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Thousand Kisses Deep

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Chapter 1
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‘Great! Forget about getting off grounding now. As soon as Buffy finds out I got called to the counselor’s office, I’m toast!’ Dawn was having such a loud conversation with herself that she had only half attended to the words the guidance counselor was saying. ‘Did someone see me and rat me out for my five finger discounts? I swear, God, get me out of this one and I’ll never steal another thing again.’ She thought about keeping that promise and squirmed. ‘Well, only if it’s something we really, really, need--you know, like food and stuff.’

“I know it must seem weird talking to a stranger about stuff, but I want you to know that if there is something going on, something up…it’s my job, my pleasure to look out for you.” The overeager smile on the face of the counselor didn’t have the effect of calming Dawn’s nerves one bit. She was too fixated on the ‘something going on’ part of the conversation.

Adults always tried to trick you with kindness. First came the nice words and treacle smiles and next thing you knew you were confessing all your sins! Dawn gave the woman her best wide-eyed innocent look and returned the smile. “No, really, I’m okay. We’re okay, except, you know, missing Mom.”

“I know there has been such a lot of loss in your life, Dawn. You probably wish you had a very different life,” the counselor hinted.

Dawn thought about how things had changed since Joyce had died and then Buffy had died too. She had started to build a makeshift family with Willow and Tara and Spike. Now that Buffy was back, it wasn’t all roses and kittens like it was supposed to be. Her made-up family was all in tatters, Buffy was distant and they had nothing but hard times everywhere she looked. “People keep going away and I miss them.” She felt a surge of resentment when she thought about how Buffy’s return had led to Spike’s defection. It wasn’t fair that she could only have one of them around, if you could even say Buffy was around at all.

Buffy really pissed her off some times. Sure, it had to be hard being dead then alive and all, but it was more than that. Her whole life--well, okay, her fake memory life--Buffy had always had to be the center of everything! She was the drama queen that the whole world revolved around and it wasn’t fair. Dawn had problems too! Like that guy in her fourth period who might have a crush on her, or maybe was just a mean jerk…who could tell? She should be able to talk to her sister or to her friend Spike about it and sort it out before she made an idiot out of herself with the boy.

“I’d bet you wish things were a whole lot different,” the counselor tried to nudge Dawn into being verbal again. Clearly the girl was filled with teen angst and nothing was as sure a customer to a vengeance demon as one of those! Some of Halfrek’s most creative work had been at the behest of teens during one of their many excursions into their own private world of pain and insecurity. Few humans were as self-absorbed as the average adolescent and this one was a ticking time-bomb.

On the other side of the desk, said bomb was getting more and more incendiary as she contemplated the unfairness of her life. Buffy was older! She was supposed to be in charge but it was like she was just drifting, not caring or thinking about anything. Heck, even Giles had noticed and headed for the hills. Sadly, Dawn had nowhere to go.

“I just wish she’d figure out what she wants and move on from there! She should just get what she says she wants and maybe she’d be happy,” Dawn blurted out. Part of her worried that nothing short of being dead again would be what Buffy actually wanted right now and that thought was unthinkable.

“Who, dear?” Halfrek began to get slightly nervous. It had been a gamble approaching the Slayer’s little sister this way, but seeing how that self-righteous girl had been treating her friend Anya all these years just stuck in her craw. A little bit of payback was fair, wasn’t it? Still, she didn’t want to be too extreme in her granting of wishes; they were dealing with the Slayer after all.

“My sister. She’s just drifting around day to day and not really living. She’s supposed to be taking care of me! She’s not even noticing anyone else but herself unless it’s Tuesday Crisis Day or something. She starts things then drops them and walks away when she loses interest or when someone else needs something from her and I’m sick of it! I wish she’d just realize what she has and decide what she wants and we’d all be happier in the end.” She shivered thinking about how close Buffy had come just the week before to walking out of her life for good. She had even preferred going to prison for something she didn’t even do to handling regular life with her little sister.

Halfrek decided to play into her cover story a bit. There was no point in drawing any suspicion in case things didn’t go well. “I’m sure it hurts you a lot seeing your sister going through this transition, but you do have to keep in mind the large amount of responsibility she has assumed with your mother gone and your father out of touch.”

“Sheeya,” Dawn huffed. “She took a crappy job that she hates and didn’t even bother to really look for one that she’d like better. She didn’t think to ask Willow to pay rent even! Spike tried to help and she won’t let him. I think she just likes being miserable.”

‘Ah yes, William.’ Halfrek had been very surprised to see the annoying poet of her youth now an ageless vampire and in love with the Slayer no less. ‘If I’d had any idea he could clean up so nicely I might have given him at least a little of my time. Oh well, water under the bridge.’

Dawn didn’t hear the softly spoken “Done” from the counselor’s lips so lost in thought was she.

~~~

Buffy swished the fancy sword in the air, testing it for heft and balance. The body of the demon she had just dispatched with it had simply disappeared. “They should all do that, save on hiding the bodies and clean-up.”

Spike watched from a small distance. He wasn’t sure if he should approach the Slayer given how they had last parted company. She had beaten him to a bloody pulp, put all her self-hate on him and spewed it out in words and fists until he couldn’t walk. She had left him there too. That had hurt the most. She hadn’t given a backward glance at the carnage she had left in her wake, leaving him to the non-existent mercies of his many demon enemies and the rapidly approaching deadly sun. Nearly a week and his body still bore the marks she had left on it.

“You can come out, Spike. I know you’re there. I’m not planning on using this new toy on you.” She rolled her eyes at the thought of Spike being shy about approaching her; usually he was like a leech that she couldn’t shake off. “Not unless you really ask for it.”

Spike stepped into her line of view. “Now that’s what I’m worried about. Hard to tell just what you think I’m asking for nowadays.”

Buffy shrugged off the twinge of guilt his words inspired. She had enough on her plate without worrying about hurting the supposed feelings of this undead pest. “Come on out of the shadows…and don’t give me any crap about me belonging in the dark with you.”

Spike edged closer still staying out of the circle of light offered by the lone sodium vapor streetlight. “Just askin’ for you to admit we have somethin’. It may not be pretty, but it’s real, and you feel it too,” he ventured.

“We have nothing, Spike. Nothing but a twisted history of fighting and hatred and disgust. You perv on me and I was finally weak enough, lonely enough, to let you seduce me.”

“Ha,” he snorted, “you wish!” All this time and Buffy was still waist deep in the Nile. “As I remember it, and I remember ever single wicked, delicious, moment, you were the one with your finger on my zipper. You started this particular dance, Buffy, and before you put the rest that happened on me, remember that you were the one to keep coming back for more. Even invisible you made a path to my door so blazin’ that I can’t believe your little friends didn’t stumble over it, even as blind as that lot can be.”

The reminder of her own lack of control, the unspoken desires that started the chain of events that had led to this quagmire only served to panic and anger the Slayer. “You were never anything but a distraction Spike. You can be replaced with a reliable vibrator. Makes less noise.” She could see him grow still at her hateful words. “You need to get it in your head that there is no ‘us’, this crap about us having something is all in your head. YOU have something--insanity! I have my life to figure out. Life, get it, Spike, as in living, something you’re not. You aren’t even real! You’re just a slavering animal, a demon in a people suit that turns to ash when you eventually try my patience too far. You’re evil and just the thought of you disgusts me beyond the telling. This thing we’ve been doing? It causes you to have delusions and me to be full of self-loathing. We have no Hallmark moments, nothing to cherish.”

Spike moved into the circle of light and Buffy saw the wreckage of his face and the pain in his eyes, though she tried to ignore both. “What have I ever done to give you the idea that you could ever have a place in my heart, Spike? I don’t even let you in my house anymore. Yeah, I made the mistake of kissing you and you were really convenient for cheap sex, but that’s all it is. Don’t make more of it than that.”

“I’m still drownin’ in you, Slayer. I’m in a thousand kisses deep. I look at you and go under and, God help me, I don’t want rescuin’.” Spike drew in a shaky breath. “You’re all I’ve ever wanted. I look at you and you blind me you shine so bright. I know the kind of woman you are, Buffy, all of you. You wouldn’t be with me if you didn’t have feelings, even if they are buried. It may take a long time for you to recognize them and even longer to admit them, but I’m not going anywhere.”

Buffy had no idea how she found herself so close to him since he hadn’t moved, but she was in touching distance now and her hand had a mind of its own as it traveled to his swollen cheek. “You’re wrong, Spike. All we have is some strange, nasty, physical thing that I’ll get out of my system soon and then you won’t even be a memory.”

“You’ll remember,” Spike vowed as he pulled her roughly to his body and plundered her mouth. His tongue invaded her mouth passing the unguarded gates of parted, waiting lips. It was always like this with them: denials and ugly words and then the irresistible pull of desire that fused them in passion. He whispered against her soft mouth, “I’ll be here to remind you.”

Buffy pulled his head back down and once more gave in to the sweet ecstasy of kisses unlike anyone else had ever given, even in her imagination. The heat they generated burned into her, threatening to melt the ice she had carefully used to encase her fragile heart and terrifying her with the threat of feeling. She moaned partly in despair and partly in surrender as Spike lifted her into his arms and without breaking the spell of the kiss, strode to his crypt.

~~~

“I’m telling you what I saw!” Xander was beside himself.

“Yes, Xander, I remember we did this scene already once before. It was the Buffybot then,” Willow teased.

“The Bot’s a bundle of wires in the basement of the Magic Box; this was Buffy.” Xander had finally stopped hyperventilating and his voice now carried the steel of determination. “He’s taking advantage of her vulnerability, Will, and we’ve got to save her.”

Tara stopped blowing up balloons for the planned birthday party and tried to cap the emotional volcano of Scooby outrage. “Buffy’s a big girl, Xander. Maybe she likes Spike. He’s helped out a lot and changed quite a bit. I don’t think he’d ever hurt her.”

“Aha! The one word that makes what you say impossible: ‘Spike’! No way would Buffy ever lower herself to…to…to…to anything with any demon, but especially not that one.”

“She did fall for Angel,” Willow mused.

“And got burned,” Xander reminded her. “No way would Buffy do that to us, to herself, again.” He eyed the pile of weapons hungrily. “It has to be a spell or something like that. Lots of weird things have been happening to Buffy since she’s been back, remember? ‘Flash!Buffy’ and ‘Repeato-Day Buffy’ and ‘Invisi-Buffy’ to name just three. It has to be a spell and my guess is that Spike’s behind it. He’s obsessed with her and she’s not in a good place emotionally. Easy pickin’s.”

“There have been lots of things happening to Buffy, that’s true. Maybe we should talk to her, check it out and see if she’s being manipulated in any way.” Willow put on her resolve face. “We’ll get to the bottom of it and fix things.”

“Willow…,” Tara began with a worried look on her face.

“Don’t worry, sweetie. No magic, I promise!” Willow was so glad to have another chance with her love that she didn’t want to risk the shaky relationship on a crusade unless it proved absolutely necessary. “We’ll just check things out, ask questions.”

“Don’t you think Buffy has a right to make her own choices?” Tara was suddenly glad that Buffy hadn’t felt like her approval had been necessary in Willow’s love choices. “I understood why we had to step in the last time when it was the robot, but Spike has really proved he’s not so evil since then. Maybe Buffy just needs him right now.”

