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The Ethnocentrism of Vampthropology

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Anth 101 had been her second favorite class, in the end, after Psych 101. And, it had had the added bonus of having a professor who had never tried to trap her in a cavern full of pissed-off, tentacle-face demons with a faulty weapon in an attempt to assassinate her, so there was that.

Always kind of a plus, when your teacher isn’t out to kill you; at least in Buffy’s book.

Not that she hadn’t liked Professor Walsh, of course. She had officially been Buffy’s all-time favorite teacher, aside from Giles. At least at first. Before that whole pesky trap-and-murder-attempt thing. That had kind of put a damper on their burgeoning professor-student relationship.

She had never stopped liking Professor Reina, though. She had been all… passionate. Which was funny, considering, one, the subject matter, and two, that she had only really taken the class at first because Willow wanted to take it. Because, let’s be real; this was Buffy Summers we were talking about here. Whatever her SAT scores, she had been way too intimidated in her first semester at college to even attempt to take any classes on her own, without her study-buddy-guru at her side. Even if it meant taking a class that had distressing similarities to History.

Anyway, Professor Reina—she had asked everyone to call her by her first name, not her last (Junta-Gallegos), probably because she didn’t want a bunch of kids from Beverly Hills going around butchering it—had almost changed her whole mind about History being boring. Because, Buffy had decided in the course of that semester, whatever they officially called it, Anthropology was, like, the Psychology of History. It was all about how humans responded to their environments throughout time… or something profound like that. Which they did through cultural changes and stuff.

Professor Reina had made it all seem… in motion-y. Even exciting at times. Full of misunderstandings and anger and fights and stuff. Not just, you know, dates. And, she had talked a lot about what was in fashion in various eras, which, let’s be real, always did get the Buffster’s attention, as Xan would say. Which he had, when she’d talked about the class once with him and Will.

The Professor had talked about clothes in a way, though, that had made Buffy consider the subject in a new light; one she had never thought about before, in her pre-career fashionista days. Had posed questions about how what people wore communicated regarding intent and social standing and group dynamics and all kinds of other stuff Buffy had never really thought about when she was fifteen, sixteen, and all she had ever really wanted was to use them to get a date or to ensure she was in a Cordelia-esque clique in at Hemery.

Take, for instance, these Scourge guys. What she could see of them, anyway, from her recon-spot behind the stack of tires on the wharf, with their stupid, Nazi-esque uniforms that she supposed were trying to make a serious point. /And, okay; talk about ick associations!/ And yeah, these were demons with a racial purity ish, but what really put it over the top was their creepy habit of sewing dead skin on their faces.

As a fashion statement, not so much with the fashion. Though she supposed it did make a statement. Probably something like, ‘Death Is Coming, and We Are It’. Which, you know, brag, brag, yawn. But seriously. As if skull-faced demons with exposed teeth and bad attitudes weren’t ugly enough already. She kind of thought they were trying too hard with the weird lampshade skin (see, she had paid some attention in school!) and the bad tattoos without the extra advertising.

Their appearance apparently held some cachet in the demon world, though. Their leader had a scrawny fledgling vamp by the throat when she next peeped around the corner, and he looked thoroughly cowed. Which, whatever. Saved her some work, and that wasn’t even why she was here in Italy where she shouldn’t be in the first place, messing up the whole doppelganger thing the group had going for her right now. But these Mussolini rejects were apparently threatening some of her Slayer kids before they could get picked up by their network, and that meant The Slayer—one of the two, anyway—needed to come check out the big new threat.

She’d heard about these guys from Cordelia, via the grapevine, back in the day (the grapevine originally being Cordelia to Willow to the Scoobies, since Buffy had basically done her damnedest back then to avoid talking to Angel about anything that wasn’t totally dire. Later this mostly-defunct grapevine had originated from someone called Fred, but she also had recently died, and what was it with women on Angel’s team?). Anyway, Cordy had been all broken up, apparently, though she’d avoided admitting it, saying something to Willow about their first visions-guy having sacrificed himself to save a bunch of inoffensive Lister demons before they could all be wiped out by these creeps.

“They’re called ‘The Scourge’,” Cordy had told Willow. “They kill anybody who has any mixed demon and human blood. Murder them, no questions asked. Children; even babies. They don’t care. It’s like they can smell demon blood in people, even if they look completely human; smell their souls. They almost killed Angel because they consider vampires to be tainted, and Doyle…” Willow had said Cordy had gotten pretty choked up, like this Doyle guy had actually mattered to her. “She said that’s how she found out he was half demon. It was crazy. I’ve never heard her talk about anyone like that; not even Oz. She was all, ‘I mean, like I would’ve cared, you know? He was a good guy, even if he sometimes turned into a blue pincushion when he sneezed. He was… really sweet. ...And now he’s gone.’”

Willow had relayed this with something like befuddlement and awe, which Buffy had shared, because who would have known that someone like Cordelia could have come to care so much about a half-demon? Or, honestly, about Angel, for that matter. But apparently she had; to the point where she had taken on this Doyle guy’s mantle, and in the end essentially given her life to the cause herself last year. Rumor had it she had even allowed herself to be made part-demon by the Powers so that she could keep the visions, which was…

Wow. Shudder, much?

Buffy wasn’t even sure she had that much dedication. /I mean, I know Slayers are ‘infused’ or whatever, but voluntarily choosing…?/

Best not to think about it.

Still, it was kind of amazing to think of what her former high-school rival had overcome to remain loyal to Angel and to help them ‘help the helpless’. As she eyed the tableau before her from behind her stack of used rubber, Buffy spared a moment’s regret over what she had heard had happened to Cordy, in the end. Half-killed by her visions, till she had agreed to become less human just to stop the pain. Rendered comatose, finally, by them, despite. Turned into some kind of direct messenger by the Powers, till it killed her. And only because she had tried to be what everyone had needed her to be. To help people.

Buffy could understand that, on too deep a level. That kind of desperate drive to help, to use that had been given because it just felt wrong not to; despite what it could do to you. That kind of sacrifice. She might never like Cordelia, but… For all her snooty, pretentious faults, the woman had been in on the good fight for most of the last six or whatever years; and to be real, she had always had more going on than met the eye. Besides, Buffy was the last person who could really say anything about people and their past selves, since she too had once been a stuck-up cheerleader-cum-prom-queen. You know, before life had attacked all at once with the… What did Giles call it? “The visage of the supernatural, which does tend to shake one from one’s complacency.” Which was Giles-speak for, if you’re a prissy, self-centered bitca, you have to grow up real damn fast when all your friends are dying around you and you have to pick sides and decide if you’re going to fight, run, or be lunch.

That Cordelia had not only not run but fought long and hard and finally died for the cause said a lot about her. Especially in the face of scary-ass demons like the ones up there currently hanging that vamp like a boned rat and shaking him as if he had no giddyup at all. Buffy could only stand in witness of what Cordy had done before she had gone from them, whatever her personal opinion of the woman, because look at these guys! Fledges might not have the strength of a master vamp, but they weren’t weaklings either, so these Scourge demons were clearly no joke.

Mental revision of enemy powers and abilities, check. If she had been just a standard cheerleader without Slayer abilities, she might not have stayed to fight in the face of guys like these.

She might actually have to up her estimation of dear old Cordelia, come to that. Though to do that she was going to have to try to ignore the niggling doubts she had about some of the girl’s motivations. About some of the body language she had seen from Cordy around Angel over the years, and that one brief thing she had overheard Willow say to Xander, that she thought something was going on between Cordelia and her ex, because her brain just couldn’t hold onto that at all. It didn’t even compute, and her reaction was basically the same as Xander’s had been. “Ugh, what? No, I don’t want to even hear… Just don’t tell me things like that, Wil! Don’t… Take your weird theories and get away from me to where I never even heard that, okay? I’m scrubbing my virgin ears off as we speak!”

Yeah, just no. It wasn’t that she and Angel were ever going to… be anything again. That was so far in the past it was another life—literally, for her, at this point—and sometimes, hearing the things she’d been hearing lately about Angel and his law firm, she kind of felt like she didn’t know him at all anymore… but it was still way too weird to think about.

Best not to think about any of the things that didn’t make any sense anyway.

Out there on the Florence dock, the fledgling vampire was literally squealing as the wannabe Nazi demons toyed with him. Which didn’t help her figure out why they were hunting her Slayers, but…

Maybe if she could hear what they were saying, she could at least figure out what they were doing here in Italy. The last she’d heard, they were hanging around in the New World, not out here in Europe.

Maybe they got around a lot. Or they were a bigger organization than she thought or something?

“…I don’t know, I swear! I haven’t seen any of the Slayers! I’m just here to do a little damage, you know! Wreak a little hell…”

Buffy perked up her ears, hard, harsh triumph filling her. Victory was about the only thing that ever did, anymore. Talk about eavesdropping at just the right time!

“Do not pretend to be a true demon with us, half-breed! You stink of the human soul you bury at the back of your mind!”

/Another souled vampire? No way!/

Her world reeled.

Certainly not. Not this little pissant. He was acting nothing like a souled vampire. Not guilty or ashamed like Angel. Certainly nothing like another completely different, quiet reformation artist, clawing his way to a personal redemption sought only in her eyes, tiny shred by painful shred…

Her brain quickly shut off that line of thought, as it was wont to do of late. It was better that way.

“Soul? What are you talking about? I don’t have a soul!” The dangling fledgling sounded the… Well, the soul of shocked offense as he slapped his chest with overblown bravado. “I’m pure demon, through and through, just like anybody here! Don’t let the face fool you! I’m a havoc-wreaking…”

“Silence, filth! You think we do not know your dirty little secret? You vampires are the worst of all half-breeds, because not only are you as tainted as any half-breed mutt, but because you keep your humanity in chains at the back of your mind, and aver that you are like us. You claim to be true demons, but you are not, and that makes you far worse than those who scurry and hide from us like the rats beneath our feet.”

Buffy reeled the harder; so much so that her arms felt suddenly weak, her head spun, and he had to grab onto the edges of one used tire to keep herself upright. It didn’t make sense, it didn’t… /Vampires only keep the memories of their lives before, they’re demons in a human body, this isn’t real…/ The smell of the docks and old, worn rubber filled her nostrils.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” the vampire squealed, sounding petrified. “I’m a soulless monster, just like you! Whatever soul this body had was cast out the second my demon took up residence. You can hate me for living in a human shell, but I’m just as much monster as you are, even if I remember some of my human life…”

“If you truly believe that, rat, you have been taught falsehoods by your masters, because they know they are inferior, and so they wish to see themselves instead as greater, special. But the demon which resides in your body pays a toll for this spawning manifestation which it never wishes to admit; and that is an indenture we cannot allow.”

“It’s not true!” the vampire stammered, now horrified and clearly afraid.

“Then why do you, a demon alien to this body, claim the memories of that human life as ‘yours’? If you are truly all demon, as you say, then you would know that you merely adopted that life in your infancy as a tool of survival. But it is not so. You insist that it is yours. You claim it as a belonging… because your humanity remains a part of you.”

It struck Buffy like a blow. They wouldn’t be the demon’s memories at all. It wouldn’t recall them with that kind of strength, as if they happened to it; it wouldn’t take them as personally as someone like S…

/No./

They wouldn’t form the demon’s character, its personality the way…

Quiet lines of desperation and agony, underlying every line of a long, beautiful body, a chiseled face and belying the standard, hard-bitten punk image. Under the long black coat and the bright silver rings and the fierce visage was this. The young man with the open heart who loved her, and she had to deny it, had to believe it was a lie, had to…

Her own heart crumpled in agony. /No!/

But the reality continued to chant at her, fighting its way in. Because that other life, that other being… wouldn’t be a part of the demon. Would just be something in the back of their mind, informing them of how to hunt humans, how to work them, how to…

Tears, perking unshed out of the corners of all-too-human eyes. So blue. Clouded by pain, so that she called him, reflexively and for the first time, by name. “I’m sorry, William.”

/Oh God…/ Had she…

She shoved it away. She had had long months of practice. And she couldn’t. She couldn’t give this a second’s purchase. It was nonsense, it was…

She had to focus; on the threat, on what was happening. On the vamp currently dangling, gaping at the Scourge leader holding him up.

He was still gaping when they ripped his head off and sent him to dust.

/He really did sound like he protested too much/ Buffy thought distantly, and sat down hard behind the stack of tires. Numb.

“Come. We have Slayers to hunt. They, too, are tainted. We destroy them, and then we destroy the vampires.”

Technically she should be on the same side as these guys. Well, if they weren’t also after souled half-breeds who hadn’t harmed anyone. And if they were also coming after her itty-bitty little slayerettes…

She pushed herself to her feet; an automatic, weary motion. Just another battle that had to be fought. Clockwork. Spring-steel rebounding. Never think; just do. And don’t feel.

It gets in the way.

/What if the vampires are really souled half-breeds too?/

God, it needed to stop! /Then they wouldn’t be killing people and eating them!/ she answered herself grimly, shaking it off, /and he wouldn’t have had to go fight to get his back after…/ Her mind shied away from that recollection. She shook her head grimly, because it didn’t matter anymore, the thing that had sent him to do what he had done. That had been before. There was always a before and an after when it came to souls. It was why she understood what no one but her ever seemed to, with… him. Just like with Angel, before. That if she could forgive Angel for all the things Angelus did, she could forgive Spike for the things his demon did, upstairs. That she could even love him, after, once he went and…

The agony ripped through her. Because he had never believed it. And she had never managed to make him understand. Not really. And now it was…

Burying it in its box with the rest of forever, as she had to do, she moved to step out from behind her sheltering nest of tires; smack in front of the squad of fifteen or so terrifying-looking Nazi rejects. Which was where she took up her official stance; legs spread, holding a stake in one hand and tapping it lightly on the other palm. “I hear you’re looking for Slayers?” she asked with flat, light inquiry.

The leader of the creepy demon army didn’t really waste any time. “It is the one. Destroy her!”

“Woah, woah, hold up there, Adolf!” she interrupted, lifting a hand to signal a pause as the group started toward her. “What’s the ish? I mean, for one thing, you know we should be working together, right? You want to kill vampires, I want to kill vampires…” She gestured to the tiny pile of dust on the pier. “Nice job with that guy there, by the way. I have to admit, he was getting pretty annoying…”

The Scourge leader really was an impatient guy. He just waved his hand all dismissively. “Kill her.”

They started toward her again.

“And for another thing, Benito,” Buffy continued, not moving an inch but raising her voice slightly, “not sure what you have against Slayers anyway, since we’re, you know, fully human?”

That caught him. Demono Hitler lifted one clawed hand to halt his troops and tilted his head to eye her with a dark, interested glare. “Is that what they tell you, little one?” he hissed, sounding interested and creepily predatory.

/And here we go. I have a touch of the wild in me, blah blah blah./ “I have a soul, if that’s what you’re asking. So do all my girls. I mean, there’s a nice horror story about the First Slayer having been tied down to some rock in a cave in Africa way back when humans were just starting to spread out, and a bunch of proto-Watchers forced her to ingest a demon or something to start the Slayer line; but really. How much of that could still be in me today? One percent? Two percent, tops?”

Demono stepped closer, tilting his head the other way. It was like he was studying her. “You have not been told. No more than the bloodsucker was.”

“Oh. You want to tell me, then?” she asked, perkily. She could still play blonde, on occasion, if it suited her. It just took way more energy now.

“You have within you a great deal more than one part in a hundred that is the essence of that which you hunt.”

“Okay, five percent. Still, do we need to get all fighty…”

“The demon which is in you, the demon which they gave you, is that which you can most easily sense, for it was that which most preyed upon your kind. So they made of you a demon they could harness. They bred of the wolves a sheepdog to protect the sheep….”

/Well. Boy-howdy./ She supposed that kind of made sense, that it would be a the vamp kind of demon they would use to infuse the first Slayer. After all, it would have been vampires that had most plagued early humanity, so why not use their magicks to capture the essence of exactly that kind of demon which posed the most danger, and make it so their chosen girl would be able to sense that specific demon above all others?

It wasn’t like she got a nice neck-buzz when she ran across Veruca demons, or Loose-Skinned ones like Clem. She didn’t even get goosebumps from things that were seven feet tall and breathed fire.

Nope. Just vamps. The rest took other senses. Hard work. Attunement, meditation, study. Hearing. Good night vision. A crazy sense of smell, which she really wished she could avoid using sometimes… But no neck-pricklies.

“…But you are no sheep, little one,” the Scourge-y thing ranted on, watching her like she was a snack. “You are a wolf; like them, trapped within the body of a sheep, and seething within the prison of it.”

/Yeah, yeah, I get itchy if I don’t fight every day. I like action and I like sex, I like chaos, what of it?/ And sure, the sheepdog thing was a nice metaphor for how she felt whenever she went toe-to-toe with a vamp, versus whenever she went up against anything else. Because fighting any other kind of demon just never gave her the same kind of thrill along the nape of the neck; the same zest for life. She supposed it made sense; and it didn’t even faze her anymore, honestly, to hear that somewhere deep within her she herself was part vamp-demon. It just made her tiredly aware of how wrong she had been about a lot of things... and slotted some things into place in her brain. Why fighting them was like sex. Why it was so easy to cross the line between fighting them to sex. At least for her.

And if it made her feel an enormous shame for past mistakes, it was as much an inherited shame—she was, after all, what she was, and meant to do what she was meant to do—as it was a personal one, to do with things she could have done differently, once, with one particular vampire who had been right about her all along.

She affected a yawn. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this before. So, what? You hate Slayers in particular because we’re part vamp, and you hate vamps with all this special venom?”

The Scourge leader tilted his creepy head to one side in a movement not unlike something insect-y. “Ah, but you who have tasted death have lost much of that which has made you human; less the sheepdog and more the wolf with each return.”

The cold rippled over her, and a cool, sexy breath wafted across her face in memory, smelling of sweet whiskey and a taunting urge to come back to life. To fight the world, and stop letting it roll over her. /‘You came back wrong…’/

“…Each time you have done so you have come closer to that which lies bound at the back of your mind; immortal and seething. For you it is the demon, locked away, striving to become freed. Can you feel it? Striving for havoc and death?” A merciless grin crossed the evil face, stretching the dead skin across exposed, skull-like teeth. “It exists in the same place where the vampire’s human soul remains bound forever, crying out against all that the demon does with its body; a powerless hitchhiker incapable of influencing the demon or doing anything more than watching helplessly as he does what he does, save by the memories of what he once was…”

It rocked her yet again, and she fought back, desperately. /No! All they have is memories! The demon takes over the body and the soul dies…/

“Your demon,” the Scourge beast told her, drawing far too close now, “is becoming more and more unbound with each brush with death. It becomes…” The leather-faced creature inhaled, as if tasting the air around her; her scent. “Stronger. It seeks a way out of its human prison that is your soul. It rattles the bones of your cage and calls out to that which reminds it of what it was. To those who are most like to it. You are drawn, are you not, almost more to those who are your opposites, than to those you think of as your own kind, and whom you were created to protect?” Low, vicious tones escalated in the hissing voice. “Those who enslaved you, and made you fight your own.”

Buffy shuddered with it, remembering nights on a stoop, in the dark, away from friends and family. ‘Why are you always around when I’m miserable?’ And the low rumble of a voice she couldn’t forget no matter how hard she tried; that now lit her bones to ash. ‘Cause that’s when you’re alone, I reckon.’

In a crypt, drinking in somber candlelight, with the only being who gave her solace. ‘The only person I can even stand to be around is a neutered vampire who cheats at kitten poker!’ Frustration, because it was true. Because she had had next to nothing in common anymore with friends who had never died, and were living their human lives outside the liminal coil of dusk and the fight. Who had never been enslaved by Watchers and a Calling and the boiling of uncertain blood.

And she’d belittled and even abused him for it, in the end. For the unspoken but undeniable thing that forever dragged her to his side. /Oh God…/

‘Hit the demon world,’ his voice rumbled relentlessly on in her mind, accompanied by that devilish grin that had always been one part invitation and two parts, if she ever let herself see it, just plain worship and sheer delight in her presence. ‘Ask questions, throw punches, find out what’s in the air. It’s fun, too.’

‘Not my kinda fun.’

‘Yeah. It is. And your life’s gonna get a lot less confusing when you figure that out.’

He’d been trying to tell her, even then, if more gently. And she hadn’t listened. Couldn’t. And now…

“Soon what is within you will be freed to make you the half-breed that you are, because you have given it greater will when you released it into the hearts and minds of thousands.” Inhuman eyes glittered, dragging her back to the perilous now as the Scourge demon watched her, like death incarnate. “And then you will become too powerful. You and all your childer. Thousands of souled half-breeds strong enough to destroy us; for you are too many. And so you must be annihilated before you can challenge us who are the Pure Ones.” It smiled then; a terrifyingly unnerving expression in that overstretched, taut-skin-covered face. “And you are its general. And you have come right to us.”

It was enough to snap her out of her stasis. “I just came her to get the scoop,” she told him, and swung her stake; right in his ugly-ass face. And bolted.

There were way too many of them to fight anyway. It was time for some creative fleeing, because right now it was far more important to live to get this terrifying information to Robin and Giles and the group at the new base in Scotland than it was to show off her fighting skills and go down swinging against like fifty demon-y guys carrying weapons. Especially when she only had one teeny-tiny stake on her.

She needed to start carrying axes full-time, since she had decided it was a bad plan to cart the Scythe around with her on plane flights. Customs always got so testy about weapons, and she shuddered to think of it being confiscated; the job of work it would be to have to steal it back from some impound somewhere. Talk about adding extra work into a mission. She preferred that it stay safe up in Slayer-Central when she was out on one of these little side jobs.

Maybe she could locate Willow somehow wherever she was currently ‘finding herself’—Brazil or Tibet or wherever, last she’d heard?—and ask her if she could come up with a spell to make the larger weapons invisible and generally unreadable to metal detectors? What would Xander call it? A cloaking spell or something?

She really loved the feel of a good axe in the hands. For one thing, there was something truly satisfying about just knocking off heads.

***

She got away, of course. She hadn’t lived this long to die when she was planning not to. She had to fight a couple of them around corners here and there using whatever came to hand, but she did get away. And then spent the next couple of days recuperating in her dive of a Florentine hotel room with stitches in her left deltoid and a big gash above her right eyebrow (what was it with that spot, anyway? Though at least it hadn’t got the brow itself to leave a line through it like…)

No.

She had to be still, though. Stay underground. She’d taken a risk even going to the little hospital to get the stitches, and now she had to heal them... and she hated being still. Despised it because it meant that she could no longer stop the thoughts as they all ganged up at once; a more fearsome army than all of the Scourge put together. Thoughts she had tried to avoid for months now. Thoughts of him. His eyes, haunting her; not as they had been, at the end, but before. Before Africa. Before…

His face, the roughness of his voice. The pain she hadn’t been able to recognize, then, so sunk as she had been in her own. But now. (Too late, of course…)

/No./ She couldn’t. Couldn’t remember. Couldn’t…

And yet… /What if the Watchers Council had it wrong all this time? What if vampires really are souled half-breeds too? Would they tell us?/

The answer was, probably not, because they wouldn’t want their Slayers in any way conflicted. /After all, they sure the heck never told us about where our powers come from! What the first Watchers did to that poor girl, so why would they tell us if we’re related to the guys they send us out to kill?/

But then it would follow that Giles had always been wrong, knowingly or unknowingly, about vampires, and she wasn’t sure what was worse; her Giles, already fallen too far in her estimation with his recent abandonments, falling even further who was supposed, above all things, to be her fount of knowledge and who had been her guide into this frightening world since she had been sixteen… or that he might have lied to her to protect her so that she could do her job.

Though, granted, the Council could just as easily have thought they knew what they were talking about all this time without it ever occurring to them that they were wrong. They were always big on thinking they knew everything, and they never remotely questioned their 411, never thought someone else might know more; up to and including the demons themselves. There was a reason that he had called them the Council of Wankers…

She stifled a sob, because just thinking it made her hear his voice again, smell his scents—oh God; whiskey and cigarettes and leather and him—and broke through her defenses. She had tried so hard to forget.

Except in dreams. But those always ended in fire now. And ashes.

/What if Spike always had William there, somewhere in the back of his mind, and that was why he was always so…/

She tried to deny it, but the more she fought not to, the more it made sense. Explained things she had never wanted to examine too closely; and she pounded the thin pillow with her fist and swigged the cheap grappa she’d bought from the corner store because she’d needed something to hold on to as much as she needed the anesthetic. More for mind than body; at first a thing she had done, early on, as a way to think of him without thinking of him. Drinking it hadn’t been the goal. Just holding the bottle had felt like touching him.

She had even considered, once or twice, buying a flask, just to have... something. But the thought of doing so had left her curled up, wrecked, on her bed back in Rome, and she had fled from the notion in anguish. So it was bottles. Whiskey, usually. Most of the times, she didn’t drink it. But sometimes, she did; and this was one of those times.

Her friends might have thought it out of character for her… but not of late. Not when the memories attacked. The thoughts; and yeah. She knew. There had been a reason she had gone… to him, before. Hadn’t been able to stop. And after, when he’d come back, a reason she hadn’t been able to let him leave when he’d offered.

She’d needed him, because he had been the only… The only thing… /The only person, damn it, Buffy!/ And now he was gone, and it wasn’t going to make it any better to take a page out of his book, because she wasn’t a vamp with a vamp’s constitution, whatever those fucking Scourge bastards said, and she couldn’t afford to make a mistake now. Ever. To become Willow, get hooked; become even more desensitized just to flee from all the pain. Had to keep moving, stay busy, that was the only solution; except…

It had never left, whatever she told herself. The creeping cold, the numbness that came and went in waves, receding so slowly and creeping again when she wasn’t looking that it was on her before she realized. Even when she thought everything was going well, and she was feeling again; sometimes too much, so that she missed the fog, and the silence when everything seemed muffled. And then when it came she desperately missed feeling. The colors of the world, the brightness, the flavors… /The fire./

But that was all gone now. It had gone with him. Burned to ash. And she knew what they had all said, before. Clinical words, like ‘depression’. Which, alright. Hadn’t she earned it, though, with everything? But she should be strong enough to beat it without an addiction to a…

/To him./ Especially since he was gone now, and she could never…

/You can’t have him back anyway, so you have to move on. Keep moving; just don’t stop, and…/ And no doubt she needed therapy, considering all she’d been through in her life. Distantly she was aware of this, though there was never any time with all the keeping moving, and who could she talk to anyway? A demon therapist? Because otherwise… Yeah. “So, it all started when this guy Merrick came to me and told me about the existence of vampires. Then there was the divorce…” Alright, that part was pretty standard, but… “Then I died. Then I came back to life. Then I killed my first lover with a sword through the heart, and sent him to hell. Then he came back, but really he just… left. So I ran away to support myself at seventeen, and yeah, I came home. And continued to live a life of violence and murder and death. Blew up my second high school in four years and watched half the student body die when I should’ve been able to save them. Had a couple of failed relationships. Lost my mom. Acquired a mystical sister and had to suddenly become her parent. Died some more. Came back to life and started having a really abusive sexual relationship with a vampire where I treated him like…”

Her mind shuddered away as the agony ripped through her, and those eyes…

Anyway, it wasn’t like it could really happen. She’d had her fill of asylums.

