Actions

Work Header

The Indefinite Article

Work Text:

"It's not easy, what you're asking for." The woman behind the desk folded her hands beneath her ample decolletage. Her dark, half-lidded gaze was deceptively lazy. "Some might say impossible."

Spike slouched deeper into the sway-backed armchair reserved for clients, avoiding a too-close look at the shelves on the wall behind her. Rows and rows of squat, murky bottles lined the cramped office, glass and crystal and stone, some dark, some glowing eerily from within, all of them reeking of magic. He realized his fingers were tapping restlessly on one knee, and stilled them. "See here, Melly, you gave me some of my first business when I started Bloody Vengeance. You've been a good customer all these years. Figured I'd return the favor and give you first dibs on the job." One good turn deserved another; one of the simplest rules of mock-souled behavior he'd learned, back in the day. Didn't make any sense, on the face of it, but experience had borne out that it upped the overall number of good turns that came his way. Sneaky bastards, those white hats. "'Course, if your mojo's not up to snuff, there's half a dozen other mystical boffins who'd be glad enough of the dosh."

"Where the hell do you think you're going?"

"To fix this. To fix me. Once and for all."

Melly's plump cheeks dimpled in a grin, and the copper bells braided into her hair chimed softly with the shake of her head. "Spike, sugar, if you really thought anyone else could do it, you'd be talking to anyone else. The mysteries of the Kun Sun Dai don't come cheap." She leaned forward and laced her be-ringed fingers together on the blotter, all business. "First things first, and the first thing is, your soul's spoken for. If it still exists at all. The powers that Rosenberg woman bargained with for the Slayer's life - "

" - don't make bargains you can back out of, yeah, I know." Spike caught his knee jittering and planted both boot-heels firmly on the floor. Trouble with avoiding the walls was, he had to stare at the carpet. Its faded patterns pulled mocking faces at him out of the corner of his eye. "Didn't ask you for my soul. I asked for a soul, kindly note the indefinite article."

You are not leaving! Not again. Not me. Not them."

"You want me to stay, after - ? You saw! You saw what I - "

"Didn't!"

"Could have done!"

The shaman made a small, inquisitive noise deep in her throat, like the chortle of a curious dove. "You intrigue me, sugar baby, you really do. I expect you've considered the risks - "

Spike interrupted with a throat-cutting gesture. "Bugger the risks."

"Mmm. If you say so, sugar. No skin off my nose." Her gaze sharpened to an obsidian keenness. "But there's still the little matter of payment."

Melly always had been a haggler. He still suspected she'd got the better of him on that shipment of mandrakes' tongues last month. Spike shrugged, donning cool like armor. "Seems to me your order owes us one. Wyndam-Pryce bloody near wiped the lot of you out of existence before the Slayer and me took him down."

"Takes a lot more than one snooty-ass vampire and his pet lawyers to take down the Kun Sun Dai, sugar," Melly said with an affronted huff. "But point taken. You get a discount." She laid a finger to her pursed lips and considered. A brilliant smile blossomed. "Seems to me a man who's been around as long as you have might have a memory or two I could use."

Memories. Not a small thing to ask of a chap whose existence spanned three separate and distinct metaphysical phases, and was looking to embark on a fourth. Memories were all that made him who he was. Granted he had a hundred and sixty-odd years of them. Good memories, most of them, but wouldn't that change soon? "Can't think I've got that much of interest in there." Spike ground out.

Daddy!

"You'd be surprised," Melly murmured. "Mind spells don't work so good on vampires, them being dead and all." She leaned across the desk and extended one hand, silver rings glinting against her dark skin. She spread her fingertips against his temple. "Puts vampire memories at a premium. But you... you're different."

Her fingers fluttered like moths beneath his skin. Not like Glory's fingers, palping his brain like Jell-O. Spike gripped the arms of the chair and throttled his nervous growl down to a subterranean rumble. He'd never liked the sensation of people poking through his head, whether they were hellgods or well-meant sorcerous allies. Sodding Mohra blood. He wouldn't be in this mess if he hadn't - but he couldn't imagine where he would be now, if he hadn't.

Daddy, no!

"Truth is, sugar, I'm a bit curious." Whatever she was looking for, Melly was taking her time about it. "Most people come to me looking to get rid of souls. Mine never bothers me much - " she nodded across the room at one of the brighter jars - "But I always figure there's a reason they're so unpopular. You've been playing for the white hats for twenty years. Why a soul, and why now?"

The real question was, why not twenty years ago? His hands would be shaking if he weren't holding the armrests so tightly. "That's my business."

Daddy, no! Let go!

Oh, God, yes, take it away. But losing that moment would make nothing of the reasons he'd come here in the first place. Melly's chuckle was deep and rich and nasty. "Oh, sugar, a memory's not worth much if you want to get rid of it, is it? Let's see what else you got. Oh, looky here... now, ain't that sweet." Her fingers closed, pincer-hard. "First-ever night of Slayer nookie!"

Spike went rigid in the chair, the armrests splintering under the pressure of his grip. Twenty years of useless struggle, tying himself in knots - I can be good too! he'd told her, all those years ago, but he couldn't, not when it mattered. Wyndam-Pryce had told him nothing but the truth last summer, the sanctimonious bastard, and Spike would never forgive him for that. "Please. Not that one."

"Mmm. I dunno. This one's spicy."

Spike squeezed his eyes closed. "Best night of my life."

"Well then," Melly said. "Think about it, sugar. What's more important: your past with the Slayer, or your future?"

Daddy, no! Let go! You're hurting me!

Eyes open. "Take it, you skinflint bitch."

Melly laughed. "Bet you say that to all the girls." She pulled her hand free, and part of his past came with it - one night, only one night, one glorious, unlife-changing, revolutionary -

Spike blinked and looked at the shaman uncertainly, brow wrinkling in confusion. "Aren't you going to take it?"

She patted his shoulder. "Sugar, it's already gone." She rose to her feet and selected a jar from the shelves behind her, popped the lid off and dropped something inside - something black and glittering, shot through with crimson and gold. She tucked the jar away on the shelf and beckoned. "Now let's get to work."

Spike followed her, frowning, prodding the gap in his memory as he might have the gap left by a missing tooth - how could you remember what you'd forgotten when you couldn't remember forgetting it? Bugger it, he had more important things to worry about now. "You'll get me a proper one, yeah?" he said. "I want the soul of a good man, not some bounder. And I want it to stick good and tight, none of this shoddy gypsy curse stuff."

Melly laughed. "Spike, honey, when I get done with you? You're gonna be a whole new man."

*****

When Spike got home she was going to kill him.

Buffy was extremely clear on this. There were diagrams. Or would be, if she'd had a pencil that wasn't snapped in two within ten seconds of her getting her hands on it. Which, in the long run, probably a good, lest said pencils end up rammed right through Spike's inconsiderately-beating heart.

And he was coming home. Any minute now she'd hear his key fumbling in the front door, and he'd roll in, black leather and worn denim and ruffled, greying curls, battered and exhausted because he was getting too damn old to deal with his troubles by getting drunk and beating up half the patrons of the Alibi Room. And she'd yell at him and swab Mercurochrome on his battered knuckles, serve him right if it stung, and in the middle of arguing she'd kiss him and he'd taste like beer and pig's blood soup from the take-out pho place down the street, and maybe the kissing would go places and maybe it wouldn't, but that was OK, either way they'd fall asleep together, and tomorrow... tomorrow they'd deal with it. Because that was what they did, damn it.

And then she'd kill him. As soon as Spike came home. And he was coming home. He'd promised.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?"

"To fix this. To fix me. Once and for all."

"You don't fix things by running away!"

"I'm not - I'm coming back. A day. Two days, tops. I swear. I swear on - " Laughter like the taste of bile, sick and bitter in the back of the throat. "Well, I haven't anything worth swearing on, have I?"