“This is Spike, Tara. He doesn’t stop being evil. Just ask him!” Xander turned to Willow, ignoring the quiet voice of reason offered by Tara. “I say we march over there and demand some answers.”

~~~

They hadn’t made it to the bed as usual. Hadn’t made it past the floor of the crypt, in fact. Buffy and Spike lay on the floor in post-coital exhaustion with just his coat around them to block the chill of the earthen floor. Any moment now and Buffy would give her standard after-sex lecture on how it would never happen again, gather her bits and pieces and stomp off in a huff, leaving Spike colder than his undead state normally did, his heart an aching stone in his breast. The wetness would once more pool in his eyes, liquid weakness unremarked upon and unwanted. He waited for the inevitable shoe to drop and savored the brief seconds when he could pretend that they really were there together.

The door was flung open with enough force to break the plaster on the wall it hit. “See!” Xander, with all the zeal of Torquemada at the height of the Inquisition, pointed an accusing finger at the startled couple.

Buffy was scrambling to cover herself while desperately brainstorming how to explain just why and who she was with to her two shocked and disapproving friends. She didn’t even notice when Spike drew his duster around her form, shielding her from exposure.

“Eep!” Willow covered her eyes but wasn’t certain if it was to shield them from the flash of Buffy’s bare skin or the Full Monty offered by Spike.

Spike, recovering his aplomb, grinned at the irate human and rose gracefully, uncaring about his nudity. “What can I say…girl needs a little monster in her man. Two things you can’t offer.” He glared challengingly at Xander, knowing full well that a percentage of Xander’s problem was the attraction the boy had never fully tamped down even though he’d moved on with Anya.

“You’re not a man, Spike, you’re a walking corpse. And, ewww, that just makes this even more sickening and wrong,” Xander spat.

Buffy had scrambled behind the sarcophagus and dressed quickly. She could feel the ringing in her ears that threatened a quick kiss of the floor and further humiliation.

Willow was looking at the ceiling muttering, “Clothes, please, clothes!” Spike, being more intent on standing his ground, did not heed her pleas.

“What Buffy and I do is none of your business, boy.” Spike gave a look that once would have caused deep fear in the human, but that was before the chip had de-fanged him sufficiently. Spike shook his head in annoyance and with a deep sigh and quick glance at the pale-faced witch, pointed out to the still muttering Willow, “My home, no one asked you to barge in here uninvited. Don’t blame me if I’m not dressed for company.”

Buffy, now fully clothed, had moved closer to her friends and away from Spike. “Come on, guys, let’s go. We can talk later, ‘k?” She shot a look at Spike that he truly couldn’t decipher.

“I think we’ll just finish this up here. Whattaya say, Spikey?” Xander advanced on the vampire filled with the courage of knowing he was not likely to be harmed if he did attack. Buffy pulled on his upraised arm and tugged him toward the door and away from Spike.

“Happy to oblige.” Spike advanced slightly, clearly not willing to give ground. “Buffy, you don’t owe this wanker any explanations. He’s not your father or even your brother; he’s nothing.”

“I’m her friend. That’s more than you can claim. My guess is you’re the ‘nothing’ to her,” Xander turned to Buffy, demanding her agreement. “Am I right?”

“Less than nothing,” Buffy tasted the bile in the back of her throat. She had to get out of there before she booted all over. Maybe she could blame all of it on being sick? Her mind was in a panic trying to think of a way out of the mess created by her dirty secret being exposed this way. “Spike and I were…we were….” There really weren’t any words.

“What? Doing a jigsaw puzzle? Knitting cunning sweaters?” Xander’s voice was filled with accusation and disgust. With a withering look, he directed his gaze at Buffy, “You let this evil, soulless thing touch you! Everything that went down with Angel wasn’t enough for you? How many demons are you planning to screw before we all wind up dead?”

“That’s enough, Xander.” Willow had finally re-gathered her dignity and stopped his tirade. She turned to Buffy, “I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for this. There’s no need for blame.”

“I blame him,” Xander spat as he jabbed his finger towards Spike. “Always hanging around sniffing after Buffy, looking for an opening, a way to manipulate her, exploit her when she’s depressed.”

Buffy seized on that like a lifeline. “I have been depressed and Spike has been there--that’s all that happened. It went too far. I felt grateful and a bit vulnerable. It won’t happen again.” Her voice had an edge of pleading to it.

Spike looked at her incredulously. “Yeah, because it’s never happened before,” he snarked.

Buffy gave him a look that could have staked him all by itself. “Never before and never again. I’m glad you guys came, even if I am embarrassed. I just want to go home. I feel so dirty.” She stared into Spike’s eyes the whole time, daring him to dispute her words. “I’d never, NEVER…Spike was convenient, he was just…there.”

“That can be fixed,” Spike nearly whispered.

“You can’t seriously think I’d have anything real with Spike?” Buffy’s voice had an edge of desperation to it. “A one-time thing ‘cause I was, you know, lonely and depressed. Nothing like a real relationship. I was just feeling low.”

“Yeah, feeling low and reaching around in that low you came up with Spike?” Xander snarked and threw a sneer at the vampire in question. “Makes all kinds of sense in the not-at-all kind of way. Can’t get lower than him, you’ve got that right.”

Spike looked at Buffy, his heart in his eyes, begging her to say something, anything, to indicate she at least had friendly feelings for him. Damn! He’d stuck around when she was dead for Christ’s sake! Took care of the Bit and even kept the doughy wanker now calling him names from becoming demon chow. All Spike could see reflected back was fear--fear and determination. Buffy was never going to admit to caring for him at all. He was not even worthy to be called a friend.

“Come on, Xander, let’s get Buffy home.” Willow put her arm around a silently weeping Slayer. “I think there’s been enough drama for one night.”

Xander narrowed his eyes and made a promise to Spike, “Later. I’d think about not going to sleep if I were you.”

“Oh, I’m so terrified.” Spike rolled his eyes in response. “It’d be worth the headache to put you through the wall, and I will if you come sneaking like a coward to do me in my sleep.”

Spike wasn’t sure how long he stood staring at the open doorway after they left. Now they knew and now he had lost her for good. ‘Not that I ever had her, really.’

With a sense of resignation, Spike squared his shoulders and prepared to evolve once again. To once more be his own man or maybe it was closer to the truth to say that it was time to finally become his own man. He’d pick up the shattered pieces of his heart and find a way to make something of it all. She didn’t want to want him? Fine, she could do without him. He’d learn to live without some crazy woman calling all the shots. After a hundred years with first Dru’s kind of crazy, then Buffy’s, he was finally done with it.

Chapter Text

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Chapter 2
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Buffy’s birthday party had been subdued to say the least. The only real excitement came when Dawn’s present of a lovely leather jacket complete with security tags alerted the Slayer to her little sister’s new hobby.

Buffy had half expected Spike to show up and crash the party. With Xander’s continued fuming over the tryst he had uncovered, that would have led to yet another of Buffy’s birthday disasters. Instead she merely had to slay a demon that her war trophy sword seemed to house and deal with the uncomfortable presence of a blind date, courtesy of Xander and Anya. In short, the day had been dull by Buffy birthday standards.

Spike had disappeared from the world as far as Buffy could tell. His crypt was vacant as if no one had ever lived there at all. She wasn’t sure if her plan had been to make an apology for the hurt she had clearly inflicted by denying him in front of Xander and Willow or if she had been looking for another round of slap and tickle, but the fact that Spike was missing when she wanted to see him irritated her to no end.

As days passed by with no sign of Spike anywhere in Sunnydale, she started to worry that something had happened to him, something dusty. ‘No! I’d know it’. If Xander had made good on his threat, he would have crowed about it. Besides, Spike’s crypt was empty, and for once that knowledge gave her comfort instead of pain.

She was lost in thoughts of what might have happened to Spike when she came to an abrupt stop, taking in the sight of a mirage. “Riley?” The ‘mirage’, now clearly real, grinned before he spoke. “Sorry to just drop in on you like this. I need your help, Buffy.”

Buffy couldn’t believe it. Riley had casually left her at one of her lowest points, a time she needed all the help she could get and here he was asking for her help. “…Suvolte demon we’ve tracked here. They’re rare and lethal. The whole breed is nearly extinct, but this one is breeding. We figure that’s why it’s come here to the Hellmouth.”

Riley explained his mission, then introduced his shiny new wife, Sam. ‘Well, it didn’t take too long to replace me, did it?’ Buffy would have laughed if it hadn’t hurt so much. Not that she wanted Riley back--she was SO over him--but still, it would have been nice to know he had some trouble moving on. After all, she had moved on with Spike--stop! There had been no moving on. Spike had been a temporary glitch, that was all. So why did her heart hurt at the thought of the missing vampire?

~~~

“Sorry again for killing the nasty,” Buffy shot a rueful grin at the couple. They looked like they had popped into her reality from some James Bond movie and now they were exiting the same way! “Nice getaway helicopter you’ve got there.” The spotlight was blinding as Riley hooked up to the winch to be whisked upward and out of her life once more.

‘I should be feeling all kinds of sad here.’ Buffy didn’t know how to describe her emotions but “relieved” came closest to it. It had all been such a whirlwind. The demon hunt, the surprise wife, the quick leave-taking had all taken no more than a night. Buffy hadn’t had time to process it all, but one thing she was certain of at last: she had never loved Riley Finn.

“Man!” Xander was nearly drooling. “What a life! Buffy, you need to have the Council do some serious upgrades.”

“I’m happy with my old-fashioned Chosen One gig, thanks.” As exciting as the lifestyle Riley and Sam had described seemed, Buffy couldn’t really see enjoying jetting and helicoptering from place to place using high-tech gadgets. “Guns and Buffy are non-mixy, remember?”

“You did fine with that rocket launcher,” Willow reminded her.

“True, but I still prefer a nice shiny sword or a reliable piece of sharp wood,” Buffy laughed. “Call me a traditionalist. Besides, getting the Council to part with a nickel is harder than facing an apocalypse! Can you just see Quentin Travers if I asked them to send a Blackhawk and pilot for my personal use? His head would go kaplooie.”

“There is that,” Xander nodded in agreement. “But then that would just be a plus.” He put a friendly arm around Buffy and Willow’s waists and guided the girls back to the Summers living room.

They had resumed the jokey, easy, friendship of yore, at least on the surface. As soon as it became obvious that Spike had moved on, all tension had eased. Xander preferred to pretend that Spike and Buffy’s involvement had never happened, and Willow was too interested in patching up her own love life to poke about in Buffy’s emotional fallout. Tara had kept Buffy’s confidence and Anya had been clueless to everything that had happened.

Willow and Tara headed out to the Bronze soon after Riley’s departure. Anya had gone on ahead to get a table for all of them, having taken her leave early. She still wasn’t completely comfortable around the demon hunters, even though Sam had seemed more interested in the wedding plans than Anya’s history.

“So is the Buffster ready to bust a move or three?” Xander crooked his arm in offer of escort.

“Think I’m gonna pass, Xan.” Buffy felt an emotional let-down that she didn’t fully understand. All she did know was that she wasn’t in the mood to party. “Too much slaying after a hard day at the Doublemeat grill makes for one tired Buffy.”

Xander looked disappointed but gave her a quick squeeze and hurried out to catch up with the girls. His “Later then” trailed behind him.

“You wanna talk?” Dawn had been watching all day, worried that Riley and his new wife coming to town all lovey-dovey and content might be a last straw for her still bad-moody sister.

“Not really.” Buffy noted the disappointed look on Dawn’s face and added, “Not much to talk about. I’m not upset and I guess I think that maybe I should be. I think it just hit me how much I didn’t feel for Riley after all.”

“It was almost funny how Riley tried to pin the demon egg thing on Spike when he hasn’t even been in town for weeks!” Dawn giggled. “Then to find out that the “doctor” guy was a human, not a demon, was icing on the cake.”

“Yeah, well, in Riley’s defense, that’s just the sort of lame thing Spike might have pulled,” Buffy frowned.

Dawn gave her a shocked look, “You are kidding, right? First, there is no way Spike would use the name ‘Doctor’ after what Doc did on the tower, and second, Spike hasn’t done anything really evil in a long time.”

“Chip, Dawnie, a piece of metal and plastic that leashes the beast,” Buffy sighed.

“Not the chip. Spike’s been trying to be good, really trying, not that he gets any credit.” Dawn had her pouty face on. “He could still do lots of evil if he wanted to. Jeez, Buffy, the chip wouldn’t stop him from burning down our house while we’re asleep! There’s lots of things he could do and not get zapped.”

Buffy stared at her little sister with a strange expression on her face. It was true! There were lots of things Spike could have done if he truly wanted to wreck havoc in her life but he hadn’t. All this time he could have done anything to her; the chip didn’t work where she was concerned. He hadn’t even hit her since that first time. All he’d done was bug her with vows of love and driven her nearly crazy with mind-blowing sex. He’d also been handy on patrol, come to think of it. Buffy hadn’t realized how much she had relied on the vampire until he skipped out on her. Nightly back-aches were only one reminder of his absence.

