"To the rafters!" Spike agreed.
Spike and Anya clinked shot glasses and drank deeply. They'd each finished a healthy dose of Jack Daniels, and neither showed signs of stopping any time soon. Why quit now that the ache was starting to lessen just a bit?
"And he always acted like he was ashamed of me, you know? 'Let's make this a quiet time, Anya,' or 'Can we not talk about my penis in front of my friends?' or 'Anya, the check-out line at Wal-Mart is not exactly the appropriate place to talk about lubricants.'" She shrugged, irritated. "Like I was supposed to know."
Spike nodded sympathetically. "Believe me, I understand the whole 'ashamed' thing. This girl, you know, the one I've been telling you about, she's always acting like I'm her dirty little secret. Bloody degrading is what it is."
Anya refilled their glasses. "Spike, you can stop saying 'this girl.' It's Buffy, right?" She raised her glass. "Skal!"
Spike froze. "What? No," he scoffed unconvincingly, wilting under her stare. "All right, fine. Yes, it's Buffy." He drained his glass. "How did you know?"
Anya snorted. "Please. It was, like, so obvious. You'd have to be blind or totally self-absorbed to miss it." She paused, looking pensive. "Which, I guess, is why no one else has figured it out."
"Did it ever look like—I mean, could you tell if—" Spike hesitated. "Did it seem to you like she ever cared about me?"
"Umm," Anya faltered.
Spike waved his hand. "Forget it." He topped off their glasses. "Cheers."
"I'm sure the sex was very good," Anya said cheerily, as Spike nearly choked on his whiskey. "What with you both having super-strength and all of that athleticism. I'll bet you gave her lots of orgasms."
Spike gave her a knowing smile. "Oh, yeah. The sex was great." His eyes saddened. "It was the in-between times that weren't so good."
Anya nodded. "For us, too. Me and Xander, I mean. When we were alone, it was okay. Well, it was better than okay," she said, smiling wistfully at the memory. "But in front of his friends, forget it. It was like he was always trying to fix me, or something. Like I embarrassed him." She closed her eyes. "Don't we deserve better?"
"Absolutely," Spike replied emphatically, pushing a newly filled glass toward her. "We absolutely deserve better than the two of them. Only…"
"Yeah, only we still want them, right?" She shook her head angrily. "No. They are totally unworthy of us."
"Damn right. Unworthy," Spike echoed, his speech slurred.
"Xander totally needs to be taught a lesson." Anya's breathing grew heavier as the whiskey sped through her body. "Buffy, too, of course," she added. "I mean, sometimes, don't you just wish—"
"You know what I wish?" Spike broke in loudly. "I wish that Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale." His brows furrowed in concentration, but the whiskey was making it harder and harder to concentrate. "No, wait – I wish that Angel had never come to Sunnydale. Now that would be something. Or maybe I wish that I had never come here." He tipped his elbow and emptied his glass. "Yep, it's definitely one of those three."
"A world where Buffy Summers hadn't come to Sunnydale," Anya said sleepily as her eyes clouded. "I remember that world. I liked that world."
"Or maybe I wish I'd never had this chip in my head," Spike mused to himself. "I could have killed her like I was supposed to, right healthy. Moved the hell on."
Anya rose unsteadily to her feet. "No, you said you wished Buffy hadn't come here. That would solve both of our problems."
Spike looked at her quizzically. "What, now?" he asked, peering at her.
She returned his gaze, her human features masked by her demonic visage. "Done."
And then all went black.
His head hurt. Throbbed was more like it. He fought down a wave of nausea when he rolled onto his side, groaned when the new position brought little relief from what felt like the mother of all hangovers.
He didn't even remember where the hell he'd ended up. The last thing he remembered was drinking more than his share of a fifth (or was it two?) with Anya at the shop. Everything after that was blank.
His hands began gingerly exploring his surroundings, feeling the sheet draped around his waist, a pillow under his head. He opened his eyes for a moment and caught a glimpse of blond hair splayed out on the pillow next to him in the instant before the pain caused him to clamp his eyes shut again.
