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To Lie Down With Wolves

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Pain, pain, and more pain, ripping along his spinal cord and flooding his brain, head jerked back, fingers clawing ineffectually at the heavy studded collar encircling his neck. Throat screamed raw and bleeding. Brave new world every time, this. No chance for familiarity to breed contempt.

"I feel that I should remind you," Wesley observed, "that you can end this unpleasant phase of our relationship with a single word."

Spreadeagled on the floor of the cell, Spike licked his lips. His reply came out in a ravaged croak, attenuated ghosts of words too faint even for vampire ears. His tongue felt leathery behind his teeth.

Wesley bent lower, dropping to one knee. "What's that, Spike? I didn't quite catch it."

Spike tossed matted, filthy curls from his eyes with a sneer. "Piss. Off. That's two, but they're small. Reminds me of somebody's balls."

Angelus would have flown into a rage. Wesley merely rose to his feet, removed an extremely expensive handkerchief from the pocket of his extremely expensive waistcoat, and wiped the spittle from his face (Spike was already regretting wasting it.) His eyes were flecked with yellow, and the hot metallic reek of anger flooded his scent. Score one for William the Bloody; Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, Wolfram & Hart's first vampire C.E.O., considered himself above such juvenile displays as showing fang.

Pryce stepped back towards the door of the cell, his expression that of a critical director observing an actor whose performance dissatisfied him. He caressed the sleek lines of the device in his hands, the latest bleeding-edge descendant of the smart tablet. "Has it ever occurred to you," he asked, "that you're not intended to be happy?" He slashed a finger across the touch screen, fingernail slicing an imaginary throat.

Spike didn't answer. Too busy not fainting. White-hot agony sizzled through every joint and nerve. Bloody stupid question, anyway, as he hadn't been happy for a good long time. Funny, a vampire seeing a few piddling years as a long time, but he wasn't exactly a standard-issue vampire any longer. And that was the last thing he needed to be thinking of. Focus on the here and now, the cold gritty concrete beneath his fingers, the acrid smell of disinfectant and his own unwashed pong. He'd done this with the chip, all those years ago. Reality as an anchor against the pain.

Hadn't worked all too well then, either.

Wesley watched his convulsions with mild interest. In the part of his brain still capable of thought (six neurons up and over to the left a bit) Spike wondered if he'd yell "Cut!" and demand they do it over. No such luck - he was in for more soliliquizing. Take two!

"As vampires, you and I are built for extremes," Wesley went on. Like a bloody lecturer at the Watcher's Academy. "Passion. Rage. Terror. But happiness? Such a tepid emotion. And yet it's the one we're advised to pursue. Perhaps because it's so elusive, for all its banality." He flicked the screen, and the pain vanished.

Talk about your killer apps. Strings cut, Spike collapsed. Or the floor rushed up to smash his face in, he wasn't sure which. He curled like a pillbug in the middle of his cell, every muscle racked with twitching spasms. Wesley extended a foot, about to prod him in the ribs with one well-shod toe - technology was all well and good, but even the thoroughly modern vampire liked a spot of one-on-one.

Before Italian ponce-wear could meet sternum, the intercom clicked to life overhead, indistinguishable for a moment from the ringing in Spike's head. Harmony Kendall's voice chirped, "Mr. Wyndam-Pryce, you have a call from Duke Sebassis on your private line."

Wesley looked up with an irritated tch. Didn't like his monologues interrupted, that one. He slipped the controller into his pocket and consulted his wristwatch - it was the old-fashioned wind-up kind. If Spike listened he could hear the relentless tick-tick-tick of order succumbing to entropy. "Thank you, Harmony. Tell him I'll be with him shortly." He turned to Spike, his tone almost benevolent. "I'm afraid our time for today is up." He started for the door, then paused, every movement, Spike was sure, as calculated as his words. "Out of curiosity, do you have any idea how long you've been here?"

With a supreme effort, Spike rolled over onto his back and aimed a bleary glare in Wesley's general direction. The sound of his own weak, raspy chuckle unnerved him. "Haven't seen a newspaper of late."

"Forty-eight days." Wesley's head canted to one side, his gaze measuring. Spike could guess what he saw: haunted eyes, gaunt frame awash in a shapeless coverall, hollow cheeks masked by weeks' worth of scruffy, greying beard. "You're going downhill rather more quickly than I anticipated. Has it occurred to you to wonder why the Slayer hasn't mounted a rescue attempt? Perhaps you should think about it. I'll see you tomorrow."

The cell door slid shut behind him, closing with a barely audible hiss. Spike let his head thump back to the floor and drew a deep shuddering breath, instantly wished he hadn't. Best ration his oxygen until his ribs stopped hurting quite so much. Good thing he didn't need much. Forty-eight sodding days. He'd never meant this to go on so long. Just get Wesley to tell you where the muo-ping's hidden. Weasel it out of him when he thinks he's got the advantage of you. You're good at that, Spike. One semi-kind word from Angel and he'd swallowed the bait, as if he was still the gullible fledge he'd been a hundred and forty years past. Sodding Angel and his sodding plans - no bloody wonder his own brilliant machinations went south on a regular basis; he'd learned from the fucking best, hadn't he?

Or maybe, a small voice in the back of his head suggested, its posh cadence suspiciously reminiscent of a certain former Watcher, Angel's plan was going right to spec after all.

No. Even after all that had happened in the last year, Buffy wouldn't stand for that. Would she? Bloody hell. He'd had reasons of his own to agree to this, reasons that were nothing to do with Angel. He sat up, rubbing his aching eyes. Pryce was right; he was a wreck. He'd dreamed, some nights, of cheating Wes of his fun by drifting off into some hallucinatory Sam Lowry fugue. A normal vampire would be starving-mad by now, honed by hunger into a mindless killing machine. He was just starving, and couldn't afford to go mad. He was here for a reason. He could lose everything else, so long as he remembered that.

Right, then. He'd lain about long enough. Inch by creaky inch, Spike levered himself to his feet and straightened with a grunt. Upright and more or less mobile, he raked the tangle of hair out of his eyes and gave himself a none-too-invigorating shake. Gingerly, he prodded at the collar, on the off chance he'd managed to loosen it, wincing as his fingers met raw flesh. No luck. He'd clawed himself up good and proper trying to get it off a dozen times - once literally, when he'd been in vamp-face when Wes had zapped him. We could have installed another chip, of course, Wesley had told him, the day after they'd brought him in. But I'm partial to symbolism, and the Duke will find it amusing.

He'd gone about this all wrong, he could see that now. He should have pretended to crumble long before this. Given Pryce his one bloody word, called him 'Master' and begged to suck his dick. You wouldn't think an up-to-date bloke like Pryce would buy into all that Ye Olde Aurelian shite, but then again, old Wes was the sort of repressed public school git who'd eat that bollocks up with a spoon. Probably would have dressed Spike up in leather fetish gear and paraded him around W&H Headquarters on a leash. Then at least he'd have had some chance of sussing out where the sodding muo-ping was hidden on his own.

