Spike had been more than half inclined to refuse the invitation altogether. But as he'd told Buffy when the note had been slipped beneath the door of their rented Roman flat, the bloke owed him a good dinner at the very least, and Spike intended to collect. And he had to admit that the Immortal set an exemplary table when he wasn't chaining you up in his dungeon: an endless procession of immaculately-uniformed servers bearing an equally endless series of perfectly prepared and marvelously varied dishes. Almost good enough to make up for Buffy coercing him into a button-down shirt and tie. It was entirely likely that he'd be letting that new belt she'd gotten him out a bit earlier than planned.
The surroundings were no less impressive; the Immortal's palazzo was a sprawling, Renaissance-era warren of rooms, decorated with an eclectic mixture of styles and eras. Greek amphorae rubbed shoulders with Keith Haring prints. And yet the overall atmosphere was welcoming, almost intimate. Nonetheless, Spike had no illusions that they'd been invited here out of any sort of hospitable impulse. The Immortal wanted something.
The real question was, what on earth did either he or Buffy have that could interest a chap like that?
One of these days, Spike thought, his curiosity would be the death of him. In a sense, it already had been; after all, if he hadn't set out almost a hundred and sixty years ago on his obsessive search for the answer to the question "What's a Slayer?", he'd still be your everyday, ordinary, garden-variety vampire, looking forward to another few centuries of mayhem and slaughter. But he'd made his peace with that yonks ago; the fact that he had an expiration date now preyed very little on his mind. At the human equivalent of sixty-five or thereabouts, the odds that he'd die peacefully in bed were still hovering between slim and none.
He glanced over at Buffy and grinned. He might die in bed, all right, but it wouldn't be peaceful. The silver-blonde hair piled high on her head just begged to be taken down and played with, one wanton strand twining past her cheek to caress the column of her throat, currently accentuated by a simple pearl necklace that screamed "Bite me!" The calendar said she'd turned sixty this year, but anyone looking would have guessed younger by at least five years.
Rome had been very, very good to her. She was looking particularly edible tonight, kitted out in the new dress she'd picked out during last week's shopping spree. Midnight blue and silky, it clung to her every lush curve like liquid night, slit up to there and cut low enough that he held his breath in anticipation every time she leaned forward. Given six months off from fighting monsters every night and all the pasta she could eat, the Slayer was delightfully, deliciously plump, and he was loving it. More importantly, so was she. Take a note, William: see that she never drops under ten stone again.
The Immortal was watching her too. Spike was inclined to be tolerant; any man who wasn't watching her was obviously batting for the other team. And much to his ill-concealed glee, Buffy was presently paying no mind whatsoever to the Immortal, her attention being entirely reserved for the creme brulee. She lifted the last luscious spoonful to her mouth; her eyelids fluttered shut and her lips curled in rapture, savoring. The tip of her tongue darted out to catch any lingering sweetness. It had taken a long time for his girl to come to terms with the fact that at heart she was just as much a hedonist as he was, but the results were bloody spectacular. "That was fantastic," she sighed.
"I am pleased that you enjoyed it," the Immortal said, ever the courteous host. "But all good things, alas, must end. Shall we adjourn, then, i miei amici? There are certain matters I am most eager to discuss with you both, and the pleasures of the table should never be interrupted for the sordid necessity of business."
Buffy flashed him a wide, brilliant California smile, no less devastating at sixty than it had been at sixteen. "Sounds great, but I need to hit the powder room first," she said. "Where was it again? Second palace on the right?"
"But of course." He nodded to one of the liveried servants standing at stiff attention behind his chair. "Ms. Guerdino, please conduct Mrs. Summers-Pratt wherever she requires to go, if you will. We shall await her pleasure in the small salon."
Spike was half-immersed in a postprandial fantasy of hiking that dress up and fucking Buffy silly atop the Immortal's hand-polished dining room table. Still, he thought he caught a flash of disappointment on the Slayer's face as the stern-faced matron peeled off of the wall and led her off towards an imposing door at the other end of the dining hall. The Immortal made an 'after you' gesture in Spike's direction, and he shrugged and followed.
If the Immortal's palazzo was impressive, their host was - there was really no other way to put it – perfect. Tall, but not too tall; muscular, but not too muscular. Dark wavy hair, sparkling black eyes, olive skin, dashing smile framed by a neatly trimmed Van Dyke. Clothes discretely, almost apologetically elegant. He looked old enough to give the impression of maturity and power, and young enough to project energy and vigor; classically handsome, but with enough wit and character in his face that he'd never pass for a mere pretty boy. Spike could remember having once been driven into a jealous frenzy simply by the Immortal's existence – though granted the whole business with Dru and the dungeon hadn't helped. But there was a significant difference, he had discovered, between getting older and simply having been around a long time. Jealousy was a game for the young and insecure, and nowadays he couldn't be arsed.
