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Necessary Evils

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He didn't want to wake up.

Too late. Consciousness had hold of him now, and the sweet bliss of knowing who he was dissolved into the familiar crawling itch inside his head. Tanner huddled inside his ratty sleeping bag, only his eyes visible. (Important, very important; the Things couldn't get through the cloth.) Sun was down. When no place was yours, no place was proof against the things that prowled the Sunnydale night, it was much safer to sleep during the day. No one visible. Which didn't mean much; he could only see the invisible ones sometimes. Jerk the zipper down, back up, down again. (Very important.) Sit up, slowly, while the fingers crawled through his brain. Check the perimeter.

Still in the park, in the little cave formed by the overhanging myrtle bushes. Tanner twisted round in the sleeping bag, counting off: the rock with the hole in it. The yellow rubber dog. The three matchbooks with one match left, the one on the right-hand end of the back row, bound together with red string. Wards and bounds, marking his territory. Some of the others used crosses, one, two, three, four, planted in the ground, head, feet, one to each side.

No crosses for him. What point when any smart vampire could use a stick and knock them away? He had his own methods. Sometimes he thought he remembered which ones were really magic (The bundle of rowan twigs? The phonograph needle which had only been used once, to play Scriabin's... what?) The knowledge was far away now. Twitching, itching... time to hunt. Past time. He'd put it off too long already. He'd be no help to the others if he didn't do it soon. He struggled out of the sleeping bag and rolled it up, tucking the charms away in its folds as he did so, muttering the right words in the right order.

His outpost was near the playground, a good safe spot, well-lit even at night. Near the squat cinder-block building which guarded the entrance to the public pool. There were showers in there, and bathrooms, and sometimes in the summer you could get good stuff from the lost and found box in the lifeguards' dressing room. The parking lot by the pool house was almost empty, just one lone motorcycle parked there. Tanner eyed it warily as he walked by, lest it pounce. It growled, but it was well-trained, he could see that. It only watched him as he walked up to the pool house.

The lock on the main door was broken and the parks and recreation people had given up trying to replace it long time ago--gangs, they said, or vagrants. Everyone knew it was really vampires. The others just took advantage of the vampires' vandalism, jackals following lions to the watering hole.

What vampires wanted with a men's room Tanner didn't know--probably the same thing he did, a convenient place to wash up when you wanted to pass for human. Look clean and you could get into the Espresso Pump, scavenge some change, spend the evening drinking coffee. They couldn't see the crawling in your head if you were clean.

Light filtered in from the parking lot outside through high windows paned in heavy pebbled glass. Tanner picked his way past the front desk, placing his feet just so on the spiderweb of cracks in the echoing hall. Men's showers and dressing rooms were on one side, bathroom on the other. Faint scents coiled about him, plucking at his coat sleeves. Chlorine and wet concrete and stale caramel corn, whispering ghosts of summer. A sharp, astringent scent--a stranger--nipped at his ankles. There was water running in the bathroom already. A dark shape loomed over by the sinks. He realized what the sharp smell was. Peroxide.

The man at the sink straightened carefully to avoid banging his head on the tap and sluiced water out of his hair with both hands. He looked over his shoulder, sized up and dismissed Tanner in a glance, and went back to washing the excess bleach out of his hair. He had one of those little traveling shaving kits laid out on the edge of the sink. Tanner recognized him as someone he'd seen around downtown Sunnydale before. One of the night people. Vaguely punkish, Doc Martens or motorcycle boots, black jeans and T-shirt and a black leather longcoat which must have been damned expensive when it was new. And a definite aura of don't-fuck-with-me.

Older memory surfaced--that too-handsome face a-snarl with rage. Tanner's hand went up, touching his nose gingerly. It still hurt when the weather changed. The blond guy falling, strings cut, puppet no more use. But it had hurt him first. Tanner's first impulse was to back away, let the guy leave before going in himself. Second impulse... "You were there. When the air bled lizards."

The blond guy frowned. "No offense, mate, but I lost my taste for deciphering raving loonies a year or two back. Go ahead and use the loo if that's what you're here for."

Tanner didn't move. Manna from heaven. Guy here, alone. Guy'd hurt him. The dogs wouldn't bark for him. That was the singular occurrence, Watson. His fingers jerked at his sides. Three steps. A grab. Fingers twined in bone-white hair. The right words in the right order. Faster than lizards flew, the strings would be cut again and for awhile he, Tanner, would be whole, the crawling itching twitching stilled... Then he heard the voices behind him, out by the front desk. He froze.

The guy at the sink looked up again, irritation twisting his features, and shook water out of his newly-bleached hair. He cocked his pale head to one side, listening. "You expecting company?"

Tanner shook his head, mute, backing into the room and sliding along the wall past the urinals, towards the stalls in back. The blond guy, though obviously tense, took his sweet time turning off the tap, packing up his razor and shaving cream and tossing the plastic gloves and bleach package into the big metal trash can in the corner. That was fine with Tanner. He could play macho. There had been a time when he could have done the same, said a word, made a gesture--but the magic took time now, time to gather scattered thought and marshal them in neat rows. Time you didn't get in a fight. Tanner would hide in the bathroom stalls and if it was human punks maybe they wouldn't find him, and if it wasn't...

...maybe they wouldn't be hungry enough to want him too.

******

The voices echoed down the damp concrete halls. "Where'd he go?"

"Men's showers. Geez, what stinks in here? Smells like a laundry."

Footsteps in the short hallway, louder, closer. Spike heard scrabbling noises as the homeless guy, whoever he was, clambered desperately up onto the toilet seat, clinging to the wooden partition. Spike sighed and finished his washing-up, not bothering to look at the big sheet of burnished stainless steel they had bolted to the wall in lieu of a mirror. Too dark to see a reflection, even if he'd possessed one, and he had a lot of practice at doing without.

They sauntered around the corner and into the bathroom, yellow-eyed, faces twisted into nightmare shapes. The only heartbeat in the room was the one he could hear thudding violently away in the stall at the back of the room. Spike relaxed. A gang of human marauders he might have had trouble with. Other vampires he could handle. Not that, in the case of these two, he really wanted to soil his hands.

It wasn't unusual for a vampire to pick a style they liked and stick with it for decades, if not forever. Spike did it himself. But sod all, why did so many of them have to pick a look that screamed 'complete git'? The one in front was middling tall and olive-complected, with dark curly hair in a sort of brillo-explosion halo. He was wearing a collection of gold chains and a lemon yellow polyester leisure suit, horrifically wide lapels and all. Very likely the same suit he'd been turned in; that stuff was even more indestructible than the average vampire. The other one was fortyish and balding, with a sort of hunched, apologetic look even in game face. His grey suit was unobjectionable, if dull, and plenty of living humans of his sort would have had the exact same air of having slept in it for at least a week. He looked like an undead chartered accountant.

The first vampire pointed to the stalls. "He's right in--" Then he noticed. His lips twisted in disgust over bared fangs. "Spike."

"None other," Spike replied, squeezing a judicious amount of hair gel into one palm. He set the tube down on the sink, rubbed the gel briskly into his hair and ran a comb through the unruly curls, testing deftly with the other hand to ensure everything was in place. The patent-leather look was easier to keep up, but he'd gotten bored with it. Besides, Buffy had made the off-hand comment after she'd gotten back that she liked the new look. He'd been too embarrassed to admit that the 'new look' had originally been the result of a week's worth of not giving a shit, but rabid wolverines couldn't have made him go back to slicking it completely flat after that. Oh, well. What time he lost getting the hair right he saved on not hanging about waiting for his nails to dry.

"What the hell are you doing here?" the disco-era vampire asked.

Spike rinsed his comb off and put it and the hair gel back into his shaving kit. "Taking advantage of this brilliant invention that came in last century. Indoor plumbing. P'raps you've heard of it?" He sniffed ostentatiously, wrinkled his nose and turned off the faucet. "Guess that would be a 'no'."

Disco-Vamp ignored the insult. "Look, in your condition I don't blame you hanging around and hoping for scraps, but this one's ours."

The smaller one smiled. Nasty expression. "If you're nice we'll let you have sloppy seconds once he's good and dead."

Spike studied him with interest, wondering if he looked that purely evil with a grin on. He hoped so. With a martyred sigh, he pulled his duster off the hook by the sink and shrugged into it. The black leather flared dramatically about his shoulders as he turned to confront the interlopers again. Grinning. The two of them flinched, stepping back in spite of themselves, and then took a belligerent half-step forward. Damn, but he loved doing that. "Just had to do it, didn't you? Here's poor Spike, completely biteless, and you lot come barging in and not only want to snuff someone right in front of me, you want to tell me all about it in nauseating detail."

Disco looked at Accountant. Accountant looked at Disco and pursed his thin, colorless lips. "I suppose that is inconsiderate of us, considering your... condition."

"Bloody right it's inconsiderate. Think of my feelings." Spike picked up his shaving kit and tucked it into his duster pocket. "D'you think I enjoy playing white hat?" His grin broadened as his hand found the other item in the pocket. "You could have shut your gob and I could have left nice and peaceable, don't ask, don't tell, but no--here you go, forcing my hand." He withdrew his hand, now grasping a wooden stake, from his pocket and swung it in a short sharp arc that terminated in Accountant's chest. "Downright rude, I call it."

Accountant had time for one wounded glance downward before crumbling into dust. "Can't abide bad manners," Spike said cheerfully.

Disco roared, batting the stake out of his hand with one lightning blow and shoving him into the wall. All right, this wanker was older than he looked. Older, and faster, and stronger... ah, well, keep things interesting. His own eyes flaring gold, Spike pushed off the wall and launched himself at the other vampire with a joyful roar. He landed two solid punches, took three, got the bastard into a headlock and rammed his forehead into the edge of the sink a couple of times. Disco managed to hook a foot around his ankle and send them both tumbling to the ground, rolling over and over with fangs snapping inches from one another's throats. Spike freed one arm long enough to flail for the dropped stake. Disco grabbed him before he could get a grip on it, heaved him up into the air and slammed him into the wall by the trash can. Spike dropped to the ground, head spinning. Bloody hell. This wanker was as strong as Angel, and he'd never been able to take Angel in a fair fight...

...which just meant he'd have to fight dirty.

Disco leaped for him. Spike rolled to the side, grabbed the fifty-gallon steel drum and heaved it upwards, catching Disco full in the face. Disco staggered and the drum fell back to the ground with an ear-splitting CLANG! Spike grabbed the bigger vampire's ankles and yanked his feet out from under him, flipping him head over heels into the still-rocking trash can. Before Disco's scream of rage ended Spike had flung himself across the floor and grabbed the stake. Disco's struggles tipped the can over completely, and as he came scuttling out backwards, Spike drove the stake into his back before he had a chance to get his head free.

Spike knelt there beside the pile of dust which had been Disco for a moment, wondering idly why he always started breathing during a fight. "Now that," he said with great satisfaction, "is the way to wake up of an evening." Shaking off his game face, he fished his lighter and cigarettes out of another pocket, tapped one out of the pack and lit up. After a few contented puffs he got to his feet, went over to the paper towel dispenser and repaired the damage the scuffle had done to his clothes. As an afterthought he set the trash can upright. "Oi, mate," he yelled towards the back of the bathroom, "All yours."

No answer. Spike cocked his head to one side. Funny, he couldn't hear the bloke's heartbeat any longer. Had he had a stroke or something, keeled over in the stall? Curious, walked back and opened the door.

There was no one there.

He stood there for a moment, scratching his head. Either the blighter had walked out while the two of them were fighting, and he hadn't noticed, or a dimensional portal had opened up and swallowed him whole. In Sunnydale, both possibilities were equally likely, and which one it was was no business of his. Spike shrugged, and strolled out whistling.

******

The lion roared. Something went flying, sharp baseball-bat crack against the wall. Smack and thud of fist meeting flesh, gasps and snarls, right outside the door it sounded like. Trapped. Fear knit the frayed edges of his thoughts together, and he looked up at the windows, but there was no escape in that direction. He stood balanced precariously on the toilet seat, gripping the edge of the partition with both hands, layers of heavy flaking paint rough under his thumbs.

There was another guy standing beside him in the stall. Tanner didn't remember him walking in. Maybe the guy'd been invisible. The guy didn't have eyes, but that was OK. Or not OK, but Tanner didn't mind because he was missing things too, more important things than eyes. An eerie calm settled over everything. He couldn't hear the fight going on outside. Couldn't hear anything. Except the guy with no eyes.

"Come with me, Tanner," the guy without eyes said. Some niggling inner voice told him that he ought to be afraid, but the calm felt so good, novocaine for the soul... Tanner shrugged. Not like he had anything better to do. The guy with no eyes opened the door to the stall and walked out, and Tanner followed him. The two combatants were locked together, motionless, in the center of the floor. Be damned. The blond guy was a lion too. "Observe," the guy without eyes said. "Two creatures of perfect evil, existing only to bring..."

"Death," Tanner interrupted. Nasty sharp pointed teeth.

The guy without eyes shook his head, impatient. "No. Death is neither good nor evil. Death... is. They exist to bring pain. Destruction. Chaos. Death is only one means to that end." He stood there, contemplating the frozen tableau. "It's all part of the balance, you see."

"He hurt me," Tanner agreed. Then he frowned. "He helped me."

The guy with no eyes nodded. "Yes. The balance has been perturbed." Tanner shivered. Bad, very bad, worlds out of kilter. The evil geometry of the monkey bars on the playground, black and stark against the sunset.

"You understand," the eyeless man murmured. "Balance must be restored."

"I--the others," Tanner choked out. "Gotta hunt for 'em."

The eyeless man paused, then nodded. "Yes. I know. That's why we have chosen you. Come with me. There is much yet to do."

******

"I look like a ratbag."

Dawn and Willow, who'd been poring over their respective homework in the Summers' living room, exchanged cautious looks. The words had been spoken in tones of hushed revelation. Buffy was standing in the middle of the Summers' room, sans makeup, her hair pulled back and knotted at the nape of her neck in what Dawn referred to as 'Buffy's skinned weasel look'. She was staring down at her stunning ensemble of baggy sweatsuit and grungy tennis shoes as if she'd really noticed what she was wearing for the first time in weeks. Buffy was clean, Buffy was neat, but Buffy was a far cry from the older sister Dawn remembered agonizing for two hours over what to wear to a fifteen-minute appearance at the Bronze.

Dawn looked up from her exquisitely boring English homework. If she'd realized that her class-cutting last spring would result lowering her GPA to the point that she didn't qualify for AP classes, she'd... well, she'd still have cut the classes, but... She gave her sister a once-over. "Yeah, you sure do." A demon of mischief prompted her to add, "So what? It's only patrol, right? You're gonna go out and get covered in demon guts and vampire dust anyway." She paused before delivering the coup de grace. "Besides, Spike's seen you look way rattier than this."

Buffy frowned, not rising to the bait. Darn. "If I'm going out, I should change." She reached up and touched her cheek tentatively. "I don't even have any lipstick!"

Dawn could have jumped on the coffee table and cheered; Buffy showing any sign of interest in mundane things like what she looked like was cause for major celebration. "So go buy some," she said, maintaining a tone of sisterly boredom. "That's what I do."

Her sister's hazel eyes sharpened for an instant in a 'my little baby sister is wearing lipstick?' expression. Honestly, sometimes Buffy acted as if she were still twelve. But she didn't go into freakout mode, just frowned some more. "It's not in the budget," she said, and turned and climbed slowly back up the stairs.

"You could borrow some of mine," Willow called after her.

Buffy turned for a moment, her eyes already regaining that distant, abstracted look which Dawn had grown to hate with a passion in the last month. "Thanks, Will."

"You know, I could come along on patrol tonight if--"

Buffy didn't wait for her to finish. "Spike and I can handle it."

Willow bit her lower lip, her eyes suspiciously bright, and bent over her own book as Buffy disappeared up the stairs. Embarrassed, Dawn tried to lose herself in the exciting compositional possibilities of the gerundive. It didn't work. The silence in the living room grew thicker and gluier by the moment, until Dawn was sure that if she did get up the nerve to say anything, the words would be trapped like flies in amber and go unheard. The knock on the door was a positive relief. Dawn flung her notebook to the floor and ran for the door. "Hey, Spike! You're late."

"'Lo, Bit," Spike said, breezing in past her. He was carrying a lethal-looking axe over one shoulder and looked to be in a very good mood. "Ran into some old mates, had to catch up, have a pint, kill them, the usual." He peered up the stairs. "Where's your sis? Don't tell me the Slayer's still powdering her nose."

"Weird though it may seem after weeks of Amish Buffy, yeah," Dawn said. "She'll be down in a minute."

"Buffy!" Spike yelled up the stairs. "Get your arse in gear!"

"Get stuffed, Spike!"

"Promises, promises!"

Dawn snickered. "Or maybe she'll stay up there for an hour to piss you off." She went back to her chair and draped herself sideways over both arms, in the hopes that the unorthodox study position would make her homework slightly more interesting. It didn't.

Spike followed her into the living room and began roaming restlessly about, picking up pieces of bric-a-brac off the TV and setting them down again, staring at the family photos on the walls, and finally coming to rest on the end of the couch opposite Willow. He shoved his hands in his pockets and sat there for a few minutes, jogging one booted foot against the coffee table. "Hullo, Will," he said at last.

"Spike," Willow said neutrally. The vampire's expressive face fell and Dawn winced, but before anything further could be said Spike's keen ears had picked up a noise upstairs and he had turned away. A moment later Dawn heard Buffy's footsteps on the stairs.

Buffy's clothes had all been donated to Goodwill after her death. So far she'd been hewing to the constraints of The Budget with iron determination to make the utilities payments and continued apathy towards fun in general. Dawn, on the other hand, had shamelessly played on their father's tendency to resort to retail therapy as a method of assuaging guilt feelings before he returned to L.A. As a result, Buffy was not entirely without wardrobe, even if, so far, she'd been restricting her dressing up to job interviews. She wasn't dressed up now--at least, unless you compared her blue tank top and jeans to what she'd been wearing earlier. She'd done her hair up a little differently, too, and was wearing a touch of Willow's lipstick, but the big difference was in her expression.

You couldn't really say Buffy's face lit up when she saw Spike. Not the way Spike lit up when he saw Buffy--it was painfully obvious that no matter what he said about accepting that there could never be anything between him and her sister, he was still hopelessly in love with her. But Spike seemed to light some kind of a fire under Buffy nonetheless; the distant look hardly ever crept into her eyes when he was around. She looked interested, as though being alive were more than just a duty she had to carry out. Maybe it was only because Spike's boundless supply of nervous energy tended to fizz over and infect everyone in the same room. But maybe, Dawn thought, the fire was starting to smoulder a little even when he wasn't around.

"About bloody time," Spike said, bouncing to his feet. "Why it takes a frigging hour to apply a square inch of face paint..."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Like you have room to talk. Back in the day you wore more eyeliner than I do."

Spike snorted. "Yeh, and I put it on in three minutes flat with no mirror."

"Walk ten miles uphill through the snow, too? Let's go, smartass."

Spike picked up his axe. "Later, Bit. We'll bring you some demon guts."

Buffy turned back for a moment. "Dawn, do what Will tells you to for once, OK? Will, if..."

"I'll be fine," Willow said tightly. She pulled her feet up under her and buried her nose in her sociology text. "Not like I'm out doing anything that might be dangerous, unlike you and Spike." There was a little more resentment in the last word than seemed warranted by anything Spike had done since entering the house, and the muscles in the vampire's jaw twitched as he visibly bit back a retort.

Buffy's frown returned for an instant, more perplexed than angry. "I'm sorry, Will, it's just that... I mean, you're not really recovered yet, are you? Look, I have an interview tomorrow morning, but I'm free after. What say we meet for lunch? We'll do the whole girly thing."

Willow hesitated, then nodded, summoning up a smile. "Sure."

Reassured, Buffy smiled back and went after Spike, who was already standing impatiently at the door. Willow's smile faded as she watched them leave. "Do the whole girly thing, sure," she muttered, adding, almost too low for Dawn to hear, "Not good enough to go on patrol, but when lunch is on the line call Willow!"

At least she had the tact not to bring up babysitting duty. "Hey, I never get to go on patrols," Dawn pointed out. "You're just, like, recuperating from the resurrection spell, and then you'll be back on the front lines."

The witch retrieved her smile for a second, but it didn't reach her eyes. "I'm totally recuperated now. If Buffy ever decides she can stand to be in the same room with the awful person who brought her back to life for ten minutes at a time. She sure forgave you and Spike fast enough for helping me." She ran one hand over the arm of the couch, picking absently at the spot where the upholstery was beginning to wear a little thin. "But it's not your fault, I guess. I shouldn't bite Spike's head off." She looked rueful. "Cookie time again."

Dawn chewed on the end of her pencil. If Buffy'd remained equally distant from all of them Willow might not be taking this so hard. She didn't understand the continuing tension between Willow and her sister herself, or why Spike hadn't come in for the same treatment. She suspected Buffy didn't know either. Maybe didn't even realize it was there. Her sister could be stunningly clueless when it came to understanding her own reactions, much less other people's. "She's going to be in a restaurant with you for more than ten minutes tomorrow."

Willow sighed and tucked her hair behind her ears, picking up her textbook once more. "It's a start."

Chapter Text

"...so frustrating!" Buffy said as they went down the front walk. "Anya keeps saying I should charge for slaying, and I can't even begin to list the number of ways that's deeply wrong..."

Spike looked thoughtful. "I dunno, pet, there might be something in that. Can't you hit up the Council of Wankers? They pay Rupert a pretty penny. I know, I nicked his bank book once."

Buffy made a face. "Giles is looking into that, actually, but I'm not even sure I want to take the Council's money. They'd own me again."

"So will anyone who signs your paycheck," Spike countered. Buffy made another face, complete with gruesome choking noises. He shrugged. "Better the devil you know."

"I'd feel a lot better taking your advice if your idea of financial planning wasn't 'beat up demon, take its stuff, and hope it's got something worth pawning'."

He chuckled. "Don't knock it, pet, it keeps me in blood and fags. You could do worse than to go in for a bit of looting yourself. If you're going to be killing the slime-covered set right and left anyway, you might as well be doing it for fun and profit."

Buffy frowned and pursed her lips. "We're getting on the train which is not going there now." Spike was only half joking, and she didn't want to think too hard about which half. He didn't kill humans any longer, but it was little things like this which made it impossible for her to forget the whole absence of soul business. And the annoying part was that she felt bad about shooting him down when he really thought he was making a good suggestion. Time for a blatant change of subject. "So where did you get this monstrosity, anyway?" she asked, eying the motorcycle parked in the driveway. She wasn't up on motorcycles, but if there was a kind particularly suited to vampires with a basic black fetish, this was one of them, all dark and gleaming and... there had to be some other word besides 'sexy' to complete the description, but she couldn't think of it at the moment. "And why did it come equipped with an axe holder?"

Spike's eyes lit with that cool-new-toy look he usually reserved for especially impressive implements of destruction. He shoved the axe handle through the loops on the side of the bike and made sure the blade was secure. "As you said--beat up demon, take its stuff. The former owner made the mistake of trying to run me down with it a little bit before you got back." He swung himself onto the saddle and eased the weight of the motorcycle off its kickstand. "Helmet, pet."

"You're not wearing a helmet," Buffy grumbled, but she grabbed the one he tossed her and strapped it on. It was powder blue, had seen better days and didn't match the menacing jet black bike in the slightest. He'd probably scavenged it from the dump. Or stolen it from a much girlier demon than the one who'd owned the bike. She slipped in behind him on the seat. Ooh, leather. Comfy.

"I can survive twenty-story falls on my head, too." He gunned the engine and the bike roared to life. "Where're we off to tonight?"

"East Sunnydale Memorial." It was a small cemetery on the outskirts of town, and they hadn't been there in awhile. It wasn't all that popular amongst Sunnydale's vampire population, but Buffy felt that it was worthwhile to drop through every now and then and make sure it didn't get popular. She frowned. "He tried to run you down?" That didn't sit well. She was the only one allowed to beat up Spike, damn it, even if she had been dead at the time.

"Operative word is tried." He flashed that who-am-I-kidding-I-love-to-brag grin over his shoulder. "Shortly thereafter he and the bike parted ways and he didn't seem interested in it any more, so yours truly took it off his hands--what was left of 'em."

Buffy laid her cheek against his leather-clad back and wrapped her arms round his waist as Spike let out the brakes. They tore off down Revello Drive. The bike picked up speed, parting the night before them like a knife. Wind whipped over and around her, threatening to tug her hair free of her helmet, and her body vibrated in time with the throb of the engine. Between the howl of the wind and the engine noise it was impossible to talk, so she just gave herself up to enjoying the ride.

Dawn had a sentimental fondness for Spike's old DeSoto, but as far as Buffy was concerned, the DeSoto had been yuck on wheels, and if Spike never drove the thing again she'd shed no tears. Riding around in that huge antique boat of a car with its blacked-out windows and all-pervading smell of old cigarettes and spilled bourbon had possessed a certain edge, but nothing like this. This was wild and exhilarating. Spike was a really good rider, not that she had any plans to feed his ego further by telling him so. It felt good leaning into him as they rounded a corner and roared up the on ramp, her body pressed tightly to his. No heart beat beneath her ear, but it was hard to imagine anything feeling more vibrantly alive than the unliving body in her arms. The flat hard muscles of his stomach tensed under her hands as he shifted his weight from side to side, effortlessly weaving from lane to lane and occasionally white-lining it through heavier traffic. There was something utterly satisfying about speeding down the road with a sleek, powerful, savage beast purring between her thighs, wholly at her command...

And the motorcycle's pretty nice, too.

As quickly as the thought bubbled up out of her subconscious her conscious grabbed it, clubbed it over the head, and stuffed it back where it belonged. There had been so many times in the last month when she'd wanted nothing more than to curl up in someone's arms--anyone's--and be held, wallow in the ancient, primal comfort of touch. She just wasn't on hugging terms with anyone at the moment. It was a little too weird with Willow or Tara, and Anya would get jealous with Xander, and Dawn was fifteen and prolonged physical contact with close relatives was hopelessly uncool and Giles would get all embarrassed and Spike... well, it would have been the height of unfairness to ask anything of the kind of him, knowing how he felt about her.

But it was OK to hold on to your undead-soulless-ex-mortal-enemy-talking-buddy when you happened to be riding behind him on a motorcycle.

Buffy really liked the motorcycle.

Spike's sharp intake of breath jolted her out of her reverie in an instant. "Holy bleeding fuck!" The man had staggered out onto the highway not thirty feet in front of them. Drunk, or sick, or heaven knew what, he was wandering around in little circles in the middle of the right-most lane, making swoopy gestures with both arms at oncoming traffic. In a few seconds he was going to be worm food.

Spike swerved, avoiding the man by a hair's-breadth. Buffy yanked on his shoulder and pointed back; he gave her a "You're crazy!" look and hauled on the handlebars without hesitation, slewing into a turn which would have sent anyone without supernatural strength and reflexes skidding into oblivion. He circled back, riding the lane divider into oncoming traffic. Buffy was crouched on the back of the seat now, one hand on his shoulder and the other on the back end of the bike. As they barreled past the dazed-looking man in the road, she leaped, kicking off of the bike and soaring through the air. She hit the man head on, hoping for momentum to carry them both out of the road, but instead of rolling, he collapsed to his knees on the grease-stained concrete, carrying her with him.

Buffy scrambled to her feet. Headlights the size of Ghora eggs were blazing towards her and she heard the squeal of air brakes and the frantic blare of a horn. She bent down, lifted the man up bodily, and flung him back to the side of the road and safety. The words I'm going to die. Again. crystalized in her brain. The thought was curiously uninvolving. A heartbeat later the motorcycle roared up behind her and Spike grabbed her around the waist, yanking her off her feet. They made it onto the shoulder two breaths before the semi thundered past.

Spike held on to her, shaking like a leaf and muttering "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck..." as devoutly as any prayer she'd ever heard.

OK. No death today. "Spike," she said, a bit strangled. "Let go. 'Cause inhaling, you know? Important."

He blinked, then released his death-grip a little. "Oh. Sorry, love."

Rubbing her bruised ribs, Buffy detached herself from the vampire's side and walked shakily over to the object of their rescue. He sat there, sprawled anyhow, blinking dazedly up at her, a thin, weak-chinned man with receding hair and a long nose. His face was strangely familiar, but it took Buffy a minute to place it. She hadn't seen him in long time. "Willy?" she asked, disbelieving. "Willy the Snitch?"

Willy giggled inanely and pawed at the air in the direction of the oncoming headlights. "Pretty shiny fishy," he said. "Slishy fishy." He squinted, faint recognition sparking in his watery eyes. "Slayer? Don't break the fishy, pleeeease..."

Spike got off the bike and walked over, rubbing the back of his neck and looking perplexed. "Bloody hell, what's happened to him?"

"I don't know. I don't think I threw him that hard." She poked gingerly at Willy's lank disordered hair. "I don't see any injuries..."

The vampire sniffed. "No blood. Or not enough for me to smell it over the diesel fumes, anyway."

"We need to get him off of the highway." Buffy glanced around. All right, the DeSoto did have its good points after all. "Can all three of us fit on the bike?"

"Sure, love. If we're completely insane." At her look he sighed. "Maybe we could tie him to the handlebars or something." He dropped to a crouch and waved a hand in front of the bartender's eyes. "Oi, Willy, about that tenner..."

Willy's rat-like face broke into a sweet, foolish smile. "Wheee! Talk to the hand!"

Spike sucked in his cheeks and rocked back on his heels. "The old skinflint really is gone if he doesn't remember..." He stopped, an evil smile slowly illuminating his angular features. "Of course we've got to help the poor bloke," he said piously, getting to his feet. "Only decent thing for hero-types to do, innit? Come on then, Slayer! Give us a hand." He hauled Willy to his feet and led the scrawny man towards the bike.

Buffy gave him another look. "Spike, what are you up to?"

"You have a nasty suspicious mind, Slayer."

"Someone gives me lots of practice." Buffy patted Willy down and pulled a shabby brown leatherette wallet out of the appropriate pocket. She began going through it. "Huh. There's still a good hundred dollars in here, and credit cards--" She smacked Spike's hand away without looking up and he pouted. "--so if he was mugged it wasn't by a very efficient thief." She pulled out a California driver's license and peered at the small print in the chancy light of the freeway floodlights. "4520 West Endicott, Apartment 23D. That must be where he lives." She stuffed the card back into the wallet and folded it up. "I guess we could take him there," she said doubtfully. "I'd say hospital, but the way he's acting, it's like..."

"Yeh." Spike took her meaning immediately. "Like Tara was when Glory got to her." His dark brows dipped together for a moment as if he were trying to remember something, and he shook his head slightly, as if that could dislodge the thought he wanted. "But Glory's dead."

Buffy shivered. "Yeah. Really quite sincerely dead. Show of hands for everyone in this conversation who's also been dead?" Spike grimaced, conceding the point. Her mouth firmed. "Well, he's got to go somewhere, and I'm not feeling Mother Theresa enough for it to be my place." She opened up the wallet again, looking for someone to contact in cases of emergency, but there was nothing. Not surprising; in the circles Willy moved in, you were healthy or you were dead, with very little middle ground. "If he's like Tara, someone will have to feed him and stuff, and I'm sorry, but eww, Willy."

She could have sworn there was a twinkle in Spike's eyes, but maybe it was the floodlights. "Keep in mind that if you take him back to his place--assuming the address on the license is current--you'll still have to take care of any feeding yourself, as yours truly won't be able to walk in the door."

Buffy gave him the evil eye. "Willy," she cooed, "Can Spike come inside your apartment?"

Willy goggled up at her. "Spikey in the morning...?"

"The invite's got to be done at the door in question anyway, pet," Spike said with considerable amusement.

She smiled sweetly. "I'm sure I can talk him around by the time we get there."

****

Getting Willy off the highway ultimately entailed hog-tying him with his own suspenders and balancing him between them, draped across Buffy's lap like a trophy deer. Buffy found this considerably less enjoyable than the previous arrangement, and Spike didn't seem any too happy about the situation either. They took the next exit and followed surface streets to Willy's place at a speed which, for Spike, approached sedate.

The apartment complex was old and grungy. Several flavors of loud music battled for dominance in the night air and no one seemed inclined to pay attention to two people lugging a body across the parking lot. Willy's apartment was a one-bedroom roach trap on the bottom floor which looked as if he'd offered to store all his neighbors' spare grunge. After finally discovering the keys in another pocket (Buffy made Spike search this time, because eww, Willy) Buffy dragged Willy inside and dumped him unceremoniously on the couch. Five minutes of coaching on her part finally induced Willy to say something which satisfied whatever supernatural laws prevented uninvited vampires from entering private dwellings and allowed Spike to follow them in.

"Well," Spike said, surveying the room with hands on hips. "Couch, telly, two-foot stack of Hustlers, and windows covered with tin foil. I feel right at home. Wonder if he's got any blood in the fridge. I always suspected he was holding out with the good stuff." He began rummaging through the mess of dirty magazines, old newspapers, and empty beer cans on the table while Buffy untied their oblivious host. He came up with a somewhat gnawed-upon ballpoint pen and a pad of yellow legal paper and began scribbling away, squinting slightly at his work.

Willy sat on the couch and looked around vaguely. Buffy looked at him, at a loss for what to do now. "I guess we should call Willow. Maybe she and Tara can do something for him."

"Best bet," Spike agreed. He handed Willy the pen and shoved the legal pad in front of him. "Sign here, there's a good Willy."

"Round and round, all the fishies," Willy said, making a wild whorl with the pen. Spike guided his hand back to the bottom of the paper.

"Just write your name, nice big legible letters..." He took the pad back, ripped off the page, folded it up and tucked it into his inside coat pocket.

Buffy looked up from the phone where she was dialing her own house. "Spike, what...?"

He looked as innocent as it was possible for a vampire to look, which was not very. "Private business matter, pet. I'm not diddling him out of the family farm or anything, just taking care of a few loose ends."

She gave him a good long look. She seemed to be doing a lot of that tonight. "I trust you, Spike."

God, it was incredible when his eyes softened like that. "It's nothing you'd want to stake me for, love, I promise. Here." He pulled the paper back out. Buffy took it trepidatiously and began deciphering Spike's surprisingly lovely but old-fashioned handwriting.

"'In consideration for services rendered to me by William the Bloody a.k.a. Spike this night of November 28th, 2001, I hereby cancel any outstanding debts owed by the aforementioned William the Bloody to the Alibi Room or to...' You're trying to get rid of your bar tab? She bit back a laugh and returned the paper to him. "Um. I can't exactly say I approve, but no, I don't want to stake you for it. Besides, I don't think he's gonna consider that binding when he comes to. I don't think Willy knows what 'aforementioned' means."

Spike, who'd been watching her reaction with surprising anxiousness, relaxed. "Probably not, but a bloke's got to try." As she waited for Willow to pick up the phone, he looked at the sheet of paper thoughtfully, lower lip caught in his teeth. After awhile he heaved a rueful sigh and tore it into four neat pieces. "It's the little things, you know," he said, examining the scuff marks on the toes of his boots intently. "Where I get lost. I mean killing people and eating them, it's bloody obvious that's not... but all this other rubbish you have to do to be good..."

"Spike..."

He glanced up, still worrying at his lower lip. "I know, love, I can't be. Not really. But still... I don't want you to be ashamed of knowing me."

He has got to be the weirdest vampire on the planet. But it's a sweet kind of weird, sometimes... She coiled the phone cord around her hand as the answering machine kicked in, and waited impatiently for it to get through its spiel. "Spike, I've hated you, despised you, been a little--very little, and it was a long time ago, so don't get a swelled head--scared of you once or twice, wanted to kill you more times than I can count--but I can honestly say I've never been ashamed to know you."

He cocked his head to one side and smiled--not his usual cocky grin or self-satisfied smirk, just a pleased smile. The corners of his eyes crinkled up in the nicest way when he did that... "Ah. Well, that's--that's good to know."

Was the fact that he could take something like that as a compliment more on the weird side or the sweet side? The tension in the phone cord brought her up short. Somehow or other she'd taken several steps closer to him. Spike was looking down at her with his hands buried in his duster pockets as if he didn't trust them out in the open. Funny how she always thought of Spike as being tall, when he wasn't, really, well, taller than her of course, most people were, but--

A nasal drawl behind them said, "Aww, isn't that sweet?"

Spike whipped round, his eyes going yellow, and Buffy almost dropped the phone. She could hear the beep as someone hit the button to turn the recorded message off and Willow's tinny voice from the receiver saying "Hello? Summers residence. Hello?"

"Uh, never mind, Will, it's under control," Buffy said, slamming the phone back into its cradle.

Willy the Snitch was sitting on his couch, rubbing his temples with both hands and glaring impartially at the two of them. "I have the Slayer and her pet vampire making googly eyes in my living room. I get it. I'm in hell." He cowered reflexively at Spike's growl, then straightened up and poked a belligerent index finger in the vampire's direction. "I'm not scared of you, Spike! That chip in your head'll put you flat on your back if you so much as lift a finger against me, so just get out before I throw you out! And don't think about comin' back later 'cause I'm having someone do the spell to uninvite you so fast that--"

Despite Willy's bravado there was a panicky note in his voice and Spike didn't look particularly intimidated; he might not be able to hurt Willy, but it was unlikely that Willy could do much to hurt him, at least not without a lot of help. Buffy walked over to the couch, flicked her hair over her shoulder, put her hand in the center of Willy's chest, and shoved. He sat back very suddenly. "Hey!" he whined, rubbing his sternum.

"One of us can still hit people, Willy, so if I were you? No more googly eye remarks, especially about people who've just taken an hour out of their busy schedule to keep you from becoming a pancake on the 405." She bent over to look him in the eye. "Don't take this personally, but why are you rational?"

"Why am--" All of a sudden memory of the last several hours hit, and Willy hunched his shoulders and shrank in upon himself, trying to sink into the ancient stained fabric of the couch. "I--I dunno."

"Can you remember what happened to you?"

Willy pinched the bridge of his nose in concentration. "I was in the office--at the bar, y'know? I hear this noise out back and went to see, we get bums goin' through the garbage all the time lookin' for empties that ain't empty, if ya know what I mean. There was this guy out in the alley..." He trailed off and rubbed his mouth. "Didn't look exactly like a bum, though. Too clean. Middle-aged guy, pretty good shape, dark hair, a little grey maybe..." He shook his head, baffled. "Wasn't a vampire or nothin', I can tell 'em near as good as you can, Slayer. Just a guy. I ask him what he's doin' out there, he says just passing through, and I say fine, and he says--then it all gets confused." He looked around. "Shit! If the back door was left open those assholes will clear me out! I gotta get--" He got unsteadily to his feet and lurched across the room to the front door before a dizzy spell hit. He grabbed the doorknob and leaned heavily on the grimy doorpost before sliding to his knees.

Just a guy. Ben had been just a guy. Ben was dead. Which was why Glory was dead, which was... damn. "We'll make sure the back door's locked. We've got to make a stop there anyway."

Willy pulled himself to his feet. "Well, in that case, ain't you gonna offer me a ride?"

Spike smiled--definitely of the evil. "I think we can arrange that."

******

The faded letters on the front of the building said 'The Alibi Room', but no one ever called it anything but Willy's. Willy's bar greatly resembled its owner--small, shabby, and furtive, it crouched between two larger buildings as if trying to escape notice. As soon as the motorcycle rolled to a stop in the parking lot said owner unfolded himself from his awkward perch and lit out for the front door, a look of absolute terror in his watery eyes.

Buffy watched him go. "Did you absolutely have to make him ride on the handlebars?"

Spike paused, lighter halfway to cigarette, and thought about it for a moment. "Yeh."

"Just checking." She reluctantly let her arms fall from his waist and got off the bike, checking out the parking lot warily. "Is it safe for you to be here? Last I heard you weren't very popular in Demonsville."

Spike took a drag on his cigarette and snorted smoke. "I've got a big strong Slayer to protect me, haven't I? 'Course it's not safe, that's half the fun."

"This 'fun' you speak of, it's one of those English words that translates to 'nerve-wracking terror' in American?"

Spike growled and lunged for her; Buffy dodged, laughing, then stopped so abruptly that he nearly ran into her. "'Smatter, love, losing your touch?" he asked teasingly.

Laughing. She'd been laughing. For a moment there, she'd felt...good. Really good. Alive, and happy to be so. Astounded, she tried to grasp the sensation, analyze it, clutch it to her heart--and of course it dissolved under her scrutiny, fraying away into bewilderment. She avoided his eyes. "No, no, this is just--we can't be playing around. Business, now, here."

She could feel that blue gaze burning into the top of her head, heard a faint sigh. "You're in charge, Slayer."

Willy was already there when they arrived in the alley behind the bar, scouting suspiciously around the loading dock to see what had been stolen in his absence. Buffy examined the alley in minute detail, determined to do or say nothing which could remotely be described as googly. There were empty crates and a big cube of crushed cardboard boxes on the loading dock, and a dumpster full of assorted bar trash down in the alley proper, resumably what the mystery guy had been going through when Willy discovered him. A smaller container stamped 'SUNNYDALE RECYCLES' stood nearby, half-full of empty beer cans and broken bottles. She wasn't sure what she'd expected to find, but if anything useful was here, it wasn't in a form she could recognize.

Spike paced around looking at things in a less organized fashion, the faint frown back on his face, nostrils flaring every now and then as he tried to pick up a scent. He'd put his cigarette out, which meant he was really serious about it.

"I give up," Buffy said at last. "If there are clues here, I'm missing 'em. Unless... Spike, is that clue-face?"

He came to a halt in the middle of the alley, took his half-smoked cigarette from behind his ear and re-lit it. He ran one hand through his hair, ruffling the pale waves further. "This is 'What have I sodding forgotten?' face. There's something... familiar here, but I can't suss it out." He jerked his chin at the bar. "Ought to see if anyone inside knows who this bloke is. 'Sides, I'm famished."

Buffy didn't think that it was very likely that any of the patrons would recognize Willy's vague description if Willy himself, who knew everything worth knowing about Sunnydale's less than savory inhabitants, didn't know who the guy had been. But... it was closing in on eleven, and maybe a break would clear her head. "OK. Let's go."

The dim lights inside Willy's did little to conceal the accumulated grime. The flyspecked mirror behind the bar failed to reflect a good third of the patrons, and probably wished it couldn't reflect another third. The crowd wasn't a large one, but from the moment they crossed the threshold every eye in the bar that wasn't on her was on Spike, half a dozen sullen gazes pinned to the center of their backs, evenly divided between preparations for fight or flight. Normally when Buffy dropped by Willy's, broken furniture and smashed glass resulted.

Spike, having undergone an instant transformation into Big Bad mode the moment he'd crossed the threshold, was eating it up. He strutted over to the bar, platinum blond head held high, all cocky swagger and knowing smirk. Enjoying himself, and the knowledge that one wrong word, one wrong move on his part would precipitate a brawl. He leaned one elbow on the bar top and flashed the natural-born-killer grin at the female Bracken demon behind the bar.

"O-neg with a Guinness chaser and a club soda for the lady."

The bartender looked uncertain. "Um...there's...you..."

"Cash on the barrelhead or get out, Spike," Willy snapped, bustling up behind her.

Spike raised an eyebrow at Buffy. "There, you see? No good deed goes unpunished." He turned back to Willy, obviously ready to argue the point. Buffy put a hand on his shoulder.

"Charge it to the Magic Box, and give us a receipt," she said firmly. "We're on the job, it's a slaying business expense," she added at Spike's inquisitive look. "Anya'll charge it back to the Council of Watchers, or deduct it from the shop's taxes, or something financially brilliant like that."

Spike looked as if he weren't sure whether to be pleased at getting free drinks or annoyed at being cheated out of a skirmish, but finally settled on pleased. He smirked at the bar girl, or demon. "In that case, give us some nachos too."

Buffy started to object, then shrugged. It couldn't hurt. After all, this was strictly business.

Chapter Text

Buffy took her club soda and left the bar to find a table while Spike collected the rest of his order. Over in the corner, someone put a quarter in the ancient jukebox and it started wheezing out "What's Love Got To Do With It?" Story of my life, Buffy thought, watching Spike stroll back towards their table, balancing his beer, a plastic baggie of blood, a glass and a plate of nachos piled high with things which were mercifully unidentifiable beneath a thick layer of orange cheese-like substance. And who says supernatural agility is only good for slaying?

A Zagros demon left its booth and shuffled past him on its way to the bar, brushing belligerently close to his shoulder. Spike twisted lithely to one side in time to avoid spilling his beer, and rounded upon the demon, his eyes flaring from blue to feral yellow. Zagros and vampire growled at one another for a moment, and then, with a resentful glance over at Buffy, the Zagros lowered its dorsal crest and shuffled off. Having the Slayer in the place did tend to put a bit of a damper on the hijinks.

Spike slid into the chair across from her and plunked his food down on the graffiti-scarred tabletop, obscuring 'Lanark the Gouger Loves Mindy, 1977'. Buffy looked pointedly over at the Zagros' demon's table. "If you think I'm going to save your bacon if you antagonize everyone here into beating you up in the alley, you've got another think coming."

He grinned, wholly unrepentant. "If I antagonize everyone into beating me up in the alley, the last thing I want is your help. Got a bloody reputation to maintain." Suiting action to word, he ripped a corner off the plastic baggie of blood with his teeth, poured it into his glass, and gulped down a hefty swallow. He crumpled up the baggie in the ashtray and sat back with a satisfied sigh. Angel had never liked feeding in front of her, even when it was pig's blood sipped from a coffee mug. Spike would happily scarf down human blood to her face and make yummy noises. There was a lesson in that. I wish I knew what it was.

Spike shoved the nachos into the center of the table. "Here you go. Not as good as you get at the Bronze, but you get enough of that cheese stuff on it--"

Buffy poked at the gluey pile with a forefinger. "Not hungry."

His eyes did that softening thing again, real concern in the blue depths. "Come on, love, you need to keep your strength up. I eat more than you do, and I only do it for amusement."

God, did he have to do that, slip from snarky to sweet and back again in the space of two breaths? It kept her off balance, and the last thing she needed was to be off balance around Spike. Go with the snark. The snark is your friend. "It might help if you offered me something containing shreds of actual nutrition." She poked the nachos again suspiciously. "What goes into those things?"

"Excess poker chips, most like," Spike replied, callously stuffing a handful of chips, cheese and mystery meat into his mouth. "Live dangerously."

Buffy glared across the table at him, trying to suppress a smile. Her ire failed to make much impression; the vampire took another swallow of blood, followed by a swig of Guinness, and settled back in his chair with an expression of perfect content. Well, of course. Spike enjoyed hanging out in grungy bars, especially when he could run up an exorbitant tab and charge it to the Watcher's Council as a business expense. This was probably his idea of heaven. She picked up a chip and nibbled on it. Not bad, for a hideous concoction of cholesterol-dripping goo. "All right, I give in. A plate of chips, a glass of seltzer, and thou, beside me bitching in Willy's..."

He chuckled. "And Willy's is paradise enow."

It took a second.

"You finished that," Buffy said accusingly.

Spike's angular face suffused with guilty alarm, as if she'd caught him out at something. "You started it." After a moment he added cautiously, "Didn't know you went in for that sort of thing."

They regarded one another warily, a pair of fencers each expecting a jab in a vulnerable spot. Buffy picked up another chip and ate it without thinking about what might be hiding under the cheese sauce. "I just happened to remember it from the half of my intro poetry class I managed to get through last year. It was very... seize the day. Which used to be my motto, though now it's more like 'Seize the day very carefully since it's probably covered with sharp pointy things.'"

"Always liked old Omar myself." Honestly, Spike sounded as if he were confessing to a sordid addiction. He looked round to make sure no one else was within listening distance. "Which edition did they give you? Fourth?"

"Editions? Um..."

He sat forward, gesturing with his beer bottle as he warmed to the subject. "Yeh, the Rubaiyat was like 'Leaves of Grass', Fitzgerald revised the whole thing top to toe three or four times, so it was really a work in progress as long as the bloke was alive--" At her astonished expression he cut himself off, clearly embarrassed despite his inability to blush, raking his fingers through his hair nervously. "Anyway, there's a bloody sight more than a few verses. Don't need to bore you with the details."

"No! I mean, not bored. I didn't know there was more. There were just a few verses in the textbook and we hadn't gotten to that chapter by the time I had to drop out of college." As he didn't seem too inclined to snicker at the idea of her struggling through a poetry class, she added a little wistfully, "I wish I could have read more of it."

"There are such things as libraries, Slayer," Spike rejoined with his customary sarcasm, "And I've heard they'll let just anyone in here in the colonies. But..." He ducked his head and muttered, "gotacopyyoucouldborrowifyouwant."

Buffy blinked a few times, realized she wasn't saying anything, and managed, "Sure. I'd like--" I'm sitting in Willy's and talking about poetry with Spike. There is something deeply weird with this picture. "--that. Do you ice skate?"

Spike looked askance at the change of subject, but went with it. "Not since I was twelve. I fell through the ice and caught pneumonia. Nearly died--worse, got stuck in bed the whole of Christmas holidays and half-way into next term. My mum had a fit. Put me off skating. Why?"

This time it was her turn to grin at him. "Just wanted to make sure I hadn't fallen into a parallel universe where we had things in common. Ten more minutes and that's it," she said firmly. She reached for another nacho and discovered to her surprise that there were only a few broken bits left. "Then we get back to hunting for Willy's mystery guy. Maybe the other bartender knows him."

Spike gazed speculatively over at the bar. "Could chat her up a bit. I think she likes me."

"Yeah, I can feel the love from here. I've got to hit the bathroom. Just try to keep the Big Bad posing down to a minimum, huh?"

Spike laughed. "Posing? Who's posing?"

****

Tanner sat at the end of the bar and nursed the beer that an hour of genteel panhandling ("I just need to use the phone, my car's...") had bought him. There was a dollar and some change lying on the bar two seats down, but he didn't make a move towards it. He prided himself on not being a thief. Except, of course, for necessary things.

The bartender's soul had tasted of old clothes and the mouse-nibblings of fear. The astringent flavor lingered in the back of his throat. Not the good stuff. Wouldn't have lasted him a day even if he'd taken it all. Tanner was selective, when he could afford to be. Had to be, with the others depending on him. He'd taken only what he needed from the bar owner for tonight. The bar owner--he'd heard someone call him Willy--bustled by, swiping a glass with a dirty rag, his close-set beady eyes passing over Tanner without a flicker of recognition. He was relieved to see the thin, nervy man had come back--he'd intended to shove him back inside the bar once he'd taken what was necessary, but Willy'd taken fright and run away.

"He will not know you," the guy with no eyes proclaimed. The guy with no eyes was not much on merely saying things.

"I know. I've done this before." Tanner shifted restlessly on his seat. Even without magic involved he knew how to escape notice. He had one of those faces, a little lined, a little tired, a lot ordinary. Combine that with the shapeless off-the-rack jacket and slacks and defeated slouch and he could have been any of a thousand men in a hundred bars.

The eyeless man, on the other hand, was just plain invisible, which was a little more bothersome with Willy's stolen rationality holding his thoughts together. Fortunately there was nothing unusual about someone sitting in a bar and mumbling to himself. Tanner sipped his drink and stared at his own reflection in the mirror behind the bar. There was grey in his hair. When had he gotten that old? This was the reason he put off hunting sometimes--it was more comfortable when you couldn't remember how much you'd lost.

The blond man from the pool house was sitting at one of the tables across the room with a young woman, small and pretty if rather too thin. If he wanted to he could watch her in the mirror, talking animatedly to empty air. Right. Vampire. If he wanted to see the man too he'd have to turn around and watch them directly. Since everyone else in the bar was doing the same thing it probably wouldn't hurt. The woman looked familiar. A memory of her swinging a hammer almost as big as she was flashed across his mind's eye. She was someone important... the Slayer. Yeah. She'd been there too, when the walls of the worlds had dissolved. Now the two of them sat here, talking, laughing, as absorbed in one another as any couple he'd ever seen at the Bronze. Normal. Well, except for him being a vampire and her being able to swing magic hammers like they weighed nothing. Mostly normal. If he'd had the energy to spare he could have hated them for that.

"So what is it exactly you want me to do?" Tanner asked. "I was never much of a wizard, even before..."

The eyeless man was silent for a moment "The Slayer has... encountered us before. She will be wary of our usual methods. You must prepare our way in her heart and in the hearts of her friends."

"And how do I do that?"

"You have a skill," the eyeless man whispered. "Use it. Observe them. All evil is born of fear. Find their fears, find the one whose fears rule them. Find her fear. We will do the rest."

"I do this, and you restore the others?"

"They will all be made whole. I swear upon the Seal of Akhun."

"And none of us will owe you anything further?"

The eyeless man's lips sketched a sere, horrible smile on his parchment face. The was a note of pity, or perhaps amusement, in his voice when he spoke again. "You own nothing else worth our taking. Your souls are as your lives: dry leaves upon the wind. You made no difference to the balance when you were alive. You will make no difference to the balance when you are dead."

"You are lying," Tanner said, setting his glass down. "I'm insane, not stupid. Remember that." The eyeless man was right about one thing--the balance had been out of whack ever since last May, stresses building up like pressure along an earthquake fault. When you'd lived on a Hellmouth for most of your life you got good at noticing the signs. Which way it was out of balance... well, that was more difficult to say. "I'll do what you ask because it may help the others, and I see no other way of doing that. I won't be surprised if we all end up dead, or worse. But you know what?" He stared at the wrinkled, empty sockets, each sewn shut with a double X of coarse twine. "That might be an improvement."

****

Buffy sidled down the cramped, ill-lit hallway to the bathrooms. "Sorry," she said to the man who brushed past her on his way out, then "Hey! Watch the hair!" Her good mood dissipated. They were wasting their time here; for all she knew, that hair-stroking perv had just been their target.

Things with far too many legs scuttled out of the way when the lights flipped on. Buffy surveyed the tiny room with distaste; she was fairly certain that some of the things on the floor were developing their own ecologies. She stared at the toilet for several minutes before deciding that she could wait for something a little less Third World. She bent over the sink and turned on the cold water tap, letting it flow for awhile to get the rust stains out. Once the water was running reasonably clear, she splashed a little on her face.

Her own reflection stared back at her from the grimy mirror over the sink. Big haunted hazel eyes, a waifishly thin face framed in long hair slowly reverting to its natural brown--she hadn't bothered to lighten it since her... return. Mouth a little too wide, nose with that funny bump to it that never seemed to bother anyone else but which drove her to distraction. Reassuring. Reflections meant Not-Vampire Buffy. Something that had been a real fear at one point--it hadn't been much, but she had tasted vampire blood that once. But she hadn't risen in the night, hadn't clawed her way with desperate strength through a layer of hardwood and six feet of earth, hadn't come back from the dead. Not in the few nights after her death.

No, it had taken a few months.

Willow meant well. Willow always means well.

She couldn't remember what it had been like to be dead. All she remembered was the moment just before, when for the first time in years she'd been completely at peace. All of them had meant well, Willow and Spike and Dawn in trying to bring her back, Giles and Tara and Xander in trying to prevent it. They'd all been doing what they thought was right... mostly, anyway. The whys of it didn't matter now anyway. She was alive again, and had to... live with it. So she got up dutifully each morning and went through the motions, trying to be grateful. Every now and then, just for a minute or two, the world would click into focus around her and she'd be alive, not just existing. The wonder of those moments was enough to keep her going, hoping for the next one, fearing it wouldn't come.

I used to feel like that all the time.

Tonight had been good. Strange, but enjoyable. That summed up a lot of her interaction with Spike lately. It wasn't that she didn't like hanging with the others, but it could be a strain. They desperately wanted her to be all right, and she felt guilty when she couldn't be. Spike didn't expect her to be all right. It was very relaxing.

There were a couple of demons of indeterminate species lounging outside the end of the hallway as she left the bathroom, and Buffy slowed as she approached them, composing herself. She could see Spike over at the bar again, buttering up the bartender and ordering what looked like several bottles of whiskey before his free drink ticket ran out. OK, that was wrong. Bad Spike, no biscuit. She couldn't get too upset about it; after the way the Council'd jerked them all around, paying for Spike's liquor was the least they could do. The vampire gave the Bracken woman behind the bar a rakish grin, and Buffy had to admit that a little part of her thought that having brash, cocky Spike back at least part time was...fun.

The Bracken nodded in response to whatever Spike had said, bent over and rummaged around below the level of the bar, and came up a moment later with several small plastic baggies filled with red fluid. Spike collected his booty, alcoholic and otherwise, and sauntered back to their table to stow it away in various pockets in his duster.

Fun? the responsible world-saving part of her mind piped up. Excuse me, but when did Spike stockpiling human blood become 'fun'?

The blood Willy served to his undead clientele was kosher; she'd checked into that long ago--obtained from human patrons who donated in exchange for liquor, or 'liberated' from the hospital. No one had died for it. But still... Buffy examined her own reactions of the evening uneasily. She knew Spike still preferred human blood to pig when he could get it; he made no secret of the fact. But... shouldn't she be more wiggy over it? Drinking human blood was wrong, and... and vampire-y, no matter how he got it... wasn't it? He'd told her this very night that he still had trouble fighting his basic urge towards the bad. Was she just making it more difficult for him to stay on the straight and narrow in the long run by tolerating these minor slips? And how minor a slip was this, anyway? Was the fact that Spike was the only person she felt really comfortable with these days making her cut him slack she shouldn't be cutting?

"...putting on airs," one of the demons at the end of the hall said as she approached. It was tall and thin and bile-colored. "Thinks because he's here with the Slayer no one's gonna lay a hand on his traitorous ass? I say we get Durgo and the boys from the clan and have a little talk with him later. He's obviously forgotten the last one."

The other one, short, scaly and possessed of at least one more arm than it really needed, chuckled nastily. "You know Spike. He never struts higher but when some bitch has him on a short leash," Short-n'-Scaly said. Its voice was deep and gravelly, like a laryngitic bullfrog. "And you can't get much bitchier than the Slayer."

"Oh, really?" Buffy said brightly. "You must move in really limited circles."

****

Spike slouched comfortably down in his chair, sipping his beer and keeping an unobtrusive eye on the rest of the patrons. So far he was having a ripping night. He'd gotten in a good fight with a couple of kills right off, he'd given that git Willy a proper scare, he'd gotten Buffy to smile a couple of times, he'd just taken care of half his shopping for the month on the Council's shilling, and he'd made the astonishing discovery that the Slayer had not only read one of his favorite poems, but had liked it. And hadn't immediately skewered him for his admission that he'd liked it.

Bet she'd like Robert Service. And Kipling. And--bloody hell, rein yourself in, William! She took half of one poetry class and said she liked one poem in it. Don't be more of an over-eager ponce than you can help .

"...get Spike when they leave..."

Spike set his Guinness down and unslouched himself. His vampiric hearing was perfectly capable of picking up a whispered conversation on the opposite end of a large and moderately noisy room. Like anyone else, he didn't listen to most of what he heard--heartbeats and mice crawling behind the walls and boring bar conversations--but there were a few sounds to which he was always attentive: certain dangerous tones of voice, for example, or his own name... He concentrated on picking out that voice from the desultory chatter and the music of the jukebox. There. The two demons over by the hall leading to the restrooms.

An anticipatory shiver ran through him, lifting the hairs on the backs of his arms. If they decided to try him alone, he could probably take both of them, or at least make it a difficult enough fight that they'd think twice about pressing it to its conclusion. If they went and got all the friends they were talking about, though... that could turn nasty. He had no expectation that Buffy'd back him up; she'd said as much, and she'd never gotten involved in his ongoing feud with the rest of Sunnydale's demons before. Spike looked around the bar thoughtfully. Besides the two by the bathroom hall and the Zagros demon, there were two vampires playing darts over in one corner and a scattering of humans and vampires on barstools and at various tables. No more than a dozen people all told; it was a slow night.

He had no qualms about turning tail and running from unfavorable odds when it was only his own hide on the line, but he hadn't been lying when he'd told Buffy he had a reputation to maintain. Sheer fighting prowess wasn't what kept the demon population of Sunnydale from ganging up and crushing him like a bug--he was good, but not that good. There were plenty of creatures in the demon world stronger and faster than a vampire only halfway through his second century. What kept him in one piece was the general belief that if you went up against William the Bloody, you had a good chance of dying, and William the Bloody didn't give a damn if he died in the process of killing you. That made enough of his potential opponents think twice about taking him on to ensure his continued sojourn in the land of the unliving.

He had the option of trying to leave, with or without Buffy, before Muff and Jeff over there decided to go collect their mates, but it would make a more lasting impression on the populace if he carried the fight to them before they could carry it to him. They couldn't very well go collect their mates with broken kneecaps, could they?

One of the other sounds he always paid attention to interrupted his deliberations. Buffy's voice. She'd come out of the hall and was frowning up at the taller of the two demons, who was making the obligatory threatening remarks. He had no worries of her being in real danger--if he could take those pillocks, she could wipe the floor with them--but she sounded angry, and it made a perfect excuse for him to stroll over and give them a piece of what for. Besides, buggered if he'd let her have all the fun. Spike tossed back the last of his blood, licked his lips and got up, drifting across the barroom floor as silently as smoke. With luck, he was going to get his skirmish after all.

Both demons were fully occupied with Buffy, and didn't notice him stalking up behind them. The short one was making nervous motions of attempted escape; the taller one looked disgusted at its companion's sudden reversal of attitude. "This isn't your ground, Slayer," it rasped out. "It would behoove you to exercise caution."

Buffy planted one fist on her hip, looking incredulous. "Or what, you'll practice your Word-A-Day on me? If so I suggest you get a new calendar, cause 'behoove'? Not scary." Her eyes met Spike's for an instant. "I'm only saying this once. Remember it. Spike's working with me these days, and the only one allowed to lay hands on his traitorous ass is me."

Her expression dared him to make anything of it, but Spike was too pleased and stunned at the unexpected backup to come up with anything beyond "Awfully flattering, Slayer." Both demons jerked round to face him as if pulled by one string. "Show's that way, boys," he said with as straight a face as he could manage.

Buffy shot the demons a disdainful look and tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Show's over. Come on, Spike. We've got places to go."

She brushed past him and headed for the door. He watched her retreating back (and other more interesting parts) for a second, then shrugged. "Sorry, boys," he said with a smirk at the taller demon. "Can't oblige you tonight, I've got a little strutting to take care of."

He caught up with Buffy as she passed their table, grabbed his duster off the back of his chair, and fell in step beside her. The Zagros demon he'd faced off with earlier looked up with a startled grunt, then rose and shuffled towards the door ahead of them. "They're signaling to the Zagros demon," he said conversationally. "Probably going to jump me once we get outside. If you're not inclined to participate while they beat me up in the alley, mind the motorbike for us, will you? I don't want it scratched."

Buffy gave him a distracted "Mmmf" of acknowledgment. Something was obviously biting her arse--she was still frowning, lower lip pushed out in that delightfully edible-looking pout... She took a deep breath and looked up at him with those big eyes, the irises gone grey with thought. "Spike..."

"Yeh, love?"

"Go put the blood back. We're not paying for your nummy people snacks."

That had not been on the list of things he'd expected to hear. Spike suppressed a growl of exasperation. "I think not, pet. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to get hold of the good stuff these days? The Council can afford it. Think of it as keeping me on retainer."

She came to a full stop, folded her arms, and locked eyes with him--the serious, I've-been-thinking-hard-about-this look. Damn. "Look, Spike, I know there are certain things you can't help about the whole being a vampire biz. I don't expect you to take up sunbathing any time soon. But this isn't one of them. You do fine on pig's blood."

The prim, all for your own good tone made his hackles rise, but his unerring sense of what would brass Buffy off the most prevented him from exploding. Keep it all calm and logical. He shoved his hands in his coat pockets and faced her down. "Fine? Yeh, and you do fine without chocolate, but I don't see you giving it up."

Her frown deepened and he could see her counting to ten. She started for the door again. "It's not the same thing, Spike! Chocolate's not sentient!"

"Neither are most of the people who donate blood to Willy's." He took a quick half-step ahead and grabbed the door for her. "How exactly is it not the same thing if I legally purchase a freely offered commodity? Illuminate me, Slayer! You against free enterprise? Bloody un-American of you."

Buffy stopped dead in the doorway, blocking his exit, her face set in the expression of mulish determination which always boded ill for whatever was opposing her. "We're not out of here till you take it back."

To hell with calm and logical. Go for the throat. That was what vampires did, and he was still a sodding vampire, despite Buffy's apparent conviction that he was a Pekingese. Well, and why shouldn't she be convinced when he'd done nothing since her return but trot after her with his tongue hanging out, hoping for a pat on the head? "I suppose we'll be spending the night, then. Why the sudden attack of squeamishness, Slayer? Getting along a little too well with the monster for comfort, are we?" He draped himself lazily against the doorframe, close enough to feel her body heat, and favored her with his nastiest smirk. Her grey-green eyes widened and her mouth made that little wounded twitch--bullseye. Not his imagination, then, that electricity in the air. He should have stopped there, but his demon temper couldn't resist a further dig. "Is the problem that you're bothered by my choice of liquid refreshment, or that you're not bothered?"

The mulish look blossomed into pure Buffy-fury, her face shining with that glorious inner light that made him want to grab her and ravish her right then and there, even as he battled an equally strong desire to shake her till her teeth rattled. When she spoke her voice was low and intense. "By the fact that you don't give a damn where your liquid refreshment comes from, Spike. I've seen some of the people Willy taps, remember? Run-down winos the blood bank wouldn't touch. They're dying by degrees, but a vampire's killing them all the same."

He rolled his eyes. "Oh, very poetic. I'm responsible for the welfare of every sot in town now, is it? Next you'll be on the second-hand smoke. How often do you put in time down at the soup kitchen, Slayer?"

"That has nothing to do with this!"

He pushed himself off the doorframe and they stood toe to toe, glaring at one another. He was breathing just as hard as she was and the air was heavy with the scent of anger and arousal. "Doesn't it, then? Tell you what, Slayer, you want to take these back--" He patted the blood bags in the pocket of his coat. "--you come get them."

Her lip quivered for a second. "Damn you, Spike, you can't fight me!"

She was poetry when she moved, when she danced, when she fought: free verse, a complex visual meter of deadly lines and curves. He would have given much (but not anything--no, he knew now that there were things even more important than the touch of her hand) to be able to dance with her again, in any sense of the word. He took a step closer, voice dropping to a low, sensual growl. "Who said anything about fighting?"

"We did," said a far less pleasant growl from outside. The anemic glow of the lone parking lot light shone down on the Zagros demon, who was flanked by Short-n-Scaly, Tall-n-Thin, and several more hulking indistinct shapes further back. They must have gone out the back way and circled round the building. The Zagros demon slapped a length of lead pipe against one horny palm.

Spike welcomed the painful-pleasurable stretch of bone and muscle as his demonic visage emerged. Yeah, he wanted blood tonight, and not in plastic baggies, either. Buffy's eyes narrowed and the corners of her usually generous mouth went tight as she turned to face them, an equally ominous sign for anyone who knew her. "Do you mind? This is a private conversation."

"We don't have any quarrel with you, Slayer," Tall-n-Thin rasped. "You're free to leave."

Buffy sighed. "I really hate it when I take the trouble to make elaborate threats and people just don't listen. I work hard on those, you know."

Spike glanced down at her and ran his tongue over his fangs. He carefully removed his duster and laid it down on the sidewalk, not about to take the chance of breaking two bottles of Jack Daniels in a free-for-all. "Just this once what say we skip the witty banter and go straight to the killing things part?"

Buffy's shoulders tensed and she rocked lithely on the balls of her feet, ready to pounce. "Good idea," she breathed. "Very good idea."

****

An hour later the bike came to a halt in the driveway and the engine rumbled to a halt. For a few seconds the two of them sat there, motionless, and then Buffy pulled away, wincing a little as she got off. Her right leg was still sore; she knew she was lucky it wasn't broken. She pulled off the powder-blue helmet and handed it to Spike, who took it without comment and hung it on its hook. He was moving pretty cautiously too; she hoped that the ribs were only cracked. Maybe, just maybe, taking on seven-to-two odds when unarmed had been a little bit foolhardy. At least they'd finally maneuvered the fight close enough to get Spike's axe off the motorcycle.

Yeah, but you should see the other guys.

She reached out and brushed a thumb lightly across the raw scrape above his right eye. It had mostly stopped bleeding; lack of circulation had its advantages. "You gonna be OK?"

"Always am. You?"

"Nothing a hot bath and ten hours sleep won't fix." She searched his face. His eyes smouldered with bloodlust and tenderness, anger and love and longing--how could such a cold shade of blue burn so? "We're not finished with this, you know."

There was more than one meaning to that. Spike shrugged. "I know. So... same time tomorrow?"

She nodded. "I'm still mad at you."

He just looked at her. Reached up and removed her hand from his forehead, holding it in his own. In one swift stroke, dipped his head and licked his own blood from her thumb.

And looked up, and smiled. "Mutual."

Chapter Text

Tara padded down the hall. Her bare feet made no sound on the carpet, and every so often she halted, listening for any slight movement behind the closed doors. The house was eerily silent. She had always been an early riser, and the habit stood her in good stead now--in all likelihood, her opponent was still snuggled obliviously beneath her covers--

WHAM! Dawn's door flew open. Dawn shot out into the hallway, blue cotton nightgown whipping round her thin calves, and skidded through the bathroom door in front of Tara. "Yeah!" she whooped, bare feet beating out a victory dance on the tiles. "I win, you lose, I rule, you suck!"

"Dawn, I've got an early class today!"

Dawn pulled the shower door open, looking at Tara over her shoulder and batting dark lashes over those great big innocent blue eyes. "But I got here first. Dibs. It's the law. Besides, you guys have Mom's bathroom. Eww..." She made a face at the bottom of the tub. "Buffy! You left gross Slayer scum all over the bathtub!"

"Scrub it out," came Buffy's muffled and unsympathetic reply.

Dawn stamped a foot. "It's your scum!"

"So?" A moment later a tousle-haired Buffy emerged from her own room, muffled in a robe and yawning. "You keep claiming I'm not the Mom of you. I concede. Not the Mom, therefore, not in charge of housework. If my scum offends you, give me the shower first."

"And let you leave me twice as much scum? Besides, I'm faster. You take about ten years to wash your hair."

"Never bring your sister back from the dead if you aren't willing to embrace her hair care rituals. Move!"

"You move!"

Scuffling ensued. Tara sighed and turned back to the master bedroom to see if Willow was through with the bathroom there. She wasn't at all sorry they'd decided to move into Buffy's house. Renting Joyce Summers' old room was cheaper than the dorm and gave Buffy a much-needed source of income, and it was quieter and more private than the dorm too. Usually. Behind her the sound of Dawn shrieking "Ahhh! No fair!" and Buffy caroling "I rule, you suck!" rang through the hall. There were times when she could work up nostalgia for student housing.

Still... it was good to see Buffy engaged with the rest of the world this morning. Her flashes of connection were getting more frequent, and lasting longer. Maybe things would work out. Maybe they'd all been cosmically lucky, and there really would be no more serious consequences from Willow's spell. Maybe... the bedroom was buzzing. Tara stopped just outside the doorway with her hand on the knob, puzzled. The vibration wasn't entirely physical, and it made her fingertips tingle. She tightened her grip on the knob and turned it, apprehension in the set of her shoulders.

Opening the door revealed the low, penetrating hum to be of very worldly origin. Willow sat cross-legged in the middle of the floor, among the piles of schoolbooks and laundry and boxes they hadn't finished unpacking yet, wrapped up in a green silk robe. Her hair fanned across her shoulders like a fall of glowing embers in the morning light, and a huge old book bound in flaking brown calfskin lay open upon her lap, the pages bright with illuminated text in red and blue and gold. Her elfin face was set in concentration as she traced the words of a spell with one finger. The hum intensified as she did so.

"Willow?"

Her lover looked up, startled. The intricate patterns of power in the air shivered and dissolved, falling apart into nothing, and Willow's face fell with them. A wounded little "Oh!" escaped her lips. Willow closed the book and essayed a bright, painful smile. "Done with the shower."

Tara knelt and glanced briefly at the cover of the grimoire. Thaumaturgie Made Plaine. An old standard, full of cures for warts and spells for making chickens lay and love spells that didn't work. Easy, simple magics which shouldn't be any strain on Willow's recovering faculties. Nothing scary about this one, but Willow had promised her she'd wait before jumping back into magic. "Hon, I thought--weren't you going to wait on the spellcasting till I could monitor you? You could hurt yourself! Which spell were you doing?"

She didn't mean for her tone to be wary, or suspicious, or accusing. Maybe it wasn't any of those things; maybe it was only that the lingering tension between them had never quite dispelled since Willow had performed the Raising, or maybe it was part and parcel of her disappointment over the failed spell. Willow's brows slanted and her lips compressed to a thin angry line. "What, you didn't listen at the door long enough to tell?" She scrambled to her feet and skinned out of her robe, pulling clothes from the closet at random.

Tara winced. "I didn't mean--I was j-just wondering. I know you weren't really--" Most of the spells in that particular book required material components to cast; in speaking the words without them, Willow could only have been doing a dry run, a mental exercise. Not technically a violation of their agreement. And she'd messed it up at the first minor distraction, which made Tara all the more concerned that they stick to that agreement, but she could tell Willow wasn't in a mood to be reminded of that. Tara tugged on a strand of honey-colored hair, trying to come up with the right words. "It's just--are you sure you're ready?"

Willow grabbed a pair of jeans and began tugging them on. "Why doesn't--anyone--believe me? I'm fine! I've been fine for weeks! I've cast difficult spells before, and recovered just fine, and--and--" All of a sudden her face crumpled and a panicked sob escaped her. "It shouldn't be this hard!"

It only took a moment to rise to her feet and close the distance between them. Tara took the smaller woman in her arms and held her fiercely close while Willow clung to her and tried to still her jerky breathing. "Something's wrong," she moaned into Tara's shoulder. "I can still do the spells, but it's so hard! Even the easy ones! It used to be like... like breathing, I just did it, it just happened, and now I have to make it happen and I don't get it, nothing's changed, I still--"

"Shh, shh, it's all right," Tara crooned, stroking her hair. "You shut down a dimensional gate practically all by yourself, on sheer willpower. Or Will power." Willow managed a quavery smile. "It's only been a month. The aether out by the factory is still all shaken up. Is it any wonder you are, too? Give yourself time to heal."

She felt Willow take a deep shuddering breath and let it out. A moment later she pushed away slightly; in the morning light Tara could see the charcoal smudges of weariness around her eyes, lying just below the transparent porcelain of her skin. Beautiful had never seemed a sufficient word to describe Willow. Willow had something beyond beauty, some fey quality that caught at your heart from half-way across the room and drew you closer, desperate just to be near this creature whose every breath and movement scattered magic with careless generosity in her wake. For the first few months she'd known her, Tara had been terribly afraid that she'd wake up one morning and discover that Willow had only been a dream.

And she wasn't, of course--she was a living, breathing woman, stubborn and loving and heedless and brilliant, fearless with the courage of one who has never truly known defeat and terrifying for the same reason. "Maybe... maybe it's...better this way. That you slow down a little. You've been pushing yourself so hard all summer, and between slaying and school..."

Willow's eyes clouded. "The things we fight don't slow down."

"You can't save the world all by yourself." Tara put a finger beneath Willow's chin and lifted her head. "That's Buffy's job. And even she's got help."

A sigh. "Oh, all right, if you're going to use rational argument on me..." Willow cuddled into her shoulder. "I'll try to be less spazzy. Promise. But I still think--"

"Later," Tara said firmly. "Breakfast now."

*****

Dawn and Buffy were already in the kitchen when they came downstairs. It was a bright, sunny November morning. Willow winced. Pale clear light streamed in through the windows, and outside the sky was blue and the birds were probably singing, but thankfully Willow couldn't hear them. It was difficult to believe that this was a town situated over a Hellmouth. Except, of course, for the fact that at this minute she felt like hell. She only hoped that Tara wouldn't notice. Her eyes were gritty with the aftermath of her magical exercises, and there was a slow, sullen pounding in the back of her head. She would have gone over and pulled down the blinds to keep the stabby sunlight out, or at least asked Dawn to do it, except for the fact that then they'd have asked what was wrong, and she really didn't want to talk about it.

Dawn, seated across the kitchen table from her sister and looking far too bright and chipper to be allowed, was scarfing down Coco Puffs and reading the back of the cereal box. Buffy was stirring her own cereal, which was slowly disintegrating into chocolate gruel, in languid circles. She held up her spoon and let brown, gluey milk dribble back into the bowl, watching the drops fall with utter fascination. Looked like the connection with the world had some static in it.

"Are you going to eat that?"

Buffy started and blinked. "Oh." She looked down at her cereal. "I think it's left the realm of chocolate goodness and entered the realm of performance art."

"Waste not, want not," Dawn said from the safety of her cardboard defensive emplacement.

Buffy gave her a look, picked up the cereal bowl, went to the kitchen door, opened it and emptied the bowl into the flowerbed. "Not waste. Mulch." She came back and poured herself a new bowlful.

Was that old Buffy humor or new Buffy weirdness? Willow decided to assume the former and mustered a laugh. "Succinct, yet mildly disturbing." She eyed the Coco Puffs and decided against them. She didn't think she could face a sugar high right now. She opened the refrigerator and pawed through the contents--leftover macaroni and hotdog casserole, yuck, Buffy's stash of yogurt fruit cups, yuck, milk jug half-full of pig's blood for Spike, double yuck... bread. Boring squishy Wonder Bread. With which one could make toast. Bland, dry, boring toast. Yes. Bland was of the good.

Dawn and Buffy kept up a mild sisterly snipefest as she waited for the toast to pop, which would have been annoying except that it was such a relief to see Buffy reacting to things again. Dawn kept peering at her round the cereal box as if she couldn't quite believe she was having a normal argument with her bossy older sister.

"You seem to be in a good mood this morning, Buffy," Tara observed, coming in with the morning paper. Willow felt a surge of justification, balm after the last month, and even her magic-induced headache seemed to ease off. When even Tara had to admit the Raising had worked, had been, in the end, a good thing...

Buffy made a dismissive half-shrugging gesture. "Spike and I had a fight last night, and--"

"That's too bad--oh, cool! Look, here's the advertisement Anya put in for the Magic Box!" Dawn pulled the paper over to admire Anya's entrepreneurial genius as Tara gathered up her books. Tara kissed the top of Willow's head. "Byzantine history calls. See you later, sweetie."

"Bye." Willow sat down, maintaining a surreptitious watch on Buffy's expression--well, maybe, if surreptitious meant 'eyes glued anxiously to face while trying desperately to appear otherwise'. Improving? Not improving? Buffy gave her a flinchy, worried look and Willow forced herself to be cool. "Fight? I thought the two of you were getting on like gangbusters." She took a nervous bite of toast and swallowed it a little too quickly, coughing as the crumbs scratched her throat. "Though gangbusters, it does sound pretty fighty, doesn't it?"

"You didn't hit him again, did you?" Dawn asked accusingly. "It's totally not fair when he can't hit back."

"No, I did not hit him," Buffy said, taking a stab at her innocent coffee cup with a spoon, as if practicing staking moves. "We were in the middle of Willy's, and I'm not about to have a public fistfight with Fang-face. We just had... words."

Willow scraped margarine over her toast. Nothing like gossip to alleviate pain. "And these words filled your heart with chipperness? So, dish."

Buffy considered. "Not as such. It was just..." She made a vague swirly gesture with both hands. "...a non-revelation. Before the fight started I was happy and trying to figure out why I was happy, so I could, I don't know, use the scientific method to duplicate the process or something. And couldn't. I went to bed all worried about it last night, and when I woke up there was the answer. An answer. A thought, at least. It doesn't matter why. It just matters that I was--until Mr. Ooh-what-a-big-pair-of-fangs-I've-got had to go all contrary, anyway--because that means I can. And that means I will be. Sometimes. Which is all anyone gets, right? No one's happy all the time."

"That's... that's really great, Buffy. But..."

"The fight? It's complicated." She looked significantly at Willow. "I'llway elltay ouyay atway unchlay, enwhay Awnday's otnay aroundway otay efendday ethay annoyingway ampirevay."

Dawn rolled her eyes, the teenage personification of sarcasm. "Golly gee, I just don't know how you guys manage to hide your secrets so well. I am baffled, I tell you, baffled. Hey, if you were at Willy's, were the guys in back still playing for kittens? 'Cause I really wanted one and Spike said I'd have to--"

Buffy's eyes narrowed. "How do you know about Willy's back room?"

A flicker of alarm crossed her sister's face and disappeared in record time. Dawn shrugged, elaborately casual. "Spike must have mentioned it." She began shoveling spoonfuls of soggy chocolate into her mouth. "Gaw geh t' schoo."

"Did Spike take you to Willy's? You, underage human-type girl? Willy's, gross disgusting demon bar?" Buffy leaned forward over the table with a fair approximation of the look her mother used to use when grilling her about her own unsavory teenaged wandering. "If he took you to Willy's he is SO dust. Spike, stake. Stake, Spike."

Unfortunately Dawn was far more resistant to The Look than Buffy had ever been. Or maybe Buffy just wasn't doing it right--it was hard to wrap oneself in the cloak of quasi-parental authority with a spoonful of Coco Puffs in your hand. "Um, Buffy..." Willow pointed. Buffy looked down, confused. Her hair was dragging in the cereal. She jerked upright and swiped at the ends of her hair with a napkin.

Whatever the reason, Dawn's big innocent blue eyes simply got bigger, bluer, and more innocent, and she rolled them piously ceilingward as she grabbed her book bag and slung it over one shoulder. "Geez, Buffy, chill. You know I hung out with Spike a lot over the summer, while he was playing 'My bodyguard the vampire' all the time. We might have stopped at Willy's once or twice when he had to buy blood. Which would you rather, he take me inside with him or leave me in the parking lot by myself? Besides," she added, "who's calling who underage?"

"Excuse me, I'm almost twenty-one and legal in lots of states," Buffy retorted. "Just not this one. You are barely fifteen and... not. And stop changing the subject!"

Dawn didn't crack. She tucked her hair casually behind her ear and smiled a cool, superior smile. "I thought the subject was underage bar-hopping? Which one of us has been doing within the last twenty-four hours? That one not being me?" A horn sounded outside. "That's Lisa's mom. Can I go now, or are you going to play Spanish Inquisition some more?"

Buffy gave up and buried her nose in her coffee. "Oh, go to school." Dawn grabbed her book bag and bounced out the front door, Buffy frowned into her coffee cup and stirred in another packet of Sweet-N-Low. "I bet she's lying through her pearly white teeth. If I really want to know the details, I'll have to grill Spike. He's more crackable... of course, that would mean deliberately seeking out Spike. My interview's at ten. When do you want to meet for lunch?"

"Sociology lets out at eleven-thirty. Noon?"

"It is the traditional lunch hour, true. Can I see the paper a sec? Anya'll get all sniffly if I can't say I've seen her ad."

Willow handed her the community section. "Page six. Right next to that article about the guy that freaked out in the Espresso Pump."

"Freaked out in..." Buffy frowned and folded the paper in half, perusing the article more carefully. "This says it's just another of the rash of mysterious mental collapses over the last year... the last year? As in not stopping since Glory went away? This can't be good. Wills, we so need to talk--a bunch of non-Spikey non-fighty stuff came up last night that we're going to need you in on."

"Really?" Willow knew she sounded cranky but was too headachey to make the attempt to overcome it. "Cause last night, it sounded like not so much."

"Last night it was freakout, one, temporary. Willy's not exactly a well-beloved member of the community; anyone could have gotten torqued off and done a freakout spell on him." She tapped the newspaper article with a forefinger. "Now according to this it's freakouts, plague of, continuing long past the point they should have stopped. So Will, I hope you're right about being ready to make with the magic again. We're going need you."

*****

Buffy slid into the booth and set her purse down on the vinyl seat beside her with a sigh. The interview had gone... well, it had gone. She'd never interviewed well, and it didn't help that she hadn't wanted a job as office help at Sunnydale Affordable Mortgage and Loan in the first place. This was impossible. She not only had to find a job that would support her and Dawn, but one which had flexible enough hours to allow for vampire slaying and occasional world saveage. Getting herself up in office drag, plastering a fake smile over her face and talking with the interviewer about actualizing her goals and being a team player was... surreal. 'Previous experience. One three-month stint as a waitress, six apocalypses averted. Last night I beat up three demons, killed two vampires and almost kissed a third... What was that noise? Oh, nothing, just the superego pounding the id with a mallet again...

The situation wasn't panic-worthy yet; they had the tail end of Mom's life insurance and the money from the sale of the gallery, and the child support checks for Dawn still arrived regularly from their father's bank. As a last resort, she could tuck her tail between her legs and appeal to said father, not that she had any intention of doing so save as an absolute last resort. They weren't going to starve in the streets, but she hated, hated, hated having to agonize over whether or not she'd been right to run out this morning and blow some of The Budget on a re-stock of decent makeup. She'd rationalized it as a purchase that would help her on Employment Quest, but she was well aware that it was a rationalization.

"Hey," said Willow breathlessly, sliding into the seat across from her. "Sorry I'm late. Professor Sorenson had this three-page hand-out, and there was this unfortunate collating incident. "So what's up that you didn't want Dawn to hear?"

Buffy looked carefully around the café. The lone waitress was attending to another table and everyone around them seemed to be absorbed with their own lunchtime travails. She leaned forward and placed both palms flat on the table. "Rule Number One, no freaking."

Willow looked a little uneasy, but nodded. "Agreed. Designated freak-free zone starts here."

"Rule Number Two... I can't think of a Rule Number Two, but it sounded silly to have a Rule Number One all by itself." Babbling. You're babbling. Stop it. Willow will get you for trademark infringement . She took a deep breath. "OK, Will, I know you're with Tara now and all, but you still... um... notice guys, right?"

"I'm an equal opportunity noticer," Willow said, cautious. "Though any conclusions drawn from the noticing are purely academic."

Buffy rubbed the base of her right thumb, trying to ignore the sense-memory of that cool agile tongue flicking over her skin, soft and wet but not too wet... "So... if I said I'd started to notice that Spike's, um, nice-looking in certain lights, would you consider me completely insane?"

"Uh..." Willow rubbed her nose, perplexed, but was saved from immediate response by the arrival of the waitress. "Tuna salad sandwich on rye, and can I get it with the little froofy things on the toothpicks? Those things are so cool... What do you want, Buff? I still get parental subsidies, I'm buying."

"Caesar salad, dressing on the side." Buffy watched the departing waitress suspiciously, then turned back to her friend. "So, would you?"

Willow stared at her for a long moment, and to Buffy's everlasting gratitude did not ask if she were under another spell. "I'd consider you insane if you didn't think Spike was nice-looking in certain lights. You just now noticed this?"

"Yes. I mean, no. I mean... in the abstract. Spike's... nice-looking." In the lean, panthery, drop-dead-gorgeous sense of 'nice'. "It's just that the looks of Spike are pretty much irrelevant given the soulless-killerness of Spike, and until... well... right this minute... the back of my mind looked like the end of that Indiana Jones movie, with rows and rows of neatly crated wrong lusty Spike thoughts stretching off to infinity, and now for some reason they're starting to break out of the crates. And worse?" She leaned forward, her eyes gone wide and tragic. "I think... I think I'm starting to... like him."

"I can see where that would be unsettling," Willow said, poker-faced.

Buffy sat back and folded her arms across her chest, pouting. "This isn't funny, Will! I was having fun last night! The kind of fun I have with you guys. Spike's not allowed in the Buffy Fun Club. Or he shouldn't be."

A busboy appeared and deposited ice water and napkins. Willow picked up her glass, slurped up an ice cube and began crunching it noisily. "Why not? We didn't exactly spend the summer ignoring him. It wasn't unknown for Spike to engage in extracurricular Bronzing with us, and he and Xander had that whole dueling CDs thing going for awhile--" She dissolved into little snorts of laughter. "You should have--he--with the Patsy Cline, and the expression on Spike's face--"

"A laugh riot, but you had to be there?"

Willow wiped her eyes, looking guilty. OK, maybe a little heavy on the irony there, Buff. "Um, yeah. And Giles--Giles is all mad at us now because of the whole..." Her eyes slid away from Buffy's and glued themselves to a spot on the tabletop, and she began twisting her paper napkin into a corkscrew. "..return from the dead thing, but there were, you know, definite signs of restrained British bonding before that."

"Oh." Buffy propped her chin on her fist and frowned. "Did you know Spike likes poetry?"

This proved sufficient to distract Willow from the mutilation of her napkin. Her brows quirked. "He never told me so in so many words, but he was helping me catch up with my Western Lit when I was out of school for that week--" Right after you brought me back from the dead, but let's not go there, "--and no one knows that much about archy and mehitabel if they don't like poetry. Plus he helped Dawn with her English while she was in summer school. You knew that. Didn't you?"

"Oh. Again." Buffy felt vaguely disconcerted. She'd been getting rather fond of the idea that she'd discovered something about Spike that no one else knew. "I haven't been noticing things very well lately. The things I should notice, anyway."

"Look, Buff, have you ever considered that maybe these noticings are connected somehow? Spike's gotten... um..."

"Much less homicidal?"

"That's a good way of putting it. I don't know if he'll ever be all the way good, but he's... not bad. You saw how mad Giles and Tara were at both of us after we... you know... but neither one of us got shown the door and asked never to darken his doorstep again. Maybe it's just because Giles still needs us to finish up that big interview paper thingy I'm helping him with, but the point is we both get to stick around and get yelled at. Spike's one of us now." She stopped and looked at Buffy curiously. "That was what you wanted, wasn't it?"

"Yes... yes, it was. I just... I never thought about it involving... me." Buffy frowned and stirred her slowly melting ice cubes while Willow squirmed slightly. The food arrived. Buffy speared a lettuce leaf and let her fork hover over the dressing for a second, then sighed and popped the greenery into her mouth bare. Those nachos last night had probably contained a million calories, all migrating straight to her hips at this moment. All Spike's fault; probably some weird vampire ability to divine that cheese was her culinary downfall.

Willow interrupted her musings. "Maybe your crates are breaking open because you're starting to like him. Because you can start to like him, because he's turning into someone likeable. And you're not insane, because the rest of us are liking him too." She grinned. "Some more than others, of course."

"I guess that makes sense." Buffy wrinkled her nose. "I'm new improved Clue-Free Buffy with thirty percent less insight. I'll deal. Now we get to the exciting post-fun argument." Willow clasped her hands in front of her and looked expectant. "While we were at Willy's, we got drinks--seltzer, seltzer!--and I was going to charge them to the Council as a slaying expense. Giles said if he couldn't get me a salary then we could at least do a little creative accounting with his. And Spike ordered human blood, of course, and I didn't even think to call him on it until he tried to get take-out later. Then I said I wasn't going to pay for it, and told him to take it back, and he got mad, and I got mad, but my moral high ground was severely eroded from not having objected right away, and then we got distracted by demons, and... other things... and--DAMMIT, he ended up taking the stuff home after all!" Buffy smacked the table and the silverware jumped.

"Welll..." Willow appeared torn. "The human blood thing is of the bad, technically, but it's not like he gets it very often, and...honestly? We've kind of looked the other way when he does. It doesn't seem to, um, affect him for the worse, if you know what I mean--not like he chugs a bag and gets all nostalgic for killing people."

"Maybe," Buffy grumbled, "but it's still wrong."

"I don't see the problem," Willow said. "Angel drank bagged people blood all the time. He had a whole fridge full. Of course he had a lot more money than Spike does..."

Buffy fixed Willow with an evil glare. What was up with this using of reason and logic? "Angel never rubbed my nose in it." Uncomfortable silence. "All right, I admit it, I'm wigging unduly over something that never wigged me before, and do you know why? I hope so, because I don't."

"I don't think it's that difficult, Buffy. You've got an incredibly hot guy who's head over heels for you and he just happens to be a vampire. Think back to the last time this happened."

"Whoa." Buffy held up both hands. "So not going there."

"Exactly! Last time you fell for a vampire the world almost ended. And with the chip, potential Spike-related heartbreak abounds if it ever goes blooey. So naturally you're going to try to avoid it happening again, and hence, the wig."

"But it's not! I am nowhere near falling for Spike. I merely find him somewhat attractive in a purely academic, non-touchy sense, and if I can go back to avoiding thinking about it, everything will be exactly the way it used to be."

"Except that you used to hate him and now you like him."

"And that makes everything complicated and annoying." Buffy stabbed vindictively at her salad. "This is the badness that comes of liking vampires. It never happened with Angel." Uncomfortable silence. "Not that I didn't like Angel. I loved Angel." The even more uncomfortable memory of a night three years gone, standing at Angel's side in the Magic Box, while Spike's contemptuous North London voice drawled You'll never be friends ... "OK, 'like' could never fit into the same room with me and Angel, given that all the space was taken up by buckets of romantic angst, and--that's it, Will!" She thumped the table again and Willow grabbed her water glass. "I shouldn't run from this whole friend thing, I should embrace it, because friendship equals death to romantic weirdness!"

"When did romance make an entrance?" Willow asked. Buffy paid no attention.

"Spike. Friend. Yes. The perfect solution. It'll be just like me and Xander. Slaying partners. Talking buddies. No more noticing of--" Electric blue eyes that crinkle when he smiles and knife-edge cheekbones and expressive, deadly hands and the intriguing twitch of muscles beneath that ubiquitous black t-shirt and we don't go any lower than that because Spike absolutely, positively does not exist below the belt buckle and the memory of his reaction to you squirming around on his lap under the influence of that engagement spell which by the way was ALSO all Willow's fault never, EVER kept you up at night-- "--stuff. The thing is, just because I can notice doesn't mean I should be. Spike's... he doesn't care about people, Will. About me, about Dawn, about the rest of you, yeah. But about Willy, or some random guy on the street? No. He can't. No soul. And what's it say about me if I... accept someone like that as--as..."

"A friend?" Willow said quietly.

Buffy moaned and dropped her forehead to the table, narrowly avoiding her side bowl of dressing. She sat back up straight and said with great determination, "Freakouts. We're going to talk about freakouts now. We need to know how many of them there've been since last spring. Can you find that out for me?"

Willow nodded, looking pleased. "I can do a search of the newspaper's archives tonight, and maybe hack into the hospital admissions records and the police's missing persons files--well, no, that's so huge it would be pointless. When do you need it?"

She looked so eager that Buffy was tempted to say "Fifteen minutes" and see what happened. A guilty pang went through her. She'd been avoiding Willow, she knew that, and now that she was starting to get a grip on the world again, she was beginning to feel bad about it. "The sooner the better. Let me know when you've got the info and we'll rally the troops." A thought struck her. "Do you know what happened to the rest of Glory's crazies?"

Willow shook her head. "No. We were distracted. They just wandered off, I guess. We could check at the hospital, or..."

"Of course," said Buffy, resigned. "My favorite place in all the world. Hospital it is. You said you were ready to fire up the spells again. You're sure about that?"

There was the barest hesitation before Willow nodded again. "I am. What do you need?"

"For a start, the spell you cured Tara with. I have a feeling we're going to need it."

*****

Evening. Thursday. On Thursday he checked the others. Always the first thing.

Tanner scrambled over the piles of refuse, shards and pieces of other people's lives, other people's minds. Avoid the caretaker's trailer, touch the rusted "No Private Dumping" sign, follow the barbed wire fence back along its snarled length to the cluster of sheet-metal and cardboard hovels hidden from view by the mounds of trash. Some of the others were out already, gathered around a fire in an old oil drum. Still more were hidden away inside their lairs. He could feel them, all of them connected inside by the fingers crawling from mind to mind, hunting and never finding. Dana, Ronnie, Jim. The Rabbit Guy. Blondie. Their eyes followed him as he passed by, wary, scared, madder than his own. He counted them off one by one. Fourteen. The list had been longer once, then shorter, and now it was longer again. That was good. Meant he was doing his job.

"I'm hungry, Tanner," Blondie whined at him. He didn't answer her. Food wasn't his problem. She'd chewed off the Press-On nails again and her fingertips looked raw and bloody. Stupid. You could be crazy in Sunnydale and live, but not stupid. Walk around smelling of fresh blood and the list would be one name shorter, if not tonight then soon. He didn't care...

"Ah, shit," he muttered. If the list got shorter he was a bad person. "Ronnie, do we have band-aids?"

Ronnie, small and grey and balding, ceased his rocking back and forth on the upturned paint can and shook his head.

"All right. I'll get some. Can you take her over to..." Where? "The One Small Step headquarters? We haven't hit them for a month. Get her hands cleaned up."

Ronnie nodded and looked at the ground. Went back to rocking. Tanner sighed. He could feel it slipping away, what he'd taken, fizz fizz fizz in little green sparks leaking out of eyes and ears and dribbling from his mouth with every word spoken. Time again. The Rabbit Guy started screaming. Oh, yeah. Way past time.

Tanner headed back towards the exit from the dump, following the winding path beaten by the sanitation trucks. "Get people together, Ronnie. We're hunting tonight."

Chapter Text

The roar of the motorcycle's engine reverberated through the endless tunnels of stone. Her body pressed tightly against his back, the only spot of life in the stygian darkness, warming him even through the leather. Warmth, but no softness was left in her; she was slim and hard and deadly, the strength of her arms wrapped round his waist like steel. Terribly strong, and terribly fragile. He wanted to turn around and hold her in return, but they weren't out of the tunnel yet, and looking back would ruin everything. He kept his eyes fixed on the stony floor of the cavern as they rode along, weaving in and out between forests of stalagmites. How long had it been? He couldn't remember, and he was getting hungry.

"We could stop for a bite, love!" he shouted, but she couldn't hear him over the engine noise. But then, he knew she didn't want him to bite, so maybe she was just ignoring him. Demonic fury boiled up in his breast and he felt his face shifting, but there was no one but himself to fight.

She sobbed against him. She only cried when there was no one to see. His anger evaporated, and he pointed ahead, to where pale light blossomed at the end of the tunnel. "Look, love, there's the end. We'll be outside soon."

Her silent, awful weeping continued, and he knew with sinking certainty that it was the prospect of escape that tormented her. And he knew what he had to do. He twisted in the seat in one of those contortions possible only in dreams. He had one glimpse of her face, of the quiet, terrible sorrow in her eyes transmuting to relief and peace, before his fangs met in her neck and she faded away into nothing, disappearing like mist in sunlight.

Thump.

Spike jolted awake, the dream shredding as the waking world intruded on his senses. He lay motionless beneath the blankets, locked in place by a tension as deep and cold as permafrost, and wished his heart could still pound, just for the relief of feeling it slow again. He forced himself to draw a deep breath and relax, muscle by muscle. After a moment he rolled over and peered over the side of the bed. The haphazard pile of books and magazines accumulated there had collapsed of its own weight again, precipitating a minor paper-slide. He regarded the mess, then sighed and tossed the fallen volumes back on the heap. He should shovel it all back onto the bookshelf, though it was hard to see the point since the whole lot would inevitably migrate back again within a week.

He lay back and folded his arms behind his head, frowning up at the canopy overhead. If he had to dream about the Slayer, couldn't his subconscious have obliged with something more entertaining than this half-arsed testament to an obsolete classical education? Spike threw off the covers with a low, irritated growl and got up. His internal clock informed him that it was approaching four in the afternoon. Bugger. He'd overslept and missed Passions. He flipped on the light to dress--habit, nothing more, since he could see perfectly well in the pitch darkness--and wrestle his hair into some sort of order.

Part of the dream had been straightforward enough. His stomach rumbled as he climbed the stairs to the upper level of the crypt, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the late afternoon light. He ambled over to the fridge and surveyed the contents: A few swallows of pig's blood in a styrofoam take-out cup, the bagged blood he'd obtained last night, a half-empty bottle of black olives, and a scraped-dry jar of crunchy peanut butter. There was Weetabix on top of the fridge, but when he tilted the box it contained only a thin layer of crumbs at the bottom. Time for a grocery run, then. He felt around in the pockets of his jeans and came up with a grand total of twelve dollars and fifty-three cents. That might cover a pack of fags and a pint or two, but just barely.

"Spike, old mate, a spot of dishonest toil looks to be in order." He considered his options. He could go down to the Bronze and hustle pool, or better yet over to one of the bars near the UC Sunnydale campus--too many people knew him at the Bronze, and marks were getting harder to come by. Or he could just lift a few wallets, though the chip made that risky if he got caught. Or he could try heading over to Buffy's place and cadging breakfast there--he ended up at the Summers' residence often enough these days that Dawn had added pig's blood to their regular shopping list... but somehow after last night that had a riskier feel to it than unarmed robbery. "Or you could just drink your brekky and stop whinging. There's an idea." He pulled out one of the bags of blood and the old 'Kiss the Librarian' coffee mug he'd acquired from Giles, and started to bite off the corner.

And hesitated, plastic between his teeth. Buffy wouldn't like you doing that. Amber flecks coalesced in his eyes and dissolved again. After a moment he growled softly, bit down and tugged. "Sod what Buffy likes." And stopped. Pull the other one, you great nance. You know bloody well you're going to roll over and do whatever she wants you to in the end, so why not just hand her your balls on a platter right now and be done with it?