She would just have to deal, as she always did. So she swigged the grappa till it sank her, and thought of everything but him while her body burned through its short, useless fever and her brain beat ruthlessly through the feedback to chant all the evidence back to her; evidence she never wanted to hear.

/If Liam’s soul wasn’t there when he was doing things as Angelus, why would Angel feel guilty at all? It would just have been the demon doing what particularly sociopathic demons do. His soul would have been gone the whole time; he wouldn’t have witnessed any of it, so why would he feel sick or guilty or anything, why would he feel responsible for any of it? Why would…/

Her brain whispered it, treacherously. /Why would William, if he wasn’t there for the things Spike did, before? The thing he almost did to you?/

“Because it’s the same magick as the thing that makes the demon have the human’s memories, only in reverse!” she shrieked to the ceiling at one point, brandishing the mostly-empty grappa bottle in her scarred left hand. Some of sloshed out to drip onto her chest, the sheet, burned on the half-healed scabs of her right arm. She didn’t care, barely noticed the sizzling pain. Because it didn’t wash and she knew it. /Because only Angel loves me, not Angelus. Because they’re two separate people. But when William came back… he loved me. Not just Spike; William did too. Because…

/Because he was there the whole time, in the back. Loving me, right alongside the demon who loved me. Because unlike with Liam and Angelus, I had two men in there who loved me the best way they knew how. And I destroyed them both, threw them both away./

/I loved them back too late./

The truth of what she had lost sank her into black oblivion.

***

That night she dreamed of fists. And fury. Of blood, calling to blood… And fire. Always, the fire; surging through her left hand, to go cold, finally… and take all her heat with it, in the end. Into ashes.

But this time, instead and for the first time since the conflagration had begun there were cool hands once more enveloping her, lifting her from the flames to slide over her shoulders, her arms; body to body, and then…

She didn’t sleep well, and when she woke, it was to a climax made bitter with tears.

***

Chapter Text

Professor Reina had been fiery. That was part of what made her class interesting; that she was so passionate. She’d gone on for whole lectures about things like how just because history is what you learned, what was written, didn’t make it true; like the memorable day she’d spent half the period ranting about how Columbus hadn’t discovered a damn thing, and definitely not anything American since he barely touched the Caribbean. Just gotten lost, saw some gold on some unsuspecting Native people, assumed they had a mine somewhere because that’s how Europeans did things and surely everyone prized gold the same way, and started whacking off fingers if the Taino Indians didn’t bring him back chunks of the stuff every day. Like he thought they could make it materialize out of the creeks and things. “He tortured, prostituted, or killed off an entire people, turned their pre-teen daughters into sex-slaves, dropped off a boatload of European plagues that decimated the entire New World, and left. And when white folks came back years later and found a barely-populated countryside it was because most of the population had died of germ warfare a generation before! But now we have Columbus Day and this Conquistador is a ‘hero’. Who ‘discovered’ a place people had been living in for millennia!”

Willow, Buffy was pretty sure, had been half in love with Professor Reina before they were past the first couple weeks of the class. It kind of showed, the way she’d reacted to the thing that happened with the Chumash warrior later that year. That had been verbatim Professor Reina. To be real it had hit Buffy pretty hard too.

“You had better weapons, end of story.” She doubted he would actually hold it against her that she had been a Slayer (conqueror?) first when it came to him. He had been, after all, a vampire, and probably thought it was just the way of things. He didn’t waste time philosophizing; at least not back then. Though, he’d read a lot, when she wasn’t looking, so she knew he must have pondered things in a little more depth once the chip had forced him to sit still and reflect on his life.

She knew for a fact that he had considered things in a different light after Africa. Had considered them in a different light. He had, after all, told her so, to her face. Made her look it right in the eye. Look at what she’d done to him, to salve her own agony, her confusion, and…

It was coming back on her a lot harder right now, as she rolled this way and that on that thin, stained Florentine mattress in that crap room with the handle of grappa sloshing in her fist, and fought back against the memory of those accusing, sapphire eyes. Because when she thought about it now, in retrospect… where had all that confusion come from? Where had she learned everything she knew about the beings she had been sent to exterminate, who were supposedly all the same; mere animals and incapable of thought or feeling beyond the impulse to kill?

The Watchers Council really had been kind of like a bunch of old school anthropologists, hadn't they, who only saw things through the lens of their own biases. It was called… ethno-something. She couldn’t remember, but now…

/Ethno… God, what is that called?/ She was so out of practice with her hard-won critical thinking skills. Dying and being forced to take time off from college to be a general would do that to you, she supposed. /Ethno…centrism! That’s what it’s called. Except this is more… human-centrism! I was doing human-centrism, wasn’t I?/

At one point Professor Reina had told a really funny story about the centrisms that had put it all into perspective. Only, it didn’t seem so funny anymore.

“Imagine you’re one of these so-called anthropologists back in the day. You know for a fact you’re going to talk to ‘primitives’. They’re not as good as you. They barely have language, much less culture. Whatever information you get is gospel, because you wrote it down; or at least your teachers did. So you march up to the people you’ve already contacted and ‘civilized’ on the one side of the river, and you ask them, ‘Hi! What do you call yourselves?’ ‘Well, duh!’ they answer. ‘The People!’ ‘Hmm, okay,’ you nod, and studiously scribble that down. ‘“The People”. How prosaic. Now. What do you call those guys on the other side of the river? You know, the ones you fight with because we’ve pushed you together and forced you to compete for resources?’ And the guys you ask say, ‘Well, duh! The Assholes!’”

The whole class had tittered in surprised amusement as she’d gone on. “So then they paddled across the river in a leaky boat or something, went up to these ‘primitives’ across the water and said, ‘Hi! We understand that you’re the Assholes!’” She’d shaken her head and held up one hand to forestall the rolling tide of amusement. “It’s a wonder any of them ever made it back alive; but they did, and that’s how most of the names we have on the books for Native American tribes translate to things like, ‘The Enemy’, or ‘The Lying Snakes’, and all of our info on them said things like, ‘primitive, noble savages’ until the last few years.”

Now, granted, the Watchers Council hadn’t necessarily been able to interview a lot of their subjects firsthand without getting eaten, so they were probably mostly just going off of what other, somewhat friendlier demon groups said about vamps—Listers and Ano-Movics and the like, probably—but had it occurred to the Council that the info they were getting info might not be the best? That their sources might, A) have a bone to pick, since all the other demons seemed to have it in for the vamps, or B), have no idea and so basically embellished or even guessed just to get the payout? Because, to be fair… not their species, so why should they know, much less care what the Council was writing down?

Buffy supposed it was possible that that Scourge bastard had been lying to her… but the problem was… it just washed a lot more than anything the Council had ever told her. It matched up with things like… /Like Dracula telling me I was ‘kindred’ to him. Or the way Sp… he…/

Her mind juddered away from any thoughts of him. Of what it all might mean with regard to him. /It doesn’t matter anyway!/

/Not anymore!/

But the thing was, when it came to trusting demonologists from the inside who had nothing to lose from telling her the truth, or human demonologists who had everything to gain from lying to her... well. She had learned long ago just exactly how far she could trust the latter source.

No. It was becoming more and more clear to her that none of those old Council jerks had ever once bothered to try to confirm what they had put in their precious Vampyre bible. More likely they had just deliberately thrown a bunch of misinformation at generations of Slayers and said, “Alright, girl. Go get ‘em!” /Because obviously knowing how to kill them is plenty. Whether you always need to or how they actually work is not, you know, really important./

It was kind of sad, when Buffy really thought about it, how cowardly the Council really had been. After all, those missionaries had at least tried, back in the day. Some of them got burnt and whatever for their pains; and yeah, they were talking to other humans, which maybe made it less scary… but Professor Reina had made it clear that in the missionaries’ minds they didn’t think of the people they were talking to as human any more than demons were human. And, they had been just as unknown. But they had tried anyway, for the Church and ‘civilization’ and all that. Granted the info they gathered still came down through what the Professor had called ‘a colonial Christian Eurocentric lens’, but unlike the Council, at least they’d gone to the damn source.

It burned to think of what she could have learned, if those who used her had not failed her. For God’s sake; there had always been few show-offy vamps around (like, for instance, a certain bleach-blond she had once known) willing to put on a show and answer a few questions if it added to their fame and mystique. /Well… and given they weren’t too ‘peckish’ that night, or if killing the interviewers didn’t add much to their sport. It could have happened!/ Not all of them were like Angelus, for sure. /And the Council would’ve known that if they had ever bothered to try! God, just how lazy were these old Watchers Council researchers, anyway, the tweedy twerps? Did they do everything off of books that hadn’t been revised since they were first written in the 1500s or whatever? Like/ she found herself wondering for the first time, /did the vampires originally even call themselves ‘vampires’, or was that someone else’s name for them that just finally stuck?/ It begged the question; what else was inaccurate in what she ‘knew’ about her most intimate demons?

So many things she had been taught as gospel, which might in fact be entirely, or at least partially false.

Like maybe this. /And how much did I just… ignore, because I didn’t want to do my homework?/ Because she seemed to remember, now, something that Giles had read to them all, once, back before she was slated to die—the first time, anyway—though granted she’d been a bit distracted around then and kind of forgotten… about how demons maybe even had kind of their own sorts of souls, maybe? Vampires, specifically? She couldn’t remember, now, but it had had something to do with the origin of vampires, and now she was wracking her grappa-sodden and fever-ridden mind to try to recall the droning sound of Giles’ voice ranting on about the first vampire being driven from the earthly dimension, feeding off of a human, mixing their blood, infecting the host with…

/With the demon’s soul. Passing it on, down through the ages to make more of their kind while they… waited, or something. For their ancestors to come back. The Old Ones, or whatever, and…/ And that meant that vampires are demons that had some kind of something that could be called a ‘soul’, and why had she never remembered that before? After all, it wasn’t that far out of the ordinary! Obviously vengeance demons had souls; but she’d always written that off as a holdover from their having been recruited from humanity. /What did Anya call it? Being ‘elevated’?/ She had always thought that a weird usage; weird that Anya had considered her being demoned-up as some kind of ‘being made more than she was’… but if she had never actually lost anything…

/When Halfrek died, she had a soul to lose. D’hoffryn was super specific about that. So why should vamps be such an oddity? /They were totally recruited from humanity too, just like vengeance demons!/

God, did that mean that all half-breed demons were two-souled? Or was one soul kicked out for another when the takeover happened? Or were they really soulless all along like she had been taught, and only the very first vamp had that demon-soul thing?

Buffy felt like her brain was trying to write some kind of feverish, half-drunken college essay on vampires and Slayers and the theoretical possibilities of different kinds of soul-having, and she hadn’t felt this wrung-out by a puzzle since The First had plagued her dreams. Trying to rest while the front of the brain kept trying to solve a problem was just not working. It couldn’t do the sums because it was too drunk and tired to abstract, and she. Just. Needed. Sleep.

Her heart couldn’t let it go, though. His eyes haunted her every time she started to sink, and… /God, was that whole ‘soulless’ thing just a convenient fiction to give me this giant license to kill without feeling any shame?/ Because the whole murder with impunity thing was a major hook to hang the Slayer gig on… /Or is it just prejudice? Some idea that only human souls count?/

She tossed fitfully, narrowly avoided a collision with the wall. Tried not to read the graffiti scrawled there in Italian; fought not to punch through the thin plaster in her frustration. /I wasn’t any better, was I, than the Council? I didn’t do any research of my own, didn’t challenge any of my preconceived ideas. I took all of my information from a run-in with one individual and applied it to an entire group and then just ran with it from then on, no matter who protested that I was wrong about hi… them./

Professor Reina had always said that was a bad plan; that it was considered the worst kind of unprofessional use of research. Over-application or something like that, and a whole lot of other things about ‘sample size’ and stuff that had actually sounded super-scientific and had really reminded her more of Psych 101 than of Anthropology. Though in that way, maybe they were the same.

The fever sizzled uselessly in her veins. Frustration and guilt and rage sizzled uselessly in her mind. Enforced idleness was her enemy and always had been. It forced her to process. To remain still long enough to reflect on her life and her mistakes. She had been running since she could remember from azure eyes and a quirked, leering grin, and now the ghost of that cynical blue smirk still hung over her shoulder, just at the edge of vision, prodding her on. Stabbed at her heart with the awareness that… God. Not every vamp had been so… two-sided. Not every one had been like… the first. And yet… that whole sample size of two had really become part of her psychology.

Another fitful toss, another anguished turn. ‘Vincente ama Maria’, the wall told her. ‘Vincent loves Maria’; and right beneath it, ‘Maria e la migliore del bocchino’. ‘Maria is the best for the blowjobs’. Like two sides of a coin, or an argument between two sides of the same mind. /Angelus really screwed you up, Buffy. And the Watchers Council sure didn’t help any. They just happily confirmed everything you extrapolated from that experience so that you could go out and kill demons without a single moment spent being ambivalent at all when you ran into any variation in the demon world./ Like the whimsical Ano-Movics, or the gentle Loose-Skins, or the hunted Listers, the clannish, self-contained Brachens…

Or, like she had seemed to see from within a certain species.

A tear, welling unshed over cut-glass cheekbones, and broken eyes.

All the things he had ever said to, shown her, her exploding out of the box there in the back of her mind.

Horror, and real fear for her safety. For Dawn… and that look in his eyes that was only for her.

Put it away, force it back…

“Every night, I save you.”

The box broke.

A tilted head, an awed blue gaze watching her descend the stairs, as if she were the return of some kind of god…

/No./

But the flood, once started, would continue till it destroyed her. Always did, in these times, when she let it get away from her. Must let the barrage rock her; for she had no choice.

Cool, soothing hands holding hers; bloodied, broken. “A hundred and forty-seven days yesterday. A hundred and forty-eight today. ‘Cept today doesn’t count, does it?”

/Oh God…/

His words burned because they were real.

/Okay, so the Angelus thing really deeply fucked me up. Fine. Are you happy now?/ Looking back, it seemed idiotic to claim that Spike had not been able to feel real emotions, with all she had seen and known from him. And why shouldn’t he? He had been a killer, once, but clearly never a sociopath. He felt too much, not nothing… and there was the difference right there; the one she had never admitted to herself. Because why couldn’t demons could be just as varied as humans? /After all, look at Warren. He supposedly had a soul, and he was as much of a sociopath as Angelus ever was. And look at Clem./ Supposedly soulless, and she couldn’t imagine him hurting a fly if you tied him down and forced him. But she just had decided based off of her one experience with Angelus that demons were all the same—especially vampires—even when she had known deep inside that Spike was different. That his demon was different.

‘No one species is a monolith’, Professor Walsh had told them solemnly in one of her better lectures. ‘There is always more variation within a species than there is from one species to another. That is scientific fact.’

/You terrified me./ If she couldn’t shove all vampires into the same safe box, then that meant she couldn’t fear what she had been taught to fear. Could not automatically hate, dispose of, destroy without thought the things she had been taught must automatically die because they went bump in the night. And if she could not do that… then that meant she might have to stop fearing the things that went bump inside herself, unseen. All that was not allowed. Not permitted, not…

She rolled angrily away from the wall, from the crude drawings of genitalia, the inane commentary—'Paolo era qui, 1999’—and wrapped her arms around her body to fight off that which she knew was coming. But still, she felt it.

Cool hands along heated skin, and the desperate urge to turn only there. To the darkness, and not back to the light.

Heard her own voice, screaming back, in denial. “You don't have a soul! There is nothing good or clean in you! You are dead inside! You can't feel anything real! I could never be your girl!”

Bruised, bloody, swollen face, watching her, so calmly. Still loving. Always loving, always accepting her. Even at her worst, even when she was being even more of a monster than he could… ever... “You always… hurt… the one you love, pet.”

She shuddered to her feet. Fiddled with her phone as she fought, as always, to lock away the memories. They could no longer help her. They only cause terrific pain; more than she could bear to live with anymore.

But she could not make it leave her. His face. Admiring sapphire eyes; a sardonic smirk. That soft note to a low, secret voice that belonged purely to her, and…

She had to sit down again, because, what had she done?

She remembered the profile in Psych 101. Why she had never thought to apply it to the two cases was beyond her, now. /Probably because they weren’t human, so of course I didn’t think…/ But it did apply. It so very much did. /Angelus was… The reason he did the things he did to me, to Willow, to Giles… That’s how he connects. He keeps doing worse and worse stuff because he’s actually trying to feel. Trying to find ways to make himself feel… because he’s literally just a sociopath, and that's why he can't./ But… Spike—his demon—that wasn’t how he’d come at things. Never had been. He’d felt all the time, and loved it. He’d been a creature of pure sensation, pure emotion—the anti-Angelus, really—and she…

It was time she faced the truth of the spectacular mess she had made of things. What she had done to the one man who had truly… /I was so mad at Angelus, still, for being what he was and doing what he did to me, to the people I love…/

/For taking Angel from me… Admit it. That I wanted to…/

/Oh God…/

She had wanted to take it out on every other vampire she ran across. But… /Face it, Buffy; be real now, finally./ She hadn’t been able to take it out on Angel, what Angelus had done to her, and to all everyone she cared about. Because she loved him. Because she knew they were two separate people… and because she had felt so incredibly guilty for sending him to hell. She had already made the wrong person pay for Angelus’ sins.

So instead she had beat her now very personal hatred into every other vampire she saw; and poured that venom very especially onto Spike, because he had been her captive audience. Because she had considered them all to be nothing more than loathsome, evil creatures. Not people but less than, and the lowest of the low, at that, the worst of the worst; non-entities into whom she could pound out all of her frustrated feelings and the PTSD from the torment that had been put to her. Done to her using the face of someone she loved, taken over by a monster. Her hatred of that monster, because it had been, specifically, a vampire who had taken away the man she loved, and she saw them all as Angelus, after that; the monster who had destroyed her Angel. Killed him; in bed, after the lovemaking. Taken away her happiness and her supposed one chance at love.

When she was beating Spike, when she was abusing him… what she had been doing—what she had always been doing—was taking the revenge she could never have on the hidden and buried Angelus. /And, God, Buffy; he couldn’t even fight back for most of it./ Couldn’t even fight back against the unfair, misguided use of him as her punching bag, because he had been bound, muzzled, and rendered electronically incapable even of protecting himself./

/And, despite that, he fell for you. The masochistic idiot. God; why, Spike, when I was such a monster to you? Were you really in love with pain, or…/

"I’ve seen the best and the worst of you, and I understand with perfect clarity what you are…"

She shocked herself when she pulled a move straight from his repertoire. Didn’t even know she had done it till the mostly-empty grappa bottle struck the wall and exploded with a force that sent glass shards flying across the room.

The pinging of them settled finally, while she stood, staring in amazement at the clear, dripping legs running down the stained walls. Barely heard the exclamations in Italian from the next thin-walled room; barely noticed the prickling of her skin where a few tiny points of broken bottle had attempted to embed themselves in her near-indestructible flesh before falling away to the peeling floor, impotent and glittering in the faint, gelid light of early morning.

The burning pain in her shoulder was far away. Everything was distant. So hard to feel anything anymore but what was inside her head. What she had done. What she had been proffered with a full heart… and what she had so stupidly cast aside, because she had been too slow to realize; too out of touch with herself to understand, too numb to feel. And all the while, those loving, patient lapis eyes. Deep as wells, and always looking into her. Always seeing her. Always…

She stumbled back to the godawful, sagging bed. Sat with head in hands, letting the empty ache roll through her; because it was all too late. Everything. Because it had taken him burning, dying for her to realize that she needed him. And—God, the biggest irony—because it had taken her seeing him with a soul to realize that in the end it didn't really matter that he had it.

Because by then it had been too damn late. All of it. Too damn late for apologies, too damn late to admit, even to herself that it was him without a soul who had started loving her. Who would try to better himself for her—up to and including getting the damn thing—so that she could really see him. So that she could really see that he hadn't changed all that much with it. Quietened a little, maybe. /Didn’t throw bottles anymore. Apparently that’s my territory now./ Calmed in his approaches. Watched more, still waters running deep and all that, and maybe he’d been better at speaking a language she had been able to understand. And maybe… /Maybe you just didn’t give him a damn chance before, did you? You weren’t listening. Because, admit it Buffy; you didn’t think he was worth listening to, without it./

God, she would listen now. Would listen to anything he had to say, if she could just hear his voice again. Even if it was just to tell her off again; just once more, because even the way he did that was with such style, with such affection, such amusement under everything that…

Tears threatened. Because she knew; too horribly late. That he had still been much the same man underneath it all. Who he had been under the surface had not been all that different. All the soul had done had been to force her to admit… that she’d loved him all along. Damn him; too late for anything but Freudian slips—“Why does everyone in this house think I’m still in love with Spike?” Yes, she had heard herself, belatedly. Passed it off as nothing; but she’d known. She’d known, even then—and it was too damn late to wish that things could have been different.

/You got your stupid soul back, yeah, or back into place or whatever; and forced me to admit that I needed your damn demon just as much as the man./ Just in time for both of them to be… gone. Too late; all too late, and God, that had been the eye-opener. That she had wanted him back. That she trusted them both. Because they were different, Spike and Angelus, and even Spike and Angel. And that she desperately needed that zest for life Spike had had, despite being technically dead; the way he had looked at everything like a damned adventure… She had craved it, siphoned it from him, steeped as she had been in guilt and duty and all those other things that made life not exactly the most worthwhile thing. /And that’s all I have left again. Guilt and duty./

She found herself staring at the smooth hint of a handprint on her left palm, shining in the gauzy daylight from the window. The suggestion of slick fingerprints on the back of her hand; whorls like torn lace between each metacarpal. /Guilt, duty, and scars that will never fade./

/Is this what it was like for you, without the soul, Spike? Just screaming out into nothing, begging to hear an answer that would never come? Because sometimes I feel like you took mine with you when you went./ She knew it now, if she hadn’t then; he had been the only one to make her feel alive since she’d come back from the dead. And without him…

Scars… and emptiness again. No love. No joy. No zest.

No intense eyes, watching and egging her on to find the fire.

The print on her hand, as always, felt numb. Cold. Just like everything else. /Like me./

He could always feel. /He felt everything so much it scared you. It was you who couldn’t feel; and you put that on him because you didn’t want to be the monster in that relationship./

But she had been. She had been.

She wanted to look out the window. Wanted to get out. Pace. Do something. Wanted to climb out of her skin. She couldn’t take this sitting still, trapped and trammeled by thoughts that had no resolution, guilt that had no relief, a ghost that could never forgive; because the man who had always forgiven her was gone, and she could not forgive herself. /Who am I? Spike… who am I, anymore?

/Well, I’m a killer, that’s one thing. I could go out and kill something. It always makes me feel better. And just how different… How much different of a monster…/

She kind of needed to punch a hole in the wall right now, because, /The people who made me used that./ It was a horrifying realization. /They wanted me to be a monster; the biggest monster in the world of the monsters. To be the monster all the monsters told their babies about when they tucked them in at night. And I did it… I did it. I’m still doing it./ The irony that she was used to scare children now horrified her in retrospect; that the Council had used her misinformation and her fear of self to point her, like a sharpened stick, at those who might even be somewhat like her. What a disgusting thought. And yet… it terrified her how like them she felt herself to be, on occasion. Terrified her that she did not know, really, where that line was, it was so blurred.

All she knew anymore was that she no longer stood on the other side of the line, untouched and clean. She stood right on it. She stood on it every day, and had to know enough—about them, and about herself—to make that decision; in every moment. Every fight to the death, every instant of instinctive mercy.

Except… usually in those moments, there simply wasn’t time, and…

Her eyes took in the broken bottle, though she made no move to clean up. /Was I being lied to, all these years, so that I could be kept sharp? So that I could be a better weapon?/ And still, the traitorous voice in the back of her mind, asking, /Were they even wrong to do it, when the slightest hesitation could get me killed? Get someone else killed who depended on me? Or, I guess, could send me running off down the other side, like Faith?/ Certainly not every monster baby deserved to live in fear, but God knew not all of them were peaceable. /And I still have a damn job to do./

God. It was all so confusing.

She had a sudden, yearning urge to compare notes with her sister Slayer, had to stop herself reaching once more for her phone to call. Their agreement, after all, was that they would only get in touch when there was something dire going down; yet she found that the impulse came on more and more commonly now than she would have ever thought possible, as their lives paralleled with greater and greater regularity over the passing years and she finally began to understand things that Faith had just… always known.

She certainly wasn’t about to ask Giles about any of it. Not right now. She just couldn’t deal with the answers she might get. But the alcohol was gone and she needed to stop thinking. It was useless, and it was morning. Her aching head said it was maybe six, and she needed water. Food, maybe; even if it would no doubt taste like ashes.

Time to stop hiding, stop wallowing. Be productive. Action meant not having to think. Especially about… any of this. So, when she dialed the number for the cell in St. Petersburg, she kept the call to strictly business. ‘Scourge. Coming. Be ready.’ Et cetera. Nothing to Giles about what she had heard, or what she was feeling, no matter how desperately she might wish to confide him like the lost and fatherless girl she had once been.

They had changed too much for that. And besides; the subject, when it came to them, was far too riddled with roadblocks. Just, no.

She made the other necessary calls. And then sat with her phone in her hand, shoulder burning, head pounding, mouth sick, and well-aware of what she had to do next. Because she had other people to talk to right now who might be able to tell her a lot more than Giles ever could. /Do what they never did, dammit, Buffy. Go to the source. Even if it hurts to hear his voice./

She dialed. Because taking action was what Buffy Summers did best.

It was always better than thinking.

***

(If you survived that and you're still here, you've seen the worst of me, lol, and hopefully we're getting to the best. I promise a reveal we've all been waiting for in the next chapter.)

Chapter Text

“I don’t care if he’s busy, Harmony, put him on the line. He’ll talk to me and you know it!” Honestly, why the heck Angel had hired the blondest ex-cheerleader vampire in the entire universe to be his receptionist was beyond her. Unless it was to keep an eye on her, since Angel always was one for trying to do good and all that. Because seriously; Harmony was the kind of idiot—even before she died—who could do more damage trying to do things right than if she was trying to do them wrong.

Actually, she had had a lot in common with Sp… With him, early on, when it came to feeling her way through to doing the right thing. Badly, and with the same short attention span for their evil plans, and it was no wonder they’d hooked up…

She could stake Harmony. Anytime.

A faint smile touched her lips while she waited on hold, though, and a creeping fondness slid over her in retrospect as she realized how hard he had tried, with zero moral compass, to do the right thing, if only because she would want him to… and how spectacularly he had failed, over and over again.

And promptly choked off that thought, because that way lay agony and self-recrimination, and maybe she wouldn’t stake Harmony. As long as the airhead got Angel on the phone quick, so there was no more need to listen to her inane chatter.

‘Buffy? What…’

Despite all the weird rumors, despite everything, she relaxed immediately when she heard his low tones. “I know, it’s breaking the rules. But I need to talk to you.”