The small salon encompassed, so far as Spike could tell, approximately twenty-seven acres of walnut paneling, plush green velvet, and butter-soft leather. There was a massive marble fireplace with the obligatory roaring fire, its heat unaccountably pleasant despite it being the middle of summer. The Immortal claimed to use no magic, but any sufficiently advanced con job... well, no matter. There were also cigars, brandy, and coffee, all of which were (of course) excellent. Spike poured himself a brandy, and coolly appropriated the fattest cigar and the most comfortable chair (no more than he was due, he felt, considering the circumstances of his last visit). "You've fixed the old place up some," he allowed, vamping out briefly to bite the end off his cigar. "Much less drafty than my last stay."
The Immortal laughed, a warm chuckle that implied you were totally in on the joke. "My dear William - I may call you William, no? May I say your attitude is much improved from our last meeting?"
"You can say it," Spike replied placidly, trusting his host to take note of the indicative. He extracted his lighter and puffed the cigar to life. "Don't see that I can stop you."
His host laughed again. "You jest. But I am quite serious. You have changed a great deal."
Spike glanced down at the compact belly straining the buttons of his dress shirt – Rome had been rather good to him, too. Something else that would have bothered him, a long time ago, and which now seemed a perfectly equitable trade-off for the fun he'd had acquiring it. He didn't have much truck with mirrors for obvious reasons, but in the last few years, he'd started to catch a glimpse of his own father smiling at him out of photographs. It wasn't an entirely unpleasant experience. "Wages of domestic bliss, mate."
"Ah, yes, you are mortal now, no? The grey hair, the advancing waistline – and yet, as you demonstrated only a moment ago, you are a vampire still." The Immortal leaned casually against the mantelpiece, waving his own cigar in illustration. "You carry your years lightly, William. As, and please forgive me if I presume, does your lovely wife. She is quite... succulent."
"I've got lots fewer of them to carry than you do. As for Buffy..." He grinned. "Give it your best shot, mate, but she's out of your league. Out of mine, too, but I got lucky." Spike cocked an eyebrow and blew a smoke ring. "Now can we cut the bloody small talk and get to the point?"
"I haven't missed all the good gossip, have I?" Buffy's bright voice in the doorway cut off whatever the Immortal might have replied.
Spike sprang to his feet and escorted her to a chair. Her cheeks were rosy and she was a trifle breathless, which did extremely interesting things to the plunging neckline of her dress. "What took you so long?" he whispered.
She wrinkled her nose, pitching her voice for vampire ears alone. "Snooping, of course. I only managed to ditch La Guerdino for a few minutes, though. This place is a maze. How's my makeup? I had to sneak back into the bathroom via a window ledge."
"You look radiant, love," he said aloud, which was no more than the truth.
Buffy accepted a coffee and refused a cigar ("I feel I must offer," the Immortal explained. "Though few ladies accept. One must keep up with the times."), and sat back to regard their host with a gaze quite undulled by either the excellence of dinner or the splendor of her general surroundings. "So," she said. "I think this is the part where we say 'To what do we owe the honor etcetera?'"
"You and your husband are of one mind, it seems," the Immortal said, with the most charming smile imaginable. "But you are both correct. I did ask you here with a purpose in mind." Spike was honestly not sure what he expected to come next, but it certainly wasn't, "It is a matter of... finances."
Buffy looked pointedly around the room. "I don't want to be gauche, but I totally will. You don't look like you're hurting for cash, and if you are, you could just peel some gilt off the fire tongs. Or is this one of those Downton Abbey entailment things?"
The Immortal looked genuinely amused. "Not precisely. There is a payment I must make to certain parties on a regular schedule. It cannot be delayed, or the consequences will be dire. The payment must be made in coin of a most particular type." He walked over to a delicate mahogany secretary desk and removed a large envelope, from which he extracted a handful of real old-fashioned photographs. He passed one to Buffy, another to Spike.
Three ancient coins gleamed against a dark background, golden as a vampire's eye. Spike examined the laurel-crowned profile with interest. "My imperial namesake, yeah? The old chap had quite a beak on him, didn't he?"
"Roman artists valued truth over flattery." The Immortal set his copy of the photo down. "The vampire prophet Aurelius lived and died and lived again several centuries after the death of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and their philosophies were much opposed, but such coincidences are rarely without meaning." He was standing in front of the fireplace now, hands clasped behind his back, staring broodily into the flames. Buffy frowned, but said nothing. "The aureus of Marcus Aurelius is not an excessively rare coin, though specimens in such a condition as these can be worth no inconsiderable sum. But these particular variants will be found in no numismatist's catalogue."
"And?" The Slayer, Spike thought, was getting little impatient with the monolog. Well, when you'd sat through as many of them as she had...
