"It's done." Giles put down the phone.
"He'll meet with me?"
Buffy felt a pang of...she wasn't sure what. Just that it was a pang. Then she caught sight of the expression on Giles's face.
"Giles? Are you okay?"
Giles had gone all tight-lipped, stern ex-Watcher, something that rarely happened these days.
Buffy frowned. "What the hell did he say to you?"
For answer, Giles took off his glasses and began to polish them.
Buffy refrained - just about - from toe-tapping while she waited. Instead, she reminded herself sternly that Giles was nearly seventy now, and had spent half a lifetime being hit over the head multiple times in the line of duty. He'd earned his crankiness long ago. As long as....
"Giles?" she tried again. "That's not your I'm-secretly-planning-to-kill-Spike-for-Buffy's-own-good-again face, is it? Cuz we talked about that, remember, and decided it would only make things worse."
Giles put his glasses back on. He'd gotten more short-sighted recently and he peered at her, as if to make sure she was really her.
The thought reminded her - as if she needed reminding - that she'd turned thirty-two not so long ago.
You're no spring chicken yourself these days, Summers, whereas he...
Soul or not, Spike was still a vampire. An immortal, forever young vampire. When they met again for the first time in ten years - which delay was totally his fault, first for chickening out of coming to her in Rome, then for turning - well, not evil, but sort of demi-evil -he'd damn well better not act like he was sorry for her, that's all.
"I'm fine, Buffy," Giles said, rather stiffly. "Yes, he'll meet with you, and as for what he said to me, don't let it concern you. Spike and I are not friends. We never will be. In fact -" he sighed - "it appears he still knows exactly what to say to get my back up even after all these years. Extraordinary really."
Another pang, and this time Buffy recognised it for what it was. Guilt. Poor Giles!
"Sorry if he was an asshole to you, Giles. Guess it's kind of the thing he's best at. I knew I should've made the damn phone call myself."
Giles patted her on the shoulder. "It's all right, Buffy. I perfectly understand your reluctance. How many years has it been?"
"Ten," Buffy answered, at once. "Well," she qualified, "give or take. I mean, who's counting, right?"
Giles's eyes in their wrinkled folds were kindly. He didn't say, Well, you are.
Instead, he cleared his throat and turned businesslike.
"The meeting's set for tomorrow night. I expected Spike to make conditions, or at least to baulk at you bringing an escort. But he appeared indifferent either way. Consequently, I suggest you take a large contingent of Slayers with you."
"No." Buffy shook her head. "That's not how this is going down." She grimaced. "Much though I hate to say it, we need him and we can't afford to antagonise him. I'm going alone."
Giles frowned. "Please reconsider, Buffy. Vampires are impressed by shows of strength. Best to give them one."
Buffy shook her head again. "There's only one vampire I care to make an impression on - " and that sounded kind of dirty, which she hadn't meant at all. She felt herself blushing as she continued. "And I know for certain the greater the odds the more he'll be spoiling for a fight. I wanna keep this low key, Giles - peaceful. The fewer trigger-happy bitty Slayers there are for him to preen in front of, the more likely that is to happen."
Giles was still frowning, but Buffy could see him weighing up her words and finding they had merit.
"I'll accompany you, then," Giles said. "Given our conversation, it appears Spike has only contempt for me these days, so there's unlikely to be any showing off on my account."
Buffy opened her mouth to refuse. Giles was supposed to be retired - not that he seemed to have realised it. But Willow was on sabbatical in another dimension, and she'd taken Dawn along with. That left only Xander to take care of the Slayer School in her absence, and Xander and Spike? Or Xander and any vampire?
Well, they still weren't mix-y things.
Besides, she'd need someone to drive her, since she'd gotten herself banned for the second time. All this to-ing and fro-ing across the Atlantic played havoc with your road sense.
Well, that was her excuse anyway.
"Okay," she said. "But you'd better stay in the car." Where you'll be safe. "Then, if there's any sign of trouble, I can jump in quick and you can hightail it out of there."
Giles blinked. "I fear it's very unlikely I'll find street parking outside the Walsingham."
"The Walsingham?" Buffy stared at him, uncomprehending. "That's a pub, right?"
It would be just like Spike - well, just like the Spike she'd known years ago - to insist their first meeting after so long take place in a pub. She would probably have to shout to make herself heard.
Or maybe - even worse - it was some demon bar? They still allowed smoking in those. Probably in the hope that demons would kill themselves off that bit quicker.
Giles shook his head. "The Walsingham's not a pub. It's a very high end, very discreet, London hotel. So discreet, in fact, that they say if you haven't heard of it, you can't afford to stay there."
He looked embarrassed suddenly. "You might need to go shopping, Buffy. Spike told me to say.....well, his exact words were, 'tell the Slayer to dress posh.'"
"Oh," Buffy stared at him. That didn't sound like a Spike place at all.
After a moment, she felt her jaw drop. "You mean..."
"Yes." Giles nodded. "Contrary to what I thought, it would appear that when Spike calls himself king of the vampires, it's not an idle boast. He means it. Literally."
Like a really short James Bond, whose had an accident with a bleach bottle? Noo, better not say that.
"...well," Buffy said, into the too-long silence.
Spike turned, holding out a glass to her. He raised an eyebrow, as if he'd heard the silent comment, but all he said was, "Champagne?"
With an heroic effort, Buffy refrained from staring too hard at the label on the champagne bottle -but like, woah! Seriously? -and crossed the room towards him.
The carpet was so soft that her feet, in their brand new Emily Choos (salary advance), sank into it up to the ankles.