Or maybe it wouldn't have mattered. The thing couldn't be anywhere obvious. Angel had been searching for fifteen years, and much though it pained him to admit it, Grandsire wasn't quite as big an idiot as he acted. Spike scratched his cheek - he would have gladly killed for a razor and a bar of soap - and tried to think of non-obvious places, but right now his brain was about as nimble as a Fyarl demon attempting the jitterbug. With a sigh, he gave up and limped over to the little table beside his narrow cot.

The tray with today's sumptuous repast (half a grilled cheese sandwich and a Dixie cup of tap water) was still where he'd left it - Wesley had interrupted him for today's session before he'd had time to finish, which, considering the paucity of the fare, took some timing. Spike picked up the congealed remains of the sandwich and tore into it mechanically, trying to conjure up the smell and taste of warm fresh blood - human, pig, ferret, didn't matter as long as it was hemoglobin. His lack of a soul had meant the Mohra blood couldn't make him human, as it had Angel - he might be alive, but he was still a vampire in all (well, most) of the ways that counted. The protein in the cheese was enough to keep him alive and mobile, barely, but it wasn't what his body craved.

Three ravenous bites later, the sandwich was gone and he still felt as if his belly were excavating its way out of his gut via his spine. The collar was painful, but it wasn't really any worse than the chip had been - if nothing else, it made him forget for a moment how fucking hungry he was.

Might as well husband his strength, what there was of it. Spike flung himself down on the cot, staring up at the stains in the ceiling. He'd memorized them all in the last month or so, along with every other square inch of his ten by fifteen cell. The fact was, he was getting too bloody old for this bollocks. He'd been on this Earth for a hundred and seventy years, give or take, but since the Mohra blood, he didn't have the luxury of losing count any longer. In human terms, he was what, forty-five, forty-six now? He might or might not be slowing down, but it definitely took longer to bounce back.

And the Duke was starting to press Wesley for results. Bugger. He was running out of time in more ways than one. Forty-eight days - had it really been that long? He wondered what Buffy was doing now, whether the children missed him, or if they'd grown so used to his absences in the last year that they barely noticed he was gone.

He didn't mind dying half so much as he minded dying a failure.

Fifty-two days earlier...

"It's a perfect setup," Angel said. All earnest brown puppy dog eyes, if the puppy dog in question were plotting a corporate takeover. He leaned forward in his chair, his broad shoulders tense with eagerness. "My sources inside Wolfram & Hart tell me that Wesley needs Duke Sebassis's influence to secure a lucrative contract with the Brotherhood of Gharvak. The Duke has wanted to make the two of you an example for years now, ever since you humiliated that envoy of his. And you two... " He had the grace to look awkward. "There's enough gossip in the demon underground about your, uh, troubles that it's plausible that you might want some time apart."

He paused expectantly. When neither Buffy or Spike responded, he gave a short, exasperated sigh and resorted to words of one syllable. "If Wesley happens to discover via some reliable informants that Spike's wandering around on his own in L.A., it's a perfect chance for Wesley to score points with the Duke by capturing Spike. Once Spike's on the inside, he can find out where the muo-ping is, and alert my contacts. Wham, we pull him out. Easy."

"Or it's a perfect chance for Wesley to tip the Duke off himself and eliminate the middleman," Buffy countered. "Or just, you know, go Scott Evil and kill Spike himself." She perched straight and ferocious on the end of the couch facing Angel's armchair, her eyes pinning him to his seat as surely as a sword. "I don't like it. There's too many ways for this to go wrong."

It was a sweltering August afternoon, and Spike was still yawning and thinking uncharitable thoughts about Angel's lack of respect for a middle-aged vampire's beauty sleep. Outside on Revello Drive the cicadas were buzzing and the birds were singing and the squirrels were doubtless engaged in the joyful making of other rotten little squirrels, but inside there was an arctic chill that had nothing to do with the air conditioning. They'd sent the kids upstairs to their rooms, but Spike could hear them scuffling for position on the upper landing. Bill was doubtless giving Connie and Alex a sotto voce transcription of the adults' conversation, courtesy of vampire hearing. It tickled Spike sometimes that he and his eldest could stand in the basement and the attic respectively and carry on a conversation without shouting, but there were times when he missed the days when he was the only one in the house with preternatural senses.

"It won't go wrong." Angel shot a look at Spike, both collusive and challenging, as if there were a secret Aurelian handshake involved. "Trust me, Wesley will want to keep Spike around, at least for a while."

"And you know this with your awesome powers of mind-reading which have totally failed to divulge the location of Wesley's soul up until now how?" Buffy raised a sarcastic eyebrow. "Angel, is this another lame attempt to dispose of Spike for my own good? 'Cause I thought you were way over that, but I'm starting to wonder."

Spike had to give it to the Slayer; there weren't many people who could make Angel squirm. His grandsire fiddled with his cufflinks, glanced at Spike again, then at his shoes, then at the door - anywhere but Buffy's face. "Because Wesley wants me more than Sebassis wants Spike," he said at last. "And one way or another, he'll think Spike will lead him to me. It's a vampire thing. You wouldn't understand."

Buffy's snort was inelegant but to the point. "I've been married to a vampire for fifteen years. Sire issues? Been there, done that, got the quasi-incestuous t-shirt. I also know that you're human now, and - "

"Human or not, Granddad's got a point, love," Spike interrupted. "Pryce has daddy issues. Could be used against him."

Angel leaned over and punched Spike in the shoulder, something he could do with relative impunity now that he was all human and mortal and Spike wasn't allowed to eat him. Which didn't make it that much different from the days when he'd been vampy and immortal and Spike wasn't able to eat him. "Don't call me Granddad," he grumbled. "I'm two years younger than you are."

"Uh uh. Either you play the vampire card, or you fold." Buffy hadn't backed down an inch. Her eyes narrowed, her mouth tightened, and she zeroed in for the kill. "OK, you've told me why Spike. What I don't get is, why now? I know you feel guilty about being the one who turned Wesley, but you've been trying to re-soul him for fifteen years. What the heck makes you think Spike can find this muo-ping-pong thingy in a couple of weeks?"

"I don't. He can't." Angel slumped, vampire card tossed onto the discard pile. Just a big, good-looking guy heading into middle age, with a hint of grey in his hair and dark shadows under his eyes that never entirely went away. "But con the location out of Wesley? He might. I know it's a long shot. But Spike's good at getting under someone's skin. The spells binding Wesley's soul to the muo-ping are due to be renewed soon, and he's got to have it close to him in order for the ritual of renewal to work. This is the best chance we've had since Wes was turned to give him his soul back." He met Buffy's eyes full on, now. "I know you never thought much of him, but Wesley was my friend. I don't have so many friends I can afford to give up on them. Tell me there's nothing in your past you wouldn't jump at a chance to fix."

Buffy froze, a waxwork statue of a Slayer. Angel blanched in turn. Looked almost like his old self. He shook his head, denying everything. "Oh, God. I didn't mean...!"