He set the bag down on top of the refrigerator and glared at it as if it were the author of his troubles. "Right, and what did she ask you to do, exactly? Take the blood back so the shop wouldn't have to pay for it. Moot point now, innit? Drink up." He picked the bag up. Set it down again. Clasped both hands behind his back and began pacing restlessly. But you know bleeding well what she meant. Of course he did. "Never enough for her, is it? Can't kill, can't feed, gotten so pathetically attached to a sodding lot of humans that you're beginning not to want to, and she still wants more?" Spike came to a halt, shoulders tensed, then whirled and pounced. He grabbed the bag in both hands and sank his teeth directly into it with a feral snarl. Squoosh . His teeth didn't puncture the plastic.

He'd forgotten to shift into game face.

"AAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRGGHH!" Spike slammed the bag back down on the fridge. He grabbed the coffee mug and with grim deliberation slit the corner of the blood bag and poured it in. He stalked over to the nearest chair, flung himself down, and took a defiant swallow. Oh, yeeeesss. Rich. Savory. Life itself. Infinitely better than pig's blood.

Still... it would've been better with Weetabix to go with.

And it was ice cold, and tainted with the medicinal tang of anticoagulants. Couldn't compare to what it tasted like pumping warm and fresh from a still-living throat, and Spike had long since accepted that he was never going to taste that particular flavor of bliss again, even if, someday, the damned chip finally wore out. He set the mug down, lit a cigarette, and took a contemplative drag. Would it, really, be that much of a hardship to give up this occasional treat if it would make her...

"Not. One. More. Word." He took another swallow and glared into the mug, daring it to talk back. Buffy'd never asked him to make any of the changes he'd gone through in the last year. For most of the time they'd known one another, she'd been adamant that he couldn't change. In a strange way last night indicated she'd accepted that he had. That he could. And that... that was both exhilarating and terrifying. Easy enough to follow the path the chip in his skull prodded him down, and convince himself he had no choice. To keep following that path of his own volition...

To his vast relief, someone started pounding on the door of the crypt.

*****

Xander stood in the long shadows outside the crypt, listening to the echoes of his door-pounding die away inside the crypt and fidgeting. Bad idea, coming here. It was just that all his other ideas were worse. It had been almost a month since he'd exchanged more than a cursory word on patrol with Spike, and he was feeling distinctly awkward. He ran over what he was going to say in his head for the dozenth time. Not apologizing. Definitely not. Nothing to apologize for, and who apologized to demons who conned your best friend into raising your other best friend from the dead anyhow? Spike ought to be apologizing to them, damn it! Especially Buffy! Oh, wait, he already had. Damn.

He could hear intermittent snatches of conversation from within the crypt, no words, just the low, accented rasp of Spike's voice. He pounded on the door again. He had just about decided that the lack of response meant that Spike really did have other company when the wrought-iron door flew open with a bang. Spike's pale face appeared, sporting a ferocious scowl and a half-smoked cigarette dangling from his lower lip. He looked thoroughly pissed off. No shock there; pissed off was Spike's ground state. "Oh, it's you, is it? What the bloody hell's wrong with you, knocking instead of barging in like you own the place?" the vampire snarled.

"Because barging in on you usually results in seared eyeballs. I heard voices. Or rather, voice. Harmony back, or are you practicing pick-up lines on another robot?"

Spike affected boredom. "Long walk, short pier, Alexander Harris. Mix well."

"Ooh, tetchy." Xander peered over the vampire's shoulder. He hadn't been to the crypt in almost a month, and in the blue shadows of late afternoon the interior looked different. The big marble sarcophagus still loomed at the end of the room, and the old black and white television and the mini-fridge were familiar, but the ratty overstuffed armchair and attendant packing crates had given way to a scattering of less dilapidated chairs, chests and low tables. Over the summer Spike had taken the fit to 'stop living like a bloody anchorite' and had flung himself into dragging home all manner of scavenged furniture and appliances. Xander had actually helped him move some of the larger pieces in downstairs, but since Buffy's return... "At times like this I find it helpful to break out the sock puppets. Then you merely look geeky rather than insane."

"Well, yeh, if that's your goal I'd say you've succeeded admirably." He glanced down at the bag in Xander's hand, nostrils twitching. "What do you want?"

"Who says want? I just happened to be in the neighborhood..." Spike looked at him. Not buying it. Xander hunched his shoulders. This was going to be hell. "Look, right after Buffy came back, I was... Things got said... not that they weren't perfectly justified things, but..." Xander grit his teeth and forced himself to continue, "If Buffy can... then I guess I... Sanctuary?"

A demon of mirth flickered to life in Spike's eyes and the corners of his mouth acquired a wicked curl. "Let me guess. The demon bird's got some less than manly wedding-related activity on the schedule."

Xander passed his free hand over his eyes and groaned. "She wants me to look at flower arrangements."

"Squealing in girlish glee at the prospect, no doubt."

"There was some vocalization in the ultrasonic, yeah. So I told her I'd love to, but I'd already made plans."

"Ahhhh. Let me further guess: none of your mates from work are available?"

Xander feigned deep interest in the weeds growing along the edge of the doorway and kicked at the doorpost of the crypt. "Fishing trip." At Spike's raised eyebrow he clarified, "I don't deal well with bait. Besides, I do the Blair Witch thing on a daily basis. Who needs to travel to the piney woods for creepy near-death experiences when I can stroll over to your place?"

Spike took a drag on his cigarette and flicked ash in Xander's general direction. "And therefore you're thrown back on the company of the soul-challenged bloke you swore you were never going to speak to again?"

Xander heaved a resigned sigh. "It's that or go visit my parents. And frankly, given a choice between a bloodsucking creature of the night and my family..." He made an 'eh' gesture with his free hand. "It's a close call."

Spike folded his arms and leaned against the doorway. "Care to explain why exactly I ought to take pity on you, me bein' evil and all?"

Xander held up the paper bag and waggled it. Sauce was beginning to soak through the bottom. "I brought wings."

The vampire cocked his head to one side, obviously enjoying Xander's discomfiture, and allowed the wicked quirk of his lips to blossom into a full-blown smirk. "Well, why didn't you say so? Lassie come home, all is forgiven."

Xander followed him inside and kicked the door shut behind him. "I still hate you, y'know."

"Right, I'll keep it in mind. Did they come with those little carrot things?"

"It's not that I don't love her to pieces," Xander said, setting the bag of wings down on the nearest table and flopping into an adjacent chair. Spike made the noise which meant he was pretending to be interested and produced a bowl from somewhere to put the carrot sticks in. "I mean, I'm marrying her, right? But she drives me absolutely insane sometimes. Normally Anya's up front about everything--that's one reason I love her, right? No guessing games. But for some reason this whole wedding thing has turned her into a space alien. I know if I hang around and let her turn the puppy eyes on me I'll end up spending the whole evening debating the merits of the Spring Mist Arrangement over the Daffodil Rhapsody. If I don't venture an opinion she'll get hurt because I don't care about the flowers, and if I do venture an opinion she'll get upset because we don't agree on the flowers. I'm convinced that come the wedding I'm going to enter a fugue state about the same time I enter the church and will remember nothing anyway, so what do I care what the flowers look like? It would make life so much easier if she'd just say 'Here, Xander, this is what I want. Do it now,' instead of expecting me to agonize over something I really don't give a hoot about."

Spike collapsed in the chair opposite and picked up his mug of blood. He looked ruefully at it for a moment, set it down and went over to the refrigerator. He returned with a styrofoam container full of what was, to all appearances, identical blood, and dipped a carrot stick into it. "Bearing in mind that I'll torture you to death with a barbecue fork if you repeat this... Harris, minus the flowers, I know exactly how you feel."

*****

"School newspaper?" Buffy asked.

Willow scrunched down in her seat and hugged her notebook to her chest. The waiting room couch made a loud obnoxious squeaking noise every time either of them moved. "I panicked." She shot an anxious glance at the door through which the secretary (whose desk nameplate proclaimed her Mrs. Finster) had disappeared. "There is a college newspaper. The Sun. Which, you know, makes sense in Sunnydale. And I did think about taking some journalism classes once." She expected Buffy to make a smart remark at that, but Buffy only nodded, and after a brief moment of inspecting her nails, went back to looking at the spot on the far wall which housed the 'Scenic Views of the Rockies' calendar. Whether or not she noticed the calendar itself was subject to debate.

She was a million miles away again, her eyes grave and distant, staring into eternity as if it were the face of an old friend. Willow tried to keep the dismay out of her own expression. She'd been so... so Buffy this morning, and at lunch, but some time in the intervening hours while Willow was off at her afternoon classes it had all disappeared. It had been a big mistake, bringing her here, Willow decided. Hospitals gave Buffy the wiggins under the best of circumstances. And who could blame her? It was all linoleum floors waxed to a scary degree of gloss, and tubes and bedpans and machines that went ping. Even here in the administrative offices the smell of antiseptic and illness underscored every breath they took. With all that had happened in the last year, her mother's death, the plague of crazy people, Ben's betrayal... the whole medical profession was probably on the permanent blacklist for the Buffy Fun Club. The sooner they got out of here the better.

The door across the office opened and Mrs. Finster returned with a folder full of printouts. She trotted over to her desk, fussing with her frizzed hair--she reminded Willow of an elderly and slightly overweight poodle--and spread them out, examining them with a critical eye. "I think this may be the kind of thing you'd find useful for your article. You understand that I can't give you any individual patient information, dearie--that's confidential."

Willow nodded vigorously. "Oh, I know. We're just looking for general trends, you know, how the stresses of modern life affect mental health and, um, healthlessness. Anything you can give us will be just spiffy."

"Are they still here?" Buffy asked abruptly.

Mrs. Finster's severely plucked brows fluttered upwards. "Who?"

"The people in those files. The..." She stopped, clasping her hands together tightly--fearful, perhaps, that they'd escape her. "My mother was... she stayed here for several weeks last winter. There was a whole ward then, of people who'd just... lost it. Are they still here? Can we see them? Talk to them?"

"Oh, heavens, no, we're not a long-term care facility, dearie." Buffy gave her that look of special loathing reserved for total strangers who call you dearie, but Mrs. Finster chose not to notice. "We can't afford to tie up that number of beds. The only reason we had all of them as long as we did was because the CDC was investigating, trying to determine the cause of the outbreak... though they never found anything, so you can't really call it an outbreak, now... most of them were released to the custody of their families, or..." She cleared her throat delicately. "You might want to contact the Social Services people, or perhaps the county hospital--they usually deal with indigent cases."

"You mean they just got... kicked out?"

Mrs. Finster's sweet rosy mouth pursed and she looked quite fearsome for a moment. "Certainly not. I don't know what rumors you've heard, but I can assure you that all of them went through normal checkout procedures. I'm afraid that if you want to discuss the incident last winter you'll have to speak to our lawyers."

"Lawyers?" Buffy looked blank. Willow rose hurriedly to her feet, causing the couch to emit a mournful plasticine screech, and scooped up the folder from Mrs, Finster's desk before she could change her mind.

"That won't be necessary, sorry to take so much of your time, c'mon, Buffy, time to go stop the presses and put the ol' issue to bed!" She took Buffy's arm and all but dragged her out of the woman's office. Buffy shook her off the moment they were out the door and stood in the middle of the hall, rubbing her arm. Willow tried to catch her eye. "Buff, think about it. They had a dozen physically healthy patients die in one swell foop when that Quellor demon got them, and then a month or two later another couple dozen just up and disappear, and plus the one the Knights of Byzantium broke out under their noses. There's probably half a dozen malpractice lawsuits pending against them right this minute. We know they went to go help Glory build her giant diving board, but I bet the hospital's board of directors wouldn't be jumping with joy even if they did know what really happened. They're going to be really, really testy if we get too nosey-Parker."

Buffy said nothing, standing there in the sterile white corridor with that little half-frown on her face--trying to remember what planet she was on on Fridays. Willow felt an overwhelming sense of frustration. It had all been so good this morning... "Buffy?"

"Hmm? Oh. You're right, I didn't think..." She looked around and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "We should go," she said, and then, so softly Willow could scarcely catch the words, "I hate this place..." She started off down the hallway and Willow hurried after her, trying to stuff the folder into her notebook without dropping its contents all over the floor.

She caught up with Buffy at the elevator, and looked from her to the lighted button on the wall. Buffy looked up at her approach and for a moment was there again, her eyes big and urgent. "Can you fix them?"

Willow glanced at the elevator buttons. "I think it just takes awhile for the car to get here--"

"No... the crazies. You fixed Tara. Could you do it for the others?"

"Sure." The reassurance was an automatic thing, spoken without thought--of course she could fix them. Memory of the spell she'd lost control of earlier nibbled at the edges of her confidence, and Willow pushed it aside. "I mean... probably. Depending." Painfully aware that she sounded nervous and feeble, Willow tried another tack. "The thing is, Glory's not around any more, and--"

The elevator binged at them and the doors slid ponderously apart. The two of them got on and Willow pressed the 'Lobby' button. Buffy bit gently on her thumbnail as the doors closed and the car lurched into motion, and watched as the warm orange glow of the floor indicator traveled steadily downwards. She didn't look at Willow as she spoke, but there was an impassioned note in her voice that was both encouraging and a little disturbing. "It's important, Will. Spike said some things last night...maybe he can't care about people in general, but we should. We're in the world-saving biz, right? But who are we saving it for? It can't be just us. It can't be. When I need a vampire to remind me of that there's something seriously wrong."

Willow bit her lip. "When I fixed Tara I had Glory right there. I was able to suck Tara's essence right out of Glory's head and put it back into Tara's. Glory's gone, so--" She waved one hand to indicate the enormity of the problem. "All the essence she sucked out of people are gone too. And whatever's still doing it? Not Glory. So I can't even be sure that the same spell would work. On whatever it is." She laughed nervously. "Of course I could try Raising Ben and see if that would get us Glory back, but you guys seemed to frown on that--"

"Don't," Buffy said, her voice so flat and dead that Willow flinched. A second later the chill had vanished, replaced by anxious entreaty. "But you can find another spell, right? Are you saying you can't fix them?"

"No, I didn't say that! But you need to give me some time to work on it! There are... complications." The elevator clanked to a stop and the doors opened on a short hallway leading to the main lobby. In stark contrast to the quiet order of the administrative offices, the corridor was full of people: an intern striding by in scrubs, two nurses with clipboards arguing about whether or not Jessica was really going to leave Eric for Rocky, an orderly pushing an elderly black man in a wheelchair. A small horde of visitors, a whole family's worth of children, harried parents, and argumentative in-laws, trooped up to the elevator and clustered around the "You Are Here" building diagram, trying to determine if this was the green or the blue wing.

"Too bad you didn't try to find them over the summer," Buffy said as they wound their way past the line at the information desk. "If you had, you might have a spell which would work on them by now."

Something inside her, grown thin and brittle over the last month full of awkward silences and accusing glances, snapped. Two paces before the doors, Willow bridled, rounding on Buffy in a fury. "Well, I'm sorry, but I was wasting my time helping Giles track down your Dad, and convincing my parents to keep Dawn until we found him, and beating off Social Services, and planning your funeral and keeping Angel and Spike from killing each other during it and, oh yeah, slaying vampires and fighting demons and excess Knights of Byzantium in my copious spare time though why I bothered since Spike the Perfect was on the job--maybe because someone can't go traipsing around in full sunlight or, I don't know, fight humans without collapsing in agony, and oh, yeah, making sure you didn't get brought back as someone's mind-controlled zombie, though I'm beginning to think you'd be happier that way!" She didn't bother trying to keep the hurt and bitterness out of her voice now. "Open!" She flung the word at the front doors like a weapon, and they flew outwards as she stormed through, smashing into the shrubbery outside. That was more like it. That was what magic ought to feel like.

She strode out into the gathering twilight, trying to lose herself in the automotive maze of the hospital parking lot. For a moment Buffy stood dumbfounded, and then Willow heard her footsteps on the pavement behind her as she broke into a run to catch up. "Willow! Willow, wait!" Buffy took a shortcut over the top of an SUV and leaped to the ground in front of her. "Willow, I didn't mean--"

But she didn't sound apologetic; she sounded tired and irritated, like a mother dealing with a sulky child. Willow's hands curled into fists. "You know, I could understand it if you were mad at all of us. But with Dawn you're fine. With Spike you're fine. It's just with me that you act like I'm some horrible person you're forced to deal with. You were my best friend of the girl variety, Buffy! And now you're a total stranger and you hate me and I was trying to do the right thing, darn it!"

Buffy's eyes closed, squeezing shut against the words, and her whole body tensed against some coming blow. "I know that," she said, very softly. "I don't hate you, any of you. But... you didn't do the right thing. You did a wrong thing. You destroyed a soul to get me back--"

"That was Spike's choice!"

"And Spike is so rational on the subject," Buffy snapped. "Maybe it's easier with Dawn because she didn't know all about what the two of you were up to. She's a kid. She's supposed to do stupid--"

"And since Spike is a century older than any of us, he gets a free ride for senility?"

Buffy's eyes opened again. "No," she said, her voice clipped. "Spike gets a free ride for saying the magic words."

"And those would be?"

"'I was wrong, and I'm sorry.'"

"Oh, peachy doodle!" Willow flung up both hands. "Listen to yourself, Buffy! Not six hours ago you were all 'I can't think he's got a cute tush because, the morals of it all!' You know why he's sorry? Because you're unhappy to be back. That's it, that's all, finito, the end. Look, I'm pro-Spike, honest. He's the nicest evil dead guy I know. But you said it yourself, he doesn't care about the morals. And I do care, but my morals don't match up with yours, so I'm awful and Spike's a saint? Pardon me if I think the cuteness of Spike's tush is a bigger factor in how you're treating us both than you want to admit!"

At that moment the automatic lights in the parking lot flicked on all around them, and the two of them were haloed in a multitude of long shadows, vying for space on the asphalt and echoing their every move. Buffy's hand closed on the side view mirror of the SUV and there was a crunching noise, as of metal deforming under pressure, and the brittle snap of glass cracking. "I'm going to forget you said that." If the humidity had been any higher, icicles would have formed on her words. "You want to know why I've been avoiding you, Will? I'll tell you. Because it's exhausting being around you. You want me to be fine so badly it hurts, 'cause that means you did good, even if I won't admit it. And I... I love you, so I keep trying to be fine. For you, and for Dawn, and for Xander and Giles--" The intensity of emotion in her voice was frightening now, after so many weeks of detachment. Tears rolled down her cheeks. "But I can't be fine all the time, and Spike accepts that! He doesn't sit there giving me the 'Are you OK now, Buffy? What about now? Still OK? Sure?' looks when I'm not. It's that simple."

"I'm sure you've convinced yourself of that," Willow said, matching the chill degree for degree. She took a fresh grip on her notebook. "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got... things. Things to do." With an angry swipe at her own eyes she pushed past Buffy and hurried off down the long rows of cars, leaving her best friend of the girl variety staring after her, the mangled remains of the SUV's mirror in her hand.

*****

Spike always claimed that he'd picked this particular crypt to lair in because of the location: it was close to a power line he could tap into for electricity, had access to the web of sewer tunnels and caves which honeycombed the ground beneath Sunnydale, and was located on the side of the cemetery closest to the back fence of the police impound lot where he kept the DeSoto. All of which was true, but Xander strongly suspected that the real reason was the really cool windows: deep-set, arched, guarded with romantically gloomy iron crossbars. They let in enough light during the day to make most vampires extremely nervous, but Spike had always had a cavalier attitude towards sunlight--and candles, and cigarette lighters, and anything else in the 'fire pretty' category--for such a flammable creature.

"The place cleans up well," Xander said, with a magnanimous look around the crypt. In the warm golden light of the masses of candles Spike kept in the wall niches and along the windowsills, the place looked downright... comfortable. Several steps above some of the places Xander had called home in the last few years, anyway. "Pity I can't say the same for the inhabitant." He picked up the remote control and flipped idly through a few more channels, wondering when Spike had gotten cable. Stolen cable. Whatever. It had Argentine soccer and Czechoslovakian-language movies starring masked Mexican tag-team wrestlers, which was the important thing. "I do think you lost a certain je ne sais quai when you got rid of the pile of moldering skulls."

"Yeh, wouldn't you know it, a week later I really needed one. Always the way when you toss out rubbish, innit?" Spike dipped his last wing into the dregs of his blood and ripped into it happily while Xander watched with faintly queasy fascination.

"Can you really taste that?"

Spike stopped mid-bite. "No, I just get a thrill from exercising my jaw. 'Course I can taste it."

"Angel said you guys couldn't taste regular food."

The scarred eyebrow quirked. "Bollocks. Can't digest solid food, but it tastes just fine." Spike licked the gory mix of blood and hot sauce off his fingers and leered. "Blood just tastes better." He leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head. "You want to know the real reason the Broodmeister doesn't eat, besides being a self-flagellating wanker who wouldn't know fun if it walked up and bit him in the arse?" He laid a finger aside his nose. "Side effects."

Xander's brow wrinkled. "Eh?"

Spike chuckled. "Not to get crude, but what goes in must come out. On a strict all-blood diet it doesn't amount to much."

"What--oh." An expression of enlightenment spread across Xander's face. "OH. Way too much information, but oh. I can see where Angel'd want to avoid that. Not exactly... dignified, is it?"

"It's human," Spike said. "Peaches never could stand anything that reminded him of that poxy residue of humanity..." He bit into another carrot stick. "Yours truly, on the other hand, finds the variety worth the inconvenience." He hurled the empty styrofoam carton at the wastepaper basket by the fridge and bounced to his feet. "And speaking of inconvenience, I've got things to do, so you can bugger off now."

Xander conspicuously failed to move. He rolled back his sleeve and checked his watch. "Uh uh. I bribed you fair and square, you get to hide me from floral fantasias for the whole evening. My sources have also ascertained that it's Willow and Tara's night to patrol and Dawn's at Lisa's place, and we all know you have no social life outside Scooby Central--" Spike snorted and Xander took the rare opportunity to give him one of his own smirks back-- "So you have no excuse to ditch me."

"Stroppy tonight, aren't we?" Spike grabbed his duster and shrugged into it. "Please yourself--come along if you want, but I'm not going to slow down for you."

Xander got up and reached for his own coat. Half-way into one sleeve he paused apprehensively. "This isn't going to involve breaking and entering, is it?"

Spike gave him one of those deep, nasty vampire chuckles. "Put it this way--I'm not taking you anywhere I wouldn't take Dawn."

"OK, that should... hey. I think I'm insulted."

"Nah," Spike said cheerfully. "No need to think about it."

Chapter Text

"There are seven."

Tanner flinched and froze in the middle of the sidewalk, nearly dropping the filthy mesh bag he was carrying over one shoulder. He looked up. There was one modest patch of winter rye amidst the water-conscious landscaping in front of the Wells Fargo Bank, a pool of smooth, perfect, luscious emerald green surrounded by gravel and the pale, serrated leaves of succulents. The guy with no eyes was standing in the middle of it, and around his feet the grass had turned brown and dry as the winter-killed Bermuda it was supposed to be hiding.

From the moans and whimpers behind him some of the others saw the guy and some didn't. Dana, Jim and Ramon stumbled to a halt and clung to one another, staring about them with wide fearful eyes, while Lizzie, Blue, Matches and Carmel kept walking, straggling halfway down the block before they realized they'd been abandoned. Dana turned uncertainly back and waved. Tanner felt an internal lurch and looked down at his feet. The toe of his right shoe had slipped over the crack between one block of cement and the next. Shit, shit, shit. Reality yawed, ley lines crossed, worlds spun out of kilter... Trying to control his panicky breathing, he slid his foot back ever so carefully, and slowly, slowly the universe around him swung back into balance. He could hear the ponderous groan of the heavens realigning themselves overhead, the metallic screech of the stars sliding back into place. "Don't!" he hissed at the eyeless man.

Who ignored him, and repeated, "There are seven surrounding the Slayer. The Key. The Watcher. The Vampire. The Witches. The Demon. The Man. When the Balance is disturbed the pattern is always fragile. Pull upon the correct thread and the pattern unravels."

Tanner shifted impatiently. The names dropped into his mind, stones into a dark pool, leaving interference patterns of ripples behind. He would have known any of them in an instant now: the dark-haired girl, the bespectacled man, the peroxide-blond vampire from the poolhouse, the small redhead and the taller blond college girls, the girl with the sharp inquisitive face who ran the Magic Box, the dark-haired youth with the silly grin. "What do you want me to do?"

"Take my hand," the eyeless man said, voice as sere as the dead grass. Tanner hesitated for a second, but he'd promised. He stretched out his hand and the eyeless man grasped it. It was cold, cold and dry and withered. Not a dead thing, no, worse, a thing whose life had been stretched beyond endurance until existence became meaningless. He could feel the pulse beating in it, slow and awful, twitching against his palm, and then his own heart was pounding in rhythm, matching that feeble sickening twitch beat for beat. The eyeless man began to chant.


Where thou walkest, there we follow
Where thou bitest, there we swallow
Where thou breathest, take we life
Where thou strikest, cause we strife
Where thou speakest, weave our lies
Servant of the Bringers, rise!"

Twinned heartbeats throbbed in his ears, nausea built in his too-empty stomach. With each pulse dark energy flowed from the eyeless man, black, viscous, and chill, sinking into his bones and congealing within his flesh. Tanner yanked his hand away and stood shivering, clutching it to his breast and flexing fingers stiff and stinging with cold. His heart beat of its own accord again, hammering against its cage of bone, but the mad rush of blood through his veins did not warm him. "What...?"

"You are our instrument. Your touch shall open the gates of their hearts and they shall walk through the door into shadow."

Tanner licked his lips, tasting a residue of salt and bile. "Listen," he said, "We gotta hunt."

"Hunt then, but remember your promise. There are lives reserved for oathbreakers far worse than the one you lead."

Tanner hunched his shoulders, brows dipping in a sullen frown. "I keep my promises." There was no answer; the eyeless man was gone again, but the circle of dead grass where he'd stood remained, an urban crop circle to mystify the arriving bank tellers the next morning. Tanner pulled his jacket more closely around his shoulders, feeling the draft where the cool night air seeped in through the torn place in the armhole. He massaged the palm of his right hand with the thumb of his left, trying to work some feeling back into the numb flesh. "Dana!" he called. "Get back."

He waited while Dana herded the others back to the group. Eight. Eight of fourteen. Blondie out of commission because of her hands, and four more too far out of it to be of any help. Ronnie stuck back at the camp to look after them--and that would cost him dearly in the weeks to come, since Ronnie would miss out on tonight's hunt and would soon be in no condition to play backup. "Dirty," he whispered. "All torn and dirty." Couldn't be helped.

"We're going to split up," he said as Dana and the others shuffled back into line. "Like we did that time in July, right? Dana, you take Matches and head out for the park. Set up the circle behind the bandshell." He took the bag off his shoulder and handed it to her. "You remember how to do that, right?"

"Bright and rapture we see the coming day," Dana said. She couldn't talk worth crap, but like silent Ronnie, she still understood pretty well, even on bad days. She was fortunate that way.

"Yeah. Ramon, you take everyone else and find us a new friend."

Stunned silence. At last Ramon ventured, "Tanner... you always..."

"Tonight I can't." He tried to keep his voice calm and level. "I'll meet you at the park later." Tanner started off down the sidewalk, paused, and looked back; Ramon's face was sickly with apprehension in the yellow light of the street lamps. "Don't worry. I know you'll pick someone good."

****

The bar-cum-mediocre-restaurant was called Benders this year. It wasn't a dive, but it wasn't too classy, either--one of those establishments you found in every college town where any lack in the quality of the food and drink was made up by the variety of farm implements and old road signs tacked up on the walls. The patrons were mainly students from the nearby UC Sunnydale campus, along with a sprinkling of locals and the occasional high school senior trying out a fake ID.

Pro to hanging out with Spike, Xander thought as the waitress filled their glasses and set down the pitcher: Spike is old enough to buy beer.

It was difficult to tell how old Spike had been when he was turned; late twenties, probably, but he had one of those lean, ageless faces that looked more or less the same from twenty-five to fifty. The salient point was that he didn't immediately inspire waitresses to ask for his driver's licence, which was lucky as he didn't have one. Xander passed the vampire a twenty under the table and Spike handed it to the waitress with that half-smile and sideways, heavy-lidded glance which for some inexplicable reason made waitresses go all gooey. "Keep the change, luv."

Con: Spike requires my money to do so.

Spike reached for his glass and returned to his seeming perusal of the copy of the L.A. New Times he'd grabbed from the free bin inside the lobby. In actuality he was watching the crowd around the pool tables like... well, like a vampire intent on his next meal. He took a swallow and grimaced. "Lovely. The horse must feel much better now."

"Nothing like good ol' Guinness, huh? Cool. I had this weird urge for beer instead of warm, flat sludge."

"Remind me again why I stopped pinching your wallet?"

"Possibly because I haven't been in arm's reach?"

"I was saving you from yourself, you ask me. Yank blasphemer." Spike squinted at the paper and leaned back in his chair. "And would it be too much to ask for these wankers to hire a music critic who doesn't think he's the second bloody coming of Lester Bangs and just reviews the bloody albums?"

Xander considered asking who the hell Lester Bangs was and decided against it, since that would only provoke Spike to tell him. "So what exactly is our purpose here, besides inducing me to waste more of my hard-earned paycheck entertaining a cranky vampire?"

"Enabling me to collect my hard-earned paycheck." Spike scanned the little clumps of people gathered round the pool tables again, visibly sizing up and discarding prospects. "All you need to do when we get a table is pretend to give me a few pointers, show me the ropes like, and then stand back and let me work. In consideration of your delicate sensibilities, Harris, we're not going to skin anyone who doesn't roll up begging to be skint. Hah, there's one coming open. Come on."

Spike got up and headed for the pool tables. Half-way across the crowded floor the vampire stopped, a puzzled light in his pale eyes, and inhaled deeply. Xander, trying to juggle both glasses and the pitcher behind him, made an inquiring noise. Spike stood motionless for a moment longer, then exhaled. "Thought I recognized... nah, it's gone. Losing the plot, I am." He shook his head and set off for the pool tables again. Xander looked around, seeing nothing unusual in the crowd, then shrugged and followed him. They claimed the middle of the three tables before the previous players had finished hanging up their cues.

"Here we observe the wily vampire in his natural habitat, the pool hall," Xander intoned as he racked up the balls. "Note the exotic coloring of the pelt, designed by nature--or possibly Miss Clairol--to blend in with the cue ball and..."

"I'll pelt you if you don't shut your gob," Spike said, without much rancor. "Now teach me to play pool." He picked up the chalk as if he'd never seen one before and applied it tentatively to the tip of his cue. "Looks like jolly fun," he said in a spot-on imitation of Giles' cultured accent. All traces of North London vanished from his speech, the blue of his eyes went from icy and knowing to soft and luminous, and his body language from predatory to puppyish. "Fill my eager mind with knowledge."

"Uh... fine." Xander picked up a cue and looked nervously around. "Does this make me a shill?"

"Apparently it makes you unnecessarily talkative."

"OK, OK, just asking." This was probably a bad idea, he thought. But it was a couple of steps up from Spike's other methods of getting ready cash, most of which involved out and out larceny, and how many more chances was he going to get to be irresponsible and stupid with a reasonably clear conscience? He was getting married in... oh, God, only a month, and Anya would probably skin him if she found out about this--if only because he hadn't demanded that Spike give him a cut of the profits. Spike was eyeing him impatiently, drumming his fingers on the side of the table. Xander cleared his throat loudly. "The idea is to use the cueball--that's the white one--to knock the other balls into..."

Spike nodded, hanging raptly on his every word. In fact, ultra-cool vampire-guy Spike seemed to have completely disappeared, replaced by an earnest and slightly clumsy young man who'd had a bit more to drink than was good for him. He looked a great deal like Spike, and sounded a great deal as Spike might have sounded had he gone to Oxford instead of wherever the hell he'd misspent his youth, and played pool about as well as Spike might have if he hadn't had a century-plus of practice, reflexes Minnesota Fats would have killed his mother for, and a tolerance for alcohol bordering on the phenomenal even for a vampire.

Exactly the sort of fellow, in other words, that you wanted to get into a friendly wager with.

Spike set the stage carefully, Xander had to admit. He lost several games against Xander, but not too badly, and won once or twice, but not too well. He killed the first pitcher without much help from Xander, played another couple of games against a giggly redhead who only wanted to play for points, lost the first by one ball and the second by three, and made serious inroads on a second pitcher. He sulked vocally about how much better he'd do with a real wager on the line, but kept allowing Xander to talk him out of playing for money. At some point during the evening, the guys at the next table, a large, aggressively wholesome pair in letter jackets who'd been flashing a lot of cash earlier, began paying attention. By now, they were hard pressed to keep from snickering at the show.

"Look, Harris," Spike said, leaning forward and poking a finger at Xander's chest. "I've got the hang of it now. What I need is a little com-competitive edge." He was swaying a little and enunciating every word just a little too clearly; Xander, who'd seen Spike really drunk on more than one occasion and knew that it took considerably more than a couple of pitchers of American beer for the vampire to achieve this level of impairment, wasn't fooled, but it was a fairly convincing display for the lay observer.

"Yeah, you've got an edge all right." Xander removed the finger from just below his third shirt button, wondering if Spike expected him to start an argument or back down. "Let's go get you some coffee or something before you cut yourself on it."

A large hand clapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, there, don't be so hard on your friend there," Frat Guy Number One said, displaying lots of large white teeth in what was probably a winning smile, if one happened to be a shark. "If he wants a real game, we'll play. I'm David and this is Shaun." He jerked a thumb at his slightly smaller and darker compatriot.

"William." Spike shook the offered hand enthusiastically and pretended to wince at the pressure. "Ever so pleased to meet you."

****
The ivory ball careened across the green felt and struck its target a glancing blow. For a long breathless moment the red ball teetered on the edge of the pocket, and then, bowing to the inevitable, tipped over and dropped in. Spike straightened, beaming at Shaun with a wide-eyed and slightly tipsy smile, stunned and delighted with his own good fortune. "I say!" he cried. "That was a lucky one, wasn't it?"

Theoretically they were playing doubles, but so far Xander hadn't had much to do except sit back, try not to screw up when his turn rolled around, and watch as 'William', after a shaky start, wiped the table with their opponents. Considering the usual results of their own much lower-stakes games at the Bronze, Xander wasn't surprised at the wiping the table part, but there was no way Spike was this good an actor; faking being drunk was one thing, but he'd never been particularly good at deception in the past. Xander leaned over and whispered, "Who are you, and what have you done with the real Spike?"

The real Spike made an immediate reappearance and jabbed him in the stomach with the butt of his pool cue accidentally-on-purpose, ducking his head to hide the pained expression as the chip set off. He injected a note of wounded petulance into his voice for good measure. "Really, Harris, push off--not fair of you to coach, what?"

Shaun glared and ran a hand through his short-cropped chestnut hair, something he'd been doing with increasing frequency and vehemence as the night went on. He might be smaller than David (who really ought, Xander felt, to have been named Goliath) but he still had a good two inches on Xander and a good four on Spike, and he was using them to best advantage. "Yeah, back off. Let Willy-boy shoot."

Willy-boy graced him with a smile which came nowhere near his eyes and began lining up his next shot, screwing his face into a comical expression of concentration. Xander looked from him up into the blunt-nosed, linebacker's face of David, who was currently looming beside him with a distinctly unfriendly air, held up both hands and retreated to the nearest table to nurse his beer. Pro: Watch Spike take snotty college kids to the cleaners.

The frat guys hadn't gotten to the point of sounding belligerent yet, but it was beginning to penetrate that their earlier lucky streak against the supposedly inexperienced English guy had run out. Hopefully Spike would have the sense to quit while he was ahead. Sense? Wait, this is Spike. David folded his arms and watched as Spike prowled his way down the pool table, his jaw jutting forward. From his vast store of personal encounters with guys who would just as soon pound you in the teeth as look at you, Xander judged that David was still a ways from exploding, but he was getting there.

Click .

"I've won again, haven't I? Fancy!"

Further pro: I won't have to cover Spike's bets to avoid a serious ass-whooping.

A lighter, feminine voice cut through the riot of voices in the background. "...told Kevin I liked him, but that I didn't like him like him..."

Xander frowned. That sounded like...

David's basso rumble overwhelmed it. "...look, one breaking shot, double or nothing..."

Spike fiddled with his cue, distressed. "I don't know, chaps, hadn't I better leave off? Luck can't last forever, you know. Still...not really sporting of me, is it...?"

"...can't believe he said that right in the middle of Mrs. Doormann's class, of all places--"

Xander stiffened and buried his nose in his beer, shading his face with one hand as Dawn, Lisa, and a third girl he vaguely recalled as Morgan (or possibly Megan) sashayed by on their way to the ladies' room, all too-casual hair flips and considerably more makeup than Xander remembered from having dropped Dawn off at Lisa's place earlier. Wait a minute. Why am I hiding from them? He straightened up and assumed the awful mantle of adult authority--hopefully Dawn would notice. "Hey! Dawn! Aren't you out a little late?"

Dawn froze at the sound of his voice, and a second later the other two girls, realizing something was amiss, did the same. Her eyes widened in horror. "Xander?" she squeaked.

"Dawn?" Spike's white-blond head snapped up and he stopped mid-shot, eyes narrowing. He set his cue down against the side of the pool table, but he didn't get more than a half-step away before David's meaty hand clamped down on his shoulder.

"Hey! If you think you can walk out now--"

"Sod off." Spike shrugged the hand off and stalked over to Xander's table. Looked like 'William' had taken a powder. "Bloody hell, Bit, it's after midnight. Does Buffy know you're about?"

Dawn grabbed Spike's arm, all but bouncing up and down in agony. "Oh, God, Spike, you're not gonna tell her, are you?" she pleaded. "We were just about to head home, honest! She'll get all freaked out over nothing, you know how she gets--"

That earned her the raised eyebrow thing. "Yeh, and you know how I get, so the odds of my letting you toddle off home through downtown Hellmouth unescorted would be..?"

Megan's (or possibly Morgan's) jaw dropped, taking in the vampire's full bleached-blond and black-denimed glory. Spike, engaged in a heavy-duty glowering match with Dawn, failed to notice. "That's Spike? Oh. My. GOD. I thought you said he was, like, a million years old!" She tossed her head, toying with her streaked hair, and batted her heavily mascara'd lashes at Xander. "And you're kinda cute too. Geez, Dawn, introduce us!"

Dawn's look could have melted titanium. "Could you possibly be a little more desperate?" she hissed. "I don't think the entire bar heard you." She waved an unenthused hand from one side of the group to the other. "Spike, Xander, jailbait. Megan, Lisa, engaged guy and... uh... Spike."

A Death Star-sized shadow intervened between them and the nearest overhead light; David and Shaun were approaching, pool cues in hand, looming with menace aforethought. "Look, the family reunion's touching," David said, smacking his cue into his palm. "But there's a little matter of two hundred bucks we need to settle. NOW."

"Hold your water, you feeble-minded tossers!" Spike snatched the cue away and shook a admonitory finger at Dawn. "You budge one inch before I get back and I swear I'll nail your feet to the floor with tent pegs--gerroff, you!" Megan, who'd been inching coyly closer with an eye towards some arm-grabbing of her own, hopped back in a shower of giggles.

David blinked. "When did he start talking like that?"

"You know, this is a really good night for me so far," Xander said brightly. Dawn groaned.

Under the watchful eyes of Shaun and David, Spike strode back to the pool table, all pretense of amateurishness abandoned. He bent over, took aim, let fly with his cue in one smooth, economical stroke and stood back with a clinical eye to observe the balls scattering every which way over the felt. "Four, five, six..." He turned to David with a lift of his scarred eyebrow and the patented Spike smirk. "I believe you gents said double or nothing?"

"Fuck!" Shaun screeched. "There's no fuckin' way you could make that fuckin' shot! This is fucked, man!"

"Some of us are," Spike agreed.

"Too fucking right!"

Con: get the shit beat out of you afterwards because Spike can't defend himself against snotty college boys who want their two hundred dollars back.

Lisa shrieked as Spike ducked Shaun's wild swing with the pool cue. Xander leaped to his feet; not only was Spike unable to hurt a human without setting off his chip, the cues were wood and there was an outside chance that Shaun might accidentally impale Spike and do some real damage. Not to mention that if Buffy found out they'd gotten Dawn into a bar fight, there would be no end to the messy painful death she'd arrange for both of them. He gut-punched a totally unsuspecting Shaun, who doubled over with a shocked, painful 'whoof!'--Xander didn't have super-strength, but he'd been fighting vampires for six years and working construction for two, and had considerable muscle to show for it. "RUN!" he yelled, shoving Dawn ahead of him.

Spike shot one gleeful yellow-eyed look at David, and Xander could all but read his mind. A second later the vampire had gone all fangs and brow ridges, lunging at David with a "RRAARRGGGH!" David yelled and fell backwards onto the pool table. Spike vaulted gracefully over his head and hit the floor at a dead run, swooping up Megan and Lisa in the process, though it was difficult to tell if this was out of a sense of responsibility for Dawn's friends or simply because they happened to be in his way. He caught up to Xander at the door and all five of them pounded out into the parking lot, the girls squealing and the men laughing maniacally. Bad Xander! This is not in any way amusing!

Spike yanked open the driver's door of the DeSoto, hopped in and gunned the engine. "Pile in, children!" he caroled as David and Shaun, accompanied by several equally large and irate friends, appeared silhouetted in the doorway of the bar. Xander grabbed shotgun by virtue of superior size, and the three girls crammed themselves into the back seat. "Can't a vamp get a break around here?" Spike gasped, tears of laughter running down his once-more-human cheeks as they tore out of the parking lot at indecent speed. "I wasn't even cheating that time!"

"Someone up there just likes you, I guess," said Xander. "So did they pay you any of the money before the big fraidy runaway?"

"Not a quid."

"Figures."

Something palm-sized and heavy landed on his lap with a thump. Xander grabbed it reflexively--leather? Spike was wearing the insane-vamp grin again.

"But I did manage to nick his wallet on the way out."

****

It could have been worse. It could have been Buffy. It could have been worse...

Dawn kept repeating her new mantra as the DeSoto roared along the dark streets, despite scant hope that it would bring inner peace any time soon. It had all seemed like such a foolproof plan when Lisa had suggested it. Lisa's dad was out of town, and her mother slept with earplugs because of her insomnia, so arranging a sleepover at her place and using it as a cover for a night on the town was easy. Catching the late bus over to the college was equally simple. Buffy sometimes patrolled near the college, but if she wanted a break she always went to the Bronze, or more rarely, to Willy's. No one she knew ever went to Benders.

Which was probably why Spike had picked it to hustle pool in. Life just wasn't fair.

Despite the embarrassment of being caught, Dawn had to admit to a smidgen of relief, since while getting to Benders had been easy, the buses stopped running at midnight, and their plans for getting back home had been a little shaky. Neither Spike nor Xander seemed too upset with her, outside Spike's usual outrageous threats of bodily harm; in fact, their victory over the forces of the Letter Jacket Brigade had left them both bouncing off the walls. Spike was steering with one hand and extracting David's cash from the purloined wallet with the other, while Xander rummaged through the vampire's CDs making gagging noises.

"Devo, crap. Sex Pistols, crap. Butthole Surfers, crap... don't you have anything less than twenty years old in here?--hey! This is mine!" Xander shook Murder in front of Spike's nose.

"What can I say? The title speaks to me. There's a Linkin Park in there somewhere."

Xander gave up and slapped a random CD into the machine and the dulcet strains of "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?" blasted out into the night. He eyed the wallet-excavating process. "You're only gonna take as much as they owed you, right?"

"Uh... yeah. 'Course. Bugger all, I have to--double or nothing would have made four hundred, and there's not three hundred here." Spike tossed Xander two twenties. "Here's your beer money, shill. How d'you fancy pool sharking as an occupation?"

"I'm not quitting my day job." Xander tucked the money into his shirt pocket behind his rescued CD as Spike rolled down the window and made to chuck the wallet out. "Hey, hold on to that! There's got to be ID in there, we can mail it back to him tomorrow or something."

Spike slouched down in the driver's seat, lit a cigarette and draped his arm out the window, trailing smoke. "Altogether too much work being a white hat if you ask me," he grumbled, but tossed Xander the wallet again.

Dawn chewed on a lock of her hair. "Are you guys gonna tell..." she asked apprehensively.

Xander looked up from his examination of the wallet; he was apparently scrupulous enough to want to give it back, but not scrupulous enough to refrain from poking through David's stuff. "Well--"

"Your sis has enough on her mind right now," Spike interrupted. "No need to add to her worries, eh?" Dawn slumped back in the seat, relief flooding over her; of course Spike would come through. "If I catch you out running around without your leash again, mind, I'll be taking you home in a plastic baggie." He threw Lisa a look over the back of the seat. "Where's your place again?"

Once out of immediate danger, Lisa had lapsed into temporary shell shock, and was currently staring fixedly at the place in the rear-view mirror where Spike's reflection wasn't. "Twenty-fourth and Ramada," she got out in a subdued squeak. "You can take Wilkins south."

Spike pursed his lips, figuring out trajectories. "Right then. I've got a stop or two to make and you'll be home by two."

"He's not gonna kill us?" Lisa whispered.

"He can't hurt you," Dawn whispered back. "He's got this chip--"

"And very good ears," Spike interrupted. "And I could so kill you if I really wanted. Just so happens I don't want to."

Dawn kicked the back of the seat. "Stop it! You're gonna make Lisa pee her pants!"

"Not in my bloody car. And put your damned seatbelt on, it's down in there somewhere."

The first stop was Kohlermann's Fine Meats, very likely the world's only twenty-four hour butcher's shop. Spike picked up two pounds of raw liver and several gallons of pig's blood in quart containers, and spent a quarter-hour chatting up Benny Kohlermann, who worked the night shift. Back at the car, he stuck a straw through the lid of one of the blood containers and wedged it into the plastic drink holder up front like a Big Gulp, which didn't help Lisa's mental state any. Dawn accrued major unflapability points by nonchalantly helping pack the rest of the blood into the cooler in the DeSoto's trunk. The second stop was the twenty-four hour Safeway on Wilkins, where Lisa thawed slightly, though she kept giving Spike's lack of reflection in the store security mirrors surreptitious glances, and she'd tugged her cross necklace to the outside of her blouse.

Oddly enough, Dawn couldn't remember Buffy having worn her cross necklace since coming back from the dead.

"Are you sure he's... safe?" Lisa whispered to Dawn as the stood in the checkout line with Spike's several purchases.

Dawn shrugged, glancing at the vampire with a proprietary smile. Spike was the most and the least safe person she knew. Supposedly you could tell a lot about a person from their grocery list; what exactly a carton of Marlboro Reds, Nestle's extra-rich cocoa mix, a block of extra-sharp cheddar, one bag of yellow apples, a jar of Jiffy extra-chunky peanut butter, and a random assortment of items from the Dry Crunchy Things To Dip In Blood food group added up to, Dawn wasn't sure, unless it was that Spike was a sucker for anything with 'extra' on the label.

"He won't hurt you, if that's what you mean." She felt a little sorry for Lisa; she'd run into Spike around the Summers house on several occasions and knew him as a friend of Buffy's. Like most people who'd grown up in Sunnydale, Lisa was aware that there were things that stalked the darkness just outside the circles of lamplight--but also like most in Sunnydale, Lisa's family never talked about them. Seeing Spike go all bumpy in public was a shock. It was tough, having to learn about vampires on the streets.

Megan was having no such difficulties. Megan always meant well, but she was blessedly free of the ravages of intellect, whether by nature or by choice. The fact that the dreamy blond guy had temporarily grown fangs wasn't anywhere near enough to discourage her. She gazed admiringly at the back of Spike's sleek head. "How come you never told us you hung out with all these hunky guys, Dawn?"

"It's just Spike and Xander." Dawn tried to inject the proper note of indifferent disdain as they followed the grocery-laden guys out to the parking lot. It was true she'd had a crush on both of them at one time or another, but that had been ages ago--last year, for crying out loud!--and she was over that now. It was excruciatingly embarrassing to be reminded of it. She wouldn't have minded nursing her Spike-crush for longer, but Dawn was perceptive enough to know from the moment her sister had gone storming off to Spike's crypt in the Lacy Red Blouse of Protesting Too Much to tell him that she had absolutely, positively no interest in him whatsoever that Spike's unattached days were numbered. Of course at the time she'd had no idea that Spike would do something as colossally stupid as tying Buffy up and threatening to feed her to his ex, but... there was Spike for you. At least he'd learned his lesson. Maybe a little too well.

Back in the car, Megan leaned forward till her pert nose was practically in Spike's ear, folding her arms on the back of the front seat. "Ohmigod, you're totally a vampire, aren't you?" she gushed, jiggling up and down on the seat. "Do you know my sister?" She giggled self-consciously. "That sounds stupid, doesn't it? Like, 'I live in New York', 'Do you know my uncle?' But there's not as many vampires as people in New York, otherwise we'd all be, like, Lunchables by now, right?"

It was probably a good thing, Dawn thought, that Spike's expression wasn't visible in the mirror.

"Actually my sister's in Acapulco right now--I got a postcard." Megan tossed her hair proudly. "She's doing, like, this self-actualization thing, y'know, but she might be home for Christmas. Except Mom disinvited her since last time she stayed at our place she ate the maid, and Mom is utterly strict about not letting us have food in our rooms, so seeing as you're both vampires and all--Hey, could you make me a vampire? Harm said it was totally intense."

The toe of Dawn's Reeboks bumped into an empty Jack Daniels bottle half-sunk in the sea of fast food wrappers and empty blood bags littering the floor of the back seat. Perhaps with enough sincere mental effort, she could shrink herself small enough to fit inside and free herself from the abomination that was Megan in flirt mode. What she could see of Spike's profile was wearing a sort of glazed, desperate look, as of a man revisiting horrors he'd thought long departed. "No." He took a long pull at his pig's blood Slurpee and ran his tongue over his teeth, apparently struck by a cheering thought. "But as a special favor I might be persuaded to drain you dry and leave your shrunken corpse by the wayside."

Megan shrieked with laughter and Xander swivelled round in his seat to gaze upon her with a look in his dark eyes which approached awe. "Your last name wouldn't be Kendall, would it?"

"It is!" Megan gave him an arch look. "How'd you guess?"

"I went to school with Harmony." An evil smile crept across his face; obviously Spike was rubbing off. "And Spike--"

Spike shuddered. "Tried to kill her once. Didn't take, unfortunately."

Megan dissolved into giggles again. "You're funny."

Dawn scrunched down on the seat, trying to sink straight through the leather upholstery. That's it, I'm in hell.

Lisa's family lived on the opposite side of Weatherly Park, and they'd just turned off Wilkins onto Twenty-Fourth and were cruising down the long stretch of road bordering the park. A shadow moved on the road ahead, and Spike slammed on the brakes before Dawn's brain had time to register it was there. "What was that?" Xander asked, craning his neck out the window.

Spike frowned, stroking the steering wheel with his thumbs and staring out into the tangled mass of trees. The branches overhanging the road were half-bare, and the breeze chased little drifts of ghost-grey leaves across the black asphalt ahead. "Some bird over there on the side of the road," he said. "Thought for a minute she was going to take a header into traffic the way old Willy did the other night. She's just sittin' there, now--no, wait, here she comes."

Amidst the fitful stirring of the leaves a darker patch moved. Dawn squinted, trying to make out the figure through the DeSoto's half-blacked-out windshield, but she couldn't make out anything more than an indistinct shape against the trees for several minutes. Then a woman materialized out of the night, heading for forty, with short flyaway hair which might have been sandy blonde in daylight. She was wearing a dark jogging suit, making her even harder to see, and she broke into an awkward, exhausted run when she got near the car. She flung herself at the DeSoto, clinging to the handle on the driver's door with both hands and supporting herself on it. Up close, it was obvious even in the dim light that her face was smudged and leaves clung to her clothes in several places. "Oh, God, you stopped!" she cried. "You've got to help him--it's back there, in the trees--they've got him!"

"They?" Xander was already getting out of the car. "They who?"

"I don't--back, by the--the--" She began to sob, pointing shakily back into the depths of the park.

"You got any weapons back there?" Xander asked, heading for the trunk.

Spike sighed and got out of the car. "Bloody hell. Whoever said there was no rest for the wicked apparently never gave virtue a go. When don't I?" He took the keys from the ignition and went round to unlock the trunk; while Xander was pulling out the implements of destruction, Spike came back up to the front of the car and handed the keys to Dawn.

"Get up into the front seat now, Pidge, and lock yourselves in," he said in the tone that brooked no argument or wheedling. "If we're not back in fifteen minutes, take this lot home and then go get your sister. She should be back from patrol by now."

Dawn looked up at the vampire's angular face, closed her fist on the car keys and nodded. She crawled over the back of the front seat and settled into the driver's seat as Spike closed the door. She felt for the floor pedals with her feet, getting used to their positions again. Not too bad. When he'd first started teaching her to drive (as Spike had neither license, registration, nor insurance, he'd assured her that her lack of a learner's permit was no obstacle) they'd had to adjust the seat for her, but she'd grown over the summer; she wasn't that much shorter than Spike now. She heard Xander slam the trunk closed behind them and looked up at Spike, trying to be mature and capable, and flashed him a smile full of confidence she didn't feel. "OK. I can handle it."

His expression remained serious, but there was a flash of... pride, maybe? in his eyes, and his hand, cool and dry and reassuringly large for someone his size, rested on her shoulder for a moment. "I know."

Then he was gone in a flurry of black leather, he and Xander disappearing into the interlacing darkness of the trees with the sobbing woman tugging them along, and Dawn was left in the dark with a sinking feeling in her stomach and Megan and Lisa in the back seat. For several minutes no one spoke.

"You can DRIVE?" Megan asked.

Chapter Text

"Honey, you already knew she wasn't happy about it."

Willow made no response. She kept walking along the gravel path, faster than she should have in a graveyard in the dark. She could hear Tara's footsteps behind her as she turned off between a pair of huge old cypresses, weaving through the tombstones towards the fence. The grounds keepers seldom penetrated this far. The footpath was faint and the ground uneven, and what graves lay here among the winter-dead grass were untended, perfect spots for tradition-minded vampires to bury their fledglings. Restfield (#5 in the Sunnydale Cavalcade of Death-Related Locations) was a mid-sized cemetery and one of the oldest in town, which meant it was a tough patrol.

Some of the newer ones, with their acres of small, tasteful, flat-to-the-ground tombstones to facilitate the use of riding lawnmowers, could be covered in fifteen minutes or less: stand in the middle and take a quick look round for disturbed graves and you were off. Here you had to hunt through a maze of baroque (and often broken) old headstones and mausoleums. Ironically, it would have been easier had it not been that this was the cemetery where Spike's crypt was located: he strongly discouraged other vampires from horning in on his territory, so any newbie vamps to be found were invariably far off the beaten path, hidden away in some secluded corner.

Willow gripped her stake tightly, feeling the comforting smoothness of the wood against her palm. Why wood? she'd asked once, in a moment of scientific curiosity. Why not cold iron or silver or milled polyurethane? It had taken Tara a moment to realize the question was a serious one. Because wood's something that was once alive and now is dead, too. She'd gone on to explain the answers to all the other questions: Sunlight because they're creatures of darkness. Fire because it's a piece of the sun. Decapitation because it breaks the cord between head and heart. All things which would sever the bond between human mind and body and the demon soul which animated them, and allow you to kill a vampire.

The answers had been obvious ones to Tara. She insisted that there was a logic to it, a logic of intuition and emotion. Willow didn't see it; what possible connection was there between shoving a vampire into the sunlight and driving a stake through their hearts? But Tara saw all kinds of connections which eluded Willow. If bad luck followed the casting of a spell, Willow automatically assumed it was coincidence. Tara, born to a family of witch-women, feared and despised by her male relatives, and raised in a community steeped in tales about the evil nature of magic, automatically assumed that the spell was at fault. When she thought about it, Willow really couldn't blame her love for her irrational conviction that every minor spell held the seeds of doom.

"You know how Buffy always holds everything in," Tara went on, "and then it boils over at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way. When you've both calmed down, maybe you could--"

"I am calm," Willow said. Anyone else might have believed her. They'd reached the fence, which was overgrown with climbing vines, queen's-wreath and mile-a-minute. The leaves were starting to turn red-bronze in the fall chill and drop away, leaving the wiry stems behind, coiled tightly around the iron bars. She stopped and leaned against the fence, burying her face in the dusty-smelling foliage. Dry, curling leaves collected in her hair. "I'm just completely on my own here. I know the rest of you think I did something terrible, bringing Buffy back. The only one who backed me up was Spike. I couldn't even have done it without his help, but as the Slayer goes, so goes Spike, so now he's switched sides."

Tara leaned up against the wall beside her, folding her arms across her chest. "Maybe that should tell you something."

Willow's face grew bitter. "What, that he wants to get in Buffy's pants as badly as she wants to get in his?" At Tara's soft cry of shock Willow's shoulders slumped and she buried her face in her hands. "I didn't mean that!" she wailed. "Spike understood why I had to bring her back! But the moment she is back he's all stuck to her like Superglue and 'Oooh, I was wrong', it's like they've got this treehouse with a big NO WILLOWS ALLOWED sign and every time I see them together I'm all 'No fair, she should be that happy to see me too!' but I know she wants me to apologize and I CAN'T, I can't lie to her and say I think I was wrong when I wasn't, and Spike apologizes for all the wrong reasons and gets a pat on the head so there's all this--this meanness rolling around inside me all tangled up like evil socks in a clothes dryer! And then I say something rotten to Spike so of course he goes and hides in Buffy's treehouse and if I had just one person to talk to who understood it would be ok but the--"

She felt Tara's hands on her shoulders, heard Tara's voice murmuring something soft and meaningless, smelled the familiar wool scent of Tara's favorite blue worsted patrolling sweater. It would be so sweet to sink into the other woman's comforting embrace, but Tara's sympathy was all a sham, and deep down Tara thought she'd done a horrible thing too. Still she couldn't resist the urge to butt her head into the soft scratchy blue doubleknit and cry out all her frustration and anger. "Sweetie, you're tired, you're scared, you're not thinking straight. " Tara stroked her hair. "There's nothing happening here tonight. Let's go find Buffy and tell her we're going home. I'll fix you some tomato soup and we can get some sleep and tomorrow we can figure out how to deal with all this."

Willow snuffled. "I don't want to talk to Buffy about anything."

"You've got to see her sooner or later. We all live in the same house."

"And whose stupid idea was that?" Her own, of course. Give Buffy an income, however small, and some help with Dawn, but more importantly, try to turn back the clock to those first roommate days in college when the two of them had still been close, before classes and boyfriends and girlfriends and differences and death had driven that wedge between them, every day a little deeper.

"What's that?"

Willow felt Tara's hands tense on her shoulders, and the shift of Tara's body as she looked up, back out towards the main path. The crunch of footsteps on gravel grew louder--too loud for a vampire, surely, unless it was a very clumsy one--but there were things other than vampires out there. Scrubbing her sleeve furiously across her stinging eyes, Willow straightened up and began readying a spell; nothing fancy, just a simple fire-starting cantrip. It would be equally effective against both vampires and humans, and at least marginally painful for about fifty percent of the demons they'd be likely to run up against. She shifted the stake to her right hand and groped for Tara's hand with her left. Tara gave her hand a squeeze and together they crept forward, ducking low under the bare trailing branches of her namesake tree. The long slender leaves underfoot didn't rustle at their passing; Tara's gift, not hers. Her love's hand in hers was at once reassuring and childish, a sweet embarrassment; it had been months, almost a year, since she'd had to pool her magic with Tara in order to cast spells. Until the Raising spell had gone wrong, she'd had power to spare.

They dropped to their knees behind a moss-grown gravestone (Selma Kingston, 1891-1963, Beloved Wife and Mother) and peered out at the path through the willow branches. The gravel stood out pale and glowing against the dark grass. A figure stood in the middle of the path, twenty or so feet distant, looking back and forth along the length of the walk. In the mingled light of distant streetlamp and the near-full moon he seemed indubitably human--a dark-haired, middle-aged man in drab, anonymous clothing, with a face that might once have been kind. Now every other emotion had been subsumed in resigned weariness.

Buffy looks like that.

"Do you think he's just lost?" Willow whispered.

Tara's intent gaze never left the man's face. "Oh, yes..." she breathed. She shook herself a little and continued in a more matter-of-fact tone, "He's lost."

Willow rubbed her nose, wishing she had some Kleenex. Why weren't there any post-sobfest anti-runny-nose spells? Maybe she could make one up and make a fortune and pay off Buffy's plumbing bills and everyone would like her again... "We should go talk to him, or he'll end up as some vamp's chew-toy."

"I think that's the point. He's out here hoping to get killed." At Willow's horrified expression Tara shrugged. "Some people strike out. Some of us strike in."

"There will be no striking in any direction," Willow said firmly, getting to her feet. Here was a concrete problem she could deal with. Sort of. At least they could get the guy out of the cemetery and into some more vamp-free area of town. "Hello?" she called, scrambling to her feet and brushing grass off the knees of her leggings.

The man twitched violently and spun round to face the sound of her voice, his hands trembling. Not the reaction of someone incredibly dangerous. Willow edged out from behind the tombstone. "Hey. Mister. It's not safe out here."

*****

Something had called to the cold dark thing coiling within him, some silver-sharp pain which pierced it as the stars pierced the sky overhead--for the most part invisible in the greater light of the moon and the sleeping town below, but there all the same. It reeled him towards it on a thousand thousand individual skeins of agony, threaded on needles of white fire, and when the pull at last abated there they stood, rising out of the ground all fey and woodsy, crowned in dead leaves with moonlight spilling from their eyes.

The Witches.

He hadn't expected to find any of them so quickly. Days, he'd thought, days before his path crossed any of theirs, for all that the world of Sunnydale after dark was a small one, and all the paths that ran through it twisted into one another. But here they were. "It's not safe out there," the Red Witch said, and the pain behind her eyes sang to him. The White Witch hung back. She knew. She had eyes to see the void within him, where the Red Witch saw only skin over bones.

"Not safe anywhere," he said, and it came out a raspy croak because his throat was so tight with the effort of keeping in the dark. "I thought it would be him, with the moon in his hair. The thread to pull, the Tower struck by lightning." That was right, more than right; he'd seen it on the night the walls of the world came down, the vampire falling, falling, falling from the Dark Tower, setting even as the Slayer rose with the sun only to fall in her turn.

The Red Witch looked confused. Tanner felt a great need to explain to her--it wasn't out of malice, any of this, and it seemed important to let her know that. "He is a creature of evil. He's making the swing go too high." That hadn't come out right. She was still advancing on him, her movements slow and dreamy, steps in an unfamiliar dance. Tanner backed away. He couldn't just cut in. The world was all over strings, and how was he to know which was the right thread to tug on?

"Are you all right?" the Red Witch asked.

"I don't think so," he said, nervous. He backed up a few steps, reluctant to leave the path. The trees loomed up on either side, lithe, restless willows and hoary cypresses. Trees fit for a place of death. Lovely, dark and deep, lions and tigers and bears, oh my--could he drop a house on her, perhaps? He banged into something hard and cold, and looked up. The monument rose over him in the moonlight, stark, but not pure: the white marble was tarnished, stained with streaks of black and rust from decades of winter rains, the angel with the sword upraised in his defense.

"It's OK. Just come with us. We can take you--

"Willow, I think he's--"

The Red Witch reached for him, her pale hands glowing--moonlight, or something else? Words, what were the words? He couldn't do anything without the words! His hand shot out, fingers crooked, and grasped the cold marble shin of the statue. "Them bones, them bones, them dry bones," he choked out. Not what he wanted to say, not at all. "Gonna walk around, now hear the word of th-the... Lord of the Crossroads, hear me!" With shaking hands he pulled a bottle from his pocket, ancient little sample-sized bottle of Captain Morgan's Jim had found in a dumpster behind the liquor store last week, part of some junked advertising display. Lizzie'd wanted to drink it but he'd known it would come handy for more than a thimbleful of oblivion. He fumbled with the cap and it came off at last, releasing the heady odor of half-evaporated rum. "You thirsty, I give you drink." He splashed it out onto the grave-dirt at his feet and it soaked into the dry ground in seconds. He flung the bottle at the Witch, who yipped and hopped back.

"What are you doing?" she shouted.

Tanner ignored her, caught up in the mangled spell he was crafting. From another pocket he drew a cellophane packet of crumbling cheese crackers and ripped it open, scattering crumbs on the damp earth. "You hungry, I give you food. Come you now, Papa Ghede, take your horse and ride--"

"This was not the plan!" the eyeless man shouted, dancing on the grass. It died beneath his feet, leaving a trail of vegetative hieroglyphs behind him. The ground beneath Tanner's feet heaved, cracks appearing in the sod. A ghastly smell wafted upwards and Tanner's stomach revolted, though he had nothing to rid himself of and only bile burned its way up his throat and into his mouth. He knew, as the arm thrust its way up into the night air, that he'd made a mistake, but he couldn't think what it was he should have done. The ground buckled, and the earth cracked open with a sharp metallic retort like a steel girder snapping.

You one crazy horse, boy, a deep, inhuman voice said in his ears. But no horse can carry two rider. Less you throw the one you got, I got to walk .

Tanner fell back on his ass, whimpering as the thing he'd called shambled up out of the stinking earth, tall and gaunt and grinning, trailing dirt from the ragged edges of its long black coat. Its eyes shone like polished obsidian beneath the brim of the battered top hat, and wads of cotton draggled out from its ears and nostrils--corpse-wrappings.

The Red Witch didn't back away. She stood her ground, shouting words Tanner'd known once, pulling moonlight from the air as the long black arm reached down for her. Magic crackled around her, arcing like tame lightning from finger to finger and lashing out at the looming figure overhead. Her eyes were black as night, black as the open grave, her clenched teeth white behind drawn lips, her hair leached of color under the pale moon but possessing still some quality of flame as it licked about her face. "Ignite!" she screamed as the hands came down to close about her, long fingers like the roots of trees entangling her in their grasp. The magic leaped up--

And the magic died away.

It fizzled out like cheap fireworks, leaving the witch small and scared and alone in front of the loa. Tanner, from his refuge at the feet of the stone angel, could see her eyes, normal now and gone wide and terrified with the sudden knowledge of her own vulnerability. Above Ghede's laughter he heard her shrill, desperate voice babbling the words to half a dozen spells. And there was no power behind it, none at all, and Ghede laughed. Laughed, and swung her about in a merry, obscene dance step, singing.

Si koko te gen dan li tap manje mayi griye,
Se paske li pa gen dan ki fe l manje zozo kale!

"More rum!" The loa whirled his unwilling partner aside, almost carelessly, to turn his attention upon the White Witch.

"Tara!" the Red Witch screamed before all the air was driven from her body as she hit the ground. She rolled across the ravaged turf, a limp, helpless ball, to come to a halt against Tanner's monument, and lay there drawing in ragged painful breaths and clawing at the stone with both hands, trying to drag herself upright. "Tara," she sobbed, but whether the word was a cry for help or a wail of despair was impossible to say.

"Now!" the eyeless man howled. "Now, while you have the chance!"

Tanner crawled to his knees, the moonlight singing in his ears. The Red Witch lay splayed out on the grass before him, silver tear-tracks streaking her face. Power buzzed within him, tingling down his arms and through his fingers, his own slight talent and the cold oily tide of power surging over it. He remembered now. She was the one who'd shown him this spell was possible, on the night when the walls came down. "I'm sorry," he said earnestly. "I'm really sorry."

And said the right words, in the right order, as he plunged his fingers right into her skull.

*****

It was better to get it all out in the open, Buffy assured herself. Or most of it. Really. No more festering resentment. Yep, now we have non-festering, out-of-the-closet resentment instead. Much better. She ducked under a low-hanging branch and touched the stake shoved into her belt briefly. She was too wrung out to be angry at this point; everything that was wrong with her life, starting with the fact that she was living it again, just kept trudging around and around in her brain, each worry biting at the tail of the one in front of it. She had to find a job. Was that fresh earth? Quick check... only gophers. Walk on. Without a degree she wasn't qualified for anything that paid decently. Let's face it, not qualified for anything much but slaying vampires anyway, unless someone's in the market for a really violent aerobics instructor. Willow was mad at her and jealous of Spike. She was mad at Willow, and... here she was, back from the dead for a month, walking through a graveyard at midnight, trying to come to terms with the fact that she felt most alive in the company of a dead man.

I want him.

Let's get that out of the way now, OK? I want Spike. I want to peel that stupid black shirt off like the skin off a grape. Want to lick him all over like a vampire popsicle. Want my hands on that body, want those hands on my body. Want that sweet, cruel, vulnerable, passionate mouth. Oh, yeah. Lips of Spike. Buffy want .

Spike, lounging on the couch between her and Dawn and smiling at her sister with a wondering affection when he thought no one was looking. Spike, talking soaps with her mother over hot cocoa. Spike, huddled on the sarcophagus, whispering I'd rather die through lips almost too bruised and swollen to speak. Spike, eyes alight over the fact that she'd read and liked some old poem. Spike, giving up his soul a second time for her sake, willing to let Willow's botched resurrection spell destroy him in order to save her. Spike, tossing off a snarky quip that left her snickering and trying oh-so-hard not to show it.

Spike, fangs tearing into the throat of the guard who'd shot her, even as the chip shocked him half-senseless and all right, maybe that counted as self-defense but--Spike, licking blood from his lips with complacent satisfaction afterwards. Spike, not giving a single solitary damn whether the man had lived or died.

A tombstone cracked under the force of her kick. Buffy want was one thing. Buffy get was something else. Her eyes swept the rows of moonlit graves as she stalked along the cemetery fence, one with the shadows, searching for something she could take out all her frustration on, something she could hunt, something she could slay. Irony sucks. She'd forgiven Spike his trespasses, but she couldn't afford to forget them. He'd killed tens of thousands of people in his century-plus of existence, and for all the astonishing things he'd done in the past year, she still had no idea what would happen on the day that the chip in his skull ceased to function and he was once again free to attack humans. Sometimes she could believe that he felt something akin to regret for what he was, even if remorse for what he'd done was beyond him, but was that enough?

The scary thing was, the ethical tangle wasn't bothering her half as much as the emotional tangle--the fact that he was, potentially, a remorseless killer never left her thoughts, but it was taking a definite second place to the fact that he was Spike, and he loved her. She'd be the thing that gutter slime scraped off the bottom of its shoes if she took advantage of that love just to get her rocks off. She liked him too much to do that to him and how sick was it that she liked someone who was only a step or two away from seeing human beings as take-out, and if you liked someone and wanted them at the same time, was that love, and if so, why didn't it feel like either the swoony delirium she'd felt for Angel or the safe, comfortable thing she'd felt for Riley and why the HELL wasn't there anything for her to beat up tonight?

The scream caught her off-guard, but she was in motion before it died away. About time.

Buffy sped through the cemetery, ducking branches and dodging headstones as they loomed up out of the darkness. The noise had come from the eastern side of the lot, in the direction Willow and Tara had gone. There was very little Willow couldn't handle, and she was more worried that whatever it was would be reduced to its component molecules long before she got there than anything else. The run was exhilarating in itself, the steady rhythm of her breathing in counterpoint against her footfalls on the uneven ground. She heard another scream--definitely Willow--and a ghost of unease coalesced in her breast, pounding along with her heart.

Instead of dodging the next tombstone, she took it in stride, kicking off the top and leaping upwards to the roof of the nearest mausoleum. Dry leaves scattered beneath her feet as she landed on the summit. She straightened and shielded her eyes from the city glow and moonlight with one palm, surveying the panorama spread out on all sides, rank upon irregular rank of headstones meandering off into the darkness beneath the bordering willows.

The figure threading its way nimbly through the headstones was human, and wasn't--a young woman with long tawny hair who had to be Tara, but who moved as she'd never seen Tara moving, in a jerking, bawdy parody of a dance. She was singing in no language Buffy knew, though a few words here and there sounded vaguely French, pirouetting about a large marble statue. Two more dark figures crouched in the grass at its base. A shadow followed Tara as she moved, its movements her movements, its laughter her laughter, something larger than human and not quite there. Look straight on and there was nothing but Tara, but in the corners of her vision Buffy caught glimpses of a long black coat, a tall top hat, an ebony face that was somehow oddly familiar. Tara paused her dance as Buffy watched, looking up as if sensing her presence, and a huge grin split her face. "Hey now! I hungry, thirsty--you bring me rum, ti-blanc? You bring me cigars? Kill me a rooster?" The voice was deep and rich and inhuman and reminded her of... someone.

"Tara?" Buffy jumped down from the mausoleum and advanced on the other girl cautiously. "Tara, is that you?" Tara danced lightly away, a lascivious grin lighting her face.

"Oh ho, rooster's not the cock you want, hm?" She wiggled her hips suggestively. "You want advice, ti-blanc? You want luck? You want ask questions of Papa Ghede? You want this horse again? You follow the rules, you got to feed me. Bring me my rum, by damn!"

Buffy looked from Tara to the crumpled heap which was Willow and the cowering stranger beside her. She was at the statue in three furious strides, hauling the man up by his collar and shaking him. "What's wrong with her?" she yelled. "What did you do? Turn it off!"

"I--I--" the man stammered, clearly terrified. "She's being ridden by the loa. Ghede." Buffy stared at him. "I don't know how it happened!" he gasped. "I'm not... not that powerful. I didn't even invoke Legba to open the gates to the spirit world--this shouldn't have happened. Something called him here. Not me. Not me!"

He wouldn't look her in the eyes, and kept staring at his hands in horror and loathing--he was lying, she was sure about that, but how much and about what she had no idea. "Who's this Ghede when he's at home? Is he dangerous?"

The man's chin jerked up, and he looked at her as if she were insane. "Of course he's dangerous! But if you treat him right there's...You need to get some offerings. Food, candy, alcohol--not much, Ghede's a nasty drunk and you don't want to meet his Baron Samedi aspect--kill a chicken in his honor, something! Then he'll answer your questions and dismount. He knows everything the dead know. Otherwise--"

"What?"

The man swiped the lank dark hair from his forehead, shivering in her grasp. "I don't know. Ghede's not malevolent... usually. But he's unpredictable. He could ride her till she drops. He could get bored and leave. He could walk her in front of a bus. So you need to hurry--"

"Willow," Buffy interrupted. "How badly is she hurt?"

"Red Witch," the man whispered, his eyes going curiously blank. He shook himself. "I don't know. She fell."

Buffy stood there, rigid, then let go the stranger's collar. He fell back with a little yelp and sprawled in the grass. "Keep her here," she said, her voice as flat and deadly as she could make it. "I'll be right back."

It took five minutes, maybe, for her to race across the cemetery and bang perfunctorily on the door of Spike's crypt before kicking it in. She knew the moment she went in that he wasn't here; the electric sense of his presence was missing and the place felt empty. She began a methodical search of the upper level, and eventually found what she was looking for in a crate next to the mini-fridge--the bottles of Jack Daniels Spike had picked up at Willy's the previous night, still in their brown paper bags. After a moment's hesitation she grabbed one, tucked it under her arm, and tore out of the crypt at top speed.

When she got back to the angel monument, the strange man was gone, and Willow had pulled herself up to a sitting position and was leaning back against the pedestal of the statue, giggling at nothing, her eyes deep empty pools you could dive into and get lost in. No one else was in sight and for a cold horrid moment Buffy thought Tara was gone too.

"Boo!" Tara yelled in that not-Tara voice, jumping out from behind the statue.

Willow began clapping. "'Ray!" she cried. "Round and round and round and round!"

Buffy ripped the brown paper wrapper off the bottle and held it out. "Here! Here's your offering! Now get out of Tara and leave!"

The inhuman laughter rang out again. "How you think I appreciate a sacrifice, ti-blanc?" Tara's hand shot out and snatched the bottle. She worried the top off and tipped it back, swallowing greedily, with loud gulping and smacking noises. "Eeeeeeeeeeeeyah! It not rum, but it do." She twirled off into another dance step. "My houngan done run off, but he a sorry piece of shit anyway." Tara flopped to the ground cross-legged and took another swig of whiskey, grinning widely and running the tip of her tongue over her teeth, a strangely familiar gesture. "You got three questions, ti-blanc."

"The cat asked for a pair of russet leather boots," Willow informed her, her elfin face grave. Buffy shot an anguished look at Willow, then rounded on Tara-Ghede again.

"What's wrong with her?"

The bone-shivering chuckle again. "You already know the answer, ma petite. Her ti-bon-ange sicker than hell. She crazy."

How unfair was it that she couldn't punch that smug face in without hurting Tara? Buffy ground her teeth. "How can we fix what's wrong with her?"

"You can't. Last question, ti-blanc. Make it good."

Her mind went blank, and the world held still. Ghede knows everything the dead know.

"Can I trust Spike?"

Tara-Ghede threw back her head and laughed. "As much as you trust any man, and as little. You say frog, he jump. But you have to say frog."

"And what if I'm not around to say frog? What if I say frog and he decides I meant toad? What if--it's bad enough I've got to be the Slayer and Dawn's mom and the Summers' family breadwinner! I can't be Spike's conscience too!"

The dark, liquid eyes, full of wicked humor, blinked as the grin spread across Tara's face once more. "You got no choice there, ti-blanc. You already are." She squinted down the neck of the whiskey bottle. "I give you one piece free advice: you been asking the wrong questions. Not 'What's wrong with her,' but 'Why's it wrong?' Not 'How we fix her?' but 'How can she be fix?' And not 'Can I trust him?' but 'If he do whatever I want, what I want him to do?'"

"But--"

The bottle fell from Tara's hands as she keeled over sideways, limp as an abandoned puppet. It hit the grass and rolled, spraying pungent amber liquid in its wake. Willow started back with a wail of alarm, waving one hand blindly in Tara's direction. "No, no, Great Pan is dead!"

Buffy dove forward, ending up on her knees before Tara, clutching her shoulders with both hands. Tara moaned, leaning her forehead against Buffy's shoulder and holding her stomach with both hands--hopefully not in anticipation of a mini-Ghede bursting out of it, Buffy thought. Tara looked up, her face pale and glistening with sweat in the moonlight, though the night was getting chilly, and made a painful gulping noise. "Buffy?" Her voice was her own again, but she sounded weak and sick and very, very confused. "I think... I think I'm going to be..." And then she was, jackknifing forward as half a bottle of whiskey and whatever she'd had for dinner came up in one violent heave.

Willow started sobbing, crawling across the grass towards her lover. Buffy tried to simultaneously leap back out of the way and not let Tara fall, ending up in an awkward, arm's-length position of support. She began edging to one side, still on her knees. "Ew, ew, ew... Tara, it's OK, you just drank too much. Or he drank too much, or, or something. Willow--" Willow batted at Tara's shoulder with one hand and whimpered something about sugar cubes. Buffy freed one arm. "Sit down, please, I can't--"

"I'm OK," Tara croaked. "I think. I don't remember... there was this... this thing, this big, big thing... my head hurts." Her eyes widened. "Willow. Oh, gods, Willow--can you hear me?"

"In the dry times of year, in the leaves of regret, I know a hawk from a handsaw." Willow poked the remains of Tara's dinner with one finger and wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Stinky." She slumped, losing all interest in Tara, and began twisting a strand of her hair round her finger, tighter and tighter. Buffy sat back on her heels and pressed both hands to her forehead, feeling overwhelmed.

"We've got to get her somewhere safe," Tara said, hauling herself upright against the marble angel and getting unsteadily to her feet. She held out a trembling hand to her partner. "Willow... come on, Willow..." Her voice broke. Not all of the moisture on her cheeks was sweat. "You're going to be OK, honey, we'll find some way to make you better, just like you made me better..." She looked over at Buffy, her eyes all to human now, and full of agony. "What are we going to do?"

Buffy ran a hand down her face. "Um. Crypt. It's not far to Spike's crypt. He wasn't there when I went to get the whiskey... oh, fabulous, we managed to kill the whole bottle. Somehow I think 'I had to give it to a raunchy cemetery god' isn't going to make him very happy." She got up, avoiding the aftermath of Tara's sick fit, and picked Willow up bodily. "OK. No panicking. If whatever happened to her is what happened to Willy, it'll wear off." I hope. "We go to the crypt. We clean up as much as we can. We keep an eye on Willow. What did happen to her?"

Tara hugged herself tightly for a moment, head bowed, eyes squeezed shut against the sight of Willow's slack face. Then she sighed and looked up, retreating into her shell of calm reserve. "I'm not sure. We were patrolling, and we heard that guy coming. He seemed really out of it. Willow tried to talk him into letting us take him out of the cemetery, and he... called something. Some kind of power. Willow tried to fight it, and then it just... I can't remember anything after that."

"He called it Ghede."

Tara frowned. "Ghede? That's familiar... oh! I remember! We had that in my Cultural Anthropology course last semester. It's Haitian. He's one of the Rada loa, a pretty important one, I think. Guardian of the cemetery. He's also, um, associated with sex."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Great, like I need sex and death tied up in my subconscious any more than they already are."

"I don't know much more than that about it. Voudoun's way out of my field. I always thought it was a weird combo in class," Tara mused. "On one hand he's this dangerous scary death guy you go to for advice, and on the other he's this chaotic trickster who likes to smoke and drink and make lewd jokes and have a good time. And he's a protector of children."

Buffy shrugged. "Doesn't sound all that weird to me. Though he gives sucky advice. No way worth half a bottle of bourbon."

Tara stroked Willow's forehead. After a while she said thoughtfully, "No, I guess it wouldn't seem weird, to you."

Buffy still hadn't figured out what Tara meant by that by the time they reached the crypt.

Chapter Text

Dozy little bints, Spike thought as he followed Xander away from the car. If he hadn't had to ferry Dawn"s annoying friends home, they wouldn't have passed the park. If they hadn't passed the park, they wouldn't have run into this larger but equally dozy bint, and he wouldn't be tramping after Harris on a mission of mercy. Whatever was menacing her chum had bloody well better be something he could sink his teeth into, metaphorically speaking. If it turned out to be human and he had to sit back and watch Harris play Sir Galahad he was going to lose his lunch.

He glanced back; Dawn's pale, resolute face watched him over the top of the front door window. Lisa, in the back seat, was also watching, but her expression was far from resolute, and she quickly rolled the window up when she saw him turn. He snorted. Scared. Of him. Not of Dawn"s calibre, that one. The Bit had never been afraid of him, not from the first brief glimpse they'd gotten of one another the night he'd come to offer Buffy an alliance against Angelus. Still, it had been a long time since anyone human had been terrified of him, and it felt... good. Gratifying. Not that he was going to do anything about it... not that he could do anything about it... but... there were times when the smell of fear was wonderfully nostalgic. Megan, on the other hand... just too dim to be frightened. Spike drifted off into a pleasant daydream about draining Megan to the point where she was too weak to give voice to that immensely grating giggle.

Weatherly Park bordered on state land, and in places where the fences hadn't been kept up, it was possible to wander into moderately wild terrain--though not, as made plain by the litter of cigarette butts and the occasional crushed beer can, to escape evidence of human occupation. They'd been walking for a good five minutes and were well into the trees, a grove of huge old magnolias with limbs bent nearly to the ground in places. Moonlight poured through the dark leaves and ran along the branches like molten silver, dripping down to gather in cold pools at their feet. The woman led them out of the grove and through a ragged wall of oleander and pyracantha heavy with clusters of half-ripe berries. The hem of Spike"s duster caught on a branch, bringing him back to the here and now. He yanked it free with a muttered curse.

He might be a complete git most of the time, but Harris had the right idea about avoiding the great outdoors. Vampires were creatures of civilization by necessity, but Spike objected to the great outdoors on principle. He'd been born in an era where the only sensible thing to do to a wilderness was tame it. In life he'd had harbored a romantic's fascination with the untamed variety, but that hadn't survived his first few post-mortem encounters with the real thing.

"Just how far away is your friend?" Xander asked, batting aside a branch with the butt of his axe. The woman quivered at the sound of his voice and stopped, pointing.

"Through there," she whispered, pointing to a gap in the bushes.

Through the thorny sprays of pyracantha a clearing with a picnic table was visible. Several dark figures clustered around it, and the sound of chanting rose on the night air. Spike wove his way through the pyracantha, cursing the thorns under his breath, and peered around Xander's shoulder. He heard the woman moving behind them, and didn't think anything of it. At least, not until he heard the faint whistle of something heavy slicing through the air. He turned in time to see a length of cloth-wrapped lead pipe smack into Xander's dark head just behind the ear in as expert a coshing as he'd ever been privileged to witness. Xander's knees buckled and he fell heavily to the ground, dropping the axe. "Bloody--you daft bitch, what--"

The woman swung at him and Spike dodged--or tried to; his duster had snagged very thoroughly on the pyracantha when he'd turned. There were downsides to all that dramatic flaring. The pipe grazed the top of his head, sending a shower of vermillion sparks across his field of vision. He staggered, grabbing the branches around him for support and coming up with a handful of thorns. Ignoring the pain in his lacerated palms he hauled himself up, snarling. The woman swung again, all technique gone, just pure desperate panic left. Spike struggled to free himself of his coat. The pipe clipped him in the head again, barely missing the thin bone over the temples. He ripped his left arm from the entangled duster with a yell of agony and launched a furious swing at his attacker.

He felt his fist smash into her cheek and the satisfying crunch of bone breaking. Even as she crumpled, electrical retribution from the chip arced through his skull, turning everything to light, to pain, and Spike collapsed into the thorny embrace of the pyracantha, more than usually dead to the world.

*****

There was a unique flavor of panic associated with being a vampire and waking up to find yourself restrained outdoors on the wrong side of midnight. Spike lunged to his feet, was brought up short by a double jolt of pain in his hands and shoulders, and fell back into the lamp post he was tied to with a grunt. The back of his head slammed into the metal post and the impact woke the sharp hot pain of the knots left by the pipe. It wrestled for dominance with the dull, general ache of residual chip-shock, and won out for the moment, but neither one was down for the count.

Spike made himself stop panting and sat there taking inventory, not daring to shake his head lest something come loose. The yellow glow overhead was the lamp, not the sun, and the brightness of the little clearing was due to the full moon which was still shining over the tops of the trees to the west. It was late November, nights were long, and it was still hours to sunrise. He wasn't on fire. No broken bones. He could smell blood, mostly his own, but it wasn't much and mostly dried. The worst of the pyracantha scratches still stung, but most of them seemed to have healed already. Unfortunately the same couldn't be said for his head.

He heard a muffled groan behind him. "Harris."

A beat. "Yeah?"

He didn't sound good. God knew he didn't have much of a brain to bash in, but there were limits to everything, even Harris's apparently infinite capacity for absorbing blows to the head. 'do me a favor."

A strangled snort, and the sound of futile thrashing. An elbow jabbed him in the back. "Kind of tied up at the moment, Spike."

"Next time some daft bint swans in out of nowhere wanting a John bloody Wayne impersonation, go with the impulse that says r16;Sod off"."

"Yeah, like you were Mr. Suspicion." Another bout of thrashing, accomplishing nothing. "Damn," Xander breathed, slumping back against the pole.

Spike wiggled his fingers experimentally. His arms had been pulled behind his back around the lamp post, and his thumbs were lashed together--wire, not rope. From what he could feel, Xander'd been given similar treatment. He could pick at the loops of wire with his index and middle fingers, but he couldn't get a grip at all, and the tightness with which the loops had been twisted meant there was a very real possibility that too-severe struggles could result in the loss of a digit. If he'd had any circulation his thumbs would have gone numb by now. Spike pondered the question of whether lost body parts would conveniently regenerate, or if he'd have to hunt a severed thumb down and stick it back on somehow before vampiric healing kicked in. He'd had minions injured that severely once or twice, back in the days when he'd had minions, but unfortunately for the cause of medical inquiry, at the time he'd had no interest in letting them laze around while they healed--not when it was so much faster to rip their heads off and make new ones. Wages of impatience, William old boy.

A strange woman in a faded sun dress trotted past, carrying a pile of white stones in her skirt--palm-sized fragments of crushed quartz from someone's landscaping, it looked like. Spike growled at her and wished that tearing off a few heads was still one of his options. The woman detoured well around their lamp post and joined the rest of their captors. She let go her skirt-tails and poured the rocks out on the ground, where half-a-dozen hands snatched them up and began adding them to the... assemblage.

It was centered around the picnic table. Not one of the new, UV resistant plastic ones in red and blue and yellow to be found in the main picnic area towards the front gates of the park; this was an old one, poured concrete layered with decades" accumulation of Parks and Recreation Department paint. The last layer applied had been forest green, but it looked black in the lamplight, with leprous patches of fire-engine red showing through where it had peeled back from the layer underneath. All around the table the landscaping quartz had been laid out in lines and curlicues, intersecting at crazy angles. Random objects were scattered throughout the white quartz maze--Pepsi cans, a mangled Barbie doll, a bundle of used ballpoint pens tied together with dirty pink ribbon. A scatter of devotional candles in cheap glass holders clustered on the benches to either side of the weird suburban altar. A thin middle-aged man in a grimy yellow nylon weatherbreaker was carefully drawing a series of symbols on the table with chalk.

The people working on the construction of the thing were as random as the objects that made it up. Men and women both, ranging from college-age to their mid-fifties, with pinched tired faces and hopeless eyes, working with an eerie, implacable concentration. The presence of their captives seemed to make them nervous; their eyes slid over and around the lamp post and when they had to pass by they did so at the greatest distance possible. They worked without speaking, each seeming to know his or her part by instinct. Only the woman who'd led them here sat apart, huddled beside one of the benches, whimpering softly and now and then poking tentative fingers at her bruised and swollen cheek.

"There's something disturbingly familiar about all this."

Spike grunted. "Don't fancy hanging about to let it get more so. Your hands are above mine--I can't stand up till you do."

By bracing themselves against the pole and each other's shoulders, they managed to push themselves upright. "Right," Xander gasped. "We"re vertical. Now we put stage two of my brilliant escape plan into action."

"And that would be?"

"Pliers. They tied us up with wire, someone's got to have pliers. We lure them over here, and--"

"Kick them to death? That is brilliant, except for the part where I collapse in a government-sponsored seizure and you saw my hand off trying to close the snips."

"Well, if you don't like that one, we can go to plan B." Xander threw back his head and bellowed "HEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLLLP!" Spike looked at him sourly over his shoulder. "You got a better idea, fang-face, I"m listening."

The man in the yellow windbreaker threw down his chalk and scuttled over to them, waving his hands and making shushing gestures. He bobbed up and down, his balding head gleaming in the lamplight, shaking a finger at them furiously and then going into something that looked like a goldfish impression, but before Spike could decide if kicking the legs out from under him was worth the shock, he caught the sound of approaching footsteps. Too heavy to be Buffy or Will. Not that Will might not enjoy watching him turned into cutlets, the mood she was in lately.

A moment later the man in the windbreaker heard the noise too and broke into a flurry of gestures and twitches, contorting his body extravagantly as the runner burst into the clearing. The newcomer staggered to a halt, looking like he'd just outrun the devil himself, and bent over with hands on knees to try to catch his breath. Non-descript, middle-aged, greying dark hair lank with neglect... "Bugger me sideways with a shrimp fork," Spike muttered. "That's the bloke who disappeared from the loo."

Xander craned his neck to get a better look. "Who?"

"The other night. Couple of wankers chased their dinner into the pool house whilst I was in there mindin" my own business, and I had to teach 'em some manners. When I was done the dinner'd scarpered, and I'd swear on my mum's grave he didn't go past me. All that arsing about with Willy knocked it out of my head."

The others had left their tasks and joined the man in the windbreaker in clustering around the newcomer, touching his face, patting his shoulders as if to reassure themselves he was real. "Tanner, Tanner." One of them tugged on the man's coat sleeves, pointing to the woman who'd lured them here.

The man--Tanner?--glanced over at the altar. "Fuck," he muttered. "Lizzie!" He was at the woman's side in a handful of long strides, and knelt beside her, cradling her face in his hands with impersonal tenderness. He looked up, back over at the others. "Jim, Ramon--what happened to her?"

Windbreaker Man pointed mutely at Spike. Another man, younger, larger, Hispanic, wearing a Dodgers T-shirt, mumbled, "Lizzie Borden took an axe, but the dead travel fast."

Spike's lip curled. "Not fast enough, apparently."

Tanner rose and walked over to look the two of them up and down, an inscrutable expression on his lined face. "I can't get away from you people tonight."

"Look, mate, sorry about your girlfriend's good looks, but she did a number on us first. I did you a good turn the other night; return the favor and we"ll call it even."

Tanner folded his arms and stood there staring at them, head to one side. The lamplight pooling in his dark eyes illumined no triumph. He sighed. "I wish I could. I didn't ask for any of this, you know?" He waved a hand around the clearing, taking in the altar, the little huddle of people behind him, the prisoners in front of him. "But here I am anyway, and... I have to take care of them. I"m doing it the only way I know how." He turned to the man in the Dodgers shirt. "Ramon, untie the little guy. We"ll do him first."

Ramon jogged off to the edge of the clearing and began rummaging through a bag of supplies. He came up with Xander's prophesied pair of pliers and started back, making snik-snik noises playing with them. Spike pressed warily back against the lamp post. Tanner didn't seem to have any weapons on him, unless he meant to go get the lead pipe and start a game of vampire pinata, but Spike knew first-hand about the creative things one could get up to with the contents of the common toolbox, and pliers were among the most useful of the lot. In for another bout of poetic justice, are we? Bloody wonderful.

"It probably won't do much good to explain all this to you," Tanner said, taking off his coat and folding it carefully in quarters. He laid it on the grass beside the picnic table and began rolling up his sleeves. "But I do it anyway. Seems the right thing. I can't tell you if you"ll remember any of it later. Some do." He bent down and extracted a couple of pens from the pink-ribboned bundle, pulled a rubber band out of his trousers pocket and began lashing them together. "You"ve probably noticed that most of us have a few problems... relating to reality." A rueful smile crossed his face. "I can fix that. For awhile. Just for me, in which case you'd recover. Or for everyone. In which case..." He looked genuinely regretful. "You won't."

Xander went stiff with shock. "You"re Glory's band of crazies!"

Ramon trotted up with the pliers, which looked positively friendly and welcoming compared to what Tanner was putting together. Tanner motioned him to wait, and stepped forward, holding up his makeshift cross. "Some of us were. Now... we"re family." Spike pulled away, sliding down the lamp post in an effort to avoid contact, but his bound hands prevented escape. His head jerked back as acid fire branded his brow and cheek. "Untie him, fast," Tanner snapped, and Ramon clamped the nose of the pliers on the wire around Spike's hands and began undoing the twist. Spike bit his tongue to keep from screaming at the incipient agony half an inch from his eyes. Ramon hauled him to his feet and dragged him away from the lamp post, and Tanner backed along with them, keeping the cross near enough his skin to raise a welt. "I will take care of you when this is over," Tanner said. "I want you to understand that. You"re giving us a great gift, and that makes you our - my - responsibility."

"That makes me feel just ducky. Unfortunately, I"ve got special needs you may not be aware of." Spike hooked a foot around Ramon's ankle and threw his weight sideways, quelling a whoop of triumph when the chip didn't give him more than a minor buzz. Ramon dropped the pliers and staggered under the impact, but unfortunately he had a good fifty pounds on Spike and kept his feet. Spike kicked the pliers wildly in the general direction of the lamp post before Windbreaker Guy and Tanner pounced him. The three of them wrestled him onto the picnic table while Spike twisted in their grasp like a cornered wildcat, unable to land any effective blows without shocking himself.

The three men slammed him into the concrete of the table with desperate strength and Spike heaved upwards against their hands, the muscles in his neck and shoulders corded with the strain. "Hold him down!" Tanner gasped, and another three or four pairs of hands grabbed his legs and arms. The vampire snarled up at the circle of frightened, confused faces hovering over him, morphing into game face and snapping at the nearest set of fingers. The elderly man and the thin, wispy woman in the sun dress cried out and cringed away, but they were back a moment later at Tanner's urgings. There were things on the streets of Sunnydale a hell of a lot scarier than a neutered vampire, and this lot had probably seen most of them. Spike jerked violently back and forth as Tanner began a staccato chant and his hands descended towards the crown of the vampire's head, fingers spread.

"Couldn't we maybe get you a gift certificate to Chuck E. Cheese instead?" Xander shouted over at them. "Honestly, sucking my brain won't do you any good. Ask anyone. Bottom of my class and proud of it, and Spike, well, he's--"

He's a vampire. Lesson number one, vampire equals impure. You can't even...

Spike gave up his struggle and fell back onto the concrete slab, relaxing so completely that several of the people holding him toppled forward onto the table. Saffron melted into blue as his eyes met Tanner's brown ones.

For a moment Tanner looked uncertain. Then he drove his fingers into Spike's skull.

*****

"Are you sure you"re doing it right?" Lisa asked for the third time.

"Yes, I"m sure!" Dawn turned the key in the ignition again and silently cursed the DeSoto's freaky push-button transmission--why couldn't Spike have a normal car? The asthmatic rasp of the engine cranking, sputtering, and failing to turn over resumed. She turned the ignition off and sat back, pressing her fists to her temples and trying to think. Despite the trashy appearance of the interior, Spike doted on the black monster, and kept the engine in good running order--partly normal guy-type car obsessiveness, and partly vampire necessity; Spike took his unlife into his hands every time he took a cross-country trip in daylight, and absolutely couldn't afford unexpected breakdowns. So it was unlikely that the starter or the battery was going out. The gas gauge was low, but not yet on empty--maybe the gauge was off, though, old cars could be finicky that way, and in taking them back to Lisa's place, Spike had done more driving tonight than he'd originally intended. Or maybe she'd flooded the engine, in which case all she could do was sit here and wait for it to unflood.

"I know, we could play a game!" Megan said. "Do you guys know Twenty Questions?"

"It's a breadbox," Lisa muttered. At Megan's hurt look, she added, "Duh. With you it's always a breadbox."

"Would you guys just shut up?" Dawn gripped the steering wheel and tried to stifle the wholly inappropriate yawn that engulfed her. Since school had started Buffy had made her abandon the largely nocturnal schedule she'd kept over the summer, and she wasn't used to staying up half the night anymore. She rolled down her window again and peered worriedly out into the dark.

"Heeeeeeellllp!"

"What was that?"

"What was what?" Lisa looked around, hugging herself. Dawn was already getting out of the car.

"That was Xander!"

"We"re supposed to go get your sister!" Lisa hollered after her.

The DeSoto's trunk was large enough to hide a couple of bodies, and had served just that purpose on numerous occasions. Dawn shoved the cooler and the grocery bags aside and began dragging out weapons, searching for something light enough for her to carry. Buffy and Spike made swinging five-to-ten-pound hunks of steel around look like nothing at all, but Dawn knew from certain past experiments of her own that it was a lot harder than it looked. She settled on a thing with a wickedly curved blade which was either a puny sword or an overgrown knife, and slammed the trunk shut. "There's no time to get my sister!" she shot back at Lisa, grabbing her sweater from the front seat. "Are you coming or not?"

In the darkness of the back seat Lisa looked awful, her complexion like milk about to go bad. It was weird; Dawn was used to thinking of herself as the scaredy one, the tagalong. Was this how it had started for Buffy, six years ago? Just realizing that something had to be done, and you were the only one who could do it? Lisa was looking at her with something like... "Sure."

"Me too!" Megan said. "You"re not, like, leaving me here alone to get chewed on by vampires. At least, not of the non-sexy variety."

"That's beyond gross and into grotty." Dawn shaded her eyes against the moonlight and tried to remember exactly which pair of trees Spike and Xander had disappeared between.

Megan giggled. "Oh, come on, don't tell me you never thought about it."

Dawn did a very creditable imitation of Spike's trademark disbelieving snort. "You live through three months of Angelus on the rampage and see if you find anything sexy about it." She slung the sword-knife over one shoulder, picked the likeliest pair of trees and set off at a brisk walk. "Let's go."

It was easy enough to say that, easy enough to set off with a determined look, but once into the trees it was impossible to tell which way her quarry had gone. "What if they come back to the car and we"re gone?" Lisa asked, fifteen minutes later--fifteen minutes of wandering around the picnic area, peering through hedges, and jumping at shadows. "One of us should have stayed there."

That it was a reasonable objection made it all the more annoying. Dawn scowled and kept walking. "Go on back, then. I"ll give you the keys." Lisa didn't answer, but her eyes darted from shadow to shadow and she edged a little closer to Megan. Dawn pulled her sweater tighter. It was the coldest part of the night--it must be in the fifties, and Dawn, Southern California born and bred, was convinced she was freezing. At least walking kept her warmer than sitting.

"Why don't we just yell for them?" Megan asked as they passed another deserted picnic table--the ominous lump beneath it had turned out to be a homeless guy who was probably just asleep. Dawn headed back towards the trees .

"Because then whoever's got them will know we"re coming! Haven't you ever rescued anyone before?" Megan and Lisa shook their heads, duly impressed with her expertise--no reason to clue them in that most of her experience consisted of being the rescuee rather than the rescuer. Of course they were going to be majorly unimpressed soon if she kept trekking aimlessly around the park. She bit her lower lip. "Both of you be real quiet for a minute. See if we can hear anything weird."

