Buffy walked up the porch steps, juggling the armload of forms and papers she was carrying, and fumbled one-handed with the front door lock. Endless rounds with Social Security and Social Services and the IRS trying to re-establish herself in the land of the living were almost worse than any supernatural menace she'd faced.
The battered black DeSoto with the blacked-out windows was parked askew in the driveway, and the front curtains were all drawn. Despite the earliness of the hour the car's presence didn't surprise her. Spike was taking a maniacal delight in playing chicken with the sun these days, dropping by to meet her before patrol... or to see Dawn, or use the washing machine, or watch Dawson's Creek, until he'd become a constant enough presence at the Summers' place that she felt oddly disappointed on the few days he didn't show up. Lately he'd stopped making excuses and she didn't bother to ask for any. She didn't want to analyze it any further than that.
She could hear voices in the kitchen as she came inside. At the sound of the door closing they paused, then picked up once more. Was he telling Dawn one of those blood-drenched tales of his past again? Probably not; her sister had lost some of her taste for horror stories after living through one. "Hi, guys."
Dawn was bent over her algebra homework, long brown hair pooling on either side of the textbook. Spike, clad in his customary black jeans and T-shirt, was stretched out at indolent length in one chair with his boots propped up on another. He was perusing the afternoon newspaper and devouring a bowl of something crimson and lumpy-looking. Both of them looked up as she entered.
"Tell me that's not what I think it is," Buffy said, eyeing the bowl.
"Breakfast," Spike replied indistinctly. "Pig's blood and Weetabix." He waved a gory spoonful at her. "Have some? Almost palatable when microwaved to body temperature."
Dawn made a gagging noise. "Gross, isn't it? I don't know how he can eat that stuff."
The vampire sat back and raised an amused eyebrow. "I thought we were past the 'ew, blood' phase, niblet."
"We are. I'm talking about the Weetabix. It's, like, snot-flavored goo the moment it gets wet."
"Philistine." He scraped up the last of the Weetabix, licking red off the spoon, and went back to the newspaper. "How'd it go, luv?"
Buffy dropped her purse on the table and herself into a third chair, rolling her eyes. "Gruesome. They breed a new batch of forms to fill out every time I go back. Mom's life insurance won't last forever. I've got to get a job, and I can't get a job without a Social Security card, and I can't get the card without--" She willed the irritation from her voice. "You know this speech by heart already. Enough of Hunting-for-Work Buffy. Time for Hunting-for-Demons Buffy."
Dawn snorted, and flipped to the next page of her battered algebra text. She stared at it for awhile, chewing on the end of her pencil. "So are you guys going patrolling later? Can I come?"
"No," the other two said in unison. "You've filled your mayhem and destruction quota for the year," Buffy added. "Possibly for life."
Dawn folded her arms and shrugged, looking slyly across at Spike. "It's fun when we're the ones doing the destroying."
Spike laughed out loud. "Girl after my own heart, you are." He got up and put the cereal bowl in the sink. Ooh, major victory, Buffy thought. Spike's conception of housekeeping was as haphazard as could be expected from someone who'd been living in assorted abandoned warehouses for the past century or more. How pathetic is it when the highlight of my day is housebreaking Spike? She gave the newspaper a questioning look and he tossed it to her. "Obits," he explained. "Thought we might get a line on who we're likely to meet on the rebound in the next week or so."
She took the paper and frowned at the close-printed columns as she went over to the refrigerator and pulled a couple of frozen dinners out at random. For a town its size, Sunnydale had a disproportionately large obituary section. Several of the notices were circled or marked with a question mark, ones where 'cause of death' was listed as 'animal attack' or 'unknown'. "Looks like we're in for a workout. Someone seems to be getting busy." She put one of the trays in the microwave and set it. Almost immediately the phone rang.
"Ohmigod," Dawn gasped, leaping to her feet. "It's Jason! Let me get it! No, wait, you get it! No, DON'T get it! Let it ring at least three times or he'll think I'm waiting for it!" She tore off upstairs for the phone in her room in a cloud of forgotten equations, leaving the other two watching bemusedly.
"I can't believe that was me once," Buffy said with all the mature complaisance of twenty-one years. The microwave beeped and she pulled her dinner out. She went over to the cupboard to get a plate. "I'm so glad I'm past the whole boyfriend panic - oh, yuck, Spike, the least you can do is rinse the blood out of the bottom of the bowl before it gets all - whup!" She turned around. Spike was right behind her, reaching over her shoulder for the paper. They both grabbed reflexively at one another for balance, and came to a halt staring at one another.
It should have lasted only a moment. She knew what he looked like, the blazing intensity of his eyes, the smile that could go from heartless to heartrending in an instant, knew every exquisitely chiseled plane and angle of his face. And at this moment it all looked completely new. They were close enough that had he been human she would have been able to feel the heat of his body, but she couldn't, of course. He was staring down at her, and she knew she should step back, laugh, complain about the dishes...
She reached up, cupping his head in both hands, fingers sliding up to twine in his close-cropped peroxide-blond hair. She pulled him down and kissed him.
For a long stunned moment Spike was absolutely motionless, and then he was kissing her back with ferocious passion. He tasted of blood and tobacco and it should have been revolting but it wasn't and her heart was pounding hard enough for both of them and the only coherent thought she could muster was He could do this all night, he doesn't have to breathe...
...but she did. With a great gasp Buffy shrugged out of his grip and stepped backwards. "Oh God. Spike. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean..."
But it was too late. Even as he stepped back, collecting himself with a shudder, she could see it in those lambent blue eyes. Hope. Raw, agonizing hope unleashed again, after all he'd gone through to put that hope to rest forever. As he studied her own confused, shocked face it flickered out again, and somehow that hurt hurt worse than anything else. She saw his chest heave once, as if the act of drawing breath could purge him of something. "Didn't you? You bloody well meant something, Slayer," he said at last. "Just... decide what it is. I'll take damned near anything from you, and you know it. For Christ's sake don't abuse the privilege." Head down, he stalked over to the chair where he'd left his coat and shrugged into it. He looked at her. "I don't know about you, but I'm going to go kill something."
Stroke. The ivory ball shot across the green felt, hitting its target with a muted click and sending the second ball careening into the side pocket. The lithe man with the startling bleached-blond hair straightened from his intent crouch over the pool table and smirked at his taller, darker opponent--the taller man had been clowning around, obviously trying to disturb his concentration.