Buffy grimaced down at the cold oily dregs in her coffee cup, unfolded herself from the couch with a groan, and staggered out to the kitchen to dump the last of the coffee down the sink and start a fresh pot. Spike wasn't the only one getting too old for this crap. She leaned against the counter, squinting at the window as the coffeemaker burbled to itself, massaging the swell of her belly. Outside a pale dawn was breaking, painting the eastern sky in eggshell hues of pink and gold. Her eyes were gritty with lack of sleep and her mouth tasted like the bottom of a litter box, and the baby was doing the macarena on her kidneys and she should be out there looking for him and damn Spike for playing the mommy card on her.

"Mommy?"

Alex was standing in the kitchen doorway, Mr. Bun dragging behind him, big worried hazel eyes fixed on the lightening sky outside. "Is Daddy home yet?"

"Not yet, honey. Wanna come give Mommy a hug till he does?"

He flung himself at her knees without a word, and Buffy caught him up and hugged him tight. Alex buried his face in her neck and snuffled. "I'm sorry, Mommy. I'm sorry I cried. Can Daddy come home now?"

"Oh, Alex..." She set him down on the counter-edge. "You didn't do anything wrong. You know how Daddy gets scary when he's mad?"

Alex nodded solemnly. "But I'm not scareded any more."

"Well, he got so mad this time he scared himself."

"You saw! You saw what I - "

"Didn't!"

"Could have done! If you hadn't - "

"But I did! You're a vampire and I'm a Slayer and our kids are half-demon or half of them are all demon or I don't even know, but this is us! This is what we have! Running away doesn't change that! Fine, Spike, you screwed up! It's not the first time - "

"It'll bloody well be the last!"

She should have seen it coming. Spike had been on edge since Wesley's penitential visit. He'd never talked much about what had happened while he was undercover at Wolfram & Hart, but anything that gave a vampire nightmares wasn't happy funtimes. And however excited they were about the baby, they were both nervous, too, because the baby thing hadn't worked out so well last time, had it? So, stress. Good stress, but still, stress. She nuzzled Alex's tousled curls. God knew neither of them had a perfect parental track record. Maybe if it had been Bill or Connie, it all would have happened differently - Spike was used to clashes with his older children; knew their limits, and his own. But Alex... sweet-tempered, tractable Alex, who never talked back or threw tantrums...

...even Alex could be a brat sometimes.

Footsteps on the stairs: Bill and Connie, faces long as the morning shadows. Buffy set Alex down and pulled the curtains closed - second nature when half your family was combustible. At least going through the motions of breakfast-getting gave her something to do that wasn't worry. Shredded wheat and milk for Alex and Connie, pig's blood and Weetabix for Bill, and her stomach revolted at the mere thought of more coffee, so yogurt and raw liver (baby vampire cravings: yuck squared) for her. The kids congregated around the kitchen island, mourners around a domestic monument, eyes downcast and unwontedly silent.

"We could go find him," Connie blurted out, dropping her spoon into her bowl with a splash. "Bill can track him, and I - "

The part of her that cherished the everyday rituals of breakfast and shoe shopping was wailing, You're only eleven! but the rest of her was thinking that was a pretty damn good idea. "Bill can't go running around in the middle of - "

"Neither can Dad," Bill broke in, shoving his glasses up on his nose. "So all we have to - "

"Quiet!" It was her Slayer voice, and the children froze. Buffy turned, head raised, senses tingling. Vampire.

Not just vampire. Spike.

She didn't remember covering the distance from the kitchen to the front door, or pulling the door half off its hinges. But she would remember to her dying day the sight that greeted her when the door opened. Spike was standing on the front porch, half collapsed against one of the big brick pillars. He was haggard and unshaven, bruised eyes haunted above knife-edged cheekbones. His t-shirt was half charred away, his hair was scorched to stubble, and smoke billowed upwards from the blackened, oozing burns covering his face and arms and shoulders.

As he saw her, Spike swayed forwards, dropping to his knees. Flakes of burnt cotton and burnt vampire fluttered to the cool cement of the porch, and a beatific smile stretched across his grotesque face. "Buffy, he whispered, like a prayer. He held out both hands. "I've come home like I promised, Slayer. Now please... please kill me."

******

She didn't kill him.

He'd had that thought to sustain him, all the way home: Buffy would kill him. Dispatch him to whatever well-deserved hell awaited him, and still, if only for a moment, the voices in his head. She was the Slayer, and that was what the Slayer did.

But he'd forgotten, over the years, just how merciless the Slayer could be. Instead of running him through, she grabbed him by the remaining tatters of his t-shirt, hauled him one-handed to his feet, and whispered low and furious in his charcoaled ear, "If you think for one moment I'd make our children watch me kill you, you'll only wish you were dead!" and dragged him inside. Where she proceeded to visit food and rest and bandages upon him as if they were punishments. Maybe they were. Prolonging the torment, so to speak.

The bedroom door cracked open. Bill edged half-way into the room and stood ill-at-ease in the doorway. "Dad?"

Spike's breath caught hard in his throat. "Present. Come on in, then."

His son shuffled in, nervous flecks of gold showing behind his glasses. He'd always thought Bill had gotten Buffy's eyes. Not changeable like his mum's, but the clear lucent grey that hers became in certain bleak or thoughtful lights. But here was proof that in this, too, he'd left his own stamp. Bill raked a hand through his mop of sandy curls. Hands Spike had watched grow from a chubby curl of fingers to their current gangly teenaged spread - how had he never noticed before this that his eldest bit his nails, too?

"Mom's bringing you some blood."

"Ah." He wasn't hungry, but he supposed he ought to be.

"So I guess... " Bill fell to twisting the hem of his football jersey into knots. "Are... are you OK?"

"No."

"Are you still... are you still you?"

Spike couldn't help it; he laughed. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm still me, God help me."

The boy flinched at the sound, his thin shoulders hunching. "I don't understand," he said, in a voice near to breaking. "I don't understand why you did it. And I always used to understand you. When you walked out on us after - after Mom lost the baby I was so mad at you, but I understood why. I think I was so mad because I understood. And now... you always told me that I could be - that it didn't matter if - as long as I kept trying - "

He studied the boy's earnest, troubled face. "You understand why your Mum did what she did? Why she thought saving that tosser Wells was worth the risk?" I do. Now.

Bill shook his head miserably. "Not really. Connie's tried explaining it a million times, and I just..." he made a helpless gesture. "But it's Mom, and I know that's what she does, even if it doesn't make any sense." He took a deep breath, straightening and looking Spike in the eye for the first time. "Do you think I need a soul?"

Oh, Christ. And how could he answer that, with a boy he loved better than life itself looking full at him with those hopeful, inhuman eyes? Face alight with love and worry, and no more shred of conscience than had shone from his own only a day and a night past? He'd believed, naively, that being raised to goodness made a difference - for Bill, for the new one nestling now in her mother's womb. Not that he'd truly understood what goodness was then, but he'd been content to stand on the far side of Jordan, watching with pleased incomprehension when Bill seemed to grasp intuitively the niceties of souled behavior that still took him laborious thought.

All a sham. He could see that now, with a cold moral clarity that made him want to weep. Bill's self-imposed safety net of dos and don'ts was far more elaborate and instinctive than his own, but it was no more a conscience than he was the King of Prussia.

And there was Buffy, lips tight, eyes narrowed, her ferocious glare daring him to scorn the mug of microwaved pig's blood she'd just thrust into his face. Saved him from answering Bill, at least. He drank it, meekly.

"Let your father rest for awhile," Buffy said, shooing Bill into the hallway with brisk motions of her hands. Her voice was steady, but he could hear her heart racing, smell her fear and anxiety. "So. Williamus, I presume?"

He dropped back against the pillows with a groan. "You know it doesn't work like that."

"Do I?" Buffy removed the mug to the night stand and perched on the edge of the bed. "What I know is the last time a guy I loved underwent a change-of-soul-status, he might as well have been a whole different person. So pardon me if I'm a little nervous, here. There's considerations. Is our marriage license still legal?"

"Buffy - "

"You didn't ask!" she broke in furiously. "You ran off and did this big enormous thing that could change our whole lives, and you didn't talk to me or find out what I thought! Dammit, Spike, that was a - an Angel thing to do!"