"We won't--"

"Just do it, okay?" Dawn closed her eyes and concentrated. It was freaky how much you could hear when you paid attention. The hiss of your own breath, the rustle of your own clothes. The soft rush of wind through the upper branches of the trees and the distant roar of traffic on the highway. Sirens. A helicopter. A mockingbird running through its repetoire. Dogs barking. And... voices, very distant, very faint. If Spike were here, he probably could have told her what they were saying, but if Spike were here she wouldn't be hunting him. It was very difficult to tell what direction they were coming from, but... "This way."

Xander lay flat on his back, arms pulled taut over his head, one leg stretched out as far as it would go. His shirt had pulled out of the waistband of his levis and hiked up around his middle. Half a dozen rocks in various sizes and degrees of sharpness were digging into his shoulderblades, and his breath was coming in harsh grunts of effort. The toe of his sneaker was only an inch or two away from the edge of the concrete path where the pliers lay.

There they were, half-open, taunting him with their nearness. Why the bleeping freck couldn't Spike have kicked a little bit harder? Xander dug his other heel into the hard-packed earth and pulled himself further away from the post, gritting his teeth against the pain in his hands. He couldn't feel his thumbs at all anymore, so how exactly he was going to use the pliers if he got hold of them was a bit of a problem, but... one thing at a time. Just one... more... inch...

"Xander!"

He froze, then slowly turned his head. Ten feet away a ragged wall of oleander rose into the moonlit sky. At the base of the hedge the foliage rustled, a pair of hands parted the branches, and Dawn's face, flanked by Lisa's and Megan's, appeared in the gap, framed in dark narrow leaves. "Blossom! Bubbles! Buttercup! I"m saved! I thought we told you to stay in the car?"

Dawn's cheeks flushed. "If you"re gonna be like that I will go back to the car."

Xander dug in his heels again and shoved himself back towards the post. A quick look over at the picnic table altar told him that the crazies were well occupied trying to keep Spike on the table. "Just get those pliers and get me off this crazy thing."

*****

The vampire's body went rigid as Tanner's fingers brushed his temples and sank ever so slightly into the skull. Instead of sinking all the way in, his probing fingers glanced away, repelled by a surface that was slick, cold... dead. Recoiling, Tanner pulled away, almost ready to abandon the attempt then and there. But no--Ronnie and the Rabbit Guy and Denise and the others, they were depending on this, even though they didn't realize it. He steeled himself, studying his prey as he hadn't done since the first desperate days after She had disappeared and he'd put the spell together out of baling wire and hope.

The brain, the body in front of him weren't alive--but they weren't really dead, either. The electrochemical reactions of a living body were replaced or augmented by demonic life-force, stoking the cellular furnaces with a cold, eldritch fire. Breathing was a wholly voluntary affair, the heart did not beat, and only the friction of its own movements kept this creature a few degrees above ambient temperature. But this body still knew pain and hunger and pleasure, this brain still had thoughts and feelings, no matter that they were stored in patterns of magic instead of electrical waves, and if only he could change the angle of approach, slide in from a different direction... Tanner's fingers sank into the skull further, slowly, reluctantly, and only with great effort.

The vampire tasted of love and rage and poetry, blood and steel and death and moonlight, man's mind and demon's soul inextricably entwined, a creature of air and darkness, and there was nothing there that Tanner could grasp that would not burn his hands to the bone in the grasping. The pale, ostensibly human face looked up at him, and smiled. "So the hellbitch that made you was right about something. Not to your taste, mate?"

Tanner broke away, his skin crawling. He flexed his fingers, sickened, and not entirely by the vampire. How different were they, really, save in what they stripped from their victims? "This won't work. Get the other one."

He probably should have kept himself from tensing as Ramon and Jim looked from Tanner towards the lamp post, should have remained impassive as they saw that the lamp post now stood bare and alone in the center of its own spotlight--should have refrained from doing anything that might draw any attention to Xander, who'd come up behind Tanner and was raising the the lead pipe over his head.

Sod that; he'd never been any good at impassive. A feral grin burst across Spike's face as the pipe came down. Tanner's eyes rolled back--not as damaging a blow as it could have been, since Xander's wounded hands could barely keep their grip on the pipe, but as Spike could attest, even inexpertly wielded it was one hell of a distraction. The hands restraining him momentarily loosened their grips in surprise, and he surged up off the table in a black-and-ivory blur and broke for freedom. He hit the ground rolling, bounced to his feet and spun round to see Xander chuck the pipe at Ramon. His head was still aching, but the rush of fight or flight shoved the pain to the back of his consciousness. His eyes met Xander's, and the grin widened. "Better part of valor, or do you want to work off some more frustration?"

Xander looked at Ramon, whom the pipe had missed by a mile. "If that means run like hell, let's do--hey! Running away is in the other direction!"

"And my coat's in this one. I"m not leaving it for the Salvation Army brigade. Run, you nit--they can't do a damned thing to me; it's your brain they want to make chowder of!"

Spike dodged Jim and the elderly man whose name had never come up and sped off across the clearing towards the pyracantha bushes. Sure enough, his duster was still tangled in the branches like a shabby black leather bat, and Xander's axe was still lying on the ground where he's dropped it. Spike snatched up the axe and gave his coat a yank, wincing as he felt the thirty-year-old leather tear. Well, he could get it repaired; it had seen worse over the decades. Coat in one hand and axe in the other, he turned on his heel and raced after Xander, drawing breath for a victory yell--and catching the scent of Dawn and her friends as he did so.

"Niblet, you"re bloody well going to be deader than I am when I catch you!" he roared. Tanner and the woman whose jaw he'd broken were still slumped beside the picnic table, but the rest of the crazies had taken off after Xander, and, whether they realized it yet, Dawn as well. Which meant that he was due for a few more run-ins with his electrical nemesis before the night was over. Spike plunged through the barrier of oleanders and began to run in earnest, feet barely skimming the ground. Patrolling with the others he rarely got the chance to go all out, and it was exhilarating to exert himself to the fullest again. Over the pounding of his own footsteps he heard the noise of people crashing through the brush ahead, drawing closer with every stride, and caught the heady scent of human sweat, redolent of fear and exhaustion.

A piercing shriek split the night ahead of him. Spike's eyes flared yellow and an anticipatory growl ripped itself from his throat. The moon was sinking behind the trees now, but his eyes could pierce the blackness of a coal mine as readily as the brightest of noons, and there was nothing between him and the hulking figure ahead but time and distance, and he was rapidly closing both. He inhaled sharply--

Not Dawn.

He checked himself in mid-leap, twisting aside and landing crouched catlike in front of Ramon, who had Lisa tucked securely under one meaty arm. She saw him loom up out of the night and whimpered, clawing uselessly at the hand over her mouth, her eyes liquid with terror.

He could hear the retreating footsteps of the others ahead of them; by the looks of it, Lisa hadn't had a chance to cry out. For a second he seriously considered leaving her behind; he'd have gladly shocked his brain to jelly for Dawn's sake, but Lisa was no one in particular to him, and he'd had enough, the last few days, of helping the helpless and having said helpless promptly turn around and apply boot leather to his arse. Buffy might get off on the whole sacred duty thing, but he didn't, and if he took off now none of them would ever know...

...until Dawn asked what had become of Lisa, and he couldn't lie to her or her bleeding sister for sod all. Bloody hell.

The whole internal debate had taken place in the space of one of his nonexistent heartbeats. Spike dropped his coat and the axe and sprang hard and fast from his crouch, tackling Ramon low around the knees, using Lisa's weight along with his own--none of the crazies seemed to have any real skill at brawling; it was only their numbers and the fact that he couldn't hit back which made them dangerous. He grunted as another shock hit him--after all this time you'd think he'd get used to them, but no such luck; maybe a human's pain centers would have burned out by now, but hip hooray for vampire healing abilities; his was in perfect working order. Ramon went down this time, skidding through the dead leaves and letting go of Lisa as he fell. Spike rolled off the larger man, swearing steadily, and staggered to his feet. Christ, but his head hurt.

Lisa, still huddled on the damp ground where she'd fallen, stared up at him, trembling. Fuck, he was still all fangy; the chit was going to wet herself. Spike shifted back, reached down and grabbed her wrist and pulled her to her feet. Lisa looked from him down to the fallen Ramon, who was wheezing and trying to get the air back into his lungs, and back to Spike.

And grabbed him round with waist with an incoherent sob, and hugged him, hard, before Spike had time to feel anything except shock.

His hands hovered over her shoulders, uncertain. He didn't touch. Not humans. Not anyone. Not anymore, not outside a fight. Not that he didn't want to. He'd always been a tactile person. But why torture himself by sidling up to all that lovely, warm, forbidden flesh? Dawn, yes. He'd gotten accustomed to Dawn's presence and her complete comfort in his, and the awkward, brotherly hugs and pats on the shoulder between them had been a large part of keeping him sane over the long summer--and maybe her too. But this--Lisa was anything but comfortable; the scent of her terror combined with the pounding of her pulse made his fangs ache to extend.

"Thank you," she whispered, and released him.

Spike stared down at her for a long moment, drawing the back of his hand across his mouth, as if to wipe away some invisible stain. He stalked over and snatched up his much-abused duster once more, picked up the axe, and thrust it at her handle first. "Here, make yourself useful and carry this. Let's go." Without sparing Lisa a further glance, he took off towards his car, not bothering to see if she followed.

Chapter Text

Dawn detoured around a tombstone and shifted the bag of groceries from one hip to the other. "You could have left me off at Lisa's." Lisa and Megan had agreed eagerly that it wasn't necessary to burden Lisa's mom with excess information about their night out, and had agreed somewhat more reluctantly to tell Lisa's mother that Dawn had gotten sick and gone home early--Megan obviously suspected the two of them of being off to have further adventures of which she was being left out.

Spike took a final drag off his cigarette and sent the butt spinning into the night. "Could've. Didn't."

Dawn shot him a sideways look under her lashes. Something had unnerved him there at the end, as they'd escaped the park; he was stalking along, head down, duster flapping behind him, doing the 'I'm a predatory creature of the night and don't you forget it!' thing big time--a difficult effect to achieve while carrying a styrofoam cooler under one arm, even if it was full of pig's blood, but Spike had had a lot of practice. "I thought we weren't going to add to my sister's worries."

"That," Spike said, "was before you left the car." He looked down at her and his voice softened. "Not that we didn't appreciate the hand, Bit, but if anything'd gone wrong you could have ended up roughly as bright as Harris. Your chums--they had no idea what they were getting into, did they? Not the best choice for backup, pet. For bloody stupid planning I'm bound to make you suffer, and I can't think of anything calculated to cause more suffering than forcing you to endure your sister's company when she's good and brassed off."

Dawn punched him in the arm. "You really are evil." She stuck her lower lip out and added in lower but still perfectly audible to vampires tones, "And if you think enduring Buffy's presence is a good punishment for stupid plans, no wonder you come up with so many of them."

He chuckled, his mercurial spirits on the upswing again. "Pet, I still don't buy that you could spot a kukri knife in a dark boot and completely miss the full can of petrol right beside it."

"I told you, it was behind the cooler!" She wasn't going to live that one down for quite awhile. "Anyway, it's not my fault you drive a car that gets, like, three miles to the gallon."

Spike looked wounded. "Twelve, I'll have you know!" As they approached the crypt he stopped in the middle of the path, frowning, and put a restraining hand on Dawn's shoulder. "Half a mo'. We've got company."

Dawn looked ahead. Tawny golden light poured out through the windows of the crypt--someone had lit the candles, which meant that the visitor was either human or some other kind of demon--vampires wouldn't have needed the light. A darker shape moved behind the iron crossbars of the window. Spike pulled Dawn off the path and into the shadow of a nearby elm. "See if you can stay put this time."

He glided off towards the crypt, a shadow among shadows, all business now and infinitely more dangerous-looking for it. Dawn set her bag down and folded her arms across her chest, tucking her hands into the sleeves of her sweater against the chill. With all that had gone on already tonight, she was far more on edge than she liked to admit, and letting Spike out of her sight was the last thing she wanted to do. She stood on tip-toe, trying to see what was going on inside, but the angle was wrong and the candlelight too diffuse to make anything out.

It was with great relief that she saw the vampire's pale head re-appear in the crypt doorway. "All clear, pet. It's just your sis."

"Oh, great. I was hoping it was only a flesh-eating demon."

When Dawn entered the crypt Buffy was hovering beside the stairwell to the crypt's lower level, arms folded, head down, carefully not looking at Spike. Spike was setting the cooler down by the refrigerator, carefully not looking at Buffy. Dawn expected her sister to go into lecture mode immediately, but to her surprise Buffy just acknowledged her presence with a nod.

"I put her in your bed," Buffy said. "I hope that's OK. Tara's down there with her now."

"Yeh, no problem." Spike ran a hand through his hair and bent to fiddle with the lid of the cooler. "Still housebroken, isn't she?"

The two of them were not looking at each other so hard Dawn wouldn't have been surprised to see scorch marks in the air between them. Ooh, this was new. Dawn tried not to stare too obviously as she set the grocery bag down on top of the mini-fridge and began pulling things out. Buffy'd said they'd had a fight. What kind of fight left you acting like that? Buffy'd always claimed that Spike considered a punch in the nose third base. "Her? Her who? What's wrong?"

"Willow," Buffy said, her voice flat. "She's--last night, we found Willy the Snitch wandering around in the middle of the highway, acting like one of Glory's crazies. Tonight Willow ran into the guy that did it. At least I hope so--I'd hate to think there were two of them running around. Willow has left the building, sanity-wise."

Spike abandoned the no-eye-contact game and looked right at her, startled. "Would the bloke she ran into be a skinny dark-haired git about so tall?" He held a hand a few inches above his own head. "Dresses like Babbitt on a bad day?"

"Failing the cultural literacy quiz here, but yeah, that sounds like him." Buffy rubbed her forehead and pulled her hair back from her face, still avoiding the vampire's gaze.

"Is Willow going to be OK?" Dawn asked. "Tara can fix her, right?"

"I don't know. I hope so. Willy recovered, so..." Buffy frowned at Spike. "How do you know what Mr. Brainsuck looks like?"

With a common problem to focus on, the uncomfortable tension between the two of them dissipated like morning fog. "Harris and I crashed his picnic in Weatherly Park." Spike knelt down, opened the cooler and began transferring his blood to the fridge. "Showed up running like Old Nick was after him. His name is Tanner, he was one of Glory's lot, and he's still got a whole crew of nutters with him--they pulled a bait and switch on Harris, got him to go poncing off after a damsel in distress--"

It was Buffy's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Followed by his faithful vampire companion?"

Spike gave her a dirty look. "Couldn't let the bleeder wander off on his own, could I? Wouldn't last ten minutes, and you'd skin me for it. Though in his case, damned if I know what difference losing his mind would make. From what this Tanner bloke said when he tried his Tibetan memory trick on yours truly, if he ran into Will by himself, she'll get over it. Put those biscuits in the crate there, Pigeon," he directed Dawn. He examined the contents of said crate and held up the remaining bottle of whiskey with a frown. "Oi, I had two of these in here!" He sniffed suspiciously. "Slayer?"

Buffy groaned. "I don't have time to explain right now, but it was vitally necessary." A ferocious light entered her eyes. "This guy went after you and Xander? Xander's all right?"

"Eh--a bit knocked about. We dropped him off at the emergency room to have his hands seen to. Anya's with him. And I'm just fine, thank you for asking."

Buffy ignored him. "Dawn, why exactly are you here?"

"It was vitally necessary?" Dawn said with a weak grin. She held out a box of Ritz crackers. "Hungry? We can make peanut butter cracker sandwiches."

They ended up making up a plate full of crackers, cheese and apples to take down to Tara, Spike grumbling the whole time about not having signed on to feed the multitudes. Dawn held it carefully in one hand while climbing down the glorified ladder which served as a staircase to the lower levels.

Spike's downstairs was bigger than his upstairs, including the original lower level of the crypt, several rooms dug out beneath the cemetery, and access to the tunnels running all over Sunnydale. Though he had indeed gotten rid of the pile of moldering skulls (Dawn rather regretted the loss; the skulls had been pretty cool) the atmosphere was still leaned more towards the Addams Family than Better Homes and Gardens. There was real furniture down there now, but whenever he'd run into a coffin in the course of his excavations, Spike had hauled it out and incorporated it into the decor. Dawn occasionally speculated on whether or not the end tables still harbored their original occupants, but had never gotten up the nerve to ask.

The bedroom was off the main room through a low, irregular archway. It was a weird combination of comfortable and creepy. The floors were blanketed with a haphazard collection of oriental rugs. There was a bookshelf, a nightstand with an old-fashioned pitcher and basin, a coffin-cum-blanket chest, and a wardrobe which, at a guess, housed Spike's extensive collection of black jeans and t-shirts. Another coffin or two hung drunkenly out of the packed earth of the walls by way of decoration. The room was dominated by a huge old four-poster bed in dark wood, complete with canopy in hunter green and cream swirls. In the middle of the vast expanse of counterpane Willow was curled, small and waifish with her auburn hair in flyaway wisps about her face.

Tara looked up as they entered; she was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching Willow with a heartbreaking expression. Willow broke into an agitated wail when she saw Dawn. "Oh, the shining, the shining, come over the sea with the brightness inside..." She reached out, fingers crooked, raking the air with both hands. Dawn cringed back. She'd thought this was all over. She wasn't the Key anymore, she was just Dawn Summers, dammit! Wasn't it ever going to stop?

"I don't think it's a good idea, everyone being in here at once," Tara said, taking the plate with an apologetic look.

Buffy circled the bed; Willow had half-crawled, half-slumped over to the side opposite Tara, and was pawing aimlessly through Spike's pile of bedtime literature, shoving things under the bedstead at random. "Come on, Will, sit up." Willow ignored her, and Tara leaned over, took her lover firmly by the shoulders and pulled her upright. Buffy shot a helpless, guilty look back at the others. What on earth did she have to feel guilty about? Dawn thought bitterly. She couldn't stop staring at Willow's slack, horrible, yearning face. She felt sick to her stomach.

"Come on, Bit," Spike said, taking her arm. "We'll give them some air."

Guilt or no guilt, she was exhausted, and it was a relief to collapse on the couch in the main room, though it was one of those stiff, fancy drawing-room type divans and not exactly built for comfort. Spike sat down on the end opposite and watched her, head on hand. Dawn tucked her arm under her head and stared across the room at the niche in the wall where Spike had once kept that pathetic shrine to her sister--the shrine was long gone, but the niche still had a couple of defiant snapshots tacked up: one copy of the picture of her and Buffy and Joyce which stood in the Summers' living room, but mostly a series of goofy pictures of her and Spike making faces at the camera that they'd taken at one of the four-for-a-dollar photo booths at Sunnydale Mall. Someday she'd find someone to explain why vampires wouldn't reflect in anything, but photographed just fine. "So--counting Willow, how many people have ended up dead or insane because of me?"

Spike snorted. "Zero. Don't recall you holding a gun to anyone's head and forcing them to suck anyone else's brains out."

She rolled over and stared up at the vaulted ceiling, lost in darkness and cobwebs. I'm fifteen years old, I didn't really exist until those stupid monks shoehorned me into everyone's memories a year ago, I know that ho-bag Kirsty is badmouthing me to Kevin in first period history, Mom's dead and dad never calls, my sister is a vampire slayer and my best friend is a defanged vampire. "Spike--when do I get to stop feeling like shit about existing?"

Spike leaned back, laced his hands behind his head, and pursed his lips. "It's been a long time, but I seem to recall that stage lasting from approximately age thirteen to age twenty-eight. 'Course between you and me, Bit, I was a bit of a wanker in my breathing days."

"What happened at age twenty-eight?"

"Dru killed me."

"Oh."

"All things considered, I don't recommend it as a cure for weltschmertz."

"Guess I'll pass."

Spike leaned over and pulled an afghan down from the back of the couch, tugging it over her shoulders. "Get some sleep, pet. Will'll be fine."

*****

Spike was slouched in the middle of the long gold couch when Buffy came out of the bedroom, one booted foot propped up on the coffin in front of it, the other folded under him. He was balancing a book on his bent knee, head cocked back a bit. Spike reading. She was still trying to get used to that. It wasn't anywhere near as bad as Giles' place, but once you knew to look for them, Spike had books stashed all over the crypt--tattered Remo Williams paperbacks and lurid romance novels rubbing spines with Shakespeare; Dorothy Parker living in literary sin with Hunter Thompson. They'd always been there, but somehow she'd never noticed before--before having died.

Her sister was curled up on the far end of the couch underneath a black-and-red crocheted afghan--more or less; Dawn's long-legged, coltish body didn't curl very compactly any longer. Her feet, still in their straggle-laced sneakers, hung off the couch, and her glossy chestnut hair fanned out over the arm. She was making a very soft noise as she slept, somewhere between a snore and a sigh. Buffy, unwilling to disturb her, walked over as quietly as she could and sat down beside Spike. His eyes flicked up as her shadow fell over him, then down to his arm's-length perusal of the book again. He seemed to have gotten over the impulse to hide it and pretend he'd only been watching Bob Barker. Not that that would work very well when the television was upstairs. "How's Will?"

Her shoulders slumped. "Same old. I wish we knew how long before we found him Willy'd been hit. It would give us some idea how long Will's going to be..." She felt tears welling up again. "Oh, god, the things I said to her! If that's the last thing she remembers of me..."

"Ah, love..." Subdued, Spike closed the book and tossed it over onto the coffin; it hit the curved lid with a thump and slid off. His hand hovered just short of her shoulder in that way he had of not quite touching her. "Haven't exactly been thinking the happiest thoughts about Will myself lately." His arm finally settled on the back of the couch, behind her. Still not touching, but the tension in his body was palpable.

A mewling noise came from the bedroom, followed by the wordless murmur of Tara's voice. Buffy shuddered, straightened, and looked over at the door. "Spike--"

"Buff--"

"Me first," she said, rushing the words out. "I'm tired of missing my chances to say things. If I'd talked to Willow weeks ago and tried to work this out--"

He made a small impatient noise. "Guilt runs in the family, does it? Love, this isn't your fault--"

"Shut up, Spike, this has nothing to do with Willow and I want to get this said. I was out of line last night. Not for wanting you to pay for your own blood, but for--for--" She stopped, stiff with frustration. "This is so hard to explain! For trying to--to force you to..." Spike sat up a bit straighter, head cocked in perplexity. Buffy gnawed on her lower lip. "I didn't want the reminder," she said at last. "I was forgetting there, for a minute, who you are. What you are. I don't want to do that."

His flinch was barely perceptible. Buffy cringed. "No! I don't mean it like--why do I suck at this so much?! I don't want to forget it because--because I don't want to forget anything about you. Spike, you've changed. A lot." Enough? God, I don't know.. . "Sometimes I can't believe how much." She swallowed, hands clasping convulsively in her lap. "But you did it by yourself. I can't jump in now and make you--"

The intensity in his voice was terrifying. "You know I'd do anything for you, love..."

"That's the problem! It wouldn't be real, don't you see? And if there's ever going to be anything between us--" (and oh, did his ears prick up at that) "It's got to be--there can't be any lies. For either of us. I--the loving me, I know that's big, bigger than I can really--but I can get love from a lot of places, Spike. You give me honesty, and that's... Never change that. Never. No matter what else--"

Spike didn't say anything, just sat there, attentive, gaze riveted to her face, waiting for her to finish. She couldn't deny, deep down, that it was a bit of a rush, this power she held over him, the more so because she knew it left her balanced on a knife's edge. Spike might be love's bitch, but even he had limits, as Drusilla could attest, and there was no guarantee she wouldn't push him to those limits, someday. The loa's inhuman voice rang in her ears. What do you want him to do?

"You don't have a soul. I can't ever pretend that you do. But you do have a mind. So promise me something, Spike. About the blood. In fact, about everything." She drew a deep shuddery breath. "Do what you think is right. Even if I don't like it--even if I hate it, even if I hate you. It--it's got to be real, what I see when I look at you."

Spike sat there for a long time, studying her with those incendiary blue eyes. At last he sighed. "You don't make it easy on a bloke, do you, Slayer?"

She managed a shaky smile. "It's part of my charm."

"Maybe Harris will trade me for the flower problem."

"Huh?"

"Long story." The corners of his mouth twitched. "I was going to tell you I'd decided to give up the nummy people snacks for good, but in light of new information p'raps I should reconsider."

Buffy stared, floored. "Um."

The twitch turned into a grin. "Close your mouth, Slayer, you'll catch flies. I don't bloody well want to, you know. Imagine living on oatmeal with all essential vitamins and minerals added for the rest of your life and you'll get some idea of what the pig's blood diet is like." He laced his fingers together and rested his chin on his hands, dark brows knit, obviously thinking hard. "Tell you what," he said at last, "I won't drink anything that I don't know for certain came from a willing healthy donor." He quirked an eyebrow. "Blood from Willy's stable of drunks tastes like sodding turpentine anyway."

She studied him in turn. This is Spike, technically evil vampire. Someone I shouldn't like, shouldn't trust, shouldn't want--and do. "Okay. That's a decision I don't have to stake you for."

He snorted. "Ah, I should have guessed that was the downside to your little do-as-you-like speech."

"Hey, I have to be all with the honesty too." Buffy stared at the cover of the fallen book, but it was upside-down and the lettering was too faded to make out anyway. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the crushed-velvet upholstery. There was only a breath between them--literally; Spike inhaled sharply as her hair tickled his arm, and she felt his ribs brush lightly against her shoulder. Spike used breath the way a writer used punctuation, for emphasis, for clarity. Every rise and fall of that black-clad chest meant something: there were no unneeded breaths. Lucky her, she had to inhale all the time and there was no way he could tell which breath was spurred by mere need of oxygen and which from the imperative to draw as much of his scent into her lungs as possible.

Admitting to the attraction, even if only to herself, had probably been a mistake. Do you think maybe you could go back to trying to kill me on a regular basis, Spike? It's way more effective than cold showers . Eyes tight shut, she could still map out the lineaments of his body relative to hers--nothing mystical or romantic about it, just that around Spike her Slayer's sense for a vampire's presence grew incredibly intense and specific: not just 'vamp nearby!' but 'Spike, right here!' It had been that way with Angel, once. Maybe it would be that way with any vampire she was around for a long enough time.

He wouldn't make the first move; he knew she didn't love him, and that she'd never act on the desire he'd always known was there. She wouldn't make the first move; she knew she couldn't possibly get involved with another vampire, especially a soulless one, most especially Spike. So they could go on like this forever, dance at arms' length in the exquisite torture of one another's presence, taunt one another in the desperate hope that one of them would snap, and somehow the results wouldn't be the other's fault. Or she could back off, return to a life where Spike was just another thing out there in the dark, put them both out of their misery.

Except that the thought of life without Spike in it had all the appeal of day-old Tab.

And wasn't she supposed to be being honest, here? She didn't love him. But she was no longer at all certain that she couldn't love him.

"There's no way this isn't going to hurt, is there?" she said softly.

Spike didn't ask what she was talking about--he always knew. "Eventually? Yeh. But Christ, love, what doesn't, eventually?"

"Well. Someone once told me to risk the pain." Buffy leaned over--only an inch or two, all that was necessary--and closed the distance between them, sliding her arm behind him, her hand burrowing between the small of his back and the couch. Every muscle in his torso twitched in response to her touch, and he let out a long hissing sigh.

She'd done this before. A year ago, with Riley. A lifetime ago, with Angel. Even once with Spike, under the influence of Willow's mis-cast spell. She had loved the dead before, and her body remembered what she had tried to forget in the arms of the living. Familiar, the cool weight of his arm slipping down to rest on her shoulders, the room-temperature body next to hers slowly warming with her heat. Familiar, her own heartbeat sounding the all louder in her ears for lack of any answering beat in the chest beneath them. Familiar, the sensation of irregular breaths drawn and held far too long for human comfort, and the faint earthy scent of male vampire.

And different, the whipcord leanness of his body, the ease with which they fit together, the way his shoulder was the perfect height for her head. Different, the contours of his face beneath the blind explorations of her free hand, the angle of his jaw, the elegant jut of his cheekbones and the hollows beneath, the scar running across his left brow, legacy of another Slayer, long ago. Different, the long cool fingers, nicotine-stained, slightly callused, drifting across her own cheek and brow. Different, the crisp stiffness of his gelled hair and the way it sprang into traitorous curls when mussed. Different, the smell of leather and tobacco, whiskey and shaving soap that was uniquely Spike.

God, it felt good to touch him with no ulterior motive, felt as if years worth of tension were draining out of her through every square inch of their close-pressed bodies. Buffy opened her eyes, looking up into Spike's face, watching as astonishment and adoration and lust and (ah, for him too) sublime relief chased across it, and whatever he saw in her face (and she herself had no idea what the huge giddy bubble of emotion expanding outwards from her center was composed of) it couldn't have been too bad. Citrine fireworks burst and faded in the blue of his eyes, but his features were still entirely human. "Change," she said.

Spike blinked, customary eloquence fled. "Huh?"

"Change. I want to see all of you."

He looked at her a moment longer, and then the bones of his face shifted beneath her fingers, his canines lengthened into fangs and the demon ridges emerged from his brow, lowering over eyes gone lion-gold. She traced the new lines curiously. She was unused to seeing him like this; unlike most vampires, Spike spent most of his time in human guise, but there was a strange, harsh beauty even in this aspect of him. "There's something I've been wanting to ask you for a long time," she said, trailing one finger down his cheek.

His voice was husky. "Yes, love?"

Buffy stared deep into those leonine eyes and whispered in a voice as sultry as she could make it, "Why don't you have any eyebrows in game face?"

Spike exploded in snort of laughter, face melting back into humanity. "Fuck you, Slayer."

She smiled--the teasing one. "We'll see."

"Bitch." Looking at her as if he wanted to eat her whole.

"Pig." Looking at him as if she'd like nothing better.

"You've still got stupid hair."

Buffy twined her fingers in his own thoroughly disordered locks. "You dare dis the hair, bleach boy? This means WAR!"

Spike leaned forward, eyes glittering beneath half-closed lids. "Bring it on, baby." His hands slid down her back, fingers kneading the muscles along her spine. He was growling deep down in his chest, a low purring rumble she'd only heard once or twice before (because really, how often was Spike relaxed and happy at the same time?) The sound vibrated through her whole body, curling her toes as her arms locked around his narrow waist and pulled him closer. Mmmm. Toasty. If this was what a relatively chaste hug felt like, God help her when they actually got around to the lip action-- waitaminute, lip action? Who says there's going to be--

"Guys, Willow's--" Tara stopped, hand flying to her mouth, and the two of them broke apart guiltily. "Um. Awake. Now."

Spike groaned. Buffy whacked him on the shoulder and squirmed out from underneath him, her cheeks aflame. Tara's eyes were darting everywhere and anywhere but the couch. "I w-wasn't, uh, interrupting..."

"No," Spike grumbled, "But if you'll sod off for about fifteen minutes I can fix that."

"Don't start picking out curtains just yet." Buffy tugged her blouse into place. Ego much? Once out of physical contact with the mind-altering substance that was Spike, the Ohmigod I did what with who on the same couch my semi-innocent baby sister is sleeping on? reaction was starting to set in. What, does he think one, uh, comradely, yeah, that was a good word for it, comradely, hug means I'm just going to swoon and tumble into his manly arms and--they are awfully nice arms, all muscley and... Stop that! Spike was just sitting there and grinning at her, doing that maddening thing with his tongue when Tara wasn't looking. "I'm going to go talk to Wills, and then I'm going to take Dawn home, and--"

Big in-no-way-innocent blue eyes blinked up at her. "Does she fancy a fireman's carry, or d'you want me to give you a ride?"

Damn. "I'll think about it."

"You do that, love. I know I'll be thinking about it."

Buffy glared at him to no effect whatsoever, and beat a hasty retreat to the bedroom.

Willow was Willow again, sitting up in the middle of Spike's bed and nibbling on crackers and cheese. Tara had stayed out in the other room with Spike, abandoning Buffy to the mercy of her own good intentions. "So..." Buffy laced her fingers together on her lap and studied her nails intently. "You're feeling better?"

Willow nodded, rolling the edge of the coverlet into little curls with one hand and unrolling it again. "Better in the sense of not completely insane, yes. Otherwise... pretty brain-fried." She wrinkled her nose and lifted up a handful of coverlet. "And I think Spike smokes in bed. I'm going to smell like the Marlboro Man for a week."

"Hey, thanks to Mr. Possess-and-Run I practically bathed in bourbon. Join me in a mutual 'ew.'" Though in certain select instances the combination isn't completely revolting--stop that! "Spike says he ran into the guy who did this to you. His name's Tanner, or at least that's what he's calling himself. Spike thinks he's one of the people Glory brainsucked. There seems to be a whole gang of them on the loose."

"Oh. That's good, I guess. Or not good. But useful. I-I can't remember much after I started to talk to him. It's all confused until I woke up here." Her haunted eyes reflected the candle flames, a muddle of light and dark. "But I can check the name against the hospital's admissions records last spring and see if it matches any of the known victims. Maybe we can find something that'll help us track him down. Plus this thing that took over Tara--got to be a big clue, right?"

"Are you sure you're up to all that?"

Willow summoned up a wan smile and tucked her hair behind her ears. "The Net Witch is all good to go."

"Well, that's good." Buffy licked her lips. "Will... I just wanted to tell you..." This was her night for awkward confessions, it seemed. "About what I said earlier. I'm sorry. Or not for what I said, for the way I said it--I mean, I was angry about what you did, but I shouldn't have--I should have tried to talk to you about it before, not--"

"Is it really that awful?" Willow broke in. Her hands had clenched on the blankets. In the dim light her eyes were the color of moss in deep water, and her voice sounded husky and smudged, like a bad recording. "Being back here. Alive. Is it really so bad that you have to hate me for it?"

"I don't hate you!" Buffy cried, taking the other woman's hands in her own. "I could never hate you, Wills, and that's what makes this so--no, it's not awful. It's not--it's not anything, really. I just feel so... so flat most of the time. Like I'm living behind glass. And every now and then the glass disappears and I'm really in the world again, but the glass always comes back, and the good moments make the rest that much worse--I can't remember where I was when I was dead. I can't even remember if I was. There's this huge hole in me, and I can't..." She trailed off in frustration.

"That's part of the spell." Willow's voice was small and sad. "I changed the part of the spell where it says 'the gates of Hell shall open,' 'cause, you know, pretty sure you weren't in Hell. But mostly the Scroll of Aberjian was used to bring back people who'd been sent to, well, pretty awful places. The Raising spell's designed to make the subject forget the pains of hell, so they're not completely wild and crazy. Like Angel, when he came back?"

"So thoughtful of it. So I get to forget the pleasures of Heaven, or the world without shrimp, or wherever I was?" Buffy sighed. "I guess it could have been worse."

"Yeah." Willow blew hair out of her eyes. "I could have done something really stupid, like bringing you back to life inside your coffin. But..." A pleading note entered her voice. "Like you said this morning, it's getting better, right? I mean, most of today was good, right? So pretty soon you'll be fine again."

Buffy opened her mouth, but the expression on Willow's face, so full of raw, aching hope--Please don't tell me I've ruined my best friend's life --killed the words aborning. "Yeah, Will," she said, very softly. "I'll be fine."

After all, she wasn't really lying. Maybe she would be, someday.

*****

Dawn sat in the back seat of the DeSoto between Willow and Tara, lulled into a half-doze by the hum of the engine. Occasionally Spike or her sister, up in the front seat, would make some meaningless comment about the route home, or getting together with the rest of the Scoobies tomorrow. None of it was as interesting as the fact that Spike had his arm draped over the back of the front seat, his hand on her sister's shoulder, and was stroking the point of her collarbone with his thumb. And her sister not only hadn't broken his nose but seemed to be scooching across the front seat, getting closer and closer to him.

"I've got my keys," Tara said as the car pulled into the Summers' driveway and the engine rumbled to a halt. She got out and started up the walk to the front porch, stopping half-way. "Willow, do you need help?"

"I'm--well, maybe. Dawn?"

Dawn pried her eyes all the way open and got out with Willow on the street side. Willow made her way rather shakily around the car, leaning on Dawn's arm for the walk up to the porch. There was no weight to her, as if her ordeal had hollowed her out and all that was left was a Willow-shaped shell. Dawn felt as if she could have picked her up and carried her as easily as Buffy could have.

Tara undid the lock and the deadbolt and ushered Willow inside. "Where's Buffy?"

Dawn looked over her shoulder. "Still in the car, I think." She squinted over at the car; a vague shape moved behind the blacked-out windows of the DeSoto. "Buffy?" She hopped down off the porch, walked back over to the driveway, and rapped sharply on the windshield. "Buffy! You in there?"

The car lurched in place, the shocks protesting, and for a second a hand was plastered to the windshield. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP! The blat of the horn was followed by a muffled yelp. Dawn jumped back as the door flew open. Spike tumbled out backwards with Buffy on top of him, her hands clutching the lapels of his duster, engaged in major kissage. Red-hot, desperate, someone's-coming-back-any-minute face-sucking. Spike hit the ground with a thump that would have knocked the air out of anyone who'd needed air, but neither of them seemed to notice the change in scenery.

"Aaaaahhhhh!!!" Dawn clapped her hands over her eyes. "If you guys don't break it up I'm going to need a parental advisory warning for my own driveway!"

Buffy drew back with a gasp, her eyes wide and stunned, and looked around, obviously trying to figure out how they'd gotten from the front seat to the driveway. Spike folded his arms behind his head and lay there on the concrete with what was quite possibly the most self-satisfied smirk in the history of the world, in no hurry to get her off of him. "Um," Buffy said. "I, uh, we slipped."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Duh. Are you going to come in or make out in the driveway all night? Do I need to get the hose?"

Her sister met Spike's speculative grin with the Look Of Death, scrambled to her feet and dusted off the knees of her jeans. Spike heaved a melodramatic sigh and followed suit, getting back into the car. "See you tomorrow, love?"

"Uh. Yeah. For the date. I mean meeting. I mean at the Magic Box."

Buffy looked more than a little dazed as the DeSoto roared out of the driveway, to the probable annoyance of the neighbors. "So, uh, Dawn--you saw the, uh..."

"Mutual tonsil swabbing? Hard to miss." The situation cried out for a little more sisterly hassling. But Spike probably needed all the help he could get in light of the way Buffy's last vampire affair had ended up. Or heck, any of her affairs. Soul or no soul, Angel had been kind of a tool--blowing in with some useless, cryptic warning, getting Buffy all worked up, and disappearing again. Until Buffy'd boned him and he'd lost his soul and gone on a murderous rampage, anyway. Riley had been really cool for awhile, but then he'd gone all weird and left.

"It's not what it looks like," Buffy said. "It's--something else."

Dawn opened her mouth, looked at Tara, who was still standing saucer-eyed in the doorway, and shrugged. Buffy was freaked about the whole lack of soul thing, and maybe she had a right to be--she'd seen pre-chip Spike kill people, rip their throats out and drink their blood and toss them aside like used juice boxes. Dawn had only heard a lot of stories. Of course she'd seen him kill demons and revel in every blood-soaked minute of it, and if that guy who'd shot Buffy hadn't died it certainly hadn't been for lack of Spike trying, so it wasn't like she was completely naive about him or anything, and even post-chip Spike could be seriously scary when he put his mind to it... but she still liked him better than Angel. At the best of times Angel'd been stiff as a board with Dawn, as if eleven-year-old girls were some sort of weird alien life form he wasn't sure he wanted to communicate with. It had been fun stalking him and Buffy and popping up from behind the bushes with the perennial cry of little sisters everywhere-- "Whatcha doooooin'?"

"Buffy..." Tara seemed to have gotten her voice back. "Are you sure th-that..."

Buffy shook her head. "No. Not sure of anything."

Dawn put a hand on her sister's shoulder. "Whatever it is, I'm good with it." Buffy looked up at her, startled (and how cool was it that Buffy had to look up at her? Ha!) "I love you, dope. And I really like Spike. So I want you both to be happy." Despite noble intentions, she couldn't quite repress a snicker. "And you sure looked like you were happy."

For some reason that made Buffy look even more surprised. "I was?" She closed the door behind them, started up the stairs, and it was only chance that Dawn was close enough behind her to hear her repeat softly to herself, "I was."

Chapter Text

Buffy burrowed deeper into the covers, hugging her pillow, the sensations of waking muddled up with the fading dream... memory? Arms tightening convulsively around her, strong enough for her to feel it, strong enough that the pressure of her own embrace elicited a growl of pleasure instead of a wince of pain. A stir of realization: I don't have to hold back. Cool moist velvet of his tongue against hers, deft nervous hands roving along her sides, her back, pulling her closer, never close enough. Scenting her desire, his growl going from contented purr to something savage, primal, dangerous. Deep in her belly a molten internal pulse ignited in response...

She woke with a gasp. Morning sun slanted through her windows, drawing trails of light across the bedspread. She heard voices downstairs, smelled coffee brewing--or reconstituting, or whatever you called it when hot water hit Folger's Instant. Maybe someday she'd get up the nerve to experiment with the coffee maker again. Surely it couldn't be too hard to make it do the drippy thing instead of the running dry and catching fire thing. Coffee, coffee, coffee, think about--Spike.

Buffy rolled over with a groan. She shouldn't be feeling all warm and tingly. Triple plus ungood. She flung the covers aside with a shiver that had nothing to do with the nippy fall air, pulled her robe off the bedpost and struggled into it. Shower. Cold shower. Very cold shower. That worked for guys, right? Into the bathroom. Brush teeth, stare blearily at un-made-up morning Buffy-face in mirror. Remember to take off robe before entering shower.

She almost leaped right through the closed shower door when the icy spray hit her. Abandoning her pursuit of asceticism, she frantically twisted the hot water on. There, that was bearable. Cool, not cold,
just like--okay, hot shower. Very hot shower.

In the unforgiving light of morning the events of the previous night were surreal. One minute she was giving a really impressive speech on valuing honesty over kissy-face, and the next she was scarring Dawn permanently with Slayer Porno Theatre. Not that Dawn hadn't spied on her and Angel, or her and Riley for that matter, half a million times, the little perv. But they'd been boyfriends, and Spike was--Spike. And oh, God, Tara'd seen the
whole thing. Both times. Tara probably doesn't even
have baser urges. She's like a Platonic solid. Or something Greek, anyway. Please let them all have been eaten by Zagros demons before I come down...

One advantage of waking up late was that Dawn had already left for school. Maybe if she was lucky everyone else would be gone, too. An hour later, having determined that showers of any temperature were not much good for anything besides the removal of dirt, and after pulling out everything in her closet at least twice in a futile hunt for something that didn't scream 'I'm having wet dreams about Spike,' Buffy trotted downstairs in jeans and a camel-colored cowl-necked sweater, hair wrapped up in a towel and stomach inhabited by a large flock of butterflies.

Much to her chagrin, though it was almost ten, Willow and Tara were still in the kitchen. Didn't they have classes anymore? Her feet slowed, then stopped, and she stood wavering on tip-toe on the third stair from the bottom, hand on the railing and ears straining to catch Tara's low, concerned voice.

"...another vampire? No matter how much help he's been lately, it's only been a year since he was trying to kill us. Hard to believe it's not some kind of--of vampire fetish."

Willow didn't sound quite as dire. "Maybe--love the thing you kill, and all? That would be deeply psychological. But, benefit of the doubt--she told me she just likes him. And he's saved her life almost as many times as he's tried to kill her now, which, big plus. Besides, he is wicked cute."

"If you say so." Tara sounded dubious. "I'm more worried about him being plain wicked. I know he's pretty much non-practicing evil at the moment--" A thoughtful pause. "Cute, really? He's always seemed a little funny-looking to me. His head's too big for the rest of him. And he's kind of scrawny."

On the staircase, Buffy's eyes went green with outrage. Jeez, Tara, I thought you were gay, not blind. Just because Spike wasn't the poster boy for steroid abuse... And I do not have a thing for vampires. I'm dogged by vampires with a thing for me.

Willow snickered. "Hey, 'compact yet muscular,' remember? Just ask Xander." She went on, almost regretfully, "I don't think we need to worry. Not like it isn't doomed anyway, with the ghost of Angel past still looming over her love life. It messed things up with Riley, it'll mess things up with Spike. I really feel sorry for the poor guy."

Buffy's fingers tightened on the bannister; Willow couldn't have come up with a better one-two punch if she'd practiced for a week. Not going to break it. Can't afford the carpenter bills. She stomped on the last two steps as loudly as she could and walked into the kitchen. Willow and Tara were both sitting at the kitchen table, solemn as a pair of owls, all trace of speculation vanished. They looked up in unison as she came in. There was a platter of croissants on the table into which severe incursions had been made, which hinted that they'd been waiting for her for some time. She flashed them a jittery little smile. "Hey, guys."

No reply. They'd been chatty enough when she wasn't there. With an uneasy glance at her housemates, Buffy went to the refrigerator. She dithered over cherry or blueberry yogurt for a minute before going for the cherry. She rescued her favorite coffee mug from the sink and rinsed it off before dumping a generous teaspoonful of instant coffee into it. She filled it with water and stuck it in the microwave. "Hola? Wilkommen? Bienvenue? Willow, how are you feeling?"

Willow's face was shadowed for a moment and she seemed to shrink in on herself. "I kinda know how you felt during that Cruciamentum test."

"Well, I'm sure you'll..." Buffy trailed off. "It's not permanent, right? You just wore yourself out blowing doors open?"

Willow forced a smile. "Yeah. All better in no time. But enough about me."

Buffy tried her best to look blank. She's been doing that so much lately, why couldn't she pull it up now when she needed it? She felt as if Spike had peeled off a couple of layers of skin with that kiss, leaving her painfully tender to the touch. The witches exchanged uncomfy looks. "Buffy," Tara said, "Last night--"

Buffy dropped into a free chair and buried her face in her hands, peeking out at the two of them between her fingers. "Isn't it a little too early for last night?" She essayed another feeble smile. "Guess not. Silly me. First thing we need to do is like you said, Will, see if we can track down this Tanner guy--who he was, and how he's doing this, and where he is now. Second thing--"

"We didn't mean that part of last night," Willow broke in. "More the last part. With the, you know..."

Buffy sat back and folded her arms. "Spit-swapping? Block it from your minds. I have. Stress. It was stress over Willow. Also possibly a side effect of the inhalation of bourbon fumes."

Tara went as red as Willow's hair. "Why you did it isn't any of our business," she said.

Willow nodded vigorously in agreement. "We won't even think about thinking about asking."

The microwave beeped. Buffy ignored it. "Glad you feel that way. Really not ready to dish at this precise moment." Lost use of personal pronouns. Very bad sign.

Tara clasped her hands on the table in front of her and kept her eyes firmly fixed upon her left thumbnail. "We just needed-- we thought--Buffy, I know you've been, um, I-I said last year I'd be there if you ever needed to talk about anything, so if you do, I still am. And Willow too, of course! We--we just want you to be sure you know what you're getting into."

The silence stretched from seconds into minutes, until broken by the scrape of Buffy's chair as she got up to get her now-lukewarm coffee. She sat back down and dunked a croissant in the mug. "Let's see." She bit the coffee-sodden end off the croissant and began ticking off points with the remaining pastry. "Spike is a soulless vampire restrained from killing people only by a piece of government hardware with an uncertain expiration date, and because he has the hots for me. If the chip fails, I may have to kill him. If the chip doesn't fail but he decides he doesn't love me after all, I may have to kill him." She turned a wide-eyed look on the other two. "That about cover it?"

Willow and Tara did another synchronized squirm. "Um..."

"It's just..." Willow gave Tara an agonized look. "Buffy. You know I like Spike as much as anyone--well, except you of course, since me? so not with the kissing--but someone's got to say it. How long did it take you to work up to killing Angelus? How many people died in the meantime?"

Buffy flinched. Oh, dirty pool, Rosenberg... "It's different," she said. Her throat had gone dry. "I loved Angel."

Tara looked skeptical. "And you don't love Spike."

Buffy became deeply absorbed in unwinding the layers of her croissant. She shrugged. "No." Not yet. Maybe never. Maybe five minutes from now. We're running a pool; who wants three PM Friday?

There were things Tara obviously wanted to say; Buffy could see them bubbling inside her, but Tara didn't say them. Didn't have to; a small self-critical voice in the back of her own head had them on repeating loop already. Spike only wants you because A) he wants to get back at Angel for stealing Dru, B) He's obsessed with Slayers, C) There's nothing better on telly, D) All of the above. You only want Spike because A) You've got some sick vampire fetish, B) You're an enormous slut, C) The famous Slayer death wish, D) All of the above. If by some outside chance he really does love you, you'll mess it up anyway, just like you messed up with every single other man you've ever loved. Lather, rinse, repeat. "Look guys, if I go off the rails and you shove me back on, I'll thank you later. But right now I'm not even on the train yet." She pulled the tab off the top of her yogurt and plopped a spoonful onto the last bite of croissant. "It's just one kiss."

Willow made an apologetic grimace. "When in one day you go from all 'This can never be!' to wild passionate vampire kissage on the driveway... I worry, you know? And not just about you, about Spike too." She leaned forward, conspiratorial. "So, was he any good? I mean, from the moaning and slurpy noises I'm guessing yes, but--" Tara cleared her throat and Willow clapped a hand over her mouth, looking guilty. "Just asking." She mouthed 'Talk later!' behind Tara's back.

Tara still didn't look happy. "If you don't have any feelings for Spike, should you be... encouraging him?"

"I didn't say no feelings!" Buffy smacked her mug down on the table, sloshing coffee onto the newspaper. "There are feelings! Lots of feelings! With Spike there is nothing but feelings! Ow!" She grabbed a napkin and mopped hot coffee off her front. Now she'd have to change shirts. "I just don't know which feelings they are." She sighed. "Look--what I had with Angel... I can never do that again. I've tried, right? It doesn't work. I don't have that kind of love in me any more. Trust me, outside of the fact that they're both the same sex and species, Spike and Angel are as different as night and day, and I could never feel the same way about Spike."

She stabbed her spoon into the heart of the yogurt. It was true. As far as it went.

*****

Late Friday afternoon at the Magic Box. The DeSoto skidded to a stop in front of the shop, and Spike leaped out of the car, flung a blanket over his head, and dashed across the sunlit expanse of sidewalk. He yanked the door open so fast he almost twisted the handle off, and dove inside to the accompaniment of the shop bell. There was a perfectly good tunnel leading into the Magic Box's basement, but it meandered, and he'd been in a hurry. He had people--well, person--well, Buffy--to see, and damned if he was going to let a little sunshine take him out of
his way, at least for the approximately thirty seconds a vampire his age could take it before starting to smoulder.

Anya was behind the counter breaking out a few more rolls of quarters for the change drawer of the cash register, taking the opportunity to fondle the shiny coins while no one was paying attention. She looked up, took in the arrival of the sun-scorched vampire, murmured, "If you catch the greeting cards on fire, Spike, you're paying for them," and went back to her receipts.

"Love you too, pet," Spike growled, pulling the slightly charred army blanket off his head. He slouched over to the back of the store, where Rupert Giles sat at the circular table in the book section, going through the pile of neat, color-coordinated folders filled with neat, indexed notes in front of him. He tossed the blanket under the table, and sat down opposite the Watcher. Neither spoke for a moment. At last Spike said, "You heard?"

Giles took off his glasses. "It was on the radio this morning. I hardly consider myself a sentimentalist, but I confess I spent the whole morning listening to Rubber Soul."

"Bloody waste." Spike produced a flask from the interior pocket of his duster, and unscrewed the top. "To George." He tossed back a swallow and handed it to Giles, who followed suit.

"To George."

"Who?" Anya asked. "Is this some English ritual I'm not aware of?"

Vampire and Watcher turned twin gazes of laser death on her, and then Giles shook his head. "Never mind, Anya. I believe he was before your time. Well." He glanced at the two cassette tapes beside the pile of folders, and sighed. "I'd been hoping to go over the last few sessions and clarify a few points, but it appears that the last few sessions have yet to be transcribed."

Spike made a mock-sorrowful noise. "Pity, that. Guess we'll be forced to do something interesting instead."

"Which would naturally preclude your participation," Giles said with champagne dryness. Spike smirked at him and tucked his flask away again. Move it along, nothing to see here. Giles adjusted his glasses and gave the cassettes a severe look. "I must speak to Willow about this. If she's unable to make time for this project due to her schoolwork, I'll ask the Council to assign us a secretary." He slid a fresh cassette into the recorder,
hit the play button, and said into the microphone, "Interview with the--I'm sorry, I can't say it--William the Bloody, a.k.a Spike, conducted by Rupert Giles on November 30, 2001. Session six." He clicked the pause button. "I don't suppose I can convince you to give your real surname this time?"

Spike lazed back in the chair and folded his arms across his chest, obstinacy in every line of his body. "You suppose correctly. I told you when we started this, none of your Council's bloody business who my family was. I'll spill my guts about whatever you care to hear after 1880, but anything prior to my turning's off limits. Take it or leave it. And speaking of taking it, I'm not doing this out of the goodness of my heart." He held out a hand. "Where's my honorarium?"

Giles sighed and pulled out his wallet, and counted out five twenties into the vampire's palm. "Mm. One can but try. Since one of the purposes of this study is to document the survival of aspects of the host personality in the post-turning vampire, it would be immensely helpful if we had some idea of what the human William the Bloody was like."

Spike rolled his eyes. It had been a little galling to discover just how patchy, incomplete, and downright inaccurate the Council's dossier on him was--not that he hadn't started a lot of the contradictory stories himself in the early years of the twentieth century, when he'd been trying to establish a reputation for himself apart from Angelus and Darla, but weren't these Council chaps supposed to be vampire boffins? "All present and accounted for, minus the annoying consciency bits. If you're all that keen to find out, exercise your massive brain and--"

"Actually, presuming you gave the correct date for your death, I can have the Council access Scotland Yard's records for persons discovered dead by violence on and immediately after that day," Giles said with a wintry smile at Spike's discomfited look. He began the recording again. "If I recall correctly, we left off in...?"

Spike gave up. He never should have agreed to cooperate, but cash was cash, and it wasn't that often that he had a chance to acquire some in a completely legitimate fashion. The downside was that eventually Giles was going to pick up enough clues to discover his real name, and... well, what if he did? Not as if he'd been important enough in life to merit more than a two-line obituary tucked away in some obscure corner of the Times. William the not so Bloody, born 1852, died 1880, accomplished bugger all in between. Finally, some good came of being a complete non-entity. "New York. Dru and I were hunting the Battery that year, though we could have gone anywhere, done anything--you wouldn't sodding well believe the number of drifters there were about. We hadn't eaten so well since the influenza epidemic during the Great War--God's truth, we could kill two or three people a day for weeks and no one'd notice. It was like that everywhere. Whole bloody country on the move, hoping things'd be better in the next town over, and the locals more relieved than not when some hobo turned up stiff and minus a few pints, 'cause there's one less stranger to be knocking at their door looking for handouts and work that wasn't to be had. We had this cold-water flat in--"

His mind started drifting almost immediately. There were few things that pleased Spike so much as the sound of his own voice, but today his attention was elsewhere, on the memory of warm hands and warm lips and grey-green eyes gone hazy with passion, and recollections of seventy-year-old kills couldn't compete. He hadn't expected her to...any of it.

He had no romantic illusions about what it all meant--it was all heat and desire on her part, the painful prickling of a numb body and soul coming back to life. It would burn wild and bright and hot and then be gone, leaving him--one way or another--in ashes. So much more than he'd hoped for, so very, very much less than he wanted... but he'd take it. Oh, yes, he'd take it, because who knew when that flame would be snuffed out again?
Better burned than left in the dark. He glanced at the clock on the shop wall again. Three-thirty-seven. Twenty-three minutes and fifteen seconds until Buffy walked in the door. He licked his lips and realized that Giles was staring at him strangely. He had absolutely no idea what he'd just said. Oh, well. He always had more fun with these interviews when Dawn was around to play suitably horrified audience, anyway; Giles lacked an appreciation for Grand Guignol. "So I killed 'em and I ate 'em, the end. Rupert, what are you doing about the Slayer's salary?"

Giles turned off the cassette player. "Not that it's any of your business, but I am working on it." He took off his glasses and began to polish them.

Spike jogged one foot against the nearest chair leg. "What's the holdup? Just put her on the bloody payroll."

Giles shrugged, though the set of his shoulders gave more than a little hint that he was as annoyed about the situation as Spike was. "The Council's still considering the matter. There's no precedent for an adult Slayer living independently of her Watcher. Little enough precedent for an adult Slayer. Few last as long as Buffy has."

"Yeh, takes a licking and..." Buffy. Licking. Rrrrowr . Giles was staring at him again. Twenty-one minutes and forty-two seconds. "Never mind. They're making her sweat because she had them by the short and curlies last year, aren't they?"

"The thought has crossed my mind," Giles admitted. "I doubt we'd be seeing quite this much red tape and paperwork had Buffy been slightly, er, more tactful in her dealings with them. Once I return to England and can deal with the matter in person I expect things will clear up." He left unsaid the Or Ripper will have a talk with someone part, but Spike didn't need to hear it. Giles would have made one hell of a vampire. The Watcher gave the untranscribed cassettes an irritated glance. "Assuming this project ever ends and allows me to leave for England, of course."

Spike shrugged. The thought of seeing London again was appealing--he hadn't been home for decades--but if Giles couldn't manage to live an interesting life in California, Spike doubted he'd have much better luck in Bath. And if he hadn't figured out that Willow was dawdling in order to keep him in the States as long as possible, Spike didn't feel obliged to enlighten him. "Cheer up, Rupes, I've only got so much life to narrate. Though if you'll keep paying me I'll be happy to start making things up."

The bell on the front door jangled, and Xander bounced in, sporting an impressive collection of bandages on both hands. "Hey, guys," he said, leaning over the counter and kissing Anya on the top of her head. He came over and flopped down at the table. "Hey, G-Man. Where's the Buffster?"

Spike smirked and waved a completely healed hand at him. Giles transferred the irritated glance from the cassettes to Xander. "She and Willow and Tara should be here shortly. And don't call me that."

Seventeen minutes, thirty-one seconds. Spike fidgeted in his chair. Giles, having learned the hard way that quizzing Spike on anything when he was in the throes of one of his hyperactive fits was worse than useless, shoved the tape recorder to one side and began going through the folders again. Spike got up and started pacing, back and forth from the table to the ladder leading to the loft where the restricted grimoires were kept. He needed a cigarette. The alley out back was in shadow at this time of day, but if he left he might miss her arrival, and he didn't want to miss one more minute of Buffy if he could help it. Of course he wasn't certain how she was going to react. Since Dawn and Tara had been witness to their interrupted snogging session, she couldn't get cold feet and pretend the whole thing had never happened. Or could she? The Niblet didn't exactly count, and Tara was the Black Hole of Calcutta of discretion. She probably wouldn't breathe a word of the incident without Buffy's permission. Bloody hell.

The doorbell jangled again and Buffy walked in (twelve minutes and fifty-two seconds early, thank God he hadn't gone for that cigarette!) followed by Willow and Tara, the former looking tired and the latter uncomfortable. Buffy was wearing that red halter top that made him want to bite through the straps. She'd done something to her hair, too, lightened it up a little, and it curled softly around her shoulders and the smooth creamy
column of her neck. He grinned at her. Couldn't help it.

She brushed right by him. Cut him cold, wouldn't meet his eyes. Buffy skirted the table and sat down between Giles and Xander, eyes still downcast, white teeth nibbling on her lower lip. Sod it all. She was going to back out on him; he could feel it in his bones--going to insist that the whole thing was an aberration and leave him to the cold comfort of Pearly Palm and her five sisters again. God knows what he'd been expecting;
not hearts and flowers, surely, but some kind of acknowledgment. She was having second thoughts, and she expected him to wag his tail and slink back to his doghouse until called for. Well, bugger that. He'd tasted blood and he wasn't going to give up this easily.

Willow and Tara took their seats, relegating him, as usual, to the background of the bookshelves. Willow flipped her laptop open and began to finger-dance across the keyboard. Spike hitched himself up on the railing of the stairs and glowered. Honesty, is it? Do as I say, not as I do, eh, Slayer? We'll see about that.

*****

Safely ensconced behind a wall of Scoobies, Buffy kept her eyes attentively on Xander as he finished narrating his and Spike's adventures of the previous night. In her peripheral vision, Spike favored her with an insolent raising of one brow. He was mad. What right did he have to be mad? Not like she'd signed a pre-nup with him or anything. It was just one stupid (glorious, mind-melting) kiss. Xander finished his story and Tara and Willow launched into theirs. Don't look at Spike. Look at table, not at gorgeous pouting vampire. She folded her hands. "So--in short, we've got a crew of Glory's left-over crazies running around sucking brains right and left."

"It's not just that," Xander said. "If this Tanner guy creates a new crazy every time he does this mind-suck thing for the whole crew, then when do the crazies reach critical mass? One person won't be enough, and he'll have to start grabbing two or three at a time. This could get out of
control."

Tara was doodling on a legal pad, making a little sketch of the ritual as Xander had described it, her fair brows dipping together. "It sounds like they were using a really weirded-out version of the spell Willow used to cure me--they're taking mental energy from one person and transferring it to another." She tapped the pen on one of the curlicues. "I wish you remembered more of the details."

"Well, sor-ree," Xander grumbled. "Next time I'm being sacrificed I'll ask them to untie my hands so I can take notes."

Willow produced another folder, this one full of printed web documents and photos, laid it in the center of the table and flipped it open. Buffy leaned forward and picked one of them up. It was definitely a younger version of the man she'd confronted in the cemetery, a graduation photo, maybe. He looked bright and hopeful. "Daniel Evelyn Tanner," Willow said. "Born May 22, 1956, right here in Sunnydale. Attended Sunnydale High, graduated near the top of his class, left for Yale in 1974. Nothing more about him until 1992, when he came back to Sunnydale to live a completely uneventful life. He's in the phone book and the voting records, but he seems to be retired. Until Glory captured him and turned him into one of her brain-dead minions. He was admitted to Sunnydale General Hospital on April 16, 2001 for observation for schizoid behavior, and disappeared with the rest of the crazies in May. And that's the last official word on Mr. Tanner--missing and presumed dead."

Xander snorted. "But actually alive and confirmed nuts."

Tara bit meditatively at her thumbnail. "I don't understand where the loa fits in. Most of the traditional practitioners in Southern California are into Santeria, not Voudoun."

"Is it of the bad? This loa thing?" Xander asked. "Some kind of demon?"

Giles looked up. "Not precisely. Loa or Lwa are Haitian ancestral spirits or gods, New World versions of the Orisha of Western Africa, which are primarily Yoruban or Dahomeyan in origin, and while there are some unsavory aspects--"

"They're a mixed bag, good and bad wise," Tara finished.

"Quite. Ritual possession plays a large role in their worship, so this was not necessarily an inimical move."

"We'd have known if this Tanner was a practicing houngan," Anya said. "Every witch, wizard, and sorcerer in Sunnydale orders supplies through the Magic Box."

"Right," Tara agreed. "I looked some stuff up today too. What he did last night wasn't a real Voudoun ritual--no drums, no offerings, no invocation, no nothing. Ghede normally wouldn't come if he was called like that--no self-respecting loa would. So either Daniel Tanner is an incredibly powerful wizard, strong enough to summon what amounts to a minor god without the proper ritual--or Ghede came because he wanted to. Because he had something important to tell us." She looked at Buffy. "What exactly did he say to you?"

Buffy shrugged. "He gave me three questions--I asked what was wrong with Willow and how to fix her, mainly--and he gave me the kind of totally useless answers I usually get from random mythical creatures and then told me that I was asking the wrong questions anyway." Buffy began picking the eraser of the nearest pencil to shreds. "Since Willow's fine now, it was a pretty pointless encounter all around. If there were any shining beacons of answers in there, I'd be shouting them from the rooftops, promise."

"You should try to remember exactly what he said," Tara persisted. "Ghede's advice sounds pointless or strange sometimes, but it's always accurate."

Buffy stuck out her lower lip. "Right. For an advice-giving god, he was a complete pig."

Tara shrugged. "It's a Trickster figure thing. He's dead. The dead are beyond punishment."

"Don't I wish," Spike muttered.

Tara continued, "They can do and say what the living don't dare. But the advice is good, and whatever he said could be vital, so if you can remember the exact wording--"

"I'll try. But right now we have to figure out what to do about the brain-eating non-zombies. We can't just kill them. This isn't really their fault."

"It's ours," Tara said. "It never even occurred to me to wonder what happened to all the others...and it should have."

She was really upset, Buffy noted. Had she ever felt like that? Spike's soup kitchen jibe still bothered her. She took her duties as Slayer seriously, but had she ever really felt that kind of personal concern for the people she was protecting? She saved lives because it was the right thing to do, but she couldn't say she got much personal satisfaction out of it anymore, if she ever had. Was this how Spike felt, going through the motions of goodness because he couldn't do anything else?

He was still there, still looking, pale eyes calling to hers. Do not look back--

Xander stirred uneasily, his hand grasping Anya's. "We were all pretty thrashed that night."

"I know--but all the rest of the summer?" Tara shook her head. "They've been living like that for months, trying to take care of themselves--I know what it's like, being like that! I should have--we should have--"

Guilty silence reigned for a moment, to be broken by Spike's impatient, "Should've. Didn't. Cry me a river. What do we do about it now?"

Buffy shot him a daggery look. Did he have to rub her nose in the fact that he didn't give a flying flip? "We try to fix them. Will--what about the spell? Is the one they're using defective? You don't have to go out and turn someone into a drooling idiot every two weeks to keep Tara going."

"I'm pretty sure this Tanner guy's using an inefficient version of the spell. Maybe he overheard me doing it and didn't catch all the words or something. My version's a permanent fix, but the energy's still gotta come from somewhere. Someone. I'm working on it." Willow's tone was a trifle defensive still; she hunched over the laptop, all her attention on the screen. "But
like I said before, the original mental energy's gone, with Glory. Unless... maybe I could draw on some other kind of energy..." Her eyes went distant, then sparked with renewed enthusiasm. "Ooooh. That's a thought." She snatched Tara's pen and started scribbling, oblivious to Tara's sudden air of worry.

Buffy sat back, relieved. "Coolness. The big gun fires again."

Spike raised an eyebrow, slid off the bannister and sauntered over to the table, hands in pockets. "Forgetting something, aren't we? While Will plays Albert Schweitzer this Tanner bloke's out rounding up more brain food."

"Not forgetting, Spike." She began tapping the mangled pencil on the table. "I just haven't decided what the best course of action is yet. We can't just take him out. He's human."

"I dunno, Slayer, quite a few other things seem to have slipped your mind lately."

The acid in his voice snapped her head up to meet his eyes at last. Buffy shoved her chair back, jumped to her feet and advanced on him. Spike stood his ground in that hipshot slouch that she thought of as his hunting pose. She glared up into his half-lidded eyes, three-inch heels ensuring that she met him only a few inches shy of nose to nose. She could beat him black and blue if she wanted to and he couldn't lift a finger to stop her; where the hell did he get off looking so intimidating? "I haven't forgotten anything."

"Really... love?"

That insolent drawl went straight to the beast in the back of her brain that was responsible for fighting and... other stuff, caught it by the scruff of the neck and made it hiss in rage. She hadn't given in to the urge to hit him for a long time, but she was itching to do so now; there were times when the only thing that could sum up the tangled mess of emotions he roused
in her was a good swift punch in the nose. Everyone else was watching them with uneasy confusion. She bared her teeth in something an uninformed observer might have taken for a smile. "Excuse me," she said, piling on the sugar, "I need to talk with Spike in private."

She grabbed his arm, feeling his muscles tense under her fingers, and dragged him behind the counter, out the back door of the shop, into the alley. Too familiar, the scraps of paper, the dirty concrete, the crunch of grit and broken glass beneath the soles of her feet, the faint nauseating smell of spoiled food from the dumpster behind the Espresso Pump down the block. Why did she end up having so many conversations with Spike in alleys? "What is with you?"

Spike had straightened, weight shifted forward on his toes, watching her like a cat with a mouse. The faint bitter smirk on his lips was insufficient mask for the hurt in his eyes. "Gonna hit me, love?" he purred. "Just like old times? Been awhile, hasn't it? You go right ahead. Give it to me good. You know you want to."

She didn't stop to think why the words were familiar, just lashed out in blind fury. Spike dodged, but she was just a hair faster than he was, and her fist clipped his jaw; she felt his teeth graze her knuckles. Spike fell back with that mad grin, licking his own blood from his lips, feral yellow flickering in his eyes. A useless, toothless threat; he couldn't bite--or
yes, he could, just not with his fangs, bite deeper than she wanted to think about. Buffy stood there in the lee of the dumpster, fists clenched, chest heaving, on the verge of tears for no reason she could name. "What's wrong with you, Spike?"

He shook himself, rolling his shoulders. "With me? Take a sodding guess."

"This is what it's been all along, isn't it? You really do get off on me beating you up!" She was going to be sick, she was sure of it. And she was not, not, not going to hit him again, not going to give him what he wanted.

Spike began circling her. "I get off on fighting you, you stupid bint. You and this lovely piece of silicon in my brain won't let me get off any other way. And you get off fighting me--don't deny it, I can smell you getting all hot and bothered. You like whaling on a bloke who can't hit back? You like it better than what we did last night?" His voice was a dead-serious snarl. "If I could hit back I dunno as I could choose one dance over the other either. But you're going to have to. I know you'll never love me. I'm going to love you till I'm dust, but I'm damned if I'm going to sit for this. I'll take the touch any way I can get it, but I get this much say--kiss me or kick me, but it's one or the other. You can't have both, not till I can have both too."

With a sob she lunged at him. Spike ducked the blow, feinted left and dodged behind her. Buffy spun to follow him. "Make your mind up, Slayer." He blocked her incoming fist, dodged her kick and caught her by the heel, using her momentum to flip her over - all defensive moves, skating on the narrow edge of what the chip classified an attack. She twisted in mid-air, landing in a crouch, kicking out from it and knocking Spike's feet out from
under him. He was rolling even as he hit the ground, and bounced to his feet breathing hard and fast, but far too shallowly for someone who really needed the oxygen. "What's it going to be, Slayer? This? Or the other?"

Buffy squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath. She'd died--twice now, for crying out loud! Was her life going to be like this forever, slipping back into the same old patterns like falling into quicksand, jumping back on the same endless merry-go-round? God knew she she hadn't asked to come back, but she was here--did it have to be the same thing all over again? Couldn't she make it different this time, somehow? I don't love him. He can't love me, or-- No, she couldn't even think about that, couldn't pull up those three-year-old memories that still throbbed and ached at certain words, certain glances, like shrapnel healed into an old wound. I can't, because it would be wrong...

The dead are beyond punishment.

No, they weren't. Not hardly. But she was on her third life now. Her life, no one else's. Not Tara's, not Willow's, certainly not Angel's. Hers, to make of what she would--what she dared.

Spike was still there when she opened her eyes; giving her a long, anything but expressionless stare. He was always going to be there, watching her back, irritating the hell out of her, making her life... a life. If she let him.

Wrong was a world, a life, without Spike in it. "This, Spike. It's going to be this." She lunged for him again, and he didn't make a move to stop her.

*****

Truth to tell, he'd expected another punch, and didn't have the heart to block it. But her hands were open, and her fingers warm on the back of his neck as she grasped him, pulled him down, and his hands were tangled in the tawny silk of her hair and her sweet vicious mouth was savaging his, lips tongue teeth devouring one another, she blood to him, he air and food and water to her. Their bodies spoke to one another, pressed up against the brickwork, old tensions giving way to new ones--now that they had this it was impossible not to want more. Soon. Now. How did this cris-cross thing go? In about ten seconds he would bite through the damn straps. Her hands left his shoulders and he growled in protest until he realized that they were tearing at his belt buckle and why in hell had he been such a git as to wear button-fly jeans today--

Grrrrrrrrrrrraaaaarrr.

Buffy gasped into his chest, "Ah! Yeah! Do that!"

Spike froze, fingers tightening on her shoulders. "Love..." He was having trouble getting enough breath to form the words. "That wasn't me."

She turned in his arms, just in time to see the wall of cinnamon-gold fur rolling by. Bear. Big bear. Fucking enormous bear. The bear looked at the two of them and shook its massive head, rubbery black lips peeling away from a set of fangs that put Spike's to shame. The loading dock of the store across the alley was faintly visible through its sides. It rumbled at them again, then lurched into motion with a contemptuous grunt. A minute later it was gone.

Spike collapsed back against the wall, shivering. Buffy stared at him. "Spike. Spike! You're hyperventilating! Stop breathing!" She looked up at him, perplexed. "I've seen you take on fire-breathing, spine-covered, acid-dripping Things five times your size with a song in your heart. What's the deal with Winnie the Pooh?"

"I don't like bears, all right?" He straightened up and peered cautiously around the dumpster. There was no sign of the bear. "It's a bloody childhood trauma."

Buffy bit her lip, trying to hide a smile. "You didn't have a childhood."

Spike opened his mouth, decided that the argument about whether he was or wasn't William wasn't worth getting into at this point, and prowled round to the other side of the dumpster, checking for bear tracks. "Well, if it's not mine, I wish to hell that ponce William had taken it with him when he left. Just be glad it's not sodding bunnies." He took a deep breath. "I think that's killed the mood."

Buffy wrinkled her nose, taking in their surroundings. "Just as well. I guess we should go back in." She stuck out her hand, as much a challenge as a peace offering. "Come on. If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it all the way."

Did that mean what he thought it meant? He must have let the astonished hope leaping up within him show in his face, for Buffy's eyes grew suspiciously bright. She took a deep breath of her own, and he could tell she was shakier than she was letting on. "I--I told you I'd never been ashamed to know you. So... I shouldn't be ashamed about... wanting to know you better."

He took her hand, feeling it tremble in his until he gave it a squeeze. She pressed close to him for a moment, holding him with fierce strength while he buried his nose in the crook of her neck and breathed her in. He wasn't fool enough to think this meant smooth sailing ever after, but he was fool enough that, for this moment, he didn't care. She broke away reluctantly, General Buffy again, and hand in hand they went back into the shop to face the enemy. Buffy dropped his hand as the entered, walked to the center of the floor, put both hands on her hips and cocked
her head at the others.

"Small announcement," she said. "You know how we aren't sure how the loa fits in? Well, make more fitting room--there's now a Chumash bear spirit in the alley." She paused, forefinger pressed to her lips as if remembering something. "Also, I was gonna do the whole secret doomed star-crossed affair thing, but you know what? I've given this a lot of thought, and I just don't have the energy for one of those right now."

Everyone except Willow and Tara looked at her in puzzlement. With an expression of grim determination, Buffy turned, marched back over to Spike, wrapped both arms around his neck, pulled his head down and picked up where they'd left off.

Now this he hadn't expected. Spike broke into an amazed grin as her small warm body pressed against him and his arms went round her--reflex, almost; could you develop a reflex in less than twenty-four hours? Apparently so. Their mouths met with less urgency this time, both of them knowing now for certain that it wasn't the first-last-only, that they had all the time in the world to nip and taste and nibble and explore the really interesting effects you could get with a thirty-four degree difference in body temperature.

"Willow!" Xander and Giles yelled in outraged unison. Tara looked distressed. Anya looked up, shrugged, and went back to counting receipts.

"It's not my fault, it's not my fault!" Willow squeaked, hiding behind the screen of the laptop. "I didn't do anything this time! I promise!"

Buffy pulled back for air, cheeks pink, eyes bright, her heart going at trip-hammer speed; the sound was music. She glared defiantly around the room. "In order: No spell. In my right mind. If he misbehaves, I dust him." Her eyes came home to his, And that would kill me writ so plain in her gaze that his heart wrenched within him in startled pain; did she know what her eyes were saying? "Anything else is nobody's business but ours. Deal. Now that that's out of the way, bear-analyzing time."

Spike looked down at her, a smile lurking about the corners of his mouth. "My, Slayer, you certainly do know how to romance a fellow."

"Wait, wait, wait, you can't just say 'Deal' and leave it at that!" Xander objected. "Is there straddling involved here? Because I absolutely draw the line at straddling."

He'd expected this from Harris. He really had. They'd gotten to tolerate each other over the summer, but Harris could never quite get over the vampire thing, and after Buffy's return Spike had been the recipient of all the frustrated anger he couldn't take out on Willow. One night of chasing through a park wasn't going to bridge that gap. So why was he surprised at how much it stung? "Ah, here it comes." Spike slipped a proprietary arm around
Buffy's waist and went for the counter-attack. "Is that a bit of the green-eyed monster I hear? The vampire's good enough to cheat at pool with, but I don't want him shagging my Slayer?"

Under other circumstances the shade of purple Xander was turning would have been exceptionally entertaining. "Damn straight! How are we supposed to handle this? Do we say 'Hi, Buffy, congratulations on your new demon lover, and by the way, have you seen a psychiatrist lately?' Or do we do the awkward pretending not to notice what's going on, and try to lure her to the psychiatrist with a trail of jelly doughnuts?" Xander rounded on Giles, who was polishing his glasses so violently it was a wonder he hadn't worn through the lenses. "Giles! Tell her she can't do this!"

The Watcher's face might have been carved from granite. "At what point in this conversation has Buffy been replaced by someone who takes my orders?" He put the glasses back on, studying the two of them. "Buffy--I made it my policy to keep out of your personal life when you were a girl, as long as it didn't interfere with your calling. I see no reason to change that policy now. I won't deny that I find this... most inadvisable. I fear it will end in tragedy--again. But if this is your choice--"

"It is." The two words held every ounce of Summers determination in her, and they were the sweetest things Spike could remember hearing in over a century.

"Then I accept it. As for you--" He looked Spike up and down. "For better or worse, you are not the vampire Angel was. See to it that you remain so. You know to exactly what lengths I'm willing to go to protect her."

Spike nodded slowly. He wasn't positive, but he thought the odds were better than even that he'd just been given a compliment as well as a warning. "Wouldn't expect any less."

Buffy strode over to the table, tugging him along in her wake. "Now. Are we going to discuss demony stuff or argue about my love life?"

Willow waved one hand apologetically. "Um, Buff, your love life is demony stuff."

Buffy considered for a moment, then slipped her arm around Spike in turn and smiled up at him impishly. "So it is. End of argument."

Chapter Text

There was an awkward silence. "Maybe we should take a break from the research," Tara said. Expressions of relief broke out all around the table.

"Great idea." Buffy tightened her arm around Spike's middle with the rebellious glee of a small child bouncing on the good sofa. He couldn't blame her; he had the dizzy feeling that this was all a figment of his overactive imagination. If he pulled her closer, would she disappear? The slight, strong body in his arms remained flesh and blood as he draped both arms round her shoulders, and the rebuff he still half-expected didn't come. Elated, he bent his head, nuzzling her ear. She tensed a little, then leaned into him defiantly, shoulders against his chest, the sweet curve of her ass pressing into his crotch. Ha ha, I'm touching Buffy! Touch touch touch! Felt good. Felt wonderful. Felt like... felt like the mood was making a remarkable comeback. "In fact, I think we should try to find out more about all the, uh, bears and things, and if there's any--" Buffy gasped slightly as his arousal became more evident, straining towards her warmth. "--connections. Spike and I can search--" She cast a quick look at the front door; still sunlight out. "--the tunnels."

Spike nodded. "I'm game." Without further ado Buffy broke for the door to the basement, Spike right behind her.

Willow called after them, "Do you need any he--"

"NO!"

Spike kicked the door shut behind them. Buffy spun around and grabbed him, yanking him down a step or two. They collided on the stairs, hands clutching bodies with white-hot bruising passion, slamming against each other, blind with two years of pent-up need. He caught hold of her waist, hands sliding up under the halter top, stroking, caressing, drawing little whimpering moans from her while her lips and tongue traced patterns of fire down the cords of his neck. Her hands went back to work on the buttons of his fly--good, going to be some serious damage done if something didn't give down there soon. Warm hands, fuck, there was a God. She freed him from the jeans and he gasped in relief, but it was only momentary; her touch made him so painfully hard it was a marvel he didn't come right then and there.

Fresh desire surged up in her, musky and intoxicating, the moment she took him in her hands. Spike staggered for a second, drunk on her scent, caught his balance, and lifted her up bodily. They crashed into the storage shelves at the bottom of the stairs, sending vials of mandrake root and asphodel flying. Buffy braced herself against the shelf. He heard cloth ripping as he pulled her jeans off her hips--didn't care, not when his Slayer was squirming and moaning under his hands, her teeth nipping at his lower lip, her mouth warm, so warm, but nothing compared to the tropical paradise between her thighs. She was wearing some lacy scrap of nothing under the jeans and both layers of cloth were soaked through already; she yanked the underwear aside and reached down to guide him into her.

Then he was sliding into that lovely moist heat in one long sure stroke, borne up in the ocean of her eyes--if the world had stopped turning on its axis, he would not have felt it; if prophesy was fulfilled, he would not have cared. All he knew was that in her body he had returned home at last.

*****

5:00 PM

"Again? Can't--oh. OH..."

"Oh, but you can. Again. And again, and again. Don't know your own strength, Slayer?"

"I--oh, yeeessss. Get in me, now. Harder. Didn't know your strength. Everyone else... got... tired... OH!"

"Rrrrrowwrr... Ah, that's lovely, that is. You've got the prettiest little pink quim, and you're so wet, all for me, so hot and tight... I get hard just breathing you in, you know that?"

"Getting the picture. Nice big picture. God, Spike, you feel so good... yeeeesss! That's it! Right there! Yes, yes, YES!!"

6:00 PM

"Do you think they're still up there?"

"Do we give a fuck?"

"Welll..."

"Makes me horny, thinkin' of them clustered around the door, listening for pointers..."

"Everything makes you horny."

"True. Let's not waste it, eh?"

7:00 PM

"Oh, come on, love, you act like you've never seen one before. I know damn well the poof wasn't snipped."

"I know, but we didn't exactly... you know, spend a lot of time looking at each other. It's so... cute. Like a little turtleneck." (a giggle) "OK, a not so little turtleneck."

8:00 PM

"Say it."

"I bloody well will not."

"Say it. You know you want it. You won't get it till you say it."

"Buffy Summers is the Goddess of Head and the owner of the Magic Tongue and I beg her on bended knee to apply her rosy pink lips to my poor abused cock before I fucking explode."

"That's not what I--oh, screw it, it'll do."

9:00 PM

"Are you sure? I've never--"

"Love, I could break the damned thing in two ticks if I wanted to. I don't want to. I like it."

"But it looks like it hurts."

"Oh, yeh, it hurts. Hurts real good. Just keep on--ohfuckingchristYES!"

"Wow. I guess you do like it. What if I... oooh. You know, a girl could get into this..."

11:00 PM

"Buffy? Love? What's wrong?"

"I--don't stop! I'm not crying. I'm not. I--I never knew it could be like this. I--no one ever did that to me before."

"No one...? What, was Commando Boy sodding insane? He had you in his bed for a bleeding year and a half and never...? I'll fly down to Brazil and kill 'im tomorrow... Or better yet, I'll stay here and do it again."

1:00 AM

"Mmmm. William..."

"What?"

"Oh. Sorry. Spike. Spike? Are--"

"No--s'all right. Just... no one ever said that name that way before."

"Hey. I'll say your name any way I like."

"Ah, so now it's my name?"

"Shut up and do me, William."

3:00 AM

"I love you."

"Spike, I..."

"Don't. I know. It's all right. I've just got to say it now and again."

Buffy awoke to the sound of a heart not beating.

In repose, they fit together, an interlocking puzzle in ivory and gold: his nose buried in her hair, his occasional breaths stirring the fine loose strands; her head still pillowed on his shoulder, an unforseen advantage of sleeping with someone whose circulation couldn't get cut off. His arm curled across her body, hand cupping her breast. Her fingers splayed across his chest, savoring wiry muscle layered over bone. She could see the trail of fingernail-welts over the curve of his shoulder, already starting to heal. She watched the flutter of his lashes, startlingly dark against his pale cheek. He looked younger, more vulnerable, in sleep--hair tousled, the lush, almost feminine curve of his lower lip all the more irresistible set against the severe planes and angles of cheek and jaw.

Had she intended to take it this far, this fast? She couldn't remember; skin-to-skin contact with Spike left her brain little more than a cascade of white sparks. She flexed her body experimentally, wincing at all the delicious little aches the movement roused. She was ravenously hungry, in desperate need of a shower, and feeling...

Spike made a little protesting noise, drawing her closer, and she curled into his side; there was a warm spot there, where she'd lain next to him all night. All of this changed nothing, of course. Last night she'd screamed, laughed, wept, made him do the same. They'd touched ecstacy beyond her wildest dreams--and then had a rousing fight over whether or not he got to smoke in bed after touching ecstacy. Some time in the night the glass wall had shattered for good, cutting her to the bone and making her howl with joy at the pain.

She couldn't remember if Angel had breathed in his sleep.

One thing she was going to have to keep in mind if this went on was that wild spontaneous sex in unheated basements was very Blue Velvet and all, but waking up in the unheated basement next to an unheated vampire was just chilly. Was that rag in the corner what was left of her halter top? Forget the morals of it all, your wardrobe can't afford an affair with Spike.

His arm tightened around her and his eyes blinked lazily open, blue and clear, with a told-you-so smirk that had nothing to do with being a demon and everything to do with being a guy. His fingers began tracing arabesques on her breasts and belly, and she arched into his touch, her mouth seeking his with unerring instinct. After a moment she had to breathe, and forced herself to sit up, casting about for her clothes, whatever was left of them, anyway. "What time is it?"

Spike yawned, (why on earth did someone who didn't breathe yawn?) did a long, slow, crack-every-muscle stretch--and pounced, pulling her down and nibbling her earlobe. Melting now. "Buggered if I know. Buggered if I care. C'mere and let me give you a nice thorough shagging."

"Noooooo!" she moaned, not at all convincingly. She squirmed out of his grasp and crouched on hands and knees, surveying the storeroom with alarm. There were pieces of broken glass from the toppled mandrake jars all over the floor, along with splinters from the broken shelf. Amazing that they hadn't sliced themselves to ribbons or accidentally staked Spike. If we don't happen to be in an alley, by gum, we'll make the place look like one! Anya was going to freak. "No touchy! Dawn's probably worried sick--"

Spike caught her ankle and ran the tip of his tongue along her instep. "Dawn's fifteen, not five, and probably thrilled to have a night to herself for a change. 'Sides, Will and Tara'll have told her where we were." He grinned. "Not exactly where we are, I hope."

"Well... oohh... No! If nothing else, I've really gotta pee. And I'm starving."

He sighed and let her go, reaching for his own clothes. "I could use a spot of brekky myself." The grin widened. "Nothing like exercise to work up a healthy appetite."

Buffy, clutching the remains of her halter top to her chest, bit her lower lip. "Spike..."

"Yeh, love?"

"You didn't..."

"Eh?"

"You didn't go all grr. Even once."

He raised an eyebrow. "So?"

"Does that mean..." She felt herself going red. How on earth was she supposed to ask this? "I mean--was--did you... enjoy it?"

He cocked his head to one side and stared at her. "Did I--? That's a damned fool question--there's things a bird can fake, but in case you haven't noticed, I'm not a bird."

She ducked her head. "It's just--whenever Angel got...uh... excited..."

Wrong thing to say. Hurt and irritation swept the look of nostalgic lust off Spike's face in an instant. "Look, Slayer, if this little get-together was about indulging your death wish, take the next sodding bus to L.A. and look up Grand-sire. I don't screw my food."

Buffy flinched. "It wasn't Angel who kept reminding me I wasn't worth a second go!"

She didn't try to keep the bitter edge out of her voice, and got the dubious reward of seeing him flinch in turn. Spike made a disgusted noise and got to his feet. A moment later his hand was tipping her chin up roughly, forcing her to look at him. His winter-blue eyes caught hers, looking right down into the bottom of her soul; was it fair that he, who had none, was so good at reading hers? She felt his fingertips tracing the old bite scars on the side of her neck, and shuddered. He studied her face for a moment, then bent his head. Slowly, methodically, his lips brushed her neck, teasing her--then he bit down, hard, suckling at her throat, that amazingly talented tongue caressing her sensitive skin in the wake of his grazing teeth until she was dissolving under his touch. She was gasping when he drew away, on the verge of another climax, and she could feel him hardening against her. His face was still completely human; he hadn't broken the skin. "Listen," he said, harsh and intense. "Last night was the most amazing experience of my life. Better than the best kill I ever had--if sex was blood I could live off you, Slayer. I'm yours. You and the Bit. In the immortal words of Buffy Summers, deal."

He was still a monster. A beautiful monster, a monster who loved her, her very own leashed and muzzled man-eating tiger. Buffy lifted a hand to his face, stroking his cheek, not caring that her fingers trembled. Nothing had changed--

"Here," he said, handing her his T-shirt. "Looks like this survived the carnage."

--except that someone, somewhere, had just won that pool.

*****

Tanner sat on a hummock of limestone, rubbing his upper arms with his hands. He was cold. The temperature in the caves was constant, but chill, and his coat was too thin for comfort when sitting still. A few guttering candles dripped wax down the sides of the stalagmites where they were perched--as an attempt to hold back the immense rolling darkness, they were pathetic, but that was not their primary purpose.

The figures huddled around the central altar didn't appear to notice either the cold or the darkness. Skeletal limbs swaddled in rags, eyeless faces turned upwards, they brandished staves adorned with fragments of bone and feathers, their droning chant importuning the attention of something ancient and dark. Tanner didn't understand the words; they were in a language that had died before the first ape stood upright on an African plain. The echoes rolled back and forth across the cavern, creating a polyphony that gnawed its way into the brain, an endless tapestry of sound.

Ganag'sh awruun, ganag'sh hlal
Raukh al ankhun f'khaeth guih nawrn
Hauth hauwrug yawva'thir rukh
Shkaur ri yawkweth f'kruth anih gawrn!

First One, thou who dwellest in the night places
Thou who art the darkness between the worlds
We have made ready the path
We have opened for thee a doorway.
The hand of our messenger has fallen
On the head of thy anointed
On the head of thy chosen
Enter in where the dwelling has been prepared.

One by one the chanters dropped out, until only a single ragged voice remained. "Shkaur!" it cried, striking downward with the butt of his staff. Sparks flew from the cavern floor, as if the staff were steel to its flint, and for a moment actinic green light illumined the whole vast space around them, glinting off swags and canopies of flowstone, translucent crenelations, pendant forests of rust and cream and gold. Then it was gone and the darkness rolled in once more, still and cold and overwhelming. The eyeless men stood rigid for a long moment, then lowered their staves, slumping in exhaustion. One of them turned to Tanner, the muscles of its ravaged cheeks twitching with fatigue. "It is done."

"Great. So what about my half of the bargain?" Tanner got to his feet, stiff with long sitting. "I can't keep this together much longer. It was sheer luck we found that poor schmuck under the picnic table." And poor fare the man's mind had been, too--half gone already, as so many of the chronically homeless were. Odds were good he'd remain one of the ones who never left the junkyard camp, one more mouth to feed and back to clothe for those of them who remained able to function.

The eyeless man smiled, perhaps the most unpleasant expression Tanner had ever witnessed. "Your foolish panic has wakened other powers. Their arrival stirs others yet, already made wary by the shifting of the Balance. Complications such as these we needed no part of."

Tanner shrugged. "You pick a crazy guy to do your dirty work, you take your chances." Unease coiled within him even so. He'd been running on the ragged edge of sanity that night, or he'd never have tried that half-assed summoning to begin with. It had seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but he couldn't begin to analyze his own motivations now. The loa were not forgiving masters, and he had no right to beg their protection--yet Ghede had answered. Chill black waves flowing from his hands into the Red Witch's skull. He shivered. "I did what you asked me to. Pay up."

A desiccated chuckle. "Never fear. Your reward is at hand."

*****

"OK, so the spell you used on me--the incantation was Fomorian, right? And no physical components at all?"

Willow, head propped listlessly on her fist, nodded and flipped over another page of Unnatural Maladies. Grimacing at the gory illustration of a victim of a Fyarl demon's acid mucous, she skimmed the accompanying text and flipped the page again. "That's right. Just words and hand-wavy stuff. I didn't figure I'd have time for anything fancy while Glory tried to pop my head off."

Tara went back to the diagram she was working on. Willow sneaked a look over her shoulder; it was a more elaborate version of the scribbles she'd been working on yesterday, showing all the component parts of the altar. They'd taken the bus out to Weatherly Park that morning and hunted till they found the isolated picnic table-altar and the scattered remnants of the spell. Tara had sketched the whole thing carefully, and now she was trying out different reconstructions of the patterns formed by the stones and the ritual objects. Willow didn't know what Tara expected to get out of the project; obviously Daniel Tanner's version of the spell wasn't what they needed, but she didn't feel up to arguing about it.

You're not up to much lately.

She stared down at the ornate script on the page before her and heaved a sigh. It was a whole big ol' fashioned Scooby research party--well, minus Giles, who'd bowed out, as he did so often these days, to deal with the shipping company which was moving his library back to England. And minus Buffy and Spike, who'd been incommunicado since the previous afternoon. No one had quite gotten up the nerve to knock on the basement door yet. Willow should have been in her element, but she felt fuzzy and unfocused, unable to concentrate. Something inside was dried out, scraped bare, and how long it would take for her inner reservoirs to renew themselves... ugh. She didn't even want to think about that.

Xander and Anya were having an argument over by the counter; eavesdropping on them was more interesting than trying to puzzle out what the author of Unnatural Maladies meant by 'lesions caused by the unmentionable foulnesse practiced among the Fyarl of Bavaria.' They were arguing a lot lately--about the wedding, about money, about anything at all. "Look, it doesn't matter how the bear fits in." Xander sounded edgy and snappish. "We just don't have enough info, so we stick to the mission: find crazy people, catch crazy people, fix crazy people."

A chill worked its way up Willow's spine, as if dark water were rising around her. Of course, you realize all this is futile--without a source of power to tap, you won't be able to fix the crazy people without making more crazy people. Every spell has its price.

No! That's not so! Well, the price part, yes, but-- She looked round at the stacks of books, feeling the dark water rise, a wave of defeat washing over her. There wasn't anything in them that could help, she knew--she'd gone through every single one of them researching the original spell she'd used to cure Tara. The niggling little voice was right. You couldn't draw power out of nowhere. But she'd had a lot of experience in being creative about where she drew it from--work at anything hard enough and you'd find a catch. If you couldn't beat the simulation, reprogram the simulator. Wasn't that what Buffy'd been doing for the last six years?

Anya sniffed. "The last time one of those bears came around, you got cursed with a grotesque sexually transmitted disease. As the person you have sex with, I have a right to be concerned." She unlocked the lid to the front counter display case and arranged a pair of enameled bracers (guaranteed to fend off shark bites) in a prominent position in front of the 'Store Special!' placard. She stood up and surveyed the shelves critically. "Drat. We're out of the lemon meditation candles. Go get me another carton out of storage, Xander."

"Oh, thanks for the reminder! I'm not the one who stirred it up this time." Xander tossed a snide look in the direction of the basement door. "Someone else's parts can fall off. And I am not going down there."

Anya shrugged. "All right, I will." She started off towards the forbidden door.

Xander caught her arm, his voice taking on a note of panic. "You can't go down there!"

"Why not? It's my store."

"Because--because it might be dangerous! What if they left the door to the tunnels unlocked, huh? They haven't come back yet, maybe something got them and maybe it's down there right now about to--"

"Xander," Anya said with commendable patience, "They didn't go into the tunnels. They went down to the basement to have sex. Although I wish they'd gone into the training room instead; there are far fewer breakable items in there, and I know I heard crashing noises. But since the training room has no exit, it would have been obvious that they intended to have sex, and I did notice that Buffy was employing the misdirection you keep talking about. It doesn't work very well. Or maybe she's just not very good at it."

Xander clapped his hands over his ears. "Gnnng."

"Poor Xander," Tara whispered.

Willow wrinkled her brow. "I wonder if he's really upset or if this is some kind of autonomic reflex. If he didn't kick up a fuss it would ruin his reputation. Besides, you know, him and Anya--I suppose technically she's got a soul, but--" If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. What a boring philosophy. She tried very hard for Xander's sake, but Anya was just annoying. Nails-on-chalkboard annoying. She speculated idly on the chances of Xander noticing if Anya lost a little mental energy for a good cause. Bad Willow.

Still , said the niggling little voice, not a bad idea in theory. You could steal a tithe of energy from many minds to heal one. Who would miss it?

The necessary spell flashed into her mind, almost fully-formed. Eww. No. Where did that come from?

"I'm surprised it's taken this long," Anya continued blithely. "It's been obvious for some time that Buffy's sexually attracted to him. Spike is pleasant to look at, has well-defined muscles and appears to be exceptionally well-equipped to give her orgasms. Also the two of them have a great deal in common. They both enjoy witty repartee, wearing leather and killing things."

Dawn slammed her book shut, pulled her backpack from beneath the table, and hopped to her feet. "Not that hearing you guys speculate about my sister's sex life isn't oodles and bunches of fun, but I'm getting nowhere and it's almost twelve. I'm supposed to meet Lisa at the mall. Can you tell Buffy when she gets back from her, uh, search that I'm gonna have dinner at Lisa's and--"

"I'm sure Buffy will be back by then," Tara said firmly. "Phone home at six and see what she says."

"Buffy will say be home by ten or face the Slayer's wrath," Buffy said.

Everyone's attention was immediately riveted to the back of the shop, where Buffy stood, wearing yesterday's jeans (somewhat the worse for wear) and Spike's t-shirt. Spike lounged in the doorway behind her, equally rumpled-looking and bare-chested underneath the duster. It was astonishing how the ever-present tension between them was simply gone--evaporated. Spike took in Xander's look of exaggerated horror and Anya's frank appreciation with amused equanimity; Buffy just looked disconcerted to see that everyone was staring at them. Dawn bounced over to her sister (and someone was going to have to tell Dawn that with the way she was growing, getting Dawn-bounced was becoming a little alarming) and hugged her. "This is so great!"

"Ah," Xander said, straight-faced. "I see. We're now looking for a clothes-eating monster."

"You guys haven't been out here since--?" Buffy asked nervously.

"Not at all," Anya assured her. "We left when the noises got too distracting. You'll be paying for everything you broke, of course?"

"She's joking, Buff," Xander said, glaring at Anya.

"Of course." Anya looked quite earnestly upset over the idea that her humor might have been misconstrued. "Except for the paying for breakage part. Oh!" An expression of rapture blossomed over her face. "If the two of you are a couple, I can save money by getting you one Christmas present!"

"Because our tastes are so similar? But I'm getting you and Xander separate presents," Buffy shot back. "No fair."

"Right, no cutting back on the prezzies when you and Harris are the only ones in this merry band with a steady income." Spike leaned over and whispered something into Buffy's ear. She smiled up at him and tugged him down for a kiss that rapidly deepened to the point where shutting the door on them again began to look like a viable option. "I'm going to nip home and get something to drink," the vampire said when they finally broke apart, doing the whole husky-voiced, smouldering-gaze thing. "Later, Slayer." He started back down the stairs, stopped, and leveled a warning finger at Anya. "And yes, I'm coming back for my car, so if you have it towed I'll come hang about through your whole Christmas sale week and harass the paying customers."

Buffy watched Spike go with a little smile, took a deep breath and turned back to the others. "So," she said. "Got something for me to beat up yet?" Not carefree, bouncy, pre-Angelus Buffy; that girl was long gone. But certainly happier than Willow could remember her being since before the whole mess with Riley and vamp hookers, before Joyce Summers had died. If Spike can do that, then maybe I should be playing matchmaker. Come to that, Spike had looked pretty darn pleased with the universe, too.

Hard to believe it was only three years ago he was threatening to cut your face open with a broken bottle, isn't it? Of course he's harmless now--for the time being, at least--but it's sobering to think any new-risen fledgling could do the same to you now, with your powers at such a low ebb...

Willow fought off a reflexive shudder as the memory of that horrible night in the old factory washed over her afresh--and Spike had been the least horrible part of it, in retrospect. Perhaps that was why she'd been able to let go of the fear and anger towards him so easily: when it came down to it, she'd hurt herself far more than he'd hurt her. Still... she had been afraid, that night. It could never happen to her now--

Except, of course, that it just did. At the hands of a mere human hedge-wizard.

"You'd better just go looking for crazies," Tara was saying. "Because the leads we have on any of the rest of this stuff are--well, they aren't."

The others didn't notice as Willow rose from the table. She had the eerie feeling that time was slowing as drifted over to the stairs, the earth ceasing its revolutions for her and her alone. Everyone else was frozen in place, too busy talking to Buffy about the unsolvable problem, as if the Slayer could beat it into submission. But it wasn't unsolvable. The solution just wasn't in any of the books down on the lower level. Willow whispered the words that allowed her access to the balcony.

