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Buffy Season Noir

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Buffy tried not to look like she was limping as she walked up alongside the boundary wall of the cemetery. Limping did not say: Victorious Slayer on a Rampage--Fear My Kicky Boots! No. Limping said ouch in a small voice, and asked you to wait a moment while the limper rested.

She could have, maybe even should have, stayed home, gotten a good night's sleep--it would have been the first full night in a week. There'd been battle plans to lay out; never restful. And though she'd come to feel a strange affection for the blue tentacled mass in the basement, it'd had a tendency to latch onto the plumbing and make the pipes groan at odd hours which she wouldn't miss. All in all, things had been too wonderland there at the end for Buffy's peace of mind, especially when Dawn moved from snacking on the flower garden to eating books page by page.

But despite her weariness, she'd had to escape the house for a while. Sitting around the old popcorn bowl with Will watching sappy sapphic cinema was...well, kinda nice actually. When Willow was cheerier. In Buffy's memory were snapshots of an old friend, wide-eyed and wide-smiled, eager to help with homework or share gossip; the kind of girl who baked you cookies to take to the apocalypse; comforting and familiar. But her new friend was an unhappier Willow who wore darker shades of lipstick, darker moods. Buffy felt uncomfortably at times that this grown-up Willow had moved on in ways she didn't think Buffy would understand. When Buffy created an elsewhere to be, like tonight, she knew her avoidance wasn't even noticed.

A walk was good, though. Besides, Dawn was catching up with all the friends she'd refused to see while she'd had her horn, and their momless house could still feel empty even when it was full. All signs pointed slayward.

Buffy slipped over the wall at its lowest point, wincing as the maneuver strained her bruised ribs. The gash in her thigh wasn't happy either. I sing the body brown-out, she thought tiredly.

Once on the graveyard grounds, she wandered through the headstones, carelessly scanning for freshly broken earth and footprints. The air had a wet smell, earth and grass opened up by the rain that had fallen earlier, and the moon was full and high, its light covering everything it touched like snow. Crickets chirped, and the place felt peaceful the way cemeteries should and so often didn't. It was late spring, Buffy realized, pages flickering and flying off a mental calendar and she caught up with the passage of time. Classes had ended while her attention was focused on more pressing matters; vamps would be scarcer now that everyone but luckless townies had cleared out for the summer. Most vampires were as seasonal as the human population they fed on, taking their own vacations from the Hellmouth, hitching rides south with unsuspecting co-eds and happy-meal families and dumb gangs of kids in vans. She'd often thought of trying to have vamp awareness integrated into orientation week. In some other reality where she also had her own talk show.

Buffy wound through the plots, heels sinking a bit into the soft earth. The marble headstones glowed in the moonlight and made her notice them as things distinct and real, something she tried not to do during patrols. Unwanted thoughts came, of everyone in her life now dead or gone. Her mother, Giles, Angel, Oz, even Cordelia. How many high school classmates lay here in this boneyard alone--how many graves were instead empty, layered with dust? She'd never tried to keep track and she'd long ago lost count.

Looking up, she discovered her feet had carried her to the center of the graveyard. She stared at the crypt in front of her. Its door hung ajar, as if its occupant had only recently left. But it had been five months. She wanted to turn and walk away; instead she climbed the shallow steps and entered. The door creaked as she pushed it further open. Inside, moonlight striped the floor and she could see a half year's worth of dirt and leaves surrounding the furniture legs. He'd left the less portable stuff behind, and no one had bothered to steal it. Someone--someones--had been using the place, though; beercans and bottles were scattered everywhere, along with burger wrappers and empty blood-bags. Not his. He'd kept it tidy.

The television lay on the floor, smashed. Buffy walked through its broken glass and kicked aside a beer bottle. The hollow rattle disturbed a rat which scuttled out as she moved further in. Skin mags, wrinkled by damp, covered the sarcophagus lid in a lewd display. Now those might have been his. She flipped through the pages of one, found a blonde likeness of herself, and made the obligatory tit check before closing the cover with a sense of superiority.

Toward the back of the crypt, the funk was funkier and a well-ripped sleeping bag had become a nest for what she could only hope were mice. She stopped at the entrance to his underground lair, noticing that the coverstone lay half on, half off the irregular hole.

Nothing good could be down there, but she climbed down anyway, thinking she might get lucky and dust a few trespassers. At the bottom of the ladder, she quickly turned. She'd thought she'd heard a sound and waited to hear it again. After a few seconds, she realized she was standing in a pool of moonlight. Why not just wear a string of Christmas lights and stick a fork in my arm, she wondered. She slipped to one side, annoyed with herself. Maybe her luck for the night was not getting dusted already.

"That's right, Slayer. Don't want to make it too easy."

At the soft words, the hairs on the back of Buffy's neck rose, and the rest of her went stiff with recognition. Her vision hadn't adjusted yet but she strained to decipher something in the dark, anything to reassure herself she wasn't alone with memories that were finally cracking their coffin lid, cracking her. He couldn't be here, she told herself, couldn't have come back; the possibility didn't seem real.

When she'd almost convinced herself she'd imagined his voice, a light flared in the darkness and Spike's face flickered into sight, bent over a cigarette. Cupped hands, sharp jaw, lowered eyes, painted by fire. In the second before the lighter died, he raised his head and looked directly her way.

Left in the dark again, heart pounding, Buffy tried instinctively to fix his last position. She couldn't find the glow of his cigarette that should have been visible. A boot scuff against floor made her twitch and turn blindly, but she sensed mockery. He could move without sound when he wanted to.

"Reflexes seem a bit slow, ducks. Been eating your Wheaties?"

She didn't answer his affected concern, and began edging along the wall, keeping space between them. There was no reason to think he'd kill her, but the whole wait-until-dark vibe was giving her gooseflesh. She slid a hand into her pocket and gripped a stake for comfort. Any words she might once have said had dried up on her tongue; she'd forgotten how to be flippant with him, it seemed. She wanted to be flippant, cool, uncaring. She wanted to--

"Come now," Spike said, his face materializing close to hers, eyes glittering, skin whitened by the moonlight. His hand shot out to grab her wrist before she even had time to react. "Haven't you got a hello for an old mate?"

 

 


 

"Wow," said Dawn, eyes wide. "Wow. Wow."

Willow looked over nervously. "I'm not, um, entirely sure you should be watching this, Dawnie." She brightened in eager hope. "Hey, how about we see what's on Must See TV, because, you know, Must See." Versus Must Not See, she thought.

"Ohmigod, did you see that?" Dawn squeaked.

"I've, uh, many times." Willow's cheeks were flaming and she stared into her popcorn bowl and focused on selecting and eating one kernel at a time.

"This is so cool. Buffy would never let me watch anything like this," Dawn said, confirming Willow's fears, "even though I'll be seventeen in two months. And mom, tch." She cracked a dry laugh. "I thought I'd be thirty before I got frontal nudity." Her eyes were glued to the screen as she shoveled popcorn in her mouth, and she talked nonstop while she did. "You know, in Africa, women just walk around and let it all hang out, like you and Tara did when it rained pixie dust, remember?"

"That would be a whopping yes," Willow murmured, while Dawn talked over her.

"I'm going to be an anthropologist someday and travel all over the world, and blend in with the natives, except you're not supposed to call them that. I think it's, uh, indignitous--"

"Indigenous."

"--peoples. And the nakedness is maybe not so much a great idea, because they have these worms that can bore up through the heel of your foot and into your brain and it'll swell up and burst. This one woman, she got a brain worm so huge--oh. Wow."

Willow closed her eyes and turned her face into the back of the couch with a tiny groan. She wished she hadn't had that last margarita, and she wished Tara were here. She was so sad and lonely. She was the blues. Snuffling once, she rubbed a hand across her wet eyes and then felt the couch shift as Dawn sat down next to her, knees drawn up to mirror hers. Willow reluctantly turned her face out of the cushions.

"Please don't be unhappy." Dawn smiled and patted Willow's knee, then rested her cheek on the back of the couch for better eye-contact, friendly as a puppy. "You guys can't break up," she said confidently. "You're like superglue."

"I don't feel very gluey." She paused as tears threatened to return, tried to smile back and felt her smile twisted by the tremble of her lips. "I keep thinking, you know, that I can figure out how to be the right me again--the me I was when I first met her, the one she liked. If I could go back somehow--" At the anxious shadow passing across Dawn's face, Willow wanted to shake herself. Confiding in Dawn called for a certain degree of self-censorship she wasn't sure she was up to now, but Buffy wasn't here, big surprise not, and it wasn't exactly like she could call up Anya, who was likely to say, "There, there, perhaps you can use your vibrator tonight and think pleasant thoughts and then tomorrow bring her some flowers and apologize for being so neurotically needy--do lesbians like flowers?" and what kind of creep am I, Willow wondered. With the blues and the R-rated films and the margaritas. A menace to kidhood. A monster.

She managed to derail her train of thought and find a better smile for Dawn. "Listen to me, all Cosmo girl weepy with the break-up blahs." She clowned a face, rolling her eyes, la la la, look at the silly Willow, then pulled herself up straighter.

Dawn seemed reassured. "See, I've got it figured. It's like, when you're together all the time, it's this great slumber party, except it's not just one night, it goes on and on, like this week back in sixth grade when Cynthia's parents were out of town because her brother was having this really serious operation where they thought he would die--" Dawn hesitated at the memory or its associations and then regrouped. "And, um, so she stayed over here and we watched TV all week and ate brownies until we were sick. I felt sorry for her, but after a while I really wanted to hang by myself or I was gonna whale on her. Especially when she started going on and on about how Billy Lukas really liked...never mind."

"It's probably like that." Willow smiled and squeezed Dawn's hand. "We're just need to spend some time apart...again." Hanging ourselves. "Hanging separately."

"Right. But you'll get back together." Dawn smiled knowingly in return. "You guys always do."

 

 


 

"What are you doing here?" Buffy asked. Her voice sounded steadier than she felt. She hoped. His thumb was resting on the pulse of her wrist, rubbing across it familiarly. It was the most intimate touch she'd had in months, and it made her mouth dry even as memories flooded back. So much for her boyless, Buffycentric vacation from romance; so much for alone time. She'd never really believed her own spin, anyway. It had been for the others. The others who weren't her, standing here, with Spike not-breathing inches from her face.

He was smiling with one side of his mouth, with tiny muscles. "Glutton for punishment, I expect." Smoke from his cigarette twisted slowly between them and it was so quiet Buffy heard when he dropped it to the ground. With a last caress, he released her wrist, then climbed the ladder in a swish of leather.

After a moment, she followed. Looking up as she breached the entrance, she saw that he was extending his hand to help her. In her mind, she took it. In reality, she ignored it. He gave her an annoyingly knowing look, then hip-rolled away.

"Place has gone to hell," he said. Bottles clinked wherever he walked; he took no care, and then began actively kicking them.

Buffy circumnavigated the sarcophagus, trying to be where he was not. Across the room, he wandered around with his back mostly turned, hair silvered by the moonlight, face glimpsed only in jigsaw profiles of shadow as he idly contemplated the wreckage.

"Should feel like home," she said, and then was almost embarrassed for herself. This is the new and witless Buffy, she thought. Quip-challenged and unfunny.

He turned to look at her, head cocked like a bird's. "So it does," he answered. But his voice was quiet. He was studying her, from boot tips to recent hair cut, and it made her look away, made her move restlessly.

"Hurt yourself?" he asked.

"What? Oh." She glanced down at her ankle. "It's just lameness." She paused. "Of the ankle. A little...nothing."

"You're all banged up," he observed.

Buffy touched the bruise on her cheek self-consciously, trying to gauge how much it had healed since she last looked.

"More of a big nothing," he said. He came closer, and she made one tight fist without thinking. Once, he might have stopped at that gesture, respected her territoriality, her space. Now he just paused with a smile and touched two fingers to his temple, a mocking salute to the permanence of Initiative technology, before continuing on as if entitled; walking right up close and personal to tilt her face with his hand. And she let him. She wasn't sure she could have made herself stop him, even if he had been feeding again.

His touch was light but it made her eyes close in surrender, as simple as that, and she waited, expecting a kiss. He would take the opportunity, because here they were. When he didn't she opened her eyes and found him considering her.

"What?" she said, discomfited. Her cheeks grew hot.

"Where's the knock-down, drag-out?" he asked. He seemed faintly hurt, even more faintly hopeful. "Thought for sure if I ever showed up, you'd come at me for a scrimmage."

And just like that, there was her anger, bubbling up from inside. "If that's all you came back for, I'll be glad to kick your ass," she said. Rigid with rage, she changed her mind in an instant. "No, you know what? Forget it. Stay, go, I really don't care." She turned to walk away, and he grabbed her, but she didn't break free. "I'm not fighting you, Spike," she said, keeping her back to him.

"You'd let me kill you now?" he asked, words without air against her ear, one hand coming up to clasp her throat. The pads of his fingers were cold and strong. His body pressed against hers. "I don't think so, Slayer."

"Kill me now," she said calmly. "Have your one good day."

His hand held steady at her throat, then slid across to her shoulder and turned her. He looked as wounded and confused as she felt. "Buffy--"

"I'm so over the whole kick-me, kiss-me dance I can't even begin to tell you," she said, gazing up at him with a resolve she willed to be real.

"That was our song." Spike stroked her hair, soft touch a counterpoint to his deadly hard voice. "Our dance."

"Our last dance was five months ago. If you haven't learned any new moves, you shouldn't have come back."

He dropped his hand, outrage filling his face. "Bloody hell. Bloody buggered--" He spun away from her, smacking his head with the heels of both hands, strangling and punching thin air. "--hell!" Then he roared in a way that was still vaguely alarming, no matter how jaded to it Buffy liked to think she'd become.

"I can't believe you, Slayer." He stared daggers at her, while managing to look amazed. "You twisted, stupid bint. You bloody well know why I left!"

"Hey!" Who you calling stupid, she thought reflexively.

"I begged you to love me, even just to care." He held the air in front of her as if molding the shape of her heart. "Never, you said." His hands fell apart: nothingness. "I wanted something else with you, something more." Arms dropped to his sides. Buffy tried to process his words separately from what his body said, but they spoke one after the other, punctuation after punch. He touched his fingers gently to her chest, over her heart. "I'd have been whatever man you wanted." And he shoved her, letting the motion propel him away with eerie lightness. "But you didn't want me except for shags and laughs."

"Laughs?" Buffy asked, dazed.

"Well, okay," he conceded. "Shags." He glared again. "Shags and secrecy and all your friends having their fun at my expense when you finally let slip. 'Cept you didn't tell them everything, did you. 'Oh, Spike, he's just a fancy dog I keep leashed for when I can't get my sodding rocks off any other way.' You figured they'd buy that, never know how you cuddled up when you were lonely, let me read poetry to you. God," he laughed sharply, "what a git I was. And what a talent you have, precious, for stringing the blokes along. I don't know how Angel ever kept from offing you once he had the chance."

Tears in her eyes, she smacked him hard, or would have, but he caught her hand.

"Reflexes are slowing, aren't they. How many good years you got left now, love--two, three? You're the geriatrix of slayers." He let go her hand while she fumed.

"You had the chance to off me just now," she said coldly, hands clenching to prevent trembling. "Why didn't you take it?"

"Because I'm bloody mad, you bitch! I'm out of my ravin' skull!" He struck a pose and pointed to his head. "I'm starkers, off my nut, two bob short of a trolley ride--"

"I get it," Buffy broke in, edgy but exasperated.