"Pardon me," the Immortal turned back to face them. "I grow discursive in my old age. But here is the crux of the matter. These coins come from a special minting – done in secret, during the final years of the Emperor's reign. He was only human, but he was a far-sighted man, and it was not difficult in those days to see that darker days lay ahead. The coins have virtues even I do not fully understand. I have been entrusted with their keeping for... oh, a very long time now. And at certain intervals, I am bound to return three of them to the... Beings to whom they were dedicated. So long as I do so, the City of Rome shall stand. If I do not..." He shrugged. "Let us say I prefer not to explore that eventuality." His expression was grim, now, and for the first time, something ancient and terrible looked at them out of those smouldering eyes. "Rome is my city; my heart, my soul. I am telling this story to the two of you in part because I know that you understand these things: you amuse yourselves here, but in time, your true home will call, and you will answer, gladly."
Spike took a sip of his brandy. What with the marvels of Skype and instant everything, he wasn't quite up to missing Sunnydale yet, but... yeah, he'd get there eventually. "I take it there's a reason you can't pay the piper on schedule?"
"You assume correctly." The Immortal scowled. "The bulk of the coins are stored in a safe place, one which cannot be accessed at whim. Three weeks ago, the conditions were right for me to withdraw the necessary funds for the next payment. Two weeks ago, the three coins were stolen. Tomorrow, the payment comes due. I must have them back. Not only for my own sake, but for the sake of the city."
Buffy didn't look convinced. "Again, not meaning to be gauche, but... don't you have people for that?"
"Indeed I do. They have discovered the location of the coins, and made several attempts to retrieve them. As I am sure you've surmised already, it is not so simple a matter as reaching out and picking them up again."
"What I'm yearning to know," drawled Spike, "is who dared take 'em from the mighty Immortal to begin with? I've some experience tangling with you, and it's not a project you take on for a lark."
"You are too kind. But there are other powers in this city, and some of them are more than willing to seize an opportunity when it arises. You have had dealings with them yourselves, I believe? The firm of Wolfram & Hart, an establishment with very specialized clients. Ilona Costa Bianchi and I are very old friends, but we are very old rivals as well. She does not allow her regard for me to sway her from doing her job. I was careless; I shall not be so again, but now I must deal with the consequences. It is my great good fortune that the two of you are here, and that you are... uniquely suited to the task at hand."
"Are we now?" Spike murmured, as Buffy chimed in simultaneously, "And what exactly is this task?"
The Immortal broke into a relieved smile. "You know of the Fontana del Nettuno?"
"Hard to avoid it." They'd gone to see it early on in the trip, of course, because Buffy was keen on hitting all the high spots on the tourist hit parade. They'd even tossed a coin or two in for luck.
Backlit by the fireplace, the Immortal's visage had taken on a Mephistophelian cast. "The coins are there. The thief discarded them in the fountain when he discovered that my people were hot upon his trail. Among so many other coins, they went unregarded, and I did not discover their location until several days later. In that time, while the presence of my people prevented Costa Bianchi's creatures from retrieving the coins themselves, her mages were able to cast a ward around the area of the fountain which prevents me or anyone I employ from entering it. My people surround the Piazza Navona, but we cannot approach the fountain.
"So we sit at an impasse, Ilona and I, neither of us able to retrieve the coins. But all she needs to do is wait, and victory will be hers." He began to pace. "Our past relations have not been friendly, Master William. At another time, perhaps I would take you up on your challenge." He flashed a smile in Buffy's direction, and Buffy shot a suspicious look back at Spike. "But this very thing works in our favor – no one would expect the two of you to intervene on my behalf." He paused, looking earnest. "And it is not on my behalf, truly, that I beg you to intervene. Now!" He clapped his hands together. "There is a great deal I must tell you. The fountain, of course, has its own guardians, and the presence of the coins has stirred them to wakefulness. They will not gladly relinquish what has been given them. In order to – "
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Buffy set the bone china coffee cup aside. "Look, Mr. Immortal, I'm glad you're thinking about all the nuns and orphans and puppies, but..." She leaned forward, her dainty, frivolous beaded purse clasped loosely in her fingers. A second later, a slim, palm-length dagger sliced through the photograph in the Immortal's hands and pinned it point-first to the mantelpiece, vibrating.
He neither flinched nor blinked, nor did he look particularly alarmed at the display. "Impressive."
"No," Buffy returned, with dispassionate coolness. "It's not. It's sloppy. Worse, it's slow. I'm out of practice. Spike and I are officially retired. We turned over the keys to the business and the slaying to our kids, and walked away. There was a reason for that. I could be in practice again. But I'd still be sixty years old, and getting older every day. I'm not going to pretend we don't help out when we're asked, or that there hasn't been some recreational slaying now and then, but – keyword recreational. Nobody's lives on the line but our own. The reason I'm living it up in your city right now is because we had the sense to quit while we were ahead, and so was everyone who depended on us."
She stood, five foot two of righteous Slayer fury, and the Immortal actually took a step backwards. "So if this is really that important, and if you really care about the people whose behalf you're begging on, think long and hard before you decide we're the best ones to handle this."