She knew exactly what part of the restricted section of the library to go to, exactly what part of the shelf to reach towards, exactly which book to slip out from its dusty slot, taking care not to disturb the volumes around it. It was small and squat and bound in battered black leather, and any title embossed upon its spine or cover had worn away long since. It was one of a box full of books Xander and Spike had recovered from Doc's apartment over the summer, when they'd searched it for clues to who the mysterious old man--or demon--had been. Most of them had been concerned with necromancy of one sort or another--not surprising, considering that Doc had been an expert on the subject.

Her fingers brushed the greasy leather. This one... this one had proven valuable. She'd found the passages that had inspired her modifications of the Raising spell here, part of the Protocols of Osiris. She'd intended to translate the rest of it at some point, but there just hadn't been time. Quickly, Willow tucked the book under her arm and climbed down the ladder again. She slid the book into her dufflebag and zipped it up. Time lurched into motion again around her.

"--just doesn't seem right somehow," Buffy was saying. "Buffy the Homeless Wino Slayer? Not exactly a fair fight, is it? What do I do, catch them with butterfly nets?"

"Say that again after a pack of them come this close to sucking your brains out," Xander said with great feeling.

"Mm." Buffy didn't look convinced. "All right, we'll get on it. I'm gonna go home and hit the showers or no one will be able to tell me from the crazies."

"Get the mail, will you?" Willow asked. "I forgot to check the box when we left this morning. Oh, and tonight before patrol? There will be dish."

*****

"It goes so well with that eyeshadow!" Lisa peered over Dawn's shoulder at her reflection in the mirror on the counter. Dawn tilted her head this way and that, doubtful.

"You don't think it's too red? But then, Buffy does go for that blood-of-the-innocent look."

"Trust me, it's luscious. She'll love it."

Dawn stuck the lipstick back into its slot on the tester rack and twiddled a few others round to read the names. Raspberry Dew, Cotton Candy... no wonder little kids tried to eat the stuff. She looked around, but there were no clerks in evidence anywhere near the makeup counter. Par for the course. Nordstrom's was festooned with swags of gold and silver crepe and crowded with early Christmas shoppers, and the air was redolent of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and the smell of Department Store: a mingling of perfume, leather, plastic, wool, and fake evergreen scent. "I can't believe they had this stuff out before Thanksgiving," she muttered.

"Are you kidding?" Lisa waved at the nearest display of holiday cheer. "They had it out before Halloween. Here, smell this." She spritzed her wrist and stuck it under Dawn's nose.

"Phhweh. Smells like cantaloupe. I don't think fruit salad is sexy."

"Huh. So much for designer fragrances. On the other hand, mothers aren't supposed to be sexy." Satisfied, she dropped the bottle into her shopping basket and consulted her list. "Got Mom, got Dad... he'll be so thrilled with another tie, but honestly, I have no idea what to get him--Jamie wants that Green Day album..." She hesitated, then choked out in a rush, "Do you think I should maybe send that guy a card or something?"

"What guy?" Dawn asked absently, trying out a slightly less fire-engine shade of lipstick. "Alan?" Forbidden Passion. Oh, yeah, this was it--if nothing else, watching Buffy's face when she read the name was going to be worth it. "Stand right there. Hold it." She took another quick glance around to ascertain that there were still no clerks in sight, and shifted her body so that her back was towards the security camera. One quick flick of the wrist and the lipstick of her choice was in her purse.

"You're so good at that." Lisa was frankly envious. "I'd totally panic. No, the--the vampire guy. He did kind of save my life."

"It's a knack," Dawn said, giving her hair a careless flip. She was good. Even Spike said so, and he was the professional. "Sure, send him a card. I think he's got a post office box, I'll see if I can get the number. If not you can leave it at my place and I can pass it on."

Lisa nodded, still a little red about the ears. After the way Megan had been drooling all over Spike, maybe she was afraid he'd take it the wrong way. Little chance of that considering recent developments.

She was glad she'd already had plans with Lisa for this weekend; it kept her from obsessing to much about those recent developments. She was happy for her sister and for Spike, of course, but she couldn't help worrying about how this would change everything. She's wanted this--wanted the two people she loved most to come together, wanted their weird little almost-family to finally coalesce into something real. Sure, it was silly to think that Spike would move in and he and Buffy would show up together for Parent-Teacher Night, but the fact that there was now a solid, nameable connection between them was reassuring. From This is Spike, the dead guy who hangs around a lot to This is Spike, my sister's boyfriend was a big step. Sister's boyfriends got to come over for Christmas and didn't have to skulk around in the bushes with a beat-up box of chocolates on birthdays.

Still, it was hard not to be nervous. Every change over the past year had been one for the worse. Change was bad. So naturally something awful had to be lurking over the horizon to mess up this seeming good news. She just wasn't going to think about it. "Men's clothing next?" Dawn asked. "I want to get Xander just one decent shirt and I'm gonna have to pay for that. Oh, and we have to stop at Williams and Sonoma, I know Tara wants some weird egg-strangler kitchen device." Which she wasn't going to be able to afford, most likely. She had a Williams and Sonoma shopping list and a K-Mart budget. Which made it practically noble to take a five-fingered discount on a few things, since they weren't for her. Right?

They set out for Men's Casual, navigating the maze of clothing racks and dodging displays of elegantly-dressed mannequins tastefully disporting themselves amidst piles of fake snow. Neither girl noticed the man in the dark suit step out from behind one of the mirrored pillars and start to follow them.

Chapter Text

The shadows were growing long when Tara arrived back at the Summers home. She slid her key in and discovered that the front door was already unlocked. She frowned. Dawn wouldn't be back from Lisa's until the very last strike of ten if past experience were any guide, and she'd left Willow at the Magic Box. In Sunnydale, it was sometimes easy to forget about the mundane dangers of burglary, but the VCR would be just as gone whether smashed by a rampaging demon or stolen by an ordinary human being desperate for drug money. At least it sounded like Buffy was downstairs; she could hear the muted babble of the TV. "Buffy?"

"M'in here," came a voice from the living room.

Buffy sounded different, the overwhelming determination and confidence of the previous day leached out of her voice. She sounded, in fact, small and sad and lost. Tara set her backpack down and shot the deadbolt behind her as she came in. She walked into the living room, where Buffy sat in the middle of the couch, wrapped up in her bathrobe, damp hair straggling round her shoulders. The room was dark save for the phosphor glow of the TV. All the curtains were drawn. The wintery afternoon sunlight was nowhere near strong enough to penetrate the gloom. Buffy was cradling a decimated carton of chocolate chip ice cream in her lap and staring at the television as if her life depended on it. The distant, detached expression of the last month was nowhere in evidence. Her lower lip trembled slightly and her eyes were liquid with emotion.

Ordinarily Tara would have found that encouraging, but that the emotion was prompted by the Weather Channel scrolling a list of high temperatures for the day in each of the fifty states was a little worrisome. "Are you busy?" Obviously not, but... "I wanted to talk to you privately about--"

Buffy smiled lopsidedly and jammed her spoon into the middle of the slowly melting remnants of her ice cream. "So you're the first up, huh? I guess I was expecting this." She summoned up the determined look again. "Yes, I know exactly what I--I..." Her voice broke and she burst into silent, quivering tears.

Tara half-tripped over the corner of the coffee table getting to the couch. "Buffy--what's the matter?" Would asking if this were Spike-related (and what else could it possibly be?) make things better or worse? She took a seat on the arm of the couch. "Are y-you--"

"I'm f-fine--" A fresh bout of sobs overtook Buffy, and Tara held her shaking shoulders for several minutes until they subsided. At last Buffy took a deep gasping breath and straightened up, wiping her reddened eyes on the sleeve of her robe. "I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me." She looked down at her lap as if she hoped for answers in the rivulets of melting ice cream. "I felt great when I got home, and I went up to take a shower, and came down here to see what the forecast was, and..." She gulped a little. "I just happened to look at the picture." She waved at the TV, and for a second Tara was confused; then she realized that Buffy was referring to the little gold-framed photo of Joyce Summers sitting on top rather than to the screen. "I miss Mom."

Tara had long ago finished mourning her own mother's death, but there were times and circumstances which could still make her eyes ache and the back of her throat grow taut. "That's normal," she said. "It's only been a couple of months for you. The rest of us have had longer to...adjust."

"She hated me being the Slayer, did you know?"

That was something Tara never suspected. "Did she? She always seemed to take it so gracefully."

Buffy gave a rueful little laugh. "When she first found out she told me I wasn't welcome in her house if I kept it up. Of course I kinda picked the worst possible time to tell her about it--Spike had just offered to help me take down Angelus." Tara blinked; she hadn't known that Spike had been in on that. Buffy twiddled the spoon around in the ice cream. "Mom got better with it. I wish now I'd told her from the start. It would have made a lot of things so much easier... all the trouble I got into at school, explaining Angel..." She sighed. "Maybe not. Mom never liked him, even before she found out he was a vampire."

Tara wondered if it was safe to turn off the TV, or at least change channels. "I never would have guessed--about your mom, I mean. She always got along so well with Spike."

"I know. Irony much? My mother hates my one true love and invites my mortal enemy in for cocoa." Her eyes softened, the grey-green going misty. "And Spike really liked her. I'd come home from the dorm to visit sometimes and find him over here with her, talking about those dumb soaps or whining about Dru. He'd even listen to her stories about the gallery and pretend to be interested. I wish--I wish she were still here." Her lower lip was trembling again. "I wish I could talk about this with her. She'd probably freak--she liked Spike, but she was so happy when Angel left and I started dating Riley. A nice, human guy. Someone I could have a so-called normal life with." A snort. "That turned out well."

"Normal lives are over-rated."

"I keep telling myself that. It's just weird to hear someone agree with me."

Tara shrugged. "I grew up liking girls in a small town. If you think my family was down on witches, you should have heard Dad's opinions on, quote, uppity dykes." Buffy looked startled. Didn't think I knew that word, did you? I know a lot of things. Tara looked over at the other woman, debating her next words. "Buffy... what I said before about why you were kissing Spike--or doing anything else to Spike--not being my business, I meant it. It doesn't--can I have some of that ice cream?"

"Sure." Buffy handed her the spoon.

"Thanks." She took a spoonful and licked the drips off. Not butter pecan, but it would do. "Whatever's between you and Spike doesn't change anything about the way I look at you. You're a grown-up, and besides that, you're a--" She paused, trying to make sure she had the right word. "--responsible person. One of the most responsible people I know. I know you fight it a lot, but when it comes down to it I've never seen you back away. So whatever you've decided to do with your life... I can't believe that it's anything that will hurt others. And whether or not you hurt yourself, or-or Spike--that's your risk to take, and his."

Buffy buried her face in her hands for a second, then straightened and tucked the strands of water-darkened hair behind her ears. "Thank you. God, I'm so messed up!" She wiped her nose. "I've been sitting here for two hours and one minute I'm high as a kite and Spike's the best thing that ever happened to me, and the next minute I'm completely convinced that I'm insane. Hence, ice cream therapy, only partially successful. I'll be OK. I think." She turned on Tara with eyes full of panicky intensity and grabbed her arm. Tara suppressed a wince. "Don't tell Will about this, please--keep it a private meltdown? She's already so worried about whether or not I'm happy or sad or--I slept with Spike. I know it's crazy. I mean, not completely dense, here! How do I explain to Dawn's caseworker that she can't meet my new boyfriend today because he tends to burst into flames? Oh, my God. I called him my boyfriend. What am I thinking? How can I think when he's being all--all Spike at me!? I--"

Tara grabbed the spoon, dug it into the carton of ice cream, and shoved it into Buffy's mouth. Buffy's eyes bugged out at the sudden chill. She held her breath for a good ten seconds, let it out in an ungraceful through-the-nose snort, and with a supreme effort of will, swallowed. Tara watched her. "Are you OK for a minute?"

She gave Tara a watery smile. "Uh. Yeah. Thanks. No guarantees for the minute after that, though. It's all been so--so flat since I got back, like nothing touches me." She caught her lower lip in her teeth. "But when I touch him... everything makes sense. I feel like I fit into the world again. Even if it hurts." There was a look of concentrated wonder in those grey-green eyes, and Tara got the feeling that she was never again going to see Buffy this unguarded. "Have you ever felt like that?"

Tara thought of Willow, sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle of a pile of books. "Yes. Yes, I've felt like that."

Buffy nodded. "So does that cover what you wanted to talk to me about?"

Tara's mouth twitched into a smile. "Not even close. I wanted to talk to you about Willow."

"Oh." Buffy's ears went a little red, to match her nose. "I am Buffy the Walking Ego, hear me roar. What about Will?"

Tara dropped her eyes to her hands. "I left her at the Magic Box--"

"Is that safe, considering what she came up with the last time you left her alone at the Magic Box?" Buffy asked in lighter tones.

Unhappiness welled up inside her, and Tara nodded. "Very safe. That's what I needed to talk to you about. You're counting on Willow to come up with a spell to cure these people, and that--th-that may not be possible."

A small crease appeared between Buffy's brows. "You mean, there may not be a spell that can do the job? But Wills had an idea just before Spike and I, uh, left yesterday. Didn't it pan out?"

"It's not that--Willow may be able to create a working spell, I don't know. The problem is..." This was proving harder than she'd anticipated; there was a dreadful sense of betrayal in telling Buffy this without Willow's knowledge. "I don't think she'll be able to cast it. Bringing you back the way she did--the Raising was an incredibly powerful spell. Normally it's performed by a circle of five or more adepts, and powered by at least ten sacrifices, human and vampire. Willow got around all that, using Dawn's blood and Spike's soul." As much as Tara had disapproved of the spell, she had to admit that Willow had crafted it brilliantly--in concept, at least; as happened too often for comfort, Willow's execution had contained a few flaws. "But that means that a lot more of the power had to come from the caster--Willow. That would have been draining enough, but then the spell went wrong. She poured every bit of magic in her into closing that portal."

"Right," Buffy said, with an understanding nod. "And she's been recuperating ever since."

"No." Tara's voice sounded wretched in her own ears. "That's the trouble. It's been a month, and she's showing no signs of recovery at all. She can cast simple spells, but she burns out almost immediately. I mean, she blew herself out for the day opening a door. When Tanner grabbed her, she had nothing left." Each word grew heavier on her tongue, but she forced them out anyway. "It could be months before she recovers. Or years. Or... maybe never. I just don't know. But I'm pretty certain she's not going to be up to casting a spell to restore the sanity of a dozen or more people any time soon."

Buffy's expression flickered from worried to grim as she spoke, and Tara surmised that Oh, poor Will! was doing mortal battle with Hah, serves her right! in Buffy's head. "Oh. Wow. I never realized... great. We can't just let these guys run wild and free. Oooh, wait!" She gave an excited little bounce. "This Tanner person's only dangerous because he's a wizard of some kind--is there a way to short-circuit his magical talents? So he won't be able to cast the crazy-making spell?"

"Maybe... some kind of curse?" Tara rubbed her mouth, frowning. "I hate messing around with curses, though. You pretty much have to leave the target an out when you construct it, and when they find it--and sooner or later they usually do--it always comes back to get you."

Buffy made a face. "Mmm... you should really have a talk with some gypsies of my acquaintance."

"Maybe a geas. Those are tricky, but they're not malevolent. It'll have to be something that I stand a chance of casting on my own."

"Does Willow..."

Tara sighed and shook her head. "I know she knows she's not getting better, and I know she's scared. We haven't talked about it much. I just... I don't want to come off all 'I told you so!' She's feeling miserable enough about it already." She scraped up the last of the ice cream. "Now that we've had dessert I guess I'd better get dinner started. Willow will be home soon." She couldn't afford to pay Buffy much rent, so she liked to make up the difference in other ways, and besides, she was the only really good cook of the four of them. Buffy attacked the job as though planning a meal were the culinary equivalent of the Battle of Gettysburg, Willow only baked when she was feeling guilty about something, and Dawn... "Um... what do you want to do with that leftover hot dog-macaroni-ketchup casserole?"

Buffy stuck a finger down her throat. "The usual. Pack it up and smuggle it off to Spike."

"You hate him that much, huh?"

Buffy snickered, got to her feet and started for the stairs. "I don't care what he claims, anyone who can eat Dawn's cooking and enjoy it is not possessed of working taste buds." She ran a hand through her damp hair. "Ooh, look at the time. If I want to be ready for patrol by six I'm going to have surrender to the sinister allure of blow-drying." She headed for the stairs and stopped on the lowest step, hanging off the bannister. "Do you need help with dinner?"

"No, that's fine," Tara assured her. "Not like I'm cooking for twenty. It's just going to be hamburgers tonight."

"Coolness. Hey--make an extra one for me for after patrol, OK? Or maybe two. I think we're going to be hungry."

*****

Xander squinted against the late afternoon sun as he trudged through the graveyard, examining the neat columns of figures on the bill Anya had given him. Shelf, storage, six-foot, one, $79.95. Chest, mahogany, 3 cu. ft. cap., one, $244.95. Jars, storage, 1 qt., twelve, $2.99 ea. Jars, storage, 8 oz., twenty-four, $1.99 ea. Bottle, djinni for the use of, one, $24.95. Djinni, one, priceless...

He'd devoted a sizeable portion of the afternoon to helping Anya clean up the basement and forcing himself not to speculate on his eventual fate had any of his long-ago Buffy-fantasies ever come to fruition. He'd survived one night with a Slayer, but he had no illusions that 'survived' was not the operative word in describing his tryst with Faith, and she'd been playing nice... for Faith. No, best just close his eyes and think of baseball, and not about what a pair of inhumanly strong people in the throes of passion could possibly have been doing to leave a head-sized hole in a cement-block wall...

He crumpled up the bill and stuffed it in the pocket of his slacks, trying to ball up his resentment with it. He and Anya'd had another fight before he'd given in and consented to run this hopeless errand. In the unlikely event that Spike consented to pay for the damages, ten to one the money to do so would be liberated from Xander's own pockets, and Anya knew damned well that Buffy could barely afford to keep her utility bills paid. Let's face it, their combined assets are about enough to go down to the corner and buy a stick of gum.

Their assets? Ugh, had he actually started thinking of Spike and Buffy as a them? He was supposed to shudder at this point, but no one was there to see him do it, and the truth was he didn't know exactly how to feel. That was mildly disturbing. Vampires = Bad was the cornerstone of his philosophy of life, had been for the past six years. See vampire, stake vampire. Very simple, until Angel came along with his anomalous soul and his brooding cow eyes and his Neanderthal brow and his air of mystery and danger, and all of a sudden Buffy was in love with him, and he was an exception. Until exceptional Angel lost the soul, killed Jenny, kidnaped Dawn, and left Buffy a walking shadow of herself. Xander kicked a tombstone in passing, a bit harder than he'd intended, and bit back a yelp as a stab of pain penetrated his work boots. Despite the horror of it all Xander hadn't been able to help but feel that the world was back on kilter: Vampires bad.

Spike should have been easier to deal with. He wasn't any kind of exception. He was your standard issue bloodsucker, sans soul, sans conscience, sans remorse. Up until last fall Spike had made no bones about the fact that he hated them all and would return to trying to kill them the moment something happened to the chip in his head. Spike = Bad, If Occasionally Useful.

Xander wished that it were easier to remember that these days, that he didn't keep falling prey to unexpected moments of sympathy for the Bleached Wonder, or that Buffy hadn't looked so contented earlier, and not in that sappy, spell-induced way, either. He couldn't say that he liked the vampire, and it was for damn certain that Spike didn't like him, but they'd gotten used to each other over the last year, and familiarity bred... something that made the two of them not completely disinclined towards one another's company. If they spent most of their time snapping at one another, well, everyone needed a hobby.

It lacked several hours till sunset, but the crypt was already shrouded in purple shadow, thanks to several strategically planted cypresses. Xander glanced at the windows; a few candles glowed, but there was no movement behind them. Normally Spike was up and about at this hour, watching television or doing some mysterious vampire thing. He banged perfunctorily on the door to the crypt and then gave it a shove, rattling the chain--what was the good of having a padlock, he thought, if Spike never locked the damned thing? Half the demon population of Sunnydale out to skin him, and anyone could just walk in. The vampire had the brains of a kumquat. He entered the crypt and looked around, then yelled, "Hey! Dead Man Walking! Getcher undead ass up here! Got something for you!"

After a few minutes the sound of booted feet on the stairs echoed up from below, and Spike's pale head appeared out of the opening leading to the lower level. Xander blinked as Spike's shoulders emerged; he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt in vibrant scarlet over his customary black t-shirt, a style Spike hadn't affected since he'd shrunk the last one he'd owned in Xander's washing machine almost two years ago. He was carrying a couple of moldy-looking books in the crook of one arm and tucking a small, oddly-shaped object into his shirt-pocket.

"Holidays coming up," the vampire drawled in response to Xander's unasked question. "I'm feeling festive." He tossed the books down on a table and looked Xander up and down with a belligerent smirk. "My, don't we look all splotchy and possessive! Come to deliver the obligatory touch-her-and-I'll stake-you speech? Snap it up, then, Harris, I've got things--and people--to do tonight." He strutted up to Xander, the smirk growing even more obnoxious. "Or do we fancy fisticuffs? Little punch in the nose to make us feel extra manly? Sorry, that's the Slayer's private preserve, but tell you what--I'll give you a free shot at the rest of the phiz."

Xander's fingers twitched fistwards. Screw moments of sympathy; once an evil soulless bastard, always an evil soulless bastard. He rocked back on his heels and stared down at Spike (and how annoying was it that it had taken a year for him to realize that the undead jerk was shorter than he was?) and savored the fact that it didn't matter that his merely human strength would make about as much impact on Spike's jaw as throwing beanbags; unlike those poor crazy saps, Xander knew how to throw a punch and how to dodge one. He could just keep hitting until Spike broke or his knuckles did. Or better yet, grab one of the bits of faux-Gothic statuary scattered around the crypt and pound the asshole's skull in. And Spike wouldn't be able to do a damned thing about it; if he tried he'd be knocked on his ass, brain-fried courtesy of the U.S. Army--God bless the U.S.A. In fact, he could do anything he wanted to Spike...

...And Spike knew it. He could see it in the vampire's eyes, bravado covering the wincing anticipation of the blow to come, the blow he couldn't fight off, and not just because of the chip. The same look, almost, he'd seen in the mirrors of the boys' restroom before a hundred confrontations with whichever bully wanted to knock Xander Harris's block off that week. The look which meant that if you couldn't avoid the pain, you'd damned well take it on your own terms.

Xander kept his expression blank. "Nah. I've got something way worse than that." He reached into his pocket and saw Spike tense, real fear flickering into his eyes--was there really a stake in there? Slowly, Xander drew the bill out and handed it to the vampire. "Paid in full by the end of January, buster. Or Anya'll hand it over to a demon bill collector."

Hah. He'd floored a vampire. Add that to the Harris resume. Spike stared at the bill, then back at Xander, then back at the bill, the fact that Xander wasn't going to beat the shit out of him slowly seeping through his skull. He pulled a half-empty pack of Marlboros out of his shirt pocket, from behind whatever it was he'd stuck in there on the way upstairs, tapped one out, lit it on the nearest candle-flame, and took a cool-restoring drag. He held up the note and waved it. "Thanks, Harris. I've been thinking of rolling my own, and this is the perfect size."

"You think I'm joking about Anya and money?"

Spike snorted smoke. "Oi, just beat me up yourself, won't you? Easier all around."

Xander coughed, a snide comment about the cigarettes on the tip of his tongue, and then realized that there was far more smoke in the air than could be accounted for by Spike's bad habits or a few cheap candles. Trading looks of confusion, the two of them headed for the crypt door. The diffuse afternoon light dimmed further as they reached it, to the point that Spike risked several steps outside. He looked up, almost losing his cigarette as his jaw dropped. "Bloody hell." Xander shoved past him and tilted his own head back, following the vampire's stunned gaze upwards.

It must have been a hundred feet long. It had no wings, but it rode the wind nonetheless, a sinuous river of gold-rimmed scarlet scales undulating across the sky, blotting out the sun. Five-clawed talons slashed the air. Its be-whiskered and horned head lashed from side to side, trailing fantastic streamers and filaments of silver and gold. Smoke rolled from its flaring nostrils and the immense goggle eyes rolled downwards as the creature spotted them and paused in mid-air, absurdly graceful. The filaments at the end of its snout twitched; it opened its fanged maw and a voice like a striking gong, brassy and ringing and deep enough to make the ground beneath their feet shiver in sympathy, rolled over the graveyard.

It hovered, head cocked as if awaiting an answer. Xander and Spike stood there dumbstruck. The creature gave a heavy, disgusted snort, the scent of its breath like burning metal on the breeze, and then it was gone. Spike jumped back into the shadow of the crypt door as a few small sunbeams penetrated the cypress-shadows.

"What the hell was that?" Xander finally croaked out.

Spike took his cigarette out of his mouth and exhaled a shaky stream of smoke. "Buggered if I know. I never did learn Chinese."

*****

"So?" Willow asked, taking a plate from the dishrack and polishing it with the Hello Kitty dishtowel. Across the kitchen Tara was wrapping up leftover hamburgers in foil and putting tomato slices and shredded lettuce into Tupperware bowls.

Buffy was concentrating on getting the burnt cheese off the skillet, scrubbing hard with the copper mesh pad. "A needle pulling thread?" She was not only in the best mood Willow could remember seeing her in since her return, she was dressed to slay in a dark pleated knee-length skirt and a cream-gold blouse--part of her office drag, Willow knew, but jazzed up with a slim gold belt and matching necklace, displayed to advantage by a few more unbuttoned buttons than most office dress codes would have let her get away with. How was it, Willow wondered, that Buffy could make the cheapest, tackiest accessories look like a million dollars, while she still gave off an aura of plaid jumpers and goofy hats no matter what she wore? It was an alien plot, had to be.

"No, doofus. So, you and Spike. Things are moving kind of, um, fast, aren't they?" Understatement of the year; was it only two days ago that Buffy'd declared the whole thing impossible?

"I guess. I've known Spike way longer than anyone else I've slept with." Buffy applied more elbow grease to the skillet, and for a second Willow was sure she was going to get a polite brush-off. She slid the plate on top of the stack in the cupboard, watching her friend with worried eyes. Maybe she was being too pushy. Once upon a time she wouldn't have had to push at all; Buffy would have been bursting to discuss new developments in her love life with her. Buffy hadn't shown any interest in girl talk in a month of Sundays, even before her death--she'd completely clammed up about the whole fiasco with Riley, and Willow sometimes suspected that whether she admitted it or not, Buffy was still a tiny bit uncomfortable with the idea of her and Tara and S-E-X.

They'd promised each other no secrets, hadn't they? The inner voice she couldn't seem to shut up snipped, Right after the last time Spike nearly tore the whole gang apart. Not a constructive thought. Why was she in such a pissy mood today? She'd gotten that great idea for revamping the transference spell, and she'd gotten the book she needed out of the Magic Box safely. She stopped herself from throwing an uneasy glance over at her duffle, currently languishing in a corner of the Summers' kitchen. The book was still there. There was no reason for anyone to suspect she'd taken it.

"I'm sorry, Buff, if you're not comfy talking about it--"

"No, it's OK. It's just been so long since I had anything to dish about, I've forgotten all the tribal customs." She stood with one hand resting lightly on the hot water tap, contemplating the drifting archipelagos of soapsuds in the sink with a little smile curving her lips.

Putting away another plate, Willow asked, "Sparkage, then?"

Buffy toyed with her necklace for a moment, trying hard to suppress the smile and not succeeding very well. "Maybe," she replied, evasive. "Oh, who am I kidding, enough sparkage to send the Sunnydale power grid into epileptic fits. You remember when Riley and I got caught at that party at Lowell House?"

"Hard to forget the great Summers-Finn Boinkfest of '00."

Buffy rolled her eyes and turned the tap on, rinsing out the skillet. "It's a little like that. Except, you know, not a magical compulsion, and without the freaky sex-poltergeists draining us. And it feels about a hundred times better, and a hundred times scarier. And Spike's a lot more, uh, imaginative than--okay, it's nothing like that at all. Last night was so intense--"

Willow's eyebrow went up. "Is this, like, meeting-with-Angel-that-you-won't-talk-about intense?"

Buffy flicked soapy water at her. "No. It was like--imagine the only ice cream you ever had in your life was vanilla. And it's good. You like the vanilla. Yay, vanilla! But then one day someone hands you a great big ol' butterscotch ripple sundae. With extra hot fudge and whipped cream and a cherry on top." She held the skillet up to the light for inspection, then set it on one of the stove burners to air-dry. "And then tells you that there are seven zillion more flavors still to try, and he owns a Baskin Robbins."

"And you're not worried about... all the stuff you were worried about two days ago anymore?"

"I'm terrified." The words were a flat statement of fact. Buffy flipped the damp sponge into the air and caught it. "But night before last--I could have lost you, or Tara, or Xander, or Dawn. Or Spike. Who knows what'll happen tomorrow? Last time I checked, still a Slayer with a short expiration date, and dead bodies tend to happen in my vicinity." For a second her eyes were haunted, though her voice remained flippant. "Besides, sex changes everything. Probably the next time we see each other it'll be all weird and uncomfortable and--"

The approaching growl of the motorcycle rattled the panes of the kitchen window slightly, rising to a crescendo and then dying away with a cough as it pulled into the driveway. Buffy stood on tiptoe and twitched the curtains aside to peer out into the blue-grey dusk. "It's Spike!" she said, a little breathless, as if she knew hordes of people who were likely to turn up on motorcycles and its being Spike was a wonderful surprise.

"Is he wearing the coat?" Willow asked, straight-faced.

Buffy gave her a suspicious look. "Of course he is. OK, I'm out of here. We'll do a standard pass over Rolling Green and Eastside Memorial, and then see if we can rake up any leads on Tanner and his band of Merry Men. I'll phone at ten-thirty to see if Dawn's home. I'll probably be home around two."

She pulled the stopper out of the sink and dried her hands, then made a quick detour into the living room to grab a couple of stakes from the weapons chest behind the couch. Willow followed her, lagging a bit, but getting there in plenty of time to see Tara open the front door in the middle of Spike's over-enthusiastic leaning on the doorbell. Buffy straightened up, tucking the stakes into her coat pockets.

Spike stood in the doorway, wearing the coat, which had obviously been cleaned up and mended since its encounter with the pyracantha bush. He looked rather more dressed-up than usual--besides the red overshirt he'd made an attempt to un-scuff the toes of his boots, and he was wearing a couple of those big gaudy silver rings, like the death's-head one he'd given Buffy under the influence of Willow's spell of two years past--Spike's taste in jewelry was an aesthetic train wreck between goth-punk and the Victorian conviction that too much was never enough. He looked slightly self-conscious until he took in Buffy's attire, and a slow grin spread across his face. "Dressed for action, I see. Sorry, Slayer, the bike doesn't come with a side-saddle."

"How cute," Willow whispered to Tara. "It's a slay date." Tara poked her in the ribs.

Buffy sashayed over to the door and stood nose-to-chin with him. She put her hands on her hips and gave him a coolly superior smile in return. "I used to slay like this all the time. Just remember, anything you can do I can better--and while wearing high heels."

Spike's arms slid through the crooks of her elbows and round her waist as if drawn by magnets. "Really?" He dropped his head a fraction and whispered something in her ear.

Buffy's cheeks flushed, but there was challenge in her voice. "Try me. Come on, Spike, time's wasting."

He offered her an arm, and after a second's hesitation she took it. Vampire and Slayer strolled arm in arm down the porch steps, laying claim to the night and looking at one another with unabashed hunger in their eyes.

Beautiful, both of them. And deadly. They have power.

There were times, when she was deep in the casting of a spell, when the world fell away and Willow saw everything as patterns and auras of magic. The spellsight overtook her now, and she saw, not the small lean man and the smaller slim woman, but figures of flame: Spike's demon-soul dark as midnight, shot through with the gold and scarlet of human desire, Buffy's human one bright as noon, though the brightness could not conceal the dark currents of power which marked her as something other than merely human. A crown of crackling blue sparks arced around the shadow-Spike's head--the chip?

The voice whispered in her mind Ironic, is it not, that these two whose power was thrust upon them, she unwilling and he unknowing, should outstrip you, who were born to wield it?

Willow blinked and shook her head, hard, and vision returned to normal; it was only Spike and Buffy disappearing round the hedge in the direction of the driveway, Spike starting to tell Buffy about something he and Xander had seen in the cemetery. "Spike!" He turned, questioning. "You be good to her, or--"

He cocked his head to the side, amused. "You'll stake me?"

"No. I'll tell Xander about your deepest, darkest secret." She ran the tip of one index finger up the bridge of her nose.

Spike went a shade paler, if that were possible, and his hand made an abortive movement towards the breast pocket of his shirt. "You wouldn't, you vicious little--bloody hell, you would! What do you lot do, hang about dreaming up ways to torture me?"

Willow smirked at him. "Like you haven't done the same to us?"

He considered for a moment, then smirked back. "It's a fair cop."

"What?" Buffy asked, extending a curious hand towards his pocket. "What's in there?"

Spike captured her hand and strode towards the motorcycle. "Nothing, pet, let's us just go kill off a few of my friends and relatives, shall we?" A moment later the motorcycle rumbled to life, and then they were gone, roaring away into the darkness.

"What was that?" Tara asked, slipping an arm around her waist.

"Just a little vampire blackmail," Willow said with a satisfied smile. "The punishment should fit the potential crime. I've still got a shovel with Riley's name on it in my Dad's toolshed." She leaned into her lover's shoulder and sighed. "Guess that blows the 'next time we meet will be awkward and weird' theory. I just want it to be all better, now. I want to know she's happy. If this whole thing with Spike is just some weird self-flagellation thing because she hates being alive again--"

"I don't think it is. But it's still Buffy's decision," Tara said firmly. "You brought her back, but it's Buffy's life, not yours. Personally," she slipped a hand under Willow's blouse and ran her fingers teasingly along her ribs, "I think your life has enough exciting parts to keep you occupied."

Willow laughed and kissed her on the nose. "I consider myself chastised."

Tara nuzzled her back. "We've got the whole evening to ourselves," she whispered, sliding her hand higher. "I could chastise you a little more."

For a moment Willow wavered. "I should really work on my English term paper," she said, pulling away. "I really slacked off my classes after Halloween, and I've got to catch up. I was going to head over to the university library and see if that new biography of Gertrude Stein was in yet. I won't stay out too late. You want to come along?"

That was a calculated risk. Dawn wouldn't be home for hours, but Willow knew that responsible, level-headed Tara would want to be sure that someone was home to answer the phone in case of emergencies. And just as she'd expected, Tara looked wistful, but shook her head. "No, I should stay. I've got homework I can work on here."

Retrieving her duffle from the kitchen corner, Willow slung it over her shoulder, feeling the chill electric tingle of the book inside even through the layers of fabric. "I'll be back before you know it," she promised, and set off into the deepening night.

Chapter Text

Downtown Sunnydale on a Saturday night, an island of small-town ambience in the ocean of So Cal suburbia. Main Street, lit up with the glitter and sparkle of Christmas lights, hosts the usual good-time Saturday crowds augmented by hordes of shoppers. The Bronze, the Espresso Pump, the Sun Theater, all packed. Go further downtown, towards the docks, and the streets grow narrower, darker, and the seedier allure of the Fish Tank and the Purple Onion draw their own circles of clientele.

If you are human, you keep to the light, stick with the swirling mass of high school kids with oversized jeans and backwards baseball caps, college kids in fashionable piercings and haircuts that had been out of date in L.A. for weeks, adults young and old grabbing the bit in their teeth and throwing over the traces of the workweek. If you are human, and have lived in Sunnydale any amount of time, you know something is out there in the dark, beyond the sodium glow of the street lamps. You join in the buzz of talk and ever-so-slightly-nervous laughter and hope that by refusing to name it, you can ward it off.

If you aren't human, you keep to the darkness, stalking the mortal herd with predatory precision. You drift along the edges of the crowds, silent as the mist that legend said you could turn to--legend was wrong, but who needed special effects when you had strength and speed and senses far beyond the mortal? There's nothing human which could match you, much less best you. Scout the sidewalks, looking for tonight's victim. The blue-haired woman with the armful of packages? The lanky young man with the soul patch and the air of existential discontent? Or there, in the alleyway ahead, the young couple necking heedlessly against the wall, hands and mouths all over each other, lost in a carnal fog?

If you are a vampire, you smile to yourself and glide forward across the gum-pocked pavement in front of the theater, cruel delight welling deep inside as you imagine your hand falling on the man's shoulder. You imagine his look of shock, the woman's terror as you tear his jugular open, the fear in their eyes as delicious as the blood in their veins. You suit action to thought, reaching out; but before your hand comes to rest upon its target, the man in the alley turns to face you in a swirl of black leather. His golden eyes and ridged brow and sharp-fanged, arrogant smile mirror your own, the only reflection you will ever know.

If you are a vampire, you realize, too late, that there is only one heartbeat to be heard between them. You start to back away, thinking that you have intruded upon the other's kill; but there is no blood on his mouth, and his hand, cold as your own, closes about your wrist with a strength that exceeds your fledgling prowess by a century or more, pinning you in place. The delicate pink tip of the woman's tongue darts across her kiss-swollen lips, and her eyes are bright with excitement, not fear.

If you are a vampire, you look upon the faces of the Slayer and her traitorous consort and know that you've made a terrible, terrible mistake. As the wooden stake plunges into your chest, there is one moment of needle-sharp, achingly brilliant pain which lasts forever, the forever you were promised when your sire first placed your dying lips to the wound at his breast and bade you suck.

And then you are gone.

*****

Buffy nudged the pile of dust at her feet with a disdainful toe, and the evening breeze finished dispersing the remains of the vampire who'd attacked them. Spike slouched against the brickwork, watching her with an admiring half-grin that didn't quite conceal his fangs. She watched him back from beneath lowered lashes. His pale hands drew a rising arc in the darkness as he brought his lighter up to meet the cigarette held askew in one corner of his mouth. His left thumb flicked the striker of the gold Zippo and the flame leaped up, conjuring twin gold-on-gold reflections in his eyes. The light lent the momentary illusion of warmth to his angular features, threw the brow ridges of his demonic face into sharp relief and cast the hollows of his cheeks into deep shadow. He cupped his right hand around the cigarette, and the red ember at its tip flared, dimmed, and brightened again as he drew it to life.

She couldn't stand smokers, hated the smell of cigarettes, and was in full agreement with the old joke about the designated smoking areas in California being Arizona and Nevada. So why was the sight of Spike lighting up so god-damned sexy? Something about the way that sensual mouth pursed around the cigarette...or maybe the way those strong, long-fingered hands manipulated the lighter... He flicked the lighter off and returned it to his coat pocket. Smoke trickled from between his parted lips and coiled upwards in a lazy spiral. "Was it good for you, love?"

"Not as good as this." Buffy dragged him down without waiting for him to shake off the game face, grabbed his cigarette, and tossed it over her shoulder. She was afraid for a moment that he'd take her curiosity wrong, but after a moment's surprise Spike responded with all the enthusiasm she could have wished, and they were feeling each other up and trading long nicotine-flavored kisses again. The first time Angel had kissed her he'd vamped out uncontrollably, and ever after had been wary of it happening again. If anything, Spike seemed to have the opposite reaction; he had to concentrate to keep from reverting to human at her touch. Buffy ran her tongue over his teeth, testing the sharp points of his canines. Different. Dangerous. Thrilling.

She really had meant for tonight to be all business. Really. They had work to do. Vamps to kill, crazies to track. So naturally Spike had to show up looking hotter than a two-dollar pistol, and ride her around on what was essentially a two-wheeled, gas-powered vibrator until she was all hot and bothered. At least it wasn't just her. Spike had scarcely let her out of arm's reach all evening--always catching hold of her hand or touching her cheek or stroking her hair or brushing against her, as if to reassure himself that she was really there. Or maybe just to be touching her. For all her own longing, she'd never realized how starved for physical contact he was, too--going on two days' evidence, Spike was big on the PDAs.

So they were being businesslike. Really. Here on the town's main drag it was ever so much more inconspicuous for the two of them to go arm in arm than to stalk along like a pair of Old West gunslingers lookin' fer trouble at the OK Corral. Ending up macking in the alley next to the Sun was just an occupational hazard of going arm in arm, was all.

His soft cool lips tantalized her throat, his fangs making little teasing pinpricks against her skin that never came close to really drawing blood. Some part of her was completely astonished at all this implied about his control and her trust of it, but the rest of her shivered and melted as his hand slid up and over her shoulder, stroking the line of her collarbone where it ran beneath her jacket, then dropping to cup her breast. Her nipples went taut under his fingers. He had an unerring sense of what kind of touches, and where, turned her to goo. Best of all it was mutual; her hands were eliciting all kinds of happy little rumblings from Spike as they explored the lean hard lines of his torso. It was very easy to tell exactly what kinds of touches he liked, and where.

She made an attempt to break free of his circling arms that barely qualified as quarter-hearted. "We should patrol."

"We are patrolling."

"Patrolling implies actually moving from place to place at some point."

He nuzzled her collarbone. "I am moving from place... to... mmmmrrrhhrr...." Now this was a cool discovery; rub a vampire's brow ridges and he'd follow you anywhere. Fun with game face. Who knew? Spike tilted his head back with a goofily blissful expression, allowing her easier access to that completely lickable Adam's apple, and said hoarsely, "Got a dangerous vampire to keep an eye on right here, Slayer."

"Really?" She took advantage of the invitation and licked his throat, reveling in his pleasurable shudder. "I always thought this one was kind of a creampuff. I hear he uses excessive amounts of hair gel."

"How many times, pet?" His husky growl went right to the center of her being and pulsed there.

"What?"

"How many times did you bring yourself off today, thinkin' about last night?"

Thump him on the chest, hard. Had to be hard; soft wouldn't make an impression on that rock-solid body. "As if!" Could she make a quick grab for his shirt pocket and find out what the heck he was hiding in there? Or would any such attempt degenerate into further sessions of Grope The Vampire, and would either of them really object if it did?

Spike only laughed. "How many?"

She looked up, biting her lower lip with a reluctant smile. "Twice." At his skeptical look, "Well, twice before Tara got home." Her smile went wicked. "And you?"

He nipped at her pouting lip and chuckled. "If the whelp had shown up a few minutes earlier he'd've gotten an eyeful. I'll be in Guinness for non-stop wanking any day now if this keeps up. Not that I wasn't close already."

Buffy reached down and toyed with the buttons of his fly, cupping the already sizeable bulge in his jeans and letting her fingers stray to one side, then the other, teasing him through the worn black denim. "Seems to me like you're keeping up very nicely." He groaned and his cock jerked and hardened further beneath her touch. So nice not to have to pretend Spike didn't exist below the belt buckle, especially when the real estate in that neighborhood was so choice. It was a little aggravating that he could scent her arousal no matter how she might try to hide it, but everyone could see just how hot she got him, and it gave her a heady, joyful jolt of sexual power. She did that to him, she, Buffy Summers, the one Angelus hadn't thought worth a second go, the one Riley had left for not needing him enough.

Spike growled deep in his chest and ground his body into hers. She was half a breath away from yanking the jeans right off those narrow, muscled hips (damned if she could tell what besides his hard-on kept them up in the first place) and going down on him right then and there when the scream tore through the noise of traffic and Saturday crowds.

"Bugger," Spike snarled with truly heartfelt viciousness.

Buffy bit back similar sentiments. Time to save the world, or at least the local part of it. "Sounds like it came from across the street. Come on."

They dashed out of the alley and down the sidewalk, dodging pedestrians and prompting a few more shrieks from the people who noticed that Spike was still all fangy. Vaulting the hood of an acid-green Nissan parked at the intersection, Buffy paused on the corner, trying to concentrate on the tingle along her nerves that meant vampires were nearby. She'd never been as good at this aspect of the Slayer biz as the hitting parts, and having to filter out Spike's overwhelming presence didn't make it any easier. Still... "There," she said, pointing.

Spike's gaze followed her outstretched hand and he nodded, eyes lighting at the prospect of carnage. There were four this time. Smarter than the one who'd attacked earlier, too. Two of them, human features to the fore, were standing guard in the mouth of the alley behind the hairdresser's, camouflaged in seedy-young-adult uniforms of baggy jeans and oversized flannel shirts. Both stared insolently at the passers-by and silently dared anyone to venture past them. No one was taking them up on it. In the shadows of the alley behind them, two dimly visible figures loomed over a body sprawled out on the oil-stained concrete. Its leg kicked fitfully, once.

The guard-vamps sprouted fangs and dropped into a fighting stance the moment the two of them approached. Buffy shot a look at Spike--all it ever took. She dove at the vamp on the right while he tore into the one on the left with a joyful roar. Instead of closing with her foe she feinted, dropped, and rolled under his swing to come up behind him. She back-kicked as she came to her feet and slammed her heel into his kidneys as Spike grabbed his opponent by the scruff of the neck and rammed his head into the wall. The force of Buffy's kick sent her target staggering forward face-first into Spike's waiting fist, but she didn't bother to track his progress; without hesitation she leaped at the pair who were feeding on the man on the ground. She dug her fingers into the nearest one's shoulder and yanked him upright. "Hey, Mr. Selfish! Didn't your mom teach you that you shouldn't eat if you didn't bring enough for everyone in the class?"

The interrupted vampire snarled and lunged at her. She smashed a hard left into his jaw, sending him reeling back into the side of the nearby dumpster. Buffy grinned, flexing her hand. Oh, yeah, that felt good.

The second one's head snapped up, runnels of crimson trailing from the corners of her mouth. "Make-up's running, Elvira. Have a wet-nap." She snapped a front kick at the crouching vampire, catching her right under the chin. "Oopsie. That was my boot." Number One kicked off the dumpster and pounced her from behind. She elbowed him in the nose, whirled in place and drove her fist into his solar plexus. His legs went out from under him and she brought her knee up to catch him in the face again. The sound of bones breaking was music. Yeah. This was the stuff. Get out all that... frustration.

She caught a glimpse of Spike as she spun, engaged in his own dance with the other two. He was outright toying with them--he'd shifted back to human form, foregoing the extra advantage of strength and speed that letting his demon aspect surface gave him--saying, in essence, I don't need it for you. He'd leave himself open, let them get in a hit or two, think they had him going, and then let go with a lightning-swift series of brutal kicks and blows. His face was alight with that huge tongue-wagging grin, loving the fight, turned on as all hell by the act of pummelling someone into the ground.

He caught her eye and winked, conspiratorial.

You got off on it.

And I suppose you're telling me you don't?

The chill cramp of self-disgust in her stomach had a knock-down drag-out with the adrenaline rush of the fight, and lost--for the moment, anyway. The moment almost cost her; both of her foes took instant advantage of her distraction and for a second she staggered under the impact of their fists. She crashed into the side of the dumpster and the side panel fell open with a clang; one of the plastic bags inside burst and garbage cascaded out onto the ground. Buffy leaped to her feet, well and truly pissed off now. "Do you realize this blouse has to be dry-cleaned?" she snapped, whipping out her stake. "No more Ms. Nice Slayer!"

Over at the mouth of the alley Spike had taken note of her slip and already disposed of one of his foes; now he wrestled the second one into a headlock and wrenched, hard. The guard-vamp's scream was cut off as his head and body parted company.

Spike was coming for her, bursting right through the shower of grey-brown particles which were all that was left of his opponent. Buffy rammed her stake home, straight through the rib cage of the female vamp, and whirled, looking for the other one--no way was she going to let Spike dust more vamps in a night than she got. There he was, by the dumpster, just turning to face her. She readied the stake for a blow. Spike fell into position behind the remaining vamp, boxing him in. Buffy struck. The vampire howled in fear and dodged, but she'd taken that into account. Mr. Pointy arced towards his heart.

It wasn't there.

Giles had told her more than once during their training sessions that the opponent most to be feared was the inexperienced one, because they were the most unpredictable. Over the years Buffy had found the advice to be accurate, but pretty much useless--how could you predict something that wasn't predictable? Or in this case, even an opponent? The vamp gang's victim, still supine, had kicked the last vampire's legs out from under him. Her target was now flat on his butt on the ground, and her stake was now headed straight for Spike's chest.

Time slowed to a crawl. She saw Spike's eyes go wide, and his right forearm start up to block her at the approximate speed of molasses in January. She screamed at the pokiness of her nerve impulses, which were moseying from her brain to her arm at much the same pace.

She managed to divert her aim a fraction; he managed to block. The stake went flying. Shaking with equal parts relief and absolute fury, she bent and wrenched the nearest piece of sharp wood off the pallet leaning up against the wall behind the dumpster and stabbed it into the fallen vampire's chest. She stood there staring down at the place where it wasn't any longer, unable to control her shivering. That could have been--could have been-- "Spike! Are you OK?"

He patted himself down. "Yeh. Still undead, no thanks to..." A fearful whimper at their feet broke the spell. Spike's head turned slowly, his eyes sparking gold. The man who'd almost been lunch staggered to his feet, clutching the dumpster. Dark-haired, husky, wearing a Dodgers t-shirt... "You. I know you," Spike whispered. "Ramon, innit?" He smiled, the sweet, bone-chilling smile which presaged casual bloodshed, and without any further warning his hand shot out to clamp around Ramon's throat.

It had always been characteristic of Spike that he could go from edgy annoyance to full-blown murderous rage in the space of an eyeblink. It didn't happen often these days; two years of living with the chip had forced him to learn how to muzzle that demonic temper, but every now and then it chewed through the straps. It's OK, Buffy thought, the chip will...

She flashed on the night a month ago when she'd been dragged unwilling back to life, and the fight with Magnus Bryce's men: the crack of gunfire, the fiery lash of the bullet creasing her arm, Spike's fangs sinking into the neck of the man who'd shot her, heedless of the pain the chip was causing... and for the first time it really sank in that the chip made it very difficult for Spike to kill people--and very difficult was not the same as impossible.

Her fist met Spike's nose just before his fingers met flesh. He staggered with the double pain of her blow and the chip-shock, dropping the terrified Ramon immediately. Buffy heaved him up by the lapels with all her strength, tossing him across the alley and into the wall. He hit with an audible thump, slid down the wall and crumpled to the ground, clutching his head. Plainly dizzy and aching, he found his feet, then reeled back into the brick wall as Buffy's hard little fist smacked into his nose a second time.

"You ASSHOLE!" she yelled. Buffy interposed herself between Ramon and Spike, balanced on the balls of her feet, fist cocked and ready to hit the vampire again despite the tears welling in her eyes and the quiver of her mouth. "What are you THINKING?" For a long moment the two of them remained frozen, eyes locked, Spike's bloodied face a mask of impotent fury, all the more frightening for remaining human. "Spike..."

Her voice broke on his name, and perhaps he sensed the fear behind her anger. The rage in his eyes melted away as they softened from gold to blue, and he held out a placating hand. "Sorry, love--got a little carried away--"

"Carried away? Don't 'love' me, you--!" Her fist lashed out and Spike's expression hardened again--he grabbed her wrist before she could connect, making no move to fight her, but pulling her close and holding on, hard, before she tore her arm from his grasp. Buffy slapped both palms flat against his chest, ready to shove him off. She made the mistake of looking up and was instantly lost in the lustful, adoring azure of his eyes.

"Too late for that, pet."

Buffy's breath made a little hitching noise in her throat. "This isn't a game! You could have killed--" Ramon? Anyone? Should it have occurred to her that he could kill her too?

Spike shook his head with a rueful laugh and let her go, massaging his temples. "It didn't come off, did it?" He licked the trickle of blood from his upper lip. "And yours truly's got a bugger of a headache to keep me company for the next hour. No harm, no foul."

There was a voice in the back of her head yammering No harm, no foul, no, it's wrong wrong wrong but I need him want him love--oh God, not that, not now, don't say it don't think it--still a monster, still a monster--

Ramon, his dark eyes like saucers, broke and ran, kicking up a shower of garbage.

"Fuck!" Spike yelled as a crumpled milk carton smacked him in the head.

"Yeah!" Buffy gasped. "I mean, catch him!"

*****

The UC Sunnydale library had been built in the 70's, during a phase when architecture was all blocky textured cement pillars and plate glass. In the summer, in the daytime, the interior was pleasantly light and airy, but at night, in the winter, sitting too close to those vast blank windowed walls could give you the unnerving sensation of floating in some starless Lovecraftian void.

Which just went to show, Willow thought, giving the page in front of her a moody flip, that you could make anything creepy if you tried hard enough. She sighed and pulled her German dictionary over to look up another irregular verb. Obviously she wasn't trying hard enough, because the evening remained as prosaic as it could possibly be. Other students with book bags slung over their shoulders or varicolored stacks of texts in their arms drifted past her carrel in knots of twos or threes, exchanging low whispers on the location of the nearest card catalogue terminal, or the periodical literature room. Willow peered at them over the stacks of dictionaries and reference books piled around her. No one seemed nervous. There were no ominous flickering lights, no manifestations of power.

She hadn't been hoping for any, she told herself sternly. She was just doing research. Translating. Sure, the last time she'd opened this book she'd been caught up in a transcendent mystical experience unlike anything she'd ever known. But it had been wrong, and creepy, and evil, and anyway, things had been different then.

Yes. Then you had power.

Her hand tightened on the pencil and the point snapped off, leaving a snail-trail squiggle of graphite across her translation notes. "Oh--" She looked guiltily around. It was practically sacrilegious to swear in a library, wasn't it? "Bugger," she finished in a much softer voice. There. British swearing didn't count. Giles had done it all the time. Willow Rosenberg, too much of a weenie to say fuck in a library. With a sigh she returned to her task. The scribbled footnote she was currently translating ran over onto the next page. She turned the yellow, dog-eared vellum over and began the laborious task of translating the next section.

In the next chapter," an oddly familiar voice said. Willow's head jerked up. Her reflection in the night-black glass gazed back, her but not her: a young woman in red lace and black leather posed seductively in her carrel, leaning on one hand and looking at her with a coquettish tilt of her head. Her hair, longer than Willow's, fell in russet sheaves about her pale, pixie-ish face. "Hi, Snuggles." She wiggled the fingers of her free hand at Willow. "What we want. In the next chapter." Her lips curved in a pouting smile and her voice grew husky. "Wanna look?"

Willow jumped to her feet, sending several of the books tumbling to the floor. She rubbed her eyes, hard, but her vampire avatar was gone, and the reflection in the window was her own prosaic self. "I'd say this verges on the disturbing," she muttered. Well, she'd wanted a transcendent mystic experience... She looked down at the shabby little book on the desktop, and after a few false starts, extended her hand and ran a finger over the pages. What was that disturbing rust-colored stain sticking those two leaves together? Best not think about it. One by one, she turned the pages until the next chapter heading leaped out at her from the top of one of them. The crabbed, archaic lettering blurred into illegibility in several places further down the page, but the title was clear: Addressing That Which Abides In The Great Darkness.

That didn't sound good. Let's face it, nothing in this puppy is Norman Vincent Peale material. She sat down again, tracing the lines of text with one finger and frowning at the difficult language. The first few chapters of the grimoire had been devoted to necromantic spells of various kinds: spells to bind a ghost to your service, spells to reanimate the dead, spells to create zombies. The next few chapters had dealt with living souls, but had been no less uncomfy to contemplate--here there were spells for influencing decisions and clouding minds.

What she'd hoped to find was something that would restore a damaged spirit and allow her to regain her magic. This, however, was an invocation of some kind, though the author was cagey about what exactly was being summoned. Odd. Knowing the correct name of the being you were invoking was vital; otherwise you risked losing control.

Who art beyond the light of sun or moon Who precedeth time, who art the final darkness My soul is yours; grant me therefore all that I desire, Yea, though my desires be as the boundless sea shalt thou satisfy them And in retu--

The rest of the page was hopeless; at some point, someone had spilt ink over half of it. Willow turned to the next page; it wasn't in good condition, but she thought that it might still be decipherable if she worked at it. Still, this wasn't at all what she was looking for. Summoning some nameless, really-not-good-sounding critter was not on the agenda. Even if it could satisfy desires as boundless as the sea. Which did kind of cover getting one's mojo back, didn't--

Willow slammed the book shut, stood up, and began stuffing things into her backpack. It was past time to get home.

*****

Not catching someone was a good deal more difficult than it looked.

Up ahead of them Ramon staggered to a halt and doubled over in the crimson glow of a NO VACANCY sign, hands braced against his knees. Lincoln had once been the main route into Sunnydale, back before the interstate came through, and was lined with a string of grungy little motels built back in the 40's--horseshoes of little detached cabins rejoicing in decaying pioneer ambience. Spike could remember staying in ones just like them on cross-country trips with Dru, in the days when they'd been new and fashionably kitschy. He made a mental note to mention the fun factor of faux log cabin sex to Buffy, and to leave out the part about having the inhabitants of the cabin next door for breakfast.

Lurking in the shadows of the Ace Hardware store across the street, Spike watched as Ramon looked up, scanning the apparently deserted street. The vampire could see the droplets of sweat beading on his brow, each one reflecting the gory neon light. The breeze brought the ambrosial scent of blood and fear to his nose. Ramon'd tried to be tricky at first, but his pursuers knew downtown Sunnydale intimately, and they were both faster and had more endurance than he did. After ten minutes of dodging through alleys and doubling back, their quarry had taken a straight course down Lincoln towards the edge of town. And he was their quarry, no doubt about that. They'd loped along behind him for a good three miles now, like wolves wearing down a deer on the Discovery Channel. It had been a long time since he'd hunted a human being in earnest, but the old skills returned with gratifying speed.

In the time it took the man to wipe the sweat from his brow Spike left the doorway, flowing down the darkened sidewalk with unearthly swiftness to crouch behind the wire lattice shading a bus bench twenty feet closer to his mark. Across the street he caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye: Buffy, leaving her own hiding place for new concealment. A breath later she was by his side, her gaze never leaving the back of Ramon's head.

She carried herself with tense grace of a lioness stalking a gazelle. There was a wildness of spirit in her that called out to him in kinship, and reveled as he did in the hunt and the kill, that leapt up in joy within her when danger made the blood run quick and hot in her veins. Artemis of Sunnydale, Night's huntress/Shall I behold thy unclothed glory/and the hounds of my heart tear my flesh...? Oh, that's brilliant, that is. No improvement in compositional skills in a hundred and twenty years, I see. No, no cold, chaste huntress this beside him. She brooked no comparison to old goddesses, this woman who could out-fight and out-fuck the lot of them. Whatever siren song the night held for her, Buffy had always denied it sway over her life, living with a fierce resolve that the Slayer in her would be servant, not master. He wasn't sure if he loved her more because of or despite that resolve and the distance it put between them.

He'd never been able to take Dru on a hunt like this; she was too easily distracted--ironic that he was finally getting to share this particular thrill with someone only after he could no longer bring it to its deadly conclusion. Buffy laid a hand on his thigh, splayed fingers warm through the black denim, and suddenly the lack of a deadly conclusion didn't seem such a hardship. Perhaps he'd take to carrying a camera like those ponces who couldn't bear to shoot the cute furry animals.

She glanced at him and made a small motion towards Ramon, a question in her eyes. Spike shook his head. Normally he was willing to follow her lead on patrol, but this was his element. Buffy fought demons; she had little experience with hunting humans. Ramon straightened and jogged off again. Spike laid a restraining hand on Buffy's shoulder, allowing their prey to move on unmolested for a moment before continuing the pursuit. "He's headed for the dump," he whispered.

Fifteen minutes later, they were half-crouched at the summit of a mountain of junk, peering over the crest and down into the valley below. Buffy brushed at the unidentifiable smear of black gunk on her sleeve with distaste. "Why can't more villains lair in luxury condos?"

'Villains' was stretching it. In an arroyo formed by two intersecting ranges of trash, half a dozen crazies were visible in the rubble. One of them going from one ramshackle shelter to the next delivering food--plastic-wrapped microwave burritos, it looked like. The others, under Tanner's supervision, busied themselves with the Sisyphean task of keeping the shelters from falling to pieces around them, adjusting the positions of old doors and pieces of plywood and sheet metal according to some arcane architectural plan. "Bloody Hooverville down there," Spike muttered. The aggravating thing was that this miniature Calcutta had been growing practically under his nose all summer--he came to the dump at least once a week to scout for useful discards. Not that he would have considered it anything more than a possible source of amusement if he had discovered it, but he'd probably have mentioned it to one of the humans, and they'd doubtless have felt the need to investigate, and the whole mess could have been nipped in the bud far earlier.

Still, it wasn't as if they'd hung out a welcome sign. They'd done a bang-up job of hiding their little community among the winding canyons of trash. Nothing was visible from the area of the dump near the front gate, and since he'd often had Dawn with him on his own expeditions here over the summer, he'd avoided foraging too far afield. "Now what?"

Buffy elbowed herself up over a broken-legged record cabinet and frowned down at the collection of huts. "Survivor: The Hellmouth! gets yanked for low ratings," she said. "Number one, we take Tanner out. Number two, we get the rest of his little Kool-Aid cult. Number three... I haven't gotten to number three yet." She dropped back down behind the crest of the trash heap and kicked a tangle of old Christmas tree lights out of her way.

"Can't say that 'Get em's' not a plan after my own heart, love, but exactly what are we going to do with them once they're got?"

She looked disgruntled. "If Tara's right and Will can't fix them up, I don't know what we can do. But they shouldn't be living here like this, no matter what. Maybe I can talk to Dawn's social worker about it. She's got to be good for something besides dropping by to snoop for dirty dishes." She glanced over her shoulder. "This bites. I don't do strategy. Giles does strategy. I hit things."

Spike sucked his cheeks in. "The Watcher isn't going to be around to do strategy much longer, pet."

That made her flinch. Without a word, Buffy got to her feet and began picking her way through the rubbish, back towards the front gate. Spike followed her in a small landslide of trash. He studied the set of her shoulders as they walked; her arms were folded across her chest and she kept her head down. The retreat into blank non-emotion was painful in contrast to the animation she'd shown five minutes ago.

As they reached the gate to the dump Spike hesitated, then took a couple of longer strides to catch up with her, and fell into step at her side. He couldn't help feeling that he was taking an enormous chance, somehow, despite all they'd shared in the last twenty-four hours, but buggered if he was going to let her crawl into her shell again and pull the shell in after her. He put an arm round her shoulders. Buffy looked up at him, startled, and for an instant she stiffened, about to pull away. But she didn't, and bit by bit the tenseness drained out of her. At last she leaned into his side, butting her head into his shoulder with a muffled sigh. "It's so much easier when you can solve problems by killing something," she said wistfully.

Spike's mouth twitched in a wry smile. "Tell me about it."

It was well past midnight when they rolled into the Summers' driveway. Buffy pulled off her helmet and shook her hair out. "Gah. You are never, but never, going to con me into driving that monster again. It's like a recurring Driver's Ed nightmare."

Spike leaned back in the seat and grinned at her. "Come on, if the Bit can drive it, surely it's not too much for the mighty Slayer! But if it makes you wobbly in the knees, next time you can take the bike." Buffy's speculative look made him regret the offer instantly. Her only advantage over Dawn as a chauffeur was possession of a valid driver's licence--he might drive like a maniac, but Buffy Summers drove like an inexperienced maniac. Following along behind her on the motorcycle for the brief drive from the Magic Box back to the cemetery would have been heart-stopping had his heart been beating in the first place, and went a long way towards explaining why she cadged so many rides with him when she had her mother's perfectly good SUV sitting in the garage. He gave the motorcycle a protective pat and silently promised it never to let her near the ignition. "Well. Suppose I'd better be getting on home."

Buffy stood in the driveway, turning the helmet round and round in her hands. "Do you--I mean, it's not that late--would you like to come in for a bit?"

Spike allowed himself a smirk at her incongruous attack of propriety. "This the bit where I'm supposed to shuffle my feet and look shy? Right--" He adopted a dreadful American accent. "Gosh, Buffy, that'd be swell!"

"Oh, get off the bike and come on!" Buffy snapped, but her eyes were sparkling. "I'm only inviting you in so I can palm Dawn's gross casserole off on you."

"The Bit's a culinary genius, and someday you Philistines will appreciate her." Spike let down the kickstand, and swung off the bike to follow her inside. The house was dark, not that that made any difference to him, and there was no sign of light from upstairs. Willow or Tara sometimes made a late night of spellcasting on weekends, but not tonight, apparently.

Buffy maneuvered around the furniture in the darkened living room and turned on the light in the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator and began rummaging around. "Speaking of munchies, you want anything? Tara left some hamburgers--"

"Thought you'd never ask, I'm half famished." Spike reached over her shoulder and snagged the carton of pig's blood, twisted the cap off and took a long swig.

Buffy made an irritated noise and pointed across the kitchen to the cupboard where the glasses were. "Spike, were you raised in a barn? Don't drink out of the carton!" She looked nonplused for a moment. "Did I just say that? Kafka moment. I'm turning into a giant Mom. You've got my permission to kill me now."

"There are worse fates, love," Spike said with a chuckle. He went over to the cupboard, took his usual glass from the shelf and poured himself a generous helping of the pig's blood. He stuck the glass in the microwave and took the carton back to the fridge; Buffy was examining one of the wrapped up hamburgers with a faintly queasy expression.

"I think this one's yours--that, or Tara's getting really forgetful." She handed it to him; to Spike's delight it was practically raw and oozing blood all over the bun.

"Now that was right thoughtful of her." Spike took a large bite and raised his eyebrows at Buffy's gagging noises. "Wha?" He retrieved his glass of blood and took it and the burger into the living room, set them down on the coffee table and sprawled out on the couch with a sigh of content. Buffy followed him in a moment later with her rather more well-done meal and a mug of decaf tea--mint, by the smell of it--shoved him over and curled up beside him.

They were both too occupied with wolfing down their post-midnight snack to say anything for awhile, and Spike felt no need to break the companionable silence afterwards. Buffy didn't seem to be in a particularly amorous mood; she had the faint line between her brows which denoted deep thought, and was content to burrow into his side and draw comfort from his nearness. Spike sipped his slowly cooling blood, listened to her heart beat, and tried to figure out why he felt so odd. Bloody hell. I'm happy.

"I lied to Will and Tara the other morning," Buffy said.

Spike cocked his head inquiringly and said nothing. She continued, "I told them I'd had a revelation--about how no one's happy all the time, so it was normal that I wasn't, yippee skippee I'm getting better." She contemplated her tea. "I did have a revelation that morning, but that wasn't it."

Spike made a non-committal go-ahead noise. The tension had returned to her limbs, as if what she was telling him was difficult for her to get out. "It was about you pulling me out of the way of that truck. I almost died. Again. And I realized--you're not going to be there every time a truck comes along. Sooner or later, I will die again. It was such a peaceful feeling. I don't even have to do anything suicidal--I'm the Slayer. You said it yourself--Death's always on my tail."

His fingers tightened on her shoulder. "Buffy... you know that promise I made you, when you first came back?"

Buffy looked up at him with solemn eyes; in this light they were stormy grey. "You're not backing out on it, are you? Willow claims the only reason you're sorry I came back is because I'm unhappy about it."

Spike shook his head and set his blood down on the coffee table, disturbing her briefly with the movement. "Well... yeh, she's right there." He leaned back once more and tucked her under his arm, his free hand straying to her face and stroking her cheek. "No fear. When you die next, I'll make sure you stay dead. But fair warning, Slayer--I'm on your tail too, and if the bloke with the scythe thinks he'll get to you again without a fight from yours truly, he's in for a shock." He dropped his head to rest his forehead on hers, cringing a little at the broken note he couldn't quite keep out of his voice. "I'm sorry, love, that's the best I can do. I'm a selfish bastard, and it's all I'm ever going to have, this right here. I want it to last. I don't know where we vamps go when we get dusted, but it's bloody well certain to have a warmer climate than wherever you end up."

A haunted look crossed Buffy's face for an instant. She reached up, her fingertips tracing a feather-light path down the arch of his cheek in unconscious mirroring of his gesture. As if, mirabile dictu, the thought of his not being there troubled her, and she sought reassurance of his presence. "I can live with that. So to speak." She laughed a little. "I'm beginning to think... maybe I wasn't lying to them after all." The line between her brows reappeared, and she tilted her chin up, regarding him with upside-down gravity. "You wanted to kill Ramon tonight."

He raised his head and looked down at her for a long, level moment. She kept her eyes fixed on his, but he could feel a tremor running through her. He longed to say something that would soothe it away, return the laughter to her eyes. To lie to her. The one thing he'd never been able to pull off, even if he hadn't promised... You want it real, Buffy Anne Summers... He braced himself. "Vampire, love. I always want to kill them." She lay against him, quiescent, listening, neither drawing closer nor pulling away. He felt the restless urge to get up and start pacing, but as long as she was willing to sit here he wasn't minded to encourage her to leave. So why are you still talking, you git? "Most of them, anyway. Don't want to kill you. Or the Bit. Or the rest of your little gang of followers--well, Harris, sometimes, but he'd stain the rug. We do that, you know. Not kill the people we... get on with."

"So basically we've got half a dozen people you wouldn't kill if the chip came out tomorrow, and then there's the rest of the world?" Her voice was remarkably steady; no one less attuned to her minute shifts of mood would have caught the quaver beneath the confidence. "You see, I need to know where I stand, Spike."

Spike rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Not exactly. Look, there's always been categories, like. People who shoot you, or tie me up and sodding near turn my brain to tapioca--I'll always want to kill them. Most people, I don't give a damn about them one way or the other. Unless I'm bored or peckish or pissed off, and then I want to kill them. There's necessary people, like Bernie Kohlermann or Willy, and I won't kill them, even if I want to--" And let's not examine the laundry list of humanity piling up in this category too closely, William, because I don't fancy explaining exactly how Dawn's silly little bints of friends are vital to your continued existence, do you? It's like bloody stray cats, once you give 'em names- - "And then there's people I... love, and I don't want to kill them unless they're being particular bitches--oi, mind the leather! But it's not the wanting or not wanting that matters in the end, is it? It's whether or not they end up on the dinner menu." He hesitated. "And--"

Both of them looked up at the noise on the stairs. Tara stood there, clutching her robe to her. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I fell asleep. I wouldn't have interrupted, but I heard voices, and--it's Dawn. I got the call right after you checked in at ten, and then I tried calling back, but you'd left and no place else I called had seen you. She--she got arrested."

Chapter Text

She'd been caught. She couldn't believe she'd been caught. That wasn't supposed to happen. She wasn't supposed to be in Sunnydale's Second Precinct, locked up in a bare holding cell that smelled like six years worth of stale barf. Dawn huddled on the grimy bench that ran along the back wall, staring down at the loops and splatters of stains decorating the worn linoleum between the toes of her sneakers, and tried very hard not to throw up.

"Pretty," the old woman crooned, shuffling a little closer and reaching out towards Dawn's hair. "Such a pretty green."

Dawn flinched away, and the woman's brown-paper-bag face crumpled into lines of hurt and disappointment. She drew her three layers of tatty sweaters more closely around her and shuffled away again, muttering under her breath. Dawn drew a silent breath of relief and relaxed her guard slightly. She hated the fact that even though her career as a mystical McGuffin was supposed to be over, she still roused unpredictable reactions in people who weren't quite in touch with reality. They feared her or adored her, and there didn't seem to be anything she could do about it but try to avoid them. The two of them had been playing musical chairs around the cell for the last hour, except without music and without chairs. The old woman was probably a harmless kook, in for panhandling or loitering or something, she told herself. Not every street person in Sunnydale is a member of Mystery Man Tanner's gang of Nutcase Commandos, out to suck your brains.

"Looks like you've made a new best friend," the girl on the other end of the bench observed. She was maybe a year or two older than Dawn, with thin, fox-sharp features, and a vaguely Goth-y air--dead black hair, raccoon-mask of mascara, and artfully ragged layers of black skirts over black tights bagging a little at the knees. She'd asked Dawn if she had any cigarettes when she came in, and had ignored her since.

Dawn shrugged, keeping her eyes on her toes.

"This your first time?"

Dawn shrugged again. Shut up. Don't talk to me. I'm not really here. The other girl smiled, a knowing grin that didn't reach her ice-colored eyes. "Yeah, first time. I can tell. You're all twitchy and stiff, like you're too good to be here."

Shut up, shut up, shut up... Dawn chanted to herself. Couldn't the floor swallow her? Where was the Hellmouth when you really needed it? The embarrassment was almost worse than the fear. She'd been in worse places, in far more danger. But this was different. This was no surreal nightmare with demons and magic which would fade in the light of day. This was stupid, boring, real-world trouble which would only get worse when the sun came up.

"You'll get used to it," the Goth chick concluded.

Dawn felt her face growing hot. No, I won't! She let the wave of self-pity wash over her and tried to distract herself with the daydream she'd been constructing ever more elaborate versions of since she'd gotten here. By now it was practically a five-act epic complete with orchestra and hors d'oeuvres during intermission.

It was about Christmas, which imposed a high lameness factor. But Halloween had been a nightmare, what with Buffy's Raising and their dad freaking and everything, and Thanksgiving had been a Family Value Bucket from KFC, so she figured she was due one good holiday this year. She knew just how it would go, and if she scrunched her eyes really tight she could see it all play out.

On Christmas Eve, Willow would be all recovered and she and Tara would be laughing together again. Spike would show up early, dashing from car to porch and trailing smoke in the last rays of the setting sun. Buffy would make some sarcastic remark about the brain-deadness of certain vampires, but she'd be smiling. The witches would curl up in the big overstuffed chair, and Spike and her sister would sit on the couch with her, and they'd have popcorn and Christmas cookies and cocoa.

Down the hall where the men's cells were someone was yelling, a hash of words that didn't make any sense. Dawn clapped her hands over her ears, but it didn't help much. The black-haired girl laughed. Dawn tried to melt into the bench while touching as little of its surface as possible. She added phantom jimmies to the illusory cookies.

"You know, you'll be more comfortable if you take that pole out of your ass," the black-haired girl said.

"Shut up," Dawn muttered. They'd have sandwiches and turn on the TV and watch Ralphie scheme to get the Red Rider air rifle, and toss back eggnog with a splash of rum (or in Spike's case, rum with a splash of eggnog) every time someone said "You'll shoot your eye out!" and everyone would get a little bit silly. Then they'd watch Jimmy Stewart race down Main Street in the snow while Spike complained that the SNL sketch where the townsfolk banded together to beat Mr. Potter to death was a much better ending. When the movies were over she'd go to the record cabinet that still held Mom's collection of LPs, and pull out the scratchy old Bing Crosby album and put it on. And she'd pretend she was too old and sophisticated for carols, and Tara would tease her and she'd let herself be convinced and they'd sing along to "White Christmas."

The old woman shuffled over again and picked up a lock of Dawn's hair, running it through her fingers. "Pretty shiny light..."

Hating the tears of stress that pricked her eyes, Dawn jerked her head away, jumped to her feet and hissed, "Go away!"

The woman stared at her for a long moment and then tears began spilling from her eyes, winter rains flooding the eroded planes of her face. Deep wracking sobs shook her, the sort of unguarded weeping no one over the age of five should be doing in public. Dawn stood in the middle of the cell, thin fingers clasping her arms in an agony of embarrassment. Great. Now on top of everything else, she felt like shit for making a crazy old woman cry.

And everyone would go to bed, and Buffy would get Spike a blanket and a pillow for the couch, but if Dawn stayed awake long enough there'd be footsteps on the stairs. She'd shout them out of bed at six-thirty in the morning, snicker at Buffy's feeble attempts at explaining why Spike was there, and have sisterly blackmail material for the next week. And Tara would put the turkey in the oven, and her sister would put on airs because she remembered what a potato ricer was, and Spike would hang around being male and nuiscancy and try to steal the marshmallows which were supposed to go on the mashed yams.

She craned her neck, staring down the institutional green tunnel of the long hall to catch a glimpse of the clock on the wall down at the end, but the angle was so sharp she couldn't tell where the hands were. How long had she been here? It had to be past midnight. The security guys had pounced on them at nine, just before the mall closed. An hour's worth of humiliating interrogation by store security, and then the cops had showed up. Lisa's parents had come and picked her up hours ago, and dragged her home in a protective fury, declaring that she was not going to be allowed to associate with a bad influence like Dawn Summers any longer.

Buffy was coming. Buffy always came, even when she was sick and tired of dragging her stupid little sister to safety for the seven zillionth time. Didn't she? Dawn swallowed a pathetic little sob. God, what if Buffy'd decided it would teach her a lesson to be left here all night? What if a Zarkroth demon had eaten Tara before Buffy got home and her sister never got the message? What if Spike was nailing Buffy to the mattress in his crypt and--SO not thinking about that one.

Anya and Xander would come over, and Giles, who'd decided not to go back to England after all, and they'd all watch "It's a Charlie Brown Christmas" and Xander would do the Snoopy dance. And then dinner would be ready, and afterwards they'd open presents and everyone would get exactly what they wanted. She'd look at the pictures of her and Buffy and Mom scattered around the living room, and feel kind of achy because Mom wasn't there, but it would be a good ache. And it wouldn't matter that her sister was the Slayer and Spike was a vampire and most of all it wouldn't matter that she had done something as incredibly stupid as get caught stealing an egg-strangler from Williams & Sonoma, because it was Christmas and they were a family now and weird love was way, WAY better than no love.

Voices echoed down the hall from the admitting desk, distorted by distance and the muffling effects of acoustic tile. A second later the screech of unoiled casters pushing away from the desk was followed by the overlapping clack-clack of several pairs of approaching footsteps. Dawn shot to her feet. "Please be Buffy, please be Buffy..."

It was the policewoman from the desk at the end of the hall, and with her was Buffy with her eyes crackling green and her mouth in that thin hard line that meant someone was going to get it but good. Spike loomed behind her, hands thrust into the pockets of his duster, sucking on an unlit cigarette with a scowl. The homeless woman shrank back into the corner of the cell at the sight of him; the people who lived on Sunnydale's underbelly were more willing to admit to the things that walked among them than the town's daylight inhabitants. The Goth chick was either bolder or less experienced than she'd have had Dawn believe; she got up and sauntered over to the bars, eyeing the newcomers speculatively. "Hey. Got a cig?"

Buffy ignored her, and stood with arms folded impatiently as the policewoman searched through her jingling mass of keys. Spike favored Dawn's cellmate with an unfriendly leer. "Might. What's it worth to you?" He grinned a little as Buffy gave them both the Laser Death Glare, and winked at Dawn. She felt a rush of relief; surely Spike's presence would shield her from some of Buffy's wrath--if nothing else, diverting Buffy from being mad at her into being mad at Spike was usually a piece of cake.

The policewoman at last found the key she was looking for. She shooed the older women away from the door, and Dawn rushed over as soon as they vacated. She grabbed the cold steel bars, barely restraining herself from bouncing up and down. At last the door swung open, and Dawn flung herself out into the hallway and broke down in relief. "Oh, God, Buffy, I thought you were never coming, I was so scared--"

Her sister's angry facade slipped for just an instant. Dawn was caught up in a fervent, awkward three-way hug, her face wedged between Buffy's head and Spike's shoulder with the familiar comforting scents of L'Oreal hair conditioner and smoke-impregnated leather filling her nose. She had never felt safer.

Buffy pulled away first. "Let's get out of here. Dawn, you've got a lot of explaining to do."

Gah. That was the tight, calm Buffy-voice. She'd been hoping for the outraged yelling Buffy-voice. Worse, her sister was breaking out the Mom phrases. Dawn nodded meekly as the warder closed the cell door behind her. Its ominous clang followed them down the hall as they left the cellblock and made their way through the precinct room. Buffy was pissed. Really pissed. She glanced up at Spike, who shrugged elaborately and made a 'better you than me' face. She shivered. Much less safe-feeling, now.

The ride home wasn't any better. Buffy drove with both hands locked to the SUV's steering wheel, looking neither right nor left and daring any lesser traffic to challenge her. Luckily the bar rush hadn't started yet and the streets were relatively empty. Spike slouched in the passenger seat, playing with his lighter and occasionally looking sideways at Buffy. The wind, which had been just a playful breeze earlier in the evening, had picked up, and was slapping the car with fitful little sprays of raindrops, just enough to get the windshield dirty.

Dawn had intended to stay cool and calm, but the oppressive silence expanded by the minute, filling the car's interior and finally squeezing words out of her. "It's not like I took anything important!"

"That's not the point," Buffy snapped.

"Point is, you got caught," Spike said, in tones of deep disappointment.

"That's not the point either!" Buffy took out her fury on an innocent paper cup blowing across the lane, swerving to crush it. Dawn and Spike unobtrusively grabbed their respective door handles. "The point is, stealing is wrong!"

Dawn glared sullenly at the back of her sister's head. Now that she was no longer in immediate danger of becoming someone's prison bitch, Buffy's attitude was beginning to grate. "Oh, right. I remember all those calls Mom and Dad got from Bullock's when we lived in L.A., Miss Oh-I-Meant-To-Pay-For-That."

"Slayer!" Spike exclaimed in delight. "And here I thought nicking that rocket launcher was your first time! I knew you were a girl after my own heart!"

Buffy's eyes narrowed dangerously, and Dawn saw her opportunity and seized it. Sorry, Spike, you're going down. "Besides, Spike steals all the time and you never rag on him! Half the stuff he owns is stolen!"

"Yeh, but I don't get caught," Spike countered. "There's a big difference here."

One didn't need vampire hearing to pick up the sound of Buffy's teeth grinding. "We're not talking about me, and we're not talking about Spike, and hello, the using of someone who spent the last century eating people as your model for good behavior? Not ideal! And I didn't steal the rocket launcher, Xander did!" She returned her attention to the road in time to avoid a close encounter with the palm trees along the median. "Are we agreed that stealing is wrong?" She shot a look at Spike, who jerked to attention in his seat.

"Wrong," he agreed, sounding more nostalgic than disapproving. "Vile, wicked, evil..."

Dawn transferred the sullen glare to Spike. "All right, I get it."

Her sister's knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. "You'd better get it--both of you. This isn't a joke. While you're out auditioning for Second Punk on the Left, have you thought about the fact that the moment this gets back to Social Services you will be shipped off to Dad Fed-Ex? Is that what you want?"

Spike looked somewhat chastened and Dawn bit her lip. "No."

"Good. I - " Buffy's shoulders slumped. "I can't do this right now. I'm tired, Dawn. We'll talk about it tomorrow."

*****

The crypt door was, as usual, unlocked. When Buffy slammed it open into the stone wall the clang reverberated through the crypt, and the echoes hadn't entirely died away by the time she'd clambered down the stairs to the lower chamber, and stormed into the bedchamber to glare at the still-slumbering occupant. Spike was the picture of repose in a nest of feather pillows and hunter-green quilting, one arm folded over the coverlet and the other curled under his cheek. His chest rose and fell just often enough to startle you into realizing it was still most of the time. Exactly when had Spike gone all hedonistic? When she'd come barging into the crypt last year at this time, she'd usually found him stretched out corpse-fashion on the top of the bare stone sarcophagus upstairs, hands crossed over his chest--playing vampire, she'd thought to herself scornfully at the time, talking the talk while the chip prevented him from walking the walk.

Unnatural creature that he was, he looked far more at home in the bed. Well, we'll just have to do something about that. Buffy bent down, grabbed a handful of blankets and yanked them ruthlessly into the air.

Spike's eyes flew open. Half-way into game face, he spun over with a yip of surprise and a futile grab at the bedclothes. "Grraahr--oh, it's you."

"How long has this been going on?" Buffy demanded.

The vampire's eyebrows took a tour upwards. He ran a hand through his sleep-tousled hair, then leaned back into the pillows and laced his fingers across his stomach, displaying a great deal of muscular and distracting ivory flesh. "How long's what been going on? Me getting some well-deserved shut-eye, or you rudely interrupting it? Not long enough and too long, respectively." Without warning he jackknifed forward, grabbed the trailing edge of the blankets and hauled back.

Buffy teetered, lost her balance and toppled onto the bed in a tangle of coverlet and Spike's overly cold and boney shins. She scrambled to her hands and knees, determined to hold onto her outrage despite the awkwardness of her position. Spike was leering at her, and she realized that from this angle he could see all the way down her shirt. Not that there was anything down there he hadn't already seen, but it was the principle of the thing. Flushing, she sat upright and tugged her blouse into place. "You know what I'm talking about--Dawn stealing! And you teaching her how!"

Spike went wary. He rubbed the back of his head. "Haven't the foggiest, love. She was doing the Artful Dodger routine well before yours truly entered the picture. We got chummy over her nicking Giles's journal, remember?" He rearranged his feet under the covers to take advantage of the warm spot where she was sitting.

Buffy folded her arms and resolutely avoided looking down to where the toes of his right foot were stroking her thigh. With some effort she kept her voice as cold as said toes. "She said you showed her how to shoplift over the summer."

"I never!"

Buffy kept looking at him; Spike was pathetically easy to crack if you did the little skeptical eyebrow thing. A trace of guilt crept into his eyes. "All right, I might have given her a pointer or two. More a demonstration, like, of how I do it. But I never gave her the nudge to use 'em. I knew you wouldn't want that, and you know I'd never do anything to hurt Dawn, Buffy!" He leaned forward and caught her hands in his own, looking so genuinely distressed that had the matter been any less important she would have been tempted to forgive him immediately.

But this was serious. Buffy remained adamant. "But you knew she was stealing things, and you didn't stop her."

Spike sighed. "I guessed. Didn't exactly know for certain. She gave me a little something once or twice, aftershave for my birthday, that sort of thing. I never asked where it came from--wouldn't've been polite--and she never told. Didn't seem to matter then. You were gone, and Dawn was going to your Dad..."

"It matters a whole heaping lot now!"

He leaned over the side of the bed and rummaged around until he came up with his jeans, got up and began pulling them on. "Look, I'll talk to her if you think it'll help--give her any load of righteous bollocks you like."

Buffy flopped backwards onto the bed and stared up at the cobwebby ceiling. Spike has a birthday? "Because the gospel of virtue is ever so convincing coming from you?"

His dark brows angled downwards, accents on a frown. "I mean it, Buffy. I..." He stalked over to the dresser, pulled a drawer out and studied the half-dozen identical black t-shirts intently for a moment before pacing away again. "...am getting shagged out on basic black. Look, it's hard, this not being evil," he said, low-voiced. "Like I said. But I've got to try, don't I? Especially if I've buggered things up for the Bit. At least let me try."

There was a pleading note in his voice, and Buffy felt her resolve crumbling. "I guess it couldn't hurt." She rolled over onto her stomach and traced the thin gold curlicues on the coverlet with one dispirited finger. "I called the store this morning and they're willing to drop the charges since it's her first time, but she's banned from the mall for six months. She's already going through withdrawal." She buried her face in the sheets; they smelled of smoke and Spike, and she didn't want the combination to be so comforting when she was mad at him. r0;This morning she hit me with that camper we stole last spring. I've got to be a better example. You've got to - "

"Establish a legal identity, get a nine to five job, and become a fine upstanding undead American? Not happening, pet."

She turned her head enough to give him the evil eye from behind a fold of blanket. "I was going to say, stop stealing things in front of Dawn, but watching a vampire with a fake green card dodging La Migra would make up for a lot of sucky days."

"Ah?" Spike pulled open the wardrobe door and rooted through the tangle of coat hangers, finally emerging with a charcoal grey turtleneck which, Buffy couldn't help thinking, would look absolutely gorgeous with his eyes and go very nicely with her own taupe-and-silver outfit. Color coordination, always a plus. "And what happens the next time you lot need me for a spot of breaking and entering or grand theft auto? You're not the most law-abiding little group yourselves, you know--I'm just better at it."

Buffy lifted her head and groaned. "I know, I know! God, Spike, I can't do this! When I was fifteen I was doing the exact same thing, except for me it was all about Mom and Dad's divorce. How can I lecture her on Thou Shalt Not Steal when my whole life is Thou Shalt Not Steal Unless It's Necessary For The Slaying or You're The Slayer's Vampire Boyfriend In Which Case We'll Overlook It?"

Spike stopped in the middle of pulling the sweater over his head, looking down at her with an incongruously sweet, tender little smile.

What? She ran the last few sentences backwards. I used the B word. Tactical error. Maybe he won't notice. Right. This is Spike, owner and proprietor buffyobsession.com. I'm so doomed.

Spike tossed his shirt on the bed and sat down beside her. She felt a firm hand on her back, cool fingers working along the tense lines of her muscles. "You do what every mum and dad in the history of the universe has done, love. You lie so hard that you forget you ever had a misspent youth, and if that doesn't work, you pull out the classic 'Do as I say, not as I do' line of shite. I'll help, if I can--if you want me to."

She summoned up a wan smile and laid her cheek on his thigh. Astonishing how quickly that cool body soaked up heat. "I don't want to be the grown-up," she said, hating the sulky note in her own voice. Her hand crept up to rest on his knee, and she scrunched a little closer. There was some magnetism between them, that flesh called to flesh the instant an invisible line was crossed. "But I guess I've got to break out the sensible shoes and PTA notes. I may be off the hook with Social Services if they're not pressing charges, but if the police called them already--"

"Best defense is a good offense, right?" Spike had that glint in his eyes that meant trouble. "Don't wait for someone to tell tales, go runnin' to 'em right off and bleat for counseling and pamphlets and sodding educational filmstrips. Dawn'll bloody well hate you, but you'll look all responsible-like."

Buffy raised her head and looked at him oddly. "That's... a halfway decent plan. Who are you, and what have you done with Spike?"

He chuckled. "I know a thing or two about strategy, Slayer. It's sticking to it where I cock up. Give me a day or two and I'll chuck the whole thing for whaling on the bastards with a tire iron." He glanced at the clock on the nightstand next to the bed, and his hand wandered down to caress the curve of her hip as his voice dropped to a sultry growl. "'Sides, I think I can make bein' grown up worth your while."

She shivered under his touch and looked longingly at the clock. She had an hour before she had to get to Giles's place... She slid her hand further up his thigh and felt him shiver in return. "Well... As long as we're on overlapping schedules, I guess we might as well..." Spike twitched violently. Ooh, he's ticklish. She smiled, feeling very wicked and decadent and... grown up. "Overlap."

*****

Crisp black letters on heavy, cream-colored paper blazoned with the Council of Watchers' arms on one corner, signed by Quentin Travers in ink which had undoubtedly come from a fountain pen or perhaps even a quill--a weighty letter, full of weighty news. Giles wondered if he was supposed to be grateful that they'd rated the bother of a real letter, not some smudged fax or ephemeral scatter of phosphors on a monitor. "It's not good news, I'm afraid."

Buffy, sitting at attention on the couch, tucked a strand of honey-blonde hair back into her ponytail--she had arrived somewhat disheveled, for reasons Giles felt it better not to inquire into very closely, and was still effecting repairs. She studied the results in her compact, granted them provisional approval, and tucked it back into her purse. "My brilliant powers of deduction told me as much when you said you wanted to talk to me in person." She clasped her hands in her lap, poised against the backdrop of half-packed boxes and half-sorted piles of books. His house, like his life, was stuck in transition. "My hatches are battened. Fire away."

Giles folded the letter back on its creases and glanced it over once more, in the futile hope that the words would have changed since his last look. In the lull of his momentary hesitation, Spike stuck his head out of the kitchen and held up a box of Weetabix. "You're scarpering off soon, so you won't be needing this, right?"

Giles's face went stony. He really hadn't expected Spike to be here for this, if for no other reason than that it was the middle of the day. When he'd opened the door to Buffy's knock, there Spike'd been on the porch behind her, looking as if he'd had a day at the beach sans sunscreen. Last night's rain showers had evolved into a sullen grey overcast. Exactly what was needed; more excuse for Spike to lark about in the daytime. More irritation crept into his voice than he intended. "If you can tear your attention away from the larder for five minutes, Spike... sit."

Spike's brows twitched, but he stuffed the box back into the kitchen cupboard and prowled back into the living room. He collapsed into a boneless sprawl beside Buffy on the couch, near arm flung over the back of the couch behind her, thumb and forefinger brushing the nape of her neck, playing with the wisps of fine tawny hair. It was a gesture unselfconsciously intimate, as was Buffy's slight list backwards into his hand. You should want to kill him for that, the cool, analytical part of Giles's mind reminded him. You should have killed him years ago, really. If you could doom Ben for the crime of having been born Glory's vessel, how much more does this creature deserve execution?

He couldn't call up the old certainty where Spike was concerned any longer. He had always questioned Buffy's insistence upon sparing Spike's life in exchange for the assistance, willing or unwilling, he'd given them over the years. One killed vampires, one did not associate with them. Foolish, dangerous sentiment sprang from such familiarity, of succumbing to the fallacy that a vampire was a person with human loyalties, human loves, rather than a thing bred of chaos which would, sooner or later, be driven by its nature to destroy one. To his chagrin, it was a fallacy he found himself increasingly prone to. There was no way this liaison between the living and the dead could end well. It was his duty to protect his Slayer from less tangible dangers than the ones she faced nightly. But he watched Spike's thumb move along her hairline, and the slight curve of her lips, and knew in his bones the reason he would not object to Spike's presence.

He cleared his throat. "I'll spare you Travers's overview of the last five centuries of precedent regarding Council support of Slayers. Here we are. '...in short, it has always been the responsibility of the Watcher to ensure that his Slayer is adequately fed, clothed, and housed. After reviewing the terms of your salary and making inquiries into the cost of living in your area, we have determined that your current financial arrangements with us are sufficient to the task, assuming of course that due economy is practiced--'" Giles held up another sheet of paper. "How thoughtful--he's included a budget. 'Therefore we must regretfully decline your request to issue a separate living allowance to Buffy Summers--'"

"'Cordially yours, Quentin Travers, enormous git,'" Spike growled. He scratched his nose, which was beginning to peel.

Giles set the letter down on the coffee table and began polishing his glasses. "Excellent summation."

Buffy forced a chipper look. "It's not as if we expected them to go along quietly. We'll just have to--I mean, we can have Anya do accountanty stuff, can't we, and show them that their figures are all wrong?"

Giles shook his head. "I've already gone over them twice, and Travers is quite correct--I could support you if put to it. I cannot, however, support your sister, your house, and yours and Dawn's future education, as such frivolous items are not included in Travers's idea of due economy." He sat back in the chair and rubbed his eyes, deciding not to mention Travers's implication that if he returned to England as planned, he'd be taking a cut in salary as he'd no longer be Buffy's active Watcher. That felt almost just, a fit penance for his desertion.

Over on the couch Buffy glanced at Spike, her lower lip caught in her teeth. The vampire's arm dropped from the back of the couch to her shoulders and she straightened a little. Spike cocked an eyebrow at her and she shook her head ever so slightly. Nonverbal communication concluded, Buffy turned back to Giles. "All right," she said, determination coming back into her eyes. "If they want to play hardball... can I use your phone? I need to call L.A."

"Yes, of course." Giles waved her towards the phone. L.A.? The only people Buffy might be calling there were her father or Angel, and neither of them seemed likely to hold any solutions to the current dilemma. Buffy shoved one of the ubiquitous piles of reference books to one side and pulled the phone free. She tucked the receiver between her shoulder and her ear and tapped out the number quickly. Spike shot Giles an inquiring look behind her back, apparently just as much in the dark as he was.

Buffy stood tapping one foot impatiently, waiting for the phone to pick up and twirling the cord around her free hand. "Hi, Cordy? Yes, still alive again. No, I'm not--that's really none of your--Cordy! Focus! Slayer business! Angel's still in touch with Faith, right?"

Spike made a soft derisive noise at the sound of his grand-sire's name and Buffy made a shushing motion at him. "Shut up, Spike." Spike complied, but listened to the rest of the conversation with a tense attention to every nuance of Buffy's words and body language. "Not you, Cordy. I just need to get a message to Faith. The sooner the better. The Council's probably going to be contacting her soon with an offer she can't refuse, and I need her to refuse it." She rolled her eyes at whatever Cordelia's response was. "I know. I admit I wasn't Miss Junior Impulse Control. But this is vitally important."

She grabbed the letter off the coffee table before Giles could stop her, and began reading it, her eyes darting back and forth across the page. They froze on one passage and Giles saw her stiffen, an angry light joining the determination. She covered the receiver with one hand and hissed, "You didn't tell me they were trying to blackmail you too!" She handed the letter to Spike, who took it from her and squinted at it at arm's length for some minutes before looking up to regard Giles with an uncomfortable intensity.

Buffy's attention was back on the phone. "Look, just tell her the Council is out to screw us again, and don't believe a word they say, and I'll explain when I can talk to her in person. Have Angel call me with the number of the prison, and tell him not to freak if Spike answers the phone." More eye-rolling. "Yes, he does. No, I'm--just have him call me, okay? Thanks. No. No! This is me hanging up on you, Cordy... right. Later." She set the phone down and heaved an exasperated sigh. "She is so protective of him these days! I swear, if I didn't know better... urgh."

"Faith?" Giles asked. "What exactly do you have in mind, Buffy?"

"Strategy," she said with a look that might have been mischievous had it not been so deadly serious. "As president and fifty percent of the membership of Slayer's Local 101, I'm calling a strike for higher wages. Or wages period."

Giles gave her a hard look over the top of his glasses. "And you want to ensure that they don't pull strings to--"

"--break the potential scab out of stir," Spike finished.

"Exactly. Even if she still hates my guts--and big love on my part for her, believe me, not in the program--I'm betting she'll see that we're better off hanging together on this one. If I can break them she'll get bennies too."

"Surely you can't seriously intend to stop patrolling."

Buffy gave the eye-roll another workout. "Yes, Giles, Spike's corrupted me hopelessly, I care nothing for the lives of those I formerly worked tirelessly to protect--of course I'm not going to stop patrolling! I just have to make the Council think I have." She met his skeptical look with a defiant jut of her chin. "Somehow. I'm working on it! I'm new to this strategy thing. You two are both older and sneakier than I am--some help here!"

Spike leaned back and folded his arms across his chest. "Right. Old Niccolo hasn't a patch on us. So how does the Council of Wankers get the skinny on happenings in dear old Sunnyhell?"

"I send regular reports--which I could doctor, naturally." Giles stroked his chin, thoughtful. How long had it been now, since the Council had been trusted allies rather than polite adversaries? Long before Spike had started his erratic journey in the opposite direction. "But they'll have other channels as well--anything from local informants to bound demon servitors to something as prosaic as subscribing to the Sunnydale Press. Deceiving them will be no small task."

Buffy flashed Spike a little grin and elbowed him in the ribs. "Ooh, cool. Deception, fraud, and chicanery--right up your alley. Get to work." She stuck her lower lip out and shook Travers's letter in Giles's direction. "Now what's this about them going all Ebeneezer Scrooge with your salary?"

Giles snatched the letter back. "They're cutting out the field duty bonus, which is only fair as I shan't be on field duty--but since this didn't come up when I applied to come back the first time, I'm assuming that their true purpose is to coerce me into staying here to keep an eye on you. They will, of course, send someone to replace me if I leave, but I'm fairly certain it will be an observer rather than a... er... mentor." He added drily, "You have a reputation for being difficult to work with."

"They have yet to comprehend the difficulty that is me." Buffy tucked another loose strand of hair behind her ear, eyes sparking. "Giles, I hate the idea of you leaving. I think you're completely wrong about us not needing you. I'd give anything if you'd stay. But I swear I'll wear nothing but Blue Light Specials for the rest of the millennium if I let them force you into it." She stood up and pulled the scrunchy off her hair. "And now I'm going to borrow your bathroom. I'm all Night Of The Living Buffy and serious renovations are in order."

She got up and headed for the hall; Giles watched her go with anxious eyes. In actuality she looked better than he'd seen her since her return; there was almost a bounce in her step as she disappeared down the hall. Across the room Spike propped one boot on top of the coffee table, his eyes following her retreating form appreciatively. Buffy Summers, dragged into the land of the living by a dead man's hand... God, but he was sick of irony. Spike's pale eyes slid back to Giles, full of sardonic challenge--and Giles looked away. He knows.

Spike's expression was victorious, but his words lacked bite, perhaps because he was wise enough to realize that he didn't know what kind of battle he'd won, nor why his opponent had chosen to abandon the field. "Never thanked you for the other day, Watcher," Spike said, voice pitched not to carry down the hall. "Not for me--I don't need your blessing, but it meant a lot to her, you not telling her she was barmy to be seen with me."

"Yes, well, if you cock up I'll make you beg me to kill you," Giles replied with a tight smile.

Spike tilted his head to one side and matched it with something that was a little too self-mocking to be a smirk. "If I cock up she'll beat you to it." He ran the tip of his tongue over his teeth and arched a brow. "Part of the appeal."

And that was probably the truth, Giles reflected with mild disgust. Spike didn't give him a chance to use the admission against him. "I've always thought this business of going home because you're useless was bollocks, and now I'm sure of it. So you're getting a bit long in the tooth to be out fighting nasties first-hand--you're a bloody walking library, and you've forgotten more about front-line demon fighting than the rest of those Council tossers ever knew. Useless my lily-white arse." His boot hit the floor with a thump and he leaned forward, the aspect of the demon a burning shadow behind every plane and angle of his face. "You see it, don't you, Watcher? The rest of them, they don't look, but you see it. 'A traveler betwixt life and death;/The reason firm, the temperate will,/Endurance, foresight, strength and skill;/A perfect woman, nobly planned,/to warn, to comfort, and command...'"

Giles looked down; his knuckles were white against the dark upholstery. He forced himself to unclench his fingers from the arm of the chair. "'And yet a spirit still, and bright,/with something of an angel light.' I wouldn't have thought Wordsworth your style."