Across the smoky length of the club, Buffy Summers toyed with her drink and tried to pretend she wasn't keeping an eye on the two men at the pool table. Her glass was more than half full of melted ice by now, but she'd stopped noticing. It was a warm autumn night at the Bronze. Summer had kept a grip on the weather this year and the crowd was good. Up on the stage a skinny kid in torn jeans was wailing something angst-ridden and heartfelt. Over at the pool table Spike missed a difficult bank shot, stepped back and waved his taller companion forward. Buffy shook her head pensively. "You know, Will, sometimes lately I just feel like pinching myself."
Willow, who'd been watching the singer with a nostalgic air, blinked. She propped her chin on her hand and twirled the ice around in her own glass. "You mean Xander being civil to Spike? Spike being civil to anyone? It's not anything I'd've expected to see a year ago," she agreed. "But things change."
"Yeah," Buffy said. "They do." She gazed at the pool players, a faint frown playing across her face. "I wonder what they find to talk about."
Willow shrugged. "Guy stuff, I guess. I mean, dead or alive, guys are... well, guys."
"Ah. Carburetors. The eternal verities. I should have guessed." She picked up a paper napkin, slightly soggy from sopping up condensation from the glasses, and began spindling it.
"What's with the frowny face, Buffy?" Willow asked curiously. "You were semi-chipper when you got here."
Buffy twisted round in her seat to get a better view of the pool table. "I know. Consistency thy name is not Buffy Summers. I've just been thinking." She slurped at her watery soda. "How long do pacemaker batteries last?"
Willow looked confused. "OK, change of subject... I don't know. Two years? Five? I know they've gotten better than they used to be."
"And how long has it been since Spike got that chip stuck in his head?"
"About two... oh."
"Exactly. We don't know what powers that chip. We don't know how long it will last. When and if it does go dead, the only thing stopping Spike from going back to killing will be Spike..." She looked down at the shredded twists which were all that was left of the napkin. "Or me. Will, I refuse to go through that again."
Willow folded her arms on the table and looked serious. "That again as in 'kill him like you had to kill Angel' that again?"
"Angel, or Dawn or... anyone. Three times is not the charm. It's just not going to happen. I refuse absolutely. This time I'm going to plan ahead." She shot another covert glance across the club; Xander was lining up a shot, and Spike was lounging against the side of the pool table, chalking his cue. Grinning that maddening grin. It was a relief seeing that cocky, infuriating expression on his face again. Not like the look he'd had when... She realized that she was just sitting there staring and said lightly, "He's getting to be almost likeable, in an annoying way. He's been a big help with Dawn. He's even driven me around a couple of times when I needed a ride." She made a face. "Of course now I know the terror other people feel when driving with me, but it's the thought that counts."
Willow looked suspicious. "Buffy... how come you're worrying about this all of a sudden? You aren't getting, like, close, are you? I mean, practically every time I've dropped by lately he's been at your place. I don't want to be all judgmental, but, well, he IS a vampire, and let's face it, you kinda have a thing for..."
Buffy cut her off, a little too quickly. "Close? Will... He was ready to die for me. For Dawn. Of course we're close. I'm... grateful." That was true enough. "He's helped me save the world twice now, even if he did bug out early the first time. That's pretty gratitude-making." Willow kept looking at her, not quite buying it. "Look, I admit it, I don't want to have to stake him. That's why I want to worry about this now, before it's a problem. Work out some way to... I don't know, restrain him, if the chip ever does fail. Some kind of spell, maybe...?"
"Huh." Willow bit her thumbnail contemplatively. "I'd have to think about that. It was hard enough just to reach his mind to talk to him that one time. Vampire minds are really inert. Like a big ol' lump of undead Jell-O."
"I really didn't need that image."
"Sorry. But the chip's Initiative technology," Willow went on, perking up a little. "I'll bet it's fusion-powered, like Adam's power source was. It'll probably last longer than Spike will. Besides... he's really changed over the past year. Maybe it's, well, permanent."
"It feels... real," Buffy admitted. "Slayer-intuitionwise, I mean. But he's still a vampire." Her expression hardened. "That's something I can't ever afford to let myself forget, even if..." She began scraping the napkin shreds into a tidy pile. "Willow, look at them, and forget you know who they are. What do you see?"
Willow craned her neck. "Two guys playing pool?"
Willow stared at her for a moment. "OK, and this is a bad scary thing how?"
Buffy leaned forward intently, tapping her index finger on the tabletop for emphasis. "Two guys playing pool. Not a guy and a vampire. Will, two years ago... shoot, one year ago, Spike could have walked in here and I'd have spotted him for a vamp instantly. A vampire walks in, the Slayer senses go ping, right? Nowdays I'd have to get close enough to notice he's not breathing."
"But... oh. Oh." Willow did a bit more craning. "Wow. You're right. I hadn't noticed, but he does look different somehow. He doesn't have that... grrr look. Much. Ooh! Angel! You didn't know he was one until he vamped out on you!" Her eyes widened. "You think Spike's gotten a soul?"
"If he has, he hides it well."
"But doesn't this fit in with him really changing?" Willow said hopefully. "The Master got more demony with age, maybe Spike's getting more humany. You said Slayer intuition was cool with him. Any prophetic dreams lately?"
Buffy's cheeks went unaccountably red. "Um, no. Not prophetic." She gulped down the last of her soda. "I'm absolutely sure he won't hurt me, or Dawn, or any of you. I can't be absolutely sure he wouldn't hurt anyone else if the chip breaks down. It's all a big guess. And I hate big guesses. Vampire slaying is not multiple-choice. All I know for certain is that I don't understand what's happening to him, and I need to. I need to be on top of Spike." She stopped. "Of what Spike's doing. I did not say that. Erase it from your memory."
"Erased. You know, you could just ask him."
Buffy chewed on the end of her straw. "He probably doesn't know it's happening. He has mirror issues, remember."
"True. But it couldn't hurt to ask. Besides," Willow continued, trying to be reassuring. "He doesn't look that different. And look, he's still got the all-black thing going, that's a sure sign of vampirism--or being stuck in the eighties."
