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Casablanca

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"Of all the gin joints..."

Okay, so Manny's Homey Hideaway was no Rick's Place, and he hadn't worn a dinner jacket since the forties, but as he watched her stride in his direction, the skirts of her long red leather coat swirling around her legs, Spike was pretty sure he knew how Humphrey Bogart must have felt.

She looked good, he thought. A little tired maybe, a little heavy-handed with the eye-liner. But the short hair suited her.

He ran a hand over his own mousy stubble. These days, he tried to keep a low profile and bleach-blond was far too noticeable. The duster, too, was long since gone.

He was just an ordinary bloke in a bar. It was a wonder she even recognised him.

'Course, he was a vampire, and it was a demon bar, but still...

She reached his side, nodded, and climbed up onto the barstool next to his, like they'd seen each other only yesterday instead of not for ten whole years.

"Spike."

Somehow, he found his voice.

"Buffy."

Saying her name felt all wrong, but Manny's wasn't the sort of establishment where you said the word 'Slayer' lightly. Not unless you wanted half the customers running away screaming, and the other half trying to rip your head off.

A familiar shiny red battleaxe with a stake for a haft had clattered down onto the bar, the impact sending the contents of his glass slopping over the rim. He snatched the glass up and held it out of harm's way, then glanced over his shoulder to see how everyone had reacted.

Maybe the rip-your-head-off part of the crowd had had an early night, he thought, because, while some of his fellow punters had suddenly become very absorbed in their drinks, most were sidling out the door.

"Careful with that thing, love." He indicated the battleaxe. "Nearly spilt the rotgut."

She ignored him. "I'll have what he's having."

The eponymous Manny - a seven foot tall Chirago demon, with bull-horns and six-inch claws -who'd been casting sneering looks at his departing clientele in a vain attempt to shame them into staying put - gave her a wary nod.

"You got it, lady."

Wiping the glass he was holding with a dingy-looking rag, Manny set it down in front of her and poured brown viscous liquid into it.

The queasy-making way the oily surface bubbled and roiled would have been enough to warn most people off, but she didn't even blink. Instead, she picked up the glass and raised it to her lips.

"Take it easy, pet," Spike hurried to say, before she could do herself any damage . "Believe me, you don't wanna mess with this stuff. It's poison. Maybe literally. 'Sides, as I recall, you got no head for drink."

She turned to look at him. Suddenly, her face contorted and changed. The next moment yellow eyes under ridged brows were blazing into his. Her lips twisted in a fangy grin.

"That was then," she said. "This is now."

She drank the noxious liquid in one quick gulp.

Her empty glass banged down on the counter, just as his full one dropped from his hand to shatter on the floor. Brown slime sizzled and hissed around fragments of broken glass . There was a whiff of charred floorboard.

"What the bloody buggering fuck?"

"Weren't expecting it, huh?" She was holding out her glass for Manny to pour her a second. "Now, why would that be? Oh yeah, I know."

One long, claw-like nail stabbed in his direction. "It's because you haven't seen me for ten years, you unbelievable asshole, and you've no clue what's been going on in my life. Also, I hate what you've done with your hair."

He kept his gaze averted from her face. His whole body was shaking and he couldn't seem to make it stop.

"Yeah, sorry about that." His voice was shaking too. "Been a bit busy."

"So I've heard," she said. "Good work, by the way," she added, sounding a little less hostile.

This time, he didn't even try to choke out a response.

When she spoke again, her accusing tone had been replaced by a touch of uncertainty.

"You know I'm all soul-having, right? I've never touched a single drop of human blood since the day I was turned. Cross my heart and hope to die for...guess it'll be the fourth time, huh?"

His hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists, mainly to try and stop the shaking. "Can smell it on you - the soul."

That part of her hadn't changed, which was why, he supposed, he'd missed the part that had.

He licked suddenly dry lips "How did it happen? Who...who....?"

But he couldn't get the word out.

"Sired me?" she finished for him. "Not Angel, if that's what you're thinking."