Spike made an impatient gesture. "You get bored enough in a hundred and twenty years, you'll read anything. But you see it, damn your eyes, and you're leaving her anyway--why?"

What truth did he owe Spike, and why? All he can bear, because he is staying. He kept his voice clipped and precise. "Because I've seen her die twice now, and I cannot bear it again. Cannot. You... can. You are a braver man than I am, William the sodding Bloody, and I hate you for it."

Spike looked taken aback--had he expected something else? The vampire sat back slightly, resting his wrists on his knees. "There's fitter things you could hate me for, Rupert."

Giles took off his glasses and ran a hand through his hair--how much of the receding hairline was due to Buffy? he asked himself wryly. "Undoubtedly so. But I can't think of any of them at the moment."

"I'll wager the lapse of memory clears up right quick. Look, Watcher, you chew on this: she'll die sooner or later no matter where on the globe you've parked your arse. If it's here, it's got a better chance of being later. In fact--"

He cut himself off, looking over his shoulder at the front door. A moment later Willow knocked as she swung it open and stuck her head inside. "Hello? Giles? I thought I could get on those transcripts 'cause I'm all with the catching up--umm, Spike? You look kinda toasty. Zinc oxide. It's your friend. You guys aren't busy making me more work, are you, 'cause I thought Fridays were interview days." She came inside, edging around several boxes labeled 'MISC RECORDS' and set her laptop on the dining table. "I downloaded this trial version of some voice-recognition software from Tucows this morning, so I thought we'd see how that works--though with the accent, maybe it won't. Work. But if it does than I can take the tapes and do them at home, you know, telecommuting without the commuting--" She plugged in the laptop's adapter and flipped the lid up. "--and I hear there was a big Dawn crisis last night." A slight edge entered her voice. "I must have slept through it, as so often happens when no one wakes me up."

Buffy emerged from the hallway, looking subtlety better groomed without there being any one difference that one could point to as the reason for the improvement. She adjusted one earring. "It's no biggie, Will. Dawn's gone all West Side Story on us again. Tara was asleep when you got home, and then there didn't seem much point in waking you up for the big angst-fest."

"Of course not." Willow hit enter as if it were her worst enemy. "It's not like I could have done anything useful in my current not-useful state. Might as well let me get my beauty sleep."

"Will, it's not--"

"It's OK, Buffy. I get the logic. Needs of the many. Don't worry about it." She looked up with a bright and genuine smile. "Where's one of those tapes?"

Giles got up and went over to the tape case, and Spike rose to his feet. "Enthralling as I find the sound of my own voice, I'd best get on, see if I can find anything needs killing--not that often I can take a midday stroll in this climate. The Bit's still at home, Will?"

Willow, distracted by her struggles with the audio settings, nodded.

Buffy snorted. "She'll be at home for a long, looong time. She is more grounded than dirt."

"Right. I'll push off, then. Later, love." He kissed the top of Buffy's head, brushed his knuckles across her cheek, and headed for the door.

"Don't forget your blanket, it might clear up!" Buffy shouted after him. She turned away from the door and walked over to the table to examine Willow's setup. She hitched herself up on the table and swung her legs back and forth. "Do you think I should get him one of those big black umbrellas for Christmas, or would that just encourage him to more extra-crispy adventures? Is there any kind of anti-vamp-combustion spell, Wills?"

"If there were, vamps would be beating a path to our door and we'd be rolling in cash. Or dead. Give me a minute or so of tape to test this, Giles," Willow said.

Giles slipped the tape into the recorder and Willow plugged it into the laptop's incoming audio. He pressed the 'play' button and Spike's raspy North London accent filled the air: "...so by this time I was off my nut with boredom--you try living in a coal mine for a month and see how you like it--so I waited till Angelus had Darla's heels about her ears one night, and I took Drusilla topside for some entertainment. We'd been living off the miners, and I wanted someone who didn't taste of coal dust for a change. So we come across this bloke, the local preacher, it looked like. He's a shrunk-up little pissant 'thout enough blood in him to get your mouth wet enough to spit, but he's not caked solid with anthracite and that's all that matters to me at this point. He asks us if we're saved--thought Dru was a tart, I reckon--and Dru, bless her mad black heart, she starts rattling off the Pater Noster, and the pruny little chap sodding near explodes yelling about us being a couple of Papists. Which is both inaccurate and annoying, as I'm C of E myself, or was when--anyway, I snap his neck, and this is the really funny part--"

Giles hit the pause button, looking up at Buffy, who stood listening to the narration with an unreadable expression. Willow grimaced. "Um. Guess you don't want to hear that, all things considered."

Buffy shook her head. "No. But I need to hear it. I need to remember--" She took a deep breath, and her fingertips brushed her cheek. "Everything about Spike. Everything."

Chapter Text

Revello Drive on a Sunday afternoon was rife with humanity--kids on skateboards, fathers out trimming hedges and seeding lawns with winter rye, old women with armloads of groceries gossiping on the corner. Spike strode down the sidewalk, a wolf in sheep's clothing--or at least, a wolf with a woolen blanket tucked underneath one arm. A few heads turned to watch him go by, but it was curiosity, not fear, that made them look. Odds were that half of them had seen him before, coming down the street of an evening or lurking about the Summers' front yard. In fact, he was certain of it, since someone had called the police on him once.

He glanced up at the sky overhead. Nothing compared to a good London pea-souper. He'd lived too long in sunny California when a few clouds were as good as a slaughter. The sky was still grey enough that he cast no shadow, but the clouds were thinning, and here and there the grey was backlit with luminous silver. Just as well that he was close to his destination. Diffuse as the sunlight was, he could feel the burn across his cheeks, a raw tingle that was just short of being actively painful, but for the moment, the only smoke he was trailing came from the butt of his cigarette. He was going to pay for this tonight, but how many vampires could say they'd gotten a sunburn?

Spike ignored the speculative looks of the neighbors and forged straight for the Summers' door, crossing the lawn with soundless feral grace and taking the porch steps two at a time. He turned before knocking, looking back over his shoulder. A boy on a beat-up dirt bike had paused in the street and was staring at him. Thirteen maybe, curly red hair and freckles. Spike smiled at him, and then growled--short, sharp and hungry. The kid's eyes bugged out of his head and his sneakered feet pawed the bike's pedals into a wild spin in his haste to be away. Still got it.

And dealing with Dawn was going to take every ounce of it--though he couldn't quite see himself scaring her straight, anyway. He tossed his cigarette into the bushes and, after a moment's thought, tossed the blanket in after it. He rapped sharply on the door.

Dawn opened it a moment later, looking rebelliously grungy and unbrushed. She was wearing a Power Puff Girls t-shirt and headphones from which the faint, tinny sound of a studio-enhanced quartet of Leonardo DiCaprio look-alikes wailing about luuuuuuve could be heard. At the sight of him she managed to look at once pleased, disgusted, and indifferent. "Oh. It's Spike." 'The Buffy-siding-with traitor' remained unspoken but strongly implied. She started to shut the door again, but Spike grabbed the edge and held on.

"Ah, ah, ah, not unless you want to be sweeping yours truly into the rose bushes." He pointed towards the rapidly brightening sky. "Sun's coming out."

Dawn made a show of thinking about it, but finally stepped back with a perfunctory lift of her thin shoulders, as if the work of sweeping the porch outweighed the delightful prospect of Spike's becoming rose food. "Come on in." Spike made a rude gesture at the sky and dodged inside--he was all for pushing the limits till they snapped, but the actual catching on fire bits still weren't particularly enjoyable. Dawn flopped down on the couch, picked up the mixing bowl full of chocolate-coated sugar bombs she was munching her way through, and eyed him briefly before returning her attention to the Cartoon Network. "You look like a lobster with mange."

Spike prodded his cheek gingerly, wishing he had an Instamatic handy. He sat down beside Dawn on the couch, imitating her spine-contorting pose. "Yeh, well, it's that delicate English complexion. Tara about?"

"In her room." Dawn scowled at the TV screen. "You don't think anyone would actually trust me to take care of myself for five minutes straight, do you?" She oozed further down on her tailbone and looked, for a moment, poised to throw a handful of cereal at the television, or possibly at him.

"Not after last night, no."

Dawn's scowl petrified into the Wall Of Teen-Age Hostility, and she turned the volume on her Walkman up to earsplitting levels. Spike ignored it. "Just as well the wicca girl's upstairs. Rather we had a bit of privacy for this."

Dawn rolled her eyes, proof positive she was made from Buffy. "Whatever," she muttered. Spike appraised her for a moment, then snatched her earphones from her head. She shrieked and grabbed for his wrists. "Hey! Give those back!"

He held them just out of reach overhead--he wasn't going to be able to do that in another year or so, best take advantage of superior height while he still had it--and made a threatening crunching motion with one hand. "Chip doesn't give a toss about electronics, Pigeon. I told your sis I'd talk to you, so give us a listen, and then we'll both have done our duty, right?"

"Fine." Dawn went rigid against the sofa cushions, arms folded across her chest and teeth clenched, refusing to look at him. "Come on, give me the lecture." Her lips pressed hard together to still their trembling. "Tell me how stupid I've been, tell me I'm ruining my life, tell me how lucky I am Social Services isn't beating our door down right now, tell me how it's different when you do it, tell me--"

He'd promised Buffy, that night last spring, to protect Dawn until the end of the world, and he'd done his best, feeble as that best sometimes was. Now and again, over the summer, it had been a tossup as to who was taking care of whom. Some things were easier to guard against than others. Spike held an arm out. "Come here." Dawn looked at him, blinking a little too hard. He crooked a finger at her. "Come here, you little nit, or I'll rip your ears off and use 'em for coasters."

"L-Like you could!" The dam broke, and Dawn fell against him sobbing, burying her head in his shoulder and tipping the bowl of Cocoa Puffs all over the couch and his lap. Spike held her, stroking her hair and murmuring meaningless broken things as she wept into his chest, and silently thanked whoever was in charge of such things that Dawn hadn't poured any milk over her cereal. He wanted, as much as he'd he'd ever desired anything an a long and passionate existence, to make this right for her....

It wasn't right, this. Even less right than loving the Slayer. He could justify that to himself if he tried hard enough--he'd always been love's bitch and Buffy's was simply the latest hand on his choke-chain. Whatever good he'd done for her sake didn't count in the eternal balance; his motives were all proper selfish vampiric ones, and it never would have happened without the chip anyway, so he was still all right, wasn't he? This thing with Dawn, though... It had started out innocently enough, just an attempt to get in good with her sister, but now--now an ache in Dawn's voice stirred anxious pain within his own chest, and her laughter buoyed him up as though his dead heart were anchored in her living one, to rise and fall and beat in time with her joy and her anguish.

Sitting here with her warm slim body curled against his side, her jerky sobs slowing and her breathing gradually evening out, he tried to pinpoint the moment when normal healthy bloodlust had drained away, to be replaced by this unnatural empathy. Sitting in the Magic Box, sharing the battered box of chocolates he'd been idiot enough to think he could give her sister? No longer ago than that, surely? He could have eaten her then, if the chip hadn't prevented it, if she hadn't been Buffy's sister, if he hadn't had a fond sneaking memory of big blue eyes staring defiantly at him through the bannisters three years past, as he and Buffy plotted Angelus's downfall. Why Slayer, I didn't know you were serving hors d'oeuvres!

She'd never been afraid of him, his Dawn. Took after her mum, and ah, what he wouldn't give to have a long talk with Joyce Summers right about now. He ran the pad of his thumb across Dawn's cheek, wiping away the tears. "It's all right, Dawn-love." Passing strange that she could find comfort in a dead man's cold embrace, in the whiskey-roughened cadences of a killer's voice. But she did; he could feel it in the set of her shoulders beneath his arm, the little hitching sigh as she scrubbed the heel of her own hand across her eyes. He smoothed a strand of long brown hair away from her eyes. "You bollocksed it up, I won't tell you you didn't, but Christ, I came this close to killing a bloke last night. I've still got you beat for villainy."

A shudder ran through her, half-sob, half laughter. "No way. Actual robbery beats attempted murder. I'm still badder than you."

He laughed outright. God, he loved this girl. "You're sorry, aren't you, love?"

Dawn snuffled, groping blindly over the arm of the couch for the box of Kleenex on the side table. "Of course I'm sorry!"

"See, there's what a soul will do for you, pet--I'm not." Spike brushed a layer of half-crushed cereal off his jeans and gave her a squeeze. "At least not for that." He pulled a crumpled linen handkerchief out of one of the duster's inside pockets and handed it to her. "Here, you may as well get some good of it. I haven't used the bloody thing since 1948."

Dawn took the handkerchief and examined it as if it were some bizarre antique device--which to her, Spike conceded, it probably was. "There's not, like, fifty-year-old vampire snot on it, is there?"

"Blow your damned nose."

She complied, folding the handkerchief carefully and tucking it into her jeans pocket when she was done. "I wish I had a chip sometimes. It's easy for you--if you try to do something bad, it zaps you before you do it. All a soul does is make you feel like crap afterwards." Dawn picked up the mixing bowl and made a half-hearted attempt to scrape the scattered flecks of chocolate into it, but gave up as it became obvious that her efforts were doing more to spread the cereal around than to consolidate it. She set the bowl on the coffee table, slumped back into the crook of his arm and sighed. "Have you ever been going along doing something that seems to be a fantastic idea, and then all of a sudden you realize it's the dumbest thing you've ever done in your life?"

Spike rested his head against the back of the couch, lips pursed, and contemplated the ceiling. "Let me think. Let Dru play Lego blocks with the Judge, because all that destroy-the-world stuff's never serious? Hire some arsewipe to torture Angel for the Gem of Amarra and then let him run off with it? Chain your sis to a wall to show her we were meant to be, because manacles are a girl's best friend? Order a robot look-alike of Buffy? Nah, I've led a life of sober restraint."

Dawn giggled weakly. "You sure have. You know what bites? I never took any of this stuff because I wanted it. I mean, sometimes I did. I know we're not starving and we've got a roof over our heads and all that crap, but there's no extra money for anything fun, ever! And every time I hint about hitting up Dad, Buffy gets this pinchy look around her eyes and it's like I'm stabbing her in the back or something."

He knew the look; it was the same one Buffy got every time he hinted that there was blunt to be had in demon-killing. Ethics were a sodding pain in the arse. Spike picked a cocoa flake off his knee and ate it. "I think it galls her she can't keep you happy on her own, pet."

"That's not it at all!" Tears started welling up in Dawn's eyes again. "She's not Mom, she can't be Mom, I don't want her to be Mom! I just want her to be my sister! She hates me, doesn't she, Spike? For helping bring her back. She just can't show it because I'm her stupid sister. She died when it should have been me, and then I--I--"

Spike grabbed her shoulders hard enough to get a warning twinge from the chip and gave her a little shake. "Stop that! Buffy loves you, Bit. She's the only person who might love you more'n I--anyone else does. If anyone's to blame for bringing her back, it's Will and me, and mostly me--Will was about to drop the idea when I cozened her into going ahead. And if I hadn't fucked up royally on the tower neither one of you'd have needed to take a header off it. So no more of this." He held her eyes until she nodded, then let his hands drop. "Look, pet, tell you what, if you really want something, I'll nick it for you. Except for any girly bits you fancy--I'm not going to perv about in the Junior Miss section pocketing unmentionables. Or boy band CDs. Or--never mind, there's nothing you'd want I'd be caught dead stealing."

She punched him in the ribs. "Oh, yeah, Buffy will go for that. I meant it when I said it wasn't the stuff. It was just... doing it. It was... cool. And a little dangerous. It made me feel like... like I was in charge of my life. Like I could do anything. Until I got caught."

Spike cocked his head and regarded her gravely. "Yeh, that's the feeling, all right. You know, Niblet, when you do something for the thrill of it, you've got to take the rough with the smooth. If I fancy getting my rocks off killing other vampires, I've got to take the chance of getting the shit beat out of me every other Tuesday, and waking up starkers in the middle of the UCS quad with five minutes till sunrise. Laugh all you like, it's happened. It's worth it; I'd bloody well shrivel up and die if I couldn't kill something." Almost did. He shivered a little, recalling the black pit of despair he'd slogged through before discovering that the chip only worked on humans. "Guess you've got to decide if the feeling you get from nicking stuff's worth the dodgy patches that come with."

"No." Dawn's reply was instant, and Spike marveled slightly. He could remember, through a glass darkly, something of what it felt like to have a conscience, but the thing itself was gone, vanished along with his pulse. Dawn looked a little wistful. "But it did feel good."

Spike laced his fingers behind his head and crossed one boot over the other, heels making little crunching noises in the spilled cereal on the table. "Well, give us a bit, pet. Maybe we can do summat about that." He glanced around. "Here--do we clean this crud up or sneak off to the kitchen and pretend Tara's walking hairball did it?"

"Blame Miss Kitty," Dawn said decisively, getting to her feet.

Spike grinned up at her. "See, not being good's got its points."

*****

Buffy concentrated on the rhythm of her feet on the pavement, step, step, step, each foot planted safely in the middle of the concrete squares. Step on a crack, break a vampire's back. And she had, once--dropped an organ on him, smash, and left him and Dru for really truly dead in the burning wreckage. More than once over the years she'd wavered between blessing or cursing the Sunnydale Fire Department for being far more competent than their colleagues in the police force.

Funny. She'd probably caused him more lingering pain than he'd caused any of his victims. And then I killed them, right quick. The story of Spike's unlife, Reader's Digest Condensed version. Drusilla, mad broken thing, played with her food. Angelus and Darla had raised torture to a fine art. And Spike just... killed people. Necks snapped in a trice, throats ripped out with one quick savage flash of fangs. Preferably after a good fight, but he wasn't a fussy eater. Not exactly new information, Buffy. We've been over this before. Spike was a monster. Her monster. Her responsibility. People had attack dogs that they were... fond of. Safe as long as they were kept under proper restraint, and put down if they attacked out of turn, and that--that was what her relationship with Spike had to be. No more accidental slippage of the B word except it's already out and he's probably got it framed on his mantlepiece no admission of that other word she wouldn't even let herself think. She was in deep enough already without breaking out the shovels and heading for China.

She stopped at the foot of the walk leading up to her house, looking across the lawn through the windows. She could see figures moving behind the drawn curtains, silhouettes painted on the cloth by the living room lights. An electric thrill ran along her nerves--Spike, right here. Her feet brought her closer of their own accord, up the porch steps to peer through the gap in the curtains. Inside, the muted roar of the vacuum cleaner drowned out any conversation; she could see Tara shaking the wand irately at the couch, where Spike was sitting meekly while Dawn dabbed aloe vera over his sunburnt nose.

Compared to her first vampire love, Spike had always been third-rate evil, and nowadays he was practically channeling Mahatma Gandhi. Sort of. If Gandhi had been really into kicking demon ass and possessed of a not-so-secret hankering for a nice glass of O-neg after a hard night's killing. But Angel and Angelus still occupied separate corners of her mind, man and demon insuperably divided by Angel's possession of a soul. Dawn pooh-poohed the gap between soul and chip, but there was one vital difference: however much his ill-won conscience pained him, Angel wanted to keep it, and if someone offered Spike a chance to be rid of the chip... that didn't bear thinking of. The soul made it easy to love Angel, forgive Angel, place all his sins on Angelus's head. Spike, damn him, defied such compartmentalization. Man and demon were one; the Spike who traded jibes about musical taste or lack thereof with Xander, guarded Dawn like a pit bull, and set her own body on fire with a touch was the same Spike who tore through Sunnydale High turning Parent-Teacher Night into a bloodbath, the same Spike who but for the chip would have killed Ramon with equal abandon, and regret only that he'd upset her thereby.

The same Spike who knew she was watching him. He looked up and smiled, his eyes locked onto hers, ice blue meeting grey-green through the veil of glass and gauze between them. The shock ran through her anew like wintergreen and lightning. Buffy tore herself away from the window and leaned for a moment against the door, forehead pressed to the frame, fingers locked around the cold brass of the handle. Nothing supernatural about it--or no more supernatural than any other vampire ability, anyway. He could catch her scent, sense her heartbeat, something. It was a predator thing. Nothing special about the fact that the two of them arrowed in on one another like Lassie coming home. It didn't mean anything. She wouldn't let it.

She opened the door. "I'm home!" As usual when she was mired in angst, there was a spectacular lack of noticing on the part of the populace at large. Dawn ignored her entirely, intent on her patient. Tara gave her a little smile and a wave of the vacuum cleaner wand. "Has Angel called yet?" Buffy asked as she left the foyer, shouting over the roar of the Hoover.

Tara toed the off switch on the vacuum cleaner and the noise died away. "Not yet. Unless the phone rang while I was vacuuming up the cereal that Miss Kitty somehow managed to pour into a bowl, carry into the living room, and spill all over the couch." She kept a perfectly straight face, and Dawn and Spike had the grace to look sheepish.

Buffy tossed her purse onto the nearest chair. My psych project, Dr. Walsh, is a study in guilt transference in vampires from cereal to people. I'm borrowing Hostile 17. She looked askance at Spike--he really did look awful, as though he'd gotten a faceful of red spray-paint. With his accelerated healing, skin was already sloughing off the worst of the burnt places, which didn't improve matters any. "So--did we finally discover whether or not you freckle?"

Spike gave her a sour look and jerked away from Dawn's hand. "Steady on, you're getting it in my eyes!"

Exasperated, Dawn squeezed another dollop of lotion onto her fingers. "If you'd quit twitching it wouldn't go in your eyes, and it's your own fault for being mirror-challenged anyway, so suck it up."

Buffy sauntered over to the couch for a ringside seat. "Will's probably going to be staying over at Giles's place for dinner. They're still playing with those tapes." She sat down and hugged a sofa pillow. "I think she's really hurt that we didn't wake her up last night. I don't know what good it would have done, but..."

Spike grunted and made another futile effort to escape Dawn's ministrations. "She thinks you don't need her now that she can't sling the mojo."

"But that's--what good would magic have done?" Buffy kicked off her shoes and absently slung a foot across Spike's lap. Just as absently he began massaging her toes. Too boyfriendy. Must move foot. Move, foot, move! Her foot informed her that it was just fine where it was, thanks, and invited the other foot to join it. After a bit she began kneading Spike's thigh with her free set of toes. Well, he did it to me. Turnabout is fair play. No, this is major badness. Ooh, behold the wonder of Buffy-logic. Letting him screw you bowlegged is fine, but a foot rub? Cobblestone on the road to hell!

"Let's just say," Spike began doing absolutely sinful things to her instep with both thumbs, "That if yours truly were a charter member of the Geek Squad who'd become a big gun in this our demonic world through supernatural means, I'd be feeling bloody inadequate around now if those means were kicked out from under me. Doesn't matter why we didn't wake her, fact is we didn't."

"I should have thought of that." Tara wheeled the vacuum back over to the utility closet and maneuvered it in among the clutter of brooms and dustpans and half-empty tins of shoe polish. "She's told me she was shy back in high school, but it's just so hard for me to imagine Willow being insecure about anything..."

"When I first met her, Wills was the insecurity poster child. But it's been a long time," Buffy agreed. "She's changed a lot."

"It's never long enough," Spike muttered darkly. "Or, er, so I've heard. Wouldn't know myself."

"Because you've always been bad." Buffy reached over and tweaked his ear. "You know, if you're really into this I could try you out with a cucumber facial once Dawn's through with you."

Spike collapsed backwards with a groan. "Bugger off, woman, and let me suffer the fruits of my hubris in peace."

Buffy scooched closer, lips teasingly close to his ear, voice a husky whisper. "Ooh, words of more than one syllable. You know how hot that gets me?" She squealed as Spike's arm snaked round her waist and pulled her onto his lap. She wrapped her own arm around his shoulders and made herself comfortable, eliciting one of those yummy subterranean growls. Oh, yeah, squirming around in Spike's lap still gets a reaction, all right.

"Reeeeally, pet?" How the hell did he manage to look and sound that sexy with aloe vera all over his nose? "Antidisestablishmentarianism."

She flung her head back, exposing her throat. "Take me now!"

"Just in case you're wondering, all Buffy's previous boyfriends used to offer me cold hard cash to go away at this point," Dawn pointed out from her end of the couch, where she was watching the proceedings with mildly revolted interest. "Boy, if Mrs. Kroger walked in right now..." The phone rang. Buffy jumped and Spike went tense as an overwound guitar string. Dawn snickered. "Saved by the bell."

"Not funny, Bit." The phone rang a second time. Spike cocked an eyebrow at Buffy, who tried without success to break the nervous freeze which had gripped all her voluntary motor functions. "You really want me to get that and astonish the poof, love, you'll have to move." He glanced at Dawn and reconsidered. "On second thought, don't. You're covering a multitude of sins."

"Uh," Buffy croaked. An entire scenario where Spike answered the phone flashed through her mind, complete with dramatic rising music at the part where Angel drove down from L.A. in a rage and crashed through the front door. Goody. Forget temp work, I have a future in scriptwriting.

Tara shut the closet door and picked up the phone on the third ring. "Summers residence. Yes, she's here. Uh... yes, he is too. Um...no...I really d-don't know... do you want to t-talk to Buffy?"

Buffy felt that little irritated line forming between her brows--what had he said to get Tara nervous enough to stutter? Tara picked the phone up and brought it closer, handing Buffy the receiver over the back the couch. She took it, panic fighting arousal in her gut. "Hello? Angel?"

"Buffy." The voice was warm, deep, familiar. Once it had been the one she compared all other voices to. Spike's eyes had gone gold and he was running the fingers of one hand lightly up and down her arm, inscribing possessive hieroglyphs on her skin. "Cordelia said you wanted to get hold of Faith?"

"Um. Want, no, need, yes." She tried swatting Spike's hand away; he captured hers instead and began kissing her palm. Slow. Soft. Tongue-tip tracing lazy circles. She swallowed a gasp. "It's a Council thing. So... you've got the number?"

"Yeah. It's right here. Let me get the Rolodex."

She listened to the muffled noises on the other end of the line and bit her tongue against the muffled noises she wanted to make herself. Was this all there was left between them? Awkward silences? It had been like that at their meeting, a week after her return. Sitting in the coffee shop, toying with their cups, staring at one another across an expanse of wood-grain Formica. Exchanging meaningless pleasantries: Why yes, I am alive again. So kind of you to notice. Dawn's fine (she still can't stand you) Willow's fine (she dragged me back to fight a war I'll never win for a world that doesn't care) no, I can't remember much about being dead (stole that from me too) and how are you? Two people who'd changed each other's lives, and now all they were to one another was an uncomfortable lunch date. She'd found herself willing the hands on the clock to move. He hadn't ordered anything. Why hadn't he ordered anything? Was he trying to make their rendezvous go faster too? But no, she'd forgotten--Angel didn't eat; the coffee was a major concession.

What else could they say? I love you? What point? There was no expressing that love--passion was too dangerous, friendship too painful. Can I help? But it had been clear last year, after her mother's funeral, that there were limits and bounds to that help--"As long as you need me" could not be forever. So they said nothing worth saying, and the minutes dragged by. She had grown unused to fraught silences; Spike filled them up with words. Angel dug the silences deeper.

Angel didn't eat. And she couldn't remember if he breathed in his sleep. And she had wanted very badly to go home.

"Here it is. Got a pencil?"

She started at the sound of his voice--expecting it to be lighter, harsher, tinged with the accents of other shores. "And paper, even." Tara handed her a pad of yellow Post-Its and she wrote down the number on the top sheet, underlining it twice and putting *Faith!* above it. "I'm going to call and make an appointment to see her as soon as I can--can you come along if I give you a few days' warning? I don't think there's a trusting, friendly vibe there since she stole my body."

Angel sighed. "Buffy--"

She was shot through with a bolt of pure hatred for that tone of voice--oh, so reasonable, oh, so adult. He'd defend Faith. Of course. "Love, give, forgive, I know the drill." Had it been too much to ask, after Faith had stolen her body, stolen Riley, stolen her life, that Angel take her side for once, without getting all noble and redeemy? She wasn't stupid. She knew that saving Faith was all about saving himself. I wanted you to be about saving me. She could feel herself getting tense and quivery, and the rhythm of Spike's hand stroking her arm shifted suddenly from erotic to sexless comfort. She took a deep breath. Maybe she should hang out with Anya more--someone who knew the value of a spectacular act of vengeance.

Doubt and worry threaded Angel's distant voice. "Buffy, is Spike causing problems? Because if he is, we can come up and take care of him for you--"

"No!" Was that squeaky silly-sounding thing her own voice? Shoot me now. "I can take care of Spike myself! And take care of? What is that? What is he, Old Yeller? You don't just 'take care' of someone--" Damn. Damn, damn, damn, damn... Stupid blinding insight. "Sorry. Sorry. This thing with the Council's got me all nervy. Look, I'll let you know when I can get into the city to see Faith. I'll probably be driving up with Spike, just so you know." She didn't give him a chance to reply. "Talk to you later. Bye." She slammed the phone down in its cradle and let her head fall back against Spike's shoulder, feeling as if she'd just run a marathon. After a moment the tension in his body got to her, and she slitted her eyes open. Spike was watching her with eyes like the heart of a flame, radiating a simmering heat suggesting that had a minor not been present, he would have been staking his claim to her right then and there. "What's with the phone sex?" she snapped. "Were you trying to make me--"

"You didn't tell him," he said, half growling.

Without a word, Tara grabbed Dawn's wrist, pulled her to her feet and started for the stairs. "You still have homework, don't you?"

Dawn curled her lip. "Don't I always when anything interesting happens?"

As her sister's reluctant footsteps faded, Buffy aimed a tight-lipped glare at Spike. "And why should I tell him? It's none of his business. I didn't send him a memo when I started dating Riley, did I?"

"It's different. You know it's different." Citrine sparks flared in his eyes as his fingers closed round her wrists. Astonishing how very different the angry growl sounded from the happy growl or the horny growl or... Buffy felt a buried thrum of excitement at the thought that she'd actually have to exert some effort to break his grip. Spike shoved her roughly to one side, flinching slightly as the chip reacted, and flung himself off the couch and into a round of tigerish pacing.

"I told the people who matter," she shot back, and because she knew he was right and hated it, some small mean part of her was prompted to add, "and you were lucky to get that."

That struck deep, maybe deeper than she'd intended, and the raw pain in his eyes made her weak-kneed. "Think I don't know that?" His voice was bitter. "I'm properly grateful. You told the people you couldn't hide it from. The people who can pretend I'm human when it suits them. He knows exactly what I'm missing. He'll never forget what I am, and never forgive--cos it's what he is, too." He whirled round and pinned her against the couch with the sheer force of leashed rage--and it was leashed this time, no doubt there. "And you can't bloody well take the heat when it comes to Soul Boy's disapproval, can you?"

She stiffened. "You don't know anything about it."

"Oh, I know everything about it." Spike made a savage slashing gesture with one hand. "I know the Irish git walked out on you, out of the goodness of his bloody soul. I know you threw yourself at that Parker bastard--to forget him, to follow his bloody orders. Be normal." He spoke the word like a curse, his voice gone mocking. "Didn't work very well, did it?"

Buffy rose slowly to her feet, eyes glittering. "My God. You're jealous. Of Angel? Of Parker? That's pathetic, Spike."

"Shell of a loser, wasn't it? Of course I'm fucking jealous!" he roared. "I was so jealous then I couldn't see straight! Didn't know I loved you yet, but I knew you were mine! My Slayer, mine to kill--or not." He was in her face now, eyes blazing as the two of them circled one another, wolflike. "How d'you think it felt, watching you chase after a tosser not fit to clean your boots on, trying to drown the hurt he gave you, and knowing you'd take sodding Angel back in a sodding second if he lifted a soulful finger in your direction? I'd rather've put you in the bloody ground than see you crawling like that!" The muscles in his jaw clenched. "And nothing's changed, has it? You'll cross up your Watcher and your friends, give 'em the news that you're shagging the undead again--but you won't tell him. You'll still jump through hoops to be his bleeding normal girl. Well, you started this, Slayer--it was your idea to jump the vampire's bones. You bloody well know what I am, and if you can't handle it then what the hell are we doing here?"

Buffy hooked her fingers into the lapels of the duster, bringing him to a halt. Things have changed. Lots of things have changed. "Good question," she hissed. "So what are you, Spike? Who are you? Just a vampire? You ought to know if that were true we wouldn't be having this conversation!"

"Just a vampire? I'm William the fucking Bloody, baby. I pound railroad spikes through the heads of gits who annoy me, remember?"

"Do you, Spike? You know what I am. And you know who I am. It's not like I can put you down like a rabid dog if the chip goes bad--you know that!" Didn't he?

Maybe not. Those beautiful heavy-lidded eyes bored into hers, and she could see the flare of his nostrils, feel the quick, shallow rise and fall of his muscled chest beneath her hands-- He breathes for me. His lips curved in an ironic smile. "Can't you? Bloody hell, Slayer, what else did you tell the rest of 'em not three days ago? I told you last year I could give up the whole evil thing for you, and I meant it. I can change what I do. I have, and I'll keep it up--chip or no chip. But I don't have a sodding soul. Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Death I shall fear no evil, because yours truly is the meanest son of a bitch in the Valley. I am a vampire, I will always be a vampire, I will always get off on death and pain and destruction. That's what I am, forever and sodding ever, amen. I'll do the right thing for you, for the Bit, hell, even for Harris--I'll do it because I'm fond of this world of ours and I don't want to see the dozy old bint go smash. But I will never do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. I haven't got the wiring for it."

She was trembling violently, anger and fear and desire braided together. Three days? Hadn't a lifetime passed since then? "You said--that night--you said you were mine."

Blue eyes, drilling through her soul--not fair, when he had none. "And I am, Slayer. Yours to kill--or not."

She could not, could not bear any more space between them. "Mine." She pulled him down, first crushing him close, then flinging him to the couch and following fast after. Her mouth, starved for him, wrested frantic greedy kisses from his lips. Her hands cupped his face, feverishly tracing the planes of his cheeks, heedless of his burnt skin. A sound half agonized, half ecstatic, ripped from his throat and he returned her caresses with equal passion. She sank her teeth into the muscle of his shoulder and he howled, bucking beneath her as she ripped open his jeans and skinned out of her own--and didn't he have a pretty cock, rising all rose and ivory from the brown curls so startlingly dark against his pale skin. The whole lovely thick length of him sprang up against his flat hard belly as soon as she freed him, foreskin slipping back from the dark glistening head. He was hard for her, so hard, and oh, that glorious right-to-the-center fullness when he entered her was like nothing on earth or beyond it.

He was talking, still, as she began to move--of course he was talking, you couldn't pay Spike to shut up, ever--a steady stream of joyful profanity as her nails raked his sides and his hands dug into her ass with bruising strength, forcing her closer, forcing himself deeper: Oh God, oh fuck, right there, that's heaven, right in that tight little cunt, that's my Slayer, that's my sweet hot bitch, ride me baby, ride me hard, oh fuck, so good, make it hurt, make it hurt just like that, come on, say it, say my name, say my name when you come, come for me come for me oh Christ oh fuck fuck fuck fuck me Buffy fuck me Buffy FUCK ME OH GOD BUFFY! and together they lit up the night like a Beirut Fourth of July. Mine. Mine. My monster. No one else's, mine, mine, mine, thou shalt have no other Slayers before me. And they were falling, falling, raptured, transfixed, Lucifer flung from heaven and she burning in his arms. Before they struck earth she bit him again and he was instantly rock-hard within her non-existent vampire refractory period, hurray! and they were rocketing out of control again, comet-bright in the darkness, and she could swear that the delirious explosions of pleasure that rocked her never ever really stopped...

*****

"You realize," Dawn said to Tara, sprawled out on the bed in he mother's old room and doodling in the margin of her geometry textbook, "That I'm scarred for life. This means guilt presents. Lots of guilt presents."

*****

"Mine," she whispered, too exhausted to stop the tears.

"Yours," he breathed. "Forever. Don't cry, love. I'm here."

She curled against him, shaking. "It's not that. It's not... oh, God, Spike, I'm--you were right. You were right."

Cool hands cradled her face, cool lips--not so cool now, warmed with her warmth--brushed her shoulder, tender, infinitely gentle. "Ah, sweet, be still, be still... Dunno what you're getting at, love."

"When you said--at Willy's, when you said I didn't care. About -about - I'm so fucking sick of saving the world! I was going to let the whole world die to save Dawn. I was. Because it was wrong to kill her, but - but mostly - because I couldn't bear to lose her. I killed myself fighting the Master. I killed Angel. I lost Riley, I lost Mom, I--Dawn was more important than the whole world, Spike!"

A long pause. "Sounds about right to me."

"But it's not." A broken sob. "How can I be the Slayer when I don't care about saving the world anymore? I got lucky. What if my blood won't work next time? When--" When the fact that you love me, love Dawn, to the exclusion of all else is more important to me than all you've done, all you may do?

"But you're out there every night doing it still, love."

"Right. Just like you. And you don't care, do you?"

He jerked his head up and away, trembling, but he wasn't quite strong enough to break her grip without a struggle. We can't escape one another that easily. Something in him broke; she could almost hear the snap. "I don't know. I don't know anything anymore." He looked down at her. "There are--bloody hell, dozens!--of people I wouldn't feel good about killing. There's half a dozen I'd feel bad about killing!" His voice was barely audible. "It's not like I'm going all brooding and poof-like--I could kill 'em, you know, sans bloody chip, and I don't think I'd weep for it afterwards. But... it wouldn't be fun. I'm starting not to care how fucking wrong it is. What if it doesn't stop there? What if some day I do start--" His voice cut off, half choked. There were some things he couldn't bring himself to say yet, either.

She reached up and smoothed the riot of sweat-soaked platinum curls away from his forehead. "Caring? Sounds about right to me." She sighed. "We're messed up."

He echoed the sigh. "We are that." He stretched, drawing her closer. "Could be worse, though. On the bright side, the shagging is bloody brilliant."

Buffy gave in to a little hiccuping laugh. Somehow he could always do that much for her. "Yeah." She tucked her head into his shoulder. Springs creaked dangerously beneath them, and something went spung. Buffy grimaced. Damn. We really can't afford a new couch. Note to self: have wild passionate vampire sex only on concrete surfaces until the bloom is off the rose. Say, twenty or thirty years from now. "I guess if you have to be messed up, you may as well be messed up with someone you love."

It took a minute, and then he drew a gasping breath as if she'd staked him. "Buffy..."

What the hell. She'd always liked going for Chinese. She raised her head and looked him in the eyes. "You heard me."

Wow, she thought as he dove on her and the last intact spring in the sofa noisily bit the dust, I finally managed to shut Spike up.

Chapter Text

"It's quite simple, Quentin." Giles set his saucer on the coffee table and sank back into the armchair. "Her position is that her first responsibility is to raise and educate her younger sister, and she simply cannot afford to depend on my charity, as she puts it, to accomplish this. Unless the Council sees fit to recompense her for her work on their behalf, she has no choice but to cease patrolling and, er, 'get a real job.'"

There was a long, static-ridden pause, during which Giles reviewed his own words half a dozen times--too indifferent? Too threatening? He sat back in the armchair and took the album from the top of the stack on the coffee table, turning it over and over in his lap, and slipped the record in its inner sleeve free. Eric Clapton and Cream. The black vinyl gleamed fitfully. Bulky, fragile things, records, a bastard to ship. He could have replaced most of them with CDs, but to his mind that would have been as great travesty as replacing his library with an E-book. No tiny, shiny, digitized scrap of plastic could compare with the glory of analog sound and full-sized cover art.

Besides, he'd seen Spike's lustful glances in his record cabinet's direction, and had a good idea where half of them would end up if he did get rid of them. He was reluctantly resigned to Spike's liason with Buffy, but damned if he was going to leave his record collection to a vampire.

A trans-Atlantic sigh emerged from the hiss of line noise. "I see." Travers's tone implied that he did see; with the bulk of the planet between them, his displeasure still came through the phone lines loud and clear. "And have you pointed out to her that this decision will cost lives, even worlds?"

Giles set the album down again and picked up his teacup, taking a sip. Now for the tricky part. "Well, er, actually... she was rather worried about that. I pointed out that, technically speaking, her first death released her from her duties as Slayer. The Powers evidently intended her to be a short-timer--the Pergamum Codex had only the one prophecy regarding her, after all." He reached over and flipped the work in question open, skimming the relevant passages. How worried they'd all been, all those years ago--and over a vampire. How quaint. "She did say that she might try to get a little slaying in on weekends, time permitting."

There was an indistinct noise on the other end of the line. Best not get too facetious; Travers was neither stupid nor easily manipulated. No one who rose to become Head of the Council was. Giles continued, "Several of her friends and associates did offer to patrol in her stead, but I persuaded them that it was far too dangerous for normal humans to attempt this alone."

"Indeed?" Travers's voice was as dry as the California desert. "You managed adequately all summer, as I recall."

"Mmm. Yes. We managed. With the help of a vampire and a powerful witch. I'm sure you're aware that summer is the period at which vampire activity is at its lowest ebb, the Hellmouth is quiescent, et cetera. Willow is still suffering the effects of over-straining her magical abilities last month. Spike has, of course, no inclination to risk himself on behalf of innocent bystanders if it brings him no personal gain." Travers wouldn't, he hoped, start pondering the question of exactly what sort of personal gain had prompted Spike to help over the summer. "This leaves Tara McClay as our sole supernatural resource, and while she's a competent practitioner, combat spells are not her forte."

"I do sympathize with Ms. Summers's financial woes, but the Council's resources are not inexhaustible. Forty years of a Labor government--"

"Yes, yes, men living on the dole from birth to death--I grew up in the sixties, Quentin, and they've been over for quite some time now." Giles reined in his temper and stirred his tea. "Our resources are not inexhaustible, true, but neither are they anywhere near exhausted. That retreat in--"

Travers cut him off. "This is a matter of principle, Rupert, for me as much as it is for you. The Slayer is the Council's instrument--"

"The Slayer is a twenty-year-old girl who's died twice in the Council's service!"

"No, Rupert, Buffy Summers is a twenty-year-old girl." Travers's voice grew cold. "The Slayer is far more than that. She existed long before Buffy was Called and she will exist long after Buffy is dust."

"Buffy's been dust. Twice. And both times she's returned to her calling despite there being no reason for her to do so. You're right, Quentin--she isn't the Slayer. Faith is. Buffy is a good person who's been aiding our cause because she knows it to be the best use she can make of her talents. We owe her. Quentin, think. How often do we have a truly experienced Slayer at our disposal? How many survive the Cruciamentum--how many live to take the Cruciamentum? There is no comparison between the girl I met five years ago and the Buffy Summers of today. I scarcely dare imagine what she will be capable of in a few more years."

"Yes... what will she be capable of? That's the question, isn't it?" Travers said. There was a note in his voice that Giles couldn't interpret and therefore distrusted. "There are reasons for the Council exercising such control over the Slayer, Rupert, reasons that you don't--"

"Why don't you explain them to me?"

Silence again. Travers was no fool. He wouldn't drop obscure hints out of carelessness; he was on a fishing expedition of his own. "I'm not free to tell you anything I please, Rupert. But I will say this. Slayers who survive as long as your Buffy has have a tendency to become ... willful."

"Ah. Very helpful. And I'll be able to distinguish this from her normal behavior precisely how?"

"Perhaps my terminology is imprecise. Extraordinarily focused upon their work, and more vulnerable to... dangerous urges. And therefore in greater need of guidance than ever. Making a Slayer independant of her Watcher at this point is the last thing I would advise. I'll take the money matter under advisement, Rupert, but that's all I can promise you."

Giles sat there for some time after Travers had hung up, frowning into space and turning his cup of cooling tea round and round in his hands. Travers meant to make him suspicious of Buffy's behavior, he was certain, but to what end? To make him stay in America? To quash the idea of Buffy getting a separate stipend? What, from the Council's point of view, could be considered bad about a Slayer becoming more focused upon her job?

She's already keeping company with one of them; how much more focused can one get? His frown deepened. Surely that couldn't be it... Could it?

Last year Buffy had been worried about the increasing allure that her midnight hunts held for her, and asked him to stay and delve into the origins of her powers. Joyce's illness and death and Glory's hunt for Dawn had derailed that plan before it had begun, but now... He sat back and looked about the room, at the stacks of books and half-packed boxes. Life in transition. Bloody hell.

*****

The Krallock demon's cavernous nostrils flared, and its barnacle-encrusted head swung ponderously to face the back of the room, spattering seawater all over the floor. Its damp, weed-draped form filled the entire doorway, making the utility room of Willy's even more claustrophobic, and absorbing the sound of clinking glasses and barroom squabbles that otherwise drifted back from the front of the building. "Vampire," it rumbled. "What the hell is he doing here? Bad enough the owner lets his kind into the bar."

The three demons at the table shuffled their feet (or whatever passed for them) looked uncomfortable, and examined their cards, the floor, the pipes in the ceiling--anything but the Krallock demon or the object of its displeasure. Said object tapped his cigarette into the nearby ashtray and leaned back in his chair, a faint smirk enlivening his angular countenance. Into the silence he drawled, "Playing poker, which is more than I can say for you."

The dealer's rheumy eyes took on a distressed squint, and his wrinkled, pouchy throat bobbed as he swallowed. He laid his ears flat against his skull and tried to still their nervous twitching. "He's ... uh ... Spike."

The nictating membranes slid over the Krallock's slit-pupiled, basketball-sized eyes, followed by the true lids in a contemptuous double blink. Apparently this was insufficient explanation. Spike's snide grin widened. He was enjoying their discomfiture--Clem, the dealer, wasn't so bad, but as a rule, demons despised vampires. Vampires were the lowest of the low, hybrids hopelessly tainted with humanity: fast-breeding, stupid, expendable cannon fodder. Not that this didn't sum up Spike's opinion of most other vampires as well, but he objected very strenuously at being lumped in with the common throng.

Admitting that they were a little bit afraid of a mere vampire wasn't going to win Clem and his pals any points with the big-shot out-of-town demon. Admitting that the mere vampire's propensity towards taking down big-shot, out-of-town demons wasn't an entirely unwelcome trait amongst the smaller fry of Sunnydale's demon population would win them even fewer. "I'm no ordinary vampire, mate. Scourge of Europe, done a couple of Slayers in my day, used to be the Master of Sunnydale..."

The creature in the doorway shook its head and gave a disdainful snort, perfuming the cramped room with smell of dead fish and salt. "Used to be?"

Spike's eyes narrowed a trifle. His nerves were singing with that lovely frisson of adrenaline and anticipation which presaged a fight--and just a touch of fear; Krallock demons were definitely out of his league. As usual, he fed the last emotion into more swagger. "Gave it up for Lent. You gonna ante up or stand there like a mop in need of a wringer?"

The Krallock demon gave the four of them a disdainful once-over. "I don't consort with his kind." It snorted again. "Nor do I consort with those who do." It gave Spike a last look. "Your blood is unworthy to stain my talons." With that it backed out of the doorway, its claws leaving a trail of ragged scars in the apparently worthier linoleum.

With its departure the atmosphere in the room lightened perceptibly. Spike relaxed, and Clem breathed a sigh which might have been relief. True, the Krallocks were a noble line, among the closest to pure, Ascended demons to be found on this plane. It would have been an honor to have one join them. On the other hand, they had a habit of biting off heads when annoyed, and like most pure demons, they were easily annoyed. The small fuzzy purple Skibbnir demon to Clem's left shuffled through his cards and glared at Spike, and Clem hurriedly joined in with a ferocious, wrinkly scowl. "He probably had a dozen tabbies in his brood pouch."

Maintaining face, as expected. "Just enough to cover what you owe me, eh?" Spike studied his hand--two nines, a queen, a ten and a three. Plus the jack of diamonds he'd palmed earlier, if you wanted to get technical about it. He rearranged his cards and tossed the three on the discard pile. "One. Hit me."

Clem burst into guffaws of laughter and dealt him another card. "I thought that's what you hung around the Slayer for."

The Skibbnir made a chittering noise like a forest full of demented squirrels and high-fived Clem's wrinkled, loose-skinned paw with two of its six limbs. "Good 'un, Clem!"

Spike turned his new card over and slid it into his hand. Eight of clubs. And a good thing or you'd be eating those ears. He exchanged one of the nines for the jack tucked away in the sleeve of his duster--vampiric speed was a wonderful thing. "Now, now, boys, no rude remarks about my lady, or I'll have to give you a refresher lesson in manners."

Purple snickered. "Your lady now, is it?"

"Me 'n the Slayer're working together now, remember." He blew a smoke ring at Purple with entirely unfeigned smugness. "Though it's not so much work these days. She's got better things to do with the undead than stake 'em."

The third demon, a spidery-thin, pearly-skinned humanoid with glittering encrustations of blue crystal scattered over its body, discarded a pair of cards and received his replacements with an impassive face. "We've heard that song and dance before."

Spike's grin got wider. "Yeh, well, you'll be hearing a lot more of it. The Slayer's finally kicked over her traces. Told the Council to piss off. She's going into a better-paying line of work."

"Uh huh," the crystalline demon said, obviously skeptical. "And we all jumped for joy when her Watcher got fired, but here they still are, making our lives miserable."

"Dealer takes two." Clem examined his new hand, cards held up before his protuberant nose. "I'm in. See your shorthair and raise you a Persian."

"I fold," Purple said with a disgusted hiss. "Your life? As if the Slayer knows you exist."

Spike focused on the crystalline demon's heartbeat (or whatever it was making noise in there) and tried to decide whether the speeding up meant he had good cards or bad ones. Clem's right ear was twitching again, and that meant he had a good hand, or was in the process of manufacturing one. Cheating was part of the game, accepted until someone felt like making something of it--they were demons, after all.

"Live and let live's my motto," Clem said. He glanced at Spike. "Present company excepted. The Slayer's never bothered with the likes of us. Vampires, greater demons... Why, my cousin Ferlie--"

"Like that Krallock demon," Spike interrupted. "Think she'd let that soggy blighter ponce about town, insultin' the locals, if she were still on the job? I'll bet you anything you care to name that come Sunday next, she won't have lifted a finger against it."

Purple and Blue Crystal looked interested. Clem shook his head, setting his jowls to wagging. "Uh uh. Last time I took one of your wagers I ended up stuck on top of a fence with my britches caught on a nail."

Spike's Cheshire Cat expression didn't waver. "You see any nails around here?"

"Done," Blue Crystal said, and the other two chimed in. "But just a friendly bet--money, no kittens."

*****

"Not exactly an encouraging conversation," Giles said, "But better than it could have gone."

"Willful?" Buffy said with a little frown. "It makes me sound like the heroine of a Gothic romance. If I get a sudden urge to run across a moor in my nightie, Giles, by all means stop me."

"They're being ridiculous," Anya said, setting the Council's letter down and sliding it across the table to Giles. "Slaying is a public service job like a police officer or firefighter, so Buffy should be making at least as much as they do at similar levels of experience. Did you point out that it's far more cost-effective in terms of lives saved to maintain one experienced Slayer than it is to constantly be training new ones?"

Willow's fingers tightened around her pencil. She forced them to unclasp, lest she snap it in half. Again. What was it about Xander that made him unerringly seek out the most annoying women in Sunnydale to fall for? It wasn't even that Anya was saying anything rude or clueless. She was making sense for once. It was just that it was Anya: all by itself, the sound of that whiny nasal voice had the ability to drill into Willow's skull and start chipping its way out with a pickaxe. She stared down at the pile of notes in front of her, trying to concentrate on anything besides the sound of the soon-to-be Mrs. Harris prattling on.

The notes were just the way she liked them: alphabetized each in their own folders with the color-coded tabs. Blue for the original spells she'd based her research on, green for the spells she'd actually used in the creation of the new one, red for the new spell itself, yellow for notes on the changes and substitutions she'd made in creating it, orange for miscellaneous additional notes which might come in handy. The pile of bright manila folders stood square-cornered on the central glass insert of the table-top, exuding that new-paper-and-glue smell which conjured up her favorite time of year, the beginning of school.

A week's worth of effort, boiled down to 'I can't do it.' Willow shuffled the stack again, unhappily aware that the nervous dampness of her palms would wilt the folders' crisp clean newness. The queasy twist in her stomach, the barely-leashed panic which made her heart pound were familiar. She had nightmares like this. She couldn't remember the combination to her locker. She'd forgotten to drop the calculus class, and now she had to read the entire semester's worth of material in the hour before the final. She was standing at the front of the classroom, stumbling through an oral report to the accompaniment of bored snickers from her classmates.

She Wasn't Prepared.

"You don't want to antagonize them more than necessary," Anya chirped, innocent of the effect she was producing. "If we can make them realize Buffy's a valuable commodity, it'll make for much better labor-management relations in the long run."

The really annoying thing, Willow decided, was that no one else was annoyed. Tara was nibbling on her pencil and sketching out one of the weird organic-looking doodles that she claimed helped her concentrate on new spells--this one looked like a cross between a bagpipe and an okra bush. Spike and Buffy were poring over a street map of L.A. spread out across the pages of Aurelius the Seer: A Comprehensive Index of Prophecies and alternating between listening to Giles and an incredibly pointless argument about the best way to get to Buffy's father's apartment from the freeway. Dawn, sulking a little because she wasn't going to L.A. with them, perched on the bottom rung of the ladder up to the balcony where the restricted books were kept, knees akimbo and her nose in another grimoire. Funny how no one gives her the fish-eye when she starts pawing through Really-Dark-We-Mean-It-This-Time Magicks. My raise the dead spell didn't bring back a shambling zombie, but noooo, let Dawn at the Crowley, she'll be fine...

Giles, who should have been annoyed if anyone should, was adjusting his glasses and nodding sagely at Anya, making little notations in the margins of the letter. He tipped the glasses down and peered over the rims at Spike. "Progress on your end?"

"Dropped a word or two to Clem and the kitten poker crowd the other night that Buffy was going into retirement, and let a few other blokes down at Willy's overhear." Spike shot Buffy a wicked smile. "It'll be all over town by tonight that the Slayer's taking a holiday."

The shop bell rang and Xander swung in with a brace of pizza boxes balanced on one hand. "Dinner is served!" he announced, plopping both boxes down in the center of the table. He planted a kiss on Anya's cheek in passing and dropped into the chair between her and Willow. Yuck. We know you're googly-eyed over Anya, Xander, do you have to rub it in? "Brain food all around. We've got half veggie--and yes, I remembered the bell peppers--and half black olives and pepperoni. The one on the bottom's half ham and pineapple and half sausage and mushroom. I think that caters to everyone's unreasonable topping prejudices. Oh, and extra garlic all around just for you, Spike."

"Didn't know you cared, Harris. Ta ever so." Spike grabbed two slices of pepperoni, trailing cheese strings all over the engraving of his great-great-ever-so-great-grandsire. He handed one to Buffy and took a large bite of his own.

"Don't fill up on food before you've eaten your real dinner," Buffy admonished, accepting the offering and taking a sedate bite. "Wow. I said that with a straight face. New heights have been reached on the surreal-weirdness-of-life index."

Willow stared at the pizza. "I said no bell peppers, not 'extra bell peppers, the vegetable expressly designed to make Willow barf.'" She looked accusingly at Xander. "You know I hate bell peppers."

Xander made an embarrassed gesture halfway between a shrug and an arm-wave. "Oops. Sorry, Will. I got you mixed up with Anya. She likes 'em. But there's three other kinds."

Tara laid claim to a slice of the veggie pizza and inspected it to confirm the presence of bell peppers. "We can pick them off, honey. You know, I think they're a fruit, not a vegetable. Tomatoes are a fruit."

"Harris's Law: Anything green is a vegetable, including Jell-O." Xander watched Spike hopefully for a moment. "You're not running, gagging, or breaking out in hives. How disappointing."

Tara smiled, a teasing light in her eyes. "You know it doesn't have any effect when it's cooked."

"Hope springs eternal."

"Don't bother," Willow said under her breath, as the topic drifted farther from her torment. "The taste permeates the whole cheese-crust-tomato... complex," she waved a hand at the box, "and ruins it. It's all got bell pepper cooties."

Since no one, least of all Xander, whose fault it all was and who should have been far sorrier, seemed inclined to spring up and offer to get her a replacement pizza, Willow folded her arms and prepared to give Dawn a run for her money in the sulking department. Why the frilly heck was everyone in such a good mood when it was obvious they were all doomed? The whole scene had the Currier & Ives clarity of a moment upon which she would someday look back upon with nostalgia, the last hurrah of a vanished era. She watched Tara carefully removing bits of bell pepper from a slice of pizza, and felt both touched and irritated. Strands of her lover's hair were slipping from behind her ears, falling across her face in silky wheat-blonde sheaves, and every now and again she raised a hand to tuck it back in place. Tara smiled and held out the pepperless slice, a peace offering. The gesture stirred an obscure longing in Willow, as if Tara were already an old and treasured memory rather than a real and living presence. Once again, the big happy Scooby family, all except crotchety old Aunt Willow. She took the pizza and managed a return smile. She had to pull herself out of this funk.

Buffy said, "Next item. Spike and I are leaving for L.A. tomorrow night, so we kick off our web of deception with a couple of days of really convincing non-slayage. We should be back Saturday night, unless Dad wants to have some family time." She didn't sound very certain that this would be the case.

Spike grunted. "Just as well. More than twenty-four hours with that wanker and I'll go spare."

Buffy wrinkled her nose at him. "We can't afford a hotel. Would you rather stay with Angel?"

"Let me think... flensing or thumbscrews... ow! Pax, love, I'll behave. Vamp's honor."

"Like that reassures me. Console yourself with the knowledge that you annoy Dad just as much as he annoys you."

"Still not so hot on the vampire thing?" Willow asked, shooting for sympathetic. I will be mature, reasonable Willow, I will, I will...

Buffy waved her pizza in the air and shook her head. "Oh, no, that would mean accepting that there is a vampire thing. Dad's still clinging desperately to the conviction that Spike's a victim of poor circulation and a bad UV allergy." She sighed, blowing her bangs out of her eyes. "Who just happens to be able to grow fangs at will. Dad's temperature approaches absolute zero on the 'no visible means of support and lives in a crypt' thing. I think he still has secret hopes of me marrying a nice orthodontist."

Spike finished off his pizza and licked his fingers before appropriating another slice. "He'll come round, love. It's all part of my bohemian charm."

Buffy actually giggled. "Oh, any day now." Willow tried to suppress a double-take. How long had it been since she'd heard Buffy giggle? "When I called he told me he wanted the name of your coffin supplier for the next time he redecorates."

Spike pulled her closer, nose to nose, and purred, "I'll put him in a coffin the minute you say the word, pet."

"Try it and you'll be occupying an urn right next to him, sweetie," Buffy cooed back.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Xander yelled, making a time-out sign. "I'm remembering exactly why this relationship is so twisted and sick! There will be no cutesy Eskimo kisses between Slayers and the eating-way-too-much-of-my-pizza undead in my presence! I have a delicate stomach!"

Spike smirked at him. "Yeh, I remember. Next time I'll steal an RV with independent suspension."

"Might I remind everyone that this is a business meeting?" Giles broke in. Willow decided that Giles was the only bearable person in the room.

"Business. Right." Buffy sat up and folded her hands all prim and proper on the table. "I want to get started on the Tanner thing as soon as we get back. Are we go for that?"

"Oh, yes," Tara said, nodding vigorously. "I found dozens of spells to cripple a rival's magic."

Well, of course, Willow thought. Magic was the same as anything else; it was always easier to break something than to build something. Naturally Tara would find success, and she'd crash and burn like the failure you are. Tara rushed on, "The main problem's been that most of them did a lot more than that--they're spells for wizards' duels, mostly, and we don't want to hurt him."

Speak for yourself. The memory of her ignominious defeat at Tanner's hands still stung.

"So I've been working on isolating the magic-deadening elements from the more destructive effects, and I think I've got it pared down to what we need." Tara handed Giles and Anya a short list of ingredients. "I'll need a focal object, something we can bring him into physical contact with. We've probably got something in the shop that'll work. Anya and I can look through the inventory this weekend. I'll cast a separate binding spell on it so that once it's on, he won't be able to take it off. It'll work like a lighting rod. He'll be grounded. Any spells he tries will just fizzle harmlessly."

Buffy looked pleased. "Coolness. Will? How's your end going?"

What the clues were, Willow wasn't sure--voice a little too bright and chipper and Happy-Buffy, her expression a little too eager, perhaps--but she was instantly certain that Buffy knew perfectly well that she had bupkis to show for the last week's labor, and was covering for her out of pity. She plastered a smile across her face. "Working on it," she said. "I've got the spell altered to do exactly what we need, but there's still the whole power source problem."

"That's what you've been saying for days. Don't you think it's time to try another approach?" Anya asked. "Honestly, Willow, now that you're powerless you need to be a little more flexible."

"I am not powerless!" Willow's head lashed around to face her ex-demon nemesis, her eyes going liquid black as eldritch forces coiled through her body. For a brief moment she felt like herself again, as she'd felt blasting open the hospital doors. Anya jumped back in her chair, ducking behind Xander's shoulder. Tara's hand closed on her arm, Tara's anxious face brought her back a measure of calm. She relaxed, muscle by muscle, dispersing the energies she'd marshaled. She had to conserve. If she used them, she was done for the next day. "I'm... semi-powered."

"Will..." Xander looked concerned. All of them looked concerned. "You're... jumpy."

"And you need to watch where you jump," Anya grumbled. "You could curse someone's eye out."

"We've got till we get back from L.A., anyway," Buffy said. "No pressure." She hesitated, worrying her lower lip. "But maybe we should have some kind of backup plan, just in case?"

"I said I'd have it ready, and I will!" Willow snapped, then immediately dropped her head, giving the folders before her another unneeded shuffling. "Sorry. I'm just a little tired." Anya frowned at her and Willow gritted her teeth. Just one little spell. One little spell--no black magic, just darkish grey--would shut her up. Give her permanent laryngitis, or hiccups, or something. One teeny, tiny, itsy bitsy spell... But that, as Buffy was fond of saying, would be wrong.

This is the same Buffy getting snuggly with the vampire?

A chill raced over her and the fine hairs on the back of her neck lifted. It took a moment to muster the courage to look up, then duck back down behind her notebook. Across the room, reflected in the glass of the display cases where her own reflection should be--Willow, yet Not-Willow. Alabaster skin, cat-green eyes, hair like a fall of glowing embers, a sweet wicked Mona Lisa smile Willow had practiced in the mirror for hours and never managed to get right: the vampire version of herself whom Anya had once summoned accidentally from an alternate dimension.

Except it couldn't be, really, because they'd sent Vamp-Willow back where she came from, right? And more, the whole mirror thing. Vampires didn't reflect, so a vampire being a reflection? "Pretty sure that's not normal," she muttered, then realized she'd spoken aloud as Tara looked up from her sketching, a question in her eyes. "This, um, thing." Willow grabbed the Index of Prophecies and pointed at random to one of the illustrations. "Rusnak demons have, um, three horns, and this one has, uh, three horns, so obviously I'm looking at the wrong picture, ha ha, don't mind me!"

Tara's forehead wrinkled in perplexity, and multiple transparent copies of Vamp-Willow blew her a kiss from the panes of glass. No one else noticed. Willow scarcely heard Buffy and Giles start discussing the Council situation again. We sent you away!

Oh, I never really left. The vision in black leather and red lace got up and sashayed around the reflected table to run a languid finger along the spine of the nearest reflected book. I've always been... right... here. She tapped a long-nailed finger against her chest and Willow felt an icy twinge over her own heart. Wrong, her alter ego said, with a little moue at the reflected Buffy and Spike, who were exchanging lascivious caresses. Reflected-Buffy tossed a look of scornful amusement at her, and Willow's cheeks grew hot. So very, very wrong. He's still a bad, bad boy, you know. But, oh, so much fun . Reflected-Willow grabbed reflected-Anya's hair and yanked her head back, trailing one blood-red nail across the bared throat. We could have all kinds of fun with the little demon girl. That smile again. Or anyone else. She strolled over to the reflected Dawn, who radiated a flaring nexus of emerald-green energy, and ran her hands down over the girl's translucent shoulders. If it's power you need...

"...we can use that glamor I worked up to infiltrate Bryce's group," Tara was saying. "Then the two of you could patrol, but you'd be under cover."

"That'll be great. And oh--I had that interview with the gym today and they said they'd call back if they wanted to see me again, so be sure--"

Willow looked down, but there was no escape; that too-familiar face smiled slyly up at her from the inset glass of the table. Silly, isn't it? All this fuss over money, when any decent witch could enchant an ever-full purse...

She scrunched her eyes shut and shook her head, hard, not caring who noticed or how strange it looked. When she opened them again, all she saw in the glass was her own pinched and worried face.

*****

The night was luminous around them. Only the brightest stars were visible overhead; Orion and the Great Bear made their circumference of the heavens against the lurid glow of Los Angeles, which suffused half the sky ahead of them. Headlights streamed past in an endless strobing line behind them. The wind was brisk and chill, which bothered Spike not a whit--cold was something like color for him; a thing he could easily distinguish but which made little impact on his physical comfort. Buffy, seated on the edge of the rest stop picnic table in front of him, was another story, still bundled up in her coat. Her hands burrowed under his duster, drawing leisurely revolutions over his shoulderblades, and her head rested in the crook of his shoulder, her breath warm against his neck.

Spike rocked against her, hips cradled between her thighs, each stroke slow, deep, strong, wave after languorous wave rolling in to shore. He was drowning in her, gladly, going down for the third time, caught in the rapture of the deep: Buffy Summers his ocean, and Here There Be Monsters. Buffy locked her ankles together behind him, threw her head back and arched into his thrusts. Her body clasped him in counterpoint to his rhythm, drew him deeper, his soft liquid growls and her little kitten-mew gasps lost in the roar of traffic.

It was a contest, as so many things were between them. An eternal moment in which they strove together, all their opposites reconciled in that striving, dark and light, male and female, the quick and the dead--vampire and Slayer made one greater whole, lasting as long as they could bear it. He broke first this time, shattering against some invisible high-water mark, crying out, and his capitulation triggered hers; her body clenched and trembled around him as he gave himself up to long shuddering spasms of release. She slumped backwards onto the table, gasping for breath, and he followed, unwilling to give up a fingersbreadth of contact. They lay there together for a moment, feeling the tremors of their conjoined bodies die away.

He felt a shiver that wasn't born of passion run through her, and swore softly. "Sorry, love. I'm not much use as a bedwarmer."

She smiled in the feeble imitation of darkness. "You're a pretty good windbreak." As he pulled out she made a disappointed little noise, but when he slid down her torso, nibbling at the bare goose-fleshed skin below her navel, she groaned and twined her fingers in his hair, holding him back. "No--don't start! I told Dad we'd be there before midnight. We can't get into another six-hour lust-a-thon."

The lack of conviction in her voice was absolute balm to the--well, not to the soul, but to the something--of a man taking the current love of his life to meet the former love of hers. "How about a four-hour one? It's only half an hour to L.A. from here, pet. I'm a thirsty man, and it's not your neck that's my chalice. Besides," he licked a milky streak of their mingled juices from her inner thigh and leered up at her, "I've got you all messy. Only right I should clean you up."

Buffy looked torn for a second, but another car rolled into the rest stop parking lot and her expression firmed. "That's what I brought wet-naps for." She tugged her skirt, which was rucked up about her waist, down over her hips and rolled over to grab her purse off the adjacent bench. Spike promptly ducked under the hem and followed his nose. "Here--oh--Spike, damn you, quit th-th--"

Half an hour later, virtue had prevailed, mostly, and they were roaring south along the Coast Highway, windows rolled down and the radio blasting KSPC over the howl of the wind. The DeSoto roared its challenge to lesser vehicles, which got out of the way if they knew what was good for them--fiberglass crumple zones and airbags could do only so much when pitted against a quarter-ton of solid steel. "They're playing our song, pet! 'You know you want what's on my mind, you know you need what's on my mind...'"

"I hear that these days they record songs with, you know, lyrics and melodies and stuff," Buffy said, mock-reflective. "Maybe we should try to find some."

"'Wind Beneath My Wings?'"

"Oh, shut up." Her lower lip slipped out in that criminally adorable pout. "That was the spell."

"Keep telling yourself that, pet." Spike tightened his arm around Buffy's shoulders, grinning up at the hunter in the sky. He had a cooler full of blood in the trunk, music that wasn't completely revolting on the radio, Buffy's head on his shoulder and her hand resting possessively across his stomach. They were headed off to see the two men in all the world he'd have been happiest to see staked out on an anthill, and he was downright giddy about it because it meant a precious few hours when he had her entirely to himself, free of the demands of friends and family and job interviews. The fact that a legitimate stop to use the loo had segued irresistibly into a nice little session of shagging didn't hurt his mood either.

It was possible that if he looked down he'd find the distant look in her eyes again--it came upon her less and less often now, which pleased him immensely, but even his ego wasn't quite up to assuming that a week's worth of slap and tickle with him was enough to get her over a little thing like being dead. He hadn't managed it in a hundred and twenty-some years, after all. He chuckled quietly and reached into his duster pocket for a cigarette, steadying the steering wheel with his knee.

"You do that a lot more than you used to," Buffy observed.

He paused in the complicated operation of lighting the fag one-handed. "What, smoke? I'll have you know between the Niblet's dirty looks and your refusal to invest in a bleeding ashtray I'm down to half a pack a day."

"No--laugh." She hitched herself up a little straighter, but stayed close to his side, maintaining contact. Over the last day or two she'd begun, almost shyly, to return his casual touches, and to initiate her own. He liked that--hell, loved it. Dru had never been one for a cuddle; she wanted petting and cosseting often enough, but like a cat of uncertain temper, she could go from purring on the hearth to clawing your arm off in half a second. Harmony had been keen on it, but he hadn't been keen on her. He wondered briefly if Megan had been serious about Harm coming back to Sunnydale for Christmas, and who he'd have to kill to prevent it from happening. "It's... nice. I don't think I saw you smile once last year--well, no... you did with Mom and Dawn."

He covered her small warm hand with his large cool one. "Didn't have a lot to smile about when you were about, sweetling, what with unrequited love on one hand and constantly being smacked in the nose on the other."

She sniffed, tossing her head. "I had issues."

"And a mean right hook." He laughed again, reveling in the steady beat of her heart and the feel of her slim, strong body against his. Her curves were as delicious to trace with hands as with eyes. Tara's not-so-subtle attempts to feed her up were starting to show results; Buffy was still thinner than he liked to see, but there was some muscle between skin and bone now, and she no longer looked as though the slightest breeze would bear her away from the land of the living. She radiated a warmth he could feel even through her coat--sometimes he thought he could feel it all the way across the room, his personal ray of sunlight. He buried his nose in her wind-tousled hair, taking in a breath imbued with the sonata of fragrances that spelled Buffy: body wash and shampoo and mousse, rose and strawberry and citrus and half a dozen others, and beneath it all the musky female scent that was her and her alone.

Her hand was tracing the ridged bands of muscle along his abdomen, wandering lower and lower, and parts south were starting to take notice. Less than an hour of playtime wasn't nearly enough to wear either of them out. "Love, unless you fancy learning the fine art of administering a blow job in a moving vehicle, I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Buffy jerked her hand upwards with a guilty look (or was it slightly intrigued?) but didn't remove it entirely. "Sorry. It's--seeing Faith has me wigged. I can handle Angel, but she makes me insane. And I've got to play nice. I've got to."

Spike glanced down at her, perplexed. "This isn't like you, love. What did she do to you?"

A shudder ran through her. "Nearly killed Angel."

"Ooh. My kind of girl."

Her voice went flat and hard. "Found a spell that switched our bodies. Got me locked up for crimes she'd committed, went out and played 'Hi, I'm Skanky Ho Buffy!' with everyone I knew, slept with Riley--and he didn't even know the difference!--and--"

A sudden memory of a two-years-gone night at the Bronze rose up in his head, a weird little Buffy-encounter he'd written off as the result of one of her rare attempts to drink more than one beer at a sitting. "Bloody hell, that night you told me you'd got muscles I'd never even dreamed of, and you could squeeze me till I popped like warm champagne--that was Faith?" That turned out to be prophetic. He swerved into the carpool lane to pass a semi and suppressed another chuckle; he didn't think Buffy would appreciate this particular irony. "I just thought you were legless. Don't think I care for this bird--you can be a right bitch, love, but you were never a cocktease. Much."

Buffy shot upright, fire in her eyes. "She told you what? Fine, forget diplomacy, I'm just going to strangle her."

"Do that and in twenty-four hours the Council will have a shiny new Slayer of their very own to play with."

"Oh. Right. Fooey." Buffy subsided grumpily, then bounced up in excitement. "Ooh, look! Dairy Queen, next exit!"

"You're sublimating, love."

"Thank you, Count Sigmund. Sometimes a waffle cone is only a waffle cone." She folded her arms across her chest, a frail attempt at defense. "She was... she was me. All the horrible grotty parts of me, blown up twenty times, in living color and 3-D stereophonic sound. She... enjoyed being a Slayer."

He gave her the eyebrow. "And you don't?"

"Not like that."

"Like what? You don't love it that you're faster and stronger than everyone else? You don't love it that you can walk through the dark and fear not a single sodding beastie that makes the night its home? Christ, love, I hope you enjoy it! If you could see yourself--the way your eyes light up the moment you get that little tingle that says the game's afoot! The way you move--like silk, like lightning!" She was looking at him, fascinated, revolted, entranced. "The look in your eyes when you make a kill--it's like the look in your eyes when I'm buried up to my balls in your sweet little quim and making you scream. You're alive, Buffy! So alive that--" Spike wrenched the wheel around and the DeSoto slid across three lanes of traffic to swoosh down the exit ramp. The centrifical force sent Buffy careening into his side; her knee hit the tuning knob on the radio and Mick Jagger howled You make a dead man co-o-ome! Spike grinned and switched back to the alternative station.

She looked up at the exit sign. "I--I didn't think you were really going to get off."

"How the hell could I help it, love? Any lady of mine wants a waffle cone, she gets one." He craned his neck out the window, looking for the illuminated sign. "There we go."

As they sat in the drive-through, waiting for change, she said, small-voiced, "That's why you love me, isn't it? You've always seen that dark part of me."

A surge of anger rose in him, at her parents, at Angel, at everyone who'd convinced her that she was ordinary, and that ordinary was a good thing to be. In a way, she was as crippled as he was, her true nature as prisoned by her own fears as he was by the chip. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. "Bloody hell, Buffy, of course I have. I don't go in for safe birds, any more than you go in for safe blokes. Always seen the part of you that rushes in nightly to save crews of brain-dead gits who'd better serve the world as vamp snacks, too, haven't I? All that's best of dark and bright meets in your aspect and your eyes."

"Faith's nothing but a killer." There was challenge in her eyes now. "What if I don't want to be that way?"

He shrugged. "You are a killer, love. Just like me. Who said you were nothing but?"

She sat back against the ancient leather upholstery, frowning, the red-and white glow of the Dairy Queen sign limning her features against the umber shadows, and allowed him to gather her close again. Not happy, but neither panicking nor lashing out at the implications of what he was saying--that was a good sign, wasn't it? "Spike... do you remember... being dead?"

He flicked ash out the window. Taking the gold in the non sequitur Olympics... "I've been devoting my Friday afternoons to my remembrance of being dead, pet. Barring tomorrow, when the company'll only make me wish I were deader."

She squirmed slightly in the circle of his arm, taking his hand in hers and playing with his rings, turning them round on his fingers. He noticed with an odd little thrill that the necklace she was wearing was the ring he'd given her back when, under the influence of Willow's mis-cast spell, strung on a chain--it would have to be, it was far too large for her. "I mean really dead. After Drusilla drained you, but before you... woke up as you."

He took a thoughtful drag on his cigarette and let the smoke trickle out slowly through his nose. "Dunno as I can answer that one, pet. Technically, I'm not even sure it was me who died--" Absolute terror, waking in the cramped dark confines of his coffin, gasping for breath he didn't yet realize he no longer needed. Screaming, begging, weeping for rescue that never came, until finally panic melded with an unfamiliar fury and drove him to tear his way through four inches of silk and mahogany and six feet of good English soil, to collapse bloody-handed and half-mad with fear in Drusilla's waiting arms... "Strike that, I'm sure it was me. But I remember the waking more than the sleeping. Maybe it's the bits of William I've lost that remember that part."

"I can't remember either." He could hear the frown in her voice. "And I should, shouldn't I? Five months. I was dead for five months. I didn't just... go out like a light, did I? If you brought me back, there had to be a me to bring back, right? The spell didn't just... make up a copy or something? Or just bring back scraps and pieces?"

That was an uncomfortable question. He and Willow had known that there'd be a chance, as with any resurrection spell, that what they brought back would be something other than a whole, complete Buffy Summers. At the time, he'd told Dawn and Willow that he'd dispose of any failures, but he'd have told Willow bloody near anything at that point, and Dawn... well, he'd never had to cross that bridge, thank whatever passed for God in Heaven these days. "You're Buffy Anne Summers in all her irritating glory, love. I'd know if you weren't. Trust me on that."

The girl at the drive-through window handed him the cones, frozen yogurt swirl for her, chocolate for him. He handed Buffy's over to her and she took it, licking up the drips with sensual delight. There was still trouble in her voice. "But I'm not. I'm five months away from Buffy Anne Summers. I came back before, but that was just minutes. I keep thinking...it has to mean something, that I'm back again. Not in a prophecy way--I have to make it mean something. I always tried to do the right things, before, and I ended up--I was alone with everyone around me, and--I have to make it different this time. I know it. I feel it." She placed her palm on his chest, and for a second it felt almost as if his heart had jolted to life again. "I don't understand this, but you're part of it. You said it, last year--it's wrong, us being together. I tried all the right things, and... they weren't right. You're the wrongest thing I know, and... you fit." She looked up at him, light pooling like quicksilver in her eyes. My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun... "She's taken... everything, at one time or another, and I can't lose you too. I won't. I guess the prospect of Faithness is putting me into Cave-Buffy, mark-my-territory mode. I'm sorry. Especially since I'm probably going to be a big scaredy cat about telling Angel about us--I'm going to try, but--"

Spike tossed his cigarette out the window as they pulled back onto the highway; it bounced out of sight in the rear-view mirror in a shower of orange sparks. Heedless of traffic, he bent to kiss her, breathing in rose and violet and strawberry and oranges and sweet girl-musk, made richer yet by their recent play--and fainter, but there, the mingled odors of leather and tobacco and whiskey. A satisfied growl rose in his throat. They were all over each other; they'd crawled into each other's skins, drunk each other down as surely as if blood had been exchanged. As Angel would realize the minute he inhaled. "Nothing to apologize for, love. You can mark my territory any time."

Chapter Text

When Hank Summers peered through the peephole in the apartment door, Buffy was standing in the hall, just about to ring the bell a second time and caught in the act of shooting Spike a big-eyed, pleading look of the sort common to people b/begging their significant others not to embarrass them. She spun at the sound of the opening door and fixed the close-relative version of the big-eyed look on Hank. Standing there trying to keep her garment bag from slipping down her arm to drag on the floor, she looked far more like a girl primed to run interference between the Unsuitable Young Man and her father than the ultra-confident Slayer of Large Spiny Things he'd been introduced to at their last meeting. A tentative smile ventured across her face. "Dad?"

Buffy's back. An unlooked-for and almost painful happiness leapt up in him, and he reached forward to pull her her into a hug. Awkward; he didn't know quite what to do with his hands and hers were full of luggage, but definite father-daughter contact. "Come on in, honey. You look--you look like you've been sleeping better."

He stepped back to let her maneuver through the doorway with her bags--not the little childhood suitcase set she used to bring for the summer; he recognized them as part of an old set he'd given Joyce the Christmas before the divorce, and it gave him a peculiar twinge to see that his daughter had adopted this small token of maturity. He was about to shut the door when Spike cleared his throat sharply. He was still standing on the threshold, carrying a much smaller bag and a styrofoam cooler. "I can doss down in the hall, mate," Spike said, "but I think the tenants' association would disapprove."

For a second Hank had no idea what he was talking about. "You have to invite him in, Dad," Buffy said, matter-of-fact. "I can't do it, I don't live here."

Ah, yes. The vampire thing. Hank allowed himself to savor the thought of Spike camping out in the hallway for the duration of Buffy's visit. Buffy did him something of an injustice when she claimed that Hank had yet to accept that there was a vampire thing; Hank was aware that strange things went on in Sunnydale and that Buffy was up to her ears in them. When in Sunnydale he was willing to go along. But Los Angeles was the real world, his world, and he resented the intrusion of Sunnydale's dangerous weirdness.

Linda came bustling up full of happy-homemaker cheer, welcoming smile in place. "Hello, Buffy. I'm Linda--Linda Gutierrez." Buffy took Linda's hand with tepid politeness. "And you must be Spike. Please come in. I've heard so much about you."

Spike's half-lidded eyes raked her up and down appraisingly, and he gave her a slow smile. "Mutual." He tossed his duster in the general direction of the coat rack, ambled into the living room and set the cooler down in the middle of the floor, standing hipshot beside it, thumbs hooked into the belt loops of his jeans. His sardonic blue gaze roved over the decor: tasteful cream-colored living room set, plexiglass-and-aluminum tables, bare pale walls adorned with scattered Miro prints in Art Deco frames, all resplendent in the discrete glow of track lighting--looking for something worth stealing, Hank had no doubt. "Nice place you've got here, Summers. Monotone. Suits you."

Buffy stood in the sea of white plush carpet, clutching the strap of her overnight bag like a safety line, her wide sea-colored eyes alight with nervous curiosity. Too close to Spike for Hank's comfort. In the muted pastel room the two of them were a slash of dark, vibrant color, irresistible draws to the eye. "It is nice," she said, her voice faltering a little. She hadn't seen the place since he'd redecorated, Hank realized--had it been two years? No, almost three. Perhaps she'd been expecting the comfortable (but old) furniture and bachelor clutter of her first few summer visits.

Hank closed the door. "I thought it was time for a change."

Buffy nodded and set her bags down gingerly. "It's just so different." Spike slid an arm around her waist, his hand resting on the curve of her hip, an utterly natural and absent-minded gesture far more disturbing than any deliberate attempt to get Hank's goat could have been, and she leaned into his side. The air of general and second-in-command was still in evidence, but complicated by another, more visceral connection. The air between them crackled with it.

Linda laced her fingers together, seeming as nervous as Buffy. "I was so sorry to hear about your mother," she said. "I thought about going to the funeral, since Hank wasn't able to make it, but then I thought... not such a good idea." If she wanted to bring up the subject of Buffy's purported death and mysterious re-appearance, she concealed it well--one of the things Hank admired about Linda. She knew when to avoid asking awkward questions. "I made up the couch as well as the guest bedroom. I wasn't sure if you'd, um, need both of them."

Buffy arched a brow at the couch, fitted up with sheets and several folded blankets at one end. "I told Dad that Spike and I are seeing each other."

"I decided to take that as 'we make eye contact occasionally.'" Hank sat down in the nearest armchair and picked up his half-finished glass of Scotch. He'd decided that he deserved a drink tonight. "Leave an old man his illusions."

"You're not old, Dad." Buffy moved the pile of folded blankets aside and perched uneasily on the edge of the couch, as if afraid of her slight weight leaving an impression on the pristine cushions. "Besides, I--I sleep better when I'm not alone."

"The guest bed is a double, so there's no problem if you'd both like to stay there," Linda assured her. Hank clenched his teeth and held his tongue; Linda was desperate to establish friendly relations with his children. The prospect of being a potential stepmother to someone only four or five years her junior was daunting, and arguing with her in front of Buffy wouldn't endear him to either of them. Buffy gave Linda a startled, grateful look and a tiny, microsecond smile, so perhaps it was worth it for long-term peace in the family. "Would either of you like anything?" Linda asked. She eyed the cooler ncertainly.

"We ate on the way," Buffy said.

"Special diet." Nonchalant, Spike bent over, pried the top off the cooler and pulled a gallon milk jug full of something red and viscous out of the slightly melted mass of ice cubes within. He straightened and smiled at Linda, charisma turned up to eleven. "Though I wouldn't say no to some of that Scotch. Fridge?"

"Through here," she said. Spike followed her out to the kitchen, and Linda threw a surreptitious glance at him over her shoulder. Surely she wasn't falling for Spike's line of bull? Linda had more sense than to be swayed by a pretty face and a probably-phoney English accent.

Buffy glanced at the archway leading to the kitchen. "So that's Linda. She seems... nothing like Mom. Exactly how old is she again?"

Hank took a fortifying sip of Scotch. I never ask a woman what she weighs or how old she is. What does Spike do for a living again?"

Buffy grimaced. "Point taken. I'll leave yours alone if you leave mine alone."

They sat there for a minute, neither quite sure what to say next. Linda and Spike emerged from the kitchen, Spike having been supplied with a far-too-generous glass of Hank's Glenlivet, neat. "...high in protein, iron and B vitamins," Spike was saying, straight-faced. "Swear by it. I practically live on the stuff."

Linda nodded, equally serious. "Oh, I totally understand. It's alfalfa-carrot protein shakes for me. The body is a temple. I can tell you really work on yours, but--" she shook an accusing finger at the half-empty pack of Marlboros poking out of his shirt pocket, "you do need to give up the cigarettes."

Spike dropped onto the couch beside Buffy and slid down into a boneless sprawl, one arm draped over her shoulders. "You'll get my ciggies when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers. Every man needs at least one vice to his name."

Buffy snorted, but snuggled up to him nonetheless. Hank tried not to feel ill. "Uh huh. Give up smoking and all you've got left is drinking, gambling--"

"My point exactly. Hardly enough to keep me busy all day."

Linda shared a conspiratorial look with Buffy and glanced fondly Hank. "I guess men are all the same. I'm always trying to get your father to eat healthier and exercise, but he won't listen."

Spike slapped his stomach and regarded Hank, eyes a-glitter with cheerful malice. There was no way in hell he didn't deliberately pick his t-shirts a size too small; the damned thing looked as if it had been spray-painted on. "Two hundred sit-ups a day, mate. Or three hundred. Do you a world of good."

Hank resisted the urge to suck in his gut. He was in pretty good shape for a guy on the wrong side of forty, and he wasn't going to be baited by someone on the wrong side of a hundred and forty. "It's hard to make time for that sort of thing when you're busy earning a living. I suppose if I had nothing to do besides watch 'Passions' all day..."

Two days, he reminded himself. It was only for two days. Fortunately for his temper, Buffy begged off any lengthy conversation, saying they had to get up early for tomorrow's meeting--'early' for either of them apparently encompassing any time before eleven in the morning. Hank finished his Scotch while Linda showed his daughter and Spike down the short hall to the guest bedroom. Spike quietly snagged all of the luggage before Buffy could, which irritated Hank more than anything else he'd done all evening.

"Your daughter's a very confident girl," Linda said as they undressed for bed shortly thereafter. She sat at her vanity mirror, brushing her short glossy black hair and gazing thoughtfully at her reflection.

Hank smiled wryly. "As the biological parent, I get to use the term 'stubborn.'"

Linda set her hairbrush down and began applying face cream, looking pensive. At last she completed her mysterious evening rituals, got up from the vanity and climbed into her side of the bed. "Her boyfriend's... unusual."

"As the biological parent, I get to use the term 'weird.' Not to mention rude, lazy, violence-prone and penniless." Hank buttoned his pajama top and climbed in after her. He had good reason to distrust Spike. He had a gift for sizing people up. It had stood him in good stead in many a cutthroat board meeting and tricky client negotiation. It had even gotten him out of a few tight places outside the world of business, times when he'd been alone in a strange city with minimal command of the local language. From their first meeting that intuition had told him Spike was dangerous, not good enough for his girl--though at the time, he'd been mistaken about which girl of his Spike wasn't good enough for--and a poser. So far he'd seen no reason to change the assessment. Unfortunately that same intuition told him that the rude, lazy, violence-prone, penniless poser was also ferociously devoted to both his daughters, and better equipped to aid Buffy in dealing with Sunnydale's dangerous weirdness than he was--and that, if he were honest with himself, was the main thing fueling his dislike of the vampire.

"Buffy asked you to invite him in. I didn't think about it earlier, but that's a little strange, isn't it?"

Hank sighed. "Hon, Spike wrote the book on strange. He's got..." How was he going to put this? "...a lot of quirks. I haven't got the first idea why Buffy puts up with him, but she does, and I just don't want to alienate her any further by arguing about it--I know I haven't done as well by her and Dawn as I should have, and she's making it difficult enough for me to make up for it as it is. At least he's not living with her."

Linda's brow furrowed, but she nodded and said no more.

*****

There were times when Anya suspected that the love of her life was not entirely onboard with the whole wedding experience.

Perhaps it was the fact that Xander could make any tuxedo collapse into wrinkles just by trying on the jacket. Perhaps it was the fact that he'd conveniently forgotten to mail the invitations for two weeks running, and after she'd bulldogged him into a trip to the post office, she'd found the ones addressed to his family stuffed behind the laundry hamper, where they'd accidentally (he assured her) fallen out of his pocket. Perhaps it was the way he cringed every time she mentioned the possibility of putting D'Hoffryn up for the night--an entirely reasonable suggestion, to her mind. It was not, after all, as if Sunnydale had any decent hotels which catered to demons. She made a mental note to check into the possibility of starting one--a nice bed and breakfast perhaps, with a view of the Hellmouth. She'd made a tidy sum selling short during the dot-com crash, and, as a patriotic resident, was looking for something close to home to invest it in. Property values in the neighborhood of the burnt hull of Sunnydale High were at rock bottom...

"Anya, can you hand me the volume of Theminius there behind the counter?" Giles asked. He was pacing by on another of his circumnavigations of the store, book in hand and glasses sliding down his nose. As he passed the counter he set the tome he'd been paging through down and picked up the new one without missing a beat. "Thank you."

The Watcher's lanky form circled round the store, through Charms and Amulets where Tara was sorting through a box of half-off gewgaws trying to find a suitable focus for her spell, past Incense and Ceremonial Candles, Herbs and Potions (Pre-Mixed) and come to a halt in front of a display of athames, frowning down at Theminius. "There is simply no connection," he muttered. "None whatsoever. We can't even be certain that the appearance of the loa is part of the overall pattern of manifestations--if there is a pattern--since it was, after all, summoned, however unconventionally. Blast it all."

Anya considered her options. Giles sounded severely vexed. Now was probably the time for a remark indicating that she was actively engaged in the research process. Fortunately she was relieved of the necessity when the shop bell rang and Mrs. Dalgliesh's blue-rinsed head bobbed inside. She was a fairly regular customer, a birdlike little woman invariably dressed in flowered chintz. She tottered up to the counter and smiled at Anya. "I'm here to pick up that pixie repellant, dear."

Anya reached down and retrieved the dark brown bottle with squirt attachment labeled "Dalgleish, twice daily, shake well before spraying" from beneath the counter and set it down with a beaming return smile. The oily liquid within sloshed against the sides. "Here you are, Mrs. Dalgliesh. Remember to store it in a dark place. You have the payment ready in full, of course?"

"Why, of course. Don't I always?" Mrs. Dalgliesh opened her ancient carpetbag purse, extracted an equally ancient wallet, and began carefully counting out bills one by one, followed by exact change in pennies. Anya approved of Mrs. Dalgliesh's protective attitude towards her cash. Be good to your money and your money would be good to you was her motto. Or one of her mottoes, anyway; Anya had never been able to see how some people got by with just one. "My Social Security check came in today, and none too soon. The nasty little things are all over the gardenias." She picked up the bottle and held it up to the light, clucking her tongue. "I hope this is enough for the big one."

Giles looked up, peering at the two of them over the rims of his glasses. "Big one?"

Mrs. Dalgliesh nodded as Anya wrapped up the pixie repellant and slid it into a brown paper bag. "I saw him last night. Much bigger than the others, though I suppose the antlers made him look taller. He blew some kind of horn at me. It gave me quite a start. And the dogs made such a mess of the flowerbeds, too."

"Dogs?"

"A dozen, at least. White with red ears, I don't know the breed. Looking for bones, I suspect; I doubt he keeps them fed. Well, I must be off. Thank you, Anya." She tucked her package into the capacious purse and tottered out the door to the renewed jingle of the bell. Giles watched her departing back, stroking his chin with one hand.

"Some sort of avatar of Herne the Hunter, perhaps?" He heaved a discouraged sigh and returned Theminius to his place on the shelves. "Just what's wanted, more random demonic activity..."

"But it's not," Anya said.

Giles adjusted his glasses. "Perhaps not random, but if there is a pattern--"

"No, no," Anya interrupted. "It's not demonic. Not a single demon involved."

For a moment Giles stood there, thunderstruck. "You're quite correct," he said slowly. "All the manifestations have been minor divinities of one sort or another--Spike and Xander said that the dragon they saw had five claws, correct?" Anya nodded. "An Imperial dragon, associated with the god-emperors of ancient China. Haitian loas, Chumash sacred bears, the leader of the Wild Hunt--specifically, human deities, from many times and cultures--" He was pacing again, excited. "But still, what does it mean? If these beings are gathering here there must be a reason for it. I've checked and double-checked all the usual texts, and while there's an extremely dicey mystical convergence coming up later this winter all signs point to its occurring further south. Whatever's causing this, it was nothing foretold in any prophecy the Council has access to, and I find that extremely disturbing."

Anya sniffed. "I don't. Exactly what good has a prophecy ever done us? It's always 'The green cloud obscures the desert' and you never know if it refers to a plague of grasshoppers or if someone's started irrigating. Or how about the classic, 'A mighty army will be destroyed?' We know something's happening, and we know it's big enough to make gods sit up and take notice. I'd rather not know how it's going to turn out, thank you; that way I can assume that we figure out what's happening and beat it."

Giles's lips quirked slightly. "That's a novel way of looking at it. But we're so short of real information I'd settle for an encouraging fortune cookie."

Anya checked off Mrs. Dalgliesh's purchase on her list of special orders to be picked up. "Why don't we just ask them why they're here?"

"Because--" Giles stopped. "You know, that just might work."

*****

Buffy woke confused, sure she was in the wrong place. The mattress was not shaped to her body, the sheets smelled of some heathen brand of fabric softener, and the light was coming from the wrong direction, seeping through curtains of the wrong shade. She lay still, animal wariness taking over while she absorbed the unfamiliar sensations of someone else's bed. Finally she relaxed. She was in the wrong place, but she was supposed to be. The comfortable weight of the arm around her middle was right, and the cool firm body curving around her own. At times like this it seemed to her that the silence that was Spike's lack of heartbeat was of a different quality from all other silences, a unique quiet that she could distinguish in an instant from any common cessation of noise. She felt his breath against her ear and the brush of his lips against her throat as he sensed her wakening. Her own breath escaped in a soft yearning moan.

"Mornin', love." His voice was just as low, rough with restrained passion. He touched her lips with a finger, forestalling her reply. "No--no noise. Not a peep. They'll hear, and we can't give your old Dad an aneurysm." She bit her lip and nodded, mystified but willing to go along. Spike glanced at the window, gauging the angle of the sun and the likelihood that its beams would strike the bed any time soon. Satisfied, he bent his tousled platinum head to her neck again, nuzzling her ear, nibbling slowly down the length of her neck from ear to collarbone and back again.

His hand drifted to her shoulder, fingers stroking feather-light along her upper arm, but he touched her nowhere else. When she started to reach blindly out for more contact his fingers tightened on her biceps, holding her still while he continued to seek out the tenderest flesh, the most sensitive skin to torment. A languid heat began to build within her, lapping outwards from her center like a wave of warm honey, making her skin tingle all over and rendering Spike's ministrations all the more exquisite. It was not long before she was writhing against the sheets, digging her heels into the mattress and biting her lips to keep from crying aloud, a willing accomplice in her own sweet torture.

Spike's breathing grew quick and harsh, deepening to a purring rasp of a growl, quickly silenced as his teeth grazed her collarbone. His lips played upwards along the long swan-curve of her throat to the angle of her jaw, agile tongue flicking against the old bite scars as if by accident. Now and again his fangs emerged for a quick playful nip, the delicate pinpricks sending sharper bolts of pleasure through the voluptuous haze enveloping her senses. She was dimly aware of his growing arousal, hard and eager against her, but the cords of her limbs were undone, all her strings cut, and all she could manage to assuage it was to grind her hips back against his. Desperate little grunts forced their way out of her, and when a hand thrust a pillow in front of her face she grabbed it and bit down on the corner as flares of light blossomed behind her eyelids, and her body dissolved a long-drawn-out upwelling of bliss.

She heard the sigh as Spike exhaled, ridding his lungs of every scrap of air. He shifted position, rolling her onto her back and covering her body with his, and then he was sinking into her with a force that made the bed shudder. They both froze for a guilty second--this was a piece of furniture they had to be careful of.

Buffy reached up and put a finger to his lips, just as he'd done to her earlier--Be still. He was still in game face, butting his head against hers like a cat demanding caresses; his eyes slitted in bliss as her hands moved up to stroke his brow ridges, then shot open as she put another set of Slayer muscles to good use stroking something else. As she drew him deep and closed around him exaltation washed over his face, and human features replaced demonic ones, blue chasing the gold from his eyes. It was the sexiest thing she'd ever seen, and she felt her own body gather for a second assault on the heights. With a breathless, noiseless roar, he exploded within her, and Buffy mashed her face into his shoulder to muffle her answering shout as they clawed for the summit together.

Spike twined his fingers in her hair, pulled back and gazed into her eyes, caressing her cheeks with his thumbs. Buffy made a happy little 'mm' noise and gazed back. Bed intact. Wonderful news for furniture budget. Spike not nearly as heavy as previous boyfriends. Also very good. Could get used to waking up like this. Lost personal pronouns again. Who needs them? "What's the occasion?"

"Happy anniversary, love. One week today."

"Love you," she whispered, because there were no other words.

He broke out in that sweet, glorious smile, the one she'd never seen him give anyone else--as if she were the only one worthy of it, despite being the remarkably self-centered and occasionally dense Buffy Anne Summers who was desperately trying to armor herself for the upcoming meeting with her former vampire lover by having as much fantastic sex with her current vampire lover as possible. Were there expressions of hers he treasured as much? She hoped so; it would be beyond unfair otherwise. He caught his lower lip in his teeth, full of small-boy anticipation. "Got you something."

Buffy sat up, clutching the sheet to her breasts. "Spike, you didn't need to--it isn't, um--" Slayers intent on instilling virtue in morally deficient vampires should not be bouncing up and down in anticipation of probably stolen prezzies from said vampires. "You got something? For me?"

Spike rolled over and reached over the side of the bed, rummaging around underneath for a moment. He sat back up with a small flat package wrapped up in butcher's paper and tied with string--not exactly festive, but Buffy felt her hand shaking as she undid the neat double bow. She peeled back the layers of paper while Spike sat cross-legged on the bed and watched her.

It was a book--a slim volume bound in brown leather. For a second she had a weird flash of deja vu, and half expected it to be Browning's Sonnets From The Portugese. But it wasn't; it was the book Spike had been reading that night on the sofa in the crypt, the one she hadn't been able to make out the title of. Now, tracing the faded gilt letters on the spine, she could just decipher The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It was old, old enough to be printed on rag paper that had been made to last. There were two inscriptions on the flyleaf. The first was in unfamiliar spidery script, the ink faded and brown with age, and read To William, from Mother, with love: May you know the joy you deserve. May 21st, 1877. The second one was in Spike's handwriting, his old-fashioned copperplate script at odds with the ordinary ballpoint it was written in--To Buffy: Seize the day. Love, William. Dec. 7th, 2001. It looked as if he'd been undecided as to which way to sign it; 'Spike' and 'William' had both been written in and crossed out at least once. A queer lump rose up in her throat and for a second she couldn't breathe at all.

"Was gonna let you borrow it anyway, like I said, but then I thought you might like one of your own," Spike said, studiously examining his toes. "Sorry it's not a new copy, but I thought you'd rather have one that wasn't nicked."

Oh, God, she was crying. Or laughing. Not sure which. Tears were pouring down her cheeks as if her personal sprinkler system had broken. "It's--it's--" She laid the book reverently down on the pillow and flung her arms around him. "Thank you. It's perfect."

Spike, a little startled at the intensity of her reaction, pulled her close and stroked her hair. "Shh, Buffy, love, it's all right." His thumb smudged the tear-tracks across her cheek. "Your Dad'll be convinced I'm beating you now."

She sniffled. "Right. I can whip your pansy English ass."

He gave her his wickedest smile. "Promise?"

"Pig." She snuggled into his shoulder and looked up at him, an innocent little smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "If you ask very nicely, I'll think about it."

He laughed, and Buffy glanced towards the window, doing her own check on the progress of the sun. It must be close to eight o'clock, an ungodly hour to be awake in her line of work, but she felt surprisingly good. In the corner of her eye she saw herself in the mirror over the dresser, leaning cozily into thin air, long blonde hair apparently moving of its own volition as Spike's hand played with the sleep-tangled locks. With puffy eyes and a snuffly nose, which were absolutely not what she wanted to be displaying when Angel showed up. Which was bound to be soon--it was at least an hour's drive from Los Angeles to Corona, where the California Institute for Women was located, and there was no telling how long the wait to get in to see Faith would be once they got there. How exactly they were going to manage the matter of getting Angel from the car to the prison without combusting she wasn't sure; she couldn't imagine Angel galloping around under a ratty blanket, but he must have managed it somehow on previous visits. The California Department of Corrections wasn't about to change its visiting hours to accommodate vampires. Maybe they'd have covered parking.