‘Of course.’ As always, his voice rang with sincerity, and touched that place deep within her that had always belonged to him. As it had always done since she had died the last time, it felt more distant, like a thing belonging to another life, their connection attenuated… but it was still there. A pull of the blood. ‘What do you need?’

/We’re connected. We’ll always be connected. Even if…/

Best, as always, to stick to business. “Just answers. I ran into those Nazi guys the other day. The Scourge?”

His reaction was immediate. ‘Buffy, don’t tangle with them. They’re dangerous. Stay away.’

“So I’ve noticed,” she answered dryly. “Especially since they’re apparently after the Slayers now.”

There was a short, stunned answer from the other end of the line, then, ‘But why? They only want to kill half-breeds. Vampires, guys they consider half-breeds like the Brachen and Lister mostly, who cross-marry a lot, or…’

“See, that’s the thing, Angel. Why are vampires on that list? With the big exception of you…” /And one other, once…/ “…Most vampires are really and truly demons, right? Just in a human suit?”

‘Well, yeah, but they don’t see it that way. We’re not ‘pure’, or whatever, and they’re all about purity…’

She frowned into the phone, looking out into the low light of the Florentine afternoon as it glittered on the sluggish, polluted Arno. “That’s not what they said.”

‘What?’ He sounded lost. ‘And none of this explains why they’re after the Slayers.’

/It really does, actually, but if you don’t know any more than I do, then you’re no help to me./ She tried again, despite the sinking feeling. She was driven to. “What they said is that the Slayer line was started with a vamp demon, which is why we’re able to feel vamps in a way we don’t feel other demons.”

There was sort of weird pause at the other end of the line, then, ‘And vice-versa. That makes a lot of sense, actually. You do feel kind of like a vampire to me, in a weird way. Like a much more intense one, sort of. If we had a super-predator, I guess, or…’ A pensive pause. ‘I guess never thought of what kind of demon or spell…’ He trailed off.

/So you always suspected. Because you can also sense me. Which means they weren’t lying about that part, at least./ It was an uncomfortable realization. /Which makes one point for their side./ “And that means we’re an army now big enough to challenge them…”

His voice turned immediately from wonder to tension. ‘Run away, Buffy. Don’t be stupid and brave on this one.’ He was all but vibrating with concern over their tinny, international connection. ‘Gather up your people and fort up. If they’re coming after you, you need to hide out and get ready for a war. We were worried that the Scourge was going to come after…’ He halted abruptly as if changing what he was about to say, and seemed to shift conversational gears. ‘Never mind; it doesn’t matter. But if they’re coming after you and your Slayers…’

She let it go. She didn’t have time to worry about whatever he was hiding from her. They had different lives now, and with all the things he’d been getting up to down there with his insane, evil law firm, she probably didn’t even want to know. /Just keep it to business. The other way lies heartbreak./ “They said something else.”

She could hear the frown in his voice when he responded. ‘What?’

“That the reason they hate vampires in particular is because they think of you as great big posers who lie about being full-on demons, and are just trying to prove how demon-y you are by doing all the damage you do; like some kind of big inferiority complex.” And really, the thought of Angelus having done all the horrible things he had done because he hated that he still had a soul back in there somewhere and he wanted to torture Liam with it all was… almost worse?

‘Excuse me?’ Angel was saying, sounding dumbfounded. ‘That sounds like a bunch of Scourge propaganda to me.’

“I don’t know. They were right about the first part.” It all just made too much sense. “They said you never actually lose your souls. That your demons don’t kick them out the way I’ve been taught; just turn them into little Stockholm patients in the backs of your minds where they have to witness everything the demon does. And that’s why you’re so guilty all the time; because your soul witnessed all that, and then when it got put back in charge, it had to deal with feeling like it committed all those crimes just because it was there.” She bit her lip to fight back the last bit of evidence before it could escape her throat.

‘Buffy, that’s ridiculous. You know I’d feel guilty no matter what, right? The things I did as Angelus…’

“Would have been done by someone else entirely if Liam wasn’t there for them. You wouldn’t even know enough about them to care, much less want to redeem yourself for them; because it wasn’t you. The souled you. Right? Because the Angelus part of you sure doesn’t care. So the only reason the Liam part of you should care so much is if he witnessed it all.” It just all made so much sense; the more often she thought it, said it. Like puzzle-pieces clicking into place. “Otherwise it all happened to someone else, and it would be like coming back and hearing a story about something someone else did with his body.”

Silence. It forced her to press on, make her point. She had thought about it a lot throughout the last several sleepless hours, after all. “And I’ve been possessed, Angel; by Faith. And I know I don’t take responsibility for the things she did while she was in my body… because I wasn’t there to experience it. That’s all on her.” She paused briefly, damningly. “But if I was stuck in there, hitchhiking in the back of her brain and forced to watch while she did the things she did, using me? Whole other story. I’d be making up for that for years, even knowing it wasn’t me. Because I’d still feel responsible, you know?”

More dead silence on the line. She knew why. He wouldn’t want to admit it any more than she did, since it would mean that Liam had been present, forced to sit there and, bound, take part in all the awful things that Angelus had done, specifically, to her and hers. Not that any of that made any of it Liam’s fault if it were true, but as the mixture, as Angel, he sure seemed to think so.

“Think about it,” she whispered. “You told me once that you didn’t think I’d like who you used to be when you were a young guy, back in the day. That you were kind of irresponsible, that you wouldn’t even like you. So tell me. Is who you are now who Liam was when you first got sired? Someone who came back fresh from heaven and faced a bunch of horrors all at once? Or is he someone who lived a couple hundred years forced to witness all the things Angelus did so that he could see what a truly evil life was like?”

More silence, and it was a shaken silence.

She pressed it. “Isn’t there other evidence?”

There was a shorter pause, accompanied by a shifting sound, as if he were sitting down, hard. ‘Darla,’ he whispered softly. ‘I guess if you really think about it, when I staked her the first time, I killed the demon I knew. They brought back the souled woman I didn’t know—or at least I thought I didn’t—but I still knew her. Parts of her. But there was no reason she should have known me, maybe?”

/Exactly. If she—the soul, the woman—wasn’t there to meet you, then…/

Angel sounded shaken as all get-out as he continued. “And then when she was sired again, by Dru…” A pained tinge entered his voice. “It wasn’t the same demon. Couldn’t have been. Same family, obviously. We’re all the line of Aurelius, but her original demon was dead. And… she didn’t act like the same demon at all. She was more action-oriented, more in-your-face. The Darla I knew was always more of a spider; sitting back, making webs. She always used to use her sex appeal, had us boys do the work for her, took off if it came down to a fight. Found reinforcements. Used sex to get men on her side; sired them if she had to and brought them in as red-shirts to die for the cause so she wouldn’t have to take any risks. But new one…’ Buffy could hear the doubt in his voice. ‘She made the plans and she executed them. She was more venal, more pointed; the sharp edge of the stick. And she was more insane.’ Another short silence, the kind that said he was deep in uncomfortable thought. ‘But she also… felt… more. She seemed to have more emotional range. And she still… wanted me. Still loved me, I guess you could say, in whatever way counted for her...’

/Ugh. So not what I needed to hear about./

‘…So if that was a different demon, that demon wouldn’t remember me, even with the woman’s memories added in; the memories of a woman who had only known me for a few days.’ And Buffy swore she could hear him close his eyes, give in. ‘Unless it still had access to the soul of a person who had been there the whole time, behind everything…’ He broke off, sounding as shocked and agonized as Buffy had ever heard him.

But it confirmed things for her, enough that the words came out without thinking. “Just like William loved me, when he came to the fore; when there was no reason he should have, if he was gone until Africa and it was just Spike loving me the whole time.”

The silence on the other end of the line was pained this time, in a wholly different way. ‘I… guess that makes sense. Not that he and I ever got around to talking about the comparative merits of soul-having. Mostly we avoid talking about anything that makes it seem like we have too much in common; especially you…’ He cut off abruptly, as if he was biting down on his words.

Something cold trickled down Buffy’s spine to settle in her belly. The entire world slid to a stop. “A whole lot of that was in the present tense, Angel,” she pointed out in a low, dangerous tone. “I’m not sure when you and Spike would have had the chance to have all these chats about me and your souls or…”

A heavy sigh gusted across the phone line, filled with reluctance. Shifting sounds. And then, something decisive. ‘He’s here.’

The world was made of lead. “He’s. There.” The words didn’t make a single lick of sense.

‘Here. In LA.’

Like a foreign language.

‘He didn’t want anyone to tell you. Said he felt like it wasn’t the right time yet or something…’

She realized really belatedly that her hand was squeezing the phone too tight when it squeaked and, no, she was going to break it, and /No/. This didn’t make sense. “Angel, what are you saying?” She was kind of amazed at how calmly her voice exited her mouth.

‘They, uh, mailed the amulet back to us a few weeks after the hellmouth collapsed. Someone you don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Wolfram and Hart stuff.’ He was talking really fast now, almost in self-defense. It penetrated the haze around Buffy’s brain like spears or arrows or… ‘He was a ghost for a long time. Incorporeal. Couldn’t leave the city limits. Then when he got his body back he stayed around to fight the good fight. Said he didn’t want to intrude on your life.’

“Didn’t want…” She couldn’t think.

‘Yeah. Something about feeling stupid about going out in a blaze of glory and then showing up again a little while later like nothing happened…’

She sat down hard on the bed. Really, half-fell, and barely heard the threatening creak, like it was going to collapse through the floor. “You didn’t bother to tell me.” It came out a bare breath, nothing more.

‘He asked me not to!’

It was that petulant tone of protest that woke her up; sent a spark of rage through her core, sent heat back into her hands, up her spine, shot her to her feet. “Angel, don’t you dare tell me you take orders from Spike! I know you better than that! You didn’t tell me because you didn’t want me to know! Because you didn’t like that he and I were…”

‘It’s not like that! He and I even came to Italy last week to try to warn you about the Immortal, but we decided not to intrude on your life…’ It came out lame and backpedal-y, and wow. Did Angel really have so little self-confidence that he’d keep something like this to himself for this long just to keep her from seeing a possible rival… when Angel couldn’t even really be a rival?

/We can’t even ever be together! Whatever I feel for you, Angel, whatever I will always feel for you, we can never be and you know it, even if I could trust you again with all this crazy evil law firm stuff. So stop this!/ “I’m coming out there.”

His answer was immediate. ‘It’s a bad time. We’ve got some serious stuff going down with this Circle of the Black Thorn and the Senior Partners. I think we’re heading for a showdown. And you have your thing with the Scourge…”

More deflection. She felt the steel enter her tone. What didn’t he want her to see about what he was doing down there? What did he have Spike caught up in, using him over there like some kind of pawn after holding his soul captive and disembodied for months, or… Who even knew, anymore?

She had to get Spike out of there. “I’m not worried about the Scourge. Giles and the team can start gathering in the Slayers.” She was pacing now, ready for action. “I can meet my group in Scotland after I stop by your place.” She felt like a caged animal; just wanted to get started. “I won’t be there long to interrupt whatever it is you’re doing with your hell-bound law firm. I’m just coming in to see if what you’re saying is true; and if he wants to stay once he sees me…”

‘Buffy…’

“Angel,” she interrupted firmly, “let me tell you a little something about guilt. I have cried or drunk myself to sleep every night for months. I have had nightmares of the things I did to him that I never got to apologize for; nightmares that always end in fire. In ashes. His ashes, in my hands. Everything, ending in dust, because of me. And now I might just have the chance to make it right. Do you understand that? You are not going to take that away from me because you don’t like that I had a relationship with one of your family that you can’t condone because it wasn’t with you.”

There was another long silence, this one a little miffed. ‘You make me sound so petty.’

/I would never have thought it of you before, but now I’m really starting to wonder./

Her lack of an answer seemed to tick him off. ‘Fine,’ he went on briskly. ‘I guess we’ll see you soon.’ And wow, he sounded so perturbed about it, the way he leaned on the ‘we’… Could he be mad that she wasn’t coming to see him? Because, um, illogical much? They had spent years hammering out how not-cool it was to come see each other, so he couldn’t be surprised by that, could he?

“Just do me one favor. If you think he’s gonna run and hide or something… Don’t tell him I’m coming?” It was beyond her comprehension that her Spike would do any such thing, but this might not be her Spike anymore, between throwing in with Angel and the evil law firm of death—the Spike she had known wouldn’t join in with his grandsire on anything if he could help it, for one—and, just…

The Spike she had known would have come. Come back to her, immediately. The instant he had his body, he would have come. He wouldn’t have been able to stay away. /God, Spike, what did dying do to you? What did that disgusting amulet…/

If there was anyone who knew how much it could change a person to come back from the dead, it was yours truly. /He might not even love me anymore. He might have… chosen to go, to get away from me./ The very thought made her fall back onto the bed, knees weak and body shaking.

Though, granted, if he didn’t, that would be just what she deserved. But she would have to deal with that when it came. Because she still had to go. Now, in this faint hint of breathing room between battles. While she had a chance, and before she had time to let herself think too much.

Thinking had always been her problem when it came to Spike, and all it had ever done was bring her pain. Now, having lost him, lost everything… she knew better. /Go with your gut. Just go. Now, before you can stop yourself. While you still can. You have to know./

It wasn’t even a question.

She just had to make sure he would be there before she left, or for all she knew Angel might tell Spike just to see if he would rabbit. At least, based on how he sounded like he was acting lately. “Angel? Please? For me? I need this.” And she leaned hard on their connection, praying that he would let go of whatever frustration he held long enough to give her this much.

Another sigh resonated over the phone. ‘Alright. When you show up, it’ll be a big surprise.’ But his voice sounded dead when he said it.

“Thank you.” For her part she answered warmly, graciously. And she meant it.

***

Chapter Text

The flight in from Florence took sixteen excruciating hours.  Sixteen hours of time spent, just like the last several months, detached from time.  But that was not an unfamiliar feeling to her anymore.  Activating all the world’s Slayers was supposed to have made her feel somehow normal.  Was supposed to have freed her somehow.  But instead, without the clock of the hellmouth to give her days meaning, she had been feeling pretty aimless. 

She should have been happy to see that place go.  It had given her so many godawful memories, but… 

He had been there.  Was still, she had thought; buried.  Ash in a crater.  And… 

They had been there.  All that they had been; all the heat she had known since she had come back from the dead, for so long it felt like another life since she had generated any of her own. 

/I was supposed to be set free./  She lifted her scarred left hand into the light of a new sun as it shone through the windows of the plane; watched the curling notes of fire tangling like the smooth, ghostly sheen of another hand twining around her flesh.  Mesmerized, now, where before she had avoided looking at the numbed place, because she hadn’t wanted to feel it; the one thing she had left.  The constant, empty ache of it.  But now it was as if… he had been holding her this whole time; letting her know… he had never let go. 

And no wonder.  /You freed me… and I’ve never been free since I lost you./

In comparison to the hellmouth that had been her alpha, her omega…  Yes, one would think she would be glad to see it go.  Yet her new existence spent gathering up and training younger Slayers seemed instead to be kind of like treading water.  As existences went it had no real substance, just as the few random fights had no real starch in them; no blood.  Nothing to get her heart pumping or keep her feeling awake and alive.  Not after living on the mouth of hell—and an apparently supercharged hellmouth at that—stopping apocalypse attempts about every other week and poking her head into demon bars just for the heck of it when she was bored.  Heck, she had even had her own private cemetery with guaranteed fledge-action on the daily.  Once an endless grind, bespeaking a life of unrewarding toil, it was now something she missed like a toothache, out here in the benign world. 

Because it didn’t stop, simply because they’d closed the hellmouth for business.  The Calling remained, and she was still expected to be ‘the one in charge’.  The one in the know, the one to lead everyone.  ‘The bloody One’, as Spike would put it.  The pressure went nowhere, and neither did the urge; and if she had to do it anyway... well.  In comparison to Sunnydale, hunting out regular old sporadic bumps in the night just to feel the occasional stirring in her blood paled in comparison. 

She was not quite going through the motions again—at least part of her felt ‘here’ in a way that it hadn’t shortly after her death-comeback-trip—but she also felt kind of purposeless anymore.  As if in having unchained the Slayers from the wheel of a short, brutal life and a quick death, she had rendered her own life… meaningless.  She was no longer ‘The Slayer’.  She was just a hired gun, doing a job.  Nine to five, but on the night shift; punching a clock against evil. 

She was also the one who financed the HR department these days, since there wasn’t a Council anymore; but that wasn’t anything new, really.  Those jerks had never helped her much even when she’d been official.  It had been almost as if they had wanted her to die, dumping her on the worst hellmouth in the world and then washing their hands of her because she refused to jump through their hoops like a good little girl. 

She definitely found small flutters of reward these days in teaching the new girls that they owed no one their allegiance save the people they fought to protect.  In insuring that they could have friends, family, live their lives without guilt as long as they were strong enough to carry the burden.  She would fight to protect that right for them; the one she had not had; that it would be as much their choice as it could possibly be, and no one else’s, whether they wished to take on the burden of their Calling; because they no longer had to.

Because none of them were The One Girl In All The World. 

But… That meant there were still lines that were hers alone to cross; burdens of leadership that were heaviest for her alone.  Things which Faith had somehow known from the start, but which Buffy had to take on now, by necessity.  “Think they're insured?”

“Strangely, not my priority.  When are ya gonna get this, B?  Life for a Slayer is very simple.  Want; take... have.”

Well, she had at least stuck with the insured part.  But the rest…  Necessity had put paid long ago to some of her finer moral debates, and dying and living again had ground down the rest of her black-and-white vision into a jagged, muzzy gray area that most days left her reeling from one decision to the next.  So she put aside the qualms of her conscience and did what was needful.  Yeah, she’d robbed banks to support the cause, because she couldn’t be a general and work at a place like the DMP, and she’d long since learned that.  And she’d found a way to go on punching the clock against evil… even though half the time the evil wasn’t even all that evil. 

Heck; half the time there wasn’t even anything to grab onto.  Fewer monsters.  More… wispy conspiracies that made her do bizarre things she would have never done before, in her other life; like get involved in bizarre Old World demon-clan politics, and create multiple little clandestine cells of slayerettes, and rob banks…   And how bizarre was that, to be on the other side of the law in the event of possible intrigue against them.  Because Riley had just gotten in touch, had let her know that they were now considered the supernatural threat by some government types.  Which, she supposed, was valid, from their point of view.  Weird, and definitely worrying… but valid. 

And on it went; less with the daily demon-fighting.  More with the endless, mindless round of training.  The maneuvering pieces against possible attacks from featureless, shadowy foes.  Leaving behind yet another home.  Going into hiding… but nothing concrete to fight against or for, nothing to face...  And nobody to really know her anymore.  No stimulation or challenge, really.  Just… preparing.  For what, she wasn’t sure, except… she was pretty sure it was others she was preparing.  Not herself.

She had thought she had freed herself.  Now she wasn’t all that certain.  Because lately she felt like she was mostly treading water, while the clock stood still.  And she still felt cold, a lot of the time.  Distant, from everyone.  Not usually Dawn… because Dawn knew, though they never talked about it.  Well.  She and Dawn really didn’t talk well, or much at all lately.  But the rest… 

Willow was as damaged.  Buffy understood now.  She had lost.  But she was trying to move on. 

Xander…  He was too broken to even let anyone in.  Reach out at all. 

They had all… lost.  She missed them, did her best to reach out to her distant, former best friends.  She knew, after all, finally, what they were going through.  But at the same time it was also evident from their glances, their tones whenever they talked that they finally understood, maybe, the chilly weather that had sat inside her for the better part of the last three years, waiting to rear its bleak, gray head whenever she stopped moving.  Finally understood, maybe…

Or at least, she finally did.  But she had realized too late, of course.  Like always, that the only reason she had ever gotten warm again in the first place was because of him.  Because of the fire, the passion he had lent her, though she had given him so little in return.  And once gone…

That had been why she had not been ready for him not to be there, last year; or at least that had been one of the reasons.  She hadn’t been sure she could generate her own heat, yet.  Not when the last time he had left, and she hadn’t known where he had gone…  Even though she had been haunted by their last awful encounter, she had been equally haunted by the empty space he had left.  Because even with what had happened, the loss of him in her universe had left her cold.

A cold clock still moved, sometimes.  It warmed itself in the ticking.  But it marked time in an empty room where the furniture was covered over and the breath stood still.  Nothing was touched in a room like that.  It just stood still… waiting.  For what, she didn’t know. 

Sometimes you jogged just to know what it was like to still be breathing.  Honestly, she had taken the mission out to Florence gratefully, just for something to do. 

She knew Faith got it.  Of all the rest… Faith understood.  She might have dropped off the Slayer map, but she still checked in with Robin over in Cleveland, and he’d passed on enough that Buffy knew; Faith was just as edgy as Buffy, lately. 

They’d even talked about it, the one time she cornered her sister Slayer long enough to ask her why she was always out roaming around away from any of the new ‘training centers’.  “Gotta stay busy, B.  Can’t just cool my heels here, you know?  You sit still… you die.”

God knew she knew.

Maybe the old guard of Slayers were just a couple of adrenaline junkies who had outlived their time.  /Maybe Faith and I are… what do you call it?  Anach…  Anachro…whatsits.  That thing that doesn’t fit anymore./

Still, she had a job to do and she’d do it.  Be a general.  Organize.  Do the thing.  She had made calls and issued orders before she left, delegated responsibilities…  Done what was expected of her, as always.  Back at the new base camp up in Scotland things were probably like some kind of kicked anthill right now… which was of the good.  It would be nice to see them shaken up a bit; get to the really real for a change.  When she’d gotten off the phone Satsu was already busy touching in with the other centers while Xander was putting his grief-energy to work, as always; moving things around and building extra bunks and stuff for what was sure to be a sudden influx.  Robin was already gathering up his disciples over in Cleveland, and Giles was organizing like crazy over in Russia. 

She just wished that Dawn was still out of it, safe in college.  She would be a hell of a lot happier if her fool of a sister was still in Berkeley where she belonged, settling into summer session and safe away from all of this crap, but obviously that was out now.  She couldn’t even fit into the dorms anymore. 

Heck, maybe she could convince Andrew to keep an eye on Dawn down in Rome for a while until this mess with the Scourge was over with.  Not that she could really even fit into their Italian apartment anymore.  She had barely fit into the castle when Buffy had trundled her over-sized, humiliated sister back across the ocean on a secret cargo flight Giles had organized somehow through God alone knew what contacts.  And she was still growing, every day. 

Not that she would talk about it.  But obviously the whole thing had necessitated a dropping off under the radar, since being a giant made a person pretty visible.  Buffy had put off moving up to the new base until she’d gotten Dawn settled in at the summer session at college, but now…

A whole other issue.  She would have to figure out what to do with her idiot sister while she was away, because she definitely didn’t want her up there in that castle in the middle of a battle.  No doubt she’d be in the thick of it all, doing her best to help everyone all at once.  

She fiddled with her cell phone, looking over her contacts fitfully with her thumb hovering over the keys beside Andrew’s name.  /Maybe she can hang out in the basement of the safehouse in Rome till I get back?/ 

She hadn’t mentioned to anyone—not even Dawn, and definitely not Giles—that her whole ‘I need to stay in Rome till Dawn gets through school’ thing had been an excuse.  That half the reason she had put off moving to the UK in the first place had been that it had just been too painful to pass through London, and she had been steeling herself against the agonizing prospect of having to do it more often.  Of their having to, in future, fly in and out of either Gatwick or Heathrow on the regular once they’d firmly established themselves in the UK.  Not that Glasgow didn’t have a decent airport, and she could and would use that as often as possible, but…

There had been that pull.  The kind that made a healing person pick at a scab, tear it away when it itched even though it made the healing take longer and made the scar ten times worse.  The pull to go down there anyway; to listen.  To the people talking; on the train, and in the vast metropolis.  Listen as she hung out of cab windows with the burn scar on her hand tingling and itching in the sun and told the cabbies to take their time and wend their ways through the rougher neighborhoods of working-class London.  To really hear them, talking and sounding almost… 

Not exactly.  No one could ever be exactly; but almost... like him

And let it destroy her.

But she had done it, anyway.  Even though it had torn her to shreds to do it; to be so close and yet so far.  And she would have done it again.  Over and over, once they moved there, whenever there was time.  Dawn’s school year had been a useful excuse to stay away, but sooner or later…

Now, maybe she might hear him again, and just that thought…

Buffy had lost a lot of her core values over the years.  Had them slowly grated away by time, and by the ruthlessness of reality.  ‘Friends mean forgiveness is built in’.  ‘Love never dies.’  ‘You can never save too long for a Prada bag.’  All of those core values had come under revision over the last decade as she’d moved slowly from wide-eyed idealism to cold, hard reality. 

Especially the one about the Prada.

‘Vampire are evil’.  That one had been one of the latest to fall victim to the ruthless shades of gray that colored her confusing universe.  It was still being eroded, even now, as new information continued to trickle in.  As of right now it had been downgraded to something sort of around the level of, ‘Most vampires are ruled by a generally destructive demon that lives on a diet that unfortunately usually leads to human deaths, and it is my job to make sure that doesn’t happen.  And since they need to eat to live, and it’s my job to keep humans alive, that kind of cancels out our ability to live peacefully.  Also, they’re mostly too rowdy to listen to reason until they’re at least a hundred years old, or if they fall in love.’   

Which kind of led to upended core value number twenty-seven or whatever:  ‘Souls equal love’.  A much more recent casualty of war, and one she had clung to with everything she had in her. 

Till now.  Because where did the soul end and the demon begin, and how did one quantify love?  What did love actually consist of?  Constancy?  Service?  Devotion?  What level of trust?  What level of passion, or lack thereof?  What trappings did it require? 

Someone without a soul had, she had to admit in retrospect, loved her longer and better than so many others she had known, despite a complete lack of moral compass and a total fake-it-till-you-make-it mentality built mostly on desperation.  Someone without a soul had fought to stay with her no matter what she had thrown at him in self-defense; fearing his devotion as an unknown quantity, and to the point of violence.  Had refused to be scared off; to follow the pattern.  Even unto death… which led, unerringly, to the one core value she was still sure of.

Men who said “I love you” left.  They divorced (“I love you but... I just can't live here with you anymore”), or they walked away (You deserve more.  You deserve something outside of demons and darkness.  You should be with someone who can take you into the light.  Someone who can make love to you.  You have no idea how fast it goes, Buffy.  Before you know it, you'll want it all, a normal life.

“I'm leaving. After the Ascension, after it's finished with the Mayor and Faith. If we survive, I'll go.”)  

(“They want me back.  The Military.  I'm leaving, Buffy.  Unless you give me a reason to stay ... I'm leaving tonight.”)

They left her ‘for her own good’, to teach her a lesson.  No matter how much pain she was in, how alone, how much she pleaded.  Because she had been somehow deficient, and needed to learn; she could not make them stay.  (“I have to.  You have to be strong.  I'm…  I'm trying to…”

“Trying to, to what?  Desert me? Abandon me?  Leave me all alone when I really need somebody?

“I don't want to leave.  I can't bear to see you suffer…”)

So many times she had heard that, from so many men.  But it never changed the outcome.