"I wasn't..." he began, then stopped and shook his head. He hadn't been thinking it, had he?

"Yes," she said, as if she'd read his mind. "You were."

"I only meant..." He licked his lips again. "Was only askin'..."

Words failed him completely. He cleared his throat, while she watched him, eyes wide and unblinking, like a cat's.

Or a vampire's.

A sudden thought gripped him.

"Did Willow do it to save your life? Get some random vamp to sire you, then re-ensoul you? Because if she did, she really needs to learn to let go."

"Uh-uh." Her voice was gentler this time. "This'll sound crazy to you. Hell, it still sounds crazy to me, but it was my choice."

"Well," she qualified, "when I say choice, it was a back to the wall kind of deal."

She made a dismissive hand gesture. "Cutting a long story short - apocalypse cult. Prophecy about a vamped Slayer being the only one who could stop them from ending the world. The usual. Except the usual tends to give us more warning. This time, it was do it right now or world go boom tomorrow."

He just stared at her. The words coming out of her mouth - her inhuman, fang-filled mouth -didn't seem to make any sense.

There was an awkward pause. Then she said, "And yes, Willow did the re-ensouling. Not that she had a choice either. It was do it or have a vampire vampire slayer on her hands."

There was another pause. When he still said nothing, she went on, "Willow's fine, by the way, and so are Dawn and the others. They said to say hi. Even Angel."

He still couldn't seem to process what she was saying.

Except for one thing.

"You're saying you did it on purpose?"

She frowned, and there was a flash of anger in the yellow eyes.

"Slow on the uptake much? That's exactly what I'm saying."

He was angry now too.

"And your friends were okay with this? Giles-Angel-were okay with it?"

"Of course they weren't okay with it. Giles....well, he freaked. Said it had always been his worst nightmare."

She went quiet a moment, gaze unfocused. Then a shudder ran through her and she turned to him again.

"But like I said, there was no time. And it's not like I could ask anyone else."

"But..."

Anger turned to bewilderment again.

Why couldn't she?

"What about Faith?" he said. "She's got no family - no little sis to take care of. Would've thought she'd be first in line to stick her hand up?"

She sipped her drink, then grimaced, as if noticing the taste for the first time.

"Dawn's all grown up now. She doesn't need me to take care of her any more. And Faith has a kid, so it was never on the table. Also you'd know all this if you'd kept in touch, and did I say yet what an unbelievable asshole you are? "

Might've mentioned it, yeah.

"But they need you," he persisted. "You're still CEO of Slayers R Us, or whatever the fuck you are, right? Are you really saying there was no one ready and willing in the whole of your organisation?"

"No, I'm not." She gave him a defiant look. "I'm saying I didn't even ask."

She finished her drink and pushed the glass away. "Also, as the whatever the fuck I am, which I still am, fangs or no fangs, I have to make the hard choices. You know that."

No, I sodding well don't, he wanted to say. That's total and utter bollocks. I know it, Slayer, and so do you.

But he said nothing at all. What was there to say? He hadn't even known about this apocalypse. And even if he had - even if he'd been there - he'd long ago forfeited any right to argue the toss with her.

In any case, who was he kidding? If she'd decided getting herself vamped was the only way to stop the world ending, he'd have probably stuck up his hand and offered to sire her.

Speaking of which...

"So, if it wasn't Angel-"

She broke in quickly. "It was just some random vamp, okay? A girl vamp, if you must know. And after she'd done the deed, I staked her. Which, I guess, makes me a bad vampire child, but still..."

"Yeah well," he said, to hide his shock, because even now the thought of staking Dru made him come over all queasy, "you wouldn't be the first."

Strained silence fell between them, only partially filled by the hum of muted conversation in the room and the wailing voice of some country singer on the jukebox. Their fellow punters were still studiously ignoring them.

The strain had just about reached breaking point when she signalled to Manny. "Same again, with a pigs' juice chaser."