The Immortal stood looking down at her for a moment, an expression in his eyes that on anyone else might have been respect. He bowed, deeply. "I can think of no one more suitable."
Buffy regarded him imperiously. "Then we'll do it," she said, "on one condition."
"And that is?"
"Change of clothes," she snapped. "There's no way in hell I'm going to ruin this dress traipsing around in some grotty enchanted fountain."
"He's lying," said Spike.
"Of course he's lying." From their vantage point in the cupola atop the dome of Sant'Agnese in Agone, Buffy gazed narrow-eyed down at the Piazza Navona. On a normal night, even at this hour it was ablaze with light and awash with people, crowded with street artists and musicians and lined with innumerable booths and pavilions selling everything imaginable. Tonight, the Immortal might not be able to enter it, but after a few discreet phone calls on his part, apparently no one else could, either. The booths and tables were closed, tarps rolled down to cover their wares, many showing signs of recent and hasty abandonment. The lights of an empty, silent carousel blinked forlornly. Either the Immortal actually did give half a toss for the welfare of nuns and/or puppies, or he didn't want any witnesses. "We just can't be sure what he's lying about, and as long as there's a chance the city really is in danger... see anything?"
"Mmm." Spike scanned the pavement below, looking for any telltale flicker of movement and drinking in the wind. Exhaust, garbage, pigeon droppings, incense, privet hedges, damp concrete, the last five hundred people who'd cris-crossed the square, and the maddening combination of Chanel and warm, musky Slayer. "Not a sight nor a scent of anything untoward. Which means exactly nothing."
He gave her a sidelong glance. Buffy had traded in the killer dress and the killer heels for dark capris, a long-sleeved tee, and sneakers. (The Immortal, as it turned out, had walk-in closets larger than the entirety of the apartment they were renting, filled with an astonishing variety of clothing from a multitude of decades, sizes, and genders.) For all her cautionary speechifying, she was crouched now on the sill of the cupola window, balancing with enviable grace.
It was perfectly true they'd both slowed down a bit. Once upon a time he'd been able to pluck an arrow in flight out of the air before it pierced his heart; he wouldn't care to try that now. But demon strength didn't wane with the years, though the mortal bodies which employed it paid more dearly for its use. Which, so far as he was concerned, just meant that if it came to a knock-down-drag-out, they'd best fight dirty. "About that city in danger business. Not going to argue we're at the tippy-top of our game at the moment, but you were laying it on a bit thick for Mr. Roarke's benefit. Least, I hope you were."
"Pfft," Buffy waved a hand. "If I really didn't think we could do this, I wouldn't be up here." Catching hold of the nearest column, she leaned out for a better view of the Piazza. "But it got me to thinking. Connie would slay me herself if I tried to horn in on her territory now she's taken over, but something like this could happen at any time. And that made me think that we should be prepared if it does, and – " her jaw clenched in frustration. "I don't want to be prepared! I like getting soft. I spent forty-plus years being hard, damn it, I've earned this!"
Spike sighed. Every time he thought she'd gotten beyond her martyr-of-the-people complex... well, she probably wouldn't be the Buffy he loved without it, but at times it still made him want to clock her one. "Could have mentioned this reluctance before we climbed a cathedral, pet. We could have told the old bastard off and let him deal with his own problems. Like as not the only thing in danger from his supernatural loan officer is him."
Buffy's eyes rolled skywards. "Oh, please. Like this whole thing wasn't your idea."
One eyebrow climbed. "Excuse me?"
"You hate this Immortal guy's guts," Buffy said, with the air of someone explaining that the world was round. "But you accept his weird out of nowhere dinner invitation anyway. I know you, Spike. I could happily spend the rest of my life without sticking a single stake in a single vampire, but you? You get bored. You were hoping something like this would happen."
"If you know me so bloody well," Spike growled, "it might have attracted your notice that when I'm bored, I generally announce the fact by saying 'I'm bored, let's go kill something!' rather than launching some Machiavellian plot to do last-minute, inconvenient favors for my third-worst enemy. Fine, I was a little curious to see what the bloke was up to, but I'm not the one who signed us up for the Save the Nuns Parade."
For a moment they glared at each other. At length, Spike said, "Shall we take the fist fight as a given?"
Buffy held on to her glare for a second longer; then gave in with a laugh. "Yes, but I want a rain check on the makeup sex. There, we are getting old: you passed up a fist fight, and I'm wearing little old lady tennis shoes."
Spike smirked. "Race you to the ground, Grandma."