(“I've taught you all I can.  You ... you're not going to trust that until you're forced to stand alone.  I've thought this over ... and over. I believe it's the right thing to do.”)

Words like hammer blows, falling for the third time, yet again to close her life.  And no matter how many times she said, “You're wrong,” and “Why now?  Now that you know where I've been, what I'm going through?” and “You can be here, and I can still be strong!” and “What else do you want from me?  I've given you everything that I have, I've given you my heart, my body and soul!”

No matter how many times she had said she hated to suffer, that she couldn’t take anymore, had begged, “Please don't. I can't do this without you”… it never changed the outcome.

They always left her.  Because she was too broken to keep them.  They left because they thought she was crazy and they couldn’t deal, or they left because they thought she was too young.  They left because they thought she wasn’t being grown up enough…  The messages never ended.  They changed… but they never stopped coming. 

She was deficient, and they would never stay.  And it didn’t matter that she knew she would never have a normal life with babies and a white picket fence, or that she knew, even at seventeen, eighteen, that she needed far more a man to stand by her side and stay than to tell her what she needed and leave her alone to deal with it.  They always left anyway.  Told her what they thought she should have, what was right for her, what she hadn’t thought of yet because she was too young, too inexperienced…  A swoony schoolgirl, or a brat (God, that still stung), or too dependent, too willing to let a father-figure stand in front of her and take on some of the burden that had come on too soon and too heavy.  Or because they were her father, but that was not, had never been enough.

They always left.  Of their own accord, or they… died; but they always left.  And every “I love you” was just another confirmation that it would happen sometime, and better to start pushing them out the door before they left on their own.  Better to shut down before the devastation began, because every “I love you” struck the strung-tight, raw and exposed nerve of her core truth.  Every protestation of devotion made her push harder, close down more, because she didn't want to wait for the day it would happen.  She wanted to control it.  Control the hurt and ultimately avoid facing facts.

She was the unlovable one.  

But, with the last…  Her last, forbidden ‘office romance’… 

He had come too late, the one she could never shake.  And she had known by then it was she who was the problem.  Deep inside, she had known.  It was never him. 

But she could lie.  If she could make it about not having a soul, or if she could make it about him being wrong… then that was easier.  Would be easier, when he finally left. 

But the fact of the matter was, the one without the soul was the one who had never left her.  Which seemed all the more proof, in the end, that she was wrong; she was even more wrong than he could ever be.  Because all the rest... They left and they didn't come back.  Or they left, and came back with the perfect wife to prove how right they were to leave.  Or they went away and just… stayed away, without explanation.

Except him.  The so-called ‘soulless’ one.

Then Giles came back to save them all.  She would have done just about anything, said just about anything to make him stay; even gone so far as to tell him he done the right thing in leaving if it meant gaining his approval and keeping him with her.  But she had no longer completely trusted him, a man in whom she had once dared to put her complete and utter faith, thought would be the father her own had never been.  And when he’d conspired to kill the one man who never left her no matter how hard she had tried to push him away... that had been but confirmation of her worst fears. 

It was the end of it for her with Giles.  The final break, because he had made it clear.  She could depend on none of them. 

None of them except…  The one who had never failed her.  If she could but dare to believe, one more time… 

“I'm not ready for you to not be here,” she had told Spike in that same time.  Because he had stayed.  Through it all, he had stayed.  Despite his own terror, his own self-disgust and lack of self-worth when it came to her; instilled by her over years of attempts to chase him away.  To save herself the pain.  He had stayed.  For her.  Stayed long enough that she had been able to bridge the gap.  To say, for the first time in her life… ‘I want you in my life, even if I am trying to move on’. 

He had stayed.

But then the ‘unsouled’ lover with the unpredictable but dependable love had somehow become the unexpected confidant with a soul that somehow matched hers perfectly.  And just when she finally trusted that she would never lose him… he, too went away.  Left her like all the others.  Burnt up, became ashes in her hands... and this time she had to know if it was because he had wanted to go... or because he hadn't chosen it. 

She’d had to.  Had to find out why he had stayed away, after all they’d shared in those last days.  Had to know, no matter her terror of it, no matter how terrible the timing.  And it wouldn’t take long.  She had to keep telling herself that when she felt like she was falling down on her job.  But they didn’t need her for this part.  She was almost redundant when it came to the organizing and the getting ready.  That’s why there were cells and teams now and… all that stuff. 

She was good when it came to the leading and the action. 

 They’d be ready by the time she got back.  She’d bought at least two, three days; long enough to fly over, see him, and fly back.

It was the middle part that made her feel a rolling tide of terror-longing so vast that she thought she’d drown in it.  From the what-ifs that made her want to die.  The fear that when he saw her he might simply turn away, or…

/No.  If this is even… real, you owe him this much.  And you owe it to yourself.  And you’re gonna have to do it right.  Everything depends on… doing it right this time.  On being word-girl for a change.  You owe him… knowing.  He needs to hear things./  She was going to have to use whole words and stuff.  She couldn’t choke like she always did.  Not that Spike wasn’t fairly good at reading her for the most part even when she was inarticulate-Buffy, but he didn’t deserve to carry the entire weight of the conversation anymore.  And, she’d learned to at least hold her own, right, in that last few months?  Those last few days.  Upstairs, in the bedroom of a strange house, and downstairs, the next night, with the Scythe, and…  /I may not have used a lot of words, but at least they weren’t the wrong ones for a change.  And I made myself understood.  And…/

/He deserves that from you, Buffy.  To know what you’ve been thinking.  You just have to keep your head.  You can do that.  Even with things you’re scared about, or passionate about./

/Even about him.  Because if you mess this up…/

She couldn’t think about that.  Not now.

***

Angel wasn’t at Wolfram and Hart when she got there.  Neither was Spike.  No one she knew was, really—aside from Harmony, who, big surprise, had no idea where anyone was—and she didn’t feel like hanging around the evil law firm to poke around and wait.  She just walked right back out again and called her ex… and nibbled on a churro while she waited for him to answer, because oh my God, churros.

She missed a hell of a lot of things about California.  The clock of the hellmouth, for better or worse.  Familiar demons.  Her mother, always.  The gang, and general camaraderie.  Spike, obviously, and just the shape of her life here.  The sights, the smells, the sounds.  A lot of that was around her here, now.  But the food?

God, this churro just about had her on the floor.

Angel didn’t answer till, like, the fifth ring.  Apparently she caught him at a bad time.  ‘What, Buffy?  Not to be rude, but I’m in the middle of something.’

She’d never heard Angel be so short with her before.  What was that about?  “I’m sorry.  What, did I get you in the middle of a date or something?”  The words were out before she could censor them.  /Stupid, stupid, stupid.  That way lies heartache, why would you even go there?/

The tight voice which answered her struck her to the bone.  ‘Yes, actually; with my s…’  He cut off abruptly.  ‘Yeah, kind of a date.’

/Okay, wow.  And you were all upset that I said Spike was in my heart?/

‘Anyway, it’s really a bad time for you to be here since we’re facing…’  The phone got muffled for a second, there was a mumbled excuse, then, ‘Look, Buffy, we’re having a slight case of apocalypse right now, so maybe it’d best if you waited for another day to…’

The terror living low under her sternum shot up to well around in her throat, with hints of fire.  “Apocalypse?  And you didn’t tell me?”  /And since when was an apocalypse a good time to go on a date?  And wow, do I sound like my Watcher right now!  Get out of my head, Giles!/

‘Well, it really wasn’t any of your business, was it?  You’ve got your life, I’ve got mine…’

That was such bullshit.  He’d come running when he thought he could help with her last apocalypse!  And look how that had turned out.  With her giving an amulet to Spike that had been meant for himself; one that had turned one of her two loves to ashes.  It seemed as if she only got one or the other.  But she was getting a second chance with him, and, just, no.  Not this time.  “Angel, you listen to me.  I am not going to lose him to another showdown with the Big Bad just because you didn’t want to tell me that it was apocalypse o’clock in LA.  If you’re having an end of the world scenario, you’ve got me for the duration…”

‘You have your own problems in Europe right now…’

/Oh no.  No way was he going to shuffle her off.  Not now.  “Just tell me where he is.  He’ll tell me where to be when it’s time to fight.”

‘It’d probably be better if you leave.’

Was he serious?  “After I see Spike.”  And she left no more room in her tones for argument.

‘Buffy…’  A sigh, then, ‘Go see him then.  Much good it’ll do you.’

She waited, but nothing.  “Okay, great.”  Still nothing.  Um, okay?  “Where. Is. He?”

More unhelpful silence, and, /Seriously?  You’re not going to tell me where he is?/  Suspicion mounted as the dead air elongated between them.  /What did you do, Angel?  Like, did you scare him off, after I asked you not to?  After I begged?/  If he did that, then she really didn’t know Angel anymore at all.  “Angel.”  One last chance.  “It’s a big city.”

Something crept into her ex’s voice that, if she hadn’t known any better, she might have said sounded almost… sneaky amidst the impatience.  But no, he wouldn’t…  Would he?  ‘Yeah, he could be anywhere.  I don’t make it a habit, tracking Spike’s whereabouts, Buffy; and no offense, but like I said, I'm kind of in the middle of something, so I have to g…’

She was starting to get upset.  “Look,” she interrupted, feeling abruptly ready to punch something breakable. “I’m sorry to interrupt your date."  She invested as much scorn as she could manage in her phrasing, even though it was tough being harsh on her ex.  He was kind of being an impatient douche.  “…But I came all this way, so I’m not leaving before I do what I came here to do.  I can keep calling over and over…”

‘Buffy…’ he protested weakly, sounding alarmed at the very thought.

“Green looks really bad on you Angel.”  /Especially since, you know, date./  “Besides.  If you’re so hot to get me in and out before whatever you have going down, you should help me, not get in my way; because I am so not leaving LA before I talk to him.”  A digesting sort of quiet, and yes.  She had him.  “Do you really want me wandering around your city for days poking into every door looking for him, or hanging around your office bugging you till he shows up?”

A weight of the world sort of sigh rattled the line; the sound of Angel giving up.  ‘Look, he didn’t say where he was going, but he feels like he’s to the southwest of me and maybe fifteen or so miles away?  So I’d say about Broadway-Spring-Main and in the five-to-ten block area?’

/Oh, right.  Related vampires.  Same bloodline and all that./  Buffy flagged down a cab, glad in that moment that she was blonde and still somewhat cute enough to catch a quick one.  “Okay.  Thanks.  Have a nice date.”  Having gotten what she came for she hung up distractedly, urgency humming in her veins.  Stepping into the car, leaned forward to tap the back of the cabbie’s seat.  “Do you know any, I dunno, dive bars or anything like that somewhere around Broadway-Spring-Main between the five-to-ten block area?”

The cabbie frowned, an expression she saw through in the rearview mirror.  “I mean, there’s some bars, yeah.  Some nice, some not so nice, some more like clubs, you know?  Why, you wanna go?  It’s a little early for clubbing, chica.”

She’d really, really missed the glide and slide of Spanglish on the ear.  It brought out a warm smile, and she favored the man with it impartially despite her pervasive anxiety.  “No, not clubs.  Bars.  Definitely bars.”  She sat back in the slightly smelly seat—it smelled, legitimately, like sun-warmed butt—and stared out the window into the too-sunny day where her vampire roamed, unprotected.  As was his wont.  “Definitely bars,” she murmured again, as the cab pulled away from Wolfram and Hart’s gleaming exterior.

They passed two bars, her feeling nothing inside.  Passed a third, were just slowing so that she could ‘look at it’ when she caught the faint twinge from the low, dark door across the street.  Another bar, so carefully-hidden she might have missed it entirely; especially since it wasn’t really advertising itself as a bar.  ‘Poetry Slam Open Mic’ a sandwich board proclaimed from where it stood, lopsided, before the black door.  And the twinge, again.  Vampire…  And a very familiar one.  One she had never thought to feel again.

/Oh God…/  “There.”  She pointed across the street.

“Chica, I can’t just…”

“It’s okay.  Here.  How much do I owe you?  I’ll just get out here…”  Fingers numb with bloodless anxiety, she fumbled in her tiny pocket.  Found herself missing the days when she could get away with carrying purses as she blindly held out a handful of bills, eyes riveted on the doorway across the street. 

The cabbie took the small wad.  Blinked.  Extricated the ones he wanted and handed a few back.  “Calm down, girl, it’s just a bar.  What you think, you gonna meet Prince Charming in there or something?”

It was so ludicrous that a laugh burst out of her, nervous and shocked, as she stuffed the money back into her pocket and shoved her way out of the car.  “Prince Charming, no.  I stopped looking for him a long time ago.  No, this guy is rude and rough and has a hell of a left hook…”  She smiled a little.  “And he looks right into me, and knows me like no one else ever did.  And he never fails to tell it like it is.  And that’s more important than all the sweet nothings in the world.”

The driver’s voice deepened a little with clear concern.  “You sound like you need to get away from this guy, chica, not go back to him.”

Tugging her small carry-on backpack back over her other shoulder she stood away from the car and shrugged, aware of what the cabbie probably thought.  “Actually he probably should get away from me, but I’m not gonna let him.  Never again.  Unless…”  She let out the breath she was half-holding.  “Unless he wants to,” she admitted, half to herself.  “He deserves to make the choice.”

“Whatever you say, mija.  Be safe.”  The cabbie pulled off, looking concerned as he drove away.

It took her a while to cross the street.  To get up the courage, while the feel of him perked in her veins, because, god, what if…  She ran her hands once down the front of her shirt and hips to calm herself.  She was in a red, loose-necked blouse a little like the one she had worn when she’d faced down Sweet, with one of her favorite thin, dark leather jackets half-buttoned over it.  The kind with the long collar.  Tight black pants…  It was an outfit she’d replaced quickly, after Sunnydale, while replacing her wardrobe with a skeleton of itself… because it made her feel… strong.  Only now did she realize that, just maybe, she had chosen it, had dressed this way today because it made her look… kind of like him.  Like it was some kind of unintentional armor that mimicked his look. 

As if the thought roused the traces of him in her flesh, the burn-scar on her left hand tingled.  Or maybe… it felt its mate nearby.  Until now it had always felt cold and numb.  It definitely wasn’t just the sun, shining overhead.  She had been in hot climes before now, over the last year, and it had never tingled like that, never…

It was…  /God; are you really here?/

The sensation spread, and it was as if for the first time since she’d left this state, her body came awake to input in its full array.  The smells of LA and of California rose around her, bringing back a thousand memories; smog and eucalyptus and palm trees and the faint hint of beach, dry air and salt, high desert just up the way, creosote bush, distant garbage, cars, and…  And him.  Always him.

Time to take the plunge.

She stepped across the street, jaywalking, weeding her way through traffic, to stare at the sign.  Seriously though; a poetry slam?  /Spike, what are you doing?/  But she pushed in, stepping into the darkened room… and heard him; oh God, heard the rumble of his voice, low and almost murmuring, over the mic. 

He was up at the front, on a stool, eyes closed and mouth practically welded to the microphone, and he was reciting poetry.  Poetry!  “…My heart expands.  ‘Tis grown a bulge in ‘t; inspired by your beauty… effulgent.”

The crowd erupted into shouts of “Yeah!” and loud, hooting applause, and her Spike was standing there, drinking it in, arms spread.  Hidden as she was behind tallish guys pumping their arms, he didn’t see her.  Apparently, he didn’t feel her either.  She guessed he was high on the moment?  “That one’s for Cecily,” he roared, sounding as triumphant as if he’d just ripped the head off of a raging Suvolte demon.  Then he quieted a little, as if something had come over him.  “Was gonna do a different one next, for me mum, but…  I have a feeling I need to do this one instead.  Only time I’ve ever tried to write a sonnet.”  And he lifted his head again, an expression of odd expectancy filling his entire being.  He looked vibrant.  “This one’s for Buffy.”

/Wait, what?/

And he was back at the mic, this time standing, holding it one handed, head down.  “In darkness I live… from darkness I hail. I dwell at the fringes of life and of death. But you come with your sunlight to burn me like frostbite; I hang at the cutting of your every breath...”

/Oh no, oh God…/  She was moving before she ever knew it.  Heading down the aisle toward him, where he stood with his eyes welded shut with a sort of thrumming passion and facing downward toward the stage. 

“Faith, blood, and desire leaving me weak, barely enough breath left in me to speak. No air in my lungs, you reeve all that is left; since death clamed me and chained me unto her weft…”

She should leave.  She knew better; should have known why he hadn’t called, hadn’t gone to her.  She had destroyed him one too many times.  Why would he want her back?

But she couldn’t seem to make herself turn away.  His voice held her pinned there, feet welded to the floor and all volition lost as it ground on, low and dark and certain as the tides.  “…And I know I deserve every wound I betray; I know I’m a fool to think someday I’ll heal. But when I feel the heat of your fiery rays, I know I got the best of the deal.”

It didn’t make sense.  What was he even saying?

It drew her on, pulled her closer; the faintest prickles of hope moving her feet like an automaton, closer to the stage; wending through the chairs and the elbows of the rough crowd. 

“I burn alive with your passion, and that’s how I know it…”  Something must have hit him then; some twinge, finally, of her presence.  Maybe the smell of the tears in her eyes, because his opened there, at the end, to stare at her in bright blue awe.  “I’m yours,” he whispered, “always have been, and that’s how I’ll show it.”

She stopped at the foot of the stage and just drank him in.  The feel of him, filling up all the achingly empty places that had burned inside her, burned her to ashes since she had lost him. 

Somewhere, from a great distance, the crowd was whooping for him again, but she barely heard it.  All she could see was his face.  “It’s really you,” she whispered.  She realized she was afraid to touch him.  What if he disappeared?  In so many of her dreams, when she woke up, reached out, he was gone.

“Buffy?”  He also sounded disbelieving, incredulous.  Which was funny, really, since who had been the dead one, here, this time?

“It’s me,” she answered, and caught herself laughing a little.  She was distantly dismayed to hear tears in the laugh. 

The crowd noise died down, dissipated as they recognized that something was happening. 

Was something happening?  He just stood there, staring at her.  She stood there, staring back at him, yearning to close the distance, but…

Finally she started to get a little mad.  “Dammit, Spike!  Just tell me!  Should I stay or should I…”

“Go?” he asked, and to her shock and deep, crushing agony, he had a twinkle of, of all things, sudden amusement in his eyes.  His tongue curled a little behind his teeth, as if in appreciation of some kind of joke, and just, oh God, no.  He not only wanted her to leave, but he was laughing at her for even coming, and…

She had to get out of here before she started crying.  Turned, prepared to bolt, and was halted when he jerked out, caught her arm—oh God, he was solid; he really was real!—and damn near shouted, “Bloody buggering hell!  Don’t leave, Slayer!”

She swung back, hopeful and, honestly, more terrified right now than she had ever been facing a nest of molting Khresgid demons.  But his face, now; blanched paler than she had seen it since he had been blood-starved and sun-sick in Giles’ house when he had been first chipped and eyes staring at her incredulously, halted her.  Let her breathe. 

He let her go to shove a hand through his hair, completely messing it up in the way she privately loved.  Not that she would ever tell him that, but his cray-cray look from down in the school basement?  It had actually really, really worked for her.  It seemed like her abortive attempt at bailing had shocked him into sanity.  “Christ,” he finally told her, sounding unnecessarily breathless, “just give a bloke a second to get his knickers on straight, alright?  It’s like seeing a ghost, seeing you here!”

That really made her laugh; a laugh that was actually mostly tears.  “It’s like seeing a ghost for you?  Spike, do you have any idea how many nights I’ve spent reliving seeing you…”  She choked on it, unable to get the words out.  And then, somehow, finally, he was there.  And his arms were around her—finally around her, real and around her, oh my god—and the smells of him engulfed her, as familiar as the home she had lost… and she clung to his black t-shirt while the world vanished from all around them. 

After something like a million perfect years, she heard his voice again—God, she could listen to him talk for hours—rumbling out of his chest.  “C’mon.  Let’s get out of it.  Let someone else take the mic, yeah?”  And grabbing up his duster from the stool, he gently guided her away from their spot center stage to one a little off to one side of the bar.  Someone else promptly strode up behind them to grab the spotlight and started rambling about how the hemp oil was like a lover’s caress or something. 

Wow.  Now she knew she was back in Cali.  “Spike,” she asked his throat, “what are you doing in a poetry bar?  And what does ‘effulgent’ mean?” 

He flung the duster over another nearby stool… but he kept his arms tight around her as if he was afraid she would vanish if he let go.  “Well, I write poetry, luv.”  He said it matter-of-factly, like saying, ‘Well, I drink blood, luv’.  “And effulgent is a word means ‘glowing’.”  The last came out with a little bit of an edge, like he expected her to mock him.  Even then, his eyes riveted themselves on her.  “Radiant, yeah?” he breathed the last, and there was maybe the hint of a tremble around the edges of the word.

She had no thought of mocking him.  The only thing she could really think to do was stare up at him through narrowed eyes.  “Since when do you write poetry?”

He seemed to relax imperceptibly.  “Since before I sported the special features, pet,” he told her wryly, and loosed one hand to tap his eyebrows.  “But I wasn’t gonna go around telling you something so vulnerable, was I?”  He made a sour kind of face.  “And besides; you were the first bird I felt like writing about since I got turned, weren’t you?  ‘Cept me mum, but that’s a whole other cocked up, problematic mess I don’t wanna discuss.”  His darkened gaze flicked to hers, turned sardonic.  “Never let myself write ‘em out, a’ course, in case you found ‘em, but yeah.  Always had a few rumblin’ about in my head about you.”

Something warm twisted inside of Buffy, making her feel both a hundred feet tall and about as small as an ant.  It forced her to look away, into the general vicinity of his throat.  “Yeah, well; if you torture someone enough, I guess they wanna write about it.” 

His voice turned from jaunty to stricken, the way it could always do whenever she managed to cut him with words.  “Buffy, that’s not…”

Except she had not been meaning to cut, this time, but to take responsibility.  “Yeah it is.”  She closed her eyes, took a deep breath.  Now or never.  “Is that why…”  She forced herself to meet his eyes again, pushed away a little to catch his hands… and she was not going to hit him.  She would save that for Angel if he kept defending this stupid choice.  “Spike, why the hell didn’t you tell me you were here?  I mean, if it’s ‘cause you don’t want me around anymore, I get that, but if…”

“Buffy, Christ no!”  He actually sounded shocked.  “If anything, I just didn’t want to disrupt what you had going on to come parading back into your world like I was all that.”  His hand lifted as if of its own accord to brush her cheek in that way he had that was half-hesitant, as if he were afraid she would duck away or disappear, and his voice, wafted cool air over her hair; so achingly familiar that she almost didn’t hear the cynicism in his words.  “Look at me, the Big Bad, back from my blaze of glory that didn’t actually mean much in the end, because here I am all over again, didn’t sacrifice much it turns out; how’s life been treatin’ you, Slayer?”

Rocked by the feel of him, the familiar patterns of his speech, his presence, it took her a moment to register his meaning.  /Wait, what?  You think…  You think that what you did didn’t matter?/

/You absolute idiot!/

Seeing the blaze in her eyes his tones, self-denigrating at first, turned a little wry.  “Though, gotta say, luv, it was a near thing when we saw you with that Immortal.”  In one of his startlingly mercurial mood-changes he grabbed her arms and held her away from him, blue eyes boring fiercely into hers; warm glaciers of intensity and with just a flicker of amber near the center.  “Buffy,” he intoned seriously, “whatever he might tell you, that git’s dangerous.  I know it’s not my place to interfere with your love life anymore, but for God’s sake, be bloody careful.  You have no idea what the tosser’s capable of…”

It warmed her; both the concern and the underlying thread of what might even still be—just maybe—jealousy?  “I’m not dating the Immortal, Spike,” she whispered to him; a low, quiet statement of certainty that she hoped would carry all the meaning it needed to between them.  “And…”

“I can bloody well see, Slayer.”  He threw himself away from her, back onto the nearest stool, and collapsed on top of his duster all frustrated energy once more.  And God, even when he was being a bullheaded idiot he was insanely attractive.  He always had been.  It was one of the things that had used to drive her crazy about him.  Wishing it wasn’t so; the way he sprawled out like that, all long limbs in black clothes and…  “You were all over the ponce in that club in Rome!  I’m telling you, that sod’s dangerous…”

She badly missed the feel of him against her.  It was like a void.  She could swear she could trace the impression of every muscle of arm and abdomen against her own flesh in memory… and had he been working out or something?  “It wasn’t me.  Andrew made a bunch of the junior Slayers into doppelgangers of me to throw someone off my scent while I made the transfer to our new location…”

That last had him sitting bolt-upright.  “That little lying poof!”  Outrage flooded his voice, scented the air flinty with the edges of amber eyes.  “I should’ve known he was up to no good.  He’s as greasy as a Turkoff demon in a hand of seven-card kitten-stud…” 

Buffy’s lips twitched, and she crossed her arms, watching for his reaction.  “There was a good reason.  Turned out it was the Scourge who was after me, actually.  They’re after all of us, but especially me…” 

He was up out of his seat in an instant and staring at her as if she’d gone crazy.  “Then what the bloody hell are you doing here in LA!  Christ, Buffy, we’re about to go down like the bloody Titanic!  Get the hell out of here!  Go save your girls!  The Scourge?  Bleeding Christ; go, you shouldn’t be here anyway…”

“I’m not leaving you here.  I’m not going to let you die again.  Not when I can save you.”

Her flat statement sent him reeling back to his stool as if she had stolen all his unneeded breath.  “Buffy…  Oh, bloody hell.”  He fumbled in his pocket.  Found some cigarettes and his battered Zippo, flicked it open.

“I’m pretty sure there’s no smoking in here.”

He stared at her as if she’d said the stupidest thing he had literally ever heard in his long unlife.  “Have you gone completely off your bird?  It’s the middle of the day out there.”

She just smiled at him and lifted an eyebrow, tilted her head a little in clear invitation.  “How’d you get here?”

He sighed heavily and rocked to his booted feet.  She thought his hands were shaking as they clenched around the lighter and cigs, grabbed up the duster.  “C’mon, luv,” he murmured, resigned, and led the way out through the crowd toward a back door.

***

Chapter Text

The worst part was over.  Surely, the worst part was over.  He hadn’t sent her away. 

Granted, he was smoking up a storm and barely talking, but he hadn’t sent her away.  Yet.  And, okay; he was stalking ahead through the drain like he was half trying to get away from her, but he was also doing that thing he did where he half-deferentially turned like a quarter-way toward her every third step to sort of check in with her, so that was of the good, right?

Though, apparently she was going to have to fight like hell to get him to leave with her?  Because he seemed to have some kind of a death-wish happening, based on how the conversation was going so far. 

Well, fine.  She, Buffy of the thrice-born, knew all about death-wishes.  She just had to talk him through this, and then…

“How did you find me, Buffy?”

“What?”  The question was so unexpected that it completely threw her off-course.

“It’s a big city, pet.”