"I know." Buffy's voice was high and brittle - was that the salt tang of swiftly repressed tears? "It's just hard, when everything reminds me of him. Even when it's not about him." She still avoided saying the name, the one they'd decided on so late. As if naming him would make Christopher's loss too real and present to bear, even now, a year later. She bit her lip, glancing down the intervening length of the sofa at Spike, eyes a troubled, stormy grey beneath dark lashes. Wondering what he was thinking, perhaps, when once she would have known without question. "Angel, I'm sorry, but it's different now. We - "

"I'll do it."

"What?" Buffy whipped her head up, staring at him as if he'd expressed a fervent desire to go to clown college.

"I'll do it," Spike repeated. "Desperate mission, impossible odds, immortal souls at stake - right up our alley, yeah?" He eyed Angel. "And you'll owe me big time, won't you?"

Angel's scowl was murderous, but he nodded. "I'll owe you," he conceded.

"But - " Buffy gaped at him, blinking in consternation. He'd surprised her. Stunned her, even. Once upon a time, they'd known each other's minds. "It's not that I don't think - it's just - we've been through so much.... stuff... lately, I - " She made a desperate, furtive gesture, indicating that there was too much she couldn't say, not with Angel here, nor with the kids listening. "It's not good. For the children. For you to be gone again so soon."

Spike made a noncommittal noise and picked at a loose thread on his end of the couch. Time was they wouldn't have been sitting with all that great expanse of cushion between them, either, but time moved on. "It's only a fortnight, or so Angel says. I've been away that long demon-hunting now and then, and you too." He clapped hands to his knees and gave Angel an expectant grin. "When do we leave?"

Two hours later, he was packing. Buffy stood forlorn in the bedroom doorway, arms crossed beneath her breasts and her hands tucked into her elbows, maybe trying to ward off that nonphysical chill. Her hair was drawn up in a loose ponytail, and her eyes looked little-girl huge. The sight of her made his heart ache - his loins and his fangs, too, but there was no time for the first now, and no time for the last ever. She was so thin these days. She had said she wanted to lose the baby weight and the memories that went with it, but she'd lost more. Not quite back to the razor thinness of her back-from-the-dead days, but not the sweetly curved Slayer of their happily-ever-after days, either. Well, he'd done more or less the same - on the bright side, it was loads easier to maintain a set of chiseled abs when he was too naffed off to bother with eating.

Black t-shirt, black jeans, extra pair of socks; what did a chap wear to an abduction, anyway? Buffy watched him without comment, that worried stitch in her brow which might mean she was angry and trying not to show it, or might mean she was puzzled. The kids were clustered in a mournful huddle behind her, whispering among themselves, Bill's eyes full of silent reproach, Connie's full of resentment. Alex clung to his mother's leg, sucking his thumb. He was too old for that, but Spike didn't have the heart to chastise him.

"Has it been so bad?" Buffy said at last. She sounded so young, so broken. The I tried in her voice ate at his heart like acid. "After everything that's happened, when we're just putting everything back together - "

He could have laughed, or wept, but folding socks seemed more useful. "I don't give a rat's arse for Wesley Wyndam-Ponce," he said. "Nor Angel." That last was a lie, but not one he'd ever admit to himself. He turned to face Buffy. They'd never been farther apart, for all they were sleeping in the same bed again. He'd fix that, or die trying. "But restoring Wesley's soul - it's the right thing to do, innit? So that's what I'm going to do."

Her eyes fell first. He wasn't used to that. Wasn't sure he liked it. She let her arms fall loose to her sides, and took a step into the room. "Is this really that important to you?" she whispered.

Spike dropped his socks and took her chin in his hand (first time he'd touched her, all that day) and smiled, tender as he knew how. He could tell her he loved her till his voice wore away, but sometimes words weren't enough. "After everything that's happened? Yeah."

Fifty-three days later...

Harmony brought his dinner the next day - a scant cup of weak chili sans carne. "Don't get any ideas," she snapped, shoving the tray through the slot in the cell door. "I'm on to you, Spike."

Spike stared at his meal, such as it was, in disgust. Sodding hell, beans weren't even animal protein. He summoned up his most cajoling grin, hoping his teeth weren't falling out from the vampire equivalent of scurvy, and through the window gave her as soulful a look as he could manage without one. "Harmony, sweetheart, love, pet, my succulent little chocolate pork chop..." Not the best imagery there; hunger really was getting to him. "Any chance you could slip me a pint under the boss's radar for old times' sake? If you can't get blood, organ meat'll do in a pinch. Liver, heart, marrow - "

"You!" Harmony snapped her fingers at his nose, shooing the words away. "Don't try your sinister attraction thing on me! I'm not some pathetic high school wannabe from Sunnydale any more. I'm an L.A. career girl now. Personal assistant to the C.E.O. of Wolfram & Hart, and I don't need a man to validate me unless he's bringing in six figures. Who are you? A gross old skinny wrinkly semi-vampire with a mortgage." She huffed in indignation - she still had a glorious rack. "Face it, Spike, a loser like you just doesn't have it, do you?"

Meekly, Spike shook his head. He didn't have it. Satisfied she'd put him in his place, Harmony tipped her nose skywards and sashayed out of the cell in a flurry of peach ruffles. She still had a spectacular ass, too. He wasn't sorry he'd given up immortality, all those years ago, but he'd be lying if he didn't admit to missing the perks now and then.

He'd made his way halfway through the unappetizing beans when he caught the distinctive rhythm of Wesley's footsteps in the hall outside. Pryce inhaled deeply as the door slid open. "Ah, Harmony's been here. I hope you enjoyed the view. She's a vacuous whore, but she's an exceptionally lovely one." He dusted the foot of the cot off with his handkerchief and sat down beside Spike, crossing one immaculately tailored leg over the other. "I've been re-reading your file. Very illuminating."

Spike gulped down the last of the despised beans. "Always improving to read up on the exploits of your betters."

Wesley favored him with the look of tolerant amusement a Borzoi might have bestowed on the yapping of a rat terrier. "I admit I haven't kept abreast of events in Sunnydale as well as I might have. It's a bit of a backwater since the Hellmouth closed. The supernatural set does gossip, but I hadn't - "

A low growl rumbled through the small room, and Spike realized he'd slipped into game face. "Pardon me, that really is fascinating," Wesley murmured, examining the rows of tiny, stubby horns sprouting along the lines of Spike's brow and jaw with clinical curiosity. "Vampire aging compressed into a human lifespan - you really have no difficulty resuming human features?" His expression was almost regretful. "It's a pity Sebassis wants you alive; our medical department has been begging me for a chance to dissect you. Where was I?" He was toying with the controller again. Spike knew better than to try to take it away from him. "Ah, yes. We've been quite careful to noise it about that we have you, so there's no doubt that the Slayer knows you're here. As do other interested parties. And yet, no gallant crew of heroes has ridden to your rescue. Why do you suppose that is?"

Spike shrugged off the horns and scales and fell back against the wall, trying to make it look like an insouciant lounge. "'M a big boy. Slayer thinks I can handle myself, I expect."