"Yeah, right. You get it." He stared her down. "You get nothing." Gaze dropping from hers, he looked her over rudely. "In fact, I'll wager you haven't gotten it in a while, have you." He snaked toward her gracefully, swaying, leering. "Hard act to follow, isn't that right. And no one else knows what you need, do they, love?"

He cupped her jaw and she tried to twist away, but her feet were rooted to the ground and she couldn't evade him. Wasn't letting herself. When his teeth raked lightly across her throat, she gasped, and when he dropped to his knees she had to put her hands on his shoulders to steady herself. He ghosted his face across her hips, and she braced her legs, flooding with desire. But he pulled his head back and looked up at her, forcing her attention. He took her hands.

"I've asked twice. Asked one word from you. If not love, a crumb of care. I've starved myself for you." His eyes burned dark. "I won't ask again."

"Don't," she said and then had to stop and find the words stuck in her throat. "Don't ask now. I just. I don't know--"

"Yes, you bloody well do. You know, Buffy. If you care or not." Months apart hadn't dimmed the ferocity in him. Even Angel had never been this obsessive; and Angelus, who had been, had never loved her. Spike's courtship--Spike himself--should have been pathetic. She'd felt that way about him, once; she just couldn't remember how. He held her hands fast, fingers folded into hers. It was as if he were praying up to her, as if he believed despite himself that she was far above him. And she did feel above him; looming like a statue, like stone, but cracking now, cracking open. He was the only person who ever left her whose abandonment she'd truly earned, and he was the only one who kept coming back. A tear slipped down her cheek.

"Get up," she said.

He rose for her, guardedly watchful, and she could see in his eyes that he was riding the knife-edge of hope and disappointment. She could see everything in his eyes.

"I," she said, admission ripping through her and the price might be too high but right now she didn't, "care." The words came out woodenly, as if she didn't mean them, and she could see the uncertainty in his face and she said them again, more firmly this time, magic words opening everything: "I care." And he stared into her eyes, his own dark ones seeing through to where she hid, and the ground went out from under her feet, and she was falling and whispered,  "I care," as she understood at last that it was true. And his eyes were widening and opening to her, and could vampires feel joy, she wondered, but she didn't have to ask, because he was kissing her desperately and she was kissing him back.

 

 


 

"Sweetie, do you think we're in a rut?"

"Hmm?" Xander didn't look up from his Starlog because if he did, Anya was likely to fix her bright, pretty and yet somehow slightly cobra-like eyes on him and he'd be compelled to have the relationship conversation, which he was so not up to having tonight, because she'd agreed with good cheer that this was officially Relax-O-Night, a time when post-apocalypse-averting heroes could kick back to Seinfeld and a frosty cold one and--

She grabbed the magazine from his hand and tossed it behind the couch with frustration, and then rapped him on the head with her sharp little knuckles.

Xander stared at his empty hands which were splayed out in the shape of a magazine, uttered a thoughtful hmm, and then looked sideways at his girl. He gave her the crooked smile of patient and oh so friendly manliness, the one that occasionally masked a big serving of annoyance, but hey, he didn't drink to excess. He didn't beat her. A man could be annoyed in the privacy of his own painfully ringing skull.

"Ow," he said, because it was good to remind the ex-demon that pain hurts the other person, then: "Hey, An," as if the thought had just occurred to him, "wanna talk?"

She glared at him, managing to look worried and pissy and loving all at once. "I do want to talk, yes." She glanced at his temple. "How is your extraordinarily thick head?" She rubbed it gently with fingers that smelled of fresh nail polish and flowery lotion and then rubbed harder and harder, frowning as her thoughts worked her up again, until Xander thought the friction might start a brushfire. He gently disengaged her fingers, folded her hand between his own, smiled the patient smile again.

"What?" he asked.

She cast her gaze down in guilty frustration, then back up. "It's just that we sit here every night, you with the dumb TV on with the shows that aren't funny, and reading those magazines about things that aren't real, and I sit here and wonder if I'm supposed to learn how to knit, and I don't know how people go through sixty years of this. Why can't we take a cruise?"

Xander felt the familiar boggle coming on. Remember, he told himself: changeable minx, not psycho freak. "I thought you liked Seinfeld?"

"All right," she grudged. "I do. I like when the bald man gets angry. He speaks his mind and he understands the importance of money. Like me. I identify with him," she said, somewhat proudly.

"Yes, you do, honey." Often, he thought. "So, no rut, right? Seinfeld good, Anya happy." He squeezed one side of her face gently and made a dimpling smile appear. If he was lucky, the conversation would disappear.

"Yes." Then the smile dropped away abruptly and her eyes blazed. "No! Stop being so tricky. I dislike when you manipulate me." She slapped his hand down. "Don't touch my cheeks." Then she pulled her hands from his. "Or any part of me."

Xander had hoped to avoid the real heart of the matter, which had come up six times that week already. "Anya, we can't go on a cruise. That costs money."

"We have money. The store is doing well, and you've gotten another raise."

"It costs the kind of money we don't have," he clarified. She stared at him, uncomprehending or not wanting to comprehend, but her face was unhappy and it moved him in that strange way that felt like indigestion. "But you know what," he said. "We could start a special account at the bank and set a bit aside each month until we have enough." And that was all it took for her to brighten, and it was a happy moment, because Xander knew that once that money became a hefty lump, she would suddenly not want to spend it, or she would want to spend it on a bigger apartment instead. Or shoes. He felt sure he'd be spared any trips on the Love Boat.

I am a master strategist, he thought comfortably as they cuddled.

Anya tucked her head against his shoulder, ran her fingers up and down the buttons of his shirt. "I'm so glad you're not a ghost anymore," she murmured.

"Me too, sweetie."

"You were all woo-hoo except it was sad and not funny, and I missed you even when you were there. When you die--"

"Whoa!"

"--a long time from now, I think I'd prefer it if you don't haunt me. Oh, I know it's kind of a romantic gesture and I can see why some people choose it, but really, once you die you should just let go. It's unhealthy otherwise." She tipped her head back, looking to him for affirmation.

Xander stroked her hair. "I have to say I agree with you. Well," he caught himself, "except for Buffy."

"Well, yes." There was a small pause. "You don't think she'll come back, do you?"

"Buffy?" he asked, bewildered.

"That witch with the floaty hair," said his anxious honey.

"Oh, no way. We kicked Sister Nature's strangely attractive but deeply dangerous butt."

"Don't call her attractive."

"Yes, dear."

"Did you really find her attractive?"

"No, dear."

Anya shifted and sat up, frowning as if ready to get quarrelsome, but her thoughts had veered again. "It's just that...we all saw her go poof and turn into a tree, but no one really knew if that's what Willow's spell was supposed to do, and Buffy didn't chop the tree down and I don't have closure." She hesitated, glanced at him as if working up to say something she didn't want to say. With Anya, that could never be good. Her next words came out in a rush: "Xander, I found a frog in the sink today."

He raised his brows. "Cute little froggie?" He smiled, a bit bemused. He didn't really get what was bothering her, unless maybe frogs were some new phobia to supplement bunnies, oh joy, but he tried to ease her mind. "It probably just hopped in from the balcony, got a bit lost looking for a rest stop and an order of flies to go."

"Xander." She leaned in urgently, voice dropping to a whisper of things bad and wrong. "It had wings."

 

 


 

Out in the woods a hawthorn tree stood where it hadn't stood the day before, branches heavily laden with white flowers that had blossomed overnight. Despite the youth of the tree, the spirit it harbored was old and her roots went wide and deep--and also reached out above ground in a way not entirely natural. The wooded hush around this particular tree was apparent the closer one moved toward it, except to the two lovers stumbling through the brush, lost in the dark.

"Ow," said the dark-haired girl, coming to a halt and releasing her partner's hand, "Tom, stop, my foot's caught in something. Damn it. These are new shoes." She bent over and picked at the torn strap of her fifty-dollar sandals while her boyfriend swung the flashlight back. "Great," she said, straightening up and flinging the sandal at him. "Just great."

"Hey, come on." He flashed the beam ahead, through the thinning trees. "We're almost there. I can see the--"

"That's what you said an hour ago. I'm tired." She slumped down under the hawthorn, where the moonlight seemed to have a little extra glow, and leaned back with a groan.

"Mandy, come on." Tom looked baffled by her collapse.

"Stop shining that thing in my face," snapped Mandy. Tom lowered the light. "I'm tired. I've sprained my ankle. I want to rest."

Tom hovered, casting glances toward the nearness of their destination. He knew the look-out point where they'd parked was just beyond the break in the trees ahead. But if it was that close, they could afford to sit a minute. Reluctantly he dropped down near her, crosslegged on the damp grass. He reached out and rubbed her ankle, and was rewarded by a stretch of tan legs and a glimpse up her skirt. He put his flashlight down and began massaging her ankle more enthusiastically. It was kind of a romantic spot, really, the kind of place a guy could get lucky. He let go of Mandy's ankle and reached behind him into his back pocket.

"What are you doing with that?" the girl asked, a note of unease creeping into her voice.

Tom flicked the knife open, grinned and scooted closer. "Just going to immortalize our love, baby." He dug the knife into the trunk by her head, and she watched as he carved their initials into the bark.

She was murmuring encouragement to him, her head turned slightly back over one shoulder and her young body stretched out in a timeless pose, and so she didn't see the tree root by her ankle begin to move in a way roots shouldn't. It uncoiled among the fallen petals and took on a life of its own, separating from the tree which had mothered it. In moments it was a quietly hissing snake.

"True love forever," Mandy commanded, and as Tom's knife dug obediently into the bark again, screamed. The knife slipped with jagged force, and he yelped as her fingers dug into his arm. She was wailing and shoving into his arms. He grabbed her, bewildered by the sudden storm, not knowing whether to soothe or shake an explanation out of her. "A snake bit me," she moaned.

Tom turned and saw the snake sliding off with a sharp rattle of its tail. "Oh my god," he said, "oh my god." He'd been a Scout, he'd wilderness camped all his life, and he'd never seen anyone get bitten before, but he knew what he had to do. He laid Mandy on her back as she struggled and cried, and took her foot in his hand. "Okay," he said, "okay, hold on. This is going to hurt, okay, but you've gotta hold on." He wiped his knife on his jeans, cut open the bite, and then sucked at the venom, spitting out mouthfuls of blood as quickly as he could.

Blood spotted the drift of petals on the ground, and sank into the earth to mingle with the roots below. The glow around the two lovers intensified, rising as a mist from around the nearest trees and coalescing around them unnoticed, until the earth shook and cracked and then they had no time to notice anything as they tumbled together into the newly made fissure.

The trunk of the hawthorn split down the middle and collapsed in on top of them. 
  
When the shaking subsided and the mists had rolled back, the ground was smooth again and a woman in white stood alone, smiling and looking around her. Woodland animals began to creep out from the trees to lay gifts at her feet in a manner reminiscent of early Disney, followed by a tiny army of leprechauns, elves, and fairies not native to the California woods.

"Thank you, thank you all so much. You like me, you really like me." She beamed and wiped a small tear from the corner of one eye, nodding at the kindness of her followers; then stretched languorously, lifting her hair and letting it cascade down her back. A yawn escaped her and she delicately placed a hand over her mouth until it passed.

"It's really extraordinary how revitalizing a catnap can be. I feel ready to take on the world again." Her smile was of a loveliness rarely seen outside certain precincts in heaven and in hell, her eyes black as jet as she lifted her gaze outwards, seeking some distant vision.

"And I think I know where to start."

 

 


 

They were holding hands in a sappy way, not quite swinging their arms as they walked through the graves. Buffy hoped no other vamps would pop up and spoil the mood...of the...graveyard. Okay, scratch that. But she also hoped none of her friends turned up. She wasn't ready. She stole a glance at Spike, decided not to mention unreadiness of any kind. Only the disgusting beeriness of the crypt had prevented them from rutting right there on its floor. Prevented her, that is. He'd been all systems go, groaning in hunger and then in frustration when she called halt, and now he carried the jittery tension she attributed to blue balls. She had a little blue something herself.

"So what have you been up to, Slayer? What big bad did I miss that's got you painted up so pretty?"

"CliffsNotes version?" Buffy took a breath. "Well, all those strange things that kept happening--talking trees, pixies--turned out to be the magical infestation of a mega-witch operating out of a sacred grove in Breaker's Woods. Xander became a ghost, Willow and Tara went all wacky womynfest on us, then Dawn grew a horn and started eating us out of house and library, not to mention daisies, and I basically had my hands full keeping the kindergarten class in line."

"Um, not that I should have to ask but--"

"Figurative, not literal."

"Right."

"Your timing is actually quite peccable." Buffy gave him a wry, sidelong smile. "We could have used your help last night. Big battle, much witchiness--"

"Hold on, know this one--white queen takes black, cue trumpets, all is snug and cozy again in Sunnyhell."

Buffy smiled down at her boots as they began climbing a rise. "Something like that."

There was a silence until they reached the top and sat next to each other on a stretch of wall where the trees were thick and low-hanging, leaves still in the breezeless spring air. Freed from Spike's hand (strong hand, callused though it had no good reason to be, with the kind of skin that would feel both smooth and rough when it stroked--stop--change course) Buffy rubbed her own hands nervously down her pants. She could feel him watching her, but when she looked up he was looking away, out through the leafiness surrounding them.

"Must admit I'm glad the trees have shut up. Boring conversationalists, the lot of 'em." He lit a smoke, blew smoke restlessly. "So what's it to be?" he said, and despite the vagueness of the question Buffy knew what he was asking. What was it to be, between them.

"I don't know," she said. At least it was honesty. She'd always been able to speak honestly to him. Except about the most important thing; and now that had been swept out from under the rug too. She felt...swept clean. And it made her nervous, even a bit afraid.

Silence settled.

"You know what's the worst thing about being undead?" Spike asked suddenly. He glanced at her. "Bein' unemployed."

Buffy raised her brows, bemused. She didn't believe him for a second, but she knew about filling awkward silences with meaningless words. "I thought you were, like, a gentleman of leisure way back when."

"Lord, no. I was studying to become a barris--" He cut himself short and stared off into space long enough to make her curious. "A solicitor," he finished finally. Something in his tone signaled to Buffy that this was an admission. "I was studying to be a solicitor."

"Oh." She didn't know what to say to that. "That's like a lawyer, right."

"More or less."

"You could go back to school," she suggested, knowing even as she said it that she'd slipped into old facetiousness. The idea was absurd. "Night school," she amended, trying to save the idea from any tinge of mockery.

But he just laughed. "Bugger that. I hated the law. Stuffy, dull, dealin' day in and out with people's grubby little troubles. I wanted to write."

"There you go," she said, waving a hand with voila. "Laptops are portable, battery-operated, and come in kicky new colors. You could be the next Anne Rice. You could kick Anne Rice's ass."

He was smiling her way with head tilted, clearly entertained, his lashes cutting up and down as his gaze fanned her. "Right little cheerleader, you are." He took a last lungful of smoke, pitched his cigarette, and straightened up with an air of resolution. "And why not? I could do it. I've got a hundred years on that clueless bint. At least," he paused thoughtfully, "I think I do." Then he caught her gaze and relaxed, eyes glinting in a way that suggested he'd puffed himself up only to tease her. "Course, maybe I want to gather some more material first."

"Well, you could get some tonight." She turned her head quickly and caught him smirking. "I mean, I have to go up to Breaker's Woods." She shrugged one shoulder. "At least, I was thinking about it. I'm not sure--" She hesitated. "Let's just say I've got some doubts about how we played the endgame. I'd be happier if I'd ground Good Witch Glinda under my heels instead of just knocking her off the board."

