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In A Yellow Wood

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Someone was excavating a tunnel in her head. One of those major, state-connecting tunnels that ended up in two decades of litigation over shoddy subcontracting. At some point the roofing tiles in said tunnel had collapsed, and dozens of tiny non-unionized workers were dying all over her tongue.

Fuzzy. Achy. Swollen. Sandpapery... What is Buffy's brain for five hundred, Alex.

Buffy squinted through crusted lashes into the blinding orb of the floodlamp overhead. Let there be not so much light. She wanted to raise her arm and shade her eyes, but her bones were made of lead. Maybe she should just lie here. Lying here was highly under-rated as a pastime.

Menacing ranks of machinery encircled her bed-table-platform-thingy, hissing and whooshing in time with her breathing. Hospital. She was in a hospital. Because...? They'd been in the parking lot at the grocery store. She'd finally gotten up the nerve to tell Spike about the baby, before he smelled it on her or something. And then Warren Mears had popped up out of nowhere and pointed that thing with all the tubes at her. Had she fainted? God, what a suckorama if she was going to spend the next eight months fainting at the first sign of danger. And she'd been carrying the grocery bag with the eggs in it, too.

Across a million miles of sheet her feet poked out, bare and tan, with a pale sandal-stripe across the arch. Hello, toes! She wriggled her feet, then her hands - were manacles really de rigeur in the emergency ward these days? - and managed to raise her head a little. Across the room, a technician in green scrubs was adjusting an IV line.

"...approximately six weeks of development, though it's always difficult to pinpoint with these hybrids," said the tech. "There's nothing cross-referenced in Bundt's Prophetic Index, and the genetic signature doesn't match any of the catalogued species that are cross-fertile with humans."

La, la, la, Buffy can't hear you, because Buffy is heavily medicated!

A shadow eclipsed the artificial sun. A balding man in a white lab coat and Coke-bottle lenses bent over her, then turned to examine the pulsing crimson line on the nearest monitor. "Intriguing," the doctor said. "This must be something of an occupational hazard in her line of work, don't you think? Let's take a closer look."

Bedside manner closer to the Abominable Doctor Phibes than J. Dorian? Time to check out. Beneath the sheet Buffy tugged ineffectually against the wrist straps. Why was she so weak? That IV must hold something stronger than your average dose of Percoset.

A hand plucked the sheet away from her midriff, and something oozed across her belly like a metallic snail. She blinked and looked down. The doctor was running some kind of goo-covered probe over her abdomen, while the tech adjusted the settings on an overhead viewscreen.

It wasn't a fuzzy grey blur, like ultrasound pictures. This was more like This Is Your Uterus by Industrial Light and Magic. Until a couple of weeks ago she'd never even thought about having a uterus. It was just one more pink squishy thing taking up tummy room. Now?

An alien squiggle of flesh with dark lidless eyespots stared out of the screen at her, floating in a transparent globe of fluid. Was that normal? Or some kind of freaky demon egg sac? It didn't look like a baby. More like some kind of unshelled, squishy polyp or nodule or... was that a tail?

When the Shadow Men said live and grow inside you she'd never, never thought it meant -

Half a dozen monitors broke into a chorus of frantic beeps and boops in counterpoint with her suddenly-pounding heart. "Doctor Sparrow!" The technician backed off a step, eyes widening above his mask. "She's regained consciousness."

The doctor let go of one rubber glove with a snap! "So she has." He frowned, pursed his lips, then shrugged. "Well, we don't have the facilities to study it properly here. Extract it, and we'll ship it back to the Home Office for analysis."

"Of course, Doctor." Techie Monster abandoned his attempt to control the horizontal and the vertical, and scuttled from machine to machine, switch-flipping and button-pressing. "Embryonic extraction initiated."

Spidery cybernetic arms tipped with everything from razor-thin scalpels to buzz saws extended over the examination table, black claws going snik-snik against the light. Buffy tried to choke out a "Stop!" but it came out closer to "Thuf!" A constellation of tiny red stars blinked into being on her goo-covered belly. With a whir of servos, Edward Laserhands realigned the sights, inscribing a deadly scarlet tattoo on her stomach, and a needle the size of a PT Cruiser angled straight for her abdomen.

Buffy jerked uselessly at her restraints. There should be a She-Ra moment here, but she was so tired. In a second it would be too late. A second wasn't enough. Was it?

A strange sick calm descended over her. She'd felt like this when it seemed so certain that Dawn would die no matter what she did, and some horrible cowardly part of her had been relieved, had just wanted it all to be over. In a second, all of this - the alien in her belly, the sleepless nights, the days of fear and nausea - would be over. All she had to do was lie here.

The technician looked worriedly at the Himalayan straggle of readouts on the nearest monitor. "Should I give her another dose of the adrenal blockers, Doctor?"

No one would blame her, sick and weak as she was. Especially not Spike, who'd turn all his rage and grief on the men who did this to her. To his child. (Their child? Her child? Not yet.) Buffy closed her eyes, seeing Spike's face, alight with joy at the news that terrified her. Contagious joy. In its glow she could believe that the child she carried was the best of both of them, not the worst, and maybe, together...

Sparrow hesitated, stroking his chin. "She's received the maximum dose already. Anything more might...well. Increase the anaesthetic drip and hurry along with the extraction, and we'll get her back to her cell."

Spike didn't care if she was knocked up with Rosemary's Baby; the only thing that mattered to him was that it was theirs. But she cared. She had to care, for both of them. One more second, and she'd never have to find out if that pea-sized alien blob would grow up to have scales, or horns, or a soul.

Or Mom's nose.

Or Spike's eyes.

Or...

Buffy arced up and sideways, straining her bonds to their limits. The waldo controlling the needle jerked after her as the technician cursed and wrestled with the controls. She flung herself in the opposite direction and half a dozen blades and clamps collided overhead. Panting, she rammed her elbow into the little panel of buttons on the safety rail of the exam table. The table lurched, jack-knifing her knees up to her chest. A stray scalpel-arm bumped her wrist, slicing a shallow groove in the skin before scraping across the nylon restraints. Fibers frayed, fuzzed, and parted, weakening the bonds just enough to -

"Put her under, now!" Doctor Sparrow shouted.

Snap. Buffy surged off the table with a sob, (what was she mourning?) ripping the IV line free. She yanked the release on her ankle restraints and one flying heel took Renfield in the breastbone - savage elation welled up as something crunched wetly and the tech crumpled to the floor. She reached up, grabbed a bouquet of blade-tipped waldos - ooh, bone saw, bonus! She wrenched the saw off at the joint, and hacked through the strap on her left wrist.

She rolled to her feet, swayed dizzily, and took an unsteady step towards Sparrow. The doctor stabbed frantically at the intercom. "Security! Security to the infirmary, immediately!"

Buffy ripped the intercom off the wall. "You tried to kill my baby." Monochrome emotional haze gave way to blazing primary colors - fear, and anger, and a ferocious protectiveness that wasn't quite love yet, but might be - might be. Someday. She said it again, testing the words on her tongue. "You tried to kill my baby."

"Most extraordinary," Sparrow murmured. Sweat beaded on his high forehead. Buffy watched a drop trickle down his temple with interest. "Young lady, you'll be a great deal better off if you calm down and discuss this rationally. You've just damaged some very expensive equipment--"

She rammed the bone saw blade-first into the tangle of wiring and circuit boards in the wall. Sparks crackled. The lights flickered and dimmed for a second. A bank of monitors went dark. "Oopsie."

"Security will be here at any moment - "

An alarm sounded in the corridor outside, a steady whoop-whoop-whoop. "There has been a Class Twelve cell breach in Containment Block C," a calm feminine voice announced. "Security to Block C immediately."

"Sounds like Security has a hot date elsewhere," Buffy observed. Across the room the tech moaned, coughing up blood. She took a step towards Sparrow, licking dry lips. She'd felt like this before, too. The night she'd rammed a big-ass knife in Faith's gut. "If I were you, it wouldn't be the machinery I was worrying about."

"Miss Summers - "

"There has been a Class Nine cell breach in Containment Block A," the voice in the hall informed them. "Security to Block A immediately."

"Summers-Pratt, actually."

Doctor Sparrow glanced at his clipboard and raised an eyebrow. "Quite so," he said, as if the faux pas of getting her name wrong dwarfed any lesser transgressions. "You're laboring under a slight misunderstanding. You may have convinced yourself that a blessed event is in the offing, but let me assure you that it's anything but. Preliminary scans show a less than ninety percent correlation with baseline human DNA. Your average chimpanzee - " he favored her with a wintery smile, "would be a ninety-eight percent correlation. I don't know what's responsible for your current condition, but believe me, I'm doing you a favor in, er, relieving you of the burden."

"Can you tell if it's evil?"

The doctor blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

"Evil," Buffy repeated. "Can you tell for absolute certain if it's completely, totally, leather-pants-wearing irredeemable?"

"Cell breach in Blocks A through D inclusive. All Wolfram & Hart personnel report to the transfer chamber immediately. All security personnel will facilitate the evacuation of civilian employees..."

Sparrow cocked his head to one side. On him, it wasn't a very endearing mannerism. "It's part demon."

Rage boiled up like lava. "So am I."

Anger burned the grey lassitude from her mind. Anger lent strength and swiftness to her still-drugged limbs. And anger drove her fist at his face, nothing held back. How much was Buffy, how much was Slayer-demon, whether that distinction even meant anything any longer - right now? Not caring. Sparrow collapsed in a broken-jawed spray of blood. "Next time?" she hissed. "Don't do me any favors."

The doctor cowered against the door, his face a smashed ruin of blood and shattered teeth. If she hit him again, she'd kill him. Probably she ought to feel bad about that.

As she raised her fist, a pair of security guards in Kevlar and riot helmets smashed through the door and stumbled into the exam room, tasers aimed at something behind them in the corridor. "Shit!" one of them screamed. "There's another one in here!"

Buffy shoved Sparrow's gurgling form at the intruders and leaped behind the exam table. The first guard fired. The electrode darts hit Sparrow, who spasmed and collapsed. The second guard hit the exam table - Buffy whipped a rubber glove around the connecting wires, and yanked the taser out of his hands. Flinging it aside, she vaulted the table, hooked her fingers under the rim of the first guard's helmet, ripped it off, and bashed his head against the wall. He slumped to the floor and she wrested a billyclub from his belt and coshed the second guard in the kneecap before he could get out from beneath Sparrow's dead weight.

Exhaustion hit out of nowhere, not just a wave but a tsunami. Adrenaline only took you so far. Buffy swayed, staggered, folded to her knees and then to the floor, arms curling protectively around her belly. Shouts and the raw crackle of an energy weapon echoed in the corridor outside. There was a crash, as of ceilings collapsing. "Here! They went this way!" an eerily familiar voice yelled. Footsteps pounded on linoleum. The infirmary door slammed open again, and three slight figures skidded to a halt at the pile-up of bodies on the threshold.

The last thing she saw was her own face in triplicate, blotting out the electric sun.

***

Candles flicker on the nightstand, a charmed circle of light. She curls in the warmth of their bed, cocooned in blood-red sheets and ivory vampire. Sinewy arms hold her safe and tight against a lean, muscled torso. Spike's chin rests in the crook of her shoulder, and his hand caresses the great swell of her belly as their child moves within her. Her body thrums with his somnolent purring growl. All her own power is bent inward now, and knowing that his strength guards her while she wallows through these last days is its own kind of bliss.

The bedroom door opens, flooding their lair with light. Buffy blinks. Doctor Sparrow stands broken-limbed in the doorway, grinning with his ruined mouth. Blood drips down onto his snowy lab coat. He pulls one rubber glove on with a snap. "It's time," he announces.

What? That can't be right. She looks to Spike, bewildered, but he's pushing her away. "That's the way it works with demons, love," he says. "You knew that."

"I'm not ready!" she protests, but Sparrow limps over and pushes her down on the bed. Her bones are like water. Spike lights a cigarette and looks on with interest. Sparrow's blood drip-drip-drips onto her belly, a deadly scarlet tattoo. She grabs the sheet and tries to wipe it away, but it just smears, painting larger and larger swathes of red across her body. It's all over her hands now, and the baby is kicking, kicking hard.

"It smells blood," Spike says knowingly, and the doctor laughs.

"Remember," Sparrow says, "You asked for this." And he plunges his hand into her belly, and drags out...

