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In for a Penny

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In for a Penny Banner by javajunkie247

 

Late October 1999

Spike stood amidst the dissipating crackles and sparks of the portal, stomach clenched with bitter anticipation.

Willow had warned him that it wasn’t a sure thing, that he might end up in the wrong time, or the wrong dimension, or even just gutter away into nothingness, but he was obviously still in existence, and the air, the air seemed… right. Redolent of fresh-cut grass and that vague hint of decay that southern California called autumn , and he even fancied – his nostrils flaring as he hunted down the scent – that he could smell her .

His knees quivered at the thought, but he steeled himself for the task at hand. He had a job to do, and he was bloody well going to do it, or die trying.

Fuck. He would settle for AND die trying, as long as he succeeded.

Still, that trace of scent…. His nostrils flared desperately, and he closed his eyes – the better to smell you with, my dear – and he was almost sure of it. She was here, somewhere.

Bloody hell, the witch had bloody done it.

It was all he could do not to take off running, following that hint of fragrance to its source, because even knowing she’d likely stake him on sight, it would be worth it just to see her eyes alive and glowing with hate, instead of dead and cold and dead and empty and dead, and he frantically tugged his flask out of his pocket and took a swig, whiskey as bitter on his tongue as the feeling in his belly, because those dead dead eyes were never going to happen, not if he kept to the mission. Never fucking going to happen.

But god, did he want to see her.

***

“You can’t see her.”

Spike glared blearily at Willow. “Who says I can’t?”

She sighed, exasperated. “If she sees you, it’s going to ruin everything.” Her eyes were oddly bright and focused, piercing through the grey fog of his grief like a laser, and he felt a flash of resentment at her relentless functionality. “She won’t know that you’re trying to save her. She’s just going to see Spike, her mortal enemy, and she’s going to want you dead.”

Not more than I want me dead , Spike managed not to say, but the witch had a point. “So, what am I permitted to do?” he muttered, eyes skittering across the shattered fragments of his formerly-vast selection of liquor. God, he needed a drink. He was starting to feel again.

Willow stepped into his field of vision, arms crossed. “You have to make sure you don’t change anything except for the Gem. You find the Gem, you get it to Giles, you hide out until the magic calls you back. You have to make sure everything else goes exactly the way it did in our past, or who knows what might happen?”

Spike shrugged, eyes focused on the darkest corner of his crypt.

“She stopped, like, three apocalypses, at least,” Willow continued, fingers clutching at her elbows. “If we change anything, even the tiniest thing, like stepping on a bug, you could end the world. Or make it so the Cubs win the World Series. Real wrath-of-god type stuff.”

Spike dropped heavily into his armchair. “If you’re so concerned, why don’t you go your-bloody-self?”

“You’re the only one who can do this,” Willow said firmly, eyes hard. “You’re the only one who knows where it is.”

“And I’m expendable,” Spike growled.

Willow’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah,” she said shortly. “You are. So am I. We’re all expendable. The world doesn’t need us.” She looked away, breathing deeply. “The world needs Buffy.”

Spike flinched, his jabs drying up. He’d helped to bury her, a clandestine ritual in the dark of night, and the only thing that had held him back from greeting the sun the next morning had been knowing that Dawn needed him, that the slayer had made a last request and he was by god going to fulfill it. He’d live on for her sake.

But if only one of them was living, he’d rather it was her.

Willow was standing in front of him again, foot tapping impatiently like she’d been there a while – which maybe she had, he tended to lose time these days. “Here’s the letter for Giles,” she said brusquely.

Spike took it, raising an eyebrow when he saw the envelope. “Hello Kitty?”

She flushed, hands clenching. “The spell… it won’t work if I try to send anything back that didn’t exist then. The letter would just disappear. I used a stationery set Xander gave me for Hanukkah, junior year.”

“And you’re sure this’ll work?” Spike flipped the envelope over, glaring dubiously at the vacuous kitten sticker that held it closed.

“Giles is smart,” Willow said confidently. “When he sees my handwriting, he’ll know it can be trusted.”

Spike sighed. “So. Get the Gem, get it to Giles, sit on my arse until the magic comes to call.”

“And don’t change anything,” Willow insisted. “Seriously. Don’t even step on a butterfly.”

***

Spike heaved another bracing breath and stepped forward into the night. He had his marching orders, time to bloody well march.

Wait.

As his boot crunched into the grass, he glimpsed a flutter at the edge of his vision; he looked down, arrested, and lifted his foot.

There, crushed into the moss, was a butterfly, its wings broken, twitching in its final throes. As Spike watched, it subsided into death.

“Bugger.”

Chapter Text

Everything was going according to plan.

Spike gathered up the sheaf of maps and notes and surveyor’s records, rolling them roughly to cart off to his lair for further study. He’d let his minions knock off for the night – it was just time for the bars to spew out the night’s buffet of drunk undergraduates – and had strategized with Brian for the next day’s digging, and he was confident they’d find the Gem of Amara within a week, maybe two.

Long time to go without hunting, but it would be worth it when the slayer was dead.

He whistled as he swaggered down the rough-hewn passage, wishing he’d had the time to run electrical wiring in so he could hook up a stereo. He’d swiped a CD of Never Mind the Bollocks when he’d passed through Los Angeles on his way to Sunnydale – brilliant selection, Amoeba Records – and he’d had the songs running through his head ever since.

You come up and see me and I’ll beat you black and blue,” he sang absently, flicking on the Coleman lantern on the table.

Oh, bloody hell, where had that bloody pink monstrosity of a folding screen come from? Bloody woman, redecorating his boudoir without a bloody by-your-leave. He supposed he should be grateful it didn’t have a unicorn on it.

I got no feelings…” he muttered testily, spreading out the maps again. “No feelings for anybody else…

There was a whisper of movement behind him, and Spike tensed fractionally, testing the air, but then he relaxed. Nothing but his own scent – not demons, nor other vampires, nor even the cloying perfume of his latest tumble. But bloody hell, had Harmony broken one of his bottles of Jack? Smelled like a bloody distillery….Blinding pain exploded in his head, and he sank into a black sea of bourbon fumes.

 ***

Buffy inhaled deeply of the night air, reveling in the knowledge that she was finally free. Free of the soft tyranny of ironed jeans, free of Celine Dion on constant repeat, free of the need to explain her late nights and grass-stained clothing… God, even if her roommate hadn’t been a soul-sucking demon, just the music alone would have sucked out Buffy’s soul before too long.

Though… that had been weird. Losing her soul.

Giles and the others insisted that that’s what had happened, that Buffy had been riding the mega-bitch-train because she was down to maybe twenty-five percent of her soul, and thus not really Buffy at all, but from the inside, she’d still felt like… herself. She remembered everything she’d said and done, and, okay, yeah, she probably wouldn’t have smacked together Xander and Oz’s delicate noggins if she’d been one-hundred-percent soul-having, but she also hadn’t crushed their skulls, had she? She’d still loved them, and Willow and Giles, even thinking they’d conspired against her. (Knowing they’d conspired against her, she mentally corrected, since they totally had.) And she’d still wanted to fight evil, she’d just been a little more... flexible in her methods. And it had felt weirdly good. Freeing. Like she could really take action and make real change -- though of course, that had been bad, in the end. Bad Buffy. She wasn’t supposed to enjoy the head-knocking and the backhanding and the face-ripping.

Except she had. And looking back, she still kinda did. Though she was trying hard not to think about that part.

How could twenty-five-percent-Buffy feel almost exactly like one-hundred-percent-Buffy?

But anyhow. That was all in the past, mega-bitch-Buffy and even-more-mega-bitch-Kathy, and Buffy’s future was looking bright. She and Willow had submitted their paperwork for a room change -- funny how the Housing Office clerk hadn’t even blinked when Buffy had lamely explained her roommate’s mysterious disappearance -- and in the meantime, she’d managed some quality flirtage with Parker.

He had really soulful eyes.

Rolling her shoulders, Buffy headed along the dark campus paths, a tune niggling at the back of her head. After a bit, she gave it voice. Quietly, because duh. Patrol.

Do you believe in life after love?

Oh, god. She really needed to kill something.

***

Spike stared at Harmony in foggy disbelief as she chattered on.

The witch’s plan had been simple -- neat, even. Drop him back in time to the start of the dig, pacify his past self and take his place. It was so easy he could even do it drunk, a fact he had recent experience of, and hadn’t that been oddly satisfying, to watch himself crumple to the ground from a crowbar to the head?  Fortunate, really, that the rule about items from the future not travelling back in time with him apparently didn’t extend to the things he’d consumed. Spike spared a thought for how messy that could’ve been and suppressed a shudder. Then Harmony mentioned the blasted P-word again and he let it out after all.

“-and then we’ll dine at the top of the Awful Tower, and drink blood out of champagne glasses, and-”

“Eiffel, you stupid bint,” he muttered, but she either didn’t hear him, or was wilfully ignoring him.

God, how had he ever thought shagging her would be a good idea? His past self deserved every inch of the headache he was going to have when he finally came to. Spike rolled his eyes, and they came to rest on Harmony’s tits, jiggling slightly as she bounced in place. Right, that was how. Of course, they now held about as much appeal as the damned Bot, and her voice, good god, did she ever. Stop. Talking?

“Harm,” he said.

“Yes, Blondie Bear?”

He grabbed her by the throat and squeezed hard enough to trap what air was left in her lungs. Blissful silence reigned.

“Shut up.”

She stared at him with big, betrayed eyes, but a moment later the expression had melted into something sultry, and yeah, he remembered now, she’d always been good for a bit of fun between the sheets (or on top of them, or on any available surface). But god, for some reason, he couldn’t unsee that first look, eyes like saucers and pouty lower lip; she’d looked -- fuck -- she’d looked like Dawn when he’d stepped over the mark and been too mean. Except, Dawn in a satin corset, which was all levels of wrong, because his nibblet was just a little girl, wasn’t she? Growing up like a daisy in the sun, sure, but… young. And in need of his protection. He’d… he’d given his word.

‘Til the end of the world….

It occurred to him to wonder for the first time how old Harmony had been on turning, and with a vague sense of horror, it dawned on him that he probably didn’t want to know the answer. Then he shook his head, because if he was starting to feel sympathy for Harmony Kendall of all vamps, it was probably time to try being sober for a while.

Then again, maybe not, because sobriety meant acceptance, meant having to face up. Sobriety could piss right off. And, he decided, so could Harmony. Slowly, Spike made himself release her instead of popping her head off like the cap on a tube of Smarties.

“Be a love,” he said evenly, “and run along now. Daddy’s got work to do.”

She coughed, and tried to rub her neck surreptitiously, which of course was not very surreptitious at all.

“So I can go to the thing?”

Spike blinked blankly. What thing was that, then? If she’d mentioned it just now, he’d tuned out. Had she gone before, or had he forbidden her last time? He couldn’t remember. More importantly, he just couldn’t bring himself to care. Not if it meant getting rid of the dozy bint for the next few hours. How much damage could one brainless tart get up to, anyway? She hadn’t even managed to bite Red properly, last time. Or… she wouldn’t manage to, in a few days’ time.

He pinched the bridge of his nose and waved her off. “Sure. Go. Have fun.” His headache swelled under her squealing. “Don’t come back,” he muttered.

Selectively not hearing him again, Harmony broke into a dazzling grin and bounced over, kissing his cheek with unexpected affection. It was the first time since... that night… that anyone had touched him with anything even approaching tenderness.

That was real. I won’t forget it….

Story of his pathetic unlife that it was a vamp too stupid to get the message that he loathed her.

“Thanks, baby,” she trilled, before finally -- thank fuck -- fluttering off. And Spike held onto the table edge and tried not to stumble when his legs threatened to give out.

***

It was stupidly easy to get to the Gem this time, so much so that he was a good week ahead of his past-self’s schedule. But they’d been counting on that. Per Willow’s spell, he had about two hours left here by the time he slipped the ring onto his finger and headed for the watcher’s flat.

The sun was setting as he made his way over, the sky changing colour from blue to sugary pastels. Amazing how you could go more than a hundred years without seeing a sight like that, and then see it twice in one week. It unfolded again in his mind’s eye, the slayer’s broken form lying on the ground beneath the tower, bathed in the rose-gold light of morning. He would’ve just stayed there, broken too, until the light had taken him, if Willow hadn’t made him get up, made him move. He wondered fleetingly when this mad plan had formed in her head -- as early as that? Earlier, even? Each of them had been an island in a sea of grief; except her. And the slayer, of course.

With no guarantee that any of this would work, the temptation to just slip the ring off and release himself from it all welled up in Spike again now, and he indulged it for a few minutes, letting the sun sear his eyes as it sank towards the horizon -- and what a bleeding metaphor that was, the bright thing falling to earth. He laughed, and swiped viciously at his eyes, and finally, at the kiss of contact, he picked his feet up and marched on. He had a mission now. There was something he could do, and he had to try, despite the uncertainty of outcome. No place for this wallowing in self-pity anymore. Definitely not. Right. He took a swig from his flask. And everything would go just as smoothly as Willow had described with old Rupert, too.

***

Giles started at the knock on his door and frowned at the carved wood as though it could yield an answer. The children had mostly stopped their random and unannounced appearances since they’d started university -- a far more congenial place to congregate, he assumed -- and it was early still for Buffy to be popping in before patrol as she occasionally did.

“Who is it?” he called. There was a long pause. The door gave off a hesitant air. Giles eyed it suspiciously.

“Bloody SuperTed, here to save the day,” came the eventual, cryptic, and rather pissed-off response. “Open the sodding door, Ripper.”

The voice was familiar, but Giles couldn’t immediately place it. One of Ethan’s friends? No one else called him Ripper these days.

The door was unforthcoming.

Capitulating to its whimsy, Giles finally laid down his pen and stood from his desk. He really ought to get a spy-hole, he mused, as he opened it a crack.

Then, calmly, he closed it again and reached for his crossbow.

“Spike,” he said, upon re-opening. “What an unpleasant surprise. I see you left your chainsaw at home this time.”

And then Giles shot him.

Sadly, the vampire had clearly been anticipating it, and the arrow only embedded itself in his raised forearm. Giles was less than impressed -- he’d seen Angel catch an arrow right out of the air before. The fact that Spike just left it there, though, sticking out at a right angle from his flesh, gave Giles pause.

“Now, now,” Spike said with a nasty smile, as though he was following along with Giles’s train of thought, and had done it just to mess with him (entirely possible, if not probable). “Be fair. The chainsaw was Angelus’s. You know the one: tall, dark, murderous. Oh, and not me.

“Ah yes, my mistake. Bottling is more your style, isn’t it?”

“Oh, like you’ve never engaged in a bit of Glasgow hospitality.”

“I’ve certainly never tortured someone with a sharp implement,” Giles lied. “Mechanical or otherwise.”

“Because us vampires are all the same, right? Well, Rupert,” Spike growled, “unlike that great lumbering twit I call a grandsire, I’m actually here to help you. Just like last time. Which, by the way, you’ve never once thanked me for, you ungrateful lump of tweed.”

He thrust a crumpled up envelope at Giles furiously, expression turning even darker when his hand bounced off the barrier at the threshold.

“Of bloody course,” he muttered. He glared at Giles, waving it about in front of his face. “Are you going to take it, then, or what?”

“No,” Giles said. “I rather think I’m not, because the moment I put my hand over the threshold, you’re going to pull me out.”

Spike seemed to pause a moment, as though genuinely brought up short. “Yeah,” he said. “Right.” He looked at the envelope as though deeply confounded. He also, Giles realised, smelled strongly of booze. He supposed that explained the slow-for-a-vampire reflexes. Dear god, if this was related to Drusilla again, he was going to slit his own wrists in preemption.

“What are you doing here, Spike?”

“Told you,” Spike replied, sullen now. “I’m here to save the sodding day.”

“Let me guess,” Giles said drily. “Spotty came down in his little ship and sprinkled you with cosmic dust?”

“...What?” He looked very confused.

“SuperTed, you berk.”

Spike gave him a look as though he had been the one to bring it up. And also possibly was the one currently cerebrally pickled. “You really had a lot of free time in the 80s, didn’t you?”

“Yes, well, I was a PhD candidate at the Watcher’s Council. We had to make our own fun.” He straightened up and hauled the conversation back on track. “What’s in the envelope?”

Spike fiddled with it for a moment with jittery fingers before moving his grip right to the very end and slowly holding it out until his hand couldn’t go any further. Giles scrutinised it before plucking it from his grasp, careful of his orientation with respect to the door.

Now that he looked more closely, he could see that the envelope was pale pink in colour, with a little cartoon cat depicted in one corner. There was a similar sticker on the back, acting as a seal. The design looked vaguely familiar, in the way that many teenage items of curiosity looked vaguely familiar to him now, and he raised an eyebrow at Spike in silent derision, eliciting a scowl in response. On the front, Giles’s name was written in purple ink that had a strangely metallic sheen, in handwriting that was very much more familiar than vaguely.

“That’s right,” Spike said. “‘S the witch’s hand. She said you’d recognise it.”

“You have Willow again?” Giles asked, sudden cold gripping him. He adjusted his hold on the crossbow. But the vampire’s reaction was not what he was expecting. Spike sighed.

“No, Rupert, she gave it to me. All right? She gave it to me to give to you, and if you’ll just read it, you’ll understand why. She can explain it better than me, anyway.”

There was something terrifyingly earnest about Spike’s expression now. Earnest and… desperate. What the hell was he up to? He’d proven himself more of a loose cannon, more unpredictable than Angelus during his stint living in Sunnydale two years ago, but if anything, that only made him more dangerous, and if there was one thing Giles was certain of, it was that vampires were evil, and self-serving, and most definitely not to be trusted.

Helping Willow? Out of the question. Especially when she herself was just across town and no more than a phone call away.

Cautiously, Giles slit the envelope open with his little finger and pulled out the letter within, setting the envelope aside. The same curious, cat-embellished stationery greeted him; the same dense, familiar handwriting in the same purple ink. And when he looked up, Spike was also sporting the same expression of desperation and hope.

Well, that sealed it.

Deliberately, Giles put down the crossbow and reached into the little drawer in the side table for the lighter he used on his ceremonial candles. Then, even more deliberately catching Spike’s eye, he lit the letter on fire.

Spike’s whole face blossomed into horror. “What the hell are you doing? You son of a bitch!”

Unhurriedly, Giles dropped the last smouldering corner of the letter to the tiles and scooped up his crossbow. Then he shot Spike again. This time, the vampire was apparently too distraught by the foiling of whatever misdeed he’d been planning to avoid the bolt, and it sunk home right over his heart.

Except not, apparently. Giles seemed to have missed it by a fraction of an inch. What bloody bad luck, since he was now out of bolts.

Spike’s eyes glittered. He ripped both arrows from his flesh and threw them back at Giles with enough force to sting where they caught him on the thigh and shin. His voice was low and uneven with fury when he said, “You idiot. You raging bloody idiot. You have no idea what you’ve done!”

At which point, Giles shut the door in his face, and went back to his diary.

***

The door slammed behind him as Spike stepped out into the alley. Buffy had jerked around at the sound, but on seeing who it was, merely rolled her eyes and continued her pacing.

“Go away, Spike.”

“Mind your manners,” he replied. “Came out for a smoke. It’s a free country.” He kept his tone mild as he lit up, though. Girl had just been told by her own watcher that she’d have to kill her sister to prevent the apocalypse. He could take the sharp side of her tongue while she worked off the hurt. It was why he’d come out, and he suspected they both knew it. Well, that and the suffocating silence of a bunch of white-hats trying to find a solution that didn’t involve killing anyone. It would’ve been funny, if it wasn’t the niblet’s fate dangling on the end of the line.

“It’s just too much!” Buffy suddenly exploded. “All of it! She’s too strong. We’re too few. I can’t do what they want. It’s just too… much.”

She looked up at him plaintively.

“Hey now,” Spike said, taking the fag out of his mouth in concern. “This is just a bump in the road. Your lot’ll figure it out and you’ll ride in to save the day just in the nick of time. Always do, don’t you?”

“Wow,” she said. “You’re unnerved. I unnerved you. Things have gotta be bad.”

“I am not unnerved,” Spike protested. “Nerves of bloody steel, here. I’m just saying, you need an edge. Could be something small, you know? Just one little thing that turns the tide when you most need it to.”

“Yeah, well, unless you know of a magical way to give someone…” she trailed off, staring into space for a moment before her eyes seemed to hone in on him. “You went through a lot of pain, when Glory was torturing you.”

It seemed like a complete non-sequitur. She’d been doing that quite a bit, lately.

“Yeah,” Spike said, nonplussed. “It’s why they call it torture, love.”

“Would you…” she cut herself off almost embarrassedly, very unlike her. Spike hesitated, watching her face as she tried to find a way to express herself. When she looked back up, she was more resolved. “Would you do it again? Let yourself be hurt for Dawn?”

“In an instant,” he said without thinking.

“Just like that?” She gave him a questioning look. “This… it would hurt a hell of a lot more.”

“Slayer,” he said, smirking at her fondly, “Don’t you know me by now? Don’t need to take a moment, or whatever it is you hero types do; not for something like this.”

A second passed where he tried to say without saying that he loved her, that he’d be there for her, right by her side or wherever she needed him. Buffy stood quietly, studying his face, before nodding.

“Okay,” she said, letting out a breath. “Okay, good. Great.”

“Great?” he repeated sardonically, but let it go. “You got a plan, Slayer?”

“Yeah, I do,” she said. “I need to make a phone call, and then I’ll fill you in.”

A plan was good, even if it involved using him as cannon fodder. He’d do anything for her, even that. Spike turned to go back in.

“I can trust you, right?” Buffy asked, stopping him short.

Spike looked at her over his shoulder. “I’ll do whatever you need,” he said softly. “You know that.”

They parted at the back room, and Spike returned to slouch against his ladder. Buffy hadn’t smiled, or said thank you (for a white hat, she hardly ever said thank you -- he just figured it was because no one ever said it to her, either) but she seemed energised. Hopeful.

All of that was gone when she came back out to the front of the shop, a surprisingly short amount of time later.

“Buffy?” Willow asked with a concerned frown, looking up from a magic book the size of a tombstone.

“He destroyed it,” she said faintly.

“Who? What?” Willow asked.

“How?” Xander chimed in. “Huh?”

Buffy was staring sightlessly at the tabletop. “Angel. The Gem of Amara.”

“I could’ve told you that,” Spike scoffed. “Wanker.” He straightened up, realisation dawning. “That was your plan?”

He saw it unfold in his mind’s eye; it was a bloody brilliant plan. He’d never be as strong as Glory, but with the Gem he’d be indestructible. He could wear her down, or at least distract her. But of course it wasn’t to sodding be, because sodding Angel had a sodding pathological need to sodding suffer.

“Wait, there’s a plan?” Xander asked. “I am so very pro-plan.”

“Xander,” Willow said quietly, “Buffy was going to give Spike the Gem of Amara to help her fight Glory, but it’s gone.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” Buffy nodded listlessly.

“If only I were still a vengeance demon,” Anya said wistfully. “You could just wish to go back in time and get it, before Angel did… whatever he did. I’m sure Buffy has enough grievances against him to square it with my old charter.”

There was an awkward silence. “That’s very thoughtful, sweetie,” Xander said noncommittally, but it was the witch Spike found himself looking at, her eyes suddenly glowing with a strange, inward-facing light, before he dismissed them all and took a step towards Buffy.

“Can still do it,” he said to her quietly. “Fight Glory. Don’t need the Gem to--”

“No,” she cut him off. “You’re not strong enough.”

He recoiled, stung. “Says who?”

Buffy just rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t last ten minutes. She’d squish you into crunchy vampire butter on the pavement and leave you there for the sun. I’m not going to send you in just to die.”

“Hey!” he started indignantly, then registered the last thing she’d said. “Oh.”

“Maybe…” Giles sighed. “Maybe there’s something more in this text we’ve overlooked...”

They were disturbed a moment later by noise coming from the alley, and the slayer being the slayer, she went back out to check. The rest of them sat around in yet more silence, this time flavoured with a sense of failure and mounting despair, but Spike couldn’t help nursing the warm glow in his chest for hours yet to come.

Until the dawn came, and quenched it for good.

***

Spike raced through the twilight, half-sloshed mind working as furiously as his feet. He should have known the bloody plan was going too smoothly. Bang-up job, Spike, he railed inwardly. Piss off the one man you need to help you out, so the bloody sanctimonious bastard won’t even read the bloody note. Bloody good shot with a crossbow, though. He’d forgotten how it felt to be staked while wearing the ring -- just as painful as a real staking (and he was the only bloody vamp in the world who could attest to that, thanks to G.I. Joe and his plastic torture implement) but somehow distant, like it was happening to someone else. He’d be dust if he hadn’t been prepared. Except he wasn’t prepared, not at all, for the crumbling of Willow’s precise strategy.

What the fuck could he do with the ring?

Doing nothing was out of the question; Willow had been adamant that nothing would be able to travel back to the future with him -- and if it did it would be bloody well too late in any case, the slayer already dead and the world already grey and who would bloody well care how many hits he could take? No, he had to do something now, find a way to get the Gem of Amara to the slayer at the right moment, just like they’d planned. Otherwise the bloody thing would just fall wherever he happened to be standing at launch, where anybody might pick it up.

But he was out of time.

He mentally reviewed all of the possible people he could give it to. Willow herself. Xander. Anya. (Was she around at this point?) Bloody hell, was Tara even in town yet?

Not one of them would trust him. Not one would do anything but pass the ring to the slayer, who would then pass it on to Angel, thus buggering the plan before it began.

For a moment, Spike considered seeking out Dawn, but nixed that plan almost immediately. For all her rebelliousness, Dawn looked up to her big sis. And when it came down to the End of Days, she wouldn’t be in a position to pass over the Gem, too busy being a damsel in distress.

Joyce?

Spike felt a sudden sharp pang -- like being whacked on an old bruise -- thinking of the slayer’s mum. She was still alive, he suddenly realised, blissfully pottering along without any sense of how brief a time she had left on this earth. He could give the ring to her. She had a soft spot in her heart for old Spike. She’d probably even fix him a cup of cocoa for the road, send him back to the future with a warm belly.

Except… she would probably still die, no matter how many butterflies he stomped on with his Doc Martens. She would die, and the slayer would get the Gem, and bloody buggering Angel would show up after the funeral and she would just give it to him, wouldn’t she? She’d give it to him, and he’d go back to Los Bloody Angeles and smash the bloody thing, and the end result would be exactly the same, except Spike wouldn’t even have the fun of vicariously torturing the git.

Bloody Slayer. So bloody trustworthy and clever and good that everyone expected she’d always do the right thing. Which, all right, she usually did -- maybe not always the smart thing, but the goody-two-shoes, white-hat thing, and it usually turned out for the best, world saved, apocalypse averted, good work, team. Just not in this case, with that bloody Angel-shaped blind spot like a bloody black hole, sucking all her grey matter and good intentions into oblivion. He faltered for a moment, black yearning rising up in him -- had anyone ever loved and trusted him like that? So much they’d abandon all good sense? -- before stumbling on.

In the end, he decided the only person he could trust was himself -- except not himself himself, not the himself that was actually around during this time; that himself hadn’t come to terms with his obsession with the slayer yet, and would likely take the Gem and just go off and kill her now. Or, just as he had in the past, try to kill her and get his ass soundly kicked and the Gem stolen and nothing at all would change. But after a bit of thought -- very rushed thought -- he managed to come up with a hidey-hole in the tunnels beneath the crypt he would eventually settle in, a cubby that in his own timeline he hadn’t explored until long after he’d come to grips with his love for the slayer. That would have to do.

He made his way through the sewers as fast as his fumbling feet could take him, wrote himself a note, and wrapped it around the ring, stuffing it deep enough into his future candle-niche that he could at least pretend it would make it to the appointed time.

And then there was nothing left to do but wait.

Waiting, he decided after about ten minutes, was bloody boring, even with the scintillating company of Mr. Jack Daniels. Spike grumbled, and sighed, and finally made his way through the dark streets to the mansion on Crawford.

His own eyes greeted him with a poisonous glare when he entered.

“Sod off,” he growled preemptively at the silent accusation.

“Fuck you,” his past-self retorted. “Undo these chains so I can kill you properly.”

Spike rolled his eyes and then rolled the bottle of Jack across the floor. “Don’t you worry, mate. Few minutes, I’ll be out of your hair and your world.”

“Leaving me chained up to starve?”

“Cool box has got blood.” He nodded at the bright red-and-white plastic container that he’d set out for himself.

Pig’s blood. What do you think I am, a bloody lap-vamp?”

“Better get used to it,” Spike muttered, quaffing from his flask. “Plenty more of that in your future.” He pulled the key to the manacles out of his pocket, regarding it solemnly before setting it on the ground and planting his boot firmly atop it. “But never you mind. Any minute now I’ll be gone, and this key will be yours. You can get back to shagging bloody Harmony and otherwise wasting your unlife.”

Other-Spike uncorked the bottle of bourbon, taking a sulky swig. “Don’t see how it’s a waste. Have you seen her knockers?”

“That I have,” Spike admitted. “Pity they’re attached to the rest of her.”

“So, you’re me.” His voice was conversational, like he was asking if Spike were bloody Father Christmas, and yet somehow deeply mocking.

“Got it in one.”

“Well then how are you such a pathetic twat?”

Spike glared at himself. “Says the man who got thrown over for a fungus demon.”

“She’ll be back!” chained-up Spike muttered stubbornly. “Drusilla and me, we’re eternal.”

“Eternal. Right.” Talking about Drusilla called for more booze; Spike cracked a second bottle. “Got news for you, mate. She’s not coming back. Not until you’ve fallen in love with…” The spasm of grief took him by surprise, wringing him out from toes to fingertips.

“Harmony? You are off your…”

Not Harmony. Do you think I’m completely mental?”

Other-Spike raised his eyebrows in a clear yes.

What a dick his past-self was. “God, no wonder she hates me.”

“Everyone hates you, mate. Even I hate you, and I am you. Supposedly.” He drank again from the bottle, then cast Spike a suspicious glance. “Slayer didn’t give you a lobotomy, did she?”

That was a little too close to the truth for Spike’s comfort; he rolled to his feet and started to pace, scooping up the key and twiddling it in his fingers as he drank. Surely it was time by now? He’d checked a clock first thing after he’d arrived, and he would have sworn it had been exactly forty-eight hours as of about ten minutes ago. Two days. The witch had told him two days, he was sure of it, and then he’d heard it again in the spell when she was chanting, Latin words thick on her tongue. Duobus, she’d said. Duobus mensibus, two bloody days; his Latin might be rusty as fuck after a century of avoiding it, but he still remembered how to say two. She’d given him two days to seize, carpe-ing that diem, and he’d done his part, so where the fuck was his bloody transport?

Oh balls. Carpe diem. Seize the day.

Willow hadn’t said duobus diebus, or diemus, or whatever the bloody buggering fuck the plural of diem was. She’d said mensibus.

Mensibus. Menses. Months.

He threw the nearly-full bourbon bottle against the wall, a stream of curses spilling from his lips like the bloody Nile in flood, because what the bleeding hell was he supposed to do in the past for two bloody months? Work on his knitting?

When his rage was spent, he turned, heaving. His prisoner was regarding him, eyes alight with unholy glee.

“Something wrong?” he purred evilly.

Spike had no answer for himself.

 

 

Chapter Text

Spike was going to kill himself.

Not himself himself, of course; not the himself currently chained to a bloody wall with nothing but a paltry supply of pig's blood and whiskey within reach. No, he was going to kill the other himself, the one responsible for his imprisonment, currently sprawled drunkenly on the other side of the room, muttering some nonsense about butterflies and dawns and bloody witches who needed to fix their bloody declensions.

God, what a tosser. Spike would be doing himself a favour.

Had been right entertaining, watching his other, less-nefarious self fall to pieces a while back over god-knew-what -- though the smashed bottle of bourbon had been a damn waste, and had made the mansion’s cavernous living room stink besides -- but it had been less entertaining when the bastard had stuffed the key to Spike’s freedom back in his pocket and stormed out into the night. When he’d returned an hour or so later, he’d been laden down with booze and styrofoam cartons of blood, and had been sporting some truly tasteless jewelry. Without even offering Spike a fresh bottle, he’d collapsed heavily onto the couch and commenced drinking.

Fucking bastard. Would it have killed him to bring Spike back a juicy sorority girl? God, he was going to enjoy putting an end to the wanker’s pathetic existence….

Other-Spike suddenly sat up, eyes glittering. “You’re thinking up the best way to kill me, right now.”

Spike put on a wounded expression. “Perish the thought.”

“Bollocks. I was you once, I know exactly what you’re thinking. You’ve just gotten to the bit where you make a Molotov cocktail.”

He had.

Spike’s less-evil twin sank back down, staring glumly at the ring on his finger. (Where had that ghastly thing come from, anyway? Looked like something Elton Bloody John would turn his nose up at.) “Should let you bloody well do it, too. Be doing me a favour.” He rummaged in his pockets, turning up two identical lighters -- or nearly identical, the one on the left had a few added scuffs -- and lighting them in unison, eyes crossing slightly as he stared at the twin flames.

Figured the bastard would snaffle his lighter. So, no pretty bonfire. Spike was nothing if not adaptable. Perhaps he could lure himself within reach, cosh him over the head…

“Don’t bother trying to plan how you can lure me over there, either,” the gormless tit slurred, flicking the lighters closed and stuffing them away. “Not coming anywhere near you. You’ve got plenty of blood and bourbon for tonight. And s’not like our plans ever bloody pan out, anyway.”

“I see you’re keeping the quality Scotch for yourself?” From the selection, it looked like he’d just gone to Willy’s and nicked the whole top shelf.

“Piss off!” the prat muttered half-heartedly, tossing back a gulp of the good stuff before rummaging in a paper bag and pulling out…

Oh. The bastard. The fucking bastard.

“Those are mine!” Spike snarled, struggling against his chains. “Get your fucking hands off!”

“Damn right they’re yours,” the son-of-a-bitch grumbled. “Which makes them mine.”

Spike watched in helpless rage as the dickhead wearing his face took up his knitting needles -- the shawl he was crafting for Drusilla! -- and began, clumsily but determinedly, to knit.

“I’d say this was my favour to you,” the git slurred conversationally, “‘cept you’re never going to finish this for Dru. In another year or so, bloody Harmony’s going to get in a snit and set it on fire. Not changing a bloody thing if it has a few more inches to burn.” He glared wildly up at the ceiling. “Did you hear that, Red? I am not changing a bloody thing !”

Spike took another, very tiny, swig of bourbon, eyeing his enemy thoughtfully. So, Teen Witch was involved in this bitter self-betrayal, and somehow calling the shots. That was an interesting development.  

Funny, how this all took him back. He wasn’t in a wheelchair this time around, but he was all too familiar with the cold nausea of sitting powerless while someone took what was bloody well his. He’d been saving this bit of knitting, where the lace got all intricate, for when he’d got the Gem of Amara and killed the slayer and could relax in his boudoir, victorious. He’d even imagined Drusilla showing up at that very moment, shoving Harmony aside -- maybe after a final blow job, Harmony had a way with those -- and cooing with delight at his success. I’ll be covered in her, all right, he thought darkly. Covered in her blood, just waiting for my dark princess to lap it up….

Bloody buggering fuck , would the overbearing bellend ever stop whingeing?

When the idiot paused in his endless muttered rant about whatever the fuck he was incensed about to concentrate on a particularly tricky bit -- MY particularly tricky bit, you insufferable prat! -- Spike made his move.

“So,” he said casually. “How goes the dig?”

Pathetic-Spike narrowed his eyes. “Well enough.” He looked away, shifting the shawl to one hand long enough to quaff some more Scotch. “Gave Brian a few hints. We’ve been headed northwest.”

Proper-Spike narrowed his own eyes in return. Last he recalled, Brian had been dead certain the crypt was south of their headquarters. “You wouldn’t be trying to scupper the excavation, would you? Send us off on a wild goose chase?”

“Course not!” the bastard scoffed. “You are completely and totally off your bird if you think I’d do anything even remotely like that.”

Damn. The pillock had Spike’s excellent poker face; it was impossible to tell if he was lying.

He’d already moved on in any case, mournfully swishing a half-empty bottle of Glenlivet about, watching the amber liquid slosh. “Bloody fools for love, aren’t we?” he said, in an infuriatingly commiserating tone of voice.

But Spike could play along. “Too right. Bloody women.”

“Here I am, all the way back in time, when she’s all fresh and bright and unburdened, and I can’t even go look at her. Bloody Willow.”

Spike made a noncommittal noise, absorbing that. Apparently his future self was in a relationship with the slayer’s best friend, which was… unexpected, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t noticed that she was prime filet. Fetching. Tasty. Bit of steel to her, too, the way she’d handled him last year. He’d kill to see the look on the slayer’s face if he turned the witch, her chin all crumpled up and her eyes all teary and glittery, perky little tits quivering…. Made him hard just thinking about it.

He shifted to relieve the pressure on his cock, vaguely noting that his ostensible future self was doing the same, a faraway look in his eyes.

Then the pitiful nob sat up with a jolt.

She can’t see you ,” he breathed, as if he’d seen the bloody face of god. “That’s what she said. That she couldn’t see me.”

“Is it indeed?”

But the arsehole was in the grip of his vision. “I can see her. I can see her all I bloody well want. I just have to make sure she doesn’t see me .”

Spike just rolled his eyes. God, he’d never been this wet when he was in love, even when Dru’d tossed him over. Fucking pathetic, it was.

“What day is it?”

It took a moment for Spike to realize that was a real question, aimed at him. “Saturday.” Also known as the day I kill you.

Other-Spike closed his eyes, brow furrowed, “What would she be doing on a Saturday?” His eyes popped open. “Of course. She’s at the bloody Bronze.” He staggered to his feet, tossing their knitting at Spike and running anxious hands through his hair.

And then, before Spike could even compose a cutting bon mot , the bastard was gone.

Along with the key.

Spike glared after himself for a moment before gathering up the half-knitted shawl, scrutinizing the progress Arsehole Spike had made. High-handed pillock better not have dropped any stitches, or Spike was going to figure an extra-painful mode of death for him.

Well, all right. He was already going to do that. But perhaps he could dial it up to bloody eleven.

Spike sniffed grouchily and began to knit.

***

A wave of nostalgia washed over Spike the second he walked in the door of the Bronze, waved through by a nervous bouncer who had obviously learned not to challenge vampires for identification. Place hadn’t smelled the same since the bloody troll had done his impromptu remodeling job; Spike watched hungrily as an onion blossom passed by on a tray.

There was a perk of time travel he was not going to pass up; he claimed a table in the corner (evicting its previous occupants with a pointed glare) and ordered.

Band onstage had the wolf-boy on guitar, which was another unusual stab of nostalgia; Spike hadn’t interacted with the bloke much, but he’d known of and about him, as one of the lesser entities orbiting the slayer’s life, and the band had been a bit of all right. Spike had a liking for groups that weren’t too pretentious with the chords, just got on stage and did their thing and didn’t fucking care if they were good.

Also, dingoes eating babies was hilarious.

He sat in his corner, and ate his fried onion blossom, and drank an unremarkable beer, and watched the band, and after a good twenty minutes of that, he admitted to himself that he was terrified.

He was terrified of seeing the slayer.

She was there. He could feel her, a little twinge on the tips of all his nerves, a vague sense of imminent danger teasing at his senses - and his senses didn’t even know the half of it, how bloody dangerous she was to everything that Spike embodied. She’d stake him without a second thought -- she didn’t know he was all chipped up, this slayer -- and then she’d go right back out on the dance floor and dance, and she’d never even know what she’d done, who he really was, why he was there.

All he had to do was take off the ring, and make his presence known, and it would all be over. At her hand, which was -- truth be told -- the only way he’d ever wanted to go out. He’d been meant to die at her hand before she was even born. He just needed to go to her….

God, he was a coward. All the bottled courage he’d been tossing back since he’d got here -- none of it made him strong enough to seek her out.

But then his eyes caught a flash of blonde hair -- not just any blonde, but slayer-blonde, the colour he’d recognize anywhere -- and his eyes were either less cowardly or more desperate than the rest of Spike, and they were drawn to that flash of gold like a lodestone to the north, and then… he saw her.

There she was.

Alive.

It felt like a noose had been dropped around his neck, tightening moment by moment as he drank in the sight of her. She was dancing with Willow, that distant-sexy way girls danced together when they didn’t want men to approach, and her eyes were closed, eyelids fluttering in time with the music, and he stood and started to walk forward, leaving the detritus of his onion behind, because oh god she was there, she was there , warm and alive and….

And she would still be dead in less than two years, if he didn’t do his fucking job.

She can’t see you.

He turned on his heel, stumbling under the stairs and out of sight, and he stood there for a moment, chest heaving like he needed the oxygen, which of course he didn’t, except of course every inhalation was riddled with her scent, and he needed that , he needed it more than oxygen, the ripe warm alive slayer scent. He stepped closer to the stairs, watching the slayer through the risers as she danced, and he didn’t care that he was choking, on her scent and emotion and that damned garrote; just the sight of her was enough to make him dust.

He would have watched her dance forever -- or at least for the two months he’d been allotted -- except a song or an eternity later, she and Willow exchanged some mysterious signal and headed back to their table, which was… too close. Not close enough in another sense, not close enough for his preferences -- he wanted her so close she was inside him -- but where she was sitting, all she had to do was glance around and she’d see him for certain, she’d see him and then she’d stake him -- she’d get the ring off him somehow, cunning bitch -- and it was a straight shot from that to broken slayer in the dawn.

He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t go over. But he couldn’t be this close and not go over, either.

And so he fled.

***

“There you are, Blondie Bear!” Harmony clapped her hands in delight at finally laying eyes on her honey. He hadn’t been at the dig site when she’d come back, which was kinda weird given how obsessed he’d been with it before, but she’d totally used her super new vampire senses and tracked him across town. Or, like, she would have? Except it had been way hard and she’d kept getting lost, and it had been a couple of days, so in the end she’d just gone to Willy’s and leaned over the bar really far until his eyes had practically bugged out and he’d told her what he’d heard. And then it had been day, and she’d been tired. And then she’d been hungry. But now here she was! And there he was! Yay!

“Harm?” Spike asked, putting down his -- were those knitting needles? For a cool guy, he could be a complete weirdo sometimes. He looked kind of surprised. Probably just really pleased to see her. “Where are the others?”

“What others?”

“The others! You know, backup?” She still didn’t know what he meant. “Other vampires , you bird-brained little twit. Please tell me you’re not the only one who knows where I am?”

It was then she noticed he was manacled to the wall.

“What the hell is this?” she demanded in a calm yet forceful manner, just like Cosmo recommended. “You’ve been gone for days, just up and left without so much as a note, and when I finally find you, you’re in the middle of some…” -- unable to contain her outrage, she stamped her foot -- “ sex game! Is Droodzilla back? Is that it? She just crooks her bony finger and you come running, wrists first?”

“Harm-”

“Is this because I said I wouldn’t do chains?” she asked, hurt. She’d thought he’d respected her preferences -- he’d just shrugged, after all, and not, like, made a big deal out of it or anything -- but maybe she just hadn’t realised how much he’d wanted it. Oh god! Maybe she hadn’t respected his preferences. Cosmo said relationships were totally about negotiation. Though, it also said she should assert herself and not be a doormat to her man’s desires, so that was kind of confusing. And, well, they were only about fifty-fifty with their blow job advice, even given how much more vampires liked teeth. She’d tried that one thing once and….

Harm-”

Geez, couldn’t Spike tell she was thinking? About important things? He was so high-maintenance. But whatever. She eyed him up and down, all restrained and glowering. “It is kind of hot, I guess,” she said thoughtfully. Honestly, when he’d suggested chains, she’d assumed she would be the one tied up, but this… this totally had potential.

“Listen to me, you demented nitwit. I have been kidnapped. I’m being held hostage. Got that? These chains,” he shook his wrists at her animatedly. “Restraining me against my will. So why don’t you use that bubblebrain for once and go find something to get me out of here!”

“Oh no, Spike,” Harmony said in the silky tones she thought of as her bedroom voice. “I couldn’t possibly release you. You’ve been such a bad, bad boy.”

She slinked over, and when he tried to speak again, she reacted on instinct -- she slapped him across the face.

Harmony gasped at her own daring, and for a moment afterwards, Spike just stared at her. Impressed by her dominance, she realized, as his eyes darkened and his pants started to look uncomfortably tight.

“Oh, hi there, Little Spike,” she said smugly to his crotch.

Spike growled. “I told you not to call it that.” But he stopped complaining when she leaned over, really far, his cool breath gusting down the front of her top and her hand caressing the top of his thigh.

An hour or so later, she was just coming down from a wonderful high when Spike yelled something about distractions and how nice her ya-yas were -- well, that’s how she interpreted it -- and threw her off of him. He yelled at her to go get Brian and bring him back here with an ass-setting-something torch, as if she even knew what that was, and she might have done it, too, if he hadn’t been such a big jerk about it all. Honestly, he could show a little gratitude for her going along with his kink. He could be so moody sometimes. Of course he was entitled to his feelings, or whatever, but he didn’t have to lash out like a big baby.

“You know, Spike,” she said softly, dignified… edly… as she gathered up her scattered clothes. “You don’t have to speak to me like that all the time. I know we’re vampires and all, but I don’t mind it when you’re nice.”

He looked horrified. “When am I ever nice to you?”

She sniffed as she walked away. “Exactly,” she murmured sadly.

God, she needed a drink.

***

Spike took up station against the wall, behind the pool tables, where he could watch the slayer’s face in a security mirror without any danger of her glimpsing him in her peripheral vision. She kept glancing up at the mirror, all flirty-like, and he could almost pretend that she was flirting with him, if he didn’t know she couldn’t bloody well see him. There was something hot and hungry in her eyes, but innocent too, which of course was rubbish because she’d been through all that drama with Angelus, but he basked in it anyhow, wishing it was him she was hungry for.

“Dude, that girl’s watching you like a bowlful of candy on Halloween.”

“Where?”

“In the mirror. Blonde chick, sitting with the redhead.”

“Oh, her. That’s Buffy.”

Spike flinched at the sound of her name, reflexively, but his ears perked up and he focused on the pool players more closely. Bloke in teal had a familiar air, like Spike had seen him from a distance, and when the fellow circled the table to take his shot, and Spike could see his face, it was more than familiar.

He’s got… what’s the word? Vulnerability.

Spike’s fist clenched around his bottle of beer as emotions roiled up inside him. Suddenly, he remembered the heady glee of walking out into the sunlight and watching the slayer’s face crumple with the realisation she’d been duped, using the knowledge to mock her as they fought, loving the dull pain in her eyes. The memory made him sick now, dizzy with conflict, because god he was done with seeing her eyes dull, cloudy, dead -- he chugged his beer and looked up at the mirror again, desperately seeking her eyes. They were bright and glowing with hope, and god they hurt. She had no right to glow at him so, not with what was to come.

He was a hair’s-breadth from launching himself at bloody Parker What’s-his-face, chip be damned, but a tiny thread of good sense managed to hold him back, even in his drunken state. Reflection or no, the slayer would be sure to notice her bit of fluff being assaulted, and of course once she turned around she’d see Spike, and it would all be over. Willow’s voice rang in his mind once again, She can’t see you . He’d been treading the fine edge of that command, unable to resist, but he was at the very least going to follow the letter of the sodding law.

So he sank back against the wall, sullenly gesturing at one of the waitresses for another bottle.

“Thought you were all hot and heavy with Monica?” Parker’s mate was laughing, setting up his next shot.