Dawn seemed to have come to the conclusion that Spike had just gone on an extended vacation or something because it hadn’t sunk in that he was likely gone for good. That thought brought a surprising amount of moisture to Buffy’s eyes.

~~~

“Should we do something for her?” Dawn reached for her tea mechanically. “Anything?”

“She wants to be alone. That's what she wants.” Willow looked anything but sure about that decision. “It just hurts my heart to think of her.” She sipped at her cup of tea, setting it down quickly as she burned her tongue. “I never thought I’d ever feel anything for Anya but annoyance. God, this is awful!”
“I know. The whole thing hurts my heart.” Buffy shook her head wearily. “They were supposed to be my light at the end of the tunnel. I guess they were a train.”

“I thought they were happy.” Dawn sounded small and lost. “Why did this happen?”

Willow had some suspicions, but none she wanted to voice. She had known Xander most of his life, after all. “I don't know. I feel like I should be hating Xander right about now, but I can't,” she sighed, “I just...I just hope he's okay.”

The wedding from hell, literally, had been a disaster for everyone. None was spared, but no one was more harmed than Anya. The intended bride had disappeared shortly after sending everyone home with the heartbreaking announcement that the wedding was not going to take place. The groom had done his disappearing act shortly before leaving his explanation to the heartbroken girl he left at the altar.
Somehow Buffy had the weird thought in the back of her mind that if these two friends of hers could just find happiness then it was not too late for her as well. No one in her world seemed to get a lucky break when it came to love! Tara and Willow were slowly coming back together…but for how long? Xander walking out on Anya like that had been a blow to the heart.

It had been a long day wearing that hideous dress and playing peacekeeper between the well-behaved demons and the demonically acting humans. She had to admire Xander for being as decent a guy as he was coming from that family! At least until he turned tail, leaving Anya to pick up the pieces. All the courage Xander had shown over the years and then he decided to chicken out on what was supposed to be the happiest day of his life!

Buffy had felt an inner sense of hope all day until that horrible last act of the farce. She had imagined Spike showing up and teasing her about looking like a demon herself in the radioactive green monstrosity chosen for the bridesmaids. She had even smiled thinking of his teasing voice and bright eyed look of appreciation in spite of her costume of the day.

Face it, there just were no happy endings for any of them. Willow had better be prepared!

~~~

Xander lay on the small bed in the cheap hotel that was his refuge from the cold, wet world. It was supposed to be his wedding night, his first official night as part of a happily married couple. Anya had looked so beautiful he found it hard to breathe just looking at her. The look of desperation on her face as he told her there would be no wedding was seared in his mind forever. She had been in obvious pain and he had been the one to cause it. He was no better than the demon that had come to destroy their day, worse! That demon hated Anya and Xander had professed to love her.

All those visions had horrified him. Yes, he had always feared becoming just like his father. It was his greatest fear, actually, far worse than the childish fear of clowns that used to plague him. To become abusive and bitter, taking out his inner ugliness on Anya was unthinkable. He had watched his mother being slowly destroyed over the years, finally becoming as destructive as her husband in the end. In all the visions, he had been damaged by following Buffy, working at her side even when Anya had begged for his attention. Maybe that was the real issue…maybe what he really feared was that he was with the wrong woman.

He loved Anya. Who wouldn’t? She was beautiful, sexy, and successful. All the guys at the site were impressed that a guy like him had a girl like her who clearly adored him. She had come into his world intending on cursing him in some way and she herself had ended up being the one to suffer.

For some reason, he had never been able to completely put aside his attraction for Buffy. No matter how great the sex with Anya, no matter how clearly Buffy had rejected his interest, he still had that kernel of hope that one day the Slayer would look at him and realize how great they could be.

Buffy was every dream he had ever had growing up reading comics filled with superheroes that couldn’t hold a candle to the Slayer! She had swept into his world and made him a part of hers. She had never made him feel like a nobody, the schmuck who was always getting pantsed, shoved into lockers and being the butt of all the jokes by the other guys. His dad always made him feel worthless at home and aside from Willow and Jesse, no one in the outer world had ever noticed the value of Alexander LaVelle Harris until Buffy. He would always love her if for no other reason than that.

He needed to finally accept that Buffy was his friend and that was the sum total of it. Hell, he wasn’t even sure he still wanted it to be more than that. He had been terribly jealous of Angel. That his shining heroine, the monster killer, had chosen to give her heart to one of the very monsters she was called to destroy had stung. It added insult to injury and the day Angel left for LA was one for rejoicing, in Xander’s opinion.

Riley had been a cool guy. Xander liked to think that they were alike in many ways. Finn was all that Xander could have been if circumstances were different. Heck, when he had been a soldier that Halloween, he could have stood toe to toe with the commando and been his equal! Somehow Buffy being with Riley had almost been like her choosing him. It was a vicarious thrill and he had to admit that his heart seemed to have broken more than Buffy’s when Riley left. It was like he had lost her himself!

Seeing Buffy turn to Spike had set him off like never before. All thought of the times Spike had saved his life that summer, the semi-friendly pool games, all of it had gone out the window at the realization that once more Buffy had been attracted to a monster over him. What, was he invisible?!

Xander’s eyes widened as he remembered the time when Buffy had been invisible and he had looked for her at Spike’s crypt. ‘They must have thought I was a complete idiot!’ Of course she was there. Spike hadn’t needed to get a girlfriend; he had one--Buffy! The vampire hadn’t been lying about their relationship; it wasn’t just that one time he’d been with Buffy.

Xander thought back on all those months since they brought Buffy back from the dead and remembered how she was always turning to Spike. Even before she had jumped from the tower to her death she had begun to turn to the vampire. He reviewed it all in his mind, his emotions numbed from his own pain and plenty of whiskey, and now he saw it through fresh eyes.

Spike did love the Slayer. His actions that summer when she was dead proved that to anyone not prejudiced against the idea. Buffy might not have loved Spike, but clearly she was attracted. No way could Spike have forced himself on the Slayer. Buffy could wipe the floor with him even without the chip. He had been blind!

All that time Xander had trailed behind the Slayer, hoping for crumbs, notice. He probably wouldn’t have been able to satisfy her if he did get the chance. He was no superhero himself, just a regular guy. If even Riley hadn’t managed to hold Buffy’s interest, how much less would plain Xander Harris? Anya had been jealous and she had reason.

He had always denied it when Anya accused him of mooning over the Slayer. He hadn’t admitted it to himself, so it wasn’t that he was lying to her. Anya had tried to seduce him away from his fantasy of Buffy, tried to make new fantasies with her in the female lead role. She had put up with so much from him! She had tried to be friends with all of his friends, even when they hadn’t been exactly welcoming to her. She was always so hopeful, so full of pure happiness. Anya had dreams of building a really good life with him and he had pulled it all down with just a few words.

His vaguely formed fantasy world had cost him everything. He had destroyed any hope of a life with Anya. He had tainted his friendship with Buffy while possibly costing her some well deserved happiness with Spike. God only knew what Willow thought of him after this day. Willow had never approved of Anya, but no one could watch what he had done and take his side in this. He’d never seen a look of sadness quite like the one Anya had as he turned from her and wandered out into the rain. Even the heavens were crying for her!

‘Anya.’ Xander pulled on the bottle of Old Crow that was his only companion for the night. The one woman who did want him that way and he had walked away. It was for her own good, just like he had told her. He’d eventually screw it up and hurt her even worse than he had today. Anya was better off without him. They all were.

Xander refused to cry. He feared that once he started there would be no end.

Chapter Text

~*~
Chapter 3
~*~

Giles looked at the clock and wondered who was banging on his door at such an early hour. No one from the Council would drop by, even if he still had personal friends there. He had been back for quite a while and still had not begun to actually build a life here in London. Too many years in Southern California had changed him, or rather too much involvement in the lives of those young people he had left behind had done so.

“I’m coming,” Giles muttered as he thrust his arms into the dressing robe and fumbled for his glasses. “This had best be important.”

His shock at seeing Spike on the other side of his door was only exceeded by his curiosity at seeing the vampire at all. From what he had been told by the children, Spike had left Sunnydale and washed his hands of them all.

“Gonna give me an invite, old man, or are we going to play this out for all your neighbors to enjoy?” Spike spoke softly but with an edge to his voice. Already two neighbors had poked their heads out to see what on earth was going on at this hour.

“I don’t see why I should give you free run of my home, Spike. In point of fact, I don’t see why I should give you the time of day.”

“Maybe because you need a few home truths told. Maybe because I can do something to help your Slayer or maybe just because you still have at least a tiny bit of the curiosity that drew you to the Council.”

Giles sighed at the inevitability of having this meeting. Spike was nothing if not tenacious; there would be no getting rid of the berk until he’d had his say. “Not here. Not in my home. I’ll meet you at a pub that’s become an unofficial after-hours club just down the street. Bloody pubs close at 11, but this one merely closes the doors. The Hanged Man. Show them some cash and they’ll open readily enough.” Giles looked at Spike’s rugged, disheveled appearance. “Their standards aren’t very high.”

“Wouldn’t think so, given you seem to give ‘em your custom,” Spike snarked back. “Twenty minutes, Watcher.”

Giles merely shut the door in his face, but Spike knew he’d be there.

~~~

Spike had already started on his second Newcastle Brown when the irritated Watcher slid into the bench opposite. The server responded quickly to Spike’s raised hand motioning for another ale for his newly arrived companion. The dark liquid sloshed a bit on the table, adding another to the quilt of stains on the once white tablecloth.

Giles sipped at his drink and waited for Spike to break the silence. It didn’t take long. “Fine job you made of it, leavin’ the girl right when she was fallin’ apart.”

“I did not get out of my warm bed, dress and come to this hole in the wall to be berated by a vampire for my decisions.” Giles started to get up from the table, but Spike put out a restraining hand.

“Fine.” Spike glared at the Watcher and without saying another word easily conveyed his opinion. “Point is, Buffy’s in a fix. Her friends are all addin’ to her burden with their problems, not really helpin’ her one bit. She and the Bit are livin’ hand to mouth on what little she makes at that grease pit and the Slayer’s too tired to care much about the nasties all linin’ up to get a piece of her.”

“I did what I had to do for Buffy’s sake,” Giles began defensively.

“You did what you wanted to for you, you old git!” Spike glared daggers at the man. “Lost her to death and couldn’t stand to see it happen again, so you high-tailed it a continent away. Thing is, you’re more than her Watcher, you’re the closest thing to a da she’s got. Just like the wanker who’s got the biological claim, you walked out on her. Another man leavin’ her high and dry, just what she needed, fresh out of the grave and all.”

“Buffy doesn’t need me, hasn’t for a long while.” Giles sipped at his ale.

Spike snorted in derision. “Sure she does. More now than ever if you ask me. She even turned to me and that should tell you how desperate she is for someone to take on some of the burden.”

Giles looked up in anger and began to reach across only to be stopped by a returned server asking if they needed anything.

“Calm down, Watcher. She had sense enough to end it.” Spike looked ancient for a moment. “Just tells you how desperate she is, how in need.” He drank the rest of his brew in one long gulp before continuing. “I finally got the message: wasn’t helpin’, was hurtin’. So I left. Just because I left doesn’t mean I don’t care. Still love the bint.”

Giles laughed. “Your obsessions tend to be lengthy.”

“Not worthy of her; know that. Did somethin’ about it too, but that only led me to see things a bit clearer. Now I know I can’t go back.” Spike whispered the last part with such sorrow in his voice that Giles was uneasy. “Still want to help.”

“Aside from the wise decision to leave her alone, I don’t see how you could offer anything of value,” Giles chided.

“More than you,” Spike shot back. “Did some diggin’ before I left Sunnyhell. Retrieved some of the shiny baubles in that tomb where I got the ring a few years ago. Played Lara Croft and liberated a nice bundle. Found a friendly fence and got a fair price. Course, flashin’ a bit of fang didn’t hurt.”

“I gave Buffy a sizeable check before I left,” Giles sputtered.

“And that was spent in minutes. Girl’s got all her mum’s debts, upkeep on little sis and the feeding and caring of the witch all to be met by a lousy minimum wage job that sucks the soul out of her and all her friends can say is ‘Can I get some fries with that?’ while she dies a little each day.” Spike motioned for another round. “I offered to help. You know, with the dosh. She turned me down. Needs it though.”

“What do you expect me to do?”

“I expect you to get the money to her in such a way that she’ll accept it. Hell, make her think it’s from the Council of Wankers, or from you, I don’t rightly care. Tell her it’s from a friend.”

“She’d probably think it was from Angel in that case.” Giles enjoyed the flash of pain he saw cross the vampire’s face at the mention of the souled vampire.

“Fine,” Spike growled out, “If that’s what it takes for her to accept it and not have to be worrying. Old bastard will likely be happy to accept credit.”

Giles looked closely at Spike then. For him to be willing to let Angel get credit for rescuing Buffy from financial disaster must signify something. Could it be that Spike actually did have real feelings for Buffy? “So a check is going to fix her problems, is that it?”

“NO, that’s probably the least of it,” Spike looked at the Watcher as if he’d taken leave of his senses. “Needs you. Needs her friends whole and helpful. That’s what gave her the edge, helped make her the best. She needs her support system back. She’s the best Slayer I’ve ever seen, but part of it is because she has people she loves, people who love her, around her. That’s what makes her fight to survive. Take that away and she’s just markin’ time till the death wish kicks in and some ugly has their lucky day.”

Spike pushed an envelope towards Giles and rose to leave. “Just get this to her. Tell her it’s from Angel, I don’t care. If it makes her feel loved, wanna live, do it. If you care for the girl then give some thought to goin’ back and bein’ the da she needs.” Spike leveled a serious look at Giles and warned, “If you don’t, you’ll be makin’ the trip to attend her funeral. The girl’s in need. Man up, Giles, you’re the one who crossed the line and made her family. If the May festival gets to be too much and you lot need extra muscle, send word through a demon named Clem back in SunnyD. He’ll know how to reach me. I’ll stay in touch. Otherwise, I’ll stay clear.”

Spike had been gone for quite a while before Giles opened the envelope and stared at all the zeros on the check. With that amount, Buffy would never need to work except for her Slaying. Hell, she might be able to buy the Council with this check!