Spike winced. Shouldn't he have exceeded his guilt quota by now? Apparently not. "Duly noted." She was gazing at him with all the intensity of the sun outside, all the love in the world shining in those fearsome eyes. Was no one to despise him properly except himself? "How can you love me?"

"What?"

"Knowing what I am. What I've done. That night before we went to face Glory. I told you I knew I was a monster, and you could never love me. And I did know, up here." He tapped a finger against his temple. "But I can feel it here now." He dropped his hand to his heart. "How many people have I killed, Slayer?"

Her frown deepened. "You figured it at twelve or fifteen thousand, once."

"Sounds about right." He held up one hand, flexed his fingers; the charred flesh was flaking away to make way for fresh muscle and new pink skin. He studied the healing burns as if they belonged to someone else. "Fifteen thousand. Doesn't seem a real number, does it? I can't remember them all. Angel, he does. Him and that memory of his. Every face, every last scream and plea for mercy. Me, it all runs together. A hundred and twenty years of slaughter. You'd think that would make it easier. You'd think - you'd think the least I could do was remember their faces." All at once he was sobbing, wretched, miserable, unmanly tears that burned the still-raw flesh of his cheeks. "Kill me, Buffy, please, for God's sake, I want to die - "

And the Slayer was on her feet, delivering an open-handed smack! to his sun-flayed cheek that rocked him back against the headboard. "No, you don't," she snapped. "If you really wanted to die, you'd be dead, not whining at me to do it for you. Fine, you've got a soul, and you feel really bad. That doesn't change the fact that you've got three children out there who love you in spite of the fact you keep running off to play Vamp of La Mancha - "

That was really too much. He sat up with an answering snarl. "Sod it, Buffy, I did this for them!"

"And a fat lot of good a soul will do them if you walk out into the sunlight the minute you get one!" She turned away, on the verge of tears herself, arms wrapped tightly around her growing middle. Bloody hell. She lifted her head, salt-water diamonds spilling careless over the curve of her cheek. "You idiot. Asking how I can love you - how can I not?"

He'd never been able to stand up to her tears. Some things, he supposed, didn't change. "Can I see Alex, please? Connie too, but I've something to say to Alex."

She gave him a tight little nod and strode out. His cock stirred and stiffened to the sway of her baby-plush bum, then wilted in a confused welter of shame. He'd thought he'd be different. He'd been a fool - a soul fixed nothing. He was still the same old Spike, demon lusts and human desires so tangled he couldn't sort them. How the hell could he sit here, shedding crocodile tears for his sins, and still ache to bury himself in her warmth? Gaze on her ripening belly, knowing what soulless creature he'd planted there, and feel pride as well as horror? He'd eaten the apple, and now he had the bellyache to show for it.

"Daddy!"

Alex was upon him like a five-year-old landslide, hard little head butting his chest, sticky hands twining round his neck, chattering a mile a minute. "Daddy, you came home all burneded up! You shouldn't go out in the sun 'cause you'll burneded yourself again. Does it hurt? Where did you go? Did you bring me something?"

"I did, little man, and I shan't. And it hurts like silly buggers, and I went to see a wizard, and I brought you something special. Let's have a look at your arm first."

Alex obligingly stuck out his arm. The bare skin was unmarked - which meant nothing; Alex and Connie might walk in the sunlight, and so far displayed no hint of powers beyond mortal ken, but both of them had a Slayer's (or a vampire's) resilience when it came to injuries. "Does it hurt still, tadpole?"

Alex shook his head vigorously. "Nuh-uh."

"You know I'm sorry as hell I hurt you, yeah?"

Alex nodded just as vigorously. "I'm sorry I cried, Daddy."

"Don't be. I'm a bad, rude Daddy." He caught the boy's small soft hand, laid it upon his chest. "Got a soul for you, so I can promise it'll never happen again. How's that?"

Alex considered this, his expression doubtful. "Can I have a puppy instead?"

Spike managed a snort. "Your mum might have been better pleased. Now, where's your sister?"

****

"He WHAT?" Evie choked on her B-Pos margarita, looking from Buffy to Spike with comic dismay. "Shit. Shit! I always knew he was loco, but... shit!" She planted both elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands with a groan. Peering out at Buffy from between her fingers, she asked, "Can't you, like, fuck it out of him or something?" At Buffy's expression, "OK, fine, bad suggestion. But... shit. You know half the employees are gonna quit the minute they hear about it, right?"

Buffy bit her lip and concentrated on swirling her straw around her Tab-with-a-twist. Spike, moodily absorbed in the amber depths of his third neat Scotch, shrugged and said nothing. Great. Spike getting a soul was a good thing, Spike getting a soul was a good thing... "I didn't expect they'd throw him a congratulations on your new soul party, but..."

"It's hard enough finding vampires who'll sit still for Spike's crazy no-killing rules," Evie said, licking salt. "He staked David what, five years ago, and we still haven't found a decent accountant! No self-respecting vampire's gonna want to work for a guy with a soul. I got a chip in my head, but the others, they got options." She slurped at her lime wedge and turned disapproving eyes on Spike. "Any brilliant ideas up your sleeve, El Jefe?"

Spike downed his Scotch, and gestured for a refill. "No."

"Spike, haven't you..." Buffy left off with a sigh. Even with the post-Mohra metabolism, it took a hell of a lot of booze to get Spike drunk, and it wasn't exactly like he didn't have a reason to get smashed at the moment. In a way it was kind of reassuring that he was reacting in such a... such a Spikey fashion. She'd had a heck of a time coaxing him out tonight; for the last few weeks all he'd wanted to do was mope around the house and watch TV.

"Leave the bottle," Spike said as Susie, the Bracken bartender, set a fresh shot glass down. Buffy'd had some reservations when Susie bought Willy the Snitch out a few years back. Still, she had to admit that there was some justice in the idea of a demon bar actually being owned and operated by a demon. And Susie's concept of hygiene was certainly an improvement over Willy's in that she actually had one.

Buffy massaged her forehead, trying to stave off her incipient headache as Spike poured himself another drink. Maybe she could make this all David's fault. If Spike hadn't had to stake David, he wouldn't have been in a pissy mood from trying to balance the books by himself, and wouldn't have blown up at Alex, and... crap. The demon-hunting business had taken some major hits in the last two years with Spike's extended absences, and her gig at the skating rink wasn't enough to reliably support a family of five-and-counting and an increasingly cranky old house by itself. They really, really needed two steady incomes.

"OK, assuming we all want to keep Bloody Vengeance Inc. operating..." Buffy raised an inquiring eyebrow; you couldn't make too many assumptions about what a vampire wanted. But Evie only nodded. "Maybe we can just keep it quiet for awhile. He's not... he doesn't seem too different." Apart from the crying jags and the intermittent suicidal ideation, of course. "You didn't notice."

Evie rolled her eyes. "You think you can keep gossip that juicy quiet in this town? Anyways, some demons can smell it. We gotta have a plan."

An hour later, the plan amounted to 'keep it quiet for awhile.' and Buffy's headache was staging a guerilla raid down her spine and into her shoulder blades. She tried to nudge Spike into contributing, but his repertoire of indifferent grunts decreased in inverse proportion to the number of shots he'd put away. "Can you maybe scrape up a teeny bit of interest in the portions of your life that don't involve soap operas and alcohol?" she asked as they made ready to leave.

"No fear, I'll be the life of the party in no time." Spike glowered at the row of empty glasses on the table. "Maybe I should pick up a fifth on the way home. Susie's watering the hell out of this stuff."

"Great idea. Healthy coping skills R Us." A lump rose in her throat. "Can we also maybe avoid getting drunk in front of the kids?"

Spike heaved a deflated sigh and shrugged into his motorcycle jacket, avoiding her eyes. "Yeah. Sure. Doesn't help anyway."

She watched him as they walked along the darkened street, sidelong glances beneath her lashes. He walked with head down and hands thrust into his jacket pockets. One hand toyed with his lighter, though she hadn't seen him light a cigarette since he'd come back. He looked... like Spike. Tired, sad, every-one-of-his-hundred-and-sixty-plus-years Spike. Spike getting a soul was a good thing - how many times had she thought to herself how much easier everything would be if only he had one? Sure, there were some short term problems, but...