"Dark blue," Buffy corrected absently. "He's wearing a dark blue shirt." One that brought out the color of his eyes. "It just looks black in this... light. Oh, God." She buried her face in both hands. "I know what color shirt he's wearing. And I once accused him of obsessing over me. All right, that's it, Obsessive Girl disappears right now." She flashed her palm in front of her face. "This is her disappearing. I should go back to patrolling anyway. Just give the controlly stuff some thought, and see if Tara has any ideas."
She looked over her shoulder again, and this time he was looking right back. For a long moment the Slayer stared into the vampire's eyes, until Willow's inquisitive cough snapped her out of it. Buffy smiled, a little weakly. "I just wonder what they're talking about."
"Eight ball in the corner pocket," Spike said, turning away from the table without bothering to see if he'd sunk the shot. A moment later the sound of the ball dropping confirmed that he had. He grinned and stuck out a hand. "Pay up, Harris."
"This is so about my taking pity on you," Xander grumbled. He set his cue down and fished his wallet out of his back pocket, extracting a crumpled twenty. "Best three out of five?"
Spike pretended to consider for a moment. "Oi, all right, if you're in the mood for punishment." He stubbed out his cigarette and started to pull the billiard balls out from the bottom of the pool table, then stopped, gazing across the dance floor to the table where the small redhead and the smaller blonde were talking intently. Across the room Buffy looked over her shoulder and for a long, sizzling moment he caught and held her gaze. Had he breath he would have held it, willing the moment to go on... but then Buffy tore her eyes away.
Xander, racking up the balls, followed his gaze and made a tsking noise. "Who's in the mood for punishment?" he asked. "I thought you'd given up on Slayer smootchies."
"Yeah, so did I," Spike muttered. He squinted down the length of the cue, drew back, and broke. I'd just settled down to loving impure and unchaste from afar and she goes and... Xander looked at him askance and the vampire cocked an eyebrow at him. None of your business, whelp. "Considering the types you attracted when you stopped pining after the Slayer, I think I'm safer unrequited."
"Hey. Your ex could take all of mine on and eat them for lunch."
"Seriously, there's no... thawing going on here, is there? You two looked as jumpy as Kitty Fantastico when you walked in here. I'm not being encouraging, mind you, I'm just nosey."
Spike looked disgusted. "If going from number one on the Slayer's Ten Most Wanted list to Reliable Old Spike is progress, then yes. I'm inclined to call it regress, myself. At least I knew I was getting under her skin when she was hunting me down to pummel me at random." Nice to know I can still lie like a cheap carpet when the fit takes me.
Buffy got up, picked up her purse, waved goodbye to Willow and headed for the exit. Willow picked up her own things and wove her way through the crowd towards them. "Heading home!" she shouted over the noise of the band.
Xander waved back at her. "Tell Tara hi!" Willow nodded, and was quickly swallowed up among the dancers.
Spike made another shot, still eyeing the departing Buffy's back, and scratched, the cue skidding across the felt. He glared at the innocuous pattern of colored balls on the table. "I'll tell you one thing, if I'd had any idea how bloody insidious this virtue business is I'd never have gone for it. Get started on one bit and it takes over your whole bleeding life. Next thing you know I'll be feeling all dodgy about nicking fags." He shook a fresh cigarette out and lit it by way of illustration. "Pathetic."
"Ah, cheer up. You're still only a rung or two above the scum of the earth."
"I meant your billiards form."
"Ooh, flattery. My incredible skill strikes terror in all who behold... side pocket... hah!" He straightened up and walked around the table, studying the lay of the balls for a better shot. "Damned if I know what to tell you. I was a signal failure at Buffy-wooing. And you've got a lot of strikes against you, even discounting the whole undead creature of the night thing."
"I wouldn't call that a strike against," Spike observed, exhaling smoke. "Hot California nights, there's some advantage to a bloke who's always at room temperature."
Xander gave him a sideways look across his cue. "Spike, you frighten me, and not in that fun, spanky way, either." He looked significantly at the door as it closed behind Buffy. "Mi compadre, I have been there, I have dwelt there for a small eternity, and having finally left there, I advise you to do the same."
Spike shook his head. "Nowhere else to go, mate."
It was just after eleven when the two of them left the Bronze, heading back towards Xander's apartment through the cemetery--in Sunnydale, it was difficult to get from any one part of town to another without passing through at least one cemetery. "...bloody genius," Spike was saying as they approached the center of the graveyard. "'I Want To Be Sedated' alone--"
"Sedates me. Uh uh. Johnny Cash."
"You must be joking."
"I'm serious! You've got your trains, your prison, and your shootin' men just to watch 'em die. And that's just in "Folsom Prison Blues". What more can you ask--"
"Hold it." Spike stopped dead, grabbing Xander's arm. The two of them stood there listening tensely. Xander looked around, hearing nothing, seeing only indistinct blobs of shadow: trees and tombstones and the looming bulk of Spike's crypt up ahead. However, he knew that the vampire's senses were far keener than his. At length Spike pointed, and said low-voiced, "There's someone waiting for us. There in the shadows by the second tree to the right. Thoughtful of 'em when I'm in need of a distraction, innit? You armed?" He was already pulling a sharp, businesslike length of ash from the inside pocket of his black leather duster.
"No stakes. Got this." Xander fumbled at the pocket of his shirt and pulled out a small, plain cross.
Spike flinched. "Watch who you're swinging it at, then!" he said irritably. He handed Xander another stake. "Here. I always keep a spare. Let's go."
Most of Spike's plans, Xander reflected, boiled down to 'let's get 'em!' Which was fine if you were as fast and strong and impervious to damage as Spike was, but it left something to be desired otherwise. Or considering that Spike had a propensity to employ said plans against creatures who were just as fast and strong and impervious as he was, if not moreso, maybe it left something to be desired regardless. "Hold on yourself, Morally Ambiguous Dead. How many are we up against?"
Spike sighed impatiently. "Three I can smell."
"Can they smell us?"
"Sneaking would seem to be in order. We can circle round behind your crypt and take them by surprise."
"It's only bloody three of them, Harris." He sounded far too enthusiastic about the prospect for Xander's taste. "Tell you what, you do the sneaking, I'll distract them."
"Dammit, Spike--" It was too late; Spike was off, striding nonchalantly towards the front of the crypt with both hands shoved into the pockets of his coat. Whatever was eating Spike tonight, it was making him more than usually reckless, and that was saying something. Swallowing a curse, Xander angled off in the other direction, trying to keep to the shadows. There was a gibbous moon tonight, and he'd been helping Buffy long enough that he knew this graveyard as well as his own apartment. Better; he'd been hanging around the cemetery longer. Slinking from tree to tree, he came around the opposite side of the crypt as quietly as possible.