"Thanks." She took the glass from him, narrowly avoiding touching his fingers, and stood holding it, feeling awkward and out of place, and like her new Liu Lu Jing dress (another salary advance) was tight in all the wrong places.
It didn't help that he seemed so at ease. Like he wore a tux every day.
And who knew? Maybe he did.
When had Spike gotten suave? Did it come along with the title?
Speaking of which...
"So, king of the vampires, huh? How did that happen?"
He smiled, except for his eyes which were kind of un-Spike-like and opaque. "Long story."
Gesturing towards the couch, he said, "Have a seat, Slayer. Might as well be comfortable while we talk."
Talk, yes. Talk would be good. Keep your mind on business, Summers. That's what you're here for.
But it still gave her the wiggins to have to precede him. What was he doing back where she couldn't see? Checking out her ass maybe, to see how it compared with ten years ago?
Which it totally could, because she put herself through hell every day to keep in shape. But he might not think so.
And damnit, why do you care what he thinks?
The couch was comfortable, if a little over-stuffed. Discreet the exterior of this place might be (though weirdly too big on the inside, which Giles said was due to something called the Tardis Effect), but the decor was kind of.... rococo? Was that the word?
"So, what do you think of the Walsingham?" Spike asked, suddenly, as if he'd read her thoughts again.
She frowned. Could he do that now?
"It's...kind of hinky?" she ventured. "I'm glad just to have found the place. Our cab driver hadn't heard of it. He had to ask another cab driver, and he hadn't heard of it either, so he had to call a third cab driver - some retired guy from way back - who gave us directions."
"Well, you can't be too careful, can you?" Spike remarked, cryptically, then did a sort of slow blink and raised his glass. "To old acquaintances and new alliances."
Buffy had clinked her own glass against his and taken a sip before two things registered. First, oh my God, this champagne is incredible! and second, oh my God, he was making polite small talk!
She was wrong. Ten years had changed him. Maybe even more than they'd changed her.
She took a deep breath. Time to take charge of this conversation before it weirded her out completely.
Setting the champagne glass down on the ornate side table, she said,
"Thanks for meeting me, Spike. I appreciate it."
It sounded false, even to her, but she met his gaze full-on, daring him to challenge her on her sincerity.
He just did the slow, blue blink again. "My pleasure, Slayer. You look lovelier than ever, by the way. Forgive me for not saying so before."
Somehow or other, she stopped herself from yelling, "Will you stop that?" in his face. For one thing, there was Giles to consider.
Well, okay, Giles had looked happy enough to wait for her in the Walsingham library, which was full of real, actual books, not to mention a whisky tumbler and a bottle of something called Dalmore 1951, which was 'a gift from his majesty', so the hench-vamp said.
Giles had sort of snorted, then growled, "His majesty? What nonsense!" But it hadn't stopped him opening the bottle.
So no, she did not want to have to fight her way out of here, past said hench-vamps, with a possibly drunk Giles in tow.
Then, of course, there was that pesky apocalypse.
Forcing a smile onto her face, she said, "Don't mention it."
He blinked again, like a sleepy lion ( a very small one). "What can I do for you?"
She'd rehearsed her speech before coming here, but it had relied on there being....well, something still between the two of them. But every moment in his company made it plainer and plainer how wrong she'd been to think that.
This wasn't the Spike she knew. Not in any incarnation. They might as well have been complete strangers.
It was okay, though. She'd had ten years to get used to losing him.
"It's like this" she said. And she told him.
World-destroying demon - blah!blah! Prophecy - blah!blah! Can only be defeated when all the children of mankind - and yes, that includes vampires, even if they have just set up camp in human bodies - join together in perfect ha-armony! - blah!blah! We need to forge an alliance for the good of all. Blah!Blah!Blah!
She was sick of her own voice by the time she was done. It felt like being back in Mom's house in Sunnydale, trying to cheerlead a bunch of scared baby Slayers whose names she could never remember.
Except that then, he'd usually sidled out of the room when she started talking. This time, he looked interested -very, very interested.
"Well?" she asked, finally. "Do we have a deal?"
"That depends," he said, and suddenly - heart-stoppingly - he tilted his head the way he used to.
She frowned. "Depends on what?"
"On how you answer my question."
Suddenly, he was on his knees at her feet.
"Slayer, will you marry me?"
Buffy couldn’t explain otherwise why the seconds stretched out, like an overstressed piece of elastic, while she stared down at Spike with her mouth open, and he stayed on his knees looking up at her.
When he finally spoke again, she could swear she heard the ping of the elastic snapping back into place. Lucky for her it didn’t take her eye out.
“Is it the ring?” Spike asked. “If you don’t like it, we’ll get a better one.”
“Ring?” She gazed at him blankly. Oh, ri-ight. Ring.
She hadn’t even noticed the little box in his hand, in which, nestled in its velvet bed, was the biggest diamond she’d ever seen.
Which, actually, wasn’t saying much. Diamonds weren’t really on her radar.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, she was furious. King of the vampires or not –and what did that even mean?-how dare he!
She sprang to her feet, knocking over her glass, and sending $1000 champagne flying everywhere.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He got to his feet more slowly, still with the blank, bland expression on his face, so unlike the Spike she remembered, though just as annoying.
“So,” he said, “is that a ‘no’, or an ‘I’ll think about it’?”
She clenched her fists, to stop herself punching him in the nose.
“Neither. It’s a ‘have you taken leave of your senses?’”