"I'm sorry," she whispered, knowing he'd hear. "I know this is hard for you. It's just... I used to love your smile. And I'm starting to wonder if I'll ever see it again."

"Ah, love, there's no good in wallowing. I know that. Should sally forth, fight the good fight, all that bollocks. 'S just..." He took a pained breath. "I'd try to imagine it, before. What it'd feel like. Like disappointing you times a million, was the best I could come up with. But it's not like that at all. And there's things..." He hesitated. "Things I didn't expect to feel."

Buffy frowned. "What kind of things?"

His eyes were distant. "Last year, when Wyndam-Pryce had me under his thumb... he told me that I'd been the ruin of you. Dragged you down into the dark with me."

"And you told him he was an idiot. Wesley was trying to mess with your head. Hello, evil mastermind?"

"Doesn't mean he's wrong." Spike sounded genuinely troubled. "You and Evie are right chummy these days, aren't you?"

Before she could answer, a voice like a cement mixer croaked, "Slayer!" From the mouth of the alley ahead loomed a cross between a gorilla and an ambulatory slab of concrete. It lumbered towards them, steam billowing from a red-hot maw lined with jagged crystalline fangs. "The half-breed abomination you carry must die!" it rumbled. "So it is written!"

"Not again!" Buffy groaned. Never mind that for the last fifteen years Dawn, Willow and Giles had collectively failed to find a single prophecy, prediction, or oracular pronouncement regarding her and Spike's offspring, they went through this every time she got pregnant. There was probably a cottage industry on the web somewhere, forging prophecies and selling them to goons like this one.

The demon raised both ham-sized fists and brought them smashing down at the place Buffy'd been two seconds earlier. Buffy came down from her leap with a side-kick to the creature's shoulder. She might as well have kicked a brick wall. The impact jarred her leg all the way up to the hip, and she hit the ground off-balance and went with it into a roll that took her out of range. The monster's craggy slab of a foot slammed down hard enough to crack the pavement beneath her. Rock, the thing was solid rock. Strong, but slow. If it connected it would mash her to jelly. (Dodge) Punching, kicking no use. If only she had a pickaxe. (Jump) Or a big vat of acid. Sadly, neither in evidence. (Roll) Here, anyway...

A roar of pure fury split the night, followed by a tremendous CLANG! and Rock Lobster toppled over backwards beneath the weight of the Dumpster Spike had just slung at him. "Gerroff her, you walking slag heap!" he bellowed, and leaped after, fangs bared and fists flying.

Buffy lunged after him. His hands were already streaming blood, and she heard the sickening crack of bone as he drove his fists into the creature's impervious hide again and again. The monster was rocking back and forth like a miniature earthquake, seconds from throwing the Dumpster off. She grabbed Spike's shoulder and spun him around - lips peeled back from ivory fangs in a savage snarl, his eyes a wild, blazing gold beneath the row of small stubby horns that had started to sprout along his ridged brow as he reached vampiric middle age. So far gone in rage and pain that for an instant she half-believed he'd turn on her, instead.

She caught his wrist before he could break another knuckle. "Harbor!"

For a second she thought he wouldn't get it. Then understanding broke in his eyes, and he whirled on the monster with a taunting, "Catch us if you can, Gumby!" and was off, matching her stride for stride.

They were a good mile from the wharf. She was five months pregnant and Spike was a little out of condition from mooching around doing nothing for weeks, but they ran as they'd never run before. Behind them the thunder of their pursuer's footsteps grew louder, shaking the ground beneath them as it picked up momentum. Down deserted, warehouse-lined streets they sped, through damp and fetid alleys. Close to the harbor now - Buffy pulled the stink of dead fish and rotting seaweed deep into her lungs, thrust it out again, run, run, run, run.

They burst out onto the echoing boardwalk that ran along the marina - there'd been a lot of attempts at gentrification in the last ten years, but none of them had stuck. The demon was right behind them, leaving a trail of cracked and splintered planks behind it. Buffy glanced back, smacked Spike's shoulder and pointed; with a nod he followed her lead and they tore down the waterfront, heading for the loading dock.

The long arm of the loading crane loomed overhead. Buffy exchanged a quick look with Spike; he nodded and took off in one of those phenomenal vampire leaps, fifteen feet straight up in the air, aiming for the big steel hook dangling from the crane's pulley. He missed his first jump, swore, and leaped again, as Buffy whirled to face their pursuer. The demon bellowed and grabbed for her, mile-long arms swinging with pile-driver force, and she leaped, somersaulting over its head. She landed, spun, just as Spike came rocketing down, arms and legs wrapped around the steel pulley-cables. Buffy seized the hook and rammed it into the creature's fissured hide as it wheeled into a ponderous turn. Spike's boots hit the dock beside her, and with one motion, they shoved.

Caught mid-turn, the demon staggered, swayed, and began to topple, arms windmilling ineffectively in an attempt to regain its balance. Buffy dashed for the crane controls, stabbed a button, pulled a lever, and prayed. The crane arm groaned, shuddered, and swung out over the slick black swells of the harbor. The cables jerked and went taut, and with a tortured scream of metal the rock-demon swung in a graceful arc, up, up, and out over the water. At the apex of it journey a cable snapped with a metallic SPUNG! and the pulley hook jarred loose of its mooring. Spike and Buffy hit the planking as the cable whipsawed back over their heads. The demon hung suspended for a heartbeat in mid-air, a black, wriggling bug pinned against the floodlit harbor sky, and then gravity took over. It hit the slick black swells with a crash. A column of boiling steam erupted into the night as cold water met molten demon innards, and fell back to earth in a shower of warm stinking seawater, soaking them both to the bone.

Buffy waited, chest heaving, as the furious upwelling of steam spent itself. Spike was breathing almost as fast a normal human, which for him was major windage. They watched until the frothing water stilled to nothing but fragments of dirty white lace awash on a black satin sea. A few bubbles wavered up from the depths, popped, and were gone.

Spike rolled over and sat up, slumped against the crane. He stared down at his half-pulped, bloodied hands, looking as if he wanted to be sick. His shoulders were shaking. Buffy got to her knees and reached out tentatively - he'd been stiff and unresponsive to her touch since coming back, shrugging off any attempt at physical comfort. But he didn't move away this time, and she laid her hand on his (too thin; he hadn't shown much interest in food lately, either) shoulder. "You OK?"

He took a deep shuddering breath. "Think I sprained something." He flexed his shoulders experimentally. "Think I sprained everything."

"That's what you get for slacking off on the workouts, soul boy."

And she kissed him.

She hadn't intended to. She'd given herself all kinds of lectures; Spike was going through a Major Trauma, it would happen when he was ready, she was Mature Understanding Buffy. But it wasn't just his smile that she missed. She felt him go tense, and braced for rejection. A shiver ran through him. He pulled away, but all he said was, "Home. Now."

"You're sure?" she gasped as they stumbled into the bedroom, struggling with wet clothes and recalcitrant shoelaces. Hard not to notice he wasn't exactly... up for it, yet. Which might also be a we're-not-twenty-five-anymore thing, don't take it personally, Buffy. "You're ready for this?"

"Yes, damn it, let's fuck," Spike snarled. His fingers skimmed the curve of her belly, and flinched away. He immediately winced in contrition. "Sorry. Sorry. I'm - "

"It's OK." She tried to keep the hurt out of her voice. Spike had always had a little bit of a thing for her pregnant body - as Dawn had put it once, he generally followed her around from the moment she started to show with his tongue hanging out and a boner the size of the Washington Monument. Maybe the soul had made him more squeamish about baby-making, or something. Time to take the wheel, obviously. She laid her head against his shoulder, reached down and took his cock in hand, working the foreskin up and down along the shaft in sensuous rhythm. "We can go slow," she said, tongue flicking out to tease his nipple. "Or fast. Or slow, then fast."

She raked her thumbnail lightly over the slit and he gasped, eyes squeezing shut. He shivering against her. "I'm a very bad man," he rasped, voice husky with what she hoped was desire. "Aren't I, Slayer?"

"You can be," she said cautiously.