Spike was standing on the gravel path in front of the crypt, hands still in his pockets, head cocked to one side, a contemptuous smile curling his lips. Three larger vampires were standing between him and the crypt, their backs to Xander. Xander was glad of that; not only was it easier to stake them that way, he didn't have to look at their faces when he did it. He tried his damnedest never to look at their faces. He knew the drill--vampires weren't people. They were demonic essences animating a stolen human body, trading on stolen memories, stolen personalities... but that didn't make it any easier to drive a stake through the heart of someone who wore the face of a former friend.
"...going to come quietly?" the largest of the three was saying.
"Come quietly?" Spike sounded downright amused. "Cor, you've mistaken me for William the Greengrocer two crypts down, haven't you?"
"Kenzie said he was a smartass," the second-largest one said in bored disgust. "Let's just kill him, eh?" He turned. "What about it, Al?"
The third vampire said, "Kenzie wants--"
What Kenzie wanted would remain forever shrouded in mystery, as at that moment Xander's stake plunged through his ribs and pierced his heart. Al, his last expression one of frozen astonishment, exploded into a cloud of dust. At the same moment Spike dove forward, ducking the big vamp's swing and striking upwards with his stake like a knife fighter. The largest vampire dissolved equally spectacularly, and Spike whirled on the last one almost faster than Xander's eyes could follow the movement. The last of the three took one look at the anticipatory light in Spike's eyes, broke and ran. Spike took off in hot pursuit, and Xander tore after, not wasting his breath in any further curses. There was no way he could keep up with them, much less catch them, but if Buffy were still patrolling, maybe--
Ahead of him there was a crash and a yell. Spike? Hard to tell. He leaped over a tombstone and stopped, looking around wildly. Both vampires were out of sight, and--he caught a flash of movement in the trees and stalked towards it, stake at ready. He parted the dark, overgrown fronds of strong-scented myrtle and stepped through the gap into the shadows, every nerve singing with tension...
And there was another yell, his own this time, and another crash, as the ground disappeared beneath him.
When Spike came to and opened his eyes there was a strange, faintly glowing oblong floating in front of his face. It took a moment to realize that he was flat on his back, and the glowing oblong was the night sky overhead, seen through the hole he'd fallen through. A few jagged black shapes--palm fronds--still criss-crossed it. He took stock before trying to move; his head and his ribs ached, and there was something heavy lying across his right leg, but he didn't feel otherwise injured. He sat up, rubbing the back of his head. His hair was sticky with blood, but the cut was already starting to heal. Not bad, Spike, maybe a few more knocks on the head will short out that sodding chip. He took his hand away, licked the blood off his fingers thoughtfully and looked around. Where the hell was he?
Sunnydale was a vampire's paradise. The late unlamented Mayor Wilkins had seen to that during the long years of his clandestine reign: his building projects had left the whole town was riddled with a subterranean network of sewers and electrical access tunnels which did their purported jobs well enough, but of which the real purpose was to provide Sunnydale's considerable non-human population with a method of traveling during the day.
This convenience had been the main reason Spike had drifted back to Sunnydale two years past, despite his previous bad luck there. Or at least, that was the reason he'd given himself at the time. In the last two years he'd explored a good portion of the tunnels, but not by any means all. Wherever this was must be very close to the familiar tunnels leading away from his own crypt.
Well. He'd wanted a distraction, and the Powers That Be were never ones to let an opportunity to bugger him good and proper slide by. He tried pulling his leg free of whatever was holding it down. The whatever it was moaned. "Bloody hell. Harris?"
Extricating himself from beneath Xander and the mess of dead palm fronds, he peeled back Xander's eyelids. The pupils were evenly dilated. No concussion. From the way his ribs felt, he suspected he'd broken Xander's fall. He looked around. They were in a small, dusty room, empty save for themselves and the rubble of their descent--palm fronds, dirt and rocks, and a few weathered boards which had disguised the trap.
"Ow." Xander sat up groggily. "What the..." He broke off with a hiss of pain, clutching his ankle. "Oh, shit." He froze, eyes darting back and forth in the darkness. "Spike, is that you? That better be you."
"None other. Can you walk?"
"Gimme a hand up." Wincing, Xander got to his feet and eased his weight onto the injured foot experimentally. "I don't think it's broken, but I'm not gonna be doing any wind sprints any time soon. Where the hell are we?"
"Funny you should ask," Spike murmured, prowling around the perimeter of the room. He glanced up. From the position of the stars they hadn't been out long. "There's a door here." He tried the handle. It was locked. He pulled harder, putting a real effort into it, but the door had evidently been designed with vampiric strength in mind.
Xander was staring up at the chimney they'd fallen down. "It would come in awfully handy about now if you could do the turn into a bat thing." Spike gave him a look. "Right, no bats. If I boost you up, can you get up there and climb out?"
"I could give it a go. Can you do that with the bum leg?"
"I can give it a go. Come on, let's--"
There was a rattle at the door and both of them turned warily. The sound of a large bolt shooting back echoed through the tunnel outside, and the door shuddered and creaked rustily open. The pale light of a small electric lantern flooded the room. Half a dozen feral-looking vampires in game face, all wearing ragged assemblages of clothing dating back over the last thirty years, were milling around in the corridor outside. "Kenzie's coming," someone hissed, and they fell away from the door. The crowd parted as 'Kenzie' strode through the doorway, then closed in behind her. The vampire with the electric lantern followed her.
Spike regarded the newcomer with an insolent half-smile, though he was inwardly wary. She was a tiny woman, about Buffy's height, and unlike the others, she was wearing her human face. Her clothing, while a century or so out of date, was well-kept. She was commandingly handsome rather than beautiful: grey eyes, a strong nose, and a mass of greying auburn hair drawn up in a Gibson Girl bun. She looked to have been in her forties when she'd been turned. She was also carrying an efficient-looking crossbow, loaded, cocked, and aimed straight at his heart, with every indication of knowing exactly how to use it.