Buffy woke to a crumpled moonscape of scratchy grey wool, damp with drool beneath her cheek. Blood. Bone. Smell of ozone. Panic rolled her off the hard cot and she stumbled upright, clutching her butt-baring hospital gown close. The drugged grogginess was gone, and her head was clear. She wasn't sure it was an improvement.

Where was she, anyway? A twelve by twelve cell with one open wall barred by an Initiative-style force field that crackled at her tentative finger-poke. A minimalist toilet decorated the wall opposite the spartan cot. The walls matched the paint job in the operating theater, so same Evil Underground Complex, probably. And across the hall...

"Beatrix Kiddo awakes," a sardonic voice - hersardonic voice - said. "And I wonder what her story is. I'd say I was dying of curiosity, but..." The owner of the voice tossed honey-gold curls. "Little late for that."

Her doppelganger smirked at her from across the corridor, milk-pale and stiletto-slim, lounging on a cot just as hard, in cell just as bare, as her own. It radiated cool sexual menace and something... something indefinable, a fillings-on-tinfoil shiver down the spine. Vampire.

The others hadn't been vampires. Robots? Clones? Whatever. She wasn't going for a face-off with a breeze up her backside. Buffy looked around; her clothes were stacked neatly on the foot of the cot. Grubby sneakers, grey knit workout pants, and an oversized hot-pink t-shirt weren't haute couture, but they were familiar, and hers. Buffy dressed as quickly as possible, conscious of the vampire's eyes upon her.

"Cat got your tongue?" her evil twin inquired.

"The doctor," Buffy croaked. "And that...other guy. Is he... did I...?"

The vampire snickered. "You did plenty. Or so I hear."

Blood and bone and... Her stomach made a break for freedom, and Buffy dove for the toilet.

When she finally raised her head, she felt... better. Surprisingly. Her throat was rough from barf-burn. She supposed she'd better get used to that. She fumbled with the spigots over the toilet bowl till one of them produced a thin stream of tepid water, and drank from cupped hands until she felt marginally human again.

Vampire Buffy scrutinized her through the force field, pink, perfect lips curled in a feline smile. After a moment she said, "What if I told you that the not-so-good doctor was one-quarter Slod demon?"

Buffy sat down on the cot with a thump, clutching her rebellious stomach. She scrunched her eyes shut. "What difference would that make?"

When she opened them, Vamp-Buffy was staring at her with golden-eyed intensity from beneath ridged brows, like her response had been a real surprise. "None, to me," she said. "And maybe none to you. But it'll mean a whole heck of a lot to them."

"There's a them?" Of course there was a them. There was always a them.

"They put you in the cell across from the vampire," her new best friend whispered. "Think about that. Right now? You're the crazy rogue who put the human doctor in traction for a year. If he dies? Not pretty. But if I let my little bombshell drop...all of a sudden you're the noble Slayer in pursuit of her duty." Her tongue slicked across her fangs. "Again."

Buffy's jaw clenched. "And you'll do me this awesome favor why?"

The bumps and ridges melted away from her alter ego's face. "They're planning a breakout. They're either going to kill me or leave me here to shrivel up into a stick insect and starve. For years. Or centuries. I've never looked into the details." Beneath the cool her voice was brittle, urgent. "Get me out of here. And I'll get you out of here."

"I don't make deals with demons." If this were a Disney movie, her nose would be three feet long by now.

The vampire's smile went from kitteny to tigerish. "Oh, please. How much history do we share? You've made at least one already. I can smell it on you - the stench of power." Her eyes sparked an avid gold. "All deep and dark and dangerous. Power I turned down - and how stupid was that, all things considered? Power they turned down." She nodded down the hall. "If they got to make the choice at all. But you? You said yes. And now you've got an extra dose of Slayery goodness...or badness...right inside of you. Living and growing."

In more ways than one. Could Vampirella smell her delicate condition? Buffy turned away, arms folded tight across her stomach. Probably; she was pretty sure the only reason Spike hadn't put two and two together before (last night? Last week?) was because he'd simply couldn't believe the evidence of his nose. "Is the doctor a Slod demon?"

There was no smile in those bright, wicked eyes. "I thought that didn't matter."

Of course it matters, she started to say, but the words jammed sideways in her throat. It hadn't mattered when it would have mattered for it to matter.

"Think fast," the vampire murmured. "Here come the Power Puff Girls."

Buffy sidled up to the force field, craning her neck. Down the hallway came... her. And her. And her again. A power-walking trio of Buffys - what the heck. Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup. Three sharp-chinned faces, three pairs of inscrutable grey-green eyes. All three pulled up in front of Buffy's cell, Buttercup and Bubbles unlimbering the tasers slung over their shoulders, and stared in formation. This week only! Free visual laser peel with your incarceration!

"I want to see the men I hurt," Buffy said, before her captors could whip out the soft cushions. "I need to know if they're..."

"Is there supposed to be a 'dead' or an 'OK' after that ellipsis?" Blossom asked. She sauntered up to the force wall, matching Buffy's pose exactly. Not quite her face (harder), not quite her body (thinner), but close enough for weirdness. It was like staring into a funhouse mirror that conveniently changed wash-day grubbies into a hard-core Kevlar vest and vaguely military-looking fatigues. The outfit didn't quite match the mulberry leather Fossil clutch tucked under one elbow. "Let's cut to the exposition," Blossom said. "This whole compound is a Wolfram & Hart holding dimension. They've been collecting Slayers from a bunch of different dimensions - some of us have been here for weeks. I don't know what they wanted us for, but they've got a list, and I'm checking it twice, because some of them?" She nodded at the vampire. "Very naughty."

"Takes one to know..." the vampire across the hall murmured.

Blossom whirled around. "Shut. Up," she said in a voice of liquid nitrogen. The vampire zipped thumb and finger across her lips, smirking. Blossom turned back to Buffy. "So anyway. I had a little chat with Doc Sparrow. Kinda one-sided, considering the broken jaw, but to the point. He says that you're knocked up with mind-controlling demon spawn and we can't trust anything you say." She smiled a big bright fake smile. "His word against yours. So what's your word?"

Buffy caught her lower lip in her teeth. Across the corridor, her fangy alter ego blew her a kiss - One word from me will make it allll better. She'd made deals with vampires before. But only when she held the high ground, one way or another - even during the Angelus Affair, Spike had come to her. She wasn't desperate enough yet to indebt herself to that.

"Sparrow's not wrong about the pregnant part," she said. "He was trying to extract the baby. I freaked. I was out of control. Stopping me? Great idea. But - " she waved at the three of them. "Looks to me like you've all got some walking-around-free-now reason to be glad I was hopped up on cranky pills."

"She did fritz half the force locks," Buttercup pointed out, raking blood-red nails through short, spiky blonde locks. She was even thinner than Blossom, shrink-wrapped in black leather, the points of her collarbones razor-sharp beneath a lace cami. "We owe her one."

"Right. Like that was on purpose," Bubbles muttered. Except for the bright blue-green hair, she looked...well, not quite as thin as Blossom, and there was something a little weird about the cut of her clothes, but compared to Buttercup, who looked like she'd wandered out of a Heart video by mistake, definitely on the normal side. The two of them exchanged distrustful glares. Trouble in paradise?

"What I think," Buffy said, "is that you wouldn't be standing here swapping banter if you weren't already thinking about letting me out."

Blossom's lips quirked. "You know you all too well. We did some CSIing of our own." She held up her mulberry leather Fossil clutch - wait, no, Buffy's mulberry leather Fossil clutch, its stylish lines bulging with a familiar litter of receipts, credit cards, and scraps of paper with mysterious phone numbers scrawled on them. Blossom flipped it open. "Unflattering name change on all your ID. Checks with the wedding ring. Pay stub from Ice World. Business cards for Bloody Vengeance Inc., Magical Supplies & Slayage At Reasonable Rates. Buffy Summers-Pratt, mild-mannered skating instructor by day, vampire slayer by night! So far, so freakishly normal - except for one eensy thing."

She held up a snapshot. It was Spike, a-sprawl on the couch at 1630 Revello Drive. Dawn had taken it just a few weeks ago, testing out her new camera, and Buffy had snagged a copy and stuck it in her wallet on a whim. Quintessential Spike, smirking at the camera, black tee tight over muscled shoulders, one sandy curl working its way free of the tyranny of gel. She could almost smell tobacco smoke. Spike-missage hit, so acute it made her chest ache. She wanted to reach into the photograph and drag him out.

"I could be wrong," Blossom said, "but I've looked Spike in the eye a lot, and I'd bet a mani/pedi at the Grove that this is Spike 1.0, Soul Not Included. Which makes me wonder what he's doing taking up couch space. Not to mention wallet space."

Oh. Right. Once upon a not-that-long-ago time, the idea that Spike loved her had been unbearable. The idea that she might ever love him back, unthinkable. This could be tricky. Buffy took a deep breath. Alternate universes, right? Was a good(ish) Spike really that much more unlikely than a world without shrimp? "It's a really long story. Like, Tolstoy long. Does the Initiative ring a bell?"

Buttercup looked blank, but Blossom and Bubbles nodded. "So he's chipped," Blossom said.

"Um...actually...not anymore." Buffy took aim at breezy and confident. "Willow took the chip out."

"So... he's got a soul?"

Oh, great. Blossom's Spike had a soul? He probably picked up his own towels, too. "Not as such. But it's OK. He's reformed. Mostly." From their expressions, a global crustacean shortage would have been an easier sell. "Remember the me-being-pregnant part? Spike's the father. And my husband. Hence the living in my house. Did I mention he's alive now?"

At least, she hoped so. What if Warren had zapped him someplace, too? Or worse...what if Warren hadn't? Most humans had no idea how fast a vampire could move. Even if the dimensional zapper thingy hadn't needed time to recharge, Spike could have had Warren by the throat before his finger could tighten on the trigger a second time. And Spike... would be really, really ticked off. Recipe for badness, coming right up. She trusted him, she really did...but everyone had limits. And Spike's were a little more limiting than most people's.

Bubbles scowled, oblivious to her angst. "Oh, no. Do not tell me that he shanshued. Not without a soul."

Shan-what? Wasn't that Angel's prophecy thing? "I didn't say he was human," Buffy replied with an impatient head-shake. "Just alive. Hence the fatherhood. There was Mohra blood. It was a thing."

"So let's sum up," Blossom said drily. "You've gone rogue, and you're working a pay-for-slay black market demon parts racket while knocked up with the demon spawn of the second-worst vampire in history. And the first thing you do here is beat an unarmed doctor half to death." She flicked the business card at the force wall; it sparked briefly and fluttered to the floor.

Anya was so right; it was all in the marketing. Buffy gritted her teeth. "The racket," she said, "is a legitimate business. With W-2s and everything. I'm a consultant, in the copious spare time I have left over from my day job and the pro bono slayage, in which Spike is my consultant, thank you very much. And no, I'm not on speaking terms with the Council, if it's any of your business, which I'm thinking not. And even if it is, since when is telling the Council of Watchers to go play with their bookmarks a reason to keep me on the Group W bench with Velma Kelly over there?"

She shot a look across the hall; Vampire Buffy was grinning. Spike could be dead. Or making Warren dead, and she wasn't sure which was worse. Maybe she was that desperate, after all. "And besides," she forced out, "I think the doctor might have been... part demon."

Her three inquisitors exchanged looks - started, wary, suspicious. "What makes you think so?" Bubbles asked.

"Just a feeling," Buffy mumbled. A big neon sign saying "LIAR" was probably popping on over her head. "You know. Like with that roommate we had freshman year."

Blossom looked at Bubbles, who looked at Buttercup, who shrugged. "Don't ask me. I went to the college of hard knocks."

"What, none of the rest of you noticed?" the vampire inquired mockingly. "I smelled it the minute I saw him. For God's sake, he works for Wolfram & Hart."

"We already have one rogue in the clubhouse," Bubbles said with a stiletto glance in Buttercup's direction.

"And one quitter." Buttercup twirled a finger. "Go team."

Bubbles's cheeks blazed. "It's not quitting when there's no world left to save!"