She narrowed her eyes. “I came to you in good faith, and you’re making fun of me. What is this, Spike? Revenge? So I didn’t come running when I heard you were alive, but I was busy, and you were a jerk for not calling.”
She glared. “And even more of one for going evil again. How could you?”
At this, his eyes widened fractionally– at last, a reaction! –but his expression didn’t change otherwise.
“I’m not making fun of you, Slayer,” he said, in a reasonable tone. “I mean it. We should get married. In fact, it’s very important we do.”
She stared at him, completely at a loss. Stymied by his blank face, his matter-of-fact voice and weird new way of talking, like a wall she couldn’t breach.
Part of her wanted to reach out, grab him by the shoulders and shake some Spike-i-ness back into him.
The other part noted sadly that she didn’t have the right.
Too much time had gone by.
After a moment, he bent down and righted the toppled champagne glass.
“Permit me to explain myself.”
Stop talking like that! she thought, but all she said was, “Okay. You’re permitted.” And she flopped back down into the couch, feeling bruised and angry and raw.
He sat down more slowly, as far from her as he could get, which gave her some satisfaction. Maybe just how mad she was had gotten through to him.
“It’s like this,” he said. “Angel and me…“
She cut in at once. “Angel’s alive?”
Again, the eyes widened, but all he said was, "Of course. He sends his regards."
It was hard to listen after that, with one of the two certainties of her life for the last ten years - Angel dead, Spike gone bad- turned upside down. But somehow, she managed to focus.
"You're not the only one aware of this prophecy," he was saying. "We know about it too. In fact, if you hadn't called me, I would've called you."
"That's nice," she heard herself say, without meaning it, thinking that maybe he wasn't quite so blank-faced now? She must be making him nervous.
And who was this 'we'? All vampires, or just him and Angel?
He cleared his throat. Yes, definitely nervous. Good.
"But we don't interpret it quite the same as you. Angel thinks it means not so much that all humans join with all vampires, just that one vampire join with one human. So I thought we should just get married. Can't be more joined than that, can you?"
When she stared at him blankly, he said, suddenly sounding far more like his old self, "Rupert's slipping in his old age. You should ask him to do his translation again, Slayer."
She glared. “You leave Giles out of this!”
He shrugged. “Sorry. But Sumerian’s tricky. Giles should know that. Maybe get the Niblet on it instead? She was always a whiz with that stuff.”
She glared harder. “Dawn isn’t available.”
“Still,” he said, and when she just kept glaring, “There’s an apocalypse coming. You said so yourself. This is important.”
“O-oh, no!” She wagged her finger at him. “You don’t get to lecture me on what’s important, Mr-high-and-mighty-king-of-the-vampires, I came to you, remember?”
He just blinked. “More champagne?”
She threw up her hands. “Why the hell not?”
A few sips of the best champagne ever later, she felt calm enough to say, “So let me get this straight. You’re proposing to me because you–and Angel, apparently-think us getting married will avert this apocalypse?”
“In a nutshell,” he agreed, all bland suavity again.
“Why you? Why not Angel? I mean, he’s a vampire too. I could just as well marry him.”
“Not really,” he said –so not the reaction she’d expected. “He’d be breaking his vows, wouldn’t he?”
“Of celibacy,” he continued, in a patient tone. “He’s a monk now. Didn’t I say?”
Her jaw dropped. “A…what now?”
“A monk,” he repeated. “Well, actually, more like Father Abbot. Still has to be the one giving the orders.”
“Says the king.”
Don’t even try to process Angel the monk right now, brain, okay?
She glared at him again. “I knew the new you reminded me of someone. All this big picture thinking? This ‘I’m the boss of everyone’ attitude? You’re turning into Angel, aren’t you?”
To her astonishment, he just sort of smirked.
“We all turn into our parents as we get older, don’t we? For instance, you look a lot more like your mum now.”
This time, she did punch him in the nose.
Spike's head rested on the back of the couch. His voice came out nasal, due to the fingers pinching the bridge of his nose, to staunch the blood flow. There was blood on his once immaculate white dress shirt.
Buffy rolled her eyes and drank more champagne - a mistake, because it was going to her head, but when would she have another chance to drink champagne this good?
"Anyway," Spike went on, sounding slightly peevish, "you started it, saying I'd become like Angel. Your analogy doesn't hold up, by the way. Angel's not my sire. Dru is."
Maybe he wasn't even Spike, she thought. He could be a robot, or some demon could have stolen his body. Or maybe he'd had a run in with that Toth guy -who, okay, dead, but still- and now there were two of him.
She could almost hear Giles's horrified voice, exclaiming, "Two of him? What a ghastly idea!"
"Grandsire, then," she said. "And the fact that you've gone crazy is a big, stonking clue who your sire is, as if I needed one."
"I have not gone crazy!" he almost growled.
That sounded way more Spike-like. Maybe there weren't two of him after all? Maybe getting the real Spike back was just a matter of making him good and mad?
She rounded on him. "If you really think you can walk back into my life after ten years, and after all the terrible things you've done, and...and propose, and I'll accept, yes, you have."
"What terrible things?" He was back to being Mr Bland.
She threw up her hands, which - oops! - sprayed precious champagne everywhere again. "For a start, there was destroying downtown Los Angeles. Then there was that vamp protection racket you were running in Chicago."
"About that..." he said, but she cut across him.
"Then there was that incident in Beijing, and the other incident in Paris. Then that weird business in Cape Town. Then we get word that you're calling yourself king of the vampires, and they're all so afraid of you they're lining up to kiss your ass."
"Yeah, well," he said. "It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it."