~~~

Xander had groveled to no avail. Anya was having none of his apologies. Fortunately, his luck was better with Willow and Buffy.

Life was beginning to go back to normal on the surface. Buffy was still trying to rid the town of the terror of the nerd trio and their increasingly dangerous antics and Willow and Tara were close to being a couple again.

“I don’t know how stuff got so mixed up. I blew it.” Xander sat on the bench next to Buffy. “I miss Anya so much. I guess I know that I’m a better person with her in my life. Things got so complicated, then I left and ever since I’ve had this painful hole inside and I’m the idiot that dug it out.” He looked at Buffy and saw a parallel pain in her eyes. Time for grovel part two.

Xander had done a bit of growing up. Throwing away a happy future had a way of sobering a person. As much as the surface seemed to be peaceful, there were still apologies owed to more than Anya and so Xander was determined to give them.

“I thought a lot about mistakes I made.” Buffy had never seen Xander so somber. “I screwed up a lot…and not just the big disaster at the wedding.”

“That was pretty spectacular as far as screw-ups go,” Buffy smiled and tried to lighten the mood. Somehow serious Xander was scary.

He chuckled but wasn’t put off from his purpose. “Yeah, well, I rarely do things in halves. Buffy, I haven’t been a good friend in a long time and I am sorry.”

“What are you talking about? You’re the bestest of best friends,” Buffy pulled him into a hug and felt herself tear up. “You’re like my brother.”

“Exactly. I’m like your brother, only I was kinda your pervy brother for a while deep down, and I don’t think I even know why anymore.” Buffy looked confused. “I think I was kinda in love with the idea of being in love with you, subconsciously…I’ve got one of those, you know,” he grinned. “I mean, I really thought that I did love you like a brother and I knew you felt that way about me and that was cool. Still, somewhere inside where I didn’t even really see it, I wanted to be the one, the human guy that was your Mr. Right. I think I was really more in love with the dream than the real deal, ‘cause I truly loved Anya at the same time. God, this sounds bad.”

Buffy blinked and moved slightly apart from him on the bench where they were sitting.

“Don’t be nervous, I’m over it. Not over loving you, just the pervy part. I probably have been for a long time but didn’t admit it to myself. I’ll always love you, but it is like a brother kinda thing…I finally get that and even want that.”

“I wish you could have been my Mr. Right, Xan,” Buffy admitted. “It would be so simple. You’re a good guy. You’re good-looking and funny and sweet.” She fought the urge to cry. “I don’t know what to say. You can’t help who you love…or don’t.”

“I know.” Xander looked in the direction of the Magic Box and Buffy knew his heart was there with Anya. “I also want to apologize for all that stuff I said when I found out about you and Spike.”

“Not a problem,” Buffy started to get up. She did not want to talk about Spike with anyone, especially Xander.

“Yeah, it is a problem. I stuck my nose in and it wasn’t my business.” Buffy shook her head but Xander took her hands and pulled her back to sit on the bench again. “I knew Spike loved you; we all did. It was obvious after you…after you….”

“Died,” Buffy finished for him. “You can say it.”

Xander shrugged and still looked uncomfortable with putting that horrible experience into words. “Anyway, we knew. He’d even tried to be a halfway decent guy. He must have been doing something right or you wouldn’t have been interested. Besides, it wasn’t up to me or anyone else who you wanted to be with. I get that now.”

“I'm sorry. I should have told you, all of you. It must have been a shock walking in on us that way,” Buffy whispered. Xander noted that he had been right in thinking Buffy was having some regret-induced pain too. She had panicked when he had confronted her in Spike’s crypt and said some harsh things to the guy she had just slept with. Fine friend he had turned out to be!

“Maybe you would have told me if I hadn't given you so many reasons to think I'd be an ass about it. Then I went and proved what an ass I could be,” he looked ashamed. “Willow was deep in her magic trouble and had just lost Tara, so I get why you didn’t tell her.”

“I told Tara,” Buffy blurted out.

Xander looked shocked, then a bit hurt and finally resigned. “Yeah, well, Tara isn’t judgmental like some of your friends. Makes sense.”

“She was great. I leaned on her a lot,” Buffy admitted. “I’m glad she and Willow are working it out.”

“Me too, but don’t change the subject,” Xander smiled knowingly. “Look, if you care for the guy, I just want you to know I’ll not butt in. I just want my sister happy.”

Buffy didn’t even realize her tears had spilled until she felt Xander brush one away. “Too late, I’m afraid. Spike’s never come back. I think I finally pushed him too far.”

Xander flinched. It was obvious from Buffy’s trembling lips that Spike had won more than Buffy’s body, even if he didn’t know it.

“He’ll be back. Spike always comes back.”

“Not this time.”

“What about us? Are we good?” Xander looked eager and a bit nervous.

“Yeah, we’re good,” Buffy threw her arms around him and sniffed back a tear.

~~~

Giles had booked his airfare allowing for a short layover in Los Angeles. He had no desire to stay longer than necessary in Angel’s company. No soul could ever trump the memory of dear dead Jenny. The cashier’s check Spike had given to him for Buffy was drawn on a bank in LA and Angel had agreed to go to Sunnydale with Giles and give the check to Buffy explaining that it came from a “secret donor”. They both figured that Buffy would assume the donor was Angel himself. Giles thought the souled vampire had sounded far too eager to play into the scheme.

“Oh, I am sorry,” the disheveled Lydia offered as she bumped into Giles, knocking a few books from the small stack he was planning to take back to Sunnydale with him. “Rupert! I had heard you were paying us a visit. How lovely to see you again.”

“Nice to see you as well, Lydia. I’m leaving at the end of the week actually.”

“And you didn’t plan to ring me up and say hello at least before going?” she looked hurt. “I should be insulted but instead find myself merely a bit wistful. I understand you’ve been home for quite some time. I would have enjoyed spending a bit of time with you.” She flushed brightly. “I would have loved to hear some stories about your many adventures dealing firsthand with William the Bloody, especially now that he’s seemingly done the unimaginable.”

Giles wondered how the Council had found out about the generous check. “Now how on earth did you find out about that?”

“Well, no one knows for certain, of course, but the rumors fairly flew out of our African office. Not everyday the demon and human world gossip about the same rumor.”

Giles looked baffled. “Just what rumor would that be, Lydia?”

The attractive Watcher lightly patted his arm and giggled like a schoolgirl. “No need to be coy, Rupert. I imagine you had something to do with guiding him towards it. After all, you did work side by side for some time ever since that chip was implanted. Still, it’s unheard of for a demon to actually CHOOSE…well…I’m all agog! I always felt he was special in some way. You remember I did my thesis on him.”

“I assure you that I haven’t a clue about what you are talking about!” Giles looked completely flummoxed. “Just what is it that Spike is rumored to have done?”

“Why, sought the return of his soul, of course.”

The books in Giles’ arms dropped at the same time as his jaw.

Chapter Text

~*~
Chapter 4
~*~

Her shoulder hurt and burned badly enough that Buffy was sure it would break out in flames. “It was waxy with weird eyes. It didn’t even look real, like some Hollywood idea of a demon. The poky thing just popped out when it trapped me against a car.”

Willow headed for the computer in full research mode. “Anything else you can remember that makes this demon special?”

Buffy was staring into space with a blank look on her face before crumpling into a heap on the floor.

“Oh, Goddess! Buffy?” Willow rushed to her fallen friend and checked her pulse. It was racing. “Tara! Dawnie!” Willow wasn’t sure if either of the girls was home but didn’t want to leave Buffy prone and alone.

Buffy had a small smile on her face but showed no signs of consciousness.

~~~

“Hi, honey! Welcome home!” Joyce looked pretty in a pale blue dress but most of all she looked so happy with her hand holding Hank’s as they stood in the doorway beckoning Buffy and Spike into the house.

Buffy looked around in confusion. “Mommy?” Her voice broke, “Daddy?” She started to cry softly and Spike handed her a tissue.

“Honeymoon went a bit long, I ‘spect,” Spike explained to the Summers. “She may love me, but still a girl will miss her folks.”

Buffy looked at Spike in amazement. The sun was shining and he had a slight suntan, other than that he looked like he always did. “Why aren’t you on fire?”

Spike looked at her in complete confusion. “I’m always on fire, pet. You have the power to do that to me.” He smiled at Joyce, who blushed slightly.

“Come in, you kids,” Hank suggested. “You still drink Sam Adams, Spike?”

“That’d be great, Dad,” Spike replied and motioned for Buffy to proceed him into the house.

~~~

Buffy blinked and shook her head trying to stand up only to have a worried Willow force her back on her back. “No way, missy, you just lay there for a minute. You had me scared half to death.” Willow looked ashen. “Do you want a glass of water? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Buffy answered. “Okay, a bit confused, but fine.”

“You just kinda blinked out then collapsed. Don’t try to get up right away, you’re still pale.”

“That was weird,” Buffy muttered.

“No kidding.”

“It was like I was in some dream,” Buffy tried to explain. “Mom was there and my dad and Sp…um…it was sunny and everyone was happy.”

“Sounds like a nice dream.”

“It was.” Buffy remembered how blue Spike’s eyes looked in the bright daylight. His smile was soft and happy. “I must need more sleep if I’m dreaming while awake,” she joked.

“That has been known to happen,” Willow agreed. “Some down time might be a good idea. Why don’t you take a little nap while I research this demon that spiked you.”

Buffy’s eyes shot up at the word but saw that Willow hadn’t a clue. “Okay, good idea. I don’t have a shift tonight, so I don’t have to be anywhere ‘til patrol time.”

“I’ll fix dinner, so you don’t even have to worry about that. Tara is coming over and we’ll do spaghetti. No worries!”

“Sounds great.” Buffy was shaky as she climbed the stairs. ‘I hope I can get that dream back. God, I miss them all so much!’

~~~

“So have you given any thought to staying here in Sunnydale? I know with Spike’s career you two are able to live pretty much anywhere, but Joyce and I would love being nearby.” Hank squeezed Buffy’s hand affectionately. “We wouldn’t be underfoot all the time, no need to worry about that!”

“We’ve talked about it, Hank,” Spike answered with a grin. “Buffy promises to take cooking lessons from Joyce and I can’t very well turn that down, now can I?”

Everyone laughed except Buffy, who was still disoriented.

Spike immediately stopped laughing and looked at her in concern, “I’m sorry, pet. I was only kidding about your cookin’. Hate to be in the dog house our first night back.”

“I’m sure Buffy knows you were teasing her,” Joyce said. “I should have tried to teach her some of the family recipes anyway.”

Buffy decided to just go with the dream. “I always did want to know how you made that meatloaf. It’s never dry and cardboardy.”

“Barley,” Joyce whispered, “I use barley as filler. It keeps it moist!”

“I have to say, I usually like my barley liquid,” Hank lifted his glass of Scotch, “But I do love your meatloaf, Muffin!”

Joyce giggled and motioned to Buffy to join her in the kitchen. “Let’s leave these two fellas alone to talk about silly guy things while we catch up on important things, honey.”

“Sure, Mom,” Buffy walked slowly, taking in all the familiar things and noting what was different. Not just the people in the dream were different. All the family pictures showed Buffy and her parents, but not a one showed Dawn. A few photos even had Spike in the group, but there was no indication that Buffy had a little sister in this dream world.

The deep voices were muffled, but there seemed to be plenty of laughter coming from the living room. “I’m so glad your dad likes your husband. It makes things so much easier without all that male posturing that sometimes happens. My dad never liked Hank; we had trouble at first because of it.”

Buffy felt lightheaded at the word ‘husband’. She was married! To Spike! She looked down at her left hand at the sparkling circle of diamonds adorning her ring finger. Looked like Spike had some kind of decent job too. The idea of Spike and a job boggled the mind. “So, what do you think about Spike’s career?” Buffy fished for information.