"Stop it, both of you." Blossom inspected Buffy narrowly through the shimmer of the force wall. Buffy could see it in her eyes: belief. Grudging, unhappy belief, but it was there. Wouldn't believe her, but when an evil bloodsucking fiend stood up for her, boy howdy... "Any minute now Wolfram & Hart may realize that something's wrong and send the Brute Squad after us. Or just wait for us to starve. We don't have time to waste. Or a lot of choice about who we trust." She tossed her no-nonsense ponytail over her shoulder and stepped aside with an after-you gesture at Buttercup, who shrugged and punched a code into the electronic lock next to the cell. The force wall disappeared with a crackle. "I'd say this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but so far? I really don't like you."

She spun on her heel and headed back the way they'd come. A breath of fresh air didn't actually rush into the cell as the force wall came down, but Buffy shivered anyway. The vampire smirked at her as she walked past. "Remember," she whispered. "You owe me."

"How do you know I won't just leave you in there?" Buffy hissed back.

The vampire smiled. "Because when I was you, I wouldn't have."

*****

Half the light panels in the ceiling were out, but the walls of the passageway glowed a faint eerie green. There was a Twilight Zone seamlessness about the compound, like it had been extruded rather than built. If this was a pocket dimension, maybe it had been. Walking down the corridor, Buffy felt light. Free. As if instead of something weighing her down from within, some burden had been lifted. She didn't think the mood would last, but while it did, she was willing to take advantage. My baby. She put a hand to her stomach. Say the magic words. Presto-change-o, abstract to concrete. In a weird way, that made it easier to deal with. She was better at concrete.

She studied her not-quite-captors not-quite-covertly. Bubbles didn't trust Buttercup, and Blossom didn't think much of either of them, and if she obsessed over their backstory enough, would it keep her from thinking about Sparrow's cheekbone crunching beneath her fist? Buttercup seemed the least aloof of the three. Buffy stepped up her pace to catch up. "Hey. The vampire," she asked. "Is she from a world where the Master...killed us?" How weird, to think she'd been so scared of dying, once.

Buttercup shot her a curious look. "God, no. It was Spike."

"Oh." Ow. "When? Parent-Teacher Night?" If Mom hadn't shown up with that axe... "Halloween? Or that time with the Gem of Amarra?" Those were the only times she could remember Spike really, truly having her on the ropes.

Bubbles dropped back a step, whether out of suspicion or a healthy desire to get in on the dish Buffy wasn't sure. "As a matter of fact? Just last year. She acts like it was all her idea, but really? She just got careless."

"Oh, please," Buttercup said with an all-too-familiar eyeroll. "Put the high horse out to pasture. You boinked him too. In fact, everyone who hasn't boinked Spike raise a hand!" She waved an arm wildly above her head. "Golly. And I thought I was the bad Slayer."

Bubbles's lips compressed to a diamond-hard line of disapproval. "At least I learned from my mistakes. Soul or no soul, Spike's bad news." She waved Buffy ahead of her. "Come on."

What mistakes, Buffy wondered, had those been? It had been almost four years since her Spike had realized he was falling in love with his mortal enemy - just short of an eternity in Slayer years. It wasn't that she couldn't imagine worlds where Spike hadn't fallen, or where she hadn't fallen back. But why on earth would any version of her sleep with a Spike she wasn't well on the way to being madly in love with? Sexing up a guy who'd tried to kill you on multiple occasions wasn't exactly something you did for yuks on a slow Saturday night.

The corridor terminated in a high-tech door with a thumbprint lock - smashed now, and the door wrenched open. Beyond was a circular room lined with consoles. Some kind of guard station, she guessed. Viewscreens overhead showed empty cells, trashed labs, and something that looked like a bunkroom, where half a dozen bruised and dejected guards slumped around on cots. A cushioned conversation pit right out of an Austin Powers flick took up the center of the room, along with a few low shelves holding books, CDs, and an X-Box. Three more doors ringed the room - Buffy caught a glimpse of another cell block through one, a kitchen through another.

Sprawled across the cushions, rifling through the shelves, prodding at the consoles... was her. And her. And her. And her and her and her. Blonde Buffys and Buffys au naturel, wire-thin Buffys and curvy Buffys, Buffys in camo and Buffys in chiffon. A dozen iterations of her own face, staring at her with curiosity and contempt and an entire thesaurus in between. The concentrated eyeballage could have peeled paint, if there'd been any paint to peel, but Buffy squared her shoulders and marched into the guard station with all the aplomb one could reasonably expect of someone wearing a novelty t-shirt.

"I'd introduce everyone," Bubbles said, propping her taser rifle against the wall, "but it would get awfully repetitious."

Blossom was already striding towards the biggest and most impressively blinky console, hands on hips, glare on stun. A Buffy in techno-ninjawear looked up from the console spilling its technicolor guts across the floor. The nametag on her fatigues read B. FINN.

"So? What's the communications sitch?" Blossom demanded.

B. Finn's eyes narrowed in annoyance. "Remind me again who jumped off a tower and made you the boss of us?" She pulled something with lots of wires loose from one panel and plugged it into another. "Try it now."

Buffy was suitably impressed; she couldn't even get the DVD player to stop flashing 12:00. Blossom bent to twiddle with the controls, and the staticky screen overhead blinked, spat, and fuzzed out. Buffy's attention was drawn to another screen: one showing a slightly cock-eyed view of the operating theatre she'd smashed up. She could just catch the foot of a cot holding a bandage-swathed figure - whether it was Sparrow or the unfortunate tech she couldn't tell. Probably Sparrow. She was pretty sure the tech only had a broken rib. She hoped.

"If you're thinking tearful apology, unthink it," Buttercup informed her. "They're not going to let you anywhere near him." She hitched one hip up on the back of a console, produced a wafer-thin gold lighter and lit up a cigarette, to the vocal annoyance of several surrounding Buffys. Buttercup ignored them and blew a smoke ring. "Not that I'd lose any beauty sleep if Doc Sparrow accidentally tripped and impaled himself on a bullet, but we may need him to buy our way out of here."

"And here would be...?"

Buttercup waved her cigarette at Door Number Four. Unlike the rest, it hadn't been ripped open - it was reinforced steel, with a porthole window of heavy, double-paned plexiglass, proof against even Slayer strength. Curious, Buffy walked across the room and placed a hand flat against the steel panel. The metal was warm against her palm. If she stood on tip-toe, she could see through the porthole: a rolling expanse of ruby sand stretched away to an encircling range of hills. The horizon was unnervingly close. No sun, just a flat golden sky and brilliant, shadowless light, everywhere. Here and there jagged spires of obsidian rose out of the bloody sand.

She studied the not nearly distant enough hills. The last deserty pocket dimension she'd visited had been over-supplied with bitey things, but nothing moved out there beneath the brazen sky. Why didn't anyone make pocket dimensions that looked like Waikiki? Or even Kansas?

"Home sweet home," Buttercup said. "No water, no plants, no animals. No place to go from here. We found an orientation video," she added. "Very Dharma Project."

"If there's a way in, there's a way out," Buffy said, dropping down off her toes.

"Sure. If you have a shaman and a specially blessed rutbaga." Buttercup stubbed her cigarette out on the console top. "The access ritual can only be done from the outside. Once they figure out what's going on, the Home Office can just leave us here till we starve - unless we can find a bargaining chip."

Buffy's stomach interrupted with a loud, embarrassing gurgle, and Buttercup looked her up and down with an amused little snort. "Eating for two, huh? Or if it's demonspawn, maybe twenty. Come on."

The kitchen was cramped and utilitarian, all brushed steel and black plastic. There was a pantry, thoroughly ransacked, its metal shelves bare of anything save a few empty cardboard boxes and an industrial-size can of refried beans. Scrunched between the microwave and the freezer unit was a spartan Formica counter you could have chopped a carrot on, provided that it was a really small carrot. The refrigerator contained six cans of dolphin-safe albacore tuna, a dozen eggs, one package of whole-wheat crackers, and three tomatoes. "These are my groceries," Buffy pointed out.

"Correction," Buttercup said. She selected a Wheat Thin and hopped up to sit on the counter. "That, plus Tub O' Beans, is our dinner for the next whatever. We were one day short of the next supply run when you went cuckoo for Coco-Puffs. The good news? If we can't manage to break out, we can still make tuna loaf."

"Good thing I wasn't holding the bag with the pig's blood," Buffy muttered. She picked up a decimated can of tuna and dabbed a cracker into it, scraping the crusty dried flakes off the sides. Memory of the incredibly pointless argument she'd had with Spike last week, about her insistence on depriving him of the meager joys of indirect long-distance dolphin slaughter, almost made her tear up. Stupid baby hormones.

"So... why'd you do it?"

Buffy stiffened. "Which it? You're going to have to get more definite with your articles."

"Hook up with Spike." Buttercup chin-pointed in the direction of the guard station. "Half of them out there boinked him, too." She licked tuna juice from her fingers and gave Buffy a sidelong, speculative look. "But they all stopped. You didn't. That's different. And different is interesting."

She'd always known that 'long shot' was rosy optimism when applied to her and Spike, but was she really that much of a freak? "It seemed like a really good idea at the time." Buffy regarded the wodge of tuna adorning her cracker with limited enthusiasm. Shouldn't she have some tomato? For vitamins? And wasn't fish full of mercury or something? How was she supposed to know the nutritional requirements of the possibly unholy spawn of a partially-demonified Slayer and a slightly non-standard vampire anyway? "What I don't get is why they started. Doing it. With Spike. Because obviously? They didn't think it was a good idea."

Buttercup took a delicate nibble of cracker. "'I was in a bad place, I just wanted to feel something, I was helpless in the face of his sinister attraction!' You know what I think? They did it because they could. And now a couple of them are all boo hoo about it, but if they had it to do all over? They'd do the exact same thing. It's always about power." Her eyes were bleak. "That's who we are."

It's not who I am. Or not all of who I am. Or, or... The tuna smell was making her queasy again. If it was a vampire baby maybe she should be eating raw liver. Mmm, liver...oh, God, if she was going to crave liver instead of ice cream for nine months she might as well end it all now. "You didn't sleep with him. But I can't help notice you don't get much love either."

"Oh, me? I told you I was the bad Slayer. I work for Wolfram & Hart." Buttercup brushed crumbs from her hands. "Make that past tense. I think we're due for contract re-negotiations when I get back." Her eyes narrowed at Buffy's expression. "Watch your step. That moral high ground is awfully slippery."

"Noted. What do you do for them?"

"I make problems go away." Buttercup stretched, tiny pointed breasts tenting the sheer lace of her blouse. "It's a living. Silk teddies don't buy themselves. Besides, someone has to keep Faith out of trouble. If you're done poking at that - "

Buffy dropped her third cracker guiltily. Probably for the best. You weren't supposed to gain a lot of weight when you got pregnant, were you? Between the muscle she'd put on since taking up figure skating again, and Spike's evil "Oh, come on, Slayer, one more bite isn't going to kill you," blandishments, she was already shopping for jeans sized in positive integers; better not go crazy. She stuck the can back into the refrigerator. "You know...nobody did a ritual to send me here. It was just zap and go."

Buttercup shrugged, but her gaze was sharp and attentive. "That's peachy, if you have whatever it was that zapped you in your back pocket."

"At the moment, pocketless. But it was your bosses who had me zapped, so if anyone knows how it's done..."

"There might be a record of it in the computer." Buttercup hopped off the counter. "Come on."

B. Finn and Blossom were still crouched over the main console when they returned to the central control room - it looked like they'd managed to bring in an infomercial for miracle carpet spot remover, but no W&H Central. Buttercup headed straight for an empty terminal and fired it up. "We used Doc Sparrow's login to get into the system," she said cheerfully, "and he has top clearance for this place, so you should be able to read just about anything. We've got you to thank for that, too - hardly had to rough him up at all, just told him that if he didn't spill we'd let you have him again."

"Yay?" Buffy muttered, sliding into a chair at the next terminal.

She moused through a couple of folders at random, lower lip caught between her teeth. This would be a lot easier if she know where she was looking, and what she was looking for. Blueprints? Plans? Would a pocket dimension have a fire escape? Did evil corporations have to comply with OSHA? It wasn't that she was bad at computers, exactly, it was just that Willow was so much better that it was always easier to yell for her when bits and bytes were involved. Wills could have had this whole place singing and dancing the rhumba by now.