"Oh, like that was it?" Spike stood. "Right. Let's go then."

Buffy didn't move, and Spike, waiting on her, gave an inquiring look. "It's just," she said, not wanting to go home, "I thought maybe you had...a car?"

He grimaced as if embarrassed. "Well, yeah. Guess you could call it that." 
  

 


 

"Xander," Willow said in surprise, standing back to let him in, then noticing Anya. Suddenly far more conscious of her lank hair and sniffle-red nose, she tugged her robe together. "Hey, guys. Come with the inness." Their late and sudden arrival was spooking her. "Is something wrong?" Not Tara, she thought, heart hitting her before reason could block; please no. But the looks on their faces were not that grim and she kept it together.

Xander tucked his hands in his pockets; shoulders hunched high, he gave an odd shrug. "We were going to ask you that." He sort of looked around the foyer as if expecting to see something that wasn't there. "You haven't noticed anything...wiggy?" he asked, managing to draw out the words so slowly she could have slapped him twice before he finished.

"No and, hello, let's take a moment to embrace the technology. Ring, ring, 'Hey, Willow, we just called to say that no one has died or been maimed or eaten by wild ducks and by the way, we'll be over shortly.'"

"We're sorry." Anya poked Xander's ribs. "I said we should have called. They wouldn't be in bed, you said. Look. She's wearing her jammies with the little elephants."

"They're lesbian elephants," snarked Willow as if offering political correction, annoyed at the condescension she knew Anya didn't feel yet nonetheless managed to infuse into every word that came out of her thin, demony little lips. "They're lesbiphants."

The other two stared at her, Xander with mouth slightly open, Anya with brows uplifted high on her bony forehead.

"Will, are you--" Xander paused. "Drunk?"

"I'm margarita-ed," she said, smiling in a warning way. "And since it's oh, hey look, midnight, I think I'm entitled to a nightcap."

"And I bet your head is mighty warm under all those nightcaps," said Xander, brows twitching in dry comment.

Anya darted a look between them. "We came over because of the frog," she said, leaning in confidingly.

"Oh, of course." Willow smiled wider. "The frog." She nodded understandingly, and just let it lie there. This is the drunken midnight frog-chat that is my hell. Nodding, smiling.

"The frog with wings. In our sink."

Xander's jaw was twitchy, and Willow wasn't surprised when he resumed command of the conversation. "Anya found a frog today, with wings. In the sink," he summarized.

Meaningfulness began to penetrate Willow's fog. "Today," she said, frowning and looking back and forth between them. "Maybe it, uh, sort of hung around," she said hopefully, "like leftovers? Like a froggie bag."

"Well, that would be the best scenario." Xander kept looking around. "We were kind of wondering if you'd seen anything--"

"Wiggy," finished Willow, getting it now. Brow furrowed, she looked around too. "Well, we should, um, probably look in the basement."

"Yeah, I was thinking that." Xander led the way there, and flipped on the light at the top of the stairs. Willow crowded with Anya at his shoulder while he peered down the steps. "I don't see Big Blue," he said, but walked down anyway and did a search. "Nothing," he called up, then returned to where they waited in the hall.

"We should check for Dobby too," said Willow.

Xander opened the hall closet. "Yo, Dobs," he called into its depths. He shoved the coats and set them swinging back and forth. "Come on out, buddy, show your little elf-self." After a few moments, he closed the door. "Nothing," he said.

Willow felt the tension in her chest begin to loosen again.

"This is good," said Anya, equal relief lightening her voice. "This is very good. The frog is clearly an--an anomaly." Her hands spread out as she offered this idea to them with obvious pleasure. 
  
"A small parting gift," said Xander in a bright voice, "and thank you for playing."

They all laughed weakly and a bit awkwardly, and then Willow heard the soft pad of footsteps on the stairs and turned to smile at Dawn's arrival, but her smile faded at the sight of the younger girl's face. "Oh no," she said, and the others turned and looked.

Dawn stood gripping the railing and stared down at them teary-eyed. "It's back," she cried. "Why is it back?"

And Willow stared at the unicorn horn growing from Dawn's brow and didn't have an answer.

 

 


 

"An SUV," she said out of the blue, after five minutes had passed without a burst of laughter and he'd thought himself safe from further mocking. He grit his teeth.

"For the last time, pet, if you don't--"

"But you stole an SUV." Buffy stifled a giggle.

"You learn to take what's handy," he huffed, getting sucked into defensiveness despite himself, "when you're--"

"--fiend of the road," Buffy finished, pretty much singing the words.

Spike pretended to scowl, but secretly he was amazed at her giddy good humor and counted himself the luckiest corpse walking the earth. Or, currently, driving. It had been touch and go there for a bit, as it ever was with Miss Can't-Make-Up-Her-Bloody-Mind. Except she finally had made it up.

For now.

She'd turned off his music only to pick through his CD wallet. She was making little snorting noises. He wasn't sure how she could see titles in the dim interior, but didn't question it. He didn't want to question anything. Sitting next to her and driving away from Sunnydale was a fantasy Spike wanted to sustain for as long as he could. A vampire driving an SUV. Big joke, that. But truth was he felt odd, precariously balanced between normal and not, suddenly unsure which was which. Was abnormal all those fat families with their kiddies and bright-picnic lives, or was it him, hanging around like a ghost in the world's machine? It was all about machines now, and he'd never tried to understand them more than was needed to get by, but tonight--tonight he was one of those smooth blokes in a car advert. Sweeping along the road, free as fuck all. Brilliant. He hadn't even painted over the windows yet, driving only at night, and now risk paid off in widescreen fantasy, Buffy next to him all belted up and girlish, the road ribboning beneath his wheels, white lines disappearing as he picked up speed. The trees here were big, grey waves streaming above them on each side, and the stars glittered between them in a strip of black heaven.

He hadn't called the sky heaven in a hundred years. Not even to curse it.

Spike's mind dwelled in itself, sketching a carnival-colored nightmare of a thousand endless nights of driving, a flash forward of cheap hotels, neon diners, blood and coffee and booze and music and Buffy. All the simple pleasures, stripped of evil, as he'd be if she commanded him. It was laughable, but there you were. Even in the privacy of his own fantasies he cut a ridiculous figure.

Reality wasn't that different from dreams, but it hurt better.

"I know how vamps get out of the trend loop," said Buffy, "but retro? So over." She tucked the CDs on the dash and settled back in her seat.

"Hell, girl. You don't just dismiss Sid as 'retro' for some flavor-of-the-month boyband--"

"I do not listen to boybands!"

"And not that I was going to say anything, but I happen to know that bitty excuse for a top you're sportin' is five years past its expiry date--"

"Look who's talking--"

"--and those boots were made for walkin' into a Salvation Army--"

"--clearly the same red shirt you've owned for the past two centuries--"

"--scalped a cat and stapled it to your head--"

"--jeans could stand up by themselves and kick your ass better than I could--"

"--might want to give the gods of disco a rest from your prayers--"

"--you big--meanie!"

Spike broke off, laughing in astonishment. "Beg pardon?"

"You heard me." She crossed her arms and stared out the window, sulky miss, and he found he couldn't stop laughing. He drove off the road, nearly hit a tree, braked and rested his head on the wheel. He had tears in his eyes.

"Okay, I'm thinking brain injury," said Buffy after a minute. "Because otherwise? Really wigged out over here."

"Oh," he said, sitting up and wiping his eyes before narrowing them her way. "The dead can't laugh, is that it?"

"No," she said, frowning at him. "It's out of character. It's like--oh! You're like the Fonz." She pointed her finger at him with triumph he couldn't have cared less about.

"Who's that, love?" He slid closer to her. "One of those band boys?" He inhaled her clean soap and blood scent. Licked her neck.

"Stop. You're all skanky," she murmured, and perversely tried to kiss him, but she was belted in and he was not and he avoided her mouth and moved his own to her breasts, and she groaned.

"Not here," she said. "Not--ohhh--here."

"What about here, then," he asked, kissing her flat little belly.

"No. Oh god. Well, maybe...no!"

Smirking, he sat up. Teasing was near as good as doing. "Ever shagged in a moving vehicle?" he asked, honestly curious.

"Don't even." 
  
He put the thing back in drive and laid his arm on the open window. He felt unbearably smug, ready to take on the world. Next to him Buffy mirrored his pose, arm on her own window. The wind blew in the smell of her skin, the life caught in her golden hairs.

"You haven't told me what you've been doing," she said, after a mile had slid away.

Spike thought about lying to her but knew he wouldn't, except by omission. "Went to New York, made the rounds. Caught a cargo ship to London, made the rounds. Came back." He paused, musing. "World's a smaller place now than it was. Something to be said for those big engines."

"You visited London?" He could feel Buffy looking his way in the dark. "You didn't...did you see. No, of course you didn't." She finished the thought as if talking to herself.

"Who, Giles? Well, yeah. Wouldn't let a visit to Merry Old go by without dropping in on your watcher, would I. Course, he wasn't too happy to see me. At first. But he came 'round. More polite than I'd expected, actually. Bought me a pint, asked for the news, didn't stake me."

She was broody and quiet after that, and he let her be.

 

 


 

"We have to go back to the grove," said Willow with a determination not matched by her rumpled elephant jammies or the look of worry on her face. She was sitting on the couch, and her drunken daze was not cute, and the way she stared unseeingly in the direction of the TV made Xander flash on Night of the Living Parents so strongly that he had to jam his hands in his pockets to keep from...well, from doing anything he shouldn't, like maybe yelling at her, though that didn't have anything to do with his hands. No, it didn't.

"We need to find Buffy," he countered. "We need to find Buffy and get a plan."

"Right." She swallowed and tore her gaze from the TV set, but only to stare down and out into space. She wasn't looking at him. "Buffy. She's on patrol."

"Of all the nights," began Xander, then turned and fell silent as Anya came in.

"She's fine," she said, looking between their concerned faces. "She's just sobbing in the way that...girls do who have sudden unsightly horns on their foreheads. Unfortunately, concealer is out of the question." Her slim hands were clasped together, almost wringing themselves, and Xander would have gone over to hug calm her with a hug, but a crisis wasn't the time for calm. It was the time for big, ugly panic.

He took a deep breath. "Okay, I'm going to take a quick drive around town, hit the hotter graveyard nightspots, see if I can find her. You two stay here in case she comes back."

"I want to go with you," said Anya predictably, shimmying up to him as if mere proximity could sway his mind.

"Better if you stay here," he said. He took her shoulders, turning his back on Willow, lowering his voice. "Look after Dawn and--" He jerked his head slightly behind him. "See if you can get her sobered up."

"Okay."

"I don't understand," Willow was saying from the couch when Xander turned around again. "That spell worked, I know it. She couldn't have come back." She gazed up at Xander, imploring him to believe her. "I mean, in retrospect, we should've cut her down, yeah, I'm not saying it wouldn't have been the smart thing to do. But she was a tree--she should've stayed a tree."

"Yeah," he said quietly. "But some things don't stay where they're supposed to." 
  

 


 

There was a wind up on the hill that hadn't been in the valley, and Spike thought the forest's low rustling had somewhat stranger undertones than mere furry beasties could account for. Not that he was unnerved, but he always liked to know what surrounded him, be it woodchucks or warlocks or things that go bite in the night. He started to fish out a cigarette, then changed his mind and shoved the pack back in his pocket. Smoke gets in your eyes.

"Take it that's your sacred grove down there?" he asked, squinting at the glow in the distant trees, where a ring of what looked like dwarves were dancing a jolly may-pole round some bint in flimsy linens and a posied crown. He thought nostalgically of Victorian postcards.

"Yeah," said Buffy grimly. "Looks like Glinda didn't go down easy." He'd forgotten that tough-little-kitten way she had of remarking on the obvious. She crouched in a hunter's pose, watching the treeline and obviously plotting out moves in her head. "We can't do this alone," she said with reluctant decision. "We'll have to get the others."

We, Spike thought, warmth flaring in his cold depths. "We'll do that, then."

She stood, brushed off her jeans in a strangely fastidious and endearing manner, then focused on him suddenly with an intensity that would have taken his breath away, if he'd had any. "I didn't--you don't have to do this," she said.

Surprised, he had no idea how to reply except by brushing her words off. "Not like I've got anything better to do."

"Than fighting a crazed nature-babe to dusty death?"

"Well, when you put it like that." He stuck his hands in his pockets, flexed his shoulders. "Wait--we are talking her death, right?"

She searched his eyes and he watched something dark pass across hers. Her solemnity falling away, she grabbed his head and pulled him down for a kiss close enough to sunlight that he should have burned to ashes on the spot. He drew out his hands, took hold of her waist as if he might lose her otherwise. The kiss lasted so long he grew dizzied, and there was no reason he should, except she was his cross, his bloody kryptonite. The more he soaked up her presence, the more he--

Breaking away with a gasp, she pressed her cheek against his shoulder so that all he could see was the curve of her head, the gleam of her shorn hair. He stroked one hand down her back, trying to recover from the wildness of his heart and burning past all reason with love for her, the trend of his previous thoughts forgotten.

 

 


 

He was pacing by the driver's side door, taking quick puffs off his cigarette, glancing her way every two seconds as if expecting her to go in without him. As if hoping she would. Standing on the sidewalk not so patiently, Buffy raised her brows at him, mirroring his expectation.

Unfortunately, vamps made a point of avoiding mirrors, which was probably why he half-turned away and ducked his head. She opened her mouth to comment, but then he was pitching the cigarette, squaring his black-leather shoulders, striding with a determined look toward her. He reached the sidewalk, boot lifted, then drew it back and remained standing in the street. Staring in the direction of her house, he took a deep fake breath, let it out. She watched this play-acting with fascination, wondering how aware of it he was.

When he made no move to go further, she rolled her eyes and grabbed his arm. "Come on. No one's going to bite you."

"Oh, ha ha. Very funny, Slayer."  He let her lead him up the drive though, arm in arm. His voice had sharpened. "Those guard dogs you call friends weren't exactly sorry to see me go."

"I know," she said. She took her own deep breath, and then the dread she'd been trying to avoid smacked her in the gut. The smell of his leather coat, the feel of him pressed to her side, his strength--they comforted her in a funny way she was relearning, but it wasn't going to help much when she had to present him to her friends. He was a tough sell. "But they." She paused. "Well, they know you like I do," she realized, "and that's not exactly a plus."

He sighed expressively.

"But Dawn will be glad to see you," she said, trying to cheer him up.

Something in his muscles softened, and as they reached the porch she could see that a slight anticipation touched his face. "Missed the Little Bit," he acknowledged. "Yeah. Maybe she'll have a hug for her big bad--" He searched for a word.

"Undead uncle?" Buffy asked dryly. He rolled his eyes at her. "Don't get your hopes up. She's still a teenager. You'll be lucky to get a smile and a grunt."

"You sound all momlike," he observed, and they shared a look; she knew who they were both thinking of, and it was good to pause on the doorstep and remember that Spike had liked her mom, and that her mom, weirdly enough, had liked Spike back. It made taking him inside now slightly less...less of a deal.

And then she looked at the front door. "Oh god," she said as a flutter of panic quickened in her gut again. "Okay. Here we go. Here we are. Going."

"Right," he said, sounding equally unnerved.

She opened the door.

 

 


 

Willow heard the front door open and hastily pulled on her sneaker. Right foot, left sneaker, no, wait. That wasn't right. She kicked it off, let the troublesome issue go for the moment. "Buffy?" she called into the hall. "Xander?"