"And I need to be punished."

In the past he'd said that with a laugh or a leer. He sounded deadly serious now. "If that's what you want." She made a quick recon of the bedroom: two scarves, a bathrobe tie, and Spike's belt. Just the ticket. She plucked the nearest scarf from the vanity, ran it between her legs and trailed it under his nose. He backed up one startled step, nostrils flaring, and she planted her hand in the middle of his chest and gave him a little shove. He fell back on the bed with a thump, and Buffy pounced.

Rough stuff wasn't anything new between them. It was a vampire thing. (Or maybe an English public schoolboy thing, but she was voting for vampire.) Spike got off on pain. It wasn't the only thing he got off on, not by a long shot, but sometimes... On her end, it had taken her years to fall in love with Spike, but she'd itched to get her hands on him from the first night they met. And if the only conceivable way to do that back then was to smash that cocky, infuriating smirk right off his face, well...Do we really need weapons for this?

But that was then and this was now, and Spike was way more fun to manhandle now that he was her man to handle. And it was that very same cocky, infuriating grin which somehow made it okay that the Slayer had her very own personal vampire on a string, or tied up in it, anyway.

Spike wasn't grinning now. He watched her with a desperate, hungry intensity, eyes following the deft movements of her fingers as she tightened the knots. She knelt between his legs, her hands resting lightly on his thighs, caressing the taut muscle. She slid them up to stroke the jut of his hipbones. His cock arced upwards, only half-hard, but that was an improvement, wasn't it? He had a beautiful body, lean and strong and economically muscled - a little thinner, a little softer now than she knew he liked to keep himself, but he still took her breath away. She bent down, dropping a kiss on the velvet head. "Roll over."

She'd left enough play in his bonds for that. Spike complied, fists clenching around the silk. His silence was starting to creep her out a little - usually Spike kept up a running commentary during sex: teasing and snark and flirty, dirty talk, praising her body and her technique and her stamina. Now there was only the harsh, nervous rasp of his breath against the sheets. She straddled his thighs and picked up the belt, doubled it between her hands, and snapped it hard. The crack of leather made him jump. "You've been a very naughty boy, William," she purred, caressing the tight pale curve of his ass-cheek with one hand. "And Buffy's gonna spank."

Spike hissed, a soft indrawn breath that echoed the tension in his limbs. Maybe this was exactly what he needed: to let go, to drown the voices in his head in sensation. She could give him that.

He cried out, once, when the belt smacked down on his ass, back arching, muscles going rigid. Buffy slammed him back down against the mattress, 'cause he liked that, too, and brought the belt down again - smack, smack, smack, shoulders, ass, thighs, getting a good rhythm going. You wouldn't think something with a vampire's weird circulation would welt, but he did, red stripes cris-crossing pale skin, a latticework of hurts-so-good. And she was hurting him damn good, if she did say so herself. Spike was humping the mattress now, breath coming in ragged, whimpering gasps, gripping the scarves hard enough to rip the fabric if he'd wanted to.

And talking, at last, a guttural litany of filth half-buried in pillows: "...come on, harder! Harder! Make it hurt, you vampire-fucking whore - "

Buffy faltered, gut-punched.

Spike turned his head to glare at her over his shoulder. "Come on, Slayer, put your back into it! Let's see some blood!"

"Spike.... William, please..."

"You know you want to! Don't tell me you've never thought about it - what I've done. D'you want to know what I did to the girls? D'you want to know how I laughed to see them cry, an' beg, and offer to suck my cock, if only I'd let 'em live?" With a jerk, he was free, her second-best La Fiorentina cashmere in shreds. His eyes flashed yellow, his face distorted in ridges and fangs. "This is what you profess to love, Slayer! This is the real me! The soul just lets me see it better! Don't tell me you never wanted to see me get some of my own back. Just how fucking sick are you?"

Buffy rocked back on her heels, her urge to burst into tears warring with an overwhelming desire to smash his face in. "Not sick enough to give you what you want right now," she said, forcing steadiness on her voice. She rolled off the bed, wrapping herself in sheets and dignity equally tattered, and snatched her pajamas off the footboard of the bed. "Jerk yourself off, Spike. I'll be on the couch."

*****

"What did you say to her?"

Connie was standing at the bedroom doorway, a defiant set to her shoulders. Bill was right behind her, looking gutted. Spike returned his gaze to the bedroom ceiling. He'd been lying flat on his back for hours now. Listening to the house come awake. Wondering if it wouldn't be easier, after all, to just get up, walk across the room, and open the blackout curtains. "That's between me and your Mum."

"She was crying last night. We heard her." Connie's eyes were as wintery a blue as ever his own had been. "You know what? It was better when you were gone. I wish you'd never come home."

She broke and ran, sandaled feet pattering down the hallway. Bill lingered a moment longer, the betrayal in his eyes all too easy to decipher. At last he said, "I don't think I need a soul after all," and left.

Watching them go, Spike was vaguely aware of a dull, spreading ache in his chest, beneath the ever-present acid burn of guilt: not his soul outraged, this time, but his heart. He'd just begun, in the last few months, to make real progress in repairing the damage he'd done by walking out on them two summers ago. Which was why the business with Alex had terrified him so; the thought of wrecking forever what he'd only just got back was intolerable. Getting a soul was the only way to ensure he'd never hurt his family again. Or so he'd thought.

He'd made a horrible mistake.

Nothing new there, of course. His existence, he sometimes thought, was just a series of horrible mistakes, one after the other, punctuated by occasional interludes used to plan his next horrible mistake in exacting detail. And this one he couldn't have foreseen. How could he have possibly known, when soulless, just how wrong he'd been about so many things?

He couldn't look Buffy in the eye when she marched up the stairs a few minutes later, regal as anyone could have managed dressed in pajamas with sock monkeys printed all over them. She waved aside his stuttered attempt at apology, chin high and mouth set in an imperious line that would have done the first Elizabeth proud. "You've said enough," she said. "It's time for me to talk."

Spike nodded; he didn't trust himself to anything else. Buffy settled herself cross-legged at the foot of the bed. "You don't really think you're the first person to bring up the fact that you're kind of evil, do you?" she said. "Were kind of evil. Now you're just an asshole. Shut up, I'm still talking." She tucked a stray wisp of honey-gold hair behind her ear. "I don't love you because you were evil. I love you because you tried so hard not to be. I love your bravery, and your devotion, and your smartass mouth, and your stupid exploded-poodle hair, and the way your eyes crinkle up when you laugh, and the way you sing Ramones songs in the shower, - and - " She broke off, fists clenched in her lap. "I know you did terrible things. I saw you do some of them, remember? I stopped you from doing some of them. And I know you didn't feel sorry about them the way someone with a soul would." She looked up. "But you didn't have a soul. And you did the best you could with what you did have. And maybe our relationship wasn't perfect and it wasn't normal, but it was ours, and it worked." Deep breath. "And I don't know if this is working anymore."

Those words would have killed him, once. Still hurt. "Buffy - "

She held up a hand. "Let me finish. I know this has been a big adjustment for you. I know it took Angel years, decades, a century - I don't have that much time. I'm forty years old, and I've been living on borrowed time since I was fifteen. I can give you time. I can. But I can't give you centuries. Or even decades. They need their father. I need my husband." She reached out and laid a hand on his chest, in a gesture that should have been balm. "I know he's still in there. But I need to know whether or not I'm going to get him back some day."

You've already got him, his heart wanted to say. Wanted to prostrate himself before her, beg forgiveness, spend the rest of his life making amends, hold her and love her and comfort her ever after. But his heart wasn't in sole command any longer. "He's in there, all right," Spike said bitterly. "I'm still a demon. Still want all the things I wanted before. Just... now I know how wrong they are. And there's nothing left, nothing I can hold on to." He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. "Things I thought were right and good are - for Christ's sake, you're the Slayer, and you're carrying soulless demonspawn in your belly, and we make our living chopping up demons and selling their bits on the next step above the black market. You look the other way while Bite Club mates up suckers with bloodsuckers downtown - "

"Yes, I've compromised! Kinda remember doing it! So have you!" Buffy drew her knees up to her chin, her moss-agate eyes eloquent with unshed tears - after last night, she wouldn't cry in front of him, at any rate. "Spike, is there any chance... any chance there's something wrong with your soul?"