A shudder ran down his spine as he watched her raise the tall glass of blood to her mouth and take a long swallow.

"I...I dunno what to say," he said, because her eyes were on him, gauging his reaction, and he felt he had to say something

Her face shifted again, and suddenly, she was just Buffy. A little older, a little paler, a little more Goth with the make-up, and with blood smears on her lips.

"You could say hi. You could say, nice to see you, Slayer. You could say go away you disgusting unclean thing, if you want. God knows, I said it to you enough times."

She wiped the blood from her lips with the back of her hand. "Just don't, whatever you do, say you feel sorry for me, okay?"

He frowned. After a moment, he snapped his fingers. "Juice me up too, squire. Can't let the lady drink alone."

Manny gave him an exasperated look. "But it's payday today. I told you that, Spike. Thought you said you were gonna take a hike till it was over."

He shrugged. "One for the road?"

Manny's frown bit deeper. "All right, then. But make it quick and don't start anything, okay? My overheads...well, you cause me any trouble and they ain't getting any smaller."

He made his eyes wide and innocent. "You know me, Manny."

"I do," Manny muttered, as he filled another glass with blood. "That's the whole fucking problem."

Spike clinked his glass against hers. "Here's lookin' at you, kid."

She rolled her eyes, but a half-smile played about her lips. "Right back at you, grandpa."

They drank for a moment in silence. Then she said,

"How does it taste? Human blood, I mean. Is this stuff -" she indicated the contents of her glass -"anything like it?"

"Yeah," he lied. "Can hardly tell 'em apart."

Silence fell again, but she was watching him sidelong. Suddenly, she burst out, "Okay, I know what I said, but if you have to say it, just say it."

He jumped. "What? Say what?"

"That you do feel sorry for me, of course. That you wish you'd been there so you could've stopped it. That you wanted me to live, get married, have kids, grow old surrounded by friends and family. Whatever."

He took another sip of his blood. "Don't tell me. Angel?"

Their eyes met. He tried to keep his expression bland, but he must have failed miserably, because after a moment, she began to laugh.

Once she'd started, she couldn't seem to stop. Before long, she was holding her sides and crowing for breath. Tears ran down her face, and every horned and fanged head in the room had turned to stare at her before hurriedly looking away again

"Stop! Stop!" she gasped, clutching at him, then dissolved back into helpless laughter, when he shrugged and raised his eyebrows, all innocence.

"Don't be too hard on the old man," Spike said, when at last she had herself back under control. "He's always hated bein' a vampire. 'Cept when he was evil, o'course. An' thinkin' about how much he liked bein' evil just makes him feel guilty. Guiltier."

"I know." She blotted make-up from her face with the edge of her sleeve. "I even know he means well. But not helpful, you know?"

"'Spose not." He gave her a sympathetic look, while he thought bitter thoughts. Yeah, well, s'always about him, innit?

"How about the Scoobies?" he asked. "How are they dealing with the change? Also, Faith has rugrats? Never imagined that. I always thought...that is..."

"That it'd be me?" She gave him a wry smile. "It came as a shock to her too. She's dealing, though. As for the others..."

Her face fell. She turned her glass around and around for a while, eyes on the contents. Then she said,

"It's kind of like when I died before. They're all trying to act normal around me, but inside they're scared. Scared I'll go crazy and bite them. Scared because they don't want me to know they're scared I'll go crazy and bite them. So they try to act like nothing's changed, and it's a great big steaming pile of don't go there that ends up making me feel like I wanna go crazy and bite them."

She shrugged. "You know?"

He nodded. "Yeah, I know."

They smiled at each other.

"But it's not all bad," she conceded. "Willow made me a magic mirror so I can still see to do my make-up, and Dawn bought me a special cat's toothbrush so I won't get tartare on my fangs. Which was sweet of her, I thought."

"Yeah, " he agreed. "Sweet."

She shot him a suspicious look, but he managed the bland expression a little better this time and she relaxed again.

"So anyway," she said, "they're dealing."