It was almost three in the morning when the phone rang. Buffy dragged herself up out of exhausted slumber, clawing the nightstand for the phone and dragging it over to her ear. "Whuh?" she asked. "Anya? What's the... He hasn't? No, I left the Bronze around ten, and he and Spike were still trying to settle the eight-ball championship of the universe." Wakeful now, she sat up and swung her legs off the side of the bed, feeling around with her toes for her shoes. "No, they won't take a missing person report till they've been gone for a whole day. I'm on it. I'll give you a call as soon as I find out what happened."
Frowning, she got out of bed and dressed quickly in the dark. It was a measure of what life had been like lately that it never entered her head that Xander might have run into something as ordinary as a mugging. She headed downstairs, scribbled a note for Dawn, and started to leave. At the last moment remembered the cell phone Dawn had gotten her for emergencies; she grabbed it off the living room coffee table and slipped out the front door.
The night had grown marginally cooler, though it was still muggy, and the streets were mostly empty. A few lonely cars whooshed by in the distance. Buffy headed for the cemetery, running smoothly. The logical place to start, she thought, was with Spike, since he'd probably been the last one to see Xander. And she had to talk to him anyway, little though she looked forward to it. The two of them had literally come through hell to reach their current rapprochement, and she didn't want her momentary insanity of the previous evening to wreck it all.
The crypt was, of course, dark. And something felt distinctly not right. Buffy slowed to a walk, hyperalert to any untoward sound or movement. Her foot struck something in the path and she froze, then bent down to pick it up. A foot-long length of wood, sharp on one end... an irrational bolt of fear shot through her. She dashed over to the door of the crypt, not bothering to knock, and yanked it open.
The place was deserted. Buffy flipped on the lights. Spike's quarters were spartan at the best of times, but now, with only the faint hum of the mini-fridge in the background, the crypt felt positively eerie. Cautiously she crossed to the doorway which led to the lower levels and made her way downstairs. From the lower room a tunnel led off into the wilds of Sunnydale's underground labyrinth. Had Spike been here and left? Had he ever gotten home at all? The dropped stake argued for something unusual having happened, but what? She studied it again. It wasn't one of hers, and she made all the stakes that the others used... except for Spike, who had his own sources. So probably... probably this one had belonged to Spike.
"Or anyone else in Southern California who knows how to kill a vampire," she muttered. She'd been counting on Spike to provide some sort of clue, but now he was part of the mystery. She stood there indecisively for a moment, then pulled the cell phone out of her pocket.
"Tara? Hi. I'm sorry, I know--can I talk to Willow? It's an emergency." She waited impatiently until Willow's sleepy voice answered. "Will, remember that spell you tried to do a couple of years ago in the haunted house, the one that was supposed to lead you to something? The ignis whatsis? That's it. Can you do it now without it turning into a bunch of glowy killer bees? Yes. I need to find Xander. Anya says he never came home, and I'm in Spike's crypt right now and it doesn't look like he ever got back here either. Yeah. Are you sure you can't do it from there? All right, I'll wait for you here."
Willow showed up within half an hour, every moment of which Buffy spent in pacing around the deserted crypt. "I got here as fast as I could," she said breathlessly. Buffy glanced down.
"So I see."
Willow looked down as well; she was still wearing a pair of fuzzy pink slippers. "Speed over fashion. OK, I'm ready. It's a pretty simple spell." She gazed into the middle distance and began an incantation, finishing at last with "...Aradia, goddess of the lost. The path is murky. The woods are dense. Darkness pervades. I beseech thee... Bring the light."
Before the echo of the last line had faded, a tiny mote of yellow-green light flared into being, flickered, and steadied, floating a few feet away at eye level. "Lead us to Xander Harris," Willow commanded. Both of them watched the glowing green mote warily, but it showed no sign of splitting in two, attacking them, or doing anything else unusual. It vibrated in midair for a moment, and then began floating off down the tunnel. Buffy and Willow exchanged looks and followed. The ignis fatuus bobbed along ahead of them, its phosphorescent light casting a sickly-looking glow over the slick dark dampness of the tunnel walls.
"You're sure that it wasn't Spike who got staked?" Willow asked.
Buffy opened her mouth, then shut it, feeling as if a mule had kicked her. "I... never thought of that."
"It's kind of a funny coincidence, though, isn't it?" Willow said after awhile.
"Can you get this thing to go any faster?" Buffy asked. "Funny?"
"We don't want to lose it," Willow replied. "That Spike's gone too, I mean."
Buffy looked at her sharply. "Not so strange. Whatever it is just took both of them."
"You're probably right." Willow was silent for a moment, then said, "It's just, you were suddenly all worried about Spike's chip, and now--"
"That had nothing to do with this."
"No Slayer intuition at work?"
There was real concern in Willow's voice. "Buffy... I know Spike's, well, important to you, but like you said earlier--"
"I kissed him tonight."
"I know, but that was just because of the spell, and I said I was sorry - tonight? Buffy!" The ignis fatuus wavered and Willow spoke a few hurried words of dubious origin before it strengthened and stared moving again. "You kissed him!?"
"He kissed back," Buffy replied defensively. God did he kiss back. "It's not like I was forcing him at stake point or anything."
"Buffy, are you nuts?" Willow exclaimed. "Him vampire, you Slayer! Irreconcilable differences! And he's crazy in love with you and you know you can't encourage him and--"
"I know! I wasn't thinking! We were arguing over--I don't know, he left bloody dishes in the sink, it was deeply trivial--and something just... clicked. it used to be every time I looked at him all I saw was vampire. Today I looked at him and all I saw was... Spike. William. That's all I've seen for a long time now." She threw up her hands in frustration. "I don't even know his stupid last name!"
"This is so not a good idea! Look, Buffy, you've just got to tell him it was a... a fluke," Willow whispered urgently. "I know from flukes. They're nothing but trouble."
"What if it wasn't?" Buffy demanded.
"That's worse. You'll get involved and it will get messy and something bad will happen and it's SPIKE!"
"All right, it's Spike. You were the one claiming he'd changed earlier."
"That was before I knew you'd kissed him. There are conflict of interest issues here!"
Ahead of them the tunnel split in two. Their glowing guide hesitated momentarily at the crossroads and then darted down the left-hand tunnel. Both of them broke into a trot, trying to keep it in sight. The huge bundled cables of electrical conduit which had been running along the walls and floor ended in a massive, complicated tangle in a large, mysterious-looking junction box. There was a series of metal rungs in the wall next to it, leading up to an access hatch which Buffy was fairly sure came out near the alley behind the Bronze, but their guide ignored this exit and instead buzzed off behind the junction box. "Dead end?" Buffy asked.
