wad of American presidents, the Cuban steps back.

Yep. Works every time.

Xander strolls into a shabby room full of people. Four tables and twenty chairs have been crammed into a room no bigger than his folks' old bedroom. Most of the seats are taken. By locals, it seems. Some are eating. Others are drinking.

This isn't Xander's first paladare. His contact in Havana wined and dined him at the supposedly world famous La Guarida, a small, privately owned, family-run restaurant, one of many legal, highly taxed paladares in Cuba. This, however, must be one of the illegal ones: too many patrons and at least one of them is eating lobster.

The gaunt man points at an empty chair, takes Xander's order for moros y cristianos with beef, and disappears in one of the back rooms, presumably to return to his pots and pans.

Xander is no longer sure that coming here was a good idea. All the way to Cuba, just on a hunch? Because of a footnote in the latest report from Havana?

So what if there's a vampire turf war in some godforsaken town in Cuba? Who cares if the newcomer wipes out the entire nest? Xander sure didn't care – until he read the vampire's descirption: short, platinum blond hair, black leather coat.

Impossible. Spike died in L.A. Besides, even if he weren't dead, why would he go to Cuba? Still, Xander booked a flight, and boarded a plane the very same day, with enough stakes and holy water to exterminate a dozen imposters.

The food arrives. Xander barely notices what he's eating.

Every time there is a knock on the door, he pauses. Waits for the impossible to happen.

And then he finally walks – no! – saunters in: dressed in black except for a blue shirt, hair his usual platinum blond but with a hint of dark roots showing, an unlit cigarette dangling from pursed lips, hands abesently patting his duster pockets.

With one sweeping glance, the newcomer scans the entire restaurant only to stop dead in his tracks.

Xander has no memory of pushing back his chair or standing up, yet here he is, half-way to the door, standing just one step away from him:

"Spike!"

For a full second both men stand frozen, unaware that everybody is staring at them.

Xander's heart beats fast enough for two.

"Xander?" A smile lights up Spike's features, boyish and unguarded. The unlit cigarette drops to the floor, unheeded. "What brings you to this godforsaken part of the world?"

"Looking for you."

The smile vanishes and a serious, business-like expression takes its place. "Got another apocalypse on your hand and you need yours truly to help out? Is everybody alright? Buffy? Dawn? What about the others? Anyone in trouble? That it?" Spike looks ready to take on a whole army of demons.

The last time Xander found out that Spike wasn't dead, when Andrew told him that Spike had been resurrected by some kind of amulet, an inexplicable surge of emotion made Xander's heart leap and bounce in his chest. That's when he realized that Anya wasn't the only one whose death had left a hole in his life.

But of course Xander was too proud to fly to L.A. 'Too busy', he called it.

And then he heard about the big showdown in the streets of L.A. and about Spike's death by dragonfire...

This time he's not too busy or too proud. This time Xander pulls Spike into a big bearhug, slaps his back, then steps back, grinning like a complete idiot at the stunned look on Spike's face.

And suddenly the food smells delicious, the restaurant looks cozy, the other patrons look trustworthy...

Perfect.

"Nope. No apocalypse. No one's in trouble." Still grinning, Xander shakes his head. "Not this time."

FIN