Patient Files - Confidential

That looked snoopworthy, if not exactly on topic. A dozen files, most labeled B. Summers and distinguished only by a string of numbers. Plus one B. Summers-Pratt. At least the bad guys could get her name right. She dithered for a moment between clicking on her own file and reading one of the others. It wasn't really an invasion of privacy when it was your own life, was it? But her own file might have a clue or three about what exactly Wolfram & Hart thought they could accomplish by kidnapping her, besides bringing The Wrath of Spike down upon their collective heads. Obviously it hadn't been about the baby. (Her baby. Their baby.) Sparrow had been as surprised to find out about that as she had been.


B. Summers-Pratt
Classification: Slayer.
History: Born January 19, 1981, eldest daughter of Henry and Joyce Summers. Called at the age of fifteen, first Watcher...

Blah blah blah Angelus, blah blah blah Adam, blah blah blah Glory... she already knew her life story.


Notes: February 2003 - Subject received a transfusion of demonic power of unknown origin. Further study is indicated to determine the precise nature of this power and its effects...

So that was it. Figured. Everyone from Giles to Vampire Buffy made such a big deal of her bargain with the Shadow Men's pet smoke monster, why shouldn't Wolfram & Hart horn in on the do-think-of-the-consequences-Buffy! action? She had thought of the consequences - if she'd done nothing, dozens of girls would have died. Becoming a Slayer sucked in a lot of ways, but it was definitely better than being slipped a fatal mickey by Quentin Travers in the name of the greater good. Fine, she'd taken the power, but only to pass it on to those who needed it. She wasn't any stronger or faster. It hadn't changed her. Much. Except...


...subject's recent interactions with the demonic inhabitants of Sunnydale has been highly non-standard. Subject has enlisted allies from the demon community and initiated liaisons with local human authorities, and has been observed to employ negotiation and arbitration in conjunction with more standard slaying techniques...

He hand went to her belly. Fred had done all those tests, and the results had been conclusive: Spike was alive, but he was still a demon. He had about as much chance of getting a human woman pregnant as he had of knocking up Miss Kitty Fantastico. Which meant...

Her stomach knotted as she imagined the residue of the power she'd carried into the world lingering in her cells like some unholy bathtub mold. Living and growing. She still felt normal. As normal as you could feel with super-strength and accelerated healing and the occasional quasi-prophetic dreams and an uncanny affinity for weapons she'd never seen in her life before. How much demon did a 'normal' Slayer have in her? Two percent? Three? How big did the percentage have to get before she couldn't really call herself human any longer, and did numbers even mean anything, and breathe, Buffy!


Conclusion: The subject's unconventional behavior poses a potentially serious threat to the Senior Partners' long-term objectives. Widespread public scrutiny by mundane authorities could compromise numerous projects that the Senior Partners deem essential. While the likelihood of the subject inducing demon communities to accept human codes of conduct in the long term is small, any non-zero possibility of success is alarming in the extreme.
Threat Level: Very High
Recommendations: Subject's sudden death or disappearance has the potential to create a martyr situation, which the firm should avoid at all costs. A program of capture, re-education, and release is far more likely to -

The stomach-knot dissolved in renewed anger. Re-education, huh? Don't think so. She hadn't liked school the first time.

She'd just flicked the mouse pointer to another file when Buttercup piped up, "Hey. Look at this."

Buffy glanced across the console. "Whatcha got? Handy dandy Marauder's Map?"

"Not quite. But it's got the CEO's signature on it, in something I'm pretty sure isn't red ink. It's a copy of a contract between Wesley Wyndam-Pryce and..." she squinted at the crabbed print. "...someone called Dinza?"

"Dinza?" All of a sudden Bubbles was standing over them, fingers tight on the back of Buttercup's chair. "Are you sure it says Dinza? Demi-goddess of the lost, only talks to dead people?"

"You'd know better than I do. Apparently." Buttercup's expression was way too innocent. "Friend of yours?"

"Not. " Bubbles scowled at the screen. "Angel mentioned her once."

There was an undropped shoe there, or possibly a whole undropped Payless, but no time to pursue that now. "So - contract," Buffy prompted. "What's it contracting?"

"'Contract for turnkey design/build construction and related services between
Wolfram & Hart and Dinza, Lady of Shadows, Mistress of Lamentation, etc. dated the 28th day of June, 2002...' Blah, blah, blah lawyer talk, 'In consideration of the compensation detailed in Section 3.65, the Party of the Second Part agrees to the design, development, construction, and testing of one (1) limited-access Riemann-Polyenkov fold ("POCKET DIMENSION") to be multidimensionally anchored as specified in Section 4.23, including engineering, procurement, assembly, installation, start-up, and calibration of air, gravity, ambient temperature, ambient lighting, and all other materials and systems necessary for the operation of said POCKET DIMENSION in the manner specified in the applicable Contract Documents (defined in Section 2.5)...'" Buttercup whistled. "Looks like your BFF Dinza built this place."

"She's not my - " Bubbles began heatedly, but Buffy'd stopped listening. A blazing inspiration seized her.

"Guys!" she broke in. "This thing's our ticket out of here! If this Dinza's the contractor, they're bound to have some way of contacting her on file. Xander always says that when anything goes wrong the first thing you do is call up the contractor to bitch."

Blossom gave her a skeptical look. "If this Dinza only talks to dead people - "

Buffy gave a shaky laugh. "Yeah. Well. About that."

*****

*****

Buffy watched as Blossom punched the release code into the lock, and the two of them stepped back as the force wall crackled and died. "All right," Blossom said, with the expression of a woman who'd just found something gross in the sink strainer, "We let you go, you talk to Dinza. Screw us over and you'll regret it. Capsice?"

"Ooh, Tish, you spoke French." Vamp Buffy strolled out of the cell with studied nonchalance, traded a look of mutual contempt with Blossom and flashed a wide, insincere smile at Buffy. "I knew I could count on you."

"Don't get used to it," Buffy hissed. "We're even now. Make one wrong move and you'll be playing the title role in a re-enactment of Murder On the Orient Express."

"Anything you two care to share with the class? No? Then let's get to work." Blossom indicated the vampire. "This? Your idea, your responsibility. Any blood she spills is on your head now. Come on."

"Hmm," Vampire Her stage-whispered, as Blossom strode off down the corridor. "Buffy the Vampire Sitter. Has a ring to it." At Buffy's expression, she giggled. "Oh, don't worry. I'll be good. I want to get out of here as much as you do." Her smile was a hungry baring of teeth. "I think we're all going to be the best of friends."

Yeah, good luck with that, Buffy thought, trailing behind the others as they made their way back down the hall, Blossom walking as if she expected - or maybe hoped - the vampire would go for their necks then and there. It was pointless to feel thirteenth-wheelish when the people doing the big important world-save-y things were essentially you. It was only slight consolation that Vamp Buffy didn't look any happier about taking orders than Buffy felt. Who exactly elected Blossom Queen of the Pocket Universe, anyway?

She must have said the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud, because Vamp Buffy dropped back, a feline delight in her eyes. Stupid vampire hearing. "Oh, it was more of a divine appointment. You should have seen the security when she was brought in. She was Number One on Wolfram & Hart's Ten Most Wanted. The most dangerous of us all. Supposedly."

"For serious?" From the little Angel had ever said about it, Wolfram & Hart considered Slayers small change. They came, they fought, they died, and nothing changed, and that was the way Wolfram & Hart liked it. If her own piddly little attempts at human/demon detente were considered a threat, then what could Blossom possibly have up her sleeve...? "What in particular about her makes the Senior Partners quake in their Armani socks?"

"That's the mystery. To hear her talk, back in her home timeline she's Buffy Anne Summers, Millionaire. She owns a mansion and a yacht. Or a castle and a submarine, at least. Plus hundreds of Slayers at her command." The vampire's gaze was fixed upon the back of Blossom's head, as if she could drill into the secrets of that brain by eyeball power alone. "But the Senior Partners wouldn't care about that. They trade armies like bubblegum cards. I never saw her file first-hand, but the gossip was that it only had three words in it." She paused for dramatic effect. "'Twilight is coming.'"

Buffy blinked. "Um. That sounds devastating, all right."

The vampire shrugged. "Who knows? And since not my world, who cares?"

Sufficient unto the timeline were the evils thereof, Buffy supposed, but still... an army hundreds of Slayers strong? How many Potentials had the Council flatlined in that dimension? She didn't have much time to ponder the question; they reached the command center just as B. Finn was escorting the heavily-bandaged Wolfram & Hart technician in through one of the other doors. Sans drug haze, he didn't look much like the embodiment of pure baby-killing evil, just a youngish guy in a way-worse-for-wear lab coat. He had floppy dark hair and the sort of endearingly goofy good looks she might even have called cute. If he hadn't been, well, the baby-killing embodiment of pure evil.

Vamp Buffy swept into the control room like she owned the place, deflecting a volley of glares pointier than any stake. She draped herself across one of the console seats with predatory elegance and bestowed a bright smile on their assembled alter egos. "Hi, guys!" The smile sharpened when she saw the technician, and she ran her tongue over newly emergent fangs. "Oooh, he smells expendable. Can I have him when you're done? You wouldn't want my tummy rumbling in the middle of an important escape spell, would you?"

It didn't make Buffy feel any better that it wasn't the vampire that made the tech flinch, but her. At least he was alive. And conscious. And mobile, sort of. And most importantly, talkative.

"I hear a well-done stake is a sure cure for indigestion." The vampire subsided with a pout, and Blossom turned on her heel to confront the technician, 'You're not important enough for me to watch my back' writ plain in the set of her shoulders. "OK, Riff-Raff. Doctor Sparrow's login gets us to the directory where the contact ritual for Dinza is, but it's password-protected. And seeing as the not-so-good doctor is doped to the gills on Vicodin right now, you're our go-to guy for industrial espionage. Here's the deal. You can tell us what the password is, and we can take you down the rabbit hole with us. Or we can all sit here and wait for the Senior Partners to give you a promotion for the great work you're doing, and then go out for pizza! Sound like fun?"

The technician squinted distrustfully through puffy, bruised eyes. "I've got your word that if you find a way out, you'll take me with you?"

"Signed and sealed," Blossom assured him. "Up to you whether or not we can deliver."

The tech slumped in his chair, eyes darting, worrying at his lower lip. "One condition. I get to pick the world I escape to."

Blossom looked at Bubbles, and shrugged. "Sure. Why not?"

It made sense, Buffy supposed, that the W&H employees would be more aware than anyone that if the Senior Partners intended to quell the Slayer rebellion, they'd consider the field staff acceptable collateral damage. The tech gave a shaky nod. "Okay. Sorry. This is my first official betrayal of the company, you know? I'm a little nervous. Calming breaths, deep calming breaths...the password is Pyth1@s, with a one and an at sign. I've only actually seen them do the ritual once. It's not difficult, though, I swear. What is difficult..."

"...is that you can't get there from here," a grim B. Finn broke in, her fingers flying over the nearest keyboard. Folders sprang open onscreen, flinging up battlements of text and fortresses of diagrams. "Nothing here as simple as bell, book and candles, people. The ritual has to be conducted between the light and the darkness, where the earth meets the sky, at the end of the world."

The technician pasted on a sickly grin. "Yeah. That sounds about right."

A chorus of groans arose from the assembled Slayers. Buffy's eyes flicked to the porthole in the reinforced door, and the blood-colored desert beyond. If this place was anything like the Shadow Men's world in a bottle...

Great minds, apparently. Blossom walked over to the door and peered outside. "Luckily for us, boys and girls, the end of the world is within walking distance."

*********

It had taken approximately two hours to scour the computer for the key codes to the outer door, the compound for anything remotely useful, and the kitchen for anything remotely edible. Except for a pair of closed-circuit radio units, B. Finn had made certain that the communications equipment was smashed beyond repair - if Wolfram & Hart wanted them, they'd have to show up in person.

Buffy kept one eye on the vampire and the other on the sullen cadre of guards in handcuffs clustered near the door. Despite custody of one of the radios, the guards didn't look any too confident about the technician's promise to call them once the Slayers had activated a portal out. All things considered, Buffy couldn't muster up loads of sympathy. According to the schematics in the computer, the pocket universe was a dome about fifty miles across and a mile high at its apex, with the prison compound located right in the center. If everything went according to plan, they could hike to the ends of the earth in less than eight hours, do the ritual, and be home in time for dinner. The guards could follow them in a day or two.

Things never, Buffy reminded herself, went according to plan. And the question for her wasn't really whether she could get home in time for dinner, but what - or who - she'd find served up when she got there. She couldn't Scarlett O'Hara the possibility that Spike had killed Warren forever. But for now? Subject change.