"Even Giles?"

Her face sobered. "I didn't hear from him for a long time, it's true," she admitted. "But then he wrote to me - the old-fashioned way - pen and paper. Kind of a nice letter actually. I think - I hope-he's gonna be okay."

"Good," he said. "That's good."

The silence between them this time was more companionable, taking him back to bittersweet moments, snatched between other not so sweet moments, on a back porch in Sunnydale.

In fact...

Fuck it, not back to that, are we?

Before he could stop himself -bloody idiot! Always shootin' yourself in the foot - the words spilled out.

"So, if things are all hunky dory, Slayer, what're you doing out here in the sticks? Not after a bit of cold comfort 'cos you're fed up with everyone actin' like you died, are you?"

She bristled, and he steeled himself for the never-to-be-forgotten Slayer left hook to the nose.

But all she said was, "Don't flatter yourself. I'm working."

But then she slumped over her glass again. "Doesn't hurt that you're here, though. And okay, I totally knew that you would be. You may not have been keeping tabs on us, Spike, but we've been watching you."

She raised her glass to him in mock salute.

"That's a lot of small towns you've been through since L.A. went boom. And a lot of dead demon crime lords."

"Oh." He winced. "An' there was me thinkin' I was keepin' under the Slayer radar."

"Not hardly. Xander's taken to calling you 'You Will Know Him By the Trail of Dead.'"

"Er...what?"

She grimaced. "Some death metal band from years back. I guess I ought to like them now I'm a vampire, huh? Can't say I do, though."

"Don't think it's compulsory," he assured her.

She gave him a grateful smile, and the companionable silence fell again.

Manny, meanwhile, had taken to looking at the beaten-up clock over the bar, then glaring in their direction.

They both ignored him.

After a while, Spike cleared his throat.

"So, I know we've already established that I'm an unbelievable arsehole, but aren't you gonna bawl me out some more, for not telling you I wasn't dead? Thing is, Slayer..."

But she interrupted him. "I would have done until this happened." She ran her fingers down her face, making it clear what she meant by 'this.' "Now....well, I guess I understand. In fact, I kinda feel like doing the same thing."

"What do you mean?" he said, though he was pretty sure he knew.

"Disappearing. Starting over some place new. Whatever you wanna call it. I totally get you now, Spike. It's weird." She shrugged. "Your instincts. Why you hate 'em. Why you love 'em. Vampire, I guess."

"I didn't..." he began, then stuttered to a halt. Cleared his throat. Tried again. "I didn't mean to run away, you know."

She gave him a disbelieving look, and he stumbled on.

"I meant to call you, Buffy. I swear I did. I just wanted to wait until I...oh, I dunno. Until I had something going for me separate from you. I didn't want you to think I was that sodding desperate."

He cleared his throat again. He'd practised this speech so many times, but ten long years hadn't made it any easier to get the words out.

"But then I found out something, see? I found I could see the damage I'd done to you much better from a distance. So I thought if I came near you again, I'd lose that. Be back to bein' the selfish tosser who stalked you and hurt you and wouldn't leave you in peace no matter how much you begged him to."

Her pale face was solemn as she stared back at him. "Who is also the guy who saved my life."

She laughed again, just a breath this time. "Sunnydale, huh? The go-to destination for big old buckets of irony."

He opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment, the outer door was flung open and a couple of hefty vamps dressed in sharp suits that strained across their broad shoulders pushed their way inside.

One of them snarled at a hapless Brachen demon emerging from the john at just the wrong moment, then sent him flying across the room with a casual blow of one big fist, easy as swatting flies.

A scared hush sank over the room. Everyone - vamps, demons, even a couple of humans huddled together in a corner- hunkered even lower over their drinks, trying to avoid being noticed.

As the two henchvamps scoped the place out, Spike kept his head down, attempting to make himself invisible. When he glanced to his right, it was to find that Buffy had done the same, and there was no sign of that all too conspicuous battleaxe.

