"You're a pathetic excuse for a demon."
Spike didn't want to admit how many times over the last months he'd thought the same thing. Couldn't admit it or he'd never get what he'd come for. "Yeah? I'll show you pathetic. Gimme your best shot."
"You'd never endure the trials required to grant your request.
You obviously haven't been living my life. "Do your worst. But when I win, I want what I came here for."
# # #
The trials had been painful, but nothing Spike hadn't anticipated. He'd proven strength, endurance, the whole range of traditional I'm-asking-the-gods-a-huge-favor tests. He felt like he'd been turned inside out and back again about five times, but he kept telling himself it was worth it. There will be change.
He was on his knees, struggling to center himself after the last ordeal. He was weak, but he'd be damned if he'd let that demon see him like this. Pain radiating through every fiber of his body, he struggled to his feet.
"Interesting," came the voice. "You have gone farther than I anticipated."
"I told you to give it your best shot," Spike sneered. The gesture caused the muscles in his face to scream in agony. "Satisfied yet?"
"Almost. There is but one more…"
Sucking in an unneeded breath, Spike prepared himself for whatever horror might next come his way. Even if he failed, turned to dust here on the sands, it was better than what he'd left behind.
He waited for what seemed like an eternity, senses extending as far as they could, trying to catch some inkling of what awaited him.
Oh, god, no.
Slowly, he turned, hoping against hope that his ears had deceived him. They hadn't. Harmony Kendall stood in the mouth of the cave, hands on hips. "Took you long enough."
"What the hell are you doing here?" He was too tired; he couldn't even pretend to be civil.
"I think I'm your spirit guide or something." She cocked her head as if listening to a voice only she could hear. "'Annoyance is my gift?' What kind of ridiculous idea is that?"
It wasn't possible. Spike knew visions came in strange forms, but they didn't come in see-through black chiffon tops with tight black jeans. "That's it. I've cracked."
The vision bounced forward to fling her arms around his neck. "Aren't you glad to see me, Blondie Bear?"
If it wasn't Harmony, this was a pretty good imitation. Even got the eau-de-cologne right and the fact that she wore too much. "The last time I saw you, you buried a crossbow bolt in my back."
She pouted. "But you made me so mad. I mean, cheating on me with Buffy and Dorcas…"
"Whatever. But you were messing with them and forgot about your real girlfriend."
He reached up and very firmly removed her arms. "Okay, you're my spirit guide. What are you supposed to be showing me?"
More pouting. "What are you in a hurry for, Boo-Boo? I mean, here we are, all alone, in a nice cave…"
She looked up at him with that idiotic expression Harmony got when she thought she was being seductive. "I thought you preferred your comfort."
"It's comfortable if you're here."
"Harm, the floor's made of sand."
"Ewww." Her face scrunched, ruining the effect. "Don't you have a blanket or something?"
"I'm on a quest to get this bloody chip out, not a weekend at the Ritz-Carlton. What are you supposed to tell me?"
More pouting, but at least she backed off. "I'm supposed to tell you that this is your final trial. Pass this successfully and you will receive the reward you deserve. At least, that's what I think they said."
It had to be a test of patience; there could be no other explanation. They'd sent Harmony to drive him mad and it just might work. "You don't remember?" he asked through gritted teeth. "You're the guide for my test, my ordeal and you can't remember what you're supposed to do?"
The last words came out in a roar. Harmony sulked and turned her back on him. "There you go, shouting again." She turned back, now clad in white top and pink jeans. "You'll keep shouting and then you'll try to stake me, just like you did the last time."
"And I'm supposed to feel sorry about that?" He shook his head. "Sorry. Big Bads aren't subject to remorse."
"Oh, yeah? If you aren't subject to remorse, you aren't subject to emotional blackmail."
Harmony didn't say a word, just smiled. Before his eyes, her form shifted from blonde hair to brown, curves to slimness. "Please, Spike?" Dawn pleaded. "Just one trip to the mall?"
He felt himself waver. She'd looked up at him with brown eyes like that so many times over the summer. Sometimes he'd given in. When he hadn't, the sadness ripped him up further inside.
Dawn's form shifted back to Harmony. She'd changed again, wearing a black knit tube top and peach wrap-around skirt. "Gotcha."
"If you were real, I'd rip your head off."
"Go ahead. That's what I'm here for, aren't I? Oh, wait. I'm supposed to guide you into your next trial. You can't hurt me."
"Wanna bet?" he grumbled under his breath, hands clenching. He didn't move, though.
"I'm supposed to teach you empathy."
That brought him up against a brick wall. "You? You are probably the least empathic person I've ever met. Well, maybe except for Harris. No, wait. I think he actually has you beat there."
"You're never going to learn if you keep doing this. Maybe I should just leave you here in the dark. Just because I'm not all woo-woo visions like Droodsilla…"
"Whatever. That doesn't mean you can just ignore what I'm saying. It's time you learned to care about people who aren't you." She frowned and looked down at her skirt. "Does this make my hips look big?"
"Yes. I do care about people who aren't me. Buffy, Dawn…"
"Oh, yeah. The girl whose bones you want to jump and her little sister. Like that's real empathetic. It really does make my hips look big?"
A shimmer and she was wearing a stripped sleeveless turtleneck and short red skirt over tights and pumps. "The point is, you're supposed to care about people besides those two."
"What the hell does caring about others have to do with getting this damn chip out of my head?"
"You want the chip out? You'll do what I say."
Spike grumbled but quieted.
"See, you've been throwing yourself around as the Big Bad and not thinking about anyone else. You don't care who you hurt."
"Give me an example."
She moved in close again, lower lip quivering. "Me. You were my platinum blonde baby and I loved you. I loved you and you didn't care a thing about me."
"I never told you I did. I was perfectly upfront about the fact that I was with you for sex, Harm."
"You hurt me." The lip quivered harder.
Spike looked down at her for a long minute then up at the ceiling. "What if I decide I can't take it any more and give up, don't complete the test?"
He was hoping the demon would answer with a good old voice of doom. Instead, Harmony said, "Then you get to stay here with me forever. If you do what I say, you just might get out of here alive."
Spike cringed. For once, he might have bitten off more than he could chew.
# # #
The pool reflected the image of the cave to the two demons watching it. "So, do you think he'll stick it out?" Demon One asked Demon Two.
Demon Two shrugged. "Doesn't really matter. He's already passed the tests he needed to achieve the goal."
"So, what's with this?"
"Well, World Cup doesn't start for another couple of weeks and I didn't feel like watching Friends re-runs. Pass the popcorn, will you?"
"Sure. Think Beckham's foot will recover in time?"