That got him an outright chuckle. "I should have realized that there was trouble in Paradise even after Buffy took you back. It's not unusual, you know - losing a child puts a great deal of strain on any relationship, to say nothing of a relationship between the Slayer and a soulless demon."

He'd rather have the collar than this. "Fuck you, Pryce. You know bugger all about it."

"On the contrary. Telling, isn't it, that we still refer to Buffy as the Slayer, though she's only one of many now?" Wesley laughed again, a dark and chilly mirth. "Buffy Summers stands for something, or she used to. It's taken me awhile to put the pieces together, but they make a very interesting picture indeed. I told you that my people are thorough, but they hardly need to be when the matter involves one of my own employees. Fifteen years ago, you slaughtered Warren Mears, and the Slayer covered it up."

None of this, Spike reminded himself, was news. "I repeat, fuck you. She had her reasons."

"Of course she did." Wesley reclined at perfect ease, elbows on his knees, holding the controller tablet before him with deceptive laxity. "How many master vampires and demon lords down the centuries have sought to destroy a Slayer, and failed to do any more than kill them? I applaud you, Spike. You've brought her low in a way no other vampire could have dreamed of. You made her love you."

Spike throttled down another growl. "If you think anyone ever made Buffy do anything, you're a sight dimmer than I'm giving you credit for."

"And you dragged her down into the darkness with you, step by step." Wesley's smile was slow poison. "Oh, perhaps you didn't mean to. But in the absence of a soul, how could you help it? It's what we do, we vampires. We're demons. We destroy humanity. Not simply in the crude physical sense, though that can be amusing. But in leading them to destroy themselves, one compromise, one lie, one excuse at a time - in leading them to become what they most despise." Spike's look of stricken panic seemed to delight him. "How she must hate you."

It wasn't that Wesley's finger was one vamp-fast twitch away from blowing the top of his head off that kept Spike moored to the cot. It was the bitter grain of truth at the core of the lie, the seed of a malignant pearl. "If she does, it's her business. That's not for me to say."

"But you have said it, haven't you?" Wesley made a show of tabbing through files on the tiny screen. "There was an extremely memorable scene at the hospital last year, wasn't there? When Buffy lost the baby? Witnesses report that you accused her of deliberately putting its life in danger - 'playing the hero,' I think you called it?"

Fuck knowing better. A red wash of fury obscured Spike's vision, and he was off the wall in an adrenaline-fueled rush of demonic rage. He caught a brief glimpse of Wesley's wide, startled eyes flaring gold in alarm as Spike's claws sank into the muscle of his shoulders, and Spike's fangs slashed for his throat. A second later Spike rammed head first into a wall of agony and crashed to the floor, flensed with pain as Wesley stabbed the controller's touch screen again and again and again.

Wesley scrambled to his feet, breathing hard, and after a moment, straightened his jacket and smoothed his hair, features entirely human once more. For a moment he watched Spike writhe, and then with a savage, gloating grin, struck home. "The happiness you're chasing is an illusion, Spike. It always has been. Do you imagine this is some kind of penance you're doing? That if you endure enough physical pain it will balance some cosmic scale? If you do you're a fool. Embrace your rage, Spike. Embrace your betrayal. She's not coming for you. You've disappeared, and she's relieved."

He dropped to one knee and grabbed a handful of Spike's hair, yanking his head around, forcing him to listen through the pain. "Buffy Summers, the greatest warrior of light in her generation, eaten by guilt all these years, for Warren's death and every other compromise she's made for your sake. So in thrall to your cock that she allows her vampire lover to kill unhindered - even helps you hide the murder. How she must hate herself for what she's become." His voice dropped to a darkling purr. "How she must have hated your child. It's no wonder she put your demon-spawn in harm's way - the wonder is that it took her this long."

Spike blacked out. Under the circumstances, it was a mercy.


Spike lay on his cot, hands clasped behind his head. Pryce was going to break him. If not today, then tomorrow... or the day after, or the day after that. He'd been on the side holding the hot pokers often enough to know that for fact. If this had been a proper story, he supposed, and he a proper hero, this chapter would end with him having learned a valuable lesson in empathy, blubbing about all the poor sods whose bits he'd run through a vise back in the day.

But that was the problem, of course. He wasn't a proper hero - anything but. Supposing he pulled this off; what then? Would it change anything, really? Or would he return home to the same awkward silences, the same stiff, it's-for-the-children displays of affection? Wasn't like they hadn't both tried. But what they'd torn apart last year was no paper rose, to be mended with a bit of glue.

"Good morning, Spike."

His flinch was only half-feigned. Bugger. He hadn't noticed the footsteps, nor the door opening. Nor even the tantalizing smell of tobacco. (Wyndam-Pryce didn't smoke; he just kept a pack on hand for days when the collar got boring.) Spike considered rolling over and sitting up, but decided it would take far too much energy. Pryce could just torture him lying down for a change. He always ended up flat on his arse anyway.

"What's in it for me?" he asked.

He'd caught Pryce a little off-guard with that, at least. "I beg your pardon?"

"Been cogitating," replied Spike. "In my copious spare time. If all you wanted was to hand me over to Sebassis and collect your dosh, you'd have done it long since. Quod erat etcetera, you've a reason to hold on to me. Now, what could it be? Personal grudge? Nah. Bait for someone else? Buffy? Possible, but then why the song and dance about how she's glad to be quit of me?" He did roll over and sit up now, hands gripping the side of the cot so Pryce wouldn't see the tremor in his fingers. "Which leaves Angel. The chap you've been obsessed with for years." Spike cocked an eyebrow. "Getting warm?"

"Looks and brains," Pryce replied drily. "Who would have thought?" He waggled the controller. "There's a more obvious answer. Most vampires simply enjoy causing others pain. Perhaps you've forgotten."

"On the contrary, mate, that fact is never far from my mind." Spike's eyes went gold. "We both know there's only one way this plays out, but I can fight you to the bitter end, or I can throw in early. And that's what you want, isn't it? Not just to break me, but to turn me. Hence the musical number on the Slayer's tragic taste in vampires. And I've an inkling that it's worth something to you if I do it sooner rather than later, if only because His Grace the Duke is getting impatient."

Pryce was silent, face blank as a prison window. Daring, Spike pressed on: "Our Liam's always been one to sire 'em and leave 'em. You, Lawson, Penn... wouldn't be surprised if he'd half a dozen other by-blows scattered about. All of you pining for him like a parrot for the fjords."

"You're no different," sneered Pryce. "That idiocy with the Gem of Amara - what was that but a desperate bid for Angel's attention?"

"And I've learned from the experience," Spike shot back. "Which is more than can be said about some berks I could mention. All right, you're tired of tugging at Daddy's coat-tails. You want to grab him by the short and curlies, make him sit up and take notice. But if you want Angel to bite, you've got to bait the hook with something tastier than yours truly. The old bastard would stake me soon as look at me, if Buffy weren't in the picture." And here, Pryce'd given him just the knife to turn in the wound, never mind he had to pull it from his own ribs to do so. "And since you're so bloody sure she's stepped outside the frame..."