“I’m so proud,” Joyce gushed. “All my book club friends are green with envy that I’m now the mother-in-law of a best selling author!”

Spike, a writer? Well, there were times when he had quoted poetry to her when he thought she was asleep. Funny how her subconscious had turned him into a writer.

“Buffy,” Willow was shaking her and had a worried look on her face.

“Huh?”

“Oh, thank the Goddess! I couldn’t get you to wake up. I was afraid you weren’t just asleep.”

“Just in deep dreamland,” Buffy tried to make light of it. “Guess I really was tired.

~~~

The hallucinations started coming more frequently and it was harder for the Scoobies to bring Buffy back each time.

“I was checking houses on that list you gave me looking for the terrible trio and then that demon thing poked me. That was the first time I remember checking out. I was in Sunnydale and I wasn’t a Slayer. Mom and Dad were there. Everything and everyone was normal--you know, regular people. None of this,” she gestured taking in everything around her, “was real. None of it.”

Xander scoffed, “Oh, come on, that’s ridiculous. What? You think this isn’t real just because of all the vampires and demons and the sister who used to be a big green ball of energy?” He stopped and frowned, realizing how crazy it all sounded.

Dawn was still upset at having been told she didn’t exist in Buffy’s happy, normal world. Buffy hadn’t dared mention her ‘husband’ Spike. It made Buffy feel bad knowing Dawn was so unhappy at being left out of her dream life, especially how much Buffy was coming to love her time in that bright and happy place.
Each time she slipped into the fugue state, she found herself loathe to leave it. Everything was wonderful in that world. No pain, no worries and more love than she knew what to do with. She hadn’t been so blissful since her sojourn in heaven. Each time she snapped back to the “real” world it was like losing heaven once again. She was beginning to really hate her friends for pulling her back, for looking at ways to keep her there with them.

After one long visit to her happy dream world, Willow had caught Buffy murmuring Spike’s name. That had led to her admitting he was present there. Dawn had pitched a fit that the vampire who had deserted them had made it into Buffy’s preferred world but not her. Willow and Xander looked like they felt much the same, even if greater maturity prevented them from stomping up the stairs and slamming doors.

“So,” Willow gently prodded, “Spike, huh?”

“Yeah, look, I know you guys get uncomfortable when I talk about what it’s like there,” Buffy tried to change the subject.

“NO. Well, okay a little,” Willow hedged. “Buffy, do you think that maybe in your subconscious you are kinda missing Spike?”

Buffy didn’t answer for so long that Willow thought for a moment that she had slipped away again. “Not just my subconscious, Will. I said terrible things to him, did terrible things to him. You only got a small glimpse of how bad it was.” Buffy teared up. “I wanted him so much, but I didn’t want to want him. I knew how you’d all take it.”

Willow bit her bottom lip. “Buffy, I probably wouldn’t have been all supporto-girl at the time, but after thinking about it…. If I had known you really did care about him, I would have been okay with it. I just want you to be happy, especially since I’m the one that pulled you out of heaven and made the whole mess in the first place.”

“I’m not mad at you anymore, you know,” Buffy reassured Willow. “I got past that and Spike actually was helping me to be happy again, to want to be alive.”

“Then I need to thank him someday,” Willow smiled. “Buffy, I really mean it. Xander and I have talked about you and Spike and we both know that we had no business trying to interfere, make you choose between your friends and the guy you were interested in. When Spike comes back home, I promise we’ll be good friends. I can’t swear that Xander will ever be bestest friends with Spike, but we’ll be nice. I kinda like him anyway. We all worked together really well that summer.”

Buffy hung her head and choked back tears. “I’m afraid the only way I’ll ever see him again is in this dream world, Will. You don’t know all that happened, all I did and said.”

“I’m sure Spike wasn’t Mr. Perfect himself,” Willow suggested.

“No, he made mistakes, but he was really trying to help,” Buffy admitted. “He was coming from that weird vampire logic place and it tripped him up from time to time, but his heart was in the right place.”

“Look,” Willow put on her resolve face, “First we’ll get you completely back in the real world and then we’ll work on how to get your vampire back.”

Buffy sniffled and put on a hopeful smile. “Thanks for understanding.”

“Thanks for forgiving me for being too caught up in power and control to notice my friend needed me.”

They embraced for the first time since Buffy’s return with nothing but love between them. It almost made Buffy want to stay in this real world of theirs.

~~~

Willow woke Buffy from a normal sleep with a happy smile, “Look, Buffy, I found the demon! It fits your description and your symptoms--you know, the trips to happy land--perfectly!”

Buffy looked at the offered picture and nodded. “Yup, that’s the nasty that nailed me. What’s it say about it? Will the effects just fade away?”

Willow looked somber. “Um, no. That’s the problem. It says that unless you drink the cure you’ll eventually slip into a coma and won’t wake up. I guess in your mind you’ll be in that world you’ve been visiting.”

Buffy wondered just how bad that would be, to just let it happen. She was happy there. Spike was…well, he was just like Spike tried to be here in the real world. He was loving and sexy and funny and treated her like she was a treasure. She had glimpses of that in him during those torrid weeks before she had driven him away. She had been having sex and he had always been making love. It had driven her crazy and brought out the uber-bitch in her.

Willow saw her frown and misunderstood. “It’s going to be fine. The stinger has the antidote, so all we need to do is trap the monster, snap off the stinger, do a little brewing,” Willow looked at the whole list of ingredients, “Ooh, it has nutmeg! That’ll make it tasty even. You’ll be fine in no time.”

‘Will I?’ she wondered. ‘How can I be fine in a world where I drove off the guy I think I’m in love with?’ To Willow, she said, “That’s great, Will. I knew you’d fix it.”

Chapter Text

A/N: Small bit of dialogue and events from “Seeing Red” written by Steven DeKnight

~*~
Chapter 5
~*~

 

Buffy wondered for a few seconds if the cure hadn’t worked and she was once more in her dream world. Giles standing on her doorstep was icing on her cake. The sight of Angel at his side was a jolting reminder that this was reality because Angel had no place in the happy, much missed world of her altered state.

Angel wore his normal pinched, put upon face that spoke of sack cloth and ashes, self-flagellation and unspoken sin. Angel might not be sucking blood from humans any longer, but he could still suck the joy from those around him!

“Buffy, I realize it’s late, but I rather wanted to see your face instead of merely calling to let you know I’ve decided to return to Sunnydale.” Giles was nearly bowled over by Buffy flinging herself into his arms and squeezing him for all she was worth.

He squirmed in an effort to avoid damage, “Breathe…need to breathe!” He was certain his lips were already blue.

“Oh, sorry!” Buffy’s smile could light a city. “I forget my own strength sometimes.” She kept hold of Giles’ hands and looked at him like a starved person would a buffet. “You really mean it? You’re staying this time?”

“Yes Buffy, I’m done with my safe retreat and ready to…ahem…man up as someone once put it,” He smiled back at her with genuine affection.

“Oh God, come in! You’re staying here of course, at least until you kick Anya out of the Magic Box apartment, right?”

Angel cleared his throat pointedly.

“Oh yes, come in, Angel. I don’t imagine you’re staying, but there’s a cot in the basement if you can’t get back to your city tonight.” She wondered for the first time at the reason why these two particular people would show up at the same time on her doorstep.

“Thanks, really…gracious…offer,” Angel looked hurt. Buffy was likely still miffed about their last meeting. She hadn’t taken his reaction to her death well. ‘Nothing wrong with meditation at a monastery. That’s was perfectly appropriate reaction to her death,’ he thought mulishly. ‘She wasn’t too happy that I needed to get back to Cordy and her visions either, come to think of it. She’s jealous, poor girl. Still needs time to get over the fact we can’t be together.’

“Feel free to use the phone if you need to check in with Cordy,” Buffy nodded towards the phone. Buffy would never forget how it had felt a bit like a slap in the face when she had wanted nothing more than sweet comfort from Angel only to have him spend their short visit talking about the important work he was doing with Cordelia Chase of all people! She should have expected nothing more given the distance between them over the past few years. Angel hadn’t even been able to break free to help fight Glory that past year.

“No need. I’m free as long as you need me.” Angel smiled his best ingratiating smile.

Buffy looked at Giles. “Another apocalypse coming that I don’t know about? It’s a couple of months earlier than usual, if so, and I’ve seen no signs of one.”

“No, not that I know of at least,” Giles reassured her.

“So what convinced you to come home, not that I’m complaining?” Buffy considered Giles’ reason for being there the most important question.

“I was acting from fear when I left, Buffy. Seeing you die was incredibly painful. I felt responsible for what you had to do. I was your Watcher and yet could find no way to defeat Glory in time to save you. It was more than me failing you as your Watcher, but the loss felt visceral and, quite frankly, I couldn’t bear the thought of ever feeling such pain again.” Giles looked his age for the first time in Buffy’s memory. “I told myself that I’d go back to the Council’s headquarters and regroup, study more, brush up on all I had once learned…be harder, a better Watcher, even if from a distance. Perhaps if I did it right I could help you stay alive and if that failed, I wouldn’t have to watch as you died again. It was the choice of a coward and I am so terribly sorry, my child. Can you forgive me?”

Buffy had begun to cry mid-way through Giles’ confession. “You don’t even have to ask.” She hugged him close, but with care for his fragile body this time, and for once Giles removed his glasses to wipe his eyes rather than the lenses. “Welcome home, Giles. Please never run away from home again.”

He chuckled a bit. “I promise.”

Buffy suddenly remembered her other visitor then. “Angel! Gotta say I wasn’t expecting to see you at my door, especially with Giles. What’s up?”

“We drove up from LA together.” Angel could see the wheels spinning in Buffy’s mind. She was likely thinking that Angel had called Giles to have him return. He decided not to let her know her suspicion was wrong. He would have called Giles if he had known how important the Watcher was to Buffy’s happiness. Really, Buffy was far beyond needing Rupert at this point, but if she wanted him there, well, that was her business. At least Giles would have the sense to keep Spike from returning. Angel had been shocked when Giles told him about the source of the check he carried.

“I see…kinda.” Buffy looked from one man to the other. “Again I ask, what’s up?”

Angel looked down bashfully. Buffy could almost imagine him blushing if it had been possible. “Well, um, there’s this… guy…ah…in LA. He knows about the Slayer and how hard your life must be. He cares about you, especially now that your mom is gone and you have a sister to raise.” Angel peeped at Buffy through his lashes, clearly implying that the caring guy might well be himself. “Anyway, he’s not able to be here to help in the fight, but he thought he could make the rest easier.” He took the envelope out of his inner pocket. “It’s only money and he really doesn’t need it, so please don’t turn it down.” He handed the check over to a puzzled looking Buffy.

She opened the envelope and nearly fainted when she saw the amount. “I can’t…this is too…who would …?”

“Yes, all good questions indeed,” Giles teased. “I can assure you that there is nothing wrong in accepting this check, Buffy. It is not ill gotten gains and the person who provided it will not be hurt by your acceptance of the sum. In fact, I believe the benefactor would be relieved to know your load has been lightened. Think of it as a gift of love and compassion.”

“I…,” She murmured, “I’ll think about it. This is a lot of money.”

“If you need help in investing it, I’d be more than happy to offer what advice I can,” Giles suggested. “If the funds are properly invested, neither you nor Dawn will ever need to worry about finances again. You could even return to college full-time, perhaps travel a bit once Faith is out of prison and can take some of the Slayer duties in hand.”

Buffy smiled at him. “I’ll keep that in mind. Wow, this is all just…unexpected.” She laughed in nervous relief. She couldn’t bear to look at Angel at the moment for fear she’d see more hurt in his eyes that her gratitude hadn’t been as fulsome as he should expect, as he deserved.

She rose from the sofa and yawned. “It’s kinda late and I’m sure you’re both tired from all the travel and all. Let me get some sheets for the sofa and the basement cot so you guys can settle in.” She looked embarrassed as she remembered her other hostessing obligations. “Where is my mind? Are either of you hungry? Angel, I’m afraid the blood I have on hand is kinda old, but I could fix you something else until I get to the butcher’s in the morning.”

“I’m good,” Angel nodded. “I sometimes drink coffee, but you may remember I don’t really eat. Vampire here.”

Buffy had a quick vision of Spike diving into a plate of Hot Wings with gusto and gasped at the pain of losing her so unique vampire.

Giles had watched the by-play and knew well that Angel was enjoying the misunderstanding. The berk was more than happy to take credit for both his decision to return and the fortune in cash. What a difference in vampires! Spike had been more than happy to have Buffy never know he was responsible for both. His interest had been in Buffy’s welfare alone. Perhaps Lydia’s rumor had some merit after all.

