Xander couldn't believe they'd driven half the length of the country because something vital was hidden in this house in the middle of nowhere. It looked and felt totally unmagical.
"Tell me again why we're here, Spike, 'cause I'm just not getting it. It's a tiny dogpatch town in the wilds of... Lancashire? Lanarkshire? Lunkashire..."
"Lincolnshire, right. We're in the wilds of Lincolnshire, in a town with a weird name and a bar full of extras form 'American Werewolf in London' that scare me shitless with their teeth. And I'm living with a damn vampire!"
Spike sighed, and repeated the salient points once more.
"There's something in the house we have to find, Xan, Giles told you that. Apparently it makes a noise like you when you're watching quality porn."
"Hey!" Xander swatted at Spike and nearly dropped his bag as the gravel shifted under his feet. "Giles didn't say that! He said..."
Xander paused, then grimaced, remembering just what Giles had said.
"I heard a similar sound while standing outside your flat just last week. I'm sure that one of you will be able to recognise it again when you hear it."
"Exactly, luv. We ended up with this bloody gig 'cause you're a screamer. I think next time we visit Kinks-Direct I'll buy a gag. You're pretty with big balls between your teeth." The accompanying tongue and wicked grin curled Xander's toes, and he manfully managed to swallow down his whimper.
Xander looked around the expansive kitchen as he fiddled with the ice dispenser on the closet-sized fridge.
"Yeah?" The word echoed slightly. Spike had spent the last five minutes investigating drawers and cupboards and presently had his head buried deep inside the cast iron stove.
"Spike, there are hooks in the ceiling."
There was a dull thunk as vampire skull connected with heavy iron range.
"Bloody, buggering fuck, that hurt! What the hell are you talking about, hooks on the..."
The words trailed off as Spike turned and straightened to glare at Xander, automatically following his upwards-pointing finger.
About two dozen solid looking black painted hooks hung from cream coloured plaster, evenly spaced throughout the room. Spike immediately began to draw up plans.
"Kinky! And I promise, we'll play later, pet, okay? But first we need to find the Horbling Howler and box it up, so Giles can use the damn thing in that spell he's working on."
Xander dragged his gaze from the kitchen ceiling, but couldn't resist one last wistful look back over his shoulder as he followed Spike into the hall as he continued his basic snoop. Other more focussed snoops would follow later, Xander knew; this was just the preliminary check for valuables, weapons and items of sexual interest. His lover was a vampire on a mission everywhere he went.
The extensive video and DVD collection in the lounge briefly distracted Xander, and he wondered if they'd have time to watch a few of the funnier episodes of Moonlighting before they left. Probably not. Then he got lost thinking of ways to enjoy the huge cream sofa looked as large as a bed and twice as soft. There were certainly plenty of cushions for support.
Eventually Spike had opened every door but one. This final door led downstairs to the basement. Xander's hackles rose when they had to move a heavy sewing machine and the solid treadle table it sat on before they could open up the door. He'd seen too many bad horrors where people blocked doors like that for a reason, but... A fruitless click informed them that the cellar light was out and Xander broke and tried to drag Spike back from the abyss.
"Spike, it's like we're in the pivotal scene of every crappy horror movie for the last thirty years. We're in a village full of freaks, the door was blocked and the light doesn't work. Nobody knows we're here except for Giles and he's too far away to hear us when we scream. Cell coverage around here is for shit. I haven't been able to get a signal for the last three hours, and whatever the Horbling Howler is, we know it's got to be underneath our feet, in the cellar, in the dark, and we're going down there? Can't we, y'know, sleep on it, and come up with a better plan sometime tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow it'd still be in the cellar, in the dark and you'd've spent the time too stressed to sleep. We're going in. We'll get the little bugger into the box and then... You did remember to pack the travel chains, I hope, for both our sakes. I haven't dangled helpless in an age."
Despite Xander's continued, though somewhat subdued, protests, Spike led the way down the cellar stairs while Xander held the flashlight over his shoulder. He stepped off the lowest stair into ankle-deep ice water and cursed, quite loudly and with flair.
Halfway off the step above Xander paused, then slowly tilted the flashlight down so a beam of yellow light reflected dully off the dark, brackish water.
"Um... Are Doc Martens waterproof?"
The question earned him a snarl and Xander hurriedly passed the light over to Spike.
"I have rubbish sacks and strong tape in my bag, I'll just go back up and grab them. I don't want to get my boots wet when I don't have to. I didn't think to bring another pair."
Spike nodded automatically and then processed what he'd heard, by which time Xander had already reached the top of the steps.
"You brought bin bags and sticky tape to Horbling? What the fuck were you planning - murder and dismemberment? And don't go looking at me all bloody innocent, I saw you pocket your knives as we came out."
Xander ducked out of sight and in moments reappeared, bearing a handful of plastic and some tape.