"And, okay," she steamrollered on, "I get that the vamp body count has shrunk exponentially since that happened, which could well be down to you, and if so, you're not evil evil, just kind of demi-evil. But even so, if you think I'd trust you, you're crazier than Drusilla ever was."
"I didn't ask you to trust me," he said. "Just to marry me. Not the same thing."
His eyes widened suddenly. "Oh, right. I get it. You thought I meant more than just..."
He got up from the couch, crossed the room and stood facing away from her.
"I'm sorry, Slayer. Didn't explain myself properly. I didn't mean that we should start living as...as husband and wife. That'd be...You're right. That would be crazy. Not to mention presumptuous of me after all these years. I was thinking more of a political alliance- something that would satisfy the conditions of this prophecy and avert the apocalypse, that's all."
He turned, and he'd gone all inscrutable again - and damnit, she preferred him scrutable. She should never have let him turn his back on her.
"We just have to make a show of unity, Angel reckons. We wouldn't live together-of course we wouldn't, not in any sense- and we'd divorce the minute the danger was over."
She covered her- oh, crap! -disappointment-and where the hell did that come from?- by drinking more champagne.
"Why didn't you say so before?" she heard herself say.
Abruptly, she was furious again. "And why didn't you just say it on the damn phone? Why all this...this..."
Words failed her again. She indicated the room, with its hushed atmosphere that spoke of old money-very old money-the ornate furniture, the champagne, the diamond in its box.
"I..." For a moment, he looked as if he didn't know himself, then he shrugged. "I suppose I thought that, after all this time, I ought to make a bit of an effort. My mistake. Angel did warn me."
"Oh, he did, did he?"
She scowled. It was beginning to feel like Angel was a third party to this entire...whatever this was, like he was hiding somewhere and might jump out at any minute. It was making her cranky.
He winced. "That didn't help, did it?"
She shook her head. "Not really. Also, I'm not sure I believe this 'Angel's a monk' story. I want to hear it from him in person. Can I talk to him?"
The way this evening was going, she thought, it wouldn't have surprised her, if, dead on cue, the door had been flung open to reveal Angel standing right outside it.
Spike pursed his lips. "Hmm, tricky."
"Oh? Why's that?"
"He joined a silent order. Said it was the only way he could guarantee he'd never have to speak to me again."
Then, he raised his scarred eyebrow quizzically.
A moment later - and how it happened, she wasn't quite sure - they were both laughing like idiots.
Or at least, because one thing about him hadn't changed, she was laughing, and he was doing that dirty snigger thing of his.
When she finally had herself under control again, she said, "I could email him. They have the web even in monasteries, right?"
"Probably," Spike agreed. "But he's more anti-social than ever these days. Best to leave him in peace."
He stood up. "Which is what I should have done with you, Slayer. I'm sorry. It was a stupid idea, and I regret it. You'll find another, better, way to stop the apocalypse, I'm sure."
It took her a moment to realise he was trying to get her to leave.
Okay, mister, you asked for it.
"Not so fast," she said. "I accept your proposal."
Giles – not that drunk after all, thankfully - answered Buffy's question by ignoring it completely.
“Casting doubt on my translation skills indeed!" he grumbled. "The cheek of the man! How dare he?"
Buffy sighed. Spike still knew how to make Giles good and mad all right.
"Yeah, how dare he for a lot of things?" she muttered, too low for Giles to hear, at the same time glancing down surreptitiously to admire the way the huge diamond on her left hand sparkled in the gloom.
She still couldn't believe it was real. Probably, it would turn out to be just a tacky dime-store novelty ring - a sham, like Spike's king of the vampires act.
Except that it hadn't seemed like an act - well, not all the time, and certainly not with the hench-vamps bowing and scraping to him when he gave them orders to escort Buffy and Giles to their cab.
For that matter, they'd bowed and scraped to her too.
Very weird. It had made her stake hand twitchy.
She became aware of her surroundings again when Giles said,
"Then again, there was that one very tricky paragraph…”
Glancing at the window separating them from the cab driver - firmly closed, good -she turned on him.
"Which tricky paragraph would this be, Giles?"
Giles was flustered enough to take his glasses off and start polishing them.
“Er...well, you see it's possible I might have confused standard Sumerian and the so-called, er...'women's tongue' version of the language, between which there are some grammatical differences, and..."
She interrupted him.
“You’re about to tell me Spike was right, aren't you?”
Giles looked irritable.
"Possibly. Only possibly, mind. I'd need to double check with an acquaintance at the British Museum, since Dawn's unreachable."
“Oh, for...” Buffy sank back into the seat. For a moment, a kind of weird gloom settled on her. She was doomed – doomed to become the vampire’s bride in order to save the world.
And where the hell had that come from?
Okay, Summers, you drank wa-ay too much champagne.
Giles was patting her on the shoulder, she realised.
"Don't be overly concerned, Buffy," he soothed. "Even if -and though I say so myself, that's a very big 'if'- I've made a mistake, it doesn't mean that you're under any obligation to marry Spike." He snorted. "Why, the very idea is absurd."
"Sure is," she said, brightly. “There're plenty of other ways for a human and a vamp to join together than marriage, right? We could…we could set up a joint Vamp/Slayer charity for the victims of…blood loss. Or…or…”
Giles had put his glasses back on. He blinked at her through the thick lenses.
"Yes, well, facetiousness aside, we will of course find some way to fulfil the terms of the prophecy - whatever they, in fact, turn out to be -that don't entail you making choices that might be distasteful, or morally compromising to the...the Slayer mission. Of course we will."