Where the hell had that come from? Spike gave a humorless bark of laughter. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? Isn't that one of the things you love about me? Long as you're the only one with the functioning moral compass, you get the last word." He bared his teeth in a mirthless grin. "No chance, Slayer. Part of the deal: I fixed it with Melly to give me the soul of a good man."

"Which one, Cotton Mather?" She frowned, seizing on the last sentence. "Wait. You don't have your own soul?"

"Course not. Gave my proper one up to bring you back, didn't I? Long gone." He shrugged away her worried look. "It struck me, likely there's millions of souls floating 'round the aether, the vamps they used to belong to long gone to dust. I had Melly snag me one of those."

"Oh." Buffy appeared to be contemplating this. "That's... kind of creepy, actually." She pulled a weak smile from somewhere. "Just the sort of thing soulless you would come up with." Her face went serious. "Spike, you really freaked me out last night. I almost wish I could fuck it out of you."

"Do you have any sodding idea what you're saying?" Spike sat forward with a growl, feeling the stretch and creak of bone as his face changed. "Any fucking clue how close to the bloody line I walked, every single day? The worst of my fuckups was nothing to what I could have done. What I would have done, sooner or later. That business with Alex - I wasn't pushed past any limits, Buffy. Wasn't provoked, no more than I've been a hundred times before. After twenty fucking interminable years I just got tired of holding it in." He let his demon features fall away. "If the Circle K clerk'd been the one to piss me off, I'd've killed the berk, and likely five of his mates for good measure, and gone my merry way. We were just lucky it was our son."

Her mouth drew even tighter. "Funny definition of luck you have these days."

Spike leaned across the counterpane and caught her hands, earnest now. "For twenty years you've been telling me I can't understand, 'cause I haven't a soul. Well, I understand now. I understand why you sent Angel to hell to save the world. I understand why you risked everything to save that rat bastard Wells. You did it because it was the right thing to do. I understand that, for the first time in a hundred and forty years. Can you really ask me to give that up?"

She bowed her head, silent. "No. No, I can't." With a quick shake of her head, Buffy uncurled, hopped off the bed and headed for the wardrobe. She dressed with quick efficiency, tossing aside two pairs of jeans that didn't fit any longer with a wrinkle of her nose. Minimal makeup, hair in a twist. "Spike, will you be OK here by yourself for awhile? I've got lessons today." She pulled her skating bag from the closet and slung it over her shoulder.

"Kids off to school already?" he asked.

"Spike, it's Saturday." She sighed, shook her head. "I told Bill to keep Connie and Alex out of your way until you're... feeling better. I'll be back as soon as I can."

He waited until he heard the Jeep's engine start, and pull out of the driveway. He listened, picking out heartbeats: downstairs, Connie and Alex were squabbling over a video game, and down in the basement, Bill was having a go at the weights. Something he ought to get back to; he'd let himself go long enough, and there was work to do.

He rolled out of bed, ran a quick shower, forgoing his morning wank - hadn't been much call for one lately, anyway. Dressed, shaved, slicked his hair back. He wiped fog from the mirror, staring at his absent reflection. He was an old hand at making himself presentable without. He gave the blackout curtains a wistful look as he left the bathroom. But no. That was the coward's way out. Where the hell had he put his boots? He bent down to look under the bed, rummaging, and yanked his hand back with a curse as his fingers impacted something hard and sharp.

Buffy's ice skates.

Fuck.

He had less time than he'd thought. He wasn't sure he could nerve himself for what needed to be done. But he'd got himself a soul, and he understood now what it was to do the right thing. It was high time he started doing it.

****

Buffy glanced down at the magnetic business card she'd fished out of the half-dozen collecting dust on the refrigerator (Melissa Delacouer, Consulting Shaman, Eighth Level Initiate of the Kun Sun Dai - By Appointment Only) and up at the faded gilt lettering on the rippled glass window of the office door in front of her. It was a two-hour drive from Sunnydale to L.A., and she'd made it in an hour and a half. Melly had been on Bloody Vengeance's corporate Christmas/Hanukkah/Solstice/Gurnenthar's Ascension/Kwanza/Eid list since the first year they'd started the business, but Buffy'd only met her once or twice before. She was usually more than willing to let Spike deal with the client end of things, only stepping in when the application of some Slayer muscle seemed in order.

The door opened before she could knock. "Slayer," Melly Delacour said, gazing down at Buffy from the advantage of eight inches. "Didn't expect to see you here. I thought sure I'd be getting another visit from Spike some time soon, but this is a surprise. Come on in and tell me all your troubles, sugar."

Buffy glanced around as she followed Melly in: crumbling tomes, check; spooky bottles, check; bones of dubious origin, check; all the standard trappings of a mage's office. Buffy took a seat in the offered chair. "Spike tells me you stuck him with somebody else's soul."

Melly raised an eyebrow. "Honey, he begged me to stick him with someone else's soul. Most interesting proposition I've gotten in a long, long, time, and your hubby ain't the only one who's older than he looks. Not many vampires get their souls back to begin with, and I never heard tell of a vampire that wanted one back before."

"Spike's always liked doing things the hard way." No sense in beating around the bush, here. "Something's wrong with him."

A second eyebrow joined the first. "Guilt, remorse, crippling self-loathing? Goes with the territory, honey."

Buffy dismissed both eyebrows with an impatient head-shake. "My first boyfriend pretty much wrote the book on crippling self-loathing. Believe me, got the memo. This is different. It's like he's gotten all..." She waved her hands helplessly. "Judgy and weird. That never happened to Willow, or Angel, or Wesley, when they got their souls back."

"Mmmm, yeah." Melly pursed her lips. "Your ordinary vampire, it's a demon spirit poured into a human body, held together by magic as deep and dark and bloody as it gets. You put a human soul back in the mix, it'll cleave to the body it sprang from, better'n any demon spirit could. That's why it can override the demon. Your Spike, though... the Mohra blood knit human body 'n demon soul together when it brought him to life. He's all of a piece now. Add a human soul to that mix, it's like cramming too many teeth into a jaw - one of 'em's gonna ache something fierce. Even the soul he was born with might not fit him any longer. He's a custom job, honey."

"I don't suppose you mentioned any of this to Spike?"

The shaman rolled her eyes. "I gave it a try. But you know better'n I do - how easy is it to change his mind when he's really set on something?"

"Point," Buffy admitted with a sigh. "I guess the real question is, will he get better? Can we, like, fit him with spiritual braces? Or is he going to stay like this?" The possibility that he might get worse wasn't one she really wanted to think about.

Melly chuckled, rocking back in her leather chair. "Who knows? No one's ever tried anything like this before, sugar. We'll just have to wait and see."

"Not my strong point." She couldn't believe she was asking this. "If he doesn't get better, is there any way to reverse it?"

The shaman's eyes were knowing. "I expected that question to come up. Expected it would be Spike askin' it, though." She rose to her feet and strolled over to the shelves of bottles, running her fingers across the dusty labels. "There's never a spell that can't be broken, never a curse that can't be lifted. I put a little something aside for him, just in case." Moving several bottles, she produced a slim dagger of bone, yellow with age and about a foot long. The hilt was bound in ancient, sweat-stained strips of leather, braided in an intricate pattern, and the narrow blade was serrated like a shark's tooth. The grooves were stained an ugly reddish-brown. She turned to face Buffy, blade held lightly in one hand. "This is a soul-eater. You use it like you'd expect - stab to the heart, soul gets sucked into the blade. The question is, are you willing to pay the price?"

"That depends," Buffy replied, "on the bill. I won't give you anything that isn't mine to give, and that includes first, second, third and fourth-born children, best friends, and neighborhood pets. Also, questions: If Spike's got two souls in him now, how do I know this will suck up the right one? What happens to the soul that gets sucked? And heart-stabbiness? In my experience, generally fatal."