So she really was working. In fact, it looked like they were working the same problem.

His eyes met hers. "Van Vleck?" he mouthed at her.

She nodded.

It was on the tip of his tongue to ask her why she was lowering herself to Van Vleck's level, instead of letting one of her flunkeys - like, say, him - deal with the bastard, but at that moment Van Vleck himself strode into the room, followed by the rest of his entourage. There were eleven of them in all, if you included the pretty little piece of blonde fluff in the red dress hanging on Van Vleck's arm - and a ripple of flesh and flash of fang showed that you should definitely include her.

As for Van Vleck himself, he was enormous, as wide as he was tall, and with a mean look, even for a vampire. Spike didn't doubt for one minute that all the stories he'd heard about the bloke since he'd arrived in this place were true. Even the one about the alligators.

Some of these small-town vamp gang bosses were so bloody up themselves.

He glanced up, to see Manny looking from him to Van Vleck and back again, as if torn. Then Manny opened his mouth to shout Van Vleck a warning.

It was now or never.

Spike shook his vampire features into place. When he looked at Buffy, she'd done the same.

Huh! he thought. Her true face was beautiful if you looked at it with yours.

"You take the five on the left." She hefted the daft-looking battleaxe. "I'll take the six on the right."

"Right you are, Slayer."

He spun around, picked up his bar stool in one hand and snapped off one of the legs. Then he leapt straight at the nearest henchvamp, toppling him into a table of scared punters. While they screamed and tried to crawl out of harm's way, he got astride the henchvamp, pinning him down with his knees and used the stool leg to stake him right through the heart.

That was one down.

To his right, she was on the move. Still on his knees, he watched, as she leapt from her barstool, pivoted off the nearest wall with one foot, changed direction in mid-air and beheaded an onrushing henchvamp with the business end of her weapon, then dusted another with the other business end.

Poetry in motion, like always. In fact, if anything, she was better.

More graceful, more deadly. Definitely more feral.

Three down.

Not to be outdone, he sprang to his feet and charged another henchvamp, smashing him against the wall and then using the stool leg to bash his head in.

Four.

"Stay together, you dumbfucks!" Van Vleck was yelling. "I don't pay you just to die."

The remaining six henchvamps had grouped themselves in a protective half-ring in front of Van Vleck and the blonde girl. Van Vleck shoved the girl forward amongst them suddenly.

"You too, sweetheart."

So much for chivalry, Spike thought. Not that the girl seemed fazed. Probably, it had happened before.

"There're only two of them, for fuckssake. Kill them!" Van Vleck shouted.

Then his gaze was on Manny, who stood frozen behind the bar, a look of sheer terror on his face.

"Found someone dumb enough to try and take me on, huh, Manny? You'll be sorry for this, you asshole. First, I'm calling in all my loans, then I'm breaking every bone in your butt-ugly face. Then - alligators!"

"You know what my mom always used to say?" Buffy called, as she ducked under one flailing arm, delivered a thunderous roundhouse kick to the back of someone's head, then grabbed the blonde girl by the hair and flung her bodily across the room.

"No, what's that?" Spike asked, smashing a vulnerable kneecap with a steel-toed boot, breaking a nose with a sweet Glasgow kiss, and following both up with a quick stake to the heart.

"Never. Make. Promises. You Can't. Keep." Each word was punctuated by the sound of preternatural bodies exploding into dust.

Then it was the two of them against Van Vleck all by his lonesome.

Spike had to give Van Vleck some credit. He was pretty tough for a small-town vamp with an inflated sense of self-importance, but even so nothing they couldn't handle.

In the end, he stood back and let Buffy do the honours. It was worth it for the visuals.

Which were bloody amazing, as it turned out. He could have watched her slay Van Vleck all night.

But sadly, it wasn't long before a final blow from her battleaxe sent Van Vleck's head flying from his shoulders. It exploded into dust in mid-air, raining down onto the larger pile of dust that had once been his body.

"That," she said, resting the axe blade on the ground, "was easy."