Spike was still lazing around on the bed with the book he'd brought with him when she got out of the shower; he'd gotten as far as pulling on his jeans but had only buttoned them up halfway. Of course, he could afford to put off getting dressed; Spike's idea of packing light (razor, toothbrush, Penguin edition of Typee , change of socks) limited his sartorial options. Manfully abjuring temptation, Buffy marched over to the closet and stood with hands on hips, surveying the clothes she'd brought along with the air of a general looking for volunteers for a suicide mission. There was the claret-red skirt and top ensemble which had been part of the Dawn-induced Dad-guilt haul last month. Worn last night to make Dad feel better, check. The little black dress--just in case they happened to end up at a gala L.A. cocktail party, she supposed; she really wasn't sure why she'd felt the need to bring it along. Several pairs of sensible slacks and blouses from the Office Drag Collection, for the prison visit and the ride home. She pulled the cowl-necked camel pullover out (the coffee stain had come out nicely) and held the hanger up to her chest. "Does this say 'I've moved on and am mature enough to see you as a beloved friend but if seeing me makes you rue the day you walked out on me, so much the better?' Or should I go with the blue?"

Spike leaned back against the headboard and laced his hands behind his head. "That might be a bit much for any one article of clothing to convey, pet, but I'd go for the one that doesn't conceal the massive hickey."

Buffy's eyes went wide and she dropped the pullover on a chair and darted over to the mirror, hand to her neck. Sure enough, there was a straggling line of livid rosettes winding all down the left side of her throat. They were already beginning to fade, thanks to Slayer healing, but it was going to be very visible for at least the rest of the morning. She groaned. "Why does everything that feels that good leave marks?" she grumbled.

Something brushed sensually along her shoulder, sending a wave of gooseflesh up and down her arms--Spike had slipped up behind her, invisible in the mirror, and was going in for the kill on the other side. "Suits you, pet. Sends the message that someone doesn't need to puncture your jugular to get you off."

Buffy smacked him away. "Down! I have to look virginal for Dad and irresistible but unavailable for Angel and unlike a potential hacksaw-smuggler for the warden. Instead I look like Miss December in the Skank of the Month calen--oooh... STOP THAT!"

Spike beat a strategic retreat down the hall towards the bathroom, grinning like a loon, and Buffy turned back to the mirror with a silly little smile of her own and opened her makeup case. Foundation was her friend. Not like she didn't have plenty of experience concealing suspicious bruises, scrapes, and compound fractures; Slayer healing was good, but not instantaneous. She took the blue blouse out and held both of them up critically, then hung the blue one back in the closet. The camel one would cover up the marks without recourse to cosmetics. She pulled it on and tugged the collar up around her neck. On the other hand, maybe she wanted someone to see them. Collar down. Or not. Collar up. Angel-feelings currently way more confusing than Spike-feelings. A first in the Summers' cavalcade of romantic neuroses! She stepped into the rust slacks and pulled her hair back. French braid? Chignon?

Last night hadn't gone too badly. Sure, Spike and her father had sniped at each other for awhile, but no one had taken any mortal conversational wounds. Linda wasn't the rapacious bimbo she'd been expecting. Buffy wasn't certain how she felt about that yet, but as Linda had circumvented the not-in-my-house-you-don't argument about her sharing a bed with Spike, Buffy was tentatively inclined to move her from the 'Homewrecking Fiend From Hell' category to the 'Probably Human' category. Maybe she could even handle the one-two punch of seeing Angel and Faith in one day...

There was a hesitant knock on the door. French braid, definitely. "Yes?"

"It's me." It was Linda, sounding worried. "Are you all right?"

"As the proverbial rain," Buffy replied. "I might go so far as to say perky, which is downright unnatural at this time of day. Is something wrong?"

"Can I talk to you for a moment?"

"Just a minute--let me get decent." After a nervous glance at the bed and a few quick corrective measures--fluff one slightly toothmarked pillow, yank the blanket over the wet spot, arrange collar of pullover to cover massive hickey--Buffy opened the door. "What's up? Dad have a change in plans for tonight?" She tried to keep the disappointment out of her voice; they'd planned to go out to L'Orangerie after they got back from Corona, but it wouldn't be the first time her father had decided working late was more important than spending time with her.

"No, nothing like that." Linda was fingering her necklace, turning the little gold cross over and over till the chain tangled. She was already dressed for work, purse clutched in one hand and professional veneer lacquered securely into place. "Nothing to do with your father." The sound of running water kicked in down the hall. Buffy hoped her father had gotten his shower in earlier, as she'd recently discovered that Spike would happily loiter in a hot shower until he grew gills. Linda relaxed slightly, but her voice remained low. "Spike left the bathroom door open while he was brushing his teeth, and I happened to look in going past, and I--I saw something that worried me."

That was unexpected. Unexpected was usually bad. Buffy's smile became a trifle fixed. "Saw something?" All Spike parts property Buffy Anne Summers, individually and in toto. Flutter one wheat-grass-nourished eyelash in his direction and I'll remove your appendix through your nose, you homewrecking fiend from hell.

Linda, luckily, didn't appear to be telepathic. "It was more like I didn't see something. Something that should have been there." She bent closer and whispered, "How long have you known Spike?"

"About four years. Why?"

"Has he seemed... different to you lately? Had any personality changes?"

Buffy looked at her, brows knit. She didn't like the way this was going; she could practically hear the ominous music rising in the background. "He's gone through a lot of... I guess you'd call it self-evaluation in the last couple of years, but he's always been this annoying, if that's what you're wondering."

Linda took a deep breath, her dark liquid eyes darting back towards the hall once more. "This is going to sound really stupid, but... have you seen him go outside in the daytime lately?"

Uh oh. "Sure. Yesterday." Hiding under a blanket to get to the car counts. "Though he's, um, kind of a night person. Which is OK, because I'm a night owl myself, always burning that midnight oil--"

The other woman looked exceedingly unhappy. "You're going to think I'm insane," she whispered, "but there's a chance we could all be in terrible danger." She wrung her hands. "I think your Spike might be... part of a gang."

"Uh?" Buffy sat down on the edge of the bed. Was there any point at all in having a secret identity these days? "A gang. Of the PCP-taking, disappearing into thin air when the police arrive variety?"

"Would you take this?" Linda reached into her pocket and pulled out another small cross on a chain. "I know your father isn't religious and I don't know if you are, but it would make me feel better if I knew you had... protection."

Buffy took the cross and closed her hand around it. This was going to be awkward. "Wow. I had no idea you were familiar with the, uh, initiation signs." Not that Spike bothered to hide it much; Angel had always gone to great pains to appear human in the company of humans, but Spike, as far as she could tell, just didn't care all that much if he were outed. Which was pretty stupid in light of the fact that he was currently helpless against any human vampire hunters who took exception to his existence. They were going to have to have a little discussion about that.

Linda's café au lait complexion paled. "Then you know--but you don't realize what he could do! He looks like the man you used to know, but he's not. You've got to get away. All of us do. He's a different person now, and he could--"

"Spike can't hurt you," Buffy interrupted hurriedly. "He can't hurt anyone. Not won't, can't. If he tries he gets an electric shock strong enough to knock him flat. And anyway, he's reformed. I swear, none of you are in any danger from him."

Down the hall the sound of the shower running cut off abruptly, but neither of them noticed. There was pity alongside the fear in Linda's eyes. "You love him," she said, her words coming quick and urgent. "You think you've found some way of keeping him under control. You're fooling yourself, chica. He'll last forever. It won't. You won't. How many people did he kill before you found your fix? How many do you think he'll kill after it breaks?"

Out in the living room, someone knocked on the door, and Buffy heard the faint scrape of chair legs and footsteps crossing from the kitchen as her father left his morning coffee to answer it. Down the hall, behind Linda, Spike emerged from the bathroom with a damp towel slung over his bare shoulders, giving his hair a few last touches with one hand. He paused to listen for a second, his dark brows angled together. Then he ghosted down the hall towards them and popped up behind Linda, crooking his fingers into claws and making exaggerated biting motions. Buffy aimed a steely glare at him over Linda's shoulder. Something was putting her nerves on edge, but with Linda talking and Spike acting more than usually like an idiot...

"Look, my grandmother is a bruja down in East L.A., and she knows all about...gangs. She knows a guy who does... deprogramming." Linda produced a small, dog-eared rectangle of cardstock from her purse and held it out to Buffy. "You should look him up, fast. It's not your Spike in there anymore."

"Now there's where you're wrong, pet," Spike said conversationally. "It's always been her Spike in here." He reached over her shoulder with striking-snake speed and nabbed the business card from Linda's hand. Linda shrieked and jumped about a foot and a half in the air. Spike's lazy grin was pure predator, reminiscent of a well-fed cat unable to resist a chance to step on a mouse's tail. He held the card out and squinted at it, lounging in the doorway in such a manner as to block Linda's escape. "What the bloody hell is that, a lobster? Bet he drew the sodding logo himself rather than shell out for a graphics designer."

"Knock off the attitude, Spike," Buffy said, in the tone of offhand authority which brought him to heel far more effectively than irritation would have. "You're scaring her."

He looked down at Linda with an absurdly pleased expression. "Am I really?"

"You heard her," a familiar voice said. "Knock it off. Or I will."

Angel loomed in the doorway behind Spike, filling most of it, flexing the fingers of his right hand as if he'd like nothing better than to make a fist of it. Spike's every muscle went piano-wire tense. Topaz sparking and dying in his eyes, he turned, very deliberately, to face the maker of his maker. Buffy took the business card from his inattentive fingers. "As a matter of fact," she said with a weak smile as she handed the card for Angel Investigations back to Linda, "We've already got an appointment."

Spike and Angel faced one another, winter-blue eyes locked upon chocolate brown, and the silence in the room was so deep and pure that Buffy was surprised that the sound of her heart pounding against her ribs didn't shatter it like glass, into shards sharp enough to cut with. Her Slayer senses were keening dissonant warning; she was strongly attuned to Spike's presence these days, even moreso now than she had been a week ago, but Angel's tug on her persisted still, tiny hooks set into all her bones. The conflict was like tinfoil on a filling, and without thought she rose from the bed and laid a hand on Spike's shoulder. The physical contact soothed the jangle along her nerves almost at once, and the boiling fury in Spike's eyes cooled to a simmer. He relaxed imperceptibly. "Hullo, Peaches."

"Spike." Angel's voice was neutral. "Buffy. Your father let me in. Are we ready to--"

He stopped, nostrils flaring, and unbelief washed over his face, transforming slowly into something approaching horror as the pieces came together. His eyes flicked around the room, taking in the two sets of clothing, the rumpled sheets on both sides of the bed, Buffy's hand resting on Spike's shoulder--and what must have been, to his enhanced senses, the unmistakable and overwhelming musk of their recent lovemaking. There was a blur of motion too fast for human eyes to follow and Spike was torn from her side, slammed into the doorjamb with wall-rattling force, and pinned there with Angel's hands about his throat. A raw snarl barely recognizable as words tore out of the older vampire: "What have you done to her?"

"Put him down!" Buffy shouted. Angel ignored her.

Spike's eyes blazed with triumph, and his smile was as vicious a thing as Buffy'd ever seen on a human face. "Nothing she didn't beg me to, mate," he gasped--Angel's cutting off his air couldn't hurt him, but it made it difficult for him to talk. "Not that she had to beg long. My pleasure. Each and every night, all night long--agh!" His face convulsed in agony and Buffy realized with a cold shock of terror that in another second Angel was simply going to rip Spike's head off his shoulders. She lunged towards them, but Spike had already brought one knee up like a pile-driver into Angel's groin. Angel howled and staggered backwards, his grip breaking, and Spike twisted free and dove after him with fangs bared, screaming, "How does it feel, Angelus? How does it bloody feel when it happens to you?" The two of them disintegrated into a snarling, roaring tangle of fists and fangs in the middle of the carpet.

Linda screamed and ran for the living room. Change of plans. Buffy diverted her lunge towards the window, and in one swift motion her hand was on the curtain-pull. "If you two don't stop it RIGHT NOW you'll be vampire flambe in two seconds and I'll shovel your ashes into the same urn for eternity!"

Even that threat didn't penetrate. Buffy yanked the cord down and the curtains flew open. Sunlight flooded into the room, striking the combatants in mid-grapple. Both Spike and Angel froze, blinking into the sunlight with identical expressions of shock before pain galvanized them into motion. "Fuck!" Spike screamed, and leaped for the closet as wisps of smoke started to rise from his exposed flesh. Angel, with less flesh exposed and less familiarity with the layout of the room, scrambled to his feet and dove behind the bed after a second's panicked reconnaissance.

Buffy stood there for a moment, backlit dramatically by the morning sun, her lips pressed into a hard angry line. "Can you both move beyond being the poster boys for Neanderthal Nation for five minutes, or is that too much to ask?" she hissed.

Angel poked a wary head up over the side of the bed. "Buffy," he said in the tone that meant he was trying very, very hard to sound reasonable, "I think you have some explaining to do."

Spike inched out from behind the closet door, all glowery, sexy pout, and jerked his chin in Angel's direction. "He started it." He looked uneasily at the window and made a little curtain-closing wave with one hand. "Uh...pet, could you...?"

How was it possible that one man could make her so sublimely happy and so completely furious in the space of an hour? She stalked over to the closet and gave him a look which would have stopped a glacier in its tracks, her chest heaving. "Is that what this is? Get back at Angel week?"

His eyes fell away and his head dropped. "Don't you think we bloody well deserve it? Both of us?"

She looked across the room at Angel's dark handsome face, agonized. "It wasn't his fault. Any of it." She believed that. She had to. Angel, whose eyes never quite lost the haunted knowledge of what he had done, was not Angelus, any more than Spike was William...

"Then whose fault was it? Tell me who stole Dru's mind from her, and her heart from me? Who took your heart and froze it so cold even my hands can warm it?" The ridged brow and broadened nose of his demon-face melted back into the aquiline purity of his human one, and staring into those lucent blue eyes, Buffy realized that she no longer had any idea which of his faces was the mask. "Tell me who I can hate, Buffy! There's got to be someone."

And she couldn't do the right thing, tell him he didn't have to hate anyone, because she knew too well that there were times when you did. "It's--it's over, all that. Past. This is now." She reached up and took his face in her hands, reading the planes of his cheek and jaw like a Braille of the heart. "We're now."

Right there in her father's guest room closet Spike fell to his knees, supplicant at her feet for a heartbreaking moment before wrapping his arms around her hips and burying his face in her crotch. "Buffy," he moaned.

Whoa. Stella Kowalski moment. For the second time that morning she found herself unable to breathe, unable to move, but for all the physical intimacy of their pose it was not lust that raced through her now--OK, not much lust--and for the first time she realized, like a mule-kick to the gut, that he feared losing her as deeply and terribly as she feared losing him. Doesn't he know? Haven't I told him? Her hands moved blindly over his head, fingers twining through his still-damp curls. "Get up," she whispered. "Get up." Spike obeyed, rising to his feet in one lithe surge, his hands and his eyes never letting go of her. They were the only people in the room, the building, the universe.

"Buffy." Angel's dark warm voice, which had once been the one to which she compared all others, full of concern now. "Buffy, you've got to tell me what's going on here."

The tug was still there. Once those hooks were set into bone they could never truly be removed. But it had never once occurred to her to go to him first.

"Buffy!" Linda's fearful voice cried. "Are you all right?"

Buffy took a shaky breath. "I'm fine. Could you close the curtains, please? We're coming out." As the room darkened once more, she took Spike's hand, and led him out of the closet.

Chapter Text

Angel had never hated Spike. In the days when Angel had been unencumbered by a soul, Spike had been a stupidly rebellious minion tolerated only because he kept Drusilla occupied when Angel had no need of her. Barely worth noticing, much less hating. When the two of them had met again three years ago, during Spike's brief and eventful tenure as Master of Sunnydale's vampire population, it had quickly become obvious that for all the outward trappings of power he'd assumed, Spike was still the same volatile mix of insecurity, viciousness, and bravado he'd always been. Soul well-lost once more, all the new improved Angelus had had to do was aim a few jibes at the soft underbelly of Spike's pride and it was like old times again, Drusilla dancing attendance on Daddy and Spike reduced to jealous, impotent fury. Easy.

Until Spike had broken all the rules, and allied with Buffy to bring Angelus crashing down. Buffy's hands had held the blade, but Spike's shadow presence had been right beside her, crowing in triumph as she thrust it home and sent the once-more-souled Angel to hell. All that came later hinged on that moment when Spike had made the decision--for proper, selfish vampiric reasons--to fight for a day on the side of light. Now Angel brooded in the sparkling, modern kitchen of Hank Summers's L.A. apartment, and tried to decide if it were finally time for him to start hating Spike.

He definitely hated the whispers, the looks, the smiles, the touches--oh, he really hated the touches, teasing and tender--the way Spike's shoulder kept brushing Buffy's, the way Buffy's hand kept meeting Spike's on the way to the salt. Spike was still indulging his bizarre addiction to human food, and was devouring a revolting mixture of scrambled eggs, pig's blood, and tabasco sauce with every indication of enjoyment. Angel had always scorned that particular affectation; who was Spike trying to fool? Now he was almost glad of it; concentrating on the repulsiveness of Spike's breakfast kept him from dwelling on the far greater repulsiveness of Spike and Buffy exchanging besotted looks, or the rancorous exchange going on in the next room.

"...knew, and you didn't tell me?" Linda's voice was clearly audible through the closed bedroom door.

"Tell you what? 'By the way, dear, my daughter's dating a guy with no pulse?' Why should I think you'd believe it?" Hank's voice wasn't quite as emphatic, but just as irritated. "I still don't believe it!"

Spike cocked his head in the direction of the master bedroom, thoroughly amused at the discord. "Think we're going to be sleeping in the car tonight, pet?" He dunked his toast into his mug of warm pig's blood until it was sodden with gore, and tore into it with gusto.

Don't you get it, Buffy? This is what a demon is. Strife is his raison d'etre.

Buffy did not get it; she just wrinkled her nose and poured herself more orange juice. "I don't know, but I hope you have a blanket in your trunk just in case. Watch it, you're dripping blood on the hash browns."

"Don't knock it till you've tried it, love."

"I'll stick with ketchup, thanks." Buffy aimed a little half-frown at Angel, the worried hostess fretting over a finicky guest. "Are you sure you don't want anything?"

Angel shook his head. "I'm fine." Any moment now his brain was going to explode with the impossibility of the situation. I can't move on, he'd told Buffy once. You can. I can't. But he'd begun to, this last summer after her funeral--not to someone else; that was impossible for someone in his circumstances, but to a place where he didn't feel her loss with every breath he didn't take. Living in a world without Buffy had proved infinitely easier than living in a world where Buffy existed and he couldn't have her. When they'd dragged her back, damn them--Willow and Dawn, anyway; Spike was already taken care of--he'd braced himself for the renewal of that old pain, but it hadn't come. The wound had finally closed, and he'd walked away from their post-post-mortem rendezvous with regret and a tremendous feeling of freedom.

Until today. It wasn't that she'd moved on--it was to whom she'd moved. "No, I take it back. I do want something. An explanation would be good."

Spike's knuckles whitened on his mug of blood and the muscles in his jaw worked. "I love Buffy, Buffy loves me, we've been shagging like minks for a week, and with luck will continue to do so for many years to come. Anything else you need to know?"

Angel watched the younger vampire with loathing, imagining that smug face beaten and bloody, eyes swollen shut, that oily smirk smashed into broken-toothed ruin... Buffy's hand closed on top of Spike's, her fingertips barely extending to the first joints of his fingers, and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Angel pressed his fingers to his temples. He could feel his skull starting its slow-motion, Technicolor expansion now.

Linda's muffled tirade continued. "I can't believe you'd put us in danger like this! He could have--"

"Talked us to death?" Hank rejoined.

Spike jerked upright. "I heard that, y'wanker!"

Buffy finished her orange juice, got up, tiptoed over to the bedroom door and rapped on it. "Uh... Dad? We have to leave now."

The argument within silenced itself abruptly. "Fine, honey. I'll see you later."

Buffy aimed a stern look at Spike, who mouthed 'Do I have to?' Buffy gestured emphatically at the bedroom door. Spike sulked for a moment, then heaved a sigh and recited, "Linda, I'm sorry I scared you, I promise never to eat anyone even remotely connected to you ever, and could you please not have your grandmum uninvite me while we're gone?"

More silence, then a grudging, "I'll think about it," from Linda.

Ordeal survived, Spike got to his feet, locked his hands over his head in a contented cat-stretch, and chuckled. "Your Dad can pick 'em. Bet she's a dab hand with a battleaxe." He scooped up a random assortment of breakfast dishes and dumped them into the sink to dessicate--only semi-domesticated, then. "We're taking the DeSoto, Peaches. I'm not entrusting my flammable hide to a sodding ragtop."

Angel watched stolidly as he walked over to Buffy and hooked his arm around her waist. He felt his fists starting to curl in on themselves again, and forcibly relaxed, muscle by muscle. He wasn't going to give Spike the satisfaction of reacting further. Buffy rolled her eyes as Spike pulled her close, a little smile playing about her lips--very much aware of what he was up to, but not complaining about it. The kiss was deep, leisurely, and intense; far from prolonging it to tweak his nose, Angel got the distinct impression that the two of them had forgotten his existence entirely. They finally pulled away from one another, a reluctant, molasses-slow separation. Spike tossed his car keys into the air and caught them, shot Angel a cocky, infuriating grin, and sauntered out whistling. Buffy's eyes followed him out the door, the little smile lingering.

Angel entertained a vivid, satisfying image of running Spike over with his own car, grinding his body into red jelly on the pavement, and felt momentarily better.

Ten minutes later he stood with Buffy in the lobby of the Allman Luxury Apartments, waiting for Spike to bring the car around from the underground garage. Not by the southern exposure of the front doors, where morning sunlight streamed in through the plate-glass windows and set the brass door fixtures ablaze. They'd dodged the gleaming spears of light and crossed to the west-facing side entrance, still in deep shadow. Buffy hadn't hesitated, or checked the position of the sun. "So. You must have planned this all out pretty well ahead of time," he said with a nod at the front entrance. "Figured out all the places you can't go, all the things you can't do with a vampire in tow."

If Buffy noticed the sarcastic edge to his voice, she ignored it. "I'm all about meeting the challenge." She sounded almost cheerful about it. "They don't design buildings for daytime vampire access. This being of the good under most circumstances. Spike's scarily inventive when it comes to getting around in the daytime."

"It is scary, isn't it?" Definite oozing of sarcasm there.

Definite ignoring of oozing sarcasm on Buffy's part. He should have known there was something wrong at their awkward meeting last month, but he'd been too stunned by the fact of her return to do much but wonder at her presence. Buffy, in turn, had been tired and withdrawn. They might as well have been on different planets for all the connection they'd made. He wished he could lay it all to the anomaly of her death and resurrection, but no, this was simpler: two people apart, lives diverging day by day, month by month, year by year.

If he'd walked into this lobby today and seen her for the first time, would she arrest his eyes and heart as she had six years ago? Then it had been her innocence which drew him as much as her beauty, the terrible unfairness of this girl being made a sacrifice, sent all unawares to fight horrors beyond imagining. The slender young woman in the camel pullover was still beautiful, but no longer a child, no longer fresh and innocent and unspoiled. Death was her companion now; her eyes had seen too much of it, her hands had dealt too much of it, and now--why, God, why had he never killed Spike? It would have been so easy!--she'd taken Death into her heart. The blazing joie de vivre she'd displayed at fifteen was no more; would he notice her at all? Or would he pass by, his encounter with Buffy Summers nothing more than a moment of curiosity, quickly forgotten?

If he caught her eyes, perhaps he would pause a moment, still. The fire had dimmed, but the coals still glowed, waiting only the right breath of wind to blaze up again, the more fiercely, perhaps, for having been banked.

Buffy gave him a look as he stood brooding by the potted ficus, a quick lift of the head--pleading, almost shy, balancing lightly on the balls of her feet as if at any moment she might run to him--or away. She sought his eyes, apology in her own. "I didn't want you to find out like this," she said, quiet, sincere. "I was going to tell you. I was going to find the perfect words to explain it all, and tell you at the perfect time." She essayed a small, hopeful smile. "I haven't found the perfect words yet, but I'm pretty sure the perfect time is coming up in March, 2012."

Did she want him to accept this with no more cavil than he'd accepted Riley Finn? As if it were right and healthy, just one more instance of how she'd gone on with her life? "No time like the present. Tell me how you could do this. With Spike, of all--my God, Buffy!" Anguish tightened round his heart like barbed wire; not dead enough to ward off this pain, not yet. "Spike! You know what he is!" He strode towards her, towering over her (uncomfortable to do so; he'd grown used to looking Cordelia in the eye). His hand went to her neck, fingers tracing the fading line of bruises. "And you let him do this to you?"

Buffy stiffened at his touch. She pulled down her collar on the other side, exposing the overlapping white scars--the marks of vampire's fangs, two from enemies who'd wished her dead or defiled, the third... "And I let you do this to me," she said. Her voice was trembling, very slightly. "What I let Spike do is my choice."

Self-recrimination sprang up in his breast like a weed no amount of reason could kill: he'd been dying, she'd provoked him, no vampire in creation could have shown any more control than he had under such circumstances... but all the rationalizations in the world couldn't change the fact that none of the bite marks on that fair neck belonged to Spike. It was queerly jolting. "He hasn't..."

Buffy smiled, a mischievous little feminine smile. "Are you kidding? He got offended when I brought it up, in a cute sort of punk-Victorian way. I thought he'd want to... but biting me? Not even on the radar for him. Except for those play-bites that make you go all tingly and... OK, TMI. Sorry."

Angel regarded the top of her head with bleak disapproval. "You do realize that if you ever use the word 'cute' to describe any aspect of Spike again, I will have to kill both of you?"

She took a step closer and laid a hand on his arm, earnest entreaty in her gaze. "I'm sorry. I don't want to make this hard for you. I really don't. But I can't--I can't pretend he's not important to me. I can't pretend he doesn't make me feel... whole."

"Whole? Buffy..." Angel hesitated, closed his eyes. She was still looking up at him when he opened them again, big solemn grey-green eyes searching his face, soft ripe lips parted ever so slightly... obscene, to think of their living human warmth pressed to Spike's chill dead flesh, as once they'd pressed to his. "You're right, this is your choice. But if this is the choice you're making, there's something wrong. I was in a bad place last year. The despair, the--I did some stupid things, things I regret. I thought they'd make me feel better--I thought they'd make me feel, period. But it only made things worse." Her eyes were attentive, but blank; nothing he was saying was striking any chords. He swallowed hard and forged on. "This isn't you. The Buffy Summers I know is a good person, a caring person. You can't tell me that Buffy Summers is capable of falling in love with a thing that's killed tens of thousands of people and doesn't care--that a monster like Spike is what it takes to make you whole."

He'd struck a nerve; she flinched as if every word had barbs attached. Tears welled up in her eyes and she blinked them back. "You don't understand, you can't--when I first came back... the whole world was grey, and flat, and so was I. I didn't feel good, I didn't feel bad, I didn't feel anything. At all. Everything was just... nothing. Except Spike." A shaky little laugh. "The last month's been my own personal vampire edition of Pleasantville, minus the extra who looks freakily like an ex-boyfriend." She wrapped her arms around herself, and her voice fell to a whisper. "Maybe I'm not the Buffy Summers you know. Maybe Willow screwed up. And if I'm not, what are you going to do about it? Take me back and trade me in for next year's model? I never asked to come back, but I'm here and you're stuck with me--this me. And this me needs Spike. Loves Spike."

Her voice steadied, and she repeated, "I love Spike," almost to herself -was this the first time she'd said these words aloud to anyone else? "I know what Spike is. He's killed more people than I can get my mind around. Just like you." Angel started to protest, but she cut him off. "I know who he is, too. He's the one who sat with me when I found out Mom was sick. He helped me fight Glory and risked his life for my sister and stuck around after I died and helped my friends. He feeds me disgusting gooey nachos and cheats at poker and quotes Shakespeare and Johnny Rotten and watches my back and sort of repents of teaching my sister to shoplift." Her head came up, and she looked him right in the eye; the light was back in hers. "And he loves me. Spike loves me, and knows it's impossible, and is willing to fight to make it work anyway. He may be a monster, but he does a pretty good imitation of a man."

"And that's all it is. An imitation. He's not William."

She was angry, now, her gaze gone stormy. "No, he's not. I didn't fall in love with William. I fell in love with the thing that killed him. Do you think I forget that, ever?"

"Yeah, I do. I was at your funeral. I got the whole 'Spike's a good guy now, he loved Buffy, the chip's just as good as a soul' lecture from Dawn." It had shocked him, Dawn's fierce defense of Spike, almost as much as the gaunt, limping, hollow-eyed specter Spike had been at the funeral. "It's bullshit. We both know it. He's--"

"Here," Buffy said, as the DeSoto pulled up to the curb and Spike laid into the horn. "Are you coming or not?"

"Buffy... I gave up everything we had so that you could have--" Something clean, something sunkissed and normal and good in your life. If you had to throw your life away on a vampire, why couldn't it have been me? But it was far too late to ask that question; he'd been the one to leave, after all--not just once, but at every turn when fate seemed determined to thrust them back together. He had a destiny, after all, more important than his happiness, or hers.

Her eyes softened, storm turned to sea-mist, and for the first time in any of the fights they'd had over that decision, he saw pity in them rather than wounded betrayal. His was not the only old wound which had begun to heal. "Yes. That's right. You gave up everything we had. And now we don't have it anymore. Please, Angel--don't break what we've still got." She turned and straight-armed the door, and after a moment Angel bowed his head and followed her out tothe curb, to the place where sunlight and shadow met.

*****

It wasn't a backup plan, Willow told herself, because she was going to come up with a miracle. She was just exploring her options. So far this option didn't look very promising.She'd been down to the Department of Social Services building with her parents half a dozen times over the summer, to deal with assorted Dawn problems, so she hadn't exactly expected marble halls and augustly bearded Viennese doctors selflessly toiling away on behalf of the indigent in libraries that made Giles's look like the Scholastic Reader Book Bus, but she hadn't expected quite so many roaches, either.

The balding, shirt-sleeved man across the desk from her smacked a dog-eared Ellery Queen paperback down on their visitor, inspected the corpse for a moment and flicked it into the trash can."Pleased to meet you, Ms. Rosenberg. Aaron Gustavsen." He offered her a large flabby hand and Willow shook it gingerly. Gustavsen sat back in his chair and rubbed his brow. "Sorry. It's like the Apocalypse in here."

"It can't--oh." A squeaky nervous laugh died on her lips. "Figure of speech, right? Because the whole plagues-of-Egypt motif?"

"Might as well be the end of the world--they've been tearing up the sewer lines over on Alpert, and the damned things have been coming up through the drains in the bathroom. We're supposed to be getting an exterminator in Wednesday." He pursed his lips. "You said you were concerned about a group of homeless people squatting on city land?"

Willow nodded. "Concerned. Very. But not in a call the police way--I want to know what can be done to un-homeless them. And I think a lot of them aren't all there."

"How many did you say there were?"

"I'm not totally certain. Maybe eight? Or... fifteen?" Willow made an apologetic gesture. "I'm sure there's not more than twenty. But they're all living in the dump, which can't be sanitary, and, you know, winter's coming and I know we're not on the Russian Front or anything, but it gets nippy. I'm worried about them. So I wanted to see if I could do anything helpful, because that's me, always helpful."

Gustavsen gave a noncommittal grunt and began shuffling through the mass of papers on his desk--case histories, forms, menus from The Pizza Guys. "Let's see. First of all, you'd have to--are you related to any of them? No? We'd need to send a caseworker to make contact with them, convince them to come into the Center on their own, and sign up for one of the transitional programs. That would be difficult. Once that's squared away, you can get them into the Grapevine Clinic for diagnosis and prescription meds, with followup to make sure they're taking them, get them into a halfway house and employment assistance program..."

Willow brightened. That didn't sound too hard. "Well--that's great! How long will that take? Can we do it tomorrow? I can take you right there, and we can round them all up!"

He stared at her for a minute, then laughed--not unkindly, but as if her enthusiasm pained him. "First of all, we'd have to assign a caseworker, and we're so understaffed right now it's not funny. Two weeks, if we're lucky. Then we'd need to make sure there's room for more people in any of the programs. What with the energy crisis last summer and the state's budget hemorrhaging to death, our DMH and PATH grants have been cut to the bone." He looked up from his papers and handed her a California Department of Mental Health pamphlet. "Three to six months, assuming no more budget cuts. They're good programs, when we can afford them."

Willow stared at the pamphlet. Helping the Homeless Help Themselves! it said, with a happy little picture of a kindly volunteer leaning over the shoulder of a sweet old woman who looked way more together than any of the bag ladies of Willow's acquaintance. "Six months? That's..."

"What we have to deal with." A note of sympathy entered his voice. "The other option is to get yourself appointed the legal guardian of the person you're concerned about, with power of attorney. Assuming the court granted your petition, then you could have them committed to the state mental hospital. Though they're so full I don't think you could keep them there very long; they'd have to go out-patient, and someone would still need to see that they kept taking their meds... And you'd have to go through this process individually for each one of them. Believe me, I wish we could just wave a magic wand and help everyone immediately, but it can't be done." He smiled wryly."About all we could do in the timeframe you're suggesting is call the police and have them kick them out of the dump and maybe arrest them for squatting."

"I--I see. That's not really what I had in mind." Willow got up and turned to leave, dejection in every limb of her body. Halfway to the door she turned and rushed back. "Isn't there any way to speed things up?"

He smiled--wistful, almost--and wasn't that weird and disturbing in a pudgy middle-aged bureaucrat? "There's corners you can cut here and there, but three months is the best you could hope for. If you want me to put your name on the waiting list for the Sunnydale Community Outreach, that's the most comprehensive--"

"Thanks, but I've got to--this is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be. Talk. I've got to talk. To people--uh, relatives. And--thanks for the pamphlet."

She waved the little slip of paper at him, feeling like an idiot, and beat a hasty retreat out the door of the cramped little office before she could make a more elaborate and detailed idiot of herself--something involving tinfoil hats, maybe.

"Ms. Rosenberg!" Gustavsen called after her. Willow turned to see him standing in the doorway of his office, his scalp pink with exertion. "Some advice--don't try to deal with this on your own. I know it's heartbreaking--believe me, I know--but you can do more harm than good, especially if some of these men are mentally ill. If you want to help, volunteer at the Salvation Army or the Battered Women's Shelter, or someplace where you can learn the ropes. Please."

Willow nodded, her eyes falling to the toes of her Birkenstocks. "I understand." She turned once more and scuffed down the corridor with her book bag bumping along behind her, discouraged. She'd missed lunch to come downtown, she hadn't accomplished a thing, and--she glanced at the clock over the deserted receptionist's desk in the lobby--she was going to be late getting back to campus for her biology class if she didn't hurry. "Wave a magic wand," she muttered. "Yeah. Right." She shouldered her bag and blinked as she walked out into the bright December sunlight. The book bag thumped against her back as she trudged down the sidewalk, one sharp corner digging into her shoulder blades with every step. Poke, poke, poke. A reminder of what the bag contained, down under Social Construction of Realityand Jansen's History of Art .

In the end it all comes down to what price you're willing to pay to get what you want, doesn't it? You were wiling to give up your soul to get your friend back. Or so you claimed at the time. How much are you willing to give up to redeem a dozen lives?

She left the DMH building and walked across the dry lawns, past the cooing flocks of slate-colored pigeons with iridescent necks that congregated around the little hotdog carts which catered to Sunnydale's population of civil servants. There was the Municipal Court building, and Parks and Recreation, poured-concrete monstrosities dating from the '50s. Willow stopped at the fountain in the center of the square; the fountain itself was turned off, but the pool still held water, along with a selection of dead leaves and a scattering of verdigris-encrusted pennies. There was City Hall, with the Mayor's office front and center, where Buffy'd had to rescue her from the late Mayor Wilkins. She tried to remember who the Mayor of Sunnydale was these days, and failed. The Right Honorable Not-A-Wilkins. She gazed down at her wavery reflection in the water. She didn't have any change to make wishes on.

Her reflection smirked up at her. Is there anyplace in Sunnydale where you haven't been kidnapped and held captive at one point or another?

"Shut up. Shut up! Do you think I'm stupid?" Willow shouted, causing several pigeons to flutter away in alarm. She dropped the book bag on the rim of the fountain with a thump and slapped the water with her open palm, sending droplets flying and breaking the face beneath her into a thousand crazy shards. "I know what you're doing! I know what you're trying to get me to do!"

A silent laugh echoed through her head. Do you, clever Wicca? No more games. No more illusions.Just the voice. Cold and smooth and dark, like deep water, like liquid obsidian. Then the only question before us is, are you going to do it?

*****

Over the last six years Buffy Summers had developed a very firm set of rules concerning vampires, and kept them constantly in mind when dealing with Spike.

1. All vampires are to be staked, immediately.
2. There will be absolutely no flirting, taunting, or barbed sexual innuendo exchanged between Slayers and chipped, helpless vampires who are not staked out of misplaced pity and consideration of previous world-saving assistance.
3. Flirting, taunting, and barbed sexual innuendo between Slayers and helpless chipped vampires will never, ever lead to furtive contemplation of what big hands he's got, Grandma, or to sweaty, naughty thoughts about the implications thereof.
4. Sweaty, naughty thoughts about helpless chipped vampires will not lead to embarrassing over-reaction when one discovers said vampire harbors similar thoughts about Slayer, at least until vampire makes tactical error of chaining one to wall and threatening to sic ravenous ex-girlfriend on one, thus justifying over-reaction.
5. Slayers will never, ever forgive vampires for stupid chaining-to-wall stunt, regardless of degree of heroic suffering endured by said vampire for self and sister at hands of excessively bitchy hell-goddess.
6. Having forgiven vampire, Slayers will never be so silly as to re-invite said vampire into her home. Having re-invited vampire into home, will not give slightest hint of encouragement to said vampire's heart-melting declaration of devotion.
7. Slayers will never use dying and returning to life as excuse for hanging out with morally deficient vampire half responsible for resurrection, no matter how impressed she may be at younger sister's tales of what vampire did on his summer vacation.
8. Hanging out with morally deficient vampire will be on purely platonic, business level only. There will be no flirting, taunting, or barbed sexual innuendo (see Rule #2); neither will there be any undue appreciation of vampire's wit, fighting ability, supermodel-grade cheekbones, muscular yet compact build, et. al. Arguments and the occasional fistfight are not to be considered expressions of sublimated passion.
9. Having succumbed to sublimated passion, Slayers will never be so idiotic as to fall in love with morally deficient vampire. Having fallen in love with morally deficient vampire, Slayers will never be so idiotic as to tell him so. Having confessed love to morally deficient vampire, Slayers will never be so idiotic as to attempt actual relationship.
10. In hammering out relationship with morally deficient vampire, Slayers will never engineer a weekend involving said vampire, previous vampire boyfriend, father, and father's vampire-phobic girlfriend. It cannot end well.

She was still working on Number Eleven, which would involve Slayers never driving long distances in the same car with current and former vampire boyfriends. It wanted polishing.

They were tooling down Highway 91 towards Corona as fast as the law allowed or a little faster, the mid-morning sunlight striking a galaxy of miniature rainbows off the DeSoto's grease-clouded windshield. Spike was wearing a pair of welder's goggles to protect his eyes from the sun--in conjunction with the black leather duster, they made him resemble a demented World War I ace. "'....rock all night, sleep all day, it don't matter what they say...'" Spike jounced up and down in the driver's seat in time to the music, fingers drumming on the steering wheel. He took a deep drag on his cigarette and exhaled a plume of smoke, trailing the butt out the window. "Fuck, I love this song!"

"Is that what it is?"

"Oh, you love it too, baby! Better than that Chieftains bollocks, innit? Lights a fire under you!"

"It's gonna light a fire all over you if you don't roll up the damn window." Angel slouched further down in the back seat. "On second thought, go right ahead and leave it down. And what's wrong with the Chieftains?"

"Nothing, if your idea of good music begins and ends with 'Danny Boy.'" Spike pulled his arm back in just before his hand began to smoulder, his manic grin never wavering. "Have to roll the window down if I'm going to have a smoke around you health nuts, don't I?"

"Let's not make that literal, hm?" Buffy opened the glove compartment and pulled the Triple A map from the mess of repair receipts, broken tire gauges, and general crud, unfolded it and re-traced their route for the dozenth time. "It's the second exit, right?"

"Love, it's twenty miles yet."

"Right. Twenty miles. Ceasing to panic." Buffy started to re-fold the map. "Not that I'm panicking. Large with Zen-like calm, here." She regarded the abstract origami sculpture in her lap with dismay, gave up and stuffed the map back into the glove compartment in ignominious defeat. Spike looked at her, cigarette cocked at a jaunty angle in one corner of his mouth, and it was like fighting the magnetic pull of the earth not to scoot across the expanse of sun-warmed black leather between them and take refuge against his side, ridiculous goggles and all. That would upset Angel. On the other hand, wasn't it unfair to Spike to act based on what would upset Angel? On the third hand, Angel was doing them a favor and it would be tacky to rub his nose in her new relationship. On the fourth hand...

...on the fourth hand she was headed to see Faith and her stomach was tying itself in knots--not weenie little granny knots, either, good solid double-hitches--and after days of planning she still had no idea what she was going to say. Spike's leather-clad arm slid round her shoulders, and he snugged her up against his lithely-muscled torso (when had she crossed the seat?) as if they'd been machined for one another, interlocking Buffy n' Spike action figures, stakes sold separately. The discordant twinging of her Slayer senses mellowed into Mmmmmmm, Spike, the tense knot between her shoulder blades eased up, and she felt a faint hope that she could engage Faith in civil conversation for five minutes before resorting to communication via blunt instrument. Next on Oprah: Vampire Valium--Moral Support or Co-Dependant Wackiness? You Decide!

But whichever it was, it worked, and if the fact that Spike slacked off on baiting Angel for the remainder of the trip meant anything, at least she wasn't the only one jonesing for a PDA fix.

There was covered parking, or close enough for government work; no one caught fire on the way to the door. There was an hour-long delay while they signed in, were searched, and cooled their collective heels waiting for a private booth to open up. There were a dozen other people in the waiting room with them, including a few fretful children, so discussing what they'd come for was problematic. Every now and then a man with a clipboard popped out of a door, called out a name, and disappeared, apparently terrified of seeing his own shadow and causing six more weeks of incarceration. The lucky winner would get up, collect their children or CARE packages of cigarettes and toiletries, and file out through the same door.

Buffy perched on the edge of the bench, one hand fiddling with the cool silver weight of the ring on the chain around her neck. Spike was sliding progressively lower on his tailbone beside her, eyes closed, one hand thrust into his belt and his booted feet obstructing as much of the aisle in front of him as he could manage. Angel occupied the chair opposite, watching the two of them with folded arms and a melancholy frown.

A pair of guards marched by in the hall outside, escorting a sullen woman with short-cropped hair and an expression of dull resignation. Buffy watched them disappear down the corridor, feeling twitchy. The atmosphere was oppressive--the guards, the stark institutional rooms, the impersonal humiliation of the routine. Hello, prison! Duh! She'd wanted Faith here. Scratch that, she'd wanted Faith beaten to a bloody pulp, suffering every second of misery she'd put Buffy through tenfold, but prison was the right thing to do, so she'd settled. Or so she'd thought. Stalag 17 this wasn't, but...Buffy tilted her head in Spike's direction and whispered, "So if you did something awful, which punishment would you pick--get beaten up, or do ten years?"

"What d'y'mean, if?" Spike opened one eye. "Getting off scott free's not an option, then? Beating. Lock me up and I'd go starkers inside a week."

"Total agreement. I mean, it hurts, but then it's over. Does that say something about us?"

"We're not just masochists, we're impatient masochists?"

"I am strangely not comforted."

Mr. Clipboard did the human cuckoo-clock routine again. "Summers?"

Buffy got to her feet, all the knots in her stomach untying at once, releasing a flock of mutant killer butterflies. Angel looked up. "You want me to go in with you?" Buffy nodded, and he rose silently to his feet. Spike didn't say anything, but he didn't have to; that he'd watch her back was a given. Her hand found his and hung on tightly as the three of them followed their guide out the door and into the large hall where the line of glass-divided booths stretched from one end to the other.

Buffy watched as they brought Faith into the cubicle, two big guards with crew-cuts and hands the size of Easter hams. Buffy wondered idly how long it would take Faith to turn them into cold cuts if the mood took her, and if Faith would enjoy doing it. Faith of the long dark tresses and heavy-lidded eyes, the face of a street-worn Madonna and the mouth of a Long Island dockworker, stood there while the guards uncuffed her hands, trying for nonchalant and mostly succeeding. Buffy pulled out the chair on her side of the barrier--it was the same kind of chair they'd had in her elementary school, bright blue plastic seat and all--and sat down. On her side of the glass Faith did the same. Slayers, dark and light. Worlds apart. Or maybe, these days, not so much.

As the guards left them, Faith ran the palms of her hands down the tails of her blue denim prison shirt, licked her lips. Nervous. Faith. Dark eyes flicked past Buffy's shoulder to the two vampires in the background, doing their own little yin-yang thing--Angel loomed, Spike lounged. She looked to Angel first, seeking reassurance, then to Spike, full of questions. "So. B. You building a harem, or what?" She pressed her hand to the bridge of her nose, grimacing. "That was so not the first thing I planned on saying."

"You had a first thing planned? One up on me." Oh, this was going well. Maybe she should just launch herself at the glass screaming now and avoid the rush. Spike's hand drifted over to rest on her shoulder, cool and solid, an anchor to a world where she wasn't Psycho-Bitca Buffy. Pause, rewind.

Angel stirred. "Faith, this is Spike. He's..." He stopped, struggled with it for awhile, and shrugged."Present, for reasons beyond me."

Spike smirked and gave Faith a little wave. "We've met."

Faith peered out at him from between her fingers. "Figured that out, huh?"

"Yeh." His smirk intensified. "Lost your chance for that confrontation I promised you, though. I'm taken."

"Let's just embrace the weirdness and move on, shall we?" Buffy interrupted. Temper-holding exercise #1: Count the nose-smudges on the barrier between her and Faith. My, what high-quality plexiglass. "I think the Council of Watchers is going to contact you soon, if they haven't already. I think they're going to ask for your help and offer to get you out of here. And I--" The words caught in her throat, "I'm asking you to turn them down."

Faith braced one foot against the counter and rocked back in her chair, a frown twisting her brows. "Turn 'em down?"

"With a rousing chorus of 'Look For the Union Label.' We're on strike. I'm trying to get us paid. I know you hate me and I'm not too fond of you, but--"

"Fuck, B., I don't hate you. I--"

"No!" Buffy cut her off with a sharp, one-handed chop. "Don't. Don't tell me you're sorry. There's not enough sorry in the world. Just... do this thing for me, and..." Think about bills. Think about Dawn. Think about Dawn's tuition. "...we're even."

Faith studied her, pinching her lower lip between thumb and forefinger. When she spoke her voice was quiet, serious. "I'm copacetic, B. I owe you. But... not exactly the Council's poster girl for good behavior, here. What makes you think they'll hit me up?"

Buffy shrugged. "Because with me out of the picture--not patrolling, not making with the world saveage--you're the only game in town. And the Slayer line's through you, now. If the Council wants a Slayer, they need you. Or they need you dead."

"Think they'd croak me?" Faith's tone held mild curiosity, no more. "Well, hell, even if I wanted out of this pit ahead of schedule I wouldn't kiss their mildewed British asses to do it. I didn't get tried as an adult for nothin'. And if they want me dead..." She licked her lips again, and this time it wasn't a nervous gesture at all. "I could use a workout. What?"

"Nothing. You just... remind me of someone all of a sudden. There's one more thing."

Buffy glanced over her shoulder, catching Spike's eye. His scarred brow lifted fractionally; she nodded just as fractionally, and Spike heaved himself off the cubicle wall he'd been supporting and shoved his hands in his duster pockets. "Come on, Peaches, we're wanted elsewhere."

Angel looked to Buffy for confirmation--what, hadn't he seen her explain it to Spike? Obviously not onboard the non-verbal Slayer/vampire bandwagon. "I'd like to talk to Faith privately." Angel gave Faith a small encouraging smile and reluctantly followed Spike out of the booth. Buffy took a deep breath and turned back to her erstwhile nemesis. Faith looked a little older, a little more tired-- don't we all?--but solider, somehow, as if the whirlwind of rage and loss within her had spun itself roots. "So, you're looking very... rehabilitated."

"Yeah, I'm rehabilitated as all hell. If I'm a real good girl they'll let me off the Group W bench next year."Faith kicked back in her chair and began winding one of her long dark locks around her index finger. The shadow of her old sly grin flitted across her face. "You look like you're getting laid well and often. I almost didn't recognize you without the pole up your ass. You and Soldier Boy still going at it?"

The mention didn't hurt nearly as much as she thought it would. Of course, Faith wouldn't be up on the latest episodes of The Many Loves of Buffy Summers. "Riley and I broke up last year. His unit got... reassigned."

"So who's the lucky--fuckin' A!" Faith dropped her chair back on all fours with a crash and slapped a palm on the counter before her, the shadow-grin metamorphosing into the old lunatic glee. "B.! You vamp-lovin' she-dog, you! It's short, blond, and lickable, isn't it?"

Buffy buried her face in her hands with an embarrassed little wail and looked up, fixing Faith with huge stricken eyes. "Is it that obvious? Am I walking around with 'Spike's Lust-Puppy' stamped on my forehead? "

Faith snickered. "Something like. I never figured you for the kind to take that particular walk on the wild side, but the vibe you two got going is something else. You better watch out, B., or you might start enjoying life."

Despite herself, Buffy smiled."You laugh, but the possibility's a constant threat to my peace of mind these days." You are not having a conversation with Faith. Stop it, right this minute. "There is something else I need to tell you about. When Giles talked to the head of the Council about the money sitch, part of the song and dance Travers gave him was a lot of hints about Slayers of a certain age going wonky somehow. For what it's worth."

Faith snorted. "Oh, yeah, I fear that. Been there, done that, got the commemorative margarita glass."

Buffy began playing with the ring again. "So true--I don't know how they'd tell with you. But--to channel Cordelia for a minute--it may be to your advantage that you're kind of a whack-job. I don't trust the Council any farther than I could punt City Hall, but I've got... outside evidence that they may be right." She laced her fingers together on the countertop to still the tremor in them."When we... when you first came to Sunnydale, you got me to touch it. The power. Whatever's inside of us. But then--well, it made you crazy, giving in to it. Can't be of the good."

"I was fucked up long before I got Called, B." Faith shrugged. "Can't blame everything on the Slayer mojo."

"Yeah, well, after that I thought I could put slaying in a neat little box. Just what I do, not what I am. Riley thought that was the way to go, too. Then two years ago we had to perform a spell to tap the power of the First Slayer to defeat the baddie of the month. Whatever it was we touched, it was old, and it was strong, and it had a really nasty temper and a permanent bad hair day. I channeled it. Ever since then, I've been..." She clasped her hands together, hard enough to leave white marks on the skin. "I don't want to say different. This stuff was always there. That's what's scary about it. It just keeps coming closer and closer to the surface." Leaving Riley asleep in their bed, oblivious, while she roamed unsatisfied through the night, hunting, searching, for-- "When I slay--"Deep, trembling breath of confession; what she could not admit to Spike, even though he already knew the truth of it, what she feared to admit to Giles, what she had barely begun to admit to herself--she could admit to Faith, who was also a Slayer, who had swum these same dark currents, navigated the same riptides of the soul. "I enjoy it."

For once Faith's face was unreadable. "I told you a long time ago, if you don't you're in the wrong line of business."

Spike's voice, sandpaper and honey, over the rush and whine of traffic: Christ, love, I hope you enjoy it! But Spike was a vampire, her opposite, her prey , just as she was his, and she couldn't quite trust--not yet--that what was sauce for the goose was sauce for the gander. "Since I got back..." She stopped, her throat aching. "Since I got back, we go out patrolling, Spike and I--no. We hunt. We find vampires and demons and things that go bump in the night, and when we fight--it's like we're this, this force, this--the rush is incredible. I love it. And since we--I feel him, all the time. I can't keep my hands off him.We come back to his crypt or my house and pig out on everything in sight or make love for hours. Or both. I'm sleeping better than I have in years. I think I've gained three pounds. I. Feel. Fantastic.

"And it's wrong," she finished quietly. "I know it's wrong. I know there's a chance that it the chip ever breaks down Spike's not going to be able to control himself. He's trying, and I'll help him any way I can. But he's a vampire, a demon, and he... if Spike falls off the wagon, people die. I shouldn't be taking the risk."

Faith frowned. "So you're, what, all guilty over this thing with Spike? And you think that's the wonkiness Travers was jawing about?"

Buffy shook her head. "No. The wonkiness is that I am taking the risk. I want to take the risk. Angel told me I shouldn't need a monster like Spike to make me feel whole, but... I think I do. I think maybe...these things I'm feeling... I'm kind of a monster too. There's something wrong with me, or I wouldn't--I wouldn't be this happy. And I like it. If I'm wrong I want to stay that way." She met Faith's eyes, her own level and sad. "I love him. And someday, I may have to kill him.I'm afraid that if I--if I get more wrong, I won't be able to do it--not fast enough. I might even... someone might have to go through me to do it. You're probably the only one who could do it. That's why I'm telling you this."

For a long minute Faith sat there, staring at Buffy with bemused sloe-dark eyes. Then she began to laugh, and in another breath she was doubled over, clutching her stomach with both hands and howling with mirth. Buffy stared at her, eyes narrowed and lips pressed even narrower, unable to decide if Faith's Cheez Whiz had slipped completely off her cracker or if she were just really, really annoying. "I'm so glad my slow descent into moral quicksand is amusing."

"Oh, B.," Faith gasped, sitting up and wiping her eyes. "I'm sorry, but you're so damned funny, sitting there with your trembly lip and your Brave Little Toaster face on! You think you're goin' over to the dark side, and your first move as a rogue Slayer is setting yourself up to get spanked if you get too naughty! Buffy Summers, the world's most goody-two-shoes villain!"

"It sounded a lot more dramatic the way I put it," Buffy muttered. She sucked in her lower lip. It is so not trembly.

"B., if it makes you feel better, if the day comes you can't keep sweet William in line, I'll do it." Faith chuckled. "I owe him a confrontation. But don't sell yourself short. You're still the top bitch around here, you know? And hey, I'm glad you've got something good goin'." She leaned forward, forearms crossed on the counter. "He is good, I hope?"

The corner of Buffy's mouth twitched. "No. He's not good. Yet. But he's getting better." She got up and started to leave, then halted and came back with a little hip-twitch in her walk. She leaned forward over the counter, resting her weight on her fists and lowering her voice to a throaty, eat-your-heart-out purr. "And the way you're talking about?" She straightened with a smug little grin, and gave Faith the same little finger-wave Spike had earlier. "Don't you wish you knew? See ya, F."

Chapter Text

The outer doors of L'Orangerie were flanked by dwarf orange trees, their small sour fruit just beginning to blush gold with the colder nights. From his vantage point in the front seat of the convertible, Angel could see all the way through the archway and into the courtyard beyond, where a fountain burbled in the center of the flagstone pavement. Evening deepened and merged with the night as he waited, and the lights in the courtyard came on, glimmering white and gold in the indigo shadows. The scent of citrus and damp stone contested with the fumes from the unending stampede of cars rushing by on La Cienega Avenue, but the clash of odors didn't bother him; he hadn't inhaled for fifteen minutes.

It had once been his favorite part of the hunt, this--stalking his victim, learning their ways, their fears, their weaknesses, building from the timber of their own hearts the scaffold upon which he would hang them. Not for Angelus the quick kill; each death was unique and to be savored. He was, in his own way, an artist. He still found pleasure in pursuit, little though he liked to acknowledge the fact.

Men in exquisitely tailored suits and women in silk and pearls drove up, entrusted sleek late-model cars to valets and straggled up the walk, to disappear into the restaurant. Other parties straggled out by ones and twos and fours to reclaim their shining fiberglass chariots. The clothing was different, and the vehicles moved via internal combustion rather than horsepower, but the patterns of fashionable entertainment had changed little over the past two hundred years.

Laughter and fragments of conversation fell upon his ears, slices of other people's lives at once enigmatic and banal. Angel listened. He couldn't help listening. He hadn't tried to eavesdrop on Buffy's conversation with Faith, either, but vampire hearing couldn't help but pick up some of it, even from halfway across an echoing room filled with the yammering of two dozen other women trying to connect to the outside world across an inch-thick barrier of smudged glass. Having heard, he couldn't ignore the implications. If he could get her away from Spike for awhile, or get Spike away from her, he could... he didn't know what, maybe just run a stake through Spike's chest and walk quietly away. But if Buffy were as emotionally dependant upon Spike as she seemed to be, he might be running her through as well. A dilemma.

The players in said dilemma emerged from the restaurant shortly after ten, party of four: Hank Summers, unassuming middle-aged man with greying brown hair and a slight paunch minimized by the cut of his dinner jacket; Linda Gutierrez, a Hispanic woman young and pretty enough to be a trophy girlfriend, though the forceful look in her eyes cast doubt on that notion; Buffy Summers, vampire slayer and sometime love of his life, ethereal in cream and rose, with her tawny-gold hair caught up and bound about the top of her head with a gold fillet; and Spike, former minion, former nemesis, long-time annoyance, lean, pale and elegant in a dark suit and a necktie only true love could have coerced him into. Linda was grilling Spike, who looked a trifle harried.

"...Tuesday," Spike said, "but it was the bagged stuff from Willie's. The blood bank can chuck it when it expires or sell it on the black market; who am I to deny some poor overworked intern a little extra income?"

"Uh huh." Linda was obviously still skeptical. "And the last time you bit someone?"

"Er... Halloween. But there were extenuating circumstances! Tell her, Buffy!"

Buffy was right at his side, her fingers curled possessively around the crook of Spike's arm, laughing at his discomfiture in the face of Linda's rapid-fire questions, her upturned face illumined by a brilliant smile, tinged now with wicked humor. "If there hadn't been, he'd be Mr. Big Pile of Dust about now."

It struck Angel that he hadn't seen that smile in a very long time, and for a moment his resolve wavered. Only for a moment; he had not survived this long on sentiment. He reached across the front seat and picked up the stake, tucking it into the sleeve of his coat. His quarry was in sight; he need only cut him from the rest of the herd. He opened the car door and slipped out into the too-bright L.A. night, a shadow among shadows.

*****

"...didn't know you spoke French," Hank said, unwillingly impressed.

Spike favored Hank with the thirteenth smirk of the evening. There was an American for you; never mind the bloodsucking creature of the night bits, the astonishing thing is he speaks more than one language! "Enough to get by. You spend fifty-plus years knocking about Europe, you pick up what you hear the most: 'Où est la salles des bains?' 'Mon Dieu! Arrêtez, s'il vous plaît. Ne me tuez pas!' the usual. "

"Show-off," Buffy said in the tone which meant she was incredibly pleased with him. She gave his arm a quick squeeze, her eyes brighter than the lights inside, and who needed a heartbeat when you had a girl like this looking at you like that? Her lower lip slipped out in a mock-pout. "I could have handled it. I took two semesters of French in high school."

He dipped his head to nuzzle her ear. "Love, you ordered a shoe."

Buffy looked sidelong up at him through lowered lashes, daring him to tease the pout into another smile. "So maybe I wanted a shoe. You can never have too many shoes."

Spike nodded, excessively sober, and turned on his heel, spinning her around with him. "Right then, back we go, and you can correct my pronunciation to the waiter--"

Buffy gave a little shriek of laughter as the valet drove up with Hank's Lexus, and wrestled Spike back to the curb. "Don't you dare!" Abandoning him for the moment, she grabbed her father in an impulsive, rib-cracking hug and kissed him on the cheek. "Dad, thank you! I think this is the first real night out I've had in a year, and it's been wonderful." Spike made a mental note that if what amounted to a double date with her father was producing this kind of reaction, a romantic dinner for two would probably induce Buffy-meltdown. Buffy did a little pirouette on the sidewalk, while Hank surreptitiously felt his sides to see if anything had snapped. "I just wish it didn't have to end--I feel like dancing till dawn, or--"

"Why not, then?" Spike caught her hand, pulled her back into the circle of his arm, and dipped her tango-fashion. "Got enough for a cab, don't we? We can find some speakeasy with a cover charge in the single digits and let the old folks toddle on home--"

Buffy giggled. "Coming from the only person here who's celebrated a centennial, and uses the term speakeasy with a straight face..." She threw her father a hopeful upside-down look. "It won't bother you if we get in late? I know you said you had to go in to work this weekend..."

Spike suppressed a laugh at the guilt which creased Hank Summers's brow. If Buffy'd been a less scrupulous person she could have parlayed that look into a weekend at the Hilton at the least. As it was, Hank handed the valet his tip, hesitated, extracted his Visa card from his wallet and handed it to Buffy. "Here, sweetie. Have fun. Just don't make me come bail you out, hmm?"

"Ooh, platinum. My favorite color." She reached up and ruffled Spike's hair. It was barely possible, Spike thought, that he and Summers pere had one thing in common--her father seemed to be just as addicted to that glowing smile of hers as he was, looking pleased as hell when Buffy bestowed another hug which threatened the integrity of his internal organs. "Dad, you're tops. The concierge had a phone--I'll go call us a cab." She dashed back towards the restaurant door in a flurry of--well, Buffy would have been able to describe the dress in exacting technical detail, but Spike settled for 'sheer floaty stuff.' Pity they were going to have to return it in the morning; she looked ravishing in the low-cut, cream-colored bodice which left exactly enough to the imagination...

"Don't let her get into trouble," Hank said, getting into his car.

Spike tore himself away from his diverting speculation on just how athletic Buffy could get in that dress before coming out of it and grinned. "Not a matter of 'let,' mate." He watched the Lexus pull away from the curb and took a deep breath for the hell of it, reveling in the scent of smog and oranges, and gave himself up to the luxury of dithering over whether or not he'd have a smoke.

Buffy's happiness was contagious, but this trip hadn't solved anything, not really--it might take weeks, or months, before the Council buckled under to Buffy's demands, if they ever did. Till then, she was still in a precarious position financially, and in her custody of Dawn. The thought of her having to take some scut-work job to make ends meet made him itch to crack a few Watcher heads. She wouldn't take money from him, for fear of where he might have obtained it. Spike rocked back on his heels and shoved his hands in his pockets, heedless of what he was doing to the cut of his suit. Buffy could be unreasonably suspicious at times; just because he'd happened to mention that between the two of them they were probably strong enough to rip an ATM machine out of the wall and break it open didn't mean he was planning on doing it. Not any time soon, anyway.

He needed very little for himself; scavenging, gambling, and the occasional petty theft kept him in blood and beers very nicely, with just enough uncertainty to make life interesting. He could have gotten a job, even in Sunnydale, where the underworld was a tiny, parochial thing compared to Los Angeles's thriving demon community. There were several higher-up demons in town who used vampires for muscle, and if there was one thing he was good at, it was kicking ass. Until recently he'd scorned the idea--he was no one's lackey, and though he'd shed as many of the trappings of his living days as he could, there remained a stubborn core of William-beliefs so deeply ingrained as to be instinct: one opened doors for a lady, one paid one's gaming debts even if one had to knock over a convenience store to do so, and a gentleman didn't sully his hands with trade.

Still, he wasn't a gentleman any longer by any stretch of the imagination, and Buffy was his girl now. That made him at least partly responsible for her welfare, not to mention Dawn's. Buffy would most certainly not see it that way, but... perhaps some sullying was in order. Spike felt a curious internal warmth that had nothing to do with body temperature--it had been a long time since anyone had depended on him for anything. Pride? Haven't had that in stock since the crash of '98, but root around in the cellar, mate, p'raps there's a crate left in a corner somewhere.

His current reputation was such that some prospective employers might even find it an advantage; owning the loyalty of the vampire who'd done in Slayers and his own kind alike would be a coup in some circles. On the other hand, his inability to attack humans was a distinct liability. More to the point, he'd never been good at taking orders from anyone he wasn't in love with, and none of Sunnydale's demon bigwigs were all that appealing. Scratch that idea, save as a desperation ploy. What other possibilities were there? Besides his talents in the ass-kicking line, he spoke a dozen-odd languages, both human and demon, could identify hundreds of demon species on sight, had a working command of black magic combined with an intense distrust of same, possessed an eclectic knowledge of nineteenth and twentieth century human literature, wrote poetry badly, and had a certain knack for interior decorating on a non-existent budget--not exactly a resume calculated to bring in a six-figure salary in a small college town, even for someone who wasn't a legally dead illegal alien.

The rasping snarl, pitched too low for human ears, interrupted his musings, and Spike perked up immediately. Whatever it was sounded large and brassed off, exactly what he needed to banish unprofitable thoughts about profits. Buffy would be out soon. Perhaps he should wait...

Right. He might be whipped and happy to be so, but he wasn't that whipped. Whatever it is, I can kill the bugger and be back in two ticks. Piece of cake.

*****

It looked too simple. Summers and his girlfriend took off, and then Buffy ran back into the restaurant. The patness of it all made Angel suspect a setup, but there was no way any of them could have known he'd be here tonight; his decision to come had been wholly on the spur of the moment. Sometimes the simple explanation was the correct one, and luck was working in his favor.

Spike stood on the curb, rocking back and forth very slightly from heel to toe and gazing out at traffic with a contemplative expression. Angel's slow and purposeful stalk had brought him within fifty feet of his one-time protege when he heard the growl. Spike snapped to attention like a warhorse hearing a distant trumpet-charge, and a glittering, vicious smile spread across his face. He looked over his shoulder at the courtyard, then turned and strode away across the close-cropped lawn towards the side of the building, breaking into an eager trot at the sound of another growl. Angel increased his own pace to keep up. Spike pulled his suit jacket off as he ran, hopped a low stucco wall and disappeared behind a stand of topiary trees. A third growl segued into a full-throated roar, competing with the thump and rattle of the restaurant's heat pump. The roar was followed by the crackle of breaking branches and Spike came sailing back through the foliage, leaving a ragged hole in the center of the carefully-manicured privet hedge. He hit the grass rolling, somersaulted to his feet and shook himself violently, shedding leaves and twigs in all directions. He threw back his head with a wolf-howl, whooped "Come and get it, baby!" and dove back through the hedge.

Angel called down silent imprecations on whatever demon had wandered up out of the sewers to complicate his plans, and ducked around the hedge. Spike's opponent wasn't a species Angel recognized; it stood at least eight feet tall and must have measured as much across. Its haystack of a body was covered with thick slatey-blue fur and an assortment of shiny, multi-faceted black hemispheres in varying sizes radiating out in an irregular whorl from the tooth-filled maw in the thing's upper surface. Whether they were eyes, tympanic membranes, or something else entirely was impossible to say. It supported its bulk on three elephantine limbs and lashed out at Spike with another three long, whiplike tentacles, each equipped with a set of claws like ebony scimitars. Spike ducked as the nearest tentacle sliced through the air over his head, close enough to shave off the tip of a bone-white curl or two, and came up again inside the thing's reach.

Angel's first thought was that Spike had just gone insane; there was no way he could fight this thing effectively without a weapon. It was too large to wrestle, punching and kicking would make little impression on that enormous bulk, and its fur looked too thick for a vampire's fangs to penetrate even had Spike been in game face. A second later the method in Spike's madness became clear as his fist hammered into one of the shiny black organs, smashing it to glistening jelly. The demon's roaring escalated and Spike darted back as it reared up on two legs and tried to trample him with the third.

Spike continued his lethal dance, ducking under or leaping over the whirling tentacles, flitting forward to pulp another eyespot whenever an opening presented itself. His arms were covered with translucent red-black goo to the elbow, and blood was running into one eye from a cut on his forehead where he'd been a hair too slow on a dodge. His eyes were aflame with kill-lust, his breath came in short harsh explosions through bared teeth, and there was a fine sheen of sweat on his face--physical reactions born of emotion, not exertion; a vampire's body had no need to regulate its temperature.

Angel wavered on the fringes of the fight, debating whether or not to join in. If he remained aloof there was a good chance his problem would be solved for him, but then he'd have to dispose of this thing by himself, and he'd left his thrice-cursed cell phone in the car so calling for backup wasn't an easy matter. The matter was taken out of his hands forthwith; Spike zigged when he should have zagged, and one of the creature's tentacles coiled around Spike's chest, pinning his arms and lifting him bodily off the ground. The concentric rings of serrated teeth in the demon's maw gnashed like an animate paper shredder as the tentacle propelled Spike towards the opening. With a curse Angel leaped forward, aiming a roundhouse kick at the thing's near leg. At the same time Spike vamped out, bent his head and sank his fangs into the wrinkled blue skin of the tentacle holding him, ripping out a sizeable hunk of ichor-dripping flesh.

The creature's roar took on train-whistle urgency. The tentacle holding Spike spasmed and flung the vampire into the side of the building. Spike landed hard on one shoulder and plummeted to the ground, gagging on demon blood. Angel dropped into a crouch, wrapped his arms around the leg he'd kicked, and heaved up and out. With a basso wail the thing swayed like a redwood about to topple, then tipped slowly and majestically over onto its side and lay there, waving its tentacles and kicking the air. The tentacle Spike had bitten twitched and shuddered, spattering purple blood across the grass.

Spike got to his feet, ran a hand through his disordered hair, and spat out a mouthful of purple goo. "Like sodding peppermint whale oil, that is. If other demons didn't taste so disgusting my unlife would be a lot easier. " He dusted off the knees of his trousers, keeping an appraising eye on Angel. "Fancy meeting you here. Wondered if you were going to join in or stand there with your mouth hanging open in appreciation of my prowess." He rotated his shoulder experimentally, determined that everything was in working order, and walked over to retrieve his coat, all loose-limbed, predatory grace, as if he hadn't just been tossed into a wall like a discarded rag doll.

You know what he is. Demon animating the mind and body of a man a hundred and twenty years dead, inhuman arrogance an imperfect mask for all-too-human fears. "So who exactly are you trying to fool, Spike?"

"Eh?" Spike's dark brows sketched twin interrogation marks. "What're you on about?" He shrugged back into his coat, concealing the worst of the damage grass stains and demon blood had done to his shirt. He began going through the pockets, and finally located his lighter and a sadly abused pack of Marlboros. He extracted a cigarette with care and straightened it out, then held the pack out to Angel. "Fag? Or is that too personal a question?"

Angel waved the pack away with impatience; Spike knew damned well that it was Angelus who smoked. Spike shrugged and lit up, tucked his lighter back into his pocket, and tilted his sleek white-blond head back to exhale a stream of smoke, his face was a razor-cheeked study in quiescent savagery. What we were informs what we become , Darla had told him, long ago. Were there still echoes in Spike of the diffident, bookish young man Drusilla had carted home to him and Darla, like a cat proudly presenting its owners with a bedraggled and half-dead mouse? Not that it mattered; William was dead, and any echoes of him that remained in Spike were only echoes.

"This." Angel strode over and gestured at the fallen demon. "Fighting things like this when Buffy's not around to watch and give you the Slayer seal of approval. Running around in the middle of the day, having a nutritious breakfast when the only four food groups you really need are O, A, B and AB--" Faster than thought, he whipped the stake out of his coat sleeve and rammed it against Spike's chest. "You'd almost pass for human. But not quite. You've gotten soft, old pal. The Spike I knew would never have let me get within five feet of him."

Spike glanced down at the wooden point making a divot in the lapel of his suit jacket, unflustered. "Yeh, I've gotten into this bad habit of trusting people lately. Give it a rest, Angelus. If you'd meant to stake me or Dru you'd have done it years ago, not pissed around setting her on fire--she told me about that little joke of yours. You're keen on the pre-show, but when it comes to the kickoff you're back in the stands. You'll beat us, burn us, drag us through hell at your heels--but kill us? Never."

"Fancy talk from someone whose last conversation with me was conducted with the business end of a hot poker." Angel held Spike's eyes for a beat, long enough to let Spike grow uneasy about the accuracy of his assessment, and at last let the stake drop. "Why should I, when I can will hurt you a lot more by letting you live? Don't expect me to weep for Drusilla. The crazy bitch deserved it." He might as well have reached in and run a file right along a nerve; hatred boiled up in Spike's eyes, their golden depths going molten. This was too easy. "Careful, Spike. If you keep asking for Angelus, you may get him."

A visible quiver of rage tensed Spike's shoulders, but somewhat to Angel's surprise he held himself back and twitched his coat back into place. "Right, I forgot. You're the good twin."

"I've been trying to figure it out all day," Angel said, ignoring him. It would be satisfying to rip Spike's spine out and tie it in knots, but ultimately pointless. For vampires physical pain was cheap, healed and forgotten in hours or days. No, if he wanted to wound Spike, he knew exactly how to do it. He stepped back a pace or two and studied the younger vampire. "What's in this for you besides the thrill of notching your bedpost?"

Still abnormally calm, Spike leaned back against the hedge and sucked on his cigarette. "Don't think I much care for your tone when speaking of my girl."

"Your girl." Angel's voice took on a gunmetal chill. "Tell me something, Spike. Do you believe your own line?"

"What d'you mean by that?"

"Simple interrogative sentence. Do you really believe you can give up being evil?"

Spike blew a smoke ring. "Give up the killing? Give up the rush of seeing things go smash? Give up the joy--" He kicked in another of the fallen demon's eyes with a black glee that suggested he would far rather be connecting the toe of his boot with Angel's face--"of hurting something? No." His nostrils flared. "But I can bloody well be selective about who I kill, and when. Traitor's not exactly a noble occupation, but you're in it right along with me, so glass houses, eh?"

If there was one thing Spike was not, it was a plausible liar, and his voice was edgy now with anger and sincerity. Maybe he had convinced himself, as well as Buffy, that he had a prayer of resisting his own nature for more than a token few weeks... no, months now, almost a year. An eyeblink to someone who'd seen two and a half centuries roll by, hell, an eyeblink to Spike, who was half his age. "I'm glad you realize that much," Angel said, lacing his hands together behind his back and pacing in a slow circle around Spike and the heap of quivering blue fur. "That you can't change what you are. Does Buffy, though--does she really?"

A muscle in Spike's jaw jumped. "You'd have to ask Buffy that."

"'Cause I'm not sure she really gets it," Angel continued. Spike turned uneasily in place, trying to keep him in sight. "The urges. You know. Not just for blood. For destruction. For a good slaughter. The sweetness of inflicting pain, the delicious scent of fear--not just any fear, either. Human fear. Human pain. That's our natural prey, Spike. Hard to imagine you've given it up entirely."

"'Our'?" Spike asked, his eyes hooded.

"You think I don't still feel it?" Even with a soul, even with the twin goads of guilt and remorse constantly pricking him, he'd given in to those urges more than once; he still woke sometimes from dreams of Kate's rich living blood gushing into his mouth, or the artistic satisfaction of closing the doors on the crowd from Wolfram & Hart. Remorse was stronger than the satisfaction, but Spike knew none, and Spike had never possessed his self-control; the chip only provided him with an illusion of it.

Spike snorted, folding his arms across his chest. "Didn't think you'd admit it if you did. What's all this in service of? I've got a lady waiting."

"Harmony showed up in L.A. last spring."

"My condolences."

"Decided she was going to be a good guy."

"Really?" Spike looked intrigued for a second. "Did the bint make a go of it, or did she work the Kendall magic once again?"

"What do you think, Spike? She betrayed us to a vampire cult within twenty-four hours. So I'm just not all that convinced that your little turn-around is for real. I'll grant you've beaten her record. I'll even grant you love Buffy, the same sick way you loved Drusilla, and that makes it bearable being the neutered little lapdog you are today. But I know you, Spike. You're a monster, and furthermore, you love being a monster. You don't regret a single life you've taken, the first thought in your head when you see a human being walk into a room is 'Mmm, tasty!' and if that chip came out tomorrow--"

Spike's lips peeled back in a wolfish grin over sharp white fangs, and a harsh bark of laughter escaped him. "I'd what? Enlighten me, Angelus. What'm I going to do?"

"Right--you've changed. Got a quote for you: 'Not us! Not demons!' Name that tune, Spike."

"A prize fuckwit of my acquaintance." Between one absent breath and the next Spike was nose to nose with Angel, or as close to it as he could get given the difference in their heights. "You tell me something, Angelus! You had her! Had her in your arms, in your bed, all warm and alive--you tasted the closest thing to heaven our kind will ever know! How the bloody hell could you get up the morning after and rip her heart out? She loved you! She would have loved you even without your precious sodding soul if you'd let her, and you threw it all away! And later--you can't shag her lest you experience perfect happiness and lose that inefficiently attached soul again, and what d'you do? Turn the world upside down to find someone who could diddle with the curse? No, not our Angel! He scarpers off to the big city and starts a detective agency. Bloody brilliant!"

Angel grabbed him by the lapels and hauled him up level; Spike didn't fight it, just sneered into his thundercloud frown. "Do you think I had a choice ?" Angel snarled. "Do you think I wanted to hurt her?"

"In a word, yes!" Spike snarled back. "What's your sodding soul got to do with it? You love her or you don't, Peaches! You want an explanation? Here it is: Buffy's with me because you let her go, you bloody great git!"

Angel dropped Spike in one motion and in the next his fist connected with the younger vampire's jaw hard enough to slam him back into the wall of blue fur behind them. "I let her go because it was the right thing to do! Something you're incapable of understanding."

Spike pulled himself upright on one of the thing's tentacles, wiping blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. It left a gory smear of mingled red and purple across his sleeve. "What I'm incapable of is leaving her--not unless she gives me the boot herself. I'd fucking well rather walk out into the sun and burn. She makes me feel--balls, why am I telling you this? You know! And you left anyway, because you'd bloody well rather wallow in misery than try to solve the problem!"

"Better to face the misery than delude myself into thinking we had a future," Angel snapped. "And that's all it would be: delusion. Every single thing that made it impossible for Buffy and me goes double for Buffy and you. You're evil. She's not. You're immortal. She's not. You'll burn in the sun and she'll wither in the dark. It's not meant to be."

Spike's lip curled up to expose one razor-sharp canine and he all but spat at Angel's feet. "Why should I give a toss what's meant to be? I'm not the special pet of the Powers, with a bouquet of prophecies pinned to my manly chest. I can do as I sodding well please with my unlife--not that I wouldn't anyway. What's meant to be is what happens, when it happens, and not a minute sooner."

"What's happened," Angel said, emphasizing the word very deliberately, "Is that Buffy died. That's a traumatic experience."

"Yeh, seems to me I remember it being a tad upsetting. Can't recall you being there."

"She told me that when she first came back, you were the only thing that seemed real to her. She figures that's love." Angel's dark eyes raked Spike up and down. "I figure it's instinct. She's a Slayer. Killing your kind is what she was born for. Of course you're going to be the first thing she focuses on." He gave Spike a knife-edged smile. "But you know what? She's waking up now. She's starting to see other things again. I'm betting that when she realizes that there's a whole real, daylight world out there for her--she'll walk out into it. And you won't be able to follow her. What are you going to do then?"

"Ring you up and cry on your shoulder. Here, did you just hunt me down to--half a mo'." Spike cocked his head to one side, ice-blue eyes slitted, an incredulous grin curling across his face. "Bloody hell, I get it--you want me to cock up, don't you? You'd throw a sodding ticker-tape parade if I slipped and took a nibble from the nearest warm body. If I can be a good boy, you can't can keep yourself toasty warm at night with your woolly blankie of moral superiority. You couldn't help breaking her heart--no, that was Angelus. Can't hold the bloody special soul-having Angel responsible for what the soulless monster did! Well, bugger that! I've sussed it out, Peaches--it took almost a year for Buffy to admit I could love her, and she's still half convinced there's something wrong with her that you couldn't love her without your bloody soul. If I'd no other reasons I'd play white hat just to spite you, y'pathetic wanker!"

"You know, Spike, I came out here tonight with half a mind to kill you, and--"

Spike's eyes went wide and Angel felt a twinge of irritation; surely he wasn't going to try the old 'There's someone behind you!' trick. A second later he recalled that Spike was the world's worst liar, and spun around. Not someone; some thing.

With a gargantuan shudder the blue-furred monstrosity rolled over, coiled its two uninjured tentacles around the nearest lamp post, and heaved itself upright to the accompaniment of metallic pops and groans. Spike dropped to his knees as a tentacle lashed out and the ropy appendage whipped over his head and wrapped itself around Angel. The creature had learned its lesson; the thing gripped him too low around the waist for him to reach it with his fangs. Spike, crouched on the grass below, looked up at him and laughed, then sprang at the demon, aiming for another eye. Before he reached his target a small lithe shape bearing a long, spear-like object came hurtling down from the roof of the restaurant. It landed squarely on top of the demon's rolling back, astride the gnashing pit of teeth, and thrust downward with the thing in its hands. The demon shrieked in pain.

"Past time you got here, pet!" Spike yelled. "You missed Peaches admitting he's got half a mind!"

"Shut up and hit things, Spike!" The thing she'd rammed into the demon's maw was a push-broom, one of the industrial fiberglass-and-metal models. The demon choked and shook itself, and Spike laughed, pulping another eyespot. Buffy grinned down at him, her now-unbound hair a wild golden halo about her head, her eyes shining green and alight with feral joy. This time his arm went deeper; he hauled out something fibrous and necessary-looking. The demon jerked and staggered, a Brobdignagian marionette with tangled strings. Its rings of teeth pulsed futilely around the head of the broom, unable to spit it out or snap it into pieces small enough to swallow. Buffy hung on to the shaggy blue carpet of fur as it spun ponderously in place and started its second topple of the night. Angel struggled wildly in the grip of the creature's tentacle, and horror chased excitement from Buffy's face as she realized it was going to land right on top of him. She yanked on a double handful of fur in a hopeless attempt to steer the creature's bulk sideways.

Something slammed into him from the side just before he hit the ground, stretching the tentacle out to its fullest extent so that as the black-speckled blue hulk descended, it crashed to earth several inches short of Angel's body. The tentacle uncoiled on impact, and Angel rolled head over heels and fetched up against the foot of the privet hedge. The thing which had slammed into him lay draped across his shoulders for a second, then sat up and shook itself. Spike. Angel's eyes narrowed. "What the hell did you do that for?"

Spike began picking privet leaves and clumps of mangled rye grass off his jacket. "Oh, there's gratitude for you." He cocked a sardonic eyebrow at his grandsire. "Because I love her more than I hate you."

Buffy let go of the demon's fur, dropped to the ground and ran over to them, skidding to a halt on her knees. "Are you all right?" Her words made no distinctions, but it was Spike's shoulders her arms encircled. Her hands traveled over his face and body, checking for damage. Buffy cradled his head on her shoulder, her face buried in the sticky tangle of his hair, and Spike nuzzled her ear with a resonant growl.

"Never better, love." His eyes shimmered from gold to blue at her touch, and his brow ridges receded--no shame there at her touching his demon face; more as if he were slipping into a more comfortable set of clothes. "You?"

"Fine. Great. Wonderful. Mmmm..." Angel heard her breath catch and resume and her heart trip faster than her recent exertions could justify. Her lashes swept a fringe of dark silk across her flushed cheeks as grey-in-this-light eyes darted for a moment in his direction; had he not been there, Angel was convinced, the two of them would be tearing each other's clothes off and having at it on the blue-furred hulk at this moment. He had a queasy sense of deja vu on multiple levels: Spike making savage love to Drusilla, couched upon a heap of exsanguinated corpses. Buffy tearing across the dance floor of the Bronze to leap on him, giddy with her own strength and sensuality, heedless of the danger of unleashing it on him...or perhaps welcoming that danger.

He'd seen something close to the core of her being that night, and again on the night when he'd given her those scars on her neck, something deep-rooted and frighteningly strong. Something Faith's fall from grace had frightened her into keeping under rigid control ever since. Now, as she nestled in Spike's arms, he could sense that the bonds she'd placed on herself were loosening and fraying. Spike might not have prompted her dangerous intoxication with the darker side of her nature, but it was obvious that his presence encouraged it.

He wasn't in love with her any longer, nor she with him, but he loved her still, if only for the sake of what she'd done in dragging him as far out of the darkness as it was possible for him to come. He couldn't allow Buffy to fall into the abyss she'd rescued him from.

Unwitting of his realization, Buffy drew back and took in the condition of Spike's clothes with dismay. "I think I speak for both of us when I say thank God for Nordstrom's generous return policy." She jerked a thumb at the demon. "What is that thing?"

"Rudnark demon." Spike got to his feet and gave Buffy a hand up. "Not very bright, but they take a lot of killing. Teach me to go anywhere without an axe again." The Rudnark made a violent choking noise, something like the dying wheeze of a fork-clogged garbage disposal, and gave a final shudder.

Buffy gave it a kick and yanked the broom free. "On the other hand, maybe we've just been underestimating the lethal possibilities of janitorial supplies for all these years." She turned to Angel and took his hand. "We're lucky you happened to be here..." Suspicion clouded her eyes. "You did just happen to be here, didn't you?"

Angel looked at Spike, who shrugged infinitesimally: Your move. Spike had saved him from a painful convalescence at least, though he'd done so only for Buffy's sake, and keeping Buffy's trust at this point was paramount. "Cordelia had a vision." True; Cordelia had had lots of visions.

"What you might call a fortuitous coincidence," Spike said, a wicked gleam in his eyes.

"Well, it's a good whatever he said." She squeezed Angel's hands and smiled up at him; a century of sunrise encompassed in a single human face--she'd never looked less like someone with a death wish. "Thank you. You know--I was terrified of seeing you. Terrified of telling you about... everything. But you've been--wonderful." She looked down at herself and wrinkled her nose. "The disco fever has definitely broken. Maybe we should just go find a hotel with dry-cleaning and room service and check in for the night. We can take a cab back to Dad's apartment before sunrise, sleep in, and head back to Sunnydale this evening."

Spike wrapped his arms around her from behind and nipped at her ear. "Mmm, I love a woman who takes charge. Lead the way, love."

"Thanks again!" Buffy called as they started off towards the waiting cab. "Say hello to Cordelia!"

Angel stood with hand in pockets and a deeply unhappy expression as the two of them walked off arm in arm, covered in purple ichor and palpably eager to be alone with each other. He had more sense than to ever admit to Cordelia that he'd been within twenty miles of Buffy Summers tonight. He felt a sick twist in the pit of his stomach.

He was going to have to call Giles. The Watcher hated him quite as much as Spike did, and for far better reason; if his passion was quieter, it was no less potentially deadly. But there was no help for it, given Buffy's disturbing behavior. Angel drew a pained sigh and headed back towards his car, and that thrice-cursed cell phone.

*****

Candles, black. A whole bank of them, a Milky Way's worth of miniature stars. The circle inscribed in red ochre and sulfur, sigils drawn at each cardinal point with blue chalk, because you couldn't get powdered lapis on such short notice and Anya would have noticed something funny if she'd special-ordered it. Real frankincense, a fine powder scattered across the glowing coals in the brazier. It smouldered and melted around the edges as its languorous perfume rose into the still air of the cavern. Crow's feather to the left, an ebony slash against the rock. Cock's feather to the right, glowing tawny red in the candlelight. In the center of the circle, the knife. Silver, hand-long blade, triangular--a knife designed for the penetrating wound, for drawing blood.

Of course, there would be blood.

Willow smoothed the crumpled, ink-stained pages of the grimoire flat once more, tongue-tip wetting her lips. She'd copied as much as she could of the text and pored over its translation for the last several nights, even tried a small spell to leech the ink-stain out of the ancient paper, but there were still large segments of commentary she couldn't read, and the exact purpose of the spell remained obscure. The blue chalk worried her, but Buffy would be coming back to Sunnydale tonight, and tomorrow--tomorrow she'd have to have her miracle ready. She'd compensated by using the frankincense instead of the combination of stoat's musk and pine resin the spell called for--frankincense was expensive, but she had no idea where she was supposed to find a stoat. She'd taken other precautions, too: she'd drawn another, larger circle in corn meal and turquoise chips around the circumference of the cavern and called on Raven and Corn Mother and all the powers of an entirely different and antithetical tradition to confine any energies which might escape the inner circle.

She knelt in the center of the inner circle, sweating palms folded on her lap. Compared to some of the spells she'd done in her life, this one used comparatively little raw power. It was well within her current limits. Probably, if anything went wrong, she could break off the invocation, refuse to harbor the power she was calling and send it packing. Probably. There was no kidding herself that this wasn't dangerous and stupid, but--

Visions of a wretched landfill encampment she'd never seen with her own eyes flashed through her brain, phantom shapes wracked with misery and fear that she could alleviate--if only. Buffy's face, her eyes full of disappointment: I thought I could depend on you, Will. Tara's earnest voice, full of pity: I thought you were someone special. Other faces, other memories: Moloch, advancing on her with mechanical deliberation; Mayor Wilkins, cheerily threatening her with death; Spike, drunk and vicious and about to slice her face open; Verruca, laughing at her weakness; the scarecrow figure of Daniel Tanner, tearing her mind free of its moorings...

She closed her eyes and tipped her head back, breathing deeply to calm her racing heart. She raised her arms, palms outspread, and began. Willow picked up the cock's feather, and flung it onto the coals. The stench of burning feathers joined the heavy odor of the incense.

Herald of the Dawn, guardian of the gates of ivory,
Let that which I summon enter!

She could feel the currents of power stirring, rising within her. She picked up the crow's feather and tossed it after its mate.

Herald of the Dusk, guardian of the gates of horn,
Do not bar the way, but hold it open!

Willow fumbled for the hilt of the knife; the silver was chill against her skin, an interstellar cold. Willow scrunched her eyes shut, gritted her teeth, and plunged the knife into her palm, the point slicing through skin, stabbing through muscle and tendon, sliding between the metacarpal bones to emerge from the back of her hand. "Thus do I grasp the door into the Great Abyss!" she screamed, yanking the knife free. Agony lanced through her, pain too great to encompass shooting all the way up into her shoulder and coiling around her spinal cord. "Thus do I open the door!" Tears blinded her; blood flowed from the double wound in scarlet rivulets, dripping onto the coals and hissing like a nest of snakes. "Thus do I consecrate the threshold!"

Willow slapped her bleeding left palm down on the brazier. The red and black of the coals seared itself onto the back of her eyelids, and there was noplace she could escape. Fire and ice, meeting, melding, becoming one pain impossible in its scope and perfection. She could smell her own flesh burning, and a part of her mind flung up memories of summer barbeques and hamburgers broiling on the back yard grill. She almost vomited at the image, but with iron determination she swallowed her own bile and pulled her hand away. "The way is open, the path is clear! Enter in where you have been made welcome, Lord of the Great Dark, make of me the vessel for your power and I shall be thy willing servant!"

A wind sprang up where no wind should have been, and the candle-flames dipped and lay almost flat for a breath, for two--and then they were gone, every flame snuffed out, and the great dark they'd kept at bay rolled in and drowned all. There should have been thunder, there should have been lightning and the howling of wolves. There should have been the wailing of damned souls as the Hellmouth gaped wide. But the wind was gone as quickly as it had come, and there was only the deep silence of the caves, made deeper by the slow insistent drip, drip, drip of water in the far distance, in some jet-black fastness where the earth yet labored to bring forth a garden of stone, building its cold limestone blossoms petal by petal over the millennia. Willow knelt alone in the dark, cradling her throbbing hand in her lap and rocking back and forth in pain. Her sobs made pitiful little dents in the silence. Out of the darkness a greater dark coalesced, black as night, black as ice in the deeps of midwinter, an absence of light so intense that it froze the eyes no less than too great a concentration of light could burn. Vast it rose above her, stretching itself from floor to roof-beam, from wall to wall, and perceiving her huddled there stooped like a falcon upon a dove.

Woman, why are you weeping?

There was nothing else she could say. "It hurts. It hurrrts!"

Then bid it stop.

Too dazed to do anything but obey, Willow mumbled, "Wounds be healed, pains be eased."

The pain stopped. And there was no joy in the universe so great as that moment, when the mind still comprehended the full extent of the pain and realized it was no longer there. It was the feeling you got when the Midol kicked in, except a million times better.

Willow crouched on the bare stone floor, holding her uninjured hand. "Fiat lux," she whispered. A ball of golden light sprang into being over her head, shining down on the half-melted ranks of candles, the sullenly smoking brazier, the bloodstained knife. She looked down at her palm; beneath the film of drying blood, the skin there was pink and smooth and perfect, save for a thin silver scar running through the center, bisecting the lines of head and heart and life. Turning her hand over revealed a matching scar on the back, from knuckles to wrist. She flexed her fingers, probing inwardly for the scraped-dry feeling. It wasn't there.

She scrambled to her feet, looking around. There was her book bag and her trusty blue nylon duffle. She pointed at the brazier. "Cool!" She bent over and touched the rim with tentative fingers; the metal held no trace of heat. She picked it up, knocked the half-burnt coals out, and straightened, cupping it in her hands. "Clean!" Instantly, the metal sparkled in the witchlight.

And she felt fine. Just like her old self. Willow broke into a grin, and a giddy laugh escaped her. She hugged the brazier to her chest and spun around, scuffing the now-powerless sigils beneath the soles of her sandals. "Woo! I did it! Ignite!" The candles sprang back to life. "Volo!" She rose into the air and swooped around the cavern, narrowly missing a stalactite--Disneyland had a new E-ticket ride. "Willow Rosenberg, wicca supreme, rides again!"

The cold black voice brought her up short in mid-swoop. As it should be. But there will be time for celebrations later. It is time to meet your new companions.

One by one, from out the pitch black depths of the tunnels on every side, the eyeless men began emerging.

Chapter Text

There were moments in her life Willow wished she could quarantine, like virus-infected files on her computer. Not get rid of them entirely, because who knew when studying them might be useful. Just cordon them off in little partitions of their own, where she could observe them--preferably via a completely different operating system--without actually running the executable. Moments preserved like specimens in formaldehyde, like Jesse's death, or the tropical fish incident, or her parents' realization she hadn't aced the SATs after all--cross-sections of time under glass, tinted to show off their most interesting features.

It was fifty-fifty whether or not this was going to be one of those moments. She was sitting in a cave a little too deep into Sunnydale's maze of caverns for comfort (she had taken the right-hand fork when the tunnel split, hadn't she?) It was the wrong side of midnight on a Friday evening, and Tara could be waking up at any minute and wondering where the hell she was. She'd just summoned up something that looked like a Balrog on steroids, and last but not least, Willow Rosenberg, Wicca Supreme, had acquired a crowd of truly wiggins-inducing groupies.

The eyeless men shuffled into the cavern, gaunt Blair Witch stick-figures with leathery skin stretched over gangly limbs, filthy rags draping their bodies like Spanish moss. They carried staves hung about with bones and feathers and small sickening dried things the color of old blood. Their withered eyesockets were sewn over with a double X of coarse brown twine, but they padded across the uneven floor of the cavern with never a pause or stumble. Bare feet scuffed and whispered against the stone. Twiggy fingers reached out for her, straining to be first to touch her hair or grasp the hem of her sleeves. "The vessel," they murmured in chorus.

Willow's face twisted in revulsion, and she slapped the eagerest hands back with a fizzing shower of blue sparks. "Hey! No touchy!"

The eyeless men cringed away, some prostrating themselves, others raising their staves and beginning a reedy chant. The thing she'd summoned laughed, and dwindled down, splashes of red and green and alabaster blossoming out of the darkness. "Bad puppies," her vampire self crooned, flicking a riding crop at the nearest supplicant. "No treats for you. Down."

"Is it vitally necessary for you to look like that?" Willow asked. "It's ooky. And if the purpose is to unnerve me, hey, already existing in a nerve-free void."

Color leached away and the clear heartless peal of laughter deepened and roughened as the phantom scent of tobacco smoke tickled her nose. The thing inclined its bone-and-ivory head, regarding her with luminous blue eyes. "I can look like anyone, pet." Another shift--her mother's distant, accusing face looked back at her, a little frown pinching her perfectly penciled brows. "It's just a phase, Willow. You need to work through this stage and return to a healthy phase of ego development."

"Stop that!"

Her own chirpy grin returned. "Givin' you the wiggins?"

Willow unzipped her duffle and began pinching out the wicks of the half-melted candles, stuffing them back inside beside the Ziploc bags of frankincense. "You're trying to scare me? OK, I'm scared. Woo frickin' hoo." She grabbed another candle and yanked it free of the spot where its own drippings had welded it to the stone floor of the cavern. The scent of melted wax and licorice made the still air of the cavern seem stuffy, despite the underground chill, and she wondered if licorice was maybe an extra-evil scent, candle-wise. "I've been scared pretty much twenty-four-seven for the last six years straight and fought vampires and demons and hellgods and furthermore given oral reports in front of the entire class without fainting and all this stuff I do while shaking in my high-heeled boots, so you may as well just give it up and head back to Dodge, because scaring me? Waste of time. I did what you wanted me to--you're all manifested and everything. I've got my magic back. I'm happy, you're happy, everything's coming up sunshine and puppies, so we're finished, 'kay? No more little voices in my head, no more oogy visions, no further doorstep-darkening of any variety on either of our parts."

Vampire-Willow perched on an outcropping of stone and swung her legs back and forth. "Aw. Don't you like me, Snuggles? We could have lots of fun. But if you don't want to play--"

Her hand described a languid circle in the air, a gesture which Willow was morally certain was just for show. As the pale fingers completed their revolution, she felt... void. Her insides drained away into nothingness, and the raw dry ache as the power leached out of her soul was unbearable. She knelt on the cold stone, gravel digging into her knees--the center of her being was a vacuum; how could nothingness torment her so? With physical pain, at least she could point to it and say my hand hurts. "Bye-bye now," Vampire-Willow said, waggling her fingers.

"What did you do?" Panic drove Willow's voice to an undignified squeak. The muscles in Willow's hands spasmed and she dropped the candle she'd been about to toss into the duffle; it hit the ground with a waxy thump and rolled away into the darkness. Some bean-counting part of her mind which had become too thoroughly caught up in Buffy's budget woes thought grouchy thoughts about the waste of a perfectly good candle, though it really was kind of gross-smelling and if licorice-scented candles were extra-evil it wasn't like she could recycle them in another ritual.

"No-thing," her alter ego sang. "Nothing at all. I stopped doing." She got up and slink-strutted over to Willow with a sly, I've-got-a-secret smile, slapping the riding crop against her palm. "You don't have your magic back, clever witch, you have my magic back." Her lashes fluttered. "And you can keep it as long as you do me little favors. I like people who do me favors." She flicked the riding crop out, just short of tapping Willow on the nose, and power rushed back into the void within. Magic surging through all the empty channels of Willow's soul, monsoon rains following on the heels of a summer drought, sparkling, effervescent, limitless, bubbling up to soothe every ravaged nerve.

Willow moaned in near-orgasmic relief as the nameless, bodiless ache dissolved before the flood, but the relief fled before a desire to scream like a frustrated two-year-old. It's not FAIR! I want my magic back NOW! She dug her nails into the surface of the nearest candle, leaving little crescents in the wax. OK, fine, Willow doesn't get what she wanted. Again. Big news, not. Repress, retreat, regroup, the Rosenberg family motto. She snuck a look at her alter ego. It couldn't hurt to ask. "What kind of favors?"

Vampire-Willow draped herself across a boulder and sucked on the tip of her index finger. "Ooooh, lots of terrible, naughty things... or not. Who knows? Right now, three things, and if you do those, I'll let you do anything else you like until I need you again. That's not a bad bargain, is it, to have your wings back?"

"No, it sounds pretty suckified, in an open-ended, indentured-for-life kinda way." Willow crossed her arms and sat back on her heels. "But from the absence of any overwhelming zombie compulsion to go and work your naughty will, I'm beginning to get the idea that you can't make me do anything I don't want to. Aren't you going to, like, slap a lien on my soul or something?"

The image writhed, and now it was the lean, tired countenance of Daniel Tanner looking at her. "Souls are highly overrated as a medium of exchange. Why don't you see what's required of you? Your first task would be to restore the minds of the people living in the landfill."

Willow blinked. She'd been expecting a request for roast babies or something. "I was going to do that anyway."

"You see? I'm not unreasonable." Another shift of light and shadow, and Giles was standing there before her, wearing his old librarian's armor of tweed and reserve. "My second request is also simple." Flicker. Dawn's gangly form stood in his place. "Use the girl as the power source for the spell."

"What?" Darn. Here it comes, the soul-sucking evil part. "Dawnie? I can't do that!"

Dawn's image reverted to Giles's again. "Indeed you can--you've thought of it before now. No harm will come to her from it, I give you my word on that." Modifications to the spell she'd been working on leaped into her mind full-formed. "The Key has tremendous power, enough to open every gateway between every world simultaneously. To siphon off a tithe of that power to heal the minds of so many will harm nothing."