In spite of the splitting headache, he almost smiled to himself. He couldn't believe that she'd actually taken him in, given the shape he must have been in last night. Just when he was finally beginning to believe that he was never going to be with her again, that they were through for good.
She stirred beside him, and he pulled her closer.
"Hello, lover," she said.
"Buffy," he murmured into her hair.
He never saw the blow coming, never actually had time to register the punch itself. And then he suddenly found himself busy registering the feel of his shoulder meeting the cement wall on the opposite side of the room.
"What the hell did you just call me?" Darla seethed.
"Darla?" he said stupidly, trying to focus.
"Yes, Darla," she spat out, gathering the sheet around her, towering over him in indignation. "You were expecting someone else, perhaps?" She threw his jeans at his head. "Typical. Last night you were begging for it, and now you're mumbling some other woman's name in your sleep."
"What about last night, now? And what are you doing in Sunnydale?" He pulled on his pants and rubbed his hands over his face in an effort to chase away the cobwebs. He closed his eyes, listening to the blood rushing in his ears. A dream, perhaps? A hallucination? He opened his eyes and did a double take at the sight of Darla. Nope, no hallucination there. "Wait, what are you doing alive?"
Darla threw him a withering glare. "Exactly how drunk were you last night?" She sighed the sigh of the mightily put-upon. "You know good and well that Sunnydale is my town, mine and the Master's. Just because you've decided to return to the fold doesn't mean you can start acting like I don't exist."
His eyes narrowed, uncomprehending. "Your town? Return to the fold?"
Darla slapped him across the face. Hard. "Snap out of it, Spike."
Realization hit at the same time as Darla's palm. Son of a bitch.
He'd said something last night, wished for something. Made a wish in front of a bloody vengeance demon. What the hell was it he'd said? He racked his brain but only dimly remembered wishing that he'd never come to Sunnydale. Unless he was very much mistaken, he was sitting on his ass in one of the back rooms of the Bronze. He remembered playing poker here once with Clem, minus the bed and minus Darla. So that wish, obviously not granted.
Wait, he'd wished that Angel had never come to Sunnydale. Said that before the other. Anya hadn't really done that. Had she?
Spike stared at Darla's enraged face. Anya had certainly the hell done something. The more he thought about it, a world without Angel suddenly sounded pretty damn good. So Angel had never come to Sunnyhell, and somehow that meant that the Master and Darla were in charge? There were worse things he could think of…
But even if Angel had never come, how had the two of them managed to get past Buffy? Spike's mouth suddenly went dry. Some memory was wound up in the knot of hangover and confusion, something about a prophecy.
A prophecy that said the Master was going to rise and kill the Slayer. Shit. What had he done?
"Stop thinking, Spike. You're gonna hurt yourself." Darla was pulling on a sweater, smoothing it down over a plaid, pleated skirt. She stopped suddenly, wheeling toward him. "Wait a minute, did you call me 'Buffy'? Were you dreaming about the Slayer in my bed, Spike?" She looked at him disdainfully. "That's just sick."
He lurched to his feet. "The Slayer? Buffy is the Slayer's name?"
"Spike, the amnesiac routine is starting to get really old. Yes, in case you've been under a rock for the last three years, the Slayer is named Buffy. For some unfathomable reason."
Buffy was alive. Spike almost fell back to the floor in sheer relief. But he wanted to get to her, check and make sure that she was really okay. "Right then. Just checking. I was dreaming of her, actually. Dreaming of draining her dry. Why don't I just go out and do that?" He started to move past her toward the door. If he could just get to Buffy, everything would be fine.
"Great idea. I hear Cleveland is very scenic this time of year."
Cleveland? Spike knew that if he asked Darla one more question, the only answer he was likely to get was another slap. "Ahh, right. Cleveland." He felt dizzy. It was little wonder he couldn't get his bearings. What kind of stupid world was this, anyway? Oh, right. It was the world he had made. And finally, he remembered the first thing he'd wished: that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. "Maybe I'll just wait on that, then," he finished dully.