“Monica? Yeah, she’s all right,” the twatwaffle shrugged. “Kinda crazy, though.”

Another bloke in their party snorted. “She’s here, too. Over at the bar.”

“God. Spend a little quality time with a girl, and she starts planning the wedding, right?”

Spike followed the bastard’s glance across the room to the cute brunette who was watching them sidelong, draped to best show off her assets. That had to be Monica. Biteable. She had that useful combination of put-on confidence and low self-esteem that made for excellent prey.

For more than just vampires.

Something about Biteable Monica kept niggling at him, though, and he watched her sidelong, trying to tease out the thorn, when it finally struck him: she reminded him of Dawn, long brown hair flowing down and eyes older than they should be. Dawn when she was trying to be grown-up, when she was trying to be….

Fuck. Why had he switched to beer?

Bloody Parker and his bloody mates kept talking, the usual crass, vapid, college-boy tosh, and Spike kept drinking, wincing every time the crassness landed on the slayer. God, he was a masochist, standing here listening to the bastard who was about to shag the woman Spike loved prove how little he deserved the honour, but… she was still flirting with the mirror, and he couldn’t walk away from it. Even knowing what was going to happen, this night or the next.

Unless... he stopped it.

Spike shuddered in sudden realisation of the power he held. He knew what was supposed to happen, and he also knew -- from a century of preying on women with a skill Parker Fucknozzle could only aspire to -- just how easy it would be for the deal to go south. The wrong word at the wrong time, an interruption at a crucial moment, and anything could happen.

Willow would tell him no, that he needed to get his arse back to the bloody mansion and spend the next two months in seclusion, careful not to crush any fancy little flowers, but it was her sodding fault he was trapped here, wasn’t it? And she’d barely believed he could make it two days, herself.

He looked up at the mirror again, drinking in the intoxicating sight of the slayer, alive, eyes sparkling. Eyes that all too soon were going to be dead.

He couldn’t just sit on his arse and allow those eyes to happen.

Bloody hell. He’d already stepped on the damn butterfly. Not to mention all the other little things that had to have changed, just by taking his past self off the streets for a few days. For all he knew, bloody Harmony had already sent the timeline careening into madness, just because he hadn’t shagged her lately.

“In for a penny…” he muttered, shoving off from the wall.

He had some history to change.

***

Neither of them had been able to sleep, that day.

Spike had done his bloody duty, helping with the bearing, but it had been day, and none of them had felt the digging part belonged in the sunshine, even if he’d been able to survive it, and so they’d separated, like unraveling yarn, and he had ended up at her house, standing sentry over her sister, just like he’d promised. Except there hadn’t been anything to protect against, not anymore.

He remembered standing in her foyer, the siren call of the sun just a few stumbling steps away, except he’d made a fucking promise to a fucking lady, and even though his world had ended, Dawn’s hadn’t, not yet, and he was going to bloody well keep his promise.

“Spike,” Dawn had said softly, like she was breaking. “I can’t go to sleep. I’m… I’m not...”

He’d inhaled the air of their home -- god, it still smelled like her -- and turned to Dawn as if he were strong.

“What d’you want to do, then?”

She’d tugged at the ceremonial dress she was still wearing, though she’d been bandaged up through the rents, no blood flowing, not anymore. “I need to change.”

He’d shrugged in acquiescence, but when he’d followed her up the stairs and she’d gone into the wrong room, he’d balked.

She’d made a face at him, stuck as he was on the threshold. “This is what younger sisters do. We borrow our big sisters’ clothes.”

‘Til the end of the world.

He’d gone in, slouching on the very edge of the vanity chair while Dawn was in the bathroom changing; not the pyjamas he’d expected, but a bright flowered dress.

“You should sleep, Niblet,” he’d said, choking on the air he needed to speak.

“I won’t be able to,” she said, voice firm. “I want to look nice for… for her. For tonight.”

“Bloody hell,” he’d muttered, stalking over to the window, right up to the edge of the sunlight. “You shouldn’t bloody be there when--”

“I’m going!” Dawn shouted, and they glared at each other for a long moment, before she turned back to regard her reflection in the mirror. “I’m going,” she repeated, her voice almost a whisper, and he’d sighed and stepped back from that entrancing patch of doom, finding a wall to lean up against.

When Dawn started on the makeup, he managed to remain silent until she started with the eyeliner, which was just too much; he swore under his breath.

Amazing how she could roll her eyes while applying eye makeup, but she did it. “What are you, stuck in the last century?”

“You’re doing it wrong,” he’d said gruffly, stomping over and taking up the applicator. “Can’t go looking like a sodding raccoon.”

When her eyes met with his approval, she’d dabbed on a little lip gloss and a little powder, and then rummaged in the jewelry box on the vanity; she’d made it as far as putting in the first of a pair of rhinestone studs, making strange, strangled sounds that he realised were held-back sobs, before she broke, sweeping everything off the vanity, earrings and makeup and some kind of cologne that spilled into the carpet like a taunt. Don’t smell the same, do I? it mocked. Not the same without her skin and her heat and….

He’d fallen to his knees beside Dawn and let her weep into his shoulder and stroked her hair, and wished he were dead.

“Why?” Dawn had wailed. “Why did it have to be her? I said I would do it. I said .”

Because she wouldn’t let it be you , he didn’t say, waiting for the torrents to subside.

And when they did, he’d given her his handkerchief -- he had one, of course -- and set her down at the vanity and cleaned off the tear-streaked makeup and brushed her hair until it shone like the sun, and she’d finally smiled wanly at him and gone off to bed after all, still in her sister’s clothes. When one of the other bloody Scoobies had come by to take the next watch, he’d taken the scent of the cologne back with him to his crypt, where he’d opened the first of many bottles and drunk the first of many toasts to the only woman who’d ever treated him like a man.

A pathetic man. But a man nonetheless.

***

“You look like a girl who could use some company,” Spike purred, sliding onto the stool beside Monica.

She rolled her eyes, shifting away. “Not really.”

Spike shrugged in unconcern, signalling the bartender for something a bit stronger than beer. “‘S all right. Not looking for companionship. Just wondering if maybe you had some information. Got a friend, worried she’s fallen in with a dodgy fellow. Kind who takes his leave after he’s got what he wants.” He pitched his voice a bit posher than usual, a shade closer to Englishman-who-wears-tweed-and-says-oh-my than Englishman-who-wears-leather-and-says-oh-fuck . He needed her to trust him.

Of course, it probably came out as Englishman-too-trollied-to-walk-straight , but only so much he could do in his current state.

Whatever voice came out, it seemed to be a good acting choice; Monica relaxed incrementally. “That kind of guy is the worst.”

“Thought perhaps you might know if this was a bloke who could be trusted. Would set my mind at ease, knowing she was in good hands.”

Monica shrugged, definitely warming to him. “I’m only a freshman so I don’t know a lot of people yet, but I’ll help if I can. What’s his name?”

“‘S that fellow over there, in the teal. Parker,” Spike said, as offhand as he could manage when he wanted to rip the wanker’s lungs out.

Monica downed the rest of her froufy drink, the little umbrella bouncing off her cheek and skittering to the floor. “He’s bad news.”

“He is?” Spike widened his eyes in disbelief. “But he seems like such a fine, upstanding fellow.”

“Oh no. No. Let me tell you a few things about Parker Abrams….”

Spike settled in to listen, trying hard not to smirk.

***

“...And you know what else? His father’s not even dead! Him and his all my scars are psychological and I don’t put anything off any more and all he was trying to do was make me think he was all wounded and needed me to heal him, when his daddy is totally still working at a big LA law firm and sending him money every month!”

Spike nodded, glancing up at the slayer in the mirror, as he’d done every twelve seconds or so for the past ten minutes. She had the look of a girl who was done with clubbing for the night. Ready for someone to walk her home. Bloody slayer, Spike thought viciously. If she’s going to shag some evil bloke who doesn’t deserve it, she’d be better off shagging one she bloody well knew was evil from the start, who’d at least make it worth her bloody while.

Someone who could appreciate the gift.

Someone like….

He finished his drink rather than finish that thought.

“Thank you for being so honest, love,” he said solicitously when Monica paused for breath. “I am convinced that he is a miserable cad, not worthy of a fine woman such as yourself.” He gestured for another bottle, fishing out some of the cash he’d liberated from his past self’s stash, and sighed sorrowfully. “Shame my friend most likely won’t listen to me. She’ll most likely believe it’s just rumours, hearing about it all second-hand like. And from a man, to boot. No, she’ll just chalk it up to jealousy and dig in her heels. She’s not the giving-up type, you see.”

Monica flushed. “I didn’t listen to my friends, either.”

“Breaks my heart to watch her sitting there, knowing she’s about to fall prey to such a bounder.” Spike looked pointedly up at the mirror.

Monica followed his gaze. “That’s her? With the ruffles?”

Spike shook his head sadly, averting his eyes as if it were too painful to watch her any more. Which it was. Bloody foolish, radiant slayer. “She’ll never listen to me.”

“Huh.” Monica stood up, jaw set. “Maybe she’ll listen to me.”

“Oh no,” Spike demurred. “You mustn’t go to any trouble….”

“No trouble at all,” she said stoutly. “In fact, it will be my pleasure.”

As his emissary of chaos strode forth across the room on her mission, Spike melted back towards the exit, finding a good vantage point from which to watch the rumpus.

God, it felt good to start a brawl.

***

Buffy felt good. All tingly and warm, like there were little feathers teasing at the tips of all her nerves, a vague sense of anticipation bubbling up inside her. It was just… really nice to have someone attracted to you, and to get to be attracted right back without feeling guilty or annoyed.

She knew she was pretty, and she thought she was funny, and she was darn sure that she was a person worth getting to know, but… somehow that knowledge never seemed to feel as true as having all those things acknowledged by someone else. Because when it came right down to it, she’d never had a successful relationship; everyone she’d tried with had either backed out, or been evil, or just not been able to deal with the reality of Buffy’s life.

Hell, Angel had done all three, at various points in time….

Buffy whacked that thought with a battleaxe of nope . She was not, not, not going to think about Angel, or any of the other miserable romantic false starts of her past.

She was going to think about Parker. Parker, who had a pulse and a reflection and all the things that most girls took for granted. She was just… so ready for someone normal and nice and human.

It wasn’t such an impossible list, not really. And Parker really fit the bill. Plus, eyes. He had nice eyes, and a nice smile, and he was just… nice. Just look at him, laughing with his friends as they played pool, so clean-cut and wholesome and...

“Excuse me?”

Startled, Buffy tore her eyes from Parker-in-the-mirror. It was a girl about her age, dark hair, the kind who looked like she’d mastered the smokey eye before she’d learned long division. Buffy glanced around quickly, to make sure there wasn’t anybody else the girl could be looking at so seriously, but… nope. It was her.

“Have we met?” Maybe it was some girl she’d saved in an alley, she really didn’t spend a lot of time memorizing their faces.

“No, I’m new in town. Monica.” Her hand lifted off her purse as if she was about to offer it to shake, then thought better of it and clutched the strap even tighter. She seemed kinda weavy, like maybe she’d been drinking and had overdone it just a little.

“Buffy.” God, this was awkward.

“You’re here with Parker.”

Buffy glanced up at the mirror automatically. Parker was looking at her, a funny expression on his face. “Well, I’m not exactly here with him. I mean, we came separately, but we are kind of together , I think, and…”

“He’s not what you think he is.” Monica looked up at the mirror too, eyes narrowed.

“Excuse me?” Oh god, was Parker a demon after all? Dammit! Strike twenty-seven for Buffy. She braced herself for the bad news.

“He’s… not a nice guy.”

Buffy blinked. That was significantly less dramatic than she’d expected. “He’s… not a guy?” she ventured cautiously.

Monica got that are-you-nuts? look Buffy was all too used to. “He’s not nice.”

“Oh. But he’s… a guy.” Never hurt to confirm these things.

“Look, your friend asked me about him, and… we used to go together, Parker and me, so I thought…”

“My friend?” Buffy frowned, glancing around surreptitiously. What friend could that possibly be? Xander was off working at his job-of-the-week, and Giles had thankfully stopped trying to recapture his rocker youth, and Willow had headed off to canoodle with Oz during the band’s break… wasn’t that all her friends?

Monica’s hand finally leapt free of her purse, landing on Buffy’s wrist. “Listen, please. The thing about his father? It’s not true. And he isn’t a history major either, he’s pre-law. He’s just trying to get into your…”

And suddenly Parker was there, hands shoved in his pockets as his eyes shifted between Buffy and Monica.

“Hey, Buffy,” he said casually. “What’s up?”

But before Buffy could even open her mouth, Monica was talking again. “That’s it, Parker? Huh? I don’t even get a greeting ?”

Parker’s eyes flicked almost nervously to the other girl. “Uh, hi… Mandy, is it?”

Monica’s face screwed up in a look of pure rage. Buffy winced, but the slap she’d been expecting never materialized. Instead, Monica punched him -- hard -- right across the jaw, and he went down like a sack of cement.

“Whoa, there, Rocky,” Buffy said, jumping to her feet, but by then Monica seemed to have snapped, and was straddling Parker, laying into him like she had a sacred duty. Buffy took a moment to admire her form while she tried to figure out who, exactly, she should be helping here. “Okay, okay,” she said, finally wading in, “I think he’s had enough.” Mindful of flailing limbs, she hoisted Monica off of him and passed her to some onlookers while she cussed and yelled insults. Then, crouching down beside Parker, she touched his face carefully.

“Nothing broken,” she said wryly. “Are you okay?”

“Oh man,” Parker said sheepishly. “I’m sorry about that, Buffy. I guess she just had too much to drink.” He smiled wanly up at her. “I’m glad you’re not that kind of girl.”

Buffy pursed her lips, unsure how to respond to that. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of blond hair -- not just any blond, but a particular radioactive color she’d recognize anywhere -- just disappearing out the back door.

“Hold that thought,” she told him with a brilliant smile. “I just need to go use the little girls’ room.”

She didn’t wait for his reply.

***

“Hey!” Harmony said indignantly as a drunk girl was flung at her from out of the crowd. “This isn’t high school! No throwing your food.”

Something was totally going down at the center of all those people, though, and it was vitally important that Harmony know all about it. She’d been hiding out in the lair for so long, just because Spike was afraid of the stupid slayer, and she missed the days when she and Cordelia and all their little hangers-on had known everything that was worth knowing, because only the stuff that happened to them was worth knowing. And sure, this wasn’t her stuff, but it was good enough for now.

“What’s going on?” she asked her potential dinner.

“I punched my ex,” the food said with a slightly dazed grin. “ Really punched him, like in Karate class. I punched him a lot, that lecherous, slimy, lying bastard.

“Men!” Harmony agreed, instantly on the same page. “They only want you for one thing, and once they’ve gotten it...”

“Let me at him, that little worm.” The girl was practically growling, shoving back towards the ring of bodies. “I wasn’t done!”

Harmony restrained her, patting her head comfortingly.

“I know, right? They’re all the same,” she soothed. “First they want you to hold them and stroke their hair while they cry over their stupid ex, then they do nothing but yell at you, and you can never do anything right. They just come and they take without giving! I am so sick of--” Suddenly furious, she pushed the wobbling girl onto a nearby stool. “Hold my purse,” she said decisively, “I’m going in.”

She’d never really been into the whole violence thing as a vampire, but for a guy like this, she could totally make an exception. And then she and her new bestie could drink Cosmopolitans and Harmony would finally have someone sympathetic to talk to about Spike.

She might not even eat her after.

***

Spike staggered out the door into the alley, reeling from more than just the alcohol currently coursing through him -- god, he shouldn’t have switched back to liquor after the beer -- and bubbling with incredulous laughter.

He’d done it. He’d separated the slayer from a tiny slice of pain, and he bloody well wasn’t even sorry.

You’d have done it too, he argued with the disapproving Willow in his head. If you could spare her even an ounce of misery, you’d bloody well murder your own parents and cease to be.

Except… god, did the slayer need that pain?

When he’d first come up against her he’d thought it was the support of her family and friends that made her so bloody hard to kill -- and yeah, that was still a factor, but now that he’d had the chance to watch her in action over the long term, fight on her side, he knew there was more to it that that. Love supported her, but what brought out her deepest resolve was despair. Time and again she’d been broken and defeated and risen from the ashes like a bloody phoenix; he’d been half surprised she hadn’t stepped from her grave on the third day like the sodding Messiah.

Had he just killed her? Again, except maybe earlier?

The thought made him sag against the brick wall, suddenly wearied of all the what-ifs and caveats and bloody warnings. He had no sodding idea whether anything he did would make a difference, his only anchor a dimly-recalled past he’d barely even been present for, and his only hope the slim chance he would find someone to get a bloody piece of jewelry to exactly the right place at exactly the right time, so the one important change to the timeline would happen.

He just wanted her to live.

Fuck. He wiped a hand across his face, forcing himself back to the matter at hand. So, if he’d mucked up the timeline by cleaning up Buffy’s love life, what could he do to get it all back on track? He refused to patch things up with fucking Parker -- not after having to listen to his mealy-mouthed vileness all night. (Spike appreciated a good bit of evil, but was it asking too much for a little style?)

He closed his eyes, the twists and turns of timelines and paradoxes and butterflies and two bloody months all roiling about in his head like wrestlers, and the thought that finally came out on top was…

If she needs a bad shagging decision... let it be me.

It was impossible of course, in the real world, but the logic of the wankered didn’t give a fuck for reality, and his sozzled brain traipsed merrily along that delicious path, imagining it all.

She couldn’t know it was him, because of course the slayer would never shag Spike if she knew he was Spike, but… he had the Gem of Amara. He could meet her out in the sunlight, perhaps dye his hair, stop taming the curls, dress like the clean-cut, floppy-haired prats she seemed to fancy, perhaps put on an accent -- he did a fair American, in his considered opinion -- and she’d never even suspect, even if she noticed the resemblance. They’d picnic in the sunlight and go to the bloody beach and god, maybe he’d even fuck her outside, the sun kissing her golden skin as he did, and he’d whisper her ridiculous, mellifluous name into her glorious hair and she’d look down at him with those glowing eyes, probably even greener in the light, and say “I love you, Sp--”

Oh, bugger. That was the problem, right there. She wouldn’t love Spike, she wouldn’t be shagging Spike, she wouldn’t even see Spike, she’d be shagging… Steve. Or Bruce. Whatever dickhead name he decided to give her that wasn’t his own, and whatever dickhead personality he put on to lure her in. She’d be fucking his disguise, and Spike would still be on the outside looking in, with nothing.

He’d had enough bloody nothing in his life, and besides, not like it was anything but pure fantasy to even begin to imagine....

The sound of the door being flung open behind him brought him up short. He froze, allowing himself a moment of denial, telling himself it was Monica come out to offer a thank-you shag, or He Without Gorm come to settle the score, but that was even more of a fantasy than a packet of sodding hair dye getting him into the slayer’s knickers; he knew who it was even before she spoke.

“Spike!” the slayer yelled. Resigned, he turned to face her as she stormed over, eyes flashing. “I should’ve known. What else could make my evening worse?”

He closed his eyes, suddenly overwhelmed by her nearness, her life. How was this fair? He’d been a good boy, looking and not touching for hours now, torturous hours , he’d tried so damn hard to keep away, followed Willow’s warnings to a T, and now the stupid, stubborn bint had come to him .

Of course, said stupid, stubborn bint was currently closing in on him in a towering fury, so shutting his eyes probably hadn’t been the best course of action. When he opened them again, he was lying on his back in a pile of stinking bin bags and wooden crates, probably lucky not to have been accidently staked by a splinter -- not that it would’ve mattered with the Gem, but he wasn’t keen for a repeat performance just yet -- with Retribution Incarnate standing over him. That cord around his throat that had been constricting him all evening tightened further. His vision wobbled. God, she was a sodding beautiful bitch.

He raised his eyes to the sky.

“Fuck,” he said, with the overly careful pronunciation of the completely rat-arsed, “you.”

Her look of wrath turned outraged. Muzzily, he allowed that that was fair – he’d kind of partially meant it for her, too. For the punch and for fancying Parker and for up and dying on him just as she’d started to see him. God, sometimes he thought he hated her almost as much as he loved her.

The world swam as he was hauled upright, and one hard little slayer fist bunched in his duster’s lapel while the other punched him a couple of times. It actually helped to clear his head.

“What are you doing here? Huh?” Out of nowhere, she suddenly had a stake to his chest. “Dru dump you again? Come to share the misery that is your existence?”

“Oh here we go,” Spike snarled, knocking the stake aside and pushing her away with belated twin shots of indignation and self-preservation . “Another round of Kick the Spike! How bloody brilliant is this? Come back all this way and it’s the same old sodding story. Blame everything on me, just like bloody always!”

He backhanded her across the face, satisfied when she staggered – less satisfied when he staggered too.

She glared at him, aghast. “Are you drunk ?”

“Are you a vicious harpy who projects her oh-so-predictable feelings of heartbreak over her soulful-eyed, cardboard cut-out, maggot-dicked, mediocre lays on to poor, defenceless vamps?” he yelled, well aware he might not be making any sense, and caring not one bit. “Yes? Well then, I guess I am! In fact, I am absolutely, positively, one-hundred percent FUCKING GAZEBOED!”

She punched him square in the nose for that and he saw stars and laughed out loud, the fleeting joy he’d felt on first leaving the club fizzing violently back to life..

“Parker was not ,” she punched him again, “A mediocre lay .”

“No,” Spike said gleefully, dancing lopsidedly away from her next attack before sweeping her feet out from under her. “He was a non-existent one. I s’pose,” it occurred to him as she rolled back to her feet, “that is actually my fault.” He glowered at her, pointing viciously. “But in a do-gooding way! I just saved you from a truly regrettable shag with Limpdick McGee, not to mention a humiliating little tete-a-tete in front of all your new college mates, so why’re you being such an ungrateful. Bloody. Cow!”

The goddess before him blinked. “Huh? Saved me?” Then her eyes narrowed. “Wait, did you say something to that girl to get her to… Oh my god! You paid her! You paid her to say those things to Parker.”

She barrelled at him, but the sharp edge of her anger was dulled by humiliation, and it was easy to use her own momentum to swing her into the wall.

“Christ on a cross!” he roared. “It’s always, always the same with you, isn’t it? Throwing your trust around where it hasn’t been earned, and meanwhile, the one vamp who's actually trying to help you out gets stomped into the ground. No, I didn’t pay that girl. Didn’t do anything to her except encourage her to get a little catharsis. I saved you from making a big bloody mistake, and all you can do is--” She punched him. “ARGH!”

“Are you seriously trying to tell me,” she asked, interspersing her words with punches to his jaw, his abdomen, his solar plexus, “that you,” thwack, “William the Bloody,” smash, “were just,” crack, “TRYING TO BE NICE?”

She paused to let him respond and Spike wiped his bloody lip and stared at her. “Well, yeah.”

They stood a couple of feet apart, panting at each other. As she studied his face, her glower faded into confusion.

“Why?”

Somewhere inside of Spike, the dam burst.

“Because I couldn’t bear it,” he whispered harshly, as though she’d put a hook down his throat and dragged his guts out along with the words. “Couldn’t bloody bear it to see you brought so low again. Not after… Your eyes, god, your beautiful eyes, and you were so broken. Don’t ever… Want them alive, love, alive and hale and hearty. Want you proud and golden again. Want you happy. Want you alive. Want you...”

He realised he was weeping, but he was too drunk to stop it. She was staring at him with a mix of horror, loathing, and unwilling fascination.

“Spike,” she yelped. “Pull yourself together! I can’t stake you when you’re all...” She gestured at his pathetic self, and he tried his best to shove it all back in again. Was hard, though, now that it had started gushing out, but there’d been a reason he’d had to keep a cork in it, hadn’t there? Something important… “And what the hell do you mean, again ?”

Spike stared at her dumbly for several seconds before the boozy clouds parted and he realised what he’d let slip.

“Shit,” he muttered. “Shit, shit, shit .”

His head cracked against the alley wall as she shoved him backwards into it. No stake in her hand this time, but her gaze was just as deadly.

“Something’s going on here,” she said darkly, “and I’m going to give you one chance to explain before I unscrew your head like a soda bottle.”

“Uhh…” Spike said, wracking his sodden brains. “Drusilla had a vision?”

“And you just had to come here to save me from a fate worse than Parker? Bull,” she sputtered, raising -- fuck him -- a fresh stake. “Explanation, Spike. Now.

Emotion surged again, nostalgia and grief, the pure, potent joy of being in her presence. It was more than he could take, the bitter bliss of once again being at her mercy. “God, I love you.” The slayer’s stake hand fell limply to her side in shock, and Spike couldn’t help it, he reached out to her, and touched her hair. “Buffy,” he whispered. Her name tasted foreign and green on his tongue, fresh from lack of use, like spring or the air just after sunrise, and jagged as a thorn.

She stared back at him with vibrant, churning eyes; he couldn’t look away; her grip on his wrist made his bones creak ominously.

He was hammered, though, not stupid, and he already had his own grip on her other wrist, squeezing hard enough that she dropped the stake. She didn’t move away, however, or try to break the impasse, merely studying him with disbelief and more than a little disgust, but curiosity, too; she clearly knew he wasn’t going to try to bite her.

His mind was a complete blank, the combination of booze, and the fight, and Buffy Buffy Buffy

“I’m from the future,” he said. It just came out. “Your future, if you want to be exact. Your little witchy friend sent me back on a mission, all world-saving like.” He paused, wondering... “You and me, we’re—”

Her eyes widened. “Don’t even—!” she breathed. Strangely it sounded more of a plea than a warning.

“Friends,” he lied. “We’re friends, Slayer. Fight the good fight together, hang out all the bloody time.”

“I don’t,” she bit out, “believe you.”

“Can prove it,” he told her. “You let me go…”

“You let me go.”

He grinned wryly, if a little wetly. “Together, then.” He didn’t even need to count. Watching each other intently, they let go at the same moment and Buffy stepped back enough to put fresh air between them. Spike wiped his face and took a lungful, trying to steady himself. Okay, okay, it was going to be…

“See this here?” He waggled the fingers of his left hand at her. “This is the Gem of Amara. I’m not supposed to get it until, well, later on. Lets me walk around in sunlight.”

Buffy looked at it, then back to him, mightily unimpressed. “A, it’s dark. B, so what? C, that is the ugliest ring I’ve ever seen.”

Spike was taken aback by her flat-out disinterest, but he supposed she had a point. Or points. Not about it being ugly, though -- it reminded him of the ring he’d proposed to her with, during Red’s magical misfire. Red’s other magical misfire, he corrected himself. Good god, the girl either needed a teacher or an ASBO, and Spike wasn’t fussy about which.

“Right. Well, how about this? In approximately twelve months’ time, you’re going to meet a real slapper who thinks red is the only colour of the rainbow and can kick your arse from here to Sunday.”

“Seriously, Spike?” She rolled her eyes. “How is that meant to prove anything now ?”

“Oh, right. Yeah. Good point, Slayer. Again.” For the first time that night, he was starting to feel as though letting himself get so shit-faced might not have been a good idea. “Wait, how about this ? Dawn’s favourite breakfast cereal is Cocoa Pops, but your mum only ever let -- sss -- let s her have Wheaties.”

Buffy looked like she was three seconds away from belting him one again. “Who the hell is Dawn?” she growled.

“What?” he stood rooted to the spot, genuinely shocked. “Bite-sized one, brown hair, about yea-tall?” He considered a moment, then lowered his hand a couple of inches. “Kicked me in the nadgers as a thank you gift. When I set her free to piss off Angelus? Ringing any bells?”

“She sounds like a swell girl,” Buffy said with a nasty little smile. “Introduce me next time you’re not dusty.”

And as she raised her hand to swing at him again, it suddenly hit him with the same force as her blow that the girl he’d promised to protect, the girl he had lived for, whom Buffy had died for, didn’t even exist yet, and that on top of everything else was too damn much. Reeling from this realisation more than from the hard little slayer fist to his temple, Spike legged it.

 

 

Chapter Text

The night had been a triumph.

A triumph of optimism over experience, that was. Buffy wondered why she had ever thought she could have a nice, quiet evening out. And then, just as things had started looking up, just as she’d got all amped up and ready for a good throwdown, the guy had left her high and dry. Typical. Oh, and the thing with Parker had sucked, too.

So much for plan-making. She’d always been better in the heat of the moment, anyway -- she should just stick to her strengths. But when Buffy had spotted Parker at the Bronze tonight, she’d formed certain expectations. She’d expected, for example, that he’d eventually come over to her table to say hi. Maybe there’d have been drinks, some pleasant, easy conversation of the type that had been flowing effortlessly since they’d met; definitely there would’ve been some A-plus quality eye-contact and suggestive touches. And then she’d expected that he’d offer to walk her home, because that’s how the story was supposed to go with the kind of guy he was.

Or, the kind of guy she’d thought he was.

Now she didn’t know what to think. Buffy wasn’t in the habit of believing drunken randos in a club over her (boy?)friends, but there was something about seeing a guy beat on by a furious ex that just… spoke volumes. Mostly in tones of caution. That, she had not expected.

And speaking of unexpected drunken randos -- or not-so-rando, since he kept popping up like a Whack-a-Mole -- what the hell had that all been about with Spike?

“Buffy?”

Buffy started and blinked owlishly at her dorm room door, before turning to Willow and Oz. Where had they come from? Wait, how long had she been standing here, lost in thought?

“Are you okay?” Oz asked. He gestured vaguely in the direction of her face, looking slightly embarrassed, in his diffident way. “You’re bleeding.”

“Also kinda dishevelled,” Willow added.

Buffy quickly finger-combed her hair, then poked at her lip, her cheek, and her nose, before finding the cut at her hairline. “I’m fine,” she said, but it sounded more like a question. “There was, uh--” She cut herself off as one of their neighbors walked by. “Let’s go inside. You will not believe the trash I found skulking about in the alley.”

“Oh, so that’s where you went,” Willow said once they were all in, locking the door behind her. “Because I came back to our table to find--”

“Yeah, I saw Spike, at the Bronze,” Buffy said. Weirdly, she felt almost nervous talking about it, and her words were coming out all rapid-fire. “He, he was at the bar I think, and he said something to this girl, and it made her come over and start telling me all these, these things about Parker--”

“What things?” Willow asked, big-eyed.

“That he wasn’t… who I thought.”

“Like, ‘whoa, Mr. Giles the school librarian is also a scholar of magic, prophecy and ancient fighting techniques’ not who you thought? Or like, ‘Angelus’ not who you thought?”

That brought a little stab of humiliated pain to her chest, and she glanced briefly at Oz. The dissection of that part of the night was emphatically going to be Girls Only.

“Later,” she deflected, moving on before Willow could object. “So anyways, I’d just pulled the girl off of Parker when I saw--”

“Wait, she was hitting on him?”

Oz leaned over. “Probably just hitting.” He lifted one corner of his mouth minutely at Buffy. “Based on the aftermath.”

“Right, yeah, there was a little tussle. But going back to Spike, I saw him slipping out the back, trying to escape, so I followed him and…” She realized she was clutching at her hands, and made herself stop it. “We fought, I guess.”

Willow frowned. “You guess?”

“Yeah.” Buffy sank down onto the edge of her bed, facing the other two, the wind suddenly gone from her anxious sails. “I mean, first of all, he was really drunk. I mean, really. Like last year when he kidnapped you, only times about a hundred. And then he kept rambling on about trying to save me from something, which was beyond weird. And then, this is so freaky, but...” She took a breath. “He said he loved me.”

There was silence as Buffy stared into two blank faces. Then Willow whispered to Oz, “Is she joking? Are we supposed to laugh now?”

“Hard to tell,” Oz replied. “On the one hand, it is pretty hilarious. On the other hand, it’s Spike.”

“Sitting right here, guys.”

“I know, I’m just…” Willow gestured helplessly. “So what happened? Did you stake him?”

“No, I…” Buffy looked at them imploringly. “He was crying. It was so pathetic. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.” The way he’d looked at her, the way he’d touched her hair… she’d felt his turmoil like a tangible thing, and it had left her stunned, her body too hot, skin too tight. “And then he started blathering on about some Gem of Amore, and someone called Dawn, and then he just took off. It was so weird. That is weird, right?”

“Legitimately weird,” Oz agreed.

“Did Drusilla dump him again?” Willow asked.

“Days of Our Unlives, the saga continues,” Oz said with a laconic raise of his brow. “Better tell Giles.”

“He’s not into daytime TV. He literally thinks it’ll make his brain melt out of his ears,” Buffy grumbled, but Oz was right, so while the other two smooched at the door saying their goodnights, she left a quick message on Giles’s machine, and just hoped he wouldn’t call her back too early tomorrow.

“Okay,” Willow said slowly once they were alone, sitting back down opposite Buffy. “It seems like a lot happened tonight. I can tell you’re wigged.”

“You noticed, huh?”

“Special best friend superpowers. You wanna talk about it? The parts you left out, I mean.”

“Yeah,” Buffy said gratefully. “Thanks. It was all just so weird. What does he even want?”

Willow looked confused for a moment. “Who?”

“Spike.”

“Oh! Oh, right. Obviously that’s who you’re… concerned with….”

It was annoying that Willow wasn’t keeping up for probably the first time in her life, because the more Buffy thought about it, the more the antsiness was coming back, until she jumped to her feet again and started pacing. “Gah! Why is he here? Hasn’t he had enough spectacular ass-kickings to put him off yet?”

“Maybe he just likes messing with you,” Willow suggested. “You know, get under your skin, distract you, and then--”

“Right,” Buffy scoffed. “Like I’d ever let him get to me like that.”

“Oh, no, of course not,” Willow said soothingly, catching her by the arm as she made another pass and steering her back towards her bed. “But, you know -- Spike. Much with the weirdness.” Buffy could only nod in agreement. “So what do you think he wants?”

“A few more kicks to the head, if tonight was anything to go by,” Buffy said, but she could hear her certainty wavering. There had been a moment, when they’d been locked in place holding onto each other’s wrists, when the charged air had seemed to shrink and she’d been sure he was going to kiss her. Try to kiss her, she amended, and refused to think about why that important little word was only just poking its head up now. He hadn’t seemed like he was looking for a fight, although Spike being Spike, he’d certainly enjoyed it once they got going.

“Are you okay?” Willow asked. Second time tonight, Buffy noted grimly. That couldn’t be good. “‘Cause you seem kinda discombobulated.”

“Discom-who-be-whatted?”

“Wigged.”

“Major wiggins,” she agreed. “With a side order of weird. Oh, and did I tell you how freaksome it was?”

She hadn’t even mentioned the time travel thing yet. Of course, she absolutely did not believe it, so there was no point even bringing it up, but -- god, her mind was spinning like Dorothy Hamill, and she couldn’t shut it off -- there’d been something in his face that had seemed truthful. Sure, Spike was a conniving, murdering, evil bastard, but as evil bastards went, he was pretty transparent. That was how she’d known he’d keep up his end of the deal when they’d taken on Angelus together; how she’d known he really would bring her to Willow last year, and not just her drained corpse. If he was lying, he’d suddenly become much better at it -- like, Oscar-worthy better -- but how could it be true? How could any of it?

“Buffy?”

“Huh? Oh.” She dredged up a wan smile for Willow. “Sorry, just preoccupied, I guess. Wasn’t exactly the quiet evening with our honeys we were hoping for, was it?”

“When is it ever? But speaking of honeys...” Willow paused a moment, looking like she was going to burst. “When are you going to tell me what happened with Parker?

“Oh god,” Buffy groaned, burying her face in her hands. She felt like she could either deal with Parker, or deal with Spike, but not both. Why did these things always have to clump together like this? Was it some ancient Law of the Slayer? Thou shalt not ever have time to deal with your personal crap before the next crisis hits. She would have to ask Giles. “Wills, it was so--”

“Weird?”

“Buffy’s life, brought to you by the letters W and Eird,” Buffy chirped, and let herself fall back on the bed. “She basically accused him of being a liar and maybe a cheat? That part was sorta implied.”

The bed dipped as Willow came over to join her, lying on her side with her head propped up on her hand. “So what did he say?”

“Not a lot. It seemed like he didn’t really know her all that well, like they were just acquaintances? But she was pretty adamant they’d dated.” Buffy sent Willow a dry look. “And that was when the fists started flying.”

“Well,” Willow said, grinning sympathetically, “that explains what he was doing on the floor when I got back. Though, that could’ve been--”

“I mean, who am I supposed to believe? It’s not like I can have you hack into his college email and find out the answers.” Her eyes slid sideways towards Willow. “Can I?”

“No, Buffy!” Willow said, shocked. Then she looked thoughtful. “Well, maybe if I…” Then she looked stern again. “But that would be against school rules, and you know how I feel about that.”

“You like to live the exciting life of a thrill-seeking rule breaker?” Buffy asked hopefully.

“It’s like you know me,” Willow said, rolling her eyes. “Couldn’t we just, you know, Google him?”

Buffy blinked. “What’s a Google?”

***

Giles listened to the typically-garbled message Buffy had left him, and ran a quick mental translation. (He sometimes considered that learning to translate from Buffy to English had been one of his greatest linguistic triumphs.) ‘Gem of Amore’ surely meant Gem of Amara, but, well, it was like the vampire equivalent of the Holy Grail -- much sought after, but ultimately, not real.

He stood thoughtfully for a moment by the phone, trying to remember what he knew about it. A source of enormous power, he recalled, though the texts were always conveniently vague. Many a questing vampire left empty handed. A great deal of activity related to its recovery in the -- what was it, again? Giles went to his books on medieval vampire lore and ran his finger along the spines until he found the right one. Ah yes, there it was -- the tenth century.

So, no significant activity in a millennium, and now Spike was in town, apparently in its possession. Interesting. Almost certainly not in a good way.

Giles took off his glasses and polished them slowly. Amara, amara… the word was familiar, aside from the current context. What would the etymology be? Conveniently, his collection of translating materials was on the shelf above the medieval manuscripts. ‘Bitter’, he discovered a couple of minutes later, thumbing through his Collins Gem pocket-sized Latin dictionary (coming away from the spine in places, as he’d had it since prep school). Yes, that was right. But hadn’t he seen it somewhere else before, as well? He paused, perusing the titles. Fotherington-Smyth’s Ancient Greek to English, A Definitive Edition. The al-Ahmed Treatises on Sumerian. Ah ha! There it was, Sanskrit for Dummies.

“Immortal?” Giles said aloud, when he found it. “What in heavens would a vampire need a ring of immortality for?” It didn’t seem like something worthy of drawing Spike back into the danger of Buffy’s orbit. And ‘bitter’ sounded like an outright warning. Then again, Spike never had been the sharpest tool in the shed.

“Tool is right,” he muttered to himself as he started taking down more volumes from his shelves. What had the vampire thought he was doing, trying to trick Giles like that, earlier? In fact, it seemed like he had sought out Giles before he’d gone looking for Buffy, a clumsy attempt to use him against his slayer, perhaps? Or perhaps the Gem of Amara needed activating in some way, a spell or a ritual, and Spike had thought Giles would be able to assist him. He shook his head -- truly moronic, to come to his door and ask for his help. And passing notes like a highschooler! What an utter twonk.

Though, he had yet to come up with a satisfactory explanation as to how the vampire had got hold of Willow’s handwriting. If it was a spell, Giles had never come across such a thing, but he had heard her in the background of Buffy’s message, alive and well, just as Oz had assured him earlier (those mobile telephones could be useful contraptions now and again, he was forced to admit) and honestly, with it being Spike, he simply hadn’t bothered to apply any further thought to the matter.

He carefully ignored the little twinge of doubt that this might not have been the correct course of action.

In her message, Buffy had related Spike’s claim that the Gem would let him walk in daylight. Giles considered a moment -- it had been twilight when Spike had appeared, dark enough to pose no risk of spontaneous combustion, but how had he got here? Maybe there was something to it; it was, at the very least, a place to start.

If only there were some clever system by which he could simply search his books by keyword. Someone should invent something like that -- now there was a useful application for (he shuddered) Technology. Picking up the book on the top of the pile, he took it with him to the kitchen to thumb through while the kettle boiled. When it began to whistle, he reached absently for something to mark his place, and slid an empty pink envelope between the book’s pages.

***

Buffy was amazed.

“Wow, Willow, ten pages of results? Way to go with the computer-fu!”

“Buffy, I just typed ‘Parker Abrams Los Angeles’ into the search box. We learned how to do this in literally the first week of computer class.”

“Well, yeah, but that was also the class where there was a demon in the computer trying to kill us. Remember that? I think I am pretty justified in staying away from those infernal..... Oh, god. I just started to say a Giles thing. Am I turning into Giles?”

Willow obligingly gave Buffy a once-over. “Don’t worry, you are most definitely tweed-free.”

Buffy sighed in relief. “Anyhow, I thought we had already figured out our places in the world. You and Giles do the research, Xander brings the donuts, Oz looks enigmatic, and I do the smiting.”

“I can smite, too,” Willow grumbled. “I smite people all the time. Remember? With the pencil? And last night, I--”

“Fine, fine. We can tag-team the smiting sometimes. Just… you do the computer stuff. It’s all fun and games until I get frustrated and click the mouse a little too hard. Those things are expensive. And really, not very sturdy at all.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Willow grinned. “Okay, let’s see what the Google dragged in…”

Several minutes later, they were still feeling none the wiser.

“Vanessa Abrams, president of the school board in Woodland Hills. Anthony Abrams, hair stylist. Gerald Abrams, attorney at law. No Parker, though,” Buffy sighed, as Willow scrolled to the bottom of the third page of search results. “I don’t think we’re going to find anything.”

“I guess not,” Willow agreed. “Maybe you should just ask him, you know? Try the direct approach.”

“The direct approach? With a guy? I don’t know, Will, I think I’d rather face another apocalypse,” Buffy said wryly.

“Oh, now you’ve gone and jinxed us. Apocalypse in three...two…..”

“You think?” She perked up. “Hitting things is so much easier than dating.”

Her mind inexplicably wandered back to Spike. Total distraction technique, she knew, but he was a mystery to solve, and one that would more than likely result in a very satisfying grudge match. A grudge match she intended to win. In fact, right now? She couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do than come out on top of Spike. There was no way Parker could take the kind of pounding she felt the rising need for -- if he even deserved it, results were still inconclusive after all -- but Spike, he had a face made for punching, and next time she saw him, Buffy was going to take great pleasure in doing just that.

“Yeah, so about that?”

“Yes!” Buffy started guiltily. “Um, what?”

“Hitting things. There’s something I’ve been trying to tell you since I got here.”

“Go on.”

“Well, like I said, I came back from backstage Oz-snuggles to find Parker on the floor by our table and no Buffy in sight, but what I didn’t mention was--” She pulled a face, somewhere between a wince and a sneer, “Harmony was there and--”

Harmony? Dear god, tell me she’s not another ex.”

“I… don’t know? But she was kinda laying into him. With her fists? Only, it’s Harmony, so it was more like a slapfest. I think there was hair pulling. It was ugly. And everyone was just sorta standing around, watching, so I, uh, I intervened.”

Buffy was impressed. “Go Willow!”

“Right, but here’s the thing. I had to use magic. It was actually this cool little spell I read about in-- and then I was all pow! and they were all whoosh!-- but anyways, the point is, she was really strong. And, you know, pale. And kinda bumpy in the forehead region.”

“Wait,” Buffy said, sitting up straight. “No way.”

“Uh-huh, yes way.”

They shared a moment of silence for the suckage that was getting killed and turned. Even Harmony hadn’t deserved that. Probably. But then the mental images started coming, and Buffy couldn’t contain it any longer.

“Harmony, a vampire?” she sputtered. “She must be dying without a reflection!”

“Oh you should’ve seen her, Buffy. She just made me so mad. ‘My boyfriend’s gonna beat you up,’” Willow mocked. “Hello! I just magically pulled her off of a guy by the scruff of her neck like a naughty puppy.”

“Boyfriend,” Buffy repeated. Oh this was just too good, and way easier than thinking about Parker or Spike.

“Well, if you believe her. She always lied about stuff like that. ‘Oh, he goes to another school, you wouldn’t know him.’ Oz said Devon dated her for a while, but she was too flaky for him.”

“Stop and marvel at the concept,” Buffy snorted, shaking her head. The night might’ve just been worth it after all, for this. “Guy dating Harmony dead,” she laughed. “Must be, like, the most tolerant guy in the world.”

***

It was bloody intolerable, was what.

Spike had known, of course, that all his memories of Dawn had been implanted; he’d learned at basically the same time as she had -- had had a go at comforting her, even, which hadn’t been particularly successful, of course, but he’d tried -- and gone back to his crypt to paint his nails while he mulled it over. In the end, though, those implanted memories were a warm thing, and after a century loving a mad seer he was no stranger to alternate realities, so he hadn’t really given it a second thought after that. He certainly hadn’t thought at all about it when it came to this insane journey through time.

Dawn didn’t exist. Not yet, at least.

What a bloody mess.

He stumbled back into the mansion -- skin still tingling deliciously where Buffy had struck him, though the injuries were already healed -- aiming straight for his liquor stash so he could get back in a proper state to process this development, but a few steps in, he was brought up short.

He knew that scent. What the bloody hell had Harmony been doing here?

He mentally rephrased that question. He knew exactly what Harmony had been doing there, because he absolutely knew that scent, and she’d obviously come by for a conjugal visit. That knowledge opened up an entire kettle of wormy follow-up questions, like how on earth had she found them? and had she done that thing she’d learned from her magazine? and, most importantly, did he still have a prisoner?

Much to his surprise, he did.

“So,” he said, regarding himself blearily. “Have a nice evening?”

Chained-up Spike managed to look both smug and put out at the same time. “Better than yours, I most sincerely hope.” He got that faraway look in his eye that Spike recognized as fantasising-mayhem, which he supposed was better than wanking. Not that he objected in theory -- it might even be interesting to watch, as he’d no idea what he looked like mid-ecstasy, but suspected he looked damn fine indeed -- but just at the moment he had more important things to focus on.

Spike privately thought he wouldn’t trade tonight’s confrontation with the slayer for a thousand shags with Harmony. He sank down onto the couch, rummaging through the liquor bottles to find something fancy enough to match his feelings. For such a miserable dive, Willy’s had quite a remarkable selection; he chose a Scotch almost half as old as he was and uncorked it, inhaling the fumes as an antidote against the lingering, sickening smell of exes past.

It was smooth on his tongue and went straight to his brain, and he savored it all, the floaty out-of-body sensation of his renewed bender, the residual jolts of energy from battle, and most of all… Buffy. He’d touched her hair, breathed her fragrance, heard her voice -- god, even furious, it was bloody music -- and oh, how they’d fought. It seemed like forever since he’d felt that rush, the joyful magic of trading blows with his arch-enemy, his love, the satisfaction of letting himself go, fists and fangs against the bloody slayer. It had been fucking transcendent.

Something about that was niggling at his brain, though, and he tried to remember. When was the last time he’d felt that? But he’d chosen his poison too well; as he tried to trace back his memories, sweet boozy blackness rolled in like the night, and he sighed and gave himself over to it.

No need for thought. Not when he’d just touched Buffy….

He jolted awake suddenly, eyes feeling like they were going to burst from his sockets. It was later; he didn’t know how long he’d slept, but the sun wasn’t up yet, and he had only vague memories of dreams of blood and sex and tenderness and battle, which had somehow led him to an epiphany.

He’d touched Buffy.

He’d hit Buffy. Multiple times.

And the chip hadn’t gone off once.