“Well, Angel, being a vampire doesn’t preclude your eating. As I recall, Spike often enjoyed a meal at my expense.” Giles noted the flash of something that crossed Buffy’s face at the mention of the missing vampire. Perhaps Buffy wasn’t as happy with his absence as Spike had assumed.

“He was always determined to be contrary,” Angel nearly snarled. “Probably did a lot of things just to get your goat.”

“I’ll just get those sheets, ‘k?” Buffy hurried from the room and the discussion of a certain missing blond vamp.

~~~

Giles return had a positive impact on Anyanka as well. Once she learned that he wasn’t planning to remove her from control of the Magic Box, she was delighted to have him back in her life too.

“I am so sorry for Xander leaving you that way, Anya.” Giles offered his sympathies, surprised at how sincere he was about it. “I cannot say I don’t understand taking the coward’s path, so I’ll not be as hard on Xander as his actions deserve. I do believe he loves you and his leaving was not so much a rejection of you but simply fear.”

“I used to glory in causing fear in men. Xander never had a reason to fear me.” Anya tried to sound hard, but her voice cracked a little.

“His fear wasn’t of you, dear. It was of how he might fail you. That particular fear is one I am intimately acquainted with.”

“It hurts so much, Giles,” Anya wept. “I want to eviscerate him and win him back at the same time. I’m so confused.”

“I can well imagine.” Giles hesitated to offer advice, but the poor girl looked like she needed some help. “Perhaps you need to decide just which of those two extremes you truly wish to act upon and then actually talk to Xander before carrying either out.”

“The evisceration could happen,” Anya said softly with a bit of fear in her eyes, “I have my power center back. D’Hoffryn gave me my job back after the non-wedding.”

Giles felt his blood run cold. A woman scorned was always dangerous, but this was to the nth degree. Perhaps he should recommend Xander moving far away, very far away. Then again, a Vengeance Demon could even cross dimensions, so no place was safe. “Does Buffy know?”

“No. I haven’t told anyone ‘til now.” Anya stiffened her spine. She would not be made to feel guilty for returning to her safe place after what a human had done to her. “I don’t expect you to approve, but what was I to do? Go home? My only connections in your world were through Xander and you were all his friends, barely tolerating me. None of you ever even listened when I’d try to offer information or suggestions. You all made it perfectly clear that I was an outsider.”

Giles was taken aback. There was some truth in what the girl said. They had never treated her as anything other than an embarrassing, gauche girl when instead she was a thousand years of experience in the flesh. They had kept Spike at that same distance as well, even that summer when he was helping them with no hope of reward. It seemed Giles had failed more than just Buffy these past few years. He resolved not to repeat those mistakes since he seemed to have been granted a second chance.

“Anya, I can only hope that nothing you do in the course of your…duties will warrant Buffy’s carrying out her Slayer’s counter duty. Surely you can satisfy your customers without going to an extreme that would put you in the enemy camp?”

“D’Hoffryn won’t like that,” Anya admitted with a shiver.

“Perhaps if Buffy and I were to explain in great detail why it would be in his best interest to allow you some creativity--creativity that we would have no problem accepting--he could be made to come to some sort of agreement. I doubt your boss would want the full anger of the Slayer and the resources of the Council of Watchers brought into play to convince him.”

Anya brightened somewhat at that. ”You aren’t going to drive me away or take away my necklace again?”

“Not unless it becomes necessary,” Giles sighed. “In spite of our past actions, you are a valuable member of our little family, Anya. Perhaps we can better show it from now on.” He put a consoling arm around her. “It might help if you do have that talk with Xander, though. I’m not suggesting that you have to accept his apologies and begin again, but some kind of peace between you will be necessary.”

“I am glad you’re back, Giles.”

“As am I.”

~~~

“So I can get new clothes for school next year and not have to steal, um…borrow from your closet?” Dawn wasn’t two-minded a bit over accepting the massive check. “’Cause I’m thinking maybe Express with a side order of Hot Topic.” She was as energetic as a five-year-old with a sugar rush.

“We’ll see.” Buffy rolled her eyes. She really couldn’t see how she would be able to turn down the whole amount, even if she didn’t want to owe Angel. Dawn did need new clothes, especially if she kept growing like she had been. Dawn was going to be a giant, Buffy just knew it!

Xander looked at the check again in wonder. “WOW! So who does a guy have to kill to get this kind of cash?” He grimaced at the implications. “Since Angel’s the man with the magic check, that may not be the kind of question we want to explore. Sorry.”

“Giles swore that it wasn’t gotten by ill games or however that goes. I guess if you live as long as Angel you can build up a nice nest egg,” Buffy was philosophical about the immortal haves vs. the mortal have-nots.

“Nest this size could house a pterodactyl--a whole family of them!” Xander ran a finger over the amount. “And again with the wow.” He turned a worried gaze on Buffy’s downturned head. “Deadboy’s not expecting anything from you for this, is he?”

“No,” Buffy shook her head. “In fact, he headed right back to LA after just a short, kinda awkward visit.”

“Good, ‘cause you’re not that kind of girl in the first place, and I don’t think any woman could work this amount off!”

Buffy swatted Xander’s arm and giggled. “Oh yeah, baby, I’m worth it!” They all shared in the laugh, Buffy falling over on the sofa in glee.

“Yeah, well, Angel owes you for breaking your heart and making you hate all other guys,” Dawn finally said after the laughter ended.

“Angel doesn’t owe me.” Buffy got up and looked as sad as she had ever since her return from heaven. “No one does, and I don’t hate all other guys.” She yawned in exaggeration. “Think I’ll head up and get some sleep. Ever since that Glarghk Gul Kashma’nik put me in dreamland while I was really awake, I’ve had nothing but bad dreams during my regular sleep. Maybe tonight that’ll change and I’ll go on that shopping spree with you in my dreams, only toss in The Limited and Vicky’s Secret just for fun.”

Buffy didn’t turn back as she mounted the stairs, so she didn’t catch the look of concern on everyone’s face. “Well, I think that was a perfect example of forced gaiety,” Willow opined. “I hope seeing Angel didn’t reopen too many old wounds.”

“Sir Joykill couldn’t just mail the check with a nice note, could he?” Xander would never, ever cozy up to Angel. “I’m just glad he didn’t stick around for the gushing gratitude he probably thinks he earned.”

“Buffy just can’t catch a break, can she?” Willow worried her lower lip. “I thought she might find happiness with Riley, but that didn’t work out well at all. Then Spike….”

“What do you mean about Spike?” a clueless Dawn asked.

~~~

“I just can’t do it. I’ll ask him to write a small check as a loan so I can catch up with bills and get some things we need, since he seems to have plenty of money, but I just can’t accept this from Angel.” Buffy looked as determined as she sounded.

All night she reviewed her history with Angel and had finally come to realize that what they had together had come to a real close long ago, probably even before he had left Sunnydale. They had grown apart in every way, moved on. For the first time that thought hadn’t felt like a dagger in her heart.

Since Angel was now nothing more than someone from her past, it didn’t seem right for her to owe him for her solvency. She really didn’t like the idea of owing him at all. She’d have to take the money back to him with her ‘thanks, but no thanks.’ She sighed as her responsibilities once more settled on her weary shoulders. ‘I’ll figure out how much I need to borrow for it to really help and even sign an agreement for repayment.’ He’d argue, she knew, but Buffy didn’t intend to back down.

~~~

The trip to LA had been as fast as it was confusing. Angel had finally admitted the money had not come from him at all, but that he had merely been asked to offer it to her as someone she might feel comfortable with as a benefactor.

“So who’s the real moneybags?” Buffy was angry that she had been played. Had she accepted the money, Angel would never have told her he was not the source. She had never enjoyed his half-truths when they were together and liked them less now that they were nothing more than a painful memory. “Don’t tell me that crap about someone who admires the Slayer either. I want the truth, Angel. I realize you aren’t too acquainted with it, but it’s what I want.”

He squirmed and Buffy knew that he did know full well where the money came from and had no desire to share the information. “Maybe you should ask Giles.”

“Giles? He hasn’t got this kind of cash,” Buffy tried to urge more information from Angel but it was like trying to squeeze water from a rock. “Fine! I will ask him.” She snatched the check back from his hands. “Since this didn’t come from you, it’s not staying with you either.”

~~~

They sat in the garden side by side, the man with the father’s worried frown and the daughter of his heart. Buffy had wasted no time tracking down Giles and demanding answers.

“Spike?” Buffy’s voice was a small, hurt-filled squeak. “But…”

“He sold some items he unearthed when he discovered the gem of Amara. He told me that he had offered to help you financially and you turned him down. Spike seemed to think that you might accept the help you desperately needed from me or from Angel.” Giles was worried. Buffy looked so young, so much in pain.

Her voice was the softest whisper and Giles had to attend carefully to hear her. “After all I said, all I did…he still wanted to help me.” Buffy began to cry in earnest. “Oh Giles! I’ve made such a mess of things. I know you hate Spike, but he’s so different if you’d just give him a chance.” She looked down at her wringing hands. “If I had just given him a chance.”

Giles held her while she cried, feeling his heart break for her as she sobbed her misery onto his shoulder. Much as he wished Buffy had found her soulmate complete with a beating heart, he had to admit that there had always been chemistry between his Slayer and the difficult vampire. She was right: Spike was different. Giles shuddered to think of the choices Angelus might have made had he been the soulless vampire chipped by the Initiative. Every small decision made by Spike had been one that was leading away from the evil of his past. They had all chosen not to notice.

She sniffled. “How did he look? Was he okay? Where is he? Does he hate me?” She frowned. “No, he can’t hate me, not if he did this. God, Giles, how can he love so much? I thought vampires couldn’t love, but Spike does, with his whole being.”

Giles shrugged, “Yes, I suppose he does. In answer to your questions, he looked well enough. I’m not certain where he is staying or what he is doing, but there are some rumors.”

“Rumors?”

“Nothing I can verify. Suffice to say I did confirm that a vampire matching Spike’s description has been roving about slaying demons and other vampires. Making a bit of a name for himself in some quarters. He appears to be moving from place to place, not staying long in any one location.”

“I need to see him, Giles, not just because of the money. There are things I need to say.” Buffy stood and looked down at Giles, willing him to tell her how to find the missing part of her: Spike. “Giles, I will always respect your opinion, but I have to see Spike. I love him and should have realized it when I had a chance.”

She looked at Rupert’s resigned face and smiled at him. “I love you, you do know that, right?”

Giles was distracted by something shining over Buffy’s shoulder and he shouted with alarm, “Buffy!”

“You think you can just do this to me? You think I’d let you get away with ruining all my plans?” the gun-wielding boy laughed maniacally. “Think again, bitch!”

The ‘pop pop pop’ of three shots broke the stillness of the lovely spring day, followed by the sound of shattering glass. Buffy crumpled to the ground at Giles’ feet, her shirt already crimson from the horrific wound near her heart.

“NO! God, no!”

The sound of a woman screaming echoed in Giles’ ears but his attention was solely on the girl currently leaking her life’s blood all over his shoes.

~~~

“Tara!” Willow dropped to her knees at her lover’s side. Tara looked peaceful, her face still holding a happy smile as her eyes lost the light of life. “Tara, baby? Come on, get up!” Willow’s hand traced the growing river of red that defiled Tara’s white blouse.

Willow began to sob and wail. “No! NO!” She looked around in desperation, trying to make sense of what had happened, not fully taking in the shattered window where the stray bullet had entered first their room and then Tara’s breast, laying waste to the tender heart of the precious girl.

“Osiris! I command you to return her to me!” Willow cried out, her eyes going black as coal. “I demand the return of this innocent!”

A booming voice responded in clear nonchalance, “You thought the blood of a fawn proper payment for the return of the Slayer? How cheaply you counted that cost. You made your choices, Witch. This is a natural death and cannot be undone.”

Willow’s scream of rage and anguish shattered what was left of the glass in the ragged pane.

Chapter Text

~*~
Chapter 6
~*~

Giles was beginning to feel real desperation. Everything had gone so terribly wrong. Tara was dead and Willow had nearly ended the entire world in her grief. Xander, of all people, had managed to talk her down and save said world and Buffy continued in the coma that had claimed her with the villain’s bullet.

“I appreciate your kind offer, Althenea. Yes, I understand that you cannot spare anyone else from the coven for such an open-ended assignment and I trust you will be well able to take Willow in hand. I do think keeping her here with family will aid in her healing. I’ll be there to meet your plane in LA.”