Darla rolled her eyes. "Do whatever you want, Spike. Just don't do it here."
He glanced at her, confused. "What?"
"Yeah, listen, umm, you were great. We were great." Darla paused. "Well, I was great, at least. But I think our fling has been flung, no?"
It wasn't a question; that dismissive tone of voice he remembered. "I'll just be going then," he said as he edged toward the door.
"What an excellent idea." She shut the door in his face.
Just when he thought that this was far and away the worst night of his life and that there was no way that it could possibly get worse, he heard a familiar voice calling his name.
Oh, thank God. "Red, what the hell are you doing here? You've got to hide before someone sees you." He took Willow's arm and pushed her into the nearby maintenance closet.
She smiled at him, slow and lazy, in the dim light of the naked bulb illuminating the closet. "Well, now that you've got me here, Spike, whatever will you do with me?" She slid her hand across his abdomen, resting it on the top of his jeans.
"Willow?" he asked, pulling away from her. "What's gotten into you"—he peered at her—"and what's with the leather?"
She sounded like Willow, but she certainly didn't move like Willow or dress like Willow. And why did she still look like she was in high school? That didn't make any sense.
He was wrong. The night just got worse.
"Don't be shy, Spike," Willow purred. "We're family, after all. And you don't have to worry about Xander," she confided seductively, trailing her hand across his chest. "It's not like we're going steady or anything."
Spike blanched. Well, this just kept getting better and better. Xander was a vampire, too? And what was this about them being family?
God, had he turned her? Turned them both? The room was suddenly spinning, and not from the hangover.
"Well, there's Darla to think about," he spluttered, saying the first thing that came to mind.
Willow smiled wickedly. "I won't tell grandmamma if you don't." She leaned forward and took his earlobe between her teeth.
Oh, Christ. This was beyond Kafkaesque. "Knock it off, Wil," he said brusquely, pushing her away.
Her face fell into a pout. "Don't wanna play?" She looked thoughtful. "Probably just as well. The Master sent me to find you – he wants to talk to you."
Great, an audience with His Royal Fruit Punch Mouth. "Well, then I'd better go, hadn't I?" he said, feigning an authority he wished he felt.
"We'll have to find time later. You know, to talk." Willow leaned against the wall, jutted her hips forward suggestively. "Maybe after the hunt."
"Great." He opened the door and stumbled out into the hall to get away from her.
When he got his hands on Anya, Spike fumed, he'd throttle her until she looked like one of those stupid bobbleheads. He was just gonna have to figure out how to survive until he could get this mess sussed out, find someone to help him. The fact that his potential allies were all turning out to be vampires in this reality was a little disconcerting, though.
He'd just have to go talk to the Master, see if he could get any information out of him, and then find somewhere quiet to figure out what his next move was going to be.
He walked out of the back hallway, into the club itself. It looked much the same. Eerily so. There, the pool table. There, the bar. There, the stairs leading to the upper level. His chest felt tight, looking at the site of his first kiss with Buffy.
That's how he always thought of their kiss at the Bronze. The kiss after the Glory beating, that had been just a peck, after all. He'd been so surprised by it that he'd twisted his head away before he even really had a chance to taste her. And the kiss after the day they'd all spent auditioning for Broadway felt out of his control, beyond him somehow. Oh, he'd been there, all right, and had more than enjoyed himself, but it had felt forced, fated, bigger than both of them.
The kiss here, though, right under those stairs, that was all him and Buffy. Intimate. The way it had felt to finally have her in his arms, to have her finally come to him of her own free will – it had been indescribable.
Despair could drive a man to do crazy things. Stupid things. He'd been worried about never having the chance to be back in Buffy's bed, and now he might never even see her again.
Snap out of it, Spike, he told himself sternly. Losing his head was not gonna fix this. Losing his head was what had gotten him into this scrape in the first place.
"Spike, my boy," a voice boomed. "Come."
Spike jerked his head toward the Master, sitting on the stage like he was holding court in a throne room. The Master had always been big on pecking order and protocol, from what Spike remembered. As he approached, he bent one knee and kneeled.