Buffy appeared in the doorway, smiling, and Willow smiled reflexively in return just before she noticed the nervous look on Buffy's face, just before a tall familiar figure appeared behind her, at her shoulder. Willow's smile dropped away, replaced by astonishment. "Oh oh oh oh oh, my my my my my."

"'Lo, Red." Spike smirked at her, gaze flicking down her flustered body as if undressing her down to the plain white bra and Thursday panties she'd put on for comfort when changing her clothes. Great Sacred Tits of Hecate, thought Willow as her alarm system went all loopy, and then felt her face flush deeper. Spike just stared at her, lips twisting mockingly as if he could read her every thought.

"Must say you're lookin' good there," he drawled. "Glad to see the lure of the distaff hasn't led you to flannel."

Willow gaped as Buffy jabbed her elbow into Spike's stomach. He grimaced and gave Buffy a sideways squint like a dog accepting reprimand, but he didn't apologize. Of course not. Because he was bad, bad to the bone. Willow felt a hysterical giggle threatening to surface.

"Spike," she squeaked. "It's, uh," shooting a look at Buffy, "not entirely horrible to see you. I guess." If she'd been more sober, she vaguely suspected she'd have been less cool and more angry at his appearance, but Dawn had a horn again and the margaritas weren't quite done with her yet, and now here was Spike, lookin' all lanky leatherboy in Buffy's hallway, back with his diabolical cheekbones. It seemed to be that kind of night, the kind you wished they'd scrapped on the editing floor but had to live through instead.

"Yeah. Missed you too." Spike flopped down in a chair looking faintly sullen, as if he were thinking of nicotine and other places he could be.

Buffy shifted from foot to foot with excess energy. "Where's Dawn?" she asked.

"Oh, Buffy." Willow winced, and Buffy grew alarmed.

"What?"

"She's got her horn back," Willow said, feeling as if she ought to apologize. "She's crying it off. Well, not literally. Anya's upstairs with her."

Buffy blinked. "Anya's here? Where's Xander?"

"Out looking for you."

"Great. Okay." Buffy sighed. "Well, I guess you know the magic's back."

"Yep," said Willow glumly.

"Anything else wacky happening?" Buffy asked, looking down the hall toward the basement.

"You should avoid the back yard."

"Why?" Buffy asked distinctly, as if she didn't want to know.

"'Cause of the big badger," said Willow, drawing her lips in and then pushing them out again in a quirky, bad-news-you-expected smile that wasn't quite.

"How big?"

"Kinda like a boat...and a half. But it's just sleeping." She thought a moment. "And snoring."

"God," Spike said suddenly, looking startled. "I've actually missed this place." That said, he seemed to drop into brooding.

Willow raised a brow, looked to Buffy, and then carefully got up from the couch and went to the kitchen. Buffy followed, as Willow had intended her to. In the kitchen, she turned. "So," she noted with affected calm, "Deadboy. Back in Sunnydale. All hangin' with the Scoobies. What's the up?" She thought the term of disaffection added some swing to her right hook, though she couldn't quite manage the glare of righteousness that Xander would have. The best she could do at the moment was an impertinent squint.

"I know," Buffy said apologetically. "It's heap big strange. Of course," she added dryly, "what isn't these days."

"Buffy." Willow hesitated, wondering if it was just her imagination being all sexy and bad, or if Buffy's mouth really looked kissed. "Are you two back together?"

Buffy's gaze shot up, and the guilt there answered the question.

"Oh, wow. Wow." Willow had to turn away, put her hands on the counter. Which was a flat surface. Which was nice, in the way of flatness. Which her life so did not have anymore. Not since ninth grade. Ninth grade. A very good year, a very good year for a small-town girl and soft summer nights and no neck bites and a way different scene--

"Will." Buffy touched her arm. "I'm sorry to spring it on you like this. I know it's weird and hard and--"

"Wrong?" said Willow, looking at Buffy's face to see if she was in there, if she had any idea of what she was doing. From the stubborn look she got back, Buffy didn't.

"It's not easy to understand," she began again.

"I understand," Willow interrupted. But she didn't really; saying that had just been habit, what she wanted to believe. "No," she admitted, fixing her words. "You're right. I don't understand."

Buffy gave a small smile, but it was polite punctuation and Willow could see her soldiering up. "If I had time--I promise we'll talk, later. But we've got other more important things to worry about now. We went out to the grove; our tree-witch isn't so much tree anymore."

"Well, yeah, I figured," replied Willow sarcastically, annoyed at the assumption that she was a dumbass, which even if she was a bit tipsy, she wasn't.

"We need to figure out what to do," and there it was, the Look, all Buffyish and imploring, the look Willow wanted to believe equaled trust and respect and not just ad hoc desperation.

"Right. I know." So strong was her reflex to the Look, even after so many years and oceans of water under the bridge, that Willow struggled to pull herself together immediately. Time to save the world again, she thought. Her next words came with difficulty and quietness. "I need to, um, sober up," she said. She stole a glance at Buffy, who looked startled but blanketed her reaction with a quick smile and nod.

"I'll make us some coffee."

You do that, thought Willow. And I'll take mine with two sugars and a swirl of bacchus liberatum.

 

 


 

The first thing Xander saw when he came in the door was Willow walking toward him with a cup of coffee in hand, looking more tired than she had when he left, but also more alert. She glanced up and caught his eye.

"I couldn't find Buffy," he said.

"She's, uh, here." Willow made her eyes big and jerked her head in a funny way to one side, toward the living room. Rather than looking over, Xander stared at her.

"You okay?" he asked, tilting his head to one side in friendly mimicry.

"I'm good," she said, punctuating the words with a little puffy-cheeked look of exasperation and wide eyes and more head jerks, as if she might suddenly go all spastic and Violet Beauregarde on him. He watched in wry amusement, the affection he had for her displacing his earlier anger and distracting him, briefly, from worry about magic and missions.

Finally he glanced toward the living room and noticed Buffy standing there, eyeing him in a strange way. "Hey, Buff. Good to see." He tossed his keys in the air, caught them neatly. "I hereby renounce my quest to find the Slayer and retire to quiet contemplation of--" He broke off as Buffy moved aside to reveal Spike sitting in Xander's favorite armchair, sprawled out in his smug and regal way, head tipped to one side, listening to Xander babble and watching him with those ironical, evil-bastard eyes and oh mighty gods of stabby things, Xander thought in prayer, as his jaw snapped shut and anger swept through him. Spike.

"What," he said, finger rising to gesture, to gesture, only to gesture, "is that doing here?" His face burned and his head felt like it did after a punch. He'd had bad dreams like this.

"Harris," said Spike, polite and mild as you please, as if they'd spotted each other across some gentleman's club. "You're looking well-fed and--"

"Shut up," he said, finger still pointing like a stake toward the spot where he wished he could bury it. Spike shrugged and looked away, feigning indifference.

"Xander, please." Buffy's voice was hard and she was saying a hundred things with her eyes, none of which Xander was interested in.

"Is that, 'Xander, please get me a pencil so I can pump hot lead into this bodybag that walks like a man,' or is that--"

"Xander!" she said sharply.

Spike was smiling, head tipped even further now, turning his contemplation up at Xander from beneath deeply lidded eyes. Xander had never felt so ready to be Xandy, the Vampire Slayer, than he did at that moment. He could take chip-boy, oh yes he...wait.

"Is he still..." Xander twirled a finger with exaggerated motions next to his head.

"A big electric fan?" asked Buffy sourly, pretending to have no idea what he meant.

"Chipped," he ground out. "Is he still chipped?"

"Yeah, mate. Your beefy neck is safe with me."

Xander's jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed to hardness. "Still not talking to you," he noted curtly.

Spike sighed and got up from the chair, and Xander stiffened, ready to punch him flat for no more reason than violation of air space. But Spike paused just out of strike range and stuck out his hand. "Look. Not gonna mix it up with you. I'm willing to let bygones be bygones. For her."

It was laughable, in the funny way of evil clowns, and Xander laughed. Spike--wanting to shake--trying to pass himself off as an upstanding, regular guy. He didn't even think about extending his hand back, because that was just silly, and besides, it would have ruined the pleasure of watching Spike stand there until he was forced to give up, toss his hand in the air, and turn away. When he looked at Buffy, though, he could tell she was disappointed, maybe even pissed.

Tough cookies, sister.

"Spike's here to help," she said.

"Oh, right. Here to help. Sure. He just happened to turn up in Sunnydale at the exact moment we needed him most, to battle injustice in the way that vampires do." How stupid did she think he was?

"Actually," she said, frowning Spike's way briefly before her face erased itself back to that happy oblivion he'd come to hate about her in moments just like this. "That's about right."

He shook his head and turned away. Willow was watching them like television, cradling and sipping her coffee. "Back me up here, Will," he pleaded. "Please tell me we're not rolling out the welcome mat for punk-is-dead again."

"Well," Spike drawled, "I did get offered coffee." He held up a mug, and the smirking went up a notch before he took a mouthful.

"Argh," said Buffy. "All of you. Stop."

"Hey," Willow said, raising her hand, "For the record: just drinking coffee."

Buffy ignored this. "Look." She stared at Xander. "You need to deal, because we can't stand here all night while you do your Clint Eastwood impersonation."

"Fine," he said, holding up his hands. "This is me dealing."

"And you," she said, turning on Spike, who gave her the uplifted eyebrows of who-me. "Don't tick him off."

Xander clucked a derisive laugh. "That's like telling him not to breathe," he said and promptly wished he could skip back five seconds in time and lay down that track differently. "Or...wear leather," he said weakly, while Spike's face took on the lines of a silent jeer. "Forget it." At least he was man enough to give up when he started shooting on an empty quip.

"Okay. Time to plan," said Buffy, moving into the living room.

 

 


 

They were all sagging.

"She seemed pretty defeated, I thought." Tara looked around and lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "I mean, tree and all." She cradled the coffee in her hands, blew at the steam and took a careful sip. She wished she could have brewed a cup of decaf, but it hadn't seemed right. It would have been forward, and taken time away from the strategy session. At least, her time. They of course would have gone ahead without her. Not that she minded much. It was funny though, after all this time, to still feel on the outside looking in.

She glanced at Spike, who was flicking his lighter open and shut in a concentrated way, eyes fixed on the movement of his own thumb. Xander, across the room, was likewise fixated on it, as if willing telepathy to work.

Dawn shifted so that her shoulder pressed against Tara's leg. "Why can't you give her, like, Dutch elm disease?" she said sulkily. Tara could tell she'd said it just to have something to say; she understood that impulse all too well herself.

"Not a tree anymore, pet." Spike stopped clicking his lighter with a sigh. "Yon witch looks more like Sarah Bernhardt on a bender."

"Who's Sarah Bernhardt?" asked Dawn.

"Someone not important," said Buffy, and Tara felt Dawn's aura flare with the red heat of rage.

"She was an actress," Tara said softly, stroking the younger girl's hair.

"Not importantAn actress?" Spike glared at them in that exaggeratedly controlled way he evinced when trying to be civilized and chafing at the restraint. "Only the best bloody actress of all time, and you'd best not forget it. You can take your lot of Melanie Griffiths and Meg Ryans and pasty little Winona Ryders and mash 'em together and you wouldn't have half the talent--"

"Spike!"

"--in the whole sodding, bankrupt excuse for a Guild than you would in The Divine Sarah's left pinkie."

A silence fell, as in the aftermath of a hailstorm. Tara snuck a glance at Buffy's nonplused face and hid a smile. The others were unhappy to have Spike back, but she had a secret sympathy for him that didn't negate wariness, and a soft spot for star-crossed romances that she'd never fully revealed, even to Willow. She knew it was wicked wrong, but watching the lines of energy charging and strengthening between the lovers, she couldn't help but wonder if it might work out between them one day.

Tara looked at Willow, and her inward smile flattened out.

"Okay," said Buffy. "Now that we've settled the question of thespian supremacy--"

"What?" said Willow, jerking to attention and looking around in alarm.

"--we should get back to the question of what to do."

"I still like the idea of a gate-seal spell," Tara spoke up, when no one else said anything right away. She chewed the corner of her lip. "If we can do it without opening her portal any wider than it already is."

Spike snickered and Buffy glared him down. Tara blushed.

"We might try a soulstrike," said Willow. "Or a blackflame cast." She met Tara's eyes as she offered her suggestion. It tugged at her heart, but also instilled unease. Surely Willow wasn't so far gone she had to grasp at straws like this.

"I'm not sure," said Tara, looking at Buffy instead of Willow, "that we should be trying to channel energies not already manifested. Ilwyn's gifts are transformative; if we use the wrong magics against her, she could twist them in ways we can't even anticipate."

"We've tried turning her own powers back on her," said Willow angrily. "And hey, big failure." Guilt fueled that anger; Tara could hear it. But it didn't make listening any easier.

"So what's the book on this Good Witch Glinda?" Spike asked. Everyone turned to look at him. He clocked his gaze around the room, brows rising by increments as no one answered. "The low-down, the Latin. What'd you dig up on her in your library?"

Buffy looked down at her hands, which were twisting together restlessly. "We, uh, didn't find anything. Exactly."

Spike's brows set a new watermark. "What--you're fightin' blind?" Alarm rolled across his face like cloud-shadow across a field as he realized how low they'd sunk. The collective mood in the room was embarrassment, and Tara felt it as strongly as any of them.

"We c-couldn't find her in any of our texts," she said.

"So you called Giles, right?" Spike asked pointedly.

"We called him," said Willow. "But he couldn't find anything either, and he would have flown over if he'd known it was serious, and he had his own stuff to do, so we...fudged."

"We lied," said Xander flatly.

"We've discovered a lot, though," Tara piped up, wanting to wipe the dark, pessimistic look off Spike's face, if only because of how it was affecting everyone else in the room. "We know she's a powerful hedgewitch from a neighboring dimension who's taken on the aspect of the goddess Artemis. Though she has a kind of, um, contemporized incarnation." She frowned. "And a thing for dwarves."

"Oh, well then. If you know her kinks, I'm sure you'll sort her out right quick." Sarcasm etched every line on his face.

"Truth is," said Buffy quietly, "we underestimated her. It was like cartoons and kids' books. Talking trees and singing flowers, leprechauns, people growing rainbow wings and," darting a look at Dawn, "unicorn horns. We didn't take it as seriously as we should have."

"I did," said Anya, who'd been quiet for a while.

"Except for Anya," corrected Buffy.

"Bunnies everywhere," Anya said, obviously traumatized by the memory. "Pink, purple, green. Breeding like rabbits. Hopping into traffic."

"Oh yeah," said Spike. "Huh. Forgotten all about that. Had coneys in the crypt for weeks." He paused in recollection. "A bit frou-frou on the fangs, but tasty."

"Oh god," said Anya, stricken. Xander slung his arm around her.

"Easy, honey."

"The point is, even when we finally started to see the madness affecting people more seriously, it was kind of..." Buffy hesitated.

"Goofy," said Tara, blushing hard and ducking a glance at Willow, who looked equally mortified at the memory.

Willow cleared her throat. "Like inebriation." She stared downward, voice dropping. "We didn't know about the sacrifices at all until a few weeks ago."

"Maybe it is time to call Giles again," said Buffy. She stood up, paced. Everyone watched her. At her feet, Tara could feel Dawn humming with suppressed energies, so like her sister's it was like being in the room with a tuning fork. "We don't know what we're dealing with, we've failed once, and...we're not one hundred percent." She carefully didn't look at anyone when she said that.

"Buffy, we can fight her." Willow looked up, a strain of pleading showing through her facade of confidence. "We just have to find the right spell. We have the power."