She watched him warily; kind of afraid, actually, that he was mad she had or something.  That she really had read everything wrong in those last few weeks they’d had together.  That he didn’t want her around anymore, or…  Watched his body.  The line of his shoulders as he stalked the unfamiliar sewer toward their apparent intended destination; tense and… uncertain? in the gloom.  The fingers of his right hand were twitching against his jeans… and he was practically clogging the tunnel with smoke.  It was actually kind of impressive.  And irritating, since it made it tough to talk.  

Was he nervous?  Freaked?  /By me?/  When had Spike ever been freaked by Buffy Summers?  It made her anxious.  Stammery.  Which was just even more of the irksome, and she fought to keep the tremble out of her voice when she answered.  “I, um, told Angel if he didn’t tell me where you were I would keep calling.”  She sounded tentative even to her own ears, which once upon a time would just not have been even a little bit okay… but this was Spike, and everything depended on this conversation, so…  /Dammit, you can be vulnerable, just this once, with him.  Just… deal, Buffy.  Let him see you.  Even if he shoots you down, at least you’ll… know./  “Maybe hang around his office and bother him till I ran into you.”  Okay.  She kind of couldn’t help it that she tried for light and airy there at the end, though she was pretty sure she didn’t pull it off at all.

To her surprise, Spike’s shoulders started to shake.  Unexpectedly, he halted.  His blond head turned, and to her everlasting gratitude and relief, he was laughing.  And, even better, his eyes were shining on hers in the dim light.  “Oh, Christ, luv, I’d’ve loved to hear that.  That sounds like something I’d do.”  He took a drag on his cigarette and blew even more smoke up toward the curved ceiling, looking blissed out.  “Hell; it’s something I have done to the poof.  Drives him mad.”  And then, as abruptly as he’d dropped into humor he sobered to eye her with a strange, illegible look.  “Didn’t mind runnin’ right over the top of Peaches, is it, to find me?”

/Wh…  Oh.  Of course, duh./  “I came here for you,” she told him, quiet but firm.

She wasn’t sure what she expected.  Maybe one of those moments he always gave her whenever she handed him the slightest opening.  But not this time.  Instead he just groaned, like she was ripping his unbeating heart out by the roots, and rubbed his hand over his face as if she had driven him suddenly insane.  “Christ.  Buffy…”

It shook her.  “Spike?” she whispered, because, /No.  Please, no./  If he didn’t want her anymore, then she was really, truly unlovable, by anyone.  If Spike, of all people, couldn’t love her anymore, then…

“You don’t get it, pet, is the thing.”  He exhaled a tiny bit more smoke to add to the halo drifting around his head and hovering to eddy generally above them in the tunnel.  Looked down at the ember at the end of the cigarette, like it was mesmerizing or something; and at first she thought he was trying to find a way to let her down easy… until she saw that his hands were actually shaking.  Till she heard the tremor in his voice.  “What’s about to happen…  I can’t just…” 

The cigarette lowered slowly, and his eyes, when they met hers, were frank, and about as bleak as she’d ever seen them.  “This is just something I have to do.  The team needs me.  The plan’s set.  The times, all of it.”  He turned away, stalked on down the tunnel so that she had to jog to catch up, he’d taken her so unawares.  “I’ve got to meet everyone at a spot in an hour.  Less than.”

/He’s talking about this big showdown of Angel’s.  He’s on board.  He’s so on board, and…/

“We’ve all got our bit to do,” he told her in torn, agitated tones.  “And then it’s lights out, most like; for us if not for the whole bleeding city.”

/Oh, hell no./    

“Which means you need to g...”

“Go with you and watch your right side,” she informed him firmly, “if I can’t convince you to leave with me.”  She thought her interruption quite logical.

He halted so abruptly that she almost fell backward not to carom off of his ass, stared when he wheeled around to glare at her.  “Didn’t you hear me, Buffy?  I’m talking about the end of bleeding everything here!  Get back home, to wherever home is now!  Save your ducklings from the wrath of those skinheads!  Leave us to this.  I’ve made this my fight, but it isn’t yours…”

Oh, this was bullshit, and she got right in his face to tell him.  “Don’t you dare say that to me!  Not you, when you made my fight your fight for years!  When it got you killed!”  And when he reeled back in turn, shocked at her vehemence, “Spike, I watch your right side, you watch my left.  I’ve had no one to watch my left since I lost you, and I don’t know who’s been watching your right, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave that job to someone else and just wander off home to organize the troops.  Not when I have another chance; not when I know I’d be leaving you to die again!  I’ve spent too many nights waking up screaming and watching you go up in flames knowing if I’d done something different, maybe I could’ve gotten you out, to just…”

“Oh bloody hell, pet, I’m sorry.”  And suddenly his arms were around her again, and he was crushing her to him, murmuring things into her hair; and she wasn’t imagining it, could tell even now with the duster on.  His arms really were stronger than they used to be.  “I know how that is.  God knows I know.  Been there, innit?  After you went down from that barmy bitch’s tower.  But Buffy…”

“Have you been working out?  In some kind of special lawyer workout gym or something?  Or did whatever brought you back make you more buff or something?”  Distracted, she turned her face away from his collarbones to slide a questing hand down into his sleeve and along his bicep.

His hand caught hers, pinning it flat to the muscle, and his blue eyes blazed into hers with sudden, peculiar intensity.  “They’ve got a bank of human blood on tap at Wolfram and Hart,” he told her blandly, and he had drawn back now, into himself in that way that said he was protecting himself in case she was about to lambast him for something.  “One of the perks of working for an evil law firm and all that.”  His voice roughened a little, tightened up.  “Didn’t use it for a long time.  Not that I sodding care if Peaches wanted to test me like he did Harmony…”

/Test you?  What…/

“More I didn’t want to tempt myself, and ‘cause Christ knows where they get it.  But since there’s a battle on tonight…”

She blinked slowly, feeling a little at a loss as she worked her way through that.  She didn’t really want to know how they sourced the blood right now, but as long as he hadn’t been hunting, whatever, right?  But just what the heck did it have to do with his bulking up?  “Okay?”

Her incomprehension must have been as clear as her lack of disdain, for he relaxed a tad, tilted his head a little.  “You live too long on butcher’s blood, luv, you lose muscle mass.  We’re not meant to live on pig and the like.  Makes us weak in the long run.  I’m back to what I was before, for the most part.”

It hit her like a tidal wave.  She had been demanding him to be at his peak performance for her for years, and especially at the end—full ferocity, full power—when he had not only been dealing with the stress of isolation from his own society and kind, his old life and culture…  /And don’t forget a helping of daily abuse from previous enemies.  Including from you./  And then there was the guilt and shame that came of the soul’s return, either from another place entirely or from bondage, whatever theory proved correct.  And on top of that… she had been slowly starving him.  And despite all that, she had thought somehow that she should just be able to unclip his choke-chain and set him loose like a boarhound at hunting season.  ‘Go get ‘em, Spike, that’s a good boy.’ 

And he had tried.  Oh yes, he had tried anyway; tried his damnedest.  For her.  And blamed himself whenever he had failed.  On the tower, with Dawn.  At every turn, after Africa.  Over and over again.  “I… didn’t know.  God, I would’ve tried to get you expired blood from the hospitals or something if I’d’ve…”  It came out as a whisper, half self-recrimination and half uncertainty, because would she really have?  Certainly not at first.  Not until she had begun to value him as a member of the team.  And later? 

Later she had become so complacent she had not bothered to think about it, much less care.  /God, no wonder he was always so desperate to earn a little cash, before.  Jeez, Buffy; what the hell is wrong with you?/

Oh so familiar, cool fingers slipped under her chin to tilt her head up.  “Hey.  It’s alright, pet.  You had a lot going on, there at the end.  And it wasn’t like I didn’t go out and get a nip here and there from the highest bidder whenever I could afford it before I was kipping at your place.”

/Whenever you could…/  An awful thought occurred to her, caused her to cut her eyes away.  She almost didn’t ask, truly didn’t want to know, but of course her stupid, traitorous mouth had to speak up in spite of her best interests.  “Did you… ever go to… one of those houses where people sold themselves to get bit?  Like Riley?”  /Except… he couldn’t, right?  Because even if they wanted him to, it would still hurt them, right?/ 

He was silent for a long moment.  Then he loosed her chin with a sigh and looked her straight in the eye.  “What kind of answer do you want from me, Slayer?  The one that’ll make you feel better, or the one that makes sense?”

Oh.  He had, somehow.  Which… did make sense, she supposed, if they were already there, and had already let some other vamp…

/Oh God./  Except…  That would be like… sloppy seconds, to have to take some other vamp’s leftovers so it wouldn’t trigger the chip.  And how desperate would he have had to have been to have done that in order to get something he urgently needed?  Something that he clearly hadn’t been getting; because it was for free, and he was broke.  This once-proud demon, this master vampire, lowered to the degradation of taking some other vamp’s leavings…

It twisted in her stomach.  Not pity, not disgust, but a sudden roil of self-despite.  That she had driven him there, though no doubt he hadn’t been able to bring himself to do it all that often.  After all, probably after someone else the… donors wouldn’t have been able to give him much anyway, and…

Just thinking of how it would have felt to this former predator, this hunter, to have had to stoop so low damn near killed her.  She had thought him worse than an animal, then, but…  /I made you into one, didn’t I?/  He’d had to go among the worst dregs of his society, had to allow himself to be seen that way; desperate and humbled, before vamps he wouldn’t have even taken as minions before, vamps he would as soon dust… 

No doubt he’d only done it as a last resort, and seldom.  Probably would rather have dusted himself than go back.  But god.  At that point he had just been getting by; surviving.  And she had for sure barely been helping him.  Oftentimes she had actively been interfering in his survival, depending on the day. 

God knew she couldn’t be upset about it that he’d taken blood, since she hadn’t had any claim on him then, and no one had gotten hurt; except maybe him, she supposed.  She still couldn’t fathom the attraction on the part of the… donors, of course.  It was all caught up in the betrayal she felt because of Riley, but… that wasn’t Spike’s fault either. 

Though… it did explain how he had come to know Riley was doing what he had been doing. 

So, why was she feeling not just pain on his behalf, but… /It’s not jealousy.  Dammit, it’s not like he was cheating, or like you’ve ever offered to let him bite you, so what are you even upset about?  Him being a vampire?/ 

No.  She’d gotten over that years ago, whether she had wanted to admit it or not.  Gotten over being disgusted with herself for wanting said vampire, even.  No.  It was just that…  “I understand.  I’m glad… that you found a way to stay strong.  That… there was a way you could.”  She looked away, so he wouldn’t read her expression.  She couldn’t afford for him to think that she had realized… the ramifications.  Could not afford for him to believe she was feeling anything like pity mixed in with her regret.  He would never forgive her for it.  Better that he think she wasn’t well-versed enough in the ways of the world to really get it.  “And that I didn’t know before, since obviously I wouldn’t have handled it too well back then.”  Let him think she was only struggling with her conscience, her morals, her…

“Yeah, well…”  His voice was a bit rough when he answered.  “You had your reasons, what with soldier-boy and all that.”  And though he sounded relieved to avoid a showdown over the matter, she heard no irritation, no pent-up hurt, no defensive ire. 

Good.  Somehow, for once, she had managed to hide at least one reaction from him.  It might have been a first.  And thank God, since it might even have been a game-saver.

She could have left it at that, but it wouldn’t be honest, and she was done lying to him.  Omitting that she had realized something for his pride’s sake, but lying?  Never again.  He needed to know… there was more than one reason for her stilted words, the catch in her throat. 

He’d earned that.  Even if admitting it terrified her.  “No,” she confessed softly, and forced herself to look into his eyes.  “Even before then, I would’ve had problems with it being you.  Because…”  She shook her head a little, feeling impatient as always with her ability to word.  It was embarrassing and stupid and couldn’t she just action? 

But that would be cheating; and he was worth more than that.  Especially now, when it was make or break.  When everything she said meant his very life—his second unlife—was on the line.  When her every word to him was as vital as breath.  “I don’t know.  I… think…”  She stumbled, hard, but forced it out; forced herself to keep going, because, dammit, she was fighting for her life here, with him.  “I think I always held you to some stupidly higher standard than any other vampire, for… reasons that had nothing to do with you and…”  She sighed and met his curious gaze with all the strength she could muster.  “…Everything to do with me.  It wasn’t fair to you, and the only explanation I have for it now is…”  She bit the inside of her cheek.  “I think I wanted you even then.  I just didn’t want to admit it; so the more things I could find to be disgusted about when it came to you, the better…  What?”

He was looking at her all smug, rocked back on his heels with eyes sparkling in the gloom, tongue curled behind his teeth in an expression she hadn’t seen from him in ages.  Since before Africa.  “Well, that’s a nice one to hear, pet.  Though I have to admit it doesn’t make it any easier to know that might be part of the reason for the constant comparisons to Peaches.”

/Bastard./  “Oh shut up.  I don’t even want to talk about him and your stupid conspiracy to not even tell me you were here, and alive…”  Just thinking about all that lost time made her want to cry, and if he wanted to get her upset, this was a much more surefire road than the whole, ‘Years ago I used to visit bloodsucker flophouses’ thing.

Anger was safer than tears.  A hell of a lot safer than words.  Anger led to action. 

She knew action, and doubled her fists.

And was forestalled when cool hands simply pushed said fists back down to her sides.  And if his right hand, scarred like hers by the flames, lingered briefly over the marks of her burns…

She would not take the ripples inside of her as promise, or even question.  It wouldn’t be fair.  Not yet. 

“Steady on, Slayer.”  He released her hands to lifted one of his, rub it through his hair, looking kind of at the end of his tether.  “Look; if he hadn’t spilled the goods, you wouldn’t be here risking your life in another bloody apocalypse, would you?” he shot back, clearly getting annoyed again.  “For Chrissake, woman, how many times do you need to die?  Do you think I’m gonna let that happen again?  You need to get the bloody hell out of this city before tonight!  I…”

“No.”  Just hearing it was enough to restore her back to her simplicity of purpose.  It distilled her.  No more distractions.  “Not without you.”

“Oh, bollocks.”  He flung down his cigarette in disgust.  It sizzled to death in the little rivulet of thick, rotten-smelling old water at the very bottom of the tunnel.  “Buffy you are the most stubborn, bullheaded, idiotic woman I have ever…”

“Good match for you then, since you’re the stubbornest, most idiotic, bullheaded guy I’ve ever loved; and that’s saying something.”  She stalked a step closer to slap her hand on his chest, lowered her voice to murderous intensity.  “And if you even dare try to tell me I don’t again I will kill you myself.”

He just stood there stupidly staring at her for a long minute or something, like she’d hit him over the head with an axe.  “Buffy,” he said finally when his concussion cleared, but it came out weak.

“Spike,” she answered, firm and patient.  “I’m not sure how much more clear I can be than I already was.  And since you’re not dying yet at this point, I expect you to believe me this time.  So whatever this stupid death wish of yours is or whatever it is you feel you have to prove, get over it!  You’ve proved yourself already.  You’ve saved the world.  And I. Need. You.”

It was kind of a new thing, to see William the Bloody at a loss for words.  Especially now that she knew that there wasn’t just a witty demon in there with snappy comebacks aplenty, but also a frustrated poet egging him on.  “What, did you think I just came down here because I owed you?  Because you already died once?”

“Well, yeah,” he admitted dumbly, still staring.

“Well, stop being stupid,” she informed him briskly, and grabbed his left hand this time.  Pulled it to her heart, laid it between her breasts.  Covered it with both of hers; scarred over right.  “Listen to me for once, dammit, Spike.  I love you.  Both of you.”  She stepped a little closer to look into his eyes.  “And not just William, since I’m barely getting to know him, but also Spike…”  She held on when he jerked in shock at that.  “…Because I’ve known him for years, and I know how he loves me.  I know how you both love me, and I need that.”  Squeezed the fingers under hers, hoping for recognition in his gaze.  “A wise man once told me something.  That wise man was right.  I, Buffy the Slayer who’s got a lot of demon in me, need a little monster in my man…”  She smiled into his stunned eyes, trying for lightly teasing.  “And it looks like I might also need a closet poet too?”

“Oh for Chrissakes, Buffy, you weren’t supposed to even know about that…”

“Who will throw himself on the sun to save me and the world, who will hang out with people who hate him every day for five months to take care of my little sister because he loves what I love, who loved my mother, and who was the only person I could come to when I needed a friend and I was lost.”  Her voice hitched.  “I know that I’m messed up, Spike, and that I messed you up.  And I know that with all the things I did to you after that, that I probably don’t deserve a seventh or whatever chance with you…”  She would not cry.  She would not.  She would not manipulate him like that, dammit!  “…But I’m kinda hoping that you’ll give me one anyway, since you always seem willing to give me whatever I need…”

“Oh, bollocks!” Spike exclaimed, and jerked his free hand around like he was horrified.  “You don’t deserve?  Buffy…”

“That’s right,” she rode over his protestations.  “If there was wrong done we both did it, and we both know it, and I’m done blaming you for everything.  I was…”  Her voice caught on the terror of his answer, but she needed to know.  “I was really hoping that, since we’ve both died and started over, maybe we could… start fresh.”  And she lifted her eyes to rivet them on his stunned blue gaze.  “You know, without either of us having to die again.”

He was still for so long she thought he was never going to answer.  Her heart plummeted to her heels, and she began to shake.  He didn’t breathe, of course, since he only needed to do that to talk; just watched her like a statue she couldn’t read, and she was about to run away, to flee, and then…

And then he came to life under her hands.  “Bloody hell, luv.”  It was a worshipful sort of whisper.  “To hear you say that…” 

But then he looked away, up at the city above him, and she saw that torn expression cross his face once more.

/Oh hell no./  “You have nothing to prove,” she told him again.

His face twisted.  “You don’t understand.  It may be a losing battle.  It may not even matter if I’m there.  But to back out now, leave all of them without me in it…  I’d never know if, if I’d stayed…”

Oh God; she knew that feeling.  Would it poison everything between them if she forced him to leave?  “What are you facing?” she asked him quietly.

He came back to her, expression twisted into agony.  “Me, Peaches, Wes, Gunn, the Blue Meanie, Lorne’s gonna help for a bit and then he’s out I think.  That’s it.  Against all the forces of these Senior Partners can swing out of demonic LA, far as we can figure.”

It hit her then, like a sledgehammer.  /We got it wrong.  They’re still in the good fight.  And that’s why he stayed./ 

Pride filled her.  Pride in him.  He’d stayed.  Her guy had stayed, to do the right thing.  To give even more, after he had already given everything.  And yet…

Buffy felt the visions coming back; the teeming hordes of the Turok-Han, closing all around them.  “Got any witches?”

“Nah, pet.  Just a bunch of blokes who are good at brawling, and one slightly housebroken ex-Demon Queen who’s somewhat on our side out of affection for her vessel’s former associations.  A turncoat we can maybe trust, and great green poof of an empath who can sing your ears off and get you right in the feels, but he wouldn’t hurt a fly.” 

/That’s… not the best army for a war./

Spike shot another glance up at the closest manhole-cover.  The light, shining through in slivers, was oblique and angled against the shaft.  She thought it was probably about seven.  “And I’m starting to have a sneaking suspicion that whatever we might decide, luv, it’s too late for us to get out of here.  I’m supposed to meet the group in a few minutes.”  He turned to Buffy, caught her arms in his hands.  She was shocked to note that they were trembling.  “Christ, I’m terrified of watching you die again and it being my fault.  Maybe there’s still time to get you…”

Something inside her firmed then; a realization crystallizing.  “Same.”

“What?”

“Which means I guess that we’re just both going to have to promise each other we’re gonna come out of this alive.”  She turned toward the direction of their line of march.  “You think you’ve got a spare axe over there, where you’re meeting?  I’m good with axes.”

“Buffy…”

She swung back hard.  “Look.  Whatever happens here, the girls will have forted up by now in Scotland with Xander and the crew, or with Giles in St. Petersburg, or with Robin in Cleveland.  They’ll be fine for a few days.  And. I. Am. Not. Leaving. You.”

“Buffy.”

She caught him by the collar of his duster—always such a convenient handle—and pulled him down to her mouth.  Kissed him, hard enough to draw blood; probably from the both of them.  Long enough that he finally responded; hungry, desperate… and oh, God, it had been so long.  And then his lithe, powerful arms were around her, pulling her up, fierce, needy, bringing her in; and it was the same.  The bright, hot-cold light that was the only thing real in her world, and had been since she could remember; the tang of copper and the fierceness that made the untamed, slumbering thing inside her wake up and feel alive; but with the softness of yearning and loving underneath that she had never let herself feel with him.  Had not let herself feel since Angel… except for that night.  That one night with him, in that room in that stranger’s house when she had lain in his arms, and looked into his eyes, and known.  Known that she actually could feel again, when everything else she had ever felt had burned down to frozen embers.   

She had not been able to act upon that knowing; give it back.  Not before.  Had tried, of course, but… It had been too late, or too soon, and things had been too muddled by apocalypse and the vast weight of the unsaid.  But she could do it now.  She yielded to that knowing, finally, now; gave it back, to Spike.  To the man who had taught her to feel again.  Sensed the wonder of it dissolve in him, felt rather than heard him moan into her mouth, pull her in even tighter, till she wasn’t sure where he ended and she began, and God, he felt so good.  No ghost, no dream, he was real against her, everywhere against her again, finally, breath and bone and mouths and cool rightness and…

And then he was pulling away, to stare at her this time in amazement.  She smiled at him a little, doing her best to ignore the way her legs had gone all wobbly, and lifted one finger to wipe the edges of his mouth.  Wasn’t the first time their kisses had drawn blood, by far… but it was definitely the first time she hadn’t decked him for saying something about it after; about the hot taste of Slayer blood or something.  

This time she was glad of the exchange, and what did that say about her?  “See?” she murmured.  “You can’t get rid of me.  I’m inside of you now.”  And she tried a tentative smile.

She was stunned at his response.  Awed wonder; God, he looked like he was about to fall to his knees.  “Oh, Christ, Slayer; you’ve been inside me since the day I first saw you; burning in every cell of me.  I knew if I didn’t kill you you’d destroy me.”

It shattered inside her, and she nodded painfully, looking away.  “I have, haven’t I.”  She started to pull back; was halted with the touch of one hand sliding down over her heated cheek in the gentlest possible caress. 

“You can’t rebuild a house until you strip it down first,” he whispered.  “So of course I’ve felt gutted.  But that was just to let the light shine through.  Now I’ve got my walls back up.  And I know who lives inside again.”  He smiled a little; that sweet smile she knew had always belonged to her.  “It’s you, Buffy.  It’s always been you.”

/Oh, wow./

Then his hand dropped to fold into hers; burnt hand to burnt hand.  “So I guess let’s go be heroes again?”

She looked down, saw that their twisting, winding scars seemed to meld, become one living thing.  And the chill, dead tissue warmed, as if his cold flesh had somehow kindled life in her veins.  It filled her up.  “Yeah,” she whispered.  “I guess so.”  And how could heading back into the face of death, at impossible odds, feel so much like winning?

Hand in hand they headed off down the tunnel toward, she guessed maybe the stupid evil law firm?  “It never ends, does it?  What is this, apocalypse number eighty?”

“This one’ll be number one in my book.  I get to walk in with you on my arm.  Peaches is gonna have kittens.”

She punched him in the arm for that one.  Because he would, wouldn’t he. 

Stupid, territorial vampires.

***


Chapter the next...  We get to turn some Peaches into puree.  *EVEG*
I mean, ahem...  In a very civilized way we will approach the situation and try to resolve it peacefully and I will keep my glee very much to myself.  And we will all be adults, yes?

Chapter Text

She stared around her briefly as they stepped through the weird little arched stairway into the—okay, truly ugly—green brick tank of a room.  She didn’t get much more than a glimpse on that quick recon, but enough to see that it had all the personality of a movie set, but not in that slick, overproduced way that said money.  This was more of a ‘barely lived in, seedy-if-tidy hole in the wall’ vibe.  “This isn’t Wolfram and Hart,” she whispered. 

Spike shot her a darkly amused glance.  “No, pet.  It’s my flat.”

His…  She glanced around the doorway again.  Radiator, bricks; no records—no records!—no TV that she could see, which was just unheard of.  There was not one single ounce of Spikeness about this place.  Not one.  Maybe in the bedroom over there?  His crypt had been kind of spare too, upstairs, but down in his actual room he’d made it more ‘comforts of home-y’. 

She leaned back into the doorway to tilt her head at him.  “Why’d we come to your apartment?  Probably don’t have time for anything fun for old times’ sake before the action.  Much as I’d love to.”  She said it half-jokingly… but god knew the sentiment was no joke.  She missed sex.  Really missed sex.  And specifically, sex with Spike.  Which was part of what had kept her from going around hunting for other guys with whom to scratch that particular itch in the interim.  It would maybe have taken the edge off a little… but after him it would mostly have been just a big damn letdown. 

After Spike, anyone would have been a letdown… and dammit, this was not the kind of thinking that was conducive to focus.  They were heading into a fight.  Now was so not the time.  /Battle first.  Sex/ she reminded herself sternly, /and other uncomplicated complications later./  After all, it wasn’t as if she was unused to rolling that energy over into spectacular ass-kickings.

She half-expected a sardonic snort and maybe even a knowing look complete with flared nostrils, because yes, she was feeling a sort of a way with him just standing there and with the whole, not being totally uncertain, in a huge crowd, or in a sewer anymore; and okay, she hadn’t touched him in a year, dammit, so shoot her.  But to her surprise he just shook his head, apparently distracted.  “This is where we’re meeting.  You know.  ‘Team Angel’.”  He said that last with only a modicum of snark, and wow, he was just wound tight as a violin, wasn’t he?

But, to be fair, his tension was in tune with the extra prickles on the back of her neck that said another vamp was there waiting for them… and that familiar feeling in spine and belly that told her exactly which vampire. 

Angel was already on site.  Well.  Luckily, the warning was enough to prep herself for the run-in with her ex.  She for sure needed it.  As they moved past the couch, he swung around the doorway from the crappy little kitchenette to watch them move through the room… and was it just her imagination, or was Angel looking kind of… thick these days? 

Weren’t vampires supposed to be all… unchanged-y?  It was weird; Angel almost looked like something had set him, made him harder, aged him a little, even.  He looked tired and worn and weighed down, and…  Okay, really bigger than she remembered him, which was impressive since he’d always kind of loomed over her. 

It didn’t make any sense.  The only time she’d ever seen any vampire change was when… 

/Oh./  When they got souls and had something serious and personal to atone for, and when they were eating something that wasn’t the right diet for them.  /Wow.  Living off of pig’s blood is really not working for you, Angel./  And he was seriously packing on the guilt.  Like, even more than normal, which was impressive considering it was Angel

He was also looking, as expected, darkly perturbed at their entrance.  He already had on that uber-moody face of his; the one he wore sometimes when he was sure he wasn’t going to like what he was about to hear.  She could read him like a book, and man, this wasn’t going to be fun, was it?  Not that she had thought it would be, based off of their last few Spike-centric conversations, but still. 

/Do you really always have to be such a baby about it, Angel?  I mean, I love you, but jeez./  It was actually kind of starting to get on her nerves. 