How was that even possible? He’d gotten used to it, even taken the pain on deliberately when he’d needed to, to the point where he flinched reflexively in advance of the jolt, but last night when he’d been fighting the slayer, he’d been too drunk to hold back, just reacted on instinct. What could have changed…?

He heard Willow’s voice in his head yet again (bloody witch was worse than Jiminy Cricket, and decidedly less helpful). The spell won’t work if I try to send anything back that didn’t exist then. It would just disappear.

He’d come back to before the chip had been implanted. Possibly before it even existed.

Bloody buggering fuck, was the chip gone?

He fell back on the couch, staring up at the ceiling, pressing the heels of his hands to his temples, as if he could press the truth into his skull. Chip gone. Chip gone. He could fight, he could kill, he could feed…. God, how he wanted to feed! He sat up again with a jolt, the urge to hunt pulling at him. He was at the door before he knew it, mind racing as he calculated how much time he had before dawn, where in Sunnydale he might be able to find someone at this late hour. As his hand touched the doorknob he could almost feel it on his tongue -- hot, fresh blood, warm skin against his lips as he drank deep….

Cold skin against his lips as he’d kissed the slayer’s forehead, laid out in his crypt, when nobody was watching.

He shut his eyes against the darkness, but he couldn’t shut out her eyes, cold and dead and accusing. She wouldn’t like it if he went hunting, he knew that, and part of him wanted to do it just because of that, to show her what he was, what she’d forgotten he used to be, but then he remembered her, standing on the steps above him, eyes serious as she entrusted her sister’s future to him.

She’d trusted him.

He wanted… he wanted to be worthy of that.

He stared at his hand, gripping the old-fashioned doorknob like it was his only anchor to reality - which perhaps it was. Cold metal against his cold flesh, everything cold as the grave, everything except the hot hunger that had been threatening to boil over, bloody pressure cooker of bloodlust finally set to explode….

“Going somewhere again, are we? What a busy little bugger you are. Well, if you’re off out, I fancy a bit of takeout.” His own voice echoed behind him, wry and poisonous.

Spike pressed his forehead against the door, turning the doorknob just far enough to hear the latch click -- the sound of his freedom -- and then he released it, his fingers uncurling one by one, feeling like he was letting something precious fly away.

But in the end, a man had to have priorities.

He turned, glaring at his alter ego, and walked over to his cool box -- he’d nicked two, one for each of him -- and pulled out a carton of pig’s blood, and drank deep. It tasted bloody awful, of course; it always had. But being able to choose… that tasted sweet indeed.

He might be a monster, but he could choose to be a man.

Though bloody hell, he was going to have to nick some bloody burba weed straight away. He wasn’t a complete masochist.

He crushed the empty carton in his fist, flinging it in the vague direction of the bin, and stolidly turned his back on the door. That was that, then. Time to move on. He rummaged around the corners of the room until he turned up an old pencil -- broken, but he could sharpen it with his pocketknife -- and salvaged a brown paper bag from the bin. Heaving a deep breath, he sank back into the couch, consciously relaxing into his new world order.

Right then. He was stuck here for two bloody months, during which time he was somehow supposed to make sure nothing bloody changed. This rather required he know what he bloody well wasn’t supposed to change.

Setting his jaw, he started to write.

***

Harmony woke up, her head pounding, and for a moment she thought she was back in high school, that all the vampire stuff had been a dream brought on by one too many illicit drinks at the Bronze, but then she remembered that the vampire stuff was totally real, which was kind of a relief? Though… yeah, she still had a one-too-many-drinks-at-the-Bronze headache. Some things never changed.

It was weird, though. She wasn’t in the lair. Where was she?

She’d beat up the guy -- that had been awesome! -- and then she and Monica had toasted each other, and then they’d toasted each other again, and Harmony had told Monica everything. Well, not everything. But enough everything to get some sympathy, because Spike’s stupid minions always just rolled their eyes at her when she tried to confide in them about stuff. And then they talked about her behind her back, except right in front of her. They were all so mean.

Monica had listened.

...Oh no! Had Harmony remembered not to eat her?

A quick look around the room confirmed that no, it really wasn’t the lair, and yay! Monica was asleep over there, still breathing, and ooh! that skirt hanging on the closet door was really, really cute. Maybe she’d let Harmony borrow it, now that they were sisters.

She was pretty hungry, though. This not-eating-the-nearest-available-person thing was totally inconvenient. She should have eaten that womanizing jerk last night, then she could have gotten vengeance for her BFF -- done women everywhere a favor, even! Like a vigilante...ette, giving all the meanies in the world a taste of justice! -- and filled her tummy at the same time.

Stupid Willow. Even at college, she was still a buzzkill. She was just lucky Harmony hadn’t bitten her.

Oh well. Maybe later. In the meantime, Harmony needed a manicure. She’d gotten a few chips when she was being all justice-ey, and unlike some vampires she could mention, she had better taste than to leave them all chipped and gross. Plus, with her enhanced vampire sight, she’d just spotted a bottle of polish on Monica’s dresser that totally matched her favorite corset top. Maybe when Monica woke up, she could do hers, too, and then they could go out for lattes and bond and stuff.

Still, regarding her damaged nails, she couldn’t help but feel a rush of satisfaction. It had felt awesome to let out some of her frustrations on someone who really deserved it. Nobody messed with Harmony’s posse and got away with it.

She hoped she’d left a mark.

***

“Oh my god, Parker!”

Buffy had seen him from behind in the corridor and had been mentally debating whether or not she wanted to duck away when he’d turned his head to say something to one of the guys he was with, and she’d caught sight of his face. His very, very, definitely-more-than-when-she’d-left-him battered face.

“Buffy,” he said, surprised and… relieved? He was all swollen and lumpy, so it was kinda hard to tell, but she thought it looked pretty genuine. “I’m so glad you’re okay! When you didn’t come back last night…”

But maybe it wasn’t genuine? Maybe she was just really bad at reading men, and he was as big of a liar as the stranger-in-the-bar and the even-bigger-and-stranger-liar had warned her.

“Yeah, I had… stuff. To do,” she prevaricated. “You look -- I’m sorry, but you look really bad!”

Buffy was momentarily impressed with Harmony for being able to put such a hurt on, before remembering she was a vampire now and by rights Parker should be dead. Clearly, Cordette Number One hadn’t risen with the All-Purpose Vampire Guide to Martial Arts. That made for a change, at least, although if she’d had to pick a vamp who’d go for a bitchslap over a karate chop, it would’ve been Harmony Kendall.

Parker touched the smooth, purplish swelling beneath his eye self-consciously and winced. “Turns out that girl -- Molly? -- had some friends with her last night. They jumped me as I was leaving. Thank god my friends were there to get me to the ER,” he said earnestly.

Well, that patently wasn’t true, which was most definitely a strike against -- and seriously, Parker? He forgot her name again? Guy’s memory was leakier than a colander -- but… she could kinda see how he would be bewildered about getting beat on by a girl. Girls. She still remembered how badly she'd bruised Xander’s masculinity in high school, and that had been when she'd been protecting him. And Parker had had it twice in one night. Poor guy probably wasn't gonna be singing it from the rooftops, especially if he didn’t know one of those girls was a vamp.

Why had Harmony gotten involved, anyway?

“But you made it back for class today,” Buffy said probingly.

“Honestly?” He smiled a little shyly. “I was mostly just hoping to run into you.”

Wait, hadn’t he said he’d been worried about her? So why hadn’t he called? Duh, she hadn’t given him her number yet -- she’d kinda liked that he hadn’t just asked right out -- he was taking his time to get to know her. Besides, maybe he’d asked around, found someone who’d seen her come home all safe and sound. It wasn’t like she wanted a guy who was constantly checking up on her from a distance. Been there, done that with Angel, and it Hadn’t Worked, so obviously she was in the market for something different.

“That’s… really sweet,” she said, softening.

He shrugged modestly. “So anyway, I heard a rumor about this thing called lunch? Apparently they serve it at the cafeteria. You wanna walk with me?” He chuckled. “At this rate, I might need you to be my bodyguard.”

So Buffy walked with him across the quad in the sunshine -- take that, Spike! No embarrassing scenes here, no sir. Time travel, her cutely-clad ass! -- talking about class, and their professors, and what movies they’d seen lately, and by the time they’d finished their food, Buffy had started to regain that lovely, floaty feeling of being romanced by a nice guy. Forget weirdly-emotional vampires and their creepy-if-affecting love declarations -- this was exactly what she wanted. What she needed.

“Buffy,” he said, just as she was putting her empty soda cup back on her tray and wondering if this had been a date, and if so, was he going to walk her back to her room? And if so, were they finally going to kiss? And if so… “I know it’s short notice, and I know I’m about as attractive as Quasimodo right now, but I’ve really enjoyed hanging out today and I know I’m going to regret it if I don’t ask, so… do you want to come to a party at Wolf House tonight? Um, with me, that is.”

She couldn’t help the warm smile that spread across her face. “Love to.”

Later as she sat in the library completely failing to study, Buffy let her mind drift back over their conversation. He’d asked a lot of questions, about her hobbies and interests and all the things her old teen mags had told her were good to be asked, but it was only now that she noticed -- he’d never answered any of them himself. She told herself it meant he was just a good listener, even though she now had the image stuck in her head of a guy going down a checklist.

Like he had an agenda.

***

Spike slouched down on the couch, glaring at his makeshift notes. He’d done his very best, wracked his brain for every iota of information on the happenings in Sunnydale from October to December, 1999.

It was official. He was well and truly buggered.

So far, he’d safely, if not perfectly, made it through Find Gem of Amara. Fight slayer in sunlight he’d underlined three times, because that memory, at least, was Dawn-free, and also, god it had been glorious. He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering, even the muddy conflict of his emotions not dimming the way it had felt to go all-out against her. This time he’d know to appreciate it, not waste a second of the experience.

Yeah, he had to make sure that happened, just give it a different ending. An ending he was under bloody orders to change, he reminded himself defensively.

Go to Los Angeles he’d crossed off decisively -- no need, with the ring in his possession -- and Torture Angel he’d crossed off reluctantly, because much as he enjoyed watching the looming wanker squirm, it just wasn’t fun enough to warrant the two-hour drive each way. Though he supposed he could give his traitorous subcontractor a ring, suggest Angel had something he wanted; maybe he’d be intrigued enough to go it alone. Ironic vengeance against two twats with one phone.

Unfortunately, there was a hefty chunk of time thereafter when he hadn’t been in Sunnydale, and he only had a vague notion of what had happened: Wee little fear demon. (Dawn had told him about this one, which automatically meant whatever he knew was probably wrong.) Cave Buffy. (That one had always intrigued him, the way Xander’s voice had gotten reverent every time he referenced it.) Wolf-Boy goes to Tibet. (Before or after Willow discovered she was gay? He had no sodding clue. Nobody liked to talk about it, for some reason.)

He’d written down captured by military bastards just so he could scribble it out vehemently, because he was bloody well not spending a minute of his precious two months as a lab rat. Chip he’d written down, crossed out, written down again, crossed out again, and then written a third time, with five question marks. Chip?????

There was a sticking point indeed, because he, Spike of the future, newly chip-free, was not going to walk tamely into the soldier-boys’ tasers and take the chip that was meant for his past self’s head. He should, he supposed, offer up his past self for the chipping -- Willow would be adamant about not changing that part of the past -- but… bugger. Bugger, bugger, bugger. He just didn’t think he could do it to himself.

He glanced over at his regrettable past, who was pointedly ignoring him, still disgruntled over Spike’s refusal to bring him someone fresh, “preferably wearing red. You know the ones I like.” He’d forgotten what it was like to be… himself. No chip, no muzzle, no inconvenient love….

Problem was, he rather liked his current self. His past self was, to put it mildly, an ass. For the first time, he wondered just who he’d be if the thrice-damned chip hadn’t forced him into a truce with the slayer and her lot. Would he ever have sussed out the real reason he was so obsessed with her bloody fighting technique? Would he have become the Spike who would fling himself into the void on the off-chance it might let Buffy live a few more years? Because if he wouldn’t have, and his past self never did get all chipped up, this entire mission would be dead on arrival.

At the same time, could he do it? Really?

He looked again at his murky mirror. Son-of-a-bitch had taken the bloody knitting and was sitting on it, like king of the bloody hill. No consideration for how Spike might be in need of a little yarn meditation right now. He really was an obnoxious bastard…. Perhaps when the time came, Spike would be sufficiently pissed off to turn on himself. He shrugged, and moved on to the next item.

Thanksgiving. He remembered that well enough -- tied to a chair in the watcher’s flat whilst being turned into a pincushion and menaced by a bloody bear. Problem was… Dawn had been there. Been one of the highlights of his evening, how she’d snarked at him all day before sneaking him a little snifter of brandy, apologizing that it wasn’t blood. And then of course she’d shamelessly hidden behind him when the arrows started flying. He’d been secretly delighted by her…. He added a question mark after Thanksgiving? and then wrote down bear just so he could cross it out, because fuck no.

Snogging Buffy could stay though -- Willow could get her magical restraining order after that little bit of wonderful wrongness -- and he was fairly certain whatever had happened to make them all lose their voices had been externally caused, though of course he hadn’t been in the thick of it, just pottering around all impotent like and getting pummeled by bloody Xander. He wrote down Silent Treatment and tapped his pen against the paper, frustrated. All he remembered after that was Xander’s smelly basement, another thing he’d be just tickled to avoid. Except… was that before the bloody laryngitis? When exactly had he moved out of the watcher’s bathtub and into Xander’s revolting pseudo-flat? And that altercation with the demons, the one where he’d learned he wasn’t completely without options for violence -- had that been before or after his Christmas deadline? He couldn’t bloody well remember. The only things he could pin down in time were bloody Thanksgiving -- some bloody Thursday, but it would be on the calendar -- and Halloween. Everything else had just… happened. At some point.

He sighed and went back down his list, putting question marks after every bloody item, because he couldn’t be certain of a bloody thing, and then he stared down in desperation at his notes. Which were more like a bloody crossword puzzle than any sort of answer.

That was it. That was everything.

He was buggered.

***

“Some party, huh?” Parker said, when Buffy finally found him that night. “Last day in Rome.”

Ooh, references. This was a guy she could proudly call hers. “Better,” she said with a smile. “No old Romans.”

She’d spent ages agonizing over her look for tonight. There may have been some opining from Willow on the general topic of if only she spent that much time and effort studying… to which her response had been a hearty bah! Wills clearly didn’t get it -- luring in and then keeping that special someone took work, and she hated to admit it, but the thought of another failure made her feel so lonely. Of course, Oz had basically fallen for Willow at first costume, so it was no surprise she’d forgotten what it was like… and wouldn’t that be nice for a change, to be the one being chased by a cute guy, openly and with intentions laid bare? But the point was, these things took planning. And wondering. And fantasizing. And a significant quantity of Nair. In the end, she’d opted for ‘effortlessly sexy’, with a backless top that was held together by nothing but a few ties, hair in a messy bun with loose tendrils teasing down around her face and bare shoulders. She could tell from Parker’s expression that he appreciated the effect.

“You look really pretty tonight,” he said, brown eyes big and deep. Oh, she could happily fall into them. “Not that you don’t always look pretty. Just, tonight, even more so.”

“You don’t look so bad yourself,” she said, running a finger lightly along the edge of his shirt collar. “This shade really brings out your bruises.”

He laughed. “That bad, huh?” Then he sobered, getting pensive. “I wonder if it’ll scar? Kind of ironic. Up until now, all my scars have been psychological.”

“Please, those are the best kind,” Buffy said, trying to lighten the mood. But he didn’t seem to hear her, gazing distractedly off across the room at something she couldn’t see through the forest of bodies.

“So, hey,” he said suddenly, looking back at her without really seeming to see her. “Do you want a drink? I’m going to get us drinks.”

And then he was gone, quick as a flash.

“Oookay,” Buffy said, touching her hair self-consciously while trying to figure out what had just happened. A moment later, the answers stumbled merrily towards her, arm in arm. “Monica!” she said, surprised somehow to see the other girl again, especially with... “And Harmony.”

“Hi, Buffy,” Harmony trilled. “Mon wanted to come over and ask what you’re doing here with that loser. Cute outfit, by the way -- last year.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. Unlife clearly hadn’t done anything to improve Harmony’s repartee. And like handkerchief tops were even a thing last year, anyway. They didn’t do a great job of hiding stakes, though. Curse you, stylish but affordable wardrobe. Oh well, it wasn’t like she couldn’t handle Vampire Barbie with her bare hands, if necessary.

“Monica,” she said, totally ignoring Harmony, which was guaranteed to get up her nose more effectively than anything Buffy could say to her. “Thank you for the warning, I appreciate the thought, but I make up my own mind about people. Though, if I can return the favor for a moment, do you know you’re hanging out with a vicious monster who lives only to destroy her innocent victims?”

“Hey!” Harmony was indignant. “Wait. I mean, thanks?”

“Yeah, that’s kind of high praise coming from the slayer,” Monica said, slurring gently. Maybe one day Buffy would run into her sober, but today was not that day.

Also, “Huh?” she said, eloquently. She hadn’t actually meant… Oh, Harmony was so going to get it. If Buffy had to spend all of college living with the same rumors she’d had to put up with in high school, all because of one brainless brassy blonde and her big brassy mouth, Buffy was going to twist Harmony’s head off one inch at a time.

“Oh, yeah,” Monica said genially. “Harmony totally told me everything. She kind of had to explain after the whole lack of reflection thing in my vanity this morning. That took a lot of coffee to get my head around, let me tell you,” she said confidingly. Struck by a sudden thought, Buffy reached out and took Monica’s wrist in her hand. Her pulse beat strongly against Buffy’s fingers. Still alive, then. Huh. She must’ve meant Harmony’s lack of reflection.

“So you’re… willingly hanging out with a vampire,” Buffy said cautiously, testing the waters. In the absence of being dead, Buffy would usually have just assumed Monica was yet another drunk co-ed being led away to her doom. But she had to admit, the picture didn’t quite add up with the whole coming over here to speak to her thing.

“I know! It was a bit of a shock, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t argue with the…” she gestured vaguely at her own forehead, completely missing the point. Buffy adjusted her mouth from English to Drunk.

“Do. You. Know. She’s. Going. To. Eat. You?”

“No, it’s totally fine!” Monica waved her off. “She’s promised to go vegan.”

Buffy stared at the two girls for several seconds, eyes ping-ponging back and forth. “Okay,” she said eventually, “I’ll bite. Vegan?

“Duh,” Harmony said. “Bottled blood? From Willy’s? He gets it from the hospital or whatever. Like, when you think about it -- ew -- who wants to drink their milk straight from the udder?”

Buffy stared in silent horror, struggling to unsee the awful, awful word-picture.

“I’m even thinking about going into business,” Harmony continued airily. “Bottled blood deliveries for the more disturbing--”

“Discerning,” Monica corrected.

“--vamp. I could make a fortune. Not everyone wants to bathe in their food, you know. It’s total hell on the couture.”

“You can say that again,” Buffy muttered, before shaking herself, because -- god. Having things in common with a vamp was surely a sign of an impending apocalypse. She grasped for some normality. “Look, Harmony, it’s my night off. Just for once, I’d really like to get through the evening without something slayer-related causing a scene. So why don’t you leave Monica here and skip off back to your lair or your nest or whatever grunge-infested lodgings you’re holed up in, ‘kay? I’m giving you a pass for tonight.”

“No way,” Monica said, tightening the arm that was draped around Harmony’s shoulders. “You can’t chase off my wingman. We were here first!”

“Yeah, Buffy,” Harmony said petulantly. “You always act so high and mighty just because you’re all chosen, but you don’t know anything. Vamps and humans can totally be besties. I slept all morning in her room and didn’t even bite her once.”

“That’s right!” Monica said defensively. She wagged a finger under Buffy’s nose. “So no staking my girl.”

Buffy floundered for a moment. So many things to explain! One, vampires couldn’t be trusted, even when they promised with their dainty, manicured pinkies (and no, Buffy was not at all eying up that color polish). Two, no vamp ever stuck with bottled blood for long; even Angel had struggled at times, and he had a soul. Three, veganism didn’t even work like that. But in the end, other than tying Monica up and locking her in a room, what was she going to do?

“If she wakes up dead,” Buffy said to Harmony in her most threatening tone of voice. “I’m going to find you, and me and Mr. Pointy are going to make it slow.”

Harmony, who had shrunk back behind Monica, actually yelped, nodding frantically.

“Great. See ya!” Buffy beamed, and turned her back on them. They could make their own bed and sleep in it. Time to go find Parker again.

He was out back this time, hanging out by the makeshift bar with some guys she thought she recognized from last night.

“Hey, you! You never came back,” she said warmly, touching his arm.

“And I proffer this classy beverage in apology,” he said with a wry smile, handing her a Dixie cup. “These guys kept me waiting for the keg, I’m sorry to say.”

Buffy peeped around him, trying to catch an eye with her friendly smile, only to find they were all watching her already like a Greek chorus. Only, being fratboys, a really ogly Greek chorus.

“Are you going to introduce me?” she asked, trying to be polite, but was pretty relieved when he waved her off.

“What, these assholes?” He smiled charmingly. “I have to plead the fifth. You’d judge me unfairly if you knew my friends.”

That… didn’t sound quite right. If they weren’t good guys, why did he hang out with them? It wasn’t like they were in high school anymore. But when she looked up into his eyes, she thought he looked kind of adorably abashed, so she decided to let it go.

“Okay, stay of execution, since this is a first date and all. But I’m warning you now, friends and family are totally second date material.” At his look of consternation, she added, “And third dates are for wedding dress shopping.”

He didn’t laugh. She felt her eyes getting big.

“You know that was a joke, right?”

“Oh, no, yeah. It’s not that, it’s just… my father died last year, and you talking about family reminded me--”

“Oh, god. Parker, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up, that stuff. Bad, bad Buffy.”

He smiled sadly, and gestured for her to walk with him to a quieter spot. “No, I’m okay to talk about it now. I just still feel so sad about it sometimes, because there was, well, a lot of stuff that he didn’t finish. It made me think about, you know, living for now.”

Buffy knew a bit about unfinished business. “I think about that sometimes. I sort of drowned a couple years ago. But I came back. Obviously. But I don't, I don't put stuff off anymore. Like you were saying.”

“Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to go through life regretting the things I never did. It’s so easy to just give up before you even give something a chance.” He looked away, chuckling. “I declared premed, you know? For him. But I hated it so I switched to history. I still feel guilty about it sometimes.”

“I get that,” she said. “My wa-- aah, my mentor guy, Giles, when I was younger, I often felt like he wanted me to be something I wasn’t. It made things really hard for a while. We’re good now, though.”

“That’s great,” he said with big, serious eyes. “I mean, everyone says they get it. ‘Oh man, me too, parents are harsh.’ But how many people really know what it’s like to go against their wishes? It’s cool to find someone else who understands.”

“Yeah, I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still feel guilty sometimes about not being… better. But that’s on me, you know? I know he just wants me to be happy.”

Parker nodded, like he was really taking note of what she was saying. “He sounds like a great guy.”

“Oh, he totally is. You should meet him,” Buffy said, smiling coyly up at him. “I mean, he is kind of my father figure. If we’re going to be dating…”

She let it hang. Parker drank some beer. He let it hang, too.

She felt her smile fading as a distant bell started ringing in her mind. The thing about his father? It’s not true. And he isn’t a history major either, he’s pre-law. He’s just trying to get into your…

“Wait, what did you say your father’s name was?”

“Uh…” he gave her a confused look. “Gerald.”

That sounded familiar. Where had she…? Willow! Google!

“Gerald Abrams?”

“...Right.”

They’d found him on page three, idly clicking through to read his little blurby thing. “Attorney at law, Gerald Abrams?” He’d gotten some kind of fancy humanitarian award, just last month.

“Um, yeah. How did you…?”

“At Blakely, Something and Abrams?”

“Buffy, did you know him?”

Buffy scrutinized Parker a moment. There was something hunted in his face now. He was trying to cover it up, and maybe would’ve succeeded, except she was a hunter, and she knew that expression very, very well.

Crap.

Crap, crap, crap.

But, might as well scrape the barrel, she thought, sighing inwardly. It never hurt to be sure.

“Oh, no, I don't think so,” she said after a moment. He frowned in confusion, but she broke out Guy Distraction Technique Number One: The Megawatt Smile, and leaned closer. “So, history. Fascinating dates and compelling faces. Kinda dry, isn’t it?”

Parker immediately seemed to regain his balance. “Well, yeah, you might think so. But there’s something amazing about these huge events that, when you dig down into them, they’re just about regular people trying to make choices. When you look back at it, it seems like people were swept up in events they couldn’t control. But I don’t believe that. I believe you have a choice in everything you do.”

That had sounded like… oh god, it had sounded like a line. A well-rehearsed, well-used, smooth as you please line. Which, she suddenly realized, was true of most of their conversation tonight. And earlier today. And for the past week.

Son of a...

Her heart sank as she realized Monica had been right all along. God, Spike had been right, too! That might actually be more sickening than being taken for a ride by Parker Fudgeface Abrams. Spike being right was pretty much a sign of yet another impending apocalypse. (How many was that tonight? Two? Three? Twelve? And if he’d been right about this, then what else…? But she shoved that thought away for later.) It was becoming increasingly clear that the story she’d thought she and Parker had been writing together was not the story he was looking for, not at all. His expectations were… different.

“You really believe that?” Buffy asked, leaning closer still. She reached up and touched the side of his face, running her finger lightly along the edge of his bruises. “You believe all we have to do is… choose?”

“What are you doing?” Parker asked, his voice pitched low and intimate, eyes expectant.

“Making a choice,” Buffy smiled sweetly.

And she turned around and walked away.

Chapter Text

For crying out loud. Couldn’t a well-meaning, legitimate, entrepreneurial businessman get a lousy break once in a while?

It wasn’t enough that that cheap bastard Spike had to come in, already drunk off his ass, demanding all Willy’s finest booze -- a collection that had gained him the patronage of the P’shorak tribe, who had given him high marks at the Better Business Bureau -- and then telling him to put it on his tab. Sure, he’d said he’d pay it off in two months, but Willy hadn’t run a successful business catering to the demon community for years because he was a schmuck. The chances of his collecting on that tab were nil-bordering-on-zip, even if he started refusing the schmoe service.

It wasn’t even enough that the cheapskate’s trashy floozy came in after him, asking where Spike’d got to, like Willy was some kind of personals column with nothing better to do than hook up lonely vampire singles. What did he look like, a matchmaker or something?

No, on top of all of that bullcrap, tonight the freakin’ slayer was here. Also looking for Spike. Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ, couldn’t kids today talk to each other without dragging the poor bartender into it? Wasn’t that what they made those cell phones for?

Man. At least the vamp chick had flashed her tits for the information. Not that the slayer looked like she had much to offer in that particular department, but tits were tits.

Instead, she was showing him her fists. Which, he had to admit, were pretty convincing.

“Look,” he stammered, eyes riveted to her poised knuckles. “I already told you everything I know!”

“I know,” the slayer said cheerily, wriggling her fingers into a more-painful-looking configuration. “But I want you to tell me again. And make sure this time you don’t leave anything out.”

Willy gulped nervously, glancing around the bar. If there was one thing he’d learned as an entrepreneur, it was that the right words in the wrong ear were like stuffing your own business license right into the shredder. But it was a slow night, most of the regulars already in the back room gambling for stakes Willy could say under oath were not legal tender, just a few minion-types hanging in the booths at the back.

“All right,” he gasped, voice as low as he could manage through the deathgrip she had on his collar. “This is what I know. Little while back, local vamps started dropping hints that there was something big going down. Some kind of… excavation?”

“Go on.” Geez, for such a valley girl she sure could look mean.

“All right. Then, the other day, they said the dig was off. And then the guy you’re looking for, he comes in like he’s the lead singer of the Cure, all emo and crap, and takes off with half my stock. I had to place a special order with my supplier, and believe you me, the kind of Scotch the P’shorak tribe goes for ain’t….”

He stopped talking when she shook him like a freakin’ Polaroid picture. “I don’t care about your supply-and-demand, Willy,” she growled. “Just tell me where he went.”

“Like I said, I didn’t…” Her fist tightened in his shirt, jogging his memory. “Crawford Street. Some of the boys said they’d seen him headed up Crawford Street. Towards that freaky Frank Lloyd Wright mansion.”

The slayer’s eyes closed for a second -- thank god, she really had a nasty stink-eye -- and then she focused on him again.

“So. Mansion on Crawford Street. This isn’t some kind of setup, is it? Because if it is, you know I’ll be back.” She had a grin like a freakin’ shark. Creepy bitch.

“No!” he said quickly. “No setup! I swear, my double-dealing days are over!”

At least until Spike paid his freakin’ tab.

The slayer narrowed her eyes, then nodded, like she’d seen right through him, and then she turned to go, but… yeah, she’d punch his nose later if he didn’t tell her. Might as well give it all up, make sure she didn’t have any reason to return.

“One last thing, Slayer,” he said before she could leave. “And I’m only mentioning it because I wanna be thorough. Don’t want you coming back claiming Willy gave you partial information, right? But this one’s… a little weird.”

She turned halfway, just far enough he could see her eyes glittering. “I can handle weird. Let me hear it.”

Willy heaved a deep breath. “All right, so one of the boys -- nice fellow, always tips -- he was walking home from his Thursday night poker game, maybe three, four in the morning? Anyhow, he says that he saw our boy Spike, out for a stroll like? Except Spike, he had a body over his shoulder. And Clem, he’d been drinking up his winnings so I dunno how reliable this last bit is but… the body over Spike’s shoulder? He says it was another Spike.”

The slayer stood there like a statue for a moment, like she was thinking over what he’d said, then gave a short nod.

“Thanks,” she said quietly. “That’s… that’s good to know.” She was almost to the door when she turned around again. “Just out of curiosity, have you been selling blood to a vamp named Harmony? Blonde hair, dumb as a box of rocks?”

“Uh, yeah. She came in a couple hours ago, said she was on a new-fangled diet or something.” He was pretty sure she’d called it a vagina diet, which… well, Willy hadn’t built a successful business from the ground up by being all judgemental about lifestyle choices and stuff. He was a modern guy. Plus, if he played his cards right he might get to take pictures.

The slayer looked kinda confused, but she finally just shrugged. “All right. This info better be good, or I’ll be back for an explanation.”

And then she finally got the hell out of Willy’s place.

He heaved a sigh of relief, watching her go. Man, why hadn’t he opened up his bar in San Diego, like his cousin? San Diego bars didn’t have to deal with the freakin’ slayer.

Sunnydale was the freakin’ armpit of California.

He sighed and got down to polishing up the bar.

***

Buffy walked slowly away from Willy’s Place, the weight of the day making her feet drag. Dumping Parker -- or whatever that had been, since he clearly hadn’t considered her his girlfriend -- had felt kind of amazing at the time. But afterwards she’d been left aimless and alone on a night when she’d been expecting to party very much not-alone. And it wasn’t like trying to fact-check creepy-love-future-Spike was exactly making her feel any better, but at least it was something to do.

Of course he was holed up in Angel’s mansion. Of course he was. That was exactly what Buffy needed, more reminders of her depressing romantic past while she was dealing with the fact that her first foray into the Brave New World of normal dating had been a complete bust. God, she really knew how to pick ‘em. Maybe what she should do was look around for the last person in the world she would ever want to date, and make a go of it with him, because the people she kept choosing turned out to be the exact opposite of what she was looking for. Maybe in Bizarro World she’d pick out a jerk and he’d turn out to be secretly a really nice guy.

Like that could ever happen.

She knew she should go by the mansion right now, figure out what Spike’s game was, but… ugh. Not tonight. Tonight had been supposed to be her night off; she’d had it all planned out, how she and Parker were going to hang out and talk and maybe smooch and maybe more-than-smooch, and even though those plans had been thoroughly torpedoed, she just didn’t feel up to approaching a huge concrete monument to her regrettable life choices and knocking on the door. Especially not with an incredibly confusing vampire lurking on the other side of said door.

Another incredibly confusing vampire. Because Buffy really knew how to pick arch-enemies too, apparently.

No, what she needed was girl talk and a good night’s sleep. Willow might even be waiting up for her, ready for Buffy to dish some discreet dirt.

And oh, did Buffy have dirt to dish.

***

Spike shoveled aside the last of the dirt he’d hastily piled up to conceal his private excavation from curious eyes. He’d been in a hurry before, of course, getting to the crypt, but now that he was resigned to sticking around awhile, and also had sobered up a little, it had occurred to him that the Amara treasure was a boatload of convenient cash just waiting for him to cart away before someone else got their grubby mitts on it. (In his own past, he’d returned from Los Angeles to find the remaining treasure already gone, probably snatched up by Brian. Or Harmony. Or possibly even Giles -- bastard certainly had lived well above his means. In any case, nicked by somebody not Spike.)

Also, it gave Spike something to do while he waited for the sun to come up.

He’d spent hours reviewing his pathetic calendar, trying to come up with a path that would satisfy Willow’s bloody rules while still allowing him to not be chipped, menaced by a bear, or otherwise made miserable, but the fact was, there was only one item on his list that he cared about. His eyes kept getting drawn back to it like bloody mosquitoes to one of those bug-zapping light contraptions.

Fight slayer in sunlight.

He wanted it with a wrenching need that was like acid in his gut, bitter and biting and impossible to ignore. If there was ever a moment in his memory that was the utter antithesis of the slayer lying broken and dead and empty in the thin light of morning, it was the slayer alive and golden and riddled with pain, winning an impossible fight against an invulnerable foe.

For all he knew, he had already mucked up the timeline beyond repair -- fighting her in the alley, setting Monica on Parker; perhaps it had been completely buggered since the sodding butterfly. He might still return to a future where he had failed, or not even have a future at all. But he was by god going to have this, even if it was the only good thing he ever had.

He was going to fight Buffy, in the bright sunshine, and it was going to be fucking glorious.

Problem was, he’d come by his epiphany after the sun had set again for the evening. He’d done his best to occupy the time -- attempting vainly to sleep, sketching out diagrams of his fight strategy, even trying to trick the other Spike into handing over the knitting so he could do something with his fidgeting fingers -- but he’d ended up pacing the garden of the mansion, the scent of jasmine sweet and cloying and redolent of remembered pain. Finally he’d come up with the idea of salvaging the treasure, tucking it away somewhere safe for his future use.

He needed something golden to tide him over until the day.

It didn’t take him long to gather it all up, priceless jewels and gold heaped negligently in a rusty wheelbarrow; he gave the ransacked crypt a final once-over before dropping down through the hole and tucking a tarp over the wheelbarrow’s contents. He wheeled it out of his private tunnel and out towards his lair.

“God, you are such a liar!”

Spike spun around, trying to hide the wheelbarrow with his hands before he belatedly realized that was bloody useless. Harmony was standing there, hands on her hips, glaring at him like he’d broken her favourite unicorn statue. Which he had, of course -- bloody thing had had the most disturbing eyes Spike had ever seen, which was saying something after Dru’s dollies -- but he’d found a clever hiding place for the pieces that she would never discover. Nobody buried the evidence like Spike.

Bugger, what had she said?

“‘Course I’m a liar, pet,” he replied hastily. “Evil.”

“You and your ‘restrained against your will,’” she continued scornfully. “I knew you could get out of those chains any time you wanted, you big faker.”

“Uh, yeah. Of course I can.”

Harmony craned her neck, peering around Spike. “Are those more chains?”

Spike glanced down, tucking a trailing gold necklace back under the tarp. “Blimey, you caught me.”

She eyed him speculatively. “This must be really important to you,” she said, face thoughtful.

Spike blinked. He hadn’t thought ‘thoughtful’ was part of Harmony’s repertoire. “Yeah,” he said at last. “Really important.”

Harmony’s eyes started to roll, but then she closed them, just for a moment, and when she looked at him again, her eyes were soft and sympathetic. Or at least, looked like they were trying to be. “Well, I guess you are really hot when you’re chained up.”

He was indeed; Spike nodded cautiously.

With the air of a benevolent queen, Harmony gestured in his general direction. “I guess I can play along. Punish you when you’ve been a bad boy.”

Spike pictured the other him. “Yeah, sometimes I’m a right bastard.”

“You like it, though,” Harmony said seductively, sauntering closer. “When I knock you around.”

The thought of the actual pummeling on his agenda, sunshine and fists and flying golden hair, sent a shiver down Spike’s spine. “Yeah.” God, how many hours did he have left?

Harmony frowned in confusion. “Do you have to be chained up, though? I mean, I can knock you around anywhere.”

“No!” Spike hastily interjected. “The chains are… Well, they’re a necessary part of the experience, aren’t they? Not much fun without them.”

She took another step towards him. “I get it, Spike. I really do. I went through some back issues of Cosmo with my new girlfriend today, and they all said that it was totally okay to indulge in fantasy roleplaying. I mean, they weren’t real specific about the whole help-I’ve-been-kidnapped scenario, but I’m just…” She closed her eyes like she was reciting something from memory. “I’m really honoured you trust me enough to let me into your fantasy world.” Her eyes popped open. “Even if you were a total jerk about it.”

“Well,” Spike shrugged lamely. “I was acting, wasn’t I?”

“You’re a really good actor. I almost let you go, you were so pathetic.”

Bugger. Spike threw himself under the bus. “That’s the most important part, though. That you never set me free. No matter how much I beg and plead and swear.” Mostly swear, if he knew himself. Which he did. Actually, it was rather delicious imagining his past self’s rage. Serve him right for being such a selfish twat about the knitting.

“Really?” She frowned. “But what if you really do want to get out of the chains? Like, maybe you swallowed the key on accident. ‘Cause, if you were a human, you’d eventually poop it out, which is gross, ew, but since you’re a vampire...”

“Tell you what, love,” Spike interrupted, grinning with anticipation. “Why don’t we just arrange a password, right now. If I say the password, you’ll know that I’m actually in trouble, and if I don’t, you’ll know that I’m just acting.”

“Oooh!” Harmony squealed. “That sounds fun! Like kinky secret agents or something. So, what’s the password?”

There was only one thing Spike could think of that he would never have said in 1999. Something nobody would have said, because… you never talked about what didn’t exist at all.

“Dawn Summers.”

Harmony crossed her arms. “Really. We’re being kinky secret agents, and you want our password to be a brand-name douche?”

Spike rolled his eyes. “That’s Summer’s Eve, Harm.”

“Oh. Right. Well, it’s still weird.”

He growled in frustration. “Look, Harmony. I’ve still got all these… chains to haul before the sun comes up. Next time I feel like playing damsel in distress, you’ll be able to tell by how chained up I am. Mind buggering off so I can get back to work now?”

Harmony huffed. “Whatever. God, it would serve you right if I made you wait a week before I find you next time.” She flounced off down the tunnel and was gone.

“You do that,” Spike muttered, taking up the handles of the wheelbarrow again and heading off to the tunnel entrance where he’d left the DeSoto.

Nobody hid the evidence like Spike.

***

“Wakey, wakey sleepy-head!”

“Oh god,” Buffy groaned. It was way too early in the morning for that amount of chipper from Willow. Also, “I don’t have class this morning, why are you torturing me?”

“Hey, be thankful it’s just torture! Gotta be better than soul-stealing. Not that I’m seeing much difference right now, you big grump. Here, I brought you coffee.” She thrust an extra-large vanilla iced latte at Buffy. “Giles called. He’s found something.”

And of course, Giles being Giles, he couldn’t just tell them what it was over the phone. Oh well, at least Xander and Oz were coming too -- misery loved company, but more importantly, there’d be donuts.

Showered, blow-dried and dressed, the two of them walked over in the fall sunshine. Willow had been asleep after all when she’d got in last night, so Buffy spent the time productively, getting her all caught up.

“So his ex was right about him after all,” Willow said darkly. “That worm. I know a spell -- you just say the word, Buffy, and he’ll never get lucky again.”

“Thanks, Wills.” Her friend’s outrage was more gratifying than Buffy wanted to admit. Maybe Willow could be forgiven for her incurable morning perkiness after all. “So anyway, after I left him in the dust, I went on patrol and kinda ended up at Willy’s.”

“Uh huh.” Willow nodded encouragingly. Then she caught Buffy’s look. “Oh. Oh. The other thing.”

“Yeah, the other thing,” Buffy muttered.

“You were knocking ‘em down like dominoes last night, huh?” Willow grinned. Buffy forced a smile in return. “So did he have anything for you?”

“Not much,” she sighed. “Just rumors, mostly. There was one thing...” She trailed off, eyeing Willow and wondering if the time travel thing was worth mentioning now, but, well, she couldn’t think about it without her mind returning to that alley behind the Bronze where she’d fought Spike and he hadn’t even tried to bite her, not once, and instead had looked at her with those eyes and... Willow was giving her an expectant look, but before she could decide whether or not to spill, she realized they’d arrived.

It couldn’t possibly be that important, she told herself. It could definitely wait.

“Ah, Buffy, Willow, good,” Giles said, when he opened the door. “We’ve been waiting.”

“Believe me, you wanted to wait for me to shower off last night’s exploits,” Buffy told him.

“Really,” he said, in that way that was both non-committal but also sorta judgey. It was pretty galling that whatever he was imagining was probably way more exciting than the vampire dust she’d been talking about. (Not to mention the weird, whirly, confusing thoughts about one vampire in particular that she’d needed to send down the drain along with everything else.)

“I just meant--” Ugh, whatever. It wasn’t like she hadn’t been jonesing for a little extra-curricular fun at the start of the evening, and she was not gonna feel bad about that, even if her intended study buddy hadn’t been up to snuff in the end. “You know what? I’m an adult now and it’s none of your business what I do.”

“I’m sincerely relieved to hear that,” Giles said. “Now, can we discuss the impending disaster?”

There was tea (of course) and more coffee (freshly brewed, thank god) and the menfolk had indeed brought donuts (yay motorized transport!); Xander seemed unusually quiet -- also kind of glassy-eyed and distant-looking -- but she just put it down to the early start. Appropriately caffeinated and en-sugared, Buffy sat down in Giles’s tiny living room, ready to listen.

“So, Giles, Willow said you found something?” Oz started.

“Yes, a text. It refers to the Gem of Amara as residing in the valley of the sun.”

Willow said, “That sounds like demon fancy talk for…”

“Sunnydale, yes.” Giles nodded. “It seems the Gem may indeed exist, and is buried somewhere nearby, perhaps in a sealed underground crypt or cave. Or was buried, if we are to believe Spike.”

“Do we?” Xander asked, visibly shaking himself out of his catatonia. “Believe Spike?”

All eyes turned to the resident expert on Spike. Oh right, that was her. Ugh.

“I don’t know.” Buffy shrugged. “I didn’t get a lying vibe from him, and he did have a ring I haven’t seen before… Guess we won’t know for sure until he shows up in the middle of the day,” she joked lamely.

“The idea of your most persistent enemy being able to walk around in the sun is… disturbing, to say the least,” Giles said. “Not to mention this, uh, ring, you said? Might confer other abilities.”

Of course. Of course it did. Knowing her luck, it’d confer the ability to be an annoying pain in her butt. Not that Spike needed any help with that.

“Such as?” she asked warily.

“Well, if I’m interpreting correctly, he could become unkillable while wearing the Gem.” Giles’s eyes became distant for a moment, then he made a tutting sound and muttered, “I knew my aim wasn’t off.”

“Something I don’t get,” Oz said. “If he’s had the ring all this time... why is Buffy still alive?”

“Thanks,” Buffy muttered drily. Oz just raised an eyebrow. She supposed she had to concede he had a point, even if she was pretty confident she could take Spike regardless. How hard could it be to slip a ring off his finger mid-fight? And besides, there was the weird non-bitey thing going on -- if he kept that up, she had no qualms about using it to her advantage the next time she saw him. Strangely emotion-filled eyes aside, she hadn’t forgotten that they were enemies.

His voice suddenly filled her mind, still uneven from the tears he’d shed before, We’re friends, Slayer. Fight the good fight together, hang out all the bloody time. She snorted to herself. As if!

“Maybe you should tell them about the other stuff,” Willow prodded, bringing her back to the present.

“What other stuff?” Xander asked around a mouthful of jelly donut.

Buffy hesitated a moment. She’d been hoping to keep that part to herself, or at least to just her and Willow and Oz, but there was no getting out of it now. She tried to be annoyed with Willow, but the others probably did kinda need to know. Some of it, at least..

“When we fought, Spike was, well, he was really drunk and acting kinda like...he didn’t want to fight me? Mostly he just yelled at me, and told me I was ungrateful.” She decided judiciously to leave out all the crying. Probably not relevant; most definitely wigsome to think about.

“Interesting,” Giles said, eyes getting that foggy look again before he snapped back. “Did he say what for?”

“Um…” God, this was awkward. Why was it always her who had to live out her bad romantic decisions in front of the whole gang? “See, there was this guy I was kind of dating -- or, I thought we were dating.” She stared at her hands. “Only it turns out we weren’t because he just wanted me for -- I mean -- um.” She dared to glance up from under her lashes. “But I totally broke it off with him before -- that.” Giles was blushing way worse than she was, that had to be a win. “Like he didn’t even get to first base, so really, it’s all good. Except not good good, because he’s a total jackass, but at least I didn’t…” Oh god, oh god, mouth moving, words coming out. She wracked her brains desperately for the point. “Spike! Spike was there when I was talking to him -- Parker, I mean -- and he’s, well, he’s kinda the one who warned me about him.”

She looked around. The faces staring back at her were varying shades of confused.

“Spike… warned you that your boyfriend was a, a cad?” Giles took his glasses off and began to polish them.

“I guess?” Buffy wasn’t one hundred percent sure what a cad was, but it seemed about right. “And I absolutely did not believe him at first, but it turns out... he was right.”

Giles squinted blindly into the middle distance. “And you’re sure he didn’t somehow set this up?”

“I don’t see how,” Buffy sighed. “I’d been seeing Parker for over a week, and when I spoke to Willy last night, he said Spike only got into town a couple days ago.”

“That is peculiar.”

“There’s more,” Willow said oh-so-helpfully, giving Buffy an encouraging look.

Buffy wasn’t sure she could say it, though. Not this. The other stuff was embarrassing, sure, but this? At first it had just seemed funny, in an oh-my-god-isn’t-Spike-a-freak? way. But now, a day later? She wasn’t sure she had words for that odd, wriggly, confusing feeling in the pit of her stomach whenever she thought about it. Which had been hardly at all, of course, but, well, it wasn’t like she could just pause her brain.

She surveyed her audience with apprehension. Xander stuffed his mouth with another donut, a look of dread and anticipation on his bulging face. Giles put his glasses back on and gave her a concerned frown. Oz shared a knowing glance with Willow.

“He… he said he loved me!” Buffy blurted.

Xander sprayed powdered sugar all over his pants. Giles took his glasses off again.

“It was an unexpected twist,” Oz observed mildly.

Xander looked delighted. “I can’t decide if it’s funny or… No wait, it’s definitely funny!”

“Hey, it’s not nice to laugh at someone just because they have feelings for someone else who might not return them,” Willow said, giving him a stern look.

“Wills, he’s a vampire, it’s not like they’re real feelings.”

“Let me get this straight,” Giles said, rising to his feet, glasses still in hand. “You think that Spike didn’t try to kill you when you fought in the alley because… he’s in love with you?”

Buffy just sort of gaped at them all like a big beached fish, and prayed it was a rhetorical question. Because how on earth was she supposed to answer that? Yes meant that she believed what Spike’d said, which, no, it was just too weird. But no meant coming up with an alternate explanation, and she had nothing. Just… there had been something about that look in his eyes, something shivery and tingly and… yeah, confusing. It was really, really confusing.