"It's the right spell part I'm worried about, Will. Tara's right. If we use the wrong mojo, who knows what could happen." A silence fell, and Tara could see Buffy gathering herself to make a decision. She wouldn't have wanted to be in Buffy's place for anything, to have to be the one who called the shots when lives and worlds hung in the balance. "We'll try to close the portal," said Buffy.

"It's such a risk, though." Willow's voice wavered on the uneasy. "If Ilwyn stays here instead of going back--"

"She won't," cut in Tara, quickly shoring up Buffy's decision. "It's the source of her power. Her flow."

"You witches," Spike said. "Always with your flowin' portals." He eyed her with heavy irony and skepticism. "Hope you know what you're on about. You don't want to mess with the White Goddess unless you're damn sure you know your stuff. Even if she is just over-the-counter strength."

Tara glared at him, earning a startled look of respect and interest. "I know what I'm talking about."

"There, there," said Spike, tilting his head at her. "No need to go all daggers on me." His eyes glinted, sly and speculative. "I'm sure your magic wand's got a lot of juice."

"W-w-willow, too," Tara stuttered, cheeks blazing as she looked away from him and tried to ground the subject in immediacy. "She's right. We do have the power. I think--I know--we can do this. We can win."

"Good," said Buffy, and drew all their eyes to her with that one word. Resolve shone in her face, firmed her voice. "Because the animated special we've been living in has run way past this girl's bedtime."

 

 


 

The shower was running and his hearing picked up fragments of some off-key song. You light up my life, you give me hope, to carry on.... The little witch's voice was a croak, though, which lent the words an undertone of pathetic misery. He skulked by the bathroom door, wondering if a light tap of his boot-heel would knock open the latch, then turned quickly and put an innocent look on his face as Buffy came out of the Niblet's room.

She closed the door behind her and came to him. The eerie red and green lights filling the night sky outside laid twisted colors on the carpet in the otherwise dark hallway. He drew her into his arms and she leaned against him without hesitation, taking comfort.

This moment alone had been worth coming back to Sunnydale for.

Buffy lowered her voice to a whisper and shifted in his embrace. "God," she said with feeling. "I want to be with you tonight. It's just that with Dawn upset, and getting ready for tomorrow...and to be honest I don't think we'd get a whole lotta sleep, which would be bad because I haven't slept in," he watched her calculate, "two days." She looked up at him, seeking understanding.

Spike ran his fingertips down her cheekline, and then palmed her face. She leaned into his hand, and the gesture nearly left him mute. "Right," he breathed raggedly. He sought other words, and found none. His throat had locked tight and he was hard as iron; he knew she could feel it. She groaned a little as he tugged her closer. Tempting her wasn't against the rules.

She kissed him hungrily, and he ate her mouth with desperation, began rocking her against his aching member, trying to align her heat to his...just...right. She arched greedily, shoving up onto her tiptoes, sliding up his body. Their tongues wove and thrust, thrust and wove, and her mouth was slippery and wild, and oh bloody blissful fuck, yes, he was going to--

The shower shut off abruptly and Buffy shuddered and pulled back. He inwardly cursed the witch and outwardly displayed his yearning, caressing his love's hair, not quite used to its short tickle but electrified all the same at how it rubbed across his palm. He wanted to bury himself in her, and it was making him frantic. He could see that she felt the same, and that made it pure hell. He imagined her taking him by the hand and leading him into her bedroom, finger pressed to his lips, as she'd done one night upon a time, months back; they'd rutted in her bed, forced to muffled silence. He'd come so hard, riding her into her pink sheets, that he'd actually blacked out.

She was thinking about that night right now; he could see it in her eyes.

The bathroom door interrupted with a waft of steam and girl-smell and Spike moved aside with stiff care to let Willow out. He scowled at her resentfully, despite the twitch of pleasure he took from her perfume, and she scowled back at the sight of them holding hands in the hall.

"Sorry," she muttered, brushing past. "Don't mind me. Just one of the funny human-type persons who pays rent around here. If anyone needs me, I'll be in my room ignoring the debauchery."

Spike watched Willow disappear into her bedroom. "Cranky these days. Might want to up her dosage. Or her wattage." Dismissing her from mind, he stroked his thumb across Buffy's palm. "Where were we."

"We were at the no go, and cutting to the go." 
  
He moved in, owning her space, and played his lips and tongue across one tender little ear. "Come now, love. Too long and the system gets all bollixed up. Got something good for what ails you." He moved her hand between his legs, wrapping it to his resurging need. "Cures hysteria, smooths out the complexion."

She groaned as if bending to his will, but then pushed him away. "Nice try."

He tipped her a wicked smile. "You know all's I need is five minutes with you and I'll do you so good you'll sleep for a week."

Her lips parted, and she swallowed, speechless. "I, oh...t-taffy," she stuttered nonsensically at last in a breathless, little-girl voice.

"Buffy, do you have any clean tow--oh, sorry." Tara wrapped her arms around the handful of bedding she carried. "I'll, um."

"No," said Buffy, sliding her hand from his, "I was just going to bed. To sleep." A pointed look at him: "Alone."

"Good night," Tara said as Buffy went into her room, then gulped when Spike turned a baleful glower her way. "Sorry," she murmured, lips twitching weakly around a smile.

He glanced at the bedding she held. "Piece of advice, doll. Hide, don't find, the extra blankies; 'cause then you have to share."

Satan finds some mischief still for idle tongues to do, he thought with satisfaction as he swept by. But the advice was true enough; she'd be smart to take it--not that she would, not like anyone ever listened to him, though he'd been damn generous doling out his wisdom under the circumstances, seeing as how she'd scragged his chance of a Buffy boff and ensured him a night of solitary on the Summers couch.

Just went to show the kind of fellow he was, really. Always thinking of others.

 

 


 

Smell of griddling batter, sound of girlish laughter and clinking and sizzling and then a very loud clattering crash, as if something had been tossed into a sink by a young kid who had no respect for the sleep of the living dead.

Spike drew the blanket off his face and winced at the sunlight coming in through a gap in the curtains. Cursing, he rolled off the couch onto the floor with a thud.

Finding himself nose to nose with a piece of popcorn lodged in a carpet not too recently vacuumed, Spike turned his head tiredly to one side, laid his cheek on the floor and idly began counting the glossy magazines lodged under the couch.

 

 


 

Tara looked up as Spike entered the kitchen, head bent over a copy of  Marie Claire. His feet carried him automatically to the middle of the room where he stopped, not lifting his gaze from the page.

"Are you reading the article on Mormons in the sex industry?" asked Tara, recognizing the issue as one she'd read a few months back. "'Cause I couldn't put that down either."

"Nah, something about easily orgasmic women. Here," he laughed incredulously, "Now this is a load of--'Carrie was one of these easily aroused women,' says, and then they quote the bint, 'I can't think of a place on my body I'm not orgasmic. I can walk out naked in the rain and get myself off from the drops hitting my skin.'" Spike uttered a shorter, dryer laugh as he looked up from the page to Tara. "Can you just imagine this giant--" He caught sight of Dawn at the stove and broke off. "Er, yeah. Never mind that then." He tossed the magazine on the counter.

"I am an adult now," said Dawn, looking down her nose at Spike as she scraped a spatula under her pancakes. Her horn had grown a few more inches, and she moved her head as if trying to compensate for its drag. "And, by the way? That's my magazine."

"Oh, adult now?" said Spike. "Must not have noticed. You'll be wanting some vodka with your flapjacks then, I reckon."

Tara grinned.

"Don't suppose there's any blood to be had here in Pleasantville?" Spike griped, going to open the fridge.

"Just the stuff we have running through our juicy veins," said Dawn, as she dropped pancakes onto her plate. "Hot from the tap. Dollar pitchers, Friday mornings only."

Hand still on the open refrigerator door, Spike swiveled his head like a raven to stare at her, and Tara's mouth fell open slightly. Dawn, as if noticing the quality of silence, turned to find them gaping. "What? I can't be the witty sister?"

"Apparently not," said Spike in a disturbed voice, before visibly shaking it off. He banged the fridge shut. "Not even a bloody V8," he muttered. He wandered to the back door, stared out. "That badger's got to have thirty, forty liters easy," he said. "Here." He turned to Tara. "Why don't you run out and borrow a cuppa?"

"Okay, sure, I'll just stick a baster in his paw and hoover it right up for you." That was sarcasm, thought Tara proudly, and wistfully regretted that Willow hadn't been up to hear it.

"Don't you have a spell for sleepin' badger?" asked Spike.

"Well, maybe." Tara got up and joined him at the door, taking the request more seriously. "He's pretty sleepy already though."

"Lucky for us." Spike stared with her through the glass. There was a brief silence. "You suppose there's a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow?"

Tara considered, then glanced up to meet his eyes. "Well, last time there was just jello."

 

 


 

They were sitting around the dining room table when Xander and Anya came in. Xander was carrying doughnuts, and the bright pink box meant Henry's, which were the best. Dawn's spirits leaped. Her pancakes had sucked.

"Did you get sprinkles?" she asked eagerly as Xander set the box on the table. She tore open the flap as he and Anya took seats.

"There be sprinkles, there be jelly, and there be rings of chocolatey goodness."

"Your favorite, eh?" said Spike slyly. He was sprawled back in his chair, black tee-shirt showing off his muscles, fingers loosely wrapped his mug of badger blood. He had his super-cool-vamp-vibe going and it made Dawn feel kinda twitchy, in the good way. I may be easily orgasmic, she thought, picking sprinkles off her doughnut and letting them melt on her tongue. She knew Spike was supposed to be evil, but he'd looked after her a bunch of times and been pitched off a tower for trying to save her back when she was all keyed up, and plus, he and her slayer-sister were shagging like minks--so how bad could he be?

"An, why don't you open the window." Xander quirked an unfriendly smile down the table. "Let a little more light in here."

"Shouldn't you be turnin' into a ghost or somethin' about now?" asked Spike in bland tones, cocking his head.

"I've given that up." Xander smiled again tightly. "But I'll be glad to put in a good word if they're looking for someone to fill the position."

Dawn rolled her eyes at the scrapping. She didn't even get half their digs at each other; they pretended they had some mortal feud going, as if Xander was Batman and Spike had killed his parents, when she happened to know from overhearing Buffy talk to Willow that the two guys used to hang out and watch Bond flicks in Xander's basement way back when. And now they bickered about doughnuts. It was so lame.

Buffy swept in looking like Queen for a Day. As she did every day. Dawn tuned out the boring war talk and touched a finger to her horn, worrying the tender skin at its base. It was like a zit, a big stupid zit. The others seemed to have stopped even noticing it, but that didn't mean much because when you took a head count, they were basically all freaks. Witch, vampire, witch, slayer, ex-demon, Xander. She stole a look at Xander. She'd had such a crush on him when she was little, but he looked like an adult now, the real kind, not someone who'd just graduated from high school a few years back. Sooner or later he'd start making little babies and then it'd be all downhill.

She sometimes wondered what it would be like to be a vampire, and sometimes thought it would be the bomb; living forever and never getting old and having super-strength. Whenever she bit the inside of her cheek by accident, or worried her lip until it was sore, she'd taste her own blood and imagine herself all fanged-up and drinking down big Super Gulp-sized bottles of other people's heme every day. Or living off rat and badger and cow blood, like Spike. Ewww. No. And if she were a vampire would doughnuts taste the same as they did now? Chewing hers thoughtfully, Dawn tried to memorize the flavor. And what about bacon and gummy bears and milkshakes and cheesy popcorn and even fresh lettuce, when you slathered it all up with ranch dressing?

She looked up and saw Spike bite off the end of a cruller with gusto, while staring at Xander. If I were a vamp, I'd eat doughnuts too, thought Dawn.

Finishing hers, she wondered if there were any daisies left in the yard.

 

 


 

"So, it's a plan then," said Buffy, looking over her motley, half-caffeinated, doughnut-munching crew and wondering if they'd heard a word she said. "We'll get all the stuff we need together, head up to the woods, and hit her at sunset for the uh, whatsit--"

"The confluence of dark and light," said Tara. "When the world is balanced between the advent of shadow and the forces of sun, and the portal of the dimensional multiverse can flow in either direction."

"Right," said Buffy, into the silence that followed.

"It's a plan," murmured Willow, resting her cheek on one hand and huddling over her coffee in an unenthused way. "Yay plan."

It was, Buffy thought, going to be a very long day.

 

 


 

There isn't much to see when you have a blanket draped over your head, but if Spike peeked just a bit around the edges, he could see the white sky flickering behind the trees as they drove, and tiny shafts of reddish-gold sunlight through the bare branches, too small and quick to affect him, too low in the sky. Glinda, or Ilwyn, or whatever her name was, had apparently decided to winterize the trees along the west hill leading up to Breaker's Woods. On the east side, they loomed disproportionately tall, and had grown faces.

"How long till sunset?" Buffy asked from the front seat, speaking to no one in particular.

"Fifteen minutes," said Xander.

Spike eyed the back of his shaggy head resentfully. "Hey," he said, loudly enough to be heard over the witches' wittering. "Ever hear of second gear?"

"First, we don't have enough incline, and second, bite me."

"You wish," Spike muttered. "Oi," he added sharply, aiming a hooded scowl next to him, "Watch the horn there, pet. You could stake someone good with that thing."

"Sorry," Dawn said, leaning back. "I was trying to see how close we were."

"It doesn't matter, because you're not getting out of the car," said Buffy over her shoulder.

"I know that," Dawn said in a low voice, through gritted teeth.

Spike considered her downcast profile for a moment, then flicked his gaze up along her silvery, spiraled horn. "The antler's filling out shapely there," he observed. "Very symmetrical."

"You don't have to be nice," Dawn grinched. "It's ugly and stupid." She sounded close to tears. Hormonal little beast.

"But, unicorn. Can't mistake that," he said. "Got that glow to it."

Willow leaned over the seat, adding in her efforts to cheer her up. "And remember, Dawnie, it represents the pure of heart." She spoke brightly as if this made having a great sodding horn in the middle of your mug a good thing.

"It represents virgins," Dawn shot back, not turning her head.

"It represents death," said Spike, and earned a sudden, grudging look of interest from the little bit and a gaze of outrage from the witch.

"It does not!" said Willow.

"Read your literature," he said irritably. "Hell, read your Bible. Not that you've likely got one."

"Hey," said Willow hotly, "Just because I'm Jewish...oh, uh, wait. You, uh, probably meant the whole witch thing--but hey, look who's talking. Let he who is without vamp cast the first stone."

Ignoring her, Spike said to Dawn, "Unicorn represents death, resurrection, and a mighty horn stabbing through the entrails of the unjust. You might as well cast the thing in sizzling neon and hang your own slayer shingle from it."

The younger Summers was clearly wowed, sulk forgotten, but no one else seemed too pleased with him.

"Spike," said Buffy, giving him the hairy eyeball of a protective big sis. He sighed.

"Not that you should do any such thing, of course," he added to Dawn, mealy-mouthing his obedience to Buffy's unspoken command. He hunched back into his blanket and shifted away from the kid, hoping to avoid any more opportunities to catch the wrath of Power Puff. Why he ever opened his gob around this lot was an eternal mystery.

Spike slumped doorward until the sun dipped low enough, then in relief let the blanket fall from his shoulders. The smell of mildewed wool stirred unwelcome memories of humiliation, of days past--days!--when he'd been so desperate and lonely he'd light out across town to Buffy at the drop of a hat, making himself unwelcome. One beckoning finger curl and he'd have been on his belly for her, a grateful dog.