The bitterness underlying the words was all too real, and Pryce must have felt it. The subtle shift of his shoulders, the minuscule pursing of his lips... he was cogitating, too. "And that tastier something would be?"

"Now, Wesley, why would I tell you that, sans any expression of goodwill towards Spike on your part?" He summoned up a grin, confidence bolstered by Pryce's stony gaze. "I've always been an adaptable bloke, but you've got to give me something to work with here."

Pryce regarded him, stroking one thumb across the controller. Weighing his prisoner's despair against his bloody-minded pride, perhaps. "I suppose you want your freedom in exchange for this excessively valuable information?"

Spike rose unsteadily to his feet, sticking his nose right in Pryce's beanpole phiz, or as close as he could get to it. "What the fuck use is freedom to me, mate?" he snarled. "You say Buffy's left me to rot. I'm not man enough for her, nor monster enough any longer to go back to what I was. And Angel - " Muscles locked in his jaw. "You know whose business I was on when you snaffled me. I'm sick and tired of playing his catspaw. He never gave a piss about any of us, even when he was Angelus, and now he's human. I want to know what you've got planned to stick it to our sire. And then I want in on it." The adrenaline that had spurred him to his feet ebbed, leaving his joints weak as American beer. He dropped heavily to one knee, and spat, "Master."

Seconds ticked by, slowly enough to make his own sluggish heartbeat gallop like Secretariat in the home stretch. How many times in life and unlife had he stood (or knelt, or crawled) like this before someone with the power to crush him, his only weapon the edge of his tongue? Too bloody often. The best lie was ninety percent truth, and sometimes even Spike wasn't sure which part of the yarn he was spinning was the ten percent fiction.

What real difference would it make, he wondered, if he switched sides now?

At length Pryce slipped the controller into his pocket. "Very well. I accept your fealty on a provisional basis. As for my plans... you correctly observe that Angel's human." His eyes were dry ice, cold enough to burn. "But he doesn't have to be."

Oh ho. Comes the sodding dawn. Wesley Wyndam-Pryce intended to pull off the ultimate vampire hat trick, and sire his own sire. "And then it'll all be happy families, will it?" Spike said, genuinely amused. "You've met Angelus, haven't you? Being his sire won't give you a leg up - ask Darla. Oh, wait, she's dust. Twice."

Pryce made a piss-poor straight man. "I have neither patience nor time to waste on your jackanapery, Spike. As you point out, Sebassis is getting impatient. So enlighten me. What precisely does Angel value?"

With a grunt, Spike hauled himself off the floor and onto the edge of the cot again, bracing himself upright with both arms. "All right then, listen and learn: Darla's the closest Angel ever came to loving anyone. And he still treated her like dirt till..." Pryce frowned. Bright lad, but he'd been turned too late to get all the best family gossip. Spike waggled his eyebrows, encouraging. "Tch. You should know. You were there. Until she came back with a soul, you great gormless git. Ah, you've forgotten, haven't you? How much it matters to them. But I'm right, yeah? Once she had one, he walked through holy water for her, literally. And when she lost it again he made a guy of her, again literally.

"It's knowing your soul's hidden away somewhere that keeps him at you. It's the hope that he can find it - stick it back in you and make you burn - that's the bait he'll bite on." Spike paused, setting his own hook. "Why d'you think he sent me here? I was supposed to find it for him."

"Did he?" Pryce's hand disappeared into his trousers pocket and re-emerged holding the pack of fags. Spike stifled a whimper - he'd have gladly have endured the whole pack being stubbed out on his tongue for the opportunity to smoke just one. Pryce studied them with an expression of faint, clinical surprise, as if he'd forgotten why they were there. He turned the package over in long, nervous fingers, and then tucked them into the inner pocket of his jacket. "How optimistic of him."

If Spike hadn't been following the trajectory of the cigarettes like a nicotine-deprived hawk, he'd have missed it: a brief hesitation, a protective flutter of Pryce's hand over his heart. What it meant he had no idea. But it was a chink, however small, in that so far impenetrable armor. "Grant I've brains enough to recognize you outgun me in the massive throbbing cerebellum department," he snapped. "Now, are you going to let me out of here or not? And while you're at it, now that we're best pals, how about some O-neg and one of those fags you're hoarding?"

Pryce smiled a tiny, self-satisfied smile. "I don't think that will be possible just yet. Duke Sebassis still has an interest in you, after all. He must be let down gently." He reached over and pressed a button on the intercom. "Harmony? Contact the Duke's envoys and arrange an interview. We have a demonstration to give. And see to it that Mr. Summers-Pratt is cleaned up a trifle before they get here."

"If I don't get some blood soon," Spike growled, "you'll be giving a demonstration with a corpse. The downside to being other than dead is that I can die."

With a leisurely indulgence, Pryce unfastened his cufflink and rolled back the sleeve of his impeccably tailored silk shirt. He vamped out and with the point of one fang nicked his own wrist, so that the dark blood welled up. He extended his hand at waist height, making no move to draw closer to the cot, so that Spike would be forced to come to him and kneel again to feed. "Let it never be said that Wolfram and Hart does not provide for its guests." Drip. A deep crimson blot appeared on the floor. Drip. Another. Pryce cocked his head. "What are you waiting for, Spike?"

Spike's lip curled over involuntarily descended fangs, even as his brain made frantic calculations - how much cheek would Pryce find a refreshing challenge, how much was a one-way ticket to an exciting new career as Sebassis's towel boy? - and his body thrummed with famished yearning. The blood of another vampire was a rush, but an empty one. He'd be high as a kite for a few hours, and then crash worse than ever. But for those few hours...

"A proper invitation," Spike purred. With an effort, he got to his feet, caught Pryce's hand and raised it. "'m short enough, Pryce. You don't need to bring me lower."

It took all his self-control not to shred Pryce's slim, blue-veined wrist to the bone, but if he lost it now, he'd never get it back. Schooling his features to humanity once more, he tongued the torn skin delicately, brushing his lips across the wound. Before the taller man could react he'd cupped the back of Pryce's head and pulled him down into a blood-flavored kiss.

He had no illusions about his current level of appeal. He was half-starved, filthy, and a good few years past pulling off any sort of sultry-eyed rent-boy fantasy, if that was the sort of thing Pryce liked. But there were a few things he was bloody good at, and this was one of them. Pryce stiffened, jerked... but didn't pull away. Spike growled deep in his throat, deepening the kiss, fingers digging possessively into the back of Pryce's skull. Don't think about Buffy. This wasn't a betrayal; it was survival. Spike nuzzled down the hard line of Pryce's jaw, and sank fangs into his throat.

Pryce gave a startled gasp. Spike allowed himself one, two, oh-all-right three greedy swallows, stifling a groan as his mouth flooded with cool, invigorating blood, and then throttled back to a slow, steady pull. A full-on feeding bite could shred a man's throat in seconds, but this... there were humans who'd risk their lives, not to mention their fortunes, for the dark ecstasy of the bite. Wasn't like that when two vampires were involved, but it could still feel bloody good.