He stepped out of the cupola, sat, and slid feet-first down over the surface of the dome. Kicking off the ledge where the foot of the dome met the supporting drum, he fell the distance to the roof below. He heard "Spike!" overhead, and then Buffy slithering down the dome after him. He lost no time vaulting over the stone railing to slide down the pediment, with a wink at the statue of St. Agnes on the way down. It was a much longer jump to the ground below, and his brief hesitation let the Slayer catch up with him. No hesitation for her; she took a flying leap off the pediment and over to another ledge, there to jump to the smaller pediment on the side tower. Obviously she'd taken a moment to plan her route. Bloody hell, she was halfway down already –
He stepped off of the pediment, hitting the ground a split second before Buffy did. Came down harder than he used to, no doubt about that, landing with an audible grunt, feeling the impact in his knees and the bounce of his belly. The drop was no less exhilarating for that. Buffy trotted over, breathing hard – not quite as riveting a sight as it had been in the dress, but still well worth a look. "You," she hissed, "are an idiot. You could have broken something."
"Yeah, but I'm an idiot who won." Spike straightened, breathing a bit hard himself, and strode over to the wrought-iron fence which separated the churchyard from the Piazza proper. "And unlikely. That wasn't half as high as Glory's tower, and I've a bit more padding now."
"Most of it between your ears. Stupid sexy vampire," Buffy grumbled, standing on her toes to peer through the curlicued iron. "And for sexy, please substitute more stupid. Give me a boost."
Spike obliged. Buffy dropped down on the other side of the fence, and he followed her over - a little less lithely than he might have managed in years past, but it got the job done. An elaborate street lamp towered overhead just outside the fence, casting its yellow light on the paving stones. The Piazza stretched out to either side, the lineaments of the ancient stadium which had given it birth still visible here and there among the lines of newer buildings. In the center of the Piazza the Obelisco Agonale towered above Bernini's Four Rivers, a dark needle of stone. Far to the right, at the southern end of the piazza, the Fontana del Moro loomed. And off to the north...
There seemed little sense in skulking, but they went cautiously nonetheless. The windows in the buildings surrounding the Piazza looked down on them, rows and rows of dark, shuttered eyes. Spike felt the back of his neck prickling. Something was out there, all right. Costa Bianchi's 'creatures,' however literally one wanted to take that? Or the Immortal's own mysterious people? Or both, and something else again? There were too many unknown factors. Good. A little bit of uncertainty in life got the blood to pumping. And if that meant Buffy had a point, he didn't have to admit it out loud.
Buffy slowed as they approached the Fontana del Nettuno. On the innermost of its two tiers, statuary rose above the water in baroque profusion: naiads and putti, writhing sea monsters and rearing hippocampi, all surrounding the central figure of Neptune, engaged in mortal combat with an octopus. The sculptor could have chosen a more imposing foe for an embattled god, in Spike's opinion, but perhaps his patron had been a calamari magnate. The lower of the two tiers was wider and shallower, and in the light of the street lamps a scatter of coins was visible along the bottom. Not nearly so many as those littering the more famous Fontana di Trevi, but enough to make it a bit of a needle/haystack proposition finding any particular three.
The Slayer stood well back, head tilted, hands on hips, a frown stitching her brows. "This is way too easy." At last she shook her head, as if shaking off doubt. "Well, we can't stand here all night. Do you have the tribute?"
Spike reached into his trousers pocket, and pulled out the small red satin bag the Immortal had given them. Coins clinked within it, just as old and almost as rotten with significance as the aurei they were after, or so the Immortal had assured them. Fair trade for the fountain's guardians. "Right here."
"Here goes nothing," she muttered, and stepped forward, holding the bag up in both hands, repeating the words the Immortal had drilled into both their heads.. "Great Neptune, we beseech you, accept this offering in exchange for what we must take from you. Value offered for value, gold for gold and blood for blood – "
Spike realized he was growling low in this throat, and throttled it back. The pricking of his thumbs was a full-body thing now. All around the circle of statuary, limbs were creaking into motion, stony backs straightening, marble eyes rolling to focus empty pupils upon them. A naiad stretched, twining her fingers in the mane of the fabulous monster at her feet. A hippocampus tossed its head and whinnied, the alabaster waves of its mane rippling.
The god of the sea rose above them all, massively muscled and imposing. The octopus coiled around his feet like a pet, its marble tentacles in constant, restless motion. Neptune struck the pedestal he stood on with the butt of his bronze spear, and his lips opened. Spike remembered enough of his schoolboy Latin and Greek to make out the written word well enough, with the help of a good dictionary, but carrying on a conversation was another matter. But Neptune's words, while strangely accented, were in perfectly understandable modern Italian. Well, this particular statue had been added to the fountain decades after he himself had been born, after all.
"The sacrifice is acceptable," the god said. And he flung the bronze spear straight at Spike's chest.
Spike started to move the instant he saw the stony muscles tense. He still wasn't quite fast enough to dodge the spear entirely. The point tore into his shoulder, shearing though muscle and bone, its impact spinning him around hard enough to stagger him. He could smell his own blood welling up, and pain out of all proportion to the severity of the wound. He vamped out with a snarl, clutching the haft of the spear where it entered his shoulder, just between the deltoid and the pectoralis major. Ripping spearhead free would only cause more damage and blood loss, and for a human would have been the height of idiocy, but while he might be getting on, he wasn't human. Gritting his fangs, he took hold and pulled.