She could see it unfurling in her mind's eye, the elegant way that Dawn's latent power could be transformed into the mental energy necessary to repair the damage done to Glory's victims. When she'd designed her revamped version of the spell to draw energy from an external source, could she truthfully say she hadn't been thinking about something like this? "If you've got all this vast cosmic power, why do you need me?"

Faux-Giles shrugged and began to polish his glasses. "It's all rather torturous, really," the measured English voice said, reflective. "I was, er, evicted from this little corner of reality some years previously. Since then my associates--" he waved at the huddle of eyeless men-- "have recouped their numbers, and recent events have made it possible for them to grant me access to this plane once more. Mr. Tanner became, quite accidentally, the focus of an incident which, while insignificant in and of itself, proved to be the proverbial straw which broke the camel's back. I suppose you know there are two forces at work in the cosmos--Good and Evil, Light and Dark, Order and Chaos, Creation and Destruction--call them what you will. At present the balance between them is threatened, and I am doing my small part to restore it."

Willow frowned. "So you're kinda like that guy Buffy met back when Angelus was on the rampage? Whistler?"

An expression of distaste crossed the Giles-face. "Not precisely. But you might say we're in the same line of work. In any event, my associates established a rapport with Mr. Tanner, and Mr. Tanner was able to perform a few minor services for me--in the main, putting me in a limited form of contact with you. However, he is neither skilled nor stable enough to perform the ritual which you just performed, which now allows me to channel my not inconsiderable powers through you to affect the material world. I have power; I desire agency. You have agency; you desire power. What is more logical than that we ally and benefit one another?"

Willow plucked at the strap of her duffle, fiddling with the frayed spot where the buckle rubbed, little fuzzy nylon fibers frizzing beneath her fingers. It couldn't force her to do anything. Check. It would give her the ability to use magic again. Check. And it hadn't asked her to do anything in the roast baby category yet. Check. "Ok. What's the third thing?"

*****

It had been considerably easier checking into a hotel in the middle of the night back in the days when he could just eat the desk clerk and take over the presidential suite. On the other hand, Spike had to admit that Hank Summers's impressive credit limit proved almost as effective as raw terror in securing them a room despite their disheveled state. One impassioned wheedle of the hotel laundry staff and a very long, hot shower involving several brilliant shags later, they'd arrived at that drowsy, almost-sated point where giving it another go and lying there and falling asleep were equally attractive options. Spike made yet another mental note: Install shower in crypt immediately if not sooner. He supposed they could use the one at Buffy's place, but the Niblet's banging on the door and yelling at them to hurry up in there would be something of a mood-killer.

A tsunami of applause burst from the television. "Oi, that's a cheat if I ever saw one!" Spike aimed the remote at the screen like a weapon and zapped the Iron Chef into cable oblivion. "The challenger had it locked up! That simpering little bint's probably shagging Morimoto on the side--explosions of happiness in her mouth my arse!"

"I refuse to take sides," Buffy said. She was curled up beside him on the rumpled expanse of the hotel bed, wearing an oversized t-shirt in bright pink emblazoned with I SAW THE STARS COME OUT IN HOLLYWOOD in gold glitter--not exactly high fashion, but when one was trying to find replacement clothing at eleven o'clock at night, it didn't do to quibble about what presented itself in the hotel gift shop. "To do so would be to admit that sea urchin is a real food. What else is on?"

Spike began power-flipping through the channels. "Got to be something on with explosions in it."

Buffy made a half-hearted attempt to snag the remote. "How can you tell if it's any good when you never stop on one channel for more than half a second?"

"Superior vampire eyesight and fifty years of telly-watching savvy. It's a knack." He brought the remote to a screeching halt on John Cleese banging a stuffed parrot on a counter. "There's quality multicultural programming for you."

Buffy rolled her eyes and settled back at his side, holding up one foot and wiggling her toes in front of the glowing screen. "So, this waking up together thing--if it becomes a habit, will you still love me when I've got leg stubble and a dead cat on my head?"

Apparently she'd failed to notice the post-shower exploded poodle on his--though from the way her fingers kept sneaking up to play with the curls he was beginning to get the horrid suspicion that she liked it that way. If so, she was in for a disappointment; not even the Slayer could come between him and his century-long love affair with Brilliantine and its chemical descendants. I draw the line at looking like sodding Little Lord Fauntleroy. "Pet, I'll even let you borrow my razor. Greater love hath no man."

Buffy laughed and Spike grew thoughtful. Short of that first night in the Magic Box and last night at her father's place, they'd not had much opportunity to wake up together--one or the other of them always had to drag themselves out of bed and back to their own domicile in the brightening dawn. And it was only going to get more inconvenient come summer when the nights grew shorter...

Somewhere in the back of his skull, Manly!Independent!Spike grabbed Soppy!Romantic!Spike by the lapels and gave him a good smack across the chops. Bloody hell, you're not thinking of moving in with the chit? Well, of course--who was he kidding? Soppy!Romantic!Spike would have been picking out rings and composing pathetic speeches about having a man in the house and making an honest Slayer of her by now if it were an option. Just seeing her wear that old ring of his around her neck made him burst with possessive male pride. Manly!Independent!Spike was reluctantly forced to agree that this was a bit of all right, and when Insatiable!Horndog!Spike chimed in with the point that shared quarters would allow for a lot more quality shagging time, Manly!Independent!Spike threw up his hands and retired to the cerebellum for a good sulk.

Not that his moving in was really an option either, given the vigilance of Dawn's social worker. But there was a middle ground here, wasn't there? "Or bring your own--I can spare a drawer."

Buffy's hand, which had been playing idly across his stomach, tracing the muscles up and down, stopped dead, and she said in a small quivery voice, "You'd give me a drawer?"

He sat up and looked into her welling sea-green eyes and ran a thumb over the sweet curve of her lower lip, bewildered. They didn't look like unhappy tears. "Sure, love. A whole dresser, if I can find one good enough to cart home."

She gave a little gulping sob and threw her arms around him; Spike had no idea what it was he'd said, but apparently it had been very much the right thing to say. Buffy pressed him down into the nest of hotel pillows as her mouth sought his, her fingers splayed across his chest to cover as much skin as possible: All this belongs to me. Spike shifted beneath her and ran a hand over the curve of her hip, up the rising slope of her body. His palm cradled the soft weight of her breast, her mortal warmth seeping into his flesh like liquid gold. Buffy made a kitteny little "mmmm" noise as his thumb drew lazy circles on the crinkling aureole, and she squirmed most gratifyingly as he tweaked the firm little nub in its center. Why was it that copping a feel under the t-shirt was somehow sexier than doing the same thing when she was stark naked?

Though stark naked had its own advantages. One small warm hand crept down under the covers and started to demonstrate a few of them, and when she had him thrumming like a high-tension wire in a hurricane she crawled astride his hips and sank down, engulfing him in a series of lascivious little wriggles. "You're blocking my view of the telly, woman," Spike growled, mock-severe. Buffy gave him a smug little smile and rocked forward, pulling the t-shirt over her head oh so slowly, revealing slim hips, flat belly, twin cherry-tipped ice-cream-scoop breasts... Oh, yeeessss. Golden hair cascaded round her shoulders as the shirt came off altogether, and the muscles in her belly and thighs went taut as she tightened her internal vise-grip on his cock. His voice went hoarse and his hips bucked involuntarily. "And you can keep right on doing it."

In the prosaic sixty-watt glow of the bedside lamp her eyes held him mesmerized with their changes: storm-tossed green, misty grey, every shade in between. Her hand brushed his cheek. "Talk to me, Big Bad," she whispered. It was an order.

He laced his hands behind his head--he'd obey, oh, yeah, but he'd take his time about it. "Yeh? What about?"

That sinful little pink tongue-tip darted out for a second, and her cheeks flushed a matching pink. "You know."

"Oh?" He bucked again, deliberate this time, caught her around the waist and held her there for a second in mid-air, half-impaled and gasping, before letting her sink down on him again, the sweet slippery-warm friction making him groan. "You wanna hear what a naughty bitch you are?" She nodded, a fractional bob of her head, still drowning him in those eyes. "How walking down the street watching that sweet little arse of yours twitch makes me want to throw you down on the sidewalk and fuck you raw right there? Someday I'm gonna do it, and you won't be able to stop me--you won't want to stop me." She was writhing slowly against him now, every movement sending little shudders of bliss through both of them. "We'll be screwing on the sidewalk come morning, and the sun won't be able to bloody touch me 'cause you'll have sent me up in flames already. Oh, yeh, love, just like that, wring me dry..."

Buffy said very little when they made love--when pressed she retorted that he talked enough for the both of them--but she listened, oh, she listened. She made an epic of their lovemaking, scribing the lines with teeth and nails across the ivory parchment of his flesh, her hands moving incessantly over his body, seeking out every sensitive inch of him, memorizing the planes and curves of muscle and bone. She reared above him, his golden goddess, his lost little girl, his Slayer--moist and warm, lips half-parted, a trickle of sweat drawing a path between those small perfect breasts. She rolled beneath him, her body the violin to his bow, seperately mute but together drawing forth the music of the spheres until they arrived at the coda together, and then--then at last she cried out Spike! Just that, as if his name were the most important thing in the world, the only possible thing to say at the moment when all the universe stopped, breathless, waiting upon the fulfillment of their pleasure.

Afterwards she lay panting across him, her ear pressed to his chest as if the silence within were music, and his own breathing slowed and finally segued into a low growl--absolutely, positively, definitely a growl, since chip or no chip he'd rip the lungs out of anyone who suggested he was capable of anything so nancified as a purr. "So does any random offering of used furniture get me this kind of treatment?"

Buffy giggled. "No, just drawers. It's a long story. Damn it!" She sat up, misty romantic Buffy instantly replaced with pissed-off Buffy. "Anya's wedding shower is tomorrow afternoon!"

"And?" Possibly there were world-threatening and shag-interrupting implications in a gaggle of demon bints and assorted members of Sunnydale's Business and Professional Women Association getting blitzed on wine coolers and regaling Anya with dirty jokes and a variety of embarrassing underthings, but if so, Spike failed to see them. Hmm. Focus on the embarrassing underthings.

Buffy made a wry face. "And it'll look pretty shoddy if I don't have a present for her. Especially since her maid of honor is another vengeance demon, who, for all I know, specializes in non-present-givers." She crawled over to the edge of the bed and leaned over, scrabbling for the t-shirt. "I have the wedding present budgeted, but I completely spaced on the shower, and--"

Her backside bobbed enticingly in the air, a perfect, luscious peach just waiting for someone to... Insatiable!Horndog!Spike took over and he lunged, wrapping his hands around her waist, just above arch of her hips--she was such a tiny thing; he could almost circle her waist with his fingers--and had her back on the bed and pressed tightly against him in one effortless heave, his rapidly hardening cock resting in the warm cleft of her ass. He drew a fingernail lightly down the side of her neck and rasped into her ear, "Still got your Dad's plastic, don't you?" Buffy gasped and nodded, momentarily incapable of coherent speech. "And you've got to take the dinner togs back anyway, so--just--aahh, you like that, Slayer? I thought so--pick up something then."

"It wouldn't--" Her eyes closed and she broke off into a high-pitched whimper as he slid into her again. "Oh. God. Spike. Ohhhh..." And she was arching forward to allow him better access to that impossibly tight velvet warmth, drawing him deeper and deeper...

Some considerable time later, the TV burbling on unwatched in the background, Buffy mumbled, "...be right to use Dad's card," into the pillow. She opened one eye and perked up slightly. "You know, I really think we're getting the hang of the not wrecking the furniture thing. Everything's still flat. No saggy spots."

Spike spat out a strand of her hair and propped his head up on one hand, cocking an eyebrow at the bed, which, while not a complete loss, looked rather the worse for wear. "That would be because we're on the floor now, pet. But if we straighten out that leg and prop the wastebasket under that corner they won't notice a thing." He rolled over, spooned up against her and began kneading her shoulders. "No sponging off Daddikins, then--I think this conscience business is highly over-rated." He sucked in his cheeks and thought for a moment. There was another possibility. "I know you haven't been keen on it in the past, love, but--assuming no one's gotten to it already--we could stop back by the restaurant and prise out a few of those Rudnark teeth. They're not stunningly valuable, but a dozen or so of 'em would fetch enough on the black magic circuit to pay for a present that wouldn't make Demon Girl give you the fish-eye the moment her magical ability to divine price tags comes into play."

Buffy stirred uneasily against him. "Black magic circuit? What are they used for?"

He shrugged. Why was that any concern of theirs? "This, that--curses mostly, I think."

She was frowning--tempted, he could tell. "So we'd be selling something that someone else could use to turn someone into a frog or afflict them with ever-growing nose-hair?"

Spike chuckled. "More like excruciating pain in the gut until they fall over frothing blood at the mouth and--" Buffy's shoulders locked solid beneath his hands. Bloody hell. Idiot. Does it never occur to you to lie to the girl? No, it didn't, and it wouldn't matter if it had; the two of them could see through each other's deceptions as if through clear glass. He wracked his mind for something to make it right again, but rights and wrongs were hopelessly mixed up in his sex-muddled brain at the moment. Surely there was some rule about it, like not going swimming for half an hour after a meal--no man should be required to think for thirty minutes after an orgasm? It was hard enough to mix and match the things his mind labeled good and bad with the often diametrically opposed things which brought a glow of satisfaction to his heart under ordinary circumstances. "Which would, uh, be a bad thing?"

"A very bad thing," Buffy said through clenched teeth. She sat up and wrapped the sheet around herself, looking small and cold and forlorn for all the anger in her eyes.

"Well... it's not like we'd be cursing people ourselves," Spike offered. That was good, wasn't it? Buffy gave him a withering look, and he began to get irritated. Couldn't she see he was trying here? Did she have any clue how difficult it was to navigate your way through life backwards, fighting your basic inclinations every step of the way? "Oh, come on, love, Demon Girl's got a wagon-load of things for sale in the Magic Box that're the dog's bollocks for cursing! It's all right for her to do it because she's got a soul and a tax number?"

The mule-stubborn look crept into Buffy's eyes, and Spike knew with sinking certainty that it didn't matter what got said from here on in, he was battling for a lost cause. "Giles and Anya don't sell anything that can only be used to hurt people!"

Well. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. Gonna learn sooner or later, love, demons live for a good fight. "Right. I'll wager 'only' doesn't matter a lot when you've been a sodding rat for the last three years."

"Don't bring Amy into this! She did that to herself and Willow's been trying--"

"Oh, yes, Willow's been very trying."

"Don't change the subject!"

"And what is the bloody subject, Your Majesty?"

"You trying to talk me into selling dangerous demon parts on the black market! It's wrong!"

"'It's wrong!'" Spike mimicked. "Well if they weren't bloody dangerous they wouldn't be worth selling, would they? You seemed happy enough to consider it when you thought they were only good for frog-curses, but--"

"Oh, shut up!" Buffy turned away and huddled under her sheet. "Why do you have to be so--so--"

Spike cursed under his breath; she looked ready to burst into tears, and if she did he'd melt as usual and end up petting her head and agreeing with anything just to get her to stop. "Evil? Sorry, love, it comes with the fangs."

She sniffled. "No! If you were just evil I could kill you! But you have to be s-so damned g-good to me at the same time!" She wiped her nose on a hank of sheet. "I was halfway to talking myself into it when 'excruciating pain' came up. And I shouldn't have been. Frogs aren't any more of the good than frothing blood at the mouth." Her eyes were haunted for a moment. "There really is something dark in me."

Spike sighed. "Yeh, but that's not it, pet." He stretched out a hand; after a moment she scooted over and curled into his arms. "Observe. Buffy Summers considers selling nasty demon bits to the unscrupulous: result, wracking guilt. William the Bloody, Esq. considers same: result, mild irritation that B. Summers won't let him go for it." She shot him a heartrending look and, as predicted, the remains of his ire dissolved faster than an ice cube on a Sunnydale sidewalk in July. "Ah, love, I'm sorry I brought it up. I haven't gone daft enough to care about people who aren't us yet, but I could do a better job of pretending."

"Don't." Her voice was tight and hard. "Don't ever pretend. You promised."

"So I did. It cannot be said I'm a flattering honest man, but I am a plain-dealing villain. I'm trying, love, I just--" How was it he could face down Rudnark demons without blinking an eye and be so helpless in the face of her tears? "When it gets past 'Eating people bad, Buffy pretty' I don't even know where to begin sometimes."

Buffy cast her eyes down, as much to hide her smile as anything else, twisting the sheet in her fingers into little horns of fabric. If he could get a grin out of her, he couldn't have cocked up too badly, could he? "That's the important thing, I guess," she said, sounding as if she were trying to convince herself as much as him. "That you're trying." Then her mouth firmed and she looked up, meeting his eyes again. "No. The important thing is we're trying." She reached up and ran a finger down the acute angle of his cheek, tracing the intersecting curve of his lower lip. "It's just... every now and then it hits me. You're not just pretending, or trying to annoy me. You really, truly don't get it, here." She placed a hand over his heart. "Sometimes it's as easy as breathing, loving you. Then a minute later it's the hardest thing I've ever done."

"I could say the same, and for some of us breathing takes a little extra effort." Spike pulled her down into the pillows again and held her close. "But I've always done things the hard way."

He wondered if he'd ever get it. Angel could afford to believe in miracles; Spike was grateful for a lack of disasters. Did he really want to? Angel's getting it hadn't been a pretty sight. In his clearer-eyed moments he could see that his moral existence from now on would likely consist of a Red Queen's race to stay where he was now. With Buffy a warm, sleepy, comfortable weight in his arms, where he was now did not seem such a bad place to be. They lay there together, wrapped up in each other and their own thoughts, until the hotel's wake-up call startled them back to the world again.

*****

Sunlight was filtering through the blinds, gilding the sedimentary layers of books and papers spread out before him. Giles excavated his saucer, took another sip of lukewarm tea and laid his glasses down on the page before him. He'd heard the morning paper thump against the door half an hour ago, but hadn't gone out to retrieve it yet. Xander and Anya had begged off on him hours ago, and he was left the sole defender of a play-fort of paper and calfskin. He rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling the grit under his eyelids. Fit as he kept himself, his fiftieth birthday was looming nearer and nearer, and he no longer possessed the resilience to bounce back from all-nighters with nothing more than a pot of tea and a cold shower. He'd have to get more sleep before tomorrow if he and Tara planned to attempt to contact any of the powers which seemed to be circling Sunnydale like sharks.

The last few days had been too late to bed, too early to rise, too many journals to pore over, and frustratingly little gold sieved from the gravel: a handful of volumes out of the stacks of dozens of bound Watchers' diaries which barricaded the kitchen table. Accounts of those few Slayers who'd survived as long or longer than Buffy Summers, four hundred years worth of observation and expertise--to go back further he'd have had to contact the Council Library in London, and he wasn't sure he wanted to let anyone else know the direction his researches were tending yet.

Even in light of the cursory reading he'd been able to give each case history so far, there was a definite pattern emerging. Slayers who lasted four or more years followed one of two paths: For most, increasing emotional isolation and intense focus on their slaying, sometimes to the point that they were barely able to function outside a combat situation. In a smaller number of cases... well, in Buffy he would have called it normal behavior--rebellion against Council strictures, over-reliance upon emotion, increasing independence. Most of this smaller group, he noted, shared Buffy and Faith's history of having been missed by the Council's screening processes, and had grown up without the years of indoctrination concerning their destiny. They often had families, ties to the world of the living.

And almost without exception, they had ended as Faith had: going rogue, succumbing to the dark lure of their own power, throwing off their Watcher's guidance and striking out on their own. He scanned the list of names on the legal pad, checking it against the books he'd pulled. A dozen girls, a dozen lives. Could he read between the lines of the dry, scholarly reports, discern which of these rebellions were the perfectly normal result of a young woman realizing that her life was not her own, and which were true descents into darkness?

Hannah Griesenger, Salzburg, Called 1623, died 1628, avenging the deaths of her family against the counsel of her Watcher. Maria Lupe Hernandez, Mexico City, Called 1732, disappeared 1737, reappeared and died 1739 in a battle with reawakened Aztec jaguar spirits. Kathrine Allston, Edinborough, Called 1868, died 1877, turned rogue, slain by Council forces in an attempt to restrain her. Linnet Almont, Marseilles, called 1904, died 1911, staked by her Watcher Vincent Marron after being turned by the Master of Marseilles...

He got up and stretched, walking a few paces round the table and feeling all his bones creak in protest. Some future Watcher, no doubt, would be reading about him: Buffy Anne Summers, Sunnydale, Called 1996, died 1997, 2001 et al., drove Watcher Rupert Giles to drink with a succession of vampire lovers.

There was so much left to do before he left--complete the interview project with Spike, give Buffy all possible information relevant to Travers's hints, complete the paperwork signing over the Magic Box to Anya... not to mention the personal packing and sorting he had yet to take care of. He gazed nearsightedly about the room, allowing himself a short wallow in mild despair. How he was to complete it all by the New Year he had no idea...

You could always stay.

He walked back to his chair and sat down, sliding his glasses back into place. Spike's advice was nothing he hadn't thought of himself, lying awake in the night in the weeks after Buffy had returned from the dead. He had no doubt that Spike had meant it from the heart, however bluntly it had been phrased, and as far as it went, it was true. But Spike, at heart, was a pack animal: for all he played at being the cat who walked by himself, he craved a place at the hearth with the same intensity he craved blood--though having attained it, he'd grumble loudly about how much better it was to walk by his wild lone. Giles, on the other hand--he'd been thrust by circumstance into the center of a group, but while he loved Buffy as a daughter and looked fondly upon Willow as a protégé, he couldn't exactly call any of them friends. There was a reserve between them, a gap of age and attitude bridged more easily by a hundred-and-fifty-year-old vampire than by a forty-some-year-old introvert.

It wasn't only emotional cowardice which drove his flight, he argued, addressing the silent, skeptical presence in the back of his skull. He'd never asked to become a father figure, and felt himself ill-suited to the task. He was homesick for green fields and fogs and buildings that were older than he was and an ocean that was grey and stormy rather than blue and placid. He wanted a life of his own again, and conversations with people who had both personal recollections of the world prior to 1980 and a pulse.

The phone rang. He sat there through three rings, debating whether or not to let the answering machine get it, and finally rose and picked it up on the fourth. "Giles," the voice on the other end said. "It's Angel."

After four years his fingers still tightened painfully on the receiver at the sound of that voice. 'How nice to hear from you' seemed inappropriate somehow. Giles could think of only one reason for Angel calling at this particular time, but if Buffy hadn't confessed yet, it wasn't his place to give the game away. "You sound perturbed." Keeping his voice neutral around the vampire was second nature by now, because he was an adult, and a compassionate man, and Angel was not Angelus. Not at the moment, anyway. "I hope nothing untoward's happened to Buffy?" There was a nervy edge to Angel's normally laconic delivery. "That depends on your definition of untoward. Are you aware of--has she--" Giles realized that in some odd way the vampire was trying to spare his feelings, and felt a reluctant gratitude. "Buffy and Spike seem to be very... close. Closer than--I'm worried about her."

Giles picked up his teacup. There must be a technical term for the defensiveness roused by an outsider questioning one on a decision which, until that moment, one might have been willing to admit was less than optimal. "Yes, I'm aware of the situation. I'm no more pleased about it than I was about her liaison with you, but in the end, I trust Buffy to do the right thing. And oddly enough, I trust Spike to do the right thing for Buffy, if not the right thing in general." Enough to leave the two of them together half a world away? Manifestly so. How very peculiar.

Angel's laugh was bitter. "I guess Spike's not the only one who's fallen into bad habits. Giles--Buffy told me the purpose of her trip down here was to convince the Council to give her and Faith a salary. Do you think that her... liaison with Spike is going to impress the Council? You know it's going to get to them sooner or later."

Giles swirled the dregs of his now-cold tea around in the bottom of his cup, watching the erratic orbits of the flecks of tea leaf. Jenny had read tea leaves--for fun, she'd said; they were utterly useless as a method of divining the future. "No. I think they'll be appalled, with good reason. I expect threats, ultimatums and possible attempts on Spike's, er, life. And in the end..." He found that he was smiling, ever so slightly. "I expect Buffy to win, because that's what Buffy does."

Angel was silent for a long while. "I don't think I expected you to be taking it this calmly."

"Neither did I, really, but apparently I have hidden depths. And if she must be enamored of a vampire, I find the current situation vastly preferable to the two of them sneaking about behind my back."

Silence again. A hit, a palpable hit... "I suppose you're prepared to stake him the moment there's a sign of anything going wrong?"

"You suppose correctly. And Angel--I hope it need not be said that while the Council will find out about this eventually, later is preferable to sooner?"

Another bitter chuckle. "Well, remember this, Giles--with Spike, the moment you realize something's gone wrong is already far too late. I speak from personal experience."

And with that he hung up, leaving Giles to the contemplation of his tea leaves. A hat, was it? He rotated the cup. Or a boat? Giles set the receiver down and took the cup into the kitchen, rinsed it out, and put it into the dishwasher. With another weary stretch he left the kitchen and started up the stairs towards his bedroom.

So much depended upon one's point of view.

*****

"I'm sure we rolled these up last year." Dawn hauled another olive-green tangle Christmas lights out of the box and tugged on one of the looser coils, which had the effect of drawing three other loops more tightly about each other. "We always roll them up."

"Maybe you forgot," Tara said. "Last year was pretty hairy, with your Mom sick." It was more likely, she thought, that Joyce had rolled them up every year; she remembered all the little things which had inexplicably gone undone after he own mother's death, things she never could remember seeing her mother actually doing. She pulled out another box of ornaments--like most of the others, missing at least one ball. Dawn took it from her and stared at the fragile glass spheres, tracing the curve of one, then another, with her index finger. When Dawn had come into existence, had some of them disappeared, to correspond to the ones a small child would have broken over the years? Or had memories rearranged themselves to give half of the young Buffy's breakage quotient to her new sister?

If Dawn still thought about things like that (and Tara imagined she did) she didn't share them with anyone, save perhaps Spike. Now she set the red and gold balls aside, flicked her hair over her shoulders and dove back into the cardboard box, pulling out another rat's-nest of lights and frowning at it. "This is totally skanked up. All the sockets are, like, corroded or something. Maybe we should just buy new ones. They're only three or four dollars a string these days."

"Just remember, money spent on lights is money that can't be spent on presents."

Tara felt a wave of relief which dissipated as soon as she realized that the speaker wasn't Willow. Buffy was standing at the top of the basement stairs, with Spike right behind her, gazing curiously over her shoulder at the sea of ravaged boxes covering the basement floor.

"Buffy!" Dawn dropped the coil of wire and leaped to her feet, her face lighting up. "You're home!" Suddenly self-conscious, she tossed her hair again and affected indifference. "Not that I care or anything. Hey, Spike."

"Hullo, Bit." Spike looked askance at the holiday wreckage. "Now I'll grant traditions may have evolved, but in my day we decked the halls, not the floor."

Tara held up a plastic holly wreath and peered through it, suddenly nostalgic for real evergreen boughs and pine scent that didn't come from an aerosol can. "We decided on a post-modern, deconstructionist Christmas this year. I'm so glad you're back," she said, getting to her feet. "Did everything go all right?"

Buffy paused at the foot of the stairs, posed, and made a 'voila!' gesture with both hands. "I didn't kill Faith, Angel didn't kill Spike, everyone's still in the correct body, it's all good." She walked over to the nearest box and dropped to her knees. "Oh--Aunt Caroline's bells!" She pulled out a set of spun-glass bells which had fallen out of their tissue wrapping and held them up to the light, inspecting them for damage. "And here's Norton the Christmas Moose--" Spike, looking slightly ill, mouthed 'Christmas Moose?' at Tara, who shrugged. Buffy extracted a rather moldy-looking plaster moose with a tatty green pipe-cleaner wreath in its chipped horns. Her face fell. "Dawn made him for Mom in fourth grade--he's lost all his sequins! What happened to this stuff? It wasn't like this when I died, I know it!" Her expression was more tragic than one sequin-less moose seemed to warrant. "Dawn?"

Dawn, distraught as if the lack of Christmas ornament continuity were her personal failing, rummaged through her own box for something salvageable. "The pipes down here burst a month or so before you, uh, got back, and the basement flooded, and the people who were gonna buy the house backed out before Dad could get them to close, and Dad had to get the whole house re-piped before he could put it back up for sale--boy was he mad! But anyway, all the stuff we had stored down here got soaked. I tried to dry out as much as I could before we had to put all the furniture into storage, but Dad wanted to--and I--and it's all wrecked--and--"

Buffy hastened to assure Dawn that none of it was her fault, and the two of them went into serious Christmas triage mode: "Here's those grotty plastic ones--of course they survived--Oh! It's Grandma's old bubble lights! but they didn't work anyway--Here's the ones Mom bought when we moved here--The glass ones should be all right if we can clean off all this moldy tissue paper--Have you looked at the tree yet?"

Tara backed off with a certain sense of relief and sat down on the lowest step of the stairs; it was a little weird poking through the remnants of another family's past. Spike sidled over to her as the sisters exclaimed and commiserated over the various unearthed ornaments. "Where's Will? We didn't see her about when we got in."

"She's upstairs. Asleep. She--she was gone all night. Meditating, she said." Tara bit her lip. "Something to help her recover her magic. She's been conked out all day--what time is it?"

"About eight." It was occasionally handy having a vampire around with an absolute sense of the sun's position. "We left L.A. around five-thirty, soon as the sun started going down. Red hasn't been up at all?" He sounded a little concerned, and Tara felt slightly less paranoid; if Spike was worried, she had a right to be panicked.

"She got up around noon and had a peanut butter sandwich and went back to bed. I'm getting really worried about her, Spike. She's been--"

"Sleeping," Willow said, appearing at the top of the stairs in her turn, wrapped up in a robe and what she referred to as her Anya-freaking fuzzy slippers. Tara's breath caught; Willow looked... looked... glowing, her hair aflame in the light of the bare hanging bulb overhead. "Sorry for not hopping onboard the Christmas spirit choo-choo, but still technically Jewish here."

Tara scrambled to her feet and grinned, deciding that Buffy and Dawn had the ornament situation covered. "Christmas trees are a pagan tradition. I'm reclaiming them in the name of Wiccan Liberation." She smoothed her skirt around her knees and started up the stairs. "You feeling better, hon? You want me to fix you some soup?"

Willow smiled back, the cheerful pixie-grin Tara hadn't seen in far too long. "Oh... all right, twist my arm." She turned and all but skipped off towards the kitchen. Tara followed more sedately. A glance in the direction of the living room showed her Buffy's luggage and a large shopping bag stuffed with wrapped packages--probably Christmas presents from Dawn and Buffy's father--heaped haphazardly over the armchair.

Willow went over to the kitchen table and opened up her laptop, running her fingers over the keyboard as if greeting an old friend. Tara pulled a saucepan from the cupboard, ran a little water into it and set it on the stove to boil while she began rustling up ingredients--chicken stock from last night's dinner, a handful of rice, leftover vegetables from Thursday, a dash of salt, a pinch of garlic... might as well make enough for everyone. It was mildly wiggy how Willow and Buffy and Dawn, children of affluence, regarded her ability to cook and sew and clean house as something as mysterious and astonishing as her ability to cast spells. When they went shopping, Buffy followed her around the grocery store in a state of bewildered gratitude, nodding blankly as Tara dispensed domestic wisdom--Buffy could follow a recipe, but somehow she'd never learned how to cook. Leftovers are your friend, the McClay mantra. It was weird when such prosaic skills put her in demand. "So... do you think it helped? The meditating?"

Willow rested her chin in her hand and looked extremely pleased with herself. "Yup. It really did." The laptop cheeped at her. "Darn it, I have a hundred and eleven e-mails and I'm a week behind on Sluggy Freelance."

"Really? I mean about the helping, not the e-mail. You're on your own there." Tara checked the refrigerator and yelled downstairs, "Spike, we're out of pig's blood--do you--?"

A muffled bellow from below--"Got some in the boot of the car. Keys are on the coffee table."

"Thanks." She glanced at Willow. She looked so much better; relaxed, happy, that little pinched stress-line gone from between her brows. It was wonderful--almost too good to be true. "It's not too--too draining, is it, honey? The meditation, I mean. You seemed pretty wasted this morning, and you never mentioned what kind of techniques you were trying--"

A flash of irritation was there and gone in Willow's eyes. "Oh, nothing special, a little chant here, a little incense there, stretch the ol' magical muscles, om mane padme e-i e-i om... you know--eclectic." She kicked back in her chair and waggled the toes of her slippers so that the bunny ears flipped back and forth. "I don't think the major Willow zone-out will be happening again. I got a little bitty bit carried away with the whole one-with-self-and-universe-ness, is all. All better now. And looky--" She waved a hand and Spike's car keys came zipping through the air from the living room to land in her palm with a jingle. "No stress, no strain!"

"That's great!" Tara tried to quash her unease in the face of Willow's proud grin. It wasn't that she suspected Willow of taking dangerous shortcuts, but, well, Willow had been known to take dangerous shortcuts. "Just don't take it too fast--"

"Will!" Buffy's face appeared in the doorway to the basement, atop a box full of assorted Christmas junk. She maneuvered the box out into the living room and dumped down in front of the television. "Wow! You're back with the magic-slingin'! Tres cool! Are you going to be up for the big loony hunt?"

Tara started to object; no matter how beneficial Willow's new exercises might be, there was no way she'd be prepared to cast spells at that level so quickly. Before she could say anything, Dawn bounced up the stairs with another boxload of decorations, a disgruntled Spike following with an armload of metal struts and faux greenery which must have been the tree. "...goose," he was growling. "Turkey is a Yank abomination. And none of these poncy little lights, either. Candles. At least then you've got half a chance of the house burning down and injecting some fun into the holidays."

"Yeah, yeah, vampire, evil, bah humbug," Dawn said. "For a rebel you're sure an old fogey. Now put it over on the couch."

"Hey, guys, check it out," Willow said, following the parade into the living room. Tara, a feeling of inexplicable dread curling her toes, turned the heat down on her soup and tagged after. Willow took a stance in the center of the living room. She gestured dramatically, sweeping both arms in a wide circle; in the long-sleeved blue terrycloth robe there was an unfortunate echo of Sorcerer's Apprentice to the motion. "Arise, O Tannenbaum!" "Oi!" The scruffy green plastic boughs jerked to life and Spike dropped them as if they'd been dipped in holy water. He backed hastily away from the couch, wiping his hands on the seat of his jeans. "Give a bloke some warning, Red!"

Willow just grinned at him, and gestured again. Like some stop-motion animation, the central support of the tree twitched into motion and planted itself in the base, telescoping up to full height. In a flurry of artificial needles the branches assembled and rooted themselves to the trunk, whish-click-whish. Everyone stood open-mouthed until the topmost branch clicked into place. The tree leaned drunkenly to one side; Willow bent her fingers and it shivered and straightened, then shook like a dog emerging from a pool. Before their eyes the shabby old branches grew green and fresh, and the scent of pine which Tara had been missing so a moment before wafted through the living room. A shimmer of golden light washed over the boxes of ornaments, and twenty years of scuffs and chips and dings disappeared; Norton the Christmas Moose glittered with his full complement of sequins, and every single ball reflected back the light in pristine glory. One of the strings of lights reared into the air, an electrical cobra, and began to interlace itself through the branches.

"Wait, wait!" Dawn cried. "Don't!"

"Halt!" The string of lights pattered lifeless to the floor and Willow looked a little disappointed. "What's the matter? I'm not tired. Not even a tiny bit. Rarin' to go."

Dawn shuffled her feet and cast a beseeching look at Buffy. "It's just... I like decorating it. You know, by hand."

"Wow," Buffy repeated, obviously impressed. "Wills, I can't--I mean, wow. Thank you. But I think we can take it from here."

"That's half the fun," Tara said with a pointed look at Willow, who was starting to look pouty. "Besides, you should save your strength for the, uh, loony hunt."

"Oh, all right." Willow flopped down on the couch and surveyed her work with a beaming smile. "But I'm pretty sure that's not going to be a problem any more." She aimed her finger at the tree and made a trigger-pulling motion. "The big gun is back."

Chapter Text

Seven o' clock, Sunday morning, cold as Southern California allowed and slightly foggy; earlier, before the sun had come up, breath had been visible on the still air. Daniel Tanner shuffled down the sidewalk and turned into the alley behind the Doublemeat Palace, heading for the dumpster where, if he were lucky, he'd find the leftover burgers tossed out by last night's closing shift, still safely ensconced in their greasy wrappers. A careful walk down the center of the alley, one foot before the other in the grimy trickle of condensation. Not too close to the doors, not too close to the watching huddles of trash or the looming metal bulk of dumpsters--mouths had teeth, teeth to bite with.

Lizzie had died in the night, slipped out of herself through the hole in her crushed skull and danced away with never a word, and he'd spent the rest of the night bullying a terrified Jim and Ramon into helping him move the body out of the landfill.

There was no end. There was no cure. They'd lied, the eyeless men, opened their dead mouths and spat out maggot-words that meant nothing. "There are rules," he muttered, and knew with some small part of his mind that the words were too loud, too angry, that if people heard him they would shy away. "There are limits and bounds." There were laws that circumscribed the greatest of forces, promises that had to be kept or unmake their guarantor in their neglect. He'd kept his half of the bargain, and he would see, if it meant his dissolution, that the eyeless men did likewise.

As soon as he raided the dumpster. Vengeance was a luxury reserved for those with full stomachs.

*****

Willow Rosenberg woke to the certainty of power and the sweet weight of her lover's head upon her shoulder. With her fingers she parted the netted swath of honey-blonde hair concealing her beloved's face, exposing to mortal view the shuttered eyes, the stubby dark blond lashes lying upon the silken cheek. This was Tara in a nutshell, some part of her forever aloof, forever hidden. Not by design or desire, but simply because there was always more of Tara, the farther in one went. Tara hid her serene face behind a curtain of hair, Tara hid her unfashionably lush body behind baggy sweaters, Tara hid her iron will behind a facade of diffidence. There was always one more veil to pierce, another hope that this was the final curtain and behind it the white limbs of the goddess would rise from the pool, sky-clad and radiant, and rather than striking the intruder blind would fold her to her bosom... Now am I special enough to catch your eye? Now do I have the power to hold you?

Tara's eyes opened, blue-grey, the color of distant mountains. Tara's lips curved, no less sweet than the curve of her hip beneath the blankets, the succulent weight of her breasts pressed against Willow's slim body. She could nestle into the comforting softness of Tara's arms, worship at the altar of her body, bury her face in the well of delight between her thighs, and Tara would cry out in joy and weep in ecstasy beneath her lapping tongue...

But there was always one more veil.

*****

Dawn Summers lay awake watching the moving shadows on the ceiling, and thought bitter thoughts about the coming appointment with her social worker. Her existence was built on a foundation of sand. The photographs hanging in the stairwell and tucked into little stick-on holders in the photo albums, bright fleeting images of vacations past. The box of report cards (A's, A's, and more A's; until last year, the good sister, the smart sister, the sister who didn't burn down gymnasiums). The chess set under the bed with the broken black rook, chipped against the wall when she'd thrown it at Buffy when she was six--all, all a sham. She hadn't existed before last fall, the chess set hadn't existed. They told her it didn't matter, they told her that they loved her anyway, but in the dark hours of morning when she stared at the ceiling and thought Who am I? it did matter, because they'd been made to love her.

I steal, therefore I am.

*****

Buffy Summers dreamed.

She didn't want to examine the darkness too closely; something prowled back there. She could hear the pad of feet on floorboards, the low growl... but she couldn't stay in bed; Willow was calling and she had to go downstairs again. She got up, her long white nightgown trailing on the floor. She took up the candle from her bedside in her hand, holding it high overhead. "Boy," she said, "Why are you crying?"

He looked up from his cross-legged seat on the bare wood floor, moonlight curls tumbling over the high forehead. Silver tear-tracks marked his cheeks. "I've caught it," he said, "but I can't hold on forever." His shadow stretched away into the darkness, black as jet; in its arms a bright shape struggled.

The thing in the darkness crept closer, and its growl muted to a pleading whine. It slunk up to rub against Spike's knee and he reached down, ruffling its fur and crooning to it. She couldn't see its face, but she could hear its claws kneading the floor. "Send it away," she whispered.

"Can't do that, love. It's not mine. Here--you have to take this." He held out the bright shape; it flickered in his grasp and darted away into the shadows. She gasped, snatching for it, but the beast was faster, leaping after the shining figure with a snarl.

Spike was gone, replaced by a bespectacled young man in antiquated clothing. A green-scaled, razor-fanged demon crouched at his side. He held a hand to his mouth, hiding an apologetic cough. "I realize our situations are not precisely identical," he said. "But sooner or later one has to come to an accommodation." The demon growled agreement and bumped its nightmare head against his arm; he scratched its spiny ears fondly. For a second they looked at her with identical pairs of blue eyes before blurring together into Spike once more. The beast trotted back from the shadows, the shimmering figure held with tender care in its jaws. Spike smiled proudly and patted it on the head. "There's my girl." He looked at her. "Blood and a little kindness--best feed it, pet. They get stroppy when they're starved." He took her shadow from the beast's mouth and held it up. "Well?"

"Soap won't do," she said. "It must be sewn back on." She sat down on the edge of the bed, wincing in anticipation, and lifted one bare foot. He sat down tailor-fashion and pulled a needle and thread out of his duster pockets and held them up; the needle glinted bright and wicked as a dagger in the candlelight. Spike began to sew her shadow back on. She scarcely felt the first needle-pricks, but as he continued to work, the pain increased. Blood ran down his fingers, and every few stitches he stopped to lick his hands.

"They'll never be clean, you know," he said. "And this--" He lifted one hand up, pale tongue flicking out to capture a crimson rivulet before it reached his wrist, and pointed to the limp rag-clad heap in the corner-- "Is your fault."

The heap of rags was a body. The dead woman's face was pale and waxy, and the hair around the depression in her skull, smashed in as if by a length of pipe, was matted with old blood. Tanner crouched over her, looking up at Buffy with fathomless dark eyes. "Her name was Lizzie."

They were all looking at her, the dead woman, the living man and the undead one. The beast growled softly, uneasy. She should have known the name. "It's in a good cause," she said, hearing the weakness of her own words. "Isn't it?"

Spike shrugged. "We won't know for certain until it's too late, will we?" He held out his hand again, palm cupped; it was full of tiny blood-red droplets. Pomegranate seeds. "Here. You get this out of it, anyway. I can't promise they'll taste good."

She took the handful of seeds and regarded them doubtfully. Had she heard this story before? She could throw them away, crush them underfoot. "What about you?" she asked.

"Ah, I've eaten already." He patted his stomach. "Came off the other tree, and I think it was green. It's given me a hell of a bellyache. May take awhile to digest."

Could she afford these? The budget was so tight. She felt a blunt head nudging her elbow from behind, and a warm damp tongue tickled her fingers. She wasn't ready to look it in the eye yet, but... hesitantly, she stroked the beast's muzzle. She stuffed the seeds into her mouth, crunching down hard on the pips as the juice ran down her throat, red as life's blood, red as fire, and heard the beast break into a rumbling purr. The pain wasn't in her feet any longer, but in her gut. With every stitch, the needle dug deeper, the thread grew stronger. It hurt. It hurt. It...

The dream dissolved into shreds and tatters, leaving the bittersweet richness of pomegranate juice on the back of her tongue. Buffy lay there, unwilling to open her eyes and admit she was awake just yet. She could feel the twinge deep in her belly as her body grudgingly followed her mind into wakefulness. Damn. Cramps. It was a good sign, she supposed. Her first period since coming back, proof that all the plumbing was in working order. It was difficult to feel disassociated from reality when your uterus was tying itself in knots. She got up, checked to make sure there was no blood on the sheets, and shuffled across the hallway and into the bathroom to ransack the cabinet drawers for a tampon.

Suitably fortified, Buffy faced herself down in the mirror, scrubbed her teeth (dutifully turning off the water during; a Slayer was conservation-minded, except when engaged in hour-long hot shower orgies with the undead--but, she assured herself, it had been with a low-flow shower head) and did fearless battle with the horror that was bed hair. So this is the face of a girl who sleeps with vampires. Funny how it didn't look that much different from the face of the girl who violently repressed any desire to sleep with vampires. Where was the mark of Cain, the scarlet letter that she could flaunt defiantly? Not even an incipient zit. Buffy bared minty fresh teeth at her reflection, spat toothpaste foam into the sink, and went back into the bedroom.

The starkness of her room dissatisfied her. The furniture was still the same--the white-painted iron bedstead, her dresser, the chairs. Dawn had saved her diaries and Mr. Gordo and one or two small things as mementoes, and Spike had rather shamefacedly returned a few photos he'd snatched after the funeral, but everything else had been thrown away or given to charity after her death: posters, knickknacks, stuffed animals, clothes, all gone. When they'd moved the furniture back from the U-Stor-It, the week after she'd returned to the land of the living, she hadn't cared. The monastic austerity of bare walls had been soothing. She went over to the suitcases she'd left behind the bed last night, opened her overnight bag, took out the copy of the Rubaiyat Spike had given her, and put it on the bookshelf. It was a start.

Buffy pulled open the curtains and let the morning light flood in, looking out the window into the branches of the oak tree where another vampire had so often crouched in the wee hours of the morning. Spike just used the front door. He was a ghost in the house this morning, a blanket-stealing, bony-kneed, tobacco-breathed, too-chilly-for-December phantom with tousled platinum hair--curled at her side when she woke, standing beside her in the bathroom, sleepily scratching his chin and expounding on the art of shaving without a reflection. In a little while he'd follow her downstairs and gross out Tara with his disgusting bloodsoaked mess of a breakfast and fight with Dawn over the comic section.

If she was going to be haunted it might as well be by the real thing. For better or worse, she'd wrestled the earthshaking ethical dilemmas of their situation to a temporary standstill, and now they were left with the hard stuff. Question: how exactly does one unemployed vampire slayer, sister and mortgage in tow, put together a life with one vampire of infinite heart and limited ethics? With a shake of her head she went over to the dresser, pulled out the top drawer and started tossing things onto the bed. Answer: One drawer at a time.

"Hey, are you coming down to breakfast or not?" Dawn asked, poking her head around the door a minute later to find her sister sitting on the edge of her bed surrounded by piles of clothes and gazing blankly at the now-complete disarray of the dresser. "Tara's making pancakes. Are you zoning out again?"

Buffy picked up a pile of sensible slacks, all calculated to assure an interviewer that this, by golly, was a reliable team player, and eyed them with loathing. "I do not zone. I engage in clothing feng-shui." At one halcyon time, she'd owned six-count'em-six pairs of leather pants, seven if you included the pair that didn't quite fit because she'd lost ten pounds the year before starting college but couldn't bear to get rid of because Angel had once admitted to liking them. Maybe she could find out which thrift store had gotten the bulk of her pre-death wardrobe and buy it back at bargain prices.

Dawn looked from the clothes to the empty drawer hanging out of the dresser, and back to her sister. "Earth to Buffy!"

She was not going to blush; there was nothing to blush about. "It's for Spike. Here, hold these." Maybe if she moved the underwear to the bottom drawer... There wasn't much, mainly because half of it had been ripped to shreds in the last week and now resided in Spike's squicky-flattering collection of Stuff That Smelled Like Buffy. She was going to have to talk to him about that, though it might be a good idea to hide that t-shirt of his she'd snitched before she did so.

"Ohmigod!" Dawn squeaked, clutching the uninspiring slacks and bouncing up and down. "Is Spike moving in?"

"No!" Jump the gun much? "We've only been...um...for a week." Buffy shoved some t-shirts to one side and scrunched the slacks in beside them. "This is purely for slaying emergencies, so he'll have some things on hand if he can't get back to the crypt before sunrise." Maybe she ought to hunt up an ashtray--for the porch, because no amount of great sex was going to buy him a ticket to smoke in the house.

"Riiiight. Riley never got a drawer." Dawn flopped across the bed on her stomach and propped her head up on her hands. "You're, like, serious now, right? I mean, you're having sex. That's serious, isn't it?" At Buffy's stunned-deer expression she scowled. "Don't go all Mom-like on me. You're not Mom, you're my sister. We're supposed to talk about boys. It's in the manual."

Buffy sat down beside her. "I know, it's just--" When had Dawn gone from 'eww, boys' and safe, chaste crushes on Xander to using the word 'sex' in a grammatical sentence? "Yes, it's serious. In a way. It's--" She shifted sideways, pulling a knee up on the bed and taking Dawn's shoulders in her hands. "Complicated. Dawnie, please don't pin all your hopes on--I know you like Spike a lot, but there's all kinds of... issues. It may not work out. Things could happen--"

Dawn snorted. "No way can he lose his soul more."

"As if--I'm sure the next Buffy boyfriend disaster will be something entirely new and original." Buffy picked up one of the least objectionable sweaters and began re-folding it. "I just don't want to get anyone's hopes up for an ever after here, much less a happily."

Dawn regarded her with the smug and infinitely irritating wisdom of a younger sibling. "Then you should stop with the happy every time his name gets mentioned. So what's it like?"

"What?"

"Sex. Does it hurt? Is it like in those books where the--"

Buffy dropped the sweater and clapped her hand over Dawn's mouth. "Aaahh!" Deer weren't big and stunworthy enough for this expression--elk, maybe, or wildebeests.

Dawn rolled over and crossed her arms. "Geez, Buffy! It's not like I'm a quivering virgin or something--I've kissed!"

"You have? Who? Who have you kissed?!"

"It was over the summer. This guy I met at one of Janice's parties. Spike killed him."

"WHAT!?" Visions of Spike-as-chaperone, gleefully strangling some pimply and presumptuous suitor while Dawn stamped her foot and complained that he was embarrassing her swam through her head.

"Willow helped!" Dawn went into a defensive sulk. "He was kind of a vampire, and no, I didn't notice, it's not like I'm Miss Slut-Bomb 2001 with vast experience of what a vampire doesn't kiss like. Unlike some people I'm related to."

Buffy was overwhelmed with the feeling that the world in general and her sister in particular had breezed past her. Dawn lay there glowering at the ceiling, the treads of her sneakers shedding tiny flakes of dried mud onto her older sister's quilt. Fifteen was still a little kid, wasn't it? At fifteen she herself had been... stealing lipstick, shaking her pom-poms at any member of the football team whose eye she could catch, cutting class to kill vampires. OK, bad example. "Valiantly attempting to be the cool yet authoritative older sister here, but you can't just drop the whole sex talk thing on me like that. I have to prepare. Work up a speech. Find some hand puppets."

Dawn's eyes revolved, blue but not so innocent. "I know how it's done, doofus. We had the whole 'put the condom on the banana' demo in health class. I just want to know what it's like . It's not like you guys were exactly quiet that night on the couch--which is still all creaky and weird to sit on, in case you care."

"Um..." How the heck did you answer a question like that? Great, until your boyfriend loses his soul and tries to destroy the world? Way to give your impressionable sister a complex. "I guess that depends on who you're doing it with. And why you're doing it. If you're with someone you love, who loves you, it's..." She bit her lip. "Life-changing. So be darned sure you want your life to change."

Maybe that had sunk in; there was a thoughtful moment before Dawn smirked in a manner entirely too reminiscent of certain vampires. "I think I'll tell Mrs. Kroger that my juvenile delinquent behavior is due to being exposed to my sister's perverted love life. Unless I get something like, say, an XBox for Christmas to drown out the gross smoochy noises in the middle of the night--"

Buffy threw a rolled-up sock at her and Dawn disappeared down the hall, cackling.

The house was filling with the heavenly odors of coffee and Tara's pancakes when Buffy came downstairs a few minutes later, mingling with the pervasive pine-scent of the Christmas tree. Buffy stopped to give it a wondering look on the way into the kitchen--decked out in tinsel and lights under Dawn's exacting artistic direction, it was the most perfect tree she'd ever seen; it could have been torn from a Currier & Ives print. She ran her fingers over the needles, plucked a few off, bruised them, held them to her nose; tiny drops of resin oozed from the broken flesh. It looked, felt, smelled... alive, and yet it was growing up out of the same old tree stand. Was it all just an illusion, or had Willow really transformed their scroungy old fake Douglas fir into the real thing? Buffy had managed by dint of great effort to avoid learning anything about magic theory over the past six years, but whether this was just a fantastically detailed glamour or a real transformation, it argued serious power.

And raising you from the dead doesn't?

"Hey, Buff!" Willow was sitting at the kitchen table with Dawn while Tara stood over at the stove, pouring another dollop of batter into the skillet. "You made it! We saved you a few pancakes. Anya e-mailed me a copy of the ceremony we'll be doing." She passed Buffy a sheet of paper. "We're meeting at the Magic Box at nine. You get to be the la-place, whatever that is."

Buffy gave the printout a cursory glance. "I'll assume that's a good thing to be. I'm going to have to talk to Giles anyway--I think I had a Slayer dream last night."

Willow's cheery expression morphed into unease. "You think? You don't know for sure?"

Buffy shrugged and poured a generous helping of syrup over her pancakes. Mmm, buttery goodness. "As prophetic visions go, it was low on predictiness, high on annoyingly cryptic symbolism."

"I'll bet it predicted lots of broken furniture in your bedroom," Dawn said. "Ow! You can't hit me, I'm normal!"

Buffy bestowed an angelic smile on Dawn, who was rubbing her arm with an exaggerated look of agony. "That's debatable."

"Kind of a Brunel thing, sans slashed eyeballs?" Willow didn't wait for an answer, but got up and started rinsing off her plate. "I've got to head over to the Magic Box now and help Giles set up--oh, and don't take the lid off that saucepan on the back burner, cause Miss Kitty getting into it would be of the bad, unless we want a pet hermit crab--nothing against hermit crabs, they're kinda cute, but no fur, which makes the petting thing problematical--"

Buffy interrupted the babble-stream before it could develop into full-blown free association. "Dreamwise, we have death, small amounts of gore, and formless guilt. The usual." Self-analysis came about as naturally to her as the milk of human kindness did to Spike, but it didn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that part of her was expecting cosmic retribution any minute now. Good girls didn't sleep with soulless vampires. "Do you guys have the spells online for tomorrow night? I've got a job interview before lunch, and that appointment with The Kroger after lunch, but I should be free by four."

"Online, on board, on track--we are the essence of on. Be vewy quiet, we're hunting cwazies." Willow grinned, waved, and was out the door.

Buffy leaned back in her chair and watched her all but skipping down the driveway, then eyed Willow's coffee cup. "Maybe it's time to have that talk with her about decaf again."

Tara flipped the last of the pancakes onto her plate and brought it over to the table. "I think she's just jazzed about having her powers back." She didn't meet Buffy's eyes.

Well, that was understandable. If being unable to cast spells had felt anything like the dull grey misery she'd recently clawed her way out of, Buffy couldn't blame Willow for being the extra-bouncy human superball now. She felt moderately bounceable herself. She speared herself another bite of pancake and swirled it around in the pool of syrup. Plus--lucky Wills!--she wouldn't be battling the persistent worry that her recovery was bought at too high a price.

"So, what's my part in the ritual?" Dawn asked, snatching the printout and scanning it for her name.

"Right there. 'Dawn Summers, staying home and being grounded for her sordid life of crime.'"

"What?" From the tone of her sister's anguished wail, Buffy might as well have said 'Stay home and have your liver removed without anesthetic.' "That's completely unfair! I'm so telling The Kroger you abuse me!"

"Oh, yeah, you do that. 'Mrs. Kroger, my mean old sister won't let me participate in dangerous Satanic rites!' Did it ever occur to you that mystic Keys to the universe and rituals to open doors to the spirit world might possibly not be mixy things?"

"Good point," Tara said. "Though strictly speaking, Satanism isn't anything like... oh, never mind."

Dawn shot her a look of wounded betrayal. "I'll bet you just made that up."

Buffy sipped her coffee and adopted her best Sphinx-like-adult smile. "Since you're not going to be there, we'll never know, will we?"

*****

The gym mats were rolled up against the walls, fat blue coils of tarpaulin and foam. The pommel horse had been dragged aside as well and sat watching the proceedings with cockeyed dignity from the corner. Willow and Tara sat on one of the rolled-up mats, the floor at their feet awash with books dragged in from the front room of the store. Xander sat opposite them, playing around with the drum they'd lugged up from the basement, a big-bellied, cowhide-covered instrument of uncertain provenance. In the center of the training room floor, Rupert Giles crouched beside a circle of white chalk, an unlikely houngan in sneakers and sweatshirt. His hand moved over the floor, dispersing a thin, even trail of yellow corn meal from between thumb and forefinger. In its wake the sigils grew like living things: the vèvè of Legba, a crossroads atop a stylized globe, crowned with a second globe, one arm pierced with a walking stick; and the vèvè of Ghede, a tau-cross atop a mausoleum, flanked by a stylized rake and shovel on one hand and a coffin on the other. Various other items for the ritual were scattered about the floor--a squeeze bottle of water, the dish of cornmeal, and a large gourd rattle.

Buffy knelt at the edge of the circle, taking candles as Anya handed them to her from the box and setting them up around the circumference. "...nineteen, twenty. There is no way that the people who come up with these things don't own major stock in a candle factory," she grumbled, setting the last of the fat white cylinders in place and rocking back on her heels. She was dressed in training gear--leggings, a pair of worn Nikes and a white tank top, with her hair pulled back into a ponytail.

Willow flipped through a few more pages of the book she was consulting. "Are we sure this will work without the... you know? 'A speckled cock for Legba--to be killed by wringing its neck, not cutting its throat.' Cute little fluffy chickies? We can't kill cute little chickies."

Tara wrinkled her nose. "Not to encourage the blood sacrifice concept, but you've never met any roosters personally, have you?"

"There are other acceptable sacrifices," Giles said, keeping his attention on the near-complete vèvè and carefully releasing another thin stream of corn meal from between thumb and forefinger. There was something ironic--or a touch frightening--in the fact that Willow had been more willing to sacrifice a human soul than a rooster. He sometimes thought that it wasn't entirely for the best that some branches of modern Wiccan practice had so thoroughly expunged the darker aspects of the craft; it left the practitioners with no sense of proportion. "Voudoun ceremonies are remarkably amenable to, er, customization. It's the thought that counts, as it were. I've even corresponded with a vegetarian Quabbalist Mambo."

Tara laughed. "You're kidding! I love it! Go syncretism!" Buffy and Anya exchanged blank looks. Tara looked as if she were about to launch into an explanation, then thought better of it and sighed. "I guess you have to be there."

"We are here," Anya pointed out. "And yet the humor escapes us."

"All things considered--" Giles propped a small wooden cross up in the center of the circle. "We should be grateful we're only dealing with the Rada loa. The Petro loa demand pigs, goats..." Occasionally people... He stepped over the ring of candles and out of the circle, careful not to disturb any of the cornmeal patterns. He contemplated the assemblage. There was something missing, the most important thing.

What were the questions he should be asking? The obvious, of course; what was drawing the powers to Sunnydale in the absence of Hellmouth rumblings, ill omens, or prophecies of any type, and what, if anything, ought they do about it? But if one was summoning up a being reputed to give unfailingly accurate advice, the temptation to ask a few personal questions as well was nigh-overwhelming. Or even, he thought, a few less-personal questions.

Candles disposed of, Buffy was limbering up, doing stretches by the weapons rack. She took one of the fencing sabers from the wall and began running through a few basic thrusts and parries, warming up for what was to come. She danced through the movements, graceful and deadly as the blades on the wall behind her, and Giles tried to put aside his personal affection and observe her with a Watcher's clinical detachment. She was near the top of her form these days, whipping through her training exercises with enthusiasm both gratifying and daunting.

Any casual observer comparing the Buffy of four or five weeks past to the girl before him now would have opined that her health, physical and emotional, had improved immensely, and the degree of improvement correlated closely with the amount of time spent with Spike. The question was, was this something which would have occurred on its own as the effects of the Raising spell faded? Was it, as a sentimentalist might have claimed, the effects of true love? Or was some other factor at work?

Buffy's exercises culminated in a full-extension lunge with the saber-tip pointing at the door. Spike appeared in the doorway a second later with a paper bag in the crook of one arm, looking sleepy (ten in the morning was an unholy time for him to be up) but unsinged; he must have come through the tunnels in the basement. Now the vampire raised an eyebrow at the sword leveled at his chest and waggled his free hand at Buffy. "Only five fingers here, Inigo." Buffy lowered the point of her sword with a grin and bounced to her feet, flinging her arms around his neck.

"They look good together, don't they?" Tara said.

"I'm not certain," Giles admitted. "I avert my eyes whenever it appears that physical contact is in the offing." Still, Tara was right; Buffy wasn't the only one who looked... he wasn't certain that one could apply the term 'healthier' to an animated corpse, but he couldn't think of anything more apt; Spike had quite lost the gaunt, hollow-eyed look he'd acquired over the summer. Giles adjusted the position of one of the candles by half an inch with the toe of his sneaker and risked a glance across the training room. Buffy still had an arm around Spike's waist and a proprietary thumb hooked through one of his belt loops, but the unseemly snog-fest had broken up and Spike was pulling things out of the paper bag: a pair of covered Styrofoam cups with the Kohlermann's logo on them, and a bottle of cheap white rum. "You have it?" Giles asked, walking over.

Spike nodded. "Yeh, buckets of it. Benny was glad to be rid of it; normally he can't give the stuff away. At least pig's blood's got body to it. Gave me a ten percent discount too, and don't mention that to his Dad--not that one, you git, that's my breakfast. Give over." He tossed Giles the other container.

Giles made a show of inspecting it, though he wasn't certain what he should be looking for; one pint of blood looked much like another to one unequipped to smell the difference. Blood from chickens of indeterminate sex and color, slaughtered at a civilized remove from the proceedings to spare the feelings of tender-hearted Wiccans; was there any virtue left in it, or would the loa dismiss it with as much disdain as Spike? Only one way to find out.

He picked up the bottle of rum, and took it and the chicken blood over to the circle of candles to join the other offerings: a plate of roasted peanuts and cornbread, a handful of pennies and a wad of pipe tobacco. He unscrewed the cap and poured a measure of the rum into a paper cup, ripped open a little restaurant packet of pepper, and dumped it into the liquor.

"This will, of necessity, be an abbreviated version of the full ceremony," he said, passing out photocopies of the responses as everyone took their places. "Unfortunately it wasn't possible to obtain the proper drapeau or--"

"And the model's not to scale and you didn't have time to paint it." Xander rolled his copy up and beat out an experimental tattoo on the drum. The resulting noise was startlingly deep, rolling through the enclosed space of the training room like tame thunder. "Spinal Tap, here I come."

Giles ignored him--ignoring Xander was often the only possible option--and picked up the rattle. "Places, everyone. Now, Xander." The drumroll sounded again, and Giles took a deep breath. "Annoncé, annoncé, annoncé!"

Buffy leaped into the center of the room, twirling the saber behind and before, dancing backwards round the ring of candles and central cross and then forwards, saluting the cardinal points of the compass on her way. Revolution completed, she brought the blade up, poised for an instant on her toes. Spike stepped into her path, weaponless, an anticipatory grin on his face. Buffy smiled back, and struck; Spike dodged, and they were off, two magnificent animals evenly matched in speed and nearly so in strength.

This was for show, only a shadow of the real battles they'd fought in the past, Giles knew, but even the shadow of that power and savagery was enough to catch the breath and speed the heart. Spike, of necessity, fought defensively, blocking, dodging, evading the lightning-swift darts of Buffy's blade. Now and again pain arced across his face as he made some move too aggressive for the chip's liking.

Giles had rather expected the glint of lust in the vampire's eyes, but it was unnerving to see it reflected in Buffy's face. Both of them were breathing hard, completely absorbed in their dance. Buffy lunged forward, the tip of the saber aimed straight at Spike's heart; she was not holding back now, as the mock-battle reached its culmination. He doubled over backwards, falling to his knees and avoiding the thrust. Spike knelt before her, visibly aroused and grinning ear to ear as she pressed the sword-tip to his chest, nicking the royal-blue fabric of his shirt. Her eyes never left the his. Slowly, Buffy lowered the sword, dropping the point to rest on the floor between Spike's knees. Just as slowly, still with his eyes fixed upon hers, Spike bent his head and kissed the hilt. A tremor ran through Buffy's body as he did so, as if the weapon were an extension of her hand.

Disturbing, very disturbing, but Giles couldn't afford to think about it just now. The spell broke; Spike rose, and the two of them backed away from one another, returning to the outskirts of the room. Willow and Tara, water bottles in hand, paced from opposite ends of the room towards the circle, pouring a stream of water behind them. As they passed, Giles intoned, "A Legba, qui garde la porte." Feet moving to the rhythm of Xander's inexpert drumming, the women pinwheeled out to the opposing set of walls and came back to the center once again, completing the crossroads of water. Giles set the offerings within the circle of candles, then knelt and picked up the dish of cornmeal, raising it overhead and drawing a crossroad in the air over the vèvès.

Papa Legba, ovirier barriere pour moi agoe

Papa Legba, ovirier barriere pour moi

Attibon Legba, ovirier barriere pour moi passer

Passer Vrai, loa moi passer m' a remerci loa moin.

He set the dish down and picked up a candle, repeating the gesture. "Aux Loa de feu au Sud." He passed the fingers of his left hand through the candle-flame, too quickly to take hurt, and held his hand over the vèvè.

"Ago! Ago-é!" the others chorused.

Giles picked up another water bottle, feeling a frightening elation. Save for the summoning of the First Slayer, it had been years since he'd been part of this kind of ritual, and in those days he'd been calling on beings far more dangerous, but oh, yes, the rush was still there, the feeling of being outside oneself, caught up in something vast. He poured out the libation of water at the cardinal points around the circle, calling on the proper powers at each one before swinging into the mind-numbing repetition of the lapriyè. By the time it was over, eyes were beginning to glaze. Giles picked up the gourd rattle--no proper asson, lacking the beads and snake bones, but it would do, would serve--and made a sweeping gesture over the vèvès, as if to fling aside a veil. "A l'Espirit surtout, royaume de Bon Dieu. Pour les Marasa, Jumeaux sacrés qui se refléctent de chaque côté di mirior." Water spilled clear and lovely from the lip of the bottle, the drops spattering the carefully drawn lines of cornmeal, but that was right and proper at this stage, and Giles felt no regret. All things passed in their time. "Ago! Ghede! Ago! Ghede! Ago! Ghede! Ago-é!"

Giles braced himself, took a mouthful of the peppered rum and spat it onto Ghede's vèvè; his mouth burned, but he scarcely noticed. Everyone except Xander shuffled into the center of the room to join the dance, and as they swirled round the ring of candles. Xander, still seated off to the side with the drum, was concentrating on keeping the beat, with no attention to spare for anything else. Willow and Tara stamped and swayed exuberantly, completely caught up in the rhythm of the ritual. Anya danced carefully, copying the steps he'd demonstrated earlier, as if she expected a test later. Buffy looked determined, and Spike looked embarrassed enough to combust on the spot, but this, Giles had made it very clear, was a participatory rite; there were no spectators. The drum rumbled on, counterpointing the slap and scuff of feet on concrete; each beat clear, very clear, each note distinct yet blending into an overarching framework of sound which permeated the room, the building, the world.

*****

Bugger this.

It wasn't that he didn't like dancing, because he did, and he was bloody well good at it, thank you very much, but that was dancing--be it waltz or a foxtrot or free-form modern dance club writhing, the point was you were talking to someone, body to body, pure communication unsullied by words. Dancing was a primal shout--yeah, world, this is me! And this thing they were doing now, he didn't know what it was, but it was all about talking to something too big to listen, one with the hymns he'd suffered through in his youth, and what if there was a beat to it? The whole purpose was to sublimate the self, not express it.

Besides, how could he concentrate on some sodding ritual dance with the maddening scent of a Slayer on the rag in his nostrils? Blood and sweat and the hint of arousal, oh, more than a hint, she'd enjoyed their little dust-up every bit as much as he had and Christ he wanted to drag her away from this farce, spread those taut golden thighs and...

White.

He blinked, staggered. There was an illusion, when you stood on the platform at the back of a train while it pulled out of the station, that you were standing still and it was the world that was rushing away with ever-increasing speed, and it was like that now; everything was receding--well, why not, the universe was expanding at the speed of light... or something like that; what had he been thinking...? The drumbeat was a roaring in his inhumanly sensitive ears. His limbs froze, and he stumbled again. He was supposed to keep dancing. It was important. Giles had said so, and he respected old Rupert--didn't like him, of course, hello, vampire, and vampires don't like anyone and why the hell was he dancing again? And where was everything and everyone and who...

White.

*****

Spike's gone.

Buffy whirled around in time to see Spike stumble and catch himself, breaking rhythm. Despite the fact that the familiar black-clad body was standing there right behind her, part of her remained absolutely convinced he was nowhere in... not sight, but whatever it was that told her he was here. Giles and the others broke ranks, piling up behind Spike. The drum faltered and fell silent as Xander realized that something had happened.

Spike, or whatever was inhabiting his body, looked at her and broke into a lascivious grin, tongue-tip dancing across sharp white teeth--Spike, but not-Spike. "It's you again!" she blurted out.

He bent over, and picked up the remains of the peppered rum, tossed it off and licked his lips. "You went and opened the door, ti-blanc," he said. It was Spike's voice, a touch more nasal than usual, but the intonations, the accent, were all wrong. "Why you so damned surprised when we walk through?" He stretched out one arm and examined it, twisting his hand back and forth so the muscles of his forearm rippled under the pale skin. "Fuck me, I got to get one of these. You smell good enough to eat, ma Cherie."

It had been bad enough when Tara had been the one ridden by the loa; this was somehow infinitely worse. An irrational and extremely pissed-off voice in the back of her head was screaming Give him back, give him back, give him back! Buffy forcibly muffled it and pulled away as Giles stepped forward, the gourd rattle still clasped in his hand. "Papa Ghede," he said respectfully, "please accept the offerings we've brought, and favor us with your advice on the questions which trouble our minds."

"There's offerings and offerings." Not-Spike grinned at Buffy again and grabbed his crotch. "You found the cock you was chasing, no? You had your mouth full of that drumstick often enough, Cherie; how come you still so hungry?" Buffy clenched her teeth and felt her face heating up; was it kosher to give the god you'd just summoned a good punch in the nose? Not-Spike just laughed and dropped to the floor cross-legged, grabbed the chicken blood and the roast peanuts and began crunching them down happily. "Good stuff. I like the barbeque flavor better, just so you know. So what's so damn important to ask Papa Ghede?" he said with his mouth full.

Giles, somewhat nonplused at the informality of it all, squatted down beside the loa. "Well... I suppose the most important question is why are you here? I don't mean here specifically, or you specifically," he added hastily. "In the last week or two there's been an unusually high concentration of... well, for lack of a better term, emanations of the divine in and around Sunnydale. And yet we can find no prophecy to explain this--no apocalypses appear to be on the schedule. What does this mean?"

Ghede finished off the chicken blood and took a pull from the bottle of rum. "The world's out of balance. Someone's got too many players on the field, and the other side's gone and bitched to the ref. There's rules, ti-blanc. There's limits and bounds, and someone's been stepping over them." He shrugged. "Something gonna snap soon."

Before Giles could pose another question, Willow interrupted, her voice unwontedly shrill. "You mean the Balance, right? That it's gone out of whack? And we should all be doing anything we can to make sure the good guys win, right? Because last time, Acathla, Hell, cats and dogs living together--major badness!"

Bright blue eyes darted to the witch's face, knowing. "You think Light should win? You try getting to sleep when the sun never sets. You think Dark should win? You try eating bread when the corn don't grow! You can't have a world without day and night both. Both sides, they fight like kids on a see-saw, but we in the middle, we know. The seesaw don't work without a weight on both sides. So we come to watch where the big fight is, and maybe we put a thumb on the scales... or maybe not." He winked, a conspiratorial grin lighting his face.

Giles wrested back control of the conversation. "If the Balance is indeed being upset, what can we do to restore it?"

Ghede threw back his head and laughed. "Take the extra players off the field--or switch the team shirts!" He finished off the last of the peanuts and began tearing into the cornbread. Possession didn't appear to make much difference in Spike's appetite. "Who are these extra players?"

Those eyes came back to her, sparkling with amusement. "You see one every time you look in the mirror, Warrior of the People."

A thread of panic entered her voice. Did someone mention cosmic retribution? "You don't mean--"

"What I mean, I say. Now I'll answer the one you don't ask: Like calls to like, and opposites attract. Night and day make a world." He took a final swig of the rum and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. "Looks like you're out of peanuts, Cherie. Tell my horse he do okay for le mort ti-blanc."

Spike's face went slack and the blue eyes went white, rolling back in his head. The vampire collapsed, strings cut, and the bottle left his limp hand and clattered to the floor. Buffy dove for him, grabbing Spike's shoulders before his head could slam into the floor and pulling him upright again. He engaged in a brief struggle to sit up on his own, then melted woozily against Buffy, head cradled between her breasts. "What the bloody fuck...?" he croaked.

Spike's back, Spike's back, Spike's back... Anyone else would have been gasping in agony at the amount of pressure her arms were exerting; Spike just grunted a little and burrowed into her shoulder. "You're not going to throw up, are you?" Buffy asked. It would have been a lot easier to sound casual and unworried if her voice hadn't kept cracking. "Because if you are, I'm dropping you, right now."

Half a bottle of eighty-proof rotgut was barely enough to make an impression on vampire physiology, and Spike was a far more hardened carouser than Tara anyway. "M'fine, love. Not gonna sick up." He showed no signs of wanting to get to his feet any time soon; the possession itself seemed to have taken considerable toll. He aimed a bloodshot glare at Giles. "I've got you in my book, Rupert--if you ever snooker me into another--"

"It was rather fascinating, wasn't it?" Giles was watching the two of them with an inscrutable expression. "I could have wished for more time..."

"Well?" Spike hadn't grown any patience in his encounter with divinity. "What's the skinny then? Who do we kill?"

Giles sat down on the pommel horse and began polishing his glasses. Buffy looked him. Go on, say it. Giles was always the one to say the necessary and unthinkable. But this time, all he did was drop his eyes and say nothing, nothing at all. Buffy's mouth tightened, and she hauled Spike to his feet. "I'm going to get him back to his crypt. Talk among yourselves."

*****

No sun penetrated the lower levels of the crypt, but there was always light. Splayed in the middle of the four-poster bed, Buffy was lapped in mellow candlelight. Her hair spilled golden over the pillows, her head arched back upon the rumpled sheets that smelled of cigarettes and him--of both of them, now. Spike lay cradled between her legs, as still as she save for the tiny, subtle movement of lips and tongue in the secret places of her body, millimeter strokings and sucklings, all that was needed to coax her to the crest of yet another melting rapture. He could have brought her to the peak simply by breathing on her; three, six, who-knew-how-many previous climaxes had left her whole body pliant beyond measure to his touch, held together only by breath and exquisitely sensitive skin. She had barely the energy to sigh as the warmth within her swelled up again and flooded out through all her limbs.

Good girls don't sleep with vampires.

Spike's moan of delight segued into slurpy noises of the sort Dawn would doubtless have parlayed into a new jacket or three. At last he raised his head from between her thighs, licking his bloodstained lips with a dazed, glassy-eyed smile. "Nectar," he got out, his voice husky with satiety. "Nectar and sodding ambrosia. God, to think you've been going to waste for years... we've got a new rule from now on. Once a month we go to bed and don't get out for the next three days."

Good girls don't fall in love with soulless monsters. "Spike, you're disgusting."

"Yeh, and you love it." He pulled himself up the bed, elbow over elbow, her demon lover, terrible as an army with banners. His body was lean and taut-muscled as a racing greyhound's, arching over hers, hard for her again--perhaps Slayer's blood really was an aphrodisiac. He kissed her full on the mouth, and the taste of her own blood and come on his tongue was as rich and wild as pomegranates. His whispered endearments filled all the empty aching places of her heart, as his cock filled all the empty aching places of her body--so good, so full and whole she felt with him inside her! Spike moved within her, slow and sweet and gentle, fangs teasing her neck but never drawing blood--what need had he to steal what was freely given elsewhere? His beautiful face transfigured as they approached completion together: man to monster and back again, every aspect of him rapt in her.

In the ruddy glow of candlelight his shoulders were scored beneath her searching hands, marked with swiftly-healing crisscross welts from the times before which had not been so gentle. Good girls don't bite and claw. Good girls are very careful never to break their boyfriends' bones or egos. Good girls save the world without wanting money for it.

"Love?" His hands cradled her face as her breath hitched and tears rose in her eyes, large, strong hands, hands which had slain their ten thousands. His arms encircled her shoulders, holding her as tenderly as a mother her child, while Buffy sobbed against his chest, as utterly abandoned in grief as she had been in love. "Shh, love, Buffy-sweet, it's all right..."

Good girls don't get turned on by sneaking out to kill things in the middle of the night. Good girls put duty above love, always. Good girls never, ever feel good about themselves.

"It's not!" She tore the words ragged from her throat; they didn't want to leave. "I have so much I need to do! I have to have the sex talk with Dawn. We have a tree now, I have to buy Christmas presents--I have t-to find a job, just in case! And I love you, I love you so much! I can't--I don't--I don't want to die! I don't want to die! Spike, I d-don't w-w-want to--"

"Then you won't!" Inhumanly strong fingers tightened on her shoulders, candlelight flared and danced in inhuman golden eyes and limned the serrated lines of bared fangs. Her beautiful monster, who had so much man in him. "I won't let it happen. I'll be dust before I let a one of them lay a finger on you or the Bit." Her Spike, who would live for her, die for her, kill for her, whom no really good girl would allow herself to love for precisely that reason.

So you can't be a good girl, can you?

"Will you stop me, then, if I have to jump again to make things right?" Spike's eyes dropped, unable to meet hers. And she, stupid girl, had thought the worst she'd have to face was the prospect of Spike killing someone else. "You know what it said. Tara said it was always right--" She pressed her face into his chest, feeling the cool firm muscle contract and shift beneath her cheek. "It can't just be that there's two Slayers, there's been two Slayers for years. I came back wrong. That's the only explanation. I came back wrong, and--"

"Bollocks." Spike sat up, pulling her with him, stroking her hair as she had used to stroke Dawn's when Dawn had had a nightmare. "I'd know if you weren't Buffy. I'd know. There's something else, and we'll find it. Go home. Check on Dawn. Change for Anya's party. You'll feel better." He ran the pad of his thumb across her cheek, wiping away the tears, and his voice grew light and teasing. "Hell, pet, worse comes to worst I'll turn you. You'll have switched sides. End of problem."

She punched his arm, and said "Asshole," with the inflection that meant 'I love you.' Don't you get it, Spike? I'm afraid that I already have.

Chapter Text

"I don't want you to go," Anya said. She was standing behind him in the bedroom, fussing with his collar, and Xander pulled her hand away for the third time. Normally he liked her to fuss a little--engage in the mutual grooming ritual, she called it, more to tease him than out of cultural cluelessness these days. Tonight her attentiveness bothered him and he shivered her hands away like a horse twitching flies from its skin.

Patience, always with Anya the patience. "Ahn," he replied, tugging his coat from its hook in the closet, "It's your shower. I'm not gonna hang around and mess that up for you." The living room was filling up with biddies of all ages and several species, and a Sunday night which could have been profitably spent curled up together on the couch watching bad movies and throwing popcorn at the TV screen was already irretrievably lost.

Anya didn't pout; she never pouted. She just looked at him in that confused-but-eager way she had, trying to understand his Earth logic. "But it's a party where all my friends give me presents and wish me well. You're my best friend, Xander. Of course you're invited. And you don't even have to give me a present."

"Girlfriends. Friends who are girls." He indicated himself with a flourish. "Me, not a girl. I thought we'd gone over this."

She sat down on the edge of the bed, radiant in red (though God, he hoped she'd tire of the platinum hair soon; it reminded him far too much of someone he'd far rather kick than kiss). Her face wore that pinched unattractive frown which had been more and more in evidence lately. Wedding stress, wedding stress--but if the arrival of Halfrek and the rest of her demon pals had cheered Anya, it hadn't helped relieve him. He'd listened to them chattering in the kitchen while Anya made dinner, stirring up memories of the good old days of slaughter and destruction along with the tuna casserole. Sometimes he had the uncomfortable feeling that Anya's beauty really was just skin-deep, that at any moment sharp teeth would slice through it from below and the Anya-skin would fall away, leaving... something unpleasant, that was for sure. Xander Harris, demon magnet. Because of course no normal human female could sustain a long-term relationship with the likes of him.

He shook the thought away. Anya tried to be normal. She put a great deal of effort into being normal, but never seemed to realize the source of his nerves was the fact that she did have to put effort into it. Now she was watching him again, trying to gauge his mood from the set of his shoulders. "Sexual segregation at entertainment functions is an antiquated custom. I don't see why we can't have an up-to-date relationship."

Xander ground his teeth and rattled the hangers on the clothes rack so as to have an excuse not to turn around. "Is that what Halfrek says about it?"

"No. It's a valuable networking opportunity, and besides that, we have Vienna sausages, which I know you like. Why do you keep bringing up Halfrek? You're not--do you find her more attractive than me?" Anya gasped and clapped a hand to her mouth. "She been flirting with you, hasn't she? I knew it! She's always been the beauty! It's like when she stole that Grud demon all over again! 'Oh, you're pretty, Anyanka, but Halfrek, she's stunning!' And I happen to know she's had work done on her facial veins--you can bank on it, they're not that perfectly defined naturally!"

Why was it that women invariably picked romantic rivals as maids of honor? Some feminine pack ranking thing, maybe, the alpha female depriving the rest of the right to breed? Xander abandoned the pointless re-arrangement of his shirts and walked over to the bed, where he sat down and put an arm around her shoulders. "No, of course not."

Anya sniffled and laid her head on his shoulder, letting him play with her hair. "You just don't realize the animal attraction you exude. It's pheromones, I'm sure of it; it drives women mad. I've seen them looking at you. Especially Willow. Honestly, Xander, you drove the poor girl to lesbianism to try to escape her hopeless passion for you." She searched his face for traces of residual Willow-lust, anxious. "It is hopeless, isn't it?"

"Anya, honey, sweetheart, darling, you're making me insane." Xander caught up her wringing hands in his and stilled them. "I lust after neither Willow nor Halfrek. I love you. You're gorgeous. And I'm going out on patrol. Spike says there's a Krallock demon on the loose, and we're gonna take it down."

She caught at his sleeve, limpid brown eyes full of nameless fears. "A Krallock demon? Do you have to? Do you realize they can bite through pig iron? If you absolutely can't stay here, why not go to a movie or participate in something that won't result in bodily injury and reduced work hours? It's a Sunday night!"

More patience. Heaping bucketfuls of patience. Anya, after all, came from a long line of demons who sensibly abandoned ship when an apocalypse rolled into town, and he came from a long line of people who were only passingly acquainted with the concept of 'sensible.' "I know. But Buffy and Willow and Tara are all coming to your shower, they being of the girl persuasion, and someone's got to patrol--"

"For one night, don't you think--"

Patience go bye-bye. "That we can just let people be eaten for a change?" he snapped. Anya flinched away, face crumbling around her wounded eyes, and he immediately felt like a heel.

"I didn't mean--"

He hated feeling like a heel. "Yeah, that's the problem!" What exactly did that mean? Oh, well, it sounded good. Forget reason and logic and all the nights they'd blown off patrol to go to the Bronze or study or whatever; tonight Buffy was counting on him. More or less. Xander stormed out into the living room, coat flapping behind him. The effectiveness of his exit was somewhat marred by having to maneuver around a string of middle-aged businesswomen engaged in trying to pass an orange from one end of the line to the other without using their hands, but as exits went, it was one of his better ones.

*****

Willow was wearing the dead Muppet top--sleeveless, bright red, and very, very fuzzy. Buffy was secretly positive that that top was a sign of the coming apocalypse--if not this one, then another one down the line somewhere, involving large toothless furry things gumming them all to death while reciting the alphabet. Its appearance always signified Willow in one of her insanely positive moods, which generally coincided with one of Buffy's 'life sucks dead rats through a garden hose' moods. Buffy gazed forlornly at the small gold-wrapped package in her hands. It was beautiful--red velvet ribbon and professionally crisp store wrapping paper in an abstract pattern of silver and gold bells that didn't look too obviously Christmas-y... and no acts of hideous evil required. All she'd had to do was change the tags. Out goes the 'To Buffy From Dad,' in comes the 'To Anya from Buffy,' and ta-da, shower present. Wah.

Tara patted her shoulder. "Be strong. You're doing the right thing."

"I don't want to do the right thing. I want my new Discman." Weirdly enough, after bawling on Spike's shoulder, she'd gone home, showered, changed, had another argument with Dawn about her grounding, and, as he'd predicted, felt better. In theory she knew that a good cry and a wash-up afterwards were restoratives, but she'd been sure that kind of emotional resiliency had abandoned her back in the age of dinosaurs. A large part of her relative peace of mind, she suspected, hinged on the fact that she already knew the solution to this problem, however little she wanted to accept it right now. Or maybe she was finally learning to harness the awesome power of Summers' denial for good rather than evil.

If, of course, her best friend would ever drop the subject. "Me, I think Giles is all over-reacty," Willow said, dispensing seasonal good cheer and blind optimism. "For all we know? This 'leave the playing field' biz could be a good thing. It could mean 'Buffy gets to retire from the slaying and have the normal life she's always wanted, yay!' And it said you're one of these extra players which means that there's others and if we find them then we can--"

"Rub them out for the good of humanity?" Buffy asked, extra-perky.

"We could at least find out why the extras are extra." Willow was not to be deterred by inappropriate humor. "And you could try the retirement option and see what happens. I mean, you're supposed to be on strike anyway, right? Instead of making a secret identity for your secret identity, you just quit for real for awhile."

"Maybe you've got a point, Wills--several simultaneous points--but we've never had much luck relying on kinder, gentler interpretations of prophesy." She'd been haunted by the specter of an ordinary life for so long--she'd matched wills with Giles for it, fought the Watcher's Council for it, held on to Riley like a life raft for the prospect of it. She'd thought that the trip to L.A. had finally exorcized it. Now it rose from its grave once more, ranting about how it would have succeeded if it weren't for those meddling kids. What exactly did she mean by a normal life, anyway? Starring in the Ice Capades and/or marrying Christian Slater wasn't really an option at this stage.

They checked the building number as they approached the nearest block of apartments--they'd been here a hundred times, but the complex was one of those cookie-cutter places where every unit looked much the same as every other unit, and it wouldn't be the first of those hundred times that they'd ended up making embarrassed apologies to some retired couple from Minnesota. The three of them crowded onto the landing and Tara knocked; there was no response. "Can they hear us?" she asked, leaning over to peer in the window. The drapes were drawn, and a bass thumpa-thumpa-thumpa made the porch railings vibrate slightly.

Buffy bounced up and down on her toes, trying to see through the window over Tara's shoulder. "Thing is, I've tried quitting before, remember? I can't just turn the Slayer powers off. Weirdness follows me around and waves its tentacles in my face yelling 'lookie, lookie!'" A familiar tingle chased up her spine and down again. "Speaking of which..." She turned, and there he was, the epitome of her non-normal life: Spike, strolling up the walk behind them, a moving shadow in the gathering dusk, slicked-back, bone-colored waves of hair licked with the faintest tinge of gold in the last of the evening light. He had a bulky unfamiliar object slung over one shoulder, and as he got closer she recognized it as the tranquilizer gun he'd taken from Bryce's men at Halloween. Trust Spike to keep track of the cool toys.

"Hey." She waved Anya's present at him. "You're right. Having a conscience is highly overrated. Turn me now so I won't have to give this up." I can joke about this. Healthy sign of emotional distance or flashing neon 'Go directly to Hell, do not pass Go?'

Spike stopped on the step below her. In the amber glow of the porch light the corners of his eyes were crinkled in amusement and a pious smirk quirked his lips. "Sorry, love, but your stunning example's completely reformed me. Wouldn't interfere with your sacrifice for the world."

"Curses." Buffy slipped her arms around his waist and leaned into him as if they hadn't spent half the afternoon shagging like mad things. They flowed together like quicksliver, her head butting against his chest, her hands gliding up the small of his back. Muscle rolled beneath her hands as he shifted the weight of the trank gun. Very touchable, Spike, very tasteable. Blood and smoke on her tongue, complex leather-whiskey-earth scent in her nose and rumbly happy-vampire noises vibrating in her ear; a workout for all five senses. She could spend a year learning the exact proportions of his mouth by heart, charting the curve of his lower lip, the precise angle of the divot in his upper lip as the cool supple flesh grew warm beneath her own.

She pulled away and nodded at the gun. "Don't tell me, let me guess. You were invited to the shower, and decided Anya really needed something to keep Xander from straying out of the game preserve."

Spike snorted. "Some of us have patrol tonight, Slayer Chavez." He looked at Willow. "Got 'em?"

Willow gave him a tolerant smile; Laymen! it said. "Quality spellcasting," she said, "Takes time. They have to soak for another couple of hours. I'll zing 'em them over to you after the shower."

"Fat lot of good that'll do us if the blighter decides to show ahead of schedule," Spike grumbled. "Krallock demon," he added by way of explanation to Buffy. "We're off to track it down its lair as soon as I extract Harris from the hen party. They're tough bastards. Red said she could add a little extra mojo to the darts."

Willow made a 'pfft' noise and waved his complaint away, unfazed. "A little! Ho ho. This is no weenie little sleep spell. Au contraire! One poke from these puppies will knock your beastie into next week." She made an illustrative jab at the air.

Tara looked askance at Willow. "When did you agree to...?"

"Last night? When you guys were trimming the tree with Dawn? And this morning, did you not notice the nasty green bubbly thing on the left rear burner?" Willow sounded the tiniest bit exasperated. "I told you, the magic's back. I didn't realize I needed to clear every spell I do with you."

"Of course not--it's just... I mean..."

Tara was looking flustered in the extreme, and Buffy intervened. "Isn't it a little soon to be making with the big magic? Tomorrow, big spell-casting night, with us needing a well-rested, chipper Willow. It's not that we don't trust you, Wills, but two days ago you were wearing yourself out lighting your candle, and now you're burning it at both ends."

Willow folded pale arms across her fuzzy red torso, eyes scrunched and lower lip protruding. Her good cheer was beginning to acquire a sullen edge. "I told you, not a problem. If you don't want to believe me, fine."

Spike kissed the top of Buffy's head and murmured in a perfectly neutral voice, "Red knows her own limits best, eh?" To Buffy he added, "Be a love and don't kill our little pal if you happen to run across it before midnight, hey? Or at least, don't let anyone see you kill it? I've got money riding on this."

Buffy covered her ears in a hear-no-evil pose. "I am shocked, shocked I tell you! As long as it's not kittens, I'll try to restrain my killer instincts. It would help if I had some idea what a Krallock demon looked like."

"Christ, Slayer, what do they teach you in these schools? Nine foot tall, claws as long as your arm, all over seaweed and barnacles, smells like the Thames at low tide..."

Tara was knocking on the door again, to no apparent effect. Spike made an impatient noise, brushed by Tara and hammered a fist on the apartment door till it shook on its hinges. The porch-shaking backbeat cut off, the door flew open, and from within the apartment a gale of shrill feminine laughter added several degrees of wind chill to the nippy evening.

A tall, statuesque woman in a cream linen suit dress stood in the entryway. She could have just stepped out of a cameo; she had a smooth oval face with regular features and large, fine dark eyes. A mass of dark russet hair was piled atop her head, spilling down her neck in a waterfall of ringlets, and a large, rather gaudy gold-and-ruby pendant which didn't match the rest of her tasteful attire in the least was displayed prominently upon her bosom. This must be Anya's maid of honor, in human guise for the moment--Anya'd mentioned she was another vengeance demon. The stone had a fire that drew the eye, and Buffy found herself making calculations as to how quickly she could grab and crush it if the need arose.

"You must be Xander's friends. Come on in, all of you," the woman said. Her tone and expression conveyed politely unexpressed curiosity as to why Xander's friends would be intruding upon Anya's wedding shower. Buffy's finely honed bitch-detection alarms gave a warning buzz. "I'm Halfrek. Please call me Hallie."

Tara mustered a polite smile, and Willow looked at Halfrek curiously - Willow'd come within a hair of being a colleague, after all. Halfrek stepped back and held the door open. The spotless apartment beyond was festooned with streamers in blue and white and full of people. Considering the usual state of Xander's apartment when he'd been living alone, it gave one a real respect for Anya's talent for organization.

Willow and Tara filed inside. Buffy hooked her fingers through Spike's and breezed after them, to be brought up short when Spike remained rooted to the spot, staring at Halfrek. Had he never been invited in? She'd gotten the idea that over the summer Spike had gotten in fairly tight with the rest of the gang, but if anyone was likely to leave him uninvited, it was Xander... She looked over her shoulder, questioning. "Spike? Do you need an entry visa?"

"Eh?" Spike had the pole-axed look of a man running into a girl he'd loved or hated in high school at the ten-year reunion. He returned to earth with a shake and stepped across the threshold, still staring at Hallie's back as she made for the living room, shooing Tara and Willow before her. His head was cocked to one side in puzzlement. "Sorry, love, thought I saw a ghost."

"William?" Halfrek asked, turning about, fine large eyes even larger with shock at the sound of his voice. Her hand went to her bosom, (which did, to Buffy's intense interest, actually heave) covering her pendant in a curiously old-fashioned gesture. "Oh, my stars. It is William! Why aren't you dead?"

"Cecily?" For a second Spike's face was naked--not just open, but stripped, peeled bare to expose some quivering inner pith of emotion never intended to bear the sting of open air. Then he straightened, visibly pulling the Big Bad cloak around his shoulders--head cocked insolently back, eyes hooded, one thumb hooked into his belt--a veritable Cherynobl of danger and sex appeal. "I go by Spike these days, and as it happens, I am dead."

Was there a vibe here? Buffy looked from one face to the other. Oh, we have an entire Moog synthesizer's worth of vibes. I do not like her, Sam I Am.

Spike looked Halfrek up and down, nostrils flaring. "You took up a new profession after the news about Harding got round?"

"Heavens no. I'd been in the vengeance business for ages before we met. D'Hoffryn took me on right after--" A look crossed Halfrek's face, as at a memory which should have been haunting, but which time and distance had rendered meaningless. "Oh. My. Roger... So that was you." Her voice sharpened. "You didn't go after me. Not that a mere vampire could--"

A slow and unpleasant smile stretched across his face, and Spike's canines extended for a second. "Professional courtesy, Miss Addams."

Buffy was beginning to feel as if she were witnessing some kind of emotional tennis match. Halfrek lobs a funny look into the net, and Spike responds with a backhanded compliment! Fifteen all! "Excuse me," she said, waving a hand. "Did someone forget to pass out the scorecards?"

Spike was immediately contrite. "Sorry, love. Bit of a shock. This is--was--Cecily Addams. We were acquainted, back in London..." He hesitated. "Before I was turned. Halfrek, this is my girl." He gave 'my girl' a defiant emphasis, as if he feared Halfrek might miss the point. "Buffy Summers, the Slayer."

Buffy smiled very sweetly and tucked a hand around Spike's arm, suppressing an urge to take a leaf from his book and growl at her rival. My vampire. You cannot have him on a boat, you cannot have him in the coat.

Xander appeared out of the mob of women in the living room, shrugging into his regrettable brown coat. Buffy had always had high hopes of it being shredded by something with big teeth and a taste for Naugahyde, but so far nothing had obliged her. Xander looked none too pleased with life, but he didn't give any of them a chance to ask questions. "What's up, Spike? Old girlfriend?"

Spike and Halfrek said "Not by half," and "Hardly," in frosty unison.

Xander's eyebrows went up. "Well, excuse me for engaging in banter without a license. You ready to rock, Spike?"

"Yeh." He tossed Xander the tranquilizer gun with a little more force than necessary. "Will's not gonna deliver the goods till later, so if we meet up with anything before then you'll have to beat it to death with the stock." Spike considered this. "The night's looking up."

Xander shouldered the trank gun and headed for the door. Spike turned to follow; on impulse, Buffy caught hold of his duster and tugged him back. "Hey, you. I need my recommended daily allowance of Spikey goodness before you go."

Something chilly thawed in his eyes, and the small cold doubt which had started to crystallize in her own gut melted as she felt one of those deep growly laughs go through him. "Well, we'll have to do something about that, Slayer. Can't have you going all weak-kneed, can we?"

With an inscrutable look in Halfrek's direction, Spike bent to kiss her, and mmmmmm, good. In the midst of being ten dollars and fifty-two cents shy of dead broke and Giles leaving and cryptic loas and crazy wizards there was Spike kissage, and it was very, very good, deep, slow, caressing tongue stroking tongue while Xander made gagging noises unheeded in the background and Spike's strong hand slid down from the small of her back to grab her ass and heave her upright and damned if her knees hadn't gone out on her there for a second. "You'll pay for this," she whispered into his ear, and Spike gave her a wicked leer.

"Can't wait." And he and Xander were out the door and gone.

Buffy straightened her blouse, wiped the silly grin off her face, and turned to face Halfrek. "So," she said brightly. "There's cake?"

*****

The whole thing was Spike's fault, of course. Xander wasn't sure exactly why or how, but if you traced the connections back properly, everything was Spike's fault. If he hadn't mentioned the stupid Krallock demon, maybe Xander would have taken Anya's advice to go see a movie, and the bed waiting for him when he returned wouldn't be the living room couch, and they wouldn't be lost in the Sunnydale sewer system.

Not that Spike was admitting to having led them astray. The author of their predicament stood in the middle of the crossroads--or more accurately, the cross-tunnel--half-smoked cigarette askew in one corner of his mouth, his lean face sporting the tight-lipped scowl which usually presaged someone or something getting smashed into very small pieces. The tunnels remained blank and uninformative: each one perfectly straight, faced with ancient tile which had once been white but was now a dingy cream where it wasn't mottled with stains from rust or mold. Mysterious pipes and cables snaked along the walls, their color-coded insulation slowly flaking away into powder. Every twenty feet or so a ceiling panel provided feeble greenish light. The ceiling was just low enough to make Xander feel like ducking constantly.

Xander set the tranquilizer gun down, one hand straying to the pocket of his coat where the ordinary, un-magical darts nestled. "Look, I know it's against Guy Rule #147, but I think it's time to accept that we're lost."

Spike removed his cigarette and snarled, "We are not bloody lost!" He whirled around, duster flaring, and stalked ten or twelve paces back the way they'd come. His fingers clenched on the haft of the axe with which he'd supplemented their trank gun, and his pale angry eyes flicked from side to side, examining the featureless tile of walls and ceiling. "I bloody well live down here, in case you've forgotten. I know these tunnels like the back of my hand--most of these tunnels--the ones near the crypt, anyway--and this intersection shouldn't be here. This tunnel's supposed to take a jog left here and run into the main sewer line for Wilkins Boulevard fifty feet further along."

Xander folded his arms and leaned against the nearest bundle of mystery cables. "Well, it doesn't. So we can either wander like Charlie on the MTA until we get completely lost, fall down a pit, and starve to death--"

"I wouldn't count on you living that long," Spike muttered.

"--or we can admit we're slightly lost, backtrack, take the right tunnel, and those of us with steady jobs might possibly get home in time to snatch six hours of sleep before having to be at the site tomorrow morning. I know which option I'm going for."

Spike glowered for a minute, the muscles in his jaw working. Somewhere in the distance, water started dripping, marking time. Very deliberately, Spike took the cigarette butt from his lips and ground it out against the white-tiled wall, leaving a grey-black smudge. He tossed the butt aside, shouldered the axe and set off without a word. Xander followed with a sense of relief; it was never certain when Spike's penchant for reckless stupidity would kick in, and he couldn't help feeling they'd just backed away from the ledge over the bottomless pit.

He trudged down the corridor in Spike's wake, hands shoved into his coat pockets. His thumbs still ached from last week's adventures, though the bandage level had subsided and he had most of his range of motion back. Anya was right, as she was with annoying frequency. He never should have volunteered for slaying duty on a work night. He'd already received one warning about clocking in late--just a friendly heads-up from Tony, the job superintendent, who liked his work. The next warning wasn't going to be so friendly, and might go on his record. He couldn't blame Tony; there was no room on a construction site for a worker who continually showed up late or sleepy or with mysterious injuries that interfered with his work. It was dangerous, not just for him but for everyone he worked with: power tools, heavy machinery, and heights were just as potentially deadly as vampires when handled carelessly. And around every job site, clustered in every Home Depot parking lot, were the dark-eyed, watchful men--the guys without jobs, men who'd take over his spot in a hot second the minute the job superintendent gave the word. Construction jobs were at a premium, and construction workers were expendable. Hell, at any minute he could get laid off just because some banker backed out and the next project failed to materialize.

Buffy had to fit whatever job she took around her slaying; it was beginning to look as if he was going to have to give serious thought to fitting slaying around his job. And that stank. There were thousands of construction workers, and only a handful of vampire hunters. It was what he did after hours that made his life worth something to the world, wasn't it? Any schmoe could slap together a condominium; how many could say they'd helped blow away the Judge with a bazooka? But God, Anya wanted kids. How could he possibly--

"Bugger."