She slung the canvas bag full of plastic water bottles (Wolfram and Hart didn't recycle, apparently) over one shoulder and took a last look around the decimated control room. Bubbles was packing an odd assortment of items into her own bag: six stumpy white candles, a ball of red twine, a pewter goblet, two small sandalwood boxes, twenty-six cents in pre-1965 pennies, and a grubby-looking plastic baby doll with one missing eye. The components, the technician had assured them, that Doctor Sparrow had used the last time Wolfram and Hart had occasion to summon Dinza. Buffy sidled over, low-voiced, "How much did Angel tell you about this Dinza chick?" She couldn't remember her-world Angel ever mentioning the name.

Bubbles's eyes narrowed fractionally, gauging Buffy's need to know. "Not a lot." She examined her own water bottle for leaks and screwed the cap on a little tighter. "She told him where to find the McGuffin that got Cordelia's attention in Paradise." Her tone suggested that this was a crime on the order of mass-murdering Dalmatian puppies. "So pretty obviously not trustworthy, considering how that turned out."

Not a big Cordelia Chase fan, then. Or just not a big fan of Angel being a big Cordelia Chase fan? Granted the whole Angel-slash-Cordy thing was a heaping helping of Extra-Crispy WTF Flakes, but... had Bubbles' Cordelia taken the Powers up on their offer? Maybe, Buffy thought, she should have read a few more of those personnel files. "Did he say anything that might help us keep her honest?"

With a shrug, Bubbles shoved the water bottle into her own makeshift pack. "Yuh-huh. There's a secret handshake. Come on, if he had, I'd be mentioning it."

Buffy gave it up and did another inventory of her shoulder bag - blankets, a few first aid supplies scrounged from the infirmary, and... that was about it. No one had offered her a taser. She'd have thought that she'd get along with herself a little better. She'd always thought of herself as... well, OK, she could be a little high-maintenance, sometimes. Spike enjoyed high-maintenance, and it wasn't like he was so very low-maintenance himself. She was basically a good person, wasn't she? Not just a good Slayer, but a good friend, a good... She twisted the wedding ring on her finger. She was still getting used to 'wife;' how could she leap straight to 'mother?'

She hadn't wanted this. It wasn't that she was against the idea of children. She just wasn't exactly for it, either. She'd thought, if she and Spike ever did want a family, they'd adopt. Some cute, sweet, safely human kid. Not a potential lizard baby. And besides, a child was one more thing that Slayers didn't get to have - or if they defied tradition and had one anyway, they died young, like Nikki Wood, leaving orphans behind them. Because Spike killed her, the cold uncompromising Slayer-voice in the back of her head pointed out. And the fact that Spike had knocked up her successor? Probably not the kind of redemption Nikki would appreciate.

Spike hadn't been conflicted. Heck, he'd been overjoyed. Ecstatic. He might not have realized it until that moment in the parking lot, but he wanted children.

"You can still get rid of it, you know," the vampire said casually. She examined her nails. "One moment of heaven doesn't commit you to eighteen years of hell."

Gah, she'd been doing the hand-on-belly thing again. Probably in conjunction with the 'bloody great constipated cows' eyes' expression, as her husband the poet put it. Way to telegraph, Buffy. "If I need parenting advice I'll ask someone who's not you." But two could play the 'Let's make Buffy uncomfortable' game. "So Spike killed you, huh? Someone got sloppy."

Vamp Buffy hmphed and waved any implied fallibility away. "He caught me off guard. To be fair, I did tell him I wanted the Spike who was dangerous back. I didn't expect he'd take it quite so literally, but I should have remembered - where Spike is concerned, whatever Buffy wants, Buffy gets." Her eyes glittered. "Worked out for the best, don't you think?" She lifted the fall of tawny hair from her neck, displaying the near-invisible scars with a grin. "How can I stay mad at Spikey-Bear when he gave me what I'd been craving ever since they brought me back from the dead?"

Buffy couldn't suppress her shudder. "What you've got isn't heaven."

The vampire gave a soft chuckle. "No. It's better. It's freedom. That's the real reason they hate you, you know," she said, re-arranging her light, flowery skirts. "You took what you wanted. And they were too afraid even to try."

"Do you love him?"

The vampire blinked as if she'd grown a second head. "What?"

"Your Spike," Buffy demanded. "Do you love him?"

Her undead doppelganger stared, then threw back her head and laughed, a lovely bell-like peal of mirth. "Of course not. God, what a stupid question."

Fortunately for the future of their current enterprise, Buffy's desire to wring her charge's head right off were derailed by Blossom's shout of "Time, people! We're moving out!"

B. Finn entered the access codes into the outer door's keypad with such tight-lipped concentration that Buffy half expected the Mission:Impossible theme music to start playing in the background. Everyone held their breath as the last number bleeped acceptance. For a long moment nothing happened, and then, with a whooshing pneumatic groan, the door swung inward. The closest Buffys swayed back, away from the blast of hot, grit-laden wind. Blossom pushed to the front of the crowd and set one cautious foot outside. Her boot disappeared up to the ankle in the ruby sand. She pulled her foot free and shook it, scattering rivulets of crimson from the boot's eyelets. "One small step for a Slayer," she muttered, looking back into the compound's interior. "Let's go."

*********

Buffy had never been big on the great outdoors. Not that this particular outdoors was all that great. As a CGI background for a Star Wars prequel it would have been impressively otherworldly: the endless blood-red dunes, the jagged spires of obsidian rearing up out of the sand, black glass claws raking the sunless golden sky. Toss in a couple of Jawas and a sweeping Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack, maybe.

In reality, it was hot and lifeless and it sucked. Literally. The sand slorped at their ankles with an almost sentient malice as they slogged along, slowing their progress to a crawl. The ever-present wind whipped the sand into stinging whorls and eddies of red, slithering past the flimsy barriers of shoes and shirts and underwear to collect scratchily in every sweat-damp fold of skin. The lack of anything that could be called a sun meant an equal lack of anything that could be called a shadow. Diffuse halos of slightly dimmer light pooled in the hollows where a cluster of black glass monoliths was placed just right, but that was it.

The Slayers trudged single-file across the dunes, a straggling line of ants in a way-too-big sandbox. The unhappy tech staggered along in their wake, white-faced and panting. Buffy checked - no, not sorry for him yet. She wiped sweaty locks of hair from her brow and shaded her eyes with a palm, squinting up at the featureless dome of the sky. Her lips were dry, her head ached, and she was getting a blister on her left heel. Had they been traveling for four hours? Six? With no sun to mark the passage of time, they might as well have been marching forever. The shiny white geodesic of the compound roof had disappeared behind the rolling red hills, at least. If they were making three miles an hour, and two trains left St. Louis at 9:00 A.M....

"Water break!" Blossom yelled, and the column of Slayers stumbled to a halt. They'd reached an irregular circle of upthrust black rocks, some pointing skywards, others leaning crazily this way and that. A few of the volcanic spires had half-toppled over on their neighbors to form unsteady-looking arches of stone. The other versions of her spread out, some collapsing against the pillars of stone, others flopping down on the sand where they'd stood.

Buffy slumped against the slick black surface of the nearest monolith and slid to the ground. She wanted nothing more than to pour her remaining water bottles over her head, but when they might have a dozen or more miles left to go, that was probably a bad idea. She roused herself and looked around. Blossom and B. Finn were studying the map they'd printed out before leaving - compasses didn't work here, so they were plotting their course from one distinctive obsidian outcropping to the next. Bubbles was rummaging through her pack, double-checking the various items they'd need for the summoning spell. Buttercup was keeping an eye on the technician, who'd fallen in a moaning heap and was loudly claiming he couldn't get up.

Her very own Vampire Barbie lounged against a nearby outcropping, one ankle crossed delicately over the other, a slight, superior smile on her lips. Easy to do when exterior temperature didn't affect you that much. Buffy eyed her sourly. Vampires did sweat, as she had good reason to know, but not because they were overheated. "Do I need to tie your feet up, or can you refrain from killing anyone for five minutes while I pee?"

The vampire rolled her eyes. "Exactly how remedial do you think I am? Go take care of your gross bodily functions."

"Like you don't have a few of your own," Buffy muttered, stashing her bag in the lee of the stone and clambering to her feet. Yeah, sure, vampire elimination was minimal as long as they stuck to a strictly-blood diet, but few vampires did, and - her stomach did a back-flip. Oh God. What was she going to feed this baby? How would she even know? What if it needed blood? Or something even weirder? What if it needed some kind of freaky demon breast milk she couldn't produce?

What if it needed some kind of freaky demon breast milk she could?

She managed to make it around the back of a small outcropping before she threw up, and sank to her knees in the sand, alternately sobbing and retching. When she got home she was going to find whoever it was who made all those soft-focus pregnancy commercials, and barf on them. For better or worse, there wasn't much in her stomach to come up. She knelt there doubled over, riding out the futile convulsions, fists clenched in the sand and eyes squeezed shut, until the sound of voices made them fly open. She unscrewed her water bottle, took a quick swig, and spat bile onto the ruby sand. Wiping her mouth, she peered around the edge of the outcropping.

A blonde head and a turquoise one bobbed up over the dune - Bubbles and Blossom, glancing warily over their shoulders. They stopped fifteen or twenty feet away, conspiratorially close. "So what do you think?" Blossom whispered.

Buffy pressed her cheek to the translucent black stone, straining her ears. Her close encounter with the demon essence hadn't left her with any spiffy-keen new superpowers. Any changes were small and subtle, to the point that it was easy to convince herself, most of the time, that it hadn't changed her at all. No cape and tights in the offing for this little Slayer. But every now and then she wondered if catching the whispered words under the moan of the wind would have been quite as effortless, before.

Bubbles made an eh-face. "Like Igor said, the ritual's plug and play. Problem is, Dinza's contract isn't with us, it's with Wolfram and Hart. Igor's not singing tenor in the choir invisible, so she won't negotiate with him directly, but since he's on the payroll, that may be enough. If it's not... we'll improvise. I don't trust the vampire. Or anyone who trusts a vampire. Wolfram & Hart may have done the multiverse a favor by locking one or two of us up."

"I'm not arguing." Blossom looked grim. "For now, she's an evil that's necessary. But once the portal is open..." She shrugged. "No one's going to notice another handful of dust in the wind around here." She threw a sharp look in the direction of Buffy's outcropping. "This place gives me the heebies. Are we sure there's nothing else out here?"

Crap. Buffy ducked down and fumbled with the buttons of her jeans - she had come out here to pee, after all, and it wasn't her fault if someone else decided to barge into her bathroom and plot secretively. Plus, pretty sure that they'd think she was too far away to have heard them. But before Blossom could take more than a step in her direction, someone back at the stone circle shouted, "Look! Up in the sky!"

Buffy looked up. What she saw wasn't bird nor plane nor even frog, but a vast black crescent of sky, opening in the exact center of the dome. Faint milky striations pulsed in the ebony void. Slowly it widened, peeling down towards the horizon on all sides, replacing the burnished gold with silver-shot black, until the entire dome was sheathed in a night as uncanny as its day had been. Shivering - the temperature was dropping rapidly - Buffy buttoned her jeans and blinked hard. As her eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness, she could pick out the outlines of rolling dunes and obsidian spires, limned in a faint, ghostly silver light. She could just make out the divots in the sand that her own feet had made walking out here, so she backtracked to the stone circle.

"We can't go on now," the technician was chafing his heavily-taped sides gingerly in an effort to get warm. "We were probably going in circles even when it was light out, and - "

"How long does this last?" Blossom interrupted. "We've been stuck in Cell Block Forty-Nine, remember?"

The technician's features were indistinguishable in the dome-light, but his shoulders drooped with pain and weariness. "Seven, eight hours."

Blossom stood with head bowed for a moment, nibbling on a fingernail, then nodded. "OK, we'll wait it out here. Get some rest, everyone."

***********

The ruby desert was supposed to be devoid of life, but Blossom organized them into watches anyway. At Bubbles' direction, three or four versions of her gathered up armloads of obsidian fragments from the piles which had spalled off the larger outcroppings, and heaped them up in the center of the stone circle. A few mumbled words and passes of her hands, and a cold blue flame leapt up from the heart of the stone. The light only extended to the perimeter of the circle, but it was better than nothing. Vampire Her retreated to a sulky huddle as far away from the uncanny fire as she could get, but even she seemed unwilling to chance the even more uncanny darkness beyond.