"Of course," she echoed, still in the same Peppy Buffy tone, glancing at the ring again, and deciding that Giles must be more drunk than he seemed, because that was the only time he was ever pompous.
But not too drunk to realise she was keeping something from him, given the way he was looking at her now.
"I am rather puzzled, I admit," Giles said, suddenly, "because surely Spike must have known you would refuse such a crass offer, so...”
She cut in, “So, why ask?”
Giles frowned. He was looking very suspicious indeed. "Exactly."
"It's a mystery all right." She fixed her gaze on the cab window, outside which the London streets slid by, all crowds and rain-washed neon.
After a moment's strained silence, Giles went on,
"And you say that he seemed very different. Nothing like the Spike we used to know?"
“Yeah. " She nodded. "He talked…well, he sounded more like you, Giles. All ‘allow me’ this, ‘permit me’ that. It was weird.” Buffy grimaced at the memory. “Then other times, he’d sound more…I don’t know. Normal?”
“Yet when I spoke to him on the phone,” Giles mused, “he sounded much as I remembered. Certainly just as rude. Odd.”
She couldn't resist the urge to mess with Giles just a little.
“Maybe he met someone with one of those ferula–gemina things? You know, like the guy who split Xander in two? Maybe there are two of him?”
Giles actually went pale. “What a ghastly idea," he said, just as she'd imagined him saying. "Who on earth would want to do such a thing, and why?”
They stared at each other. After a moment, Giles's eyes widened.
"Oh dear lord!" he muttered. "You're trying to distract me, aren't you?"
The next moment, he'd produced as if by magic the bottle of very expensive whisky Spike had given him, opened it and taken a long swig.
"You told him you'd marry him, I take it?"
It was hard to keep reminding herself she was all grown-up now, when Giles's face had that 'you're a crashing disappointment to me' look on it, which she hadn't seen for many years. But she kept her Determined Buffy expression firmly in place.
"You bet your bottom dollar I am, Giles." And she showed him her finger.
Giles looked from her face to the ring and back, aghast. "But...why? What purpose can it serve?"
"Easy." She shrugged. "Firstly, it may stop the apocalypse, which was the whole reason for that meeting. Secondly, there's something weird going on with Spike. He's hiding something. Scratch that, he's hiding lots of somethings. I don't know what, but I'll do whatever it takes - even marry him- to find out."
Giles grimaced. "And if they're bad things?"
She shrugged again. "I'm the Slayer."
Xander was gripping the back of the chair so hard his knuckles were white.
Buffy sighed. First Giles, now Xander. And probably she would have the same conversation all over again with Willow and Dawn when they came home.
"I have not gone crazy, okay? There's an apocalypse to avert."
Xander wasn't ready to back down yet.
"Like the last one, and the one before. Seriously, Buf, whose counting? I just know we never stopped any of them by someone marrying someone, least of all a vampire." His lips thinned. "Not even one with a soul."
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask him what was really bothering him - that she was marrying a vampire, or that she was marrying Spike. But what was the point? Water? Bridge? Gone under it long ago.
Instead, she shrugged. "Every apocalypse is different, you know that. I think there's a committee somewhere - a -super-evil committee - inventing new ones. Only they're running out of ideas, so the apocalypses - apocalypsii? - I can never remember which it is- are getting lamer all the time."
"But..." Xander began, but she wouldn't let him finish.
"Either that or it's leprechauns. I mean, just cuz Giles says they don't exist..."
Xander threw up his hands. "Okay, okay, I get the message. You don't wanna talk about it."
She shook her head. "I'll talk about it all you like, but I'm not discussing it. My decision's made, Xander, and it's final."
Xander looked mulish for a moment. Then he sort of sighed, and huffed at the same time. "Tell me why."
"Have a seat." She indicated the chair he was currently in danger of breaking. "You're looming, and I don't like it."
"Am I? Sorry." Xander let go the chair and slumped into it. He pushed up his eye patch and scratched the empty socket fitfully.
He looked tired Buffy thought, with a pang, and the gesture was a timely reminder -as if one were needed - that he'd given more for the cause than most.
Her decision might be made, but he was owed that explanation.
She leaned forward across the desk. "It's like this. First, me making a personal alliance with Spike is way preferable to us, the Slayer organisation, having to make a wider alliance with vampires. It just is. We could never trust them not to turn on us. Never."
Xander conceded the point with a small shrug. "But you trust Spike?"
His voice made it clear what he thought about the notion of trusting Spike, but she shook her head again.
"No, I don't. But after what I saw last night, I trust him to keep the other vamps in line until we at least find out if the marriage thing works."
"And if it doesn't?" Xander asked.
She shrugged. "Then we think again. And, oh yeah, Spike and I get a quickie divorce."
"But...don't you do that anyway?" Xander frowned.
She took her time answering him. This part was a harder sell.
"Tell me," she said, at last, "what do we know about Spike? After he burned up in the Hellmouth, that is?"
"Oka-ay," Xander said, still frowning. "We know nothing at all. In fact, we think he's dead, until Andrew comes back from LA with Dana, and tells us Spike's alive and working with Angel." He leaned his elbows on the desk, and gazed at her steadily. "You were pretty mad, as I recall."
"Yeah, well," she said, "he acted like a jerk. In fact, they both did."
"Got that right," Xander muttered, the implication being it was hardly for the first time. "Anyway, after that, we again hear nothing, except for a load of bad stuff about that law firm Angel was running. Then half of LA gets blown to hell. Literally."