Giles listened intently to the instructions on caring for Willow in the interim then smiled as the kindly witch offered to find her own way to Sunnydale. “Really, it’s no trouble at all. I have someone I need to see in LA anyway and it won’t be out of the way to pick you up while there. … Yes, see you soon and thank you again.”

Giles had tried to contact the demon known as Clem to no avail. Anya had asked about in the demon community and heard that Clem had moved to LA to help a pregnant sister through her last trimester. No one seemed to have an address and Giles hoped that Angel’s team would have better luck in locating him. Spike deserved to know what had happened to Buffy and perhaps his return might somehow create the miracle of bringing her back to them all. It was worth the attempt at any rate.

There had never been a question of using Council resources to locate the missing vampire. Even if the rumors of Spike’s souled status proved true, the staid members of the Council would never consent to any relationship between a vampire and their active Slayer. There would be no assistance there save Lydia’s limited information.

According to the latest leads, Spike was still on the move, leaving a trail of dead demons in his wake. Further rumors had it that the vampire was struggling with more than a bit of remorse for his past, the weight of the soul driving him relentlessly to try to even the score in some macabre fashion. Lydia related that Spike had lost considerable weight although it didn’t seem to affect his ability to fight. His face appeared haunted, according to some who had seen him. As to knowing his current location or how to contact him, she was without a clue. Giles was grateful for both her help and her discretion.

It had been Lydia who had suggested the Devon Coven as a resource for helping Willow. Having a talented Wiccan from the coven sent over to take on the care and rehabilitation of Willow would allow Giles to concentrate fully on Buffy and her situation as well as the search for Spike.

In the meantime, the help of Xander and Anya was invaluable to the deeply grieving girl. While caring for Willow, the two had begun to heal the wounds between them. It was far too soon to predict just where that relationship was going, but at least they were no longer a source of hurt for one another. ‘Buffy would be so happy to see that,’ Giles thought with the familiar pain that accompanied any thoughts of his girl lying so still at the hospital.

The doctors were uncertain of the reason for the coma and therefore had no real prognoses to give on her case. All the Slayer healing had done wonders for the actual bullet wounds, but still Buffy remained as lost to them now as on the day Warren Mears had tried to take her life.

“So, Watcherman, are you planning on letting Angel know about Buffy while you’re there trying to find this Clem guy?” Xander finished off the last of the Dim Sum from the cartons on the coffee table. “Personally, I’m surprised Deadboy hasn’t heard about it somehow already. He’d be hovering around the hospital getting underfoot if he did though.”

“Actually, he does know,” Giles said to a surprised Xander. “I had a vague hope that he would offer to come and assist with patrol at the very least, but he seems to be fairly occupied there in his own city or so he says.”

“No real surprise, I guess. He didn’t offer when Buffy died either,” Xander reminded them all.

“Angel is not nearly as useful as Spike was,” Anya added.

“Yes, be that as it may,” Giles agreed, “It is my hope that Spike will be here to continue that usefulness soon. I have no doubt that hearing what has happened to Buffy will bring him home with all due speed.”

~~~

“So you want this Clem guy so you can find SPIKE?” Cordy was aghast.

“Spike’s been kind of helpful since we’ve been gone,” Angel explained to the skeptical girl.

“As what? Comic relief?” Cordy was beyond convincing.

Giles felt an unnatural urge to defend the missing vampire. “Actually, he has done a fine job of helping us in the years since you lived in Sunnydale. He’s a superb fighter and quite loyal to Buffy.”

“That a little dig at me, Rupert?” Angel postured.

“Not in the least. You and Spike have very little in common, to my way of looking at things.” Giles joined in the staredown until Angel lowered his gaze, seemingly conceding the point.

“There are differences,” Angel admitted.

“Yeah, like you being the Powers’ Champion and Spike not even close,” Cordy insisted.

“Evidently the Powers have a singular interest in the battleground of Los Angeles, judging by their Champion’s decision to keep to the fight here,” Giles remarked. “Spike has been moving about all over Europe fighting demons, destroying vampire nests and the like. I’m sure he’ll be more than willing to come and guard the Hellmouth once he’s apprised of the situation.”

“He’s only doing that because he can’t kill humans! He’s still as evil as he ever was,” Angel said defensively.

“Evil or not, he’s fighting on our side now and I’ll be glad to have him.” Giles smirked at the stricken look on Angel’s face. “Besides, he has done no overt evil in years, even though that chip would not have stopped him fully.”

Angel sighed in defeat. “He never was too interested in evil for evil’s sake. Loved the hunt and kill, the fighting. GOD, did he love the fighting! The idiot nearly got us all killed more times than I can count by stirring up trouble. He never went into the artistry of it, the destruction of a human. He acted like it was a big party and he was there to crash and bash his way through it.” He ignored the appalled look on Giles’ face at murder being likened to art. “I can see him taking up the fight for the other side and enjoying it just as much.”

An awkward moment passed before Angel held out a piece of paper with directions to Clem’s sister’s home.
“Got the address for this Clem. Not the best of neighborhoods but demons aren’t known for their great taste. Let me know if something major comes up. I’ll do my best to come lend a hand.”

“I doubt that will be necessary, but I’ll be sure to let Buffy know you did offer.”

Angel had the grace to look deeply shamed.

~~~

“Slow down, Clem. You’re not making sense.” Spike felt like banging the receiver in frustration. It sounded like Clem had said that Buffy had been shot. “What about the Slayer?”

He was on the next plane out of Orly.

~~~

Wedged between a dog crate and a truly ugly set of luggage in the cargo hold of the trans-Atlantic Aerobus, Spike offered a hopeful prayer to any god willing to listen to a souled vampire. “Just let her be all right, yeah? Already fightin’ on her side, but just name your price and it’s yours. Just let Buffy be okay. The girl can be a right bitch and that’s fine with me. Let her beat me senseless, just let her be alright.”

Spike also promised himself the treat of choking that Warren git with his own intestines before killing him slowly and painfully. Clem had said the robot boy had been the one to put Buffy in her coma and kill sweet Tara. Bastard was going to die, and slowly. Soul was okay with that promise too.

Inaction was taking its toll on the frantic vampire and he had to restrain himself from punching holes in the bulkhead. His never silent soul reminded him the dog in the cage next to him needed what little oxygen the hold contained so he contented himself with shredding a piece of the hideous baggage next to him.

Fortunately for his slim grasp on patience there was another plane readied for a flight from La Guardia to LAX and Spike didn’t have to hijack his transportation. Spike slid into another tight spot in the second cargo hold of his life and counted the hours until he would once more be in sunny California. He’d deal with that sunshine issue after he landed.

~~~

“I never thought I’d be saying this, but I’m really glad to see you,” Xander helped bundle a smoldering Spike into the back of his borrowed van. They had all been surprised at the rapid response from Spike to their call for his return.

“Likewise,” Spike muttered. “How’s Bu-…the Slayer?”

“Buffy’s the same, still in a coma. We’re hoping that hearing your voice might make her fight to come back,” Xander admitted.

“Not bloody likely. More like cause her to go in deeper unless there’s a chance she can have the pleasure of kicking my arse out of her town once and for all. Might just encourage that urge if it’ll wake up Sleeping Beauty,” Spike declared.

“I think you might be surprised,” Xander hinted.

Spike raised a brow, “Not much surprises someone my age, Harris. So how’s the missus?”

“Missus?” Xander puzzled out the meaning and realized that Spike had not yet heard about his missed nuptials. “I, um, won the prize of Supreme Asshole of Sunnydale while you were off kicking foreign demon butt. I left Anya at the altar. Now she’s a vengeance demon again, so don’t go making any wishes around her.”

Spike raised both brows in amazement, not only at the information but also the boy’s attitude.

“We’re working on making up, or I’m working on groveling my way back into her good graces at least. Ahn is putting up with me while we keep Willow from doing damage to herself and I think I might turn out to be the luckiest son of a bitch in the world because she just might forgive me.”

Spike was utterly lost. “Slow down. Why would Willow hurt herself? I heard about Tara, of course, but Red never struck me as the type to grieve herself into a grave.”

“So you didn’t hear about Willow trying to outdo your kill count?” Xander sighed. “After Buffy was shot and Tara was killed, Willow went into deep black and I don’t mean mourning. She went over to the dark side, tried to end the whole world. Came close too, but I managed to talk her down before she pulled off her grand finale. Now she’s grieving over Tara, worried about Buffy, filled with guilt over her small killing spree and devastated that she nearly wiped out over six billion people.”

Spike let out a whistle. “I always knew Willow would be one scary force if she ever slipped over and let the darkness take her. How is she?”

“Fragile. She killed two people if you can call them that.”

“Surprised it was only two. Anyone I know?”

“Mears and some warlock named Rack, but the jury’s out on whether he was really a human or not.” Xander shifted gears and entered the highway headed towards Sunnydale.

“Rack was human, barely. Mears don’t count. Good on her for doing him. Saves me the trouble.”

“Can’t disagree with you there,” Xander nodded in complete agreement.

Spike was silent for a while, taking it all in and trying to make sense of all he was hearing and all Clem and Giles had told him. “So, why are you not threatening me if I go near Buffy?”

It was Xander’s turn to be silent for a space of time. “Lots changed, Spike. You might not believe this—I’m not sure if I do--but I actually finally grew up. When I gutted Anya that way, it forced me to think about a lot of things and one of the minor details I mulled over was just what I should think about you. Finally decided you weren’t my business and if Buffy is happy with you, it isn’t anything to do with me. As long as you’re not killing humans or getting in my face about something, there’s no reason for me to be hostile.”

Spike felt like he’d stepped into a parallel universe or a dream at the very least. “You sure you’re not the one needin’ the hospital?”

Xander laughed. “Maybe I do, but I’m going along with the flow here and giving you the benefit of the doubt. Giles seems to think we might have made some mistakes where you’re concerned.” Xander toyed with the idea of not letting Spike know his suspicions about Buffy’s feelings and finally decided he’d want to know if the shoe were on the other foot. “I think Buffy has been wanting you to come back home. She was miserable with you gone. I don’t want to put words into her mouth, but your being here might give her a good reason to come out of that coma.”

“I’ll believe that when I hear it. Long as she’s able to give me the boot herself, that’ll be enough for me. Pretty used to the old unrequited love game by now anyway,” Spike said the last so quietly Xander nearly didn’t hear it.

Xander didn’t know how to respond to that, so he was grateful when Spike abruptly changed the subject.
“So, we got many nasties to clean up while Buffy’s out of commission?”

Xander spent the remainder of the drive catching Spike up on all demon activity at the Hellmouth. The conversation was surprisingly companionable.

~~~

Spike stowed his duffle bag in the basement and returned to the kitchen for his chance to grill Giles about news of Buffy’s condition.

He nearly didn’t recognize Willow sitting quietly in the corner, her cup of tea grown tepid from lack of attention. Her eyes, when they finally met his, were bleak and empty of all life. “’Lo, pet. Hear you’ve been having a right terrible time. Really sorry about Tara. She was a rare one.”

Willow blinked back the ever present tears. “Thank you, Spike. I’m glad you’re here. Buffy is sure to get better now.”

Spike let out a rueful laugh then crouched down in front of the witch, forcing eye contact. “You listen to me, Willow. Grieve over Tara; she deserves it. Learn your lesson about the revenge you planned on the whole world and let it go. As for Mears--good on you. You saved me the trouble of killing him; did the world a favor with Rack too. Don’t let either of those two destroy you, the goodness in you. You go on and learn to use your talent, control the dark that’ll always be part of you. Honor Tara by learning to be the kind of witch she was; she’d want that. Don’t let this change the person you are. That person is good and useful and strong. Be Willow.”

He rose and took a chair opposite an impressed Giles. “How’s Buffy?”

“No real change. I hoped you’d join me in a visit tonight actually. I think hearing your voice will make a difference.”

“I keep hearing that from you lot, but it still isn’t making a bit of sense.” Spike shook his head. “Must have me confused with the Poof…and why isn’t that wanker here?”

“Angel had important Champion business in LA. And Buffy is past her infatuation with him, by the way. Seems she realized it when she decided to return the check to him.” Giles smiled in genuine relief that the age of Angel had passed.

“Tell me she didn’t turn down the dosh!”

“Once she knew the true source she was willing to take it. We were discussing how to best invest it when Mears shot her.” Giles took in Spike’s clenched fists and thought for a moment that it might have been merciful that Willow had gotten to Mr. Mears first. “We spoke of more than the money. We spoke of you and her regrets concerning you.”

“She made those pretty clear to me before I left.”

“I think you misunderstand. Buffy told me she had been terrified of everyone’s reaction should she admit to having feelings for you. She truly regretted things she said to you, things she did but didn’t elaborate on.” Giles looked Spike right in the eye. “She cares very much for you, Spike. One of the last things she said was how much she wanted a chance to see you again, explain herself, have another chance to get things right.”

Spike was terrified. Hope had sprung up at Giles’ words, but hope had crucified him in the past. Buffy might not come out of the coma, and if she did she might have a very different reaction to the reality of his return. He closed his eyes and tried to tamp down his emotions before revealing far too much.

“Spike!” Dawn’s timely entrance was a blessing. “I knew you’d come home when we needed you most.” She threw her arms around him in a tight hug that was returned in full. Spike fought hard to not tear up at the open expression of affection.

“Good to see you too, Bit.” Spike ruffled her hair. “You’ve grown at least a foot. Before long I’ll be lookin’ up to see your face.”

Dawn hugged him again. “Now I know everything will be okay. Thank you for coming.”