No one said much as they gathered around the crepuscular light of the fire. Someone started handing around full water bottles to replace the ones depleted by the day's journey. B. Finn cut the empty water bottles in half with a purloined kitchen knife, making a set of irritatingly skinny bowls with which to divvy up the spoils of Buffy's grocery bags. Buffy plunked herself down on a hassock-sized rock where she could keep an eye on the vampire, and peeled off sand-crusted sneakers. Her socks were limp with sweat and blister goo. Ick. At least the blister itself was history. Yay Slayer healing.

"I don't suppose you can summon marshmallows?" Buttercup asked, hugging her knees in the chill blue light. Buffy felt a brief pang of sympathy; at least she had been wearing sneakers when Warren zapped her here. She didn't envy Buttercup her stiletto-heel boots.

"That would be no." Bubbles waved her share aside. "I have to be fasting for the ritual."

B. Finn licked the knife and grimaced. "Lucky you. When we get home, Riley had better have the biggest cheeseburger in existence waiting for me." A couple of tired chuckles. She raised an eyebrow at Bubbles. "You?"

"My world? Not so much super with the sizing anymore." Bubbles gave a wistful half-smile. "But it has its compensations."

Buffy prodded at the contents of her half-bottle with a plastic spoon: Cold refried beans, half a hard-boiled egg, a spoonful of tuna, and a gooey tomato slice. Blargh. Dawn would probably love it. She could practically hear the "God, Buffy, you have no sense of adventure!" now. How many versions of herself were missing their sisters now? How many even had a sister to miss?

"Forget food," said Buttercup. "The first thing on my When-I-Get-Home list is crawling into a hot tub and staying there until I evolve gills."

"Oooh, so getting a mani-pedi!"

Suggestions flew around the circle, tired faces lighting with the first laughter Buffy'd heard since waking up in this place. Mistrust and animosity vanished, at least temporarily, but Buffy couldn't shake an industrial-strength case of the gloomies. What was she going to do when she got home, and maybe possibly found - who was she kidding? I'd do it. Right person. Person I loved. I'd do it. There was no question of what she'd find.

Buttercup tapped her knee with a spoon. "What about you?"

Startled into candor, Buffy blurted, "Talk to Spike about - " Yeah, 'The 99.99% chance of Warren Mears's untimely demise' would go over really well with this crowd. Her mouth snapped shut and her hand dropped to her belly. "College funds," she finished lamely.

A ring of silent eyes surrounded her, some incredulous, some uncomprehending, all of them her own. Buttercup gave them voice. "You're keeping it? Seriously? A demon baby?"

Buffy resisted the urge to duck her head. My demon baby. Our demon baby. "Maybe. I don't know. That's what I need to talk to Spike about." Among other things. "Fine, I get it, no one but me gave Spike a membership card to the Buffy Boyfriend Club. But like it or not, I am you, and just because the you version of me didn't make the same decisions the I version of me did doesn't mean the you version never could have been the me version, and, uh..." Where exactly was she going with this again? "Besides, I know a lot of you were involved with Spike, too, even if it didn't work out!"

"That's the thing." Bubbles tossed her turquoise hair. "None of us wanted it to work out." Buffy thought she saw a flicker of something in Blossom's eyes at that, but it was gone too quickly to identify. "I'm not proud of what happened with Spike. It makes me sick to think about what I let him do to me. Sometimes I thought I'd never feel clean again. But I came out of it stronger. Lucky for me, Angel understands a thing or two about despair."

"I get that." No, I really don't. Maybe I had to be there. "But it was never about despair for me."

"What else could it be about?" Blossom demanded, fierce eyes studying Buffy's face.

The answers to why-she-shouldn't-have and why-she-did were obvious and identical: Because it was Spike. Buffy sifted blood-colored sand through her fingers, studying the ruby lines it inscribed across her palms in the firelight. "I guess... he crawled under my skin like no one else ever has. Got me - and got to me - in ways no one else did. I think maybe I did the same to him. When someone's that close..." Would stirring the tuna into the beans make them any more palatable? "You either love them or you hate them. And after what he did for Dawn, I couldn't hate him any longer."

"You couldn't have loved him, either." Blossom shook her head, definitive. She sounded as if she were trying to convince herself as much as anyone else. "Even if you weren't... he had no soul. He was evil."

"I don't love him because he's evil. I love him because he's Spike. And if you don't... didn't...love him" Buffy puffed out a frustrated sigh. "That's your call. But in that case I don't get why any of you ever slept with him at all."

Blossom stared into the fire. "It was easier than not sleeping with him. For awhile, anyway." She poked the stony embers with a shard of crystal, and blue sparks crackled where it met the flame. "And that's why I ended it."

How could a Slayer shacking up with a soulless vampire possibly be easier than the alternative? Buffy swallowed a mouthful of tunabeans. Ew. Not really an improvement. Even Cast-Iron Chef Dawn would disapprove. "I never claimed that falling for Spike was smart. But it happened. I can't just ignore it and pretend it didn't." Several pairs of eyes went shifty on her. "I mean, you said he - your Spike got a soul." Buffy looked from Blossom to Bubbles, bewildered. These people were her. How could they be such strangers? "How does that even work out? You must have helped him get it, right? Or at least packed him a sack lunch?"

Blossom's eyes were hooded, her face tight with an emotion Buffy couldn't identify. "You could say I was his inspiration."

"That's one way of putting it," Bubbles said with a snort. "Look, even if I'd known a vampire could just waltz off and ask for his soul back, helping him do it? Worst idea ever. He'd just chalk up another notch on the 'I can make Buffy me love me!' board." She shook her head in annoyance. "Spike just never knew when to quit."

Spike wasn't the only one. "But once he got a soul - "

"Gaah!" Bubbles threw up her hands. "He was still Spike. He went crazy for awhile. I thought it was guilt, but no, First Evil. And then the Apocalypse went down, and he jumped in someplace he wasn't wanted and totally screwed everything up. And Dawn died, and I quit. Why not? Angel and I didn't owe any of them anything any longer." She glowered from beneath blue-green bangs. "How does it work out for you, him not having one?"

Surprisingly well. Until now. Buffy set her beans down and tugged the crinkly thermal blanket free of her bag - the wind had died down, and there was no logical reason why a black-and-silver sky should make her feel colder than a golden one, but it did. Drawing the blanket around her shoulders, she tucked her hands between her knees. "Did he... change a lot? After getting a soul?"

Eye-roll from Blossom. "Well, he wasn't a remorseless killing machine who slaughtered thousands for the fun of it any longer, so yeah, I'd say he changed a lot."

"That's not what I meant." How could she not know what she meant when she asked that questions? "Was he still... was he still Spike?"

"He was... a person. Finally. Whole. You could see it in his eyes." Blossom, utterly expressionless, tossed her eggshell into the fire, where it exploded with a POP! Of green and orange sparks. "It doesn't matter now. He's gone."

She didn't know why the idea of Spike as some sort of crippled, incomplete thing rankled her so. That there were certain facets of human emotion he wasn't capable of grasping was just a fact. But it did rankle. It was... patronizing. Buffy scowled into the flames. He's always been a person. Why do you think it was always so hard for us to kill him? But she knew better than anyone what a terrifying road that was for a Slayer to walk down: if one vampire counted as a person, then maybe another vampire might count as a person, too. And another, and another, and where did you end up then? Shacked up with one and maintaining a dozen uneasy truces with the rest of them, trying to balance the good of the many against the good of the one, when the one was a guy with a body count in the tens of thousands. She retrieved her half-eaten beans. "I'm going to check on the vampire," she announced. Stilted, yet awkward. That had gone well.

The vampire was a silver-brushed shadow in the artificial night. She looked up as Buffy plodded over, a wicked smile flitting about her lips. "Search for validation not going so well?" she asked, dripping fake concern.

"Shut up, or I'll give you the rest of my beans." Buffy leaned back against the fluted column of black glass, bare toes scrunching in the sand. She ran one hand along the sculptural convolutions of stone, fingertips ghosting over barely-perceptible ripples and bubbles of air. Tiny imperfections. She snatched her hand away with a hiss as her finger encounter the razor-sharp edge of a bubble that had burst. Or not so tiny. The vampire's nostrils flared, but she held her peace. Buffy sucked on her bleeding finger. "They're going to try to kill you once you've spoken to Dinza," she said. "I thought you should know."

The vampire laughed, rich and low. "Pretty much what I expected from myself. Do you plan on trying to stop them?"

Buffy stared at her own perfect, eternally youthful profile. They - she - had made a promise. But the days when she could make that kind of promise with no thought for the consequences were long gone. How many people had Spike and Drusilla killed after she'd blithely dismissed them from Sunnydale? But she couldn't be everywhere, couldn't do everything, either... "Spike wants to be good. Even without a soul."

"Spike wants to be whatever he thinks I want him to be," the vampire countered. "Even with a soul. He's kind of pathetic that way. If he weren't so good in bed..." She stretched, smiled. Posing for herself. "You want to believe there's some spark of goodness in me, don't you? I'll save you some time: there isn't. It might be fun to string you along and then crush your tender, girly hopes with a brick, but I don't think we have time to do it properly. I told you why they hate you, but why do you think they hate me? Because they know that deep down, we're all the same. I'm what you get when you strip all the doubts and fears and restrictions away."

There was nothing in the universe she wanted to believe less. "Maybe we are," Buffy said, keeping her voice steady. "But we don't have to be. I saw Spike change. And if he can do it...don't you think there's anything better to do with eternity than shoe shopping and working out your daddy issues killing middle-aged financial consultants?"

"In a word? No." The vampire yawned, patting her mouth with delicate fingers. "You've cleared your conscience. Now take your distractingly tasty blood elsewhere and let me get some sleep. You wouldn't want me to be all cranky when Dinza comes calling."

**********

Sand wormed its way into the thin blankets, and the wind moaned off and on in the spires of stone all night long. Buffy slept like a princess on a Nevada-sized pea. Dawn came with the same swift efficiency that dusk had, gold replacing black as the sky split open once more. She woke gritty, groggy, and grumpy, and very glad that there wasn't much camp to break. Shaking sand out of sneakers, socks, and bag, she washed down her last hoarded bites of hardboiled egg and congealed tunabeans with a swallow or two of water and looked around. Vampire Her had not, as she'd half expected, run off in the night. The tech was seated morosely beside the dead fire, head cradled in his hands. Blossom was perusing the map with a piratical dedication to any spots marked X.

Buffy stuffed her few belongings back into the canvas bag (Wolfram & Hart: For All Your Legal Needs!), hesitating as she picked her clutch. Before she could talk herself out of it, she flicked the wallet's clasp open, pulled out the photograph of Spike, and marched over to Blossom.

"Here. It's...I mean, you can have it. If you want. I know it's not really your Spike, but..."

Blossom gazed down at the photo, her agate-grey eyes flat and shiny as mirrors. She smoothed the crumpled edges across her knee. "I never saw him smile much, that last year." She sounded strangely forlorn. "He's not dead. I thought he was for awhile, but hey, Buffy's wrong again. He's just... gone."

Buffy blinked. Spike? Gone? Gone how? Spike didn't leave. Spike clung. Spike made jumping cholla look standoffish. Leaving was not a Thing of Spike. "What did you say to him?" Because of course she'd said something. Buffy Anne Summers, the only woman in North America who could drive away a romantically obsessive vampire.

"I told him I loved him." Blossom's mouth crimped at the corners. "Don't take this the wrong way, but...I've made some bad decisions. But I never fooled myself that fucking a monster made him any less a monster. It just made me more of one."

Buffy was, she decided, too tired to get angry. "Sleeping with Spike can't make me a bad person. Any more than sleeping with me can make him a good one. And you know what? The sleeping with is totally beside the point. I don't help him because I'm in love with him. Or even because he's a good lay. I help Spike do the right thing because it's the right thing to do."

Blossom's lip curled, her arms folded tightly across her chest. "Tell me you'd say that if he wasn't a good lay."

"God, I hope so!" Buffy snapped. Maybe she wasn't that tired after all. "What exactly am I supposed to do, according to you? Souling him up isn't an option. I've got three choices: kill him, ignore him, or help him. And if you couldn't kill him, then I don't see - " Her eyes widened in sudden revelation. "You're not pissy because I'm with Spike. You're pissy because I don't hate myself for it."