"No, no. Rise, Spike," the Master said, coming down the stairs to greet him.
Spike bit back a grimace. God, he'd always hated this guy. One of the few things he and Angel ever had in common.
"So, how does it feel?"
Spike started warily. "How does what feel?"
"Being here, with all of us, coming back to the Order." The Master smiled, or at least Spike thought that was supposed to pass for a smile.
"Oh, it's, umm, you know."
The Master studied him sympathetically. "It's been a long time since Prague, Spike. Since we lost our Drusilla."
Drusilla was dead here, Spike realized with a jolt. She'd never made it out of that mob. He wondered what that was supposed to make him feel. He felt too numb to summon any emotion.
"She was the most delightfully mad creature I ever knew," the Master lamented, easing his arm around Spike's shoulders. "It was right for you to grieve, wreak your vengeance on the guilty parties. But it's also right that you came home, where you can be comforted in the bosom of your family."
Spike had had a bellyful of his family. His blood family, at any rate. "Yeah, about that—"
"Your family is all you have, Spike," the Master intoned. "There's been so much loss, but there's also been recovery. I've lost my dear Jesse, but he left me two precious gifts, my Willow and my Xander." Spike exhaled. That tidbit at least answered one burning question, whoever the hell Jesse was. The Master continued, "And we've lost Drusilla and Angelus, but you, my prodigal son, have returned." He clapped his hands abruptly. "We shall kill the fatted calf and celebrate."
"Yeah, before we do that," Spike began, "shouldn't we strategize what we're going to do about the Slayer?"
"Ah, yes, you always did have a thing for Slayers." The Master laughed. "The Slayer is of no concern to us here." He shrugged. "She was prophesied to come, and yet, we are unmolested. This town, this world, is ours. We'll deal with her in time."
Well, that sounded ominous. "You've got plans for her?"
"I have many plans, Spike," the Master said archly. "But now is a time for celebration, not business." He gestured to a minion next to the stage. "Bring us someone to eat."
Spike's stomach lurched. His stomach still felt 100 proof. "Nothing for me, thanks," he said hurriedly, as a girl in a bright blue dress was dragged forward.
The Master looked at him in surprise. "Are you well?" he asked, concerned.
"I'm full," Spike answered, watching the girl struggle. She seemed oddly familiar, but he couldn't place her.
"Well, maybe later," the Master returned. He jerked the girl out of the other vampire's grasp, spun her sharply, and sank his teeth into her throat.
The girl's terrified brown eyes fixed on Spike's face. Cordelia. Some school mate of Buffy's, as he remembered it. Worked with Angel, too.
"You know what? On second thought, I think I will take that one. If you don't mind." Spike stepped forward hurriedly.
The Master drew away from Cordelia, fangs stained with her blood, and shrugged. "Fine." Cordelia pitched forward into Spike's arms. "Plenty more where that came from."
Spike followed his gaze to a cage full of people. How had they managed to round up so many people? Right, no Slayer, and the Order of Aurelius gathered in full force. He'd have to worry about the rest of them later. And where had that urge even come from?
Spike grabbed Cordelia's arm, folded it behind her back, and clamped his arm across her chest as she glared at him. Good, he thought, the Master hadn't had more than a taste; she'd be fine. "I don't suppose you've got a room where a fella could get a little privacy, do you?" he asked, leering at Cordelia for the Master's benefit. "Eat, drink…be merry?"
The Master smirked and rubbed his hands together in amusement. "Oh, you are a creature of appetites, aren't you? We're going to get along famously."
Willow sidled in, positioning herself near the Master as she smiled at Spike. "He could use the office. There's no one in there but Puppy."
The Master nodded. "Ah, yes, and I'm sure that he would appreciate some company, wouldn't he?"
"Brilliant," Spike said, backing out of the room, into the hall.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Spike felt a sharp elbow in the stomach that sent him reeling.
"You stay away from me," Cordelia warned.
"Hello, I just saved your neck in there! Literally," Spike tossed back, rubbing his bruised side.