Luckily, Willow stepped in again. “Xander’s right, maybe he only thinks he is? He did take his break up with Drusilla pretty badly. Maybe some wires got all crossed up in his brain?”

“That’s messed up, even for Spike,” Xander said, sobering suddenly. “I mean, vampire, slayer. Slayer, vampire. Mystical enemies of the yin and yang variety. This is… this is not good!”

“Actually, yin and yang are complements, not--” Oz started to say, but was cut off by Giles.

“I feel it behooves me to mention that I have also had a visit from Spike.”

“Don’t tell me,” Xander said. “He’s in love with the G-man, too.”

Giles spluttered a bit. “Do shut up, Xander. In fact, he came here claiming to want my help.” He paused a moment before continuing. “Or possibly to offer me his help, I’m a little unclear on that. As with Buffy’s encounter, he did appear to be rather off his face.”

Buffy frowned in confusion. Spike’s face had seemed fine to her. Better than fine. A little less bruisey than it usually got after the punching and stuff, but still… on.

Giles caught her eye and sighed. “Drunk,” he amended, with the air of a kindergarten teacher struggling to teach the letter A.

“Oh, right. Obviously.”

“Seriously,” Xander said suddenly, eyes slightly unfocused. “Evil demons just--” he gesticulated wildly-- “showing up at your door, like you owe them something, and then okay, yeah, you give them what they say they want, and it goes pretty okay, really awesome in fact, except then they get all mad at you because maybe they wanted something else, which is so not fair because you asked them to explain it at least ten times before you even said yes, and then they go away all huffy, and it’s like, what just happened here? Am I crazy?”

Buffy sent up a quick prayer to whatever deity was in charge of Xander’s mouth and weird mood-swings because finally, for the first time since she’d arrived, everybody was staring silently at someone not her.

He blinked, suddenly aware he was the focus of attention. “What?”

“Never mind,” Giles sighed. “Might I suggest, since Spike is unlikely to drop by and answer our questions any time soon, that we commence research?”

Books. Books sounded good to Buffy.

Well, okay. Not good. But better than continuing to publicly dissect and discuss her dead-on-arrival love-life and perplexing hate-life and all the embarrassing details thereof. Books were all texty and solid and not confusing at all.

Or at least not as confusing as Spike. 

“So what do you think we should focus on?” Willow asked as the others reluctantly passed around what Buffy assumed was the relevant part of Giles’s personal library. “I guess the location of the crypt isn’t so important, since we think Spike’s already got the Gem. Right?”

“Yes, I agree,” Giles said. Our priority must be pinning down exactly what powers the Gem confers to Spike. Here, Willow, you take this one, since it’s in Latin.”

She practically glowed with pride as he gave her (Buffy chanced a look, and immediately regretted it) Annales of the Watchyrs Counsil, 1201-1250. She knew WIllow had been learning Latin in her free time, but that looked hardcore, even for her -- thick and kinda creaky, and was that a pink post-it note? She raised her eyebrows at the very un-Gilesy page marker.

“Hey, what’s this?” Willow asked, noticing it too. “I recognize this…”

Xander, who seemed about as keen on the research as Buffy was -- as in, not very -- leaned over to scrutinize the slip of paper Willow had pulled out from between two ancient, crackly pages. “Isn’t that…?”

“I think it is!”

“What?” Buffy was now craning to see. Huh. “It’s a Hello Kitty envelope,” she said, nonplussed. “Giles, why do you have Hello Kitty stationery in your dusty old books? Did you turn into a twelve-year-old when we weren’t looking?”

All eyes turned to him. “Well,” he shuffled about uncomfortably for a moment, but the glasses stayed on. She didn’t know if that was a bad sign or not. Then he got a funny look on his face, and said, “Perhaps Willow would like to explain.”

All eyes swung obediently back to Willow.

“M-me? I don’t...” she stammered. “It looks like the stationery set Xander gave me in junior year, but… I never used it.”

“Well, at least that makes one of you who doesn’t want to use my goods and wares,” Xander said, looking way more hurt than the situation warranted.

“I’m sorry, I’m just not a fan of fuschia pink! It reminds me too much of Harmony.”

Buffy raised her eyebrows at that, because Willow wore it all the time, but now didn’t seem the time to point that out. Across the room, she caught Oz’s eye, and knew somehow by the twitch of his mouth that they were thinking the same thoughts. Don’t interfere, she tried to convey to him. She thought the wry lifting of one eyebrow was his version of How stupid do you think I am?

“Anyway,” Willow continued, tempting Xander to perilous waters, “one of who?”

“Huh?”

“You said, ‘that makes one of you who doesn’t want me for my goods and wares.’ So, one of who?”

“Well, I--”

Obviously sensing the danger, Giles cleared his throat pointedly. “If I can redirect you to the matter at hand,” he said, “you will note that there is something written on the other side.”

Willow turned the envelope over and blinked. “That… that looks like my handwriting.” She paused. “And my favourite purple gel pen! I bought a whole pack of them. You know, for highlighting key points.”

“Ah, I remember it well,” Buffy said. “You always ended up underlining every other word, so in the end you just started writing in purple.”

“Good times,” Oz said, nodding.

“But… how did my handwriting, on my stationery, in my gel pen, end up in one of Giles’s books?”

“Yes, that was rather the question I was asking,” Giles said wearily.

“You didn’t ask a question,” Buffy pointed out.

“I most certainly did.”

“Nuh-uh. You were all ‘perhaps Willow can explain’ and then you made us figure out what the question was, like Jeopardy. Except without the cash prize.”

“Uh, so what’s the question again?” Xander asked nervously.

Willow waved the envelope in the air. “I didn’t write this. At least, I don’t think I wrote this. Unless I wrote this some time that I don’t remember. Is that possible? Do people sleep-write or something?”

Giles sighed, looking smug. “I thought as much. Just some trickery…”

Buffy snagged the envelope, looking at it more closely. It really was Willow’s handwriting, down to the shy little loops she always put on her s’es. “Giles, where did you get this?” she interrupted.

“Oooh!” Willow said excitedly. “Was it vampire-me? Because, you know, I can really see vampire-me going for fuchsia…”

Giles did remove his glasses again this time, harrumphing a little before he got to the point. “Spike… Spike gave it to me. When he came to my door. I believe it was shortly before you came across him in the Bronze, Buffy.”

Huh. He’d gone to Giles’s first? Why?

“He gave you an envelope?” she prodded.

“He said it was from Willow,” Giles shrugged. “Of course, I knew it was balderdash from the very start. At first I thought perhaps he’d, well, captured Willow, perhaps in some cunning scheme to get his hands on you, but needless to say when I spoke to Oz later, he confirmed…”

“The envelope doesn’t look balderdashy,” Willow frowned. “All it says is ‘Mr. Giles.’”

“There, there was… a letter.” Giles fell silent, regarding his glasses with great intensity.

“And?” Buffy prompted. “What did the letter say?”

With a final sigh, like he was facing the firing squad, Giles replaced his glasses and looked Buffy in the eye. “I burned it.”

“Okay, then you can just give me the Cliffs Notes version.” Thank god, that purple gel pen was really hard to read even when it wasn’t on radioactive paper.

“Well, I didn’t exactly… I’m not certain….” He shrugged. “I didn’t precisely, er, read it before I burned it.”

“You burned a letter… from me?” Willow asked, eyes big and wounded. “Without reading it?”

“You said you didn’t write it, Will,” Oz reminded her.

“Yes, but… it was my handwriting, and he burned it! You did know it was my handwriting, didn’t you?”

Giles looked uncomfortable. “Well…”

Xander heaved a commiserating sigh. “Giles, do you know nothing of the fairer sex?” Off Buffy’s look, Xander shrugged defensively. “For the record, every member of the fairer sex I am personally acquainted with could kick my pasty ass. I am wise enough not to tempt fate.”

“Even if it was from vampire-me, it could have been something important,” Willow went on, lower lip protruding dangerously.

Buffy took a deep breath, starting to feel sorry for Giles. “No, I get it. Consider the source here. I would’ve burned first and asked questions later, too. Or, well, staked first. I’ve been trying to cut back on burning things down, after that whole gym thing.” Except, of course, she hadn’t staked first. She’d just stood there while he got all up in her personal space, and let him touch her hair. Thankfully, though, no one pointed that out.

“I did shoot him with my crossbow,” Giles muttered. “Twice.”

They all took a moment to absorb the occasional badassery that was Giles.

“Sometimes you’re scarier than Buffy,” Oz said, in as close to tones of awe as he got.

“Yes, well.” Giles looked a little flustered at the praise (at least, Buffy took it as praise). “The question remains, what was in it? I confess I am starting to wonder if, hm, if it might have been important.”

Willow was still in a pit of wounded indignation. “What if it came from another dimension, or, or the future?” she said.

And Buffy sat up so straight it was like an electric shock had seized her spine.

“What did you say?”

“What if some future-me wrote that letter and used a spell to send it back in time?”

“Could that happen?” Oz asked, frowning at Giles.

“I suppose it could,” Giles said slowly, “but the magic involved… it would take a terribly powerful witch to enact it.”

“I’m studying,” Willow said in a small but slightly aggrieved voice.

“It’s not a question of study,” Giles said, exasperation starting to tinge his voice. “It would take immense natural talent to draw on those kinds of forces.”

Willow opened her mouth again to protest, but Buffy beat her to it.

“Willow’s right,” Buffy said. “I mean, not about the, the spell, I don’t know anything about that, but, uh…” she swallowed -- crunch time. “Spike did tell me he was from the future.”

Silence.

Then, Giles sat down. “You might have mentioned this earlier, Buffy,” he said quietly. She fought the urge to curl up into a ball at his chiding tone of disappointment.

“I didn’t believe him!” she said defensively. “He was drunk and, and delusional. How was I supposed to know that was the thing I was supposed to listen to?” Instead of the strangely seductive rumble of his voice as it cracked with emotion for her, all for her. “Besides, it’s not like you mentioned this thing about the letter earlier.”

Giles rubbed his forehead. “Frankly, it simply didn’t occur to me that Spike could have been telling the truth.”

“Well,” Buffy said, mollified. “Ditto. So… while we’re, you know, having confession time, there’s something else Willy told me.”

“Something else,” Giles muttered. “Oh good.

“Yep. Apparently, one of his regulars saw Spike out and about a few nights ago with a body over his shoulder, and the guy said he thought it was another Spike.”

“Spike… was carrying another Spike?” Xander said. “You kind of have to marvel at the sheer concentrated evil. Shame they didn’t explode on contact.”

“Yes, well, this is the real world, Xander, not bloody Star Trek,” Giles said. He was starting to sound a little ropey -- when the bloodies came out, it was never a good sign.

“Star Trek?” Xander scoffed. “You uncultured swine! It was--”

Buffy rushed to cut off the nerdboy ranting. “So are we thinking time travel now?” She looked around the whole gang, expressions ranging from bewildered to bemused to just plain confused.

“Solid maybe,” Oz said, nodding.

And with that, by silent agreement, the meeting broke up.

***

What could possibly have been in that letter?

Buffy walked across the quad, barely hearing the chatter of her fellow students as she pondered. If Spike had been giving a letter to her, she would pretty much have expected it to have… well, the same things he’d said to her in the alley, except maybe a little more with the cool and a little less with the pathetic. Something like “Slayer, I am from the future. Do as I say if you want to save the world.” But he hadn’t given a letter to her, he’d given it to Giles.

Not to mention… Willow. Didn’t maybe-future-Willow trust her?  None of it made any sense. She was the slayer. If there was important world-saveage intel to be shared, shouldn’t it come through her first? Then she could delegate the boring research and take decisive action. That was how they worked, right?

And what she really couldn’t wrap her brain around was… why Spike?

No, it had to be some lame-o plan. Something with exactly three steps, because Spike was just not a planner and that was literally all he could handle. He was smart, sure -- especially at thinking on his feet -- but he didn’t exactly play three-dimensional chess. As far as she could imagine, his plan would probably consist of: One, give letter to Giles. Two, something? Three, Buffy dead.

Or three, Buffy alive? She was still a little fuzzy on that, but it didn’t exactly seem possible. Spike hated her, just as much as… But the letter had come from Willow, who didn’t hate her… Hopefully… And this Spike actually kinda maybe didn’t hate her so much, either, what with the I love you’s....

She was so lost in her own thoughts that she was almost on top of the couple schmoozing on the park bench before she realized that the man was Parker, clearly hitting up a girl she’d never seen before. She stopped in her tracks, just out of his line of vision, not sure of the proper etiquette for approaching a brand-name douche who’d been trying to get into your pants while he was trying to get into his probable-next-target’s pants.

But then she heard what he was saying, and etiquette flew out the window.

“...Yeah, it’s kind of hard to learn to trust again, after something like this happens. I mean, when you spend so much time with someone, you don’t expect them to just walk away like that.”

“Does it hurt much?” The new girl reached up to stroke at the curve of Parker’s black eye.

“Only when I smile,” he said charmingly. “So… a lot, when I’m hanging out with you.”

Buffy stood in the shadow of the trees, awkwardness swiftly turning into impotent fury as she listened, but when he started to talk about his father -- who had apparently died yet again, overnight -- she set her jaw and hurried forward.

“Parker!” she warbled, running to his side and setting her hand to his cheek. “Oh my god, how is your eye doing? Did the ice help at all?”

“Buffy!” he choked, glancing furtively at his new flirt.

“Wow,” Buffy went on, taking his face and turning it for a better view. “Hard to believe a girl did this to you. She must have been pretty mad.”

“A girl? I thought it was a couple of big guys…?”

“Buffy, have you met Allison?” Parker interrupted, voice ingratiating.

“Good thing your dad’s a lawyer,” Buffy said reassuringly, giving his cheek a final pat -- one that could even be interpreted as a slap. “Has he had any luck tracking down the girl yet? I mean, I’m sure you have a really good case against her, since she was just a crazy stalker.”

Allison’s eyes narrowed. “His father--”

“--Is just a partner in one of the biggest firms in Los Angeles! Of course he’ll be able to get justice against that delusional girl who thought you were dating just because you slept together after a week of hanging out and talking and sharing personal stories.” Buffy gave Allison a knowing look. “Some people!”

“...Yeah,” Allison said slowly. “Some people.”

“Anyhow!” Buffy stepped back, favoring Parker with a brilliant smile. “Good luck! I hope you get what you deserve. I really do.” Maybe Harmony would give up being “vegan” for a night and eat him after all. A girl could dream. “See you in class?”

Parker nodded, his eyes wide with either confusion or fear. Possibly a little of both.

Buffy sauntered off around the corner, sagging against a tree when she was finally out of sight again. She could hear Allison’s voice, curt and dismissive, and Parker, defensive and a bit desperate, and she wanted to laugh and cry at the same time, because it felt good, cathartic, shining a bit of light on a creep and his machinations, but at the same time… god, she wished it had been something real. Was it really too much to ask for someone who truly wanted her, who saw her, who’d walk through the fire to get to her and treasure her after? Why were so many guys such--

“Well, that was bloody inspirational,” Spike purred, stepping out into the sunlight before her.

--damn.

***

Spike wasn’t sure what was responsible for the heady bliss that suffused him. Maybe it was the feel of the sun on his skin, warm and tender instead of a deadly inferno. Maybe it was the knowledge that yes, he had succeeded in averting a regrettable interlude in the slayer’s past. Or perhaps it was the anticipation of a glorious battle against her.

Or maybe he was just mullered. Hard to tell; it had been a while since his last drink -- had to prepare, after all -- but the better Scotches tended to linger.

Watching Buffy kick what’s-his-face to the curb had been delightful, his old memories of her humiliation written over with this new memory of her strength, and when she’d finally turned in his direction, face alight with wicked trickster glee, he’d been dazzled. It had been a revelation, and he’d suddenly reconsidered his conviction that pain was the wellspring of the slayer’s strength. Perhaps… perhaps her incredible resilience and fortitude in the face of despair was only a shadow of what she was capable of.

What might she achieve buoyed up by joy?

But she was almost on him, and he mustn’t miss his grand entrance. He’d rehearsed it the whole time he’d been watching her, feeling the truth of it -- like a bloody method actor -- and precisely on cue he stepped into her path, hands shoved deep in his pockets to hide their trembling, and said his line like he was bloody Laurence Olivier. She looked up at him, eyes already stormy with promised retribution, and he looked down at her, his smile feeling fit to crack his cheeks, and oh, how he loved her.

He couldn’t remember what else he was supposed to say.

Well, all right, that was a lie. He remembered every barb he’d hurled at the slayer, like they were last week’s leftovers, but he couldn’t bring himself to say them. Wallowing merrily in the slayer’s humiliation had been all well and good last time around -- was how they bloody well fought, the both of them, verbal darts and jabs just part of their vast arsenal, it wasn’t like he’d really meant any of it (even if he hadn’t known that at the time) -- but now she wasn’t humiliated, she was powerful and strong, kicking sand in her former-user’s face, and all Spike could do was… bask in her aliveness.

He remembered the fight, though, and that he could not resist; he grinned at the Slayer, who was glaring at him in resigned annoyance, and punched her in the nose, sending her crashing to the ground, and -- yes, that line was absolutely still true.

“Isn’t it a fantastic day?” he exulted. “Birds singing. Squirrels making lots of rotten little squirrels. Sun beaming down in a nice, non-fatal way.” He ran a hand down his stomach, reveling in the warmth. “It’s very exciting. I can’t wait to see if I freckle.”

She had a stake in her hands in seconds, and oh, this he remembered too, how he’d dropped his guard on purpose, inviting her stake just so he could laugh in her face after; he fell into the rhythm like it was a dance, one of the measured, precise waltzes he’d learned in his human days, and when her stake landed in his heart -- god, it hurt worse than the last time! -- he caught her wrist and pulled her close, holding the stake in place. She stared up at him, face inches away from his, panting.

“Do it again,” he murmured, low and rough. He was giddy from the feel of her hot breath, the scent of her hair, her strong body so close to his, his heart run through, pain and joy and bitter grief all muddled up in his head. “It tickles. You know, in a good way.”

She shoved him away, eyes wide, and he staggered at the loss, the loss of her and the loss of the pain, but as the hole in his heart healed up as if it had never been, the other hole in his heart -- the Buffy-shaped one, the one he’d been filling desperately with liquor and guilt -- somehow it seemed to be healing too, perhaps not without a scar, but… god. She was alive, she was alive, here and now, and the fear that he would still fail in his mission couldn’t possibly dim his glee in this moment, or in her.

“So,” she said, circling slowly. “I guess you were right about one thing. You can walk around in the sunlight.”

“Two things,” he pointed out, matching her steps. “Not that I’ve heard a word of gratitude.”

She made a sour face, but instead of answering, she changed the subject. “Funny how you didn’t bother telling me about the no-staking thing.”

“More fun to show you, love. But then again, perhaps it was a fluke.” He raised his eyebrows mockingly. “Perhaps you should try it again, see if it takes this time.”

“Next question.” She punched him in the jaw. “Does this hurt?”

He rubbed the bruise, feeling the tingle as it started to fade. “Had worse.”

“Poor Spike. Guess your little ring isn’t all it’s cracked up to…” Her eyes suddenly focused on his hand. “You’re not wearing it.”

“I’m not?” Spike splayed his bare hands out in front of him, studying them ostentatiously. “Fancy that.”

“Then how…” Buffy glanced up at the sun, still bright overhead.

He grinned, rubbing his hands sensually over his chest and down his body. “Other places one can wear a ring, you know,” he purred, voice deep with insinuation.

Buffy’s eyes followed his hands all the way down to his crotch -- and clearly her mind did too, possibly via a naughty path, because her cheeks turned instantly pink and her eyes went ever-so-slightly unfocused; he hooked his thumbs in his pockets, arranging his fingers like a frame around a certain Other Place.

“Gross, Spike,” Buffy muttered, raising her fists again, though her voice was lacking in conviction.

“My, my,” he tutted, giving his fingers a helpfully eye-catching wriggle. “What are you thinking, Slayer?” When she didn’t immediately punch him in the nose, he went on, dizzy under her gaze. “Not to brag, but it clearly wouldn’t fit.”

Buffy’s mouth fell open as if to argue, then closed with a snap, obviously unable to lie that egregiously, because it didn’t take a magnifying glass to see what he had to offer. Not with him half-aroused from fighting her, and growing more so with every moment her eyes were on him.

“Go on,” he growled. “You want to find where I’ve hidden the Gem of Amara? Why don’t you search me?”

She swallowed, then lifted her eyes to his, proud. “It’s probably just on your toe.”

“What? No!” he scoffed, trying very hard not to wriggle the toe in question. Bloody ring chafed. “Perhaps I swallowed it, did you think of that?”

She rolled her eyes, obviously not buying it.

He’d known if he was going to change the end-game of this fight, he couldn’t possibly wear the ring on his finger -- especially not since he’d already so-cleverly displayed it to Buffy, who would never forget anything that might give her a tactical advantage -- and he’d toyed with several possible scenarios to handle it, but decoy jewelry might not fool her and would look tacky as fuck, and he wasn’t going to wear fucking gloves when fighting the slayer, not with the possibility of touching her skin, so finally he’d just worked the ring onto one of his toes, counting on his socks and Docs to keep it in place. Seemed to be doing the job so far, though he was making sure to keep tabs on the nearest sewer entrance, just in case it worked itself loose.

He tempted fate anyhow, bowing slightly and presenting his foot -- the one without the ring. “Have at it, pet. Been a long day, could do with a foot massage. Perhaps you could bring me the evening paper as well.” His brain immediately launched into a complex fantasy involving the slayer, the Times, and his tongue inspiring her to solve the crossword in record time.

“You are such a pig,” Buffy growled, lunging for his laces -- he should have known she wasn’t a crossword woman; he lashed out, boot slicing the air just above her head, reeling back as she launched up into a gut punch that would have ruptured intestines, if he’d had a functioning digestive system. He could practically feel his dead cells knitting together; it itched. Interesting how she hadn’t gone for his crotch, though…. He laughed and leapt into the fray.

They fought along the path for a bit, exchanging blow after blow that would have killed a human; Spike was surprised when he whirled into a roundhouse kick that was supposed to connect with her head, and instead connected his chest with her stake.

“You got me,” he hissed through the pain. “What are you going to do with me?” Her lips were trembling, close, too close to his.

Her fingers wriggled on the stake, still embedded in his chest, but she didn’t have an answer; she flung him away like a cockroach in her chardonnay.

“That’s twice,” he grinned, clutching at the former hole in his chest. Fuck, it hurt. A bloody glorious pain. “Third time’s the charm.”

She stalked around him, eyes bleakly riveted to his face. “I should have killed you years ago.”

“Yeah, you should have,” he agreed. He lunged in, weaving under her fists, until they were face to face. Her eyes were wide, pupils dilated by the sun, a dozen shades of green and brown mapped out in her irises; he drank them in. “Do it,” he murmured, lost in the green. “Kill me.”

She inhaled, eyes dilating even more, and he just looked at her, the light in her eyes and the mist of her breath and the beat of her heart, like a drumbeat sending him to war.

“Kill me,” he snarled again, meaning it.

She did.

It didn’t take, of course; he slid off of her stake like an afterthought, her eyes regretful on his for that bare moment before they shifted to indignation. He could almost read her mind: How dare he be undusty when she had decided it was time for him to dust?

He dared. He would dare anything, as long as it led to something other than her dead body under a tower.

He kicked; she parried. She punched; he ducked. Finally he managed to get a thumb into the tendons of her wrist; she dropped her stake with a cry, and he twisted her arm behind her back.

Pushing her hard up against a lamp post, he murmured roughly in her ear, “Do you believe me now?”

She hooked his ankle, sending them both tumbling to the ground, wrestling for dominance; she ended up on top, her knee jammed into his solar plexus.

“What, that you’re my boyfriend from the future, here to save the world?” She straddled him and took his throat in her hand, batting her eyes in mock flirtation. “What do we do on dates, neck?”

Spike wondered briefly how the Gem of Amara would handle his head being ripped from his body -- slayer was strong enough for it, no doubt -- but it was hard to care with her all hot and vicious and on top of him; he didn’t try to force an answer past her constricting fingers, just stretched sensually beneath her with a knowing grin.

Her face shifted oddly, but before he could interpret her expression she launched off of him, somersaulting over to where her stake lay in the grass; he flipped up to his feet, sauntering towards her.

“Looks like I’m about to break the world record for most guys kicked to the curb in a single day,” Buffy breezed, stake securely in her hand again. “Oh, but don’t feel bad, honey. It’s not me, it’s you.”

“So you do believe me?”

“Of course I don’t believe you,” Buffy said. “I just thought I’d indulge your little fantasy world while I’m beating the crap out of you.”

“Indulging my fantasies, are we?” Spike let his eyes roam longingly over her body. “Now there’s a thought. Perhaps you should ask me what my fantasies are?”

She flushed again. “I think it’s pretty obvious what you want. Lucky for you I am totally on board with kicking your ass from here to Sunday.” With that, she hurtled forward, and their fight began anew.

Something was different, though; she seemed more reckless, like the wry composure that usually inspired her fighting had been shaken, and Spike found himself growing hotter in response, matching her gasps of exertion with his own, until Spike could almost believe the violence was as erotic for her as it was for him.

After a particularly heated flurry of blows, he fell back so he could see her, flushed and disheveled as if they’d been shagging after all.

“Got some frustrations to work out, do we?” he taunted.

She tossed her head, hair flying. “Frustrated you’re alive.”

He clucked his tongue pityingly. “That’s all right, Slayer. If you have any... urges that need satisfying, you can take them all out on me.” He spread his arms wide in invitation. “Give it to me good.”

And ah, it was better than good. It was perfect.

They ranged all over the grassy quad -- oddly empty for the middle of a college campus on a sunny day -- punching and kicking and tumbling, until Buffy went in for another staking and left herself wide open; Spike ripped the stake out of his own chest, sending it flying, and pinned her against a bulletin board, her arms and legs immobilised by the press of his body, and his world narrowed down to nothing but this, him and the slayer, frozen in time, and the sun setting them ablaze.

His lips hovered a breath above her neck, so close he could feel the heat of her skin, taste the salt of her sweat. Her body was quivering against his, breasts heaving, her gasps of exertion rasping hotly into his ear; he could almost imagine that all of it, the trembling and the panting and the tension in her body, were signs of passion, that she wanted him, wanted his bite and his kiss and his cock, all of him, right here and now. His fangs itched with the desire for her blood; his body ached with desire for her. He’d rehearsed this moment a hundred times, perhaps a thousand, ever since he’d first been thwarted by a mama bear with a fire axe; he’d had a thousand witty lines just waiting in the wings for their chance to be a star. And he could do it. No chip, no leash, nothing to stop him. He could have her.

“I win,” he whispered instead, letting his lips brush her in the barest caress, and then it was all too much for him and he released her, staggering back under the shade of a tree, the sun suddenly too bright to be borne.

She turned to him, wide-eyed, gasping. “What the hell is your game, Spike?”

“No game,” he managed, looking away. “Not a bloody game.”

She rubbed at her neck, just where his lips had been. “You always have a game. I bet Dru really did have a vision before she dumped your pathetic ass.”

He thought of the fungus demon -- god, how he’d hated that smarmy bugger, with his fancy airs! Acting like he was a sodding truffle when he was just a bleeding mushroom! -- and started to laugh. “I told you the truth,” he said at last.

She’d regained a bit of her composure, enough to roll her eyes. “Right. And I’m going to be crowned Queen of England tomorrow.”

Spike regretfully banished the image of Buffy wearing the Crown Jewels -- and nothing else -- from his mind. “Not lying. I came from the future, and I’m here to save the sodding world.”

“Yeah, you keep saying that, but just like you told me before, vamps love to talk big. And you’re nothing but talk, Spike.” Buffy lifted an eyebrow. “I’m still waiting for you to prove it.”

All right then. He drew himself up, tugging his clothes into order. Bitch wanted proof? He was bloody well going to deliver this time.

He held his hand out to her. “Come with me if you want to….” He stopped himself before he said it. “Bugger. Just come with me.”

She looked at his hand dubiously. “Not exactly inspiring of the trust here.”

He rolled his eyes. Bloody stubborn bint. “I was telling the truth about Parker Arsemonger, wasn’t I?”

She made a face and nodded grudgingly.

“Could have killed you just now, but I didn’t, did I?”

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “It wouldn’t be the first time someone’s tried to lure me off to be a sacrifice, or spell component, or zombie piece, or some other really lame thing I was needed alive for.”

His outstretched hand clenched into a fist. God, she was the most maddening, infuriating, intoxicating, stubborn, beautiful, deadly woman on the planet. No wonder he loved her. “You want answers,” he grit out. “Come with me and you’ll get them.”

She pointedly did not take his hand, picking up her fallen stake and folding her arms forbiddingly. But when he turned to go, she fell into step beside him. Precisely staking distance, in fact.

It was all he could do not to weep.

***

Buffy wasn’t a complete idiot. She knew there was a better-than-even chance that whatever was going on with Spike, it was likely to end up with her life in peril. Because Spike. At the same time, their fight just now had felt… off.

He hadn’t been trying to kill her. Again. She’d bet her life on it.

She was, in fact, betting her life on it.

And she was trying very hard not to think about what he had been trying to do, with his innuendoes and his tight jeans and that look on his face every time she staked him, that look that made her feel hot and melty, like a grilled cheese sandwich, if grilled cheese sandwiches were prone to making extremely bad life choices.

Of course, not thinking about it made her think about it even more, and it was horribly clear that some part of her was ready to board the flight to Bad Life Choice Land; thank god for her brain, which was fortunately holding onto some sense.

And yet… there was a tiny bit of her brain that thought… no! God. The fight had been, maybe, kinda hot, but that was just how she was. Faith had nailed it way more than Buffy had ever let on. And it was wrong, oh so wrong, but it had always been fine as long as they hated each other. But Spike… didn’t seem to hate her anymore. And that, well, that was tricky. That removed her safety net. She was not enjoying the feeling of freefall.

Maybe it was the Gem. Maybe he’d just slipped it on and it had fried his brains, like Willow had suggested. What other possible explanation was there? Sure, there was the time travel thing, but even if he was telling the truth about coming from the future -- and that was a big damn if -- it surely would’ve had to have been years, decades, for him to overcome their mutual hatred and fall in love with her. Of course, he was a vamp, it wasn’t like he was ever going to get older, so maybe...

She glanced at him as they walked, trying for a moment to imagine him as something more than an enemy. Anything more than an enemy. But in the end the thing she was most struck by was how strange it was to see his face by daylight. She would never admit it out loud, but she was more familiar with the feel of his body under her hands than the fine lines around his eyes that the sun brought out.

Fighting was intimate, that’s all it was. Bodies in close quarters, all that panting, and rubbing, and… nnnnnnno, no, bad Buffy brain. With an effort, she forced her thoughts back on track. Spike was smirking at her, though she didn’t want to even approach why, so she just scowled at him before fixing her eyes dead ahead...

… and stopped in her tracks at the walkway that led up to the mansion. Willy’s info had been good, then. Something bitter twisted in her gut. She hadn’t been inside since Angel had…

Spike stopped halfway up the walk, looking back at her, smirk gone, eyes unreadable. “I know,” he said finally. “I hate it, too.”

She gave him a poisonous look -- because really, what the hell was up with him sounding sympathetic? Totally suspicious -- and stomped up the walk, eyes skittering over the mansion’s fancy concrete facade to land on the heavy door. Spike reached out ahead of her, hand pausing just short of the knob, before he decisively grasped it and pulled the door open, glaring at her as if she’d raised a fuss.

She lifted her chin a notch higher and sailed right on through, stopping just inside the doorway.

Oh. Oh god. She’d heard, but of course she hadn’t actually believed. How was that even possible?

“Well, well, well,” the chained-up Spike on the other side of the room said, eyes speculatively roaming up and down her body. “I see you brought me some takeout after all. Thanks, ever so.”

The door shut behind her with a thud.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

It occurred to Spike moments after he shut the door that perhaps bringing the slayer, stake in hand, into a room where his obnoxious past self was chained up, helpless and trussed for the staking, was not a clever way to ensure his continued existence. Unfortunately it was a little late to wonder whether he’d just buggered himself into nothingness, as the slayer was already in motion.

Thankfully, her legs took her on a different trajectory, to a spot in a pool of light by the window where she could see both of him. She looked betrayed, and Spike was just expecting her to explode in a tirade, when the other Spike beat her to the punch.

“Why the bloody hell does my dinner have a bloody stake?” There was a clanking of chains as the prisoner jumped to his feet and tried to get into a defensive stance.

“Because she’s not your bloody dinner,” Spike snapped back, turning to face himself. “Christ on a fucking cross, don’t you ever think about anything but your stomach?”

Other-Spike leered at him and hooked his fingers into his belt loops, which was answer enough, but nonetheless he added, “What would I want to do that for?”

“Because, you dimwit….” Spike broke off. Bloody hell. The twat had a point. Why should he care? He looked over at Buffy, who was watching them with raised eyebrows, and yeah, she was part of it, a big bloody part, but, well, in all honesty figuring that out was still a work in progress. “Because!”

“I am standing here, watching my mortal enemy argue with himself,” Buffy murmured to herself, looking like she had to say it out loud to believe it. “This might just be the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me, and I once saw Giles in a Pink Floyd t-shirt.”

“Dear lord!” Spike gasped. “Not a t-shirt! Look, can you focus a moment here, Slayer. You wanted proof. Here he is, in all his obnoxious glory.”

“Oi!” Other Spike had the gall to look vaguely wounded. “I am you, you know. Much as it pains me to admit it. Here, Slayer, maybe you can go out and stomp on some butterflies with those dainty little clodhoppers, make him blink out of existence for me.”

“Huh?” Buffy said, and Spike rolled his eyes.

“Read some Ray Bradbury, love. You’re in college now, aren’t you? And as for you, you bloody numpty, you’re too bloody late, I’ve already--”

“Stop!”

It was like he was the puppet and she was his master, drawing him to immediate attention with her voice.

“Just… stop a second, will you?” She touched her forehead, looking genuinely overwhelmed for a moment, something Spike had only seen but rarely. He made himself rein it in until she’d caught her bearings.

“Sorry, pet,” he said. “You, uh, you probably have a lot of questions.”

You probably have a lot of--” the other Spike mocked. “What the bloody hell is this? A bloody white hats’ symposium? You had better bloody well unchain me right now or so help me--” his voice went up to an unflattering pitch as Buffy finally left her little circle of safety and started bearing down on him. “Now, now, Slayer, let’s not do anything hasty!”

Spike moved, too, hoping against hope he could catch her before she struck. Buffy raised her arm -- he lunged. Too late, damn it! God, he’d always wanted to go out with her stake in his chest but not like this! -- and then she booped his younger self firmly on the nose.

“Well,” she said into the shocked silence. “We’ve established that you’re real.” She crossed her arms over her chest and turned back to Spike, strolling unhurriedly out of the prisoner’s reach, a stern expression replacing the uncertainty of earlier. “Start talking. And no more bloody anything or so help me I will stake this jerk and damn the consequences.”

She twirled her stake menacingly, and fuck if Spike’s pants didn’t start to get tight again.

“Easy now,” he said, holding out a hand placatingly. “It’s just as I said, isn’t it? I’m from the future, right? So there has to be another Spike from this time. Makes sense, don’t it?” He willed her to agree.

She sucked in the corners of her mouth as she seemed to think it over, a look that was decidedly school-marmish and yet somehow still hot. He readjusted his idea of a fuddy-duddy Latin mistress to Buffy in a pencil skirt with some sexy little glasses and a wooden ruler. Hell, she already had the bun. His fingers itched to pull it loose and run his fingers through her golden tresses.

He realised his stupid youth was staring at him in dark amusement. “You’re perverted,” he told Spike. And yeah, of course the git had been thinking the same thing. How had he ever lasted that long not realising…?

But Buffy was narrowing her eyes, fingers twitching on the stake she still held at half-mast, and so he put on his trusty poker face and told her innocently, “Don’t know what he’s on about. Bloke’s half mad with starvation. Stupid sod won’t drink the pig’s blood I bring him half the time.”

“Wait... you’re vegan too?” Buffy said with an odd look.

“What?” both of him said in unison.

She looked between them for a moment before shaking her head. “Never mind.” Her gaze honed in on Spike, then. “So, okay, there are two of you, and one of you seems to be marginally less annoying than the other.” (His heart soared.) “Which isn’t saying much, but whatever. I’m seeing, I’m believing, yadda yadda. But now I’m also supposed to believe that neither of you eats people anymore? What, just for funsies?”

“Um... yeah?” Spike said, while his more truculent self muttered about the complete lack of fun that was a porcine diet. “I mean, no, not for fun. Got some ideals, like. Got some…” The word tasted strange in his mouth. “Ethics.”

Bollocks, it suddenly occurred to him that he wasn’t prepared for this part -- the part where he gained her trust. Honestly, he’d expected the believing-him part to take a little longer. He should’ve figured. His girl was nothing if not practical. But now what? He’d had a vague notion to explain about the chip, before, but… she’d want evidence, wouldn’t she? Just as he no longer had any. How bloody typical.

“Do you have a soul now?” she asked impatiently. Other-Spike hummed curiously and looked at him in patently false interest.

“I should bl--” He cut off when Buffy’s fingers twitched expressively. “No. No soul. Do I look all broody and pathetic?”

“Actually…” his other self interjected.

“Stuff it!” He tossed his head back, defensive. “There were circumstances. Not necessarily in effect now, but… a man can choose.”

He waited, head high, for Buffy to point out that he was a monster and not a man at all -- was all primed to retort that monsters could choose too -- but she just looked at him with narrow eyes, like he was an optical illusion she was trying to wrap her brain around.

“Why?” she said at last.

“Why does a man do what he mustn’t? Age-old reason, love,” he muttered, looking away. “I made a promise to a lady.”

He glanced back up at her, sidelong, just in time to catch a flash of something indecipherable crossing her face. What was all that about?

She laughed incredulously. “Hard to believe Drusilla would…”

“Not bl-- Not Dru.”

She lifted her eyebrows almost hopefully. “So, Willow? Is that why you had a letter from her?”

“Sodding hell!” he exploded. “What does it matter who I made the sodding promise to? I stopped drinking from the sodding tap, for sodding reasons, and now I’m still not drinking live sodding blood, for other sodding reasons, which are sodding none of your sodding business!”

Buffy looked at him steadily for a long moment, then tucked her stake away in her waistband. “All right.”

Spike was, momentarily, derailed.

“All right? You believe me?”

“Maybe,” she said nonchalantly. “I mean, I know you’re still hiding things from me, and I’m so not trusting you as far as I can throw you, but for now I’m willing to believe you’ve gone… non-humanitarian.”

Spike didn’t bother to correct her mutilation of English. “Why’s that, then?”

“Because,” she said with a cheeky half-grin. “I’ve got my own sodding reasons. And besides, if you were actually lying to me, even you would have to be smoother than that.

“Right,” he said, nonplussed, then offended. “Wait, what the hell do you mean, even me?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Seriously? You lie like a rug that has the word ‘liar’ spray-painted right in the middle of it.”

“Do not!” he sputtered, outraged, vaguely noting his alter-ego sputtering in chorus. God, that was going to get annoying if it kept up. Perhaps he should gag himself. Buffy looked like she might be having the same thought. In an instant, the indignation was gone, replaced by a pleasant little shiver that ran down his spine -- now there was a pretty picture for a lonely night.

“So,” Buffy said, giving him a disconcertingly knowing look, “now that we’ve established that I don’t have to stake either of you where you stand. Yet,” she added pointedly to Spike the Younger, “tell me what you’re doing here.”

Spike shifted uncomfortably. This was completely off-script. Of course, he hadn’t intended any of this to happen; he felt certain Willow wouldn’t be able to fault him for that, not one little bit. But here they were nonetheless, and he realised he had to decide how much to tell her. Right now.

Fuck. Tread carefully, mate.

“Something happened in my time. Something...” he swallowed. “Catastrophic. Got sent back in time to try to prevent it.”

“Sent by who? Me?”

He tried not to flinch, or freeze, or touch her for reassurance. “No. It was… it was me and Willow. Far as I know, it was just the two of us.”

“You guys were-- are friends, too?”

“Yes, do tell,” past-Spike said. He’d retreated a couple of steps to lean back casually against the wall, but Spike could recognise the lines of tension in his own body. Couldn’t exactly figure why the bugger was so interested, though.

“Well…” he frowned first at himself, then just to himself. “Of a sort.”

“And what is it exactly that you’re hoping to prevent?” Buffy pressed.

His heart squeezed in pain, but somehow it didn’t stagger him this time. Not with the girl right there in front of him. It was more of an echo, in reality. He took a deep breath, drawing in her scent, and the pain eased, and dissipated. “Can’t rightly tell you that, Slayer.”

She huffed impatiently. “Why not?”

Because you’ve bloody well got enough to worry about without that hanging over your head as well.

“Well,” he scrambled. “There was the small matter of being completely wankered during the exposition, so I admit I missed a lot of the fine print, but I’m fairly sure on the part about not changing anything.”

“So what are we doing right now, huh?”

God, she was a crafty little bint. “Ah. You got me there, Slayer.”

“So?” she prodded, hands on hips. Tenacious, too, he reflected. He both loathed and loved that about her. “Has it got something to do with that ring you’ve got hiding under your boot?”

Spike felt his counterpart’s eyes honing in on him like a laser. “Now why would ninny-boy here have a ring on his toe? Not gone all hippified, have you, what with the no people policy and all? Not that Woodstock wasn’t a blast, but bloody hell, a bloke could happily go another century without seeing a single knot of macrame ever again.

“Macrame?” Buffy turned to the Spike in chains, eyes speculative. “Is that some kind of torture?” Her eyes flicked briefly back to Spike, as if she were unwillingly picturing him all tied up and ready for torture, which of course made him picture her having him all tied up and ready for torture, and the impossibility of that was of course the most torturous of all; he barely managed not to groan.

“It’s a crime against fiber, is what it is!” his past self said passionately. “Making bloody planters and belts out of twine, no sense of craftsmanship at all.” Spike found himself nodding along with this perfectly reasonable opinion.

“Planters and belts,” Buffy repeated, looking even more confused.

Past-Spike grinned at Buffy then, a vicious gleam in his eye. “Could give you a little demonstration,” he said wickedly. “I know all sorts of knots.”

“Fuck off!” Spike barked. For fuck’s sake, if anyone was going to teach Buffy knots, it was going to be him, not him.

But Buffy was focused on the wrong Spike. “So,” she said in a no-nonsense, I’m-gonna-stake-you-if-you-lie-to-me voice. “You were at Woodstock?”

Bloody bastard leaned against the wall like he was hunting. “Damn right, I was,” he purred. “Weird gig. Ate a hippie and spent an hour watching my hand move.”

Spike stepped between Spike and Buffy before he could get any further on their Woodstock braggery. “Thought we were focusing here, Slayer.”

And she did focus on him, zeroing in with eyes so intense that he flinched. “And I thought you were spilling. So, spill. What’s the deal with the ring?”

“Oh,” Spike said lamely. “Well, I’m… supposed to give it to someone?”

“Who?”

“Can’t rightly tell you that, either,” Spike hedged, wishing bitterly that someone would tell him.

“Angel?”

Fuck no,” Spike bit out, bracing for his shadow to echo him. When there was silence, he turned to regard himself. The bastard was still as the grave, eyes riveted on Spike’s boot. Bugger. He should have known he was too tenacious to forget that detail once Buffy had blurted it right out. At least he probably hadn’t yet figured out it was the Gem of Amara.

Buffy crossed her arms petulantly. “You said if I came with you I’d get answers!”

“That I did,” Spike stalled.

“Like some answers myself,” other-Spike called out. “What’s this about a ring?”

Buffy shrugged. “Some thingamabob that lets him walk around in sunlight and get staked without going all dusty. It’s on his toe.”

Spike closed his eyes and let his head fall back in resignation for a moment, before he met his own eyes, alight with furious realisation.

“You fucking bastard,” his younger self hissed.

Buffy rounded on him. “Shut up, Spike. I’m talking to Spike now.”

“You got no proof it’s on my toe,” Spike hastily pointed out. “Could be anywhere, that gem.”

She rolled her eyes, turning back. “It’s so got to be on your toe.”

“Does not!” Spike lied.

“Well it’s not on your….” She flushed. “We’re getting off topic. Tell me why you’re here.”

Spike set his jaw. “No.”

“Why not?”

He bared his teeth. “If I told you why not, it would be the same as telling you what I’m here for.”

“Which you can’t do because…?”

“Because I can’t, Slayer!” Spike yelled, throwing his hands up in frustration. “I told you! Not supposed to change the future. Not even supposed to be here right now, but something went wrong with the spell and instead of two days, I’m stuck here two months. Got no guidance here, all right? There’s no bloody rule-book for time-travelling vamps, so I’m just doing my bloody best. Cut me just the tiniest piece of slack for bloody once, why don’t you.”

She blinked, taken aback and trying not to show it. At least she didn’t call him out on the bloodies, he thought semi-hysterically. Be a sad end indeed, to be staked for bad language.

Instead, she narrowed her eyes, and said slowly, “Okay, then. I’ll let it go -- for now. Maybe you can answer some easy questions instead.”

“Maybe I can,” Spike said guardedly. “Nothing too important, mind.”

Buffy meandered around the edges of the room, face thoughtful, finally sinking into an armchair and steepling her hands.

“What do I end up majoring in, in college?”

“Uh…” Spike was fairly certain she hadn’t decided before she’d died; he wracked his brains for a plausible lie. “Literature. Poetry.”

“Really?” She looked pleased, which did funny things to his insides. “All right then, do I graduate? No, wait, don’t answer that one, I barely made it through high school. Um, does Angel ever…. No, not that one either. You said nothing important.”

“Angel’s not important at all,” other-Spike interjected. “But if you were wondering if Angel ever stops being an insufferable, brooding wanker, even I can predict that he doesn’t.”

Spike acknowledged this universal truth with a swift nod.

Buffy huffed. “Okay, you’re from way in the future, right? And you seem to think we’re friends... So, do I ever, you know, meet someone special? Maybe get married?” Her voice was wistful.

His past self clearly had a death wish, as at that moment, he started to slow clap.

“Oh, Slayer. That is just -- precious. Am I going to get an invite? I do look good in formalwear and the blood of the newlywed.”

Thankfully, Buffy just rolled her eyes. “If you’re even still around by then, you’re going to be him,” she gestured at Spike. “Voluntarily off the sauce and running around trying to save the world. You do know that, right?”

Other-Spike muttered something sulkily about not if he could help it, but Spike ignored himself, stuck on what the slayer had said before that.

Way in the future? How in the hell had she come to that conclusion? Then again, on second thoughts, the misapprehension might come in useful later. He decided to let it lie for now. But there was no way he was going to tell her about Captain Cardboard, or that she’d not even made it to legal drinking age.

At his silence, her expression darkened.

“Come on, Spike!” she said, starting to get annoyed. “Give me something. It’s not like I’m asking for winning lottery numbers here. Can’t you at least…” She sighed. “What about telling me something you know is going to happen soon, like in the next week?”

He shrugged helplessly. “Wasn’t actually here at this point, last time around. Had buggered off to LA to kick Angel’s sorry arse.”

He found it weirdly gratifying when she rounded on the other Spike. “That’s why you wanted the Gem? You are so lame.”

“Oi! It isn’t, actually, but it’s a bloody good idea, thanks for the suggestion.”

“Fear demon!” Spike blurted, trying to get the Slayer’s attention back on him before his own recklessness could get either of him into terminal trouble. “Only heard about it, mind, so no turning on either of me if it doesn’t pan out this way, but come Halloween night, some tosser’s going to summon a fear demon, only he’s so pint-sized and pathetic even Xander could take him.”