"No, the guide would disappear if this were it," Willow said, puzzled. "And no Xander, so if there is an it, this isn't."
Gingerly, they stepped over the cables and squeezed along between the wall and the junction box. Behind it, there was a tiny alcove with a door. Had the ignis fatuus not led them there, it would have been completely unnoticeable. The small leaded glass window was covered with grime and the door looked as if it hadn't been opened in some time. The guide bumped at it. Buffy tried the handle; it was locked. She twisted impatiently and felt metal tearing, but they still had to give it a good hard shove to get it open. Beyond was total blackness save for the phosphorescence of the guide.
"After you, Alice," Willow muttered.
"Don't believe we've been introduced," Spike said coolly. He could sense that their captor was older than he was, though not one of the really ancient ones--Angel's age, maybe, or a little younger. About the age that the normal vampire started chafing under the rule of their sire and started entertaining thoughts of setting up shop on their own. Considering that nine out of ten of his kind were dust before their first ten years of unlife played out, anyone who survived that long was someone to keep an eye on. He'd never given a damn for the intricacies of vampire politics, but sometimes the older ones had tricks up their sleeves he'd never bothered to learn. That whole thrall business, for example. Xander was susceptible to that, though maybe not so much this time around...
She stood in the lamplight, surveying both of them with distaste. "No," she said at last, her lip curling with disdain. "We have not. I am Amanda Kenzie. William the... Bloody, I presume?"
"I go by Spike these days."
"I dislike informal sobriquets. Have you a surname?"
"Find the lack lends a chap an appealing air of mystery." He reached for his pocket and her finger tightened visibly on the crossbow's trigger. He pulled out a crumpled pack of Marlboros and a lighter and displayed them. "D'you mind? I fancy a smoke."
"A gentleman does not smoke in the presence of ladies."
"Ah?" Spike braced one foot against one of the boards on the ground; it wobbled slightly. He struck a light and inhaled. "Lucky for me I'm not a gentleman." He flicked the lighter off and tossed it negligently up into the air. "So, pet, to what do we owe the honor?"
Amanda Kenzie's cold grey eyes flicked to Xander. "'We.' You've cast off your own sire to live among them. I had hoped that much was rumor, at least. Have you no shame?"
"None," Xander said, deadpan. "Believe me, we've looked for it."
"Silence, meat," Kenzie snapped. She turned back to Spike. "You owe the honor, as you call it, to the fact that I wanted to see you before I kill you. At one time, you had great promise." She looked him up and down once more. "I fault Angelus. He was always shockingly lax, living among humans, turning Darla away from poor Joseph, failing to give his children the most elementary grounding in our history and culture..."
"Yeh, I missed out on vampire O-levels," Spike said, gesturing impatiently with his cigarette and joggling the toe of his boot against the loose board. "And we're both in agreement that grandsire was a right wanker. Can we get to the point here?"
"Since the Slayer killed poor Joseph four years ago the vampire population of Sunnydale has been decimated," Kenzie said coldly. "Mayor Wilkins had some admirable plans, but he was simply using you for his own purposes. The Slayer, that government group... I'm sure you know all about them...?" She smiled at his involuntary wince. "Chaos. Much of which could have been prevented had Joseph been followed by a worthy successor."
"Joseph?" Xander whispered.
"The Master," Spike replied sotto voce. More loudly, he said to Kenzie, "Can't say as I ever met the bugger. Angelus wasn't keen on introducing us to his relatives. But as I recall, the Master did provide for his succession." He smiled. "I killed the rabbity little bastard he provided, but that's hardly great-great-grandsire's lookout."
"Yes." Kenzie looked as if she were smelling something unpleasant. "You did. And as Darla was dust, Angelus was... indisposed, and Drusilla incompetent, you were the logical choice to become the next Master of Sunnydale. If my sources are correct, for a short time it appeared that you were succeeding admirably. A very short time. And then, as you would no doubt put it, you cocked things up royally."
Spike's eyes glittered momentarily. Then he shrugged. "It's a fair cop. We were heading in the direction of a point here somewhere?"
"Indeed. Four years ago, William, I should have called you one of the rising stars of our younger generation. Now... look at you. The Slayer's toothless lapdog, living on animal blood and killing your own kind because you're incapable of killing them." She waved an imperious hand at Xander. The muscles in Spike's jaw clenched for a moment, and the dangerous glitter was back in his eyes, but he sounded perfectly controlled when he spoke again.
"Poetic justice, innit?" he said.
"Of sorts. The unfortunate fact remains that despite your current lamentable state you are still the eldest of Joseph's line in possession of your wits and unencumbered with a soul, and for reasons I fail to understand you seem to have intimidated the locals to the point where they refuse to challenge you." She spared the vampire with the lantern a contemptuous stare; he looked embarrassed and nervous. "You are the de facto Master of Sunnydale. This situation simply cannot continue. That is why I'm here." She hefted the crossbow again. "To remove you."
Spike stared at her, genuinely surprised. "Yours truly, Master of Sunnydale?" He laughed. "I suppose in a twisted way you're right. So maybe we can cut a deal."
The woman frowned. "A deal?"
"Yeh. See, I'm not keen on the responsibility, and you obviously want the job..." He smiled winningly, took a last drag on his cigarette and tossed it to the ground. "So..." He moved to crush the cigarette out, and at the last moment shifted his weight and stomped on the end of the loose board, hard. It flipped into the air and smacked into the crossbow, which discharged with a twang, sending its bolt flying upwards to spang off the ceiling. Xander made a limping dive for the crossbow. Spike snatched up the nearest board, snapped it across one knee, and lunged at Amanda, knocking her backwards into the door, which slammed shut with a hollow boom. He pressed the splintered wood against her breastbone, gazing lovingly into her suddenly terrified eyes. "Sorry, love," he purred. "The Slayer may have me on a leash, but I'm still a very bad dog." He rammed the stake home, and sprang back as she dissolved. He whipped round, eyes alight with the pure joy of slaughter, in time to see Xander finish cranking the crossbow back. The bolt twanged home and buried itself in the lantern-bearer's chest, narrowly missing the heart.