A shiver ran down her spine at the memory. The TV pictures had been...
She didn't want to think about them, actually.
"Then what?" she prompted him.
Xander grimaced. "Then after we've managed to contain the situation, and lost a lot of good people in the process, we again hear nothing. We assume they're both dead this time. And we go on assuming Angel's dead long after Spike pops up again in Chicago. In fact, we still assume it. Until today." He shook his head in disbelief. "A monk? Really?"
"That's what Spike said."
Let Xander take that how he wanted.
"And after that?"
"After that," Xander said, "things get really weird." He shook his head again. "I don't get it. Why do the vampires have a king suddenly? And why the hell is it Spike?"
She tapped her finger on the desk top. "And that's exactly why I won't be divorcing him straightaway. I wanna know what he's up to, Xander. I need to know, because if it's bad..."
Xander looked sceptical. "Don't tell me. You'll slay him? Heard that one before, Buf."
She frowned. "But this time, I mean it."
Xander's expression didn't change. It clearly said, I'll believe it when I see it.
She decided not to argue the point, if only because it might mean re-opening old wounds she would much rather stayed closed.
"So you understand now?" she asked, instead.
After a moment, he nodded reluctantly. "Yeah, I get it. It makes sense." For now, she could almost hear him adding.
She leaned across the desk and patted his arm. "You should get some rest, Xander. You look beat."
He smiled. "I am tired."
He got up to leave, then hesitated. "Just one more question, Buf."
She'd already picked up a folder full of documents, one of the many items in her overflowing in-tray. "Yeah? What?"
"Don't hit me, will you?" he pleaded.
She put the folder down in surprise. "Of course not. Why would I?"
"You're sure you didn't just agree to marry Spike cuz he's the only guy's ever asked you?"
Buffy wasn't sure whether to be relieved or annoyed that Spike could still do smug with the best of them.
"That's Mr Giles to you, and yes, he admits it. He was tired the day he did that translation. We all were. There'd been a really bad harbinger that day - rain of fire in Slough, Berkshire."
To her outrage, he laughed out loud. "So it finally happened, did it? Beachyman -" at least, that's what it sounded like he said -" would be ecstatic."
"What's a beachyman?" she snapped. "Some kind of demon that hangs out by the sea? If so, tell me where, so I can slay it."
He only sniggered some more.
"I said Betjeman, Slayer, not beachyman. And he's not a demon. He's a poet. He wrote a poem back in the Thirties that starts, Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough! It isn't fit for humans now. He didn't like the place being concreted over, that's all."
"Oh." She didn't know whether to be embarrassed or angry, or just weirded out that Spike, of all people, was quoting poetry at her. "Well, he was an asshole, then." Just like you. "People died, Spike. It was horrible."
He was contrite at once. Or put on a good pretence of being.
"Sorry, Slayer. It was completely inappropriate humour in the circumstances. Forget I said it."
She drew a deep breath. Which he would hear, of course, so, even over the phone, he would know he'd gotten to her. Jerk.
"Anyway, I didn't call you to make small talk," she said. "Yes, Giles agrees with your interpretation of the prophecy. Yes, the wedding is a go. So let's get it over with. How about Monday?"
"Hmm," he said. "I'll have to check my schedule. Anton?"
Then his voice went muffled while, she supposed, he conferred with some hench-vamp, or pretended to, just to mess with her head some more. She refrained from slamming the phone down on him, but it was a near thing.
Anton? I mean, really?
His voice was in her ear again.
"Monday's not so good for me. How about Friday?"
She gritted her teeth. Willow and Dawn were due back Tuesday. She'd been hoping it would be all over by then.
"Good," he said. "We can get the ball rolling before that, though. How about we put out a joint press release?"
It was on the tip of her tongue yet again to ask him who was he and what had he done with Spike. Instead, she said, "Oka-ay, what?"
There was a short silence. Then he said, in a patient tone that she didn't like at all, "This is a marriage in name only, remember? There has to be something authentic about it, or it won't fulfil the terms of the prophecy. Blanket television coverage and live-streaming on the web ought to do the trick, don't you think?"
"Blanket TV coverage?"
Just when had she turned into a damn parrot?
"Yes," he said, still in that obnoxious patient tone. "My people are talking to media companies around the world, even as we speak. We think we can get air time on all the major news channels. It helps, of course, that people can never seem to get enough demon stories."
She could feel a headache coming on, and it was all his fault, damn him.
"Fine," she said, because she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing how thrown she was. "But before we go any further down this road, I'd like to make a few things clear."
There was a pause so slight, she almost didn't notice it. Then he said, "Of course. What are they?"
"This wedding takes place in a neutral venue. Hell, it can take place in a TV studio, if you want, but I won't be part of some weird vampire media circus, so keep it simple. Also, if it's a marriage in name only, it'll be a wedding in name only too. No white dresses, no dumb vows - I am not promising to obey you - no religion, especially not demon religion. And don't you dare bring Angel along to officiate."
"And no stupid cakes either," she threw in, for good measure.
There was a longer pause this time. Then he said, with the slightest hint of a whine in his voice,
"Can't we even have a party afterwards?"
She thought about it for a moment. Then she said, "Only if you bring more of that champagne."
He laughed, and this time, she joined him. "Consider it done," he said.
After that, there didn't seem a whole lot else to say, so she said goodbye - curtly, like you would to a cold-call salesman - and hung up.
Then, she picked up one of the endless reports in her in-tray and stared at it blankly.
After a moment, she put it down again. Her head was still throbbing.
She stood up and marched, grim-faced, out of her office.