“Halloween’s on Sunday,” Buffy said thoughtfully.

“Right, so in the meantime--”

“I’ll keep harassing you until you spill?”

“Bloody hell, woman! Do you want the future to dissolve in an existential bloody crisis?”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Do you want me to stake the you that’s not wearing a get-out-of-staking-free ring and see what happens?” Suddenly she had a stake in her hand poised to throw.

“That’s dirty pool!” Spike growled.

“What can I say? I’m a dirty girl,” Buffy said cheerily, then caught herself. “Fighting dirty, I mean. I play to win.”

Spike crossed his arms defiantly. “So do I,” he grinned. “I’m as dirty as they come. Absolutely filthy.”

Buffy flipped her stake over and over in her hand, gaze turned inward for long enough that Spike was starting to think he’d better actually get in position to protect his past self, no matter how little the dickhead deserved it, but just as he was about to move, she started, glancing at her watch.

“Crap!” she muttered. “If I don’t get back to campus I’ll miss Psych.” She jumped to her feet.

“What, you’re leaving already?” Spike felt oddly disappointed that his potential nefariousness ranked lower on Buffy’s to-do list than a lecture at university.

Buffy planted her hands on her hips. “Do you know what I had to go through to get this class schedule? If I’m late to Walsh’s class, I might as well have flushed all that tuition money Mom paid right down the toilet.” She made a face, looking down at herself. “Plus you and your stupid fight got me all…” She trailed off, eyes going slightly unfocused again for a moment.

When she showed no sign of finishing her sentence, Spike started mentally filling it for her. Sweaty? Rumpled? Hot and bothered? In need of a wank? That was where the fight had left him.

“Gross,” she finally concluded, face determined. “I need to take a shower before I go out in public. I’ll just have to finish with you later.”

“Right,” Spike said, nonplussed and persistently horny. Oh yeah, Slayer, finish with me any time you like. He’d at least expected to be dragged back to the watcher’s and chained up, and was inexplicably disappointed. Wasn’t fair that his past self got all the fun.

“You’re not off the hook,” she warned. “I don’t trust you, I don’t like you, and I’ll probably come back and stake you in the morning. The other you.”

“You can try,” came the spiteful reply. “I haven’t handed my balls over like this wanker.”

“Sod off!” Spike muttered automatically, more interested in the way Buffy twitched, like she was about to turn and look at him and barely restrained herself. Not that she should have any doubt by now that Spike was still quite intact and functional -- and knowing that she was thinking about just how functional he was was enough to set him off again.

“No, but in case you haven’t noticed, you’re chained to the wall. It’d be disappointingly easy. Well, no, just easy,” Buffy said brightly, before turning back to Spike with a polite smile, eyes fixed firmly on his face. “You guys go on... not eating any people... and I’ll consider letting you live and… doing whatever it is you won’t tell me you’re here to do. Fair?”

“Fair enough.” Spike glanced sidelong at his past self. “But before you go, can you do me one favour? If it weren’t for this ring, you’d have killed me five times over today. I know better than to think I could beat you in a fair fight, or even a dirty one.” He jerked his head towards the other Spike. “I think he could use a reminder.”

Buffy blinked. “You want me to beat you -- him -- up?”

“Don’t have to do any damage, love. Just pin him.”

She really was glorious; a few deft twirls and ducks and she had him up against the wall, her hand on his throat and a stake at his heart.

“No fair!” he gurgled. “Unchain me and you won’t have it half so easy!”

“Don’t worry, mate, I lied. Wasn’t actually trying to send you a message. You’d just bloody ignore it, anyway.” Spike stepped in beside Buffy and reached down, snatching up the knitting. “Wanted to retrieve this.”

Buffy craned her neck, trying to see. “What is it?”

“Just something to pass the time,” Spike said, nonchalantly tossing the wool and needles onto the couch.

She released other-Spike with a huff and stomped over to the couch, snatching it up. “What is this, some evil magic… scarf?”

“It’s a shawl,” Spike said, glad to have a question he could answer for once. “I’m knitting it.”

She looked at him steadily. “You knit?”

“I knit,” he said, feeling his chin jut out stubbornly.

“Huh.” Buffy shrugged. “Whatever. If I find out you’ve been using your knitting for evil, you are so dead.” She pointed at past-him, who was rubbing his throat and glaring at her. “And I’ll start with you, so don’t get comfortable.” She nodded her head decisively and swept out the door into the sunshine.

Spike watched her through the window until she was out of sight, then turned to face himself.

“I’m going to kill you,” the other said fiercely. “I’ll steal the bloody Gem from you, and then I’ll kill you in the most painful way possible, and then I’ll kill her in the most painful way possible, and you’ll never even see it coming.”

“You can try,” Spike retorted, scooping up the knitting and walking to the door. “In the meantime, I think I’ll go work on my tan.”

He slammed the door shut on his past self’s cursing, looking around with interest, feeling like he’d just come through World War Three.

It really was a fantastic day.

***

Well, Buffy thought as she walked back to college. That had cleared things up, like, not at all.

Spike -- the Spike she’d been running into the last couple of days -- was probably from the future, she more or less believed that now, but somehow having two of him in the same room had not made anything simpler. Were they colluding? Putting on a show for her for some nefarious reason of their own? Possible, but she couldn’t for the life of her think what that reason might be, and besides, there was the whole Spike-is-a-crappy-actor thing to bear in mind. No, he was many things, but Machiavellian wasn’t one of them. And besides, if Harmony could up and decide to bag it (for however long that fad lasted), then Spike probably could too. He wasn’t exactly the poster child for self-control, sure, but next to Harmony, he was like the patron saint of patience or something. And Spike Junior had seemed genuinely pissed about the human-free diet, so there was that.

Come to think of it, the two of them hadn’t seemed to see eye to eye on much, which… was probably to be expected, given how much a vamp would have to change over the years before he could even think about coming over to her side of the fight, but still, majorly disconcerting. Like having all those arguments you had with yourself inside your head take form and voice and be able to argue back. She kinda almost pitied him. Which only added to the wig-fest.

He definitely hadn’t been thrilled with her clueing in Junior to the Gem’s location. She’d actually kinda done that on purpose, once she’d noticed Spike’s look of panic and Junior’s sudden intense interest. Like a little experiment -- Willow would’ve been so proud! -- and the results had been very interesting indeed. It’d turned out Spike hadn’t told himself that he had the Gem of Indestructibility. So it seemed like he didn’t trust himself. (The manacles had been another clue.) Which, fair enough, neither did she -- either of them -- but she definitely trusted the Spike of her own time less. It added credibility.

And if future-Spike was lying, what exactly could she do about it, anyway? Their skirmish earlier had shown that taking down a vamp with probably-decades more fighting experience than the current model wouldn’t be as straightforward as she’d first imagined. This Spike seemed to know her moves on a whole different level. He was right, he could have killed her. He hadn’t. He’d mostly seemed like he was just there to have some fun at her expense. Or even just… with her. Like they were kids playing Power Girl on the playground.

Like they really were friends.

Well. For now, she’d just have to take his word for it that he was batting for her team. And in the meantime? She had bigger fish to worry about -- Professor Walsh was way scarier than Spike, not least because Buffy knew she wasn’t allowed to punch her in the nose when she got all sarcastic.

No, Buffy definitely couldn’t be late. But there was also no way she could go to class looking like she’d been dragged through a hedge backwards. That was, if the hedge had fangs and a mean left hook and liked to pin her against things while whispering hotly in her ear, and who did that in the middle of a fight?

Spike. Spike did that. And that’s why she needed a shower. Because of the fighting! Totally not because of the way his teeth had raked his lower lip when he’d said filthy just now. Right. She nodded firmly to herself and sped up her pace. It was going to take a lot of showering to wash the last couple of hours away. A lot of long, hot showering. She really need to get there asap.

***

Spike had never been one for denial, not since he’d been turned, and so he didn’t waste any time at all pretending his plans for the sunlight were anything remotely innocent. He had just been through the most fucking glorious experience of his entire existence, and he was damn well going to take a moment to reflect on it.

Very, very thoroughly.

The courtyard of the mansion felt and smelled entirely different in the daytime, which was just what Spike wanted -- no shadows of his time here with Drusilla to taint the pure golden memory of the morning. He took a few minutes to knit in clear view of his prisoner -- just to rub it in -- before wandering further, until he found the perfect spot, private and green, just enough sun to be warm. He’d lived more than a century cold. He craved heat.

Not one for denial, no, but god, he always wanted something he could never have.

But he lay back, eyes closed -- ah, he’d forgotten this, the way the insides of his eyelids glowed red in the sunlight -- and let his hand drift down as he remembered, golden hair and golden sun and the one person forever out of his reach.

When he reached the point in his memory where she straddled him on the ground, he paused the actual memory part, because how brilliant would it have been if she’d given in to the arousal he was almost certain she’d been fighting? He could feel her fingers digging into his throat, then releasing him as she arched back, taking the hem of her barely-there shirt in her hands and pulling it off over her head, her perfect bare breasts limned in light.

So, she said, leaning forward to take his throat in her hands again. You’re my boyfriend from the future, here to save the world. She leaned closer, until he could almost feel her hot breath on his lips. Prove it.

“Can’t prove it,” he murmured. “You have to trust me.”

Never, she whispered, lips brushing his. Prove it.

He thrust against his hand, imagining he was rubbing up against her, denim against denim, and she smiled down at him and matched his rhythm, taking one hand from his throat to caress her own breast as she tilted her hips into him, pleasuring herself until she gasped out her release, her hands tightening on his throat and her breast, and then she grinned down at him and somersaulted away to snatch up her stake.

I think it’s pretty obvious what you want, she teased. Lucky for you I am totally on board with fucking you from here to Sunday.

Wait, would Buffy say fuck? Maybe not. A little coy, his slayer. He rewound.

I think it’s pretty obvious what you want, she teased. Lucky for you I am totally on board with doing you from here to Sunday.

The sunlight was warm on his skin as he replayed the thrust and parry of their battle until he once again had her pinned up against the bulletin board, lips at her throat, except, ah, this time she arched into him, rubbing her bare breasts into him, hiking up her leg around his hip.

I want you, Spike, she breathed, and he groaned and gave himself over to it, running his tongue up her throat and cupping her breasts and grinding into her, and oh god, next he would fall to his knees before her, help her shimmy out of those tight jeans, she’d taste like sunlight and sweat and violence and life, he’d lick her until she screamed, he knew he could make her scream, and then she’d take him in her strong hands and pull him up, kissing him tenderly as she reached down and helped him undo his trousers, the sound of the zipper loud in his ears, and then his cock was in his hands -- her hands, sunlight-warm -- and oh god the heat of her, he knew she would be hot and wet and just imagining it, thinking about driving into her, delicious and slick and alive, had him spilling in his hands, eyes popping open with the force of it, staring right into the sun.

God.

“I love you,” he whispered, closing his eyes again so he could have just a moment more of his impossible dream, and the impossible Buffy smiled serenely and pillowed his head against her bare breast, stroking his hair, and said I love you more.

And that, at last, was impossible enough that even in his fantasies it couldn’t be true.

He tucked himself away, rinsing his hands off in the basin of the still fountain, and sat in the sun until he’d collected himself, and then went back into the shadows of the mansion, where he belonged.

He opened the door to the sound of his own voice gasping.

“Slayer!” his other self hissed, head thrown back against the wall, and Spike watched fascinated as his mirror’s face contorted in ecstasy. Did he always arch his back like that when he came? And did his face always look so soft?  Bugger might be a complete and utter pillock, but he had to admit, he did look rather hot in flagrante delicto. Or whatever the self-loving version was. Perhaps he should set up a camera some time. Slayer didn’t know what she was missing out on, if he did say so himself.

He could tell when his past self copped to his presence; his jaw hardened and his eyes popped open, glittering viciously.

“Enjoy the show?”

Spike shrugged. “Nothing I haven’t seen before, mate.”

“Pity you’ve had yours chopped off,” other-Spike said conversationally as he fastened his trousers, chains clinking. “Good wank might remind you what it’s like to not be pathetic.”

With another shrug, Spike settled on the couch and began to knit again, smugly.

“Was imagining Drusilla,” past-Spike said suddenly. “I’m not a pervert like you.”

“Were you indeed?” Spike regarded himself steadily.

Well, what did you know? He had been one for denial after all.

***

Buffy closed the shower curtain behind her with a sigh of relief. Weird how hot and sweaty she’d gotten over the last couple of hours -- most vamps barely even qualified as a workout these days. Then again, she wasn’t used to slaying in broad daylight. That had to be it, that and the brisk walk home. Yup. And, well…

Spike.

She would only ever -- ever -- admit it in the privacy of her own head, and even then only when she was alone behind these vinyl curtains, because that was the only true privacy she ever got nowadays, but fighting Spike had always been kinda special. Not in the looking-forward-to-it kind of way -- although she really did sometimes get way more anticipatey than was probably good for her -- but in the pure, animal satisfaction she took from completely letting rip, laying into him at full force, no holds barred, and being met by equal skill and force and… passion. Yeah, if she was being honest, Spike in fighting mode had never lacked for passion.

Just like in the alley behind the Bronze, when he’d told her that he… She shuddered as the memory of those words -- god, I love you -- overlaid themselves onto their fight in the quad today. The almost joyous glee on his face that hadn’t seemed at all bloodthirsty. Had actually seemed kinda… fond. Like the sparring with words and fists was just foreplay for him. And god, the way he’d baited her with his stupid innuendos -- well, he’d always enjoyed doing that, but with the supposed love thing, it did kinda take on a different dimension. One that itched and itched, and she desperately needed to scratch.

She’d only ever had an I love you from one other person, and that… well it had been completely different. Too painful to think about, usually, given what had come after. But at the time, she’d been waiting for it, hoping, even expecting. Spike was totally unexpected, completely out of left field, and she probably should be disgusted, only he’d been so intense and drunkenly honest, once the shock had worn off, she’d found there was a way of thinking about it -- if she squinted -- that was actually kind of flattering. And besides, it wasn’t like Spike-her-mortal-enemy had suddenly just gone and been struck by cupid’s arrow -- this Spike had had time to become a good guy, maybe win her respect first. Who knew how many times they’d saved the world together? That made it kind of okay. Even if he didn’t have a soul.

Removing her towel, Buffy turned on the faucet and stepped back, waiting for the water to heat. She’d had her fair share of cold showers, but this… thing, bubbling under her skin, that was going to take more than some cold water to clear out of her system. But hey, she was in her secret dealing place, where she could work out and then leave behind all of her secret bad-naughty-good feelings, and so what if the dorm showers didn’t have detachable shower heads with pulsating massage action like she’d had at home? Buffy was a resourceful college girl now, and she’d learned to adapt. And besides, given that she was being all honest-ful, Spike was basically her go to I’ve-got-angry-lusty-feelings fantasy partner -- had been for longer than she cared to admit. He was pretty, and fighting each other made both of them hot, it was an easy sell. Simple. No crushed and shredded heart to get in the way. All she really needed was her imagination. Oh, and her trusty loofah.

She’d come a long way from the sheltered teen she’d been when she’d given her heart and her body to Angel; she hadn’t had much luck in the finding-a-partner department, sure, but she’d explored and she’d experimented and she’d educated herself, and she had so many ideas now. She was more than ready to try them out.

Water up to temperature, Buffy stepped under the spray and let it wet her hair, caress her skin, and wash away the physical evidence of her tussle with Spike. God, he was so… so. He was so fast and so hard and so much, she’d felt like she couldn’t catch her breath around him. But wow, had it been intense. Ever since Angel had left her, she’d struggled to fully experience her emotions. She hadn’t been broken, not like those awful months after she’d had to send him to hell, but it was like something in her had seized up, and everything was just sorta muffled. But Spike, he’d crashed into her new college-centric life on full volume and in vibrant technicolor, and she’d been caught in his wake. Today -- this afternoon -- was the most herself she’d felt in a really long time. And sure, this weird, fuller, somehow softer Spike-from-the-future was confusing as hell, but she didn’t want to think about that right now. She just wanted to be. Wanted to feel. Wanted to feel nice, if she was getting specific.

God, her nipples were hard already, even under the hot water. Closing her eyes, she tilted her face up into the spray and let her hands trail down her neck and chest until she was cupping her breasts, rolling her nipples beneath her palms. There’d been that moment, earlier, when Spike had had her disarmed and disabled, pressed up against a bulletin board, bodies flush from chest to groin. She lingered there in her memory, imagining the pressure on her breasts was the wall of his chest, the friction coming from her panting breath, bodies pushing against each other. She’d felt he was aroused, then, just as she’d felt him against her ass as he’d pushed her into that lamp post before, just as she’d felt him right up between her legs when she’d straddled him, trying to pointlessly choke the life out of him. Oh yeah, he’d wanted her, and as he’d lowered his mouth to her neck, she’d somehow known -- just like in the alley -- that he wasn’t going to bite her, and something had risen up in her, in answer to his body’s question, and had made her feel almost disappointed, cheated when he’d stumbled away from her.

Now, with the hot water pounding down, Buffy let herself play it out, how it could’ve gone -- how it nearly might have gone, because god knew what she would’ve done if he hadn’t backed off when he did, forgotten sensations flooding her dormant senses. She imagined his lips on her neck parting, tongue brushing her skin, soft, cool kisses trailing along her shoulder. His hips twitched against hers, a minute adjustment of pressure, but enough to spear her insides with heat. She gasped -- she couldn’t stop herself -- and Spike noticed, of course, like an enemy would notice (like a lover would, too, her mind whispered) and did it again, except more deliberately, and she bit her lip to hold in the moan, because they were still fighting, really, just with different body parts.

And oh yeah, had she taken notice of Spike’s body parts, that bastard. He’d known exactly what he was doing, getting her to stare at his junk for so long. He’d had her off balance since before the fight had even properly started, and so it was no wonder he’d won, no wonder he’d ended up with her pinned helplessly beneath him, and in her imagination, he kept her pinned as he thrust his jean-clad erection over and over right where she needed it. And oh god did she need it, like she’d been waiting for it for years -- which in a way she had, deprived as she’d been since her one failed attempt at sex. Here, in the shower, she could accept it, could embrace it, could hike her leg up around Spike’s hip and grind right into him, no holds barred, laying into him at full force.

Panting, Buffy scrabbled blindly for her loofah with her free hand, her other hand being very much occupied between her legs. She was so wet that her fingers were gliding way too smoothly. It was good, but it wasn’t right. That wasn’t how it would feel to have Spike’s cock rubbing her with two layers of clothing between them. The loofah, though -- oh, god!

Buffy lifted her foot to rest on the little knee-high ledge that was supposed to be for her toiletries, one hand braced against the cool tile, head hanging, eyes closed against the water, and let herself get lost. Spike was thrusting against her so slowly it was almost a tease, but just as her frustration began to boil over, and she tightened her leg around him in preparation to… she didn’t know what, but do something… he lifted his head and grinned that smug, seductive grin that said he knew exactly what he was doing to her, and abruptly sped up. She rocketed up to the edge, all the good feelings and hot, tingling pleasure drawing in tightly to her center, and she realized she wasn’t going to be able to hold in her groans any longer, and she’d be damned if she ever let Spike hear her whimper, and so she did the only thing she could do, and smashed her mouth to his.

She came with his hands bruising her wrists and his tongue in her mouth, and oh god, oh god, it was so good, but she still felt wound up, the edge barely off, and so she mustered the confidence she would never have had in real life, and told him, Let’s take this somewhere more private.

And because this was a fantasy, and she was one hundred percent the boss, Buffy moved them instantaneously -- or rather, she moved Spike, and had him come join her in the shower.

She wondered if he’d try to dominate her again. He seemed like that kind of guy. Except when he didn’t. She was done playing the damsel, though. The good thing about fantasies? She didn’t have to worry about how the guy would feel if she asserted herself. And when it came to Spike, somehow she always felt very, very asserty. Like slamming him hard into the tiles and attacking him with her mouth asserty. Mmm. In her imagination, he kissed like a dream, all cool and demanding and perfect, and he was naked, because duh, shower -- wet and naked and she’d had her hands on him when they’d fought in close quarters, and he’d always felt firm and ripply in all the right places, so wet and naked and yummy. His cock was trapped between them, hard and just as impressive as it’d seemed earlier. Yeah, she was going to take him hard, she was going to ride him into the--

I love you.

She paused her assault and looked up at him, eyes so incredibly blue, and there he was again, being all so.

Buffy, I want you so badly, he whispered, his voice husky with desire, and when they kissed again, it wasn’t an assault or an attack any longer, but deep and lush and giving, and incredibly sweet. And she wasn’t pinning him against the wall, but leaning into him as they held each other, hands tenderly tracing the path of the water that flowed down them. He’d be cool and hard, like the tile, slippery with water and soap, and she would arch into him, feeling him quiver against her, hearing him gasp at her touch. And then she was turning in his arms, almost like a dance, and he ran his hands up her stomach to her breasts, slick as butter, squeezing her just the way she liked, catching her nipples between his fingers, then rubbing them hard under his palms -- oh yes, like that -- and she almost wished it could go on forever, just him touching her, chin tucked into her shoulder as he watched her writhe, but god, she wanted him badly, too, she needed him, and so she bent forward, under the warm spray, glancing over her shoulder as she told him, Fuck me, Spike, a little frisson of added pleasure at the language she’d be too shy to use in real life. It felt good, though, just saying it, saying what she wanted right out; she said it again, out loud -- she was alone in the showers, thank god -- running her teeth over her lower lip with the F, just like Spike had earlier, feeling filthy and fantastic.

He took her hips in his strong hands, lips trailing tenderly down her spine like trickling water, and pressed her forward, until her cheek and her nipples were brushing the cool tile, and she thought he’d echo it back, say yeah, I’m gonna fuck you hard but instead for some reason her imagination had him whisper I love you again as he probed, poised to drive home.

Gasping hard, Buffy took the hand she had been bracing against the cold tile and stroked herself, roughly, imagining his thick cock against her, and then she pushed two fingers into herself, groaning at the imagined feel of Spike’s cool flesh entering her. His answering groan echoed in her mind as he plunged into her again and again, warming with each stroke, and as she tilted her hips into him, he wrapped one arm around her waist, his other hand delving between her legs to stroke her as he fucked her -- she said it out loud again, fuck me, fuck me -- dropping kisses and words of encouragement against her neck. It was all very sweet and tender, the things he was saying, but she hadn’t invited him into her shower for tenderness; she glared at him over her shoulder -- all asserty again, dammit! -- and he grinned that wicked grin and hitched her legs wider and sped up his pace, harder and harder, and she came with a jolt, nearly cracking her head on the tile from the force of it, but god, she still wanted more and he gave her more, pounding into her; she imagined him catching her wet hair off her shoulders, running blunt teeth up her neck and then finally whispering in her ear, in his filthy, filthy voice. You love it when I fuck you, he purred, and she was too far gone to answer so she just nodded, but his hand tightened and say it! he commanded, and she said it, I love it when you fuck me, because, okay, yeah, they could be asserty together, and he chuckled and dug his fingers into her hips and pressed her harder against the tile and she stopped caring if he heard her, she grunted out her release and he let himself go with a heartfelt groan that was so sexy she felt it all the way down to her toes.

And then he wrapped his arms around her, tender again, pressing his forehead into her shoulder like a prayer. I love you, Buffy, he said fervently, and then he was gone.

Trembling slightly, Buffy straightened and pushed her wet hair out of her face. That… hadn’t gone how she’d been planning. She stood under the water for a long moment, shaking. But then she took a deep breath and let her brain re-engage. So she’d let a bit of her current real-life turmoil drift into her fantasies. If there was one thing she’d picked up from Psych this semester, it was that minds were a funny thing. And amazingly, now that she was breathing normally again, she didn’t feel bad or weird about it at all. She didn’t even feel all pathetic, imagining tenderness from her possibly-ex-mortal-enemy. She’d been primed for a bit of boyfriend-type loving from Parker, that’s all it was, and she’d watched enough Little House on the Prairie to know that once the pump was primed, there was bound to be some… pumping. And as for the rest… everyone needed to feel cherished now and then, didn’t they? It was what it was -- just a fantasy. A really hot, really intense fantasy, yeah, but nothing she’d ever actually do; she wasn’t going to waste her time feeling guilty over it.

***

Riley glanced up from his stack of papers, vaguely taking note of the students as they passed the desk. Professor Walsh believed that teachers had a responsibility to be available to their students, in case they had any questions related to the assignments or material, but of course her time was far too valuable to waste on dumbed-down re-explanations of basic psychology, so in practice she left most of the student interaction -- not to mention the grading -- to her teaching assistant. Of course, Riley’s duties for the Initiative took up most of his evenings, so he had to snatch every possible second of free time when papers were due back.

Grading first-year students was pure hell.

He totaled up the points for his last essay -- B-minus, didn’t anyone learn how to write in high school? Seriously, “psychologize” was not a verb, and “Freudy” was not an adjective! -- and looked at the next one on his stack. Ah, this one was easy at least. Parker Abrams. He didn’t even bother reading through the essay, just wrote “C-” at the top of the page and moved on to the next.

This was Parker’s third time taking Walsh’s Psych 101, which was an unusual class choice for a now-senior majoring in pre-law, but while it had taken Riley a couple of semesters to catch on, he’d finally figured out what the deal was. Parker had absolutely no need for a Psych 101 credit for his degree, and he had no interest in learning anything Walsh had to teach. No, Parker Abrams’s only interest in first-year psychology would be the freshmen who were taking it.

The freshman girls, to be specific.

Each semester, Parker had shown up on the first day of class, eyes bright with false eagerness to learn. Each week of each semester, Parker could be seen in intimate conversation with a different freshman girl. His papers were basically the same every time -- just enough changed to not count as self-plagiarism, but oddly never enough to actually make them worth reading. And then, once he’d gotten as many notches in his bedpost as he could manage -- which was to say, once the freshman girls finally got wise to what he was after, and once the common knowledge of Parker’s modus operandi had been disseminated among the flock he hunted -- he’d quietly submit his withdrawal request, just before the final withdraw date, probably get his lawyer daddy to wipe the W off his transcript, and wait for the next semester. Which brought with it a new crop of fresh meat, so the cycle could begin again.

Riley was considering writing a paper on it.

His paper would earn an A. Or maybe get published, even.

But of course the convenient end result of Parker’s game, for Riley, was that there was absolutely no need to go through his flawed analysis of Freudian theories yet again. Parker didn’t give a damn what grade he got, and so neither did Riley. He had better things to do with his time than worry about Parker and his latest…

Huh. Parker wasn’t sitting with a girl today. Hadn’t he been working on…? Oh, yeah. Freudy B Minus. Willow’s friend.

It was kind of weird, too, the hunted way Parker was glancing around the room. He usually didn’t get found out until they made it to Social Psychology, or at the latest the discussion of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Though if he’d been found out it would go a long way to explain the shiner he was sporting. Maybe the douchebag had made the mistake of hitting up someone else’s girl, and been served with a convincing Cease and Desist. Poaching on someone else’s territory was a big mistake.

Riley was still covertly eyeing Parker -- he’d gotten an A in surveillance, too -- when Willow and her friend walked in, which was the only reason he noticed the guilty little start, hastily covered up with a neutral, dismissive smile. Interesting.

Even more interesting, Freudy stopped in her tracks right in front of Parker.

“How’s your eye this afternoon?” she asked brightly.

Parker smiled with just his lips, eyes wide with something like terror. “It’s healing.”

“Aww. Did Allison kiss it and make it better?”

The smile vanished.

“She didn’t?” Freudy went on, as if Parker had answered. “Gosh, it’s almost as if she decided a one-night stand with you wouldn’t be worth it. Come to think of it, that’s what I heard too, from a very reliable source.” She looked up at the sky, as if thinking. “Gosh, who could that have been?” She bared her teeth at Parker. “I guess it doesn’t matter who told me I’d be better off with a loofah and a vivid imagination. But you know what?” She leaned in close; if Riley’s ears hadn’t gotten amazingly sharp over the course of his Initiative training, he wouldn’t have been able to hear her when she whispered, “They were right.”

She turned away from Parker’s blank shock and rejoined Willow, who looked like she wanted some popcorn to munch on. Riley continued to watch Freudy as she sashayed up the aisle, hips swinging saucily; his hand moved without thinking to pick up her graded essay. The essay with her actual name on it. He tore his eyes away from her long enough to read it.

Buffy Summers.

He was going to remember it now.

Chapter Text

The sun set, and with it, Spike’s good mood. The nights had been harder, after Buffy had jumped. Strange for a vamp, or maybe not -- night time had been their time. At least to him. As the shadows lengthened, he became plagued by a creeping feeling, a harsh chill in his spine, that it had all been a dream. Just a lurid, feverish fantasy. And he would wake up soon in his crypt, hungover and completely alone.

A sudden sharp pang for Dawn pricked his heart. She might have just been a little bit of a thing, but in many ways, he felt closer to her than her sister. For a long time now, she’d been his only friend. Absolutely pathetic to admit it, but there it was. He missed talking to her, the honesty of it. She didn’t put on airs, his nibblet -- no backtracking or proviso-giving for her. She just liked him, and didn’t make excuses for it, and so neither did he. He wondered what she’d have to say about his current predicament. Something appropriately pert no doubt, the little smart-arse. She’d probably tell him to stop getting drunk at every given opportunity and get off his self-indulgent backside. And do what, though?

And anyway, he retorted to imaginary-Dawn, he’d already decided to cut back, thank you very much. With the number of slip-ups he’d made in just the last couple of days, he couldn’t afford to keep getting so bloody carparked all the time. Not to mention that Buffy was here and alive and had actually said she liked him better than the Spike of her own time. That had to mean his fumbling around on the lighter end of the spectrum had to have been leading him in the right general direction, didn’t it? He wanted to continue that. He wanted her to think well of him.

He was going to go insane if he stayed within these walls, though. Even his other self had gone silent, shooting him long, malicious, calculating looks from across the room. Enough was bloody well enough.

“I’m going for a walk,” he tossed over his shoulder as he headed for the door, swinging his duster over his shoulders. “Don’t wait up.”

“Can’t you at least pass me the-!” his moody shadow yelled, galvanised to speech for the sake of the knitting, but Spike callously ignored him, letting the door slam shut behind him.

The streets were busy by Sunnydale standards, people rushing to get home before true night took hold. He walked through the neighborhoods as street lights began to blink on, smoking pensively in their orange glow, taking idle note of which cars had been left unlocked, how many occupants in each house, until, somewhat inevitably, he found himself standing on the sidewalk in front of Buffy’s home.

He considered it, letting his head tilt to the side. Somehow, it didn’t quite seem the same. Weird, but knowing Buffy’s room was just a room instead of some kind of… of shrine, changed the whole look of the thing. No Dawn peering out her window making faces at him, though. Christ, had that even happened? When exactly had she poofed into existence? If he’d ever been clued in to that little piece of info, he couldn’t remember it now. But no Dawn meant no Glory; meant no sacrifice, no grief. Yeah, that was it, the house looked innocent -- completely unaware of all the pain it was yet to encompass within its walls. Hell, he could even see Joyce inside, going about her business, all rosy-cheeked and living.

Feet on autopilot, he went to stand beneath his tree and lit a fresh fag, gazing meditatively up at Buffy’s window. It was closed, of course, and she’d been away at college a few weeks now, so it made sense that her scent was lighter than normal, harder to catch. He knew it made sense, and yet… he felt it anyway, clawing up his throat again, that terrible grief that the drink had just barely kept at bay, that edge of panic he’d balanced on daily since she’d jumped. For all that he knew about slayers and their short lives, Spike had somehow never expected to wake up one day and Buffy just be… gone, her scent slowly fading from her things, slipping through his fingers like so much smoke.

Distantly, he noticed Joyce moving about the house, looking out a window once or twice with a slight frown, seeming to scan the road before returning to her tasks. He imagined she’d spent many a night like that, looking out for Buffy, waiting for her daughter to come home unharmed from whatever battles the dark had brought. In that, it was a blessing that she had passed before the slayer’s swan dive. She’d never had to wait up all night, just to see the sun rise over a world without Buffy in it.

But that wasn’t this, he told himself firmly. That wasn’t now. Here, now, Buffy was still alive, still fierce and vibrant, still beautiful and bitchy as all get out. And he was present to experience this miracle because he’d been sent on a mission to bloody well keep it that way. Right. He swallowed, trying to dislodge the claws of panic from his throat, but they were sharp. Well, he was stubborn. He leaned back against the tree, and got comfortable. Buffy was away living the college girl dream right now, but he’d spent enough time down here listening to her breathing, her heartbeat, her sighs and coos at the fumbling attentions of Captain Cardboard, that it seemed less a window and more a portal into her life. He could go all night, silent and still, just watching that window. He had done so, many a time. He and that window were old friends by now. Or they would be. Whatever. Point was, he could and would bloody well stay there until--

The back door opened, and a silhouette appeared in the rectangle of light. “Spike, is that you?”

Spike straightened and glanced around himself -- still in thick shadow. How on earth could she...?

“I can see your cigarette,”Joyce said, tone mildly chiding.

Oh, right then. Well, this was a fine little pickle. He didn’t really want to leave -- thinking about going back to that big empty mansion with no company but his own made his toes curl up inside his Docs -- but he couldn’t just walk over there and say hi.

Could he?

Funnily enough, the idea of actually going in and talking to Joyce had never occurred to Spike. Besides, he and that window had had plans. Nice, safe, non-timeline-altering plans. But, fuck it, the slayer’s mum was better than an inanimate rectangle of glass any day -- and far, far better than his own personal glass-darkly moment -- and it wasn’t as though things weren’t already going sideways. So long as he kept his mouth shut about the important stuff, how different was this to what had really happened? Just moving it up a few months, was all.

He decided he could.

Spike took one last drag on his cig, then flicked it over the walk onto the neighbour’s front lawn -- no need to dirty up Joyce’s yard -- and stepped forward.

“Hello, Joyce,” he said, his hand rising of its own accord to give an awkward little wave. He glared at it in betrayal before stuffing it in his pocket and tentatively climbing the porch steps. She was leaning one shoulder against the door jamb, on the right side of the threshold (not as stupid as the kids assumed; he smiled) arms crossed, and as he neared, her face came into focus, sporting an expression somewhere between amused and unimpressed.

“I’d heard you were in town again. You know you could just knock like a normal person,” she said.

“Sorry,” Spike said automatically, smoothing his hair with restless hands. “Wasn’t really here to, uh... Didn’t want to disturb you.”

Wait, someone had been talking about him to Joyce? Someone Buffy-shaped, perhaps? His heart leapt for a moment before he realised it’d probably just been a warning, since he’d ended up at her house the last time he’d crashed through SunnyD.

“Well, that’s sweet of you, I suppose, but having a vampire lurking under my tree doesn’t exactly lend itself to a restful evening.”

“Right,” Spike said, strangely stung. “Didn’t mean any bother. I’ll just be--”

“Spike,” she said with a sigh and an eyeroll that was worthy of her daughter -- either of them. “The milk’s warming. I don’t have any mini-marshmallows but I have it on good authority that the cocoa is excellent.”

“That… that’d be... Yeah, thanks,” he said hoarsely.

She didn’t invite him in this time. To be fair, last time he’d just barged in drunkenly asking for Buffy, and he strongly suspected Joyce hadn’t known he was an enemy, then. She clearly thought so now, or was at least being cautious. The irony barely even registered after the last few days, and he felt like respecting her boundaries for the time being, even if he knew his invite was still good.

Besides, he wasn’t sure if he was ready to go in again yet. Not after…

He leaned back against the siding, feeling the warmth of the living house, listening contentedly to the clinks and shuffles coming from inside for a couple of minutes, before, to his surprise, Joyce came outside wrapped in a cardigan, carrying two steaming mugs. She offered one to Spike before seating herself on the swing, and looking up at him appraisingly.

“Well,” she said after a moment. “You seem sober this time, at least.”

Spike snorted. “That’s a very sad fact, believe me. Uh, you sure you want to be out here?”

“Are you going to cause any trouble?”

Spike scratched his head, giving it some honest thought. “Probably not,” he conceded. “‘S not safe, though.”

To his surprise and mild concern, Joyce shrugged. “Buffy seems to be doing a good job -- we don’t get any of your sort around here anymore.”

Spike couldn’t help a smirk at the prim language. “My sort. Right. And here I was, thinking I’d protect you if any nasties came charging the porch.”

Joyce just gave him a look, that same expression of dry amusement.

“That’s very kind of you. So.” She took a sip of her drink, eyeing him over the rim of her mug. “Do you want to talk about it? Are you having romantic trouble again?” She seemed sympathetic, motherly, all the things Spike remembered and, well, cherished. But in her eyes he continued to see that thing he’d only really begun to notice towards the end, when he’d started to consider her an actual person outside of Buffy -- a wicked little gleam of humour at his expense. It made him ache with fondness.

“You could say that.” He considered a moment, but he didn’t have the energy just then for the mental gymnastics all this bollocks required. “Listen, love, what did daughter dearest tell you about me? Can’t rightly satisfy your need for undead gossip if we’re dancing around a certain salient point here.”

“Don’t be disrespectful, Spike,” she chastised, and he fought the urge to apologise again. She didn’t answer immediately, but nodded to his mug. “It’ll go cold.”

Obediently, he took a sip, and closed his eyes with the rush of nostalgia. “God, that’s good. I’d forgotten…”

“What, I don’t make you cocoa in the future?” Joyce asked. It was said quite nonchalantly, conversationally almost, but Spike suddenly realised he’d been skillfully cornered by a master.

“Bloody hell,” he muttered. So she did know. Slowly he lowered the mug and met her eyes. “No, you don’t, but if you ask me why, I’ll lie. So don’t.”

Her expression became almost blank for a moment, and he realised he’d gone too far. Far too far. Fuck.

“I just meant,” he scrambled to recover. “Um, s’bad for the fangs, is all.”

“I see,” she said, but he thought with relief that she probably didn’t. Humans rarely did perceive their own mortality. How else could it be so easy to lure them unprotected out to dark alleys with nothing but hot looks and promises? “You really are from the future, then?”

Spike sighed and ran a hand down his face. “Looks that way, don’t it?”

“How…” she trailed off, looking hesitant. “How far?”

Huh. In all the lively chit-chat with Buffy earlier, not once had she asked that question. Though, he remembered, she did seem to have made some assumptions all by herself.

“What did the slayer tell you?”

“Well, not much, really. Just that I should keep an eye out because you were back in town, but that there were two of you, because one of you had come back in time on some secret mission. She sounded quite annoyed, actually.”

Spike snorted softly, trying to hide the smile. “That’s my slayer. Anything else?” he asked, playing it cool. Businesslike. Yeah. This was info he needed to know before proceeding.

“I believe there was mention of you having chained your past self up to prevent him -- um, that is, you -- from harming anyone.” She raised an enquiring eyebrow. He confirmed with a nod. “But aside from that…”

Well, that was a little bit more than nothing, so he figured he’d take it. Not that he had a choice.

“Not much more I can add,” he said, letting himself slide down the wall until he was sitting on the weather-worn planks of the porch, one knee bent with the comforting weight and smell of the mug balanced atop it. “Not supposed to be changing anything. Shouldn’t even be talking to you.” He felt pressed down into the deck by the weight of it all. What he wouldn’t give for a splash of rum in his chocolate.

“But here you are anyway,” Joyce said, sounding curious. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you must be very lonely to end up here.”

The claws in his throat found fresh purchase as it hit him hard, the truth of that. Because he’d lost Buffy, and he’d lost Joyce, and now he had them back but at the cost of Dawn, except none of it was permanent, not one little bit, he couldn’t keep anything, just as Angelus had taught him all those years ago, nothing but the hope of rectifying the biggest mistake of his life. And it was all -- all of it and all of them -- it was all on him, and he honestly didn’t know if he could do it. Now, without the boozy curtains pulled across his thoughts, there was nowhere to hide from that fact. He could lose everything all over again, and he wasn’t sure if he could survive it this time.

He didn’t even realise he was crying, curled in on himself and face buried in his knees, until he felt the weight of Joyce’s hand on his head. Sometimes it felt as though he hadn’t stopped crying since that final battle with Glory. Surely he’d have to eventually run out of tears?

“I know,” Joyce soothed, “I know, you’re afraid. It’s okay.”

What do you know? he wanted to spit. In a handful of months you’re going to be six feet under and there’s not a ruddy thing I can do about it!

Oh, but wait. What if he… could?

The thought was so big, so bright, it felt as though he could only approach it side-on, because this, this was so much bigger than opening Buffy’s eyes to a regrettable one night stand. This was… Could he even do it? There were all sorts of magical laws binding life and death -- natural life and death. Which side of the coin would this fall on? Fuck if he knew, but god, it couldn’t hurt to try.

That was for another time, though. He needed to think about that. Magic always had bloody consequences and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let them fall on Joyce. Still, it was enough to jolt him out of his jag. He felt strangely light.

He scrubbed his face and met her eyes, before taking her hand (which had fallen to his shoulder) and gently kissing the back of it, smiling a little when she blushed.

“You’re a real decent lady, Joyce,” he said feelingly. “Always thought so.”

“Well, I-- th-thank you.” She seemed to gather herself. “Are you okay?”

Spike let his head fall back against the siding, cradling the mug of cooling cocoa between both palms, and sighed. “This thing, the thing I’m back here to prevent, it’s not something you just get over, you know? Even with a fresh start holding a stake to your chest. It’s hard,” he admitted, glancing up at her. “I lost the woman I love. Not that she ever loved me back, but it’s not like my bloody heart gives a fu-- a damn.”

She nodded seriously -- and was that a glint of fear in her eyes? She couldn’t possibly know it was Buffy he was referring to, he was sure of that, but he knew, in his own timeline, Joyce hadn’t exactly been thrilled by his advances. He’d have to be careful about that.

“And now here I am, barely even trusted as far as the slayer can throw me -- if that! -- trying to pussyfoot around and get everything just right, when, Christ, even I can tell you that sticking to a long-term plan is about as far from my forte as bloody...” he floundered. “Marine biology!”

“I take it we’re not talking about… Drew, was it?” He shook his head, and Joyce sat back in the swing and crossed her legs thoughtfully. “You know, when I left Hank and came to Sunnydale with Buffy, I felt a great deal of responsibility fall onto my shoulders that had never been there before. Suddenly, I had to be both the breadwinner and a single parent to a girl who just… didn’t understand why I couldn’t be with her daddy any more. I tried so hard to get things right, but a lot of the time I just ended up... messing it up.” She sighed, and Spike was shocked to hear the quiver in it, from a woman who was usually so calm and contained.

“No, that’s rubbish,” he said, straightening up in indignation. “I know how things turned out. I saw. Slayer grew up smart and strong because of you. You were a wonderful mother.”

“I was, was I?”

There it was again, that strange little hint of fear. What was that all about, then? But before he could figure it out, she gave him a small, wistful smile.

“Well, that’s good to know. Thank you, Spike. But my point is, sometimes the pressure we feel to get things right can actually send us farther from our goal. It wasn’t until I learned to unwind a little, stop being so tightly focused on being the perfect parent, that Buffy and I started to, well, to reconnect.” She paused, and then added, “That and finally knowing about her slaying.”

Spike still couldn’t believe a smart lady like her hadn’t figured it out by the time he and Buffy had teamed up to take Angel down. But then, the slayer had a hard streak of denial in her, too, for certain subjects. Angel’s bleeding heart and even more bleeding soul being one such.

“So what are you saying?” he asked, probing the edges of her tacit if uninformed permission. “That I should just forget about trying to preserve the timeline and run around willy-nilly, doing as I please?”

“Well, no, I’m not sure that would be the best idea. I’m no sci-fi expert, but I’ve read my Bradbury--”

“Thank you! Finally. Knew there was a reason I liked you.”

She grinned a little wryly. “It may have been a long time ago now, but I did go to college.”

“Recent history for me, love.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.” He saw her curiosity pique again, but she pushed it aside for the time being. “Well anyway, I’m sure Mr. Giles will be able to give better advice about how it all works, but it seems to me that the, um, willy-nilly approach is likely to end up having consequences none of us can foresee. No, I simply meant that, given the weight you’re carrying around, and how little you can talk to anyone about it, it might be a good idea to find some way to… blow off steam.”

Spike thought of all the empty bottles Willow had smashed back at his crypt in his own time, and all the empty bottles at the dig site, and all the empty bottles at the mansion.

“Been doing that, but… promised myself I wouldn’t get off my head again, not while I’m still here. Need my wits about me, so no booze for Spike.” He paused for a moment, then shrugged. “Well, except in moderation.”

“You can’t think of an alternative to getting drunk?” Joyce asked, letting her distaste show clearly.

“Oh don’t give me that look,” he said, making a face. “I know full well you can put away a couple of bottles of wine by yourself when the mood takes you.”

“Less of that attitude, thank you, young man,” she said, clearly surprised. Then she laughed, but nervously. “Why do I get the feeling you’ve helped me more than once?”

It had actually been precisely once, he hadn’t helped at all (primarily because it’d all been gone before he arrived), and once it stopped being fun, he’d tucked her in on the couch and left a glass of water and some Advil on the coffee table. All the same, Spike gave her a knowing look designed to make her squirm. Which she did. Oh yeah, she really could be a lot of fun. Somehow, he’d forgotten that.

Joyce cleared her throat. “Perhaps you have a hobby you could pursue?” Spike thought of his knitting. “One that involves people, I mean. You need company, Spike,” she said, with the understanding of someone who was speaking from experience.

“Well,” he said uncertainly. “I’ve got myself back at the mansion. But I’ve got to be honest with you, he’s a bit of an insufferable twat.”

Joyce gave him a reproving glance for the language. “Hanging out with… yourself isn’t quite what I meant,” she said patiently. “When Buffy needs to unwind, I know she likes to go to the Bronze, or patrolling with her friends. You know, having fun, doing… activities. It’s not good for you physical types to be cooped up indoors all the time.”

Well, well, this was interesting. Was the slayer’s mum actually suggesting that he…? And, when he thought about it, why wouldn’t she? From her perspective, a helping hand in the slayer’s fight against the nightly nasties could only be good for her daughter, right?

He jumped to his feet, cold cocoa sloshing over his hand. “That,” he said, pointing at her excitedly, “is a great idea. Thanks for the suggestion.”

“...You’re welcome?”

He turned and jumped with renewed vigour down the porch steps. Then he remembered he still had her mug, and dashed back up to return it to her, before disappearing once more into the darkened town, leaving a strangely befuddled-looking Joyce behind him.

***

Buffy had expected that the morning’s... exertions... would have left her too tired to patrol that night, but after a fidgety-but-fruitless Psychology lecture (she was going to have to copy Willow’s notes, because she had kept drifting off into imagination-land, so much so that the TA had been watching her like a hawk when she left the classroom) and an even-more-fruitless Geology 101 (they called it Rocks for Jocks, because it was supposed to be the easy lab science, but if she didn’t get her act together she was going to need another step down -- Remedial Science for Slayers?), she had to admit that she was just antsy and hyper and needed to take her energy out in a productive, world-saving sort of way. After making sure Willow was safe studying with Oz, she had headed out into the night.

She’d managed to take out yet another of the endless supply of frat-boy vampires -- did they just turn them at pledging? It would save time if they did -- and was preparing for another circuit of the silent quad, when she felt a tingle in her fingertips, and spun instinctively to stake the newest kid on the block.

Her wrist was caught, and she found herself looking into Spike’s eyes, glittering in the light of the sparse streetlamps.