~~~

The first few visits showed no real improvement. The monitors still beeped their steady beeps and the IV dripped silently into her arm. Not a flutter of an eyelash denoted any awareness of Spike’s presence, his loving words and vows of adoration. Giles usually accompanied the vampire on those visits, not because he distrusted Spike but to ensure no difficulties arising from Spike’s undead status.

The more Giles watched and heard, the more convinced he had become that Spike’s love was real and that the soul, if the rumors were true, only served to deepen love already present. It went against the Council’s dogma, but truth was truth and what Giles saw was love and devotion.

Giles noted the weight loss Lydia had mentioned and the haunted look about Spike’s eyes only increased with worry over Buffy. He hadn’t broached the subject of souls, but before the second week had passed Giles was completely convinced of the truth of those rumors: that Spike had somehow against all Giles believed true about demons sought out his soul and regained it in some way. There was still violence in the vampire, but no sign of evil.

Patrols had become Spike’s venting method and the demons and vampires of Sunnydale had never seen wrath like that dished out by the emotional vampire. He had taken particular pleasure in wiping out a nest of demons known to have been summoned by Warren’s annoying friend Andrew during the trio’s reign of terror in Buffy’s life. It was as close as Spike could come to getting his own revenge on Mears. Each night he returned with bloodied fists from letting his anger and frustration have full expression before finally slaying the monsters he hunted. He slept little and spoke less, except to Buffy’s still form.

On the third week, Spike swore he had seen a slight twitch of Buffy’s left index finger, but the doctors discounted the report.

On the fourth week, no one could deny the increase of Buffy’s pulse and the day nurse noted that her head position had changed without anyone having moved it.

On the fifth week, Buffy opened her eyes and stared deeply into the blue pools of Spike’s gaze. Spike wept unabashedly.

~~

Within twenty-four hours of returning to consciousness, Buffy was demanding to be let out of the hospital. After two days “under observation,” the hospital staff were the ones demanding that the doctors release her.

Spike was nervous about being elected the one to collect the cranky Slayer and return her to the bosom of her family. He and Buffy had talked about everything but what was most important. The things that needed to be said were like the proverbial elephant in the room, but neither wanted to venture into those deep waters in the hospital setting. Besides, Spike hadn’t wanted to tire his girl any more than her forced inactivity already had.

“I am NOT sitting in that thing like a cripple just to get out of this place!” Buffy was already throwing her weight around and Spike hadn’t even poked his head in her door.

“Not so bad once you get used to it, pet. ‘Sides, you’ll be out of it soon as we get you into the DeSoto,” Spike reminded her. “These dictators won’t let you walk yourself out of here, somethin’ about insurance.”

The nurse nodded in agreement. “Yes indeed, Miss Summers, you have to be wheeled out. And not a minute too soon if you don’t mind my saying so.”

Buffy and Spike shared a laugh at the beleaguered nurse. Buffy knew she should feel guilty for being such a bad patient, but if they had just let her go home like she wanted, they wouldn’t have had to deal with a frustrated Slayer--or so she told herself.

“Fine. Let’s go, Spike.”

“As my lady requests.” He helped her into the hated chair and wheeled her out while Giles finished with the discharge paperwork.

“I can do patrol tonight, Spike. I’m all kinds of fine now and really wanting to kill something,” Buffy offered.

“I think not!” Giles huffed. “Spike has handled things quite nicely up ‘til now and you need to make certain you don’t rush things. The doctors never did decide what had you in that coma.”

“He’s right, pet. Use the hired muscle while you can,” Spike suggested.

Buffy put her foot down literally and brought the wheelchair to a halt. “You aren’t hired muscle, Spike.”

“We’ll talk about what I am and what I’m not later, yeah?”

Buffy sank into silence, suddenly unsure of Spike’s intentions. Surely he wouldn’t just leave now that she was out of the hospital! He couldn’t leave her again, not and have her survive.

Giles saw the interplay and knew the pair needed a nudge, “Why don’t you leave the patrolling to Xander and I tonight while the two of you discuss things.” He nodded encouragingly to Buffy. “Dawn is staying the night with Anya and Willow is on an intense retreat with her teacher. The two of you can hash out all the issues you’ve been dancing around ‘til now.”

Neither heard his muttered, “Put us all out of our misery.”

~~~

“So…,” Buffy cleared her throat, “I hear you’ve been all over Europe being a scourge of a different kind lately.”

“Moved about a bit, yeah.”

“I want to thank you for the check. Giles explained where it came from and where you got that amount of money before everything went dark.” Buffy felt tears well in her eyes. “After all the nasty things I said and didn’t mean, I can’t believe you still cared what happened to me.”

“I love you, Buffy; told you that. In too deep to just stop carin’. Not built that way.”

“No, you’re not, are you?” Buffy gently traced his right cheek with a trembling finger. “You love with everything you are, don’t you? I just didn’t want to see it for all sorts of stupid reasons.”

Spike tucked the afghan around her and smiled shyly. “Tried to tell you, but you’re one stubborn bint.”

“Almost too stubborn for my own good, I think.” She bit her bottom lip and closed her eyes as she remembered those horrible weeks when the love he had offered had been turned into something else, something dirty and wrong. “I didn’t mean those words, Spike. Not just the ones I spoke when Xan and Will caught us, but before, all the befores. No one has ever scared me like you did with your big messy love.”

“Funny, that!” he scoffed. “Never scared you when I was threatening to bleed you dry, only when I told you I loved you. Never took away my invite before that, even before the chip.”

“Well, that’s me,” Buffy laughed ruefully, “Give me a rabid Flumox demon or a nest of vamps and I jump right in, but offer to love me and I yell retreat and bury my head in the sand.”

“You’ve been done wrong more than once,” Spike acknowledged. “I’d not hurt you on purpose, Buffy. Made certain of that.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“When I left I was hurt and angry. The demon wanted your blood, the man…well, I guess the man wanted blood too, just not sure whose. I knew then that you’d never love me. That I’d never be good enough for you. Knew that I’d never stop loving you either. I had to do something and the first thing I had to do was get away from here, from you. I had to decide for myself just who and what I wanted to be. Always just went with the flow before, couldn’t anymore. Had to do it for me, not for you, ‘cause you didn’t want me.

I couldn’t be the monster anymore and not just because of the chip. You’ve changed me, Buffy. Can’t think about killin’ innocents in the same way, not after learnin’ to see humans as more than just food again. Each little girl would be the Bit, old geezers would be Giles, pudgy boys would be Harris and so on. The one time Dru made a kill and offered it to me, the night I chained you up like a right berk and told you how I felt, I had to talk myself into feeding and that feeling of wrongness only got stronger.”

Buffy gasped. She had never asked about all that had happened the night Dru had dropped back into their lives for a brief visit.

“So I didn’t want to be the raging demon anymore, but you made it clear I wasn’t a man. Somethin’ had to be done. Wouldn’t always have this bug zapper in me noggin after all. So I followed a legend and made my choice.”

“What did you do?” Buffy could barely breathe for fear of his answer.

“Fought for it. Won it fair and square. It’s mine again and not goin’ anywhere. Don’t matter, still not a man. Know that now. Took getting the damned thing to finally see myself the way you did and understand.” He drew in a shuddering breath. “There’s a reason vampires can’t see themselves in a mirror. Too hurtful to see what’s reflected back, what you’ve become, how low you’ve gone. It’s a mercy really, like the lack of conscience.”

“What did you do?” Buffy asked with a bit more force and far more trepidation.

“You always said it made the difference ‘tween good and bad. Funny thing is I don’t feel all that different. Still like to kill, love that spot of violence. Still a vampire, not a man.” He smiled at her with a twinge of sadness. “It does make a difference, a major one, just doesn’t have anything to do with choosin’ to be good or bad, unless you count the guilt when you choose poorly.” His laugh was bitter.

Buffy could hardly believe what she was hearing. “My God, you got your soul! Why? Oh Spike….” Tears spilled as her heart broke for him, for his being made to feel of no worth without the soul that clearly had not been needed to start him on his path to redemption. The soul she kept harping on as she threw his love back in his face time and again.

“Not to worry, pet, not so deluded I think it makes a whit of difference. Same ol’ Spike here, except for the charming night visitors that remind me of the thousands of reasons I was never worthy of your notice.”

Buffy blinked the tears away and grasped his hands before he could move away from her. “Stop. Really…stop, Spike. Don’t you start with the stupid words now. You’re right--the soul doesn’t matter.”

His eyes closed as he let out a tremulous sigh.

“I knew five minutes after I realized you had gone that I would never be happy until I had you back again, begged you for another chance. God, we’re so messed up!” She let out a bark of laughter. “You had no soul but you have the most loving heart I’ve ever known. I love that heart. I love you. Not because you’ve got a soul now, I knew I loved you before I was even sure I’d ever see you again. I don’t even know what to think about the whole soul having, to tell you the truth. I just know that I love you however you are, with a soul or without, as long as you’re mine. Is it too late?”

Spike looked at her in disbelief. “You love me?”

“Madly, passionately, and I’m pretty sure permanently. So is it? Too late?”

Spike pulled her to his chest with a fierceness that would have hurt a normal girl. “Never, my love, never.”

Their lips met at first with surprising tenderness, tentative and testing, but the fires that had always matched one another soon engulfed them in a kiss of such passion they both imagined bursting into flame. Their touches were nearly reverent as both shook with the emotions consuming them.

Spike was panting as hard as Buffy when they finally broke apart to gaze at each other’s much loved face. He leaned his forehead on Buffy’s and whispered, “At least the soul will help make us acceptable to your Watcher and friends.” He paused and, with the last gasp of insecurity, added, “We are letting them know about us, right?”

“Of course we are, Spike. I plan to tell the whole world, shout it from rooftops even. Can’t wait to see all the envy when every other woman sees the guy I’ve got that they can’t have,” she teased. “As for the soul, why don’t we just keep that to ourselves. It really doesn’t matter and Giles would want to make you some kind of research subject.”

“You don’t care what they think?”

“I stopped caring about that right about the time I knew I couldn’t stand the thought of being here, living, without you there as my friend, my lover. You already were all that from the time I was brought back. You were my friend even before I died, I forgot that somewhere along the way. I got lost and nearly lost you!”

“Never lose me, Buffy, I’d always be yours even if you didn’t want me.”

“Well, I do want you. I’m yours too.”

She could see from his face that Spike was moved beyond words. Finally he raised his head and looked at her with such pure love and adoration it took her breath away. “Never been loved before. Not sure I deserve it, but I vow I’ll spend every day of my life trying.”

“Just be Spike.” Buffy kissed him tenderly. He was so tender and emotionally fragile. She was going to have to watch herself and make certain she never said anything to crush that loving heart of his again. “Welcome home, my love.”

“Home,” he echoed in wonder.

~*~
Coda
~*~

“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” D’Hoffryn leveled his most disapproving look at his second best vengeance demon. “You are supposed to dispense vengeance. Where is the vengeance in this?”

“I prefer to think of myself as delivering justice, as you know, and this was justice all around. Dawn got her wish because her sister did ultimately figure out what she wanted and got it--and that was my primary duty wasn’t it?” Halfrek was a bit nervous, but considering the chance she had taken in meddling in the Slayer’s life she figured she was getting off easy with just some disapproving stares and the ugly looks from her fellows.

“Yes but where is the evil in it?”

“I assumed you wouldn’t wish to anger the Slayer by drawing her ire in our direction,” Hallie smiled smugly. “They all suffered a bit, but not so much that it would clue them in, after all. And there is the added aspect of our helping to bring together a notorious vampire and the longest lived Slayer in a love match that is more likely than not to drive the Council of Watchers round the bend. That’s rather evil, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so.” D’Hoffryn chuckled at their secret coup. “I do suppose so.”

~fin