"Yeah, so you could gnaw on it out here? Some big favor."
"I'm not gonna bite you, you bossy cow." This is what he got for trying to do someone a favor.
"You're damn right you're not." Cordelia pulled up the hem of her dress, fumbled at one leg, and pulled out a cross and a cell phone. She thrust the cross in his face with one hand and dialed with the other.
Spike raised his hands and backed away from her.
"Larry, it's Cordelia—no, I'm okay—well, I'm not okay, exactly"—she glowered at Spike—"Where are you guys?—Thank God, I need you guys to pick me up at the Bronze. Just drive to the back entrance and I'll run out.—Thanks." She punched a button and raised the cross. "And don't you go getting any clever ideas."
"No danger of that, love. I'm fresh out of clever ideas." There was an understatement.
"So you're the new lieutenant?" Cordelia mused, sizing him up. "Not as big and bad as we all thought. No offense." She raised her eyebrows. "Or yes, actually, offense intended."
Spike rolled his eyes. "Who's 'we all'?"
Cordelia smiled grimly. "Oh, you'll know us soon enough. We're the ones who are gonna kill all of you."
White hats? Here? Now this might just be a piece of luck. Before he had a chance to press her for more information, though, he heard the squeal of tires and the sliding open of a van door. "Your ride, I believe." He stepped further away from her.
She looked at him quizzically for a moment and then bolted down the hall.
He needed a place to think, so he opened the office door and stepped inside, looking around carefully. Wasn't there supposed to be a puppy in here? Instead, as he shut the door behind him, Spike saw a prostrate figure on the floor, bulky, dark-haired, face averted.
"Oi, who's in there?"
The figure turned, his shirt falling open to reveal a trail of welts and burns across his chest.
What the hell? "Angel?"
Angel thrashed in his chains, struggled awkwardly to his feet. "Spike." He said the name as if it tasted foul in his mouth.
Seemed some things never changed. "Angel, what are you doing here?"
Angel stared at him, clenched his hands at his side. "Very funny."
Spike's irritation grew. "Yeah, well, for those of us who don't know the punch line, I'll ask again: what are you doing here? Or rather, in there?"
Angel's hard laughter ended in a spasm of coughs. When it passed, he spat blood on the floor and gazed at Spike. "So the Master's latest round of torture apparently involves irritating me to death, is that it?"
Spike glanced at Angel's wounds. "The Master did that to you?" Hadn't the Master just said that he'd lost Angelus? Spike supposed that a souled Angelus wasn't the Master's idea of family.
"Well, no, not this round. These"—Angel gestured to his chest—"are courtesy of his two latest favorites."
"Willow and Xander," Spike guessed grimly. He'd always wondered what Red would be like if she ever got a taste of the dark side. The answer was obviously pretty damn scary.
Angel nodded, searched Spike's face. "And why is it you're here, Spike? Just doing a little fact-finding, or come by to add a few of your own wounds to my collection?"
Spike took a breath. Just do it fast, like ripping off a plaster. "As much as it pains me to say it, I could actually use your help."
Angel gaped at him, his expression a mixture of disbelief and amusement. "And why would I help you? You're the Master's new second-in-command. I'd never help you."
"Listen, it's not what you think," Spike shot back. "This is all some kind of huge mistake. I made a wish to a vengeance demon—accidentally, of course—and it changed the world. Things aren't supposed to be like this."
Angel sniffed. "Surely you didn't think this up all by yourself, did you, Spike? Tell me fairytales and lull me into a false sense of security to get, what? Information? What's the agenda?"
"There is no agenda, Peaches," Spike said in frustration. "I'm trying to tell you that whatever you think you know about me, you've got it all wrong." Angel arched his eyebrows, and Spike sighed loudly. "I've changed, Angel. Hard to believe, I know, but true. I'm actually trying to make things better, here. Figure out how to make the world the way it's supposed to be."
"Okay, so say I believed that you'd actually be stupid enough to make a wish to a vengeance demon—which, incidentally, sounds totally plausible." Angel began pacing as far as the chains would allow. "What exactly is the 'real world' supposed to be like?"