Come to think...not much had changed there.

He straightened his shoulders and felt by restless habit for his fags. It was his car, but he supposed they'd all pitch a fit if he lit one. He wondered if their half-cocked, hare-brained plan had any chance in hell of succeeding. Well, no matter. He'd fight the good fight, by Buffy's side, and if he ended up dust, maybe she'd put him on her mantel.

The sky had gradually been darkening to red and pink, and a flame-winged dragon flew into sight against its backdrop, gracefully riding the air currents above the bare tree tops. Spike felt wonderment touch him and watched without speaking until it disappeared. When he broke his enraptured gaze inward, mouth opening to remark on the apparition, he discovered the others squabbling about weaponry. He smiled to himself, strangely moved by their familiarity and his own glimpse of grace, and said nothing.

 

 


 

"Okay, huddle time." Buffy slammed the door shut and shouldered her weapons bag. The others collected around her, all but Dawn, who sat inside the SUV with arms folded across her chest, ostentatiously not looking Buffy's way.

"We'll hit hard and fast," Buffy said, taking a moment to meet each of their eyes as she spoke. "I'll go in first with Xander and Anya, Spike will flank, and while we distract them, Tara and Willow will cast the spell."

"Quick reminder." Xander held up a finger. "If a dwarf bites your ankle, remember to punt."

"Damn," complained Anya, looking down at her thin, white sneakers. "I knew I should have worn my boots. Dwarves' hands are always so grubby, and these shoes are brand new."

"Everyone ready?" Buffy asked, putting some steel into her voice and successfully recapturing the attention of Anya, who nodded. Everyone else followed suit. Xander held his sword point down but with a firm grip, looking steady and strong, Willow and Tara grasped their spell bags and stood shoulder to shoulder with a resolve that wasn't quite as convincing but would have to do, and Spike, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, swung his crossbow up to rest against his shoulder and sketched her a salute.

Satisfied that this was as good as it was going to get, Buffy turned and spoke to Dawn through the open window. "Stay here. Don't come into the woods, and if you have to leave, leave." She held out her hand and felt Xander drop the keys in. She handed them to Dawn, who took them with ill grace and no words.

Then Buffy turned and led the way down toward the grove. Here's the part where I play the superhero, she thought, trying not to get distracted by the ick factor as spotted red-capped mushrooms crumbled heavily aside where she strode. The glow from the trees intensified as they approached, pink and blue clouds of mist rolling out along the ground. Music filtered out too, what sounded like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as rendered on pan pipes but really couldn't be, because that would be too surreal, even for Glinda.

A naked man with green skin and a donkey's head sprinted by, chasing a furry blue woman with antenna in a Laura Ashley sundress.

Okay, then again.

Buffy looked over her right shoulder and gestured for Spike to flank. He slipped off between the trees, a stealthy shadow which blurred into a flicker only slayer eyes could track before disappearing entirely.

"Man, this is one whacked wood," Xander whispered. He was looking carefully around him as he walked, as if trying to expect anything from any direction.

She said nothing. The mist was starting to look sparkly, and the light was brighter as the trees thinned. Ahead she could see the clearing where the Tree of Ilwyn had recently stood. Now, Ilwyn herself stood there, long hair flowing out from her as if carried on static electricity, long skirts merging into the forest floor. Fairies were weaving flowers in her hair, and dwarf women were stitching them into her dress. Around the edges of the clearing sat a bizarre collection of animals and beings, most of them lolling and laughing and basically doing the whole eating-of-the-fruit, drinking-of-the-wine scene. You'd think they were an innocent bunch of cartoon extras if you didn't look too close, but she didn't think Hobbits were supposed to have fangs. She was positivethat bunnies shouldn't, and she could almost feel Anya's shudder behind her.

They crept up on the clearing, and Buffy directed Xander and Anya to position themselves further out along its rim. Setting her bag down, she pulled it open and pulled out a short sword. "This is it. Do your stuff," she said quietly to Willow and Tara, then left them huddled together by a shrub, beginning their soft chants, as she stepped forward into the light.

Almost immediately she felt dizziness roll across her as the hedgewitch's perfumes tried to work their magic. "Really nice Glade Fresh Scent you've got here," she said. "You could market that."

Ilwyn looked up, beaming. "Buffy!" she cried, clapping her hands together. "You came. I knew you would." Her low, rich voice poured into Buffy's ears, and Buffy felt a surge of happiness at the welcome which she shook off impatiently. Don't cloud the issue, bitch, she thought. Her fist firmed around her sword hilt.

"Save the good cheer, Sister Mary Malice. I'm here to take you down." Why do I say these things, Buffy wondered.

"Oh, Slayer." Ilwyn smiled and walked forward with outstretched arms, scattering dwarves as she moved. "You are the most endearing, enchanting warrior I've ever come across."

Buffy ducked her head and blushed pink at the compliment. It struck her that she'd really been kind of harsh on the witch, and she felt a small, reluctant smile break out over her face. "I, uh, no one ever really tells me that. Well, sometimes Spike, but he doesn't say 'endearing', it's more like, 'you're a vicious little fury, aren't you' and then he tears off my...wait." Buffy groaned. "Xander," she yelled frantically. "Anya! Guys, help, I need some help!" She held up her sword wardingly, putting it between her and Ilwyn.

In her peripheral vision she could see Xander and Anya charging out of the trees, Anya making a beeline for bunnies and whacking them with her battle-axe, Xander skewering into clusters of dwarves whose companions rounded on him with angry cries. Around each of them a bloody swathe grew, accompanied by the heart-rending sobbing of small pixies and beautiful elf girls. It was like a Monty Python wedding massacre, and Buffy--finding herself a spectator despite her best intentions--felt slightly sick.

"Oh dear," said Ilwyn, turning with one hand raised to her breast. "Oh, how cruel."

Xander helplessly lowered his sword as a sylph threw herself prostrate at his feet, weeping and pleading for mercy. He raised a look to Buffy that clearly asked what the hell he was supposed to do, and at that moment a troll strolled out of the woods behind him and bonked him on the head. Xander crumpled to the ground, not actually unconscious but stunned to a feeble heap.

On the other side of the grove, Anya was surrounded by bunnies who were making little feints and circling her in furry dashes. She had dropped her axe and was shrieking hysterically. Ilwyn turned and flicked her wrist, and Anya promptly turned into a deer, rolled wide eyes in panic, and bounded off.

Ilwyn turned to Buffy again and smiled. "Would you like some tea?" she asked.

Tea sounded good.

"No!" said Buffy in frustration. She shook her head sharply to clear it, and then glared at the witch. Damn her! Damn her blandness and tea-offering! She stamped her foot and raised her sword. "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!" She immediately winced. Oh for the love of.... Still, she thought, she had always wanted to shout that just before going into battle.

"Darling, you look tired." Ilwyn moved forward and took her arm. "Why don't you come rest?"

Buffy, feeling tired, yes, that was exactly it, let herself be drawn along a few feet. "That's really nice of you," she said. The warmth of their special friendship enclosed the two of them, and Buffy smiled up at the woman. "You're so nice," she said, and then giggled. For no good reason. Then, dredging up focus from an inner swill of distraction, she brought up her sword and shoved it at the creature's filmy skirts. The blade skidded off in a sad way, and Buffy pouted. "Drat."

"Spirits of nature and of weather, fold this tattered quilt together / crazy-quilt be our unmaking / return this place to its unbreaking--"

"Oh, pretty," said Buffy, as her friends entered the clearing, floating hand-in-hand above the ground. "Hi, Willow!" She waved. "Tara! Hey!" Holding hands--they'd gotten back together! It was such a happy day Buffy wanted to cry.

Next to her, Ilwyn snarled and stretched out her fingers, and a flash of light rose up around the edge of the grove--but she hadn't spelled anything yet, had she, Buffy wondered. It must be her friends. They were so clever. There was more light, pretty light, and a big wind that blew Buffy down, and when she got up again--

"Willow!" she cried, looking desperately for her sword. Head clear, she grabbed her weapon and swung it around on her enemy. The White Witch wasn't looking quite so shiny-white any more; her dark hair blew around her like sea waves and her eyes were black. Across the grove, Willow and Tara were still chanting, but Buffy couldn't hear their words above the roar of the portal, whose fissure ripped the ground.

Her attack on Ilwyn was being parried by magical thrusts of empty air, so that her blade went skating away on nothingness. Still, if she just kept fighting, she might get a blow in, and so she did, as the chanting rose toward a crescendo and then, "Ha!" she cried as the sword point went in...and paused a millimeter away from Ilwyn's vulnerable stomach. Buffy tried to pull the sword out but it was held fast, and then as a sheet of blue light swept up the sword she tried frantically tried to let go of it, but the light was too fast and her arm was immobile and then the rest of her too, and there she was, encased in some witchy aura, frozen with her arm out like a tin soldier, unable to do anything but watch in horror as Her Sugar-Coated Badness turned her friends into animals.

The wind died down, its roar subsiding, and Ilwyn smiled benevolently on the bear that had been Willow and the cat that had been Tara. Tara-Cat meowed piteously and scampered out of the grove, while the Willow-Bear roared in a somehow mournful way, dropped to all fours, and followed at a slower pace.

Abandonment, thought Buffy. Always, in the end, I wind up alone. Her gaze flicked sideways, attracted by the movements of still-human Xander, who was struggling to sit up. Relief sprung in her heart. At least I have--

A poof of fairy dust exploded, and left a beaver.

 --good old Xander. Bye-bye, Xander, she thought, as the beaver wandered off.

Ilwyn sighed and touched her hair, as if fearing the disarray of her flowers. Behind her the fissure was lay open and visible, a starburst-shaped pit cracking through the green grass and petals. "I really do have issues with rude people," she admitted to Buffy. "Now if you'd come, petitioned nicely, had some tea...I'd have laughed of course, and made you my minions. But it would have been so much more delightful."

She looked directly into Buffy's eyes and smiled, then stroked her hands down Buffy's cheeks. Buffy gasped as the blue light encasing her turned golden, and felt her sword taken from her hand to be cast aside. She still couldn't move on her own, but the binding was softer now and she could speak.

"Your brand of niceness isn't so nice," Buffy said, cold with anger and a deeper layer of fear. "I for one could live happily without seeing your smarmy face again."

"Oh, happily? I think not. You are a deeply unhappy soul." Ilwyn touched her face. "And yours is a deeply unhappy world. I put a rainbow over your existence, but you prefer mud. I thought your people could be elevated, but I do begin to wonder." The witch smiled as if with sadness, but her eyes remained jet-black. "I make colors brighter, music gayer, I bring life to the lifeless. And how do you thank me? With childish sorcery and cold hearts."

"I've heard your happy-happy joy-joy commercials before, and you know what? I don't buy what you're selling."

Over Ilwyn's shoulder, Buffy saw Spike appear out of the forest, crossbow up and aimed. She averted her eyes from him hastily, refocusing her attention on her adversary. "In fact, you know what I think? I think you're a passive-aggressive bitch who could benefit from therapy, and okay, now that I think again, you're not so passive, but this whole Fairy Queen Goodness shtick needs a lot of work, a lot of work, you could maybe sell cream cakes with it, but not evil," and why the hell wasn't Spike shooting?

"Buffy," Ilwyn said, face softening. "There's no need to be unkind. You could be such a sweet girl. You'd catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, you know. And really, vampire, you don't want to do that."

Ilwyn turned as the crossbow loosed its arrow and diverted it with a gesture of her hand. Spike flung himself aside, ducking and rolling and coming up again in a flash while her fingers streamed light, but the light followed him and he was seized, and that simply it was over. Buffy closed her eyes, and opened them again expecting to see a bat or maybe a snake, but Spike was standing there being himself, trapped in amber and looking eloquently annoyed.

"Sorry, Slayer."

"Don't sweat it," Buffy said quietly, because, after all, going out cool was one of the few options she had left about now.

Ilwyn gazed between them, smiling, then moseyed closer to Spike in a way that made Buffy even more tense and wary than imminent death had. "What's your name, valiant one?" she asked.

Spike flicked a glance up and down the hedgewitch, snorted in dismissal, then yelped as he was gripped in a way that men shouldn't be. Buffy winced.

"Ow! Ow! Bloody ow! You fucking bitch. Let go!" She merely ground her hand further, and he shouted loudly, then swore. "Spike, Spike! What the fuck do I care, put it on a name-tag if you want, you shatterbrained slag!" He groaned feelingly as he was released.

"Oh, my, really?" Ilwyn's smile deepened and she twinkled at Buffy. "The vampire is your Spike?" Laughter trilled. "Dear, you are drawn to the bad side of the tracks."

"Here," Spike said, directing a surprised and somewhat pissed-off look Buffy's way. "What did you tell her about me?"

Buffy, trying to flex out of her wrappy straitjacket, didn't answer, but watched fiercely as Ilwyn swept one hand across Spike's face. He promptly vamped out and snapped his fangs at her, but sadly missed, and the witch continued her assessment of his aura, or whatever the hell she was doing.

"Not quite yourself, I see. Poor creature."

"Oh, I'm me," said Spike, smiling nastily at her, demonic brows furrowed. "You can bet on it." He struggled just as Buffy did, but more visibly and with a savagery that looked as if it might exhaust him fast.

"Easy, now." Ilwyn touched his chest and suddenly Spike went very still, staring at her. "Yes," she said. "Feel that?"

"What--" Spike devamped. His naked face held an expression of astonishment, a tremulously balanced edge of wonder. "What are--" A flash of something hit him, and the agony in his eyes made Buffy struggle harder to free herself, to get to him.

"Oh god," he said.

Buffy went abruptly still at the tone of his voice, hairs rising on the back of her neck.

"Oh my dear god." He was staring vacantly into thin air, lips slightly parted, as if seeing...it was impossible for her to know. "My Lord in Heaven," he whispered, with stricken fear. And something else passed across his face as she watched, some terrible shadow of anguish, and he sobbed once, a sound breaking the silence like a bubble of air surfacing in a pool, rising from somewhere so deep that it made her own chest ache. She couldn't see what he saw, but she knew its grief.

"Leave him al--" Buffy began to cry out, but the words became stoppered up in her throat as she was enspelled again, and she could only watch now. 
  
"That hurts, doesn't it," said Ilwyn gently to Spike. She smiled, touching him a moment more, then let her fingers drop.

Spike gasped as if he'd been released and stared at the witch, his face wet with tears. Buffy felt her heart pounding wildly in her chest, so hard she thought it might be enough to break through her paralysis.

"You cow-cunted, rot-bellied, useless piece of poxied gash," Spike whispered, staring white-faced at Ilwyn, tears still slipping unnoticed down his face. His face worked as if he were trying not to show anything, say anything more, cry any harder.

"So not nice," said the witch. "And so undeserved. Does the kiss of your own soul not move you?"

Buffy gasped and felt tears spill from her own eyes, helpless against them.

"Oh, it moves me," Spike ground out, his voice so low Buffy could barely make out his words. "Moves me to kill you." But he didn't move; couldn't.

"I'm afraid the slayer is a lost cause," Ilwyn said. "You, though. You could be nicer. So much nicer." She smiled kindly, even playfully. "Would you like to be?"

"Sod off, fuck off, fuck yourself, crawl back down your hole and die," Spike said, each curse spoken in a level, distinct tone, as instructions. He swallowed and flinched as Ilwyn stroked his wet cheek.