It took her a sec to realize there was anyone else in the room, swamped as her senses were by the proximity of the two most familiar vamps in her life, but shortly another fairly massive sense of presence impinged on her mind.  Made her realize that every hair on her body was standing on edge.  Her head turned away from Angel of its own accord, and…  Huh.  Wesley was on the ugly couch, sitting next to some lanky woman with blue on the top of her forehead.  The coloration seemed to leak into her hair… and on top of that, she sported some truly wild eyes.  Her couture was also kind of… well.  Interesting.  She was wearing a bizarre, leathery-looking outfit, like a very weird biker-ballet reject. 

When those insane eyes turned to meet Buffy’s, she felt an incredible sense of sheer presence slam into her, as if she had been struck by a Mack truck that had been carefully hidden behind a curtain… or, she supposed, buried inside a human-like body.  It was a feeling she identified, belatedly, as familiar; a tinge of recognition from her graduation day.  The Mayor had had that sense of enormous, mind-numbing being when he’d ascended, if not so… diminished. 

It was enough to make her realize, very quickly, who this must be.  /Well… shit.  Demon-Queen, I presume?/

If so, it was kind of surprising how close Wesley was sitting to the blue creature.  And, God, he looked just… tired as hell.  In fact, he had changed so much she almost didn’t recognize him at first glance.  He really looked nothing like the bumbling idiot she remembered.  In fact, despite the fact that that whole stubble thing was really working for him, he looked kind of like life had sucked him dry and stomped on what was left of his soul.  But then, he had to have changed to have survived this this long; much less for Spike to call him ‘a brawler’. 

Spike tended to save that kind of title for people whose abilities he respected. 

Wes hadn’t changed too much, though.  As she expected, he shot to his feet when he saw her. 

“Buffy?  Good God, what are you doing here?  Spike, what on Earth are you thinking, bringing her here at a time like this?”

Angel, of course, was right there on that bandwagon.  “I was just about to ask the same question!  Buffy, I thought I told you it was a bad time and that you should go home!”

Spike was smirking, of course.  “You don’t have the girl’s full measure, Peaches, if you think she’ll just toddle off at your word.  You didn’t think she’d just do what she was told, did you?”

Angel just stared at her as if she was some kind of weird new life-form.  He looked kind of deflated.  “I thought we had an understanding, Spike.  You know, an understanding?  I thought after talking to you she’d, you know, leave town again.”

/Okay, A, what ‘understanding’?  And B, that’s about enough of this ‘protect the girl’ crap./  “You thought wrong, Angel.  I came here to get Spike.  But he seems to think there’s a fight here worth taking on, which means I’m staying till it’s over.”  She glanced over at her ex-watcher.  “Hi, Wes.”  Flicked her eyes at the one Spike had called ‘the Blue Meanie’.  “And you are this Demon Queen, I’m guessing?”

“I am Illyria.”

“Pleased as punch.”  She turned back to Angel, arms crossed.  “Where’re the rest of your people?”

“Buffy, you can’t stay here!  Spike, didn’t you tell her what was about to go down?”  Angel sounded panicked.

Buffy was so thrown by Angel’s attitude that it took her a second to come up with something snappy.  She was too busy staring, because… did he know her at all?  “Are you…  “Did you think him telling me would convince me to leave?” 

“I left when you asked me to!  I thought we agreed, Buffy, that this is my city, and…”

“That was when we had a second front!  This is the only front now!  And besides, I already told you why I’m staying.”  Why was he acting like he thought she would just pack up and take off on command like some kind of… child, or…

Spike tapped a cigarette out of his pack and lit up, smirking a little as if this exchange was warming his heart or something.  “The one thing you never figured out, Granddad, is here’s a bird never does anything she doesn’t want to.  If she says she’s gonna stay, you’re not gonna change her mind.”  He pulled in a drag.  “I sure the hell won’t be the one to talk her out of it.  I like my arms where they are.”  Let out a puff of smoke and shook his head.  “‘Sides; reckon we could use another fighter, experienced in apocalypse combat and all that rot.”

“Speaking of, if you’ve got an axe handy,” Buffy put in diffidently.  “For some reason Delta is not big on letting you carry an ancient Scythe with you on their planes.  Don’t even get me started on customs…”

“No.  Just no.”

It put her back up; sent iron into her voice.  “I don’t think you’re hearing me, Angel.  You don’t get a say in the matter.”

“And I don’t think you’re hearing me!” he repeated, and now his voice was laced with panic.  “This is my city, and you don’t get to just waltz in here and demand to take part in my apocalypse…”

That cut it.  “You waltzed into mine and tried it!”  She sliced her hand sideways to cut off any further protestations.  “And then you gave an amulet to Spike that killed him; an amulet that was meant for you!  And then you didn’t tell me when he came back, so I think you owe me.  Because I will not let him die again if I can stop it; do you hear me, Angel?”

“Buffy, I had no idea that thing would do that to him!  Do you think I would’ve given it to you if I…”

“Angel…”  It was Wesley’s quiet, solemn voice that broke in to interrupt their little ex-lovers’ spat.  You wouldn’t think that would be enough to cut him off, but shockingly, at least to her, Angel stopped dead.  “I don’t know about you, but I think we could use another fighter.  The most experienced Slayer on the planet certainly wouldn’t hurt our cause.  If she wants to stay, she’s a woman of free will and you cannot force her to leave.  And if Spike’s sacrifice at the hellmouth has earned her loyalty such that she wishes to repay it in kind, here, that is not a matter for debate.”

Well.  She never thought she would even think this, but three cheers for Wesley Wyndham-Price. 

There were certain misapprehensions to correct here, though, and she was done letting people believe whatever they wanted about her relationship with Spike.  She could feel him freezing up beside her as the seconds passed and the assumption stood.  “I appreciate that, Wes, but that’s not why I’m here.”

He looked lost.  “I beg your pardon?”

“Not loyalty.”  She glanced over at Angel, regretting what this would do to him on the eve of battle, but it was what it was.  “Or guilt.”  And reaching back, she caught Spike’s hand in hers, clasped it tight.  “Love.  Just plain love.”

The ugly, lime-green room went silent for a long moment.  Through her hand she could feel Spike warm and swell with the powerful reprise of her declaration as public acknowledgment.  But her eyes were on Angel. 

He looked floored.  “But…  I thought you said you were still cookie dough,” he stammered finally, and she was pretty sure she had never heard him sound so betrayed.

“This thing again?” Spike burst out from behind her, clearly thrown, and lowered his cigarette to squint at the crowd.  “What the bloody hell…”

She squeezed the hand she held, eyes still locked on Angel’s.  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “But when you’re cookie dough and you’re looking into someone’s eyes when they get turned into a supernova in front of you, sometimes you get baked real suddenly.”  Her gaze flickered away from dark ones to meet glowing blue.  “And there’s no going back from something that effulgent.”

Spike groaned.  “Oh bloody hell, Buffy, don’t ever say that again.”

She just smiled at him for a second before turning back to eye Angel a little sadly.  /Well?/

He looked down and away, avoiding her gaze. 

“None of this means I care any less what happens to you,” she told him softly.  “Any of you,” she expanded, lifting her voice to include Wesley.  “It doesn’t change anything.  I’m staying no matter what, so if you think you can use another fighter, plug me in.  Otherwise, I’ll just make it up as I go.  Because,” and her voice firmed up to steel, “nothing on this Earth will make me leave and let Spike die again.  Not on my watch.”

Angel opened his mouth, but before he could say anything footsteps thumped down from the door and a kind of adorable young Black guy came into the room.  Behind him was a tall, green-skinned demon with a heavily-lined face and horns under sort of ginger hair.  “Hey y’all,” the Black guy said, “who’s the señorita?”

“Oh, man,” the demon exclaimed, swinging up a hand, “tone down the resonances in here!  This place is like ‘The Love Boat’ meets ‘Days of Our Lives’ meets…”  He frowned.  “Well.  Something suitably tragic where people end up eating their own hearts.  You probably haven’t seen it.  It’s a demon thing.  I’m guessing we’ve walked ourselves right into a love triangle, my friend.”

He sounded like about the gayest demon she’d ever met; and she’d met Clem.  Even his suit was gay.

He kind of made her want to go shopping with him.

“Charles Gunn, Lorne,” Wesley spoke up tiredly from the couch, “meet Buffy the vampire-Slayer, late of Sunnydale.”

The cute Black guy, who she assumed was the one with two names, broke into a delighted sort of shit-eating grin and stepped forward, hand out.  “No way, I can’t believe it.  This is crazy.  Girl, I have heard so much about you from Cordy and Wes and Angel and even from Faith…”  He seemed to miss her wince.  “…It is a damn pleasure to finally meet you!”  And to her surprise—especially considering what Faith might have said about her—he slapped her palm before grabbing it to shake it.

Despite her reservations she found herself responding warmly.  He seemed like just such a genuine guy.  “Hello Charles.”

“Just Gunn is fine.  Wow, so did you come down because you heard Angel was about to head into the big smackdown?”

She winced, as did Spike behind her—she could, she swore, feel it in his demeanor—but before she could say anything, Angel broke in all grimly, “No, she came down because she heard Spike was.”

“Looove triaaaangle…” Lorne sing-songed as he draped himself over one arm of the couch.  He had kind of an amazing voice; enough so that it slightly distracted her.  But only a little, and did Angel have to sound so… almost petulant?  It wasn’t like she’d fallen for Spike on purpose, but… 

/You left, Angel!  He stayed!  You were gone!  He was there!  There for everything you weren’t!  What did you expect?/

“Oh,” Gunn answered, sounding flummoxed, and moved uncertainly to take a seat on the other side of the blue demon-chick, looking truly confused.  “Wait, what?  I thought…”

“That was a long time ago,” Angel answered briskly.  “I’ve moved on, Buffy’s moved on—apparently to Spike—and we’ve got work to do.  Okay,” he went on briskly in probably the clumsiest subject-change she had ever heard in her life, “So.  I’ve come up with a kind of a plan…”

“And you’re throwin’ in with us on this, Slayer-girl?”

Buffy turned her gaze to meet Gunn’s, eyeing him evenly.  Behind her she felt Spike’s presence; alive—/God, you’re alive!/—strong, powerful; real.  It was all she needed.  “I am.”

He rubbed his hands together.  “Well, now it’s a party.  You’re supposed to be stronger even than a vamp, right?”  His eyes flickered across the crew, like he was taking a poll.  “Stronger maybe even than Faith?”

“Oh, she could rip you right in half, Charlie-boy.”  It was the first thing Spike had said in a long minute. 

“Aw, man, this is gonna be good.”  This Gunn guy sounded like he was spoiling for a fight.

“So anyway,” Angel broke back in, sounding very put-upon, “the plan is…  This may come out a little pretentious, but one of you will betray me…”

Spike’s hand shot up right away.  Buffy elbowed him in the ribs.  He winced a little and lowered his hand, but didn’t necessarily look like he regretted volunteering. 

“Wes…”

***

Okay; next bit is angst-ahoy.  Hug the cute stuff while you can.  
We're in the homestretch, y'all!

Chapter Text

At first they debated sending her with Wesley, since he was the most vulnerable, though there was some question about blowing his cover with this demon-sorcerer that was his mark.  Then they talked about sending her with Gunn because he was going up against some senator who had a bunch of vamp bodyguards.  And on and on, like she was a Lego they were looking to slot into a good spot.  And while yes, from a strategic point of view and as a fellow general, she got that and would probably do the same… she wasn’t a part of their team.  She was a solo act here, a mercenary on the scene with a single mission in mind.  Winning their war for them wasn’t her endgame.  Heck.  She didn’t even know enough about all the moving parts to fully comprehend this battle-plan of Angel’s, much less how toppling all these different chess pieces was supposed to net them any real gains.  It sounded like something that would just piss off a Big Bad… but hey; not her city, not her war.

Not why she was here, to take charge or argue.  /I’m just here to watch Spike’s back.  Long as he comes out of this un-dusty, I did my job./

This time, it wasn’t all about her taking point, or being in the right place at the right time for a damn change.  She would trust they knew what they were talking about and how to conduct an ongoing war they’d been waging since basically when Angel had first landed in LA, and use her time to ensure she would be where she wanted to be the most, protecting the person who mattered most.  End of discussion.

Besides; just for the record, she didn’t truly understand this fight anyway.  It was weirdly political and kind of… game-like?  And bizarrely… Los Angeles-y.  Almost glossy, this idea that they could topple some kind of massive, hellish kingpins by destroying their agents in ritzy high-rises and stuff.  She was really just hoping Angel knew what the hell he was talking about here, because it seemed kind of… nuts, actually.  /Well, not gonna question it/ she reminded herself for the nth time as they went over their strategery.  /Not my team, not my city, not my bizarre-ass politics./ 

But she would object to being used willy-nilly, just because she had happened to show up in a timely manner, because that’s not what she’d come here to do.  “Look.  I’m sorry.  But I’m not your leak-plug-girl.  And anyway, it sounds like this thing with Wesley is heavy on the magicks.  I’m no sorcerer.  I can’t even read that stuff half the time, so I’m no good there…”

“No,” Wesley agreed, shaking his head slightly.  “I agree.  He’d smell you right off as a warrior.  And besides.  I’m meant to be making an under-the-table deal.  No matter how fast I talked about having hired muscle, you’d most definitely put him on edge.”  Wes’ lips tightened.  “It would destroy his buy-in.  Your very presence would blow my cover.  No, I’m afraid I must perform my task alone.” 

He was trying to make sure she didn’t feel bad for her choice.  “I…”

Steel-colored eyes softened, abruptly and startlingly.  “If you have the chance to preserve someone you care for very deeply, Buffy, you must take it.  I will be fine.”  And then the steel was back, with reinforcements.  “It’s no problem at all.  I have very much accepted all the risks associated with my role.” 

Okay, wow.  Wesley had really, really changed.

It took an effort to tear herself away from the weird, haunted thing in his eyes to glance at the young guy, Gunn.  “And yeah, I’d probably be good in a scrap with a bunch of vamps, but no offense, Charles…”

“Hey, I can handle myself.  No worries, girl.”

He really was a charmer, wasn’t he?  Buffy smiled approvingly at bravado boy before turning back to Angel, eyes set.  “But I didn’t come here to be slotted into your battle strategy.  I came here for Spike.  And I have no intention,” she finished flatly, “of going with anyone else but him.”

Spike actually sighed at her.  “I can manage, pet.  If we all make it, we’re gonna meet in the alley behind the Hyperion.  That’s where things’ll get dicey and we’re gonna scrap.  Probably with whole armies.  Till then I’m just gonna pick up a bitty baby.  Dance with a few paltry demons.  Got to tear up a rotten foster family.  Help Gunn, luv; he needs the backup.”

“Hey!  I said I can handle myself!”

Buffy ignored the interplay to turn back to her vampire.  Locked her eyes firmly on his cobalt gaze.  The low light in here made his eyes look dark in a way that made her shiver slightly.  “I’m. Not. Leaving you.  You said it yourself; ‘if we all make it’.”  Something ran up her spine; something that felt almost like a premonition.  It made her anxious, so that she needed to do something physical.  Turning, she paced away into the kitchen to stop in front of the seedy little white fridge.  She didn’t have to feel him at her nape to know he’d follow, even if he probably could have heard her whisper the rest of their conversation from where he stood.  “Dammit, Spike, I heard what he said.  Legion of some kind of Brethren.  That doesn’t sound ‘paltry’ at all, and you’re not going without me.”  /And, honestly, you’d think you wouldn’t want me anywhere else either./  Though, granted, it was nice to know he wasn’t even a little bit worried about her prowess against a whole nest of politically-minded vamps.

“Buffy…”

She wasn’t feeling having a big dispute over the thing.  “The plan was all set without me in mind.  I’m just plugging myself in free-agent style…”

“You sound like a bloody footballer.  Slayer...”

/Sure, okay./  She really wasn’t going to debate the matter.  “It’s time to go.  Right, Angel?”  Because he’d followed too.  Of course.

Standing in the kitchen doorway, Angel looked pained.  He did nod, though.  “It is.”  Then his jaw tightened.  “Listen, Spike…”

Spike lifted his head, and something passed between them, unspoken.  Something that, though she didn’t know the gist of it, still irritated Buffy; especially when she saw Spike nod, just slightly.  “Okay, now what?”

Spike tensed… and then relaxed abruptly to turn to her.  “He just wants me to watch your back.”

Buffy frowned, confused.  “When have you not?”

Angel, though, straightened, irritation abruptly coursing through his frame.  “Dammit, prat-boy…”

Spike looked amused, though he, too, tensed just a hair.  To Buffy’s surprise, he randomly pulled out a cigarette.  “Now that’s a low blow, Grandpa.”  And he lit up.

Buffy had long-suspected that Spike only smoked to cover up emotion; irritation, nervousness, anxiety, frustration.  It gave him something to do with his hands, with the added benefit that it made him look cool and settled his nerves.  Which meant, if she was in any way right… Angel had just said something that had rattled him. 

What she couldn’t figure out was… what?  Spike called people ‘prat’ all the damn time.  It was just a weird British insult, right?  And Angel was originally Irish, so wouldn’t he use some of the same…

/Except, wait.  Angel doesn’t use any weird Irish sayings.  He doesn’t even sound Irish anymore, he’s been here so long, so what…/  “Did I miss something?”

Angel’s eyes unexpectedly darted to hers.  Back to Spike’s.  And he seemed to swell.  “Some relationship, Spike,” he accused, voice cutting, “if you never even told her your last name.”

Spike yanked his cigarette from his mouth, blue eyes abruptly murderous.  “Keep your bloody mouth shut, you sodding prick.”

“Wait, hold up.”  Buffy raised her hands to call a truce between them, frowning.  “Whose last name is what, now?”

Spike snorted grimly and corked his mouth once more with the smoke, glaring baleful death at his grandsire. 

/Oookay.  William… Prat?

And prat was a British insult.  No wonder he hated it.  Especially if Angel liked to tease him with it… because of course Angel would.

Her ex-boyfriend, she was starting to realize, was kind of a bully to Spike.  Which was just… jerkish, considering the whole ‘helped to raise the guy’ part of the equation, and for real, could they just act like grownups?  Like, even a little bit? 

With an audible sigh, Buffy turned around to face her ex.  Crossed her arms.  “To be fair, Angel, did I ever know your last name, either?”

Angel opened his mouth… and abruptly closed it, looking a little at a loss for words.

“Reilly,” Wesley supplied quietly from his station on the couch.  “Liam Leslie Reilly of Galway, Eire.” 

Dang.  Buffy hadn’t realized the rest of the group could even hear their conversation.  And, just…  “Leslie?”

Angel apparently hadn’t either.  His head snapped around grimly.  “Stay out of this, Wes.”

   Spike tugged out the cigarette to smirk, complete with tongue-roll.  Lifted his boot to stub it out.  “Old family name, was it, Peaches?”

   Angel looked everywhere but Buffy.  “That was a very manly name in the seventeen-hundreds.”  He drew himself up.  “It means ‘fortress’.  ‘Tower by the sea’…”

“Looming great bloody lonely moody tower by the sea…”

“Shut up, Spike!  At least my second name means something!”

“Oh, excellent comeback, Peaches.  Very harsh.  I’m gutted.”

/Holy crap; they’re like kids on a schoolyard./  “You know,” Buffy interrupted the little love-fest in her most scornful available tone, “I think I’m very ashamed of sleeping with either one of you right now.”

That little aside ended the argument as if it had been cut off with a knife. 

Spike had the grace to look slightly repentant.  Angel just looked aggrieved.

“Alright-y then,” Charles broke in, cracking the strained silence.  “Now that we’ve got that incredibly uncomfortable conversation out of the way, can we please go have a fight to the death?”

“Yes, please,” Wesley said, pushing himself to his feet.  His demon-woman followed him in tandem, as if they were hitched together at the hip.  The trio headed for the doors, looking exceedingly ready to get the hell out of dodge.

“Try not to die,” the crazy-pupiled demon chick told Gunn all unceremoniously as they turned together for the stairs.  “You are not unpleasant in my eyes.”

“Uh, thanks.  You, try not to die too.”  And then he held out a hand to shake with Wesley and headed up the stairs.  There seemed to be some kind of really profound respect between them, which was interesting considering she read this Gunn guy to be a shrewd, tough kind of person.  He didn’t seem the type to give respect to someone unless they’d earned it.  What Wesley Wyndham-Price must have done to gain that respect was probably a heck of a story.

Wes remained behind for a moment to exchange a brief look with Angel that was sober and filled with meaning, shot a quick glance at Buffy, before he turned away, and dang.  He had basically turned into a completely different person over the years.  /Haven’t we all, I guess/ she thought as she watched him head almost silently up the stairs with his weird blue woman trailing him.  “What’s with them, anyway?” she inquired of her still-uncomfortable vampire, pointing with her chin.

Spike seized on the change of subject with clear gratitude.  “What, Wes and the Smurf?”  He frowned as he crossed back into the living room and, to her surprise, set aside his duster on the couch.  “Fred, the woman she took over…”  He winced again, looking pained.  “She was a slip of a girl, but she was the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen.  He loved her like I’ve never seen any bloke love a bird.  When the Old One took over, hulled her out, it damn near killed him.  Not much left of the poor sod, I reckon, but he watches over her ‘cause that’s all that’s left of his woman.  And she watches over him because she’s got Fred’s memories, so she knows he’s important to her.”

“Oh.”  She stared up the darkened stairway after them, the tragedy of it haunting her mind.  So that was who Fred used to be.  Willow had said something about ‘Fred’ dying, but…  Ouch.  That was awful.  To have something like Glory or…  What even was Illyria?  More like what the Mayor had tried to become?  Anyway, to have that take over your lover, but still look like them, even a little bit…

Poor Wes.  No wonder he was so hard now.  And why he’d had that… look in his eyes.

Speaking of death-wishes.

Another shiver worked its way up her spine, making Buffy jitter in place.

“So,” Spike was saying to Angel somewhere behind her; low, in an undertone she was probably not supposed to hear.  “What do you think all this means for that Shanshu bugaboo?  We make it through this, does one of us get to be a real boy?”

“Are you kidding?” Angel answered just as quietly.  “We’re not gonna make it through.”

“Well.  Long as it’s not you.”

The shiver exploded in intensity.  Buffy’s head jerked back, and she narrowed her eyes at them both.  “Shanshu?”

Spike jerked up straight.  “Never mind, pet.  Let’s go save us a baby, hm?”

She lifted a hand, the occasional but very familiar tug of premonition now damn near strangling her other-sense.  “No, hold up.  What do you mean, ‘real boy’?”  Whatever they were talking about sounded fairly suspect… and she really hadn’t liked the hard thing she’d heard in Spike’s tones.

Angel sighed.  “We don’t have time.”

The not-good premonition-y feeling had spread.  She was starting to have a truly bad feeling somewhere in her chest; in the vicinity of her heart.  “Then tell me quick.”  And she placed herself between them and the doorway; crossed arms, legs akimbo.  The picture of Slayer resolution. 

It was a stance they both knew all too well.  It said, ‘fight me’.

“Oh, bloody hell.”

“It’s a prophecy, okay?” Angel answered in quick, desperate tones.  “A vampire with a soul is supposed to do enough good deeds to earn a reward; to become human again.  To ‘shanshu’.  The translation is a little tough, and the whole thing’s probably already moot anyway, but…”

/Oh.  Oh God…/  She swiveled to meet Spike’s eyes, suddenly desperate.  “Let him have it.”

His face fell.  His entire being seemed to fall apart in front of her.  “What?”

A little behind Spike, Angel was swelling again; this time with sudden victory.

No.  He was getting it wrong.  They both were.  Spike thought she was taking it all back.  That if she had the chance to get away clean with Angel, she’d dump Spike and take it; but this…  It was the opposite.  Knowing what she now knew; about vampires, about souls…  Hell, even if it wasn’t that way! 

Angel without his demon would be better for the world.  Either way, with or without her, everyone would be better off if he did this ‘Shanshu’ thing and there was no chance of Angelus ever coming back again.  An actual reward to cancel out a curse.  And yeah, she didn’t know Liam without the influence of Angelus; but he had spent so many years under Angelus’ influence that he was now irrevocably ‘Angel’.  Even if the threat of Angelus was gone, Angel would remain, personality-wise.  So fine.  With or without Angelus, Liam as a separate individual was gone forever and there was just Angel; a personality he’d become in the interim.  Whether he was a vampire or not, it didn’t matter.

But Spike…  Okay, yeah.  He’d been mixing it up with his demon nearly as long, and probably better.  So without the demon he might still end up the same guy in some ways as he was already; the guy he’d been since Africa.  But unlike Angel, what he’d lose would be something precious.  If he did this Shanshu thing under this stupid, misguided idea that it was something she’d want, or to beat Angel to it so she wouldn’t want her first love more or whatever dumb thing he thought, he’d be destroying every remnant of what made him recognizable to her.  Everything that made him him.  His personality—the demon that was half his being, the undead but life-loving, devil-may-care creature of impulse who lived by his gut, loved hard punk music, and gloried with her in the hunt, in sparring, in fighting, in carousing through the night seeking battle; her partner in the wars of the world and her drinking buddy, her confidant…  

That part of him, the part he now struggled to access at all?  He’d be gone.  Forever.  

And William.  She loved his full-on William side too.  Had grown to know him, but it was a new relationship, one she’d only started in the last year.  The ‘William-facet’ was patient and kind and slow and quiet.  He was a creature of intellect, not gut; of mind, not body.  He had a lot in common with the composite Spike in that he was generous, and gave his all in love… and in that he had given his heart, unreservedly, to her. 

But he was a lover, not a fighter.  He was not her equal in battle.  And she needed that.  Needed him to be able to access the rest, still.

She needed the balance.  After losing everything, twice, yes.  She needed a little demon in her man… and she needed the poet; but she needed them both.  Spike, who wrought poetry from death and destruction, and William, who gave a softer poetry to her when Spike never could while William had been bound.  Both softness and strength, both the fighter and the lover; needed the two to continue to influence each other. 

She needed him to stay him.  “Don’t change.”  She caught his hand, held it close.  Pulled him to her so that he came, if warily.  “Please.  Don’t change anymore for me.  You’ve set William free.  You’re finding the balance.  That’s been hard enough on you.  But I cannot lose Spike.”

“Buffy…”  

“Don’t take him away from me,” she whispered.  “Don’t take my best friend.  I’ve already lost too many best friends to this fight.  Lost Willow.  Lost Xander.  None of us are the same.  I’ve already seen too many people I love change beyond recognition.  I can’t… lose you like that.  Not you, too.” 

He blanched at that, seeming shocked at her words.  “Buffy… I’m right here.  The man.  The one you can trust.  The one you can count on to… do the right thing.  And if…”

Her hand flew up of its own accord, halting him dead as the dominos fell to cascade impossibly in her mind.  /Oh, God.  He didn’t hear what I said back there at all.  He still thinks I only came back for what he’s showing me now.  For the souled part of him.  The side of him I barely know, when that’s not even.../

He was such a dope.  /God, Spike; yes, I love that part of you too!  We got to know each other last year in a way that I obviously treasure.  You have no idea.  But the other part of you, the guy who was already there for me when no one else was… don’t you know how I treasure him, too?  The guy who led me through that… that terrifying maze of my own fears, and gave me something to hold onto when I had nothing else?  The guy who gave, and gave, and gave, and held nothing back for himself until he broke, finally, and…/

/Oh./

It hit her with the force of a fall from a tower. 