"Look out, Slayer!" He pushed her clear as the blonde girl, howling like a banshee, tried to leap on her back and bite her.

"You killed him, you bitch!" the blonde girl shrieked. "I'm gonna tear your face off. I'm gonna ruin it."

"Oh, for..." He knocked her out with the stool leg. "Some people just don't know when they're better off."

The silence in the room had taken on a stunned quality. Manny was still standing behind the bar. He was gripping it so hard his huge claws had gouged deep gashes into the worn faux wood surface. Scared faces peered out from under overturned tables.

Someone coughed, then protested, "It's all that vamp dust, man," when they were hissed at to shut up.

Spike met Manny's eyes. The Chirago demon's were red and set deep in his horned head. Breath snorted through his bull-like nostrils. The air prickled with tension.

Suddenly, Manny banged his fist down on the bar with a sound like a thunderclap, then tipped his head back and roared - literally roared - with laughter.

At once, as if at a signal, there were whoops and cries of, "Good on you, Spike, man," from around the room, even some tentative back-slapping.

Then the Brachen demon, sporting a black eye and some broken spines in its prickly face, came up to Buffy and thrust a soiled paper napkin and a ballpoint into her hands.

"You're that Slayer that's a vampire, ain'tcha? Can I have your autograph?"

Buffy raised a disbelieving eyebrow. "Sure." She signed the napkin with a flourish.

"Thanks." The Brachen demon gave her an adoring look. "You guys-she signed it." he said to the room at large, waving the napkin in the air.

There were more whoops.

"Give you twenty bucks for it," someone shouted, and soon a bidding war was in progress.

Spike took Buffy's elbow and steered her back to the bar, where Manny was already lining up a row of shot glasses.

"How come some piddly little Brachen demon's heard of you, and I haven't?"

"Beats me," Buffy shrugged. "Stories are out there. Guess you just didn't wanna listen."

Yeah, sounds about right.

Manny was humming to himself as he poured their drinks. None of the usual rotgut this time, Spike noted. Just the good stuff.

He picked up a shot glass and tipped the contents down his throat. "That's your overheads sorted, then, mate."

Manny grinned, showing an impressive set of cow-like grinders. "Yup. I won't be takin' any more loans from shady underworld characters in a hurry, that's for sure. I'm goin' strictly legit from now on. I wanna do the place up nice, I'll get a bank loan next time like a regular demon."

Buffy and Spike exchanged amused glances. "Yes," Buffy said. "You do that."

Manny leaned his elbows on the counter, watching with an expression of benign interest as they drank.

After a while, he said, "Can I interest you folks in some fresh O Pos? I keep it for Van Vleck's personal use when he drops by, but he won't be wanting it now, will he?" He spat on the floor at his feet. "Asshole."

Then he saw Buffy's face and flinched. "It's okay, lady. Please don't slay me. I know it's against the law to have human blood on the premises. I won't do it again. Cuz I don't need to, thanks to you."

He smiled what he probably thought was an ingratiating smile.

"You'd better not." Buffy frowned at him. "And I'm not interested, okay?"

"You sure?" Manny persisted. "See, I couldn't help overhearing earlier when you told Mr Spike, here, that you've never tasted human blood. It's nothing like the animal crap I serve. All the vamps say so."

Buffy shot Spike a furious look. "I knew you were a damn liar."

He gave her an apologetic shrug. "Sorry, love. Knew you were missing out and didn't wanna rub it in."

She softened at once. "It's been a while since anyone called me love."

He gave her look of mock disgust.

"Self-pity'll get you nowhere, pet."

"Jerk."

But she was smiling.

It seemed like the bidding was over, and the hum of conversation had started up in the room again. Manny, meanwhile, had ducked out back and returned with a broom and trash bag. Coming out from behind the bar, he began to collect the debris of the fight, including the blonde vamp girl, who he draped over one shoulder as easily as if she were a child.