At last. "Well, for starters, this isn't supposed to be the Master's town. When he rose, the Slayer killed him. Sunnydale's her town, not his."
Angel's eyes narrowed. "Buffy, here?"
Spike pounced. "You know Buffy?" When Angel looked evasive, Spike rolled his eyes. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me – you're in love with her in this reality, too? Oh, come on! How is that even possible? When did you even meet her if she never came to Sunnydale?"
"I saw her, years ago, when she was called." Angel looked lost in the memory. "I was supposed to help her. Her Watcher came here, and so did I, but she never did. She was supposed to be my destiny."
"Oh, for—" Spike resisted the urge to kick Angel's cage. For five whole seconds he resisted. At least he was learning to exercise a little control. "Your destiny? Where do you get this stuff?" Damn, his foot throbbed. "Wait a mo – did you say that Buffy's Watcher is here? Giles is somewhere in Sunnydale?"
Angel regarded him suspiciously. "You know exactly where he is. I hear you paid him a little visit at the library on your way into town last night. Tried to rough up some of his kids."
Great, what the hell had he done to Giles last night? "Listen, whoever I was last night is not who I am tonight." Spike started pacing, too.
"Is that right?"
"Yes, it's right, you idiot. Last night, I was sharing a drink, or several of them, as it turns out, with a vengeance demon!"
"You're a great help, you know?" Spike shook his head. "Maybe Giles can help me figure this out, how to get back to my reality, back to Buffy."
Angel froze. "Why would you want to get back to the Slayer, Spike? To hurt her? You think I'd help you do that?" When Spike faced him, realization dawned in Angel's eyes. "You're in love with her."
"So?" Spike shot back, petulant. "So are you."
"And in your world, you and Buffy are together?" Angel asked incredulously.
"In every way possible," Spike answered smugly. Probably not the most diplomatic answer, but he couldn't resist.
"What did you do to her? Did you turn her?" Angel accused. "You always did have that thing for Slayers."
Spike scoffed. "No, I did not turn her."
"Thrall? Do you have her under some kind of thrall?"
"It's not thrall," Spike exploded. "She's with me because she wants to be." He tried to ignore the trouble he had meeting Angel's eyes after that one.
"So I'm supposed to believe that this world isn't real, that in the real world the Slayer is your lover, and that's the world I'm supposed to help you get back to?"
"Okay, yes, it does sound somewhat unlikely when you put it like that, I'll admit. But, I swear, it's the truth. And the Slayer isn't with me because she's turned, or under thrall, or corrupted. You should see her now," he said wistfully. "She's amazing."
"So you're a changed man, Spike? Is that what you're trying to tell me?" Angel tried to cross his chained arms and gave up. A look of alarm passed over his face. "You don't have a soul, do you?"
"No, Angel, you're still the one souled vampire in all the world," Spike replied snarkily. "But I don't bite anymore. All reformed now." Sort of. Angel didn't need to know about the chip, anyway, Spike reasoned. None of his damn business.
"There's no such thing as a reformed vampire. I know our kind, what we're capable of, remember?" Angel eyed him warily. "And even if part of what you are saying is true, Spike—and I'm not saying I think it is—I'd rather suffer in this world than let Buffy be with a soulless monster in yours."
"You great prat." A bleeding broken record, this one. Always throwing himself to the lions. "What if I told you that in my world, you are the love of her life?" he blurted out. "Would that help?"
"I'm the what?" Angel came forward. "But I thought you said—"
"Look, it's complicated, okay?" Was he actually gonna be forced to spend his sojourn in Déjà Vu-ville addressing the same hurts that tortured him in his own world? What fun.
"She loves me?"
"Forget it. I don't need your help," Spike said abruptly, rubbing a hand over his face. "I can do it myself." Angel was staring at him, calculating. "What?"
"Let's say I agreed to help you. I don't know that I'd be much good in here." Angel gestured to his prison.