"Stupid bint. Should have cut the jawing and shot me where I stood. You mobile, Harris?" Spike clamped a hand down on the other vampire's shoulder as he dropped the lantern and stood there in shock, staring down at the protruding wooden stub. "Walk with me, mate," he said genially.
"Yeah." Xander limped over and grabbed the lantern. "For awhile. This hurts like a sonofabitch. You got any ideas on getting out of here?"
"A brilliant plan." He smiled unpleasantly at the other vampire. "Open the door," he ordered.
The second vampire reluctantly did so. "It's me!" he yelled as it swung ponderously back on its hinges. "Don't--OOF!"
Spike kicked him in the middle of the back, sending him sprawling through the doorway and into the crowd outside the door, and striding through after him. The vampires outside retreated an involuntary step or two.
Xander sighed in resignation. "Don't tell me. It's 'get 'em', isn't it?"
"Now listen up, you pustulent gits." Spike said, still genial. "Edith Wharton back there pointed out, before I dusted 'er, something that hadn't occurred to me. Yours truly may not be able to lift a fang towards him--" he jerked a thumb at Xander--"But I've been whipping your sorry arses every night for the last two years, and absent other authority, I'm your bloody Master. So as of now it's like this. You're going to avoid me like plague, and I'm going to hunt you down and kill you any time I feel like a spot of exercise. If you think about it, that's a better deal than you'll get from any other Master on the continent. If you don't like it, I'll hunt you down and kill you anyway. Everyone got it?" He gave them his best natural-born-killer grin. There was a general exchange of uneasy glances. "Good. We're leaving now. Come on, Harris."
Half a dozen pairs of wary, hungry eyes followed them as Spike strolled arrogantly past, herding Xander in front of him. "So how long is that little speech going to last us?" Xander asked, as they turned a corner and hurried down the tunnel as fast as he could manage.
Spike glanced back over his shoulder. "About ten minutes, if we're lucky."
"You're actually enjoying this, aren't you?"
Spike looked surprised. "You're not?"
Xander's ankle began giving out after they'd taken several sharp turns and doublings-back through the maze of corridors. "Will you get a move on?" Spike snarled. "If humans weren't so sodding fragile we'd be out of here by now."
"If vampires weren't so stupid we wouldn't be in here to begin with." Xander hopped awkwardly on one foot for a moment and collapsed against the wall, massaging his ankle. "I've got to stop and tie this up or something," he gasped.
Spike looked back down the hallway, his keener ears picking up noises he didn't care for. Most likely reinforcements were on the way. He shrugged. "Fine. Be seeing you." He started off, and made it about five paces down the hall before She'd want him safe popped into his head. He smacked the heel of his palm to his forehead. Besides, it's easier to keep myself in blood and fags when Harris is around to win billiards money off of. If he kicks it I'll have to find someone else to argue with . He looked back. Xander was sitting there, reloading the crossbow. There were only two more bolts. He looked up at Spike once, but didn't make a move to call him back. The whelp has balls, I'll give him that. Bloody hell. Turning on his heel, he walked back, swearing under his breath. Without further ado he picked the taller man up bodily, disregarding Xander's yelp of surprise, slung him over one shoulder and stalked off down the hall. At the next junction he took a sharp left into a cul-de-sac and dumped Xander none too gently on the floor. "Let's have your shirt," he snapped.
"My shirt? Why? Why not your shirt?"
"Because in ripping it to shreds I'll be doing the fashion world a favor. Give." Xander divested himself of his flannel shirt reluctantly and Spike wasted no time in tearing it into strips.
Xander could hear the sound of hesitant, shuffling footsteps now himself, along with a low murmur of voices. The little band of vampires seemed to be just down the corridor and around the corner, but none of them were making any move to come after them. "What the hell are they waiting for?" he whispered. "They outnumber us three to one. Ow! Watch it, I still have circulation left to impair!"
"Most vampires," Spike said with a nasty grin, "are as bright as dirt." He yanked a knot tighter. "That lot thinks I'm raving. I'm chumming round with dinner. And they've heard I sent Dru packing."
"That would seem to me to be one of your more rational moves."
"Dru's my sire, numbskull. You don't do that to your sire. Kill 'em, maybe, but tell 'em to shove off? Never. Why d'you think Whossface was so up in arms about Darla giving the Master the bird?" He chuckled. "Best thing Angelus ever did." He gave the makeshift bandage a tug. "There. Try not to develop gangrene."
"You were gonna leave me there, weren't you?"
Spike glared at him. "Of course I was going to leave you there. I'm a bloody vampire, that's what we bloody do."
"Well, you bloody didn't. So... thanks."
Spike growled something that sounded like 'Slayer-whipped poof' and began rummaging for a cigarette. He pulled a battered flask from the inside pocket of his duster and handed it over. "Have a nip. That'll set you up."
Xander examined it warily. "Gah. Blood?"
"Why does everyone ask that? It's bourbon. Blood's got to be refrigerated."
Xander unscrewed the top, took a tentative sip, gagged, and handed it back. "But paint thinner obviously doesn't. Spike ol' boy, you sure have champagne tastes." He sat there rubbing his ankle in silence for a moment. "So. Are you the same person or not?" he asked.
"I want to know if you're the same person," Xander repeated. "As you were when you were alive."
Spike blinked. "You know the answer to that."
"I know what Giles told us. I know what the Watcher's Council thinks. I wanna know what a vampire thinks. I asked one once before, but he wasn't real hot on a deep philosophical conversation at the time."
There was a long pause as the vampire lit his cigarette and took a drag. "Yes... no... Buggered if I know," he said at last. "What's it to you?"
Xander looked at him levelly. "The first vampire I ever staked," he said, "was my best friend. And I've told myself ever since that no, it wasn't Jesse, it was just some... thing using Jesse's body. You guys make it real easy for me to keep believing that. Until this last winter, when you started acting not completely and totally evil. I'll tell you straight out I want you to tell me you're a demon to the core and this was all because of the chip. 'Cause if you're not, that means maybe I could have done... I don't know. Something, to make Jesse turn out the way you have."
The end of Spike's cigarette glowed brightly for a moment, and in the ruddy light he looked bitterly amused. "Trust me, Harris, given the choice of getting staked and ending up like me, your pal would have chosen the stake. For a hundred and twenty-three years I was blessedly free of a conscience, and getting one back without the excuse of a bloody soul for doing it reeks. I shouldn't be this way. Me giving a toss whether you live or die, coming back to play Florence sodding Nightingale is as sick and unnatural as... as..."