Thirty-odd years ago, the blood of a Mohra demon had surged through his veins, knitting human body and demon spirit together into something that certainly wasn't human but wasn't quite vampire, either. He'd thought at the time that nothing could possibly hurt more, and so far, he'd thought correctly, but this came damned close. The Piazza was whirling and swooping around him carousel-fashion. He knew, because Fred Burkle and Willow had explained it to him at excessive and enthusiastic length, that his circulatory system was something out of Grey's Anatomy by Rube Goldberg: a network of contractile vascular tissue which pumped blood wherever it needed to go, with only token assistance from his slow-beating heart. In the event of major damage, the vessels constricted, cutting off blood flow to the area. And in this case, incidentally leaving his left arm mostly useless, but you couldn't have everything, and it was a bloody sight better than passing out on the pavement.
The hippocampi were heaving themselves up out of the fountain now and dragging themselves across the flagstones towards him. They weighed a ton or more apiece: Awkward and easy to out-manoeuver on land, but if they caught him, he'd be a thin red smear on the pavement. Spike shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs. At some point, he'd fallen to his knees, and he wasn't holding the spear any longer. Ah, that was because Buffy had snatched it up and was standing over him like a pint-sized Valkyrie, teeth bared and a look in her eye that should have given even a god pause. "Hands off, Aquaman! He's not the sacrifice!"
Neptune's statue stepped down from his pedestal and strode across the surface of the fountain, its usually-placid waters foaming beneath his marble feet. "Like must be given for like," it grated. "That which is of Aurelius must be given for that which is of Aurelius."
"It's the wrong bloody Aurelius!" Spike spat blood and staggered to his feet. "Roman emperor, undead Nostradamus wannabe! And I burned my 'Let's raise the Old Ones, ask me how!' card half a century ago anyway! Big sodding difference!" But on some deeply irritating symbolic level, it probably wasn't. The same sort of mystical jiggery-pokery which had allowed Buffy to sacrifice herself for Dawn all those years ago, no doubt, except he wasn't at all keen on sacrificing himself for the Immortal's bar tab.
"Look, it's only money. There's got to be something other than my husband bleeding out that you'd find acceptable." Buffy thwacked a too-adventurous putti with the butt of the spear.
The god paused on the rim of the fountain, confused, or perhaps unwilling to tackle a brassed-off Slayer, no matter how well-upholstered, who was armed with his own spear. It was only a statue, after all; an emanation of the divine, perhaps, but hardly the real deal. "That which is of Aurelius must be given for that which is of Aurelius," it repeated uncertainly.
"I don't think it's any too bright, pet," Spike murmured. He rubbed his shoulder, trying to get the fingers of his left hand to flex properly again. Something flickered in the corner of his eye. One of the statues? No, they were all in plain sight, inching closer and eyeing him as if he were the last jammy dodger on the plate. He growled and they backed off; the horns and scales made him bloody intimidating in game face these days, if he did say so himself. There it was again, flitting from stall to abandoned stall, something inky-dark and terrifyingly fast. Sodding hell, all they needed was another party crasher.
"Come on," Buffy challenged, her eyes never leaving those of the stone god. "Make us an offer."
You could practically see the millstones turning in old Neptune's head, slow but exceedingly fine. "Blood," it said at last. "Blood is acceptable. Blood, bone... and breath." It smiled, gloating. Because of course, Aurelians were vampires, and vampires had no breath, though what exactly they were expected to call the air they used for talking, smoking, and following a scent, Spike had never found out. "Give us Aurelian breath, if blood is too dear. For as long as breath is given, you may search."
"Spike – " Buffy whipped around, a question in her eyes.
"Got it. Roll up your cuffs, love, you've got fifteen minutes." And with that, he walked unsteadily over to the fountain's edge, took as deep a breath as he could manage, and fell in.
Vampires didn't have breath, but he wasn't your standard vampire. All he had to do was lie there on the bottom and hoard the air in his lungs, letting it out bubble by miserly bubble. The water enveloped him, warm enough this time of year that he might have been lounging in a pool back in California, but nowhere near as relaxing. Your standard vampire didn't do well in water; tended to sink like stones. He didn't do much better. His bones and muscles were denser than a human's, the better, courtesy of the Mohra blood again, to withstand the stresses of supernatural strength. Having a little more meat on said bones these days balanced that out a little, but staying afloat in anything deeper than a bathtub still took some effort, and it was an effort he didn't dare make right now.