"Remember when we were sent to the Isle of Wight to find that shadowmage? And we ended up in debt to the rental guy? Let's just say it pays to be prepared with you around. I also packed the football porn and your favourite wooden spoon," he added, a wicked little twinkle in his eye. "The desk in the dining room is almost perfect." He grinned. "You can be Wesley."
As Xander explained himself he sat down on a step at Spike's eye level and quickly slipped a bag onto each foot. A couple of yards of tape wrapped tightly above and below his knees, and he was ready for whatever he had to face. He took the last few stairs carefully.
"We'd better not need to run too fast to catch this howling whatever-it-it. One wrong step in this and I could drown."
Spike waited, amused, while Xander found his feet and balance, once again enchanted by his lover's ability to ramble on.
"Okay, I'm dry, but I may still lose some toes to frostbite if we don't get this thing caught soon. How are we supposed to find the stupid...?"
An eerie, echoing howl bounced around the watery chamber, and Spike zeroed in on the source of the sound.
"Follow me, luv! We'll get the little bugger bagged and tagged in no time!"
Xander sincerely hoped that Spike was right about the size and catchability of the howler because he really didn't want to be down in the dark for very long with a creature that could produce a sound like that! Surely Giles had been joking when he said he'd heard...
The sound came again, closer, almost from beneath their feet, and Spike leapt forward in a flurry of flapping leather, flashlight tossed over his shoulder as he pounced on his prey.
The flashlight arced up and over and bounced off Xander's up-flung hands. He grabbed for it, felt the textured plastic handgrip as it brushed past his fingertips, and then groaned as it continued its descent.
SPLASH! Darkness fell.
The words fell like stones from both sets of lips.
"Xander? Luv, stay exactly where you are. Don't. Make. A. Sound."
Xander froze, convinced the creature they were after was leering over his head at Spike and Spike was right now planning a combined rescue and attack. Sure enough, scant moments later, he heard a soft leathery swish and felt the water around his baggy-wrapped ankles start to ripple gently. Then there was a second almighty splash and he was drenched from waist to knee as something - Spike, he hoped - lunged past his legs.
The decidedly Spike-like "Gotcha, ya sneaky little git!" helped him relax a little, though the solid surrounding darkness was still oppressive.
I'd ask you to dig in my pocket for Giles' box but we need to keep it dry if we can. C'mon, I'll lead the way; you grab my coat and hold on tight. We'll box this little fucker up in the light.
Twenty short steps and two sharp corners later they were back at the foot of the stairs.
"You go on up and put the kettle on, Xan. I'll take care of our little friend here and be there before it's boiled."
Xander stared at Spike.
"Why do you want me out of the way? Is this thing that dangerous or do you think I'm gonna freak? I can see you've got it cupped between your hands so it's only small. How bad can it possibly be?"
"Xander, you really don't need to see this. Trust me, eh?"
Spike managed to resist the puppy eyes and accompanying pout for almost a full minute, and made a mental note that he was slowly building up a slight resistance to his lover's best weapons. Very slight. He sighed.
"Okay, but don't say you weren't warned. I gave you the chance to walk away from this, yeah?" Xander nodded. "Right then. Reach into my left inside pocket and get the box. Slide the lid back but not completely out of the slots. We don't want to be fiddling about trying to fit it back in later."
Xander did as he was told, carefully cradling the perforated fretwork cube of strange, greenish wood.
Spike held his cupped hands out over the small slot, and parted them, allowing a small brown creature to drop like a stone into its prison. With nimble fingers he slipped the lid smoothly back into place, easily catching the box as it fell from nerveless fingers.
"F-f-f-fr-frog? Giles sent us - me - here for a f-f-frog?"
Xander stared at the box in horror before turning on his heel and racing up the stairs.
He almost made it.
One step from the top, one plastic-shrouded foot slipped out from underneath him and he went down hard, arms pinwheeling madly. His chin bounced once on the hard stone floor and he was out cold.
He came awake slowly, eyes blinking, struggling to make sense of what he could see. There was a table on the ceiling. Wait, no. The table, and the cupboards and all the shiny new appliances were in their usual positions on the kitchen floor. It was he who was hanging from the ceiling.
He pondered the impossibility of this for a moment or two before remembering the neat black hooks. Ah.
Carefully he took inventory. His chin hurt, and he'd bit his tongue, and his knees were going to ache for quite a while, but nothing was really damaged, just shaken up a bit. He was hanging from the chains he'd packed this morning, complete with lightweight pads to keep the chafing to a minimum. His lover was always very careful with his delicate human frame.
A sound that the end of the room nearest his feet caught his attention, and he recognised the smoke-sage-peppermint-fudge-sweet scent of his tormentor.
"I hope you left some of that for me, you greedy vamp. Willow paid a fortune for that hand-made chocolate fudge for me!"
Spike moved into view, a steaming bowl held in one hand.
"How do you feel about hot fudge sauce, Horbling style, Xander, luv?"