God knew why Pryce wasn't resisting, but Spike made the most of it, left hand fumbling with waistcoat buttons and shirt-tails. Slipping through the barriers of English wool and Italian silk, exploring, caressing. Vampire flesh was resilient: wounds healed in hours, broken bones in days. Spike himself had taken mere weeks to recover from a severed spine, once. But all wounds left scars, however faint. Pryce hissed, his spare body shuddering beneath Spike's touch. Muscle and bone and smooth unblemished skin and - ah, yeah, there we go. In the shallow trough of the sternum, a barely perceptible ridge of skin. Wouldn't do to linger there without reason - he didn't want to repeat Pryce's own mistake. His hand moved on. Callused fingers found a small taut nipple and tweaked hard in passing.

Without warning Pryce's lax frame tensed and he drove his own fangs into Spike's shoulder - no love-bite, but a reminder which of them was the gaoler here. Spike staggered under the dizzying loss of blood he couldn't spare, and then Pryce jerked free and backhanded him into the cot. The steel frame caught him behind the knees, and Spike toppled backwards, head cracking sharply into the wall.

Spike lay there for a moment, reeling with the impact and the few good swallows of blood he'd gotten down. Gathering his unsteady legs beneath him, he rolled into a wary crouch and squinted up at the nearest of the three Wesleys revolving in woozy circles before his eyes. "Was it good for you?" he croaked.

"You presume a great deal." Pryce sounded almost... shaken? He brought one hand up, absently sucking Spike's blood from his fingertips. "Fortunately for you I'm in a forgiving mood." His eyes widened, and an avid note replaced the shaken one. "Of course," he murmured. "You're alive. I'd never considered..." He began to lick his other hand clean, meticulous as a cat.

"Hi, Boss!" Harmony chirped from the doorway. "Sorry to interrupt, but the Duke's envoys will be here this afternoon, five o'clock sharp."

"Ah." Pryce blinked and collected himself, producing one of his ubiquitous handkerchiefs. He dabbed at the oozing fang-marks in his neck. "Very good, Miss Kendall. I leave our guest in your capable hands."

"If you've ever wondered why you never get a second tumble, this would be high on the list!" Spike yelled after him, but Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was already out the door, his face once more a cultured and impersonal mask.

Harmony tossed him a clean pair of coveralls, a package of wet naps, and a comb. "Here. And don't expect me to help you. You're all sticky with filth." She wrinkled her nose. "Did you actually try to seduce him?" She sounded more pitying than disgusted, and from Harmony, that was a kick in the teeth. "Honestly, Spike. You used to be super hot, but now you're, like, Dorian Gray without the picture."

"Worked, didn't it?" For the two minutes he'd needed it to, at any rate. Chalk one up for the old sinister attraction.

What had happened after... that was a puzzler. There were always rumors among the more gullible fledges that the blood of older vampires had powers - all rubbish, and besides, Pryce hardly qualified as gullible. Spike took the coveralls and tossed them onto the worse-for-wear cot. Fuck, he was sore. Wesley's fangs had left ragged furrows in his shoulder, and his head throbbed,. The pain was far away and unimportant now, but sooner or later it would hit him like a freight train, and the jittery effervescence of Wesley's blood in his veins wouldn't do a damned thing to help him heal.

But none of that mattered. With a weary smirk for the cameras he knew were always watching, he caught Harmony's eye and held it, making absolutely certain that she took his meaning. "What can I say, Harm? I've got it."

"You're doing this because of me, aren't you?"

Last thing Buffy'd said to him before he rushed out the door, racing the sun to Angel's aging Saturn. Hand on his arm, even; an unsolicited touch he'd treasure in memory for a long time to come. He'd looked back, torn between tenderness and exasperation - "Everything's got to be about you, doesn't it, Slayer?"

Wrong thing to say, or wrong way to say it. Her face fell, and her hand with it. "Spike... it was my fault," she whispered. "You don't have to - "

But Angel was yelling from the car, and his hair was starting to catch fire, and there was too much to say and they'd already said it all anyway. No more words. Just kiss her one last time, and be done. He sprinted across the lawn and slid into the seat beside Angel, trailing smoke and regret.

"You're taking your own sweet time," Angel grumbled as he put the Saturn into gear.

"If you want me chuffed about a drive to the slaughterhouse, rent a posher car next time," Spike replied shortly, hitching his jacket over his head. Bastard hadn't even shelled out for necro-tempered windows. As the Saturn pulled away from the curb he glanced back at Buffy and the kids, a forlorn huddle on the front porch. Bill's receding gaze met his, hostile and challenging - couldn't blame the lad for taking his mum's part; Christ knew he'd come by that bent honestly. But it was a reminder that he'd more than one fence to mend. Once upon a time he'd alternated contempt with uncomprehending jealousy when Angel spoke of Connor, but now... Spike hunched farther under his jacket and sighed. It was an obscure sort of comfort that even chaps with souls couldn't fathom teenagers.

"Get up, Spike. The Duke's envoys have arrived."

Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was standing in the doorway, crisp and clean and freshly pressed, accompanied by a pair of security guards and holding up a short leather leash. Sebassis's envoys, apparently, weren't to be bothered with a walk down to the dungeons. Spike eyed the leash. Huh. Spot on about the fetish leatherwear. With a shrug, he pushed himself to his feet and stood swaying as Pryce clipped the leash to the collar. "Bit of a cliche, innit?"

"The classics are classics for a reason," Pryce said, giving the leash a snap. He went on, "Now. We will meet the Duke's envoys in my office. I don't suppose you're very well acquainted with His Grace, but he's a trifle paranoid, and with good reason. You are, of course, planning to betray me in some fashion. Before you do so, I suggest that you consider a few things."

Handing the leash to one of the guards, he produced his tablet and conjured a picture into existence, bright and sharp as the best magical surveillance could make it: an outdoor table at some chi chi Los Angeles café. A big dark-haired man and a small blonde woman bent low across the rose marble, heads together, his large hand resting across her deceptively delicate one. Her smile was flirtatious; his indulgent. Spike didn't even have to look; he knew who they were.

"Taken last week," Pryce went on, conversational. "It's just a fortuitous coincidence that the people I have watching Angel captured the moment. I felt you should be informed. I suppose you can comfort yourself with the thought that they might be planning your daring rescue, though why that should require holding hands I'm not certain."

"Ta ever so," Spike snarled, shaking off the suggestion of fangs. Wasn't real. Couldn't be. Computers could do anything these days. Didn't make it sting any less. "You've made your point. I'm on my own. Now let's get to it. I'm keen to get to the part where I'm no longer an advert for the Wyndam-Pryce Diet."

Wesley's thumb jabbed the controller and Spike jerked, impaled by a lighting-stake through the brain. "Do keep in mind who gives the orders here, Spike." He held out the tablet again, and the picture changed: a thin, wiry boy of fourteen or so, with grey eyes and an unruly mop of sandy curls, clad in the ubiquitous teen drag of jeans and hoodie. The camera had caught him in the act of looking back over his shoulder, shoving his wire-rimmed glasses higher on his nose. His expression was wary, as if he suspected he was being watched. "Bill, isn't it?" Pryce said. "His mother's brought him with her to L.A. - another tidbit that argues against a daring rescue, I might add."