He could hear Buffy thrashing around in the water nearby, grabbing coins, inspecting them, and tossing them back. His chest was starting to burn. He'd held his breath for close to half an hour once, but a ghost had been choking him at the time, and it wasn't an experience he was eager to repeat. He could feel his shoulder throbbing. Very likely old Neptune was getting some of his blood in the bargain regardless. How long had it been? If his heart beat twelve times a minute, give or take – no good, he should have been counting from the start. The urge to inhale was growing unbearable. What a thing for a self-respecting vampire to be thinking of... but better than thinking of the time Angel had chucked him off that submarine with Sam Lawson in the middle of the Atlantic. And much better than thinking about the time when he was twelve and the ice broke beneath him, it was bloody near two hundred years ago now, and this water was as warm as... as he was, not freezing claws sapping the life from his veins and dragging him down into Stygian depths where he'd be crushed and –
Spike shot out of the water with a gasp, drawing in huge lungfuls of air, and to hell with self-respecting vampires. Buffy was dripping but triumphant, holding her fistful of dollars high. The aurei glinted in the lamplight. She tossed the Immortal's bag of coins into the water in their place. "There," she said, poking the spearpoint at Neptune's chest. "Bought and paid for. Now if you'll excuse us – "
Applause broke out, off to one side of the fountain. Spike whipped water out of his eyes and blinked. A woman, slim, dark, and exceptionally well-endowed, was standing in the Piazza, clapping excitedly. Her outfit would probably have bought six of Buffy's. Behind her clustered a knot of shadows: skittering things with inky hides and moonstone eyes. One of them sat up like a meerkat, if meerkats weighed thirty pounds, had scales, and a grinning mouthful of scalpels. "Bravo, bravo, bravissimo!" she cried. "Ah! I am overjoyed to finally see the great Buffy Summers and her so-handsome William in action! Such cleverness! Such bravery! I am overcome!" She shimmied over to Buffy, leaned over the edge of the fountain, and bestowed air-kisses on each of the Slayer's cheeks. Turning to Spike, "Oh, but you are wounded! You must go home, and she must take care of you, yes? And now business calls – you know how it is." She extended one hand with a smile quite as charming as the Immortal's. "If you will hand over the coins, there will be no necessity for my friends here to tear you both to pieces."
"Indeed there will not," yet another smooth, Continental voice interposed, this one masculine. The Immortal came strolling up, immaculately turned out as always – from the look of it, he was alone, but Spike wouldn't have placed a bet on that being the case. "Ilona, kindly step aside."
"Oh, pooh," Costa Bianchi made a moue of disappointment. "This is a most inconvenient time for you to break my wards, mi amore."
"I am devastated to be inconvenient." He bowed to Buffy. "Mrs. Summers-Pratt, you underestimate your abilities. You and your husband have performed beyond my wildest expectations."
Buffy, Spike could tell, was dangerously close to losing her temper. She rounded on the Immortal, knuckles whitening on the haft of the spear. "Well, bully for us. You specifically told me that no actual blood was required."
"And indeed it was not required," the Immortal returned, "as you see. I admit to having some inkling it might be demanded, and Aurelian vampires are not so common in these degenerate times that I could afford to be choosy. I must join my colleague in applauding your ingeniousness. I apologize for misleading you, but – " his eyes were pitiless, "for the sake of my city, I would risk far more than two lives. I am sure you understand. Now, if you will give me the coins – "
A wind whisked through the Piazza, bringing with it the scent of pine needles and something wilder. Costa Bianchi's creatures wound back and forth around her ankles, chittering uneasily. Both the Immortal and Costa Bianchi looked up, startled. "So soon," the Immortal muttered.
Spike slogged to his feet and wrung out the tail of his shirt as best he could one-handed. He had a feeling that whatever was coming, he didn't want to meet it sitting on his arse. This was no mere emanation of the divine.
The cloudy figure pacing towards them down the length of the Piazza was taller than human, taller even than the statue of Neptune – Spike could have sworn its head topped the spire of the Obelisco Agonale as it passed. As it came closer, it drew in upon itself, solidifying into the form of a naked woman, black-haired, olive-skinned, seven feet tall if she was an inch. A wolfskin was girded about her waist, and her eyes were a wolf's eyes, lambent yellow in the night. Her stormy tresses flowed back over her shoulders, blowing in a wind not of this world. Her face was inhumanly beautiful, but she was not young; her heavy breasts and solid hips spoke of children borne and nursed and grown to manhood.
The Immortal and Ilona Costa Bianchi dropped to one knee before her, bowing their heads. Spike fought the urge to do the same; buggered if he was going down on one knee in the middle of a fountain. "Luperca," the Immortal said, his voice reverent. "Roma Mater."
"Romulus Quirinis," the goddess said, in a voice that was not a voice, and a language which was neither Latin nor Italian, but which Spike nevertheless understood perfectly. "And Ilona of the White Coast." She looked past them to Buffy and Spike. "I do not know you."
"Buffy Summers-Pratt," the Slayer said. She took Spike's good hand and pulled him out of the fountain to stand sodden on the flagstones beside her. She was squeezing his fingers a little tighter than usual, but Spike wasn't about to complain. "And this is my husband William Summers-Pratt."