"Now, now," she said. "Let's follow the storyline." She paused, fingered her hair with a sudden flush of modesty. "I am a writer, you know. Children's books, mostly, but with an occasional dabble in the science-fiction and fantasy market." She waved a hand, as if waving the digression away. "In all my stories, though, I like to let characters choose their own endings. So I will grant your choice, one of three wishes--"

"You've heard my wishes. Take your pick." Spike's face was stone, his eyes glinting icily.

"--one of three gifts," Ilwyn self-corrected, tapping the air just in front of his chest and reducing him to silence. "Of my choosing. And you must take one." Her smile didn't quite reach her black eyes. "I insist. Your first choice, vampire--the gift of a soul."

Buffy's heart skipped a beat, and Spike's gaze fixed itself to hers. They looked at each other, speaking without speaking as Ilwyn went on.

"The second, I take this bad, naughty little button from your head."

Spike's lips parted and his gaze swung back to Ilwyn. Buffy's heart cried out no, but she could see the utter fascination with which he now looked at the witch, and the uncertainty.

"Or, third." She smiled. "Your death."

"Not fond of that last one," Spike said. He tilted his head; his tears had dried and his face was wiped of all expression but guarded curiosity. "And why do I reckon this game is rigged?" he added softly.

"The first two gifts require a sacrifice," said Ilwyn. "The last, the easiest, does not."

"Sacrifice. Bugger me," Spike said conversationally. He didn't even look at Buffy. "No deal."

"Is your resolve so strong?" The witch touched his chest again, and Spike cried out, his eyes widening, then closing as his expression was transformed by ecstasy, by terror. After a few  moments she released him. "Feel that," she said, lifting her hand to his head. "And now feel this." And Spike vamped out, snarling, eyes glowing with self-possession and rage, lips curving up in a horrible smile.

"Yeah," he said. "Now that's more like it, ducks." He rolled his shoulders once, then tipped his head back and forth as if he were testing a sudden freedom of movement within his own skull. "Hell," he said with relish. "Missed that. Didn't even know I was missing anything till now. Like bein' all cramped up, 'fraid to even think for the pain."

"Terrible, isn't it, that self-control? Like a seed taking root and binding you, tendrils searching through the rocky ground of your memories, digging down deep into the places you call morality and conscience, spots in the earth you thought were dead but are now feeding the growth, like a malignant tumor in your brain."

"Yeah," Spike breathed in rapture, then licked his lips with rude appreciation. "You're a bit of all right, aren't you, sweetheart? Don't know why I was so--"

She released him, and the demon dropped from his face, leaving the semblance of humanity and a look of shock.

Buffy's fists clenched slowly, as if against cold molasses. If she could punch a hole in this shell, if she could just.

Punch.

"No," Spike was saying to himself. "No." He shuddered, closed his eyes. His chest heaved with the ghost of breath; his muscles were tight with strain.

"Now my preference," said Ilwyn in her light, musing voice, "is to see that nice boy you've got buried inside come out and play. I do think he'd know how to be polite to a lady." She tipped her head, considering him. "But I'm willing also to let your dark spirit run free, be true to itself. After all, nothing in nature is unnatural. Except, perhaps, what you are now." She smiled pityingly. "A caged beast with a thorn in its paw, a lost soul trapped betwixt and between."

"You certainly can spout the gibberish," said Spike, opening his eyes to stare at her. "Ever get tired of listenin' to yourself?"

"Not yet," she laughed. She moved to Buffy's side, touched her bound body. Buffy felt the gold air around her begin to thicken and change color again, until she was viewing the world through a blue prism, and then it deepened further and her breath began to hitch as the air thinned.

"Choose," she heard Ilwyn say. "Of the first two gifts, her sacrifice will bring you your pleasure."

Buffy stared at Spike, who stared back. She could see everything in his eyes that he was feeling and thinking, she could hear him inside: his soul speaking like the recorded voice of the dead on a strip of magnetic tape, his demon laughing at her. Voices bound, snarled together; of two beings locked in eternal struggle.

"I choose death," Spike said simply, speaking right through to her, and not to Ilwyn. His voice was rueful but calm, as if there had been no struggle at all, no other choices. His eyes said good-bye.

He looked away from Buffy to Ilwyn, gaze sharpening with cynicism. "And that's my death, by the way, you tricky bint. Now let her go."

"Oh, my," mocked Ilwyn lightly. "As if that was part of the deal. You really must--oh, little darling girl! Do come in."

Buffy gasped for air in horror and strained with renewed force at her prison as Dawn stepped into the grove. Her sister's face was furious, and tears streaked her cheeks.

"Dawn, get the hell out of here," said Spike roughly. "Run!"

But Ilwyn was beckoning, and Dawn was stepping forward, face softening to calm and a look of wide-eyed fascination.

"Aren't you a jewel," cooed Ilwyn in a motherly way. "A radiant pearl."

Dawn took her hand and smiled, and then fell forward, plunging the horn she wore into Ilwyn's chest. Buffy cried out and realized she'd done so as the aura released her. She rushed to Dawn, who'd crumpled on top of the witch's body, horn lodged between her ribs. She was crying and Ilwyn was weakly pressing at Dawn's head, fingers tangling in her hair as she tried to free herself.

Spike joined Buffy and carefully helped eased Dawn back, but their combined strength snapped the horn clean off her forehead and Dawn screamed as the growth detached itself, leaving a raw bloodied wound in the skin. She passed out at once, and Buffy drew her off, laying her gently on the ground and checking the wound. It was not bleeding as much as it should have for a head wound, and once assured of this, she turned back, only to find that Spike had dragged the witch to the edge of the portal. Buffy joined him there and took a shared grasp of the woman, feeling a great and benevolent readiness to pitch her back into the Disneyfied hell from whence she came.

Ilwyn opened her eyes and looked up at Spike, eyes half-focused. Her hand clutched his coat sleeve. "I would never have written this," she said, gasping softly at the cost of words. "The horn of a unicorn. How...how poetic, actually, how meaningful. What a lovely death."

Around them, a fringe of woodland creatures and fairies and elves were creeping up. Buffy glanced at them, but they showed no signs of menace, only a deep sadness. They all carried garlands of flowers. She rolled her eyes.

"You are a foolish creature," Ilwyn murmured to Spike as if bestowing a blessing. "But a good character."

"Yeah, whatever," he said, terse with indifference. "Hurry up and die, will you?" Not indifferent, revised Buffy, at the tone of low, intense hatred in his request.

"What, will you take no parting gift?" whispered Ilwyn, eyes bathing him with light, smile tipping up her gentle lips. "You have, after all, your sacrifice."

Spike froze, and then looked to Buffy. The planes of his face were hard, soft, hard, in flux with decision and indecision and his eyes begged or spoke and she didn't know now what they said or what she should say back. 

"Whatever you choose," she said, "I'll understand."

He looked down at the witch, while flowers fluttered down around them, and the pause of his hesitation felt like a blow.

"I choose this," he finally ground out. He stared at the witch, face hardening over with contempt. "You can keep your bloody gifts." And he shoved her over the edge, out of Buffy's hands, and a hail of flower petals fell in after her and the ground began to shake and Buffy stood at the same moment Spike did. They instinctively clung to each other to keep upright and then stumbled off as the fissure in the earth began to slowly close, like a wound healing itself. Into its shrinking gap jumped wave after wave of furry animals and weeping fairies, like a mass suicide of children's television.

Buffy watched until the ground closed with an audible pop, then shook herself free of the daze from that sight.

"Like watching Muppets drink the Kool-Aid," said Spike, staring at the scarred earth with an equally disturbed frown.

She stared up at him, and he turned to stare down. She wanted to slap him, hard. She wanted to beat the hell out of him, literally. And, oh god--

Buffy drew him down for a gentle kiss, a brief brush of lips, then released him. He gazed at her and she saw that he was touched, slightly broken, disbelieving of her good graces. "What's that for?" he asked in a low, rough voice.

"What do you think?"

His face shifted almost imperceptibly, the way a man's does when he feels regret. An amazing simulation was what it could have been, what anyone with sense would have pegged it as. She knew it wasn't.

"I made the wrong choice for you, love." He didn't touch her; he was close enough to kiss again but he projected great distance, as if he were stranded high up on some rocky place, looking on her from afar.

"No. I mean. Yes. But...."

Across the grove, Dawn stirred with a groan, and Buffy's head turned instinctively. "Later," she said to Spike. "We'll talk later." She started to move away, but he grabbed her arm. Surprised, she looked at him.

"Don't tell the others," he said to her, gaze boring into hers, commanding. "Don't tell them, Slayer."

"No," she promised quietly, searching his eyes a moment more. "I won't."

 

 


 

"Well, that was special," said Xander, coming to and finding himself flat on his back, staring up at the trees above him. "Almost, dare I say, too special."

 

 


 

It was day again; it was night again.

"Hey," Buffy asked. "How you doin'?"

The shallow lamp light cast shadows across the bed and Buffy sat down next to Dawn, who was reading a tattered paperback. When Dawn said nothing and didn't raise her eyes from the page, Buffy plucked the book away and looked it over. It was one of their mom's old potboiler romances, the cover displaying a lot of flesh. A bodice-straining bimbo, clutched in the arms of a bare-chested man, seemed to have been caught mid-orgasm by the painter's imagination.

"Mighty swarthy," said Buffy of the man.

"That's Pierce Renfield," said Dawn. "The strapping plantation owner with a secret past. I think it has something to do with brothels. I haven't gotten that far yet."

"Oh. My." Buffy raised her brows. "Gotta respect the trashiness of that." She idly traced the embossed cover, then handed the book back. Glancing up at Dawn's face, she saw her sister watching her warily. Her very clear forehead was marred only by a light scrunch of annoyance or maybe concern. Twenty-four hours and smooth as eggshell. This time there'd been an upside to magic, and no visits to the emergency room, for which Buffy was deeply thankful.

"I just wanted to say good-night," said Buffy. "I'm going out for a while. But Willow's here."

"Yeah. Funny, isn't it. Almost like she lives here."

"You know, and I say this with perfect objectivity, I was never such a brat at your age."

"Next week I'm going to be a goth," rejoined Dawn coolly, staring her down, "a big fat goth, and I'll dye my hair black and get my nose pierced."

"Point taken," Buffy said, surrendering with a wry smile. "You're an angel." She reached out to stroke Dawn's hair briefly, then got up. "Don't stay up too late."

"Don't go have sex with vampires," said Dawn, absorbed in her book again and not bothering to look up.

Buffy paused at the door. "If you're still up at breakfast, there are some waffles in the freezer."

She closed the door behind her and released a small whoosh of breath. "Oh, yeah. I am she of the sucky sisterhood," she muttered to herself as she walked down the hall. "Dysfunction, thy name is Buffy." She descended the stairs and found Willow in the living room, reclining on the couch and watching Leno in a not-really-watching way.

"Hey," said Willow, glancing up at Buffy before returning her gaze to the screen. "You ever notice how his chin just gets bigger and bigger with each passing year?" she asked, gesturing lazily at the screen with a pretzel. "Someday that baby's going to hatch, and some unlucky A-lister will be in for a big surprise." She bit down on her pretzel with a crunchy, sleepy smile, as if lost in pleasant contemplation of chin birth and celebrity attacks.

Buffy smiled too, but Willow wasn't looking at her and didn't see. Buffy stood there in her own living room, conscious that she was just standing there; extraneous to the scene. She noticed not for the first time that she and Willow were not looking at each other, not talking to each other. They'd been that way for months, on and off. It hurt.

"Will," she said, moving to sit on the edge of the coffee table, having to do so carefully, having to push away the short glass with clinking ice and the bottle to make room. Willow looked at her from her nest in the cushions, lips curled in a tiny Willow smile, eyes friendly. "I thought maybe you might want to talk now."

"About what?"

Buffy smoothed her skirt down, then looked up. "A-about Spike, or about you--or Tara. Or you and Tara. About yesterday, even. About anything, Will." She held Willow's eyes, trying to let everything that was earnest and hopeful in her shine out. "I know I've been sort of, sort of hard to talk to lately, and the last few days haven't helped, but--"

"Buffy." Willow smiled, face unchanging from its placid friendliness. "It's okay. Don't worry. It's all good."

But it wasn't all good, Buffy thought. "I, I'd like to think that. But it doesn't seem very--"

The smile was edging away, and something darker was simmering under the surface of Willow's face. "Hey, I, I appreciate your caring and all," she said, sounding anything but appreciative, "but you know, you can't just sit down here and pull up a table and think you can just talk all over me like the last six months haven't happened, like now that Spike's back you want to be all Chatty Cathy, who's-your-girlfriend." Her head twitched on the pillow, and her voice was a bit cold, a bit mocking. "It doesn't work like that, Buffy."

"Doesn't work like what?" Buffy said, not understanding, feeling her chest constrict as the tension between them built again in its familiar way. "Why can't we just talk?"

"On your schedule, at your whim," said Willow, not hiding her anger any more, but too drunk or too sleepy to exert herself toward sitting up, or maybe she just didn't care enough. She lay there looking up at Buffy, eyes flashing but body huddled in on itself under the fuzzy blanket. "You really don't even know you do it, do you?" Willow laughed, a bitter unnatural sound. "God, whatever. Just go shag your dead man." She stopped looking at Buffy just as Dawn had, and stared at the TV set again.

Buffy, shocked to speechlessness, nearly to tears, stood and walked away. She paused at the entrance to the hall and pressed her head against the wooden door frame. She felt a pent-up dam inside her ready to burst and she struggled with it, wanting to scream and cry and rage against her friend. But something--pride, guilt, she couldn't tell which--kept her from letting it out.

"I'll be back in the morning," she said, voice barely escaping from her tight throat.

Willow said nothing.

Buffy left.

 

 


 

He'd revamped the crypt. In only one day, it had been restored to its normal uncheery chill and starkness, the beer cans swept out, the trash removed. She wondered how he'd done it, tried to picture him calling a vampire maid service, or dragging trash bags to the curb. There was a new TV, a new armchair. The fridge hummed. She looked around and felt something in her tremble at the difference and the sameness. Year after year, this was it, this was the dead center of her existence. Crypts, vamps, isolation from her friends and her sister and any pretense of a normal life.

Buffy turned to go, stood there for a long minute at the doorway to the crypt looking out at the empty night, then turned back again, went to the ladder and descended.

Downstairs, the same household magic of cleanser and mop had been applied, and the place looked almost like she remembered. More candles glowing against the dark rock; there was a new bed. A nice bed, even. And a table with wine breathing on it. She crossed her arms around herself, hugging her pain and tears inside where they belonged, but feeling them escape anyway. Tears falling, herself--

"Easy, love," he said and his arms came around her from behind, wrapping around her waist to rest under her own. His cheek rubbed along the side of her head, tenderly as a big cat marking its territory. "Always a let-down after the battle's over."

She sobbed, and turned to press her face into his chest. He held her and let her cry until she was cried out, and when the clutch of her hands began to ease at last, he picked her up and carried her to the bed; laid her down. She curled up on the covers in a haze of misery broken by his light touch on her shoulder, soothing murmurs, and in that haze she fell asleep.

 

 


 

He watched her sleep. Sitting on the end of the bed, arms resting across his knees and hands clasped in front of him, he hunched and watched his slayer. Her eyelids flickered with dreams he didn't envy, and her body was restless even in rest. When she rolled over on her back, arms flung out, head turning to one side to bare her neck, his need caught in his throat and he groaned softly at the pain. He wanted to sink his teeth into her, he wanted to shag her. Devour her and resurrect her and devour her again.

It would be so easy to take his pain away, and hers. One bite and a long drink, slayer blood coursing through him, and then a gift back. She'd be free at last of all her human sorrows, and she'd love him the only way he could be loved. By a demon.