"Don't you dare," Blossom bit right back. "Don't you dare pity me. The Spike I knew fought for his soul. He died a good man and a champion. This isn't him – this isn't even close to him." She thrust the photo back at Buffy, hard enough that if her hand shook, it didn't show. "A Slayer can't afford to love. Not like that."

Beneath the anger there was something infinitely sad in her voice, and for the first time Buffy felt a pang of kinship. There was a place inside her head, small and dark and very far away, where she retreated to make the big decisions. The ones about whether to run a sword through her lover, or leave her friend to the Mayor, or let her sister jump off a tower. Something about Blossom's eyes gave Buffy the feeling that Blossom lived in that place full-time. "A Slayer can't afford not to."

She turned away before Blossom could answer. There was no point. They were living in two different worlds.
.
************

"That's it?" B. Finn stared at the ends of the earth, arms akimbo. "Color me unimpressed."

The end of the world, Buffy had to admit, didn't quite live up to the tourist brochures. The golden dome of the sky swooped down to meet the ruby sand like the rim of a giant inverted teacup. It curved away from them to either side, smooth as porcelain and unpleasantly warm to the touch, until it vanished in a haze of heat and undulating dunes. The ubiquitous obsidian spires were shorter and squatter here, bubbling out of the ground in fat black pillows. In places the volcanic glass poured across the ruby dunes in rippling, semi-translucent torrents of stone.

Buffy gazed up at the dome-wall uneasily, fingers tight on the shoulder straps of her bag. Bubbles was already digging things out of her pack. In a few minutes, they'd be talking to the being who would show them the way home. In an hour or two, maybe less, she'd be walking up the front steps at 1630 Revello Drive. And then... then...

Then she'd have to decide whether or not to keep her baby, and whether or not to kill its father. And not think about the possibility that she'd already made both decisions and just couldn't bring herself to face them.

Bubbles paced out a circle in the sand, ten feet across or so, and beckoned the tech over. The two of them squatted opposite one another, arranging the six candles equidistant around the circle's edge. The doll was bound in red string and placed in the center of the circle, the two boxes placed carefully on either side, and the goblet wedged into the sand at its feet. Bubbles poured the pennies into one of the boxes with a worried upward glance of her own. "You'll need to stand in the circle," she directed Vamp Buffy. "The ritual's got to be done while the sky's changing over - 'Between light and darkness,' like the directions said. How long have we got?" she asked the tech.

The tech consulted his watch. "Ten minutes, give or take. It's not exact."

"Then we'll have to be." Bubbles held out a hand. "Do you have the lighter?"

Sometimes, Buffy reflected glumly, it was undeniably useful that everyone evil seemed to smoke. Other times, like right now, she could have done with a little more virtuous inefficiency. But the tech had the lighter, and the lighter did not have sand in its works, and everything was going off with Swiss-clock precision. If you could call ten minutes of standing around making uncomfortable small talk precise.

For all that they were all on edge waiting, the sky-change caught them by surprise. A pencil-thin line of jet appeared on the dome wall, widening swiftly to a V before anyone could react. "It's starting!" Bubbles scrambled for her water bottle, splashing a libation into the goblet. Drops plashed on the surrounding sand, staining it a deeper red.

"Showtime," Vampire Buffy murmured, and stepped lightly into the circle.

Bubbles unfolded the computer print-out of the summoning ritual, took a deep breath, and read,

Hear me, O Dinza, bright Aradia's handmaiden
Night to her noon, dusk to her dawn.
Guardian of lost things, Keeper of dreams abandoned
Dweller in shadows, Speaker to the dead,
Gatekeeper of worlds!


She snatched up the goblet and tossed the contents down, making a face as if it held absinthe instead of day-old Glacier-Fresh (tm). She scooped up a handful of pennies and transferred them from one box to the other.

I have fasted, O Dinza. I have drunk the kykeon,
I have taken from the kiste
and after my labors given back to the kalathos
I stand before you, O Dinza, beseeching your presence
Demiurge of Eleusis, answer my call!


The assembled Slayers stood breathless, the only sound the ever-present wind wuthering through the forest of stone. Oh, darn. It hadn't worked. They'd have to hike back, and hope they could hold out until Wolfram and Hart cracked the prison from the outside. Which might take days. Or weeks. Or never. Which was not of the good, no siree, but -

A door opened in the sky.

Beyond it, a faint suggestion of vaulted ceilings and guttering lanterns, high walls shrouded in mist and fog and illimitable darkness. Shadows flickered and voices whispered, always just out of sight, just out of hearing. One shadow rose up, deeper and darker than the rest, and sprang to crouch on the threshold. A veiled and skeletal gargoyle figure spread vast cobwebby wings to bar the way. Its voice was the slither of of a snake's belly across stone. "Who summons Dinza?"

"That would be me," Vampire Buffy stepped forward, all hauteur - though not, Buffy noted, leaving the confines of the circle. "We want out, and we hear you have an opening. So to speak."

Stony, reptilian eyes flicked back and forth. "This place was built for things the Wolf, the Ram and the Hart wished to see lost and never again found. It is a lost thing now itself." Dinza cocked her veiled head, grey tongue-tip lolling wormlike behind grey teeth. "I have no bond with you. Once your bones lie bleaching where no sun rises, I could make you all mine forever."

"Sounds like a vacation dream," the vampire replied coolly. "Except that you do have a bond with this duly recognized employee of Wolfram & Hart over here." She pointed at the tech, who essayed a feeble wave. They didn't even know his name, Buffy realized. Shouldn't she know his name? He was kind of saving their lives right now.

Dinza looked the cowering tech over, sniffed, and shuttered her wings. Cobbwebby fragments of something best left unidentified drifted down from her doorway. "Very well. There is a way for you to leave this place. The Arc of Pythias exists across all dimensions, even this one. You will find it nearby, and one among you knows the ritual for its use."

Everyone looked at Bubbles, who looked less than confident. "'Knows' as in 'Angel told me once how he'd used it to find Cordelia.' I wouldn't say no to an owner's manual." Her chin tipped up defiantly. "According to Angel, it can track souls across dimensions, but he never said anything about using it to get them back."

Vamp Buffy sighed with impatience. "Do I have to repeat everything you say to Miss Havisham here, or did she hear that?"

Granite fangs gnashed, but Dinza seemed to have heard perfectly well. "The Arc has many mystical properties. The ability to track spiritual entities is only one of them. If your desire is great enough, it can also reunite you with the soul you seek, wherever it may be." The demi-goddess chuckled with the dry rasp of stone on stone. "For a price."

Bubbles and Blossom exchanged wary glances. "Ask her what kind of price?"

"What kind of price?" the vampire parroted dutifully.

The chuckle died away to a gravelly wheeze. "For the lost to be found, one among them must remain forever lost."

"Can we make less with the cryptic?" Vamp Buffy's eyes narrowed to suspicious green slits. "Are we talking some kind of sacrificial victim thing?" She pointed to the tech. "Can we use him? Or one of the guards back at the base?"

Tattered wings rattled in a shrug. "If you wish to void the contract and remain here forever, certainly. What great magic does not require sacrifice? As to victims...draw lots, fall upon the weakest among you, or let one step forth of her own will. It is all one to me."

The vampire's shrewd gaze swept the half-circle of her living counterparts. "Well, let's do the math here. Slayers, champions of goodness and virtue, a dozen or so. Vampire, evil and nasty, one. Plus a sympathetic little birdie told me last night that if I stick around here much longer, I have a bright future as mulch. I think it's pretty clear who gets voted off the island, don't you?" She rounded on Blossom with a pout. "Did I get the right answer, Professor?"

"I promised to set you free if you helped us." Blossom met the demon's gaze, and it was hard to say whose eyes were flintier. "The way I see it, I've already kept my end of that bargain."

"Well, when you put it that way," Vamp Buffy purred, "So have I. I always did hate algebra. Dinza! Only the dead can enter your realm - can they leave it too?"

The demigoddess's lips writhed back over her fangs in obscene anticipation. "Few have matched wits with me in my own realm and escaped to tell the tale."

"Few isn't none. I'll take my chances." The vampire dropped to a crouch, then rocketed upwards in one of those spectacular vampiric leaps. Dinza skittered backwards, out of sight, and for a heartbeat Vamp Buffy balanced on the threshold of the realm of Lost Things, grinning impishly down at them. She blew a kiss to Buffy. "Bye bye, Birdie. Poor baby, she thought she could reach me. It must be the hormones. Just one thing before I go. Before you all get together and plan the shower, maybe you'd all like to know what she's pregnant with." She addressed Blossom, all venom and honey. "Guess who let the Shadow Men make her their bitch? Why do you think the adrenal blockers didn't work on her? Toodles, guys. Have fun deciding which of you gets to die."

With that, she dove across the threshold. The door slammed shut. Night fell. And above them was nothing but unbroken ebony sky.

No one spoke, or sneezed, or coughed. Even the wind died down. A dozen-odd pairs of eyes swivelled accusingly in her direction, wide and horrified. "You warned her?" Blossom asked, dangerously soft.

"I couldn't just let you - " Buffy clenched her fists till her nails bit into her palms. It looked stupid, it looked naive, she knew that. "She's - she's us. I thought maybe if I - if there was any way to get through to her - "

"I guess that's what to expect from someone who let the Shadow Men put that thing inside her," Blossom snarled. "I bet you even told yourself you were doing the right thing. Wanna try that one out on next guy she sinks her fangs into?"

"That thing was already inside me!" Buffy tamped down a maddening mixture of panic and exasperation. This was going less well with every passing moment. "And every other Slayer since the dawn of time. I just made it an offer to go condo. The Shadow Men had no say in it at all, and all this is so beside the point!"

Blossom's fist came up, and it was all Buffy could do not to mirror her. "It's exactly the point. Did you seriously think you could find the tiniest scrap of decency in her? Don't you get it? This is war, humans and demons, us and them, to the death! She changed sides the minute she lost her soul - do you even know what side you're on? Why do you think I'm building an army? Do you think I like playing soldiers? I plan on making a difference, a real one!"

"How is that making a difference?" She was shaking with the effort of not slamming a fist into something, anything. "One Slayer against a hundred demons or five hundred Slayers against fifty thousand demons - it's still the same hopeless old fight! You just took it to a bigger battlefield!"

"Damn right I did," Blossom said, clipped. "Hopeless or not, someone has to fight it. I read your file - there may not be thousands of Slayers in your world, but there are dozens. And you just ignore them so, what, they can go to the prom? Have a normal life? While you stay home and play house with William the Bloody and your mutant baby?" She inhaled, sharp and hard. "Traitor. You are no part of me. You disgust me. And it kills me that one of us has to - "

"No," Buffy heard herself interrupt, distantly, as if it were someone else talking. "One of you doesn't. Find the damned Arc and go home. I'm staying behind."

************

The Arc of Pythias wasn't very difficult to find, even in the dark. It sat fifty yards away in the center of a jagged tangle of black glass, a simple arch of dull silver metal on a pedestal, engraved with vaguely-familiar mystical symbols. There was, in fact, a plaque right beside it, reading "ARC OF PYTHIAS" in several languages. Buffy wondered if it would have been fifty yards away from wherever they'd ended up. It seemed like that kind of thing. It was pretty impressive when it got fired up, too, what with the strobe-y shimmery Dancing With The Stars light show every time it opened a portal. Everyone else was enthusiastic about it, at least. The first few Buffys were already gone.

Some distance away from the Arc, and hence the Slayers, the Wolfram & Hart technician was sitting on a wind-worn slab of obsidian - considering this dimension couldn't have been around for more than a few years, had Dinza constructed it pre-wind-worn? - the second radio pressed to one ear. "...Forty-eight degrees from parallax.' he shouted into the speaker as another laser show started up. "Yeah. Near the one shaped like a swordfish. How should I know? That's your problem. I'm getting out of here. See you in Hell." In his case, that was probably literal.

He flicked the radio off, and flung it out across the dunes. Buffy sat down beside him and took a sip from her last water bottle. Almost empty. Exactly how long did it take to die of dehydration? A couple of days, she was pretty certain. Enough time to make it back to the compound if she wanted to. There was enough water there that she could die of starvation. Things were looking brighter already. "So what's your name, anyway?"

The tech scratched his chin. He looked like a Technicolor raccoon. "Knox. You?"