"Well, I'd have to break you out, wouldn't I?" Spike raised his eyebrows.
"And you'd be willing to do that?"
Spike shrugged. "Helps me get back to my world, I'm willing to do just about anything." He bent to examine the lock on the cage.
"Wait, Spike. Do they know you're in here with me?" When Spike nodded, Angel shook his head. "Then it's no good. It'll have to wait."
"Why's that, now?"
Angel sighed. "Spike, you can't be reckless and stupid here. What if you're needed to undo this wish of yours? Let me go, and they'll dust you before you have a chance to fix anything."
Angel was right, Spike realized ruefully. This was going to require some subtlety. Damn, he hated subtlety.
"How much more of that do you think you can take?" Spike asked, gesturing at the burns on Angel's chest.
"As much as I have to," Angel answered. "In the meantime, you've got to figure out how to undo this. The Watcher probably is your best bet. But you'll have to be careful there, too."
Spike nodded, then flinched when the door to the office burst open.
Willow and a crew of minions, back from hunting and complete with victims. Great.
"Look what I found," Willow said, proudly displaying her prize.
She was softer and rounder and blonder than Spike had ever seen her, but there was no mistaking a very human, very terrified Tara.
"I just love Early Admissions Campus Weekend at UC Sunnydale. The out-of-towners are always so careless." Willow smiled cruelly. "There really ought to be something in the orientation packets about staying in your room after dark. Wouldn't that have been helpful to know?" When Tara remained silent, Willow slapped her. "I said, wouldn't that have been helpful to know?"
"Yes," Tara whispered.
"See, that wasn't so hard."
Spike glanced at Angel, hoped he wouldn't misinterpret what was coming.
"Here, now. Let's see what you've got there, Wil." Spike circled Tara, tried to look as predatory as possible. It wasn't difficult – it was instinct. "Yes, I think she'll do nicely."
"No way, Spike. She's mine." Willow ran a finger possessively down the side of Tara's face. "She looks like she'd be all kinds of fun to play with."
"Exactly," Spike said, giving Willow a hard shove. "And I'm gonna be the one to play with her, not you."
"No fair, Spike," Willow whined.
"Be a good girl, Willow," Spike drawled. "Go play with your puppy instead."
Angel stared at him, nodded imperceptibly. Spike had been a whipping boy long enough to recognize the signs – they'd beat and torment Angel, but they wouldn't kill him; Angel was too much fun to get rid of. And if he could take it, then so could Angel.
"Fine," Willow exhaled grumpily. "Whatever." She brightened when she turned to Angel. "Where did we put the matches, Puppy?"
Spike led Tara down the hall, found an empty room, and stood by the door, making sure no one had followed them. He turned to find Tara staring at him, her arms clasped around her waist as she trembled slightly.
"What are you going to do to me?" she asked.
"Nothing, sweet, I promise. I just needed to get you away from the others."
Her eyes were wide, unconvinced. "But you're one of them, right?"
"No. I mean, yes, I am. But I'm different, Tara, and I'll keep you safe." He jammed his hands in his pockets, tried to assume as non-threatening a pose as he could.
"How do you know my name?"
"Long bloody story." He sighed. "I'm gonna need you to take a few things on faith, here, but believe me when I say that I won't hurt you."
She studied him, and he felt uncomfortable under the scrutiny of her gaze. "I do believe you."
"Yeah? Best news I've had all night." A thought suddenly occurred to him. The chronology, the things he'd heard, it didn't seem to jibe. "What day is it?"
She looked confused. "It's Tuesday."
"No, the date. What's the date?"
"Um, December 8th. 1998. Why?"
Spike's mind reeled. What in the hell had Anya done? He hadn't said anything about going back in time, had he?
"Are you okay?" Tara asked hesitantly.
"About as far from it as possible, actually," he said grimly. He closed his eyes, felt for dawn in the distance. "We've got a couple hours before sunrise yet. I can't let you leave until then. Send you out there now, good chance of you getting picked up by more of the Master's flunkies. Whole damn town is apparently lousy with them. No, if you wait until sunrise, you'll be fine."