He almost ran nose-first into the back of Spike's head. The vampire had come to an abrupt halt; they were at another four-way intersection, exactly the same as the one they'd just left. Xander looked around uneasily. "I don't remember this."

"That's because it wasn't there."

"That's impossible. We must have gotten turned around at that first intersection--all those tunnels did look alike. We just went down the wrong one, and this is--"

Spike gave him the 'Exactly how stupid are you, anyway?' look and pointed to the wall without a word. There at shoulder height on the grimy tile was a black smudge, as if someone had ground out a cigarette butt against the wall.

*****

There was cake. There was also the ubiquitous veggie-and-dip platter which Buffy suspected of traveling from party to party under its own power, accompanied by its partner in crime, the cheese and cracker assortment. Drinks included a surfeit of wine coolers in flavor combinations never seen in nature, and fruit punch which proved to have been liberally dosed with cayenne pepper--Anya had, apparently, been stricken with this culinary inspiration after the summoning ritual.

Buffy batted aside a cluster of crepe paper wedding bells and began the challenging task of assembling a crack team of hors d'oeuvres on a dangerously bendy paper plate. Between the ritual, two hours of workout, and two or three hours of... other workout, she was starving. As she contemplated the optimal placement of broccoli florets, Willow popped up beside her, earlier grouchiness evaporated. "We timed it just right! The humiliating party games just finished." Willow gazed around. "I didn't know Anya knew all these people. Wow."

"Yeah, how dare she have a social life when we have none?" There were a dozen or so women present, two or three of whom seemed to be friends of Anya's from her vengeance demon days, and the rest of whom, Buffy guessed, were people Anya knew professionally. She recognized one or two faces as regular customers at the Magic Box. Tara surfaced briefly, conversing with someone from her old Wicca group, before she was sucked up into the crowd once more. Exhibit A, the Normal Life. Buffy tried to imagine herself among them, and wondered if this was what had driven Angel to lurking.

"We're cool," Willow assured her. "I know lots of people at school, honest. I even have lunch with them sometimes. I verge upon verging upon popular."

"True. And I spoke to the counter guy at Albertsons when I picked up milk. Plus, I have an excuse. I've been dead. It cuts down on your opportunities to meet and greet." Buffy stood on tiptoe and tried to get an idea of the lay of the land. Strategy. "Food promotes happy mingling. You get drinks, I'll get you a plate."

Willow saluted and made a break for the kitchen, where the ice chest was located. Buffy shifted her own plate to a position of precarious balance on her forearm and started loading up a second plate for Willow. As she tried to remember whether Willow liked cauliflower or not, and if guessing wrong was likely to trigger another sulk, Halfrek's voice emerged from the background babble for a second, low and mildly scandalized. She was talking to one of the other vengeance demons. "...dating a vampire, can you believe it?"

The second vengeance demon put shocked fingers to her lips. "No!"

"Declassé, isn't it?" Halfrek looked down her lovely nose. "But then, it's not as though Slayers are anything but mongrels themselves..."

Buffy was saved from the faux pas of punching the maid of honor's teeth in by the bride-to-be, who appeared out of nowhere bearing more canapes. "Buffy, you made it!" Anya bubbled, blocking her escape route. "I really thought you'd pretend you needed to kill things tonight and not come."

"Never crossed my mind," Buffy lied. Anya looked so grateful, and she'd come this close to forgetting about the party altogether, and closer to arriving sans gift. Bad, inconsiderate Buffy. She really ought to make more of an effort to make friends with Anya, if only Anya weren't so... Anya. "I wouldn't have missed this for the world."

Anya's eyes lit up. "I wanted to ask if you'd like to be one of my bridesmaids. I would have asked before, but you were dead, and it seemed pointless."

"I--um. It must be a pain to change the plans so close to the wedding."

"Oh, it is." Anya gave her a brilliant smile. "But you're a friend, and one's supposed to inconvenience oneself for friends. Hallie!" she cried, propelling Buffy over to the little coterie of women seated around the coffee table, poring over catalogs of flower arrangements and gowns. "She said yes! You've met Hallie--Buffy, this is Netta. I used to work with her." Anya winked violently at the word 'work.' "And Sandra Murchison and Lorri Collins, Lorri works for one of our biggest suppliers..."

Buffy scrabbled up a cheery smile for the four pairs of inquisitive eyes, human and otherwise, which fastened on her and the two heaping plates of food she was carrying. Hello, everyone, this is my friend with the binge eating disorder. She hurriedly divested herself of Willow's plate and sat down, attempting to take up the smallest possible space on the couch.

"So pleased to meet you--Buffy, is it?" Sandra extended a hand and clasped Buffy's in a vigorous shake. "Hi. I'm Max's wife--I don't know if you've met him; he used to be on Xander's construction crew? Though I'm confused--Anya, I could have sworn you told us that Buffy was the friend who passed on last May!"

Buffy's brain threw a rod and froze. "It was more a..."

Anya bounced up and down, alight with enthusiasm and in no mood to let a little thing like death and resurrection interfere with the celebration of her nuptials. "She was. Show her the dresses!"

Was there a glint of malicious enjoyment in Halfrek's eyes as she passed the appropriate catalog over? Buffy went rigid with horror as she took in the full glory of the dress in the photograph. She swallowed. Maybe Willow could pull it off, considering some of the things Willow'd worn with a willing heart. Besides, Willow was a redhead. Redheads looked good in green. Bottle blondes looked like something fished up out of the estuary at low tide in green, but she was strong, she could take it. Except for the ruffles, no sane human being could take those ruffles, and--

She looked up, stared right into Anya's bright, hopeful eyes, and said, "It's gorgeous."

A cold bottle, still dripping ice water, appeared in her hand. Literally. Buffy almost dropped it in her lap. "Kiwi-strawberry." Willow draped herself over the back of the couch beside her and gestured; her plate of hors d'oeuvres left the coffee table and floated serenely across the intervening distance; Buffy opened her mouth to say something about not freaking the mundanes, but by that time Willow had the plate on the back of the couch and was nibbling on a Ritz. "It's all they had left," Willow said, waving her own bottle. "I see you've been introduced to the Attack of the Asparagus People." Buffy took a swallow of kiwi-strawberry and felt her mouth implode as the cloyingly sweet liquid hit the back of her throat. The wearer of the Elmo skin really had no call to cast stones, and besides, Willow was Xander's best man and would probably get to wear a nice butchy tux or something while she was trapped in this--this--

"Drink up," Sandra whispered. "We're going to need all the courage we can get to wear those dresses in public."

With a wary glance at Anya, who was chattering at Netta about the correct placement of the hideous cabbage rose corsages, Buffy whispered, "Didn't anyone try to talk her out of--?"

Sandra snorted and took a swallow of her own drink. "You don't want to know what we talked her out of, believe me. There were insects involved."

"I renounce curiosity." Conversation. She was having a conversation with a normal person--no need to panic; once upon a time she'd spoken to normal people on a regular basis. Sandra looked to be thirty-five, maybe, plumpish, with short poofy blonde hair every bit as natural as Buffy's and a wicked glint hiding in her mild brown eyes. Give up the slaying and this could be me in ten or fifteen years--husband, two point five kids, white picket fence. A rewarding career by day, PTA meetings by night! Look, in the SUV, it's Supermom! "So... your husband works with Xander?"

A shadow crossed Sandra's face. "Used to. There was an accident last year. He's in a wheelchair. He works in the contractor's office now."

"Oh." And of all possible subjects, Buffy Summers picks... "I'm so sorry to hear that."

Sandra shrugged. "We deal. It's not easy, but sometimes I think that if I didn't have a fight on my hands I think I'd get bored."

Buffy swirled the watermelon-colored liquid around in its bottle, took another sip and unpuckered her lips. "I can relate, I guess. At least my boyfriend's the walking dead." Sandra gave her an odd look and Buffy amended, "Uh, when he first gets up. Spike's not a morning person."

Halfrek stood and announced that they were going to start opening presents now. The there was a general whoop of approval and the guests gathered round the couch as Netta began ferrying presents over to the coffee table for Anya to rip open and exclaim over. As they turned to watch the celebration of capitalism at its finest, Willow took a swig of her own drink and nudged Buffy's shoulder with an elbow. "Spike rates the B-word now?" she asked with a teasing grin.

"I should hope so, considering his performance in the foyer," Halfrek said with an arch lift of one perfectly manicured brow which managed to convey that either way, said performance had been incredibly gauche.

Boyfriend was so completely the wrong word for Spike, all wholesome and malt-shoppy, but until she could think of something fitter for public consumption than 'demon lover'... Buffy gave Halfrek a smile as poisonously sweet as the wine cooler. "Spike's... mine." She did her own swoopy-eyebrow thing, matching Halfrek arch for arch. "So--you knew him when he was--" Mindful of Sandra's curious presence, she switched tracks from 'The notorious William the Bloody' to "--younger? Did you go to the prom together?"

Halfrek burst into peals of laughter. Lovely, chiming laughter. Buffy decided that she really, truly hated her. "We were acquainted socially. William, I suppose, would describe us as intimate friends. He does have a tendency to embroider, doesn't he?"

"I wouldn't know," Buffy said, all innocence. In fact, Spike had told her quite a lot about his past; the problem was, she had no idea how much of it was embroidery and how much cloth. In that grilling she'd given him last year, he'd dropped all kinds of vainglorious hints, making out that he'd been a rebel from the cradle on, with a trail of broken hearts and broken heads a mile wide and a continent long by the time Drusilla had been smitten by his rugged good looks and devilish charm. If William the Bloody had been a nineteeth-century gangster, would that make the former Cecily Addams some kind of Victorian moll? But that story didn't match up with other bits and pieces he'd let fall in less guarded moments, and she'd been warming to the idea of coaxing him out of himself little by little.

Now, confronted with a possible wellspring of information, she felt a perverse sense that this was cheating. Spike had pneumonia when he was twelve, and his mother gave him poetry books, and it's a good bet his birthday is May 21. Or William's birthday was. Whatever. I found that out with my very own investigative brilliance, Miss Tattletale Addams.

Halfrek settled comfortably, folding her hands demurely on her lap. "It wasn't simply the fact that I was in vengeance that made it impossible--he didn't know anything about my career, poor naive dear. I grant his family was respectable enough..."

*****

"Home sweet home," Xander muttered as they trudged into the intersection for the seventh or eighth time. It didn't seem to matter which of the four branches they chose to follow. They'd tried each tunnel in turn. They'd tried splitting up and going down two tunnels at once. They'd tried walking backwards. They'd tried looking for trap doors and secret buttons. They'd tried everything but leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, and every single attempt led right back to their starting point.

Xander collapsed, back against the wall, and slid to the ground, laying the tranquilizer gun across his knees. Spike stared around at the four identical tunnels leading off in for identically useless directions, perfectly expressionless; then a snarl of rage contorted his face and he whipped the axe off his shoulder and swung at the nearest wall. "Bloody, fucking... rrrrarrggh!" Tile shattered under the force of the blow and a rain of dust and knife-edged ceramic shards clattered to the floor. Spike stood in the wreckage, golden-eyed with frustration and breathing in short angry snorts. Then he heaved a sigh, propped his axe up in the nearest corner, and slumped down against the wall opposite Xander.

Xander glanced at his watch. The liquid crystal display was a featureless silver-grey. He frowned and shook his wrist to no effect. He'd just put in a new battery last month. "How long have we been down here?"

Spike grunted. "Does it matter?" Anger still simmered in his eyes, little golden flecks boiling up out of the blue. "Stupid bint," he muttered. "Probably telling the Slayer tales out of school right this minute. Doesn't know when she's got it good. Could've killed her then if I'd taken the fancy to. Could kill her now if I could get her bloody pendant; she seems to forget she's a sodding demon--"

"Spike, what the hell are you talking about?"

"Bloody Cecily bloody Addams is what I'm talking about!" Spike leaped to his feet and began tiger-pacing back and forth. "Your Halfrek. Woman's a bleeding menace. Not as if I wasn't going to tell Buffy eventually, but the time's got to be right for a thing like that. You don't just go blurting out your entire history to a bird on the first date." He twitched a sneer in Xander's direction. "Or maybe you do, not having any history to speak of, but--"

"Whoa, not my Halfrek. You want her, you can keep her. Anya's got some insane idea that I'm hot for her." Where the hell had that come from, anyway? He'd seen what Halfrek looked like in her true shape, and had been trying to avoid thinking about Anya's having once looked the same ever since. Even if the thought of falling for the veiny and terrifying Halfrek wasn't absurd, where did Anya get the notion he'd prefer anyone to her?

"Not that daft an idea for her to get, is it?" Spike retorted. "You're not exactly throwing yourself into the nuptial frenzy."

"Look, I just wanted to go to a JP and get it over with!" Xander snapped back. One of the voices in his head--the sarcastic one--pointed out that 'get it over with' was not exactly the most romantic terminology with which to refer to his ultimate union with his beloved. "The big wedding with the big guest list and the bigger price tag was Anya's idea." He tilted his head back, staring up at the water-marked ceiling. "I just can't believe..." Spike was watching him with snide amusement. "Forget it. You've got no idea what kind of commitment this--"

Spike stopped pacing and roared with laughter. "Commitment? You lost track of who you're talking to? Hundred and twenty years, mate. And if you think your demon bird's high-maintenance, you give Dru a try."

Xander surged to his feet, fists clenched. "Anya's not a God-damned demon! Stop calling her that, or I'll--"

Spike's brows climbed up his forehead, accompaniment to a smarmy grin. "What's the matter, Harris, afraid your firstborn will pop out all veiny and vengeful?"

Xander didn't think; he just swung. He didn't even see Spike move; one second the vampire was there, and the next second he wasn't, and Xander's fist smashed into the wall behind him. "AAAHHHHH!!! Fuck!" Xander fell to his knees and contracted into a ball of agony around his throbbing knuckles.

"And not even a hole in the wall to show for it," Spike observed from his new vantage point three feet to the left. He slapped his palm against the tile. "Quality workmanship, this." He put his head to one side and regarded Xander with pursed lips and hollowed cheeks. "You really are the biggest prat in creation, Harris."

Xander slumped against the wall, his forehead pressed into the cold tile. After some minutes of strained, breathless gasping of 'ow, ow, ow,' he rolled over painfully and cradled his injured fist in his lap. "And you're thinking that there's some chance I haven't noticed this?"

"Not really, but I never tire of calling it to your attention." Spike dropped to his haunches and draped a hand over each knee, rocking back and forth with a look of honest curiosity. "What the hell are you narked about? Is this still about me and Buffy?"

Yes. No. I take the Fifth. "Let's see." Xander started to tick things off on his fingers, thought better of it, and continued sans visual aids. "Buffy's lost her mind and is dating another vampire."

"If it's any comfort, I wouldn't say there've been any actual dates involved."

"Shut up, I'm on a roll. Anya has half a dozen old co-workers in town, all of whom think I'm human trash, and has been gabbing happily on about the good old vengeancy days of yore--and yeah, it does bother me just a tiny bit that the woman I love spent a thousand years maiming and torturing guys who may have been creeps of one sort of another but probably didn't all deserve to have their parts rot off and their bodies devoured by army ants. I know that's not PC of me, but tough. And in less than three weeks I'm getting married and I'm going to be personally responsible for the welfare of another human being for the rest of our lives, so I am just a little bit nervous, all right? Everyone else around here gets to explode in random violence whenever they've had a bad day; I'm just joining the club."

"Ah. Translation: It's hard to get shirty about the Slayer's choice of snogging partner when Anyanka's record of bloodshed and destruction puts yours truly to shame."

Exactly. "No, it's totally different. Anya's human now."

"Ah. Right. That old song again."

"Eat flaming death, English pig-dog."

They sat there for awhile. "She's a tidy bird, Anya." Spike pulled his cigarettes out and shook one free. After ceremoniously drawing it to life and taking a long drag, he flicked off his lighter and propped the hand with the smouldering cigarette up on one knee. "You muff this up and you're a bigger wanker than I thought."

"Thought you didn't like her."

"I don't. Don't think she's too fond of me, either, but that doesn't mean we can't get on." At Xander's expression he assumed a smirk of superiority. "It's a demon thing. You wouldn't understand."

"Well, it won't matter if we end up wandering around the bowels of the Great Underground Empire for the next sixty years." Xander shoved his hair out of his eyes with his good hand and tried to estimate the time. It felt like hours, but the corridors were only a couple hundred feet long at most, and it couldn't possibly take more than five minutes to walk from intersection to intersection. Figure in more time for arguments, secret panel hunting, and staring hopelessly into space, and they couldn't have been here more than an hour, hour and a half tops. Not long enough to feel hopeless about getting out, but plenty long enough to engender growing panic about job security. We are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Except not twisty. And not likely to be eaten by grues. Vampires, on the other hand... "Academically speaking, exactly how hungry do you have to get before the pain just doesn't matter any more?"

Spike closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the wall. "Doesn't matter; you'll be dead of thirst inside a week and I can eat you in comfort." His lip curled. "I'd rather gnaw on loose insulation."

At least there was a plentiful supply of it, Xander thought morosely. He looked up at the nearest bundle of cables. Strands of clean, unflaking plastic twined about one another, their colors bright and eye-catching. What the... "Spike?" Spike looked up from his cigarette, which had gone out, glower set on 'kill.' Xander pointed to the cable. "Does this look different to you?"

"Of course it--" Spike flicked his lighter off and stuffed it back in his pocket, and crawled over to peer at the cables. He frowned at them from below for a moment, looked over his shoulder at the other cables visible, and got to his feet. Round the circuit of tunnels he prowled, poking, prodding, and sniffing. At last he halted in front of one of the bundles, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand and looking perplexed. All of them were like new. "There's not even any nubbly bits left on the floor," he said.

"But this is the same intersection." Xander clambered to his feet rather less gracefully. Why the hell had Spike had to mention dying of thirst? Now he was parched, and the constant distant drip, drip, drip of water that they never reached wasn't helping. He tapped the tile with the black smudge in the center. "There's the cigarette burn, right..." He blinked. There was, in fact, no black smudge to be seen.

"No, it's this one, you--bloody hell." Spike made another round of inspection. "It's gone."

Xander worried the inside of his cheek. "OK, I thought I knew what was going on here. Some kind of teleport trap. Oldest trick in the Dungeonmaster's Handbook. But this is downright disturbing. It can't be of the good."

"Oh, can't it?" Spike looked grim. "Did it ever occur to you to wonder what exactly happens when the Balance gets too far out of kilter on the side of goodness and light?"

"Not really. 700 Club marathons?"

Spike's shoulders twitched in an involuntary shudder. "Hang on a bit and you'll find out."

Chapter Text

"It can't be that bad," Xander said. He leaned back against the wall and folded his hands behind his head. "By definition. So the Balance tips too far towards the good. Oh, the horror, not."

Spike exhaled a plume of smoke with a look that said 'If I were Kzinti, my name would be Speaker-to-Idiots.' "How far are we from the Hellmouth? Two miles?"

Xander called the grid of Sunnydale's major streets to mind and did a quick triangulation. They'd gone underground at the manhole at the intersection west of the apartment complex, and the burnt-out wreck of Sunnydale High was... "Closer to a mile and a half." An unpleasant thought struck him. "Or we were before we got stuck in this...whatever it is. I have no idea where we are now."

"Right." Spike rubbed the side of his nose, as if it itched. "As it happens, yours truly cracked a few books on Hellmouths back when I was making plans to bring Drusilla here to take the waters."

Despite Willow's insistence that Spike was a closet geek, the idea of him cracking books any more demanding than 'Lust Kittens of Venus' was something Xander had trouble taking seriously. "I feel expository dialogue coming on. 'And as you know, Xander--'"

Spike glared. "Mystical portal leading to a hell dimension, blah blah, take as given. Point is, the Hellmouth's aura affects the whole town, and especially these tunnels. Things happen here, usually bad. The Hellmouth sends out emanations of chaos and nastiness, attracts the attention of discerning evildoers everywhere--" he bowed with an ironic flourish. "--and hawks up the occasional Ascended demon to bugger up the lives of the common throng." He wheeled about, craning his neck down one of the passages. "D'you hear that?"

Xander resisted the urge to peer after him. If there wasn't anything there, it was pointless; if there was something there and Spike was just now catching it, it was just as pointless, since Spike's hearing was ten times better than his. "All I hear is the sound of one vamp yapping. This is Hellmouth 101. So?"

"So. Doesn't happen too often that the Balance swings too far in the opposite direction in the vicinity of a Hellmouth, but I ran across one or two mentions--think it was in Ruprecht's Alternus Mundi--or was it..." Spike contemplated the arabesques of cigarette smoke coiling upwards in front of his nose and frowned. "Ah, bugger it, I can't remember. Had a blue cover, whatever it was. What it comes down to is this: under the right conditions, a Hellmouth can do a flip." The vampire picked up his axe and gestured round at the tiled walls--one, two, three, four. The rust and mold stains were almost gone now, and the shattered remnants of Spike's earlier temper tantrum had vanished. The formerly broken section of tile was as pristine as the rest of the wall. "This look like chaos and nastiness to you? Perfect symmetry. Everything getting cleaner and newer and better."

Xander's attempt at keeping a straight face lasted about five seconds. He broke into a snicker. "Oh, come on," he chortled. "You mean we're now living on a... a Heavenmouth?" He clasped his hands and rolled his eyes skywards. "Which will spread sweetness and light and, what, hawk up the occasional televangelist? Even if you're right, what are we supposed to be scared of? Random acts of kindness and non-violence? Do they bring on the comfy chairs?"

"Harris, will you remove your tiny withered brain from its protective wrapping and use it for a change?" Spike didn't sound as if he were joking. He was scratching at one ear, twitchy and uncomfortable, as if the air around them were becoming something inimical. "Forget the harps and halos, this is real life. Who's the closest representative of the forces of goodness and virtue you know?"

"Buffy, I guess, but--oh." The forces of goodness and virtue around these parts were not exactly reluctant to kick ass. "Point taken. But we're good guys. Why would they hurt us? Well, I'm a good guy. I guess you're toast. Wish I could say it was nice knowing you, but--"

Spike began a restless quartering of the intersection, hands locked behind his back. "The Slayer's small change, cosmically speaking--yeh, Buffy took on a hellgod and won, but that's Buffy. There's things out there that could eat Glory for lunch, things that could send me up in flames with a look." He met Xander's budding objection with a snort. "And don't get too comfortable yourself, bricklayer. Remember the Judge?"

"Otherwise known as Xander Harris's finest hour?" Or maybe second finest; the wrecking ball had been pretty good, too. "Surely you jest." Spike's eyes went misty with nostalgia and a wicked grin split his lean face. "If there's one regret in my life it's that I couldn't be there to see Angelus's face when that bazooka went off."

"Oh, God, it was priceless. I wish I'd had a camera..." Xander realized that he was matching Spike grin for grin and forced a frown. Spike's grew a trifle more wicked.

"Keep in mind that at the height of my career as a master vampire, in the midst of a plot to destroy the world no less, I wasn't evil enough to pass the big blue bastard's muster." Spike blew a smoke ring and cocked an eyebrow at him. "Granted I lost points for taking the destroy-the-world part as a lark that'd never come off, but still. D'you think you're pure enough in heart to shake hands with his opposite number?"

"I..." Xander swallowed. Every rotten thing he'd said and done in the last few years leaped up and started clamoring for attention in the forefront of his mind. Hyena-Xander, shoving Buffy against the wall. Self-centered teenage asshole Xander, blowing off Willow's crush on him. Not telling Buffy about the re-souling spell. Cheating on Cordelia. A hundred exasperated public putdowns of Anya... "...think panic is in order now."

"Wise decision. Take it from someone who's fought 'em, the forces of good are vicious sons of bitches." Spike shouldered his axe and started off down the corridor--no reason, Xander knew; just to be moving, just to be doing something. Xander watched the vampire's black-clad back diminishing in the distance for a minute, then grabbed the tranquilizer gun and broke into a jog to catch up. Better to follow Spike and pretend they were going somewhere than to sit around in the intersection and pretend it wasn't freaky when Spike reappeared out of the opposite tunnel in five or ten minutes. If they ran fast enough, would they see the backs of their own heads?

The tunnel transformed subtly around them as they walked. Xander could never pin down a change in the process of occurring; he'd look away and look back, and something would be different. The cables were taking on an almost cartoonish regularity in their loops and coils, as each tile became a perfect glossy square of pearly white, the light panels in the ceiling distinguishable only by their greater luminance. The light grew softer, clearer, paler, and they walked in enveloping radiance.

Xander found his grip on the stock of the trank gun relaxing, even as he listened for something beyond the distant tap-tap-tap of falling water and the sound of their own footsteps. For all the eeriness of the tunnels, there was a certain comfort in always knowing exactly what the next bend in the road would bring.

Spike didn't share it; he had stopped breathing and was gliding along in full hunting mode, his scuffed Docs making no sound at all on the floor. Xander studied the sweep of black leather in front of him. Whoever Spike had originally stolen that duster from had been several sizes larger than Spike was; the vampire swam in the thing, but as the coat slapped against him, you could still make out the lines of his torso, tapering sharply from breadth of shoulders to narrow hips.

Made a good target. Xander reached into his other coat pocket, the one that held the stake he was seldom without, and turned the length of sharpened oak over and over in his hand. The point would go right there, in the angle between the spine and the left shoulder blade, right between the ribs and into the heart. Buffy could drive a stake effortlessly through bone and muscle from any angle. Xander, merely human, had to worry about stakes getting stuck between the ribs or glancing off a shoulder blade.

He imagined the length of hardwood punching through matte-black leather and the thin layer of black cotton beneath, through ivory skin and into innards just as wet and red and fragile as any living human's, until the stake-point penetrated the heart and all dissolved into dust. He used to do this all the time--with Angel, and later with Spike--imagine what he'd do if either of them ever gave him the excuse. He wondered why he'd stopped. He'd gotten out of the habit, over the summer, led astray by shared patrols and games of pool and arguments over exactly which Plastic Ono Band album sucked the most. He'd lulled himself into--not forgetting, but worse, ignoring, the all-important fact that at the end of the day, Spike was still pretty much a vampire. The whole resurrection thing had jarred him back to reality, and now...

Now he was just slipping back into casual acceptance of this... this thing in front of him? Phone ringing as Anya welcomed the first batch of guests. Spike's North London drawl on the other end of the line "Harris. Got a line on a Krallock demon. Feel like killing something? I'll let you use the big gun." As much an overture, in its way, as him showing up at the crypt with spicy chicken wings. And he'd accepted it. Fuck. And here he was, following along behind pretty-much-a-vampire with no real intention to plunge that stake in where reason and logic said it should have gone years ago. Double fuck. What was the matter with him? Hanging out with Spike was wrong.

"If you keep playing with it, you'll go blind." Spike turned on his heel, swift, silent death with ears that could the heart thudding away in his chest, or the scrape of callused fingers against wood. "The suspense is killing me faster than you are."

Xander stopped in the middle of the tunnel, feet braced, holding the gun with the vestige of the professional ease his stint as Soldier Guy had left him. Step back, dart into the chamber, aim, cock, pull trigger...it would be easy. You know one of these babies will take a vampire down. And then the stake . Spike stood there looking at him, dark brows angled in exasperation, not even slightly worried. Trusting him. How twisted was that? "You know something, Spike? Your little fling with Buffy has nothing to do with the reason I hate your guts."

Spike sighed, eyes imploring the heavens for patience. "Do tell."

It didn't. Not the way Spike thought. His crush on Buffy was a thing of the past. All right, he had occasional lusty thoughts. What guy wouldn't? Maybe if the two of them weren't so damned obvious about it. Maybe if they didn't touch so often. Maybe if he didn't have the image of Buffy standing in his foyer with her tongue halfway down Spike's throat burned onto the back of his eyelids...

Maybe if Buffy can love an out-and-out demon and I can't handle an ex-demon there's something wrong with me, not her.

Slam that thought back in lockup where it belonged. "It's real simple. Half a dozen kids I grew up with, ate lunch with, and got beat up by ended up as snack food for you or Dru or one of your minions. And a few of 'em came back for a return engagement on the business end of Buffy's stake. Never hesitated a minute." Four-year-old memories came flooding back--how had he forgotten all this? How had all of them come to tolerate Spike's company? How could two years' worth of grudging, chip-goaded help possibly make up for a century plus of cheerful murder? "What the hell makes you so special?" Spike's face remained impassive, and Xander took a belligerent step forward. "How come you're walking around and not Jesse or Andy Runyon or Terry Lane?"

Spike studied him for a long minute. "Because life's got steel-toed boots and delights in applying them to the family jewels, Harris. You haven't figured that one out by now?"

"You gonna claim you're sorry they're dead?"

"No." Spike cocked his head to one side, what looked like real regret time-sharing with wary curiosity in his eyes. "But sometimes I wish I could be." He scratched absently at his jaw. "Then I come to my senses. Is there a point to this conversation besides the one you're fondling?"

There was a point, all right--if he admitted for a second the possibility of not-enemyhood with Spike, he was betraying real friends. And if that was bad when he did it, how much worse was it when Buffy, the Slayer herself, slept with the enemy? Everything seemed so clear down here, in the pearly glow of the tunnel. Spike was evil. Evil through and through. There were no shadows here, no greys, just pure, white, comforting light which showed him that Spike was...

Red in the face? Now that was wrong. "Uh... Spike... Are you supposed to sunburn indoors?"

Spike touched a startled hand to his cheek and drew it away with a hiss; the pale marks of his fingertips lingered on his skin for a few seconds before fading back to unnatural ruddiness. "Balls! Sunlight!" He glanced up and around; there was no shelter to speak of in the slowly brightening tunnels. "Enough dicking around. We've got to get out of here."

Xander shook his head again, hard, trying to shake the fuzz out. His thoughts were all his own, but down here some thoughts were more equal than others--ways to dispose of Spike sprang easily to mind. Cooperating with an evil soulless vampire to get out, on the other hand--he couldn't wrap his brain around the idea; he was blundering through a spiritual algebra class, all his thoughts blunted and sluggish.

But he was used to that, wasn't he? Used to being the last one to get it, and getting it anyway, in his own good time. And no fuzzy-wuzzy feel-good tunnel of love was going to mess with his head and get away with it, any more than some cut-rate Prince of Darkness was going to make him play Renfield again. I'll hate Spike on my own dime, damn it, I don't need any help from you. "Yeah. We do." He forced the words out with a sense of triumph. We. Take that, fuzzy goodness! "How?"

Spike flicked his cigarette butt down the corridor, hefted his axe and grinned, squinting against the too-clear light. "If you can't find a way out, you bloody well make one." The skin across his cheeks and the backs of his hands was starting to prickle and burn, just as it had walking under cloudy daylight skies. Should have been impossible; a vampire's little sunlight allergy was metaphysical, not physical--no man-made light, no matter how closely it duplicated full-spectrum sunlight, should have been able to do the trick. Obviously the lights in this tunnel were no longer exactly as men had made them.

Close enough, though. Was he starting to smoke slightly, or was that just the remains of his cigarette? Time for some preventive maintenance. Spike flipped the axe end over end, caught it and jabbed upwards, ducking aside as the haft smashed through the nearest light panel and shattered the bulb inside into a thousand razor-edged snowflakes. He repeated the process with the light panels on either side. "Much better," he breathed as the final shower of glass heralded the return of relative darkness along a twenty-foot segment of the tunnel.

Spontaneous combustion forestalled for the time being, Spike shook glittering fragments of glass off his shoulders and reversed the axe again, swinging it through a limbering arc. There was something out there in this infinitely reflected latticework of tunnels, pacing them, spying on them; he could sense it, just on the edge of his perceptions, a magnetic repulsion. His opposite number, more or less, probably gritting its teeth, if it had any, over his presence at this moment. And who better to open the door than the blokes who built the castle? "We're probably going to have company soon," he said. "Don't imagine the proprietors will look kindly on me making a mess."

Xander looked up and down the tunnel. "I thought we were avoiding the forces of goodness and virtue?"

"Changed my mind. Who better to let us out than the blokes who built the place?" Spike ran his index finger down the axe-blade's notched edge, licked it, savoring the pain and the taste of his own blood with connoisseur's appreciation. The prospect of action was cheering. "Not likely we'll attract anything much nicer than I am nasty, this early in the game. But if we do, you'll just have to put in a good word." His grin went sharp-fanged and feral, eyes shining lambent yellow under ridged brows; William the Bloody, not even trying to be good, not the least little bit.

The axe-blade whistled through the air and sank into the nearest bundle of wall-cable with a THOK!, half-severing the whole mass. Another fountain of sparks exploded outwards, and the tunnel filled with the stink of ozone as individual strands of cable sprang apart, red and blue and green, hissing and crackling like an angry hydra. He jumped back, feeling something in his shirt-pocket thump against his chest. The lights flickered and dimmed for fifty feet in either direction. "YEAH!" Spike howled, and hauled back for another strike, lion-gold eyes burning in the manufactured darkness. The axe-blade flashed again and electrical mayhem ensued. More light panels died. "Burn me up sight unseen, will you? CREATURE OF SODDING DARKNESS HERE! YOU WANT ME? COME GET ME!"

"These are the torch-you-with-a-look guys? Is this really a good idea?" Xander backed nervously down the tunnel.

"One of my plans, and you have to ask?" The third blow bypassed the cables and smashed into the tile, which exploded into mother-of-pearl powder under the force of it. The fourth sent chunks of plaster and concrete flying like shrapnel. Somewhere Xander was yelling at him to watch it, but Spike was lost in the moment, face a snarling demonic mask of fury, caught up in the orgasmic rush of destruction. Nothing in the world existed but to break and tear and ravage, to ruin the dull perfection of this place--and the only thing missing was best part of all, the sour tang of fear and the screams of the dying. Harris's racing heart was a siren song, calling up lush, sensual images of the blade tearing through bone and muscle like a knife through Camembert, of fangs in flesh and sweet hot blood flowing and the bastard had never liked him, fine to use old Spike for muscle but God forbid you let him touch the women and all he'd have to do was lose that last sliver of self-control and--

--and the chip, thank God and That Fucking Bitch Walsh, would knock him flat on his arse. There was a perverse freedom in knowing he could let his worst self rage and foam and not have to worry about the consequences. Spike put his back into it and swung again, and the whole wall shuddered and cracked, plaster and cement falling away in huge flaking slabs and choking the tunnel with dust. The axe-blade was starting to blunt and deform under the force of his blows, but Spike was past noticing; the hole in the wall was deep enough to stick an arm in up to the elbow.

CEASE.

It came from everywhere and nowhere, a voice like the tolling of bells, like a chord struck on an organ whose pipes were the winds themselves. Spike froze mid-swing at the sound, hated it from the first note and longed for it never to fall silent, yearning so mixed with loathing it made him physically ill, tied knots in his gut and pulled them tighter with every note. Radiance flooded the tunnel again and he threw a hand up to guard his eyes, snarling, fighting to regain ascendancy over himself.

It was a whirlwind of eyes, a rush of wings, a clash of blades, a shining in the air. It slid away from any attempt to pin it down with words; it was beautiful beyond thought, and Spike balled up his desolation and fear and longing and stuffed it down into the sub-basements of his mind. He turned to face the approaching creature with all his customary bravado, leaning on the handle of his beat-up axe and smirking into the face of heaven. It spread vast pinions, every covert a glittering razor, every primary a saber of light. CREATURE OF DARKNESS, YOU HAVE NO PLACE HERE.

"That's ducky by me," said Spike. "Why don't you let us out, then?"

"Spiiiike," Xander said, jabbing him in the ribs with an elbow. He gave the thing a sickly grin. "Don't pay any attention to my idiot friend here, he's got Tourette's. It compels him to stupidly insult supernatural creatures way bigger than he is. If you'll show us the way out I promise to take him home and put him to bed with a nice bottle of whiskey and--" Aside, to Spike, he hissed, "What is that thing?"

"Harrier demon," Spike whispered back, taking the opportunity to feel around under cover of the duster. What the hell did he have in his pocketses? String, or... his fingers met glass and metal. Bloody sodding hell, not nothing, his glasses. After Buffy'd left the crypt this afternoon he'd put them on to read the footy scores and gnash his teeth over the match report of Man U's humiliating loss to West Ham. He must have tucked them into his pocket after, while constructing an elaborate and impractical scheme to stow away on a cargo plane to England and eat Jerome Defoe. The second time he'd done that lately, and he couldn't afford to be that careless with them; it wasn't as if he could pop over to the nearest Lenscrafters and get a new prescription. Xander was staring at him curiously; Spike stuffed the spectacles back down in his pocket and affected indifference. "Heard of 'em. Never seen one before."

"If it's a demon, what's with the 'creature of darkness' line?"

"It's a good demon, nitwit." And unfortunately well into the incinerate-vampires-with-a-look range. He hadn't expected anything this powerful. "Working directly for the Powers--they don't often mingle with the riff-raff."

"There's good demons?"

Spike gave the Harrier a long-suffering, 'see what I have to put up with?' look. "Now about letting us off this roundabout--"

Unimpressed, it shimmered in the air before them like a heat-mirage in summer, a roiling mist of light and air and terrible swift swords. Its attention fixed upon Xander for a moment, examining, evaluating, and discarding in seconds. YOU ARE FOUND WANTING. YOUR SINS ARE MANY. It paused. BUT INSIGNIFICANT. Its Argus-eyed regard turned upon Spike. I AM CHARGED WITH THE ELIMINATION OF SUCH AS YOU. And blades lashed out like lightning in all directions, searing brilliant tongues of flame.

*****

"...the property was entailed, of course, and went to the cousin in Leicester, but the will settled five hundred pounds apiece on each of Letitia's children..."

"Uh huh." Buffy squinched her eyes at the ceiling a few times, hoping to avert their incipient glazing-over a few seconds longer. She took another swallow of kiwi-strawberry, which, as an alternative to listening to Halfrek, was becoming downright palatable. In order to explain how she'd come to be William's (snarl) intimate friend, Halfrek felt it necessary to explain in detail the history of their respective families for three generations back. No matter how juicy, gossip lost its piquancy when it was a hundred and fifty years out of date, and this gossip had been on the desiccated side to begin with--so far Spike's--William's--family came off as the sort of people who showed up as background characters in a duller-than-average A&E miniseries.

"...so when the family removed to Hampshire, William's father married the youngest Cavendish girl, and..."

Another generation down. Maybe they'd get William conceived before the party was over. Buffy began assembling a cast list in her head for Middlemarch II: The Revenge of Dorothea. Spike in a cravat. Mmm. Not bad. She added black leather boots, a riding crop, and those skin-tight riding breeches to her mental image and mussed up its hair a little. Mmmmmm... very bad.

On the other side of the coffee table, Anya shucked the wrapping from another combination waffle iron/grill and added it to the varicolored paper mountain at her feet. There were two identical gifts in the pile of opened presents already, and Buffy felt a faint sense of satisfaction that at least her present hadn't been a re-run. "This is lovely, though redundant," Anya said, examining Waffle Iron #3. For Anya, that was the height of tact.

"It does Belgian," Lorri pointed out.

Anya's eyes grew damp and her lower lip trembled. "Xander loves Belgian waffles."

Trembly Anya + pissed off Xander = another argument. Buffy tossed her hair out of her eyes. Maybe she should try to talk to him... Advice to the lovelorn from Buffy Summers, number one on the doomed relationship hit parade for five years running! Run, Xander, run!

"...hate My Little Pony," Sandra said to Tara, who was hanging over the back of the couch next to Willow. "Horse craziness is all about girls coming to terms with sex and masculine power, for that you need a horse. Take the Black Stallion novels--"

"See, this is why I was destined for the lesbian thing," Willow said. "Horses are just four hooves waiting to step on your foot."

Tara pouted. "I loved those books! And 'King of the Wind!'"

Sandra nodded and gestured violently with a carrot stick. "The whole point is that the Black's a half-wild killer, but he loves Alex and will do anything for him. Our daughter eats that up. The toy companies of America take this primal symbol of power and virility and neuter it, make it into these harmless little pastel eunuchs with fluffy tails..."

"...so when the season opened I came up to London and was most displeased to discover William had let a room in..."

Drat. Missed William's conception altogether. "Buffy, when can we fit you for your bridesmaid's dress?" Lorri cut across the several lines of conversation.

It was astonishing how much a wine cooler or two did to reconcile one to asparagus green. Though the thought of those ruffles still elicited a shudder of horror. Buffy selected a Triscuit and topped it with a slice of cheddar. "Um... I'm probably free Tuesday or Wednesday. Monday we have that, um, thing."

"Ah, yes. The thing. Wednesday is good," Anya said. She surveyed Buffy with an appraising eye. "It's a good thing I didn't ask right after you came back. You're gaining weight and the dress wouldn't have fit by January."

Buffy choked on her cracker. "Thank you, because I so needed to hear that."

Anya patted her shoulder with a kindly smile. "Oh, don't worry, you're still way too skinny."

Sandra paused in railing against the evils of small pink plastic horses to the prepubescent feminine psyche to eye Buffy's reed-slim body and raise a skeptical eyebrow. "Please, God, can I gain weight like that?"

Leaning back against the sofa cushions and listening to the voices swirl around her, Buffy could see with Slayer-vision clarity--perhaps it was the kiwi-strawberry going to her head--a future where this was her life, where there was no mysterious thing on Monday to interfere with dress fittings, where her conversations would revolve around diets and children and office gossip and subverting the paradigm of corporate America. And it wouldn't be perfect and it wouldn't be safe, because husbands had industrial accidents and mothers died of brain hemorrhages and sisters got caught shoplifting. Side by side with the two-point-five-kids-and-white-picket-fence future was another: darker, stranger, wilder. Herself at thirty, or forty, or fifty, a thin tough woman with stormy eyes and hard hands, going places and doing things which defied description, with a lean pale man at her side who looked far too young for her. No kids, unless Dawn provided some nieces and nephews for her and Spike to spoil rotten. No marriage, unless heart given for heart counted for as much or more than legal formality. No easy answers as she grew older and he didn't. And the only thing that picket fence would be used for was making stakes.

Door Number One, Door Number Two. Or you can go for the box behind the curtain...

The building shuddered. Little shrieks and yips of surprise broke out around the room; pictures rattled on the wall and dishes clinked and jittered on the tables. In the contents of every half-full glass and bottle concentric waves shivered in and out of existence and a few of the women dashed for doorways in the native Californian's instinctive search for load-bearing masonry. Outside a grinding rumble culminated in a cannon-loud crack of noise--had one of the other buildings collapsed?

Buffy was halfway to the front door before her brain caught up with her reflexes and pointed out that the noise was far out of proportion to anything such a mild tremor should have caused. As she threw open the door, the parking lot exploded in a blaze of white light, bright as midday, shining from a raw crater thirty feet across in the middle of the landscaping between Xander's building and the next. The turf was thrown back as if exploded from below and a whole segment of the adjoining sidewalk and parking lot was a crumpled bank of asphalt and concrete; the carport over the residents' parking spaces was peeled back upon itself like the lid of a sardine tin, its supporting posts poking crazily into the floodlit sky. Several cars had tipped over, wheels spinning helplessly like the feet of glittering upended beetles. And rising out of the crater...

"What is--?" Willow was right behind her. "Oh my--Buffy, is that a demon?"

Buffy licked her suddenly-dry lips, staring down at the incandescent creature below. "I don't know." Small dark figures swam across the bright background. "But whatever it is, there's people--"

Anya shouldered her way through the door, shoving Willow and Buffy aside. She stood on the landing with fingers pressed to lips. "Xander!"

"Anya! Wait!" Buffy cried, grabbing for her arm, but Anya was gone, racing down the steps and out into the parking lot. Buffy sprang after her, shouting "Come on, Will!" over her shoulder and taking the clattering stairs three at a time.

*****

A wing of light arced across Spike's midriff, shearing through cloth and leather and flesh, the sword-blades of its primaries stained with dark blood when they swept away. The vampire dropped to a crouch, flinging the tails of his duster up and over his head as his flesh began to scorch in the intensity of the blaze. Xander charged forwards with a yell, whirling the trank gun overhead, straight into the face--well, the front, at least--of their opponent. It hadn't expected that, and instead of parrying reared up and back, trying to avoid hurting him. Whirlwind supernatural energies met earth and stone, colliding with the low ceiling, and the tunnel rocked with the basso rumble of earth tearing apart. Tiles fell in a blinding ceramic rain and half the roof vaporized. Screams and the blaring of half a dozen car alarms floated down through the hole in the sky.

If the falling ceiling didn't bury him, he was going to choke to death. Xander stumbled blindly for a minute, totally lost. A sunburnt face loomed out of the dust and Spike's cold hard fingers circled his wrist, yanking him forward through the falling rubble. "Listen whelp, if I give you a toss up, can you catch hold up there?"

Xander shoved lank dark locks of hair out of his eyes and looked up; tattered indigo sky framed in fractal black had replaced gently glowing tile. "I have no idea." The air crackled as the Harrier surged towards them. "Find out, now!"

Spike immediately shifted his grip to Xander's belt and coat-collar. Xander had the stomach-churning sensation of being lifted off the ground like a kitten. With a grunt of effort Spike heaved him overhead and tossed him into the air, and Xander was sailing over the Harrier demon's head, or top, or whatever, seeing his spread-eagled, flailing self reflected in dozens of astonished crystalline eyes. He slammed face-first into the sloping rim of the crater, sliding downwards in a small landslide of earth and gravel and catching himself with a few desperate frog-kicks at the rubble.

He clawed his way over the rim and turned around in time to see Spike take a running leap straight at the Harrier. It might look like someone had blown the CGI budget, but the blades it was slicing and dicing and trying to make Julienne vampire with were real enough. His burnt lips skinned back over his fangs in a savage snarl, Spike brought the axe down and the dulled blade sank home, cleaving translucent eyes that bled rays of light into the dust-laden air. Spike hauled himself up along the haft of the axe, the toes of his boots jabbing for purchase among the joints of wings which flickered in and out of existence like the ghosts of bad cable reception. He stood for one precarious moment balanced on shifting air; then his lean body uncoiled, all the power in the muscles of calf and thigh released at once. Fifteen feet straight up he shot, his outstretched arms straining for the sky. At the apex of his leap one hand grasped a projecting shelf of broken asphalt, fingers raking gouges in the crumbling tar.

Out of the roiling mass of dust and grit the Harrier rose, a sunrise in the depths of midnight. It shook the axe free, its wound closing even as they watched, and soared upwards in glory. A fury of blades whirled upwards, and Spike, bathed in its painful light, jerked both knees up to his chest barely in time to escape losing a foot.

Xander belly-flopped over the edge as far as he could reach and clamped his hand around Spike's wrist. The normally-cool flesh was radiating heat from the burns he'd sustained, and it must have hurt like hell, but Spike didn't flinch. The asphalt outcropping disintegrated under the pressure of Spike's fingers and his full weight came down on Xander's arm and shoulder with a bone-wrenching jerk. For a small eternity Xander held a hundred and sixty pounds of dead weight vampire one-handed, dangling over the lip of the new-made pit. Then he heaved upwards, panting with effort; Spike's free hand found another ledge, and he was up and over the rim. Spike lurched to his feet and the two of them stood swaying on the precipice, clutching one another's shoulders as if that'd make a difference if the whole edge dropped out from under them.

Spike favored Xander with his smarmiest grin. "Awwww. Harris is my bestest pal."

"So do you actually want to end up a big pile of dust?" The Harrier spun up out of the crater, a tornado of sunlit razor plumage. "I think you got it mad," Xander observed.

"You think?" Spike swiped his sleeve across his nose--on second glance, maybe he wasn't as badly burned as Xander'd thought, not too much worse than the sunburn he'd gotten showing off last week. All to the good; watching charred vampire bits flake off wasn't high on his big fun agenda. Xander looked around; half a dozen car alarms were still blatting a maddening symphony in the background, set off by the noise and tremor, and people were pouring out of the complexes to see what was going on. There were several overturned cars in the parking lot, one of which, a small dark blue Tercel, was teetering precariously on the very edge of the crater. He felt a most unheroic relief at the thought that his car was parked at the other end of the lot.

With a thunder of wings the creature was out of the hole and after them. Spike toppled backwards, dragging Xander with him. Both of them scrambled away from the pit on hands and knees before lurching to their feet. Xander spun round in place, looking for a weapon. Rocks. There had to be something a step up from rocks.

"Xander!" Anya's voice, a terrified screech over the car alarms. "Are you all right?"

The Harrier halted, mantling its multitude of wings, a raptor sighting new prey. It didn't attack at once, as if Anya confused its senses. It hovered in place, undecided between two targets, the wind of its passage kicking up a flurry of dust and debris. CHILD OF ARASHMAHAR? it asked, its voice the crackle of windblown flame. Anya froze, mesmerized by the creature as it hovered over the parking lot, but new determination filled her dark eyes and she started towards Xander again.

"Oh, bollocks!" Spike was off like a flash, tearing off round the rim of the crater in the opposite direction, to what purpose Xander couldn't tell--saving his own skin, maybe; with his departure the terror of wings and eyes swooped down upon Anya, whirling blades leaving trails of fire on the air.

"NO!" Xander screamed, the harsh panicked sound of a man losing something vital. He forgot Spike, forgot the fact that this thing could turn him into shish kebab, forgot everything except the fact that it was bearing down on Anya. He broke into a stumbling run around the edge of the pit, jumping chunks of sidewalk. Anya screamed as well, fear and anger striking sparks in her voice, and flung a ragged fist-sized hunk of asphalt at the oncoming Harrier. It hit a sword blade and bounced off.

"Keep away from her!" he yelled, painfully aware of his complete inability to back up his threat. He skidded to a halt, interposing himself between Anya and the Harrier. A quarter of the way around the pit, he caught a glimpse of Willow, her hair an unmistakable blaze of red in the parking lot floodlights. She floated up to perch on the bed of an overturned Ford Rambler and stood there like a general surveying a battlefield, then flung her arms skyward and began a chant. The words squirmed away from his head when he tried to remember them. Violet lightning began to gather about her outstretched hands, snap crackle pop.

If it wasn't willing to hurt him, and he could just play human shield for long enough... Willow'd come through.

I HAVE NO WISH TO HARM YOU, the Harrier hissed in the dry wail of Santa Ana winds, feinting right and left with razor-tipped wings.

"Well, then, don't!" Xander wondered if he could get behind a car or something, but all the vehicles were on the other side of the crater. A bush, then, or a lamp post--anything besides thin air.

IT IS MY DUTY TO SLAY CREATURES OF EVIL.

"Harming her is harming me, you Electrical Parade reject!" Xander pulled Anya into a protective hug and she burrowed into his shoulder, sobbing. "And she's not a demon!"

NO. YET HER ESSENCE CONTAINS VAST DARKNESS.

Essence? "Ahn, what's it's talking about?" Was that her soul? They never talked about that trickiest of subjects if they could help it; easier just to assume that human form came with a human soul included.

The Harrier shimmied back and forth, restless and, to Xander's possibly biased perceptions, pissed off. THERE IS IMBALANCE HERE. CONFUSION.

"Sodom and Gomorrah, rains of frogs, Slayers and vampires living together, yeah, yeah! What's that got to do with Anya?"

HAVE YOU NOT TOLD HIM, CHILD OF ARASHMAHAR?

Anya moaned, and Xander looked wildly from her to the Harrier. "Told me what? Anya, what--"

Her head drooped, and then Anya straightened, pulling away from him and straightening her jacket. She looked the Harrier in the eyes, fear replaced with resignation. "It can tell," she said, her voice shaking only a little.

"Tell what?"

"What I am." Anya began putting her hair in order, unnaturally composed. "What I've always been. Well, not always, but for the last thousand years, give or take a decade."

Xander stared at her. Anya: straightforward to the point of rudeness. Able to rattle off the histories of a dozen major demon clans in excruciating detail and completely in the dark about the social relevance of Star Wars. Rapaciously intelligent about subjects that interested her, a financial whiz and cutthroat business woman, beautiful, sexy, desperately in love with him... and human, absolutely, positively human.

Except that she'd started out with no more concern for the welfare of non-Xander humans than Spike had for non-Buffy humans, and still wasn't exactly a font of charity. And she looked back as fondly on her days of meting out destruction as Spike did. And... "You don't have a soul," he whispered.

"I do too!" Anya shot back, unnatural calm giving way to familiar and reassuring brusqueness. She stamped one well-shod foot. "I was born human, you know! I have a perfectly good soul, it's just--complicated. When D'Hoffryn recruits us to be vengeance demons we're... converted. Given the demonic aspect, and the powers, and the pendant to control them. And cleansed of..." She gave a fidgety twist of one hand. "Distractions."

"Distractions?"

"You know." Anya folded her arms defensively across her chest. "Empathy. All that tiresome feeling sorry for people. We wouldn't be any good as vengeance demons if we got half-way through a wish and started feeling sorry for the victim, would we? I became a demon when I was seventeen, and..." A spot of hectic red appeared on each cheek, but she kept her head high and defiant. "I never un-became one. I gave myself human form to grant Cordelia's wish, and when my pendant was destroyed I got stuck this way, but it didn't change who I was inside. I've always been Anyanka--if D'Hoffryn would ever give me a new pendant, the big meanie."

The Harrier demon flickered from side to side; Xander suspected that had it not been beneath its dignity, (and had it possessed a visible mouth) the thing would have been smirking and saying I told you so! Xander drew a deep gulping breath. "Anya's not evil. No matter what else she may be, she's not evil. She helps people now."

"I never was evil," Anya said, irritated. "More amoral. Most demons are. Honestly, with the exception of species like vampires who give the rest of us a bad name, the whole 'demon equals evil' thing is overdone." She gave the Harrier a nervous smile. "As you should know, uh, sir, being a good demon yourself. Not to mention that I'm all contaminated again with feelings about people I really have no reason to feel about..."

YOU HAVE CAUSED GREAT SUFFERING. YOUR DEATH IS JUSTICE. Its myriad eyes turned to Xander. I HAVE NO WISH TO HARM YOU, BUT IF I MUST DO SO TO DESTROY THIS CREATURE, I SHALL.

Xander wondered if this was one of those dreams you woke up from to discover you were still dreaming. Here he was, standing in a parking lot, having just saved a vampire's ass and trying to keep his ex-demon fiancée from being touched by an angel, or as near to one as he was probably ever going to see. All his worst fears confirmed. All that was left was to look down and discover he wasn't wearing any pants. And there was Anya gazing at him with brown-velvet eyes no different than they had been this morning, when they woke up together. Eyes brimming with tears and anger. "Why didn't you tell me?" he choked out.

She shook her head. "You would have left me."

It was just a flat statement of fact, and it got him right in the gut. Xander turned back to the Harrier.

YOU KNOW WHAT SHE IS. WILL YOU STAND ASIDE?

Xander stared at the ground, stared at the toes of his boots, stared at his hands. At last he looked up. "Sometimes," he said, sounding far too reasonable in his own ears, "You just get to a place in life where you have to make a radical re-evaluation of the whole good-bad demon-human thing and let me see if I can explain this... I understand Ahn's a demon. And..." He folded his arms and stood foursquare in front of Anya, who looked at him with dawning hope. "I DON'T CARE!"

*****

A handful of Anya's party guests had followed her out to the parking lot and were milling about in confusion. Spike didn't see Halfrek among them; no surprise there, as the gang from Arashmahar generally buggered off at the first sign of trouble. As Spike reached the Tiercel, someone else finally noticed the movements behind the tinted windows that his far-sighted predator's eyes had picked up on at once. An unfamiliar woman's voice shouted, "Lorri, call 911, there's someone stuck in this car! It's going to fall in!"

Ignoring the onlookers, Spike leaped atop the car and crouched beside the driver's door like some exceptionally athletic gargoyle, studying the interior through the window. The door-handle had jammed; pulling at it, he knew from experience, would just rip it off. He needed leverage. Spike balled up a fist in his duster and sent it smashing through the glass, which dissolved in pea-size fragments, then grabbed the window-frame in both hands and pulled. The door shot open with a crash, torn half off its hinges, and Spike ducked head and shoulders inside. Inside was a small dark woman; she'd somehow slipped free of the shoulder harness when the car tipped over, and was hanging half-suspended from the seatbelt, her knees jammed into the steering wheel. He could smell blood, but it was scarcely noticeable over the scent of his own; not enough to indicate serious injury. In the distance he heard the wail of approaching sirens. Best hurry before Sunnydale's finest showed up to complicate matters.

At the sight of Spike coming through the window she began struggling to get away, flopping like a gaffed fish. Spike tried grabbing an ankle, to no avail. "Quit wriggling, you stupid bint, you're being rescued!" The woman's only response was a terrified scream and an attempt to claw through the back of the seat. Spike realized belatedly that he was still in game face and switched back to human features. It didn't seem to help; the woman kicked him in the chest, drawing an answering stab of pain from the cut across his belly. "OW! Bloody--if you don't be still so I can get you out of here, I'm going to knock you senseless, sod the headache!"

A familiar and welcome scent tickled his nose through the tang of hot metal and dust, and a second later Buffy dropped down past him through the open window and began undoing the tangle of seatbelts. "Ma'am, calm down! You're going to be all right! Your knight in shining armor act leaves something to be desired," she observed as Spike bent the steering wheel out of their way a tad. "Maybe more of a Will Smith vibe, less of a Jack Nicholson?"

The car creaked and wobbled under their added weight. Spike shifted as much of his weight as he could forward, and the unnerving teetering stilled for the moment. "New to the hero business, love--I'm still working on my theme song. Here, pass her up."

They handed the dazed woman (she kept staring at Spike and shaking her head, and he had to exert a great deal of willpower to keep from flashing her a little fang just to see her jump) off to one of the newly-arrived paramedics and hopped down off the Tiercel. Spike watched them lead her away, eyes hooded, an indefinable yet strangely familiar emotion teasing round the corners of his heart. He wasn't sure he wanted to pin it down; it reeked of something he didn't want to face head-on yet. Buffy glanced up at him, a little smile curling the corners of her mouth. "The George Hamilton look? Not working."

"Ta ever so. I'll pawn the tanning bed."

"What're we looking at?"

From teasing to General Buffy, all terse and commandery, demanding a report from her second-in-command. Spike glanced across the pit; Xander was still playing dodge 'em with the winged wonder. "Harrier demon. They're warriors of light--don't usually muck around with us vamps; it'd be like shooting flies with a cannon. They get sent after things like your late unlamented Mayor."

"Then why's it after Anya?"

Spike shook his head. "Buggered if I know. 'Less it can tell she used to be a demon; they can sniff out the wicked like bloodhounds, and vengeance demons are a bloody sight more powerful than a mere vampire. D'Hoffryn's girls can only grant wishes according to the rules, and Harriers are keen on rules--but the collateral damage from a few badly-phrased wishes alone would set that shiny bastard off. Our Anya was a vengeance demon for a long, long time."

"Well, she's not now." Buffy looked grim. "How do we stop it?"

A bark of laughter escaped him. "Got a bazooka handy?"

Buffy chewed on her lower lip. "If it's one of the good guys, we can talk to it. It's got to listen. We just need to get its attention."

"Mmm. Suppose beaning it with an axe wasn't conducive to negotiations, then."

Buffy's jaw dropped. "Why did you--?"

Spike opened his mouth, realized he was about to say Because it bloody near broke my only pair of glasses, that's why! and was overcome with the dire conviction that this, in conjunction with whatever Halfrek had already told her about the general pathetic wankerdom of his breathing days, would undoubtedly mean the end of his and Buffy's short but eventful relationship in a fit of hysterical laughter. "It hit me first."

"Oh. Then I wouldn't hang around the mailbox waiting for a letter from the Nobel committee, no." Buffy looked around, then pointed to the collapsed carport, a crumpled length of fiberglass and steel draped across the hoods of half-a-dozen assorted cars. "Attention-getting device."

Spike grinned at her. "On it, love." Buffy crouched down, wrapped her arms around the base of the support beam and pulled, her face contorted with effort. Spike took hold of the scalloped edge if the roof where the two pieces were bolted together and ripped. Rivets popped and sun-weakened fiberglass snapped, and the whole thing tore free with a crash. Spike shoved the roof section away, and it landed with a crash, doing serious damage to the roof of the Geo Metro in the nearest parking space. No loss there; the owner should thank him for forcing them to get a real car.

In a trice they wrestled the support pole free of its moorings. They had a weapon, twelve feet of twisted metal, one end terminating in a club of cement where they'd torn it free of the pavement. Unwieldy as hell, but big enough to make the Harrier sit up and notice without putting them within slashing reach. He hefted the pole to shoulder height and Buffy looked at him, her nose adorably smudged, her teeth bared in a fighting grin. "Charge!"

Xander pulled Anya out of the way of another slashing appendage as Spike and Buffy barreled towards them at full and terrifying speed. The pole was a bitch and a half to run with, over-balanced at the club-end and inconveniently shaped to grip, but the two of them never missed a step, flying over the uneven ground as if they'd practiced it for weeks. "DUCK!" Spike bellowed, and Xander dropped flat with Anya beneath him. Vampire and Slayer leaped over their heads in unison and rammed the club-end of the rebar into the center of the whirlwind. Half a dozen blades struck sparks rebounding off the metal, and their combined strength and momentum slammed the Harrier back a good twenty feet, spinning above the center of the crater like a psychotic buzzsaw.

SLAYER? The massive composure in its voice wavered for an instant. Had they wounded it? Considering how easily it had shrugged off the axe, that didn't seem likely; they'd done the equivalent of knocking the breath out of it, no more. YOU OPPOSE ME?

Buffy crouched on a concrete slab, teetering on the edge of the pit, her face washed of detail by the Harrier's actinic light. "I won't let you hurt Spike and Anya!"

I AM WHAT YOU ARE. A WARRIOR OF LIGHT. THEY ARE... WHAT WE ARE BOUND TO DESTROY--YOUNGER SISTER, YOU BETRAY YOUR HERITAGE AND YOUR PURPOSE.

"Better that than betray my friends!" Buffy's voice shook with outrage.

Two of the women who'd followed Anya down--Lorri and Sandra--joined Xander in shielding her. Spike gave the two of them an irritated look. Sod it all, they would have to be helpful; he was going to have to revise his list of people he wouldn't kill if the chip came out again. Lorri waved her cell phone at the Harrier angrily. "Leave her alone! What's she done to you?"

IF IT IS YOUR CHOICE TO ALLY YOURSELF WITH CREATURES OF DARKNESS... The dispassionate, beautiful voice rang with genuine regret. THEN I HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO...

"Now just a bleeding minute, you've got it backwards!" Spike took an indignant step forward. It was one thing for the Harrier to go after him, or even Anya, quite another for it to slang Buffy. "The creatures of darkness are allied with her!"

"Exactly!" Buffy's chin jutted. "They're helping me. You don't need to hurt them."

The Harrier hovered there, fizzling to itself like a Guy Fawkes bonfire that hadn't quite come off. YOU ALLY YOURSELF WITH HER FOR SELFISH REASONS? it asked, sounding almost hopeful, as if this would give it a comfortable out.

"Right," Spike said, plumbing new depths of sarcasm. "Completely, utterly selfish. Makes a big difference to my hapless victims." He tapped his skull with a forefinger. "The batteries go south tomorrow, and I happen on a tasty morsel in some alley during my midnight stroll--" He bared his fangs and adopted a menacing crouch. "Grr, argh!" He whipped round and cowered away from himself, wringing his hands. "Eek! Please don't eat me, you ruggedly handsome creature of the night, you!" Spike drew himself upright and struck a noble pose. "It's your lucky day, little lady! Happens I'm off eating people; it upsets the missus. On your way!" Another volte face. "You mean you're not letting me go out of devotion to good for its own sake? You nasty vampire, get right back here and open a vein this minute!"

FACETIOUSNESS DOES NOT ADVANCE YOUR ARGUMENT.

"Yeh, well, it keeps me amused."

YOU LEFT YOUR COMPANION TO SAVE ANOTHER. WHY?

"Bloody hell, I don't know! Because..." Because why? He hadn't thought about it, he'd just done it. Man U's tragic defeat by West Ham (honestly now, West Ham?) sending him barmy? Some kind of conditioned reflex? "Because it's the... the thing the Slayer'd want me to do."

The searchlight intensity of the Harrier's regard sliced scalpel-sharp through heart and mind, weighing all it found on scales infinitely precise. Weirdly insignificant moments drifted up from the vaults of memory: Dragging Dru away from the Crawford Street mansion, feeling a twinge of concern -He's going to kill her. (Then he shrugged it off, and beat it out of town.) Pouring out his sorrows to Joyce, and leaping to her defense when Angel startled her. (Then Buffy showed up and things went downhill.) Xander, standing in front of the ghost-infested Lowell House, asking Who's with me? I am. (Then he talked himself out of it.) Lisa, in the park, flinging her arms around him and sobbing in relief...

There was a note of surprise in the Harrier's voice when it spoke again. CREATURE OF DARKNESS, YOU ARE... TAINTED. IMPURE.

Whatever primal awe had struck him at the Harrier's appearance was wearing off fast. "I can't bloody well please any of you lot, can I?" Spike snapped. What did it matter what this jumped-up Christmas tree topper thought of him? "Not bad enough here, not good enough there--blow me a tune I don't know, Gabriel." Not as if he'd expected a pat on the head from a representative of the Powers, any more than he'd expected Harris to jump for joy at the news Buffy was giving him a tumble, and it didn't sting either, not a bit. What had he expected, wide-eyed astonishment and 'Well, Spike old man, aren't you extraordinary? Evil as the day is long, but doesn't the white hat look dashing?'

It paused, almost... uncertain? INTERESTING. The Harrier stood quiescent for a moment, considering, then swelled like a startled cat, shedding sunbeams. It gave vent to a long-drawn hiss. IF THE SLAYER CLAIMS YOU AS AN ALLY, THEN THE SOURCE OF THE IMBALANCE THAT DREW ME HERE--

Behind them, from her vantage point on the Rambler, Willow's chant reached its climax. Raw black-violet flame arced across the alarm-filled air. A multi-hued, inhuman scream rose from the Harrier demon, and all its light and flame turned in upon itself, imploding in darkness. With a wail of agony it turned tail and dove back into the tunnels, trailing streamers of glowing fluid that writhed in the air for minutes before fading away. Willow sat down on the fender of the Rambler with a thump and a small grin. "Don't know my own strength."

Spike eyed Willow. Witch'd never said a truer word. "Guess we didn't need the bazooka after all."

Buffy dropped her end of their improvised lance and bent over the edge of the pit. "Wills--that was amazing, but it was about to--we almost found out--we were talking to it!"

Willow looked puzzled. "Yeah, I saw. Good job keeping it occupied, guys!"

Buffy's lips thinned in frustration, and she leaned into Spike's side. Spike wrapped an arm and the somewhat tattered remnants of his duster around Buffy's shoulders as a couple of police officers came trotting up bearing rolls of yellow tape, and together they allowed Sunnydale's finest to shoo them away. One by one, behind them, the car alarms fell silent. As they made their way across the parking lot, Buffy shook her head and looked back at the pit. There was no sign of the Harrier. Softly enough that only Spike's ears could pick the words up against the ragged chorus of police radios, she whispered, "Oh, this isn't gonna look good on the permanent record."

Chapter Text

By the time they left Xander and Anya's place, a fire truck and a brace of police cars had arrived on the scene, and the parking lot was alive with strobing red lights and the garble of police radios. At least the car alarms had been turned off. Several towering, husky firemen and a pair of officers were herding the bystanders away with soothing stories about gas mains and methane build-up and explosions which were all under control now and everyone please return to your homes.

So they'd done just that, Willow and Tara on foot, Buffy taking Spike up on his offer of a ride. Dawn had met them at the door, woken by the motorcycle's roar, and despite the lateness of the hour insisted upon exercising her rights as resident vampire medic to House Summers.

"Spike, sit down!" Dawn's voice, peremptory and commanding, echoed down the hall.

"Not until you let go the sewing kit, Hawkeye. Contrary to popular opinion, I do possess working nerve endings."

Buffy paused in the bathroom doorway and bit her lip to stifle a laugh. Spike was backed up against the laundry hamper, glaring at Dawn, a force to be reckoned with in pink flannel pajamas, who was facing him down with equal determination and an extremely large and deadly-looking needle strung with coarse thread. The counter by the sink was littered with bandages and adhesive tape and tubes of burn ointment. Buffy hadn't the heart to tell her sister that the ritual was probably pointless; Spike was immune to infections and healed even faster than she did--and a good thing, considering how prone he was to getting himself beaten to a pulp.

Still, Dawn obviously enjoyed fussing over Spike as much as Spike enjoyed being fussed over. Let them have their fun. Besides, though his face wasn't too bad--the duster had shielded it from the worst of the Harrier's light--the burns across the backs of his hands were all crusty and oozing in the center and dark angry red around the edges. The sight of them made something inside her squirm, despite knowing perfectly well that he'd taken far worse injuries in the past, and weathered them alone and helpless... maybe Spike was due a little pampering.

"Come on, Spike, you do too need stitches!" Dawn was deep into stubborn mode, hands on hips and lips pressed together. "Your guts are practically hanging out. You could get--" She cast about for something sufficiently dire. "Peritonitis! I've been reading up on this. I think I want to go to medical school."

"Consider your dedication to humanity commended, Snack-size," Spike interrupted, "but, in case you hadn't noticed, somewhat inhuman here, and I don't recall volunteering to be your personal experimental cadaver. No stitches without brandy. Lots and lots of brandy."

Dawn's eyes narrowed. "It's for your own good. Buffy, tell him to--"

Buffy bent and gave the long gash across the rippling musculature of Spike's stomach a cursory examination. The crimson furrow intersected the white-on-white traces of half a dozen older scars, oozing a sluggish trickle of red where Dawn's cleaning the clotted blood away had opened it up again. Someday we'll have to compare sexy wounds. The Harrier's blades had parted pale skin and underlying tissue with laser-like precision--deep, but it hadn't quite penetrated the layer of muscle. "Sorry, Dawn. Distinct lack of visible guts. Have to vote with the vampire minority here." She snatched up Spike's shirt, currently wadded up on the counter, and headed out into the hall.

"Love, you don't need to--" Spike made as if to follow her out, only to be blocked by Dawn. He stuck his head out into the hall and yelled after her, "Oi! I need that!"

"Oh, come on, live dangerously! Wear a nice plaid!" Buffy yelled back, waving the shredded t-shirt at him. Honestly, you wouldn't think an immortal would get so attached to clothes, especially a t-shirt that was one of a set of a dozen clone-brothers. Entering the kitchen, she turned on the cold water in the sink and dumped the shirt in--it was a complete loss; the Harrier's blades had left it in tatters all across the front, but if there was one thing she'd learned in her career as Slayer it was that throwing away bloodsoaked rags was an invitation to trouble. People always took it the wrong way.

She watched the blood swirl Psycho-style down the drain and wondered idly what police forensics would make of it. Victim has been dead approximately a hundred and twenty years, and really likes garlic wings . She sluiced the shirt under the faucet and frowned; there was something off about the weight of it. Something in the pocket--whatever it was Spike had been trying to hide last week? Her questing fingers met chill metal amidst the wet folds of cloth. Cigarette case? No...

Half an hour later, Dawn had reluctantly downgraded her plans from major surgery to first aid, and shuffled yawning back to bed. Buffy had traded her own worse-for-wear clothes for a white terrycloth robe and retired to her room to recline on her bed, legs crossed demurely at the ankles and the copy of Fitzgerald Spike'd given her propped open in her lap. She left the door ajar--an open invitation, if someone chose to accept it.

Spike materialized in the doorway, his duster thrown over his shoulders and his alabaster skin gleaming in the lamplight--a slightly shopworn angel with shabby black leather wings. He was sporting a neatly taped bandage around his lean middle, and both hands were swathed in gauze and redolent of burn ointment. He propped an elbow against the doorframe in a stiff parody of his usual grace, wincing a little as the motion pulled at his wound, and looked around the room uneasily. "Er... where'd you put my shirt, pet?"

Buffy assumed a big, perky, helpful-girlfriend smile. "That old thing? I tossed it."

An expression of mild panic crossed Spike's face. "You didn't--" He stopped. Noticed the pair of old-fashioned wire-rimmed spectacles in her hand. Closed his mouth with a snap. Buffy held the glasses up, dangling them from her fingers by one earpiece. "Looking for these, Master William?"

"Oh, bloody hell," Spike growled, stalking over to the bed and snatching the glasses. Buffy giggled and scooted over, patting the mattress, and he dropped down beside her with a disgusted snort, examining the lenses for damage.

"I found them in your shirt pocket when I was rinsing the blood out. You really are out a shirt, by the way, unless the ventilated look is in among the fangy set. What are they for? I mean, the trophy coat is squicky yet understandable, but trophy glasses? We're getting a little fetishy here."

"No." Spike held the glasses up to the light, drew a deep breath, scrunched up his face as if he were expecting a firing squad to open up at any moment, and slipped them on. "They're mine."

"No way!" Buffy sat up and got onto her hands and knees, peering into his eyes. "You need glasses?" She'd run into vampires who wore glasses before--that librarian guy for one--but Spike? Glasses were the antithesis of Spike. Giles-y and bookish and definitely un-hot. Except... except when they were perched on that aquiline nose, emphasizing the arch of those incredible cheekbones and the depth of those luminous blue eyes and providing a scholarly counterpoint to tousled platinum hair and all those lean ropy muscles... "Uh." Oh, God, he's hot. Indiana Jones hot. Buffy realized her mouth was hanging open and closed it before her tongue could loll out. "I mean, you need glasses. You really, really need glasses. What happened to superior vampire eyesight?"

Spike looked testy. "Brilliant for spotting a moving target at five hundred feet in the dead of night. Doesn't do bugger all for your ability to read fine print. And I don't need glasses. Dalton, he needed glasses; blind as a bat he was. I'm just a touch far-sighted. Do fine without 'em." He folded his arms across his chest--definitely sulking now. "Dunno why you're so surprised. Cecily didn't give you the full and pathetic run-down on the life and times of old William?"

Buffy clamped her lips down on a smile and settled down at his side again. When Spike started talking about William in the third person it generally meant his ego wanted soothing. "Cecily lost me somewhere around the point your Aunt Letitia lost her husband."

"Good place for it. Auntie was a miserable old bat. Uncle Charles was well out of it."

She had to ask. She wasn't sure she wanted to know, but she had to ask. "Did you kill them?"

Spike cocked his head. Spike-head-tilt with glasses was possibly even more meltworthy than without. "Could you be a bit more specific, love?"

"Your family. After you got turned. Did you--"

His breath escaped in a hiss of leashed annoyance. "Dad died when I was fifteen, and my Mum..." Back to being William in the first person, Buffy noted. "Yeh, I killed her. But not for joy of it, you understand that!" He swallowed hard. "Sickly, she was, when I died. TB. What we called consumption then. I thought--I thought I could make her like me. Save her." She should be horrified. She was horrified. But there was such anguish in his voice-- "It didn't end well. Main reason I've never been keen on siring anyone since." His eyes glinted behind the oval lenses, lost in time and distance for a minute; then the glint went vicious. "Ask about the wankers at that party and it won't be such a touching story. That's one bit my official Council biography's got right."

"Party?" Obviously Cecily had been just about to get to the good stuff. She was still trying to digest the concept of Spike's mother as a sweet little old lady vampire.

"The one I went to on the night I died." Spike was watching her as he always did when he laid the horrors of his past out on the table for her, measured regard in his ice-blue eyes--would this be the confession that sent her packing? "Didn't go well. A week later I earned my nickname right and proper. Railroad spike through the head, nice and slow. One after the other. Among other amusements. Roger last, so he could see what was coming to him. He'd screamed his throat bloody by the time he died. Angelus was proud of me." A wry twitch of his lips. "First and last time, I think."

"Oh." She swallowed the bile in the back of her throat--not at the description of the carnage, but at the dreamy satisfaction in his voice as he described it. "You know, I keep thinking we've done this part. You tell me something awful, I react with shock and horror--and it never gets any easier, hearing this stuff."

His eyes were drinking in her face as if every nuance of her expression was his life's blood. Anger, horror, even revulsion he'd take in stride; it was her contempt that would break him. Buffy's fingers closed pre-emptively over his forearm, feeling the quiver of muscles even through the leather. "Which is good, I think. The day I start treating Spike's Tales From The Crypt like a Sam Raimi movie is the day Ward starts worrying about the Buffy."

Spike looked down at the five small fingers making half-moon indentations in the leather of his sleeve. "Did you know, I've told you the story of my life a hundred times?" Without meeting her eyes he reached over and enveloped her hand in his, turned it over, his thumb caressing the lines of her palm. He took nothing for granted with her. Probably better he should--she was still in the business of killing his kind, after all. How many times would they repeat this ritual in their lives? "Over the summer. Every pathetic detail. Tried telling you all different ways. Always came down to a bourgeois git with delusions of social grandeur and a portmanteau full of bad verse." A bitter smile chased across his face and was gone. "Sometimes it's a bloody sight easier to talk to you when you're not really here to listen. And then I'd get past the story of my life and into the story of my death, and it'd hit me after a while... I haven't done anything. I came, I saw, I killed--story of my unlife. That's what I am--what I'm here for. I'm a killer. Creature of sodding darkness. Ought to be enough, oughtn't it?" There were hairline cracks in his voice. "There shouldn't be this... this wanting more, like I was still that poncy little twit I got shut of a hundred and twenty years ago." His canines sharpened and his eyes went golden for a second. "I got more, didn't I? So why's it not enough anymore?"

"I don't know." Buffy laid her head on his shoulder, the scuffed and battered leather cool beneath her cheek, and felt the tension in his body start to ease, fiber by fiber. "But I'm glad it's not. A pretty smart guy I know told me once that just because I was a killer, that didn't mean that a killer was all I was."

Spike's arm shifted to accommodate her weight, curling round her waist. She felt his intake of breath, his chest rising and falling in perfect unison with hers, the cool, supple, inhuman vitality of his body against her own. This close, his angelic face and Elgin marble body revealed subtle flaws: the ghostly fretwork of old scars that even vampire healing left as evidence of battles lost and won, the netted laugh-lines at the corners of his eyes, the nicotine stains on his fingers (but not his teeth; did going fangy and back again get rid of them? Or did he just use a good toothpaste?) No pure, cold, Anne Rice marble perfection, this undeath of his--a body that, however strong and fast and impervious to damage it might be, still got hungry and hurt and horny, needed exercising and shaving and flossing between the fangs. Somehow the imperfections just made him more achingly beautiful--knowing as she did that she'd put some of the lines on that ageless face.

"I want to hear it, Spike--the story of your life, I mean. From you. And the Tales From the Crypt? I need to hear this stuff. Angel and I--we never talked about... what he did, not really. I thought it wasn't important--he had a soul, you know? Why would I need to know all that icky old stuff that would never come up again?" She managed a laugh of sorts. "And I'm not a very talky person. You may have noticed."

"I've gotten the suspicion off and on." Spike dropped his head with that look which meant he'd have been blushing if he were still capable of it. "Not a lot to tell about my human life, really. And dull enough it can wait until you're not already about to fall asleep." He shifted uncomfortably, stuck one gauze-swathed hand through a Harrier-made slit in the front panel of his duster and wriggled his fingers. "Getting to be more hole than coat. P'raps I can get Will to waste a bit of the old mojo fixing it up. Though I'd've thought she'd be less apt to waste it after running out the once."

Buffy allowed the change of subject without comment. "She seems to have a lot to waste." Willow's mysteriously-restored magic nagged at her; things that seemed too good to be true usually were. She debated telling Spike of Tara's fears that Willow would never recover her magic, but Tara'd given her that information in confidence. "Just let Wills hold it together until tomorrow night, that's all I ask." She began playing with the lapel of his duster, curling the point up and unrolling it again. "I know I wasn't making with the master plans out there tonight, but I wish she hadn't zapped that thing. We could have found out more." Her fingers brushed across his bandaged stomach in a tentative caress. "You gonna be in shape to not hit people tomorrow night?"

"Yeh, I'll be there." Impossibly firm muscles tensed and relaxed again under her touch and Spike looked down at himself. "Didn't even feel it at first. Sodding things were so sharp I could have lost my head and never dusted for not noticing."

"It was willing to kill Xander to get to Anya." Buffy nibbled on her lower lip. "So the extra credit question is, is it coming back, and is it bringing friends? Are we positive this was one of the good guys?"

Spike's cheeks hollowed, and he pulled his lighter out of the duster pocket and played with it for a moment before stuffing it back in. "It'll be back. Thing about demons, pet, good or bad... we're not complicated. We've got a job and we do it, and it doesn't much matter what's in the way." One corner of that expressive mouth quirked. "'S one reason the pure ones can't stand us vamps. Too much humanity left in the worst of us, all those petty desires and conflicting emotions--affection and jealousy..." He laughed, short and sharp, and pressed his free hand to his midriff. "You ever stop to think, pet, that pure good's got as little use for mercy as pure evil? What could a bloke who never does wrong ever understand of we poor sods who do?"

Buffy winced as if it were she whose gut had been sliced open. Faith, staring at her with pain-filled eyes. "You got no idea what it's like on the other side..." Even when he wasn't trying, Spike threw up unpleasant truths like stones from a plowshare. It struck her that she'd already made the choice she'd been pondering earlier in the evening, walked through Door Number Two without a glance at the curtain where Carol Merrill was standing now. This was becoming the heart of her life, these moments alone with Spike, bathed in the glow of candles or the harsher illumination of tungsten filaments. She could be the Slayer alone, but this was what allowed her to be Buffy, gave her strength to battle the league of mundane foes that awaited her outside the boundaries of their charmed circle. "Tonight, with the car? That was...I don't want to say this like I'm giving you Snausages or something, but--you did good, Spike. I was proud of you. Well, except for the axe thing, that could have used some work."

His hand sifted through her hair, honey-dark against the white of the gauze, twining the tawny locks around his pale fingers. He smiled, a self-deprecating light in his eyes. "Ah, the heroism bit. Well, pet, I know you get off on it. Even when you're supposed to be on strike."

"Well, yeah." With some effort she kept the smile from her lips. "Suppose you're telling me you don't? How many of my kind have you saved, Spike?"

He pulled back, deep suspicion in his eyes, shoved his glasses higher on his nose and stared at her. "Would the answer be 'Not enough?'" he asked.

Buffy nodded. Oh, he so deserved this. "Mmhmm. And they just keep coming, don't they? And some part of you wants it. Not only to make me happy--but because you're just a little bit in love with it."

Spike jolted back against the white-iron curlicues of the headboard with the look of a man upon whom a horrid and seductive truth had been sprung. Payback, Spikey! He blinked, momentarily speechless, then sputtered, "You incredible bitch, how long have you been waiting to say that?"

She smirked, slipping her hand beneath the duster and splaying the fingers over his silent heart. "Awhile."

His eyes had the most incredible expression, regret holding wonder at bay. "Not like I cared deeply about her, love. Don't give me credit I'm not due."

How carefully she had to pick her words. "No... but you cared about saving her. It's something."

Spike snorted. "It's perverted."

Turning in the circle of his arm, she raised her hand to his cheek, tracing strong bones and the sandpaper roughness along his jaw--incipient 5:00 AM shadow. "So you're perverted. I like my vampires a little kinky that way, you know?"

Lips met parted lips, warm and cool together, touching, tasting--so soft for such a hard man, that luscious mouth of his. Spike nuzzled along her jawline, nipping at her earlobe. "How about other ways?"

"Out of curiosity, do you ever think of anything but sex?"

"Not while you're around." He cupped the impressive bulge in his jeans with his free hand and leered at her. "Nurse Buffy, I've got a swelling. Wanna kiss it better?"

Buffy poked him in the stomach. Spike yelped, but if anything it appeared to increase his enthusiasm. "Do not tell me this is the fun kind of pain."

He didn't laugh--probably it would have hurt in the non-fun way--but his eyes were dancing. "Nah, but it could lead to the fun kind." His hand cupped her breast, cool confident fingers kneading the soft flesh before giving her already-alert nipple a firm pinch. The hand dropped away and she yearned after it, all tingly-warm, calling his fingers back to tweak and tease. Spike callously ignored her imperious little whimper and reached for the book lying on the coverlet beside them. He flipped it open, cleared his throat, and began to read-- not, for once, squinting and holding it at arm's length.

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell
And by and by my Soul return'd to me,
And answer'd "I Myself am Heav'n and Hell"

She listened, happily mesmerized. He could get her off with that voice alone, rich and rolling, raspy with a century's worth of too much booze and too many cigarettes.

Heav'n but the Vision of fulfill'd Desire,
And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire,
Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.

Buffy reminded herself that Dawn was asleep just down the hall, and Willow and Tara might get home and walk upstairs at any minute, and letting her hand wander down to Spike's fly was just asking for trouble. She'd always been a troublemaker. God he looked hot in those stupid glasses. Oops, there went the buttons. No wonder, with the kind of pressure they were under, day in, day out, poor things, set the impossible task of restraining not-so-little Spike, ready to stand up and do his duty for Slayer and country. Wasn't three hours of sex in a day enough for anyone? Obviously not. How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Let's find out! One, two, oh, way more than three...

Spike started to take his glasses off and set them on the nightstand, but Buffy reached up and laid a hand on his arm. "Leave them on, William." As her golden head descended upon him once more, Spike leaned back on the pillows with a happy groan and a grateful wonder in his eyes, as if she'd given him an unexpected gift. She looked up one last time, eyes sparkling. "And keep reading."

*****

Dawn Summers sat at the kitchen table, drawing figure eights with her spoon in her cereal and trying to decide exactly how pissed off she was at her sister. Not allowed to sit in on the summoning. Not allowed to go to Anya's shower. Buffy was totally over-reacting to the shoplifting thing. It was bad enough that she was persona non grata in Sunnydale Mall; grounding her from everywhere else was beyond the pale.

Not pissed off enough to tell Mrs. Kroger that Buffy was dating a guy who thought he was a vampire--no, that would be going entirely too far, and get Spike in trouble. On the other hand, that edifying scene she'd caught a glimpse of through the crack of Buffy's bedroom door, before Buffy had slammed it behind her in their morning race for the bathroom--Spike, dead asleep with a sated smile on his face, wrists still lashed securely to the iron headboard with what looked suspiciously like a pair of her sister's underwear--that had possibilities.

Not that she'd actually tell The Kroger that Buffy was engaging in bondage fun with a vampire (or anyone else) a mere twenty or thirty feet from her impressionable younger sister. That way lay a one-way bus ticket to L.A., and Joyce Summers hadn't raised any dumb children. But letting Buffy think she might was another matter.

In the midst of her internal debate, Spike ambled into the kitchen, decked out in mostly-buttoned jeans and little else, all sleepy purry stretches and bed-head. Someone needed to explain to Buffy that cleaning out a drawer for her demon lover wasn't particularly productive if he wasn't given the opportunity to put anything in it. Dawn studied him critically; if the way he was moving was any indication, the gash across his stomach was healing nicely beneath the bandages. Move over, Noah Wyle.

"Hullo, Bit." Spike wandered over to the refrigerator, ran a hand through his unruly hair, and hung on the door, gazing into its depths as if he could read omens in the disposition of leftovers. "You look peaked." An uneasy thought appeared to strike him. "Didn't keep you up, did we?"

"No." Dawn weighed the decorative advantages of a shirtless Spike wandering around the house against the disadvantages of having to fight someone even more hair-obsessed than Buffy for the bathroom of mornings. Tough decision. "Mrs. Kroger's coming over after school and I have to sit through the big Shoplifting Is A Cry For Help speech. It's like, I've got it already, okay? Stealing's bad. I'm not gonna do it again. So what's their damage? My language comprehension's at college level, they have no clue what my life's like, and getting all Grover and Ernie to explain to me how I feel is the height of lamitude."

"So far as authority's concerned, it's not enough you don't repeat your sins--you've got to suffer for 'em. Hence the lecture." Spike pulled out the remains of the experimental macaroni-hotdog casserole and sniffed at it. His eyes lit up. "Curry?"

Dawn nodded. "And ketchup. Gives it kick." She started to scowl at her cereal, reconsidered and turned on the puppy eyes instead. Spike was a sucker for the puppy eyes. "I did suffer. Still suffering. Big time, paper bag on the head suffering."

Spike set the casserole dish on the kitchen island, fetched a spoon from the silverware drawer and dug in. (Spike was, Dawn often felt, the only person she knew who had any sense of culinary adventure.) "Wankers, the lot of them, but--" He gestured with the spoon between bites. "Wages of getting caught, Pidge. Fair cop, innit?"

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Yes, Mr. Undead Citizen Of The Month."

"Next time you'll know better."

She shot him a conspiratorial grin. "Not to get caught?"

Spike winked at her and laughed. "Got it in one. Look, pet, been thinking about it, what aside from nicking stuff might give you that feeling you're looking for..."

He had? "I can't wait to hear this one."

"...and doing a naff job of it since most of what I come up with I'd have to use your guts for guitar strings if you tried it and flense anyone you tried it with--but there's always killing things to cheer a chap up on a rainy day. Could show you a few moves. If I can talk your sis into it, anyway. You're old enough to kick a little arse, and it's not like I could hurt you by accident."

Did that mean what she thought it meant? An entry into the elite Scooby patrolling circle? Self-defense lessons beyond what she could scrounge spying on Buffy's training sessions? Realizing that a delighted squeak wasn't exactly the reaction of a mature woman of the world, Dawn repressed her impulse to bounce up and down in her seat. Cool, calm, collected. A second later she burst out, "Omigod, that would be so cool! Can you teach me that thing where you just go snap--" She demonstrated graphically with both hands-- "and break their necks like a stale Dorito?"

"Absolutely!" Spike paused, visibly reconsidering. "Er, well, p'raps not right off. Not a big supply of necks to practice on, once we've used up Harris. But eye gouges, kicks in the balls, that sort of thing..."

"Spike, you are so great!" Dawn leaped out of her chair, sending it screeching across the kitchen floor, and gave him an enthusiastic hug. Trepidation hit her like a cold wave. "Buffy's not gonna go for it. She's going to think it's too much fun or something--she even grounded me from Anya's dumb old wedding shower!"

"Let me handle your sis." Spike smoothed Dawn's hair away from her face affectionately and his expression went serious. "But you've got to give me something to work with, Platelet. That means no larking about or having The Kroger on. Nod 'n smile and pretend like they've nailed your psyche to the wall with darts of incisive analysis, even if they're spouting utter bollocks."

Dawn nodded vigorously. "Got it. I'll be so non-recidivism girl. Buffy will think I've been replaced by Pod Dawn." She would have pressed for further details of the neck-breaking thing and possible demonstrations, but at that juncture Willow and Tara appeared, juggling backpacks and overflowing book bags, and the kitchen erupted into the normal chaos of House Summers on a school morning. Dawn flung herself back into her chair, twining her feet around the legs to defend her claim in the face of potential squatters.

"Are we completely out of orange juice?" Willow asked, ducking under Tara's arm and burrowing into the terra incognita of the vegetable drawer. "And what happened to my Raisinettes? Did Hurricane Buffy blow through on a post-slay binge again, because they most definitely said 'Willow' right on the box, and--"

"Might have been Spike," Dawn pointed out, excessively helpful. "He eats like a horse too." Spike looked affronted, but as his mouth was full, any attempts at a snappy comeback were momentarily thwarted.

"Check behind the milk," Tara advised, stuffing a handful of granola bars into her bag. "Dawnie, do you have a ride, or--"

"There's nothing behind the milk but pig's blood. Oh, wait, here they are. But no OJ, and a day without orange juice--"

Spike perked up. "Hand that out, would you, pet?"

"Yeah. Megan's mom's picking me up." Mrs. Kendall, fortunately, had not gone into overprotective parental meltdown over The Incident, probably because Megan hadn't been involved, for once--or maybe having an elder daughter currently sporting lumpies and fangs made her a kinder, more tolerant person where merely human peccadilloes were concerned. Yeah, right.

"--is the kind of day we get until the next Social Security check arrives." Buffy came trotting down the stairs in full war paint and Office Drag, fixing her conservative gold stud earrings and displaying every sign of pre-interview jitters. "And don't even say it; I didn't have enough money with me when I stopped by the store to get everything on the list. I had to leave the Minute Maid melting in the magazine rack on the way to the checkout. I'm never going to be able to show my face in the frozen goods aisle again." She turned and fixed a gimlet eye on Spike, who was in the process of reaching over Willow's shoulder for the pig's blood. "How much of that stuff do you drink a day, anyway?"

Spike froze with the carton half-way to his lips, looking alarmed, faintly guilty, and puzzled as to what exactly he had to be guilty about. "Two pints, give or take," he said cautiously. "Sometimes three. More if I'm mending."

Buffy said "Hmm," in the disapproving tone she used for any subject connected with The Budget, the one that made Dawn feel like a traitor for shooting up three or four inches in the past year and thus taking up valuable space, food, and new clothing. "If you're going to be over here twenty-four hours a day, I've got to plan for it. You're not going to be living solely on Dawn's radioactive mutant leftovers."

Spike fished around in his back pocket, pulled out a handful of crumpled bills, and laid them on the countertop. "Blood and orange juice all round. Knock yourselves out."

Tara gave him a grateful smile. "Thanks--we can stop by the store on the way back from--"

Buffy grabbed Tara's wrist before she could take the money. "You know we can't take that, Spike."

"We can't?" Tara asked. "Why? It's not counterfeit." She picked up one of the bills and examined it. "Is it?"

Spike's jaw set in concrete. "Not asking you to support me, Slayer."

Buffy's eyes went slitty. "I have no intention of supporting you, but I'm not taking your money, and you know perfectly well why."

A deep throaty growl and a burst of vampire speed put the two of them were nose to nose. "No woman of mine's going to be put out keeping me in blood and beers--that's the bloke's job--"

Behold the male ego in its natural habitat. Dawn hid a grin behind her hand as icicles formed in her sister's eyes. Way to go with the convinciness, Spike. "That would be 'job' as in 'bank job?'" Buffy asked sweetly. "I'd rather be put out than put away."

There was a knock at the kitchen door, and Lisa peered cautiously through the blinds. Dawn stood up, scooped up the last few spoonfuls of cereal and reached for the door, mindful not to open it far enough to let the morning sun in. "Lise! Does your mom know--"

"Hey, maybe I could do a water to blood spell or something," Willow said, eyes lighting up at the prospect of magical usefulness like Spike's at the scent of curry. "Or water to orange juice. We'd never have to shop again." Tara, who'd taken advantage of Buffy's distraction to slip Spike's money into the petty cash cookie jar, shook her head and made a throat-cutting gesture.

"No, I didn't tell her we were getting you," Lisa whispered. She looked nervously around, expecting hidden cameras, perhaps. "She just thinks I'm riding with Megan." She inched one hand through the door and held out a square envelope with a wreath sticker on it. "I just wanted to drop this off for..."

"If you really want to make yourself useful, Will, magic me up a tunnel from the basement to the sewers. It's bloody annoying making a mad dash for the nearest manhole."

"Really? I could--"

"NO!" Buffy and Tara shouted at once, as Willow raised a casual hand and an ominous underground rumble shook the house on its foundations. Spike, looking rather shaken himself, mouthed "Joking!" at Willow.

Megan's pert and over-mascara'd face appeared below Lisa's in the gap of the door. "Dawn? Was that, like, an earthquake? Are you--" She caught sight of Spike. "Oh. My. GOD!"

"I can get you a mop to go with that tongue, if you want," Dawn said acidly. "The floor needs washing." She took the card from Lisa and handed it over to Spike.

"Look, Slayer, if you won't let me look after you, at least let me look after myself!" Spike and Buffy looked to be a hair away from either kissing or punching each other, having taken their argument from zero to sixty in five seconds flat. Spike diverted his attention from the Slayer stare-down for a second to give the card a puzzled look, which he then turned on Lisa.

"It's a Christmas card," Lisa squeaked. "Because of saving my life and all."

Spike looked from Lisa to the card and back again, a little startled, and, Dawn suspected, far more pleased than he was about to let on. After an awkward silence he nodded. "Thanks."

Out at the curb Mrs. Kendall was honking her horn for them to hurry. Lisa gave Spike a watery smile and ducked out. Megan remained in the doorway, gazing at Spike with the adoration she usually reserved for guys with staples in their navels, until Dawn shoved her bodily out into the driveway. Willow and Tara followed them out, arguing earnestly over whether or not an off-the-cuff tunnel spell would have resulted in the sewer backing up into the Summers' basement, and set off down the street towards the bus stop, book bags banging at their sides.

"How do you live in that house and not, like, absolutely die?" Megan asked.

Did Megan absolutely have to undermine her noble resolve at every opportunity? Dawn gave the eye-roll another workout. "It's a constant struggle. Geez, Megan, he's not only my sister's boyfriend, he's your sister's ex. Generational issues much? Plus, smoker. He probably kisses like sucking an ashtray."

Megan tossed her hair and giggled. "Ooh. So maybe I should take up smoking. With one of those, you know, long holder thingies?"

Dawn reflected cheerfully as they trotted down the driveway that soon she'd know how to snap Megan's neck like a stale Dorito. Not that she would; that, she reminded herself with a pious giggle, would be wrong. But it was sure fun to think about. Spike might be right about the rainy day thing after all.

*****

"Did she buy it?" Buffy stood on tiptoe at the kitchen window, pulled the curtains back and pressed her nose to the pane, craning to see the curb where Dawn was sliding into the back seat of the Kendalls' Aerostar. Radiant bars of sunlight striped her face like Harrier's blood and made a corona of her hair, pricking out every errant strand in molten gold. He didn't miss the sun much for himself, but he loved to see her limned in fire like this. His battle maiden. Pick me, Chooser of the Slain.

"Hook, line and sinker." Spike pulled a clean bowl out of the cupboard, rummaged around through the three or four half-full boxes of cereal on top of the fridge for the revoltingly healthy and vitamin-enhanced one Buffy claimed to favor, and filled it to overflowing. "Now I'll convince you, you'll give grudging permission, and Bob's your uncle. Here, stop flitting about and eat." He appropriated a chair and dropped into it, slid down on his tailbone, and took a gulp of his blood. "We'll have to be careful, pet--the Bit's smarter than the two of us put together, and if she suspects we're playing her instead of her playing us--"

"Hellmouth hath no fury. Right." Buffy let the curtain fall back and stepped away from the window, diminishing in two paces from Valkyrie to potential office help. This wasn't his Slayer, this buttoned-down mouse in the sensible shoes and the skirt of old-lady grey--not the warrior, not the woman. It ate at him to see her like this, all her fire damped in the service of fitting in. Buffy Summers should never have to fit in; she should be sashaying through the world in designer clothes and deigning to allow it to conform to her whims.

She strolled over to his chair, spun round and dropped down on his knee. Against him was one place she fit in perfectly. Both hands came to rest on his shoulders and worked down his chest, massaging his pectorals, fingers dancing across the ticklish spots on his ribs till he shivered. Her lips brushed his ear. The warmth of her breath took his away, and all the perfume and deodorant in the world couldn't wholly mask the rich musky female scent of her courses. His Slayer after all, beneath the clever disguise. "Now. Where were we?"

"Five seconds away from ravishing you on the kitchen table. Spikey wants his Slayer snacks." Spike ran a hand up her inner thigh until his fingers encountered a barrier, gratifyingly damp already. Nylons. Interesting texture, that, when circled against very sensitive skin just so. She melted against him, stormy eyes half-lidded and rosy lips half-parted, and he felt the surging pulse of her blood all around him as her hips arched into his. He pulled his hand away. "But eat your brekky first."

Buffy pouted and smacked him on the shoulder. "Jerk. I was going to skip breakfast. Anya said I was gaining weight." She pushed the cereal away.

Spike dragged it back. This was familiar territory, though Dru's refusal to eat had generally stemmed from illness, ennui, and a fear of invisible blood-dwelling giraffes infesting her liver. "Good. You could stand another five pounds." He gave her rump a cheerful slap, which, to his interest, did not set off the chip in the slightest. Possibilities there. "Eat up. Can't live on vampire jizz."

"Gack. Like I can eat anything with that image in my head." Nonetheless she curled all kitteny in his lap and let him pour milk for her and didn't argue until half the cereal was gone. For all her protests of independence, Buffy liked her cosseting once you talked her into it. A droplet of milk threatened to spill and her little pink tongue darted out to catch it, running over the smooth bowl of the spoon until it was clean enough to eat off of. Spike shifted to ease the pressure on certain delicate portions of his anatomy, and Buffy gave him a sly look from beneath her lashes and popped the whole spoon in her mouth. "Mmmmmmm," she said, withdrawing it with agonizing slowness. "I meant where we in the... discussion."

"Oh. That." He ran a fingernail along the back of her knee, enjoying the sensation of her ass wriggling against his crotch. "You were being completely unreasonable." His hand came up to trace the curve of her jaw with a finger, tipping her head up to meet his eyes, and he injected a coaxing note into his voice. "Love... can't you let me take care of you, just a little? I was good at that once, though you might not think it to look at me now. This chip's made half a man of me, but I could still do my bit if you'd let me."

Her fingers stilled on the button she'd been toying with, and she tore her eyes away from his, seeking refuge in the patterns of spilled cereal on the ta