“Well, well. Fancy meeting you here,” he grinned over her quivering hand.

“Ugh! What the hell are you doing here, Spike?” He was like the stupid cat in that stupid song; if her dorm room had had a porch, he’d be sitting on it the very next day, after she’d set him on fire.

“Same as you,” he said casually, releasing her arm. “Looking for a spot of violence.” For a moment she worried that it was Spike Junior, somehow freed from his chains and being tricksy, but then he cast a guarded, soft glance at her, and she knew exactly which Spike it had to be.

Not that she was going to go easy on him. “This is my spot for violence. Go find another spot.” When he just stood there, looking at her, she hefted her stake again. “Seriously, do I need to almost-kill you another dozen times for you to get the picture?”

“I see college hasn’t taught you how to count.” His eyelids lowered slightly.

She huffed impatiently. “I’m sorry, let me rephrase. Do I need to almost-kill you another seven times?”

He flashed a knowing smile. “Eight if you count that bit on the ground.”

She hadn’t even been close to killing him on the ground, she’d just been sitting on him with her hands on his neck and… Oh. “Go away! I have work to do!”

He glanced away, eyes touching on the lamp-post, the sidewalk, and the trashcan before skittering back to her. “Can help,” he finally muttered.

“I don’t need your help.”

“Well, yeah, of course you don’t need it.” He sighed in frustration. “Look, I’m bored. And your… someone suggested I go out and let off some steam. Trying to drink less, and nobody I care to shag offering it up…. Can I just tag along and kill something?” He looked at her pleadingly.

Buffy flashed briefly to her image of Spike helping her let off steam in the shower. “Oh, hell no.”

“Please?” Oh god, was he pouting?

“Fine!” she said at last, throwing her hands up in the air. “But if you make even the tiniest move that looks like stabbing me in the back, I will chop off both your feet and then stake you.” She unslung her battle-axe from her back pointedly.

Annoyingly, his eyes lit up. “That’s my girl.”

“I am not your girl,” Buffy grumbled, then started off walking, reslinging her axe until it was foot-chopping time. He fell in beside her, wisely staying where she could see him, and they walked in silence for several minutes.

“How’s Junior doing?” Buffy finally asked, twirling her stake as she strolled down the path, just to keep him on his toes.

“Junior?”

“Spike Junior. You know, double your vampire, double your dust?”

“Oh.” Spike grimaced. “He’s… Well, he’s an utter shithead, to be honest, but I think you sussed that out yourself. Been trying to convince me that an all-pig diet is going to lead to sodding vitamin deficiencies or some such. Look at me, now.” He stopped and held out his arms wide, as if presenting himself for inspection. “In the prime of health, I am, and I’ve been off the sauce for… Well. Long enough.”

Buffy rolled her eyes to get them to stop looking at just how healthy Spike’s body was. “Am I supposed to check your teeth too?” She started walking again.

He fell in beside her, grinning broadly enough she could see his white teeth out of the corner of her eye. “Could do that if you like. What else? Obstacle course?” He took a few jogging steps so he could turn and catch her eye. “Happy to go through my paces for you.” He kept walking backwards, smiling at her stony face as if it were a present on Christmas morning.

“Believe me, Spike, I know what you’re capable of.”

“No,” he said, eyes suddenly piercing. “You don’t. Not the evil, nor the good.”

“How can you have any good in you without a soul?” she said sharply, but it felt wrong on her tongue even as she said it. Hadn’t she still been… sort of… good when she was down to however-much-less-than-one-hundred-percent soulified? She certainly hadn’t felt evil.

Oddly, he barely flinched, as if he’d heard this many times before -- and he probably had, she realized, if he’d been fighting by her side for however many years it took for them to become friends, for Willow to become powerful enough to attempt time travel, for all of it.

“You don’t know me,” he said stubbornly, slowing his pace. “All you have is a few fights, fewer conversations, and a file of shoddy, half-invented research.”

“Angel told me all I really need to know.”

That clearly struck deep; he stopped in his tracks. She brushed right on past him, making it several yards before he jogged to catch up.

“And just what did dear old grandad have to say?” He spoke through clenched teeth, hands shoved deep in his duster pockets.

“He said…” Buffy frowned. “Huh.”

“Very eloquent. Just the kind of insights I would expect from--”

“No, he didn’t say huh, he just… I don’t remember him actually ever saying much specific. Something about how you wouldn’t stop until you got what you were after, and then….”

“He swooshed off into the night like the bloody Phantom of the Opera? Perhaps with an ominous musical sting?”

She wasn’t going to dignify that with a response. “How many people did you kill when you were living in Sunnydale? And the century before? I don’t need him to tell me what to think about that.”

“As if the Brooding Forehead himself didn’t leave a great heaping mountain of corpses in his wake. And I told you, Buffy, I’ve changed. I’m working on your side, here. Haven’t killed anyone since… well, right around now, my timeline, but when you consider--”

She was so not in the mood for this. “So you haven't murdered anybody lately? Let's be best pals!”

He laughed at that, a sharp, bitter laugh. “Right.” He was opening his mouth to say more when an earnest-looking young man in a UC-Sunnydale hoodie approached them.

“Excuse me, but… me and my friends are trying to find our dorm, and we got turned around somehow. Do you think you could give me directions? It’s Faust Hall.”

“Oh, sure!” Buffy said brightly, happy for a distraction. She turned away to point back the way she’d come. “What you need to do from here is go straight until you reach Miller, and then you take a--” At the crunch of cartilage behind her, she swung her elbow back to connect with the vampire’s stomach. “Tell you what, maybe I’d better just show you.” She ducked under his sloppy lunge, flipping him neatly to the ground and planting her foot on his chest.

Spike peered down at the struggling vampire. “Not the smartest fellow, is he? As if a student would need directions to his own hall.”

“You’d be surprised,” Buffy said wryly, hefting her stake. “I handle a few genuine lost sheep every night. That’s why I waited for him to vamp out. I was pretty sure about this one, though -- that sweatshirt is at least five years old, they’ve updated the logo since.”

“Really? Aren’t you supposed to, you know, sense his vampiric energy?”

“That too,” Buffy chirped, not wanting to point out that any slayer-senses she had going on were completely overwhelmed by the way Spike’s presence was making her tingly in all the wrong places. Even though they’d been arguing. Maybe especially since they’d been arguing.

Spike snorted. “Yeah, and as if a sad wanker like this would have any fr--” His voice cut off abruptly when a hefty linebacker-type tackled him.

“Crap!” Buffy spun into action, diving down to stake the guy on the ground before he could escape and grabbing her battle-axe again. (She hated to agree with Spike, but they really weren’t the smartest vamps around; you’d think the huge blade might at least have given them a little pause.) There were four more besides the one currently wrestling on the ground with Spike, all dressed in various combinations of grimy-vampire-chic and school-spirit-activewear; they formed a rough semicircle, boxing her in before the snarling melee on the ground.

“Slayer!” one of them hissed. “I heard you were ruining things around here. That ends tonight.”

“Well, aren’t you Big Vamp On Campus,” Buffy grinned, neatly sidestepping a flailing limb from behind her. “Something’s going to end tonight, that’s for certain.” As if on cue, there was a poof behind her; she felt the faint breeze of vampire dust whooshing against her calves.

She didn’t even bother to look back. “You want left or right?”

“Left,” Spike gasped, popping back into her peripheral vision. She could see a bruise rising on his cheek, but he was grinning again. She matched him.

“Right!” Buffy called, and lunged.

She beheaded her first -- the BVOC -- but the second managed to dive under her backswing, sending her to the ground as he snapped at her throat. She discarded the axe and wrestled with him, vaguely hearing the swoosh of one of Spike’s targets dusting as she fumbled out another stake.

“Not gonna let me finish first, are you, Slayer?” Spike laughed from somewhere out of sight. God, how did he manage to make that sound so dirty? And for Pete’s sake, how come she was all flustered and hot now? It wasn’t the wrestling with Joe Nameless here; all she felt from the close contact was vague disgust and annoyance, like he was a really smelly Chihuahua, and when she slammed him into the ground and drove her stake into his chest, she didn’t hesitate for a second, rolling right to her feet to check the sitch.

Spike was still fighting the last vampire, leather duster swinging flashily with his every move, and Buffy let him have his fight, shaking vampire dust out of her hair. She’d never had the opportunity to watch him in action before -- not when she wasn’t part of the action -- and it was fascinating, seeing how quickly he moved, knowing instinctively that he was holding back just a shade, playing with his prey. He moved faster when fighting her, because he had to. So did she.

“Stop screwing around, Spike!” she finally called out. “At this rate I’ll be on Medicare by the time you’re done.”

He flashed her a wicked grin, “You know what they say about vamps and stamina, love,” and then doubled his speed, sending his vampire reeling and then staking him with a sharp flourish. He turned to Buffy, puppyish eagerness in his eyes as he waved the cloud of dust away.

“That was bloody brilliant!” he laughed.

Buffy couldn’t help but smile back, though she tempered it with a shrug. “It was all right.” She carefully resisted asking just what “they” said about vamps and stamina, because she was certain she wasn’t going to like the answer. Or perhaps she was going to like the answer, far too much.

“Think there’s more out there?” Spike rolled his stake between his hands, turning to scan the quad.

“Maybe. But usually when there’s a big rumble like this, they scuttle back to their lairs. Like cockroaches.”

He sniffed. “Bloody cowards. I never ran.”

Buffy raised her eyebrows.

“Well, all right, sometimes a tactical retreat is called for. But just to regroup. I always come back.”

This was something she could not deny; she shrugged again, collecting her scattered weapons.

“So,” Spike said awkwardly. “That’s it for the night?”

“Probably.” Buffy tried not to feel disappointed.

“Bugger.” Spike poked at his bruised cheek, looking at the ground for a long moment before speaking again. “Night’s still young.”

She checked her watch. “Eh. A little.”

He heaved a deep breath, then looked up at her, eyes narrow. “You don’t trust me.” When she opened her mouth, he made a slicing motion with his hand. “That’s all right. Always knew you were a smart one. Thing is, you don’t know me. Not the me of this time, and not the me that’s me, standing right here in front of you.”

“That may have something to do with the fact that you won’t tell me anything.”

He sighed. “Lots I can’t tell you, sure. But there’s things I can. You could give me a chance.”

Buffy looked at him for a long time, trying to pick out something in his expression that would tell her what his game was, but there was something weirdly vulnerable about the way he was gazing at her, something that made her feel all shivery and vulnerable herself.

God, she was crazy. Crazy and bored, and just… really unenthusiastic about another evening spent third-wheeling it in her own room. That was the only explanation for what she was about to suggest. “Want to go get something to drink?”

His eyes lit up for a bare moment before he dropped a mask of patently-false nonchalance over it. “Yeah, all right.”

She felt her face break out into a grin.

What the hell was wrong with her?

Chapter Text

The last thing Buffy wanted to deal with tonight was all her friends butting in on her info-gathering session -- not a date! Strictly business! -- and so instead of heading out to the Bronze, where she was fairly certain the Scoobies had gathered to watch some band Oz was into, they ended up at some kind of sports bar. Nobody Buffy knew was into sports, not even her (which she supposed was funny since she’d once been a cheerleader for some of the sports she wasn’t into) so she figured it would be a safe haven from curious eyes.

It was also, thankfully, a slow night on which there were no important games of any major sportsball, and so they had no trouble finding a booth that was somewhat private and quiet, just some low classic rock playing over the sound system. Apparently they catered more to couples on less-sportsy nights; there was a space set aside for dancing, and a couple of girls encouraging their guys to let loose.

“You’re treating, right? I don’t go Dutch with mortal enemies.”

Spike lolled back into his side of the booth, grinning wickedly. “I’m a vampire. Vampires don’t pay for a damn thing.” Buffy started to stand up, and he hastened to lean forward. “But in this case, yeah, I’m paying.” He sniffed defensively. “”S Junior’s money anyhow.”

“Stolen.”

“Probably. But then I stole it from him, and I’m using it for you, who battles the forces of evil. That’s like the police confiscating drug money, isn’t it?”

“It’s not, actually.” Buffy folded her arms. “I think I’ll have water.”

“Bloody… And here I thought we were meeting in the spirit of reconciliation, working together towards a common goal, for the greater good.”

She raised her eyebrows. “And here I thought you were already working on the side of good. The side of good doesn’t steal.”

Spike’s jaw worked, like he was holding back a torrent of examples of the side of good stealing, but at last he sighed. “Got some… resources besides. Not stolen from anyone. Just need a day or two to find a buyer. If I promise not to steal anything while I’m here, and live off funds that are not stolen, can I buy you a bloody drink tonight?”

She gave him a narrow-eyed look and made him wait, so he knew she was serious, but then she nodded. “All right.”

“What’s your poison, then, love?” He plucked the menu out from behind the condiments and started perusing it.

“Diet Coke.”

He looked at her wryly. “Now there’s an ice-breaker. Also, I didn’t mean literal poison.” He didn’t argue further, just twitched the menu in her direction. “Hors d’oeuvres?”

God, why did he make it sound like he was offering sexual favors? She glanced over the appetizers section, finally settling on some spinach dip. Spinach dip was, like, the anti-sexy; maybe Spike would steal a bite, end up with some spinach caught in his teeth. That would be helpful.

When Spike added a platter of hot wings to their order -- “No need for the dressing, pet.” -- Buffy glared at him.

“I thought vampires didn’t eat,” she said. He’d better not be expecting her to eat those. She spent enough time getting blood and grass stains out of her clothes without adding buffalo sauce to the mix.

“Don’t need to eat. Doesn’t stop me from eating.”

“I thought….” She trailed off at his darkly amused look.

“Angel doesn’t eat, so the rest of us don’t either?” Spike shrugged. “His choice. Sad sort of life, if you ask me, only doing what you need to do and never what you want to do.”

“It’s not sad,” Buffy said, irked. “It’s... noble.”

That earned her a snort. “Yeah. Noble. You just keep on thinking that.”

Ugh, it’s like he could read her mind, like he knew she’d rather Angel was a little less noble and a little more here , doing what he’d said he wanted to do. “Why do it, though? Angel said food doesn’t taste like anything at all. Does it, I dunno, keep your teeth healthy or something?”

Spike glanced up at the waitress briefly as she delivered their drinks, turning his attention quickly back to Buffy. “Have you ever had turtle soup, love?”

“I’ve had a turtle sundae. Pecans and caramel and chocolate?” She could go for that soup.

“No, made from real turtles.” Spike chuckled at the look on her face -- it wasn’t her fault it sounded gross! -- and continued. “Back in my day -- before Dru made me who I am  -- people were mad for turtle soup. So mad for turtle soup that turtles were hunted to near extinction. Still had it at the posher celebrations -- not that I went to those, of course, not for me.” He gave Buffy an earnest, I’m-not-lying look that instantly convinced Buffy that Spike had been the scion of an aristocratic house, eating twelve-course dinners every day. “But I did… taste it once. Was like nothing I’d ever eaten.”

“I bet.” Yuck. She imagined a bowl of soup with turtle shells floating in it. That adorable turtle from Mario Brothers. Poor little guy.

“Thing was,” Spike continued, “everyone still wanted to serve it at their dinners, and so some housewife or cook came up with a recipe for mock-turtle soup, and that was what everyone ate instead. Some concoction of calf’s head and cow heels, all prepared very precisely, and it came out tasting almost like a hint of the real thing.” Spike took a quick sip of his drink, looking away. “If you’d ever had the real thing, or even… smelled it, been in the same room, you knew it wasn’t quite right, knew it was all a fraud, but you still… could pretend. Pretend you had something real. Pretend you were good enough for real… turtle soup.” He scowled at his glass of whiskey, swirling it.

The air suddenly seemed heavy, like they were actually talking about the Turtle Soup of Doom or something, and Buffy hastily interjected, “So there really isn’t a mock-turtle? Like in Alice in Wonderland?”

“Never was,” Spike sighed, then visibly collected himself. “Turtle’s not the point. Point is, food don’t taste the same now. As a vampire. You can taste everything, but the flavor’s a bit muted, a bit off. And of course, nothing tastes near as good as blood.” He grinned. “Blood tastes better than turtle soup ever could.”

“Ew, Spike. Off-topic.”

“Right.” He finished off his glass, gesturing for a refill. “In any case, you know Angel. He’s the type, if he can’t have everything just right, he’d rather not have it at all. Calls it artistry, or some bollocks. He’d turn up his nose at mock-turtle soup, holding out for the real thing. So of course the wanker won’t eat beef that doesn’t taste like beef. Whatever food tastes like now, he knows it’s not going to be how it really tastes, to a human, and so he doesn’t even want to try.”

Buffy shied away from that thought, taking a sip of her Diet Coke. Spike’s refill was delivered, and he matched her movements.

“Me, I don’t bloody care if it tastes the same or not. Your mum’s cocoa tastes good. Spicy buffalo wings taste good. And I imagine there’s other things that taste good, things I’ve never tasted.” He was suddenly watching her intently. “Things I’d do anything to taste.”

Oh god. Did he mean her blood? She hoped he meant her blood. Because if he didn’t mean her blood… She squeezed her legs together tightly and took a huge gulp of her Diet Coke, letting the aspartame taste wash away her sudden vision of Spike back in her shower again, except this time on his knees. Not that she had any idea what that would be like, but she’d bet her whole semester’s allowance that he’d know what to do, and that he’d put her loofah to shame.

Spike shook himself slightly and took another drink, humming with satisfaction.

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Let me guess, that tastes good, too. Way to belabor the point.”

“Doesn't taste good, precisely,” he mused. “Has a bite to it. The way I like it.”  

“What does that even mean?” Buffy sniffed.

“Ever tried it?” Spike said with a slow smile.

“Of course not. Like I had time to be a juvenile delinquent.” She thought about Snyder’s opinion of her for a moment. And her police record. “Or, well, more of one.”

He raised a curious eyebrow, but thankfully left it alone and held out the glass instead. “Have a taste?”

“No thanks.”

Spike smirked. “Knew you wouldn't.” He took another smug sip.

That sounded like a dare. “Give me that!” She snatched the heavy glass tumbler out of his hand, taking a mouthful of whiskey and swallowing it right down.

“Euuughh!” Holy crap, was she dying? Again? She was pretty sure this was what dying had felt like.

Spike took the glass back from her limp hand; when she was able to see again through the tears in her eyes, he was gazing at her as if she were a poodle who’d just done a particularly spectacular trick. “Not supposed to drink it like water, pet,” he said softly.

“Does all alcohol taste like napalm?” she finally managed. “Or does it just taste like apple juice to you?”

He tilted his head, regarding her steadily. “Do you want to try something tastier? Less like a weapon of mass destruction?”

Buffy looked at him, the faint amusement on his face, the challenge in the tilt of his eyebrows, the curve of his lower lip. “All right,” she said recklessly. “Surprise me.”

When the waitress returned with their munchies, Spike smiled up at her winningly. “Cuba libre for the lady. Make it with Captain Morgan’s, there’s a love.”

The waitress glanced at Buffy briefly, and she braced herself to be carded -- not that she didn’t have a fake ID, everyone did, but hers was for a Mildred Hofstetter, and she didn’t want Spike to be calling her that all night, which of course he would, just to be a jerk -- but then the waitress shrugged, apparently concluding that Buffy was close enough, and saved her from an evening of hearing Spike’s voice saying “Mildred.”

She wanted him to say her name again, at least once tonight. Buffy.

But what had he ordered her? “I am not so sure I want to drink a chupacabra.”

“Cuba libre,” he said slowly, lifting his glass to his lips again. “It’s a rum and coke with a twist of lime.” He closed his eyes as he sipped, as if… as if he were savoring the fact that Buffy had just drunk from the glass. She scoffed inwardly. How middle school was that?

Buffy watched his lips on the glass as he drank, imagining, because apparently she was right back in sixth grade too, all hormoned up and nowhere to go.

Spinach! Spinach dip was safe and non-sexy and would give her something to do with her mouth besides drool.

“So there was a point to the turtle soup thing?” Buffy said after she’d had a few pita chips. “Besides making me feel sorry for Yoshi.”

Spike shrugged again -- did he know the sexyness that that did to his shoulders, the rat, or was he just a shruggy guy? “Point was, I’m not Angel. Not going to fuss over whether my turtle soup is more mock than real, just enjoying what’s set at the table before me. Life is meant to be lived, you know? Not wasted whingeing.”

“Oh, really?” Buffy leaned forward challengingly, arms folded on the table. “Who was it that kidnapped Willow and Xander and then dragged me into a pointless fight with generic vampire bad guys just because he was all shredded over his girlfriend dumping him?”

Spike’s eyes flared with something unreadable. “Got over it, didn’t I? You work through your bloody… twelve stages of grief, and you move on.” He looked away. “Or you bloody well do something about it.”

That had obviously struck a nerve. “There’s only five stages of grief,” she said, a little more gently.

He toyed with the straw in his drink. “Not if you include the Laggered, Blotto, and Absolutely Pyjama’ed stages.”

“Which one are you in now?”

He was silent for a long moment, chest tense, as if he were about to lunge out of his seat and storm out of the pub, but then he met her eyes with a fierce grin. “The doing something about it one.”

“About what?”

He glared at her then as if he hated her. “You’re like a bloody dog with a bone, aren’t you? Can’t tell you what went wrong. Ask me something else. Bloody anything else.”

She rolled her eyes. “Did you really once eat actual-turtle soup?”

He laughed then, and she smiled with him, because even with how weirdly tense the last few minutes had been, it had also been… compelling. Interesting, even, getting to know who Spike was, now that they weren’t fighting. Each other or together. And she suddenly remembered that look on his face when they’d been patrolling earlier, the way he’d turned to her in a cloud of vampire dust like a puppy expecting a Milk-Bone, and then a laugh did escape, imagining holding up one of Spike’s hot wings and asking him to beg. Though that image had her squeezing her thighs together under the table again a moment later, wondering just how he’d beg for things he’d do anything to taste . After the laughter dissolved -- Spike’s face oddly confused, as if actual laughter was an alien concept to him (they weren’t the laughing-buddy type of friends in the future?) -- she sighed and finished off her soda, pushing aside thoughts of dogs and bones and all the associated innuendos yapping for her attention. “I guess I just never thought about it.”

“Turtles?” He lifted his eyebrows mockingly.

“What you were like when you were human.”

Spike’s face froze in that way that was becoming all too familiar -- that whoops, said something I shouldn’t, now the future is going to explode expression. It was kind of… no. No, it was absolutely not cute . Not at all.

“You should ask me about it sometime,” he said, face closing down. “Sometime when you really need the information. Life or death, you understand?”

“Sometime when it’s the other you?”

He gave her a sardonic glare. “Kewpie doll for the lady.”

Buffy’s drink arrived then, looking just like an ordinary soda except for the lime wedge on the edge of the glass. Spike reached out and nipped up the lime wedge between his fingertips, deftly wringing juice into her glass before dropping the bit of rind into the drink. He matter-of-factly licked the lime juice off his fingers, nodding towards the drink.

“Try it,” he said shortly.

Rolling her eyes, she took a sip, humming in surprise when it didn’t burn her tongue out. It had a bit of a bite, yeah, but… not bad.

She set her glass down and looked at him, the weirdly expectant expression on his face, and asked the one thing that had been eating at her since she’d first started believing he really was from the future.

“Why are you the one who got sent back? Why not me?”

Spike went still and silent, not even fiddling with his drink any more. Which was, okay, an accomplishment, getting him to shut up, but also majorly weird.

“Why not me?” she repeated. “I mean, it’s right there in the job description, one girl in all the world, yadda yadda, save the world. If anyone had to travel back in time to save the world , you’d think you’d send a professional world-saver, not an… an amateur maybe-former bad guy.”

Spike’s eyes hardened, his jaw twitching, and then he looked away. “You were unavailable.”

“What, I had a hot date Friday night?”

“Doesn’t bloody matter why,” Spike muttered, refusing to look at her. “Point is, I’m the one who came. And I told you, I’m doing my sodding best.”

“Why?” On an impulse, she reached out and grabbed his hand, tugging it until he looked at her. “Why do you care?”

He bared his teeth in what was probably intended to be a smile. “Promise to a lady, remember?”

And looking at his eyes, intense and angry and somehow vulnerable, Buffy couldn’t deny it any longer… Me. He means me. I’m the one he made the promise to. Because he thinks he’s in love with me.

This time she was the one to turn away.

***

“I wonder what Buffy’s up to,” Xander muttered, turning to glance at the entrance to the Bronze for the dozenth time. “You’d think she’d at least put in an appearance after we invited her and everything. We did invite her, didn’t we?”

“She said she had to patrol,” Willow replied, fiddling with the cuff of her sweater anxiously. Was it too close to hot pink? She hoped Xander didn’t notice, or if he did, that he’d already forgotten about the stationery thing.

“Right. Patrol.” Xander sighed. “Curse that sacred duty of hers, cutting into our very important Weekly Scooby Time.”

“We have Weekly Scooby Time?” Oz asked absently, watching the roadies setting up amps onstage.

Xander’s eyes bugged out just a little. “Of course we have Weekly Scooby Time! Just the guys and the girls, Scoobies all, getting together for a little quality time with our most important friends. The four amigos…” He paused for a moment, making that Math Face Willow had once found so adorable. “...There are four of us, right? We don’t count Giles.”

“Not unless he shows up at the Bronze,” Willow reassured him. “And really, like that’s ever going to happen!”

“I’m just saying it’s not technically weekly if we haven’t been doing it every week,” Oz pointed out, eyebrows twitching into the slightest of frowns.

Willow followed his gaze to the stage, where they had just started to set out instruments. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly. “I just thought Shy was playing tonight.”

Willow bit back the first words that came to her lips, because she didn’t like to be the kind of girlfriend who was super-jealous for no reason, but she just… didn’t see what Oz saw in that stupid band with its stupid skanky lead singer with her stupid leather pants and the stupid way she practically ate the microphone when she was singing and the even stupider way she always seemed to be singing directly to Oz, even though hello! girlfriend right next to him! And okay, so maybe she did kind of know what he saw in... but it still kind of hurt. Even though she was the one he always went home with.

Still, it wasn’t fair to get all green-eyed and meany-faced over Oz liking music. She’d always known that Oz loved music almost as much as he loved her, and the Oz-who-loved-music was exactly the Oz she’d fallen in love with, and so of course she wouldn’t want to take that away from him, not ever.

Even if she did sometimes wish Shy would leave Sunnydale on an extended tour of Siberia, taking its lead singer along with. Possibly forgetting to bring her winter coat.

But anyhow, Willow didn’t want to spend their Scooby Time -- weekly or not -- thinking about Veruca, and she really didn’t want Oz to keep on thinking about Veruca, and so she hurried to change the subject.

“Buffy seems wigged about Spike being in love with her.”

That did distract Oz from his scrutiny of the Shy-less stage. “Well, it must be weird when your enemy suddenly has feelings for you.”

“Right, like Catwoman falling for Batman,” Xander interjected. “Oh wait, bad example.”

Willow rolled her eyes at that, but with a smile, because it made her remember how they used to hang out at her place to watch Adam West and Burt Ward punch things with Kapows! and Bams! and how Xander had once confessed his secret love for Catwoman and so she had dressed up as Catwoman the following Halloween but by then he had transferred his affections to Poison Ivy, and she’d had problems figuring out how to attach leaves to herself for that costume and had regretfully given up on her next-best-thing-to-a-sexy-supervillain romantic strategy. (She had been nine.)

“No,” she said patiently. “I mean, yeah, it’s definitely weird for her, but I actually meant the demon thing.” She looked around the table, taking in the guys’ blank looks. “Demons aren’t supposed to feel, right? Isn’t that what Giles always said? Or Angel? Someone with the knowhow, anyways.”

Xander opened his mouth, then closed it, looking thoughtful. Or maybe confused. Or maybe both; they really were almost the same expression on him.

“Huh,” Oz replied sagely, then looked at her, eyes piercing in that way he had of making it seem like Willow was the only thing he could ever possibly look at. “I love you .”

That melted her right down to her toes, like she was a Willow-sicle and he was the sun. The whole incomprehensible Shy-liking thing was completely forgiven. “I know, but you’re not… a demon demon,” she reassured him.

“Aren’t I?” he said softly, eyes flickering towards the stage for the briefest moment. But not brief enough. Maybe not so forgiven after all.

That did it. Willow was buying herself a pair of leather pants.

***

“I could turn you, you know,” Harmony said idly as she ran the brush through Monica’s hair. They’d decided to stay in, even though they were totally college girls now. Or, Mon was a college girl; Harmony was just there for the lifestyle, because her parents had never used to let her stay out late on weeknights. Just knowing they could’ve gone out was enough to satisfy her rebellious undead urges. Besides, bonding was totally important! Plus: movie night. And her bestie had such nice hair, all thick and dark and glossy, it was totally relaxing brushing it out, she felt all zen and shit. Harmony’s hair was long and thick, too, but it had a tendency to get bushy if she didn’t blow dry, and blow drying was so hard without a reflection. Monica’s hair stayed naturally sleek. Harmony was officially jealous.

“Was that a threat?” Monica laughed, but didn’t even look away from the Sandra Bullock epic of love left unacknowledged that they were watching on her roommate’s TV (Harmony could relate so hard, yearning for a guy who barely even noticed her, only to find out he was an asshole with a much nicer brother. She wondered if Spike had a brother.) Monica’s roommate had disappeared a couple of weeks into the semester, apparently, but left all her stuff. Harmony figured she’d probably just been eaten by somebody. She didn’t think it’d been her doing the eating, but, whatever -- the girl had had nice stuff.

“No,” Harmony said, after a moment’s judicious consideration. She’d had to, like, decide if it was a threat or not -- hello, she was totally still evil here, even if she was vegan now -- but she shouldn’t lie to her best girlfriend. Okay, so she’d lied all the time to Cordelia when they were best girlfriends, but Monica was way nicer, and besides, Harmony was totally growing as a person, turning over so many new leaves she was practically a tree! But anyway, the point was, honesty was her new policy. “I just meant, if you wanted me to. Then you could be young and pretty forever, too, and we could, like, travel the world and stuff.”

Monica was quiet for a few moments, and Harmony waited, watching as Sandra and Bill Pullman (who was kinda geeky, but in a hot way -- wow, was she, like, expanding her horizons? She was so proud of herself) slipped around on some ice and groped each other.

“Do you like being a vampire?” Mon asked eventually.

“Of course I do!” Harmony felt almost offended by the question. “I mean, I’m super strong, and fast, and I’ll never get old or gray or, ew, saggy .” Though, she hadn’t really ever thought about it before. “I guess not having a reflection kinda sucks,” she allowed. “And I miss hanging out at the beach. And my mom and dad won’t let me in the house anymore. And, well…” she realized she was welling up, and flapped her hands frantically, trying to hold it back. “I guess I’m not sure I see the point of being so strong when I’m not really any good at f-fighting.”

“Hey,” Monica said, turning away from Bill and Sandra’s killer sexual tension and taking her hand comfortingly. “At least you don’t have to worry about how much ice cream you can eat anymore.”

“That’s true,” Harmony sniffled. “But it’s not like it even tastes any good. I went and tried some, you know? After Spike… and he… so I treated myself to a chocolate fudge sundae and--” She couldn’t hold back the tears anymore, the tragedy was too great. “And it just-- tasted like-- nothing! Just a cold-- lump of-- no-o-o-othing. Just like me!”

“Oh, sweetie,” Mon soothed, and patted her back some. This close she smelled delicious, all fresh and warm and pulsating, better than all the chocolate fudge sundaes in the world. But Harmony decided the hug was nicer.

“You should totally come to karate class with me,” Monica said after a few moments.

“Huh?”

“Yeah, I mean, there’s nothing I can do about the reflection and the ice cream and stuff, but I can teach you how to fight.”

Harmony wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Fighting was okay when it was really important and all, like giving the womanizing asshats of the world a piece of her mind, but it was total hell on the nails, and these days she had to do touch ups herself, because she was all empowered and stuff… and also because she was broke.

Then she suddenly pictured Spike’s face next time he tried to get all rough with her. Oh boy, would he get a surprise if she could give him a taste of his own medicine. In fact, if they were going to keep on with this help-I’m-a-hostage game, it’d totally be in character for her to be able to subdue him and stuff. She’d be, like, a Spike-subduing grand-master! Or, wait, grand- mistress , because duh. That would be worth a couple of chipped nails. Way, way worth it.

She took a deep breath (still weird, what with the not actually having to anymore) and found her inner courage, just like it’d described in that Cosmo article. She even let her eyes glow a little, all Eye of the Tiger and dramatic.

“Sign me up,” she said decisively. It was time to, like, take back control of her unlife and stuff.

***

Buffy knew she had to take back control of the situation, that she couldn’t spend the evening off-balance and flying blind, but -- well, she was off-balance, staggered by the acceptance that Spike apparently considered her future-self’s decree a good enough reason to switch sides in the grand cosmic good-versus-evil scheme of things. Staggered, if she was being honest, that any feelings he could have for her, even if they weren’t really real love, could be strong enough to lead him to such a complete one-eighty. And so she ate her spinach dip, and sipped her tasty-bitey-lime drink, and thought, and when her mouth finally opened again, it wasn’t to accuse or demand or threaten, which surprised even her.

“What’s it like?”

“What’s what like? The wings? You can have a few if you want, Slay-”

“No, what’s it like… not having a soul?”

Spike looked at her silently for long enough that she felt uncomfortable.

“I mean,” she awkwardly continued, “you were human once, right? And you… do you remember what it was like to be human? All soul-having and everything? Because now your soul is one-hundred-percent gone, so… what’s it like? What’s the difference?”

“You feeling all right, Slayer?” Spike asked, shaking his head. “Thought you knew everything there was to know about souls, the way you go on .”

“Well, souls are this thing that we always talk about like we know, like everybody knows, except we don’t really know, you know?”

Spike tilted his head in acknowledgment. “Have to say, I never thought about it. Just been living it.” His eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “What brings all this up?”

Buffy toyed with her little straw -- was she supposed to drink through that? She hadn’t ever gotten a mixed drink before -- and sighed. Seemed like Buffy-on-mixed-drinks had more on her mind that Buffy-on-Diet-Coke had realized. “There was a thing.”

“A thing. Well, that is ever so intelligible, thank you.”

“A thing where… A thing where I lost my soul.” At Spike’s sudden arrested look, she hastened to clarify. “Not for good, and not… not all of it. But probably more than half?”

“Uh-huh.” He picked up one of his buffalo wings and regarded it thoughtfully. “And did you rampage madly among the helpless citizens of Sunnydale? Would have liked to have been there to witness that.”

“No! There wasn’t any rampaging at all.”

“Pity.” He grinned wickedly.

“Well, unless you count a little bit of head bashing.” Then she glared. “Not really helping your good-guy cred here.”

His grin just got wider and he nipped the meat off his chicken wing with neat, precise bites of his white teeth, licking his fingers meditatively. “So,” he said finally -- for some reason Buffy hadn’t been able to say anything while he was putting on his buffalo-wing-burlesque show -- “how did it feel?”

“Well, that was the weird thing. It didn’t feel all that different.” She frowned at her half-empty plate of pita chips. “I mean, I was a little more violent and cranky, but I didn’t start nailing people’s pets to their doors or anything. I still tried to fight evil. I still loved my friends. Or, I think I did.”

Spike made a face like he’d just tasted something bitter, but took a long moment before speaking again, words far more measured than she’d been expecting, from his expression. “And you shouldn’t have been able to do either without a soul?”

“Well, I guess… I mean, I wondered…” she twiddled her straw uncomfortably. “The fighting evil could’ve just been a vendetta, right? Because that demon chick was a total bitca. Maybe I just wanted to take her down because she pissed me off. And as for the rest…” she glanced up at Spike, feeling hesitant and weirdly guilty. “I was always told that vamps couldn’t feel. That once they were turned, the soul left, and took all the real emotions with it. And my soul was leaving, too, so… maybe what I felt wasn’t real, either.”

A muscle in Spike’s jaw twitched and his eyes flashed darkly, and for a moment she worried he was going to vamp out right there in the middle of the pub. He didn’t, though. Instead he looked up at the grimy ceiling and took a deep breath, like he was praying for patience, before meeting her eyes again.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s make this real simple. You think you still loved your friends? Why’d you think that?”

“I… I felt it. I still wanted to protect them. I think I… wanted to prove to them I was right about Cathy, so that they’d know I wasn’t nuts. Because I still wanted them to like me. I mean, they were being total poop-heads, but I didn’t want to hurt them for it.” She had hurt Xander and Oz, but she hadn’t wanted to.

“So you thought you were in love, you acted like you were in love, but you’re worried it wasn’t real love. That about sum it up?” Spike’s voice was low but incredibly heated, his face full of restrained fury and hurt. This meant more to him than just their current conversation, she could tell, and so she didn’t bother to correct the ‘in love’ part, and just nodded, fighting the absurd urge to shrink away from him. “What’s the difference, then?” he asked. “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, what’s the sodding difference?”

She stared at him blankly. “Huh?” Where did the ducks fly in from?

“My point, Slayer,” he said through gritted teeth, “is how do you define ‘real’? If a feeling comes from somewhere deeper than your soul, suddenly it’s worth less? Even though, any angle you look at it from, it’s the same bloody thing ? If everything you think and everything you do lines up with a person who’s in love…” his voice cracked as he spoke, venom bleeding away until he just looked heartbroken. “What bloody difference does it make?”

Buffy stared. Even as she felt herself flushing, she couldn’t take her eyes off him. Her mind buzzed with what he’d been saying, but his face filled her world. The look on his face…

“I just feel like, without my soul, I should have been more… evil,” she whispered.

Spike slowly seemed to be forcing his body to unwind, slouching back against the wall of the booth once more. And he wasn’t looking at her, squinting out across the room like she’d seared his eyes or something.

“You mean like me?” he asked casually.

“No! Well… actually, yes. You kill people.”

“Yeah. Not anymore, but…” he sighed, and took a healthy swallow of his drink, and seemed to relax again for real this time. “When you’re a vampire, people aren’t people, right? People are just… food.” He sniffed. “A few stand out -- musicians, artists, anyone who’s created something I enjoyed, I left them alone. Sometimes got to know one, got all sentimental about them, let them slide by, but it was like having a goldfish, you know? And slayers, slayers were always a breed apart. Always saw slayers as something special. But most people, they’re just…”

“Happy Meals with legs?” God, this was surreal, how she was getting sucked into this conversation. It was disgusting, but she still wanted to hear more, kind of like those creepy late-night true crime shows. And this one, she had a vested interest in.

“Yeah. ‘S not murder, when you slaughter cattle. It’s just survival.”

“It’s murder to us.”

A nd that’s your whole raison d’etre , isn’t it? Protecting humanity from predators like yours truly.” He smiled, seeming somehow fond, and Buffy was mildly horrified to find she felt relieved to see it. “But you don’t call a wolf evil when it’s preying on sheep.”

“Wolves don’t seduce sheep off into back alleys. Wolves can’t talk.”

“Not a perfect analogy,” he said, that affectionate look still on his face. “But there’s the thing. Wolves don’t have free will or bloody logic. They’re always going to prey on sheep. Vampires… We can make choices. We can change. We can choose. Always going to be a demon, no changing our nature, but we can choose not to prey on humanity. If we do that, if we choose to throw in with the lamb, are we still evil?”

Buffy’s drink was half gone now, but she was pretty sure that wasn’t enough alcohol to account for the weird dizziness this conversation was causing. “So when I was all nearly-soulless-Buffy, what you’re saying is… I chose to still fight evil?”

Yes . Exactly. At bloody last.”

“And that made me… not-evil. Because evil is a choice.” She sounded the words out slowly, trying to feel their edges. “So what about you? Are you not-evil?”

Spike’s eyes widened suddenly and he gave her a cornered, conflicted look. “Uh, well, let’s not be hasty,” he spluttered. “I’m still the Big Bad.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “No dice, Forrest Vamp. You just spent the last few minutes convincing me that evil is as evil does. You don’t get to back out now.”

“All right, all right,” he muttered sulkily. “But keep your bloody voice down.” He fiddled with his glass, spinning it around in its little pool of condensation. “Does this mean you believe me?” He glanced up, bluster replaced by something far more naked. “About the other thing, too?”

This time, it was Buffy who looked away. “I guess it does. The evidence is kinda compelling.” She felt his eyes boring into her. There was just one thing that still niggled at her, but she found she didn’t want to  break up the weird intimacy that had developed in their little sports-bar booth. But in the end, she had to know. “When I loved… When I was in love, it felt like it came from… like I was loving with my whole soul.”

He got a sour look on his face. “With Angel.”

“Yes,” Buffy said, moving on from that subject quickly. “But... you love Drusilla.” She felt her face grow hot again. “Loved.”

“I did,” he said heavily. “More than a century I loved her. Not the only one I loved.” Spike took a sudden drink.

“You had another girlfriend?”

“Not a girlfriend,” Spike said, something low and bitter in his voice. “There was someone I loved… before I was turned. Loved her when I was a man, and then when I was a vampire, all newborn and hot with bloodlust, I still loved her.” He drank again, draining his glass. “M’ mum.”

“Your... mother?”

“Yeah.” Spike frowned into his empty glass, brows beetled in apparent confusion.

When he didn’t elaborate, Buffy leaned forward, feeling strangely solemn. “What happened to her? Did you…?” Angel had killed his whole family, she recalled suddenly. Had Spike done that too?

“Dunno,” he said roughly, waving over the waitress. “Don’t rightly remember. But I remember loving her.” He shrugged. “She died, I think. She’d been sickly. Consumption. Don’t remember… don’t remember her dying, but I remember… after.” He scowled at Buffy again, expression suddenly fierce. “We love just fine without a soul.”

Well, that seemed to answer that. She loved her friends both with and nearly-without her soul. Spike had loved before and after losing his. Somewhere deeper than your soul , he’d said. Maybe he was right; maybe her love did come from somewhere much deeper, more intrinsic, than she’d imagined.

“And now, you…” Buffy lifted her chin defiantly; no need to keep tapdancing around the twelve-foot pink elephant in the room. “You love me.”

His eyes widened in surprise before melting into something fervent. “I do.”

“When?”

He laughed. “All the bloody time.”

That earned an eyeroll, even as she felt her face heating. Stupid face. “No, when did it happen?

He paused, and sat back, serious again. “Wonder that myself, some days,” he said at last . “Know when I finally sussed it out, like a bloody revelation, but Dru knew before that. Was why she gave me my walking papers.”

Buffy couldn’t help lifting her eyebrows. “When you showed up all drunk and disorderly?”

“Yeah, that was… But no,” he amended firmly. “It was earlier. It had to have been…” He trailed off, looking distant for a long moment, so Buffy was suddenly aware of the Eagles song playing over the intercom. She’d forgotten there was music. “Remember when you punched me in the nose, that time?”

“I punch you in the nose a lot,” Buffy sassed, folding her arms.

“With the police car. When I came to you about stopping… about saving the world.” Buffy’s disbelief must have been written all over her face, because he chuckled knowingly. “You punched me and I punched you, and then we set off for your mother’s house, and I remember looking down at you, all glowery and grim, with your hair all stuffed away under that ridiculous black cap, and you looked… different. Not just because of the hat. You were real.” He looked down at his newly-delivered drink, frowning. “Think that must have been it. That was when Dru changed, when I took her away from Sunnydale. That was when everything changed.”

“So you fell in love at first fight, and then went off to… what? Keep on rampaging through South America?”

“Oh come on now, Slayer. It was third fight at least . And I was in denial,” Spike shrugged. “Not like it was something I’d expected, not in my wildest dreams. And I was still choosing evil, wasn’t I?” He gestured vaguely with his drink off to the side. “That nasty bugger in chains, back at the mansion -- he’s already in love with you. Just doesn’t know it yet. Won’t have a clue until….” He trailed off again, looking uncomfortable.

“How many more nose punches does it take? Ten? Twelve?”

“Enough.”

This was… She’d asked because she’d wanted to know but somehow the conversation was getting away from her, ploughing deep into a part of her that was far too vulnerable not to be affected by all this. She needed to put some distance back between them. She forced a flippant tone, “So should I expect a card come Valentine’s Day? Maybe some chocolates?”

“What, do you like chocolates?” he asked with suddenly-sharp interest.

“Not from him, I don’t.”

“Of course not.” He laughed then, ruefully. “Can’t say I envy the fellow what’s coming. Poor sod hasn’t the faintest idea what’s going to happen. And then when it does, he won’t have the faintest idea what to do about it.” He gave Buffy a bemused look. “Over a century of life after death, and never imagined it would end up with me trying to figure out how to… how to court a slayer. Might as well be trying to read Arabic, or climb bloody Mount Everest.” He lifted his glass in an ironic toast. “Couldn’t happen to a more deserving arse.”

“You really don’t like yourself,” Buffy said slowly, treading with caution lest things get sticky again. Things seemed to get sticky around Spike a lot. He was a vamp-shaped quagmire.

“Not then-myself, no.” Spike shrugged. “Can’t say if now-myself is much better, guess it’s not really for me to even say, ultimately, but if I ever needed proof of how much I’ve changed, I just need to think of how much I want to punch myself in the gob.”

“But he’s you.”

“Tragically, yes. But imagine this, Slayer -- running into someone who walks like you, talks like you, is you, but they’re the very worst you you ever were. Like you’re looking in a mirror and it’s all covered in grime.” He drank again, abruptly. “That bastard’s what I’ve been trying to get away from all this time. All the things that…” he looked down, seeming somehow vulnerable again. “That you hate. And the fact of the matter is, a few punches in the nose would do the bugger good. He’s never going to become me if he doesn’t… have a reason to change.” He glowered at his whiskey then as if it were whispering an inconvenient truth in his ear and he wanted it to shut up.

Buffy suddenly thought of Faith, of the way she’d seemed a manifestation of all Buffy’s darkest thoughts and urges, and she thought maybe, maybe she understood. Just a little.

It didn’t seem possible, that the gross, obnoxious Spike chained up in the Mansion of Regrettable Life Choices was in love with her, but she had to admit, she did know a teensy bit about denial and the way it messed with your self-perception. Like her mom when she’d told her she was a slayer, or even the way she’d kept thinking her dad would come back, even when she’d found out about the trips to Spain with his secretary. Or the way she was totally not at all thinking about the confluence of a vamp who genuinely seemed to want to change for her and her shower...

Yeah, she kind of got denial.

She was startled out of her thoughts by the waitress coming back by their table, this time with the check, which surprised her for a moment, until she realized that the food had somehow all disappeared -- stupid unconscious eating! -- and Spike was drinking down the last of his latest refill, and her own drink was down to just ice and a twisted shred of lime.

She reached out and plucked a half-melted ice cube from her glass, crunching it slowly, feeling weirdly sad that their not-a-date was apparently over.

Spike rummaged in his pockets, digging out a few crumpled bills and tossing them on top of the faux-leather check folder.

Buffy gave him her very best stinkeye. “Did you tip?”

He rolled his eyes and dug out a few more bills.

“Twenty percent?”

He looked outraged, but dropped a few more bills on top of the growing pile. “Happy now?”

She sighed. “Do I have to ride herd on you like this to keep you good in the future? Because I am suddenly feeling very sorry for Future Me.”

He smiled. “Last time, you treated. Dunno how well you tipped.”

“Oh, right. Like I’d pay to be in his company.”

“Would you pay to be in mine?”

Buffy scooted out of the booth, allowing the very faintest of smiles. “No.”

“Right.”

She stood up, fussing with the fall of her shirt, feeling a little let down. She really had expected things to go a little longer -- though looking around the bar, she could see that there had been a shift change among the patrons, and then she glanced up at the clock and tried not to gape. Wow, had they really been here that long? It had felt shorter.