"Buffy."

"Figures." Knox got to his feet with a faintly embarrassed wave in the direction of Bubbles and the Arc. "Well, it looks like your friend's got that thing up and running. Guess it's time to say goodbye. Um. No hard feelings about the black eye."

"Definite hard feelings about the kidnapping and assault."

Knox managed a sheepish sort of laugh, and limped off as quickly as the sand and a broken rib or three would allow. Buffy contemplated her water bottle. It wasn't that she wanted to die. Not even slightly. It was just that right now, she didn't feel as if she had the metal energy to do anything except sit in the middle of a red-and-black desert. Spike had tried so hard, these last few years, so hard against such impossible odds that even his failures left her in awe. Because of him she knew something worthwhile could survive, even when guilt and conscience were gone. She'd seen it. She'd wanted to believe it could survive in her, too. She'd lost that gamble, and she couldn't blame the rest of her for the general scorn and shunning. To lose Spike, too, over Warren Mears, of all people...

But it was easy not to kill your friends.

A brilliant flash lit the technician's face as he stepped over the Arc and disappeared, spotlighting the violent patches of purple and blue. If she'd been left alone with Sparrow and Knox one minute longer... and it wasn't like this was the first time. Ted, Faith, now Sparrow... time and again, she'd gotten lucky. Fate, or friends, or even enemies had always intervened for her. If there'd been no one there to intervene for Spike, was that really his fault?

Of course it was. Just like it would still have been her fault if Ted hadn't been a robot. The fact was, she just didn't want to kill Spike. She wanted to make excuses for him, because she loved him. Because she needed him. Because she was having a baby, or not, which might be a demon, or not, and she could no more imagine a life without Spike in it any more than she could grow wings and fly to the moon, which was in fact more likely in a world where magic was a commonplace, and none of that mattered because she was the Slayer, and the Slayer's job was to kill vampires -

"They're all gone." Buttercup was standing over her, her gothy eyeliner streaky with sweat. "They're all gone," she repeated. "We're the last ones." She dropped to her haunches, hands dangling between her knees, fingers fiddling in that familiar dance that Buffy recognized as Cigarette, dammit!. "You can leave if you want to. I won't tell."

Buffy wiped her nose. "But then you'd have to stay."

Buttercup shrugged. "I'm the bad Slayer, remember? Or at least I was till you came along." A brief smile lit her sharp-chinned face. "I owe you for taking the heat off. Seriously... if there's anyone the Senior Partners will think twice about squishing when they finally crack this place open, it's me. I have friends in low places."

So tempting. So, so tempting. "Go home before I change my mind," said Buffy. "Say hi to Faith for me. And renegotiate the hell out of them."

"Ok. I know better than to argue with myself." Buttercup straightened, lithe and dangerous. "Look. I haven't seen Spike since he came crawling back to Sunnydale hunting for a love potion to win his skanky ho of a girlfiend back. Pathetic alcoholic loser wasn't his best look."

That was almost smile-worthy. "He cleans up nice."

"I bet. Just... as bad decisions go, I don't think yours have been anywhere near the worst, you know?"

"Doesn't make 'em good," Buffy murmured, watching herself walk away. Buttercup stepped up to the Arc, raised her hands, and closed her eyes. Images swirled and flickered in the air overhead, elusive and fragile as the rainbow of an oil slick. Buttercup stretched out both hands, yearning; took a running leap - and was gone.

So.

Here she was.

Alone. In a desert.

What exactly had she been trying to prove again?

The Arc's dull silver gleam was cool against the glossy black sky. With a sigh, Buffy got up and trudged up the dune to the outcropping of stone where it lay. The Arc sat on its obsidian throne, its pedestal fixed into the rock as if it had grown there. Buffy tinked the apex with a fingernail - it was only about a foot and a half tall - and traced the runes inscribed along the loop of metal. She jumped back when a ray of light flashed out beneath her fingers.

"Wait, wait," she said. "You're not supposed to work!"

Frantic and shaking, she ran her fingers over the symbols again. Flash flash flash-flash flash. What order had Bubbles said to use again? Alpha/Lambda/Gorgon/Fish-Circle, or Alpha/Labyrinth/Omega/Snake-On-A-Plane? Overhead a disc of light gathered, a shimmering, spinning skin of possibility. Somewhere out there, beneath the pale moonlight. Close your eyes, click your heels, and repeat after me, There's no place like home...

"Slayer," a familiar voice hissed. "Lost and lonely Slayer."

Buffy opened her eyes with a start. "Dinza?"

"Clever girl."

"I thought you could only talk to dead people. What happened to Vampire Me?"

The grotesque, shrouded head weaved back and forth. "Her fate belongs to her story, not yours. And only the dead may enter my realm, but you will satisfy that requirement soon enough."

"So you lied. Maybe more than once?" Buffy gestured at the Arc. "Strangely, this thing seems to still be taking orders."

"On the contrary," Dinza rubbed her taloned hands together. "You have miscounted. Two remain, not one."

"What do you mean - oh." Very deliberately, Buffy held her hands still at her sides, waiting for the insidious little voice in her head - It would be so simple, it would be so easy, it would solve so many problems, no one could blame you, lots of women lose babies this stage without ever even realizing they were pregnant. It didn't come. "No. I don't think so."

"The beauty of this choice, Slayer, is that no matter what you decide, you lose something. And you have lost so much already," Dinza said, musing. "Certainty. Righteousness. Even your humanity. Traded away piece by piece. To keep what you love, all that you were must be forever lost."

"Forever lost," Buffy echoed., and the realization hit her. "So everyone else can be found.. If I'm lost, Lizard Baby gets to be found. And since we come as a package deal right now, if he gets to be found, then... it doesn't really matter what world I'm forever lost in, does it?"

Dinza threw back her head and screamed, lunging out of the doorway. But Buffy was already on the move, arms spread wide, eyes scrunched shut. Worlds, times, places, faces carouseled before her mind's eye. One face. One particular face, one particular place, one particular time. Blue eyes and sandy curls, strong hands and killer cheekbones and a wicked grin. Poet and killer, lover and fighter, villain and hero and father now. Not a human soul, maybe, but a heart big enough and a spirit bright enough to serve as a beacon across all the worlds.

Spike. I'm coming home. We're coming home.

Buffy opened her eyes, and leaped through the door into air. Behind her Dinza's thwarted wail cut off, click, and with a jar like the sensation of stepping off an escalator, she was standing on a twilit Southern California street, with crickets chirring and cicadas buzzing and the streetlights just thinking about coming on. Up on the porch, Spike was saying to Willow, "...find every bloody lawyer at Wolfram & Hart who knew anything about this, and kill them. One by one or in lots, I'm not fussy."

"Or," she said, hardly trusting her own voice, "We could do something that actually, you know, works."

She saw the realization sweep over his face like dawn breaking on the best day of your life. Saw the grief and rage dissolve in a vernal rush of joy so great she thought it might dissolve him too, and her with him. And then Spike was leaping to his feet and racing down the front walk to meet her, and she was racing up the front walk to meet him, and she cared about nothing, nothing at all except the fact that he was here and real and solid, and she could wrap her arms around that lean, hard-muscled body and bury her face in those unruly curls, breathe in the smoke-and-earth (and blood, don't forget the blood) smell of him as his eyes and hands and mouth devoured her. "Buffy, love, you're all right? That bastard Mears said they'd...they'd..." Spike slid to his knees, cheek pressed to her belly. He was shaking harder than she was. How embarrassing if her tummy gurgled right now. "They'd take the baby for experiments. "

Buffy shuddered and her grip on his shoulders tightened. "I didn't give them a chance," she gasped. "I'm all right. We're both all right. Everything's all right."

And for that moment, it really was.

**********

She held on to that moment. She clutched it tight all through the evening and into the night. She held it close while Willow and Spike hustled her inside and showered her with clean clothes and food and bandages and insane amounts of overjoyed babble. Also with an actual shower. She clung to it when the delivery guy arrived, when she was clean and warm (but not too warm) and snuggling close to Spike, with all the Chinese takeout in the universe to gorge on (and no barfy feelings, either; apparently Lizard Baby liked Chinese better than tunabeans, which was a character recommendation right there.) She almost lost her grip when Spike and Willow were trading guilty looks over her head, both of them just bursting to Confess All. But she made it clear she didn't want to Hear All, and for once the two of them got the message.
If the house was a disaster area, and Warren's zapping device was a mangled pile of fused circuitry in the living room while Warren himself was nowhere in evidence, well, these things happened in Sunnydale. If there were suspicious rust-colored stains on the front porch, and Willow jumped every time Buffy so much as looked at the door to the basement, she was certain that there was a perfectly reasonable and non-fatal explanation.

If Schroedinger's Vampire would keep the damn box shut, Schroedinger's Slayer could keep her stake to herself. Problem solved.

It wasn't until long after midnight, after Willow had made about six different excuses to spend the night Totally Alone in the basement, and Buffy was spooned drowsy in Spike's arms (and why was their bed so damp? Don't ask), that she asked the sixty-four dollar not-a-question: "You killed him, didn't you."

Spike was quiet for a moment. "Yeah. You OK with that?"

This was when she should cry. This was when she should sob her heart out, spend all her tears in one massive flood that would leave her parched for the rest of her life. But she only lay still in Spike's arms, eyes dry and aching. Buffy stared out into the darkness of their bedroom. "No. But..." She drew in a deep shuddering breath. "Why did you kill him?"

"Was gonna let him go, actually," said Spike, reflective. "Tosser was on the way out the door and everything. Knew you'd want it that way, him being human and all."

She hadn't expected that. And felt ashamed, somehow, for not expecting. "What happened?"

"Ah, that was Will's doing." He sounded enormously pleased with himself. "She got him talking, strung him along, like. Got him to boasting 'bout how he'd put one over on me, 'cause I cared too much about what you thought to kill him. How such a clever-boots as him was so far above and beyond the reach of any human law, they shouldn't apply to him at all." She could feel his grin, sharp-fanged in the dark behind her. "The wanker having thus renounced his birthright, I treated him as the mess of pottage he was." Callused fingers brushed her cheek, searching for the tears that wouldn't come, and the cocky arrogance in his voice cracked over something rawer, deeper. "I killed him 'cos he'd sent you where I'd never see you more, love. 'Cos he'd snuffed out our - our child, 'fore I'd ever had the chance to love her proper. If you're going to take retribution, you'd best do it now, for I'm not sorry a jot, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat, and relish it just as much."

If Warren had been a demon, and done exactly the same things, she wouldn't even be having this conversation. Was that, too, something she shouldn't be OK with? "I'm not going to kill you today," she said. "No promises about tomorrow, or next week, but today? You're golden."

She felt the cool exhalation of breath against the nape of her neck, the soft nuzzle of his lips in the fine fringe of hair. "You're not the most comforting bird a chap could tie the knot with, you know that?"

"So I've been told." And those were the right words, she realized: Not I can't, but I won't. What was the difference between what Spike had done, and what she had almost done? Only that she regretted it, and he didn't? Or even that? Had she ever really been sorry about sinking that knife into Faith's gut? She laid her hands over Spike's, wrapped protectively around her belly. If someone threatened Lizard Baby again, could she be absolutely positive she wouldn't react with the same savage fury that she'd unleashed against Sparrow? If Spike deserved to die for what he'd done, what did she, who had a human soul, deserve? "Forever lost," she whispered.

"What's that, love?" Spike murmured. He was half asleep already, exhausted more emotionally than physically.

"They're frightened," she said, a little louder. "Wolfram & Hart. Of me. Or no... not of me. Of us. Not of us in particular, but of what it means that there is an us. Of everything that has to go into making an us. We're a threat. Spike... I don't want to just fight a bigger war. There's got to be a way to fight a bigger peace." She rolled over to face him, pulling the sheets after her. "What's a Slayer's job, Spike, really?"

One slightly bloodshot blue eye cracked open. She suspected it hadn't been an easy few days for him, either. "Kill vampires? Just a guess."

"No. No. It's to save lives. And if I can save more lives by loving one vampire than by killing him..." He was staring up at her, bemused, confused, adoring. If she was lost, then at least they were lost together. "Spike," she whispered, "tell me I'm doing the right thing."

Spike reached out and gathered her in, strong arms holding her close, sleepy eyes infinitely tender. "Ah, love," he rumbled into her ear. "I'm just winging it. How should I know?"

The End