Fortunately, the gym would be empty this time of day. No one would see her pummelling punching bag after punching bag into dusty oblivion.
She'd come across Spike doing that once, the day before he died in the Hellmouth.
Why couldn't he just have stayed dead?
Him and Angel both.
By the end of the workout, her knuckles were sore, her arms ached, and her sweats were plastered to her with...well, sweat. She leaned against one of the mirrors that lined the walls, leaving smeary marks where her flesh was pressed to it.
Damn vampires! Damn them all.
Especially ones with souls.
"Yeah, that includes you, Mister," she said, sourly, addressing an invisible Angel in his cell, or whatever it was monks slept in these days.
Because despite Angel having taken himself out of the picture in such a final way, it almost felt like she was marrying both of them.
For someone nearer thirty than twenty, Dawn could still make a decent attempt at an adolescent whine.
"Sorry." Buffy gave her a rueful smile. "I told Spike no fuss."
"Maids of honour aren't fuss," Dawn insisted. "They run interference for the bride - fend off the best man when he gets so drunk he tries to kiss her - get chased by the paparazzi instead of her. That kind of thing."
"Well, there's nothing to stop you standing near me and glaring a lot," Buffy conceded.
"Fine." Dawn ran a hand through her short, spiky hair. "I can do that. I can glare at Spike too, if you want."
"Maybe after we've saved the world."
Buffy slipped off her shoes, sank gratefully into the couch and sipped her tea. She hadn't felt so beat in years. Who knew that planning a wedding could be such hard work, even when it wasn't you doing the planning.
No, Spike's people - or not-people, in this case - were taking care of everything. He assured her that was so, and if it turned out he was full of crap...
Well, she could always call the wedding off.
Suddenly, Dawn said, "You remind me of Mom - sitting all quiet, drinking herbal tea. That's what she used to do too, when she got home from work."
Buffy smiled at her. "Yeah, I remember."
"Mom liked Spike," Dawn went on. "She knew he was fucked up, but she liked him anyway. She didn't trust him, though, and I don't think she'd have liked you marrying him."
Buffy froze, cup half way to her lips. Dawn's face had gotten that brittle look it sometimes got when she was remembering bad stuff.
Of which there was a lot.
Dawn hunched her shoulders, exposing another inch of the intricate tattoos that covered her upper arms to just below her elbows.
"He is fucked up, Buffy. You know that, right? Getting a soul doesn't change that."
Buffy set her cup down on the table. There was no use arguing the point, and she wasn't sure she wanted to. Looking Dawn straight in the eye, she said,
"He won't hurt me this time, Dawn. I promise you. I won't let him."
"He'd better not," Dawn growled. "Or this time I really will set him on fire."
"I believe you," Buffy told her.
"I wouldn't even have to be in the same room as him," Dawn went on. "I've gotten pretty good at pyrokinesis. Even Willow says so." She held up her hands. "It's okay. I won't do it, I promise. Not unless you tell me to."
Buffy drank more tea. She felt antsy about Dawn learning magic at all, let alone firestarting.
Okay, so being able to turn vampires into human torches with a mere word could be useful, but Dawn was still kind of clumsy at times. The school cat's whiskers hadn't grown back a whole year later.
Time for a change of subject, maybe?
"So, how was the trip?"
Dawn's eyes lit up at once. "It was great. Just incredible. I never thought...You should see this one dimension, Buffy. There was nothing there but shrimp."
Buffy grimaced. "Eww!"
"It was pretty weird," Dawn agreed. "Pretty, though. There was no sun, just three moons, a blue, a red and a silver. When they were all in the sky together, it was just...I can't describe it."
"Sounds cool," Buffy admitted, and Dawn shivered.
"Cool? It was freezing. Then there was another dimension where there were no shrimp at all. That was even weirder. Their civilisation had never really gotten off the ground."
Buffy listened to Dawn talk. It did sound interesting, but after a while she could feel herself beginning to drift.
Dawn was still so mad at Spike all these years later, and she had every right to be.
For that matter, so did she. And she was, though for different reasons, which was something Dawn had never been able to understand.
But then Dawn was wrong about one thing. Spike might be fucked up, but getting a soul did change things. Even Dawn didn't know how much.
"Earth to Buffy!" Dawn waved a hand in front of her face. "Come in Buffy."
Buffy blinked, caught out. "Sorry, Dawn. I'm so tired. Guess I zoned out there."
Dawn rolled her eyes. "It's okay, Buffy. If you're bored, you don't have to pretend."
"It's not that," Buffy assured her. "Really it's not. This wedding business has gotten to me, that's all."
Dawn leaned forward, suddenly intent. "Don't do it, then."
Nice going, Summers, taking the conversation around in circles.
Buffy shook her head. "My mind's made up. Besides, it'll all be over soon."
Dawn frowned. "I don't get it. I really don't. Why are you doing this, Buffy?"
Buffy sighed. This was only the third time she'd had this conversation, but it felt like it had been forever.
"To save the world, of course," she said. Then, to have an end of the matter, she closed her eyes, leaning her head on the couch back.
"Oh boy, am I beat!"
There was a short silence. Then Dawn got to her feet. Buffy opened her eyes to find her tall, willowy sister towering over her, scowling.
"Don't think we're done here," Dawn said.
"We are for now." Buffy stifled a yawn. "Not least because I need to sleep, and Giles needs you to check his translation of the prophecy. Or he says he does. I think he's still looking for a get-out clause."
"I don't blame him." Dawn made towards the door, but Buffy reached out and grabbed her hand.