It had felt… too short.

She stuffed that thought right into her Bin of Denial and turned to Spike with a bright smile. “Well, this has been slightly interesting.”

He tilted his head to the side. “So, where are we, then?”

Buffy couldn’t even think of a smartass quip. “I don’t know.”

“Are we… allies?” He looked suddenly nervous. “Can I help you with patrol again?”

What the hell? Why did that make her feel all bubbly and perky? “I guess.”

He smiled then, as if he saw right through her. “I’m thinking we should seal the deal.”

“I’m not going to kiss you,” she blurted out.

Spike blinked. “Of course not,” he said blankly, then shook himself into a more Spikeish leer. “Unless you want to.”

She just rolled her eyes at that, because she really was starting to not trust her vocal cords.

“No,” he went on, looking off at nothing. “Was just thinking perhaps we could… dance.”

She folded her arms. “I do not dance with my mortal enemies.”

“Thought you agreed we were allies.”

“Mortal allies.”

He suddenly looked very serious and intense. “Please, Slayer.”

God, was any part of her body trustworthy? Because she was all tingly again from the sound of his voice. “Fine. One dance.”

He took her by the hand and led her out to the floor, which had a few other couples swaying here and there, but still had plenty of room, and then she stopped noticing them at all when Spike pulled her close. She’d kind of expected him to pull her into a clinch and start rubbing his parts against her, the way he had when they were fighting, but instead he folded one of her hands in his, tucking it against his breast, and rested the other on her hip, light as a feather, and then he sighed and pressed his cheek against her temple, and… they danced, their bodies inches apart. Buffy set her free hand on his hip, just to give it something to do, fiercely telling herself that she didn’t need the parts-rubbing anyhow.

She told herself she wasn’t disappointed.

The song ended -- something by Journey, she’d barely noticed -- and some other soft classic had started up, and she knew she should put an end to things, but it just felt… nice, to be moving on the dance floor with someone who had a sense of rhythm; slow dancing wasn’t too demanding, but you could always tell when your partner couldn’t dance, or didn’t like to dance, and she could tell that Spike could and did and might even be able to take on a tango -- and since the last guy she’d danced with had been Parker, ew, and the last guy before that had been Xander, not-ew-but-not-romantic-either, and then before that had been the Prom and she didn’t want to think about that right now, she just sank into the movement and let herself enjoy it.

After the third song, guilt made her start to pull away, but Spike’s grip tightened on her hand, and he looked down at her, pleading.

“Please, Buffy,” he said softly. “Just one more.”

The way he said her name did her in. And okay, one more wouldn’t hurt, it’s not like she actually had a test tomorrow. So she let him fold her back in, reassuring herself that it was good to be nice to your allies, and that she was kind of tired of always dancing with Xander and Oz, who were nice enough but basically off limits, and while Spike was off-limits for all sorts of valid reasons, at least she didn’t have to maintain that tight wall of platonic-only, not-available-for-attraction-ness, and could just enjoy herself.

She really did love to dance. When she was looking for a new boyfriend, she’d have to find a guy who knew how.

After a bit, Spike breathed something into her hair that she couldn’t quite hear -- it wasn’t I love you , it was something else, but it sounded fervent and meaningful -- and that encouraged her to lift her head to look up at him. He looked back at her, face somber.

“Do we…” Her voice caught; she cleared her throat. “Do we dance a lot, in the future?”

He was silent for a long time before answering. “No,” he finally managed, voice rough as sandpaper. “No, we never… except... yeah. Yeah, we danced. It’s all… all we’ve ever done.”

That didn’t make any sense, not at all, but somehow, she didn’t need it to.

 

Chapter Text

“I don’t know.” Xander stepped back from the pumpkin, knife held loosely in hand, with a look of disappointment. “I was going for ferocious, scary, but it’s coming out more dryly sardonic.”

“It does appear to be mocking you with its eye holes,” Willow agreed.

Oz nodded. “Yet its nose hole seems sad and full of self-loathing.”

Lying on the bed, Buffy made a half-hearted attempt to hide her amusement, but it was kinda hard, as good-moody as she was. She knew the others kept slanting her funny looks and raised eyebrows at the way she sometimes couldn’t help from breaking into smiles, but it was just that life was kinda good right now, and how often had she been able to say that since she’d been called? In fact, the last few nights had been some of the most fun of her slaying career. Not that, you know, she was taking her sacred duty lightly or anything -- she really wasn’t -- but having Spike tag along was… Okay, it was a crazy idea, but also somehow kind of wonderful. Anyway, it wasn’t like she’d invited him, or, well, Spike could take a punch to the nose as an invite, but she hadn’t asked him to come. She just… hadn’t really been trying all that hard to make him leave, either. Stupid vamp, smiling at her like that whenever she insulted him, he clearly didn’t know what was good for him. But what he did know was how to fight, and more specifically, how to fight alongside Buffy. She hadn’t had an ally like that since before Faith went bad, and it was -- god -- it was so nice. She supposed she just had to hope it wasn’t prophetic. Weirdly, though, she was feeling optimistic.

“What do you think, Buff?” Xander asked, turning the attempted jack-o-lantern around to show her.

She bit her lip, forcing her thoughts back into the room. “You know I like to be support-o girl...”

“But?”

Buffy grinned, and turned her own pumpkin around for the appraisal of the room. “Mine’s better.”

“Now, see, that,” Xander flapped a hand at Buffy’s creation. “That’s ferocious and scary. No fair.”

“What can I say?” she said smugly, twirling her knife casually in her palm. “I’m good with edged weapons.” Spike had certainly thought so, after they’d taken out that Hanakuso demon together. Now that had been fun. Someone else copping the demon goo for once was always a good time, but when that someone else was Spike? Buffy could feel the corners of her mouth curling up treacherously again at the memory. The look on his face had been priceless -- she’d been all set to enjoy the tirade she’d been certain was coming. Only, she hadn’t been able to keep her laughter in, and then he’d been laughing too, reluctantly at first, and then with a kind of self-deprecation she’d found almost shocking. He’d been pissed about his precious duster, of course, but mostly he’d seemed like he was enjoying a joke with her. Enjoying her. It was… she didn’t know. The word confusing had kinda lost all meaning by this point. But since that first not-a-date at the sports bar when she’d had to admit to herself that Spike had feelings and they were just as real as hers, everything he did had suddenly taken on this… depth that she wasn’t accustomed to applying to vampires. Soulless vampires. Not that she was absolutely a hundred percent sure that made a difference anymore, not with the depth and the feelings and the confusingness and...

He was just so unexpected. Like, not Spanish Inquisition unexpected; more like, huh, surf and turf really is a good combo unexpected. All sizzly and yummy and, uh, wait a sec, that hadn’t been what she’d meant at all...

“That’s a nose hole with evil intent,” Oz confirmed, dragging her attention back to the present yet again. “Nice detail on the fangs.”

Willow gave an exaggerated coo. “Aww, is it a little jack-o-lantern vampire? Oh, oh, it’s a vamp-o-lantern! Look at its little grr face.”

Buffy raised her eyebrows, swivelling it back to consider its leering expression. “So it’s a scary, evil, but weirdly adorable vamp-o-lantern. I think I did something wrong, because that’s not a combination that exists in nature.”

Although, future-Spike came disturbingly close. Completely deniable sizzly yumminess aside, the thing she found most weirdly intriguing was the warm, squishy center he would sometimes leave alarmingly on display. Like he didn’t know wearing that kind of thing on his black leather sleeve would get him destroyed.

They hadn’t revisited the things they’d talked about in the sports bar. Honestly, Buffy hadn’t felt the need, and Spike too had seemed like he’d said his piece and was perfectly content to move on. He hadn’t even mentioned the dance, which was… no, it was definitely of the good, even if she had been a little disappointed not to be cajoled into a repeat performance when they’d wound up there again a couple of nights later. She just… there was something about him that was so… god, she had not just been thinking the word attractive. Yeah, okay, his face and his body -- he was yummy surf and turf goodness -- but there was a whole underworld of difference between genetically gifted and I like spending time with you. Except, the thing was, she kinda did like spending time with him. He made her laugh and he was interesting. Well, not him per se, more like the things he wouldn’t tell her about his mission but would sometimes let slip, yup, that was what was really interesting. Way more interesting than, for example, his stupid stories about turtle soup, or the way his carelessly fond looks would slide in under her guard and warm her through.

She absolutely did not feel protective of that vulnerable, gooey middle.

“Okay, and on that disturbing note.” Xander interrupted her thoughts with… her thoughts? She eyed him suspiciously, wondering if she’d somehow voiced any of her Spike-related musings aloud. “I’ve got a treat for tomorrow night’s second annual Halloween screening. People, prepare to have your spines tingled and your gooses bumped by the terrifying--” he brandished the cassette dramatically. “Fantasia. Fantasia?”

A mild kerfuffle ensued. Oz bemoaned that he just didn’t find hippos in tutus unnerving anymore, and they all awkwardly realized that no one had actually done the inviting part of inviting Xander to the Alpha Delta party. Buffy eyed the clock while the others did the requisite stumbling around in apology-land, and the follow up trip to plan-making world, wondering the whole time if she could get away with heading out early. Not… not to see Spike. Well, she almost certainly would see Spike, but that wasn’t the reason she wanted to bail on her friends. No siree. She just needed to get some exercise after all this good, relaxing Scooby-time. She’d sleep better for it. That was absolutely the main and most important reason she had to go -- quality rest was important for the world saveage, any hero would say as much. And hopefully her friends would say as much, too.

Well, only one way to find out.

“I’m gonna get going,” she said when it seemed like they were winding down, rolling to her feet as nonchalantly as she could manage.

Xander started. “Now? The night’s still…” he checked his watch. “Okay, it’s a little mature, but still.”

“Patrol,” she said with a shrug. “You know me, no rest for the… slayer of wicked things. Except, you know, when I go to sleep. Which will happen straight after patrol. In my own bed,” she added for good measure.

“You want me to come with?” Willow asked.

“No!” she almost yelped, surprising even herself. She looked around the room, feeling suddenly flustered. “I mean, no, I’m fine. Thanks, Will, but I got this.” And before any of them could question her, she made quickly for the door.

***

“Did you think Buffy seemed weird tonight?” Willow wondered out loud as she and Oz were walking back towards campus, hand in hand.

Oz shrugged. “She seemed happy.”

“That’s what I mean,” Willow said. “Weird!”

“Buffy can’t be happy?” he asked, raising his eyebrow in that adorable, ironically-befuddled way.

“No, that’s not what I meant. It’s just, you know…” she stumbled, unable to figure out how to word it.

“The last time she seemed happy, she’d lost most of her soul, and before that no one can really remember,” Oz offered.

“Right!” she said, relieved that he got it. Oz always got it -- got her. That was one of the things she loved most about him, and no leather-pants-clad harpy was going to make her forget it. She just hoped said harpy wouldn’t make him forget it, either. “And she just ditched Parker, so it’s like, you go, girlfriend, being all unbroken-up about it, but also, why isn’t she more broken up about it? It’s great and all, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find it a little peculiar.”

Oz shrugged philosophically. “Parker’s a sleazebag.”

“The sleaziest,” Willow agreed. That was definitely not in dispute.

“Maybe Buffy just figured out how much better off she is without him.”

“I guess,” Willow said, though that didn’t really sound like Buffy in her very educated and Buffy-knowing opinion.

Oz put his arm around her and she sensed a note of caution before he said, “You sound… disappointed. Did you want her to be sad?”

“No! Of course not! I…” But Willow’s burgeoning outrage flopped quickly into vaguely shamefaced acceptance. Oz really did get her. “It’s just, I kinda expected some girlfriend time, you know? Ice cream and chick flicks and a shoulder to cry on. But instead she’s brushing Parker off like one of Cordelia’s boy-toys, and staying out late every night on ‘patrol’, and I think I see less of her now than when she was actually dating Parker. Or, you know, not-dating him...”

Oz gave her a sly little sideways look as she trailed off. “Feel better now?”

Willow smiled sheepishly. “Yeah.”

“Good.” He squeezed her against him, and she felt warm inside, and happy again. “So now can we address the quotation marks around patrol?”

“You noticed that, huh?”

“Not much slips by me, it’s true.”

Willow rolled her eyes smilingly. “It’s nothing, just a suspicion.”

“A Spike-shaped suspicion?”

“Have you been reading my Ars Notoria? Because that mind-reading spell was a flop when I tried it,” she joked. Immediately, the lighthearted mood fizzled, Oz’s arm dropping back to his side.

“You know I don’t like you using that book,” he said. Oz was the most non-confrontational guy she’d ever met, so his tone was more worried and disappointed than angry or accusing, but still, she felt accused.

“I need to learn,” she told him. “You might have noticed, but UC Sunnydale isn’t exactly Hogwarts. Some of the spells in that book could be really useful one day.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “I just worry.”

Willow felt mildly annoyed, as she always did whenever this came up. It was sweet that he cared, of course it was, but his concern always seemed out of proportion to the risk, and smacked of a lack of confidence in her abilities. First Giles, with his not believing she could be the witch who sent Spike back in time, and now Oz too! She could handle the magic. She could so totally handle the magic. And if Oz could get everything else about her, why couldn’t he get that, too?

“Hey,” Oz said, touching her arm so that she stopped walking and turned to face him. “Why the frowny face?”

“I don’t want you to worry,” she said, almost truthfully, and more than a little petulantly.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated, with another little shrug, “but that’s just part of the Daniel Osbourne boyfriend package. Think you can handle it?”

Willow pouted, but decided she could probably put it behind her for now. It was only a mild annoyance, after all, and she knew he’d come around to her way of thinking once he got to see what she could do. “I guess.”

He smiled, a small flick of the mouth and a blazing warmth in the eyes. “Come here,” he said, reaching for her.

His hands smelled of pumpkin as he wound them through her hair. She had never really been into the whole Halloween thing, but what with the Oz-attention-grabbing costume of junior year, and now the pleasant holiday-scented kisses, Willow was definitely starting to see the attraction.

***

Buffy tried to suppress a niggling feeling of guilt as she approached Giles's apartment the following day. Okay, so he wasn't likely to be happy that she'd been co-patrolling with a vampire from the future for, um, lots of days without telling him. He'd probably be even less pleased to hear about the sports bar hangouts, or the conversations, or the weirdly-companionable silences, or the... well any of it. But did he really need to know these things? No, she decided firmly, he really didn't. Maybe the patrol stuff, that future-Spike had been useful, but not the rest. Giles wasn't interested in social things anyhow, just books. Indulging his interests was the kind thing to do. Right?

He definitely didn't need to know about last night in particular. She'd left Xander's place feeling weirdly nervous, and it wasn't until she saw Spike smoking out in front of the huge mausoleum that had somehow become their rendezvous point that she'd felt a rush of relief, as if she'd been worried he wouldn't show, which, well... As if! And, well, they'd gotten something of a late start, because of all the pumpkin carving using up the early evening, and it had seemed like they'd just gotten going when the sky started getting pale, slay-time over, and instead of going their separate ways they'd somehow ended up sitting inside that very same mausoleum -- pretty cozy for a tomb, Buffy had noted -- and talking some more as the sun came up, taking turns sipping some surprisingly-tasty something-or-other from Spike’s flask, and maybe it was the dim intimacy of the dusty stone, or maybe it was because she really did need that hero-rest, or maybe just because she couldn't hold back her curiosity any more, but things had gotten... weird. Weirder. Like, way way Oingo-Boingo-should-write-a-song-about-this weird.

"So," she started, breaking into a lull that had been too comfortable for comfort. "Halloween. Itty bitty fear demon."

"So I hear," he replied, slightly startled. "Wasn't actually there."

"Oh, right. Halloween, tacky, demons on vacation, yadda yadda. Did you make it a spa day?"

He looked thoughtful. "Don't rightly recall. Was never much for observing the holidays. Probably just stayed in, watched the telly. Great Pumpkin or some such." He cast her a sidelong glance then. "Background noise while I was laying some evil plans, of course. Mayhem, vengeance...."

Buffy elbowed him, which made her suddenly aware that she was sitting close enough by his side for an elbow to connect. "I bet you cry when the Great Pumpkin turns out to be Snoopy."

He scoffed. "Do not!"

"Plus," Buffy continued, ignoring his obvious lie, "you totally do go out on Halloween, Mr. Tacky."

"Once," he grumbled. "Went out bloody once, in more than a century. Under very special circumstances."

"Special circumstances, meaning... you really needed your butt kicked?"

Spike sighed. "Dru bloody told me to. Said things were changing. Thought maybe she'd seen something would lead to her cure. Should have known she was just having a game of me." He elbowed her back then, awkwardly, as if he'd never done it before. "And I almost had you."

Why did the way he said that sound so dirty? "Oh sure, like taking out Lady Faints-A-Lot was a real accomplishment."

He didn't reply to that, and she ended up wondering if he was picturing it the way she was. At the time she'd been terrified, and in a fugue state of sorts, not even knowing who she was, but for some reason now all she could remember was the feel of his legs all tangled in her ridiculous skirts, the oddly tender way he'd been bending down to her, and god she was obviously in need of some serious help, because her imagination had just taken that memory off in some truly demented directions. Particularly since there had been an audience. A whole roomful of people watching as Spike ground against her, leaning ever closer, and she kicked up a leg to hook it around his hips, and....

"Anyhow," she blurted out, "that totally didn't count. It wasn't a fair fight."

He looked at her through his eyelashes, lips pursed like he was trying not to smile. "Of course it wasn't bloody fair. I don't fight fair, and neither do you. Fighting fair is for people with nothing on the line. You and me, we fight to win. Don't go fooling yourself that I'd have backed off at the last minute, let you get your licks in. I'd have devoured you if you hadn't come back to yourself."

Buffy looked away, keeping her head high like she was mad, even though she'd been suddenly imagining Spike all tangled under her ridiculous skirt, devouring her as a whole room of people looked on, and then her taking charge and wrestling him down to the floor so she could... get her licks in. Because he was right, she fought to win.

...Nope. She was one hundred percent not telling Giles about that part.

Still, Halloween was here, and given that the fear demon was the only thing Spike had given her so far that could possibly confirm his story, she felt basically obligated to bring Giles into the loop. She might be a semi-absent slayer with a really overactive (and inventive) imagination, but she also didn't completely trust him, this mellowed-out, buddy-buddy version of Spike, and she did understand due diligence. In theory, at least. So earlier, when she'd managed to calm down her wayward feelings enough to look Spike in the eye again, she'd given him her sternest of stink-eyes and informed him that he was coming with her to report to her watcher, whether he liked it or not.

“Already been to see Rupert,” Spike grumbled. “Arsehole tried to kill me. Don’t really fancy a replay.” He rubbed his chest, fingers very white in the dim light; Buffy vaguely noticed that his black nail polish seemed fresh, and also that there were some very nice muscles right there under his freshly-polished fingertips, and…. She reined in her roving eyes and glared.

“You’ve tried to kill me a whole bunch of times,” she pointed out. “We’re talking.”

He looked at her for a long time, face shifting through a dozen expressions. “Yeah,” he finally said. “We are.”

The crypt suddenly seemed too small, the intense look in his eyes like a fire sucking up all the oxygen; Buffy hurriedly stood up, dusting off her hands.

“So!” she said, determinedly bright. “You’re going to tell Giles all about the Littlest Fear Demon. I promise to try to convince him not to shoot you this time.”

“Very reassuring,” Spike drawled. “Fine. Take me to your old man. He can ask me about my prospects, make sure my intentions are honorable and all that.”

Buffy folded her arms. “Honorable? Really?”

“Someone should tell the old sod that the traditional weapon of the outraged parental unit is the shotgun. Rock salt to the arse, that sort of thing.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Good against ghosties too, I hear.”

She snorted at the image that came up in her head, Giles in overalls and a cowboy hat chambering a sawed off Winchester. Not that he’d be caught dead in a silly hat like that. “For the record, dads-with-shotguns went out in the Fifties.”

“Right. Modern parents much prefer axes. Like your mum.” He held out his hands in front of him like they were wrapped around the hatf of a weapon. “‘Get the hell away from my daughter!’” he mimicked in a wry falsetto.

And why that reminder of the first time Spike’d tried to kill her made her laugh was anyone’s guess. Especially since his impression of her mom was atrocious.

Spike’s grin widened at her mirth. “Shall I bring my references? Fairly certain the Coelo demon down the block will write me a glowing recommendation.”

“Don’t worry,” Buffy said, regaining her straight face with a Herculean effort. “I’m sure Giles will come around. He may only shoot you two or three times.”

“What, your offer of protection rescinded now, is it? Oh well.” Spike ran a hand down the center of his chest until it was splayed out across his stomach. “As long as he aims above the waist.”

Buffy tossed her head challengingly. “Then again, he might just go straight for the meat cleaver.” She grinned viciously. “Or even a chainsaw.”

And that set them both off, Buffy giggling helplessly into her hands while Spike snickered.

Finally, Buffy heaved a watery sigh, wiping tears from her eyes. “I promise,” she said as seriously as she could manage. “I really won’t let him shoot you.”

Spike raised his eyebrows, still smiling. “Cross your heart?”

She waited until she was sure he was watching before tracing her finger in an exaggerated X on her chest, a pleasant little shiver running through her at the hungry way his eyes tracked the movement. He wasn’t the only one who could pull off the sexy fingers thing. Served the chest rubbing, stomach-caressing, too-sexy-for-his-own-good Mr. Innuendo right. Tuning her voice just right for facetious-yet-seductive, she smiled slowly and said, “Hope to die.”

And totally wasn’t disappointed when he swallowed and looked away, glancing up at the dusty window that was filtering the sunlight. “Can I at least take a nap first?”

Okay, so maybe she was a little disappointed. “Here?”

Not to mention bemused. So it was okay for him to flirt but not her? Not that she’d been flirting, that was just kinda friendly joking around, but whatever, same diff. How come her doing it weirded him out? Was she seeing someone else in the future? He’d been frustratingly silent on that point at the mansion, but now the omission left her less annoyed and more unsettled.

He shrugged, still not looking at her. “Might as well. Slept rougher. It’s not like the welcoming committee back at the mansion is ever pleased to see me.”

“And what am I supposed to do?” She pictured the long walk back to her house, alone. Or the even longer walk back to campus, alone. Coming home all disheveled in the same clothes she’d been wearing the night before, while everyone else was all fresh and headed off to class… Crap! Didn’t she have Psychology today? She probably did. It seemed like she had that class every day, seven days a week….

“You look like you could use some rest, too, Slayer,” Spike said softly.

She scoffed. “Here?” she repeated, loading the word up with extra sarcasm and incredulity, because she was so not falling into the trap of that soft, tempting voice again. Not falling for it. Nuh-uh.

Spike turned away, and she tried not to feel disappointed -- again -- that he was so good at listening to her, and gathered herself to head home, but then he shrugged out of his duster, folding it briskly into a bundle of leather. He held it out to her.

She looked up at him, confused.

“Pillow,” he said, like he made her bedding out of his outerwear every night. She wondered if that was another thing they did in the future. Maybe they slept out a lot? She wondered what her significant other thought about that.

“Oh, no,” Buffy replied, in a fit of hypothetical loyalty. “I am not sleeping here.” And then she reached out and took the pillow anyway, glancing around the room, totally not searching for the comfiest bit of stone to lie on. Though she reminded herself that sleep was super important, had to get her two hours in if she was going to be able to fire on all slay-cylinders, and if she went anywhere else she’d only get maybe one hour if she was lucky, and….

Spike turned and strode over to one of the sarcophagi, yanking the hem of his T-shirt out to dust off the top. “Marble’s nice and cool,” he said, voice rough.

Buffy totally hadn’t ogled that flash of bare stomach either. “You’ve slept here before?”

He shrugged.

She was not going to sleep here. She really wasn’t. It was a really bad idea. Plus, she had Psychology class….

She set the pillow on the end of the marble slab. “Where are you going to sleep?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “Over there. You have to sleep way over there.”

He grinned then, sharklike. “What’s the matter, Slayer? Don’t you trust me?”

And the thing was, it wasn’t entirely him she didn’t trust, because the ogling and the fantasizing and the mental drooling were one thing, but she could put that aside. She could. The thing that sank its teeth into her and refused to let go was the wonderful warmth of sharing that laughter with him, and the regret she now felt that it was over. It… filled a part of her she hadn’t realized had been empty, and that was addictive. Dangerously so. Yeah, resisting the physical stuff was kinda par for the course by now, after Angel, but resisting that glowy feeling in the pit of her stomach? Way, way harder.

But she had to.

“Never,” Buffy retorted, head high.

That didn’t mean Spike had got the memo, though.

"Always knew you were smart," he murmured, prowling closer, eyelids lowered in a predatory way that made her heart race with instinctive fear. When he was standing right in front of her, he gave a shrug and the red shirt that was practically his uniform fell from his shoulders, catching on the cuffs at his wrist, and oh, maybe that wasn't fear at all, maybe it was.... except all he did was tug the cuffs off over his hands and hold out the shirt to her.

She blinked. "This some weird vampire ritual? 'Cause I'm not getting the symbolism here." Or, well, the symbolism she was getting had her thinking she needed some rolled up bills to tuck in his G-string, and wow was that an interesting image she so did not need to be thinking about. Particularly since she was pretty certain that he didn't wear a G-string, or any underwear at all, and where were you supposed to tuck the bills, then? She was completely unsure of vampire-stripper-etiquette....

Putting it aside! Putting it aside!

Spike rolled his eyes, clearly impatient with her long silence. "Thought you'd like a blanket, Slayer."

"Oh. Of course." Well, that solved that question. No need to consult Undead Miss Manners.... She took the shirt, watching as he sauntered off to the window niche she'd directed him to. He stretched out on the expanse of stone with a sigh, tucking his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. Buffy hastily hopped up on her own makeshift bed, draping the shirt over her shoulders and positioning herself so she could see Spike across the room. He looked paler than ever in the diffuse sunlight filtering through the window, an aura of dust motes floating about him.

"I'm not sleeping," she pronounced, giving him a fierce glare; it was wasted on him, because his eyes were closed, but at least it made her feel strong and virtuous. "You might still be planning something nefarious."

Spike didn't open his eyes. "Suit yourself." He sniffed, muttering, “Might be!” in an offended tone of voice.

Buffy wasn’t going there. "So just stay on your side of the room."

He sleepily opened one eye. "Not to worry, Slayer. If I suddenly come over all bloodthirsty, I have faith you'll be able to stake me in your sleep."

She narrowed her eyes at him -- at least he was looking now, so she wasn't wasting her bitchface -- and growled. "Just don't try anything."

He didn't reply, just smiled and opened his other eye, and oh, there he was, the gooey-filling vampire with the snarky candy coating she’d gotten weirdly used to. Somehow that soft, soft gaze, all hazy from the dusty air, convinced her to smile back, and she let her eyes drift closed, just for a second. 

When she awoke, surprisingly refreshed, some time later -- hours, from the angle of the sunlight -- he was still watching her from the other side of the room, like he was afraid she’d disappear if he closed his eyes. And she was only barely awake -- basically still asleep -- and held his gaze for far longer than her earlier compunctions would’ve allowed. Stupid compunctions.

Stupid, soft-eyed vampire.

Yeah, Giles really didn't need to hear about that part either. The point was, now here they were, and they were going to visit Giles, and that thought alone was enough cold water for, well, all of it.

Before knocking on the door, she turned to Spike, frowning fiercely. "You need to be on your best behavior, okay?"

He looked like he wanted to snark back about that, but nodded sharply instead. "Whatever you say, Slayer. Not exactly eager for another crossbow bolt through the heart. Or anyplace else, for that matter."

"No lying, all right?" Buffy suddenly remembered all the stuff she wasn't going to tell Giles, and hastened to qualify. "Just follow my lead. Giles doesn't need to know about--"

She shut her mouth with a snap as the door swung open.

***

“Happy Ha-- Hello, Buffy.”

Giles smiled. It was always a pleasure to see Buffy, though he’d rather expected her to be at university at this hour. Truth be told he’d finished his decorating some time ago, and had drifted rather aimlessly back to his books. He’d assumed the knock at his door was the first of the night’s sugar-seeking youth, though he now realised that it was still afternoon. Perhaps he had got ready just a tad on the early side.

Buffy gave his costume a somewhat disparaging look, which was disappointing, since he thought he looked quite fabulous.

“Oh. My. God.”

“It’s a sombrero,” Giles clarified, in case she was unfamiliar. His research had admittedly been less than thorough, but the clerk at the local Party City had assured him that this was an accurate and very dashing traditional Mexican costume.

Buffy merely looked perturbed. “And it’s on your head.”

“It seemed festive,” he explained -- he’d read that there were lots of Mexicans in California, ergo, he considered this to be a fun and fitting homage to his adopted home -- and was about to invite her in when a very unpleasant intrusion peeled itself away from the wall beside his door and came to stand in direct sunlight, just behind his slayer’s shoulder.

“Shame on you, Rupert,” Spike said, with a wide-eyed gravity that on him was, frankly, farcical. “Got one word for you: cultural appropriation.”

“That’s two words, you nitwit.” Though honestly, he hadn’t previously had the slightest inkling Spike knew any five syllable words. “What the devil are you doing back here? Buffy?” He turned to his charge for answers, holding up a finger to silence Spike’s nascent protest without bothering to look back. “And no, you still can’t come in.”

“Can I at least have some sweets?”

“I’d rather give you another arrow to the--”

“Okay, okay, time out,” Buffy cut in, slicing her hand through the air between them. “Spike, play nice. Giles…” she sighed. “Can you just let him in? He has info about tonight that you need to hear. I’ll guarantee your safety,” she added perkily at his look of disbelief.

“How, exactly, will you do that, when he decides to try to come and eat me in the middle of the night?”

“You mean you won’t be sitting up in your nighty with your crossbow over your knees, waiting to take another useless punt at the big bad?” Spike leered. “Shows a lack of commitment if you ask me. Besides, Slayer,” he fluttered his eyelashes mockingly, “I thought you were going to be my protector.”

“He’s given his word that he doesn’t eat humans any more,” Buffy said, as though the demon beside her hadn’t just insinuated to the contrary. Or that his word was worth more than an ant’s fart. “C’mon, Giles, Mrs. Hemmings in apartment C really doesn’t need to hear this.”

Sadly, that was the truth. That woman was far too interested for Giles’s own good.

“And you’re sure this is the right Spike?” he asked, turning his gaze back to scrutinise the vampire. On closer inspection, there did seem to be something different about him, although it was hard to pinpoint. He seemed somehow aged, though that was supposed to be impossible. Then again, they really had no idea from how far in the future this version of Spike had travelled back, and Buffy had reported that the Master’s face had been distorted by age. It was something to consider.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she confirmed. “I saw the two of them together, and believe me…” she trailed off, looking uncomfortable and unsure how to complete the observation. Then, she glanced at Spike, and a tense but silent kind of communication seemed to pass between them. Something being acknowledged, Giles felt, though he was uncertain as to what. “I’m sure,” she repeated.

Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. Inferring facts from Buffy’s omissions was a skill he prized almost as highly as his Buffy-to-English translations. It certainly looked likely to get a great deal of exercise this year, if these first few weeks of university were anything to go by. And what he was inferring right now was that she had been to wherever the Spike in front of him had stashed the Spike of their time without discussing it with Giles first. He felt torn between pride at her autonomy (he’d always been proud of that) and disquiet at her decreasing need of him, but in the end, as she’d so succinctly pointed out to him at their last meeting, Buffy was an adult now. He supposed he had to allow her to act as such.

“Fine, fine,” he said at last, but with studious bad grace, since it wouldn’t do to let Spike feel welcome at all. He gave him a glare full of stakes for good measure, though of course it did about as much good as the real thing would right now, presuming the little gobshite still had the Gem of Amara, which seemed a sad certainty. “Come in, Spike.”

Oddly, Spike looked taken aback, though he covered it quickly. Perhaps he had taken Giles’s hesitation as a lack of trust in Buffy’s judgement -- of course a soulless demon wouldn’t be able to understand something so, so wholesome. But one of the first things Giles had realised upon finally parting ways with the Council’s damnable Watcher’s Handbook was that the greatest and most important part of his job was to trust and support his slayer. He hoped he would always endeavour to do so, no matter the circumstances. Besides, he would reluctantly admit under pain of casualwear that the thought of a time-travelling ally intrigued him.

“Well, then?” he prodded, once said supposed-ally was safely behind closed doors, the threat of Mrs. Hemmings contained. Spike gave him an insouciant smirk as he swaggered unhurriedly about the room, running his fingers along the spines of Giles’s books in a way that made his fists clench. Gratifyingly, he noted that Buffy was watching him like a hawk.

“The old place hasn’t changed much,” Spike said, still smirking. “Or should that be new place? Tell me, where do you keep the chains and manacles? I never could wangle that out of--”

“Spike,” Buffy said warningly, hitting him on the arm presumably to get his attention. It hadn’t been a very strong blow, though. More like a good-natured shove, how disappointing. And frankly the smile did nothing to reinforce her authority. He would have to have a word with her about going too easy on her adversaries. ”He, uh, knows something that should confirm his story about the future-ness that is him,” she explained. Spike had the nerve to share her smile for a moment -- an insincere expression if ever there was one -- and nodded.

“Fear demon,” he said. “Tiny little bugger, or so I heard. Bunch of frat boys’ll summon him tonight, some spooky stuff goes down, and then…” he waggled his little finger at Giles, tonguing his teeth. “You all get a reminder that size really does matter.”

Giles cleared his throat, and stalwartly ignored the childish attempt at provocation, not to mention Buffy’s blushes. He supposed it was nice, if a little surprising, that she had still retained some of her innocence. “Or so you heard? You didn’t see this happen in person?”

“No, mate. Was off at the spa getting my nails done.”

Confused, Giles glanced at Buffy again, who seemed to be trying to suppress another smile, like they’d just shared an in-joke. The thought was disturbing enough for him to dismiss out of hand. He forged on valiantly.

“Be that as it may, do you have any evidence that you haven’t simply set this up yourself, to provide spurious proof?”

“Er. Well, no,” Spike said, looking caught short, much to Giles’s satisfaction -- finally, it seemed, he had his attention.

“Well then,” Giles pressed. “Who told you about it? Perhaps if we knew it was a reliable source...”

Spike snorted. “The Niblet’s about as reliable as it comes with you lot.”

“Who?” Was this some nickname for one of Buffy’s friends? Or a new group member they hadn’t met yet?

Spike gave him a look like he was an idiot. “D--” he started to say, and then cut himself off with an odd expression, both faltering and guilty. Giles frowned, and Buffy too was giving him a searching look. Spike’s eyes darted between them for a moment, apparently cornered, before raising his chin stubbornly. “Can’t say.”

“Can’t, or won’t?”

“Sorry, Rupert. Already sang this song with the slayer,” Spike said, glancing at Buffy for confirmation. “Not looking for an encore.”

Buffy gave Giles an apologetic shrug. “It’s true. He can’t and he won’t. It’s a time-travel thing. We’re just going to have to trust him.”

That was too much. Giles put his hands on his hips and deployed parental sigh number six: frustrated but forbearing. “I’m sorry, Buffy, but we don’t have to do anything of the sort. Yes, you’ve confirmed that there are two of him, but it doesn’t follow that one can be trusted! What evidence do we actually have?”

“Aside from that letter you burned?” Buffy asked, surprising him with how snippy she sounded.

“Yes, well, I really don’t think--”

“Or, here’s an original bloody thought,” Spike interrupted. “You could trust your slayer’s instincts.”

Giles noticed for the first time that they were standing side by side, and quite close, too. Buffy, arms crossed over her chest, had set her jaw in a way that he recognised meant she wouldn’t be coming to his defense. Were they… were they ganging up on him? He really did feel under attack all of a sudden. It had to be the serape -- Giles didn’t get this kind of backchat in his corduroys and tweed. And just what precisely did Spike mean by implying Giles didn’t trust Buffy’s instincts? What an outrageous statement! That bleach-headed twerp would still be outside if it weren’t for--! The very notion--!

“Now see here,” he began, wagging a stern finger at the vampire.

“Look, Giles,” Buffy interrupted, taking a step towards him with hands held out placatingly. It broke the illusion of unity between the two, and Giles felt himself relax. “I get it, you’ve got reservations, but I’ve interrogated both Spikes. Thoroughly.” She paused to clear her throat. Strange -- why would such a statement bring up a flush like that? Ah, she must have resorted to torture. Order was restored to Giles’s world. “I believe he wants to help, but if you want hard proof, after tonight? We’ll know for sure one way or another about at least one part of his story.”

“Will we?” he insisted, but much to his consternation, Buffy merely rolled her eyes.

“For Pete’s sake, Giles, it’s Spike. Not exactly the master of the long con.”

Giles squinted at Spike, scrutinising him for his reaction, but the vamp just shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged agreeably. “I get bored.”

“See? He gets bored. But if it’ll make you happy, I’ll stick to him like glue this evening so that we’ll know it isn’t him doing the demon summoning.” Spike shifted his weight, looking strangely uncomfortable all of a sudden, wrapping his duster more tightly around his waist. It was downright suspicious in Giles’s opinion, but Buffy missed it completely, staring wide-eyed at her watch. “Oh, except I’m supposed to go meet Mom for a costume fitting, like, five minutes ago. You can bring him over once you’re done here, right?”

Giles drew himself up, ready to protest the loss of his only real protection, and irritated by her blase attitude, but then he caught sight of Spike’s face. The vampire was looking at him, eyebrow raised in what seemed to be an amused sort of challenge. So much for original bloody thoughts, he seemed to be saying. Trust your slayer’s instincts like hell. And Giles refused to be shown up by a sodding vampire of all things, and so he girded himself, sighed, and waved her off. “Fine. Go. But if he tries to bite me in your absence I would like it noted that I told you so.”

She patted his arm consolingly. “If I’m wrong, both you and your poncho can gloat as much as you like.” And then she flashed him one of those blinding smiles that always made him melt, just a little. Or, well, she flashed the smile, but in her haste to get going, it was directed more into the room than at him. A minor detail. Besides which, Giles didn’t point out that if she was wrong, he’d be gloating from beyond the grave.

Oh well, at least he’d leave a well-dressed corpse.

 

 

Chapter Text

"Oh, untwist those knickers, Rupert,” Spike said as the door closed behind Buffy. “You know it hurts that you mistrust me so, it really does.”

 

“And yet, I am unmoved,” the old git said. “Tell me about this fear demon.”

 

His stare was moderately stoney. Not full on, stone-cold-bastard stoney, which Spike was well aware Giles was capable of (his chest gave a sympathetic twinge at the memory of being shot through the heart only recently), but on the spectrum. He supposed, in comparison, this was a warm welcome. Still, wouldn’t do to be too compliant.

 

“What, no have-a-seat? No would-you-like-some-tea? Just dive right in without even a nod to the niceties?”

 

“You aren’t nice.”

 

Spike grinned, pleased. “And you’d be one to talk, wouldn’t you? They say it takes one to know one, and all that.”

 

“Spike,” Giles sighed. “If you’re going to try to kill me, please do so by traditional means rather than irritating me to death.”

 

“Now that would be one for the watchers’ diar-- all right, all right! Bloody hell, I remember you being more fun.”

 

Giles gave him a shrewd look. “So I’m no longer around in your time.” He drifted off pensively, murmuring, “As I thought.”

 

What the…? How had he gone and got that idea? Bastard had failed to notice Buffy staring at Spike’s arse -- otherwise he’d have likely peppered said arse with the fabled rock salt -- yet he could somehow infer… what? That Spike was from so far in the future that old Giles had popped his clogs? He snorted.

 

“Feel free to get back to business anytime, Ripper.”

 

Giles’s look was one of pure, unadulterated annoyance, but his question was one of distracted curiosity. “How do you know that name?”

 

“What, Ripper? How do you think I know it?”

 

Giles sputtered in outrage. “Are you trying to tell me that we were… that we become… friends?”

 

Spike blinked, and then he shrugged. Wasn’t what he’d been going for, but watcher’d said it, not him.

 

“More than our nation of origin in common, you know,” he offered. Then, with a flash of resentment that took him by surprise, “Not that you ever…” He looked away, clenching his jaw to keep the timeline-altering words inside.

 

“Indeed,” Giles said, still looking mildly flustered. “Well, then…” He took his glasses off and dug under his ridiculous cape for a handkerchief, which, once produced, was put to thorough and prolonged use. Spike rolled his eyes. He was fairly used to the meandering way the Scoobies operated by now, but it was still infuriating at times.

 

Then again, Spike knew a thing or two about being infuriating.

 

“Tell you what,” he said airily. “I’ll help myself to some refreshments, get myself comfortable and the like, and you let me know when you’re ready to talk.” He swept into the tiny little kitchen nook.

 

“Yes, yes,” Giles said distractedly, before he seemed to snap out of it. “Now wait just a minute!”

 

“Or what? You’ll polish your specs at me some more? Colour me terrified.”

 

He’d spent enough time in the watcher’s flat to know exactly where all the important stuff was kept, but it would annoy Giles more if he had a good rifle.

 

“What are you doing?” Giles sounded more surprised than suspicious as Spike started pulling out spice jars and putting them back in the wrong order. Spike threw him a leer over his shoulder as he banged a cabinet door shut and moved on.

 

“Oh, Rupert, don’t tell me you’ve never had a vampire rummage through your drawers before.”

 

“Not one I couldn’t stake,” he said darkly.

 

The next cabinet contained Giles’s teapot, a dainty little white number made of china so thin you could practically see through it.

 

“Something funny?” the watcher asked tightly, as Spike pulled it down with a delighted laugh and waved it at him.

 

“I’d forgotten about this. What kind of tosser uses a pot?”

 

“I,” Giles said with gravitas, sombrero tassels a-swinging, “am an Englishman.”

 

“Right.” Spike smirked. “One who’s overly concerned about keeping up appearances for the Americans, when any bloody idiot knows real Englishmen make it with a bag, too much milk, and a mug thick enough to crack heads with.” Further excavations produced a box of PG Tips and the yellow Kiss the Librarian mug. “Now this is more like it.”

 

“Yes, well,” Giles said shiftily. “When in private, one does occasionally… Oh, give it here!” he finally snapped, at Spike’s wary fumblings with the kettle and the gas hob. Spike considered it one of life’s great mysteries why Giles had never got a proper electric kettle, but in the virtually-alcohol-free world Spike was now inhabiting, he was fully prepared to risk his unlife with primitive combustibles for a proper mug of imported tea. Therefore, he considered it rather good of Giles to step in and take over, and so decided to ease up on him, just a smidge.

 

“Milk, no sugar,” he said, backing off the couple of steps it took to get to the living room, and sprawling comfortably on the couch. “I’m not a monster.

 

As the water boiled, Giles muttering in concert, he let his eyes slide closed, remembering the few glorious hours he’d just spent with Buffy, her scent filling his old (soon-to-be) home as she breathed in and out, in and out, peaceful and alive and letting him be there. He hadn’t seriously thought she’d stay. Sure, she’d seen her way to letting him tag along on patrol this last week, and was even acting almost friendly, sometimes. She was inquisitive, he got it; he was just happy she was letting herself indulge that inquisitiveness. With him. Made a bloke wonder what else aside from time-travelling, world-saving missions the girl might get inquisitive about, under the right circumstances. When she’d danced with him like that, yeah, made a bloke wonder. He wasn’t stupid, though -- knew he’d caught her at a serendipitous time, when she was all soul-curious after her own little misadventure. Knew her acceptance that he could -- did -- love her was something to be cherished in and of itself, and not to expect anything else out of it. Knew, even, that her staying over didn’t really mean much, not to her, no more than crashing at Harris’s basement, or with the witches (witch -- Tara definitely wasn’t on Red’s radar yet). And yet, to him, it was everything, because the last time before then that he’d seen her in his crypt she’d been dead, laid out somewhere cool and safe until they could bury her body, and he’d snatched a kiss from her cold forehead and...

 

A sensation like falling -- his boots being kicked off the coffee table -- and Spike startled awake to find the watcher looming over him.

 

“Buffy!” he said urgently as he shot upright, narrowly missing the steaming mug of tea that was being thrust at him as he looked around wildly. “She was... She was here, wasn’t she?”

 

“Yes.” Giles was watching him closely, a slight frown behind his jiggling tassels. “She went to her mother’s.”

 

Spike took a couple of deep breaths. “Joyce. Right.” He all but snatched the proffered tea out of Giles’s hands, sinking unsteadily back down onto the couch.

 

“You’re having trouble keeping events straight?” Sitting down opposite him, Giles removed his sombrero. That didn’t bode well. Spike forced himself to calm down. That, and relax his grip on the mug. Wouldn’t do to crush it and have to go through that rigamarole again.

 

“Not… exactly,” he said cautiously. He still wasn’t sure how much he trusted Giles, but more importantly, he had to assume that anything said here would get back to Buffy, and probably her friends, too, and the watcher might be blind as a fruit bat about some things, but he wasn’t a complete idiot. He was fully capable of joining some very inconvenient dots if Spike gave too much away. “I, uh, I get worried about her. Yeah. Very dangerous job, slaying.”

 

“Ah, yes.” Giles gave an uncomfortable cough and started ferreting around distractedly. “Buffy mentioned your, ah, declaration.”

 

“She did, did she?” That was… well, no, it wasn’t unexpected, since she’d done exactly the same thing in his own timeline, but something told him (even if it was just hope) that maybe it wouldn’t be for group mockery purposes this time. Not that he cared two figs what the sodding Scoobies thought of him, or Giles for that matter, but it’d speak to Buffy having a different mindset this time, and that’d be… that’d be something.

 

Giles finally scared up a notebook and pencil, thumbing a little clumsily through the pages. “And is it, ah, true?”

 

Now that was surprising. “You’re asking me?”

 

“Well, you would seem to be the authority on the matter.”

 

“Uh, right. Yeah. Yeah, I would.” He gathered himself. “Not sure as I see it’s any of your business, though.”

 

“I thought you said we were friends,” Giles parried. “In the interests of said friendship--”

 

“Mercenary bugger, aren’t you?” Spike grinned broadly, kicking his boots back up onto the coffee table with deliberate insouciance. “Now we’re having fun.”

 

“Is that what you call it?”

 

Spike held a hand up to his chest. “You wound me.”

 

“Hmm,” Giles agreed. “I certainly tried. And yet just a few days later I find you catching forty winks on my sofa. You have a very unconventional attitude to danger.”

 

“First tea, now compliments.” Spike tongued his teeth. “You want to be careful, Rupert. A vamp might get the wrong idea.” It was half-hearted, though. He could see from the watcher’s expression that it was finally time to get down to brass tacks, and the panic left over from waking just now was making him feel decidedly more cooperative. “Listen,” he said. “I am trying to help. Know it might not seem like it, but…” he shrugged.

 

“The fate of the world depends on it?”

 

“Yeah, actually.”

 

Giles nodded, seemingly on more familiar ground, and took up his pencil. “So, what can you tell me about the fear demon?”

 

“Er, well, that was it, actually. Small, spooky, easily squished under the slayer’s dainty heel. Oh, and it’s in a frat house on campus -- forget the name, but apparently you broke in with a chainsaw.”

 

“A chainsaw?

 

“Yeah.” Spike considered that a moment. “Never was sure why that was necessary, but far be it from me to judge how you get your rocks off. Suppose you keep it hidden away with the manacles and whatnot.”

 

He noted with glee that while Giles tried to ignore the comment, a teeny tiny flush spread up his neck.