/You’re still running./  That’s why he was still in LA.  Why he hadn’t come back, why he didn’t think he was worthy, why he wanted this stupid Shanshu thing.  /Not running from me.  Not like… the others./  Not forever.  He was trying to find a way to come back to her in a way he thought she… ‘deserved’, or something.  He was still trying to…

/God, Spike./  He hadn’t heard a word she’d said back there in the sewer.  /You’re still running from that goddamn bathroom, aren’t you?/

She finally got it.  Looking into those haunted, reserved eyes, she got it.  Watching his body language, remembering everything from last year, she understood.  Remembering the ways in which a verbose demon had turned off like a tap and a new man had taken over—soft-spoken and retiring and never pushing; even when she might have wanted him to, because Buffy…  Never so good with the words, she had long since come to rely on that brash, impulsive demon to bridge the gap, tell it to her like it was.  Instead, a man she had never met—a man he had made sure to show her only in flashes, to protect him from her at all costs—had been revealed to speak gently, and often not at all.  To never push, never ‘want-take-have’, even when she had wanted, even when, that last night, she had tried to take, tried to have…

She finally got it.  /You didn’t do it just to become what you thought I needed.  You did it to put reins on…  No.  To bury that part of you who.../

/Oh God./  She finally understood.  He’d tried to take it away with the soul, but he hadn’t been able to.  Tried to wash that night away with an incredibly painful penance, and with his only attempt in a very long unlife not at alteration or reformation, but actual redemption.  For her.  But it had backfired, because he had not been able to drive it from his mind for himself.  /That’s what…  That was the worst part for you, wasn’t it?  Down there in the basement of the school, and in my basement, and…/  She closed her eyes, remembering him lying over the cross, smoking.  Burning.  Always burning.  /You were still there in that church with me the entire time, weren’t you, Spike?/

It hadn’t worked.  And when going to Lloyd, instead of turning him solely into the William ‘who would never’ had only made that side of him clamor the louder with remorse—/Because you’re always going to be all of you, Spike/—he had decided to tussle his grandsire for another ‘prize’.  To kill his demon once and for all… because he had not, with that raging guilt, been able to silence him.  Because it was the demon’s guilt.  /Because it wasn’t your soul who was in charge when…/  

Spike had always been good at adapting.  Accepting the current reality and moving on with life.  Even when it came to all the stuff he’d done as a vamp, he’d been able to just deal; handle it philosophically, get up, and pony up again with the team.  “That’s how the game is played,” he’d said; more than once.  And honestly, he’d had a point.  Vampire, humans.  Eat or starve.  It wasn’t like he’d played with his food like Angel, after all.  Just eaten them, which was, you know, a thing he’d had to do to live, so why torment himself over it for eternity?  And vamps and Slayers?  Well, you know…  Win some, lose some.  She no longer took that personally.  She knew all about being ready to die and wanting to go out against a worthy opponent instead of just some lucky dick of a fledge some night.  If it had been her… she’d have wanted it to be someone like Spike.

/Whom am I kidding?  I’d have wanted it to be Spike.  No one else./ 

/Except that would have wrecked you, so…  I guess, not so much./ 

He was still looking at her with these hard, haunted eyes.  He looked so convinced that she should be all… happy about what he was saying, and it was freaking her out.  Spike was always real about stuff like that before.  About what he should feel guilty about and what he shouldn’t.  It was one of the things she relished about him, one of the things she needed to keep.  But when it came to this…  /What is it, Spike?/  Because this one act, he wasn’t able to accept, adapt, move on.  He was in some kind of internal war about it, or maybe both sides of himself agreed or something.  It was like his demon was depressed and he was retreating completely into the soul.  Like he blamed one whole side of himself for...

/Oh./  For breaking the one law he had ever held sacrosanct. 

/Don’t hurt Buffy.   Not really./

She reeled back away from him.  Saw the sardonic light in his eye; the recognition that he understood what she had only just realized.  /Oh God…  You’ve been trying to burn it away since, haven’t you?  Until you found a way.  And then…  You came back, and…/

Buffy was dimly aware that the knee-jerk frustrated rage she felt right now was born of dread.  That it came of the terror of impending loss.  Another guy, trying to leave her; trying to run away, and, just, no.  It explained the zings of hair-raising warning racing up and down her spine like a premonition.  Like she was at one of those moments; those ones she recognized sometimes right before a crucial battle, or when she was about to find some important weapon in a war, or…  /So, what; you’re gonna commit suicide over it?  Haven’t you already done enough?/  Didn’t he know that she trusted him now—all of him—soul or no soul?  /Or is it that you don’t trust yourself?  Because it was your stupid demon who went to go get the damn thing, Spike!  Doesn’t that tell you something about how much I can trust you not to hurt me?  Like, ever?/

She needed to stop this and she needed to stop it now.  “Please,” she pressed on desperately, and reached out with one hand to cup his face.  “Don’t… kill a part of yourself trying to make me happy, or because you think it’ll make me… safer.”  It was so dumb anyway.  Like anything in her life had ever been safe.  It was like a foreign language.  It didn’t fit, and it was… kind of boring.  Not really her style, whatever she had once liked to pretend.  “No more, okay?  I love all of you, do you hear me?  Do you hear me yet?  I want all of you!”

It was his turn to flinch away from her, disbelief written all over his face, his body, his rock-hard shoulders.  “No you don’t, Buffy.  You couldn’t.  You don’t have to say it just to convince me to…”    

/Oh, no you fucking don’t.  Not again!/  “If you ever dare,” she hissed, “to tell me what I don’t feel for you, ever again, I will kill you.”

“Can you kill us all, and put us out of our misery?”

Buffy whirled on Angel, rage flaring enough that she briefly wished she had some kind of weapon to huck at his head.  /Are you kidding me, getting in the middle of this?/  “Over there.  Now.  This is none of your goddamn business.”  /This is life or death, so I don’t want to hear you whine about it that I love your damn grandkid or whatever!/

Her ex subsided to lean against the nearby green wall, looking bitter and something between pained… and maybe darkly amused that his rival was getting a dressing-down.

When she turned sharply back to Spike he was half-turned away from her, his shoulders hunched up around his ears, his expression closed.  As if he couldn’t believe what she was saying.  As if he couldn’t dare.  “I’m just sayin’, Buffy, if there was even a chance I could be the man you deserved…”

Alright, that was so way beyond enough.  All this ‘proving himself’ crap, and this throwing himself on grenades was already bullshit.  Bringing that stupid ancient thing into this was just so far beyond…  /You have just really been here hanging around Angel for way too long, buster.  And you know what?  Once and for all, I’m kind of fed up with all of you guys and your, like, prescriptions for ‘the man I deserve’!/  “Listen,” she hissed, “how about you let me decide what kind of man I deserve, okay?”  She drilled her gaze into Spike’s haunted lapis eyes, hoping for once the damn dope would hear her.  “Not a boring, normal human guy who doesn’t get me going, can’t even hold my interest long enough to break into my heart.  I tried that.  It didn’t work.” 

When he flinched, she flicked her gaze away very briefly, burning, at Angel.  “Not a quiet life with a picket fence and babies, because do either of you ever see that happening for me?  Ever?” 

Behind Spike, Angel winced and looked away. 

She whirled back to Spike.  “I’ve grown up.  I’ve learned who I am, and what I need.  I’ve finally figured it out.”  Settled her eyes firmly on his.  “And what I need is you.” 

She caught his hand and held it.  /Because no matter how much I change… you’ve always been ready to change with me.  Become whatever I need.  And what I change into has never scared you.  So I finally know./  She squeezed the hand she held, tight enough to keep his eyes riveted on hers.  “Just you.  Just like this.”

“Buffy,” he whispered, and his hand was chillier in hers than it had any right to be for a vamp who’d just had his fill of blood, “I appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do, but you don’t have to.  I know what I…”  His shoulders ratcheted up even further; and those eyes that always seemed to break for her?  They stayed reserved.

“Spike, what the hell did you do?”  Angel’s voice had gone ominous from his spot in time-out.

If Buffy had to punch him she would.  She really wasn’t even sure why he was still here.  “Angel, if you don’t shut up or go away, I will stake you.”  She didn’t bother to look at him though.  Never took her eyes from Spike’s.  He was still undecided.  Still afraid. 

Still couldn’t believe.  And it terrified her.  “Dammit, Spike…”  She sought for something; anything that would make him understand; because what else could she say to him but what she’d already given him in the tunnel, in the hopes that he would finally hear her?  “Listen.”  Cast about frantically for something; anything that might penetrate his thick skull.  Once her guy was set on a path, thought he had found a way to prove his stupid, undying love, he was like something unyielding, crashing downhill, or…  /Please don’t wreck everything, Spike.  Not now.  Just stop for a second and listen, okay?/ 

She was half-panicking at this point, had to slow down, had to think clearly, had to…  /Don’t… be me, alright?  I’m the one who wrecks everything by… you know, standing still and being the stubborn rock you break on, or running away.  But I’m running to you now, so could you just please also switch gears right now with me?  Just this once?/  If he could just trade places with her, stop barreling downhill and stand still for a second long enough for her to…  “Oh!”  /Be you!  Use some of your words again!/  “Do you remember that one time when you came upstairs, and I was all crazy from the stupid googolnik thing that stabbed me in the arm…”

He goggled at her, stunned into a brief moment of clarity.  “Oh, bloody hell, Buffy, please don’t try to say it, you’ll just bugger it up.  I’ll save you the sodding trouble.  Of course I bleeding remember; how’m I gonna forget damn near losin’ you to Kashma'nik venom?”

A shocked, horrified-sounding exclamation interrupted their tense face-off for the nth time.  “You were infected by a glarghk guhl Kashma'nik?” Angel demanded, because he just couldn’t shut up and mind his own damn business.    

Buffy ignored her ex.  She had neither the time nor the interest to update him on past history, any more than she had time to be offended by Spike’s withering commentary on her poor demonology.  “Okay.  So then you’ll remember what you said…”

As she’d predicted Spike’s face tightened right up, cheekbones settling into sharp lines of pain.  “Oh, hell, pet, I didn’t…”

“No, you were right, okay?”  She managed a rueful shrug.  “You usually are when it comes to me, even if it takes me a couple of years to admit it.  You said I was addicted to the misery, and you were…  Well, pretty close.  I had a whole complex about being—what did that vamp you sired say?—being inferior and superior all at the same time?”

For the first time, she was going too fast for William the Bloody.  He looked totally at sea.  “Vamp I…”

She waved her hand to dismiss that consideration.  “I told you about him, remember?  One of the ones when The First…  Never mind.  Long story.  The point is, you were right, no matter what I did to prove you wrong.  But I guess…”  /Oh God…/  “Maybe I was just a little too convincing, huh?” she murmured, feeling abruptly pained.  /Of course that’s what you’d believe, Spike; the complete act.  Because my life is some kind of stupid game for the Powers or whatever, and the one time you should’ve seen right through me like you always do is the time you decide to completely buy in to my dumb charade thing./

“Convincing?  Buffy, what are you…”

Oh my god, when was he ever this slow, with her?  Was there something in the air?  “Or maybe,” she went on softly, because maybe this subject was really just that painful for him, and it had scrambled his brains completely.  She squeezed his hand, “…You just scared yourself too bad when you were trying to bring me back into the dark, to show me what I was made for.”

He got it now; what she was talking about, and jerked like she’d staked him.  His voice broke.  “Buffy,” he whispered, pleading.  “Please don’t…”

She wished she could be gentler, but there was no time.  No time at all, so she rode right over him.  She had a damn point to make. 

What was it again?  Oh.  Right.  “Because I am a creature of two worlds, Spike, and it's time I stop denying it.  But by the time I was starting to admit it you had already gone so totally the other way trying to be, whatever.  ‘Good enough for me’ or some stupid thing that you burned yourself up.  I never asked you to do that.”

“Oh, Christ, pet…”  He sounded hoarse, free hand lifting halfway to her face; and it was only then that Buffy felt the tears that had gathered in her eyes.  But then, that wasn’t really new for her, even if it was new for him to see it.  Every time she ever even thought about him going up in flames, it broke her.  Knowing he had come back from it somehow really didn’t change that for her. 

Crying pissed her off, though, even if it was in front of Spike.  Hell, the whole conversation was making her feel like she was in an uphill fight.  Maybe even a losing battle; and that always got her dander up.  It brought out the indomitable warrior in her.  Buffy Summers didn't like to lose.  She didn't believe in it.  Half the time she didn't know how to, because to her losing meant death, and she'd already died enough.  She didn’t really want to go through it again.  It meant losing too many people, and giving up too much… and like hell she was going to do that again when it came to Spike.  Because remembering…  Remembering him burning

That was what did it.  Flame as catalyst, and something broke inside her.  Something that had always only kicked into gear for her before a battle, coming into play, here and now.  Because this?  This was the pep-talk before the battle.  This was her personal apocalypse, and suddenly she knew.  Knew how to open her mouth and let things fall out in a way she never had been able to with people or relationships before.  Words came to her the way they only ever had when she was facing down impossible odds, and had to convince her lieutenants to look down the throat of death beside her and believe they could beat it.

/If I’m fighting a battle, here, I’m going to win./  “No,” she told him firmly.  “I can’t get out of it, so neither can you, okay?  You were right.”  She was going to keep pounding that one home, if she could remember to say nothing else.  “I don’t belong in their world all the time.” 

“Buffy…”

“No, shut up and listen.”  She did about one-quarter of a shrug.  “Okay, maybe you weren’t all the way right, because I guess I probably don’t belong in yours one hundred percent of the time either; but to be fair, you’re the same way.”

She really was throwing him for a loop tonight.  “Buffy, what the bloody hell are you…”

He was… actually kind of cute when he was bewildered.  Having the upper hand for a change in a conversation with Spike was like a new high.  She could kind of get used to it, and hm.  Maybe she would keep turning his words against him for, you know, ever, if this was the result.  “You were always more human than you liked anyone to think, weren’t you?” she accused.  “The other vamps, the other demons…  That’s why you fell in love so easy.  That’s why you fell for me, even though I was supposed to be completely your enemy.  You didn’t need to be all ‘soul-guy’ to do it.”  She felt a fond smile crease her lips, remembering him and his stupid blanket.  “And you’ve always been, like, daredevil-half-in-the-sun-vamp…”  Thinking of that kind of idiot behavior half made her want to punch him now, in retrospect, since, you know, Spike and flames and dust; but still.  It was just so Spike that she couldn’t help but feel proud of him for being so committed to his Spikeness. 

It kept steel in her spine, though, just thinking of it.

Off to one side, Angel muttered something about piss-poor vampires with no home-training. 

“Oh, sod off, Peaches!  Buffy, I don’t know what you’re trying to say, but…”

No.  He was pissing her off.  The steel crept back into her voice to cut him off.  “What I’m saying, Spike, is if you’re as much human as demon, and I’m all, demon-infused girl… then we should probably stop trying to deny parts of ourselves to go one way or the other and just meet in the stupid middle.” 

He stared like she’d completely floored him.  Which, good.  He was shutting up. 

It was probably the first time in a long time she could imagine being glad about getting Spike to stop talking.  A week ago she would have given her soul to hear his voice again; but that was before she knew all he was going to do was talk nonsense.  Dumbass.  /You don’t get to speak again till you’re making sense, or looking through me and making me admit things I hate.  Then you have permission to be awesome and sexy and drive me nuts again.  Otherwise, keep your irritating trap shut and stop interrupting me to death./  “Or at least, you’d think that’s where we’re headed, since we’re both hybrid-y enough to piss off the Scourge.  I think that means something.”  But that was neither here nor there right now.  “Anyway, I’m done hiding.  Done lying about what I am and what I need.”  She hardened her voice still further, because dammit, she was pretty much over this.  “And I’m done watching you trying to destroy a whole part of you trying to be something you’re not.  Because we saw what it did to me, right?  Trying to do that?”

For the first time, something she’d said really hit home with him, and Spike staggered back a little.  She didn’t think it was possible for a vamp to pale, but somehow he gave that impression anyway. 

She didn’t give him the chance to escape.  Moved in close again and lowered her voice.  “Do you think I want that for you?  Do you think I want it for me?”  Tightened her grip on his hand.  “Spike; did you want half of me?”  He flinched, and she pressed her advantage ruthlessly.  “You never wanted me to… what’s the word; diminish myself, and I don’t want that for you either.”  Honestly, just thinking of him doing it terrified her.  “I mean, God.  Do you think I could ever want only half of you?  You wouldn’t be you!” 

He flinched away again, this time tugging his hand from her grasp.  “Buffy, it’s different.  Half of me hurt you trying to keep you, and that’s…”

/Seriously?/  “Half of me hurt you.  The half of me that deserted you; that ran, and tried to destroy you over and over.  How is that any better?”

He gaped at her.  She took up her thread before he could interrupt again, feeling the rightness roar through her like some kind of living thing.  She had tingles all over her like she was in the middle of a Slayer-vision-thing; like she was having some kind of divine revelation.  It was almost like being… possessed or something; taken over by inspiration.  Like everything she’d been thinking was finally, for the first time in her life, coming out of her mouth right for a change; and she was going to ride the wave as long as she could before something stupid came out to ruin it.  “I want to meet you in the middle.  I want to be what I was made to be, finally.  I admit it now.  I’m ready; and I need you.  I meant what I said back there.”  She recaptured his hand.  “Spike.  You were right, okay?”  Repeated it fiercely, because if throwing his own words back at him wasn’t going to work, she was running out of options.  Her brief burst of inspiration was running dry, and the chills were coming back.  If this couldn’t convince him, then nothing could.  “I meant it; about needing your monster too.  I accept that now.  What it means.  And that’s not gonna change.” 

He whispered her name again, weakly, and no.  He would slip away from her if she let him, now, with this.  She couldn’t let him.  This was it.  This was the moment.  She could see it, feel it.  “I accept all of it.  All of you.”  She crowded in close again, got right in his space.  Breathed him in, uncertainty and all.  Watched as the misgivings in his gaze, all the questions sharpened with the shocked beginnings of hope. 

She would answer them all.  Lifted her hand to brush her fingers lightly over his brows where that untamed monster dwelt, just beneath sapphire eyes where the amber lay, chained only as much by love as they ever had been by soul.  “I’ve already told you, once, in the middle of a battle, that I need all of you.  The dangerous Spike, just as much as the guy who came back for me.”  Saw the flicker there; the self-doubt.  The disbelief.  He could allow she’d want him that way, perhaps, for the fight, but not… for her.  “I wasn’t lying then and I’m not now.  So please.  Let him have it.  And let me have you.”  And she held her breath, maybe even praying.

A tremor ran through him.  He was close enough for her to feel it, rocking his entire body.  Shuddering through his being.  When he spoke, it was on the barest breath she had ever heard from him, as if by battering him with his own lines she had stolen all his powers of speech.  “Oh, Christ…  Are you sure, Buffy?”  And his eyes.

Something triumphant roared through her, in that place that had curled with dread.  It made Buffy feel like she was filled with light.  She let it pour from her face, let him see it in her smile; and for the first time in her life, felt a blazing certainty that she knew exactly the right thing to say.  Her poet of a vampire had already given her the words, was the thing.  “Yeah.  I am.  You see, I know the best and the worst of you, so I know with perfect clarity what you are.  You’re one hell of a guy… and I’m one lucky woman that you love me.” 

It was like she’d punched him in the gut or something.  He groaned louder than he ever had from a physical blow and yanked her into his arms, wrapped around her so that her hair was all tangled up somewhere between his fist and forearm and her neck.  “Oh God, Slayer,” he whispered into her temple, “how do you do that to me?”

“Because you let me, I guess?”  It came out muffled into the hollow of his throat, and beyond grateful.  Because she had convinced him.  Thank God, he finally believed her.

Believed that she loved all of him.

“Okay, okay, can we go now?  I believe we have some demons to kill.”  Angel’s voice sounded completely sour-grape-y from the background, like he was trying not to complain that he so did not need to see this.  “If I’m even allowed to talk again…”

“Yeah,” Spike murmured, still mostly into her hair.  “Let’s go save the world.  For some reason…”  And he pushed away from her to cup her face and smile right into her eyes.  “…I all the sudden feel like we’re gonna win this one.”

She looked right back into him.  “Me too.”

“Well then let’s go.”  Angel was talking all crisp and impatient.  “Here.”  Out of the corner of her eye Buffy caught a flash of motion, lifted her arm just in time out of instinct, and felt something smack into her palm.  It was an axe, plucked, apparently, from somewhere behind some piece of crappy furniture in this dive Spike called his ‘flat’. 

“Thanks,” she intoned dryly at the dark back already retreating up the stairs. 

“Sour grapes,” Spike told her in low, conspiratorial tones, and nodded at the axe.  “Hope you like that one, pet.  I swiped it out of the arsenal back at the law offices of arsehole and bung.  They may be evil, but they make a damn good weapon.”  He smirked a little, his entire being seeming lighter than it had since she had first seen him again at that poetry bar.  “I took a shine to it as it reminded me of you.” 

She hefted it, feeling the weight.  “I like it.”  No doubt Angel would have known she’d like it too.  In some ways he knew her as well as Spike did, though in a way she was starting to kind of feel like she barely knew Angel at all anymore.  “Guess we better go.”  She brushed her hand over Spike’s, felt the energy pouring off of him.  Felt it mesh, somehow, with the vibrant thing surging through her being.  It made her feel complete in a way she hadn’t felt since…  /Since you./

“Yeah.  You ready to go save a baby?”  God, the way he was looking at her.

“I’m ready to do anything if I have you by me again.”

“Yeah.  Same here, Slayer.”

And his eyes, never leaving hers as they exited that hideous green apartment, were effulgent.

***



(Okaaaay...  Now we've got that cleared up, if no one's shot Angel in the head, we can give our poor, angsty loves a big hug and proceed to the fight.)

Chapter Text

Spike snagged the two robes easy as anything, of course.  He had always been good at that kind of larceny.  Still filled with the remaining dregs of that strange energy from before, at his apartment, Buffy soundlessly finished off the second of the two demons—ugly bastards—while he crouched to inspect the nasty articles to make sure they didn’t have any blood on them. 

One must have passed right away, because he held it out to her.  “Here you go, luv.  The height of fashion.”

Now she knew why he hadn’t brought his duster, why he’d told her to leave her small bag behind at his place.  It was going to be weird as hell to go into battle with him sans his usual armor.  “Thanks.”  She reluctantly took the thick, grayish-brown sweep of fabric.  Speaking of things that were hard to hide under an ugly robe, she wasn’t exactly sure where she was going to tuck her new, short-handled axe while they did this.  No way she was going to hide it away somewhere for later pick-up, in case she didn’t find the time to grab it or they had to take another escape route… which was, no doubt, yet another reason Spike had left behind his precious duster. 

Well, she wanted that axe for the upcoming fight.  She had kind of taken a shine to it, to use Spike’s phrase.

“So…” he murmured quietly as he tugged his own robe through his fingers, looking for spots, “when did you get so eloquent about your feelings, anyway?  You sure you’re not the ‘bot?”

Wow.  That hurt; and it made her brittle.  Made her words come out jagged.  “Look,” she whispered harshly.  “You have more time for self-reflection when you’re not on a hellmouth and you’re up half the night every night dealing with nightmares and regret, okay?”

He slowly lowered the robe to glance up at her... and held up his hands in surrender.  “Okay, pet, okay.  Sorry.  I’m just… not used to us talking so much.  ”

Which was, of course, her fault.  Awareness of which was enough to force her short-lived frustration to subside.  “I know,” she whispered back.  “I’m trying to fix that.”

She was startled by the completely puppy-dog look he threw her then.  “And you wonder why I’m so daft over you, you mad bint.  You never cease to amaze me.  Always trying to better yourself when you’re already doing enough just getting by.  You’re a wonder, Buffy.”

Sometimes the way he saw her was the problem.  When you had an inferiority complex about relationships, and someone was constantly telling you how fantastic you were in that department… they had to be wrong, right?  Messed up and evil, because if they were right, then you had to trust what they were saying, but that meant believing you were okay, and that was…

Impossible. 

It made fighting against the old, knee-jerk reaction to say something biting, cutting—destructive—tougher than anything.  As always.  But she swallowed it down.  And did the adult thing.  “It’s hard to accept sometimes.  The way you see me.  Easier sometimes to fight back and tell you you’re wrong.  That only someone as messed up as you could be into someone as messed up as me.”

He stared at her for a moment, looking stunned… then thoughtful.  And the light dawned.  “Oh,” he said finally.  “Oh bleeding hell, Slayer, I think you just gave me the key to you.  And here I thought I’d never understand you; turns out we’re not much different from each other, are we, luv?”

/As in, terrible self-esteems?  Tear each other down sometimes for dumbass reasons, or let each other do it?  All with the hurty instead of just actually saying how we feel, ‘cause that’s safer?/  “No, I guess not.”  Because she was pretty sure that’s what Spike had learned to do with her.  Hide his feelings.  Keep his mouth shut.  And let her tromp all over him.  /All with the hurty./

He eyed her for a second longer, then shook his head.  “We get out of this, I think we should have a long drink and a longer talk, yeah?  Sometime when I’m not actin’ the tongue-tied nit like back there.  Don’t half know what was happening, save I was too wound up watchin’ you to speak.”  He grinned then, looking up at her in that devastatingly attractive way he had that melted her.  Once it had made her want to run, because it melted her… like when she’d sat with him in his crypt while he’d watched her in pure delight over bottles of harsh whiskey, and she, strangely, hadn’t run.  “Not used to being so gobsmacked by you that I can’t talk, no matter what you natter on about.  Must’ve been so bloody glad to hear you again I’d’ve rather dusted than say a soddin' word, innit?”  He sobered, eyes glinting slightly.  “Beautiful, terrifyin’, fearless madwoman.”

His admiration for her was the terrifying thing.  /And I’m done running from you./  Besides.  She’d badly wanted to see that bright challenge back in his eyes again.  So, accordingly, she pulled in a sharp, fortifying breath and managed a brave little laugh.  “How much drink are we talking about here?”

That brought back the old swagger of a grin, complete with tongue-curl.  It made things inside her curl up in response.  “Oh, pet…  I think you know there are so many answers to that; and all of them come with making that pert pink tongue of yours wiggle.”  Still rolling his in that devilish way of his that half made her want to sock him in the nose and half kind of turned her on, he grinned smugly… but his eyes were twinkling at her in bizarre delight. 

Which swiftly altered to the work mode as he straightened up and flung his borrowed robe over his head.  “But first… business, yeah?”

She sighed and nodded, settling the axe under her left arm for lack of anything better.  It would chafe, but what else could she do?  “As always.”

“You ready?  You remember the plan?”

She nodded.  “Yeah, you?”