Spike sighed, got up from the bed, and went to pour himself a glass of cold cow. It tasted like shit--not exactly organic, was it--and he grimaced as it went down.

You had your chance, didn't you, he thought, staring into a candle flame. Here's your soul, on a silver platter, take it and be hers. No gypsy curses, no strings attached, but oh.

The pain, love. The pain.

He closed his eyes, remembering the heavenly fire ripping through him, bringing with it the brutal understanding of what he was and had done. Something lost, flung out of grace, a thing so vile it made the angels weep. A thing so vile it made her weep. The memory was strange, like a bad sketch on the thin tissues of his mind, not really capturing what he'd seen. But he knew too well what he'd seen and felt, with William flooding back into him, filling his dry, lifeless veins with soul again as the rapture broke over them both and made them one. And he hadn't wanted it. Flung back into himself, then again into his demon with its full-force gale, he'd known that softness and torment wasn't for him. Let Angel deal with that; he was the fruity sodding hero, puppet to the Powers That Be. Only room for one vamp with a soul in this neck of the world; start piling up too many of them and someone was bound to take notice.

I'll stay in the shadows where I belong, thought Spike, and let's see which one of us survives longer, mate.

Funny, though, wasn't it. He hadn't chosen the demon, either. And now he knew there was one still living in him, and that he, Spike, wasn't...quite it. Not quite the killing machine he'd thought himself, not quite the Big Bad. If he had been, he'd have nailed his slayer by now. Drained her or turned her; no hesitation, no guilt. I am a remorseless bastard, thought Spike, holding his palm over the candle flame and staring at it coldly while it singed his hand. I am evil, abominable, a shock to the system, I am amoral and irredeemable and untouched by--

"Ow," he said suddenly and yanked his smoking hand from the flame.

Self-disgust laying heavily across his shoulders, Spike returned to bed and gloomily regarded his one true love. He slid off his shirt and stretched out next to her, took her in his arms.

"Peas and jam, mom," she murmured, rising out of sleep to regard him through slitted eyes. She blinked up at his watchful face, sniffed once, looked around the room and seemed to sense the passage of time. "Mm, sorry," she said, smiling wanly. "I guess I was more tired than I realized."

"Cried yourself out," Spike said, stroking her back. "Want to talk about it?"

Buffy looked at him, then flicked her lashes down to hide her eyes. "Not really."

Spike smiled to himself, a bit sourly. You can get away with that because I let you, love. The others'll call you on it sharp, won't they. Well, no matter. He'd only asked out of politeness. He was her lover, not her bloody alienist. 
  
"Want a glass of wine?" he asked, to fill the silence. "Unmixed."

"No," she said, far more emphatically than the question warranted. "No wine."

Another long minute passed.

"Want a shag?"

Her cheek moved against his chest with the feel of a smile. "Okay."

Hello, thought Spike, perking up. 'Bout damn time. He rolled and shoved her onto her back with one fluid movement. A hard ache was already filling his nether bits and she was making little breathless noises and wriggling under him, trying to hitch up her skirt. Christ, he thought, wildness breaking through him like lightning. He helped her yank down her knickers and push up her skirt--pink panties catching around her thighs, not going any further--and he cursed and ripped the flimsy material off and she gasped and spread her legs, heat radiating from her core, all for his cold hard wick, and he gasped and fumbled at his belt. She sought him with one hand, but he pushed it away; he couldn't bear her touch, it would be all over, and damn embarrassing that would be for a first-time reunion fuck, because he intended to make it good. Oh, hell, he just intended to make it.

"God, hurry," she said, digging her fingers into his arms hard enough to break the skin with her sharp nails. Ecstasy flared through him, and he forced his zipper down, freeing himself. He rolled up across her like a wave breaking the shore, and shoved in between her legs. Her heat clasped him and he stiffened. His eyelids fluttered heavily shut as he held himself steady, willing himself not to come, not daring to thrust.

"Oh, god," she cried, "Oh god, god, god--goddamn it, Spike--"

He heard himself make a sound like a sob as he was pulled in by her sweet, wet cunt and strong hands; she was forcing him deeper into her, wrapping her legs around him, crying out, rocking up to meet him, all of her heat and need for him. He could feel his bones unchilling as she shared her warmth. It was better than the sun. She moved him, she was making him move.

Spike let himself thrust then, finding purchase on the bed, holding himself off her slightly so that he could pull out and drive back in deep. One good stab made her go rigid, made her arch and mewl like a kitten, and that was all she wrote and he threw his own neck back, swore her name, and spilled into her with long, erratic pulses that gave him the illusion his heart was working.

"Oh," she said, her body clamping around him again, her head coming up off the pillow. And suddenly she rolled him over onto his back; she was shuddering, eyes closed, skirt hitched up around her waist, and she rode him mercilessly with quivering little squeezes that kept him hard, because after all, he didn't have a heart, and blood did his bidding. He lay back, content to let her work herself on his staff, to hold her hips and watch as she arched and twisted and rubbed herself off on him like a nun losing her vows. She was a storm inside herself, and by the time she came again she was slick all over with sweat, her face framed by two thin tear tracks.

"Easy," he said, as she gasped for air and began to collapse forward on him. He drew himself out of her, sore and heavy, and feathered his hands across her waist. She slid with him down onto the sheets, lying on her side and breathing unevenly. Her mouth was swollen from biting her own lips, and Spike kissed her thoroughly for no better reason than he could.

She was all worked up. It was flattering to his pride, and balm to the twisted ache inside him. Facing her, Spike settled in to patient pillow-gazing while she came slowly down from her bliss. He badly wanted to smoke a fag, but this was something worth savoring. After a time, Buffy focused on him and took his mouth with soft kisses. She was smiling at him with each one, all girlish and pink-cheeked. She certainly knew how to make a bloke feel he'd done his job.

"Can't believe I went five months without you," she murmured, groaning a little at the very thought.

"Can't believe I went five minutes without you," Spike said truthfully.

"Yeah, how did you do that?" She smiled and stroked her fingers down his chest.

"Heavy drinking, heavy metal, and heavy yanking, pet."

She tipped her gaze up. "No heavy women?"

His lips curved lightly, and his eyes narrowed. "Jealous, are we?" He slid his hand up under her shirt and bra and cupped one tit.

"Oh," she said, grinning a little.

They took another whirl on the merry-go-round, this time properly naked, and at a decent speed.

Later, leaning back against the headboard, her wrapped around him like ribbon on a package, Spike heard her say something about her basement.

"Sorry," he said, drawing himself back from his thoughts to give attention to her nattering. "Say again?"

"You were so not even listening, were you?" Buffy asked, piqued.

Spike crushed out his cigarette on the bedside table and tossed it at the empty juice can. "Was too. Something something washer and dryer something something basement."

She rolled her eyes. "I said," she began, and then she hesitated, changing tone to one more serious, her voice slowing down. "I said, why not come stay at the house. We could fix up the basement, put in carpet, bring the bed in. It could be...cozy."

He boggled politely at her, since she was clearly off her nut. "Yeah, well," he drawled, staring at her. "That's...well, that's quite an idea. But I don't think it'd work out."

"Why not?" She frowned a little, but not seriously, as if not quite allowing herself to hear his rejection. "Think of it. It'd be much more convenient, and I wouldn't have to worry so much about leaving Dawn--and ooh, hey, think about all the modern conveniences you can't get in your average one-bedroom crypt: cable TV, laundry privileges, hot and cold running me."

Spike looked at his daft love, feeling a mingled fondness and exasperation. "All very nice, pet, but somehow I don't think your friends would be too keen."

"They'll deal," she said confidently, sweeping away with those two breezy words a hundred future battles and his eventual, certain death at her friends' hands.

"No," Spike enunciated with care, "they won't." He issued a brief, sharp laugh and shook his head.

"Come on," Buffy said, sitting up to stare at him. "It's not that bad. They'll get used to you. They have before."

"Oh, right. Used to me." He made ironical eyes at her, but then spoke gently. "I hate to be the one to break this to you, Buffy, but your friends are loyal, true, and good." She blinked at him, uncomprehending. "When they found out we were riding the wild pony together, you think they sat around playing canasta and chatting about it amiably?" He lifted his brows at her; her face showed that she was still refusing to get it.

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying they did everything in their power short of killing me to try and pry me from you. If Red had been feeling up to snuff, you'd be sitting here in bed right now with a skunk, or maybe a golden retriever."

"Okay. Pause, rewind, erase image," Buffy said.

"Yeah." Spike frowned. "Good idea. But the point is, I'm evil and they know it. Only reason they ended up tolerating me in your life, Slayer, was because I convinced them I had something you needed."

Buffy flushed, then said in a strained voice, "You may not have chosen a soul, but you kept the chip. You're not--not evil."

This would have knocked him to his knees in gratitude, once, and to hell splitting hairs about whether or not she really believed it. Now, Spike felt impatience tightening in him, even a stir of anger. "Yeah," he said flatly, "I am. You may not want to think it, but there's a lot of things I could do if I had a mind to."

He stared at her and she stared back skeptically, and as the moment stretched unbroken by her, he suddenly knew she wasn't ever going to ask why he'd chosen his current existence over one with a soul. But he understood now, his own choice and hers. She wouldn't have wanted the man he'd have been with a soul, not in the long run; what she wanted was what she already had, a half-breed monster she could own without risk of love. He was to her the shell of badness; the illusion of good.

"So tell me something evil you've done lately," she challenged him at last.

"Beg pardon?"

"While you were gone. Free of me. Walking the wild side again. You must have cut a wide swathe. I mean, just because you don't cook doesn't mean you can't call up for delivery, right? Find some vampire chippie, make her your willing ho. Do you and your bidding too."

Spike felt a chill touch his spine and uncurl down into his balls. Bloody hell, he thought, trying not to show his dismay. The hell of it was, she didn't believe what she was saying, or didn't want to. She was just being flip. "Right," he said aloud, feeling his way ahead, knowing he wouldn't lie to her and hating himself for it. "Well, yeah. There's that." He paused. "Tried that, actually. Thing is, it's no fun being evil by proxy. I'm a hands-on kind of fellow."

"Right. Hands on." She smirked as if remembering where his hands had been earlier.

"Like to do my own killin'," Spike continued, looking at her seriously. "More honest that way." She made a long-suffering face, clearly dismissing his words. He realized she wasn't even really hearing him. "Did one girl," he said slowly and carefully, watching her eyes, trying to drill inward to where she lived and make sure she got it. "When I hit New York, 'bout a month after I left. Young thing beggin' for change on a corner. I'd hooked up, just like you said. Young vamp, just turned that year, eager to please an old man like me. She killed, I fed...that's how I knew it wasn't for me."

Buffy's face had been slowly changing as he spoke, as he took her innocence. "Are you telling me," she asked--and there she was, he thought, possibly the last vision of her he'd ever have, naked and pure as a virgin in his bed, looking like Joan of Arc with her short fine hair and holy eyes--"Are you telling me you killed a girl because you had to know?"

"I killed her because I was hungry."

"Oh, sorry. Silly me," Buffy whispered, tears filling her eyes, her voice cracking. "That makes it all right then."

Spike pulled the stiff, cold cloak of honesty around himself and kept his voice hard: "Thought you wanted to know. You asked the question, you need the answer. You said you cared about me. About me, Buffy. Not some toffed-up blighter with a smooth line."

She got up off the bed, stumbling away without even a thought for her clothes, and he leapt up after her, grabbed and turned her around. "Look at me. Look at me," he said deliberately, and she did, eyes spilling tears. "Not just a leather coat and a pretty face, love. Don't got a soul." He ground the words in. "You want that, you know where he lives."

"Oh god," she said, staring through him. "I thought I could do this. I was so wrong."

Spike dug his hands into her shoulders, feeling desperate now to connect with her. He knew her well, he should have expected this collapse. Say nothing and she'd bask in blissful ignorance all her days; tell her the truth and she crumbled.

"That was my last kill. You know I wouldn't lie to you."

"Maybe that's what I..." She broke off, tried to turn away. "I have to get out of here."

"No." He held her, kneading his hands into her muscled shoulders to immobilize her.

Disbelieving, Buffy choked half-hysterically on laughter and tears. "No?"

"No." Spike held her firmly. "You want bad, but you don't want what's real. This is real, Buffy. Give it a taste."

"You don't even--don't even feel sorry for killing her, not because it's wrong--she was just a meal to you." She was begging him with her eyes to deny the accusation, to lie.

"You're right," Spike said deliberately. "I'm not sorry. Not because it's wrong, anyhow."

He felt her go stunned and still in his grasp. The horror on her face told him she was realizing who he was all over again, as if for the first time, reawakening to everything she'd made herself forget when she'd started coming regular to his bed. "You're a monster--" Her right hand rose to deliver a blow.

Tired, cynical, angry, he grabbed her wrist. "One who's damn tired of reruns." He yanked her in and kissed her. She struggled, not as forcefully as she should have, and he spun her back to the bed and fell with her onto the covers, pinning her down across them, game facing and making her look at him.

"Care for this, Slayer. Care for me." He kissed her more gently; her lips, her jaw. She was limp and unmoving beneath him. He took a chance and stroked her hair with one hand. "Said I'd change for you and I have. Now it's your turn. Change your lines for me. 'Cause if you don't we'll be spinnin' our wheels in this rut until time runs out or one of us is dust."

"Or both," she said, barely moving her lips.

Spike unvamped and gazed at her, clear eyed. "I love you like a terrible wound. You're the soul I don't have...but you're no angel, pet. And I'm not sayin' that just because you kill my kind. I'm unnatural. You are too." He paused, watching thoughts flicker like shadows under the surface of her eyes. "You can have your will with me, if you only let me in."

There was a long silence between them, and then she whispered from the edge, "How can I trust you?"

"Try." He touched her cheek. "What's the worst that could happen?"

"I lose my soul, I lose my friends, the world ends in fire and death and we all end up in hell."

Spike blinked, momentarily blown off course. "Uh. Yeah. Right." He rallied. "But that could happen any old day, couldn't it?"

"One minute you say you're evil, then you say you've changed--what am I supposed to think?"

"I am evil. I have changed."

He watched her consider this. "Evil does as evil is," she said after a moment, stubborn in her strange beliefs.

"Not true," Spike said, feeling faintly insulted. Still, she wasn't crying any longer. It gave him hope. "I'm rotten to the core. Doesn't mean I have to go about bitin' everything I see to prove it."

"You're not just evil, you're cracked."

He grit his teeth. "Not hard to see why, is it? You can't even quote right."

She sighed, and it was over. He felt it the moment the fight left her, though she was still tense beneath him. When she spoke, it was from someplace fragile and her voice was whispery, as if she was feeling her way out of the dark, trying to put into words something she hadn't before. "I think sometimes, it's like--like having a lion for a pet. This thing that would rip me to shreds if I'm not careful. Eat whatever it wants. Amoral." She paused, looking up at him. "An animal."

A wary sense of relief touched him. "Sounds about right, love."

"A lion likes to kill, likes to eat. It's what a lion does," she said, talking to convince herself now. "If a lion were a vampire, you wouldn't even call it evil, really...."

And there she went. He'd thought maybe she was ready to be honest at last, but not so. She sought truth only fleetingly, and then retreated again. It was her own, solitary dance. He could see, with all his clear-eyed cynicism, the conversion process taking place, as he became a lover to her again, as she lay down with the lion. Affection for her moved him to a forgiveness he didn't even realize he'd withheld.

"Lions do other things, too," he said. And he smiled at her, moving. 
 

 

 


 

The End, The Beginning