Bringing it to her lips, she kissed Dawn's knuckles.
"I'm glad you're back, Dawnie."
After a moment, Dawn's scowl melted into a reluctant smile. Bending down, she put her arms around Buffy's neck and hugged her.
"With me around, at least you can't do anything else crazy."
"Sooo...you're not gonna tell me I'm crazy, or ask me what the hell I think I'm doing?"
Willow didn't move, eyes shut, legs in the lotus position, hands resting on knees. She looked serene. Or maybe she was just asleep?
Then again, as Willow’s eyelids flew open, making Buffy jump, maybe not.
She tried not to flinch at the sight of dark eyes with no white or discernible pupil staring back into hers.
That was another thing she couldn't get used to.
"Why," Willow enquired, in a puzzled tone, "would I say anything like that?"
"Er..." Buffy cleared her throat. It does not mean she's gone evil, okay? It's just one of those...things. You know, those magical-type things? "Because everyone else has - Giles, Xander, Dawn. Don't you want your turn?"
Willow smiled. The black glaze faded from her eyes, and suddenly she was just Willow again – little and friendly, and with that earnest, wanting-to-please, Willow-y expression on her face.
"Really?" Buffy realised she was hugging herself and let go quickly. "You're sure? 'Cuz I have this great speech all ready in my head to explain to you why you’re wrong and I'm right."
"It's okay," Willow said. "You can save it for next time." She blinked. "I mean, it stands to reason I’ll be wrong and you’ll be right at some point, right? Statistically, I mean."
"I guess." Buffy gave Willow an apologetic look. "Will? Would you mind?"
"What?" Willow said. Then she looked down, at all the empty air between herself and Buffy. "Oh, sorry."
A moment later, she'd floated gracefully back down to earth, and was holding out her hand. "Help me up?"
"Sure." Buffy grabbed Willow's outstretched hand and hauled her to her feet.
“Tea?” Willow asked, and Buffy smiled. It was good to have Willow back.
She followed Willow into the kitchen, which, like the living room, had the slightly worn air of a place well lived in. But not for a while, if the wilting herbs in their pots on the windowsill were anything to go by.
“So how is Kennedy?” Buffy asked.
Willow poured hot water into mugs. “She’s good, thanks. She flies home Thursday. It’s been a while. I can’t wait to see her.”
So Kennedy was coming back? Maybe, Buffy thought, the rumours that had reached her of trouble in paradise were false, or at least exaggerated.
She sipped from the glazed pottery mug that Willow handed her, then gasped as the flavour zinged around in her mouth, as if she’d swallowed a small, herbal-flavoured comet. “Wow! This is amazing!”
Willow’s eyes sparkled with pleasure. “It’s great, isn’t it? Very energising. Dawn and me picked it up on our travels.”
Buffy gaped at her. “It’s extra-dimensional tea?”
Willow nodded. “Sure. Don’t sweat it, though, Buffy. It’s perfectly safe for humans.”
Buffy set her cup down on the counter. Not that she didn’t believe Willow, but…alien tea?
“Okay,” she said. “Tell me now, just why aren’t you tearing me a new one for agreeing to marry Spike when everyone else has?”
Willow shrugged. “’Cuz it’s the right thing to do.”
“It is?” Buffy’s mouth dropped open again. “Really? You really think so?”
“Of course.” Willow smiled. “It’s a quick and easy fix for our latest the-world’s-about-to-end problem. And it’s about time you sorted out your vampire issues once and for all.”
Buffy had been about to pick up her mug again – alien tea it might be, but it was sooo tasty – but her hand froze mid-reach.
“Sure.” Willow’s gaze met hers over the rim of her mug, unflinching. “You know, those ones you’ve had since you were, like, sixteen?”
“Seventeen,” Buffy said, automatically.
And why am I even thinking about that? Ancient history.
“I do not have vampire issues,” she said, trying to keep the growl out of her voice.
Willow probably heard it anyway, but it didn’t seem to faze her.
“Sure you do. And until you face up to them, you’ll never be able to move on. And no one can say that marrying Spike isn’t facing up to them, can they? You’ll finally get to see how a vamp/slayer relationship works out, for better or worse.”
She tilted her head in a way that, for a single lurching moment, reminded Buffy of Spike. “Kind of a pity really that you can’t marry both of them. Get it out of your system in one fell swoop.”
“That’s not…” Buffy hesitated, caught between anger and bemusement. “I’m not marrying Spike like...like that, Will. It’s just for show. For the prophecy. We won’t be…living together like man and wife.”
Willow blinked again. Then she looked crestfallen. “Oh. That’s a pity.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.” Buffy picked up her mug again. “Just as well, though, for Spike’s sake. Dawn told me she really will set him on fire this time, if he...he done me wrong again.”
“That’s my Dawnie.” Willow had filled a small china jug at the kitchen tap and was watering the drooping herbs. “I think these are beyond saving. Also a pity.”
Buffy cleared her throat. “So, what you’re saying is, you think I should give this marrying Spike a go for real?”
Willow turned and looked at her. Her expression was very serious. “I do. I’d say the same if it were Angel. You need to deal with your past, Buffy, or how can you face the future?”
Buffy scowled. “You sound like one of those lame lifestyle gurus. Or a therapist. A really crappy one.”
Willow held her gaze. “That doesn’t mean I’m not right.”
After a moment, Buffy conceded the point with a sigh.
“I’m really screwed up, aren’t I, Will?”
Willow grimaced. “Not just you. We all are, but, hey, at least you’ll be getting some.”