"Think she'd like to work for me?" he asked, as he sat the girl carefully in a chair and laid her lolling head down on the table. "When she comes around, I mean? Cuz I could do with the help, and it looks like she needs a job."

Spike didn't think it very likely.

"You could ask," he said.

"Come back with me," Buffy said, suddenly.

He downed his third shot before answering.

"I dunno, pet. Water under the bridge an' all that. Maybe it's better I don't."

She frowned. "But we work well together still, just like we used to. I thought that was obvious."

He grimaced. "Nice of you to say so, Slayer, but not really how I remember it. Mostly, I just remember gettin' in your way."

"Oh for..." She gave him an exasperated look. "Okay, be like that. But you could do a lot of good - we could do a lot of good. Together. But here you are, as usual, wasting your time getting wasted."

"Hey!" he protested. "I did my bit in that fight, same as you. In fact, you couldn't have done it without me."

She rolled her eyes. "Likewise. Which is kind of my point."

They stared at each other. After a moment, he grimaced.

"Spose your point's a good point."

"Sure it is." She jumped down off her bar stool. "Let's go. My car's a few blocks away."

"Your car? " He stared after her, then swore under his breath, grabbed a final shot glass and downed the contents, before saluting Manny, and following her. "You mean they let you drive?"

"Jerk!" she said again, and punched him on the arm.

More whoops and cries of, "Get a room, you two," pursued them into the night.

"You really want me to come with you?" he said, when he caught up with her. "In spite of-"

She paused under a streetlamp.

"-the big, scaredy runaway? Sure I do. Or I wouldn't ask. I wouldn't even be here. I'd have left you to carry on fighting the good fight in some of America's least desirable locations all by yourself."

She began to walk again, but he put a hand on her arm, staying her.

"Why now? I know you said it's not because you want a shoulder to cry on, but it's been ten sodding years, love."

The streetlight glazed her eyes with gold, so that even human-faced, there was something feral about her.

"Why do you think?" she said. "It's because I care about you, dumbass, and...and, dammit, I can forgive you for not calling if I want to. Also, since I'm stuck this way, and it's still weird and unsettling, I thought it might be nice to have another vamp with a soul around who doesn't hate himself just for existing."

She looked anxious suddenly. "You don't, do you? I mean, you never used to, but..."

He gave her a reassuring smile.

"S'all right, love. Can't say I'm my biggest fan exactly, but I'm still not much for introspection." He shrugged. "I manage."

She relaxed. "That's a relief, cuz gotta say, there's only so much navel-gazing a gal can do without wanting to stake something."

"Angel again?" He gave her a sympathetic look. "Speakin, as a fellow sufferer, love, I get where you're comin' from."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Leave Angel out of it, okay? This is nothing to do with him. The way I see it, you owe me."

She began to walk again. "All those years letting me think you were dead. If I let you up off your knees any time in the next decade, you'll be damn lucky, that's all."

Well, that sounds promising, he thought, as he hurried after her.

But he couldn't let her have it all her own way.

"About that never having tasted human blood thing, love," he said, as he fell into step beside her again. "Manny's right. Don't knock it before you try it."

She gave him a don't-argue-with-me look so familiar it thrilled him to the core. He hadn't realised until now how much he missed it. "No chance."

"But if the bloke was willing," he persisted. "Speaking of, what's old Riley up to these days?"

She punched him on the arm again, harder this time. "No way in hell, okay? And enough with the ex-boyfriend talk."

"Ow!" He rubbed his arm. "Funny you mentioned hell. Now you're a vampire, you should let me take you there some time. It can be quite lovely this time of year, so they say."

"You're crazy. Also, I still hate what you've done with your hair."

But she was laughing, and after a moment, her hand snuck out and twined fingers with his.

"It's good to have you back, Spike," she said, and her fingers might be cold, but her eyes were warm as she looked at him. "I've missed you."

"Yeah, Slayer. Me too."

She grinned at him. "This just might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, huh?"

He smiled back. "It might at that."

Or maybe of a whole lot more.