"That neon orange goo they put on nachos?"
"So why torture yourself?"
Spike sat back on his heels, gazing at Xander with an unreadable expression. "I ask myself that a lot, mate." And the only answer I've got is because she's worth it . He snapped to instant alertness, rising to his feet in one fluid movement. He tossed his cigarette down and ground it out. "They're coming. Let's get 'em."
"How much further?"
"I don't know," Willow whispered, keeping as close to Buffy's back as she could without stepping on her heels. "Have I mentioned that I don't like this? I don't like this."
The two of them made their way cautiously down the corridor. It was a good deal smaller than the tunnel they'd left, and much drier. They'd passed several intersections, and now there were scuff marks in the dust on the floor, occasionally visible in the dim glow of the ignis fatuus which danced ahead of them still. Buffy thought it was growing fainter. How long did they last, and could they summon another one if this one wore out? It wasn't as if Willow could still fling magic around with the same wild abandon these days. "Someone's been this way ahead of us," she said, pointing to the tracks. "A lot of someones."
"One scuffy footprint looks much like every other scuffy footprint. But I think these are pretty recent... Hey." Something caught her eye as they passed a short cul-de-sac. She bent down to pick up a small scrap of something and examined it as best she could in the dim light: a frayed piece of cloth. "I can't believe it. No one ever finds clues like this in real life. Isn't this the shirt Xander was wearing?"
Willow peered at it. "I think so. It's that plaid flannelly stuff, anyway. Ooh, there's a cigarette butt! I found a clue too!"
Buffy straightened abruptly. "I hear something. Come on!"
She broke into a run. Behind her she heard Willow chanting words of dismissal. The greenish glow of the ignis fatuus winked out, plunging the hallway into darkness for a second before Willow's "Fiat lux!" produced a stronger golden light in the palm of her hand. That, too, only lasted a moment as she outran Willow, the thought of arriving just a little too late gnawing coldly at her stomach.
She pelted around the corner and realized there was more light ahead of her; she'd come to a large intersection where four or five corridors came together. An electric lantern was tipped over on the floor near one of the walls, throwing huge black shadows across the struggling figures in the room. Xander was backed up against a wall, holding off one ragged-looking vampire with a crossbow. A second vampire with a crossbow bolt in his thigh was trying to get back to his feet, and Spike was facing off with another pair. He looked somewhat the worse for wear, but the other two weren't doing very well either, and neither of them seemed very eager to close with him again. He threw her a quick glance and a grin. "Hello, luv! Come for the fun?"
The enormous tension building within her released. He was all right... and Xander was safe too. Buffy wasted no time sizing up the situation further. She leaped past Spike, who dodged out of her way with that consummate predator's grace, burying the business end of Mr. Pointy in the ribs of the vampire who was closing on Xander. Without waiting to see his collapse into component dust particles, she spun around and aimed a roundhouse kick at the wounded vampire. Her foot connected solidly with his head, snapping it back, and she retrieved her stake with one smooth movement and followed up by plunging it full-strength through the second vamp's heart. As he dissolved, without missing a beat she tossed it to Spike, whom she knew, somehow, was going to be in the exact position to grab it out of mid-air as if they'd practiced the move for hours. And he was, and he did, and he rammed it through his nearest opponent's torso with a deep-throated growl.
Both of them whirled upon the last vampire in unison. His eyes went wide with terror as Buffy tackled him, hitting him low and hard and driving him backwards onto the stake in Spike's hands. Their eyes met above the dispersing cloud of dust that was their last foe, alert, eager, a little disappointed that there were no more of them...
I'd rather be fighting with you.
Willow came dashing into the room a moment later. "Is everyone all right?" she asked breathlessly. "Oh. I guess so."
"Excuse me? Wounded, here," Xander said, waving a hand and indicating his ankle. "And I have to get to a phone and call in sick by six, or the foreman will have my ass."
"Rescues of all kinds my specialty," Buffy said brightly, producing the cell phone.
"She won't be the last," Spike said as they retraced the way to the crypt. "Sooner or later someone else is going to try taking over the Master's territory. I'm surprised it hasn't happened earlier. Sunnydale-on-Hellmouth's a pretty piece of real estate for anyone with ambitions - lovely view, spacious accommodations..."
"And a serious infestation of vampire slayers," Buffy replied dismissively. "If they come, we'll kill 'em."
Spike chuckled. "So we will, love."
He has dimples. How could I never have noticed he has dimples? At least the action seemed to have put him in a far better mood. It was nice to have someone around who positively got off on her being the strong rescue-y type... not that he'd needed much rescuing, which was also nice. And fighting alongside him was always... very nice. "So," said Buffy. Spike gave her an inquisitive look and said nothing. Damn it, he wasn't going to make this easy. Nothing to do with Spike was ever easy. "I've been thinking about what happened earlier."
"Ah? I've been trying not to."
"That bad?" There was slight edge of hurt in her voice despite the bantering tone.
"That's one more reason to rip Grand-sire's face off one of these days... ah-ah, put the lip back. That good, love."
"Oh." They kept walking. "It couldn't work out. I learned my lesson with Angel. Even if... no matter how many magic resurrections I'm due, I'm going to get old and you aren't. We could never have a normal life."
"Oh, sod that," Spike said brutally. "You'll get old and die again regardless. And someday I'll meet a stake with my name on it. Could be five hundred years from now or tomorrow." He looked down at her, eyes hooded. "You're not normal, Slayer...Buffy. I'm not normal, even for a vampire. Nothing between us will ever be normal. And I don't give a good goddamn if it isn't."
"You have such a way with words."
"So they've told me."
"I can't just jump in anymore, Spike. I've hit bottom too many times before. I'm sorry. I... have to think about it."
He nodded. Disappointed, but he wasn't going to press. They walked along in silence for awhile. At last Buffy looked up. "William... what's your last name?"
For a moment he was startled, and then, almost furtively, he leaned down and whispered into her ear. Buffy's eyes widened. "You're kidding."
"No," Spike said crossly, "and if that gets out I swear I'm reverting to blackest evil on the spot and making a seven-course dinner of you all, chip or no chip."
She giggled. "All right, all right. My lips are sealed." She glanced up at him. Remembering the taste of blood and cigarettes....
At least, for the time being.END