Melly threw back her head and laughed. "I like you, Slayer. You're a hard sell." She twirled the dagger, caught it. "This won't kill him. The soul gets eaten - this isn't a nice business, honey. And if you or anyone else stabs him, it could take either one. Or both. For the soul-eater to take the soul I gave him, and only that soul, Spike'll have to do it himself."

Buffy bit her lip. Spike hadn't sounded any too willing to give up his hard-won soul this morning... and what if he was right? Was the deep unease she felt no more than discomfort with the idea that he could now call her on issues where she'd had the last word for years? What if she was over-reacting, and all he needed was more time for the soul to settle in? Angel had certainly needed more time, and by all accounts Wesley wasn't doing so well on that front, either. "What do you want for it?"

"Spike paid me in memories," said Melly. She grinned. "Spicy stuff, your first night together. I wouldn't mind having me a matched set."

****

The basement, Spike decided. There was only one exit, and they'd had blackout shutters installed over the windows back when Willow and Tara had been renting the place. It had taken him far too long to come to that decision: precious hours spent debating trifles with himself, when Buffy might return at any moment. Part of him, he knew, was hoping for just that. Right now he was his own worst enemy.

It was tempting to assign all the weak and selfish impulses within him to the influence of his demon aspect, but the truth was, the flaw was bred as deep in the man as the monster. In one it might take the form of a womanish excess of feeling, and in the other a savage possessiveness, but both emotions worked to hinder him in what he must do. If he'd only held back a bit last night when the rock demon attacked, history might have repeated itself, and he might have spared himself at least part of what was to come. But seeing Buffy, seeing the baby (just another monster, he reminded himself) in danger had been too much. He knew now that he could never let another bring them to harm.

He'd have to do this himself.

It took some doing to ensure the basement windows were all locked from the outside in the middle of the afternoon, but he'd always been a dab hand at nipping around in the daytime. Getting outside without alerting the sprats was a simple matter of wrapping himself in the fireproof blanket he kept for just such emergencies and climbing out the bedroom window. A bottle of 3-in-1 nicked from the garage, and he was set.

It had been decades since he'd used his predator's stealth and cunning to hunt human prey, (not human; that was the whole point, wasn't it?) but the old skills hadn't lain fallow all these years. Spike pulled the blanket more securely around his shoulders and squirted oil onto the rusty lock of the last window. He wriggled the catch til it shot home with barely a squeak. He paused, listening intently for any sign that Bill had heard, but the tinny thread of music coming from the basement told him Bill had his headphones on. The boy was starting to grow into an adult vampire's strength and speed, but only just starting; Bill wouldn't be able to match his old man for years yet, even if his old man had been a bit of a couch potato of late. Connie might be the one he'd have to watch for; she was a scrapper, just like her mum, and most likely to surprise him.

No. He couldn't think about that. Couldn't think about his pride the first time Connie'd put him on the ground in training. Couldn't think about riding Bill around on his shoulders, nor Alex snuggling close and demanding a story. Certainly not the sweet soft weight of them when first placed in his arms, nor the bliss of lying side by side with Buffy as she nursed. He swiped savagely at his eyes; sweat, not tears - oh, who was he kidding? He was a fucking sentimental pussy. You'd never catch the Slayer blubbing as she sent Angelus to hell.

He could feel the sunlight burning down on his shoulders even through the heavy wool. The sun had passed its zenith, and would be beating full against the front of the house, soon. Seductive, that warmth, but he'd resist its advances for now.

He paused in the scanty shade of the front porch before opening the door. Inside he could hear Alex lecturing Connie about the peculiarities of his plastic dinosaurs; Tyrannosaurus Rex, apparently, was a mild-mannered chap who would never kick Stegosaurus out of the dinosaur pool. His fingers tightened on the knob. Surely, surely they might be spared? They weren't like him. Weren't monsters. They were innocents, children, Buffy's children -

Who carried the demon taint in their veins as surely as Bill did, if less obviously. We're all monsters here, he thought dully, and opened the door.

"Daddy!" cried Alex, with a jubilant leap to his feet. "Wanna play dinosaurs?" Connie looked up at him more warily, her dark brows ready to dip into a scowl at the slightest provocation.

"Might in a bit, tadpole," Spike replied, bending down and swinging Alex into his arms. "Got a surprise for you, first. Down in the basement." He forced an ingratiating smile for Connie. "You too, Poodle. Make up for the miserable sod I've acted lately."

Connie wasn't so easily bought off. She shrugged and buried her nose in one of her insipid teeny magazines. "Maybe later. I'm busy."

"As you like. I'm just saying, it might have something to do with that concert you were hounding your mum about last week."

"Ohmigod!" Connie's squeal hit notes only vampires could hear. She sprang to her feet, bouncing up and down, her mane of chestnut curls frothing around her shoulders. "Dad! You got me a ticket to the Green Day reunion tour?"

Girl after his own heart, Connie. And that abused organ was breaking, just about now. He followed her into the kitchen, down the basement stairs. Alex's fingers brushed his cheek. "Why are you crying, Daddy?"

"Something in my eye, I expect." He set Alex down at the top of the basement stairs and gave him a swat on the rump, propelling him downwards, and locked the door to the kitchen behind him. He slid the key into the pocket of his jeans, and started down the stairs, fangs descending. He didn't need weapons for this.

"Dad?" Bill was lying on the weight bench, struggling with a set of barbells rather too heavy for him. He rolled out from under and sat up, looking from Spike to the others in confusion. "What's up? Were they bugging you, because Mom told me - "

"No, son." He sat down on Buffy's pommel horse, inexpressibly weary. Three pairs of eyes followed him, three faces, excited, curious, loving, worried... "I just needed to tell you all something. Your mum's told you, I went and got myself a soul. So's I could tell right from wrong, and do right by all of you from now on. It's just turned out that doing right's more complicated than I'd thought." He paused, gripping the handles of the pommel horse. "I love you more'n I can say, all of you. But sometimes, love's not enough. And it can't stand between you and the right thing."

"Dad," Bill was edging between Spike and the younger children now. Of course, Bill got it - being a monster himself, he knew when a monster was about to be unleashed. "I think maybe you should rest some - "

Spike was across the room before Bill could finish the sentence. Bill's eyes flared sulphur-yellow beneath ridged brows, and he flung up an arm to block Spike's rush. As the two of them traded a flurry of blows (stop holding back, you bloody coward; could've gutted the boy twice over by now!) Connie shoved Alex back into the corner and dove for the weapons rack, snatching up one of the rattan practice swords. Spike evaded Bill's awkward punch, grabbed his wrist and twisted, hard, wrenching the boy's arm up behind his back and jerking his head back to expose the carotid. Poor lad. For all he had a demon's temper, Bill was more a scholar at heart than a fighter. "Show some respect for your old dad, yeah?" he snarled.

"Dad, I don't want to hurt you!" Bill choked. "The soul's making you crazy!"

THWACK! Connie laid her sword across the backs of his knees and danced away. "Let him go!" She wasn't strong enough to do him major damage, but the blade caught the edge of the still-healing welts from last night's debacle and stung like hell. Bill took advantage of the distraction and staggered free, spinning around with bared fangs. Connie stood with sword at guard, her elfin face as ferocious as any vampire's mask, though her fingers on the hilt were trembling. "Leave them alone, or - "

She was magnificent, their girl. Or would be, someday. If she lived that long. But it was all the proof he needed, wasn't it, that she was blood of his blood for all she could walk in the sun? Outside, tires crunched on the driveway, and the engine-rumble died away as the Jeep pulled up. A door slammed. Connie shot a hopeful glance at the staircase.

Relief broke over Bill's face. "Mom's home!"

"Right, then," growled Spike. "I'll make this quick."

He lunged. Connie and Bill dove in opposite directions, and the basement door flew open with a crash. Buffy stood silhouetted in the light. In one hand she held a wicked-looking dagger that stank of spellcraft. "Spike! What the hell are you doing?"

Part of him was yammering with relief: Give it up, mate, you left it too late, she's back, plan's ruined! But that was the weak, sniveling, cowardly part. "Don't make this harder than it has to be, Slayer." A raw sob choked him for a moment. "You've been there. You know!"