Luperca cocked her head to one side; one could almost see invisible wolf's ears pricking in interest. "The Slayer," she said, testing the words upon her tongue. "I have heard of you." She nodded to Spike. "And of you." She turned away, and Spike had the feeling that this was as fulsome a commendation as either of them were ever going to get. The goddess gazed down upon the pair kneeling before her. "It is my time. Which of you brings the tribute?"
Both the Immortal and Ilona burst into a flurry of explanations and expostulations – "I have it, you see, there is simply the matter of –" "There is only the smallest problem with – "
"Silence." The goddess cut them off. "I see that neither of you have it." She stroked the Immortal's cheek with one hand. "My son, you disappoint me. And you..." She said no more, but Ilona wilted. Raising her wild head, Luperca looked at Buffy again. "You are the ones who bear my tribute; you are the ones who bought it with blood, breath and bone. Will you give it me?"
Buffy gulped, and stood on tiptoe, stretching up to hand Luperca the coins. "Any old time," she said. "As long as that time is never again."
"My thanks." The goddess held the coins up, examining them in the uncertain light, and then stretched her arm skywards, higher, higher, higher, until the gleam of the coins was lost amidst the gleam of the few faint stars which showed through the city lights. When she lowered her arm, the coins were gone. "And so Rome stands," she said, "for now." The lupine eyes studied them for a moment longer. "And if you will, for the span of years this tribute lasts, the boon I grant those who honor me in this fashion is yours."
"Boon?" Buffy shot him a puzzled glance and Spike shrugged; this was all beyond the limits of a classical education.
"I am told it is much sought-after among mortals," the goddess said, and laid a hand upon each of their heads.
Spike gasped as energy crackled through him, and beside him, Buffy did the same. Every cell in his body hummed with life and power; he could feel the years falling away like leaves, and knew, somehow, that this was no cheat or trick. For whatever length of years those three coins represented, he could have this: youth and strength unbounded, almost like it had been when he'd been a proper vampire, but better, because he'd still be alive. He and Buffy together, as fast and strong and deadly as ever they'd been, forever – or close to it, anyway, because who was to say they couldn't deliver the coins next time, too? In fact –
"No!" He threw himself backwards, almost tripping over the rim of the fountain and falling in again. Beside him, Buffy was backing away too, shaking her head, and he wasn't surprised, no, but he was bloody grateful. "Not to be unappreciative, Mum, but I've been immortal, or close to it, and I'm over it."
Buffy nodded vigorously. "Me too. I mean, I was never immortal, but..." she wrapped her arms around herself. "I've lived a whole life in this body, and it's got the scars and the stretch marks to show for it. If you take that away, it's... kind of like taking that life away. And for all I complain sometimes? It's been a good life, and it's not over yet."
The goddess nodded, something like approval in her eyes. "You are wiser than some mortals I could name. Farewell, then, and my thanks."
"Wait!" the Immortal cried. "What about – ?"
Luperca's expression was almost tender. "Swim in the stream of time for a little while, my son. It may do you good."
A wolf howled, and she was gone.
"Come on, admit it," Buffy said. "I'm right. You need to go all Adventure Time every so often, even if we are retired, or you go off your feed."
He chuckled. "Some might say that wouldn't be a tragedy." They were ambling home arm in arm through the earliest hours of the morning, when the eastern sky was flushed with the palest possible premonition of dawn. The aches and pains attendant upon their adventure were starting to make themselves felt, and his healing shoulder still stung like someone had poured holy water on it – bloody magical weapons – but his dress shirt was a loss, so bonus there. Overall, Spike felt it had been a profitable night. "You certain it's only just me who fancies the occasional knee-trembler, Princess Bubblegum?"
"No! I mean yes. I mean... shut up. And it would totally be a tragedy. I like you cushy." She gave him a squeeze. "But... I am slowing down." Her fingers traveled up his spine to brush his shoulder, gentle now. "And so are you. If it had come to a real fight tonight..."
"Eventually someone's going to have their one good day, love. Till then, we make our days as good as they come." Spike nuzzled the top of her head. "No matter how soft you may get, there'll always be steel at your core. And somehow, I think that circumstances will conspire to keep me entertained."
She was silent for a moment, not troubled so much as thoughtful. "You were tempted, weren't you."
"'Course I was tempted. Have to be mad not to be. But talking of me getting bored: if I'd taken her up on it, what would I be doing but the same thing I've already done, all over again?" He grinned. "Whereas getting a good bit older and possibly a little bit fatter with you is an entirely new experience."
Her lips were starting to twitch into a smile, too. "Yeah, we're not gonna manage either if this is your idea of a date night. I think I lost five pounds from staring down Julie of the Wolves alone."
His grin widened. "Happens I know an all-night gelateria where we can fix that right up. My treat."
Buffy laughed, merry as he'd ever seen her. "Oh, really? You're gonna regret that."
But he didn't. Then, or for the rest of his life.