 

“And that’s it?” the man plugged on tenaciously. “There’s really nothing else? What about the letter, then?”

 

Not much more, was the answer to that. Willow had given it to him already sealed, and merely told him to hand it over to Giles with the ring, the latter of which he was no longer certain was a good idea. At least not yet. But he had to give the man something.

 

“Willow wrote it to explain what I was doing here, but I never read the contents. Said it was just for you, and that you’d be smart enough to trust her.” He very much enjoyed the flicker of doubt and regret that crossed Giles’s face at that.

 

“But she didn’t trust you enough to let you in on what it said?”

 

Well, that stung more than he liked to admit. Touché. “Trusted me enough to send me back,” he said defensively.

 

Willow sent you back?” Giles put down his pencil. “She was the witch who cast the spell?”

 

“Uh, yeah.” Spike frowned at the stupidity of the question. “Why? Who did you think it would be?”

 

“Well,” Giles said. “You are from the future. It might well have been anyone.”

 

“Might well it have been?” Spike mocked. “Too bad, really, since another witch might’ve got the spell right. While we’re at it, maybe you can see your way to teaching Red some Latin.”

 

“She made a mistake in the incantation?” Somehow, Giles didn’t look nearly as surprised as Spike had expected him to.

 

“Yeah. Was only supposed to be here two days. Two bloody days. Just long enough to get the Gem and hand it over for safekeeping. Instead I’m stuck here until bloody Christmas.”

 

Though, after the week he’d just spent with Buffy, he suddenly wasn’t feeling half so pissed about that anymore. Giles just looked relieved, probably that he wasn’t going to be stuck with Spike for two years. Stupid bugger. He didn’t have a clue how much better a deal he was getting now than he would soon be getting from Spike Jr.

 

“And then you will return back to your time, leaving the Gem here?”

 

Spike nodded. “S’how the spell works.” Even though he wasn’t so sure about that first bit Giles had said. Maybe instead of returning to the future, he’d just cease to exist, if the past changed sufficiently. At the time they’d done the spell, he hadn’t really cared -- it’d seemed like a pretty good idea, in fact. Now… god, if he could actually do it….

 

“And with whom are you intending to leave the Gem of Amara?”

 

“Haven’t decided yet.”

 

“I see.” It was clear from his expression that he’d assumed -- correctly -- that Willow had meant for him to take it. But Spike wasn’t Willow, and Willow wasn’t here, and Spike was starting to have some serious reservations about the plan, reservations that his previously un-sober brain had failed to present to him. Besides, it wasn’t like he was in a hurry anymore. “Can you at least tell me who it’s for, and to what purpose it is to be put?”

 

Spike chewed on that for a moment. This was where it started to get dicey. If they didn’t believe him, or past-him did something after he was gone to bollocks it up, then giving too much away now could ruin everything. It wasn’t like he was the Scoobies’ favourite vamp around town -- they might decide that he couldn’t be trusted, once they knew who it was for. But if he gave them too little info, the ring might bloody well end up with Angel again. It was a big risk.

 

Spike was a risk-taker.

 

“It’s for me,” he said. “I needed it… about a fortnight ago, my time. The world ended.” It might not have been strictly true, but it was true enough for Spike. “With the Gem, I can stop it.”

 

Giles sat back with an exhale, and began to clean his glasses once more. “An apocalypse. I see. Yes, that would certainly make the most sense. The magic involved in time travel is so risky as to be… Wait. You can stop it?”

 

Spike blinked, not really hearing him. Giles started wittering on excitedly about vampires and indestructibility and fighting alongside the good and the great, but it was background noise to Spike’s realisation, because for the first time, he actually believed it.

 

“Yeah, I can stop it,” he said again, firmly, cutting Giles off.

 

Slowly, almost reluctantly, Giles put his glasses back on and levelled his gaze at Spike. “It’s not that I don’t believe you,” he said, the tone of his voice almost confessional. “I admit, a time-travelling ally is… frankly, it’s a wonderful thought. But you have to understand that the Spike of our time, and my experience of vampires in general, is…” he trailed off with a gesture, as though words failed him.

 

Spike gave him a small smirk. “You ever read anything about me to suggest I’m one to follow the crowd?”

 

“Well, no. But neither do you have a soul.”

 

Spike waved that off as a minor irritation after his revelation. And besides, Buffy had all but admitted he didn’t need one, not for the important stuff, and that was all that really counted. “No,” he said. “Got something better.”

 

Giles really did look bewildered now. Poor bloke. “What?”

 

“Love, mate,” Spike said with a small smile. “Love.”

 

There was a searching pause before Giles said, quietly, “I see what Buffy meant, now. You are quite changed.”

 

That was… warming. Obviously he couldn’t just let it stand. “You gonna remember that once you’re dealing with Spike-Lite again?” he needled.

 

“I daresay I shan’t,” Giles said, but it was disappointingly without rancour. Fine. Whatever. Let the warm fuzzies flow. Spike sat back, enjoying a feeling of wellbeing he hadn’t experienced since first setting his sights on Sunnydale all those years ago. A feeling of direction, of purpose, and of confidence. Quietly exultant, he finally took a sip of his tea. And vamped out in horror as his tongue tried to curl up and die.

 

“You son of a bitch! I said no sugar!”

 

Giles’s smirk disappeared behind the rim of his own mug.

 

*

 

Harmony’s smirk lingered in Spike’s vision long after she’d gone, like some kind of demented, aggressively pink Cheshire Cat. The infuriating tart had come over to the mansion just to torment him, it seemed, with her insistence that him being taken bloody prisoner was some bloody elaborate sex game and her bloody refusal to go get him the means to bloody escape! ARGH! And to top it all off, she’d sat in his lap with her gravity-defying assets right in his face (corsets coming back into fashion had been an unexpected but very welcome turn of events) and stayed there just bloody long enough that he’d started to get absorbed in a nice little bit of make-believe about being taken as a sex slave by a horny and domineering Slayer when she’d caught sight of her glittery little watch, squealed something about karate class, and high-tailed it out of there, leaving him with nothing but a sultry au revoir, a raging hard-on, and some very confused feelings about his id.

 

The sex slave bit totally would’ve ended with his escape and victory over the Slayer, mind you. Yeah. She definitely seemed the type to forget herself and let all her juicy, blood-ripened parts near his fangs while in the grip of passion. Girl was so tightly wound, when she finally went, she’d go hard, and it’d be the work of a moment to bite her somewhere pulsating, and drain her dry while she was busy thrashing around and moaning his name.

 

Thank god so-called-future-Spike had left him enough length in his chains to get his hands into his trousers, or the days would be even longer. And where was that do-gooding arsehole these days, anyway? He seemed to be spending more and more time away from his pathetic little headquarters, often just coming home long enough to toss Spike some blood, booze, and a change of clothes, before falling asleep on the couch. And then last night he hadn’t even come home at all, and Spike had had to rely on the coolbox rations, which most egregiously did not contain any liquor.

 

Then again, his dickless counterpart staying away wasn’t all bad. The tit had, judging by the bitter, aggravating scent that clung to him whenever he returned, been spending his evenings with the slayer, which was both infuriating and mystifying, and not a little bit worrying. Spike had been clinging to the hope that his future self was in fact playing some sort of long game and at any moment, the wanker would turn on the slayer, either killing her, or -- even better -- disabling her just enough that Spike himself could do the honours of drinking her dry. He'd spent many of his days here in confinement pleasurably imagining possible scenarios for said treachery, but it had been... how many days? He'd lost count. But in any case, so many days that Spike himself would have long since abandoned such a boring plan and started a rumpus. Either his future self really had had his balls removed, or he had somehow been enspelled into being entirely unlike himself, a sad state of affairs that Spike could only pity. Not having to face that for hour after hour was a relief -- a meagre one, because he was still bloody well chained up, but a relief nonetheless.

 

And well, all right, he also despised the bastard, and occasionally laughed at his comeuppance -- by now Spike was sure that future-him was in fact from an alternate universe and not his own, so mockery held no irony -- but pity was in there too. Mocking, hate-fuelled pity.

 

Perhaps he was holding off for the sake of Willow. Spike had wondered the first few nights why the twat hadn't been coming home covered in his future lover's scent, but then he'd remembered that the bloke had been muttering about not changing the future, and so of course he wouldn't want to bollocks up his future lay. Willow was a bit twitchy, as he recalled; wouldn't do to spook the girl before she was well in hand.

 

Still horny, and casting around for a scenario that didn’t involve… anyone with blonde hair... he tried to imagine what Willow would be like as a lover. He'd not spent much time with her, of course; his ill-fated alliance with the slayer had not involved her groupies, and so they'd only really interacted when he'd borrowed her to help get back Drusilla. She'd been attractive enough, he supposed -- that pink and lilac ensemble had been fetching as fuck, and he'd have enjoyed killing her, if she hadn't been so potentially useful -- but she didn't really seem like his type for the long haul. Still, if he wanted to understand his enemy, perhaps it behooved him to try and get into his head. Which, well, ostensibly it was his own head he was getting into, so it shouldn't be too difficult.

 

He closed his eyes.

 

He remembered crying on her fuzzy shoulder, blood pumping through her jugular just inches away, and that was an enticing enough memory that he started there, nuzzling into that sweet warmth.

 

I haven't had a woman in weeks, he murmured into her skin.

 

In his vision, Willow arched into his lips coyly. You can have me, she said. But first you have to get me the things I need. For the spell.

 

Spike imagined himself heading off to the slayer's house, and he got to mock Angel for a bit, which in his vision went on a fair bit longer than it had in reality, with a good dozen more clever insults, and some playful mock-threatening of Joyce.

 

You touch her and I'll chop your head off! Angel whined.

 

Yeah, you and what army? Spike scoffed.

 

That would be me.

 

The slayer took him by the throat, bending him back over the kitchen island, warm belly pressed right up against him, pert breasts heaving -- Spike groaned and unzipped his jeans at the thought -- and he ground his erection into her softness as Angel looked on furiously through the invisible barrier of the doorway. (Joyce had conveniently vanished -- he was a monster, but he wasn’t that kind of monster.)

 

Buffy's eyes were hot and furious, gazing down at Spike, and he gave her his most evil grin, because he could smell it, that she wanted him, and her hand tightened on his throat and then she wrestled him down to the ground, straddling his hips.

 

Angel why don't you just... stand there and watch.

 

The slayer ripped off her shirt.

 

Spike didn’t waste any time filling his hands and then his mouth with her detestable breasts; the slayer clutched at his back helplessly as he feasted, humping him desperately, as if she’d never had anything as good as Spike before -- which he knew for a fact she hadn’t, because Angel -- and as Angel roared in impotent rage, Spike ripped the slayer’s clothes to shreds, until she was naked atop him, her hands scrabbling frantically at his trousers.

 

What's your hurry? he purred, nibbling on her throat.

 

She freed his cock, stroking it feverishly as she slid down his body. My hurry is my intense desire to get you out of my life, she said, sucking him deep for a moment, giving him a farewell lick on the way out. You tend to cause trouble. And she arched back up, golden hair damp with sweat, and impaled herself on him.

 

She rose and fell above him like a Valkyrie riding to battle, clawing at his chest, and when Spike felt she’d had enough time in charge, he flipped her over, hooking an elbow under her knee and fucking her like he knew she’d always wanted, hard and deep. Her eyes glared hate up at him.

 

I violently dislike you, she hissed, and then screamed as she came. Spike kept going, because he bloody well could, and she soon took command again, her hands on his throat as she rode him some more.

 

Angel was still watching, of course -- though he’d fallen silent, because Spike could only take so much of his infuriating voice -- and in Spike’s fantasy they were suddenly right in front of the door, and then Angel knelt down as if in supplication, just outside the barrier, and Buffy reared up, still fucking Spike like an animal, and staked Angel right through his pathetic heart, his dust blowing over them as they rolled and bit and snarled and fucked, and as Spike felt his release coming, he sank his fangs in and drank deep, pumping his essence into her as he sucked hers out, until she was all full of him, and he of her, all of her, all his, and oh god, Spike! she gasped with her last breath, and in the real world Spike jolted and came into his hand, grunting with the force of his release.

 

Huh.

 

He hastily added on an epilogue to his fantasy, in which he went back to the factory and did Willow right proper. She was a fireball, she was. Red hair. Mmmm.

 

*

 

Mmmm, yes. That felt good. After untold aeons in the catacombs beneath this tacky, modern establishment, The Book finally felt the touch of daylight on its cover once more, the caress of dust-free air, the tantalizing whisper of magic. The walls practically radiated with the scent of barely-post-pubescent musk, a potent mixture of hormones, alcohol, and lust that The Book felt certain could be taken advantage of. And reality crackled with the magical potential of All Hallow’s Eve, building as the sun made its way across the sky and the dark grew ever nearer. Oh yes, this was a fortuitous re-awakening indeed. The Book was pleased.

 

It was easy work to send its will through the young male who had procured The Book from its prison, whispering its plan in the dark recesses of his mind. Draw the symbol. Make it an offering. Bring my master forth. For this was The Book’s sole purpose, and it would not be thwarted again.

 

The Book quivered in delight as its pentagram took form, each stroke of the brush bringing its designs closer to being. And better still, two more young males entered the room in which Destiny would be Awakened -- The Book rubbed its pages together in anticipation. Which to choose, which to choose…

 

Ah, yes. That one. The Book saw power, raw and untamed, thrumming untapped just beneath the veneer of humanity.

 

Mmmm, zesty.

 

There really was nothing better to feed a ravenous hell portal than yummy, yummy werewolf blood.

 

*

 

Buffy made a quick detour by the Espresso Pump for some coffee-to-go before heading home -- for some reason, once she’d left Spike behind with Giles, the fact that she’d only slept a handful of hours on a marble slab kicked in and she couldn’t stop yawning. She presented one of the cups to her mother with a smile.

 

“Sorry I’m late. I offer this trendy caffeinated beverage in recompense.”

 

Joyce accepted it with an exasperated smile, taking a sip. “Interesting. What is this?”

 

“The latest fad in java. Pumpkin spice. I’ve been wanting to try it.”

 

“Hmm.” Joyce took another tentative sip. “Interesting.”

 

“You just said interesting twice. That does not bode well.” Buffy took her own sip. “Ugh. Okay, this is one fad I will be happy to see in the rear-view mirror, like shoulder pads and poodle perms.”

 

“Well, that is the nice thing about fads. Eventually, they go away.” Joyce gratefully surrendered her nearly-full cup to Buffy.

 

“So, did you find it?” Buffy shoved the coffee cups to the back of the sideboard, stifling a yawn.

 

“It took a while. I must have opened a dozen boxes before finding the right one. You’re just lucky I love you so much.” Joyce’s eyes narrowed speculatively when Buffy yawned again. “Late night last night?”

 

“A little. Oh, but I wasn’t partying.” Buffy held up the red gingham dress in front of her mysteriously hot face, thinking of Spike in the morning, the musky smell of his shirt.... She wasn’t lying! She was just… not volunteering information her mother might disapprove of. Which was her right as a bona-fide adult. “Wow, can you believe this used to be huge on me?”

 

“Hmm.” Joyce sighed. “Would you like some tea?”

 

“Yes, please.” As her mom disappeared into the kitchen, Buffy set the dress and its polka-dotted apron aside, slinging the red hooded cape around her shoulders.

 

“Kettle’s on.” Her mom leaned against the doorframe. “So, will it do?”

 

Buffy frowned. “The dress is good, I think, but this is a little tight around the throat. Not a big fan of the choking.” A memory of Spike flashed into her brain -- him grinning up at her in the sunlight as her fingers tightened on his throat -- and she hurriedly untied the ribbon, turning away in case her face was as red as her hood.

 

She was definitely in need of more sleep, because there was no logical reason whatsoever that the thought of straddling Spike with her hands tight on his throat should make her feel all squirmy and hot -- well, okay, there was a reason, that fight had been fodder for fantasy nearly every night since then, but there was still something distinctly weird about thinking squirmy hot thoughts with her mom standing just a few feet away, just like that uncomfortable moment at Giles’s when she’d noticed just how nice Spike’s rear end was while Giles had been there, waving his godawful tassels and being all stodgy and Gilesy, and it just wasn’t right. Lusty wrong thoughts belonged in Loofahland, not getting all up in her head at all the wrong times, and so she shoved the image of her hands on Spike’s throat and the image of her hands on Spike’s really fantastic ass -- along with that new, completely wrong image where one hand was on his throat and the other on his ass, not to mention where she’d decided his hands should be -- way back in her brain, and turned back to her mom with a brilliant, totally-not-thinking-naughty-thoughts smile.

 

Joyce was regarding her with an indulgent, wry expression. “You could always not tie the ribbon quite so tight.”

 

“Oh. Well, I could do that, I suppose. But it’s, um, a bit short.”

 

“Longer than the dress,” her mom pointed out, but she held out her hand for the cloak. “I’ll let down the hem.” She seated herself at her sewing machine -- how long had it been since she’d had that out? -- and started to thread it.

 

“Thanks, Mom.” The kettle started to whistle. “I’ll fix the tea. It’s the least I can do after The Great Pumpkin Spice Coffee Debacle.”

 

“Please. Milk, no sugar.”

 

Buffy flipped the spout up to stop the whistling and poured the water over the tea bags her mother had already set up in mugs, watching the brown of the tea bloom and diffuse throughout the water, which was peaceful and meditative, exactly what she needed after the supersonic rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions that she had been riding on ever since confusing-future-Spike had rolled into town.

 

The real problem, she reluctantly admitted to herself, was that she’d had Spike filed away in her head under E for Evil, a categorization that made him basically fair game for random fantasies because it wasn’t like they were ever going to actually do anything other than beat each other up. F for Fantasy was right in that same file drawer, and when fantasy-time was over, she’d always been able to just shut them both away and go on with her life, secure in the conviction that Fantasy and Reality (down in the R-drawer) were never going to meet. It had been freeing, and she’d imagined all sorts of scenarios that she would never, ever let happen in real life -- or make happen, since for some reason her Spike-fantasies tended to go in all sorts of… domineering directions -- all without any actual danger to her heart or soul.

 

But this future-Spike, he upset her whole file system, refiling everything willy-nilly until there was a whole Spike drawer with all sorts of stuff from that F-drawer -- Fantasy and Fun and Fighting and maybe even Friendship -- plus a bunch of other things from all over the alphabet, H for Humor and C for Conversation and L for Laughter, and then adding in S for Sexy and another L for Lust, and it was like he’d just upended the whole cabinet into a pile of manila folders and was lying naked and grinning and unrepentant right smack in the middle, and --

 

Tea! she thought grimly. You’re making tea, which has nothing to do with Spike. How many minutes has it been?

 

She hadn’t checked the clock, and in her head naked-amongst-the-files Spike clucked his tongue at her disapprovingly -- she hadn’t ever seen him drink tea, but he was English, he probably had a fancy teapot tucked away in his lair and drank with his pinky out when nobody was around and totally cared whether his tea had been steeped precisely three minutes or four minutes -- and rolled to his feet and sauntered towards her.

 

Naughty girls must be punished, he purred, and then he fell to his knees and flipped up her skirt and --

 

Yep. This was a real problem.

 

Buffy sighed and decided the tea had steeped enough -- since it was not, in fact, helping her clear her mind -- and poured in a little milk, rejoining her mom in the dining room. She was holding up the red cloak, looking at it judiciously, a faint smile on her face.

 

“Oh, no,” Buffy said, setting the mugs on the table. “Someone’s getting nostalgic face.” Though she was one to talk; she was suddenly thinking back fondly as well. Things had been so much simpler when she was twelve.

 

“I’m sorry, I’m just thinking about the little girl who wore that… what is it? Five, six years ago?”

 

“Yeah, Little Red Riding Hood was the cutting edge in costumes.” Buffy reached out and fingered the red satin wistfully.

 

Joyce raised her eyebrows. “Most little girls didn’t insist their Little Red Riding Hood costume required an axe.”

 

“Did I?”

 

“It’s what I get for letting you watch that musical. You were the bloodthirstiest twelve-year-old on the block.”

 

“Says the woman who dressed up as the wolf.” 

 

Her mom smiled wistfully. “What can I say, your father really liked that costume.” The subtle emphasis on really was… expressive. Buffy wrinkled up her nose.

 

Mom!”

 

And then her heart sort of sank, as it always did whenever she thought about her dad.

 

“Your father loved to take you out trick or treating,” Joyce said, catching her mood.

 

“He just wanted the candy.”

 

“No, he wanted to keep you safe. The candy was for me.” Buffy couldn’t help a small smile at that. Joyce continued, “Your father loved spending time with you.”

 

“Not enough, I guess.” Buffy sighed. “Why are men so…” She flapped her hand helplessly.

 

“Oh honey, our divorce had nothing to do with you.”

 

“I don’t know. I’m starting to feel like there’s a pattern here. Open your heart to someone and he bails on you. And then when the next someone comes along, and he seems really smart and funny and like he’s got your back, and you really want to trust him, and he hasn’t given you a single reason not to, but there’s still some part of you that’s scared it’ll happen all over again, and just when you think everything’s perfect, he’ll just -- poof! -- disappear.” There was a long, slightly awkward pause. “Was that last bit even a sentence?” she asked lamely.

 

Joyce reached across the table and took her hand. “Is this about something in particular?”

 

Buffy flushed. “No! I mean, not really. It’s just… a hypothetical, you know?”

 

“I see,” Joyce said, but it was altogether too knowing for Buffy’s comfort. Her mom definitely couldn’t see inside her head, right? She decided to valiantly ignore it. “Well, I won’t lie, it can be really hard to get out there again when your trust has been broken. For a while, I thought it might be easier not to let anyone in. You must have noticed I’m not exactly the social butterfly I was when I was with your dad. It’s natural to feel gunshy, but you can’t shut yourself away forever. You’re so young, Buffy. I’m not saying go after the first handsome boy who smiles at you,” she added, with a mock sternness that made Buffy snort. “But if, after you’ve spent a lot of time with someone, getting to know them and understand them, and making sure they’re worthy of you, if that… Mr. Hypothetical… is worth it, I guess you just have to... take a risk... and hope for the best.”

 

Her mom spoke that last part as though she were trying to convince herself of something, which was weird. Buffy nodded uncertainly. She hadn’t ever really thought about guys as being worthy or unworthy of her before; she’d always been the one doing the chasing. Maybe part of her had even started to believe that she’d never get a boyfriend without bending over backwards to be perfect. Maybe that was why she’d been such easy prey for Parker, who’d been the first guy in a long time to approach her. Huh.

 

“That’s… insightful. Thanks, Mom.”

 

She didn’t feel like she had to bend over anything to please Spike. He just sorta seemed pleased with her regardless. Wanting to bend over something to please him was another matter...

 

Joyce shrugged a little sheepishly. “You tend to do some serious thinking after your boyfriend turns out to be a homicidal robot.” She blinked. “On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t be taking my advice.”

 

Buffy hurriedly stuffed the image of Spike bending her over a gravestone away for later.

 

“You have to admit,” she said. “We do kind of have a track record of bad, guy-related decisions. D’ya think it’s genetic?”

 

“I prefer to call them learning experiences,” Joyce said primly, and then they both laughed softly. “But seriously, Buffy, even when things feel like they aren’t going right, I will always be here for you. And you’ve got Mr. Giles and your friends, and… Spike?”

 

Buffy started. “What? How did you know about…?

 

But Joyce was looking distractedly out of the window. “No, I mean, Spike’s outside.”

 

“Oh, right. Giles must’ve dropped him off. I should…” she gestured vaguely towards the door.

 

“Oh, is he coming with you to the party?” Somehow her mom didn’t look all that surprised. Although, why else would be hanging about outside her house?

 

“Uh, well, he kinda has to. You remember what I said about him being from the future? Giles wants him to prove it, so there’s this thing going down tonight, and basically I need to keep eyeballs on him. Not literally, because ew. Although, Halloweeny.”

 

“Right,” Joyce said with a look of amusement. “Well, does he have a costume?”

 

“You mean aside from the…” Buffy gestured head to toe. “Oh, and the…” she made a snarly vamp face.

 

“Aside from that, yes.”

 

Buffy shrugged. “Probably not. I didn’t really think about it.”

 

“I may opt for the quieter lifestyle myself these days,” Joyce said, “but I do remember something about costume parties requiring an actual costume.”

 

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Vamps don’t go in for that stuff, Mom. It’s beneath them, apparently.”

 

“Mmm hmm. Maybe I can find him something to wear that won’t offend his sense of style.” And she disappeared towards the basement.

 

Buffy decided not to examine the wash of relief that she could go greet Spike without witnesses. Totally lame. It wasn’t like she hadn’t just seen him an hour ago, or spent the night under the same roof as him, or been thinking about him pretty much constantly ever since.

 

Oh. Right.

 

She took a deep breath as she reached for the door handle, mentally composing something snarky about his lurking tendencies, but what came out of her mouth when she actually laid eyes on him was a shy-sounding, “Hey.”

 

“Hey,” he replied, eyes doing that soft, glowy thing that made her insides tumble.

 

“So I guess you survived. Giles, I mean.”

 

“Er, yeah, just about. Guess he was all out of rocksalt.”

 

“Guess he was.” God, why was her heart pounding so hard? “Lucky.”

 

“Yeah, lucky.”

 

Words. Words good. Speak more words. “How’s your heart?” Spike seemed to flinch minutely, and his hand went to his chest. “Still un-stakey?” Buffy clarified.

 

“Whole,” Spike agreed, giving her a look of such earnest intensity she felt her skin break out in prickles.

 

“Well, good,” she said, and finally collecting herself, stepped back for him to come inside. He didn’t move, and embarrassment slammed into her again. “Oh. Oh! You need an invite.”

 

He regarded her for a moment in silence, the same intensity as before, and then he seemed to shake it off, grinning, and said, “No, actually,” and stepped over the threshold.

 

Wait, she hadn’t uninvited him? No, she realized -- she hadn’t. Huh.

 

“Thought you’d be all dressed up by now,” Spike said, turning slowly as though taking in his surroundings.

 

“Oh, um… there were… Well. I’ve grown a bit since I was twelve.” Buffy barely managed to stop herself from gesturing at her chest, but Spike’s eyes flickered there for the barest second anyhow.

 

“I just bet you have.”

 

“Taller!” Buffy blurted out. “I’m taller.”

 

His grin widened. “Are you, indeed?”

 

“So Mom had to… Okay. I’ll just go cha-” She flushed at the sudden heat in Spike’s eyes, as if telling Spike about taking off her clothes was the same thing as actually taking off her clothes in front of Spike, the thought of which made her insides tumble even faster, like a clothes dryer on steroids, and she hurriedly snatched up her gingham dress and headed for the stairs. “I’ll be right back.”

 

She determinedly did not linger over the changing, getting into the dress in record time -- no zipper in the back, thank god -- and tying the apron over the top before looking in the mirror. She definitely filled the dress out better than she once had, and the shorter length exposed a nice amount of leg. She wondered if Spike would -- no, no, she didn’t. She knew she looked cute as a button, except a grown-up button this time, not a twelve-year-old button, and it didn’t matter what Spike thought. She quickly braided her hair into twin pigtails to complete the look and headed back downstairs.

 

Spike was still standing in the foyer alone, face oddly grim, though when she appeared at the top of the stairs his expression instantly cleared into what looked like relief. Weird. Did he think she was going to sneak out the window and go off to fight the demon without him? Not to mention without her red riding hood. Buffy prided herself on being unpredictable, but she wasn’t about to go out in a half-complete costume. Especially after her mom had just put all that work into altering the cloak for her!

 

After all, she wasn’t a monster.

 

*

 

I know I’m a monster, but you treat me like a man.

 

Spike’s own words to a very different Buffy, under very different circumstances, in this exact same place, echoed in his mind as he watched Buffy descend the stairs. She was wearing a little-girl dress and had her hair in little girl braids, but somewhere between the shortness of her skirt -- he barely resisted craning his neck to see up it better -- and the inexplicable glow in her eyes, she managed to look more womanly than if she’d been in a sophisticated evening gown with her hair in a glamorous updo.

 

And he would swear that the look in her eyes was meant for a man.

 

The déjà vu was suddenly almost blinding -- it was the last time he’d been in this house with his Buffy, that moment, and now the first time in this house with this Buffy, and he could almost imagine them repeating this scenario over and over into eternity, him looking up at her and her looking down at him, doomed never quite to meet.

 

The moment was interrupted by the sound of the basement door bumping open; shortly thereafter, Joyce bustled into the dining room, setting down a large cardboard box on the table beside the sewing machine.

 

“Hullo, Joyce,” Spike said with an awkward bob of his head, suddenly embarrassed. Though he supposed he shouldn’t be; weeping into his cocoa on her front porch wasn’t all that far a leap from weeping into his cocoa in her kitchen. It felt different, though -- maybe because it was Buffy and Joyce herself he’d been weeping for, or maybe because he had the memories of other conversations they’d had in his past to trip him up, or maybe even because his grief over Dru had been, at its core, a selfish grief, and now there was simply so much more at stake.

 

“Hello, Spike,” Joyce said, a hint of laughter in her voice. “How did things work out for you the other night?”

 

“Well enough,” Spike hedged, glancing up at Buffy. “The butterflies of Sunnydale have been safe with me.”

 

“Well, that’s a relief. I’d hate to wake up and find out that some reality-show star was suddenly the President of the United States.” She opened the box and started rummaging. “If you’ll just wait a moment, I’m pretty sure this is the right one...”

 

Buffy swept past Spike into the dining room. “The other night?” Her voice was casual, but there was a slight edge to it.

 

Her mother glanced up. “Oh, Spike just came by for some advice. Or maybe it was the cocoa.” She glanced over her shoulder at Spike. “Speaking of which, I did pick up some mini-marshmallows the last time I was at the store. Would you like a cup?”

 

“Mom, we don’t have time for that,” Buffy said quickly. “We have to go to the party so we can kill the mini-demon that may or may not exist.”

 

Joyce stopped rummaging for a moment, raising her eyes to the heavens. “You know, most mothers of college girls worry about their daughters drinking too much, or flunking Economics.”

 

“Don’t worry, Mom.” Buffy turned and looked at Spike steadily, a slight smile on her lips. “If Spike’s telling the truth and not, you know, neglecting to tell me any important information, I crush the mini-demon like a bug.”

 

Spike couldn’t quite tell whether she was teasing or sniping, but before he could riposte, Joyce broke in.

 

“Ah! Here it is. I hoped I would have it for you.”

 

“Have what?”

 

“Your costume.”

 

“My what?”

 

“Your costume. If you’re going to a Halloween party, you need to be wearing a costume.”

 

“Like he--” Spike nearly bit his tongue cutting off his initial reaction. “Don’t need a costume,” he continued in a measured tone of voice. “Not going out for giggles. I have to go, by Slayer decree -- I’m just along to help kill the demon.”

 

“Then think of it as a disguise. You’ll want to blend in.”

 

“Come on,” Buffy cajoled, definitely teasing now, though there was also something earnest in her expression. “It’ll be fun!” She turned and scooped up a pile of shiny red fabric from the table, shaking it out.

 

“Fun? Can get all the fun I need from the killing part of the evening. Don’t need to get all rigged out like Henry the Eighth, or bloody Elvis, or--”

 

“Or the Big Bad Wolf?” Joyce interrupted sweetly, turning around with her hands full.

 

Spike fell silent, staring at the bushy tail and rubber mask that Joyce was holding.

 

“Come on, Spike,” Buffy grinned as she tied on her hooded cloak. “Haven’t you ever wanted to pretend to be someone you’re not?”

 

I’ve always been bad.

 

What had he told Buffy that time, sitting at the Bronze like they were on a date? Not the truth, that’s for certain, not what he’d truly been as a human, not that the entire century he’d lived as a vampire had been spent crafting his persona, creating Spike. Though he supposed it had been less pretending than becoming, growing into himself, and in the end did it really matter? He rolled his eyes and reached out for the costume. The fact that it sort of matched Buffy’s didn’t hurt.

 

“Bloody-- Fine. I’ll play dress-up.” He set the mask on the table for the moment and slung off his duster, regarding the tail. “You didn’t make this for me, did you?”

 

“Oh, no. It’s an old family costume.”

 

“Family costume, eh? Your father wear this when he was herding itty bitty you about, did he?” Spike raised an eyebrow at Buffy, waving the shaggy tail. Buffy opened her mouth and shut it again, face twisting in an unreadable expression that made his heart sink.

 

“No, actually I did,” Joyce said with a wry smile. “That year Hank was on a business trip. So Halloween was Girls’ Night. Probably for the best, as the rest of the costume involved spandex.”

 

Spike cast Joyce a wicked grin, taking refuge from Buffy’s reaction. “Not leather?”

 

“It was the early Nineties.” She shrugged, smiling. “Buffy insisted I play the part, too. Growling and snarling….”

 

“Sounds like a good time. Like to play the Big Bad, do we?” From the slightly mischievous light in Joyce’s eyes he’d wager she had, once upon a time. “Must have been quite the sight, you wearing this, though I’d have pegged you as a fox more than a-”

 

“Geez!” Buffy interrupted, glaring at Spike. “Stop making goo-goo eyes at my mom and just put on the tail already. We’ve got work to do.”

 

Spike rolled his eyes. Here he’d been feeling all warm and fuzzy, like he’d been invited to join in a family affair, and the Slayer had to up and get shirty. He met her grumpy eyes with a glare of his own, unhurriedly unbuckling his belt and pulling the tongue from the loops until he could slip the tail’s loop over it, sliding the tail to the back and buckling up again. He turned and presented his back to Buffy. “Will this do?” He gave his arse a mocking pat.

 

“That…” Buffy cleared her throat. “That’s fine. Get your mask on.”

 

Spike obligingly slipped the strap of the half-mask behind his head. It covered him forehead to nose, wolf snout protruding out a few inches, a fringe of fur tickling at his cheekbones. All right. He could work with this. He grinned and licked his lips, eyeing Buffy up and down, getting into the part. “Well, well, well. Aren’t you supposed to comment on what big… eyes I have?” He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops.

 

“Only when you’ve got Granny’s shawl on, lame-o. Read the book.” Buffy’s cheeks were pink.

 

“Got a shawl?” He looked over at Joyce; her face was thoughtful.

 

“We’re going to be late,” Buffy said firmly before Joyce could answer.

 

“Oh, right. Can’t keep the demon waiting.”

 

“So you say. Maybe it’s just a party.” Buffy struck a sexy pose. “Maybe your mysterious sources just told you I was going to look all victimy tonight.”

 

Dawn actually hadn’t told him what Buffy was wearing, though she’d been vocal in her annoyance with her own costume. Raggedy-Ann, had it been? Or maybe Rainbow Brite. Something both outdated and atrociously cute. If Dawn wasn’t real, where had that whole thing come from? Had the monks who created her actually come up with that storyline on their own, or had they created that memory out of his own subconscious? And if so, what did that say about… He shook that thought off, realizing that he’d been staring at Buffy’s legs the whole time. Not that they didn’t deserve it. My, what a short skirt you have….

 

“Not lying about the demon,” he said in a rush. “And my source was reliable.”

 

“My, what a big mouth you have!” Buffy warbled in a high, sugary voice. “Less talking, more walking. Mom,” she said brightly, turning to Joyce. “Thanks for fixing up my costume.”

 

“You’re welcome, honey,” Joyce said with a touch of exasperation in her voice, standing to give Buffy a hug. She turned to Spike, looking a trifle awkward, like she was considering whether she should offer him a hug, too, and whether he would be likely to accept one.

 

He would, he thought in some surprise, but he rescued her from the decision by catching up her hand and planting a kiss on her knuckles. “Thanks for the costume, Joyce,” he said, adding a little growl at the end.

 

She laughed. “Any time. Sorry you don’t have time for cocoa -- or tea.” She gestured to the two half-drunk mugs left abandoned on the table.

 

Spike could smell from here that they’d been over-brewed and mixed with bloody half-and-half, of all things. Americans. “Well, perhaps next time--”

 

Buffy snatched up his duster, holding it out pointedly. “Oh my god. What did I say about the mouth?” She gathered up a clinking wicker basket, tapping her foot as Spike slid his arms into the sleeves.

 

He grinned, settling the leather around his shoulders. “All the better to eat you with, my dear,” he snarled dramatically.

 

Buffy’s eyes widened, and she dragged him out the door, tossing a high-pitched “Bye, Mom!” in her wake.

 

Spike let himself be dragged.

 

*

 

Once they were a few blocks from the house and Buffy’s overheated skin had been cooled by the breeze, she slowed to a brisk walk, pretending she wasn’t still thinking about-- she wasn’t thinking about it! Not about any of the ‘its’! She totally, totally wasn’t. Not even the ‘it’ that was slightly less scary than the other ‘its’, though no less squirm inducing (in a completely different way!), that was Spike and her mom apparently… sharing space without warfare? Peacefully coexisting? Possibly even… getting along? Because that ‘it’ was completely uncharted territory for a… a possibly friend-shaped vampire guy who she… liked spending time with, and… Argh! Not. Thinking. About. It.

 

Spike was obligingly quiet until they were on the fringes of campus, wolf mask dangling idly from his fingers, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. Which she hoped were also not about any of the ‘its’, especially the naughtier ‘its’, because thinking about him thinking about them made her think about them again, and she was so not going down that rabbit hole of badness.

 

“So,” Spike finally said, in a kind of overly-casual tone of voice. “Little Red Riding Hood. Very… Freudian.”

 

“It’s all I could manage at short notice,” Buffy protested, shoving all the ‘its’ she absolutely wasn’t thinking about in her ever-ready File Cabinet of Ignoring, under N for Nope, Nuh-uh, and Not Gonna Think About It. “I wasn’t planning to go to the party to actually, you know, party.” Willow had convinced her, since they’d have to go anyway, and she’d figured, hey, what harm could it do? Might as well get maximum enjoyment out of the evening, since it was sounding like this was going to be an easy slay.

 

The bushes off to the left rustled, catching her attention briefly. Oh good, spooky Halloween wind, just to set the scene.

 

“Oh? Seems like the perfect opportunity for a slayer to relax, let loose, all that. Nothing ever goes down on Halloween, you should know that by now.” He glanced at her sidelong, doing that tongue thing.

 

Yep, that thought belonged in the N-drawer, too.

 

More rustling, from the right this time, and she thought she caught a flash of green, maybe in a camouflage pattern? She didn’t sense vamps, though. Probably some college kids thinking they were clever, being creepy in the foliage. “Right, except when some old frenemy of Giles’s curses us into becoming our costumes.”

 

“There was that,” Spike conceded. They’d re-hashed that particular bit of nostalgia into dangerous territory last night, though; she tried to steer them well away from a repeat.

 

“And besides, the only thing Freudy about my costume is the fact that Little Red chopped up the wolf into teeny tiny wolf-bits, so you should watch yourself, mister.”

 

Spike’s grin was equal parts filth and delight. “Oh! That sounds promising, Slayer. Not such a helpless little girl this time, then.”

 

“Let’s face it, the only times you’ve ever even come close to besting me were with the help of magic, so go right ahead and… Spike?” She looked around. He’d disappeared.

 

The breeze rustled the leaves ominously again, and the shadows flickered. All around her, noise she hadn’t noticed before came rolling in, the thump of a bass and squeals of people having fun, drinking, TP-ing the trees. Where had he gone?

 

A dark shape walked up behind her and she jerked around, but it was only Xander.

 

“Hey, Red. What you got in the basket, little girl?”

 

She sincerely hoped he was trying to be creepy, because otherwise, ew.

 

“Weapons,” she said flatly, still casting around for Spike.

 

“Oh.”

 

“What, you thought she was gonna have some tasty treats for all the boys?” a deep voice rumbled, shiveringly close to her ear, and suddenly Spike was at her shoulder again, as though he’d just melted out of the shadows. Which he possibly had. Vampire. Which made it kind of stupid that she relaxed, but whatever, it was Spike.

 

“Spike!” Xander yelped, voice pitched high enough to be at odds with his admittedly suave appearance. “It’s Spike! Spike’s here!”

 

Buffy gave him a level stare.

 

“And I see that this is not a problem,” Xander continued, watching Buffy closely for approval. She nodded sarcastically, uh huh.

 

“It’s future-Spike,” she explained, deciding to be generous -- as if she’d just show up with her actual mortal enemy in tow. Sheesh. “He’s here to help.”

 

“Oh,” Xander said, brows beetling. “Oh. So we believe him now?”

 

“We do.”

 

Xander blinked, and then shrugged. “Okay, good enough for me.” He held out his hand to Spike. “I’d say it’s nice to meet you but…”

 

Buffy turned to see Spike eyeing Xander’s hand with a strangely mixed-up expression. There was a long pause. Then, his expression settling on derisive, he shoved his hands into his pockets and sneered, “You do realize we’ve met before. You cosh a bloke into unconsciousness, you’d think he’d remember you.”

 

“Uh.” Xander floundered, awkwardly raising the hand left hanging to smooth back his heavily pomaded hair. “Now Buff, you’re absolutely sure you’ve got the right bleach-head here, yes?”

 

Buffy couldn’t help it -- she smirked. “Spike, play nice,” she scolded, elbowing him in the ribs with just the tiniest bit of force, so that he knew she meant business, despite what her treacherous face was doing. “Xander, like the tux.”

 

He straightened, trying to look assured, though his eyes still flicked a little nervously between her and Spike. “Bond, James Bond. Insurance, you know, in case we get turned into our costumes again. I’m going for cool secret agent guy.”

 

“I hate to break it to you,” Buffy said, “but you’ll more likely end up cool head-waiter guy.”

 

“Hey, as long as I’m cool and wield some kind of power.”

 

Spike snorted. “Keep setting that bar ever lower, Harris, there’s a lad.”

 

“I see you spared no expense in the costume department,” Xander said, waving a hand to encompass Spike’s traditional get up of black on black. “What are you supposed to be, Punk Count von Count?”

 

“One, two, three,” Spike said softly, eyes glittering in a way that made the hairs on the back of Buffy’s neck stand on end, then in one smooth movement he donned his wolf mask. “I’ll blow your house down.”

 

Buffy was saved from Xander’s reaction by Willow and Oz appearing further up the path. She waved them down and they came over. “Hey, Will. Medieval Will.”

 

“Hail, ye olde varletty thou,” Xander said, looking somewhat confused by Willow’s costume.

 

“I’m Joan of Arc,” Willow explained. “I figured we had a lot in common, seeing as how I was almost burned at the stake, and plus she had that close relationship with God.”

 

“And you are?” Xander asked, turning to Oz, but that question would have to wait, because--

 

“Is that…” Oz said, squinting over Buffy’s shoulder.

 

“Spike?” Willow finished. She sent Oz a significant glance. Significant how, Buffy couldn’t say, but it sure was significanty.

 

Spike remained silent, but grinned dangerously at them from under his mask, and with just his lower face on display, all Buffy could really see was his mouth, and… yeah… totally nothing entrancing about that…

 

But why was he being so… off with her friends? If he was working with her in the future, wouldn’t he be working with them, too? He must at least be on good terms with Willow, who’d sent him here. But he seemed almost… She tried to shake it off, because it so wasn’t him, but it wouldn’t go. He seemed defensive, brittle almost, falling back on his special brand of Spikeish bravado to protect himself, and when the hell did she get to know him so well that she could analyze him like that?

 

Faintly alarmed, and not really paying attention -- something about Oz and God? -- she totally missed Willow sidling up to her, and jumped a little when she touched Buffy’s arm. Leaning in, Willow said quietly enough that no one else could hear, “Sleep okay?”

 

Knocked clean off her axis, Buffy floundered around for something to say. “Err…” Well, that was something, if not a very intelligent something.

 

“Just, you know, after the speech you made last night about getting enough rest, when I saw your bed all un-rumpled this morning, I wondered where you’d been a-rumpling.”

 

Chancing a look, Buffy saw that Willow didn’t look especially concerned about the lack of morning-Buffy. In fact, she had a gleam in her eye that Buffy thought boded pretty ill.

 

“No, there was absolutely no rumpling!” she whispered back, trying hard not to splutter too conspicuously. “And I slept just fine, thank you. And completely alone!” This was technically true, she reassured herself, since Spike had been all the way on the other side of the crypt, and also maybe hadn’t slept at all, just watched her as if Buffy Sleeps was Sweeps Week Primetime TV, with his eyes all soft and… “Totally, completely alone!”

 

“Uh huh,” Willow said. “Your puffy eyes and caffeine-jiggles say otherwise.” But she thankfully left it at that.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Xander was saying. “I, ah, invited Anya to join us, but she’s having some trouble finding a scary costume, so she’s just going to meet us there.”

 

“Oh, demon girl’s here?” Spike said, seeming to perk up. Buffy cut him a curious look, but he obviously realized that he’d let slip Anya would be sticking around for a while (though Xander didn’t seem to have noticed), and clammed up, jaw twitching beneath the fringe of faux wolf fur.

 

So Xander would have Anya for however many years, and Willow and Oz were obviously never splitting up, but when she’d asked Spike about her own future lovelife, well, she’d cut him off, but he hadn’t exactly been Mr. Keen with a name for Buffy’s future-honey, which boded about as well as Willow’s Knowing-Smirk Face.

 

“Perfect,” Buffy muttered. “Everybody’s got a date but third-wheel Buffy.”

 

Willow’s innocently raised eyebrows were expressive, but thankfully quietly so. Xander, on the other hand…

 

“OhthankgodSpikeisn’tyourdate.”

 

There was a long, stretching silence as they all peered at Buffy, waiting for her confirmation. Her eyes landed on Spike’s with the inevitability of heartburn on All Saints Day, but of course he was wearing the damn wolf mask, and didn’t seem inclined to give anything else away. Weirdly, she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, and somehow she felt that the quick denial that’d jumped into her mouth would do just that. But this also really, really, very definitely wasn’t a date. Was it?

 

“Uhh,” she said, grasping desperately for a change of subject. And that was when a group of guys dressed up like commandos stepped out of the bushes in front of them. Someone behind her let out a shriek -- Willow? Buffy absently patted her on the shoulder as she gratefully redirected everyone’s attention to the wannabe army guys with a couple of witty remarks, before turning back to the group.

 

“What are they supposed to be?”

 

Oz shrugged. “NATO?”

 

“And what were you yelling about, Braveheart?” Xander said, grinning gleefully, but he wasn’t looking at Willow -- he was looking at Spike.

 

“Huh? That was you?” Buffy asked.

 

Spike straightened from the half-crouch he’d been in, obscuring his presence at the back of the group, and rolled his shoulders. “What was me?”

 

“That extremely un-manly scream,” Xander said, “which was most definitely you, ya big fraidy-vamp. What kind of monster are you?”

 

“Hey now, no need to get pers--”

 

“Are all vampires afraid of the army?” Oz wondered.

 

“Let’s not jump to--”

 

Willow was smiling too. “Who knew Spike’s worst fear was a bunch of frat boys in bad face paint,” she joked.

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Spike muttered, looking away with an irritated sniff. “Laugh it up.”

 

“You have to admit,” Oz pointed out. “That was somewhat unexpected.”

 

“And hilarious. Oh come on!” Xander said, with a friendly punch to Spike’s arm as they all started walking for the frat house again. “Even you’ve got to see the funny side of a creature of the night being scared of things that go bump in the same.”

 

“Oh I’ll show you my funny side, Harris,” Spike sniped, but Buffy could see that the tension at being teased had gone out of his body, so Xander probably wasn’t in imminent danger of being eaten. Smiling at the feeling of having all her favorite people together for a night of fun and frolicking -- and hopefully demon-killing, but that was fun, too -- Buffy opened the door and stepped into the haunted house.

 

This was going to be a scream.