Buffy's eyes were measuring lines and angles, sizing up resources. "Yes, I have. And I know how it destroys you. Listen to me, Spike. This isn't you."

"Don't see anyone else around." Vamp-fast, Spike leaped the railing and was half-way up the stairs, blocking the exit.

"You're having some kind of allergic reaction to the soul Melly gave you. It doesn't fit you right." She took a cautious step or two downwards, holding out the knife. "It's like - like what would happen if I had a demon dumped into me."

"You did have a demon dumped into you, pet, and no one's questioning your sanity. You can't bear it, can you, not being able to lord your soul over me? 'You can't understand, Spike!'" he mimicked. "Well, balls to that, Slayer. I understand everything now."

"Daddy?" Alex eeled away from Bill's wild grab and dashed up the stairs, tugging on the leg of Spike's jeans. "No hitting."

"Grownups talking, little man." Spike scooped him up a heartbeat before Bill could haul him back, to Buffy's sharply-drawn breath and Bill's half-strangled, "Dad, no!"

"Spike, please," Buffy said, urgent. She extended the knife, hilt-first. "This can fix everything. You have two souls inside you, and only one of them belongs there. You just have to - "

Quick as thought, he snatched the knife from her hand. "I know a soul-eater when I see one, Slayer." He cradled Alex in the crook of his right arm, raised the blade in his left hand. Those big, trusting eyes looking up at him, those round cheeks and rosy lips, ever ready to smile - his hand was shaking, the blade quivering in his grip. He froze. Shuddered. Set the point to his son's chest. "I love you, Alex. But Daddy's got to do the right thing."

The universe narrowed to a knife's point. Far, far away he saw Buffy poised for one last desperate leap, Slayer strength against vampire speed, heard her shouting, "Spike! You got a soul to protect them!"

He had done, hadn't he? Funny old world.

Alex scowled. "You promised, Daddy."

He had. It seemed a lifetime ago. In a way, it had been - it wasn't the man with the soul who'd made that promise, for all he'd been the one to speak the words. It was the man - the monster - who'd loved his children enough to go get it.

And something deep-buried within him roared to re-awakened, furious life. Rage and love and memory, body and spirit, human and demon, knit so close he couldn't tell where one left off and the other began. Rage and love alike surged through him, crashing through should's and shouldn'ts, dos and don'ts, rights and wrongs, and his poor battered heart rose up and sang with liberation. No more trembling, no more uncertainty, no more fear. Bugger the right thing. They're mine, and I love them.

Human heart and demon soul united, William Henry Summers-Pratt flipped the bone knife round in his grasp, and plunged the blade deep into his own breast.

*****

Melly's prediction that a stab to the heart wouldn't outright kill a demon whose entire circulatory system was basically one big secondary pump turned out to be correct, but she'd kind of glossed over the major organ trauma. But dealing with Spike bleeding and passing out was way easier than dealing with Spike mired in existential angst, and when her husband woke up the next morning ravenous, horny, and completely amoral, Buffy could have driven down to L.A. and kissed the shaman then and there. With tongue. And let Spike watch.

She settled for kissing him with tongue instead. It went way better this time.

*****

"What was it like having a soul?" Bill asked across the dinner table, some days later. He was stirring burba weed into his beef blood, forehead convulsed in thoughtful wrinkles. "I mean... before you went completely nuts."

Spike's forehead acquired the identical set of wrinkles, thirty years on. "Hard to explain." He took a healthy gulp from his own mug. "'S like trying to remember a dream, a bit. While you're chatting up the Sandman, all manner of rot makes perfect sense, an' when you wake up again... it doesn't." He contemplated the floating swirls of crushed burba. "Been chasing that missing piece for twenty years, and when I catch it, it doesn't fit. I bloody well hate Shel Silverstein."

"Maybe it wasn't missing." Connie spooned herself more mashed potatoes. Their daughter might not be a Slayer yet, Buffy reflected, but she certainly ate like one. Good thing for the grocery bill that Spike had finally filled that overdue order for Neq'antith scales. "Can I go over to Rhonda's after dinner?"

"Is your homework done?" Buffy asked.

Connie developed a sudden interest in her black-lacquered toes. "Not quite, but I have the whole weekend- "

"Good for you," interrupted Spike. "Just a tool of the conformist drones that - " Buffy elbowed him in the ribs, and his rant against the California educational system derailed into a cough. " - that'll get you into a decent college someday. Upstairs with you."

"But Daaaad... oh, fine!"

"Read to me, Daddy!" Alex demanded, hopping off his chair.

"Dunno as I'm up to that..." Spike made a show of deep thought, while Alex hopped from one foot to the other in suspense. He downed the last of his blood. "Go fetch us your storybook, then, little man."

Alex raced off upstairs, with Connie in far less enthusiastic pursuit - Bill, of course, had already finished his homework for the next month ahead, and was deep in some passionate internet debate. "Forgiving lot, our brood," Spike muttered. "Can't possibly get it from me."

"Well, my mom tried to burn me at the stake once. I got over it." Buffy followed Spike into the living room, and together they collapsed onto the couch. The dishes were going to get crusty, but crusty dishes? Not even a one on the Summers-Pratt Domestic Emergency Scale. Spike thumbed the remote on and power-surfed to some suitably brain-dead zombie flick, sans sound. Buffy slipped an arm around his waist, leaning into his shoulder with a contented sigh - having returned to both his workouts and his dinner with a vengeance, he was starting to look and feel deliciously solid again. Still a little on the broody side, though. She'd have thought that would go with the soul, but apparently the existential angst was pure Spike.

And God, how selfish could she be? Sorry your attempt to become a better man ended in disaster, William. But at least I've got my soulless studmuffin back!

No, that wasn't fair, either. She'd probably always harbor guilty alternatives in the back of her head - what if she'd gotten home fifteen minutes earlier, what if she'd taken Spike with her to see if Melly could do anything? But it had been Spike's choice in the end, as it had been in the beginning, and really... she couldn't fault what he'd chosen, or why. She reached up and ran her fingers through his short, scruffy curls, almost grown out now from their singeing. "Maybe it would have worked better with your real soul."

Spike winced. "Right, and winkling it back would leave you dead instead of the nippers. Sounds like one of my plans."

"Or maybe..." Buffy tucked her feet up under her, and shifted position to look him in the eye. "Maybe Connie's right." Spike gave a skeptical snort. "No, seriously. Look, I'm not going to claim it's easier like this. We don't think the same way. But you're not a human being with pieces missing. You're a whole vampire. Maybe the first whole vampire. Maybe we just have to figure out what that means." She laid a hand on her rounding belly. "And not just for you."

He was certainly giving the forehead-wrinkles a workout tonight. "That's as may be," Spike said at last. "But likely cold comfort to the chap whose throat I'm at." A little grin quirked the corners of his mouth - not as cocky as of old, but getting there. "Still. Fifteen years now since my last real kill, innit? If we're lucky, I'll be dead before I go off the rails again." He slung an arm around her shoulders. "I never meant you should pay for the mending of my folly, either - can't remember our first time now, but I'm figuring it went well if you stuck around for a second go."

"Hey." Buffy traced the muscled lines of his chest with her free hand, massaging the newly healed scar where the enchanted dagger had penetrated. Like the scar over his eyebrow, it would be a long time fading, if at all. Maybe they couldn't remember that one night, but their whole lives were the consequence of it. "Worth it. No matter how fantastic it was then, what we've got now is more important." She giggled. "Besides, maybe it was awful. Maybe you went off too soon and I was wearing embarrassing granny panties. Now we can make up a dozen first times that are way better."

His hungry little growl segued into a purr as he stroked the curve of her stomach. "Wouldn't mind doing a little collaborating along those lines later on."

"I found it, Daddy!" Alex bellowed from upstairs. Spike looked up, his face stricken, as his son's eager footsteps pounded for the stairs.

Back to square one, Buffy supposed. "So what are you going to do now?" she asked.

Alex rounded the newel post, book clutched to his chest. Spike's jaw firmed and his eyes warmed, flecks of June gold glittering in the January blue. "What else?" he said. "Keep my promises."

 

END