He grinned back at her.  “With you at my right?  Always.”  And reaching out, he tugged up the hood of her robe. 

She let him, since she was down a hand, and settled in with him at her left. 

She had never felt more ready.  

***

They stumbled out into the street, into an uncharacteristic, pouring rain.  The last thirty or so of that stupid Legion of Brethren-whatever had been tough, but it had been worse killing that disturbing foster family and a bunch of demons right in front of a baby.  Not that it hadn’t been a good thing, since obviously the creeps were up to no good with said infant, and they had probably saved the kid from a horrible fate, but still.  Killing in front of a baby was never her first choice. 

Still, it was done.  They were both a little bloodied up, but they were alive.  And she’d kept her promise so far.

They reeled down the alleys toward this hotel of Angel’s, Spike muttering imprecations about weather that reminded him of London, and looking naked without his duster.  Though… she really didn’t mind looking at him with his t-shirt pasted to his body by the rain.  That was a nice bonus as scenery went.  God knew he had always been built, and now he was spectacularly more so.

She followed, dripping and fighting to look past the obvious distraction.  She needed to keep her senses alert for any vamps who didn’t feel like him, any other uglies that might go bump in the night.  It would have to do, since they sure wouldn’t see or hear them coming.  

She was basically keyed up to a fever pitch out of her anxiety to ensure that nothing got him on her watch.  He was already cut up a little.  Not that she didn’t have a few slices herself, but still; dammit.  The point tonight had been to keep him… 

“C’mon, luv; we’ve got a timetable to keep!”

/Am I wrong?/ she wondered as she eyed him.  They marched down side-streets and alleyways… and she wondered.  Because he just… seemed so complete.  So integrated.  Always had, and if he really was made up of all these different, moving parts like the Scourge seemed to be telling her, he just sure didn’t seem like it.  Angel always did, but Spike…  He was always very singular and whole.  It made her question, made her doubt, made her wonder…  /Do I have it backward, somehow?  Is my… vampire-thesis totally off-base?/

So much depended on her getting full points on this class, this final essay.  Her life.  His.  Their future.  Everything.  She had to, what was it?  Look at all the possible views that might conflict with her thesis and make sure, before she asked him to act on something he might not even be able to…

/You did already, though, right?  That night when I was trapped in the shadow-play deal.  I didn’t get to see it, because of course I’d be the last person you’d show, after…  But everyone said you fought like you…/

/Like I asked you to.  Because I asked you to.  Which means maybe…/

She had to be right.  Had to be.  This wasn’t a curse.  It was a voluntary act.  It was a chosen thing; part of him.  A matter of free will.  /I have to be right./ 

Except…  /Maybe there’s more to it than that./  Or less, she supposed.  /Maybe you’re just better at being a vamp than Angel ever was.  Maybe… you just embraced the change in a way that Liam never could.  You’ve always been so good at change.  You just… adapt, roll with things, make them a part of your identity, and become something new./

He was pacing on, a little ahead; watchful, damp, eyes everywhere.  Still a beautiful, alert predator.  And he had always been the same one; full of emotion and quicksilver passions, romantic and plagued by sentiment under the hard shell of leather and blood… since long before Africa.  /And look.  Your reaction to being sired isn’t exactly, like, the only unique one.  There we’re so many different kinds of fledges out there.  The ones who seem to just pretend there's nothing left of their old lives, and all they want to do is kill.  The ones who still care about their old lives, but too much, like Angel.  Kill their own families before going off to vamp around homeless…  And then there was Holden Webster.  Who talked to me half the stupid night like we were in a counseling session, before his demon-y side took over and he lost it and tried to have a bite, because yummy Slayer, hungry baby demon, which, you know.  Happens./  

/So how does it work, Spike?  You don’t sit around having personality clashes like Angel does.  I only saw you talking to yourself when you were in a basement and The First was dicking around with you, so that doesn’t count as having conversations with multiple personalities./  Which, that right there kind of counted in her own head as evidence that the soul thing wasn’t, you know, a new development, really, for a vamp.  That it hadn’t been shoved in there as a brand spanking new addition.  It was a part of Spike, part of who he was, that had just been rearranged in him or something, and was causing him a mental upheaval, a change in worldview or whatever.  But it wasn’t like he was suddenly chatting with a new portion of himself down there, all, ‘Hey, soul, how have you been, long time no see!  Welcome back to the world, hello guilt!’ 

No.  it had been more like, ‘Oh, crap.  Now a part of me is seeing things in a new light and can speak up, and it sucks and I don’t want to hear this’.  Because the way Spike had been down in that basement kind of reminded her of how she had been in her crappy hotel room in Florence.  /Because sometimes there are just some realizations about your own identity and the things you’ve done in your past that you really aren’t ready to deal with.  And… look at him.  He’s all one person.  All of him was there for all of it, and just how…/

/Maybe/ the realization struck her, /It’s like how we think of our ‘mind’ as a separate part of us, separate from our ‘heart’ and our ‘brain’, but we’re still all one person.  And a person only splits off into different personalities if there’s some huge trauma that makes that necessary.  Angelus was cursed, so he kind of split off, maybe?  Or maybe his two sides of himself never got along in the first place, so when he got cursed he kind of… shattered, and Angel just developed as, sort of… his way to deal?/  She could see being saddled with a demon like Angelus being a terrorizing experience for any soul.  Maybe by the time the curse happened there hadn’t been enough left of Liam to make a whole person, and he’d had to build ‘Angel’ from the ground up.

But Spike…  He always said being sired ‘freed’ him.  Which meant he had on some level welcomed being demoned up.  Maybe being William the Bloody-slash-Spike had just… brought out things in William that he lowkey wanted to experience or something. 

/It’s all just different sides of you, isn’t it, Spike?  William was there, and the demon took on all of that guy.  Freed parts of him you didn’t know were there, made him more.  And William gave the demon experiences he didn’t know he could have either… like how to love.  And the two of you became this one cohesive person over the years, so when William came back to the front all it really did was just chill out the more demon-y urges a little… but it’s all just different sides of the same you, right?  Just sides of your personality?  Just like… a beautiful vampire polygon./  

It all made sense again, because, /Getting a soul broke Angel.  Getting yours was just another day in the life of the ever-changing Spike-a-thon./  Not that Buffy was devaluing what he’d done for her.  It was so damn extreme.  He’d fundamentally changed his nature, how he functioned—and suffered through the transition—for her.  Because he’d thought he owed it to her.  Because he thought she’d be safer from him, maybe happier for it, or because he thought he deserved to destroy himself in penance or whatever stupid thing.  But.  /You weathered it, just like you did everything else.  Because you’re so adaptable./ 

But had he lost something precious, doing it?  By having his William-side up front and center?  She remembered that night at Revello, and snapping at him about it.  About wanting his demon back; the one who had been the better fighter, and how he’d become…  What had she called him?  She couldn’t remember now.  Something horrible.  Called him weepy and easy to whale on or something.  Accused him of holding back when she needed him; which was really rich, considering, and no wonder he’d been pissed.  But really it had just been an instinctive call; to bring her guy back.  All the parts of him, even the ones that had seemed… missing.  To sting him back into action, and to raucous, joyous, deadly action at that, because why couldn’t he enjoy a nice, oogy, bracing fight anymore?  If it was a soul issue, why was his shiny new conscience giving him issues with knocking off the nastier sorts of demons?  Why…

Just why everything, and what had happened to her guy?

So she had pushed.  Used a language that had once worked, between them.  And okay, yeah; it had kind of worked.  Except…

She watched him as they stalked toward this huge, final battle, wondering.  /Can you come back?  All the parts of you?/  His soul wasn’t a jinx, imposed by others as punishment.  He’d gone and gotten it voluntarily, if to punish himself.  Did that make any difference, that he'd chosen it?  /He should be able to affect it, right, as a free-will thing?  Kind of the way.../  Time to admit certain things to herself.  /Kind of the way certain spells done by certain witch-friends made us want to get married, but didn't say we had to like each other.  That was kind of... our free will, there./  

A vamp under an enforced curse might not be able to do it, but this...  It was a voluntary reordering of his being, and Spike was good at adaptation.  /If anyone could, if it’s even possible, you can.  I mean, you’ve accessed your human side more than most vamps when you were all demon-y, for most of your existence.  Why not the other way around?  And even Angel can call the demon up, to a certain extent.  It just stays… submerged; chained by fears and human morality.  Which… how much of that is as much because he’s scared of it?/

Spike couldn’t be scared of his own demon anymore, right?  Not now.  Not after what she’d said to him.  If he was holding back for her sake, keeping it suppressed…  There had to be a happy medium between ‘available, if slightly muffled by conscience’ and ‘buried and lost forever’.  Because it obviously wasn't that, or he wouldn't be able to access it at all.  /Can you call him up at will?  The rest of you; the guy I remember?  If you thought I wanted it, really believed I want all of you, and not just the parts that are ‘safe’ and ‘gentle’ and ‘manageable’?/

Because she did.  /I really do.  I want all of you.  And maybe I can’t have everything.  But if…/

He turned back toward her in the dark, shoulders tense, sword in hand.  “You alright, Slayer?”

“Yeah.”  She didn’t think he had been, though.  Hadn’t been himself, here.  Hadn’t been, in a lot of ways, since Africa.  There had been new lines on his face, like getting the soul back or back in charge or whatever had aged him in some bizarre way, put weight on his shoulders…  And look how he’d been living, here. 

For one thing, that apartment back there was just so not him.  If there was anything that indicated a change in personality, a change to a person she did not know, that was it.  She needed to investigate it, posthaste.  “Listen, are you…” 

He slowed his long stride a little so she didn’t have to keep jogging to keep up.  “What’s up, Buffy?”

It was just…  This felt like a weird moment of truth.  Like a kernel of something that, if she cracked it open, would make or break her understanding of him.  She was almost scared to ask, but…  /I have to know./  “Spike, what are you doing in that crappy apartment?  You used to have such good taste.”

He stumbled and half-turned back to her in surprise, clearly taken aback by her off-subject query.  “Worrying about interior decorating at a time like this?”

“I just wondered.  That place didn’t seem your style at all.”  Actually it had been pretty much utterly devoid of anyone’s personality, which was weird for a place inhabited by Spike.  He had always filled his nesting places with a total sense of him-ness.  It had just been weird.

/Unless it wasn’t about you.  The you I know, I mean./  Because to be fair, she knew jack shit about the interior decorating habits of a guy named William who had died in the 1880s.  So she had to know… how much of that guy was still in Spike?  Were they really all just different sides of the same guy?  Or was William… new? 

She was holding her breath as he watched her. 

And then he just… shrugged and started off again, looking dismissive.  “Not so posh, I know.”  His eyes darted around, from rooftop to alleyway and back.  “It’s just a place, pet.  I didn’t much care where I was anymore.  Just needed a spot to kip when the sun came up.”  He shrugged.  “Wasn’t a nest.  Didn’t expect to stay, or even make it through the week sometimes.  Was just a quick den with a fridge for the blood.”

Relief flooded her, followed swiftly by a hollow-bellied sense of dread.  It wasn’t about the place being lived in by some guy she didn’t know.  No.  This was a whole other problem.

/He wasn’t there at all./  That was why it had felt so empty, so sterile.  He hadn’t made it his.  Hadn’t made LA his, really.  And she realized, all of a sudden, why. 

All this time, he had just been marking time.  Like Buffy herself had done, in Sunnydale, after she had died.  Cutting off people, parts of herself, hair and nails and life and communication and looking for ways to…

It struck her then, with the force of a blow.  /Oh God.  This whole time he's been just looking around every corner for another ‘good and worthy death’./ 

No, no, no.  He’d still been trying to make good on that fucking amulet.  Because he’d sacrificed himself for her and it hadn’t stuck, and he’d thought…

He’d thought that if he didn’t die in some kind of noble way, she’d forget about him.  That that was the only way he could measure up, fix things between them, make reparation.  Because he’d decided that what she liked was heroic guys—even if they were dead ones—over living, supportive ones—and he thought that meant cowboys; or because he knew she was a hero, for better or worse, and he felt like he had to live up to that somehow, and because…

Because, more importantly, he'd rather be a dead hero in her eyes than a living reminder that he'd ever hurt her, even once.

/Oh my God, you complete asshat!/  Didn’t he realize that heroism had been forced on her?  That for her, all it had meant was suffering, and sacrifice, and loss, and death?  He should know!  He had been front and center to all her pain, all the fallout!  Had been the one she’d told about all of it, when she could tell no one else!

Didn’t he realize that what she needed, more than anything, was not someone who competed with her for the heroism title, for death and blood and sacrifice… but a support?  Not yet another man who would eventually leave her, but someone who would stay.  Who actually wanted to stand beside her, and be the one she relied on; whose hand she could hold at the end of the day, because he knew what it was all about!

/Damn you, Spike.  I forgave you the day it happened, because I needed you.  My support.  My left hand.  I don't need some guy in another city trying to die!  I need the guy who crawled into a bed with me when I was all alone, and told me I'll always be the One in his eyes, no matter how hard I fall, because I'm good enough just being me./  She needed to find a way to convince him that this wasn’t…  That he didn’t need…  

That what she wanted from him wasn’t this.  “I’d like…  I mean, if you want…  You don’t have to, but if you wanted to, ever, I’d like…”  She stopped and considered just shutting up.  Maybe this wasn’t even the way.  Or maybe he’d think it was a stupid idea, or…

But she could tell by the way he was staring at her, dripping in the rain, that it was clearly too late.  He hefted his mace, glanced back down the alley.  Turned back to her, patient as death despite their apparent appointment with an apocalypse.  As always.  “What is it, luv?”

/The worst he could do is say no./  “If you ever wanted to share a space with me, I would.”

He stopped dead.  There in the rain.  Just stood still, like a statue in the middle of the darkened alleyway.  “You sayin’ you want me to move in with you, if we make it through this?”

“Well,” she defended, “we’ve already practically lived together, last year; in the same house, anyway.  And I liked your crypt.  I liked what you did with it.  And I think we’d put up with each other okay.  I mean, I know I’d have to keep the drapes closed if you were…”

He was stalking back in her direction, moving so quickly and in such a predatory manner that she almost reared back… until his face was in her face and his hands were on her shoulders.  “Don’t offer it to me unless you mean it.  Because if you let me live with you, and then you took it away…”  His eyes were so incredibly intense on hers that she could drown in them.

“I wouldn’t do that,” she whispered.

“Bleeding Christ.  You’re off your trolley.”  He rubbed his hand through his wet hair, so that it hung down in his face in riotous white curls.  They glowed in the dark. 

She wanted to get her fingers into that hair, pull his head down, kiss him forever and forget they were about to walk into death.  Just run away with him and build the place and…  And let him know that she wanted him to live.  With her.  How desperately she needed him to want to live.  “I know,” she breathed.  “But I still think it makes sense.”

He lifted his head from his hand to stare at her, clearly bewildered.  “Is this a dream, Buffy?  Am I gonna wake up and realize that I was just having some sort of pre-game daydream of what my best day would have been like, before I died?  Am I gonna have to do this all over again, without you, in another hour or two?”

She stepped closer, caught his free hand in hers.  “You’re never going to have to do anything without me again.  Unless you want to.”

They stood that way for a long minute with the rain pouring down all around and between them... and then he shifted to hold her scarred hand tight in his as he turned resolutely back toward their line of march.  “Let’s get this battle over with, yeah?  For the first time since I died for dear old Sunnyhell, I feel I’ve got something to live for.”

Triumph roared through her, hot enough to sear the rain away.  It was like fire between their palms; but a healing flame this time; one that bonded them and did not kill, but filled with life. 

They finished the walk without ever once letting go of one another’s hands. 

When they emerged from the final alley to what he told her was the back of the Hyperion they were the only ones there at first.  But that was the case only for a second or two.  Angel came trotting up a moment later, samurai in hand, glanced through the chain link across the back of the alley, then turned around, seeking allies.  

“Hey,” Buffy said, at the same time as Spike said, more colloquially, “Boo.”

Because he had been a ghost.  Ha. Ha.  

Idiots.

Angel eyed them both stonily, looking a little winded—if vampires could be said to be winded—and with borrowed blood oozing down one side of his face.  “Anyone else?”

“Not so far.”  Spike’s answer was short, almost like a military report.  It was weird.  “You feel the heat?”

“It’s coming.”

Seriously; the way he talked with Angel, all clipped…  Was it the way he’d stumbled on to keep himself from fighting all the time with his grandsire, or just some ‘I loathe you but I have to talk with you anyway, so I’m keeping it short’ thing?  Or was he really okay with taking orders from Angel?  Like some kind of weird vampire bloodline politics thing?

“Finally got ourselves a decent brawl,” he commented finally, looking around, and it was the first sentence he’d said in a while that sounded like him.  Pure Spike understatement, all spoiling for a fight.     

“Damn!” a voice broke in from somewhere down the alley.  Gunn; emerging through the curtain of rain to trot up, half-hunched over and looking exhausted.  “How’d I know the fang-boys’d pull through?  You’re lucky we’re on the same side, dawgs, ‘cause I was on fire tonight.  My game was… tight.”  As he neared them, he staggered. 

Angel and Spike were there to catch him before Buffy could even register what was happening.  It took her a second to realize why. 

They had smelled the blood.  Lots of blood.  Oh, jeez…

They eased him to a seat on some stacked-up stuff against the wall. 

“S’posed to wear that red stuff on the inside, Charlie-boy,” Spike informed Gunn lightly, but Buffy could tell by the way he said it that he was uncomfortable. 

It was bad, then.             

Hopefully not life-threatening.  They were all wearing some of the red stuff on the outside at this point.  It wasn’t like Spike could really talk.  He was cut up as hell.  So was she… though she was afraid they were both probably in better shape than Gunn.  His hand was trembling badly as he lifted it away from his abdomen… which was not of the good. 

Oh, damn, that was never of the good, and Buffy felt a pang of remorse.  Maybe if she’d gone with him…

“Any word on Wes?”

Before anyone could do more than shake their heads, the woman who had been Fred and was now all indigo dropped literally out of the sky to join them.  “Wes is dead.”

It hit her hard; like a bag of confusing bricks.  /Oh.  God./  She wasn’t sure how to feel about it, but she knew she didn’t want him to be dead, and maybe if she’d gone with him

But no.  If she had gone with either of them… then Spike might be the one who hadn’t come back, and that was just not acceptable.

“I’m feeling grief for him,” Illyria went on in her strange tones.  “I can’t seem to control it.  I wish to do more violence.”

That sounded like a good solution in Buffy’s book.  She tightened her hands on the axe handle.  No one around to whale on just yet, but… there was a siren starting up somewhere nearby, which sounded promising.

No.  Wait.  That wasn’t…

Buffy’s senses started to tingle dramatically as the ‘siren’ resolved itself into a loud caterwauling sourced at the other end of the alley.  It wasn’t a vamp-tingle; more of a ‘holy shit, you’re screwed’ feeling.  So of course she turned her head to see what the noise was coming from… and saw them.  Dozens of them.  Maybe hundreds.  In armor.  With weapons. 

/Well, crap.  More violence sounds majorly doable./

“Well, wishes just happen to be horses today,” Spike echoed her sentiment.

“Among other things,” Angel agreed grimly.

“Okay!” Gunn cheerled from his hunched-over position on a pile of whatever, “You take the thirty thousand on the left…”

Give credit where it was due; the guy was a positive thinker.

“You’re fading,” Illyria told him frankly.  “You’ll last ten minutes at best.”

/Ouch.  Blunt, much?/

The thought of dying just seemed to piss Gunn off.  He pushed himself slowly to his feet.  “Then let’s make ‘em memorable.”

She couldn’t help him and she knew it.  /Battles always have casualties.  He knew going in he could die.  We all did.  He’s accepted it.  I have to too./ 

Shaking it off grimly, Buffy joined them all as they turned to square off across the alley.  “So, do we have a plan or anything?”

“We fight,” Angel answered grimly.

“Good plan.”  She tightened her grip on her borrowed axe and set herself up automatically on Spike’s right. 

He fell in just as instinctively on her left and set himself grimly. “Wanna be a bit more specific?” he asked all sardonic.

“Well, personally,” Angel answered, and stepped forward with a little smile on his face, “I kinda wanna slay the dragon.”

Sometimes she remembered why she loved him. 

They were coming.  “Let’s go to work,” Angel said, and lifted his sword. 

Buffy turned to Spike with a little smile.  “You better live through this.”

He turned it back on her; mirthlessly, and with love in his eyes to match her own solemnity.  “Same, Slayer.”

She hefted her axe as the first wave came on, caught a sword, flung it aside, and neatly decapitated an oncoming demon soldier.  Above them, the dragon was belching flames.  It cut swaths in the rain, at least.  She ignored it to swing at the next thing, whacked off an arm, grunted lightly as she slung the rest of it into Spike’s mace.  “Because I can’t live without you anymore.”

He caught the thing on his—heh—spiky club and battered it to the ground.  “What you said,” he grunted, and walloped the head off another critter with one smooth Louisville slugger move. 

“So, what?  We do this and we have to fight these demon Senior Partner guys next?”  Parry, strike, kill.  Bloody goo washing over her in spatters.  She couldn’t see anyone else but Spike and Illyria, who was, to be fair, literally pulverizing whole swaths of demons with her fists, every blow disintegrating heads, and thank goodness she was on their side. 

“Probably, yeah.”  Whack.  Crack.

“Well… then.”  This was actually kind of easy once you got into the rhythm of it.  You just had to keep them from getting behind you.  Everything was easy and right when she had Spike on her left.  Like breathing; something she didn’t even have to think about.  /I have the rhythm of my life back./  “Are you ready to kick some hellgod ass next?”

“Did it… once, pet; will do it again… right?”  Crash.

“Exactly.  Same old… same old.”  One of them got her on her shoulder, and she pivoted against his side so that they were back to back.  Fought that way for a sec till they were clear, then rolled around again, once more shoulder-to-shoulder.  Rhythm like a heartbeat coming back on-line.  He fell into it, too, without thinking; piggybacking on the beat he’d started. 

“I love you, Buffy.”

She shot him a look to make sure he wasn’t saying goodbye.  He wasn’t; his face was still fierce and full of fighting energy.  But not… not the old joyous fighting spirit.  This was a tooth-clenched, determined energy, like inside the hellmouth, at the end. 

Like he was fighting on an assembly line, and, just, no.  “I love you, William, Spike, the Bloody, Pratt,” she told him quietly, and caught a sword-stroke to swing it away and catch a demon under one arm.  Sticky, gross, weirdly dark blood erupted from its mouth all over her chest.  Ew. 

Spike stilled briefly mid-combat to glare at her.  “If you say that to me ever again, Buffy, I’ll kill you myself.”

She just smiled and caught another sword before it could impale him.  “But I do.  So do me a…”  Parry. “…Favor.”  /Can you come all the way back, for me?  All of you?/  By magick or by the simple, insane, balls-out madness of his love for her, she could almost believe he could do anything  “I know William was there all the…”  Duck.  “Time…”  He was so unbelievably mutable it was hard to believe he couldn’t, if he truly thought it was what she wanted.  “…Buried behind Spike.”  Spike would always change, would always be whatever he thought she needed him to be, wanted him to be.  “But now Spike is…” Kick.  “…Buried behind William.”

She was counting on that, one last time.  /If not… what you’ve done for me, for us…  God knows I could never regret it, but if there’s even a chance that I can have all of you; that you can be free…/  She had to try.  In case the reason his demon was behind bars was because of her.  For her.  /Because I didn’t ask for that kind of… lifelong penance./  “…And I miss my…”  Spin.  “…Fighting buddy.”  Because if there was a balance to be found between demon and human soul… Spike would be the vamp to do it.  “The one who has fun with this.” 

She shot him an energized smile in between grunts and blows.  “Come on out and play, Spike?”  She nudged him lightheartedly with one elbow and then ducked a swing.  Decided to try the same thing that had already worked on him before.  /Maybe if I just keep quoting him back at himself, he’ll know I listened to him at all, and he’ll believe me.  Eventually./  “Let’s… hit the demon world,” she parroted when she came back up.  “Ask questions…”  Swing.  “Throw punches…”  Block.  “Find out what’s in the air.”  She parried another stab and ran a demon through.  “It’s fun, for one thing.”

He dodged a blow, caught it on his mace.  Swung and wrecked a demon head, frowning thoughtfully at her.  “I thought it wasn’t your kind of fun, Slayer.”

She smiled sunnily at him through the curtains of rain.  “Yeah.  It is.  And my life just got a whole lot less confusing once I figured that out.”  She jerked an arm across her eyes to fling her wet hair away, jabbed the point of the axe at the eye of the next oncoming demon.  “So will yours, I think.”

He had to trust her enough to believe it.  Believe that she loved all of him.  Despite all she’d already said she knew it was asking a lot, considering everything she had done to him over the years, but…

She watched him as steadily and as certainly as she could, between kills, as he scanned her for doubts.  What he saw must have been enough.  He regarded her for just a split second longer… and, as if her permission had been all that he had been waiting for… he abruptly vamped out.  His eyes glowed on hers for a moment, amber and primal and gorgeous…  And then with a joyous roar, he leaped on the next demon full-bore… and just straight up ripped the thing’s head off. 

Relief swamped her, followed immediately by a warm, almost indulgent pride.  /That’s my guy./  Grinned, watching him, at the sheer exuberance he betrayed as he went on to the next one.  Never too far from her left side, but really tearing into it now.  No more trace of the workmanlike thing he was doing before, he was fighting for the pure, feral joy of it, and the demons around him were starting to quail. 

/That’s right, boys/ she thought proudly, /the Big Bad is back./

“That’s right, boys,” Spike shouted in almost the same instant.  Leaned back, chest out, fists clenched, to roar it.  “The Big Bad is back!”

She started laughing; out loud, in the rain.  It was beautiful.  Entirely beautiful, to watch him dance, and it kind of inspired her to loosen up and have a little fun herself.  “Yeah he is.”  With the shining, galvanized body next to her once more to mark her reentry into time, she swung her axe in a wide, controlled arc.  Felt the clean sweep of it jolt up her arm with a zing like electricity.  Like life.  Heard every sound—the head sailing cleanly away to strike the alley wall—smelled every smell—the unfortunate and, closer to, Spike—all things that had been dull and useless to her coming back as if the world had not gone up in flames a year ago.  And felt the sheer exultation of it rise in her again.  The joy of simply being

/I think we both are./

*   *   *



Hope this lived up to everyone's expectations, and that it set enough of a stage for either nice, heartwarming feels... or Part Two, depending on your druthers.  

Speaking of Pt.2...  I'll be keeping to more or less the same posting schedule for the second part of this saga.  If you're interested in seeing Spuffy find their way into real couplehood as they walk through the looking glass into Hell-A, please join me!  I had an absolute blast writing that one.  It's long as... well, hell, but I promise much smut, fluff, relationshippy goodness, SpikePOV... and hopefully continued interesting revelations.  Also, Angel-smushing of the highest order as we expose Captain Forehead's weaknesses on a grand scale on a hellish stage.  

So,  yeah.  Keep your eyes open, if you wish, for "LA Is the Hell You Make It", coming soon to a dashboard near you.