Her brow creased. "Are you a good vampire?" she asked.
"What I am is an idiot vampire." But maybe the break he was looking for was right in front of him. "Tara, are you practicing yet?"
"Practicing?" she echoed.
"Magicks, Tara," he said patiently. "Have you started doing spells yet?"
"How do you— You can tell I'm a Wicca?"
"Part of the long story. Say someone made a wish to a vengeance demon that he needed to have undone—what do you reckon would be the first step?" His first impulse had been to scream for Anya, perhaps stamp his foot for extra emphasis, but somehow he doubted the efficacy of a tantrum. Might have made him feel better, though.
Tara looked thoughtful. "Summoning the demon, I guess. Why? Is that what you did…" She trailed off. "I don't know your name."
"It's Spike, and yeah, that's what I did. The world is a big, bloody mess, and it's pretty much all my fault." He glanced at her. "Well, not AIDS or world hunger or the reality TV craze – I didn't do any of that. But I totally cocked up plenty of other things. The world isn't supposed to be like this."
She considered his words. "Which demon? I mean, who did you make the wish to?"
"Anya. Anyanka," he corrected.
Tara pursed her lips, confused. "But isn't Anyanka the patron avenger of scorned women?" He opened his mouth, but she finished for him. "Let me guess, part of the long story?"
Spike nodded. "Do you think you could summon her for me?" he asked hopefully.
"I could. I mean, theoretically. But some summoning spells are tricky; they usually require specialized ingredients. Even if I knew the correct incantation, I'd need supplies."
Damn. "Of course." He sat down, discouraged. He'd have to try to find Giles and pray that the Watcher would give him a chance to explain instead of just dusting him.
"I could come back." Tara's voice caught him by surprise. "Later. I could get a spell book, gather the ingredients, come back here to you."
"Why would you do that?"
"Maybe I want to help you change this world." Her eyes were suddenly shining. "My mother just died, and maybe, if I help you, I could get her back."
"I'm sorry, pet, but I don't think it will work like that." He remembered once hearing Tara talking quietly with Dawn about losing her mom when she was 17. Apparently even a time-warped alternative universe hadn't changed that.
She digested his words, and her shoulders slumped in resignation. "We're close, you and I? In your world, I mean?"
"Why would you think that?" Spike asked cautiously.
Tara shook her head. "Just a feeling. Something in your aura." She seemed to come to a decision. "I will come back and help you."
"I can't let you do that, Glinda." A ghost of a smile flitted across her lips at the nickname. "It's too dangerous. Besides, I've actually just come up with a better idea. I need you to find someone for me. Name of Rupert Giles. He's the librarian at Sunnydale High School. You ought to be able to track him down there, or at his flat." Provided he even lived in the same building, Spike thought. He gave her the addresses for both and watched her mentally file them away. Maybe if Giles knew he was coming he might be more inclined to ask questions first and stake later.
"What should I tell him, this Mr. Giles, when I find him?"
"I need you to set up a meeting with him for me, tomorrow night in the school library, half an hour after sundown." He stared at her intently. "You give him that message, and then you get out of town, Tara. Go home and let me take care of the rest."
"No." Before he could object, she plunged on. "What if Mr. Giles tries to kill you on sight?" She shook her head again. "No, I'll stay and make sure you have a chance to explain."
He wanted to decline her offer but realized it might be the only way Giles would hear him out. "Thanks." He read the exhaustion on her face. No wonder, given the night she'd had. "Why don't you try to get some rest? Close your eyes a bit before dawn." He suddenly felt self-conscious. It was one thing that she trusted him, but who was going to nap in a room with a vampire? "If you'd rather not—close your eyes, I mean—I'll understand. No offense taken."
She smiled faintly, touched his hand hesitantly, and then seemed almost surprised at her own boldness and pulled her fingers away quickly. "I'd like to rest. Thank you, Spike."
He had a hard time swallowing past the sudden lump in his throat, so he just nodded. He'd find a way to make this right. For Tara, for Buffy, for himself. He had to.