Dread clenched Spike's belly, a worse pang than any hunger. "What's my son got to do with any of this?"

"A great deal. Words are easy, Spike. I need more... concrete assurance of your loyalty. And on a more practical note, Sebassis won't give you up easily. We need a bargaining chip. Your son supplies a means to kill both birds, as it were, with one stone."

The fangs were more than a suggestion now. "Bugger that! You leave him out of this, you - "

Pryce tapped the controller again, and Spike's vision dissolved into red and black flame. When he came to, Pryce was talking: "...the only one of your children so far to take after you - another living vampire. Why does the blood of our own kind fail to sustain us?" Pryce rapped Spike's shoulder with the end of the leash. "We're dead. All of us, that is, except for you. And your boy. When I tasted your blood, I realized that it was something extraordinary. And Sebassis is above all else a connoisseur." A thin-lipped, poisonous smile curled like a cobra across his face. "You have a choice. Either I offer the Duke your son in your stead, and you prove your loyalty to me by aiding in his capture, or I can turn you over to Sebassis today, and he will destroy you inch by inch in a manner far more inventive than anything I could devise. Choose. Now."

Swaying on his knees, Spike squeezed his eyes shut. He wouldn't last a week in Sebassis' tender care, and if he died, everything he'd learned would go with him. If (no, when) Buffy came to break him out, he'd be gone, and she might never find out where. Everything he'd endured would be for nothing. Or worse, he might snap and betray the whole game. There was nothing to prevent Pryce from going after Bill anyway, once he'd disposed of Spike. They'd have to get him away from Buffy first, and that would be no small task even if she really was canoodling with Angel, so mightn't it be better to play along now and hope for the best?

But to willingly put Bill in that slimy blue bastard's hands?

He opened his eyes and drew himself up, jaw tight. "Bugger yourself with the nearest chainsaw, you prancing, ineffectual Watcher's Council wash-out. Daddy's never going to love you, no matter how badly you throw your neck out sucking his cock."

Pryce's visage clouded in rage, but the storm passed in an instant and his aristocratic features smoothed into inscrutability once more. "A pity. I think our collaboration could have been quite interesting. Come on, then. The envoys are waiting."

He placed a hand between Spike's too-prominent shoulder-blades and shoved. Spike lurched a few steps over the threshold of the cell and out into the corridor, fetching up against the wall - if the dregs of Pryce's blood hadn't been humming in his veins yet, he'd have toppled over. A hallway just as grey and grim as his cell stretched off into the distance, featureless save for half a dozen ominous-looking steel doors, behind which other prisoners were doubtless wasting away in various stages of despair. If he were a proper hero, he'd care about that. If he were a proper hero, he'd have chosen the mission. It was what Buffy would do. What Buffy had done. If he were a proper hero... but he wasn't. He was just the miserable sod who'd fallen in love with one.

The ebony steel doors of the elevator at the end of the hall whooshed open. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Without waiting for another shove, Spike stepped inside.

By the time the elevator doors opened again, Spike had a plan. Not an especially good plan, but that was par for the course, wasn't it? All right, he'd bollocksed it all up from beginning to end, but it wasn't the first time. Though - he almost laughed out loud - it was likely to be the last. There was one card yet in his hand to play, and if that hand was aces and eights, so be it.

Sebassis's envoys were waiting in the anteroom outside Pryce's office. They had names, probably, but Spike had never caught them. They were bald, blue-skinned, and androgynous; one large and blocky, the other tiny and twig-thin, a demonic Asterix and Obelix. "You're late," Asterix said as they walked in. It scowled at Pryce. "His Grace the Duke will not be pleased to learn of more delays."

"Then His Grace the Duke has every reason to be overjoyed," Pryce replied. "I can deliver the subject to Sebassis today, if His Grace so desires. " He nodded at the guards. "Wait here."

The office was quintessential Wyndam-Pryce - elegant, understated, furnished in acrylic and steel and paneled in whatever tropical hardwood was the most endangered this week. The larger envoy planted itself in the middle of the room, an impassive sky-colored mountain, while the small one paced impatiently around the perimeter, ankle-deep in carpet. Pryce closed and locked the door behind him; it closed with an ominous and disturbingly solid-sounding click. Gesturing Spike to a corner, he deposited himself gracefully into the sleek leather chair behind the vast, gleaming expanse of desk and leaned back, the controller dangling negligently against his thigh. "Let's get to business, gentlebeings. We don't want to keep His Grace waiting."

"This is the vampire?" Obelix prodded Spike in the chest with a meaty blue finger, as if expecting him to fall over. Spike very nearly did. "Are you sure it's the one the Duke's looking for? It's not a very impressive specimen."

Spike barely heard them. He was staring out through the necro-tempered glass of Pryce's window at the L.A. skyline, committing every smoggy outline to memory. Could've wished for a more scenic view for his last, but anything was better than the walls he'd been staring at for the last few weeks.

Pryce shrugged. "This is indubitably William the Bloody. A trifle the worse for wear, I admit." He opened a desk drawer and produced a folder full of papers. "Here are the contracts, as specified. The Duke's support in exchange for the prisoner. Here are the instructions for the control collar, and here are my notes on some unusual properties of the subject's blood which I'm sure the Duke will find most edifying. His conditioning's not complete, of course. I assumed that the Duke would prefer to add the finishing touches himself. Would you like a demonstration?"

Asterix and Obelix exchanged looks. Asterix said, "Do we have to? The Duke - "

"Wouldn't want an impertinent prisoner, would he? Spike," Pryce said, sounding bored. "Get down on your knees and bark like a dog."

"Fuck you," Spike replied, equally bored.

Wesley smiled and held up the controller tablet, the picture of Bill clearly visible to Spike, if not to the envoys, as if to say, May I remind you of what could happen if you don't? Knees hit carpet immediately. Better than cement, Spike supposed. "Woof, woof."

"I don't think your heart was in that." Pryce made a disapproving tch. "Come over here, Spike, and suck my cock."

Asterix drew a sharp, hitching breath. Spike shuffled across the carpet, head down. Halfway there an arm gave out and he collapsed, panting. Pryce gave the controller a tap, sending a warning tickle of electricity down his spine. Spike grabbed the corner of the desk and struggled to his knees again. Mustering all the fading buzz of Pryce's blood, he surged to his feet and leaped.

He vaulted the desk in the bullet-time of vampire speed, fangs and claws emerging in mid-leap. Pryce's eyes went wide and then yellow - he stabbed the controller and flung up an arm to protect his throat. Savage jolts of electricity rocked him, but Spike's momentum carried him onward, flying past the frozen and goggle-eyed envoys. The pain slackened for a nanosecond as Pryce's thumb lifted and descended a second time, and Spike slammed head-on into the other vampire, throwing all his diminished weight behind a pile-driver punch to Wyndam-Pryce's unprotected ribs.

He'd counted on Pryce leaving his chest unguarded - why not, when there wasn't a piece of wood in the room heavy enough to make a stake worth considering? Ribs crunched beneath his knuckles before the riptide of agony pulled him under again. He didn't fight it, riding the red waves as he drove stiffened fingers into Pryce's chest a second time. The security types were well-armed and well-trained, but human. By the time they broke the door down and put a bullet in his brain, Spike would have his pound of flesh. Pryce bucked and struggled beneath him like a mad thing, and Spike glimpsed Obelix behind the leather executive chair, big blue hands wrapped around Pryce's neck, thumbs digging for the pressure points that would cut off the sluggish flow of blood to a vampire's undead brain and knock him cold. Rum, that, but no time to wonder about it now. Behind him, shouts and thuds and metal shrieking, all slowed to a basso rumble. Spike ignored them, claws ripping through bruised flesh and shattered bone, through the rib cage and into the thoracic cavity. There, there, nestled between the atrophied lungs and shriveled heart, his questing fingers closed on a cold, hard, glassy lump, a crystalline tumor lodged deep in the dead flesh, and Spike ripped the muo-ping free of Pryce's chest with a roar.

A rain of cold blood splattered the desk and Spike slipped and fell backwards, the muo-ping clutched in his now-human hand. His dodgy knee betrayed him as his feet hit the ground, and he crumpled. A second later Pryce went equally limp in Obelix's grasp, eyes rolling up.

Pryce flopped in his chair like a broken marionette, blood still welling from the gaping hole in his chest. The pain in Spike's head vanished as the controller fell from the vampire's nerveless hand and skittered across the carpet towards the doorway - much good the respite did him now. Whatever reserves he'd had left, he'd burned them all in this final assault. His bones were rubber, his muscles water. He lay gasping on the blood-soaked carpet. This would be the point where the guards burst in and shredded him with a few dozen rounds of semi-automatic fire, and he expired giving Pryce the finger. Pity he didn't have the energy left to raise one.

No gunshots. From his sideways vantage, he saw the office door was open, torn half off its hinges. The guards were a crumpled heap of uniformed limbs in the anteroom beyond, and Asterix was brushing its hands and turning back towards the desk. Harmony was right behind it, and it wasn't until Spike saw her that everything clicked. Asterix knelt beside him, slim blue hands darting over his torso, feeling professionally along his limbs for breaks. Look was wrong, voice was wrong, even the scent was wrong, but when Spike looked into those eyes, he knew. More fool he for not seeing it before.

"Buffy," he whispered. A dull flare of alarm went off somewhere in his blood-deprived brain. "Bill! Where's - ?"

"He's in the van with Willow." The catch in her voice told him he must look almost as rotten as he felt. She glanced over at Obelix, currently dragging Pryce off the chair and onto the floor. Its disgruntled scowl was unmistakably Angel's. "Harmony got us your message a couple of hours ago. I'd have come then, but it took Willow this long to set up all the spells we'd need." She swallowed, hard. "Look, we'll get you out of here as soon as we can, I promise. There's just a few things I want to smash first. Starting with Wesley's face."

She was up and gone again, but before he could miss her, big blue hands caught him and dragged him upright, propping him against the nearest wall. He promptly oozed back down again, but at least he was sitting up now, more or less. Angel's ferocious indigo glare dared him to slump any further.

"You idiot!" his grandsire hissed. "You should have sent us the signal to pull you out weeks ago! I practically had to knock her out and tie her up to keep her from storming this place single-handed!"

He wasn't shivering, but Spike felt as if he should be. One of the guards out in the hall was bleeding, and the smell was driving him mad. "Couldn't. Not till I found it."

Angel stared at him. "You are insane. What the hell were you thinking? That if you martyred yourself enough, she'd forgive you?"

Tongue rasped over dry lips as he inhaled blood-scent. "Course not," Spike murmured.

A blue palm smacked him across the cheek, hard, bringing him back to himself for the moment. Angel knew the signs. "Then why - ?"

"So's she'd forgive herself, you git. Thought maybe if she saw me put the mission first too, just once, she'd stop blaming herself - but I couldn't do it. Not when that wanker said - " He shuddered. "Don't tell her. Please. I'm bloody well begging you, Angel, don't tell her I couldn't let Pryce take our boy."

Angel's grip on his coveralls slackened, and there was a look in his eyes as bleak as any Spike had ever seen in Buffy's. "All these years and you still don't have a goddamned clue," he muttered. He sighed, his broad shoulders slumping. "Spike... guilt doesn't work that way."

"Seems like. Just couldn't bear it any longer, the way things were." Spike held up the muo-ping. Just a bit of glass, no bigger than a perfume bottle, light swirling in its pearly depths. All this, for something so insubstantial. Would have been easier to slap a chip in Pryce's head. "What bloody good's a soul that makes her miserable even when she does the right sodding thing?"

His grandsire glanced over at Buffy, who was trussing the shell-shocked Wyndam-Pryce up with ruthless efficiency. "It's not her soul that's hurting." Grudgingly, he added, "She's been out of her mind over you. So stop being an ass. And try not to pass out just yet."

With that Angel rose, brushing past Harmony, who was peeking in through the doorway, wincing away from the fallen guards as though they had some communicable disease. "OK, my part is done, right? I helped you, now Willow can take the geese off me, right?"

"Geese?" Spike repeated stupidly.

Harmony gave a vigorous nod. "Right! The spell Willow put on me, so that every new dress I ste - uh, buy will always be two sizes too small when I get it home! You can get her to take it off, right? Because there's this gorgeous red strapless at Nordstrom's, and - "

Spike stared at her. "You daft cow, geasa don't work on vampires. They bring death or dishonor if you break 'em, and we're evil and already dead."

Harmony blinked. "Oh. You're sure?" She considered this for a moment. "You mean she lied? The good guys aren't supposed to lie! Isn't that against the rules or something?" Another thought struck her. "Hey, if there was no spell, does that mean I helped you out of, like, the goodness of my heart or something?"

"Or something." He could feel himself slipping into the half-mindless trance that overtook starving vampires, and couldn't much bring himself to care. Blood, blood, every cell in his body screaming for rich red human blood, and there was some reason he shouldn't crawl over there and drain the Happy Meals on the hall floor dry, but he couldn't remember what it was.

"Come on, you guys!" Harmony hissed from the doorway, bouncing up and down on her toes like she had to piss.

Angel stepped over Wesley's prone body, careful to avoid the spreading pool of blood soaking into the carpet, and pried the muo-ping out of Spike's unresisting grasp. He tucked it into his pocket and straightened. "Harm's right." He sounded as though he couldn't quite believe he'd just said those two words in conjunction. "Let's go."

Spike looked up. Buffy was standing over him, a bald, blue avenging angel. "Can you walk?" The words were crisp and businesslike, all Slayer. But her eyes... those were all Buffy.

A minute ago he'd have said no. But there was something left in him after all, as long as it was her asking. Spike levered himself to his feet.

Time to go home.


The End